The beauty of diverse styles of Christian worship

This spring I’ve been giving a series of lectures on World Religions. A week ago, I spoke about Christianity. This morning before class a woman took me aside to share her experiences within the Christian faith. She had been Lutheran, but a few years ago she switched to an Anglican congregation, which she says is very similar. (I agree.) She also attends a non-denominational church once a month with a friend (and she goes to that congregation’s weekly Bible class as well). She commented that she had attended the Easter Saturday service at the non-denominational church, but it hadn’t felt right. She then began to list for me the things missing from the service, such as a reading from one of the Gospels, and the Lord’s Prayer. But, she said, the preacher’s homily was good and quoted a lot of Bible verses.

The main thing for her, she said, was looking around and seeing lots of young adults at the non-denominational service. She figured that if the church was drawing them in and they were learning about Jesus, she wasn’t going to complain about the music (unfamiliar to her) or the parts of the service that were missing. I agreed with her that it’s good that Christian worship is diverse, that there are different ways of worshiping that appeal to different people. (I think that was the point that she was making, reflecting my discussion last week about enormous diversity within Christian thought and practice.) But I also mentioned that not all young people are drawn to the sort of worship offered in the non-denominational churches. Some young people enjoy the historic liturgy. They crave the traditions that grew in the Church over the centuries, the forms of worship that have united rather than dividing the saints of the Church across lines of age and economic status and culture. When those traditions are followed without being explained, they can be dry and boring, and therefore distracting. Where the meaning of the traditions is taught and shared, many Christians find great meaning and joy in the divine service as it has been followed for many generations.

Twenty years ago I might have said more to this woman about the richness of Christian traditional liturgy. In this case, I was quick to say that diversity is good, that the Church as a whole is blessed when Christians in a city can choose among different forms of worship, whether traditional, contemporary, or blended. I sincerely hope that the traditional liturgy never disappears; but I am glad that Christians who do not find liturgy meaningful can worship in a style that suits their personality and draws them closer to the Lord.

When I was in school, we students often discussed the different levels of formality in worship styles. One of my friends referred to those levels as “very formal, somewhat more casual, and massive casualty.” In a formal setting, worshipers sit on pews; in a somewhat more casual setting, they sit on folding chairs; and in massive casualty they sit in bean bag chairs. In a formal setting, the pastor wears a long white robe (called an alb) or perhaps a long black robe under a shorter white robe (called, respectively, a cassock and a surplice); in a somewhat more casual setting, the pastor wears a business suit; and in massive casualty the pastor wears a Hawaiian shirt. In a formal setting, the singing of the congregation is accompanied by a pipe organ; in a more casual setting, the singing is accompanied by a small rock band; in massive casualty, singing is accompanied by either a mariachi band or an accordion—and, of course, in some congregations the singing is accompanied by no instruments at all.

So long as the message of Jesus is taught and his forgiveness is shared, the style of worship is less important than the content of the message in the preaching, the singing, and the other elements of the service. New styles that help draw attention to Christ’s message are good; new styles that distract people from his message are bad. Traditions that help draw attention to Christ’s message are good; traditions that distract people from his message are bad. The Church exists for Christ, to be both his Body and his Bride. Distractions of any kind should give way to those things that serve his purpose. And, in different gatherings of Christians, those things that serve is purpose may be different indeed. J.

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Conspiracy theories about Christianity: #1: Did Jesus exist in history?

When we speak or write about Jesus, Christians frequently are confronted by statements intended to disprove Christianity. Often these statements come from sincere unbelievers, although sometimes they are deliberate distortions of the truth. While we are unlikely to convert anyone to Christianity by reason alone—faith is a gift of God that dwells in the heart, not a set of propositions that dwell in the head—it is helpful to have an answer to those who question what we believe. It is particularly helpful for believers to be assured that many of the challenges to our faith come from misunderstandings and distortions. Therefore, this week I plan to address seven objections to Christianity that could be described as conspiracy theories about the Church and its teachings.

Today’s conspiracy theory is the challenge that Jesus of Nazareth never existed—that he is an invention of the Church. Few people actually believe that Jesus never existed, and almost none of the people who make that claim are professional historians. But rather than argue from the basis of majority opinion, it helps to have additional proof of the historical existence of Jesus.

