I had the opportunity to preach this sermon on May 18, 2014 at Christ Presbyterian Church in Olive Branch, Mississippi.
The text was Leviticus 23:15-22.
I had the opportunity to preach this sermon on May 18, 2014 at Christ Presbyterian Church in Olive Branch, Mississippi.
The text was Leviticus 23:15-22.
If you are a woman in desperate need of food, clothing, shelter but had no viable means to earn an income, what do you do? If you live in poverty, and want you and your children to have a few nice things, how do you get them if you don’t have money?
The following story is a much more normative experience than many of us in the middle class bubble would like to admit. There are many variations but the story is basically the same. A woman feels trapped and trades the necessities of life for sex.
Jessie grew up in a single parent home. Her father had taken off when she was 4 years old. Her mother had two other children by different men than Jessie’s father. Her mom lived on welfare. They lived in a dirty apartment in a section 8 housing development. By the time Jessie was a sophomore in high school her mom had been married twice and had lived with six other men outside of wedlock.
School was hard for Jessie. She was hopelessly behind. As she started her junior year in high school she was testing at the elementary school level for English and math. Jessie wanted to appear middle class but deep down inside she believed they viewed her as “white trash.”
She was longing to be loved. She wanted to be special to someone. She kept pursuing relationships but they always ended badly.
Jessie had lost her virginity at a party her freshman year. She discovered if she gave her body up for sex she would be popular with the middle class boys. They all went to parties hoping to “get lucky” and Jessie obliged them. Each boy she hoped would take her out of the generational poverty she had been raised in. But they all ended up using her for sex and casting her aside.
Jessie dropped out of high school about halfway through her junior year. She met Sam, a 20 year old high school dropout, at a party at Christmas. Sam got her drunk and had sex with her. He liked the sex so much that her brought 16 year old Jessie back to the old mobile home he was renting to stay with him.
Jessie basked in Sam’s attention and began to fantasize about having children and a real family. She couldn’t understand why Sam was so angry when she got pregnant. He worked as a construction helper making $9 an hour and they had plenty of money to party with. They could party a little less and have a family instead.
Sam came around and seemed to embrace his future family. All that changed when the realities of having a newborn living with them set in. Jessie was in no way prepared to be a mother. Sam couldn’t deal with the change in his lifestyle. Sam and Jessie started fighting. It wasn’t long until Sam was telling Jessie that is “just isn’t going to work out.” He kept threatening to kick her out during their fights.
Jessie talked to her mom about moving back in with her. Her mom wanted nothing to do with Jessie and her infant child. She had a new boyfriend that had an eye for Jessie. Mama wasn’t going to have a rival living in her house. Nor was she going to deal with crying babies and sleepless nights.
Jessie was very scared about her future. Sam was threatening to kick her with the baby out of his trailer. Her mother didn’t want her back. She had no job and her prospects were slim to none. How would she survive? With that pressing question on her mind she got into a conversation with an acquaintance, Ricky, at a party.
Ricky had his own place and a job as a part-time mechanic at a quick oil change place. He showed up at a lot of the same parties that Sam and Jessie attended but seemed to be more mature and mellow than most of the guys there. Jessie was now at the ripe old age of 18. Ricky was 27 years old. He wasn’t as ruggedly built as Sam but he seemed to have a stability about him. Jessie began some serious flirting.
The flirting paid off when, during one of their fights, Sam stormed out of the house. Jessie called Ricky. She gave him a big sob story and he came and brought Jessie and her daughter Misty home with him. Jessie rewarded Ricky with a great night of sex. Jessie was very good in bed and Ricky felt more like a man having a girlfriend living with him. He could put up with a baby as long as Jessie kept putting out for him.
About fourteen months later Ricky Junior was born. Ricky was a proud father and seemed to have embraced Misty as his daughter. Things seemed to be looking up for Jessie except for a big problem. Ricky was older and not as handsome as some of the other guys she had been with. She would go to parties with Ricky and feel herself being attracted to other guys. She couldn’t see how Ricky was burning with jealousy.
