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The Faith of Habakkuk

Thursday, July 23, 2020

It probably won’t surprise most of you to learn that I’m a worrier.  I come by it honestly; my father before me was a worrier too.  Nonetheless, I’m apt to lose myself in fretting over the future of the country, the future of the church, the future of my family, and all sorts of other things I can’t control. 

It was with great interest, then, that I saw a Facebook friend posting the other day about the book of Habakkuk.  Just as we do, Habakkuk lived in a time of great turmoil, and just like me, he worried about the future.  However, unlike any of us, Habakkuk got to engage in a direct dialogue with God, and the conclusion he reaches afterward is both profound and as relevant to us as it was to him.  This morning, then, let’s consider the faith of Habakkuk.

When I look at the book, I divide it into four unequal sections.  The first stretches from Habakkuk 1:1-2:1.  It teaches us that GOD CAN USE THE WICKED TO JUDGE THE WICKED.  The Chaldeans were even more wicked than the Jews they were about to conquer, and we see Habakkuk struggling with that.  However, God still was in control, and His judgments still were just. 

So too for us.  If we feel like Christianity in our country is under threat, both from internal and external enemies, we should understand even the triumph of those enemies as a judgment from God.  Nothing less than the Babylonian Captivity could humble and purify the Jews, and it may well be that God has decided that His people today need to be humbled and purified too.  He continues to direct the course of history, and even the people who think they have rebelled against Him will end up carrying out His will.

I see a second main section in Habakkuk 2:2-17.  It shows that ONLY FAITHFULNESS CAN PROTECT US FROM WRATH.  In Habakkuk’s day, the Chaldeans looked unstoppable.  However, God promises him that their judgment was coming too.  They would be repaid for all the wrong they were doing.  In fact, the only ones who were going to make it through were the righteous, who would live by their faith.  This idea, which is found in Habakkuk 2:4, is so important that the passage is quoted three times in the New Testament.

The lesson is plain for us.  We might get outraged about how the enemies of God in our day seem to be prospering, but we can be sure that He has His eye on them too.  Their time is coming.  Rather than worrying about how things should turn out, we should focus on staying faithful.  The math here is simple.  The faithful will live, but the proud won’t.

The third section of the book runs from Habakkuk 2:18-3:15.  Part of it is prophecy, and part of it is prayer, but the message of all of it is that GOD IS MIGHTY AND WILL ACCCOMPLISH HIS PURPOSE.  Indeed, the text draws a contrast between the idols of the nations in the first section, who can’t do anything, and God in the second section, who can do whatever He wants to. 

Though we don’t see people worshiping statues too much today, we live in an idolatrous time.  Just as the Scripture discusses, there are people around us who make an idol out of money.  So too, there are those who make idols out of politics, government, and even science.  The stock market jumps up every time there’s a successful COVID vaccine trial, but even if a vaccine will keep us safe from COVID, it can’t keep us safe from death.  Whatever the idol, though, idolatry is vain.  In the end, only God will prevail.

This takes us to our final section, which appears in Habakkuk 3:16-19.  Its point is simple:  TRUST IN GOD, NO MATTER WHAT.  Notice the contrast.  On the one hand, Habakkuk is terrified of the invasion that he knows is coming.  On the other hand, though, even if things get so bad that there isn’t any food left, he will continue to rejoice in God. 

I don’t know what the future holds.  It may be that the present distress is just a blip on the radar screen, and we’ve got an era of prosperity and peace stretching ahead of us.  It may be that things will be worse than I can imagine, and that’s pretty bad! 

This I know, though:  the future still will have God in it, and for all of us, that’s enough.  We do not know how He will save and redeem and care for us, but we know He will.  Like Habakkuk, we always will be able to rejoice, because we have the one thing that matters.

Sound Teaching

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

For those of you who aren’t aware, right now, there is a brotherhood-wide split occurring in mainline churches of Christ.  I have friends who attend mainline churches who believe the split already has occurred.  The sources of division are questions that we would consider fundamental.  Can churches of Christ use musical instruments in their assemblies?  Is it permissible for women to lead in the assembly?  Can you belong to a church and join in its work if you haven’t been baptized for the forgiveness of your sins?  Those in progressive churches of Christ these days will answer “Yes,” to all three of those questions.

