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"Holy Ground" and Singing What's Led

Friday, November 08, 2019

Recently, a friend asked me what I thought of the praise song “Holy Ground” and whether we should sing it in worship.  There are a couple of songs with that title, but I think the version he’s talking about is this one.  It doesn’t really matter; the other “Holy Ground” says similar things.  Apparently, the argument goes that the idea of a church building being holy ground is unscriptural, so we shouldn’t sing it.

I have a couple of problems with that.  First, I’m not entirely sure that it’s correct.  As I understand things, in Scriptural terms, something is holy when it is dedicated to God’s purposes. 

Isn’t that true of our church buildings?  If that’s not true, if we don’t believe that our church buildings should be dedicated entirely to God’s purposes, why do we object so strenuously to church buildings containing fellowship halls, gyms, and so forth?  Conversely, if they are dedicated entirely to God’s purposes (like the meat of sacrifices under the Law, for instance), isn’t there at least a sense in which they are holy?

However, even stipulating that the above is not true, there’s another problem with objecting to “Holy Ground”.  Sure, it’s possible to read the lyrics as being about the literal floor of the church building.  However, it’s equally possible to read them metaphorically.  “We are standing on holy ground,” is a clear reference to Exodus 3:5. 

When we sing “Holy Ground”, then, we are putting ourselves in the position of Moses, in the same way that we put ourselves in the position of the apostles in the boat when we sing “Master, the Tempest Is Raging” and of Mary Magdalene when we sing “In the Garden”.  Nobody objects to either because we aren’t really on the Sea of Galilee or really standing in front of Joseph’s tomb.  Why is it problematic that we aren’t really in front of the burning bush either?

All of this raises a larger issue, though:  the question of how we deal with hymns with questionable content when we are invited to sing them in the assembly.  The first approach is to object to any song that could be misunderstood.  This leads to discouraging others by our refusal to sing, strife in the church, and ultimately the compilation of a “ban list” that excludes many of our richest hymns. 

Do we axe “The Solid Rock” because the last verse can be read as Calvinist (and indeed was written by a Calvinist)?  How about “Amazing Grace”, which easily can be read as proclaiming salvation by faith only (which John Newton believed in)?  Sad to say, a great many of the hymns that can survive such hostile scrutiny are those that don’t have much content in the first place.  They might be “Scriptural”, but when it comes to the Colossians 3:16 goals of teaching and admonishing, they’re nearly useless.

Instead of asking if a hymn can be understood wrongly, we’re far better off asking if it can be understood rightly.  Is there a way that I can square singing this hymn with my conscience?  This is the option that I prefer.  I certainly have my share of opinions about good and bad hymns, but I will almost never refuse to sing a hymn, nor even talk to a song leader about that hymn after services.

First of all, who am I to tell somebody they’re worshiping wrong when they very well could be worshiping right?  Second, when my brother is pouring out his heart in worship, do I really want him to glance over and see me sitting there mutely with an expression on my face like I’d just bitten into a green persimmon?  Third, doesn’t refusing to sing boil down to looking for reasons not to praise God, rather than reasons to praise Him?  If that’s where my heart is, I’m not OK with that.

In real life, if offered the opportunity to lead singing, I’m probably not going to lead “Holy Ground”.  I think there are better options out there.  However, if I’m in the pews, and I’m asked to sing “Holy Ground”, I will do so. 

I will think about Moses.  I will reflect on the holiness that God’s presence demands.  Generally, I will do my best to sing with spirit and understanding in the hope that my brethren will be edified and my God will be glorified. 

Hymn critique has its place, but the assembly isn’t it.

The Point of the Prodigal Son

Thursday, November 07, 2019

I know that one should not have high expectations of religious memes, but the one above grinds my gears.  Every time I saw it, I rolled my eyes a little bit harder, until I knew that either I’d have to write about it, or my eyes would get stuck that way permanently, just like my Communications teacher said they would.

Certainly, the meme is in line with the pop-culture understanding of the parable, and even in line with the hymns we sing.  I think “Love for All” is a moving hymn.  Indeed, it makes a better hymn than a hymn about the actual point of the parable would!

