Why Christians worship

Every Sunday Christians get out of bed and get themselves ready for church. A few walk to church or take mass transit; most drive. Some Christians wear their finest clothing—a suit and tie, or a fancy dress and perhaps a hat—while others dress more casually—everyday shirts and slacks, or perhaps jeans, or sometimes even shorts. Most have breakfast before church; a few fast. They gather, and they worship. Some of them attend a class before or after the service. And, of course, not all Christians who worship gather on Sunday morning. Some gather on Saturdays, others on Wednesday nights, and still others at other times of the week. Some have very formal services: traditional and liturgical, following patterns that were set early in the history of the Church. Others are far more relaxed—they sing a few songs, they hear Bible readings and a message, and they pray together. Christian worship practices are very diverse, conducted in a great many languages in a great many styles, sometimes with more than a thousand in one place and other times with fewer than ten people in the building.

Why do Christians worship? The best beginning to the answer might be the negative way—offering a few suggestions that are not the reasons Christians worship.

  • Christians do not worship as a good work to earn God’s approval and obtain his blessings. Christians are saved by grace; not by works. Their works (including worship) are a response to being forgiven, redeemed and rescued. Their works (including worship) do not cause them to be forgiven, redeemed, and rescued.
  • Christians do not worship because God needs their attention. God is complete within himself; God does not need anything from anyone. Some creative writers have written fantasy novels in which gods require worship and fade to nothing when they are forgotten. The true God would exist without worship; he exists outside of space and time and is fully self-sustaining.
  • Christians do not worship to flatter God. They do not expect special favors from God because they attended a service. They do not think that God owes them anything because they came to church, sang his praises, heard the sermon, prayed the prayers, and put money in the offering plate.
  • Christians do not worship for purely selfish reasons. They do not gather for worship only for their own individual benefit. They do not come to church to be entertained or amused. A church service cannot compete for excitement, action, and suspense with a sporting contest or a good Hollywood movie. Nor should it try to compete with those events.
  • Christians do not worship to impress anyone else. They do not come to church to exhibit their piety, their faithfulness, or their wardrobe. They do not want to be admired for their singing. They do not gather to try to make a good impression upon anyone.

Of course, any gathering of Christians may include some people who think they are there for one of these reasons. There may be some who think they are earning rewards from God and others who want to impress their fellow Christians. There may be some who come to be enlightened or entertained and others who expect special blessings from God because they came to church. In fact, the real reasons for Christian worship are similar to some of the misperceptions listed above. Someone who has been told why Christians worship may have misunderstood the lesson they were taught. Others may be part of the crowd merely out of habit, not stopping to ask why they are there and what they expect from the service.

Why do Christians worship? First, we worship because God wants us to worship him. In the Bible he commands our worship. He says, “Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy” (Exodus 20:8).  “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25).  “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 19:20).

Yet if worship is commanded, it still is not a good work that earns God’s approval. Obedience to God’s commands does not cause his love and mercy and his forgiveness. Rather, God’s love and mercy and forgiveness cause a Christian to do good works, including worship. A tree is recognized by its fruit (Matthew 7:20), but sound apples do not cause the apple tree to be healthy. Instead, when the apple tree is healthy, it will bear sound apples.

God wants us to worship him, not because he needs us, but because we need him. We need to remember his goodness; therefore, we praise him. We need to remember the things he has done for us; therefore, we thank him. We need to remember that we are sinners desperately needing rescue; therefore, we confess our sins to him. We could do any of these things alone, and most Christians probably do. But God also wants us to gather as a group to do these things so we can strengthen one another, support one another, and encourage one another as members of the same family.

After all, God loves us. He wants what is best for us. These gatherings are beneficial to Christians. And, because he loves us, God wants to hear from us. He does not need us to honor and praise him, but he knows that such activity is good for us. Our finest works—even our finest worship—is worth no more than the crayon drawing of a Kindergartener. Yet the love of God accepts these gifts and, in a sense, proudly displays them on the door of his heavenly refrigerator.

That is the second reason we worship. We need fellowship with God. When we gather with fellow Christians in the name of Christ, he is with us. That is true whether the gathering is in a church building, a private living room, or under a tree. Gathering in his name means more than gathering because we are Christians. Four Christians playing golf together are not the Church—not even if each of them whispers prayers of supplication or of thanksgiving on the putting green. Church happens when Christians examine the Word of God together, especially when they are seeking God’s promises of forgiveness to share with one another. Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are part of the reason Christians gather; neither of these Sacraments is a private act, but they happen when Christians gather in Christ’s name.

Therefore, God speaks to his people through his people. He communicates with us through one another. First, he spoke to the world through apostles and prophets. Now, he speaks to the world as his people repeat the message of the apostles and prophets. Some are called to preach the Word, to administer the Sacraments, and to lead the worship. But all those who participate in the service are sharing the Word of God with one another. However they contribute to the service, even if only in silent prayers, they are strengthening the body of Christ by their presence. They are encouraging their fellow saints. They are doing the work that God gave to his Church to accomplish.

All this is closely attached to the third reason Christians worship. God does bless us as we worship. We are not gathering selfishly to demand his blessings. We do not arrogantly tell God how and when to bless us. But he loves us so much that, when we gather as the Church, God gives us good things. Through the promises of his Word he gives us the forgiveness of our sins. He gives us the guarantee of eternal life in a perfect new creation. He gives us victory over the devil, over our sins, over the sinful world, and even over death itself. He gives us the strength to continue living as his people in this world as we look forward to the world to come.

