A Separate People

“‘Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:12-15, ESV).

My kids think I am older than dirt. I’m so old that I remember the Blue Laws, the laws that forbade Walmart (et. al.) from being open 24-7-365. In my small hometown when I was young, only one (of the two) grocery stores was open on Sunday with minimal staff for emergency purchases. The only pharmacy would be open just a few hours on Sunday afternoon and the few gas stations would rotate being open on Sunday. The calendar that we got each year from our bank would identify holidays in red — Sundays were considered holidays (or “holy-days”).

But those days are gone now. I need to take down all of my Bibles from my bookshelves and end tables and night stands and cross out Deuteronomy 5:12-15, along with Exodus 20:8-11. While I am at it, maybe Isaiah 58:13-14 should go too! But if I did, then what would I do with the passage in Hebrews 13:8 that says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever”? Was His statement to the Pharisees that He is “Lord of the Sabbath” (Luke 6:5) intended to dismiss the fourth commandment altogether?

We who hold to the authority of the the revealed Truth of Scripture wrestle with this in our current generation. The culture around us has chosen to ignore the God we worship and the Truth He has revealed about Himself. One way that it has done this is to encroach upon the Sunday observance. The choice before us seems to be between legalistic observance and total disregard. Some Christians try to justify the latter position by claiming that this is the only one of the Ten Commandments that is not repeated in the New Testament in some form. But that position places this statement in the category of the Ceremonial Laws that restricted what foods the Jews could eat or what sacrifices should be made for various offenses. The Ceremonial Laws were once-and-for-all fulfilled by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Those who hold the position that the Fourth Commandment can be ignored still believe that the Moral Law is valid. But — interestingly — this commandment is the only one that Moses tied to the creation, predating the Law given at Mt. Sinai. Even if our theological perspective discounts the Old Testament Law, we are still products of the creation, so the weekly day of rest is still important to observe for believers, if Scripture has any authority. 

The best way to reconcile this dilemma is to read the word “holy” as “separate,” which is its original definition. Just as every penny to our names comes from Him, just as every morsel we consume comes from the earth that He created (Ps 24:1), every moment of every day is a gift of His grace. In one sense, it is all holy, but earnest believers who want to honor the Redeemer SEPARATE a portion of their income to offer it as a token of the whole. These believers bow to acknowledge that the source of their meal is the earth that He watered, and they SEPARATE a portion of their 168 hours each week for worship. Solomon reminded us that honoring the Lord should come from the FIRST of our produce (Prov 3::9-10); it is customary to bless our food BEFORE we consume it and it is appropriate that we START our week with a time of worship. Certainly these things can all become legalistic observances, but they don’t have to be.

When Moses approached Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go to worship their God, Pharaoh’s response was to increase the intensity of their servitude. If they had so much idle time to go and worship, they could work more, he reasoned (Ex. 5:17). As we have moved away from the Sunday observance laws, employers have become much bolder in requiring work on Sundays, much like Pharaoh of old. Sunday work is no longer limited to doing good and to deeds of mercy (Matt 12:12). 

But the intent of the observance of a day of rest was to identify the Hebrew people with the God they worshiped — the Lord God of Israel (Ex. 31:12-17). This was originally why it was incorporated into our laws. He is and was separate and distinct from every other pagan deity, and His people should be separate as well, identifying themselves as His.

A Substantive God

You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain (Deuteronomy 5:11, ESV).

Social media is a wonderful way to keep track of old friends and family, and it has become a venue for airing political or social opinions in a proper setting. But, I admit, I have “de-friended” some because of the crass and crude language that many use, and I am tempted to do the same with some others. I would do so, not because I am a Christian, but because the profanity that I am forced to read to keep track of these friends is simply gratuitous. Unlike the airwaves where the FCC used to monitor and “bleep” offensive language, social media is self-monitoring (or, often, unmonitored).

But let’s be clear…as offensive as this language is, it does NOT violate the third of the Ten Commandments. Moses didn’t command the Hebrew people to refrain from crass speech (neither did he encourage it); he commanded the people to refrain from references to the God of Israel that reduced Him to a common status. The word, “vain,” could also be translated “empty” or “deceitful.” Whenever we extract the meaning of the name (character) of the God of Israel in our speech, we have violated this command.

