Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Apostolic Succession of Suffering, Part III

Part II noted how Christ's vicarious suffering is a model for Christian behavior, especially for the ministry.  Jesus suffered and died for us so that the kingdom might come.  We suffer and die for others so that the fullness of the kingdom comes.  Think about the book of Acts from this perspective.  Peter, John, Stephen, James, Paul, and the entire church had to suffer so that the kingdom of Jesus could grow and advance.  Every time someone suffers or dies in the story of Acts, the kingdom expands in some way or another.

And although this sounds odd to our ears, these sufferings are for the world.  In other words, they are in some deep, mystical sense vicarious.  According to Colossians 1:24, the kind of suffering that Paul rejoices in is substitutionary.  Suffering on behalf of others, in exchange for others.  Paul makes this very clear: “I rejoice in my suffering for you . . . for the sake of his body, the church."  He suffers in exchange for the sufferings that the Colossians might have had.  His suffering means that the Colossians do not have to suffer as much as they might have.

Now, we usually reserve that word “substitutionary” for the sufferings of Christ for us on the cross.  He took the punishment we deserved.  He suffered for our sins.  But that's not the only way one can "substitute" for another.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas, Mortality, & Resurrection

Providence Reformed Presbyterian Church
Christmas Eve – December 24, 2012
Texts: 1 John 1:1-4; 4:1-3; and Isaiah 53:3-4
Title: Surely He Has Borne Our Griefs

"He was. . . a man of pains and acquainted with infirmity. . . surely he has borne our pains and carried our infirmities" (Isa. 53:3-4).

Humanity has two big problems.  One, we are liable, guilty for our transgressions against God and his gracious law.  We are rebels that deserve his just punishment. That’s the first problem.  We might call this first problem “judicial.”  We have a judicial sentence against us.

The second problem is not unrelated.  We are mortal.  Our humanity is damaged, weak, subject to sickness, injury, and ultimately death.  And our pathetic mortal condition is the result of the fall.  We brought it on ourselves.  We have been afflicted with a death nature.  We could call this second problem “constitutional,” because it is about our makeup, our constitution.

God graciously sent his Son into the world, born of the virgin Mary, united to our human nature, in order to solve for us both of these problems, the judicial and the constitutional, our guilt and our mortality.

Tonight we should all remember that in his suffering and death on the cross as an innocent man Jesus bore the just punishment we deserved.  He took upon himself the judicial sentence against us.  Therefore, humanity’s first problem is solved.  The judicial problem.  We can be forgiven.  The sentence, the punishment against us is lifted.  We are no longer liable for our sins. And we experience that now, in this life.  As Paul says in Ephesians chapter one: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.”  This is one of chief reasons God the Son became a man.  He was born to die.  The angels said to Joseph, “You shall call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins" (Matt. 1:22).

But that leaves the second “constitutional” problem—mortality.  As believers we are justified—which means forgiven and righteous in God’s sight because we are united to Jesus by faith—but we are still mortal.  Our human existence is fractured and broken.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Mass Murder & National Repentance

James Dobson has used the Newtown shooting to call for national repentance.  But Peter Wehner thinks that's all wrong.

I'm not sure what to think about this. On one level I agree with Wehner's concerns. On another level, I find it puzzling that evangelical Christians cannot be allowed to speak prophetically to American Culture without political conservatives crying foul. I fear that this criticism has something to do with the Christian faith being reduced to personal, private "religion" (a thoroughly modernist turn). I think the author is probably right to resist using this particular incident as a symbol of God's judgment.

But surely our American culture/civilization is being "given over" by God to widespread ungodliness, to a "culture of death," if you will. Yeah, gun violence is down. It's not about guns per se (you knew I'd say that). The Christian faith teaches that God has expectations not just for individuals, families, and churches, but also for social behavior and cultures. And our "culture of death" factors into these kinds of events. Exactly how we present this is touchy, but it must be done. I find it disconcerting that a Jew like Ben Stein is able to speak more prophetically than Evangelical Christians are often comfortable with.

