Holy Thursday

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”  John 13:34

Holy Thursday is also called Maundy Thursday.  Some scholars trace this name back to the Latin word “mandatum”, translated as commandment, because on this day the Lord gave a new commandment in John 13:34 that would serve as the sign by which the world might know that we are His followers.  In this day the Lord proclaimed the fulfillment of the Old Testament and the inauguration of the New Testament in His blood.  Now, as Paul states in I Corinthians 5:7, “Christ, our Passover, [is] sacrificed for us.”  In the events of this day and night, we find the foundations laid for the ministry of reconciliation that begins with the shedding of the blood of Jesus.  These include:

  • The everlasting love of God for His people from which we will never be separated. John 13:1 records “Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.”
  • The example of the true servant of God. John 13:14-17 remembers Jesus’ words, “…I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet; you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example…a servant is not greater than his master…if you know these things happy are you if you do them.”
  • A new command to love in John 13:34 a love that fulfilled the two greatest commandments to love God and to love others.
  • The eternal assurance of faith. John 14:3 includes Jesus’ assurance “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself that where I am there you may also be.”
  • The promise of the Holy Spirit. John 14:16 includes Jesus’ promise, “I will pray the Father and He will give you another Comforter…even the Spirit of truth…for He dwells with you and will be in you.”
  • The abiding sign of His sacrifice for sins. Luke 22:20 includes the declaration “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you.” And Matthew 26:28 adds “…this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.”

It was also on this Holy Thursday night, the night in which the Lord Jesus was betrayed into the hands of sinful men, that Jesus instituted the Eucharist, the abiding ordinance given to the church to be done in remembrance of Him and His death.  This was the “last supper” that Jesus ate with His disciples before His death, and at that supper the Old Covenant was fulfilled by the establishment of the New Covenant.  The bread and wine of God’s Passover deliverance became the Body and Blood of the perfect Lamb of God, given now once, for all, and eternally powerful to deliver.  As Paul records in I Corinthians 11:26:

 “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim [acknowledge and make present once again] the Lord’s death until He comes.”

This day is the eve of our redemption and our celebrations move from sorrow to joy, joy to sorrow.  The one thing that should guide us in our celebration of the remembrance of our Lord Jesus is His words recorded for our benefit in Luke 22:12:

“And He said to them [us], ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.’”

As we contemplate the forgiveness of our sins, the gift of God’s love and grace, and our eternal deliverance we might ask with the psalmist  “What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits toward me?” (Psalm 116:12-13)  Our answer is clear, “I shall lift up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord.”  On this day, lift up your heads, for your redemption draws near.

The Necessity of the Church

…and I believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church… — from the creed of the Council of Nicaea, 325 A.D.

After three hundred years of persecution, threats of internal disruption, and false doctrines, the leaders of the local churches met at Nicaea to draw up a common, unified, concise statement of the articles of faith for all Christians.  They sifted through hundreds of traditions, writings, oral reports, and customs; when it was over, they chose those which they considered foundational for Christian life and transcribed them as a creed.

One phrase contained in that creed begins this article.  Why did the Church Fathers choose to include it among the statements about the divinity and incarnation of Jesus, the Trinity, the atonement, the communion of saints, the hope of future glory?  Obviously they knew it to be important.  But is it as important to the believer as the other creedal beliefs?  The answer is yes.  Many volumes have been written on this subject, but let me present this simple progression to defend my answer.

God, after He spoke long ago to the Fathers in the prophets, in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, Whom He appointed heir of all things…– Hebrews 1:1-2.  The revelation of the Father to this earth is found in the Son.  The Apostle John called Him the Logos, the Word of God.  Paul referred to Him as the fullness of the Godhead.  Peter referred to Him as the cornerstone of the spiritual house of God.  Jesus Himself proclaimed that if we have seen Him, we have seen the Father.  If Jesus was the final revelation of God to man, then in what form do we now possess this revelation.  The answer is simple, in the vessel which He left behind to bear witness to Himself, the Church.

