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Changed By Glory

"And we all… beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another." II Cor. 3:18

Month

July 2014

New Covenant Singleness

A recent conversation about singleness on a podcast I listen to called The Reformed Pubcast[i] sparked some consideration in my mind with where I stand on that matter. Specifically the tension that there seems to be in conservative Christian circles between Paul’s writings on the issue in I Corinthians 7 and the Genesis 1 & 2 command that a man should cleave to a wife and be fruitful and multiply.

The direction that is often taken, especially in the setting I grew up in, is to respond to Paul’s words in one of three ways:

  1. We “hmm-haw” about it and tend toward the side of Genesis 1.
  2. We use 1 Corinthians 7 as a comfort for those that are “unfortunate” enough to not be able to find a husband/wife.
  3. We take the heretical approach and state that Paul was simply speaking his opinion here and these words are uninspired (please don’t do that!)

I think that there is a real danger in not simply taking Paul at face value, as difficult as it may be to swallow.[ii] And further, I don’t think there is a tension here between Paul and Genesis. And the best way to see that a tension does not exist is to view the issue of singleness through theological lenses.

Let me lay out that theological lens which must be considered. First, it is my view that the Scriptures reveal that God interacts with his Creation through various covenants. And second, I am also “baptistic” in the sense that I believe that under the new covenant the covenant “children” are those that are born-again, exhibiting repentance and faith, thus making them the rightful recipients of the covenant sign, which is baptism.[iii] You may be wondering what that has do with Genesis, 1 Corinthians 7, and singleness. But trust me! We will get there.

The Bible teaches that, from my viewpoint, Adam was under a covenant.[iv] Like all covenants, this one had terms[v] and responsibilities[vi]. Among the responsibilities was that man was to be fruitful and multiply.

Had Adam not transgressed the covenant by eating from the forbidden tree, his children would have been covenant children – fellows in this mission to fill and subdue the earth. The same seems to be the case with the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, where children born to families under those covenants were given the covenant sign of circumcision and were expected to “be fruitful and multiply”.

Now we come to the New Covenant, ushered in by Christ and sealed with his blood, where there is an important shift. Children are no longer born into the covenant people “by the will of the flesh, nor the will of man” but are born “of God” into the covenant people.[vii]

Just as God in Genesis 1 gives authority to man to subdue the earth and commands him to be fruitful and multiply, with the dawning of the New Covenant God gives authority to his covenant people –the church- and also commands them to be fruitful and multiply.[viii] There has been a shift in categories of covenant offspring from the strictly biological to the spiritual[ix] and therefore a shift in the paradigm of “be fruitful and multiply.”

So now we get back to Paul in I Corinthians 7. Paul, I believe, understood this distinction in what makes someone a child of the covenant. Just read Romans and Galatians. Paul even refers to Timothy as his “true child in the faith.”[x] Paul believed that in his singleness he was obeying the covenant duty to be fruitful and multiply. Just like Old Testament saints he understood that just as God opens and closes the womb he also opens and closes the heart[xi] and he made it his aim to “procreate”. Paul saw, under the New Covenant, that he could better pursue fruitfulness as a single man because he would be freer to scatter the seed of the Gospel which God may be pleased to spring to fruit.

Under the new covenant, therefore, there is a dignity and a purpose to singleness like never before. Our union with Christ and his church means that we are not robbed of meaningful fellowship outside of marriage. We are not defined by our ability to have sexual intimacy, but rather by our inseparable, intimate marriage to Christ as a member of his bride – the church.

What this means is that marriage is good. Marriage is honorable. Marriage is pure. But it is not better than singleness in the eyes of God. The new covenant removes that tension.

So if the Lord has called you to singleness this is my admonition: Jesus is enough. Now, pursue fruitfulness and multiplication by sowing the seed of the Gospel in broad and daring ways that you never could if God had called you to be a husband/wife, father/mother.

The command stands. The paradigm has shifted.

 

 

[i] A Christian podcast about theology, pop culture, and beer.
[ii] I speak as someone who is happily married and wish many were as I.
[iii] I don’t have time to get into all the details of this. For more info message me and I can suggest some reading.
[iv] Hosea 6:7
[v] Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:16)
[vi] Subdue the earth and be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:28)
[vii] John 1:13
[viii] Matthew 28:18-19
[ix] I understand this is something my Presbyterian brothers will disagree with.
[x] 1 Timothy 1:2
[xi] Genesis 29:31, Acts 16:14
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A Glimpse Beyond The Veil

What are the miracles of Jesus supposed to tell us? Today stories of the supernatural works that he did seem to dazzle some people and make others suspicious. The response to the works that Jesus did was the same in his time on earth. They created hype and they created criticism. They brought fame and they brought infamy. Neither of these were the aim of Jesus in what he did. Jesus was not interested in creating a following or entertaining a crowd.

