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The Guidance of Light and Truth

“Send your light and your truth,

Cause them to guide me;

They will cause me to enter into your holy mountain,

And into your dwellings.”

(Psalm 43:3)

The psalmist not only speaks of the truth of God leading him, but he also speaks of the “where” to which he is being led. In the context of the passage, he sees this place as a place of refuge to which he can be brought and made safe from his enemies. One of the things worth noting is just how often scripture speaks of God being a place of refuge (Psalm 2:12, 5:11, 7:1, 11:1, 14:6, 16:1, 17:7, 18:2, 18:30, 25:20, 28:8, 31:1-2, 31:4, 31:19, 34:8, 34:22, 36:7, 37:40, 43:2, 46:1, 57:1, 59:16, 61:3-4, 62:7-8, 64:10, 71:1, 71:3, 71:7, 73:28, 91:2, 91:4, 91:9, 94:22, 118:8-9, 141:8, 142:5, 143:9, 144:2 in the Psalms alone!). This refuge takes place on a spiritual level in that God provides us the strength to resist temptation and sin and he gives us the serenity of prayer at the foot of his throne in times of trouble. Yet, this refuge is also a physical thing as well. God provided safety for his people from the Egyptian army as they waited to cross the Red Sea, God defeated the enemies in the wilderness and in Canaan as well as those who would plunder and destroy his people in the land. God sent an angel to liberate Peter from prison and preserved Paul on his various missionary exploits. He even preserved his people through history, sometimes in the face of the executioner and sometimes from the hand of those who would destroy his church. God used princes to protect Martin Luther from a sure kidnapping and likely execution at the hands of the Roman Catholic church and he provided safety for John Calvin in Switzerland. Even today, Christians know the mighty hand of God to save not only their souls, but also their bodies from times of trial. All too often we embrace the one but ignore the other—God will deliver us in both cases.

With this in mind, the psalmist speaks of God’s “Holy Mountain” as the place of refuge to which God will bring him. Now, certainly, we will not all be brought to the same geographical place for refuge, but it can be suggested that the language of God’s holy mountain provides the paradigm by which we can understand all of the places to which God brings us as he provides us sanctuary. 

So, what does the psalmist mean by God’s Holy Mountain? There are three candidates that would qualify for this reference. The most common reference to the Holy Mountain found in the Old Testament would be Mount Zion in Jerusalem (Isaiah 27:13). This is the place of the Temple and the center of worship, but more importantly, it is the place where the glory of God’s presence dwelled—God with his people. What is interesting is that in the New Testament there is only one to the Holy Mountain of God, but there it is not in Jerusalem. Rather the Mountain of Transfiguration is spoken of as the Holy Mountain (2 Peter 1:18). This transition shouldn’t be too great a surprise to us as Christ is the Glory of God (Hebrews 1:3) and if it is the presence of the Glory of God that makes the Holy Mountain Holy, then with the absence of the glory from the Temple and the presence of that glory in Christ—revealed to Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration.

The third candidate is Mount Sinai (or Horeb), where the Ten Commandments are given. More importantly, it is on this mountain that Moses was given the privilege of seeing the glory of God (Exodus 33:17-34:9). In addition, there is a cave here in which God held Moses secure as he passed by. Many years later, Elijah would also be brought to this mountain and this very same cave (1 Kings 18:9-18) both as a place of refuge from Jezebel as well as a place to see the glory of God.

So, what can we apply to our lives today? The first thing that should be noted is that the place of refuge in the Holy Mountain of God should be understood not only as a place of security, but as a place to be close to God. All too often, when in trial, we think only in terms of the safety of our skin, but in light of this, we also need a place of safety for our soul, where God can draw our attention toward himself—indeed, that is the more important of the two, but without the safety from the threats of the world, we will not be able to focus on eternal matters.

In turn, this suggests that our place of refuge (in light of the Holy Mountain) is not bound to geography, but is a place to which we can flee from the oppressors and distractions of the world and that we can rest in God. For many, that is a place or a time in their own homes where they can be alone with God and free from the dangers of life. Historically, many have set aside a small room as a prayer closet to which they can go and be alone and quiet with God. I have known others who have gotten up several hours before the rest of the family will awake, so that they have a quiet and still home to themselves. Regardless of the geography, so long as the principle is met, that indeed can be our place of refuge. 

An important side-note of this principle applies to how we view national Israel today. There are some who would argue that Christians have a stake in protecting Israel because God has reserved the physical tract of land around Mount Zion (Jerusalem) for end-time events as well as seeing the fulfillment of Genesis 12:2-3 in the national state of Israel. Is Israel a special place? Yes, historically it is the region where most of the Biblical events took place. For that reason and that reason alone, it ought to be preserved. Politically, Israel is also America’s primary ally in a very dangerous part of the world; again, that means we must have an interest in the political well-being of the nation. But, to argue that the refuge of Christians lies in Israel or in the reestablishment of the temple is a gross misunderstanding of the Biblical teaching both here and in other places. In fact, the author of Hebrews refers to the Church as the Spiritual Mount Zion to which believers come in faith (Hebrews 12:22-24).

The bottom line is that our hope and our refuge is found in Christ, not in a particular piece of real estate. And, beloved, we ought to rejoice in that, for when the world falls against us, we have a ready and sure refuge to which we can run: Jesus Christ.

“Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you perish on the way;

For his anger will burn quickly.

Blessed are all who take refuge in Him.”

(Psalm 2:12)

Handling God’s Revelation

“To me, the least significant of all the saints, this grace was given to declare to the nations the incomprehensible riches of Christ and to give light for all of the plan of the mystery hidden from the ages in God who created all things, in order that the manifold wisdom of God through the church may now also be made known to the authorities in heavenly places, according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord in whom the boldness and freedom to enter with confidence through faith in him.”

(Ephesians 3:8-12)

“Light” is a common word picture used in the Bible to describe truth. Light illuminates, it makes things visible, and it highlights truth from error. It reveals the dark lies and half-truths of the enemies for what they are. Such is the case with truth. So, here, when Paul refers to himself as being given the charge of giving “light for all of the plan of the mystery hidden from the ages in God,” this is that of which he speaks. Truth revealed into the darkness o unbelieving lives.

But, from where did Paul get this truth? In Paul’s case, he received it from direct revelation from God (Galatians 1:15-17). It raises, then the matter of revelation. The reason that Paul is revealing truth is not because Paul has discovered some insight; it is because God revealed that insight to him. Further, the reason that this insight was truth is not because Paul had some great personal understanding of God’s plan; it is because God revealed this plan to Paul so that it could be made known.

In today’s culture, revelation tends to be undervalued. The Bible, which is the record of God’s revelation to man, is treated as a mere book that can be edited, interpreted, and re-interpreted according to cultural bases and personal preferences. Further, it is assumed by many that the Bible exists for man’s purposes, allowing people to pick and choose sections that they prefer and to utterly ignore others. rose yet, people assume that it was written by the church to create a power base by which they can control the culture. They treat it more as a book of philosophy to be debated than as a composite of God’s words to us.

Yet, from beginning to end, the Bible presents itself not as the works of men but as the Word of God. Even here, Paul is writing that God has given him this light to reveal to the nations — light that at one point had been hidden in the mind of God. Truth is hidden in God’s mind, it can only be God who reveals it. Further, as God is perfect, that which he reveals is also perfect. If God is incapable of error, so is his revealed Word. And as such, the Bible must be treated differently than we would treat the work of the ancients; it is the revealed Word of God itself. Further yet, as it is Truth, it is not for us to evaluate its relevance or truthfulness; it is for us to submit to that which is revealed. 

