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Rolling Chariots and a Glorious Kingdom Restore Hope: Zechariah Devotional, part 8

by Pastor Riley Fraas

As Zechariah’s visions continue, we get a glimpse of God’s authority over the whole earth, and a picture of hope for the future.  Our great God rules over all the earth, and He has established “The Branch”, our Lord Jesus Christ, as King to build His temple, to rule and defend us, and as our Priest to bring us forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with the LORD by His own precious blood.

Zechariah 6:1 And I turned, and lifted up mine eyes, and looked, and, behold, there came four chariots out from between two mountains; and the mountains were mountains of brass.

In the first chariot were red horses; and in the second chariot black horses;

And in the third chariot white horses; and in the fourth chariot grisled and bay horses.

Then I answered and said unto the angel that talked with me, What are these, my lord?

And the angel answered and said unto me, These are the four spirits of the heavens, which go forth from standing before the Lord of all the earth. 

iranpoliticsclub.net

In the beginning of this oracle we see a vision of the armies of the LORD.  Horse-drawn chariots were the most fearsome military weapon system then known.  They could attack with deadly speed and impact.  The LORD is King over all the earth.  His power has no limit.  He is even now ruling over all the earth and executing His will through His army, the angelic host.  There is not any corner of the globe that is out of His reach.  No matter what we as God’s people, His chosen nation and the kingdom of His rule, that is the Church of Jesus Christ face, our God is stronger.  Though we are weak in the eyes of the world, yet our God is more powerful than all.  He is the one who protects and defends us.  Nothing can harm His kingdom, and He rules over all the earth.  Since our God rules over all, we His people have nothing to fear, anywhere in the world.  No one can do anything to us outside of His perfect will.  He has a plan and He is executing it perfectly.

The black horses which are therein go forth into the north country; and the white go forth after them; and the grisled go forth toward the south country.

And the bay went forth, and sought to go that they might walk to and fro through the earth: and he said, Get you hence, walk to and fro through the earth. So they walked to and fro through the earth.

Then cried he upon me, and spake unto me, saying, Behold, these that go toward the north country have quieted my spirit in the north country.

The north country is a reference to Babylon.  The nation of the Jews had not long before endured captivity in Babylon for seventy years.  That northern country had been a source of shame, death, and enslavement for the people of God.  But God was going to make of it a quiet, peaceful situation, taking it over it with His mighty army.  What had been a threat in the past was only a tool in the loving hand of Almighty God to chastise His people when they had been unfaithful.  But now He has quieted that hornet’s nest of Babylon.

God sometimes uses the evil actions of wicked people and nations to confront His people with their sin, to restrain their rebellion, and to bring them back to their knees, to rely on Him and Him alone instead of being self-secure in their independent mindset.  But woe to those evil people that God uses!  There is nothing on earth that can harm us, because no one can do anything to us apart from God’s will.  Let us not fear those chastening enemies that come against us, whether circumstances, or temptation, or tribulation, or being in need, or opposition.  Instead, let us trust in the merciful hand of God who is using these things for His own good purpose, and who is in total and utter control.  One day these things which come against us and militate against the Lord will be obliterated or fully conquered, and the peace of God will reign over the entire earth.

And the word of the Lord came unto me, saying,

10 Take of them of the captivity, even of Heldai, of Tobijah, and of Jedaiah, which are come from Babylon, and come thou the same day, and go into the house of Josiah the son of Zephaniah;

11 Then take silver and gold, and make crowns, and set them upon the head of Joshua the son of Josedech, the high priest;

12 And speak unto him, saying, Thus speaketh the Lord of hosts, saying, Behold the man whose name is The Branch; and he shall grow up out of his place, and he shall build the temple of the Lord:

13 Even he shall build the temple of the Lord; and he shall bear the glory, and shall sit and rule upon his throne; and he shall be a priest upon his throne: and the counsel of peace shall be between them both.

14 And the crowns shall be to Helem, and to Tobijah, and to Jedaiah, and to Hen the son of Zephaniah, for a memorial in the temple of the Lord.

15 And they that are far off shall come and build in the temple of the Lord, and ye shall know that the Lord of hosts hath sent me unto you. And this shall come to pass, if ye will diligently obey the voice of the Lord your God.

The LORD commands Zechariah to crown Joshua the High Priest.  Doing that, Zechariah is to prophesy to the beleaguered people of God a glorious age when a man named “The Branch” will reign in Jerusalem and will build the temple of the LORD.  There will be a close council between Him and the priest at His side.  This picture is that of the reign of the Lord Jesus Christ, the King and High Priest of the people of God.

If we, God’s people, have enemies against us, we have a King to rule over and defend us.  If we have sinned against the LORD, we have a great high priest who shed His own blood for us, who continually intercedes for us at the Father’s right hand.  It is He who is building His Church (Matthew 16:18), the holy temple of the LORD, and He knows exactly what He is doing!  Let us take comfort and draw hope in these things, that no matter what we may go through in this life, we are under the rule and protection, and beneficiaries of His priesthood.  Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.  Therefore let us be fitted together like stones, as the Church, His building and holy temple, continuing our life together in prayer, in worship, and mutual discipline and fellowship as we glorify our great King and Priest.

