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What's a Mercy Seat?

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The other evening at Jackson Heights, we sang “From Every Stormy Wind” during worship.  I received it with great joy.  I remember singing it during my childhood out of Great Songs of the Church and not at all since, at least not congregationally.  It made my worship evening.

However, on the car ride home from services, Lauren and I were talking about it, and Zoë piped up from the back, “What’s a mercy seat?”  Zoë probably was not alone in her confusion, so I decided that it would be an appropriate subject for a blog post.

The first appearance of “mercy seat” in the Bible is in the context of Exodus 25:17-22.  The mercy seat (the usual English rendering for a Hebrew word that is derived from the verb “to make atonement”) was the lid of the ark of the covenant, decorated with two statues of cherubim, one at each end.  In the place where an idolatrous temple would have had an idol, there was nothing, signifying a God whose nature could not be represented.  The mercy seat was where God met with the Israelites, from which He spoke. 

However, the Israelites did not interact frequently with the mercy seat.  It, along with the rest of the ark of the covenant, was located within the Most Holy Place, first of the tabernacle, then of Solomon’s temple.  As related in Leviticus 16:11-19, only the high priest could enter the Most Holy Place, and he only once a year, on the Day of Atonement.  On that day, he would sprinkle the mercy seat with sacrificial blood from a bull and a goat.  Thus, he would atone for his sins and the sins of the people.

This solemn ceremony, though, was nothing more than a type, a spiritual illustration of the atoning work of Jesus.  The tabernacle and its furniture were only a representation of the true Most Holy Place, the heavenly dwelling of God.  According to Hebrews 9:11-15, after His offering on the cross, Jesus entered that heavenly Most Holy Place, offering His own blood before the reality of God as the propitiatory sacrifice for our sins.  The high priest had to return to the earthly Most Holy Place year after year, but Jesus offered Himself once for all time.

As awesome as the above is, on that fateful journey, Jesus did still more.  Hebrews 10:19-22 explains that with His offered body, He opened a way for us through the veil that separated us from God.  Now, we can come into God’s presence with boldness.  Indeed, every time we gather in His name, we do exactly that.  Spiritually, we assemble around the true mercy seat in heaven. 

“From Every Stormy Wind” rightly observes that the mercy seat is a sanctuary in which God protects us from everything.  We rejoice in Jesus there, and we are united with beloved brethren who are far distant from us.  We ought to sing about such a place, not only as a reminder of the greatness of our blessings here, but in anticipation of the full joys of fellowship in heaven. 

The Purpose of the Christian

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

To say the least, there are many advantages to being a Christian!  Not least of these is that it gives meaning and purpose to our lives.  Think about it.  If you’re an atheist, you have to believe that life is meaningless and purposeless.  Your existence represents nothing more than a chance combination of atoms, you don’t have free will any more than a dog does, and after you die, in a few hundred years, it will be as though you never had existed.  There’s no point to any of it.

Of course, the lives of millions who aren’t conscious atheists aren’t any more meaningful.  They go to work every morning to get the money to buy stuff that doesn’t make them happy.  They distract themselves from the banality of their existence with a steady diet of TV, video games, and cat videos on YouTube.  They spend their lives chasing a peace that is always out of reach.

We, by contrast, are blessed with lives that are meaningful, not because of our concentrated selfishness, but because we have given them over to someone else.  To see how this works, let’s see what Peter says about the purpose of the Christian.

First, consider his words about GROWING INTO SALVATION.  Here, let’s read 1 Peter 2:1-3.  Like many passages of Scripture, this one is about spiritual renewal.  It’s about getting rid of some things while pursuing others. 

The get-rid-of list, though is really interesting.  We might expect Peter to warn us to get rid of drunkenness, adultery, theft, and all the other sins we think are really terrible.  That’s not where he goes, though.  Instead, he highlights the dangers of malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander. 

These are all subtle sins, sins that we could practice while sitting on a pew on Sunday morning for decades.  And yet, they also are the ones that Peter singles out as most likely to hinder our purpose.  He wants us to see that the sins that corrupt the heart are the most dangerous.

It’s also worth noting that these things are opposed to longing for the word.  All my life, I’ve thought of this list as sins that originate in us.  However, that’s not how the word works.  Instead, it’s something that we take in.  In the same way, I think, we need to beware of the malice, deceit, and slander that we also can take in that will corrupt us.

As the old computer-programming saying goes, garbage in, garbage out.  In our politically charged era, it’s not hard for Christians to find malice and slander that accords with their political views.  Brethren, those things will eat us up like rust on a backyard grill!  If we spend our days drinking partisan venom rather than the pure milk of the word, that will make us useless in the kingdom.

I have a challenge for you, then, for the next week.  You can keep it up for longer than you like, but try to keep it going at least for a week.  For the next seven days, then, for every minute you spend on politics, reading or watching the news, worrying about the country, spend a minute reading your Bible.  Drink deep.  Grow spiritually.  Taste that the Lord is good.  I think that even after a week, it will give you a whole new perspective on life.

