Archive for December, 2011


Should churches “close” on Christmas Day? The fact that this question is seriously considered by churches across the country indicates the dismal state of the contemporary evangelical church. It indicates a faulty understanding of the Bible’s authority and a deplorable comprehension of the ministry of Jesus Christ. Most evangelicals, I would maintain, do not understand the nature of the Fourth Commandment, which has to do with keeping the Sabbath. Many assume that this law is no longer relevant because it refers to the so-called “Jewish Sabbath.” This is, however, not what the Bible teaches. This Commandment concerns the principle of Sabbath, not a particular day of the week.

The primary focus of the Sabbath is the temporary cessation of our ordinary routines so that a period of time may be designated for worship and rest. The term “Sabbath” (shabbath) refers to rest, but this rest is actually “work” of a another kind—the “work” of worship. Periodically, therefore, God requires His people to set aside their normal labors in order to concentrate on the tasks of worship and rest.

From the beginning, the Sabbath was intended to be a picture of the coming eternal state in which the people of God will have uninterrupted worship of God while being freed from all the implications and complications of sin. The Sabbath is tied to the issue of redemption, which means that it is joined to the work of Christ. The Bible teaches that it is in Christ that the sinner finds deliverance from sin and the ultimate consequence of sin, which is eternal condemnation. By offering Himself in our place, Jesus paid our penalty thus guaranteeing that we would have a place in the presence of God forever.

In the fourth chapter of Hebrews, the writer explains the relationship between the Sabbath principle and the work of Christ. He refers to the leadership of Joshua who successfully established the people of Israel in the land of promise (cf. Heb. 11:8-10). That land was a type of the uninterrupted peace that God has prepared for His people in eternity. The writer emphasizes, however, that Joshua did not provide the final rest for God’s people, but only a picture of it. He concludes: “So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.” (Heb. 4:9) The text makes plain that the continuing Sabbath obligation has to do with the work of Christ. Only in Him can true and lasting spiritual rest be found (cf. Matt. 11:28, 29; Rev. 14:13).

As already stated, the Sabbath doctrine has to do with our responsibility to set aside a portion of our time for the worship of God and related activities, and this is done in anticipation of the coming day of everlasting rest. This is the time when the redemption of the human race is finished and the Savior presents redeemed humanity to His Father (cf. 1 Cor. 15:25-28). Before the work of Christ was completed on Earth, the day of perfect and eternal rest (or Sabbath) was yet future. Therefore, God commanded that the people work for six days and rest on the seventh. This illustrated the truth that the rest of redemption had not yet been achieved. The Jews lived their lives in light of the promise of rest and they looked forward to the coming of the Messiah in whom they would find true and unending Sabbath.

With the completion of His work and return to heaven, those existing after the completion of Christ’s ministry live in a time of redemption accomplished. The labor of the Savior has forever secured our place in the eternal rest of God. Our Sabbath keeping is also symbolic, therefore. The nature of our week testifies that the promise has been fulfilled, redemption has been accomplished, and we may begin our labors with that certain knowledge. The change from a seventh day observance to a first day observance of the Sabbath was necessary in order to reflect properly the redemptive work of Christ. Rest was anticipated, but now it is realized.

All of this means that a weekly Sabbath is not an option, but an obligation, which is why you find a law regarding the Sabbath among the Ten Commandments. Just as we would not consider dispensing with the Commandments regarding murder, stealing, lying, etc., so we should not behave as if the law of Sabbath is no longer relevant.

Old Testament believers “preached” the gospel by working six days and resting on the seventh at the end of their week. As stated, this pattern taught that salvation and eternal rest were yet future in terms of having been secured by the Savior. New Testament believers also preach the gospel in the pattern of our work week by reflecting the fact that Christ has completed His mission. By observing the Sabbath on the first day of the week, we announce the finality of our redemption before we begin our earthly labors.

The Church is, of course, the primary representation of the Savior’s post-resurrection ministry to this world. In our weekly gatherings, we teach the gospel not only in our words, but also by the way we arrange our days and weeks. Due to the nature of Christ’s work, it would be inappropriate to continue observing the Sabbath rest on the last day of the week. It had to be changed in order to declare accurately the progress of God’s plan of redemption.

