Holy Week: Redemption Devotion Three

WLC Holy Week: Redemption Devotion for Saturday, March 31st, 2018

Redemption in the Early Church

For these three Holy Week Devotions, we will use a very precise definition of the word “redemption.” It means freedom from bondage, which is secured by the payment of a price.” The “price” referred to here is the required “ransom payment” needed to deliver from some sort of slavery or captivity. The early Christians after the apostolic era continued to use the language of redemption in their writings:

  • Some subjected themselves to bondage or other financial sacrifices in order to obtain the ransom price required to set another free from slavery or hunger (1 Clement 55:2; 59:4; Shepherd of Hermas 38:10).
  • The early martyrs poetically described their temporary torture for the faith as a small ransom price that purchased an eternal reward (Martyrdom of Polycarp 2:3).
  • They believed that at the time when humanity’s iniquity was at its fullest and that God had clearly revealed punishment and death as our due recompense, He neither hated nor rejected us, but rather parted with his own Son, who became the ransom price paid for us (Diognetus 9).

These early church leaders continued to believe in Christ’s redemptive work and to lead redemptive lives in the world and in the church. They found true freedom in Christ; they were free to live sacrificially for their brothers and sisters; and they sacrificed their own lives for the testimony of Jesus Christ, having their gaze fixed on a greater reward.

Continuing the Redemptive Tradition

Reach Down: Here’s a quote from 1 Clement 55:2, “We know that many among ourselves have delivered themselves to bondage, that they might ransom others. Many have sold themselves to slavery, and receiving the price paid for themselves have fed others.” The early Christians “reached down” in radical ways to “pull up” their brothers and sisters from dire circumstances of slavery and hunger. In some cases, they literally took their place, seeing this as a proper practice of the work of Christ in the believing community. Consider how Jesus himself radically “reached down” to us to save us. Do you know anyone who is hungry? On Monday, April 2nd from 9–11am, many from our church are visiting Feed My Starving Children to help children who are hungry. Can you go? Not as radical as the Christians Clement spoke of, but it’s as good a place to start as any in developing a lifestyle that reaches down to give life.

Deposit Suffering for Glory: The writer of the Martyrdom of Polycarp tell us, “And giving heed unto the grace of Christ they despised the tortures of this world, purchasing at the cost of one hour a release from eternal punishment. And they found the fire of their inhuman torturers cold: for they set before their eyes the escape from the eternal fire which is never quenched; while with the eyes of their heart they gazed upon the good things which are reserved for those that endure patiently, things which neither ear hath heard nor eye hath seen, neither have they entered into the heart of man, but were shown by the Lord to them . . . ” (2:3). A martyr is someone who is killed for their faith, like Polycarp, who was a disciple of the apostle John. These early martyrs viewed their persecutions like deposits they making, the return on which they would experience later in heaven with God. It’s like what Paul said, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18). What a perspective. When faced with persecution for their faith in Christ, they “bought” it and made a deposit in heaven. Have you been persecuted for your faith in Christ? Don’t be ashamed; don’t be afraid. Buy that hour of persecution and make a deposit in glory.

Ascribe Beauty to the Gospel: Diognetus’ ninth chapter ascribes beauty to the gospel of Christ, “Having thus planned everything already in His mind with His Son, He permitted us during the former time to be borne along by disorderly impulses as we desired, led astray by pleasures and lusts, not at all because He took delight in our sins, but because He bore with us, not because He approved of the past season of iniquity, but because He was creating the present season of righteousness, that, being convicted in the past time by our own deeds as unworthy of life, we might now be made deserving by the goodness of God, and having made clear our inability to enter into the kingdom of God of ourselves, might be enabled by the ability of God. And when our iniquity had been fully accomplished, and it had been made perfectly manifest that punishment and death were expected as its recompense, and the season came which God had ordained, when henceforth He should manifest His goodness and power (O the exceeding great kindness and love of God), He hated us not, neither rejected us, nor bore us malice, but was long-suffering and patient, and in pity for us took upon Himself our sins, and Himself parted with His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy for the lawless, the guileless for the evil, the just for the unjust, the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal. For what else but His righteousness would have covered our sins? In whom was it possible for us lawless and ungodly men to have been justified, save only in the Son of God? O the sweet exchange, O the inscrutable creation, O the unexpected benefits; that the iniquity of many should be concealed in One Righteous Man, and the righteousness of One should justify many that are iniquitous! Having then in the former time demonstrated the inability of our nature to obtain life, and having now revealed a Savior able to save even creatures which have no ability, He willed that for both reasons we should believe in His goodness and should regard Him as nurse, father, teacher, counselor, physician, mind, light, honor, glory, strength and life.”

