Tuesday, July 26, 2011

God and His People - A Brief Survey

[This entry follows a sermon titled "Jesus and the Church".  Click on the title to find the audio, or search "Gray Road Baptist Church" on iTunes.]

This last Sunday, we started a four-week sermon series called Church Matters.  We're not just doing this short series to talk about church matters but to remember that the church matters.  This first Sunday, we looked at the identity of Jesus in connection with the identity of the church.  The central thesis was this: "You can't fully understand the identity of Jesus without the Church, and you can't fully understand the identity of the Church without Jesus."  The Scripture deeply connects the two with images such as (1) Jesus as the Head and the Church as His body, (2) Jesus as the Husband and the Church as His bride, and (3) Jesus as the cornerstone on which the Church is built.

In addition, we think about the three offices that Jesus fulfills from the Old Testament...that of prophet, priest, and king.  A prophet speaks God's Word to the people.  A priest mediates between God and the people.  A king is the ruler over the people.  When you divorce these roles from the presence of "the people," you don't get a full understanding of what a prophet, priest, and king truly are.  Part of their identity is wrapped up in their role among the people.  Likewise, we cannot fully understand Jesus as the fulfillment of these unless He is intimately tied to a people...to God's people...to the Church.

My purpose today is to say that this is nothing new in the Bible.  God has always designed to have a people for Himself.  His plan didn't change in the coming of Jesus...it was fulfilled in the coming of Jesus.  We see the eternal nature of His plan in passages like Ephesians 1:4-6: "...he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.  In love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved" [emphasis mine].

While it is true that the "us" in these verses represents a plurality of individuals, it is not a plurality of individualists.  No, it is the gathering of men and women into God's designed people...the Church.  Later in this letter, Paul uses very similar language to describe Christ's work with the Church.  "...Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her...that he might present the church to himself in splendor, that she might be holy and without blemish" (5:25, 27).  So, in chapter 1, God has chosen "us" to be holy and blameless.  In chapter 5, Christ gave himself up for "the church" that we might be holy and without blemish.  In other words...us = the Church!  God's plan from eternity past was to adopt us...His family...the Church.

This idea of God's desire for a people develops over the course of the Bible.  In the beginning, God created mankind in His image...male and female, He created them.  And what was one of the first commands God gave them?  "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth..."  Why did God want the earth filled with persons made in His image?  Because God's design was to have a people for Himself...a people who would bear His image and glorify Him...a people who would live by His Word and glorify Him.  However, as we know man rebelled against his Maker, and sin entered the human race.  [By the way, the entrance of sin did not send God to 'Plan B.'  Remember, God's eternal purpose was to send Christ to die for all who would believe and bring them into His people...the Church.]

Sin and its destructive effects were clearly passed on to Adam and Eve's children, as seen in Cain murdering his brother, Abel.  Things continued in a downward spiral of sin until we read this: "The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.  And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on earth, and it grieved him to his heart" (Gen. 6:5-6).  So, God would punish mankind, but out of the population of mankind, He would call...you guessed it...a people.  More specifically, a family...Noah's family.  The flood came, and all humanity was destroyed under God's judgment...except for Noah's family.

Still, the waters of the flood could never wash away sin, and the sinfulness of mankind continued...even in this people (i.e.- Noah's family) chosen by God.  We see another climactic moment as men try to make much of themselves in the building of the Tower of Babel.  In response, God confuses their language and scatters them.  Then, we see God set apart an individual...Abram (i.e.- Abraham).  This man would be God's chosen means through which He would bless every nation of the earth.  Though Abraham, God would create...you guessed it again...a people.  God's people would become a great nation, and through that nation, the other nations of the world would find blessing.  The rest of the OT follows the history, the triumphs, and the tragedies of this people.

Then, with the coming of Jesus Christ, we see most fully what it means for God to have a people.  Jesus even came and called twelve men (reminiscent of the 12 tribes) to follow Him and be His disciples.  It was a clear indication that God still wanted a people.  Through all the sin we see in the OT people of God, God still desired to have a people.  And it is through Jesus Christ, Abraham's descendent, that God's blessing is extended to every nation.  Jesus' death makes full and final atonement for sin, and the result is eternal life in a reconciled relationship with God.  God's people will still battle sin, but because of the work of Christ, we know that our relationship to God as His people is secure.

