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Summaries, Psalm 131-135

Monday, December 09, 2019

Psalm 131, another Song of Ascents, compares our relationship with God to a small child snuggling with his mother.  Just like that child is calm and at peace, so our soul isn’t disturbed within us.  Just like the child doesn’t worry because he trusts his mother, we don’t worry because we trust God.

Psalm 132 compares the pilgrim’s zeal for the temple to David’s zeal for the temple.  The psalmist begins by observing that even though David didn’t build the temple, he very badly wanted to, and indeed vowed that he wouldn’t sleep until he began the project.  Similarly, the pilgrims have resolved to go to the temple, where they ask God to be present and sanctify His people. 

After this, the psalmist returns to the subject of David, noting that God promised him that his descendants would reign forever so long as they remained faithful to Him.  As a consequence of this oath, God has chosen to dwell in and protect Zion.  There, God will bless His people and confirm David’s descendant as king.

Psalm 133 reflects on the subject of unity.  It describes unity as a good and pleasant thing, and it compares it both to the priestly anointing oil that was poured abundantly on Aaron and to the dew that fell on Mt. Hermon.  In both cases, the message is clear:  unity is a blessing that God pours on us from above.

Psalm 134 is one of the shortest psalms in the book.  It’s addressed to the night watchmen in the temple.  It urges them to bless the Lord and in turn expresses the wish that the Lord would bless them.

Psalm 135 is the final Song of Ascents.  It calls all of God’s servants to praise Him.  God should be praised because praising Him is pleasant and because He has chosen Israel to be His people.  The psalmist then explores the power of God, observing that He does whatever He pleases.  Incidentally, doing whatever one pleases is the Biblical definition of omnipotence, and it avoids the hypotheticals of the skeptics like, “Can God create a rock too big for Him to lift?”  (A better question would be, “Why would God be divided against Himself?”) 

The psalm then enumerates various works of God, from controlling the weather to delivering Israel from Egypt to conquering Israel’s enemies in Canaan.  Because of this, God’s fame is worldwide, and His servants can be confident that He will continue to bless them.

By contrast, the idols of the nations are mute, powerless, and lifeless.  As a result, they won’t deliver anybody, and those who trust them will become mute, powerless, and lifeless too.  The psalm concludes with inviting various portions of God’s people to bless and praise Him.

Saving Faith

Friday, December 06, 2019

As I continue to make my way through the list of sermon requests on my phone, the next on it came from Spud, who asked me to preach a sermon on faith.  For the rest of you who have asked for a sermon, there are six more on the list, so I haven’t forgotten you! 

That notwithstanding, I think that faith is an excellent subject for a sermon.  This is true for a number of different reasons.  First, it is a subject that is generally misunderstood in the wider religious world.  Commonly, when we talk with our friends and neighbors about faith, we find that they mean something along the lines of mental assent, a bare acknowledgement that Jesus is the Son of God.  This concept has about as much in common with Biblical faith as a jumbo shrimp does with a jumbo jet!

It is also true, though, that distortion of the Bible’s teaching on justification by faith has led some brethren to go too far in the opposite direction.  Just to make sure that we don’t end up in the camp of the do-nothings, too often, we turn salvation from the work of God back into our own work.  Neither one of these alternatives is useful, so this evening, let’s look at Bible teaching on saving faith.

In particular, I want to consider three characteristics that saving faith has.  The first of these is that it COMES FROM THE WORD.  This is evident from Romans 10:17.  This is a familiar text to many of us, but I think there’s much more here than we commonly notice.  It’s not only true that we have to hear the gospel in order to become a Christian, which is how we commonly apply this passage.  Instead, throughout our lives, our faith always will be connected to the time we spend with the word.

This is most obvious in those who don’t spend time with the word.  Back when I still lived in Illinois, with some regularity, I was invited to preach the funeral of unbelievers.  Somebody knew that I was the preacher where Mom and Dad had gone to church, or where Grandpa and Grandma had come to church, and so, when there was a death in the family, even if they’d never met me before, they’d call me.

