Sunday, January 21, 2018

LAWFUL OATHS & VOWS


LAWFUL OATHS AND VOWS
(See Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 22)

Introduction

In a court of law we might hear the words: Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. So help you God? Think about it, if we lived in a perfect world you wouldn’t have to swear to anything. Your ‘Yes’ would be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ would be ‘No’. In other words, swearing oaths and making vows have to do with living in a fallen world.

Now, I’m not overly impressed with the way the department stores in Australia feel the need to look into your bag as you enter or leave their premises. It shows a clear lack of trust in people. Though I sympathise with where they’re coming from, I find it very accusatory. But again, this kind of thing simply shows that we’re living in a sinful world. People steal things – people tell lies.

I suppose the strange thing is that if you’re caught stealing and are taken to court, you’re asked to swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. So help you God. How can we expect dishonest people to tell the truth? The usual practice, if they haven’t already changed it, is that you get the person to swear on the Bible. He puts his left hand on the Bible and he raises his right hand to God. Then he utters his swear words – in the good sense of swear words. Then he proceeds to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Isn’t this the basis for the whole of Western society? Isn’t politics, religion, commerce – and all the day-to-day transactions between people – based on truth? If you buy 2 Kilos of potatoes from the corner store, you expect to have purchased 2 Kilos. How can we trade with others, how can we strike a bargain with others, or how can we deal with others, if we cannot trust them?

As Christians we know that the only way for any society to function properly is for God to be honoured in every sphere of life, and in all our personal undertakings. I suppose a verse that sums up what we’re saying might be Micah 6:8: “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Lawful oaths and vows in society remind us what is good. Lawful oaths and vows help us to deal justly with others, and to deal mercifully with them. And lawful oaths and vows help us to walk humbly before our God. All of this helps make for an honest and trustworthy society of people in a fallen world. Lawful oaths and vows are the very foundation of any honest society, for lawful oaths and vows are at the very heart of true religion.

Oaths

We’ll define the difference between oaths and vows in a moment, but let’s just note one of the main similarities – swearing oaths and making or taking vows are acts of worship. Have you ever thought about that? Wherever and whenever you invoke or call on the name of God you are doing an act of worship.

We can see why some folk don’t want to mention God’s name in an oath. They don’t want to be seen to be worshipping the God they claim not to believe in. So what do they do? Well, the Commonwealth of Australia lets you make an affirmation. For instance, if you’re not an Australian, and you wish to become one, you may take your oath on the Bible while mentioning God, or you may leave God and His Word out of it altogether. But an affirmation is still an oath made with God as witness. For God would have to die and disappear for Him not to hold you to your oaths.

So it doesn’t make any difference whether you worship a false god or no god, for the true and living God, i.e., the Triune God is still your witness. But as you know, some people, because we live in a fallen world, don’t want to mention the true and living God when swearing an oath.

Now, the main difference between an oath and a vow is that an oath is made by calling God as witness to whatever it is you are swearing, whereas a vow is what you make with God Himself. GI Williamson says it well: “An oath concerns man’s duty to man. A vow concerns man’s duty to God. In an oath man calls God to witness and to judge what he says or promises to men. In a vow man makes a solemn promise to God. In both cases it is out of reverence for and obligation to God that we make and keep them.” (The Westminster Confession of Faith For Study Classes, p. 177).

The LORD says in Deuteronomy 10:20: “You shall fear the LORD your God; you shall serve Him, and to Him you shall hold fast, and take oaths in His name.” So we see that it is right and good to take oaths in His name.

Now, what is it that makes an oath a lawful oath? Well, surely it’s an oath sworn where the person does not take the LORD’s name in vain. Oaths are tied to the 3rd of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.” Exodus 20:7. And, directly related to taking oaths in the name of God is, of course, the 9th Commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.” Exodus 20:16. So we see then that God will call to account any who lie when calling Him as witness to what they are saying or promising. God will not have His name associated with a person’s lies. The devil is the father of lies, not God.

Now, this doesn’t mean that the person who makes an affirmation instead of an oath will be free of guilt before God if he lies. In fact it simply doubles his sin because he has denied the truth of God, (i.e., that there is a true and living God), as well as lying as if the true and living God would not call him to judgment. Does the world and everything in it disappear every time an ostrich buries its head in the sand? No! Well, neither does God disappear every time someone denies Him.

So, what we are doing when we take a lawful oath, is that we are calling on God to be witness to what we are stating or promising. And we are calling Him to be the judge of the truth or falsehood of what we are swearing.

Swearing oaths is a serious matter and should only be done with a holy fear and reverence of God. Therefore to swear vainly or rashly, i.e., thoughtlessly or carelessly by God’s glorious and dreadful name ought to be detested. And so should swearing by anything other than God be abhorred.

