Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Meditations on 1 John: XV

Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour. [2:18].

When we read New Testament passages showing that the Apostles believed themselves to be living in the last days or in the last hour we can excuse them as being mistaken in light of their expectancy of Christ’s return or we can believe what they said and align our belief with theirs. If we accept the testimony of the Apostles in every other facet of doctrine and practice what warrant do we have to dismiss their clear teaching that the last days began in the first century? When those who have a high view of Scripture explain away the apostolic teaching of the inauguration of the last days we do what others do who make no pretence of viewing Scripture as the Word of God – we bend the Bible to our understanding rather than seek to conform our understanding and belief to the Bible. The Word of God is not to submit to us, we are to submit to the Word of God.

John writes that the fact that many antichrists have arisen is a sign that it is the last hour. As the Kingdom of God breaks forth into the world through the Incarnation and Resurrection and Pentecost the powers of darkness manifest themselves in opposition to Christ, an opposition which often takes the form of false Christs. Jesus tells us that there will be those who claim to be Christ, the Apocalypse portrays the Beast demanding worship – the antichrist, in whatever form he may take is opposed to Jesus Christ – in one sense the enemy doesn’t much care what we believe as long as we abandon our testimony of Jesus Christ; the Christ of the Cross and the Cross of Christ is always the focal point – that is the testimony that we are to live for and to die for.

We are called to worship God in spirit and in truth, we are called to be a spiritual people who are sitting in the heavens in Christ Jesus, while we may live on the earth we are not to draw our understanding and our breath from the earth; as 1 Corinthians Chapter 2 makes clear, the natural person cannot receive the things of the Spirit of God for they are spiritually understood. Spiritual understanding corresponds to Scripture, and true Scriptural understanding is understanding enlightened by the Holy Spirit. If we do not “see” that the Apostle John lived in the last hour then it is incumbent on us to ask our gracious Father to enlighten the eyes of our understanding so that we will see as He sees.

This is a passage (1 John 2:18 – 24) that we like to gloss over, especially verse 18; for unless we gloss over verse 18 we have to stop and ask the question, “Is this true or was John mistaken? Was it the last hour when John wrote?” If John’s statement is true then what does that say about our preoccupation with “End Times” excitement, about the energy and money and attention given to popular “End Times” teaching, about investment in the “End Times” industry?

As John’s letter makes clear, the central question for the believer and the church is Jesus Christ: the confession of Christ, our obedience to Christ, our abiding in Christ, our love to one another in Christ, our overcoming the world and the enemy in Christ, our life in Christ. The question does not hinge on world events, the question hinges on the Person of Jesus Christ; and the primary context for John’s letter is not the world at large but the professing church in particular – this is not typically the context of the End Times industry.

What matters is our faithfulness to the confession of Jesus Christ; when John saw people in the professing church denying the Son he knew that it was indeed the last hour. The fact that the “hour” is a bit longer than we might expect does not invalidate John’s statement but rather challenges us to understand the flow of cosmic history from a Biblical perspective – we should live and think as sons and daughters of our eternal Father and not, as Revelation terms it, as “earth dwellers”.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Psalm 16

Yahweh is the portion of my inheritance and my cup…(Psalm 16:5a).

Do we desire things or do we desire God? Paul’s passion was “that I may know Him”; is that our passion? As a young Christian I heard the words of Psalm 73:25 – 26: “Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” Is that my testimony? Would others say this of me? Is there evidence to convict me of Psalm 16:5 and Psalm 73:25 – 26?

When we view all things in the light of eternity we see how transient life is and how great and eternal God is; we see that this age is passing away but that God abides forever and that those in whom He abides also abide forever. 

Do we hear the words of John the Baptist, “He must increase but I must decrease”? Do I seek more of Jesus today than I sought yesterday? I have a friend who often says, “I want to love Jesus more today than I did yesterday”, is that my desire?

Jesus teaches us that to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength is the first and great commandment – is this our daily prayer, that we would love Him with all that we are and with all that we have? Do people know that we are in love with Jesus Christ?

May I gently say something? When I pastored how I longed for my people to talk about Jesus; not to talk about the latest and greatest teaching, not to talk about politics, not to talk about the economy, not to talk about the most popular book or series of retreats or how great our music may have been at times, and not to talk about a religious personality – how I longed for the center of their conversation to be Jesus Christ. How I longed for their portion in this life to be Jesus. This remains my longing for my brothers and sisters today – for Jesus Christ to be our all in all. I confess that it is not always so with me, but I do know that unless it is so that nothing else can be seen in its true light.