Why the miracles then? The most common answer is correct, that is to show his authority. But I believe that the answer is more specific than that. It is authority to do something in particular. The works that Jesus did were not meant to dazzle and confound, but were meant to incite praise as people saw what had long before been promised. They were meant to cause people to look at the Scriptures and look at Christ and have an “Aha!” moment. The miracles of Jesus were a glimpse beyond the veil of time. They were meant to say, “This is the one who can fix the sin and brokenness in the world.” The miracles of Jesus showed that he was the one who would make all things new.

When the blind saw and the lame walked, the people that Jesus came to, rather than being entertained on one hand and being skeptical on the other should have thought of the many passages that prophesied of redemption and realized who was in there midst[i]. They should have thought of Isaiah 35, a sample of which says:

“Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;” (Isaiah 35:3-6 ESV)

In Isaiah we see prophecies with temporal application carrying with them eschatological meaning. The works that Jesus did were not merely supernatural wonders meant to get peoples’ attention and to show God’s power in general, they were a glimpse beyond the veil of sinful history to the time when by the work of Jesus Christ all would be made new. A sample of the time when every blind, deaf, and maimed child of God will be healed. Every daughter of the King who was raped will be loved and comforted. Every son who was abandoned will be secure. Every hurt will be forgotten. Every demon will be damned. Every fear will be overcome. Every tear will be wiped away. This is what the miracles of Jesus showed – they showed that not only did he have authority – he had authority to restore what was broken through Adam, to overthrow the devil, and to replace the tyrannical reign of sin with the gentle reign of righteousness.

The miracles Jesus did were not part of a divine side-show, but were displays of authority packed with eschatological meaning. Every person Jesus healed got sick again and every dead person he raised died again, but all those works said loud and clear that permanent healing and permanent raising were coming – Just as Christ coming once brought the assurance he would come again. God through Christ was giving a glimpse of Eden restored, a glimpse of the final result of the Son of God bursting the bonds of death.

More could be said here and I dealt with this matter in more detail in a sermon a few months ago. But next time you read about the miracles that Jesus did, don’t just skim over them as neat stories, but see them in the light of redemptive history. See what they mean for you amidst temptation, sickness, pain, and death. They point to a day when he will make all things new. We all face suffering in the world, so see the miraculous works of Christ as a glimpse beyond the veil of time when he brings to finality what he has begun.

[i] Some did (ie. John 1:49)

A Good Thing Gone Bad – Introduction

Introduction

The warfare that we wage, is a spiritual warfare. One that is primarily a matter of truth and falsehood, according to the Scriptures.[i] It can be surprising how much of the material in the New Testament is polemical and how often the exhortation is to stand firm on truth, hold fast to doctrine, to make a good a confession. Since that horrific day in Eden that mankind was plunged into depravity there are forces at work, taking truth and twisting it, taking something that is good and misusing it, drawing people into this cycle of taking what God has created and morphing it into something that is a god itself. God gives us a monument of his glory in the Gospel and we take it as a token of our worth.

The history of the church is littered with extremism and complacency, with antinomianism and legalism, with passiveness and judgmentalism. Every revival has resulted in residual excessiveness and strange doctrine –ranging from the bizarre to the coldly indifferent. Every reformation has resulted in radicalism – both to the side of legalism and antinomianism. The reason for this is the war that we wage. In fact we should expect heresy to grow around the triumph of truth and for foolishness to arise around Spirit-driven fervor. Why? Because since the Fall there has been a war against truth. We have a real enemy who is “the father of lies”[ii]. And he is a liar who knows truth when he sees it and will stop at nothing to undermine it. He is subtle. He is cunning. And he is sinister. He is the enemy of the truth.

