Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Value of Women in the Local Church

In most churches, a woman's role is in no way distinct from man's. If a man can preach, so can a woman. If a man can be a deacon, so can a woman. If a man can teach a class (including men), so can a woman. If a man can lead and make decisions for the church, so can a woman. To so many religious people, it would be sexist and primitive to argue otherwise.

And yet the New Testament scriptures do clearly limit the role of women in church.
"Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church" (1 Cor. 14:34-35).
"Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence" (1 Tim. 2:11-12).
"This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife..." (1 Tim. 3:1-2).
"Likewise deacons...their wives must be reverent...Let deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well" (1 Tim. 3:8, 11-12).
There is no doubt that these four passages limit the role of women in church. Women are not to speak out during the worship assembly (which would forbid women preachers). They are not to teach over a man, which would prevent them from teaching/leading Bible classes that include men. Even as students, women are instructed to maintain a quiet and submissive spirit. Moreover, regarding the only two authorized offices in the church - elders and deacons - the qualifications forbid women from serving in either capacity. For a woman to be a preacher, a Bible class teacher, an elder (a.k.a. bishop, pastor), or a deacon, they must abandon the authority of the scriptures.

Let me be very clear: this has nothing to do with a woman's worth or value, but rather with her role. To illustrate what I mean, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:3, "But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God." If a woman's value is under assault because she is in submission to man, then by necessity, Christ's value is under assault since He is in submission to the Father. Such is NOT the case! Christ and the Father are equally divine, and are of equal value and worth, just as women and men are equally human and of equal value. Again, what all of this illustrates is the principle of role distinction. The fact that women cannot serve as preachers, elders, or deacons doesn't mean that she is of less value to the church, or that her worth is demeaned; it simply means that she has a role that is different than man's role.

Having clarified that, I'd like to get to the main point of this article...

Even though a woman's role is limited in the local church, women are extremely important to the overall function and work of the church. Consider the following points:
  1. In Romans 12, as Paul describes the church as the body of Christ, He lists some of the functions in the church: "Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness" (vs. 6-8). How many of these roles can only be fulfilled "in the pulpit" (by the preacher) or by the elders and deacons of the church? I would say that each and every one of these functions can be fulfilled by any Christian. While there are not prophets today (1 Cor. 13:8-11), there were prophets then, and some of those prophets were women (Ac. 21:9). A woman can minister, or attend to the needs of others, even spiritual needs, without speaking out in the worship assembly or assuming a role of leadership. Woman can encourage, or exhort, others. Women can give liberally (of their time, their resources, their wisdom, etc). Women can lead among women - both directly and by example. And not only can women show mercy, some might argue that they are especially equipped by God to show mercy. These same principles are found in 1 Corinthians 12. Yes, there are certain parts of the body that get more attention, but every member is vital to the overall function of the body (vs. 14-25). To put it another way, every single member of the church, man or woman, has a purpose to fulfill, not only the preachers, elders and deacons. In fact, it's often the ones working quietly behind the scenes that are really keeping the church strong!
  2. While women cannot teach over a man (1 Tim. 2:11-12), women can assist in teaching men. In Acts 18:26, in response to the misguided preaching of Apollos, both Aquila and Priscilla "too him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately." This wasn't done in the church, and yes, I would assume that Aquila took the lead in approaching and correcting Apollos, but we know that Priscilla contributed to the conversation because the Holy Spirit says that "they" did this, not just Aquila.
  3. As far as teaching is concerned, Titus 2:3-4 says that "the older women reverent in behavior, not slanderers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things - that they admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed." Women are actually instructed to teach and admonish other women. Many churches have ladies' classes, and I would say that such is not only authorized, but important to the spiritual health of the women in the church.
  4. Finally, in Romans 16, Paul lists many men as well as women who played a vital role in the early churches. "I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church in Cenchrea, that you may receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and assist her in whatever business she has need of you; for indeed she has been a helper of man and of myself also" (vs. 1-2). Pheobe was not a deaconness as many today claim, for as we noticed in 1 Timothy 3, only men are authorized to be appointed as deacons (an office). However, she was a servant, as all Christians, men and women, ought to be. But she wasn't merely working quietly behind the scenes unnoticed; the impression I get is that she was very active, and her work was easily seen by the churches. Paul goes on to speak of Priscilla, Mary and many other women who had helped him over the years, and who were all assets to the local churches of which they were part. Again, there are so many duties in the local church that a woman can and should fulfill.
I'm sure that all of these points could be fleshed out, but my only point is that while a woman's role in the church is limited, she is by no means unimportant or unnecessary. I think I'm safe in saying that in order for any church to be strong, the women must be cognizant of what they can do, and they must be actively doing what they can do.

