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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.

It's Not the Church's Job to Raise Our Kids

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

 

We live in a world that seems to get busier every year.  Houses are more expensive.  Commutes are longer.  Jobs are more demanding.  Children’s activities are more time-consuming.  As a result, there are tens of millions of Americans who have every minute of every day scheduled for something. 

Lots of important things suffer as a result of this lifestyle, and children are at the top of the list.  For years “quality time” has been the parenting buzzword.  Maybe you only ever talk with your kid for 10 minutes a day on the way to soccer practice, but with enough wisdom and effort, you can make that conversation Meaningful.

However, quality time doesn’t seem to yield the results that a lot of parents want, particularly when it comes to religion.  It’s no secret that young people have been leaving the Lord’s church in droves.  They might be headed to a great college and a great career, but they don’t seem to be headed to heaven.  Sometimes, this happens despite everything that parents can do.  More of the time, it happens because of what parents didn’t do. 

In this increasingly perilous environment, parents are increasingly looking to outsource religious instruction to the church.  This is, after all, consonant with modern parental strategy.  You don’t teach your son to play soccer.  You pay to put him on a soccer team, and the coach does that.  You don’t teach your daughter to play the clarinet.  You pay for music lessons, and the music teacher does that.

Instruction is the province of experts, so parents want to leave religious instruction to religious experts.  It’s the church’s job to have really good, really thorough Sunday-morning Bible classes.  It’s the church’s job to organize activities, so that your kids can make good friends instead of the trash friends they’re likely to make at school.

There are two problems with this.  The first is time.  Even if you also take your kid to Wednesday-night Bible classes _and_ the monthly teen devotion, 2.25 hours a week is not enough to bring up a child in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. 

In fact, only a parent (two parents if we’re following God’s plan) can possibly devote the time to do the job right.  This can’t be an activity.  It has to be a way of life.  If you don’t have the time, parents, you need to make the time.  God doesn’t expect you to live in that house, drive that car, or chauffeur your kid around to 57 different activities.  He does expect you to teach them about Him. 

Second, when it comes to a child’s spirituality, parents are (or at least should be) the experts.  Nobody knows my kid like I do.  Because of shared DNA and shared lives, I know them.  I know the way they think.  As a result, nobody is better equipped than I am to give them spiritual guidance.  No Sunday-school teacher or youth minister, no matter how willing, can step into my place.

It’s very convenient to make the church responsible for the way our kids turn out.  That way, we don’t have to invest much effort ourselves, and if they turn out badly, we can blame the church.  However, no matter how much we might want to transfer the burden of parenting, it remains solidly on our shoulders.  No matter how much we squint, the word “church” will not magically appear in Ephesians 6:4.  The work of training our children is ours.  Either we do it, or we don’t.

Salt Versus Light

Monday, December 10, 2018

 

Most Christians are familiar with the twin descriptions of disciples in Matthew 5:13-16.  There, Jesus tells us that we are to be both the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  However, we’re not as quick to recognize that these two commandments are in tension.  The problem is that being salty has a tendency to make us less bright, and being bright tends to make us less salty.

The key attribute of saltiness is distinctiveness.  Christians are supposed to have a different savor than the people of the world do.  If we are adulterated so that we become like the people of the world, we have lost our savor, and we are useless for God’s purposes.

Universally, dedicated Christians are aware of this danger.  They see that exposure to worldliness will make them more worldly, so they avoid worldliness as much as they can.  Even outside of the assembly, their best friends are other strong Christians.  If they can, they will take jobs that allow them to work with brethren instead of worldly people.  They home-school their children or send them to private Christian schools, with the goal or at least the result that those children are insulated from worldliness as well.  By the time I was eight, I had already heard every cuss word in the book.  I don’t think my home-schooled eight-year-old daughter has.

In many ways, all of these are wise decisions, and I think brethren make them with the best of motives.  In fact, every one of those things is something I’ve done.  However, we have to recognize that all this protected saltiness can come at the cost of being a light.

Jesus says, after all, that we are supposed to be the light of the world, and it is precisely the world from which many Christians have isolated themselves.  In the midst of my Christian friends, Christian co-workers, and educational environment in which all the adults are Christians, I have no trouble going through an entire day without saying a single word to someone who is lost.  As a result, there are high-school kids with a bunch of friends in the world who bring 10 times as many lost people to our assemblies as I do.

The point here is not that we should avoid having Christian friends and Christian co-workers and Christian-friendly educational choices.  I think it’s hard to go to heaven without the first, and the second and third are at least beneficial.  However, we must admit that all that insulation from the world comes at a cost, and if we want to save the lost, we first must encounter the lost.  Salt that has lost its savor is useless, but so too is a light that spends all its time huddling under a basket with other lights.

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