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Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Blaspheming and Misusing the Name


In our last blog we discussed the second of the Ten Commandments (“You shall not make for yourself a carved image”), and how it appears irrelevant to modern Western citizens, but is in fact broken by most of us through, for example, our obsession with digital images with which we are willingly bombarded on a daily basis.

I suspect it would be hard to find a person who believes the Third Commandment is obsolete: “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” (Exodus 20:7)

It is somewhat ironic that, even as belief in the biblical God and the Lord Jesus Christ have declined in popular culture over the past few decades, the use of their Name has remained steady. Exclamations of “Oh my God” (so commonplace that it now needs an acronym, OMG) and “Jesus Christ” fly from the lips of people who place little or no value on the Christian faith. I have never heard anyone exclaim “Oh Mohammed” or “Oh Buddha” or “Oh Vishnu” – it is consistently the founder of the Christian faith whose name is blasphemed. Maybe this is because Christians are generally a tolerant bunch and they can get away with it. Or maybe it is because they know, on some subconscious level, that Jesus is worthy of their attention. It is not unheard of for God’s enemies to inadvertently prophesy (John 11:49-52).

Let there be no doubt that to exclaim “Oh my God” or “Jesus Christ” in a moment of surprise or disgust, without any intention of actually invoking the Lord and his power, is blasphemy and a violation of the Third Commandment – an offence that God solemnly declared he will not leave unpunished. In fact, a form of blasphemy (speaking evil when confronted with the work of the Holy Spirit) is the only unforgivable sin, according to Jesus (Mark 3:28-29, on which this explanation). So it is not a subject to be taken lightly. However, exclamations of this kind are often a merely a bad habit that is difficult to break, and in my view they are not the worst way to break the Third Commandment.

If invoking the name of God or Jesus Christ in a meaningless or irreverent way is bad, then what about invoking the name of God or Jesus Christ in order to achieve evil motives? For example, falsely claiming to be a prophet or miracle worker in order to obtain wealth or fame. Or, using the Word of God to manipulate or extort people. Or, taking an oath in God’s name to make a lie sound convincing (Matthew 5:33-37). Or, going on a murderous Crusade and claiming a divine mandate to do so. These are all gross abuses of the divine name, and they are traps within which we as human beings can easily be ensnared.

There are still less blatant ways of committing this sin. Maybe we tried to behave righteously in order to impress a devout Christian girl. Maybe we volunteered for a church outreach program because we thought it would look good on our C.V. Maybe our studies of the Bible are focused on proving our own presumptions right rather than growing and correcting our errors. We may have done things that are good on the surface, but if we did them to advance our own interests rather than Christ’s, we have taken his name in vain.

If we Christians search ourselves, we are all guilty of taking the Lord’s name in vain on many occasions, whether in word, in deed or in motive. If we are keeping an honest scorecard, we are all 0 for 3 after considering the first three of the Ten Commandments.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Carving up the Second Commandment


In our last blog we referred to the Ten Commandments as the bedrock of morality for the ancient Israelites as well as (to some extent) modern Western society. We noted the attitude of a wealthy, religious Jew of Jesus’ day, who believed he had mastered the commandments: “All these I have kept from my youth” (Mark 10:20).

One of the threads of Jesus’ teaching ministry, later picked up by the apostles, was that no one masters the commandments. In fact, we all fail miserably. As Paul pointed out in Romans 7:9-13, the commandments are a standard of holiness which show us how sinful we are when we fail to keep them.

We looked at the first of the Ten Commandments in the last blog and saw that whenever we let something compete with God for our worship, prayer, gratitude and desire, we are putting other gods before God, and breaking the first commandment.

What about the second commandment? Exodus 20:4-6 reads thus:

“4 You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
It could be argued that this is actually an elaboration or clarification of the first commandment, which read simply, “You shall have no other gods before me” period. However, tradition has named it a separate commandment, hence the Ten Commandments, not the Nine Commandments. It is certainly in the same vein as the previous commandment, but focuses more on tangible, physical idols as opposed to gods of the imagination.

Once again, the knee-jerk reaction of a citizen of modern Western civilization may be, “Those primitive people and their silly carved idols.” This kind of thinking suggests that there is no risk that a modern, monotheistic Christian could violate this commandment. However, the truth is that we are a lot more engrossed in carved images than the ancients were. It is just that our methods of “carving” are a lot more refined – digital, in fact. Through the media, we view hundreds if not thousands of images daily. What effect do these images have upon us? Do we not model our way of speaking, dressing, and behaving after what we see in the media – TV, movies, magazines, Internet?

We may not literally bow down to carved images, but we spend a lot of time sitting in front of digital images and being transfixed by them, during our free time that we could be using to serve God and bring his glory to the world.

If the First Commandment is fundamentally about God’s uniqueness, the Second Commandment is fundamentally about faith. Faith is “The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). We cannot see God (1 Timothy 6:16) or the things he has promised to those who love him (1 Corinthians 2:9). So, will we model our lives after the visible things we have created that we see all around us? Or will we model our lives after the unseen One who created us? That is a choice we face many times a day; and every time we make the wrong choice, we break the Second Commandment.

So, as much as I may think I’m pure and pious when it comes to the Second Commandment, having dug deeper I have to admit that I’m a serial servant of carved images! And I bet you are too. So where does that leave us? In the next blog we will continue our march through the ever-more-menacing Ten Commandments.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

How many of the Ten Commandments have you kept?