Men, encourage the women in the church to be more active.

And women, if you're not contributing much to the church now, get to work. There is much for you to do!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Seeking God's Will With the Wrong Motive

The city of Jerusalem has been destroyed. The temple has been burned to the ground. The land has been ravaged by years of war with mighty Babylon. Your king's eyes have been gouged out. So many of your countrymen have been hauled off to a distant land. Any real semblance of order that remained ended when the Babylonian-appointed governor Gedaliah was murdered.  

What do you do now? The Jews who remained in the land wanted to know. So they decided to go to the prophet Jeremiah. 

This was the same prophet whose many warnings had been ignored. He had prophesied that Jerusalem would be conquered, and yet no one had listened to him. In fact, they had always been pretty upset with Jeremiah for saying such negative things and for dampering the spirits of the soldiers and those who remained in the city. These Jews, in other words, had never liked Jeremiah, but he turned out to be right in the end. What he said would happen did happen...and now here they are, stuck in a war-ravaged country, unsure of what to do and where to go.
"So they said to Jeremiah, 'Let the Lord be a true and faithful witness between us, if we do not do according to everything which the Lord your God sends us by you. Whether it be pleasing or displeasing, we will obey the voice of the Lord our God to whom we send you, that it may be well with us when we obey the voice of the Lord our God'" (Jer. 42:5-6).
These Jews sound pretty sincere, don't they? It looks like they are really serious about obeying God. These same people who had contributed to the wickedness and depravity of Jerusalem before, which in turn, had warranted God's severe displeasure and wrath, apparently had been humbled and now wanted to obey God...even if what God wanted them to do was "displeasing" to them. I'll tell you something: if I heard someone say this to me today, I'd be tickled. If someone came to me and said, "Casey, I want you to tell me what I need to do to be saved, and even if I don't like it, I'll do it," I'd be overjoyed!

But God knew their hearts. And if Jeremiah didn't know their hearts when they made the request, he was going to know their hearts soon enough. For in fact, their motives were not pure! God knew what was in their hearts and that they actually had already planned to flee to Egypt (vs. 14-17). He plainly told them that they "were hypocrites" in their hearts (vs. 20), and already knowing what they would do, stated the consquences that they would inevitably face for their decision to go to Egypt:
"Now therefore, know certainly that you shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence in the place where you desire to go to dwell" (vs. 22)
So did they seem sincere when they came to Jeremiah? Yes. Was their request well-phrased? Absolutely. And yet we know, based on a more thorough reading of Jeremiah 42 that they had the wrong motive and heart when they came to Jeremiah seeking advice.

Of course, we find similar examples in the New Testament, especially in the four gospels. There were many people who came to Jesus with inquiries even though they had no real interest in obeying His words. Some might have asked sincerely, but were disappointed by the answer they received. Others posed questions to Jesus in an attempt to trap Him.

Likewise, there are people today who ask questions and who express "interest" in learning more about the Bible. I welcome all questions, and I am always excited when someone agrees to study the Bible with me. Perhaps someone is struggling with a particular problem or there is a specific spiritual issue that they want to know more about - again, I am overjoyed to have such opportunities to convey God's message. And yet, I have studied with people who, despite their outward interest, do not have the right motives. Even though they may express great desire to learn God's will, they do not TRULY have the attitude that "whether it is pleasing or displeasing, we will obey the voice of the Lord" (Jer. 42:6).

Now here's where it gets interesting...

When Jeremiah told the people that they needed to remain in the land of Israel, and that they must NOT go to the land of Egpyt, they became angry with Jeremiah:
"...the proud men spoke, saying to Jeremiah, 'You speak falsely! The Lord our God has not sent you to say, 'Do not go to Egypt to dwell there'" (Jer. 43:2).
So they took Jeremiah by force and marched straight down to Egypt contrary to God's clear instructions, and in spite of their insistance upon obeying God "whether it is pleasing or displeasing." Not only that, by once they were in Egypt, it came out that many of the women were "[burning] incense to the queen of heaven and [pouring] out drink offerings to her" (Jer. 44:17). They had done this before Jerusalem was destroyed, and now planned on going right back to it!

In the end, all of these rebellious Jews would die!

Here's my observation based on this dramatic saga in Jeremiah 42-44...

It is wonderful to ask spiritual questions and to seek God's will, but if we do not have a sincere heart, not only will we NOT respond well to the truth, but we will become more and more stubborn and will drift deeper and deeper into the snare of sin. This is what we learn from the story in Jeremiah, and this has been confirmed by my own experiences. There are folks today who will agree to a Bible study and outwardly will seem sincerely interested, but once they hear the truth of God's message, they will set their jaw, resist it, reveal their true character, and in the end, will end up more stiff-necked and stubborn than ever before.

