What Fellowship Hath Christ With Belial?

6 12 2008
An examination of the religious celebration of Christmas in light of the Scriptural duty of separation and the Regulative Principle of worship
by Douglas W. Comin

Preface

The following discourse was presented as a sermon to the congregation of the First Reformed Presbyterian Church of Beaver Falls, PA on December 22, 1991. It was not an easy message to preach. It is never easy to re-examine practices and patterns of thinking that have been presumed and taken for granted for a lifetime. It is especially difficult when these practices are associated with intense emotional feelings and are bound up with deep-rooted family traditions. Such is the case with the subject of Christmas. To even call into question the annual celebration of the birthday of Jesus Christ is inconceivable for most modern Christians. That anyone would even suggest that Christmas and its festivities have no warrant in the Word of God and should therefore be dismissed from the practice of God’s people seems the height of foolishness to our generation. The question which must be asked is, “Why?”

If the celebration we all know as Christmas is to be zealously upheld by the Christian Church, what is the reason? Do the Scriptures prescribe this annual Holy Day? Did Jesus Himself institute a yearly commemoration of the day of His birth to be kept by His disciples to the end of the age? Do the Scriptures even provide us with the date of our Saviour’s birth?

All practices and patterns of thinking must be subjected to the scrutiny of the Word of God. If we are unwilling to lay our personal views on the table beside an open Bible, then we are indicating more than we may think about our openess to conform our lives to the teaching of Scripture. This sermon seeks to examine one of our most cherished traditions by the light of God’s Word. The question of the propriety or impropriety of any practice must always be decided on that basis alone, and never on the basis of subjective emotion. Emotion has often led well meaning people down the wrong road. God’s Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. May God grant us the courage and character always to be willing to submit our personal viewpoints, on every matter of faith and life, to the scrutiny of His unerring Word.

Introduction

This is one of the most difficult sermons that I will have preached in my career, short as it is, as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I feel the need to preface it by explaining that to you, because it is the result of some intense personal study – a study that has affected my life in a particular way, as you will see. And it has caused me to come to a conclusion that is not a popular conclusion among the majority of Christians today. And so I don’t imagine that I will be particularly popular after the preaching of this message. After all, the disparagement of such a precious tradition as Christmas is interpreted in our modern world as in poor taste, at the very least, and downright anti-Christian at the most. This would not have been the case 100 years ago, but things have changed.

In actuality, I wrestled long and hard with this topic before deciding to preach it to you today. And in the final analysis, my conscience would simply not allow me to avoid it. The Scriptures and the historical material are just too clear, and the willful blindness of much of the church is too painfully evident, as it was painfully evident in my own life and mind. And all the while, the holiness of Jesus Christ is being profaned. I believe this with all of my heart. I’ve been guilty of it myself, and it grieves me deeply. But I’m thankful to God that in His mercy He has redirected my thoughts to the standard of His Word which alone is the guide for all of our faith and practice. And I must share with you what I have seen there in regard to the current practice of many Christians, who in most cases have simply never bothered to ask the necessary questions.

I take some solace in the fact that these views which I will espouse have been held by such well respected men of God as the “Prince of Preachers,” Charles Haddon Spurgeon, who began a sermon on December 24, 1871 with the following words:

We have no superstitious regard for times and seasons. Certainly we do not believe in the present ecclesiastical arrangement called Christmas. First, because we do not believe in the Mass at all, but abhor it, whether it be said or sung, in Latin or in English. And secondly because we find no Scriptural warrant whatever for observing any day as the birthday of the Saviour. And consequently, its observance is a superstition because not of Divine authority.

I take greater solace from the fact that these things are rooted and grounded in the very Word of God, which is always the guiding light for the path of the Believer.

If God’s Word can be shown to refute the contents of this message, then I will gladly and obediently retract every phrase. But if, by God’s standard, the message stands, then we are all bound to respond to it in humility of heart and consistency of behavior, lest we be guilty of the sin of being found hearers only of the Word and not doers. Therefore, I would humbly request that you give careful consideration to the contents of this sermon, as you would any other, and imitate the character of the noble Bereans, examining the Word of God to see if these things be true.

The Wonder of the Incarnation

Before proceeding into the negative aspect of this discussion it is necessary to affirm with the utmost fervency that the rejection of the observance of Christmas as a holiday is in no way a denial of the excellency of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. This is often implied, if not actually stated – that to deny this human innovation is to reject the wonder of the virgin birth of Christ in a stable in Bethlehem so many years ago. It would be equivalent to say that since Reformed Presbyterians do not allow the use of instrumental music in worship, that we therefore reject the beauty of all instrumental music, from Bach to Wagner. This is simply not the case, and it is also bad logic. The wonder of the Incarnation stands forever, regardless of whether or not Believers celebrate an unsanctioned holy day. The charge of denying the excellency of the Incarnation assumes that the observance of this holy day is instituted by God, for that is the only way that the ignoring of it could be an affront to the Incarnation. But where in the Bible is such an institution? Indeed, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ is a wonderful thing. And we affirm most heartily the wonder of the Incarnation.

In the Incarnation we see, first of all, that we have a God who is capable of self-sacrifice for us. Philippians 2:6 describes Him who “being in very nature God did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.” Isaiah 53:3 tells us that “He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with suffering.” And, of course, the Gospel accounts reveal to us the circumstances surrounding the birth of the Savior of the world, surrounded by scandal and poverty, and the filth of a stable. All this the majestic and holy, unblemished Lamb of God was willing to take upon Himself, for the sake of helpless, lost sinners like you and me.

Secondly, in the Incarnation we see that Christ has set for us a model of humility. The description of His humiliation in Philippians 2, of course, begins with the controlling phrase, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” In a world in which everyone is clawing their way to the top, striving to gain prominence in the eyes of men, treading thoughtlessly over the weak and the oppressed, looking out for number one – Jesus, who could be exalted no higher than equality with God, willingly gave up His rightful place and took the place of a servant. Men cry out for personal success shouting “I have a right! I want what is mine!” And over the clamor of their selfish chorus is heard the cry of a tiny baby – the cry of the One who alone possesses any truly inalienable rights, but who counted His personal rights as nothing in the face of the desperate need of others.

In the wonder of the Incarnation we see, thirdly, that the depth of our self-sacrifice is to be no less than His. What was the extent of the love that Jesus exhibited for us? Did it involve only momentary discomfort, or light affliction? Was it only the enduring of ridicule and poverty? Again, Philippians is our guide: “And being found in appearance as a man He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” In Romans, Paul says, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” The extent of that example is emphasized in 1 John 3:16 where we read, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down His life for us. And we ought to lay down our life for our brothers.” Paul goes a step further in his love for his fellow Jews when he says in Romans 9:1-3, “I speak the truth in Christ, I am not lying. My conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit. I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart, for I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race.” In humility of mind, then, following the example of the incarnate Son of God, consider others better than yourself.

Fourthly, because of the Incarnation, He can sympathize with our weakness. This is the burden of the author of Hebrews, who tells us that because of the Incarnation of Christ – His being born as a man – we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are, yet was without sin. He then admonishes and encourages us to approach the throne of grace with confidence, that we may find mercy and grace to help us in our time of need. This sympathy of the Savior would not have been available to us apart from the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Only in sharing our human nature was Jesus enabled to be this kind of a compassionate High Priest.

Fifthly, because of the Incarnation, we have the most precious gift of all. Certainly apart from the glorious fact of the Incarnation there would be no sacrifice for sins. We would still be eternally lost. He had to be made like us in order for the just penalty of the Law to be transferred to Him. Paul says that God made up in the person of Christ for what the Law was powerless to do. He sent His Son in the likeness of sinful men to be a sin offering and so He condemned sin in sinful man in order that the righteous requirements of the Law might be fully met in us. In other words, He who know no sin was made to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. The Incarnation – the physical birth of Christ in human form – was necessary for this exchange.