These people were not churchgoers, but at funerals, just about everybody wants to be religious, because otherwise you have to believe your loved one is dead forever and you’ll never see them again.  So I’d hear all these irreligious people talking about how Mama had gone to heaven to be with Jesus, but the funny thing was, you could tell from their voices that they didn’t believe it.  They didn’t spend time with the word, so they didn’t have any faith, so they didn’t have any hope.

To the extent that we will not commit to spending time with the word, that’s where we will end up too.  If we decide that we’re only going to come to church once a week, or once a month, we’re going to hear less of the word, and our faith will weaken.  If we decide that we’re too busy to spend time reading our Bibles every day, we’re going to take in less of the word, and our faith will weaken.  Without exception, the more we interact with the word, the stronger our faith will become.

The second characteristic of saving faith that I want to consider is that it TRUSTS IN GOD.  Look at the way Paul expresses this idea in Romans 4:4-5.  In this text, we see two kinds of people.  The first is purely hypothetical.  It’s the man who earns salvation for himself by perfectly keeping the law of God.  Nobody on earth today is doing this, and the only who ever has done it is the Lord!  Nonetheless, if we were to keep the will of God perfectly and never sin once, we could contemplate the day of judgment with great confidence.  We could demand entrance into heaven, because by our own righteousness, we had earned it.

On the other hand, we have the one who does not work, who has not kept the law perfectly.  This does not mean that he’s not trying to keep God’s law at all, merely that in some point, he has failed.  He has not earned the right to eternal life. 

However, this non-worker does trust in God’s ability to justify him even though he is ungodly, and as a result, his faith is reckoned to him as righteousness.  In other words, even though he has not been righteous, he is counted as righteous because of his faith.  He gets the reward of eternal life even though he did not earn it, an accounting maneuver that is only possible because of the blood of Jesus.

Notice, though, that just as the perfect law-keeper contemplates eternity with confidence, so too can the one who is justified by faith.  The law-keeper is confident in himself, but the recipient of grace is confident in God.  I know that in my life, I have sinned, both before and after my baptism.  Even though I hate sin and struggle against it, I am sure that at some point in the future, the cunning of the devil will tempt me to sin once again.  I hate that thought, but I’m not discouraged by it, because my own personal record of righteousness is not the determining factor in my salvation.  Instead, I trust in God to deliver me, and as long as I continue to trust Him, my salvation is certain.

Nonetheless, it is also true that saving faith IS OBEDIENT.  Among other passages, this thought appears in Romans 1:5.  Just as one of the characteristics of a tree is that it has a trunk, one of the characteristics of faith is that it obeys.  Indeed, the more perfect the faith, the more perfect the obedience.  Conversely, as the notion of a tree without a trunk is ridiculous, the notion of faith that doesn’t trouble itself to obey is ridiculous too.

This is true for several different reasons.  First, belief that Jesus is the Son of God is an idea with consequences.  If I believe that Jesus is King and the Bible is His word, then I am going to do my best to do what the Bible says.  If the Bible says, “Be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins,” I’m going to be baptized for the forgiveness of my sins, because that’s what King Jesus told me to do.  For that matter, if the Bible tells me to stand on my head for 30 seconds while singing “Baby Shark” at the top of my lungs for the forgiveness of my sins, I’m still gonna do what King Jesus says--because I believe He’s King!  What we believe is always going to be reflected in what we do.

Similarly, saving faith leads to obedience as an expression of gratitude.  Once I know and understand all that Jesus has done for me, I should be overwhelmed by it.  It’s not that Jesus merely saved my physical life.  He saved my soul from eternal torment in hell, not because it was easy, not because I deserved it, but because His love for me was so great that it drove Him to the cross to die for me.  Once I get that, how can I possibly think that my life belongs to me anymore?  So-called Christians who don’t live lives of obedience have lost touch with the sacrifice of Christ.  The more that sacrifice is in our hearts, the more we will strive to live for Him.

