What Christians Can Do in These Times of Turmoil

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No matter what we may think, we are not the first people on earth to live in troubled times. Troubles have characterized human existence from very near the time of its origin.

Life in God’s newly provided paradise had hardly begun when the first tenants messed things up. Life on earth has not been the same since.

Murder, lust, violence soon characterized human activity rather than a loving relationship with their God. For every step of progress in science, the arts or in the domestic realm, it seems that our earliest ancestors took two steps away from the ideal of manifesting the image of God in the world of that day until the Creator called a halt to it all with the flood.

Very soon after God had washed and purified the earth, man was at it again, only this time the evil began to be manifested on a more grandiose scale. Institutionalized oppression in the form of war and its devastation and spoils, levied tribute (taxation) and slavery built empires, (Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, Greece and Rome in the ancient world) to the glory of the creature rather than the Creator. Since that time the conditions have only gotten grander – and worse – with one oppressive, political or economic system after another arising to enrich the rich and serving, whether intentionally or not, to increase the poverty of the poor.

Even the most noble efforts of man to create an equitable and just society fall victim to the depravity of the selfish and powerful who are able to manipulate the system to their advantage.

Sadly all to often, we human beings, like animals, never look up to see the source of the good things we receive in this world. We, with unwarranted overconfidence in our own abilities, keep trying to mend that which is broken beyond repair. The human systems which we have created will never be rescued. They are flawed from the outset, no matter how honorable the intention of the originators.

Our American system of government is a case in point. No one in this country knows how many laws are on the books. One source states that there are approximately 20,000 laws governing just the ownership and use of guns! And there is a constant clamor for adding more laws for just this one area of concern. Typically, each year sees the addition of several thousand laws, rules and regulations added to the already overwhelming volume of laws on the books.

The addition of law does not correct society. It rather, although surely unintentionally, only creates more lawbreakers and/or criminals! Indeed, it is the presumption of the sinfulness of human beings that is the basis for this incessant flood of legislation.

“Much that we take for granted in a ‘civilized’ society is based upon the assumption of human sin. Nearly all legislation has grown up because human beings cannot be trusted to settle their own disputes with justice and without self-interest. A promise is not enough; we need a contract. Doors are not enough; we have to lock and bolt them. The payment of fares is not enough; tickets have to be issued, inspected and collected. Law and order are not enough; we need the police to enforce them. All this is due to man’s sin. We cannot trust each other. We need protection against one another. It is a terrible indictment of human nature.” (John R. W. Stott, Basic Christianity, p. 62)

Still we cry for more and more legislation. Every distinctive group decides that it is being discriminated against and cries out for new laws to correct the perceived inequity. Who can blame them for wanting new laws? Everyone wants to be treated fairly! but all the law in the world isn’t going to change the reality that man is flawed and needs more than law to deal with those flaws.

I could go on and on about the terrible conditions prevalent in our day, but all this is old news.

I do not believe for a moment that Christians are to merely acquiesce to the state of things as they are. Neither would it be right for us to hide in a hole and wait for the Lord’s eventual return when he will solve all these thorny problems. Neither do I believe we are called upon to create through threat and coercion a social revolution of the sort we are witnessing in our civilization today.

So, what are we to do? What can we do? Just a few suggestions.

  1. Give up the idea that government and law can fix human nature. Certainly law can impose a limit on human behavior – to an extent. But law isn’t the solution. Never has been. Never will be. If it were, the law God gave long ago would have long since solved the problems we faced in society.
  2. Quit looking to the next president or the next elected official to solve the problems we face. Whoever he or she may be, he will be human just like all the others we have had. As such, he will likely only add to the problems, especially if he thinks he is the great savior of the world. Hopefully, he will try to minimize the damage he does while trying to serve the best interests of the whole population, but whoever it is, he or she is not the answer.
  3. Cease trying to force changes in society by political or economic means. Bullying and boycotting doesn’t work. It is un-Christian. It reflects a lack of faith in God. Oh, I realize we are dissatisfied with the status quo, but to force by some human means the changes we desire is to play the world’s game. We have a greater objective than momentary respite from the symptoms of the greater disease of sin in our society. The objective is the doing of God’s will on earth as it is done in heaven. That is a tall order.
  4. Start being the change we want to see in the world. That is what Jesus intended his followers to do. Show by word and deed what the world would be like if God were placed in charge of it all. He has that right, you know, the right to rule it all. And one day he will. But until he sees fit to fully inaugurate his universal rule over all creation, believers should act as though he is already in complete charge.
  5. Come together with other believers in common cause. Too long sectarianism, factionalism and denominational exclusivity has destroyed the influence of the church. We have fought among ourselves instead of focusing our attention and our influence against the real enemies of mankind – the forces of evil that seek to destroy the work of God in the world. Ourselves and our petty traditions are not worth the loss we will experience for failing in this greater work of our Creator. We need to act as a united army – the Lord’s army – against these forces of evil.
  6. Stop thinking of the church as a means of personal, psychological or emotional self-satisfaction. It doesn’t exist for me to “find myself” nor is it a means by which to achieve my personal goals and ambitions. The church is the body of Christ on earth. It is to function as he did when he was here. It is to show the love of God to a lost world. It is to reflect the glory of God into the world as he did. It is to bind up the broken and heal the sick and lame. It is to restore sight to the blind so they can see the reality that transcends this sad, sick world.