The lesson for us: whether you're a sinner seeking the truth of Christ or a Christian seeking a deeper understanding of God's will, have a truly sincere heart. If you do, you will find the truth. However, if you are not willing to embrace God's truth, be it "pleasing or displeasing," you will most likely be disappointed, for some aspect of it will be displeasing to you...and you may very well end up going down the same dangerous, destructive path as the Jews did in Jeremiah 42-44.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

My Take on "My Take: What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality"

The issue of homosexuality is always controversial. But every once and a while, more fuel is added to the fire (in the form of gasoline, and a lot of it) and folks once again debate the issue with renewed passion. Now that everybody and their mom is on Facebook, Myspace, and/or Twitter, we are exposed that much more to the personal feelings of others - of people we know, and of people we don't know.

When President Obama publically supported same-sex marriage recently, my Facebook feed was replete with comments on the issue. Preacher-friends of mine wrote articles on the issue, and others made simple comments, posed questions for thought, and even expressed outrage that the president of the United States would do such a thing. I made a few comments here and there in response to things that my Facebook friends would say, but for the most part, I stayed out of it. While fellow preachers were writing articles against homosexuality and, I'm sure, preaching lessons on the issue, I did no such thing...not because I'm cowed by controversy, but because (1) everything that needs to be said is being said...over and over and over again, and (2) most of my friends, and certainly those with whom I go to church, agree that homosexuality is sinful.

However, a friend of mine linked an article written by Daniel Helminiak for CNN called "My Take: What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality." In this article, Mr. Helminiak, who is/was (I'm not sure) an ordained priest in Rome, takes the position that homosexuality is not inherently sinful. Of course, there are many who take this position, even religious people, but generally, those who take this position do so while ignoring the scriptures. Mr. Helminiak actually addresses the scriptures. Specifically, he attempts to answer some of the common biblical arguments against homosexuality.

I think that such an article warrants a response. Below, I will quote the CNN article (in red) and then offer a response.
Hard evidence supports this commonsensical expectation. Taken on its own terms, read in the original languages, placed back into its historical context, the Bible is ho-hum on homosexuality, unless – as with heterosexuality – injustice and abuse are involved.
That, in fact, was the case among the Sodomites (Genesis 19), whose experience is frequently cited by modern anti-gay critics. The Sodomites wanted to rape the visitors whom Lot, the one just man in the city, welcomed in hospitality for the night.
The Bible itself is lucid on the sin of Sodom: pride, lack of concern for the poor and needy (Ezekiel 16:48-49); hatred of strangers and cruelty to guests (Wisdom 19:13); arrogance (Sirach/Ecclesiaticus 16:8); evildoing, injustice, oppression of the widow and orphan (Isaiah 1:17); adultery (in those days, the use of another man’s property), and lying (Jeremiah 23:12).
But nowhere are same-sex acts named as the sin of Sodom. That intended gang rape only expressed the greater sin, condemned in the Bible from cover to cover: hatred, injustice, cruelty, lack of concern for others. Hence, Jesus says “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 19:19; Mark 12:31); and “By this will they know you are my disciples” (John 13:35).
I agree that the city of Sodom was wicked for many reasons other than homosexuality. I also agree that in Genesis 19, when the men of Sodom beat on Lot's door, that they were not expressing innocent homosexual desires, but were, in fact, seeking to satisfy homosexual passions in a violent manner. Having said that, homosexuality itself was a sin for which the city was destroyed. Not VIOLENT homosexuality, or homosexual RAPE, but homosexuality itself...
" Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities around them in a similar manner to these, having given themselves over to sexual immorality and gone after strange flesh, are set forth as an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire" (Jude 7)
In the realm of sexual activity, what did the men of Sodom (and Gomorrah) do that would be considered going after "strange flesh." The ESV says "unnatural desire." There is no doubt that Jude is referring to the homosexual passions of the Sodomites, for homosexuality is, very clearly, "unnatural." Notice, please, that Jude doesn't say anything about violence or rape. He addresses homosexuality itself, and by inspiration, calls it immoral. The Sodomites suffered the "vengeance of eternal fire."

Furthermore, there is the sin of "sodomy," so named for the city of Genesis 19. In 1 Timothy 1:10, "sodomites" are listed alongside "fornicators" as engaging in activity that is "contrary to sound doctrine." The word sodomite is from the Greek word arsenokoites and Thayer's defines it as, "one who lies with a male as with a female, sodomite, homosexual." This word is used one other place in the New Testament...
"Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites...will inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor. 6:9-10).
The word for homosexuals is actually the Greek word malakos and is very simply defined as "soft." Interestingly enough, the word is used in reference to "soft clothing" in places like Matthew 11:8. However, in 1 Corinthians 6:9, as Paul lists these sexual sins, the word malakos has in mind something different. Strong's indicates that the word can mean "a catamite...effeminate." A catamite is "a boy kept by a man for sexual intercourse" (Encarta Dictionary definition). Thayer's confirms this definition.

