May 26, 2015

"The apostles' teaching"

I began, last week, a series of articles on that marvelous blueprint for the church that is Acts 2:42:

“They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

And I said that it seems to me that here the Lord has given us a very simple set or priorities which will make for a healthy, growing church … if we will commit to them, and trim away any fat; any extraneous activities which may seem to some people like good ideas, but which do not actually fit the blueprint for a gospel church. A healthy, dynamic, spiritually-minded church is not a complex thing! If, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we will simply take up the blueprint of Acts 2:42, surely we would be and become what God intends for the church to be!

And the first commitment in that blueprint is a continual devotion to “the apostles’ teaching” – to the words that the apostles preached and taught.

Now, of course, the church in Jerusalem (about whom Acts 2:42 was written) had the apostles with them every day, live and in the flesh. And so their devotion to the apostles’ teaching was, at the first, a devotion to the oral instruction they were receiving from them day-by-day. But we, of course (like every church from the second century on), do not have live access to the apostles. And yet we do still have their teaching! Because we have their writings, on the pages of the New Testament. And we also have the writings from which they did a good bit of their preaching – namely, the Old Testament. And so, in the 66 books of our Bibles, we have “the apostles’ teaching” indeed! And, what with all our modern literacy, and access to the printed page, and phone apps, and online preaching and teaching … we can hear the apostles’ teaching even more readily than the people in Jerusalem! Any time, day or night, we may hear what Paul, Peter, John, Isaiah, Moses, and Jesus said!

But are we devoted to the word of God like the church in Jerusalem? “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostle’s teaching” (emphasis added). Are we? Do we open our Bibles nearly as often as we should? Are we eager to hear the preaching and teaching of the word in our local church? And, beyond just intake, are we devoted to believing and doing something about what we read and hear? Praise God, some of us are! Others of us have been, in the past … but have lost our taste for divine things. The television, the smartphone apps, the hypnotic glow of the electronic screen have deceived us, and taken us away from that which is best. Indeed, I find myself convicted as I type.

And so, is it any wonder if we should not see the sort of dynamic fruit that the church in Jerusalem saw (Acts 2:43-47)? O, brothers and sisters, let us return to that which is most obvious of all – to study, meditation, obedience, and just plain enjoyment of the word of God! Haven’t you known times when, whether reading or listening, the word of God has come to you with pure delight? The more we give ourselves to it, the more often this will happen! And that is what makes for a spiritually dynamic church!

May 19, 2015

A Blueprint for the Church

One of the first Bible passages from which I ever preached – and one that I have returned to again and again through the years – is Acts 2:42 …

“They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

It has long seemed to me that here, in this one sentence, the Lord has given us a kind of blueprint for the church. Of course, there are many other things that can (and must!) be said about the church (see, for instance, Mark Dever’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, and also the website). But it seems to me that any church would do quite well by ordering its activities and priorities around the four bullet points in Acts 2:42!

The early church at Jerusalem was perhaps the most dynamic church in history. Read the next few verses after Acts 2:42 … and you’ll find a marvelous description of miracles, generosity, community, joy, praise, respect in the community, and evangelistic growth. What church in its right mind wouldn’t want to be like the Jerusalem fellowship?

But how did they get there? Well, the primary reason for the strength and dynamism of the Jerusalem church was the unusually powerful working of the Holy Spirit in those early days. By blessing them with what we would call revival, God was getting the new covenant community off on a very strong foot indeed! Let’s pray for revival in our midst, too! But let’s also notice that, under the immense blessing of the Holy Spirit, there were also some very practical commitments that enabled the church at Jerusalem to be as strong as it was – “the apostles’ teaching … fellowship … the breaking of bread and … prayer.” And it’s no accident that Luke (and the Holy Spirit through him) chose to tell us of these primary commitments … and to stack them end to end in a list, so that we would notice and remember them all the more easily!

God wants us to have these priorities as well! And it has been my conviction for all these years that, really, everything we do in our local churches ought to fall under one of these four categories. There are many things that a church can be involved in. But, if the activities we plan and the priorities we make do not fit with the blueprint of Acts 2:42, it seems to me that we are spinning our wheels at best, and becoming utterly distracted at worst.

The church is a spiritual body – not a social club, an affinity group, or a political or social action team. And yet churches can easily degenerate into the latter categories, or (more often) into a hybrid of the two. But we must remain focused! And it is not difficult to do, really. The Lord has given us a very simple blueprint which, if followed, will lead to spiritual health and growth in our churches as well. And I say we commit to this simplistic model of church, stripping away all the extraneous distractions. Trim the fat, in other words … so as to be a simple, focused, purposeful, spiritual body of believers.

Stay with me for the next four weeks, and we’ll unpack just what we should be doing. And, by the end, may it be said of us: “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

May 12, 2015

What to do with Old Testament Law? (Part 2)

Last week I wrote about the Old Testament Law of God in its three divisions. Today we come to consider the Law in its three uses.

