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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Purifying Judgment

In 3:16-4:1 of his book, the prophet Isaiah proclaims a searing warning of doom on the women who live in Jerusalem.  Though at the time of the prophecy those wealthy women were richly adorned, pampering themselves in their beauty and strutting with pride, their city would be devastated, and they would be widowed, befouled, degraded, and desperately impoverished in the process.

But then Isaiah's prophecy takes a jarring turn.
At that time
the crops given by the LORD will bring admiration and honor;
the produce of the land will be a source of pride and delight
to those who remain in Israel.
Those remaining in Zion, those left in Jerusalem,
will be called "holy,"
all in Jerusalem who are destined to live.
At that time the sovereign master will wash the excrement from Zion's women,
he will rinse the bloodstains from Jerusalem's midst,
as he comes to judge
and to bring devastation.
Then the LORD will create
over all of Mount Zion
and over its convocations
a cloud and smoke by day
and a bright flame of fire by night;
indeed a canopy will accompany the LORD's glorious presence.
By day it will be a shelter to provide shade from the heat,
as well as safety and protection from the heavy downpour [4:2-6].
There are certain principles that I have learned to employ when reading Old Testament prophecy from an apostolic, New Testament perspective.  One of these principles is, when I see "Jerusalem," first I look at what fulfillment there might have been for the Jerusalem of the time of the prophecy.  Then I look for a fulfillment for the church.  I do this largely because of Paul's teaching about two Jerusalems, earthly and heavenly, in Galatians 4:21-31 (compare to the similar typology in Heb. 12:22-24) and because John's vision of the New Jerusalem also seems to be a symbolic way of describing the church (compare the wife/bride imagery in Eph. 5:22-33 with Rev. 19:6-9; 21:1-22:5—which, by the way, has significant implications for interpreting the Book of Revelation).  This interpretation of the apostles is linked to Jesus' claim to fulfill all the Old Testament Scriptures in himself and to the picture of the church as the body of Christ.  I mention all of this because perhaps this interpretive principle will prove helpful to you when you read the prophets as well.

But I also mention it because it elevates the power and import of Isaiah's prophecy for us.  What does God say through Isaiah is his ultimate plan for the church?
  • The church will experience prosperity and blessing arising from harmony with the earth.
  • All believers will be holy—the special possession of God by association and affinity with him.
  • The filth and degrading results of our sins will be scoured away.
  • We will be overshadowed by the visible presence of the God who saved us even more broadly than what the Exodus generation experienced (a canopy as opposed to a pillar or local cloud).
  • We will be permanently protected from all trouble.
Could there be a more wonderful destiny for the church than this?  But let's look at the third part of this, God's cleansing of the degrading filth of our sins.  The NET here says that the Lord does this "as he comes to judge and to bring devastation" (v. 4).  A literal rendering of the Hebrew is "by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning."  "Judgment and . . . burning" may describe God's attitude as he washes and rinses, or it may describe the Holy Spirit's role in this process (or perhaps these are the same thing).  But either way, judgment and burning are part of God's plan for his people, part of his indescribably wonderful destiny for them.  It reminds me of a similar prophecy by Malachi that in one breath describes the coming Lord as "a refiner's fire" and "a launderer's soap" (3:2).

But it also reminds me of what Jesus and the apostles say about the church's experience of cleansing judgment.  Jesus says when describing the end of the age that
they will hand you over to be persecuted and will kill you.  You will be hated by all nations because of my name.  Then many will be led into sin, and they will betray one another and hate one another.  And many false prophets will appear and will deceive many, and because lawlessness will increase so much, the love of many will grow cold.  But the person who endures to the end will be saved. . . . For then there will be great suffering unlike anything that has happened from the beginning of the world until now, or ever will happen.  And if those days had not been cut short, no one would be saved.  But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short [Matt. 24:9-13, 21-22].
Let's understand this clearly.  God's plan is for there to be vicious persecution of the church and enormous suffering, in part so that people who claim to be Christians but are not truly among those chosen by God will show their true colors and betray the rest, will follow false teaching, or will launch themselves headlong into sin.  That way those who remain true will demonstrate themselves really to belong to God and be saved.  This painful sifting is a judgment on the church, but it is not to condemn it (how could it be?) but to purify it.

