Shout for Joy
Due to the confessional nature of Psalm 130 it is classified as one of the seven penitential psalms. It reflects the deep concern of the psalmist for personal sin and his confidence in God’s willingness to forgive. In the last stanza the psalmist challenges Israel to trust God, that he will redeem them from their sins
Luke had just described how the church carried out their “worship service” (Acts 2:12: doctrine, fellowship, communion, and prayer). Now he records a story that illustrates how they went about living out this new life made possible the aid of the Spirit. And the first thing that Luke records is the healing of the lame man who used to sit at the entrance of the temple courts begging for money. When he made a request of the disciples, Peter informed him that the two of them didn’t have any money, but would give him what they could – and said, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” And walk he did, mentioned 4 times in the next 3 verses, and even did some jumping (v. 8), all the time “praising God “ (vv. 8, 9). Now that was a good Sunday afternoon, was it not?
Several things are worthy of note but first it will be helpful to back up one paragraph to review Luke’s description of worship in the first decade of the Christian church. At the center were some copies of letters written by the apostles. They circulated somewhat but you would be fortunate to have in your church one actually penned by Paul, for instance. So the believers “devoted themselves to what they had learned from the apostles. Then they met on a regular basis to share experiences and to learn from one another. They celebrated the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ by partaking of the bread and wine that represented the body and blood of Christ. Then of course there was prayer, both private and communal. Long before the era of exquisite cathedrals and ornate religious ceremony there was the founding church with its simplicity of doctrine and ceremony. What a wonderful uncluttered way to worship God.
But moving on to the healing of the lame beggar we notice several things. When he asked for money Peter and John were ready to give to him something far more valuable. He wanted money they gave him a renewed body and spirit. Now he need not sit and beg but could work like everyone else and enjoy the self-respect of taking care of himself. Another thing I notice is how jubilant he was. He “jumped to his feet,” went into the temple court “walking and jumping,” all the time “praising God” (v. 8). Before his contact with God through Peter and John, the beggar’s feet and ankles were too weak to support his weight. But now they are strong and allow him to go everywhere praising God. And the result of that? Others at the temple “were filled with wonder and amazement” (p. 10). Genuine excitement about what God has done for you tends to excite those around you. Some things are just to good not to be shared.
It looks like the answer is a simple form of authentic worship spilling over into a fruitful impact on others who recognizing their “lameness” want to be healed both for the joy of it and for its buoyant effect on others.
Ever give any thought to the ideal church? We used to do that every Saturday evening after volleyball with friends. We called our church “Utopia Chapel,” but we came to realize that it was so perfect that none of us could qualify as a member.
In the second chapter of Acts we get an ideea of what was happening in the early church. We read of the coming of the Holy Spirit, the great sermon Peter preached on the day of Pentecost, and the 3,000 who believed and joined the movement. Remember that at that time there were no standard patterns for worship and no New Testament to read. So what did they do when they gather to celebrate their newfound faith? The answer is in Acts 2.42-47. The believers “devoted themselves” to four things: to what the apostles had told them, to sharing their new life in Christ with one another, to celebrate something like the disciples’ experience in the upper room when Jesus broke bread with them, and to prayer (2:42). It has often been suggested that this should be the model for Christian worship. Let's look at each of the four things mentioned.
How eagerly they must have looked forward to their times of fellowship. They knew that a significant change had taken place in their life but they weren't quite sure what that meant theologically. Their only source of instruction was the teaching of the apostles. I imagine that at first when they met it was simply to sharing what was happening in their live now that they had accepted Christ. I can picture a group talking excitedly about something Peter had said, adding to and explaining it. As truth was realized their faces would reflect the joy that was welling up from deep within. In a group of believers the discovery of new truth is a powerful bonding experience. In that setting the "breaking of bread" was a way of reflecting on the centrality of the redemptive death of Christ. And of course there was prayer. The warm sense of companionship with one another in a time of spiritual worship was a deeply rewarding experience.
