Red Door and Covid-19

Every day I read headlines about the indelible mark that the Covid-19 virus has left upon the world. It seems as though no part of the world has been left untouched. Sports and graduations have been cancelled, many have been laid off of work or furloughed. the world economy is reeling and political leaders have taken unprecedented steps to try and stave off another Great Depression. Not to mention over 60,000 deaths and over a million reported cases of the infection (at the time of this article). This will be a year most of us will never forget.

Like everyone else, Red Door Church has been making adjustments to this situation and we wanted to pass along some of that information to you.

First of all, our building is closed until this crisis passes over. Not long ago Vermont’s Governor, Phil Scott, gave a “Stay at Home” order to all those who were not deemed essential workers and he put a ban on gatherings larger than 10. That order lasts until April 15th, but I expect it to be extended.

Second, we are holding online prayer meetings each week. This week and the week before we hosted two and we will likely host at least one this coming week as well. Our other leader boards are also meeting virtually to avoid spreading the virus.

Third, we are increasing our Facebook Live presence. We started doing Facebook Live last summer and it was well received but it was only for the sermon portion of our services. Since the C19 outbreak, we have decided to do a more complete service on Facebook Live, with a time of prayer, announcements, and a little music in addition to the sermon. This will likely be temporary at least until we can make more needed upgrades to our sound and video equipment which we are planning on having installed this summer (if the Lord wills and the C19 virus doesn’t preclude travel for the team from NC that is coming up to help). Here’s a glimpse at what we are doing for Holy Week on Facebook Live this year:

Palm Sunday service at 10am

Monday morning devotion at 9am

Tuesday morning devotion at 9am

Wednesday morning devotion at 9am

Maundy Thursday service at 7pm

Good Friday service at 12pm

Saturday Morning children’s Easter story

Easter Sunrise service at 7am

Resurrection Sunday Service at 10am

Fourth, we are ramping up our efforts at our local Food Shelf. Our church oversees the South Royalton Area Food Shelf and since the C19 outbreak we have seen an increase in need. The challenge has been how we meet that need without endangering our volunteers and the families we are seeking to help. Thankfully the Vermont Food Bank has been passing along helpful info to local food shelves about how they can be more creative in safely helping neighbors during this crisis. At our food shelf here’s some of what we’ve been doing: (1) extra cleaning, (2) wearing masks and gloves, (3) not allowing the public into the building, (4) making deliveries, (5) and only allowing volunteers to serve who are healthy and have not been exposed (to their knowledge) to the virus. We are actively working on more solutions as we speak.

Fifth, the elders of Red Door Church created a Holy Week worship booklet that is available to families on our church website (we also mailed out about 75 of them). The vision behind this booklet is to allow families to engage in worship, prayer, and learning, while at home and away from the gathered body of Christ. The booklets contain reflections, scripture, songs and hymns, and maps and other materials for Holy Week. Those who have internet access are encouraged to tune in and use the booklet in conjunction with the Facebook Live services (or tune in to YouTube later in the week if they are not on FB). I recently did a short video that talks about these booklets and you can download the booklet here on our website.

Sixth, we have ordered 250 face masks for our community. Some in our church have been making masks and distributing them to local organizations, like the food shelf and other places. These 250 will be given away to those who need to be out to shop or to do other essential business.

Finally, we are simply seeking to remain connected with another. We know that community is essential to life, especially the Christian life, and we are striving to be in regular contact with our people. The writer of the book of Hebrews reminds us of how critical it is to remain connected and to exhort one another every day so as not to fall away (Heb. 3:12-15). And, as that same writer reminds us later, we must strive to keep our eyes fixed upon the Lord Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith so that we will not grow weary or disheartened (Heb. 12:1-3). Community is essential if we are going to make it through this trying time, so we are making efforts to be in regular contact with our people.

Blessings to you all! May the Lord be with you during this time.

Ordinary Times

The book of Ecclesiastes gives us a clue for understanding the Church’s liturgical year, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.[i] This verse reminds us that God created order and seasons with limits at the very heart of His creation, and that each of these seasons or times has a purpose that manifests and makes present the Kingdom in a particular way.  It may be the annual progression of the seasons of spring to summer to fall and to winter, or it may be seasons of distress or joy, feasting or fasting, remembering or putting into action.  Each and every one season has a purpose; each and every one is important.

In today’s English, the word ordinary makes us think of something that is not special or distinctive, and because of this we may be prone to think that Ordinary Times refer to those parts of the Church year that are not important.  But the fact that this time makes up the majority of the Church year (33 to 34 Sundays of our year) should tell us otherwise.  There are two periods of Ordinary Time, the shorter running from the celebration of Epiphany to Ash Wednesday, and the second longer period from Pentecost Sunday to the First Sunday of Advent.  Because the celebration of Resurrection Sunday varies from year to year, the season after Epiphany varies between 4 and 9 Sundays, and the season after Pentecost varies between 23 and 28 Sundays.

So much for counting Sundays, why are these Sundays placed where they are and what purpose do they play in our congregational life?  To understand Ordinary Times, we must look first at what “bookends” each period.  The book ends in each case are the annual portrayal of the central mysteries of our faith, the incarnation of Jesus, His death, His resurrection and ascension, and the sending of the Holy Spirit.  The season of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany proclaim the truth that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son…to redeem”[ii] and that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.”[iii]  The Sundays of Ordinary Times after Epiphany are intended to convince us that God’s deliverance has broken into our world through His Son.  It is intended to lay to rest forever in our hearts the question of who Jesus is, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”[iv]  The answer proclaimed to us is a resounding “This is the Chosen Deliverer of God, hear Him, believe Him.”