Another thought: was Jesus being callus when he responded to a mass murder and and tragic "accident" in Luke 13:1-5?
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
And remember, he was speaking to the nation/culture of Israel, not simply to individuals, as is clear from the parable of the "fig tree" and the "vinedresser" that immediately follows this exchange.

Don't take my comments as some sort of blanket endorsement of Dobson on this or any other issue. The piece just got me thinking, that's all.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Christmas Heresy

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.  And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete (1 John 1:1-4)
All of us have wondered if what the Church has labeled as heresies might just be nit-picky obsession about little details.  For example, the dividing line between heresy and orthodoxy in one controversy is the addition of a single Greek letter.  You are okay if you confess that Jesus was homoousios with God the Father, but you are literally damned if you believe that he was only homoiousios.  One Greek letter – iota.

But of course, that one letter changes the meaning of the word entirely.  Either you believe that the Son and the Father are of the same divine essence or you think they have only “similar natures.”  So what appears to be just an iota of a difference is in truth the difference between two entirely different confessions of God and therefore two radically different conceptions of the world, life, and the future.

But it’s not just little details in doctrinal disputes.  Christians claim that ostensibly “little events” make all the difference in the world.  It’s kind of like the little parts without which a machine could not operate.  Or like putting together a Christmas gift for your children.  Let's say you don’t read, or you ignore the instructions, dismissing early on a small part here or the orientation of something little there.  You get to the end and the bicycle doesn’t work or the final pieces don’t line up. And all because you got something seemingly small wrong near the beginning of the process.  It is not difficult to envision the same kinds of problems when engineers and carpenters build buildings.  What might appear to be a small mistake near the foundation could end up ruining the entire project.

Even though toys and buildings are often forgiving with many mistakes, there are some omissions and errors that are systemic and spoil everything.  So it is with life, and God’s world, and the Kingdom God—Christian civilization.  There are certain practices and beliefs that we all forgive in one another and make adjustments—different views on church government, or about the mode of baptism, etc.  But there are others—what might appear to outsiders to be minuscule puzzle pieces—that are the corners and straight edge sides without which there would be no completed image.  And they are game changers, culture crushers, eternally significant.

Damnable heresies.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Apostolic Succession of Suffering, Part II

I ended Part I wondering why books on the pastoral ministry typically don't include a chapter with a title like "Pastoral Care Through Vicarious Suffering."  After all, that is an accurate description of a crucial dimension of the ministry.  And this neglected feature of the pastor's vocation flows from the Apostles' foundational example and teaching, especially the Apostle Paul.  But, of course, it is grounded ultimately in the Jesus' service for us.  Oh wait, Jesus' service was the fulfillment of Israel's calling and vocation.  And even deeper, Israel was a new Adam.  So this is all about authentic human living, especially as social creatures.   But let's not get too far ahead here.  Back to Col. 1:24-26:
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints (Col. 1:24-26).
You see, what Paul's words here mean is that the fullness of the kingdom comes when ministers fill out the sufferings of Christ in service to the church and world.  Paul suffers so that the fullness of the kingdom might be experienced by the Colossian Christians.  That is why Paul can "rejoice" in his sufferings.  Because he knows What his tribulations will produce.  As he says in Romans 5:3, ". . . we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces. . . "

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Apostolic Succession of Suffering, Part I

"Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints" (Col. 1:24-26).

Lots of Christians steer clear of this passage in Paul's letter to the Colossians.  They are afraid that any discussion of what may be "lacking in Christ's sufferings" will water down our strong doctrine of the substitutionary atonement of Jesus for the sins of his people.  But apparently Paul didn't think so.  Otherwise he would have phrased this differently.

The place of suffering in the Apostolic ministry in the first century church needs more study.  The apostles talk about suffering a lot, more than we are comfortable with.  The Apostle Paul seems to have believed that his suffering in particular was pivotal in the progress and maturation of the developing church.  Here in Colossians 1 he "rejoices in his sufferings. . . for the sake of his body, that is the church" (24).  But he often rejoices in his afflictions and calls attention to his suffering as a model for ministry in the church.
For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake (Phil. 1.29).

For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know (1 Thess. 3:4).

Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God,  who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, which is why I suffer as I do (2 Tim. 1:8-12).