The few who say that Jesus never existed support their belief by saying that there is no written account of Jesus from the first century other than those written by Christians. The idea that the written accounts of Christians cannot be trusted to tell the truth about Jesus is unsound—it would be as if citizens of the United States were disqualified to write biographies of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. The collection of writings by Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, James, and Jude is in fact very strong evidence of the existence of the man they describe, Jesus of Nazareth, whom they call the Christ.

A Jewish historian who lived and wrote in the first century knew about Christians and was not a Christian. Flavius Josephus mentions Jesus in his history of Judaism. Some people believe that the surviving copies of Josephus’ work were edited by Christians to include favorable mention of Jesus. Such forgery cannot be disproved, but the demonstration becomes a circular argument: there are no nonChristian references to Jesus from the first century; Josephus wrote in the first century and mentioned Jesus; therefore Josephus’ book must have been altered by Christians. Roman historian Tacitus also makes a passing reference to the Christ worshiped by Christians, and the Mishnah—part of the Jewish Talmud, definitely not a Christian writing—also speaks of Jesus as a historical figure, one it seeks to undermine rather than support, but one that certainly is considered to have existed. Pliny, another Roman historian of the early second century, briefly describes Christians and Christ in a letter to the Emperor Trajan, asking what he should do about them. Trajan’s response was essentially, “Don’t ask; don’t tell”—in other words, don’t go looking for Christians, but if they make their presence known they must be punished for denying the other gods.

The strongest evidence of the existence of Jesus is not written evidence per se but is instead the very existence of the Church. True, the Romans were fascinated by exotic religions, and Christ could be compared to the Persian god Mithra or the Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris in being adopted by the Romans. But there are important differences. First, Christianity emerged out of Judaism, a religion most Romans ignored or mocked because of its firm monotheism. Second, Romans added Mithra and the others to the pantheon of gods without denying any of the other gods, something Christians refused to do. Third, Christ Jesus is firmly tied to historical figures such as Caesar Augustus, Pontius Pilate, and the high priest Caiaphas, rather than being pictured as part of the distant and shadowy past. Fourth, the details of what happened to Jesus should have been highly embarrassing to Christians—that he was rejected by the religious leaders of his own people and was crucified by the Roman authorities. Likewise, his first followers are far from heroic, as in the legends of most religions. Peter, Paul, and the others are fallible humans who often fall short and are not to be imitated as paragons of virtue.

The willingness of the first generation of Christians to face martyrdom for their teachings is unthinkable if Jesus never existed. The willingness of thousands of people to join his movement in such a short time could have been countered if the authorities were able to demonstrate that no Jesus of Nazareth was ever sentenced to be crucified in Jerusalem. The dramatic change that the teachings about Christ produced in first century people from Spain to India strongly supports a historic Jesus rather than a legend. And the fact that hundreds of millions of people still know him today, while unconvincing to a skeptic, must surely reassure believers that the Jesus they know must be the historic Jesus of Nazareth. J.

Advent thoughts: December 9

“Jesus [said], “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up’… But he was speaking about the temple of his body” (John 2:19, 21—skim II Chronicles 6:12-40).

King Solomon knew that God cannot be contained in a building. Other religions of the ancient world built temples for their gods, seeking to give their gods a dwelling place so the gods would be accessible to mortals. The true God fills the universe with his presence. No one can hide from God. No tree falls in the forest without God being there to hear it. Wherever we go, God is already there.

God directed Moses to have a tent built so God would have a visible presence among his people. God accepted the temple that Solomon dedicated to him. When the exiles returned from Babylon, God demanded that the temple be rebuilt. God cannot be contained, but he does want to be accessible. He wants his people to know where he can be found.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. Jesus Christ is truly God, yet he allowed his Being to be contained within a human body. Like God’s tent in the wilderness, Jesus was God’s presence in the midst of his people. And as first the Babylonians and later the Romans demolished God’s temple in Jerusalem, so Jesus gave up his body on the cross to rescue and redeem his people.

When Jesus ascended after his resurrection, he filled the universe with his presence. His body is not in storage somewhere waiting for the Day of the Lord. The human Jesus and the divine Jesus cannot be separated. Jesus, who is everywhere, is as human as we are. He understands our thoughts. He comprehends our needs. He knows what we experience when we face temptation, when we face danger, and when we face death. Jesus has already done all that.

