Thursday, December 31, 2009

Churches: How To Die Well?

There are two things certain in life, they say: death and taxes. Well, churches aren't taxed (yet) and so we might as well talk about church death.

There is an interesting post over at the Resurgence blog this morning, Seasons of Church Life. It speaks of the stages a church goes through, including gestation, birth, infancy, adolescence, maturity, parenting, grandparenting, death, and resurrection.

In the section entitled "death," Driscoll writes that a church has two choices:

One, the church can deny its impending death, which may be many years out, sell off its assets such as land to prolong its death, redefine its mission to defend its death, and simply hold on as it slowly and painfully dies, often rewriting the best years of its history so as to feel significant and successful. Or two, the church can embrace its impending death as an opportunity to resurrect.

Driscoll then goes on to explain "resurrection" as basically replanting the church: giving the building and assetts to another (younger, healthier) church, etc.

What I find interesting here is the "certainty of death." Having been part of several denominations or "movements," and having studied church history, I've learned that healthy churches and movements tend to die eventually. In the best case (!) this means aging out; in the worst cases it means slowly but surely ushering the Holy Spirit out the door by denying the Scriptures, the gospel, and genuine discipleship.

This should concern any church leader, whether pastor, elder, or denominational leader.

Let's face it, fear it, and pray about it: On a denominational level, there are few denominations that are able to sustain faithfulness to Jesus over a long, long haul. All you have to do is look around and see the husks of formerly vibrant churches and denominations to know this.

I think that in confronting this reality Driscoll opens up a great topic of conversation.

Here are my questions.

1) What are the signs of life and sickness in my own denomination?
2) When a church begins to lose its vitality, are there options other than those Driscoll provides? (Turning over the keys or death. Or we might say, "replant, revitalize, or die.")
3) I understand how a church would need to replant or revitalize with fresh vision and leadership. But how does a denomination do this?
4) To what degree is this an American evangelical phenomenon?

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Sin makes you stupid.

One of the most memorable sermons I've heard in recent years was notable for several reasons. It was preached by a ruling elder, on a Sunday when the pastor had to be out on short notice. This elder was not a preacher by trade, he was a carpenter (I seem to remember something about another famous carpenter turned preacher...). The sermon notes were scribbled on the back of an envelope, and the entire sermon was about 15 minutes long.

But, ne'ertheless, it was one of the most edifying and memorable sermons I've heard. It had four main points, and four years later I can still remember what two of them were. Which is an astonishing fact, given how quickly I can forget the main points of even my own sermons!

The sermon was on Daniel 3, the fiery furnace passage. The third point was "Sin makes you stupid." Why else would Nebuchadnezzar arrest and throw into a furnace three men who's names mean "Yahweh is my helper" (Azariah), "Who is what God is?" (Mishael) and "Yahweh is gracious" (Hananiah)?

The fourth point was "There is a fourth man." Nebuchadnezzar threw three men in the furnace, but there was an extra man in there with them. When you think that your situation could not possibly get any worse, remember, there is a fourth man in the furnace with you.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Praying Like a Kid

I've written enough about Paul Miller's A Praying Life that I decided to post a sample of it. This also flows out of Jeff's post yesterday concerning praying in a gospel-centered manner.

Throughout the book, Paul Miller speaks about praying like a child. These quotations are from pp.44-45, and he makes a point I'd never really considered before... namely, that Jesus was the supreme example of praying - and living - with childlike faith.

Whenever Jesus starts talking about his relationship with his heavenly Father, Jesus becomes childlike, very dependent. "The Son can do nothing of his own accord" (John 5:19). "I can do nothing on my own" (John 5:30). "I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me" (John 8:28). "The Father who sent me has himself given me...what to say and what to speak" (John 12:49). Only a child will say, "I only do what I see my Father is doing."

When Jesus tells us to become like little children, he isn't telling us to do anything he isn't already doing. Jesus is, without question, the most dependent human being who ever lived. Because Jesus can't do life on his own, he prays. And he prays. And he prays. ...

Imagine asking Jesus how he's doing. He'd say, "My Father and I are doing great. He has given me everything I need today." You respond, "I'm glad your Father is doing well, but let's just focus on you for a minute. Jesus, how are you doing?" Jesus would look at you strangely, as if you were speaking a foreign language. The question doesn't make sense. ... That's why contemplating the terror of the cross at Gethsemane was such an agony for Jesus. He had never experienced a moment when he wasn't in communion with his Father. Jesus' anguish is our normal."

Maybe I'll post a few more quotations soon, but for now lets ask ourselves the question Paul Miller is raising: Is my "prayer time" suffering because I'm living out of my own resources the rest of the day?

Monday, December 28, 2009

My New Years Resolutions and the Gospel

I'm a sucker for a good new years resolution. I love them. Which is not to say that I keep them any longer than the average Joe, but still, I love setting ambitious goals and dreaming about what I might be able to accomplish in the year ahead.

I've begun thinking about several goals that I want to accomplish during the coming year.

