May 19, 2013

Scripture and Commentary, Whitsun Week


Monday in Whitsun Week

Lectionary

Morning - Ps.139, Rev. 1:17-20, 1 Cor. 3:9-17
Evening - Ps. 105, Jer. 31:31-34, Acts 4:13-22

Commentary, Revelation 1:17-20


Today's passage shows the risen Christ in the midst of the seven churches. These are not symbols of seven ages of the Church, or the Church in different eras of time. They are seven specific and real churches located in the area known today as Turkey in the time frame of the middle of the first century A.D. These churches, with others throughout the Roman Empire, were in the beginning of a time which the Bible calls the tribulation (Rev. 1:9). It was a time of blood. Many would leave the faith, and many more would consider leaving it. Revelation was written to these churches in their time to prepare them for what was coming and to encourage them to stand firm in the faith at all costs.

In the coming chapters our Lord addresses each church with a message that affirms its faith, and also admonishes it for its shortcomings. Obviously our Lord is trying to prepare them for that great Day when they stand before God to give an account of their lives and their works. But there is also a more immediate application of His words. The tribulation is upon them and it is going to grow stronger and more devastating before it gets better. Any church, or Christian, that does not have an undivided, single minded faith will not be able to endure it, and only those who endure to the end will be saved. Thus, they need to get their houses in order. They need to decide here and now where their loyalties lie, and who their God is.

This is the essential message of the book of Revelation. The pictures of the fall of God's enemies are included only to encourage the Church in faith. Empires may rise and fall, attacking the Church like ravenous beasts. They will pass away, and God's true people will abide. One day, they will be cast into an eternity of living death, but the Church will be with God in unimaginable joy forever.

Tuesday in Whitsun Week

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 148, Ezek. 36:22-28, 1 Cor. 12:1-13
Evening - Ps. 145, Num. 11:6-30, Acts 4:23

Commentary, 1 Corinthians 12:1-13

The Corinthian Church was a troubled church. It was divided and contentious (1:11), carnal, which means the people were still primarily oriented toward the world and their own desires (3:1), proud (4:10 & 18), tolerant of unrepentant sin (5:1), heretical (11:19) and so disunited to God and each other the members went to civil court to settle their disputes (6:1).

In addition, their worship services were horrendous displays of hypocrisy and self-aggrandisement (11:18-34). It is their worship, or, rather, their lack of it, that Paul addresses in our reading for this morning. Heretical worship is the natural result of heretical doctrine, and heretical doctrine abounded in Corinth. The Corinthians were the early leaders in the movement to adapt Christian faith and worship to the surrounding culture. Whether this was done as an intentional attempt to make Christianity more attractive to the pagans, or it was simply that the Corinthian Christians had not fully repented of their pagan past is not known, nor does it really matter. The end result is the same either way, and serves as an important reminder to us today. We cannot cling to our pre-Christain views and practices, and still remain faithful to Christ. We cannot incorporate the practices and values of the world into the Church, and still have pure doctrine and practice. Any attempt to do so makes us just like so many others who have left the Church of Jesus Christ to join The Church of the Accommodation. 1 and 2 Corinthians are not commendations of practices to be emulated, but chastisements of mistakes and sins to be avoided. 1 Corinthians 12 addresses the unifying and edifying purpose of spiritual gifts, making the point that things which do not unify and edify are not spiritual gifts, but manifestations of the carnal spirit which pervaded the Church in Corinth. Paul is encouraging the Corinthians to come back together in Christ, and work for the glory of God and the edification of the Church as God calls and enables them.

Today people read this passage and become side-tracked by questions about tongues and spiritual gifts. But these are not the message of this chapter. The message is that no single gift is superior to another, nor do all have the same gifts (12:4 & 10). Tongues, therefore, whatever their nature may have been, were never for every Christian. I believe true tongues were known languages the speaker did not understand, but was supernaturally enabled to speak. Thus, the Corinthian tongues were slightly different from the tongues in Acts, but had the same purpose. I do not believe they were ecstatic utterances. I also believe the Corinthians did not know this, thus they were trying to induce themselves, and others, to have ecstatic experiences in which they babbled meaningless sounds, calling them the work of the Spirit. Such experiences were common among the pagans in Corinth, and the Christians wanted them too. Corinthian "Christians" who had such experiences considered themselves superior to those who did not. This is further proof that their "tongues" were bogus. One of the reasons Paul wrote 1 Corinthians was to correct their false view of tongues and gifts, thereby restoring Biblical worship in the Church.