Although we cannot see Jesus, we know where he promised to be found. “Where two or three gather in my name, there I am among them” (Matthew 18:20). The Christian Church is now the temple where Jesus can be found. Wherever Christians gather to hear the Word of the Lord, to baptize according to his command, and to eat and drink the special meal which Jesus gave to his disciples, Jesus is present. He is present to forgive sins. He is present to share his victory over sin and all evil. He is present to guarantee eternal life to all who trust his promises.

Jesus is the only temple we need. No one can come to God the Father except through Jesus. But wherever Jesus is found, the Father and the Holy Spirit are also present. And Jesus has promised to be found when believers gather in his name. He has established his Church, and no evil power can overcome the Church. Thanks be to God! J.

Advent thoughts: December 8

“Moreover, the Lord declares to you [David] that the Lord will make you a house…. I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (II Samuel 7:11-13—read II Samuel 7:1-17).

David wanted to build a Temple in Jerusalem. He wanted to provide a house for the Lord. Since the days of Moses, the house of the Lord had been a tent, a temporary structure that could be dismantled and moved from one place to another. While the Israelites were in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land, the dwelling of God had been in their midst, one special tent among many other tents. After they crossed the Jordan River and began to displace the Canaanites, the Israelites continued to gather at the Lord’s tent for sacrifices and religious festivals. Now that David had made Jerusalem the capital city of the tribes of Israel and had built himself a palace, he wanted to provide a fitting structure for the worship of the Lord.

God declined this gift. He did not want King David to build him a house. Instead, God said that he would build David a house. One of his descendants would rule an eternal kingdom. The name of David would be remembered forever because of his greater descendant.

David appears to have assumed that his son Solomon was the promised offspring. But God said that the Son of David would receive his kingdom after David died; when Solomon began to rule as king, David was still alive. God said that he would discipline the Son of David when he was found to be guilty of sin; but when Solomon sinned God did not discipline him as he deserved—he tore away the kingdom from Rehoboam, the son of Solomon. God said that the Son of David would rule an eternal kingdom; Solomon ruled for forty years and then died, and the kingdom he once ruled was eventually overthrown by the Babylonians.

“I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son,” God said of the Son of David. Therefore, the Son of God took on human flesh and was born in Bethlehem, the city of David, so he could inherit the throne of David. David had long since been dead and buried when Jesus claimed his kingdom. Although Jesus never sinned, he took on the guilt of the entire world and, bearing that sin, he was disciplined with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men. Solomon built a Temple in Jerusalem, but Jesus built a house out of living stones—the Holy Christian Church, which is his body and, therefore, is his Temple.

The Son of God is David’s son and also David’s Lord. He has received all authority in heaven and on earth. He rules an eternal kingdom, and he grants royal citizenship in that kingdom to all who trust in him. Thanks be to God! J.

Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs

“Oh sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth” (Psalm 96:1).

“…singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16).

The Old Testament and the New Testament both tell God’s people to sing. God created us, and he knows all about us. He knows that music shapes our thinking in a way that words alone cannot do. Children learn the alphabet to the tune of “Twinkle, twinkle little star.” Dementia victims whose memory is so badly damaged that they cannot carry on a conversation can still remember the songs they learned in their youth. Because music aids in memory and even in comprehension, God has told us to sing when we worship.

From the very beginning of the Church, Christians sang. Often they sang words from the Bible. Over time other Christian hymns were composed, such as the classic Te Deum laudumus (We praise you, O God). Historians cannot reproduce the tunes that early Christians used. We know something about how the music sounded because Greek mathematicians wrote about musical intervals and modes. Our major and minor keys would sound strange and foreign to people of the Roman Empire, and their music would sound strange and foreign to us.

During Roman times, a series of songs—mostly from the Bible—coalesced into what is known as the Divine Service or the Mass. Great composers of later times often wrote new tunes to accompany the Mass. The Mass consists of five songs, the Kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy—Mark 10:47), the Gloria in excelsis Deo (Glory to God on high—Luke 2:14), the Credo (I believe), the Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy—Isaiah 6:3, combined with Matthew 21:9) and the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God—John 1:29). Further comments about each of these will be made in the appropriate places.

Some of the earliest Christian music that can be reproduced today consists of chants arranged by Gregory the Great. These Gregorian chants are sung in the modes of the earlier Greek mathematicians and may approach the sound of the earliest Christians.