On the other hand, the word sodomites in 1 Corinthians 6:9 is our word arsenokoites again. Some have said that Paul is condemning BOTH roles in the homosexual relationship, the malakos being the more effeminate of the two and the arsenokoites being the more dominant one. It is true that in most homosexual relationships (if not all), there is someone that takes the more feminine role and someone who takes the masculine role. Perhaps this is exactly what Paul has in mind here, but either way, it cannot be denied that homosexual behavior is wrong. Again, Sodom may have sinned in a number of ways, but the city is most known for "sodomy," as seen in Jude 7, 1 Timothy 1:10 and 1 Corinthians 6:9. Those who practice such behavior "will not inherit the kingdom of God."

It is also interesting to note that some of the Corinthians had formerly been homosexuals, and yet they had changed their behavior and were no longer practicing homosexuality. I don't believe that people are "born gay," but even if someone has homosexual tendencies (we all have our own temptations and struggles), the scriptures very clearly teach that we can choose to not act on those desires.

Let's hear more from Mr. Helminiak...
The longest biblical passage on male-male sex is Romans 1:26-27: "Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another."
The Greek term para physin has been translated unnatural; it should read atypical or unusual. In the technical sense, yes, the Stoic philosophers did use para physin to mean unnatural, but this term also had a widespread popular meaning. It is this latter meaning that informs Paul's writing. It carries no ethical condemnation.
Compare the passage on male-male sex to Romans 11:24. There, Paul applies the term para physin to God. God grafted the Gentiles into the Jewish people, a wild branch into a cultivated vine. Not your standard practice! An unusual thing to do — atypical, nothing more. The anti-gay "unnatural" hullabaloo rests on a mistranslation.
Besides, Paul used two other words to describe male-male sex: dishonorable (1:24, 26) and unseemly (1:27). But for Paul, neither carried ethical weight. In 2 Corinthians 6:8 and 11:21, Paul says that even he was held in dishonor — for preaching Christ. Clearly, these words merely indicate social disrepute, not truly unethical behavior.
In this passage Paul is referring to the ancient Jewish Law: Leviticus 18:22, the “abomination” of a man’s lying with another man. Paul sees male-male sex as an impurity, a taboo, uncleanness — in other words, “abomination.” Introducing this discussion in 1:24, he says so outright: "God gave them up … to impurity."
But Jesus taught lucidly that Jewish requirements for purity — varied cultural traditions — do not matter before God. What matters is purity of heart.
“It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles,” reads Matthew 15. “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
Or again, Jesus taught, “Everyone who looks at a women with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). Jesus rejected the purity requirements of the Jewish Law.
In calling it unclean, Paul was not condemning male-male sex. He had terms to express condemnation. Before and after his section on sex, he used truly condemnatory terms: godless, evil, wicked or unjust, not to be done. But he never used ethical terms around that issue of sex.
Mr. Helminiak's argument here is that Paul is not actually condemning homosexuality, but is merely saying that homosexual behavior is atypical or "unpopular." He goes on to say that even if it's impure, God overlooks impure actions so long as there is "purity of heart." Thus, if the partners in a homosexual relationship have pure hearts, their lifestyle is nothing more than "taboo."

First of all, I agree that something is not wrong simply because it is unnatural. Mr. Helminiak rightly point out that it is unnatural for gentiles to be saved (Rom. 11:24). I would add that it is "unnatural" for mankind to experience Hell, for Hell was prepared, not for man, but for "the devil and his angels" (Mt. 25:41). And yet we know that many humans (the majority of humans, Mt. 7:13-14) will indeed experience a "devil's hell" (Mt. 25:41-46; Rev. 21:8, etc).

But here's the thing: homosexuality is not wrong simply because it's unnatural. Birth control isn't natural. Articial insemination isn't natural. Plastic surgery isn't natural. Make-up isn't natural.

Homosexuality, in Romans 1:26-27, is wrong (sinful) because it consists of "vile passions" (vs. 26), is "shameful" (vs. 27), is "debased" behavior (vs. 28), and will incur "penalty" and "death" from God (vs. 27, 32). Homosexuality is unnatural behavior that is sinful.