A Note on Romans 16:7

Thursday, December 05, 2019

During my sermon last week on women exercising authority in the church, I noted in passing that some brethren try to argue for the existence of female apostles from Romans 16:7, but that I did not find the argument convincing.  I had assumed that most were familiar with the argument, but after services, my wife told me that my offhand comment generated a flurry of page-flipping in some quarters.  I guess I’d better explain!

The textual question in 16:7 is not obvious in most translations.  The ESV says, “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners.  They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.”  Standard Pauline greeting, right?  What’s the big deal?

The argument that this is a text about a female apostle is twofold.  First, it identifies the person the ESV calls “Junia” as female.  Second, it asserts that the ESV rendering “well known to the apostles” should instead be translated as, “prominent in the apostles.”  Thus, Junia would be a prominent female apostle, which would have all kinds of implications for our understanding of the role of women in the church.

The problem is that this conclusion rests on shaky foundations.  First, it is by no means certain that “Junia” is female.  The ESV thinks so, but the NASB thinks “Junias” is a better translation.  “Junias” would be a contraction of “Junianus”, and thus male.  Most translations opt for “Junia” here, but reasonable doubt on the issue exists.

Second, it is unclear what relationship Junia/Junias has to the apostles.  Are they merely well known to the apostles, or are they a prominent member of the class of the apostles?  The Greek here is πσημοι ν τος ποστλοις, which is literally translated as “of note in/among the apostles”. 

The text does not straightforwardly say that Junia/Junias was a remarkable apostle, as Barabbas is described as “a notorious prisoner”  in Matthew 27:16 (“notorious” being the only other use of this word in the NT).  Instead, it allows for either interpretation.  Additionally, if Junia/Junias is a prominent, famous apostle, how come Romans 16:7 is the only place where they appear? 

On balance, I think that “Junia” is probably correct, but I also think that she is well-known to the apostles rather than being a well-known apostle.  However, that conclusion is not necessary to settle the issue.  It’s enough to observe that the gender and position of Junia are uncertain. 

In such cases, the principles of Scriptural interpretation call us to a) prefer harmonious to contradictory readings of the Bible and b) read unclear passages in the light of clear passages.  1 Timothy 2:12 is clear (except to those who are engaged in eisgesis rather than exegesis), and it forecloses the possibility of women taking on authoritative roles (like the role of an apostle) in the church. 

Thus, we are compelled to adopt a harmonious rather than contradictory reading of Romans 16:7.  Sorry, Junia!  You’re not an apostle, because if you were, you’d be violating 1 Timothy 2:12.

All of this probably strikes many brethren as a finicky, fussy sort of argument, which is why I did not spend much time exploring it during the sermon.  There’s a reason, though, why the subject of women in authority generates these kinds of arguments.  If you stick to the obvious stuff in Scripture, you’ll never find reason to believe that women should lead in the church. 

However, if you believe that women ought to be leaders, and you’re searching for Scriptural justification for your beliefs, that will drive you into the weeds.  Here, as elsewhere, we must be suspicious of subtle arguments that contradict the plain meaning of the text.  Their presence is usually a sign that somebody is trying to serve not God, but themselves.

Women Leading in the Church

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

The other day, an article from Harding University’s student newspaper wandered across my news feed.  It described the decision by the Downtown Church of Christ in Searcy, AR, to begin allowing women to take leadership roles in the church.  Henceforth, among other things, they will be allowed to teach mixed adult Bible classes and to read Scripture from the pulpit. 

In many ways, this is no longer surprising.  Self- described churches of Christ all over the country are restudying the issue of female leadership in the church.  Unlike our brethren for hundreds of years before us, they are coming to the conclusion that this is Scripturally acceptable.

This is what is being done, but what does the Bible actually say?  This morning, let’s consider women leading in the church.

