Category: Theology

Dying to Live

For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” Phil. 3:8-10.

The closer we come to Christ, the closer we experience life and death. Sounds a bit strange worded like that, but let’s talk about it. We experience life in the abundant life of the Spirit and we experience death in the areas of our lives that still yield to the flesh. Some things in our lives do not yield life and must be put to death to be recreated as something different. This paradox of life and death could be seen in Triumphal Entry celebrated just weeks ago before Easter. Life, liberty, and victory are so near. But so are death, pain and agony. Should we expect to bypass such sufferings in our own spiritual journey? I do not think so. The way to life is the way of the cross.

You may remember experiencing a growth spurt as a young child. The aches and pains in your legs may have woken you up in the middle of the night, as they did for me. At the end of such pain, we grow. My towering stature of 5’7 experienced many such spurts. Or maybe not enough, I can’t be sure. Think about an area of spiritual growth in your own life. How did you learn humility? By being humbled. How did you learn patience? By having to wait. While these sufferings do not compare to the cross, the elemental principle of the resurrection is shown in that death must precede life for life to be victorious over death. When we suffer, we become like Christ in his death. But in being raised to life, we also become like Christ and experience resurrection.

Our spiritual journey must continually experience death in order to proceed to new areas of life. This is the power of the resurrection. My pride must die and be resurrected as humility. My greed must be put to death and raised to life again as generosity. If there is no death of such things, there will be no resurrected life from them. We become stagnant and cease to grow.

It is so fitting for Easter to be celebrated in the Spring. The barren cold of winter yields to the natural progression of blossoming and nature’s yearly miracles. In nature we see a glimpse of our own resurrection, both in the new life Christ has given us and in the new life to come. It is as if creation affirms this, proclaiming, “Christ is Risen!” And our own hearts have risen from the grave and we’ve become a new creation. In becoming resurrected people, we have a new existence for a divine purpose.

In the words of poet-farmer-author Wendell Berry, “Practice resurrection.”

New Years Resolutions and Their Shortcomings

Every year around this time, people look back on the previous year and evaluate the perceived successes and failures. For some it was a great year. For others it was one of the worst. Regardless of the previous year, many look to the upcoming year with hope. New Years Resolutions add to this hope. We think, “If I work harder this year, it will be a better year” or “If I just lose those 20 pounds the year will be much better.”

Well I’m here to say I think New Years Resolutions (NYRs) rely too heavily on human effort and therefore I think they are a waste of time. Sorry if I come across harsh. If you want to work harder, declaring it at the beginning of the year is a great idea, but you need something greater than yourself to sustain you in your day-to-day existence. This is why most people’s resolutions make no real impact on their lives. But another problem with NYRs is the importance placed on the single day of the new year. There is nothing magical or special about January 1. However there is something special about today.

Paul talks about the time to receive God’s grace:

Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor. 6:2 emphasis added).

Why wait for tomorrow for something that can be received today? Today is the day, not tomorrow. And the time to continually receive that grace will be each new day, not a day in the past or a day in the future. The individual day is the time to receive the power of God and be renewed and transformed by his grace. NYRs claim that if you will it to happen and keep it on the forefront of your mind you can change. We do not have the power to make ourselves “new creations” where “the old has passed away and the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:16).

The emphasis placed on the individual’s power and the importance of one day seems to be unproductive. The grace of God tells a different story. The opportunity for new beginning happens every single morning. But these new beginnings have nothing to do with our initiative. They only happen by the grace of God. If it wasn’t we would still be operating in a Yom Kippur-like system, where one day a year a priest made an offering to atone for our sins. We do not rely on one single day to be changed. It is his grace that changes us and his grace that sustains us. We do have to resolve to make changes, but it is the grace of God that allows such transformation to happen and I believe it is the work of the Spirit that brings about the thought of the change in the first place. Therefore, we need both discipline and grace. The problem with these resolutions is that they rely on the discipline and work of man and neglect the power of God. In discipline we faithfully try; but in grace He gloriously succeeds.

