Narnia’s Aslan and The Biblical Trinity

Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death,
And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.”

The greatest fantasy works of the last century all have a character that feels larger than life, a leader that seems omniscient at times and full of wisdom all the time. I’m thinking of course of wizards like Gandalf and Dumbledore in literature and the Jedi Yoda in film. Each in their own way has an air of both invincibility and goodness to them so that you know the hero of each story is in good mentoring hands as they seek to vanquish the evil they must face.

Even among this specific genre of character, there is something wholly unique about C.S. Lewis’ Aslan the Lion, who impacted a wide range of heroes across seven distinct stories. As a Christian, his uniqueness is obvious after even a cursory reading of The Chronicles of Narnia—far more than a wizard or Jedi, he seems sovereign and completely transcendent over humans and every other being in the fantasy world in which he resides. To say it another way, he is godlike. And seeing as how C.S. Lewis’ intention in creating Aslan is not a secret, I think we can say he is Godlike. Capital G. It would be an exaggeration to say that I’ve learned more about God from Narnia than from Lewis’s non-fiction but it’s closer than you would think. Every time I’ve read these stories, this aspect of Aslan has struck me as more and more meaningful.

This year I completed my 4th reading of this series all the way through (having read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe maybe ten times), taking notes on this topic. And I was able to really zero in on this one thought as I read this time—Aslan not only communicates the attributes and personality of the Christian God, but also of each of his three persons, which are at times distinct. I think you can clearly see the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in his actions, words and general character. Today we at REO discuss them.  

 

Note that because the allusions to the Trinitarian God in LWW are so famous—notably that Aslan dies as an act of atonement and rises from the dead and that the Beavers refer to him as “good” but not “safe”—I will bypass that book and focus on the other six. Note also that as I cannot cover them all due to space restraints I strongly encourage our readers to share any I may have missed in addition to commenting in general. Lastly, I will be going in publication order. If you disagree with that, prepare for a Prince Caspian-esque fight to the death! (Just kidding.)

Prince Caspian

One of the remarkable things about Aslan is that, other than The Magician’s Nephew if I’m not mistaken, for such a dominant player in the story he actually has sporadic appearances. By the page count in my big one-volume version of The Chronicles of Narnia, this book begins on page 317 and Aslan doesn’t show up until page 373 and then it is only by Lucy seeing him ‘off camera’ so to speak. He doesn’t speak until page 378 and doesn’t appear in all his glory until the following page.

The fact he shows up before he is heard or “seen” is exactly what I’m talking about. Lucy sees him with her childlike innocence and faith (a carryover from LWW), and the whole scene smacks of the story of God calling Samuel, as well as biblical statements like, “The last will be first,” and “A little child will lead them”. Which Lucy subsequently does. Literally. And while there is no one verse I can point to that mirrors this, I love that Aslan tells Lucy that he seemed bigger because she had grown. On the other hand, Aslan telling her “All of Narnia will be renewed” has a clear parallel in Revelation 21:5.

Aslan’s later moment with Susan, forgiving her for not believing, definitely has a Jesus/God type feel to it. Especially since it’s the sin of unbelief.

Finally, I love that Prince Caspian responds to Aslan that he doesn’t feel sufficient to take up kingship in Narnia with Aslan replying, “Good. If you had felt yourself sufficient, it would have been a proof that you are not.” There are few things as crucial to the Kingdom of God as being humble and meek. The New Testament reminds us over and over that the humble will be exalted. Just as Caspian was.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

The most obvious example of my thesis as seen in this book is Eustace explaining how he regained his human form after being stuck as a dragon for a time. The way he describes Aslan removing his dragon skin as being painful and pleasurable at the same time sound exactly like something you’d read in the Bible, where conflicts live in tension. And where transformation happens in Christ.

And later Aslan says, “I call all times soon,” echoing a thought the Apostle Peter has about how God views time in his second epistle.

I also appreciate how at the end he is a lamb at first before metamorphosing back into a lion, since both animals are used to describe Christ in the New Testament.

The Sliver Chair

I confess Jill’s first encounter with Aslan in the second chapter of this book was the first passage that really birthed the idea of this article. There are few passages in the whole series that cause my heart and mind to dance with joy the way this one does.

Aslan inviting her to drink makes me think of Divine invitations in both Old and New Testaments to do the same (Isaiah 55, John 4). Drinking the water immediately quenches the thirst and not drinking it leads to death.

And I adore this quote by Aslan: “I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” followed by the explanatory note: “It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.” That brings chills to my soul like few things outside of Scripture itself.

Their continued conversation just adds more and more to the image: He gets her to see her sin; He tells her that she would not call to him unless he called her first; at one point he replies to her question with “I am”, and he mandates her to “Say [the signs] to yourself when you wake up in the morning and when you lie down at night and when you wake up in the middle of the night.” The whole scene is overflowing with Scriptures—Deuteronomy 6, John 4, 6 and 8–that point to how God interacts with humanity.

Finally, it is perfect to me that Aslan uses his breath to send Eustace and Jill to Narnia from the cliff in this chapter, the same means he uses to bestow forgiveness on Susan in the previous book. Both Hebrew and Greek have a word that can be translated to “spirit” “breath” and “wind” and hence, it feels like yet another echo of deity.

The Horse and His Boy

Shasta’s intimate confrontation with Aslan is one that I could read over and over before moving on in the book. Especially this: “I was the lion who forced you to join with Ararvis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the Horses new strength of fear for the last mile that you pushed bait in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight to receive you.” I can clearly imbibe of the sovereignty of the Father, the comfort of the Spirit, the protection of the Son (as promised to Simon Peter), the invisible God who protects and never gets tired. All in this one short speech.

And then Shasta asks him “Who are you?” And Aslan says, “Myself,” which sounds semantically different yet quite similar to YHWH’s answer to Moses in Exodus 3 to a similar question. Mere mortals do not give that kind of answer unless they are being obtuse. Which Aslan, nor God, ever is.

The Magician’s Nephew

There can be no doubt about the chosen passage for this book:

“In the darkness something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing…it seemed to come from all directions at once…Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful Digory could hardly bear it.” 

And then:

“Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.”

There are few things as Godlike as the act of creating. Not just making or producing, though there is that, but creating from nothing. By nothing more than the spoken word. Creating life. Life with personality. As Aslan does here. This is Narnia’s Genesis 1 and John 1. And what is remarkable in view of this article, between those two biblical chapters we know the Trinity is fully represented by the creation of the universe. There can be no mistaking who Aslan is to Narnia. Creation depends on the Creator but not vice-versa.

I will also add that even though I said I would not reference LWW in this article, this part of The Magician’s Nephew takes me back to this exchange in the LWW movie containing a truth that is only implied in the LWW book:

Jadis: Have you forgotten the laws upon which Narnia was built?
Aslan: Don’t cite the deep magic to me, Witch! I was there when it was written.

Boom!

The Last Battle

This scene gets me all choked up because it is so much bigger than fiction:

Then he fixed his eyes on Tirian, and Tirian came near, trembling and flung himself at the Lion’s feet, and the Lion kissed him and said, “Well done, last of Kings of Narnia, who stood firm at the darkest hour.” Not only does it sound like how Disciples Peter (Luke 5:8, pre-resurrection) and John (Revelation 1:17, post-resurrection) react to Christ, the words Aslan uses are clearly Christ’s to all those who remain faithful until the end (Matthew 25, Luke 19).

A similar scene with Emeth a few pages later has the same effect. He falls at Aslan’s feet only for Aslan to (again) breathe on him to raise him back to his feet, reminding me of Ezekiel’s encounter with God in Ezekiel 1 and 2. And he too is welcomed in, despite a life lived quite differently than Tirian, showing grace that our God does manifest in Scripture to people like Cornelius.

