Loving Omnipresence

Have you ever heard someone say that they love the Lord, but they are not really into studying things like doctrine? I certainly have. I recall a horrific song lyric from popular Christian music in my early college years in which a singer proudly proclaimed, “I don’t need theology to know that God’s good to me.”

But, the truth is, we do need theology to know that God is good to us. Theology is the study of God, the knowledge of God. Without theology, without doctrine, we do not know God.

Now, I’m not here saying that you must have a fully, categorically developed systematic theology to love the Lord. You certainly do not need a seminary education to read the Bible and follow your Savior. But, knowing God and the doctrine of God is truly helpful.

Let me point us to a doctrine that I think matters a great deal for our current moment. It is the doctrine of God’s omnipresence. This doctrine means that there is no confining God by any sort of spatial limitation. God is present in all places, equally, at once. God is everywhere, and there is nowhere that God is not.

Jeremiah 23:23–24 – 23 “Am I a God at hand, declares the Lord, and not a God far away? 24 Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the Lord.

God fills heaven and earth. God is not contained within heaven and earth. God is not a part of heaven or earth. But God is present throughout all space. After all, God created space, and all space belongs to him.

Psalm 139:5–10

5 You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.
7 Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.

Here we see that David knows that he cannot go anywhere without being where God is. David cannot go east or west, to heaven or to hell, and be away from the Lord.

It is important that we grasp that, while God is present everywhere at all times, his action in those places might be quite different. God is not present in hell to bless but to judge. When the Bible uses language of God being far from us, it is saying that God is turned less favorably toward us, not that he is in any way removed by physical distance. When the Bible speaks of God as near to us, it is saying that he is pleased with us or is blessing us, not that his presence has somehow arrived in a place where he was not before.

The doctrine of God’s omnipresence is one that is important. We teach it unhesitatingly to our children. And, if you will let yourself think about it, you will see that this doctrine speaks a great deal to us in our present social moment.

God is where you are. Even when you are separated from society, the Lord is not gone. You may not be able to go and be at a baseball game or even sit in a church auditorium with your dear friends. But you have not been separated from the presence of the Lord. God, as David said, hems you in behind and before. You cannot flee from his presence.

Let’s consider two things from this doctrine for us today. First, God is with you and sees you. Just because you are socially distanced from others does not mean you are hidden. What you do, even while alone, is fully visible to the Lord. Think about that as you consider how to spend your time and your energy. Think about that as you consider what to look up online or what to post on social media.

And, let us also be comforted by the omnipresence of the Lord. As a believer, I hate the idea of having to try to function as the church on-line. I do not like preaching to an iPhone. I do not like singing without others around me. But, and this is vital, God is here. Wherever you are, God is here and there and everywhere. While we do not want to be the church scattered, we can be comforted in knowing that, no matter how many miles separate us, no distance at all separates us from our God. And, in a symbolic sense at least, as we are all in Christ, we are not truly apart. Yes, we want to be together. But, we are with our Lord. Our Lord is with us. And Our Lord is here to keep us, to preserve us, to bless us, to comfort us, and to give us the joy of giving him glory, even in a time of social separation.

Friends, it is true that some doctrinal study can get quite complicated and confusing. It is true that some folks become so enamored with the scholarly that they appear to lose their hearts. But, do not put down doctrine. Without doctrine we do not think well about the omnipresence of the Lord. And without that thought, we miss out on a great comfort for all believers in the middle of a very strange time.

Zeal for Your House Has Consumed Me

What are the social ramifications of faithfulness to the Lord? OF course it will depend in general on the faithfulness of your society to the Lord and his word. But, in general, historically, the more we are faithful to the Lord, the less our society is willing to tolerate us.

Psalm 69 is the prayer of one who is suffering. HE has enemies. HE is threatened. And the threats and hardships he faces are the result of his passion for the worship of God and his mourning over the sin of the nation he lives in. And, if you will watch, you will see a line that the New Testament applies to Jesus.