Here’s a practical suggestion: Resolve to give each day to the Lord at the very beginning of each day. Our days do not belong to ourselves. Each new day is a gift from God. If you want to be sustained throughout the day, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Col. 3:16). Therefore, as much as it is possible, give the first part of your day to prayer and reading the Bible. In this you will be strengthened and nourished for the difficulties of the day. Bonhoeffer states in Life Together, “For Christians the beginning of the day should not be burdened and oppressed with besetting concerns for the day’s work.” Do not rely on yourself to get through the day but do as Psalm 63:8 says, “My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.”

My only New Years Resolution is to try to make the first thought of my day be of praise to God, thanking Him for his grace and spending time reading His Word and communing with Him in prayer. In that, I will be continually transformed by His grace and grow and change in the ways he leads.

Am I the Focus of my Faith?

Personal Lord and Savior

I find it interesting that such a common phrase in Christian-speak is found no where in the Bible. It seems as if it would be because of how often it is used. Lord and Savior are used throughout, but the personal has been added. There is nothing inherently wrong with the statement, but it leaves out a key part of what it means to be a child of God: I am a child among many children. Professing faith in Christ is an invitation to a royal family. I understand the phrase’s meaning of the lordship of Christ and the fact that we know him and he knows us. But I believe our understanding of the redemption story must go beyond ourselves so we can see the big picture clearly. If not, the object of faith can become something other than what it should be.

I may be totally wrong in my thinking, I’m still working it out in my mind. I’ve been thinking about it in this analogy:

Suppose an aging, loving father has recently come into a large amount of money and has decided to spread the wealth among his 4 children. He has one million dollars and splits it evenly four ways so that each child receives a quarter of a million dollars. He loves them equally, how could he give more inheritance to one?

The old man sits his children down and tells them the news. They are excited, to say the least. When he explains that each child is getting a quarter of the share, there was some confusion and bitterness.

“Your oldest child does not come around here anymore. How is he worthy?”

“This youngest child is not responsible. How can you give him so great a gift?”

You get the picture. But the father is giving each one an equal share in the inheritance. It is not based on merit nor is it concerned with his favorites (he does not actually have any). No matter how close their relationship, each child received the same share. Surely some are in fact closer to him than the others, but he loves them all the same. Their proximity to the father can not raise their inheritance. This gift is personal in the sense that he has a relationship with each of them and loves them dearly. However it is not only a personal gift because it is given to the group. The monetary gift was not about an individual, it was about a family of individual members. If one child is trying to convince themselves the gift was really given because the father loved them the most, they have formed a strange concept of nepotism that does not seem to align with the wishes of the father.

The gift is personal to each child, but the focus should be on the giver of the gift; not the recipient. This is why I am much more comfortable with the terms Lord and Savior because it describes his Lordship in our lives as well as the salvation he alone provides. God is a relational God, but He is not only relational to me. He is relational to all.

Sometimes it is easy to view salvation as something I possess rather than the new creation I become and the new faith community I join. If I do this, I have effectually made salvation about me, not about God’s grace and mercy. This can be a dangerous road to travel. This is not to say that I don’t personally know Christ, because I do. But I know Christ in the context of all others who know Him as well. The salvation story thankfully includes me, but it is not centered on me. Nor should it be. Any thinking about salvation that is more centered on ourselves rather than God is missing the point.

However, I’m not saying God does not care about us as individuals. He created us and He knows us more than anyone else. He cares about the little details of our lives. Seeing salvation in the big picture gives us an even bigger picture of God. If he knows me this intimately then He knows everyone else on earth in the same way. What an amazing testament of his wisdom, power and sovereignty.

What Does Yom Kippur Have to do With Christian Faith?

Quite a lot.

Yom Kippur began this past evening and continues until sundown today. You’ve probably seen it on calendars and maybe you know what it’s all about. I figured I’d offer a brief look at what it is and what it means for Christians.

Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) marks the day on the Jewish calendar where The Lord forgave the Israelites’ sins each year. Leviticus 16 tells us that on this day and this day only, The Lord met the High Priest inside the Holy of Holies at the lid of the ark, also called the Mercy Seat (Hebrew word kapporet). Every year, the high priest offered a sacrifice for sin on behalf of the Israelites. You can read the Lord’s direction on how to build the tabernacle and its contents in Exodus 25-40. Here is what it looked like:

20120922-140540.jpg

Interestingly, the word “mercy seat” appears twice in the New Testament. The first is Romans 3:25. Messianic Jewish translator, David Stern translates the verse in this way: “God put Jesus forward as the kapparah for sin through his faithfulness in respect to his bloody sacrificial death.”

The second place the term occurs is Hebrews 9:5, where it is used in discussing the presence of God descending onto the Mercy Seat (the lid of the ark).

What does this mean? Simply put, God deals with the penalty of sin through sacrifice. In the Old Testament, no sin could be atoned for without the shedding of blood. In order to redeem and reconcile the world to himself, God had to shed blood. But it is not our own blood that is shed, even though we are most deserving of that punishment. Rather, in his unfathomable love He shed his own blood to atone for the sins of all people. The reason why this sacrifice is so complete is because the offering was perfect. The requirement was fulfilled once and for all. As Leviticus 16 tells us, the priest had to be ritually and ceremonially clean in order to enter the Holy of Holies and the sacrifice he offered had to be given every year. Jesus is so much more than ceremonially pure and his sacrifice does not need to be repeated.

With that in mind, read Hebrews 9:11-14. Spend a moment praying over this Scripture.

But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Hebrews 9:11-14 ESV)

Amen. Amen. Amen.
Thank you Jesus.

-SHF

If you’re interested, here’s some books that might help you if you’d like to learn more:
Jewish New Testament and Jewish New Testament Commentary – David Stern
Jewish Background of the New Testament – J. Julius Scott
Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament – Christopher J. H. Wright
How to Worship a King – Zach Neese

The Dangerous Act of Counting the Cost.

Being a follower of Christ must cost something. Maybe everything. If it does not, you are: 1.) In denial, 2.) in for a rude awakening, and/or 3.) misunderstanding Jesus’ call to be a disciple.

Jesus himself says that following him and being his disciple will demand that we abandon earthly concerns and fix our focus on the kingdom of God. In Matthew 8:18-22, Jesus gives the command that the dead should bury their own dead. Looking to the Jewish context of the exchange, the man who said he had to bury his father did not mean his father was literally dead and he had to go bury him. Messianic Jewish scholar David Stern explains that this statement meant that “[this man] wished to go home, live in comfort with his father till his death perhaps years hence, collect his inheritance and then, at his leisure, become a disciple.” This was not the kind of allegiance Jesus was seeking. As much as I try to rationalize it, there really is no way to be a part-time disciple. For the believer seeking to grow, this is the equivalent of deciding to eat only 1 small meal per week on a Sunday and hoping you still get all the nutrients you need to be healthy.

The desires of the flesh take precedence over our desire to be faithful disciples of Christ. Jesus’ response to the man was clear: we must not leisurely be disciples on our own timetable, following Jesus at our own pace. That is not discipleship focused on Christ and the Kingdom, rather it is focused on our own comforts. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Discipleship is not an offer that man makes to Christ.” Christ is the one who makes the offer, and it is on his terms. And it should be this way. The one who is greater must be discipling those who are lesser. However, we are often blinded by our own will and desires and begin to dictate the terms of this sacred, greater and lesser, transformative relationship.

I believe this is why so many people fall away from the faith: it might end up costing more than you are willing to give. Anything that is held dear may be commanded to be relinquished for the good of the Kingdom and for the spiritual growth of the individual. Being a disciple is dangerously adventurous; for one can never know where, when or how the Lord chooses to use his disciples.

