Would Jesus Join the Tea Party?

And Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12.17)

Abraham Lincoln wrote in 1862 about the Union and Confederacy’s conflict over slavery, “In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time.”

In his second inaugural address in 1865 he’d not changed his mind: “Both [North and South] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. . . . The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”

A preacher once asked Lincoln if he knew God to be a Union man. Lincoln replied famously and summarily the question was not whether or not God was on their side but if they were on his.

So whose side is Jesus on anyway?  Mine or yours? Ours or theirs? Would Jesus join the Tea Party?  What does he think about income taxes and government loyalty?  Is he an anarchist (all government is bad and should be resisted)?  Is he a theocrat (society should be ruled by religious law and devotion mediated by the authority of the church)?  Where does Jesus stand politically: with conservatives, liberals, progressives, independents, libertarians?  Fox News or CNN?  Would he plug his car up, gas it up or ride a bike?  NRA or ACLU?

The Pharisees tried to pin Jesus down on a similar issue: should Jews pay taxes to Caesar or not (Mk 12.14)?  Did Jesus join the Jews in their hatred of paying tribute to a Gentile who thinks himself a god?  Or would he sell out and cower in the shadow of Tiberius Caesar, Son of Divine Augustus?

While Jesus did not say everything that would be said about the relationship between his followers and the State, he did provide enough for the apostles to unpack.

1) Civil government—even an evil one—is a legitimate institution to be supported by taxes and respect. Christians should be the most faithful and honest taxpayers on the planet.  What if our taxpayer dollars go to fund ungodly initiatives (abortion, for example)?  Caesar was no altar boy himself.  He spent taxpayer dollars building pagan shrines and temples to himself and his false gods.  Yet, Jesus said to give Caesar his due not because we agree with his policies but because he will be held accountable to the authority granted him by God (see Rom 13.1-7).

After all, Paul wrote Romans during the reign of Nero after having survived the reigns of Caligula and Claudius.  He’d probably be surprised at how easily we complain about our democracy!

2) Christians are to live as exemplary citizens so that if they are despised it is only because of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The world must have no charge against Christians except where their allegiance to the gospel trumps their allegiance to the State.  Christians are not to be seen as revolutionaries or mutineers.  They’re not tax cheats or snarky loophole lovers.  The freedom provided by Jesus in the gospel is not be used for rebellion, but for humble submission (see 1 Pt 2.13-17; Heb 10.32-39).

How we joyfully submit to the state often reflects how much faith we have in God to make good on his promise in the gospel.  Do we really believe this world is not worth what we often spend to hold on to it? Don’t throw away your confidence in God to hold onto stuff.  Believe it or not, submitting to our civil government insofar as we can without compromising the gospel is an act of worship to God.

3) Jesus prioritized the two kingdoms.  Jesus did not define two mutually exclusive kingdoms: Caesar’s and God’s.  He wasn’t saying Caesar has his kingdom and God has his kingdom and we live in one or the other.  We often separate them into the secular and sacred.  Jesus wasn’t proposing radical separatism or radical revolution.  He prioritized the kingdoms.  He didn’t offer an either/or scenario but a both/and scenario, with one kingdom subject to the other.

He prioritized the kingdoms as one being temporal and earthly (Caesar’s) which is subject to one that is eternal and sovereign (God’s).  Paying taxes to and honoring Caesar is part of living in this kingdom, this age of fallen humanity where we need police and firemen and roads.  God will hold Caesar accountable for what he does with those taxes and honor but we entrust that to God while we gladly file our 1040s and honor the king.

The church should never be despaired by any administration.  Listening to Christian talking heads, you’d think electing President Obama was the end of the world.  Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Give to God what is God’s.  But don’t give to Caesar what is God’s. And ascribing any king, president, monarch, dictator, sheik or imam the power to govern the affairs of redemptive-history is to give to Caesar what alone belongs to God.  God alone determines the affairs of the world.

If it’s the end of the world it won’t be because of President Obama, a nuclear Iran or Hamas but because of our Great and Sovereign God who is bringing all things in subjection to the Lord Jesus Christ.  We should be less concerned about who is in office and far more concerned about who is in Christ, because it’s before his court we’ll appear in the end.

Of course, we must engage in civil affairs in this life but only as long as we remember the priority of God’s kingdom to come.

4) It’s of more eternal importance that we give to God what is God’s than we give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.  Jesus said to these Pharisees and Herodians, “You hypocritically assume that it’s more important what a person gives to Caesar than what a person gives to God.  You’re the religious leaders of Israel and you are not giving God what he is due.  Who cares about Caesar’s tax rates when you have no fear of God?  Why are you more concerned about what happens at Caesar’s palace than what happens in the temple of God?”

We must prioritize the kingdoms such that God’s kingdom—evident in the church now but ultimately realized in a new heavens/earth—takes precedence over all other allegiances.

Folks often ask preachers what they’re going to do if/when it become illegal to preach on certain topics.  While God will supply sufficient grace should the time come, I’m not scared of what the government might do if we preach the gospel.  I fear what God might do if we don’t!  We don’t fear wrongly (in the eyes of men) preaching the gospel.  We fear preaching the wrong gospel (cf. Acts 4.16-30).  We need not fear what laws may be enacted against Christian witness. We fear God more than the state.

So, we pay our taxes on time.  We do the speed limit.  We buckle our seatbelts! We speak respectfully of the President to our children.  We gladly obey the law insofar as it doesn’t collide with Christ’s law of love and righteousness.

And even more, we joyfully preach Christ.  And we give the state only one option for despising/arresting us: hatred of Jesus and his gospel. On our way to prison or the gallows we pay up our taxes, speak respectfully of those arresting us (see Acts 24.2-4; 26.2-3), and then thank God that all government rests on the shoulders of Jesus (Is 9.6).

For the Christian, the health of the church, purity of her witness, the zeal of her worship is more important than the health of city hall, Nashville (in our case) or Washington.  The church of the Lord Jesus Christ is the only God-ordained institution by which he broadcasts his interests to the world. And she will be the only “nation” standing in the end.  So the amount of energy we spend on political discourse should be exponentially outdone by the amount of energy spent on gospel discourse.  The amount of energy we spend compelling others to this or that candidate should be exponentially outdone by the energy spent compelling them to Jesus. Our allegiance to Caesar must be exponentially outdone by our allegiance to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.  We’re merely aliens and strangers here.  We’re citizens of God’s kingdom.

Despite what I may nor may not want to give to Caesar, am I giving to God what is God’s?  We were stamped with the imago Dei long before anything was stamped with the emperor’s profile.  Therefore, I owe God my life and paying Caesar is a small price to pay in light of that.

Brother and sister, what do you fear more: national socialism or local church apostasy?  In what do you put more hope: the spread of democracy or the spread of the gospel?  What makes you rejoice more: the election of a certain candidate or salvation of the elect? Which kingdom takes priority in your time, money, efforts and conversation?