Ember Day in Whitsun Week

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 132, Rev. 4:1-6, 1 Cor. 2
Evening - Ps. 84, Rev. 4:6-11, Acts 5:12-28

Commentary, Revelation 4:1-6

From the tribulations of the Church on earth the book of Revelation takes us to the throne of Heaven. The difference is tremendous. Here we see God calm and in control of all things. His enemies on earth plan to destroy His Church and establish their own kingdom. But their rants are completely ineffectual. God is not moved. He knows their plots are doomed to failure and He is able to deliver His people.

Why does the book of Revelation show this? Because the persecuted Christians need to see that the attacks of the wicked cannot hurt God or destroy His ability to accomplish His purpose and redeem His people.

This is a message the world desperately needs to hear. Instead of searching this chapter for the "Rapture" let us hear its real message that God is in complete control. He will bring His will into reality, and no earthly or supernatural power can stop Him. He even uses them as it suits His purpose, and easily disposes of them when it suits His purpose. Our God is strong to save. He is unassailable Therefore, lets us keep the faith.

Thursday in Whitsun Week

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 48, Is. 44:1-23, Gal. 5:16-25
Evening - Ps. 18:1-20, Rev. 6, Acts 5:29

Commentary, Revelation 6

The four horsemen of the Apocalypse are familiar themes in literature, and have received much attention from Bible commentators. Recent commentators have interpreted them as the bearers of the wrath of God after the "Rapture" of the Church, but a much older view sees them as symbols of the Roman army's siege and conquest of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The white horse symbolises the pomp and pride of the Romans gloating over their conquest. The red horse is war unleashed upon Jews throughout the Empire, especially Jerusalem. The black horse is the famine that would grip Jerusalem during the Roman siege. The pale horse is death. More than 1.3 million Jews died under Roman hands in this war, which, tragically, could have easily been averted. It was fought for two reasons. First, the Jews refused to live peacefully under Roman rule. The Romans would have gladly allowed the Jews to live in peace. But the Jews wanted the Romans out and Israel free. Much of their desire was political, and some of it was pure bigotry, but many truly wanted the Roman idolatry out of the Holy City. Rebellions were frequent and costly until the Romans finally tired of them and set out to crush the Jews forever. Second, the Romans were the avenging hand of God for the persecution of the Church. It was the Jews who began and encouraged the persecution and murder of Christians. We need only remember the exploits of Saul of Tarsus to understand this. In Revelation chapters 4-11 God brings the rebellious Jews to their knees in tragic and costly conquest and in fulfillment of the words of Christ in Matthew 24.

Ember Friday in Whitsunweek

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 122, 125, Is. 61:1-9, 2 Cor. 3
Evening - Ps. 43, 134, Is. 52:1-10

Commentary, 2 Corinthians 3

Ember Days are times set aside to beseech our merciful Father to call labourers to fields white with harvest. It is no disservice to the intent of the day if we also pray God to bless those already serving in the ministry, and I encourage all reading these words to do so.

Our Scripture readings were chosen for their relevance to this special time of prayer. Isaiah 61 has long been a favourite text for ordination sermons, and was used by our Lord to explain His own work and ministry. He is the Good Tidings. His life, death, resurrection, and ascension are the means by which our broken hearts are bound, our captivity becomes freedom, and the year of the Lord and day of vengeance are accomplished. On Pentecost the time of fulfillment has come upon us. The promises become reality, and shadows are replaced with Light.

In this "Year of the Lord" He continues His ministry through the Church, especially through men called, equipped, and sent into a unique ministry in the Word and sacraments. 2 Corinthians 3 shows that it is this calling of God and empowering of His Spirit which makes a man a true minister, and only those who continue in the truth have any right to the office.

This has several implications. First, it is not man, but God who makes a man a minister (2 Cor. 3:3-6). I say this because we live in a time when many who take up holy orders are clearly unqualified and not called to the ministry. Many don't even want to be ministers in the Biblical sense. They want to be social workers, activities directors, CEOs, life coaches, philosophers, and agents of change who cast away what Bishop Ryle called "The Old Paths" and usher in their own views of what God ought to do and want and receive. Second, Biblical fidelity is the true test of a minister. A big congregation is no proof of God's calling or blessing. Sadly, more people love to have their ears tickled than hear the Word and worship God Biblically. University and seminary degrees are no proof of calling. Many with walls papered with diplomas, lack even the most basic knowledge of God. "Ordination" is no proof of calling. Many have been ordained by a church who have never been ordained by God. Apostolic Succession is no proof of calling. I rejoice that, as a bishop in the Anglican Orthodox Church, my orders can be traced back to Peter and James. But that same claim can be made by many others, who, based on Biblical standards, should leave the pulpit and take up other work. Presiding Bishop Ogles is fond of reminding his clergy that our true Apostolic Succession is doctrinal, and without doctrinal succession our ministry is invalid. Third, the church must evaluate her ministers by their faithfulness, not their personalities. There is a sense in which many congregations are really personality cults. Remove the personality and charisma of the central figure (the "preacher") and the congregation has nothing to hold it together. One of the wonderful things about the liturgy is that it is independent of the personality of the minister. The liturgy is wonderfully sound and faithful, and it leads us to concentrate on God, not the preacher.