However, we need to be better Bible students than that.  First, I don’t think Jesus ever said anything to make “one simple point”.  His teaching has so many layers to it that I think it’s the most difficult thing in the Bible to understand fully.  You can get the surface meaning pretty quickly, but the deeper aspects take years or decades (or never, this side of Jordan) to understand.

Second, if the parable of the prodigal son has a simple point, “Just come home,” isn’t it.  I think you could make the argument that “Just come home,” is the point of Jesus’ entire ministry (as per Luke 19:9), but He’s doing something different here.  Luke 15:1-3 tells the story:

  Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Him.  And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them."  So He told them this parable:

Then, immediately following, you’ve got the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the prodigal son.

Notice that the context begins with the observation that the tax collectors and sinners were drawing near to listen to Jesus.  There was no need to tell those prodigals to come home.  They already were coming! 

The problem was that the religious elites who saw all this, rather than rejoicing, were grumbling because Jesus was associating with riff-raff, which they themselves surely would not have done.  They are so obviously in need of a dramatic attitude adjustment that it is to the “righteous”, rather than to the sinners and tax collectors, that Jesus relates His trio of parables. 

First, He uses the parables of the sheep and the coin to show that even if the Pharisees aren’t rejoicing over all the repentant sinners, all of heaven is.  God has invited the angels to share in His celebration!  Contextually, then, the point of the parable of the prodigal son is that if the Pharisees don’t join in the rejoicing (as the older brother didn’t), they will remove themselves from the household of the Father, refusing to come in, even as He begs them to do so.

The parable of the prodigal son, then, isn’t a lighthearted offer of reconciliation, complete with cute cartoon pigs.  It’s a sobering warning from Jesus to the Pharisees (and indeed to everyone who is “religious”) to check their hearts.  We, not the sinners around us, are the ones who are in danger of ending up on the wrong end of the parable. 

The only people who are going to enter the kingdom of heaven are the ones who share the goals of the King of heaven.  Even though sinners have grieved Him by their rebellion, He longs to be reconciled with them.  We are His chosen instruments for doing exactly that.

How do we feel about our work?  Are we as zealous for the lost as God is?  Or, instead, are we indifferent to them, or even actively hostile, like the Pharisees were?  Are we the kind of Christians who, deep down, don’t want messy people in our neat little church? 

Jesus wants us to understand that that spirit will leave us on the outside looking in too.

Saved by Grace

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

During the singing last Sunday evening, Tyler led us in “O Come, All Ye Faithful”.  That’s one of my favorite hymns, so after services, I went over to him and thanked him for doing so.  As a result, we got to talking about the brethren who might object to singing such a hymn in worship because it’s commonly used as a Christmas carol. 

Frankly, that objection has never made any sense to me.  If we are using a hymn to worship in spirit and in truth, who cares if somebody else somewhere else has misused it?  We need to pay less attention to the somebody elses and more attention to the truth.

I think this also is true when it comes to Bible teaching on grace.  We know that false teachers have taken that teaching and corrupted it into a contradiction of Bible teaching on baptism.  However, that’s not the Bible’s fault.  That’s their fault.  When we are teaching Bible truth on grace, then, we shouldn’t feel the need to fill that teaching with asterisks and disclaimers, like the Holy Spirit can’t speak for Himself.  Instead, we should teach the truth without apology because God’s truth belongs to God’s people.  Without further ado, then, let’s consider what the word says about being saved by grace.

One of the greatest Biblical texts on the subject is found in the early part of the book of Ephesians, so I thought it would be appropriate to work through that this evening.  The context begins with Paul helping us with UNDERSTANDING OUR BLESSINGS.  Let’s read here from Ephesians 1:16-19a.  Here, Paul says that He wants the Ephesians, and indirectly us, to understand three things:  the hope of their calling, the riches of their heavenly inheritance, and the greatness of God’s power. 

This understanding might seem awfully abstract, but in reality, it’s something that’s critically important to the spiritual health of every Christian here.  Ever asked a Christian if they’re going to heaven and get the reply, “I hope so”?  Ever heard a brother say they know God has forgiven them, but they struggle to forgive themselves?  Those are brethren who do not understand these three things.  Because they don’t understand their hope, their inheritance, and God’s power, they are putting their trust in themselves instead of Him. 