To be honest, brethren, I find this shocking.  How can it be that these churches have gone so far so quickly?  How can it be that even the one baptism of Ephesians 4:5 has come under attack?  Of course, a little bit of thought provides the answer to the question.  Consider 2 Timothy 1:13.  It tells us that we are to hold on to the New Testament pattern of sound teaching.  Clearly, these churches have failed to do that.

The same thing can happen to us.  Indeed, if we are not vigilant, it will happen to us.  Lest we drift away, we must concern ourselves with clinging ever more tightly to the Scriptures.  This evening, then, let’s contemplate the subject of sound teaching.

First, let us note that sound teaching DEMANDS HUMILITY from us.  Look at what James says in James 1:21.  He tells us that if we want the word to implant itself in us and save our souls, first we must humble ourselves before it.

This statement probably would draw amens from across the religious spectrum, but let’s pause for a moment to think about what it means.  Humility means that we care about what the word of God says instead of what we want to do.  Humility means that we place all of our confidence in the wisdom of God and none in our human wisdom. 

In practice, humility means that we will do what God says and only what God says, because that’s the conclusion to which submission and trust lead.  If it’s in the law of Christ, it doesn’t matter how little we like it or how unwise we think it is.  We will obey.

Without this humility, there’s really no point to studying the Bible or trying to serve God at all.  Pride is all the opening that the devil needs.  When we run into one of those hard sayings of Jesus, he will whisper in our ear that we don’t really have to listen to the Lord.  When we find apparent foolishness in the word, he will pat us on the back for how wise and understanding we are.  Every time, he will use our pride to lead us straight to destruction.

Instead, we should adopt the sentiments of Solomon’s prayer in 1 Kings 3:7.  We all are little children.  We all do not know how to go out and come in.  However, if we humble ourselves completely before our heavenly Father, and we do only what He says to do, everything will work out all right.

Second, sound teaching DECLARES THE WHOLE PLAN OF GOD.  Consider Acts 20:26-27.  There’s a warning here for every preacher and teacher of God’s word.  Paul says that because he declared the whole plan of God to the Ephesian elders, he will be innocent of their blood.  If they go astray, it won’t be his fault.  However, if he had taught them only the easy parts of God’s plan, he would have destroyed himself along with them.

I think this highlights one of the more difficult features of the gospel.  It is often the case that the parts of the Bible that we most need to hear are the parts we least want to hear.  They demand that we admit unwelcome truth, and they require us to give up cherished parts of our lives. 

However, this gets back to humility.  Are we going to listen to God all the time, or are we going to listen to Him only when the listening is pleasant?  If the latter, we’re not really serving God.  We’re serving ourselves and applying a Christian gloss to our selfishness.

In fact, I think this is exactly what is going on in those progressive churches.  We know that Bible teaching on baptism is unpopular.  There are many in our community who would have no problem joining our church—if only we didn’t demand that they be baptized for the forgiveness of sins first.  If we let anybody become a member, regardless of their salvation experience, a big stumbling block has been abolished.

Bible teaching on the role of women in the church is unpopular too.  Lots of people in the world are going to write us off as a bunch of chauvinists because we won’t let women, even talented women, get up in the pulpit and preach.

The thing is, though, that unless we teach on these controversial subjects, and unless we practice what we preach, we are not declaring the whole plan of God.  No women in authority in the church is part of that plan.  Baptism for the forgiveness of sins is part of it too.  We cannot change God’s revealed will.  All we can decide is whether we are going to honor it or not.

Finally, sound doctrine REMAINS IN CHRIST’S TEACHING.  Let’s read from 2 John 8-10.  John makes clear here that this is a very real danger.  It is all too possible for Christians to go beyond the teaching of Christ and so lose their reward. 

This should lead us to ask what going beyond the teaching of Christ means.  I think the concept here is pretty simple.  When we teach and practice the things that Christ and His apostles taught, we are remaining in His teaching.  On the other hand, when Christ and His apostles didn’t teach something, and we teach and practice it anyway, we go beyond His teaching, much like the deceivers mentioned in v. 6.