Oh Lord Jesus, I don’t know what today may bring; but I ask that you will have mercy on me and deliver me from my self-centeredness; from my stubborn insistence to view all things with me as the center; that you will deliver me from me and from this evil age that is opposed to You – deliver me unto Yourself and teach me to know You as my everlasting and secure inheritance, teach me to know You as my All in All.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Black History Month

In some ways whites need Black History Month more than African-Americans. At the least whites need Black History Month as much as blacks. (We need Indian History Month too, but that’s another article.)
It’s difficult to talk about history these days for history has become a tool for political, and sometimes religious, agendas. Perhaps it has always been this way for those in power require myths to sustain their power; they require legitimization, a historical fiction to justify their position. Usually the fiction is a mix of fact and lie, and sometimes the lie is a lie that people actually think is true, especially second and subsequent generations of power holders. People often think these lies are true because they don’t question them, they don’t ask, “Is this true? Does this really make sense? Is this the whole picture?” It is easier to go along to get along, especially if the power structure either benefits you or is no threat to you.
It is also difficult to talk about history because in the West we live in a post-modern culture. Because post-modernity views events and ideas in isolation from each other, because it does not insist that there be correspondence and coherence and a systemic matrix when viewing art or music or philosophy or education or politics or history, we don’t have a cognitive or emotional problem when we are confronted with facts or narratives that are contradictory, for we live in a society of contradictions, e.g. what a politician says at 10:00 A.M. will have a new spin at 1:00 P.M. and yet another spin at 4:00 P.M. and still another spin at 8:00 P.M. and as long as we support the politician we gloss over the spins. All of this to say that history need not make sense to us and that we don’t see the value in seeking coherence and correspondence in history.
The night before the 2012 St. Patrick’s Day a collegiate basketball player with an Irish name made a winning shot for his team; the headlines read “Kyle O’Quinn makes winning shot on eve of St. Patrick’s Day”. These headlines were accompanied by a photo of the player making the shot; the photo was of an African – American; no one apparently saw a need to stop and consider the facts before them, an Irish name, a black player – behold post-modernity. Were we to go back to this basketball player’s family 300 years ago it is not likely that its surname would have been O’Quinn.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Interview Dynamics – II

The following is geared for minsters in transition and for churches seeking pastors and staff members.

By: Robert L. Withers

Plans fail for lack of counsel,
                   but with many advisers they succeed. Proverbs 15:22 (NIV)

The plans of the diligent lead to profit
                   as surely as haste leads to poverty. Proverbs 21:5 (NIV)
        There is an old adage that those who fail to plan, plan to fail. Just as competent preachers spend hours in sermon preparation, and just as teachers spend hours in lesson planning, so candidates and search committees will find that prayerful and thoughtful preparation is a key to fruitful discussion and decision making.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Meditations on 1 John – XIII

Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone love the world the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and its lust; but the one who does the will of God abides forever, 1 John 2:15-17.

If our lives are spent in the pursuit of "things" then we are invested in ourselves and in the temporal and not the eternal; after all we want things so that we may use them and possess them – not, as a rule, so that we may give them away. It isn’t that having things is wrong, it is that a life of pursuing and acquiring things is a fool’s mission – for things will pass away. Yet our economy is driven not by what people need but by what people want – companies spend untold amounts of money to create desire in people – from tennis shoes to automobiles to kitchen faucets to toilet paper to watches to whiskey to children’s games, the creation and inflammation of desire is big business. We are not only pawns in the game, we are pawns who praise those who manipulate us; we may not watch the Super Bowl but we want to see the Super Bowl’s ads.

Things can give us physical pleasure, they can give us intellectual pleasure (a great book), they can provide aesthetic pleasure (a fine painting), and they can give us egotistical pleasure. We should enjoy good meals but we should not live for good meals, we should not live for food. We should beware of that which feeds our pride, whatever “that” is needs to go to the Cross – and whatever “that” is can be religious as well as materialistic.

The idea of “the pride of life” in this passage is seen in Romans 1:30 and is linked to arrogance and translated in the NASB as “boastful”. The same linkage is in 2 Timothy 3:2, “For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant...” Again, James uses this linkage in James 4:16, “But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.” The pride of life separates us from God, it declares that we are the arbiters of life, that we are sovereign, that we will accumulate what we will, go where we will, do what we will, use what we will, decide the future.

