Truly preparing to worship

Worship serviceWe prepare to go to church. That’s not quite the same as preparing for worship. It is quite possible to come to church and go home without having worshiped.

Some churches make it nearly impossible for anyone to worship.

I’m thinking in particular of a service where the sermon was little more than a book review and the congregation had little chance to participate. Or of other services where the sermon has consisted of the preacher explaining away what the Scripture lesson clearly taught.

But even in churches where the content of the service is good and the congregation has ample ways to participate, it is too easy just to go through the motions and leave unmoved. Continue reading

Thinking of yourself with sober judgment

Self esteem shopWhat do you think of yourself?

The Bible says, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you” (Romans 12:3).

It immediately sounds like we shouldn’t think highly of ourselves. Maybe we should think we’re just unworthy worms. But that’s not what it says, is it? After all, if we’re supposed to love each other as ourselves and we’re supposed to think of ourselves as unworthy worms. . . Nope. That just plain doesn’t make any sense!

The trouble with self esteem

It seems that so many people feel bad about themselves that it has become a social problem. We spend a lot of time and energy in our society developing self esteem. We just don’t necessarily do it intelligently. Continue reading

Jesus’ neglected commandment

Christ Enthroned : Vivarini
Christ Enthroned : Vivarini

Christ Enthroned / Bartolomeo Vivarini (1450)

In John 14:15, Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (NASB). What commandments? Just a while earlier, in John 13:34, he had said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”

Does that seem new? Jesus had earlier said that the greatest commandment of the law was to love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. The second was like the first: Love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:28-34). With this new commandment, Jesus raised the standard.  Moses had said, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which for all practical purposes is imperfect love. Jesus loved perfectly.

So the commandments Jesus referenced in John 14:15 mean this dual commandment to love? Yes and no. Let’s not forget a commandment he frequently made to people he had healed: “go and sin no more.” It’s an important part of loving God, but too much of the church today neglects that one. Continue reading

Arise, shine, but how?

full moonAs an old camp song says, “Arise, shine, give God the glory, glory.” But let’s be honest. We have no light in ourselves. There is nothing inherent in the human race that allows any of us to shine.

Of course, that song is based on a scripture. “Arise. Shine. For your light has come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon you” (Isaiah 60:1).  If my light has come, if God’s glory shines on me, I can reflect it. Continue reading

Divine prosperity and basic necessities

divine prosperity?Twenty or so years ago, prosperity preachers used to say that if you were driving a Chevrolet instead of a Cadillac, you were living beneath your privileges and probably didn’t have the faith to live in divine prosperity. Maybe some of them still do. I stopped paying attention.

I believe in divine prosperity, so long as we let the Bible define it. 2 Corinthians 8-9 constitute the greatest fund raising letter in history. Paul wanted to raise a huge donation for the church in Jerusalem, and here is what he promised that generous people would receive: enough for every need and abundance for every good work (2 Corinthians 9:8).

A few verses later (v.11), he said generous givers would be rich in every way so they could be generous in every way.

But this same man who promised God would supply all of our needs, also warned against the love of money and suggested that we should be content if we have food and clothing (1 Timothy 6:8). Continue reading

Anticipation: the birth and return of Jesus

john the baptist
john the baptist

John the Baptist, Preaching / Luca Giordano, ca. 1695

The season of Advent is a time of anticipation. The word itself means “coming.” In secular contexts we can properly refer to the advent of any significant event. In the church year, it can refer only to the coming of Jesus Christ.

Scripture affirms that Christ has come, Christ has risen, and Christ is coming again. Two passages commonly read at this time of year point to both the first and second coming. Continue reading

All the New Testament apostles: more than 12!

apostle Matthias
apostle Matthias

Saint Matthias / workshop of Simone Martini, ca. 1318

There is a common teaching that God intended that there would be only 12 apostles. When Judas killed himself, Peter and the church chose Matthias to take his place, but later God overruled them and chose Paul.  Then how come the New Testament names other men—and a woman—as apostles?

In order to believe the teaching that the appointment of Matthias was a mistake, it is necessary to believe that

  • Peter acted impulsively, having been misled in his prayer and meditation on the Word as described in Acts 1.
  • After Peter and the entire assembly prayed, the Holy Spirit allowed them to make a fundamental error and start the whole church on the wrong foot.
  • When Paul started off two lists of “ministry gifts” with apostle in Ephesians 4:11 and 1 Corinthians 12:28, he described an office that would cease to exist within a generation.

Apostles of the Lamb

As for there being only 12 apostles, it appears that these teachers have been misled by careless reading of Revelation 21:14, which refers to the 12 apostles of the Lamb. If there were only 12 apostles, why would John have needed that phrase?

Jesus called his inner circle of 12 disciples and eventually designated them as apostles. Even after Judas betrayed him, Luke 22:14 refers to 12 apostles in the upper room—graciously still including Judas in that number. Continue reading

What becomes of an unrepentant priest? The sad story of Eli

Hannah prays as Eli watches
Hannah prays as Eli watches

Hannah’s Prayer in the Temple / Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (mid 19th century)

Jonah is the story of a disobedient prophet who repented. Eli is the story of a disobedient priest who did not. Jonah comes across as petulant even when he finally did God’s bidding. Eli seems in nearly all of his dealings as a very godly man. Jonah’s story is familiar enough that I won’t summarize it here, but I suppose many fewer readers even know who Eli was.

We first encounter Eli in the first chapter of 1 Samuel, where he is a bit player. Hannah, a barren woman taunted by her husband’s other wife, prayed silently, but in great anguish, at the tabernacle. Eli, the priest, noticed her mouth moving, but hearing no sound from her, supposed she was drunk and scolded her.

When Hannah replied that she was pouring out her heart to the Lord, we can almost see the expression on Eli’s face soften. He added his prayer to hers, that the Lord would grant whatever petition she had. Hannah returned to her family with joy.

By the time the family returned to Shiloh for the annual sacrifice, Hannah had a son, Samuel, and decided to devote him to the Lord’s service. That meant leaving him at the tabernacle for Eli to raise as his own son.  Continue reading

What does Christianity have to do with religion?

Worship serviceReligion and church seem so intertwined that many of us consider those terms pretty much interchangeable. The New Testament, among other things, has a lot to say about the church. The Greek for church, ekklesia, occurs 115 times (including three as “assembly”).

Wouldn’t it stand to reason that it would also have a lot to say about religion? That word, threshkeia, appears only four times, once as “worshiping.” “Religious,” threshkos, appears once.

Religion in modern discourse

“What religion are you?” I have been asked that more than once, and when I have said, “Christian,” the person asking has always been disappointed. “Christian” is assumed. They have wanted to know the denomination of my church.

That’s apparently what it meant when the framers of the Bill of Rights forbade religious tests for holding public office and “establishment of religion.” The latter term, as too many lawyers have either forgotten or want the public not to notice, specifically means declaring one institution the state religion and directly supporting it with tax money. Continue reading

Jesus’ humility, Satan’s pride: whom do we follow?

Jesus' humility
Jesus' humility

Ecce Homo (Behold! The Man) / Antonio Ciseri, 1871. “The humble king they named a fraud, and sacrificed the Lamb of God.”

God is all-powerful, but when he chose to use his power to become a man, he also chose not to use power like other men. It is Satan who turns power into something coercive and egocentric.

It would be nice if we could say that Christians understand the situation and exercise power as Jesus did. Unfortunately, we can truthfully say no more than that some do, and they successfully imitate Christ maybe only some of the time. Continue reading