UnityTuesday, August 23, 2022
Last week, I told you that because of the graciousness of Clay, I was going to be able to preach three farewell sermons, not just one. I intend to use these sermons to focus on the three main personality traits of the Jackson Heights church, the things that will enable us to remain healthy and strong for years to come if we continue in them. Last week we talked about kindness; today we will explore unity.
During the pandemic, this congregation showed its commitment to unity. Other churches got in fusses or even split, but this one remained united in submission to the elders. I applaud all of you for that, but unity is a process, not an event. Years or decades from now, other challenges to unity will arise, and unless the people of this congregation are prepared for them, they will wreak havoc. This morning, then, let's examine Christian unity.
This begins with the basis of unity. We see it described in 1 Thessalonians 2:13. At first glance, this seems like an odd place to start studying unity. After all, the verse doesn't even mention the word! Instead, it describes the attitude with which the Thessalonians received the preaching of Paul. They didn't treat it like a message from a mere man. They treated it like the word of God.
This, indeed, is one of the things that we must believe in order to be disciples of Christ. We must believe that the Bible is the word of God and treat it differently from any other message. There are, after all, any number of human ideas that we might encounter. We evaluate those critically, accepting what seems good to us and rejecting what seems bad.
However, that is not the appropriate way to treat the word of God. People can be wrong; God can't be. Thus, the only appropriate response to divine revelation is to accept it without question.
Therefore, the Bible can be a basis for unity unlike any other. We might have all sorts of opinions about how we should worship and serve God. Some of those ideas might be good; some of them might be bad. If we found our church on ideas like that, any of us could very reasonably decide that we disagree and split the church over them.
By contrast, no such reasonable disagreement can exist over what God has revealed. God has told His people to sing, and if we truly honor Him, we cannot dispute that we should sing in our worship. In the New Testament, we see various ways that churches used their money. We know all of those ways are right, and they don't leave any room for argument either. Thus, if we limit our practice to what God has told us to do, unity must be preserved in our congregation because there is no godly basis for taking issue with any of it.
I fear that we have largely forgotten this today, but this was one of the main reasons why the leaders of the Restoration urged a return to the Bible. Within the Bible, there is no opportunity for sectarian division. Consider, for instance, this quotation from Alexander Campbell. It comes from the Millennial Harbinger, volume 3, page 5. It reads:
“We can only say, that all the items of our faith being facts supported by the testimony of Apostles and Prophets, there can be no article of faith in danger in all that we have written. But in our views of certain sayings, or in our opinions of these facts, it is possible we have not always coincided exactly with the Apostles. Hence the necessity of founding Christian union, communion, and cooperation upon the belief of facts—upon faith and obedience, rather than upon agreement in opinions.”
This must be our goal today too, to found our unity upon the belief of facts rather than upon agreement in opinions. Only then can we be sure that we will remain united.
Second, let us consider the development of unity. Paul explains this process in Ephesians 4:11-13. Here, he describes four categories of helpers given to the church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers. The apostles and prophets help us today only through the word, but we still have preachers and elders. All of these different men, though, work toward the same purpose. We equip the saints and build up the body until everyone reaches knowledge, maturity, and unity.
This is a rich concept! Among other things, it shows that unity is the product of Bible study. Sometimes, we think that unity is the product of sheer determination to be united. When churches split, it's because they didn't want unity badly enough.
Instead, this passage points us to a defect in teaching. Christians fail to be united because they have not been equipped and built up.
We are equipped and built up for the purpose of unity in two main ways. The first of these is knowledge of the Biblical pattern. Sadly, there are all kinds of self-described believers out there who could not be united with us because they are ignorant of the Bible's teaching about the early church. To return to Alexander Campbell's language, they can't be united by belief in the facts because they don't know the facts.
The cure for the disease is obvious. Teach the facts! If we want unity, we must make sure that everyone here knows what the early church did. It's not a long or complicated list, but it's one that we must return to regularly to ensure that we all stay on the same page.