I’ll close this post with a quote from the book of Wisdom showing the relationship between the pride (boasting) of life and arrogance:

  Wisdom 5:8-15

Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (RSVCE)

What has our arrogance profited us?
And what good has our boasted wealth brought us?

“All those things have vanished like a shadow,
and like a rumor that passes by;

10 like a ship that sails through the billowy water, and when it has passed no trace can be found, nor track of its keel in the waves;

11 or as, when a bird flies through the air, no evidence of its passage is found; the light air, lashed by the beat of its pinions and pierced by the force of its rushing flight, is traversed by the movement of its wings, and afterward no sign of its coming is found there;

12 or as, when an arrow is shot at a target, the air, thus divided, comes together at once, so that no one knows its pathway.

13 So we also, as soon as we were born, ceased to be, and we had no sign of virtue to show, but were consumed in our wickedness.”

14 Because the hope of the ungodly man is like chaff carried by the wind, and like a light hoarfrost driven away by a storm; it is dispersed like smoke before the wind, and it passes like the remembrance of a guest who stays but a day.

 15 But the righteous live for ever,
and their reward is with the Lord;
the Most High takes care of them.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Psalm 15

He swears to his own hurt and does not change…(verse 4c).

Spiritual formation for the disciple of Jesus is the process of our transformation into the image of Jesus (Romans 1:1-2; 2 Corinthians 3:18). As new creations in His New Creation there is a working out of His image in fellowship with Him. We are complete in Him (Colossians 2:10) and yet we are not yet experientially all that we shall be (1 John 3:2); who we are is not yet fully expressed. Christ works on us and He works in us, the Potter's hands mold us from within and without.

Psalm 15 is a psalm of spiritual formation, it begins by asking, in essence, “Who will live in intimacy with You, O Yahweh?” From that question proceed inward attitudes and outward actions; or we might say we see a correspondence between the inner man and the outer man, between the heart and mind and words and deeds.   

While the psalm presents a holistic picture of the man or woman or child who lives in intimacy with God, the picture of telling the truth to one’s own detriment is one that should particularly elicit our attention in a society and a church in which spin is valued over truth, a society in which people do not say what they think in order to get what they want, or to avoid “confrontation”, or to escape unpleasant consequences, or to sidestep an acknowledgment of sin and avoid repentance – the list could go on.

And yet God is light and in Him is no darkness at all, God is Truth and He has never lied, Truth is His essence, though His essence is beyond comprehension and our words are finite – there is a fundamental contradiction when a professing Christian lies in any fashion, it is not only sin, it is a repudiation of the nature of Christ which lives in us, it is a rejection of Jesus and His lordship, it is the creature rejecting the Creator, the child rejecting the Father, the disciple rejecting the Teacher. And yet rather than seeing the stark divide between Light and darkness we excuse and rationalize lying.

Do I love the truth, do I love my relationship with God, will I obey Christ to the point of my own detriment? Will I tell the truth even though hurtful consequences may follow? Obedience not only can be costly, obedience is costly. If we are not paying a price for obedience in some area of life it is doubtful that we are growing in Christ, after all, the Cross is an instrument of execution and it is the Cross to which we are called.

The idea of telling the truth to one’s own hurt is a short-tem proposition with both a short-term and long-term gain. Yes there may be immediate hurtful consequences to telling the truth, but there is also an immediate escape from the temptation to lie and a consequent acknowledgment of Jesus Christ as Lord. The long-term gain is that our hearts continue to be molded into His image; the direction of our lives, the maturation of our hearts, the words we speak, do not change. Is intimacy with God more important than perceived short-term gain that can be obtained (we think!) by telling a lie?

We are called to tell the truth, to act the truth, to be the truth, because our God is Truth and we are one with Him.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Interview Dynamics – Part 1

Interview Dynamics – Part 1
By Robert L. Withers

        Few people in the business world experience the rigor and complexity of a pastor-search interview process. Consider the following:

1.   A search committee may consist of between three and twelve people. While some corporate processes may require multiple interviews, few will require an interview in which the job candidate is interviewed by as many as four people at the same time, let alone ten or twelve people.
2.   In the business world spouses are seldom interviewed by prospective employers, in the pastoral-search process spousal participation is vital.
3.   In the business world it is unusual for a single interview to last more than two hours; it is not unusual for a pastor candidate to be interviewed over the course of an entire day or weekend.

