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Thanksgiving and Ordering our Way

“You shall understand this, ones who forget God, lest I tear you and there be nothing to deliver: he glorifies me who makes a sacrifice of thanksgiving and who orders his way; I will show him the salvation of God.

(Psalm 50:22-23)

It comes across as a broken record, but lest we forget the significance of this psalm for us today, recall that these words are spoken to God’s covenant people — not to the pagans. Yet, God calls his own, “those who forget God.” How have they forgotten God? As we have seen, they are going through the motions of sacrifice and ritual but their hearts and their lives to not reflect their devotion to the one they claim to serve and their actions look like the actions of the pagans.

How appropriate these words are for the church as well. How often the church behaves as if they do not believe that God exists. How often non-believers in our communities act with more compassion and morality than folks in the church? How often the old axiom is true that the Church kills its wounded rather than caring for them. How often it is that the conservative church  rightly protects its doctrine and utterly neglects living that doctrine out in life. How often the people of God behave more like goats than sheep.

And so, God issues a warning in these final verses of the psalm. Do this, he says, lest you be torn to shreds and there be nothing left of you to redeem — fearful words spoken by God on high. They are a reminder of the unfaithful prophet who was not to eat or drink in Israel yet disobeyed (see 1 Kings 13) or of the young boys who mocked Elisha (see 2 Kings 2:23-25) and it is also a reminder of the punishment for failing to fulfill the covenant (Genesis 15:7-11) — that is, one’s life be forfeit. God is saying that if your life does not reflect these two things that you are an imposter amongst the people of God’s grace and are thus deserving of death for your wickedness. Ought then we not pay close attention to what these two things are?

What are those two things? We are called to make a sacrifice of thanksgiving and to order our ways. The latter command is the more obvious of the two. How do we order our ways but than by obedience to the law of God. Of what is our sacrifice of thanksgiving? While the book of Leviticus does prescribe thanksgiving offerings (see Leviticus 7:12-15; 22:29), more often than not, especially once we are in the New Testament context where altar sacrifices have been abolished by the sacrifice of Christ, you find the sacrifice of thanksgiving in the context of giving God praise. And thus, twice in this psalm we are called to praise God with thanksgiving as well as in Psalm 107:22 and in Psalm 116:17. Jonah too, speaks of making a sacrifice of thanksgiving with his voice (Jonah 2:9) and thus the author of Hebrews instructs us that we are to offer a sacrifice of praise as the fruit of our lips (Hebrews 13:15). 

The question with which we are left then, is, “Are we doing those two things?” And recognize that this is a question to be posed to the church as a whole. Are we doing that both individually and corporately. And if not, then shall we repent? If we are the true church, we will. 

Evangelism and Discipleship: And/Both not Either/Or

“Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and stay on with all of you for your advancement and joy of the faith.”
(Philippians 1:25)

Here is a significant idea that is often missed in the life of the church and even of believers. We have been impressed so strongly with the call to evangelize (an essential idea) that we often forget that we are also called to disciple (another essential idea). How often we spend all our efforts on evangelism and then forget that evangelism is only the first step of a life-long process. It is interesting, while evangelism should include a relationship, it does not require a relationship to be present (the Holy Spirit is awakening the person to faith and belief anyway!). But for discipleship to happen, relationships are required. I wonder if people don’t engage in discipleship because they are afraid of committing the time or transparency that a genuine relationship requires. It is easy to stay busy and by doing so, keep people at arm’s distance. It is entirely a different thing to engage with people in meaningful ways over a long period of time…yet that is to what we are called.

And for Paul, as he contemplates God’s design for him, he recognizes that the growth of the people of Philippi in their faith is far more important than his personal comfort and satisfaction of leaving life in this fallen world and being present with Christ eternally. Thus, convinced of their need for him, he is convinced that God’s design is that he stay on to serve as a “discipler” for their good. Were we only to take a similar mindset toward one another. Were our churches, even, to emphasize discipleship as we ought and were our church members to value being discipled as we all ought, how different a culture we would live in today! Yet, culture is transient and thus can be changed if we begin at home and change how we approach the idea of “being disciples” and discipling others. May Paul’s mindset here be our own…and all to the glory of Christ.

Pursuing the Gospel, not Self

“Now, I want you to know, brothers, that which has happened to me is rather for the advancement of the Gospel;”

(Philippians 1:12)

Paul’s focus here and always is on the advancement of the Gospel. He is willing to suffer anything and lose everything, and still call it good, so long as the Gospel goes forth. For Paul, every encounter, good or ill, is an opportunity to share the Gospel with those who are perishing. And oh, how far short of Paul’s example we generally fall.