Over time Christian singing shifted from the congregation to choirs of professional singers, and most people in the church simply listened to the music. As part of the Reformation, Martin Luther restored congregational singing. He used the style of music that has become known as the German chorale. This music was called bar music, not because it came from the tavern, but because vertical lines (bars) separated the phrases of the singing. The flow of long notes and short notes is almost conversational in the chorales. They avoid an even rhythm, leading some historians to speculate that hymn writers in the sixteenth century did not want people to be able to sway to the music or do anything else that suggested dancing.

Johann Sebastian Bach was a Lutheran organist and choir director (as well as a professional composer and musician often hired by government officials). Along with his contemporaries, he refined church music, preferring only four beats to the bar over the longer phrases of the chorale (hence, “four-four time”). Bach and others of his generation also popularized the major keys which are familiar to Christians today. Bach’s tunes have a mathematical precision, even if they differed from the music theories of the ancient Greeks. The Methodist movement introduced another variation, making church music more emotional and more personal. Of course the twentieth century introduced many new things to Christian singing, such as guitars, drums, microphones and amplifiers, and projection screens to display the words of the hymns.

No doubt every innovation in worship has disappointed some Christians. Gregory’s chants and Luther’s chorales may have been as controversial and upsetting as rock music in the church can be controversial and upsetting for some people. God accepts and encourages diversity among his people. He is worshiped in many languages and many cultures, none of them being wrong and none of them being better than another. This does not mean, however, that in Christian worship, anything goes. Songs, hymns, and spiritual songs belong to the worship service; therefore, they should enhance worship and not inhibit worship.

A congregation’s collection of hymns should resemble the book of Psalms. Not all the Psalms are praise Psalms. Some Psalms cry out to God for help. Other Psalms confess sins and seek forgiveness. Some Psalms teach the history of God’s people. Like every other book of the Bible, the Psalms are about Jesus. They recognize him not only as the One by whom and for whom all things were made; they recognize him also as the righteous man who never sinned, as the atoning sacrifice for sinners, and as the victor over sin, evil, and death. So also the hymns and songs of the Church today should encompass all these themes. Not every hymn should have every theme, of course, but the collection of hymns—and even the choice of hymns for a single service—should in some way contain all these themes.

A service consisting of nothing but praise songs is like a meal consisting of nothing but ice cream and cake. The thought may seem attractive at first, but the problems with that diet become obvious over time. To eat no meat, no vegetables, and no grain would be to deprive oneself of protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. To sing only praise would not enable the members of the congregation to deal with the problems in their lives, the enemies they face, the danger of their own sins, and the work Jesus has accomplished to rescue them from sin and evil.

Every service has a theme, set by the Bible readings chosen for the service and the sermon which explains one or more of those readings. The hymns chosen for the service should match the theme of the readings and sermon. Moreover, the traditional Church has several seasons, and different hymns are fit for different seasons. Hymns for Christmas and Easter are more joyful; hymns for Advent and Lent are more somber. Clearly, the hymns for each service cannot be chosen by asking all the members which songs they like the best. Hymns should be chosen by someone sensitive to the moods of the Church year and aware of what the preacher intends to emphasize. If the preacher is not in charge of selecting hymns, the preacher and music director need to communicate and cooperate for the best possible service each week.

Choirs, praise teams, and other music leaders should help the congregation to sing. When they become performers and the congregation becomes an audience, the worship is crippled. Talented and trained musicians can help the congregation to sing. They can introduce new hymns and teach them to the congregation. They can add more difficult music to the service to support the hymn-singing of the congregation and to honor God. Like preachers, church musicians face the temptation of placing themselves at the center of the worship. They need frequently to remind themselves that Christ is being worshiped, that they are honoring him with their talents and abilities, and that the congregation gathered in his name, not in their names.

This chapter has taken longer than expected to write. I appreciate any thoughtful and helpful responses. J.

Sanctification

“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Christian Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.”

Luther explains, “What does this mean? I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the truth faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian Church he daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ. This is most certainly true.”

Salvageable adds: The second article of the Creed distinguishes Christians from nonChristians; the third article distinguishes some Christians from others. From the Bible Luther learned that not all people will be saved; only those who believe God’s promises, fulfilled in Christ, will be saved. Luther also learned that God does not want to condemn anyone and that the sacrifice of Jesus is sufficient to atone for every sinner who ever lived or who ever will live. But Luther found other verses in the Bible that say that people cannot come to Christ unless God draws them to himself. Jesus is a Shepherd going into the wilderness to find lost sheep; he is not waiting for the sheep to find him. Therefore, Luther credits God the Holy Spirit with giving him faith and with keeping that faith alive in him.