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An Endless Supply of God’s Spirit: Zechariah Devotional, Part 6

In this chapter of the book of Zechariah, the prophet receives another word-picture from the Lord, given by an angel.  Remember that the Jewish people had been restored to Jerusalem, brought back from captivity in Babylon by the decree of Emperor Cyrus of Persia, whom God had stirred up to support this good work.  The work of rebuilding the destroyed temple had begun, but the building project languished in an incomplete state.  The people of God had grown tired and disinterested in the project, and enemy nations living nearby had taken advantage of the situation to stymy the project, persuading King Artaxerxes to order the construction to stop (Ezra 4:23.)  The future looked bleak for finishing what had been started (the rebuilding of the temple,) but God had more messages of hope to give to his people to motivate them with encouragement to rebuild and to trust in Him to provide necessary materials and undo obstacles.  This chapter gives us encouragement that our hope is not in our own efforts or abilities, but that we may labor in hope that God will complete that which He has started.

temple destruction

Zechariah chapter 4

1And the angel that talked with me came again, and waked me, as a man that is wakened out of his sleep.

And said unto me, What seest thou? And I said, I have looked, and behold a candlestick all of gold, with a bowl upon the top of it, and his seven lamps thereon, and seven pipes to the seven lamps, which are upon the top thereof:

And two olive trees by it, one upon the right side of the bowl, and the other upon the left side thereof.

So I answered and spake to the angel that talked with me, saying, What are these, my lord?

Then the angel that talked with me answered and said unto me, Knowest thou not what these be? And I said, No, my lord.

Then he answered and spake unto me, saying, This is the word of the Lord unto Zerubbabel, saying, Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord of hosts.

Who art thou, O great mountain? before Zerubbabel thou shalt become a plain: and he shall bring forth the headstone thereof with shoutings, crying, Grace, grace unto it.

Zechariah had fallen asleep.  The Angel woke him up to give him another prophetic revelation of what God had planned for His people.  How often is it that we receive God’s words of comfort and are lulled to sleep by it instead of paying careful attention and actively applying it to our hearts and lives[i]?  Yet God’s messenger the angel is gracious and patient to wake Zechariah out of his sleep with even more comforting words of hope, of what God has in store for his people.  God is gracious to awaken his people by continuing to prompt them, despite their sleepiness.  In the time of Zechariah, the center of God’s presence among his people was located in Jerusalem.  The Church of God at the time was located there, symbolized in the vision God gave to Zechariah by one golden lampstand with seven lamps burning on it.  This was something that was commanded to be used in the temple of old, which must have seemed to Zechariah to be but a faint memory of past glory after all those years in Babylon, but the angel shows it to him to give him hope that the temple will be rebuilt and that God will be worshiped as in old times.  The lamps’ supply of oil would never go out because it is supplied by God Himself, “by my Spirit”, and not by the efforts of men.  Although the people of God may seem lazy and distracted at times to do the hard work of building the temple of the Lord, God Himself will sustain her through a supply of his own Spirit.  He has mysterious ways of keeping the spiritual life of his chosen people aflame by his Spirit.

lampstand_bowlToday, in the new covenant, the Church of God is no longer depicted by only one lampstand, but by seven lampstands (Revelation 1:20), symbolizing the dispersion of the worship of God in many locations over the entire world.  (Seven is the number of perfection and completeness in the Bible.)  The Church of God is no longer confined to one location in Jerusalem, but is spread out over the entire world.  Though the building of God’s Church through evangelism and discipleship may seem like a futile and useless effort to the eyes of human understanding, God promises to bless His people still.  We may seem small and insignificant in the eyes of the world and ready to die out at any moment.  But the One who gives the life of the Spirit to His Church is the One who gives it a continual supply of His Spirit that will never go out.  Our faith as Christians, and as the Church of Christ, is not in our ability to build the Church, but in the promise of Him who said, “Upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Matthew 16:18  The Church of Jesus Christ will never end, and it will be completed, through God working in it by a never-ending supply of his Holy Spirit.

Moreover the word of the Lord came unto me, saying,

The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house; his hands shall also finish it; and thou shalt know that the Lord of hosts hath sent me unto you.

10 For who hath despised the day of small things? for they shall rejoice, and shall see the plummet in the hand of Zerubbabel with those seven; they are the eyes of the Lord, which run to and fro through the whole earth.

11 Then answered I, and said unto him, What are these two olive trees upon the right side of the candlestick and upon the left side thereof?

12 And I answered again, and said unto him, What be these two olive branches which through the two golden pipes empty the golden oil out of themselves?