Second, we must emphasize the importance of unity and the danger of division. The Bible has very little to say about a number of the hobby horses that preachers like to ride, but it is filled with exhortations to unity and warnings against division. When we know the facts, we know how we can be united in following God's pattern. When we know the Bible’s teaching on unity, we know how important it is to stick to that pattern.
Finally, let's contemplate the biggest threat to unity. Paul defines it in Philippians 2:1-3. He tells us that if we want to be united in spirit, we must do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit. This seems like an unlikely problem to arise. After all, all of us are people of goodwill. We don't want to be selfish or conceited!
However, it’s a problem that every one of us can create. It comes about because of our opinions. As we have already seen, unity created by agreement in opinions is much more fragile than agreement based on belief in the facts. If our unity is based on opinions, it will last only until one of us very reasonably changes our mind.
As a result, introducing human opinions into the work and worship of the church is a deadly threat to unity. We have moved from the realm of what God has said is right to the realm of what we think is right. When we start insisting that others must line up with our opinions, that's when we're acting out of conceit.
Sometimes, preachers want to start drawing lines in the sand here. They want to say that a church that practices X that is not in the Bible is apostate and doomed. Frankly, I think that's beside the point. We don't have to know that doing X will send people to hell. All we have to know is that it is not in the Bible and thus is a threat to unity. When we understand how desperately Jesus wants His people to be one, why would we even try to bring something like that in?
This, then, is my final exhortation to this congregation about unity. Stick to the Bible. Do only the things that are in the Bible. Don't try pushing your opinions and clever ideas on others. As long as this church stays committed to the Scriptural pattern in all things, its unity will never be broken.
Right Message, Wrong AudienceMonday, August 22, 2022
At first glance, the narrative of Exodus 2:11-14 appears to be one of impulsiveness and immaturity. Moses, a 40-year-old resident of Pharaoh's household, decided to visit his Hebrew kinfolk. He sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, strikes the tormentor dead, and hides the body. The next day, he tries to break up a fight between Hebrews and gets a snarky retort about the Egyptian he killed yesterday. He realizes that the word is out and flees for his life.
However, the inspired reading of this story, as provided by Stephen in Acts 7:23-28, doesn't lay any of the blame on the future lawgiver. According to Stephen, Moses expected his people to understand that God had sent him to deliver them, but they missed the point. The exile of Moses in Midian, then, doesn't represent 40 years in which he needed to grow up. Instead, it represents 40 years of unnecessary suffering by the Israelites because they rejected the one God had chosen to lead them to freedom.
As Stephen reveals during the rest of his final sermon, this is not a unique problem for the Jews. Their fathers had rejected God's chosen deliverer Joseph, and they themselves had rejected God’s chosen deliverer Jesus. Of course, this problem isn't limited to the descendants of Abraham. To this day, members of every nation under heaven reject those whom God has sent to teach them.
Let's look at this first from the perspective of the teacher. Today, many Christians consider evangelism to be work best suited for highly trained diplomats. You have to say everything just right and give no grounds for offense if you want to lead someone to the Lord. In many cases, they base their beliefs on their own experience. They themselves tried to lead a sinner to Christ, they didn't say everything just right, the sinner rejected the gospel, and they blame themselves for it.
Generally, the explanation is much simpler. Moses certainly didn't do everything exactly right in his first attempt to rescue the Israelites, but it was still their fault for rejecting him. In the same way, if we don't present the gospel in exactly the right way and people reject it, they’re not rejecting our approach. They're rejecting the gospel. They weren't ready to hear it, and they may never be ready to hear it.
Sometimes, though, the shoe is on the other foot. Someone else has challenged what we believe. Maybe they're young and a little bit arrogant, like Joseph. Maybe they come from a different background than ours and seem stuck-up, like Moses. Regardless, we decide they're not worth listening to, and we close our ears to their position.