How would Jesus answer those questions?  Would he be on your side, or would you be on his?

Hundreds of professing Christians gather locally and thousands nationally for a National Day of Prayer.  And they will be Christians who never gather with their local churches to pray.  They will gather to pray for people they’ve never met and situations they’ve never touched.  But yet don’t gather with their churches to pray for people who sit right around them every week in situations that affect them greatly.

God hasn’t ordained your city hall or capitol building to be a house of prayer for the nations.  He’s ordained the church as the house of prayer for the nations! God will change America, not when towns take a National Day of Prayer seriously, but when the local church takes her weekly day of prayer seriously.  We not boycott the National Day of Prayer but we should participate with far less expectation, investment and energy then than the local church gathers in prayer.

Would Jesus join the Tea Party?  In one sense, who really cares?  The question is are we part of his party?  He’s more concerned about saving and sanctifying the people for whom he died.  He’s more concerned about people hearing and believing this world is under judgment and only those who repent and believe in Jesus will survive its destruction.  He’s more concerned about holiness than taxes.

So pay your taxes.  Rally your candidates.  But make sure you’re keeping Christ’s kingdom your primary allegiance.  Get out the vote if you want, but get out the gospel more.   Love Jesus and serve the church more than democracy and the State.  Make sure that when these two kingdoms collide (and they always do) you’re standing with Christ and his people.

And if someone asks you what you think about what’s going on in America you tell them it’s not nearly as important as what’s going on with them and God.  Are they giving God what is God’s?

Practicing for Heaven

“Is it true that what we will be doing for eternity is worshiping God?” he asked. “Well,” I said, “that seems to be what the Bible teaches,” briefly referring to Revelation 4-5.  “Hmm,” he said, “that sounds boring to me.”

That conversation happened 11-plus years ago and still echoes loudly in my soul.  I was thrilled he was thinking about heaven. But he revealed more than personal contemplations about the afterlife.  In fact, he was really saying more about the church than his own doctrine of heaven. His was not an uncommon sentiment.

He was right however to see the inviolable and mysterious connection between the two ages.  Our frame of reference for heavenly worship is and should  be the church’s earthly worship.  This brother assumed if he had to spend eternity doing/experiencing what he did each Sunday morning then he would be eternally bored.

He was on to something.  If we view Revelation 4-5 through the lens of our typical congregational worship  it leaves little to be desired.  In comparison, our jobs seem exciting, vacations refreshing, Little League fulfilling, and gadgets enthusing.  The church’s worship? Yawn.  Seeing Grandma again excites us, but singing to Jesus everyday?  Where’s the remote?

Do we leave the church’s public worship longing for the Christ-filled heaven or the office, first tee, backyard or TV? Does congregational worship leave an aftertaste of Revelation 4-5 in our mouths or an aftertaste of cough syrup (helpful, but not delightful)?

It might help to take our worship “cues” from John’s vision so we’re not confused when we get there. Do we love singing and praying together as a church? Is the crescendo of our week the Lord’s Supper with the church? After all, we do worship the same precious Jesus as the heavenly saints (Heb 12.22-24).

This does not assume congregational worship need be loud, fast-paced, heart-racing, visually stimulating, knee-slapping, comedic or “exciting” to mirror heaven.  It need not be unnecessarily somber or lamentable, either (though we could use more of that these days).  It just need be, well, Christian.  Everything should be dripping with God’s grace as we apply the gospel to the full spectrum of the Christian life.

The Christian life is not always exciting.  Nor is it always somber.  It is always Christ and we want to help one another to him.  God is just as, if not more in this life, glorified when we cry with brothers and sisters in prayerful silence as in applause and shouting.  We are exiles on a painful and joyful journey home.

The New Testament lends itself to simple elements (prayer, reading, singing, preaching, sacraments).  And God displays his power and salvation through those elements so as to fit his children for heaven.   Through them God increases our appetite for Jesus and then whets that appetite for more.  We must be extremely careful of worshiping worship but there is no heaven without worshiping Christ.

A.T. Pierson preached at Metropolitan Tabernacle one week after Charles Spurgeon’s death (January 31, 1892).  That congregation had known the likes of Benjamin Keach, John Gill and John Rippon as pastors.  And now their pastor of 38 years had been with Jesus a mere week.  Pierson preached from Revelation 4.1 and said:

“The central object, and the central glory in the vision of heaven, is God; and if we have not learned to think of heaven as, first of all, not the place where our departed friends, however dear, are gathered, but, first of all, as the place where God dwells, we lack the fundamental conception of heaven. The first thing that John saw, and the first thing to be seen, was the throne of God. The light and glory of that divine presence makes every star grow dim, and fills the whole horizon of heaven and the whole vision of the redeemed” (From the Pulpit to the Palm Branch: 77).

“Let us stop to consider a moment, that, if you do not love worship, you never can enter heaven. If you do not love worship, you are unfitted for the main activity and ecstasy of heaven, which is endless ascription of glory and praise to God and the Lamb!” (p81)

Heaven is indeed the “endless ascription of glory and praise to God and the Lamb” (Rev 5.11-14).  We need help preparing for that reality.  We need hope preparing for that reality. We don’t want any part of heaven to be unfamiliar.  Rather, when we see “Him who sits on the throne” we will joyfully say, “We were made for this.”

Juneteenth in Graceland

Today is Juneteenth (a.k.a. June 19th). Texas introduced me to Juneteenth during a pastoral stretch in the Republic.  I am thankful to reflect on its significance today especially living in one of the more racist regions of the country.  A region that has done its fair share of infecting my own heart as well.

Abraham Lincoln declared the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862.  In it he ordered the freedom of all slaves in the Confederacy, effective January 1, 1863.  It was a courageous step on the way to abolishing slavery altogether.

The feisty Texans (are there any other kind?) resisted Lincoln’s authority and did not abide by the president’s order.  History debates whether or not Texas actually received the message or if they killed the messenger.  In either case, on June 18, 1865, General Gordon Grainger led 2,000 Union troops into Galveston, Texas.  He essentially assumed control of the state and on June 19, 1865, read General Order No. 3:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

After holding out two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Texas was brought to it knees and forced to free her slaves.  What the president said would be obeyed.  Since then, Juneteenth has been celebrated as a holiday in Texas and now officially recognized in 41 other states.

Among the many thoughts Juneteenth should provoke, I consider only two:

1.  Memphis suffers a painful racial history (think assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.).  While there may not be high-handed slavery in Memphis there is high-handed racism.  Just this week I listened to woman begging God to keep a “family of blacks” from moving in next to her.  She said “one or two” are fine but a whole family would be disastrous.

We may be obeying the Emancipation on the outside but we’re Galvestonians on the inside.  Could it be that we don’t own slaves in Memphis because it’s wrong but because it’s illegal?  What sort of world would have to make slavery illegal because the people wouldn’t choose it otherwise?