Things turned for the worse when the owner of the oil change place where Ricky worked announced he was shutting down the business. Suddenly Ricky was without a job. He was barely getting by as it was. Now with three extra mouths to feed he was stressed out. Fatherhood wasn’t all it was cut out to be and he was concerned that Jessie was going to leave him anyway. So after a few months of constant fighting he kicked her and the kids out.
Jessie was determined to set roots down somewhere. That was when she discovered that the government would give her an apartment to live in. She was already getting food stamps. She had been listing Ricky’s apartment as her address and telling the government workers that she was living alone there. Nobody bothered to verify the facts.
But now she had food stamps and an apartment compliments of the government.
It wasn’t long before she found that guys would be very sweet on her. They would romance her and giver her all sorts of stuff. All they wanted was sex. For the next ten years a string of boyfriends moved in and out of Jessie’s life. She let them stay with her and she gave them the sex they wanted as long as they gave her stuff she wanted. When they couldn’t take care of her she kicked them to the curb. She got her car, her flat screen television, her iPhone, her furniture, and extra perks for the kids that way. The government sure wasn’t going to buy them for her. She had no ability to produce an income that would enable her to purchase those things for herself.
She is now nearly 30 years old but looks like she is 40. She is overweight and in poor health. Alcohol and drug use have clouded her mind. Years of offering her body up to the highest bidder has turned her into a very cold and callous woman.
Most of the time Jesus Christ is a curse word. But when she needs extra help Jesus becomes her Savior and she hits up the various church deacon’s funds. They want to share Jesus with her but she isn’t quite interested. The church people don’t understand that a middle class lifestyle is beyond her comprehension. Even the poorest church, if it is financially self-sufficient, is middle class in her mind. She just doesn’t belong in that world. Besides, that world doesn’t want her anyway. They judge her harshly when they have never walked in her shoes.
She’s right. We do judge her harshly. She dropped out of high school when everyone knows the ticket out of poverty is to get an education. She started having sex way too young. She should have saved herself for marriage. She isn’t much of a mother to her kids. The kids have been neglected and abused. Time and time again they have experienced abandonment by father figures. So what kind of example does that set for them?
Jessie’s clothes are “slutty” and out in public she sees the looks of contempt. Middle class women scoff at her attempts to make herself look younger and more attractive. Jessie thinks they all live the life of Desperate Housewives. You know, sex with handsome men who give them really nice things like houses and cars that she can only dream about.
(Over the years, as I’ve worked with men in the church, I’ve found that most husbands of these middle class Christian wives are more sex-starved than sex-saturated. This is a reality that most poor women don’t recognize that because their perceptions of middle class families come from television and movies not personal relationships.)
So what can break through to Jessie and hundreds of thousands of women like her? I think a good choice is to take a page from the playbook of Jesus. Notice in the Gospels as he is confronted with people like Jessie he is moved with compassion towards them. His approach is gentle and kind. He offers them salvation and the hope of a new life. I think about the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well. Jesus knew she had been married 5 times and was living with a man outside of wedlock. Yet he chose to offer her “living water” (i.e., salvation) and the hope of something greater in life than she had been experiencing thus far.
Jesus moved toward broken women with redemptive words and actions that flowed from a compassionate heart. Jesus didn’t lecture the Samaritan woman on the theology of marriage. He didn’t rail against a culture that would permit such immorality. Instead he pointed her toward salvation knowing that the new life he had to offer would lead to real life change for her. God doesn’t save us to leave us where we are at. I have yet to find a passage in the Bible where God just leaves those he saves where they are at. No, he lifts us out of misery and showers abundant blessings upon us.
There are times now when I drive through the poor parts of Memphis and Desoto County, Mississippi and I find tears flowing. I see the brokenness all around me. Jesus has captured my heart and truly opening my eyes to see. When you look at the world with compassionate eyes and a heart full of mercy, it kind of changes how you think about those people around you.
I preached this sermon on June 24, 2012 at First Presbyterian Church in Water Valley, Mississippi.
The text was James 1:17-27 with a particular focus on verse 27. The message reflected on what it means to visit orphans and widows in their affliction.
Living in God’s House
The greatest danger we face in this life is that we live that life self-deceived about our true standing before God.