And there are these words of the Lord Digory:

“Listen, Peter, When Aslan said you could never go back to Narnia, he meant the Narnia you were thinking of. But that was not the real Narnia. They had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia which has always been here and will always be here: just as our own world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan’s real world. 

A whole article could be written just on the way this series ends. But suffice it to say that Aslan’s role in the world he created and the “real” world is a clear a picture of the Christian God as could be. It makes me long for the New Heaven and New Earth unlike anything else in fiction. And not to merely experience the new but to experience seeing my Savior with my own eyes, and not the eyes of faith. I feel like that is the most real thing there is.

I believe God’s fundamental attribute is that he is “other”. He is not like us. He is exalted, highly lifted up, above and beyond and distinct from all beings in history. There is none like him, he says over and over in Isaiah. He is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent. If that is what it means to be “holy” (and I believe it does) then that is who God is at his core, far more than other adjectives we use for his nature.

That is the air Aslan has about him throughout the seven stories. And that is why he has taught me so much about our God. Kudos to Lewis for this timeless children’s series that impacts adults in such a meaningful way




The 5 Most Theologically Rich Christmas Songs

Thousands of Christmas songs and hymns have been written these past 2000 years. While many songs discuss sights of Santa and Rudolph, there have been others written to express the significance of God coming to earth and being born into a sinful world. These songs hold theological richness and can edify a group of believers during the Christmas season or any time of year.

Rather than reviewing every Christmas song that has been written since the time of Christ’s birth, this list was limited to those Christmas songs that are familiar to most modern Christians. In assessing the most theologically rich Christmas songs, it was considered: 1) Whether the song does more than cover the basics of the biblical story, digging into the deeper theological implications behind the story and; 2) Whether the song reveals these truths in a beautiful way that sincerely indicates the living presence of the Holy Spirit. Here are the five most theologically rich Christmas songs:

5. “O Little Town of Bethlehem”

Phillips Brooks penned the words to “O Little Town of Bethlehem” in 1868. The words came to him one night as he rode from Jerusalem to Bethlehem by horseback to deliver a Christmas Eve message.

Many people are very familiar with the first two verses of the song. However, the last two verses are exceptional and should not be forgotten. The third verse in this classic hymn is particularly noteworthy. It speaks of “the wondrous gift” that was given. The thing about a gift is that it is not something we earn; a gift is freely bestowed. This “wondrous gift” is Jesus, who God the Father gave as a living sacrifice for humanity (John 3:16). He came to be our living sacrifice and to give man spiritual knowledge (John 10). In this fallen world we all must humbly accept our fallenness and our need for divine help. Only then can we rightly choose His hand of salvation (James 1:21). When our “meek souls” receive Him, “Christ enters in.” He has called us to eternal salvation through Himself. Will we listen?

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight

For Christ is born of Mary
And gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love
O morning stars together
Proclaim the holy birth
And praises sing to God the King
And Peace to men on earth

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel.

4. “Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne”

Emily Elliot wrote “Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne” in 1864. The primary point of this song is the tremendous humility God expressed by lowering Himself for our benefit. He left His heavenly throne to come as a man to save us.

Echoing Philippians 2:7, the first two verses convey the awesome magnitude of His humiliation in becoming a lowly man. Jesus was born of a “lowly birth” and came in “great humility.” He did this for us—people who don’t deserve it.

The third verse alludes to Matthew 8:20, where Jesus stated that all earthly creatures had a place to rest—all except for Himself. He was saying His life was a difficult one and those who followed Him could expect the same.

The first four verses end with a refrain that declares we can now freely choose to make room for Jesus in our hearts forever. With our entire being, we fully trust Him as our eternal Savior (Romans 10:9). The fifth verse concludes with a declaration of victory, rejoicing that God has made room for us in His heavenly home!

Thou didst leave Thy throne and Thy kingly crown,
When Thou camest to earth for me;
But in Bethlehem’s home was there found no room
For Thy holy nativity.
O come to my heart, Lord Jesus,
There is room in my heart for Thee.

Heaven’s arches rang when the angels sang,
Proclaiming Thy royal degree;
But of lowly birth didst Thou come to earth,
And in great humility.
O come to my heart, Lord Jesus,
There is room in my heart for Thee.

The foxes found rest, and the birds their nest
In the shade of the forest tree;
But Thy couch was the sod, O Thou Son of God,
In the deserts of Galilee.
O come to my heart, Lord Jesus,
There is room in my heart for Thee.

Thou camest, O Lord, with the living word
That should set Thy people free;
But with mocking scorn, and with crown of thorn,
They bore Thee to Calvary.
O come to my heart, Lord Jesus,
There is room in my heart for Thee.

When the heavens shall ring, and the angels sing,
At Thy coming to victory,
Let Thy voice call me home, saying “Yet there is room,
There is room at My side for thee.”
My heart shall rejoice, Lord Jesus,
When Thou comest and callest for me.

3. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” was originally written in Latin, and many believe it dates back to the twelfth century. In 1851, John Mason Neale translated it into English. The English translation of the song contains several variations, and some versions include up to eight different verses.
It is easy to notice all the names and descriptions of Jesus presented in the song: Emmanuel (Immanuel), Dayspring, Wisdom from on High, Desire of Nations. These are all tremendous names and titles that describe the Messiah.

Each verse highlights one of them. What is traditionally viewed as the first verse highlights the name Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” In Scripture, the name first occurs in Isaiah 7:14. This passage is quoted in Matthew 1:22 in specific reference to the infant Jesus who was God.
Another verse highlights the name Dayspring, which indicates how the Light of Heaven has delivered us from spiritual darkness. This was a name proclaimed by Zechariah in Luke 1:78 under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
This song also gives Jesus the title Wisdom from on High. This may be a reference to Isaiah 11:2. The entire book of Isaiah is full of prophecies of the coming Savior. Only through this wisdom from Heaven (Jesus) may we may exit our fallen life and enter a new life with God.

The writer of this song also described Jesus as the Desire of Nations, a reference to Haggai 2:7. This is another prophecy of Jesus in which God foretold that great glory would one day once again fill the temple. Because He has finally come in His glory, we are freed from living lives of isolation and discord.

There are even amazing additional/optional verses of the song that refer to names like “Lord of might,” “Rod of Jesse’s stem,” and “Key of David.”. As this incredible song mentions, Jesus Christ has opened wide our heavenly home and therefore we can rejoice.

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come Thou Dayspring come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Oh, come, our Wisdom from on high,
Who ordered all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Oh, come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Oh, bid our sad divisions cease,
And be yourself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Additional/Optional verses:
Oh, come, oh, come, our Lord of might,
Who to your tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times gave holy law,
In cloud and majesty and awe.

Oh, come O Rod of Jesse’s stem,
From every foe deliver them
That trust your mighty pow’r to save;
Bring them in victory through the grave.

Oh, come, O Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.

2. “O Holy Night”

The French poet Placide Cappeau wrote the words to “O Holy Night” in 1847. In 1855 John Sullivan Dwight, a Unitarian minister, translated it into English. It is considered one of the greatest and most popular Christmas songs of all time, and for good reason. Its theological greatness cannot be denied.

The first verse describes our plight. Original sin introduced mankind to death (1 Corinthians 15:21-23). All of humanity inwardly longed for a deliverer who would set us free from this plight. So long did humanity toil under this that our individual souls got used to being away from God and we “lay in sin and error pining.” But then Jesus came with a message of hope and the “weary world” rejoiced. He did all of His saving work to retrieve each individual person (Luke 15:1-7).

