Why Sunday?

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Christmas fell on a Sunday this year, which means that on a holiday when everything usually shuts down, churches had to decide whether or not they would still assemble. Not everyone came to the same conclusion. Some churches cancelled their services. Some held a Christmas Eve service. Some held normal services just like they do every Sunday. I also observed different reactions from different believers, as some indignantly asked, “Why would we go to church on Christmas?” while others incredulously wondered, “Why wouldn’t we?”

I’m actually grateful for this, because it’s opened the door over these past few weeks for some very important points of discussion: Is there ever an appropriate time to cancel church on Sunday in observance of another holiday? Must services always be held on Sunday? Why do we hold church on Sunday? Is it a binding practice, a preferred practice, or just an optional practice? Is there any real biblical basis for it, or is it simply a man-made date that can be subject to our changing schedules? Although most Christians acknowledge that, yes, we’re generally supposed to go to church on Sunday, I’ve observed over this holiday season that perhaps it’s seen as more of a general guideline than a rule.

I hope to challenge the church on that point. Starting with myself. I was actually in support of moving our Sunday morning service back to Saturday night so that our Christmas calendar would be free. But in hindsight, as I thought and prayed and studied the opinions of older, wiser men in the faith, I believe I was wrong. Having church on Sunday is a biblically ordained practice that deserves our attention and honor, and I’d like to take some time to examine why. And like most areas of theology, we’ve got to start with the beginning:

“Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished His work that He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work that He had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all His work that He had done in creation.” (Genesis 2:1-3)

Sometimes we wrongly assume that the “Sabbath” is only a part of the Mosaic Law. But according to Genesis, the seventh day was set apart as holy right from the start. Indeed, the Ten Commandments (also called “the moral law” or “natural law”) were not invented with the Mosaic covenant. They were instituted from the start, before the Law was even given. The apostle Paul said this natural law is written on the hearts of even the most heathen Gentiles (Rom. 2:14-15). That includes the Sabbath. Certainly there were stipulations for the Sabbath that came with the administration of the Mosaic Law, but it was already stitched into the fabric of creation long before the establishment of Israel or the giving of the Law.

Saturday, the Sabbath, marked the completion of God’s creative work. It was finished, and God rested. Of course God does not get tired, so to say He “rested” simply shows the finality of His work. As an expression of this rest, God called the physical descendants of Abraham under the Mosaic Law to cease from physical labor (Ex. 20:8-11; Mk. 2:27) and dedicate the day to worship, teaching, the reading of God’s word, and fellowship (Ps. 92:1; Ez. 46:1-4; Mk. 6:2; Lk. 4:16; Acts 13:27, 44).

But the resurrection of Jesus on Sunday, the “first day of the week” (Mt. 28:1; Mk. 16:2; Lk. 24:1; Jn. 20:1, 19), marked the completion of God’s redemptive work. In the words of Jesus, it is finished (Jn. 19:30), and just as God “rested” upon the completion of His work, Christ sat down at the Father’s right hand upon the completion of His (Heb. 1:3; 10:12). We can now cease trying to earn God’s favor by our works and rest in the work of Christ (Mt. 11:28-29; Heb. 4:1-11). As an expression of this rest, God now invites the spiritual descendants of Abraham to also dedicate the day to worship, teaching, the reading of God’s word, and fellowship, as we’ll see the texts below.

So the Sabbath was originally on Saturday, as a picture of God’s finished creation work. But it is now on Sunday, the day Jesus rose from the dead, as a picture of God’s finished salvific work. The Apostolic Constitutions, written in 390 AD, describe it like this: “Keep the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day festival. The first is the memorial of the creation; the second is the memorial of the resurrection.”

And according to the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689: “He hath particularly appointed one day in seven for a sabbath to be kept holy unto Him, which from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ was the last day of the week, and from the resurrection of Christ was changed into the first day of the week, which is called the Lord’s day: and is to be continued to the end of the world as the Christian Sabbath, the observation of the last day of the week being abolished.” (2LBC, 22.7)

If this is correct, we would expect to see it played out in the New Testament. Do we have any examples of the early church treating “the first day of the week” with such importance? Do we see Christians treating Sunday as a special, set-apart day? The answer is a definitive “yes.”

In Acts 20:7, Luke informs us that it was “on the first day of the week” that the early church “gathered together to break bread” and to receive a sermon. The term “break bread” is a reference to taking communion, and we see earlier in Acts that it was typically accompanied by “teaching”, “fellowship”, and “prayers” (Acts 2:42). So on the first day of the week we see the early church sharing communion, being taught from Scripture, praying together, and fellowshipping with one another. That’s a church service if ever I’ve seen one.

Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 16 Paul is addressing “the collection for the saints” (vs. 1), which was the charity taken up for Christians in need. It would be the equivalent of our tithes and offerings today. We should not be surprised to learn that this designated time of giving was also to be “on the first day of the week” (vs. 2), which makes sense, since believers were already assembled on that day to hear Scripture, worship, pray, and take communion.

We also find out a bit more about this day from the first chapter of Revelation, where the apostle John comments that he “was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” (vs. 10). This first day of the week came to be known as “the Lord’s day” because it was His day, even as Jesus referred to Himself as “the Lord of the Sabbath” (Lk. 6:5). Of course Jesus is the Lord of every day, but on the day that He rose there is a special prominence given to Him. It’s a highlighted day where believers set aside their affairs from the rest of the week and focus chiefly on the risen Lord. The context of Revelation 1 supports this, as John says that on this Lord’s day he “was in the Spirit.” He was communing with the Lord in a special, set apart way on a special, set apart day.

Of course, both the Sabbath and the Lord’s day are pictures of the true, eternal Sabbath rest awaiting the church (Heb. 4:9), when all Christ’s enemies are finally defeated, His people are gathered into paradise, and He declares once and for all, “It is done!” (Rev. 21:6)

Until then, let us faithfully assemble on the Lord’s day as we rest in His completed work. May we heed God’s command to His people in Old Testament times: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Ex. 20:8); and may we honor God’s encouragement to His people in New Testament times: “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24-25).

Why Sunday? Because what started as a sacred day instituted at creation, and what was observed by the Old Testament church through the Mosaic Law, is now celebrated by the New Testament church across the globe on the first day of every week. As we gather to hear Christ’s word, sing His praise, offer Him prayer, partake in His sacraments, give to His people, and fellowship with His people,we rejoice in His resurrection and the rest we have in Him.

I think, upon weighing what Scripture says, that the questions I asked at the beginning of this post are pretty self-evident. I encourage you, make church a priority. Especially on Sunday. Even when other man-made festivities seem more appealing. May we realize that it is not a burden, but a blessing, and may our hearts echo that of the Psalmist; “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness” (Ps.84:10).

The Force of Fathers

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Mads Mikkelson as Jyn Erso’s father, Galen, in Rogue One.

The first time I saw Star Wars, I was with my dad. I was seven years old and the original trilogy had just been re-released into theaters for a new generation to enjoy. I remember leaving the theater spell-bound by the spectacle I had just witnessed, as though some unexplored corner of my soul had been awakened by this space opera of desperate rebels, dark lords, heroic rescues, and larger than life characters. An entire world—no, an entire galaxy—had been brought to life right in front of me. I remember discussing the movie with dad on the car ride home, father and son, relishing the thrill of this shared experience.

As it turns out, the heart of Star Wars is a story about fathers and children. Luke Skywalker is an orphan whose father was supposedly murdered by Darth Vader. Luke is taken under the wing of Obi Wan Kenobi, who becomes like the father he never had, only to see him also killed by Darth Vader. In a chilling twist, Vader himself is revealed to be Luke’s father. Luke and Vader then seek to draw each other to their respective sides of light and darkness, culminating in a father-son showdown that ends with the ultimate sacrifice and a redemptive reconciliation.

Even 2015’s The Force Awakens was powered by another paternal plot-twist: the film’s villain, Kylo Ren, is in fact the son of Han Solo and Leia and the grandson of Darth Vader. It is Han’s turmoil over his son that carries the film’s emotional weight. And it is Han who confronts his son in the film’s most memorable scene. Instead of the smooth-talking, nerf-herding scoundrel we’ve come to expect, we instead see a compassionate father pleading with his lost son to return to the light. We then see the look of betrayal, sorrow, and yet unshaken love in his face when that same son runs him through with a lightsaber. It’s meant to break our hearts. And it does. Because we know how strong this theme of fathers and children has become to the Star Wars universe.

Last week’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story the first Star Wars film to deviate from the Skywalker family tree (unless you want to include this and this – okay, we’ll pretend those never happened). Yet the role of fathers has never been more vital than here.

Rogue One focuses on Jyn, the daughter of Galen Erso, the man who designed the Death Star. Right from the opening scene we see the closeness of this father and his child, and once again dad is the key to the entire plot. When Galen is taken by the Empire to do their dirty work, Jyn is thrust into a fifteen-year meandering of bitterness, trouble and distrust. Meanwhile, the struggling Rebellion takes an interest in Jyn precisely because of who her father is. They plan on using her to track Galen down, kill him, and hopefully stop the Death Star from wreaking galactic terror.

