Friday, June 14, 2019

The better way

We've been reading through the Pentateuch for the last couple years on Wednesday nights: we started with Exodus a few years ago, and are now in Deuteronomy 32. So our reading of the Pentateuch is coming to a close.

Something I've heard over and over since I was a kid in Sunday School is that the Law is the best way to live in this world. They used to tell us, for example, that the strictures against eating pork were because pigs carry all sorts of diseases and parasites, and it was healthier not to eat pork.

I've heard that sort of reasoning given as we read through the Pentateuch this time as well. For example, someone commented on Deuteronomy 22:9 that crops are more productive if they aren't sown together.

But... that's not actually true. All the reading I've done on the subject says crops are much more productive when they are mixed. Mixed fields are more resistant to disease, and the soil is healthier with diverse plants. My understanding – which is far from perfect – is that we plant large fields uniformly because it makes the harvest easier to automate, not because the crops grow better.

This was brought home to me most clearly in the commandments regarding lending. The children of Israel were to forgive all debts every seventh year (De. 15:1–2). So the maximum term of a loan under the Law is seven years. But they were specifically forbidden from considering how far away the seventh year is (De. 15:9). So if it's the sixth year, and a poor fellow Israelite asks for a loan, you're specifically forbidden from taking into consideration that you must forgive the loan in less than one year. And if someone asks for a loan, you're not allowed to take his ability to pay it back into consideration (De. 15:7–8). In fact, if someone poor asks for a loan, you're to return the collateral of the loan by sundown (De. 24:12–13).

Those rules can only be described as "non-sustainable". You are expected to give loans without interest, which must be forgiven every seven years. You can take collateral for a loan, but you can't keep it overnight. You're not allowed to consider the borrower's ability to repay a loan, nor are you allowed to consider how close the mandatory loan forgiveness is when you're asked for a loan. It's madness.

I've come to the conclusion that many times, the Law specifies doing things in worse, not better ways. It's not because pork is unhealthy that eating it is forbidden. It's not because crops grow better separately they were commanded to keep them separate. It's not because it's good financial sense to lend to someone without thought for their ability to repay the loan that they were commanded to do so. It seems to me like the very opposite.

The idea that the Law prescribes "best practices" for our health and well-being entirely misses the point. These weren't strictures against practices that don't work. These are strictures against things our experience shows work very well. So why does God give rules that seem counter-productive?

Deuteronomy 11:8–15 establishes the principle of Deuteronomy: the rules are different in God's land. In Egypt, if you want your crops to grow, you need to irrigate the land (De. 11:10). But in Canaan, if you want your crops to grow, you need to pray for rain (De. 11:13–14). The principle of living in the land is immediate, direct dependence on God.

So laws about lending that forbid taking the most elementary precautions to protect your money aren't supposed to work better. That's not the point. They're designed to make you depend on God. The promise is, if you do things the way I tell you, then I will ensure your success (De. 15:10). You won't succeed because you're following better rules, you'll succeed because God will directly intervene to bless.

And this, I think, is the point we all miss, all the time. We see Scripture as a sort of a guide for how to live in this creation. But that's not at all what Scripture is. It's a guide for how to live in an entirely different creation, a creation where your best ideas and hardest efforts will entirely fail. In the new creation, the only rule for success is to be close to Christ (John 15:4–5).

I wish I could get me arms around this! I wish I could really see this and live it out! I wish I could finally learn that one lesson: that my hardest efforts and my wisest decisions and my most clever plans and my most intelligent ideas are all bound to fail in the new creation. I wish I could see – consistently – that the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong. I wish I could finally be convinced that the only key to success in the Christian life is proximity to Christ. It seems like no matter how many times I'm brought face-to-face with that one truth, I manage to put it out of my mind, and go back to thinking I've got a better way.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

"Publicly and in every house"

There's been some discussion here about what constitutes an "assembly meeting". I've seen a lot of these discussions over the last twenty years, and I've come to dislike them intensely.

In my experience, when someone questions whether something is an "assembly meeting," the question behind the question is, "must we obey 1 Corinthians 14:26–40?" Literally every time I've heard someone question whether something is an "assembly meeting," the actual question is whether women should be speaking in the meeting. I can't recall a single instance when that wasn't the issue.

I can't find where scripture discusses "assembly meetings". I just can't find those verses. It seems to me we get into the weeds when we start building theologies on terminology that's not in scripture. If we really want to be biblical Christians, it seems to me the best place to start is by using biblical terms to describe biblical ideas.