The second verse makes us firsthand witnesses of the holy child. We are one with the wise men who, like us, followed a light by faith to find Jesus. Jesus would not be a mere prophet of God or just a good man. The baby in the manger was the “King of Kings.” He was and is the Son of God who is one with God the Father (John 5:16-18).

The third verse exalts in the implications of Jesus’ earthly ministry leading up to His death. He taught mankind “to love one another” (cf. John 13:34-35) and broke the chains of oppression. Like the first two verses, the third verses finalize the song with an exuberant call to praise God the Son for His wonderful salvific work. This time the call is for everyone to unite in a magnificent song of praise lauding the holy birth.

It is rare to find a song whose melody actually works with and bolsters its message quite this well. In my opinion, “O Holy Night” does that better than any other song under Heaven. The last refrain of each stanza is full of genuine passion, exalting in the beauty that is the incarnation of Jesus.

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
‘Til He appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born;
O night divine, O night, O night Divine.

Led by the light of Faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming,
Here come the wise men from Orient land.
The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger;
In all our trials born to be our friend.
He knows our need, to our weakness is no stranger,
Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend!
Behold your King, Before Him lowly bend!

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever,
His power and glory evermore proclaim.
His power and glory evermore proclaim.

1. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”

Charles Wesley wrote the words to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” in 1739. This song is absolutely loaded to the brim with incredible theological meat!

The first verse reveals why the baby in the manger is so special. This is not just any king who has been born. Through this baby “God and sinners [are] reconciled” after a long separation (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:18). This makes very valid the call for “all ye nations rise” and joyfully rejoice!
The second verse explains how this “offspring of a virgin’s womb” was qualified to do any divine reconciling. He was able to do this because He was the “Christ,” which means, “anointed.” In other words, He was the Messiah and king of mankind (Luke 23:2-3). But He was more than a mere human king. He was God in human form—“veiled in flesh” and the “incarnate Deity.” Jesus lowered Himself by taking on the complete form of a man (Philippians 2:5-7). Our God could have remained in His comfortable position in Heaven but He was “pleased as man with man to dwell.” He was literally our Emmanuel—our God with us.

As a result of the work of Christ, the third verse calls us to praise Him for His infinitely gracious act. He is our “Prince of Peace” and our “Sun of Righteousness.” God’s Son came to give all men the truth of God’s redeeming and life-giving grace. How did He do this? By being born. He did this so we could experience a second birth and be born again into a new life in Him, living forever in His kingdom.

The fourth verse in some of today’s hymnals is a fusion of the original fourth and fifth verses. Since the fused version is the one many are most familiar with, that is what I am including here. It tells us that as a man, Jesus was physically born into a very humble home. Now that He has died for all mankind, we should invite Him to reside within us by confessing full belief in Him (Romans 10:9). Its last few lines hearken both to Genesis 3 and 1 Corinthians. In Genesis 3 we find the world-changing act of original sin. In this same chapter, God placed a distinct curse on each of the two human wrongdoers and all of their descendants. He also cursed the snake (Satan). His curse to the snake included a prophecy of Jesus’ final victory over Satan (Genesis 3:15). This is a prophecy of the Son of God who would one day come to earth to die. In so doing He would finally “bruise . . . the serpent’s head.” Wesley lauded the beauty of this story. Jesus’ work of atonement successfully displayed His saving power. It is in 1 Corinthians 15 that the first man and Jesus are famously referred to as the first and second Adam. Jesus, the second Adam from above, sacrificed Himself for all mankind, reuniting us with God.

Charles Wesley’s beautifully penned words not only bring about a feeling of the Christmas spirit, but beautifully explain the gospel message and give us reason to proclaim “glory to the newborn king!”

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild;
God and sinners reconciled.”
Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With angelic hosts proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem.”

Christ, by highest heav’n adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord:
Late in time behold Him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail th’ incarnate Deity!
Pleased as man with man to dwell,
Jesus our Immanuel.

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n with healing in His wings:
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth;
Born to give them second birth.

Come, Desire of nations, come!
Fix in us Thy humble home:
Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head;
Adam’s likeness now efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place:
Final Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.

This article first appeared in The Brink magazine




Jesus Is Offensive: Let Him Be (Part 4)

Links to the previous three essays can be found at the end of this article.


Part 4: Jesus Is Offensive In His Judgments

Injustice or Jealousy? 

One of the hardest parables Jesus gave for me to preach is the one from Matthew 20 where Jesus talks about workers getting hired at different times of the day and all getting paid the same wage at the end of the day.

I think I get it in its interpretation. That’s not the problem. The reason I say it is hard to preach is that no matter how you interpret it, it just sounds unfair. It is bookended by the phrase “The first will be last,” which sounds intriguing. But everything that happens in between sounds like a fast-talking businessman who gets you with the semantics of the contract he had you sign even though there is something clearly wrong with how it played out in real life.

Welcome to the world of not being able to put Jesus in any boxes. For the record, I do not think Jesus is a fast-talking businessman. I think God, and by nature Jesus, are completely fair in their judgments. But what is fair to God may not sound fair to me. And hence, it can be offensive. And crazy enough, this example isn’t even close to how offensive Jesus as Judge over men’s souls can be.


Even Tolerance Is Exclusive 

It gets even more offensive, at least if secular American culture is any indication when you talk about how Jesus himself and his early followers claimed he was the sole path to get to God. In one sermon Jesus attested, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” This sounds like arrogance unless you consider that Jesus believed himself to be God himself and proved it by rising from the dead. Taking that into consideration I think he has the authority to claim which way is correct. Besides, you cannot escape claims of exclusivity by any view on this topic and the major world religions do not even try. Jesus also claimed the vast majority of people would not accept the one path, adding to the arrogant exclusivity effect.


The One Subject We All Want To Avoid

Yet it gets even more offensive. It is not enough that the vast majority of the world will not get to God because they choose manmade religion or human ego instead of Jesus Christ. The Bible teaches that those that do not end up in Hell. Whether we interpret the biblical imagery of Hell as literal or figurative, I find it quite difficult to get around the harshness of it being a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual reality. Maybe there isn’t really fire but there is real suffering[1. I learned a lot about this from Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle in Erasing Hell, 76-80.].

This may be the king of all the offensive Bible teachings[2. Tim Keller says it is in his experience in the multi-contributor book Is There A Hell Or Does Everyone Go To Heaven When They Die?]. When you hear atheists talk about it, often their ire will come in the form of them saying something along the lines of: “Say I live a good, moral life. I love people. I give to the poor. I live that way until I die. According to the Bible, God is going to send me to eternal fiery torment just because I didn’t believe in his Son?” George Carlin, the comedian who used humor to make serious points, said it this way:

“Religion has convinced people there is an invisible man — living in the sky — who watches everything you do…And this invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever ’til the end of time…But He loves you!”[3. Cited by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, 317.]

These types of statements are a clever bit of searing verbal gymnastics but are abysmal biblical hermeneutics.

