Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Why Was Jesus Unintimidated by Pilate?

Ponder with me the lesson of Pilate’s authority over Jesus.
Pilate said to Jesus, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” (John 19:10–11)
Pilate's authority to crucify Jesus did not intimidate Jesus.
Why not?
Not because Pilate was lying. Not because he didn’t have authority to crucify Jesus. He did.
Rather this authority did not intimidate Jesus because it was derivative. Jesus said, “It was given to you from above.” Which means it is really authoritative. Not less. But more.
So how is this not intimidating? Pilate not only has authority to kill Jesus. But he has God-given authority to kill him.
This does not intimidate Jesus because Pilate’s authority over Jesus is subordinate to God’s authority over Pilate. Jesus gets his comfort at this moment not because Pilate’s will is powerless, but because Pilate’s will is guided. Not because Jesus isn’t in the hands of Pilate’s fear, but because Pilate is in the hands of Jesus’s Father.
Which means that our comfort comes not from the powerlessness of our enemies, but from our Father’s sovereign rule over their power. This is the point of Romans 8:25–37. Tribulation and distress and persecution and famine and nakedness and danger and sword cannot separate us from Christ because “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:35–37).
Pilate (and all Jesus’s adversaries — and ours) meant it for evil. But God meant it for good (Genesis 50:20). All Jesus’s enemies gathered together with their God-given authority “to do whatever God’s hand and God’s plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:28). They sinned. But through their sinning God saved.
Therefore, do not be intimidated by your adversaries who can only kill the body. Not only because this is all they can do (Luke 12:4), but also because it is done under the watchful hand of your Father.
Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Luke 12:6–7).
Pilate has authority. Herod has authority. Soldiers have authority. Satan has authority. But none is independent. All their authority is derivative. All of it is subordinate to God’s will. Fear not. You are precious to your sovereign Father. Far more precious than the unforgotten birds.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Blessed Self-Forgetfulness

True growth happens when we take our eyes off ourselves.
--by Tullian Tchividjian

The way many of us think about sanctification is, well, not very sanctified. In fact, it's downright narcissistic. We thinking about how we're doing, if we're growing, whether we're doing it right or not. We spend too much time brooding over our failures and reflecting on our successes. We seem to believe that the focus of the Christian faith is the life of the Christian.

Reflecting this common assumption, someone who was frustrated with something I had written said to me not long ago, "Don't you know that the focus of the New Testament is the personal holiness of the Christian?"
What? Seriously? To keep calm, I replayed Mr. Miyagi in my head, "Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out …"

The truth is, we spend way too much time thinking about ourselves, and we justify this spiritualized navel-gazing by reasoning that this is what God wants us to be doing.

There is nothing in the gospel that encourages us to focus on ourselves. Nothing! It's never honoring to God when we take our eyes off of Christ. Never! In fact, the whole point of the gospel is to get us out of ourselves and to "fix our eyes on Christ" (Heb. 12:2). The truest measure of Christian growth, therefore, is when we stop spiritually rationalizing the reasons why we're taking our eyes off of Jesus to focus on ourselves.

It's sin that turns us inward. The gospel turns us outward. Martin Luther argued that sin actually bends or curves us in on ourselves. Any version of "the gospel," therefore, that places you at the center is detrimental to your faith—whether it's your failures or your successes, your good works or bad works, your strengths or weaknesses, your obedience or disobedience.

Ironically, I've discovered that the more I focus on my need to get better, the worse I actually get. I become self-absorbed, the exact opposite of how the Bible describes what it means to be sanctified. Sanctification is forgetting about you. When we spend more time thinking about ourselves and how we're doing than we do about Jesus and what he's done, we shrink. As J.C. Kromsigt wrote, "The good seed cannot flourish when it is repeatedly dug up for the purpose of examining its growth."

Maturity is not becoming stronger and stronger, more and more competent. Christian growth is marked by a growing realization of just how weak and incompetent we are, and how strong and competent Jesus is on our behalf. Spiritual maturity is not our growing independence. Rather, it's our growing dependence on Christ. Remember, the apostle Paul referred to himself as the "least of all the saints" (Eph. 3:8) and the "chief of sinners" (1 Tim. 1:15), and this was at the end of his life!

For Paul, spiritual growth was realizing how utterly dependent we are on Christ's cross and mercy. It's not arriving at some point where we need Jesus less because we're getting better and better. Paradoxically, Paul's ability to freely admit his lack of sanctification demonstrated just how sanctified he was.
Here's my point: when we stop focusing on our need to get better, that's what it means to get better. Stop obsessing over your need to improve, and that is improvement!

The focus of the Bible is not the work of the redeemed but the work of the Redeemer. The Good News is his victory for us, not our "victorious Christian life." The gospel declares that God's final word over Christians has already been spoken: "Paid in full." Therefore, we now live with confidence that "there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 8:1).

