Monday, April 20, 2009

Despicable King Ahaz

Reading through 1 and 2 Kings, it's tough not to notice that a lot of the kings were just wretched. One that really stuck out to me the last time through was King Ahaz, whose story we find in 2 Kings 16. He's the first of the Ahaz-Hezekiah-Manasseh troika that should drive certain people crazy, namely those who believe that children perfectly reflect the way they're raised (giving credit to the father for the child's righteousness, and blaming him for the child's rebellion). Ahaz was incredibly wicked, his son Hezekiah was the most righteous king Judah ever knew, then Manasseh was beyond evil. But that's a head-scratcher for another day.

As for Ahaz, scripture doesn't really have anything good to say about him. This passage starts off with a description of his wicked idolatry. He was so evil he even sacrificed one of his sons, an act the Bible calls "despicable". In order to obtain a material blessing from a god - usually an abundant crop or healthy livestock - the parents would sacrifice their newborn child to their 'god', killing their child so that they could be better off financially. I'll let you draw your own parallel to a modern abomination. Suffice to say, God does not approve.

Next, we read about when Israel and Syria teamed up to invade Judah. Ahaz got out of it by paying Assyria to attack them, not an uncommon practice in those days. So what's so wrong about that? Well, we read elsewhere a little more of the story. In short, Israel and Syria threatened to attack, and Ahaz freaked out. So God sent Isaiah with a message to Ahaz - don't worry, I'll deliver you, have faith. And Ahaz was told to ask for a sign - anything he could imagine, God would do for him. Just pause and let the magnitude of that offer sink in. Now, consider this - Ahaz blew it off! Instead of asking God for - well, anything - and trusting God to deliver them as He promised, Ahaz decided it would be better to loot the temple and treasury, send the gold to Assyria, and let them handle things. Now that is pure wickedness. (As for the sign that was offered - God decided to give one anyway, one that's a tad bit better than anything Ahaz could have ever dreamed).

Which brings us to the third abomination Ahaz committed, which is what really caught my eye this time through. It's a sin that never gets mentioned in any list of the worst sins, but really, it can make a good case for being among the most nauseating. What did Ahaz do that was so bad this time?

He made a new altar for the temple.

Wait, that's it? That's what gets me so worked up? Surely that isn't really all that bad, is it? Why yes, yes it is. Just on the surface, we see the heart of Ahaz turned to other gods. He saw the altar at Damascus, a pagan altar to imaginary deities. The altar in the temple at Jerusalem was a pretty plain design, pretty much just a big bronze square, but the pagan altar he saw in Damascus was apparently ornate and beautiful. So Ahaz rejected the altar of God, deciding he'd rather have the better-looking altar of the pagans. To Ahaz, God was just one of many, and it didn't really matter which god he worshipped, or how he did it. An altar was an altar, all the offerings go to the same place, right? What difference did it really make - God's altar, a pagan altar, they're all basically the same. In this act, Ahaz completely rejected God's covenant, despised the call to be a holy people and worship him only. Instead, Ahaz wanted to be just like all the other nations. So he rejected God's altar, and made an altar just like the other nations had. In doing so, he rejected God as well.

That's wicked enough, but there's more. Consider this passage from Hebrews 8:

Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, "See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain."

See there why God would be so offended by the altar Ahaz built? When God gave Moses the designs for the tabernacle and its furnishings, it wasn't accidental or random. Everything in the tabernacle/temple was modeled after the heavenly reality. This includes the altar. As God designed it, the altar was a temporal, physical model of a piece of heaven. So when Ahaz spurned God's altar, he was ultimately rejecting heaven. He looked at the temple furnishings, saw a glimpse of heaven, and decided he'd rather have what the Syrians had. In rejecting the altar, he was rejecting heaven itself. Now that is a sin!

God's design for the tabernacle was deliberate. He gave specific patterns for specific furnishings, because these earthly furnishings were to clearly reflect heavenly glory. Because of the awesome, eternal truth represented by these furnishings, God demanded that all worship be directed through these approved channels. You could not just worship God anywhere in any way and expect Him to accept it. No, to truly worship God, it must be through the way God appointed. God will be worshipped how God wants to be worshipped, and no other.

To equivocate and insist that another way was just as good as the God-appointed way is wickedly insane. When Ahaz insisted that the pagan altar of Damascus was essentially the same as God's altar, he committed blasphemy of the highest order. God had clearly revealed how He would be approached; to claim that another method was just as good was wicked arrogance - to think that sinful man can approach God however we want! To imagine that we set the terms of interaction with God transcendent, our creator! No, we can only approach God as He says, and when He has clearly revealed how we are to approach Him, we need to obey. Trying another method is sinful folly.

So when Ahaz rejected God's clear direction (as did Uriah the priest, who sinned through spinelessness) and insisted the Syrian way was just as good or better, Ahaz was guilty of a heinous sin.