The Sundays after Epiphany end with Ash Wednesday and the observance of Lent and our journey to the cross, the empty tomb, a mountain in Galilee, and an upper room in Jerusalem.  This is the annual retelling of the story of our redemption, of our adoption as God’s children, of the mystery of God’s Holy Spirit dwelling within us.  The season of Lent, Holy Week, Resurrection Sunday, Ascension, and Pentecost echo the Apostle Paul’s words, “Now I would remind you…of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved…that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to …the twelve.”[v] 

In these days we celebrate the specific, historic, supernatural acts of God that have brought about the salvation and deliverance of creation.  By contrast, during the Ordinary Time from Pentecost to Advent we celebrate what God has done through the Holy Spirit, empowering us to live out the gospel message day to day in the context of our ordinary lives.  It is during this season that we recognize that Jesus continues to bring grace and deliverance to the world by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within the church.  We might consider the church year from Advent to Pentecost as the proclamation of the good news of God’s love, grace, and deliverance; and the church year from Pentecost to Advent as the Acts of the Apostles, wherein God moves through the followers of His Son to bring in the kingdom in all its fullness.  This season is intended to remind us that our calling is to take the witness of who Jesus is and what He has done to the uttermost parts of our world.

We are not created to live on mountaintops where the view is spectacular, the light brilliant, and the air rarified.  We are called to make our dwelling in the valleys and plains where the rest of the world dwells and to work out salvation while seeking theirs.  The “mountain top” holy days provide vision, inspiration, and calling; it is in the ordinary times of the year that the leaven of the gospel is able to act.  Perhaps a quick illustration will help us understand the purpose and use of Ordinary Times.

The extraordinary acts of God to bring deliverance to our world are often likened to a seed that is sown.  Planting times were a time of celebration because the seasons had turned and the prospect of bringing forth new life from the earth was everywhere.  So too, the times of harvest were celebrations as the fruit of the fields were brought into the storehouse in abundance.  But in between planting and harvest, between seed time and fruitfulness, were weeks and weeks of watering, thinning, tending, weeding.  It was in this in-between time that the success and bounty of the seeds sown were actually brought about.  God has sown the precious seed of the gospel in our hearts, Ordinary Times allow us to care for it, nurture it, and see it come to maturity within our hearts achieving not just another cycle of time, but something that reaches into eternity.

End Notes


[i] Ecclesiastes 3:1

[ii] Galatians 4:4-5

[iii] John 1:14

[iv] Matthew 11:3

[v] I Corinthians 15:1-5

Should Christians Submit to Earthly Authorities?

In the days of the Roman empire, when Christians were arrested and commanded to burn incense to the emperor or go to their death, countless Christians were thrown to the wild beasts. Brave young women like Perpetua and Felicity firmly believed that worship belonged to Jesus Christ alone, the one true living God and King, so they refused to offer sacrifices to the earthly kings of the day and paid the price with their lives.

The testimony of Perpetua (a summary can be read here or her full prison diary can be read here) has strengthened Christians of all stripes for centuries to be strong when facing persecution.

However, this kind of situation is hard for Christian Americans to fathom. America has long been a land where its citizens have enjoyed the freedom to practice their religion and worship as they desire without government intrusion and control.

Over time, these rights have created a sense of total autonomy and self-determination which have crept into many of the houses of worship across our land. We’ve conflated the idea of worshiping God alone and obeying God alone. The result, in the minds of many American believers today, is that if you are a religious person, no one but God has the right to tell you what to do. And with the very same vigor which Perpetua refused to offer sacrifice to the emperor, some believers today refuse to submit to earthly authorities.

But is this right? Is this understanding of authority biblical? Are Christians required to submit to earthly authorities?

There are a handful of places in the Scriptures that I think will help us to answer this question. Let’s start with the Gospels.

Jesus and the Earthly Authorities

Several weeks ago I preached a message on Luke 2:41-52 about the Boy Jesus at the Temple.

One of the most remarkable statements in that entire section can be found in verse 51:

“And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. “

-Luke 2:51

So right off the bat we see Jesus submitting to an earthly authority, namely, his parents. But why did Jesus submit to his parents?

First of all, it was not because they were perfect people. Not only does that Bible teach that all have sinned and fallen short (Rom. 3:23), but we see evidence of Joseph and Mary’s imperfect parenting in this very chapter of Luke. After discovering that Jesus was not with them after venturing probably a day ‘s journey from Jerusalem, they return to Jerusalem to discover Jesus in the temple conversing with the teachers of the day. Mary and Joseph are astonished at what the teachers in the temple are telling them about their son (v. 48). But Jesus is astonished at something else–that Mary and Joseph did not know that the Temple was where He would be (v. 49).

Yet, despite Mary and Joseph’s flaws, we find Jesus, the perfect Son of God, submitting to them. Jesus does not rebuke them harshly. He does not ignore their concern for his whereabouts. He does not argue with them. He does not use their ignorance or miscalculation as a reason to not submit to them.