I write to you so that you may know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth – I Timothy 3:15.  And again in II Corinthians 5:18-20:

Now all these things are from God who reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.  Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were entreating through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

Or again in Matthew 16:18-19:

And I say unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.  And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever shall be loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

One more:

And He (the Father) put all things in subjection under His (the Son’s) feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the Church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all. – Ephesians 1:22-23.

It is a simple truth that is often easy to overlook in the vast collection of doctrines, interpretations, literature, and tradition.  It is even easier in today’s world of hyper-individualism to discount the truth of the Church as unimportant.  Because of divine direction it was not overlooked by the Fathers of Nicaea.  Let us never discount the Church’s role in the plan of God’s reconciliation of the world, or think less of it because of its claim to speak into our own relationship with God.  It alone can say what we could never begin to speak:

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled concerning the Word of Life…what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also that you also may have fellowship with us, and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.  – I John 1:1-4.

Lectionary Preaching

The word lectionary comes from a Latin word “lectio” meaning a reading or lesson.  It is nothing more than a systematized arrangement of the Old and New Testament scriptures into related lessons that are centered on a reading from the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark or Luke), draw in related Old Testament and New Testament passages, and are keyed to the major works of God celebrated in the Church’s liturgical year.   It is not so much a preaching style as it is a method for choosing the lesson to be expounded or proclaimed.  So where did it come from?

Briefly, we can point to these key milestones in its development:

  • The Jewish synagogues used a multi-year series of readings to allow the Torah and selections from the prophets to be worked through in the first or second century before Jesus. It is likely these practices moved from the synagogues into the first home churches.
  • There is a writing called Comes Hieronymi, attributed to St. Jerome (4th century A.D.) in which Jerome is reported to have prepared, at the request of the Roman bishop, guidance for the public reading of the scripture. This document appears to have been the precursor of our modern lectionary.
  • An ordered, cyclical list for the reading of scriptures (only a gospel and epistle reading) during public worship was formalized by Pope Pius V in 1570 after the Council of Trent. During the Reformation the legitimacy or structure of the lectionary was never disputed; the only question was how to use it in the reformed congregations.
  • This lectionary was expanded to include selections from the Old Testament and Psalms by the Vatican II Council, and was published for use in 1969.
  • Finally, a Revised Common Lectionary was compiled by 20 denominational affiliations (including Roman Catholic and Protestant) and published in 1992 for use by the Church at large.

So much for history.  The real question is not what the lectionary is, or where it came from, but what use does it have in the Church?  To answer that let me give you just a few of many reasons why I have always been a lectionary preacher.

  • Having a common set of readings used for public worship adds a very practical and visible aspect to the unity of the Church in the world. Knowing that throughout the world other brothers and sisters are hearing the same words proclaimed can make us aware that we are part of something bigger than our small congregation.
  • The lectionary is keyed to the work of salvation that God has done for us and that we celebrate throughout the year (from Christmas to Resurrection, through the Ascension and Pentecost, and on to Thanksgiving). This is the “old, old story of Jesus and His love”, and we need to hear it repeated often, completely, and with passion.
  • The lectionary forces a minister to focus on preaching the word, not teaching the word. To do this he must first make the word his in a very real way, not just seek to understand its meaning or context.  The best definition of the difference between the two that I have come across goes like this  “Preaching  is trying to affect a person’s thinking by appealing to a person’s heart; teaching is trying to affect a person’s heart by appealing to their thinking.”  Although both can be done on any Sunday, it is preaching that is most effective for a general mixed congregation in need of hearing the “good news”.
  • Related to this, the use of a standard lectionary lets the whole church from the music ministry to the prayer leader to the children’s church helper know what the theme for Sunday will be. This unifies the entire Sunday experience of the congregation.  As one commentator puts it, in this way the scriptures belong to the church, not the preacher alone.  The lectionary strengthens the coming together of the church in one common vision and direction.
  • But most importantly, the lectionary revolves around Jesus; as Luke said it, it contains “All that Jesus began to do and teach…” (Acts 1:1). It is ultimately coming to know the Son of God and receiving that which He has done on our behalf that saves us, not having a full and accurate understanding of the ins and outs of a scriptural passage.

