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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.

Drifting Away

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Hebrews 2:1 contains one of the most sobering warnings in the entire Bible:  “For this reason, we must pay attention all the more to what we have heard, so that we will not drift away.”  A couple of verses later, the writer uses a rhetorical question to make the point that if we neglect the great salvation we have been given, we will not escape.  Nobody turns their back on Jesus and gets away with it!

This is deeply relevant to us for a couple of different reasons.  First, it shows that falling away is possible.  This truth is bound up in the very language of the text.  It is impossible to drift away from a place where you aren’t, and it’s impossible to neglect a salvation you don’t have.  Those who teach, then, that true Christians can’t fall away are misguided.  We can be in a state of grace now and fall from it later.

Of course, this concept is significant not merely in an abstract, doctrinal sense, but in a personal, concrete sense.  I can fall away.  You can fall away.  The godliest Christian any of us know, the distinguished preacher, the elder of the church, or the devout widow, all of these can fall away. 

The fault here is not in Jesus.  He has promised that no one will snatch us out of His hand.  We are immune to danger from outside forces, but we are not immune to danger from within.  We can willingly abandon the safety from which no one can remove us.  Indeed, unless we acknowledge the risk and humbly resolve to remain faithful, we infallibly will bring this disaster upon ourselves.

Second, the writer’s word choice also tells us how disaster will arrive.  Drifting away is not a sudden, violent activity.  Instead, it happens gradually, slowly, wavelet by wavelet. 

Neither is neglect.  Neglect is the result of failing to make an effort when the need to act doesn’t seem pressing or important.  The lawn doesn’t look much worse today than it looked yesterday, it’s hot out there, and I’d rather spend my Saturday in the woods than behind a lawnmower anyway.  However, if I continue to defer exertion, soon the front door is covered in nastygrams from the HOA, and they’re filming episodes of Tarzan in my front yard!

Spiritual disaster advances upon us in the same slow, subtle way.  It is the fruit of coming home from a long day of work on Wednesday and deciding that it’s too much effort to round up the kids and get everybody out to Bible class.  It is the result of closing our eyes metaphorically to the trashy side of that TV show we love to watch—but not closing them literally.  It is the outcome of a thousand tiny enticements to depart from Jesus in a way that still seems safe.  Nobody’s going to lose their soul over a Wednesday night or a Netflix drama, are they?

The problem is, though, that the more we draw away, the more reasonable extreme departures become.  Maybe a steamy period romance isn’t that far away from godliness, but neither is pornography that far away from steamy romances, nor an affair from porn.  It’s extremely easy for us to find ourselves in a spiritual position where we never intended to be.  The only way to make sure that we don’t drift away is to make sure that we don’t drift.

 

Disobedience and Unbelief

Monday, May 03, 2021

The epistle to the Hebrews might be the most tightly reasoned book in the whole Bible.  Sentence by sentence, clause by clause, the Hebrews writer constructs intricate arguments that establish the superiority of Christ over Moses and the folly of Christians returning to Judaism.  The more closely we read Hebrews, the more we will learn.

The care with which Hebrews is written makes the apparent logical disconnect in Hebrews 3:18-19 all the more surprising.  In context, the writer is discussing the Israelites who died in the wilderness during the time of Moses.  He says, “And to whom did [God] swear that they would not enter His rest, if not to those who disobeyed?  So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.”  

Hold on here, Hebrews writer!  You’ve given us evidence that God kept the Israelites from entering Canaan because of their disobedience.  Why are you acting like you’ve shown us that they had an unbelief problem instead?

The writer, and indeed the Holy Spirit, make this logical jump because they want us to realize that they aren’t making a logical jump at all.  Once the writer has established that the Israelites had a disobedience problem, he doesn’t have to prove that they had an unbelief problem—because disobedience and unbelief are THE SAME THING.  If we don’t believe God’s promises, we will not obey His word.  If we don’t obey His word, fundamentally, it is because we do not believe His promises.  Faith and obedience are inseparable.

This understanding is vital to us for at least two reasons.  First, it answers the tedious argument that we are saved by faith, not by works, so we don’t have to be baptized to be saved.  In reality, baptism is not an attempt to justify ourselves at all.  Instead, it is an expression of faith in the promises of God.  We believe that when the Holy Spirit says that baptism saves, He means it.  Accordingly, we obey the gospel.

 Second, it shows the importance of preaching, teaching, and study that builds faith.  Some brethren are interested only in preaching that is practical.  They want to be told about some godly thing that they can go home and do.

Instruction in righteous living is invaluable, full stop.  However, if we’re not careful, too much focus on the nuts and bolts of practical discipleship can leave us short on the motivation to be disciples.  Obedience is not and cannot be a just-because thing.  If hearing is not united with faith in us, we will not obey.