Monday, January 14, 2013

A Word to Pastors of Little Flocks

A Word to Pastors of Little Flocks
By: Robert L. Withers

During the past week I had two conversations that cause me to ponder how we have arrived at a place where ministry and significance are measured by utility and comparative numbers.
The first conversation was with a pastoral candidate. He was apologetic about the fact that currently he is a “bi-vocational” pastor. He seems to consider a bi-vocational pastor to be a second-class pastor. In other words, there must be something wrong with a pastor who pastors a church so small that it cannot support him full time. After all, if he were a successful pastor the church would grow and eventually he could quit his other job and devote himself to full-time vocational ministry.
Now I hasten to say that this candidate probably does not feel this way about other bi-vocational pastors, I think he is too mature in Christ and too charitable to think that about others; but he does seem to think this about himself.
The second conversation was with a pastor I’ve known for a while. He was having one of those downer days that pastors have – he had just heard through the congregational grapevine that a family was leaving the church and he couldn’t understand why. His lament was, “Am I always going to be the pastor of a small church?”

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Meditations on 1 John – XII

Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone love the world the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and its lust; but the one who does the will of God abides forever, 1 John 2:15-17.

This passage links John’s words to “children”, “fathers”, and “young men” with his warning concerning the antichrist. The world and the antichrist are linked again in 1 John 4:1-6; then in 5:4-5 we read: For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith. Who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? As John concludes his letter he writes: We know that we are of God, and that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one (5:19).

The only time in my life I have ever heard preaching on the subject of the “world” has been in legalistic contexts. By legalistic I mean that a relationship with God was based on how one acted, on what one did or didn’t do, on how one looked; matters of hair and dress and outward appearance were important and others were often judged by whether or not they looked the same, talked the same, and abstained from smoking and alcohol. This was my early experience of church, early in the sense of being a believer, not early in the sense of experiencing nominal Christianity. The folks of whom I’m speaking would have insisted that faith in Jesus Christ was essential to salvation, but beyond that life was more about works than grace.

The above is a simplistic view of the world, simplistic in that the issue of the world is an issue of the heart, of the inner man or woman or child, and a heart can be just as worldly not taking a drink of Chardonnay as it can be worldly while enjoying a glass of good wine, or just as worldly in drab conservative dress as in ostentatious in-your-face provocative attire. A poor man can be caught up in the world, a rich man may be overcoming the world – though let us not deceive ourselves on who has the greater challenge. 

I’m not sure why I haven’t heard the “world” preached on in other Christian contexts, is it because we are afraid of offending people, afraid that they might leave the congregation? Of all the marketplace ministry material I’ve read I can’t recall reading anything about the Biblical view of the world, let alone any direct warnings about the evil of the world-system. Is that because we are afraid of offending others, of being seen as impractical and out of touch? Is it because we fear losing our constituency? Is it because it’s not professionally smart to challenge much of what drives business and careers?

The church is quick to make those who enjoy worldly success poster boys and girls – this is hardly a Biblical view of the church and the family of God. This practice hurts those on the poster and it warps our view of God’s desire for His people if we equate that desire with things that are passing away. This isn’t to say that we don’t rejoice with our brothers and sisters who do well in business and career; it is to say that we view all things in light of the Cross and not the dollar. When a victorious Roman general was accorded a triumphal parade a slave rode in the chariot with him, reminding him of his mortality – we can learn from that – whether we have millions of dollars or are on food stamps we will all end up in the grave…the world would have us think there is a difference between the rich and the poor, that we should give one our attention and ignore the other…this is poison.

Then there are those perverse teachers who come under the category of “name it and claim it”, who teach that God wants us to be materially prosperous and that we can have whatever we want – God is one great big candy store. Where is the Cross? Where is self-denial? There is no tension between the Cross and the world with these so-called teachers; they pervert the Gospel of Christ in the name of Christ – amazing.

But then we have the respectable materialists; they are not the blatant crude out-of-control televangelists with their local clones picking the pockets of their viewers and Sunday morning attendees, they are the tried and true safe churches where good sound materialism is welcomed and honored – worldliness with propriety – how can one argue with that? There is no tension with the Cross here, Jesus Christ comes dressed to impress and to bless the ideal of American success.

Pastors are now expected to be professional rather than prophetic. I’m reminded of John Piper’s book, Brothers We Are Not Professionals. Yes we should be intellectually vigorous, yes we should understand how to communicate, yes we should use sound thinking in approaching the Biblical text; but to adopt advertising techniques? To use manipulative advertising that dumbs-down the Gospel? To shy from a prophetic voice? To attempt to “create” a Sunday morning experience as if our people were out for a day at Disney World? To hold what amounts to group-therapy sessions?

