Archive for the ‘Worship’ Category

Headline from The Birmingham News in October 1918

Recently a pastor friend of mine called for other pastors to defy their state’s regulations and still hold in-person Church services during our COVID-19 lockdown. His scriptural reason was to make sure we don’t disobey Hebrews 10:25 ‘…not neglecting to meet together…’

I respect his views, and value him and his ministry as a brother and partner in the Gospel, however I respectfully disagree with that view.

The matter of civil disobedience, obeying God rather than man (Acts 5:29), can be a thorny path to tread, since it can so easily slip into becoming political, aligning ourselves with the Right or the Left (either directly, or indirectly), and taking on rhetoric that comes from secular political movements rather than using a Gospel vocabulary. Sadly, it can lead to Christians becoming divided over secondary matters, and becoming distracted from that which unites us – the Gospel of Christ crucified, risen and reigning.

So the way in which we respond (if at all) to our government leaders, and whether or not pastors call their people to obey or disobey civil authorities must always be carefully, prayerfully and Biblically thought through.

It will be helpful to take a closer look at the Hebrews passage in question, seeing the full statement in its context, to see if it does actually require us to keep our churches open during pandemic restrictions.

See the phrase within its immediate literary context:

19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
26 For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. (Hebrews 10:19-27, ESV)

See how reading the phrase in its wider context show that the issue at stake here is much more nuanced that simply the matter of whether or not I show up to Church on Sunday?

The main thesis of the book of Hebrews is that we have, because of Jesus our Great High Priest, a confidence to draw near to the throne of God, knowing that the sacrifice of Jesus at the cross was fully sufficient to atone for our sin. The recipients of this letter were (mostly) Jews who had come to faith in Jesus as their Messiah, and in doing so they had suffered great loss – being ostracised by family and community, losing their homes and property, although they had not yet faced a level of persecution that threatened their lives (12:4). But most likely the reason why they had not lost their lives was because they were beginning to cave in to the pressure to return to the old system, represented by the Temple and its sacrifices. They were being told that Christ was not enough; they must still observe the Law, including the Temple rituals, in order to have an assurance that they are justified before God.

But this old system has been made obsolete by Jesus, argues the author. It’s ‘growing old’ and is ‘ready to vanish away’ (8:13). It’s only the shadow of which Christ is the reality (8:5, 10:1). It can never perfect the worshipper nor clear their conscience (9:13-14); it cannot produce true and godly repentance (6:6). Only faith in Christ can bring about the fruit of ‘full assurance’ and a ‘hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience.’ (10:22) that can give us the confidence to approach the Throne of Grace (read: ‘Mercy Seat’) (4:16).

Those Hebrews who are warned several times about ‘falling away’ (3:12, 6:6) were not ‘losing their religion’ in the modern sense of no longer believing in God. They were going back to the old religious system, thinking that the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ was not fully sufficient and needed supplementing by the animal sacrifices and traditions. They were rejecting ‘the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven’ (12:23) – literally ‘the ecclesia of the firstborn,’ what we know as by the english word ‘Church’ – in preference for the ‘assembly’ of the Temple. They had stopped meeting on Sunday with Christians to hear the Apostles’ teaching that pointed them to Christ, and instead had returned to the Synagogue on Saturday where the Rabbis were pointing them to the Temple and the observance of days and sabbaths and rules and traditions.

All of that is behind the call in 10:25 which stresses, albeit in a negative way, the importance of meeting together (interestingly, he uses the verbal form of ‘synagogue’ here rather than of ‘ecclesia’). He confronts those who have ‘neglected’ (or ‘forsaken’) gathering together, such that it has become a ‘habit’ – a way of life. They hadn’t missed a few Sundays here and there. They had abandoned Church and gone back to Temple.

These are those who have effectively said, ‘I don’t need church, because I’m OK on my own. I have my own means of carrying out my relationship with God, and it just so happens that my way is also much more acceptable to the world around me. My way will avoid persecution, it will make me accepted an approved by my community, because it’s really just the status quo. I’d much more prefer that, than having to ‘go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured’ (13:13). Church is just too much effort, too much risk. I prefer the easy, individual path of self-righteousness.’

This is what it means to disobey 10:25; that which is called ‘sinning’ in verse 26, because it’s an attitude that no longer relies on Christ alone, but on other ‘sacrifices’ and ultimately on me and my personal spirituality.

Closing our church doors temporarily during lockdown isn’t the disobedience that Hebrews describes. Closing our doors permanently would be. Saying to our people, ‘Gathering regularly isn’t important; you don’t need the meet with your brothers and sisters to encourage one another or spur one another on to love and good works,’ would be. Downplaying the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice, making people think they can and need to find comfort and assurance in other things and ‘assemblies’ outside of him and his church, would be.