This is simple to understand, but through the centuries, it has proven to be quite difficult to apply.  The devil loves to convince God’s people to go beyond God’s teaching.  Here too, he appeals to our pride.  He seeks to persuade us that adding something to the divinely inspired pattern will be an improvement. 

He also seeks to minimizes the consequences.  Surely God wouldn’t condemn someone to hell for doing that!  I don’t know about y’all, but when the devil tells me it isn’t dangerous, and the Holy Spirit tells me in 2 John 8 that it is dangerous, I’m going to go with the Holy Spirit!

This, I fear, is what is going on with churches of Christ that are adopting instrumental music.  We all know what is written in the Scriptures about our song worship.  There is nothing in the New Testament that permits us to adopt the instrument.  Bringing the instrument in, then, is going beyond the teaching of Christ.

At this point, some brethren want to ask if I’m sure that everybody who uses the instrument is going to hell.  I think that’s the wrong question.  We need to worry less about the precise extent to which something is wrong and worry more about devoting ourselves to what is right.  Let’s ask if we want to submit humbly to God, if we trust that His way is best, if we want to remain faithfully within the teachings of His Son.  If the answer to those questions is “Yes,” the instrument never will make an appearance.

Faith and Family

Monday, July 20, 2020

On my father’s side, I can trace membership in the Lord’s church back to my great-great grandparents, the Dawsons (Great-Great Grandpa Bassford was a Methodist lay preacher, alas).  On my mother’s side, my Breuer ancestors were Christians before the Civil War.  I count myself blessed to be descended from generations of people of faith.  Instead of the legacy of sin and its consequences with which many Christians struggle, my familial legacy generally is one of righteousness.

However, being related to righteous people is a far cry from being righteous oneself.  Jesus makes this point in Luke 11:27-28.  A woman in the crowd blesses Mary for having given birth to Him, but He replies, “Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.”  The Lord here is not denying that His mother was blessed (see Luke 1:42, for instance).  Instead, He wants us to understand that as important as family can be in our spiritual lives, serving God ourselves is far more important.

Sadly, many people from godly families miss the point.  They don’t necessarily abandon the faith of their parents and grandparents entirely, but neither do they embrace it for themselves.  They keep showing up at church because that’s easier than having a knockdown drag-out fight with Mama, and they avoid public sin (same reason), but their lives do not reveal devotion to Christ. 

Regular Bible reading?  Nope.  Prayer without ceasing?  Not hardly.  Evangelism?  Ask somebody else.  Hatred of secret sin?  Well. . .

Sure, they keep showing up for services, on Sunday morning, at least, but one gets the distinct impression that if their family had been associated with some denominational church instead, that denominational church is where they would be attending.  They are generational Christians, and their faith is somebody else’s, not their own.

Though being a generational Christian is by definition following the path of least resistance, that path also is one of deadly danger.  Those who are righteous only when it is easy will stray when righteousness becomes difficult, and the devil is very good at accomplishing exactly that.  The first truly alluring temptation, the first difficult trial, and the generational Christian will fall like an overripe fruit.

However, a significant break with the church may not even be necessary for Satan to achieve his goal.  The Laodiceans were churchgoers.  They weren’t charged with egregious sin like the Christians in Pergamum and Thyatira.  In fact, they weren’t up to much at all in spiritual terms, and that was exactly the problem.  In Revelation 3:19, Jesus warns them that they need to repent.  Lukewarm disciples represent a win for the devil, not the Lord, and apathy is as much a part of the makeup of generational Christians as godly ancestors are.

There’s nothing wrong with having Christian parents and grandparents, but there’s something terribly wrong with trying to coast into heaven on their spiritual momentum.   Even if we learned our faith from our loved ones, we have to make that faith our own.  We have to be the ones who choose to hear the word of God and keep it ourselves.  If we do not, our precious family legacy will count for nothing.

The People Who Don't Want to Be Free

Friday, July 17, 2020

One of the most revealing exchanges in the Bible occurs in John 8:31-33.  Jesus promises the Jews freedom through following Him and learning His truth, and the Jews turn Him down flat.  The problem is that in order to be freed, the Jews had to have been slaves, and they don’t want to acknowledge that.  In their own words, “We are descendants of Abraham, and we have never been enslaved to anyone.”