13 And he answered me and said, Knowest thou not what these be? And I said, No, my lord.

14 Then said he, These are the two anointed ones, that stand by the Lord of the whole earth.

It is easy to think little of small beginnings.  Though the Church of Jesus Christ, as we see it in the world, may seem to be relatively few in number and weak in comparison to all of the forces of evil in the world that combat it, the One through whom God has started the work will also finish it.  Zerubbabel is the King of Judah and ancestor of the Lord Jesus Christ. (Matthew 1:12)  He came out of captivity in Babylon with the nation of the Jews to rule as God’s anointed.  He is a picture and foreshadowing of King Jesus, the Christ (anointed One) and Ruler of God’s people.  God promises that the temple will be rebuilt completely within Zerubbabel’s reign.  Jesus is the author and finisher of our faith.  What has been started through Him will be completed by Him.  God places one olive tree on either side of the lampstand pictured to Zechariah, symbolizing His endless provision of oil to the lampstand.  These are trees planted by the Lord, two “anointed” ones.  The two trees most likely are symbols of the two prophets that God sent to Judah during this time of rebuilding: Zechariah and Haggai, to encourage the rebuilding of the temple (Ezra 5:1.)  Through his Spirit, God anoints and appoints the ministry of the word to bring his gracious words of comfort and grace to his people.  The Church of Jesus Christ is the “pillar and ground of truth” in the world (1 Timothy 3:15.)  By means of his Spirit, he supplies her with life, and the offices necessary for her nourishment, especially the gospel ministry.  Let us never forget where the life and strength of the Church comes from when we grow weary and are tempted to think that it is completely insignificant.  Through His holy Church God is accomplishing His purposes in the world to save many souls and make disciples of Christ for His everlasting glory.  He will accomplish His purposes despite the opposition of the world.  As the Church of Jesus Christ, this is our comfort and hope.


[i] Cf. Matthew Henry’s commentary.

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Calvin on the Ancient Church as a Model of Biblical Church Polity

ImageUntil now we have spoken of the order of governing the Church, according as it was left to us by the word of God alone.  We have also treated of the ministers as Jesus Christ instituted them.  Now in order that all of this be familiarly declared to us and imprinted in our memory, it will be beneficial for us to recognize what the form of the ancient Church was in all these things, considering that she is able to represent to us as in a mirror this instruction from God that we have set forth.

Jean Calvin, L’Institution Chrétienne, IV.IV.I.1

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Pastoral Letter — Oct 27, 2013

From Pastor Riley, to the members and friends of Hope Congregational Church,

Greetings in the name of Him who is reforming His Church, bringing her to greater conformity to His will!

The days are getting shorter and the nights are getting longer.  Temperatures are dropping.  Perhaps spending more time indoors than we normally do in the summer months will give us time to reflect on some important topics.  The one I would like to focus on at the moment is Reformation.  Reformation is a work of God found in the Scriptures, when He conforms and reforms His Church to His will as expressed in His holy word.  In the days of Hezekiah the King there was a mighty reformation, a time of revival and smashing the idols that people had been following instead of God.  We see the same thing occur under the reign of Josiah after the book of the law was rediscovered.  There are times of blessing when the word of God is rediscovered, ignorance is uprooted, and idols are smashed for the glory of God and the blessing of His Church.

On October 31, 1517 such a work of God began through the humble protest of a conscientious monk and Bible professor at Wittenberg University named Martin Luther.  Luther95thesesIn the middle ages Christianity had overtaken Europe, although North Africa and Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), once important centers of the Christian faith, had for the most part been overrun by Islam through successive conquests.  In the Middle Ages Bibles were scarce, and if available, it was only available in the Latin Vulgate translation.  As a result, many superstitions and errors had developed to cloud and obscure the gospel of Jesus Christ based on some key mistranslated passages in the Vulgate.  A general ignorance prevailed over Christian people, who generally did not have access to the Bible and heard homilies in Latin every Sunday, a language they could not understand.  Due to the interest of Renaissance scholarship, the original Hebrew and Greek Scriptures became more widely available in western Europe for the first time.  God used these events to bring about a reform movement back to the source of truth, the Holy Scriptures, and to restore the purity of the gospel in the tenets of the Reformation: upon the Scriptures alone, in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, for God’s glory alone.  On Sunday, November 3rd, in the afternoon following a potluck at church, you will have an opportunity to learn more.  I would like to invite everyone, including friends, relatives and neighbors to our first ever Reformation History talk.

Church History is important to the body of Christ.  It is our history, as God’s people.  It lets us know where we’ve come from, gives us an opportunity to praise God for what He has done, warns us of the errors of the past (which tend to keep reappearing under new names), and gives us hope that the God of our fathers is the same God who leads us today.  As we follow Him, in thankfulness for what He has done in history, let us also remember that as His Church we are to be ever increasing in our knowledge and application of what He requires of us.  A watchword of the 16th century Reformation was, Semper Reformanda – “always reforming”, (from Latin.)  God has helped us until now, but we always have room for improvement.  The correct attitude toward obedience to God as His church is to always be willing to change in ways (and only in those specific ways) that God requires of us in His word, the Holy Bible.  Just as individual Christians are to be brought more and more into conformity to Christ, so it is with His Church made up of them.  May God continue to richly bless us and reform us in accordance with His word.

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Dirty Clothes Get Changed: Zechariah devotional, part 5

In the third chapter of Zechariah the LORD gives a fifth vision speaking of deliverance and restoration.  It in it we see Satan, the accuser of the people of God, and the Angel of the LORD, a pre-incarnate appearance of God the Son, standing with Joshua the high priest.

Flickr_-_DVIDSHUB_-_Tough_Mudder_(Image_5_of_8)

Zechariah 3:1-3 And he shewed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to resist him.  And the LORD said unto Satan, The LORD rebuke thee, O Satan; even the LORD that hath chosen Jerusalem rebuke thee: is not this a brand plucked out of the fire?  Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments, and stood before the angel. 