So, God's design has always included a people.  We see it through the Old Testament, and we see it full and finally in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  But that's not all...after all, how does the Bible close?  What is the imagery of the future?  "After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb..." (Rev. 7:9).  Who is this that we find before the throne?  It is God's people!  Of this eternal relationship between God and His people, the apostle John records, "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.  He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God" (Rev. 21:3).

God's eternal design includes a people...the Church.  We see this design for a people started in creation, in the flood, in the call of Abraham, and in the rest of the Old Testament.  We see it in the coming of Jesus, in the work of Jesus, and forward into eternity.  So, we can't fully understand Jesus' identity without the Church, and we can't fully understand the Church's identity without Jesus.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Life of Chaos

[This entry follow a sermon titled "Straightening Out Distorted Views of God".  Click the title to find the audio.]

Isaiah 34 and 35 paint two very different pictures, yet they are one cohesive picture.  The judgment of God (ch. 34) and the grace of God (ch. 35) go hand in hand.  They rise or fall together.  We cannot dismiss either and maintain a biblical view of God.

In the midst of the discussion about God's judgment, we find an interesting phrase in 34:11 - "He shall stretch the line of confusion over it, and the plumb line of emptiness."  At this point, Isaiah is talking about Edom as representative of the world, which is opposed to God and set for judgment.  This judgment will be one from which the "smoke shall go up forever" (34:10; cf. Rev. 14:11).  It is a sobering picture, as we read of swords dripping with blood, slaughter, and mountains dripping with blood.  This chapter alone should prevent those of us who believe in hell as a place of eternal, conscious punishment from speaking of it lightly or, as it sometimes comes across, arrogantly.

So, with that set as the context, what is all this talk about lines of confusion and plumb lines of emptiness in verse 11?  Well, the "line" in the first phrase was actually used to describe the marking off pieces of property for ownership.  I have a friend who recently put a fence in his backyard, and he put some flags on the corners of his property to mark it off.  This way, the company he hired would know where to dig the posts for the fence.  In this verse, God is marking off the area...He's making a distinguishing mark of those whose lives are marked by "confusion."  We'll get to that word in just a minute, but for now, you get the picture.  These people are marked off.

The next phrase says God will use the "plumb line of emptiness."  A plumb line could be used in the construction of a new building...it would be used to make sure that the walls of the building are plumb...they're square.  It could also be used to assess an existing structure.  My wife and I lived in a house built in the 1950s when we lived in Marion, IN.  As a friend and I were laying a new laminate floor in one area, we learned that the walls weren't square.  How did we learn this?  Well, to be honest, if you look close enough, you wouldn't need a tool to see it, but we used a device that affirmed what we saw with the naked eye...these walls are messed up!  Here in Isaiah 34:11, God uses a measuring tool called "emptiness" to see that the people truly do deserve the judgment described earlier in the chapter.

So, we see the idea of measuring...a "line of confusion," indication that these are the people whose lives are marked by "confusion."  Also, there's a "plumb line of emptiness," affirming that the ones who will receive judgment truly are deserving of it.  Now that we see the tools, let's think about the measurements here...confusion and emptiness.  What are these?

Looking behind the English to the original Hebrew in this text, we see that the words for 'confusion' and 'emptiness' are found somewhere else.  They are actually found in the second verse of the first book of the Bible.  Genesis 1:2 says, "The earth was without form [i.e.- confusion] and void [i.e.- emptiness], and darkness was over the face of the deep."  Okay...so, if these are the same terms, why would Isaiah use them to talk about those who will face God's judgment?

Here's an answer...see what you think.  When God created the world, He created it with purpose.  He created it with order.  When man and woman were created, they were created with purpose...they were created with order.  They were made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27) and were meant to bear that image as they existed in God's creation.  Part of this design meant living under God's rulership, under the authority of His Word.  It was a simple word in the beginning...do not eat.  As they lived in relationship to God and in relationship to one another, everything remained in order.