The scribes and Pharisees in Jesus’ day swore by the Temple. They would swear by the gold in the Temple, and the altar in the Temple. They would swear by Heaven, and they would swear by the throne of God. They were so loose with the truth that they would use these objects as a measure of the degree with which they should keep their oath! Jesus speaks of these things and says in Matthew 23:16: “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obliged to perform it.’” How are you supposed to trust people who swear oaths or make vows with a built in escape clause?

I don’t want to be the alarmist, but I fear that we have such men posing as elders and minsters in our own wider denomination. In the Presbyterian Church of Australia all elders and minsters swear to uphold, i.e., assert, maintain, and defend the teaching of the Bible as expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith. But have you ever known a person who holds, let’s say, a liberal theology do this?

And what about those who do not hold to what has become known as the Calvinistic or Covenant Theology (of which the Westminster Confession of Faith is the fullest expression to date)? I know elders and ministers in our denomination who hate Covenant Theology because they are Arminian in their theology, yet they’ve sworn on oath to God! What’s their ‘escape clause’? I think it’s clear that they think our ‘Declaratory Statement’ frees them from any obligation to keep their oath.

I’ve heard some ministers and elders say that were it not for that ‘Liberty of Opinion’ clause in the Declaratory Statement they wouldn’t be elders or ministers the Presbyterian Church of Australia! Is this the stuff of the scribes and Pharisees, or what? Until this so-called ‘loophole’ is fully addressed the Presbyterian Church of Australia will remain as it is at present – a house divided. To be sure, there is absolutely no loophole in our Declaratory Statement, but this doesn’t stop unscrupulous men using it as such. God will be their judge. Therefore we must take the greatest of care not to take His name in vain. As James says, “But above all, my brethren, do not swear either by heaven or by earth, or any other oath. [We could mention ‘Liberty of Opinion’ clauses in ‘Declaratory Statements’] But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No,’ lest you fall into judgment.” James 5:12.

With the same thing in mind (such as those who would swear by heaven and earth, temples, gold in the Temple, altars, etc.), Jesus says in Matthew 5:34-37: “But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.”

It makes for a far better society where a person’s word is his or her bond! But does this mean that Christians are never to swear oaths or make vows? Well, what about Jesus before the high priest when He was arrested and charged with blasphemy? Matthew 26:62-64: “And the high priest arose and said to Him, ‘Do You answer nothing? What is it that these men testify against You?’ But Jesus kept silent. And the high priest answered and said to Him, ‘I put You under oath by the living God: Tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘It is as you said. Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.’” So, Jesus Christ, when He was put under oath, answered under oath that He was the Christ of God, God, even the Son of God.

And the Lord’s Apostle Paul calls God as his witness in Romans 1:9 where he says: “For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of His Son…” And also in 2 Corinthians 1:23 where he says, “Moreover I call God as witness against my soul, that to spare you I came no more to Corinth.”

And what about Hebrews 6:13-17: “For when God made a promise to Abraham, because He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself, saying, ‘Surely blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply you.’ And so, after he had patiently endured, he obtained the promise. For men indeed swear by the greater, and an oath for confirmation is for them the end of all dispute. Thus God, determining to show more abundantly to the heirs of promise the immutability of His counsel, confirmed it by an oath…”

So we see then that it is not wrong to make lawful oaths. Indeed they are warranted in serious and momentous matters, i.e., in matters of weight and importance. Therefore they should be taken when required by a lawful authority.

If you are being made an elder or minister in the Lord’s church then you need to take an oath. And if you are becoming a member or citizen of the Commonwealth of Australia you need to take an oath. In a court of law there are times when you might need to take an oath. There are lots of other examples that perhaps you could think of. But the point is that it would be sinful to refuse to take an oath about anything that is good and just when required by a lawful authority.

But when taking an oath a person needs to consider the seriousness of such a solemn act. And they ought to swear to nothing unless they are fully convinced that it is the truth. And they should make sure that what they are binding themselves to is good and just. And they need to be convinced in their own minds that it is good and just. And finally they must swear only to that which is in their power to carry out. So, in a word, to enter into an oath is to seriously swear to do something you are able to do, something you know to be good, just, and true.

Vows

We’ve seen then that an oath concerns man’s duty to man. A vow concerns man’s duty to God. But both should only be taken or made in the plain and common sense of the words attached. They need to be entered into without any fuzzy edges or grey areas or ambiguities, which is to say that they should be entered into without any escape clauses or loopholes in mind. And they should be entered into without any mental reservations. Oaths and vows should not be entered into until you are sure of what you are doing.

Now, an oath and a vow cannot oblige the person or persons to sin. We see an example of a terrible oath, of the sinful sort, entered into by some men who wanted to murder Paul the Apostle. Acts 23:12: “And when it was day, some of the Jews banded together and bound themselves under an oath, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul.” That was a diabolical oath to enter into – to swear to kill an innocent man.

And what about the vow of Jephthah? He obviously hadn’t considered the seriousness of his vow. We find Jephthah, one of the Judges of Israel, in the Book of Judges. It says of him in Judges 11:30&31: “And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD, and said, ‘If you will indeed deliver the people of Ammon into my hands, then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.’”

