Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Indefinable Holiness of God

By S. Michael Durham

Sunday, I started a new sermon series on the holiness of God. God is holy: a simple fact, but not so simple to understand.

Holiness is a perplexing subject for many reasons. Namely, God is indefinable. To define God, you must define holy, and to define holiness is to define God. You’re back where you started – confused – only in addition you now have a headache trying to understand my last sentence.

Holiness is the essence of who God is. Even His attributes cannot be described without the adjective holy. His love is holy; His justice is holy; His wisdom is holy, etc. Do you see the predicament?

In next Sunday’s message (November 30), I will go where angels literally fear to tread. I will try to peer into holiness itself and gain some idea of what the word holy means.

One of the things that stand in the way of our getting an intellectual grip on the word holy is how we use the word in so many different ways. Men call the pope “holy father” (I know the title is supposed to be capitalized, but I just can’t bring myself to do it). The Dalai Lama is called a holy man. And then there is the famous Harry Caray expression, “holy cow!” Some say “holy Toledo!” originated as a sarcastic expression resulting from the high proportion of bars to churches in Toledo, Ohio, in the pre-World War I period (it was a standing joke that you could walk out of a church on one corner and enter a bar at the next). So, from religious leaders to sarcastic expressions, the word holy is used, misused, and abused.

I’m sure that Isaiah the prophet could not have given a very exact theological definition for holiness. But he saw it – he writes of what he saw: “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple” (Isaiah 6:1). He saw holiness because he saw God. Yet after seeing holiness, he was still unable to define it.

But there was one thing he could define: he could define what wasn’t holy. His definition of the unholy started with himself. “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips.” Sin became obvious. It was no longer blurred by good intentions. It wasn’t buried under excuses and rationalizations. Sin becomes easily recognized when you see God.

So whether you can define holiness or not, and the safe assumption is that you can’t, it is important to know what isn’t holy. To know what isn’t holy requires an acquaintance with who is.

Surely, understanding the Holy is a quest that will always remain incomplete. However, all that can be known of the Holy defines everything else. Even if we cannot understand Him altogether, what we do know will give understanding to all else.

Monday, November 24, 2008

And They Walked With Him No More

One of the most amazing scenes in the New Testament occurs when Jesus, who had gathered many followers, lost all of them but twelve. Scores of people followed Christ, but they followed Him for what they could get out of it. Christ fed four thousand, and then He fed five thousand. He healed and restored the lame and diseased to perfect health. It is no wonder many followed to see what He would do next or find out what He would give them. But when the teaching got tough, they vanished.

In John 6, they ask Him, “What sign will you perform then, that we may see it and believe You? What work will You do? Our fathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” In other words, they sought after the providence of God, and not God Himself. He had previously rebuked them by saying, “You seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled.” They wanted Christ to prove Himself by performing as God performed toward their ancestors in the desert. Jesus replies, “Most assuredly, I say to you, Moses did not give you the bread from heaven, but My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” Then they said to Him, “Lord give us this bread always.” But Christ knew they still did not understand. They did not know that he was speaking metaphorically. He said, “I AM the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.” Then, he laid it out for them. “But I said to you that you have seen Me and yet do not believe." Jesus was the bread of life! They could not see. He went on to say, “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. . . This is the bread which came down from heaven – not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever.” Jesus popped their proverbial bubble. And John says, “From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.”

I can almost picture the scene in my mind. The conversation between Jesus and crowd was over. Stunned and dismayed, the crowd stared at Him in disbelief. Murmuring began, they slowly backed away, and left. The complaining and conversation picked up as they all turned away. In just a matter of moments, the only ones remaining were Christ and His twelve disciples. An unusual silence hung in the air as the wind wisped across the ground, pushing the dust up into tiny whirlwinds. Then the Lord broke the silence. “Do you also want to go away?” And Peter stepped forward with the only answer he could muster. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also, we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Peter said something profound. In effect, he says, “What else can we do? Where shall we go? We have seen a revelation of the holiness of God, and to go back to what we were before is impossible! It has changed us! It has revealed who we are in the sight of God, and our lives without you are worthless and wasted!”

We see this very idea in Peter’s life when Christ calls him to be a disciple. After an unproductive night fishing, Jesus tells him to launch out into the deep and lower their nets. Peter obliges, and the nets break and the boats nearly sink with the number of fish they catch. Peter, when he realizes whom he is in the presence of, falls to his knees and says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” Peter caught a sight of His holiness, which only shed light on his depravity. Such a revelation of God leaves a man changed forever. It leaves him with an acute awareness of his depravity and inability to stand near the searing, white-hot holiness of One who is not like us. A revelation of His holiness puts all into proper perspective. But Jesus said to Peter, “Do not be afraid.” Christ had not come to destroy him but to save him. So it was right for Peter to say, “to whom shall we go?” The light of God exposed and changed his sight forever. He could never view himself the same again. If we too are to see ourselves properly, then God must reveal the same to us. May He do so even more. “. . . for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.” May the penetrating holiness of God remain etched upon my being forever so that I too say, “Lord, to whom shall I go?”