Doing nothing won’t change a thing. Unless we who call ourselves God’s people begin to act as God’s people with courage and determination to truly be God’s people and to do the work God has called us to do all that is going to happen is that we will be stuck in the same tired rut, sinking deeper and deeper into the mire of this worlds rottenness.

Even then, with all the human effort we can muster, we cannot solve the problems of the human race or of our nation. Only God by his grace and power can do that. Whether we can see it or whether we believe it, he is working and in his own good time he will make manifest his work.

And it will be glorious!

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You Are – I Am

horizontal-badgeThese are strange days. Strange in many ways. Strange from the standpoint of the claims and concepts of personal identity being paraded before the public these days. People claim to not be who or what they were born to be. Men claim to be really women and women claim to really be men and both either cross dress and/or undergo radical surgery to assume the outward physical characteristics of their claimed identity. At the present the question of “gender identity” is a political football with the demand of rights to bathroom privileges opposite to what they are genetically.

One person, whose dissatisfaction with who/what he is (a male who prefers to be identified as “it”), is currently in the news not merely for surgically assuming a female identity, but because he has had his ears removed, nose altered, skin tattooed to look like scales, tongue split, teeth extracted and horns implanted in order to become a “human” dragon lady! “I am what I am. I am my own special creation,” is the boast made by this person.

Had this happened not too long in the past these people would have been regarded as mentally disturbed, or, as with the person described above, considered freaks. But now they are lauded and applauded for their “courage” and “integrity.” Even though people know this is pure nonsense they still “give approval to those who practice” such things.

For the Christian the question of identity is once and for all settled, not by how they feel or what they believe about their “true” identity. We are not left to an “I feel” or “I prefer” nor to societal approval for us “to be true to your inner self.” The focus in all this is the self. “I am” and “I want” is all that is heard. Sin has confused the thinking of human beings so that our true nature is obscured and we are blinded to our real identity and responsibility

God made human beings in his own image. He created us as male and female. Both were made in His image. Both were made to equally bear His likeness and to reflect the glory of God into the whole creation. We were made to be representatives of God to this world. It is God who gives us our identity. The whole plan of salvation – Jesus coming and dying on the cross – the resurrection, the church – is about restoring man to his intended place and identity – so we can be who we were made to be. Numerous times in the New Testament Christians are told, “You are …”

Matt 5:13 “You are the salt of the earth …”
Matt 5:14 “You are the light of the world …”
Rom. 15:14 “… you … are full of goodness”
1Cor. 1:30 “… you are in Christ Jesus”
1Cor. 3:16 “… you are God’s temple”
1Cor. 12:27 “… you are the body of Christ”
2Cor. 3:3 “… you are a letter from Christ”
Gal. 3:26 “… you are all sons of God”
Gal. 3:28 “… you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Gal. 4:6 “… you are sons”
Gal. 4:28 “… you … are children of promise.”
Eph. 5:8 “… you are light in the Lord.”
1Pet. 2:9 “…you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession,”
1Pet. 2:10 “… you are God’s people”
1Jn. 4:4 “… you are from God”

Paul says that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Rom. 8:16). He further says in the next verse that “if [we are] children [of God], then [we are] heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (v. 17). We have family identity and family privileges. We are secure. Life has meaning.

No plastic surgeon and no humanistic psychologist can make me into something I am not. Only within the context of what God has said I am can I rightly and confidently make an “I am” statement. Only in Him am I clear on my identity. “I am a child of God.” “I am a Christian.” “I am an heir of God.” I may not presently be all he intends for me to be, but under his hand I am becoming that. 