Instead, if we want to be obedient, we must look too to the parts of the Bible that build faith.  However remote the stories of the righteous men of old may seem to us, they all proclaim the same lesson:  God is a God who keeps His promises, so if we rely on Him, we will not be disappointed.  So too, the stories of the miracles of Jesus and His apostles, particularly the story of His resurrection, assure us that what He has promised, He is able to perform.  When our minds are filled with these things, it becomes much easier to make the right choices—because we know how deeply they matter.

Freedom and the Flesh

Monday, April 12, 2021

In 1 and 2 Corinthians, we encounter a young church full of new converts.  Some of these people have come out of gross immorality to draw near to God through Christ.  However, the Corinthians suffered from a predictable problem.  Rather than abandoning their former worldly thinking, they imported it into the church, so that even the Lord’s Supper became an opportunity for them to exalt themselves and shame others.

In Galatians 5:13-15, Paul condemns this worldly worldview.  He points out that in Christ, we have freedom.  We are freed from our sins; we are freed from the need to justify ourselves before God through works of merit.  However, he warns the Galatians that it is all too easy to use our freedom in Christ to express our fleshly desires.  Rather than loving and serving one another, we can find ourselves attacking and devouring one another.

Sad to say, this fleshly attitude is all too evident among God’s people 2000 years later, even among those who have been Christians for much longer than the Corinthians had.  Most of us have probably seen brethren who obeyed the gospel decades ago acting as though they had never come out of the world in the first place.  Contentiousness, self-will, and pride are fully as evident in them as they are in someone who never has set foot inside a church building.

If we are honest, each one of us will admit that this is a struggle for us.  All of us were toddlers once, and inside us all, that inner toddler remains.  We want what we want, we want it now, and if we don’t get what we want, we are inclined to pitch a fit. 

Sometimes, brethren cloak their personal outrage in doctrinal self-righteousness.  They will seize upon an obscure issue and insist that everyone follow their obscure position, or else.  Really, though, whether they realize it or not, the true problem is not their quirky interpretation of the Scriptures.  It is that they aren’t being honored in the way that they feel they deserve.

This is not how we have learned Christ.  As Paul tells the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 3:22, all things belong to us.  Our exaltation in Christ is so extraordinary that any of our attempts to exalt ourselves cannot change our position in any meaningful way.  It would be like me trying to make a meaningful contribution to the gold in Ft. Knox by tossing my wedding ring on the pile!

All things belong to us, so the affronts that matter so much to the world should be insignificant to us.  Brother X is a jerk.  Who cares?  We have Christ.  Sister Y insisted on her way.  Who cares?  We have Christ.  They are not rivals for the esteem that rightfully should be ours.  They are fellow heirs in Christ who offer us opportunities for service and love.  We must not bite and devour one another, but more importantly, we don’t need to bite and devour one another.  We already have been filled with Him.

The Guardian of the Law

Monday, April 05, 2021

When visitors from denominational backgrounds come to our assemblies, they are often puzzled by our tradition of a-cappella singing.  “Why don’t they use instruments?” they wonder.  If we explain that the Scriptures do not authorize the use of instruments in worship, they may be Biblically savvy enough to point to passages, usually from the Psalms, that contain commands to worship God with instrumental music.  Psalm 150:3-5 is the most prominent such passage, but there are others.

However, there’s a significant problem with assuming that what God bound on the ancient Jews is still binding on us today.  They served Him under a different law than we do.  They were bound by covenant to obey the Law of Moses, but we follow the law of Christ.

There are a number of passages in Scripture that make this point, but perhaps the clearest of them all is Galatians 3:24-25.  In this text, Paul compares the Law to a guardian.  Other translations here will say “schoolmaster” or “tutor”.  Colloquially, the English word that best captures the sense of the Greek original (paidagōgos) may be “crossing guard”—somebody whose job it is to make sure that a student arrives safely at school.

However, just as the guardian’s authority terminated when the student reached his destination, Paul reveals that the authority of the Law has ceased now that faith in Christ has arrived.  He tells the Galatians, “We are no longer under a guardian.” 

In context, Paul is particularly concerned with the Mosaic rite of circumcision, but his words have a much broader reach than that.  Some denominational commentators will attempt to divide the Law into two parts:  the ceremonial Law, which was nailed to the cross, and the moral Law, which continues.  This distinction was originally proposed by the Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas about 1000 years ago. 

Aside from the difficulty of applying this scheme (Is tithing part of the ceremonial Law or the moral Law?), I’ve never been able to find any Scriptural justification for it.  Rather, we should take Paul at his word.  Nothing in the Law of Moses continues in effect.

This does not mean that the Old Testament is valueless.  It gives us precious insight into the prophecies concerning Jesus, the nature of God, and the application of moral precepts that are repeated in the ordinances that govern us.  However, for a law to fall into that category, it must have been repeated by Jesus or His apostles and prophets as a rule for Christians to follow.

Thus, when it comes to instruments of music in Psalm 150, we must acknowledge that even though the psalm contains a stirring call to worship, those verses have nothing to do with us.  The only instrument authorized by the New Testament, according to Ephesians 5:19, is the instrument that we all must play when we worship—the heart.

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