Brethren, it’s tragic when a Christian who should be rejoicing in God’s grace is miserable because of their own shortcomings!  When it comes to salvation, we all need to take the focus off ourselves and put it on God where it belongs. 

Next, Paul examines GOD’S WORK IN CHRIST.  Look here at Ephesians 1:19b-23.  Notice that this reading begins with Paul saying that the blessings from the last reading are in accordance with the power that God showed in raising and exalting Jesus.  In other words, if we want a measuring stick to understand what God has done for us, we find that measuring stick in what He has done for Christ.

By any standard, God’s work in Christ is spectacular.  When God’s work in Christ began, Jesus was nothing more than a corpse in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb.  Even His own followers thought He was a failure.  However, God took a dead man, brought Him back to life, seated Him at His own right hand, put all things under His feet, and made Him the supreme head of the church.  The One whom everybody thought was a failure was instead revealed as the King of heaven and earth, and His reign will last until the end of time.

That’s too much for any human being to do or even to contemplate.  Nobody even imagined that God might do such a thing before He did it with Jesus.  This is the God whom we worship and serve, brethren.  We can look at His work in Jesus and know that the blessings He has stored up for us are literally beyond our ability to imagine too.

In case we have any doubts about this, Paul then goes on to compare God’s work in Jesus to HIS WORK IN US.  This comparison appears in Ephesians 2:1-6.  Let’s pay attention to how closely parallel these two works were.  Just like Jesus was dead when God started with Him, we were dead when God started with us.  However, in our case, we weren’t merely physically dead.  We were spiritually dead in our sins.  We were so steeped in evil that we had corrupted our very natures with our sin.  We were beyond hope.

However, just like God gave life to dead Jesus, He gave life to us in our spiritual death.  Because of His great mercy and love, even though we did not deserve to live, He made us alive anyway.  Third, just as God seated Jesus in the heavenly places after His resurrection, He has seated us in the place of honor right next to Christ. 

Why did God do all of these things?  It’s so that our redemption can proclaim the riches of His grace forever.  A powerful earthly ruler might spend his earthly riches on building some monument to his greatness.  Think of the Pyramids or the Taj Mahal.  God, though, lavished His spiritual riches on us so that for eternity, anybody who looks at us can know how great He is.  We are a monument to His greatness, and we always will be.

In the final section of this context, Paul explores the contrast between GRACE AND WORKS.  Let’s finish our reading with Ephesians 2:8-10.  I’ve had people use vs. 8-9 on me to “prove” that you don’t have to be baptized to be saved, but in context, that’s not Paul’s point at all.  Instead, he is explaining that our salvation glorifies God because God is responsible for it and we aren’t. 

This makes perfect sense.  Even in earthly terms, we don’t look at the Taj Mahal and think of the Pharaohs because the Pharaohs didn’t build the Taj Mahal.  In the same way, if our own good works were enough to justify us, our self-justification would not glorify God.  He would not be responsible.  We didn’t make ourselves righteous so that we could boast in ourselves.  Instead, God made us, so that His workmanship would proclaim His glory.  Our hope, then, is not in ourselves, but entirely in His grace.

However, that doesn’t mean that we can take God’s grace as an excuse to live however we want and then come scampering back to take a grace bath.  Instead, though we are not justified by our good works, we are created for good works.  If we choose not to walk in those good works, we no longer glorify the One whose grace redeemed us.  We’re putting Him to shame instead, and believe me, brethren, putting the living God to shame is not something any of us want to do!

Summaries, Job 42-Psalm 119:32

Monday, November 04, 2019

Job 42 concludes the book.  It begins with Job’s reply to God.  He acknowledges that in questioning God, his mouth was outrunning his understanding.  From now on, he will be content to listen to God, and he repents of questioning Him.

In response, God accuses Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar of not speaking the truth as Job has done.  He tells them to make a burnt offering and get Job to intercede for them, which Job successfully does.  After he does so, God blesses Job, giving him twice as much as he had had before and 10 more children to replace the ones who had died.  At the end of the book, Job dies in honored old age.