Mr. Helminiak very cleverly tries to argue that two of these words, "dishonorable" (vs. 24) and "unseemly" (vs. 27) are indicitive of what he calls "social disrepute" rather than sinful, or "unethical" behavior. After all, even Paul was held in "dishonor" for preaching Christ. He wants us to believe that the term "dishonorable" has the same meaning in Romans 1:24 as "dishonor" does in reference to Paul's ministry in the book of 2 Corinthians. This is not true at all. The difference is this: in Romans 1:24, homosexuality (among the other Gentile sins) is unclean and dishonorable because GOD SAYS SO, while Paul was held in "dishonor," not by God, but by the men who opposed his ministry. Something can be socially unacceptable while still being acceptable to God, and likewise, something can be socially acceptable while still being unacceptable to God. However, if God says that something is dishonorable, unclean and vile (as He does with homosexuality in Romans 1), than it is dishonorable, unclean and vile.

Furthermore, Paul, in Romans 1:20-32 is describing the Gentiles who rejected the knowledge of God and the debased lifestyles that ensued. He lists all of the sins they committed as a result of their rejection of God and says in verse 32 that "knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same, but also approve of those who practice them." Why on earth would the apostle Paul, in the middle of listing all of their actions that GOD DEEMED SINFUL, mention homosexuality...and argue that, it's not actually sinful before God, but is merely socially taboo behavior? Dear reader, this is an absurd argument that completely ignores the context and smacks of desparation.

Finally, in regards to Mr. Helminiak's explanation of Romans 1:26-27, God does not ignore sinful behavior simply because the one sinning has a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere motives. Indeed, actions can be sinful, and sinful actions will endanger your soul just the same:
"Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like: of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God" (Galatians 5:19-21).
Actually, based on Romans 1:26-27, one cannot engage in homosexual behavior with a pure heart. Homosexual behavior, according to the inspired apostle, is the direct result of a debased mind. You are welcome to disagree with this point based on your own experience and/or observation, but the fact is, our observations can be flawed (and wrong)...whereas God's observations are flawless. In other words, it doesn't matter what you or anyone else says - if God says that homosexual behavior is the result of a debased mind, and if God says that it's sinful, as people of faith, that must be our position, too.

One last quick statement from Mr. Helminiak...
As for marriage, again, the Bible is more liberal than we hear today. The Jewish patriarchs had many wives and concubines. David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, and Daniel and the palace master were probably lovers.
The Bible’s Song of Songs is a paean to romantic love with no mention of children or a married couple. Jesus never mentioned same-sex behaviors, although he did heal the “servant” — pais, a Greek term for male lover — of the Roman Centurion.
Yes, many of the Old Testament saints were polygamists, but as Jesus indicates in Matthew 19, such was never God's original intent. God allowed it in the Old Testament because of their "hardness of heart" (Mt. 19:8), but Jesus has made it clear that today, under His covenant, marriage is between one man and one woman for life (Mt. 19:9).

And to argue that David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, and Daniel and the palace-master were "probably lovers" is absolutely baseless and absurd. That's like saying (as some do) that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were lovers, or that they were even secretly married. Those who know me will tell you that I am a patient person with a gentle spirit, but arguments such as this try my patience. Arguments such as this are made by desperate people who are willing to do whatever it takes to prove a point, including impugning the reputations of godly men and women of the Bible.

Please know that while I speak with confidence and passion, I have nothing but love for homosexuals and for those who are misguided on this issue. Jesus and the apostles likewise used bold language and were straightforward as they publically denounced sin and error, and yet you know as well as I do that our Lord's words, as bold as they may have been, were always motivated by compassion and love.

Mr. Helminiak is wrong on this issue. Homosexuality is condemned in the New Testament. I plead with Mr. Helminiak, with homosexuals...and with all of those who are practicing sin, to repent and embrace the truth of God...for only the truth will set us free.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Priestly Reminders (Exodus 28)

I was reading Exodus 25-28 this morning.

Okay, I admit it. I did read some of it, but I also skimmed some of it, especially the parts where Moses explained in excrutiating detail the various covers for the tabernacle.

However, as I drew to the end of my reading, there were a few things in Exodus 28 that grabbed my attention, and I'd like to share my observations with you.

First of all, in Exodus 28, God is issuing regulations regarding "holy garments" that were to be specially made and worn by the high priest and priests (vs. 1-2). There would be "a breastplate, an ephod, a robe, a skillfully woven tunic, a turban, and a sash" (vs. 4). Then, beginning in verse five, God told Moses how these holy garments were to be made.

