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God's Lions Are Lambs

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

 

The Bible is rich in paradox, but one of my favorites appears in Revelation 5:5-6.  John begins this text by recalling, “And one of the elders said to me, ‘Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’”

This is a text that creates all sorts of expectations in the listener.  We’re about to be introduced to somebody who is simultaneously the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, and a conqueror.  Each of these descriptors is rich in imagery and Scriptural resonance. 

Let’s start with the lion.  Even the irreligious recognize lions as ferocious, majestic creatures.  The Biblically literate are reminded of Jacob’s blessing of his son Judah in Genesis 49:9. 

Second, the Root of David is an offshoot of Israel’s greatest king, the warrior who killed giants and led his people to regional preeminence.  In order for the title to apply, the candidate had better have the right Davidic lineage, be kingly, and be a victorious war leader.

Third, as we would expect, this leonine Root has conquered.  The Jews of Jesus’ time would have been in no doubt about what to expect here.  They’ve been under Roman domination for too stinkin’ long; it’s time to start dominating the Romans instead!

However, John takes all these expectations and subverts them in the very next verse.  He says, “And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.” 

Whoa!  This is like expecting a steak dinner and getting a cube of tofu instead.   The heroic victor over the enemies of God’s people looks like a baby sheep.  Worse still, He looks like a DEAD baby sheep.  This is an animal with zero capacity to conquer, who in fact clearly has been conquered.  And yet, the elder says, “This is the One who has overcome.”  What gives?

That’s exactly God’s point.  In literal terms, Jesus didn’t look like anybody’s idea of a victor.  He spent His whole life as a Jewish peasant.  He never led armies in battle; indeed, He told His followers to sheathe their swords.  He didn’t kill His enemies; they killed Him. 

However, this meek Lamb of a Savior proved to be a lion.  He overcame not through brute force and hatred, but through lowliness and love.  His enemies thought they had defeated Him on the cross, but through His death and resurrection, He defeated the greatest enemy of mankind, the devil himself.  He will stand for eternity as the greatest conqueror of all time.

God’s lions are lambs.  We should remember this not only about our Lord, but about ourselves.  We find personal victory not by asserting our will, but by submitting to God’s will.  We prove our worth in the kingdom not by insisting on our own way, but by humbly serving others.  We bring others to Christ not through domination and coercion, but through patience and love. 

To worldly wisdom, this is and always has been foolishness.  Surely, anybody who acts like that will get trampled on and despised!  Surely, a people that acts like that will be shoved aside and forgotten!  However, the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and His path leads not to irrelevance, but to triumph.  If we are led by the spirit of the Lamb, we will share in His glory too.

Setting Our Hope Fully

Friday, December 28, 2018

 

Lots of people binge-watch TV shows.  Recently, I’ve been binge-reading personal-finance blogs.  One of their favorite topics is asset allocation, in other words, where you should put the money you’re saving for retirement. 

Of all the possible investments, the one with the highest returns historically is the stock market.  However, most financial gurus will tell you not to put all your money in stocks or stock mutual funds.  It’s too risky.  What do you do if you’re invested in 100 percent equities, and the market tanks the day after you retire?  Your portfolio may never recover.

Instead, the gurus recommend putting part of your money in stocks, another part in bonds, maybe another part in cash or T-bills.  The overall returns probably won’t be as good, but those safer investments will protect you from disaster.

This divided strategy makes a lot of sense financially, but a lot of Christians try to apply it where it’s not appropriate.  We have examples of men and women of faith who were 100 percent invested in God:  Joseph, Moses, Daniel, Paul, and many others.  They gave up substantial earthly rewards and faced severe trials for righteousness’ sake, and they were all rewarded.

However, too many brethren look at these examples and say to themselves, “Oooh—too risky!”  They try to hedge their investment in God.  God promises them inexpressible joy in Christ, but they’re worried that they won’t be happy without their alcohol habit or porn habit, so they cling to it.  God promises them eternal fellowship in heaven, but they’re worried about losing friends here if they’re too vocal about their faith, so they remain silent.  Rather than being 100 percent invested in God, they’re 75/25, or maybe 50/50.

