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The Heroes of Faith Are Watching

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Hebrews was my father’s favorite book of the Bible.  I have his old Bible in my office, and inside it, the pages of Hebrews look like somebody used them to scrub the kitchen floor at Long John Silver’s.  I spent countless hours discussing Hebrews with him before I ever moved out, and yet, to this day, every time I study the book, I find some new proof of the writer’s extraordinary vision and power.

During this particular reading, I was struck by the connection between the argument of Hebrews 11 and its conclusion at the end of the chapter and the beginning of the next.  I see the theme of the argument really begin to emerge in the writer’s discussion of Abraham in 11:8-10.  He notes that by faith, Abraham left his homeland, even though he didn’t know where he was going.

This is true in two senses.  First, Abraham had never laid eyes on the promised land of Canaan.  Second, though, the writer notes that Abraham wasn’t really seeking Canaan.  Instead, he was looking for the city whose builder and architect was God.  By faith, he was seeking an eternal dwelling place—even though he had no idea that such a dwelling place existed!  He listened when God said “Go out to the place that I will show you,” without the foggiest idea of what his reward would be.

In Hebrews 11:39-40, notes that what was true of Abraham was true of all the Old Testament heroes of faith.  They gained God’s approval, but they never received the promise.  They never experienced the fulfillment of God’s purpose in Jesus, and they could not be perfected until that purpose was fulfilled. 

Neither of those things is true for us.  In Christ, we already have been perfected.  As per Hebrews 12:2, in Him we see the fullness of the revelation of God’s mystery.  The progress of the faithful, from suffering and shame to eternal glory, is spelled out for us in His life, death, and resurrection as a matter of historical certainty.

In the face of these facts, the writer urges us to do two things.  First, we must keep our gaze fixed on Jesus.  If we do not grow weary and lose heart, what happened to Him surely will happen to us.  His glory will be our glory too, and if He is always before us, we constantly will be reminded of that truth.

Second, even as we fix our eyes on Jesus, we must remember that others have their eyes fixed on us.  In Hebrews 12:1, the cloud of witnesses that surrounds us is none other than the faithful people of Hebrews 11.  They ran the race without the advantages that we have, and they want to see how we will run it with those advantages.  Abraham didn’t know where he was going, but he arrived there anyway.  How sad it would be if we, with our knowledge of what awaits us, fall short of his example of faith!

Divorce, _Apolyō_, and Matthew 19

Monday, May 17, 2021

A couple of weeks ago, the centuries-long dispute over marriage, divorce, and remarriage popped up on my Facebook feed again.  As usual, somebody found a reason why they thought that the restriction of Matthew 19:9 did not apply to Christians today who are divorced for reasons other than a spouse’s adultery.

In this case, the argument centers around the Greek word apolyō, which is rendered as “divorce” in our modern translations of Matthew 19:9.  That notwithstanding, proponents of this view claim that apolyō should not be translated as “divorce”.  They note that the KJV translates it as “put away” (as indeed it is translated in other contexts in modern translations), and they assert that putting away was an action distinct from divorce.  Formal divorce involved the writing of divorce of Deuteronomy 24:1; putting away was just informally kicking your wife to the curb.  Thus, Matthew 19:9 does not apply to the formal divorces of our day, and all divorced Christians can remarry without fear.

As appealing as this argument is (Matthew 19:9 certainly is among the hard sayings of Jesus, and life would be easier for all of us if it became a dead letter), there are several problems with it.  First, I’m not aware of any evidence that the Jews of Jesus’ day made a distinction between informal putting away and formal divorce.  If you’re going to hang your whole argument on the existence of an ancient custom, you probably need to establish that the custom existed first!

Second, this is a the-translators-got-it-wrong argument, and we always should regard those with skepticism.  Admittedly, translators and Greek scholars are not perfect, and they sometimes make mistakes in their work with ancient languages.  However, if even experts in the field can err, how much more error-prone are non-experts likely to be!  If we can’t prove our argument from the Bible without making a significant change in translation, we are staking our souls on the presumption that we are right and hundreds of original-language scholars are wrong.  That may represent insight, but it more likely represents self-deception.

Third, the Bible uses apolyō to mean “divorce”, which probably is why all the scholars reached that conclusion in the first place.  In Matthew 19:8, Jesus notes, “Moses permitted you to apolyō your wives.”  What did Moses permit?  Not informally sending wives away, that’s for sure!  The only procedure in the Law for separating from one’s spouse is the formal divorce-certificate process of Deuteronomy 24:1, which the Pharisees cite in Matthew 19:7.  Thus, Jesus uses apolyō to refer to formal divorce, and we should understand Him as doing so in Matthew 19:9, which is the very next verse.

Matthew 19:9 isn’t anybody’s favorite commandment.  However, it is a restriction that God in His wisdom and holiness has bound upon all people.  As much sorrow as enforcing it can cause in this life, failure to enforce it will lead to much greater sorrow in the life to come.

God Is at Work in You!

Friday, May 07, 2021

A few months ago, Clay examined Philippians 2:12-13 in a sermon, dwelling especially on v. 13.  I’ve known for years that brethren have a bad habit of focusing on “Work out your own salvation,” to the exclusion of “It is God who is working in you.”  However, Clay’s study of the latter point brought home something I had never realized before.

God is working in every obedient Christian.  Right now.  He is working in me.  Right now.  He is working in you.  Right now.