Jesus, the perfect Son of God, submitted to them even when their judgment was flawed and limited.

Secondly, we know that Jesus did not submit to the earthly authorities of his time because he had no other recourse.

In another place in the Gospels, when Jesus is being dragged away by the chief priests and the elders of the people at Gethsemane (Matt. 26:47-56), Peter draws a sword and cuts off the ear of the servant of the high priest. Jesus then says to him,

“Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?”

Matthew 26:52-53

Jesus had power to overcome the authorities that day, but he did not. He chose to submit to them, rather than summon down the angels and annihilate the authorities.

Again I ask, why?

All Authority Comes from God

Jesus himself gives us the answer in John 19 when he is on trial before Pontius Pilate:

“Pilate said to him, ‘You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?’ Then Jesus said, ‘You would have no power over me at all unless it were given to you from above.'”

John 19:10-11

In John 19, Jesus is speaking to a civil authority, but his comments can rightly be applied to all human authorities–parental (family), ecclesiastical (church), vocational (work) or otherwise. Authority is given to presidents, governors, parents and elders and the like, by God (see passages like Ephesians 6:2; Colossians 3:20; 1 Timothy 2:1-3; Titus 3:1; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 2:13-18; 5:1-5).

Jesus submitted to earthly authorities, because they were instituted and put in place by God himself–their authority was given to them by God. By being subject to them Jesus brought honor and glory to God. Broadly speaking, not submitting to these authorities was tantamount to not submitting to God (with some exceptions which will be addressed briefly below).

This is why Paul says in Romans 13:1-5

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”

Romans 13:1-2

But surely we are not required to submit to the authorities in every case, are we?

What happens when an authority that is set up by God commands something that is contrary to what God would command? Jesus’ was able to submit to Joseph and Mary because they were not asking him to sin (at least not in the example mentioned above). Now that we live in the New Testament era we know that Jesus allowed the authorities to take Him away and crucify Him at the end because that was the Father’s plan all along (Acts 4:27-28). But how does this apply to us?

Godly Disobedience

If you take Romans 13:1-2 without looking at the canonical context (all of Scripture), this passage could be used to justify support of Hitler and the Nazi’s in WWII. But when we look at the whole Bible, we find examples of godly people not submitting to authorities when what was being asked of them was sinful.

Daniel 3 and the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image is a good example of godly disobedience. When the Babylonian officials blew the horn and demanded that everyone gathered at the dedication ceremony bow and pay homage to the image, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to bow down and worship. Their response to the king’s demand is worth quoting:

“[B]e it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

Daniel 3:18

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were right not to submit to Nebuchadnezzar’s commands in this instance because what he was asking was sinful–to obey would have been tantamount to sin itself (see Exodus 20:3-5).

Another remarkable biblical instance of disobedience to governing authorities can be found in Exodus 1. At this point in the Bible the Israelites had been living under Egyptian rule for several centuries. Over time they had become very numerous, so in verse 16 the king of Egypt commanded the Hebrew midwives to kill all the baby boys born to the Israelites. But verse 17 says, “The midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live.” If you read the verses following the decision of the Hebrew midwives, God honored their decision, even though they were not being subject to the civil authorities that God himself had placed over them.

There are New Testament examples of similar disobedience as well (see Acts 4 and 5 for example).

Clearly from these examples (and others), Paul’s remarks in Romans 13 cannot simply mean that Christians should always and in every case submit to the commands of the governing authorities. These stories reveal that there is a time when followers of God are obligated to object and disobey.

Something in Romans 13 needs to be qualified. I do not think that we need to qualify Paul’s statement (or Daniel’s in Daniel 2:21) that all authority is set up by God. Rather, John Piper suggests in a very helpful article tilted “The Limits of Submission to Man“, that Paul’s teaching in Romans 13:1-5 has in view a good government in which “doing good deeds will generally find approval and doing evil will generally be punished.” In other words, the government that Paul has in mind in Romans 13:1-5 is one that defines good conduct and bad conduct roughly the same way God does (see verse 3). Paul’s instructions therefore pertain to the case in which a person finds themselves subject to a good government that generally does what is right in the sight of God.

Conclusion

So what are we to make of all of this?

The Christian who says they are subject to no person but God alone is sorely mistaken, but so is the Christian who always submits to authority, even when that authority is asking them to sin.

To put it simply, when your leaders command you to do something that directly goes against the commands of God, you are to disobey them, no matter the consequences, like the Hebrew midwives, Daniel, Perpetua, and thousands of other Christians over the centuries. However, when the commands of your leaders (presidents, governors, parents, pastors, bosses) do not contradict the commands of God, you are to be subject to them because doing so is to be subject to God and brings honor and glory to Him.

Why Are Christians So Divided?

Countless denominations cause many people today to associate Christianity with division and religious rivalry. The past lends some merit to this association.  Back in the 16th and 17th century, Europe experienced severe religious conflict, one would even say warfare, between Protestants and Catholics. Back then denominational differences were a matter of life and death.

This brings to mind the question: Doesn’t Jesus pray to his Father that his followers “may be one, even as We are” (John 17:11,22)? Doesn’t Paul write that “God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another” (1 Corinthians 12:24-25)? Though the early Jerusalem church “had all things in common” (Acts 2:44), what has happened to this ideal?