The scene begins with a cast of three: The Angel of the LORD, Satan, and the high priest named Joshua.  The Angel of the LORD is God the Son prior to his having been conceived in the womb of the virgin Mary.  He is the LORD, (“LORD” in all caps stands for Jehovah or Yahweh in most English Bibles,) called by the covenant name of God.   Jesus the Son of God is God Himself, equal to the Father, and when He speaks, even Satan must listen.  “Satan”, meaning, “adversary” is the accuser of the people of God, their self-appointed prosecutor and accuser before the seat of God’s righteous judgment.  An angel fallen from heavenly glory after having rebelled against the Most High, he stands to “resist” God’s chosen people represented by the high priest named Joshua.  The high priest was one called and set apart to minister the commandments of God in the temple, make sacrifices, represent God to the people by preaching the word of God and performing the required ceremonies, and representing the people to God in prayer on their behalf.  The name, “Joshua” means in Hebrew, “The LORD saves”, commonly transliterated into Greek as “iesous” and is the same as the Latinized “Iesus” or “Jesus.”  This is the name of the high priest who was serving in the temple when Zechariah prophesied these words.  Even his name points to the Lord’s salvation through One named Jesus, who is our great High Priest forever.  When Satan accuses the people of God of sin, Christ Jesus, here termed “the angel of the LORD”, defends them based on the truth that He is on their side.  Of what can Satan accuse God’s elect?  (Romans 8:33)  He rebukes Satan for accusing Joshua, and in him God’s chosen people.  Joshua’s garments are filthy, stained with muck.  Despite his uncomely appearance, clearly visible in the light of a torch pulled out of the fire, Satan’s accusations don’t stick.  The devil’s accusations of God’s chosen people are just empty words.  No matter how darkly stained our garments, God will defend us and not condemn us.  But why?

4-5 And he answered and spake unto those that stood before him, saying, Take away the filthy garments from him.  And unto him he said, Behold, have caused thine iniquity to pass from thee, and I will clothe thee with change of raiment.  And I said, Let them set a fair mitre upon his head.  So they set a fair mitre upon his head, and clothed him with garments.  And the angel of the LORD stood by. 

The High Priest's Holy Garments --www.esvbible.org

The High Priest’s Holy Garments –www.esvbible.org

The Angel of the LORD is the one speaking here.  He is God the Son, who will clothe Joshua with new priestly garments.  Here is the answer to the question of how God’s chosen people are to be acquitted and justified by God rather than condemned as Satan would prefer.  It is through a change of clothing wrought by the Angel of the LORD.  He places a new garment and a tall priestly hat: a “mitre” upon Joshua.  Although the sins of God’s chosen people are many, yet He will place His own (Christ’s own) righteousness upon them as a new garment replaces the filthy one.  Our beauty and acceptability to God is not based on our own righteousness or good works, for even at our best we are just filthy rotten sinners; it is based on Christ’s own righteousness imputed to us as our covering, clothing our sinful nakedness with the splendid beauty of holiness which is pleasing to God, Christ’s works.  He stands by us His elect (v. 5) as our comfort and assurance that God has forgiven us our sins and accepted us for His (Christ’s) sake.  What assurance of salvation!  What comfort!  There is nothing in this universe which compares to the glory of God seen in the justification of sinners deserving only condemnation by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

6-10 And the angel of the LORD protested unto Joshua, saying, Thus saith the LORD of hosts; If thou wilt walk in my ways, and if thou wilt keep my charge, then thou shalt also judge my house, and shalt also keep my courts, and I will give thee places to walk among these that stand by.  Here now, O Joshua the high priest, thou, and thy fellows that sit before thee: for they are men wondered at: for, behold, I will bring forth my servant the BRANCH.  For behold the stone that I have laid before Joshua; upon one stone shall be seven eyes: behold, I will engrave the graving thereof, saith the LORD of hosts, and I will remove the iniquity of that land in one day.  In that day, saith the LORD of hosts, shall ye call every man his neighbour under the vine and under the fig tree.   

Being forgiven of his sins, justified in God’s sight, and with the help of God’s Son standing by him, Joshua the high priest is obligated to devote himself genuinely and fully to the service of God out of thankfulness for the grace he’s received.  This applies to all those who have been saved by grace, to all citizens of chosen Israel.  Have you been forgiven of all your sins and counted righteous in God’s sight for the sake of Christ?  Then live accordingly by thankfully obeying all His commandments, trusting in His aiding grace to do His work in you as He stands by you.

“The BRANCH” is a reference to Jesus Christ, a branch grown from the family tree of David.  (Jeremiah 23:5)  He is the eternal God, knowing all things, symbolized in verse 9 as a stone with seven eyes representing Him who sees and knows all things perfectly.  (7 in the Bible is the number of perfection.)  The promise of forgiveness and justification is in Him, through Him, and to Him.  It is in reference to Christ the “BRANCH” that this vision promises such blessing.  Because of Him, a great period of blessing will come in, when neighbors will have fellowship together and enjoy the good things of the LORD represented as the fruit of the vines and fig trees.

God’s message in this prophetic oracle is that although Israel would be delivered of her enemies and restored fully from captivity to foreign nations (Babylon and Assyria), yet her sins would remain.  These would be taken away by replacing his filthy rags with new glorious garments.  Our salvation is not first and foremost about the healing of our physical bodies or restoration from earthly difficulties, but about the forgiveness of our sin and justification by God’s grace in imputing Christ’s righteousness to us.  Let us remind ourselves of these blessed truths of God’s word daily in order that we may be inspired to live for Him with thankful hearts overflowing with praise for what He has done.