Let us take it one more step. If you wrote a letter to me and if in my response, I totally misinterpreted your words, how would you feel? Frustrated? Irritated? Angry? If I intentionally misinterpreted your words to suit my interests, now how would you feel? If I totally ignored sections of that letter, what then? Would you be downright mad? Maybe I even denied that you wrote the letter in the first place and suggested that the mailman had written it as a hoax. Then what? Were it me, I would be very upset — no, I would be downright angry. What then do you think is God’s attitude toward those who deliberately distort the Word of God for their own ends? What do you think is God’s disposition toward those who ignore sections or treat them as cultural anomalies? What do you think is God’s disposition toward whole bodies and groups who reject his word (or parts of it) because it does not fit into their paradigm or their agenda for ministry? Beloved, judgment is coming. Let us not be guilty of mishandling the Word of God but let us strive to be workmen able to rightly handle the word of Truth.

The Church’s One Foundation

“having been built upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, having as the cornerstone, Christ Jesus,”

(Ephesians 2:20)

The language of the church being like a great building and temple goes all of the way back to the prophesies of Haggai, Isaiah, and Ezekiel. They are also picked up by both Peter and Paul in their epistles. Christ is the greater Temple of which Haggai prophesied and we (believers) are the building blocks from which it is built (1 Peter 2). Yet, buildings are established upon a foundation…in this case, that of the Apostles and Prophets — the authors through whom the Scriptures are given to us. And Christ is the cornerstone — he is the first stone laid on the foundation with which all of the subsequent building blocks must be aligned. In other words, if we do not align ourselves with Christ, the writings of Scripture will make no sense.

Before we go too far, it should be noted that some theologians have enjoyed poking fun at the old hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation,” because it speaks of Christ being that foundation (in contrast to what Paul writes here). In defense of the hymn’s author, he was speaking of 1 Corinthians 3:11, where Paul speaks of Christ as the foundation, not of this passage here. Maybe the author could have clarified his text somewhat, but it is not inconsistent with Scripture to think this way (sorry R.C.). Nevertheless, in Ephesians, Paul further clarifies the word picture somewhat to speak of Christ as the cornerstone and the Apostles and Prophets (the inspired Writ) as the foundation on which the church is built.

The question should be asked, then, as to what it means for a church to be built upon the Scriptures. Certainly, most churches would say that they were, but if we raise the question, I fear that most congregations fall far short from the scriptures. So let us start by the notion that if a church is built upon the scriptures, every part of what it does is then dictated and governed by the scriptures. That includes the church government, church discipline, the sacraments, and the attitude toward confessions and creeds (what Jude refers to as the faith that was “once and for all time delivered to the saints”). This includes activities in the church life. This includes the whole of worship. What is read? What is preached? What is sung? What governs our prayers and elements of worship? If it is not the word of God, then the church is not built on the foundation of the Apostles and the Prophets. How does your congregation hold up? Are you in a position to bring reform where needed? If not, flee to a congregation which is intentionally built on these things.

I grant, that sounds a little harsh to our western ears, but listen to a few additional things the the Bible says about this foundation and its cornerstone. This church is chosen and precious to God and made to be a spiritual household, holy, set apart for God’s purposes and not men’s. God is zealous toward his church. He has chosen her unconditionally, but he does not leave her in her rough form. Stones must be shaped prior to being useful in the building of the Temple. Isn’t it interesting that when Solomon’s Temple was being built, the stones themselves had to be shaped (chiseled) away from the Temple Mount — in the world (1 Kings 6:7). What a picture that presents for those of us still being sanctified. We are being sanctified in the world to be prepared for eternity in God’s presence. Sanctification does not take place in heaven nor in the new creation; it takes place here in the fallen world. Thus, if we are to be useful to God, shall we be content with the rough-cut stone all around our being and in our church? Or, shall we desire to be properly dressed and ready for use in the Temple?

We are also told that there is a seal laid into the firm foundation of the church (2 Timothy 2:19). This seal makes two very strong statements about those who are part of the house. First, it reads, “The Lord knows those who are his.” This, of course, speaks very clearly of Election and the fact that when Jesus made atonement for sins, he did not do so for some unnamed masses, but he did so for those whom he knew. Just as the High Priest knew for whom he made atonement and only made atonement for said persons, so too, our great High Priest only made atonement for the elect of God and knew precisely for whom he atoned.

The second part of the seal on the foundation of the church contains the words, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.” The life of a Christian is to be such that sin is contended against. For the Christian, being content with indwelling sin is never an option. And that idea really brings us full circle to where we began. For, if a church is contented with functioning in a way not dictated by the Scriptures and they become aware that they are doing so, the right response would be repentance. Yet, such is a rare trait. Most, instead, content themselves with compromise rather than submitting to the will of God.

Is it Really That Important?

“Okay, Pastor Win, lay it all on the table — you preach a lot about doctrine, you teach the Confirmation students a lot about doctrine, you write books about doctrine, and you debate with people over what doctrines are right and what doctrines are wrong — is it really that important? Doesn’t doctrine just divide the church into camps and keep us fighting with each other instead of uniting to work together for good? Wouldn’t it just be easier to focus on what we all agree on rather than drawing lines in the sand?”

I must confess, it would be much easier to just focus on what we all agree on and just affirm that if you love Jesus you must be okay. Humanly, it would be far easier if we could just all get along and be one big happy body. A lot of those people whose doctrine I reject as in error are friends of mine and I care deeply about them. Even furthermore, some of the people whose views I claim are heretical are really nice people and I like them a lot — some are even family members, my own family members. But easier isn’t always right. In fact, easy is often the pathway that leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13). And that is not what we are called to as the Church.

Here’s the thing. Biblically, my most basic job as a pastor is to train you, the church, so that you are equipped for he work of ministry and to build up the body to “mature manhood” (Ephesians 4:11-13). What does that look like practically? Paul goes on to say that a mature church is not “tossed to and fro” by every wind of doctrine, human cunning, and deceitful schemes (Ephesians 4:14). In fact, Paul writes that the only way a church finds itself built up in love (Ephesians 4:16) is if we grow into this mature manhood.

Now, in the world around us, doctrines abound, some good — mostly bad. Doctrine is taught to us in school (from preschool up), on television, in movies, on the internet, on billboards, and on the radio as we drive down the road. Some of the bad doctrines even proclaim themselves to be Christian. 

So, how will we decipher good from bad so that we are not tossed to and fro? The only way it can be done is by teaching good doctrine. And how do we identify good doctrine? We must measure it by the teaching of the Scriptures — the scriptures alone and the scriptures as a whole. How often I have corrected people on doctrine with the words, “That sounds nice, but that is not what the Bible teaches…” It is not meant to be mean or contentious (okay, maybe a little contentious, but never mean), it is just meant to get us back to our only rule for faith and practice: the Bible.

Yes, there are things that we all agree on — “do unto others as you would have them do to you” or “do not steal.” But then again, both the Mormons and the Muslims I have known over the years would pretty much attest to these things too yet their souls are destined for the fires of Hell. I don’t know about you, but the seriousness of that statement weighs on me. Further, there are people in our families, in our communities, and in our circles of influence that are destined for Hell unless they repent and believe, and all the while, we are happily singing, “Come, Lord Jesus, Come!” There seems to me a certain disparity in that reality if we are not actively pointing these people toward Christ. Yet, how will we point people such as this to what is true if we do not know what is true in the first place?

Paul writes that the church is to be a pillar and buttress of truth (1 Timothy 3:15). How can we do that unless we are first grounded solidly in the truth of God’s word? How can we do that unless we ground ourselves solidly in Biblical doctrine? How can we do that if the teachers of the church do not commit themselves to teach Biblical doctrine and the members of the church do not commit themselves to studying it? Remember, the purpose of the church is not to make her people feel good while going unnoticed by the community. The purpose of the church is to tear down the strongholds of hell in our midst and the weapon of our warfare is the Word of God — we must train in it.