What Jesus is talking about sounds like some really big and bad thing that's going to happen in the future, at the very end.  But the apostles believed that this had already begun in their lifetimes.  Peter wrote to his persecuted readers,
Dear friends, do not be astonished that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice in the degree that you have shared in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice and be glad. . . . For it is time for judgment to begin, starting with the house of God.  And if it starts with us, what will be the fate of those who are disobedient to the gospel of God?  And if the righteous are barely saved, what will become of the ungodly and sinners? [1 Pet. 4:12-13, 17-18].
Paul echoes this theme when talking about the Lord's Supper.  He warns the Corinthians that if a person eats the body of Christ (the bread) without paying due respect to the body of Christ (the church, i.e., his/her brothers and sisters in the Lord), then that person "eats and drinks judgment against himself.  That is why many of you are weak and sick, and quite a few are dead.  But if we examined ourselves, we would not be judged.  But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned with the world" (1 Cor. 11:29-32).  Once again, God is scouring away sins from Christ's bride so that she may be perfectly radiant and able to receive the immeasurable, loving blessing that he has for her.

This all sounds like a downsizing process for the church, and in one way it is.  But this winnowing can and often does go hand in hand with numerical growth.  Peter and Paul wrote of this purifying judgment of the church during one of the most (perhaps the most) explosive periods of growth in the church's history.  And Jesus himself promised that the end of the age would not only feature persecution, apostasy, betrayal, and false doctrine, but also that "this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole inhabited earth as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come" (Matt. 24:14).

This pattern happens to the universal church throughout the ages, and it happens to local churches as well.  God wants to give his people so much, but he comes with fire and judgment, with soap and hot water to make us fit to receive it.  He will get what he wants—a purified church.  But to a certain extent how we experience his purification lies in our hands.  Granted, many great saints have suffered severely for nothing other than doing the right thing, just like Jesus did.  But then there are saints like the sick and the dead in Corinth.  Their physical affliction was a judgment for thinking entirely about themselves and disrespecting their brothers and sisters while partaking of such a holy thing as the Lord's Supper.  Ultimately they are saved; their sickness and even premature death was God's discipline to shield them from being condemned with the world.  However, God was bent on removing sin from his people on this earth even in the 1st century, and if the only way to remove the sin was to remove the sinning believer as well, then so be it.

And that's really the choice we have.  When we became part of the church, we were enrolled in a cleaning machine.  The excrement and blood and vomit on us, the residue of our sinfulness, will be removed from the church; there's no question about it.  The only question is whether we cling to our sinfulness so tightly that the only way to get rid of it is to get rid of us.  In the end, after our resurrection, we'll all rest under the glorious canopy of cloud and fire in the New Jerusalem, but how we get there is another issue.

I don't know about you, but I want to hate my sin and its results in me.  I want when God comes to scour me clean to be delighted to let that stuff go.  I don't want to make his job and my experience any more difficult than it already is.  And the last thing that I want is for my experience in the church in this life to be one of getting yanked out of it somehow because I refused to let my sin get yanked out of me.  I would much rather linger with the saints and experience the foretaste of the glory of the Jerusalem to come.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Worship of David

So my quest through 1 Chronicles continues.  It's going slower because I'm engaged in another study right now and am only squeezing in about a chapter a week.  But the pace of the book itself generally picked up after moving out of the opening genealogies in chapters 1-11 and into the reign of David.  But then it ground into intricate and difficult territory again.

See, with a few notable exceptions, the Chronicler uses 1 Chronicles 12-21 to mirror the account of David's reign in 2 Samuel.  But while 2 Samuel ends with the sin of David's census and the punishment that followed it, the Chronicler uses that episode as a hinge into a long account (chs. 22-29) of how David made preparations for the temple that Solomon would build on the very spot where David's offering stopped the plague.  (Incidentally, this was also the spot where God provided Abraham with the sacrificial substitute for his son Isaac.)

The bulk of this third and final section of 1 Chronicles, specifically chapters 23-27, is back to the kind of material that we find in the genealogies—tedious and confusing (though less of the latter).  There is great detail about which families were engaged in temple service, who the contemporary heads of the families were, in what order they served, and what exactly they did.  But this section also portrays a different David than we see elsewhere—not the valiant warrior, the persecuted outlaw, the ardent lover (of women physically and of men emotionally), the revered monarch, or the passionate mystic.  This David is the consummate organizer, one of the roles we are used to seeing his son Solomon play.

