Monday, March 22, 2010

Form Over Substance

Israel had fought one of their seemingly never-ending battles with the Philistines. And they lost. They couldn’t fathom the reason. “Why has the Lord defeated us today before the Philistines?” (I Samuel 4:3). Someone then came up with a bright idea: “Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord from Shiloh to us, that when it comes among us it may save us from the hand of our enemies” (ibid).

So that was the plan. And, indeed, the ark was brought, and when it arrived, “all Israel shouted so loudly that the earth shook” (v. 5). Victory assured, all because the ark was there. Only it didn’t quite go as planned. “So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and every man fled to his tent. There was a very great slaughter, and there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers” (I Sam. 4:10). A disastrous day, even with the ark of God in their midst. And, actually, the Philistines captured the ark and made off with it.

What happened? What happened was form over substance. The Lord had told them, plainly, how to defeat their enemies: “Now it shall come to pass, if you diligently obey the voice of the LORD your God, to observe carefully all His commandments which I command you today, that the LORD your God will set you high above all nations of the earth…[and] the LORD will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before your face; they shall come out against you one way and flee before you seven ways” (Deuteronomy 28:1, 7). Trusting in a box, regardless of how holy it might be, is not quite the same as trusting in the Lord. Israel was defeated because they failed to honor God, failed to put their confidence in Him, and thought they could find salvation in a representation of God rather than the Lord Himself. It is not terribly surprising that in Leviticus 26, Jehovah had told the people, "But if you do not obey Me, and do not observe all these commandments, and if you despise My statutes, or if your soul abhors My judgments, so that you do not perform all My commandments, but break My covenant, I also will do this to you…I will set My face against you, and you shall be defeated by your enemies” (vs. 14-17). It is a lesson Israel never learned.

We must keep our eyes on the Lord Jesus Christ (Hebrews 12:1-2), and our trust must be in Him, not in some formality. As important as the church, baptism, worship, good works, etc. are, they are only the forms of Christianity; Christ is the substance. How many of us truly have a relationship with Him? Or do we have a church-building centered religion? The “church” (usually the preacher) “plans” so many “activities” for the brethren to get involved in. We try to keep busy doing things, many of which are very good things—visitation, prayer meetings, fellowships, etc. I’ve been there. All too often, when I was preaching full time, I felt like a program director and not a gospel preacher, and I felt guilty if I didn’t have something to keep the brethren occupied. It never occurred to me that all of that was…form over substance. Unless people learn Who Jesus Christ is, develop an in-depth bond with Him, trust Him and not the church and its “programs,” then we will have a very shallow religion and a very weak brotherhood. And that, indeed, may be why the Lord’s body is having so negligible an affect on the world today (though I hope it’s greater than it appears to be to me). Unless people are “busy” with church “activities,” they have very little religion. Take away the forms and how much substance is left in the lives of our brethren?

Israel lost to the Philistines because their religion went no deeper than a outward expression of Judaism. Form over substance. How often do we lose to the devil for the same reason?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

If Anybody Thinks This Is Easy, They’re Nuts

There is a very definite reason why the Bible speaks of the “exceeding riches of His grace” (Eph. 2:7), of God being “rich in mercy” (Eph. 2:4), of His “abundant mercy” (I Peter 1:3), the “multitude of Your mercy” (Psalm 5:7), that “great is Your mercy” (Psalm 86:13), of His “tender mercies” (Psalm 103:4), that He is “slow to anger and abounding in mercy” (Psalm 103:8), that His mercy is from “everlasting to everlasting” (Psalm 103:17). There indeed is a very good explanation for why the Bible describes God’s grace and mercy in such expansive terms.

It’s because we need it.

Anybody who thinks living a Christian life is easy, isn’t trying. And I’m going to prove that in the course of this article. Yes, there is so much to be thankful and joyful for in this religion. But that doesn’t mean it’s simple. And I don’t think it is accidental that the Bible uses such terms as “riches,” “abundant,” “great,” and “multitude” when describing the grace and mercy of Jehovah. The greatest challenge any human faces is to live the Christian life as God intends. None of us do that, but even the effort requires the most supreme manifestation of our will and exertion. To be like God, which is what Christianity demands—and nothing less—is an awesome thought and a daunting trial. And, again, it is far, far from easy.