All of this and much more can be said of the wonder of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. The virgin birth is one of the magnificent pillars of our faith. The fact of the birth of Jesus ought to often be the subject of our preaching and our meditation and our discussion one with another. The example of His incarnation ought to be a conscious guide for our daily life and practice. We are far from disparaging the birth of our Savior.

The Blunder of the Church

But the wonder of the Incarnation has little to do with the blunder of the Church in having introduced a superstition into the practice of its members which Jesus Himself never ordained, nor did His Apostles promote or practice it. This, friends, is the fundamental question that must govern all of our practices. To the Law and to the Testimony! If they speak not according to this word, they have no light of dawn.

Let us be clear about our goal. It is my strong personal conviction, based upon the Word of God, that the celebration of Christmas is an innovation of men which has been instituted in the Church and is therefore contrary to God’s revealed will. And despite our intellectual efforts, we cannot relegate Christmas to the realm of personal or family tradition, for it has been instituted in history by the Church and as such it must be confronted. Before turning to the Scriptural material, it is appropriate to look at the historical considerations concerning this celebration, which in and of themselves are fairly breathtaking. And it seems to me that part of the difficulties that we face in the Church are the direct result of a lack, on our part, of looking back at the history of God’s dealings among His people. It is common to the generations of men to see their contemporary situation as the norm and to assume that what they have always known is right and good, or else they would not have known it.

Within the first generation of Israelites in the Promised Land following the death of Joshua the people, as a whole, had simply forgotten about the God of their fathers, who had delivered them from the hand of their oppressors by signs and wonders so dramatic that it’s difficult for us to comprehend their amnesia. Part of it was the fault of their fathers who neglected to pass down this knowledge to their children as they were commanded. Part of it was the fault of that generation which became so caught up in their own affairs that they didn’t have time to look back on the past. They were soon judged for forgetting their God. Let us not fall into their folly by assuming that our current practice is normative simply because we have known no other alternative. Our fathers did, as the historical record clearly shows.

HISTORICAL CONSIDERATIONS

The Testimony of the Word of God

 The first historical consideration in this topic is the Word of God itself. When we look there for a reference for the celebration of Christmas, we find that the Word of God nowhere commands it. Jesus did not admonish His Church to institute any feasts or holy days apart from the Sabbath. The holy days of the Old Testament people of God were typical in nature. They looked forward to Christ. They were fulfilled in Christ. And they were abolished and put to rest. Jesus did institute an ordinance for His Church to observe in remembrance of Him, but it was not Christmas – it was the Lord’s Supper.

The Testimony of the Early Church

What about the practice of the early church, then? Did the Apostles or their disciples over the next several hundred years begin the celebration of Christmas? A study of the early church reveals that these also did not observe it. Historical evidence supports the conclusion that the observance of Christmas was not practiced in the church at all until sometime during the fourth century. That’s four hundred years. Origen, who is a highly respected, though sometimes theologically strange authority, who lived in the third century of the church’s history, provided at that time a list of commonly observed festivals of his day and Christmas did not appear in that list. It was unknown to the early church. There were, however, various pagan celebrations which correspond seasonally to the current observance of Christmas. The winter solstice – the time of year in which the sun changes its course and begins to lengthen the day was a festive time for the pagan world. The Sun-god of Scandinavia was worshipped during this time in the feast of Yule, from which we derive our word “Yule-tide.”Here the imagery of trees was very prominent as with many cults. The god Saturn was worshipped in Rome during this time in the feast of Saturnalia. Listen to this description of the influence of paganism in the practice of the early church, offered by Joseph Duggan. He says,

 

One of the most prominent and popular of the pagan ceremonies was the Saturnalia running from the 17th to the 24th of December, followed by the Brumalia on the next day. It was a time of great celebration, merry-making and the giving of gifts. All this was to celebrate the victory of the unconquerable sun-god over darkness at the winter solstice, when the sun is at its lowest point and the days begin to lengthen. It was one thing for the church, now popular and dominant in Rome to persuade the people to give an outward profession of her religion. But to persuade them to surrender age-old practices was another matter. The most expedient thing to do was to let the people keep their old pagan festivals while recasting them in an outwardly Christian form.

And so the imagery of Saturnalia was changed from the worship of the sun-god to the worship of the Son of God. The similarities were accentuated. The sun-god had been likened to a small child… perfect. The sun-god has been regarded as unconquerable… Gift giving was retained, but the gifts were now given in the name of Christ. All of this seemed harmless enough to the Roman Church. In fact, they were operating under what could be conceived of as a commendable motive: bringing the un-saved into the church. But the end does not justify the means, especially if the means are clearly condemned by the Word of God. In the end, principle had been compromised for the sake of expediency, and this is always a dangerous course.

The Testimony of the Reformation

As we move along through the history of the church, we come to the time of the great Reformation in Europe. We find there, concerning the celebration of Christmas, that the Reformers rejected it. There are some hints in the writings of John Calvin which indicate his opposition to the observance of all festivals with the exception of the Lord’s Day, which God had ordained. The chief opponent of these man-ordained holidays was the mighty spokesman of the Scottish Reformation, to whom we owe our very existence, humanly speaking, as a church. I am referring, of course, to John Knox. Knox from the very beginning placed a self-conscious focus upon the subject of true worship in his work for reformation. He held steadfastly to the principle which we also hold, that true worship must be instituted by God. Here is an excerpt from one of Knox’s debates with a representative of the Roman church:

That God’s Word damns your ceremonies it is evident for the plain and straight commandment of God is, “Not that thing which appears good in thine eyes shalt thou do to the Lord thy God, but what the Lord thy God has commanded thee, that do thou. Add nothing to it. Diminish nothing from it. Now, unless that ye are able to prove that God has commanded your ceremonies, this, His former commandment will damn both you and them.

The first Book of Discipline in the Scottish Presbyterian Church, which was drawn up in 1560 by Knox and several other leaders in the Church of Scotland clearly expelled the observance of ecclesiastical holidays from the Reformed Church. Part of its opening section refers specifically to the observance of Christmas as something which is not to be practiced in the church. The Reformation was a cleansing of the church from all of the pagan corruptions which had been permitted, or deliberately incorporated into the worship of the church by the hierarchy of Rome. Will we now reject the benefits won for us through the blood and toil of the martyrs of the Reformation, as though their efforts were really unnecessary? Will we return to the errors from which they sought to free us?

The Testimony of the Westminster Assembly

Following the Reformation, the church continued to grow and prosper in the grace of God. Many outstanding contributions were made for the clarity of the church’s doctrine and the definition of the Bible’s teachings concerning God and man. One of the products of this was the work of the authors of the Westminster Confession of Faith in the mid 17th century. The document that they together contrived was a summary of the teaching of the Bible – a creedal statement for the church of Christ. It has been adopted by many Reformed denominations, including our own, as a subordinate standard – a faithful summary of the teachings of the Word of God. What was the position of the Westminster Divines concerning the celebration of Christmas? The Westminster Divines did not allow it. In the Confession of Faith itself, which we have been studying in our evening worship, the Regulative Principle of worship is clearly set forth in chapter 20, section 1. It says that “the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.”The same position was confirmed in the Larger Catechism, which says that Scripture forbids any religious worship not instituted by God Himself and corrupting the worship of God, adding to it, or taking from it whether invented and taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretense whatsoever. The authors of the Westminster Confession of Faith also drew up a document called The Directory for the Publick Worship of God and The Directory for Family Worship. And in the section titled, “Touching days and places for public worship”we find the following statements:

There is no day commanded in Scripture to be kept holy under the Gospel but the Lord’s Day, which is the Christian Sabbath. Festival days, vulgarly called holy days, having no warrant in the Word of God, are not to be continued.