Let’s move now into the 21st century and consider last Sunday's worship service with what was happening in early church. I would like the comparison to be instructive not judgmental. We gathered for church in a very nice building with a sanctuary used once a week with its chairs (or pews) arranged in neat rows. Our gathering with good friends was pleasant but the conversation was probably more about trivial matters than something of real importance . The pastor would pray at several points in the service and we would bow our heads. Every now and then at the close of the service we would have a short formal ceremony depicting the death of Christ. After the service the pleasure of being together would be considerably more authentic than the three minutes in the service when we were told we could now greet one another.
Is your church something like that – perhaps more formal, perhaps more charismatic? Assuming that the way the early church met was what God has in mind (and that is an assumption) where would you want to go to church? As for me, I would be attracted to the first century church because of its authenticity. In all of life – but especially in spiritual matters – the heart desires reality. To sit down with others, fresh from a genuine encounter with God, is a wonderful experience. The heart can share only when there is no hypocrisy.
My hope is that today’s “worship service” will give up its idea that “we can’t reach them unless we become like them.” On the day Peter delivered his Day of Pentecost sermon there were about 3,000 who accepted the message and were baptized. Most contemporary churches would like that to happen again next Sunday. It could be!
John’s sixth letter goes to city of Philadelphia. It took its name from Attalus II Philadelphus who earned the title "lover of his brother” for his legendary devotion to an older brother. The title is from two Greek words, philos (loving) and adelphos (brother). Because of my background in New Testament exegesis I have a strong tendency to move toward textual details, but I remind myself that a blog like this is intended for those whose expertise lies in other areas. So let me underscore several points that hopefully will inform and encourage you in your spiritual growth.
The first thing that catches my attention is the “open door” that lies before them and that “no one can close” (v. 7). The members of the church have faithfully followed all that John had taught them (v. 8) so God opens a door before them. We often use this term to designate a new opportunity to reach out with the gospel. Locally it could be permission to build a church at a certain location, or internationally it could be permission to take the gospel to a formerly closed nation. In Revelation, however, it appears to have to do with their recent excommunication from the synagogue because of their faithfulness to the message of Christ. That door may have been slammed in their face, but a new door has been opened to the Kingdom of God. To whatever degree the believer may find himself marginalized by current secular culture, the door to God’s presence and blessings is wide open for a new adventure in the one thing that has eternal value. His open doors are invitations for growth and new delight in what lies ahead.
If the “open door” leads to delight, the “hour of trial” (v. 10) seems to point in the other direction. Since the believers at Philadelphia had honored John’s command to endure, they will be protected in the coming “hour of trial” that will test all the inhabitants of the earth (v.10). Some view this as a “rapture” which removes all believers before a period of intense persecution that takes place before the thousand-year reign of Christ on earth. It is far more likely, as I argue in my commentary on Revelation (NICNT, pp. 102 ff.), that John is promising spiritual protection during the “tribulation” that precedes the establishment of the eternal kingdom. A premature escape from persecution (for American believers anyway) is inconsistent with the continuing teaching of scripture that, as Paul puts it, “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:11). Since the earthly life our Lord ended on a cross, is it not reasonable that the lives of his followers head in the same direction? The world that hated him will not embrace us. This isn’t the end of the story, however, because an eternity of joy awaits us just beyond the worse thing that the opposition can do to us.
“If you don’t know what to do about something you should talk it over with God, with complete confidence that he is willing and able to provide the answer.”
I admit that this translation of James 1:5 is not very professional, but it does put the verse in a way that leaves no doubt about what he wants us to understand. James is writing about all the trials that face the Christian believer and encouraging them to understand that these difficult periods of testing work together to produce spiritual maturity. If, in the process you are confused about some particular issue, you are to take it to God for an answer. He is a “giving God” and won’t berate you for “bothering him” for an answer. He loves to give and will be glad to tell you what you should do. Your job is to ask, but be sure that in the process you don’t question his ability or doubt his willingness to give you the answer.
