Friday, February 26, 2021


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.

Friday, February 5, 2021


Someone asked by email about my views on cessationism. So I thought I'd try and lay those out a little more explicitly. When I was somewhere about 20 years old, I read the statement of faith from a church that said something to the effect that speaking in tongues is not for today. I remember being struck forcibly that Scripture says "forbid not to speak in tongues" (1 Corinthians 14:39), and here was a church doing exactly what Scripture commanded not to do. That was the exact moment I realized I couldn't be a cessationist.

So on the simplest level, I gave up cessationism when I realized I couldn't obey 1 Corinthians 14:39. 

It strikes me when I read Acts 2:32–36 that Peter reasons almost exactly oppositely from the majority of Christians I know. Peter says, the Holy Spirit's presence is proof that Jesus Christ is sitting at God's right hand. And Paul says the Galatians ought to have recognized their desire to live under Law was wrong, because they had received the Holy Spirit on the basis of faith, not of works (Galatians 3:1–5 ).  So the New Testament points to the Holy Spirit's presence as observable evidence a doctrine is true.

But the majority of ministry I have heard says, you can know you have the Holy Spirit, because Christ is sitting at God's right hand. In other words, the Holy Spirit's presence is something we have to take on faith, because we know our doctrine is correct. I don't see that argument in Scripture. And I have to say, it's odd to believe that God would be present, but we wouldn't notice Him.

What I see in Scripture is, the presence of the Holy Spirit is obvious, visible, and noticeable. 

If we read 1 Corinthians 14:22–25, we find that what characterizes the Holy Spirit's presence is not necessarily speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:22–23). It's not that we're looking for an ecstatic experience: we don't judge the Holy Spirit's presence by sensationalism, but by conviction (1 Corinthians 14:24–25). Spirit-filled ministry will strike the heart of the unbeliever, making him admit God is there. He might shrug off ecstatic utterances as madness, but he can't deny the effect of Spirit-filled "prophesying" on his heart and conscience.

Few passages have ruined the comfort of my life like 1 Corinthians 14. Without in any way trying to give an explication of that chapter, let's notice some highlights and themes.

First, we don't see a lot of schedule or agenda in that chapter. 1 Corinthians 14:26 says that whenever we come together, everyone brings something – a song, an exhortation, a teaching, etc. And we're to have the freedom to share those, but there is prescribed order. That verse led me into a long adventure when I was younger, because I realized the "open brethren" I was meeting with never practiced it. Sure, they had a more-or-less open format for the Lord's Supper, but every other meeting was carefully scheduled and planned. And the more I looked at 1 Corinthians 14:26, the more I saw the weight of the words whenever ye come together. I didn't see a lot of room for the agenda-driven meetings I was used to.

Second, we see a prescribed order for speaking in tongues in the assemblies of Christians: two or three ("at the most three") can speak in tongues, separately (1 Corinthians 14:27).  So when there are a whole lot of people all speaking at once, we can know they're not obeying the Word of God. There can be at the most three, and they must speak one at a time.  And there must be an interpreter (1 Corinthians 14:27). If there's no one there to interpret, then the tongues-speaker must be silent (1 Corinthians 14:28).

I have only once seen these two verses obeyed. I was in a meeting, and a man stood up and began speaking in Spanish. Another man stood up and interpreted every sentence. They spoke one at a time (the first man would make a point and then pause, the second would interpret what had been said). That was exactly according to 1 Corinthians 14:27–28.

Now, some would say that was a legitimate experience, because it was Spanish, not some "unknown tongue". I disagree. The reality is that as far as I'm concerned – as far as most people are concerned – the majority of human languages are "unknown tongues." It makes little difference to me whether someone speaks in the tongue of angels, or if someone speaks in Swahili. They are equally unintelligible to me. I likely couldn't tell them apart. 