Logically speaking, the first half of the statement doesn’t appear to have a whole lot of relevance to the second.  In the Bible, Abraham’s descendants spend a lot of time being slaves:  to the Egyptians, to the Moabites, the Midianites, and the Philistines, and to the Assyrians and the Babylonians.  In fact, even since the restoration from captivity, the Jews largely have been under the control of a foreign power and not ruling themselves.  They certainly wanted a Messiah who would liberate them from the Romans!

However, Jesus isn’t even talking about that.  He’s talking about slavery to sin, which everyone since the time of Adam has experienced.  Nonetheless, because they hate the label of “slave” so much, the Jews refuse to listen to the One who offers them freedom.

Today, much the same thing happens.  We live in a sin-sick society, and yet perversely, so many celebrate the sins that enslave them as sources of freedom.  We are sexually liberated, and yet sexual sin leaves in its wake STD’s, abortion, single-parent families, divorce, and broken homes.  We are free to pursue our greed, and the result is giant houses that we don’t spend time in filled with junk we don’t use, and ever-increasing salaries vanish beneath ever-increasing mountains of debt.  We are free to speak our minds, but our careless words produce contention, division, and bitterness, both in our in-person relationships and online.

The result appears paradoxical to anyone who doesn’t understand the schemes of Satan.  We have all this freedom, and we exercise our freedom freely, but we end up enslaved and unhappy.  Some kind of freedom that is!

So too, submission to Christ leads to a paradoxical result.  Discipleship is demanding.  It requires us to shun the worldly pleasures in which our friends and neighbors revel.  Rather than looking like fun, walking the strait and narrow looks like a lot of work!

However, when we discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness, we make a strange discovery.  Just as the freedom of sin leads to servitude, so too servitude to Christ leads to freedom.  We learn that the things we are tempted to do are not good for us and do not benefit us, and we find joy in the practice of righteousness.  We are set free from sin, not only from its guilt, but from the misery of its dominion.

The life of the Christian is indeed a life of freedom, a life intended for the flourishing of humankind.  When we are not crushed beneath our pleasures, we can dedicate ourselves to the noble joys of loving God and loving one another.  We are freed to be merciful, to be compassionate, to be kind, to be peaceable, to be gentle, and to be grateful.  Ironically, only when we give ourselves over wholly to Christ do we truly find ourselves.

The Law and the Christian

Friday, July 10, 2020

During the church leadership meeting last November, one of the suggestions that was made to Clay and me was that we look for opportunities to preach timely sermons about topics that were on everyone’s minds.  Then 2020 happened, and lo and behold!  Opportunities to preach timely sermons have abounded!

Many of these opportunities have to do with the relationship between the Christian and the government.  For instance, I have seen Christians who live in states that have made mask-wearing mandatory insisting that they are going to refuse to wear a mask anyway.  Similarly, there are some who, in the light of the recent racial tension in our country, are arguing not merely that the police should be defunded (which can mean any number of things) but that the police should be disbanded (which means what it sounds like). 

Where, as children of God, should we stand on these issues?  What guidance does the Bible give us?  Let’s answer these questions tonight as we consider the law and the Christian.

In this regard, we first must examine what the Scriptures say about THE ORIGIN OF GOVERNMENT.  Here, let’s look at Romans 13:1-4.  Right from the very beginning, Paul tells us where governments come from.  No authority exists apart from God, and every government has received its authority from God.  Thus, along with the family and the church, the government is an institution created by God. 

Additionally, this text tells us what the government primarily is supposed to do.  Our government today does all sorts of things, from issuing fishing licenses to supporting National Public Radio.  Paul, though, regards government as doing two main things:  terrifying would-be criminals into good behavior and punishing those who do wrong.  Thus, it is not only true that the government is instituted by God.  Law enforcement also is instituted by God.

Against this Biblical truth, I want to set a claim advanced by the disband-the-police people and even repeated by some brethren:  that the police departments in our country were originally created to track down and capture escaped slaves.  Though this may be correct in some places in the South, countrywide, it generally is not.  The Los Angeles Police Department, for instance, began in response to a crime wave following the ’49 California Gold Rush.  Now, certainly, the LAPD has plenty of racist incidents in its history, but to claim that it was founded as an act of racism doesn’t fit the historical facts. 

