Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Three Ways to Disagree Properly

I've been preaching for almost ten years now so it should come as no surprise to anyone that there have been a number of occasions where someone has disagreed with me or I have disagreed with someone. And, of course, I have witnessed many disagreements (both scriptural and personal) between brethren.

Unity is so important (Jn. 17:20-21; 1 Cor. 1:10; 4:6-7; Eph. 4:1-5; Phil. 1:27-2:4, et al) and so much of what I preach and teach revolves around this message. So it pains me to say this, but sincere, God-fearing Christians will inevitably have disagreements. The question, then, is not, "how can we avoid disagreements?" but rather, "how do we handle disagreements?"

In this short article, I'd like to emphasize three ways to disagree properly...
  1. Always, always, always be honest! In Acts 17:10-12, when Paul challenged the Bereans, they didn't become defensive; they didn't take offense. Instead, they were " that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so" (vs. 11). When a disagreement arises, open God's word and accept the truth no matter what the consequences or challenges might be.
  2. Do not forsake the "fruit of the Spirit." So often, debates and disagreements become personal, or it's a question of who can talk the loudest. I have seen brethren treat one another with such disrespect that I worried for the babes in Christ or the non-Christians standing by. More than that, I worried for the souls of those who resorted to such rude, unloving antics. Paul wrote to Timothy, "And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth" (2 Tim. 2:24-25). The power isn't in our eloquence or wit; it's in the gospel (Rom. 1:16)...and the gospel doesn't need to be yelled or crammed down someone's throat to be effective.
  3. Ensure that there is purpose behind the disagreement. As we just noticed in 2 Timothy 2:24, Christians are not to be quarrelsome, or argumentative. In Titus 3:9-10, we're told to "avoid foolish disputes, genealogies, contentions, and strivings about law; for they are unprofitable and useless." Don't get me wrong, the Scriptures are clear that we must take a stand for the truth. However, the fact remains that some things are not worth fussing about. Is it a matter of faith, obedience or salvation? Or is it nothing more than a petty argument over some technicality that matters not either way? Learning to make this distinction is not only crucial, but reflective of great spiritual maturity.
Certainly much more could be said, but I am convinced that if we will apply these three simple principles to any future disagreements we have in the church, we will avoid so much of the drama and division that unfortunately have split many churches and discouraged many Christians. Remember, God's people are to be concerned first and foremost about glorifying Christ, not winning the argument.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Three Reasons to Reject Denominationalism

The prevailing mindset among religious people in this country is that one church is just as good as another, so "join the church of your choice." I cannot be too critical of this mindset because I once shared these sentiments and for years supported the works and activities of a variety of different denominations. I've been there. I know the feeling.

And yet in this brief article, I'd like to glean from one simple text three reasons as to why we all ought to reject the notion that denominationalism is acceptable to God.

The text is John 17:20-21...
"I do not pray for these alone [the apostles], but also for those who will believe in Me through their word [that's all of us]; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me."
Why should we reject denominationalism based on this text? Three reasons...
  1. We should reject denominationalism and refuse to partake in it because we want to be like Christ. In this beautiful prayer in John 17, Jesus' relationship with the Father is given as a model for Christian unity. Just as Jesus is "one" with the Father, so also are we instructed to be "one" with one another. The fact is, we cannot embrace denominationalism and simultaneously be like Christ. Christ is all about perfect unity. Not just some semblance of unity, but perfect unity. Do Jesus and the Father have different views on worship, salvation and eternal life? Of course not! They have one spirit and one mind, and if we want to be like Christ, we will pursue this same unity with others who call on the name of Christ.
  2. We should also reject denominationalism because we want to glorify Christ. If Jesus prayed for unity, then all those who truly wish to glorify Him will strive for religious unity, not religious division. When we refuse to let go of denominationalism, we are choosing ourselves, our families, and/or our society's traditions over the will and plan of Christ!
  3. Finally, we should reject denominationalism because we want to lead more sinners to Christ. In the text above, Jesus makes the point that when the disciples are "one," the world will consequently believe that Jesus is who He claimed to be. In other words, Christian unity - true, perfect unity based on the common standard of God's word (John 17:17; 1 Cor. 1:10) - will bring others to Christ. Conversely, when Christians are divided and disjointed, fewer people will believe. Many today see Christianity as a joke for this reason.
I know that denominationalism is often equated with Christianity in our culture. I know that there are a lot of "good people" in denominational churches (click here to listen to a sermon I preached on human "goodness"). I know that in your mind, you're probably still thinking that God cannot possibly be displeased with any of the major denominations. I get it. I do. 

