Context Is King!

Monday, March 2, 2015

No one wants to be left behind!....Or do they?

Two of my favorite themes in teaching is to consider, at all

times, context. Virtually all errant teaching that has entered the church has come from snippets of verses or an entire verse or two taken out of context and allowing it to shape our theology. But, as important as context is (some call it "king"), it goes hand-in-hand with knowing the full counsel, the entirety, of Scripture. Ignoring either can be devastating to our understanding of who God is and/or to our understanding who we are. 

Combine a lack of context, the absence of the full counsel and another pitfall, reading with preconceived notions about what it says, and we get potential disaster. 

Think not? Try this little experiment. Look at Mt 24, a great passage in which Jesus talks about the end times. All the familiar key words and images are there; tribulation, abomination of desolation, false prophets, Jerusalem surrounded by armies, flee to the hills. Then we see this set of verses:

Matthew 24:40 Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left.
41 Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left.
42 Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.
Now, answer this question, honestly, "Do you want to be left
behind?" Take a minute to think about it....

Most people today will say, "No! We all know being left behind is a bad thing!" (with strains of DC Talk playing in the background and the whole series of novels on our bookshelves)..."You've been left behind!" We scream, "No! Wait! I want to go with everyone else!!" 

Not so fast there, Rayford.

Take a look at the preceding verses to see the context of the "left behind" verses:

Matthew 24:37 For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.
38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark,
39 and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 
The first thing we notice is that the passage is about the flood...yes, that flood. These verses tell us the wicked people were the ones swept away in the deluge. Noah and his family were the ones left behind!  Reading on in the passage we see images of a thief coming to steal, take away, and a master returning to preserve and reward the faithful servants who will stay with him. So...for this passage, do you want to be left behind with the master...or taken away by the thief? Would you rather have been left behind with Noah, or swept away?  

Pop theology fits nicely onto a bumper sticker
We have to be careful not to let pop-theology have an undue influence on our understanding of Scripture. Then, we need to read far enough ahead of a passage, or continue reading beyond it, until we can determine context. Finally, we need to be, at least, familair with the full counsel of Scripture, not just our passage. The Bible is God's self-revelation to His children. If we're not familair with all of it, we're not familair with all He wants us to know about Him. 

If we don't make objective reading of the whole Bible, in context, a discipline, we are in danger of worrying that we don't get left behind when that just might be God's greatest blessing for us. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

What An Amazing Church Family

Last Saturday, I went to sleep wondering if I would be able to make it to church on Sunday morning. We had about 6 inches of snow and sleet was on the way. For our area, at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, 6 inches of snow is enough to brings things to a grinding halt. To further complicate things, we get ice falling from the sky fairly frequently, a road condition I seldom had to deal with growing up in Northern Ohio, as brutal as those winters were. 


I knew I would get up and go in at my usual time, if the roads were even remotely passable. Our church draws from a large area and a broad demographic. It is very difficult to cancel services and get the word out to everyone. Even under the most severe conditions, people show up. So, on particularly bad mornings, I go in, make some coffee and preach or conduct a Bible study, depending on who shows up. But, I'm the Pastor. I should be there. If I can't make it in, it should be because no one else can make it in either. If anyone else makes the effort to come in on a bad day, I want to be there to say, "Thanks!" So I make it in and wait. Every time I've done this, one particular Elder joins me about an a hour and a half before the service is to start. Then, a little later, our Head Elder shows up as well, three leaders, waiting to see if there will be anyone to lead.

This Sunday morning, the roads were pretty bad, bad enough that, by the time I arrived at the church, I was convinced no
one was going to show up. But, I was already there, so I began my usual routine of preparation and prayer. I love the quiet early Sunday morning, alone in the sanctuary. I spend some time going over the sermon, praying and sometimes, just sitting in the pews, thanking God for His grace. It's always a beautiful prelude, on normal Sunday mornings, to a crowded church and an incredible flow of life and activity, for two services and a Sunday School hour. 

I was enjoying that interlude when I heard doors opening, then a shovel scraping. A couple had arrived, the woman to play on the worship team, the man, a Deacon, to shovel the walks before he went on to work that morning.  The walks were going to be a big job, the snow was heavy. The Elders appeared, the Lead Deacon for the morning, a few more Deacons than a few more people, all just showing up to see if they could help get the church ready for services. 

By the time the 8:30 service rolled around, the sidewalks were clear, the steps were sanded, we had a sound and AV crew, a worship team, deacons...and a congregation! Not a very large one, but, standing near the front door, I was overwhelmed that anyone,at all, had shown up.

By the Sunday School hour, our numbers had quadrupled. By the 11:00 service, we were crowded, blessed and buoyed, just by being together to worship our Lord. 

