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Where is the celebration?

Note: This was written in 2007. Minor revisions were made. I still agree with myself after almost a decade. While shocking it remains true.

Unlike many, many churches this Sunday, our congregation did not celebrate 4th of July. There are at least two obvious reasons for this decision:

a) The 4th of July is not a universal ecclesiastical practice.

b) Jesus is Lord of the world.

In the last five years, I have pursued the study of American history, which has led me to the conclusion that there is something unique about the American Constitution, about its founding, and about its early practices in the colonies. The very fact that there is a dispute about the godly heritage of American history proves that some series of incidents occurred in order to provide such disputations. If the evidence was insignificant I seriously doubt the debate would even take place. Nevertheless, in whatever camp one falls, it is incumbent to realize that Sabbath worship is not the place for exalting the glories of a nation, its godly heritage, or its “victories” in foreign lands.

There is a fundamental displacement of ecclesiastic priorities when a congregation replaces the adoration of the Holy Trinity for the adoration of the “holy” state. Laurence Vance is correct when he summarizes the nature of these patriotic services:

Unfortunately, what this means in many cases is state worship instead of God worship. Songs will be sung in praise of the state instead of in praise to God. The flag will be saluted instead of the Bible being exalted.

This observation illustrates well my two points mentioned above. The first one is that the “4th of July patriotic service” is not a universal service; it does not involve the holy and apostolic church. In fact, it diminishes the glory of the church catholic by exalting the glory of the church in America. This is not the nature of Biblical history, which sees the church as a universal manifestation of the kingdom of our Lord Jesus.

The place for celebration and feasting on the benefits of our history is noble and should take place in its proper time and context. We should eat, drink and be merry and keep living. We should be grateful to a nation that has provided us freedoms to oppose its principles and leaders at certain times. However, the celebration of the Lord’s Day looks to something far greater than the Constitution or George Washington. The Lord’s Day is reserved for the liturgy of the church, the proclamation of the counsel of God, and a consummative ritual called the Eucharist, where the people feast on Christ, not on hot dogs and burgers. Keeping this distinction clear will aid the church in proclaiming what the world truly needs to hear.

The only events that are clear from Scriptures and the holy church are those that have been confirmed and applied in time and history and that are grounded in the sacred testimony of Scriptures.1 Hence, the point is that any celebration not rooted in the history of the Church or the Bible is not worthy to be brought to the pulpit or the table of the Sabbath feast.

The Christian, who believes the Lord’s Day ought to be an exposition of the glories of country rather than the glories of Christ, robs himself of true joy. The Bible exalts the Sabbath worship to a heavenly throne, where the angels adore and cry Holy, Holy, Holy. Every Sunday, the church triumphant lauds the eternal city on earth, the city of God and His Christ. No earthly celebration should match or replace the wonder of this heavenly feast.

The second point is rather clear as well: The Lordship of Christ extends to the entire world. Affirming thus does not exclude America, but it serves to show that Christ’s reign is universal. His intention is to bring the world under His dominion and not simply one country. This pervasive idea may be due to the overly localized ecclesiology. Denominations that boast in their independent status as opposed to the inter-connectedness of the church usually fail to see this point. These churches act like the prodigal son who believes if he maintains a level of independence with his father’s funds, then he can make it. At least the prodigal son, in the end, realizes that his funds are limited, his accountability is limited, and his individuality can only go so far. It is this thinking that has kept the church from celebrating the kingdom of God.

American churches need to realize that boasting in anyone, but Christ is foolish indeed. It is the Christian message we raise as our banner; it is the Christian Christ we raise as the God and any other challenge to this model is deemed to failure.

Footnotes

  1. Examples would be Resurrection Sunday, Advent, etc. [ back]

What is Holy Saturday?

The Passion Week provides diverse theological emotions for the people of God. Palm Sunday commences with the entrance of a divine King riding on a donkey. He comes in ancient royal transportation. The royal procession illicit shouts of benediction, but concludes only a few days later with shouts of crucifixion as the king is hung on a tree.

The Church also celebrates Maundy Thursday as our Messiah provides a new commandment to love one another just as He loved us. The newness of the commandments is not an indication that love was not revealed prior (Lev. 19), but that love is now incarnate in the person of love, Jesus Christ. We then proceed to sing of the anguish of that Good Friday as our blessed Lord is humiliated by soldiers and scolded by the offensive words of the religious leaders of the day. As he walks to the Mount, his pain testifies to Paul’s words that he suffered even to the point of death (Phil. 2)But hidden in this glaringly distasteful mixture of blood, vinegar, and bruised flesh is the calmness of the day after our Lord’s crucifixion.

