Friday, April 9, 2021

Worlds Colliding

It has been several years since I realized there was a bit of a disconnect in my mind. I read or re-read J. N. Darby's article, "First Resurrection; or, Resurrection of the Just" (Collected Writings, Vol. 2, pp. 301–309), and was struck by the clarity with which he points out that the Lord's coming for us is precisely Resurrection. Somehow, in my mind, the Lord's coming for us and the Resurrection were two distinct events.  There was a moment in my head that went something like this:

NICENE CREED: Our hope is the resurrection

DISPENSATIONALIST BIBLE TEACHER: No, our hope is the Lord coming for us

J. N. DARBY: (Looking confused) What's the difference?

That has proven to be a life-changing moment.

Over the past couple years, I have found myself combating the idea that our faith is (or ought to be) what Francis Schaeffer would call an "upper storey experience." I find myself slipping over and over into the idea that there's a "real world right now" reality where I go to work, pay my bills, keep the woodstove burning, wash dishes, and do all the "mundane" things; and then there's another level of reality where God is, where I am a believer, where the Lord Jesus is coming for me. It's really a very split view of reality... But that's not what Scripture teaches. 

There is a repeated theme when Moses addresses the children of Israel on the plain in Moab, he appeals to them several times on the basis of what they saw, and what they had heard (see Deuteronomy 4:9–13, etc.). The face-value message is that they shouldn't forget the Lord, but there is a deeper message here too: he is reminding them that these things really happened. They weren't to think of them in terms of myth, but in terms of documented, verified, witnessed history.

In Francis Schaeffer's excellent True Spirituality, he talks about how, if we were at the Crucifixion and we were to run our hands over the cross, we'd get splinters. His point is that the events of our faith happened in this world: they're not in some mystical reality. There is a physical place where the Son of God physically died, and people were there who saw it (John 21:24–25).

The appeal to witnesses characterizes both the Old and New Testaments. Moses appeals to the people to remember what they themselves had seen and heard, Paul appeals to over five hundred witnesses of the Resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1–8), and in what strikes me as the most convincing statement of the entire chapter, he admits that most of them are still alive, but some had since died.

But the point that Moses was making, that Paul was making, that Francis Schaeffer was making, is that our faith isn't in some other. We believe the Lord rose bodily from the dead. We believe God actually spoke to Moses in an audible voice, in human language. We don't believe the Lord will come for us spiritually (whatever that means), we believe He will actually arrive in this physical world at a definite point in time, and take us away.

I've been struggling to understand how to live that reality. The first thing I began to understand is that everything in this life is to be done in the name of Christ (Colossians 3:17). I don't even begin to know all that means, and I'm quite sure I'm not living up to it. But one thing it has to mean is that there's no such thing as a mundane thing. I'm to eat and drink in the name of Christ. I'm to wake and sleep in the name of Christ. I'm to wash dishes and drive to work in the name of Christ. I am to feed my chickens in the name of Christ. And yes, I am to kill and eat those chickens (when the time comes) in the name of Christ.

I think our Reformed friends have a better handle on this than our Dispensationalist friends do.

Something else it means is that asceticism is fundamentally flawed: if I am to do all things in the name of Christ, then there's really no part of this physical life that I am divorced from. I'm not to live in the hope of being rescued from this life, I am to live it in the name of Christ.  

Which is not, of course, to say we're not to be looking for the Son of God to come from Heaven to change our mortal bodies (Philippians 3:20–21). But it is to say that we ought to be living this life – until He comes – in His name.

There's a lot more to be said, but it's time to wrap this one up. Suffice it to say, doing all things in the name of Christ is one of the simplest and hardest things to do. But it's what keeps us from living in a spiritual un-reality. It protects us from asceticism on the one hand and latitudinarianism on the other. But more on that later.



Friday, April 2, 2021

The whole

I had an extremely encouraging conversation with a friend who is both much younger and much smarter than I am. Those conversations can be challenging, but also rewarding. I realized in the conversation that our faith must embrace everything that we are. 

It seems to me that we fall constantly into the trap of denying one truth in order to believe another. And that seems evident in our attempts at spiritual growth: some of us attempt to deny our emotions, others attempt to deny our wills, or our bodies, or our intellects in order to achieve some sort of spirituality. But of course none of those things is actually spiritual. True spirituality is not a denial of any part of what we are, it's being all that we are under the control of the Holy Spirit, under the Lordship of Christ (Colossians 3:17).

