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Baptized for the Dead?

Friday, September 21, 2018

 

Last month, the Jackson Heights church had a tent at the Maury County Fair.  Coincidentally, the tent across the walkway was manned by the Mormons.  One of our workers was feeling frisky, so he crossed the lane and started talking Bible with them.  However, they took him aback when they asked him about 1 Corinthians 15:29, which reads, “Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead?  If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them?”

This is one of the Mormons’ favorite texts because they, unlike (nearly?) everybody else, practice baptism for the dead.  They think that if you baptize a live person as a proxy for someone who has died, the dead person will benefit spiritually.  Among other things, this explains the Mormons’ interest in genealogy (Ancestry.com, for instance, is Mormon-owned).  They want to make sure that they know who their ancestors are so that they can get baptized for them.

When we take 1 Corinthians 15:29 by itself, this interpretation appears reasonable, even though it creates difficulties with other texts.  If the dead can be saved because we’re baptized on their behalf, what happens to the requirement that we must believe in Jesus in order to be saved?  This sort of problem alone should cause us to return to 1 Corinthians 15 to make sure that we understand baptism for the dead properly.

In fact, a reading of 15:29 in context reveals that Paul is talking about something else entirely.  Throughout the entire chapter, he’s addressing the claim by some know-it-all Corinthians that there is no resurrection of the dead.  The Stoics and the Epicureans, for instance, denied the possibility of resurrection, and their unbelief apparently seeped into the Corinthian church along with Gentile converts.

Paul argues against this worldly philosophy by pointing to the example of Christ.  His resurrection affirms our hope that someday we will be resurrected too.  Conversely, as Paul argues in 15:13, “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.”  From there, he reasons that if Christ has not been raised (and therefore remains dead), the entire Christian faith falls apart.

Verse 29 is an extension of this same argument.  If the dead are not raised, then even Christ is dead, and all of us who have been baptized because of Jesus have been baptized because of a dead man.  This would make baptism pointless.

After all, as Paul shows in Romans 6:1-11, baptism has spiritual value because it unites us with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.  As he writes in Romans 6:4, “We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”  If Christ was not raised from the dead (because there is no resurrection), nobody who has been baptized has risen to walk in newness of life either.

Rather than being an introduction of some bizarre new doctrine, then, 1 Corinthians 15:29 is a reaffirmation of one of the most important elements of our faith.  If Christ is dead, baptism is meaningless.  However, if He has risen from the dead, we now can know that baptism gives us life as the Father gave Him life.

I Am Weary, O God

Thursday, September 20, 2018

 

I am weary, O God, of transgression,
For the tempter has burdened my soul.
Yet by grace, I throw off his oppression
And return to Your gentle control.

I am weary, O God, of my sorrow,
Of the grief that endures day by day,
Yet Your mercy today and tomorrow
Will sustain me and straighten my way.

I am weary, O God, of this dwelling;
In the tent of my body, I groan,
Yet I trust in Your faithful foretelling:
In the heavens, a house of my own.

The Problem with Jeroboam II

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

 

In any secular history book, Jeroboam II would look like a successful king.  He reigned for 41 years in an age when length of reign correlated with political power.  Militarily, he was one of the greatest commanders among the monarchs of Israel.  During his reign, he brought the seesaw wars between Israel and Syria to a victorious conclusion.  By the time he was done, Jeroboam II had conquered not only the Syrian capital of Damascus but even the city of Hamath, 100 miles further north.  Not since the reign of Solomon had Israelite power reached so far.

However, there was a problem.  Even though God had used Jeroboam II to deliver Israel from Syrian oppression, he himself was not a righteous man.  1 Kings 14:24 reports that he was every bit as idolatrous as his namesake, Jeroboam the son of Nebat. 

As a result, even though Jeroboam II’s success was impressive, it wasn’t lasting.  His son and successor Zechariah only reigned for six months before being assassinated in a palace coup.  None of the subsequent kings of Israel came close to Jeroboam II’s success, and during the reign of Hoshea, the Assyrians carried the Israelites off into captivity.  Under Jeroboam II, Israel prospered for a time, but because they didn’t build on a foundation of godliness, they did not endure.