To avoid violating this command the ancient Hebrews were careful not to pronounce the personal name of God — the one given to Moses in Exodus 3 when they met at the burning bush. The four letters would be translated into our English language as “YHWH.” The Hebrew language does not have any vowels, so those would have to be supplied by the readers and the sacred name is usually translated “Jehovah.” But Hebrew scribes were so very careful not to mispronounce the Name or to use it in an empty/vain way that they did not pronounce it at all. Instead, when they read the Scripture aloud, they substituted the word “Adonai” which means “Lord,” and which could refer to either a human or a deity. The scholars who translated the Scripture into English faced a dilemma about how to remain true to the written Hebrew text while avoiding vain or empty usage. Is there ANYONE who has not read the words of a text or sung the words of a song while his mind was distracted in some way? To read a reference to the God of Israel in this way would violate this Third Commandment for many people.

The solution that the English translators arrived at years ago was to follow the lead of the Hebrew scribes. When the Hebrew text makes reference to the personal name of the God of Israel, “Jehovah,” the translators will use the word, “LORD.” To distinguish the Hebrew word “Adonai” from the personal name of God, they will write “Adonai” as “Lord” and “Jehovah” as “LORD.” Most translations follow this convention. 

So, if the crude “sailor’s language” does not violate the Third Commandment, what does? In a word, irreverence. Personally I take greater offense at references to the Sovereign Lord of creation as “the good Man above” or “the Man upstairs” than to the four-letter-words that FB friends will use (though I still sometimes “de-friend” them!). That reference suggests to me that He just an average Joe that I might “shoot the breeze” with over coffee/coke/beer or sandwich. Such an impression has reduced Him to a common position.

I am also concerned in our world today at all of the hints and suggestions that the God of Israel is no different than any other religion’s god. It is common today in much music/conversation to refer to Him as simply “God” rather than to Him as “Lord” (implying submission) or to “Jesus” (referring to His revelation of Himself). I am not attributing any improper motivation in this but in a society that has interpreted grace to be license and blended the holy with the common, I have to wonder about the ways in which we refer to the Lord we worship. Sometimes I wonder if an adherent to some other religion could sing our worship songs, substituting in their minds “Allah” or “Buddha” in place of “God.” Is our worship distinctively Christian? Have we substituted something empty for the name of the God of Israel?

After spending nine and a half chapters explaining the supremacy of Christ over the entire religious system of the Jews, the writer to the Hebrews wrote, “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, … let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (10:19-22, ESV). I like to read the word “confidence” as “audacity” because it implies to our modern minds that He is NOT just like the rest of us. He is substantive and separate.

 

Picturing the God of Israel

“‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex. 20:4-6, ESV). 

We are a very visual society, and they say that a picture is worth a thousand words. Thousands of images float through our minds each day, spurred on by TV, internet, magazines, billboards and a host of other outlets. Early pagan worship made use of images carved into trees or charms on jewelry. Not all images are objects of worship. God told the Hebrews to bind the Scripture on their hands and foreheads and to put them on the doorposts of their homes as a reminder to keep the truth always before them (Deut. 6:8-9). To this day in some orthodox Jewish communities the men wear phylacteries in an attempt to follow this command.

In some ways images stimulate the imagination to more imagery, as the pornography “industry” can attest. It is no accident that many of the idolatrous images of paganism were intended to excite the sexual imaginations of the worshipers. Political ideology can also be promoted by carefully selecting images (or not). As I write this, there is a big flap in our culture war over a reference by our President to a street gang that is responsible for some heinous crimes. Those that are against the President’s position denounce his statement that they are “animals” by appealing to the image of God in every human being, never using any pictures of these people. On the  other hand, those that take the President’s side show pictures of these people who have tattooed every square inch of their faces. They are seen (typically) as part of riotous scenes and the narrative tells of the sickening crimes for which they are responsible. Happily the reporters refrain from images of their mutilated victims.

But in other ways images limit our imaginations. A popular picture of Jesus that I recall from my youth portrayed Him to be a winsome and gentle Shepherd, caring for the lambs in His charge. That image is utterly irreconcilable to the picture of Him that comes to my mind when I read of Him driving out the money-changers from the Temple (which He did twice, if you read the texts carefully). I cannot conceive of this gentle Teacher and compassionate Friend pronouncing the woes upon the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23. If this picture of Him dominated my understanding of Him, there would be several facets of His personality that I would miss. It is not by accident that no picture of Him has remained from the era in which He walked the earth (if one ever existed).