Psalm 69:7-13

7 For it is for your sake that I have borne reproach,
that dishonor has covered my face.
8 I have become a stranger to my brothers,
an alien to my mother’s sons.
9 For zeal for your house has consumed me,
and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me.
10 When I wept and humbled my soul with fasting,
it became my reproach.
11 When I made sackcloth my clothing,
I became a byword to them.
12 I am the talk of those who sit in the gate,
and the drunkards make songs about me.
13 But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord.
At an acceptable time, O God,
in the abundance of your steadfast love answer me in your saving faithfulness.

The psalmist prays for God to protect him. Why? People around him have turned away from him. Why? The psalmist is passionate for the glory of God. The psalmist weeps over the sin of the land. HE mourns as is proper when he sees the nation in rebellion against the Lord. But his mourning causes his friends and family to mock him, to gossip about him, and even to threaten him.

When Jesus turned over the tables of the money-changers in the temple, we see that verse 9 applies to him: “For zeal for your house has consumed me, and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me.” Jesus, passionate for God’s glory, passionate for God’s worship, passionate for God’s law, wrecked the place where Annas and his cronies had made the things of God into a bazaar.

When Jesus showed his passion for the worship of God and the word of God, it drew the ire of the religious leaders of his day who were profiting off of the system. When the psalmist had a passion for God’s worship and grieved over the sin of the nation, it drew the ire of those around him. We must understand, Christians, that standing strong on the word of God and clinging tightly to biblical worship will also not be popular. Some folks, religious folks, will look down on us for not buying into their system of how things should be done to be popular and effective. The world around us will not embrace us simply because we stand for the ways of the God they hate.

What should we do? Let us pray as the psalmist prayed. When he saw that the world was against him for his passion for God, he prayed, “But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord” (verse 13). He knew that obeying the word of God and rightly worshipping the Lord is worth far more than the approval of men. May we know the same thing. May we pray the same thing. May we be faithful. And may we honor our God above all.

A Motivation of Separation

IN the book of Deuteronomy, we see the Lord, through Moses, giving commands to his people as to how they are to deal with the inhabitants of the promised land. Remember that the Lord told the people of Israel to go into the land and to wipe out all who dwelt there. Israel was to be the tool of God’s judgment on peoples who practiced great evil including idolatry, sexual depravity, and child sacrifice.

As God gives these instructions, there is an interesting motivation that he has for Israel to utterly destroy the people of Canaan that is instructive for us today. No, we are not called to do violence or to take any land by military force. But there is a thing to learn for sure.

Deuteronomy 20:16-18 – 16 But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, 17 but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded, 18 that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God.

In verse 18, the Lord gives the people of Israel a reason why they need to observe his command to completely destroy the evil nations in the land. The word “that” at the beginning of the verse tells us that God is giving a reason why behind his command. HE does not have to do this, but his why is helpful to us.

In verse 18, the lord gives this as a reason for Israel to destroy the peoples of Canaan: “that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God.” Notice that a motivating reason for what Israel was called to do is so that they would not be persuaded by the nations who lived in the land to adopt their evil practices. The Canaanites were killing their children as offerings to false gods. The Canaanites were incorporating sexual perversion into their religious ceremonies. The Canaanites were violent and cruel, without justice or righteousness in their governing. And God says to the people of Israel that he does not want them to go into these people’s land, learn from them, and then begin to adopt their perversion. God was protecting Israel from sinning against him and earning for themselves the very destruction that they were to bring upon the Canaanites.

I’m glad that we are not in an era when the people of God are called to take lands by military force. But, perhaps we can learn a thing or two from what God said here. God told Israel that, when they entered their new homeland, they were not to adopt anything of the cultures they conquered. They were not to dress like the Canaanites, eat like the Canaanites, worship like the Canaanites, or adopt the morals of the Canaanites. When it came to religion and morality, the Israelites were to completely and utterly do away with Canaanite practices and follow only the word of the Almighty.