1. Be intentional about making my sermons more memorable.
2. Become more informed on the topic of eschatology. (one of my weakest areas of theology)
3. Cultivate a more biblical prayer life.

Sometime while I was thinking about number three is when it hit me. I'm a christian (this was not the big revelation). And so many of my new years resolutions (and other goals set throughout the year) are focused on improving my spiritual life. And yet, many of my spiritual goals are an exercise in what my professor Bryan Chapell used to call sola bootstrapsa.

That is to say, I enjoy setting goals. And the goal of having a more biblical prayer life is an admirable goal. But I go about trying to reach my goal in a completely unbiblical way. I might follow all the best advice about achieving my goal, such as writing my goal down, telling my goal to someone who can hold me accountable (ya'll), and gritting my teeth really hard. But in doing so I've managed to leave Jesus out of the equation.

I realized that having an unbiblical prayer life is a sin. And the bible has a solution for sin, and it has nothing to do with goal management, gritting my teeth, or "just trying harder." The solution is the gospel.

So I need to begin by confessing my sin, and asking Jesus to forgive me (1 John 1:9). Then I need to remind myself that Jesus had a perfectly obedient prayer life, and by faith, his obedience is counted as mine (Galatians 2:20). Therefore I am totally accepted by God (Ephesians 2:4-6). I have confidence that in approaching God he has nothing but mercy, and grace to help me in my time of need (Hebrews 4:14-16). And part of his grace includes the gift of the Holy Spirit, by whose ministry in my own life, I can put to death the deeds of the body, and live by the Spirit (Romans 8:12-15).

In other words, I'm pretty sure God would like for me to pray more. But He would like me to go about it in the power that he provides through the gospel. So my New Years uber-resolution, will be to go about all my resolutions by the power of the gospel, and this I will do, by the grace of God (Philippians 4:13).

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Best Sermon Advice I've Ever Received

When I was first ordained in the Metro New York Presbytery, I preached a brief sermon on Revelation 2:1-7 to the pastors present. I made it clear in that message that we need Jesus and cannot rely on even our best works.

In that presbytery, they have the pastors fill out a brief form to offer feedback on the sermon. I received pretty encouraging feedback overall, yet one person gave a beautifully nuanced piece of advice that day. I don't know who it was, but he wrote, "You made it very clear that we need Jesus Christ, but you did not show us the beauty of Jesus to compel us to come to him."

That was the best piece of advice I've ever received. And to follow that advice requires the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit to keep me delighted in the Beautiful Savior.

"Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me." John 15:4

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Post

It must have seemed like a ridiculous promise at the time.

Israel was under siege. The king of Assyria was marshaling his forces for attack. Israel faced the threat of occupation, loss of freedom, destruction of property, and even exile from their land. The people were afraid. And the prophet Isaiah had given them reason to be afraid. They had spurned the way of the Lord, and so the Lord had chosen Assyria to be his punishment of choice. They were coming.

But there was hope. In the midst of this, Isaiah also prophesied that there would be salvation in the midst of judgment. The ones walking in darkness would see a great light. I can imagine how closely the people must have been listening to Isaiah now, how would it happen? How is God going to miraculously deliver his people from the invading barbarians?
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given.

There's a baby. It must have seemed like a ridiculous promise at the time. In the face of their well founded fear of the enemy at the gate, Isaiah was waxing poetic about a baby. Promises like this require faith. No doubt the Israelites would have preferred a squadron or two of battle trained warriors, but instead the promise was a child.

Perhaps the near term fulfillment of this promise referred to Isaiah's own son Shear-Jashub, whose name literally meant "A remnant will return." This was some hope, at least. But the full fulfillment would have to wait much longer.

Again God's messengers would come to his people when they were 'sore afraid.' And again they promised a baby. Singing. Bringing a message of God's salvation that would require a good deal of faith.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.

Merry Christmas, there's a baby.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Ken's Top 12 in 2009

Following up on Jeff’s top 2.5 books of 2009, I would like to offer what I call “Notable for Ken in 2009.” These are a total of 12 things that were notable to me (I’m Ken) in 2009.

Most Notable Scripture Verse in 2009

1. “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first” (Rev. 2:4). I was trying to read through Revelation but was stopped in my tracks by this passage and had to pray over it for two days. I underlined it. On the third day, God underlined it too—see below.

Two Notable Sermons in 2009

1. Matt Chandler’s sermon at Advance09. God socked me in the gut with this sermon, which you’ll find online titled as “Preaching the Gospel to the De-Churched.” The message has little to do with that. Instead, Matt Chandler preached to me about Revelation 1:4 and my need for repentance and immediate change.

2. Mark Driscoll’s “Ministry Idolatry,” which followed up on Matt Chandler’s message, and left everyone in the room, including John Piper, deeply convicted and driven to repentance.

Most Notable Sermon Series in 2009

1. 1 Peter by Mark Driscoll. Almost every sermon is worth your time. In any case, my wife and I were each deeply changed this year and one tool the Lord used was Driscoll’s preaching. He seemed to be at the top of his game throughout this series. (Note: I wasn't able to get Jeff Tell's Mark sermons online.)