We see in these words the difference between an oath and a vow. Jephthah is making a vow to God. He’s not simply calling God to witness some promise he’s making between himself and another man. Rather he is making the promise directly to God Himself. He wants God’s help to deliver his enemies into his hand. Therefore vows may be made to God for obtaining what we want.

So Jephthah was promising God that he would offer Him a burnt sacrifice if God would let him beat his enemies. Thus far so good. However, where Jephthah gets it wrong is when he says that he will offer up to God whatever comes out of the doors to meet him when he returns victorious.

The Puritan Richard Rogers makes a good point when he says: “This vow, though he meant well, was ill made and in great ignorance, in that he did not make it more distinctly and advisedly. For what if a dog had first met him? Which is a fawning [or affectionate] creature, and had been like enough to have first come forth to meet him. He could not have offered it to the Lord, it being unclean, and so forbidden to be made a sacrifice.” (Commentary on Judges, Facsimile of 1615 edition)

Richard Rogers makes a very good point. But what if it had been a person, even his only child, his own daughter who had come out first to greet him? Indeed that was the case! Judges 11:35: “And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he tore his clothes, and said, ‘Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low! For I have given my word to the LORD, and cannot go back on it.’” Then in verse 39 we read: “And it was so at the end of two months that she returned to her father, and he carried out his vow with her which he had vowed.”

So the moral of the story is that we must be extremely careful what we vow to the LORD. But surely Jephthah would have been wiser to have broken his vow and sought the LORD’s forgiveness for its rashness, rather than to have sinned by sacrificing his daughter. But whatever you think of Jephthah keep in mind that he is mentioned as an example of faith in Hebrews 11:32. So, oaths and vows bind the person to keep them – even to their own hurt, but they must never include that which is sinful.

Now, oaths and vows are made in order to strictly bind ourselves to necessary duties or obligations. The idea is that by binding ourselves by oaths and vows we are more likely to perform our duties. A Christian marriage ceremony contains oaths and vows, whereby a man and a woman swear to certain marital duties before God. The marriage contains promises made between two people. And it contains promises made directly to God. God is called upon to bless the marriage, i.e., to assist in its success. So, marriage is a good illustration of the importance of oaths and vows in society today. Take away the oaths and vows from marriage and watch society crumble back to the dust from whence it came!

Now, I’m sure you can see from what we’ve looked at that there are such things as unlawful vows. Unlawful vows would include vows of life-long celibacy that you find among Roman Catholic priests. In fact you’ll find many superstitious and sinful snares, into which no Christian should become entangled, in the Romish Church. The Reformation brought the Lord’s Church out of all that.

Conclusion

A vow should be made to God alone, and not to any creature. And, so that God will accept the vow, it ought to be made freely or voluntarily. It ought to be made out of faith and conscience of duty. And it can be made in gratitude for mercy received or for obtaining what we want.

And no one ought to vow anything that is forbidden by God in His Word. Or anything that would hinder any duty God’s Word commands, or is not in the person’s power to fulfil it, or that which God has not promised to give the ability to perform. For swearing lawful oaths and making lawful vows are the very foundations supporting any honest and God honouring society.

For swearing and taking lawful oaths and vows in courts of law, in public ceremonies – such as becoming an Australian citizen – not to mention weddings, means that the State as well as the Church is involved in the worship of God.

For swearing and taking lawful oaths and vows, by definition, are acts of worship. Therefore, let us glorify God by keeping our oaths and vows.

Friday, January 19, 2018

WHICH CHURCH?

Which Church?

As a new arrival from Canada to Australia and as a recent convert to Christianity I set out to find a suitable church to start to attend. I must admit that I didn’t know too much about Denominations. I had become a Christian about maybe two years before I left the snowy Canadian winters for sunny Queensland. In Canada I had visited various churches not really being aware of which each Denomination was. I simply wanted to be a Christian without a label. I started attending what was called “a non-Denominational” church. Someone asked my which church I attended. When I told them that it was a non-Denominational church the response was, “So, you are a non-Denominationalist?” You can’t win! Every Christian has a label, or at least every other Christian has a label for you. Therefore, I suggest that you don’t worry so much about labels but concern yourself about attending a church in which God’s Word is highly honoured and taught.

On my first Sunday morning in Australia I attended a church that was more interested in the voices and visions that they may (may not!) have heard and seen, than the actual Word of God written. The next Sunday morning saw me in a Chinese church! The service was conducted in Cantonese with an English translator. God’s Word was highly honoured but I thought they were translating what was being spoken in Chinese solely for my benefit! Therefore, I thought I’d do that church a big favour by not attending again so that they could get on with things in their own language!

