Relying on Others

You’re running late for an important appointment and your ride isn’t here yet. You expected everything to be prepared ahead of time and, when you arrive, you find everyone rushing around at the last-minute. The presentation is going well, until the projector lamp goes out. When you ask for a replacement bulb, your assistant sheepishly shrugs their shoulders.

If you haven’t presented at a meeting or seminar, these events may be foreign to you. But we’ve all depended on someone to meet their commitment, pick up the slack, or come through in a pinch. We need to rely on one another.

In a more essential way, that’s true for the church, the body of Christ. The Apostle Paul says it like this:

…Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. Ephesians 4:15-16 English Standard Version (ESV)

There is something foundational in relying on those in the church. The Protestant Reformer, John Calvin, frames the nature of our relationships with Christ and each other:

But, speaking the truth. Having already said that we ought not to be children, destitute of reason and judgment, he now [charges] us to grow up in the truth. Though we have not arrived at man’s estate, we ought at least…to be advanced children.

The truth of God ought to have such a firm hold of us, that all the contrivances and attacks of Satan shall not draw us from our course; and yet, as we have not hitherto attained full and complete strength, we must make progress until death.

He points out the design of this progress, that Christ may be the head, “that in all things he may have the pre-eminence,” (Colossians 1:18,) and that in him alone we may grow in vigor or in stature. Again, we see that no man is excepted; all are [commanded] to be subject, and to take their own places in the body.

…A healthful condition of the church requires that Christ alone “must increase,” and all others “must decrease.” (John 3:30) Whatever increase we obtain must be regulated in such a manner, that we shall remain in our own place, and contribute to exalt the head.

…If each individual, instead of attending exclusively to his own concerns, shall desire [interrelationships], there will be agreeable and general progress. Such, the Apostle assures us, must be the nature of this harmony, that men shall not be [permitted] to forget the claims of truth, or, disregarding them, to frame an agreement according to their own views…

Then, he explores the functioning of that vital, shared relationship:

From whom the whole body. All our increase should tend to exalt more highly the glory of Christ. This is [proven] by the best possible reasons. It is he who [provides for] all [that we lack], and without whose protection we cannot be safe. As the root conveys sap to the whole tree, so all the vigor which we possess must flow to us from Christ.

There are three things here which deserve our attention:

The first [has already] been stated: All the life or health which is diffused through the members flows from the head; so that the members occupy a subordinate rank.

The second is, that, by the distribution made, the limited share of each renders the communication between all the members absolutely necessary.

The third is, that, without mutual love, the health of the body cannot be maintained.

Through the members, as [channels], is conveyed from the head all that is necessary for the nourishment of the body. While this connection is upheld, the body is alive and healthy. Each member, too, has its own proper share, — according to the effectual working in the measure of every part.

Finally, Calvin declares the result of this organic interdependency when all is properly functioning:

Lastly, he shows that by love the church is edified, — to the edifying of itself in love. This means that no increase is advantageous, which does not bear a just proportion to the whole body. That man is mistaken who desires his own separate growth. If a leg or arm should grow to a prodigious size, or the mouth be more fully distended, would the undue enlargement of those parts be otherwise than injurious to the whole frame?

In like manner, if we wish to be considered members of Christ, let no man be anything for himself, but let us all be whatever we are for the benefit of each other. This is accomplished by love; and where it does not reign, there is no “edification,” but an absolute scattering of the church.

In context of this scripture, Archbishop of Constantinople John Chrysostom explored the consequences of our not clinging to, but rather dividing, Christ’s body, the church:

…If therefore we desire to have the benefit of that Spirit which is from the Head, let us [stick like glue] one to another. For there are two kinds of separation from the body of the Church; the one, when we [grow] cold in love, the other, when we dare commit things unworthy of our belonging to that body; for in either way we cut ourselves off from the “fullness of Christ.” But if we are appointed to build up others also, what shall not be done to them who are first to make division?

Nothing will [serve] to divide the Church [so much as the] love of power. Nothing so provokes God’s anger as the division of the Church. [More accurately], though we have achieved ten thousand glorious acts, yet shall we, if we cut to pieces the fullness of the Church, suffer punishment no less [stinging] than they who mangled His body.

For that [i.e., Christ’s Crucifixion] indeed was brought to pass for the benefit of the world, even though it was done [by men] with no such intention; whereas this [i.e., church division] produces no advantage in any case, but the injury is excessive. These remarks I am addressing not to the governors only, but also to the governed.

…This injury is not less than that received at the hands of enemies, [or rather, more than that], it is far greater. For that [, i.e., injury at an enemy’s hands,] indeed renders [the church] even more glorious, whereas this, when she is warred upon by her own children, disgraces her even before her enemies. Because it seems to them a great mark of hypocrisy, that those who have been born in her, and nurtured in her bosom, and have learned perfectly her secrets, that these should [all] of a sudden change, and do her enemies’ work.

Therefore, rely on Him and serve others.

Johnny Q. Public – Body Be (Official Music Video,) YouTube, Gotee records, Lyrics, Available on Amazon

Wisdom From Above

Bitter jealousy and selfish ambition motivate most enterprises in this world. Sure, there are some in those institutions who work selflessly, not seeking credit for themselves. But, even these individuals may be seduced by ambition’s rewards and caught in its snares. This happens in secular and non-secular institutions. No one is immune to the temptation. Very few resist and persevere. The Apostle James contrasts this wisdom of the world with the wisdom God dispenses freely if only we ask:

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. James 3:17-18 English Standard Version (ESV)

This sounds like what we all would want were we not so preoccupied with seeking our own good. The reformer, John Calvin, analyzes these verses with direct application to those in the church:

But the wisdom which is from above. [James] now mentions the effects of celestial wisdom which are wholly contrary to the former effects:

He says first that it is pure; by which term he excludes hypocrisy and ambition.

He, in the second place, calls it peaceable, to intimate that it is not contentious.

In the third place, he calls it kind or humane, that we may know that it is far away from that immoderate [strictness] which tolerates nothing in our brethren.

He also calls it gentle or tractable; by which he means that it widely differs from pride and malignity.

In the last place, he says that it is full of mercy, etc., while hypocrisy is inhuman and inexorable.

By good fruits he generally refers to all those duties which benevolent men perform towards their brethren; as though he had said, it is full of benevolence. It [therefore] follows, that they [depart from the truth] who glory in their cruel [severity].

…Though he had sufficiently condemned hypocrisy…he makes it more clear by repeating the same thing at the end. We are [therefore] reminded that [we are miserable or severe] for no other reason…but [that] we too much [excuse] ourselves, and [scheme] at our own vices.

…James here, by [the opposite of impartiality] refers to that overanxious and over-scrupulous inquiry, such as is commonly carried on by hypocrites, who too minutely examine the sayings and doings of their brethren, and put on them the worst [spin].

So, Calvin shows us how the Apostle James elaborates on the Lord Jesus’ statement: “…Out of the abundance of the heart…” Calvin then goes on to say:

And the fruit of righteousness. This admits of two meanings, — that fruit is sown by the peaceable, which afterwards they gather, — or, that they themselves, though they meekly tolerate many things in their neighbors, do not yet cease to sow righteousness.

…James says, that those who are wise according to God’s will, are so kind, meek, and merciful, as yet not to cover vices nor favor them; but on the contrary, in such a way as to strive to correct them, and yet in a peaceable manner, that is, in moderation, so that union is preserved.

And thus, he testifies that what he had said [before] tends in no degree to do away with calm reproofs; but that those who wish to be physicians to heal vices ought not to be executioners.

In this way, Calvin points out the difference between the peaceable, who seek righteousness through correction leading to unity, and those who don’t. Calvin finally contrasts zeal tempered by peaceability versus untempered zeal resulting in disorder and division:

[James] adds, by those who make peace; which ought to be explained [as]: they who study peace, are nevertheless careful to sow righteousness; nor are they slothful or negligent in promoting and encouraging good works; but they moderate their zeal with the condiment of peace, while hypocrites throw all things into confusion by a blind and furious violence.

A good friend of mine exhibits these peaceable attributes. It’s a pleasure to converse with him about the blessings and trials of life. Though he has opinions on all we discuss, I can hear when he tempers his discussion to correct me and preserve our union. I would have to say he sows righteousness benevolently. He is a rare friend. Others I’ve known, wishing to be physicians that heal vices, have been, as Calvin termed it, executioners instead.

Which are you?

Peaceable Kingdom - E. Hicks

Peaceable Kingdom, circa 1834, Edward Hicks (1780-1849), Public Domain in the US

Why Do You Look at Me That Way?

Don’t you hate it when your significant other gives you that look? You know what they mean. Maybe what you’re doing is something they warned you off months ago and there you are doing it again. They told you about how it hurt them when you did it. You even had words over it. May be you told them you’d never do it again.

The Apostle Peter had a similar experience but the stakes were much higher. Warned by Christ that the devil sought to have him and sift him like wheat, Peter said he’d follow Him to prison and death, if necessary. Then the Lord told Peter he’d deny Him three times.

He followed the Lord into the High priest’s courtyard after His arrest. There, Peter was confronted by three people about his association with Jesus the Galilean. He denied Him each time. The final encounter went like this:

And after an interval of about an hour still another insisted, saying, “Certainly this man also was with him, for he too is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about.” And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed.

And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.

Luke 22:59-62 English Standard Version (ESV)

All four Gospel accounts report Peter’s denial.

The pastor and preacher, John Calvin, draws insight from Peter’s denial and repentance.

And Peter remembered the word of Jesus. …Which of us does not pass by with indifference and with deaf ears…[to] even the voice of God, which is heard clearly and distinctly in the doctrine of the Law and of the Gospel? Nor is it for a single day only that our minds are held by such brutal [senselessness], but it is perpetual until he who alone turns the hearts of men [condescends] to look upon us.

…Observe, however, that this was no ordinary look, for he had formerly looked at Judas who, after all, became no better by it. But in looking at Peter, he added to his eyes the secret efficacy of the Spirit, and thus by the rays of his grace, penetrated into his heart…Therefore know, that whenever anyone has fallen, his repentance will never begin, until the Lord has looked at him.

As Calvin says, this was no ordinary look that Christ gave Peter but one leading to repentance.

And he went out and wept bitterly. It is probable that Peter went out [to weep] through fear [and weakness] …We infer that he did not deserve pardon by satisfaction, but that he obtained it by the fatherly kindness of God…By this example, …we ought to [have] confident hope [that] God does not despise even weak repentance, provided that it be sincere.

…For we see many who shed tears purposely, so long as they are beheld by others, but who have no sooner retired than they have dry eyes. …Tears, which do not flow on account of the judgment of God, are often drawn forth by ambition and hypocrisy.

But, is weeping requisite in true repentance? …Believers often with dry eyes groan before the Lord without hypocrisy, and confess their fault to obtain pardon; but in more aggravated offenses they must be in no ordinary degree [thoughtless] and hardened, whose hearts are not pained by grief and sorrow, and who do not feel ashamed even so far as to shed tears…

Though tears should flow at our grieving the Lord with our sin, He is gracious to forgive us in light of even the weakest repentance if it proceeds from a sincere heart. My wish is for His look to drive me to repentance as often as I need. Is that yours?

Peter's Denial - Rembrandt

St. Peter’s Denial, Rembrandt (1606–1669), public domain in the United States

Idols

Scripture is clear: Idols are nothing. However, the scriptures point out that it is not the physical manifestation of the idol nor the demonic forces it represents but the disaffection of peoples’ hearts from their Lord and Creator that is deadly.

In one of the more amusing Old Testament passages, the Prophet Isaiah shows the futility of idols by describing a man using half of a wooden log to warm himself and cook a meal and then worshipping the other half:

He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god! Isaiah 44:14-17 English Standard Version (ESV)

The Prophet Jeremiah says physical idols are mere inanimate articles of superstition:

Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field,

   and they cannot speak;

they have to be carried,

   for they cannot walk.

Do not be afraid of them,

   for they cannot do evil,

   neither is it in them to do good.”

Jeremiah 10:5 (ESV)

The Prophet Ezekiel emphasizes what was true all along; idol worship is a question of a person’s heart disaffection from the Lord:

For any one of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who sojourn in Israel, who separates himself from me, taking his idols into his heart and putting the stumbling block of his iniquity before his face, and yet comes to a prophet to consult me through him, I the Lord will answer him myself. Ezekiel 14:7 (ESV)

John Calvin comments on this passage:

He who caused his idols to ascend unto his heart, he who placed the stumbling block of his iniquity before his face, that is, was drowned in his own superstitions, so that his idols bore sway in his heart.

Lastly, he who is so forward in audacity that he did not conceal his wish to oppose the Almighty: if anyone, says he, came to a prophet to inquire of him in me, or my name, I will answer him. He [the Lord speaking through the prophet]…could no longer bear the hypocrites who deluded themselves so proudly. And certainly when they openly worshipped idols, and were [filled] with many superstitions, what audacity and pride it was to consult true prophets?

It is much the same as if a person should want only insult and rail at a physician, and not only load him with reproaches, but even spit in his face: and should afterwards go and ask his advice, saying, “What do you advise me to do? How must I be cured of this disease?” Such pride could not be borne between man and man…How then will God permit such reproaches to go unpunished?

The Apostle Paul addresses the question of idols directly:

Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. 1 Corinthians 8:4-6 (ESV)

Calvin disagrees with the translation no…existence:

…As to the words, Erasmus reads thus — “An idol has no existence.” I prefer the rendering of the old translation — an idol is nothing. For the argument is this — that an idol is nothing, inasmuch as there is but one God; for it follows admirably — “If there is no other God besides our God, then an idol is an empty dream, and mere vanity.” When he says — and there is none other God but one, I understand the conjunction [as giving this explanation].

For the reason why an idol is nothing is, that it must be estimated according to the thing that it represents. Now it is appointed for the purpose of representing God: nay more, for the purpose of representing false gods, inasmuch as there is but one God, who is invisible and incomprehensible.

The reason, too, must be carefully observed — An idol is nothing because there is no God but one; for he is the invisible God, and cannot be represented by a visible sign, so as to be worshipped through means of it. Whether, therefore, idols are erected to represent the true God, or false gods, it is in all cases a perverse contrivance.

Hence Habakkuk calls idols teachers of lies, (Habakkuk 2:18) because they deal falsely in pretending to give a figure or image of God, and deceive men under a false title. Hence οὐδεν (nothing) refers not to essence, but to quality — for an idol is made of some substance — either silver, or wood, or stone; but as God does not choose to be represented in this way, it is vanity and nothing as to meaning and use.

Paul takes it further and calls covetousness, which is a specific heart attitude, idolatry:

For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Ephesians 5:5 (ESV)

Calvin points out this identification is representative of a greater issue:

Nor covetous man, who is an idolater. “Covetousness,” as he says in another place, “is idolatry,” (Colossians 3:5) — not the idolatry which is so frequently condemned in Scripture, but one of a different description. All covetous men must deny God, and put wealth in his place; such is their blind greediness of wretched gain.

But why does Paul attribute to covetousness alone what belongs equally to other carnal passions? In what respect is covetousness better entitled to this disgraceful name than ambition, or than a vain confidence in ourselves?

I answer, that this disease is widely spread, and not a few minds have caught the infection. Nay, it is not reckoned a disease, but receives, on the contrary, very general commendation. This accounts for the harshness of Paul’s language, which arose from a desire to tear from our hearts the false view.

Calvin says that all heart passions that disobey God deserve being labelled idolatry. But, he says, Paul is emphasizing covetousness because of its effect in man. As his Lord had said:

“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money [or possessions].” Matthew 6:24 (ESV)

The same also recorded in Luke 16:13. Calvin draws an important distinction concerning this passage in Matthew:

…Christ affirms that it is impossible for any man to obey God, and, at the same time, to obey his own flesh…where riches hold the dominion of the heart, God has lost his authority. True, it is not impossible that those who are rich shall serve God; but whoever gives himself up as a slave to riches must abandon the service of God: for covetousness makes us the slaves of the devil.

…What is here said with a special reference to riches, may be properly extended to every other description of vice. As God pronounces everywhere such commendations of sincerity, and hates a double heart, (1 Chronicles 12:33; Psalm 12:2) all are deceived, who imagine that he will be satisfied with the half of their heart.

All, indeed, confess in words, that, where the affection is not entire, there is no true worship of God: but they deny it in fact, when they attempt to reconcile contradictions. “I shall not cease,” says an ambitious man, “to serve God, though I devote a great part of my mind to hunting after honors.”

It is, no doubt, true, that believers themselves are never so perfectly devoted to obedience to God, as not to be withdrawn from it by the sinful desires of the flesh. But as they groan under this wretched bondage, and are dissatisfied with themselves, and give nothing more than an unwilling and reluctant service to the flesh, they are not said to serve two masters.

For their desires and exertions are approved by the Lord, as if they rendered to him a perfect obedience. But this passage reproves the hypocrisy of those who flatter themselves in their vices, as if they could reconcile light and darkness.

Scarecrows out standing in a field

Scarecrow, Japan Paddy Field, By FG2, released into the Public Domain by its author