We do well to remember that this same principle applies today.  Everywhere around us, we see people and institutions that are apparently prospering despite their rejection of God’s will.  Men who love money more than anything else build thriving businesses.  Churches that have abandoned the New Testament have thousands of people in attendance on Sunday morning.  Those within our nation who advocate turning our backs on God appear to be growing more powerful every year.

However, as was the case with Jeroboam II, success without God only sows the seeds of later disaster.  Men who sacrifice their families on the altar of business ambition generally come to regret it on their deathbeds if not before.  Churches that thrive because of a charismatic pastor and a fast-and-loose approach to the Scriptures hardly ever continue to prosper after the pastor exits the pulpit.  Similarly, those in our nation who take their stand against the Lord will do no better than similar challengers have for millennia.

Sometimes, it’s hard for us to bear with the success of the wicked, especially when in our own judgment, we ourselves aren’t succeeding nearly as well.  However, a longer-term perspective will reveal the truth.  As Psalm 1 puts it, the wicked are like chaff that the wind drives away.  Only the righteous will endure like a tree planted beside a stream.  At best, the wicked can hope to be like Jeroboam II, but even being like Jeroboam II isn’t very good. 

New Hymns and the 10-Minute Rule

Friday, September 14, 2018

 

Much of the discussion about “Oceans” last week centered on the issue of congregational suitability.  Content questions aside (and content isn’t the biggest problem with “Oceans”), I and many others look at “Oceans” and see a hymn that is too difficult for the congregation.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that a congregation can’t eventually kind-of learn “Oceans”.  If you want to grind away at it for several weeks of new-song class, you can get it off the ground, at least for people who can read music.  Non-singers will probably take considerably longer than that to get the hang of it, if indeed they ever do.  Lots of hymns and praise songs are in this category.

However, just because you can slowly and painfully force a group to learn a song doesn’t mean that it’s congregational.  In fact, it means that it isn’t.  One of the hallmarks of congregational music is that it is easy to learn, so that ordinary Christians can quickly and painlessly begin to worship with it.  An unsuitable hymn will take weeks to learn; a suitable hymn will take minutes.

I mean this literally.  During my time at Joliet, I introduced more than 100 hymns to the congregation there, via a small group that met outside of the assembly.  Typically, about 20 people would show up for a hymn-learning session.  Maybe half of those could read music.  They were good singers, but none of them were music professionals or anything like that. 

After a year or two, we fell into a rhythm.  We’d sing the melody together until the song leaders present felt like they had it down.  Then, we’d sing parts until everybody felt like they had their parts down.  Wash, rinse, repeat.  Using this method, we would learn 6-7 hymns in an hour-long session.  Some of these hymns were centuries old.  Others, like “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us”, had been written in the past few years.

From this, I derive the 10-Minute Rule.  If your church sight-reading group can learn a hymn in 10 minutes or less, it’s congregationally appropriate.  If it takes you weeks of grinding, you’re trying to learn something that wasn’t written with the congregation in mind.  What’s more, you’re learning one song when you could have expanded the repertoire by half a dozen with wiser song selection.

The grind method is problematic not just for its effect on the poor, suffering sight readers, but for its effect on the invisible majority.  People who can’t read music will always have a tougher time learning to worship with a new hymn than people who can.  The harder the music is, the more these difficulties will be magnified.  It may well be that rote learners will never reach the point where they can sing an “Oceans” confidently because they are always being surprised by the rhythm.  This sounds terrible, and it distracts worshipers from worship. 

When it comes to worship, content is king, but even great content can be defeated by bad mechanics.  There are hundreds of songs, both new and old, that have strong content and are easy to sing.  If we can learn a new hymn in 10 minutes, why spend hours on one that isn’t 10 times as good?

Workers at Home

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

 

A few weeks ago, I was asked to lead a study on gender roles in 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus.  I admit that I received the assignment with some amount of fear and trembling (There are a few opinions on 1 Timothy 2 in the brotherhood.  A few.), but the study itself went well.  However, the discussion was so involved that we didn’t get to any of the material I had prepared on Titus, particularly the instructions to young women in Titus 2:4-5. 

