The Most Neglected Event of Easter Week

March 10, 2022

Of all the cascade of events during the Easter season, none of which is without meaning, and each of which has been variously interpreted through the centuries – with varying degrees of fidelity to the New Testament text –  there is one that usually receives little notice, although I consider it to be second in importance only to Jesus’ triumphant resurrection  which utterly and permanently destroyed the power of death over his people. It is generally mentioned only in passing, if at all, despite its inclusion in all three synoptic gospels, most of a chapter in Paul’s second letter to Corinth, and three separate references in the letter to the Hebrews.  That event is the dramatic tearing apart of the thick, heavy curtain called the “veil”, that served as the boundary in the Jewish temple (earlier, the tabernacle), beyond which no one but the designated High Priest was ever allowed to venture, because it concealed the supposed residence of God.

Many years ago, when working on Citizens of the Kingdom, I had done some work on the subject of a “veil”, primarily because of  Paul’s mention of the “veil” used by Moses,  but I was prompted to dig deeper into the idea by a question raised by a brother some time ago in reference to Mark’s account of  Jesus’ baptism.  He wondered if Mark’s observation of heaven being “torn open”  at that time was the same word as the one used of what happened to the veil of the temple at the time of Jesus’ death.

This is one of many examples of the value of the contribution of every member of the Body, which enables one person to trigger another to explore unexpected treasures in the Scripture.

A quick check revealed that it is indeed exactly the same word.  Schizo is quite a violent word, elsewhere used of rocks shattered by an earthquake, the guards’ decision not to rip apart Jesus’ cloak, and the ruin of a fish net or an improperly mended garment, as well as of sharp divisions in the response of various crowds to Jesus’ teaching.

But interestingly, these two are Mark’s only uses of the word.  Might this have been a deliberate choice on his part, and not, as is often supposed, just the effusive, but limited, vocabulary of an excited young man?

We will return to this idea momentarily.

To understand the connection, we must notice the vocabulary of references to “the temple”.  There are two different words that are translated “temple”, and they are not  distinguished in English translations.  This is true of references to pagan temples as well as the Jewish one.  One word refers to the whole temple complex –  the building and  grounds and all its courtyards and accouterments, where people freely met, walked, talked, argued, begged, bought and sold.  The other refers specifically (in both pagan and Jewish contexts) to the “inner sanctum”, where the god was believed to dwell – in this particular case, the area walled-off by the veil, the “Holy of Holies”, with access restricted to the high priest or his designate.  No one else could enter, on pain of death – although that penalty was not mentioned in the original Law. (Neither, incidentally, was the notion that God “lived” there.)

It was the site of Zachariah’s vision,  and where Judas, in his despair, had hurled his bribe-money.  It was also the word Jesus and Paul both used of the Body of Christ – both his own  physical body and the “temple of the Holy Spirit” into which his people are being built!  (That is worthy of a separate study of its own.)

So where is the parallel here?  Mark says, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, that  “the heaven (sky) was split open” – perhaps not so much in order that the dove/spirit could get out, as  that the awe-struck observers could see in, and hear the very voice of God acknowledging his Son!

And at the end of Jesus’ sojourn  among people, the temple’s veil of separation, that had been designed to prevent us “ordinary folks” from approaching the presence of God, is likewise “split open” – torn apart – as Mark carefully notes, “from top to bottom” (making it obvious that this was the work of God, and of no human hand).  That thing was HUGE – ten cubits was about 15 ft! And as a result of its destruction, all God’s people can not only see in, but be provided, as detailed in Heb.6:19, 9:13, and 10:20, definitive and permanent access,  as Jesus’ own people, to the very presence of God!

The destruction of the overt physical barrier dramatically illustrated  that interaction between God and his people had been radically and permanently changed!  But there is even more!

Closely related to this access is the removal of the other veil –  explained in II Cor.3:12-17 – the only other mention of a “veil” in the New Testament.  Here, Paul has chosen a different word, one classically used of a much smaller piece of fabric, often worn, in antiquity, as a sign of mourning. It does not appear anywhere else in the New Testament. 

Interestingly, Paul and Moses offer differing explanations for the use of this veil.  According to Moses (Ex.34), he covered his face because people were frightened by its glowing appearance after he had been talking with the Lord.  There is no hint that this was done at God’s direction:  it was Moses’ own idea.  Paul says (II Cor.3) that Moses didn’t want  them to see the “glory” fading from his face!  For whichever reason, just like the temple’s heavy curtain, Moses’ “veil” also served to separate – in this case, to separate God’s spokesman from “ordinary people” – the classic clergy-laity division!  But

Paul goes on to explain, “Whenever anyone turns to the Lord, THE VEIL IS TAKEN AWAY”!!! And “WE ALL” are charged with “reflecting the Lord’s own radiance” as we are in the process of being “transformed into his image”!  

The temple’s veil, whose purpose, in harmony with both the old Jewish hierarchical system and its pagan counterparts, had been to separate ordinary mortals from the presence of  God, kept everyone but the high priest from approaching, or even seeing, the place where God’s glory was said to dwell.  In sharp contrast, Jesus’ act, in bringing people TO God, by the giving of his own life, utterly destroyed not only the physical barrier, but also any need for such separation. 

Remember  that what Jesus referred to as “his work”, by his own testimony, was to make us ONE – with himself, with the Father, and with each other.  His prayer in John17 included the petition that we may behold his glory, and thereby be transformed, together, to reflect his image.  ALL OF US!!!

THE VEIL IS TAKEN AWAY!!! That has to be one of the most gloriously triumphant statements in all of  Scripture!  But why, then, is it one of the most neglected?  Are there still people and institutions that would prefer that we “ordinary folks” should not know that BOTH the separation between God and man (the veil of the temple), and that between “layman” and leadership (Moses’ veil) are intended to be FOREVER DONE AWAY IN CHRIST? The Veil is taken away!

Any manifestation of either such division, on the part of any group that calls itself a church, constitutes a blatant denial of the finished work of Christ!

This, I believe, was the primary thing that really distinguished the Swiss Anabaptist brethren not only from  all the other reformers, but even others who eventually shared the “Anabaptist” label.  They were hounded from their homes and possessions, and even their very lives, simply because of their adamant refusal, on the grounds of  their New Testament study, to remain or to become subservient to the dictates of the state-authorized systems and individuals (whether Catholic or Protestant)  who officially held absolute power over the life, thought, and behavior of their underlings.  Thousands were martyred for their insistence that Jesus alone was their superior, and only he had the right to command their obedience.

I consider it a major tragedy when groups who claim “Anabaptist” ancestry turn around and create hierarchical systems and obligatory “doctrinal statements” of their own, instead of encouraging and enabling ALL faithful followers of the Lord Jesus to exercise both their responsibilities and their privileges in the formation and function of the Body for which Jesus prayed, and gave his life!  An often-omitted part of the history of  that first believers’ baptism in Zurich in 1525, where five earnest students of the New Testament spontaneously baptized each other, is that those committed brethren at the same time “ordained” each other to the ministry of spreading that good news!  They considered the two  acts – baptism and ordination –  to be the opposite sides of the same coin!

I don’t know if you all realize the extent to which Jim’s  faithful and excellent leadership of this little “colony of the Kingdom” has courageously departed from what has become “standard procedure” today even in most groups that say they share the Anabaptist heritage. Instead of “running the church”, and personally dictating all of its activities and teaching, he has graciously assumed the (truly Scriptural) role of an “enabler”, taking care to see that we all benefit from one another’s insights, abilities, and concerns.  That stance, if I may put it a bit crudely, takes guts!               

This choice on his part, unfortunately, is extremely rare, although it should be considered the primary task of every person in any kind of a leadership role:  to assure that the Body benefits from the contribution of every brother and sister.  

Because THE VEIL IS TAKEN AWAY!!!  In a New Testament brotherhood, NO task, NO responsibility, NO privilege is reserved for members of a carefully vetted in-group who can be counted on not to rock any boats or kick any sacred cows. In fact, if there is no  boat-rocking or cow-kicking going on, there is probably little studying, learning, or growing going on either!  
THERE IS ONLY ONE VALID QUALIFICATION for total participation in the Body to which we are called:  unequivocal commitment to faithfully following and representing the Lord Jesus and his Kingdom;  and there is likewise ONLY ONE  VALID STANDARD OF JUDGMENT by which to assess the authenticity of that faithfulness:  mutual and careful study of the New Testament.

Within a community committed to that objective, THE VEIL IS TAKEN AWAY!!!

The key word here is “committed.”    A committed community is not an “anything goes”, one-size-fits-all mixture; and certainly not a lowest-common- denominator affair! There’s one of those on nearly every corner!  A committed  community is something altogether different.  If we are not different from the group down the street, why should we even exist?  What do we have to offer?  As one brother correctly remarked a couple weeks ago, that’s not what at least some of us want – OR , I would venture to add, not what the Lord wants, either!

The popular contemporary question, “Who is allowed to come to visit, and expect to be welcomed?” is completely irrelevant here.  That answer must always be “EVERYONE!” A group committed to the Lord Jesus – and to the purpose of faithfully representing his Kingdom – must ask a very different question instead: “Who can participate in decision making and policy determination?”  And the answer to THAT question is also different – both more and less restrictive – it must always be, “ALL, but ONLY those who are likewise committed!”

What is different about a group of Jesus’ committed followers when the veil is taken away?

There will – there must – still be leadership in the Kingdom.  But faithful leaders will take care that there be NO VEIL – no activity or decision that is not completely open before all, for in Christ,

THE VEIL IS TAKEN AWAY!!!  The agenda will not be set by the society around them, but by their study of the New Testament. Total openness, total honesty, the complete absence of any shred of secrecy or manipulation, and careful avoidance of any attribution of status or power to any individual, is the order of life in the new Kingdom..

Another safeguard which helped – and still helps –  to prevent any abuse of authority in a New Testament brotherhood is the consistent pattern that every “office”, task, or assignment is consistently spoken of in the plural.  In every city where a group of believers emerged, the apostles who had brought the message established local elders (plural) to supervise.  Ephesians 4:11 lists apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers – all plural – who are to facilitate and enable the ministries of “all the saints”.  And even a cursory review of that word reveals that “saints” consistently  refers, not to individuals of unusual powers or superior “holiness”, but to all the people of God!

Jesus himself has sharply defined the function of disciples, and strictly forbidden any honorary titles or positions.  He stated it very plainly:  “You have one Teacher, and you are all brethren.”  Different people may (and should) be entrusted with leading or supervising different aspects of life in the brotherhood, but NO INDIVIDUAL, and certainly NO HIERARCHICAL STRUCTURE, whether internal or external, is “in charge.”

In the New Testament church, (and this is yet another study we should undertake), the assignment of responsibilities happened in many different ways: group or individual initiative, a direct word from the Lord, the request of a group in need, general consensus, or simply someone being in the right place at the right time. The method of selection does not seem to have mattered.  But IN NO INSTANCE was a permanent, or even a temporary title conferred upon anyone.  JESUS HAD FORBIDDEN THAT!!!  Each was simply called to perform a necessary function, to address a specific need, at a specific time.  We had an excellent demonstration of this principle last week, when a spontaneous gathering of brethren discerned together an appropriate response to the concern that one brother had presented.