For this reason, Christian worship is often called the Divine Service. When we enter God’s house, we are his guests. He serves us. In a sense, every Christian service is like Christmas, with gifts to be opened and celebrated. Those who miss the service for no good reason are depriving themselves. They are skipping Christmas, leaving gifts meant for them sitting under the tree. We come to church for fellowship with God. We leave bearing gifts that he lavishes on us because he cares so much about us.

As these gifts are given in the service, one Christian might be entertained. Another might be uplifted. A third might learn something new. Even for the Christian who does not feel entertained or uplifted or educated, the service still has benefits. It might strike some Christians as tradition-bound or repetitive or boring. Especially the traditional, liturgical service has been blamed for boring believers and visitors alike. But the very pattern of the traditional Christian service is family-friendly. The child who has not learned how to read still learns the liturgy and takes part in it and receives benefits from it. The young mother holding a baby can follow along because she knows what to expect. The elderly grandmother with failing eyesight and failing hearing also gains the benefit of repeating the same liturgy she has known since childhood. And all of them—the young child, the mother, the grandmother—are receiving from God Himself the forgiveness of their sins, the guarantee of everlasting life, and a share in the victory won by Christ for all his people.

The problem with traditions is not that they never change or that people find them boring. In fact, traditions do alter over time. The problem with traditions is that they require explanation. Simply doing them does not give them meaning. Learning what the tradition represents, why it has been preserved in the Church for so long, and what it communicates about God and his love—that makes traditions both meaningful and valuable.

A girl watched her mother prepare the pot roast for the oven. Before she put the roast in the pan, the mother sliced off the end of the roast and put it sidewise next to the larger piece of meat. “Why did you do that, Mommy?” the little girl asked. “I’m not sure,” her mother answered. “My mother always did that. We’ll have to phone Grandma and see why we’ve always done that.” Grandma, when she answered the phone, was just as puzzled about the question. “I’ve always done that,” she told her granddaughter. “I think my mother must have done that too. You know, her mind is still pretty sharp. Why don’t you call her at the retirement village and ask her the same question?

The elderly lady laughed when she heard the question. “When your grandfather and I first were married,” she explained, “the only roasting pan I had was very small. I had to cut the roast that way to make it fit in the pan. I guess I just kept doing it, and it was handed down from generation to generation.”

Traditions that are not explained become useless, even harmful. Consult Psalm 50 and Isaiah 1:10-15 to see how angry God became with his chosen people when they went through the motions of worship and sacrifice without thinking about what they were doing and without putting their faith in the Lord.

But the enemies of tradition—who hate no sentence more greatly than “We’ve never done it that way before—make a mistake when they toss out all traditions, the beneficial along with those that have lost their meaning. Different is not always better. Before making a change to a long-standing tradition, those in charge need to ask, “How will this make the service better? How will this help people see the promises of God more clearly? What will be lost to all of us if we make this change?”

Traditions hold people together. They tie generations together. They preserve the past and help people to learn their history. Every group of people has a set of traditions, and often those who mutter against tradition have ingrained habits that have become as traditional to them as the old ways they despise.

Therefore, this fall and winter I will be writing from time to time about the traditional worship of the Church. Some readers will find these lessons very familiar; others might be learning about some Christian traditions for the very first time, even though they have been Christians for a long time. I will be presenting these traditions in three sets. First I will write about the parts of Christian worship from beginning to end, explaining why the traditional liturgy contains various elements. Then I will cover traditions of the Christian calendar, from Christmas and Easter to the less known holidays, as well as the seasons of the Church Year. Last I will speak about various other traditions associated with Christian worship—traditions about the architecture of the church building, traditions about the way that worship leaders dress, and traditions about the items used to serve Holy Communion, among others. May our understanding and appreciation of traditional Christian worship grow through these explanations. J.

Advertisements

Sons of David

Reading through the books of First and Second Samuel in my devotions last month*, I was struck by the theme of the sons of David. David had several wives and at least nineteen sons, but three of those sons particularly stood out in my mind as I was reading.

The theme of “Son of David” is significant, of course, because it is a Messianic title. David wanted to build a Temple in Jerusalem where God would be worshiped. Through the prophet Nathan, God sent a message to David, saying, “You will not build me a house, but I will build you a house.” God went on to say that a Son of David would be chosen to rule an eternal kingdom, and promised, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son” (II Samuel 7:14). A thousand years later, Jesus of Nazareth was recognized as the promised Son of David, the Son of God destined to rule an eternal kingdom.

But David had other sons as well. A son was born as a result of David’s adultery with Bathsheba. Nathan challenged David with a story about a rich man who stole a poor man’s only sheep, and David said, “That man deserves to die!” “You are that man,” Nathan replied, but then he said, “You will not die, but the child will die” (II Samuel 12:13-14).When the child was born and became sick, David wept and pled for the infant’s life, but the baby still died. David ended his mourning after the death of the child. “I shall go to him,” David said, “but he will not return to me” (II Samuel 12:23).

David sinned and deserved to die. David did not die. God was gracious and forgave the sin of David. But the son of David died as a consequence of David’s sin. The son of David was just a baby. He had done nothing wrong. Even so, his death followed David’s sin and, in a way, rescued David from the death he deserved. Later, the Son of David would be born in Bethlehem—David’s hometown—so he also could die in payment for David’s sin. He also was without sin and did not deserve to die. His life was threatened by King Herod when he was very young, but God protected him at that time, sending him to Egypt to escape Herod’s plot.