Although this is a natural way to behave, it is very dangerous. Truth from the lips of anyone remains truth, no matter whether we like them or not. If we pay more attention to the messenger than the message, our rejection of truth may cost us our souls.
In fact, in both scenarios, the gospel ought to be the most important element. When we try to teach others, we must put our trust in the gospel and rely on it to do its work. We aren't going to change matters much one way or the other. So too, we must allow the gospel to do its work in our hearts. If that comes at the price of overlooking annoying behavior by someone else, it's a small price to pay indeed!
The Faith of ParentsWednesday, August 17, 2022
The eleventh chapter of Hebrews has many lessons for us, and surely among them is that God finds people of faith in places where we wouldn't look. We see an instance of this in Hebrews 11:23. Here, the writer refers to a familiar story, the story of the birth of Moses. Typically, our children learn that Moses’ parents hid him and eventually put him in the basket in the bulrushes before they turn five.
However, the Hebrews writer adds a spiritual dimension to this account. He notes that the parents of Moses acted as they did out of faith. They spared their son because they saw that he was beautiful and they did not fear the king’s edict.
This is an awfully bold stance for a couple of slaves to take! Typically, slaves fear the edicts of kings greatly, especially when they already know that the king has no love for them or for their people. It doesn't seem like the beauty of a baby should weigh heavily in the balance against royal wrath.
To understand this, we must start with Genesis 9:5-7. This snippet contains a pair of theological opposites. On the one hand, people were not to shed the blood of other people, and God would require their blood if they did. Instead, they were supposed to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth. God wants humans to seek life, not death.
The parents of Moses can't have known very much about God, but this is one of the few things that they could have known, and it offers the best explanation for their conduct. Their child was beautiful to them, and in part he was beautiful as an expression of the divine will for humankind. They did right in having children, regardless of what the law said.
Similarly, they did not fear the king's edict because the king was not the highest authority in their lives. His tyranny could and would be checked by God, and ultimately, God's will would stand, not his. Even slaves don't have to fear the king if they have God on their side!
In the moment, this is only obvious to the eyes of faith, but it becomes clearer in history. Throughout the Bible and throughout the millennia that have passed since its writing, powerful forces often have arrayed themselves against the righteous. In the end, though, earthly powers are cast down, and the word of God continues along with those who follow it.
Today, parents and prospective parents have many reasons to fear. The days seem to be growing more evil, Opponents of Christianity are getting more vocal and more influential all the time, and overt persecution may be on the horizon. It's easy to despair of raising godly children or even having children at all.
Nonetheless, we must be fearless. We must do what is necessary to train our children in the ways of the Lord, regardless of what opposition we face. The parents of Moses had no idea that one day their son would bring Pharaoh to his knees, and we have no idea what the future holds either. However, this much is certain: When the people of God trust Him, no power in heaven, on earth, or in hell can overcome them.
Isaac's BlessingMonday, August 08, 2022
We often remark how reassuring it is that the great men and women of faith in the Bible are so obviously flawed. However, at some point, these flaws stop being reassuring and start becoming cringey! For me, this is the case in the narrative of Genesis 27.
It’s one of the many places in Scripture where we see the dysfunction of a godly family on full display. Isaac and Rebekah have two sons, and Isaac prefers the elder while Rebekah prefers the younger. Rebekah takes advantage of Isaac's blindness to procure the blessing for her favorite, Jacob, even though Isaac is clearly mistrustful and suspects that something funny is going on. In the end, he is forced to give his favorite, Esau, an inferior blessing.
Admittedly, Rebekah did know that God had predicted that Esau would serve Jacob. However, rather than being straightforward and trusting God to fulfill His promise, she takes matters into her own hands. Sadly, this is nothing unusual. Indeed, from Genesis 12 on, nearly every member of Abraham's family (everybody except Benjamin) engages in subterfuge and deceit to pursue their goals. This reminds us of the antics of a clan of rednecks out in a trailer someplace, except the stories are of tent-dwelling nomads from 4000 years ago.