Two and a Half Notable Books of 2009

1.The Broken Pastor: How the Savior Breaks Leaders to Make Them Truly Whole by Peter Scazzero. You will actually find this excellent book under its current (bland) title, The Emotionally Healthy Church.

2. Come Back, Barbara by Jack Miller. Cheryl and I have read, lent, recommended, and gifted this book numerous times this year. It’s an easy read, but profound. It will make you think deeply about how to pray for your friend/family member who is outside of Christ—but more importantly it will make you examine your own actions and motives.

2.5. A Praying Life by Paul Miller. Another Jeff recommended this book to me, saying, “This is the first book on prayer that didn’t make me feel guilty about my prayer life; it made me want to pray.” I’ve read only half this book but I cannot see how there could be a better book on the market. Cheryl and I are both benefiting tremendously. I only count it as half because I’ve only read half, and because I want to be like Jeff.

Notable Half-Blog of 2009

.5. The Moose are in Need of Reproof. I am only counting this as a half because I must limit my comments to Jeff’s half. Haven’t his posts been good? I sure enjoy them, and they make me a little embarrassed of what I sometimes bring to the table.

Three Notable Words of 2009

1. Anger. (What makes you angry? Is it what makes God angry, or are you just selfish?)
2. Love. (Have you abandoned your first one?)
3. Joy. (What has happened to all your joy?)

There are stories behind all those words. Give me a call and let's talk about them.

Okay, that totals 12 notables.


Jury's Out Book of 2009. Personally, I am not sure why Deep Church is getting so much attention. I mostly agree with the overall vision the author is presenting, but I didn't learn much new. I think the book has some imperfections as well; the chapter on "deep ecclesiology" seems weak (ironically). My wife likes it more than I did, however, so I wonder if the difference involves our backgrounds.

Jury's Out Books of 2010. I would really like to read A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller. I like the concept, and it looks like an easy read (yet hopefully thought provoking). I'd also like to find out more about Crazy Love by Francis Chan, but I need someone else to read that one and tell me about it.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Jeff's Top Two and a Half Books of '09

It's that magical time of year again, when a young man's thoughts turn to book lists. I love book lists. I love making them, I love reading them. Have you made a book list? Leave me a comment, I'll read your list. And judge you by it. Just kidding, I won't do that (yes I will). And if you recommend a book highly enough, I might just read it, and send you a thank you note.

So I started thinking about my ten favorite books I read this year. But I couldn't come up with ten. Did I seriously not even read ten good books this year? What's wrong with me? I don't know. It was a weird year for reading I guess. So I decided if I couldn't come up with ten, then I would be extra selective and only list the great books I read this year. Not just any good book would make my list. No, no. Only the great books. Which is why my list is so short.

But here they are....

1. The Book of Exodus, by Brevard Childs. This was an exceptional commentary, and I'm not easy to please in the commentary department. But Childs excelled across the board. His text critical notes were judicious and balanced, and his insight into the text was engaging. His notes on the NT use of Exodus were excellent. I was reading through this commentary with two friends, but I was always tempted to read ahead because I had trouble putting it down.

2. The Gospel of Mark, NICGT, by R.T. France. Hmm, I hope it's not too boring to recommend commentaries, but again, this was a great commentary. It is commenting on the Greek text, but you can enjoy probably 90% or more without knowing Greek. He doesn't comment on other's views, he comments on the Biblical text. And he managed to answer just about every question I brought to him.

3. The first half of Prodigal God, by Tim Keller. Perhaps the second half of this book will make it onto my 2010 book list. But so far I've only read the first four chapters. However, these chapters have been great. His insight into the nature of legalism was really eye opening for me.

Honorable Mention. These books were good. But not great.

1. Why We Love the Church, by DeYoung and Kluck. Good, really good.
2. Apologetics to the Glory of God, by Frame. Good, but philosophy is not my game.
3. The Man Who Ate Everything, by Steingarten. This book was great, but it's about food, not theology.
4. Ephesians, by Stott. This one might be great too, but I'm only one chapter in.
5. Pastor, by Willimon. Really good. I might look back on this one in a year and think it's great.
6. Exodus, by Houtmann. Best three volume commentary on Exodus translated out of Dutch that I've ever read.
7. Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on Mark, by Witherington. I wish I would've started using this earlier in my Mark series. It was very insightful.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Hebrew Mnemonic #4: Shema, O God!

The Bible was written primarily in Hebrew and Greek.

The Greek words are often easily exposed for what they really are. For example, it comes as no surprise that anthropos means "man" or that theos means "God." These words have connections with our English language. They walk our streets and hang out in our restaurants. Also, Greek uses an alphabet similar to the English alphabet which provides a certain comfort level.