Muddled Minds

“And when they blew the three hundred shophar, Yahweh set each man’s sword against his comrade and against all of Midian. The camp fled as far as Beth-Hashittah by Tsererathah and as far as the border of Abel-Mecholah above Tabbath.”

(Judges 7:22)

The Midianites are thrown into a panic. Operating at night, hurriedly throwing on armor and grabbing weapons together, they burst from their tents and fell into battle with whomever was closest — everyone assuming that the Israelites were in their camp. Surely too, this is not a simple matter of confusion, but God has muddled and clouded their minds as part of his judgment upon them. Being broken, the army soon finds themselves in route, fleeing toward the Jordan river to return to their homelands.

What follows is a bit of a geography lesson, listing some towns that are between the encampment and the Jordan. The first, Beth-Hashittah, literally translates to the “House of Acacia Wood,” a kind of wood prized by the Israelites, which would be used for items in the temple (including the Ark of the Covenant — Deuteronomy 10:3), and Abel-Mecholah would eventually give birth to the prophet Elisha (1 Kings 19:16). There is still some debate as to exactly where some of these villages are, but they are located on the west of the Jordan river and in between the encampment of the Midianites and the ford to cross the river at Beth-Barah.

We have spoken a great deal about God being the warrior of Israel and that in this and every case, it is God who brings victory, not the might of men. It is important that we be reminded as well of the fact that it is God who either opens the mind or clouds the mind to see Truth. How often it is that we can get frustrated with those unbelievers in our midst that just don’t seem to understand things in the way we do — they just cannot see the Truth as to eternal things around them. The answer has more to do with God not opening their minds than anything else. Indeed, we ought always strive toward making good arguments, but at the same time, the blind will remain blind unless their eyes are opened by a rebirth brought about by the Holy Spirit. So, pray for those with whom you will debate and discuss matters of eternal Truth. Apart from the Spirit, their minds are as muddled as that of the Midianites.

Seeking Truth or Gossip?

“Then, when the men of the city rose early in the morning and behold, the altar to Ba’al was torn down and the Asherah, which was beside it, was cut down! Even the second bull was offered up on the altar that had been built! And one man said to his friend, “What is this thing that has been done?” And they sought out and they worked it out, saying, “Gideon, the son of Joash as done this thing!” 

(Judges 6:28-29)

Sherlock Holmes would not have been impressed. There was not much deducing to be done in this particular investigation. Who would have had access to Joash’s bulls? Gideon. No fingerprints, no following foot-tracks, and no interviews were really necessary. This investigation did more to stir people up than to discover the truth. The positive element about this is that it seems that Gideon had enough of a reputation in the community as one who did not accept the status-quo that people would suspect him. May we all have such a reputation amongst our peers!

One thing that I have learned over the years is that often people are more interested in getting their way or achieving their ends than seeking the truth. Here, in Gideon’s case, the whole village is being stirred up by these ornery men. Could they not have gone discretely to seek out what happened? Sure, that would have been both the honorable and the Biblical thing to do. But they did not, they aroused the people of the community to the extent of stirring up a mob to go after Gideon.

Gossip in the church achieves the same end. What is worse, in today’s “sound-byte” society, people aren’t much interested in dialogue and the discovery of the truth. They just want their way. How many reputations have been ruined by people who have not bothered following Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18:15-20? How many churches have split because someone gets an idea in their head, not understanding what has been done, and maliciously gossips and slanders those in leadership? How often people, hearing only half of a conversation, jump to terribly wrong conclusions that cause nothing but grief for the whole church body. Indeed, we are sinners, but in the church, ought we not strive to follow the model of Christ? Ought we not use discretion? Ought we not seek to be reconciled to our brothers and sisters? Ought we not govern our tongues with faith and wisdom? Gideon’s idolatrous peers do not.

Sharp Arrows of God

“Your arrows are sharp in the peoples; before you they fall in the heart of your enemies and their kings.”

(Psalm 45:6 {verse 5 in English})

The arrows of God’s anointed ones strike deadly blows upon those who stand against his almighty. Indeed, God scoffs at the kings of the earth and those who would stand against his anointed (Psalm 2). This language of the arrows of God is not uncommon to the words of Scripture…Deuteronomy 32:23,42; Habakkuk 3:11; Zechariah 9:14; Job 6:4; Psalm 7:14; 38:3;  and 77:18 are just a few examples of such usage.

What is fascinating to me is that with all of the military usage that we find in the Bible, people remain reluctant to use it, largely in favor of presenting a picture of a rather cuddly and pathetic God who hopes that we choose him. But why would we choose to follow a God who was mushy, weak, and allowed his people to do pretty much anything they wanted to do? Even apart from the gross distortion of the Bible and of the definition of love that such a view presents, such is not even a view that is appealing to the humanistic world around us. Leaders have the strength to lead their followers into and through difficult times and are strong enough to lead their followers to victory on the other side of whatever happens to be faced. Mush cannot penetrate the armor of death, but Jesus, our Messiah crushed death and destroyed its power. Why then do we not celebrate and rejoice in such language of our God’s might? How often it is that believers have been deceived by Satan into embracing that which is comfortable and not that which is True.

What is also fascinating to me is how many people do embrace such language of God’s might but then who fear men and what men may do. How often even Biblical Christians do not take a stand for Truth in the face of the world’s opposition out of fear. Will our God falter? Will our God not avenge? Will our God not bring wrath against his enemies? Even if our person is crushed, will our God fail? Surely we do not believe this. If not, then why do we so often act so timidly when it comes to the Gospel?

Tearing Down Idols Around Us

“And you were not to make a covenant with those who dwell in this land; its altars you shall pull down. But you have not listened to my voice; what is this that you have done?”

(Judges 2:2)

I fear that we have lived in a pluralistic society too long to really understand the fullness of this statement. Certainly, as Christians, we can understand the prohibition about making covenants with those who are pagans, but what of the language of tearing down the idols of the pagans?

Of late there has been a great deal of discussion in the news about how the Islamic State, as it conquers new regions in the Middle East, has been tearing down “cultural artifacts.” Now, certainly I am not in sympathy with the wicked Islamists who are doing such things…particularly as they slaughter innocents in the name of their false god, but I raise the question simply to point out that in their eyes, they are destroying reminders of paganism from which they hope to purge the land. Is this not exactly what the Israelites were called upon to do?

Now, we have already explored the notion of MårDj (charam — verse 17) and should remind ourselves that Joshua’s invasion of Canaan was meant as a picture of God’s final judgement in the end of days. In those days, before the coming of Christ, God used his people as a witness against the pagans of the land. In these last days, after the coming of Christ, God speaks through his Son and the Son will be the one who executes judgment upon the wicked as he subjects all things to himself. Thus, while governments are given the power of the sword to execute justice, we are not given the power of the sword to execute vengeance or to purge the culture of the wicked. This is why you do not see Christians committing the kinds of crimes that you see being committed in the name of Allah today. Indeed, our weapons of warfare, as Christians, are spiritual in nature because our true enemy is spiritual as well.

