Cracks in the Foundation: The Significance of the Rise in Racial Tension for the Church

The resurgence of racial tensions in our nation is unmistakable. Like the family member who brings strife with every visit, racism is an old, often welcomed, and all too familiar relative, returning to bring trouble. And much like our kin, we can’t avoid it. It keeps coming around. It’s a part of us. It’s descendent from us. It’s the cross we will not bear.

It’s most recent rise is particularly disturbing because we had begun to believe we had finally put it behind us. None were naïve enough to believe it no longer existed. We knew it was still there, lurking in the shadows. But I don’t think we imagined it would walk so boldly back into the light.

As always, it is exposing the cracks in the foundation of the church. This evil is not simply a historical social vice. This is an attack upon the credibility of the church of Jesus Christ. In an area that we were founded to lead the way, we are sadly bring up the rear. Hip hop has arguably done more to bring the races together than the church in America.

As a nation, we shop together, live together, work together, play together, but we still don’t worship together.

We experience diversity daily all around us. But on Sundays we return to our homogeneous ethnic huddles to worship the Lord of all.

The church’s response to America’s most crippling vice has always done much harm to our message. But somehow we have been able to retain a measure of credibility. However, at the risk of sounding like an alarmist, I believe if we don’t get this right, we may not get another shot. Where we stand in the racial divide is a direct reflection upon the essence and nature of the church and the coming of the savior. We have become a hinderance to the work of God to reconcile all men to Himself. If that seems overstated, then let me tell you the biblical story of the founding of the church.

The Unity of The Spirit

Ephesians 4:1–3 (NASB95)

1 Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, 3 being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

In order to bring the necessary gravity to this request of the Ephesian church, Paul recounts for them the historical founding of the church. The history lesson helps to place their faith as a local church, within the timeless purposes of God for the church worldwide. It was important to him that they know the God-sized reason to be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

The Story of Two Groups

Paul begins by recounting the blessings the Ephesians have in Christ and the prayers he has been praying for them. That they had received every spiritual blessing in Christ Jesus, reminded them that they were not in need of further blessings to do what he would ask of them.

It’s in chapter 2, however, that the story of two groups begins. These two groups would play a central part in the church’s beginning.

Here’s what he says about the first group.

Ephesians 2:1–2 (NASB95)

1 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, 2 in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.

He emphasizes the past condition of the first group, of which the readers are a part. Though it is to be noted that this first group had the stench of death from sin in their past, the greater argument is that the second group shared a similar history. He says this about the second group.

Ephesians 2:3 (NASB95)

3 Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.

Despite their similar histories, the hostility and hatred they shared for one another is legendary. Before there were Hatfields and McCoys, there were Jews and Gentiles. Their historic separation was both ethnic and religious in nature. Listen as Paul uses their historical name calling to describe the two groups past relationship.

Ephesians 2:11–12 (NASB95)

11 Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands—12 remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.

Foundational Reconciliation

Here is were we must pay close attention to the story. In Jesus Christ and through His cross these two hostile groups are reconciled to each other. Jesus becomes the peace between the groups and makes both groups into one new group. He abolishes the enmity in His flesh. In other words, He dies that they who were two hostile groups would become one group at peace.

Ephesians 2:14–15 (NASB95)

14 For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, 15 by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace,

And if that doesn’t shiver your timbers, listen carefully to what happens to this one new group.

Ephesians 2:16 (NASB95)

16 and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity.

I am completely in awe of the manifold wisdom of God.

Did you hear the order of the reconciliation? The two groups were reconciled to each other first. They become one body; one new man first. Then they are reconciled, in one body to God. The Spirit of God accomplishes an incredible work of reconciliation in the two historically hostile groups, through the cross of Christ, before they are reconciled to the Father. The Spirit of God gives birth to the church in this unity.

And the grand implication is that our reconciliation to the Father is dependent on our reconciliation to each other.

Thus the command to be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit. This is the calling with which we have been called. We must walk worthy of this high calling. I join the Apostle and implore you to walk with all humility and gentleness. I implore you to walk with patience and to show tolerance for one another in love. We must not let the politics of our nation drive a wedge between those whom the Spirit of God reconciled. Finally, I implore you to not return to the hostility of our past, since Jesus died to establish our peace and to make us one new man. The glory of God in the very purpose of the church is at stake.

God’s glory is in the Church and in Christ Jesus

Ephesians 3:20–21 (NASB95)

20 Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, 21 to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.

They Became What They Pursued

2 Kings 17:15 (NAS): And they followed vanity and became vain, and went after the nations which surrounded them, concerning which the Lord had commanded them not to do like them.