Hebrew is a bit more elusive. The alphabet is wholly unfamiliar, and the words do not naturally stick with you. To top it all off, you have to read from right to left. Learning Hebrew requires acting like a mole inside a high level government agency, in order to crack the code. Or like trying to find out the identity of your local neighborhood superheroes - sure, they do great things, but who are they?

For example, here's a line from Deuteronomy 6:

שְׁמַע, יִשְׂרָאֵל: יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ, יְהוָה אֶחָד.

Having said all that, my point is actually that some words (very few, truth be told) actually wear their meaning on their sleeve. They were exposed long ago for who they are, and now they roam around in the full light of day, having given up all pretense of anonymity.

One such word is the first word (to the far right) of the Hebrew cited above. Cracking the code, the word is shema, which means "hear," and the verse written above is the highly familiar "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one." (Or, "Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one.")

The reason shema has become familiar to us is that we call this famous part of the Old Testament "The Shema." It is very, very easy to remember that shema in Hebrew means "to hear."

But here's where this becomes helpful...

The other day I was studying Psalm 4, and I saw this most familiar of words pop up. David prays a prayer so simple it might go by us without much thought. He cries out, "Hear, O God!"

In the Hebrew, this is "Shema, O God!"

And it struck me... God tells us to hear Him. We are to give careful attention to His words. That is our duty as human beings whom He created, and it's an honor we sadly rarely give to Him. And yet, we are actually so bold as to come to Him and say, "Shema!"

But what's even more amazing is this. Psalm 4:3 says, "But know that Yahweh has set apart the godly for Himself; Yahweh hears when I call to Him."

God actually pays attention when his people pray "shema!" even though we often wander away when he pleads with us to "shema." What an amazing God we worship and love.

Final note: You may notice that you don't need to study Hebrew to figure this out. You could be just as impressed if you notice that God says "hear" and David asks God to "hear." But there's something about digging around like a mole in the original language that makes you slow down just enough to notice these things. It helps you truly shema what God is saying.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Hebrew Mnemonic #3: Shackin' Up. (Christmas Edition)

The Hebrew word shakhan is a verb meaning "to dwell, settle down, abide." I like to think this is probably the deep etymological root of our English expression to describe two people who are dwelling together as "shacking up together."

Ok, ok, there is actually a very good chance that it is not actually the origin of that phrase. But it does make a good mnemonic device, no? And that's really what this is all about.

It's often a very simple word in the OT, describing the fact that someone 'lives' or 'dwells' in a certain place. But where it really gets interesting is when it appears in some of the sweetest covenant promises of the Lord to his people:
Exodus 29:45 - And I will dwell (shakhan) among the people of Israel, and will be their God.

Here God is committing to not only lordship, but actually dwelling in the midst of His people. So, yes, we might say that God is "shacking up" with His people! This is a great and gracious thing.

And notice the reference of this verse, Exodus 29, smack in the middle of the instructions for building the tabernacle. The supreme expression of God's commitment to dwell in the midst of His people is the fact that He would dwell in the tabernacle/temple placed in the middle of the camp. That was God's tent. And as a free Hebrew bonus, the word for tabernacle is mishkhan, notice the word shakhan dwelling in the midst of that word!

In John chapter 1, as John is searching for words to describe the glory of the incarnation he says,
John 1:14 - And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

When John says the Word 'dwelt' among us, he is using the Greek verb (skene) which often translated the Hebrew word shakhan. The Greek noun skene means 'tent, tabernacle.' Which is why this verse is occasionally translated very woodenly as "The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us."

John is saying something incredible here. As in the OT God graciously dwelt among his people in the tabernacle, now he is choosing to again graciously dwell among his people. But this time he does so in the form of Jesus. And what is more, in Exodus 40:35, after the tabernacle was completed, the glory of God descended upon it, so that Moses was not able to enter, because the glory was so great. But John says that in Jesus "we have seen his glory." (!!!)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Call Me Neo.

It would appear as though I've been living three lives.

In the first life, I am a mild mannered Th.M. student, studying the Old Testament at a local seminary. It's a great life. I read academic books, study Hebrew, and consider the details of text criticism and hermeneutics.

In the second life I read pastoral books. Books on how to lead a church, how to preach, how to manage people, and how to do this, that and the other pastoral task.

In the third life I am the pastor of a church.

You'd think these three lives would intersect occasionally, wouldn't you?

Well... they don't. At least not as regularly as I would like for them to. As a pastor I am using the Bible regularly, but not in the same way we use it in class. Both are good uses, but as a pastor reading the bible with regular people, we read with application much more consciously in mind. The church growth and leadership books don't seem to relate to my church either. You'd think they would, and occasionally something proves helpful. But they talk so much about leadership, and managing crises, fostering change, buzzword, buzzword, buzzword.

I guess I'm just not proactive about fostering organic growth within dynamic relationships as we move towards a community driven paradigm.

Because I'm not a manager. I'm a pastor.