At the same time, as Christians, we are called to destroy every argument and tear down every lofty opinion that is raised up against the knowledge of God (2 Corinthians 10:4-6). Sounds a lot like this passage, doesn’t it? In fact, when you pair this passage with Paul’s language of not being unequally yoked (2 Corinthians 6:14), we have, in essence, everything for which the people are being condemned by the Angel of Yahweh. How little times change…

Today, when we look at idols (whether they are made from stone or metal or whether they are made out of ideologies), we tend to see them as things to be preserved as cultural artifacts. And while cultural artifacts they may be, what happens when the society becomes inundated with such artifacts? And what happens when the Christian church becomes rather illiterate as to what the Bible teaches as truth and error? What happens? Sadly, the answer can be found by looking out of the window at the culture around us. Because we have not faithfully pursued truth ourselves, we have not faithfully taught that truth to our children. And because we have not faithfully taught Truth to our children, they are being seduced by the Pied Pipers of this world.

What is the result? Faith is and has been minimized. People typically see faith as that which carries them through difficult times only and they forget that while faith will carry you through difficult times, faith is meant to guide the entirety of your life and pursuits. The institutional church is treated much like a kind of club that one might participate in and Sunday worship is seen as optional if it fits into the busy schedule of athletic events and school activities that are “required” if one is going to be socially “well-rounded.” Kids are taught that their social lives, too, are more significant than their family lives. And we can go on and on. And it all stems back to the fact that we have been too lenient in the way we have handled false ideas and in the way we have taught our children the truth.

So, what shall we do? To begin with, we can do much like the people did when they received this judgment from the Angel of Yahweh…we can genuinely lament the hole we have allowed ourselves to fall into. But there is more…and it is what the people failed to do in the verses that followed in the book of Judges. They failed to repair the problem by teaching their children Truth. We know that because the next generation falls away. We need to be proactive with our kids that they know truth from error more clearly than we have ever thought possible. And to do that effectively, we who are adults, need to pursue Truth with a renewed vigor that is fueled by the grief over the wickedness of our land and the fear of our children falling repeatedly into the errors that the Israelites so quickly fell into in the book of Judges. And we can work to tear down the ideological ideals that stand against the knowledge of God — things like secular humanism, false spirituality, mysticism, situational ethics, pluralism, and the modern versions of gnosticism and sophism that have crept into the church. And in doing these things through a repentant spirit, we need too to pray that God would use us as a spiritual sledgehammer in this world to tear down the influence of those teaching error.

Think on These Things

“The last thing, brothers, is that whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is upright, whatever is holy, whatever is lovely, whatever is praiseworthy, if there is virtue and if there is praise, think on these things.”

(Philippians 4:8)

There is one more aspect of Paul’s counsel to us here that we need to dwell upon…something of which we have spoken repeatedly throughout this letter that Paul writes. Paul writes of these things that are good and holy and praiseworthy and states that we must think on these things. Paul does not speak of how these things might make us feel or of how these things might move us. He says that we are to think on these matters — we are to reason them through and apply our minds in an orderly way to the ideas conveyed within that which is good and holy and praiseworthy.

The word that Paul uses here is logi/zomai (logizomai), and it means to come to a conclusion through a rational process. It refers to the notion of looking at all of the options that vie for our attention in a given area, to ponder them in our minds, and then to come to a reasoned decision about them. This is not a matter of feeling or of good wishes; this is not a matter of what emotions some experience might stir up within me; this is a matter of reasoned thought.

And if there is something that the church has abandoned over the past several decades, it is reason. Often worship services are all about how one feels. Often worship is only understood in the context of those happy songs that might be sung and one neglects that sitting under the instruction of God’s Word is also a vital aspect of worship. One also often forgets, when only the bouncy, happy songs are sung, that the Prophet-King, David, wrote more laments than he did bouncy-happy songs (not a surprise when you think about the fallen world in which we live!).

Even when it comes to doctrine…which simply is taken from the Latin word, doctrina, which means, “teaching,” people fail to use their reason. Every new idea is evaluated on the basis of preference and the feeling that it evokes rather than evaluating ideas as one rigorously reasons through the Word of God. This reasoning about the Word of God was the practice of the wise Bereans when Paul first showed up in their city (Acts 17:10-12). Shall this not be our practice as well? Woe to the church today that only moves only on the basis of their passions. Woe to the church whose feelings and emotions rule over their minds. For God has not called us to feel these things, he has called us to reason about them…to think them through…and to govern our passions with our minds and what we know is right.

There is no doubt that emotions have their place in the Christian life. God has made us with every expression of life that we attribute to the passions. Yet, the place of the passions is to be governed by the mind. The passions must be reminded by the mind what is right and true or the passions will descend into utter despair and irrationality. The mind must also defend the passions against the seduction of feeling, at least in the way feelings are often manipulated by those leading in worship or worse, from those leading into hedonistic error.

Further, the church in the west has dominantly bought the lie that there is a separation between our spiritual life and the life we live in every other context. The lie states that while reason is reserved for non-spiritual matters. Some even fear that they will lose their faith if they reason about what that which they say they believe! “If it makes you content and fulfilled,” the lie of the enemy states, “go on and have your religion, but keep it out of the marketplace.”

Yet, I tell you that Paul says that we ought to reason about our beliefs and further, if we do, it will mature and strengthen the beliefs we have! Further, Paul tells us that our religion belongs in the marketplace — do you not think that while Paul was making tents in Corinth that he was not “reasoning with” those for whom he made tents, to show the Jew that Jesus was the Christ from the scriptures and to show the Greek that Jesus was ultimately the reasonable redeemer whom we all need? Dear ones, do not give up on your minds. Do not “blindly believe” what is taught in church or in the Bible, but believe because you have reasoned them through, guided and instructed by the whole council of God. “Think on these things,” Paul says, and it will help keep you from error.

What is your God?

“whose end is destruction, whose god is the belly and the glory that accompanies their shame — they are setting their minds on worldly things.”

(Philippians 3:19)

I can’t help but anticipate the contrast with Paul’s language in 4:8 as to what Paul would have believers think upon — that which is true and honorable and righteous and pure… The unbeliever — those who reject the cross of Christ in word and action — they set their minds on the things of this world: wealth and sensuality and vengeance and fame. These two notions could not be further apart…but nor could the two ends…heaven or hell. How often, even as believers, we are tempted to set our minds on things that do not belong to us.

The wording of this verse is a little awkward, which causes a degree of variation in some of our translations. Paul is stringing together some ideas, as he describes those who will not follow the imitation of Christ through his own example, and he is doing so in a quick staccato, much like a preacher might do in a sermon. Even so, as he describes those who reject the cross, they are headed for destruction. He goes on to say that their god is the belly and the glory that accompanies their shame. In other words, in these things they revel.

I expect we have all known those who not only pursue sin, but flaunt that sin. Many in the pro-homosexual movement and in the pro-marijuana movement seem to be doing just that in our American culture today. Yet, we see it all over. People brag because they “get one over” on a business or on another person, people break civil laws and then tell eagerly listening ears of their exploits, and people perform all sorts of immoral behaviors and revel in the shamefulness of their actions. These are those whom Paul is speaking of most directly here, but do not stop there, what Paul is saying is that this kind of thing is the end to which their rejection of the Cross takes them. It is a reminder to us that the notion of a “moral atheist” is little more than a folk-tale. They might start that way, but as one pursues their atheism with integrity and mind set on worldly things, they will speed further and further from that which is good and righteous and pure.

Worldly things pass away, but the Law of God is forever. While the former may be tempting to us, for they can be seductive, the latter will bring lasting peace and joy. Which is more valuable?

Arriving at the Desired Destination

“so that I might arrive at the resurrection from the dead.”

(Philippians 3:11)

It seems that the majority of our English translations do us a bit of a theological disservice when rendering this verse. The phrasing that is typically found in our English Bibles is, “that I might attain the resurrection…”. This implies, in contradiction to what Paul has been writing in the previous verses, that somehow this resurrection is something that we participate in earning for ourselves. And such could not be further from the Truth.

