Why I Am Not a Priest

David said, “The LORD, the God of Israel, has given rest to his people, and he dwells in Jerusalem forever. And so the Levites no longer need to carry the tabernacle or any of the things for its service”… For their duty was to assist the sons of Aaron for the service of the house of the LORD, having the care of the courts and the chambers, and cleansing of all that is holy, and any work for the service of the house of the God. Their duty was also to assist with the showbread, the flour for the grain offering, the wagers of unleavened bread, the baked offering, the offering mixed with oil, and all measures of quantity or size. And they were to stand every morning, thanking and praising the LORD on Sabbaths, new moons, and feast days, according to the number required of them, regularly before the LORD (1 Chronicles 23:25-31).

As the years passed, the priests’ roles changed. Originally, they were responsible for carrying God’s tent through the desert; now that had God set up a home for his people in Jerusalem, their job changed. They maintained the courts and the chambers. Soon, they would keep up the temple. Most importantly, they would “stand every morning, thanking and praising the LORD.” We should respect and learn from this, the recognition that God deserves continual praise, that we should figure out how to make sure He gets it.

When I tell people in the Northeast (barbers or seat mates, for example) that I’m in seminary, they typically ask if I’m going to be a priest. I often say something like “Basically, though as a protestant I’ll be called a ‘pastor.'” There is a difference, though, and it does matter. Roman Catholic priests have some similarities to the Israelite priests that Protestant pastors do not take on. Like the Israelite priests, I respect and learn from my Roman Catholic brothers, but I would not take on that office myself.

Like the Israelite priests, the Roman Catholic priest is responsible to lift up an offering to God, the mass, each day. They consider the mass the body and blood of Jesus Christ because they believe it is Jesus’ sacrifice (not essentially their sacrifice) that pleases God; they believe it is Jesus’ sacrifice that pleases God, so they consider the mass they lift to be the body and blood of Jesus Christ. They recognize that God deserves continual praise, and they make sure that He gets it, through the mass that the priests perform.

However, there’s a verse in Hebrews that suggests the leaders of God’s people now have a different role:

And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feed. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified…

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And 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 (Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25).

When Hebrews says “us” and “one another,” I believe it’s talking about all of us. All of us are to draw near to God, all of us are to stir one another up to love and good works, all of us are to encourage one another. This is how we praise God, how all of us take part in the praise God deserves. All of us are to “continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (13:15).

The devotion of the Israelite priests and the Roman Catholic priests should remind us that God’s praise is more important than we likely remember on a day to day basis. We are responsible to make sure that God is praised every day, but thanks to Jesus we can give that praise. Because of Jesus, we must not delegate that praising to chosen clerics; because we can each praise God, we are each responsible to praise God. We are each responsible to praise God, and thanks to Jesus we can.

Christ is not an agitator. He offers no new, intense experiences. He does not sell anything. He is, and that is all–like a flower on the restaurant table in the midst of the smoke and the talk. This is not what everybody else is promising today. In the advertisements, in the porno papers, in the new spiritual movements the message is clear–we have exactly what you have been looking for! Here is the answer to all your questions! We’ll straighten out the mystery of life for you! This simplification turns everyone into nothing more than a shallow consumer. Christ is not for consumption but for worship (David Wells, Turning to God, p.128).

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Why It’s Better to Be Weak

Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me (2 Corinthians 12:8-9).

Lately I’ve wondered whether we should define adulthood as the season that starts with realizing that we will carry certain limitations to the grave. Adulthood takes off once we realize that we will be mediocre to average at most things and, despite our strengths, likely will not be the best in the world at anything. I say this with a smile.

God is slowly freeing me from believing that that’s what life’s about. Being the best at something is not a bad goal, but it’s a terrible source for one’s identity. Jim Collins’ “hedgehog concept”–finding the one thing you can become the best at–is a good way to develop an organization that meaningfully contributes to society. However, it’s a broken way to develop a life, because our specialities don’t make us who we are. God’s grace makes us who we are.