I find the need to decide whether speaking in tongues is legitimate based on whether the tongue is a currently-spoken language entirely irrational. If someone speaks in a language I don't know, then it doesn't matter to me where or who speaks it. 1 Corinthians 13:1 talks about the tongues of men and of angels, and I am content to lump them together.

Third, we find a prescribed order for prophesying in the assemblies of Christians (1 Corinthians 14:29–33). Two or three prophets may speak, the rest are to judge (1 Corinthians 14:29). They may only speak one at a time (1 Corinthians 14:31), they are not to be speaking over one another. And if one begins speaking while the other is still speaking, then the first – the interrupted, not the interruptor – is to stop (1 Corinthians 14:30). 

This section ends with the remarkable statement that "spirits of prophets are subject to prophets" (1 Corinthians 14:32). That is a remarkable statement, and I don't think we take it seriously enough. I can only take that to mean that if I am sitting in a meeting and I feel particularly led of the Lord to say something, then if it would violate the order in 1 Corinthians 14:29–33, I need to not say it. Let that sink in – even if I feel led to say something, I am responsible not to say it if it would violate this passage.

I have experienced this many times. I don't know how many times I've been struck by a thought in a meeting, and been about to stand up and talk about it, when someone else rises to speak. The Word of God is clear that I have been interrupted, and I need to stay silent. Or sometimes I've been in a meeting and two other people have already spoken, when I feel led to speak on something. Then someone else stands up. Scripture is specific that only "two or three" may speak (1 Corinthians 14:29): I, as the fourth, must be silent.

Fourth, we have instructions concerning women in the assemblies of Christians (1 Corinthians 14:34–35). Women are to be silent in the assemblies (1 Corinthians 14:34), not even asking questions (1 Corinthians 14:35). Notice this is "in the assemblies," not in every part of life. This isn't a stricture against women speaking in general, but specifically in the context of addressing the assembled church.

On this last note, let me say that there are many women I know who are over me in the Lord. There are many women who have corrected me,  encouraged me, exhorted me, and admonished me. They were not at all wrong to do that. But it wasn't in the context of the assembled church. That's all I have to say about that.

What I find fascinating about 1 Corinthians 14 is that it's an appeal to order that implicitly expects visible, noticeable effects from the presence of the Holy Spirit in the assembly. The effect is not necessarily ecstatic experience (although that can certainly be part of it), but it's an effect that should drive and characterize everything.

And here's where I most often have seen failure in the assemblies of Christians. It's almost like the Christians I have known most closely have been content with an entire lack of the Holy Spirit's power, as long as they can check the order items of the list: "Let's see, women silent? check! Only two or at the most three? check!" But that's not all that the chapter says. The chapter specifically requires the Holy Spirit's power  that would be so visible even an unbeliever would not be able to deny it (1 Corinthians 14:24–25). Why are we so hung up on the other rules, but ignore this one?

I don't know how many times I've heard someone "minister in the assembly" with nothing to say. That's not obeying 1 Corinthians 14! It might not be violating the "two or at the most three" rule, but it certainly violates the "is God among you" rule (1 Corinthians 14:25). Someone giving a pointless, powerless, anemic talk in the assembly is as much a violation of 1 Corinthians 14 as ten people speaking in an unknown tongue, all at once, without an interpreter.

And that's really why I'm not a cessationist. It began when I realized I couldn't forbid speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:39).  If the Lord chooses to give someone a miraculous gift, I won't be part of gainsaying it. I cannot build a theology that forbids God from working however He sees fit. That doesn't mean I think there must be miraculous signs, it just means I'm OK with God doing what He wants, even if it involves so-called sign gifts.

But more importantly, I realize I have largely bought into a theology that asserts the Holy Spirit's presence based on doctrinal assumptions, which is the opposite of what the Apostles taught. The Apostles used the Holy Spirit's visible, noticeable presence as proof of their doctrine, not the other way around. Again, they didn't always do that in terms of ecstatic experience: sometimes it was the conviction of the hearer. But the Scripture always assumes people notice when God is there.