So, if "assembly meeting" isn't a scriptural term, is it at least a scriptural idea? I suppose the actual question is whether there is the concept of a non "assembly meeting." It seems to me there are two questions we need to consider. First, is there the concept in scripture that Christians might gather, but not as the assembly? Second, is it possible that the assembly gathers, but it's not an "assembly meeting?"

In practical terms, the second question is really the one people are asking. I don't know anyone who questions whether it is "the assembly" when I have other Christians over for dinner. I'm sure there is someone, somewhere who holds that view, but it's not something I've come across.

I think the closest thing we get to a scriptural answer is in Acts 20:20. There, Paul says he taught the Ephesian elders "publicly and in every house." If there is a more relevant verse, I haven't found it.

So Paul appears to classify his teaching into two categories:

  1. public
  2. and private (in every house).
This has the advantage of being a simple and clear distinction, but there isn't really a lot of nuance to it. If someone has a Bible study in their home, then it would fall under "in every house." If the assembly has a Bible study on a weeknight, then it would fall under "publicly."

Again, I realize this isn't really nuanced, but it's all I really see in Scripture.

The small meeting here has a Wednesday night meeting. We spend about 45 minutes praying, then we spend another 45 minutes in a Bible reading. I've been told that the first 45 minutes is an "assembly meeting," while the next 45 minutes is "not an assembly meeting." That's certainly nuanced, but it also seems a bit ridiculous.

What I haven't personally seen – what I'd like to see – is an assembly taking the position that we only do what scripture clearly teaches. If we have to build a theology to explain "not assembly meeting" and "assembly meeting," then perhaps we've already gone down the wrong path. Perhaps we've already filled our schedules with things scripture doesn't actually command. Perhaps we're already doing too much.

"brethren" like to refer to Acts 2:42 as a sort of a charter for the assembly. There we read about four activities in the early church:

  1. the teaching of the apostles
  2. fellowship
  3. breaking of bread
  4. prayers.
It seems to my "brethren" read way too much into that verse. It's not a command for us, it's a description of what the early Christians did. And it certainly isn't giving us a list of meetings that we ought to be attending, although I've known plenty of folks who seem to think it is.

But let's just take those four elements as a sort of a basic description of four things an assembly should be doing. Let's be clear that adding more things isn't necessarily an improvement: the Ephesians appear to have been involved in all sorts of activities, but were still missing the point (Revelation 2:2–4). But let's get back to the four in Acts 2:42. If those comprise a list of activities the assembly should be doing, then perhaps we could generate a list of things the assembly shouldn't be doing.

In the end, I'm not actually advocating for cancelling all the meetings, nor even reducing the count to four or fewer. What I am advocating is that we test what we're doing against Scripture. If a meeting doesn't seem to work unless we declare it to be a "non-assembly meeting," then maybe we should just cancel it. And certainly, if there's no real exercise before the Lord about a meeting, we should pray about dropping it. Having a meeting just because "we've always done it" is a step down the path to Ephesus (Revelation 2:2–4).

Friday, April 5, 2019

Communion

This is from an email Rodger sent to me. I found it incredibly helpful, and I'm sure others will as well. He gave me permission to share it here, after making some minor edits.

The very fact of there being the word of God makes it vividly clear that God wants to communicate with us. As we look into the contents of His word, we find that this is the overwhelming message from beginning to end. Whether it is that He calls to Adam (after Adam had disobeyed Him, fled from Him, and hid from Him), because He wants to converse with him; or that Jesus, the Son of God was in the world at the lowest level of society, where He was reachable by all, and was there the Teacher; or that when all is rectified in the creation, the central conclusion is "Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God" (Revelation 21:3). The prevailing truth is that God desires the company and communication of people with Himself. How tremendous is the fact of the Manhood of Christ, and the sonship of those indwelt by the Spirit? The closeness between God and man brought about in Christ could not be more.

We have many expectations, which may be misconceptions, about what should be in communion, and these all need to be brought under the scrutiny of the word of God.

First of all, that communion involves a sense of ecstasy or overwhelming emotion, or even just strong emotion. Basically, a high and pleasant state of emotion. We are emotional by created constitution, but obsessed with our emotion by the ruining of sin. Emotion there may be, but most often that becomes our focus: to reach emotion is to reach the height of communion, its end. But now we are turning in on ourselves, delighting in our own emotional state, rather than in God Himself. To know God, to delight in Him, may cause emotions, but these must be "put in their place," so to speak.