THE VEIL IS TAKEN AWAY!!!  The destruction and removal of the veil, whether of the temple, enabling the access of all the Lord’s people to his glorious presence, or the veil of Moses, eliminating the elevation of any individual above his brethren, makes abundantly clear that it is Jesus’ desire that ALL OF HIS PEOPLE not only “behold” his glory, but be transformed, together, to reflect it!  

I still think one of the best summaries I have ever heard was our brother Solomon’s, when he said simply,  “Jesus did not come to tell us how to think, but to show us how to live!”

Through his Holy Spirit, whom we will celebrate in a couple weeks at Pentecost, the Lord has chosen to speak TO all of us, THROUGH all of us, in order to accomplish that goal.

We now have no reason to be either intimidated by glory, nor ashamed of our humanity.  Our Lord has graciously made ample provision for both, by giving us himself and giving us each other.


Thanks be to God





The Most Difficult Assignment of All: “WAIT!!!”

April 18, 2021

         ”  Lk.24:36-49 and Acts1:1-8, (later: I Cor.1:6-10)

The gloom of Jesus’ crucifixion –which must have been a terrifying thing to the frightened disciples – had, on the third day, been gloriously shattered by news of his resurrection.  First dismissed as the overactive imagination of a few of the women, it was finally confirmed by the appearance of the risen Lord to various groups of the grieving disciples,  who had so recently been immobilized by mourning the loss of their beloved leader.  John gives the impression that these apparently random appearances continued for a period of several weeks.  Luke reports Jesus’ appearances to the entire group in a bit more detail than the other writers.  His account in Acts 1 speaks of 40 days during which Jesus provided them with a “graduate course” – which their question about the restoration of Israel makes it clear that they still needed! And many of us – probably MOST, or maybe ALL of us – still do need such a course of study!
“He said to them, “It is not yours to know times and seasons, which the Father has placed in his own authority.  But you will receive power, when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses, both in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and Samaria, and until the end of the earth!”
Why do so many of his people focus so much more on what he plainly said is NOT ours to know, — how and when everything will end —  than on our real mandate, to serve as witnesses that Jesus is presently alive and well?  But that assignment is a topic for another study, as is also an understanding of what a “witness” is and does.

Meanwhile, his instructions were simple and clear:   They were not to leave Jerusalem, but to WAIT for the Father’s promise.  No specific directions are included, no timetable.  Just “WAIT!”

What DO you do while you are waiting?  Jesus didn’t say.
This encounter was 40 days after the Resurrection, and 10 days before Pentecost, (but Jesus had not specified that date either), which event Jesus had just described as their being granted the power to be his “witnesses”  — his representatives or ambassadors –all over the world.
But what DO you do while you are waiting?  Jesus didn’t say. HE JUST SAID TO WAIT!
He did NOT say that Peter had better get things organized!  HE JUST SAID TO WAIT!!!
Luke isn’t much help either. First, he lists the group as “the women, Mary, the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.” Then, in verses 14 and 15, he notes that there were about 120 people, not just the remaining 11 who had been the inner circle of the disciple group.    That’s a lot of folks, most of whom are away from home, to feed and shelter for an uncertain amount of time!  But the only instruction was simply “WAIT!”

All Luke tells us is that they were “like-mindedly paying constant attention to prayer” – a good idea, to be sure — and
clearly, they were sleeping and eating somewhere – but then what?

It is no surprise that Peter – the fellow who jumped out of the boat trying to walk to Jesus on the sea,
who had actually seemed to be beginning to understand, on the mount of Transfiguration, but
whose bravado turned to cowardice in the courtyard during Jesus’ trial —
couldn’t manage to WAIT, but felt a strong need to “get things organized”.  He was an action-oriented sort of guy.
Luke doesn’t say this was wrong – or even just “out-of-order” — Peter’s speech (vv.15-26 ) is simply recorded: not critiqued; but not complimented, either.  He repeated the apparently common report of Judas’ treachery and death, and urged the group to replace him with a substitute – even quoting Old Testament scripture to justify his point!  (How often have you heard – or done — that?)

But notice a few things that are usually overlooked:
— “Casting lots” was Peter’s own idea: in neither the choice of a substitute disciple nor the method of that choosing does he claim to have been instructed by the Lord.
–Peter makes no reference to Jesus’ prior instructions to “Wait” for the Father’s promise of the Spirit.  Did he forget that?
–As far as we know, his idea of organizing is neither commended nor criticized.
— This is the only NT reference to Matthias.  We never hear of him again.
Due to the similarity of the Greek version of the names translated into English as “Matthew” and “Matthias”, which only differ in the placement of an iota, the smallest of Greek letters, some have guessed that they were accidentally different spellings of the same name, but v.13 had already listed Matthew as one of the original 12, so it is unlikely that “Matthias” is a misspelling of the name of the writer of the first gospel.  However, there is no subsequent mention of either name in the rest of the New Testament.
–As far as we know, neither the choice to replace Judas nor the procedure of a lot was either challenged or confirmed, but we do know that the whole affair took place BEFORE Pentecost, when Jesus’ promise of power and authority was fulfilled.

At any rate, the “divine” reaction to the addition of a less-than-active “replacement” to the disciple group was certainly more benign than an earlier record of God’s people “jumping the gun” on instructions to “wait”.
Do you remember what happened when Moses, under God’s direction, left the leadership of his people to his brother when he went up Mt. Sinai to receive “the Law”? 
The waiting crowd grew restless, and complained: (Ex.32:1)
“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they came to Aaron and said “Come, make us gods to go before us.  As for this Moses who brought us up from Egypt, we do not know what has become of him!”   They were JUST PLAIN TIRED OF WAITING!!!
The result was that the people turned to idolatry, creating and then worshipping a golden calf; they incurred the displeasure of the true God, and subsequently saw the destruction of both the idol and its worshippers!
By the mercy of God, at least the folks who couldn’t wait, in the Acts account, were only ignored, not destroyed.  One of many ways that “things are different now!” Jesus corrected many Old Testament regulations and practices

In the New Testament, the concept of “waiting” is represented by no less than 8 different Greek words, and they are not easily sorted out.  The one used in Ac.1:4 appears only once in the whole New Testament.  “Perimeno” could literally be translated “just hang around”!  Elsewhere, for example, Paul “waiting” for the arrival of his co-workers, a farmer “waiting” for his harvest, and simple politeness in “waiting” for one another at a church dinner, are all described by the same word as Jesus “waiting” for the final destruction of his opponents, and God delaying the execution of his judgment!  These have nothing in common but a reasonable expectation of their eventual fulfillment.
But a completely different word is used regarding our “waiting” for the consummation of the Kingdom, while yet a third – a group of similar words – just refers to any mundane sort of expectation.

So where does this leave us?  On this side of Pentecost, maybe our focus needs to be less on the idea of “waiting”, and more on what we should be doing while we are waiting!  Especially in view of the fact that well more than half of the New Testament uses of the term refer to Jesus’ final, complete triumph, for which even the most faithful and obedient of his followers are still waiting!

On a more mundane level, when the Lord gives one or more of his people a particular assignment, it frequently involves waiting!
Perhaps specific preparation is required.
Perhaps a group of the Lord’s choosing needs to be assembled and/or motivated.
Perhaps the time is not yet ripe.
It could even be that a person or group is simply not listening!
I have experienced all of these, and I expect some of you have, too.  It might be helpful if we shared such occasions.  When have you had to “wait”, and how did you manage it?  When were you unwilling to “wait”, and what happened then?

The waiting group in Acts 1 with whom we began, spent some of their time “organizing” – which was NOT part of their instructions, as well as “paying constant attention to prayer”, which WAS.
The idea of “waiting” comes up repeatedly in the rest of the New Testament, in both narrative accounts and epistles.
For example, look at Paul’s instructions in I Cor.1:6-9 (read).

“The testimony of Christ has been established among you, so that you all are not lacking in any spiritual provision AS YOU ARE WAITING for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.  He will also establish you all until the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.   GOD IS FAITHFUL!  It’s through HIM that you all were CALLED INTO THE COMMUNITY OF HIS SON, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

 It is while “waiting” for the revelation of Christ that his people are (present tense) being “enriched with understanding” and that the testimony of Christ is being “established” among them, so that they “lack no spiritual provision.”  That is also when (and why) we/they are “called into the community of the Son of God,” to be “prepared for his coming.”
Please notice:
–Every one of the appearances of the word “you” in this passage is PLURAL!!!  Paul is not writing to individuals but to the GROUP!       AS A GROUP!!
–It is WHILE they are WAITING, together, that Jesus’ testimony is established among his people
–It is the GROUP that “lacks no spiritual provision”!  We as lonely individuals often lack such provisions!
–we are ALL CALLED into the community of the Son of God, to be prepared for his coming!
Jesus’ Kingdom does not consist of “Lone Rangers”!
The Lord’s faithful people desperately NEED that community in order to wait – or act – faithfully!

Many years later, Peter – remember the guy who earlier could not wait to get organized – wrote to a group that was under severe persecution, reassuring them that their longed-for deliverance WILL come, and urging them to live together faithfully in the peace and justice for which they are still WAITING. His two letters are filled with admonitions to WAIT FAITHFULLY TOGETHER for the Lord’s coming.
(Please notice that Peter was not operating under the modern delusion that one needs government legislation or permission to live faithfully!  Neither does he advocate demanding faithful behavior of the uncommitted.)
 Followers of Jesus are subject to DIFFERENT standards, because we are citizens of a DIFFERENT kingdom.  Although we are instructed to teach one another of our Lord’s ways, we are NOT called to impose those standards upon the uncommitted.

We are no longer “waiting” for the original coming of the Holy Spirit, our teacher and guide. He is presently active among his people!
But is it not possible that the record of our earliest brethren learning to wait is intended as a “practice session” in which we, too, are expected to learn faithfully, TOGETHER, to “WAIT” for our Lord’s instructions, as well as for the final consummation of his Kingdom?

As we learn to WAIT together, following the example of those earliest brethren, in prayer, in becoming a community, learning to cultivate the Spirit’s fruit, and FOLLOWING INSTRUCTIONS, may we help each other to wait faithfully!

“We Have Come to Worship Him

December 27, 2020

                                 GMF Dec.27, 2020     Mt.1-12, Jn.4:19-24, 39-42

Most people who have been “exposed” to the “virus” of what passes for “Christian” teaching around this season could quote the “story” of the “wise men” almost word for word.