Yet, what happened when they ate...when they disobeyed God's command?  The order was broken.  They had rebelled against God's authority and, therefore, against His purpose and His order.  No longer were they living with God as their king.  They lived as if there was no king, and they did what was right in their own eyes (cf. Judg. 21:25).  What God had done perfectly in creation, man rebelled against in sin.  In some ways, they were working to de-create what God had made...they were living in ways that took their existence back to being formless and void...confused and empty.

This life of sin...this confusion and emptiness...would mark all of mankind.  Paul would write, "Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned..." (Rom. 5:12).  In other words, Adam and Eve weren't the only ones who lived in rebellion to God...who lived lives in opposition to His purposes and order.  We share in that confusion and emptiness, both by nature and by choice.  The sin introduced through their act is reproduced in us and our acts.

The proper order of creation is that God is Creator and King, and as creatures, we are to live in submission to His Word.  Yet, sin has entered, and in that sin, all of humanity lives in opposition to the creation purposes of God...we seek to de-create and make chaotic what God has brought to order.  Yet, creation cannot rebel forever against its Creator, and Isaiah 34 tells us there is a day when all accounts will be settled (i.e.- vengeance and recompense, v. 8).  Sinful mankind will face its Judge, and Isaiah is saying that the verdict has already been determined...guilty!

Yet, in the purposes of God, there is hope because there is One who has not rebelled against God as Creator or as King.  He has lived in perfect harmony with God's purposes and His order.  The Lord Jesus Christ is the only man who walked the earth who has lived as man ought to live.  As the Son of God was killed on the cross, He took the vengeance and recompense of God on our behalf.  In other words, He settled our account with God, so that if we trust in Him and His work, we are a new creation.  As Tim Keller succinctly put it, "Jesus Christ was de-created so that we might be recreated."

The severity of God's judgment matches the severity of the crime, yet the sweetness of God's grace is that we can be renewed, redeemed, and ransomed through the death of Jesus Christ.  Through faith in Him, we step out of the desolation of judgment in Isaiah 34 and enjoy the delight of grace in Isaiah 35.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Human Innovation vs. Divine Intervention

[This entry follows a sermon called "Trust and Obey".  Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

Blogs are often used as a soap box of one kind or another.  In the subcategory of 'blogs written by Christians,' it is no different.  It's not unusual to find a man or woman railing against one thing or another in culture or even in the church.  Recently, I was interested to hear Tim Keller comment about being a scoffer.  I'm trying to quote from memory here, but he said something close to this: "The internet breeds scoffers...[because]...if you are a scoffer, you'll get more traffic to your blog."  This is so true, and I want to say, right up front, that I am my primary audience in today's blog.

I begin this way because I am going to write about the tendency to rely on human innovation verses divine intervention.  It would be ridiculous and wrong for me to say that all innovation is wrong.  For example, while reading this article, you could be in a different city, a different state, or a different nation.  You might be at home, at work (hopefully on some kind of break), or just out at a local wifi hot spot.  The innovation of the internet makes sharing information possible, and that's a good thing, generally speaking.  A blog like this being posted as soon as I hit "Publish Post" makes it possible to share worldwide, and that's a pretty fantastic thing when you think about the call to take the gospel to the world.  It's no substitute for actual, flesh-and-blood people moving to a different culture for the sake of the gospel, but the internet can be a great tool.  So, innovation, in and of itself, is not a bad thing...it is actually a great thing.

And...truth be told...innovation is not an innovative idea.  It's been around a while.  King Hezekiah led the people of Judah to look to the innovative military strength of Egypt rather than looking to God for their salvation from the Assyrians.  Our congregation studied this in Isaiah 30 on Sunday, and in fact, chapter 31 goes on to echo the same message.  Take a minute to pull out your Bible or just click and read Isaiah 31.  The clear problem is that the people are relying on Egypt when they should be relying on God.  The real folly of this strategy is exposed in verse 3: "The Egyptians are man, and not God, and their horses are flesh, and not spirit."  Can it get any clearer than that? 