The problem with it at its core is defining what a good moral life is. Take this statement from the late atheist Christopher Hitchens: “My challenge—Name an ethical statement or action, made or performed by a person of faith, that could not have been made or performed by a nonbeliever.”[4. Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, 289]

The answer to that is simple and it is the basis for all of Christian morality. A nonbeliever could not give glory to God in covenant relationship. It is foolish to use the Old Testament Law to try to castigate the Christian’s basis for morality since we are no longer under it (Romans 6:14; Galatians 5:18). Our basis of morality is in a relationship with God, similar to children to a Father and a bride to a husband, worshipping him with our lives. And those who have and do that will spend eternity with Him. Those who do not, will not. Make no mistake, if I live a moral life by the world’s definition but do not humble before God by confessing I am not moral by his standard[5. Remember, Jesus said put lust in the same category with adultery, and once disintegrated a rich young ruler’s morality, utterly humiliating him, after the man claimed he was righteous by God’s law], I am worthy of eternal punishment according to the Bible. If I never relationally enter into his kingdom to give Him all honor and glory for all that is good, I am worthy eternal punishment according to the Bible.

Here is what I mean: If there is a God who created you and gave you life and strongly desires a relationship with you in spite of you being sinful by his standards and you say, “Nope, I’m good. I got it on my own,” then that is about as terrible an insult as you can throw at him. Reading Ezekiel 16 gives a graphic allegory of why God sees it that way. As a result, human pride–defined in the Bible as living life without giving God the glory in covenant relationship—is listed over and over as something that God hates. And it is at times listed right beside things like the murder of innocents (Proverbs 6:16-19).

I expect the secular world to bristle at that and find it deeply offensive or just ludicrously stupid. But to me, it makes sense if there is a God. God’s standard of perfection cannot be attained and he offers committed relationship anyway, as the lone sovereign Creator of the universe. And to spit at that is the worst we can do. In Ezekiel 8 God tells his people he wants to show them the most abhorrent, vile, repugnant thing he can. And does he show them rape? Bestiality? Torture? No. He shows them God’s people worshipping other gods. For many the false gods are their own appetite and earthly things (Phil 3:19). Or to say it another way, it is themselves.

Hell in that sense makes rational sense to me. There will be people who end up in Hell who never killed a person or committed adultery. But there isn’t a single person in Hell who didn’t fail to give God the glory in covenant relationship. And if that is as evil as murder or rape or child abuse–and biblically I believe it is—then Hell makes sense. You can argue that even child abusers do not deserve Hell if they die without repenting, but putting it in that context definitely causes you to not take George Carlin or many atheist proclamations about biblical morality and Hell quite so seriously.

I hasten to add that I am adamant about saying Hell makes rational sense to me. It does not make emotional sense and I’m not sure it ever will. It causes me to be nauseous often when I think about it. It wages war on my emotions any time I preach it and no topic in the world makes me more uncomfortable. But if it is what the Bible teaches, I have to man up and deal with it.


Only Christ Can Judge You, And He Certainly Will 

Jesus clearly laid claim to deity by claiming to be the Judge of all humanity. He said in John 5, “Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son…And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man.” And he also claimed his judgments were fair and true (John 5:30, 8:16). I think we can also add one heavy adjective to his judgments as well: offensive.

It has not been my fundamental intention to bring a downer to the Christmas season this year. It’s simply to rediscover who Jesus is, at a time of year when people are talking about him and taking advantage of an innocent baby to make him someone he wasn’t. I guarantee understanding the real Jesus of Scripture will only help us to worship him more biblically this time of year.

And that is what REO is all about.

Read Part One Here. 

Read Part Two Here. 

Read Part Three Here.

 




BREAKING: Christian Music Fans Can Earn a Masters of Theology by Listening to Their Favorite Radio Station

Nashville, TN – Bolstered by the unprecedented success of The Most Enormous Small Group in the World, WayLOVE (99.3 FM) is ready to introduce their latest spiritual growth innovation: The World’s first Christian Radio Masters of Theology*. “We are very excited about our new program,” said WayLOVE’s director of programming, Edward Barry. “Seekers and life-long learners will find that our program is incredibly comprehensive, robust, yet flexible enough for their busy schedules.”

How does this new Degree program work? Easy. You simply listen to your favorite Christian Radio station as often as possible and the music, the spiritual nourishment, and the unquestioned profundity of biblical truth will do the rest. “We knew we struck gold when we landed on this idea. Our music is many things: It is positive. It is encouraging. It is safe. Yet most importantly, it is also full of rich spiritual instruction and wisdom. What better way to study Soteriology than hearing Jeremy Camp’s monumental theological examination, “Jesus Saves?” Or how great is it to learn about the doctrine of Hamartiology by listening to “Fear is a Liar” by Zach Williams?”

WayLOVE’s listeners could not be more excited. Becky Culpepper is working on her third Master’s degree through the station even though the program has only been active for two weeks. “I am so totally thrilled about this, ya’ll! Not only do I get to listen to my favorite songs, which are 100% safe for my kids to listen to as well, I can get my education on while listening to Jamie Grace sing about ‘getting her worship on!’ It’s a win-win!” Scott Maroon, who is currently working on his dissertation, adds, “I had no idea that I could learn so much about the Incarnation or the Hypostatic union or even a little bit about Pneumatology by listening to what I thought were the pretty hackneyed lyrics of “You’re Not Alone” by Owl City and Britt Nicole. Evidently, you can, though. So that’s cool.”

If this new program is well received, WayLOVE hopes to roll out their Doctoral Program* in the fall of 2019.

*Neither program is accredited in any way, shape, or form.




Jesus Is Offensive: Let Him Be (Part 3)

Read Part One Here.

Read Part Two Here.

 

Part III: Jesus was offensive in his teachings

 

If your message isn’t different than an atheist’s, it isn’t the Gospel 

The first time I heard Matthew 25:31-46 I found it offensive. Jesus speaks of treating the hungry, the prisoner and the stranger as if they were literally Jesus himself. By calling them “brothers” it sounds like he means outcasts who are Christians. Regardless of what he means, we know from the rest of Scripture that Christians are mandated to help the poor whether they are believers or not.

These days, while I believe the Church still has a huge responsibility to teach this and similar passages, it is not offensive to my ears. It has been taught so often and so passionately in my circles, and my church is so intentional about it, that the zing of it is gone. And while I could always do more to practice this passage, it has been a source for several articles I’ve written for REO, which you can read here, here and here. (I add that because our culture is so honed in on this teaching, often wielding it imprudently as a political statement[1. There is no question Christians should practice it but to what extent the government uses it as a policy guide it isn’t close to clear in my mind] that its offense has been greatly diminished on a broad scale. Even nominal Christians who do nothing for the poor likely aren’t offended by the suggestion.)

Additionally, the idea of “helping the poor” is something atheists can agree within a vacuum. So there are many other passages Jesus taught that are far more inherently offensive. If we are to understand Jesus as offensive, I want to focus particularly on things that will offend all people to some extent.


Christians, Family and Hate 

One of the most obvious to my mind is that Jesus taught that we are to “hate” our family if we are to follow him. Correctly, preachers and teachers for millennia have taught that Jesus did not mean this literally, as that would contradict a bevy of other Scriptures on loving your family. But what he did through the use of hyperbole is make it clear that if love your family more than you love him you are not his disciple. Is that offensive? It is to me, and essentially everyone in every culture of the world I would guess. In fact, I have a friend from China who left his family to come to the US to study to be a pastor and his family thinks he hates them because he chose Christ over them. That is how he filters this passage.

Another similar one is when Jesus taught to not invite your friends and family over to your house for dinner but to invite the poor, the lame, the crippled and the blind. This to me is offensive because it is on a different level than “help the poor”. It’s one thing to go serve at the Pacific Garden Mission occasionally on a Saturday. It’s another to have those who are shunned by society sit at your dinner table as equals. That passage is in our Bibles and it doesn’t seem to be confusing in its interpretation or application. Yet a tiny minority practice it regularly in the U.S. I would guess. Because it is utterly offensive. 