Do the people whom you’re close to know how beautiful the gospel is to you? It’s Easter Sunday tomorrow. There’s no better time to let them know.

Abram: Believer, Worshiper, & Proclaimer

The song titled “I’ve Been Everywhere” sparks a connection for most to Johnny Cash. Cash recorded the song in 1996. However, the song has a long history and broad impact. It was originally written by Geoff Mack, an Australian country singer, in 1959 and made popular by Lucky Starr in 1962. In the U.S.A., the song was made popular first by Hank Snow (1962), then Lynn Anderson (1970), long before Johnny Cash gave it a go. In addition to North America and Australia, the song also took flight in New Zealand, Great Britain, Ireland, parts of Asia, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and a number of other places. Literally, the song has been everywhere (Yes, I did use wikipedia for this info ;-)).

In his day, Abram was a globetrotter. His family’s journey to follow the Lord (cf. Josh. 24:2; Gen. 31:53) took them on a +1,000 mile journey from the Ur of the Chaldeans to the land of Canaan, and eventually into Egypt and back to Canaan. We know that there was a stop at Haran along the way (11:31–32), where Terah spent his final days. In Haran, Abram received the call from the Lord, apparently the God of his father Terah, to leave his familiar land, relatives, and reputation and trust the Lord to give him a new land, a new people, and a new reputation. (12:1–2). The Lord then commanded him to be a blessing, promising that he would bless those who blessed Abram, curse those who took Abram too lightly, and that in him, the Lord would bless all the families of the earth. Later on as Scripture unfolds (cf. Matthew 1; Luke 3; Romans 4; Galatians 3–4), we learn that Jesus Christ is the divine aim of this promise, in whom God would succeed in bringing blessing to all the families of the earth.

Returning to Genesis 12:4–9, we find an example of obedient faith in Abram, in spite of tremendous obstacles—Sarah’s barrenness (11:30), Abram’s age (12:4), the pagan religion that permeated Canaan (12:6), and later on a forbidding famine (12:9). Not only do we see obedient faith in his leaving and clinging to the new things God promised him, but also we see two expressions of faith as he travels through the land of Canaan.

First, Abram worshiped God in a hostile environment. While he was surrounded by people who worshiped other so-called gods, Abram built altars in their midst as visible markers and expressions of his faith in the Lord. He built altars in 12:7 and in 12:8. The altar he built in Shechem, near the oak of Moreh, is significant for a number of reasons. First, he built it in response to God appearing to him. It marked God’s confirmation of his verbal calling to Abram while he was in Haran. Second, his worship was significant because of what the Lord promised—offspring and land—neither of which Abram had in his possession at that time. Third, his altar was significant because of where he built it. The oak of Moreh was most likely the location of a Canaanite shrine of worship. Abram was expressing his faith in the Lord in a very bold way. Lastly, his worship is significant because this place would not be forgotten by his descendants. His worship became legendary. Joshua would choose this place to call Israel to covenant renewal with the Lord at this same location (Josh. 24). The location of Abram’s second altar—between Bethel and Ai—would also not be far from the Israelite reader’s mind, as they recalled significant events that unfolded in those cities. Bethel, “the house of God,” was where Jacob had his dream (28:10–22) and became a place of covenant renewal for him (35:1–15). Ai recalls the battle that stifled Israel’s confident conquest due to disobedience and led to another time of covenant renewal (Joshua 7–8).