Verse 4 goes on to say that God is like "a lion or a young lion [who] growls over his prey, and when a band of shepherds is called out against him is not terrified by their shouting or daunted by their noise."  Usually, the Scripture portrays God as a shepherd (e.g.- Psalm 23), but here, He is likened to a lion who can't be stopped from getting His prey.  Those for whom God fights have His tenacious and awesome power, which cannot be defeated, on their side.  They can truly say, "If God is for us, who can be against us?"  Yet, Hezekiah led his people in failure.  They trusted in the innovation of Egypt rather than the intervention of God.  It was a plan that was not God's plan (30:1), and for that reason, it would fail.

The same temptation which drew King Hezekiah into sinful failure does so to pastors and churches today.  Innovation, though not a bad thing, can tempt one to unbelief...believing that human innovation is a superior substitute to divine intervention.  The pressure is on a lot of pastors to produce numerical results.  Church leadership meetings are held where a pastor is told he must produce "x"% growth in attendance and "y" baptisms in "z" months or he may get the axe.  I know this from experience.  As a youth pastor in Florida, I was in meetings like this, I was evaluated based on these statistics, and I know the pressure it produces.  Even without external pressure, there is still internal pressure.  It might not be the same numbers-driven pressure, but there is a good and right desire to see more men and women saved and growing under the preaching of the gospel.  I long to see it in my own congregation!  However, the temptation, when one feels such pressure (externally or internally), is to turn to something fast...something that will 'produce'...maybe some innovative technique.

It is true that the church growth movement has produced scores of books that seem to feed this temptation rather than fight it.  One website I perused in thinking about this topic advertised a church growth system which promised to double the size of your congregation...it's been done in 90 days in other churches, and it can work for you!  In fact, to entice the well-meaning pastor to buy said program, the website asks the question, "How will you choose to be remembered by your present congregation?  Will you be remembered as someone who made it all happen?"  It turns my stomach to even type such things, and I hope it turns yours to read them.

After all, Isn't this what Hezekiah thought of Egypt's help?  The Egyptian army was the "it" that would keep Assyria off Judah's collective back...not God, Egypt...not spirit, flesh.  Today, "its" abound.  There is a program and a tool for just about anything in church ministry, and the truth is...they're not all bad.  For example, I've been trained in several different personal evangelism courses in my Christian life.  I learned the Romans Road early on...I picked up Evangelism Explosion in seminary...I learned the FAITH outline as a youth pastor in Florida.  Right now, our congregation is using Matthias Media's Two Ways to Live to help teach personal evangelism.  There's nothing wrong with any of these, per se...there's just nothing magical about them either.

Here's the sad fact...learning these evangelistic tools didn't make me more evangelistic personally.  None of the "its" worked, but it's not "its" problem...that's a mouthful!  "It" couldn't do what only God can do.  The only way lasting growth in personal evangelism has come in my life is as a result of the work of the Holy Spirit...most recently, God used a book on hell to grow me in this area!  The same is true for all programmatic approaches.  Given proper content and motivation, there's nothing wrong with a program...I'm not saying we should rid the world of every program.  What's wrong is when we think the program is the "it" that will really grow the church, will really make disciples, or will really bring the lost to Christ.

Think about this.  Having a desire to see men and women saved and growing in Christ is a biblical desire.  It's needed more than ever in the church...I need to continue growing in it.  So, with this good and right desire, what comes to mind when we think about what is needed for our congregation to see this happen?  Fill in the blank: "If only our church had/did ___________, then more people would be saved."  What would you put in that blank?  Was it the mighty work of the Holy Spirit?  If not, shouldn't it be?

I realize there is a danger in writing this kind of blog entry because some will swing the pendulum so far away from innovation that they will conclude it's all bad.  That's not the point.  The point isn't to rid the world of innovation...innovation will happen whether we want it to or not.  As I said, we can use human innovation to communicate the gospel to a culture immersed in it.  However, when we trust man's innovation to do what only God's intervention can do, then we've steered way off course.  Apart from God's intervention, all the innovation in the world will be useless...it is "Rahab the Do-Nothing" (30:7).