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Some Thoughts on Status & Position in the Gospels

I've preached through all four Gospels.  It took me 16 years of morning sermons to go through them all paragraph by paragraph.  After finishing them I want to go back and do it again.  One of the reasons is that I now have a better grasp on them all.  There's a great deal I could say about that. But what I want to call attention to in this post is the importance of reading the Gospels in the context of the early, Apostolic church.

I am convinced of the early church "Augustinian" view of the order the Gospels.  The first Gospel to be written was Matthew's, then Mark's, then Luke's, then John's.  The canonical order is the order in which they were composed.  In fact, I'm pretty radical.  I believe Matthew was written within a year or so of the church's formation in Acts 2.  The apostles needed a "book" to ground what they were teaching on the life and words of Jesus.  Mark was written about a decade later and reflects the intense persecution the church was experiencing at the hands of the Jewish leaders.  That was already going on at the time of Matthew's Gospel, but it had increased in the 40's.  Luke, of course, was written under the supervision of Paul and addresses the church's situation in the wider world, especially the inclusion of the Gentiles.  John penned his Gospel in the late 60's when the old world was about to be deconstructed with the judgment against Israel and the destruction of the Temple.

During this time of transition (AD 30–70) the disciples of Jesus were in a precarious position.  Having no status and position in the old world of Judaism, the challenge was to trust Jesus' promises that the church would one day be exalted and be at the center of a new civilization (= the Kingdom of God).

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Seals Get OBL

I just finished Mark Owen's No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama Bin Laden.  It's a pretty quick read. The first half of the book is a condensed autobiographical sketch of Owen's (not his real name) Seal training and missions.  He doesn't reveal much detail, just very general outlines.  Enough to drive you crazy.  This is one of the major disappointments I have with books about Special Ops units and missions.  They don't give you the really interesting stuff.  I want to know about their training, especially with firearms. I want to know just how accurate and fast they are with the weapons they use.  I want to know times and statistics and all the stuff that remains classified.  Arrggghhh!

The same can be said about the account of the mission that killed OBL.  It's great to have a first-hand account that clears up so much of the speculation that was splashed all over the cable news networks last year.  But I want more pictures and video!  You know they've got it.  Someday maybe we'll see it.  Maybe.

Thankfully, President Obama is not glorified in the account. He's not denigrated, but there's a lot of honesty about D.C.'s incompetence.  One of the most political pages in the book has to do with the way Washington changed the way the war was being fought.  Here's an example:

Monday, December 10, 2012

Human Temple

One of the lectionary readings for the second Sunday of Advent was Malachi 3:1-4.  The prophet prophesies that the Lord will "suddenly come to his temple" and that he will be "like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap."  A couple of interesting things to note here:

First, the tabernacle and temple always stood for the people Israel gathered, organized around God’s special presence.  When Peter talks about us being "living stones" he's not introducing something new.  After all, did anyone expect Jesus to be scrubbing the stones on the physical temple with a soapy brush?  Or blasting away at the gold and silver with a blow torch to purify the precious metals?  Of course not.  Jesus' cleansing the temple was all about reforming the people.  The gold, silver, and stones of the temple represented various kinds of people.  When Nebuchadnezzar raided the temple and took the gold and silver, at the same time he also snatched the best and brightest of Israel and brought them back to Babylon.  And when he came again to destroy the temple, he destroyed and captured the rest of the people, thereby deconstructing the entire nation of Israel.

Second, the promise of the Lord coming to his temple also has a surprising fulfillment.  The Son of God did not merely appear in the midst of his people as an angel or a theophany to deliver messages from heaven.  And he did not simply cause his Glory to fill the old temple as in the past.  The time for stone temples was past.  Was a stone temple ever really a fitting dwelling place for God?  Would God the Son come to his people to reside permanently in a stone house?  No.  Stephen makes this clear in his speech to the rulers of Israel.  "The Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands" (Acts 7:48-49; quoting Isaiah 66).

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Jesus Reveals God's True Character

Let me briefly address a mistake that continues to be perpetuated and it sounds so right because it is popularly repeated over and over again in apologetics and evangelism books, tracts, and sermons.