In closing, one of the best examples of lectionary preaching is found in Luke 4:16-21, when Jesus stood up in the synagogue of Nazareth, was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, read the passage and then simply expounded it in a clear and contemporary manner.  The words on the scroll were made relevant, pertinent, and timely in the hearing of the congregation.

The Fullness of Time

Even so, we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world.  But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons... — Galatians 4:3-5

It records that the Son of God was sent to this world at the fullness of time.  To what does this refer?  Well, we know that it cannot refer to Heaven and eternity, because they exist beyond time.  So it must refer to this earth and the times that it passes through.  It is to the history books we must turn to gain our insight.  And although there are many histories to which we could turn, we will use one with divine authority, the book of Daniel.

In Daniel chapter 2, it records that Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had a wondrous dream of an image made with a head of gold, breast and arms of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet mixed of iron and clay.  And behold, the image was struck by a stone cut out of a mountain without human hand and was destroyed.  And the stone became a mountain that filled the entire earth.  When Daniel interpreted the dream for the king he said, The great God has made known to the king what will come to pass after this; the dream is certain, and its interpretation is sure.  What Daniel was saying is that God had chosen to reveal to Nebuchadnezzar the future history of the world from his present time to the time of the Lord’s Messiah and the beginning of the eternal kingdom.  We have here an amazing opportunity to view history from God’s perspective.

Daniel interpreted the dream to rightly refer to the succession of earthly kingdoms which would hold domination in the earth.  He began with the head of gold, Babylon and its king.  We must remember that at this time the nation of Judah had been led into captivity by Babylon, and the nations of Israel had fallen some years previously to the hands of Assyria.  The Jewish people were scattered and taken captive, their cities and temple destroyed, their land plundered, and their glory a thing of the past.  Only the promise of God to send a redeemer, their Messiah, gave them any hope at all.  The age of the great Kings of Israel had passed away until it could be fulfilled for all time by the One who would rise up from the seed of David.

Babylon, the head of gold, was one of the greatest kingdoms of its time.  It held sway over the entire Mesopotamian region and was unsurpassed in wealth, glory, and splendor.  It represented the pagan kingdom risen to the greatest heights to which man’s power could bring it.  The kingdom of silver, which followed Babylon, the kingdom of the Medes and Persians, was similar.  It was established by Darius when he overthrew the Chaldeans.  This kingdom the Lord used to show mercy to His people and to turn back their captivity under Cyrus.  But God-fearing paganism is still paganism, and little true light shone out in a very darkened world.  There was still so much more to order and put in place before all was ready.

The kingdom of bronze which followed was Greece, which developed new avenues of civilization and expanded their influence in the Mediterranean.  Under Alexander the Great they dominated the entire known world for a time.  As a result of this the Greek culture and language was spread far and wide, so that all men held culture and language in common allowing for clear communication and interaction.  The kingdom of iron was Rome, known for its legions of iron.  Under Rome a system of law and structure was established which instilled a peace in the kingdom that made for a stable life, but it was a peace maintained by the strength of Rome’s legions.  And like all kingdoms on earth, some of it was strong, sound, and pure; but much of it was weakened by an admixture of paganism and humanism which are alien to true virtue and goodness.