Trouble and strife entered David’s family following his sin. Amnon, the son of David and heir to David’s throne, attempted to seduce his half-sister Tamar and instead raped her. As a result, Tamar’s brother Absalom murdered Amnon when he had the opportunity. Amnon was guilty of sin, of course, but instead of being put on trial, condemned, and sentenced, he was struck down by his own brother and died. Another son of David had died, this time rejected by his own family. Later, the Son of David would also be rejected by his own people, first in Nazareth and later in Jerusalem. The people of Nazareth, who had known Jesus since he was a child, rejected his teaching and tried to throw him off a cliff and stone him to death. At that time, Jesus walked safely through the crowd, because his time to die had not yet come.

Absalom was punished with exile from Jerusalem, but later he was allowed to return. When he returned, he began to plot against his father. He tried to steal the kingdom from his father, and he nearly succeeded. David had to flee Jerusalem, but his faithful soldiers stayed with him. Israel fought a civil war between the forces of David and the forces of Absalom. David begged his soldiers to be gentle with his son, but when the leader of David’s forces found Absalom caught in a tree, he thought that the opportunity for victory was too good to miss. Joab killed the son of David while Absalom was hanging on a tree. David wanted to mourn over the death of his son, but Joab persuaded David to thank the soldiers who had fought for him and to celebrate their victory.

The ultimate Son of David, who is also the Son of God, also died hanging on a tree. He was arrested in Jerusalem, turned over to the Roman authorities, and crucified. Jesus was guilty of no rebellion against his Father, but while hanging on the cross he was treated as guilty for all the sins of the world. Though he might mourn the death of his only-begotten Son, God the Father still accepts the sinners whose wrongdoing brought about the death of Jesus. As Absalom’s death meant victory for David, so the death of Jesus means eternal victory for all those who trust in him. Their sins are forgiven, and they are welcomed by God into an eternal Kingdom, an eternal celebration of the victory Jesus won.

Solomon replaced his father David on the throne of Israel and built the Temple David had wanted to build. Solomon was a son of David, but he was not the promised Son of David. Solomon ruled Israel for forty years and then died; his kingdom was not eternal. Jesus, the Son of David and Son of God, rules an eternal kingdom. His death means forgiveness and life for all God’s people. Those who trust in Jesus are not merely servants of God and citizens of his Kingdom; we are royalty, for the King has adopted us into his family. His victory is our victory, and because of his death we will live forever.

*(originally posted August 2, 2015) J.

About angels

Last Saturday, September 29, was the annual festival of St. Michael and All Angels, sometimes shortened to Michaelmas. This minor holiday on the traditional Christian calendar provides an opportunity for Christians to think about the things we know about angels and to thank God for the place he has given angels in creation and in the life of the Church.

Here are some things we know about angels (along with some things we can reasonably guess):