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Revival is Not the Word Part 2

by S. Michael Durham

Revival. The word falls so easily from the lips. It’s a common refrain in Christian circles. There are books, classes, seminars and conferences about revival. But I think many who let the word revival so easily roll off their tongue are unknowingly confused about its meaning. They anticipate a mighty move of God that will take them to a type of Christianity that Paul and Peter lived because they see Paul and Peter living far above the doldrums of normal Christianity. They plan and pray for a revival that will elevate them to spiritual altitudes they have not yet soared.

Some other good folk who desire revival see it as a once in a century or so experience. It is a supernatural phenomenon completely; Christianity at its highest this side of heaven. They read of great historical revivals that have places and dates for names: the Canadian Revival of 1971, the 1949-53 Hebrides Revival, the 1904 Welsh Revival, the 1859 Prayer Revival to name a few.

If we are speaking about corporate revivals, as I discussed in my last blog, then I would agree. These great moves of God where hundreds and thousands are swept into the kingdom are truly acts of God’s power and cannot be manipulated. It was said that during the 1904-05 Welsh revival that 100,000 people were converted in the course of a year. Nothing more can be said of this kind of revival then what doctor Luke said of the early church, “and great grace was upon them all” (Acts 4:33). It wasn’t grace, but great grace, extraordinary grace.

Nevertheless, I think both of these views of revival are mistaken for the same reason. Both views agree that revival or recovery is needed because they think Christians are living beneath the power and privilege of Christianity. They see revival as restoring the glory of Christianity to churches, Christians and country.

But, as earlier stated, the kind of revival most people are talking about does not restore normal Christianity—it exceeds it. The kind of revival that changes the masses is a “great grace.” They are not ordinary or representative of normal Christianity. They are seasons of special outpourings that remain in the Father’s hands and wisdom to give. They cannot be programmed or calculated. This kind of revival is a manifestation of the glory of Christ in a most unusual way.

But another mistake often made by the revival talkers is to equate the deplorable state of American Christianity as normal Christianity. They speak of weakness, ineptness and powerlessness as being typical of the Christian in a non-revived state. And without revival the believer cannot hope for better. But I beg to differ. There is nothing normal about a lack of holiness, little fruitfulness, or lukewarmness. Jesus said of the lukewarm that He would spew them out of His mouth. Tell me—what is normal about that? I hope that’s not normal.

Am I saying that a Christian can’t be lukewarm, that he can’t show signs of little love, little zeal or little holiness? No, not at all! I’m only stating that such signs are not evidences of normal Christianity. Jesus said that He came so that we could have not abundant living, but more abundant living. That is the normal Christian life—more abundant. A healthy person is considered normal. Why is it that we consider spiritual ill-health normal? Is it because we want to pass the buck of responsibility to another? Isn’t it quite easy to make the absence of revival the problem rather than confessing that your problem is sin?

A lot of revival talk today is a pseudo-spiritual way to excuse a lot of sin. “I know I’m not where I need to be. I need revival. So please pray that God will revive me.” Sound familiar? There’s no argument that a Christian whose love for Christ is small, as is his fruit, needs recovery. He is in need of revival. But this kind of revival, personal revival, has not been put on the shelf of God’s sovereignty out of our reach. Oh, no. He’s put it on a shelf well within our human responsibility. It’s called repentance. The true Christian need not pray, “Lord revive me” until he has first prayed “Lord, I repent. This is God’s method to personal revival—repentance. Revival is not the right word. Repentance is the word.

Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place——unless you repent (Revelation 2:5).

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Revival is Not the Word Part 1

by S. Michael Durham

If you watch some Christian TV, you may be persuaded that revival is coming. For several years self-appointed prophets have been announcing, “This is the year of the greatest revival in history!” Sooner or later, if they keep announcing it, maybe they’ll get it right. Some, I’ve noticed, have given up on 2008 being the year. Now they are claiming that the revival is coming in 2009. I suppose they don’t think God can bring a revival with only 50 days left in the present year.

Revival is a word that can conjure up certain feelings. It’s often used to motivate saints to do better or heap upon them much guilt: “You backslidden people—you need revival!” And so the preacher hammers away on his theme of revival. It is the hope of most, the prayer of many, and the longing of churches and churchmen.

But what is revival? One answers, “It is a great move of God’s Spirit manifested by an upswing in the miraculous.” Another responds, “Revival is when Christians are revitalized from sin unto sanctification.” While someone else answers, “Revival is an unusual work of God that ushers thousands of souls into the kingdom.” Yet another says, “Revival is a special protracted meeting with an evangelist.”

