Category Archives: Obedience

When a Fast is not a Fast

I have, for some time, been slowly making my way through Isaiah in my morning devotional reading. This morning I read Isaiah 58. In the first verse, God told the prophet to cry aloud with a “voice like a trumpet” declaring the transgressions of the people. In the second verse we see an interesting twist. The ESV even has the passage beginning with “Yet.” This shows that what is to follow is not what we would expect after the first verse. The passage goes on to say that the people seek God daily, delight to know his ways and delight to draw near to him. But this seems contradictory. How can they be condemned for their transgressions (in verse 1) and in the next breath (in verse 2) be described in a way which most would assume to be righteous. Actually, the passage implies they were not acting righteously. When it says, “as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God” (ESV) the implication is that they are unrighteousness and acting in a way contrary to God’s judgment even while observing the outward elements of religion.

We discover the problem deeper in the chapter. God speaks of their fasts, but then condemns them for oppressing the workers and the poor. He goes on to tell them in verses six and seven that the fast preferred by God is to release the oppressed, to share one’s bread with the hungry and to shelter the homeless. This is an important consideration. One way sees religious practices as a simple equation between the supplicant and God. The other includes our treatment of one another as definitive of obedient observance.

Part of the way to understand this is to keep in mind the Old Covenant definition of righteousness. Righteousness meant the observance of one’s duty to others. One was righteous if one treated others in keeping with the demands of duty. But one was not righteous for observing only particular duties and ignoring others. One was righteous if it could be said they observed all duties owed to any other being. A great example is the chapter before us. If I see my duties to God as somehow separate from my duties to my fellow man, I can delude myself into thinking, “As long as I do my duty to God, it doesn’t matter how I treat others.” In an Old Covenant economy this could mean that while treating others poorly, I may offer sacrifices and fast regularly in the wrong belief that God would be satisfied with the performance of my duties to him. However, such a person was not righteous before God. Only one who did his duty to everyone was truly defined as righteous—someone who had left no duty unperformed.

Those to whom God speaks in Isaiah 58 were not righteous because they owed duties to their workers and to the poor, which they ignored while seeking God’s favor through religious observance. There are two things which help us to see why this was a problem.

First, all men[1] are made in God’s image. We all reflect his image and the way we treat other people reflects on our treatment of God. If I despise my fellow man, how can I claim to love God in whose image my fellow man was made (James 3:9-10)? Our treatment of our fellow man serves as a litmus test of our claim to love God (1 John 3:10).

Second, consider for a moment a wealthy man deciding, “Today, in honor of God, I will fast and eat nothing.” What happens to the food? It is still consumed by the same man, just on another day.[2] It is only the consumption that is delayed. However, if I take the food I would have eaten and give it to another, it is gone, never to return. It has actually cost me something. The former cost me nothing. The former cheapens the sacrifice. This form of fasting only delays the consumption, so is it truly a fast and sacrifice? God says it is not (Psalm 51:16-17; 1 John 3:17).

God condemned his people for observing the details of fasts and sacrifices without recognizing the most important element of these—concern for others. Our religious observances or faith practices are not separate from our treatment of our fellow man. They go hand in hand. You honor God by treating those created in his image with dignity.

[1] By this I mean all humanity—mankind.

[2] Yes, I understand that some foods may not be preserved and their lack of consumption could make them garbage. But this makes it even worse! Imagine the man throwing away moldy bread today, which he chose not to eat yesterday during a fast, rather than giving it to some poor person who could have consumed it while it was still good.

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Walk in the Light You’ve Been Given

flashIn Judges Thirteen, an angel appeared to a Danite woman named Zorah, wife of Monoah. The angel promised this barren woman that she would conceive and deliver a son. This is how the story of Samson begins. The information she was given by the angel was pretty sparse. It includes the promise to conceive and instructions for her to follow during the pregnancy, along with a command to raise the child from birth as a Nazirite. The angel finished by saying, “He shall begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines” (Judges 13:5 ESV). As is to be expected, she quickly reported this to her husband.

The husband prayed for the angel to reappear and teach them more. When the angel reappeared, his responses to the questions of Monoah were interesting. In verse twelve, Monoah asks, “Now when your words come true, what is to be the child’s manner of life, and what is his mission?” These questions are only natural. We all want more information. However, the angel’s answers are telling.

The angel responded without giving any more information. He simply reiterated the commands she was to follow during the pregnancy. He gave no answer whatsoever about the mission of the child. It is natural for us to want more guidance. We want God to tell us not only our next steps, but to lay out future direction. All humans have a natural fear of what the future holds, and we want access to that information. This is why fortune telling and astrology are such big business even today in the twenty-first century. Zorah and Monoah, like us, wanted to know more about the child’s future—especially more about what he was to do. It is easier to get the future right if you know the direction God wants you to take. “Lord, do you want me to go to the right or the left? Am I to preach? Am I to teach? Are you calling me to start a business?” If God would tell us which way to go, thus assuring us of his blessing, life would be much less confusing, and the future less frightening.