The Ten Commandments (recorded in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5) formed the bedrock of morality for the ancient Israelites, and were also foundational to the development of modern Western civilization. In ten short rules are contained the standard of a righteous life before God.

1)      I am the LORD your God…you shall have no other gods before me.
2)      You shall not make for yourself a carved image…you shall not bow down to them or serve them…
3)      You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain…
4)      Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy…
5)      Honour your father and your mother…
6)      You shall not murder.
7)      You shall not commit adultery.
8)      You shall not steal.
9)      You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
10)   You shall not covet…

Some of the religious elites of Jesus’ day, such as the Pharisees, and the rich young ruler who spoke to Jesus in Mark 10:19-20, felt that they kept the Ten Commandments without fail. At first glance, it’s not such an outrageous idea. The commandments seem pretty straightforward, and most societies, regardless of religious beliefs, have laws and social norms that more or less square with the final six.

Some may think that keeping these commandments is not so difficult, and that most members of society do a reasonably good job of it. When we consider the Ten Commandments in light of Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings on the subject, however, it is apparent that even the best among us fall far short of this moral standard. In fact, I would venture to claim that every human being who has ever lived – with the exception of Jesus Christ – has broken all ten commandments. This may strike you as absurd, but as we look closer at the spirit of these commandments, you will see what I mean.

Let us start with the First Commandment. At first glance it seems irrelevant to a modern Western mindset. Most of the debate in our society is about whether there is one God or no God. Isn’t this commandment obsolete, belonging to past ages of pagan polytheism and tribal deities? Not at all, once you realize that ‘god’ has a pretty broad range of meaning. It doesn’t have to be a deity as such; it can be something as mundane as your belly (Philippians 3:19). Anything or anyone that becomes a competitor with God for our worship, our prayer, our desire and our gratitude, is another god. 

We may not have “idols of wood and stone” (Deuteronomy 29:17), but we have houses of wood and stone and other possessions that draw our attention away from God. We may not have “idols of silver and gold” (Psalm 135:15), but we spend a lot of our time thinking about money. Then there are obsessions with sports, celebrities, soap operas, video games, and other pursuits that draw our energy and passion away from worshiping God. For some, science and technology have become their god.

John Stott, in his book Basic Christianity, wrote the following: “For us to keep this first commandment would be, as Jesus said, to love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind; to make his will our guide and his glory our goal; to put him first in thought, word and deed; in business and leisure; in friendships and career; in the use of our money, time and talents; at work and at home. No man has ever kept this commandment except Jesus of Nazareth” (p. 82).

We will continue by looking at the Second Commandment in the next blog entry. It’s all pretty depressing so far, but I want to promise you that this series on the Ten Commandments will have a very happy ending!

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Fellowship: Real vs. Nominal



Words derive their meaning, not from a static, wooden definition, but from the ways they are used. Sometimes a word takes on a misleading connotation. Take the word ‘church’ for example. As used in the New Testament, the word ‘church’ (ekklesia in Greek) refers to the community of believers; but often people take the word to refer to a physical building or an institution. Because of this misleading connotation, the Christadelphian community generally refrains from using the word ‘church.’

Within the Christadelphian community, however, the word ‘fellowship’ has become loaded with unscriptural baggage. Phrases like “The Central Fellowship” or “Is he in fellowship?” suggest that fellowship is a word describing a nominal status of belonging, like membership in an organization. In most human organizations, you have ‘membership’ if you pay the fees, and perhaps meet certain requirements (such as engineering qualifications, if you want to join the Society of Professional Engineers). For people who see Christian fellowship this way, you ‘belong’ to the fellowship if you adhere to a particular set of propositional beliefs (a Statement of Faith).

Christians put their faith in a living person (Christ), not in a set of propositions. In the same way, fellowship (Greek: koinonia) is a relational term, like grace and love (2 Corinthians 13:14). God has called us into “the fellowship of his Son” (1 Corinthians 1:9). Those who put their faith in Christ do not obtain membership in an organization; they become part of a family. Fellowship fundamentally is a state of close relationship, measured in terms of sharing and participation. Shared beliefs and values are an important aspect of fellowship, but they are not the basis of fellowship. Christ is (1 Corinthians 3:9-11).

One person can be a ‘member’ of a certain church, meeting the criteria for joining the church (such as baptism, or agreeing to a certain statement of faith) but have no spiritual relationship with the other people. At the same time, a second person can fail to meet the criteria for nominal ‘membership’ but play an active role in the life of the church and build close relationships with the members. Custom dictates that the first person be addressed as ‘Brother’ or ‘Sister’ while the second person not be.

People in Jesus’ day thought of a ‘neighbour’ as someone of common ethnicity or geographical proximity; but in Jesus’ famous parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) he blew up such nominal notions of fellowship and showed that being a neighbour is about acts of kindness and love. Once again it comes down to relationship.

What about families? Family terms like father, mother, sister, brother, uncle, and aunt nominally express a biological link. However, in many families, these terms are applied to people who are not biological relatives. An adopted child may not know his biological parents, and he may call his adoptive parents ‘Mom and Dad.’ In such cases the loving bond and shared experiences are more real and important than any nominal ‘blood relative’ status. On one occasion Jesus masterfully illustrated that this is also true in the family of God. Reading from Mark 3:31-35:

“31 And [Jesus’] mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. 32 And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you." 33 And he answered them, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" 34 And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother."”
Next time you use the word ‘fellowship,’ stop and ask yourself if you’re using it to refer to real sharing and participation within the family of God (as God intended), or to nominal membership within an organization.