But it's clear based on Jesus' prayer in John 17 that denominationalism was never a part of God's plan. Therefore, if you want to be like Christ, glorify Christ, and lead others to Christ, you have to turn away from what man has created over the millennia and get back to the simplicity of Christ's plan as found in the New Testament.

If you have any questions, shoot me a message. I'd love to chat with you!

Monday, June 10, 2013

A First Century Story

Imagine that you're a Jew living in Jerusalem during the ministry and life of Christ. You've been captivated by Jesus and His message for almost three years now, always making it a point to go and hear Him speak whenever He's in Jerusalem or Judea. You know that He's the Messiah and you long for the kingdom He repeatedly says is immenent.

Now imagine with me that you have a friend who has always been partial to the Pharisees. Because the Pharisees haven't been supportive of Jesus, your friend has never really been willing to give Jesus a fair hearing. Until now.

After Jesus successfully answered the ill-motived questions of the Pharisees, Sadducees and even a single lawyer (Mt. 22), your friend agrees to go with you to hear Jesus speak. You're beyond thrilled! Finally, your friend will listen to the Lord with an open mind, and you're convinced that he will finally become a follower of Christ.

You and your friend show up. There is quite a crowd as usual, but you and your friend find a place where you can both see the Master. Then...after a brief lull, Jesus begins His message. But this time something is different. You can see both sadness and frustration in Jesus' face and can tell that this message will be different.

Jesus begins by telling the multitudes that "The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do..." (Mt. 23:2-3).

Given Jesus' ongoing conflict with the sect of the Pharisees, you're a little shocked by this statement, but you realize that your friend, who is partial to the Pharisees, will appreciate this olive branch that's being extended by the Prince of Peace. You nudge your friend and he nods in return.

But then Jesus says the following, "...that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do to be seen by men..." (Mt. 23:3-5). As Jesus continues to enumerate the various forms of Pharisaical hypocrisy, you swallow nervously and glance over at your friend whose jaw is suddenly set and his brow furrowed. Oh no, you think to yourself. My friend is going to be offended to his core.

These thoughts are running through your mind as Jesus continues His message. There are gasps from the audience and folks are looking at each other and whispering among themselves. This is not one of Jesus' sermons on the kingdom, or about His role as Shepherd. Sure, you've heard Jesus preach some very controversial sermons, but it's different because you have your friend with you...who has finally agreed to hear Jesus and who is partial to the Pharisees. 

You are shaken from your thoughts when suddenly, Jesus raises his voice and speaks with renewed conviction. He pounds his right fist into his left palm and even though there is obvious frustration in His voice, you can see the tears in your Master's eyes as He cries out, "Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites" (vs. 13).

Your heart stops. By this point, you don't want to look at your friend. You're sure that he's infuriated and you're just waiting for him to turn his back and walk away, his heart forever closed to the Messiah.

Jesus repeats this seven more times. "Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites." He calls them blind guides, fools, and says that despite their good appearance that they are "full of dead men's bones" (vs. 27). He even calls them, "Serpents, brood of vipers" and asks them, "How can you escape the condemnation of hell?" (vs. 33).

Jesus begins to conclude His message. He lowers His voice and pauses momentarily as he scans the audience with pleading eyes. "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem," Jesus concludes, tears now streaming forth, "the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!" (vs. 37).

And that's what bothers you so much! You know that Jesus is the Good Shepherd and that He is so full of love and compassion. You've seen it time and time again. And you know that this message, as poignant as it was, was rooted in love and concern for souls being led astray. But your friend won't see it that way. He won't see the Savior's tears. He won't read between the lines and recognize the obvious love in the Master's voice. He won't take into account the fact that for almost three years now, Jesus has been so patient with the Pharisees' constant efforts to undermine His ministry and teachings. All your friend will hear is the shrill, hateful voice of a man who has been dividing the Jewish people and stirring up trouble for years now.

And sure enough, when you do finally turn around, you see your friend's back as he walks away.

Jesus and His disciples head in the direction of the Temple. The crowd dissipates. And you are left standing there in the middle of a street in Jerusalem, with feelings that you never thought you'd feel about the Messiah. Not only do you find yourself wishing that you hadn't brought your friend to hear Jesus speak, but you find yourself resenting Jesus for having chosen this day above all days to speak this particular message. The timing couldn't have been worse!