Jesus Didn’t Always Aim for “Church Growth”

Perhaps the most obvious example in the Gospels of Jesus offending the masses is in John 6. After miraculously feeding the 5,000 Jesus later teaches them that they must believe him to be his disciple. They ask for a sign like the manna for their ancestors in Exodus. Jesus, as the master teacher, turns their words into a brilliant (if disturbing) illustration: to believe in him you must consider him the bread of life and in a figurative sense eat his flesh and drink his blood. The offense is not foundationally in the grotesque imagery, though it is that to any non-savage culture. It is offensive because as he did in Luke 14:25-35 above, he is demanding complete association with him to be his disciple.

And how do they respond? Most of this free lunch crowd confesses it is too hard a teaching and they walked out. I am not advocating modern churches practicing this often (nor am I saying not to), but what if we were willing to preach a Jesus or Jesus teaching so offensive, that the majority of our Sunday morning crowd decides they can’t accept it and do not come back? Even if we do not scare people off, at minimum people in the seats need to know that Jesus is offensive enough to accomplish that kind of mass rejection.

The point could be belabored because in nearly 100 chapters in our Gospels, Jesus offends people over and over and over by what he teaches: The rich young ruler walks away sad, unwilling to part with his wealth…the lawyer tries to justify himself and gets put to shame…Jesus claims Gentiles are important so a crowd prepares to stone him…Jesus fastens a whip out of cords and violently drives moneychanger out of the temple, rebuking them for making his house of prayer for all nations into a den of thieves…Jesus regularly preaches on Hell and final judgment for those who reject him…and on and on. Jesus was a compassionate man to those who were hurting and humble (and even then he wasn’t always, as we saw in the last article). But you cannot escape how often he caused people to feel anger, shame and conviction when he taught. It is no wonder that Peter and Paul both interpreted Isaiah to mean that Jesus was a rock of offense, causing people to stumble. 


Offensive Can Be Good 

One connotation issue in American English is that our word “good” seems often to be associated with things that are pleasant, nice or agreeable. These are not synonyms for good in a biblical sense. If I work too much and God needs to slow me down, he could cause me to become violently ill. And that would be good, even if not nice or pleasant. Similarly, in a few weeks my wife is going to give birth. My understanding is that event will be painful and undignified and the opposite of agreeable or delightful. But will it be good? According to many fathers I talk to, it will be the best.

That is how we need to process Jesus and his teachings. Offensive seems bad, and not good, if we have poor definitions. Jesus’ hard teachings are good as only God’s goodness can be. But they are not easy to accept. They will knock us to our knees, cause us to weep with conviction and make us feel deep shame if we let them. Jesus makes no sense to an unbroken, self-sufficient people. That is the heart of offense and that is what Jesus does.

May we stop trying to portray him otherwise.

 

 




Jesus Is Offensive: Let Him Be (Part 2)

Read Part One Here.

 

Part II: Jesus was offensive in his language

 

I am thankful that some modern Christian leaders wisely advocate for graceful speech to others on social media (and off social media for that matter) when we disagree. Especially about politics. I myself have done so for REO, even linking an article by Tim Keller that helps deal with polemics in a mature and nuanced way.

So I want to be clear that, generally speaking, I think name-calling and demeaning language are not things Christians should practice. Quite often I would say they are sin since we are mandated by God to speak gracefully and to consider others more important than ourselves.


Sticks and Stones

Yet, when we read the Gospels, we discover that Jesus had zero issue calling people insulting names and being harsh in his speech in general. This, as much as anything, is proof that the real Jesus—and not the Politically Correct, Flannelgraph, Buddy-of-Sinners American Jesus—can be quite offensive to our ears and sensibilities.

One of the most obvious examples is how he referred to the hypocritical Pharisees as “whitewashed tombs” and children of Satan. That is pretty debasing language. But I’d like to spend more time in this article on other examples of this type of behavior from Jesus because one thing even the “Just Love Don’t Judge” crowd has no trouble recognizing is that Jesus was harsh to the Pharisees. The high and mighty religious crowd is the obvious exception. Often the Inoffensive Jesus advocates see the modern parallel for the Pharisees as Christians who preach even the judgmental portions of the Bible.

This is erroneous thinking. And even if it weren’t, Jesus’ scathing words to the Pharisees don’t begin to cover it when it comes to ways Jesus talked to people that can shock modern ears. A few others that are significant to me:

“At that time some Pharisees said to him, ‘Herod Antipas wants to kill you!’ Jesus replied, ‘Go tell that fox that I will keep on casting out demons and healing people today and tomorrow…'”

‘Jesus turned around and looked at his disciples, then reprimanded Peter. ‘Get away from me, Satan!‘ he said.” 

Then Jesus said to the [Gentile] woman, ‘I was sent only to help God’s lost sheep—the people of Israel…It isn’t right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs.’”

“You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.”

“Then Jesus replied, ‘Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!‘ (He meant Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, who, though one of the Twelve, was later to betray him.)”

None of the people on the receiving end of these insults could be described as the “religious crowd,” at least not in the typical New Testament Pharisaical sense. You have a follower who abandoned Christ and (I believe) ended up in Hell, a follower who remained faithful to death, a woman who was a complete stranger and foreigner and just needed help, a general crowd of people including his apostles, and a Gentile ruler. In each case, Jesus is not graceful with his speech, but downright rude at best and vicious at worst. If Jesus is our example, this really turns the “Love Thy Neighbor No Exceptions” T-shirt on its head.


Trying to Rationalize It

Now I know in the case of the Syrophoenician woman, that a rejoinder is that Jesus did end up helping her and perhaps came across as curt and even racist to make a point to her to be persistent. Yet can you imagine, in that case, or any of the above, a modern comparison? Christians calling our governmental leaders and former leaders names is extremely common on social media. But if I seriously called one of my church staff “Satan” in one of our meetings, I would be confronted for being a jerk. Even worse (and this is incomprehensible), if a woman of another ethnicity came to my church and asked for help and I used a slur about her people as I at first refused to help, I’d get fired. Even if I did help her eventually.

Let me again be clear that I do not think people reacting by confronting or firing me in those cases would be wrong. This is really what I’m getting at: Jesus was, and is, offensive in ways that we should not be. At least not normally. And while we do not always mimic him, we do accurately portray him. And that is what I fear that American Christianity fails to do quite often. When we make Jesus the nonjudgmental guy who only showed compassion, we misrepresent him. And that is a frightening thing to do.


As far as it depends on you

If you read Paul, he can seem to contradict himself at times. As in Galatians 1 when he said, “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” Contrast that with 1 Corinthians 9 when he says, “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.” How is this reconciled? 

Well, I think in large part the two passages are explaining two things. In one Paul is talking about preaching the Gospel. In the latter. he is talking about how he lives before lost people. That is a huge difference and it can be applied in 2018 this way: People absolutely should be offended by my Christianity. But they should be offended by Jesus, NOT by my behavior, attitude and even the way I talk[2. Both Peter and Paul advocated being respectful and gentle when sharing our hope or correcting opponents and Paul instructed to live as peace with others as far as “it depends on you”.]. I aim to remove every obstacle to the Gospel I can (especially cultural ones) but I cannot remove Jesus. And as Jesus himself noted over and over and over, HE is the offense. That is why people will hate us.

Now, Paul did refer to false teachers as “dogs” so I cannot say for sure that insulting language is always wrong[2. False teachers, in my opinion, are a special case of people who merit far less compassion and patience, biblically speaking, than other lost people but that is an essay for another day.]. But I can say for sure that generally speaking, people should not be offended by me. And equally as important–they should be offended by Jesus. It is the height of lamentable irony that we want to make Jesus inoffensive when he himself assured us that he is the worst offense there is. The kind that produces hate. I absolutely love my neighbor as myself, per Jesus’s command. But if I expect that to mean I will get along in perfect harmony with lost people, then I do not understand Jesus at all. He said himself that he came to bring a sword and divide people. It’s his name, his message, that people hate.