How easy it is for us, in today’s age, to forget that we know the answer to the question that people are asking in the depths of their soul. We know that there is a God and that he is the one that gives meaning to life. We know that though we all fall woefully short of the standard of perfection that God sets, he sent his Son, Jesus, to live amongst us, show us the Father’s character in himself, and then to die in our place that we might stand in his place in judgement…we might be viewed as righteous sons, not disobedient rebels. We know that there is life after death and that the only way to the Father is through the Son and all who reject the Son will be cast into the fires of Hell…righteous judgment for a life of sin and rebellion against the Father. We know the Truth of these matters and we have also experienced the life that comes from being indwell by the Spirit of God…why do we shy away from sharing this with others? Why do we not use every opportunity as a tool to advance the Gospel?

Sadly, our tendency is to be consumed with ourselves. When things are going wrong…maybe we are hospitalized for something…we tend to focus on our suffering rather than use the interaction with Doctors, Nurses, and other care-givers as a chance to share the Gospel. When things are going well, perhaps when we are making plans for a wedding or graduation, we tend to be focused again on the details of our own celebration rather than in using this event to evangelize guests or those who we are hiring to cater, decorate, or provide other services. Loved ones, we do this not because of God’s design for us, we do this because of sin. Paul sets another model for us, one where self is secondary to Gospel and where even though he has suffered and has been falsely imprisoned, he is still using these events to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Will you, this day, covenant to start seeing all your interactions as opportunities to share the Gospel with others instead of serving self? Such is the model that Paul sets before us.

A Time to Keep Silence and a Time to Speak

“But Peter followed him from a distance up to the court of the High Priest and going in he sat with the subordinates to witness the end.”

(Matthew 26:58)

 

“And Peter, from a distance, followed him as far as the courtyard of the High Priest and he was sitting with the subordinates and warming himself by the fire.”

(Mark 14:54)

 

“And when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat down in the midst of them.”

(Luke 22:55)

 

“The servants and the subordinates were standing around a charcoal fire they had made because it was cold and they were warming themselves. And Peter was also in that place and warming himself.”

(John 18:18)

 

Probably the obvious question to ask is with whom did Peter sit? Matthew and Mark speak of subordinates and John adds servants, but the question is, who are these people gathered in the middle of the night in Caiaphas’ court. Luke implies that these were amongst those who arrested Jesus, leading some English translations to render these verses as Peter sitting with the “guards.” Yet, the cohort (the official soldiers from the Temple) seems to have either departed or faded into the background for a variety of reasons, leaving us more likely with the rabble-rousers that made up the mob that accompanied the Cohort from the temple. Needless to say that this crowd is not a casual crowd and they are anything but neutral to the events that are transpiring.

Often this courtyard scene with Peter’s denial is portrayed as if Peter is being asked innocent questions about his association with Jesus and that his denials are out of an unfounded fear of what might happen. I don’t think that is what is implied here, though. These questions come from a very hostile crowd that is wanting to see blood — thus, while we still might speak of Peter’s cowardice to follow Jesus even to prison or death (Luke 22:33), prison or death most certainly would have been the end of this night for Peter had he spoken boldly of his connection with Jesus. Peter had escaped capture in the garden just hours earlier (if that long!), it is sure that this escape was fresh in his mind and he knew the climate of the people with whom he would be mixing in Caiaphas’ courtyard. Danger was all around.

It should be noted that some English versions translate Peter as standing by the fire while the synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) portray him as sitting. This objection, if it be a real objection, can be answered in two ways. The simplest way is to recognize that Peter first approaches the fire standing up and remains standing so long as those around him are standing. Then, as Caiaphas takes his position for the trial, people settle down and sit. Peter, not wanting to stand out chooses to sit as well. The second way — if it be a way at all — is to note that the word that John uses, i¢sthmi (histami), can simply mean to be located in a particular spot (standing or sitting). Thus, there is no real contradiction between John’s account and the account of the other four evangelists.

While these questions may be curious, there are two clauses in these verses that are very striking. The first is how Mark refers to the fire around which Peter and the subordinates are gathered. Instead of using the ordinary word for “fire,” which in Greek is pu◊r (pur), he chooses to use the word, fw◊ß (phos) — “light.” One might be tempted to dismiss this as a curiosity, that perhaps Mark was simply looking for a different word to use for variety until one points out that this is the only time Mark uses the term fw◊ß (phos) in his entire Gospel. Furthermore, this is the only occurrence in the Greek New Testament where the term fw◊ß (phos) is used to refer to a fire.

