And the Stones Cried

Among the psalms of worship, lament, intercession, history, and others, are a collection of songs that proclaim God’s greatness as seen in nature. Three of these are Psalms 29, 148, and 19. Psalm 29 describes God as a thunderstorm, His voice and nature seen in the thunder, in the waves, in the winds, in the animals taking shelter – all of these proclaim glory to God. Likewise, all nature is called to praise Jehovah in Psalm 148, from creatures of the deep to the stars of the heavens. Finally, the heavens testify God’s name in Psalm 19.

Nature is called upon time and again to give praise to God. Jesus calls on this imagery during the last week of His ministry. As He rides into Jerusalem in Luke 19:36, multitudes welcome Him in praise. They sing from Psalm 118 as Jesus passes by, calling Him their king, bearing testimony of His name. In verse 39, the Pharisees call on Jesus to rebuke His overenthusiastic followers, understanding the undercurrents of their worship. Jesus responds by claiming that, should His followers fall silent, nature itself, even the stones on the ground, would cry out.

When the Stones Cried Out

By the end of this week, Jesus is arrested, tried unfairly, and crucified. Who testifies on Jesus’ behalf now? In Matthew 26:56, the disciples abandon Him. Later in the same chapter, Peter goes so far as to deny association with the Christ. In verses 59-61, no religious leaders testify in Jesus’ name. In fact, they seek false testimony to condemn Him. In John 19, none in the multitudes – many of whom would have been praising Jesus earlier that week – cry out for Jesus’ release. Instead, they call for His death.

Pilate partially tries to speak on Jesus’ behalf. One of the thieves on the cross expresses belief, but who would listen to the testimony of a criminal? Then, in Matthew 27, after Jesus cries, “It is finished,” darkness descends for three hours – in the middle of the day. The veil of the temple tears top to bottom, and the earth shakes, rocks torn and broken. Up to this point, silence has been the only testimony for Jesus. Now, the rocks cry out in testimony of Jesus’ divinity.

The Testimony of Living Stones

In the last supper of John 17, Jesus prays that the Father will glorify Him with His past glory. Hebrews 1:3 calls Jesus the radiance of God’s glory, and John 1 equates Jesus with God. These rocks testify God’s glory among man as in Psalms 29, 148, and 19. They proclaim the culmination of salvation’s wondrous plan. When all others are silent, nature proclaims God’s glory.

Two thousand years later, stones still cry out His glory. In I Peter 2:5, Peter calls those who follow Jesus living stones. Philippians 1:11 calls on us to be filled with righteousness as testimony to God’s glory. Every word and action of our lives should proclaim God’s glory. When all others are silent, we should bear testimony of our God and Savior. As living stones, we proclaim His greatness with one voice, living for Him and because of Him.

lesson by Tim Smelser

A Hymn of Grace

As far back as we can follow God’s people, we can see singing as a natural expression of praise. Moses and Israel sing to Jehovah upon the Exodus; the book of Psalms is a collection of songs the Israelites used in their worship; Mary sings a song praising God when she learns of her pregnancy with Jesus; and we see songs in the New Testament as a way of teaching and edifying one another. While Paul may not have originally intended this passage as such, Ephesians 1:3-14 is traditionally considered a hymn of grace, and Paul reminds us of God’s good works toward us through this song.

The Three Verses of Ephesians 1:3-14

  • Verses 3-6 in our Bibles is considered the first verse or stanza of the song. This passage considers what it must have taken for God to take on flesh to be our redeeming sacrifice. It is a reflection of God’s love demonstrated in Christ. From Him all blessing s flow, and we praise Him for that grace.
  • Verses 7-12 comprise the second stanza. This passage considers Jesus’ role in redemption. It is praise to the Son for being the one to come and lay down himself so we may have an inheritance of salvation. In Him we have forgiveness and redemption with the shedding of His blood, and we praise Him for that sacrifice.
  • Verses 13-14 comprise the final stanza, focusing on the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit seals our promise and guarantees our inheritance, and we praise the Spirit for His work.