Just as her father’s disappearance caused Jyn’s indifference, his re-emergence becomes her motivation. While all other characters assume her father to be a member of the evil Empire, she retains a childlike faith that he must still be good. Galen’s influence is the catalyst for all that happens in the film and, subsequently, all that goes on to happen in A New Hope. Every father, whether by his absence or presence, has some sort of impact on his children.

Some folks still try to downplay the significance of fathers in the lives of children, but the majority of social studies have proven them wrong. Kids with involved dads tend to perform better academically, exhibit stronger verbal and problem-solving skills, and even show better behavioral patterns. They’re also more likely to participate in extracurricular hobbies, to be successful in their career, to be more socially relatable to strangers, to show greater tolerance for stress, to show more self-control and take more initiative, to do better socially, to have better relationships with their siblings, to have higher moral values, and even to have a higher overall life satisfaction. On and on the list goes.

That’s not to insult families who, for one reason or another, don’t have a father in the equation. But the role of dad is a means of common grace that God uses to forge and develop young people, and whether that impact is good or bad, there will always be an impact of some kind. If Star Wars has taught us anything, it’s that this relationship between fathers and children is cosmic.

Indeed, the story of fathers takes center stage in God’s unfolding drama of redemptive history. We remember the fall of our federal father, Adam, and the resulting history of destruction for his offspring. We remember God’s promise to Abraham, that he would be the father of faith to many nations. We remember God’s promise to King David, that his son would reign forever. We remember the true Offspring of Abraham and David who was to come, who would be called both Son of God and son of man. We remember the story this Messiah told about the forgiving father who welcomed back the prodigal son with open arms. We remember that in Jesus the Messiah we are able to call God Himself our Heavenly Father.

Contrary to popular belief, “patriarchy” is not an ugly word reserved for backwoods chauvinism; it’s designed to be a pillar in the basic societal structure, and it’s even the basis by which we understand our own relationship to God.

Whether intentional or not, Star Wars highlights just how good and redemptive that role can be when done right—or just how destructive it can be when done wrong. Like the Force itself, it can be used for great light or great darkness. It’s been almost twenty years since my dad took me to see Star Wars for the first time, and I’m ever grateful for the role he’s played (and continues to play) in my life. My hope and prayer is to make that same positive impact on my own son’s life, to the glory of our Heavenly Father.

Soli Deo Gloria!

That Christmas Passage You Never Hear About.

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There are plenty of well-known Bible verses that tell the Christmas story. Most of them include references to Bethlehem, or shepherds, or the virgin, but there’s one passage you probably won’t hear at a candlelight service anytime soon. It may not have the charm or nostalgia of some of the classics, but it’s just as deep and powerful:

“1 And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. 3 And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. 4 His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. 5 She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, 6 and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.” (Revelation 12:1-6)

Perhaps it’s the complexity of Revelation–or maybe the controversy it inevitably creates–that keeps this from appearing on many Christmas cards. After all, the holidays are a time for warm, fuzzy feelings and hot cocoa, not interpretive confusion and apocalyptic imagery. Yet packed within the layers of this passage we find Christmas depth beyond measure.

The “woman” is the people of God, including believers in both Old Testament Israel (see Gen. 37:9-10) and the New Testament Church (or “the Israel of God”; Gal. 6:16). Together, these saints are the offspring of Abraham and the recipients of the promise (Gal. 3:29). They cried out in labor pains for many years as they awaited their coming Messiah (Mic. 5:2-3), who was the biological descendant of ethnic Israel (Rom. 9:5).

Yet even as they anticipated redemption, Satan (“the dragon”; see verse 9) was determined to foil such plans. He stood poised and ready for a monstrous volley of assaults on Christ’s quest–from Herod slaughtering the infant boys (Mt. 2), to the devil’s tempting of Jesus in the wilderness (Mt. 4:1-11), to Peter trying to keep Him from the cross (Mt. 16:21-23). The dragon was ready to devour the Christ and bring His mission to futility.

But in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, the dragon-crusher was indeed born of a woman (Gen. 3:15; Isa. 9:6) and perfectly fulfilled all that He was sent to do. He lived a sinless life, died a substitutionary death, rose again on the third day, and “was caught up to God and to His throne” (vs. 5) in triumph (see Phil. 2:6-11). By doing so, He dealt the devil a crippling defeat.