This has significant implications for the way we should look at police departments nationwide.  If indeed law enforcement were wholly evil in its origins, we ought to burn it down and start over.  However, if what we’re dealing with is an institution perfect in its divine origin but imperfect in its human implementation, that should call us not to revolution, but to reform. 

It is undeniably true that through the years, some police officers have trampled on the rights of black people in this country in many and serious ways.  We must do better.  However, if we abandon God’s plan for the ordering of humankind, that ultimately will help no one.

Second, let’s ponder the Christian’s responsibility to HONOR THE GOVERNMENT.  Look at Romans 13:5-7.  In v. 5, Paul instructs us to submit to the government, to obey its laws.  Unlike would-be evildoers, we don’t abide by the law because we are afraid of punishment.  We do so because we are subject to Christ, and those are His expectations. 

This tells us all we need to know about mask-wearing.  I live in a jurisdiction that encourages but does not require the wearing of masks in public spaces.  That leaves us free to act according to our consciences.  I personally choose to wear a mask as a show of respect for the government, but other Christians may decide to do differently, and that’s their right.  However, when a state or locality requires mask-wearing, this text tells us that we don’t have any choice.  Either we submit to the government, or we sin. 

The only exception to this arises when a human government enacts a law that contradicts the commandments of God and we are forced to choose between the two.  For instance, if Tennessee made singing in the assembly illegal as California has done, that might be a law that Christians have to seriously consider disobeying for the sake of conscience.  When human law contradicts divine law, we must obey God rather than men.

However, our general duty to obey the government applies not only when the government is good and just, but also when it is tyrannical and oppressive.  Paul wrote the book of Romans during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero, who was one of the most disgusting, evil, depraved human beings ever to sit a throne.  Even when he took Christians and turned them into human torches to light his garden parties, Christians still were responsible for submitting quietly to the Empire. 

Christians are not to be criminals.  We are not to be rebels.  We are not to cause civil disorder.  We are to continue to live quiet lives and look to God to deliver us.

Honoring the government also extends to the respect that we show government officials.  In similar language to what we see in Romans 13, Peter tells us in 1 Peter 2 that we are to honor the emperor as well as those who serve him.  Anytime we encounter a member of law enforcement, whether we think they are worthy of the uniform or not, we are to treat them like someone who is doing God’s work.

This same honor should be evident in our speech when the government official isn’t around.  Again, this is true regardless of who the official is.  It has not escaped my notice that some Christians have been very loud about honoring the president for the past four years, while they spent the eight years before that saying abusive, insulting things about the previous president.  Brethren, that’s hypocritical and ungodly!  Lowering ourselves to the level of partisan strife is unworthy of the gospel of Christ.

Finally, though, let’s study what we can do as Christians in ASSERTING OUR RIGHTS.  Turn here to Acts 22:23-29.  If you’ll recall, Clay preached on the two verses right before this last week.  It’s striking to see how issues of race and government arose together 2000 years ago too!

In any case, here’s what’s going on.  The commander wanted to know why the Jews were rioting, so his solution was to scourge Paul until he started talking.  However, Paul was a Roman citizen, and Roman citizens could not be examined by torture until they had been condemned of a crime. 

Paul, then, as the soldiers are tying him down to start flogging him, asks if it’s lawful to do this to a Roman citizen, knowing perfectly well what the answer was.  Once they figure out that he’s a citizen, the commander and all his men are terrified.  Roman law was not kind to people who ignored the rights of Roman citizens!  Thus, Paul uses his rights under the law to ensure just treatment for himself.

Today, Christians can do the same thing, even in response to unjust treatment at the hands of local officials.  Under the Constitution, we have many rights that were not available to the Romans.  We can elect our leaders.  We can speak out against injustice.  We can assemble peaceably to demand redress of our grievances.  We can insist on due process of law before we are deprived of life, liberty, or property.  We’re not being troublemakers when we exercise these rights.  Instead, we are walking in the footsteps of the apostle Paul.

The only exceptions arise when our rights according to the laws of the United States exceed our freedom in Christ.  For instance, the First Amendment gives me the right to say disrespectful, insulting things about the president.  Christ, though, doesn’t give me that right, and ultimately, it is His will for our lives that must control us.

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