I wonder what it would look like if believers in the 21st century were to take that angle, the motivational angle, of this passage seriously. What would it be like if we determined that we would not, in any way, adopt the culture of the lost around us? Examine yourself. Where do you already adopt the culture’s values, religion, or morality? Is your worship fully circumscribed by what God has commanded in his word? Is your view of gender and sexuality fully consistent with what God has commanded? Is your entertainment fitting with what God calls righteous?

Christians, we are not to take the world by military force. But neither are we to allow the world, in its persuasions, to press us into its mold. We are to turn from ungodly practices and thinking. We are to worship and live in accord with Scripture in all things. This principle was important enough to God to be the motivation for what God commanded Israel to do in the land of Canaan. It is certainly important enough for us to look at our own lives and go through our thinking and morality and worship with the same absolute fervor.

False Accusations are Evil

Most people know the basics of the Ten Commandments. Often, we assume them to include a command not to tell lies. And, in a sense, this is true. But the command not to lie has more to do with justice. The command actually says, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16).

One way to bear false witness against your neighbor is to make a false accusation against him or her. The idea is that of a person who, out of malice, decides to accuse a person of doing wrong in order to have them punished in some way. It is to tell a lie against a person so that you benefit from their punishment either through financial gain or some sort of personal satisfaction.

The commandment is clear that such an action is forbidden. Later in God’s word, we get to see just how strongly God feels about this evil. God is clear that bearing false witness, making false accusations, is a really big deal.

Deuteronomy 19:16-21 – 16 If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing, 17 then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days. 18 The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, 19 then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. 20 And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you. 21 Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

In this passage in Deuteronomy, as God prepares the people to live in the land under his law, he makes sure they know how to deal with a false witness. When an accusation is made, judges are to seek to get to the bottom of the matter. Notice, by the way, that the judges here are interested in truth. Judges here are not employed to create new laws or to reshape society to their design. They are here to find the facts out in a situation through diligent questioning and research.

If the judges determine that a person is intentionally bringing a false accusation, attempting to do another person harm by their false accusation, there is a clear and just plan for what to do. God commands that the false accuser receive whatever penalty he or she intended that the one falsely accused was facing. So, if the false accusation would have cost the accused money, the accuser paid that money to the one falsely accused. If the false accusation would have cost the accused his life, then the life of the false accuser was forfeit.

As you think to yourself that this sounds pretty strong, notice that God says you are right. God is clear that the people are not allowed to show pity here. And here we get one of the passages that brings us the principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Whatever the false, scheming accusation would have done to the innocent is to be the punishment for the one making the accusation. There are no exceptions.

Our society is full of people throwing around many false accusations. Social media has made this easier than ever. Let us learn from God’s word that these accusations matter. God takes bearing false witness very seriously. Under God’s justice, the right penalty for making a false accusation is that the false accuser face the very hardship he or she intended to cause

Christians, take two points away here. First, see that God’s law is good. God’s system of justice here is far better than what is present in our society. Second, see that your accusations are a big deal. God does care that you speak the truth, especially when you say that someone else has done something wrong.

Do Not Copy the World

In Deuteronomy 12, the Lord uses Moses to speak to his people about how they are to worship him when they enter into the promised land. Notice, both at the beginning and the end of this chapter, how clear the Lord is about the fact that the people of Israel are not to learn their practices of worship from the land’s inhabitants and their practices.

Deuteronomy 12:1-4 – 1 “These are the statutes and rules that you shall be careful to do in the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess, all the days that you live on the earth. 2 You shall surely destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess served their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. 3 You shall tear down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and burn their Asherim with fire. You shall chop down the carved images of their gods and destroy their name out of that place. 4 You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way.

Deuteronomy 12:29-31 – 29 “When the Lord your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, 30 take care that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods?—that I also may do the same.’ 31 You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.

When you read through the Old Testament, especially the books of the Kings and Chronicles, you will often find references to a king as good or bad. Part of the reference includes whether or not the king kept or destroyed the high places. That might sound a little odd to you, but a look at this section makes it clearer. The high places were places where Canaanites would worship their false gods. And for some reason, the people of Israel were tempted to mimic the acts of the Canaanites, either to worship the evil and false gods of Canaan or to try to incorporate those practices into the worship of the Lord.

