Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Jonah & Church Discipline

We're all familiar with the basic story of Jonah.
Countless sermons based on the story of Jonah have been preached in churches worldwide. This famous story has been studied and analyzed for millenia and an untold number of spiritual lessons have been gleaned from Jonah. In this article, I'd like to focus on one lesson in particular.
When Jonah fled from the Lord's command, he went to Joppa where he paid the fare and boarded a ship bound for Tarshish. God caused a terrifying storm to descend upon the seas and because of Jonah's sin, the mariners were in danger. Because of his presence, these innocent men were threatened by God's wrath.
When the mariners discovered that Jonah was the cause of the chaos, they "were exceedingly afraid"  and they rebuked him (1:10). Jonah told them to throw him overboard into the choppy waves, but they refused. "Nevertheless the men rowed hard to return to land, but they could not" (vs. 13). Rather than listen to the prophet's instructions, they sought a more "merciful" solution. How cruel it must have seemed to throw a man overboard into the sea!
And yet when all of their resources were exhausted, they finally "picked up Jonah and threw him into the sea (1:15). Guess what happened? "The sea ceased from its raging." When they did what had to be done, not only were their own lives saved, but Jonah, despite three days of discomfort in the belly of the fish, repented and was spiritually secure once more.
What's the lesson for us?
We're commanded in 1 Corinthians 5 to remove fellowship from brethren who have reverted to a life of sin. Like the mariners, we're instructed to remove the guilty, unrepentant party from our presence - to throw them overboard, so to speak. After all, "a little leaven leavens the whole lump" (1 Cor. 5:6).
But like the mariners, many churches see these instructions as inherently cruel. So instead of doing what God has commanded, they look for other, more merciful alternatives. Sometimes, the command of 1 Corinthians 5 is completely ignored while at other times obedience is postponed. All the while the storm is raging and innocent Christians are placed in greater peril.
Dear reader, it is only when we obey God's instructions that the storm will be abated. Just as it wasn't cruel for the mariners to throw Jonah overboard, neither is it cruel for us to publically remove fellowship from the disorderly brother/sister. Not only are our spiritual lives preserved, but the unrepentant Christian may just come to their senses and repent. Sometimes, it takes such discomfort and heartache to open one's eyes and spur positive change.
The question really is: do we trust God's wisdom? Or do we think that our way is better? The short book of Jonah answers this question for us in such a thought-provoking manner.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Romans 14 Reminders