One still might be tempted to suggest that Mark is just referring to the light that is emitted from a fire to foreshadow the fact that Peter would be recognized by those around him. Of course, this is presuming that this fire is the only source of light in the courtyard, which seems to be an odd assumption as oil lamps likely would have filled the space with light. A better answer is to recall that Mark is traditionally understood to have served as Peter’s scribe in Jerusalem, and thus this gospel was written under Peter’s oversight. Thus, there seems to be the suggestion here that the one thing Peter does not intend to do (at least initially) is to hide. His presence by the fire, in other words, is not just to warm himself (though that is one of the reasons), but is also to be present “in the light” and not in the midst of shadows. Of course, Peter’s nerve is lost as the proceedings go on and he realizes that he is noticed, but it is likely that at least at first, Peter’s intent was to be visible.

The second thing of particular interest is Matthew’s statement that Peter followed to see “the end.” The end of what? If Matthew is referring to “the end” of Jesus’ life, could it have been that Peter expected Jesus to be tried and executed even before dawn? Could Matthew have been speaking of “the end” with respect to their pilgrimage from the Sea of Galilee to Caiaphas’ courts? This latter explanation seems to be a better answer to the question. And, while likely not “the end” as Peter anticipated at the time, it indeed was the end — the end of Peter being only a follower and time for Peter to stand up and lead — though that final aspect would not be fulfilled until Pentecost. Solomon writes that to all things there is a season — for Peter (and for the other 10 who remained faithful), the time of following Jesus as he walked and taught in this earth had come to an end. Soon, the time would be for him to speak — and speak boldly he would.

A Place of Refuge

“God is to us a place of refuge and strength;

A helper in distress he is very much found to be.”

(Psalm 46:2 {verse 1 in English Bibles})

 

While the wording of the second line of this verse is a little awkward in English, I rendered it so in the hopes of preserving the original Hebrew word order. Often, when the Hebrews were wanting to add emphasis, they would use what we today call a “chiastic structure.” So called for the Greek letter c (chi) which is shaped like an “x,” as you move from line one to line two, there is a repetition of ideas in reverse order — if you assigned letters to the ideas, the first line would go “A, B” and the second line, “B’, A’.”

This verse is a great illustration of this Hebrew approach to writing. The psalmist begins by making the statement, “God is to us a place of refuge and strength.” The first concept is God, he would be “letter A” as we approach the verse. The second concept is “a place of refuge and strength” would be letter “B.” Were we to hear this statement about God for the first time, we might be inclined to ask ourselves, “what then does it mean for God to be our place of refuge and our strength?” The psalmist answers us in the second line of this verse, though he reverses the order to drive the point home with emphasis. To be a place of refuge means that he is a helper in distress (B’) and then the pronoun (he — which refers to God) is placed in the back end of the line (A’).

Okay, so one might be tempted to say, “that is nice, but unless I happen to be studying Hebrew poetry, why is that important?” And that would be a good question. My answer is in two parts. First and on the most basic level, this is the word of God and he has chosen to give us his word in lots of different styles and forms — in this case, in poetic form. This word is designed to equip us to do every good work in life (2 Timothy 3:16-17). It should follow, then, that the better we understand this word that God has given us, the better we will live out our lives to the honor and glory of God in Christ Jesus.

On a more personal note, though, think of the Bible as a love letter from God to ourselves. When we receive a letter from one we love and adore, we savor every word and dash that our lover has given us. We read it over and over and over again and dwell on each idea that is expressed. Why not also do this with God’s word? Is there any better love letter that we might receive? Is there any person who loves us more greatly or more deeply that God does? Oh, beloved, immerse yourself in God’s word — drench your life in it that you may grow richly in it and dwell upon the author of that word even more closely and deeply every day of your life.

And as we move back toward the words of this verse, note one more thing in this description. God is our helper in distress. The word that the psalmist uses here is h∂rDx (tsarah), which in Hebrew is the polar opposite of salvation. Thus the psalmist is not just speaking of troubles with rambunctious children or an irritating neighbor; the psalmist is speaking of everything being wrecked in his life, not only physically, but spiritually as well. The psalmist is not crying out these words because he has had a bad day, but because he desperately needs someone to save him…to deliver him from his wretched state. It is in this context and especially in this context that God shows himself to be a place of refuge and strength to the weak. This is what the Apostle Paul relates as well to the church in Corinth. God had sent an evil spirit to torment Paul and he had pleaded with God to remove the tormenting from him:

“For this, I urged the Lord three times in order that it might withdraw from me. Yet, he told me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you; for power is completed in weakness.’ Therefore, with pleasure I would boast in my weakness in order that the power of Christ might rest upon me. Therefore I will pleasure in weakness, in violence, in trouble, in persecution, and in distress for Christ — for when I am weak, I am strong.”