The church harms itself when it thinks that spiritual warfare is primarily about what goes bump in the night. The enemy knows he cannot beat God, so he tries to rob glory from him, and what is the greatest display of the glory of God? It is his Gospel, “the gospel of the glory of Christ who is the image of God.”[iii]

In the garden, Satan went after the ones made in God’s image, meant to reflect his glory. Defacing those images was the closest thing that he could do to diminishing the unfaltering, unapproachable glory of God himself. Since that time God has been unfolding his magnificent plan of redemption, by which to restore those fallen image bearers into monuments of his glory, a glory that would shine more brightly than ever could in Eden – the glory of his grace.

When Jesus came on the scene he shone with the radiance of the Father’s glory.[iv] Satan tried to deface that too and when he was unsuccessful he tried to outright destroy the image, but in doing so he unleashed with fury a light beyond compare. The perfection of God’s love and justice in a single, macabre scene on a Roman cross in Palestine. As the temple veil tore and the ground shook the enemy likely knew he was doomed, especially as fallen man looked on and said, “Truly, this was the Son of God.”[v] God’s glory was vindicated and his triumph guaranteed when on the third day following this crucifixion for the first time in history the incarnate Son of God burst the bonds of death with immortality, never to die again. Truth would prevail. God’s purposes were relentless and his glory would not be diminished.

In the coming days under the New Covenant the apostle were keenly aware that they had a foe that until the final battle would not cease his attacks on the glory of the Creator. Paul warns with certainty the Ephesian elder that wolves will come and devour the flock.[vi] The warfare would continue to be a warfare between truth and error. For it is in truth, namely the truth of the Gospel, that the glory of God is displayed in brilliant purity. Paul urged with passion for Timothy to guard the Gospel.[vii] He rebuked the Galatians for accepting another “gospel”.[viii] Until Christ returns the church has been given a deposit to proclaim, to live, and to guard. It is the Gospel. And every assault of Satan, at the end of the day, is an assault against this Gospel. Why? Caught it yet? Because it is there that the glory of God is most fully seen.

In the midst of this battle, the church which is a “pillar and buttress of the truth”[ix] is not without its scars. The study of church history shows two things: that there is a war against truth and that truth ultimately prevails. We see the warfare against truth in that with every true reformation in the church there is extremism on one hand and stagnation on the other, with every revival there is excessiveness on hand and coldness on the other. This is not the fault of the Gospel, in fact, it proves that the Gospel is still going forward because war is being waged. Wherever truth is, there will be the battle.

And that is the topic of this book or blog post series or personal rant, whatever it turns out to be. I believe that the truth is going forward, as it should, but there is a battle being raged. In some places the battle is very obvious, but actually those engagements, while important, are not the things that are the most troubling. In fact, those great battles grow out of the covert operations which go not only unnoticed, but applauded. It is the battle fought by those “clothed as angels of light” preaching another gospel[x], it is those wolves dressed in very convincing sheep’s clothing. It is those who believe they do God a service with what they preach. And most tragic is the damage done by those sheep that are charmed, duped, and downright deceived into swallowing Gospel that has been laced with poison.

We rejoice that the Gospel goes forward, but if we are not alert, we could end up doing more harm than good.

[i] II Corinthians 10:4-6
[ii] John 8:44
[iii] II Corinthians 4:3
[iv] John 1:14
[v] Mark 15:49
[vi] Acts 20:2
[vii] 1 Timothy 6:2
[viii] Galatians 1:6
[ix] 1 Timothy 3:15
[x] Galatians 1:8, II Corinthians 11:14; We will deal later with what makes something another Gospel.

Field of Dreams: A Church Planting Approach

The question the past year had crossed my mind, “Why do I put all the work into a Friday morning Equipping Class[i] that only four or five people are going to attend?” The very reason I ask myself that question is because it seems like such a waste of time. Other questions could be asked, “Why have the structures and formalities of membership procedure that we have when there are only twenty-one members? Why stand up and preach when there is only 15-40 people in the room?” Even more questions could be asked, but my answer, by now, is always going to be the same.

We all know the famous line to the classic movie Field of Dreams. “Build it and he will come”. Basically, James Earl Jones and Ray Liotta get Kevin Costner to build a baseball diamond. Costner, as Ray Kinsella, has faith that Jones is right, if he builds it people will come and so it is. Going back then to the question of why I am doing so much with a church so small is because of the “Field of Dreams” approach to church planting. This is not a pragmatic method. It is not some proven strategy. It simply a matter of faithfulness, a matter of exercising the means that God uses to grow and build up his church.