With gritted teeth and conflicting thoughts, you finally decide that you'd better return to work. You'll deal with your friend later.


I'd like for us to reflect briefly upon this story...

I intentionally didn't reveal how the friend in this story eventually reacted to Jesus' message. We know that he was offended by it initially and walked away. But in the end, did the friend remain angry? Was he forever embittered against Jesus, and for this reason would he be one of those many Jews who would soon thereafter cry out "Cruify Him! Crucify Him!"? Or is it possible that such an honest and straightforward message is what was necessary to break through this man's shell? Despite being initially offended, perhaps the friend, upon deeper reflection, realized that Jesus was right after all.

The point is, the man could've reacted positively or negatively to Jesus' message. I'm sure that among those who were actually present that day to hear Jesus speak, there were mixed reactions.

But the reason I left the man's eventual conclusion out of the story is because ultimately, it has no bearing on whether Jesus' message was appropriate or not. A positive reaction wouldn't have validated Jesus' message, but neither would a negative reaction have invalidated His message. Right?

So the main question is this: what should the main character in the story have done?

Was he right for feeling resentful? For being upset that Jesus named names and apparently lacked any sense of diplomacy or tact? For thinking that the timing was poor? Should he perhaps have gone and apologized to his friend? Should he have tried to smooth things over with his friend? Would he have been right if he had concluded that he should be much more careful about who he invited to hear Jesus preach from that point forward?

Or should he have had implicit trust in Jesus? Should he have trusted in God's providence and thought that perhaps God had actually timed it this way for a reason? Should he have understood that the truth is the truth and that the power is in the message? Instead of blaming Jesus, should he have blamed his friend's hardness of heart? Should he simply have prayed that his friend would have an open heart to reconsider and to mediate upon these hard sayings? Should he have been thankful that finally his friend heard the truth about the Pharisees?

What do you think? How would you have reacted?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Shame of Nakedness

In Revelation 3:16-17, Jesus chastised the lukewarm Christians in Laodicea, saying that they were spiritually “wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked.” In verse 18, He admonished them, saying, “I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed.” The Laodiceans were not literally naked; Jesus here is speaking metaphorically of their spiritual condition. However, He is drawing upon physical imagery that these Christians would have understood. Even these worldly Laodiceans would’ve understood that it’s shameful and embarrassing to be naked in the public’s eye. God affirms that there ought to be shame and embarrassment associated with being publically naked.

Consider also that in 1 Corinthians 12:23, as Paul uses the physical body to describe the body of Christ (the church), he makes reference to “unpresentable parts.” In addition to eyes and ears, the physical body contains certain parts that are unpresentable.

What body parts do you consider unpresentable? And how would you define nakedness? The fact is, we might all answer these questions differently. But here’s the real question: does God define these things for us?

Admittedly, there is no one passage in the New Testament that defines which body parts are unpresentable. However, the Old Testament, though not our law anymore, was written for our learning (Rom. 15:4). If the New Testament teaches a concept and the Old Testament defines or fleshes out that concept, it seems to me that we ought to do the research and consider the conclusion. After all, the Bible was written directly to Christians in the first century and so we must strive to understand it as they would've understood it. When John, for example, penned the book of Revelation, he predicated so much of the book's symbolism on imagery from the Old Testament. The seven churches in Asia, when reminded of the "shame of nakedness" would have understood what Christ meant by this, and their knowledge of this concept would have been based in the Old Testament.

The fact is, we learn from a thorough study of the Old Testament that one can be clothed and still be considered naked by God. One can have some clothing on and yet fail to conceal their “unpresentable parts.” Consider these texts with me.

In Genesis 2:25, we learn that Adam and Eve were naked and unashamed. However, after they sinned, they became aware of their nakedness and tried to cover their nakedness (Gen. 3:7). They put on “aprons” (KJV) or “loincloths” (ESV). The Hebrew word is chagor and literally refers to a belt for the waist, and so I think it’s safe to assume that Adam and Eve clothed themselves with loincloths. Did this make them sufficiently covered or clothed? Many would say “Yes!” But God further clothed them in Genesis 3:20-21 with “tunics of skin” or “coats.” Based on Hebrew culture and the meaning of the Hebrew word kethoneth, these were tunics “worn next to the skin by men and women chiefly of the priest and Levites, generally with sleeves, to the knees, but seldom to the ankles” (Wilson, pg. 81). Nelson’s Illustrated Encyclopedia adds that this was “a kimono-like inner garment reaching to the knees or ankles.” And so God clothed Adam and Eve with a garment that covered the area between their knees and shoulders. This most definitely concealed their nakedness!