Psalm 117 is the shortest psalm in Psalms, as well as being the shortest chapter in the Bible.  It urges everyone to praise God because of His steadfast love (the Hebrew word hesed, which is untranslatable but means something like, “God continuing to love us because He promised He would) and faithfulness.    

Psalm 118 is a processional psalm with significant Messianic overtones.  It begins with different Israelite groups (probably arranged by group) being called upon to praise God.  The primary singer of the psalm then declares that God has rescued him from his enemies, so he will never be afraid of anyone as long as God is with him.  His enemies pressed him hard, but he defeated them.  Likely, different groups are singing the content of 118:15-16.  The primary again affirms that God has protected him, and then has a discussion in song with the people who are supposed to open the gate for him (vs. 19 and 21 are the primary singer; vs. 20 and 22-27 are the chorus).  The psalm concludes with both singer and chorus praising God. 

Several verses from this psalm are quoted in the New Testament.  118:22 is quoted widely by Jesus and others, and the crowds are singing 118:26 during the triumphal entry.  They may, in fact, have sung all of 118:22-27 as Jesus was going through the gates of Jerusalem.

Psalm 119:1-32 is the opening of the longest psalm in the book and longest chapter in the Bible.  This section, and indeed the entire psalm, exalts the word of God.  The content of the psalm is organized acrostically (each line in the first eight verses begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet; each line in the second eight verses begins with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and so on), so the content can be repetitive. 

The first section highlights the importance of seeking God’s law wholeheartedly.  The second points out the significance of the word to the young.  The third asks for God’s blessing because the psalmist has been devoted to the word.  The fourth promises renewed attention to the word if God will rescue the psalmist.

"The Lord Is My Light" and Despair

Friday, November 01, 2019

During our monthly singing last Sunday evening, we sang Charli Couchman’s “The Lord Is My Light”.  I love the hymn.  I think it’s one of Charli’s best, and indeed one of the best hymns written by brethren in the 20th century. 

“The Lord Is My Light” is based on Psalm 27, and as psalm paraphrases tend to, it has excellent content.  My favorite line appears in the second verse.  It reads, “I will not despair; Your goodness sustains me.”  Charli took it from the NASB ’77 reading of Psalm 27:13.

The path from David’s original in v. 13 to “The Lord Is My Light” is an interesting one.  Apparently, there is a divergence in manuscripts.  Some of them read as reflected in the ESV, “I believe that I shall look on the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” 

The other reading (followed by the NASB, the NKJV, and older translations, says something like, “Oh!  Had I not believed that I shall. . .”  In other words, if I had not believed that I would see God’s goodness, it would have been bad.  The original NASB tried to capture this thought by saying, “I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” 

That’s a neat idea, but its expression is about as elegant as a snoring teenager (par for the course for the NASB, alas!).  Charli had a meter to fit, as hymnists always do, so she compacted the concept to the form it takes in “The Lord Is My Light”.

However, as is often the case with paraphrase, something was both lost and gained.  The NASB rendering is retrospective.  It looks back on trial and says, “I wouldn’t have gotten through that, except for my faith in God.” 

Charli’s version is more daring.  Much more.  It is prospective.  It looks to the future and defiantly proclaims that it will not lose heart.  I will not despair, no matter what!

That’s the spiritual equivalent of signing a blank check and giving it to somebody else.  It is a promise to continue steadfastly, regardless of how many zeroes of trial life may fill in.  Bring it on, time and chance!  Bring it on, devil!  I still won’t despair.

In isolation, such a promise is brash, almost foolhardy.  Aren’t you aware of all the disasters that can happen to a human being in this fallen world?  Who knows what horrible things your future may hold?

“The Lord Is My Light”, though does not focus on all the unknowns.  It focuses on the one known.  It focuses on the certainty that God will be faithful to perform what He has promised.  His goodness need not even appear now to sustain us.  As long as we remain convinced that it will appear, that hope is sufficient to reassure us.

I sing all of “The Lord Is My Light” with great joy, but I especially love to sing that promise.  I will not despair.  Not ever.  I don’t care if Satan and all his angels hear it.  Indeed, I hope they do!   However, my boast is not in my own strength of character.  It is entirely in the sustaining goodness of God.

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