We gather each week in a room big enough to hold a hundred with the hope and prayer that there will be a hundred. We have classes to equip the few in hopes that they may equip the many. By God’s grace alone, I strive to prepare my sermon the same for fifteen people as I would for fifteen hundred people. On and on the examples could go.

It feels exhausting sometimes and the immediate return causes one to consider whether or not it is worth it. I am not delusional. We are not trying to play “big church”, but are simply trying to be church, God’s vehicle for his mission of redemption, the vessel of his truth, the trumpet of his kingdom, the fold of his sheep, and the display of his wisdom and glory.

This way of viewing the little flock I have been given charge of is shaped by the conviction that God grows his church through his church. And on top of that, the growth is his doing through the faithful ministry of the pastors and members of that church. Faithful ministry is that which plans for great things, while leaving the great things to God. Faithful ministry is that which endures through seasons of fruitlessness with confident rest in the fact that God has established this church for the purpose of making known his glory through the proclamation of the Gospel in our community, giving us good reason to hope that there are many sheep who must be brought into the fold. We hope and pray that the harvest will be great, so we prepare the barns. We prepare the ark of Christ for all of the chosen to come and escape the storm, where they can be protected, fed, and sustained. The local church is to be a hopeful, eschatological entity that looks forward with confidence in the Gospel and the power of the Spirit and plans for the harvest.

So we do. We have been planted in this needy, Gospel-impoverished city by God for his glory. He has us here for a reason. Therefore, we preach to the twenty like there are a thousand. We hold equipping classes for the five like there are fifty. And we pray like we are an army. We conduct ourselves in a way that says that we expect more. We are not trying to be “too big for our britches”, we are trying to make britches big enough so that we may be what God can and may choose to make us.

I once heard Tim Keller say that we should preach every week as if non-believers are in the audience and eventually they will be. So I have made this my practice. It is awkward at times, as I gaze across the godly faces of the people in the room. I proclaim the Gospel, calling for people to repent and believe in Jesus. Why? Because in the intimacy of our little group I hear the voice of James Earl Jones whispering, “Steve… People will come, Steve.”

I believe that. I believe that because churches, proclaiming the Gospel, are God’s method of increasing the Kingdom. I believe it because the Word we proclaim is alive and active. So when I labor all week to prepare classes and sermons for so few, I don’t feel like I am wasting my time. We are building.

My job is to be faithful to build. And the fact the Lord tarries and that he is at work in the world through his church in the great task of gathering a people for himself gives me confidence that if we build it, people will come.

 

 

[i] That is what we call our “Sunday School” or adult education classes at Immanuel Fujairah

“I Was Meant To Do This”

“I was meant to do this”.

I admit that over the past few summers my lunchtime entertainment has been watching the television show America’s Got Talent. One of the things I have observed after seeing hundreds of hopefuls perform is a recurring sentiment, the claim that “I was meant to do this.”

This reveals something interesting to me about people. That is that most people at the end of the day do not have any problem with an impersonal, sovereign force. Fate, if you will. People talk about existing for a purpose when their worldview would affirm that they really have no purpose. They deny the existence of God or at least they deny the idea of a God who is sovereign and “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). Yet, when they reach their goals they are eager to attribute their success to some deterministic “meaning” for their life.

Despite this almost innate openness to the idea of fate, even many so-called Christians reject and are downright offended by a God who determines their destiny. But if not God then what? A materialistic universe has no plan to execute. So tell me, if you were meant to do something, then who meant it? If you believe there is a God who has “a plan for your life”, then how will he bring it about? Who formed you with your skills and talents?

What this shows us is that when people speak of how unthinkable the idea is that God is sovereign over everything, their problem isn’t with determinism, but with the person behind it. People have no problem with the idea of something setting the course of their lives. People make determinism out to be the big issue, but it isn’t the big issue. They aren’t troubled with the logic of how free choice interacts with “destiny” when they step on the stage or when their fate hands them their dreams. The problem they have is not an impersonal, determining force – but a personal one. A being that chooses their destiny for them – and not always the destiny they want.

The problem people have with a divine sovereign is because “Although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (Romans 1:21 ESV) People embrace the idea of fate, but put God as the power behind the fate and they deny it. This is because in our sin we do not “honor him as God”, instead we bring him down to our level. And who wants an equal determining their destiny? A friend can’t even tell me what to do!