Those of us who subscribe to the Westminster standards as a faithful summary of the teaching of God’s Word ought not to take such statements lightly.

The Testimony of the English Puritans

Among those who were influenced by the work of the Westminster Assembly were the English Puritans, who later became among the first settlers in America. These people were staunch Calvinists. They ordered their whole lives in self-conscious obedience to the Scriptures, making every effort to live consistently with their convictions. They were not always successful, as none of us are, but they were more consistent than most in many areas. A study of the history of early America reveals to us that Christmas had no place among the Puritans. To the pilgrim settlers December 25th was just another day. Consider the following extract from the reflections of William Bradford concerning a mild conflict in 1621:

On the day called “Christmas Day” the Governor called them out to work as was used. But the most part of this new company excused themselves and said that it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor told them that if they made it a matter of conscience he would spare them till they were better informed. So he led away the rest and left them. But when they came home at noon from their work, they found them in the street at play openly, some pitching the bar and some at stool ball and such like sports. So he went to them and took away their implements and told them that was against his conscience, that they should play and others work. If they made the keeping of it a matter of devotion, let them keep to their houses. But there should be no gaming or reveling in the streets, since which time nothing has been attempted that way, at least openly.

The assumption of Bradford and the Governor and the rest of the Puritans was that those who clung to such celebrations would forsake them when they were “better informed.” When the Governor saw that the man-ordained festival of these individuals was being used as an excuse to evade the God-ordained duty of productive labor for the sake of revelry, the God-ordained activity took prevalence.

The Testimony of Modern Church History

The history of our own nation since the time of its first Puritan settlers has unfortunately been marked by a steady departure from self-conscious obedience to the Word of God in the public sector. And most of the churches have followed the public trend. So in many ways it’s not surprising to find such things as the celebration of Christmas and other man-made holy days, which were firmly resisted by our Reformed ancestors on the authority of the Scriptures themselves, finding wide acceptance in the church today. What is surprising, however, is the late date at which these things began to be widely accepted. The acceptance of Christmas into the mainstream practice of Protestant churches is a relatively new phenomenon. In fact, a study of the history of the church shows that up until the turn of this century, even the Presbyterian Church in the United States, commonly known as the most liberal of the mainline denominations, resisted it. One Presbyterian Church Historian documents the fact that December 25th was not recognized as a day of any religious significance in the Presbyterian Church for a full generation after the Civil War. He quotes from a periodical, The Southern Presbyterian, an article written on December 22, 1870 which said, “if the exact date were known, or if someday December 25th had been agreed upon by common consent in the absence of certain knowledge, we would still object to the observance of Christmas as a holy day. We object for many reasons, but at present mention only this one: that experience has shown that the institution of holy days by human authority, however pure the intention, has invariably led to the disregard of the Holy Day, the Sabbath, instituted by God.”

Even as late as 1899, the General Assembly of the PCUS was steadfastly opposed to the observance of these man-made holidays in the practice of the church. Their Church Government had a section which read, “There is no warrant in Scripture for the observance of Christmas and Easter as holy days, rather the contrary. And such observance is contrary to the principle of the Reformed faith, conducive to will-worship, and not in harmony with the simplicity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So you see it has been within our own century that this custom has been widely accepted, and has become ingrained in the thought and practice of Christians in virtually every denomination. So thorough has this infiltration been that today it is considered blasphemous to even call the practice into question. But this was not the case one hundred years ago.

We’ve become like our ancient counterparts in the book of Judges, who within a generation after the death of Joshua simply forgot about the teachings of the Lord their God and turned to the practices of the pagan inhabitants of the land. We must not allow ourselves to blindly pursue current practices of our day without a careful examination of the teaching of the Bible and the practice of our forerunners in the faith. We do not live in a vacuum.

THEOLOGICAL CONSIDERATIONS

Most of the theological considerations have been alluded to already, in our historical discussion. Our ultimate guide for what we do must always be God’s Word.

The Regulative Principle of Worship

The first theological consideration in this discussion is the Regulative Principle of Worship. This is the guiding principle behind the practice of our denomination in matters of worship. Our worship is limited by what God has commanded. One of the clearest Biblical statements of this is in Deuteronomy 12:29-32:Deuteronomy 12:29-32

The Lord your God will cut off before you the nations you are about to invade and dispossess. But when you have driven them out and settled in their land and after they have been destroyed before you, be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, “How do the nations serve their gods? We will do the same.” You must not worship the Lord your God in their way. Because in worshipping their gods they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. See that you do all that I have commanded you. Do not add to it, or take away from it.

The practices of the pagans are not to be incorporated into the worship of the people of God.

The Duty of Radical Separation

Secondly, what is the proper response to paganism? The operating principle of the Roman church in the fourth century was that the worship practices of the heathen could be sanctified in the name of Christ and blended with the worship of the Church. This is always the downfall of the people of God. No period in Israel’s history is more illustrative of this than the time of the Judges. Despite God’s specific warning in Deuteronomy, we find in Judges 2:10,11that “After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up who neither knew the Lord, nor what He had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals. They forsook the Lord and worshipped the various gods of the nations around them.”Judges 2:10,11

Each succeeding section of the book of Judges begins with the same preface: “Then the Israelites did evil in the sight of the Lord and the anger of the Lord burned against them.” This evil that they did was the blending of pagan worship with the true worship of the Lord God. In each case, when God brought deliverance, there was a purification of worship. They were not to purify the practices of the pagans by consecrating them to the Lord. They were to completely destroy any remnants of pagan worship from their midst and return to the pure worship which had been commanded by God.

So Gideon in chapter 6 received a divine commission: “Take the second bull from your father’s herd – the one seven years old – tear down your father’s altar to Baal and cut down the Asherah pole beside it. Then build a proper kind of altar to the Lord your God on top of this height. Using the wood of the Asherah pole which you cut down, offer the second bull as a burnt offering.” The altar to Baal was to be completely destroyed, and the wood from the Asherah pole consumed in the fire before the Lord. God was demonstrating His utter displacement of pagan worship from the midst of His people.

Sometime, re-read the book of 2 Kings. One by one you’ll notice that the wicked kings of Israel are described by God according to this standard, word for word: “He did evil in the eyes of the Lord. He did not turn away from the sins of Jeroboam, son of Nebat, which he caused Israel to commit.” Who was Jeroboam, and what was his sin? He was the wicked son of Nebat, who became the first king of the northern kingdom following the division of the people. And 1 Kings chapter 12 describes his great sin:

Jeroboam thought to himself, “The kingdom will now likely revert to the house of David. If these people go up to offer sacrifices at the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, they will again give their allegiance to their lord Rehoboam, king to Judah and they will kill me and return to king Rehoboam.” After seeking advice the king made two golden calves. He said to the people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” One he set up in Bethel, and the other in Dan, and this thing became a sin. The people went even as far as Dan to worship the one there. And Jeroboam built shrines on high places and appointed priests from all sorts of people, even thought they were not Levites. He instituted a festival on the 15th day of the 8th month like the festival held in Judah, and offered sacrifices on the altar. This he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves he had made. And at Bethel he also installed priests at the high places he had made. On the 15th day of the 8th month – a month of his own choosing – he offered sacrifices on the altar he had built at Bethel. So he instituted the festival for the Israelites and went up to the altar to make offerings.

From that day forward the kings of the land were judged by the Lord according to whether they followed after the practices of Jeroboam in combining pagan worship with the worship of Israel, or whether they turned away from it.

One such king, who did turn away from these things was Hezekiah. And in 2 Kings 18 we read of him that “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father David had done. He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones, and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. He held fast to the Lord and did not cease to follow Him. He kept the commands the Lord had given Moses.”