The verb in question is katanta/w (katantao), which can refer to the attaining of a goal, but it also refers to the arrival at a desired destination. In the New Testament, this word is most commonly found in the book of Acts (9 of the 13 uses of the term) and it always refers to the arrival of a person at a given destination.

Why is this significant? It is significant because if our resurrection from the dead is based on our works or even on our personal sanctification, we are all hopeless. Paul has already spoken of his own works as dung…how can we even hope to compare? Will we not fall short every time? Yet, while arrival at a desired destination is something with which we participate, it does not rest fully on our shoulders. How often, in ancient times, we find Paul stepping onto a boat as part of his travels, yet when you are on a boat, while you hope for a particular destination, you are at the mercy of the boat’s crews…and the boat’s crew is even at the mercy of the winds and waves. We know too, as Paul sometimes traveled on land, that God guided the travels, protected him from brigands and other terrors on the roadways. Even today, when I get onto an airplane to travel from place to place, while I have a reasonable assurance that I will arrive at my destination safely, I am in the hands of the pilots and the crew. Ultimately, my trust is in the Lord to guide our plane by his hand of providence so that I might arrive at the destination I seek.

Thus, Paul’s desire is to arrive at the destination…the destination of the resurrection from the dead. Here Paul uses the term ejxana/stasiß (exanastasis) rather than simply to use the more common term,  ajna/stasiß (anastasis). This seems to imply a sense of completion — an arrival at more than just the state of being (when it comes to resurrection), but an arrival at the New Creation and a dwelling therein as a resurrected person. For this promise, Paul is willing to let go of anything worldly and to be stripped of anything that would become a stumbling block toward that end.

Our struggle, then, is do we yearn for the destination of heaven so greatly that we care for nothing of this world that might be a stumbling block? I honestly don’t think so. Like Christian, in Bunyan’s classic, Pilgrim’s Progress, we are often distracted by the things of Vanity Fair, the discouragement of the Giant Despair, or the fear of the Valley of Death. Yet, what are these things in comparison to the eternal weight of glory that lies ahead of us as believers? What can this world offer that does not pale in comparison? A hunk of glass might look like a diamond to the untrained eye, but under the inspection of the master its forgery is discovered. Let us not fool ourselves into thinking that the forgery has value.

Genuine Fellowship

“Thus, I therefore hope to send him at once after I determine what will happen to me and I trust in the Lord that I too will come shortly.”

(Philippians 2:23-24)

What we don’t know for sure is whether or not Paul ever made it back to Philippi. Some scholars argue that he was released from his chains and given freedom to travel again and later arrested and executed (some even argue that Paul made it to Spain during this time). Others argue that this is later in Paul’s life and that he would remain in chains until the day that he was put to death. We simply do not know for sure.

What we do know is of Paul’s longing for fellowship with these believers. And how important that fellowship is. God has not created us to stand alone as Christians; he has created us to stand and be in fellowship with other like-minded believers. And how often we rob ourselves of those blessings.

Yet, Christian fellowship is not just a matter of mutual encouragement and instruction in God’s word; Christian fellowship is meant, in a small sense, to turn back the effects of the Fall. The Fall brought separation and social strata and isolation. Yet in the church there is no black or white, no rich or poor, no weak or powerful; we are brothers and sisters in Christ. In the church one need not struggle with sin alone, but one has other brothers and sisters who will walk alongside you during times of trial. And, when Truth must be upheld and battled for in the culture and community, one does so not as a single person against the world, but as part of a larger body that will battle alongside of you for what is true and right.

With this in mind, several trends in church life have come to grieve me a great deal. The first is a lack of transparency and genuineness amongst the larger body. The second is the trend of people to “church hop,” bouncing from church to church because one person’s preaching is more interesting (or less offensive!) or because one is frustrated with a decision made by the church leadership. And the third is the tendency of people to “pick and choose” what parts of scripture they wish to submit to. People often say, “yea and amen” to a given text, but often do not apply it to their lives and get mad at the church leadership for holding them accountable to the scriptures and to church membership vows. When these things happen, fellowship and what fellowship is meant to point to is undermined.

Like Paul, may we long to nurture a sense of anticipation of the fellowship we have with one another in the body of Christ. May we look to Sunday mornings with anticipation, for here the whole body gathers to worship our great and glorious King, Jesus. And may we yearn for this fellowship to be sincere, striving to live it out in our own practice.

A Good Report

“And you know his character, how as child of a father he has served with me in the Gospel.”

(Philippians 2:22)

Over the years, between my time as a school teacher/administrator and as a pastor, one of the more enjoyable things that I have had the privilege of doing is to write letters of recommendation for students and former students. Whether they were applying for jobs, to colleges, or for scholarships or other honors, it is always a joy to tell others of the character of one you admire. And this, Paul has been doing on behalf of Timothy — and indeed, based on these words, Timothy has much to live up to, indeed.

Notice too that these words of Paul’s about Timothy are not an empty compliment. Timothy has proved himself to be faithful and useful to Paul by labor, integrity, and sacrifice. It is the laboring of Timothy in faithful service that gives definition and meaning to this statement. Of course, as Christians, we too ought to strive, like Timothy, that the same might one day be said about us not only by those Christians who have mentored us but ultimately by God himself pronouncing the words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” We certainly do not earn our salvation nor can we ever do enough and sacrifice enough to warrant such a statement from God, but that statement of God takes on meaning in light of the sacrifice and faithfulness of the service for which we strive.

Indeed, let me reassert, we are not saved by or through our works…if works are added to grace then grace is no longer grace (Romans 11:5-6). If even one single work is necessary…no matter how small or insignificant seeming…then grace is meaningless. Even if that one work is nothing more than a choice one makes to accept grace, then it is still a work and grace is nullified. Salvation is God’s doing from beginning to end and many of us are brought into the kingdom kicking and screaming…but even if we aren’t, it is still God who brings us. If we seek, it is because God is drawing us to seek Him. Apart from God we are dead in our sins and a dead man can do nothing to help himself. God must first give us life and then we can respond.

That said, we are also called to make our calling and election sure by building on the things that God has begun in us (2 Peter 2:5-11). My challenge to you is to do so in such a way that, like Timothy, a good report will be issued in that day we stand before Christ’s judgment seat.

The Pastor’s Heart

“But even if I am made a drink offering over the sacrifice and worship of your faith, I rejoice — also, I rejoice with all of you!”

(Philippians 2:17)

Here, in Paul, we find the heart of a true pastor. His heart is laid forth that even if his very life is poured out from his veins as a drink offering as a means by which the faith of the people is built up, Paul would gladly do so. Paul will use this language again in 2 Timothy 4:6 as he closes in on that time when the Romans will put him to death on account of the Gospel…this is a man who is quite prepared to die so that those under his care might have true life. As David gladly fought lions and bears (1 Samuel 17:34-36) to protect the sheep in his charge, so too, Paul gladly fights the forces of the enemy, the devil, to protect his charge, even if it means laying down his own life.

While, as pastors in the western world, we are rarely (if ever) confronted with a situation where we might have to put our lives on the line to preserve a member of our flock, we are often called upon to make other sacrifices for the wellbeing and care of the sheep that God has placed in our care. Yet, how often the “professional clergy” fail to do this. How often, pastors sacrifice the wellbeing of their congregation to advance their own ends or their own reputation in the community or world. How often do we see pastors using a church as a means to an end (whether bouncing from church to church in hopes of bigger churches with bigger salaries or by manipulating the sympathies of the people in the congregation to gain gifts or other benefits).