Second, Peter discusses our relationship with OUR CORNERSTONE.  This discussion appears in 1 Peter 2:4-8.  The imagery here is fascinating.  Peter tells us that we come to God as living stones, precious to Him.  However, He doesn’t want us so that we can sit around isolated like a rock garden.  Instead, He wants to build us together into a spiritual house where we can offer sacrifices to Him through Jesus. 

We don’t find meaning in life by ourselves.  We find meaning in life as part of the church, and apart from one another, life can only be meaningless.  Don’t be fooled into thinking that you’d be just fine without God’s people.  The only purpose we can have is the purpose we share.

In this spiritual stonework, the cornerstone must be Jesus.  Back in the day, apparently, the cornerstone was a stone with perfectly square edges, such that you could use those edges to line up the rest of the building.  So too with Jesus. 

If we want to be part of His spiritual temple, we have to line our lives up with Him.  Our society is not the standard.  Our friends are not the standard.  Our Lord is the standard.  What He says needs to go for us in everything.

Sadly, lining up with Jesus is not the alternative that most take.  For us, he’s the cornerstone.  Others, though, reject Him and find Him to be the stone that they stumble over.  He says things and tells them to do things that they can’t accept.

As I said last week, if we think everything Jesus says is easy, we aren’t listening hard enough.  However, whether we listen to the hard sayings of Jesus determines the course of our existence.  If we hear Him, we are destined for everlasting glory.  If we reject Him, we are destined for everlasting failure.

The first option is possible, though only because we have been PREPARED FOR GOD’S PURPOSE.  Let’s finish our reading with 1 Peter 2:9-10.  In this text, Peter contrasts Christians with the world.  They are doomed, but even now, we have been glorified with Christ.  We are the spiritual race of Israel.  Every one of us is part of His royal priesthood.  Our whole nation has been consecrated to His service.  We, and we alone, are His own special people. 

From time to time, I’ll talk with Christians who like to run down the church and other Christians.  They zero in on the flaws and imperfections, sneering at congregations of the Lord’s people.  Brethren, people like that are judging what God has consecrated, and that is a very dangerous thing to do!  When we deny the glory of His spiritual creation, we indict Him as a failure.

Because of our spiritual position, we can do something that no one else can do.  We can proclaim the excellencies of the One who saved us.  Indeed, that is precisely what we ought to do.  We ought to give our lives over to declaring the glories of God.  If we truly understand what we have in our salvation, we won’t be able to be quiet about it!

However, our special status shouldn’t give us a big head.  We can do these things not because we are intrinsically fit to do them, but because God chose us as His people and poured out His mercy on us. 

Sometimes, I think we get this mixed up.  We put the burden of our salvation on our own shoulders and spend our lives worrying about whether we’re good enough.  That’s a silly thing to worry about!  Of course we’re not good enough.  I’m not, you’re not, none of us are. 

Instead, it is Christ who is enough, now and forever, and rather than worrying about our own goodness, we need to trust in His.  Without Him, we never could succeed in the work to which we are called.  With Him, we cannot fail.

Making Others Be Righteous

Monday, November 23, 2020

The betrayal of Jesus into the hands of His enemies is the beginning of the darkest sequence in human history.  However, according to John 18:10-11, this grim scene contains a tragicomic episode.  Peter, in apparent fulfillment of his promise in John 13:37, reveals his willingness to die for Jesus by his willingness to kill for Jesus. 

The untrained fisherman produces a sword and takes a wild swipe at a slave of the high priest named Malchus.  He’s likely aiming for Malchus’s skull, but instead he connects with Malchus’s ear.  At this, Jesus intervenes, telling his would-be bodyguard to put away his weapon.  He surrenders Himself into custody, and His disciples flee instead of fighting.

Though it might seem that the situation is unique, in reality, Peter has faced a temptation that many of us experience regularly.  It is the temptation to make others be righteous. 

Last week, a brother posted a picture on Facebook of a T-shirt he had received as a gift.  It read, “Other People’s Free Will Stinks.”  To that, many disciples would give hearty amens, myself included.  Other people’s free will does stink!  They use it to make all kind of horrible, evil decisions, from cheating on their wives to becoming atheists to having abortions to helping arrest the sinless Son of God.

(We, of course, would never, ever use our free will to sin.  Oh, no!  Not that!)

When faced with stinky free will, many of us want to respond in a way that is positively Petrine.  If they’re not going to choose to be righteous, we’re going to make them be righteous!  If they want to arrest Jesus, we’re going to use force to make them back off.  If they want to have an abortion, we’re going to stop them by passing laws to make abortions illegal.  If they want to leave the Lord, we’re going to browbeat them and make their lives pure misery until they come back.

On one level, these strategies appear to offer success.  Jesus remains unarrested.  Babies don’t get aborted.  The straying Christian is filling a pew once more.