  • Angels were created by God. Although the Bible does not tell us when angels were created, it is reasonable to guess that they were created at some point in the six days described in Genesis 1. Many Christians opt for the fourth day of creation—the day when God created the sun, moon, and stars—since stars are often associated with angels in the Bible.
  • Angels have always been angels and will always be angels. People do not become angels when they die. People who die remain human, even though their bodies and their souls are separated between their death and their resurrection.
  • Angels are not material beings. They do not contain any atoms or molecules. They take up no space in the three dimensions of creation, nor do they reflect light. When it is useful for an angel to be seen and heard, that angel glows with light instead of reflecting light. They Bible does not explain how immaterial angels make themselves heard by human ears.
  • The English word “angel” comes from a Greek word which means “messenger.” Likewise, the Hebrew word in the Old Testament translated as angel means “messenger.” Sometimes the same word is used to describe human messengers. (This may be the case in the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3.) The reason this word is used to describe the beings we call angels is that (most of the time) when humans interact with angels, the task of the angel is to deliver a message to the human.
  • Other names for angels found in the Bible include cherubim (single = cherub) and seraphim (single = seraph). These Hebrew words depict the glowing or burning appearance of the angels. Early medieval Christian writers deduced nine levels of hierarchy among the angels, including thrones, principalities, and powers. Michael is named as an archangel, or head of the angels (but see below). Gabriel is the only other angel named in the sixty-six books of the Bible. (Raphael is an angel named in the Apocrypha.)
  • Moses described Jesus as an angel—namely, the Angel of the Lord. This reflects knowledge of the Holy Trinity in the writings of Moses, as he speaks of the Lord, the Angel of the Lord, and the Spirit of the Lord. The Angel of the Lord frequently speaks of God in the third person (“he” rather than “I”) but also says things that only God can say. Some Christians believe that Michael the archangel (or head of the angels) is also Jesus, since he has authority over all the angels of heaven.
  • Early in time, some angels rebelled against God and tried to grasp his authority over creation. The leader of the rebellious angels is called the devil. He is also named Satan (which means the accuser or the prosecutor). Some Christians deduce that Satan drew one third of the created angels into his rebellion. (Revelation describes a dragon who swept one third of the stars out of the sky with his tail.) If so, that means that the faithful angels outnumber the rebellious angels two-to-one, not to mention that they serve on the side of the Almighty God, whom Satan opposes.
  • The Bible says only that Satan rebelled against God because of Satan’s pride. It appears that Satan understands power and authority, but he cannot grasp love and mercy. Therefore, Satan believes he is stronger than the loving and merciful God. It is fitting, then, that the Lord defeated Satan through a sacrifice given because of God’s love.
  • Whenever humans break a commandment of God, whether through an act that is against what God has said or through neglect to do what God requires, that person declares independence from God and joins in the devil’s rebellion. Pure and untempered justice would require that sinners be forced to accept the consequences of that choice and to share the devil’s punishment for rebellion. Because his nature is to love, God is unfair to human sinners, providing a way to be rescued from their sin and from Satan’s power. That rescue is accomplished by the perfect righteousness of Jesus, the Son of God who became human, and by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. The resurrection of Jesus proves his victory over the devil, death, and all evil. All who trust in Jesus and in his life, death, and resurrection, share also in his victory.
  • Jesus lived, died, and rose again as a human being to redeem human beings. Jesus has done nothing to redeem Satan and the rebellious angels. The Bible does not explain why God made that distinction between angels and human beings, choosing to rescue the latter but not the former from rebellion and its consequences.
  • It appears that after Satan’s rebellion, God has hardened all the angels into their state of obedience or disobedience. The obedient angels are not in danger of a future fall into sin, nor are the rebellious angels given an opportunity to renounce their rebellion and return to the Lord.
  • The power of the devil is in his lies. He persuades people to sin by lying to them, and he tries to block their path to redemption by lying, saying that they cannot be forgiven and that God does not love them anymore. The power of God’s Word overturns the devil’s lies. To those who know and believe God’s Word, the devil is like a lion caged at the zoo, separated from those he wants to harm. Those who discard God’s Word are like visitors to the zoo who climb into the exhibit and try to play with the lions.
  • Satan’s fall from heaven does not happen at a single time in human history. Rather, Satan falls from heaven whenever and wherever God’s Word is proclaimed and believed. Satan has been falling ever since God spoke the first Gospel promise to the first sinners. Satan fell from heaven when the apostles of Jesus proclaimed his Word in Galilee (Luke 10:18). Satan falls as pastors, missionaries, and any Christians share God’s Gospel promise with sinners.
  • God assigns angels to watch over his people in this sinful world. Although at times those angels can intervene to protect or save a human life, their primary desire is to preserve faith in the heart of the believer. At death, angels carry the soul of the believer to Paradise to await the resurrection. According to God’s will, guardian angels permit suffering and even death to happen to a Christian. We cannot know how many times and how many ways each of us has been protected by an angel.
  • Angels, as our guardians, take their orders from God. We cannot tell angels what to do. In the new creation, when all our sin has been removed, we will have authority over angels. We cannot exercise authority over angels today.
  • Angels do not want us to pray to them or to be distracted by them from God. Angels want our faith and trust to be in Christ Jesus and not in angels. Even when studying what the Bible says about angels, Christians do well to remember Christ and his cross and to keep them central in their thinking.
  • On the Day of the Lord angels will be active in gathering Christ’s people from all parts of the Earth to join Jesus in his glorious appearing. They will accompany Christ Jesus as he brings the souls of the saints from Paradise and raises their bodies for life in the new creation. Satan and all rebellious angels will be cast out of the new creation. Humans who have refused to trust Christ and believe his promises will share the devil’s punishment. This is just, because they did not want to be with Christ during their lifetimes, and they would be miserable in the new creation where Christ will always be present for everyone living there. But the believers—body and soul united, never again to be separated—will live forever with Christ and with all the faithful angels in a perfect new creation, never to be stained by rebellion, sin, or death.

J.

Guest post from Johannes Tauler

Years ago we used to sing a song in church with the title and refrain, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Christians indeed ought to be recognized by their love. We were created in God’s image, and God is love. Redemption transforms sinners back into the image of Christ, and Christ is love. The greatest commandments require us to love God and to love our neighbors. Love should be characteristic of every Christian.

This month several Christian bloggers have commented on other people who call themselves Christian and yet are deficient in love for their neighbors. Such observations generally are tempered by the understanding that not one of us is without sin; and that even the most annoying and aggravating Christian would likely be an even worse person without the redemption of Christ and the guiding of the Holy Spirit. One saying tells us that we cannot understand another person until we have walked a mile in his or her shoes. (Taken literally, that’s a silly picture. What would we do—expect them to walk that mile barefoot? Or leave them barefoot while we take their shoes a mile away from them?) We cannot know what kind of aches and pains, digestive problems, fears, and anxieties might cause another person to act unloving towards his or her neighbors. If they that they are Christians, we owe it to them to assume that they are doing the best they can under the circumstances. At the same time, Scripture encourages Christians to exhort one another toward a higher standard of behavior. If the love of Christ has changed our lives, we want to bear witness to his love by example and not by words alone.

Johannes Tauler would have blogged if he had the technology. Born around 1300, he never had that opportunity. Instead, he preached and he taught. Tauler noticed the people of his century who called themselves Christians, yet whose lives made that label questionable. He observed, “Then there are the others, who are devoted to religious life and enjoy great esteem and reputation. They are pretty sure that they have left the darkness far behind; and yet they are fundamentally Pharisees, filled with self-love and self-will. All their striving is centered on themselves. Outwardly one can barely tell them from God’s friends, for they often spend more time on pious exercises than God’s friends. One can always see them reciting prayers, keeping fasts, and strict rules. If judged by externals, they are hard to recognize. But those in whom God’s Spirit dwells know them for what they are. In fact, even outwardly there is a way of distinguishing them. They are always sitting in judgment upon others, also on those who love God: but you never see them judging themselves, whereas the true lovers of God judge no one but themselves. In everything, in God and in his creatures, such people seek nothing but their own gratification. So deeply embedded is this pharisaical tendency in their nature that every corner of the world is invaded by it. It is impossible to overcome this habit by natural means: one might as well try to break down mountains of iron. There is only one way, and that is for God to take over and inhabit man. And this is what he does only for those who love him.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same. J.