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An Admonition Against Schism

Still, however, even the good are sometimes affected by this inconsiderate zeal for righteousness, though we shall find that this excessive moroseness is more the result of pride and a false idea of sanctity, than genuine sanctity itself, and true zeal for it. Accordingly, those who are the most forward, and, as it were, leaders in producing revolt from the Church, have, for the most part, no other motive than to display their own superiority by despising all other men.

Well and wisely, therefore, does Augustine say, “Seeing that pious reason and the mode of ecclesiastical discipline ought specially to regard the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, which the Apostle enjoins us to keep, by bearing with one another (for if we keep it not, the application of medicine is not only superfluous, but pernicious, and therefore proves to be no medicine); those bad sons who, not from hatred of other men’s iniquities, but zeal for their own contentions, attempt altogether to draw away, or at least to divide, weak brethren ensnared by the glare of their name, while swollen with pride, stuffed with petulance, insidiously calumnious, and turbulently seditious, use the cloak of a rigorous severity, that they may not seem devoid of the light of truth, and pervert to sacrilegious schism, and purposes of excision, those things which are enjoined in the Holy Scriptures (due regard being had to sincere love, and the unity of peace), to correct a brother’s faults by the appliance of a moderate cure” (August. Cont. Parmen. cap. 1). To the pious and placid his advice is, mercifully to correct what they can, and to bear patiently with what they cannot correct, in love lamenting and mourning until God either reform or correct, or at the harvest root up the tares, and scatter the chaff (Ibid. cap. 2).

Let all the godly study to provide themselves with these weapons, lest, while they deem themselves strenuous and ardent defenders of righteousness, they revolt from the kingdom of heaven, which is the only kingdom of righteousness. For as God has been pleased that the communion of his Church shall be maintained in this external society, any one who, from hatred of the ungodly, violates the bond of this society, enters on a downward course, in which he incurs great danger of cutting himself off from the communion of saints.

Let them reflect, that in a numerous body there are several who may escape their notice, and yet are truly righteous and innocent in the eyes of the Lord. Let them reflect, that of those who seem diseased, there are many who are far from taking pleasure or flattering themselves in their faults, and who, ever and anon aroused by a serious fear of the Lord, aspire to greater integrity.

Let them reflect, that they have no right to pass judgment on a man for one act, since the holiest sometimes make the most grievous fall.

Let them reflect, that in the ministry of the word and participation of the sacraments, the power to collect the Church is too great to be deprived of all its efficacy, by the fault of some ungodly men.

Lastly, let them reflect, that in estimating the Church, divine is of more force than human judgment.

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV, chapter I, 16.

calvin

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Many are induced…

Many are induced by pride and presumption, by disdain, or by envy to persuade themselves that they will get enough benefit from reading in private, or meditating in private. By doing so, they contemn the public assemblies, and think that meditation there is unnecessary. But because they dissolve or divide, as much as is in them, the bond of unity which God wills to be kept inviolable, it is fitting that they receive the reward of such a divorce, for they bewitch themselves of all the errors and reveries which carry them to confusion.

Jean Calvin, L’Institution Chrétienne, IV.I.5

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Three Things I Need to Say

A man apologizes to his former church, for leaving. He’s learned some important things about the Christian’s relation to the church.

I Say Stuff -- E.A. Love

I left First Baptist Church just over three years ago. I had had enough.  I was tired of inefficient committees.  I was tired of worship wars.  I was tired of what I perceived as passive leadership. I was tired of the infighting. I was tired…of the church.  To be clear, I was not just tired of FBC; rather, I was tired of the institutional church.  I grew up at a rural Baptist church in central Missouri that, while smaller, operated much like FBC, the first church I’d really planted myself in as an adult.  A bit of history might be helpful here; there are more good memories associated with the church I grew up in than I can recount, but I most closely associate it with the tumult and upheaval that prompted my family’s exit. It’s probable that the sour taste in my mouth left over from that negative experience…

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Q&A About the Unity of the Church of Jesus Christ in her Current State, Denominations, and the Obligation of a Christian

Question: In 2013, the Christian churches are woefully and hopelessly divided, and yet Jesus prayed that we would be one (John 17:11.)  Should we attempt to determine which of all the churches (denominations) is the most pure or correct, and just consider all the others to be illegitimate unless they join her?

Answer:  According to the united testimony of the Church throughout history, No.  It is true that the Church of Jesus Christ is divided, in visible form.  There are literally hundreds of separate communions and denominations which are not inviting one another to take part in their important work and decision-making.  This is due to many factors and circumstances of history.  Many of them involve sin.  But, wherever there is the pure preaching of the Word in its fundamental truths of the law and gospel, the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism are administered according to Christ’s commandments, and the members of Christ’s Church are walking together in love and mutual discipline, Christians ought not to abandon her.

Because:

      1.       Even though the Church is divided in visible form, she is 1 in essence.

      2.       Divisions over doctrine based on genuine difference in understanding are better than disobedience to Christ.

      3.       Christians must NOT separate themselves from that Church, which is                         recognized by the three distinguishing marks: Pure preaching of the word, the right administration of the Sacraments according to Christ, and church discipline.