When God (through Moses) forbade the use of images in true worship it was for the sake of stimulating the whole of our imaginations concerning His character. He didn’t want one image of Him to dominate our understanding. That happens when people overemphasize one aspect of His character to the exclusion of another. That happens anyway, by the way, but it would be even more prevalent if there were pictures of Jesus available to our sight.

The passage quoted above indicates that the jealousy of God is incited when we worship a false image of Him. That false image could involve any degree of misrepresentation. The warning that His wrath would be visited on succeeding generations for failing to follow this command indicates how earnest He is in this matter. The point is that God cares deeply what we think of Him, that it should be true to His revelation of Himself, and that we would take care to never distort the revelation that He has made of Himself in the Scripture.

The Primacy of the God of Israel

“I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.  You shall have no other gods before Me” (Deuteronomy 5:6-7, NASB). 

For many people in our modern society, the Ten Commandments seem distant and for another era. We acknowledge that they are foundational to our system of laws in America, but they don’t seem to have any bearing upon our daily lives any more. The Culture War in which we are currently embroiled has made the display of them a point of contention with conservatives fighting to preserve them and progressives wanting them to be removed. Sadly, however, many conservatives want them to remain only because they have a place in our history. They are less concerned about their having a place in our hearts. As a society we wantonly violate them — even if we acknowledge their historical importance.

The first Commandment tells us that it is our responsibility to hold the God of Israel FIRST in our lives. No god is to have a higher value to us. Yet, for much of American society, there are many things that we value more than the God of Israel.

One of our gods is success. We prize success so much that we will sacrifice truth before it. We justify “bending” the truth even if we don’t break it, but David told us that the man of integrity, the man who is true to the God of Israel, will “swear to his own hurt and not change” (Ps. 15:4) Success comes in many forms — popularity, power, influence. It’s not by accident that so many vie to be the “American Idol” with all of the popularity, material prosperity, and influence it accords. Success is even more important than the God of Israel in the contemporary church. It is more important today to appear successful than it is to be faithful to the revealed Truth of Scripture.

Another god of America is ease. As long as it is easy, we will follow Jesus, but when following Him is uncomfortable, many fall away. This was Jesus’ point in Mark 4:5-6 and 16-17 in the Parable of the Soils (some call it “The Parable of the Sower”). When the seed is planted in rocky soil, the heat of the sun burns up the plant because the root has no depth. The heat of the sun is illustrative of the affliction that ALWAYS comes to believers in Jesus.

Another soil is the thorny soil of our god of pleasure. It is closely related to the god of ease. Hedonism has invaded the church in subtle ways. For many today, ministry is no different than entertainment. We switch churches as readily as we switch channels on our TVs. Paul spoke of the coming time when men would choose a church because the teaching “tickled” the ears (2 Tim 4:3) instead of being true. What Paul saw as a future expectation is now a present reality.

Relationships, for many, are more valued than the God of Israel. Jesus Himself told us that no one is worthy of being His disciple if he is not willing to put Him before family (Matt 19:29, et.al.). Some parents of unbelieving children stay home from worship when the kids are visiting rather than declaring their allegiance to the Lord over their children. How many, in defiance of the clear commands of Scripture, marry unbelievers thinking that they “can’t live without him/her”? Invariably, that relationship draws the believer away from the Lord rather than drawing the unbeliever to Him. This idolatry is not just true of young people and parents. Some preachers fear offending certain people in their congregations more than they fear offending the God of Israel by compromising the revealed truth of Scripture.

When my children were small we had a big back yard surrounded by a privacy fence that kept them in and danger out. The Ten Commandments function in that same way for our society. There is great freedom within their boundaries, but much danger when they are torn down. Admittedly, when my children were small, they knew they needed parental permission to venture outside the boundaries of the fence. We moved from that home before they challenged that expectation. But in this society the Church has failed to stand against the challenge to these boundaries. Perhaps that failure is because we are not sure we believe it ourselves. Whatever the reason, we need to repent and return Him to His proper place — first in our lives. 