As will come as a surprise to no one, I do not believe that women should become religious leaders, and I see three main problems with the practice.  The first of these is that IT BREAKS WITH THE BIBLE.  Look with me at 1 Timothy 2:11-14.  This is a simple passage.  It explains what should not be—women teaching or exercising authority, and then it explains why it should not be—Adam was created first, and Eve sinned first.  As Paul notes in the next chapter, all of this is part of his instructions for right conduct in the church.  Thus, no women leaders in the church.  It has nothing to do with women being inferior or anything like that, and everything to do with events that happened thousands of years ago.

This is a strong prohibition, and it’s based on an equally strong argument from creation.  Because of the events of Genesis 1-3, we never should see women leading men in religious matters, not in the Old Testament, not in the New Testament.  Indeed, this is exactly what we see.  In both Old and New Testaments, those in religious authority, from priests to preachers, are always male.  Some people try to locate female apostles in Romans 16:7, but there, as with many other places, what can be asserted from the text and what can be proven with the text are two different things.

It is true that in both Old and New Testaments, there were prophetesses, for instance, Huldah the prophetess, who shows up in 2 Chronicles 34.  However, nowhere in the Bible do we see prophetesses taking leadership roles religious gatherings.  Whatever the prophetesses of 1 Corinthians 11 are doing, Paul, the same man who condemned women teaching men in 1 Timothy 2, thinks it’s OK.

To sum up, 1 Timothy 2 makes a strong claim that women shouldn’t be leaders, and nowhere in the Bible do we see evidence to the contrary.  Those who want to exalt women to leadership roles, then, are not breaking with “Church of Christ tradition”.  They are breaking with the practice of the early church.  Indeed, they are breaking with the way God’s people have done things since the beginning.

Second, turning to women for religious leadership FOLLOWS THE WORLD.  We see how big a problem this is when we consider Romans 12:1-2.  As Christians, we are to be transformed by Christ, not conformed to the world.

Here, I think it’s illuminating to consider an excerpt from the statement that the eldership of the Downtown church issued.  They said, “We live in the midst of both great and rapid socio-cultural change.  These changes tear at the fabric of our culture, polarizing and fragmenting community. How does the community of the church respond to this rending of unity?  Is it even possible to maintain a body with a transcendent unity in the midst of divergent opinions?  This was the question that the elders at the Downtown Church of Christ faced when they began to grapple with issues surrounding the role of women within the body of Christ.”

Basically, the eldership is saying that due to influence from the world, there were lots of people in their congregation who believed that women should be religious leaders, and it was to keep those people from splitting off that they decided to restudy the issue of women in religious authority.

With all due respect to them, that’s exactly wrong.  No congregation should determine its convictions according to socio-cultural change.  Instead, we must determine them according to the word of God, which does not change.  Similarly, we must never seek to please Christians who have been influenced by the world.  Instead, we must seek to please God and allow Him to be our only influence.

If we follow this path, the answer to questions about women as religious leaders, along with many other answers, becomes clear.  However, if we stray from it, that is when doubt and confusion arise. 

This is what happened to the Downtown church.  The article says they restudied this issue for four months.  That makes me awfully suspicious.  Women in religious authority is not a particularly rich topic.  There are only a few passages that address it.  I could polish those texts off in a Bible class or two, much less four months! 

I think, then, that what probably happened is that they brought in a whole bunch of authorities from outside the word, and those authorities muddied the water enough that they could reach the conclusion that would allow for peace in the congregation.  The problem is that peace with the world and peace with God are mutually exclusive.

The final difficulty I want us to examine this morning is that having women as religious leaders UNDERMINES CHRIST’S AUTHORITY.  Let’s read together from Ephesians 1:22-23.  As this text makes clear, Christ’s authority over the church is supposed to be absolute.  We do what He tells us to, and whether it seems like a good idea to us is irrelevant.  However, once we start rejecting Christ’s authority in one area, we will find that He has no authority in any area.