We are learning more than we ever wanted to know about “exposure” to a “virus” in these days, and it may seem strange to you to connect that with what has become known as the “Christmas story”.  But consider for a moment the varied common reactions to the present pandemic. 
Some folks consider it a fabrication to be ignored.
Some are terribly frightened, and go into a panic mode.
Some take it seriously, and order their lives accordingly.
Is that not an odd parallel to the varied reactions one sees to much New Testament teaching?
There is even a parallel to the “vaccination” situation, in which a “light dose “can keep you from getting “the real thing”!   “Just raise your hand!!”  or “Walk down the aisle!” to join the “in-group” and escape dire consequences!

Matthew’s account does not include much detail.  He simply introduces the arrival of “Magi” – although the only other NT uses of the word magos refer to false prophets and “sorcerers” (note the similarity to the word “magic”) — as being “from the East” – an area known for occult practices.  So these were probably astrologers — they were “following a star”.  That is what astrologers do.  The classical lexicon describes them as “the priests and wise men in Persia who interpreted dreams; an enchanter or wizard.”
Through the intervening centuries, legends have added names, ethnicities, and personalities that never appear in the Biblical text.  The idea that there were three men probably came from the listing of three gifts, although the wealth required for such lavish gifts would imply an entourage of servants, as well.
But their motivation for this trip, by their own testimony, is simply “We have come to worship him!” 
What did they have in mind?

I don’t know how many printed cards or form-letters we have received, over the years, from all varieties of “churches” that we have visited, bearing some variation of this standard message:
      “We were delighted to have you worship with us today. 
       We hope you enjoyed the service, and that your needs  were met. 
      Our church offers many exciting programs for all ages.
      Please do not hesitate to call on us for your pastoral needs.
      We hope to see you again soon.”

Such drivel is immediately consigned to our recycle bin.  Yet another group has demonstrated its total ignorance of
(1) what “worship” is about,
(2) what “church” is about, and
(3) how easy it is to identify phony “hospitality”.
 Whether they loudly thump their Bibles, quoting chapter and verse, or scarcely open its pages at all, does not seem to make any difference!  Although their stated agendas may label themselves “welcoming, accepting, liberal”   (translation:  “You can do (or be) whatever you please –anything goes here!”) or “conservative, faithful, Bible-believing” (translation:  “You gotta behave (and/or think) MY way!”), their attitudes are identical.  Jesus (not surprisingly) said it best:  (Mt.15:9, Mk.7:7), “Your worship of me is empty;   you are teaching as ‘doctrines’ the commandments of (mere) men!”

We may be forgiven for imperfectly understanding the concept of “worship”.  The English word has, after all, been used to translate no less than a dozen different Greek words – NONE of which, however, makes any reference to sitting in the audience of a lecture (scholarly or otherwise), a political speech (of whatever persuasion), or a professional concert (vocal or instrumental , classical, “traditional”, country, “gospel”, rock, rap, or anything in between)!  None of them provide any clue to what sort of “needs” are supposedly to be addressed.  “Enjoyment” is likewise totally absent.
Because, to put it most simply, “worship” is not about you or me, either our “needs” or our “enjoyment”!

 It is about the OBJECT of our devotion!
When the Magi spent weeks or months, or perhaps even years making their way across hostile deserts to “worship” before the King they had sought, do you really think their aim was to acquire some sort of a “warm fuzzy feeling”?  I doubt it. Their tenacity and subsequent openness to guidance reveals rather a DELIBERATE EXPRESSION OF FEALTY TO AN ACKNOWLEDGED SUPERIOR!

That, incidentally, is also precisely the “pledge of allegiance” that Satan demanded of Jesus, using the same word, in the temptation accounts (Mt.4:9-10 and Lk.4:7-8), and what Jesus flatly refused to give, with his unequivocal reply that one’s allegiance is due only to God!

Much creativity has also been propagated regarding the supposed “significance” of the gifts the Magi are said to have brought along, none of which seem really appropriate for a standard “baby shower”.  Centuries of interpreters have put out complicated theories about the esoteric or prophetic significance of “gold, frankincense, and myrrh,” and neither we nor they have any evidence to either support or reject what may well be mere flights of fancy.  One very simple possible explanation has been universally overlooked.  All of these items were highly valued, very expensive, and most importantly, VERY PORTABLE (a small quantity had enormous value.)  Not only had the Magi themselves travelled a great distance, but the little family was about to undertake a long journey into Egypt, where they sought for protection from Herod’s jealous rage.  Might this choice of gifts have simply been God’s very practical provision for their practical physical needs?

Sometimes “foreigners” can see things that “locals” can’t. (The local folks weren’t looking for stars!)
Sometimes, too, caring people can unknowingly provide for needs of which they, or even the beneficiaries, are unaware.   The perspective contributed by committed people of varied backgrounds and experience can have tremendous value.

In the interest of time, we will pass over the detour to Jerusalem (where one would have logically expected a King to be) and Herod’s tragic duplicity.  Suffice it to notice that AFTER THEY HAD WORSHIPED, the Magi did NOT return to Herod as he had ordered them, but took another route home, in obedience to a dream, which they understood to be divine instructions.

Of the multiplicity of Greek words translated “worship”, most appear in the New Testament only a few times, with varied
“flavors”.  By far the most frequent is proskuneo, which ALWAYS appears in the ACTIVE form, never passive:  It refers to deliberate ACTION, not observation.  This is another place where the observation made by Solomon last week regarding both “hope” and “contentment” being ACTIVE words is vital.  Worship was never intended to be a spectator sport.  Although a form of proskuneo is also simply a formal greeting, it usually represented bowing in respect to a superior, submission to political conquerors (for which the common societal alternative was often execution!), or of people begging for Jesus’ attention and healing, and their gratitude for his touch.  Worship is going on all the time, in the Revelation, in the joyful scenes around the throne, celebrating Jesus’ final victory.

Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well in Samaria –another foreigner – (The New Testament is much kinder to “foreigners” than are many churches!) — casts more light on the subject of worship.  It is by far the longest discussion in the New Testament that repeatedly uses the word “worship”.  After she recognized that Jesus had more than the ordinary gossip/knowledge of her immoral lifestyle, the woman decided he must be a “prophet”, and changed the subject to the accustomed geographical notion of “worship.”  ( It is not unusual to try to conceal a moral failure with a theological argument!)   Jesus gently corrected that idea, and explained that “worship” has nothing whatever to do with geography, but only with the attitude of the worshipper – the INTENT and CONTENT of the worship – “in spirit and in truth.”  In other places, worship is mentioned as a response to Jesus’ healings, and various forms of obedience to his instructions. 

Too often, that Samaritan story is told with the omission of its RESULTS!  The rest of the story, in vv.39-42, describes the “many from that Samaritan city” who “became faithful” because of the woman’s testimony, and Jesus’ subsequently staying and teaching there for a couple more days!  This is the response reasonably to be expected of genuine worship!

One more original word also needs attention:  It appears only in James’ letter.  Perhaps James was there, in Samaria years before, and had witnessed that encounter:  he does not say.  He uses the word, threskia  , which is only once translated “worship”, against three times “religion” – when he declares (Jas.1:26,27) that “Religion/worship that does not extend to caring for the needy is utterly USELESS!” – Even phony! This practical caring is presented, not as the cause, or even the content, but as the EFFECT or EVIDENCE of genuine worship!

A cursory survey like this cannot possibly produce a neat definition of as far-reaching a term as “worship”.  That is the assignment of a lifetime!  One can, nevertheless, glean an assortment of elements that MUST BE INCLUDED in such a definition:

*Worship may involve either a single individual (Mt.8:2, 9:18), or a group assembled for that purpose (Rv.4:10)
*The focus is on the one who is worshipped, not the worshiper.  (Jn.4:23, Heb.1:6, Rev.15:4)
*Location is altogether irrelevant (Jn.4:21)
*Worship is the appropriate response of gratitude for being included in Jesus’ Kingdom (Heb.2:28)
*NO faithful messenger of God – human or supernatural — will ever accept any hint of worship directed toward himself (Rev.19:10)  The faithful do not “bow down” before anyone or anything but their one true Sovereign!

“Enjoyment?”  “Exciting programs?”  “Pastoral needs?”   I don’t think so.

The barest beginning of an understanding of genuine Christian worship might be simply:

     To declare our admiration, devotion, and absolute allegiance to our King, and
     to report for duty in his service –
 Either one without the other is empty.

May we help each other to learn faithfully to worship! It may well occupy the rest of our lives!

“Following Jesus”

August 19, 2020

“Following Jesus”

I asked the congregation the previous week, to look up Jesus’ invitations to prospective “followers.”
They found many:  as expected, mostly folks were called to “follow”, and asked to “be with him”, and to copy his own work.

Assignment:  Look at all 4 Gospels, and notice:
1. How did Jesus call people?
2. What did he ask of them?
3. What did he offer them?
Compare these findings with “invitations” you have heard

When I first heard Ben speaking of “Jesus-followers” among the folks with whom he grew up in Mali, I thought it sounded rather strange.  I wondered if there was some reason why they were not simply called “Christians” or “believers”, as most “missionaries” would have termed them.  (I’d still be curious, Ben. Was this a deliberate choice?  I hope so!)
Because on closer examination of the Gospels, I became increasingly convinced that his label was indeed the preferable choice.  Why?  Simply because the attainment of those other labels is usually assigned to folks who have simply “signed on the dotted line” and “joined the club” advertised by their preachers, and has very little to do  with the Kingdom living – the deliberately changed way of life — of which Jesus spoke and which he demonstrated.

Now, that statement may sound too extreme for many, if not most of you.  But what have you found JESUS saying, when he called people? And how does that compare with what passes today for “evangelism”?  Did you find a single context where JESUS greeted folks – other than the self-satisfied scribes and Pharisees — with threats of dire “eternal” consequences?  Did you find any occasion when he handed his hearers a list of “doctrines” to which they must subscribe or be “forever lost”?  Even on the few occasions when Jesus used the (modernly overworked) word “believe”, its direct object is simply “me”, and not “this or that ABOUT me”.  His most usual invitation is graciously beautiful in its simplicity:  “Come and see!”  and “Follow me”!

This study should really be undertaken in tandem with another on “following instructions”, but that requires another study, which would be aimed at those already committed.  Here, we are simply concerned with folks who are CONSIDERING faithfulness, which simply intends “personal loyalty”.  Loyalty to Jesus and his Kingdom is all that he ever asked of anyone.

Of the 90 New Testament appearances of akoloutheo (follow), more than 60 refer simply to physical accompaniment, whether by curious crowds or loyal disciples.  Many who responded to the call to “follow” Jesus did accompany him on his travels.  But “followers” were also deputized to extend his work.  The word sometimes appears with one of five different prefixes, each of which implies various levels of commitment.
“Following” became an apprenticeship for the task of continuing Jesus’ work after his departure.  His beautiful description of the relationship of sheep and shepherd, detailed in John 10, includes trusting obedience on our part, and intimate, loving, protective care on his.  (You can find a more detailed treatment of this in the Word Study #101 on my web site if you wish.