But while Solomon applied his organizational talent to the civic life of the nation, we find that David invested it in Israel's religious life.  After the conquest and settlement of Canaan, some priests worked at various local "high places," but there was no organization and no central place of worship.  The Levites, who had been completely centered around transporting the mobile tabernacle, lost their jobs almost entirely when the tabernacle stopped moving.  In these chapters of 1 Chronicles David institutes a massive reform of the nation's religious life, assigning specific roles and responsibilities to priests and Levites, organizing their activity, and bringing the worship of Yahweh a long step closer to complete centralization.

Though this is a "different David" than the one we might be used to, we could learn a lesson by not pressing the difference too far.  David was a worshiper in his bones.  Both the emotion and individuality of his psalms and the nitty-gritty details of his Levitical reorganization are genuine expressions of his worshiping identity (though very different ones).

Many of us, either personally or just culturally, have emerged from an era in which worship was assumed to be a ritual produced by careful organization.  Significant resources (time, money, people, skill, and thought) of the worshiping community were bent toward making an event happen on Sunday morning with mostly inflexible and meticulously prescribed steps.  And if the worshiping community that gathered for that event successfully followed those steps—prelude? check; choral introit? check . . . —then everyone could go home satisfied that worship had taken place.

In the Jesus Movement of the 1970s a new concept of worship emerged that was radically different.  Even if the community was gathered, worship was believed to be deeply individual.  Ideal worship was spontaneous (even if over time what had once been spontaneous imperceptibly became routine).  And worship wasn't about the steps the group took but the intensity of emotion one experienced in the presence of God.

These starkly contrasting understandings of worship clashed for decades (in many places even now) in what came to be called "the worship wars."  All most people could see most of the time were two different styles of music and their respective corpuses of songs.  But the music was just the expression of a more basic clash between two different ideas of what worship is.  These two concepts of worship have appeared in many places and times throughout Christian history, not infrequently clashing as in America in the last few decades.  Each keeps arising not because one is of God and the other is the devil's repeated attack on the church.  They keep arising because they are both biblical.  One is the worship of the David of 1 Chronicles.  The other is of the David of the Psalms.

It is essential that we recognize that these two different concepts of worship came from the same David.  It was the same David who worshiped God by painstakingly organizing which clan of Levites sang on which week of the year and who also composed the embarrassingly personal songs that those Levites sang.  Despite how most people today are inclined to see these concepts of worship as an either-or, they are a both-and.

As I stated previously, many people today are emerging or have emerged from a culture of worship that seemed to be nothing more than a ritual checklist that a person could sleepwalk through and not know the difference (and unfortunately many still do).  These people believe they have been liberated from captivity and don't want to go back, so they are suspicious and defensive toward anything that smacks of ritual, considering it to be spiritually inferior.  Though their sentiment is understandable, they must remember the example of David.  The world has never seen a worshiper as Spirit-filled, wholehearted, and genuine as he, but he was keenly concerned with liturgy and structure.  He could even be called a traditionalist, because the purpose of his innovations was to sustain the tradition of the Exodus in the new setting of a settled nation.  It is also worth noting that the most avant-garde worship leaders today are those who were baptized into "contemporary" worship style and who have begun blending it with such ancient rituals as the Christian Year, the Stations of the Cross, and prayer candles, because they sensed that the worship they had been leading was missing something.

David is the quintessential worshiper both in the passionate intimacy of his psalms and in the liturgical exactitude of his reforms.  Would that each and all of us worshiped like David.

Monday, October 3, 2011

In Christ's Image Training

From time to time I link to an article by Francis Frangipane, a teacher whose wisdom and insight I respect.  Pastor Frangipane consistently lists four concepts that form the substance of his life, teaching, and ministry: Christlikeness, humility, prayer, and Christian unity.  These are constantly exhibited in his writing.

One of Pastor Frangipane's ministry endeavors is a distance-learning program in those four fundamentals called In Christ's Image Training.  There are several levels of certification and accountability including a free written materials-only version.

I want to make clear that I haven't taken this course myself and can't comment on it from personal experience.  But I have yet to be disappointed or uneasy about anything I have read by Pastor Frangipane.  I'm mentioning this here in case that there is some reader who is hungering for Christlikeness, humility, prayer, and unity that the Holy Spirit stimulates to take this course.