The verses between these two sections tell the people of Israel what God requires of them in worship. He instructs them about things like sacrifice, offerings, tithes, and the place of worship. It is a simple look at important principles for Old Testament worship. And, as I mentioned, bookended around those instructions is that the worship of the Lord is not to be influenced by the practices of the world.

God then closes this section with a thought we need to keep.

Deuteronomy 12:32 – “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it.

This chapter is about worship. God says to do what he commands. He says to do so carefully. And he says not to add to it or take from it.

Now, we are a people in the 21st century. We are New Testament Christians. Does any of this apply? For sure, we can find some principles. God’s word is to govern how God’s people worship. We are foolish if we add to his word, bringing into our worship things God did not command. We are especially foolish if our practices mimic the world. Israel was not to look at the high places and try to incorporate their elements into the worship of the Lord. WE too need to be very careful not to try to learn our practice of worship from the lost world. The lost world knows a great deal about manipulating human emotion and working us into a frenzy. The lost world knows nothing about the true worship of the living God.

Does this mean I am opposing the use of modern instruments or equipment? No. But I would suggest that we be careful to do, in our services of worship, the things God’s word has actually commanded. I also would suggest that we be careful to avoid adding to the biblical formula for worship, as we have no ability or right to improve upon what the Lord has commanded his people to do.

Government, Viruses, and On-Line Gathering

I recently saw a post in which a person asked if March 22, 2020 was the strangest Sunday in modern church history. If it is not, it is surely up there. When have there been so many believers all over the globe unable to meet together in person while at the same time able to communicate via another means? This sort of Sunday would have been unimaginable in even the fairly recent past.

With the outbreak of COVID-19 and our strong desire not to spread the disease but to, as many are saying, flatten the curve, many churches all across the United States did not hold services in their buildings. Instead, we know that many watched a live stream of prayer, music, and the teaching of the word.

I want to share a couple of thoughts on what we are doing right now, as I think keeping a biblical perspective here is crucial.

I affirm that Christians are to live in peaceful submission to our governmental authorities so long as those authorities do not call on us to violate God’s higher commands.

Romans 13:1-2 – 1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.

The Bible calls on all people to obey their governmental leaders. We want to live peaceably and respectfully in our community. We want to be the best citizens we can be. We should try as best we can to follow our leaders’ good-faith efforts to keep people safe.

However, we also want to be clear to say that obedience to governmental authorities is not absolute. God’s word is clear that we obey our leaders as much as is possible, but we do not obey our leaders if their orders or laws call for us to violate the word of God. The Lord and his word is our highest authority. And no earthly government has the right to supersede the Lord.

Acts 5:29 – But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.”

So, while our church may not have physically gathered on Sunday, I deny that this is due to a governmental mandate. Why do I deny this? I deny that the government has the authority to command the church not to meet. After all, physically meeting together is part of God’s command for the church’s regular practice.

Hebrews 10:24–25 – 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

So, while I affirm that we obey the laws of our land as much as we can, I deny that any human government has the right to demand that the church disobey the Lord. Since meeting together is a command of the Lord, I deny that the government has the right to command the church not to meet.

Am I suggesting that our church should have met together this last Sunday? Should we have defied the request of the government? No, I do not believe so. But this is not because of the government’s authority. There is another principle at work.

Matthew 22:37–40 – 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

I believe that the call to love your neighbor as yourself, the second greatest command in the law, is the working principle that kept us from physically meeting as a church this last week. Our desire is to love the Lord well and worship him as he has commanded. However, in the current state of our community, I do not believe that meeting together and risking the spread of the COVID-19 virus would have been the most loving choice we could have made for our neighbors. Even if many of our people are not at high risk of severe illness due to the virus, we want to prevent our people from spreading the virus to others who may be at higher risk.

Let me also be clear. I do not believe that our on-line gathering is the same as a church gathered together for worship. I believe we are doing our best with the technology that we have been given. But, I know that there is something glorious and special in the gathered community of the saints. And, were there no providential hindrance to gathering, I would not affirm that meeting together on-line is a legitimate substitute for physical gathering.