Those who accepted Jesus’ call to “Follow” became known as “disciples”.  This was not an unusual phenomenon in the first century.  Even 300-500 years earlier, itinerant teachers had gathered around themselves groups of “disciples” with whom they shared philosophical and scientific teaching.  The New Testament speaks of “disciples” of both John the Baptist and the Pharisees.  It is not always obvious to whom the term applies.  Even when it is specifically referencing followers of Jesus, it may describe curious crowds, the twelve “apostles”, or an inner group, larger than the twelve, but more devoted than the crowds, who occasionally served as assistants as in (Jn.6:66).  Calling a person a “disciple” was used in a manner similar to what might today be called a student, or student-assistant, although if a deeper level of commitment is intended, a word like “believer” might have been used.

Jesus’ own teaching about being a “disciple” appears much more restrictive and deliberate, regarding that label as taking priority over all other loyalties (Lk.14:26-27).  The goal Jesus sets for discipleship is clear: “to become like one’s teacher”! (Lk.6:40 and Mt.10:24)
Jesus also specifies that it is necessary to “continue (live, persist) in my word” in order to be a disciple (Jn.8:31), to be readily identifiable by outsiders (Jn.13:35) who observe their mutual love, and to be a fruitful branch of the Vine (Jn.15:8).  Whatever else may be implied here, and each could well become its own topic for study, it certainly includes a mutual, continuous effort in reflection of Jesus’ own life and personality.  Check out the early church uses of the word in Word Study #51.
The epistles are frequently addressed to “disciples”, as well.  “Are there still disciples?” as one reader asked plaintively.  Yes, thank God!  And there always will be, as long as some of us continue to seek for faithfulness to Jesus.

But once that choice has been made, one realizes that “following” assumes that one is GOING SOMEWHERE!!!  Where are we going, and how shall we get there?  Haven’t we all occasionally asked in puzzlement, along with Thomas and Philip (Jn.14), “If we don’t know where you are going, how can we get there?  “
Jesus makes it abundantly clear that the goal is only PARTLY about one’s destination (or “destiny”), unlike the assumptions of those who are only – or even just primarily – concerned about “getting into heaven”.
Realizing that they have totally missed the point, Jesus replies, “I AM the Way!”  “It’s not about where you are going, Tom.  It’s about STICKING WITH ME!”  And “Phil, open your eyes and LOOK!  All that I AM, all I’ve been doing, shows you the Father!”  The critical key to the whole discussion is Jesus’ use of “I AM”.  This statement asserted his total unity with the true God of all ages and cultures! This should be yet another careful study, and is detailed in my Word Study #17.
The point he is trying to make, for them and for us, is that Jesus himself is not only the Leader, provider, and Guide, but also both the journey and the goal!

And to this end, Jesus makes use of a very ordinary word, in an extraordinary way.  That very ordinary word is “the WAY”.

The Greek word, “hodos” appears 83 times in the New Testament.  Classically, it was used in three ways: Of PLACE – a road or highway, or the course of a river; of ACTION – a trip, journey or sea voyage; and METAPHORICALLY – of one’s culture, manner of life, or intent.  Most significant here is the latter usage. Jesus had told them clearly, “You all know the way where I am going,” and simply “I AM the Way!”

Not only had they been watching and participating in Jesus’ ”way of life” and conduct for the past three years, but he had continually been trying to prepare them for what lay ahead.  Although he had warned them repeatedly of the coming trauma of his rejection by the very folks who should have welcomed him, this was NOT the focus of their final hours together!  Rather, it was the BENEFIT that would accrue PRESENTLY for faithful disciples as a result of his “going to the Father who sent me”, and the enabling they would consequently receive from the Holy Spirit, to CONTINUE FOLLOWING the Way he had showed them – IN LIFE, not simply “after death”.

This, I am convinced, is among the primary reasons why subsequent followers of Jesus became known as “people of the Way”.  This designation appears throughout the book of Acts, used even by their persecutors!  This new movement was a NEW WAY OF LIVING, not just a “new religion “of “strange gods” as the philosophers at the Areopagos assumed.  The Greek “thinkers” reveled in the polytheism that surrounded them, and always had room for one more deity, in order not to offend one they might have missed!

It was TRANSFORMED LIVES, subject only to an authority much higher than that of their emperor, that they could not handle.
And that is an accurate description of “The Way”.  There is more on this “label” in Word Study #102.

To “follow” the Lord Jesus, is to continue along “the Way” that he taught and demonstrated, in his company and according to his instructions, toward complete unity with him and his Father —   TOGETHER with everyone else he has called!

Thanks be to God!

How are we supposed to “do” Church?   (I Cor.12:4-31 and 14:26-31)

May 10, 2020


The two scripture portions that were read this morning from Paul’s letter to the folks at Corinth provide rough outlines of the apostle Paul’s “recommended” agenda for meetings of people committed to serve each other in what has become popularly known as a “church”.

I’d like to begin with a very sincere compliment.  I think that you folks here at GMF have done a much better job than most groups, at following the Biblical instructions.   Unlike most groups, who have chosen to hire one person to be “in charge,” and to do all the teaching, preaching, and other assorted “leadership” functions, you have passed around those responsibilities.  Looking over the last list that we received, I see that we have included Ben, John Bender, John Storm, Solomon, Dave, and Aaron in the last quarter, to share their insight with us.  If you look back a little farther, you will find that Tami, Keith, and Ruth have also been included, as has an occasional outside guest. But where are the rest?  Although many of you willingly assume other responsibilities, and do it very well, what have we missed, by not hearing from Shirley, Dana, Sharon, Mildred, Brenda, Abeba, Anita, and some of our newer folks?  I Cor.14 expressly states that EVERYONE has something worth sharing!  Count the uses of “all”, “every,” and “each”!  V.7  reminds us “The revelation of the Spirit is given by means of each one, for everyone’s benefit!”

Some groups think they have “remedied” their situation by substituting women for men in “leadership” positions.  But that is really not a solution.  As Tony Campolo observed years ago, “It may well be true that the church has suffered for 2000 years from the domination and dictatorship of thousands of arrogant, overbearing males.  But replacing them with an equal number of arrogant overbearing females does not solve anything!” Neither condition is the picture described in Paul’s letter, nor in Scripture as a whole. I Cor. 14:31 could not be more clear:  “You can ALL speak for God (the literal meaning of “prophesy”), one at a time, so that ALL may learn and ALL may be encouraged! “  Is there anyone among us that does not need to learn or to be encouraged?

I recommend to you a very interesting and revealing “Mother’s day” exercise.  Scan through the Gospels, and you will find (as I did) that whole families were involved with Jesus from the very beginning.
Both fathers and mothers brought their sons or daughters to Jesus for healing.
In the crowds that followed Jesus and were fed, the men were counted, but women and children are also deliberately included in the record on both occasions.  (Maybe the kids were running around, as kids do, and the women were too busy trying to catch them, to be accurately counted!  I can believe that – I had four small boys!)
A group of faithful women traveled around with the disciple group “supplying their needs out of their own means.”  (Luke 8)  These ladies must have had their own independently wealthy resources!
A group of women was present at the crucifixion, at the resurrection, and at Pentecost.
Mary and Martha are mentioned frequently – not only in the event with their brother Lazarus
Jesus specifically interacted even with foreigners:  a Samaritan woman at the well (Jn.4),  a Canaanite woman (Mt.15), a Greek woman (Mk.7), a group of women (Lk.8) who had been healed, and many were noted frequently as having been in the crowd.
The disciple group was no exclusive men’s club!  Women are mentioned as meeting with the other disciples both before and after Pentecost.  (Ac.1 and 2).  Their presence may well have been counter-cultural for Jewish folks, Romans, and Greeks, but it was not rare among Jesus’ followers!
There is even sharper contrast with the pagan world. In both Roman and Greek societies, in “religious” contexts, women served primarily as temple prostitutes, and occasionally as fortune-tellers or “oracles”.
Not so among followers of Jesus!
*A husband and wife, Priscilla and Aquila, hosted church groups in their home in several locations, (Corinth and Ephesus, Ac.18), travelled with Paul several times, and together, they straightened out Apollos, who had been teaching an incomplete message.
It is acknowledged that things were not always “all sweetness and light”!
*Ananias and Sapphira were both held responsible for their deception of the brotherhood. (Ac.5)
*Saul arrested both men and women “followers of the Way” before his conversion (Ac.9) in Damascus.
*Dorcas/Tabitha, (probably the only one who would “fit” in with today’s “women’s groups”) led a sewing circle (Ac.9)!
*Mark’s mother (Ac.12) and Timothy’s mother Ac.16) both hosted congregations in their homes.
*A wealthy businesswoman, Lydia, hosted the group in Philippi (Ac.16)
*“Prominent, godly women” hosted churches in Thessalonica, Berea, and Athens (Ac.17)
*Philip’s four daughters were known for their prophesies (Ac.21)
*Phoebe, apparently a deaconess, carried a letter for Paul to Rome.
*In Paul’s letters, at least 14 women’s names appear in greetings.
This was the CONTEXT in which these accounts were written!

It is the pattern of “religions” – Jewish, pagan and otherwise – even many who call themselves “Christian” — to codify elaborate theologies and customs, in which they designate and elevate to high status certain individuals who specialize in keeping the system and its adherents in proper order.  Because they consider that the proper ritual, properly performed by a properly qualified individual, will have desired, predictable results, and provide to the observers some sort of benefit from their gods, the exalted status of an ecclesiastical hierarchy is deemed necessary. The word “hierarchy” is derived from two Greek words: “hierus” (priest) and “arche” (ruler).  (Does this describe or require a need for local, national, or conference officials?) It might, on a social level, but that sort of a system bears no resemblance whatever to the instructions of Jesus concerning leadership in his Kingdom.  He is quoted in Mt.23:8-12, and Mk.9:35 directing quite explicitly, that positions of hierarchy are NOT acceptable among his people.  The grace of God is indeed mediated to people through people, but it is through the gathered group of believers that God’s purposes are revealed!!!  I Cor.14:26 declares that “EACH ONE has…” something important to contribute

IF YOU HAVE COMMTTED YOUR LIFE TO THE LORD JESUS, THEN YOU ARE ONE OF HIS DESIGNATED MEDIATORS!!!  You may forget everything else that I have said today, but remember this!  (repeat)  If your contribution is not heard, we are all poorer for its lack!

Paul’s instructions to the folks in Corinth need to be viewed in this context.
The primary concern there, as in his other letters, is for right relationships in the Body of Christ, which is the local expression of Jesus’ Kingdom.   Although the passage in the beginning of I Cor.11 has traditionally been viewed as “ammunition” for the imposition of hierarchical status among the members of the Body, and loudly touted to exclude the participation of women, such a conclusion is diametrically opposed to the relationships that are actually advocated!  Careful examination of the text reveals exactly the opposite!
What is Paul saying, when he declares, “I want you all to know that Christ is the head of every man, the husband is the head of the wife, and God is the head of Christ!”?    This is not a stair-step of descending hierarchy.  It is CIRCULAR – beginning and ending with “Christ”!   Paul is holding up the relationship between the Lord Jesus and the Father, as the model for that between husbands and wives, and between Christ and his people!
The Lord intends that his people see, in his absolute unity with the Father, (which by the way, was why they wanted him killed), the pattern for our own lives!  The Father and Son were each totally committed to the purposes, the welfare, and the glory of each other!  They were both totally dedicated to the same goal – the establishment of the Kingdom!
This is the pattern for leadership that we brethren (say “siblings” if you prefer) are expected to exercise in our life as Kingdom citizens!    Like the Father and Son, our commitment to each other is expected to be complete, of single focus, inviolable, and utterly joyful!  This is the meaning of the “headship” that Kingdom citizens are expected to observe!