Luther’s gifts of the Holy Spirit are not those listed in I Corinthians 12, nor are they the fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5. Instead, the fruits that enlighten God’s people include the Word of God, that which was preached and written by apostles and prophets as guided by the Holy Spirit. The Word of God grants faith and helps that faith to mature. Other gifts of the Holy Spirit that enlighten Christians are the Holy Christian Church, where forgiveness is proclaimed, Holy Baptism, and Holy Communion.

Jesus died on the cross to purchase forgiveness for all sinners. The Holy Spirit brings forgiveness to sinners through those gifts. The Church which gathers around that forgiveness is kept together by those gifts. When God looks at his people, he does not see them gathered in many separate buildings, each with different labels on the front doors. God sees one Church, united by his Son and his Spirit, some waiting in Paradise for the resurrection of the dead and some still alive on earth.

When Jesus is seen in glory on the Day of the Lord, all the angels of heaven will be with him, along with all the saints. The bodies of everyone who ever lived will be raised and gathered for judgment. This judgment will be a verdict announced by Jesus, welcoming the saints into his kingdom but sending unbelievers to join the devil in his prison. The saints in Paradise today are not yet enjoying their final reward. Though they are away from the body, in the presence of God, a better world is still coming. The resurrection of the body is the beginning of life everlasting. Christians have that life today, but not in its fullness. On that Day we will truly be in heaven, as all the glory of heaven comes to renew this earth. J.

Judging the wolves

Jesus said, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-16). He never told us to judge ourselves by our fruits. If we want to know whether or not we are saved from evil and promised a place in heaven, we look to the Word of God. We trust what God has said there about our forgiveness and our place in his kingdom. We turn to the Church—the people of God gathered around God’s Word—and to the special blessings of the Church for confidence that we are the people of God, redeemed from all sin and evil, and guaranteed eternal life in a new creation.

We do not judge ourselves, but we do judge others. Especially those who claim to be prophets and teachers must be judged so we will be safe from false prophets and lying teachers. The best way to judge such a teacher is to compare the teacher’s words to God’s Word. If their teachings differ from the Bible, they are to be corrected; if they refuse correction, they are to be ignored. (Under the Law of Moses, they were to be executed.) Another way to assess the fruits of a preacher or teacher is consider their lives. I Timothy 3:1-7 describes the qualities that the leader of a congregation must have. Fourteen qualities are listed. While I do not want to comment upon all fourteen, several are worthy of special mention.

“Above reproach”—no one but Jesus is without sin, but not all sins are equal in this world. All sins equally separate sinners from God, and all sins are forgiven through Christ’s sacrifice, but in other ways some sins are worse than others. A leader who does not abuse authority can be considered beyond reproach. One who uses authority over others to take advantage of them does not belong among the leaders of the Church. The Church’s leaders are to be servants rather than lords.

“The husband of one wife”—aside from excluding polygamy, this qualification has generated controversy. Can the leader of a congregation remarry if his wife dies? What if the marriage ends in divorce, but it was entirely the fault of the wife? I am uncertain of the answer in these cases, but in other matters I am certain. A church leader who commits adultery, or one who abuses women or children, cannot remain in leadership or return to leadership. The sinner might repent, confess, and be forgiven, but even being forgiven that former leader cannot return to leadership. The harm he has done to others is too great to ignore, even under forgiveness.

“Not a drunkard”—sad to say, many Christian leaders buckle under stress and turn to alcohol or other addictive substances or behaviors rather than finding their strength in the Lord. While a person is under the power of an addiction, that person cannot lead others. Following recovery, including repentance and confession, I believe such a person can return to leadership in the Church.

“Not violent, but gentle; not quarrelsome”—how many prominent leaders in the Church do these words disqualify? When a person is causing fights and schisms in the Church, either by beginning such fights or by entering them as a participant rather than working as a peacemaker, that person should not be entrusted with a position of leadership. In this case, also, recovery, including repentance and confession, can be considered grounds for returning to leadership.

“Not a lover of money”—anyone who considers wealth to be proof of genuine faith and Christian living is unworthy of leadership in the Church. Anyone who teaches others to believe the same is unworthy of leadership in the Church. Some Christians are obsessed with money and worldly property. They have turned their backs upon God and upon treasures in heaven to claim as much wealth as they can seize on earth. Worse, they are using God’s name to gather such wealth. If they persist in this error, they face serious judgment on the Last Day. Meanwhile, those who will not be corrected should be ignored.