Denominations seem to indicate Christian disunity and thus diminish our witness for Christ in the world. But is this necessarily so? Does this call into question the validity of the truth claims of Jesus? How should we think about Christian denominations? Here are some considerations.1

First, not all who declare themselves Christians are true or consistent followers of Christ. A lot of things that have been done in the name of Jesus–the Crusades, the Inquisition, anti-Jewish persecution, neglect of social responsibility, hatred of homosexuals–hardly resemble the attitude of Christ or reveal the Spirit’s fruit (Galatians 5:22-23). Jesus has said in the Sermon on the Mount: You will know them by their fruits (Matthew 7:16). He also says later that “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Just because some people claim to be Christians, that doesn’t mean they are Christians. 

Second, denominations remind us of a common denominator–a “mere Christianity” that different Christian groups share. Think of it in terms of fractions instead of factions (Unfortunately I can’t claim this joke as my own) and the notion of the common denominator. You can have ⅕, ⅖, or ⅗ but the denominator is still the same – 5. When we recite the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed or read books by C.S. Lewis, we are reminded of the basic commonalities that Christians share–despite differences in secondary doctrines.

Third, denominations don’t imply disunity (just like uniformity doesn’t equal unity). Denominational affiliation is not division. Indeed, a spirit of unity and charity that goes beyond external labels is to permeate our dealing with fellow Christians. As an example, Paul chided the Corinthian church for its divisiveness: some aligned themselves with Paul, others with Apollos, some with Cephas (Peter) and apparently the “super-spiritual” ones with their nose in the air aligned themselves with Christ (1 Corinthians 1:10-17; 3:1-9). The problem was not doctrinal differences but prideful attitudes and an unwillingness to reconcile that Paul criticizes.

When Christians are dealing with other Christians, we should major on the majors and minor on the minors when it comes to biblical teachings. The church should be, as Kevin Vanhoozer writes, a commentary on God’s Word and a witness to Scripture that is lived before God and a watching world.2

 

  1.  More could be said in this post but I would encourage everyone who wants a more in-depth response to this issue, to consider reading When God Goes to Starbucks: A Guide to Everyday Apologetics (2008), by Paul Copan. That was the main resource I used to write this post.
  2.  Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 237.

How Do We Honor Christ in the Lord’s Supper?

In a previous post, we answered the question: “Why Do We Celebrate the Lord’s Supper?”

In this post, we want to answer the question: “How Do We Honor Christ in the Lord’s Supper?”  In other words, how do we come to the Table of Christ (or not come to the Table) in a way that brings honor and glory and praise to Christ?

As we saw in the previous post, the Supper was commanded by Christ (see Luke 22:19) and the early church took this command very seriously.  All faithful churches, down to this day, celebrate the Supper regularly.

If the Supper is so important, it is imperative for us to seek to understand how to celebrate it in a manner that honors Christ.  Below I’d like to offer a few thoughts:

The first way we may honor Christ in the Supper is by recognizing the true meaning of the Lord’s Supper.  Jesus said in 1 Cor. 11:24-26:

“‘This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’  In the same way, He took the cup also after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”

The Lord’s Supper is a solemn time in which believers remember the death of Jesus Christ for us.  The breaking of the bread and pouring out of the wine or juice should remind us of that solemn night at the Last Supper when Jesus was betrayed and eventually crucified.  As we hear the Words of Institution recited, as we see the bread broken and juice poured, as we taste of the body and blood of Christ, we look through these sensory experiences to the reality of Christ’s death and remember that this is more than an ordinary meal, but a commemoration of a horrific, yet glorious, event that took place some 2,000 years ago.  As we receive the elements of this sacrificial meal, we are tangibly reminded of our unbreakable union with Christ which was secured for us in the death that Jesus died.  In remembering the true meaning of the Supper, we honor Christ.

The second way we honor Christ in the Supper is by receiving the Supper in faith.  This goes beyond mere mental recognition of the meaning of the Supper.  A person may have an accurate understanding of what the Supper is and the purpose it serves, yet fail to believe that Christ actually does offer Himself for them personally.  Such a person is not benefited by the Supper, and Christ is not honored in their partaking of it.  Calvin puts it this way:

“Wherefore, let it be a fixed point, that the office of the sacraments differs not from the word of God; and this is to hold forth and offer Christ to us, and, in him, the treasures of heavenly grace. They confer nothing, and avail nothing, if not received in faith, just as wine and oil, or any other liquor, however large the quantity which you pour out, will run away and perish unless there be an open vessel to receive it. When the vessel is not open, though it may be sprinkled all over, it will nevertheless remain entirely empty.”1

The Word of God and the sacraments of the Church are only beneficial to those who receive them with faith (see for instance, Hebrews 4:1-2).  As we come to the Table, we should come with faith–as “open vessels”.  If our hearts are filled with doubts, let us pray the prayer of the father of the boy with the evil spirit in Mark 9:24: “I do believe; help my unbelief.”  We honor Christ in the Supper when we partake it in faith–even with the faith of a mustard seed.