Jesus spoke of this self-deceit: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ I tell you, this man went town to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:10-14 ESV)
In verse 9 Luke tells us the reason for these words of Jesus: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” An inflated view of oneself leads to contempt of others.
Matthew records another statement of Jesus along these lines:“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:21-23 ESV)
One can prophecy and cast out demons in God’s name and still not have eternal life. What is required is doing God’s will. John records Jesus saying this: “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:40 ESV). God’s will is that we look to Jesus and believe in him for our salvation. Nothing else can give us eternal life.
So when we look at our human performance and evaluate our standing before God based on how He is using us in ministry we are way off base. God uses both the righteous and wicked to accomplish His purposes. Salvation is not based on how God uses us or by comparing ourselves to others. Salvation is based on our turning to Jesus and believing in him.
The writer of Hebrews is dealing with church members who have developed a skewed view of what it means to be a Christian. They have watered down the Gospel with other things. They are blind to how they are going astray because they have been deceiving themselves. So the writer warns in Hebrews 2:1 (ESV): “Therefore, we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.”
The greatest danger to the Christian is not the big public sins like sexual immorality, theft, murder, and slanderous gossip. The real danger is the subtle self-deceit that says, “I’m okay with God because God is using me and I look around me and see myself doing much better than others.” For when salvation begins to revolve around us and our experience we start taking our eyes off of Jesus, “the author and perfecter of our faith,” (Hebrews 12:2). This diminishes Jesus and opens the door for all sorts of erroneous thinking and belief to enter our hearts.
The writer addresses this issue through a short exposition of Psalm 95. He introduces his exposition with a short introduction comparing Jesus with Moses.
Moses was faithful over God’s house as a servant. His purpose was to point people to something to come. Jesus, is both God’s son and the one appointed by God to build His house (3:3-6).
Jesus is the Son and heir to God’s house. In fact according to the writer he is the “heir of all things” (1:2). The house Jesus inherits is made of God’s people. It is a living house built with living people, not bricks and mortar.
“As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:4-5 ESV)
“For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building…..Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” (1 Corinthians 3:9, 16-17 ESV)
The writer of Hebrews uses the same word picture as Peter and Paul to describe God’s people. Jesus is the Son who rules over God’s house, a house formed of living stones, that is, His people.
How can one know they are a living stone being built into God’s house? The only way to know is if one holds fast to their confidence and boasting in their hope (3:6). The “hope” being the truths confessed by God’s people. We know we are God’s house if we stand firm in the Gospel and are willing to testify to our belief in it.
“By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” (John 15:8 ESV)
“So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:17-19 ESV)
“So faith, by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:17 ESV)
“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13 ESV)
“For we are his workmanship, creating in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10 ESV)
Salvation leads to bearing fruit (good works). A Christian’s life is the evidence of their faith. As one person once put it, “If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Those who are God’s house, His people, remain firmly rooted in Jesus.
“Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” (Colossians 2:6-7 ESV)
The test for a church member to see if they are truly a “living stone” in God’s house and truly are a co-heir with Jesus Christ is they stand on the confession they have made. Is their confidence in Jesus? Do they still speak of Jesus as their Lord and Savior?
Psalm 95 is a very sensible choice for the writer of Hebrews to develop themes of perseverance and apostasy.
Psalm 95 is both a song of praise and an exhortation. Imagine it being sung in the corporate worship of the Old Testament Church. For it lifts the soul up to see the glory of God and sing His praises and then reminds God’s people of the depths of their sin and warns them not to depart from a place where they are singing God’s praises.
“Oh come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!”
“For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands form the dry land.”
“Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.”
“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your fathers put me to the test and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.”
“For forty years I loathed that generation and said, ‘they are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways.’ Therefore, I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’ (Psalm 95 ESV)
What does the Psalmist refer to when he writes about Meribah and Massah?
All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the lord, and camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”
And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?”
But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?”
So Moses cried to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
And the Lord said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold,, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.”
And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7-7 ESV)
Some years later Israel again was near the rock at Horeb and in need of water. Again God brought forth water for them, but this time, Moses stumbled into sin.
Now there was no water for the congregation. And they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. And the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! Why have ou brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place? It is no place for grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, and there is no water to drink.”