The similarities cannot be ignored. The worship of the gods of Canaan was not vastly different from the worship of the sun-god of Rome. Idolatry is idolatry, any way you slice it. And the combination of pagan elements of worship with the practice of the children of God continues to be a sinful abomination in the eyes of a Holy God. The elements of idolatry cannot be sanctified and incorporated into the Christian life. They defile pure worship. They pollute and corrupt. They always seem to be harmless enough to those who practice them, but they are not harmless if they are contrary to the directive of God. The Church is commanded, and has always been commanded, to purge itself of any traces of paganism.

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and unrighteousness have in common? For what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a Believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? Therefore, come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing and I will receive you.

The standard is complete separation, not compromise.

The Influence of Roman Catholicism

A third consideration is the direct influence of Roman Catholicism. We are a Church with roots in the Reformation. The incorporation of holy days into the practice of the church in general was an innovation of the Roman Catholic Church. Even the name of the holiday in question, “Christ-mas,”is formed from the Roman Catholic terminology “Christ”and “mass”. The Reformers exposed the idolatry of the mass, along with the many errors of the Roman Church including the celebration of man-ordained holy days. We must not fall back into those errors. The basic error of Rome was the exaltation of the authority of the Church to an equal, if not greater, position than the word of God. It was this error which enabled them to introduce these extra-biblical holy days so easily into the practice of the church. But our heritage as a Reformed Church rests on the sole authority of God’s Word. “Sola Scriptura”was the cry of the Reformers. God’s Word alone is the standard of our faith and practice.

The Undermining of the Christian Sabbath

Fourthly, there is the undermining of the Sabbath of Christ. Some will certainly offer the complaint, “Are we saying that the Christian life is to be totally void of celebration? Take away the holidays and you take all of the fun out of our faith.”But this is far from the case. In fact, the basis of such a complaint is a misunderstanding of the holy day that God has given to His people. God is far more generous with us than we are to ourselves. We would make one or two days of the year special days of joy and celebration, but God has given us such a day every week. Fifty-two times a year God sets aside a time for worship and joy and celebration. The problem is in our perception of the Lord’s Day, which has been divinely instituted by God as the Holy Day for God’s people. Do we see God’s Holy Day as a bore and a drudgery, while those of our own invention are filled with joy and festivity? If we do, then we celebrate the Lord’s Day amiss.

God, through the prophet Isaiah, offers this promise to His people: “If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on My holy day. If you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s Day honorable. And if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the Lord, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.” Calling the Sabbath a delight is what we are called to do.

The Pharisees had a faulty view of the Sabbath. They were rebuked by Jesus for worshipping according to the traditions of men rather than the commandments of God. They saw the Sabbath as a drudgery, and a day of rigorous anti-activity. And so they added to the commands of God a list of their own devising of things not to be done on the Lord’s Day. They indicated by this their basic perception of the Sabbath as a punishment rather than a blessing. Jesus reminded them that God created the Sabbath for man and not man for the Sabbath.

God has given His people a day of great joy and celebration in the worship of His holy name. We need not invent our own imitations as though God’s gift is not sufficient. The addition of man-made holy days implies the deficiency of God’s own holy day. If we’re not fully satisfied in the Lord’s Day, then we ought to spend ourselves in learning to observe it correctly – to call the Sabbath a delight – rather than forsaking it in favor of our own celebrations.

A False Sacrament?

The fifth consideration is the adding of a false sacrament. The celebration of Christmas, in the context of the Christian Church, is an imitation of the Old Testament feasts and festivals. These Old Testament feasts were designed to point forward to Christ, they were typical. They were shadows of what was to come. They were fulfilled completely in Jesus and their observance was discontinued in the New Testament Church, with the exception of the sacraments which were instituted by Christ Himself, for the perpetual observance of His people, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Many defend Christmas observance by saying, “We’re only remembering the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. What harm can there be in that?”The fact of the matter is that Jesus has already given a memorial of His life and of His death and of His resurrection. He could have chosen to institute an annual birthday celebration for the Church, but He didn’t. Instead, He broke bread with His disciples and passed around the cup and said, “Do this in remembrance of Me.”In the light of this, the edition of another memorial by the church constitutes a false sacrament. What Jesus has given is sufficient. Who will presume to add to it?

The Inconsistency of Christmas with Christ’s Humility

The sixth theological consideration is the contradiction of the humility of Jesus. Jesus was a simple man. He was born in a stable. He had no form or comeliness that we should be drawn to Him. He was not boisterous or flamboyant. But is the current observance of Christmas, which is supposedly done in His honor, really consistent with His own character of humility? Is Jesus pleased and honored by flashing lights and brightly colored wrapping paper? He was a model for us of humility.

I think further that it is quite significant that the single most exalted holiday in the practice of Satanism is one’s own birthday, not Halloween, as many people would think. This fits in perfectly with the self-exalting nature of the followers of Satan. It is the foundation of humanism. And in contrast to this, Jesus identified a symbol for His people – He gave them a holy day to keep from generation to generation – and the symbol which He instituted for His church was not the remembrance of His birth, though His birth more than any other is worthy of honor. It was the remembrance of His self-sacrificial death signified by the bread and wine of Communion. Jesus, to the end, was a man of deep humility.

The Promotion of Anti-Christian Values

Seventh, we must consider the promotion of anti-Christian values. The final consideration is one of practice. The observance of Christmas, even if originally implemented as a solemn and religious occasion, has degenerated into a pretense for all manner of anti-Christian attitudes and activities. Among them we might include: gluttony, drunkenness, greed, envy, covetousness, materialism, blasphemy, and assorted other vices. The Red Cross called me yesterday because there is desperate need of blood since the incidence of auto accidents rises so dramatically during this “sacred”time of year. So we might add murder and violence to the list. Go into a shopping mall and begin to ask people this question: “What is the real meaning of Christmas?”Very few will still remember.

CONCLUSION

The real meaning of Christmas is compromise – a sinful fusion between the worship of the true God and the worship of the pagan world that was instituted by a church which was not prepared to cast down the idols of the nations and burn the Asherah poles – or Yule logs – and enforce the pure worship of the God of the Bible. We must not join with them. We must not follow in the ways of Jeroboam, son of Nebat. We must not be yoked together with unbelievers. Let us reclaim instead the glory and delight of the Lord’s Holy Day and learn to call the Sabbath a delight. Let us rejoice together in the precious sacrament which Jesus has given to His Church as a celebration of His life, death, and resurrection. And in doing these things we are promised a blessing from God:

Therefore, come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing and I will receive you and you will be My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty. Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.
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Decorum in the presence of the King

23 10 2008

I came across this little tract I wrote some years back to help my congregation to think through how we act when we are in God’s presence on the Lord’s Day. I hope it is helpful to you also. Let me know what ya’ll think…

 

 

PASTORAL ADVICE FOR PROPER DECORUM IN THE PUBLIC WORSHIP OF GOD

Offered as a help to the congregation as they seek to serve God acceptably, with reverence and godly fear.

 

By Pastor Douglas W. Comin

 

“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel. See that you do not refuse Him who speaks. . . Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire.” (Heb. 12:22-25, 28-29)

 

It is to be lamented that in our age the Church of God has lost much of the fear of the Lord in worship. Solemnity, reverence, awe, and humility have largely given way to familiarity, casual-ness, disorder, and even flippancy. That these ungodly qualities have not been the predominant features of the worship assemblies of our own congregation affords us matter for thankfulness to God, who has given us a measure of due reverence in His presence. Yet we must be ever diligent to heed the wise counsel of Solomon who said, “Walk prudently when you go to the house of God; and draw near to hear rather than to give the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they do evil” (Eccl. 5:1) In order to encourage you, therefore, in this most important matter, I offer these thoughts for your serious consideration, drawn largely from the passage appearing at the beginning of this pamphlet.

