Thursday, July 14, 2011

QOTD - A Malnourishment that Leads to Death

Lamb of God, Bread of Life

From Dale Bruner's Matthew: A Commentary. Volume 1: The Christbook
A church that is not nourished yesterday, today, and tomorrow by the wholesome food of the Word of God in Scripture - a church not ruled and dominated by exegesis - is on her way to death. For too long the mainline churches in Christendom have illustrated this death march by teaching and preaching a Bible that has been only marginally appropriated (witness the death of the biblical-language requirement in many seminaries and denominations) because, it is said, there are in fact so many other imperative issues. (What is Hebrew in a hungry world?) We have become churches without doctrinal passion (for doctrinal passion would be "fundamentalism," the kiss of death), and a result has been people leaving our churches in droves and flocking to what are called independent or Bible churches where, at least, they are given doctrines served with fire. A return by mainline churches to a responsible christocentric biblical passion will be a return to apostolic-catholic-Reformation Christianity with all of this Christianity's perennial sources of spiritual and social renewal."
Bruner's words were first published in 1987, and yet most mainline denominations persist with their marginalization of the Word of God with predicable results. For example, on July 1, the stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) announced, in a classic Friday-night-news-dump kind of way, that the denomination lost 61,000 members in 2010 alone.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Ease of Sinning in Collusion with Others

This passage from Jeremiah 5:30-31 is haunting my thoughts:
An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule at their direction; my people love to have it so, but what will you do when the end comes?"
The "easy" way to defy God while pretending to have a clear conscience is to collude with others doing the same thing. Such a collusion survives and thrives by turning truth into falsehood and vice versa. This text makes it clear the people love to have it that way ("my people love to have it so"). These sin-conspiracies spread virulently through cultures, denominations, and nations. When God's righteous judgment comes, there there will be nowhere to turn. Only God can provide a rescue from our pathetic, adulterous, idolatrous rebellion. There can be no other way.

Fortunately, God has provided such a rescue. His name is Jesus. Do you know Him yet?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Colossians 16: Greet the Brothers. Read the Scriptures. Fulfill Your Ministry

Scripture Text: Colossians 4:15-18

Introductory Comments

We’ve been reviewing the remaining verses of chapter 4, where Paul sends forth greetings from his colleagues in ministry. In this week’s text, Paul sends his own personal greetings, along with some final instructions to the saints in Colossae. There is yet more to be learned here, so let’s dive right in and see what God has to say to us through his Holy and inerrant Word.
[15] Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. [16] And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea.
Greet the Brothers – Encouraging Fellowship in the Early Church

Paul asks the members of the Colossian church to send his greetings “to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house.” We don’t really know the precise reason why Paul asks the Colossians to send his greetings to the church in Laodicea. Right in the next verse, Paul will ask that this letter, Colossians, be shared with that church and that a separate letter to the Laodiceans be shared and read in Colossae. One plausible suggestion might be that Paul was interested in forging a closer fellowship between these churches by sharing greetings and correspondence.

I like that idea, especially when we consider how so many churches have a tendency to become insular, separated from other faithful believers with whom worship and fellowship in Christ may be easily shared.

One of the things that greatly encourages me in ministry here in Jackson is the warm relationship between the pastors of many of our local churches, and a willingness to be in fellowship, worship, and outreach together. Most recently, I think of our times of prayer, worship, and teaching during Lent with our brothers and sisters at Salem and Belmont Lutheran churches. I’ve also been greatly encouraged by the response for volunteers to help with the food shelf that his housed in our education building. At least three local Jackson churches are now involved in that ministry, a testimony to the power of the Holy Spirit working in the lives of the saints here in Jackson.

So I think Paul is suggesting here that Christians in different locations ought not to be separate from each other. They are clearly being invited here, and later on in the chapter, into some sort of closer relationship with believers in another place.

The next person Paul mentions in is in conjunction with the city of Laodicea. There was a house-church there, owned by a woman named Nympha. What is a house church? Well, it may surprise you to know that in the beginning Christians didn’t focus on building places for worship. In fact, it wasn’t until the middle of the third century that Christians buying property for worship.1 In the early church, it was almost always the case that believers would meet together in the house of another believer. Why? Because church communities were small, but also because of potential persecution. Some homes were modified to better accommodate worship. Stan Hall, my worship professor, of blessed memory, would occasional give slide shows featuring the architectural remains of some of these house-churches, including the oldest known church in a place called Dura-Europoa, which was apparently located very closely with the local synagogue that is believed to have been constructed at a similar time.

What the bible says about the meetings of early Christians is interesting. They gathered together regularly in the homes of members where multiple members participated in worship. 1 Corinthians 14 concludes with the famous phrase, much beloved by Presbyterians, “But all things should be done decently and in order” [40]. Why did Paul insist on decent orderliness? The reason is that church gatherings involved so many participants. In 1 Corinthians 14:26, Paul writes, “What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.” It seems that in these early gatherings, many individual members would actively participate in worship. So many, in fact, that Paul felt it necessary to make sure things didn’t devolve into chaos by saying that all things should be done decently and in order.

What we see so often in the contemporary mainline churches is not much like this. We meet in grandiose buildings, replete with beautiful and inspiring art and musical instruments, with just the pastor and perhaps one or two others might say something or reading from the scriptures.

I wonder, as I read these texts, if the early church had something going for it when it met in individual homes. What happens when you meet someone in his or her home? Coffee is put on, food is shared, you sit on comfy furniture, you have ready access to he facilities, you can see what interests people have by observing the books on their shelves, or the collectables in the display cabinets. You can also take peaks into mysterious medicine cabinets. There’s a certain intimacy when you meet with friends and family in their homes.

