Monday, September 19, 2005


Is America Ripe for Judgment?

Occasionally you hear claims that America is God’s chosen nation, usually in the form of a lament that America is in danger of divine judgment because of abandoning the Mosaic covenant. “We have turned away from the Lord to worship idols.” “We do not care for the poor or protect the defenseless.” “There is sin in the camp.”

The belief that America is the New Israel in God’s plan gets some encouragement from quotations of Pilgrim or Puritan founding fathers who believed they were raised up for that purpose and who attempted to establish theocratic governments based on God’s covenant with ancient Israel.

If we read the Bible with open eyes, we will know that claim must be rejected. America is a “Gentile” nation, in terms of the Old Testament.

When God announced judgment on Israel, it was always for violating his covenant provisions. When God announced judgment on other nations, the reasons were always non-covenantal—since there was no covenant between God and them.

The first two chapters of Amos demonstrate this. God’s judgment on Judah (2:4-5) and Israel (2:6ff) is because of their failure to keep his covenantal laws imposed through special revelation at Mount Sinai: “They have rejected the law of the LORD and have not kept his decrees”; “They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed.”

The six nations mentioned previously, however, are judged without reference to agreed laws, warnings, or special revelation. Their doom comes because of inhumane cruelty, doing things that even people without the Bible ought to know are wrong: “She threshed Gilead with sledges having iron teeth”; “She sold whole communities of captives to Edom, disregarding a treaty of brotherhood”; “He pursued his brother with a sword, stifling all compassion”; “He ripped open the pregnant women”; “He burned, as if to lime, the bones of Edom’s king.”

Announcements of judgment on Gentile nations are recorded in the major prophets also. The pattern in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel declares that judgment is coming because of excessive and inhuman violence and cruel treatment of others, with the addition of pride as a reason for judgment: “We have heard of Moab’s pride—her overweening pride and conceit, her pride and her insolence—but her boasts are empty. Therefore the Moabites wail . . .” (Isaiah 16:6-7); “The terror you inspire and the pride of your heart have deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rocks, who occupy the heights of the hill. Though you build your nest as high as the eagle’s, from there I will bring you down . . .” (Jeremiah 49:16).

When we include Obadiah, Nahum, and Habakkuk, we find the same pattern. Gentile nations are judged for cruelty and pride, not for breaking any covenant.

Is America ripe for judgment? Perhaps so. Inhumanity and cruelty have marked more of our history than we like to admit. And, most of the world sees the pride and conceit that we Americans pretend isn’t there. But, declining church attendance, or taking the Bible out of school, or declining moral values, or making too much money, or neglecting poor people, or other “old covenant” violations are not the cause of our national judgment.

Let’s keep our eyes open.

Thursday, September 15, 2005


The Holy Spirit's Groans

After a while you feel sorry for Bible verses that never seem to be used in their contexts. The Holy Spirit’s intercession in Romans 8:26 fits this description. Sometimes it goes like this: “Whenever we don’t know what to pray for, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us.” (Implying, I guess, that when we think we know what to pray for He is not praying.) Or, perhaps it is a debate about whether the “groans that words cannot express” are a reference to praying in tongues. Or, maybe a claim to be God’s prayer partner.

Is there a commentary writer or preacher or Bible teacher who notices that this is the third time in the chapter that someone is groaning? Let’s read with our eyes open. If we examine the pattern of the three groans, we can easily see what the Holy Spirit is doing here.

First, creation groans (verses 19-22). Creation groans in frustration because of the bondage imposed on it because of human sin. It groans with impatience, because it is eagerly waiting for a release from the frustration. That release is coming, when the sons of God are revealed in their resurrected and glorious freedom. (Think “New Heaven and New Earth.”) There is hope because a correction is coming, but there is agony in the current state of imperfection.

Second, believers groan (verses 23-25). “We ourselves” live with the tension of knowing what someday will be ours. We know it because we already have the firstfruits of it. Yet, until the redemption of our bodies, we don’t experience the full adoption of sons, so we groan. Like creation, ours is a hopeful groan, but an agonizing one also.

Third is the Holy Spirit’s groan (verses 26-30) as the text says, “in the same way.” He searches our hearts and sees us as we now are. He also knows the mind of the Spirit and the likeness of God’s Son for which we are predestined, called, etc. With far greater clarity than our own awareness, He sees the discrepancy between what now is and what ought to be in our conforming to God’s will. In frustration over our continuing sinfulness, He groans. But it is a groan of hope, too, because someday we will be glorified.

In the meantime, He groans through intercession. It is true that “we do not know what we ought to pray” (not just sometimes but almost always). Listen to us: We pray for the pain to stop, for circumstances to be more to our liking, for other people to change, for God to intervene. He prays for us to be changed into Christlikeness, which is what we ought to be praying first and foremost. The Holy Spirit’s prayers are answered, as God works all things for the good of those who love Him. Not necessarily what we think is good (since we don’t know), but for the real good that is the goal of His groaning.

What do you know? Even Romans 8:28 can be put back into its context. When we read with open eyes.

Monday, September 05, 2005


Eating in an Unworthy Manner

Many Protestant churches have a Communion service tradition for people to confess their sins (privately and silently), often to the accompaniment of dirge-like organ music, before taking the bread and the cup. The supposed Biblical reason for this is the warning given in 1 Corinthians 11:27-28, “Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup.”

The “unworthy manner” is explained as taking the elements while any known sins are unconfessed and unforgiven. Thus, the Lord’s Table becomes the Protestant version of the Roman Catholic confessional, only without the earthly mediation of a priest.

Doctrinally this is way off. It amounts to following Rome in a rejection of the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice for sins once for all. It ignores Jesus’ “It is finished” as if forgiveness is doled out for one sin at a time, in response to a sacramental rite of confession at the altar. For Catholics this logically leads to ceremonies like penance, last rites, purgatory, and indulgences.

Protestants reject those abuses, but may not reject the misunderstanding of forgiveness on which they are based. We keep the wrong notion of God’s forgiveness and substitute confession at Communion and daily “asking for forgiveness” based on a misreading of 1 John 1:9. (See my blog, “Asking for Forgiveness” posted on June 30, 2005.)

Another result of this mistake is that it takes the focus of attention off the Lord Jesus, where it belongs, and places it on the sinners at the table.

If we would read with our eyes open, we would have a proper understanding of the warnings in 1 Corinthians 11. The context begins in chapter 10. Paul contrasts the Lord’s Table with the idolatrous feasts of paganism. “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” (verse 16) The answer is ‘yes.’ “We who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” (verse 17) The gathering of believers meeting to partake of the metaphorical “body of Christ” in Communion is, in another sense, “the body of Christ” also.

The problem at Corinth is outlined in chapter 11. Divisions within the body actually denied the reality of the one body in the very act of Communion. Verses 20-22 declare, “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. . . . Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!” (Then come the familiar ceremonial words and warnings.)

The unworthy manner Paul warns against is not any and all variety of sins that people have committed since the last Communion service, but the specific, divisive sins mentioned: that which approaches the table without recognizing the body of the Lord, that is, without showing respect for the other members of the body. “One remains hungry, another gets drunk.” (verse 21)

We ought to examine ourselves when we partake of the Lord’s Table; specifically, we ought to assess our recognition of and respect for the other people taking Communion around us. Am I pushing others aside to fill myself? Am I uncaring about whether others get anything? Am I stuffing myself at Communion so I don’t have to feed myself at home?

This self-examination is usually not a lengthy or morose process. Let’s read with open eyes.

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