So where does that bring us?  It brings us to the reign of Augustus Caesar and a decree in his days that a census be taken of the entire kingdom.  It brings us to the city of Bethlehem, small and of little account amount the clan of Judah, and now stretched to its limits by the influx of its sons and daughters seeking to be registered (among whom, we notice, are a carpenter from Nazareth and his very pregnant wife).  it brings us to a humble stable, small, clean, a still-point in the midst of the bustle of the census.  It brings us to a manger filled with straw, a feed trough for beasts of burden now turned to a higher purpose.  It brings us to the fullness of time.  And within the manger there lies a baby, a first-born son wrapped in swaddling clothes.  But this is no ordinary baby, this is Emmanuel, the God with us of Whom the prophet spoke.  And in Him, the entire scope and breadth, the beginning and ending of this earth and its ages and times have found their fullness.

This is He Who sang forth the words of creation in the beginning.  This is He Who has come to save men from their sins and give them the adoption of sons.  This is He Who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.  This is the fullness of time and the earth could no longer be the same because of His coming.  Hear the words of the prophet as he fore-sees Him in a vision.  The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined…For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulders.  And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom... — Isaiah 9:2, 6-7

To the pagan who worshipped the things of creation instead of the Creator, He was a light that pushed back the darkness.  To the Greek philosopher who sought the higher wisdom and good that always seemed to lie beyond his grasp, He was the wonderful Counselor, the fount of wisdom.  To the Roman legionnaire who relied on his armor and weapons to forge a peace as best as he was able, He was the Mighty God, the literal Prince of Peace.  And to the Jew, the people of promise, He was the Everlasting Father, the Deliverer who would sit on the eternal throne of His father David.  To all men, in every place, in every age, He was the fullness of all that their hearts and minds and souls cried out for.  This is what we have come to Bethlehem to see, travelling over long ages and epochs in human history.  This is what draws us irresistibly to a stable, and we fall without reservation upon our knees before a manger filled with straw.  This is why we must strive to keep Christmas every year with all our strength and heart and mind.  It is literally the most important event in the history of our world; all ages preceding and those that followed find their fullness and completeness in this day.   This is the day on which God visited His creation as  a baby in a manger, and we have seen Him with our eyes.  For this moment, at least, let us lay aside our theology, our heritage, and our social prejudices and merely be content to come and gaze upon the desire of the ages now made present in our midst.  To see past, present and future, and even more so, to see eternity laid before our gaze is wondrous.  To receive Him into our hearts is miraculous.  Seek no more for things with which to clutter up your life; here lies the fullness of all human desire and purpose, Jesus.  Receive Him anew this Christmas.

A Christmas Prayer

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened so that you might know… –– Ephesians 1:18a

The modern age prides itself on the clarity of its vision, on its farsightedness, on the depth and scope of its perception.  But what is it that we really end up seeing?

Let me say it another way.  If all we see when we look out on the world is the natural image of it, then our vision is stunted.  If all we perceive when we consider its history is a sequence of facts and dates arranged in encyclopedic fashion, then our perception is shallow.  We are like men who are given a picture of something and as we gaze at it we delude ourselves into thinking that we see the object as it really is.  But what we really hold in our hands is a flat, two-dimensional representation devoid of depth and life.  It is an image only, a ghost as it were of the thing that it  represents.  Again, it is as if we looked out on the surface of the ocean and in our pride named it as such without any notion of what really lies miles beneath in its depths.  We pass off our cursory recognition of an appearance as a true depth of knowing.  And these are the eyes of a natural man.

Come with me now to Christmas and look out on the panorama that presents itself and tell me what it is that you see.  Tinsel and glitter?  A light snow falling on a Salvation Army bell-ringer? Hustle and bustle and festive lights?  Let your mind wax poetic for a moment, and then answer again.  What do you see now?  Good will and warm wishes?  The love of family, warmth of a blazing hearth, or the strength of a new year’s resolution?  Come with me now to Bethlehem, a step closer to the heart of the season.  And what now do you see?  A stable and some animals? Shepherds and flocks? A babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger?  Even now, so close to the very center, we see so little.

Do we really know this season called Christmas?  Do we hear creation pull in its breath as if it was waiting in anticipation for something magnificent to come to pass?  Can we really sense the presence of angel choirs bending near to the earth?  Can we see Heaven’s gates being readied to swing open to herald mankind’s restoration?  Do we feel Satan start and tremble as something enters his world and shakes at its foundations?

If you see only with your eyes and perceive with that part of you that is natural, this season, in all its wonder, becomes like the most glorious story written down in bold letters of red and gold finely wrought, given vivid illustrations by the most skilled of artists, and bound up in a burnished tooled leather.  You take it down each year, and gather your family around, and read the story aloud once more.  The lines seem familiar, the story so intimate somehow. The flow of words, the collage of peoples and places flowing together catch the eye, but do they catch the heart?  Close the book at season’s end, put it back on the shelf till next year.  Life goes on as it always has.

The outcome is all too familiar in our world but, by the grace of God, may this year be different.  May the Spirit of God move upon His people as He has never done before, and cause us to receive Christmas anew into our very beings.  Open your heart, prepare your soul, purge your mind, and let the supernatural mystery of Emmanuel, God with us, penetrate to that depth where soul and spirit meet.  Only then can the reality of God’s most precious gift be yours once more.  Ask for it this year, God will surely not hold back this most glorious of gifts.  My Christmas prayer for each of us this year is borrowed from St. Paul.  I pray that the eyes of our hearts might be enlightened, for within the heart dwells the supernatural stuff of which each of us is made.  It is only there that deep can call to deep.  May our eyes be illumined with that Light which came into the world at Christmas, the True Light, the Life of men, the glory of the Only-begotten of the Father.  Then step outside and lift you your head to the heavens and hear the angels once more sing with great rejoicing, for the tidings they proclaim are indeed a joy for all people.  This night is born for you a Savior, Who is Christ the Lord.

The Miracle of Christmas

…Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel… – Isaiah 7:14

What is Christmas?  It is such a simple question, but the answers that you would receive if you asked it of a cross-section of people would be widely varied.  You might think that they were not even talking about the same day.  And such it should be.  For no other day has touched the very heart of humanity as this day has, and it is not surprising that its effects are manifold and diverse even among those who know it only as a pagan holiday.  What is Christmas?  It is simply the most marvelous miracle that has ever been known to this world since creation, and no man can escape its glory.

To see why this is so, consider the world prior to the first Christmas.  Genesis 3:17-19 says Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.  Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you…In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.  Or consider Ephesians 2:1-3 And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins…and were by nature children of wrath…Therefore remember…that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.  The pre-Christmas world is a pretty bleak one.  Borrowing from the above scriptures, it is as close to the classic definition of despair that we can get; cursed, dead children of wrath, having no hope and without God in the world.

But then came the miracle of Christmas.  The prophet foresaw its breadth of scope,   The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined — Isaiah 9:2.  The apostle bore witness to its significance, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.  And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it — John 1:1-5.  And the angels proclaimed its wonderment, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men! — Luke 2:14

And how great a miracle it was.  No longer cursed, but blessed.  No longer dead, but born again.  No longer children of wrath, but children of grace.  No longer without hope, but now having hope as the anchor to our souls.  No longer without God in the world, but — and this may be the greatest of all — having and knowing Immanuel, God with us.  How can we express the wonder of Christmas?  In what language can we find the proper phrases?  In what carol can we sing the right notes and melody?  How can we even hope to portray the eternity of that night with such shallow words as this description.  We can do no better than to proclaim the word which the Lord Himself has given to declare the fullness of what Christmas must be to me, to you, to us.  IMMANUEL, God with us.  Come, let us adore Him.

