February 24, 2014

20 Years a Christian

It occurred to me today that 2014 marks twenty years since I came to Christ at the age of 17. Praise God I had parents who took me to the house of God while I was still in the womb. In fact, if I have the story right, it was not long after the conclusion of a midweek service that my mom went into labor with me. But it wasn’t until 1994, in the summer before my senior year in high school, that Christ and the gospel and salvation became real to me – 20 years ago this summer!

Because of my upbringing, I had understood the basic gospel message since childhood. And in early elementary school I ‘walked the aisle’ and made a ‘public profession of faith’. But time proved that it wasn’t real. I was following through on an outward mechanism for professing faith (and not a biblical outward mechanism, mind you!), but the faith that the mechanism was supposed to symbolize was absent. And I suspect that many who read these lines will identify with that incongruity. We were coaxed to profess our faith before we really ever had it. And in many cases, we were assured that, because we professed it, we surely had it! And so all was well.  Except that it wasn’t. Adolescence, high school, and the temptations that came with them began rapidly to prove what was really inside. And, of course, I didn’t even need the temptations. The junk was inside me with or without them!

But then one Sunday evening I sat in church, and something changed. There had been significant turmoil in our congregation – turmoil of which I was mostly unaware, since I wasn’t all that interested in what went on at church (another sign I didn’t yet really know the Lord!). Apparently a number of people were rankled over some church issue or other … and in recent days harsh, ugly words had been spoken, and relationships fractured. And the pastor, on this particular Sunday evening, gently and straightforwardly addressed the sin, and called for confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation. In fact, he called for these things to take place that very night! And what an amazing thing it was to see people begin to spontaneously arise, crisscross the church auditorium, and with tears begin asking one another for forgiveness!  At least one man stood before the whole congregation and confessed his ugliness. And there I sat, head down and a little unnerved by it all.

I had never seen anything like this before – a church full of people really broken, and taking the implications of the gospel this seriously. And I began to realize, that night, the difference between a real faith, and a merely professed one ... because these people clearly had something I did not have. I’m not even sure if I could have pinpointed what it was … but there was something in them (the Holy Spirit, I now know!) that would not allow them to keep on sinning; something that drove them to real love, and to real confession and repentance, however embarrassing it might have been to make it in public. And I knew I needed what they had.  I realized that my prior profession faith was a profession only.  And in God's mercy, I came at last to a living faith in Jesus!

And I learned something incredibly important that night. Over the next few weeks, I hope to write about several lessons I have learned in my nearly 20 years as a believer in Jesus. And the very first of those lessons was that Christianity is about the heart! I learned that night that faith is more than just mental agreement with the facts about Jesus, and a desire not to go to hell, and an ability to walk an aisle or sign a ‘decision card.’ Many a lost person can rehearse the facts about Jesus for you. And, as Iain Murray has pointed out, one need not be spiritually awakened to perform the merely physical act of walking an aisle. And I can’t think of many people who actually want to go to hell!  But conversion to Christ is something more! Conversion is when the heart – and not just the head, or the feet, or the signature – turns to Christ! And conversion is when the heart truly turns to Christ, not just to a new form of religion (or away from hell)!  I don’t know that I could have articulated these things very well on that first night in the kingdom. I don’t know that I’ve articulated them all that well these twenty years later! But this was the very first lesson I learned after (or while!) becoming a Christian – and it was a vital one: Christianity is about the heart!

The rest of the series can be followed here.

February 17, 2014

David, Goliath, and How to Read the Old Testament

Every little Sunday School boy loves the story of David and Goliath, doesn’t he? There seems to be something in them all that wants to slay the giant villain, slice off his head, and be the hero! And that’s not a bad thing (so long as they learn that their sisters are not the villains!). The story of the young lad standing tall against the brutal giant does teach us a great deal about how God’s men – and God’s people in general – ought to be courageous, and bold, and unafraid to stand for the name and reputation of God. And the story does teach us, of course, about how God is strong even when we are weak. He can win great victories through little people! These are the lessons that many of us learned in Sunday School … and imitated with our play swords when we got back home after church!

But as I have grown up – physically, and in my understanding of the Bible – I have realized that these lessons from David’s victory over Goliath are not all there is to glean from that great chapter in the book of 1 Samuel. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that bravery, and standing for the Lord, and God winning victories through such courageous little people are not even the most important lessons to be gleaned from David and Goliath’s clash. God was doing something more in 1 Samuel 17 – and throughout the Old Testament – than merely giving us real-life parables of godly behavior. Through the events, objects, ceremonies, and people of the Old Testament, He was also piecing together a mosaic portrait of His Son! And that is true – not just of the goats and rams and other temple sacrifices – but of the Old Testament’s great heroes as well!