She speaks, yet she says nothing–what’s with that?

Language is a strange and wonderful thing. Whereas Pythagoras believed that reality at its most basic level consists of numbers, the Bible reports that God spoke the universe and all that it contains into existence. Moreover, when the Son of God entered creation to redeem and rescue it from evil, one of his followers identified him as “the Word” and wrote, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”

On the other hand, when a group of people defied God and sought to build a tower as a symbol of their defiance, God overturned their rebellion by causing them to speak different languages. Humble and loving people could have overcome this opposition by learning to communicate with one another, but arrogant people like the tower-builders each insisted that he or she was speaking the only proper language and that those who spoke another language were wrong. As a result, the tower was never built.

Since that time, languages have changed, mixed, spread, and in some cases disappeared. English is largely a blend of Germanic and Latin vocabulary and grammar, with some Celtic and other influences stirred into the mix as well. As a result of that mixture and of centuries of change, English contains many mysteries, such as the contradictory pronunciation of the words “tough,” “though,” “through,” and “thought.” New words regularly appear. The word “inflammable” means “likely to burst into flame.” At some point in the twentieth century, someone feared that people would misunderstand the word “inflammable” and shortened it to “flammable.” Now both words are in the dictionary, with identical meanings, even though it appears they should be antonyms rather than synonyms.

A friend of mine thought she could obtain an easy A in high school by taking classes in Spanish. After all, she spoke Spanish at home with her family every day. To her disappointment, she discovered that speaking Spanish at home was not the same as understanding Spanish. Her grammar was not up to her teacher’s standards, her spelling was incorrect, and her vocabulary was smaller than she realized. Getting a good grade in her own language turned out to be far more difficult than she had expected.

This week another blogger took me to task for referring to the meaning of the Greek prefix “anti” in the title “antichrist.” In the Greek of the New Testament, as written in the first century A.D., the prefix “anti” means “taking the place of,” not so much “in opposition to,” as it signifies in contemporary English. The blogger’s rebuttal of my comment surprised me so much that I did not respond, and now it’s water under the bridge, too late for a meaningful discussion. If I offended anyone by seeming too proud of my knowledge of Biblical Greek, I apologize. But the blogger’s suggestion that knowing Greek and Hebrew are not helpful for understanding the Bible carries things a bit too far.

On the one hand, to learn the commandments of God and to see that we have not kept those commandments does not require any knowledge of Greek or Hebrew. The English translations convey that message quite well. To recognize Jesus as the Son of God who redeems and rescues sinners through his sinless life and sacrificial death also requires no special language skills. Once again, the translated Bible conveys that message effectively. To know of his victorious resurrection, his guarantee of eternal life in a new creation, and his ongoing presence in this world also requires no Greek or Hebrew studies. In this case also, the basic message is communicated flawlessly in any translation of the Bible.

Anyone who presumes to teach others about the Bible should go beyond these basics. Even if he or she does not learn to read Hebrew and Greek fluently, he or she at least should be capable of consulting reference books on the Bible and understanding their application. Not only does the Bible need to be translated from ancient languages into contemporary languages; information about the cultures in which the Bible was written needs to be learned as well. Misunderstandings of certain verses and conflicts between different interpretations of the Bible are reduced (but, alas, in a sin-stained world, not eliminated) by consulting the Bible in its original languages and contexts rather than trusting contemporary translations to convey the full meaning and nuance of each word, each sentence, and each paragraph.

The other blogger mentioned a case in which a man from Athens corrected a preacher who referred to some Greek word or phrase from the New Testament. Because no details were included, I cannot tell whether the preacher was truly in error or if the preacher was kind and polite enough not to insist to the man from Athens that the preacher was correct in his interpretation. Consider a similar scenario: a person in France has studied Elizabethan English in order to understand the plays of Shakespeare. Now this French person is teaching a class on Shakespeare. A man from North Carolina challenges the teacher’s explanation of a certain line, insisting that he has spoken English all his life and is better qualified to explain Shakespeare than anyone who grew up in France. (By the way, Andy Griffith performed a wonderful routine about Romeo and Juliet in which, when Juliet exclaims, “Romeo, Romeo, wherefor art thou Romeo?” and Romeo responds, in a thick Carolina accent, “Why I’m right here.”)

A Cuban-born woman once asked me the rule for when the letter t should be pronounced like a d in English. Until that time I had not noticed how often Americans pronounce ts as ds. Say the sentence “I wrote a letter to my sister” with crisp ts and notice how odd it sounds. But if a rule exists about when ts sound like ds, I’ve never learned it. By the same token, Spanish speakers often distinguish “b as in burro” and “v as in vaca” because their bs and vs sound the same.

Language is a strange and wonderful thing. When we think casually about communication, we tend to think of a single message being sent from one person to another. But there are several versions of each message: the version the creator intended, the version actually produced, and the version received by the audience. To further complicate matters, there is the actual creator and the creator assumed by the audience, as well as the actual audience and the audience assumed by the creator. When carefully studying a message, all these versions and participants must be kept in mind. It’s a wonder that two of us can communicate at all in this crazy world. J.

