Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Endurance of Unshakable Faith

"But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls. Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. -- Hebrews 10:39-11:2 (ESV)

In the darkest moment of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Sam, the hobbit, looks up into the poisonous skies of Mordor, and receives an unexpected comfort.

“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”

For the first time in days, Sam curled up into a deep untroubled sleep. He once again had the strength to endure.

This story of little Sam being heartened by the star is so poignant because it resonates with the Christian experience. Every Christian knows what it is like to want to give up, to lay down the sword and just surrender if that will quiet the world’s constant battering. The early Christians who read the book of Hebrews knew that feeling well. With some of their brothers in prison, others being plundered, and others probably dead, they were ready to quit—to throw up their hands and go back to being safe, innocuous, government-protected Jews (10:32-35). The author of Hebrews, however, would not let them. Endure, he told them, because you know that God has promised you victory (10:39).

To the author of Hebrews, faith is more than the instrument of justification (though it is certainly that as well). It is the very ground of the Christian’s endurance, his reason for pressing on in the face of the most dreadful hardships. The apostle does not expect his readers to simply “gird up their loins” and tough it out. They would endure because their faith gave them assurance—beyond any shadow of doubt—that the salvation they hoped for would eventually come. It gave them proof, however unseen, that God would fulfill His promises (11:1). This was the same faith which allowed the heroes of the Old Testament to stake their lives on God’s promises, even when the realization of those promises was nowhere in sight (Heb. 11). Bolstered by such faith, the Hebrew Christians, like the saints who went before them, could face their persecutors with firmness, reliability, and steadfastness. Theirs was not an empty hope. It was a hope rendered secure by faith.

Celebrating people of faith as Hebrews 11 does would have been unthinkable in pagan Greek culture. To fashionable Greeks, faith was the last mental stronghold of the uneducated, who blindly believed things on hearsay without being able to give precise reasons for their beliefs. The pagan observers were astonished by the willingness of Christians to suffer and die for the indemonstrable. Today, faith is still an enigma to most. The world sees Christians suffering ostracism, ridicule, poverty, even death, and they call it “foolishness.” They wonder why people would endure such suffering for a “fable.” But for those who actually endure the suffering, take the contempt, and make the sacrifices, it really is no mystery at all. They endure because they know by an unshakable faith that in the end their suffering is only a small and passing thing: there are promises and rewards laid up for them forever beyond its reach.

--from the BibleMesh Blog

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Good Growth

We do not grow in grace and the knowledge of Christ by leaps and bounds but some try. They bounce from one mountain peak of Christian experience to another. Every year or so they make a new start, turn a new leaf, have a new thrill. Children do not grow by suddenly gaining a few inches or adding a few pounds now and then. They grow gradually, daily, by food, rest, and exercise. Christian growth comes the same way by feeding on the Word, resting in the Lord, and exercising unto godliness. It has been said that nothing is more detrimental to Christian experience than too many Christian “experiences.” --Vance Havner

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

"I Don't Follow A Man!"

By Lisa Robinson

I have encountered an expression on a number of occasions that goes something like this… “I don’t follow man, only God.” Sometimes there might be “denominations” thrown in, to emphasize that following God does not mean following denominations. Of course, that is the sentiment behind not following ‘man’. By man, I don’t mean male but anyone that represents Christianity. I believe the idea behind this thought, is that people have opinions about Christianity or about what the bible says. It does seem more spiritual to say that one does not follow such opinions but only relies on what the bible says. But not only is this thought counterproductive to real learning it is antithetical to Christianity.

Throughout the pages of scripture, God placed people in positions from which His people should take cues, instruction and learn from. There was Moses and Joshua, the judges, the kings and the prophets. Jesus Himself, instructed his disciples to make disciples and teach them everything He commanded. We see a beautiful portrait of this in the early kernels of the Church as new converts sat under the apostles teaching (Acts 2:42). Paul commended Christians under his tutelage to follow him as he followed Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). He gave instruction for leadership to carry on the apostolic witness in the teaching of Christ. This necessarily comes with the expectation that Christians must follow man in order to understand Christ.

To say that we don’t follow man, is the same as indicating we don’t need teachers and we can arbitrarily decide what is best for ourselves. It is an attitude that we learn according to our own private interpretations, that says I only need me and my bible since the Holy Spirit will give the interpretation. However, this contradicts the fact that God has always given his word to His people, organized to learn from each other. An examination of Ephesians 4 indicates that the body of Christ, united by Spirit baptism, contributes to each other’s growth under the tutelage of leaders. The same goes for 1 Corinthians 12. We must rely on others as each one contributes, and learning from others is a part of the package.

The reality is that unless we live in complete isolation, it is a false statement to say that we follow no one. There is usually someone or a group of someone’s influencing our bible interpretations. I actually find it ironic when the ones who insist on not following ‘man’, are being influenced by like-minded thinkers who have listened to their brand of interpretation. The danger here is that private interpretations, and particularly ones that have rejected the historic witness of the faith for something “new”, can create interpretations and biases in such a way that removes Christian faith from its very foundation.

Yes, tradition is important because it teaches us how others have followed Christ. I am dismayed at how those who have gone before are dismissed and disdained, as if we can’t possibly learn from them, or that it is unspiritual or academic to inquire about historical thoughts. But if those to whom we are united in Christ, even if they are no longer here, have taken time to put their thoughts in writing, there is something to learn from their contributions.

And that leads to the premise that we are to follow people with understanding. I have observed, and particularly in American evangelicalism, an alarming acceptance to anyone who articulates ideas about Christianity using scripture, and call it bible-based. And we won’t even get into what is being promoted in the internet. Just because one uses scripture does not necessarily mean it is accompanied by understanding in relation to God’s overall redemptive program as outlined in scripture. Church history has witnessed that even heretics can use scripture to support erroneous ideas and those ideas have stemmed from a lack of understanding how their proof-texts are rooted in the foundation that God laid.

Thus, understanding comes from how it all fits together. I worry that so much of modern day teaching is nothing more than a set of Christian principles to live by. Christians are learning isolated proof-texts under topical teaching that wants to support whatever the pastor/teacher thinks is important. Don’t get me wrong, there are principles but those principles must be understood according to the very foundation of Christ. It takes more than just isolated passages, but Christians must learn Christ according to who He is and what He came to accomplish. There must be an understanding of His redemptive act in accordance to what God progressively revealed with the law and the prophets, his covenantal promises and ultimate fulfillment.

I propose this is the job of the leader whom the Christian is to follow, to teach the whole counsel of God not just isolated proof-texts. When Paul commended his hearers to learn from him, it was more than just him giving a set of Christian living principles but him following Christ according to his revelation. And by that I mean Christ’s unveiling of His fulfillment of what had been promised. The instruction to pastors and elders is to exhort with sound doctrine (Titus 1:9). Well, that doctrine is formulated based on the foundation that was laid. It is this foundation that will give Christians sure footing in their Christian walk, not just because they’ve learned a set of Christian living principles. In fact, I think principles without foundation will soon crumble under the weight of trials and temptations and most likely contributes to the overwhelming expressions of doubt.

So this means that while we are to follow ‘man’, that person is following Christ according to a holistic understanding and conveying that to the flock. A test of this would be how they handle isolated passages of scripture. Are they tying it to the whole thing? Have they taken time to examine the cultural and historic backdrop to understand what the original author is addressing? This is why I love it when pastors and leaders teach whole books of the bible in an expository fashion always correlating what is going on in the text to the overall foundation that was laid. This demonstrates that they are committed to understanding.

Bottom line is that we are to be led by sound leaders. So we should get out of the mindset that we don’t follow man. God designed it so we would.