But saying ‘We will stay home, for the time being, as the government has directed (just as every other citizen regardless of their faith has been directed) and in this time we will seek to be creative about how we continue to love one another,’ is not disobedience. It recognises that our God-given government is actually working, in this case, in the best interests of all of its citizens and of the nation. They are not doing this out of a particular political or religious agenda, but under the common-grace wisdom that God tells us he still gives to the authorities of this world:

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. (1 Peter 2:13-15, ESV)

Note how, in this context, ‘doing good’ is something that that was defined, in a civil sense, by governors and even the Emperor (Yes, even the Emperor of that time who was instituting a brutal, state-sanctioned persecution of Christians!). Christians should not exalt what we see as our ‘civil rights’ over and above the command to love our neighbour, or to do anything that might discredit the Gospel. We are told, ‘If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.’ (Romans 12:18) and to pray for our government, ‘that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. (1 Timothy 2:2).

If the time comes when the Church is unreasonably targeted with restrictions that are not placed on the whole community; or if the authorities begin directing when, where and how we are to conduct our worship, or seeking to censor the content of our sermons; or if they require us to call evil good and good evil (beyond simply taking away tax breaks or funding); only then will we need to start having the conversation about civil disobedience.

In the meantime, let’s remain thankful, trusting in our sovereign Father, and being creative in how we may go about encouraging one another ‘all the more as we see the Day drawing near’.

This is not a post about gay marriage (In fact that’s the only time I’ll mention it).

It’s about the absurdity of the statement, ‘Believe in Love.’ It was displayed at the recent Superbowl, which while an all-American event, seems inexplicable to capture the eyes of millions outside the US. There was even a gaggle of viewers watching it on the big screen at the new Flinders Uni Plaza; I happened to walk past just as the thousands of cards given to spectators were held up to display the message.

The statement is very telling in regard to our late-modern, post-Christian western culture. A few generations ago a large proportion of the western world would have affirmed Jesus’ call, ‘Believe in God’ (John 14:1) even if they weren’t so strong on what he said next, ‘…believe also in me.’

The values of our culture were built to a large degree on the acknowledgement of a Creator, on whom we are dependant for life, breath and pretty much everything. The source of human wisdom, progress and compassion was generally seen to be outside ourselves, in God (however people understood that title).

It seems like we then went through a shift, in which ‘God’ was gradually removed, and the call simply became ‘Just believe’. This nebulous mandate, perpetuated in popular culture by the music, movie and media industries, allowed us to jettison faith in God, but still retain the virtue of faith, and to choose whatever we wanted to believe in, as long as it enabled us to fulfill our dreams.

The 2016 Superbowl message simply confirms what was underlying the message of ‘Just believe,’ which is becoming more explicit. Now that we have chased God out of the public arena, as well as the cathedrals of our own hearts, there is only one thing left to believe in – yourself. Believe in your ability to love. Believe in and love yourself. Believe in your right to love whomever and whatever you please. Believe in the legitimacy of your self-love, no matter what the old fashioned religious people say. Believe that you can achieve what you dream and get what you want, even if it means others may have nothing.

Self-belief (set against faith in God) is at the heart of idolatry. It leads us to fashion our gods in our own image, so that our adamic narcissism can be masked by a facade of false piety and self sufficiency. Thinking we are free and wise and loving, we are in reality being enslaved by the idol of self, gutted of our true humanity as we dig our own graves with a smile on our faces, convinced that our individualistic, libertarian rights-focussed rhetoric will somehow save us.

Jesus’ message (the Gospel) tears down this facade by exposing our selfish sinfulness and calling us back to faith in the only one who can rescue us from ourselves. That’s why it’s so offensive, and so counter cultural. It claims that true love can only happen when our gaze is drawn away from our navels, and onto the man on the cross, the empty tomb, and the Son of Man coming in the clouds. Such a vision kills off any selfish pride, ambition and self love by declaring, ‘You are a great sinner – but Jesus is an even greater saviour. Believe in God; believe also in him.’

“Not another blog post on this question!” I hear you say.

Initially I decided that I would not post anything in response to the current debate in the US about the potential dismissal of a professor from a leading Evangelical college over her claim that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. Many people have written on this, a large number defending the college’s evangelical commitment. Many have pointed out that trinitarian Christians and unitarian Muslims do not worship the same God, since each of their affirmations and denials about the nature of God are an anathema to the other (eg. Christians affirm the divinity of Jesus, which is blasphemy to a Muslim; Muslims deny that God can have a son, which is heresy to Christians.)

However to date, I have not seen (maybe I have missed it) a writer wrestling with two verses in the New Testament which on the face of it may seem to lend support for the professor’s statement:

‘You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.’ (John 4:22)

‘What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.’ (Acts 17:23)

I have singled these two out because both of them use the word ‘worship’ – implying that both the Samaritans’ and the Athenian’s approach is not merely about conceptual knowledge or confession of beliefs, but also about devotion and piety. They don’t simply have an idea in their heads about God, but practice it in acts of devotion and worship.