If these things are true, we should be devoting much time to prayer for the Church and her ministers. God grant that we may so do.

Ember Saturday in Whitsunweek

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 19, Micah 3:5-8, 2 Tim 1:1-14
Evening - Ps. 111,113, Num. 6:22, 2 Cor. 13:5

Commentary, 2 Timothy 1:1-14

Second Timothy was written from a Roman prison, probably in the autumn of the year 68 A.D. Knowing he would soon give his life in the service of Christ, the Apostle Paul wanted to contact and encourage his friend, student, and fellow servant of Christ, Timothy. Timothy has served his Saviour well, but Paul has always been there to counsel and help him. When Paul is gone, Timothy will stand alone in a time of increasing Roman opposition and persecution. As Paul wrote this epistle, Peter was dead, having been executed by the civil authorities in Rome. John was imprisoned on Patmos, where he had written the book of Revelation about two years earlier. Many Christians had suffered imprisonment or death for the cause of Christ, while others had deserted the faith rather than face persecution. Paul mentions Phygelus and Hermogenes among many in Asia who had turned away from him, meaning, away from the Gospel he preached (2 Tim. 1:15).

It is worth noting that Phygelus, Hermogenes, and the others Paul mentions were from Asia. In Paul's time "Asia" did not refer to a continent. It referred only to the area later called Asia Minor, and known today as Turkey. This is the area in which the seven churches of Revelation 1-3 were located, and it was an area of intense persecution. So the Roman oppression of the Church was increasing at the time, and one of Paul's intentions in this letter to Timothy was to encourage him not to fear the opposition (1:7) and to stand fast in the faith, even in the face of persecution and affliction (1:8).

The Church was also under another form of attack. This was an attack far more serious and dangerous than Roman persecution; this was an attack on the Gospel itself. Heresies abounded in the church of that era, most of them growing out of attempts to accommodate the doctrines and practices of the Church to the pagan culture and religions of Rome. Thus Timothy is encouraged to hold fast to the form of sound words he learned from Paul (1:13). We should not allow ourselves to think "form" refers only to a "resemblance," as though the teaching of Timothy (and ourselves) need only resemble that of Paul. Paul is telling Timothy to hold fast the substance of Paul's teaching and also to his expression of it, including the very words of Paul. This should not surprise us, for if Paul received his message from Christ, he would naturally want that message preserved word-for-word. In our day we are seeing a widespread abandonment of the tried and true ways of expressing the Christian faith, and a corresponding adoption the idea that we must continually recast the Christian faith into today's language and cultural patterns. This view has become dear to the hearts of the majority of contemporary churches, yet it seems to be in direct opposition to the teaching of Scripture as found in 2 Timothy 1:13-14. A change in the expression of the faith necessarily involves a change in the substance of the faith. How many of our errors in theology and practice might have been avoided if we had simply held fast to both the substance and the expression of the faith once delivered? On this Ember Day, let us remember that the faith is non-negotiable, and let us beseech God to enable us to hold fast the "form of sound words."

Sermon for Whitsuntide


Whitsuntide
Psalm 145 Joel 2:28, Romans 8:1-11

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, amen.

Fifty days after the resurrection of Christ, something amazing happened.  Not that the resurrection wasn't amazing enough.  Jesus of Nazareth died on a Roman cross.  He literally died there.  And when you consider that He was God in the flesh, that's  somewhat amazing in itself.  Yet, three days later, He was alive again.  He rose from the dead.  Amazing. The ascension of Christ was equally amazing.  This "Man" who had died and risen from the grave, physically and bodily began to float, steadily rising higher and higher into the sky until He disappeared into the clouds.  I can't imagine the fear and shock felt by those eleven men who witnessed the ascension.  Remember that at this point they still did not understand who Jesus is.  Just moments before His ascension they had asked Him if He was  ready to restore the kingdom to Israel., meaning was He going to drive out the Romans and give the land back to the Jews?  It was as though they were saying, since Jesus had gotten this crucifixion and resurrection out of His system, would He now do something important, and give the land of Israel back to the Jews?  But instead of leading an attack on Rome, Jesus simply left the earth.  He simply floated away.  Amazing.  But even after the ascension, something amazing happened.  The Holy Spirit came to the Apostles and enabled them to miraculously speak in ways that were understood by people of many different languages.  And what they spoke was not what today passes for speaking in tongues, nor was it a private "prayer language," they proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