The Necessity of The Reformation

Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me….I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.  Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. – Philippians 3:12-16

The Feast of the Reformation is not part of the universal Church calendar although all portions of the Church that were in existence at the time of the Reformation knew its effect.  Unfortunately, the Reformation is one of the most poorly understood occurrences in Church history, and it is usually forced into one of two extreme positions.  Either it is viewed as one of the most destructive forces ever to be unleashed upon the Church (destroying an integral unity of faith which traced its lineage back to the apostles); or it is viewed as one of the most constructive forces ever to be unleashed upon the Church (rooting out corruption and restoring the Church to the bedrock of faith first practiced in the apostolic age).  In the final analysis we see that it was both destructive and constructive, but more importantly it was necessary and brought to pass by the hand of God as part of His promise that He would present it to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that it should be holy and without blemish. – Ephesians 5:25-27.  Philip Schaff, in his History of the Church, holds that the Reformation of the sixteenth century was, next to the introduction of Christianity, the greatest event in the history of the Church.  In a real sense it marked the end of the middle ages of the Church and secular society, and the beginning of the modern age in which we currently live.

To understand the Reformation, we must understand three distinct movements of the age, Catholicism, Romanism, and Protestantism.  Catholicism represented the Church universal, the body of faith and doctrine, the liturgy and sacraments, and the calling of the people of God which had always been within the Church since her birth on Pentecost.  When the Holy Spirit was poured forth upon the Church, He placed within her all that was necessary to fulfill the great commission of her Lord Jesus Christ.  But the Church gravitated towards the principle of Christian authority under God.  While it had been successful in discipling both the Roman and the barbarian nations, the Catholic authoritative spirit became entrenched, and Schaff points out that the Church became traditional, hierarchial, ritualistic, and conservative in its nature.  Protestantism sprang from the same root, but it was biblical instead of traditional, democratic instead of hierarchical, spiritual instead of ritualistic, and progressive instead of conservative.  It was founded on the principle of Christian liberty in Jesus and was a breath of fresh air of the same type as the mighty, rushing wind that first blew through the Church on Pentecost.

Romanism, on the other hand, was a separate movement of the Latin Church which aligned itself against the principles and practices of the Reformation.  This movement was formally codified by the Council of Trent beginning in AD 1545 (often referred to as the Counter-Reformation) and later completed and ratified by the First Vatican Council in AD 1870.  At the heart of these council’s decrees were the teaching and defense of the dogma of the Roman papacy’s absolutism (a recognition of Rome as the sole head of all Christendom upon earth) and its infallibility (an acknowledgement that Rome speaks without error in matters of faith and practice).  These standards isolated the Roman Church from all other church groups of its time.  With these three distinctions made, we can still claim to be catholic while avoiding the excesses of the Romanist position.   The Reformation Church can therefore legitimately show itself as a continuation of that catholic lineage which had its foundation upon the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the cornerstone. – Ephesians 2:20.

A short article such as this cannot hope to capture all of the reasons why reformation of the Church was necessary.  Let me only relate this one story as illustrative of the corruption of Romanism which had infected the Church of its age.  At the height of the papacy’s power and influence at the end of the 13th century, it is said that Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest defenders of the Roman Church and Papacy, had an audience with the pope.  The pope is said to have showed the theologian the papal treasury and then to have remarked “Thomas, the Church can no longer say as Peter once did to the lame man ‘Silver and gold have I none.’”  “That is true, your holiness”, Thomas replied, “but neither can she or Peter’s successor lay hands on that lame man and say in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.”  The Roman Church had, as the Apostle Paul said, a form of godliness but denied its power. – II Timothy 3:5  As Schaff remarks, the entire Church was one large tinder pile (perhaps reminiscent of Jesus’ teaching in John 15:1-6) and it only required one spark to set the fires of purification underway.  The history of the Reformation is a history of those sparks, in Germany, in France, in Switzerland, in England, wherever the Spirit of God moved in revival.  The spark which we celebrate as representative of the movement, is October 31, the day on which Martin Luther, in AD 1517, nailed his 95 thesis to the door of the Wittenberg cathedral.