Of the attributes listed in those two verses, “working at home” (the ESV rendering) especially caught my attention.  Many Christians read this phrase (more specifically, the KJV rendering of “keepers at home”) as defining the woman of God’s station in life.  Though she may be forced by circumstances to work outside the home, ideally the home is where she should remain.  She is to be a stay-at-home.  A house-keeper.  According to this way of thinking, when Christian women could do this but choose not to, there’s something spiritually suspect about their decision.

Though I would never criticize a sister for choosing to devote herself to domestic pursuits (indeed, my own wife is a stay-at-home mom who homeschools our children), I don’t think the text requires her to do so.  First of all, there’s a slight translation issue here.  The ESV and KJV readings are based on different Greek words from different Greek manuscripts.  The KJV’s “keepers at home” comes from the Greek oikouros, which does indeed mean “housekeeper”.    However, manuscript evidence points to the conclusion that Paul’s original letter used oikourgos, “worker at home”. 

These are two related but different ideas.  A housekeeper’s function is exclusive.  However, the home-worker’s function is not.  I work at the church building, but I don’t spend all my time here (though my wife may disagree!).  Oikourgos thus leaves more rhetorical space for other pursuits.

Similarly, I think it’s important to pay attention to context.  Paul reveals why he thinks it’s important for a woman to be a worker at home.  It’s the same reason as for every other instruction he gives to young Christian women—so that the word of God won’t be reviled. 

This is a common preoccupation in the Pastoral Epistles.  Paul is concerned with the impression that Christians are making on the communities around them.  He wants to make sure that disciples have a good reputation so that they will be able to share the gospel with others.

When we read “working at home” in this light, a slightly different picture emerges.  So that she doesn’t bring discredit on the cause of Christ, the Christian woman should maintain her home and its inhabitants in a way that meets the standards of society.  The front yard of her house shouldn’t be filled with toys and trash.  When her children go off to school, they should be clean, fed, and with provisions for lunch in hand.  Even if her house won’t always pass a white-glove inspection, she shouldn’t feel afraid to invite in unexpected visitors.  We know the rules.  Basically, don’t do the things that will get the neighbors talking about you behind your back.

This doesn’t have a whole lot to do with whether a woman works outside the home or not.  I know sisters who hold down full-time jobs yet manage to keep their domestic economy running smoothly.  On the other hand, I know some stay-at-home Christian moms whose lifestyle I can only describe as slatternly.  Certainly, more time makes it easier to keep on top of the household, but if a woman can balance work and home responsibilities, more power to her!

Checking the cultural check-boxes is important, but I think our analysis should go deeper still.  As with our word “home”, the Greek oikos is about more than a physical structure.  It relates as much to a family as it does to the place where they live.  A woman of God who is an oikourgos, then, isn’t merely a worker at home.  She’s also a worker at family. 

Obviously, the physical needs of husbands and children are important, but their emotional and spiritual needs are no less important.  A woman who cares for the body without tending to the soul isn’t running a home.  She’s operating a hotel. 

Instead, part of her charge must be to make her house a home.  This starts with the other items on the Titus 2 list.  She must love her husband and her children, and they must know that they are loved.  She must govern her body and her passions, lest she find herself in the position of the foolish woman of Proverbs 14:1.  She must be kind.  She must honor her husband as the head of her family, especially when she doesn’t want to.

However, as with all Scriptural lists of virtues, this one is far from exhaustive.  Instead, the woman of God must seek out all the things that will help her family to flourish (including working outside the home if that’s what’s best for the family).  This includes the laborious task of teaching children to be self-sufficient.  Paradoxically, it is the children’s ability to leave a home and thrive that shows that a mother’s work in that home was successful.

This is a universal activity.  There have been homes and families and mothers since the beginning.  However, simply because it is common does not mean that it is low.  Jesus Himself knelt to wash feet, and even if the world might look down on a family-first woman (just as family men are sneered at), her humility and willingness to serve will win for her a lofty status in the kingdom.

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