A Credible Truth

Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead? (Acts 26:8, ESV) 

When the Apostle Paul was defending himself before King Agrippa in Acts 26, he explained that he was on trial because he believed what the Jewish people down through the centuries had believed — that God had spoken to men from outside of this world. Then he asked what in that context was a rhetorical question, “Why is it thought incredible that God raises the dead?”

Although this was rhetorical (meaning that the answer was obvious) when Paul spoke it before King Agrippa, it is no longer so. There are reasons in our day why many ask this question. 

The idea of God raising the dead lacks credibility in our day because we have been indoctrinated with a philosophy called Naturalism. Only natural causes are allowed. Philosophically we have declared that anything outside of nature cannot be considered. Evolutionary teaching dominates our public education because the alternative requires something outside of nature to have created us. Somehow, by ignoring the question of how life could be produced from non-life, the various versions of evolution can be seen as naturalistic, therefore allowed in our society, therefore credible. A God creating outside of natural experience must not be credible — according to the prevailing philosophy.

Another aspect of that philosophy of Naturalism is Uniformitarianism. Naturalistic scientists have determined therefore that the world is billions of years old because they have observed the aging process of natural things for the relatively few years that the technology to do so has been available. They then assume that things have always aged at the same, uniform, rate. But what if a worldwide flood did occur (for example)? Would not the pressure of the water skew the rates of change? What if God created with an appearance of age? The assumption of uniform rate of change denies the miraculous intervention by an outside force and makes in-credible any miracle, including the miracle of resurrection.

But if there really is a God — if there really is Someone outside of our world who in His own time and in His own ways chooses to step into space and time — how could His doing so be considered in-credible? In fact, if He is there, it would be incredible to believe that He would NOT step into our world in some way. If He were to be silent to a world He created, it would imply that He had no purpose in mind when He created, much less that He cared for His creation. But if He had a purpose, it is only natural that He would step in at times and make His will known, just as a responsible parent would do for his child.

This is what Christians in every age have believed — that down through history the God of creation has spoken to direct His people, culminating in the final revelation of the promised Messiah, Jesus. The writer to the Hebrews says it this way: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…” (ESV). 

The fact that so many in our day find the resurrection of Jesus incredible to believe is a demonstration of the philosophical shift that has taken place in recent years (that is, in the past 200-300 years, perhaps longer). That philosophical shift has led many to re-define the meaning of resurrection so that now it is often preached as the emergence of the perennial flowers each spring. It is too incredible to believe that a dead Man now lives.

Paul understood, and the true Church has preached through the years, that if Jesus did not rise from the dead, we have no hope for a life beyond this one. If you read the other speeches of Paul in the book of Acts, you will observe that in every case it is the teaching of the Resurrection that is the sticking point that prevents belief in Jesus. The Resurrection is not only credible — it is the foundation of all we hope for.

Can I Hear God’s Voice?

When I was first a believer in Jesus I had the tendency to think of the will of God in terms of location or vocation. Where would he want me to be? What did He want me to do with my life? To a certain extent, of course, these things were related. But a study of Scripture revealed very little connection between the will of God and those ideas. The will of God is for the repentance and conversion of the lost (1 Tim 2:4); my good works, as a testimony to Christ’s wisdom and truth before an unbelieving world (1 Pet 2:15); a holy lifestyle (1 Thess 4:3); and my thankfulness (1 Thess 5:18). Beyond these, the Scripture says very little about God’s will.

Recently, as I have revisited the question, I have considered not “What is God’s will?” but “How do I hear from Him?” There is MUCH in the Scripture related to that question. Ultimately the answer comes back to the Scripture for David wrote, “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps 119:105). 

In the Biblical record, however, I am struck by the number of times that people think they are hearing from God when they are not. Job’s friend Eliphaz had a vision in the night in which he thought he heard the advice that Job needed in his affliction. The text, however, reads eerily (Job 4:12f) and describes a shadowy form rather than a clear person. The advice given seems right, but is rejected by Job as “half-truth.”  Personally I believe that the vision was of a demonic spirit and not the Lord. Eliphaz’ counsel along with the advice of the rest of his friends was ultimately rejected by God (Job 42:7).