So do I speak the way Jesus spoke? Not necessarily. But do I preach him and his words—pure, unedited and without shame? Absolutely. It doesn’t make a nice T-shirt. Because you can’t be offensive and nice at the same time.

 

 

 




Jesus is Offensive: Let Him Be (Part 1)  

You’ve probably seen this T-shirt floating around social media:

Let me be absolutely clear that, without further context, I agree with it. When it’s time to shovel my neighbors’ snow, I should not for one second allow their religions or sexuality determine whether I serve them. Or when I’m at Aldi and the person behind me has two things to buy while I have a cartful, these things don’t matter for me to allow them to go ahead of me.

But if you dive deeper behind much of American culture, even in the Christian subculture, my fear is that we limit what “love your neighbor” is to things that are as above, completely non-offensive and by most measures the opposite of offensive in that they are welcoming.

Further, the life and work of Jesus Christ is at the core of this thought. Because, after all, Jesus was a “friend of sinners,” right? Well, the truth isn’t nearly that simple. It typically is not.


Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses. (Proverbs 27:6)

To be completely straightforward, my aim in this series of essays is not to blaze a new trail on the topic. Encouragingly, I have heard sermons and read internet articles that try to push back against the Inoffensive Jesus. My goal here to help with that. Based on the temperature of American Christianity, we are not going to lack for correction on this topic. We are a nation that thrives on offense being the worst thing in the world. Think just for a second about terms that have been added to our vernacular that seemingly crept in overnight but now are everywhere (especially social media): triggered, safe space, snowflake. 

I’m guessing that some people associate those terms with political views. That is not my desire here. My point is simply that the culture at large has begun to qualify with its vocabulary how much we loathe being offended. This is prevalent in the church also, where people seem content with coming just to big gatherings on Sunday and never getting deeper into the community (as is modeled for us in Acts 2), all for fear of being known and judged.


Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? (John 6:61) 

I acknowledge that much offense, like racism, is terrible and in that sense needs to be battled. But in Christianity, offense is at the heart of our message. That cannot be changed. When people say Jesus was a friend of sinners I do not think they always represent that correctly.

There is work behind interpreting and applying the Bible and my efforts in understanding the passages that use that phrase do not leave me with a sense of “Jesus went out and showed great compassion to the disenfranchised tax collectors, refused to judge them and just loved on them.” No, I do not get that impression at all, even though that is often how I feel people want it to be applied.

Instead, in Matthew 9 we find Jesus calling Matthew to come follow him. We know when Jesus called people, he was as offensive as could be. He told them to forsake their families and to die to themselves. And just a few chapters prior Jesus demanded repentance from those who wanted to follow him. When people accused Jesus of hanging with the bad crowd, Jesus replied that he came to call those who were humble enough to need a doctor. How absurd would it be to imagine a doctor with a cure for a major disease partying with his patients and never telling them what is wrong with them or how to fix it? (I also hasten to add that I have at times heard people claim Jesus was only offensive to “religious” people, but that is nowhere close to the truth and I will deal with that myth in later essays.)

Jesus wasn’t Matthew’s drinking buddy. Nor was he merely “hanging out” with his friends and loving them in innocuous ways. I have zero doubt Jesus spent time with these people to preach to them. Since the core of the Christian life is a relationship (as seen by the Trinity), he didn’t just preach. He communed with them. How many of them were saved? I do not know. But I have no doubt Jesus didn’t commune with sinners without offending them.


And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me. (Matthew 11:6)

Jesus is far less offensive to the humble than to the proud. And the issue with the T-shirt above could be that I know that many of those neighbors that I am supposed to love by shoveling snow see zero need of Jesus in their life. At some point, they need to be offended by the truth of Jesus Christ. Isn’t this the most loving thing to do?

Jesus is the greatest proof that loving and offending can overlap. If my child needs a shot from the doctor, is it loving to prevent it because it hurts?  If the building I’m in is on fire and there is only one door to escape from certain death, is it offensive to try to tell people other ways out are wrong?  That’s a little simplistic but the point is true in Christianity, which claims quite offensively to be the only way to salvation.

So buckle up, REO readers. This year for Christmas we want to encourage you to block out all of the cultural noise and false “no offense” prophets and see Jesus for who he truly is. Because the truth is that he can be terrifying at times, and difficult to accept. Since he is by nature God, even clothed in humanity, we should expect him to be.

Part 2 coming next week.

 

 




Corporate Worship Throughout Bible Times

The Word of God in the read and spoken word is the epicenter of worship. From this lifegiving epicenter flows elements of worship of God with such things as thanksgiving, repentance, adoration, supplication and praise. Corporate worship, the gathering of worshippers to worship God as a unity, is something we should do every week. It takes many different forms throughout the long story of Scripture. This not meant to be a thorough look at all the intricacies of corporate worship in Scripture, but rather a broad look at its changing faces throughout.

The Birth of Worship

In the very beginning, Adam and Eve had full and personal communication with God, but this ended after they disobey God and broke off that close communion. The hearts of all humanity was separated from God by a deep gulf of sin. Yet via personal and corporate worship, we have long been able to maintain some semblance of communication with and focus on God. From this focus flowed such crucial aspects of worship as prayer, personal sacrifice, beauty, unity, divine adoration, and love.

With all corporate worship, God has also been clear that order is necessary. To this end, throughout Scripture, he has always ordained leaders to guide the people in worship. This individual or individuals was to lead worship entirely based on the word of God.

And then there is music. Music has so often been the vehicle of adoration, praise, thanksgiving, and supplication. We see its human development first mentioned in Gen. 4:20-21. In the centuries afterward to the present time, it has played a crucial role in corporate worship. God showed that He loved music, especially when its emotional power and beauty were used in the worship of Himself. He engrained worship music into the very fabric of His rules concerning the worship practices of His chosen people, the Israelites. It became part of who they were. Just a few of the many examples: Exodus 15:1 and 20-21 record how Moses and his sister Mariam led the newly freed Israelites in worship songs of praise and thanksgiving to God after they were freed from slavery in Egypt. When God would set up the order of the priesthood, he would dedicate a sizeable branch of them just to song and the playing of instruments. The entire book of Psalms is composed of worship songs.

The Continuing Need of Renewal Through Corporate Worship

Authentic worship of God has so often resulted in heart revival, both personally and corporately. In Genesis 35:1 Jacob and his sons experienced history’s first recorded revival after returning to Bethel where Jacob had earlier had a strong spiritual experience.

But the Bible made it clear early on that one revival does not necessarily mean there will never be a need for another one. Many years after Jacob and his sons had died, the freed Israelites, the direct descendants of Jacob, were discontent despite their newfound freedom and almost continually in need of renewal.

Shortly after being freed from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites came to Mt. Sinai where God gave His human leader, Moses, the Ten Commandments, which Moses in turn presented to God’s unruly people Israel.

Not coincidentally it was also at Mt. Sinai that God led the people into another revival. Moses spoke the Words of the Lord, and the people responded positively. This is important because by doing so, the Israelite nation was giving their agreement that these words and commands were authoritative and binding.