Many famous and prominent leaders in the contemporary Church fail to show these qualities. They are not fit to lead God’s people. So long as they persist in their errors, they should be regarded as ravenous wolves. Every Christian is advised to flee from such wolves and to seek protection from Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd. J.

“Your body is a temple of God”–part one

At times Christians say that we should take care of our bodies because they are God’s temples. Now, I am entirely in favor of maintaining our health. That is good stewardship of part of God’s creation. (See note #1, below.) But describing our bodies as God’s temples is a mistake—one which muddles what the apostle Paul wrote. It combines two or more references into a single thought that Paul did not intend.

Paul used the word “temple” in seven places among his epistles (counting multiple uses in the same sentence as one place). Only once does he refer to the actual building in Jerusalem (I Corinthians 9:13). Another time he refers to pagan temples (I Corinthians 8:10). In the remaining five places, Paul uses the word “temple” figuratively to speak about something else. These instances are worth analyzing one by one.

I Corinthians 3:16-17: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For the temple is holy, and you are that temple.” In every case, the word “you” in these verses is plural. If your Bible does not point that out in a footnote, and if you are unable to read the New Testament in Greek, then check out a King James translation. The translators used “ye”—the plural for you at that time. (See note #2, below.) The Christian Church, together, is one temple. Moreover, Paul is writing about Christian unity in this chapter, not about physical health.

I Corinthians 6:19-20: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” This verse comes closer to saying that each of us is a temple of God, but Paul specifies in this case “a temple of the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit of God does dwell within a Christian, granting saving faith and perseverance and guiding the Christian in doing good works. The topic of this part of Paul’s letter, though is sexual morality. He stresses that visiting a prostitute is a sin against God, especially against God the Holy Spirit. In ancient Greece, as in Canaan, prostitution was part of the pagan religion. Visiting a prostitute was an act of pagan worship. Therefore, it was wrong for a Christian to visit a prostitute. By extension, a preacher might use these two verses to talk about diet and exercise or other bodily matters, but that preaching goes beyond what Paul intended in these verses.

II Corinthians 6:16: “What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God, as God said, ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.’” Once again, the temple of God is the Christian Church. The pronoun is plural—we, not thou—but the temple is one temple. Together, we are all the temple of God.

Ephesians 2:19-22: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” Here Paul expands a simple figure of speech into an entire parable or allegory. Unmistakably, though, he is telling many Christians that together they are one temple.

II Thessalonians 2:3-4: “Let no one deceive you in any way. For that Day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.” Some people treat the temple in this verse as a physical structure. (See note #3, below.). When we apply Paul’s thoughts about the temple of God in his letters to the Corinthians and Ephesians, we see that the man of lawlessness (the antichrist) will be found among God’s people, not actively opposed to the visible Church. Hitler and Stalin were not fulfillments of Paul’s prophecy, nor would Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton qualify as the man of lawlessness. That false leader will draw God’s flock astray by false teaching inside the Church—taking his seat in the temple of God.

Having established the teaching that the temple of God, according to Paul, is the whole Christian Church, I will next explain what it means for the Church to be the temple of God. J.

  1. Stewardship is a technical term describing the way Christians take care of God’s property. It sometimes becomes confused with fundraising for the church, but stewardship involves far more. Adam and Eve were placed in charge of the planet. Their descendants are still in charge of taking care of the planet. Stewardship means meeting our worldly responsibilities—paying our taxes, for example. It includes caring for our families. Yes, taking care of our own health is also part of faithful stewardship. We can do far more to serve God and help our neighbors when we are healthy than when we are sick or out of shape.
  2. English has changed since the time the Bible was first translated into English and Shakespeare wrote his plays and sonnets. Like many other languages, English had one word for addressing a single person (thee and thou) and another for addressing more than one person (ye and you). That has probably fallen out of use because of the egalitarian nature of American and British society in modern times. You see, in English of that time, as in other languages, people would use the plural pronoun to speak to royalty or to other people of importance. I suspect the origin of that custom is the Holy Trinity. When God spoke to himself, he used the plural (“Let us make man in our image,” for example.), and some ancient rulers may have started imitating the Lord to emphasize their own importance and authority. That last part is mere speculation, but the elimination of “thee and thou” means that we use the same pronoun no matter who we are addressing and how important that person is.
  3. Of course some Christians believe that this verse must be read literally and will be fulfilled literally. They anticipate that the Day of the Lord cannot arrive until a third temple has been built in Jerusalem for the man of lawlessness to defile. These becomes part of an elaborate narrative based on a few verses of Scripture taken out of context—but that can be the topic of another post.