Secondly, we often think we must be in a certain perfection of life and spirituality to commune with God. This puts us in a position where we think falsely about God, and deceive ourselves about ourselves. We play spiritual dress-up, and speak to God in a costume that we know we both can see through. It is all false and hollow.

Is communion interrupted by sin? Yes, so far as we are in sin turned away from God. But at the moment we are honest and open, at that exact point, we commune with God about the matter. We know Him and ourselves really, but this brings us together, rather than apart. There is a perfect correspondence in God to what we are in our sin, and that is mercy and grace. When He made Himself known to Moses it was as "The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and to the fourth generation" (Exodus 34:6–7). He has not changed, He remains merciful and gracious, which is what our sin needs; but now it is far greater, it is all in the light: 1 John 1:3–7. He is no longer God in thick blackness, whose back only may be glimpsed, but who is fully and continuously seen in Christ. Our sins are out in the open, and God is out in the open, and the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin.

To commune with God we must primarily know where we stand in relation to Him. This brings us back to the thing that most defines us, and that is the act of Christ, on our behalf as our Substitute, upon the cross. The conclusiveness of what took place at that moment has entirely and irreversibly redefined us.

The Christian is one who is entirely in Christ. It is a position, but not just a position: a position within a Person. This makes it not just a location, but personal and relational in its whole nature. They are entirely identified and associated with Him: they are in Christ. Not just a Person, but the Son of God, the Son who always has and will please the Father; and a Man of constitution like ours, a Man who has taken total responsibility for our condemnation, and now for our whole self and life. So, there is in who Christ is, the most perfect adaptation of God to man, most perfect acceptance of (M)an by God, and full expression of the Most High's desire for people to be in His company. And to have the position before God (as opposed to the former position we were in), of being in Christ, is the absolute consummation of this desire. It carries us so very near in nearness that can we say there is even a breath of distance between? And what could be more normal to such a place than to commune, to converse, to communicate freely and openly with God who now tells us to call Him Father? He has laid upon us the blessing of "boldness and access with confidence by the faith of (Christ Jesus our Lord)" (Ephesians 3:12).

There are two men who particularly illustrate a life of communion: David and Enoch. And the striking thing is that they greatly predate the salvation that is ours in the Lord Jesus Christ, following His death, resurrection, ascension and sending of the Holy Spirit. In the NT we do not have something functionally different than they had, but the same-plus. It shares the basic nature of the communion they had with the Lord, but is also far greater, in standing, relationship, knowledge, etc.

David was the man who continually referred his situation to the Lord (this has been said to be the reason he is called a man after the Lord's heart). That is, he turned to the Lord in his circumstances at once, both to tell the Lord about them, and to have the Lord's mind about them. There was a certain sort of immediacy and simplicity in the way he did this. He did not make a preparation to present himself to the Lord, but was ever ready to honestly cry out, and to confess, and to pour out his heart. We could say he had an open relationship with the Lord.

This made him sometimes, in his earnestness, do things that his fellows didn't understand, sudden actions or shifts in his direction. Whether dancing before the Lord as the ark came in, or deciding not to kill Saul, or pouring out the water from Bethlehem. David was a man who communicated much with the Lord, and it kept him in the consciousness of the Lord's sight and presence and activity, which flowed out into how he lived.

When we think of the NT, gospels and epistles, how many different modes of communication are given us, corresponding to the different facets and situations of our one life. But all these are through the one form of praying, or speaking to God. We are told to praise God, worship God, give thanks to Him, lay our burdens upon Him, call upon Him, make our requests known to Him, supplicate Him. All in all, to speak to God out of all circumstances, and concerning all things.

Enoch was the man known for distinctly walking with God. The thought of walking is forward motion and action, and this while in communication with God. We cannot think that Enoch walked with God in mutual silence, can we?

His life was a life of progress, down a certain path, and in continual company with a Person. All his activity was something done in company with the Lord: his work, his family life, his art, or whatever else. He lived with God, but not in stationary contemplation: Enoch was in motion with God. And the sum of his life was that he pleased God (Hebrews 11:5). The sense we get from Hebrews 11 and Genesis 5, is that God was so pleased that a man wanted to always keep company with Him, that He couldn't refrain from taking him to Himself.

The New Testament epistles make 30+ references to walking, across the writings of Paul, Peter, John and Jude. The outstanding statements are to walk after the Spirit, and walk in the Spirit (Romans 8, Galatians 5). This means that the Person of God has come to dwell with us, within us, bringing us into closest company. The result is that we walk with God: we go forward together in all the activities of life.