Then Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly to the entrance of the tent of meeting and fell on their faces. And the glory of the Lord appeared to them, and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.” And Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as he commanded him.
Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock.
And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land I have given them.” These are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarreled with the Lord, and through them he showed himself holy. (Numbers 20:2-13 ESV)
Rather than exalt God, Moses chose to exalt himself. He did not uphold God as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel. This sin prevented Moses and Aaron from leading Israel into the Promised Land.
Membership in the Old Testament Church did not guarantee one entrance into the Promised Land. Entrance into the Promised Land was through a faith that resulted in obedience. Throughout history God’s people are not saved by good works but are saved for good works.
This is why our confession states: “Good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have to the end, eternal life.” (WCF 16.2)
The Danger of an Unbelieving Heart
The writer of Hebrews uses Psalm 95 to discuss the biggest reason why church members don’t persevere in the faith until the end. They drift away because unbelief leads to a hardened heart. Those with hardened hearts never truly embrace Jesus is faith, and thus, are denied entrance into eternal life, which the writer describes as a “rest”.
After the writer quotes the exhortation to faithfulness from Psalm 95 he makes this statement: “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you and evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God” (3:12).
An evil, unbelieving heart leads members of the New Testament Church away from Jesus in the same way that an evil, unbelieving heart did in the Old Testament Church. At the heart of all apostasy is an unbelieving heart.
This is why it is so important for Christians to exhort one another “every day”. Why? So that none of us will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (3:13). Sin lies to us and says we don’t have to stand firm in the biblical Gospel to be saved (3:14). It tells us we are okay if we accept a different Gospel, one that makes more sense to us.
Many people in the church today are what the Puritan theologian Stephen Charnock called “practical atheists.” These church members confess Jesus with their mouths and then turn around and live as if he doesn’t exist. This is the danger of sin’s deceitfulness. It subtly leads us away from God. So God is confessed and denied at the same time.
But, like slowly turning up the heat on a frog in a kettle, the subtle deceitfulness of sins of the heart lead us away from God into a world of unbelief. It isn’t until our hearts have been hardened that we even recognize the transformation. Many grow up in the church and become church members, all the while they are embracing a tradition instead of Jesus, and their hearts slowly harden until they drift away.
Paul tells Timothy of a time coming when people will fashion their own Gospel that suits their own passions: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4 ESV)
God, through the prophet Hosea, speaks of how material wealth leads to a pride that turned Israel away from Him: “For I am the Lord your God from the land of Egypt; you know no God but me, and besides me there is no savior. It was I who knew you in the wilderness, in the land of drought; but when they had grazed, they became full, they were filled, and their heart was lifted up, therefore they forgot me.” (Hosea 13:4-6 ESV)
In both cases people who appear to be true believers drift away into apostasy. Those who drift away aren’t even aware of what is going on inside them to cause them to drift away. They focus on their desires on their own pleasure and lose the capability to truly examine what lies inside.
So what was the status of those who turn away? Were they truly living stones that were part of God’s house, the temple of God’s Spirit? Not according to the writer of Hebrews.
“For we share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (3:14). The Greek word translated “confidence” appears most commonly in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) as the ground or basis of hope. We know we truly have eternal life if Christ continues to be the basis of our hope and we hold that hope to the end. This is what we call “perseverance of the saints.” God’s people remain faithful to the end of their lives.
The writer goes on to point out that those who had hardened their hearts were the ones who had left Egypt with Moses. It was these people who experienced God’s miraculous deliverance from Egypt who rebelled against God in the wilderness. They were the ones who provoked God and, because of that, were prohibited from entering the Promised Land (3:16-18). In other words, they disobeyed the call to believe and trust in God alone.
The writer of Hebrews points out that this fundamental disobedience is the fruit of unbelief. “So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief” (3:19). So despite seeing miracles and being used by God in many wonderful ways, at the heart of the generation that came out of Israel in the exodus was a stubborn lack of faith that resulted in disobedience.
This is what James calls a dead faith, a faith without works. Jesus spoke in a passage quoted above that an unhealthy tree cannot bear good fruit.