So the path to spirituality isn't denying our emotions in order to focus on our intellects, any more than it is denying our intellects in order to focus on our wills. We are made in the image of God, and we have emotions, intellects, wills, physical bodies, and so on. We don't become more spiritual by being less intellectual, any more than we become more spiritual by being less emotional, or by being less physical. The point of Christianity isn't that any part of what we are becomes less, it's that all that we are comes under the Lordship of Christ, under the control of the Spirit of God.

 

Our faith is to be intellectual, but not merely intellectual. It is to be emotional, but not merely emotional. It is to be intentional, but not merely intentional. It is to be physical, but not merely physical. But all under the Lordship of Christ.

 

But of course that's not really enough. Our faith is transformational: we who have died with Christ are transformed by it. We die as one thing and are raised another (1 Corinthians 15:40–45).  So please don't misunderstand me to be saying that spirituality is continuing exactly as we were as unregenerate people, that's not at all true. My point is that Christianity doesn't involve becoming less human: Christ is completely Man in His resurrection, just like He was before He died. We, too, will be fully human when we have been raised with Him. Christian perfection is not to be less intellectual, or less emotional, or less physical. We will be all those things in the resurrection.

My point is that denying our wills, or our emotions, or our intellects, or our bodies isn't spirituality. Spirituality is to have a will under God's control. It's to have emotions under God's control. It's to have a body under God's control. It's to have an intellect under God's control. Spirituality is being what God has made us to be, especially being subject to Christ in everything we do, think, and feel.

 

Many years ago I was reading Watchman Nee, and I was struck by his statement that Romans 6 isn't aspirational: it's not that we aspire to be crucified with Christ. It's a statement of fact: we have died with Christ.

Many of the sermons I listen to go off the rails at precisely this point. When those preachers talk about New Creation, they're not talking about something they believe to be real. If you listen – really listen – to what they say, they believe Romans 6 and Colossians 3 and Galatians 2 are metaphors: they are statements we should all be working hard to live up to.

I absolutely believe this is the leaven of evangelicalism: it's the idea that new birth is an addition, as opposed to a replacement. Nothing could be farther from the truth! 

 

But having said all that, the Christian life is nothing less than the life of Jesus in our mortal bodies (2 Corinthians 4:6–12). It's not a diminishing of the mortal body, it's not a diminishing of what we are as God's creations. It's a transformation. It's a change. But it's the life of Jesus worked out in mortal bodies. We can't shortcut the Holy Spirit's work in us by denying our intellects (although our intellect gets us into trouble) or by denying our emotions (as messy as they are) or by denying we have wills (as problematic as our wills prove) or by denying our physical bodies (as much as we might long for transcendence). The Spirit of God is working in us to reveal Christ in those things. And we are foolish to think we can help Him out by denying them.




Saturday, March 27, 2021

Creation

I'm no great hunter, but I very much enjoy hunting. I'm enthusiastic rather than skilled.  Last year, I was trying to get a clear shot at an elk who walked down into a gully, out of my sight. Not wanting to lose a chance at him, I climbed down from  the tree stand and started making my way carefully down the hill after him. When I gave up and turned to go back for my pack, I saw two black, furry ears peaking out over a bush extremely close to where I had left my pack. I was so intent on the elk I was stalking, I had completely missed the bear that was much closer.

We all have trouble with tunnel vision. We all tend to focus so much on one thing we can't see anything else. One of the issues I have with a whole lot of ministry by "brethren" is precisely tunnel vision: a focus so intent on one issue, they are oblivious to all other issues. But I am just as bad as any of them.

One area where I've had really bad tunnel vision has been the whole area of New Creation.  The Pauline epistles bring New Creation into view sharply, front and center. "For [in Christ Jesus] neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision; but new creation" (Galatians 6:15). God isn't looking for us to improve what we are by nature in Adam, He is looking for something entirely new, what we are in Christ.

But the equal and opposite truth is, New Creation isn't some ethereal, vague place. It's not nirvana. We know this, because the Lord Jesus, having been raised from the dead, was as much a physical Man as any of us are. John 20:26–28 tells the story of Thomas not believing the Resurrection. So the Lord appears to the disciples, and invites Thomas to touch the nail marks in His hands and the spear wound in His side. Notice it's a physical touch that the Lord offers as proof. This isn't some discorporeal apparition, it's a real Man, with a real body.

And 1 Corinthians 15 brings both these truths to equal light and importance: the core of our faith – the single most important thing we believe – is that Christ has been raised from the dead in His physical body. If we don't believe in the bodily Resurrection of Christ, we're not Christians, period. This isn't negotiable (1 Corinthians 15:11–17). And Christ being raised from the dead, we shall also be raised from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:19–28). That's one truth, the bodily Resurrection.

