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Pick Your Pain

Thursday, December 03, 2020

I don’t enjoy working out.  I’m not the same man I was when I was 22, or even when I was 35.  I’m about as flexible as a 2x4.  My knees hurt.  I get embarrassingly sweaty.  My conditioning improves slowly and painfully and declines with ridiculous speed. 

Nonetheless, several times a week, I steel myself and trudge into the schoolroom to exercise.  This is not because I am a masochist and enjoy suffering.  Rather, it is because I know that the consequences of not exercising are worse than the pain of exercising. 

My weight would skyrocket.  My physical fitness would plummet.  I wouldn’t be able to play soccer with my son, help brethren move, or go on hikes with my family.  As my core strength declined, sooner or later I would do something to blow my back out. 

In short, I would rather suffer now and lead the life I want to rather than suffering later and losing things I value.  Planting myself on the couch wouldn’t avoid pain.  It merely would defer it.

Not surprisingly, our pleasure-loving society prefers not to believe this.  Most Americans are self-indulgent and short-sighted, and they are not good at recognizing the holes that they are digging for themselves.  The holes are numerous:  health holes, financial holes, relationship holes, and spiritual holes.  They think that by postponing pain, they are dodging it.  Sooner or later, however, the bill comes due, often in crushing fashion.

As Christians, we must be wiser than that, especially when it comes to the things of the Spirit.  Nobody ever said that following Jesus would be easy.  Indeed, in Matthew 7:13-18, the Lord says the opposite!  If we want to inherit eternal life, we are going to have to suffer and give up things we enjoy.  If we choose pleasure instead, we will not inherit eternal life.

This is true most obviously of our favorite sins—the ones that enthrall us rather than disgusting us.  Maybe it’s a porn habit.  Maybe it’s a self-righteousness habit or a gossip habit.  Regardless, we can rest assured that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Less obviously, it can be true of people.  As Jesus says in 10:37, those who love family more than Him are not worthy of Him.  I once baptized a woman on Monday who fell away by Wednesday.  She called me and apologetically informed me that she wouldn’t be coming back to church.  Her husband had learned that she had been baptized, he flew into a rage, and it was more important to her to keep him happy than to serve God.  Anyone who seeks to turn us aside from righteousness is a deadly spiritual danger, no matter how much we love them.

The world’s prescription in these cases is to avoid the pain.  Indulge the favorite sin.  Placate the godless spouse or friend.  Life is too short to be unhappy, after all!

Rather, we should remember that eternity is too long to be unhappy in it.  The pleasures of sin are passing, but the pain of separation from God is eternal.  We cannot avoid suffering.  All we can do is choose when we want to suffer:  Here, for the Lord’s sake, or there, for our sins’ sake.

Either way, we will have a long, long time to savor the consequences of our decision.

2 Corinthians 5:21 and Christ Becoming Sin

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

If we are to be honest students of the Bible, we must squarely address not only the passages that conform to our preconceptions but also the ones that challenge them.  Most of us would put 2 Corinthians 5:21 in the latter category.  Calvinists love 2 Corinthians 5:21 because it appears to support the Calvinist doctrine of imputed righteousness (my sin is imputed to Christ; Christ’s righteousness is imputed to me). 

If, on the other hand, we aren’t prepared to accept imputed righteousness and its implications (which are enormous in scope), the straightforward Christ-became-sin reading of the text poses problems for us.  Usually, I’ve heard brethren say that rather than becoming sin, Christ became a sin offering for us. 

While that’s true, as an interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:21, I think it is more convenient than strictly faithful.  After all, the text doesn’t say “to be a sin offering”, and I am not aware of any textual basis for so rendering it.  It says, “to be sin”. 

I am suspicious of rewriting the Bible to avoid the difficulty in difficult passages.  It seems like a marvelous way to get into trouble.

Instead, I prefer to resolve the difficulty by considering the apparently less challenging half of the verse.  Jesus did [bracketed thing] so that we could become the righteousness of God in Him.  So far, so good, except the second half of the statement is not literally true.  I am not God’s righteousness.  The church is not God’s righteousness.  He is ours.

Clearly, Paul is speaking elliptically here, but that leaves open the question of what lies within the ellipsis.  We must ask what the relationship is that Christ creates between Christians and the righteousness of God.

Numerous passages answer that question, most notably the discussion in Romans 9:30-10:13.  Through Christ, we obtain God’s righteousness.  We receive it.  Our nature does not change, but He credits righteousness to us on the basis of faith.