Let’s start with some low-hanging fruit.  According to the article, despite these changes, the Downtown church has decided that they won’t have a female preacher, nor will women be allowed to serve as elders.  Frankly, I think this is a distinction without a difference.  As long as a woman is teaching and exercising authority over men, does it really matter whether she’s standing behind a lectern or a pulpit? 

Indeed, I predict that over time, the distinction will prove meaningless.  In a few years, the Downtown church will have a female preacher.  In a few more, it will have female elders.  The momentum of the position they have taken is irresistible.

Nor do I think the momentum will stop there.  Consider, for instance, the Biblical case against the practice of homosexuality.  It looks an awful lot like the Biblical case against women as religious leaders.  In both cases, you’ve got a few clear passages that have come under severe criticism from the world. 

Once you have decided that you’re going to tolerate female church leaders, how do you say that you’re not going to tolerate practicing homosexuals in the church, or even practicing homosexual leaders?  The arguments for and against are exactly the same.  If you’re going to bend with the cultural wind in the one area, you will in the other too. 

Once culture becomes king in the church, Christ cannot be.  You may be going through with the charade that you’re loving Jesus and serving Jesus, but really, each man and woman are doing what is right in their own eyes.

Summaries, Psalms 126-130

Monday, December 02, 2019

Psalm 126, like all the other psalms in this week’s reading, is a Song of Ascents—a psalm that Jewish pilgrims sang as they went up to Jerusalem.  The second half of the opening line of this psalm is rendered quite differently in different translations.  The ESV has “restored the fortunes of Zion”; the NASB, “brought back the captive ones of Zion”.  The literal Hebrew here is “captivity”, but sometimes in Scripture it is used metaphorically of restoring fortune, as in Job 42:10.

Regardless of which translation approach is adopted, the meaning is clear.  This is a psalm about the return of the captives to Judah after the Babylonian Captivity.  The Jews were astounded, and all the nations around them remarked on God’s blessing for them.  The psalm concludes with a prayer for further blessing, so that the people who now weep as they sow will rejoice several months from now during the time of the harvest.

Psalm 127 remarks on the futility of life without God and the blessing of living with Him.  It observes that without His help, neither the work of the builder nor the watchman will be successful.  Faithless people live anxious lives, but the faithful enjoy pleasant rest because of the peace He gives.

The psalm concludes with discussion of one of God’s greatest blessings—children.  Just as a warrior with many arrows could be confident, so too could an Israelite with many children.  Because they had their children to rely on, they didn’t have to be afraid of their enemies in the village.

Psalm 128 continues the theme of God’s blessing upon the faithful.  Those who fear the Lord will be able to provide for themselves and enjoy His care through their lives.  Their wives will be fertile, and they’ll have many children (the “olive shoots” imagery is basically about a bunch of suckers growing from the roots and base of an olive tree).  The psalm concludes with an exchange of blessings—for prosperity in Jerusalem, for long life, and for peace.

Psalm 129 is a plea for God’s help and justice.  It begins with the personified nation of Israel complaining about how others have afflicted him.  The “plowing furrows” on the back of Israel in v. 3 is probably about the scars left by whipping a slave.  However, Israel has been released from captivity and now looks for God to punish his oppressors.  He asks God to make their prosperity like the grass that grows on a thatched roof (in our case, we might think of maple seeds sprouting in gutters).  It looks green for a little while, but it soon dries out, doesn’t offer anything for anyone to harvest, and doesn’t attract blessing.

Psalm 130 is a cry to God from the depths of despair.  It pleads with Him to listen and observes that if God remembered sins, no one could stand before Him.  Only His forgiveness makes serving and fearing Him possible and meaningful.  The psalmist says he waits for God like a night watchman waits for the coming of morning.  The psalm concludes with an appeal to Israel to trust in God because of His faithful love and sure redemption.

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