Moses, for instance, was given to Israel like a slice of mosaic tile – to help them begin to piece together a picture of their coming Messiah. So were the prophets Hosea and Jonah. So even was that great woman Esther. Think about each of those biblical characters for a few moments, and see if you can tell how each of them points forward to Jesus; how each of them adds detail to the Old Testament portrayal of His life and work. And then do the same with David, the king. It is clear that his life, in many ways, was to be a kind of foreshadowing of the Messiah’s. And that is signally the case when we consider his defeat of Goliath!

Think about it. Here is the army of Israel huddled together and facing a terrifying foe. And the drama is drawn up such that one man (David) stands against that foe on behalf of his entire nation. If this one man succeeds, the entire nation will be victorious with him. If he fails, they are condemned to a life of slavery at the hands of their enemies. And the fate of them all, I say, rests on the shoulders of one, single, solitary man – born in Bethlehem, of the tribe of Judah, and destined someday to reign as king. Does that sound familiar? It is meant to! That story happened the way it did – not just to teach us lessons about godly courage (though it does do that); and not just because Israel needed rescuing – but because the way in which Israel was rescued by one man was meant to be a portrait for the ages of how God’s church would be rescued from the enemy of sin in just the same way: by the heroism of just one man – "Jesus the Messiah, the son of David"!

And that’s how we are to read the Old Testament – not only looking for lessons in faith and conduct (though they are there, and must be learned); but looking even more intently for all the assorted pieces of colored tile that fit together to teach us about Jesus and His church. David, Moses, Esther, and Joseph were all a part of that larger picture. So were the bulls, rams, priests, and tabernacle. So even was the nation of Israel herself, along with her great city and temple. These great things and people all fit together to create a mosaic portrait of the even greater realities of Christ, His church, and the glories of eternal salvation. So learn to read Genesis through Malachi in that way – yes, looking for the lessons of faith and conduct to be gleaned from its heroes; but digging especially hard to turn up the many little gems that piece together that marvelous mosaic of our Savior and our salvation that is the Old Testament.

February 11, 2014

"The Games"

I admit it. I absolutely love the Winter Olympics. Like, to the point where I try and schedule my life around these couple of weeks – making sure I get to see the downhill skiing, the speed-skating, the luge and skeleton, and pretty much any other sport that is performed on a cold, white surface (and which I don’t follow in the least during the rest of the four year cycle between winter games!). Somehow nostalgia from my childhood, and my affinity for geography, and the joy these cozy evenings bring our children has me all aflutter inside (and humming the Olympic theme music!) during these two weeks in February. In a few days, when it is all over, I will feel palpably melancholy at the thought that we must now wait another four years to enjoy it all again.

But in the meantime, I get to roll out the obligatory ‘lessons from the Olympics’ blog post. And, though predictable, maybe it will still also prove helpful! So here goes. A few lessons from “the games”:

The first is simply this (from 1 Corinthians 9.25): “Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.” Listen to the athlete’s stories to which NBC sometimes breaks away – the years of hard work, dedication, sacrifice, lifestyle choices, etc. It’s convicting isn’t it? Shouldn’t we be all the more serious about striving for spiritual victories and eternal rewards? O that we Christians, like these athletes, would “run in such a way that [we] may win” (1 Corinthians 9.24)!

The second lesson from the Olympic Games comes from 2 Timothy 2.5 – “If anyone competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules.” Watch the Olympics enough through the years, and you will find this true. Occasionally an athlete is disqualified from an event, or stripped of his or her medals, for breaking certain rules. And so these Olympians must be scrupulous about compliance – even when it is difficult and the short cuts are tempting! And again, as those seeking eternal reward, ought we not be all the more so – careful and thorough in our obedience to the laws of our God, even when doing so brings about “hardship” (2 Timothy 2.3)?

Finally, the Olympics – and especially the opening ceremonies – remind me, just a little bit, of the throng that will be gathered someday in heaven, “from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues” (Revelation 7.9). Just look at all the colors and flags and skin tones and cultures parading into the Olympic Stadium … and you will see a tiny glimpse of what heaven will be. God is a global God! He is gathering Kazakhs, and Dutch, and Japanese, and Swiss, and Norwegian, and Jamaican, and people of every other stripe into His kingdom – so that the church of Jesus Christ, even now, is far more diverse than the Olympic village! And in heaven we’ll finally see them all in one place, under one great banner of Jesus Christ! What a parade of nations that will be!

Until then, we have the privilege of going out and gathering these varied nations and cultures together by means of the gospel. And that is a task that deserves Olympic-level effort, discipline, hard work, and obedience to God’s command. Let’s go out there and give it!