More specifically, among both Jewish and pagan religionists, a prophet was a cut above the average citizen.  Prophesying was done only by individuals specifically set aside as spokesmen for their god!  Do you see, then, how revolutionary it was when Paul spoke of “every man” praying and prophesying?  Just as revolutionary as it would be today!   And as if that was not enough, he goes on to extend this same responsibility to “every woman”!  In pagan worship, remember, the function of women was usually prostitution!  The call (in v.5) for modest attire is in sharp contrast to female participants in pagan “worship” wearing little or nothing!  And the inclusion of women in prayer and prophecy is also in sharp contrast to Jewish women, who were summarily excluded from even entering the “holy” parts of the temple!  The women of the disciple group are being lifted up, not put down!!!

This is not an isolated principle.  It is intimately connected with one’s whole understanding of the Body of Christ!  It is not male-female roles that are at the root of most of the difficulty among the people of God.  The real problem lies in our refusal to learn that there is no place for ANY kind of status among us!  We do have many different functions, as was read in I Cor.12.  But “when we all come together”, EACH ONE, according to I Cor.14, is to contribute to the edifying! In Christ, everyone is assumed to have a unique, valuable, and necessary contribution to make to the Kingdom!  We need each other equally. And don’t forget the other half of the admonition – the “safety valve”: “The others must EVALUATE what is said!” (v.29)  Have you ever seen that happen?

This, then, is the message that sets the stage for Paul’s instructions regarding participation in the life of a congregation.  The call is for mutual participation, respect, and order, exercised in the freedom with which the people of God have been entrusted, “so that all may learn, and all be encouraged.”

Let’s continue to give it our very best try!
Thanks be to God!


An interesting congregational exercise: “Why did Jesus come?”

February 24, 2020

This is not the usual posting that I have made after having had the privilege to share with our little congregation.   I decided to try an experiment, which I highly recommend to any of you who may find yourselves in a similar situation.

The week before, I assigned”‘homework” for the group.  Here is a copy of the assignment:

“There are plenty of people who are ready and eager to tell you “Why Jesus came”.
It is not always clear where they got their information.  Some are quite faithful to his message, and others much less so.  How do you decide which ones to accept?
By far the best authority on that subject is Jesus himself.
This is not in any way to disparage the Biblical writers, or anyone else, but in order to represent Jesus faithfully, we need to be familiar with his own words.
Please find some time this week to look carefully through at least one of the Gospel accounts, and make a list of the direct quotes from Jesus himself on this subject.  It would be good if couples or family units would each use a different Gospel account.
The things you are looking for may be introduced by such phrases as:
“This is why…”
“I have come because…”
“In order that…” or “in order to …”
“So that…”
or just simply “to” or “for”.
You may be surprised at what is or is not included.
Please be ready to share what you find.”

I was not at all sure how many folks would try this exercise, but was delighted with the response.    Here is a summary of what they contributed:

To preach in the next towns  Lk.4:43
To do my Father’s business Lk.2:49
To do the will of the Father Jn.6:38
To bear witness to the truth (before Pilate) Jn.18:5-8
To preach the Kingdom of God Lk.4:42
Not to call righteous, but “sinners”  Mt.9:13, Mk.k2:17, Mk.5:31
To give my life a ransom Mk.10:44  (although the respondent had expected him to say “sacrifice”)
To set the oppressed free Lk.4:18
To set prisoners free Lk.7:22
To seek and to save the lost Jn.19:10
Not to bring peace but division  Mt.10:35, Lk.12:51
Draw all people to myself Jn.12:27-33
Recovery of sight to the blind Lk.4:23
Not to be served, but to serve  Mt.20:28, Lk.22:29
To proclaim the Kingdom Lk.4:43
For judgment – to sort out those who admitted need  Jn.9:38-39, Mt.12:18
That everything about me will be fulfilled – in Law, prophets and psalms  Lk.24:44, Lk.4:18-19
Not to abolish law and prophets, but to fulfill  Mt.5:17
To fulfill Law  Jn.15:22
To make the Father  known to people Jn.17:25

“I AM” statements  (note:  there are many more)
Bread for life of the world Jn.6:51
Light of the world Jn.8:12
Good shepherd Jn.10
The way, the truth, and the Life Jn.14:6
“Don’t be afraid– I AM” Mk. 6:50,14:61

He HAS power ON EARTH to forgive sins Mk.2:10, Mt.9:5, Lk.5:24  (notice the present tense!)
Everything is handed over to Jesus by the Father Mt.11:27
(Jesus) brought glory to the Father by following his instructions Jn.17:4
Must suffer, be rejected and be raised Lk.9:22
There is tribulation in the world, but “I have overcome” the world Jn.16.33
I will come back and take you where I AM  Jn.14:3
I will send the Spirit  Jn.16:7
The Kingdom HAS ARRIVED  Mk.1:15  (at the BEGINNING of his ministry!)


As you can see, any one of these would make a “sermon” topic by itself.  Perhaps sometime it will.  The important thing for this session was to allow folks to see that many things that are usually overlooked were important enough for Jesus to emphasize them — and many ideas that are usually “preached”  were not on his expressed agenda at all.  It will be interesting to see if any of these are followed-up!  (In our little group, we take turns with a message.)

I highly commend this exercise to any of you.


“Who is your Brother?

September 22, 2019

Who is My Brother?

Sept. 22. 2019

Scriptures:  Mt.18:15-22, Mt.23:8-12, I Thess.5:11-24

We have recently had very excellent messages on the subjects of “neighbors” and “enemies”, and it would be good to take seriously the challenging conclusion that our assignment with respect to BOTH, if we aim to follow Jesus’ instructions, is actively  to love and serve them BOTH.
This similarity of responsibility renders quite irrelevant  the difficult challenge of deciding which is which, despite the pressure of our surrounding society to categorize nations, groups, or individuals with one or the other of those labels.  Please note that even when the New Testament refers to the destruction of those who choose to oppose Jesus and his Kingdom, that destruction is clearly an act of God – not an assignment delegated to any person, group, or civil authority.

There are two other classes of people, however, to which Scripture also refers: friends, and brothers.
Two Greek words are traditionally translated “friends”, the label chosen by our Quaker neighbors.  One refers primarily to political partisans (like Pilate and Herod), casual companions (children at play), or complaining workers and their boss (in a parable).  The other is an occasional synonym for “neighbors”, family members, or cordial companions.  I think the most significant observation regarding either of these terms is their almost complete disappearance in the New Testament after Pentecost!
After that time, the faithful consistently referred to each other as “brother”, although Jesus himself had started it.  All the synoptic gospels include the scene where he defines his “family” as “those who do the will of God.” (Mt.12:46-50, Mk.3:31-35, Lk.8:19-20) .The word does also still apply to physical family relationships, but from the time when Ananias addressed the newly-enlightened Saul as “Brother”, that was the term of choice among fellow-disciples.
Please remember that, as in many other languages, all nouns have gender, which simply governs the grammatical structure of the word.  (In Greek, for example, “hand” is a feminine word, and “leg” is masculine, regardless of the gender of its possessor.) The masculine gender of the noun adelphos  “brother”  does NOT intend to express the preferential treatment of males, although a feminine form is used when referring specifically to a particular woman.  The lexical point in the use of adelphos is an entirely different level of relationship among people committed to Jesus and his Kingdom.  Modern “translations” changing the term to “friends” in an effort to sound “inclusive” actually do violence to the text.  “Friends” is a much less challenging word.

This usage is not unique to the Christian community:  it is also used of other religious or military associates, and Peter, Paul, and Stephen even used it (in an ethnic sense) to address their hostile Jewish persecutors. However, the vast majority of the New Testament uses refer to committed fellow-disciples.

So, in the words of our favorite teacher, if you did your “homework”, “What did you find?”  Who is your brother?

(Members of the congregation suggested many of the descriptions represented here.)

Except for direct address, the word adelphos is more frequently used in the plural than in the singular.  The instructions in the epistles are addressed to “the brothers at —“(or “the saints at —“, which is always plural – another word worthy of study). The frequent address to “saints and faithful brethren” does not describe two categories of people, but applies two labels to the same groupFaithfulness is a group effort, not the achievement of a lonely hermit on a mountaintop.  Deliberate error or accidental wandering is to be called to attention and corrected by the group, not by some sort of “superiors.”  Jesus’ own instructions in Matthew 18 are an excellent example.  The oldest manuscripts do not include the phrase “against you”, and consequently the reference is to any error on the part of a brother.   Since our language does not distinguish between singular and plural forms of “you”, we fail to recognize that the “you” in v.15 and 16 is singular, but v.17 and 18 are plural.  Consequently, English speaking readers do not realize that the instructions for correction are aimed at the group –the whole local brotherhood — and not a clerical or legal authority!  Notice also that verses 18-20 are NOT a license for judgment, but an assignment for discernment of “what has (already) been decided in heaven”!

Remember that ALL of the epistles – of Paul, Peter, James and John – (except for personal notes to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon)—were written NOT as evangelistic tracts or official assignments, but as instructions for the corporate life to which the recipients –“the brethren” — were already committed.  This makes a HUGE difference in understanding those instructions.  They are addressed to the entire body of folks within the fellowship!
They were never intended to be imposed as laws or rules for society at large. People committed to be citizens of the Kingdom of Jesus are intended to operate differently from their surrounding culture!

Many, if not most, “Christian” groups go off the track toward one extreme or the other:  either, on the one hand,
1. Making political, legal and/or behavioral demands of people who are NOT committed to Kingdom-style brotherhood, or on the other, 2. Being hesitant, unwilling, or afraid to hold each other accountable to the New Testament.

We need to realize that the culture in which we live bears much greater similarity to the oppressive and licentious first-century Roman Empire than we like to admit — and 2000 years later, faithfulness to the standard described in the New Testament still requires greater departure from “accepted norms” than most folks are willing to recognize.

This is obvious in I Corinthians 5 and 6 – a subject much too large for inclusion here, except to note that all the instructions are plural –to the committed brotherhood,  not to any individual, and that the subject of intimate behavior is not infrequent in the epistles.  The point here is
1.  Paul expresses shock that behavior that “even the pagans” would not approve, is being condoned, and strongly urges correction.
2. He later (II Cor.2) commends the group for the success of their adoption of his suggested discipline
3. and urges that the repentant individual be restored and welcomed back into the fellowship.
It is assumed that within a faithful community, different standards apply.