While some churches labor as a corrective to local racism, many others are catalysts for it.  I’ve heard my share of banter under the biggest steeples from good ol’  boys holding the fanciest Bibles, taking their turns verbally whipping the “democrats” (that’s code for “blacks” or, well, you know).  We don’t need artificial, superficial efforts toward racial reconciliation.  We don’t need empty sermons preached with fingers crossed behind our backs.  We need repentance in light of the full display of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  I need repentance.

We’ll never be rid of racism in this world in this life.  But, it has no place in the church in this life.  If I can’t rejoice to share the same loaf and drink the same cup as my “colored” enemy then heaven will not be a place for me (Rev 5.9).  If I can’t stand them here, God will not stand me There.  The lines the world draws to categorize us all vanish in the church as Christ rules the only alternative community, the heavenly one (Gal 3.28).

Frederick Douglas addressed the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society on July 5, 1852.  In his speech he asked poignantly, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?”  A similar question might be asked to the Southern church: “What, to the American black, is your gospel?”

Racism is not new.  The apostles suffered their own effects of it when the Jewish, religious elite fought to keep Gentiles from polluting their traditions (Rom 12.3-8; Eph 2.11-22). Jesus being the first Whipping Boy of the new covenant.  He ate with tax collectors and sinners (Mt 9.11), the proverbial “coloreds” of his day.  Paul had to write Gal 3.28-29 for a reason.  This leads me to my second consideration.

2.  Juneteenth reminds us of the gospel.  Jesus said, “. . . I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin” (Jn 8.34).  But he promised freedom from sin for all those who love him (Jn 8.36, 42).

I don’t know about you but I commit sin.  Lots of sin.  Therefore, Jesus said I’m irrevocably obliged to obey my master.  And that master intends to kill me forever (Rom 6.23a).  I am powerless to stop it.  But Jesus came to free all the enslaved children given him by his Father (Jn 6.39).

At the cross, Jesus climbed Mount Calvary with his own Emancipation Proclamation.  When he cried, “It is finished!” (Jn 19.30) and then walked out of the tomb three days later he announced the end of sin’s grip on God’s elect.  Freedom from sin is the law of the land in Christ’s kingdom.

However, like those feisty Texan slave owners sin still abuses us, hounds us, accuses us, afflicts us.  Despite the witness of the gospel sin still assumes it owns us.  And we often ignore our own liberation to satisfy immediate appetites.  Paul wrote Romans 6 for a reason!

But, the day is coming when our own General will come to town.  He won’t need 2,000 troops or two days or derived authority.  He will come on his own authority to enforce the declaration of the resurrection.  What God said will be obeyed.  And Jesus will complete what he started.  He will finally and forever liberate all those for whom he died from their own death and sin.

But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother. . . . So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman (Gal 4.29, 31)

Such is the hope of the gospel.  We live as free men in a slave-holding state.  But not for long.  The declaration has been made, the blood has been spilled and the King is on his way.   And we will soon hear:

The people of Christ are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the Universe, all slaves are free.  ‘Then the King will say to those on His right, “Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”‘ (Mt 25.34).

May Graceland be more than a tourist stop through town.  May we be a land of grace indeed where the King lives.

I Saw Jesus at the Nursing Home

Jesus wept (John 11.35).

My dad was recently in a local rehabilitation center/nursing home. He returned home a smidge stronger but he still inches toward the midnight hour.  John 11 met me at the door when we last visited him.

The apostle John put  Jesus on display in John 11.  The fullness of God and the fullness of man swirling heavenward to stir up faith in the Bethany township.  The Son of God who raises the dead is also the Son of Man who weeps in graveyards. 

Because he is the Son of Man, fully human, Jesus had a beloved friend on his deathbed (v3).  Because he is the Son of God, fully divine, Jesus had already written the end of the story (v4).  Or perhaps more appropriately, the beginning of the story.

The Son of Man went to the funeral as good friends do (vv15, 17). The Son of God would end the funeral.

The Son of Man consoled a grieving and theologically astute sister (vv23-27).  The Son of God Jesus eased her pain by drawing her to himself.

The Son of Man was “deeply moved in spirit and was troubled” that his friends suffered (v33).  The Son of God Jesus could actually do something about it:  “Where have you laid him?” (v34).

The Son of Man wept as he stood before his beloved friend’s newly-sealed tomb (vv35, 38).  The Son of God broke the seal and solved the dilemma of death by commanding life back into his friend (vv33-34).  “Remove the stone” (v39).

And somehow the man “bound hand and foot with wrappings, and his face…wrapped around with a cloth” “came forth” (v44).  Maybe he shuffled.  Maybe he floated. Maybe he just appeared.  But when Jesus spoke a soul returned to a reeking corpse, oxygen filled Lazarus’ lungs, decomposition reversed course, strength returned to his legs. As if speaking to death itself Jesus commanded, “Unbind him, and let him go” (v44).

As John’s famous seventh sign the raising of Lazarus prefaced what followed.  John’s Gospel would slow down to the last week of Jesus’ mortal life as chapter 12 begins “six days before the Passover.”  It would be The Passover to end all Passovers.  John covered three years of highlights in eleven chapters.  John would take the next ten chapters to cover one week.  Raising Lazarus was the literary equivalent of an emergency brake on a locomotive.

The Beloved Son would die, be sealed in a tomb behind a stone, and his friends would mourn.  But God would remove the stone (Jn 20.1) and the Beloved One would come forth.  Only this One would leave his burial clothes in the tomb (v5).  Unlike Lazarus, Jesus would never need them again.

Jesus knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead long before Lazarus ever died: “This sickness is not to end in death” (vv4, 11).  Yet, Jesus he was moved by the sorrow (v33). Jesus knew he would raise Lazarus after a short prayer (v42) and yet he still wept before he prayed (v35).

Scholars debate why Jesus cried at Lazarus’ tomb.  Maybe he was mad.  Maybe he was frustrated.  Maybe he was disappointed in Martha.  Maybe he was put out with naysayers (v37).

Or maybe he was human.

Jesus entered into the fullness of human suffering (Heb 2.14; 4.15).  As the Son of Man Jesus would take on and endure the curse we welcomed into his world.  Therefore, the Creator and Goal of all things (Col 1.16) – who created a good and perfect world, who is Life and Light (Jn 1.1-5) – chose to stand before the lifeless, lightless cave of a beloved friend.  Knowing he would ransack death, Jesus stood in the middle of wailing mourners before a stonewalled tomb and cried as if to say, “This is what my world has come to! Look how far we’ve fallen!”

When God said “Let there be” he didn’t create any tombs.  Jesus didn’t create caves to hide rotting bodies.  He created the morning, not mourning.

But there he was.  Engulfed in the tidal wave of human depravity. Satan’s playground.  The one who created the Tree of Life tasted the bitter fruit of death.  And he wept.

It was this very death he would undergo for his beloved friends: the children God gave him (Jn 6.37-40).  For them he will be the resurrection and the life.  He will endure their death and then some so that they will have his life.  There was a we-ness about Lazarus’ tomb.

It was a John 11 moment when we visited Dad at the rehab center.   We know Jesus has been raised and will raise us on the last day (Rom 8.11).  But until then we stand with and before broken people crying “This ought not be!”  Look at what this world, the world we wanted, has come to.  It’s broken.  Really broken.  Dad was certainly among the healthiest in rehab but there is a we-ness about things at the nursing home.

Image-bearers of God should not lose their minds or their legs or their sight or their continence.  We should not be so disgraced.  God’s people should not need wheelchairs or eat through straws or drool or wear diapers.  They should not live on chemicals and in isolation.  They should not stink (v39).  Satan should not make sport of us.  Humans should not be so dehumanized.  A Living God should not have a dying people.  We are rightly compelled to provide as much dignity as possible in such situations because dignity is becoming of the imago Dei.

In our attempt to become gods ourselves we became rather sub-human (Gen 3.2-3), ruled by those things we should’ve ruled over.  In the most ironic consequence of sin, we actually now live in a world where we consider death to be an act of mercy.  God’s world is so upside down that we actually pray for death as an answer to misery.  What we want for our loved ones often opposes what is necessary for them.  This ought not be.

It was that sort of day in Bethany.  So Jesus wept just like every other human would and should.  Jesus would say to us what he said to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.  Do you believe this?” (vv25-26).  The one who dies will never die.  Only the Son of God could reconcile that antimony.  Jesus, our Jesus, entered into our suffering with both feet.  Better yet, he was baptized into it.

In the meantime, we live in the proverbial “two days” in which Jesus is staying where he is (v6) until he returns with his word of Life (Jn 5.28-29; 14.2-3).  We live by tear-stained faith in the Risen-and-Returning One.  Until then we mourn and cry and pray and hope behind the stone with a small shaft of Light at the edge.  While we are mourning here Jesus prays for us there that we will believe (Jn 11.42; Heb 7.25).

I saw Jesus at the nursing home.  And he wept.

14

06 2014

Why Your Church Should Have Elders (Part 4)

Jesus loves the church and has richly provided for her eternal health and glory. He sustains the church through a well-ordered, humble, Spirit-wrought polity. Therefore we find the New Testament teaching and demonstrating that local church leadership should be entrusted to a plurality of qualified men who, though gifted differently, are equal in authority and responsibility. Both biblically and practically, your local church benefits greatly by having a group of men sharing the pastoral responsibility for souls.

In this last installment I hope to anticipate some common questions when considering a plurality of elders for your local church.

1. Are elders basically the same thing as deacons? Though a common assumption in modern (Baptist) churches, there is a clear biblical distinction between the office of elder and the office of deacon. For example, see Phil 1.1 where the roles are clearly distinguished in the Philippian church. While elders and deacons are called to diakonia (Acts 6.2, 4) they are called to different forms of primary ministry. Elders and deacons are to be the same type of men (cf. 1 Tim 3.1-13; Titus 1.5-9) but their ministry to the church is different.

Elders serve primarily in the ministry of the Word (preaching, teaching, biblical counseling) and prayer (Acts 6.4). These men provide the main diet of biblical instruction in both public and private ministry. They set the pace in public and private prayer. They also bear the responsibility of guiding the process of church discipline.

The elders/pastors/overseers/bishops oversee the spiritual health of the church and church members. They are not priests or popes. They do not dictate. They are shepherds who help Christ’s sheep feast on the gospel and enjoy God’s grace (1 Pt 5.1-5). They are to be joyfully obeyed in the way children submit to loving, grace-filled parents (Heb 13.17). Elders are a means of God’s grace so that we can flourish in spiritual maturity.

Deacons administrate “social ministry” (John Stott, The Living Church: 73) that could otherwise dominate the elders time and energy (see Acts 6.1-6). We find the first deacons to be able preachers themselves and even martyrs (Acts 7; 8.25-40). Nevertheless, their primary ministry was tending to the practical needs in the church body.

The deacons are not vice-pastors or junior ministers. While deacons do not have pastoral authority, they are “in charge” of their particular practical/social ministries (Acts 6.3). And their ministry supports the elders’ main ministry by relieving them of burdensome administration.

Both offices are ultimately subject to the church. The local church should be elder-led, deacon-served and congregationally-responsible.

2. Does the plurality of elders eliminate congregationalism? Scripture indicates the exact opposite is true. Congregationalism thrives under proper biblical polity. Ultimately, the church is the final court of appeal in matters of doctrine, discipline and practice (see Mt 18.17; Acts 13.1-3; 15.22; 1 Cor 5.4-5; 2 Cor 2.6-8; 1 Tim 5.17-22). The apostles entrusted the choosing of deacons to the church (Acts 6.1-6). Even the apostle Paul was subject to the church in Antioch (Acts 13.2-3).

Elders who love their flock would not lead them astray and congregations who trust their elders gladly follow. When elders are obedient to their charge (1 Pt 5.1-5), and those in their charge (Acts 20.28), and congregations are obedient to theirs then the church will flourish. Christ’s church is marked by heavenly humility. She is at her finest when, in subjection to Christ himself, elders humbly serve through robust biblical instruction and the church humbly submits to biblical instruction.

3. How does a church install elders? There seems to a measure of liberty as to how a local church installs her elders. Generally speaking, elders were “appointed” and deacons were “chosen” (Acts 6.1-6; Tim 4.14). Paul commanded Titus, his apostolic representative, to appoint elders in every city. It seems prudent that elders appoint other elder with some form of congregational affirmation rather than an open ballot of sorts.

Ideally, a local church is raising up her own pastors (2 Tim 2.2). Imagine if your church’s next pastor search committee was the last one you would ever need! Therefore, anyone held out for the office of elder has likely been serving in the church for some time (cf. 1 Tim 3.6). The church has already observed and benefited from their ministry. The elders appoint a man who has already been demonstrating those qualities and abilities fitting for pastoral ministry. In the healthiest sense, when elders appoint other elders they merely formally recognize what the church has long been informally recognizing about the new pastor.

What if a church has no formal elders (and therefore no process of installing them) and wants to establish them? It would help to ask a sister church with elders to help with the process. Following the apostolic pattern, a sister church can help another church get started on healthy footing. From then the elders begin training and recognizing other men in the congregation who aspire to the office (1 Tim 3.1).

4. Are elders the same thing as church staff? Not all elders are on the paid church staff. In fact, most of the elders should be “lay” elders to avoid the “professionalization” of the pastoral office as well as the temptations that come with being paid to preach the gospel. However, anyone set aside in a primary pastoral capacity should be considered an elder.

Likewise, not all paid church staff should be elders. The variety of ministry support roles are just that: administrative support.

5. Are all elders considered pastors? Yes. In fact, the words are synonymous. Vocational pastors are not the church’s “professional” ministers. Whether paid or not, all the elders share equal responsibility and authority. The “senior pastor” carries no more weight than the lay elder. Of course, this also means the pastors accustomed to their titles must humbly relinquish the “glory” attached to their vocational status.

In terms of character and pastoral fitness, the church should expect from the lay elder what she does from the full-time pastor. While the full-time pastor(s) will probably bear the bulk of the preaching and teaching load, he/they do so in concert with the other elders who help oversee the church. All the elders share equally in spiritual oversight even if some or most of the elders are not as public as others. Most, if not all, the elders of the local churches addressed in the New Testament are anonymous so that Christ alone would be famous.

Together the elders equip, encourage and empower all the church members to mature in gospel knowledge and service (Eph 4.11-16).

“What is needed is a basic biblical recognition that God calls different people in different ministries. Then the people will ensure that the people are free to exercise their gifts. It is through this reciprocal liberation that the church will flourish” (John Stott, The Living Church: 75).

Elders do not hand-feed every sheep (only the weak/sick ones). They lead the sheep to fertile pastures where they’ve taught the sheep how to feast well on Christ.

Conclusion
Both biblically and practically, Christ’s church benefits greatly from having a plurality of elders kneeling at the helm. In fact, it’s Jesus’ design as carried out by the apostles in the local churches throughout the Roman Empire. The burden of gospel ministry is simply to heavy for one man to bear in any church of any size. For the sake of the church, the pastor(s) and ultimately Christ himself, your local church should have elders.

10

06 2014

Why Your Church Should Have Elders (Part 3)

Parts 1 and 2 introduced and sought to briefly defend that local church leadership should be entrusted to a plurality of qualified men who, though gifted differently, are equal in authority and responsibility.  Both biblical vocabulary and the biblical pattern indicate the local church is best led by elders (a.k.a. overseers, bishops, pastors-shepherds) rather than solo pastors or other pastoral hierarchies.  A church without elders is by no means less of a church, but she should consider such polity of primary importance (cf. Titus 1.5).  A church should carefully and patiently pursue having a plurality of elders as soon as reasonably possible.

Anything biblically commanded and modeled is by definition practically beneficial for the church.  Therefore, in this installment I hope to provide some practical benefits to having a plurality of elders in your local church.  A plurality of elders is the best practical way to display the church’s nature, provide pastoral care, protect pastors from moral failure, and make for happier pastors and churches.

1.  The plurality of elders best protects the nature of Christ’s church.  Most churches (especially those formed in the mid-20th century) organize according to business or governmental practices.  A strict hierarchical structure draws a sharp line between the leaders and those they lead.  Titles and salaries define the importance of positions and the lowly children’s ministry intern hopes to climb the ecclesial ladder one day.  There is often more concern for the “business” of the church (buildings, budgets and behinds) than the church’s mission of making disciples of all nations.  The church, however, is unlike any other institution in history.  She is led by an otherworldly Founder and operates according to an otherworldly economy.

The church is family.  The most common NT term for Christian fellowship is that of brotherhood (the Greek cognates of which were used some 250 times outside the Gospels!).  The church does not behave like a business (a la the Pharisees) but as a family of brothers and sisters.  Having a plurality of elders removes any assumed “pecking order” in the church.

The church is inherently non-clerical.  God’s Spirit does not indwell only certain qualified individuals as in the old covenant.  Pastors are not the equivalent of Old Testament priests because Jesus is the fulfillment of that role.  In the church, the Holy Spirit indwells all believers and unites them equally in grace.  All believers are saints and part of the “royal priesthood” (1 Pt 2.9) serving at the pleasure of the Great High Priest.  Worship is no longer left to “professionals” but all are participants.  Having a plurality of elders protects the church against clericalism.

The church is led by Christ himself.  The plurality of elders enforces humility among those who would oversee the local church.

“…in the first century, no Christian would dare take the position or title of sole ruler, overseer, or pastor of the church.  We Christians today, however, are so accustomed to speaking of ‘the pastor’ that we do not stop to realize that the New Testament does not. . . . There is only one flock and one Pastor (Jn 10.16), one body and one Head (Col 1.18), one holy priesthood and one great High Priest (Heb 4.14ff.), one brotherhood and one Elder Brother (Rom 8.29), one building and one Cornerstone (1Pt 2.5ff.), one Mediator, one Lord.  Jesus Christ is ‘Senior Pastor,’ and all others are His undershepherds (1 Pt 5.4)” (Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership: 115).

“The pastor” is not and never was the boss.  Having a plurality of elders is the constant reminder there is only one Head of the church.

2.  The plurality of elders provides for the best pastoral care of individual church members.  Jesus never established his church so that one man had all the gifts to care for her (Eph 4.11-16).  In reality, most pastors are weak in far more areas than they are strong.  The plurality of elders balances those weaknesses.

“Plurality of leadership allows each shepherd elder to function primarily according to personal giftedness rather than being forced to do everything and then being criticized for not being multigifted” (Strauch: 42).

No one pastor/elder can oversee an unlimited or undefined number of souls.  Without a plurality of elders all the souls in a church suffer.  Having a plurality of elders provides the best and broadest means by which individual members receive personal pastoral care and encouragement.

3.  The plurality of elders provides accountability and support for the pastors themselves.  The rash of moral failure among pastors should be enough for any local church to reconsider its polity.  Too many sole pastors or “untouchable” Senior Pastors slip into grave moral sin without the church’s knowledge or accountability.  Pastors/elders are to have a good reputation in the world (1 Tim 3.7).  Moral failure and scandal bring shame not only on himself and family, but also the work and witness of his church.  Having a plurality of elders provides a heavy layer of moral scrutiny necessary for maintaining a ministry of integrity.

Further, good elders are those who work hard studying and teaching the Word (1 Tim 5.17).  Sole pastors find it very easy to grow lazy in the word.  They are also spread so thin they simply do not have the time and energy to mine Scripture for the church’s eternal benefit.  He is often left with shallow study and superficial sermons.  Having a plurality of elders provides a measure of scholarly discipline and since the pastoral load is shared each elder has more time and energy to devote to it.

And, a pastor is also a church member and responsible for spiritual growth and maturity just like all other church members.

“It was never our Lord’s will for the local church to be controlled by one individual.  The concept of the pastor as the lonely, trained professional – the sacred person over the church who can never really become part of the congregation – is utterly unscriptural” (Strauch: 43).

Having a plurality of elders ensures the pastors have pastors, too.

4.  The plurality of elders provides the best protection against pastoral burnout.  Very simply, a plurality of elders share the church’s pastoral workload.  The burden of pastoral leadership is an impossibly heavy load to bear (2 Cor 11.23-29).  Pastors/elders can take no credit for their church’s success and must bear much blame for her weaknesses.  It is not a glamorous job by any stretch.