The other truth is that Resurrection changes us (1 Corinthians 14:42–45). We won't be raised exactly like we are now, we'll be raised into incorruptibility. Our bodies will be changed to be like His. Not new bodies, but changed bodies, certainly. That's what we're waiting for: the Son of God will come from Heaven to transform our bodies (Philippians 3:20–21).

I have trouble keeping both these things in mind at the same time. I tend to think about the Lord coming to transform my body in such a way that I forget it'll still be a human body. I tend to think lose sight of the truth of bodily resurrection when I am thinking about the truth of our being raised into incorruptibility.

But the reality is that the end goal isn't for me to be any less human than I am. I'll be transformed, certainly, but not less human for all that. Francis Schaeffer might argue I'll be more human. I'm not sure I really buy that, but it's worth thinking about.

Or to put it another way, New Creation is still the sort of thing where we wash dishes and learn to play guitar. It's not a place where we sit around like a cartoon parody of Heaven, with gentle background music and harps and clouds. Ellis Potter points out that the Lord baked bread, build a fire, and roasted fish after His Resurrection. So New Creation definitely doesn't exclude mundane tasks.

There's a lot more to be said, but I think this is a good place to stop for now.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Experimental

My dad told me one time, "when Moses struck the rock a second time, he was wrong... but water still came out" (see Numbers 20:7–13).  I've thought about that comment many, many times. It's entirely possible – even likely – that God will bless us regardless of our obedience or our disobedience. God's blessing isn't evidence that we are obedient, it's evidence that God is good. In the story of the water from the rock, everyone was wrong except God; but He still gave them what they needed.

So let's don't allow ourselves to fall into the trap of thinking that God's blessing is proof of our own goodness. It isn't. A friend told me many years ago (quoting someone else), "God blesses us because He is good, not because we are."

But the fact remains that I'm not terribly interested in a Christianity that doesn't actually work. And this brings me to a sort of a conundrum: on the one hand, faith is believing that God has said. "The just shall live by faith," is really the central message of Romans (Romans 1:17), Galatians (Galatians 3:11), and Hebrews (Hebrews 10:38). There's not much more central than that!

But on the other hand, the epistles teach a transforming sort of faith. 2 Corinthians 4:6 tells us that the same God who commanded light to shine out of darkness has shone in our hearts. God's having called light to shine out of the darkness of our hearts (which is really the point Paul is making) suggests a visible effect.

Note I'm not talking about counterfeit spirituality. I am convinced nothing has done more to hurt the testimony of believers than trying to produce spiritual fruit from carnal energy. And I suppose that's really the point I'm trying to make. Moses and Aaron acted carnally at Meribah, but water still came out. See, it's possible to act with fleshly energy, and still see tremendous blessing. Isn't that what Philippians 1:15–20 teaches? It's possible to preach Christ out of envy, out of a desire for strife. And it's possible people will be brought to repentance out of it, not because God approves of the preaching, but because God blesses out of His own goodness.

I know for a fact that we can be fleshly in our preaching, our prayer, our Bible study, and even our declaring the Gospel. We know for a fact that God can and does bless us, and through us, even when we're acting badly, even when we're flat-out wrong. And seeing "results" isn't proof that we're right, it just means that God is acting like He always does – out of grace.





Friday, February 26, 2021

Priesthood

I read somewhere that Psalm 110 is the most-quoted passage in the New Testament. I don't know whether that's actually true, but it does seem to form the basis of our Christology. No, I don't mean everything we know about Christ is in Psalm 110 (we wouldn't need the gospels if it were), I mean that the New Testament authors quote Psalm 110 to show that God's plan with regard to Christ hasn't gone awry. The Lord Jesus Himself quotes Psalm 110 to show that He is David's Son as well as David's Lord, baffling both the Pharisees and the Sadducees (Matthew 22:41–46). Peter quotes the Psalm to show that Christ is now sitting at God's right hand (Acts 2:32–35). And, of course, Hebrews uses the Psalm to establish the connection between Christ and Melchizedek (Hebrews 5:6–10; Hebrews 7).

J. N. Darby's paper "The Melchisedec Priesthood of Christ" is well worth reading. It's been about twenty years since I first read that paper, but I remember being struck by the observation that Melchisedec – the first person the Scripture refers to as a priest – doesn't offer for sins. 

J. G. Bellett wrote a book on Hebrews called, The Opened Heavens. I'm ashamed to admit I don't recall very much about that book, but the title is profound. The story of the golden calf at Sinai begins with the people getting tired of waiting for Moses (Exodus 32:1). He had gone up to speak with God, and they said, "we do not know what is become of him." We are very much in danger of saying the same thing: the Man who has delivered us has gone up into God's presence, and we have exactly the same tendency to get tired of waiting for Him to come back down (Acts 1:1–11). At the simplest level, Hebrews is written to tell us what's going on up there, where we can't see Him.

