Tuesday, March 24, 2009

What's Wrong with "User Friendly"?

Here is an email that I received from a friend this morning. This is an excerpt from John MacArthur's 1993 book, Ashamed of the Gospel, and although this is several years old it could not be more relevant to what is happing in a lot of our churches today.

What's Wrong with "User Friendly"?
by: John MacArthur

"User-friendly" was first used to describe software and hardware that is easy for the novice to operate. Applied to the church, it describes churches that offer a decidedly benign and non-challenging ministry model. In practice, it has become an excuse for importing worldly amusements into the church in an attempt to attract non-Christian "seekers" or the "unchurched" by appealing to their fleshly interests. The obvious fallout of this preoccupation with the unbelievers is a corresponding neglect of true believers and their spiritual needs.

If you want to know how user-friendly a church has become, the emphasis, or de-emphasis, on biblical preaching is the yardstick. A church that buys into the new paradigm sidelines provocative and convicting sermons for music, skits, or videos– less confrontational mediums for conveying the message. Even when there is a sermon, it is frequently psychological and motivational rather than biblical. Above all, entertainment value and user-friendliness are paramount.

I once read through a stack of newspaper and magazine articles that highlight a common thread in the user-friendly phenomenon. These observations from newspaper clippings describe the preaching in user-friendly churches:

  • "There is no fire and brimstone here... Just practical, witty messages."
  • "Services at [the church featured in the article] have an informal feeling. You won't hear people threatened with hell or referred to as sinners. The goal is to make them feel welcome, not drive them away."
  • "As with all clergymen [this pastor's] answer is God– but he slips Him in at the end, and even then doesn't get heavy. No ranting, no raving. No fire, no brimstone. He doesn't even use the H-word. Call it Light Gospel. It has the same salvation as the Old Time Religion, but with a third less guilt."
  • "The sermons are relevant, upbeat, and best of all, short. You won't hear a lot of preaching about sin and damnation, and hell fire. Preaching here doesn't sound like preaching. It is sophisticated, urbane, and friendly talk. It breaks all the stereotypes."
  • "[The pastor] is preaching a very upbeat message... It's a salvationist message, but the idea is not so much being saved from the fires of hell. Rather, it's being saved from meaninglessness and aimlessness in this life. It's more of a soft-sell."
So the new rules may be summed like this: Be clever, informal, positive, brief, friendly, and never, never use the H-word.

The pastors and leaders in the church-growth movement certainly wouldn't portray their own ministries in that way. In fact, they would probably laud their success in drawing people into the church without compromising the message. But they fail to understand that by decentralizing the Scripture and avoiding hard truths, they are compromising. "For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when He comes in His glory, and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels" (Luke 9:26, emphasis added). If the design is to make the seeker comfortable, isn't that rather incompatible with the Bible's own emphasis on sin, judgment, hell, and several other important topics?

The gospel message is a confrontational message. When you remove the confrontation–or soften, downplay, or bring it in through the back door– you have compromised the message. The modern pulpit is weak, not for a lack of witty messages, but because men fear to speak the hard truths of God's Word powerfully and with conviction.

The church is certainly not suffering from an overabundance of forthright preachers; rather, it seems glutted with men pleasers (cf. Gal. 1:10). But, as it was in the early church, when men are faithful to preach God's Word with boldness, God will give the increase. "And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching... then fear came upon every soul... and the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved" (Acts 2:42, 43, 47).

When a sinner wanders into the church and sits through skits, mimes, interpretive dances, and the like, and yet never hears a clear, convicting message about his dangerous and tenuous spiritual situation– that he is a depraved sinner headed for an eternal fire because he is a daily offense to a holy God– how can that be called successful? You could achieve the same level of success by sending a cancer patient to receive treatment from a group of children playing doctor. A sinner must understand the imminent danger he is in if he is ever to look to the Savior.

C. H. Spurgeon, facing a similar mindset in his day, once said:

'I fear there are some who preach with the view of amusing men, and as long as people can be gathered in crowds, and their ears can be tickled, and they can retire pleased with what they have heard, the orator is content, and folds his hands, and goes back self-satisfied. But Paul did not lay himself out to please the public and collect the crowd. If he did not save them he felt that it was of no avail to interest them. Unless the truth had pierced their hearts, affected their lives, and made new men of them, Paul would have gone home crying, "Who hath believed our report, and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?"...