If God looks better when we are more inadequate, then it is better to be inadequate, because God will still cherish us and use us and display His mercy. If God’s power is made perfect in weakness, then it is better to be weak, because God will carry us and guard us and show His glory. It would be a fleeting rush to be the best among humans; it is a lasting joy to abide in the only God, the God who promises to abide in us.

The reality and confession of personal spiritual weakness is not a grave danger to your ministry. God has chosen to build his church through the instrumentality of bent and broken tools. It is your delusions of strength that will get you in trouble and cause you to form a ministry that is less than Christ-centered and gospel-driven (Paul David Tripp, Dangerous Calling, p.152).

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A Psalm for Troubled Hearts

I say to God, my rock:
‘Why have you forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning
because of the oppression of the enemy?’
As with a deadly wound in my bones,
my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me all the day long,
‘Where is your God?’

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God (Psalm 42:9-11)

At the end of the semester, I often hit a rough patch. I don’t know if most grad students experience this, but I do most of the time. Perhaps it’s the letdown of the glorious summer that turns out to be more normal life. Perhaps it’s the missed-step feeling the comes from finding too much of my identity in my work and then not having any work to do. I’m not sure exactly where it comes from, but I was happy to read this Psalm this morning.

Whenever I read this Psalm, I’m reminded of a sermon I heard from Paul David Tripp at Crossroads. I appreciate, first, that he was honest, like the psalm is honest, that even Christians go through rough patches. Even Christians go through seasons when we are troubled–anxious or sad or angry or blasé–Tripp takes up a phrase from St. John of the Cross, calling these times “the dark night of the soul.”

Second, I am grateful for Tripp talking about this refrain that runs through Psalms 42 and 43, where the psalmist talks to his own soul: “Why are you cast down, O my soul // and why are you in turmoil within me? // Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, // my salvation and my God.” We often take our feelings for granted; we see them as controlling us, like in the movie Inside Out. What’s to say that “we” (that is, our thinking, our actions, our decisions) can’t also influence our feelings? What’s to say that we can’t speak theology to our souls that will soothe our troubled hearts? Nothing. In fact, the psalmist does this, and so can we. It’s not an instant solution, but it helps, and it honors God.

Tripp explains:

One of the most important things to do in those moments of darkness is to remember the things that you’ve learned in the light. It is very easy, when darkness comes, to think that somehow God has changed, somehow His promises have changed, somehow God has moved. If on a bright and sunny day, you walk down into your basement where there is no light, and you’re surrounded by darkness, the reality that you left is still reality, the sun still shines. You just happen to be in a place of darkness. It would be wrong to panic and say, “The light is gone, the light is gone!” The light still shines (Paul Tripp, “Day and Night”).

Over the past few years, I’ve often been comforted by Brian Eicrhelberger’s musical meditation on this psalm, “Satisfied in You.” You can listen to the song and download a chord chart here.

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The True Prosperity Gospel


What does this verse mean?

The point is this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:6-7).

Phony prosperity preachers love this verse, pushing the poorest to give to what little they have–or credit card debt that they don’t have–to add to their millions. This spiritual and financial abuse is disgusting, and it makes the actual Church of Jesus Christ look bad.

On the other hand, this verse is also a promise from God, in the Scripture that we trust and attest as the Word of God. So what does it mean?

The surrounding verses give us some clues:

  1. God does not promise to give us what we want; He does promise to give us what we need to honor Him and love others.
    • “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work” (9:8).
    • “He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness” (9:10).
    • “You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God” (9:11).
    • “For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God” (9:12).
  2. Christian leaders are responsible to lead the Church in financial practices that are self-evidently honorable.
    • “Now concerning the collection for the saints: …when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem [where there is a famine]” (1 Cor 16:1,3).
    • “With him we are sending the brother who is famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel. And not only that, but he has been appointed by the churches to travel with us as we carry out this act of grace that is being ministered by us, for the glory of the Lord himself and to show our good will. We take this course so that no one should blame us about this generous gift that is being administered by us, for we aim at what is honorable not only in the Lord’s sight but also in the sight of man” (8:18-21).
    • “So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you and arrange in advance for the gift you have promised, so that it may be ready as a willing gift, not as an exaction” (9:5).
  3. Money should move in the Church, not to make anyone rich, but to save brothers and sisters from suffering under poverty.
    • “And in this matter I give my judgment: this benefits you, who a year ago started not only to do this work but also to desire to do it. So now finish doing it as well, so that your readiness in desiring it may be matched by your completing it out of what you have. For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have” (8:10-12).
    • “For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. As it is written, ‘Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack'” (8:13-15).