But first a bit of review. What are we New Testament Christians to think about (and do with) the various laws given in the Old Testament? Should we still be offering sacrifices, and building little fences on our rooftops, and honoring our parents, and keeping the Sabbath, and stoning people who don’t? Or are we only obligated to keep some of these commands? And if the latter, which ones?

Well, as I wrote a week ago, theologians have long recognized that there are really three categories of Old Testament law – the ceremonial law, the civil law, and the moral law. Further, it is clear that the ceremonial laws (which have all been fulfilled in Christ) are no longer required obedience for the New Covenant people of God. Similarly, the civil laws, which governed Israel as a nation state, are also no longer binding upon the people of God – since the New Testament community is not a nation state, but an assembly of believers from every nation.

But what about the various moral commands of the Old Testament – the Ten Commandments (and many other commands as well) which teach us simple right and wrong? Those commandments are still in effect for the people of God (and also for unbelievers, as we will see). It is still expected of all mankind to worship only the true God, and not to misuse His name, and to honor both His day and His design for children and parents, and so on. All ten of the commandments given in Exodus 20, along with all the other moral commands of the Old Testament, are still applicable for mankind in 2015 … and will be, on into eternity!

But how do we apply them? In what sense (or senses) are the moral laws of the Old Testament intended to intersect with our lives? Well, here is where theologians write about The Three Uses of the Law. Different writers list them in different orders … but, following the order given by John Calvin, let me just outline them for you briefly (using an illustration to mark each different use):

First, to use Calvin’s own illustration, the moral law of the Old Testament is a mirror. And what does a mirror do? It shows us what we really look like – warts, stains, blemishes, and all. And so it is with the Law of God as it is held up before our eyes, week after week, in the preaching of the word, and in our own personal Bible reading, and so on. The Law – in presenting God’s perfect, holy and good standards – is a constant reminder of how far we fall short of His glory, and of how much we need a Savior. “Through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). And, oh, how we need that self-knowledge! It is he who has been forgiven much who will also love much (Luke 7:47). And thus the Law does us a very good service in reminding us how much we have been (and/or need to be) forgiven. The law, like the mirror, cannot clean up the mess that it reveals! But it can drive us to the Savior who will!

Second, the moral law of the Old Testament is like a guard-rail for unbelievers. Some people, alas, do not (or, at least, have not yet) made application of the law in its first use. They do not allow it to drive them to Jesus for forgiveness and a fresh start. And that is lamentable in the extreme. But still, where the Law of God (and especially the simple instructions of the Ten Commandments) are upheld in a home, a church family, or a culture … many a person will be kept from behaving as badly as he might have. The Law functions as a guard-rail, to keep him or her from going over the cliff-edge into further and further degradation and sin. So, for instance, when a child has been taught the Ten Commandments from before he can remember, there is a strong probability (even in his unconverted state) that he will transgress far less seriously than a child who has not had such strong guard-rails placed around his life. And the same is true with sinners in a culture in general. This is presumably why the Ten Commandments used to be placarded in public places in our land – because these laws are basic to human morality; and because, when they were tacked up as the expected moral norm (and for all to see), they had the effect of warning people not to transgress as far as they might have otherwise done. In a culture like that, it’s not only the threat of jail, but the threat of the judgment of Almighty God which hangs over the sinner’s head. And such a threat can keep many a person from more and more flagrant sorts of sin. This is Paul’s argument in 1 Timothy 1:8-10. In its second use, the law is made, not for the righteous, but for the wicked who need the guard-rails of the law to keep them from careening over the cliff edge of sin.

Third, the moral law of the Old Testament is, in the words of the psalmist, “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). The Law of God is a lamp, lighting the way for the believer to live a life that is pleasing to God! And isn’t that what we all want – to live a life that pleases the Lord, and demonstrates that we love Him? But how do we do it? Well, says the apostle John: “This is the love of God, that we keep His commandments” (1 John 5:3). “This is the love of God” … that we have no other gods before Him; that we not seek to worship Him by means of idols; that we honor His name; that we honor His day; that we honor our parents; that we honor the sanctity of human life; that we honor the marriage bed; that we honor other people’s property; that we tell the truth; that we do not covet; and that we keep any and all of the other moral commandments and principles that are laid down in both the Old and New Testaments! “This is the love of God, that we keep His commandments”! It really is that simple, in many ways! It’s true, of course, that we cannot keep these commandments in our own strength – that we need the power of the Holy Spirit, working through the gospel, to enable us to do so! It is the gospel that gives us the strength and the desire to walk the pathway of obedience to God. But it is the law which, in large part, lights that pathway! It is the moral law of God that shows us which way to go! And so we dare not throw that law out the window, presuming that it doesn’t apply to New Testament believers. Rather, let us embrace the moral law (all of it!) as the lamp to our feet! And if we do, we’ll find that such a life is not only pleasing to God, but to ourselves as well! “His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3).