So I spend an hour sitting with an 87 year old lady who has a black eye from falling out of bed last week, and is stressed about her husband who is still in the nursing home after his accident 93 days ago. And sometimes I sit with a 93 year old lady who used to be a stalwart in our church. Last year at this time we still enjoyed conversation, but now her mind is slipping. She still smiles when I read the Bible to her, and holds my hand tight when I pray for her.

Other times I'll visit with some of the young men, and eagerly look for the fruit of the Spirit. Or I'll have breakfast with one of the older men, and wish we were all as eager to read the Bible as he is. And every Sunday I stand up and preach the gospel. I look around and see no visitors, and know that everybody in the room has heard it before. And I know that everybody in the room, including me, needs to hear it again. We all need to pray the prayer of confession, hear the assurance of pardon, to recite the creed, and hear the word of our Heavenly Father to his children. And we pray for the work of the Spirit, without whom there will be no real change anyways.

It's good work. You just wouldn't know it from looking at the "Pastor" shelves of the local bookstore.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Two Questions, Part Two: Another Question.

In Christian circles the word "fellowship" has lost its teeth. It generally implies, in our church culture, coffee and maybe a bite to eat. While I'm glad for this development, we shouldn't have the coffee at the expense of what makes for true, biblical fellowship - namely, relationships centered around the gospel.

But I think it's easier to have "friends from church" than to have relationships that are, in some identifiable way, centered around Jesus Christ. To put it another way, it takes effort to forge a friendship that makes a significant difference in our worship, witness, and integrity before God.

That is why I like to have good questions to ask my friends.

The one I ask these days is a simple one: "How's your joy?" Or in other words, "Are you experiencing the joy of your salvation?"

As I've asked others this question, several guys have responded: "Good question. Uhhh...." And I know why: it's not necessarily an easy question to answer! I have to give it some thought too. But don't you agree that it's a good question, one that addresses an area of our lives we should monitor more closely than, say, "how we are doing" (which means, are you happy with your circumstances right now) or "what's going on"?

Just yesterday I asked this question to a friend named Bunny (he's a guy, there's a story, don't make fun, he gets mean). He may not have remembered, but I've asked him this question the last several times we've been together. He said, "That's a good question, but out of curiosity--why joy, out of all the fruits of the Spirit? Why not love or peace or patience?"

That's a good question too. I had to think about it.

In Galatians 5, the "fruit of the Spirit" is a singular word--"fruit." Thus love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control are all united within us. So while joy is near the top of the list, I can't say that it wouldn't be just as well to ask, "How's your love" or "How's your peace."

But I think the word "joy" is a little less sullied. Like the word "fellowship," love and peace are often confused with cheap substitutes. Meanwhile, no one even has patience, and a faithful man who can find?

Taking a look at whether we are experiencing the joy of our salvation gets beyond whether we are happy with our circumstances (we aren't). It also gets us beyond what we're doing (we're trying to prove ourselves by comparing ourselves with others, usually).

It makes us examine our relationship to God in areas where it matters. Thankfulness. Adoration. Zeal. Trust. Faith. Joy...

Well, I think it's a good question anyway.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Two Questions, Part One: A Question.

When I was a young guy out in California, I attended a big church and had lots of friends. When I'd get together with a friend one of the questions first questions I'd ask, to get past small talk and to more fruitful fellowship, was, "What's the Lord showing you?"

It seems to me that if we are in a relationship with God, praying, and reading our Bibles, we should have some consciousness of something God is teaching us. Most times, this question opened up the door to interesting conversation. Nevertheless, there were some who struggled to answer this question.

In fact, when I started hanging out in Reformed circles (and now I'm a pastor at a Reformed church) I gained new friends. Friends who didn't like to answer this question. And I can understand that sometimes we have no idea what God is doing in our lives. But it seems that more often than not, since we are His children, there should be something we can identify as a message He's trying to get across to us - concerning trust, prayer, worship, faith, dealing with a unique challenge or a challenging person.

Secretly, I harbor the belief that if we have too much trouble answering this question... we have probably become too theoretical in what is supposed to be a relationship with the living God. But hey, I'm flexible. I understand that the question might not come across the right way to everyone. That's why I have a new question that I ask, and that question will be the subject of my next post.

But for now, I'd like to ask you: What is God showing you? What is something he's teaching you right now?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Holiness by Genre.

This week I'm preparing my sermon, "Jesus our Priest," the second part of our special Advent sermon series, "Jesus in Hebrews: Prophet, Priest, King and Savior." Jesus' priestly work, like all priestly work, is necessary to mediate between a God who is Holy, Holy, Holy, and sinful creatures like ourselves. I've been thinking through some of the various OT passages that emphasize both the holiness of God in his temple, and the duties/dangers facing the priest. I was especially struck by how the different types of OT literature all portray these themes in their own unique ways.

My mind went first to the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16. This is a legal text which describes, in all its glorious legal detail, the yearly duties of the high priest in going into the Holy of Holies to represent the people before the throne of God. It's a great passage, really. It communicates the holiness of God through the precision required of the priest, the complexity of sacrificial ritual, and the glory of the ceremony. If it has one drawback, it's that it might be, um, a little tedious.
Leviticus 16:14, 15 - And he shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat on the east side, and in front of the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times. “Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat.