The book of Job

“There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). The Lord pointed out Job to Satan, noting these qualities of Job, and Satan replied that Job was faithful only because God had blessed him with wealth and worldly comforts. God permitted Satan to afflict Job, while placing limits upon the harm Satan could do. Job lost all his wealth in one catastrophic day, and his ten adult children died the same day. Afterward, Job was afflicted with a painful rash, something like chicken pox or shingles, that covered him from head to toe. Despite all these problems, Job remained faithful to God.

Three friends came to comfort Job. While they sat silently with him, they did well. When Job started to speak out of his pain and depression, they fell short. Job wished aloud for a hearing with the Lord so Job could protest his innocence and learn why God was causing such problems in his life. The friends responded, essentially, that God does not make mistakes. The losses of wealth and family and health were, they said, a wake-up call for Job, a warning to fix his life so God would be pleased with him again.

At the end of the book, God says that Job’s friends are wrong. God did not afflict Job to correct Job’s behavior. Before God speaks, though, the four men are addressed by a younger man named Elihu. Elihu is disappointed in Job’s friends because they failed to set Job straight. Although Elihu does not join them in saying Job deserves to suffer, Elihu suggests that Job is in the wrong for demanding an explanation from God. His language, becoming increasingly vivid as he speaks of stormy weather approaching, anticipates God addressing Job from a whirlwind.

God does not say that Elihu was wrong. Instead, he reminds Job of their relative positions, asking Job where Job was when God created the world. Mockers and critics have said that they do not approve of God’s word to Job. They think that God should have confessed his part in what they call a “cosmic bet.” Their sympathy is with Job, and they do not accept this book’s solution to the problem of why good people suffer while the wicked seem to flourish.

Whenever Christians read any portion of the Bible, we should look for portrayals of Jesus. Job has a particularly memorable confession of faith in Christ: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another” (Job 19:25-27). Job himself is a Christ-like figure, an Old Testament picture of Jesus, suffering though he does not deserve to suffer. Recognizing Job as a picture of Christ helps us to see more clearly the full message of the book of Job.

God does not want his people to sin. He guides us by his commandments, not through our problems as his response to our sins. His Holy Spirit, using the Bible, teaches us why we were created and what we are on earth to do. We sin every day, failing to live up to our Creator’s standards, but every day we confess our sins and every day we are forgiven. God does not treat us as our sins deserve. We live under a new covenant, one in which God takes away our sins and remembers them no more.

Because we live in an evil and sin-polluted world, we suffer. Evil is not fair; it is random and unjust, striking the good and bad alike. When we see a random act of evil, we remember how desperately we need a Savior. When we suffer, God permits the pain and the loss to remind us of the cross, the pain and the loss Jesus endured for us. As Job was a picture of Jesus before Jesus was born, so we are pictures of Jesus today, not only by our efforts to obey God’s commandments, but also by our endurance and patience when we suffer, looking to God in faith and not failing to trust in him.

Like Job, we are blameless and upright in the sight of God. Like Job, we have no right to question God’s decisions or second-guess the burdens he allows us to bear. Like Job, when we do question the Lord, we are forgiven. We may not receive the answers we demand during this lifetime. Then again, perhaps we do.

God leads Job through a lesson in biology, pointing to the variety of living creatures God has made, and asking if Job could do anything remotely comparable. The list concludes with two monsters. The first is Behemoth, which some people think is an elephant, others a hippopotamus, and others a dinosaur. The second is Leviathan, which some people think is a crocodile, others a legendary sea monster. Could, however, Leviathan be Satan? Consider these descriptions: “Will he make many pleas to you? Will he speak to you with soft words?… Lay your hands on him: remember the battle—you will not do it again! Behold, the hope of a man is false; he is laid low even at the sight of him. … His sneezings flash forth light, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn. Out of his mouth go flaming torches; sparks of fire leap forth. Out of his nostrils comes forth smoke, as from a flaming pot and burning rushes. His breath kindles coals, and a flame comes forth from his mouth…. He sees everything that is high; he is king over all the sons of pride” (Job 41: 3, 8-9, 18-21, 34). What other created being so resembles the dragon of Revelation 12?

If Leviathan is a picture of Satan, then Job is told (in a round-about way) the source of all his problems and the reason for his suffering. He is warned that on his own he cannot defeat Satan; but, like us, Job is not alone. Jesus has battled Satan, and Jesus has won. When our sufferings remind us of the cross, we can look beyond the cross to the victory—and to the eternal victory celebration that awaits us in the new creation.

At the end of the book, Job has twice as much money and twice as many animals as he had at the beginning of the book. At the beginning Job lost ten children; by the end of the book he again has ten children. Why was the number of children not doubled? Because on the Last Day, when Job sees his Redeemer with his own eyes, he will be reunited again with all twenty of his children. The first ten were not lost as the animals and other worldly wealth were lost. They died, but they were in Paradise awaiting the resurrection. Because Job feared God and turned away from evil, his faith was able to sustain him during his suffering, and his hope in the resurrection for himself and for his children was not crushed. J.

Baptism

InsanityBytes wrote a charming piece on baptism which you can (and should) read here. As I commented to her, I agree with most of what she wrote. Many of the other comments began to head in several different directions. There are some more things I want to say about baptism, but rather than trying to say them all in her comments section, I decided to say them here.