Christ in Genesis: the Bride

Isaac is a picture of Christ in at least three ways. His birth was promised in advance, just as Moses and the prophets promised the coming of Christ. Isaac’s birth to ninety-year-old Sarah was a miracle, just as Christ’s birth to the virgin Mary was a miracle. Isaac’s father was willing to sacrifice him for the good of the world, just as God the Father accepted the sacrifice of his Son for the good of the world. It stands to reason, then, that the bride of Isaac should in some way resemble the Bride of Christ, the Holy Christian Church.

Abraham sent a servant to find a wife for his son Isaac and bring her to him. So also God sent prophets to prepare the way of the Lord, so that believers in the coming Savior were rescued by the same faith in Jesus that rescues Christians today. The apostles were sent to make disciples of all nations, and missionaries are still sent into the world, so that the Church will consist of people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9).

Abraham’s servant prayed to God for help. Those who preach and proclaim God’s Word do not save sinners by their own words of persuasion. Only Jesus saves sinners; only the Holy Spirit creates saving faith through God’s Word. The servant brings the message, but only God can provide the answer.

God answers the servant’s prayer “before he had finished speaking” (Genesis 24:15). The timeless God knows what we need and what we will pray. He wants us to pray, to keep in touch with him, but he generously provides for us—even more than what we ask—because of his love for us. Missionaries sometimes find that people who never heard of Jesus or the Christian Church are somehow prepared for the message, coming to faith as soon as they learn of the person and the work of Jesus Christ.

Abraham’s servant places jewelry from Abraham upon Rebekah before he speaks to her about marrying Isaac. The members of the Christian Church are not saved from sin and evil by the good things they do for God; they are saved by the good things Jesus has done for them. We bring nothing of our own to be accepted by Jesus as his people; we bring only the works Jesus has done for us—his obedience to his Father’s will, his sacrifice on the cross as a Ransom for us, and his victorious resurrection from the dead, defeating all God’s enemies on our behalf.

Rebekah is offered no choice whether or not to be married to Isaac. The servant describes his message from Abraham, Laban and Bethuel declare that “the thing has come from the Lord; we cannot speak to you bad or good. Behold, Rebekah is before you, take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has spoken” (Genesis 24:50-51).

Yet after she has been claimed as Isaac’s bride, she is given a choice whether she will linger in her old way of life for several days or whether she will leave immediately with Abraham’s servant to be brought to Isaac. We cannot choose to come to faith, for we were “dead in the trespasses and sins in which [we] once walked, following the course of this world” (Ephesians 2:1-2). God made us alive, giving us faith—much as the command of Jesus made Lazarus alive and able to walk out of his tomb (John 11:43-44). Being made alive, we can linger in our old sinful ways or live in the new life provided by God’s Gospel. The prophets and apostles frequently urge people not to linger in the darkness but to walk in the light. People who are alive have freedom to make good choices or bad choices. People who are dead have no freedom.

Rebekah chooses to travel immediately to her husband, not to linger in her old way of life. So also the Bride of Christ comes to him, to the husband who “might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the Word, so that he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:26-27). Once again, Christians do not sanctify themselves for Jesus; they are sanctified by the work of Jesus, done on their behalf.

Before they left her home and her family, Abraham’s servant “brought out jewelry of silver and of gold, and garments, and gave them to Rebekah” (Genesis 24:53). When they approached Abraham’s home and Rebekah first saw Isaac from a distance, “she took her veil and covered herself” (Genesis 24:65). She came to her husband in clothing that he and his father had already provided to her. As God cast away the fig-leaf clothing Adam and Eve had made and provided suitable clothing for them, so the Church and its members come to Christ clothed in the righteousness he has provided us. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27). Clothed in his righteousness, we are his Church. Today we are still engaged to Christ, waiting for the Bridegroom to come in all his splendor to bring us to his mansion. Already, though, we belong to him, chosen “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4) to be his people forever.

Happy Reformation Day

On Halloween, 1517, Martin Luther changed the world.