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The Bible Story In A Nutshell

Gods-Story-My-Story-Our-StoryBible students are increasingly coming to the realization that the Bible must be understood as story – as a single narrative from beginning to end. It is not a book just made up of stories, but is one single seamless story from Genesis to Revelation. But the makeup of the Bible in its vastness and complexity as well as the historical and traditional filters we have erroneously imposed on it make it difficult for the average reader to grasp the concept. Here is a very simple diagram that hopefully will help to put things in place. Every part of the Bible, its history, its applicability to the present and its events of the future can be located on this plot line. Of course this diagram does not tell the whole story, but gives a rough idea of how everything fits together and something of the direction in which God is moving the events of history toward the final culmination of his purpose.

The need for reading the Bible in this way should be obvious to discerning readers. We need to have a comprehensive view of the Bible story in order to understand our place in the world and the role we are to fulfill in it. This means that we must have a Biblical world view – a comprehensive understanding of how the world is supposed to work and we don’t get it from just reading the Bible piecemeal. When we understand that God had a purpose for creation before the fall and that ever since he has been moving his entire creation, fallen though it is, toward a definite objective of restoration as the new heavens and new earth, we can better understand our place in that creation.

The concept for the diagram is the classic plot line used by writers and novelists on which they “hang” their stories. The five elements are, (1) exposition, (2) rising action (beginning with a conflict or crisis), (3) climax, (4)falling action or denouement and (5) resolution. Viewing the Bible in this way enables us to understand where we have come from, where we are as well as to have a better understanding of what role we are to play in the grand drama that is the story of God and his creation.

Click on the link, The Bible Story in a Nutshell, for the .pdf diagram. (I have placed the the “church in history” and the “church in experience” in parenthesis to show that while these are not in the Bible as such, are, nevertheless, a part or consequence of the story).

Please feel free to save and use this diagram if you find it useful.

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I AM TIRED… (A Political Rant With A Bible Lesson Thrown In)

widow-mitesI am tired.

More than tired, in fact.

And I am downright wearied.

And irked.

About what?

I hardly know where to begin. Mostly at how some politicians freely cite the Bible, applying it in the most haphazard manner to themselves or to matters that do not in the least resemble what those Bible passages are addressed to. And of how gullible professing Christians can be, falling for these politically biased versions of the word of God as though they were handed down still smoking from Mt. Sinai.

I know I am on dangerous ground here when I presume to talk about some candidate who has been adopted as another Moses by certain segments of American voters – right wing fundamentalist Christian voters to be exact. Maybe it is these people I am upset with as much as it is with the candidates themselves. But at the risk of incurring the ire of this vocal element of the populace, here goes.

Dr. Ben Carson is, no doubt, a morally good, intelligent man with good intentions. I may even vote for him if he is the best candidate. Perhaps he would make a good president, but it takes more than a good man with good intentions to be a good chief executive of the United States of America. Without a doubt he was, by all accounts, an outstanding neurosurgeon while he was practicing, but there is a wide world of difference between what goes on in the operating room in a modern hospital and the White House oval office. I just am not persuaded he is the best man for the job.

Does anyone really believe that Carson is a modern day Noah? In an allusion to Genesis 6 and the building of the ark, he sought to sweep away the rightfully grounded fear of his lack of qualifications for the presidency. He said, “It is important to remember that amateurs built the Ark and it was the professionals that built the Titanic.” We have to remember that Noah never won any popularity contests in spite of the fact that he was a pretty good ark builder! Are we to infer that God would somehow miraculously enable Carson to serve this country as it’s president, rebuilding the trust of it’s populace, putting it on a sound fiscal footing, wrestle the gargantuan national debt and bring it under control, create enough new jobs to put all the unemployed to work, deal with the rising crises of illegal immigration and international terrorism along with a thousand and one other pressing problems? If he does think that, then he is really, really naïve – or maybe just deluded. So is anyone who believes he or any other single individual can do all that.

Speaking of the national debt, Dr. Carson has proposed that the United States do away with our present problem ridden tax system and adopt a flat tax, one essentially based on the Old Testament system of tithing. A tithe is 10% of one’s income. He says he doesn’t know if his tax would require 10% or 15% or some other amount. The New Republic quoted Carson as saying, “We don’t necessarily have to do 10 percent, but it’s the principle. … You make $10 billion, you put in a billion. You make $10, you put in $1.”

Consider how that was applied in Jesus’ day. What some people seem to not realize is that the Jewish taxation system, which, although divinely instituted, was unfairly applied because it was humanly administered. Let me illustrate that with an example witnessed and attested to by Jesus himself.

Some people mistakenly cite the example of the poor widow in Mark 12 as the ideal of faithful giving when she cast her tithe into the coffers of the temple along with the rich people. The rich gave of their excessive abundance, but the widow out of her deep poverty gave everything she had. When Jesus said she gave more than the rich, he was not commending her for being more faithful than the rich people. Based on a statement he had made to his disciples in the verses just preceding this account he was making an observation of how unfair the Jews application of the tithe had become. How do I know this?