The third way we honor Christ in our partaking of the Supper is by seeing our need for it.  People of faith recognize that faith itself is no shield from the world’s problems or dilemmas.  Needs don’t suddenly go away because a person believes.  In fact, faith often makes a person more aware of their neediness and fragility.  This awareness is manifest in the believer’s approach to the Supper.  For them, the Supper represents their need for regular nourishment, both physical and spiritual. By partaking of the Supper regularly we are reminding ourselves of our ongoing need for Christ and His forgiveness; we are receiving Christ’s offer of Himself for our sins again and again.  Howard Griffith writes:

“Why then did Jesus command his disciples to eat and drink, and to do so repeatedly?  So that they might have the assurance of sins forgiven.  The bread taken and eaten, the wine drunk, represent the application of salvation to believers, because Christ’s words gave them and continue to give them that meaning.”2

Being a Christian is more than a moment in time when we “prayed a prayer” and “surrendered”, it is an ongoing embrace of the good news of the gospel, that Christ offered Himself for us.  We honor Christ in the Supper when we recognize our ongoing need for Jesus as we come to the Table.

The fourth way we honor Christ in our partaking of the Supper is by respecting the boundaries of the Supper put in place by Christ Himself.  If faith is necessary to honor Christ in the Supper (as stated above), then it follows that those who have not received the Lord Jesus by faith should abstain.3  In 1 Corinthians 10:16 Paul says:

“Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?”

How can those who have not yet received Christ in faith “share” in His body?  In the words of Anthony Carter:

“Communion, or common union, is born out of union with Christ. Only those in union with Christ have fellowship with Him. They share in His body and His blood and are consequently united to Him (John 6:56). The unconverted has no fellowship with Christ. The unconverted has no union with Him. There is no promise of Christ’s abiding with him. He has no portion in the body of Christ broken or the blood of Christ shed. Consequently, there can be no sharing in the elements that signify the person and work of Christ for the church (1 Cor. 11:24). The converted, on the other hand, discern that such are the blessings of being united to Christ.” 4

But there is another group that should also abstain from the Supper: the unrepentant.  In 1 Cor. 11:28 and 29 Paul says:

“Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.” (ESV)

Again, in the words of Anthony Carter:

“The Christian life is the examined life, the life that takes seriously the call to repentance and the promise of forgiveness (1 John. 1:8–92:1). Unfortunately, there are those who deny the grace of repentance by hardening their hearts and refusing to forgive or be forgiven. Those who refuse to acknowledge their sin, but harbor bitterness, malice, and hatred in their hearts, and refuse godly counsel toward reconciliation with God and others, and thus neglect the grace of repentance—let them refrain from the Lord’s Table. Otherwise, to eat and to drink in such a state is to call forth the disciplining hand of God (1 Cor. 11:32).”5

If we desire to honor Christ in the Supper we must honor the boundaries that Christ Himself has put into place.

The last thought I have for you is this: we honor Christ by making ourselves available to partake of the Supper as often as possible.  If all that I have said above is true, it is imperative that we make ourselves available to partake of the Supper.  It will nourish and enliven your faith.

If your church celebrates the Supper every week, missing a week here and there will present no major problem.  However, if your church only celebrates the Supper once a month or once a quarter, it is imperative, if at all possible, that you make every effort to be present.  Christ is eager to meet you there and to give you more of Himself.

  1. John Calvin, “The Institutes of the Christian Religion,” Book 4, Section 17.
  2. Spreading the Feast (P&R, 2015), 47-48.
  3. This point has not been controversial until recently.  In the 2,000 year history of the Church, I am personally not aware of any movement in the Church where non-believers were allowed to partake of the Supper, that is, until recently.  This should give us tremendous pause when we see some current day leaders in the Church opening the table to anyone and everyone.
  4. See the article “When Should You Not Take Communion?” at https://www.ligonier.org/blog/when-should-you-not-take-communion/. Accessed on 08/23/18.
  5. See the article “When Should You Not Take Communion?” at https://www.ligonier.org/blog/when-should-you-not-take-communion/. Accessed on 08/23/18.

The Psychology of Self-Deception

It’s one thing to be clueless. But have you ever known someone who was clueless about being clueless?

Maybe she saw herself as a great cook, but anybody who tasted her food would strongly object.

Maybe they figured they were the picture of health—despite what their friends (and doctors) kept saying about their diet and exercise (or lack thereof!).

Or perhaps he considered himself a fine handyman who never had to call the professionals—until he’d created a much more expensive problem than he originally had.

In another post I wrote about the New Testament’s strong warning not to let ourselves be fooled. In Hebrews 3:7-4:13 the pastor-author warns his beloved friends that, like the ancient Israelites, they too would fall short of receiving God’s promise of a secure resting place without each other’s help and encouragement. Here are the key verses:

See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.  But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.

—Hebrews 3:12-13

I’ve taught about the critical importance of the church in many contexts. I’ve used many different examples from Scripture and modern life to illustrate what the Bible’s saying. Like any teacher, I have a couple favorites. But as of today, they were all relegated to secondary status. You see, today I discovered the Dunning-Kruger effect.

For those (like me) who had no idea what the Dunning-Kruger effect is, here’s the briefest of explanations: a pair of researchers at Cornell University studied and described the phenomenon of highly incompetent individuals believing that they were, in fact, above-average at a given task. The researchers’ interest was inspired by the story of a man who was arrested after robbing two banks. The man was quickly apprehended because he had intentionally not worn a mask, only to have his face caught on security cameras. Why make such a huge mistake? Because the robber sincerely believed that rubbing lemon juice on his face would prevent the cameras inside the bank from recording any images of himself. When presented with the video evidence against him, he could only respond in disbelief: “But I used the juice!” This poor man’s mistake wasn’t that he was dumb; it was that he was dumb but truly considered himself to be clever. In other words: he was clueless about being clueless.