This makes the matter of Sunday worship an essential issue. If Christians do not meet for worship on Sunday, we misconstrue what has been accomplished by our Savior. The same thing must be said about those churches that substitute a Saturday night gathering for a Sunday gathering, which many churches do when Christmas happens to fall on a Sunday. The gathering of believers on the first day of the week is a testimony regarding the death and resurrection of Christ. The Old Testament seventh day Sabbath was in the grave, so to speak, with the crucified Christ. His resurrection from the dead on the first day of the week forever established the primacy of that day.

The question of whether churches should “close” on Christmas Day should never be entertained. We are commanded in the Bible to observe a weekly Sabbath; it is an imperative. This duty may not be set aside, therefore, for any other purpose—such as Mother’s day, Father’s day, or football. Following apostolic teaching, first century Christians continued the six plus one pattern of the Old Testament, but reoriented the relationship between the days. Sunday became the Lord’s Day (cf. Matt. 28:1 ff.; Rev. 1:10).

The answer to our question is “no.” Evangelical, Bible believing churches should never be “closed” this side of glory. In light of the above teaching of the Bible, the reasons put forward in favor of dispensing with Sabbath observance on Christmas Day are indeed pathetic. But as I said, the very fact that this question is being seriously contemplated illustrates the troubling status of contemporary believers when it comes to grasping and manifesting the glorious work of Jesus Christ, the Savior of our race.

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“External knowledge of Christ is found to be only a false and dangerous make-believe, however eloquently and freely lip servants may talk about the gospel. The gospel is not a doctrine of the tongue, but of life. . . The philosophers rightly condemn and banish with disgrace from their company those who profess to know the art of life, but who are in reality vain babblers. With much better reason Christians ought to detest those who have the gospel on their lips, but not in their hearts.” (John Calvin Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life)

Due to the death of dictator Kim Jong-il, we have had a rare glimpse into the culture of North Korea. The degree to which this man was able to shield his people from the world is astonishing. Reports indicate that the people are almost completely unaware of major events, technological developments, and geopolitical situations. And even though this leader had a history of abuse, while he himself lived in opulence, the reaction of the people when he died would lead us to believe that Kim Jong-il was one of the most beloved heads of state in all of history.

Images of citizens morning the passing of Kim Jong-il are informative. There has been much weeping, wailing, and emotional excess in response to the death of the great leader Comrade, as he was known. In September, however, more than 40 human rights groups launched a campaign calling for a United Nations inquiry into the “crimes against humanity” perpetrated by Kim Jong-il. To the detriment of his people, he continued the policy established by his father of putting the military first when it came to the nation’s resources regardless of the humanitarian consequences. The people of North Korea live in chronic poverty. Detractors are imprisoned in camps where they must exist in the most miserable circumstances. Those who have managed to escape tell stories of deliberate starvation and torture.

The situation in North Korea illustrates how effectively an entire nation can be manipulated to revere and even worship someone distinguished by wickedness and disregard for life. During the approximately 40 years that this man ruled the country, he was able to convince the people that he was a god and that they lived in an earthly paradise. The people have been trained to view the rest of the world as opportunistic enemies.

Kim Jong-un, the son of Kim Jong-il, will replace his father. As it turns out, apparently you can fool all of the people all of the time.

Colossians 1:1 Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, 2 To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are at Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father. 3 We give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you, 4 since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love which you have for all the saints; 5 because of the hope laid up for you in heaven, of which you previously heard in the word of truth, the gospel 6 which has come to you, just as in all the world also it is constantly bearing fruit and increasing, even as it has been doing in you also since the day you heard of it and understood the grace of God in truth; 7 just as you learned it from Epaphras, our beloved fellow bond-servant, who is a faithful servant of Christ on our behalf, 8 and he also informed us of your love in the Spirit.

The church in Colossae was established by Epaphras who worked under Paul’s direction several years before when the apostle spent an extended time in the city of Ephesus during his third missionary journey. Epaphras brought news of the Colossian church to Paul while the apostle was under arrest in Rome. Subsequently, Paul wrote this epistle. The Christians in Colossae were bothered by heretical teaching. This, more than anything else it seems, prompted Paul’s letter. Some in that region were advocating doctrines contrary to the gospel, doctrines that compromised the message of the full atonement made by Jesus Christ.

