No Scary Stuff

At youth group the other night I made a comment about jumping way ahead (in the Bible, from last week). “To the scary stuff?” came back as one girl in particular decided to jump to Revelation, the last book of the Bible. When I looked at her confused and somewhat amused, she backpedaled…a little.

Poll the members of any church in America and I’m confident that the overwhelming notion among church-goers is that someday, off in the future, we will enter the so-called “last days.” You know what they mean – those days when the return of Jesus seems imminent, when believers will be raptured from the earth and taken to heaven so that we don’t have to deal with all of the “scary stuff” that we read about in the book of Revelation.

What if, and hear me out, what if I told you I don’t believe that at all? What if, stay with me, but what if I told you that the apostle Peter didn’t believe it either? Are you dubious?

I want to show you something in Acts 2 that I didn’t really point out this past Sunday. Look at Acts 2:17. That’s where Peter begins quoting from Joel 2. In Peter’s understanding of the Old Testament, that passage in Joel looked forward to a day when the Spirit would be poured out on God’s people, a day when all who called on the name of the Lord would be saved. And, right there on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was sent from the Father and the Son onto the disciples.

Well, Acts 2:17 corresponds to Joel 2:28, so turn there and read that. Pay attention to what Joel wrote. I’ll compare the verses for you below:

            Joel 2:28 – “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out…”

            Acts 2:17 – “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out…”

Did you notice that Peter made a change to Joel’s words? Joel looked ahead to a day “after[ward].” But Peter changed that to “in the last days” and then claimed to be living the fulfillment of the promise of Joel 2. In other words, what was a future event and “afterward” for Joel was a present reality for Peter and “in the last days.”

Now, let me remind you who wrote the Bible. Every book, every sentence, every word, every poem, every historical account – they all have 2 authors: the human and the Holy Spirit. That means that we can’t wave off Joel or Peter as being, somehow, wrong or confused.

Ultimately, Peter understands (and, I would contend, so do the rest of the New Testament writers) that he was living in the last days. You and I are living, already, in the last days. There’s no rapture. There’s no still future millennium. And, I might add, there’s no scary stuff. Why not? Because Jesus wins.

Inspired by Italy #5: Ritual

Extenuating circumstances. You know, those are the times when I get to unilaterally change the rules because, well, it’s a special situation. Maybe things look particularly grim. Maybe you have a large bill coming due. Maybe time is running out. Maybe you need extra cash. We can all come up with times when we need to take matters into our own hands and solve our problems regardless of what God says.

We find King Saul in a similar situation as we read 1 Samuel 13. The prophet, Samuel, instructed Saul, all the way back in chapter 10, to go to Gilgal and wait there for him to get there.

“Then go down before me to Gilgal. And behold, I am coming down to you to offer burnt offerings and to sacrifice peace offerings. Seven days you shall wait, until I come to you and show you what you shall do.” - 1 Samuel 10:8

King Saul had the clearly revealed will of God. See, as a prophet, it was Samuel’s job to communicate from God to His people and when he spoke, God was speaking. However, on day 7, Saul got impatient. Samuel was taking too long to get there. I mean, it’s the seventh day, right? Not only that, but his army was bailing on him because they were scared of the enemy gathering around them. So King Saul decided to offer the sacrifices himself (1 Samuel 13:8-9). And almost immediately Samuel arrived.

Saul tells us himself why he didn’t wait (1 Samuel 13:11-12). He wanted God’s blessing. Essentially, he used the offering as a talisman, merely going through the exercise expecting that his performance of the ritual would be sufficient to gain God’s favor.

There’s just one glaring problem with Saul’s thinking: he had to ignore God’s clearly revealed will in order to perform the ritual that he thought would gain God’s favor (v.13). 

Walk through dozens of churches, basilicas, and cathedrals, some in use and some hardly more than museums, in a two-week span and you’ll see all sorts of rituals of devotion and worship and, at the same time, wonder where they come from. There are practices designed to show reverence (a good thing, by the way) and worship and commitment that, as far as I can tell, had no ground in Scripture, either by command or inference or example.

How often do we engage in rituals that, in and of themselves, are actually good and righteous acts, but at the expense of God’s revealed will? The Bible shows us over and over again that God’s Holy Word is to be our “rule of faith and life” (Westminster Confession of Faith I.2). Even right and good and godly acts are to be governed by God’s revealed will.

It’s possible to do good things for good reasons and yet still violate God’s revealed will. We will frequently try to do good things with the wrong motive - the hope of earning God’s blessing.

Is the Bible your sole rule of faith and practice? Does it govern your beliefs and your actions?

Inspired By Italy #4: The Capuchin Friars

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This plaque marks the beginning of a long corridor running beside a series of 6 small chapels (think alcoves), and more fitting words could not be found. But it’s not a place for weak stomachs.

I’ll let you do your own Google searches about the Capuchin friars, an order within the Franciscans that sought, in the 1520s, to bring the Franciscans back from perceived liberalism. You can use Google Maps to see the street view of the crypt and museum with the church above them.

The real story, however, is the unusual “artwork” in the crypt itself. I use that term loosely because the art is almost completely made of skeletal remains. You know, bones. There’s literally a chapel of pelvises and a chapel of leg bones. Everywhere you turn there are bones – a chandelier of pelvises, arm bones arranged to form a flower, skulls stacked to fill a wall.

Yes, it’s a little creepy. However, it is an attempt to make a point.

How often do you consider your own future? How often do you ponder what will come of your body in another 100 years? These bones are set inside of a building that’s more than 400 years old. People don’t live 400 years. In that time, our bodies decay, our flesh fades, and eventually our bones become dust.

Even the Bible urges us to consider our future. In Hebrews 9, we are reminded that man is appointed to live and to die and, after that, to face judgment. And these friars wanted the reality of death and of a future judgment to impact our lives on earth.

For example, our evangelism should be fueled, in part, by a love for the lost and the reality of death and judgment and hell. Our parenting should have an awareness of our own mortality and the future of the church and our descendants. We should even approach our work and participate in society in ways that recognize our influence for Christ may very well outlast our lifetime.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not recommending joining up (they are all over the globe, including the United States). And there are certainly aspects of their beliefs that are outside of the commands of God. But we could still learn to ponder eternity, to live in light of eternity, and learn from this admittedly unusual crypt.

Inspired By Italy #3: Mary Does WHAT?

It’s not the center of attention; that would be Michelangelo’s statue of David. It’s not the coolest piece; that would be some of Michelangelo’s unfinished works with elbows and feet sticking out of solid blocks of marble. But it’s the one that caught my attention the most. The painting, called The Immaculate Conception, by Carlo Portelli, has sparked discussions and Google searches over the last couple of weeks. And wouldn’t you believe, in God’s providence, it was part of a temporary traveling exhibit, hanging on the wall in the alcove to the right of David.

I took a picture; you can see it here.

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Do you see what I see? Looking back, I now wonder how many times I had seen something similar in our travels in Rome and Florence and not noticed it. But this time, I couldn’t miss it. Do you see it?  Let me help; I’ll zoom in a little.

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Plain as day: Mary standing on a snake’s head. Wait, WHAT?

Remember Genesis 3 and the introduction of sin into the world by Adam and Eve when they ate the forbidden fruit? In verse 15, as God is pronouncing a curse on the serpent, he pronounced the gospel message. “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel.” God promised a Savior, a Redeemer, all the way back in Genesis 3:15.

However, the Roman Catholic Church has ascribed to Mary that which the Bible ascribes to Jesus. It’s at his death and burial and resurrection that Jesus defeated sin and Satan.

There’s a theme here. According to the Roman Catholic Church, Mary, as the blessed virgin who was chosen to carry and give birth to Jesus, shares in the work of our salvation. She is, in their view, the second Eve just as Christ is the Second Adam.  

Funny thing is that I can’t find any passage in Scripture even remotely suggesting that Mary might be a “second Eve”. Paul very clearly makes the connection between Christ and Adam, both in Romans 5 and in 1 Corinthians 15. It seems to me that the Roman Catholic Church is ascribing at least part of the saving work of Christ, our covenant representative, to Mary.

If you’ve ever wondered why the Protestant Reformation was necessary, we begin to get an answer here. Ascribing to Mary glory that belongs to Christ and having to add to the Bible in order to do it sounds like a pretty good practice to fight against.


Inspired by Italy #2

Two years ago, as we were walking among the ruins of castles and churches in Scotland, my kids got tired of my oft repeated refrain of amazement: “We are living as many years after Jamestown as this building was built before Jamestown.”  The idea, of course, was that we’re living 400 years after the Jamestown settlement in the New World, but walking around a castle that was built in the early 1200s.

But that was Scotland. The story is different in Italy.

The Complex of Seven Churches in Bologna (too much to explain here, but literally seven different church buildings all built with shared walls over the course of 700 years) was completed around 1000 AD. St Peter’s Basilica was being built in the early 1500s as Martin Luther was coming to grips with the false teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence (we typically just call it “The Duomo”) was completed in the middle of the 15th century. There are even churches that were technically never completed that are still standing and in use. It’s Italy; I could multiply the illustrations.

Buildings are, of course, subject to decay. The Church is the only permanent, perpetual institution on earth. When Christ returns and consummates his kingdom and we enter the New Creation, the Church will remain. As unbelievers are cast into the lake of fire, believers will be welcomed into the very presence of Christ for eternity. Thus “the Church is permanent and perpetual.”

I realize, of course, that no particular individual church is guaranteed to exist forever. I realize that there may come a day when Grace Covenant Church ceases to exist for whatever reason. But the Church as the Body of Christ, as the Bride of Christ cannot fail.

This truth makes me wonder something about the church architecture of today. Why don’t more churches today build buildings designed to last? Now, I know, we don’t have the money that the Pope has. I know, it’s far more difficult to get marble blocks we can use as foundations and walls of a new church, but if the church is the one permanent entity in the world, the only organization guaranteed to continue into the New Creation, why wouldn’t we build church buildings with that in mind?

How exciting and encouraging would it be to think that in the year 2819, people might be walking around Athens, AL and standing amazed that Grace Covenant Church was built with an eye to future generations.

Inspired by Italy #1

A young girl, perhaps 9 or 10 years old, stood at a confessional booth in the Sacrament of Penance Chapel, one of the forward side chapels of St. Peter’s Basilica. She nodded several times with some vigor. I was left to assume the questions the priest was asking from inside that booth.

Meanwhile, a man sat alone in the middle of the chapel, praying.

Outside the ropes (because I wasn’t going into that chapel) I watched curiously.

It only took a few minutes to learn that the man was not, in fact, alone; the girl at the confessional booth was his daughter. The rest of their family was standing just behind me, which I only learned when the two of them passed by me to a younger boy asking, “What were you talking about?” and the father announcing, “She said she felt like she was floating on a cloud.”

It appears that this was his daughter’s first confession and, of all places, it occurred in what can only be described as the most influential, most important building in Roman Catholicism. For crying out loud, the Pope’s house isn’t too far away from that very building.

What struck me, however, was the fact that a dad was able to “walk with” his daughter through this pinnacle event in her life. His joy for her joy was what caught my attention.

Without making ANY evaluation of Roman Catholicism (yet) - Parents, this is your great calling – to pass on the faith to your children. Are you teaching them the Bible? Are you teaching them the doctrines of our holy religion? Are you praying with and for your children regularly? Are you modeling a life of grace and faith and repentance? Will it be your day of great joy when they embrace the faith of their parents?

This doesn't happen by accident. This demands intentional, thoughtful, perpetual labor on the part of the parents. I witnessed what I expect to be the culmination of a life of teaching and training. May God grant to us this same commitment and, even greater, this same result - a child confessing Christ for the first time.

Hurry Up, Already!

Speed and splash matter to us. If we have to wait, we get annoyed and impatient. Our super fast iPhone is no longer good enough; we have to get the newest super-super-fast model. Five minutes in line is an eternity when we’re already “hangry”. I’ve mentioned the profuse apology and gift card I received for having to wait seven whole minutes at a drive-thru window in South Carolina.

But speed isn’t always enough. It better make a splash, too. We want the fanciest and most super incredible ever. A name in lights. Fireworks. Whatever “it” is, it better come with pizzazz and wow-factor. For that matter, one of the most expensive tickets at any Summer Olympics is the 100m dash - splash and speed.

I don’t suppose there’s anything automatically inherently wrong with this, unless you expect God to work that way. Normally, ordinarily, God works slowly and deliberately and without much fanfare. He works in and through the rather mundane activities of life.