The world hasn’t changed much, has it? And Jesus’ people are still called to support each other in a different way of life.

From the very early years, this has been a challenge.  As the message of Jesus’ Kingdom spread and folks of Gentile background and culture responded to it, a need was perceived to indoctrinate them into all the technicalities of the Jewish Law.  (A possible parallel to the present-day requirement of a “statement of doctrine”?)  The “conference” assembled at Jerusalem included, according to Acts 15, (v.4) “the church, and the apostles, and elders.”  A heated discussion ensued, and the (plural) apostles and elders made suggestions to the larger group.  The result was a response in a letter which detailed that “having come to one mind,” the apostles, elders, and the whole church had agreed that only those things associated with the Gentiles’ former idolatry needed to be addressed:  “blood, strangled things, and perversion,” adding, “if you keep yourselves from these things, you will do well.” (v.29).
Notice that this was not a decree from a hierarchy.  It was a conclusion reached “after the multitude had stopped arguing and listened” (v.12), and affirmed, “It seemed right to the apostles and elders and the whole church.”(v.22)
And (v.31) the letter was received “with great joy!”

The instructions to the congregation at Thessalonica are all likewise addressed in the plural.
It would be interesting (and a healthy exercise) to examine more closely each of the situations in the New Testament where differences had to be settled – and there were many!  Recognized leaders indeed facilitated some (not all) of them, but they themselves were also subject to correction.  See the encounter between Peter and Paul in Galatians 2.

It is true that Peter initiated the idea in Ac.1 to replace Judas with Matthias – but then we never hear of him again.
When people were needed to care for the indigent, (Acts 6), the apostles passed the responsibility for choosing them back to the folks who had perceived the need.
When Agabus, who had a reputation for responsible prophecy, spoke of an impending famine, (Ac.11) “some of the disciples” instigated a relief effort. ( Perhaps we should undertake a similar study of “disciples”.)
After Stephen’s martyrdom, (Ac.8), “those who were scattered went around preaching the Word.”
When Apollos (Ac.18) was preaching in Ephesus, Priscilla and Aquila took on the task of correcting some of his errors, after which “the brethren” commended him for further work.

So “Who is my brother?”  Anyone and everyone who is serious about faithfulness to the Lord Jesus.
“Brother” is the highest – and ONLY – title legitimately applied to any follower of Jesus, according to his own instructions in Mt.23:8.
As members of Jesus’ own family, defined in all three synoptic gospels (Mt.12:46-50, Mk.3:31-35, Lk.8:19-20) no longer as only one’s physical family, but including all those who choose to obey, we belong to each other in unique and wonderful ways!  Brothers do not always agree:  but there is a bond, nevertheless — and also often a family resemblance!

Our job is to serve each other, encourage each other, correct each other, challenge each other to greater faithfulness, and support each other in those efforts.

May we do so in faithfulness!

An Institution,or a Body? Conformed, or Transformed?

June 23, 2019

References:  Rom.12 and I Cor.12:12-27

Solomon raised a number of excellent and very significant questions in his recent message, regarding the function of a faithful brotherhood in our “modern”, multi-cultural society, all of which I would encourage us to explore carefully.  I hope you all kept the list of concerns that he provided, and that we can take a serious look at some of them together.   Far too often, it is easy to say “That is an excellent point/challenge”, and then go off and forget it in favor of “business as usual”.  That does not enhance our faithfulness.
Today, however, I intend to introduce a parallel question, that is related, but from a slightly different perspective:  “Can a church even become an institution of its surrounding society, and still faithfully represent Jesus?”  This question needs to be raised very deliberately and carefully by any group that intends to take faithfulness seriously and responsibly.

Such a question would not have been an issue at all in the first century church, where “Jesus is Lord” was the only “statement of faith” and where that statement alone frequently resulted in a death sentence.  “Institutionalization” is not an option for a persecuted minority.  It can only emerge from a position of power, or with the permission of people who wield power.

Jesus did not come to start – or to reform – a “religion”, or to establish an institution or a corporation.
Consequently, he never addressed the subject, except to rebuke James and John for their jockeying for positions of honor in his “cabinet” or “Board of Directors”.  “You know as well as I do, that is how the rulers of this world operate,” he explained, “BUT IT SHALL NOT BE THAT WAY AMONG YOU ALL!!!”  Jesus was intending to create something completely DIFFERENT!!

What constitutes the establishment of an institution”’?  It assumes at least four things, each of which is diametrically opposed to Jesus’ positions and principles.  Many, if not most institutions assume:
1. Power in or over (at least a segment of) society at large
2. The ability to make rules or demands of people who have NOT deliberately chosen to be subject to its control
3. Some external and easily defined means of judging who is “in” and who is “out”
4. Somebody (a person or group) “in charge”, to keep things running smoothly and under control.

This last necessitates the creation of a hierarchy, or chain of command:
1. To keep people in line, and to be sure that authority is properly delegated and exercised
2. To define and defend the status quo, and impose it upon everyone
3. To exclude or penalize offenders
4. To direct and regulate both offensive and defensive activity.

A primary concern of any corporate or institutional structure is its own survival and dominance.  This is the polar opposite of Jesus’ concern. There is no record anywhere of his being concerned about survival! You don’t need that if you are confident of resurrection!  The primary concern of his followers, likewise, was not survival, but faithfully to represent him.  Most of them did not survive very long.

The success/survival of an institution depends heavily upon the manipulative skills of its masters, in squashing any opposition, regulating the membership, and maintaining their own position of dominance.  Only from a majority position – a stance at the top of the food chain – is an institution capable of forcibly imposing its standards, not only upon its own adherents, but often upon society at large.  Only from a place of power can a group enforce by legislation what it may have simply failed to teach.  There is no place for any of this, or for coercion of any kind, in the Kingdom of Jesus!

Institutional attempts to define, analyze, and housebreak some sort of “Supreme Being”,  created in the image – or the imagination – of the hierarchy whose power depends upon it , are an exercise in futility, for one simple reason (besides the nonsensical assumption that such a “being” would be “supreme” at all, if it were so subject to the whims of its creators!).  That reason is simply that JESUS IS ALIVE!!!  He cannot be reduced to categories, activities, or principles invented by his own creatures!  He himself is superior to everyone and everything!  It is in Jesus that “all things exist/hold together!”(Col.1:16-17)  The most cursory perusal of the New Testament gospel accounts makes it obvious that Jesus had not the remotest intention of creating an institution! Instead, he chose to create a Body, which he carefully designed to continue the purpose of his own Incarnation – a word that literally derives from “becoming flesh” —  to reveal God’s true being and purpose to the world, by corporately and deliberately demonstrating his attitudes and his practice of life-giving, selfless service. If I may quote Brother Solomon again, “Jesus did not come to tell us what to think, but to show us how to live!  The subsequent functioning of the whole brotherhood, together, as the Body of Christ, is a major theme throughout all of the New Testament writings.

Most germane to the impossibility of an institutional option is Jesus’ explicit prohibition of any attempt to pattern the operation of the Kingdom after the methods and structures of the world, and its obsession with being “in charge”,  needing to regulate the opinions, behavior, or loyalty of its subjects, even though such methods may sometimes appear temporarily to be “successful”.  Paul understood that difference, writing in Romans 12 an eloquent description of the function of the Body, to folks who, living in the seat of the Empire, would have been well (and often painfully) acquainted  with the vagaries of the institutional system under which they suffered.  A Kingdom – a Body—whose only Head was the Lord in whose loving care they had learned to trust, was a prospect to be embraced with great delight and hope!

The value – indeed, the necessity—of the contribution of every faithful member  of the Body (even more specifically outlined in I Corinthians 12-14) was as unfamiliar in the first century as it is in the twenty-first!   This is a culture that does not exist among “the nations of the world” – then or now!  The culture of the Kingdom of Jesus involves a radical difference from ANY culture in the rest of the world – the primary reason being that EVERYONE IS ESSENTIAL!  If you don’t remember anything else that I say today, remember this:  YOU ARE IMPORTANT.  YOU ARE NECESSARY.  YOU ARE NEEDED, if the Body is to function as it should.   But what sort of culture is being advocated and cultivated, when so-called “church leadership” is carefully trained to function as CEO’s, CFO’s, and/or psychological counselors, whose purpose is to maintain, entertain, and regulate the activity of everyone in their assigned institution, rather than as enablers whose responsibility is to encourage and facilitate the unique and necessary contribution to the Body of every faithful person?  The enabler is a rare bird indeed.

I know a young man, deeply committed to the Lord and his ways, who was desirous of serving his people through a health initiative of a denomination to which he had related.  The leader of the project had known and appreciated his skill and faithfulness for a period of years, and requested that he be appointed for service.  That request, however, was denied by their denominational hierarchy, despite his excellent qualifications, simply because of the candidate’s conscientious refusal to sign a detailed “statement of doctrine” that included a number of assertions which, although amply footnoted with carefully arranged and edited “chapter and verse” references, went far beyond any ideas that could responsibly be derived from the New Testament.

Now, it is perfectly reasonable that enlistees in the service of the King be unequivocally committed to him personally, and to the way of life that he advocated and demonstrated.  But if you have carefully consulted Jesus’ teaching in the New Testament, it should be clear that Jesus on no occasion raised any theological or philosophical questions with those whom he called.  He asked only for personal loyalty and obedience.  There is no record of Jesus saying, “Peter, I’d like to borrow your boat, please …but by the way, first you need to sign this statement….”

In fact, most of the issues so adamantly insisted upon by avid “doctrine police” – and yes, by officials in the conference with which your group identifies! – deal with subjects which Jesus either chose not to address at all, or tackled head-on to correct popular misconceptions!  Here is a short list of a few of the “required beliefs” that would peremptorily exclude the Lord Jesus himself from the privilege of service or fellowship!  “Let’s start from the very beginning!”

Please note that I am NOT focusing on the truth or falsehood of any of these ideas:  I am only asking, “What did JESUS say?”

