Focusing on the Cross During the Lord’s Supper

Every Lord’s Day we are blessed with an opportunity to reflect on the wonderful sacrifice Jesus made for our salvation when we partake of the Lord’s Supper. Though God intended this to be a time of thoughtful meditation, it can sometimes be a frustrating part of worship. Sometimes other people distract us so that, instead of thinking of Jesus’ sacrifice, we are concentrating on them and their activities. Sometimes our minds drift to lunch plans, the sporting events, or other interests. It frustrates us when, as the Lord’s Supper ends, we realize that our mind has been far from the cross of Jesus. We often pray that the Lord will help us to focus on the sacred event because we know that we can be easily distracted. Over the years, this frustration has caused me to seek ways to keep my mind focused on Jesus’ offering for my sins and my obligation to keep the covenant that I made with God through His blood. Here are some things that have helped me.

  • Read the Biblical texts that describe His suffering and death for me. The gospels record the historical events in Matthew 26-27; Mark 14-15; Luke 22-23; and John 18-19. You may find it helpful to read and reread certain sections of each account for a month and meditate on the events that transpired. If you do this for a few months, you will understand the story surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus much better.
  • Read prophetic passages that describe the death of Jesus and the reasons for His sacrifice. These help me better understand the eternal plan for Jesus’ death. Psalm 22 describes the crucifixion from the point of view of the cross. It describes the scene of Calvary from Jesus’ perspective. Though it appeared that God had forsaken Jesus, it is clear from verses 21-24 that the Father did not forsake Him, He did not hide His face from His Son, but He heard His Son’s cry. Isaiah 53 describes the crucifixion from the perspective of one standing below the cross of Jesus and observing the surrounding events. Not only did Isaiah vividly describe the suffering of Jesus and the viciousness of the mob that crucified Him, he also reflected on the effect of Jesus’ sacrifice on our salvation. Isaiah emphasized our sinfulness as the reason for Jesus’ death.
  • Read 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. In this passage, Paul rebuked the Corinthians for abuses in their observance of the Lord’s Supper and gave them instructions for observing the feast in a proper manner. He reminded them of Jesus’ command, the seriousness of the memorial, and a warning that those who partake in an unworthy manner would be condemned.
  • Read one of the many songs that describe the crucifixion of Jesus. So many songs help us picture the sacrifice of Jesus and remind us of our unworthiness to receive such a wonderful gift. You might want to choose a song and meditate on its message through the feast. Often you will find profound applications that you may have missed while singing the song.
  • Write your thoughts on the sacrifice of Jesus and its meaning in your life. If you feel uncomfortable doing this during the supper, perhaps you could write your observances down at home and read and reflect on the thoughts when you observe the communion of our Lord.

These are just a few suggestions to help you maintain a proper focus on this important weekly occasion. Do not let its frequency lead you to complacency or improper observance.

Easter and Pagan Fertility Festivals

Spring is in the air. The azaleas are blooming, the trees and grass are turning green, and the drone of lawn mowers break the peaceful songs of the birds on Saturday mornings. This is a wonderful time of year as the world awakes from its winter slumber.

In ancient cultures, Spring’s arrival was a comforting reminder that the gods had not forgotten them and would bless the earth with much needed food. In a world in which food reserves were scarce, each harvest could be the difference between life and death. It is not surprising that these ancient people developed elaborate worship ceremonies around the renewal and rebirth of the world in Spring.

Diana of the Ephesians, mentioned in Acts, was a goddess who provided nourishment to the nations. She is one of many goddesses that symbolized fertility and growth among the ancient people. In the temples of many fertility idols, male and female prostitutes would provide part of the “worship” to honor the gods. Outside of the “civilized” empire, the barbaric tribes also celebrated fertility rites to welcome the Spring. Some services were drunken feasts in honor of the gods. It was in this debased environment that the early Christians had to teach the proper worship of the one God.

Under the reign of Constantine, the Roman persecution of Christians stopped. Christianity became the official religion of the empire. Great numbers converted to Christianity because it was fashionable. Many retained their pagan practices. In an attempt to convert the barbarian nations, particularly the Germanic people, well meaning Christians tried to adopt the pagan practices to the Christian worship. This contrasts to the work of Paul who, when he addressed the idolatrous people at the Areopagus in Acts 17, told the people to repent of their idolatry and serve the one true God.