Let's just say that reading 34 straight verses of legal code might not make the most gripping sermon illustration, inspired though it is.

Several Psalms also attempt in their lines of poetry to capture the holiness of God in his temple, and the requirements of the one who will approach him.
Psalm 15: 1, 2 - O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent?
Who shall dwell on your holy hill?
He who walks blamelessly and does what is right
and speaks truth in his heart;

The poetry makes a more accessible way to meditate on the holiness of God, and the requirements in Psalm 15 are not only ceremonial, but moral demands placed on the one who will "sojourn in his tent." Psalm 11 considers the same theme,

Psalm 11:4 - The Lord is in his holy temple;
the Lord's throne is in heaven;
his eyes see, his eyelids test the children of man.

The idea of 'testing' in this Psalm remind us that the Lord is holy, and those who worship him must do so in spirit and in truth. If the legal texts traffic in specifics, the poetic line traffics in beauty and memorableness of expression.

Perhaps the most well known OT text on this theme is the prophetic vision of Isaiah 6. Isaiah, too, is writing about the holiness of God, the inner sanctum of the temple, and the demands on the approaching worshiper. But he does not list the set of rules, nor sing a song, but narrates his own visionary experience inside the Holy Place.

Isaiah 6:1-5 - I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost."

This is doubtless the most graphic and gripping of the three presentations. The use of the first person, the shaking, the smoke, the worshiping seraphim, and Isaiah's own dramatic cry all paint a vivid picture.

And yet what stands out to me is that each of these three passages is describing, in its own genre, a similar scene. Each is describing the glory and holiness of God, more specifically, the holiness of God's throne room in the Holy of Holies, the requirements on the worshiper, and the danger of approaching God in an unworthy manner. The legal text, perhaps the most ill suited to describe the ineffable, lists the multitude of rules the high priest must observe. The poetry waxes eloquent about the moral rectitude of the acceptable worshiper, and the watchful eye of the Lord. The prophetic vision paints an awesome scene and lets us feel the peril of our creatureliness.

The other thing all these texts have in common is that they all point to our great need for a faithful high priest. One who can enter the holy place on our behalf. One whose hands are truly clean, and can stand without fear in the presence of a holy God. One who has offered the perfect sacrifice, not of bulls and goats, but a once for all sacrifice that will stand for all time. One who is holy in himself, yet sympathizes with us in our weakness. One who has passed through the heavens, and is seated at the right hand of God to intercede. Only when we have such a high priest can we be found acceptable in the presence of our holy God.
Hebrews 10:19-22 - Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Great Commission in Context

The Great Commission is more famous than the Gettysburg Address, also more practical. It is especially notable for the word go, which it made famous. In this passage of Scripture, Jesus tells his disciples what to do with their lives.

Often overlooked, however, is the context of the Great Commission. So let's pan away for a moment and look at the entire scene... what I'm calling the context is underlined.

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to
observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
(Matthew 28:18-20)

It seems to me there are two types of people Jesus uses to accomplish the Great Commission. First, Jesus uses worshipers. We often fail to notice the context of worship in which the Great Commission was given. I have gained a deep appreciation for the fact that ministry must flow from worship; I hope you are learning the same thing.

But there's another type of person Jesus uses: the doubter. Yep, it's right there: "But some doubted." This is an inconvenient truth, but perhaps the key to the entire passage. Perhaps as important as the word go.

Thinking for a moment about the scene, it seems that the disciples saw Jesus from a distance. Some worshipped immediately, for they recognized him and believed. Others hesitated - could it really be him? They recognized him, but the whole thing seemed to them to be truthfully quite out of the ordinary, supernatural, and a bit unbelievable. They didn't have speedy child-like faith, but hobbling adult-like faith.

But then Jesus came to them. And all doubt was removed. All eleven disciples - all but Judas - were used powerfully by Jesus.

The reason this nuance is so important is that it testifies till the end of time that the Great Commission is about Jesus' initiative and not about our own. Whether we worship or doubt, if we belong to him, he can use us. Doubt does get in the way - but Jesus has ways of finding us, confirming himself to us, and sending us on our way.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Thoughts on Pastoral Technique

I've been thinking lately about Paul's method of pastoral care in dealing with Philemon. He says to him,
Philemon 8,9 - Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love's sake I prefer to appeal to you.

Pastoral care is often more of an art than a science. In this situation Paul recognizes that he has a legitimate authority. He would be well within his rights, and his obligations, to command Philemon to do "what is required." That is, Paul could approach him authoritatively as an apostle and demand that Philemon submit himself humbly to gospel obedience. There would be nothing wrong with this.

Instead, Paul says that for love's sake, he prefers to appeal to Philemon. Because he loves him, and perhaps because he knows Philemon's character and temperament, he phrases his exhortation to obedience in the form of an appeal. The appeal holds no less authority, but it does make a different impression on the one receiving it. An appeal portrays a different picture of how Paul feels towards Philemon. And as we all know, an impassioned appeal communicates much differently than an iron-fisted demand.