Beloved, those who seek to use their congregation as a platform to serve their own ends are not serving as pastors. Pastors who are not willing to be poured out even as a drink offering for the strengthening of the faith of the congregation do not have the heart of Paul. As I was told many years ago by another pastor and as I have told many times to others, the pastorate is not a job; it is a lifestyle. We do not punch a clock at the end of the day; we are not given the luxury of not coming in because it is our “day off,” and we are by no means ever amongst those who can leave their job “at work.” We live our calling day in and day out and if we are unwilling to do so, we are unfit for the call.

Does that mean that pastors should resign their pastorate because they have lived poorly in this way? There are many who should. What it means is that, in understanding this great truth, we should repent. And all of us have room to repent daily for none of us fully lives up to the model set before us by Paul…and if not Paul, how far we are from the model Christ set before us. And, if you are not called to be a pastor, but the pastor that God has placed over you is not being faithful in this, do not set out with pitchforks and torches, but approach him in love and grace and encourage him in love to fulfill his calling. Sometimes, in the warp and woof of life, it is easy to be distracted from one’s first love by the busyness that can so consume our days. We all fall woefully short; praise God that there is forgiveness found in Christ.

Clinging to the Word of Life

“clinging to the Word of Life, that I will be satisfied in the day of Christ that I did not run in vain nor did I labor in vain.”

(Philippians 2:16)

Much can be said from these words of Paul, but I want to focus first on the initial words which follow the statement in the previous verse. What is the way in which we live our lives in a way that is blameless and pure? The answer is that we must do so clinging to the Word of Life. It is the Bible that provides us with every standard by which we may know the life we are to strive to live. It is the Bible that gives us wisdom and discernment for the decisions we make. And it is the Bible that records all of the promises of God that will give us the courage to live the way we are called to live…that is if we trust the Bible.

But Paul doesn’t simply say for us to trust the Bible. He says we are to cling to it like one might cling to the edge of a great cliff lest we fall to our doom on the valley floor below. This clinging is a life or death clinging. These scriptures for us are our very life (Deuteronomy 32:47). For we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord (Deuteronomy 8:3). And it is not only our calling to live by them, but to speak of this word to others at every opportunity and no matter the cost (Acts 5:20).

Yet, how many professing Christians reject this word that God gives to us…or at least pick and choose that which they want to follow and that which they wish to ignore. Selective hearing does not an obedient follower make.

Thus, friends, set the Word of God before you, which is God’s Word of Life. Do so in all things and in every way. Let it guide your steps and do not deviate to the right or to the left from that which it instructs and commands. Let the Word of God guide your speech and your attitudes as well as your reasoning. Do not let any idea into your life except through the sieve of the Scriptures. It will always prove faithful and reliable…cling to it for it is your very life.

Another Conniption Fit!

“Have this mindset about you, which is also that of Christ Jesus,”

(Philippians 2:5)

Conniption Alert! Conniption Alert! Okay, Groseclose, what is it now? Why the conniption fit? Once again, because of changes in cultural understandings, we find several English translations rendering this verse in a way that it skews the meaning of Paul’s statement. In this case, the NIV and the NASB both opt to render this as have this “attitude.” The Greek word that is used here by Paul is frone/w (phroneo), a word we have already seen and discussed in Philippians 1:7 and 2:2, and while it can refer to an attitude toward something that a person takes, in the Greek usage, the attitude was seen to have been adopted only after careful and thoughtful consideration.

Today, when we use the term “attitude” it refers either to a disposition toward something (“he has a bad attitude” or “what is your attitude toward these things?”). Rarely, in our modern usage, does the term imply that such an attitude has been thought out or reasoned through. Yet, the Greeks would consider that an essential aspect of the term.

So, did I surprise you with my conniption? I didn’t think so. It frustrates me to no end when people ignore their reason and go with their “gut” on things because 9 times out of 10, our “gut” is misleading us. We do not see God acting on his feelings either, but he acts upon the council of his own will…a reasoned activity again.

Now, do not misunderstand my diatribe. Feelings are part of God’s created design, they are not a result of the Fall. Feelings are good and proper. But, feelings are designed to be governed by the sanctified reason; not reason being governed by the feelings, which is the model that we find so many people following today. Everything becomes permissible when right and wrong is governed by one’s feelings. You have no right to discern behavior that is honorable from behavior that is sin if personal feelings become the ultimate arbiter. Today’s culture boldly proclaims, “Be true to yourself!” and feelings are the ultimate justifier of personal preference. God says, “Be true to Truth himself…and Jesus is the Truth.”

And thus goes my conniption. Yet at the same time, the most important aspect of this verse is yet before us. We are to reason about our interactions with one another based on the model of Christ…Paul will develop this further in the following verses, but the principle is before us…if you want to see the ultimate example of counting the needs of others as more significant than your own…the model is Jesus. Flee to him. Reason through and follow his example. Have this “mindset” amongst yourselves.

Feeding One Another

“Considering not only your own things but also the things of each other.”

(Philippians 2:4)

Clearly, this statement goes hand in hand with the words that have come before it…that of considering others as more significant than yourself. We have become very much a “me first” generation. We focus on taking care of our own needs first then the needs of our families. Then, after we take care of our own needs, we look to the community and to the church with whatever happens to be left over. Such is not the definition of sacrifice; it is the definition of selfishness. Abel offered to God that which was best while Cain offered to God that which was left over…which did God accept? Whose offering does our offering look more like? Cain’s?

Paul gives us the definition for a humble Christian lifestyle right here in these few words: count not only your own needs as important, but also look to meeting the needs of your neighbor…particularly those neighbors who happen to be born-again believers. If we, as a church, want to be seen once again as a vital member of our community, then this is how it will take place…we will serve the needs of others and not just needs that we perceive we have for ourselves.

Loved ones, God has a habit of using a life that is not interested in his or her own glory, but gives all of the glory to God. One of the ways we learn to have that mindset is by counting the needs of others as more significant than our own. Truly, that does not come easily to us; our sin nature resists it; but it is that for which we should strive. And like the verse above, when I meet with people in counseling situations (especially marital counseling situations) 9 times out of 10, the source of the problem is selfishness. Each party wants needs met before they will be willing to meet the needs of their spouse. Until we adopt the mindset that we are interested in our spouse’s needs (regardless of whether she meets ours) and we trust in God to meet all of our needs through prayer, then we will be stuck in frustration. Joy comes when we care for each other.

A story is told of a man getting a tour of heaven and hell. In Hell he found that people were all skinny and emaciated and then he saw why…they all had arms that were fused straight (no bending at the wrist or elbow). They could not feed themselves. Then the man went to heaven and found that people’s arms were fused straight as well, yet people were well fed and content. Then he saw why: everyone fed one another, not themselves. That is a picture of what Paul is speaking of here but I would put forward another thought — not only ought we expect the body of Christ  to feed each other (not themselves) in heaven, should we not expect that on earth as well? If we don’t strive for this, we rob ourselves of true blessedness.

The Challenge of Application

“Nothing from selfish ambition — nothing from vanity — but in humility, think of others as more significant than yourself.”

(Philippians 2:3)

There you have it, loved ones, the heart of this section of Philippians and the core principle behind living out the Christian life. As a pastor, it is my conviction that if professing Christians would strive toward this basic principle, then 90% of the problems in the church would go away; 90% of the problems in our families would go away; and 90% of all relational challenges would vanish. These words are just that significant…and sadly, as significant as they are, they are equally ignored by people in the church. Sad, so sad, when we see members of the body bickering over things that have no eternal value and neglecting to apply the words of Paul to their own lives before they go trying to gain influence by tearing down another.