Darby links this current state of affairs with the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16. We have a great High Priest who has passed into the heavens (Hebrews 4:14). Like the people of Aaron's day, we can't see what's going on with our Priest. What's He doing up there? The children of Israel might have wondered if Aaron had died when they couldn't see him (Leviticus 16:2, 13). We don't have that fear, but it does seem like He's been in there a long time...

Well, Hebrews tells us that He's in there for us (Hebrews 9:24). It's not that He got tired of us and left (although really, who could blame Him?), it's that He is appearing before the face of God for us.

What got me thinking about this was Exodus 28:29–30. Aaron was to have the names of the tribes of Israel over his heart whenever he went into the Tabernacle: " Aaron shall bear the names of the children of Israel in the breastplate of judgment on his heart, when he goes in to the sanctuary" (Exodus 28:29). He wasn't supposed to be able to forget that he was in there for them.

It's striking that Peter offered the return of Christ and the commencement of the Millennium if only the children of Israel would repent (Acts 3:19–21). I don't doubt that the Son of Man will come from Heaven to receive a kingdom (Daniel 7:13–14). Right now we're living in that intermediate period, where He is sitting at God's right hand, waiting for His enemies to be made His footstool. And there are deep and profound consequences of that.

But at the same time, He's now in Heaven for us. This is worth contemplating.

 



 


Friday, February 19, 2021

Ponzi Scheme

There is a recurring theme in a lot of the sermons I've been hearing over the last couple decades. It seems like a lot of people believe that our primary role is evangelism. I heard one recording where the speaker said the best way to honor the Lord is to share the gospel with lost sinners. I'm not convinced that's true.

I know, 2 Timothy 4:5 says, "do the work of an evangelist." Isn't that a slam dunk? Doesn't that prove we're to focus on witnessing?

Well... it's a little more complicated than that. Let's start with the context of that verse: v. 9 says "Use diligence to come to me quickly," and then goes on to detail that he should bring Mark, a cloak, and manuscripts (2 Timothy 4:9–13). I find it interesting that people are quick to say 2 Timothy 4:5 is a command to us, who don't then make a pilgrimage to Troas. It's clearly the same person being addressed in v. 5 and v. 9–13. What reason do we have to think the one verse applies to us, but the others do not?

I'm not trying to be pugilistic here, I'm just pointing out that reading 2 Timothy 4:5 as a command to us is an untenable hermeneutical position. There's not justification for it in the text. It's a command to Timothy, not to us. And the context makes that clear.

Just today I read an article that said, "Let’s start with the premise that the paramount mission of the church is the proclamation of the gospel and creation of disciples" (emphasis in the original). That's quite a statement, and one the author doesn't really demonstrate from the texts he quotes (Matthew 28:19, Mark 16:15).  There are (at least) two problems with this reasoning:

First, the Lord wasn't addressing the church, which didn't exist at the time. He was addressing the Eleven. 

Second, I don't see anything in the text that claims these verses are somehow more important than the rest of what the Lord commanded. I know it's common to label those passages "the Great Commission", but the Scripture does not. There's nothing in the text to suggest these verses take primacy over anything else the Lord commanded. It's just not there.

Of course none of this is to say we ought not to evangelize. It's just to say that dubious hermeneutics and careless handling of the text aren't a solid foundation for building much of anything. It's certainly not sufficient for the claim that evangelism is "the paramount mission of the church."

It seems to me there are several problems that spring from this sort of carelessness with the Word of God. There are probably many, but I'll just mention a few.

The first problem is that we end up messing with the gospel. I've mentioned at least a few times that the Scripture talks about the gospel a lot, but it only tells us what the gospel is twice: 1 Corinthians 15:1–8 and Revelation 14:6–7. 1 Corinthians 15 lays out the gospel Paul preached (1 Corinthians 15:1). When he says, "if even we or an angel out of heaven announce as glad tidings to you [anything] besides what we have announced as glad tidings to you, let him be accursed" (Galatians 1:8). That's a serious statement, and it should catch our attention.

If we examine the gospel Paul preached, we see it doesn't bear a lot of resemblance to most of the "gospel preaching" we hear most places today. How many "gospel messages" have you heard that mentioned the burial of Christ? I've heard "gospel messages" that don't even mention the Resurrection!