In a 2001 survey, George Barna found the average pastoral tenure at a church to be five years, concluding thus:

“To appreciate the contribution made by pastors you have to understand their world and the challenges they face. Our studies show that church-goers expect their pastor to juggle an average of 16 major tasks. That’s a recipe for failure—nobody can handle the wide range of responsibilities that people expect pastors to master. We find that effective pastors not only love the people to whom God allows them to minister, but also provide firm, visionary leadership and then delegate responsibilities and resources to trained believers. Ultimately, the only way a pastor can succeed in ministry is to create a team of gifted and compatible believers who work together in loving people and pursuing a commonly held vision. The pastor who strives to meet everyone’s demands and tries to keep everyone happy is guaranteed to fail.”

Having a plurality of pastors makes for happier pastors.  And happy pastors stay longer at churches.

09

06 2014

Why Your Church Should Have Elders (Part 2)

Insofar as their might be a “thesis” for blog posts, I would offer this as it relates to church polity:  the New Testament teaches and demonstrates that local church leadership should be entrusted to a plurality of qualified men who, though gifted differently, are equal in authority and responsibility. 

The local church is most healthy when she is led by elders, who defend and teach sound doctrine and encourage gospel progress through careful pastoral oversight.  As was introduced in Part 1,  until a local church installs a plural eldership it is lacking.  It might not be any less a church but she will not be firmly established for generations of gospel consistency.

In this installment I hope to survey both the biblical vocabulary and biblical pattern of local church polity.  We will see from both the vocabulary and examples that having a plurality of elders was the expectation and ambition of local New Testament churches.

Biblical Vocabulary

The NT used several synonymous terms and titles to define local church leadership.  Most English Bibles translate the Greek word presbuteros as “elder” (Acts 11.30; 14.23; 15.2, 4, 6, 2-23, 16.4; 20.17; 21.18; 1 Tim 5.17, 19; Titus 1.5; Jas 5.14; 1 Pt 5.1, 5; 2 Jn 1; 3 Jn 1).  You can hear “presbyterian” in the word from which the Presbyterian church derives its polity (the local church elders called a “session” who are part of a presbytery, etc.).

Most English Bibles translate the Greek word episkopos as “overseer” (NASB) or “bishop” (KJV) (Acts 20.28; Phil 1.1; 1 Tim 3.2; Titus 1.7; 1 Pt 2.28).  You can hear “episcopal” in the word from which the Anglican/Episcopal church derives its polity (local church rector, diocese, archbishop, etc.).  Peter referred to Jesus as “the Shepherd and episcopon (Overseer) of your souls (1 Pt 2.25).  Jesus was the Bishop!  Paul also used both presbuteros and episcopos interchangeably in Titus 1.5, 7.  That is, they are synonyms for one and the same office, that of elder/overseer/bishop of a local church.

Southern Baptists might be interested to know in the first edition of the Baptist Faith and Message (1925), under Article XII, we confessed “Scriptural officers are bishops, or elders, and deacons.”  There are several things to note about this simple confession.  One, “bishop” and “elder” are synonymous.  Two, they are plural.  Three, the office is distinct from that of deacon.

For better or worse, the subsequent editions of the Baptist Faith and Message (1963 and 2000) updated the word “bishops” to “pastors.”  However, they retained the plural sense of the office even if that has been lost in modern practice.  

Most English Bibles translate the Greek word poimen as “pastor” and that in only once place: Eph 4.11.  It is elsewhere and most appropriately translated “shepherd” (Mt 9.36; 25.32; 26.31; Mk 6.34; 14.27; Jn 10.2, 11-12, 14, 16; Heb 13.20; 1 Pt 2.25).  The verb form (to shepherd) is more often applied to local church leadership (Jn 21.16; Acts 20.28; 1 Cor 9.7; 1 Pt 5.2).  In fact, in Acts 20.28 Paul commanded the overseers/bishops (episkopous) to shepherd (poimanein) the (one) Ephesian church.

In the end, all these terms are and can be used synonymously for the one office of elder/bishop/overseer/pastor-shepherd.  And as we will now see throughout all local churches, this one office was filled by a collection of qualified men. 

Biblical Pattern 

The NT is consistently clear that a plurality of elders was the common expectation and ambition in local churches.  It was not a matter of cultural tradition, preference, pragmatism or expediency for any given church to decide.  It wasn’t that a plurality of elders might work in one church or area but a different polity in another. Therefore, it was the apostolic practice to establish elders in each church all over the known world:  Judea (Acts 11.30; Jas 5.14-15), Jerusalem (Acts 15.6, 22), Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, Antioch (southwestern Turkey) (Acts 14.19-23), Ephesus (western Turkey) (Acts 20.17; 1 Tim 3.1-7; 5.17-25), Philippi (northwestern Greece) (Phil 1.1), Crete (island south of Greece) (Titus 1.5), Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, Bithynia (Asia Minor, northern Turkey) (1 Pt 1.1; 5.1), Thessalonica (north-central Greece) (1 Thess 5.12) and Rome (Italy) (Heb 13.17).  Having a plurality of elders wasn’t for this or that culture but for all the churches everywhere.

Further, biblical polity was not an unimportant matter given the amount of broad instruction given in the NT.  The apostles gave instructions to local churches about their elders (1 Thess 5.12-13; 1 Tim 3.1-7; 5.17-22; Titus 1.5-9; Heb 13.17; Jas 5.14; 1 Pt 5.5).  They gave instructions directly to elders of local churches about their ministry (Acts 20.28, 31, 35; 1 Thess 5.13; Jas 5.14; 1 Pt 5.1-5).  For local churches to thrive in disciple-making they must be ordered rightly.  Elders must be men who understand their service.  Congregations must understand their submission.  All must embrace Christ’s humility.

Additionally, when the NT speaks of elders/overseers/bishops/pastors, it does so in terms of a plurality within a local (singular) church (Acts 11.30; 14.23; 15.2, 4, 22-23; 16.4; 20.17, 28; Eph 4.12; 1 Tim 5.17; Titus 1.5; Jas 5.14; 1 Pt 5.1). There is no evidence in the NT of our modern pastoral hierarchy of Senior Pastor, Associate Pastor, etc.

“There is no biblical warrant for the so-called one-man band, in which a single pastor, like a single musician, plays all the instruments” (John Stott, The Living Church: 77).

Lastly, elders appointed in the churches were always men from within the particular congregations (Acts 14.23; Titus 1.5).  That is, there was no “pastor search committee” who solicited résumés  from unknown men from some distant seminary.  Each local church raised up her own pastors (cf. 2 Tim 2.2), men of firm gospel convictions, who demonstrated spiritual maturity, and embodied Christian humility and grace.  These men were neither necessarily professionally-trained men nor paid for their ministry (see Acts 4.13, after all!).  They were men recognized by the congregation as spiritually fit men who could faithfully exercise pastoral oversight.  