 

Remember that you are in the presence of MAJESTY. Most people would not dream of entering into the presence of a human dignitary, or even a pop culture icon, with the same carelessness in which they invade the courts of the living God. Let the consideration of God’s incomparable majesty result in the following practical behavior:

 

1. Fix your attention on Him alone, not casually conversing with those around you. There will be time enough for fellowship later, but it is insulting to God’s majesty to have His subjects chattering and whispering to one another when He has called for their attention.

 

2. Be on time for worship, which is a divine appointment with the King of kings. The whole service of worship, and not merely the sermon, is appointed by Him for your edification. Wandering in late or leaving early shows contempt for His glory.

 

3. Do not wander in and out of the service, as if you were at liberty to forsake His presence at your whim. There may be times of true necessity, but these should be rare. If you have small children, make a point of arriving early in order to see to their needs. Do all that you can to ensure that the Majestic God before whom you appear will have your undivided attention, as He deserves.

 

4. Show due respect before God with the posture of your body, as well as your heart. Just as the words of your mouth are the overflow of the heart, so “body language” communicates a great deal about the inward thoughts. Attentiveness, eagerness, respect, and reverence are not conveyed through slouching, yawning, or dozing.

 

Remember that you are before the THRONE OF GRACE. The worship of God is an unspeakably great privilege and a means of immeasurable blessing. Jesus Christ suffered and died to give you access to God’s throne of grace. He Himself presents you there before the Father and pleads for spiritual benefits on your behalf. The remembrance of this should move you to serious prayer as you enter the assembly of the saints.

 

1. Come with expectancy, praying in your heart that God will prepare you to enter into His presence. John Willison wrote: “The mariner who intends a voyage, not only provides for his tackling, but he is careful, before he sails, to put his ship off from the land, that he may catch the first fair wind. In like manner, Christian, if you would launch heavenwards upon a Lord’s Day, be concerned to get the vessel of your heart put off from the earth beforehand.”

 

2.  Seek grace through Christ to benefit from every part of the worship service. Not only the preaching, but also the prayers, psalms, Scripture readings and sacraments hold matchless bounty for your soul if only you would apply yourself to seeking them diligently.

 

3. As you hope to receive a blessing from the Lord in worship, determine to concentrate your full attention upon the matter. “Fix your eye on the minister, your ear on the word, and your heart on God.”

 

Remember that you are in the company of THE ANGELIC HOST. It is a peculiar privilege that is ours in worship, that we actually draw near to “an innumerable company of angels” and join our hearts and voices with theirs in pouring out praise to God. Respect for these heavenly beings is urged upon us in Scripture as a motive for hospitality, as the writer of Hebrews says, “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels” (Heb. 13:2). How much more should our consciousness of their presence with us in worship incite us to take care in regard to our conduct in the heavenly tabernacle.

 

1. The angels are in awe of your salvation, for Peter speaks of the mystery of the Gospel as consisting in “things which angels desire to look into” (1 Pet. 1:12). And would you be careless, as they look on, concerning the means of so great a salvation that are held before you in the ordinances of worship?

 

2. The angels are not distracted from the praises of God day or night, and yet they have not half the reason to rejoice in Him as we do. We are told in Hebrews 2:16, “He does not give aid to angels, but He does give aid to the seed of Abraham.” Shall they which have never received the infinite gift of grace outdo us in fervency of praise and thankfulness to the God of our salvation?

 

3. The angels watch for order and proper decorum in the worship of the Church. Thus Paul, in arguing the propriety for the woman to have a symbol of authority upon her head in worship says that it is “because of the angels” (1 Cor. 11:10). Matthew Henry, referring this to the order that exists in the ranks of God’s hosts, says, “We should learn from all to behave in the public assemblies of divine worship so as to express a reverence for God, and a content and satisfaction with that rank in which he has placed us.”

 

Remember that you are in the presence of JUST MEN MADE PERFECT. In our worship assemblies we are transported in the spirit to the heavenly tabernacle, where we join in ascribing glory to God with the whole congregation of the invisible Church. By faith we acknowledge that the elect of God who have departed from this world have not passed out of existence, but into glory, and it is our great privilege to gather with them as we worship. Let this spiritual reality direct your thoughts in the assembly.

 

1. Heed the words of David, who is present with you: “God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints, and to be held in reverence by all those around Him” (Psalm 89:7).

 

2. Think of the prophets, who continually lifted up their voices to turn the people of God away from complacency and vain worship. Will you stand with them in the presence of the Lord and let your hearts wander after the worthless idols of the world?

 

3. As you begin to grow anxious for the conclusion of the service, consider the saints from Troas, who sat attentively listening to Paul until midnight. Or think of Amos, who chided the ungodly of his day for saying: “When will the New Moon be past that we may sell grain? And the Sabbath, that we may trade wheat?” (Amos 8:5).

 

Remember that you are part of a BODY. We come to “the general assembly of the church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven.” One of the prevailing sins of the church of Corinth was that the people came together without regard for one another. They were individualistic in their approach to worship, just like much of the modern church. But God commands us in our assembling together to be conscious of one another’s spiritual interest. This is the rule that is to direct us when we come together as a church: “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, leading to edification” (Romans 15:2).

 

1. Take care for the sake of your neighbor’s edification that you do not distract him in any way from his pursuit of spiritual blessing. If you or your children are disorderly in the service of worship, others will be hindered from concentrating upon the means of grace. Do not allow your little ones to wander away from you, or to fidget visibly in their seats, lest those around you be drawn away from fixing their thoughts upon the word and prayer. If they become restless, take your children quietly to the back of the meeting room, or just outside the door, and help them to compose themselves to return to the service. Make it your goal to train them to attend to the worship of God from the earliest age, for their spiritual growth cannot begin too early. Due solemnity in regular daily family worship will do much to prepare them for the corporate assembly.

 

2. See to it that you participate in all of the ordinances of worship, lest your neighbor be distracted by your awkward silence. John Willison offered a reproof to those “who sit dumb in the congregation, while their neighbors are praising God,” saying, “Think not this work below the greatest of you, for it is your honor. Excuse not yourselves by saying you cannot sing musically; for, if you had any delight in the duty, you would sing as you can.”

 

 

May this humble counsel serve to advance our experience of God’s presence, to the glory of Jesus Christ, before whom it is our exceeding joy to gather as a worshipping congregation.





Look, look… a FREE book!

8 09 2008

If you’re especially observant, you will notice a new page tab at the top of this blog with the title “FREE BOOK.” This is not a gimmick. Last year I published a book through Lulu.com entitled Worship from Genesis to Revelation. This book was the culmination of more than two years of study and preaching on the continuity of the message of Scripture regarding worship. Working through each book of the Bible in order, the goal was to present the flow of Biblical teaching on the subject, noting both the development of God’s principles for worship, and the unchanging elements that undergird worship in every age. The result was a 622 page book, which has sold over 100 copies to date. It’s still available in either hardcover or paperback editions on My Storefront at Lulu.com for those who would like to purchase it, but I wanted to make the content available here as well, because I think the subject matter is urgently important.





The Regulative Principle of Worship and the Gospel

18 08 2008

By Douglas W. Comin

 

I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word. The opposite persuasion which cleaves to them, being seated, as it were, in their very bones and marrow, is, that whatever they do has in itself a sufficient sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honour of God. But since God not only regards as fruitless, but also plainly abominates, whatever we undertake from zeal to His worship, if at variance with His command, what do we gain by a contrary course? The words of God are clear and distinct, ‘Obedience is better than sacrifice.’ ‘In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men,’ (1 Sam. xv. 22; Matth. xv. 9.) Every addition to His word, especially in this matter, is a lie. Mere ‘will worship’ [Col. ii. 23]…is vanity. This is the decision, and when once the judge has decided, it is no longer time to debate.” (John Calvin, “On the Necessity of Reforming the Church,” Selected Works of John Calvin, ed. by Henry Beveridge, Grand Rapids, Michigan (Baker Book House), 1983, vol. 1, p. 128f)

 

These comments from John Calvin are rooted in the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW), which holds that the worship of the Holy God is defined by Himself, by explicit command or plain example, in His infallible Word. It is not the prerogative of men to determine what rites or activities are acceptable or desirable in the worship of God. Divine precept, rather than human presumption, is to be the rule for determining what is to be done, and what is not to be done, in drawing near to pay homage to the living God.