Similarly, both make a statement about the worshipper being ignorant in some way, and needing a fuller, correct revelation; this fuller revelation will bring a reformation of their worship.

All this may sound like the professor is onto something. Maybe even the Pope was onto something when he said the Muslims and Christians are brothers and sisters.

However, when we take a closer look at these verses, we will see that they do not, in fact, support the idea that there are non-Christians who worship God, albeit in a faulty or deficient way.

The first thing to notice is that the two words translated in our English Bibles as ‘worship’ and ‘know’ are different in each verse. This reflects the two different contexts: in one (John 4:22) Jesus is speaking to a Samaritan, and in the other (Acts 17:23) Paul is speaking to Greek philosophers. Straight away that should indicate to us that we cannot take these two verses out of their context and throw them together as if they are identical in their meaning.

John 4:22

Jesus has been speaking to the Samaritan woman, and she has raised the issue of where true worship of God is supposed to take place – since the Jews had the temple in Jerusalem, and Samaritans had their own alternative temple in Samaria, which they set up after the retuning exiles from Babylon in the 5th century BC rejected their help in rebuilding the Jerusalem temple.

Jesus dismisses this as the key issue, instead saying that true worship of his Father will be in the power of the Spirit, and is not tied to location or architecture. His statement ‘salvation is from the Jews’ is an affirmation that, up to this point, Jerusalem is the correct location for the Temple and therefore worship of God; it is the centre of His presence with His people. However, this is about to change now that the true temple, priest and sacrifice has appeared in his person. The coming of Jesus does away with both right places of worship (such as the Samaritan temple) and the right place of worship (the Jerusalem temple) as people now come to the Father through faith in Jesus.

Jesus however is not invalidating all that the Samaritans did in their worship. They held firmly to the first five books of the Scriptures, and so both their theology (understanding of who God is) and form of worship was orthodox. However their understanding of God’s purposes was deficient since they did not acknowledge the rest of the Old Testament – the Prophets, Psalms and historical books.

When Jesus says, ‘you worship what you do not know,’ the word here for worship refers to the physical act of bowing down or prostrating oneself (and is sometimes used in this literal sense) that forms part of a worshipper’s actions. And the word for ‘know’ means a knowledge that comes from seeing and experiencing – rather than a conceptual knowledge. In other words, the Samaritans go through the motions, but their experience of God is lacking, because they do not come to the true seat of His presence in Jerusalem.

Jesus on several occasions, both in practice and in his teaching, appeared to be affirming the Samaritans in their identity as the ten Northern tribes of Israel, who were one day to be reunited with their Southern Jewish brothers (See Ezekiel 37). This is fulfilled when Samaritans are included in the experience of Pentecost in Acts 8. In that sense, the Samaritans were ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’ whom Jesus the Good Shepherd has regathered into the flock through his death and resurrection. The Gospel has dispelled their ignorance, and brought them into the full revelation of the Father and His plan so that they may be one with their Jewish brothers in worshipping Him.

Acts 17:23

Paul’s address in Athens begins with an acknowledgement that the Athenians are ‘very religious’ – and he uses a word that may also be translated, ‘superstitious’. The word he uses for ‘worship’ (twice in 23) is one that means ‘pious’ or ‘devoted’ – which ties in with his description of Athenian religion as superstitious. It’s a word often associated with idolatry.

When he says that they ‘worship’ that which is ‘unknown,’ he uses a word from their own philosophical vocabulary – the word from which we get our English word ‘agnostic’. This is an ignorance that comes either from lack of learning, or from the sheer incomprehensibility  of the thing that is unknown. It’s a statement of conceptual knowledge, rather than experiential knowledge.

The Athenians took pride in the fact that they were able to acknowledge the reality of something of which they had no knowledge. They knew they did not know everything, and so  there was a distinct possibility that there was, out there, an ‘unknown god.’ This was a ‘dark matter’ god – one deduced by human reason, yet not encountered in human experience. Paul devastates their intellectual pride by equating this lofty philosophical learning with superstitious religion.

Paul’s claim is that the message he brings of Jesus and the Resurrection is one that will cut through this superstitious ignorance, replacing it with a clear and present truth that will call for a response of repentance. The God he describes to the Athenians is one that demolishes and replaced both the superstitious god of paganism and the deistic, conceptual god of the philosophers.

Conclusion

Neither John 4:22 nor Acts 17:23 can be used to support the claim that adherents of the monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Islam and Christianity worship the same God. The former refers to those who, in a sense, were already ‘in’ the true people of God; the latter refers to those whose worship is false, arrogant and idolatrous.