These points in the surrounding verses help us understand what 2 Corinthians means when it says, “whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” They unfold for us the true prosperity gospel: Not that we should give another $1000 on our credit card in faith so that our credit card debt would disappear–by no means! Not that we should keep mailing in money until the cancer goes away–not at all! Rather, that God richly provides for His Church to be His body in this time and place. God provides His people with what we need to honor Him and care for our brothers and sisters.

We are failing to do so, yes. We look around our world and do not see a bountiful harvest for all the people of God. Ironically, these phony prosperity preachers are the epitome of why we do not. They extort by faith in their own ability and superiority. The Church–our family–around the world will flourish when we share and sacrifice by faith in God’s power and glory.

There is a true prosperity gospel. It has nothing to do with private jets. Rather, it is centered on God’s promise to provide us with what we need to honor Him and love our brothers and sisters. It is only rightly administered by leaders who transparently employ honorable financial practices. It is not to make us rich; rather, it is to combat the famines and wars and whatever else would lay a burden of poverty on our brothers and sisters.

This is the true prosperity gospel: “you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he become poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (8:9). “You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God” (9:11). “Thanks be to God for this inexpressible gift!” (9:15)

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The Newness of Redemption

“He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the LORD.
Blessed is the man who makes
the LORD his trust,
who does not turn to the proud,
to those who go astray after a lie!
You have multiplied, O LORD my God,
your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us;
none can compare with you!
I will proclaim and tell of them,
yet they are more than can be told” (Psalm 40:3-5).

Yesterday I wrote about Shimei in 2 Samuel and Marcus’ account of fleeing Monrovia, about how the saddest thing about genocide is how common it’s become. Here’s where Ian Fleming paints a false picture of the world: Wicked people aren’t novel Bond villains. Sin has been stale for centuries now. They gobble up the same things (power, sex, and money) by the same means (exploitation, neglect, and violence) over and over again. That’s why two young men being killed for stepping out of line doesn’t surprise us.

I’ll tell you what did surprise me: The second half of Marcus’ book, sitting in Starbucks yesterday afternoon. Now, I’ve read Miroslav Volf’s search for reconciliation after ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia. I visited the Holocaust Museum a couple weeks ago, and heard the voices of hope in the video at the end. I knew the subtitle of Marcus’ book: “A Story of Letting Vengeance Go.” Yet, the way it unfolded still took me by surprise. It moved me and encouraged me, humbled me.

Bombed out cities look more and more similar, the more violence they suffer. Every painting, on the other hand, is unique. Every cathedral differs. Every poem, every lyric is something new.

That’s the difference between sin and redemption. Sin is stale; redemption is creative. Destruction is tragically repetitive; each act of God’s new creation is fresh, abiding, and irreplaceable.

I’m reminded that we need to take the time to listen to these “new songs,” these new “songs of praise” to the God who has “multiplied his wondrous deeds and thoughts toward us.” Surely, “they are more than can be told,” but as we tell and attend to these stories, “Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.”

“For us to get past the atrocities and the dark memories, we must first be able to forgive those who deeply hurt us. We must forgive even those whom we know will hurt us again if they get the chance. God was teaching me this improbable, insurmountable reality through the broken, hurting young men that I met” (Marcus Doe, Catching Ricebirds, p.247).

I recommend Marcus’ book, Catching Ricebirds, a story that taught me about God and the present world. Amazon has it on Kindle and in paperback here (this is an unsolicited recommendation).

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Vengeance is Not Ours, and We Can Refuse It

Last night I was reading my friend Marcus’ Catching RicebirdsAs a child, Marcus experienced the horrors of war in Liberia. The brutality can sicken us, but it’s the predictability that tells us the true tragedy of our world:

“The men were crying and asking the rebels to forgive them. I stood on the porch looking down and I saw in their eyes a look that I was beginning to recognize: the look a person gets when death is near and certain. It’s a look of desperation and vain hope and repentance. Many people never see this look. I can never efface its imprint on my heart” (Marcus Doe, Catching Ricebirds, p.113).