He had just given a scathing denunciation of the scribes who, he said, “like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers.” (Mark 12:38-40). Then, as he was observing these same rich people of whom he had spoken giving in the temple, he points to a poor widow who gave two lepta (thin copper coins). Jesus said she gave more than the rich people because she gave all she had to live on. He wasn’t commending the widow. He was saying to his disciples, “See! This is what I am talking about! You have just seen a widow’s house being devoured!”

Do we really think tithing would be more equitably administered today? Let’s look at Dr. Carson’s proposal in light of what Jesus was talking about and see if it would be fair if literally applied to our day. The man with 10 billion dollars is assessed 1 billion and has 9 billion left to live very well on, buy expensive houses, yachts, airplanes, entertain lavishly and have enough money left over to “burn a wet mule” as the saying goes. The person who makes $10 is taxed one dollar and has 9 dollars left to live on. How is that fair? Obviously the person assessed 10% on $10 bears a greater burden than the rich person who could give 50% or more of his income and not miss it at all.

Carson’s idea of using the Biblical tithe as a model for solving America’s financial problems wouldn’t work. America isn’t ancient Israel. Israel was a theocracy – God was her king. It had no central government and no bloated bureaucracy. It had no constitutional amendment prohibiting the establishment of a religion by the federal government. The tithe the Israelites gave was, in part, intended to support the priestly class, the Levites who had no land on which to earn a living allotted to them. That is something prohibited by the establishment clause of the first amendment of our constitution. Other than that, the tithe was used to relieve the needs of the poor.

Should anyone wish to apply Biblical financial principles to today they need to understand that the tithe was by no means the end of the matter. Every seventh year everyone who had loaned money was to forgive everyone of every debt they owed! Then there were the sabbath years. Other than being required to give a tenth of everything their farms produced each year they were forbidden to plow their fields or plant them to grow crops in those years. They had to save up enough during six years to have enough to eat for the whole sabbath year. And beyond that, every Jubilee year, which came every 50 years, every piece of land that had been sold would revert to the family of the original owner.

How many modern day American bankers do you think would go for a plan that offered blanket debt amnesty every seven years? Wouldn’t Donald Trumps just love that redemption of real estate bit? How would that go over with the conservative, born again, evangelical Christians of today? Like a lead balloon you suppose?

Before any political candidates start quoting scripture they should dig a little deeper into what the Bible actually says. And before we, the public, buy into some half baked idea just because some uninformed professed Christian quotes a verse or two to “prove” his proposition is Biblical, we ought to become better students of the book ourselves.

Wouldn’t I want a Christian to be president? Sure I would. Would I vote for a Christian? Yes. I would like to have someone in office who believes there is a God and that he is accountable to him. Someone who believes there is a standard of morality rooted in the character of God and not a subjective standard based on the ever changing whims and desires of fickle humanity. But I would want a Christian there who is humble enough to do what he can and let God take care of his end of things. In this country in this 21st century that just ain’t gonna happen!

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Salvation and the Unseen Realm

417i-jxItJL._SX337_BO1,204,203,200_I have just read “The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible” by Michael S. Heiser. This is a scholarly treatment of a subject most Christians seldom, if ever, think about, the unseen spiritual realm and the beings (powers) that inhabit it, what they do and how they influence the earthly realm in which we live. Heiser takes up the whole panoramic story of the Bible, examining the many passages which give us a glimpse into the world beyond our world, how both realms are interwoven and how that unseen realm influences and affects human existence.

This brief sketch and the quote below really do not do justice to Heiser’s book. In order to grasp the full significance of his argument a careful reading and re-reading of his book would be necessary. Until going through this study I really had no real concept of the scope of the “Unseen Realm.”

Among the many eye-opening expositions of passages in both the Old and New Testaments, his take on 1 Peter 3:20-21 really presents a challenge. He argues that baptism, rather than being just for salvation from sin is really a declaration of loyalty to God and a renunciation of loyalty to the god(s) of this world. I found particularly interesting his treatment of the puzzling passage in 1 Peter 3 about Jesus preaching to the spirits in prison and how this connects with his remarks about Noah, water, baptism and a good conscience, Heiser shows that the context is dealing with the conflict (war) Christians (and all people of all ages) are engaged in and the suffering that comes from that is part of the larger picture of spiritual warfare that has been raging since the fall of man in Eden. The quote below illustrates:

