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The Near Extinction of Honor

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“‘A son honors his father, and a servant his master. Then if I am a father, where is My honor? And if I am a master, where is My respect [fear]?’ says the Lord of hosts to you, ‘O priests who despise My name.’ But you say, ‘How have we despised Your name?’” -Mal. 1.6

We need to be leery of any view of the Fatherhood of God that does not lead us into a holy esteem for the Lord. Likewise, our view of His Lordship ought always to be accompanied with a sense of His kindness, lest it become stoic and lifeless. Our view of His Fatherhood must be attended by the quintessential attribute of His nature; namely, His holiness, lest we find that we are engaged headlong in activities performed “in His name,” but altogether devoid of His honor. The prophet commences with an “oracle of the word of the Lord,” declaring, “I have loved you.”

How did Israel requite the Lord for His gracious love? From the love of God the prophet now turns to the ingratitude of His people. God has treated the people of Israel as a son; have they honored Him as Father? They have retained the relationship of servant to Him as Master; have they rendered Him due reverence? The rightful respect due God has been withheld, due mainly to the ungodliness of the priests against whom the charge is directed.

(Charles Feinberg, The Minor Prophets; Moody Press, 1990 ed. pp. 251-252)

It is a rarity for the “rightful respect due God” to have a place in the consideration of modern saints. With the advent of smart phones, instant internet access, and a thousand other forms of entertainment and distraction, the idea of being “still” and knowing that He is God is taking on an archaic character. The everyday bustling believer is being (or has already been) reduced to a brand of humanity that can only respond to, and receive from, that which is quick, easy, and colorful. The priestly distinctives of waiting and honoring and revering the One on the throne have reached the status of taboo, even if we would refuse to admit it.

We have learned to settle for the offering up of blind, lame, and sickly sacrifices, and the robust faith of the apostles and prophets of old is nearly extinct in the Western Christian experience. We need daily to be reminded that:

The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; 
The commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes. 
The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; 
The judgments of the LORD are true; they are righteous altogether. -Ps. 19.8-9

Many Christians are being raised with an understanding of God that is tragically bereft of the kind of reverential honor that the prophets and the old Levites bore before the people. There is something tinpot and cheap about our hurried ministries and perfunctory thoughts of God. They do not ring with the life-giving note of the fear of the Lord, and unless we acquire that, we can be sure that however busy we might be with work, play, or some ostensible expression of ministry, we will not bear the necessary priestly distinctive: “holiness unto to the Lord.” Our witness will be reduced to humanism and our ministry to mere religion.

Our great task is not first to perform externals, but to bear the knowledge of God as He is before the people, and that knowledge cannot be obtained but by a people in earnest pursuit of the Living God. If we give slipshod attention to Him, however feverishly engaged in ministry we might be, He will be as a Father without honor. We need to be arrested by the reality that He will have nothing to do with man-centered ministries, humanistic theologies, or garbled definitions of priestliness and sonship.

Oh that there were one among you who would shut the gates, that you might not uselessly kindle fire on My altar! I am not not pleased with you,” says the Lord of hosts, “nor will I accept an offering from you.” -Mal. 1.10

We need to be acutely aware of the fact that it is possible to function in a distorted kind of faith that caters to our spiritual preferences, but is in no way pleasing to the Lord. It is even possible for this infraction and offense to be committed “on My altar” or under the auspices of Christian ministry.

Leon Morris wrote that Malachi gives attention to “laxity among the priests,” and this may well be the characteristic condition of believers in modern times, whether Evangelical or Charismatic. The laxity is not in activity, but in earnestness after God. The Levites had deviated from the priestly covenant, and in like manner, the Church has largely deviated from “faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.”

‘My covenant with him [Levi] was one of life and peace, and I gave them to him as an object of reverence; so he revered Me and stood in awe of My name. True instruction was in his mouth and unrighteousness was not found on his lips; he walked with Me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many back from iniquity. For the lips of priest should preserve knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts.
But as for you, you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by the instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi,’ says the Lord of hosts. So I also have made you despised and abased before all the people, just as your are not keeping My ways but are showing partiality in the instruction. -Mal. 2.5-9

We need to peer long and hard into the Levitic call, especially at its heart, for it is not unlike the call of every saint. In the Gospel, we have been “grafted” into a continuum with the Hebraic Levites of ancient times, for like our Lord, the nature of a priest is the “same yesterday, today, and forever.” We ought to be bearing that priestly honor for the Father, and going from “glory to glory” in that wondrous reality. Have we seen Him as worthy of that kind of life; of living, moving, and having our being in Him; ‘broken bread and poured out wine’ for His sake?