I've written hundreds of articles on this blog and I've made it a point to notice which of my articles get the most attention. There are two factors that determine which articles are popular and which ones are overlooked: the timing and title of the article. If an article is linked to Facebook at a time when not many are online, it'll quickly get lost in the feed; it's about exposure. Also, if the title is boring, folks are more likely to ignore it. So the timing and title of the article are key!
I say all of that to say this: I wonder how many of you jumped quickly to this article because "Romans 14" is in the title. Hee hee! Anyways...
There are a number of texts that are commonly abused by church-goers, many of whom, I believe, are well-intentioned even if they are misguided. Romans 14 may be the most abused text of the New Testament. Folks use this chapter to argue that we ought not judge fellow believers; that it really doesn't matter what we believe or how we worship, and that we ought to just "agree to disagree."
If one carelessly reads the chapter, not taking into account the context or the progression of the text, or if they dishonestly twist certain verses in Romans 14 so as to validate their beliefs, it's easy to see how so many religious people reach this conclusion. After all, Paul says in Romans 14:13, "Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this - not to put an obstacle or stumbling block in a brother's way."
In response to these erroneous conclusions, I'd like to remind you of three simple facts concerning the ever-so-controversial Romans 14...
  1. We must first of all not read Romans 14 in isolation and we must respect the "law of harmony" in our interpretation of this chapter. In other words, we must make doubly sure that our conclusions here are consistent with the rest of Scripture. For example, Paul cannot be saying that it doesn't matter what we believe or how we worship for we learn elsewhere that these things absolutely matter! We must believe and obey only what we can find in the New Testament (Galatians 1:6-10; 2 John 9) and Jesus commands us to worship according to the truth, or word of God (John 4:24 --> John 17:17). We must reject diversity in both of these areas (Rom. 16:17; 1 Tim. 1:3; Mark 7:7-9). We're not being commanded in one place to tolerate differences in doctrine and worship and then commanded in other places to stand against these same differences.
  2. It's also vital that we understand the issues being emphasized in Romans 14. As I've already proven, Paul is not encouraging a tolerance of diversity in matters of faith (what has been revealed). Rather, Paul is dealing with matters of liberty, where there is neither right nor wrong. These are areas where varying opinions are permissible (Rom. 14:1) and that do not affect the salvation of those in question (Rom. 14:3, 14). Paul uses two examples here: the eating of meat (vs. 2-3) and the observance of days (vs. 5-6). As 1 Corinthians 8 bears out, it is neither right nor wrong to eat meat; it's a personal decision that has absolutely NO impact on the condition of one's soul. And in Christ, there is much liberty! It's in these areas that we're to be tolerant. It's in these areas that we're to abstain from passing judgment.
  3. Finally, it's worth pointing out that even in these areas of liberty, there are those Christians who are mature and knowledgeable, and then there are those who are "weak in the faith" (vs. 1). Either way, these divergent brethren are in the faith; they're both walking in the light of God's word. But more to the point, the weak brother (who is acting, not based on desire, but on conscience, vs. 23) should not remain weak. It's implied that even though we're not to pass judgment on the weak brother, the weak brother should be growing and should one day overcome this conscience-problem. Moreover, we cannot run to Romans 14 to justify what we want to do; only to seek out patience from stronger brethren as we struggle with a weak and immature conscience.
Obviously, so much more could be said about Romans 14. My only point here is that there are a few quick and easy observations that negate the conventional interpretation of this chapter.
In short, let's have patience and forbearance with one another when it comes to matters of opinion and personal judgment, but at the same time, let's be unwavering in our stand for the truth of God's word.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Under a Parking Lot

I was scanning the headlines on foxnews.com when I came across this article about the newly-discovered skeletal remains of King Richard III. This man who reigned as king over England in the 15th century was killed in battle and his remains were discovered, not in an unearthed royal tomb, but under a parking lot in Leicester. Of course, there's a lot of backstory discussed in the article, and it's an interesting read from a political perspective, but I couldn't help but draw from this article a very important spiritual lesson.

King Richard was once a young man with unblemished skin and his whole life ahead of him. He was a man who certainly had dreams and aspirations. I'm sure there were times in Richard's life where he felt time was crawling by, days when the sun seemed to linger in the afternoon sky longer than usual. I'm sure he observed grave-stones and attended funerals and thought, especially as a younger man, "Death is a long ways off." And yet this man, though royal in lineage, suffered the fate to which all of us are bound. It is "appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment" (Heb. 9:27). There is "a time to be born, and a time to die" (Eccl. 3:2). And yes, "All go to one place: all are from dust, and all return to dust" (Eccl. 3:20).

It doesn't matter how immortal we sometimes feel. It doesn't matter how special we think we are. It doesn't matter that we think more highly of our modern era. We are mortal creatures and death will come to us all. And even if a grand funeral is held in our honor, and even if men and women herald our name for years to come, we will eventually be forgotten. Our bodies will be buried and we will eventually be just another one of the countless billions of men and women who have passed on before us and whose bodies now fill the earth beneath our feet.

Just yesterday, two men with connections to the Queen Way church of Christ passed away. One day it will be me. And then one day it will be my son. And so on.

Why am I so sullen and downcast? Am I struggling with depression? Why the negativity?

I am not depressed, or sullen or downcast. Neither is this article negative in nature.
"Better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for that is the end of all men; and the living will take it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by a sad countenance the heart is made better. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth" (Eccl. 7:2-4).
These thoughts humble us and remind us of our mortality, and hopefully, if we're honest and reflective, direct our minds to the Immortal and Living God to whom our souls are subject. Enjoy life, but more importantly, use your SHORT life to prepare for eternity.