 

Once the majority report of Reformed and Presbyterian churches, the RPW has become an historical relic, confined to a few small denominations and much maligned by the broader evangelical community. The idea that worship is to be regulated by God’s commands is seen as “legalistic” by the modern church, which views worship rather as an emotional expression of felt devotion toward God, the components of which are determined by whatever seems best to suit the worshipper’s outpouring of his inward feelings of joy and adoration. Men such as John Calvin once understood and rightly warned against the tendency of man to frame his worship according to his own preferences. They knew too well the propensity of fallen creatures to distort the image of God and to incorporate superstition and idolatry into their worship practices. In an essay published by Wesminster Seminary California, W. Robert Godfrey sketched the Genevan Reformer’s view of worship that proceeds from the preferences of men rather than the prescriptions of God:

 

Calvin’s great caution and concern on matters of worship reflected his belief that Christians too often want to please themselves in worship rather than please God. “Nor can it be doubted but that, under the pretense of holy zeal, superstitious men give way to the indulgences of the flesh; and Satan baits his fictitious modes of worship with such attractions, that they are willingly and eagerly caught hold of and obstinately retained.” Calvin sharply warned of the great difference between the attitudes of God and man toward worship: “This single consideration, when the inquiry relates to the worship of God, ought to be sufficient for restraining the insolence of our mind, that God is so far from being like us, that those things which please us most are for him loathsome and nauseating.” He related this warning particularly to the human tendency to want worship which is pleasing to the senses when he wrote: “And undoubtedly this is the origin of all superstitions, that men are delighted with their own inventions, and choose to be wise in their own eyes rather than restrain their senses in obedience to God.” His conclusion on various activities and ceremonies in worship is striking: “the more it delights human nature, the more it is to be suspected by believers.” These matters are so serious for Calvin because “nothing is more abominable in the sight of God than pretended worship, which proceeds from human contrivance.”

 

The theological rationale behind the RPW has been variously set forth by its many proponents throughout the history of the Church. Most trace the positive necessity for it to God’s jealousy for His own glory, and His divine authority, which gives Him the right to determine how He is to be approached by His creatures. Negatively, the need for the RPW is generally couched in terms of sinful man’s unfitness to draw near to God and his tendency to pervert God-centered worship by turning it into man-centered idolatry. These are all legitimate and important considerations. There is a fundamentally more important aspect to the issue, however, that is rarely emphasized but which lies at the very heart of worship and its divine regulation. That aspect is the relationship of worship to the Gospel.

 

Sin’s effect – a broken relationship with God

 

The fall of man into sin had a profound effect upon the relationship between the creature and the Creator. Prior to his rebellion, Adam had direct communion with God. The effect of Adam’s sin was a breach between himself and the Holy God. No longer could he face his Creator without shame or fear of condemnation. The fundamental effect of sin upon the heart of man was the transformation from a God-centered to a man-centered perspective. Sin’s corruption polluted every part of his nature, rendering man both unfit and unwilling for fellowship with God. The prescribed penalty for transgression of God’s command regarding the fruit of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was death. By his deliberate disobedience, Adam incurred the sentence of death, both physical and spiritual. The meaning of physical death is obvious. Spiritual death involved the separation of Adam from God, both immediately and eternally. The effect of the fall upon Adam is apparent from his reaction when he “heard the voice of God walking in the Garden in the cool of the day” (Gen. 3:8). He and his wife “hid themselves from the presence of the LORD.” They were guilty, and they feared judgment. They knew that a holy God could not tolerate unrighteousness and that standing in His presence would mean certain condemnation.

 

God’s Provision – restored fellowship by means of sacrifice

 

What was the Divine response to Adam’s transgression? Justice demanded the penalty of death. Yet God in His grace offered a means of redemption. Physical death would now be part of man’s lot, but the spiritual and eternal death incurred by Adam’s sin would be transferred to a Substitute. In Genesis 3:15 God promised to send “the seed of the woman” to “crush the head of the serpent.” This was a promise that Christ would come into the world as the Redeemer of men.

 

In token of this promise, God did something very significant. Adam and Eve had attempted to cover the shame and guilt of their sin by sewing for themselves garments of fig leaves. This was a vain effort to make themselves presentable before God after they had disobeyed His commands. It was a form of covering their transgressions by the work of their own hands. After God promised to send “the seed of the woman,” we are told that He made “tunics of skins” and clothed Adam and his wife. The message was simple: You cannot cover your own sins. If you are to be acceptable to stand in My presence, I must provide a covering for your sins by sacrifice. The making of tunics of skins for Adam and Eve involved the shedding of blood – the first recorded instance in Scripture of animal sacrifice, which would become the central focus of the ceremonial worship of God’s people.  

 

The Link Between Worship and the Gospel

 

Thus was established the link between worship and the Gospel. Worship is the communion of the creature with the Creator. This communion was broken by man’s fall into sin and its resulting corruption of his whole nature. God graciously provided a means for the restoration of this broken relationship, through the mediation of Jesus Christ, whom He promised to send into the world as Redeemer. The reality of this promised redemption became the central focus of man’s worship, the visible expression of which pictured God’s provision of Salvation through the work of Jesus Christ.

 

If the making of tunics of skins by animal sacrifice was the first expression of Christ-centered worship, the attempt of our first parents to make themselves presentable by sewing garments of fig leaves made by their own hands was the first expression of man-centered worship. This has been the tension in worship since the fall. God declares that He may only be approached on the basis of His provision, and He frames worship on His own terms, centered upon the finished work of Christ. Man desires to approach God on his own terms, vainly imagining that his own inventions will be acceptable.

 

Enter the Regulative Principle of Worship

 

The principle that man’s worship must be in accordance with what God Himself has prescribed is implicit in the first animal sacrifices. Adam and Eve could not restore communion with God by their own efforts but could only draw near to Him by His provision and on His prescribed terms. God’s prescribed terms centered upon, and visibly portrayed, His gracious provision of the means of restored communion through Jesus Christ. That this principle was clearly understood by Adam and Eve can be seen in the account of their two sons, Cain and Abel.

 

And in the process of time it came to pass that Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground to the LORD. Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat. And the LORD respected Abel and his offering, but He did not respect Cain and his offering. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.” (Genesis 4:3-5)

 

What made Abel’s offering acceptable and Cain’s inadequate? Some have suggested that it was a matter of sincerity – that Abel sincerely offered the best of his flocks while Cain half-heartedly offered some of his produce. The real difference, however, was in the substance of the respective offerings. God had prescribed a bloody sacrifice as the means of entering into His presence. Adam and Eve’s fig leaves had not been sufficient. Now, Cain sought to approach God with a bloodless sacrifice, contrary to the Divine prescription, while Abel offered the firstborn of his flock – a visible representation of Christ in keeping with God’s requirements. Abel’s worship depicted the Gospel, while Cain’s illustrated pride in his own works.