I came across this wonderful passage while reading the book of 2 Kings. It’s the writer’s assessment of the nation of Israel after being conquered by Assyria and thrown headlong into exile. I was immediately struck by how well constructed and poignantly it was written. How apt it was to be repeated. I admired its literary mastery. It’s short and compact, yet it carries a punch. It’s stated so simply, but it means so much. The truth of it is so clear, so obvious and yet unexpected. It’s startlingly obvious. It’s not like we don’t know that we become what we pursue. Or don’t we? Is it with us as it was with Israel? Is it only in hindsight that we realize our vain pursuits have lead to our vanity?

After my admiration of the adage wore off, I continued to consider the statement. It had a hold of me and I couldn’t understand why. Then the gravity of the context in which it was used returned to me. Vanity is not to be trifled with. Israel doesn’t simply become enamored with themselves. They don’t become a people who look longingly at themselves in the mirror.

2 Kings 17:20 (NAS): The Lord rejected all the descendants of Israel and afflicted them and gave them into the hand of plunderers, until He had cast them out of His sight.

Yet their demise was so complete it could be summed up so very casually in the words; they followed vanity, and became vain. How do you come to see what may seem clear only in hindsight? How does our story not end the way Israel’s story ended?

First, let me suggest that we reflect often on the nature of what we are pursuing. Sometimes I know that what I want is vain, but I want it nonetheless. I convince myself that its okay because of the volume of vain pursuits around me. More often than not, my pursuits don’t reveal themselves to be vain; hence the need for reflection. Vanity slips easily in and out of the shadows, avoiding the light of reflection.

Second, I believe we must trust the truth of the passage.

We will become what we pursue. (<–Click to Tweet )

If we follow vanity we will become vain. The pursuit of vain things is not harmless. As with Israel, it leads to destruction, emptiness, and uselessness, only to be removed from the Lord’s sight.

2 Kings 17:20 (NAS): 20 The Lord rejected all the descendants of Israel and afflicted them and gave them into the hand of plunderers, until He had cast them out of His sight.

Third, we must know that vanity comes quickly. The brevity of the statement suggests that we become vain suddenly. While we are pursuing vanity, it suddenly apprehends us. And while not choosing to become vain, we find that we have become just that; vain.

Lastly, if we believe, the passage may actually work for us. If it is true that we become what we pursue, what could be said of us if we pursued Christ. Wouldn’t it be more wonderful and poignant if it was said of us,

“They followed Christ and became Christian.”

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The Real Meaning of Philippians 4:13

How do you get meaning from your Bible? In an age of relativity there could me countless answers. Even if you have never given thought to the question, you’re probably already living your answer. This is a question of basic belief and must need be answered to live, yet it does not wait for you to check-in cognitively before the answer is put into practice.

The normal answer, is that meaning is determined by my situation in life. In bible study, it looks like taking what the bible says and determining what it means in relation to my own situation. Meaning is considered from my own life context. The result is immediate relevance to my life, along with as many different meanings as there are different life situations. It’s meaning out of the biblical context and into the context of my life. Sadly, and unknowingly, the result is also loss of biblical authority and power.

Let’s take a look at the often applied biblical passage in Philippians 4:13.

“I can do all things through Him who gives me strength.”

What does the passage mean? Meaning is a question of utility. How do I use it? How do I use it with full confidence that God stands behind my application because it’s His word? The normative approach is to apprehend the words of the passage and apply them to my situation in life. So that, whatever I am attempting to do, whatever my goals are, whatever hurdles I face in accomplishing them, I use the passage to gain the confidence that Christ will give me strength. The result is a firm belief that nothing I determine to do will be impossible for me. Whatever I believe, I can achieve. This common use of the passage reflects the lordship of relativity in our culture, for it has not received its meaning from the biblical context.

In the context of the passage, Paul is conveying his gratitude to the Philippians for “reviving” their concern for him. This seems to mean that they have resumed sending him support. They have always had concern for him but have recently not had an opportunity to show that concern. This is communicated in verse 10.

But I rejoice in the Lord greatly, now that at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were already concerned before, but you lacked opportunity.

He wants them to know that his joy in their revived concern does not come from a lack of contentment. So he says in verse 11.

“Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstance I am.”

He goes on to says that he has lived in humble means and in prosperity. He knows what it is to be filled and to be hungry. He knows abundance and suffering need. It is here that he says that he can do all things through the one who gives him strength. In this biblical context it seems that Paul means that he can endure all things, good or bad, through Christ. The context of the passage suggest the “do all things” is not achieve all thing but endure all things with contentment. It is inconceivable that the Philippians believed after receiving this letter that whatever they determined to do, Christ would strengthen them to accomplish. They would have read it in its context and heard Paul saying that the Lord strengthens him to endure any situation the Lord has him in, whether abundance or need, hungry or filled.