Now observe, brethren, if I, or you, or any of us, or all of us, shall have spent our lives merely in amusing men, or educating men, or moralizing men, when we shall come to give our account at the last great day we shall be in a very sorry condition, and we shall have but a very sorry record to render; for of what avail will it be to a man to be educated when he comes to be damned? Of what service will it be to him to have been amused when the trumpet sounds, and heaven and earth are shaking, and the pit opens wide her jaws of fire and swallows up the soul unsaved? Of what avail even to have moralized a man if still he is on the left hand of the judge, and if still, "Depart, ye cursed," shall be his portion?'" ["Soul Saving Our One Business," The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 25 (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1879), 674-76.]

That is precisely my concern about today’s pragmatic church-growth trend. The strategy focuses on attracting and keeping the unchurched. For what? To entertain them? To get them to attend church meetings regularly? Merely "churching" the unchurched accomplishes nothing of eternal value. That is where their strategy seems to end.

What's worse is when seeker-focused churches baptize the masses with their watered-down gospel, assuring them that positive decisions, feelings, or affirmations about Christ equal genuine conversion. There are now multitudes who are not authentic Christians identifying with the church. The church is literally invaded with the world's values, the world's interests, and the world's citizens. It isn't an invasion prompted by overt hostility; people are simply responding to a survey that came in the mail. Ironically, Satan isn't sowing the tares; church leaders are.
As you set your strategy for church ministry, you dare not overlook the primary means of church growth: the straightforward, Christ-centered proclamation of the unadulterated Word of God. If you trade the Word for amusements or gimmicks, you will not only find that you have no effective means to reach people with the truth of Christ, but you will find yourself working against the Lord Himself.

Adapted from Ashamed of the Gospel: When the Church Becomes Like the World
© 1993 by John MacArthur.
All rights reserved.
I think Dr. MacArthur hit the nail on the head in that last paragraph when he said, " If you trade the Word for amusements or gimmicks, you will not only find that you have no effective means to reach people with the truth of Christ, but you will find yourself working against the Lord Himself. "

I for one don't ever want to be in a position where I am working against what God is doing or be in opposition the the work of the Holy Spirit, so rest assured that as long as I am able to continue writing here the messages will be unashamedly Christ centered and Biblically based. As the apostle Paul wrote in the letter to the Romans, "I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvaion to everyone who believes..." (Romans 1:16).

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Elders Around & Judgments Out Of The Throne - Revelation 4:4-5a

As we continue our study of Revelation chapter four we come to verse four where John next tells us that he saw twenty-four thrones that surrounded another throne and that seated upon these twenty-four thrones were twenty-four elders. John then describes how these twenty-four elders were dressed; he tells us they were clothed in white garments and wearing golden crowns.
Around the throne were twenty-four thrones; and upon the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white garments, and golden crowns on their heads.
Revelation 4:4 (NASB)
This verse leaves us with one obvious question; who are these twenty-four elders?

There has been much debate as to the identity of the twenty-four elders mentioned here in Revelation 4:4, so let’s look at what several Bible scholars have had to say:
These elders probably symbolize the people of God in heaven, enthroned and rewarded.1

There has been much speculation on the identity of the elders. The two major views are (1) that they represent the church raptured prior to this time and rewarded in heaven, or (2) that they are angels who have been given large responsibilities.2

We cannot say with certainty who the twenty-four elders are. They are variously understood as angelic beings, as the redeemed people of both the Old Testament and New Testament, and as New Testament saints only. 3

Some think that they represent the church or believers in heaven, but it seems preferable to view the elders as angels who comprise a heavenly ruling council. 4

They are not angels, for they have white robes and crowns of victory, implying a conflict and endurance… 5

Their joint rule with Christ, their white garments, and their golden crowns all seem to indicate that these 24 represent the redeemed.6

The twenty-four elders may refer to the twenty-four priestly divisions who conducted the worship of Israel according to the tradition of the Levites. The elders in the vision seem to represent the saints of God in their act of worship, just as the Levitical priests represented Israel in the worship of the temple.7

These twenty-four elders stand for the church from Pentecost to the Rapture. Therefore, I can say categorically and dogmatically that here is the church in heaven.8
As you can see there are as many interpretations of who these elders are as there are commentaries in print, so let’s look at the Scriptures, since that is the best way to interpret difficult passages, and see what we can discover.