 

The RPW and the Ceremonial System

 

As God’s revelation progresses, we find Him choosing out a people and calling them into a special covenant relationship with Himself. Through Moses God made known His will for worship by setting forth a detailed and elaborate ceremonial system, in which everything – the floor plan of the Tabernacle – the times and types of offerings – the utensils used in the holy services – the decorations on the clothing of the priests – everything was filled with symbolic significance and all of it pointed to and pre-figured God’s provision of redemption through to promised Savior Jesus Christ. When the Lord brought His people into the land that He had promised them, He gave them this commandment and warning:

 

And you shall offer your burnt offerings, the meat and the blood, on the altar of the LORD your God; and the blood of your sacrifices shall be poured out on the altar of the LORD your God, and you shall eat the meat. Observe and obey all these words which I command you, that it may go well with you and your children after you forever, when you do what is good and right in the sight of the LORD your God. When the LORD your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.’ You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way; for every abomination to the LORD which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods. Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it.” (Deuteronomy 12:27-32)

This is the classic formulation of the Regulative Principle of Worship. When you worship, you are not to look around at your neighbors in order to imitate what they do. You are to do what I command you – without addition or subtraction.  In the subsequent history of Israel, God enforces this principle with the strictest of penalties for those who presume to add to or take away from His commands regarding worship. But why such strict boundaries? Notice once again the centrality of the blood. God had built into His prescribed worship the very message of the Gospel. Every detail was calculated to point them to the promised work of Jesus Christ. If they tampered with the details of God’s prescribed ceremonies, they would be distorting the very message of the Gospel and introducing into it the work of their own hands. In effect, they would be attempting to draw near to God by their own efforts and ignoring the provision that He made for them through Jesus. Like Adam’s fig leaves and Cain’s produce, their worship would be man-centered and unacceptable to God.

 

Here is the connection: worship is designed by God to be a visible representation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. To alter God’s commanded worship is therefore to distort the Gospel. Worship either pictures God’s provision or man’s work and efforts.

 

The RPW and the New Covenant

 

With the advent of Jesus Christ, the long-awaited promises were at last fulfilled. Every detail, every nuance, every jot and tittle of the elaborate symbolism of Israel’s ceremonies found its perfect antitype in the Lamb of God who came to take away the sins of the world. Obviously, this would have profound effects upon the worship of God’s people. The detailed ceremonies – the outward and external types and shadows – were now abrogated and put away.

 

Yet the Scriptures of the New Testament continue to emphasize that God alone determines how His people are to approach Him and counts all man-made traditions and commandments of men as will-worship and gross presumption. The underlying principle behind this truth remains the same – the authority of God to govern His Church according to His own word and to design the worship of His people in such a way that Christ has the preeminence.

 

In Old Testament times, the preeminence of Christ was seen through the external types and shadows of the ceremonial worship, which testified of Him to the “church under age.” Today the preeminence of Christ is seen in the spiritual worship of the New Covenant Church, the absence of external rites and ceremonies bearing witness to the sufficiency of His Priestly work and the access to the heavenly sanctuary that He won through His sacrifice. While the outward form of worship has changed, the underlying principles remain unaltered.

 

God is still the Ruler of His Church, Christ remains the central focus of her worship, and man’s inventions imposed upon her activities continue to obscure the perfect testimony of Christ that God has designed her worship to convey. Just as the detailed ceremonies of the Old Covenant visibly represented the promised work of Christ who was to come, so the simplicity of New Covenant worship visibly represents the completed and finished work of the Savior who has come and who has done all that was necessary to accomplish our reconciliation to God and restore us to communion with Him. And just as the addition of un-commanded elements to the Old Covenant ceremonies, or the omission of commanded elements, amounted to a distortion of the Gospel which those ceremonies were designed to portray – so the addition of un-commanded elements to the simple, spiritual worship of the New Covenant obscures the truth that Jesus Christ has accomplished all that is necessary to present us to God.

 

The Crux of the Matter

 

This is the problem with Romish worship. By adding a host of outward elements and outward rituals to the worship of God, Rome obscures the Gospel and keeps its adherents dependent upon their own works and the ministrations of their priests. Evangelical worship likewise obscures the pure message of the Gospel when it incorporates elements and activities calculated to appeal to the external senses and which proceed from the imaginations and traditions of men, for in so doing the impression is given that God is pleased and honored by what men do, rather than communion with Him depending solely upon the sufficiency of the completed work of Jesus, whose once-for-all sacrifice has forever done away with the outward elements once required, and replaced them with the surpassing glory of a simple, spiritual, Christ-centered worship.





Worship bragging rights?

15 08 2008

Just came across this t-shirt at the Lark News web site… might just have to get me one 🙂





Incarnation

13 08 2008

This is a poem that I wrote while meditating upon the amazing condescension of Jesus Christ, “who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6-7)

 

Incarnation

A baby cries

amid the straw, fresh-born into a world so strange;

Could this be God,

the eternal Son,

glorious throne for flesh exchanged?

 

How can this be?

What mind can grasp the untold splendor of this thing?

Almighty God,

The Lord of Hosts

in infant-form to mother clings!

 

Majestic One,

whose blazing beauty shineth forth to shame the dawn.

Now without form

or comeliness

that any should to him be drawn.

 

Creator God,

Who made and owns the cattle on a thousand hills;

Now humble, poor,

A stable floor

For solace ‘gainst harsh winter chills.

 

Perfect Spirit,

Unhindered by the bonds of Adam’s flesh-bound race,

conceived and born

in mankind’s form,

with limits all of time and space.

 

When once He dwelt

in Heaven high, He was untouched by worldly woe.

Yet willingly

He condescends,

consents the scourge of pain to know.

 

And not mere pain,

but death itself, and not mere death, but cursed cross,

the Suffering Servant

stoops to bear

to purge away man’s sinful dross.

 

Was this for me?

Did Glory stoop so low to grace this wretched orb

To set me free,

and for my sin

did He God’s righteous wrath absorb?

 

‘Tis said

in order to secure the ransom price I could not pay,

He took my form,

and bore the storm

of God’s just punishment that Day.

  

The Lord of Glory

took my place before the unleashed wrath of God!

Like grapes His blood

beneath the feet

of His Almighty Father trod!

 

And had He not

consented thus, the confines of the flesh to know,

then I would face

eternal chains

to pay the penalty I owe.

 

What glorious grace!

The Risen Son, enthroned once more at God’s right hand

has conquered death

through sacrifice

and put to shame hell’s raging band!

 

“Come to Me,

all you who bend beneath the crushing weight of sin,”

says He,

“and I will give you rest.”

Eternal life is found in Him!





Sabbath Series, Part 3 – Which Day is the Christian Sabbath?

13 08 2008

Westminster Shorter Catechism

Question 59 – Which day of the seven hath God appointed to be the weekly sabbath?

Answer – From the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, God appointed the seventh day of the week to be the weekly sabbath; and the first day of the week ever since, to continue to the end of the world, which is the Christian sabbath.

In this lesson we will be discussing the change in Sabbath observance from the seventh day to the first day of the week and examining the biblical evidence for this change.

There are some who deny that this change is legitimate; arguing that the Sabbath should remain on the seventh day and that there is no basis for changing it to the first.

1. The seventh day was the original Sabbath.

Genesis 2:1-3 Thus the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were finished. And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.

Exodus 20:8-11 Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.

It is certainly true that God originally established the seventh day as His holy Sabbath. This is clear from the pattern of His creative work as seen in Genesis 2:1-3, as well as in the words of the 4th commandment. The pattern that was set was one of six days of labor and one day of rest, to be observed by all men while the world lasts.

We have seen that the weekly Sabbath was not part of the ceremonial law of Israel, but is a creation ordinance, built into the very fabric of the world that God made. Later, the Sabbath was written by the finger of God on tablets of stone as part of the unchanging moral law, along with such other unchangeable commands as “You shall not kill,” “You shall not steal,” and “You shall have no other gods before Me.”

The inclusion of the Sabbath commandment in the decalogue (Ten Commandments) is a strong argument for its permanency. Yet, as we will see, there was to be a change: not in the general pattern of setting apart one day in seven for rest and worship, but in the specific pattern of which day was to be set aside under Christ.