“So how does this relate to baptism? Our focus for answering that question is two terms in verse 21, that baptism is “an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” The two boldfaced words need reconsideration in light of the divine council worldview. The word most often translated “appeal” (eperotema) in verse 21 is best understood as “pledge” here, a meaning that it has elsewhere. 4 Likewise the word “conscience” (suneidesis) does not refer to the inner voice of right and wrong in this text. Rather, the word refers to the disposition of one’s loyalties, a usage that is also found in other contexts and Greek literature. 5 Baptism, then, is not what produces salvation. It “saves” in that it reflects a heart decision: a pledge of loyalty to the risen Savior. In effect, baptism in New Testament theology is a loyalty oath, a public avowal of who is on the Lord’s side in the cosmic war between good and evil. 6 But in addition to that, it is also a visceral reminder to the defeated fallen angels. Every baptism is a reiteration of their doom in the wake of the gospel and the kingdom of God. Early Christians understood the typology of this passage and its link back to the fallen angels of Genesis 6. Early baptismal formulas included a renunciation of Satan and his angels for this very reason. 7 Baptism was— and still is— spiritual warfare.”

Heiser, Michael S. (2015-09-01). The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (Kindle Locations 6270-6283). Lexham Press. Kindle Edition.

If we accept this interpretation it is not difficult to make the same connection in Acts 2:38. There Peter had just proclaimed the gospel – the “good news” that there was a new king – Jesus – whom they had rejected as their king, crucifying him as a common criminal. God had made the Jews his special people but their loyalty to powers other than God had led them to do this heinous crime and reject their true king. (Jesus told some that the devil was their father). This Jesus, he said, God had raised up and seated on the throne in heaven as both Lord and Christ. By such a declaration he also inferred that the powers to whom they had given their loyalty had been deposed and they need no longer have any fear of or give any loyalty to them.

At this news they were cut to the heart and cried out to the apostles, “What shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins…” (Acts 2:38). In light of what Peter had just said, of what sin(s) were these people guilty? Considering the context, didn’t Peter’s message to them boil down to this… “To whom will you declare loyalty?”

Is that still not the basic decision each individual must make? God made human beings to be in his image, but we – humanity as a whole – have failed miserably. We have been duped by powers beyond our sight although we are not beyond the reach of their influence. Each individual has done much that is wrong in life, but isn’t the basis of all wrong living and wrong actions a result of a misguided loyalty; turning our back against God and listening to some other influence? When we believe the good news (realize that Jesus is the king over all the world) and that we have yielded ourselves to other powers that permit us to hurt ourselves and others and to abuse God’s good creation, isn’t the right thing to do to declare our loyalty to the king who has loved the whole world so much that he died for it – and for us in particular?

When we are baptized, then, we are not just seeking to be free from our sins and to have a clean conscience before God. We are striking a blow “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12 ESV) that have held us captive to their will.

Certainly in the whole process of coming to faith (deciding that king Jesus is trustworthy), repenting (making the determination to live for him under his rule) and declaring our loyalty to him in baptism, we are forgiven of our sins. It really is foolish of us to argue at what point we are saved. What God asks of us is to be loyal to (have faith in) the king he has placed on the throne. Our forgiveness is something he does when he is satisfied with our loyalty. WE know we are loyal to him – and know we are saved – when we do what he commands.

Another remarkable thing in this passage is the promise in the last part of the verse – the promise of the Spirit. In this ongoing struggle with the evil powers, no longer would these people who had suffered deception at the instigation and influence of evil powers be subject to those powers. Their power was broken and those who declared loyalty to the true king would have help from God in the person and presence of the Holy Spirit.

This interpretation also gives us a frame of reference for our lives from this point on for the rest of our lives. We have been brought into the kingdom (under the rule) of the One whom God set upon the throne, Jesus, the resurrected Son. According to the language of Paul in Ephesians 2:6, God “seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” It wasn’t just to save us but to restore us – and all humanity who yield to the king – to our originally intended place of rule over creation in which he placed mankind in the beginning. In verse 10 he says that we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” This amounts to a strike against the powers that had deceived and slain us by captivating us in sin. As kings, (sitting with God indicates that, you know), we have been given victory over those powers. We have been restored to the place God always intended for man, ruling together with him over his creation.

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UTOPIAN DREAMS (VII) What Is The Church, Anyhow? (2)

churchWe have briefly sketched the story of one segment of believers over the past 200 years in their search for their vision of the ideal church. This story has been repeated numerous times with different groups with only the names and places changed.