Unfortunately, no matter how much we ask or plead for direction and more information, God often responds by reminding us to simply obey the commands we have already been given. He has given us a great deal of direction in the Word—instructions for morals, foundational beliefs, etc. We are to continue in these and walk day by day knowing he has a plan. We may not know his plan, but we can still put one foot in front of the other and walk in obedience.

We always want more information. We want to know more about God’s plan and about his purpose for us. We forget that the information we have been given is the information we need. If we needed more he would give more. If we needed to know all, then he would show us all. The fact that he has not shown us more, is evidence that we have the information we actually need. Walk in the Word already given. Obey God with the next step, letting him worry about future steps and the final destination.

So, does this mean we should simply be satisfied with the guidance we have and not ask for more? Of course not. We should continue to seek more information from God. We do this through prayer, through studying the Word and through the input of other believers. God will show the way, but it is usually just one step at a time. One example of this is my personal call into the ministry. Years ago, I was sure I had been called to preach. Beyond that, he gave no other information. Friends confirmed it, the Word seemed to confirm it, but nothing else came—where, when, to whom? It was years before I finally got to preach my first sermon (which helped to confirm the call). It was still more years before he showed me where. Over the years he has moved me from place to place. Sometimes, I have feared that I stepped out of his will by leaving one place and going to another. However, he has shown that in each place, at each step, he was in control and guiding me invisibly behind the scenes.

Pray for more guidance. But expect God to give you only what you need and accept what he has given as all the information needed. Walk in obedience of the light you have been given and wait upon him for more light as needed. Spend time in the Word, pray, speak to believing friends and observe opportunities. Trust him to guide you and don’t sit frozen waiting for more information. Obey what has been given; trust the rest to him.

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To Die For Christ is to Live for Christ

As Christians, we’ve been called to willingly lay down our lives for Christ. This means we are willing to die rather than renounce our faith. It means we will surrender our life before we surrender our allegiance to Christ. However, it’s too easy to put this off as some future possibility, with little meaning for today. We forget that the call to die for Christ actually defines how we live today. In Galatians Two: Twenty, Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God.” The call to die for Christ is not restricted to some future persecution. The call to die for Christ is to be lived out in the here and now. If you have been saved by Christ, you died. Each and every day you should remind yourself that you are dead—no longer alive. You now live as Christ. When you act, Christ is acting. When you speak, Christ is speaking. When you love, Christ is loving.

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Our Journey, The Next Step

Our last Sunday in the Danbury building will be January 18, 2015. Interestingly, many people ask questions showing a misunderstanding about “church” and about what is happening. Often I hear questions asked which imply that once the building is sold we will no longer exist as a church. This could not be farther from the truth of biblical teaching.

The word “Church” in English is actually a very different word from the one used in the New Testament—they are not even related. However, there is some cross-over. Our word “Church” comes from the German word kirche. This word finds its origin in the Greek word kyriakon. Literally it expresses the idea of “The Lord’s house” kyri-a-doma (Dictionary.com). The New Testament word for church is ekklesia. This Greek word defined an assembly of citizens called together to make decisions and take action. It was the meeting where civic body acted in concert. The New Testament church is the gathering of God’s people acting in concert in service to God.

By looking at the different words you can see the problem. The New Testament idea of church doesn’t assume a special building or place of meeting. It assumes a collection of people called out from the world coming together as the local expression of Christ. The modern English word “church” is very hard to separate from the concept of a building where special services are held and functions are performed. The modern idea would have reminded the apostles of the Jerusalem Temple. However, the temple was a picture of the assembly of the people. We are the temple of God and no building can usurp that role.

Yes, we are selling our building. We will, for a time, not have a regular facility dedicated only to meetings and services. The board has decided to spend some time meeting in a home. This means we will likely go “from house to house” for a time. This is actually biblical and more in keeping with the New Testament. Will this be our permanent condition? That is up to God. He has to guide us into his plan for the church.

During this time, keep in mind that we are still a Church in the New Testament meaning—we are an assembly of believers called out to be the local expression of Christ. Also, keep in mind that Christ promised to be in our midst wherever two or more are gathered in his name. He didn’t say, “When you gather in a suitably dedicated building, I’ll be there.” We could gather in a house, in a barn, in a tent, in a field and Jesus would still be there among us. The important thing is continuing to love one another in the name of Christ and to live out the gospel where he has us.

After January 18, we will no longer have a building. However, we still have a temple. You and I are each stones in that edifice built by God. It is a living temple, built of the people of God. When we gather together Jesus is with us. The Holy Spirit still empowers us to minister.