The Life-Giving Work of Affliction

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“Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all.” -Ps. 34.19

It is a “gospel” of naivete which claims that once a man comes to faith in Christ he will never know affliction. To state the Biblical view clearly, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14.22) According to Luke, this was a word of encouragement to the saints.

This Pauline perspective was expressed thusly:

“For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” -1 Cor. 12.10

And:

“…as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way by great endurance in afflictions, hardships, calamities…” -2 Cor. 6.4

For Paul, remarkable sufferings did not disqualify him from the blessing of God, but were the commendation of his ministry, that “in every way by great endurance” he was “content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities.” 

On every front the Biblical writers recognized that suffering was integral to the life of faith. It is on the ground of affliction that our faith is tempered, reinforced, and proven. The modern paradigm has digressed into a tooth-and-nail scrap for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and seldom do the saints operate on the basis of apostolic wisdom, which leads us to becoming “broken bread and poured out wine” for the sake of Christ.

We need to rightly interpret our present affliction and God-orchestrated tensions, for so long as we have as our ambition the circumvention of all hardship, we impede the formation of Christ in our own life and character. To circumvent the cross is to obstruct the flow of resurrection life.

Whenever a thing becomes difficult in personal experience, we are in danger of blaming God, but it is we who are in the wrong, not God; there is some perversity somewhere that we will not let go. Immediately we do, everything becomes as clear as daylight.
….The attitude must be one of complete reliance on God. When once we get there, there is nothing easier than living the saintly life; difficulty comes in when we want to usurp the authority of the Holy Spirit for our own ends.

-Oswald Chambers, My Utmost For His Highest, Dec. 14th selection

We need to recognize that in large part, difficulties are permitted to come upon us “when we want to usurp the authority of the Holy Spirit for our own ends.” Paul himself, in all of his apostolic character and stature, was brought to the view that his “thorn in the flesh” was meant to keep his own soul in check before the Lord, lest he “exalt” himself. Whatever that “thorn” was, he had prayed for a release from it, and finally concluded at the encouragement of the Lord that it was to remain as a life-giving affliction.

We see here the two-fold view of Paul, for he had seen mighty deliverances, and for this reason he pleaded with the Lord for a release. But when the Lord gave word that His grace was “sufficient” to carry Paul through, immediately he interpreted the affliction as a safeguard for his soul. He saw that his own propensity for self-exaltation, which was yet alive in his recesses after years of apostolic labor, needed the release of grace that could only be attained through suffering.

It is good for me that I was afflicted,
   that I might learn your statutes.
The law of your mouth is better to me
   than thousands of gold and silver pieces. -Ps. 119.71-72

The “law” or wisdom of His “mouth” must become “better” to us “than thousands of gold and silver pieces.” For Paul, the wisdom of God prevailed over his own, and so he recognized the goodness of God, even in the land of affliction. Indeed, he was able to discern the kindness of God, not only in the midst of affliction, but through the affliction itself.

O taste and see that the Lord is good;
How blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him!
O fear the Lord, you His saints;
For to those who fear Him there is no want. (Ps. 34.8-9)

The goodness and fear of the Lord, when rightly apprehended, will shepherd us well in the barren grasslands of trial, and lead us to the waters that “make glad the city of God.”

‘Fear of the Lord’ in Psm. 34 means to recognize YHWH in His actuality, particularly in His reality for salvation, and to behave accordingly.
….He who fears YHWH recognizes and acknowledges His reality.
….The righteous experience the reality and the saving activity of YHWH, especially in times of distress.

(Hans Joachim Kraus, PSALMS: A Continental Commentary, Fortress Press)

The “saving activity of YHWH, especially in times of distress,” is the great work of ringing out our propensity for self-exaltation, so that through and through we might be infused with the light of His glorious character and wisdom.