(2 Corinthians 12:8-10)

The Culture Wars

In Christian circles, we talk a lot about the culture wars and at least vaguely, I think, most people have some sense of what is meant by that. As we look around us, the western culture has grown more secular and less markedly “Christian” as a whole and the culture war is the crusade that many have engaged themselves in to turn back the cultural influence toward one that is more markedly Christian. And, as one who has spoken and written on the importance of Christians living out their faith in every aspect of life (both inside of the church and outside of the church), this cause is one toward which I am very sympathetic. Having said that, can we talk?

First of all, I am not entirely convinced that we are going about things the right way in terms of what we are trying to achieve. Is it the culture we are called by Jesus to redeem or is it the people we are called to evangelize? One might respond that both go hand in hand, and they do, but which comes first, the chicken or the egg? The group that would broadly be defined as leading the culture war would argue that as we see a change in the culture, we will see a change in the people. There is a certain degree of truth to this line of thinking as it would seem that most people will go with the flow and do what is acceptable to the culture.

When the “Blue Laws” were in place, people’s lives revolved around church because there was little else to do. There is no question as to the sociological benefit of these laws as even the most basic moral teaching of the Bible affects people’s lives and behavior. Yet, when the Blue Laws were repealed, church attendance dropped, which indicates that the percentage who left were only there because of the cultural expectations upon them and not because they had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus did say that in the final judgment there will be many who will cry out, “Lord, Lord!” and to whom Jesus will say, “Get away from me, I never knew you” (Matthew 7:21-23). So, did the “Christianization” of the culture build the church? The church as an institution perhaps was built up, but the word “Church,” in a Biblical sense, normally refers to a body of believers that have been called out from the world and into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Arguably, then, the church was not built up by simply existing within a Christian culture.

It should be noted that we use the term “culture” in a variety of different ways. In addition, we talk about cultures and sub-cultures within a given culture. There are also various “cultural expressions” that people may embrace as well as the “culture” of certain pieces of music, art, or literature. In addition, when you are sick and go to the doctor, he or she may take a swab and apply it to the back of your throat to take a “culture” to see what kind of bacteria may be developing in your body. So, when we talk about a “Culture War,” what kind of culture are we talking about and is that even the proper term that we ought to be throwing about?

Typically, when speaking of a “Culture War,” we are referring (as do sociologists) to those shared norms, ethics, linguistic expressions, histories, folk-stories, values, and beliefs that bind a group of people together. We might talk broadly of the “Western” culture that has been dominated by the thought of the Greek Philosophers and Latin thinkers, the European Renaissance, and the Christian religion (as this was the dominant influence in the development of Europe for well over 1,000 years.

We might narrow the discussion down further and talk about the “American” culture or even about the evangelical sub-culture within America, but bottom line, it still gets back to these shared beliefs and histories that bind a people together. But how do these beliefs get propagated? Certainly they are not innate as cultural expression varies widely throughout the world. They are taught then, by one generation to the next, either intentionally or unintentionally, by those who hold said beliefs. And unless one makes a deliberate effort to “break out” of a cultural norm, that culture will continue into another generation.

Interestingly enough, the word “culture” comes from that Latin term colere, which means “to cultivate or tend,” and was originally used to describe the way that a farmer would work the ground and tend to the crops that he has planted. This is a valuable note because there is nothing unintentional about the way a field is cultivated. The farmer chooses how he prepares and fertilizes the plot of land, the kinds of seeds that are sown, and the way those plants are tended and harvested. Similarly, culture is created by those within the community.

Yet, if culture is created by those within the community, does the idea of a “culture war” really make any sense at all? It presents a picture of workers in a field warring over which seeds to plant — one side fighting to plant corn and the other fighting to plant wheat. Does it not make more sense to focus on changing the hearts of the planters?

Prejudice is one of the things that people have been trying hard to change in our culture (and rightly so). And in many areas, the work has been very successful. But what is bringing the most success? Is it laws that are written outlawing prejudice or is it people’s hearts being changed and choosing not to propagate the prejudices of their parents in the lives of their children? I would suggest that the latter is the tactic being used with success. I would also suggest that the families where people marry across ethnic lines is where you will see the most pronounced removal of the prejudices because hearts change when people are in fellowship with one another.