After all, you may one day end up buried under a parking lot.

Friday, February 1, 2013

A Changed Demeanor

Moses is listed as one of the "heroes of faith" in Hebrews 11, and yet he was a man who only became such as he aged in God's service. We know Moses as the baby in the basket, as the man who delivered Israel from Egyptian bondage and ultimately as the meek and effective leader of millions of wandering Jews...but if this is all we know of Moses, our knowledge of him is far from complete. There was, in other words, a time when Moses had to find his identity as a servant of God.

In Exodus 2, Moses, having been raised in an Egyptian palace, saw the plight of his brethren, the Israelites. He clearly had a heart for his people and wanted to help them in some way. One day, when he saw an Egyptian taskmaster brutalizing a Hebrew slave, Moses intervened. He killed the Egyptian and buried him in the sand (Ex. 2:11-12). The following day, he attempted to mediate a problem between two Israelites (vs. 13). They didn't respond well to his efforts, but nonetheless, we see Moses' repeated attempts to aid the Hebrew nation.

Thanks to the New Testament record, we are given divine commentary of Moses' actions. In Acts 7:25, we're told that Moses "supposed that his brethren understood that God was granting them deliverance through him; but they did not understand." So Moses, understanding the unique position he was in (i.e. prominence, power, etc.) proactively sought to deliver his brethren from bondage.

Of course, his actions fell short. When it became known that he had killed an Egyptian, he fled to the land of Midian where he started a new life.

Until...God appeared to him several years later and asked him to do what he himself had already tried to do once before: deliver the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. God said to him at Mount Horeb, "Therefore, come now, and I will send you to Pharaoh, so that you may bring My people, the sons of Israel, out of bondage" (Ex. 3:10).

Based on his earlier attempts and his prior zeal to accomplish this same task, you'd think that Moses wouldn't jumped all over the opportunity. But as you know, he didn't. He made excuse after excuse and did everything he could to escape God's command.

Here's the question: why the changed demeanor?

Why is it that Moses was so passionate about this cause before and so resistent to it now?

In his younger days, Moses had a desire to deliver the Israelites from bondage, but it's clear that he had his own way of going about it. He didn't go into the courts of Pharaoh. He didn't stand on the street-corner and preach political reform to the masses. Instead, he was handling the process delicately; he was intervening in squabbles and "starting small." He had a good heart and his motives were pure, but he was basically fighting a forest fire with a single pale of water. He was doing enough to make himself feel useful and productive, but it wasn't enough to render significant reform.

Furthermore (and more importantly), we have no record of Moses praying for God's will in this matter. He simply had his own ideas and tried to implement his ideas apart from the counsel of the Lord.

When his efforts were rebuffed, he lost all confidence. His zeal was squashed by rejection and he fled not only from Egypt but from his former ideals to a new land and a new life.

In Exodus 3, when God called to Moses from the burning bush on Mount Horeb, not only was He speaking to a man whose former spirit had been crushed, He was calling this man to do something that ran counter to his character. So Moses resisted.

The lesson for us is twofold.

We first of all learn that when we rush into plans without first seeking the counsel of God, not only will we fail, but there may be long-lasting mental and/or spiritual consequences. We may bring shame upon Christ, or we may, like Moses, lose our confidence and decide to abandon our goals altogether. It is critical that we approach all that we do prayerfully and with great deliberation.

We secondly learn that our approach to a task is not always the same as God's approach. It's easy to become content in doing things our way. Like Moses, we might take a very soft and diplomatic approach, and we might feel good about it, but God may be calling us to something far greater and bolder. Take evangelism for example. It's easy to invite folks to church, and it makes us feel productive...but God is calling us to spread the gospel (Mt. 28:19-20) which takes far greater boldness and courage.

Let us seek God's will, not our own. And when God's will is manifested to us through prayerful deliberation and biblical reflection, let's act with all courage and boldness.