This position is supported by the best Bible-scholars and theologians throughout the history of the Christian Church.  Following are some key examples:

1.       Even though the Church is divided in visible form, she is 1 in essence.

Turretin, Francis, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol III.  turretin

Of the unity of the Church, Turretin states, “Nor is it uniform as to rites and government.” P. 27

Speaking of the Church visible, he writes, “Although there are many particular churches scattered through the world, the unity of the church is not on that account broken up or his body despised because the catholic church remains always one, composed of these various parts, which (because they are homogeneous) obtain the same name with the whole.”  Note that in referring to the “same name”, Turretin affirms the legitimate ecclesiastical power and authority of separated churches.

In what sense is the church called catholic?  P. 30 “First, the proper signification of this word teaches not that an assembly, which is restricted to certain places, can claim for itself the name of the catholic church; but only that society which embraces all the elect and believers (those triumphant in heaven as well as those militant upon earth), in whatever place they have been or will be, and in whatever time they have lived form the beginning of the world or will live even unto the end.”

p. 31 “Now although the word “church” popularly speaking denotes an external and visible assembly, it does not on that account follow (speaking accurately of the church of Christ) that its proper and natural signification implies simply a visible assembly or a simple external profession: for a spiritual and internal communion constitutes its essence, as has been seen.”

On p. 143 he discusses disagreements between the evangelical and Reformed churches, “Disagreements are a prejudice under which the evangelical churches labor.  But they cannot hinder them from retaining the name of the true church, because they agree as to the foundation.  And if any differences exist, (which God wished to permit in order to prove our faith), they are about articles less necessary, in which there can be a disagreement without touching the essence of saving religion:  as the apostolic churches formerly had their differences and stains, as is evident from the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline epistles; nor were the eastern and western churches, the Latin and the Greek, the African and Italian churches free from them, which did not on that account cease to be true churches.  Again, the contentions and differences of the evangelicals are far less than those which are agitated among the Romanists, who, as was seen before, frequently charge each other with heresy.  Nor do we notice here the more rigid judgments of some of those who take their name from the great Luther, who, carried away by sinister prejudices, are accustomed to attack us.  For however harshly they may have treated us, we do not cease to honor them with brotherly affection.  And if, their prejudices and private affections being laid aside, they would seriously examine the thing itself by the law of love, truth, and Christian prudence, they would not be so much averse to a pious syncretism and reconciliation with us, or at least a mutual toleration, to which not a few of the more moderate among them are not indisposed.”

p. 307 “councils are not simply and absolutely necessary to the being of the church.”

James Bannerman, The Church of Christ

p. 46 “In the first place, the principles laid down as to the Church local and catholic, serve to evince the nature of the relation in which both member and office-bearers of separate Churches stand to each other, notwithstanding of the separation.”

He goes on to say on p. 47, “the office-bearers of the Christian Church are not the office-bearers of any particular society alone, but the office-bearers of the whole visible community of believers.  It may be necessary for the advantageous exercise of their office, and profitable for the Church, that particular ministers should be set apart to labour in particular charges, as more exclusively theirs.  But their ministry is not limited to these.  Their commission as preachers of the Gospel is a commission co-extensive with the visible Church of Christ; and they are free to exercise their ministry wherever and whenever they have a regular opportunity to do so…Difference of doctrine or administration or worship may indeed hinder their fellowship,–and not without sin on one side or the other; but it ought never to be forgotten, that both members and office-bearers, however separated, if they belong to the Christian society at all, belong not to many Churches, properly speaking, but to one; that they are in communion, not so much with various local societies, as with the one catholic Church of the Redeemer.” P. 50 “The oneness of the invisible [church] is the ideal, to which, amidst all its breaches and divisions, the visible Church can only approximately approach.”

2.       Divisions over doctrine based on genuine difference in understanding are better than disobedience to Christ.

Hodge, Charles, Church Polity.

hodgeWhile acknowledging the normal, ideal, and biblical form of the church, would have all churches meeting together in common councils and taking part in mutual submission p. 93, Hodge states that the current denominational lines and distinctions are a necessary evil, due primarily to disagreements between Christians on the biblical model of church government.  He gives a summary of what has divided each of the major denominations from one another, then says, “Thus the evil has gone on increasing until the Church is split into sects and independent communions almost without number.  Nevertheless, the existence of such divisions is the less of two evils.  When men differ, it is better to avow their diversity of opinion or faith, than to pretend to agree, or to force discordant elements in a formal uncongenial union.” p. 95  He then goes on to discuss what the relative duties of these divided denominations are, in recognition of one another as churches of Christ.

Turretin, Francis, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. III

Speaking of the term “catholic”, Turretin states, p. 32, “But whatever is the reason of this appellation, it is certain that it does not belong to the Roman church, since it neither holds the catholic faith, nor is it everywhere diffused—innumerable churches both in the east and in the west having been separated from and having nothing in common with it.

Speaking of whether the external splendor of the church may be entirely obscured in any age, Turretin writes, p. 48, “The church can never wholly fail on earth (as was seen before), but not that it is always conspicuous and prominent, but is often so obscured and sunk (whether by persecutions or errors) that no assembly of her appears clearly in the world, but remains obscure and withdrawn from the eyes of men.”

p. 55 “It is one thing for the gospel ministry to be the ordinary means of the gathering together and conservation of the church, which will perpetually endure even until the end of the world (which Paul asserts in Eph. 4:11, 12 and is granted by us); and another for this ministry to be perpetuated in an uninterrupted succession in any one seat (to wit, the Roman) and always with the same splendor of uncorrupted doctrine as well as of inviolate order and observable dignity.  Following the Scriptures, we deny the latter.”