Conclusion

All of these stanzas end with glorification of God, embodied in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Our lives are to glorify our God and be reflections of His glory. We praise Him for His work, for His inheritance, for His sacrifice, for His grace. He has done so much for us. How can we give less back than a life of praising Him and sacrificing ourselves for His glory?

lesson by Tim Smelser

Modern Golden Calves: Outward Appearances

When talking about modesty or a focus of societal standards of beauty, I hear this passage quoted time and again:

Do not let your adorning be external – the braiding of hair, the wearing of gold, or the putting on of clothing –  but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.

– I Peter 3:3-4

This is a nice verse for that topic, but I think it fits in with a larger overall theme in the New Testament writings of outward appearances verses inward reality. One of the big transitions between the Old and New Testaments is a shift on focusing on outward, physical manifestations of value and spirituality toward more inward, spiritual expressions. It is a transition from shadows manifested in physical representations into a reality of spiritual forms (Hebrews 10). Other verses focusing on the inward/outward contrast bear this out:

While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him, so he went in and reclined at table. The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner.

And the Lord said to him, Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness…

– Luke 11:37-40

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

– Matthew 23:27-28

For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.

– Romans 2:28-29

Even though this contrast in emphasized time and again in the New Testament, it is not alien to the Old. See, for example, God’s reminder to Samuel upon looking among Jesse’s sons for the one who would lead physical Israel:

When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, Surely the LORD’s anointed is before him.

But the LORD said to Samuel, Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.

– I Samuel 16:6-7

Many of us have no problems pointing to denominational practices in the religious world around us and saying: “Look at their infatuation with outward appearances.” It may be advertising what we’re giving up for Lent. It may be breaking out the best suits and dresses for Easter Sunday. It may be the pomp surrounding a Christmas Mass. We look at those things, and, like the Pharisee  in Luke 18:10-14, we pat ourselves on our collective backs and say, “I’m glad I’m not like those people.”

We are the same though – very much the same.

Example 1: In spiritually conservative circles, much attention has been given to the fact that President Obama has not hosted any special events on the National Day of Prayer. I’ve heard it cited as evidence of Obama’s lack of faith, of our nation’s descent into wickedness, of Obama’s secret Muslim background, of his lack of concern for spiritual matters, and other similar claims. It trended on Twitter. Facebook polls went up about it. Nasty chain-emails began circulating.

I think Tim Archer makes some good observations about this non-event on his site:

Sorry, I know that it’s cool to complain about this day not getting enough observance. I just don’t see the plus to it. I believe in prayer…But I don’t believe in prayer by decree. I don’t believe in somehow trying to get people who wouldn’t otherwise pray to join us in prayer.

Christians should pray without ceasing…not needing a special day.

Christians should pray for leaders of all nations, not wait for leaders to pray for them.

Christians should pray without making a show of it.

Christians should pray in secret.

Mr. Archer is, of course, referencing Matthew 6:1-18 where Jesus criticized the Pharisees and others for making a show of their religion – showing off their charitable contributions, making a big deal about their fasting, and even seeking attention through public prayer. He criticizes these actions as seeking secular attention over pleasing our heavenly Father. That perfectly encapsulates the criticisms against President Obama: “We don’t see him leading us in prayer at this arbitrarily set-aside secular holiday!” We are asking for a show of outward appearances in an act of worship that Christ specifically said should be personal and private. We are placing emphasis on the secular observance and therefore turning it into an idol.

Example 2: Another common sticking point comes at displaying the Ten Commandments. Christian groups around the country grow indignant every time a courthouse or other government building removes (or even simply talks about removing) displays of the Ten Commandments.