Second, Abram not only worshiped the Lord, but he also proclaimed the name of the Lord. This is most likely the meaning of the phrase “called upon the name of the Lord” in 12:8. Two commentators—Cassuto and Ross—believe that Abram had a history of proselytizing even before this. They understand the phrase “the people that they had acquired” in 12:5 to refer to proselytes, not to slaves or servants, because of the use of the Hebrew word nepes for “people.”

The beginning of Abram’s story is remarkable. It’s no wonder that Israel and the Church look to him as the quintessential father of faith. He left the familiar. He believed in the face of amazing obstacles. God spoke; Abram obeyed. He worshiped openly. He proclaimed so that others knew the Lord. He did all of this in a hostile environment and as he waited for God to accomplish what was yet unseen to him. Saint Augustine is quoted as having said,

God does not expect us to submit our faith to him without reason, but the very limits of our reason make faith a necessity.

Now, we are not Abram. Abram is a unique, one-of-a-kind figure in Scripture. If you don’t think so, when was the last time God asked you to do what he asked Abram to do in Genesis 22? The answer is never! Nor would he. God was doing something special in and through Abram. Something that you and I benefit from by being found in Christ—the long-awaited “seed of Abraham” (Romans 4; Galatians 3–4). We also benefit from Abram’s example in spiritual living. It is impossible to please God—no matter who you are—without faith. Genuine faith obeys God’s word. Faith many times forces us to leave what is familiar to meet and serve God in something new. It has been said that the African impala can jump to a height of over 10 feet and cover a distance of nearly 35 feet in a single bound! Yet these amazing animals can be kept in an enclosure in a zoo with even a short, solid wall. The animals will not jump if they cannot see where their feet will fall. There are always obstacles to trusting God—infertility, age, health, finances, hostile work or family environments, foggy futures, unexpected catastrophes. Abram shows us how to worship and proclaim the name of the Lord by faith, when the solutions and provisions are still distant and haven’t yet taken shape.

What Is Revival? Part 2

Revival

Last month, we began to give our attention to Dr. Timothy Keller’s words on revival as it is portrayed in the Bible. He defined it as

. . . the intensification of the ordinary operations of the Holy Spirit.

Those ordinary operations are (1) conviction of sin, (2) conversion, (3) giving of assurance, and (4) sanctification. He also suggested that in biblical revival three things happen: (1) sleepy Christians wake up; (2) nominal Christians are converted; and (3) hard to reach non-Christians are powerfully converted. A revival of the adoration of God and the gospel, that begins within the church, beautifies the church in such a way that makes it attractive to even the hardest to reach unbeliever.

This brings us to Keller’s next movement in his teaching on biblical revival. He expresses five marks or theological descriptors of revival. First, whenever there is a season of revival in the church, it usually goes hand in hand with a recovery of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is recovered from legalism and lawlessness. The gospel is neither of these things. The faithfulness of Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection is better than sacramental traditionalism, and the faithfulness of Jesus Christ is also better than the antinomian (i.e., anti-law) chaos that James would call “demonic” (2:19). We have been saved by grace through faith, and the faith that saves is a faith that works (Eph. 2:8–10; James 2:14–26). The new birth only gives birth to a persevering faith that saves and works. Keller instructs that the recovery of the true gospel is the first theological mark of revival.

The second theological mark of revival is repentance, not emotional bubbly-ness, but awe, even silence and stillness, not necessarily noisy. Preachers may be in revival with the gospel when the church gets quiet . . . no fighting or quarreling or bickering, but rather peace, unity, love, mercy, and listening.

A third theological mark of revival is anointed, corporate worship. On Tuesday, February 3rd, 1970, the students of Asbury College assembled for their normal, routine, required chapel service. Instead, a testimony from Adademic Dean Custer Reynolds gave way to testimonies from students, students pouring to the altar in prayer, songs, and repentance among both the student body and faculty. People began seeking forgiveness from one another for sins committed, and others committed their lives to Christ for the first time. The revival continued throughout the week, and then it spread through the students and faculty into other churches and places as they were invited to speak. Evangelism and mission flowed out of the revival that broke forth on the Asbury campus. Anointed, corporate worship happens when people show up at church expecting to encounter God, instead of treating church like their regular meeting at the local social club. Do you go to church expecting to meet God? Paul discusses in 1 Corinthians 14 that the presence of God during the church’s worship should be tangible enough to “cut to the heart” of the unbeliever who may show up.