We can see from a broad reading of the NT that local church leadership should be entrusted to a plurality of qualified men who, though gifted differently, are equal in authority and responsibility.

(Read Part 1 and/or 3). 

08

06 2014

Why Your Church Should Have Elders (Part 1)

For many a churchgoer, church polity is not of great concern.  As long as there are plenty of programs, pennies and people then why should we care how a local church is structured?  As long as it “works” then there is no need to cause any fuss over secondary issues.

But is polity as secondary as we might like to think?  While not rising to the level of salvific importance, local church polity does directly influence church health and how church members thrive (or not) in gospel accountability and witness.  As Jesus is the “head of the body, the church” (Col 1.18) we do well to structure our churches according to his liking.  Doing so is for his glory in that we demonstrate our allegiance to his authority.  It is also for our own spiritual health  as church polity is a means of Christ’s grace to help us persevere in gospel progress.

Even a casual reading of the New Testament reveals that local church leadership should be entrusted to a plurality of qualified men who, though gifted differently, are equal in authority and responsibility.  The plurality of elders (as opposed to the solo pastor or hierarchical structure or deacon-led structure) protects the both the nature and health of Christ’s church.

“Under Christ’s name an elaborately structured institution emerged that corrupted the simple, family structure of the apostolic churches, robbed God’s people of their lofty position and ministry in Christ, and exchanged Christ’s supremacy over His people for the supremacy of the institutional church” (Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership: 100).

In other words, we’ve replaced church as family with either church as business where pastors are CEOs with subordinate middle managers or church as democracy where majority rules by any means necessary.  In so doing, we have “robbed people of their lofty position in Christ.”  Churches will fiercely contend for Robert’s Rules of Order and the Committee on Committees as infallible guides to church governance.  All the while, Jesus has provided the church simplicity and Spirit-guided leadership.  How often we insist on parliamentary procedure and blatantly ignore clear biblical teaching and the Holy Spirit’s help.

In Titus 1.5, Paul explained why Titus would stay in Crete: to “set in order what remains” (literally, to “set right the things lacking”).  Titus’s first order of business as the apostolic representative in Crete was to “appoint elders in every city as I directed you.”  That is, Titus was to establish elders (plural) in the local church in every city (singular), which was a matter of apostolic command.  Paul considered the lack of elders in the churches unfinished business (see CSB, NIV).  Not having elders did not disqualify a church as a church, but elders would be necessary for the ongoing health, perseverance and gospel witness of the local churches.

While no local church will be perfect, she can be healthy and maintain her witness through a well-ordered, Christ-designed, aposotolically-commanded polity.  Having a plurality of elders protects churches from cycling through a pastor every few years.  The plurality of elders provides more stability to a church’s convictions and identity so that she will maintain a consistent witness in generations to come.  The plurality of elders also provides the best (albeit not perfect) protection for the pastors themselves from doctrinal error, personal burnout and moral failure.

No Christian wants their local church to be “lacking.”  We want to have and enjoy all that Christ has for his Bride.  Therefore, we want our local churches to resemble as closely as possible the community he “purchased for God with Your blood from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev 5.9).

The church does not need another shade-tree theologian writing yet another polemic for the plurality of elders.  There are scads of resources to that end.  Nevertheless, if only for posterity, I offer a few installments making the case that your local church should be led by a plurality of elders.

07

06 2014

Jesus Loves You Too Much to Build You a Mansion

“In my Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you.  If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to myself, that were I am, there you may be also” (Jn 14.2-3).

Did Jesus promise to build each of his followers a mansion for their eternal enjoyment?  After all, Jesus is God and was a carpenter.  Our God also builds houses?  He must be able to build us the best mansions the universe has ever seen.  We all have our dream home.  What could be better than having God design a city whose golden streets are lined with dream homes Jesus built for us?

And let’s not forget our Victory in Jesus:

I heard about a mansion
He has built for me in glory.
And I heard about the streets of gold
Beyond the crystal sea;
About the angels singing,
And the old redemption story,
And some sweet day I’ll sing up there
The song of victory.

We assume thiheavenly mansions is precisely what Jesus meant when he promised his disciples “dwelling places” that he was going away to prepare for them (Jn 14.2-3).  Jesus (and John’s context), however, meant nothing of the sort.  Jesus is not preparing blueprints for his heavenly suburbs.  He is preparing for us something infinitely and eternally greater than the best this life can offer.

Before getting into specifics, let’s consider the context of Jn 14.1-3.  It’s the Last Supper and Jesus’ last few mortal hours with his disciples (Jn 13-17).  By that time the next day, Jesus would be buried.

As his suffering neared Jesus prepared his disciples for a far different Messianic move than they expected.  Whereas the disciples expected to flank Jesus in his move to drive Rome (Gentiles) from Jerusalem, Jesus talked about going somewhere they could not come (13.33, 36-38; 16.16-22).  Peter thought they were soon to launch an aggressive campaign that might well come to blows (v37). But the next Messianic move was not one where the disciples would go with Jesus.  Jesus prepared them for his going away from them.

Jesus prepared them for a far different and greater kingdom than they expected.  They were confused and troubled; therefore, Jesus eased their anxiety (Jn 14.1).  They had not misplaced their faith. This was no bait-and-switch.  They believed in God therefore they should believe in Jesus despite what they would soon see happening.

And then we hear Jesus famously promise to prepare and provide them many “dwelling places” in his Father’s house (vv2-3).  Assuming he means individual mansions for us all may make for great Southern Gospel music, but it makes for terrible and rather disappointing theology.  Here are ten reasons why Jesus loves us too much to build us a mansion.

1.  Jesus clearly says there are many dwelling places (Gk. monai) in his Father’s house.  Even if he meant a literal gold-and-mortar structure, there is one house with many living quarters.  That sounds more like an apartment complex than gated community of multi-gazillion dollar homes.  But let’s not assume Jesus meant high-end condos, either.

2.  Any Jew would have known “Father’s house” to refer to the temple (Jn 2.13-22), not as a euphemism for heaven.  The temple is God’s dwelling place, where he lived and met with his people.  As with any nation, the Jews could show you where their God – Yahweh – lived.  So, Jesus’ Jewish disciples (and audiences) believed Messiah would renovate the temple, rid it of Gentiles and restore it to its global glory.  Jesus (and John) had been transforming that notion thus leading us to the next consideration.

3.  The “Father’s house” is the temple which Jesus assumes to be himself (Jn 2.13-22).  Note carefully that when Jesus returns he will receive his disciples “to Myself” (pros emauton) (v3).  He will not return to meet his disciples with keys to their mansions.  He will not receive them into their condo.  He will receive them to himself,  i.e. the place where God lives and meets with his people.