However, the bad behavior that sets our teeth on edge is a vital theme of the story. As God says a few hundred years later in Deuteronomy 9:5, He does not give the Israelites the land because of their righteousness or integrity. Instead, it is entirely because of the promise made to the fathers.
Similarly, the promise is not made to the fathers because of their righteousness or integrity either. It is because they had faith, and their faith was reckoned to them as righteousness. Whenever we start questioning our salvation because we think we're not good enough, we should remember that the heroes of faith definitely weren't good enough!
It is easy to overlook the presence of faith in the story of Genesis 27, but it's there too. After all, the blessing that Rebekah and Jacob schemed to obtain for him wasn't anything as tangible as a herd of camels or a flock of sheep. Instead, it was a promise that the descendants of one man would grow into a mighty nation, and that the people who didn't own any more property than the family cemetery would inherit the entire land. Both Rebekah and Jacob would die centuries before the promise was fulfilled, but it mattered deeply to them anyway.
The same is true for Isaac. He played favorites with his sons and tried to pass his wife off as his sister, but he was a man of faith too. As Hebrews 11:20 shows, the very act of giving a blessing at all is an act of faith. He had no reason to believe that anything he said was more than spit in the wind except that God had promised him otherwise. Absent faith, this story of petty behavior simply doesn't happen.
This should hearten every Christian whose family life is not picture-perfect. Yes, it would be good if everyone in all of our families behaved uprightly, but we don't inherit the blessing because of our good works. What matters is our untiring faith in God. If we spend our lives seeking Him, no matter how imperfectly, it will be well with us.
Selling Our BirthrightsMonday, August 01, 2022
We know from the story of the anointing of David that God does not see as man sees. In the case of David, God saw potential where no one else did. However, God is equally likely to judge more harshly than we do.
We see an instance of this in Genesis 25:27-34. It’s one of a frustrating series of stories in this portion of the book featuring Jacob the trickster and Esau the sucker. Repeatedly, Jacob uses his cleverness either to get something valuable belonging to Esau or to protect himself from Esau's very reasonable indignation.
In this case, Jacob swindles Esau out of his birthright, the double portion of the inheritance from Isaac that was due to the firstborn. Esau has returned from hunting, unsuccessful and starving. A decent brother would have fed him out of kindness, but Jacob demands the birthright in exchange for a bowl of stew. Esau takes the deal and loses the double portion.
In this story, Jacob is the villain, right? He schemes to take advantage of his own flesh and blood in a moment of need. However, that is not how the story is treated in the New Testament. In Hebrews 12:16, we are not warned against imitating Jacob. We are warned against imitating Esau!
For all of his questionable morality, Jacob possesses one vital attribute that Esau does not. Jacob looks to the future and does what he must now to receive good things later. Though he is not commended explicitly by the writer here, he falls into the same category as some other sketchy characters who are commended, like Rahab the harlot and the unrighteous steward of Luke 16. We are not to imitate them in sharp practice, lying, or embezzling, but we are to imitate them in looking to the future and acting accordingly.
Esau, by contrast, is so focused on his immediate desires that he forgets what fulfilling them will cost him. For this reason, the Hebrews writer condemns him as immoral and irreverent. This may seem harsh to us, but Esau has failed to keep his eyes on the prize, the very thing that everyone who hopes to inherit eternal life must do.
Certainly, Esau's foolishness was exploited by a trickster, but every one of us is the target of a deceiver who makes Jacob look naive by comparison. Constantly, the devil takes advantage of our moments of weakness to try to get us to give away our birthrights as children of the King. We shake our heads at the short-sightedness of the man who traded away his inheritance for a bowl of lentils, but everyone who surrenders their soul in exchange for earthly pleasure is making a far worse bargain!
When we are tempted, then, we should remember Esau. No matter what delights the evil one is dangling in front of us, they don't amount to a hill of beans next to what we would surrender. Only a Jacob-like focus on our ultimate reward will keep us safe.