One of our Elders began asking some of those early arrivals why they came out. Their responses were incredible:
"I wanted to help others to be able worship."
"I went out in the middle of the snow storm yesterday to go to work. I had to shovel and scrape my way out of my driveway to do that. When I got up this morning, it occurred to me that going to church should be just as important."
 "I'm in leadership. What does it say when those I am leading are here and I'm at home."
"I want my kids to see that church is just as important, if not more so, than all the other activities in our lives."

You can't teach this sort of thing. As a matter of fact, we advise that it's best to stay home if you feel conditions are unsafe to go out. I still believe that has to be our primary consideration. 


Still, it is a huge blessing to see our church function as a family, to see God knitting our hearts together in service to each other and worship of Him, to see the assembly as being the high point of the week, high enough to make it worth the effort to get in on a tough morning. 

God is good. Keep your eyes open. He's doing something amazing in our church family. This will come spilling out of those open doors and clear sidewalks into the community around us. When it does, we'll be here, waiting to welcome them. 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

"Jesus is the door!"...So...Do We Go In or Out?

I don't always have the opportunity to explore some of he nuances of a passage the way I would like to on Sunday mornings. Additionally, sometimes, I'll get input that makes me start thinking beyond my prep and beyond the time I have to present the results of my studies during the week. Both happened this week. I had more material than I could ever hope to share and one of our Elders intrigued me with a slightly different interpretation of the text, enough so that I thought it might be interesting to develop it in writing as an augment to the sermon. 

We covered John 10:1-21, "I Am the Door." Jesus is addressing the Pharisees and uses a lot of vivid imagery to make His point. He speaks of a sheepfold, shepherds (good and bad), thieves, robbers and, in general, uses a lot of flock-related terminology. 


Sheepfold
One of the first terms that comes up is "sheepfold" (John 10:1). This was an enclosed area, a type of courtyard, where sheep could be kept safe and secure. Most sheepfolds were permanent structures made of stone with no roof, and a doorway. This would be a good representation of what one of those permanent structures would look like.

In Jesus' parable in John 10:1-6, the sheepfold represents sanctuary, a safe place for the flock. 

In the following passage, in John 10:7 Jesus says, "I am the door of the sheep." The imagery in vs 7-18 is not necessarily related to the images presented in vs 1-6, but is vivid nonetheless and significant in its symbolism, as well.  


The immediate image in v 7 is that Jesus is the way for the sheep to enter into the sanctuary for safety and the way out, led by Him, for food and water (nourishment). He is simply, elegantly, "the way". 

Two verses later, Jesus says that everyone who enters the sheepfold through Him will be saved and "go in and out and find pasture." With this, things start to get interesting. Now, there are a number of ways we can interpret this. 

On a very simple basis, we've already seen that Jesus is the way. He's the way to safety inside the sheepfold. He's the way to salvation, the way to spiritual growth and health. 

But, to a nomadic people like the ancient Jews, people who were comfortable with temporary structures, this image of Jesus being the door and the sheep going in and out can be very rich indeed. They may have seen it a bit differently than we do. To them, Jesus' intent may be to bring the sheep out of the sheepfold, not keep them in


Temporary Sheepfold
Shepherds in the Mideast, frequently built their own sheepfolds. It was  the best way to keep the flock safe and together while they ate and slept. It was made of brambles, branches and thorns and had a doorway.  It would look something like this.

The shepherd would lie down in the doorway to sleep. The sheep would have to go through the shepherd to get out and predators would not be able to get in without waking the shepherd who would fend off the attackers. 

One of the more compelling interpretations of Jesus being this type of door goes like this: 
The shepherd sleeps in the door way. Jesus is the
shepherd. He is the door, the way to salvation. The sheep, His people, are trapped in the sheepfold, hemmed in by the thorns and brambles. The thorns and brambles are their sins, preventing them from getting out of the sheepfold. Jesus is the way to their salvation, their way into the kingdom beyond the limitations of the sheepfold. The kingdom is where the pastures and sweet water are. The sheepfold, in this interpretation represents bondage to sin. The area outside of the sheepfold represents freedom and peace with Jesus, the good shepherd. They must go through Jesus in order to enter the kingdom. Jesus is the way. 

In the final analysis, both interpretations work well. In both of them, Jesus is the way. In both, Jesus is the only path to salvation. Scripture is rich, my friends. The closer we look, the richer it gets!

Monday, February 9, 2015

"You can't argue with experience!...Or can you?"

In dealing with spiritual matters, I've heard it said that you can't argue with someone who has had an experience. The main idea is that an experience validates a motivation, a teaching, a perspective or a "leading". In those types of debates, experience claims to trump all else and cannot be challenged. It becomes the foundation for a belief, a doctrine or even a theology. No one can argue against it.  

Except Job.

If you look closely at the opening chapters of Job, you see God actually pointing Job out to Satan. God declares Job to be upright and blameless, not once, but twice (Job 1:8, 2:3). You just can't get a better endorsement on your righteousness than the one Job gets!