James wants us to know that God our father is genuinely involved in helping us his children to grow up spiritually – even an earthly father has the natural instinct to help a child in trouble. If we try to make it on our own we will fail. We need to accept the fact that in the process of growing up spiritually there are a lot of things we don’t know. We “lack wisdom” on a whole host of issues and need the help of the One who understands and wants to help. In the New Testament, God, the King of kings, is also “Abba, father” (Gal. 4:6). And no father turns away from the call of a child seeking help.
As strange as it may seem, one of the greatest needs of Christians in the sophisticated western world is an awareness of the highly personal nature of faith. Ritual on the one hand and casualness on the other have robbed so many of an awareness of the intimate nature of God’s relationship to his children. While we readily go to an earthly father for help and advice, that personal closeness is often diminished when it comes to our life of faith. Christianity is too often viewed as a religion rather than a relationship. Prayer is often weakened by incense and candles or, in other settings, by an overly emotional display. God is a father, not a sacred shrine or a superficial buddy. He is to be worshipped; absolutely – but he is also our father and keeps encouraging us to bring our quandaries to him for the best answer. His goal is for us to live in a way that is pleasing to him and, beyond that, effective in a world that needs to see the remarkable results of his transforming power
In Psalm 110 God promises universal victory to David and his dynasty. David will exercise absolute authority over the kingdom as did the priest-king Melchizedek (see the seven references in Heb. 7). In the New Testament this messianic motif (Jesus seen as the fulfillment) is reflected in verses such as Matt. 22:44 and Acts 2:34.
Philippians 2:5-11 is one of the finest passages in scripture setting forth the redemptive ministry of Jesus Christ. It reflects an early hymn of the church that eloquently portrays the divine condescension of Christ in his incarnation and death as the example par excellence of selfless living. The best way to appreciate the passage is to read it in poetic form, reflecting on it fuller meaning.
“Your attitude toward others should be like that of Christ Jesus.
Although he was by nature God,
he didn’t regard that equality with God as something to be maintained at any cost,
but set it aside by becoming a human being, a servant.
So it was as one of us that he walked the lowly road of humility.
His obedience to God led him all the way to death, even death on a cross.
And that’s why God
raised him to the place of highest honor and
bestowed on him a name far above any other
So that someday
every knee in heaven and earth will bow before him and
every tongue will openly declare that
Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.”
(Letters of Paul to the Early Church: A contemporary
Translation, p. 85, Robert Mounce)
The history of the human race is, in a sense, reflected in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. As Christ, the eternal Son existed from the “beginning” in a close and glorious fellowship with the Father, so also did man begin his earthly pilgrimage in Eden, basking in the rich experience of fellowship with the Creator as they walked and talked in the Garden. In the incarnation Christ left heaven, came to earth and became one of us. Our transition, however, was not joyful but sad in that we were expelled from the Garden because of Adam’s (read “our”) sin. Christ paid the ransom on Calvary’s cross and made it possible for us to return to a new and living relationship with the Father. As Christ ascended to heaven so may we by faith return to where we began and enjoy forever the indescribably joy that God had always intended for his creation.
Interesting, is not, that this is also the general theme of most every novel: There is a problem that develops, a hero that comes onto the scene, and a solution to the problem that restores normalcy.
“When your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow” (James 1:3)
In the last post James told us to consider ourselves fortunate when trouble comes our way. We discussed the difference between happiness and joy and decided that since joy was something that came from within we could experience it even though times were rough. What we didn’t say was that the sentence doesn’t stop at that point, but continues into the following verse. Now in verse 3 of chapter 1 we learn why it is that trouble is an occasion for joy. It is “because when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow.”
I know your immediate reaction to the idea of having trouble so that you can learn to put up with it. “No thanks, I’ll give up becoming a stoic if it costs that much.” But note that endurance is the road to maturity. While normally, I am on the other side of every position held by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, I have to agree, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Put a bit more gently – If we allow the trials of life to transform us step by seep into increasingly mature believers, we will become the kind of people that please God. Trials will always be a part of life so why not accept the inevitable and use them for a positive good?