Even more confusing is the story of Balaam in Numbers 22-24. He follows what God tells him and then is rebuked for doing it. He speaks a blessing upon Israel three times, but in the end is killed along with Israel’s enemies because he counseled the Moabites to tempt Israel into sexual immorality (Num 31:8, 16). Did Balaam listen to God or to Satan? The best answer I can come to is that he heard from both but did not have the discernment to know which was which. The only time, it seems, that he clearly understood that it was God’s voice that he was hearing is when his donkey spoke to him!

Certainly we recognize that those who make no claim to worship the true and living God  will be deceived as was the representative of the Assyrian king before Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:25), but our dilemma is heightened when we realize that Satan tried to use Scripture to tempt Jesus (Matt 4:6) and can disguise himself as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14).

So, if one of Satan’s tactics is to confuse the voice of God with his own, we are back to the question, “How do we discern the voice of God in our world?” Godly men through the years have offered the advice that when Scripture, circumstances, and the advice of trusted counselors all are aligned, we can be confident in the Lord’s leading. 

The problem with this, however, is that waiting for that alignment often doesn’t fit my timetable. I get impatient waiting for the microwave to reheat my coffee. My time is too important. I get impatient with the driver who is going the speed limit on our town’s side streets (admittedly, those speed limits are often set way too low!). I am used to instant communication, instant information, instant service. I consider myself to be holy when I spend fifteen minutes of my morning in a “sweet hour of prayer.” 

I admit that I don’t really know what the Psalmist means when he tells us repeatedly to “wait for the Lord.” Why didn’t Moses feel angry or guilty over his wasted time when he went up to the mountain to get the Law and it was seven days later before God finally spoke to him (Ex 24:15-16)? I know that I would have.

The result of that “wasted time” was that he heard from the Lord; God had clearly spoken; in the end, that was all that mattered. Perhaps that’s the answer to our struggle as Christians to hear and discern the voice of God in our day — slow down, meditate on the Scripture, and just wait. He promises to “instruct [us] in the way [we] should go” (Ps 32:8).

Listening to His Voice

“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting” (Acts 2:1-2, ESV).

Fifty days after the festival of Passover, the Jewish people celebrated another holiday — Pentecost. At this festival Jews from all over the world came to the Temple at Jerusalem. Traditionally Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread commemorated the freedom that the Hebrew people enjoyed having been released from Egyptian bondage; Pentecost (aka, the Feast of Weeks) commemorated the giving of the Law (or Torah) at Mt. Sinai.

It happened on the first Pentecost after Jesus rose and ascended that the Apostles and the other followers of Jesus went together to the Temple for the service commemorating the giving of the Law when the Lord broke through, coming upon them to fill them with the Holy Spirit. Luke recorded that it came upon them “suddenly” — unexpectedly, not according to any natural laws.

Many people deny any historical connection between the Jewish Festival and the Christian experience at Pentecost. In their minds, the filling of the Holy Spirit was merely coincidental to the Feast of Pentecost. While that may be true historically, it is not true philosophically. The giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai was a record — in time and space — of the revealed Truth of the God of Israel, who created the world and all that is in it. For the first time in all of the history of mankind, when Moses received the Law, men could see in written form who the Lord was and what He expected of them. Between the giving of the Torah at Sinai and the ministry of Jesus, the Lord broke through many times to reveal more of Himself and His will for His people. These were unpredictable events, sometimes through the mundane recording of the history of His people, sometimes through the intimately personal poetry of men like David, Solomon or Job, and sometimes through the fiery preaching or writings of the prophets. None of these was predictable, yet to the listening ear — attuned to His voice — these revelations were clearly from Him.

When He broke through at Pentecost, the Lord was reiterating that He was still revealing Himself, this time writing the Law upon the hearts of men through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Jesus Himself had told the Apostles at the Last Supper (seven weeks earlier) that the Holy Spirit would “guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13, ESV).

It may appear to be coincidental historically, but the Lord’s plan was to connect the revelation in Scripture with ministry of the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Peter (who was at the Last Supper and the Day of Pentecost) saw this connection when he wrote that the Scripture was given to men who were moved by the Holy Spirit (see 2 Pet. 1:20-21).