4.  The “place” Jesus is preparing is “where I am” (v3).  We will be where he is.  That does not refer to a street address as though we will all have houses on the same street as Jesus (in the model home?).  “Where I am” refers to the front row seat in the unrivaled, unrestricted glory of God.  Where Jesus is is “at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb 1.3).  The “place” Jesus prepares is nothing less than the eternal enjoyment of God’s glory and his love for us in Christ (Jn 17.24).  His place.  He is making room where he is for all of us.

5.  The “many” dwelling places speaks to the tremendous work of Christ to have people from every nation, tribe and tongue seated in his place!  Jesus has entered the cosmic “holy place” (Heb 9) where he has sat down in the full merciful presence of the Father.  And he is making room in that very place for the millions upon millions of people for whom he died.  It’s as if Jesus is making room on his chair for all of God’s children to sit.  There are many dwelling places in the Father’s house because “all the Father gives me will come me, and the one who comes to me I will certainly not cast out” (Jn 6.37).  Jesus – the True Temple – has made room for all of God’s children to sit next to the mercy seat.

6.  In order to prepare our “dwelling place” Jesus must first suffer, die and be buried . . . alone (Jn 14.28).  Jesus didn’t remove all the Gentiles from the Jerusalem temple.  He removed sin from all God’s children (Jew and Gentile) so they would enjoy unmitigated rest in God: where he is.  We will not live down the street from God.  God will live right next to (dwell with) us because that is where Jesus is.

7.  Only sons live in a father’s house.  Therefore, if the disciples wanted a place in the Father’s house then they must first be sons of God.  Obviously, the Pharisees and Jewish leaders thought they were the quintessential sons of God as they milled smugly about the temple.  They were certainly sons, but of a different father (Jn 8.44).  Jesus rid God’s place of false sons and populated it with true sons.  The only way to be sons of God was to be in the Son of God (Jn 15.15).  By preparing a place for us, Jesus prepares his follower’s to enjoy the Son’s place in the Father’s house.

8.  All the sons receive the inheritance of the Firstborn Son.  “Many dwelling places” does not refer to the size of heaven.  It refers to how large and generous and loving Jesus is to give all sons his place and inheritance!  Jesus is not building you or me a house commensurate with our efforts in this life.  He is preparing one place, the place, for many residents (all the children the Father has given him) based on his merits.

9.  Peter was clueless in Jn 13.37-38.  Thomas fared a shade better, sensing Jesus spoke of something different but still assuming it was an earthly place (Jn 14.5).  If Jesus wasn’t going to Jerusalem to renovate the temple then they had no idea where he would be going.  There is no temple anywhere else.  If Jesus wasn’t going to furnish offices for them in his temple administration then where else would the Father’s house be (Nazareth, Hebron, Capernaum)?  Thomas asked a legitimate question.  If they didn’t know where Jesus was going then they couldn’t possibly know the way there.  Hook, line, sinker.

Jesus is the way to the Father (v6; cf. Is 53.8)!  All the OT types, copies and shadows find their substance in Christ (Col 2.16-17).  Jesus is not going to a mediated presence of God in the temple.  He is going into very presence of God himself and will be the only means by which a person is made right with God (Acts 4.12; 1 Tim 2.5-6).

10.  Philip went for broke (v8):  “If you’re going to the Father (wherever that is), Jesus, then take and show us, too.  That’s all we ask.”  Jesus assured Philip they’d been hearing and seeing the Father at work for already three years (vv9-11)!  Little did they know that Jesus had been renovating the temple all along.

Jesus was a carpenter, but he is not building any of us an indestructible Victorian.  He loves us too much for that.  He has entered into the very throne-room of God.  And he is making room on his seat for you.  Won’t you join him?

29

05 2014

A Tribute to the Fifth Sunday Sing

Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne and the living creatures and the elders; and the number of them was myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands (Rev 5:11-12).

One of the sweet traditions in churches is the 5th Sunday night hymn-sing (a.k.a. 5th Sunday Sing). Or was. Some months will have five Sundays and many churches would gather that fifth Sunday night to, well, sing together. Just sing together.

The tradition will soon die off as another generation passes. After all, why sing dusty old hymns when there is a concert to be had, laser tag to be played or casserole to be eaten? I used to be that pious snot-nosed prick who snickered when the crusty old-fashioned blue-hairs gussied up to sing their childhood favorites (or the new songs when they grew up!). Now, I’m a pious snot-nosed prick who really wishes the church would sing together. Just sing together.

No loud band. No choreography. No lights. No performances. A piano or guitar keeps the tone-deaf on tune, but the voices are the real instruments of grace. Ah, the voices of Zion. It’s the voices of Christ’s congregation that John hears in his vision of eternal glory (Rev 5.11-14). He looked and heard. Egad! Is that a tinge of blue on my temples?

Every fifth Sunday night folks would holler the the number of their favorite hymn. In fact, most were so familiar with their hymnbooks that they only needed a number to know what hymn it was. And the “youth” tried to keep a straight face when someone like me announced the number to The Star-Spangled Banner or O, Canada.  What I thought was senility was actually patience.

You always knew on those nights who would request what. Mrs. Johnson would always request #141: The Old Rugged Cross. Mrs. Smith would always want to sing #330. You guessed it: Amazing Grace. My mom? #138: At Calvary.

Years I spent in vanity and pride,
Caring not my Lord was crucified,
Knowing not it was for me he died
On Calvary.

By God’s Word at last my sin I learned;
Then I trembled at the law I’d spurned,
Till my guilty soul imploring turned
To Calvary.

Mercy there was great, and grace was free;
Pardon there was multiplied to me;
here my burdened soul found liberty
At Calvary.

On, to, at Calvary.  These are sweet gospel prepositions filling out gospel propositions.

Sure, not every hymn was theologically robust or even correct (more on that another day), but they loved it all the same. Better to sing everything together than sing nothing alone. And at least the hymns provided a measure of depth to congregational singing and biblical understanding than the lather-rinse-repeat variety most churches sing today. Historically, the church learned from hymns written to teach (a la the Psalms). Now, the church emotes from songs written to excite. We aren’t moved until the crescendo, the rift, the bridge or the extended vibrato.

Gone are the days of four, five, six stanzas or more. By their very nature, hymns were written such that to sing the first stanza meant to sing the second and so on. They told a story and taught a theme. Like stopping a book after the first chapter, we now get bored too easily and need some “ohs” and “yeahs” to fill in the cracks. What we sing is only as helpful as how we sing it.

Say what you will, but those old folks are now into their fifth, sixth and seventh decades of church membership. We’re hardly producing that sort of churchmanship with our modern, entertainment-based fare. Experience trumps perseverance.

There was a time when I would cry from laughing that anyone would enjoy such boring singing. Now, I cry for a far different reason. And not because my hair is turning blue but because

Oh, the love that drew salvation’s plan!
Oh, the grace that brought it down to man!
Oh, the mighty gulf that God did span
At Calvary!

At Calvary.  There’s a fifth Sunday in June.  Perhaps old man Maxwell will holler #138 and make sure his kids are paying close attention.

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05 2014