The mix of idolatry and Christianity was disastrous. Instead of leading people to a pure spiritual religion delivered by Jesus and His inspired apostles, it became a physical worldly religion. Instead of converting the idolatrous to Christ, they made the church more idolatrous. They replaced pagan idols with statues of Jesus, the apostles, and venerated saints. As the idols represented various occupations and pursuits, such as farming, hunting, and business, the saints would now have patronage over these things. They also adopted the pagan festivals, giving them a “Christian” meaning.

One of the most celebrated feasts was the feast for Ostara, the goddess of the morning light, or the sun’s return in the Spring. The celebration of life returning from death, Spring arising from Winter, seemed appropriate to adapt to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The new Easter celebration combined the resurrection of Christ with the symbolism of the fertility festivals. These symbols included baby chicks (new life), rabbits (well known for their breeding capability), and eggs, the ultimate symbol of new birth.

Some may note that the word “Easter” appears in the King James Version in Acts 12:4 and therefore must have been celebrated by the church in the first century. To this I quote the noted commentator and scholar, Albert Barnes:

There never was a more absurd or unhappy translation than this. The original is simply after the Passover. The word Easter now denotes the festival observed by many Christian churches in honour of the resurrection of the Saviour. But the original has no reference to that; nor is there the slightest evidence that any such festival was observed at the time when this book was written. The translation is not only unhappy, as it does not convey at all the meaning of the original, but because it may contribute to foster an opinion that such a festival was observed in the times of the apostles. The word Easter is of Saxon origin, and is supposed to be derived from Eostre, the goddess of love, or the Venus of the North, in honour of whom a festival was celebrated by our pagan ancestors in the month of April. (Webster.) As this festival coincided with the Passover of the Jews, and with the feast observed by Christians in honour of the resurrection of Christ, the name came to be used to denote the latter. In the old Anglo-Saxon service-books the term Easter is used frequently to translate the word Passover. In the translation by Wicliffe, the word paske, i.e., passover, is used. But Tindal and Coverdale used the word Easter, and hence it has very improperly crept into our translation. (Clark.) From StudyLight.org

Will the church where I attend have a special Easter pageant or sunrise service? No. We will not recognize the resurrection with any more significance than we do any other worship. The early church did not so we do not. An individual must decide if he wants to celebrate it as a family day with no spiritual significance, where the family can wear new spring clothes, hide eggs, and eat too many jellybeans. However, if one wants to celebrate it as a religious holiday, he must remember that the festival arose from the mind of man, not the mind of God.

How Do You Know What God Wants?

Guest Post by Phil Robertson.

My dad has always enjoyed telling a joke about the thermos. It goes like this. Three men were arguing over what had to be the greatest accomplishment of mankind. One said it was the trips to the moon. Another said it was modern medicine and all the cures. However a third guy said it had to be thermos. Bewildered the first two men said, “Why the thermos? All it does is keep hot things hot and cold thing cold” To which the third guy replied, “Yea, but how does it know?” Think about it. It’s silly, I know.

However, how often do you hear people saying they know what God wants? A young fella walks into a church for the first time and immediately says, “I know this is where God wants me to be.” A lady switches from one church to another because she likes the band and the entertaining worship service. When the emotion fills her heart, she says, “I know this is where God was directing me.” Another man looking for deeper love, leaves his wife and moves in with a girl friend. This new relationship is exciting and he thinks, “Doesn’t God want me to be happy? Obviously, this is where God wants me to be.”

Mankind has a long history of transforming personal opinion into God’s will. He wants to make God in his own image. He assumes that what makes him feel good is what God wants. God has always challenged these blind assumptions. “You thought that I was one just like yourself” (Ps. 50:21). He even challenged man’s ability to reason at all without His guidance.

In the days of Hosea, the Israelites, who were “God’s chosen people,” were condemned for trusting in their “own ways” (Hos 10:13). They claimed to praise the Most High but they never consulted Him (Hos 11:7). God said, “My people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge” (Hos 4:6). They did not consult God, instead they sought counsel from their “wooden idols” and allowed the culture to direct their spiritual aspirations (Hos 4:12).

Jeremiah warned the nation of Judah about seeking man’s advice. He said, “O Lord I know that the way of man is not in himself. It is not in man who walks to direct his own steps” (Jer 10:23).

Even Solomon, the wisest man ever to live, repeatedly warned of the foolishness of following human wisdom:
• “The way of the fool is right in his own eyes, but he who heeds counsel is wise.” (Pro 12:15).
• “There is a way that seems right unto a man, but its end is the way to death” (Pro 14:12)
• “Every way of man is right is in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the hearts” (Pro 21:2)
• “The heart of him who has understanding seeks knowledge but the mouth of the fools feeds on foolishness” (Pro 15:14)
Instead of assuming we know what God wants, we should trust God knows what we need. “Seek Me and live” says the Lord (Amos 5:4). He will illuminate our path and direct us in the ways of righteousness (Psa 116:165; Psa 23:3).

The only way we can really know what God wants is to study the Bible. It is His Word and His will for our lives (2 Tim 3:16-17). He wants to obey His directions so He can mold us into His image. Therefore, if we cannot find it in His Book, then we do not have any reason to say, “I know this is where God wants me to be.”

A Christian NOT Celebrating Christmas as a Religious Day?

It usually surprises some who know that I am a devout Christian that I do not celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday marking the birth of Jesus. After all, when the mantra of many in the Christian world is “put Christ back in Christmas” why is a Christian not supporting this and, in fact, not participating in the religious ceremony?

At the foundation is a conviction to look to the teaching and practice of Jesus and the apostles as revealed in the New Testament as the authority for what I practice as a Christian in worship and in my life. Christmas was not commanded or practiced by Jesus and the apostles and there is no record of the churches of the New Testament celebrating the birth of Jesus. It was introduced much later in history and was not even universally accepted then. As The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religous Knowlege notes:

Christian preachers of the West and the Near East protested against the unseemly frivolity with which Christ’s birthday was celebrated, while Christians of Mesopotamia accused their western brethren of idolatry and sun worship for adopting as Christian this pagan festival.

For those who would argue that even though Jesus and the apostles didn’t command it and the early church didn’t observe it is still a good thing because it honors God, I’d caution you to consider these points summarized from the post “Just Because We Want It Doesn’t Mean God Wants It”:

  1. David and Nathan, two sincere and devout men decided that it would be good to build a temple for God and that God would be with David (2 Samuel 7). God rebuked them for their presumption noting that He had never command this from His people. Even sincere people may assume that God will be pleased with what they want to do to His glory.
  2. King Jereboam was not acting out of sincere motives and, as recorded in 2 Kings 25, changed the practices commanded by God to suit his needs and was condemned.
  3. The Pharisees also changed service to God by adding practices then condemning those who did not follow the man-made traditions. Jesus rebuked them saying, “And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” They went through the motions of worship but God did not accept it.

The second reason that I do not celebrate Christmas as a religous holiday is that it is a mix of Christian symbols and idolatrous practices. Even a quick study of the origins of Christmas, by supporters and critcs, note the links between the idolatrous Saturnalia and Brumalia feasts and the introduction of Christmas. Schaff-Herzog again:

The pagan Saturnalia and Brumalia were too deeply entrenched in popular custom to be set aside by Christian influence…The pagan festival with it’s riot and merrymaking was so popular that Christians were glad of an excuse to continue its celebration with little change in spirit and in manner.

A quick Internet search of the pagan orgins of Christmas will yield an abundance of sites for those who want to pursue this further. If doing things in worship and service to God without His authority displeases God, so much more would would worship that is established on an idolatrous foundation be abominable to Him! The Old and New Testaments teach this clearly. For a more detailed analysis of the mixture of idolatry into Christian practices, view this article at Myth and Mystery.

Finally, I do not celebrate Christmas as a religous holiday because I am not a member of the Catholic church and do not observe the Catholic liturgical practice known as the mass (described here). I eat the Lord’s Supper every Lord’s Day to remember the sacrifice of Jesus as was commanded by Jesus and practiced by the apostles and early church. I don’t recognize the authority for a Christ Mass to be celebrated on December 25th in the New Testament therefore I reject that practice. It confuses me that many non-Catholic Christians who reject the authority and traditions of the Catholic church embrace this completely Catholic practice.

This time of year is a great time to spend with family as travel plans and relaxed work schedules permit greater opportunities to spend time together. There is no problem giving gifts to those you love at any time of the year. Christmas has, in many ways, left it’s relgious roots and its symbols–the tree, lights, etc.–have lost their religious significance. Each Christian has to decide to what degree, if any, he will participate in the celebrations but must do so considering the commands and expectations of God and do nothing that takes from His glory.

References: The Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge: Entries for “C” here

Update: 12/21/2011: Added Myth and Mystery Link

Just Because We Want It Doesn’t Mean God Wants It

Sometimes sincere and well-intentioned people want to introduce practices in the worship of God that were not commanded or practiced by Jesus, the apostles, or the church in the New Testament. Often they will counter the request for New Testament authorization that we are free to do what we want in service to God because it would honor Him and it seems like a good thing to do.

Before embracing this philosophy, consider these important lessons from Scripture.

David and Nathan

 David, before his sin with Bathsheba was called “a man after God’s own heart” and after that sin, Nathan was the faithful prophet who confronted the king with his sin. After securing peace for Israel through military power, establishing Jerusalem as the city of the king, and building a fine palace for himself, it occurred to David that he was living in luxury while the Ark of the Covenant, where God’s presence was manifested for Israel, was “dwelling in a tent.” Religious students know that the “tent” was the tabernacle built according to the specific pattern that God gave Moses.

When righteous David expressed his concern to faithful Nathan, the prophet told David “Go, do all that is in your heart, for the LORD is with you (2 Samuel 7:3). Since two faithful and sincere men of God came up with what seemed like a good thing to do for God, the Lord must be pleased, correct?

Before he left the palace grounds, God sent Nathan back to David to tell him that He did not want David to build him a house (temple). In fact, God argued, through Nathan:

In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” 2 Samuel 7:7

God had the power and means to command what He wanted and never commanded this. And God made that clear to Nathan and David that they conceived this in their hearts (no matter how sincere they were) but it was not in the heart or plans of God.

Though Nathan was a godly man, he was presumptuous to say that God supported David’s plan. Though David was a godly man, he was presumptuous to suppose that God would be pleased with something that He never commanded. God did allow the construction of the temple, but on His terms and instructions.

Jeroboam’s innovations (1 Kings 12:25-33)

Some changes are not introduced with noble intentions. When the nation of Israel split into two kingdoms, King Jeroboam feared that people leaving the northern kingdom to worship in Jerusalem, according to the commands of God, would lead to instability in his kingdom. In order to prevent this he made some changes to to the worship God commanded. Some changes seemed minor but God considered it abominable:

  • Jeroboam built calves at Dan and Bethel and told the people that “these are the gods who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Note: this sentance sermon also preached by Aaron was not acceptable in his time either – Exodus 32:4).
  • Instead of appointing priests from Levi as commanded by the Law, he appointed anyone who wanted to be a priest. The book of Hebrews notes that by commanding tribes from the tribe of Levi it excluded priests from any other tribe: Hebrews 7:14.
  • He changed the days of worship commanded by the Law to days of his own choosing. Similar to those who forsake the Lord’s Day–the first day of the week–as was the pattern of the New Testament church to days that are more convenient to them.

The effect of this sin is that in addition to the sins the kings of Israel committed, they are also condemned for “following the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who had made Israel sin.”

Pharisees

The Pharisees, mentioned often in the gospels, were a religous/political party in the New Testament. They tried to be faithful to the law but introduced practices and condemned men for not following their man-made decrees. In rebuking the Pharisees, Jesus said “And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” Matthew 15:9. It is vain worship to follow the practices introduced by the wisdom of man and not the command of God–no matter how sincere or well-intentioned those men might be.

God has given us commands for how to worship. It is presumption and arrogance to think God will just accept whatever we want to worship. It is true sincerity and humility to worship as God instructed.

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