Whether suffering persecution for righteousness’ sake, friction in relationships, or experiencing some other form of affliction, we can be sure that the Lord means to effect His “saving activity” by the very means of that hardship. “Death works in us, so life” does as well, in our own hearts and unto those souls whom the Lord has put us in touch with. This is an apostolic view too infrequently celebrated by the Church, but when we are apprehended by it, we take on a whole new panoramic outlook, and Jesus Christ has the preeminence in our lives.

This is to be supremely desired.

Satisfied In Goodness & Holiness

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When iniquities prevail against me,
    you atone for our transgressions.
Blessed is the one you choose and bring near,
    to dwell in your courts!
We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house,
    the holiness of your temple! || Psalm 65.3-4

David knows poignantly the plight of the human soul- the plight of our iniquities. He speaks of the iniquities which “prevail” against him, and in this context he is not singing of the sins of others that have inflicted pain in his life. He is locked in on the dark reality of his own iniquity. He is not thinking as the self-justifying Pharisee in Luke 18, but rather, as the tax-collector who cried unto God, “Be merciful to me, a sinner.”

He does not rest upon his reputation, his earthly power as King of Judah, nor even the positive portions of his history of devotion to God. He acknowledges that there are yet “iniquities” which “prevail against” him— his own iniquities.

However, he knows also the only remedy for his sin. “You atone for our transgressions.” David was a man who had tasted the remarkable sweetness and power of the Gospel, centuries before the mystery of its light had been revealed and articulated in Christ (Rom. 16.25-26).  He had only one direction in which to turn for the answer to his plight— to the One Who atones for the transgressions of those Whom He loves. And in that acknowledgement, he was made ineffably happy.

Blessed is the one You choose and bring near,
    to dwell in Your courts!

It was better for David to dwell for one day in the courts of the God Who atones, than to spend a thousand life-times in the presence of earthly potentates and all the pleasures that accompany such company.

“Blessed is the one…” To be “blessed” is not a cheap religious cliche, it is to be happy beyond measure; “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” (Ps. 32.1) Happy beyond measure because the iniquity which he could not purify nor scrub out by any means within himself had been atoned for; “forgiven” and “covered” by the very One against whom the offenses had been committed.

He recognized that it was God’s own choice to “bring” him “near”, that he might “dwell” in the very “courts” of the Lord Himself. The ineffable happiness flowed then from two realizations: First, that his iniquities had been washed away. Second, that this God of holiness had ever-so-kindly led him to repentance and faith, for He had chosen to bring the otherwise iniquity-laden and disqualified Psalmist near to Himself.

Through the atonement, through God’s choice of the sinner on the basis of His own infinite mercies, there is a blessedness, an unparalleled happiness which ensues. The Psalmist desired to remember it morning by morning with palpable faith, for surely the sense of his iniquities would continue to hound him without it. There could only be one answer to his ongoing malady, his daily battle against the pride of life and the lusts of the flesh, only one way to remain in the happy state of vibrant faith and holy fear: “I must remember the One Who makes atonement, the One Who has chosen to bring me near!”

All the treasures of this world could not produce in the ancient King what this truth established in him— a holy satisfaction in the goodness and holiness of God, which was to be known, treasured, and enjoyed by David’s experience of “dwelling” in His courts; that is, finding his own place in the very house of God, that house which, apart from God’s mercy, he could not even think to enter, much less to dwell. Thus he would be satisfied, and in this way only.

He knew that it was not his own doing. It was the work of the God who atones, the One who chooses to bring us near to Himself.

This, then, is how you ought to bring your broken frame to God, morning by morning, evening by evening. The one who says he has no sin makes God out to be a liar, says the apostle of old (1 Jn. 1.10). But when we come before the Throne acknowledging our very present iniquities, even those which we cannot perceive, we come upon the ground of truth. When we look to him with the faith of a child, we see Him as the One Who atones for our transgressions; the One who has chosen to bring us near, to satisfy us with the “goodness” of His house and the “holiness” of His temple— to satisfy us with Himself.