Fourth, revival also sparks real church growth. You can have some church growth without revival, but you cannot have revival without church growth. Also, I say real church growth, because there is mostly fake church growth being peddled these days. When churches “swap sheep,” that isn’t real church growth. It can be terribly unhealthy, and it could mean that church members are failing to reconcile relationships and conflicts at their previous house of worship. Others leave their church because another church “offers so much more”; therefore, consumerism rather than commitment becomes the basis for choosing. They fail to recognize that if all the people who left to attend the “Grass Is Greener Church” remained at the church to which they had originally committed, God could use them to be a part of a fresh work and a new season at their former church. Instead, they find themselves at a church where there are already tons and tons of gifted people, and their former church finds itself struggling to meet all of its ministry needs. Local pastors (including myself) should commit to healthy growth for their church and area churches by holding attenders accountable to their membership covenants. We aren’t helping people grow into mature Christians by turning a blind eye to unreconciled conflicts or to consumeristic tendencies. After all, a recovery of the gospel means a recovery of reconciliation and a recovery of perseverance. There’s probably only two reasons why a person should ever leave the church where they are members: (1) a geographical move, or (2) heresy (i.e., doctrinal or ethical deviance from core biblical truths). Real church growth in numbers results from conversions caused by evangelistic activity, and real church growth in maturity results from effective discipleship and Christians learning experiences. People transformed by the gospel in revival turn out to be bold and humble evangelists themselves.

Lastly, prayer marks revival. Extraordinary, kingdom-centered, prayer. Simple, yet sincere prayer, like that of the little girl named Florrie Evans, who sparked the great Welsh Revival of 1904–1905, who simply testified to Pastor Joseph Jenkins,

I love Jesus with all my heart.

The revival that followed saw more than 100,000 people profess Christ as Savior. You see, all of these great revival movements of the past were preceded by Christians burdened to pray. A dear friend always says to me, “Prayer isn’t everything, but everything comes by prayer.” A call and commitment to pray may very well lead us into a revival, and if revival comes, people will not want to stop praying for they will have found that sweet presence of God. Some of the Welsh Revival prayer meetings extended into the early morning hours, some lasting until 3:00am.

The gospel, repentance, worship, church growth, and prayer mark true revival. How do you seek revival? Go after these theological marks. In the First Great Awakening, there was the method of outdoor preaching, but outdoor meetings are required. In the NYC revival between 1857–1859, noon-time prayer meetings led by lay people catalyzed the Spirit’s work. Keller states, “Revival is like Narnia—you can’t get in the same way twice!” Keller goes on to explain that one of the tragedies of the Welsh Revival was that people got “stuck” in their method. Revivals, instead, oftentimes spark through new, creative methods of ministry as major cultural upheavals are taking place. Keller closes with two exhortations for today’s church to seek revival. First, for the church to experience revival today, sexuality must be addressed from a biblical perspective. The bible has much to say on the topic that we as a culture are neglecting and suppressing—even in the church. This is one of the major cultural upheavals we are facing. We must find a way to speak truthfully and lovingly about sexuality from God’s perspective. Second, revivals start with small things, much like avalanches begin with pebbles. Pastors and church leaders need to be willing to faithfully start with something small. Fabricating something huge from the popular church down the road may make us as famous as the next guy, but it isn’t  likely to spark revival. Don’t neglect that little group that wants to gather for prayer once a week.

Psalm 65 praises the Lord,

Praise is due you, O God, in Zion, and to you shall vows be performed. O you who hear prayer, to you shall all flesh come. When iniquities prevail against me, you atone for our transgressions. Blessed is the one you choose and bring near, to dwell in your courts! We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, the holiness of your temple! By awesome deeds you answer us with righteousness, O God of our salvation, the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas; the one who by his strength established the mountains, being girded with might; who stills the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples, so that those who dwell at the ends of the earth are in awe at your signs.

O how we need such a God in our day, friends. May we pray to him, and may he hear, forgive, act, and maintain our cause in the gospel of his beloved Son.