The mistake is to think that the miracles that Jesus did proves that he was divine.  That the clearest, most compelling evidence of the divinity of Jesus was when he did miraculous works of power.  No.  Read the Bible carefully.  In the Scriptures it is human prophets who do these kinds of things.  Moses was not God, but he performed great signs and wonders.  He was a mighty prophet.  And Moses discovered, too, that the magicians of Egypt could imitate these acts.  Jesus himself knew and the author of Acts relates that other people were able to perform exorcisms and what not.  Similar miracles were done by Elijah and Elisha, but they were not God.  God did "extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul" (Acts 19:11).  But Paul was not God.

Haven’t you every thought it odd that the epistles of Paul and Peter and John make no mention of the miracles of Jesus as a proof of his divinity?  Rather, Peter says, “Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him" (Acts 2:22).

As it turns out, whenever the apostles speak of Jesus as God they connect it with his incarnation and self-sacrificial death?  Jesus' divine nature and character are unveiled in his humble service to us in his birth, life, suffering, and death.  The point is that what makes, what proves, if you will, that Jesus is God, is not his works of power and might, but his humble self-sacrifice.  His self-effacing love and service for humanity.  This is who God is.  Jesus is the true revelation of God.  And God turns out to be the Chief Servant of all, rather than the big, power-hungry God that pushes people around to show off his greatness.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

On Leaven, Yeast, and the Lord's Supper

I offer some biblical and theological thoughts on the question of what kind of bread to use in the Lord's Supper.  This is not a polished essay.  I'm just "casting my bread upon the waters," as Solomon advises (Eccl. 11:1).

1.  The main thing to think about is that the unleavened bread is bread made without the old sour "starter" dough that contains the yeast.  In normal situations the yeast comes from that starter  "leaven."  "Leaven" refers to the old, sour reserved dough that contains the yeast.  Leaven contains yeast.  Leaven is not the same as yeast.  The NIV and other translations screw this up entirely.

2.  When bread is being made, there are two sources for yeast.  First, you can get yeast from the old leaven that you have "reserved."  In fact, the yeast must be imported into the "leaven" at the start of the process.  When the process begins yeast is cultivated from the lees of wine.  Then the yeast is put into the dough.  A portion of the dough is used to cook the first batch, but a larger portion is "reserved" in order have the yeast readily available for use in later loaves.  This "starter" dough that is kept is what is called the "leaven."  It's the old, sour dough used as a delivery mechanism for the yeast.

3.  The second way to get yeast is to get it "fresh" when it's cultivated from wine.  In the ancient world people knew how to rise bread without the sourdough lump (leaven).  Technically, a fresh loaf of bread made with this newly cultivated yeast is not "leavened."   What this means is that the first batch of yeasted, rising bread that is made with the new yeast is not leavened bread.  It is yeasted, but not from the sour dough leaven.  So you could say that a loaf made with yeast not from the reserved, sour leaven is still unleavened bread.  It's new.  It doesn't use the old, sour stuff.  The bread we use for the Lord's  Supper in our church is not sour dough bread.  It is not leavened bread.  It contains fresh yeast.  It is yeasted, but not leavened.  This is theologically and symbolically significant.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Private Masses

Calvin: "I call it a private mass whenever there is no communion among believers in the Lord's Supper, even if a large crowd of people are otherwise present" (Institutes 4.8.7).

Calvin is talking about a priest doing the Eucharist with the gathered people not communing.  It's "private" even if there's a lot of people in the room while it's being performed by the priest because no one but the priest is partaking of the bread and wine.

Of course, private masses are still performed for various reasons by Roman priests. But the Roman church has reintroduced communion in both kinds as well as regular congregational participation at the weekly Supper.  The Reformation was pretty successful in dealing with the late medieval problem of the withdrawal of the laity from the Table.

But there's another problem with the way modern Christians celebrate the Lord's Supper that might be labeled as "private mass" or maybe just "private communion."  The word "communion" refers not only to our communion with the resurrected Jesus through the bread and wine at the Supper.  There's also a horizontal dimension to the Table that flows from union with Jesus.  We are united with one another.  We commune with Jesus and with one another.  "Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of one loaf" (1 Cor. 10:17).