James Bannerman, The Church of Christ  bannerman

”different interpretations of Scripture have introduced among professing Christians a difference of belief regarding the doctrines of Christianity.  Opposite opinions, too, as to the forms of administration and modes of worship appointed for the Christian Church, have led to apparently irreconcilable breaches among them.  And now the vast society of professing Christians throughout the world is broken up and divided into distinct sections, which not distance of place, but distance of opinion and practice keeps apart; so that, while they profess to worship one through one Mediator, they would not meet together for that worship in common, even although they could.”

3.       Christians must NOT separate themselves from that Church, which is recognized by the three distinguishing marks: Pure preaching of the word, the right administration of the Sacraments according to Christ, and church discipline.

Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics

p. 670

Heppe summarizes the historic Reformed position being that where the three marks of the purity of the word, the right administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of church discipline exist in a communion, Christians must not separate themselves from this church.  20. Naturally all these attributes do not attach to all separate Churches in the same perfection, yet that is why the Christian must not forthwith separate himself from the communion to which he belongs when he notices in it errors and lacks of minor importance.  All that matters is that everything belonging to the saving nature of revelation is preserved in complete purity.  calvin  –Calvin (IV, I, 12): “When we say that pure ministry of the word and pure rite in celebrating the sacraments is a fitting pledge and earnest, that we may safely embrace as the Church a society in which both exist, it holds to the extent that it is nowhere to be rejected, so long as it persists in these things, although it is otherwise rife in many defects.”

Turretin, Francis, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. III

p. 86 on the marks of the true church, “After having treated of the nature, properties and adjuncts of the church, the order demands that we discuss its marks.  This question pertains to its external state and is of the highest importance in religion.  For since salvation cannot be obtained except in communion with the true church and many glory in this sacred name who are destitute of this truth, it is of great value to know its true marks that we may be able to distinguish the true fold of Christ from the dens of wolves; and the genuine society of pious Christians (to whose communion we are called) from the conventicles of heretics, which must be shunned by us; also that thus we may know what that assembly is to which it is necessary that we should join ourselves that we may obtain salvation.  And because the question can be twofold (the first concerning true marks, which are asserted by us; the other concerning the false and adulterous which are obtruded by the Romanists), we shall discuss each separately and now treat of the first.”

In response to the Romanist assertion that “the union of the members with the head and with each other” is an essential mark of the true church, Turretin argues, p. 111 “The seventh mark is “the union of the members with the head and with each other.”  But neither can this be a mark. (a) For since a union can be twofold—one internal, the other external—neither can be a mark.  Not the internal and mystical of believers with Christ and with each other because it is invisible, known to God alone.  Not the external or with a visible head because there is none; or of the members with each other by the possession of the same sacred things and symbols and offices of mutual love because this can be obscured and hypocritical, separated from the truth of doctrine (without which there can be no true union.)  …XXXVI (c) It is not inseparable because there can be dissension among Christians, while the truth is unimpaired and often was (Acts 11:2, 15:39, Phil. 3:15, 16).  It is indeed the property of a well-constituted church [that is, unity]; it is the duty of all.  It is the surest method of defending and preserving the church, peace, and concord being recommended unceasingly by Christ and the apostles.  But not forthwith does a church cease to be true which is afflicted with certain discordancies and whose parts are drawn asunder in various heads, provided an agreement as to the foundation remains.  Thus formerly there were various differences between the apostles about the primacy, between Paul and Peter, Paul and Barnabas.  Thus among the ancients (between the Eastern and Western churches), there was a fierce contention which lasted through many centuries about the celebration of the Easter.  Among the fathers there was more than one dissension: as between Irenaeus and Victor, Cyprian and Stephen, Chrysostom and Epiphanius, Jerome and Ruffinus, Cyril and Theodoret and various others, which nevertheless did not make the church of that time lose either its name or its truth.”  Name for Turretin means legitimate ecclesiastical authority which extends to all its acts and ordinances.  Above Turretin recognizes external unity as a duty of the true church, yet emphatically denies that it is a distinguishing mark of the true church.

…”Hence unity is to be estimated by faith, not faith by unity.” P. 112  …”Otherwise, as Nazianzus well remarks, ‘A discord arising on account of piety is better than a corrupt concord’”…”Athanasius did not cease to be orthodox, although Liberius had expelled him from his communion and would not receive into common converse the bishops sent by him from Africa.  He commanded the whole fraternity not to admit them to their houses, so that not only hospitality, but also peace should be denied to theones coming (as Cassander informs us on the seventh article;”

p. 137 Are the evangelical and Reformed churches true churches of Christ?  We affirm.

“…which seceded from Rome, in communion with which therefore salvation can certainly be obtained.”

Note that in all of this discussion of Turretin in distinguishing among churches that are called Christian, between those that are true, and those that are false, he is writing in the context of the duty and obligation of Christians to join themselves externally to the true church for their own salvation.  (Because this is where the ordinances and ministry are which God has ordained to be the means of grace to lead men to salvation.)

Although Turretin recognizes external, formal, unity as a duty of all churches, he explicitly denies that it is or can be a mark which distinguishes that true church to which Christians must unite themselves from the false church from which Christians must separate themselves.