I think this kind of fellowship is counter-cultural today. During my time at seminary I completed an internship at a very large church in Austin, Texas. The idea was to identify house leaders, a study curriculum, and invite people to call in or sign up online to study and to get to know each other better. The web technician at the church helped get the online registration system going, and people were invited over a couple of months to sign up and participate. Not a single person signed up. Part of this was, I’m sure, related to the fact that the lowly intern set this thing up as a project. My pride was, accordingly, crushed (which is a very good thing). But I also sensed that many people are just fine keeping an arms length distance from their brothers and sisters, especially in worship. There seemed to be no desire to actually get to know each other better, which was a source of sadness for me.

I’m not saying this to suggest that congregations should immediately divest themselves of their buildings and start bunches of small groups. What I am saying, however, is that the house-churches of the New Testament churches spoke to the high level of personal intimacy, hospitality, and mutual concern that is regrettably not nearly as predominant in the contemporary church. This passage has so convicted me that I want to let you know that you’re all invited over to come to our place for an open house at a date to be announced in mid-August.

Read and Share the Scriptures

Paul now says something very significant.
[16] And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea.
He expects his letter to be read aloud in the church, and then ask them to send it on to the church in Laodicea, a city about 10 miles to the west. He then instructs the Colossians to take receipt of a letter sent to the church in Laodicea, which is also to be read publicly in Colossae. What do these instructions tell us about the church?

What is important here is that Paul commands the letters to be read publicly at gathering of the church. These letters were considered very important, and were read alongside the Scriptures that the early church new, what we call the Old Testament. As one commentator put it, this means the apostolic letters from Paul carried equal weight with the Old Testament bible.2

These instructions from Paul gives us a hint as to why there are many copies of his letters available from antiquity. They were likely copied before they were sent to the various churches. This passage also explains why these letters are now in the New Testament: They were, from the very beginning, accorded significant weight on par with the rest of scripture. This is why Reformed churches take all of the New Testament so seriously, including these letters from Paul. This is not mere personal correspondence we are reading. These are very words God inspired Paul to put on the page. They therefore have the same authority as the very words of Jesus recorded in the gospels. There are many, many prominent scholars who suggest that this ought not to be the case. I’m betting my life on the truth of the scriptures, however. The truth of the scriptures and the power of God’s Word has been authenticated by the indwelling authority of the Holy Spirit.

This verse teaches us, then, that all of scripture ought to be read and preached upon and studies and investigated by all believers. 2 Timothy 3:16 says “[16] All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, [17] that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

Fulfill Your Ministry

Paul has one more set of instructions for an individual in the Colossian church, a man named Archippus:
[17] And say to Archippus, “See that you fulfill the ministry that you have received in the Lord.”
Archippus is named in one other place in the bible, in Paul’s personal letter to Philemon. Some scholars believe he may have been the son of Philemon and Apphia, who are mentioned together at the very beginning of Philemon as being part of the same household.

What was the ministry Archippus received “in the Lord”? It’s impossible to say with certainty, but the word translated as “ministry” here and elsewhere in the New Testament usual refers to the work of devoting oneself to the service of the gospel.

Imagine if you are Archippus. This letter from the beloved apostle is being read aloud to all those gathered in the house-church in Colossae, and you are there among them. Suddenly, at the end of the letter, your named is mentioned, along with the strong instruction to complete the ministry you have received from the Lord. It is possible that Archippus was the preacher for that church, and here Paul is stating that he is to continue and complete this work, a sign that Archippus was, as Peter O’Brien states, “the guarantor to the Colossian congregation that they have received the apostolic gospel.” The apostolic gospel is the word of truth about Jesus Christ and Him crucified.

Two things about this text, and then we’ll be finished. First, this text commands that the ministry of the Lord be completed. I’m a big fan of the reformed doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. That means I’m pressed by this text to ensure that whatever I do in ministry is completed to the glory of the one who gave me the ministry, Jesus Christ, who died to save me. How then, could I go about the task of completing it? And if Jesus died for you, too, and granted to total and complete forgiveness of sins, and gave you the gift of the Holy Spirit which empowers you for your own ministry, whether it be in the church, at work, or at home, how then could you not complete the ministry given by Christ to you, for the sake of His glory? Second, and this is very important, remember that we aren’t worried about finding “fulfillment” like the Colossians were attempting to find it, in the world using worldly means and methods to persuade God we’re on His side. No, God has already shown us by the death of His Son that He is already 100% for the people He has chosen. It is the good news of the gospel that liberates us from every worldly expectation, or temptation, or distraction, or fear of failure, so that we, too, can be about the work of completing the ministries give to us by King Jesus.

In verse 18, Paul signs the letter as he began it, with a word of grace: "[18] I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you." His personal signature showed everyone that he was the true author of the letter. He reminds them that he writes from prison, and then concludes with a statement that the Colossians might always be recipients of God's ongoing grace.

The title of this sermon series is: “Colossians: The Preeminence, Sufficiency, Sovereignty, and Glory of Jesus Christ.” As you consider the question of the ministry to which you have been called, are you resting first of all in Christ’s preeminence? Do you really acknowledge his sovereignty over everything, including every breath you take? Is Jesus totally sufficient for you and your salvation? Do you really long to see Him Glorified in all things? If Jesus truly is preeminent, sufficient, sovereign, and glorious, then we will be able to complete the ministry given to us.

May we always rest in God's grace so we can be fully engaged in the ministry of making much of Jesus in all things for the sake of all peoples everywhere. Amen.

1O’Brien, Peter. Colossians. Philemon. 256.
2Ibid., 257.

Given at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Minnesota
July 10, 2011
15th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Copyright © 2011 by Christopher Donald Drew