Does this mean that Christians should not engage the culture? Of course not, we are called to tear down the strongholds of Satan in this world (2 Corinthians 10:3-6). As Christians, we should express the faith that we hold in every area of life. That being said, we will not fulfill the Great Commission by once again having Christian thought and principles dominate the cultural norm; the Great Commission needs to be fulfilled by discipling people. And for people to be discipled, their hearts must first be changed by the power of the Gospel.

One final note on this line of thinking from the five years that I taught Bible in a Christian Academy. It was amazing how often I had students who could answer all of the questions correctly on a Bible or a Worldview test but when left on their own, would live as an unbeliever. The culture at the Christian School was intentionally Christian. The curriculum was also designed to foster a Christian worldview. As teachers and administrators, we had won the “Culture War” at our school (at least on the surface). Yet, we had many kids who could live in the Christian culture, yet were not being discipled because the Christian culture was not the culture that they had embraced as their own. The solution for the school environment was not to institute more rules or to offer more Christian “cultural” experiences. The solution is to get to the heart of the student and apply the Gospel in the hopes and prayers that God would regenerate their dead hearts and give them life.

The school tends to be a microcosm of the community and the Christian school is a microcosm of a community that is dominated by Christian culture. If we aim to change hearts by changing the visible culture, we will likely lose both. Yet, when hearts are changed, the culture will be changed by default. The “Culture War” as described is at best a crusade that will change small pockets of life — we may take the promised land by force, but for how long will it be held? Instead, let us wage war against the powers and principalities of Satan, seeking to evangelize the hearts of men, for this will be the “Holy War” that will bring long-lasting and spiritual fruit.

Thoughts on Structuring a Discipleship Program

Recently, I was asked for some input on how I would structure a discipleship program if I were to have about 6 months of fairly intensive time to work with a small group of men.  I thought that I would share my initial thoughts here.

 

When I began doing homeless ministry, I spent some time looking at some of the sermons found in the book of Acts to gain some insight into a model to base evangelistic preaching/teaching on.  The model I came up with covered things in this order:  1) God’s glory, 2) man’s fallen state, 3) the work of Christ, 4) the promise of salvation coupled with the hope of ongoing sanctification in this life.

 

Unpackaging this in terms of a longer study would look something like this:

 

I.  God’s Glory

            a.  Who is God?

                        i.  names of God which reflect God’s character

                        ii.  character traits of God 

            b.  What has God done?

                        i.  Creation

                        ii.  Ordaining and Governing history

II.  Man’s Fallen State

            a.  What does it mean to be made in God’s image?

                        i.  the doctrine of the Imago Dei

                        ii.  human dignity as a result of the Imago Dei

                        iii.  the doctrine of the Imitatio Dei (how do we imitate God?)

            b.  What happened when Adam and Eve sinned?

                        i.  Genesis 3

                        ii.  The promise of a redeemer in Genesis 3

                        iii.  Inherited sin guilt and the impossibility of our paying God back that sin debt on our own merit

            c.  How has the fall corrupted and contorted the Imago Dei?

                        i.  Our aversion to the things of God and suppression of the truth

                        ii.  The problem of pain–why do bad things happen to good people?

III.  The Work of Christ

            a.  Who is Jesus and why is a Savior important?

                        i.  the person and character of Christ

                        ii.  the names of Christ

                        iii.  the Old Testament prophesies of Christ

                        iv.  The work of a mediator and paraclete

            b.  How Did Christ save us?

                        i.  the  preexistence of Christ

                        ii.  the humiliation of Christ in life and in death

                        iii.  the exaltation of Christ and his ongoing work as mediator at the right hand of God the Father

IV.  The Promise of Salvation and the Hope of Sanctification

            a.  Who is the Holy Spirit?

                        i.  the person of the Spirit

                        ii.  the work of the Spirit

            b.  What is Faith and how is that tied to salvation?

                        i.  The nature of Faith (Hebrews 11:1)

                        ii.  Regeneration, Conversion, Repentance

            c.  What does it mean to be saved?

                        i.  Justification

                        ii.  Adoption

            d.  What happens next once I am saved?

                        i.  Sanctification as a means to prepare for glory

                        ii.  Living all of life “Coram Deo” or “Before the Face of God”

                        iii.  2 Peter 1:3-11 and adding to the faith as “Partakers of the Divine nature” (untwisting the Imago Dei–like having broken bones set)

                        iv.  The fruit of the Spirit

                        v.  The gifts of the Spirit

                        vi.  Glory