February 6, 2014

"Without defect"

Well, I pressed on through Exodus, and now I find myself reading Leviticus. Perhaps this is where many of us bog down in our attempt to read through the Bible. We come to late January / early February, and to Leviticus – with its burnt offerings, its grain offerings, its peace offerings, and so on – and we give up. For, as I said a week ago concerning the creation of the tabernacle, the instructions God gave for the operation of the tabernacle may seem to us a bit tedious, especially given that Christ has come and fulfilled all the multiplied sacrifices and rites. In Christ, we need no longer come to a tent of meeting with our offerings of lambs, goats, and grains. We come, simply, to Christ – who is tabernacle and priest and offerings rolled into one complete and marvelous person!

And yet does not Paul tell us that “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3.16)? So Leviticus must still have much to teach us – even if, in Christ, we no longer must enact all of its instructions. Leviticus is indeed “profitable.” Not least in the way it foreshadows the Savior!

The very fact that, because of Christ, we no longer have to perform all the ceremonies and sacrifices ought to tell us something! Christ was the goal of the ceremonies! They were given in order to prepare the way for Him! And therefore, even though we read Leviticus on the back side of the incarnation, we can still allow its many rites and offerings – its blood, its lambs, its grain, its priests, and so on – to point us to the same Messiah they always pointed toward. Indeed, the fact that we know the outcome; the fact that we know the Messiah whom Leviticus foreshadows ought in some ways to make the book even more satisfying for us than it was for those who read it in times of old (and could only see the Savior in shadowy symbols).

The book of Leviticus points to Jesus! And, one of the ways I’ve been lately reminded of that fact is by means of the phrase “without defect.” Each of the burnt offerings that were brought to the Lord, whether “from the herd or the flock,” was to be “a male without defect” (see Lev 1.2-3, 10). The same was true with “a sacrifice of peace offerings” (Lev 3.1) – “whether male or female, he shall offer it without defect.” So also with the sin offering in in chapter 4 – “a bull without defect” (Lev 4.1-3). And on the list could go – in Leviticus and beyond. This was a highly important quality in the offerings that were brought to the Lord – that they be “without defect”: not blind, or lame, or sick, or wounded, or malformed, or blemished in any way. This was also a requirement for the priests themselves (Lev 21.16-24).

But why? Why were both priests and offerings to be “without defect”? One reason, in the matter of the animals particularly, was that God deserved his people’s best, not their throw-aways (see Malachi 1.6-8). That’s a lesson worth remembering.

But another reason both priests and sacrifices had to be “without defect” was because of whom they symbolized! Jesus came to be “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And in order to do so – in order to be the sacrifice for our sins; in order to die in our place, bearing our guilt … Jesus had to have no sin and no guilt of His own! He had to be “without defect” – “a lamb unblemished and spotless” (1 Peter 1.19). And His priesthood was also performed “without defect.” “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4.15, emphasis added).

“Without sin.” That is the description of the Messiah whom all those priests and sacrifices foreshadowed. And if they were going to role-play such a Savior … then they too must be, in their own way, “without defect.” And I am so glad that I have been reading Leviticus of late, so that I might be reminded of all these things. What a blessing that, in the midst of all my failings, and defects, and sins, I have a Savior who is free from them all! He is everything that I am not, spiritually. And He serves as my stand-in before God’s throne – “without defect.” And that gives me hope. That’s a relief when I look at the stains on my own record, and the mess that is often my life. My high priest, my sacrifice, my “Advocate with the Father” is “without defect.”

And I’m glad I'm reading Leviticus.

February 4, 2014

Donald Miller, Worship, and Learning Style

There is a good discussion taking place over at Reformation 21.  Both Todd Pruitt and Aimee Byrd have responded helpfully to Donald Miller's recent article in which he says that he doesn't often attend church because "it's not how I learn" and "I don't connect with God by singing to Him."

Pruitt responds by pointing out, among other things, that the worship of the church is not simply about our own learning.  Nor is it about our own "connecting with God".  Rather, Pruitt says, "Worship is about my giving God his due in the ways that he has prescribed in his Word."  Amen, Todd.

Pruitt also make some good observations as to how Miller's reasons for not often attending church are centered around me, myself, and I.  What is my learning style.  How do I connect with God?  As though I were the chief concern when determining whether I will go to church.  Preach it, Todd.

Aimee Byrd follows up with a short and helpful piece -- not only de-bunking our culture's over-emphasis on "learning styles," but also by pointing out that God Himself has actually "determined that all of us share in a particular so-called learning style when it comes to spiritual growth. He has prescribed a means to bless his people in Christ, the preached Word and the sacraments."  You go, girl!

And, maybe most central of all ... they both point out, in Pruitt's words, that "in Christ we do not have to find ways to connect with God. God has connected to us through Christ!"

Go read all three articles (Miller, Pruitt, Byrd), and you will be helped to think about the nature of church, and worship, and your place in both.