Actually, that’s a pretty silly sentence. World-changing powers do not rely upon one person or one event (aside from the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus Christ). What Luther did on October 31, 1517, was one step in the reformation of the Christian Church in western Europe, a reformation that would have enormous consequences in the Americas, in Africa, and in many parts of Asia and of the Pacific Ocean lands. His action that day was a response to a long-standing misunderstanding in European Christianity about God’s forgiveness. To explain that misunderstanding–involving repentance, penance, purgatory, and indulgences–would stretch this post far beyond one thousand words.

But Luther wanted to talk about forgiveness. As a university professor and an Augustinian monk, Luther wanted to bring about a debate among the scholars of the Church. He wrote ninety-five sentences (usually called “theses”) and posted them on the chapel door of the University of Wittenberg, where Luther taught theology. The ensuing discussion would bring about Luther’s excommunication (kicking him out of the Roman Catholic Church–in the opinion of the Roman Catholics, denying that Luther was a Christian) and his condemnation as a heretic and an outlaw. Those who agreed with Luther–labeled “Lutherans,” although Luther preferred the label “evangelical”–had sufficient strength in numbers and in political power, to survive these accusations of heresy. They presented a description and defense of their beliefs to the Emperor, Charles V, in 1530. Over the next century they survived two major wars which ended in treaties which allowed them to remain in the Empire (although, once again, the details of these wars and these treaties would stretch this post to unwieldly length).

Why did Luther choose to post his ninety-five sentences on Halloween? All Hallows Eve came just before All Saints’ Day, a day when many people would visit the chapel in Wittenberg to view the relics collected by the Elector, Frederick of Saxony. Viewing these holy items (which were said to include a twig from the burning bush wherein God spoke to Moses, a scrap from the clothes in which the newborn Jesus was swaddled and a wisp of straw from the manger, thirty-five fragments of the cross on which Jesus was crucified and one of the nails which held him to the cross, a thumb of Saint Anne the mother of Mary, a tooth of Saint Jerome, and numerous parts of other saints and mementos of other Biblical events) was said to reduce the time a Christian would spend in purgatory before rising to Paradise. Luther’s challenge to the system of penance and indulgences was timed to gather much attention to his ninety-five sentences for debate.

Luther began, “When our Lord Jesus Christ said ‘repent,’ he willed that the entire life of believers was to be one of repentance.” Luther thus distinguished between true repentance and acts of penance. Luther assumed that the pope, Leo X, would be shocked by the outrageous claims of the sellers of indulgences. Yet Luther’s sentences involved further shocking remarks, such as Number 82: “Why does the pope not empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there” rather than “for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?”

Western European Christianity was ready for these kinds of challenges. Growing nationalism caused resentment against the political claims of the pope and of the Holy Roman Emperor. Preachers who were Biblically illiterate left their hearers hungry for the truth of God’s Word. Then as now, many Christians resented the appearance that the Christian Church was focused more on money and on political power than on rescuing sinners, healing broken lives, and establishing a genuine connection between God and his people. Luther cared little for the political implications of his sentences. He deeply cared about sinners who were being pushed away from God’s grace by the Church rather than reconciled to God through the Gospel.

Luther himself had faced turmoil in his earlier years. He hated God, thinking of God as a cruel judge who wanted to torture sinners and who demanded good deeds to pay for sins. Luther became an Augustinian monk because of his fear of God’s judgment and his hope to perform enough good deeds to please God. His superior in the Augustinian order, Johann von Staupitz, encouraged Luther to believe the Bible’s message of God’s love and mercy. Staupitz wanted Luther to find comfort in the promise of salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Knowing that we learn best the things we need to know by teaching others, Staupitz arranged for Luther to teach classes on the Bible. Had Staupitz been more open about his convictions, today there would be Staupitzian congregations instead of Lutheran congregations. Yet Staupitz was content to deal one-on-one with desperate men like Martin Luther. Luther was bold enough to challenge the authorities and the system for the good of the Church and for its eventual reformation.

Luther could have been killed for his beliefs. Other men were killed for preaching the same message they had learned from Luther. But Luther lived until 1546. He married a former nun, and they had six children. Luther wrote hymns that are still sung today, and he wrote teaching materials for children and for adults that are still used today. He wrote many significant theological essays during his career, and the notes of his university students have been preserved and published, as well as many of Luther’s sermons. Even though Luther is best remembered for ninety-five sentences, his bold action one Halloween pales in comparison to Luther’s entire contribution to Christianity. J.