In this faith is our adoption, our justification, our sanctification, our glorification, and the “everlasting joy” which can only be discovered in the One Who hung upon the tree to “bring us near.” In the final analysis, the purpose of the Atonement is not only that we should be made clean, but that we should be “reconciled to God,” and experience the glories of eternal life. And “this is eternal life, that they might know You, the One true God, and Jesus the Messiah Whom You have sent.” (Jn. 17.3)

“He answers the need of your soul. You are all guilt; He is a fountain to wash you. You are all naked; He has a wedding garment to cover you. You are dead; He is the Life. You are all wounds and bruises; He is the Balm of Gilead.” || Robert Murray McCheyne

He is the One who calls to us now, “Come to Me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”

“I will satisfy you” in the goodness and holiness of My House.

So do we find our place in Your house, O God. So do we dwell in that precious place. Teach us to abide in Your Son, the Atonement Lamb, that our joy would be full in your “goodness” and “holiness.” Conform us to the image of Christ upon that foundation, and cause Your Light to shine through us to a world which yet lies under the power of the evil one. Bring many sons to glory through a people who know what it means to be satisfied in You. Amen.

Commended By God Himself

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Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. || 2 Cor. 3.1-2

Paul begins this chapter with a few rhetorical questions which might not be taken as rhetorical within the realm of current ministry trends. Self-promotion in ministry, and clinical, un-relational commendations abound in our day as they did among the false apostles of the first century. But in light of the character of true apostles, and in light of the intensity of Paul’s relationship to the Corinthian saints, these opening questions carry a note of bewilderment, even a kind of sanctified sarcasm. The saints are questioning Paul’s apostleship and teaching, and he is being pressed to speak “as one foolish” to deliver his point.

It is telling to consider the nature of Paul’s questions. For a true apostle, one who had become their “father in the gospel”, it seemed a shocking thing that he should be expected to commend himself to them. His apostleship, his “sent-ness,” had already been demonstrated to them through much labor, much fellowship, much service, as the Holy Spirit had borne witness to his life and ministry in Corinth. The dullness of the Corinthian saints had driven him to give a defense of his apostleship, not for his sake but for their’s, even though the fruit of Paul’s character had already been more than well-established.

The self-promoting characteristics of many a modern ministry could not be discovered in Paul. He didn’t need to promote himself, for he had been shaped and sent by God Himself. In truth, he didn’t need a letter of recommendation to the Corinthians- to prove his character to their hearts- nor a letter of recommendation from them, as if he needed their approval to speak into their lives. His very life and teaching had already been displayed to them. Indeed, through the apostle, Christ had been displayed to them.

You cannot improve upon what God has wrought in a man with adornments of self-promotion or commendations of the kind that organizations and worldly businesses often utilize. The only reason we think these kinds of things to be necessary in modern ministry is that we haven’t got the kind of character in the nit and grit of life and faith that was central to ministries of men like Paul. We feel the need to dress up the image of our ministries with “bells and whistles” because we do not have the power, substance, and wisdom of Christ in the real-time obediences of our daily lives.

This was not true of Paul. He was a man who knew what it was to “die daily”, to “suffer all things for the sake of the elect”, to continually carry about in his body “the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus might be manifested” among those to whom he was sent.

So then, what was the hallmark of his ministry, that which commended him to the saints? He gives the answer in v. 2:

You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all.

Paul mercifully answers his own rhetorical questions; questions which he didn’t need to answer. “You yourselves” commend my ministry. Not your verbal affirmation and acceptance. “You yourselves.” People. Not my name. Not any external thing that I might use as an adornment. Not a professionally drafted letter of recommendation from a super-apostle. “You yourselves.”

“My sufficiency comes from God Himself,” Paul would say, “and the proof is in the pudding of your own faith in Christ— your reception of that which I have proclaimed and given witness to in your midst. You were previously godless idolaters; now you are sons and daughters of God. You were once in darkness, and now you are walking in the light, however congested your faith might be under the influence of the false apostles who have trampled the house of God in my absence.”

God commends His ministers on the basis of what He has wrought through them in the lives of real people. When a minister is a minister indeed, one who walks with God, one who draws wisdom and grace from God in prayer, one who is submitted to the Scriptures, one who is rightly related to the Church, one who is growing in grace and holiness, the fruit of his labors will be a people- however large or small- growing up into Christ. Therefore, it has been wisely declared:

The greatest need of my people is my personal holiness….
In great measure, according to the purity and perfections of the instrument, will be success. It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God. || Robert Murray McCheyne

True ministers are shaped by God Himself, and by the grace that has been given, by that which God has wrought in their personal history, they can say, “Follow me, as I follow Christ.” 