Once we’ve figured out the second half of the 2 Corinthians 5:21 parallel, we can return to the first.  If “become” carries the elliptical meaning of “receive”, it is contextually likely that “be” carries a similar meaning.  Otherwise, the parallel doesn’t balance. 

Thus, we ought to read the text as saying that just as we received God’s righteousness, Christ received our sins.  This is an uncontroversial statement.  1 Peter 2:24 says explicitly that Christ bore our sins in His body on the cross, and many other passages make the same claim.

At this point, some might ask, “What’s the difference between Christ receiving our sins and Christ becoming a sin offering?”  Practically, not much, but the former is founded on a careful parsing of the text, and the latter isn’t. 

I am convinced that it’s important for us not only to be right about the Bible, but to be demonstrably right.  We can’t merely know the right answer and say, “This is right!  Trust me!”  We must be able to start with the evidence of the text and reason to the correct answer, even with texts that appear to teach something different. 

Nothing in the Bible is an affront to the truth, 2 Corinthians 5:21 included.  A difficult passage is nothing more than a passage that we have not taken the time and trouble to understand.  When we do invest that time and trouble, it will bear the fruit of renewed confidence in the word of God.

What's a Mercy Seat?

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The other evening at Jackson Heights, we sang “From Every Stormy Wind” during worship.  I received it with great joy.  I remember singing it during my childhood out of Great Songs of the Church and not at all since, at least not congregationally.  It made my worship evening.

However, on the car ride home from services, Lauren and I were talking about it, and Zoë piped up from the back, “What’s a mercy seat?”  Zoë probably was not alone in her confusion, so I decided that it would be an appropriate subject for a blog post.

The first appearance of “mercy seat” in the Bible is in the context of Exodus 25:17-22.  The mercy seat (the usual English rendering for a Hebrew word that is derived from the verb “to make atonement”) was the lid of the ark of the covenant, decorated with two statues of cherubim, one at each end.  In the place where an idolatrous temple would have had an idol, there was nothing, signifying a God whose nature could not be represented.  The mercy seat was where God met with the Israelites, from which He spoke. 

However, the Israelites did not interact frequently with the mercy seat.  It, along with the rest of the ark of the covenant, was located within the Most Holy Place, first of the tabernacle, then of Solomon’s temple.  As related in Leviticus 16:11-19, only the high priest could enter the Most Holy Place, and he only once a year, on the Day of Atonement.  On that day, he would sprinkle the mercy seat with sacrificial blood from a bull and a goat.  Thus, he would atone for his sins and the sins of the people.

This solemn ceremony, though, was nothing more than a type, a spiritual illustration of the atoning work of Jesus.  The tabernacle and its furniture were only a representation of the true Most Holy Place, the heavenly dwelling of God.  According to Hebrews 9:11-15, after His offering on the cross, Jesus entered that heavenly Most Holy Place, offering His own blood before the reality of God as the propitiatory sacrifice for our sins.  The high priest had to return to the earthly Most Holy Place year after year, but Jesus offered Himself once for all time.

As awesome as the above is, on that fateful journey, Jesus did still more.  Hebrews 10:19-22 explains that with His offered body, He opened a way for us through the veil that separated us from God.  Now, we can come into God’s presence with boldness.  Indeed, every time we gather in His name, we do exactly that.  Spiritually, we assemble around the true mercy seat in heaven. 

“From Every Stormy Wind” rightly observes that the mercy seat is a sanctuary in which God protects us from everything.  We rejoice in Jesus there, and we are united with beloved brethren who are far distant from us.  We ought to sing about such a place, not only as a reminder of the greatness of our blessings here, but in anticipation of the full joys of fellowship in heaven. 

Apostasy and Discipleship

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

The other morning, I was bragging on my church family a little bit.  I like to do that as they give me opportunity!  I noted that that Sunday, I had seen Christians taking the initiative to take on good works in several different ways.  

One brother (not part of the church leadership) facilitated a brainstorming session about evangelism.  A group of women spent the afternoon teaching the middle-school to high-school girls of the congregation how to serve.  A new sister volunteered to make T-shirts for the girls.  A young sister continued to collect sleeping bags for the homeless.  Another brother (who happened to be a deacon, though he wasn’t wearing his deacon hat at the time) collected money after services for a poor man who came to the door asking for help.

It’s hard to imagine a more Ephesians 4:16 scenario than that!  Every part is doing its part.  In addition to being obviously praiseworthy and encouraging, I think all of these active Christians are doing something else.  They are protecting against false doctrine.

I’ve been arguing for years that authority problems are actually discipleship problems.  You start wanting to send money to the missionary society or the sponsoring church when you’re feeling guilty about your local congregation not evangelizing.  You start using church funds to help the world’s poor when your individual members aren’t helping them.  The discipleship failure creates the need that is filled by departing from the pattern.