It is easy to miss the real significance of this event, because so many people nowadays  proclaim an erroneous view of it.  In fact, whole denominations have formed around the mistaken idea that the main event here is speaking in tongues.  But the main event is not speaking in tongues.  The main even is the inauguration of the New Age, the age of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In the Bible, the New Age is often called  the "last days" or the"end times"   But it is important that we realise that the phrase "last days" does not refer to the final few days  before the end. It is not a numerical term, it is a positional term.  It describes the place or position of our time in the plan of God.  "Last days" means we are in the last era, the last age.  And this era could end today, or it could last several more thousand, or even million, years.    Understand this and you will save yourself much wasted time trying to decide if this is the day Jesus is coming back, or if this or that event it the "sign" that His return, or "rapture" is near.

Since the Reformation, certain groups have taken Peter's quote of Joel 2 as a numerical term, meaning they thought it referred to the very last few days before the end of the world, return of Christ, or "rapture." But again I stress that "last days" refers to an era, not a number.  It refers to the last era of the plan of God, prior to the time when God will fully and finally  "gather together in one all things in Christ" (Eph. 1:10).  Since the Reformation, the number of groups and people interpreting the last days as a numerical phrase has multiplied, and it is because of the multitude of these groups and people, and the way their views have been popularised in movies and books and sermons, that  the real meaning of the day of Pentecost has been obscured.  Their views have so influenced the popular understanding of Pentecost that most people do not even know about the real meaning of Pentecost and the last days. So, I repeat my earlier statement, that the real significance of the day of Pentecost is that it is the beginning of the New Era of the Gospel of Christ, and the "last days" are that era.

The new era is the age in which the promises of the Old Testament are beginning to be fulfilled.  The Old Testament gave us sacrifices and dietary laws and a physical, political entity named Israel, and these things symbolically represented the coming of Christ.  His sacrifice on the cross would accomplish what no animal sacrifice could accomplish.  He would be the Priest of His people in a way no human priest could ever be.  He would be the King of His people in a way no human king could ever be.  And the revelation of His Kingdom would be accomplished through direct proclamation rather than through signs and symbols.  And His Kingdom would include people from all races and nationalities and languages, not just people from Israel.  The day of Pentecost is the beginning of that era.  The Saviour has come and has given His life as the ransom for sin.  Now forgiveness of sin and life in His Kingdom are offered to all who believe and receive it.  The power of sin is breaking, and those who are in Christ are called and enabled to live free of the things that kill the soul and ruin lives, free to live in unity and harmony with God and one another.

In other words, the last days are the era of the Gospel.  The meaning of Pentecost is not that you can or should speak in tongues.  Tongues were just a sign that the new era has begun.  They were/are not the point, nor were/are they to be sought.  To make tongues the point is to make personal experience the meaning of Christianity.  It is to force Christianity into the realm of subjective feelings and emotions and mystical experiences.  None of these things have any relationship or resemblance to Biblical Christian faith.  This is why I oppose what I call "contemporaryism" in church.  Contemporaryism isn't just an attempt to dispense with the ancient liturgies and hymns in order to connect with people through music and worship styles they like.  Contemporayism is an attempt to  subectivise worship and the faith. Contemporaryism reduces worship to happy-clappy experiences, and reduces faith to feeling good about God.  But the Good news of Jesus Christ is not that you can get a good feeling at church.  It is that God is with us.  He has paid the price of our sins and offers us a chance to live the way He created us to live, a constructive and meaningful life lived in harmony with Him and one another, now and forever.

And now, the Gospel that was once almost hidden by the animal sacrifices and symbolism of the Old Testament, is openly and clearly proclaimed.  That is what the Holy Spirit was doing on the day of Pentecost.  The Apostles, so confused about the nature and work of Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit, were suddenly able to understand who Jesus is.  His teaching suddenly made sense to them.  His crucifixion made sense to them, as did His resurrection and ascension.  Suddenly they knew He was everything the Old Testament promised.  That is what the Holy Spirit does today, He enables us to believe the Gospel of Christ.

But the Apostles also proclaimed the Gospel, and that is also the ministry of the Holy Spirit.  He proclaims this Gospel of reconciliation to God through Jesus Christ.  The Old Testament signs and symbols have passed away now.  The clear and clarion call goes out to all, "Believe [have faith] on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved."