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According to the Pattern

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it… see that you make them after the pattern… which is being shown you on the mountain.

Exodus 25:9, 40

After God redeemed Israel from Egyptian slavery he entered into a covenant relationship with them at Mount Sinai. Through Moses, he gave Israel the terms of the covenant and specific instructions to regulate Israel’s life and worship. The centerpiece of Israel’s religious kit was the tabernacle, a collapsable tent which housed, among other things, the ark of the covenant, the symbol of God’s presence. The paraphernalia of Israel’s religion was fashioned after “the pattern” which was shown to Moses on the mountain. It was important for Israel to follow this pattern for at least two reasons.

First, fidelity to the “pattern” was crucial for Israel to develop an understanding of what it meant for a holy God to dwell among sinful people. Every aspect of the Law was instructive. It taught them that though their sins separated them from God, God made provision for sin through the sacrificial system administered by the priesthood. The architecture of the tabernacle and the design of the furniture associated with it contributed to this overall understanding.

Second, adherence to the “pattern” was Israel’s opportunity to demonstrate their faithfulness. If they took God seriously—and after his gracious rescue and thunderous appearance at Sinai they did! (Ex. 20:18-21)—their approach to the fabrication of the tabernacle and its furniture would be reverent and meticulous. Such care was the response of faith and gratitude toward a gracious God, not an effort to earn God’s grace, which was and still is an impossibility.

Like many things in the Old Testament, Israel’s concern for the pattern of things revealed by God provides Christians with a positive example. Under the new and better covenant established by Jesus, possessing the true form of the “realities” of which the law only foreshadowed (Heb. 10:1), the principle of following God’s “pattern” applies just as much today as ever. But the patterns we follow aren’t physical schematics but the teachings, practices, and traditions of the early Christians. Undergirding this view is the strong conviction that God has revealed his mind through the apostles and prophets by the Spirit in Scripture (Eph. 3:5). Therefore, the teachings and example of the early church in Scripture are our “pattern.”

Paul speaks of the necessity of keeping to the “traditions” (1 Cor. 11:2) which were not human traditions, such as in Mk. 7:1ff; Col. 2:8, but traditions laid down by God through the apostles. Any deviation from these traditions was not permitted (2 Thess. 3:6). For example, Paul warned the Thessalonians not to be unsettled by false teaching but to “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” (2 Thess. 2:15) Therefore, as we read the patterns of the early church in the New Testament we are to fashion ourselves after them as best we can. God reveals both positive and negative examples of the early church to show us what to do and what to avoid. He expects us to put two and two together and follow the “pattern.”

God’s provision of such a pattern in Scripture is one way he has preserved the church through the ages. Each generation can appeal to the pattern without having to rely on the previous generation. If there were no pattern for the church to follow then any deviation from God’s will in one generation would be passed on and compounded in the next. Such is the doom of all who appeal to anything other than God’s word as their pattern. But when we appeal to Scripture as our pattern we can avoid and even correct the faults of previous generations and experience the joys of reform and renewal. For more on this topic, see Josiah in 2 Kings 22.

When God is Silent

Saturday, July 23, 2022

God speaks in Scripture to teach us his will. Through Bible study, we can determine what God wants and live by the words God has spoken. But what do we do when God hasn’t said anything about a subject? In other words, what do we do when God is silent?

In Numbers 9:1-5, God told Moses to let the people ‘keep the Passover at its appointed time. On the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight.’ But there were some who were unable to participate in the celebration because of ritual uncleanness (contact with a dead body). What about them? Had they missed out? In the absence of direct revelation from God, Moses exercised the only faithful option available: he waited for the Lord to speak (Num. 9:8). In response, God provided further clarification and the matter was resolved.

Moses provides us with a positive example. Before we act, before we speak on an issue, before we decide a matter, we must wait on the Lord to hear what he has said about it. Perhaps God  has spoken on the issue and some careful Bible study clears it up. Or perhaps he hasn’t spoken directly on the issue but has provided some guiding principles to follow. But there are other issues about which God hasn’t said anything. Are we to see this silence as liberty to act as we please? Moses saw God’s silence as prohibitive and not permissive. God’s silence caused him to wait.

If Moses were to have invented a solution for the Israelites instead of waiting for God to tell him what to do, he would have been guilty of what the Old Testament calls the sin of ‘presumption.’ To act presumptuously is to act without proper grounds or adequate information. It is to go beyond what is allowed or appropriate. David prayed that God would keep him from ‘presumptuous sin’ which he called ‘great transgression’ (Psa. 19:12-13). The Hebrew word for ‘presumption’ (zed) means arrogant, proud, and insolent.

Aaron’s sons exhibited this spirit of arrogance when they offered ‘strange fire which [God] had not commanded them’ (Lev. 10:1-3). Notice, the text doesn’t say they offered fire which ‘God had forbidden them’ because to do anything other than what God has ‘commanded’ is out of bounds. The infraction may have involved them using coals from someplace other than the burnt offering altar, using the wrong kind of incense, or performing the ceremony at an unprescribed time. But whatever they did, their actions showed disdain for God’s holiness as God’s words after the incident reveal: ‘…I will be sanctified, and before all people I will be glorified.’

Other examples of presumption include Israel’s determination to fight against the Amorites despite Moses’ warnings (Deut. 1:43), the words of false prophets (Deut. 18:22), king Uzziah’s attempt to minister in the temple (2 Chron. 26:16-18), and the invention of a new cart to transport the ark of the covenant (2 Sam. 6:1-11). All were breaches of God’s will and all ended badly.

Obedience, on the other hand, is always commended. Noah, like Abraham and Moses (Gen. 12:4; Ex. 40:16), was rewarded because ‘he did all that God commanded him’ (Gen. 6:22). Noah wasn’t perfect any more than Moses or Abraham but he did show faith in God’s word. While we all sin and desperately need our Savior’s grace, it is possible to ‘please’ God without having a perfect moral record. God is pleased when we approach him with respect, listen to his words, trust those words and live by them. We are to live by faith (2 Cor. 5:7), faith in what God has said (Rom. 10:17). In fact, this trusting obedience is the only reasonable response to grace.

Avoid the irreverent attitude that views the silence of Scripture as permissive. Adopt the faithful attitude that waits on the Lord to speak before acting. ‘The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.’ (Deut. 29:29)

The Character of Love

Saturday, July 16, 2022

“[Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

(1 Corinthians 13:7)

In 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, Paul describes the nature of love which was at odds with the character of the church at Corinth. He begins with two positives (4a) followed by eight negatives (4b-6) which tell us what love is not like and what love will not do, the last of which is balanced by its positive counterpart. He finishes his description of love with four staccato verbs qualified by the phrase ‘all things’ (7).

First, love is ‘patient’ (a passive quality) and ‘kind’ (an active quality). Patience is long-suffering. If ‘endurance’ is putting up with difficult situations (7), ‘patience’ is putting up with difficult people. ‘Kindness’ is doing good on behalf of those difficult people. These are the two sides of God’s attitude toward us; God’s patience holds back his wrath while his kindness gives mercy (Rom. 2:4).

Next, Paul is careful to describe what love is not in terms of verbs. Notice these are behaviors not emotions, an important distinction. Love ‘does not envy.’ Envy denotes rivalry which causes strife and division (3:3). Love does not allow us to be in competition with one another. Just the opposite, love rejoices at the success of others. Love is not ‘boastful.’ That is, love does not brag or call attention to itself with self-centered actions or words. Rather, love is humble. A puffed up, self-important, ‘arrogant’ view of oneself is inconsistent with love (4:6, 18-19; 5:2; 8:1). Neither is love ‘rude,’ behaving shamefully or disgracefully. It is not ‘self-seeking,’ that is, it does not disadvantage others to advantage itself. Love forbids the exercise of liberties without regard for the negative impact it has on others (10:24, 33; Rom. 15:1-3; Phil. 2:4). Love is not ‘irritable,’ easily provoked to anger, nor does it ‘keep a record of wrongs,’ a running tally of betrayals so as to settle the score and get even later (Lk. 23:34; 2 Cor. 5:19).

Love hates evil and ‘rejoices with the truth’ simultaneously. Love celebrates behavior that reflects the gospel such as redemptive mercy, repentance and forgiveness, justice and goodness, etc. Love cannot praise ‘wrongdoing,’ but exposes and denounces it.

Lastly, love ‘bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.’ To say that love ‘bears’ and ‘endures’ all things is to say that there is nothing that love cannot face. It can put up with any difficulty and persevere. There is a tenacity about love in the present that is motivated by its confidence in the future. Thus love ‘believes’ and ‘hopes’ all things. It is not that love believes the best about everyone (although love does this as well) but that love never stops trusting in and hoping in God. It never loses hope because it believes that God will set things right and execute justice. It believes goodness will prevail despite human evil. That’s why love endures any situation and never gives up. Indeed, ‘love never ends.'

We can easily substitute ‘Christ’ for ‘love’ in these verses and the passage still reads true. But can we substitute our name for ‘love’ with the same result? This is the challenge of Paul’s teaching and if we dare to take it seriously we will be confronted with our own failure to live up to it. No one but Jesus truly loved in this way all the time. Paul’s description of love is clear and uncompromising; this is what love is and does and what love is not and does not do.

If we were created to give and receive love then we have failed at the most fundamental level of our humanity. But there is hope because the God who ‘is love’ (1 Jn. 4:7-8) has shown us what love looks like in concrete terms by giving himself for us (1 Jn. 4:9-10). Through his initiating self-sacrifice, he gives us the power to emulate that same love to others. His love ‘abides’ in us and is ‘perfected’ through us when it spills out into the lives of others (1 Jn. 4:11-12).

A Heart for Truth

Saturday, July 02, 2022

"Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so."

(Acts 17:11)

Acts 17 outlines three different attitudes toward truth. The apostle Paul preached the same message to three groups of people eliciting three different responses, substantiating Jesus' parable of the sower (Lk. 8:4-15). Which one describes you? 

The Thessalonians clung to what was old and familiar to them (Acts 17:1-9). Some are resistant to the gospel because it is new to them and requires change. This was the case in Thessalonica. Although some believed (v4), generally the gospel was rejected (vv5-7). The charge against Paul was not that his preaching was false; their scruples were not intellectual. Luke says they were "jealous" and did not like the way the message "turned the world upside down" and threatened their way of life. They stirred up the rabble and accused Paul of insurrection.

Ad hominem attacks and physical violence are the tools of the weak. What about us? Some are so comfortable with the way things are that they go to great lengths to keep them that way. Are we more concerned about being comfortable than being correct? Are we more attached to the way things are than the way things ought to be? 

The Athenians were eager to hear anything that was new and exciting (Acts 17:16-34). The Athenians were excited to hear the gospel not because they thought it might contain truth but because of its novelty. To them, Christianity was just another worldview to add to the pot of academic soup. 

This kind of religious syncretism, where aspects of Christianity are scavenged and mixed with other philosophies and religions, is popular today. Some are eager to throw off the shackles of the old ways in favor of the new. They see tradition as inherently bad. While human religious tradition will always lead us astray (Mt. 15:6), there is such a thing as divine tradition that we are to follow, patterns set by Jesus and the apostles that we must abide by (2 Thess. 2:15; 3:6). We are to hold to these "ancient paths" (Jer. 6:16) not because they are ancient but because they are true. 

In contrast, the Bereans were committed to following what was true (Acts 17:10-15). They were not concerned with preserving what was familiar so as not to upset their routines. Nor were they concerned with hearing something new and innovative to cure their spiritual boredom. They cared about truth. They checked Paul’s preaching against their Bibles and, finding it to be accurate, followed it with all their heart.