So then, The Three Uses of the Moral Law of God:

1. As a mirror which shows us our sin, and drives us to Christ for cleansing.
2. As a guard-rail to keep the unconverted from sinning as greatly as they might.
3. As a lamp which shows the believer how to live a life that is pleasing to God.

Now go and make us of God’s law, and see its power to accomplish all that God intended it to do, and say with the psalmist: “O how I love Your law!”

May 5, 2015

What to do with Old Testament Law? (Part 1)

It’s a perennial question, isn’t it? What are we supposed to do with the biblical commands given in the Old Testament? For instance, do the Ten Commandments (originally given to the Old Testament nation of Israel) apply to the church of today, which is largely Gentile and scattered across nearly every nation on the globe? And what about the other Old Testament laws – about sexuality, and sacrifices, and lepers, and washings, and the construction of fences along the edges of your rooftop, and so on? Does it all still apply? And if not, how do we know that? And what actually does still apply under the New Covenant?

Well, theologians have wrestled quite carefully with these questions, and come up with two different sets of 3’s which help us understand what to think and do about the laws of the Old Testament.

One of those sets of 3’s I mentioned in this past Sunday’s sermonThe Three Uses of the Law; or, the three ways in which the moral laws of the Old Testament still apply today (famously articulated by John Calvin). I’ll come back to this, Lord willing, in next week’s article.

But before we consider the three ongoing uses of Old Testament moral law, it will be helpful to know why it is that I use the adjective moral in describing the sorts of laws to which those three uses apply!

Christian theologians have long noticed that there are different sorts of commandments in the Old Testament. In fact, there are basically three different types of Old Testament laws (sometimes called The Threefold Division of the Law). Let me briefly summarize each of the three categories:

  • Some Old Testament commands fall under the category of Moral Law – God’s commandments concerning various questions of behavior and morality. Think the Ten Commandments and other similar laws about basic right and wrong behaviors.

  • Other Old Testament commands are part of what is called the Civil Law – God’s commandments concerning how the Israelites were to govern their geo-political nation state. Think laws concerning the kings, the division of the land, the penal code for criminal behaviors, and so on.

  • Still other Old Testament commands fall under the rubric of the Ceremonial Law – God’s commandments concerning various religious ceremonies, offerings, and officers. Think laws concerning the priests, sacrifices, feasts, tabernacle, and so on.

Now which (if any) of these Old Testament laws – moral, civil, and ceremonial – continue to apply to the people of God in this New Covenant era?

Well, the book of Hebrews makes it clear that, under the New Covenant, the Ceremonial Law is now “obsolete” (Hebrews 8:13). Why? Because they were only ever meant to have a temporary function – preparing God’s people to recognize the Messiah who was to come! That’s what all those priests, sacrifices, and ceremonies of various sorts were meant to do – to point forward to Jesus! And because He, the substance, has come … we no longer need to continue practicing the symbols. Therefore we no longer offer sacrifices, ordain priests, go to worship in the Jerusalem temple, and so on. So, while there is much to learn (especially about Jesus!) from the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament, they are no longer binding upon us as a rule of life.

And we can speak along similar lines about the Civil Law that we find in the Old Testament. Since God, in Christ, is bringing together a church comprised of people from every nation and tongue, the people of God no longer comprise a geo-political nation state. We no longer live in a single land, ruled by a single government with monolithic judicial, civil, and penal codes. Therefore, New Covenant people are no longer bound to the various forms of civil legislation and punishment that governed the Israelites of old. For instance, because we no longer have any land to divide or king to serve, those portions of the law do not apply to us in a direct way. As another for instance, we no longer stone people for certain violations of the law (as in the Old Testament), but punish wrongdoing according to the civil laws of the various nations into which God has placed us. And so the Civil Law, like the ceremonial, can be quite helpful to understand … because it gives us insight into those things that God deems important in a culture. But the specifics of the Old Testament’s Civil Law are no longer binding upon us as a rule of life.

But what about the Moral Law? What about the passages, like the Ten Commandments, that don’t so much give us civil or ceremonial legislation … but simple commands about right and wrong moral and ethical behavior? Is there any indication that these laws, too, have been repealed for the New Covenant believer? I don’t think we can make such a case. The various ethical and moral standards that are laid down in the Old Testament surely still apply today. It is still true, for instance, that we should not commit incest, or curse our leaders. It is still true that we shouldn’t curse a deaf person, just because he can’t hear us. And it is still true that we should keep each and every one of the Ten Commandments – concerning fidelity to God, and proper worship, and the Sabbath day, and covetousness, and so on.

Read the New Testament and you will find Jesus and the apostles speaking in just these terms – as though they believed that the moral laws of the Old Testament to be still in force, even in the New Testament era. And if Jesus and the apostles took them seriously, we must as well!

So there you have The Three-Fold Division of the Old Testament Law, along with an explanation of which portion of that law (the Moral Law) is still binding today. Next week we will come back, Lord willing, to think about exactly how the Moral Law should be applied in our own day.

Until then, I leave you with these few words from 1 John 5:3 – “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.”