Let me make one more distinction.  This was not a Renaissance within the Church; that was a purely secular movement which spanned the 14th to the 17th centuries.  This was not a return to some golden age or ideal condition; this was a true reformation, a purging of that which was corrupt so that the Church could continue on from the place to which God in His sovereign grace had brought her.  It is true that it sought to recover some of the purity and focus of the apostolic age, but it was beyond her power to physically return to that age.  It was a much different society and a different time which confronted her.   The spirit of the reformation is best expressed in Paul’s statement in in Galatians 5:1, Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.  The Reformation, in closing, restored to the people of God three important principles of Christian living.  It established the supremacy of the scriptures over church tradition.  It established the supremacy of faith over works.  It established the supremacy of the Christian people (the priesthood of all believers) over the exclusive priesthood of clericism.  It, not the Roman Church, is the true continuation of that root of catholicism which touches upon the apostles.  It reminds us that the entrance is narrow and the way difficult which leads to life, but the way is nothing more than the road which Jesus Christ walked when He was upon this earth.  It only remains for us to follow Him wherever He calls us and to trust that He is able to complete that which He has begun not only in us, but in His Church upon the earth.


All Saints Day

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number of all nations, tribes, peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God Who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’ – Revelation 7:9-10

One of the greatest weaknesses in any society occurs when it can no longer differentiate between the sacred and the secular, the holy and the profane.  God rebuked His priesthood for this very failing in Ezekiel 22:9, 16 – You have despised My holy things…her priests have violated My law and profaned My holy things.  They have not distinguished between the holy and the unholy, nor have they made known the difference between the unclean and the clean…  When this difference is lost, sin becomes acceptable and even fashionable, the things of God become objects of contempt, and society casts off restraint.  It was entrusted to the priesthood to instruct the people in this clear difference, and for that reason, the Church has always believed that God is able to sanctify (that is, to make holy) time, things, places and people.  And one of the days that is set aside in the liturgical calendar to recognize this divine action is All Saints Day.

In order to understand the significance of a day dedicated to the remembrance of all saints, it is first necessary to understand what it means to be a saint. This is a word which is used in both the Old and New Testaments.  In Psalm 16:3 it declares,  And to the saints who are on the earth, they are the excellent ones in whom is all my delight.  Or in Jude 14, Behold the Lord comes with ten thousands of His saints.  In both Old and New Testaments, the word saint is derived from other words which help us to understand the divine meaning in the designation.  In the Old Testament, saint derives from a word which means sacred.  When it is used as a verb, to sanctify, it refers to those things, places or people which are set aside for use in the worship of God.  A reading of the Old Testament Torah gives us the very clear picture that such objects, places or people are set aside as belonging to God.  As such, they are to be used solely by Him for His purposes, and in the way He sees fit.  In the New Testament, saint derives from a word which means the holy ones, those separated out of the world to be a holy people to the Lord.  We need only compare the descriptions in I Peter 2:4-5; 9-10 with Exodus 19:5-6 to see the consistency of God’s calling throughout the entire scriptural record.

And it’s just at this point that we start to understand what it means to be a saint of God.  It has nothing to do with attainment, something or some place for which we have worked or disciplined ourselves.  It has everything to do with calling.  It is that state in which we find ourselves when God’s grace has called us out of the world and translated us into the Kingdom of His beloved Son.  That is why Paul addresses some of his epistles to all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints… – Romans 1:7 , or, To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord... – I Corinthians 1:2.  It’s no wonder that Paul urged the Church to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.  And do not be conformed to the world…. –  Romans 12:1-2.  It was nothing more than what was expected of them in their calling!

Now the Church has set aside November 1 near the end of the liturgical year to celebrate the remembrance of all the saints of God.  Throughout the year there have been remembrance days in which specific saints are remembered who have had a special or important place in the foundation of God’s continuing work of salvation through the Church, but on this day, the day of all saints, we remember every member of the Church triumphant (those saints who have passed on to glory) and renew unity with every member of the Church militant (those of the brethren who yet contend for the faith upon the earth). The day is intended to remind us that when we gather as the Church we have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things…- Hebrews 12:22-24.  Concerning the history of All Saints Day, it has been celebrated in the Church dating back to the 4th and 5th centuries, and was formally added to the liturgical calendar by the bishop of Rome in AD 610.  But as we have already pointed out this formal declaration was only the recognition by the Church of a work which had been decreed and brought to pass by God in the calling of His people.