This letter opens, as you can see, in Paul’s typical style. He identifies himself as “an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God,” thus emphasizing his authority (v. 1). Paul addresses the believers in this city as “saints and faithful brethren” and he extends grace and peace to them “from God our Father.” Paul heard of their faith, as he says here; he heard that they embraced the gospel and were being delivered from the burden of sin and ignorance. He prayed for them, as he did for so many others. He prayed in thanksgiving, as he mentions here, for the love they were manifesting for other believers (cf. vv. 3, 4), and then he mentions “hope,” which was a concept that would normally be missing from the lives of citizens in this city (v. 5). Indicating just what he means, Paul speaks of hope “laid up for you in heaven, of which you previously heard in the word of truth, the gospel …”

When the gospel was presented to these people, they heard of something that transcended their present world and involved their eternal destinies. They heard about their sin and about God’s provision for their sin in Christ; and they heard about the final state of all who trusted this Savior sent from heaven. It was that truth that now resided in their hearts and was giving them a new perspective on their lives here on earth. They now looked forward to what was to come—not as simply an end to misery, but as the beginning of blissful communion with God.

It was in the gospel that such a wonderful message was found; and this gospel that came to them, Paul goes on to say, was accomplishing the same thing “in all the world.” (v. 6) Wherever it is preached, the apostle teaches, the gospel is bearing similar fruit and increasing. This had been the experience of the Colossian believers. The gospel came, they believed, and they had been growing in the faith ever since. In that gospel, Paul explains, they came to understand “the grace of God in truth …” And there we have a key element in the present condition of the Colossians. What they had come to understand was the marvelous doctrine of God’s grace. By grace they learned of their sin, by grace they learned of God’s mercy, by grace they were enabled to repent and trust in the Savior, and by grace they were persevering and growing. It was all of grace. It was all of God. And this gave birth to the hope Paul mentioned before. The Colossians knew that they were on a journey that would take them through this life and into the next life, one of perfection and unimaginable beauty and peace in the presence of God.

This sense of hope was fueled by what the Colossians witnessed in their lives. Paul says that the gospel was “constantly bearing fruit and increasing.” They knew that a change had occurred in their lives; and they knew that they were not the same people since the gospel arrived. They had irrefutable evidence that they were changed people and the changes they saw were desirable changes. This, in turn, fueled their sense of eagerness as they looked to the future. What would God do in them and for them? What more will we come to know and what greater joys will be ours?

We live in a culture where hope is not viewed as an unrealistic concept. But imagine what it would be like to live in a culture steeped in paganism, a culture in which it was commonly believed that the fate of human beings was in the hands of pernicious and temperamental gods. Days were filled with hard labor and life, in general, was unpleasant. You are born, you work and try to get by, and then you die. That’s about it, and that’s what it was like in the first century.

Because of the character of our lives, because of the relatively peaceful and prosperous period in which we live, we don’t realize the full significance of Paul’s recognition of hope in the hearts of these people. Hope was not something that normally characterized people of the first century. Hope is the expectation of future blessing, but in that time, there was very little such expectation because there were no messages being declared that generated hope—not until the gospel came to town, that is.

Epaphras, that co-laborer with Paul, had brought them the good news, Paul says in v. 7. He was a faithful man, Paul testifies. He was the one who, in turn, also brought to Paul this information regarding the transformation of lives in the city of Colossae (v. 8). A people formerly without hope, now were characterized by hope—and it all had to do with the gospel.

As some readers know, I have been involved in a lengthy dispute with a couple of officers from my former church. One minor aspect of this ongoing event has to do with some property these men have in their possession, which belongs to me. These items are not particularly valuable, but do have significance to me for other reasons. For months, I thought I had lost one of these items, but it turns out that it was found at our former church location. Rather than return it to me–and ownership was clearly observable on the item–the one who found my property gave it to the officers with whom I have been having such trouble. When I found out that my property had been found, I requested that it be returned; I made this request four times. The first three requests were simply ignored. The fourth request did bring a response from the officers. They claim that my property was “abandoned” by me and, therefore, they have no obligation to return it. Is this the most ridiculous reasoning you’ve ever heard or what? They have my property and I know they have it and I asked for it to be returned. Simple, right? Not to men who are determined to make your life miserable. They have latched on to anything that might be used to cause me frustration. This incident is a case in point. I believe this is nothing less than theft. I did not abandon my property; I lost it. Now that I know it has been found, I have asked that it be given back to me. Shouldn’t Christian men–officers in a church, in fact–be above such petty behavior? Is this kind of conduct pleasing in the sight of God? Is this how the Savior wants His people to treat one another? I find this behavior nothing less than shameful.