First, Christians can disagree about baptism without condemning one another. We can have different opinions about what baptism is, what it accomplishes, where and how it should be done, and so on. To use technical language, each Christian believes that he or she is orthodox (or correct) and that Christians who disagree are heterodox (or incorrect), but we do not accuse the heterodox of being heretics, hypocrites, or unbelievers. We have the same Lord and Savior. We will meet in the same new creation, where we will know and understand all truth and will be able to identify (without shame or embarrassment) who was wrong about what teachings in this world.

Why then continue to discuss baptism? Why not “agree to disagree” and remain silent? Because those Christians who misunderstand baptism are missing the fullness of a blessing God intends them to enjoy. Because of their misunderstanding, they are missing the peace and comfort that comes to them through their baptism.

The key question is: is baptism something we do for God or is baptism something God does for us? If baptism is a work we do for God, then it cannot be involved in our salvation, for we are saved by grace through faith and not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9). But Peter wrote, “Baptism now saves you” (I Peter 3:21). On Pentecost, to answer the question “what shall we do?” Peter answered, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children” (pardon a little throat clearing at that last phrase) (Acts 2:37-39). Mark 16:16 says, “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved, but he who does not believe will be condemned.”

Can God save people apart from baptism? Of course; God can do anything. Unbelief condemns; lack of baptism does not condemn. But God links salvation to baptism for a very important reason. Even the most faithful Christian sins, and we all need assurance of forgiveness that goes beyond our repentance and our faith. We all have bad days when we wonder if we have repented correctly and sufficiently; we all have times when we wonder if our faith is strong enough for us to be saved. If we were left only to measure our repentance and our faith by the way we feel or by the good works that we do, we would be left in doubt.

To rescue us from doubt, God gave us the gift of baptism. When the devil and the sinful world and the sin still within us accuse us and make us doubt our faith and our salvation, baptism is our escape. Because God has linked the promises of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life to the blessing of baptism, we use baptism as our defense when we doubt or when others attack. The correct attitude is not, “I was baptized on a certain day,” but, “I am baptized.” Baptism is a state of grace under which each Christian lives in this world while looking forward to the life to come.

Earlier this year I wrote more about baptism, which you can read here, here, here, and here. J.

Driving me crazy

When Jesus was growing up in Nazareth, his family must have owned a donkey. It was a stubborn creature, old, unreliable, and mean-tempered. They did what they could with it, but it tested their patience. They would have preferred a different beast of burden, but it was all they could afford. In fact, keeping it fed and in good health cost them considerably, but their family needed it to get things done.

The Bible and the Church assure us that Jesus understands us because he is one of us. He is fully God, but he is also fully human. He was tempted in every way we are tempted, but he never sinned. When we pray about our problems, he understands, because he has faced the same problems himself.

My car is a twenty-year-old Escort. It’s not a Lincoln or Cadillac or Buick—just a common Ford to carry me home. It still gets decent gas mileage—about thirty miles per gallon, sometimes better on long journeys. I have the oil changed regularly and other maintenance as needed. But like the donkey back in Nazareth, there are days when my old car tests my patience and tempts me to sin.

Tuesday was one of those days. I left work, walked to my car, got in, and turned the key. It coughed once and died. The reason was obvious: a dead battery. I have enough experience with cars to know when a battery can be jumpstarted and when it is simply dead, dead, dead. This battery was beyond hope and needed to be replaced.

I called home for help. Fortunately a member of the family was available to bring me my tools and give me a ride to Walmart. Less fortunately, Walmart was out of stock of the battery my car needed. We made another stop at an auto parts store and bought the right battery for thirty dollars more than Walmart would have charged. I was driven back to my car, put in the new battery, and was ready to drive again.

Thursday was another of those days. As I drove to work, I saw that one of my warning lights was flickering on and off. The meaning of the warning was low oil pressure. I left work early that afternoon and took the car to our regular mechanic. The warning light did not come on during that afternoon drive. I described the problem to the mechanic and suggested that the oil be changed, since the scheduled change was only a few weeks away. He changed the oil and checked the other systems for the usual fee. He assured me that the oil level was not low and suggested that the light could have been triggered by a faulty sensor.

God does not permit problems in the lives of his people for no reason. We are told that suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance produces character, and character produces hope. Our hope is in Jesus, who lived among us as one of us and faced all the problems we face. He was tempted, but he never sinned. He shares his victory with us. Because he suffered for us, we are victorious even when we suffer. We are more than conquerors, because he has defeated all our enemies and welcomes us to be partners in his celebration.

Jesus never changed a car battery or a tire. He never had a computer crash, losing all his writing and his photographs. He never had to call a plumber or an electrician. He never had to file an insurance claim. Yet his first-century life had its share of frustrations, no doubt. Jesus had to battle traffic in Capernaum and Nain and other cities. He probably had rude and annoying neighbors. And of course there was that donkey.

Jesus understands our problems. Technology has changed the way we live, but it has not changed human nature. Annoyances and frustrations and unpleasant surprises happen to us all. They always have, ever since sin entered the world, and they always will, until Christ appears in glory to make everything new. But God’s grace and mercy and love are also unchanging. Hope does not disappoint us. The Lord is in charge, and we can rely upon him in all things. J.

Training and discipline from the Lord’s hand: part five

Training and discipline must have a purpose. Earthly fathers, teachers, and coaches do not put children into difficult situations for no purpose. They seek to develop good characteristics, preparing the children for life’s upcoming events. If God permitted Satan to test Job, God was not being arbitrary toward Job or using Job to win a bet. God had a good reason to allow the testing, and Job somehow was improved by the experience. If God permits you and me to struggle in our lives, he is not being arbitrary toward us. He has a good reason to allow the testing, and we somehow are improved by the experience.