  1. Creation. Neither the Old Testament nor the New (except for editorial footnotes added in the 19th and 20th centuries!) makes ANY statement regarding the “when, where, or how” of creation.  Everyone assumed that “God did it”.  Paul, in Eph.3:9 and Col.1:16, credits Jesus himself as the creator. Jesus himself uses the word only three times:  the discussion in Mt.19:4 and Mk.10:6 regarding the creation of male and female, and Mark’s version of the destruction of Jerusalem.   In the epistles, much more attention is given to the NEW creation, which begins with one’s identification with Christ, and HIS purposes. They didn’t reference the “old” creation at all!
  2. The “inerrancy” of both the Old and New Testaments. Repeatedly, Jesus made serious corrections to the OT – “You have heard it said…But I say unto you…” He consistently referred to “your Law”, and not once to “God’s Law”.  There are six such corrections in Matthew 5 alone, and many more scattered through the Gospel accounts. I would challenge you to count them!  Do you really want to say “Sorry, Jesus – our “doctrine” doesn’t allow that”?
  3. “Original sin”. This extremely prevalent idea is mentioned only once in the entire New Testament – and that was not by Jesus, but by his Pharisee opponents (Jn.6), as they scornfully rebuked a man Jesus had healed as having been “born in sin”. Even Paul, the hero of the “doctrine crowd”, spends the two first whole chapters of Romans, (the letter which folks most love to “cherry-pick” for “proof-texts”) establishing that the depraved condition of people was their deliberate choice, not their original condition.  Jesus himself never mentioned the issue at all.
  4. “Virgin birth”. This one at least is true, being asserted in both Matthew and Luke’s accounts, but Jesus himself never commented at all upon the circumstances of his birth. He repeatedly referred to God as “Father”, but plainly was not overly concerned with his own pedigree. None of the epistles mention it at all.
  5. “Penal Substitutionary Atonement”. This subject was never mentioned by Jesus. When repeatedly challenged on his right to forgive, neither he nor his challengers ever said anything about his death.  It was his identity with God that was – and is — the source of his authority to forgive, and also of the officials’ fury at him.
  6. The “fate” of nonbelievers. At the rare times when Jesus spoke of “eternal consequences” (Mt.25, Jn.5), they were predicated upon the behavior of the people in question. There is no reference to their theological opinions.
    The erroneous translation of the word “pistis“as “faith” – or “pisteuo” as “believe”, has spawned a lot of mistaken creativity.  A more accurate translation would be “faithfulness/loyalty/or trust”.
  7. Jesus’ promised return. Two things –and only two – are certain. 1. He IS coming, to assume his rightful role as King of Kings and Lord of Lords! And  2.  By his own testimony no one knows when that will happen.  Just as significant, and maybe more so, is his explicit warning NOT to follow people who pretend to know the details!

And those are just a few of the most obvious discrepancies.  I stopped at 7 because some folks get all excited about “numbers”, another thing that JESUS NEVER ADDRESSED.  But in light of that record, would the Lord Jesus himself be accepted as a “credentialed leader” in your church?  Very probably not!

Now, please don’t misunderstand.  This is not a call for a totally unregulated situation where everyone is blithely “doing his own thing” and “anything goes”. That would be just as destructive to a true Body as is the dominance of a single individual or group being “in charge”.  Notice the plethora of functions which Paul lists as “gifts” to the church in Romans, Corinthians, and Ephesians.  Not only do these NOT describe a controlling hierarchy, but EVERY SINGLE ASSIGNMENT is mentioned in the PLURAL.  It is only as “we all interact truthfully in love” (Eph.4:15) that we are enabled to “grow up” to perform our intended functions in /as the Body of Christ.

Just as the “institutional model” is dependent upon assumptions, so is the model of the Body.  A few very different principles include:
1. A voluntary association. The Body consists only of those who have freely chosen to participate.  It does NOT impose regulations upon society at large.
2. A deliberate, personal commitment, not to a list of propositions, but to a common purpose, faithfully to represent the presence of the Lord Jesus in the world.
3. A common standard against which to measure both personal and corporate goals, behavior and attitudes: those described and advocated by Jesus and his followers and recorded in the New Testament.
4. An overtly acknowledged willingness to be taught, corrected, and guided by the rest of the Body, with the New Testament as the only standard.

The operation of a Body is not efficient.  In fact, it can be downright messy.  Just look at a few of the things that had to be dealt with in I Cor.6, I Thes.4, II Thes.2, Heb.6, and many others, where moral, cultural, self-centered, or other issues had to be addressed and corrected.  An institution could cope with that sort of thing much more efficiently.  Just eliminate the offending parties.  “My way or the highway”.

But a Body does not amputate a member just because it is injured, or even one that causes an injury.  Only as a very last resort, after all else fails, must a person who refuses correction be excluded.    No institution can operate like that.  Its dominion and success, not to mention the prestige of its “masters”, are at stake!  Institutions depend on either clever human ingenuity and persuasiveness, or brute force and power.  The Body of Christ depends on nothing but the faithfulness of its members – and the power of God.

The life of the Lord Jesus will not flow through a Body whose fragments are all rushing off in different directions, taking their cues from some outstanding “leader” other than its rightful Head.  Neither will his life flow through a Body, most of whose parts are atrophied from disuse.

Until our fellowships are living examples of even former enemies being reconciled together by the resurrection power of God into a loving family

Until every brother and sister is enriched and encouraged by the ministry of every other brother and sister

Until we allow ourselves to be joined together, built together, grow together, into one Body, enhanced by every one of its diverse parts,
We will not, and can not, manifest the life of our Lord to the world that so desperately needs his presence.
We can never do this perfectly – but that is a sad and lame excuse for not trying.

It is long past time for faithful followers of the Lord Jesus to quit sniping at each other over their favorite theological constructs, and get about the business of accurately representing him to a world that so badly needs his touch.

Who is in charge in your church?

March 10, 2019

(A message delivered at our fellowship on March 10, 2019)

Through all the centuries since the first, groups that self-identify as “Christian” have developed many and varied ways of expressing  that identity.  For some, this has resulted in complex, multi-layered hierarchical systems to which all must submit.  For others, assent to detailed “statements of doctrine” or “confessions of faith” are required of adherents.  Some require a highly defined and strictly enforced code of conduct, life-style, or appearance.  And still others pride themselves on “not having rules”.  They do – often very rigid ones:  it’s just harder for an outsider to figure them out!  Virtually all of these are enforced by one or more individuals who are designated by various titles as being “in charge.”

What a contrast with the clear and simple instructions of the Lord whom they claim to represent, recorded in Mt.23:8-10:  “You all are not to be called “rabbi”, for you all have one Teacher and you are all brothers.  And don’t call anyone on earth “Father”, for your one Father is in heaven.  And don’t be called “leaders”, because your one Leader is the Christ!”  Kathegetes, “professor, guide, teacher”, is used only here, in the entire New Testament.  The King James translators called it “master” – which is usually their choice for 7 other, different Greek words, usually referring to a teacher, a supervisor, or the owner of a slave.

This instruction can be confusing to people who are used to competing for positions of power and influence.  We were once privileged to be part of a small group of followers of Jesus who took that admonition of his, very seriously.  It could be quite comical when each of us took a turn at the widely shared task of answering the phone.  More than once a caller would demand, “Please connect me with your minister (or pastor, or whatever his choice of “boss” titles happened to be)”.  It was necessary to ask, “Which one?”, because everyone had a different function!  The caller usually replied irritably, “I want to talk to the man who is in charge!”   “Well, that depends on your concern:  we all share different responsibilities!”  Sadly, the caller would occasionally slam down the phone, rather than make his request known to a person he perceived as “ONLY” the secretary!  He might have been talking to the very person he needed!
This sort of “organization” (loosely defined), was, however, completely in harmony with the history of that group, although we never saw it observed anywhere else.  In the mid 1700’s, when the Brethren came to “Penn’s Colony” as refugees, Ben Franklin asked them for a list of their officials, and a statement of their “doctrine”, in order to register them officially as a “church”.  Politely, but adamantly, they refused, with the statement, “We subscribe to no creed but the New Testament, and acknowledge no superior but our Lord, Jesus Christ!”  I will sign that statement any day – but no other!

Is this not exactly the sort of “organization” that Paul describes in Eph.4:7-16?  As is frequently the case, most English translators have ignored the very clear fact that there are two different words in v.7 and v.8, both of which they have rendered as “gifts”.  In v.7, Paul uses the word “ charis “  — more frequently (and accurately) translated “grace”, singular in form, which is indeed given individually “to each one”.  But for the specific, plural enablements or responsibilities in the brotherhood, he uses the more specific, plural word, “domata”, “gifts”. These are given TO the brotherhood, THROUGH each person!  From that point on in the passage, everything is expressed in the plural. Particular “gifts” are assigned by Jesus, and mediated through each person, to the entire group, in order “to make everyone complete”, to “grow up”, in order that the Body may function properly!  YOU DO NOT “HAVE” A GIFT.  YOU ARE a gift, to the brotherhood to which you are committed!  And you may have to serve different functions at different times, as need arises.

It would be an excellent exercise for any/every group of the Lord’s people to work together to discern from the New Testament the proper function of each of these folks who are God’s gifts to the Body.   It would be an easy project to do as a group, simply to identify the “jobs” called for, here and elsewhere in the New Testament, and the people and the qualifications needed, by examining together each use of each word or function, in the New Testament. We would be happy to facilitate such an effort.
Here is a brief, but very incomplete summary of the functions that are needed, in any – really every – congregation – including ours!  It should be fleshed-out by careful congregational study.