As profound as this verse is, it is equally simple. There are no major difficulties that present themselves in translation. Paul begins by speaking of selfish ambition…the Greek word here is ejriqei/a (eritheia), which refers to selfish contention or strife that gains one standing at the expense of others. Vanity, which is captured by the word kenodoxi/a (kenodoxia), which literally means, “vainglory” or “empty glory” — vanity — ambition that has no moral substance to it…these things divide the body, they do not unite the body. In contrast, tapeinofrosu/nh (tapeinophrosune), modesty or humility, gives substance to what we do and how we live. For when we do in humility, we honor and glorify someone other than ourselves.

The question then is not definition, it is application. Will you seek to live this out in all you do? Will you seek to apply this to times of disagreement in your home or in your church? If you do so, I am convinced that you will see your relationships transformed to the glory of Christ.

Judgment and Salvation…one goes with the other

“And not intimidated in any way by the adversaries, which is for them an indication of destruction but for you of salvation, which is from God.”

(Philippians 1:28)

In our culture today, it seems, we talk at length about the troubles caused by bullying, particularly amongst children. And indeed, bullying is sin and condemnable. Yet bullying is also not constrained to the behavior of children nor is it something that is found only in our modern age. As it is a result of the Fall of Adam and Eve, we find people using manipulation, coercion, and bullying to get their way rather than pursuing what is True and beneficial to all. And next to Jesus, we could argue that the Apostle Paul is the poster-child for having had to face-down wicked men with ignoble schemes who were only interested in intimidating others to preserve their own power.

And Paul, who had to face down so much intimidation, says to us as well, “don’t let them intimidate you.” Why should we not be intimidated? In a similar context, Jesus’ answer was that we should not fear those who can only kill the body because that was all they could kill; God can kill body and soul in eternal judgment (Matthew 10:28). Paul speaks very similarly. Paul essentially is saying to us that when we stand in confidence of the Truth in the face of all adversaries, that very reality is a condemnation of those who would oppose us. Why is it a condemnation? One can stand in confidence upon that which is true; one cannot so stand when it is not truth that is stood upon.

When you know that which is right, what do you have to fear from those who would challenge it? On the other hand, if you are basing your ideas, your lifestyle, your preferences, your power and influence on things that are unproven, established by men, and are built on the power of men and not on the power of God…you have a shaky foundation at best. It is you who have the right to fear, and fear you should. For when you stand against God’s people, you stand not only against the people; you also stand against God himself.

And thus, the salvation of God’s own is also eternal condemnation for those who stand against him. God promises throughout the scriptures to preserve the elect; but in doing so the reprobate are judged. Both go hand in hand. There is no having one without the other. And yes, all of this is from God. He is sovereign over life and death, salvation and judgment. There is no other. And if we serve this God, what earthly thing have we to fear? What earthly power ought to intimidate us? No, not one.

So, how do we get out of being bullied? We stand up to the bully. We don’t back down from the one who would twist ideas to coerce us. We do not compromise truth. We stand  in the confidence of knowing that we serve a God who is sovereign over all of the affairs of men and who will crush those who stand in rebellion against him. That’s how we not get bullied…and folks, this kind of confidence applies not only to defending our faith against atheists or whatever “flavor” of unbelief that people are sporting in the culture; it applies to all things. It applies to business, to politics, to home life, to school, to sports, to whatever activity that God sets before you. If you do all you do to the glory of Him who gives you life; you will not fear what the wicked devise for you will know the end of the wicked. You want to take back the culture? Be bold in your faith and live it out everywhere and in everything you do…no compromise, the world should not intimidate you.

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.

Love guarded by Knowledge and Discernment

“And this is my prayer: that your love might overflow more and more in knowledge and all discernment.”

(Philippians 1:9)

And so, out of Paul’s love for his friends in the church in Philippi, he offers up his prayer for them as they seek to grow in their spiritual maturity. He begins with a prayer for agape love…there are several different words in the Greek to reflect different aspects of love; agape love reflects the idea of a sacrificial love that loves regardless of whether the love is reciprocated on the part of the beloved. Ultimately, it is the love demonstrated by Christ who died for the sins of the elect while we were yet dead in our sin and in rebellion against the King of Heaven. It is also the kind of love that all believers are to strive toward as we live our our lives in community…as the old hymn based on John 13:35 goes: “They shall know we are Christians by our love.”

But notice something. Often Christians seem to end there when they talk about God’s design for our lives. There is an assumption that we are just to love one another, love the world, and all will be happy. And what we end up with oftentimes is this mushy, sappy, love that has no real backbone to it. Yet, Paul does not end his prayer here. Paul asks that the agape love that the church would have would indeed overflow (arguably a reference to Psalm 23:5), but that it would overflow in knowledge and discernment.

In other words, love does not stand on its own, but is guarded and guided by something else in the life of the believer. The term that Paul uses for knowledge is ejpi/gnwsiß (epignosis), which is typically used to refer to a knowledge of the transcendent — a knowledge of that which is outside of you, whether moral or spiritual. And while the term ai¡sqhsiß (aisthasis), which we translate here as “discernment” only shows up once in the New Testament, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, it is found 22 times in the Book of Proverbs (no great surprises there). Thus, according to Paul’s prayer for spiritual maturity, love does not stand alone, it is accompanied by both the knowledge of God and the discernment that comes from the fear of the Lord.

The idea virtue seems to have been replaced by freedom in our culture today. People champion personal expression and personal pleasure over the idea of chivalry, honor, integrity, and duty. People seem to value personal experience over transcendent truth. And that shift is a dangerous one for the culture; more significantly, it is our calling as a church to pull the culture back from the edge of the cliff. But we cannot do that unless we, as Christians who make up the church, also embrace a Biblical model of knowledge and discernment that guides and guards our love. May indeed Paul’s prayer for the church in Philippi be a prayer that we embrace in our lives and may we strive to cultivate the knowledge of God (found in the scriptures) and godly discernment (begun with a fear of the Lord) in our lives in every way.

God’s Faithfulness

“To declare your chesed in the morning;

And of your trustworthiness in the night;

Upon the ten strings and upon the harp;

With the sound of the zither.”

(Psalm 92:3-4 [verses 2-3 in English])

 

Again we find an emphasis on singing praise accompanied by the sound of instruments. The reference to the “ten strings” in Hebrew is unique to the book of psalms (33:2, 92:4, 144:9) and is likely a reference not simply to a small personal shoulder harp (which might have had 5 or 7 strings), but to a larger harp requiring more skill to play. Granted, depending on the dating of this psalm, much larger harps would have been familiar items; the ancient Egyptians had 22 strings on their full-sized arched-harp. Arguably this is one more reminder that this psalm has its focus the gathered worship of God’s people where skilled musicians (levitical or otherwise) would have been present, not simply to private worship.

The additional reference to the zither seems to reinforce both the corporate setting (as multiple instruments are being mentioned) and to skillful musicians required to play it. Often this word is translated as lyre, which shouldn’t surprise us as the lyre has its origins in the zither. Again, the emphasis of music in Sabbath worship.

Yet, what is more important is not the instruments used but for what God is being praised. Here, it is his “chesed” and his trustworthiness. The word chesed I have simply left untranslated as there is not a simple word-for-word equivalent of this idea. Ultimately it refers to God’s covenant faithfulness to his people (that’s us!) despite the covenant unfaithfulness of his people (sadly, that’s us too…). This we do not deserve, but this God graciously gives to his own to his own glory and praise. As the Apostle Paul wrote, salvation is by grace, not works, lest any man should boast (Ephesians 2:8-9). Indeed, it is worth praising our God for his faithfulness and for his chesed.