The writer of Hebrews sees the people to whom he is writing and is unsure of their true standing before God. He sees some as embracing the Christian community without really embracing Christ. They were Christian by tradition, not they have a faith that leads to eternal life. Those who are Christian by tradition are not “rooted and built up in Christ,” so they fall away into apostasy.
So the Gospel to these church members is: Don’t count on the fact that you are church members or that God may be using you for His glory. You need to repent and embrace Jesus as he is offered in the Gospel. You need Jesus. You need to truly be part of God’s house. If you aren’t truly part of God’s house you will fall away just as so many Israelites did in the wilderness under Moses.
The promise of eternal rest (i.e., eternal life) is still there (4:1). Those who hear these words still have an opportunity to become part of God’s house. The opportunity for repentance and faith won’t remain forever so the writer emphasizes “today” as the time for action.
The good news came to the Israelites in the wilderness, but the message didn’t benefit them because they were not united by faith with those who did hear the Gospel message. They made a decision to reject God because God had not brought them by faith into His house (4:2).
For the writer entering eternal rest is a matter of faith. For it is “we who believed” that enter the rest (4:3). But for those who do not enter the rest it is a matter of disobedience, “those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience” (4:6). One enters eternal life by hearing the good news and responding with faith. One is condemned to eternal death, not because one fails to hear of Jesus, but because of one’s disobedience.
The Sabbath rest for the people of God is not yet a present reality but a future hope (4:8-10). It is a future hope that is realized by those who live by faith in Jesus. “I have been crucified by Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
In conclusion, the writer of Hebrews sees an evil, unbelieving heart as the great barrier to entering God’s eternal rest. The unbelieving heart gets hardened and drifts away into apostasy. But the believing heart remains firm in the good news as it was proclaimed and becomes a “living stone” in God’s house.
In the Church, the true believer perseveres until the end. Those that don’t truly believe drift away into apostasy.
The writer of Hebrews has his own version of Paul’s teaching on sanctification and living sacrifices. Sanctification is the process by which God makes us holy.
In the case of sanctification he writes: “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience” (4:11).
Compare with Paul’s writing: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13)
In the case of living sacrifices he writes: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” (4:12-13)
The writer here uses a vivid word picture to describe how God’s word cuts us up. The language and imagery is that of preparing an animal for sacrifice. God’s word is the sharp sword that cuts us up into a living sacrifice.
Remember what Peter wrote: “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5)
Also remember what Paul wrote: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable worship.” (Romans 12:1-2)
We are a holy priesthood that offers ourselves up to God as living sacrifices. It only makes sense to worship God this way. The way we prepare ourselves for sacrifice is to be chopped up by God’s Word. If we want to live a life that is pleasing to God we must understand the role the Bible plays in that life. It is the Bible that God uses to prepare us to be an acceptable sacrifice to Him through Jesus Christ.
The Bible teaches that we are living stone in God’s house, His temple, that is being built. Jesus, His Son, is the head of the house and the heir. We are a royal priesthood called to offer ourselves up as living sacrifices to God. God’s Word, the Bible, is what he uses to prepare us to be His living sacrifices.
This is why the Bible is so important to a Christian’s life. It isn’t just some book that must be read to be spiritual. The goal isn’t just to acquire knowledge about God. The Bible is also a tool in God’s hands in which He prepares us to live a life that truly brings Him glory.
When I was growing up I attended Baptist churches with a strong fundamentalist bent. Raising hands, clapping, kneeling, even moving to the sound of the music (i.e. dancing) was all frowned upon. There were no shouts of “glory” and “hallelujah” during the sermon. No loud and hearty “amens” during the prayer time. It was very stiff and formal. I have never broken free of that heritage even though my heart cries out for more. I was raised to worship God with my mind but not my emotions and body.
I’ve met some people who cringe at the thought of worship without clapping, raising hands and shouting for joy. Worship that isn’t full of body movement and emotion just isn’t worship to them. The idea of attending a church that elevates the mind to the exclusion of the body and emotion is absurd.
The first thing we must recognize is that mind, emotion and body movement are all appropriate in the corporate assembly of God’s people. As we gather together at the call of our God to worship him, we recognize that the Scriptures call for a wide range of responses.