I believe there is a difference between casual followership and active discipleship. A disciple is continually striving to me like the one discipling. George Barna noted the difference between simply following and being a disciple when he said, for the first disciples, “being a follower of Christ was an all-consuming obsession.” One is not being a disciple if the desire to be made into the likeness of Christ is delegated to a service on Sunday and a small group study during the week. The obsessive, zealot-like attitude is what separates a disciple from a follower. From this disctinction, all disciples are followers of Jesus but not all followers are faithful disciples. Barna further explains this point by explaining his followership of the Yankees does not come to the point of being obsessed. He remains a casual follower and is content to stay that way. The Yankees winning or losing doesn’t really influence his day-to-day life. Following Jesus in the form of active, obsessive discipleship demands much more commitment than the way a casual follower keeps up with a sports team.

-Stewart

The Dark Knight Rises and The Sacrifice for Sin.

If you haven’t seen the latest Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, you may want to skip reading this post. I don’t want to give anything away.

I loved the movie. I’m no Batman or movie expert, but I thought it was very well made and the cinematography was exceptional as always. My only complaint was that I couldn’t quite understand all of Bane’s lines, but that’s a minor issue. I might have to be an old man and watch it with subtitles when it is on DVD.

While watching the film, I was immediately drawn to the redemptive plot within the story. It is obvious as this is the case with most superhero movies. One man saving the entire world by some miraculous and heroic act. This is the age-old good versus evil plot line yet it is presented in so many various ways. Evil brings an oppressive force onto the “innocent” city dwellers and they need a savior to fly in and save the day. Nothing new there.

As I was reading in Hebrews this morning, I was reflecting on Christ’s sacrifice that cleansed us “by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption.” (9:12) We’ve been set free from the “sins and acts of lawlessness” (10:17) that once defined our existence. This sacrificial theme climaxes in the movie where Batman has to fly to bomb outside of the city.

The parallel is easy to see. Batman takes the bomb “upon himself” in order to prevent it from exploding in Gotham and thereby killing its inhabitants. Jesus did the same. He took the sins of the world upon himself, actually dying (Jesus had no autopilot) and then defeated death to bring new life and satisfy the laws requirements for eternity. But Jesus didn’t pretend to die nor did he fool the world into thinking he was dead as Batman succeeded in doing. It was necessary to Jesus to die completely. As Hebrews explains, both the old and new covenant had to be set in place by death and the shedding of blood. Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness (9:16-22).

One of my favorite verses in New Testament is Hebrews 10:14: “because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” I love the once-and-for-allness of the message of sacrifice in Hebrews. In the case of Batman, another villain can come along and the sacrifice may again be required. The people of Israel knew all to well that the sacrifices were continually required. This is not the case with the death of Christ. His sacrifice paid the price for sins once and for all. What a perfect story of redemption. Even Hollywood can’t beat it.

-SHF

Does My Worship Contain Envy and Rivalry?

It is a sigh of relief to know that we don’t have to be perfect to worship God. If God required that we had to be perfect before we offered ourselves before Him, no one would ever get there. God can use hypocrites to preach the Gospel as well as people striving after His will. The point that Paul makes in Philippians 1:15-18 is that either way the Gospel is preached. But that doesn’t give us an excuse to shove off the pursuit of righteousness for the sake of convenience and selfish ambition. I think the challenge that can be taken from those verses is “What is your motive?

Paul uses the words envy and rivalry when talking about motives. These are serious words. When applied to worship, it is clear that it’s very easy for worship musicians to become envious of other churches and musicians simply because we want what they have. We tend to use the excuse of “striving for excellence” to mask our own obsession with trying to be perfect. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be great at something, as long as the motive remains pure. So I must ask myself, does my worship contain envy and rivalry? Am I worshipping in spirit and in truth or am I simply playing music because I like it and want people to see me instead of the Lord?

One of the things I like about Seacoast is that the worshipping community is a great blend of quality production mixed with authentic Spirit-filled worship. If you’ve ever been to a First Wednesday service, you know what I’m talking about. Some churches do things a lot differently. And its awesome. I’ve been in enough church music situations to know that there are so many ways to encounter the Lord through music. That being true, there is no room for envy or rivalry in our worship because God is bigger than our small-mindedness. If we fix our eyes on the Lord and strive to conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel, we will look at differences in worship as beautiful musical variations that glorify the Father. It’s not by accident that the word one is so prevelant in the New Testament as well as the idea of unity.