The researchers at Cornell found that this kind of behavior isn’t a disorder that’s unique to America’s dumbest criminals. In fact, all of us can have this cognitive bias. They convincingly showed that, in many cases, when incompetent people are asked how good they are at something, they don’t just fail to see their incompetency—they tend to think they’re absolutely great at it! The delusion is so powerful that, when another person performs the same task much better than they do, the incompetent person still can’t recognize the other person’s superior skill. It turns out that the worse we are at something, the more our deluded self-perception drives us to think we’re awesome at it. In fact, one of the researchers was saddened to realize that, no matter how inaccurate our view of ourselves is, we’re trapped in it. In order to see the truth about our lack of skill and self-delusion, we need someone else to point it out to us—and even then we might not see it. 1

I hope some of the applications of the Dunning-Kruger effect to our lives as Christians are clear:

  • It’s no coincidence that, before Paul instructs the Roman church in how to use their spiritual gifts, he first warns them, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment” (Romans 12:3). He has to throw in that warning because it’s far too easy for us to do just that: think too highly of ourselves!
  • How amazingly well these findings line up with Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount! As he told the earliest disciples, it’s much easier to see the minor flaws of others while overlooking our own massive failings (Matthew 7:1-5). Be careful about judging others: it’s a lot easier to be a hypocrite than to be a helper!
  • Notice what a scary position we find ourselves in a self-deceived sinners. We think we’re good, decent people. We sincerely believe we’re not as bad as the people God condemns throughout the Bible. We somehow trick ourselves into thinking that other people sin while we only “make mistakes” or occasionally “do things that are out of character.” On the contrary! Despite what we naturally believe, we are our own worst enemies. We can’t even grade ourselves accurately! How true, then, is the consistent message of both the Old and New Testaments: “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10).

If all that is true, and we can’t even know how bad we are—let alone fix ourselves—what can we possibly do? Three thousand years before the Cornell researchers came to the same conclusion, God himself gave the answer: our only hope is to stop trusting our own understanding and to put all our chips on God’s word being true (Proverbs 3:5-6). We need—and we have—a Savior who sees us for who we are but isn’t ashamed to love us anyway (Hebrews 11:16). What self-deceived, blind, ignorant sinners need isn’t more information or (God forbid) more affirmation that we’re okay. We need someone to give us the gift of faith and make us believe the truth despite ourselves. And that’s exactly what the good news of Jesus does for us (Ephesians 2:8-9).

And what else does the good news of Jesus do? It doesn’t just create a relationship with a God who sees us perfectly and teaches us how to see ourselves through his word; it creates a global community of others to help us. The ultimate solution to the Dunning-Kruger effect isn’t becoming more mindful or self-aware; it’s choosing to be vulnerable and let others know us really well. It’s taking off our armor and handing other Christians a sword, knowing they can either defend us or run us through. God’s solution to our self-deception isn’t only giving us spiritual life from the dead—it’s the church.

Are you experiencing the encouragement of Hebrews 3:12-13? Are you practicing it yourself?

  1.  “Ignorance for Dummies,” This American Life 585. Accessed 25 April, 2016.

The Power of the If

Do you find history interesting? If you think history is all about memorizing dates, I doubt it. But, as many people have pointed out, maybe the best reason to study history is that it is so full of good stories. I studied ancient Greek in college, and if there’s one period of history that’s chock full of daring deeds and notable quotes, it’s the five-hundred-or-so years when the Greek city-states were in their prime. In particular, the people of Sparta were famous for the bravery and brutal military discipline that pervaded their entire culture. Yet they were also known for their great (if deeply sarcastic) sense of humor. In fact, the English word “laconic” (which describes an answer that is amusingly clever and brutally blunt at the same time) comes from Laconia, the region where Sparta is found.

Just one example of the Spartans’ clever brevity comes from the late classical period, when Philip II of Macedonia attempted to invade Sparta. Having already conquered many of the Spartans’ neighbors, Philip sent a messenger with terms of peace—and a warning: “If I invade Laconia you will be destroyed, never to rise again.” The Spartans responded with a single word: “If.”1  As a result, neither Philip (nor his famous son, Alexander the Great) ever tried to conquer the Spartans.

In Hebrews 3:1-6, the author wraps up his argument for Jesus Christ’s superiority to Moses by saying that we experience the blessings of belonging to his family (literally “house”) “if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast” (3:6). In the next section of the letter (Hebrews 3:7-4:13), the author uses a great story from the history of God’s people to underline a very important point about faith and obedience.

So, as the Holy Spirit says: “Today, if you hear his voice,  do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me and for forty years saw what I did. That is why I was angry with that generation, and I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways.’ So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.'” See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first. As has just been said: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.” Who were they who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt? And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the desert? And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed? So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.

Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith. Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said, “So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.'” And yet his work has been finished since the creation of the world. For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: “And on the seventh day God rested from all his work.” And again in the passage above he says, “They shall never enter my rest.” It still remains that some will enter that rest, and those who formerly had the gospel preached to them did not go in, because of their disobedience. Therefore God again set a certain day, calling it Today, when a long time later he spoke through David, as was said before: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his.

Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

In order for this passage to hit you like it should, it’s important to have a basic grasp of Israel’s timeline. In the period following their exodus from Egypt, the nation of Israel (led by Moses) wandered for forty years through the wilderness before ultimately arriving in Palestine. They were led into the Promised Land by Joshua, and after approximately four hundred years of chaos and disorder in the land, Israel began its all too brief golden age under David, who reflected on the wilderness period in Psalm 95 (quoted throughout this passage). After him, it would be another thousand years before Jesus’ earthly ministry. It looks something like this:

Moses —> Joshua —> David —> Jesus Christ [note: not to scale!]

The author poses this question: Who, out of all God’s people in history, have actually followed through with their commitment to follow God and experienced his promised rest? Looking at the wilderness period, the statistics are shocking: of the generation who left Egypt—a generation comprised of perhaps a million people or more—only two were allowed to experience a taste of God’s rest by entering the Promised Land.  And, the author points out, the “rest” experienced by those who continued to inhabit the land was fleeting and incomplete, to put it mildly!

What was the difference between those who rested (even if only superficially) and those who died before achieving it? Throughout this passage, the author divides those who followed God in this way: those who believed, and those who disobeyed. In the words of Martin Luther, the “sin behind the sin” of disobedience was unbelief. People either took God at his word (and acted accordingly) or they didn’t (and acted accordingly). The former group got rest; the latter died in their disobedience, experiencing the various consequences of sin before dying restless.

What’s the lesson for his audience (and for us)? First, be warned that sin is blinding. The people who died in the wilderness considered themselves to be faithful believers—even when their idolatry, blasphemy, and raw disobedience blatantly contradicted their words. Sin blinds us all. The question isn’t “Am I self-deluded?” but “What am I doing about my self-delusion?” Do you really believe that you’re that blind to yourself and your true obedience?

Secondly, the only remedy to the blinding effects of sin is to surround yourself with other believers who can see your heart better than you can.  Someone who claims to follow God but refuses to commit to a local group of believers isn’t just missing out; they’re out to sea without a compass or a sail, completely open to any number of dangers. Do you have a diverse group of Christians—that is, a local church—where you let others see the real you? Is there anyone in your life who knows you and God well enough to encourage (or “exhort,” 3:13) you where you really are?

If not, the threat is real. The full and final rest of God isn’t in a safe suburb in Palestine; it’s in the new heavens and earth, which we still await with patience. Are you going to make it to the finish line of life and experience that rest? You won’t if you don’t take Jesus at his word to save weak and weary sinners like us and live out of that faith. And you won’t if you don’t have a meaningful, practically challenging relationship with a local church.

Your sin may blind you, but it cannot throw off the all-seeing, all-knowing, searching Scriptures of God. Whatever lies we tell and walls we build up, God won’t judge us according to our own consciences but according to what he tells us in his word. Will you endure the hardships of the Christian life and receive the reward of living forever before God and his glory? You will if your faith is such that you take God at his word and repent of your sins. If.

  1.  Plutarch, “De garrulitate, 17.”

Making God’s House a Home

The Bible is a surprising book. When I first started reading it in high school, I regularly cocked an eyebrow at the things in it: stories of men and women doing shockingly ugly things— and of a God who loved them anyway. The Big Story of the Bible (and the thousands of smaller stories that feed into it and give it depth) just didn’t turn out like I expected. Skipping ahead to the present, my day-to-day work involves teaching the Bible to people, grinding away so that they would know and love that same God. But even the monotony of a full-time job hasn’t taken the surprise out of the Bible. Even a cynical guy like me can find something almost every day in its pages, a turn of phrase or an argument or a plot twist that makes me think, “Huh. Didn’t see that coming.”

Hebrews 3:1-6 is a paragraph that you could easily glance over without too much thought. Names like “God,” “Jesus,” and “Moses” are so common that they don’t even register as noteworthy to anyone who knows something about the Bible. The imagery of a house is so prevalent that you might be forgiven in thinking that the writer of Hebrews is simply copying and pasting stock phrases. But upon closer inspection, that’s not the case at all:

Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess. He was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in all God’s house. Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself. For every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything. Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house, testifying to what would be said in the future. But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast.
— Hebrews 3:1-6

As it turns out, there are several surprises in these verses. First, those who believe the gospel of Jesus are “holy brothers” (and sisters — the Greek word could include both) who share a grand invitation to a holy place, namely, heaven. That’s not how I tend to view the people in my church. Even though I truly love my congregation, it just seems too grand to address the people sitting with me in the pews like that. And in the middle of our sufferings and weaknesses — varied but common among all of us — I certainly don’t look around and say to myself, “This is some group of people: making a pilgrimage to heaven!” But such they are. Like I said: huh. Didn’t see that coming.

But there’s more. Look at what the writer calls Jesus: not the Son (as he did several times in the last couple chapters) or the Lord (Hebrews 2:3), but “the apostle and high priest whom we confess” (Hebrews 3:1). Of course, Jesus was just called “a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God” a couple verses earlier (Hebrews 2:17), so that’s not totally novel. Nevertheless, the writer is going to make much of Jesus’ priesthood in the rest of the letter, which fleshes out the idea more than any other part of the Bible. If you were a Christian during the apostles’ day and had access to only a fraction of the New Testament (say, the Gospel of Mark or some of Paul’s letters), the idea that Jesus was a priest— even a high priest— is interesting.