Why do I say that? Try these verses out for size.

“Blessed are the pure in heart” (Mt. 5:8). Purity of heart. Does that describe you? Where every, single motive behind your every, single action is chaste and uncorrupted? What else does a “pure heart” mean? I can’t tell you what your every motive should be; that’s between you and God. But how often do you and God discuss it, and how often do you make sure that every intention of your heart is what it ought to be?

“Bringing every THOUGHT into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (II Cor. 10:5). Is every THOUGHT you think in harmony with God’s will? Try it sometime. Tell me it’s easy. In Philippians 4:8, Paul puts it this way: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” The New King James Version says “meditate on these things,” which is probably a closer meaning to the verb. Is your every thought true, honest, just, pure, lovely, of good report, virtuous, and full of praise? Are those the things you “meditate on”? Work on it. It will keep you busy for the rest of your life.

“Strive to enter in at the strait gate” (Luke 13:24). Two thoughts here. The word “strait” means narrow, demanding, strenuous to navigate. The word “strive” is the Greek word “agonidzesthe”; if you see the English word “agonize” in that, then you are perceptive—and correct. Jesus, in effect, says to “agonize” to get into heaven, because the gate to therein is narrow, difficult, and arduous to navigate. Gentle reader, do you ever “agonize” over your sins and Christian life?

“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). That’s a piece of cake, isn’t it—to be perfect like God. No trouble at all. I’m being facetious, of course. None of do this, but that’s what Jesus said. His teaching was perfect, and it was designed to make us perfect, i.e., to be just like God. Anything less than that is less than what we ought to be. Do you even try to be like God? There is no excuse for sin, folks. “How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” (Rom. 6:2). Don’t sit there and say, “Oh, well, I can have my little sins and God will forgive me.” Uh uh. “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (Gal. 2:20). Did Christ have His “little sins” that He expected God to forgive Him of? No, there is no excuse for sin. As a Christian, your responsibility is to “be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven in perfect.” Now, yes, we will sin. But the fact that we will is no excuse to do it.

Do you understand now why the Bible speaks of the “riches” of His grace, the “multitude” of His mercy, His “abundant” mercy, which stretches from “everlasting to everlasting”? The harder you try to live the Christian life and the more you truly want to please God, the more difficult you will realize that it is, because of the weakness and frailty of your flesh. Thanks be to God that He understands that, and is “slow to anger and abounding in mercy.” “God, be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13) because “strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Matt. 7:14).

Saturday, March 6, 2010

We’ve Got This All Backwards

In Matthew 22, Jesus tells a parable about a king (God) who prepared a wedding feast for his son (Christ). Once everything was ready, he sent out his servants to let those who had been invited (the Jews) know that “all things are ready. Come to the wedding” (v. 4). But those invited “made light of it and went their way” (v. 5). Some of them even “seized his servants, treated them spitefully, and killed them” (v. 6). Not too surprisingly, “when the king heard about it, he was furious. And he sent out his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city” (v. 7). Not to put too fine a point on it, but what kind of idiots would, number one, reject an invitation to a feast from a KING, and number two, kill his servants when they came with the invitation? It’s not terribly surprising that someone (the king) who had absolute power acted as he did.

The parable continues. Since “those who were invited were not worthy” (v. 8), the king sent his servants “into the highways, and as many as you find (the Gentiles), invite to the wedding” (v. 9). The servants obeyed, and “the wedding hall was filled with guests,” “both bad and good” (v. 10). The king’s invitation was now open to anyone. One guest failed to show the proper respect for the occasion and he was removed (vs. 11-13), but that’s somewhat incidental to the point I want to make in this article.

What Jesus is teaching here is that the gospel invitation went out to the Jews first. By and large, they rejected it, and the kingdom, to this very day, is mostly composed of Gentiles, or non-Jews. That kind of teaching is what got Jesus killed.