God’s training and discipline are not responses to our sins, because God has forgiven our sins and remembers them no longer. What, then, is God seeking to accomplish by our hardships? The answer can perhaps be found in the way Jesus reacted to his chosen apostles. He chose them—they belonged to him—they were covered by his forgiveness as surely as any Christian is covered by his forgiveness. But it appears that Jesus sometimes lost patience with his apostles. As God he is all-knowing and all-powerful, eternal and unchanging. At the same time, Jesus is human. He is like us every way, except that he never sinned. The sins of others angered him. He cleared the Temple of those who were misusing it. He lectured about the shortcomings of the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus taught God’s Law clearly to all who would listen. But what about times when his chosen and forgiven apostles aggravated Jesus? Here are five examples:

“Behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but [Jesus] was asleep. And they went and woke him, saying, ‘Save us, Lord; we are perishing.’ And he said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?’” (Matthew 8:24-26)

“Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ [Jesus] said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, ‘Lord, save me.’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’” (Matthew 14:28-31)

“When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, ‘We brought no bread.’ But Jesus, aware of this, said, ‘O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not perceive?’” (Matthew 16:5-9)

“From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.’” (Matthew 16:21-23)

And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and kneeling before him, said, ‘Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.’ And Jesus answered, ‘O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.’ And Jesus rebuked him, and the demon came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ He said to them, ‘Because of your little faith.’” (Matthew 17:14-20)

If anything frustrates Jesus, he is frustrated to see his own chosen people fail to exercise their faith. Jesus grants faith to his people, but he also expects us to exercise that faith. When we fear and doubt, when we lose sight of the cross and try to belong to Jesus without it, when we try to serve him by our own power rather than his power, then we fail. We do not lose our forgiveness—not unless we completely lose our faith. But Jesus wants us to be focused on him, not on ourselves. He wants us to measure his power, not our faith.

This is not to say that the wrath of God falls upon Christians when our faith is too small. Just the opposite: we are saved from God’s wrath by even the smallest faith, provided that our faith is in Jesus Christ, who drank from the cup of his Father’s wrath toward sinners until the cup was empty. But God, in loving discipline and training, gives us faith-lifting exercises even as coaches assign weight-lifting exercises to athletes. Even if Jesus is frustrated by our little faith, he also loves us and wants to see that faith grow—not for his benefit, but for our benefit.

God trains us through adversity, because “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5). For this reason we rejoice, because our sufferings draw us to the cross of Christ, where all our sins are forgiven, and all our enemies are defeated, and we are claimed as God’s people forever. J.

Training and discipline from the Lord’s hand: part four

Hebrews 11 is often called the Honor Roll of Faith. Great believers of the Old Testament are mentioned along with the obstacles they faced and overcame through their faith in the coming Savior. Verses 35 to 38 particularly focus on believers who were tortured, imprisoned, and killed because of their faith. All these faithful believers are summarized in Hebrews 12:1 as a great cloud of witnesses watching us run the face, and the culmination of this list is Jesus himself, “the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

The transition to God’s discipline follows from this mention of Jesus and the cross: “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Hebrews 12:3-4). Notice the progression: the saints of the Old Testament suffered, sometimes violently, from the attacks of enemies to their faith. Jesus suffered and died at the hand of such enemies also. We can expect opposition of the same kind, even if it has not yet become as violent as that which Jesus and other servants of God faced.

From this perspective it appears that the discipline of God comes through the enemies of God, which are also our enemies—namely, the devil, the sinful world, and the sin still within each of us. Job was tested by Satan, even though he did not deserve to suffer. God permitted the testing but also limited it. Paul’s thorn in the flesh was “a messenger of Satan to harass me” (II Corinthians 12:7). Jesus once said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).

Every setback and disappointment that a Christian faces is not discipline from the hand of God. Some burdens we bear in common with all people, believers and unbelievers alike. Colds, allergies, diabetes, cancer, anxiety, depression: these are not crosses we bear for Christ, nor are they discipline from God. They are part of the result of living in a sin-polluted world. When the car stalls in traffic, when rain falls on our picnic, when an unexpected bill comes in the mail, God is not calling us to examine our lives and determine which sin he wants us to quit. God does not want us to sin at all, but our sins are forgiven. Christ was beaten as he did not deserve to rescue us from discipline we deserve.

On the other hand, we are being trained to live as God’s people. When our faith and obedience annoys God’s enemies, we must be doing something right. God allows us to experience their resistance to strengthen our faith. Whatever difficulties we face are good for us, as they direct our attention to the price Christ paid to redeem us. The devil wants us to struggle so he can convince us that God does not love us or is not taking care of us. When our struggles remind us of the cross of Christ, of all that he paid to make us his people, then the devil loses in his opposition and we share once again in the victory Christ has won.

Guilt is good when it brings us to the cross. Guilt is bad when it drives us to examine our sins and try to fix our own lives to please God. The devil uses our sense of guilt as a weapon against us. When trouble strikes and the question arises: “What did I do to deserve this?” we usually can think of answers to that question. But no discipline from God is a response to our sins. God has blotted out all our sins with the blood of his Son. He sees each of us now through his Son’s righteousness. God does not want us to sin, but he also does not want us to focus all our attention on our sins. He wants us to set our eyes on Jesus and to find strength and comfort and hope in him.

To be continued…. J.