The importance of the Scripture cannot be overemphasized in our day when most people who claim to be Christians rely on their fickle feelings to discern God’s Truth. He still desires to break into space and time to reveal His will to men, just as He “suddenly” broke through on the day of Pentecost. He does not reveal new truth, for in the wisdom of God the canon of Scripture closed after the Apostolic era, but He will still guide us through the wisdom that the Holy Spirit moved men to record.

Our job, just like His people in every generation, is to have a tender heart to listen to what He is truly saying, not just what we want to hear from Him. Sometimes, like in Acts 2, He accompanies His revealed truth with signs and miracles; sometimes He speaks in the still small voice, as He spoke to Elijah (1 Kings 19:12), but He never violates what He revealed previously. Either way, His voice will be clear and unmistakable to those truly listening and He will delight to lead us, His people, in the time and space in which we live. 

The Law Perishes

Disaster comes upon disaster; rumor follows rumor. They seek a vision from the prophet, while the law perishes from the priest and counsel from the elders (Ezekiel 7:26, ESV).

The Lord has clearly met me on a handful of occasions in my life. Usually they were epiphanies that caught me by surprise. On several other occasions I can honestly say that He clearly gave me instruction without any accompanying emotion. I am also old enough to recall times when I have asked Him questions about direction or other decisions that needed to be made and have just received silence. In those times I have yearned for those clear revelations from Him. I suspect that my experience is not isolated.

Ezekiel ministered to ancient Judah as they were preparing for (or perhaps already experiencing) the hardship of the Babylonian Captivity. Because of their idolatry and their failure to heed the warnings of God’s prophets down through the years, He brought judgment upon them in the form of Nebuchadnezzar and the dominion of the Babylonian Empire. When the king of Judah resisted Nebuchadnezzar, the Jewish people were carried off to Babylon for seventy years. That judgment ended the organized government of Israel/Judah (until AD 1948) but in God’s providence, and in keeping with His promise to King David centuries earlier, the ethnic connection continued until David’s heir — Jesus — could come as Messiah.

The precise fulfillment of hundreds of prophecies concerning Messiah is amazing, but not the point of this blog. The point of the blog is the mindset of the people of Judah as they were being warned of the impending judgment. According to the verse cited above, they were more concerned with getting an experience than they were with listening to and obeying the Law. Yet it was that Law that would help them avoid the judgment (see Deut 32:47); it was that same Law that would deliver them from the judgment once it came (Ps. 119:50); and it was that same Law that would give them the hope of God’s presence and His restorative grace in the midst of it (Ps 19:7). Sadly, though, “[it perished] from the priest and … the elders.” The religious leaders of the day didn’t teach it or heed it themselves.

Despite our marvelous technology, we are not different from the people of ancient Judah. Our world of convenience has trained us to expect drive through service from the Lord. We want the immediate gratification of an emotional experience without giving attention to the relationship He wants to establish with us as we meditate upon what He has already revealed in His Word. Ultimately, though, we know that He will require us to repent and change (just as He expected this from the ancient Judeans) and many of us would rather not. It would be so much easier to bask in the glow of an emotional experience than to dig out of Scripture what He has already revealed, especially when we expect to hear hard commands.

Christian orthodoxy has long taught that the canon of Scripture is closed. All that the Lord has intended to speak to us in this world has been given to us in the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments. We will delight to learn more in heaven, but for now, this revelation is sufficient. It’s a joy in this life, however, when He stoops to highlight a truth to us that He has told someone else in the Scripture. But He doesn’t have to stoop to our weakness in this way. if we would just read His Word, He will communicate regularly to us through it.

Watching For Signs of Life


They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us (1 John 2:19, ESV).

Slowly over the past several months (now into a couple of years) I have been cleaning out a brushy overgrown area between my house and my neighbor’s. I have tried to preserve a few shoots that have started there such as a couple of small redbud trees and some small Rose of Sharon shoots that have grown up off of a common root. Amazingly, despite my very brown thumb, they have shown signs of life! Last summer, however, I noticed that one of the Rose of Sharon shoots was not upright. Apparently a deer had broken it.

I couldn’t tell if there was still some life to the shoot or not, so I took some string and tied it to the remaining upright shoots, hoping that any life still within it would help to heal the break, but I have my doubts. The real test will be this spring (if spring ever comes) when the leaves and blossoms appear.