And so are many in the church today, those who are infecting the church with ideas of pluralism and inclusivism. Pluralism is the idea that all faiths are basically equal, all ways lead to God, blah blah blah. Inclusivism teaches that, while Jesus is the preferred way to God, there may be other ways as well, albeit inferior and more difficult ways. Both of these run afoul of the clear scriptural proclamation that we can only approach God through Jesus. God has made it abundantly clear that salvation is through Christ alone. What sort of blasphemous arrogance is required to pretend that another way is just as good? Who do we think we are, if we believe that we choose the terms of the covenant, that we decide how God is to be worshipped?

But that sort of teaching is everywhere today, spurred on largely by modernism and greatly accelerated by postmodernism. Few doctrines are less popular that the exclusivity of Christ, and few questions are intended to hurt and embarrass more than "Do you really believe that good [fill in the religion] are going to hell?" We are derided for believing that one major flaw outweighs all the 'good' they do. Yet this is exactly what God has declared - who are we to think we know better than God?

And so, we are constantly assaulted with the mocking of modern-day Ahaz. We are told that the altar in Damascus is just as good as the one God designed for Jerusalem, and it's purtier, too. And the world will like us more if we stop being so... exclusive. So we need to stand firm, and let God be true though every man a liar. Let us believe God, reject all substitutes, and present the full hope of the true gospel.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The First Witnesses

This Sunday is Easter, and of course I've been thinking quite a bit about what Jesus accomplished on the cross and by his resurrection (not just because of Tony Jones's latest heretical rantings, either). As often happens, when meditating on a familiar passage of scripture again, something strikes me differently than ever before. This time, I've really been thinking a lot about the first witnesses to the resurrection.

All across America tomorrow, many preachers will mention that the first witnesses to Christ's resurrection were women. They'll give the usual spiel about the view of women in that culture, how they weren't regarded as reliable witnesses, how if this was a fictional account there's no way they'd make up women as the first witnesses, etc etc. All well and good. What hit me recently, though, is that there's one thing not quite right here.

They weren't the first.

Oh, they were the first to respond positively. The first who saw Jesus and believed. The first to tell the apostles and start proclaiming the marvelous truth that Jesus had conquered death and had risen to glorious life. But they weren't the first ones to know about the resurrection.

That honor fell to an even less likely group - the Roman soldiers. And what they did with this amazing knowledge is a sad commentary on us. That's right, us. You and me. How so? Let's set the scene...

Jesus had been performing his public ministry for about three years. In that time he'd shown through miraculous signs and authoritative teaching that he was the long-awaited Messiah, and had gathered a large enough following. The Jewish ruling authorities, knowing full well that he was the Christ, but treasuring their wealth and power above God's promise, became increasingly jealous until they finally plotted to murder Jesus (as well as those who gave indisputable evidence of his divine power). All through his ministry, Jesus clearly and publicly claimed that he would be killed, but would rise again on the third day. So after they successfully orchestrated his murder, the Jewish leaders also wanted to ensure that his body would stay put. They axed Pilate for a guard, and he granted their request, ordering a group of soldiers to seal and guard the tomb to make sure none of his disciples stole the body.

The soldiers no doubt knew why they were to guard this tomb. Most likely Pilate or the Jews had explained their mission to them, but even if not, they surely had heard of this latest would-be Messiah. They had heard of his ministry, the miracles, the claims to divinity. They would have known that he had talked about his own resurrection, and would have been on high alert for anyone who would steal the body and pretend he had risen. The city would go berserk if that happened, and that was something Rome just wouldn't allow. These soldiers would have been determined - nothing like that was going to happen on their watch! This man who claimed to be God in the flesh, who claimed he would burst forth from the grave victorious over death - they would make sure his corpse stayed right where it was.

That was before they ran away.

We don't know exactly how long they stuck around or what all they saw, though it seems they were gone long before the women got there. We can only imagine what their conversation that night was like - probably mocking Jesus, laughing at the idea that someone could come back from the dead. Possibly ridiculing the idea of anything supernatural at all - why, all those healings and miracles he did were probably just parlor tricks. He was just a man, and he was just as dead as all the other would-be saviors of Israel, and he'd stay that way. But then:

And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men.

Can you imagine? Assigned to guard a tomb to make sure someone stays inside of it. Mocking the very idea of someone coming back to life. Cursing the backwoods hicks of Israel that would actually believe such a story, making this stupid waste of time assignment neccesary. And then - an angel descends from heaven. Their reaction is the typical response to an angelic appearance, absolute dread and despair. No doubt there was an added element of incredulity - can this truly be happening? They watched as the terrifyingly awesome angel descended from heaven. They got out of his way as he walked to the tomb, grabbed the multi-ton stone, and effortlessly flung it aside. We don't know exactly when they fled. Did they wait to see Jesus actually walk out of the tomb, fully alive in his glorious resurrection body? Did they run away before then, when they saw the angel and knew what was coming? We don't know for sure.

We do know this: they knew that Jesus had risen, just as he said. They were the first people to know that Jesus had conquered the grave and had broken the power of sin and death. They had beheld irrefutable proof that Jesus is who he said he is, that God's word is absolutely sure, that Jesus is truly the Son of God. They knew all this, and yet what was their response?

While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, "Tell people, 'His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.' And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble." So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day.

