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Quantifying Christianity

Thursday, September 27, 2018

 

In the qualifications of the elder in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Paul lists 15 (-ish, depending on how one counts) qualities.  The similar list in Titus 1:5-9 contains 16 (also -ish).  However, brethren commonly take this list and reduce it down to (replace it with?) two questions.  Is the man married?  Are his children faithful Christians?

In practice, this spiritual shortcut easily can lead to the appointment of men who are unqualified, yet it remains powerfully appealing.  Much of the appeal comes from the apparent opportunity it offers to reduce complicated judgment calls to questions that can be quantified.  Is the man above reproach?  Well, we could debate what that means and whether it applies for days.  Does he have children who are Christians in good standing?  There they are, sitting on the pews!  Count ‘em!

We like simplicity.  We like bright-line, black-and-white rules.  Sometimes, God gives us what we like.  At other times, though, he requires us to use our judgment.  He presents us with a question that does not have an obvious, objective answer and asks us to think about it.

Consider, for instance, the subject of worship.  I, along with everyone else who was “raised in the church”, was taught that there are five acts of worship:  singing, prayer, preaching/teaching, partaking of the Lord’s Supper, and giving of our means.  In some ways, this list is useful, but it is hardly a comprehensive exploration of the topic.  What makes preaching an act of worship and appointing elders, for instance, not an act of worship? 

Additionally, it fails to capture the essence of the subject.  Worship is not a series of outward behaviors that can be reduced to five items on a checklist.  It is entirely possible for somebody to go through the motions, check off the checklist, and never have worshiped once.  Instead, worship is an inward prostration of the heart before God.  It may express itself in one of those forms or take no outward expression at all (consider, for instance, Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 1:9-13).

However, though checking off five items on a list is easy, seeking to worship in spirit and truth is difficult.  We can’t ever say, “I have arrived as a worshiper!” because true worship isn’t an off/on yes/no thing.  Instead, worship (like love, and for much the same reasons as love) is a spiritual discipline in which we grow for as long as we are alive, and growth is always uncomfortable.  We also have to ask, “Where do I need to grow as a worshiper?”, and to answer the question, we must rely on our own judgment, which also makes many Christians uncomfortable.

As a result, it’s awfully tempting to retreat to the security of one wife, 2.4 children, five acts of worship, and all the other lists that appear to confirm that we’re doing a good job.  However, lists are no substitute for the word of God, nor is checking off check boxes a substitute for discipleship.  Instead, we must embrace the whole counsel of God, with its ambiguities, difficulties, and paradoxes, and accept that it is the path we are called to walk.  It isn’t easy, nor is it safe, but it is the only path that will lead us to be conformed to the image of Christ. 

Why Israel Fell

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

 

2 Kings 17 is one of the most overlooked great chapters of the Bible.  In the first part of the chapter, the wicked nation of Israel meets with its final defeat.  In the rest of the chapter, the author of Kings explains why this happened.  It wasn’t due to military inferiority.  It was due to their refusal to honor God.  In particular, he identifies these sins:

  • They feared other gods. (17:7)
  • They walked in the customs of the nations that had preceded them. (17:8)
  • They followed their leaders when those leaders did evil. (17:8)
  • They practiced secret sin. (17:9)
  • They worshiped God in unlawful high places. (17:9)
  • They mixed the worship of God with idolatry. (17:11)
  • They served idols. (17:12)
  • They ignored God’s prophets. (17:14)
  • They despised God’s statutes, covenant, and warnings. (17:15)
  • They were unfaithful to God. (17:15)
  • They imitated the nations around them. (17:15)
  • They abandoned the commandments of God. (17:16)
  • They made their own gods. (17:16)
  • They sacrificed their sons and daughters. (17:17)
  • They used witchcraft. (17:17)

In 17:18, we see the result:  “Therefore the Lord was very angry with Israel and removed them out of His sight.”  If you’re feeling in need of a shudder, just contemplate what it means to have the Lord not only angry, but very angry at you!  More subtle, but no less ominous, is the thought of being removed from His sight forever.

All of this is not some mere historical footnote.  We serve God under a different covenant, but it’s all too possible for us to imitate the sin of Israel.  In one way or another, nearly everything on the list is something that can ensnare us.  We too can destroy ourselves by imitating the people around us, worshiping idols (money, pleasure, the good opinion of others, and so on), despising the commandments of God, and ignoring those who try to warn us.  In fact, it’s probably true that every day, Christians fall away from the Lord by doing exactly these things.

Israel was destroyed, but we don’t have to be.  However, if we want to avoid Israel’s fate, we have to be faithful where she chose to be faithless.  If we fail in this, God will surely remove us from His sight too.

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. 

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