It is important to engage the mind in worship. Psalm 19 reminds us: “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.” God’s Word (described in Psalm 19 as his law, testimony, precepts, commandment, and rules) reaches into our lives through our minds to revive us, to make us wise, to cause our heart to rejoice and to enlighten us. As we incorporate God’s Word in our worship it is important to stay mentally engaged. Tuning out for some emotional joy ride is to leave out an important part of worship.
It is also important to engage the body in worship. Have you ever noticed the typical response when Psalm 95:6 is used as a call to worship? The pastor says, “O come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!” What does the congregation do? They stand up or sit or do anything but bow down and kneel. As a young Christian I asked a church leader about this. The answer I remember getting was, “We bow down in our hearts.” But that is not what the Psalms teach. They teach physical kneeling and bowing down.
Other Psalms mention other body movements. Psalm 47:1 “Clap your hands, all people! Shout to God with loud songs of joy!” Then there is Psalm 63:4 “So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name will I lift up my hands.” Or how about Psalm 150:4? “Praise him with tambourine and dance, praise him with strings and pipe?”
We understand the word we translate “dance” to mean spontaneous body movement that comes in the context of worship. Its kind of like tapping one’s toes to a favorite tune.
Think about emotional energy in worship and then think of the Psalms. How about Psalm 100? “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth!” Or Psalm 108? “My heart is steadfast, O God! I will sing and make melody with all my being!” How about Psalm 29? “The voice of the Lord makes the deer give birth and strips the forests bare, and in his temple all cry, ‘Glory!’” Maybe Psalm 33? “Shout for joy to the Lord, O you righteous!” Despite all these injunctions think of how tame and quiet we often are in our corporate worship.
When we respond to the moving of God’s Holy Spirit as we gather in his presence we engage our mind, emotions and body. In other words, we worship God with our whole being. The challenge of multi-cultural worship lies in the reality of multiple life experiences and differences in cultural values. How can people who grew up emphasizing the mind in worship feel comfortable with those who grew up emphasizing body and emotion? How can those used to body movement and emotion handle a worship service that also values the mind? These are important questions for us to think about.
Multi-cultural worship doesn’t remain multi-cultural if we force conformity upon everyone. Not everyone will shout “glory” when they are deeply touched by a part of the service. In fact, some might prefer to just nod their heads silently. Can’t we do both? Can’t the people who want to shout “glory” shout “glory”? Can’t the people who want to nod their heads in silence do so?
The beauty of multi-cultural worship is that we are all challenged to grow in our worship of God by people around us. Positive change always takes time. We will be a stronger, richer congregation if we have people from various cultural perspectives worshiping together.
My prayer is that we learn to love one another deeply in the midst of our differences. I also pray that God would give us wisdom to do all things in a manner that will build up the congregation.
I wrote this article back in 2001. It explores the pastoral side of John Calvin’s ministry. Most of us know Calvin to be a great theologian. He was also a man with a great pastor’s heart.
Over the years I have often heard churches that extensively use the Bible in their worship service criticized rather harshly. These congregations are tired, old, boring traditional churches out of touch with the needs of modern people. I will grant that some churches that extensively use the Bible are tired, old and boring. But that’s not the Bible’s fault. The problem with tired, old and boring congregations lies squarely with the membership.
Below are some thoughts as to why we are so tempted to minimize the reading of the Bible in the worship service. Following these thoughts are a reflection on the benefits of reading the Bible in the worship service.
Why do we so disdain the use of the Bible in our worship services? First, God uses His Word to shape us and to remake us in the image of Jesus Christ. The writer of Hebrews observes, “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marry, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12). The imagery is of the priest preparing a sacrifice in the Temple. The sacrifice is chopped up in preparation to be presented to God on the altar. God chops us up by his Word and prepares us to be of service to him. The sinful nature within us often fights this process. God’s Word becomes too convicting. Too much Bible leads to too much conviction. We don’t like that.