Some might argue that God wasn't clothing them to cover their nakedness, and that this had nothing to do with the inadequacy of their loincloths...that this was purely symbolic in that the coats of animal skin hearkened back to the sacrifice that was made by God for their sin. Even if you take that position, you cannot escape the fact that when God clothed them, it was with a garment that reached from their shoulders to about their knees (maybe longer).

We see something similar in Exodus 28:40-42 regarding God’s standard for the priests. Verse 40 reveals that the priests were to wear loose-fitting outer garments. We know that this would have been a priestly robe that would’ve reached at least to the knees. However, in verse 42, we read the following: “And you shall make for them linen trousers to cover their nakedness; they shall reach from their waist to their thighs.” Keep in mind that they were already to wear an outer garment that would have sufficiently covered their nakedness. But due to the fact that they were sometimes working on the altar above the people, they were to wear something underneath their robe to ensure that their nakedness ALWAYS be hidden from the eyes below. So not only were these priests covering their nakedness at all times, they were even expected to take extra precautions to ensure that it wasn't accidentally exposed.

We learn in Isaiah 47:2-3 that yet again, God viewed the thighs as being a part of what constitutes nakedness. Uncovering one's thighs was considered shameful.

Finally, Exodus 28:42 makes it clear that it’s shameful for one’s buttocks to be exposed. And Proverbs 5:19 is just one of many passages that describe a woman’s breasts as sexual stimulants for men. These are body parts that will naturally be covered if one is totally concealing their nakedness anyways (from shoulders to knees), but women especially, with this information in mind, might take extra precaution when it comes to their breasts (excuse the frankness).

Perhaps you’re thinking that it’s a stretch to tie all of these verses together to prove a point and that such a conclusion cannot possibly be bound upon others in some kind of legalistic manner. I understand that reaction, but again, here’s what I know:
  • In the New Testament, God does allude to the “shame of nakedness” and to certain parts of the body that are “unpresentable." Are we left to define these for ourselves or is there wisdom in seeing how God defines these terms?
  • There is a consistent standard throughout the Old Testament regarding what God considered to be our “unpresentable parts” and our “nakedness.” Whenever God clothed anyone or gave instructions regarding clothing, He covered the area between the shoulders and knees. This is confirmed by the text, by the definitions of certain Hebrew terms, and by known facts of Hebrew culture. This is how the Jews and Christians of old would've understood the language.
  • Our own common sense actually confirms this data. We know that there is a difference between a man taking off his socks and his shirt (in public). We know that a woman would feel uncomfortable and exposed if seen in her bra and panties. If someone of the opposite sex shakes a person’s hand, no big deal…but if they touch a person’s thigh or rear end or chest…now an “advance” is being made.
Women, you may not feel uncomfortable wearing a bikini or even a one-piece bathing suit that wraps tightly around your crotch. Guys, you may not feel uncomfortable mowing the grass with your shirt off. Because of your upbringing or experiences, you may be calloused to any sense of shame in this regard. Even still, shouldn’t we all strive to live by God’s standards? And shouldn’t we seek to regain shame where God says there should be shame? It can be done.

And is it difficult, ladies, to find shorts, skirts and dresses that are long enough? I'm not a woman, but from what I understand, yes, it is difficult. But not impossible. When I am with my wife in a store like Kohls or Target, we DO stumble upon dresses and such that ARE long enough. Maybe you'll have to look a little harder, and maybe you'll have to pass up a dress or skirt that is "really cute" and fashionable, but our Lord is certainly worthy of such sacrifices. It's about priorities!

Instead of looking at this as some legalistic article by a prudish preacher, consider these things with an open heart and seek to apply wisdom here as in all other areas of faith. Ask yourself if I’ve set forth my own standard in this article or if I’ve set forth a biblical standard. And then make the necessary adjustments in your own life, not because I’m telling you to, but because you desire to reflect the will of God in your own life.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Song of Solomon

I always try to come up with a catchy title for my articles so that more people will choose to read them and hopefully benefit from the message. The title of this article, however, doesn't need any added flair. "The Song of Solomon," perhaps the most bland and straightforward title of any article I've ever written, will garner much attention, I'm sure, because not only is so little ever said about this book of the Bible, it's a book that contains a very unique and awkward message.