The following Sunday I found myself in church full of Dutch people. The service was conducted fully in English. Before the service began I was given a hymn-book at the front of which contained what is known as The Heidelberg Catechism. A Catechism, if you don’t know, is “a summary of the principles of Christian religion in the form of questions and answers, used for the instruction of Christians.[1] The Heidelberg Catechism begins with,

Lord’s Day 1

Q & A 1 

Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death? 
A. That I am not my own,1
but belong— body and soul,
in life and in death—2 to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.3 He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,4 and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.5 He also watches over me in such a way6 that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven;7 in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.8 Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit,
assures me of eternal life9 and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.10 
1 1 Cor. 6:19-20
2 Rom. 14:7-
3 1 Cor. 3:23; Titus 2:14
4 1 Pet. 1:18-19; 1 John 1:7-9; 2:2
5 John 8:34-36; Heb. 2:14-15; 1 John 3:1-11
6 John 6:39-40; 10:27-30; 2 Thess. 3:3; 1 Pet. 1:5
7 Matt. 10:29-31; Luke 21:16-18
8 Rom. 8:28
9 Rom. 8:15-16; 2 Cor. 1:21-22; 5:5; Eph. 1:13-14
10 Rom. 8:1-17

I asked one of the elders if I could take a copy of their hymnbook (containing the Catechism) home with me to study and that I’d bring it back the following Sunday. My request was granted and I studied the Heidelberg Catechism cover to cover! Like a good Berean, for the whole week I checked everything therein again and again against Scripture. This church used the New International Version of which I had a copy.

I attended that church each Sunday morning thereafter and eventually got baptised there and became a member. The Bible was faithfully expounded from the pulpit each Sunday as we worshipped God.

Not only do I hold The Heidelberg Catechism in high esteem for teaching what the Scriptures say in an easy to understand and pastoral way, but I would endorse also The Westminster Larger Catechism and the more easily digestible Westminster Shorter Catechism. These are wonderful teaching aids in that they succinctly summarise what the Bible says about each question asked. Westminster Shorter Catechism Q & A 1, What is the chief end of man? Ans. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. (1 Corinthians 10:31; Romans 11:36).

So, the layman should find a reliable version of the Bible. He/she should read and study the Bible. He/she should find a church that honours and expounds the Bible. He/she should check out against the Bible the things that the church is teaching. He/she should utilise The Heidelberg and Westminster Shorter Catechism (find them on-line) to help him/her to get an easy and helpful handle on the basic things the Bible is teaching. Should the layman do these things diligently, not only will he/she simply believe that Jesus is Lord. He/she will be honouring and serving Him as his/her Lord.

“May the grace of the LORD Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”[2]


[1] Internet.
[2] 2 Corinthians 13:14 New International Version (NIV).

Thursday, January 18, 2018

PARTS & PLACES OF WORSHIP


PARTS AND PLACES OF WORSHIP
(See Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 21, paras 5 & 6)

Introduction

Jesus says in John 4:24: “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” What does it mean to worship God “in spirit and truth”? Well, simply put, it means that worship is a) Spiritual, (i.e., because God is Spirit); and b) Worship is regulated by, and restricted to, what God says about how we must worship Him. Therefore, if we were to add a) and b) together we might say: To worship God in spirit and truth is to engage God inwardly while making sure our outward actions comply with the instructions given in His written revelation.

In Jesus’ day the scribes and Pharisees, for example, were guilty spiritually-dead worship. Jesus said to the scribes and Pharisees: “‘Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honours Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’’” Luke 7:6&7.

Their worship was simply an outward expression with no inward emotion behind it. It’s the kind of worship a robot could produce. But even their outward expression was not regulated by the truth, i.e., God’s Word. For, they were following the commandments of men instead of the commandments of God. Which is to say that they were not worshipping God in spirit and truth.

Now, if we keep in mind who God is and who we are we won’t go too far wrong when it comes to worship. God is Spirit and He made us in His own image. By definition, we are soul-spirits who have bodies. Therefore, our bodies are the instruments God has given us for outwardly expressing our inward emotions.

Think about it: as fallen creatures we have to work hard to hide our emotions. Our bodily actions, facial expressions in particular, tend to reveal what’s going on emotionally within us. So, when it comes to worshipping God, if we are to worship God in spirit and truth, we must make sure that our body is truly expressing what our spirit is feeling and emitting. Which is to say that our worship must be spiritual, i.e., inward as well as outward. And that which is outward must be governed and regulated by what God says it ought to be, and not by what some man or group of men have commanded. 

God has given clear instruction in His Word how He desires to be worshipped. We’ll look at some of these instructions in the following.

Parts of Worship

The main parts or elements of worshipping God at the corporate level include: Scripture reading, preaching, hearing the Word read and preached, singing psalms, and the administration of the two sacraments. Worship will also at times include: religious oaths and vows, and solemn fastings and thanksgivings on special occasions. These parts of religious worship have been spelled out in God’s Word and are therefore regulated by Scripture. Which is to say that we are not left to our own devices when it comes to how God wishes to be worshipped by us.