I love the story of the old pastor who, on his deathbed, told his wife that he was certain he was going to heaven because he couldn't remember one truly good work he had ever done.

He got it.

Blessed self-forgetfulness!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Making Sense of Scripture's 'Inconsistency'

by Tim Keller

I find it frustrating when I read or hear columnists, pundits, or journalists dismiss Christians as inconsistent because "they pick and choose which of the rules in the Bible to obey." Most often I hear, "Christians ignore lots of Old Testament texts---about not eating raw meat or pork or shellfish, not executing people for breaking the Sabbath, not wearing garments woven with two kinds of material and so on. Then they condemn homosexuality. Aren't you just picking and choosing what you want to believe from the Bible?"
I don't expect everyone to understand that the whole Bible is about Jesus and God's plan to redeem his people, but I vainly hope that one day someone will access their common sense (or at least talk to an informed theological adviser) before leveling the charge of inconsistency.

First, it's not only the Old Testament that has proscriptions about homosexuality. The New Testament has plenty to say about it as well. Even Jesus says, in his discussion of divorce in Matthew 19:3-12, that the original design of God was for one man and one woman to be united as one flesh, and failing that (v. 12), persons should abstain from marriage and sex.

However, let's get back to considering the larger issue of inconsistency regarding things mentioned in the Old Testament no longer practiced by the New Testament people of God. Most Christians don't know what to say when confronted about this issue. Here's a short course on the relationship of the Old Testament to the New Testament.

The Old Testament devotes a good amount of space to describing the various sacrifices offered in the tabernacle (and later temple) to atone for sin so that worshipers could approach a holy God. There was also a complex set of rules for ceremonial purity and cleanness. You could only approach God in worship if you ate certain foods and not others, wore certain forms of dress, refrained from touching a variety of objects, and so on. This vividly conveyed, over and over, that human beings are spiritually unclean and can't go into God's presence without purification.

But even in the Old Testament, many writers hinted that the sacrifices and the temple worship regulations pointed forward to something beyond them (cf. 1 Sam. 15:21-22; Ps. 50:12-15; 51:17; Hos. 6:6). When Christ appeared he declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19), and he ignored the Old Testament cleanliness laws in other ways, touching lepers and dead bodies.

The reason is clear. When he died on the cross the veil in the temple tore, showing that he had done away with the the need for the entire sacrificial system with all its cleanliness laws. Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice for sin, and now Jesus makes us clean.

The entire book of Hebrews explains that the Old Testament ceremonial laws were not so much abolished as fulfilled by Christ. Whenever we pray "in Jesus name" we "have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus" (Heb. 10:19). It would, therefore, be deeply inconsistent with the teaching of the Bible as a whole if we continued to follow the ceremonial laws.

Law Still Binding
The New Testament gives us further guidance about how to read the Old Testament. Paul makes it clear in places like Romans 13:8ff that the apostles understood the Old Testament moral law to still be binding on us. In short, the coming of Christ changed how we worship, but not how we live. The moral law outlines God's own character---his integrity, love, and faithfulness. And so everything the Old Testament says about loving our neighbor, caring for the poor, generosity with our possessions, social relationships, and commitment to our family is still in force. The New Testament continues to forbid killing or committing adultery, and all the sex ethic of the Old Testament is re-stated throughout the New Testament (Matt. 5:27-30; 1 Cor. 6:9-20; 1 Tim. 1:8-11). If the New Testament has reaffirmed a commandment, then it is still in force for us today.

The New Testament explains another change between the testaments. Sins continue to be sins---but the penalties change. In the Old Testament sins like adultery or incest were punishable with civil sanctions like execution. This is because at that time God's people constituted a nation-state, and so all sins had civil penalties.

But in the New Testament the people of God are an assembly of churches all over the world, living under many different governments. The church is not a civil government, and so sins are dealt with by exhortation and, at worst, exclusion from membership. This is how Paul deals with a case of incest in the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 5:1ff. and 2 Cor. 2:7-11). Why this change? Under Christ, the gospel is not confined to a single nation---it has been released to go into all cultures and peoples.

Once you grant the main premise of the Bible---about the surpassing significance of Christ and his salvation---then all the various parts of the Bible make sense. Because of Christ, the ceremonial law is repealed. Because of Christ, the church is no longer a nation-state imposing civil penalties. It all falls into place. However, if you reject the idea of Christ as Son of God and Savior, then, of course, the Bible is at best a mishmash containing some inspiration and wisdom, but most of it would have to be rejected as foolish or erroneous.

So where does this leave us? There are only two possibilities. If Christ is God, then this way of reading the Bible makes sense. The other possibility is that you reject Christianity's basic thesis---you don't believe Jesus is the resurrected Son of God---and then the Bible is no sure guide for you about much of anything. But you can't say in fairness that Christians are being inconsistent with their beliefs to follow the moral statements in the Old Testament while not practicing the other ones.