Now Satan has been “thrown down” (12:9) and is enraged with “great wrath, because he knows that his time is short” (12:12). His reaction resembles a child on the playground throwing a temper tantrum: “He pursued the woman…and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring” (12:13, 17). Having failed in his attack on Christ, he is now swinging a desperate, clawed fist at Christ’s people. He could not get Jesus so he’s coming for us.

How does he do that? The Bible calls Satan the accuser (Rev. 12:10), the deceiver (Rev. 12:9), and the tempter (Mt. 4:3). Maybe the dragon is chasing you with accusations of past guilt. Maybe he’s deceiving you with false doctrine or a twisted view of God. Maybe he’s tempting you with an addiction or habit that you just can’t seem to shake.

But for all those attacks, he is little more than a desperate dog backed into a corner. As the old Christmas song remind us, “Remember Christ our Savior/ Was born on Christmas day/ To save us all from Satan’s power/ When we were gone astray/ O tidings of comfort and joy.”

Verse 6 says the woman is given a place of safety by God, and verses 13-17 go on to show God’s protection for her and her offspring; that is, the whole of His people. Not only has He defeated Satan, but in Him we share the victory, as “the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom. 16:20). The dragon has been bound (Mt. 12:26-29; Rev. 20:2) and we  have “conquered him by the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 12:11). The Messiah will sustain His people all the way until the end in keeping with His promise of Matthew 16:18: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

This Christmas season, may we look to that “male child,” the one born of a woman, “who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (vs. 5). May we find tidings of comfort and joy in His triumph over the dragon and the triumph we can now share. Sometimes the most complex passages contain the deepest truths. Revelation 12 is no exception, and we can all appreciate its depth this Christmas as we celebrate its truth.

What Did Mary Know?

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For a while it was the darling of Christmas songs. Now, over the last couple years, I’ve noticed a lot of backlash over the popular song, “Mary, Did You Know?” It’s become a Santa’s sleigh-sized target for rebuttals, jokes and internet memes insisting that yes, Mary did know all those things about Jesus, and the song is silly (if not heretical) for suggesting otherwise.

So what’s the deal? Is the song a beautiful Christmas masterpiece, or a hoaky piece of theological nonsense? A couple things have come to mind as I’ve contemplated that this week.

On one hand, the Gospel of Luke reveals that she did know quite a lot about Jesus beforehand:

  • That He would save His people from their sins (1:31; compare with Mt. 1:21).
  • That He would be the Son of God (1:32, 35).
  • That He would reign on the Messianic throne of David (1:32).
  • That His kingdom would be eternal (1:33).
  • That He would be conceived of the Holy Spirit (1:35).
  • That He would be holy (1:35).
  • That He would be the Lord (1:43).
  • That He would be the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to Israel (1:54-55).
  • That He was worthy of worship from both men and angels (2:10-20).
  • That He would be a light to the Gentiles (2:32).

In addition, after Jesus was a grown man but before He had done any miracles, Mary told the servants at Cana to “do whatever [Jesus] tells you” (Jn. 2:5). These all show an explicit awareness of Christ’s identity and a trust in His person.

On the other hand, Scripture seems to imply that there were aspects of Christ’s mission and ministry that Mary didn’t grasp. In Luke 2, Mary questioned young Jesus for staying in the temple and “did not understand” what He was saying (2:50). In Mark 3, “His family…went out to seize Him, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind.’ ” (3:21), and so “His mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to Him and called Him” (3:31).

Despite everything that Mary knew about her son, and despite having received divine revelation from angels and prophets, Mary’s humanity still got in the way. She didn’t always have a detailed, theological understanding of Christ’s mission, and at times she didn’t seem to agree with the way He was going about His quest. Mark 3 even seems to suggest that she struggled with a bit of doubt.

That’s where lovers and skeptics of the song need to be careful. We shouldn’t think that Mary was oblivious to the identity of her child, but neither should we think she had all the answers, either. And besides, I don’t believe the main point of the song is so much Mary’s insight as it is comparing Christ’s divinity and humanity. I think it’s meant to contrast that He was both delivered and Deliverer, helpless and Helper, infant and Infinite. That’s a truth we should all know a little better.

So what did Mary know? Quite a lot, actually. But not everything. She certainly didn’t grasp all the specifics, at least not right away. Like us, Mary had to take certain things on faith. But she knew that the Son of God, the fulfillment of God’s promises, had come to save her from her sins. And even when human doubt got in the way, that was more than enough.