  1. Apostles.
    Some of the references to apostles appear to be to the original (remaining) eleven disciples who had traveled with Jesus, but that is not an exclusive label. The literal meaning of the word refers to anyone, or anything, sent anywhere, for any reason! The verb form is used for everything from the “sending” of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, to Jesus promising to “send back” the donkey he borrowed for Palm Sunday! (Not exactly a symbol of elevated status!)  In Acts, and the epistles, the noun (personal) reference is frequently to the individuals who had initially introduced the message of Jesus to a particular group, so the fact  that they are  listed first is clearly chronological, not a matter of status.  Some of them shared a mediator role with “elders” at the Jerusalem Conference (Ac.15); others furnished support to new congregations by occasional visits, correcting errors or mediating disagreements. Apostles were usually itinerant, not identified with a single group or location, unlike the elders, with whom they frequently shared responsibility.
  2. Elders
    Elders are not mentioned in the Ephesians list, but the missionary apostles (like Timothy and Titus) were repeatedly encouraged to appoint trustworthy “elders” (always plural) in each congregation. The word “elder” (presbuter) appears in both genders. “Elders” are both male and female. Although traditional translators have often substituted “wives” for the feminine form of the word, there is no such distinction in the text. Translators have distorted the picture. The word simply means “old people”.  Elders were assigned advisory duties in each congregation, sometimes called upon to act as overseers, “shepherds” (the word that some translators changed to an “office” of “pastors,”), and teachers.
  3. Prophets
    These are also nearly always plural, although they may also “label” an individual who frequently and faithfully exercised that function, like Philip’s daughters (Ac.21:9), and Agabus (Ac.11:28 and 21:10). Their “job”, according to I Cor.14, is to “speak to people for edification, admonition, and encouragement.” They were entrusted to deliver a direct message from God for a particular situation: the relief of famine victims, warning of dangers, instructions for action, etc.
    This passage is often avoided because some people have problems with its secondary reference to the use of “tongues” – which, although worthy of serious attention, is beyond the scope of this study.  But ignoring the whole chapter because one aspect is occasionally abused, has robbed the church of a desperately needed resource.  After trying to correct what were probably genuine abuses among that particular group, Paul asserts plainly, (I Cor.14:31), “You can ALL prophesy in turn, in order that ALL may learn, and ALL may be encouraged!”   Are there any among us so mature, that we no longer need to learn and to be encouraged?
    Also overlooked is the admonition that when a prophet speaks, the rest are instructed to JUDGE whether the message is indeed from the Lord!  “Judging” is NOT a “nasty wordor a bad attitude, but a necessary safety precaution, entrusted to the whole Body of the faithful!  Prophecy is NOT a free-for-all, and judging it is NOT the job of someone designated as a “superior” or a “credentialed leader”.  Both are tasks assigned to the whole congregation of committed people.
  4. Evangelists
    You may be as surprised as I was to see that this word appears in the New Testament only three times! It is used here, and also of Timothy and Philip once each. It is a function, not a title, and refers to a “bearer of GOOD NEWS”. In the secular culture, it was used of a herald bringing news of a victory in a battle! There is absolutely NO New Testament connection to the “fire and brimstone” that carries that label in modern times.  Look it up!  Better yet, look at ALL the references to the word “gospel”!
  5. Shepherds and teachers
    These are primarily local. ALL ARE PLURAL, and all are functions of the elders.Notice that there are no “priests” on the list.  That designation belonged to the Old Covenant, not the New.  Priests, with a few exceptions, were antagonistic to Jesus and his message!  The proclamation of the Kingdom was – and IS– the responsibility of EVERY citizen!  In fact, Peter (I Pet.2:5 and 9) asserts that ALL of us who belong to Jesus comprise a “holy” and “royal” priesthood!
    The so-called “Great Commission”, Jesus’ parting instructions in Mt.28, although originally addressed to the eleven remaining disciples, have been subsequently expanded by his followers to include all the faithful – but they have been followed only PARTLY.   Jesus assigned them (us?) three tasks: to make disciples, to baptize, and to teach! Have you ever seen that fully in practice?  Check it out!  Jesus prescribed NO OFFICIAL POSITIONS as a prerequisite for ANY of his instructions! !  Why, then, do we assume that some things require “clergy” – a word that NEVER appears in the New Testament?
  6. Servants/deacons
    This word, diakonos, -e  , from which the English word “deacon” is derived, also occurs in both genders, and refers to ANY people rendering ANY kind of service to ANYONE, from preparing and serving a meal, to carrying a relief-offering to famine-stricken brethren.  New Testament references include Peter’s mother-in-law, the women who traveled with Jesus and his disciples “ministering to their needs”, the 7 appointees in Ac.6 looking out for the widows, as well as those mentioned in epistles: Timothy, Erastus, Epaphras, Steven’s household, Phoebe, Onesimus, Mary and Martha, and many others.

Every one of these categories includes far more (of both responsibilities and people!) than time allows in one session.  I would strongly encourage that we undertake a  very careful study in order to be sure that ALL OF THESE are sought, welcomed, included, and heeded in our fellowship – remembering the responsibility of the WHOLE BODY to “JUDGE”/evaluate each one’s work, to assure that we are led in faithfulness.

Please notice also that NONE OF THESE WERE “HIRED” for a job, from either inside or outside of any local group.

So who is – or ought to be – “in charge” here?
Hopefully, Jesus – through his Holy Spirit, speaking TO and THROUGH ALL OF US who are committed to carefully discerning and following his instructions!

The most neglected message of the Christmas season: “Fear not!”

December 23, 2018

This was presented to our fellowship this morning.

“Fear Not!”

The Most Neglected Message of the Season

It has long been customary, among churches that define themselves by the careful observance of “doctrines” to which their adherents are required to subscribe, to create an especially obligatory “sacred” atmosphere around certain “seasons” representing particular segments of their perceived history.  Other, less formal assemblies (who are just as concerned with being faithful) have chosen to emphasize some of these “seasons” or “feasts”, as they are called, and to minimize or ignore others.  And some, who do not enjoy – or who even take offense at – what they call “pageantry”, ignore it altogether. (Did you know, for example, that celebrating “Christmas” was illegal in Puritan New England?  They objected to the suffix, “-mas”, because it was derived from the Catholic observance of the “Mass”.)
It is difficult to find specific Scriptural instructions either for or against any of these positions, so I am not concerned this morning either to attack or to defend any of them.

The celebration of Christmas, supposedly the time of Jesus’ birth, is one of many groups’ favorites. Setting aside the strong probability that this actually happened in the spring, and not mid- winter at all, I do, however, find their choice of “words” to emphasize at this time of year quite seriously lacking.  One can easily wax eloquent about such ideas as “light, hope, faith, love, peace,” and other similarly idealistic topics – and none of these is “wrong”.  All are quite legitimate ideas to promote – at any season.

But I would prefer today to direct your attention to one of the most common admonitions, both by Jesus himself, and by the earlier “messengers”, both human and super-human, who announced his coming, but which is almost universally ignored by people who claim to represent him, and which I have never found on any list of “Advent” topics.

That message is “FEAR NOT!” – “Don’t be afraid!!!”  And is there any message that this sad world needs more than that?

Of all the imperatives in the New Testament, it may well be that this one stands in the sharpest contrast to the voices that constantly bombard our consciousness.  Economic, political, medical, social, and yes, even “religious” spokesmen, of every persuasion, assault their already apprehensive audiences with the same message:

 “Be afraid!  Be very afraid!”

Jesus, in contrast, as well as virtually all the supernatural participants in his recorded history, consistently greet despairing, worried or startled people with a reassuring, “Fear not!  DON’T be afraid!”

How have these encouraging words become so universally ignored among people who claim to represent Jesus? Indeed, the students at the “Christian” high school where Aaron taught years ago, overwhelmingly gave “fear of what would happen to me if I did not”, as their primary reason for committing themselves to the Lord!  And a fellow-teacher at that same school, who called himself an “evangelist”, questioned the validity of my own conversion when I said that I had never been “afraid of God,” or of meeting him!  This is not only tragic:  it is an exceedingly shameful misrepresentation of the One who commissioned us to share his “Good News”!  That, by the way, is the literal translation of both “evangel”(Greek) and “gospel” (an old English equivalent).

So let’s look at the New Testament!  That is still, as it always was our best source of information.

Before Jesus was even born, the message predominated:  Fear not!

Please read each of the indicated references as you come to them.

Gabriel’s message, to both Joseph (Mt.1:18-20)

and to Mary (Lk.1:26-32) began with the same admonition:  “Fear NOT!” “Don’t be afraid!”

To the elderly priest, Zachariah, in the temple, (Lk.1:9,11-13) it was the same.  This must have made a strong impression, because look, then, at that gentleman’s response (Lk.1:67, 72-75) at the birth of his own son, who was to be part of the plan! “Enabling God’s people to serve him WITHOUT FEAR!”

Later, the shepherds, frightened by the sudden apparition in their peaceful fields, got the same message (Lk.2:8-10)

During Jesus’ ministry, the same refrain keeps repeating – we will just pick a few of the many incidents:

Mk.4:35-40 – the storm at sea.
Another storm story appears in three of the gospels:  Mt.14, Mk.6, and Jn.6 – the account of Jesus, who, rather than taking a much-deserved nap, had been left behind, and came walking toward them on the water.  The disciples are terrified at the sight, but his greeting combines two of his “trademark” statements:  “Don’t be afraid” and “I AM.”  This latter phrase deserves a whole study of its own – suffice it here to say that it is Jesus’ common statement of his identity with the Father, using God’s Burning Bush statement to Moses, which was forbidden to ordinary people.

Luke chose to highlight a different encounter on the lake, one that contemporary “evangelists” would do well to imitate.    Lk.5:4-11 describes an “ordinary” fishing trip that turned out anything but ordinary!
Overwhelmed by the huge catch of fish, (Quite an extravagant “thanks for the use of your boat”!) Peter reacted in the way too many preachers expect (or demand) of their hearers:  “Leave me, Lord, I’m a no-good sinner!”  But far from pouncing on that “confession” and flogging him with it (notice:  that was Peter’s diagnosis, not the Lord’s), Jesus replied, more in keeping with his own consistent character, “Don’t be afraid”, Peter:  I have a job for you!”  What a gracious welcome!

Lk.8:49-54 – describes an interrupted “healing” trip, where the interruption did not prevent his ministry to either need.

Interestingly, all the accounts of Jesus’ Transfiguration, which understandably “spooked out” the watching disciples, also record the antidote for their fear:  “Listen to him!” (Mt.17:5-8).  If we listen / pay attention to Jesus, fear must take a permanent back seat!

Even when he is warning them about the very real dangers of their mission, the accounts in both Matthew and Luke are peppered with “don’t be afraid!

And as the amazed disciples stood in wonder staring at the empty tomb, the heavenly messenger had exactly the same message:  “Don’t be afraid!”  (Mt.28:1-10).

It is especially sad when people who trace their beginnings to the Swiss Brethren, one of the first of the Anabaptist groups,  (an original “back to the Bible” movement), fall for a “gospel” of threats and fear – which is no “gospel” at all!  The word means “GOOD news” in sixteenth century English.
A focus on fear is a MAJOR rejection of both the first century church’s attitude and the 16th century Anabaptist principles.  Those early brethren waded INTO fearful situations; they did not threaten others with doom!
Our spiritual ancestors willingly faced burning, drowning, exile, and all sorts of horrible treatment, BECAUSE they espoused a new definition of Christian faithfulness, which had no connection whatever to any dogmas compiled by hierarchical officials, be they ecclesiastical or political.

Several historical scholars have summarized this definition to include:

1. Discipleship. The classic statement was “No one can truly know Christ except he follow him in life.”
2. A voluntary (neither automatic nor hereditary) community, deliberately formed by committed adults
3. Study and interpretation of Scripture in the hands of the ENTIRE community (not the clergy: there was no clergy in the first century! “Clergy” was an artifact of the Constantinian alliance between “church and state” – which at the time were allied against those faithful brethren, as they also were in the 16th century.)
4.The priority of the New Testament, with the Old viewed as merely preparatory.

It was, in short, an effort to restore the New Testament Church – according to the pattern of Jesus’ first followers.

After a lengthy series of warnings about the very real perils of the life that he advocated – Jesus concluded with this admonition: (Lk.12:22),
Fear not, little flock:  it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom!”

Please notice something else about this and all of Jesus’ similar instructions: except for those specifically addressed to a particular individual, they are all given in the PLURAL, not singular.  Both fear and confidence are heavily influenced by one’s surroundings. Faithfulness is – and always was – intended to be a group effort, a mutual affair.  Jesus never advocated the introspection of the lonely hermit on a mountaintop.  He both practiced and preached the Kingdom in the messy context of real life.
And in this often very messy context, faithful representation of the Lord Jesus will always seek to alleviate, never to instill fear. Together, people can do a much better job of overcoming their fear, or, if necessary, enduring it.

This poor world has more than enough fear already.  An accurate presentation of “the Gospel” is the same today as it was to the terrified shepherds on the hillside so long ago:
Don’t be afraid!  I am bringing you GOOD NEWS!”

It is a message our world desperately needs. Proclaim it faithfully!

Let our celebration of Jesus this Christmas season – and always – echo his most-often repeated message”


Thanks be to God!