One way to respond to the charge of inconsistency may be to ask a counter-question: "Are you asking me to deny the very heart of my Christian beliefs?" If you are asked, "Why do you say that?" you could respond, "If I believe Jesus is the resurrected Son of God, I can't follow all the 'clean laws' of diet and practice, and I can't offer animal sacrifices. All that would be to deny the power of Christ's death on the cross. And so those who really believe in Christ must follow some Old Testament texts and not others."

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Why I Think Pew Sitting is OK

by Lisa Robinson

If you have been a Christian for any length of time, you have most likely heard the term “pew sitter”. It is typically used in a derogatory way to describe those who come to church but make no contribution to church ministry.  What that usually means is that they don’t volunteer to do something at the local church for its benefit, such as volunteer for this or that ministry or program.  It makes sense that they are the first ones accused of the church lacking sufficient volunteers.  For pastors and church leaders who decry the presence of pew sitters, it is a call for everyone to get up and do something.

Now, I do sympathize with the pastors who find volunteers lacking for important functions related to carrying out church ministry. But I’m not sure that the solution is to spurn those that are pew sitters and treat them as consumers to absorb “services” but give nothing back in return in the way of volunteerism (money is another matter as all should contribute).  I don’t think it is helpful to tell people that if they are not doing something they are not contributing to the work of the body and they should be doing something.

The mentality that everyone must be doing something raises some serious questions in my mind related to the purpose and function of the church. The first order of business is how we define it and clearly throughout church history there has been disagreement. The definition that I like is the new covenant body of believers in Christ, called by the Father and united by the Spirit. The physical presence of the local assembly embodies that in a specific location under authorized leadership and the presence of ordinances.. But more importantly, it is defined as an ontological function, meaning the essence of what it is rather than by what the church does. In other words, the church does according to what it is.

So local assemblies should reflect how the body relates to Christ. Note Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and the identification of Jewish and Gentile believers being joined into one body through Christ’s death (Ephesians 2:13-16)
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him, the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple to the Lord. And him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22)
We are an organism in which the parts are united together that contribute to the growth of the body as each part does it work, as Ephesians 4:16 indicates. Certain gifts are given to the body to “prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ will be built up until all reach unity of the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:11-13). Notice that is not every gift and is specifically related to how we receive the word of the Lord.

Then I look at the pastoral epistles that describe functions to fulfill this purpose, so that people are taught and fed and able to carry out the ministry of Christ.  What this indicates to me is that the body must gather together to participate in the fellowship that is needed in order to grow itself up in love. That does not entail a function of giving but of receiving.  In other words, the primary focus should be on building up the body not on making sure everyone is doing something. In fact, I would argue that it means the fewer ones that are doing something the better. Our gatherings should be a time of refreshment, revival and renewal. And yes, that does include the music portion as well.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that volunteer needs be vacated. Heaven forbid! Pastors need as much support as possible. What I’m targeting here is a mentality that says if someone is not doing something they are dead weight. It is a mentality that equates busyness with legitimate service and growth.

At the formation of the early church, I see nothing of this idea that everybody should be doing something or a castigation of pew sitters. Surely, there were a select few that contributed to the carrying out of teaching and serving.  But the doing was the contribution towards each others lives to build them up with fellowship, encouragement and prayer.

We might look at 1 Corinthians 12 and think it to be a prescription for the fact that everybody must be doing something. But at the time of writing, Paul’s identification of the gifts were more about how all the gifts work in concert to build up the body.  I don’t believe we can look at that list or Romans 12:4-8 and conclude in a contemporary context that translates into ministry roles to pull off Sundays and other church programs.

So that gets to my suggestion that I think pew sitting is ok. It means that there are those who come into fellowship and may contribute gifts to the body although it might not be through official titles or specific ministry functions. The one exercising a gift of mercy may do so to build up others in a way that is never officially seen. Service and encouragement may occur outside the physical infrastructure of where the church meets.  Coming on Sundays just to participate in the fellowship of the body, to learn and to grow is quite reasonable and quite biblical. Consider the picture of the early church here -”They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.” (Acts 2:42)

Furthermore, some folks really need to pew sit to handle outside circumstances. The woman who comes to church alone and must go home to an unbelieving spouse could probably benefit from being a pew sitter. The man who goes into a hostile work environment full of atheists and agnostics probably needs to be a pew sitter. The family so broken by unemployment, addiction, or family strife should probably sit out ministry to sit in the pew and be a receiver. Why should worn out people wear themselves out further?

The bottom line, I think we need to re-examine this idea that pew sitting is a bad thing. I don’t think it necessarily is. Nor do I think it means that folks are not contributing to the body.  In fact, it may very well be the best thing for the contribution to the body.