Yikes. In the face of irrefutable proof that God's word is absolutely true, that all Jesus said would come to pass, they despised it all, agreeing to lie about it in exchange for money. And the priests, who knew even better than the guards what the resurrection meant, gladly paid them to lie. Now that is depravity!

And the truly sobering thought is, we're not any different. Apart from God's saving, sealing grace, every one of us would gladly deny God for money or power or acceptance. Starting with Adam, who knew God but didn't care and threw it all away, down through the Pharisees and priests of Jesus' day, who knew who Jesus is and refused to accept it, we all would find some excuse for not believing, Unless, that is, God's regenerating grace makes us alive. But for the grace of God, that would be me. This Easter as we reflect on what Jesus did on the cross, as we celebrate his triumph over the grave, as we praise him for all his wonderful works, take some time out to truly thank God for making you alive. Because without his grace poured out on the elect, we would be there with the crowd shouting for his crucifixion, or knowing full well he had risen yet offering to lie for money, or knowing the truth yet trying desperately to distract from it or pretend it never happened. Let it sink in - if not for God's grace, we'd gladly trade his promises for our fame or power or wealth or just because we felt like it. We are as depraved as the soldiers or priests who killed him or wished to keep his rising a secret. If you've come to genuine faith in Christ, the praise for this belongs to God alone.

Which leads to the next point. "Skeptics" are seemingly everywhere nowadays, showing up on blogs and all other media, pretending that they'd believe if only there was some evidence. The guards shoot a massive hole in that idea. They were in the best position to examine the evidence, and knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that what Jesus had said was true. They received the best evidence imaginable, and still refused to believe. If the preponderance of evidence here wasn't enough for the soldiers, how can any amount of evidence available today convince a modern skeptic? It simply will not happen - apart from God's grace. "If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead."

Of course, the gospel must be proclaimed boldly and cleanly. We must present it clearly, as it should be. And when necessary, we must be apologetically prepared. But we must never fall into thinking that our argument or evidence will win over someone who is lost. Compared to the tomb guards and high priest, no evidence we could present is as compelling. A skeptic will not be won over any more than the guards were. If one is to come to faith, it won't be from a clever argument or awesome evidence. It will be the work of God in them, convincing them of sin, bringing them repentance, and making them alive through faith. Apologetics and stuff have their place, but true conversion only comes from the regenerating grace of God.

So praise God that he made you alive. Praise him that he has set you free from sin and death. And pray for those still blinded by the darkness. God is their only hope, just as he has been ours. And don't get too worked up over apologetics or methods, as if your words had the power of God to save. God alone can bring conversion, not your words or promises. Never stop praising God, for he has done the same and more for you.

Friday, April 10, 2009

These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.

But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.

Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood. For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, "This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you." And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.

Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,

"Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body have you prepared for me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings
you have taken no pleasure.
Then I said, 'Behold, I have come to do your will, O God,
as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.'"

When he said above, "You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings" (these are offered according to the law), then he added, "Behold, I have come to do your will." He does away with the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.

And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying,
"This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws on their hearts,
and write them on their minds,"

Then he adds,

"I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more."

Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Congregational Government

Frank Turk has an awesome post up at Pyro, which included this beauty in the comments. Give 'em a read.

One theme that comes up a few times is the dispute between elder-governed and congregational-governed churches. Not wanting to derail the thread too much, I figured I'd just post this here instead. Plus, it gives a nice easy four-minute update (perfect for those busy work weeks), and the timing is quite cromulent all around, oddly enough.

When we were in Israel, at one of the sites James MacDonald taught a lesson from Mark 15 et al about the many grave injustices involved in sentencing Jesus to death. Seemingly at every step, someone broke the law or acted deceitfully or used extreme cowardice, in order to railroad the innocent man to the cross. In so many ways, this was a spectacular sin.

At one point, he talked about the crowd turning against Jesus. Just days before, they had praised him as he entered Jerusalem through the east gate from the Mount of Olives, shouting Hosannah and greeting him as the king he is. Yet here they were not even a week later, a bloodthirsty mob calling for his death. Quite a sobering look at how fickle and depraved we are, and how it's only by the grace of God that those of us who are in Christ remain in him.

But here James took a minor tangent, and pointed out that this was just par for the course for large crowds in the Bible. The challenge - name a time a right decision was made by the crowd. Let's see... give us a king so we can be just like everyone else... we're too afraid to enter the Promised Land, take us back to Egypt... make us an idol, Aaron... who does Moses think he is, let's follow Korah... crucify him! There may be a counter-example somewhere I can't think of offhand, but so far the congregation's track record is looking exceptionally bad. So commenting on this trend, that in scripture decisions made by the congregation are (almost?) always horrible, James revealed the title of a book he hopes to publish someday:

Congregational Government is from Satan

It's pretty hard to tell where he stands on some of these issues, isn't it? So anyway, aside from the clear commands throughout the NT (particularly in the pastorals) that the church is to be elder-led, this maybe sheds some extra light on the case against congregational rule. Or maybe it doesn't. Whatever, I thought it was an awesome title, even if there's almost zero chance someone will publish it.