We also have a tendency to find God’s Word to be boring and irrelevant. After all, we all have our own agendas. The life God calls us to as his children does have its consequences. The Word of God brings us into a head on confrontation with the cherished norms of the culture we live in. Our agenda is often driven by cultural desires, not by God’s Word. God’s Word attacks our worldliness. But we often feel that God is hopelessly out of step with the realities of life. It is as if He has no real understanding of our desires and needs. After all, the apostle John, under the inspiration of God writes, “For all that is in the world – the desires of the eyes and the pride in possessions – is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” (1 John 2:16-17). Could it be that finding God’s Word boring and irrelevant is but a defense mechanism?
We don’t want God to shake us out of our comfort zone. We don’t mind a church full off personal religious expressions, people singing and speaking about their walk with God. That’s okay. But we don’t want God consistently speaking to us through His Word. So we convince ourselves that “for the sake of the non-Christian who might attend our worship services” we must cut down on the use of the Bible in church services. But God has consistently said that unbelievers become believers through the concentrated reading and preaching of His Word. If unbelievers are turned off by our worship services, could it be because they see our boredom and disinterest and suppose that God is boring and irrelevant. Maybe the problem with boring church services isn’t God’s fault but ours?
Why do we criticize the extensive use of the Bible in worship? I believe the answer lies with us and our hearts. For a moment let’s think about why the extensive use of the Bible in worship is a good thing.
Psalm 119 is a gift that God has given us. In it he gives us a picture of one who is filled with the Holy Spirit and trusting in the Savior to come, Jesus Christ. In other words, the writer of this inspired Psalm is a believer. As a believer he paints a picture of his relationship to God’s Word.
The Psalmist believes that trust in God’s Word (which is tantamount to trusting God Himself) brings salvation. “Let your steadfast love come to me, O Lord, your salvation according to your promise…for I trust in your word.” Psalm 119:41-42.
The Psalmist believes that God’s Word is more wonderful than any sweet thing he could eat. “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” Psalm 119: 103.
The Psalmist believes that God’s Word will help him see and understand his life and the world around him. “The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.” Psalm 119:130.
Speaking of light and understanding, the Psalmist believes that God’s Word presents a true and accurate picture of reality. “The sum of your word is truth, and every one of your righteous rules endures forever.” Psalm 119:160.
The Psalmist finds that God’s Word is more valuable that hitting it big with the lottery. “I rejoice in your word like one who finds great spoil.” Psalm 119:162.
The Psalmist loves God’s Word so much that he promises to sing it. “My tongue will sing of your word, for all your commandments are right.” Psalm 119:172.
In fact, the Psalmist recognizes that his key in fighting sin is knowing God’s Word. “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” Psalm 119:11.
What does all this mean? It means that a worship service where God’s Word is central can meet the real spiritual needs of God’s people. A continual saturation with God’s Word leads to transformation because God’s Spirit takes His Word and uses it for His glory.
The Bible is God’s gracious gift to us. God uses the Scriptures to work in our lives. The more we are exposed to the Bible the better it is for us.
© 2002 by Chris Accardy. All Rights Reserved. Permission is granted to freely copy this article as long as it is reproduced in it’s entirety and proper credit is given to the author.
Due to the influence Baptists have had on American culture, many simply assume that John the Baptist baptized by immersion. Few would question this assumption. After all the Baptists tell us that the word “baptize” means immersion and only immersion. They also tell us that Jews practiced baptism by immersion at the time of John. Rather than look at secular usages of the word “baptize” and alleged practices of Jews outside the teaching of Scripture, I think it is best to look at the Bible itself for direction in understanding the word “baptize”. If we look at the Bible I believe we can come to no other conclusion: John’s mode of baptizing was by sprinkling.
I am not presenting anything new here. This perspective is shared by the majority of Christians throughout the centuries that base their faith on the teaching of the Bible.
Consider the following:
Old Testament Baptisms
The writer of Hebrews identifies certain purification rites in the Old Testament as “washings”. The writer of Hebrews, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is using a Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint as he writes his letter. He writes that part of the Old Testament system that pointed to Christ was “diverse washings” (Hebrews 9:13, 19, 21 KJV). These “washings” the writer refers to are called “baptisms” in the translation of the Old Testament he is using. The word is often translated by the word “washing” or some synonym because the baptisms that the writer of Hebrews has in mind are all connected to the idea of cleansing and purification.