However, if your congregation has a vibrant, healthy evangelism culture, the pressure to turn to human institutions becomes much less.  If your members are interested in and active in caring for the world’s poor, there is no need for unscriptural expedients to fill.  There is no problem to solve.  As they should, the disciples have got it covered.

I think we see something similar happening with the work of women.  In many progressive churches of Christ these days, there is tremendous pressure to abandon the teaching of 1 Timothy 2:11-12.  Often, the people exerting this pressure make an emotional argument.  They exclaim over how awful it is that we are sidelining all these gifted and talented women by excluding them from the pulpit.

Well. . . Do the Jackson Heights women who spent the afternoon teaching seem sidelined?  How about the T-shirt maker?  How about the sleeping-bag collector?  I think anybody who thinks those women are sidelined needs to expand their definition of the playing field!

Of course, there is a scenario in which the sidelining argument becomes more potent—when members have abandoned discipleship so completely that their only meaningful activity occurs in the assembly.  According to the Scriptural pattern, men must lead in serving in the assembly.  If assembling is all a group of Christians does, then men will be the only servants.  Under those circumstances, sure, you’ve got a bunch of do-nothing women, but you’ve also got a do-nothing church.

The cure for the disease is not to abandon the pattern for the assembly.  It is to apply the pattern for Christian living to the lives of Christian women.  Titus 2:4 is sadly neglected in most congregations.  There are all sorts of good works in which any Christian may engage.  The woman who devotes herself to these things is no less a productive and useful member than the preacher or the elder.

I also have believed for a long time that the solution to any spiritual problem is “more Bible”.  More Bible study; more Bible application.  This is particularly relevant whenever a spiritual problem appears to demand apostasy as a solution.  In truth, we don’t need to reject what the word of God teaches about the use of church funds or the role of women.  Rather, we need to embrace what it teaches about the work of the disciple.  If we get that down, we will be amazed at the way that those apparent problems with the pattern will disappear.

Clothed in Christ

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Among its many other literary merits, the Bible employs a rich stock of spiritual imagery.  Some of these images are epic in scope.  Light, for instance, is important literally from the first chapter of Genesis to the last chapter of Revelation.  However, even more modest images can add meaningfully to our understanding of God’s purpose for us.

One such image is that of being clothed.  This idea appears perhaps most prominently in 2 Corinthians 5:1-4.  There, it is used to describe the process of resurrection.  Currently, we possess fragile, mortal, imperfect bodies.  In 2 Corinthians 5:1, Paul describes these as our earthly tents, destined to be torn down.  However, in the resurrection we will be clothed in what Paul calls a building from God, a heavenly body that is immortal and perfect.  It will be so much better that Paul expresses his longing to be clothed with it rather than his current body.

In 2 Corinthians 5:3, Paul identifies another important characteristic of this house-garment.  It will keep us from being found naked.  Throughout the Bible, and indeed in our normal lives today, nakedness is associated with shame.  If I emerged from the shower to find half the congregation standing in my bathroom contemplating me, I would be greatly ashamed! 

Thus, Paul clearly is discussing what Jesus calls “a resurrection of life” in John 5:29.  This is the resurrection of the faithful, those who may have confidence in the day of judgment.  By contrast, the ungodly can anticipate only shame and failure as the guilt of their sins is exposed.  They will be found naked.  Obviously, it is vital for us to be clothed with a heavenly form!

Fascinatingly, all of these conclusions apply to an apparently unrelated passage that also uses the clothing image.  In Galatians 3:26, Paul notes that those who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  The NASB even renders this as “hav[ing] clothed yourselves with Christ.” 

The same things are true of this clothing process as are true of the clothing process in 2 Corinthians 5.  First of all, it comes from God.  Colossians 2:12 reveals that baptism raises us up not because of our work, but because of our faith in the working of God.  Second, as that passage implies, baptism is a resurrection.  In the lovely language of Romans 6:4, baptism unites us with the death and burial of Christ, so that we can rise to walk in newness of life.  Finally, like the resurrection of life, baptism shields us from shame.  Once we have put on Christ in baptism, our sins are no longer visible to God.

The Scriptural lineage of resurrection begins with Christ, the firstborn from the dead (incidentally, the book of Revelation has a great deal to say about the clothing of the resurrected Christ).  It continues through baptism, a spiritual resurrection.  Then, it concludes with the resurrection of the body, which will take place at the end of all things.  If we wish to be clothed then, we clearly must clothe ourselves with Christ now.

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