This diversified spiritual portfolio may seem wise to earthly reasoning, but it’s an invitation to spiritual disaster.  As Peter tells us in 1 Peter 1:13, we are supposed to set our hope fully on the grace that is to be revealed.  Fully.  That’s 100 percent.  Not 90 percent on grace, 10 percent on pleasure.  Not 75 percent on grace, 25 percent on friends.  Nope.  Fully.  Otherwise, we will fail to achieve what is most important. 

Our journey to heaven isn’t like a retirement account:  passive, under the influence of forces beyond our control.  Instead, the Scripture compares it to a race, in which a partial investment can only lead to disaster.  NASCAR drivers don’t race to economize on gas.  They race to win.  Athletes don’t jog through the 100-meter dash so they can have a comfortable walk to the car afterward.  They run to win. 

We need to run to win too, and we need to recognize those “diversification opportunities” not as ways to avoid risk but as encumbrances that will keep us from winning.  Many of the problems that we worry about never actually come up, but even if they do, so what?  5000 years from now, nobody in heaven will be saying, “Man, I really wish I hadn’t given up my drinking habit!”

In that day, there will be regrets in plenty, but to find them, you’ll have to look someplace else.

Captivity to Christ

Friday, December 21, 2018

 

This week’s Bible reading has many, many verses in it that stand out to me.  Of them all, though, the one that most fired my imagination was Colossians 2:8.  There, Paul writes, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” 

Contrary to what we might think, in this verse, Paul makes clear that being captured is not a bad thing per se.  Instead, we’re supposed to avoid being captured, or indeed capturing others, with the wrong thing.  Being taken captive by philosophy, empty deceit, human tradition, or the elemental spirits of the world:  bad.  Being taken captive by Christ:  good.

Our first application here must be to ourselves.  We can have other hobbies, interests, and concerns, but the One who owns us must be Jesus.  Our minds and hearts must be turned to Him above all others.

Second, in our efforts to win the lost, we must be careful of using anything but Jesus to appeal to outsiders.  There are some obvious applications here.  The congregation that attracts unbelievers with a worship service that sounds like a rock concert has made converts to the rock concert, not to Jesus.  The church that gets people on its church bus by taping a five-dollar-bill under one of the seats might be bringing those people to services, but it isn’t bringing them to the Lord.  Rick Warren to the contrary, “Train up a child in the way he should go,” is not sufficient authority for a church to establish a potty-training ministry!  The gospel, not earthly appeal, is what brings the lost to Christ.

However, we must look to ourselves here too.  It is possible for us to adhere to the form of Bible authority while defeating God’s purpose and intent.  Consider, for instance, song worship.  It is entirely possible for a congregation to raise the rafters in four-part a-cappella harmony yet not take  visitors captive to Christ.  Only the word of Christ, first dwelling within us richly, then expressed to one another in heartfelt singing, can do that.  If our song worship is not about the message, it is missing the mark.

So too with preaching.  A man can command the pulpit in one of our churches with all the skill of Apollos but not bring anybody closer to Jesus.  A sermon built on human tradition and political prejudice can be “not unscriptural” and still have nothing to say about the gospel.  The hearers of such a sermon may well amen every word without having brought their lives into submission to the Lord.

To succeed in carrying out God’s will in this evil time, we cannot abandon the word of Christ for any fleshly expedient, no matter how alluring.  Instead, we must focus everything we do:  singing, preaching, teaching, and personal work, more and more tightly on Jesus.  We must repeatedly proclaim His mercy as our Savior and His authority as our Lord.  If we want to bring others to Jesus, nothing but Jesus will do.

'Joy to the World' Isn't a Christmas Carol

Monday, December 17, 2018
 
Every shopping mall in America is wrong.  Well, they’re wrong about lots of stuff, but they’re definitely wrong about this.  I know that I’m trying to stop the tide from coming in here.  No matter what I say, “Joy to the World” is going to continue to be used as a Christmas carol.  However, its words have next to nothing to do with the birth of Jesus.
 