When we hear the Word preached, we also ought to respond positively, acknowledging that what we hear is the authoritative, binding Word of God. By hearing the Word and truly acknowledging our accordance and agreement with the beauty of God’s Words, the Holy Spirit helps instigate the worship that can result in heart revival. This is still needed, by the way. The revival at Mt. Sinai, nor many after it, did not fix everything for all of eternity. We are still afflicted by the curse of Sin and are in constant need of fixing our wayward hearts through worship of God.

The Transitions from Tabernacle Worship to Temple Worship to Synagogue Worship

Not long after they left Egypt, God instituted tabernacle worship for the wandering children of Israel. Even after they were settled in the Promised Land of Israel, this would remain the case for many years. It would not be until the time of King Solomon that a temple would be authorized by God to be a permanent place of worship.

In the years afterward, temple worship became a deeply ingrained part of Israel’s cultural identity. This ended after they were exiled in captivity. Beginning in the 6th century the dispersed Jews began the practice of synagogue worship in an attempt to regain and save some of their Israelite identity lost to them in the absence of the temple. From the very beginning, synagogue worship emphasized reading and discussing Scripture, praying, and singing. All three of these primary characteristics of Synagogue worship would be imitated in early Christian church worship.

The Transition to Jesus

The Jews were eventually able to return to their homeland, resuming temple worship but still keeping synagogue worship as well. And then Jesus stepped onto the scene and changed everything. Luke 1 and 2 tells us how God the father introduced His Son Jesus as a man-child into this world in part by way of song. His birth was lauded in this way by several sources: Angels, Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon.

Jesus grew to remold man into a new creature and to, therefore, remold worship into a new creature as well. He had come to die for the sins of all men on earth. On the night before His death, Jesus gave some last warnings and words of instructions to his fearful disciples. In John 16:7 he tells them that although He will soon be going back to heaven, He will be sending down a Comforter in His place to help the believers. This Advocate was the Holy Spirit who among many other things has always been instrumental in Christian worship.

The Transition to Church Worship

It was on the Pentecost of around A.D. 30 that the Holy Spirit first came upon the followers of Jesus in a definite and dramatic way. About 10 days prior to this annual Jewish celebration around 120 of Jesus’ most devoted followers united in fervent prayer. The Holy Spirit came upon the group so powerfully that His presence filled the whole house. The spirit was so full in these believers that day that the revival spilled out into the community with the results that 3,000 more people were added to the church.

While not all worship services have as vibrant a Holy Spirit revival as was seen on this particular Day of Pentecost, we should always pray that the Holy Spirit have a very real presence in our gathered assemblies. In addition, while it is excellent whenever such a dynamic revival does occur, we should never assume our worship service has failed and that the Holy Spirit has not worked in magnificent ways if there are no dramatic, visible movings and emotion.

It has been mentioned that the church worship borrowed several key features of synagogue worship. However, these were not the only things Christianity borrowed from Judaism. In fact, for a long time, most of the secular world at that time thought it was just one of its branches.

Many of Paul’s divinely inspired epistles lay out various regulations about how we are to conduct worship in church services. The books make it abundantly clear that church worship is always to be centered on God’s Word, Jesus Christ, unity with other Christians, and the joy in Christ through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

Here through Paul God gives crucial commands concerning how to carry out worship in general:

“And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with
the Spirit; speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual
songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; giving
thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of
our Lord Jesus Christ; submitting yourselves one to another in the
fear of Christ.” (Ephesians 5:18-21)

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom;
teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and
spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” (Colossians 3:16)

What is interesting about both of these key worship passages is that in both of them Paul stresses the importance of music in worship.

The early church would live during some interesting times in its first century of existence. Israel’s second temple would be destroyed in A.D. 70. After Rome destroyed the temple the close connection between Christianity and Judaism was forever severed.

Perhaps the best non-canonical description comes to us via Justin Martyr. These were both written sometime around A.D. 100. While the Bible should clearly be taken much more seriously as the inspired Word of God, many non-inspired ancient Christian documents do present some good doctrinal points to consider and interesting historical insights. This is such an example.

In his “First Apology,” Justin wrote how most of the worship service was designed to show their unification and adoration of Jesus. But he describes how the early church worshippers not only practiced unity with Jesus but with one another:

“Now we always thereafter remind one another of these things
And those that have the means assist them that are in need;
And we visit one another continually.”

Justin relates that the early Christians worshipped on Sunday (instead of Saturday) for the following reason:

“We hold our common assembly on the day of the sun, because
It is the first day, on which God put to flight the darkness and
Chaos and made the world, and on the same day Jesus Christ
Our savior rose from the dead…”

Today, while Sunday remains the primary day most Christians continue to meet together for corporate worship, it is not the only day. Corporate worship, whenever it takes place during the week, is a holy and magnificent moment of worship ordained by God. It has had many faces in Scripture, but all of this has made it abundantly clear that God values prayer, personal sacrifice, song, heart revival, order, beauty, unity, divine adoration, and love in everything that goes on in such times. And it is also clear that all of this springs from a thorough focus on His Word and on Jesus Christ, God the Son. Indeed, the Lord God in all three persons, He who has created us all is more than worthy of all of this worship. Worthy is the Lamb!




The Invisibles: Bible Characters Christians Never Discuss, But Should

One of the most popular articles in the history of REO is our “Top Ten Favorite Bible Characters“. On that list, you find some of the most amazing humans that ever lived and we are blessed to get to read about them in our Bibles.

But that list was quite predictable, on purpose. The most well known Bible characters are so for a reason. They did incredible things and lived exemplary lives. Today, however, I want to go beyond the obvious and talk about a few Bible characters that deserve accolades but almost never get them. These people also did incredible things but because they weren’t as prominent as Moses or Paul, they rarely get taught about in Bible studies or discussed among the great people of the faith.

Today I want to give them their due. Here are a few people in the Bible that rarely get discussed but deserve full sermons dedicated to them.


Bezalel and Oholiab

Listen to what Exodus says about these men:

Then Moses said to the Israelites, “See, the Lord has chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills…

Now let me pause here and wonder if a person doesn’t know the rest of the chapter, what kind of call would you think Bezalel had on his life? I mean, he is filled with the Spirit and wisdom and understanding. Is he a priest? A Levite? A prophet?

None of the above. Here is what he and his chosen assistant Oholiab were filled with the Spirit and with wisdom to do…

to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic crafts. And he has given both him and Oholiab son of Ahisamak, of the tribe of Dan0, the ability to teach others. He has filled them with skill to do all kinds of work as engravers, designers, embroiderers in blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen, and weavers—all of them skilled workers and designers.”

They were filled with the Spirit and wisdom to work with their hands! Christians need to understand and teach the biblical significance of men and women laity who do blue collar jobs (and any non-pastoring jobs). In the Old Testament, they were spiritually qualified by God to the highest level, using phrases we’d use for the most significant spiritual offices. And since the New Testament teaches the priesthood of all believers, I’d say all Christian accountants, janitors, teachers, and electricians are today as well.

We need to teach jobs as ministries. These men help us do that.


Onesiphorus

I owe Tim Campbell the credit for teaching about this man to a chapel full of students at Welch College 20 years ago. Other than a greeting in 2nd Timothy, the extent of what Paul writes about Onesiphorus can be found in two verses in 1 Timothy:

“May the Lord show mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains. On the contrary, when he was in Rome, he searched hard for me until he found me.”

What a short, but significant tribute! Not everyone gets to be Paul, but to be the person that loves and encourages Paul like this? That’s someone worth teaching Christians about. May we all be the kind of person who refreshes others, who isn’t ashamed of them even when they are rejected by others, and who seeks them out. I long for that kind of testimony.