And it is for this faithfulness (amongst other things) that we praise God when we gather together on the Sabbath. The sad thing is that all-too-often, the lyrics of our praises are focused heavily on the individual, not on the God who saves the individual. Loved ones, remember, it is not our goodness or our works that brings about God’s faithfulness…God is faithful despite our lack of goodness and our failures…that is the essence of Grace. As the old Fanny Crosby hymn went… “To God be the glory, great things he has done!”

And you shall remember—for you were a slave in the land of Egypt and Yahweh, your God, redeemed you.  Because of this, I command this thing of you today.

(Deuteronomy 15:15)

Hills to Die On

“Pilate said to them, ‘Then what am I to do with Jesus whom is called Christ?’ And they all said, ‘He shall be crucified!’”

(Matthew 27:22)

 

“And then Pilate again asked them saying, ‘What then do you wish for me to do with the one called King of the Jews?’ But they again shouted angrily: ‘Crucify him!’”

(Mark 15:12-13)

 

“Yet again Pilate called out to them, wishing to release Jesus. But they were shouting, saying: “Crucify! Crucify Him!’”

(Luke 23:20-21)

 

Perhaps we have simply heard these words too many times that we often miss the sheer horror of what is taking place. Here is an angry crowd — a mob really — crying out for the death of an innocent man. Luke describes them as shouting, Mark uses the term kra/zw (kradzo), which means to shout angrily or vehemently with ill intent. Even the repetition that Luke is recording just drives home the point even further about this angry mob. These people are out for blood and there is no way that Pilate does not see that as well. At this stage, justice is giving way to preserving control of the situation.

We do find a peek into the mindset of Pilate in these verses, though. Luke records that Pilate was intentionally seeking to find a way to release Jesus. What we will find in the verses that follow is that Pilate even goes as far as to protest Jesus’ innocence — not something we might expect from a Roman official, but indeed Pilate is no dummy nor is he a puppet of the Jews as some have portrayed him. He recognizes the innocence of Jesus, his wife has already warned him not to have anything to do with this man, and Pilate also realizes that most of this is taking place because of the jealousy of the Jewish officials. Yet, he is being pressed hard.

It strikes me as interesting that we often falter when it comes to such pressures as well. True, most of us don’t have to face tribunals like this, but how often we falter when pressed from various sides and sacrifice truth, justice, and righteousness, for an “out” from whatever it is that we happen to be facing. We compromise and what we fail to remember is that one compromise always begets another until we find ourselves losing the battle for which we once hoped to stand.

Beloved, we are fallen and frail and apart from the work of God in us there is nothing good that can come from us. Yet, let us find hills that we are willing to die on and let us make those hills Truth, Justice, and Righteousness. Let that hill to die on be the call of Christ for he indeed commands us to take up our cross and follow him.

What is Truth?

“And Pilate said to him, ‘What is truth?’ After this he went out again to the Jews and said to them, ‘I find no grounds for a charge in him.’”

(John 18:38)

 

Pilate’s iconic statement, “What is Truth?” is one that not only sets the context of his Roman culture, but speaks across the generations into the world in which we live today. The two dominant philosophical world views of the ancient Roman culture are that of Stoicism and Nominalism. Stoicism is the view that we are really more or less pawns in a much larger game where the gods and the fates control our lives. It is a view that we have limited freedom, but ultimately what is to come to pass will come to pass so there is no reason to get too excited or upset about the events of your life. In this perspective any form of transcendent truth is shadowed and unknowable, held in the hands of fate.

Nominalism follows very naturally with the Stoic view. This is the perspective that there are no such things as absolutes. In ancient times, Plato and Aristotle had argued for the existence of absolute and perfect “forms” that are the basis for all representations we experience on earth. Thus, we may draw a circle on a blackboard, but the circle is not a perfect one — instead it is a representation of the “perfect circle” that exists as a form — or we might say as a definition. The same idea can be applied to trees, dogs, ideas, etc… For Plato, those forms existed in a transcendental, spiritual world. For Aristotle, those forms existed within the thing itself. Either way, forms existed. But as we moved into the rise of Roman thought over Greek thought, the idea of forms was discarded and people held that these forms were simply names (hence nominalism) given to such things. There was no such thing, for example, as an absolute circle from which all circles get their meaning. Instead, circle was just the name we give to things falling within a certain class of entities. And thus, any concept of an absolute Truth was abandoned.

It should be easy to see Pilate’s displeasure at Jesus’ statement that he came to testify to the Truth. “What truth?” “Truth is just a name we give to ideas we prefer.” “If there is such a thing as absolute truth, it is unknowable, so why bother searching for it or listening to it?” One can almost hear the dismissal in Pilate’s tone when he finally responds: “What is truth?” This is not a question seeking an answer, it is a remark of a frustrated governor who is weary of the prospect of rebellious messiah figures, political maneuvering by the Priests, and what he would consider the superstitions of the people. He simply returns to the Jews and essentially says, “Look folks, you haven’t given me any basis on which I can charge him.”

Stoicism and Nominalism have more or less passed out of vogue, but today’s post-modern culture, while rejecting fatalism almost entirely, has embraced a rejection of absolutes. In  our culture truth is no longer seen as transcendent and as a result it finds its meaning in the self-definition of every person. This is not an entirely new idea, a contemporary of Plato was a man named Protagorus, sometimes seen as the first humanist, who is best known for his phrase, “man is the measure of all things.” Plato easily demonstrated the foolishness of such a thought, for who is the measure of man? Nevertheless, the words of Pilate are much the same of many in the western world today — what is truth?

The answer to the question is that truth is contained in the mind of God and that we can know truth by his self-revelation (Jesus came to testify to the Truth — the ultimate self-revelation of God!). We find that self-revelation contained in the Bible and contained in the universe around us that testifies to the glory of God (so long as we look at the universe through the lens of scripture). Loved ones, there is Truth and it is accessible to us — Jesus made it so. What is Truth? Look to Christ.

Listening to the Truth

“Then Pilate said to him, ‘Then you are a king!’ Jesus replied, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world — to testify to the Truth. All who are of the Truth listen to my voice.’”

(John 18:37)

 

The final clause in this statement deserves deeper reflection. Jesus says that “all who are of the truth listen to my voice.” How convicting that statement is when you get down to it. On the surface it is an easy one to affirm, but how often when applied deeper down, we struggle to live it out? How often do people talk a good talk but when it comes to living in obedience to the voice of Jesus, fall far short.

Jesus never states that his words are suggestions for wise living. No, he says that his words are Gospel, his words are Truth, and anything else that we might listen to is in error and separates us from him. We want to do things “my way” but Jesus plainly says that is not an option for us if we wish to be identified as Christian. We must do things “His way.” All else is sin.

Loved ones, there are many people in our world that call themselves Christians but have no interest in listening to any voice other than their own…or the devil’s. Just like Marlowe’s Faustus, our culture has flirted with the devil in the hopes of prosperity and happiness but failed to see that true happiness and contentment come not from comfort nor from the lusts of the flesh, but they come from Christ himself. The world has proclaimed Jesus’ teachings on peace and loving one’s brothers but have ignored Jesus’ words of sacrifice, judgment, and hell. To whom are they listening? Many claim Jesus just another yoga or wise moral teacher. Again, to whom are they listening? Certainly it is not to Jesus himself. And thus their ideas are neither true nor worthy of attention.

My friends, do not fall into the deceptions of this world. There is Truth and he is absolute. Yet, he has revealed his mind to us in his Word, the Bible, so that it might be preserved for all ages, studied, and obeyed. We are called to listen to Jesus’ voice with the implication that we will obey his wisdom — it is True indeed! Will you do so? If you will be of the truth, listening to (and obeying) the voice of Jesus is not an option.