Satan accuses Job of being faithful to God only for what Job gets out of the relationship. To paraphrase Satan's accusation in Job 1:9 and Job 2:4-5, "Take away the blessings and Job will turn his back on you!" This is the over-arching question of the Book of Job: "Is Job faithful to God only because of what Job gets from God?" In other words, "Will Job lose his faith if his blessings are taken away?"

Satan is given permission to afflict Job. He goes all out,
taking Job's livelihood, his family and finally, his health. By the end of ch 3, Job's head is spinning and his heart is hurting, wondering why these things have come upon him, adamantly and passionately maintaining his innocence.

Job's three friends have come to comfort and counsel him. They're good friends, too. They sit with him for a week, silently giving support and comfort.

Eliphaz the  Temanite is the first of Job's counselors to speak. He accuses Job of some secret sin and hypocrisy (Job 3:2-6). Bad things happen only to bad people (Job 3:7-11). It is a strong accusation. 

But, Eliphaz claims to have proof that what he says is true. He has had an experience!

Job 4:12–16
12 “Now a word was brought to me stealthily; my ear received the whisper of it.
13 Amid thoughts from visions of the night, when deep sleep falls on men,
14 dread came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones shake.
15 A spirit glided past my face; the hair of my flesh stood up.
16 It stood still, but I could not discern its appearance. A form was before my eyes; there was silence, then I heard a voice:

It's all there! A mysterious voice came to Eliphaz, a dream, a vision, goosebumps, trembling, whispers...a profound spiritual experience! 

What did the "voice" tell Eliphaz? The voice told him Job is not innocent, not upright, not blameless (Job 4:17-5:27), no man is.

There's just enough truth to what Eliphaz claims to have heard to make it sound plausible, except for one thing. It directly contradicts what God has already declared about Job.

Job continues to maintain his innocence. He struggles in epic proportions. Ultimately, Job's innocence is borne out and
God chastises Job's counselors for lying about Job (Job 42:7-9). Eliphaz's experience was, indeed an experience. It had physical and emotional impact on him. But, in the end, it was not founded on the truth of God's word. It was just an experience. In God's words, Eliphaz had spoken wrongly, goosebumps and all.

There are multitudes of lessons in Job's story. One of them is that any experience should line up with the word of God. Another is that there are times we can...and should...be wary of someone's experience, even our own. 

There's nothing wrong with having an experience. We should learn, however, not to rely on them when it comes to our understanding of God's word.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Creation! Are we asking the wrong question?

The Book of Genesis tells us God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. How this is interpreted has become a touchstone of controversy in recent years, many defending the "One day is 24 hours" version with passion and conviction. That's a good thing...but it should never be a point of division nor an indicator of faithfulness. As Justin Taylor pointed out so well a few days ago, there are a lot of excellent and well-respected people that take another position on what seems to have become a hallowed interpretation of a very difficult passage of Scripture and a point of separation for many. 

I've spent a good deal of time struggling with this same issue. I must confess, I fall to the side of "a day is a day" fairly strongly. Lately, though, I've found myself wondering if this is the primary message God wants us to hear from the opening
paragraphs of His self-revelation to His creation. 

Or is He showing us something more profound than a calendar of days and minutes about Himself?

If we set aside the debate over how to measure time to consider what God is saying about His character and nature, the first two chapters of Genesis become an introduction to who God is and what He intends to do with His creation: Look at what we learn;  
  • He is the creator Gen 1:1
  • He is the filler, filling every square inch of the "void" with His creation. Gen 1:2-25
  • He is the One who forms man (Gen 1:26), filling Him with life and breath (Gen 2:7)
  • He is the One who provides, giving man meaning and purpose (Gen 1:28-31)
 Notice, none of these things are contingent on whether or not a day is a day or a thousand years (another grossly misunderstood and over-emphasized passage). Each of the items above are a description of who God is and His command over His creation, a much more fitting introduction to His written, inspired word than how man has chosen to measure a day.


Perhaps we should be more careful in choosing our major issues. We can miss the deep, rich teaching the Scriptures are designed to show us by getting bogged down in minor details.  

In my opinion, all this is borne out by the end of the Bible, Rev 22, which seems to reiterate the beginning.  There we see Jesus Christ, His plan perfectly complete in all respects. What was that plan? Man has been created for God's glory. He has been formed and given his purpose for His glory (Rev 22:14-16), the revelation of His righteousness. Ultimately, those who believe will be filled with His living water (Rev 22:17), a transformation putting on display and giving testimony to His power and authority over His creation.

Genesis and Revelation, a fitting introduction and epilogue, beautiful bookends to God's self-revelation and the record of His redemptive plan in history. 

All this, and neither a calendar nor stopwatch in sight, at least not in the text!