Wednesday’s Column: Third’s Words
I counted 96 people present for the singing at the Waddells’ home Friday night, sitting in our camping chairs in their beautiful backyard. Beyond the hospitality and tasty desserts, this was such a wonderful, needed time of fellowship and singing. There were babies up through senior saints, with a whole lot in between. It was exciting to see visitors, several who have been attending but have not yet placed membership, elders, deacons, and so many others. Though the air was surprisingly chilly, you could not help but feel the warmth and glow of brothers and sisters enjoying life together. It felt so first-century!
While it is extremely valuable for us to make as a goal improving our singing, from training our song leaders to becoming better, more attentive followers, it is even more important to understand what God is trying to do for us and through us in our singing. Notice just a few of the objectives God achieves through those who follow His will by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
Certainly, much more is implied concerning the power, effect, and blessings of saints singing together. But, it is helpful for us to consider the value of singing on its own. As a sacrifice of praise, singing is, of itself, worship. Worship is ” to express in attitude or gesture one’s complete dependence on or submission to a high authority figure” (BDAG 882). From “I Need Thee Every Hour” to “Holy, Holy, Holy” to “You Are My All In All” (and literally hundreds more), we prostrate ourselves before God as an act of reverence, fear, and supplication (Louw-Nida 217). Our Creator designed us to connect to words and their meanings in a unique way through singing. We memorize better when we set something to music. We connect music to events and people, forming deeply touching memories and recollections. We touch our own hearts and those of others in a crucial way through melody. It is not just “filler” between prayers and the Lord’s Supper. It is a profoundly meaningful act God purposed for us to help us grow and be strong. By doing it together, we are connecting our hearts and encouraging one another’s spiritual lives.
So, think about what you can do to make this act of worship so much more effective.
Do you remember when government mandates suggested that church goers not sing for fear that virus germs might be spread? Will you consider that God intends for something vital to be spread through our psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs? His Word! It should spread to our own hearts and to others. It should even reach the throne of God in heaven! Whether you are worshipping Him alone or with your physical family in song, assembled on the Lord’s Day, or gathered with saints in other places, let us sing!
We get an interesting glimpse into the life of the early church in Acts 2.44-47. While it is not practical for us to live in that same way, there is one principle that we should examine. The early church spent a great deal of time together outside of their worship on the first day of the week. Acts 2.46 says, “And day by day, they were devoted to the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all of the people.” What’s going on here? The members of the church dedicated time every day to growing in their relationships with one another. To them, “church” was so much more than just showing up for worship every time the doors were open. It was the Monday through Saturday relationships that fortified their faith.
What was the result of this dedication? “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2.47). Are we likely to live for a faith we have not invested in? Are we likely to stand up under trials if we do not have a sense of community in the church? Are we likely to resist temptation without strong ties in God’s family? The early church faced trials we could never understand, yet they remained faithful because of their strong relationships and resulting faith.
The early church relied on constant contact with one another to help them build their faith. Nothing builds a Christian’s faith more than being around a group of people who want the same thing (to live like Christ), genuinely care for one another, and share a common goal (heaven).
Will the day come when government attempts to shut down our Bible study and worship services? Looking back at history, particularly the books of Acts and Revelation, we know this can occur. Certainly, the current environment in our society reveals a trend toward greater intolerance of the biblical worldview. We are growing more secular and more sensual as a nation. Public symbols of Christian religion are disappearing from the public square, while public expressions of Christian religion have long since disappeared from public education. That said, we do not do service to Christ by manufacturing problems where they do not exist.
Isn’t it interesting that back when Christians were experiencing mistreatment, the Holy Spirit guided men and women to have a different attitude than that of a victim. From a prison cell he would never leave alive simply because he was preaching Christ, Paul sought to bolster a young preacher’s faith by saying, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of the Lord, nor of me His prisoner, but share with me in the sufferings for the gospel according tot he power of God” (2 Tim. 1:7-8). When Peter and John were beaten for their faith, “They departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41). When they were mistreated and released earlier in this episode, the church gathered to worship and pray (Acts 4:24ff). Peter urged readiness (1 Pet. 3:15). John urged faithfulness (Rev. 2:10). Stephen showed endurance, boldness, and compassion as he became the first Christian martyr (Acts 6-7).
It is an incongruous idea to imagine the early Christians wasting precious time organizing email campaigns, seeking to draw sympathy from the media, picketing, and playing the victim. Instead, driven by their living hope (1 Pet. 1:3), they committed their lives to Jesus while they spent their days trying to spread the good news of Christ (Acts 8:4; Col. 1:23). Even as Christians were martyred (Stephen, James, those assaulted by Saul of Tarsus’ efforts, and those during the time of the book of Revelation and shortly thereafter), there is no hint of any of them roaming around with a martyr complex. Let us emulate their great example!
AD 30—Tiberius, who became cruel and mad, was the Roman Emperor when the church was established. Under his reign, right around the time of Pentecost, Rome was filled with terror after the murder of his once trusted advisor turned traitor, Sejanus (tribunesandtriumphs.org). Sanderson Beck comments that he was “preoccupied with sexual and sadistic perversions” the last several years of his life (he is believed to have been murdered)(san.beck.org). Jerusalem was directly governed by Rome. Acts, though probably written in the 60s, begins its historical chronicle around AD 30.
AD 62-63—Nero, described as licentious, cruel, tyrannical, murderous, criminal, arson, vain, perverse (tribunesandtriumphs.org) and, by historian Donald Wesson as a “cross-dressing exhibitionist” (ancient.eu), spearheaded the first organized persecution of Christians (N.S. Gill, ancienthistory.about.com). Tacitus says he blamed the Christians for his own burning of Rome. Many are the accounts of the cruel ways Nero put them to death (eyewitnesstohistory.com). Eusebius reports that Nero put both Paul and Peter to death (Church History, Book 2, Ch. 25). Before his death, Paul would report of such rapid growth throughout Nero’s reign. Peter’s outlook could not have been brighter.
AD 90s—Domitian, best remembered as “the evil emperor who murdered thousands of Christians” (tribunesandtriumphs.org), reigned when John wrote his epistles and the book of Revelation. He was notorious for his cruelty and detachment from reality. John writes Revelation in large part to steady the Christians to withstand the onslaught of persecution caused by Domitian. His message to the Christians during the reign of Domitian was consistent:
How bad did things look, from an earthly perspective, during the reigns of evil rulers like Tiberius, Nero, and Domitian? The thing is, the early Christians did not look at things from an earthly perspective. As those trying to walk in the footsteps of New Testament Christians, will we imitate their faith and that perspective?
Being patriotic and having a political heritage like we do in this country, we may have strong, personal convictions in the realm of politics. Engaging in the political process, from volunteering to voting to political meetings, can help us not only be a positive agent of change but also salt and light before the world. But nothing can have a quicker negative impact on ministry than a “stumping sermonizer” or “campaigning church man.” I’ve known preachers who seem CONSUMED with politics and can hardly speak without ranting about it. It just comes out! Beware that the mouth speaks out of the abundance of what’s in the heart (Mat. 12:34). Some preachers betray that they’re dwelling more on things below than things above (Col. 3:1-2).
The church began in the midst of political rottenness and corruption. Tacitus wrote of Augustus Caesar that he “seduced the army with bonuses, and his cheap food policy was successful bait for civilians. Indeed, he attracted everybody’s goodwill by the enjoyable gift of peace. Then he gradually pushed ahead and absorbed the functions of the senate, the officials, and even the law. Opposition did not exist. War or judicial murder had disposed of all men of spirit. Upper-class survivors found that slavish obedience was the way to succeed, both politically and financially” (https://facultystaff.richmond.edu/~wstevens/history331texts/augtotib.html). Of course, certain Jews did consume themselves with political interest and revolted against Rome—A venture that ended badly at Jerusalem and Masada. Read Tamarin’s classic book, Revolt In Judea, if you want the horrible details. Politicians of the first century were guilty of wanton sexual immorality, including homosexuality and adultery; They practiced infanticide and whet their appetites for death and violence in their stadiums and arenas. Where is Peter’s or Paul’s diatribe in scripture against vices and corruptions that sound a lot like our day? Where are the early Christians with their pickets and protests against the government? Instead, “They went everywhere preaching the word (Acts 8:4)!