How long will we be without a facility? That is up to God. I am not giving up looking. This is where we are now—and we go this way in obedience of God. However, as one who has experience in house church I know we can be blessed while in this condition. Blessing comes to a congregation through being the Church, not through bricks, sticks, stones and mortar.

If being without a building undermines our dedication to each other, we would have to admit we were never an actual New Testament church. I don’t believe this is going to happen. I see this as an opportunity to get weaned off of love for place, and restore a fresh love for one another. Turn your gaze from the building and look for the presence of Christ among your fellow believers. God stopped occupying buildings when he came to live as a man (Christ) and then poured out his Holy Spirit on all flesh. People build and occupy buildings; God builds and occupies people.

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Shut the Church Doors?

This morning, in my devotional time, I’ve been reading from a very familiar passage (Malachi 1:10f). This passage, in the NIV reads:

“’Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will accept no offering from your hands. My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting sun. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to my name, because my name will be great among the nations,’ says the Lord Almighty.”

This passage is heard repeatedly throughout the Christian Church as a call to give to God the best that we have, rather than trying to cheat by giving less than our best. However, while reading it this morning I was struck with a very different perspective. The problem with the usual application is that the passage is not speaking to the one bringing the offering to the temple. It speaks to the ones whose job is to offer the sacrifice on behalf of the giver—the priests. In 1:6d we read: “It is you, O priests, who show contempt for my name.” Then, after the passage we are looking at, the Lord continues, “And now this admonition is for you, O priests.”

The priests were receiving crippled and diseased offerings from the people. Rather than inspecting them properly and refusing these offerings they are receiving them. Doing this, of course, encourages others to do likewise. So, this makes me wonder why the priests would do this. Why would the priests accept what is not acceptable?

You have to understand that there were several offerings given through the ritual calendar year. However, most of these offerings either went to the upkeep of the priesthood—the food and money to support them and their families—or were shared as a meal between the priest and the giver. A portion of most offerings went to the priests themselves. Like most human behavior we can best understand it by understanding the self-interest of the people involved. How would this work for the self-interest of the priests? Tied to this self-interest is the old adage of “follow the money.”

When a person looked through their herd to find an offering, they knew it was going to cost them. The cost would be relative to the animal selected. For example, offering a heifer with many more years of potential breeding would cost far more than offering the old tired bred-out cow which would likely never have another healthy calf—if she did breed again the chances are high she and the calf may both be lost at calving. One costs years of future wealth and the other only costs one cow at the end of a lifetime of returns. If a herdsman had two calves, one with a twisted leg, more likely to be taken by predators, and the other healthy, giving the healthy one costs more and leaves the herdsman with a chance of more loss after giving—which requires a greater deal of faith.

This adds an interesting dynamic. When giving costs more we tend to give less—staying much closer to what is the minimum requirement. When it costs less, we can give more of a lesser value which encourages giving more. If herdsmen can meet their religious duty and look good in the community while still clearing their herds of the unwanted and unprofitable stock, they are likely to give more. This is where the self-interest of the priests comes in, and inspires the Lord’s rebuke. If the priests just look the other way, they get more. If they permit a lesser quality offering they get more. Meat is meat. If the herdsman can give three cows when he otherwise would have given only two, the priest is enriched.  All that would matter to the priest is that the meat would still be good after the animal is sacrificed. This is a much lower standard. The priest is looking at the sacrifices according to their benefit to themselves rather than their honor to the Lord.

Now, let’s apply this today. We no longer offer animal sacrifices. Christ’s sacrifice was the final offering of this kind. Our sacrifices today are good deeds done in the flesh and this includes offerings given to the Lord’s service and the expansion of his kingdom. What is in the self-interest of today’s “temple staff”? I am speaking of the vocational minister—the modern professional pastor. Larger offerings provide larger salaries. I am not decrying salaries or vocational ministry. However, we can all be tempted to do what is necessary to bring in those larger offerings, not because it benefits the kingdom, but because it benefits us. When this happens the kingdom is despised, while the pastor profits.

Larger offerings are easier with larger crowds. In this way each may give less value, but more is received and the pastor’s ‘market value’ and salary grows. Malachi’s charges are lived out in the modern church by the pastor who waters down the Word; who accepts less holiness from his people; who makes discipleship as soft as possible; who would rather pat his people on the back than call them to repentance. Such churches pack in the people. Such churches gather in large offerings and pay huge salaries. But is it possible Christ would rephrase the words of Malachi 1:10a as, “Oh, that one of you would shut the church doors…”?

I don’t want to go too far with the pastor/priest comparison. The priests of the New Testament are all the people of God (1 Peter 2:5). But should this make the words of Malachi 2:7 apply any less to today’s pastor?

“For the lips of the [pastor]ought to preserve knowledge, and from his mouth men should seek instruction—because he is the messenger of the Lord almighty.”

We must never accept lesser from ourselves than what God demands.

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