But the point of this short article is NOT to discuss the priestly garments. Instead, what I find interesting is that, in commanding these holy garments, God gave specific instructions regarding what I call "priestly reminders." I'll go ahead and list these priestly reminders and then I'll make my point:
"Then you shall take two onyx stones and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel: six of their names on one stone and six names on the other stone, in order of their birth...and you shall put the two stones on the shoulders of the ephod as memorial stones for hte sons of Israel. So Aaron shall bear their names before the Lord on his two shoulders as a memorial" (vs. 9-10, 12).
"So Aaron shall also bear the names of the sons of Israel on the breastplate of judgment over his heart, when he goes into the holy place, as a memorial before the Lord" (vs. 29).
"And you shall put in the breastplate of judgment the Urim (lights) and the Thummim (Perfections), and they shall be over Aaron's heart when he goes in before the Lord. So Aaron shall bear the judgment of the children of Israel over his heart before the Lord continually" (vs. 30).
"You shall also make a plate of pure gold and engrave on it, like the engraving of a signet: HOLINESS TO THE LORD...So it shall be on Aaron's forehead..." (vs. 36, 38).
Now, did GOD need to be reminded of these things? In other words, was God commanding these things so that when the high priest and priests came into the sanctuary, that He would recall the value of His people, and the importance of purity, truth, judgment and holiness? Maybe God had moments of forgetfulness, but then Aaron would come in and God would see the onyx stones with the tribes of Israel listed on them and be like, "Oh yeah...them." No, of course this wasn't the reason.

The reason that God commanded these priestly reminders was to remind the priests of these things. And isn't it interesting what God felt was important for the priests to remember when they came into the sanctuary to worship Him?
  1. There were two places on the priestly garments where the names of the tribes of Israel would be listed: once on the onyx stones which were embedded in the shoulders of the ephod and the second time on the breastplate itself. These were "memorials" for Aaron, to remind him that his work as a priest had a direct impact on his brethren. He wasn't alone. The priests weren't alone. Even though they had a special work and function, and even though, in a certain sense, they were separated from the rest of Israel, they were to be constantly reminded of the COLLECTIVE of Israel. What an awesome responsibility it would know that thousands or even millions of other people are looking to you and depending on you. 
  2. Second, there were the Urim and Thummim that were placed over Aaron's heart. While many are not certain as to the purpose of the Urim and Thummim, it appears in other places that these were used in seeking God's judgment. The very words themselves, as odd as they are, are defined as light and perfection, or truth. It is implied in other places. Light is symbolic of God's purity, in contrast with the darkness of sin. Perfection and truth emphasize the importance of obedience - abiding in the judgments of God, rather than straying into the realm of human judgment and opinion. There were priests, even high priests, that forgot these things. I am reminded of Eli's sons, and even the sons of the prophet Samuel, who "perverted judgment."
  3. Finally, we see that on Aaron's forehead was a gold plate that read "HOLINESS TO THE LORD." Indeed, Aaron's mind...his thoughts, were to be holy. He was to be mentally focused on his work before God. As Paul urges us today, we are to "think on THESE things" (Phil. 4:8). At all times, but especially during worship, we are to approach God with a yearning for holiness.
The application?

Christians are called "a royal priesthood" (1 Peter 2:9). We may not have a physical tabernacle or temple in which to worship, and we may not have "holy garments" such as these, but nevertheless, as we worship and serve God, we also need such priestly reminders.

We need to be reminded of the fact that while salvation is a personal thing between an individual and God, we ARE indeed members of the body of Christ. We see this throughout the New Testament. I like the way Paul puts it in Ephesians 4:16 when he says that as members of the body of Christ, Christians are "joined and knit together by what every joint supplies." Your actions do have an impact on other Christians. Whether its at church or at work or at home, we need to act in such a way that is beneficial to our brethren. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that your actions are limited to you.

Furthermore, our lives need to be governed by God's light and truth. Jesus is the "light of the world" (John 8:12) and He is "the way, the truth, and the life..." (John 14:6). The judgments (decisions) we make each and every day need to be guided by Jesus and His will. Not by what we think or want, but by what Jesus would have us do.

And finally, our minds must be focused not just on how holy God is, but how holy we ought to be before such a holy God. "But as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, 'Be holy, for I am holy'" (1 Peter 1:15-16). Don't be deceived by the notion that you can't be holy, or that somehow God really doesn't expect you to be holy. Also, do not think that only the "clergy" are required to be holy. While the priesthood in the Old Testament was limited, all Christians are priests today, and thus all of us are to be holy before a holy God.

It is interesting to me that God viewed these three truths as SO important that he had them incorporated into the holy garments of the priests. As the priests of God today, perhaps we ought to meditate upon these things today...and every day, as we worship and serve in "the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man" (Hebrews 8:2).