After fulfilling the great Davidic promise in Psalm 22, our Lord rests from his labors in the tomb. Whatever may have happened in those days before his resurrection, we know that Christ’s work as the unblemished offering of love was finished.

The Church calls this day Blessed Sabbath or more commonly, Holy Saturday. On this day, our Lord reposed (rested) from his accomplishments. Many throughout history also believe that Holy Saturday is a fulfillment of Moses’ words:

God blessed the seventh day. This is the blessed Sabbath. This is the day of rest, on which the only-begotten Son of God rested from all His works . . .(Gen. 2:2)

The Church links this day with the creation account. On day seven Yahweh rested and enjoyed the fruit of his creation. Jesus Christ also rested in the rest given to him by the Father and enjoyed the fruits of the New Creation he began to establish and would be brought to light on the next day.

As Alexander Schmemann observed:

Now Christ, the Son of God through whom all things were created, has come to restore man to communion with God. He thereby completes creation. All things are again as they should be. His mission is consummated. On the Blessed Sabbath He rests from all His works.

Holy Saturday is a day of rest for God’s people; a foretaste of the true Rest that comes in the Risen Christ. The calmness of Holy Saturday makes room for the explosion of Easter Sunday. On this day, we remember that the darkness of the grave and the resting of the Son were only temporary for when a New Creation bursts into the scene the risen Lord of glory cannot contain his joy, and so he gives it to us.

Who was Valentine?

Saint Valentine's DayIt is not uncommon to celebrate days without the slightest clue of their origin. Such a day is the traditional Valentine’s Day, or The Feast of Saint Valentine. “Valentine” derives from valens, which means strong, worthy, or powerful. These are apt descriptions for this little appreciated martyr.

Tradition and legends abound. The truth is we do not know much about the life of St. Valentine.  What we do know is that around 278 AD, Valentine, a holy priest in the days of Emperor Claudius II, was executed. The precise day is well acknowledged as February 14th.

Claudius was known for his cruelty. His unpopular and bloody campaigns required a strong army. To Claudius’ vexation, he was not able to draw many Roman soldiers to his cause. Valentine believed that the soldiers were strongly attached to their wives and families. As a result, Claudius banished marriages and engagements in Rome.[1] Valentine believed this to be a great injustice and continued to perform marriages.

Another factor that made Valentine unpopular with Claudius was his commitment to help persecuted Christians. Valentine was faithful to the Christ he served.

Valentine’s high disregard for the laws of Claudius the Cruel and his strong faith were cause for arresting the 3rd century priest. “He was apprehended, and sent by the emperor to the prefect of Rome, who, on finding all his promises to make him renounce his faith ineffectual, commanded him to be beaten with clubs, and afterwards, to be beheaded.”[2]

On this day, we celebrate this faithful saints who died for love; love of truth, and love for Christ; the Christ who gave His life that His Bride might live abundantly.

Wine and Thanksgiving: A Prayer

Most merciful God, we celebrate with great delight your good gifts this evening. We delight in this community of saints; for the peace You have established among us; for the faithfulness manifested in your church and in the many homes represented this evening.

May we remember that because of the incarnation, we have life and life more abundantly. Bless our friendships; take joy, O God, in our joy for you created us to reflect the blissful harmony of the Trinitarian community: Father, Son, and Spirit.

We thank you for this wine before us. In the garden, you gave us of all good things, and even though our first parents sinned, yet you continued to bless your righteous servants. We remember that Noah began a new world by planting a vineyard; we remember Isaac who believing he was blessing Esau actually blessed Jacob with “plenty of grain and wine.”

Our God, not only did you create wine, but commanded that it be included as a necessary part of the sacrifices that your people offered (Ex. 29:38, 40;Lev. 23:13;Num. 15:5, 7, 10; 28:7). Wine was part of feasts (Dt. 14:22-26) and a prerequisite to “rejoicing in your presence.” The Psalmist declares that wine is given to gladden our hearts, and indeed may our hearts be glad, for enjoying your good gifts is what we are called to do in this world and for all eternity. Wine even gladdens your own heart, O God, which speaks of how much we resemble our Creator.

With thanksgiving we remember that the greater Noah, Jesus Christ saw fit to turn water into wine, and by doing so making wine the Christian drink in the New Creation. Grant us hearts filled with gratitude for you drank the sour wine at the cross, so that we might drink the sweetness of the wine in the new world you established by your resurrection. For this, we bless you and thank you for no man can take this joy from us, because of our King, Jesus Christ, who was born of a virgin and now rules and reigns with the Father and the Spirit world without end. Amen.