Sacred or secular, holy or profane…the world may downplay or even deny such distinctions as being outdated, but it is upon these distinctions that God has founded His Kingdom.  The record of scripture is clear, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. – Leviticus 19:2   God has never changed, His calling has never changed, it is only the world that no longer has a clear understanding of the unclean and the clean.  May we, the saints of God, raise up that standard once more in order that our history, the things which fill our lives, the places in which we dwell, and the people of our communities may once more become consecrated to the service and use of God.

Why do We Go to Church on Sunday?

This is our monthly entry by elder Russ Rohloff:

This is part of a bigger question that has to do with participating in God’s salvation history, or what the Church refers to as marking time.  The simple answer is that God requires us to tithe our time to acknowledge His purposes in a similar manner to how we tithe our money or possessions.  This is not because He needs our time, but it is the manner in which He chooses to sanctify our time.  Paul spoke of this in Romans 11 when he said, “If the first fruit is holy, so also is the entire batch.”  In the Mosaic Law God simply stated “Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy”.   The account in Exodus 20 states that we observe this day as holy because the Lord created the heavens and the earth and rested on this day of fulfillment.  The account in Deuteronomy 5 adds that we observe this day because the Lord has acted to deliver us from bondage.  This one day in seven was given to recount the two great acts of God in our world, creation and deliverance, and a participation in those acts of grace in turn sanctified all of life.  The main difference between Old and New Testament times is that we observe our Lord’s Day at the beginning of the week, not the end, for it is on Sunday that Jesus rose in power to affirm our deliverance from death.  The marking of Sunday as holy is a tithe of our time in which we dedicate our week to God’s purposes and thus declare all of our week holy (consecrated or set apart).

The Old Testament is full of references to marking time so that the followers of God might participate in His salvation history.  The Sabbath day marked one day in each seven as holy to the Lord.  Similarly Leviticus 25 says that one year in every seven years is holy to the Lord in order to give the land rest, and one year in each seven of seven years (1 in 50) is the jubilee year of the Lord in which all debts are forgiven.  In Leviticus 23 the Lord commands that Israel should keep seven holy convocations that Moses calls “the appointed times of the Lord”, each of which were intended to be present reminders of the historic work of God’s deliverance on their behalf.  And in order to further highlight the importance of the salvation work of God, the nation kept a sacred calendar that was different from their secular calendar.  The beginning of the sacred year is detailed in Exodus 12 and includes the month in which Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread is celebrated, while the civil New Year, Rosh Hashanah, comes much later.  The first celebrated the reality of God’s deliverance, the second the miracle of His creation and order.

Now all that is said as a reminder that time and history lie in the hand of God, and we need that cyclical reminder in our own lives to allow us to participate and fully receive the deliverance and freedom that He alone can give.  There has always been debate over what keeping the Lord’s Day means, what the day should include, what the day should not include.   Each of us must judge what the day means and holds for us according to our own conscience before God, but a good starting point for any understanding of keeping the Lord’s Day holy has to be Isaiah 58:13-14 and that is where I will close.

“If because of the Sabbath, you turn your foot from doing your own pleasure on My holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy day of the LORD honorable, and honor it, desisting from your own ways, from seeking your own pleasure and speaking your own word, then you will take delight in the LORD and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; and I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

Why do we go to church on Sunday?  To set our entire past, present, and future into the history of God’s marvelous work of grace, to mark and set apart our lives as dedicated to His purposes, and to delight in all that He offers.  This day is a gift from His hand, made especially for us, a day to renew covenant in our mind, heart, soul and spirit.