Being a new group does not necessarily mean rebellion against God’s order. Not every new group is insisting on having their own way. Most of these groups are made up of sincere people who believe they have discovered a better way of “doing church.” Most people in these groups only want to follow Jesus and be true to their vision of what he desires for human beings. Sincerity doesn’t make us right before God, but it ought to humble us and cause us to realize that we, too, are no different from those whom we think to be so unlike us. We think we are sincere seekers after the Lord who have everything figured out. But we don’t. Not even I have everything figured out so that I can sit in judgment of other sincere seekers. I don’t know anyone who does.

The sad part of all this is that by maintaining a rigid separation there is not only a duplication of effort on many fronts, but a failure to cooperate leaves many areas of work neglected. Such a focus on getting the church right has caused us to miss the real purpose for our existence. That purpose isn’t to be a perfect reproduction of the original church. It is to be in the world today what Christ was when he was in the world. It is to carry on and advance the mission he established when he was here. That mission is to further the interests of the kingdom of heaven. It is to help the will of God to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

We are not expected to accomplish that all by ourselves, but we are expected to work – together – toward that end. We are expected to show what it will be like when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. It is to live and work as though heaven had already come down to the earth. We do not do that by judging and condemning everyone except those who agree with us on every detail of religion. In fact, religion is the greater part of the problem we have in this world at the present. Religion was a major problem in Jesus’ day.

Jesus didn’t come to establish a religion. He came to call people back into a relationship with God. People who had been separated from God by sin. People who were lost and wandering in the world. People who were in darkness in their ignorance of God. The greatest opposition Jesus faced when he was here was from the most devoutly religious people among the only people who knew anything about God. The Pharisees were those religious people who gave Jesus such trouble. Very religious, but very, very wrong.

They condemned Jesus because he did not fit their image of the Messiah and because he did not share their idea of what was required to be acceptable to God. He ate with sinners and tax collectors and let women – even prostitutes – touch him. He healed people on the Sabbath day. He and his disciples did not wash their hands according to the prescribed ritual of ceremonial cleanliness. He did not fast like they did. So they accused him of being a drunkard and a glutton, having a demon and of casting out demons by the power of the prince of demons.

Followers of Jesus – disciples – are expected to be just like their master. A true disciple wants nothing more than to be just like him. Disciples of every rabbi wanted to learn the secret of their rabbi or as it was called, his yoke. If we are to be disciples of Jesus that ought to be our desire. Jesus, in calling people to himself put it this way …

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”1

In the preceding verse Jesus was talking to his hearers about knowing the Father as he was showing him to them. Such a knowledge of God is what mankind most urgently needs. They needed it then and we need it now. That knowledge is not all that complicated. Look at Jesus and you will see what the Father is like.

Look at Jesus and what do you see? You see one whose heart is filled with love for God’s handiwork – human beings who were made to be in the image of God but who had gone far astray from that ideal. You see one who was moved with compassion for people when they were hungry, when they were sick, when they were in sorrow, when they were lost in sin. You see one who did not condemn a woman taken in adultery but in mercy simply urged her to “Go and sin no more.” To put it succinctly, you see one whose heart was characterized by love. That is what the Father is like. That is what we are to be like. That is the “yoke” of Rabbi Jesus.

When asked about which commandment was the most important, Jesus replied,

“… you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”1 

To love God and to love one’s fellow man is what will make disciples perfect, Jesus said… “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” At the end of this saying he added, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” To be perfect is to be complete, to reach maturity as a child of God. It is to become like God. This is what God is looking for from us.

Will we ever love perfectly? No. Even after we have loved as much as we can we will never love as God has loved us. This is something in which we are expected to grow. The longer we live and the more we experience the closer we will come to that ideal, but we will never reach the perfection of love that is God. God is love, John said. We will never become God, but we can reflect, however imperfectly, the image of God so that people can see his glory. That is what the church is expected to do.

The church is just a bunch of forgiven people on whom the light of Jesus’ love shines and reflects the glory of God’s love into the world. His glory is seen in a million ways through the reflections of both individuals and as gatherings of believers. When one forgives others, a shaft of light is beamed from the Father in heaven and reflects out into the world. Other reflections will be seen when we attend to the needs of the hungry, the sick, the dying. When we comfort the sorrowing and when we restore the erring we reflect God’s glory. It is seen when we plant a flower, tend a garden, paint a widow’s house, drive our grandmother to the doctor or when we sit with a sick child. It is seen when we do a simple act of kindness or when we lend a neighbor a hand in repairing his car or mowing his lawn when he is away. It is even seen when we write a poem, sing a song, tell a story or paint a picture that tells something of the loveliness of God and his creation. It is seen when working as an educator as a profession, teaching elementary, special education, high school or on the university level. It may even be seen in being a coach of a little league team. It is seen when we help a single mother bear her load. It is seen when one decides to be a scientist, a lawyer or a doctor for the purpose of helping and healing people and not to make one’s self rich or famous. In all these and in a million other ways we can show the glory of God to the world. And when millions of believers are committed to that same purpose of glorifying God, wonders can be wrought in this sad old world and the kingdom of heaven will be brought nearer to it’s full expression.