If I may chase a rabbit for a brief second: Why the commotion about the Ten Commandments? Momentarily shelving my opinion that our notion of a “Christian Nation” as a geopolitical entity is wholly absent from New Testament teachings, why do Christians feel the need to fight for displays based upon the foundation of a law Jesus nailed to the cross (Romans 7, 8, and much of Hebrews)? Why not fight for the Beatitudes or the fruits of the spirit instead? Displaying a component of the Levitical code on our governmental buildings does not draw us closer to Christ. It is a mere superficial expression of spirituality, nothing more.

We Christians have fallen into the same trap in which we see the Pharisees mired throughout the gospels. We have grown obsessed with outward expressions of religion as if these are to do the work of our ministry for us. We feel we are “fighting the good fight” when we go to a town hall meeting, protest the removal of a religious icon, and walk away having shared the gospel with no one present (not that they might want to hear it afterwards anyway). These superficial battles have become a sort of ministry-by-proxy, and they have begun replacing our true work.

I’m reminded of something Jay Guin recently wrote at One In Jesus:

Prayer in school, “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and the Ten Commandments in a courthouse do not save souls, do not persuade the lost, and will not make the world a better place. Only Jesus in our hearts will do that — and that comes from people persuading people one on one in coffee shops, not from statuary in state buildings.

…The early church didn’t grow by gaining control of the schools and the city squares. The early church grew by leading sacrificial lives of love, by works of sacrificial charity, by treating all classes and races as equals, and by being Christian even if it meant their own death. And that’s a plan that’ll still work.

We should not need God’s law plastered on building fronts if it is already inscribed upon our hearts (Hebrews 8:10-12). We do not need to wear cross jewelry if Christ is evident in our lives (I Peter 3:3-4). We don’t need special prayer days if we live lives of prayer (I Timothy 2:8, I Thessalonians 5:17), and having “In God We Trust” emblazoned on our money (a motto that didn’t appear on any currency until 1864 and wasn’t officially adopted or put on paper money until 1956) evidences God’s presence no more than the numerous phylacteries that would adorn a Pharisee’s robe.

These outward appearances have come to replace a true sense of God in our religious culture. They have become idols whose presence can comfort us or whose absence rattles our faith. We have replaced wearing Christ in our hearts with wearing Him on our wrists and bumpers. We have to fix our priorities, leave these superficial forms of spirituality to those who love the praises of man, and focus on our true calling as followers of Christ.

Image 1 is an official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Image 2 is from reporternews.com

Instruments in the Worship

We can’t read many psalms without seeing God’s worshipers encouraged to play upon instruments like cymbals and harps. When Solomon brings the ark to the temple, the people play upon instruments in praise of God. Why, then, do we not use instruments in our own worship? It seems contradictory with what we see in the history of God’s people and their worship of Him.

A Short History of Instruments in Worship

A cappella singing is often considered a modern Church of Christ tradition or doctrine. The term a capella literally means “in chapel style.” The use of a capella singing worship is nothing new. Even the New Catholic Encyclopedia recognizes that the New Testament church worshiped without instruments for nearly a thousand years, and the rejections of instrumental worship was universal among early influential theologians. Organs were introduced into worship around 950 CE. They did not become universally accepted until the 1300s.

Martin Luther equated instrumental worship with idolatry. John Calvin called it a foolish carryover from the Old Testament. John Wesley said instruments should be neither seen nor heard in a place of worship. A cappella singing is not the younger trend. Saints blending their voices predates the tradition of bringing instruments into worship.

The New Testament on Worship

The history is intriguing and informative, but it does not provide scriptural authority one way of the other. Ephesians 5:19 tells us to speak to one another in psalms and hymns, making melody in our hearts. Colossians 3:16 tells us to teach and admonish one another in song, singing in thankfulness to God.