To describe this as heartening would be an understatement!  Like many preachers, I struggle with the temptation to believe the insidious lie of Malachi 3:14.  The devil very much wants us to believe that it is useless to serve God.  In this pandemic era of social isolation, reduced or nonexistent assembling, and Christians fighting and splitting churches over dumb stuff like wearing masks, he seems to have a stronger case than normal.  Why not give up?  It won’t make any difference, right?

Wrong.  Wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong.  Even if it is not obvious to us, the arc of history bends toward God.  He will work out His will, He will accomplish His purpose, and He will glorify Himself through His people if they will let Him do it.

The health-and-wealth preachers have a point, kind of.  God does have a plan for your life.  However, His plan is not for you to enjoy earthly happiness.  It is for you to put your nose to the grindstone and do right every single day, cheerfully, unfailingly.  If you do, He will use you to accomplish what He wants to accomplish.

We cannot know what that is, not this side of Jordan, at least, and there is no point in speculating.  If you preach the gospel and nobody listens, that does not mean you have failed.  If you fight to raise godly children but they fall away, that does not mean you have failed either.  God knew that His people wouldn’t listen to Jeremiah and Ezekiel, but He sent them anyway.  Sometimes the Spirit convicts rather than converting, but that too is in accord with His purpose.

Throughout history, it always has seemed as though the cause of righteousness is failing.  It seemed so when the wicked rejected Noah, when Israel sank into corruption in the time of the judges, when Solomon forsook the Lord, when the Israelites were carried captive, when Jesus was crucified, and when Saul shattered the Jerusalem church.  God’s people always appear to be given over to death.  If it seems so in the present time, that should not surprise us.

Of course, the cause of God never actually does fail.  Repeatedly, He brings about salvation in ways that no one else could have foreseen.  He accomplishes His most spectacular works in the hours that seem darkest.

So it will be for us, if indeed we do not grow weary and lose heart.  If we work, God will be at work in us, and He will succeed in His purpose.  Go then, and work, whether preaching or teaching or supporting your family or raising your kids or watching your grandkids.  Even if nobody else notices or cares, you can be certain that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.

A Place of Prayer

Thursday, May 06, 2021

Acts 16:13 describes one of the humblest locations in which Paul ever preaches the gospel to a group of people.  He and his companions have come to the city of Philippi, a Roman colony.  Probably because of its largely Gentile composition, Philippi doesn’t have a synagogue, so those who wish to worship the God of Israel on the Sabbath must do so by the bank of the River Gangites.  There, Paul proclaims Christ and makes his first converts in Europe.

Though picturesque, this riparian setting is only one of many places where we see Christians assembling in Acts.  They honor God in the upper rooms of houses (Acts 1:13), a portico of the temple (5:13), synagogues (13:14), the marketplace (17:17), a stony hilltop (17:17), a lecture hall (19:10), a beach (21:5), the deck of a ship (27:35), and rented quarters (28:28).  The most specific inference that we can draw from this is that early disciples met together whenever and however they could.  In this area, the New-Testament pattern appears to be “Whatever works”.

This observation becomes relevant in our discussions of Bible authority with others.  If we criticize some use of church funds as unauthorized, frequently, someone will fire back with the reply, “Well, what about church buildings???”  Of course, none of these people really have any problem with church buildings.  Instead, their goal is to establish that we are inconsistent in our adherence to the first-century pattern.

I see two problems with this argument.  First, as noted above, there is no discernible pattern with respect to the meeting places of first-century Christians, and not even a discernible pattern when it comes to spending money on meeting places.  The riverbank was free.  The school of Tyrannus probably wasn’t (at least, churches today that meet in schools generally have to pay for the privilege).  Paul’s rented quarters weren’t; indeed, they were paid for by support from churches. 

The synagogues weren’t free either, rather being built and maintained by the Jews of the community.  Did the people of Iconium who believed in Acts 14:1 stop showing up at the synagogue the next week because it was A Misuse Of The Lord’s Money?  Instead, throughout Acts, we see brethren taking advantage of purpose-built meeting places as long as they can.

Second, as per Hebrews 10:25, assembling is part of the work of the church.  How can we do this?  The Jerusalem church could meet in the massive colonnades of the temple for free; but the Jackson Heights church can’t even meet in a pavilion in a city park without paying for it.  No member of the congregation owns a house where even half of us can gather.  Either we spend money on meeting, or we become, quite literally, fair-weather Christians.  Under these circumstances, the use of the Lord’s money to ensure that we can come together and build one another up every first day of the week is entirely appropriate.

Psalm 44

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Psalm 44 (LMD)

O God, our fathers told Your works;
You planted them within the land;
They did not conquer by the sword,
But by Your favor and Your hand.
Today You still push back our foes
And keep Your holy ones from shame;
Thus we have boasted all day long,
And we will always bless Your name.

But now You have rejected us,
And You have made our hosts retreat;
You scatter us to foreign lands
And sell us cheaply in defeat.
You let our neighbors scoff at us;
You make the nations laugh to see;
All day I hide my face in shame
Before the boastful enemy.

Yet we have not forgotten You
Nor with transgression sought our doom;
Although our steps were in Your ways,
You covered us with deathly gloom.
If we had sought another god,
The God who searches hearts would know,
But for Your sake Your own are slain;
All day Your sheep are slaughtered so.

O Lord, awake!  Why do You sleep?
Do not reject us in disgrace;
Before our grief and misery
Why do You still conceal Your face?
Our soul has fallen to the dust,
And to the earth we press our face;
Rise up and be our help, O God;
Redeem us in Your faithful grace.

Suggested tune:  “Lamb of God”

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