The final thing is that we must do it. We must commune with God. There is nothing to hinder us but our own hesitations, and He is waiting and wanting for us to communicate with Him. But this is the thing we so entirely hold back from. We go after all sorts of preparations, teaching ourselves so much, and keep out of the single thing we need (!), the thing we are called to: to do it, to practically commune with our God.

We must not wait for more knowledge, or a better state of heart, or to make preparations in any way. We tend so often toward being one-dimensional, reducing things to far below their potential, down into doing something in one way at one time, i.e. into a form or routine. But everything we see in the word of God, even in the examples of David and Enoch, is against this. We cannot be so narrow and small when we consider what God reveals He intends for us by communion. It is to be our way of life.

We must not hesitate, but do the only thing that makes sense in the situation we are placed as a result of the once-for-all act of our Saviour; the only thing that makes sense for us as in Christ.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

"If"

A few years ago, we were reading through Colossians in the Bible reading on Wednesday nights. We began the reading like we always do: someone reads through the passage, then we go back through and discuss it. We were finishing Colossians 1 that night, so we read vv. 21–23:

21 And you, who once were alienated and enemies in mind by wicked works, yet now has it reconciled 22 in the body of his flesh through death; to present you holy and unblamable and irreproachable before it, 23 if indeed ye abide in the faith founded and firm, and not moved away from the hope of the glad tidings, which ye have heard, which have been proclaimed in the whole creation which [is] under heaven, of which *I* Paul became minister.

And as soon as the reader stopped, without the slightest pause, while the words of Colossians 1 were still echoing around the hall, someone said, "Well, that doesn't really mean 'if' there, right?"

We have those experiences, when something jars us and we find ourselves having to re-examine our thoughts and our beliefs. This was one of those experiences for me. It struck me at that moment that the Word of God was making an important point, and we had become used to blunting that point because it made us uncomfortable.

I've mentioned before a comment I read by Rich Mullins where he was discussing John 6. He said something like, "the disciples didn't have 2000 years of theology to soften the point Jesus was making." That's not really the quote, I can't find it right now. But it was something like that. It centered on the idea that so much of our theology is really trying to dull the edge of the Word of God. That sounds an awful lot like Matthew 15:6.

So there I was, wondering if we'd made the Word of God of none effect by the traditions of the fathers. Had we done violence to what God was telling us, just because it made us uncomfortable? What would happen if I allowed "if" to mean "if?"

In the end, God has the right to say things that offend me. That's the lesson of Romans 9:19–20, right? The single most important lesson is that God is God, and I am not. At some point, it becomes robbing God of His rights when we try to explain away what Scripture actually says.

And so I've made an effort not to try and explain away the text when scripture says something I don't like. I've tried hard to submit to it. I once heard someone say he was tired of people judging the Word of God, rather than being judged by it. I confess I've spent a lot of time in that camp. We need to realize that the Word of God judges us, not the other way around.

Several years ago, I was in a Bible reading when someone mentioned that reading William Kelly taught him what the scripture actually said. He said something like this:

Kelly frequently says something like, "Scripture says ________."
I read that and I think, "That's not what it says!" Then I read the passage again, and it's exactly what the text says: I've been misreading it for years!
I haven't had that experience reading Kelly, although I've had it reading Darby.

I have come to realize that a great deal of what I grew up believing is simply not in the text. As an example, I had always believed that many saints came out of the tomb after the crucifixion of Christ and went into Jerusalem. But that's not what the text says. It specifically says that they arose after Christ's resurrection (Matthew 27:51–53).

But the point is not that I now know my Bible better than I did as a kid. (I should hope I do!) Nor is it that scripture contains troubling statements (it certainly does). The point is that I have seen in myself and in so many Christians I have known a tendency to try to fit the Word of God into our theology, rather than the other way around.

So I'm making a point at pausing at all those "ifs" in scripture and letting them sink in. And I'm not trying to replace "if" with "since" every time I read it. Sometimes it really does mean "since" (like Colossians 3:1), but not every time, and probably not most times.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Election

My take on election is this: God allows some to choose, others He saves.

Scripture is clear that there is none that seeks after God (Romans 3:11). When men and women make their own choice, they consistently choose against God. Nothing could be clearer from the entire New Testament, from Matthew through to Revelation.

It's true that the idea of election is unfair – it's absolutely true! If God were fair, we'd all burn in hell. He chooses to save some, while He gives others what they want. It's not fair, and we should be grateful for it.