I'm not going to waste time in this article reviewing the different views of "The Song of Solomon" nor will I present a verse-by-verse commentary of the book. I'd simply like to offer you three lessons that I glean from this wonderful and sorely-neglected part of Scripture.

First of all, as the first three chapters describe this period of engagement between Solomon (the beloved) and "the Shulamite" (an unnamed woman), we learn that while it can be very difficult for unmarried people to maintain purity, it is very important that they do so. It is very clear that Solomon and the Shulamite were madly in love with each other and physically attracted to each other. And I personally believe based on the language that they struggled to maintain purity before marriage. They desired one another and as they spent time together during their engagement, it was all that they could do to keep those desires at bay. Twice during their engagement, the Shulamite said, "Do not stir up nor awaken love until it pleases" (2:7; 3:5), and both statements followed instances of physical contact. 

And yet we know that despite their ongoing struggle, they did not have sex before marriage. Following their wedding (3:11), we find the following graphic language in chapter four...
"A garden enclosed, is my sister, my spouse, a spring shut up, a fountain sealed" (4:12).
"A fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon. Awake, O north wind, and come, o south! Blow upon my garden, that its spices may come out. Let my beloved come to his garden and eat its pleasant fruits" (4:15-16).
In the former verse, the phrase "a garden enclosed" denotes the Shulamite's virginity. However, we learn that as their marriage was consummated, Solomon was the first to enter her garden. Again, the language is graphic and awkward for many in today's culture, but it's so important for us to understand because despite their struggle for purity, they had remained pure and were now about to enjoy one another sexually as God intended, and to glean from that special experience its intended joy and gratification.

Secondly, we learn that sex, in it's proper context, is holy and right. We hear so much about the sins of fornication and adultery that we sometimes view sex itself as dirty. Don't get me wrong, sex outside of marriage is wrong. But in the context of marriage, sex is good. Hebrews 13:4 says, "Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge." Sexual intimacy, when enjoyed by a husband and wife, is said to be honorable. And while sex is the means of procreation, The Song of Solomon makes it abundantly clear that sex is also for our enjoyment. It is such a beautiful expression of intimacy and union in the marriage, and the pleasure we derive from it is as much about that intimacy and love as it is about the gratification of sexual desires.

But let me also say this about sex: if you partake of sexual pleasure before and/or outside of the marriage relationship, it will tarnish your view of sexual intimacy once you're married. In other words, if you pollute what God designed to be good and holy, then even when you have the right to it, it will not feel as good and holy as it would have been otherwise. Dear reader, there are consequences for rejecting God's plan, and many marriages have suffered because either the husband or wife (or both) entered marriage with a sexual history that now taints what they have with their spouse.

Finally, "The Song of Solomon" teaches us that once married, husbands and wives must work to maintain a healthy sexual relationship. Of course, we read about the bliss and excitement of their wedding night at the conclusion of chapter four, but in chapter five, we learn that problems arose. Solomon comes to his wife's chambers (5:2), but the Shulamite delayed in letting him in (5:3-4). By the time she opened the door, he was gone (5:5). Distressed, she searches for him and ultimately the matter is cleared up. Isn't it common for husbands and wives to misunderstand one another or to fall prey to a lack of communication that results in similar distress and polarization? Like Solomon and the Shulamite, we must respond to these instances by reconciling.

We also learn in chapter seven that Solomon and the Shulamite refused to let the flame of love be extinguished. While many married couples fall out of what we call "the honeymoon phase" and drift apart, the two characters in this story worked to maintain their intimacy. They remained physically attracted to each other (7:1-5), were creative and inventive in their sexual encounters (7:6-10) and even slipped away together on overnight trips and mini-vacations to keep things fresh and exciting (7:11-13).

How often do we allow our jobs, our obligations and our children suck the life out of our marriage? And yet as difficult as it can be to find the time and even the money, we must make this a priority. For our own spiritual well-being, marital health, personal happiness and even for the benefit of our children (they need parents who are madly in love with each other), we need to work to maintain intimacy.

Of course, so much more could be said about this wonderful book, and if you have questions, please feel free to shoot me a message. But please don't ignore this book. While the message may be awkward for some, "The Song of Solomon" is in the Bible for a reason. God wanted it there, which means that it contains a very important and needful message.