The religious background of its author is the first thing that should start to make us suspicious.  Isaac Watts was a Nonconformist, one of the eighteenth-century descendants of the Puritans who settled New England and the Independents who had Charles I executed.  Both of those groups had a deep and abiding suspicion of the observance of Christmas.  They regarded it as a Catholic innovation that had nothing to do with genuine Christianity (as compared to contemporary Anglicans, who celebrated Christmas with gusto).
 
It’s true that this anti-Christmas bias started to die out in the eighteenth century (though Christmas remained formally outlawed in New England until 1815), but Watts lived early in this period and was known for the strength of his religious convictions (particularly the strength of his Calvinism, which back in the day was something of a marker for opposition to Catholicism).  I’ve never been able to find any firm evidence on the subject, but it may well be true that Watts did not celebrate Christmas personally and would have objected to the use of his hymns in such a celebration.
 
Watts, then, is an unlikely carol-writer.  Instead, “Joy to the World” is a product of one of his life’s great goals—the modernization of the psalmody of the church.  Before Watts, dissenting churches in England followed Calvin in only using metrical paraphrases from the book of Psalms in their song worship. 
 
Watts criticized these paraphrases for, among other things, missing the spirit of Christianity.  The book of Psalms never mentions the name of Jesus, and He is certainly not central to its meaning the way that He is to the meaning of the New Testament.  Christians whose hymnody was limited to psalmody could never fully glorify their Lord.
 
In response to this problem, Watts adopted two main strategies.  The first was the writing of hymns that had nothing to do with the Psalms.  He explains his purpose here in the first verse of what is reputedly the first hymn he ever wrote, “Behold the Glories of the Lamb”:
 
Behold the glories of the Lamb
Before His Father’s throne!
Prepare new honors for His name
And songs before unknown!
 
Clearly, no “song before unknown” could be a psalm paraphrase. 
 
However, Watts was interested in Psalm paraphrases too.  In his paraphrases, he aimed to repair what he saw as the great defect of traditional psalmody by including Jesus in psalms that did not explicitly mention Him.  “Joy to the World” is the best-known example of this part of his work.
 
As the above scan from my trusty copy of The Psalms and Hymns of Isaac Watts shows, Watts wrote “Joy to the World” as a paraphrase of Psalm 98.  On its face, this is not a Messianic psalm.  Instead, it’s about the Israelite/Jewish conception of Jehovah coming in judgment.  Today, when we think of this, we often think of the Day of Judgment (as though there were only one in Scripture), the end of the world, and so forth. 
 
However, that’s not the way that the ancient Hebrews would have understood the psalm.  So far as I know, there’s no evidence in the Old Testament that they anticipated the end of the world at all.  Instead, they looked to the coming of the Lord as a time when He would bring about justice on earth, rewarding the righteous, punishing the wicked, and generally rebalancing the scales.  Psalm 98 is about the rejoicing that will accompany the righteous judgments of the Lord.
 
Watts, then, takes this text about the coming of God in judgment and reworks it so that it would be about, in his own words, “The Messiah’s coming and kingdom.”  Even though he did not feel strictly bound to the text of Psalm 98, none of Watts’ additions to the text involve mangers or stars or angels or any of the usual birth-of-Jesus trappings.  If he is aiming at Christmas, he misses.
 
Instead, Watts alters the psalm in two main ways.  First, he recasts it in terms of rulership rather than judgment.  “Joy to the World” isn’t about an episode of scale-rebalancing.  It’s about the continuing reign of Christ. 
 
Second, even though the entire hymn pulls phrases and concepts from Psalm 98 rather than attempting to follow its structure, the third verse is a particular departure.  Watts here has clearly decided to riff on the idea of nature praising God.  He goes back to the curse God places on Adam in Genesis 3:17-19, which provides not only death as a punishment for sin, but also thorns and thistles to bedevil the farmer.  Nature itself has been distorted by sin.
 
However, with the coming of Christ as the second Adam (see Romans 5:12-21), the effects of the Adamic curse have been reversed through His one righteous act.  This took place, of course, not in the manger, but on the cross, so it’s still not about His birth.  As a result of Christ’s victory, Watts looks forward to a thorn-free existence.
 