I’m struck, on the one hand, that I have never seen this look. I’m saddened, on the other hand, that I’m not surprised that it exists, that it’s common, that someone is probably wearing it right now. Our world works this way. We’re disgustingly used to it.

My imagination took up these paints as I read 2 Samuel 16 this morning. Like the rebels, above, David is fleeing from the city he had ruled. His men are marching on anger, so when Shimei, from a rival family, comes out and throws rocks at David and mocks, “Get out, get out, you man of blood, you worthless man!” we expect that he will be seized and beaten, certainly killed. In fact, the man beside David says, “Let me go over and take off his head.”

David, however, replies:

“Leave him alone, and let him curse, for the LORD has told him to. It may be that the LORD will look on the wrong done to me, and that the LORD will repay me with good for his cursing today” (2 Samuel 16:11-12).

Even as they flee in disarray, an otherworldly melody whispers through David. There’s a faint suggestion, along the road, that what we have come to expect can be different. David is different because David looks to the Lord.

The Lord changes things. Because the Lord brings vengeance, we need not mete it. Because the Lord bore vengeance, we need not fear it. When the Lord breaks into human history, things can be different than they’ve always been, because he comes with the power of life and death that silences crowds. He comes with the power of one killed and raised that still the earth. David’s story is just a momentary glimpse of God’s reign, but that reign is coming, and things will be different before long.

Even now, we can pass on what other gorge on, drink the cup that others mock. Vengeance is not ours, and we can refuse it, because we know the King to whom it belongs. We know he is coming; we believe deliverance and justice are near.

Marcus’ book is subtitled, “A Story of Letting Vengeance Go.” I’m only halfway through it, but I recommend it based on what I’ve read so far. Amazon has it on Kindle and in paperback here (this is an unsolicited recommendation).

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So Should We Judge or Shouldn’t We?

“Judge not, that you be not judged.”

-Matthew 7:1

“But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler–not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?”

-1 Corinthians 6:11-12

Lately, I’ve been wondering to make of these two themes in the New Testament. Are Jesus and Paul at odds here? Which one is it–should we judge or not judge? Today, as I was typing up highlighted quotes from Jonathan Edwards’ The Religious Affections, I came across a passage that helped me make a bit more sense of this paradox.

In Edwards’ time, Christian conversion was very popular. It seemed like everyone was professing a life-changing religious experience. Yet, before long, many of those professors seemed to move on to something new. Were they ever really Christians? What were the marks of a true encounter with God? These were the questions Edwards tried to address; he wanted to help his readers judge between true religious affections and counterfeit ones.

It would seem that Edwards is for judging. However, as he introduces the chapter on marks true Christian experience, he paints a more complex picture:

“Though it be plain that Christ has given rules to all Christians to enable them to judge of professors of religion whom they are concerned with, so far as is necessary for their own safety, and to prevent their being led into a snare by false teachers and false pretenders to religion; and though it be also beyond doubt that the Scriptures do abound with rules which may be very serviceable to ministers, in counseling and conducting souls committed to their care in things appertaining to their spiritual and eternal state; yet it is also evident, that it was never God’s design to give us any rules by which we may certainly know who of our fellow professors are His, and to make a full and clear separation between sheep and goats. On the contrary, it was God’s design to reserve this to Himself as His prerogative.”

-Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections (Banner of Truth Trust: 1994), p.120

God equips us to make judgments about ourselves and others–in fact, urges us to judge–for the sake of our safety and for pastoral care. That is, there is a time and place to judge for others’ good. What helps me is that Edwards comes out and specifies that these are the times and places.

We are not to judge for others’ harm, simply to exalt ourselves above them. That’s probably why God has made it impossible for us to judge for certain, and it’s surely why Jesus commands us not to judge in Matthew 7. When we do evaluate or “judge” our and others’ Christianity, it is not be lifted up above other people; it is to be built up in the image of Christ, “from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”

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