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Amnonian Love

It is sad when young teenage couples throw around the phrase, "I love you." Perhaps such sentiments are expressed because the young people want to appear older than they really are, as if saying the words automatically makes them more mature. However, I really believe that there are many young people (and even some older people) who, when they speak of love, have in mind something very different...something very dangerous and carnal. In this article, I'm going to refer to this love as "Amnonian Love," and I'd like to direct your attention to 2 Samuel 13:1-2...
"After this Absolom the son of David had a lovely sister, whose name was Tamar; and Amnon the son of David loved her. Amnon was so distressed over his sister Tamar that he became sick; for she was a virgin. And it was improper for Amnon to do anything to her."
We are introduced to some of David's offspring and the soap-operaesque drama that unfolded in their lives. There was Absalom, of course, but the two MAIN characters in this story are Amnon and Tamar. Amnon was Tamar's half-brother (2 Sam. 3:2-3), and we are told that he loved her. It was not uncommon for such affections to exist between relatives during the Old Testament period, and as we learn later in the text, there is the possibility that Amnon could have married Tamar if he had only sought David's permission and blessing. So the potential romance between this man and woman was not necessarily wrong, but the manner in which Amnon dealt with these feelings was wrong.

First of all, I want you to notice that, according to the Holy Spirit, Amnon "loved" her. The Hebrew word here is ahab and it means, "to have affection for (sexually or otherwise)." I would suggest to you that Amnon's "love" for Tamar was actually not love at all, but lust, or sexual desire. He was attracted to her, for she was a very lovely woman, and while it may be natural for a man to be attracted to a lovely woman, Amnon's attraction turned into lust. Lust is an emotion, or feeling, that dominates the mind and slowly but surely removes inhibitions. It is like a snowball rolling down a hill, getting bigger and more dangerous as it picks up speed. With Amnon, we learn that his feelings became so strong that it affected him physically. It consumed him.

Unfortunately, his "love" for Tamar wasn't restricted to certain unlawful desires...
"But Amnon had a friend whose name was Jonadab the son of Shimeah, David's brother. Now Jonadab was a very crafty man. And he said to him, 'Why are you, the king's son, becoming thinner day after day? Will you not tell me?' Amnon said to him, 'I love Tamar, my brother Absalom's sister.' So Jonadab said to him, 'Lie down on your bed and pretend to be ill. And when your father comes to see you, say to him, 'Please let my sister Tamar come and give me food, and prepare the food in my sight, that I may see it and eat it from her hand'" (vs. 3-5).
Jonadab was Amnon's cousin, and rather than provide Amnon with sound advice on how to be more pure, or how to properly deal with his feelings, he fanned the flames of passion by convincing Amnon that he had every right...not only to have those desires, but to ACT upon them...and to do whatever he had to do to get what he wanted. Amnon had no right to Tamar. He was wrong. He should have respected the boundaries that were in place and had the discipline and patience to act lawfully and properly. But his desires were aroused. He wanted her. And why shouldn't he have her?

So Amnon followed Jonadab's advice. He deceived his father (and many others), and when Tamar was within his grasp, he took her, and despite her objections, he raped her (vs. 11-14). But what is most amazing about this text is Amnon's reaction after his desires were gratified...
"Then Amnon hated her exceedingly, so that the hatred with which he loved her was greater than the love with which he had loved her. And Amnon said to her, 'Arise, be gone!'" (vs. 15)
Was Amnon bipolar? Was there something wrong with him mentally that caused him to love Tamar one minute and then hate her the next? What could possibly cause such a change in Amnon?

I think the reason lies in the nature of Amnonian Love. When your so-called "love" for someone is rooted in unlawful physical desire, then naturally, when those physical desires are gratified, the "love" fades away, or, as in Amnon's case, leads to feelings of bitterness and resentment (rather than guilt).

Sadly, there are so many young people today who are guilty of Amnonian Love. Like Amnon, they confuse lust with love. Even though they have no right to the person who happens to be the object, or victim, of their obsessive affections (for God has specified that sexual desires and activities are reserved for marriage), they grow more and more determined to have what they want. We see teenagers who are infatuated with one another, who begin dating, and...holding hands, and then kissing, and then making out, and then...eventually, as they grow older, they go further and further until, by the third or fourth or fifth relationship, they are engaging in intercourse. And yet, after each relationship, we see these young, immature people expressing hatred for one another. The boy and girl who once were obsessed with one another now are sworn enemies. A lot like Amnon and Tamar.

On the other hand, true agape love is selfless. It is not a mere feeling, but involves understanding of the sanctity of that relationship. It is rooted in something much deeper than sexual desire, but in an appreciation for the other person's spirit and their value to God. If one person truly has this love for another, they will only do what is best for the other person. Agape love is long-lasting, and it grows deeper and deeper over time, while Amnonian Love comes and goes as one's feelings come and go. Agape love is a blessing that will enrich many lives; Amnonian love is destructive.