In essence, Paul is saying, “You are our letter of recommendation, for the Gospel has found its lodging in your hearts- you have passed from darkness to light. Through our life and labor, you have come to revere and treasure Christ. Our only credential is this: ‘Christ liveth in me,’ and now He lives in you. Because He is at work in and through us, you have been redeemed, and with all of your weaknesses, all of your seeing in part, all of your remaining sin, He is yet at work in you. Therefore, do not forsake that which has been delivered to you through our witness. Unlike the false apostles who do not know you by the Spirit, you are most precious to us because of Jesus. They would use you for sordid gain. They would draw you after themselves. They would misuse your gifts to advance their self-seeking ministries. We, on the other hand, became brothers to you in true fellowship, and fathers to you in the Gospel. Return to the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ, and forsake the mixture of man-centered ministry, worldly distortions of doctrine, and a clinical view of the faith. Remember how you heard of Christ and saw Him demonstrated by the manner of our living amongst you. Our Gospel, our King has apprehended you. It is you, not any earthly adornment, which proves the reality of our service to Christ.”

May it be so in our day, that our ministers would be ministers indeed— Brothers with the saints, grounded in Gospel-imbued fellowship. Soldiers, who bear the fruit of the Spirit, who aren’t playing games with sin, and who can be found at the front of the battle line for the harvest of souls and the building up of the “Church which is His Body.” Fathers, full of wisdom, sobriety, and a joy-filled sense of privileged responsibility as they “shepherd the flock of God, among whom the Holy Spirit” has made them to be “overseers.”

O, to not seek or need adornments and worldly recommendations! O, to be true men of God by the grace that He so generously gives to those who ask, and who are willing daily to take up their crosses! O, for God to be so wonderfully preached and demonstrated, as He was through Paul, even in us! O, for Christ to be “all in all” to His people! O, to bear that most precious of fruits, that we would be able to boast, not in ourselves, but in the Lord, as we look with gratitude upon real people who have been redeemed and are being conformed to His own image through our labors. May it be so, Father, for the glory of Your Son.

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. || 1 Cor. 15.58

 

You // a poem

High def colors, lights and themes flash,
Rush-hour cars dash, talk-radio blasts,
Ten billion thoughts rash, busy minds rehash,
Without thought of You.

E-mails zing swiftly, all around the globe flying,
Salesmen manipulate consumers, prying,
Lotto ticket holder scores a grand, sighing,
With no sigh for You.

Theaters fill with souls, hooked by the latest,
Boasts clang from athletes, “I am the greatest!”
The Mid-East huffs peace for one brief hiatus,
Yet no regard for You.

Stadiums sardined with painted men, awed by names,
Names of chiseled figures, soldiers at game,
Enduring snow, sleet, hail, heat, heavy rains,
Could this be for You?

Bars full of drunkards, cursing, pontificating,
Sunday’s noon-gluttons, bloated from “buffet-ing”,
Preacher clicks the mouse in his office, masturbating,
Hiding from all but You.

Church-going man exasperates his kids,
Christian contractor wields unjust bids,
Mother suffocates infant, claims it was SIDS,
Breaking the heart of You.

Government sanctions homicide in the womb,
Brides are superfluous, groom marries groom,
Preachers envy preachers, their mouths open tombs,
Beckoning wrath from You.

Emergents emerge, cheap grace gains momentum,
“Apostles” build empires, can we find who sent them?
Devoid of humility, promoting books, systems,
In the name of who?

Lord, in this hour when love has waxed cold,
And we’ve lost the fire of the prophets of old,
For we’ve shirked the heat that would try us as gold,
We need mercy from You.

O, that our eyes were a fountain of tears,
Percolating copiously all of our years,
Until mercy rushes, until heaven hears,
‘Till we, whole-souled, behold You.

Wake us from sleeping, gift us with Your view,
Break us with weeping, to love as You do,
Rattle the fleeting ’til the eternal shines through.
O God of Israel, with grace make us true.

Like You.

Only You.

-B.A. Purtle, 2009 (Revised 2017)