I've been thinking about this lately, in the context of hearing several stories from people who were personally hurt by a pastor who was too harsh. Indeed, it seems as though some pastors use as their primary (only?) model for pastoral care Galatians 2:11,
Galatians 2:11 - But when Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.

This is how Paul dealt with Peter, and I have no doubt that it too was motivated by love, the sort of tough love that saw what a precarious position Peter had gotten himself into. And in this situation too, Paul was well within his rights and obligations as an apostle to speak in this way.

However, the verses in Philemon show us that this was not Paul's only method for pastoral care. He could be bold and firm when required, and he also knew how to make a gentle appeal for the sake of love. Pastors must learn to develop both of these skills, together with the even more important skill of being able to discern when to use which one.

Most of us are by nature inclined more towards one or the other, and we will need to be intentional in developing our weak side. And we need to know our people, and cultivate the wisdom and discernment to know when we are dealing with Peter, and when we are dealing with Philemon.

Monday, December 7, 2009

It's the Law!

I've been thinking about the death penalty in the OT. This is a very partial list of offenses for which death is the prescribed punishment.

1. Killing someone.
2. Striking one of your parents.
3. Dishonoring one of your parents. (!)
4. Selling a person.
5. Being the owner of an unpenned goring ox who gores.
6. Eating blood.
7. All manner of unlawful sexual relations, including homosexuality.
8. Profaning the Sabbath.
9. Profaning objects of the tabernacle (just ask Uzzah).
10. Blasphemy.

1. On the one hand, there are some today, among the ultra-conservative/theonomic set, who believe that we should still enforce the death penalty for (at least some of) these sins. I'm kinda glad we don't, given the strictness of #3, I might not have lived to see the end of Junior High if we did.

2. On the other hand, however, before we dismiss those wacky ultra-conservatives as being wacky and ultra-conservative, we should consider something: all these laws were God's idea. This is his law, and God's law reflects God's character. God's desire was that his people would be holy, and he wouldn't put up with this kind of evil within his chosen people that he loved. We haven't truly understood the seriousness of our own sin, until we understand how God feels about it. For most of us, we have a lot of work left to do in meditating on God's law, and considering what it teaches us about God himself.

3. On the third hand (is this allowed?), we have almost no examples in the OT of the death penalty being carried out for these offenses. Now it might be the case that it happened all the time, and the OT writers simply didn't record it. But I think otherwise. Because God's law also included other options. For instance, the man who killed someone, but without evil intent, was allowed to move to a city of refuge, and live there until the death of the high priest. Or again, when the goring bull gores, the offended party may choose to accept a ransom, rather than require the death of the bull's owner. In these ways it is evident than thick strands of mercy were woven into God's holy law. It seems that God did not desire the death of the sinner as much as he desired mercy, repentance, and reconciliation. Even in his law, which we often view as strict and unbending, he made provision for restoration, so that his grace and love might shine through alongside his justice and holiness.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

On the subject of good bread.

Recently I was reading in my new favorite book on food, some restaurant reviews by Jeffrey Steingarten. He was reviewing a restaurant in New York City, and he was disappointed with the bread. Not only was the bread bad, but it was a special let down because as he said, New York is known for having the best bread east of San Fransisco.

My first reaction when I read that? "Oh No!! I was just IN San Fransisco, and I didn't eat the bread!" Its true. This last summer Aubrey and I spent a day and a half tooling around San Fransisco. And sure, we took the expected touristy stroll through the San Fransisco Sourdough factory. But I didn't buy any. Don't blame me, I didn't know. I didn't have Jeffrey Steingarten with me to tell me I was in the presence of the greatest bread outside of New York City. I needed someone to tell me, to exhort me, this is good bread!

This is what the book of Hebrews does for Jesus. Hebrews is not a letter, per se, like so many of the books in the New Testament. Rather Hebrews is a sermon, a 13 chapter "word of exhortation," (Heb 13:22) exhorting us not to miss out on the exceedingly great value of Jesus Christ. After all, Jesus is better than the prophets. Jesus is better than the angels. Jesus is better than Moses, better than Joshua, better than the Aaronic priesthood. Don't miss out on Jesus!

And so our church's Christmas sermons this year are coming from Hebrews. A little unconventional, but utterly appropriate. We need to hear these words of exhortation. Seek Jesus while he may be found. Seek to know this one who is the radiance of the glory of God. Seek to listen to this one who declared the word of salvation. Seek to worship this one who is crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death. Seek to serve this one who is faithful overs God's house as a son.

Let no one leave our churches and say they didn't know they were in the presence of the greatest savior! "But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin" (Heb 3:13).

Friday, December 4, 2009

Special Needs

Yesterday I prayed with my wife for all the children, teachers, and even the security guards at Thurgood Marshall School.

I never planned to do this.