How people react in times of trouble reveals their strength of character. We know a young man who continually displays a remarkable approach to life and reality. Of the many examples I could cite, here’s one that happened in an airport away from home. The plane had been grounded and everyone was scurrying to find a way to get home for the holidays. Let’s call him “Austen.” Austen wanted to remain in that city (he had his own reason) but had willingly agreed to return home with the family. When he learned that that they had to stay where they were, a sly grin crossed his face, he clenched his fist and gave a power elbow stroke declaring, “YES!!” Wouldn’t that be a great way to meet all trouble! Thank you Austen.
What has impresses me recently is the fact that we are at the present moment what we have become. Character is being formed every day of life. You choose the right thing or the wrong thing, speak the right way or the wrong way, do the right thing or the wrong thing. Each decision plays a part in who you are becoming. What makes doing what is right so crucial is that not only does each decision become a part of who you are but each decision is now a part of the unchangeable past. As the saying goes, “There is no rehearsal for life.” James encourages us to meet every difficulty with a joyful heart knowing that each time we successfully live out our faith we become increasingly mature. What would be tragic is for God to coddle us by protecting us from trials, thus leaving us in the crib of immaturity
Psalm 117 is the shortest of all the psalms but it gives voice to the grand theme of universal worship of God. Psalm 120, however, describes those times when the psalmist desires peace but all around are those who seem bent on having war. The two psalms represent the two ends of a spectrum: universal worship and never ending distress.
Psalm 120 begins a series known as “The Songs of Ascents” (through Psalm 134). They were sung as worshipers went up (“ascended”) to Jerusalem for the three annual festivals.
This morning I received a new release of Letters of Paul to the Early Church: A Contemporary Translation (my translation of Paul's 13 epistles). I opened the book at random and read the following:
"You will remember that when I first came to Corinth I didn’t use impressive language or wise argument when I told you God mysterious plan. I had determined to concentrate on Jesus Christ – specifically, on Christ crucified. Aware of my inadequacy, I was so fearful that I trembled at the responsibility. I didn’t rely on clever and persuasive words to get you to accept the message but allowed the Holy Spirit to perform his powerful work. That way you would be convinced not by human wisdom, but by the power of God."
The passage is 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 (although verses are not identified, only chapters). Since some form of public ministry has always been a part of my life, I was struck by this passage – probably because, in my experience, it was rarely emphasized in seminary homiletics. And there is another reason: Yesterday I went through some 900 TV stations to check on what programs are being offered to the mid-afternoon listener. I was astonished by the number of religious programs that are aired here in the Seattle area. For the most part, the preachers were well dressed and eloquent as they strode back and forth on the platform sharing insights on how to get to heaven AND on how to invest your money in their particular outreach.
You will understand how, against this background, Paul’s simple words about his “inadequacy,” his not using “clever and persuasive words,” and how he “trembled at the responsibility” fell on my ears. As I reflected on the dissimilarity and my own experience in the pulpit, I realized once again on how down to earth and powerful is the simple presentation of what God has done for us in Christ.
Many years ago I did a doctoral thesis (later published as “The Essential Nature of New Testament Preaching”) with the core principle that God is the active agent in all effective preaching. He is the one who speaks through the words of the one standing in the pulpit. Authentic preaching is letting God speak. I am not suggesting lack of preparation, but after you have done your best to explain the text in its historic setting, let him be the one who speaks directly to the heart of the listener. And I believe he will, especially if you have spent the prior evening on your knees, yielding personally to the truth you plan to share the next morning. As kids we used to sing “Saturday night is the loneliest night in the week,” but as heralds of God, there is a better way to use the time. The book I mentioned above has as part of its dedication, that the supreme task of the preacher is “to lead people into the presence of God.” I believe Paul would agree
Robert H Mounce