Young people (and old people), I encourage you to resist the temptation of Amnonian Love. Do not be like Amnon. Do not have desires for someone you cannot presently have. Do not dwell on someone that you cannot presently have. Do not pursue a relationship with someone that you cannot presently have, lest, like Amnon, you be overwhelmed with passion and do something that you will regret. If you truly love someone, you will express that love in the right way at the right time, and you will do so lawfully as God would have you to. Please, I beg you...act in such a way that when you get married one day, you can enter that most holy relationship with your new spouse with a pure and innocent mind...not with bitter memories of improper relationships.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Talking Some "Cents" Into Churches

The title of this article really ought to be, "Talking Some 'Cents' OUT OF Churches," because although I'm not opposed to local churches collecting funds, I am opposed to many of the convential methods used by churches to collect funds. Neither am I opposed to churches having a lot of money in the so-called treasury, but at the same time, the points of this article, when applied, will most likely result in churches having less money in the treasury.

It is my observation that many churches will do just about whatever it takes to collect money to finance their endeavors (many of which should never be sponsored by any church to begin with). We often hear of churches having yard sales, bake sales, auctions and car washes to raise money. Youth groups commonly use fundraisers to raise money for their many projects. As a member of a Baptist youth group in Louisville (during my high school years), I remember selling ice cream to raise money. I begged my friends at school to buy the ice cream, and then when it came in, no one wanted their ice cream, and on top of that, it was hard to carry tubs of the frozen dessert to school, so I ended up with a lot of ice cream in my freezer. 

Other churches resort to more enticing means to raise money. I was a member of a church one time that hosted a "dance club" in the basement of the church building every Friday night. I don't remember if we charged for admission, but I do know that we had a concession stand (i.e. drinks and snacks) so that the young people would have some nourishment after dancing their hearts out to the newest songs from Brittany Spears and Usher, the pop sensations of the time. The Catholic church, of course, is notorious for its "summer picnics" where revenue comes, in large part, from alcohol sales and roulette wheeles. 

A "lesser-form" of gambling is the ever-popular "raffle" where tickets are sold for a chance to win some expensive prize, such as a TV. On more than one occasion, I've seen church-folks rush to buy a raffle ticket, not because they want to support some church project, but because they want to win that TV. Each and every time I see that, I am reminded of the people who, with wide-eyes, trade their money for a lottery ticket at the gas station.

Some churches operate businesses to raise money, or they put on concerts for the public, charging an admission fee. I could go on, but I'm sure you get the point.

Here's my problem with all of this...

When I read the New Testament, I do see churches collecting money, but never do I see churches using fundraisers, bake sales, entertainment or gambling to raise money. Here's what I do find:
"Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need" (Acts 2:44-45).
"Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles' feet: and they distributed to each as anyone had need" (Acts 4:34-35).
"Then one of them, named Agabus, stood up and showed by the Spirit that there was going to be a great famine throughout all the world, which also happened in the days of Claudius Caesar. Then the disciples, each according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea" (Acts 11:28-29).
"But now I am going to Jerusalem to minister to the stains. For it pleased those in Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor among the saints who are in Jerusalem" (Romans 15:25-26).
"Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given orders to the churches of Galatia, so you must do also: on the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come" (1 Cor. 16:1-2).
"But this I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver" (2 Cor. 9:6-7).
When we read these passages, we learn that there was just ONE way that churches collected money: the free-will donation of one's own money to a central "fund" in order to fulfill a need, or needs that would arise in the near future. In 1 Corinthians 16:1-2, the inspired apostle Paul was more specific in requiring the "first day of the week," or Sunday, as the day that Christians contributed to the "collection." But, again, in all of these verses, money was gathered via a free-will donation from Christians for Christians.

Oh yeah...there is that one instance when the church in Antioch had a bake sale to raise money for Paul's upcoming missionary journey. Isn't that in there somewhere?'s not.

But I'm pretty sure that the church in Corinth auctioned off the idolatrous objects of their former lives to raise money for that "fellowship hall" that they wanted to build...that is, until Paul told them that they shouldn't come together as a church to eat common meals (1 Cor. 11:22, 34). Then they scrapped the auction! What? That didn't happen either? Oh...

Isn't there a passage in Acts that describes the youth group in Thessalonica...and how they had a fundraiser to gather money for an educational trip to the holy city of Jerusalem? What is it that they sold? Frankincense and myrrh! Oh? What's that? That story's not in the book of Acts? Hmmm.

Yes, I admit it. I'm being ridiculous, but dear reader, I'm just trying to make a point.

According to the New Testament, churches focused primarily on worship and edification. They met to worship and to study the word of God, activities that require little, if any, financial investment. When a need arose, Christians gave freely of their own money to a "common fund" on the first day of the week. But we do not see the churches of the first century engaging in many of the fundraising activities that modern churches are using.

We need to talk some sense into churches by talking cents out of them.