The question is not “Is it old?” (Thessalonians) or “Is it new?” (Athenians) but “Is it true?” (Bereans) In some ways, this is like driving up a mountain: on one side is a sheer cliff and on the other is oncoming traffic. Some, fearing the cliff, will stray too far to the left and run into oncoming traffic. Others, fearing oncoming traffic, will pull too far to the right and fall off the cliff. The answer is to stay in our lane, not to deviate to the right or the left. God’s way is likened to a straight path in a crooked world (Deut. 5:32; cf. Acts 13:9-10; Mt. 7:13-14), a path paved with his truth (Psa. 119:105)

The Thessalonians turned too far to the right, the Athenians too far to the left. The Bereans loved the truth and followed the straight path of God. They were teachable, humble, and open-minded but also discerning and intellectually honest. We must resist the temptation to remain complacent by preserving man-made traditions and equally resist the temptation to grow bored in the divine traditions and patterns of worship. Rather, let us to stir one another up to recapture the wonder of God's saving truth. 

Moral Discernment

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

(Romans 12:2)

In matters of faith, I’m an Israelite (Rom. 9:6-7), but when it comes to culture, I’m a Philistine. Take classical music for example. While I enjoy listening to it, I can’t hear the difference between Vivaldi and Tchaikovsky. Sure, like most people, I know the tune of some popular Beethoven and Mozart compositions but I can’t tell you which one is which or even why they are good. My problem stems from a lack of musical knowledge. Because I lack knowledge, I have difficulty discerning between the different compositions. Had I more knowledge, I would not only become a more discerning listener but I would also enjoy the music more; increased knowledge on any subject opens up new depths of understanding and appreciation.

Paul says something similar in regard to moral discernment in Romans 12:2. There are times when the morality of a situation is plain to us. Good and evil are marked out in black and white by our conscience and we can easily discern between them. But there are other times when right and wrong are less clear. In these cases, our conscience may not be enough to go on. Another possibility is that our conscience is leading us in the wrong direction altogether. For example, Saul of Tarsus was convinced he should persecute  Christians (Acts 26:9; 1 Tim. 1:13). If our conscience isn’t always a sure bet, how can we ever be certain of discerning good from evil?

This is what the apostle addresses in this short verse. He reminds us that the “world” (1 Jn. 2:17; 5:19) we live in is always trying to “conform” and squeeze us into its twisted patterns of thinking and behavior so that we confuse good and evil, even exchange them (Isa. 5:20). This is the scheme of the devil whom Paul calls “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4). He has been muddying the waters of morality since the beginning (Gen. 3:4-5). Christians must resist this pressure being exerted upon us by the world and instead be “transformed” by the “renewal” of our “mind.”

The goal of this mental transformation is the ability to “discern” what God’s will is, “what is good and acceptable and perfect.” That is, we do not start with our own judgment about what is good, concluding that it must be God’s will. Rather, we start with God’s will as it is revealed in the pages of Scripture and therein discover what is good. By defining moral boundaries in Scripture God has saved us from trying to work out right and wrong on our own (cf. Gen. 2:17).

This moral discernment, however, does not come to us magically. Paul says that it comes “by testing.” The verb translated here (δοκιμάζω, dokimazō) carries the sense of “test with a positive outcome,” “test so as to approve.” Therefore, we are to look into God’s will and then put it into practice. When we adopt God’s will as our own (Lk. 22:42), our minds are “renewed” and our lives are “transformed.” To the renewed mind, those ethical quagmires which were unclear before are more easily navigated. By training our minds through God’s word and putting it into practice, we can see “what is good” and are in a better position to make good moral judgments.

Within God’s will there are commands and prohibitions where God tells us what is good. There are a number of good examples to follow and bad examples to avoid. We are meant to renew our minds by looking into the biblical text and drawing reasonable conclusions and logical inferences to discover God’s will for us.

“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

(Micah 6:8)

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