The problem is, though, that coercing someone into changing their behavior never results in a changed heart.  Even if the high priests’ posse is defeated, the high priests won’t hate and envy Jesus any less.  Preventing a woman from having an abortion does not lessen her fear or increase her natural affection.  Forcing a Christian to assemble does not inspire them to worship.

Indeed, attempts at coercion often fail to produce outwardly good results too.  If Jesus’ disciples defeat a posse, the chief priests will show up with a Roman cohort next.  The fearful woman is likely to seek an illegal abortion.  The browbeaten Christian often will persist in falling away, bearing a new cargo of bitterness over their bad treatment.

If we truly want godliness in others, then, we must look not to change behavior, but to change hearts.  We must rely not on coercion, but on persuasion.  God isn’t looking for sullen compliance.  He wants devotion instead.

This is hard to do.  The more we care, the more we want to fix others’ ungodly decisions by hammering them flat.  We want quick results rather than engaging in the slow, patient work of winning a heart.  However, only the latter can produce the fruit of genuine righteousness.

Psalm 5

Friday, November 20, 2020

Give ear to my appeals, O Lord,
And listen as I groan.
My King and God, I cry for help
And pray to You alone.

When morning rises, I will speak,
For You will hear my voice;
In faith, I come with eagerness,
That soon I may rejoice.

You take no joy in wickedness;
No evil dwells with You;
They shall not stand before Your eyes,
The boastful and untrue.

You punish those who speak in lies
And all who dare transgress,
But in Your temple I will bow
To praise Your holiness.

Protect me from my enemies
And make my pathway straight;
No truth is present in their words
Of flattery and hate.

So hold them guilty, O my God,
Undone by what they do;
In their transgressions, thrust them out
For disregarding You.

Let everyone who trusts in You
Be jubilant in grace;
May they forever sing for joy,
Your strength, their hiding place.

Let those who love Your name exult
In what You have revealed;
You bless the righteous man, O Lord;
Your favor is his shield.

Suggested tune:  ST. FLAVIAN
("The Army of Our Lord")

Apostasy and Discipleship

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

The other morning, I was bragging on my church family a little bit.  I like to do that as they give me opportunity!  I noted that that Sunday, I had seen Christians taking the initiative to take on good works in several different ways.  

One brother (not part of the church leadership) facilitated a brainstorming session about evangelism.  A group of women spent the afternoon teaching the middle-school to high-school girls of the congregation how to serve.  A new sister volunteered to make T-shirts for the girls.  A young sister continued to collect sleeping bags for the homeless.  Another brother (who happened to be a deacon, though he wasn’t wearing his deacon hat at the time) collected money after services for a poor man who came to the door asking for help.

It’s hard to imagine a more Ephesians 4:16 scenario than that!  Every part is doing its part.  In addition to being obviously praiseworthy and encouraging, I think all of these active Christians are doing something else.  They are protecting against false doctrine.

I’ve been arguing for years that authority problems are actually discipleship problems.  You start wanting to send money to the missionary society or the sponsoring church when you’re feeling guilty about your local congregation not evangelizing.  You start using church funds to help the world’s poor when your individual members aren’t helping them.  The discipleship failure creates the need that is filled by departing from the pattern.

However, if your congregation has a vibrant, healthy evangelism culture, the pressure to turn to human institutions becomes much less.  If your members are interested in and active in caring for the world’s poor, there is no need for unscriptural expedients to fill.  There is no problem to solve.  As they should, the disciples have got it covered.

I think we see something similar happening with the work of women.  In many progressive churches of Christ these days, there is tremendous pressure to abandon the teaching of 1 Timothy 2:11-12.  Often, the people exerting this pressure make an emotional argument.  They exclaim over how awful it is that we are sidelining all these gifted and talented women by excluding them from the pulpit.

Well. . . Do the Jackson Heights women who spent the afternoon teaching seem sidelined?  How about the T-shirt maker?  How about the sleeping-bag collector?  I think anybody who thinks those women are sidelined needs to expand their definition of the playing field!

Of course, there is a scenario in which the sidelining argument becomes more potent—when members have abandoned discipleship so completely that their only meaningful activity occurs in the assembly.  According to the Scriptural pattern, men must lead in serving in the assembly.  If assembling is all a group of Christians does, then men will be the only servants.  Under those circumstances, sure, you’ve got a bunch of do-nothing women, but you’ve also got a do-nothing church.

The cure for the disease is not to abandon the pattern for the assembly.  It is to apply the pattern for Christian living to the lives of Christian women.  Titus 2:4 is sadly neglected in most congregations.  There are all sorts of good works in which any Christian may engage.  The woman who devotes herself to these things is no less a productive and useful member than the preacher or the elder.

I also have believed for a long time that the solution to any spiritual problem is “more Bible”.  More Bible study; more Bible application.  This is particularly relevant whenever a spiritual problem appears to demand apostasy as a solution.  In truth, we don’t need to reject what the word of God teaches about the use of church funds or the role of women.  Rather, we need to embrace what it teaches about the work of the disciple.  If we get that down, we will be amazed at the way that those apparent problems with the pattern will disappear.

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