Now, when the saints are gathered for worship, when the Scriptures are read, they ought to be read with Godly reverence. After all, the Scriptures are God’s Word, having been written by the Holy Spirit who moved the spirits of men to write the Scriptures. To be sure, having been regenerated by the Holy Spirit, these men were not robots. These forty-odd men over the space fifteen hundred years or so, didn’t fall into trances and write. No, they were spiritually engaged in what they were doing, and wrote what they wanted to write. But it just so happened that they wrote exactly what the Holy Spirit wanted them to write. Their inward thoughts were outwardly expressed in writing.

Therefore, the public reading of God’s Holy Word ought to reflect the emotions or spirit of the passage. Which is to say that the tone of voice used ought to suit the portion being read. As someone once said: “Try not to smile when you say the word ‘Hell.’”

Now, the same principle applies to the hearer of God’s Word. He ought to hear it with the appropriate emotion. He ought to listen intently with Godly fear.

One can only wonder what it would have been like to have been in the synagogue mentioned in Luke 4 where Jesus was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah and began to read. Jesus would have put the accent on all the right words without a hint of false emotion. Who better to have read their own work than the person who wrote it? God’s Word is spiritual; therefore, it must be read and heard in the proper spirit. It ought to be read and listened to conscientiously. Therefore we must seek to be obedient to it emotionally.

And, if there are any commands or prohibitions, we must seek obedience here too. All of this is summed up where James says: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” James 1:22. The doing of God’s Word begins as an impulse in your own spirit. God’s Word is spiritual; therefore, you must be connected to it spiritually and emotionally before you’ll express it in, by, and through your bodily actions.

The same principle applies to preaching God’s Word. The emotion of the sermon must reflect the verse, passage, or doctrine being expounded. It goes without saying that the preacher must labour hard to give the true sense of the passage.

When Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue He proceeded to preach from it, giving the true sense of the passage. The whole gist of His sermon was summed up in the words: “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke 4:21. What was the passage He read? “The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.”

How would you have responded to these gracious words? How do you respond in their hearing, even now? If you are spiritually alive to God’s Word, you should be like Mary who said: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour.” Luke 1:46&47.

When God’s Word is read and preached you should hear it with your understanding in faith and reverence. Understand what God’s Word is saying. Believe what God’s Word is saying. And revere or respect it for what it is and what it says. God’s Word is Truth. (John 17:17)

Now, another part of the worship of God is the singing of psalms with grace in the heart. The Apostle Paul, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit wrote Colossians 3:16: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.”

Let’s first note the bit about “singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” Thus we see that there is an inward, internal aspect to singing psalms. It’s not just a noise that comes from the voice box through the lips. Singing psalms has to do with grace in the heart.

Therefore singing psalms is a spiritual activity in which the impulse of your heart is being expressed through words and music. Therefore the emotion you are feeling ought to reflect the words sung (and vice versa). Therefore the tune must match the emotion being expressed by the words.

When you read the Book of one hundred and fifty Old Testament Psalms your spirit is stirred to a variety of emotions. To my knowledge none of the original tunes to these hundred and fifty Psalms has survived. But the actual word ‘psalm’ apparently means striking or touching strings or parts of a musical instrument. In other words a psalm has to do with singing to God with musical accompaniment.

The Psalms themselves teach that we are to sing praises to God with musical accompaniment. Psalm 33:2&3, for example: “Praise the LORD with the harp; make melody to Him with an instrument of ten strings. Sing to Him a new song; play skilfully with a shout of joy.”

Now, we need to consider what the Apostle means where he says that we are to be “…teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” What does Paul mean by “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs”? Let’s let John Calvin have a go at explaining that one for us: “Under these three terms [Paul] includes all kinds of songs. They are commonly distinguished in this way – that is psalm is that, in the singing of which some musical instrument besides the tongue is made use of: a hymn is properly a song of praise, whether it be sung simply with the voice or otherwise; while an ode contains not mere praises, but exhortations and other matters. He would have songs of Christians however, to be spiritual, not made up of frivolities and worthless trifles.” (John Calvin on Colossians 3:16).

There are those congregations who we refer to as ‘exclusive psalmodists.’ By this we mean that they exclude from their worship services every song not included in the hundred and fifty Old Testament psalms. Which is to say that they restrict themselves to singing only those hundred and fifty psalms – nothing else.

And most, I think, believe that these hundred and fifty Old Testament psalms ought to be sung unaccompanied by any musical instrument. We much prefer this than those congregations who never sing any of the hundred and fifty Old Testament psalms. However, we believe that the church today is not restricted to the hundred and fifty Old Testament psalms, as we see testified in, for example, the Book of Revelation where we see a picture of Heaven.

The Apostle John says in Revelation 14:2b&3: “And I heard the sound of harpists playing their harps. They sang as it were a new song before the throne… and no one could learn that song except the hundred and forty-four thousand who were redeemed from the earth.”

And notice some of the words of what they are singing in Heaven. In Revelation 15:2-4 John saw saints “…standing on the sea of glass, having harps of God. They sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying: ‘Great and marvellous are Your works, Lord God Almighty! Just and true are Your ways, O King of the saints! Who shall not fear You, O Lord, and glorify Your name? For You alone are holy. For all nations shall come and worship before You, for Your judgments have been manifested.”

To be sure, some lines from this song are found in some of the Psalms, but read through the Book of Revelation and you’ll see the saints singing songs other than the hundred and fifty Old Testament Psalms. (See Revelation 5:9&10 as another example).

With all due respect to our ‘exclusive psalmodist’ brethren, we believe with Calvin (quoted above) that psalms and hymns and spiritual songs includes, not only the hundred and fifty Old Testament psalms, but also that which (like a sound sermon!), expounds the Scriptures or some portion thereof – with musical accompaniment! Therefore with David the psalmist of old, we will seek to “…play skilfully with a shout of joy.” Psalm 33:3.

But again, because it is God’s Word we sing, and God’s Word is spiritual, and we are worshipping God in song, we ought to do so in spirit and truth. Therefore, done properly our spirits engage God, who is Spirit, when we worship Him in song.

O to have been present with the disciples and Jesus after He had instituted the Lord’s Supper: “And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.” Matthew 26:30.  O to have heard the Royal voice of Jesus sing praises to God! The Lord made a promise to sing praises to God. For He says in Psalm 22:25: “My praise shall be of You in the great assembly.”

One of the other parts of the corporate worship of God is the two Sacraments. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper will from time to time be administered. These two Sacraments instituted by Christ are also spiritual. Therefore their due administration ought to be received worthily. For like all other aspects of the worship of God they are designed not only to glorify God but also to edify the saints.

And as well as the periodical celebration of these two sacraments there will be times when people will swear oaths and make vows during the worship service. The swearing of oaths and taking vows occur at such times as when people become Communicant Members, or men become Elders or Deacons etc.

And also on special occasions solemn fastings and thanksgivings may be proclaimed. I’m sure we would see more of solemn fastings and thanksgivings during times of war or natural disaster. The idea would be that of God’s people humbling themselves before Him and humbly petitioning Him to have some tragedy averted, or to give thanks to Him for having averted some disaster or other.

All of these things, which we have looked at above, are parts of the corporate worship of God.

Places of Worship

Unlike Old Testament times there are no places on earth any more spiritual or holy than any other places. Which is to say that under the Gospel, prayer or worship is not made any more acceptable by any place in which it is performed.

In Old Testament times God is the God who dwelt between the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies in the Temple at Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the holy city because God, as it were, dwelt there. Therefore the people of God had to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem for feasts four times a year because that’s where the Temple of God was.

Now, the prophet Daniel was one of those living in captivity, far from Jerusalem. In Daniel 6:10 we read: “Now when Daniel knew that the writing was signed, he went home. And in his upper room, with his window opened toward Jerusalem, he knelt down on his knees three times that day, and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as was his custom since early days.”

Again, Daniel prayed facing toward Jerusalem because that was where God was. But where is God now that the Word has become flesh? Where is God now that Immanuel has arrived? Is Jerusalem any more holy than Hobart or Glasgow or Winnipeg or Brisbane - now that the Gospel is sounding forth into all the nations?

What did Jesus say to His disciples at the end of His Great Commission sermon? “…and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:20. So, where is the Spirit of God, i.e., the Spirit of Christ now? Does He dwell in the Temple at Jerusalem?

The Temple was destroyed in 70AD, just as Jesus said it would. Therefore God no longer dwells between the cherubim in the Holy of Holies. The veil was rent when Jesus died on the cross.

What is the great refrain of God’s covenant? What is His one great summary promise to those who worship Him in spirit and truth? The Apostle Paul summarises it in 2 Corinthians 6:16: “For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will dwell in them and walk among them, I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”

Where then is the temple of the living God now? Is it still in Jerusalem? No! It is wherever God is worshipped in spirit and truth. God dwells by His Spirit in the hearts of His people throughout all the earth. Therefore God doesn’t dwell in a church building.

Therefore those who go into empty church buildings to get close to God could get just as close were they to stay at home! Indeed God is to be worshipped in the home because He is to be worshipped everywhere in spirit and truth. Therefore we don’t need to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem or anywhere else. We are to worship God in spirit and truth daily, privately with our families. We are to worship God in spirit and truth daily, privately by ourselves. And we are to worship God in spirit and truth corporately and publicly. This we do on the Lord’s Day and at such other times when His providences calls us to it.

The LORD through His prophet Malachi spoke of all men everywhere worshipping God: “‘For from the rising of the sun, even to its going down, My name shall be great among the Gentiles; in every place incense shall be offered to My name, and a pure offering; for My name shall be great among the nations,’ says the LORD of hosts.”

And the Apostle Paul underlines this in 1 Timothy 2:8: “I desire therefore that the men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting…”

As Jesus said to the Woman at the Well: “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father.” John 4:21. Which is to say that the worship of the Father will take place everywhere the Gospel goes.

Therefore we worship God in spirit and truth everywhere, privately as individuals, privately as families, and publicly as congregations.

Jesus exhorts us to private worship by ourselves where He says in Matthew 6:6: “But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”

And when it comes to families worshipping God in spirit and truth we read these words in Deuteronomy 6:6&7: “And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.” Individual and family worship is exampled by Cornelius who was “…a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, and who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always.” Acts 10:2.

And why ought we to worship God privately as individuals and with our families daily? As Jesus taught us in the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread.” Matthew 6:11. You need to pray to God daily for your daily bread!

Now, when it comes to corporate or public worship the writer to the Hebrews says: “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so the much more as you see the Day approaching.” Hebrews 10:24&25.

“O for a thousand tongues, to sing My great Redeemer’s praise. / The glories of my God and King. The triumphs of His grace.”

Conclusion

Jesus said to the Woman at the Well: “But the hour is coming, and now is, when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him.”

Are you one of those the Father is seeking? Is your worship of God inward as well as outward? Are you seeking to worship God the way He is seeking to be worshipped?

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

THE BIBLE

The Bible (a continuation of Jesus For the Layman)

If we are going to listen only to God and not to dead people and/or demons spelling out sentences on Ouija boards, then which version of the Bible ought we to use? Yes, I suppose it might be easier if we could hear voices and see visions, but we believe those ways of God revealing Himself are long gone, especially since He has given us the sixty-six books of the Bible.

Like the Triune God, the Bible is one but many. The many books are one book. And, reflecting the two natures of Christ, who is 100% God and 100% Man, the Bible is 100% written by God and 100% written by men: “For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”[1] This was no automatic writing. These men wrote what they wanted to write and. As it happens, they wrote what the Holy Spirit wanted them to write. If you have ever got 10/10 in an exam so did the writers of each of the sixty-six book that make up the Bible.

Now, it goes without saying that not everyone believes that the Bible is the Word of God, i.e., His revelation to human beings. This is something that only the Holy Spirit can convince you of. I can’t! The Spirit always works with the Word. That is how God speaks to us. God does not speak to us by upturned whisky glasses on a Ouija Boards. Rather, God speaks to us by His Spirit working with His Word. But again, not everyone believes that the Bible is the actual Word of God insripturated.

I heard a song on the car radio on a recent Sunday morning while en route to church. I had just listened to a mediocre sermon about love. Then the station started playing, what they call, “Christian Rock Music,” most of which I do not like. So, I switched to the station whose music I do like. The one where they play all the oldies. Anyway, the song on my Oldies Station was an annoying put-down of the Bible. It is called It Ain’t Necessarily So” which has been done by various artists over the years since George and Ira Gershwin wrote it for their Porgy and Bess opera in 1935. In the opera the song is sung by the character Sportin’ Life, a seedy drug dealer, who tells us about his doubt about some statements in the Bible.

It ain’t necessarily so
It ain’t necessarily so
De things dat yo’ liable to read in de Bible
It ain’t necessarily so.[2]

            Now, I remember someone asking me if I believed all that Jonah in the belly of a whale stuff. It was a great question to ask me at that time. I had just begun to study the Bible for myself. I had tried to read it a couple of times before but had got stuck at Leviticus after I had read through Genesis then Exodus when I was sixteen or so. The next time I don’t even think I made it through Genesis. Anyway, in my early thirties I managed, with great difficulty, to read the entire Bible that the Masonic Lodge had presented me. I had the King James’ Version (KJV) of the Bible in one hand and a dictionary in the other! I found ye olde English contained therein really hard to understand. I mentioned already that my dad’s favourite version of the Bible was the King James’ Version. He thought that it was the most beautiful, noble and poetic of all the versions of the Bible. My brother Stuart wrote the following to me:

Faither so often quoted Isaiah, freely from memory, as we drove to somewhere for lunch up Loch Lomondside. I have his marked Bibles from which he delivered readings to the congregation at Jamestown Parish Church, with me and Mum sitting half-way up on the left while he did in all humility take his place at the lectern and read... I loved him for that, oh, how I loved him for that.[3]

Regardless of what my dad thought of the King James Version of the Bible, I found the archaisms that it’s full of, hard to understand. So, the moral of the tale is that you should try to get a version of the Bible that has been written in your own language. I’ve dipped into Scottish Gaelic, Scots (Lallans), French, Koine Greek and ancient Hebrew versions. However, even though I’ve read cover to cover the New International Version and large chunks of other versions (e.g., the English Standard Version), I must admit that my default version is the New King James Version. However, you will notice that so far I have been mainly quoting from the NIV and the New Living Translation. This is simply to keep things in line with the title of this book, Jesus For the Layman.

Meanwhile, back to Jonah and the whale. Well, for a start the original language of the Hebrew portion of the Bible (i.e., the Old Testament) doesn’t say that a whale swallowed Jonah. Rather it was a great fish. But, be that as it may, who could believe such a thing could occur? Who could believe that a fish could vomit up a human being onto some beach and then that human being could walk around call on a whole city (Nineveh) to repent so as to avoid God’s impending judgment upon that city? Well, do I believe what the Bible says about Jonah being swallowed by a fish? Yes! And so does Jesus. “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”[4] But what does Sportin’ Life, the seedy drug dealer, in the Porgie and Bess opera have to say about Jonah (and David and Moses for that matter)?

Li’l David was small but oh my
Li’l David was small but oh my
He fought big Goliath who lay down and dieth
Li’l David was small but oh my
Oh Jonah he lived in de whale
Oh Jonah he lived in de whale
For he made his home in dat fish’s abdomen
Oh Jonah he lived in de whale
Li’l Moses was found in a stream
Li’l Moses was found in a stream
He floated on water ‘til ole Pharaoh’s daughter
She fished him she says from that stream
It ain’t necessarily so
It ain’t necessarily so.

I think I’d much rather believe God speaking in Scripture than some singer in an opera. At least I can check out the Bible for myself. That’s why a good version that you can understand is essential. Scholars debate which is the best and most accurate translation of the original texts into English. But for the sake of keeping it simple, I would recommend the New International Version as a place for the layman to start.

Now, remember that I said that I cannot convince you that the Bible is the actual Word of God. Only God Himself can do that. Indeed, only God Himself can convince you that He exists. He does use means, such as people and events. However, from the Book of Isaiah from which my dad so often quoted so “freely and from memory” which is to say, in the words of my dad’s favourite version the Bible, “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” Or, as the easier to understand New Living Translation renders the Hebrew into modern English, “Look to God’s instructions and teachings! People who contradict his word are completely in the dark.[5]

One of the best ways of understanding the Bible is to take everything back to the beginning. In the Vale of Leven when I was growing up there were two movie theatres (or picture hooses as we called them). You could come in half way through a film and wait for the “second showing.” The same movie would be shown again. However, if you start watching a movie half way through, then you’re left trying to guess what happened beforehand. This is what a lot of people do with the Bible. Like fish-gut at the bottom of a tackle box, they get into some real tangles. Jonah and the Whale is one of them. However, like everything else in the Bible, take it back to the start. Where did evil come from? Take it back to Genesis. Where did death come from? Take it back to Genesis. Where did lying come from? Take it back to Genesis. I’m sure you’re getting the picture. Where did the sun, the moon, the earth and stars come from? Take it back to Genesis. Where did you and I (and fish and whales) come from? Take it back to Genesis. What does the opening verse of the Bible say? “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1). The point I make is that if God can create all of creation and all therein out of nothing, then Jonah in the belly of a fish is easy for Him, as is the virgin birth, the resurrection and all the other miracles listed in the Bible. God speaks and things that are not become things that are. Nothing is too hard for God. So, don’t listen anyone who does not speak according to Scripture. And if they do, then check it out for yourself. Be like the Bereans. “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.[6] But don’t be like Sportin’ Life, the drug dealer. Don’t believe him when he says,

Dey tell all you chillun de debble’s a villain
But ‘taint necessarily so
To get into Hebben don’ snap for a sebben
Live clean, don’ have no fault
Oh I takes dat gospel whenever it’s pos’ble
But wid a grain of salt
Methus’lah lived nine hundred years
Methus’lah lived nine hundred years
But who calls dat livin’ when no gal’ll give in
To no man what’s nine hundred years
I'm preachin’ dis sermon to show
It ain’t nessa, ain’t nessa
Ain’t nessa, ain’t nessa
It ain’t necessarily so.

Like me, as you read the lyrics of It Ain’t Necessarily So you no doubt found the language a little bit difficult to understand; “Chillun”, “debble”, “Hebben” and “sebben” etc. The point I make is therefore why struggle through a version of the Bible written in archaic language when there are more contemporary English versions?

“Gin ye confess wi your mouth at Jesus is Lord, an trew in your hairt at God raised him frae the deid, ye will be saufed.” Romans 10:9, The New Testament in Scots.

“That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the LORD Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.” Romans 10:9, King James Version (KJV).

“That if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” New King James Version (NKJV).

“If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is LORD,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Roman 10:9, New International Version (NIV).

            The idea then, is that you, as a layman, find a version that is easy for you to understand. Stick to the New International Version (NIV) or the new King James Version (NKJV), and yes, there are other good versions. But keep in mind that there are some not so good versions too!


[1] 2 Peter 1:21-22 NIV.
[2] George & Ira Gershwin, Porgie and Bess, 1935.
[3] Stuart in an email to me dated 27 March 2016.
[4] Matthew 12:40 NIV.
[5] Isaiah 8:20.
[6] Acts 17:11 NIV.