To bring things down to an individual level: does it matter what people think of the car I drive, the neighborhood I live in, the job I have, my level of education, whether I own a boat, whether I belong to a club, whether I’m good at this or that…where am I seeking approbation? Where is my identity? What is it that feeds my soul? And this, I think, can easily be a life-long tension; for most of us, I don’t say all of us, but for most of us we need this tension or else we will fall into the abyss of the world…and may I gently, and I do mean gently, say that we are fools not to think so.

This thing about the world also has to do with the ideas and philosophies that we espouse, when we are known more for our political or economic views than our love for Jesus we have a problem. When our souls are fed by any other sustenance than the sustenance of the Gospel then we have a problem – we are not of the world even as Jesus Christ is not of the world (John Chapter 17). We are not called to integrate other ideas and philosophies and issues with the Gospel; we are called to subordinate other issues and philosophies and ideas to the Gospel.

John’s words are words of warning and of promise – do we take them seriously?

Monday, January 7, 2013

Psalm 14

The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; there is no one who does good. Yahweh has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.

The Psalm speaks of “my people” in verse 4, the “righteous generation” in verse 5, and “His captive people” in verse 7; so at first glance we might read verses 1 – 3 and think, “That can’t be me the Psalmist is writing about, I belong to the second group in verses 4, 5, and 7.” Yet if we trust the exegesis of Paul and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit we are faced with Romans 3:9ff that begins with: What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, “There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one.” Paul uses Psalm 14:1-3 to demonstrate that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23), in other words, we have all been there, we have all been identified with Psalm 14:1-3, these verses are not something we can read as if they don’t describe us; they may not describe us now, but they do describe us before we came into a relationship with Jesus Christ.

On the one hand the Scriptures affirm who we are in Christ (Eph. 1:1-12; 1 Pt. 2:4-12), on the other hand they remind us where we have come from (1 Cor. 6:11; Eph. 2:1-3;       1 Pt. 4:3-4). If we are in the “righteous generation” of Psalm 14:5 let us remember that all righteousness is that of Jesus Christ and that we are in this new creation because the Father drew us to Jesus, once we were dead, now we are alive; once we were blind, now we see. We couldn’t give ourselves life and we couldn’t give ourselves vision. Psalm 14:1-3 should be a sobering reminder of where we have been; it should also be a reminder that if God can save us then he can save others and that we are called to share the Gospel with others, no matter how rebellious or difficult they may seem to be – only God knows the heart.  

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Meditations on 1 John – XI

Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone love the world the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and its lust; but the one who does the will of God abides forever, 1 John 2:15-17.

The Bible uses the word “world” in different contexts, on the one hand we have John 3:16, For God so loved the world…, then we have the passage before us; the meaning of the word “world” is not the same in these two passages and in this respect the language of the Bible is no different than language across the world – the context controls the meaning. In John 3:16 we are told that God loves the world and elsewhere in Scripture we are taught to love our fellow man; God loves the world so much that He gave His only begotten Son to bear the sins of the world; the message is that God loves people, He loves His creation, even though we have rejected Him and marred His image in us He loves us with a passion beyond our understanding. In John 3:16 the “world” is people (see also 1 John 2:2).

But in 1 John 2:15 – 17 the “world” is not people, it may have people in it and subject to it and who are proponents of it, but it is not people. Whatever the “world” means in 1 John 2:15, it means something that is so dark and sinister and insidious that to love this thing, to be enmeshed in this thing, to pursue this thing, is to alienate oneself from the love of the Father and to associate with something that is passing away and will be no more.

This poison was introduced to humanity in Genesis 3:6, the cup of the “world” was offered and we drank it, and for millennia we have passed the cup of poison from generation to generation. The bartender, if you will excuse the image, in Genesis was Satan, whether the drink was shaken or stirred I do not know; I do know that we have been collectively drunk on the lethal cocktail through the corridors of time.

It is tempting to define the term “world” in such a way as to leave the matter done and allow the reader to move on, but something so sinister does not lend itself to concise definition; from the Garden to Cain and Abel, from Babel to the slaughter of infants in Egypt, from idols in Solomon’s Temple to the wickedness in high places of Ephesians Chapter 6 to the swirling images of Revelation – evil working through the system termed the “world” in 1 John 2:15 has myriad images and manifestations; what are its images and manifestations in our day? What are its images and temptations in my heart and mind? What bait does it dangle in my life, luring me to bite on its hook?