Political activism will hurt our efforts to effectively evangelize. How tragic to lose a soul trying to win a political argument! Political activism, in preachers, can negatively impact what the church has paid them to do. They certainly didn’t pay him to spend all day on social media trolling stories or writing quips. They didn’t hire him to go to political rallies, being more wrapped up in affairs of state than affairs of heaven.
Paul was actually able to have an audience with the most prominent politicians of his day. Was he interested in discussing national or imperial policy with them? Before Felix and Agrippa, he preached righteousness, temperance and judgment to come. In Acts 27, he says God appointed him to speak before Caesar. What could happen among us if more were devoted to spiritual revival than political reform?
I’ve heard this prayed my whole life: “Be with us as we go our separate ways.” I fully appreciate what is meant, but I lament a trend I’ve seen for many years. Too often, we go our separate ways until the “next appointed time.” We have no contact with one another. Instead, the bulk or totality of our contact is with worldly people with ungodly philosophies. While we need to be among the world to exert salt and light, perhaps we have neglected something else that first century Christians took full advantage of. Luke describes it this way, saying, “Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart” (Acts 2:46). As he had observed in verse 42, they were continually devoting themselves to fellowship. This created a close knit community that could not only weather some huge storms of opposition, but it helped them produce an attractive environment that thousands of people wanted to be a part of. Perhaps we discount or even overlook what a vital part of church growth that fellowship and time together had on the early church.
Today, we have our civic activities, our kids’ full slate of responsibilities, our work and overtime, our personal entertainment regimen, and similar time-consuming matters that are not inherently wrong but that can help create a dramatic separation from our spiritual family during the week. Where is the time allotment for getting together with other Christians during the week? Have we relegated or resigned ourselves to Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night? Are we losing the art of hospitality, of having spiritual family over to deepen Christian relationships?
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to speak of each other and say that our hearts have “been knit together in love” (Col. 2:2)? In that same context of the church’s beginning mentioned earlier, Luke adds, “All those who had believed were together and had all things in common” (2:44). What will happen to the local church that becomes very intentional about this, not just with an exclusive few but in a way that includes new Christians, potential Christians, the otherwise disconnected, and those of different as well as similar demographics? Certainly, it requires time, effort, and even some expense, but what will it yield? A feeling of connection in the place of separation.
I recently read a fascinating article by John H. Armstrong in the September, 2014, issue of “Christianity Today.” Armstrong starts out reminiscing on early childhood worship experiences in the denomination he attended. He writes that his church celebrated the Lord’s Supper “four times a year. I remember asking why we celebrated it so infrequently. The answer I got never satisfied, and it still doesn’t: ‘If we do this very often, it will lose its meaning'” (51). He goes on to say, “As I grew older, I discovered some churches took the meal weekly. I was then even more dissatisfied with the answer I had received” (ibid.). He goes on to write a mostly historical examination of the Lord’s Supper, looking at the debates and developments of church history. At the end, he summarizes by saying, “…[younger Christians] desire to receive the meal more often. And some of them—as I did when I was younger—have started attending congregations that take Communion ever week” (53). The reasons given are that each observance gives us the opportunity to focus on Jesus’ crucifixion, expresses the unity of the body, and reflects our personal identity in Christ (ibid.). In other words, it offers commemoration, examination, and expectation. We need that on an ongoing basis, and the Lord knew we would. That is why He pointed ahead to a certain frequency when He established it, saying He would do it again when He established His Kingdom (Mark 14:25). Paul says it was to be done with a certain frequency (1 Cor. 11:25—”as often as”). Thankfully, Luke shows us how frequently it was taken (Acts 20:7—”on the first day of the week”). It is good to understand that the Bible establishes the frequency of our observation of the Lord’s Supper, but it is also important to know why we take it each week. We look up, look back, look within, look around, and look ahead. Our all-wise God knew we would need this every time we assembled with our spiritual family. Though so many have lost sight of its frequency, may we never lose sight of its significance!