The structure of these verses directly parallels wording we find in the psalms. Look at Psalm 33:2, Psalm 144:9, Psalm 98:5, and Psalm 147:7. These verses and more contain a specific structure of function, object, and means. For example:

“(Function) Sing praises (Object) to the Lord (Means) with the ten-stringed harp.” – Psalm 33:2

Contrast this with:

“(Function) Singing (Object) to the Lord (Means) with your heart.” – Ephesians 5:19

Remember that Paul is educated as a Pharisee. He has an intimate knowledge of God’s word, and he is very intentional with his wording when instructing Christians in New Testament worship. Man-made instruments are replaced with those made by God.

Types and Shadows

Hebrews 8:5 refers to the Old Testament as a shadow of heavenly things, going so far as having physical representations for spiritual realities. Hebrews 9:11 calls the old law a law made with human hands and contrasts that with Christ’s spiritual covenant. Hebrews 9:9 calls those things symbolic, and chapter 10:1 refers to the Old Testament as a shadow of things to come. The Levitical code served as a precursor for a spiritual kingdom as illustrated in Jeremiah 31:31-34. Everything would change, including the way God’s people would worship Him.

Colossians 2:14 says Jesus has removed this old covenant to the cross, and Galatians 3:25 bluntly says we are no longer under that law. Hebrews 10:9 simply states that Jesus has removed the first covenant to provide a second that gives sanctification. We cannot use the Old Testament as a source of authority for our worship and practices. The outward forms of the Old Testament have been removed. Again, those things made by man are replaced by those made by God.

Remember the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman in John 4:20-24 regarding the proper place of worship. Jesus states that the place of worship will no longer matter, just that God’s followers come to Him with true hearts. Hebrews 12:18 says our mountain of worship cannot be touched by hands. It is spiritual and heavenly. These concepts are also related to Romans 2:29, I Corinthians 10:1-4, I Peter 2:5, and Hebrews 13:15. The focus is no longer on the physical. Rather it is on the spiritual and the heart.

Conclusion

When David wants to build God a temple, God, in I Kings 8:18, recognizes David’s intentions are good. II Samuel 7:6-7, however, records that God forbids David from going through with the construction of that temple despite those intentions. We can no more supersede God’s will in our worship that David could in constructing the temple. Setting all intentions aside, it comes down to what God has asked for.

We should no more want to use the Old Testament to justify instruments in our worship than we should want to include sacrificing lambs, burning incense, or requiring circumcision. The few verses that address worshiping God in congregational music specifically instruct us to sing from our hearts, making melody with the voices God made for us. According to Psalm 22:3, God has historically been enthroned upon the praises of His people. Do we enthrone Him with praises on our terms or His – worshiping Him with the melodies of our heart?

lesson by Tim Smelser

Our Gifts to God

What kind of gift do you give someone who is hard to buy for? What do you give someone who has everything? We often ask ourselves these questions when special occasions arise. There is always someone who we have no idea what to give them. How does this apply to what we return to God. Romans 6:20-32 gives us a glimpse of what God has given us and the cost He undertakes on our behalf. Much of the Bible records God’s plan to respond to and negate the effects of sin – even including coming to this world as man to be offered up as a perfect sacrifice, atoning us from sin.

It’s natural to want to give something back to One who has provided so much for us. What do we give in return? God provides all things. He created all things. What can we give Him that He doesn’t already have?

What We Can Give God

  • Our Love. God does not inherently have our love, nor does He force us to give Him our love. We can choose to accept Him or reject Him. We can intellectually “love” God because we feel expected to, and Matthew 22:34 does say to love is the greatest commandment – loving God and our fellow man. THis is not a compulsive love, though. It comes from our gratitude. I John 4:19 reminds us our love is a response to His.
  • Our Obedience. Just accepting God’s gift entails obedience. He gives us the ability to choose whether or not we will submit to Him. Titus 3:4-8 reminds that Christ came, not because our righteousness, but because of our inability to save ourselves. The natural reaction, the natural gift, for such sacrifice is obedience. It is a gift of appreciation.
  • Our Worship. Romans 12:1 calls us living sacrifices in our worship. This can be a collective gift or an individual gift. We can show our appreciation together, offering something more substantial in our unity. It is something He wants of us that only we can provide.