Further, the gospel Paul preached is remarkably devoid of appeals to repent, or even urging to believe. It wasn't much of a sales pitch.  Acts 13:16–41 records Paul's message to the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia. We notice immediately the lack of the pressure to "close the deal". There just isn't that high-pressure sales tactic here.

We might see a bit more of an appeal in Acts 2:14–40, in Peter's sermon on Pentecost. But the context sheds some light on that: notice that Peter's urging the hearers to repent comes after they ask him what they should do (Acts 2:37). Peter tells the people that the Man they had crucified was the Messiah, and He had been raised from the dead, and is now sitting at God's right hand. They respond by asking what they should do, having crucified the Lord, and he tells them, "Repent, and be baptised, each one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for remission of sins, and ye will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38).

Someone pointed out many years ago that the book of Acts doesn't even mention the love of God. Not once. I'm afraid that our "gospel preaching" is a whole lot more like a sales pitch than it is like the preaching of the Apostles. 

The second problem is that we reduce Christianity to a race to sign people up: a membership drive, if you will. It seems to me that evangelicalism frequently reduces to a Ponzi scheme. It's people working hard to sign others up, so they can sign others up, so they can sign others up... there doesn't seem to be a lot of point to it.

The point of Christianity – at least according to the Word of God – is to know God (John 17:3). It's to know Christ (Philippians 3:8–12). It's to have fellowship with the Father and the Son (1 John 1:3). I can't recall ever reading in the Scripture that the point of Christianity is to get as many other people on board as possible. 

The third problem is that high-pressure tactics create false profession. I personally have seen – I was there – people who put so much pressure on the gospel, that entirely unrepentant sinners repeat a prayer just to get the "evangelist" to shut up. How do I know that's what happened? Because the supposed "new convert" said that's what happened. I heard Robert say something like, "the devil has made enough false professors, let's not help him by making more."

So let's do invite sinners to repent, let's do tell them about that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas and the Twelve. But don't let's miss out on what Christianity actually is: fellowship with the Father and the Son.





Friday, February 12, 2021

Not now, not here

1 Corinthians 14:27–33 presents us with some scenarios that should surprise us, if we're paying attention. In the first, we have someone in the assembly who wants to speak in a tongue, but there is no interpreter. So he is told to speak to himself and to God, but not out loud (1 Corinthians 14:28). In the second, we have someone who is prophesying – giving a word from the Lord – but someone else rises to speak, so he is to sit down and let the other person speak (1 Corinthians 14:30). And then we're given a remarkable statement, "spirits of prophets are subject to prophets" (1 Corinthians 14:32).

What's surprising here is that the text treats both the tongues-speaker and the interrupted prophet as having a legitimate thing from God. Neither one is treated as "out of order" in what they would say, but they would be "out of order" to say it at that time, in that place.

In other words, we are responsible to assess the situation, see how it lines up with 1 Corinthians 14, and then possibly refuse to say what the Spirit of God has given us to say. It's entirely possible that He will give us something to say, and then expect us not to say it, according to 1 Corinthians 14:32.

The first few times I experienced this, I tended to echo the disciples in John 9:2, "Who is in sin? Is it me for thinking I had something from the Lord? Or is it that other guy who stood up third, so now I can't?" But I've come to understand it might be more like the Lord's answer to the disciples, "Neither you nor he sinned, but this is the for the glory of God" (John 9:3).

There is a story in the Old Testament that seems appropriate to bring up here. David had a genuine exercise to build a temple for the Lord (2 Samuel 7:1–2). Nathan the prophet recognized it was a genuine exercise from the Lord, and told him so (2 Samuel 7:3). But the Lord spoke to Nathan, and told him that it would be David's son, not David, who would build the temple (2 Samuel 7:4–17).

So I've become a little more comfortable with the idea that I've gotten a genuine exercise from the Lord, but it wasn't ever His intention for me to be the one to act on it.

I'm not saying that third guy who stood up to speak in the assembly wasn't wrong to do so. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn't. I confess there are a lot of times someone stands up and I am quite convinced they had nothing to say. But to be honest, there are a lot of times someone else stood up, and it was a great act of love for me not to roll my eyes... but then someone else would tell me afterwards that they felt the Lord gave them something they really needed in that message. In other words, He knew much better than I what was best for the assembly.

And that's the big lesson in 1 Corinthians 14. There is real responsibility in the assembly, but at the end of the day, the Lord doesn't need me. He is perfectly capable of doing what is best for the believers there without my help. 

Underneath a whole lot of what we do is the fear that if we don't intervene, things will go sideways. That's not even close to what Scripture teaches. God who raises the dead might well use me, but He certainly doesn't need me.