So, can I do all things through Christ who is my strength? It depends on what I mean. If I mean I can endure whatever situation the sovereign Lord chooses for me because I receive my strength to endure from Christ, then yes I can do all things. But if I mean that whatever I determine to accomplish in my life, I can because Christ will strengthen me, then I do not have the authority and power of the word of God to have that confidence.

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3 Reasons to Limit Topical Preaching

I have been giving thought to the cultural increase in topical preaching. I have in mind the popular themed topical sermon series and the practice of preaching from a different place every Sunday.

This post has been a long time coming because I had to be sure there was a need to be concerned and that I wasn’t simply becoming a contrarian, which is a real possibility. It must also be noted that my concern is not for topical preaching itself, but the effects of a steady diet.

Reason to be Concerned?

The reasons to choose topical preaching are apparent. The benefits may be justified by its widespread use alone. And it seems obvious it works for much of what we desire to accomplish. It’s also an easy answer for the constant question of relevance. Any preacher with his ear to the ground can hear the rumblings of a approaching topic.

The pitfalls, however, are not so apparent. Though less obvious, these pitfalls are just as real and must be given due consideration.

I have taught adults in a bible college and bible academy and I find this disturbing reality; many committed church attenders have no notion of the cohesive nature of biblical passages. They are unaware of the existence of a unified flow of thought that produces the author’s intended meaning. And if they are aware of it, they are unaccustomed to working the ground out of which this unity of thought grows. In short, they often unable to arrive at the author’s intended meaning.

Chasing Rabbits

Many find it difficult to make the switch from reading the Bible in pieces to reading the whole. They are constantly distracted from the author’s flow of thought by situational similarities in their personal lives, that they honestly believe is the rabbit the Spirit is leading them to chase. And if the author says something in verse 12 that does not fit their situation, they simply stop at verse 11. They are unwittingly led to believe that the situational relevance is the Lord’s voice.

We have come to believe the scripture is to be mined for its treasure. So we move much dirt in search of a gem; a situational diamond in the rough. And the value of the whole is exchanged for the versatility and usefulness of the parts.

Live Better or Be Better?

Not only are we unaware of the author’s intended meaning, but more importantly, we don’t get to hear his intended meaning. While we may gain insight and life skills from topical preaching, the transforming power of God, which resides in the author’s intended meaning, is missed. In order to hear the intended meaning, we must follow the author’s flow of thought. The picture he is painting over the breadth of his writing must come into focus. We must doggedly pursue his subject and what he is saying about his subject, lest we abort the work of the Word in our hearts.

A Deeper Faith

Lastly, topical preaching slows the development of an understanding of the historical faith. The picking of passages from the author’s flow of thought, without continuing that flow the following Sunday, robs the listener of the picture being developed. It is the continuity of thought coming into focus that deepens our faith. In fact, topical preaching has helped redefined faith to mean trusting God for what we desire from Him. But faith is more than that. There is a common faith that we must all share. It’s the faith Jude felt compelled to write about.

…the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.

This faith is the root of our trust in God , without which, our faith is simply wishful thinking.

I do not intend to suggest that topical preaching be discarded all together. I believe it is a valuable and necessary approach, particularly in our culture. But I am suggesting we limit its use in favor of more systematic expositional preaching through biblical books. This I believe will help us see the rabbits, live better and be better, and deepen our faith.

Obedience is Better than Sacrifice?

This often quoted and more often misused passage is from 1 Samuel 15:22. I’ve heard it for most of my church life. It’s never been my favorite, but until recently I’ve never given much thought to why. But the recent sting of its use, led me to consider my feelings. I realize now that it’s not the passage I don’t like, it’s how it’s being used. In fact, now that I’ve looked at it in it’s historical context, I find it’s use more disturbing.

Actually, I love the way the prophet Samual uses it historically. Israel’s failing first King, Saul, has been given very specific instructions ahead of battle with Amalek. He is told not to spare anyone or anything. Yet the passage makes clear that Saul was unwilling to destroy the best of the livestock. When confronted by Samuel, he blames the people, and insists that they only spared the best in order to sacrifice to the Lord. That’s when Samuel utters the famous phrase. He uses the statement to expose the folly of Saul’s excuse. We use it to try to get disobedient people to obey, but Samuel used it to get the disobedient King to realize or admit the folly of his disobedience.

Within the redemptive story of God’s grace the answer to man’s disobedience is not to get a disobedient mankind to be obedient. The great struggle is to get the disobedient to realize they are disobedient. And yet, the brokenness of that realization leads us to the mercy seat of God. And in His great mercy we find a better sacrifice; better than the best of Amalek. We find the lamb of God who dies once for all time.

Yes, there was a time when to be obedient was better than repetitive sacrifices. For it was impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin. But now, by one offering, Jesus has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. So let’s not encourage the disobedient in their feeble attempts at obedience. Samuel was talking about the blood of bulls and goats. But the blood of Christ is better, and we are all disobedient.