Asaph and the Sons of Korah

It is important to note that just because a Psalm is “of” someone, it does not mean that the person or group wrote it. It could be dedicated to that person or something similar. Yet I think it is very likely that Asaph and the sons of Korah wrote the psalms that bear their names in our Bibles.

Considering how deeply music speaks to our souls, confirmed by God by inspiring our biggest Bible book to be a hymnbook, we should know who wrote the greatest songs of the faith that Israel praised God with. Between Asaph and the sons of Korah you find many of the Psalms that have inspired some of the great modern Christian worship songs, like Psalm 42 (“As The Deer”) and Psalm 84 (“Better Is One Day In Your Courts”) and even the less well known but profoundly lyrical Psalm 73, which is found by that name in Indelible Grace Music. I give a shout out to Dr. Matthew McAfee for introducing that song to my church years ago. Few Bible passages wrestle with the unfairness of the world and the justice of God as this one does. What a privilege to sing it.

But even more important to me, Asaph and the sons of Korah penned several heart-wrenching lament psalms, like Psalms 44, 80 and 88. Psalm 80 contains the refrain, “O Lord God of hosts, cause your face to shine on us, that we may be saved” three times, which Michael W. Smith turned into a modern hymn as well. As far as I know, Psalm 88 has not been turned into a popular modern song, but perhaps that is because it is one of the few psalms that doesn’t end on an up note but remains in the darkness. For that reason, it may be my favorite psalm of all.

Both Asaph and the sons of Korah played a huge part not only in writing but leading Israel in musical worship (1 Chronicles 15, 2 Chronicles 20). These are men who should be known.


Micaiah

No, not Malachi or Micah. Micaiah, a prophet so unknown that my computer is giving me the red squiggly line under his name right now. He prophesied during the time of King Ahab and what a thankless, demeaning job that must have been. We get a taste of what his life was like in 1 Kings 22 (and its parallel, 2 Chronicles 18) when Ahab calls him in to advise him about going to war with Ramoth Gilead. It is obvious that Micaiah never prophesies anything good for Ahab because the wicked king says so plainly. It appears that this is the case because Micaiah intends only to speak the truth. And this obviously happens over and over and this has to weigh on his psyche.

It’s possible we even get a bit of sarcasm here from the noble prophet because at first he tells Ahab to go to war and Ahab knows he’s not being serious. But Micaiah then speaks the harsh predictive reality to him and instead of receiving thanks for the warning, he ends up with a smack to the face. A mere four chapters after Elijah calls down fire from Heaven, another similar prophet is taking inglorious shots to the face in a rather mundane existence. For this, he deserves our respect.


Zelophehad’s Daughters

Because the cultures of the Bible were so demeaning to women by our modern standards, we very much need to preach stories like these women standing up to Moses on behalf of giving them their father’s inheritance. Zelophehad was a righteous man but had no son. So they boldly stood before one of the most significant leaders in the history of the world and asked for justice. And God took their side. There was no doubt about that because he spoke directly in the passage to affirm their position.

Justice gets thrown around so much in American Christian vernacular I hope we don’t miss what it really is. It has been and always will be doing right by those who are denied things they deserve. That is the heart of these few verses in Numbers. So here’s to Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirzah–women of great character that we should honor.


So, at least for today, that is my list. What are some under-appreciated Bible characters you wish we talked more about?

 

 

 

 




How are Good Works and Salvation Connected?

People love the idea of earning stuff. There are trophies awarded in sports for winning a competition. Money earned by doing some sort of work. Students get a good grade for doing well on a test. The list goes on and on. Most of the time earning what you get is not wrong at all. In fact, much of the time it is good, right, and biblically-based. However, the mindset of needing to earn rewards explains why it is so hard to accept how salvation really works.

 

What All Christians Need to Accept

As indicated, we didn’t and don’t earn Salvation. That’s a very good thing because it would be impossible for any human to actually do so. It is equally true, however, that now that we have been saved, we should be compelled to do good works for the person and cause of Jesus. Scripture tells us that a faith that does not result in good works is dead (James 2:14-26).

 

Accepting What You’ve Already Accepted

Sometimes this is a truth that is hard to really accept even for those of us who have already supposedly accepted it. Sometimes, if we are not careful, we who have known this truth for years can drift into backward ways of unbiblical thinking. Biblical Christian thought goes against the natural way most of society thinks today in so many ones. This idea that we don’t have to and can’t earn this really good thing, this salvation, is just one of those things. Like so many other Christian counter-cultural thoughts, we will likely be struggling with this issue for the rest of our Christian lives.

Accepting the counter-cultural teaching of Scripture is something I have had trouble with in the past. Not just this particular truth, but many other biblical truths as well. If we are not careful and alert, unbiblical “spiritual” practices and ideas can become a lazy habit. For myself, sometimes along the road of the Christian life, while I thought I had fully accepted a truth, the Holy Spirit will lead me to take a long look at myself and show me that, no I hadn’t actually and fully accepted it yet, just some of it and that that some of it needed to be revitalized and more fully rounded. This kind of spiritual growth is what happens on the lifelong climb of sanctification.

 

The Short Story of Salvation

The whole need for human salvation in the first place started in the Garden of Eden. There was one particular tree there known as the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This tree was exactly what its name implies. It embodied our free will to choose good or evil, to either willfully obey God or to willfully disobey Him. Adam and Eve, the first couple, chose evil, sin, disobedience of God’s one rule. Therefore, through them all humanity from that day forward was sentenced to death, eternal death.

The entirety of the rest of the Old Testament is God’s path toward the redemption of mankind through Jesus in the New Testament. We’re talking His own beloved Son here – His only Son. God the Father sent His only Son to die for a people who spat in His face and deserved exactly what they got. He did this so that we could be reunified with Him and have access to everlasting life (John 3:16; Ephesians 2:4-5, 8-9). Doing what God did would be an unthinkable, mind-boggling sacrifice for any parent–and this was our Creator!

After he arose from the dead, Jesus went to heaven to intercede on our behalf before the Father. For our benefit, he left the Holy Spirit to guide His believers to the end. We did not deserve access to the Holy Spirit; He was freely given (Titus 3:4-5).

Yes, acceptance of this sacrifice of God’s Son Jesus was and still is the only way for us to begin on that Holy Spirit-led path. As Romans 3:23 points out, all of us have sinned and therefore fall short of the glory of God. Because of this, we are completely unworthy to stand in the presence of God. Accepting the sacrifice of Jesus cleanses our sin and makes us able to stand in His presence. It is then that the Holy Spirit leads us up the road of salvation. It will prove to be an up and down road for us, with lots of hills and valleys, but thankfully His work on our behalf does not depend on our constant spiritual highs. His infinite love and grace have got our back.

 

The Final Answer

Going back to that first question about the connection between good works and salvation, While the two are definitely connected, it’s not like one might first assume. Salvation is nothing any human will ever earn by doing good. It was given to us. We were freely given the gift of salvation through the death of Jesus (Romans 6:23). With an authentic salvation experience, we are now bound for heaven, on the road of sanctification with the guidance of the Holy Spirit to the end of final glorification in the eternal presence of God. And how does that authentic salvation experience work? It is by fully confessing complete and lifelong acceptance of Jesus as Lord and Savior in you’re heart and through your mouth (Romans 10:8-9). That is how salvation comes about. Now we do our good works not to earn salvation, more salvation, or continued salvation, but because Christ saved us, because He commanded us to do so, because we love, honor, and praise Him for everything He has done for us and for humanity. Now we do so for the rewards awaiting us after this life with Jesus in eternity.

Now we obey His words and do our good works because He is truly our Lord today and forever (Luke 6:46).