In his commentary on Revelation, Robert Van Kampen writes that there are nine things we know from Scripture about these beings, these are:
  1. They from a circle around the throne of God (Revelation 4:4a)
  2. They are called elders (Revelation 4:4b)
  3. They are twenty-four seated on twenty-four thrones (Revelation 4:4c)
  4. They wear white garments and golden crowns (Revelation 4:4d)
  5. They fall down and worship God (Revelation 4:10)
  6. They sing hymns to God (Revelation 4:11)
  7. They make comments to John (Revelation 5:5)
  8. They have harps and censers full of incense that are said to represent the prayers of the saints (Revelation 5:8)
  9. They explain things to John (Revelation 7:14-17)9
By looking at these other Scriptures where these elders are mentioned it is easy to see that they are not Old Testament saints, or New Testament believers, or representatives of the church; these twenty-four elders are some form of angelic being. We can see this clearly by looking at Revelation 5:9-10 where we read:
And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.”
Revelation 5:9-10 (NASB)
Notice that in these verses, when the elders sing their new song to God they say, “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.” If these were the redeemed this verse would read entirely differently; it would say, “You have made us to be a kingdom and priests to our God and we will reign upon the earth.” This leaves then as the only possible conclusion that the twenty-four elders are angelic beings.

However, it is not that easy to end this debate, Warren Wiersbe points out:
It is unlikely that they are angels, because angels are not numbered (Heb. 12:22), crowned, or enthroned. Besides, in Revelation 7:11, the elders are distinguished from the angels. The crowns they wear are the ‘victor’s crowns’ (the Greek word stephanos; see Rev. 2:10); and we have no evidence that angels receive rewards.10
John MacArthur also points out several reasons why these elders are not likely to be angels, he writes:
First, the reference to the twenty-four thrones on which the twenty-four elders sat indicates that they reign with Christ. Nowhere in Scripture do angels sit on thrones, nor are they pictured ruling or reigning.

Presbuteroi [The Greek word translated as Elder here in Revelation 4:4] is never used in Scripture to refer to angels, but always to men.

While angels do appear in white (e.g., John 20:12; Acts 1:10), white garments more commonly are the dress of believers.

That the elders wore golden crowns on their heads provides further evidence that they were humans. Crowns are never promised in Scripture to angels, nor are angels ever seen wearing them.11
So, we cannot be dogmatic either way; these elders could be angels, or they could be human. But if they are human, which humans do they represent? The truth is that we just don’t know. As has already been pointed out: they could represent the Nation of Israel, they could represent Old Testament believers, or they could represent the church, but this is one of the mysteries of the Bible where we are just not given the answer. As I have pointed out there is evidence to support many different views, but the bottom line here is that we will just not know until we reach heaven.

Next we see that:
Out from the throne come flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder.
Revelation 4:5a (NASB)
In Psalm 9:7 we read that “God has established His throne for judgment” and that is exactly what we are seeing here. This is not the throne of grace; this is the throne of judgment.

When we see lightning and we hear thunder we know that a storm is coming. God is preparing to judge the world that has rejected Him, and here John sees the storm of that judgment coming. This picture is reminiscent of God giving His law to Moses on mount Sinai, we read:
So it came about on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunder and lightning flashes and a thick cloud upon the mountain and a very loud trumpet sound, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled.
Exodus 9:16 (NASB)
It is also reminiscent of the plagues of judgment sent against Egypt:
When Moses stretched out his staff toward the sky, the Lord sent thunder and hail, and lightning flashed down to the ground. So the Lord rained hail on the land of Egypt; hail fell and lightning flashed back and forth. It was the worst storm in all the land of Egypt since it had become a nation.
Exodus 9:23-24 (NASB)
We quite often take for granted that God is a holy God and that He will judge sin. The writer of Hebrews warns us that we are not to reject the grace of God, and in doing so he reminds us that we are to serve God acceptably, with reverence and awe, because our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:28-29). Judgment is coming to the earth, and it is coming from the very throne of God.

1 Wiersbe, W. W. (1996, c1989). The Bible exposition commentary. "An exposition of the New Testament comprising the entire 'BE' series"--Jkt. (Re 4:1). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.
2 Walvoord, J. F., Zuck, R. B., & Dallas Theological Seminary. (1983-c1985). The Bible knowledge commentary: An exposition of the scriptures (2:943). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
3 MacDonald, W., & Farstad, A. (1997, c1995). Believer's Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments (Re 4:4). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
4 Radmacher, E. D., Allen, R. B., & House, H. W. (1999). Nelson's new illustrated Bible commentary (Re 4:4). Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers.
5 Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., Fausset, A. R., Brown, D., & Brown, D. (1997). A commentary, critical and explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments. On spine: Critical and explanatory commentary. (Re 4:4). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
6 MacArthur, J. J. (1997, c1997). The MacArthur Study Bible (electronic ed.) (Re 4:4). Nashville: Word Pub.
7 Palmer, E. F., & Ogilvie, L. J. (1982). Vol. 35: The Preacher's Commentary Series, Volume 35 : 1, 2 & 3 John / Revelation. Formerly The Communicator's Commentary. The Preacher's Commentary series (152). Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Inc.
8 McGee J. Vernon (c 1983). Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee Vol.5 1 Corinthians–Revelation Pg.931. Nashville TN.: Thomas Nelson.
9 Van Kampen, Robert. Revelation Commentary Ch4 Pg1 (© www.revelationcommentry.org). Orlando Fl.: Sola Scriptura
10 Wiersbe, W. W. (1996, c1989). The Bible exposition commentary. "An exposition of the New Testament comprising the entire 'BE' series"--Jkt. (Re 4:1). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.
11 MacArthur, J. (1999). Revelation 1-11 (148-149). Chicago: Moody Press.

Next time we will look at verses 5b -11 and the object before the throne.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Profession And Practice

A few weeks ago I read an excerpt from Legh Richmond's Domestic Portraiture written January 6,1825. As I read this there was one line that really stood out; Richmond wrote:
For the most part, we are a nation of Christians by profession--and a nation of heathens in practice.
As I thought about this line I thought of our nation (and our world) today, and I don't know that I would still say that we are a nation of Christians by profession as Legh Richmond wrote, but I think we can safely say that a good number of those who profess to be Christians today don't live out their profession on a day-to-day basis. Why is that? Why is it that many today feel that it is perfectly fine to go to church on Sunday but live just like everyone else around them the rest of the week?

The Bible tells us that we are to live as exiles in this world (1 Peter 1:17, 2:11) and that we are citizens of another kingdom (Ephesians 2:19, Hebrews 11:13). Like Abraham we are to be "looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God." (Hebrews 11:10).

We are to be like strangers living in a foreign land; we are ambassadors, we are pilgrims, and we are exiles here. But we don't live like we are. We have made this world our home. We can look at most of the people around us - both those who claim to be Christians and those who don't - and we will not see much of a difference. So again I ask, why is that?

Legh Richmond goes on to write:
There is to be found in the religious world - what may be termed - a pretty, cultured sort of evangelism, which too well combines luxurious ease, and serving of the world, and the flesh--not to say of the devil also. But such kind of religion will not prepare the soul for sickness, death, and eternity. At best, it will leave the soul a prey to the most fearful delusions of false peace. The way that leads to eternal life is much more narrow than many of our modern professors are aware of--the gate is too straight to allow all their trifling, and self-will, and worldliness, and carnal-mindedness, to press through it.

"Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it."
Matthew 7:13-14
Most Christians today would agree that in order to be saved we must enter through the narrow gate. But how many then skip right over the next part of what Jesus said here about the narrow road?

It all goes back to the fact that we are to live here as strangers and exiles; we are not to get so comfortable in this world that we become just like everyone else around us. We are to be different; we are to be people who are Christian not just by profession but also in practice; the apostle Peter wrote:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
1 Peter 2:9
Notice in this verse that we are called a chosen race and a holy nation; we are people who belong to God. And the reason that we are to live like we belong to God and not to this world is clear - it is so we can proclaim the excellencies of Him who called us. How can we tell the world about the wonder and glory of God if we are no different than they are?

Examine your life (as I also examine my own) and see if there are areas where you may not be living in practice what you claim to be by profession, repent of those things, and draw near to God. As we read in the letter to the Colossians:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.
Colossians 3:1-2
As we do we will find that our witness will become more powerful and our walk with Christ will become more enjoyable.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Gospel Of Mark, Part 3 - The Baptism Of Jesus

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Mark 1:9-11
With these three verses we come to the Baptism of our Lord. We are not given a lot of detail here, and in fact are probably left with more questions than answers. But let's look at these three verses, and at the surrounding context, and see what we can learn.

We know from the previous passage that John the Baptist was in the wilderness baptizing and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. We know that many were coming to him and were being baptized and were confessing their sins. We know that john said clearly that there was someone coming after him whose sandals he was not worthy to untie and this coming one would not baptize with water as John was doing, but would baptize with the Holy Spirit. It is into this setting that Jesus walks in verse nine where we see that Jesus came from Nazareth and was baptized by John in the Jordan. This is where the questions start. Why was Jesus baptized? And why by John?

Let's start with the second question first because I think it is the easier of the two to answer. We read Mark 1:2-3 a quote from Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1 where we are told that God would send a messenger, His messenger, before the Messiah to prepare the way for His coming. And that is what john had been doing; he had been preaching that the people needed to repent of their sins - that the forgiveness of sins comes through repentance and turning to God. We looked at this in some detail last time (see The Gospel of Mark, Part 2 - Get Yourselves Ready) so we will not get into that again here, but we still must answer the question why did Jesus come to John to be baptized? Jesus came to John to be baptized as a validation of John's ministry.

The message of Jesus was also the message of repentance and faith, and by Jesus allowing John to baptize Him He was showing the world that the message of John was true, that the ministry of John was valid, and that He was the One for whom John had been preparing the way.

This then brings us to the more difficult question to answer, if John was proclaiming a baptism of repentance from sin (and he did) and Jesus was sinless (and He was), why did He need to be baptized?

We read in Matthew's account of this incident that John tried to prevent this saying that he needed to be baptized by Jesus, but Jesus said that His being baptized by John was fitting to fulfill all righteousness (Matthew 3:13-15). This creates a problem that I think is best expressed by James Boyce in his commentary on Matthew, he writes:
Since John’s baptism was a baptism unto repentance and Jesus had no sin of which to repent, how is it that he sought baptism by John in the first place? And why did he seek this, as he said to John, “to fulfill all righteousness”? How could baptism add anything to the already perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ?
To answer this dilemma we must ask another question: what is baptism? By this I don't mean the mode or method of baptism (i.e. sprinkling or submersion), but what does baptism mean; in other words, why do we do it? Baptism is, at its most basic and fundamental level, a means of identification. What do I mean by this? When we are baptized as a believer in Jesus Christ what we are doing is saying to the world that I now identify my life with His life - I am now identified with Jesus in His life, death, and resurrection. In the same way when the people that John was baptizing were baptized what they were doing was identifying themselves with his message of repentance and making a public statement - by the means of baptism - that they had in fact repented of their sins as John had instructed.

Why is this important? Because when Jesus stepped down into that water to be baptized by John what He was doing was identifying Himself with us. Again James Boyce writes:
In Jesus’ baptism by John, Jesus identified himself with us in our humanity, thereby taking on himself the obligation to fulfill all righteousness so that he might be a perfect Savior and substitute for us.
This does not in any way mean that Jesus had sinned or that He needed to repent of anything as the writer of Hebrews reminds us:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.
Hebrews 4:15
And the apostle Peter wrote:
He [Jesus] committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.
1 Peter 2:22
So it was to identify Himself with us that made Jesus go to John, step down into the Jordan River, and be baptized by him. John MacArthur here writes:
Jesus came into the world to identify with men; and to identify with men is to identify with sin. He could not purchase righteousness for mankind if He did not identify with mankind’s sin.
Let me help you see the picture here. When Jesus went to the cross he took upon Himself the sin of the world; He took our sin upon Himself (1 Peter 2:24) and actually became a curse for us (Galatians 3:13). Jesus not only identified with us He literally took the punishment that we deserved and He paid the price that our sin required.

As I said above, when the people came to John to be baptized by him they were symbolically showing that they had repented of their sin. They would go down into the water, John would submerge them showing their death to sin, and they would come up a new person who figuratively speaking was leaving their sin behind in that water. When Jesus - the sinless Son of God - wend down into that water He figuratively took upon Himself the sin that He literally bore on the cross in our place.

Before we move on there is one more thing that this passage teaches us that we need to see and understand, and that is found in verse eleven where John hears a voice out of heaven say to Jesus, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

Why is it important that God the Father was pleased with Jesus, and does it have any implication for us that this was said at this time when Jesus was clearly identifying Himself with us? The reason that this is so important is because apart from Christ we cannot please God in any way. So we can take great comfort in the fact that God is "well pleased" with Him, because when He sees us who have come to Christ is faith and repentance He sees us as being "in Christ" (Romans 6:11; 6:23; 8:1; 2 Corinthians 5:17 and many, many more) and since we are now in Christ we are accepted by God, not based upon our own merit but on the merit of Christ (Ephesians 1:6).

So the next time you read about the Baptism of Jesus I hope that you don't just skim over it, but that you stop, think about what it means, and take a few minutes to thank Jesus for His identifying Himself with us. Then take some time to praise God because when He sees us He is not seeing us in our own merit, but in His beloved Son in whom He is well pleased.

And we can rest because there is nothing we have to do to please Him - Jesus already did it all!