In several places in Scripture the Bible describes the life of the believer with an illustration from horticulture (see Psalm 1; Jer. 17; John 15, et. al.). The life of the believer is nourished from a root system that draws vitality from the soil (usually). In some plants the inter-connectedness of the roots stabilizes the plant just as the believer feeds off of the common faith of other believers in the church. In other words, we need the other believers in the church to be strong in the faith. But what happens when a tender shoot is broken off, when someone leaves the fellowship because of a nuance in doctrine, a sin, or a conflict over something trivial?

The Apostle John describes such a scenario in which an apparent believer leaves a congregation in the passage quoted above. We are tempted to ask if they were really believers in Christ to begin with, but that is not John’s point and we are not privy to their inner thoughts. John’s point is that they appeared to be alive and connected to the same Root (Jesus), but they left. He says, “Let them go; they were really not of us.”

As fallen people, it is natural for us to proudly tug on our lapels and congratulate ourselves on our steadfastness, usually imagining that it is because of our righteousness. May the Lord guard us from this sin and humble us with a truly repentant spirit, helping us to recognize our own areas of doctrinal or interpersonal error. The righteous don’t always win a church conflict.

The enemy of our souls also recognizes that this same fallenness makes us susceptible to a false guilt where we condemn ourselves for communicating an attitude of condemnation toward the person who left our fellowship. Maybe we did; maybe we didn’t. Happily it is the same genuinely repentant spirit of self-examination that can deliver us from Satan’s condemnation (see Rom 8:1).

As believers in Jesus, it is our purpose to seek to bind up the wounds of the brokenhearted. Hopefully, if there is genuine life in the wounded friend, they will return to the Shepherd and Guardian of their souls, even if they don’t return to our fellowship. The real test, however, will be seen in the blossoms appearing in the spring as a demonstration of the life of Christ that produces genuine fruitfulness.

A Post-Church Society

“…so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love…” (Ephesians 3:17, ESV).

I have been conscious for years that we live in a post-Christian world. The values of American society that used to be rooted in a Judeo-Christian worldview have eroded into a largely secular philosophy. This has happened in the last sixty years, but it has been amplified by the postmodernism of the past 25 years. Recently, however, I heard our world described as a “post-church” society.

The post-Christian moniker alarms me, but God’s people have always thrived when there has been a sharp distinction between our values and those of the world. I admit, however, that I am more disturbed by the “post-church” label. It seems that many today think that they can meet and be close to Christ without joining with a community of believers.

When Paul wrote to the Christians in Ephesus, he included two classic prayers, one in the first chapter and one in the third chapter. Unlike our prayers, they had little to do with someone’s health concerns or financial struggles. One phrase of the prayer in chapter 3 calls upon God to cause the people be “rooted and grounded in love.”

The imagery suggests a plant that grows because of the healthy soil in which it is planted. It draws nourishment from what surrounds it. If it is not in an environment that is conducive to healthy development, it will shrivel up and die.

When I lived in South Carolina many years ago I tried to duplicate my dad’s spectacular garden which was in downstate Illinois. My attempt was an utter failure because the sandy soil had few nutrients, especially compared to my dad’s garden which he planted near the old barn that had been where he had raised his hogs.

The technology of our day is a wonderful thing, but is no substitute for the rich wealth of the inter-generational relationships developed in the local church, especially in a church that feeds upon the richness of the Scripture. Yet, more and more, I hear of people who are turning away from the church. As I grow older, I understand the stress of people who tune in to some form of media because their physical condition limits their ability to assemble with the community of believers. But I am more disturbed by those who choose their “Lone Ranger” Christianity because the Church has been linked to right-wing politics or, worse, because they cannot forgive a hurt they experienced in the church in times past.

The Church has never been perfect; there have always been conflicts. Nuances in teaching can be sources of conflict, and hurtful comments over music, decorations, or architecture will always exist. Martin Luther is reported to have said, “When the devil was kicked out of heaven, he landed in the choir loft.” Even in Luther’s day, apparently, there was disagreement over the church music.

But the Church is the soil in which the nutritional benefits of the Word are best assimilated into a believer’s heart. It is here, in an atmosphere of forgiveness and compassion, that the Lord can create healthy disciples. Here, He can encourage us, rebuke us when necessary, and strengthen us to grow in the harsh environment of a hostile world. Without the Church (yes, and the Word), Christians shrivel up and die.