2. The Old Testament anticipates a change to the first day.

Those who favor retaining the seventh day as the Sabbath under Christ argue that there is no indication in the Scriptures of a change to the first day of the week. Yet a careful reading of the Old Testament shows that the anticipation of this change was built into the appointed ceremonies of Israel all along. One place that this anticipation is seen is in the ninth chapter of Leviticus.

Read Leviticus 9:1-24

As the first High Priest in Israel, Aaron was a type of Christ in His High Priestly work. It is therefore highly significant that the consecration of Aaron to his priestly office was performed, not on the seventh day, but on the eighth (that is, the first day of the week). On that day, not only was Aaron consecrated, but he presented the people’s offering. Then, on that same holy day, he turned and blessed the people, pronouncing peace upon them. Fire from the Lord came down that day and consumed the burnt offering and the people were declared clean.

All of this points to the finished work of Christ, who would be exalted as the Great High Priest, securing true peace for His people. He would be received up as an acceptable sacrifice to God in the place of His elect, and would send His Spirit to cleanse them from their sins.

A careful reading of the Old Testament reveals that many other significant typological events took place on the eighth day…

Circumcision was performed on the eighth day.

The offering of newborn animals as burnt offering occurred on the eighth day (Lev. 22:27, Ex. 22:30)

The dedication of Solomon’s Temple, according to 2 Chron. 7:9, took place during a sacred assembly on the eighth day. (The Temple of the Lord, the dwelling place of God in the Old Covenant system, was dedicated on Sunday)

Ezekiel’s Temple, a picture of the Church, was consecrated on the eighth day. “And when these days are expired, it shall be, that upon the eighth day, and so forward, the priests shall make your burnt offerings upon the altar, and your peace offerings; and I will accept you, saith the Lord God.” (Ezek. 43:27)

The Feast of Tabernacles, according to Leviticus 23:39, is marked off by two Sundays in a row, both called Sabbaths. “You shall keep a feast unto the Lord seven days: on the first day shall be a sabbath, and on the eighth day shall be a sabbath.”

The sacrifices of the Feast of Tabernacles described in Numbers 29:12-40, provide a clear picture of this anticipation under the Old Covenant. On the first day there are 13 bulls presented, along with several other sacrifices. Each day all the other sacrifices stay the same, but each day the number of bulls decreases by one. On the seventh day, seven bulls (the number of completion/fulfillment) are sacrificed. And then we read, “On the eighth day you shall have a solemn assembly; you shall do no servile work therein; But you shall offer a burnt offering, a sacrifice made by fire, of a sweet savor unto the Lord: One bull…(Num. 29:35-36). A single bull becomes a sufficient sacrifice on Sunday… Hmmmmmmmm….

The Feast of Firstfruits is also on Sunday. The sheaf is waved before the Lord and is accepted on behalf of the people (Lev. 23:11). Christ is the firstfruits of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:20,23; Rom. 11:16) and is accepted on our behalf. Fifty days later (counted from the sabbath preceding the Feast of Firstfruits) another important feast occurs. This is the Feast of Weeks, later known as Pentecost. “And you shall proclaim on the selfsame day, that it may be a holy convocation unto you; you shall do no servile work therein; it shall be a statute forever in all your dwellings throughout your generations.” (Lev. 23:21)

Jesus is raised from the dead on the first day, the eighth day.

He appears to His disciples a second time on that day. (John 20:26)

He sends His Holy Spirit on the first day.

The practice of the Church, as we shall see, almost immediately is to meet on that day.

3. Christ established the New Covenant Sabbath.

Psalm 118:14-24 The LORD is my strength and song, And He has become my salvation. The voice of rejoicing and salvation Is in the tents of the righteous; The right hand of the LORD does valiantly. The right hand of the LORD is exalted; The right hand of the LORD does valiantly. I shall not die, but live, And declare the works of the LORD. The LORD has chastened me severely, But He has not given me over to death. Open to me the gates of righteousness; I will go through them, And I will praise the LORD. This is the gate of the LORD, Through which the righteous shall enter. I will praise You, For You have answered me, And have become my salvation. The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief cornerstone. This was the LORD’s doing; It is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day the LORD has made; We will rejoice and be glad in it.

Acts 4:10-11 …let it be known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by Him this man stands here before you whole. This is the ‘stone which was rejected by you builders, which has become the chief cornerstone.’

The words of Psalm 118 are a prophecy of the work of Christ as the Deliverer and Savior of His people. As such, they anticipate a certain day, which would be known as “the day of salvation.” In Acts 4:10-11, Peter refers to that day as having been fulfilled by Jesus Christ, who rose for our salvation on the first day of the week. The “day that the Lord has made” is nothing less than the resurrection day of our Lord Jesus.

It is this day, which God has made for us in Christ, that is to be set apart as a day of rejoicing and gladness by those who are the recipients of the benefits of His redemptive work. This is the day to be remembered and celebrated as the fulfillment of deliverance from bondage and rest from our labors under the law. Sunday is the Lord’s Day, consecrated by the authority of Jesus Himself, who is Lord of the Sabbath.

Just as the seventh day Sabbath of the Old Covenant was rooted in God’s work of creation, so the first day Sabbath of the New Covenant is rooted in Christ’s work of re-creation. The first day of the week, identified by the resurrection of Christ, marked the creation of the new heavens and new earth spoken of in Isaiah 65:17. This is why Psalm 118:24 refers to the day “which the Lord has made.” Francis Nigel Lee states, “God instituted both the Edenic sabbath and the New Testament sabbath for man at the time of creation and re-creation respectively, by His own specific example.”

4. The apostles and the early church recognized the change.

Mark 16:2 Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen.

John 20:19-26 Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” So he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace to you!”

Acts 20:7 Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight.

1 Cor. 16:1-2 Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given orders to the churches of Galatia, so you must do also: On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come.

Given the Old Testament anticipation, and the redemptive significance of the first day of the week, it is not surprising to find in the New Testament Scriptures that the apostles and the early church immediately began to gather together for worship, fellowship, and works of mercy on the first day of the week.

In John 20:19-26 we find that the disciples met together on the first two Sundays after the resurrection.

We are told in Acts 20:7 that the disciples regularly “gathered together” on the first day of the week. This was not a casual or incidental meeting, but a formal assembly with a specific purpose. The reason stated in the text for their assembling is “to break bread,” which refers to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper which Christ commanded them to observe in remembrance of Him.

Then, in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, the apostle gives instructions for the collection of money for the saints in need. Here again, Paul assumes that there would be a regular gathering of the church on the first day of the week. Lenski, in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 16:2, notes “The first day of the week is Sunday, and kata is distributive so that we may translate: ‘Sunday by Sunday let each of you lay something aside…’ It is a fair inference that Sunday was the day which was set aside for the public worship of the Corinthian congregation, and that this custom was also followed in Galatia and in the other churches that had been founded by Paul.”

5. The first day is the Lord’s Day to the end of the world.

Revelation 1:10 “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, and I heard behind me a loud voice, as of a trumpet”

We have seen that the disciples of Jesus began to gather together on the first day of the week immediately after the resurrection. As the church grew and became established, the identity of the first day of the week as the Christian Sabbath became more and more defined. By the time that John, the last living apostle, wrote the book of Revelation, this understanding was so firm that he even used a formal term that he knew would be immediately understood by his readers: the Lord’s Day. This was none other than the day that was particularly sanctified by the Lord, namely, the first day of the week, or the resurrection day.

In John’s vision, Jesus identifies Himself as the “Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.” The vision presents an awesome picture of Christ as the Lord of His Church. In verse 18, Christ says, “I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore.”

The resurrection of Christ is the foundation of our faith. The entire Old Testament looks forward to it. The New Testament proclaims its fulfillment. And the Lord’s Day is given to the Church as the lasting commemoration of it until He returns.