James Bannerman, The Church of Christ

It is in the context of viewing the true Church of Jesus Christ catholic and visible as historically divided in doctrine, worship, and government that Bannerman goes on in the second part of his work to discuss the existence and exercise of ecclesiastical power in doctrine and ordinances.  The power that the Church has in doctrine and ordinances is not, according to Bannerman, confined to one sect or party, but exists wherever the true Church of Christ exists in the world, despite a sinful state of separation.

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Why Are There So Many Different Churches?, Part 5: How to Choose a Church.

Given the legion of Christian churches and denominations, there might be some out there asking, what do I do now? Perhaps you’re looking for a Church which proclaims the whole counsel of God. Maybe you’ve come to Christ recently, or maybe you’re at a time in your Christian life when the Holy Spirit is giving you a fuller understanding of the Holy Scriptures than you once had, through diligent study or comparing teaching that you’ve been hearing with Scripture. You want to be fed, to grow, to take advantage of the gifts that Christ has provided, and most of all, you want to be obedient to Him. So you need to find a local church. But how should one go about looking for a church when there are so many different churches?

Look for a Church which proclaims the Holy Scripture and all of it.

In order to evaluate a church, you will need to prove it by the Scriptures. Immerse yourself in them daily. Pray and ask God to help you understand. In this way you will get to know the Savior’s voice, and you will be able to easily distinguish it from the voice of an imposter. Do internet searches to find what churches there are in your area. Sometimes the denominational affiliation will tell you a lot about a particular church, but not always. You can gain a lot of information about what they believe and the general ethos from a church website. Do they seem to take doctrine seriously? Study their creeds, confessions, or statement of faith. Are they committed to God’s word? Are they active in evangelism? Is the website just trying to catch your eye, or does it actually have a lot of helpful information? How about orders of worship and sermons in text or audio? Then, when you visit a new church, be ready to not just get a “feel”, but to actively search out the things they are teaching and the answers they give to your questions from the Scriptures. Don’t assume you have nothing to learn. After all, you’re looking for a church to grow and be fed, right? But don’t let your guard down, either. If you hear or experience something that you don’t understand or find questionable, ask. The leadership’s reaction to your questions will tell you a lot about them. Are they taking God seriously at his word or are they just following customs or trends blindly without logical or Scriptural basis?

Don’t settle for a bare minimum of Scriptural truth. God has given sixty-six books for the good of his people, the Church. Certain books or passages are harder than others, but God has given them for a reason, and they will be a blessing to you in your Christian walk. In good times, just the basics elements of the gospel may seem like enough, but in great times of temptation or trial, you will need the full meal. A watered-down “gospel” message won’t satisfy in the longrun. Determine whether a local church is committed to a full exposition of Scripture in sermons and other occasions like Bible studies. You’re not just looking for a bare, basic, or mere Christianity, but a robust ministry of the word which will help you to grow.

How are they interpreting the Scriptures? Do they emphasize “favorite passages” at the expense of others? Or do they approach God’s word with the reverent and God-honoring perspective that the parts of Scripture are understood in the light of the whole, the whole in light of the parts, and that there are no contradictions anywhere in the Bible? If a church truly considers the Bible to be God’s word, it will not highlight certain parts at the expense of others, but it will seek to understand God’s word as it is given by God as one unit teaching one system of belief in complete harmony and without contradiction.

If you can’t find a soundly Bible-believing church near you, look a little farther away. Move if necessary. It’s that important!

Don’t be afraid for no reason of unfamiliar traditions.

Take time to carefully evaluate them by Scripture. Churches have reasons for doing the things they do. If they have good reasons, they can explain it to you based on sound application of Scriptural principles. Ask questions. (If the leadership can’t explain why they do what they do, that should raise a red flag!) Find a church where you will be fed and not entertained, where worship is God-centered and not Me-centered. Don’t be afraid of churches or denominations with deep historic roots. There is often ancient wisdom to be found in the older Protestant denominations. But beware of those who no longer share the faith of their forefathers, or who have become so tolerant and broad-minded of a multitude of positions that they no longer stand for anything.

Don’t Expect Perfection.

There is no perfect Church on earth. Other Christians in any church will be as messed up as you are. Even the best churches have not yet arrived to the fullness of what God is making them into. If you ever find a perfect church, don’t join it, because you’ll ruin it! Don’t let this discourage you. Most of us, if drowning in the ocean, would get into a lifeboat, even if there were hypocrites in it! In the same way there may be truth and love for Christ, and you will be able to grow in your discipleship to Christ, even in very imperfect churches. But find the best one you can initially, and stick with it.

Be Prepared to Settle Down.

Choose carefully at first, but don’t become a life-long church-hopper. In order to be grounded in the faith, you will need to be in covenant with a local church of believers which cares for you, knows you by name, provides accountability, and has specific overseers watching over you in the Lord. This means you will eventually need to put down roots in a specific church and stay there. Growth takes time, and when you find a church where you can grow, plan to stay long-term. You will have to put roots downward in order to bear fruit upward. Avoid the consumer mentality that you are just there to receive but not to give. When you finally decide on a church, join with your family (if you have one) and be helpful, stable, encouraging, giving of your time and resources, and produce fruit there for others to enjoy.

This is meant to be a brief guide on how to choose a church. More explicit detailed models and guidelines are found in the Scriptures, especially in the book of Acts and in the epistles of the New Testament.

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