There is a selfishness behind this that is clear. For when people’s dreams come true they say “I was meant to do this” or “I feel this is why I am on earth.” But when our dreams crash and burn we turn to the God we ignore and ask “why?” or we simply say “This isn’t how life was supposed to go.” So in our sin and self-idolatry what we want is an impersonal force choosing a brilliant destiny for us where we are successful and happy – where we are a god. We want a universe that serves us as god, rather than seeing ourselves as part of a universe that was made to serve God.

Christians do this as well. I meet so many Christians who despise “Calvinism” and by that they mean the idea of total sovereignty, yet when facing the unknown they take comfort that God “has a plan” for them. But when things go bad they don’t respond with “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away” instead they either ask, “God, why would you let this happen?” or if they are more spiritual, yet want to retain their best-buddy view of God they say, “The devil did this”.

A charge sometimes brought against the total sovereignty of God by Christians is that this belief leads to passiveness in our Christian lives. In response to that charge it should be noted that even those that deny God and are pursuing their “destiny” actually use their belief in an impersonal, sovereign force as an impetus to pursue their dreams. They pursue their dream because they believe it is their destiny to reach their goal.  Likewise, as a Christian my destiny is to be conformed into the image of Christ, that is the goal. The knowledge of that, if I have a new heart, should be a sufficient impetus to pursue what I was “meant to do”. To labor to the end that I would reach my destiny! If that logic works with wanna’be pop-stars, why not with us as well who have the promises of God to boot?

I know this is a very scattered post, so let me condense my point. People don’t have a problem with sovereignty, they have a problem with a sovereign God. Why? Because if they want a God at all, they want one whose plans to coincide with theirs. Today our rejection of God’s sovereignty is a manifestation of our rebellion, as it was for Adam and Eve in the garden when they despised the idea of a God who would choose their destiny for them. It is my desire that many would come to see the folly of their logic, that I would see my own, and that we would honor God as the sovereign God that he is and embrace the destiny he has chosen as good and right, even if understanding it is beyond us.

The Novelty of Good Intentions

Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice, (Philippians 1:15-18 ESV)

As time passes I am more and more convinced that God does not need my skills, my eloquence, my cultural insight, and apparently not even my good intentions for his Word to be effective. As I have considered the God in Scripture and his Gospel, it has become apparent to me that what we proclaim, not skillfully spun, but plainly spoken, will always have its intended result. Those men that God has used as his mouthpieces in Scripture certainly were convinced of this – as was the Word-made-flesh himself.

When one carefully considers Paul, he finds someone who I would argue eschewed pragmatism. He had one method – “preach Christ”. Paul’s ministry flowed out of his theology. He knew that where the word was supposed to have its saving effect it would and where it was meant to harden it would. His confidence was not in eloquence or reason – but was in the Spirit working through the word. Even Paul himself, a doctor of the Scriptures, had rejected Christ even though he beheld with blind eyes for years his image in the law and prophets. Nothing was going to cause Paul to see the truth of the Gospel and embrace it except for a work of the Holy Spirit. And so it was.

This simple confidence that Paul had in the message which he proclaimed can be seen with shocking clarity in Philippians 1:15-18. Paul applauded the proclamation of the Gospel even by those that did it with wrong motives. He wasn’t begrudgingly thankful that the word was getting out, but he rejoiced! Why? Because he was completely confident that the power of the message was found in its source and not in its delivery. Such was Paul’s confidence in the simple proclamation of the Gospel that it did not matter to him who proclaimed it or why they did, as long as it was proclaimed. For he knew that it is the word falling on deaf ears and dead hearts that the Spirit of God uses to awaken sinners to life – if he so pleases.

The encouragement here is plentiful:

First it should encourage us as Christians – and especially as pastors – to be humbled, recognizing that the power for effective ministry does not rest in us but in the message we proclaim, if in fact we proclaim the Gospel that Paul preached.

Second, we should also rejoice when the Gospel is preached, even if the personality of the one preaching it is abrasive or in some way obnoxious. We should rejoice that the fragrance of Christ is spread, even if it is from a crude vessel. There are preachers I can barely stand to listen to, but they proclaim the Gospel and by it many are saved. I should rejoice.

Third, abandon hope in pragmatism and cultural intelligence. Focus instead on the purity of the message you proclaim. For if God does not even need your good intentions to exalt Christ and save sinners, he certainly doesn’t need your good ideas, however well-intentioned they may be.

Know the message of the Gospel. And desire that it be preached. More than you desire fruit or freedom or approval, desire that the Gospel be preached.

 

 

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