Being a child of God or being God’s family isn’t just about doing religious things like “going to church” or getting the details of worship right or even about getting the church right or getting in the “right” church. It isn’t about how much money we give to the church or to charitable causes. It isn’t just about reading the Bible or praying so many times a day. It isn’t even about going to heaven when we die. As good as these things may be, this isn’t Christianity. It is about being the child of a loving, forgiving Father. It is about being like God. It is about doing his will on earth as it is done in heaven. And that covers a lot of ground. It is simply about being the church.

What is the church, then? It is people just like you and me who are helping one another give ourselves to God – living sacrifices whose only purpose in life is to serve and to glorify God by being like him. It is people whom God through the Holy Spirit has gifted for these tasks. It is people who are still looking for the ideal place, but who realize they will never find it this side of eternity when the Lord comes again to be with his people forever in that new creation that is in process of becoming at the present time. The new creation that was begun when Jesus rose from the tomb.

So let us not merely wait for it to come sometime in the future. Let us work for it in the present until God himself comes and finally and fully establishes the kingdom and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven. After all, isn’t that what heaven is? Where God is and where his will is done? That is God’s restoration. That is the utopia I am looking for!

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1 Mark 12:30-31

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UTOPIAN DREAMS (VI) What Is The Church, Anyhow?

churchWe have been talking about people’s dreams and desires to have something better than the present reality. Most everyone believes that things in the present are not as they should be. Almost everyone believes that there has to be something better somewhere, sometime – hopefully in the not-too-far-distant-future. That has been illustrated time and again in history, particularly in the search for an elusive utopia. Social experiments and religious reformations/restorations have universally failed. Yet we go on groping in the darkness for the elusive ideal. I have a dear preacher friend who has opined to me that we in Churches of Christ are closer than ever to completely restoring the New Testament church. I don’t know what his basis for that conclusion might be. Do any of us even know what we are looking for? Would we recognize it even if we stumbled upon it?

Perhaps we had best spend some time thinking about what the church is supposed to be. Has it was ever been the ideal as we have imagined it to be? Was there ever a perfect execution of God’s plan for people who believe in him? Do we anywhere in the Bible have a description of the church in it’s finished state – as it sprang from the mind of God in absolute perfection? Just exactly what are we reading about when we read the New Testament record of God’s dealings with men and especially those who believed in him?

When we go back to the time when God began to separate a special people for himself – back to the calling of Abraham – we find that God had a broader purpose in mind than just for Abraham and his descendants. God did choose Abraham and his family after him to be a special people unto himself. He blessed them with revelations of himself and gave them his care and protection like he gave to no other people. They were his special people, called to be holy or set apart unto him and him alone. What he expected of them was faith. Faith such as characterized Abraham. Faith that accepted God for what he said and trusted him to do what he promised. One of the promises God made to Abraham was that through his seed (singular – an offspring, a descendant) he would bless all nations.

God did not expect those people to be absolutely perfect in their faith or in the exercise of their faith. They were human and all humans fall short. Their father Abraham wasn’t perfect. While he believed God’s promises he didn’t understand how God would carry them out so he tried to help God out. At Sarah’s urging he fathered a son by a slave girl. Big mistake! That wasn’t God’s plan. Still, God used this impatient old man to begin a family of people through whom the Messiah would come many years later.

The descendants of Abraham became the people known as the Israelites. These were the people who grew to be a nation during a four hundred year sojourn in Egypt. They were there first as welcome guests and then as slaves of one of the first great empires of the ancient world. As the oppression of his people grew, God heard their cries and delivered them from their bondage, bringing them out after mightily proving himself to be God to the recalcitrant Pharaoh. They were separated from Egypt by miraculously being delivered through the Red Sea, being “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.”1

These people had hardly found their footing on the eastern shore of the Red Sea when they started complaining of their discomfort, deprivation and inconveniences in the wilderness. They wanted more than the manna with which God fed them. They murmured for water and God provided it miraculously. When they were at the foot of Mount Sinai where God was revealing the law to Moses in the awesome scene of fire and smoke on the mountain, they were making for themselves an idol and worshiping it in riotous abandon.