And speaking of the apostles — we confess Jesus to be an apostle? The idea that he was, like Paul and Peter, personally commissioned to do God’s will is pretty easy to find in the rest of the Bible once you know to look for it. For example, see John 3:17 or, to combine it with the idea of Jesus as a priest, John 17:18. But to give Jesus the explicit title of “apostle”? This is the only place in the Bible where that happens. Huh.

But the biggest “wow, really?” moment comes when he starts to describe what Jesus did (and is still doing) in the mission he was given. “He was faithful to the one who appointed him,” accomplishing what was asked of him by the Father. In that, he’s just like Moses, who was also given a mission that he accomplished (Hebrews 3:2). But, the writer argues, while Moses was good, Jesus is even better (a theme we’ve seen before, like here). How’s that?

The writer gives two reasons. First, Jesus’ mission was better than Moses’ mission. Both received their orders from God, who’s compared to the master of a great household. Who lives with him in his house? The community of people who share a common bond, centering their lives around God and his mission in the world. For Moses, his job was to serve the house like a butler, getting everyone in the house ready for what the master had planned (Hebrews 3:5). An amazing butler? No doubt— but a servant nonetheless. Jesus’ task, on the other hand, was to steward God’s household, not as the master’s hired hand, but as his own son (Hebrews 3:6). The relationship between Father and Son is so strong, so loving, that we who inhabit the space where they are— the church— can’t help but love them and the whole household for it. Sure, Moses put God’s house in order, but Jesus made his house into our home. Glorious!

And why else is Jesus better than Moses? Not just because their tasks were different. No, the writer says: Jesus himself is categorically better than Moses. Just like a great architect is better than any house she ever designed, so also Jesus deserves more honor than the home which he established (Hebrews 3:3). The only thing more amazing than a breath-taking piece of art is the person skilled and thoughtful enough to create it! For all its warts and unseemly parts, Jesus’ church is a marvelous and complex institution. Moses was tasked with overseeing it for a time, and he deserves a very healthy “‘Atta boy!” for the job he did. But Jesus? Well, what he does is nothing short of astounding.

What is Jesus doing in the church? He is bringing a little bit of heaven into our sad and dark world, right now, before our very eyes. We still long for its fullness to come, but wherever men and women and children fix their eyes on Jesus, God’s son over God’s house, there is a colony of heaven, the holy place to which we’re called. It’s still to come— yet it’s here.

Didn’t see that coming!

Why Creeds Matter

What is a Creed?

Everybody believes in something.  As Burk Parsons points out in his short pamphlet “Why Do We Have Creeds?“, we use the words “I believe” to express our thoughts about nearly everything.  At some point or another, they are found on the lips of every human being.

The word “creed” is derived from the Latin word “credo” meaning “I believe.”  So a creed is a statement summarizing the shared beliefs of a group or community of persons.

Spawned Out of a Need for Clarification

Some perspectives are simply not compatible with Christian faith.  Take Paul’s words to the Galatian church:

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” (Gal. 1:6-9)

To Paul, distorting the truth was no small matter.

When a person or group begins to use the name of Christ in association with beliefs that are incompatible with the Bible’s teaching, a need for warning and clarification arises.  Over the centuries such scenarios have been the impetus for the development of a creed.  Take the Nicene Creed for example, which was formulated at the First Ecumenical Council, held in Nicea (now Turkey):

“This creed was…a response to the Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Christ. It was revised at the Second Ecumenical Council, held at Constantinople in 381 as a response to the Macedonian or Pneumatomachian heresy, which denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit.” 1

These statements of belief have been an important part of Christian faith as far back as we have record.  The Apostles Creed is considered the earliest creed used by the church today, dating back to the early part of the 3rd century.  It states:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic* church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen. 2

Interestingly however, we know of other creeds going back much further contained in the Bible itself.  1 Corinthians 15:3b-5 is one example of a Christian creed that many scholars (even critical, read “skeptical” scholars) believe dates back to within two to three years after the death of Jesus Christ.  It reads:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” 3

And there are other places in Scripture where we find statements that are believed to be ancient summarizes of faith.  Deuteronomy 6:4 is the quintessential statement of Jewish faith:

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One.”

We Still Need Creeds Today

The idea of a creed seems outdated to the post-modern mind, but creeds were not just for the ancients.  In fact, as our world continues to change and as the Christian church faces new and growing challenges, the need for creeds is as real as ever.  Books like McGoldrick’s “Christianity and It’s Competitors” have shown that ancient heresies have been revived with “new faces.”

What is more, radical political and cultural shifts have created schism within the church as well over the issues of sexuality, marriage, gender, bible interpretation, evangelism, politics and more.  One of the results has been mystification.  So many Christians are lost on a sea of competing ideas and moral compromise.

Creeds are one way that churches can bring awareness to the issues, help their people understand what’s at stake and clarify what options are compatible with Christian faith.

 

  1.  https://carm.org/nicene-creed, (Accessed on 6/2/2015).
  2. Copied from http://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/creeds/apostles-creed, (Accessed on 6/2/2015).
  3. You can read more about this fascinating creed at http://www.evidenceunseen.com/bible-difficulties-2/nt-difficulties/romans-2/1-cor-153b-5-was-this-an-early-christian-statement-of-faith/, (Accessed on 6/2/2015).