Conclusion

We should be concerned that we are not selfish in the gifts we give God. We can know what He wants from us, and He gave us the best He had to offer in His gift of salvation. We should be willing to give Him our best in return, and we can be confident that He will accept our gift and appreciate our efforts when we do our best in our love, obedience, and worship. Psalm 116:12 asks what the psalmist can do to repay God’s gifts. He offers love, obedience, and sacrificial worship. He praises the Lord. What can we give God today? We can give of ourselves, offering our gift to a God who has given so much to us.

lesson by Ben Lanius

Demonstrating Our Devotion

This past Wednesday is commonly referred to as Ash Wednesday, which begins the observation of Lent – a time of fasting and prayer leading up to the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. Christians demonstrate solidarity with Christ by sacrificing something of import to them, but, in the modern day, these sacrifices have become trivial – giving up television, chocolate, video games, or other such conveniences. What do we do to be one with our God? Around the world, various faiths have different rites and ceremonies – some painful and dangerous – to show their commitment to their god or gods. What is God looking for in our devotion to Him and the way we demonstrate that devotion?

How Do We Show Devotion?

This is a question humankind has wrestled with since Creation. In Genesis 4, two brothers bring their sacrifices to the Lord. Cain and Abel bring offerings to the Lord, and God respects Abel’s sacrifice. Hebrews 11:4 says that Abel’s sacrifice is the result of faith. He worships in God’s way where Cain does not. Also, Leviticus 10:1, Nadab and Abihu die because of their worship, and, in verse 3, Moses reminds the people what it means to sanctify and glorify the Lord. Finally, I Kings 18 records Elijah challenging the prophets of Baal and Asherah to invoke their gods against his. They go to extreme measures to show their devotion to Baal and Asherah in contrast to Elijah’s quiet prayer.

Micah 6:6-8 records God’s people asking the very question: “What can we do to please God?” They propose more and more extreme measures to invoke God’s presence, but Micah’s response is simple – to walk humbly before Him in love and justice. He calls on us to put Him before us. When God speaks I listen. When God’s word requires change, I change. When God’s words calls for obedience, I obey. As His spoken word has the power to create, His written word should have power to move our lives.

What Does God Require?

Contrast the prophets of Baal and Asherah in I Kings 18, leading up to verse 36. Their callings upon deity could not be more different. The idolatrous prophets seek to please their Gods with methods that seem impressive and holy to them where Elijah comes to God in God’s way. In I Kings 8:46-52, Solomon offers a prayer at the dedication of God’s temple, and He calls on God to hear the people’s prayers, to recognize their repentance, to honor their complete faith. Jesus puts it this way in Matthew 10:38:

“And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

This means we crucify our self – the man of pride and selfish will – to completely humble ourselves in submission to Him. There is nothing I can do to show myself worthy of God’s love and grace. I cannot earn the favor of Christ’s love. Romans 5:6 speaks of our weakness in comparison with the strength of God’s love. I cannot do anything that compares to what God has done for us. All I can do is walk in a manner worthy of the gospel as Paul writes in Philippians 1:27, standing fast in the spirit and for the gospel. I can conform my life to His by sacrificing self and submitting to His word.

Conclusion

We meet a soldier named Naaman in II Kings 5, a leper in need of God’s healing. He sends for Elisha to bring God’s power upon him, but when Elisha commands a simple washing in a dirty river, Naaman is upset. He expects something more, something greater, something more outwardly impressive. FInally, though, when he humbles himself to God’s command, he is healed. God is not looking for our great acts. God is not looking for worship impressive in our eyes. Instead, He simply calls on us to hear and obey, to repent and turn to Him, to devote ourselves to Him in every detail of our lives. We can be restored to Him from our captivity of sin if we only come to Him on His terms and in His way.

lesson by Tim Smelser