What is the point? Simply this … these were human beings. They, as we all, were messed up by sin. Having God’s revelation of himself to and through them did not change their humanness. Yes, they were guilty of grave sin and God held them responsible for it. Yet, Israel, with all their flaws and unbelief, was still God’s special people. He loved them as he told them in Deut. 7:6-8 ESV …

“For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.”

God had saved them and God continued to bear with them, not because of their goodness or righteousness but because of his grace. Despite a history of continuing disappointment and failure, God would use this stubborn people to be a means of blessing the whole world. Paul summarized the blessings of the descendants of Abraham this way in Romans 9:4-5:

“They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.”

Israel never did attain a state of perfection even though God had given them detailed laws and commandments. Despite their imperfections, God used them to bring even greater blessing to those in Israel who believed and to bless all nations of the earth through the Christ (Messiah), the seed whom he had promised. Those of Israel whom God blessed and those of the nations (Gentiles) who are blessed today receive his blessings – together – through their faith in him just as had Abraham in the long ago. They – and we Christians today – are blessed together with all others who believe in the Messiah and who receive salvation through faith in him.

A part of the blessing of the nations was this bringing together of all peoples in one body of believing followers of Jesus.2 Paul calls this sharing of blessings (with the Gentiles) a mystery God had kept hidden from mankind through the ages.3 In New Testament times this divine initiative was met with stern resistance. The party of the Judaizers, a sect of Jesus-followers insisted that the Gentiles must become Jews before they could be acceptable to God. Then there were the multiple divisions among the believers in Corinth who more identified themselves with who baptized them or who taught them than they did with Christ who died for them. Those who did identify themselves as followers of Christ apparently did so only to distinguish themselves from the believers who followed Paul, Apollos or Cephas.

There were careless workers in the church in Corinth (1 Cor. 3), some who thought they knew more than the apostles (ch. 4) as well as a blatantly immoral person being accepted by the congregation (ch. 5). This same church had people suing their brothers over things they should have settled among themselves, and some arguing for the practice of fornication also (ch.6). We could go on and review the mistakes of the Galatians in seeking justification according to law and the probable resistance of both the Jews and Gentiles in Ephesus to the joining together of the two great divisions of humanity in accordance with God’s eternal plan. We could go even further and name other evidences of imperfection in these churches just as there were imperfections among the Israelites before them.

“Yes,” someone will object, “there were imperfections in the early churches, but didn’t God reveal to them the perfect plan or pattern for their work, worship and organization? Don’t they show us what God expected the church to be through all time to come?” I used to believe that he did – and I still believe he revealed the perfect pattern. I just do not believe it looks like what some folks think it does. The writings of the New Testament were not written to give a detailed blueprint for an institutional organization. They were written to imperfect disciples to help them overcome their imperfections. Their imperfections were not in missing the correct form of worship because nowhere in the New Testament is there a description of what a worship assembly should look like or a complete list of what should be done by whom and in what order. There were no perfect people and there were no perfect churches. For the most part, the New Testament was written to teach people how to live with one another in their common relationship with their Creator and Lord.

Essentially, in calling man into a relationship with himself – which is what the church is – people called out of the world to be God’s own special people – we are called to return to our original place and responsibility given by our Creator at the time of our creation. We are, as Paul puts it in Ephesians 2:10 “…his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” What are the good works? They are the works we were created (and recreated) to do from the beginning, the works prepared beforehand. We are, individually and collectively, to bear the image of God and take care of, rule, have dominion over, the whole creation in partnership with God. In doing this we are to fulfill to the best of our ability God’s purpose of blessing all the nations of the earth through showing them the wisdom, goodness and glory of God in our work, our unity and our godly lives. We are to return to our original place and responsibility with God, but we are neither called to return to Eden – nor Jerusalem. We are expected to take up the work he has for us to do where we are in the present.

We live in a day in which that promise made by God to Abraham to bless all nations through Christ is coming to fruition. Christ has come and provided the blessing of the way back to God for a lost world. But instead of being conduits of his blessings to the nations, too many of us who profess faith in Jesus as our Savior have by our narrow vision and divisive sectarianism sought to eliminate as many as possible from receiving them all in the name of keeping the church pure (ideal?). We, like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, compass land and sea, seeking to turn everyone into carbon copies of ourselves because we have set ourselves as the measure of the ideal instead of Jesus who is the ideal pattern for humanity – all humanity. To paraphrase Job 2:12, “No doubt you we are the people and wisdom will die with you us.”

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1 1 Corinthians 10:2

2 Ephesians 1:10; 2:11-16

3 Ephesians 3:6

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