The first baptism mentioned in Hebrews 9 was the sprinkling of ashes on the unclean (Hebrews 9:13 cf. Numbers 19:17-18). In Numbers 19 an unclean person needed to be sprinkled with a mixture of ashes and water to be made clean. In the New Testament it is Jesus who makes the unclean clean.
The second baptism occurred when Moses sprinkled blood on Israel after reading the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 24:1-8 cf. Hebrews 9:19). This sprinkling acted as a seal that bound Israel to live by what they just heard and a sign that pointed the saving work of the Lord God as he delivered them from Egypt and made them His people. In the New Testament it is Jesus’ blood that points to God’s saving work and binds God’s people to believe and obey Him.
The last Old Testament baptism in Hebrews 9 describes the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:14 cf. Hebrews 9:21). This great Day pointed to saving work of Jesus Christ on the Cross. Israel looked forward to Christ’s purifying sacrifice on the Cross by observing the Day of Atonement.
The “diverse baptisms” of the Old Testament all had something to do with cleansing and purification – making Israel fit to be God’s people and live in His presence. They were all sprinklings.
John the Baptist was the last Old Covenant prophet. He was called to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus. A significant part of his ministry was baptizing repentant Israelites. When Pharisees, priests and Levites came from Jerusalem in an attempt to discern John’s identity they wondered why he was baptizing. They all expected the Messiah (or Christ – both mean God’s anointed Savior) to be baptizing. When John denied he was either the Messiah or the Prophet who prepared the way for the Messiah these Jewish leaders could not understand why John was baptizing (see John 1:19-25). Where could they have gotten the idea that the coming of the Messiah was connected with baptism? From the Old Testament of course!
These religious leaders knew the messianic passages in Isaiah very well. Isaiah predicted that when the Messiah came he would baptize by sprinkling. Isaiah 52:15 predicted that the Messiah would “sprinkle many nations”. Remember that the writer of Hebrews already connected the idea of baptism and sprinkling together when it came to the Old Testament. The Hebrew word used in Isaiah that is translated “sprinkling” is the word that the writer of Hebrews translates “baptism”. Sprinkling carried the connotation of cleansing and purification. It is interesting to note that John’s baptism was also a baptism of cleansing and purification in that it was for the “remission of sins” (Matthew 3:1-10; Mark 1:1-8; Luke 3:1-14).
In the Apostle John’s account of John the Baptist’s work he records a conversation between John’s disciples and a Jew regarding baptism (John 3:23-25). The question at hand was purification. Given the nature of Old Testament baptism this Jewish man naturally thought John’s baptism was for purification in the same way that the Old Testament baptisms were. The Old Testament baptisms that Jews knew that reminded them of purification were all sprinklings!
In fact, John made sure he sprinkled them with clean water, as a symbol of purity, when he baptized them. That is why he was baptizing in the springs of Aenon (John 3:22-34). Aenon means “springs” or “fountains” in Greek. There was “much water” there because there were springs all over the place. In fact, the Greek translated “much water” is “hudata polla” which literally means “waters many”. In other words, Aenon was a place with many springs that produced water. The phrase is talking about the volume of water, not it’s depth.
One often imagines big pools of water in which John stood waist deep as people came to him. Aenon was not such a place. There was “much water” but it was not very deep. This would be the ideal place to sprinkle the mass of Jews coming to him with a baptism of purification (i.e. for the “remission of sins”).
My Baptist upbringing led me to assume that John baptized by immersion. But the Bible gives us absolutely no reason to believe that he did baptize by immersion. Even if immersion was a Jewish means of baptism at the time of John as some say, I’m not sure it would be wise to assert that John baptized by immersion. Why? That would mean that John used a mode of baptism that is foreign to the Bible. The Old Testament clearly teaches baptism by sprinkling. What kind of prophet ignores God’s Word and does things the popular way? I do not believe that John, a prophet of God, would ignore God’s inspired and authoritative Word like that. John’s baptism was one of sprinkling for the remission of sins. It pointed to the cleansing and purifying work that Jesus Christ would do in his death for sin and in his giving of the Holy Spirit upon his ascension into heaven.