This may be millenarian language (working with Romans 8:19-22, for instance), but I think it’s more likely figurative.  Watts merely means to show how completely the curse has been overturned in Jesus.  This is, after all, a hymn in present tense.  As “When I Can Read My Title Clear” shows, Watts had no trouble writing about future events in future tense.  “Joy to the World”, however, regards the coming and reign of Christ as a fait accompli
 
We can still find the subject matter of “Joy to the World” in the gospels.  However, it doesn’t appear in Matthew 1 or Matthew 2.  Instead, it appears in Matthew 28:18, where Jesus announces His Kingship by declaring, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.”  In the words of Hebrews 12:28, His is a kingdom that cannot be shaken.  Today, in a world where so much is apparently going wrong, we can find great comfort in remembering and rejoicing that the Lord still reigns!

Let's Hear It for Preacher's Wives!

Friday, December 14, 2018

 

In the Lord’s church, there are many workers who toil in obscurity, never getting the recognition they deserve for their efforts and faithfulness.  Of them all, though, the wives of preachers may well be the most neglected and overlooked.

This begins with the higher standard to which preachers’ wives are held.  In theory, they are no different from any other sister in the congregation.  In practice, there are as many expectations for their conduct as there are for the conduct of their husbands. 

These expectations first appear during the preacher-interview process.  I’ve never had a discussion with a congregation in which my wife didn’t come up.  In the secular world, questions about a prospective employee’s spouse are irrelevant and possibly illegal.  In the church, they’re central to a congregation’s assessment of a man. 

Additionally, an eldership or men’s meeting may well want to interview the preacher’s wife before they make a decision (the elders at Jackson Heights certainly interviewed Lauren before hiring me).  At the least, the women of the congregation will want to get to know her before the church brings her husband on.

During a preacher’s tenure with a congregation, the relationship between the church and the preacher’s wife is as much employer-employee as it is familial.  Other women can get away with not teaching Bible classes and otherwise being active in the work.  Just let the preacher’s wife try that!  The other members of the congregation often feel at liberty to comment on the way the preacher’s wife spends her money, styles her hair, and trains her children.  What’s she going to do, get mad and leave? 

Outside the assembly, she is expected to be warm, hospitable, and everybody’s best friend on demand.  Woe betide the preacher whose wife gets the reputation of being stuck up!  Frankly, in a lot of ways, the work of the evangelist’s wife is more difficult than the work of the evangelist.

Some women have the right blend of gifts and determination to meet the demands of this quasi-job with cheerfulness and grace.  Both Shawn and I are blessed with wives who fit naturally into this challenging situation.  We freely acknowledge that Genesia and Lauren make us twice as effective as we would otherwise be.

Other women, though, find that they have married into a position that they neither desired nor are suited for.  Some of them become embittered by the expectations.  I can think of more than a few preachers’ wives who, as the saying goes, look like they were weaned on a sour pickle.  Though I don’t think that bitterness is appropriate for any Christian, I can certainly understand how they got there.

Perhaps more common are the preachers’ wives who gamely soldier on, who play the part of the bubbly extrovert at tremendous emotional cost.  They love their husbands and love the Lord, but each passing week adds to their burden of psychological stress.  In many instances, this stress eventually manifests itself in serious illness.  Such women deserve our sympathies and prayers. 

Indeed, all preachers’ wives deserve our consideration.  It certainly would help if we remembered to treat them as sisters rather than employees.  If we wouldn’t make a comment to another woman in the congregation, we probably shouldn’t make it to her either.  What’s more, we don’t have the right to expect more from her than we do from anyone else.  If she’s an employee, give her a job description and put her on the payroll.  If not, don’t treat her like one! 

Honestly, I don’t have a lot of optimism on this score.  I think the double standard for preachers’ wives in the church is so deeply rooted that a stick of dynamite wouldn’t blast it out.  However, it will help if we at least acknowledge the double standard and extend grace to women who don’t live up to it. 

Let’s hear it for preachers’ wives, then, who bear up nobly under the burdens of a thankless and demanding work!  Whether they excel or struggle, we ought to pray for them.  For that matter, we ought to pause to encourage and thank them.  They’re human beings too, and they universally appreciate a kind word.  I’m certain that on the day of judgment, their sacrifices will be remembered and honored.  The least we can do is to remember and honor them too.

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