But what I want to emphasize is how incredibly reversed this whole situation is. Think about it. The great God of heaven and earth, the perfect, holy, righteous, omnipotent Almighty preparing a feast for us, who, at least compared to Him, are worms, wicked, sinful, miserably rebellious and wretched creatures. We have no right to even approach Him or be in His presence. If anybody ought to be preparing a feast for somebody else, it is us for Him. It is an awesome thought to me—that God would prepare a feast for man. Invite us to come. Let us in. And we have certainly done absolutely nothing to deserve it, indeed, just the opposite. There can exist no greater dichotomy than this, no two opposites could be farther apart than God spreading a rich, luxuriant, bountiful table full of blessings for humans. It boggles the mind, if we truly consider it.

Yet, how many of us, just like those invited in the parable, are ungrateful and unthankful? How many look on the marvelous banquet which a holy God has laid out before wicked, undeserving man with contempt, mockery, or apathy? What greater insult could there possibly be than man rejecting God’s feast? In the parable, the king, when “he sent out his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city,” certainly was entirely justified. God, wholly by His grace, has laid before us incomparable riches. He didn’t have to prepare this feast for us, you know. He was under no obligation to invite us. He could have, and been completely within the boundaries of His rights, demanded that we prepare a feast for Him. That’s the way it ought to be. This whole thing is backwards.

So what do you think we deserve if we fail to attend the feast prepared for us?

Monday, March 1, 2010

True Greatness

We were talking about Alexander the Great in Western Civ one day, and I asked the students how many more people they could think of down through history who had been given the nickname “the Great.”

They did well. They named “Alfred the Great,” “Peter the Great,” “Catherine the Great,” “Frederick the Great.”

And then one very wise, very enterprising student called out, “Mark the Great.”

Well, yes. But it is interesting how we humans view people in history. Every one of the above named individuals (except “Mark the Great”) were butchers, had oodles of blood on their hands, and oppressed about as many people as they could put a cage around—the ones they didn’t kill, that is.

Peace and goodness aren’t very interesting, folks. Wars and wickedness are what make the history books. Historians are a strange lot, given the kind of people whom they think are “great.”

But, come to think of it, it’s not just historians. It’s humanity in general and it afflicted even those who walked with Jesus: “Then He came to Capernaum. And when He was in the house He asked them, ‘What was it you disputed among yourselves on the road?’ But they kept silent, for on the road they had disputed among themselves who would be the greatest. And He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all’” (Mark 9:33-35). Jesus knew what they were talking about, and His patience is astounding. Notice: “He sat down [and] called the twelve…” He took the time to explain one of the most supreme lessons in the world: in God’s eyes, true greatness is not how many people you can kill or how much territory you can rule over…but how well you serve others.

At another time, the Lord indicated that He was well aware of how humans thought. The mother of James and John came to Him with a request: “Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left, in Your kingdom” (Matthew 20:21). She had no idea what she was asking, of course; she, like just about every other Jew in Jesus’ day thought He would establish an earthly kingdom and rule with a rod of iron from Jerusalem. And if He was going to be a King like David, a great Monarch ruling over the world—“Jesus the Great”—then she wanted her two sons sitting in the seats of honor, one on His right and one on His left. Then they, too, would be “great.” Jesus' ultimate answer no doubt was a complete puzzle and shock to His disciples: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave--just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (vs. 25-28). Jesus was not here to be served. Indeed, if anyone on this earth ever had a right to BE served, it was He. But He came to show us the way the godliness, the way to true greatness in the eyes of Jehovah. You want to be great? Jesus asks. Then you'll have to learn how to deny yourself (Luke 9:23), humble yourself as a little child (Matthew 18:4), and serve others.

This is not the way “the rulers of the Gentiles” think. Nor is it the way historians reckon. Or many of the rest of us, for that matter. We all desire a certain amount of notice and adulation from others, whether we want to be known as “the Great” or not. And probably nobody reading this will ever be known in history as “the Great.” But every one of us can be great in the eyes of the One who really counts. Let’s not concern ourselves about what the world thinks of us, but start giving due consideration to what the Lord thinks of us.

You know, I do hope, in the ultimate history book, the one written in heaven by the only Author whose opinion truly matters…I hope, in that book, a “Mark the Great” exists. But if there is, he’s going to have to be a servant of men, not a conqueror of them.