I heard a person recently suggest that we should view our meetings like a Thanksgiving meal. Perhaps a family could all eat a meal at the same time from separate locations while video chatting on Skype. However, no loving family would think that this is in any way a suitable replacement for being around the same table together. If the family was providentially hindered from being around the same table, they would embrace the technology and thank God for it. But, if the family had the opportunity to be under the same roof, that is far better.

Friends, our church is doing all we can. We are trying to love our Lord and Love our neighbors. And right now, out of a desire to love the Lord, we are not meeting in person in a large group. And we are thankful for the technology we have to do what we are doing. But, the moment we believe that we can safely meet together in the same place, we will do so as we know that to meet together is far better and is a more faithful obedience to the Lord’s command.

Do Not Marry Them

What does the Lord want us to learn from his forbidding Israelites from intermarrying with the nations around them? Is this some sort of racial supremacy thing? Is it something else?

Deuteronomy 7:3-4 – 3 You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, 4 for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly.

Let’s first understand that, had the Lord made a command about this based solely on ethnicity, he would have been righteous to do so. After all, God had already promised to preserve a particular family line through which he would bring Messiah into the world. God has every right to make a command like this based on national and family groupings. But that is not what he is doing here.

God is clear that the reason that he does not want Israel to intermarry has to do with the religious influence of the nations nearby. It is not some sort of claim that any particular ethnicity has superiority over another. It is the simple fact that, were Israel to blend her families with those of the surrounding Canaanite nations, Israel would be led away from the law of God.

As I said, this should be simple. There is no right way to read this text that would allow for Christians to claim that people cannot marry across ethnic lines. That was an argument prevalent in a racist past, but it should not be considered today.

And, while this argument should be simple, it also appears that, when we watch many self-proclaimed Christians in practice, its primary point is something we either miss or ignore.

In Deuteronomy, God forbids his followers for marrying those who do not follow him. In the New Testament, God is clear that this principle still stands. Christians are not to marry outside of the faith. But, as a pastor, I will say to you that I know of few commands more quickly disobeyed by young believers who have allowed themselves to become emotionally connected to a lost person.

So, let me say this with absolute clarity: Christians are not to marry non-Christians. Since this is true, it is at best foolish and at worst sin for a Christian to allow himself or herself to become romantically interested in a person who is not in the faith. The union of a believer and a non-believer leads to pain and confusion. And, worst of all, that union dishonors the name of God as the believer declares by his or her actions that God’s commands are secondary to our romantic desires.

I know that, for many a believer, this is a painful thing to read. I have known and still know so many dear believers who made the choice to marry a lost person in their youth. For some, God has even graciously chosen to save that spouse. For many others, however, that choice, while leading to a happy marriage in general, has led to deep fear and heartache as the believer realizes that his or her spouse is outside of god’s grace and destined for judgment. And, for still others, this decision has led to deep unhappiness as they realize that they have married a person whose ethics and values will never be those of the Christian.

Friends, I do not write this to be mean to anybody. But I do write it to be, perhaps, a warning that will be heeded. It is a sin for a Christian to marry a non-Christian. Compromise occurs when the believer disobeys God’s command here. And, God warns that other compromises are likely to be introduced as the lost spouse will, actively or passively, attempt to persuade the believer to embrace values or behaviors that are against Scripture.

There are many sins that we fall into in our youth. I have more failures in my past than I can count, and certainly more than I am willing to recount for the Internet. And all sin is wicked rebellion against the Lord. But the sin of marrying outside of the faith is terribly destructive, because it is a sin that has lifelong implications. If you have failed here, know that the grace of Christ covers all sins of all who come to him. But you know that this choice has impacted your life deeply. And if you are a Christian considering a relationship with a non-believer, I urge you, I plead with you, for the glory of God and the good of your very life, please turn from this now. You need to be united to a person who knows your Lord and who loves his word. Anything else is devastating to you and dishonoring to God.