I never wrote into my life that I would need to take my child to a preschool for learning delayed children. For that matter, I didn't plan to ever take my child to a public school and I certainly didn't plan for speech therapy. Now I find myself not only praying for such schools and teachers, but giving praise to God for the talents and love I see expressed by different teachers God has provided for my son.

So after that prayer, as Thurgood Marshall School shrunk in the rear view mirror, I got thinking:

This is how God sends us into the world.

We would much rather be woken up in the middle of the night by an angelic vision and sent to our respective mission fields. Or, skip the middle of the night part; we'd be happy to be gently nudged by the Lord during a mid-day snack. But instead, God sends us to people we would never otherwise meet through experiences we'd rather not have.

The reason Philip proclaimed Jesus in Samaria, and more memorably to an Ethiopian traveler, was because he had to flee for his life from Jerusalem. Acts 8 tells us, "And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles." And "those who were scattered went about preaching the word."

God has many creative ways of scattering his people. May the Lord grant us who belong to the scattering God the presence of mind to carry the word with us wherever we (haltingly) go. There are many special needs out there.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Hebrew Mnemonic #2: The Olam Clock

One of the simplest arguments that one hears for keeping the sabbath today is the fact that in the OT the sabbath is described as an ordinance which lasts "forever." Note the following:
Exodus 31:16 Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever.

On the one hand this is an interesting point. It says forever. And as a guy who likes to take the Bible at face value as often as possible I can hear myself making this point, "It says forever, do you know how long forever is? Forever is forever."

But on the other hand, we need to stop and think. Before we conclude that face value is all there is, we need to consider how else this word "forever" is used in the OT. As a side note, the Hebrew word here is olam, for which Ken provided the excellent mnemonic: "I must set my olam clock, else I'll sleep forever." The word is used over 400 times in the OT. Let's take a small sampling of some of the things that the OT says will last "forever."

Exodus 12:14 - The Passover feast
Exodus 27:21 - The Tabernacle Menorah
Exodus 29:9 - The Aaronic priesthood
Leviticus 6:15 - The Grain offering
Leviticus 16:29 - The Day of Atonement
Leviticus 23:14 - The Feast of Firstfruits
Leviticus 23:21 - The Feast of Weeks
Leviticus 23:41 - The Feast of Booths
Leviticus 24:8 - The Bread of the Presence

All of these things are said in the OT to be "forever," or in some cases it is translated as a "perpetual statute." And yet, I'll go ahead and point out the obvious, we don't observe or maintain any of these things any longer. Clearly, at least in these cases, we can't simply take "forever" at face value.

Of course, this presents a problem for sabbatarians and nonsabbatarians alike, considering almost all of us are nonfirstfruitarians, and nongrain-offeringists. How is it that the OT can confidently assert something as being "forever" which the NT is comfortable regarding as temporary?

In part the answer is found in recognizing the magnitude of what happened in Christ's death and resurrection. When Christ died, the world ended. And when he rose from the dead, a new world began. His rising on the first day of the week signified the beginning of the new creation week. As Paul says of believers in 2 Corinthians 5:17, "If anyone is in Christ, New Creation!!! The old has gone, the new has come!"

The promises and institutions of the old covenant were such that they could not be done away with by anything short of a completely new creation. And that is what has begun with the resurrection of Christ, and continues with the regeneration of believers.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Who is God?

If, like myself, you do the majority of your Old Testament reading in English, then perhaps you've noticed the same problem I have. English Old Testaments have two Lords. Er, well, they at least have two different spellings of the word 'lord.'

The first spelling is "Lord." This is a translation of the Hebrew word adonai, which means (obviously) 'lord.' It's actually somewhat like our English word 'sir,' in that it is a title of respect, but can be used in any context, whether as a mere formality of respect, or in addressing a king or a god.

The second spelling is "LORD," in all caps. This is a translation of God's personal covenant name, YHWH. It's kind of a long story as to how God's name gets translated with an impersonal title, having to do both with the third commandment, and an unfortunate lack of vowels in the name. Nevertheless, I think it is unfortunate that God's name gets hidden in our English translations, for two reasons.

The first is the theological/relational reason. God introduced himself to us with his name. He made it known to his people so that we would know who he is, and yet we insist on using his title. He wants to be familiar, and we insist on keeping a respectful distance.

The second problem is simply the confusion that ensues in our English bibles. I was meditating today on Psalm 100:3, "Know that the LORD, he is God," or shall we instead say, "Know that YHWH, he is God." Given that most of us consider "LORD" and "God" to be synonyms, the first translation is simply a truism. It lacks all punch. But what this verse is actually doing, is reminding us that YHWH, who is our faithful covenant savior is also the God of all the universe. Using his personal name reminds of of all that he has done for us. For OT Israelites it would have reminded them not least of YHWH revealing his covenant name to Moses and then leading the people out from under the yoke of slavery in Egypt. YHWH loves us, cares for us, and he in fact is God. This verse is a confession of faith. Not unlike when we sing "This is my father's world, the battle is not done, and though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet."