A House of Prayer for All Nations-Not a Divided Body

How concerned should a Christian be with his or her particular people group? Is it required that we look deeply into who are our ancestors? Is the color of our skin or the sins of our long-dead forefathers important to who we are in the church today? Is there a call for the church to divide people based on past wrongs or perceived social advantages in the present?

I wish such questions were merely theoretical, but if you pay attention to the things being said in the church in America today, you will see that the move toward an embrace of social justice causes has begun to bring about division in the body. People are now beginning to put descriptor words in front of the word Christian to say what they are. There is a focus, on the part of some, on identifying as white Christians, black Christians, Hispanic Christians, etc. We would love to think that the church would remember that ethnic divisions and social stigmas have no place in the church, but such is not the case today.

Surprisingly, I thought of this issue in my read through Isaiah, a place I was not expecting to bring it to mind.

Isaiah 56:3-8

3 Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and let not the eunuch say,
“Behold, I am a dry tree.”
4 For thus says the Lord:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
5 I will give in my house and within my walls
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.
6 “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,
everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it,
and holds fast my covenant—
7 these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.”
8 The Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares,
“I will gather yet others to him
besides those already gathered.”

Do you recall when Jesus cleansed the temple by turning over the tables of the money-changers? The Savior quoted from this passage of Isaiah. He reminded the religious leadership that his Father’s house is to be a house of prayer for all nations. People from all people groups were to be able to come to that place and find a pure experience of the worship of God. And the religious leaders were causing divisions, erecting barricades. When the Jews charged exorbitant amounts for people to exchange their currency for temple currency, were they not discriminating against the foreigner even more than the Israelite? Jesus saw that the religious leaders were doing things, not to unite a people of God, but to heighten animosity between people groups.

Interestingly, in the context of the passage that Jesus quoted as he drove out the animal-sellers, the Lord says that the foreigner is not to say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people.” Even during the days of national Israel, where there was a difference between Jew and gentile, God made it plain that there will not ultimately be a separation. The foreigner who comes to the Lord in faithful worship is not to feel separated. The foreigner is to stop identifying as foreign, outcast, different and simply identify as a worshipper of God. As we see in verses 7-8, “these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

If the Lord tells the foreigner not to think of himself as foreign anymore, if the Lord says that his house is a house of prayer for all peoples, are we not undermining the very fabric of the grace of God when we strive to reintroduce to the people of God division based on ethnicity? Of course we want to be honest about our past and admit that true evil has been done in the sin of racism. However, to then move forward and call upon people to continually walk in shame based on their ancestors’ sins or to tell another group they should separate and seek out theology only from those whose skin color matches their own, that is exactly the opposite of what this passage is about. The word of God points to a people of God, a single people of God, a people who are not defined as foreigners and insiders. We are just one people.

And this is exactly what the New Testament is telling us. When we see that, in Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek (cf. Gal. 3:28; , Col. 3:11), we see that God has no interest in our bringing about any sort of division in the church based on skin color, national history, birthplace, language, social class, advantage or disadvantage, or anything else. . One beauty of the gospel is that God brings together for himself a multitude from every nation. And when that multitude is together, we have no hint in Scripture that the church is to take time to ask people to apologize for their nation of origin. The New Testament does not include stories of Romans apologizing to Jews for the cruelty of the emperors. The New Testament does not include stories of men apologizing to women in the church for the way that the society at large has treated them. Instead, the New Testament is clear that, once we are gathered together into the body of Christ, our divisions are taken off and we look at one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. Our identity is not national anymore. Our identity is not our past. Our identity is the name of Jesus, the blood of Jesus, the imputed righteousness of Jesus.

Dear church, may we fulfill the word of God. We are being built together—all people, all colors, all pasts, all languages—to be a temple of God. We are one house. And may we be a house of prayer for all nations. May we never try to tell people that they, because of their skin color, must take a lower or seek a higher place. May we never lift anybody up or put anybody down because of the history of their forefathers. May we only see the people of God as one church, one body, one family of God.

Giving God Our Leftovers

We just rounded the corner of the Thanksgiving holiday. So many feasted. So many fixed the big turkey and dressing, green bean casserole, pumpkin pie, and all the rest. So many talked about loving the leftovers, those turkey sandwiches and reheated sides. And for us, in this setting, leftovers are good.

But, leftovers are not what you serve when your guest is somebody special. You could not imagine having an honored guest over to your home and telling him or her, “Just scrounge in the fridge; we’ve got leftovers.” If you were meeting your favorite athlete, actor, or musician, your favorite preacher or author, you would not tell them to just slap a sandwich together with whatever they can find. When you are wanting to do something special for a guest, you try in general to give them your best. And giving your best is not usually giving them leftovers.

As a side note, I think we would be a better people if we became a little more comfortable not being fancy in our fellowship. Maybe we should be a bit more comfortable with leftovers. We would do well to learn to serve simple soup and bread, sandwiches and sides, instead of trying to impress each other. The church should be a family, a close and familiar group, who is comfortable being simple with each other. If we were more simple, we would host more people, be in each other’s lives better, and enjoy more of the fellowship God wants us to enjoy.

But with that aside, we all know that, when we are wanting to give a guest something special, we make sure things are right. We prepare our best dishes. WE serve on the pretty plates. We pick up the toys off the floor. We treat our guests like they are important.

How sad, then, that people who are supposed to be the people of God do not give their Lord the same consideration. Take a look at these words from Malachi 1, and imagine the audacity of Judah in the fifth century BC regarding the things of God.

Malachi 1:6-8

6 “A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? says the LORD of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name. But you say, ‘How have we despised your name?’ 7 By offering polluted food upon my altar. But you say, ‘How have we polluted you?’ By saying that the LORD’s table may be despised. 8 When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil? Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favor? says the LORD of hosts.

After the return of Judah from the Babylonian captivity, the people still had a long road to get back to worship in the temple. The rebuilding of the temple took time and effort. The rebuilding of Jerusalem took time and effort. The return to the word of God and right rituals took time and effort. Haggai, Zechariah, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Malachi all had major roles to play in calling the people to do what was simply right before the Lord.

But by the time Malachi is preaching to the people of God, the people had begun to give God only their leftovers. They were bringing second-best or even tenth-best to worship. Instead of offering the spotless animals required by the Lord, the people were offering what they could spare, the ugly animals, the blind and lame animals, the ones they did not want reproducing in their flocks. And the Lord is not pleased.

In the text, the Lord says that these people have despised his name. They have not honored him like a father or a master. They have not given him the same level of respect they would give their governor. And the Lord was not going to allow that to stand.

While we could stay here and talk about what was wrong with the people of Judah, we need to think about ourselves. It is not so important what they were failing to do. Instead, it is far more important that we figure out if we are doing the same.

So, here is the question for us all. Are we giving God our leftovers? Are we giving God only what we determine we can spare? Are we giving the Lord only the time, the energy, the offerings that we generally want rid of anyway?

Ask yourself how easy is it for you to skip time for worship? How easy is it for you to decide that you are too busy, too tired, too in need of a break to simply make it to church. Is that not giving God your leftovers?

How about your participation in the spiritual disciplines? Do you read the word? Do you pray? Do you meet with Christians to talk about the word of God and obedience? Are you giving God your best?

How about relationally in the church? Do you give to the church financially for the support of the work and as an act of worship? Do you work to develop friendships in the body? Do you help others in the body by investing in their spiritual health? Are you open enough with a few others in the body so they can invest in you?

All in all, are you giving the Lord your best as you follow him? Remember, every week, you have the honor of a real meeting, a real audience, with the King over all creation. God allows you to stand in his presence, sing his praise, and hear his proclamation. God allows you to eat and drink to remember the body and blood of his Son who gave his life to save your soul. God gives you the privilege of bowing with fellow believers to seek his favor and present him, the King, with your petitions. And that is just Sunday morning.

During the week, The King of kings has given you a family to reach out to, to care for, to laugh with, to encourage, to counsel. God has given you people to love and so demonstrate to a watching world that we really are his disciples. God has given you people to call you to holiness and for you to call to holiness. God has given you people to help and so show his kindness. God has given you people to unite with as we collectively become the bride of Christ.

Friends, I know this all is piercing, at least it is for me. But my heart here is that we would not only be convicted. My heart is that we would see the great honor and joy that it is to give God our very best. He is worth more than our leftovers. No, our relationship with God is not founded on our ability to give him anything. Our relationship with God is all of Grace, unmerited favor. We all have different capacities to give and to serve as we go through different stages of life; so what you might be able to do has nothing to do with what another can do. But why would we not, in the light of that grace, desire to give our Lord more than and better than simply what we think we can spare?

God’s Priorities or Ours

If you want to know a person, really know them, you must get to know what is important to them. Typically, in friendships and good relationships, we will find that the high priorities of one person will be somehow shared by another. Those things help us get along.

Consider a business. IF one leader in a corporation says that the number one priority he has is creating the highest quality product possible while another says that her top priority is making money, there will be problems in the board meetings. When decisions arise as to whether or not to cut a corner on the product for a higher profit margin, there will be conflict. The two priorities are not the same. Solid businesses know that they must share top priorities in leadership.

But I wonder if many of our churches today share high priorities with the Lord our God. I know, that might sound a little edgy to say, but consider what the verse below says is exalted above all.

Psalm 138:2

I bow down toward your holy temple
and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness,
for you have exalted above all things
your name and your word.

What is top priority to God? Many would love to say people. Many would love to say church growth. Many would love to say making an impact on the fallen world. And those things all matter to the Lord.

But the word of God tells us that his top priority is his name and his word. God’s honor, God’s reputation, God’s glory, God’s worship is number one. Right there with it is the word of God, his commands, his Scripture. These are tops. These are the things that his followers must share with him as top values if we are to really please him.

Consider what this must say to us about what we do as churches. First and foremost, honoring his name and lifting high his word is central to all we are. If we decide that we are going to be about something else, we are going to mis worshipping our God in a way that pleases him. There are many things that exalting his name and word will lead us to do. But we cannot be wise and lose sight of the fact that his name and his word are first priorities.

Just think of the worship service here as one example. What is it for? If you think that God’s top priority is the salvation of the lost, you will be tempted to make the service as showy and entertaining as possible. You will change the messages to be things that people who do not know God will still enjoy. You’ll develop a combination concert and Ted Talk. But, if you see that God’s name and God’s word are number one, your music will be first and foremost about speaking the truth about the Lord in a beautiful way. You will see that ceremonies that feel odd to the world around us will be vital. You will see that the direct preaching of the word will be more important than the entertainment value of the message. That is not to say that you will intentionally be dull. Rather, it is to say that your focus will be to achieve the result of exalting God’s name in accord with God’s word.

How Good and Pleasant

In the Psalms, we run across great glory and deep sorrow. We find praise and lament. We find expression of love and imprecations. We find gigantic texts in praise of Scripture and sweeping histories of Israel. And we find tiny little psalms, songs we almost forget, that have beautiful truths to share.

Psalm 133

1 A Song of Ascents. Of David.
Behold, how good and pleasant it is
when brothers dwell in unity!
2 It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down on the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down on the collar of his robes!
3 It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the Lord has commanded the blessing,
life forevermore.

Psalm 133 is all of 3 verses long. And what do we learn from it? What does it praise? We see the beauty of the unity of brothers. There is something good, something glorious, something magnificent when brothers dwell together in unity.

David tells us in this short text that, when brothers live united, it is like oil poured over the head. It is like the sweet and sacred anointing oil flowing over the head and shoulders of the high priest. It is sacred, special, and sensational. There is a good feeling, a refreshing feeling.

David also says that unity is like dew on a mountain. This is the original mountain dew, not a caffeinated sugary mess. It is just lovely to see and refreshing to the soul.

When brothers dwell together in unity, there is a blessing of life from the Lord. That is what the whole Psalm is pointing us too. Unity among the brethren is a sign of the blessing of God on us and a cause of further blessing.

Now, in David’s context, he is dealing with the nation of Israel. It is good when this nation, as the people of god, lives united. It is good when the people are kind to one another. It is good when they resolve conflicts simply. It is good when they are headed in the right direction together. It is sacred, beautiful, and it brings a blessing.

But what about our context? Of course the same is true. It is good when the people of God, the church of the Lord Jesus, find loving Christian unity. It is good when we live together graciously. It is good when we are humble enough to care about others and their needs. It is good when we let go of our preferences in nonessential areas so as to be kind to others. It is good when we lay down our lives for one another. It is good like we see in this Psalm. It is good like sweet and sacred oil on the head or the dew on the mountain. When we are united, when we care, when we help each other, we are showing that we have the blessing of God and that we are receiving even more blessing from our Lord.

Yes, this is a Psalm we can quote in about 10 seconds. Yes, it is short and simple. But it is surely needed. All churches need brothers and sisters in Christ who come alongside one another. WE all need people to care about us and people we can care about. We all need to learn to live this life together as we honor the Lord.

And, of course, as a disclaimer, we do not unify when major sin or major doctrinal error is threatening the honor of the Lord in our body. We go after that sin and lovingly press for repentance. We must never use the word unity as a club to prevent a person from calling us to be faithful to the word of God. But even as we call one another to righteous living and faithful biblical interpretation, we do so as brothers and sisters. And if we have been living together in unity, if we have been showing godly love, we will do a much better job of helping each other to turn from sin and honor the Lord.

Christians, let us pray that we will have a Psalm 133 church. May our fellowship be sweet and sacred. May our lives be united under the word of God. May we find the church family that refreshes our souls like the dew refreshes mountain plants. May we receive the blessing of the Lord, life forevermore.

Compromise and the Church’s Top Priority

What is the priority of the church? Is it worship? Is it evangelism? Is it discipleship? Just what is the church here for?

If we ask that question of many believers, we will get a variety of answers. Some will tell us that the priority of the church must be evangelism, as, after all, evangelism is one of the very few things that the church can do here on earth that will not be possible in heaven. Others will prioritize worship, citing the Scriptural priority of the glory of God.

In truth, I’m not interested in what we say is the priority of the church right now. Instead, I am interested in what our actions display as the priority of the church. What do the things we do, the tactics we adopt, the choices we make indicate about what we really believe to be our priority? What are we willing to compromise on the one hand to accomplish what we think is most important on the other? That tells us much about what we value.

2 Corinthians 4:1-2 – 1 Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. 2 But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.

Paul shows us by what he would not do something of great value as to what is important for the church. In all that he did, in all the preaching and evangelizing, Paul would not cross a particular line. Paul would not tamper with or compromise the word of God. No cunning, no sly tactics, no underhanded ruse was an acceptable avenue. Paul wanted to glorify God by upholding the word of God and speaking the truth of God.

Paul would not compromise on the word of God, even to appeal to a broader audience. He would not say that the gospel should be unhitched from the offensive Old Testament. Paul would not say that we shift from the word of God to appeal to modern times. No, drawing a crowd and appealing to people apart from Scripture was not at all the priority that God inspired Paul to set for the early church.

And in our culture, any priority that causes us to hide, to tamper with, to reinterpret, or to do away with Scripture is not a godly priority. Honoring God by loving him in accord with his word is our priority. When that word causes people not to want the church, we must not tinker with the word or compromise the truth to try to avoid the hardships. No, God makes it clear that his glory and his word are above all priorities in the church.

Thankfully, his word calls us to love one another, to share the gospel, to sing God’s praise, and to do many other things that honor the Lord. We are not in an either-this-or-that position. We can love God, keep his word, and care for each other. We must do so. But the point is that we do not in any way shrink away from the word of God for any other thing. To do so is to adopt a priority that was not Paul’s and is not God’s.

Psalm 138:2

I bow down toward your holy temple
and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness,
for you have exalted above all things
your name and your word.

Respect Your Pastor Enough to Talk with Him

The word of God is clear that the role and duties of elders in a local church is a tough role. Elders are charged by God with faithfully handling his word, with shepherding the flock, and with caring for souls. Pastors (elders are the same as pastors) are called to pray for the church, to correct the doctrine of those who stray, to call people back from sin, to comfort the hurting, and so very much more. And all of that is while regularly preaching and studying—and perhaps even writing on a regular basis in the modern world.

I would not give away my job for anything. I love the role to which God has called me, even though it can surely be hard. I love to teach the word of God and care for the people of God. And I pray that, by the grace of God, I might do this work well.

With the pastor’s job in mind, let me share with you an issue that pastors face that I think could be something all church members need to hear about. I have come across something that is necessary in the church, but which I think many Christians shrug off. If you need a prooftext verse for what I’m going to suggest, try this one from Hebrews:

Hebrews 13:17 – Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

This verse of Scripture calls for church members to do their best to make shepherding them easy for pastors. This is by no means a verse that allows pastors to lord authority over people in the body. It is not the Bible saying that, if the pastor wants you to fund a new building, you whip out the checkbook without hesitation. It is simply a reminder that, because your pastors keep watch over your soul, you should help them do their jobs well, with as little pain as possible.

So, what do you do when your pastor holds to a doctrine with which you are struggling or with which you disagree? I would like to suggest, as a pastor and as a student of the Bible, that you have the respect for and love for your pastor to actually talk with him about your struggle. It is wise for church members who are trying to work out their beliefs, or who are even struggling with what the pastor teaches, to actually sit down with the pastor, hear his rationale for his argument, and see what can be done. It is possible that this discussion will sharpen or even change one or both of the people in the discussion.

I have seen a church member call up his pastor, ask for time, and then sit down to talk through a challenging and often-debated doctrinal issue. The young man came with his argument ready, but he also came with grace and humility. The conversation did not end with anyone’s mind totally changed, but the conversation certainly ended in fellowship, in love, and with both sides understanding each other better. This was good.

On the other hand, there are those in churches who disagree with their pastor doctrinally who simply make the decision that they will figure out the issue on their own without ever sitting down with their pastor to talk it through. As a pastor, let me simply say that this is a discouraging decision at the least. Pastors are surely not better than anyone else in the church. But pastors have, by the grace of God, often been given the privilege of years of study in which to wrestle through tough doctrines. To simply refuse to talk with your pastor about a doctrine may communicate to your pastor that his years of study mean nothing to you, and that you, in a few months on your own, will do a better job of figuring out a thorny theological problem. It can come across as a person saying that they will trust an author or a speaker from the Internet more than they will trust the wisdom of one who is in their own church.

The sad thing is, we will sometimes see that church members who do not talk doctrine through with a pastor may bring about division in the body because of their conclusions. They may leave the church. Or they may bring about a major conflict in the church. And often, these conflicts bring great sorrow to the body. All the while, had the person chosen to sit down with their leadership, the pastors the members said they would submit to, they could have avoided a great deal of the pain of the process.

Of course, I do not believe that every church member will agree with his or her pastor on every issue. In truth, I need to be challenged and corrected, and so do all other pastors. Which is why, for a church member to decide that nothing would change from a conversation is counterproductive in the body. Perhaps the pastor will learn something. Perhaps the church member who has his or her mind made up might actually find out that the pastor can lovingly present a truth to them that they had not yet understood. But to not give your pastor the opportunity for this, that is certainly not helping him to keep watch over your soul.

As always, thinking an issue like this through requires wisdom. I am not asking that one brings every petty preference issue to the pastor’s study for a four-hour discussion. There are surely doctrines that are of lesser importance, doctrines that will not demand division or policy changes in the church. Such doctrines do not always have to be addressed. But, then again, why not at least have a single conversation with your leaders about such issues if you are noticing them. No, do not become a thorn in your pastor’s side. But neither disrespect your leadership by assuming that they are wrong and they can say nothing that might influence you.

Also, we understand that not every person leaves a church over doctrine. People may desire to worship in a different setting or to serve a body they find fits them better. There are surely good and godly reasons to leave a church that do not require a doctrinal division.

Hebrews 13:17 commands us to help our shepherds shepherd our souls. Think along those lines as you think about tough doctrines you struggle with or doctrinal disagreements you have with your church. Perhaps thinking this way will help you to love your shepherds enough to talk with them about your struggles. Such conversations, if handled with love and grace, would glorify God and be good for all the souls involved.

What do you do, then, if you have a pastor who is not interested in doctrinal conversation? I have been in such a church in the past, and it was a really hard place to be. When you find out that your pastor is not interested in theology, or that he will not have a conversation about theology, then you may well need to consider another place to serve the Lord. But give the pastor the chance first. Respect him enough to speak with him. Make sure he knows what you are thinking and why you think it is important. Then, if you need to move on, if you have heard his thoughts on your doctrinal issue, you can go with a clear conscience, knowing that you have tried to be led by the shepherd the Lord placed over you.