 

The Intrusion of Advent

In Advent, Christians embrace the groaning and recognize it not as hopeless whimpering over the paucity of the present moment but as expectant yearning for a divine banquet that Jesus is preparing for us even now. In Advent, the church admits, as poet R.S. Thomas has put it, that “the meaning is in the waiting.” And what we await is a final Advent that is yet to come. Just as the ancient Israelites waited for the coming of the Messiah in flesh, we await the consummation of the good news through the Messiah’s return in glory. In Advent, believers confess that the infant who drew his first ragged breath between a virgin’s knees has yet to speak his final word. -Timothy Paul Jones

I Give Thanks

Paul’s letter to the Philippians is filled with thanksgiving. Calvin writes that when Paul refers to things that are joyful he breaks forth in thanksgiving, which, Calvin observes, “is a practice we ought also to be familiar.”

Thanksgiving is the antidote to bitterness and gossip. How often do we falsely accuse others only to boost our own selfish interests? Thanksgiving is the reaction of someone overwhelmed by the goodness of God. It is the by-product of a life-story that echoes praise. Be certain that when bitterness and selfishness arise it is out of an ungrateful heart.

This is another reason worship is so central to the life of the church. Worship is a thanksgiving gathering. The very word we use for the Lord’s Supper, namely Eucharist, means thanksgiving. Worship is practice in giving thanks.

10 Things to Expect in a Federal Vision Church

10 Things to Expect in a Federal Vision Church

I recently read a post by a frustrated woman on the outcome of some decisions made in different PCA Presbyteries. Among many things, this individual observed that she was deeply concerned for the well-being of the people who attend PCA churches. She urged them to leave the denomination. Many of them have bought into the “Federal Vision theology,” and are possibly doomed to a “Christ-less eternity,” she wrote. They also are grace-less, because they emphasize a robust faith that is not dead.  Among the other things mentioned, apparently Federal Vision advocates do not care about personal relationships, but only church business, because we put so much emphasis on the church. And to top off the list of accusations, we have traded “a relationship with Jesus for religion.”

I am not a PCA pastor, but as someone who served in the PCA for several years, I do want to defend those brothers who are referred to as Federal Vision. Suffice to say, these accusations are childish in every way.

At the same time, I know there is a lot of misunderstanding out there. And in case you are either curious or tempted to visit one of these so-called Federal Vision churches, I would like to prepare the bold visitor for ten things he/she is to expect as they enter into a typical one:

1) Apart from using the term to clarify ideas and misunderstandings in friendly conversations and the occasional men’s study, the term Federal Vision will most likely never be used in the pulpit.  Further, opponents and even advocates of the Federal (Covenant) Vision differ on many points. The closest thing to a consensus is found here, but there are still are sorts of distinctions and qualifications that need to be made.

2) Be prepared for that archaic practice of singing the Psalms. Yes, we confess to singing from Yahweh’s songbook, as well as some old time religion music from the 4th century. Expect very vibrant singing; the one that roars!

3) Be alerted that we are a very friendly congregation, and contrary to what you have heard (if you have ever heard such a thing) we will greet you and likely invite you to lunch after church.

4) Also, do not be alarmed by the little cries in the congregation (Ps. 8:2-3). We really love our little ones and we encourage parents to train them up in worship, and the best place to do that is…in worship.

5) You may be asked to kneel (Ps. 95:6). We believe posture is important to God. Obviously, you do not have to kneel. It is optional, though everyone will.

6) The pastor may get a bit theological at times, he may take the time to explain the text in detail, but he usually explains his theologizing and biblicizing and is very consistent in applying his text and theology to the life of the body.

7) This may truly shock you, but we have the Lord’s Supper every week. And furthermore, we offer bread (real bread) and wine (real wine). This may take some adjustment, but I promise it will make sense after a while.

8) And I know the red flags are all over the place by now, and this is not going to help, but we also believe that baptized children are called to partake of the table of the Lord. Here is where we confess we have strayed from broad Reformed practices. But we have only done so because we believe that the early Christians practiced this. We further believe that I Corinthians 11 actually confirms our practice.

9) The ministers may wear an alb and a stole (though many others may simply wear a suit and tie). This practice serves to point out the unique role the man of God has in proclaiming God’s truth in Word and Sacrament. This may appear very Roman Catholic to you, and you are right. Of course, it is also very Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, and yes, even Reformed (see data on clerical collars).

10) Finally, you are correct to assert that we love the Church. We love her because Christ died for her. Our Reformed forefathers were clear. But the Church is no substitute for Christ, the Church is called to build on her firm foundation, which is Christ. You cannot separate Groom and  Bride. And what does this Christ demand of his Church? He demands repentance, and in repentance you will find fullness of life.

I trust you will visit us, but if you do so, we want you to be prepared.

 

Worship is Warfare!

Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Worship is warfare! We are royal people fighting the war we were called to fight. But as we look at the opposing army with their sharp tools, eloquent spokesmen, our enemies appear to be so much taller, stronger, and efficient than we imagine. Sometimes we spy out their land and all we find are gigantic beasts with their gigantic grapes. Sometimes the enemy curses at us and say: “Where is your God now?” Sometimes their culture seems so much more developed than ours with their eloquent spokesmen and devout following. They have everything and we have so little.

Or so they think?

The reality is their giants are not really that tall if all it takes is a stone to bring them down. The reality is their kings are not really that powerful if all it takes is a woman dropping a stone to crush their heads. The reality is their lands are not their lands, they are ours. Paul says we are heirs of the whole world. The reality is if some spies come back discouraged, there will be always be spies that come back ready to take over. The reality is ultimately they have nothing and we have everything. The reality is the King of Glory is with us, the Lord of history who takes the weak and foolish things of this world to confound the wise. Let us prepare for warfare!

Prayer: O God, your glory is above the heavens; your majesty is all around us. May our mouths proclaim your praise and strengthen us against our enemies that your victory may be known in all the earth. Amen.

Eschatology, Poythress, and the Hallelujah Chorus

I hope to write in the next 18 months a short booklet on eschatology. I have written some papers in the past, but have not been able to provide a general outline, specifically of the postmillennial hope, and its contrast with other millennial positions.

Obviously, there are many wonderful works out there. From John Jefferson Davis to Keith Mathison, and the multitude of theonomic works from the 70’s and 80’s, namely, many of David Chilton’s work (especially his Revelation commentary).

At the same time, there still seems to be a dearth of introductory works at a more layman level. The typical parishioner who has sat under postmillennial preaching for years still finds himself confused by all the labels used. If he has not been immersed in a reformational vocabulary, he is bound to confuse categories and chronology. Naturally, they find themselves incapable of articulating why this optimistic vision contains a progression beginning in Genesis and flowing throughout the New Covenant writings.

Panel Discussion on Eschatology

I listened recently to a panel discussion on eschatology at ETS held some years ago. The postmil advocate (a conspicuous minority in that room) offered a helpful treatment of the chronology of I Corinthians 15:22-26. While helpful, that type of assessment needs to be incorporated into the broader corpus of the Scriptures. For instance, I find it unfathomable to begin a conversation on eschatology without considering the promise of Genesis 3:15 and the motif that is unfolded throughout the other books, namely Judges with its five-fold illustrations of head-crushing.

Poythress, a noble advocate of the Amillennial view, sees the postmil vision more adequately than most, but still does not see why the vision of the Puritans, for example, is a vision of a christianized society.  He argues, in this panel discussion, that if postmil advocates were to focus more on the Second Coming then he would have more in common with them. Well, there is no doubt we focus on the Second Coming, the final parousia, but history is a progression. We look to the coming of Christ at the end of history while not discounting the purposes of Christ throughout history and in history.

The famous Hallelujah chorus grasped this already-ness of the kingdom:

The kingdom of this world
Is become the kingdom of our Lord,
And of His Christ, and of His Christ;
And He shall reign for ever and ever,
For ever and ever, forever and ever,

King of kings, and Lord of lords,
King of kings, and Lord of lords,
And Lord of lords,
And He shall reign,
And He shall reign forever and ever,
King of kings, forever and ever,
And Lord of lords,
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

We are in full agreement concerning the restoration of the world. And to quote Poythress, we are not waiting for the dissolving of the cosmos, but its restoration, while at the same time we need to believe and trust that the enthronement of King Jesus means the de-thronement of Christ’s enemies. If it is true that he must reign until all his enemies are under his feet, then this reign is quantitative, not just merely spiritualized.

The Gospel promises a discipled world (Mat. 20:18-20) and discipleship and baptism imply a qualitative and quantitative narrative of history. This tangibility of the Gospel vision is the hope of the consistent eschatology of the Scriptures.

Prayer on the 4th of July

O ETERNAL God, through whose mighty power our fathers won their liberties of old; Grant, we beseech thee, that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain these liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.–1928 Book of Common Prayer