As you can see the word revival either wears many hats or a great many people don’t know what they are talking about. I think it’s probably a little of both. Many don’t know what they’re talking about and, while revival doesn’t really wear many hats, it does have varying degrees. There are different kinds of revival.

It’s only in the Old Testament that you find the word revival. It is translated from a Hebrew word that means to live, to quicken, or to recover. But even though the English word revival is not in our New Testament, the idea is prevalent throughout it. The Greek Old Testament word for revival is the root of the word quicken in Ephesians 2:5, “Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved).” The concept is to make alive, which is the meaning of the Old Testament word, revival. So even though the word is not translated revival in English New Testaments, it’s there nonetheless. It’s just used differently.

Old Testament Scriptures give us several different kinds of revival or recovery. First, there is a corporate national revival. In Ezra 9:8, the priest Ezra prays "And now for a little while grace has been shown from the LORD our God, to leave us a remnant to escape, and to give us a peg in His holy place, that our God may enlighten our eyes and give us a measure of revival in our bondage.” The measure of revival that he is speaking of is the return from Babylonian exile. Jerusalem had lain in ruins but new life returned to the home land with the rebuilt city walls. This revival was not necessarily spiritual but rather a recovery of the people from bondage.

Second, there is a corporate spiritual revival. The Psalmist cried out after the return to Israel from the Babylonian captivity, “Will You not revive us again, that Your people may rejoice in You?” (Psalms 85:6). The prayer was for God to recover their spiritual prosperity. There had been a day when the people of God delighted in Him. Their joy had taken flight. It eluded them. His prayer was for a recovery of joy.

Also, sometimes during a corporate spiritual revival is the phenomenon most often associated with revival, the ingathering of an extraordinary number of souls. Often historic revivals have seen a harvest of hundreds and sometimes thousands of people in a relatively short span of time. This is illustrated in Ezekiel’s Valley of Dry Bones. What should have been a barren wasteland was covered by sun-bleached bones. But God showed Ezekiel what was seemingly gone forever could be restored. The command of life went forth. The bones came together, breath was granted, and an army was made. It was a revival of physical life typifying the revival of spiritual life that God brings to those dead in sin.

Third, there is also a personal revival. David prays for personal revival in Psalms 143:11, “Revive me, O LORD, for Your name’s sake! For Your righteousness’ sake bring my soul out of trouble.” Can’t you hear David’s spiritual privation and hunger earlier in the psalm?

. . . My spirit is overwhelmed within me; My heart within me is distressed. I remember the days of old; I meditate on all Your works; I muse on the work of Your hands. I spread out my hands to You; My soul longs for You like a thirsty land. Selah Answer me speedily, O LORD; My spirit fails! Do not hide Your face from me, Lest I be like those who go down into the pit. Cause me to hear Your lovingkindness in the morning, For in You do I trust; Cause me to know the way in which I should walk, For I lift up my soul to You (Psalm 143:4-8).

There are times in the believer’s journey that He does not sense the presence of God. His enemies (hell and its cohorts) have planned their attack and have executed with fierce rage. The pilgrim becomes weary with the struggle. His heart faints. His song of praise is replaced with the dirge of sorrow. He needs the grace of recovery. He needs reviving.

These are the different kinds of revival, and of course, they come in varying degrees. In our next post, I will discuss misconceptions about revival and what must occur before you or your church can experience any kind of revival.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

When Redundancy is Necessary

by S. Michael Durham

Real truth sounds redundant. Truth is real. And truth can’t be anything but real, can it? No, of course not, unless you manufacture your own truth. And even though manufactured truth isn’t real, you may think and assert that it is. Sadly, this has become the norm at this point in human history. We find ourselves living in an environment where facts are bothersome. Nuance is popular, and rigid truth is cumbersome. This generation thinks truth restricts freedom—freedom of expression and freedom to do your own thing even if it’s wrong. So the answer for modern culture is to cast off absolute and real truth and replace it with convenient truth. But “convenient truth” is an oxymoron—truth isn’t always convenient because it is not always lenient. It does not approve of every motive or action. It neither winks at indiscretion nor turns a deaf ear to injustice. Truth screams, “Foul!” to everything that is foul. It will not weigh the end and justify the means. The desire of an evil heart will not be approved by real truth.

So society has a choice: it can either conform to real truth or reject truth altogether. But men are not naturally anarchists. An anarchist is a person who advocates the overthrow of law. The option to remove law altogether is not logical to a society, thus society makes a third option when there really isn’t a third. It’s like Wile E. Coyote making a door out of thin air and opening the door and walking through it. The God-created moral fabric of a man knows that law and truth must exist, and since he will not have God’s truth, man creates his own version of it. His manufactured truth will be convenient for him. It will promote his interests regardless of consequences.

Recently I was talking with a young man who was a typical post-modernist who told me that we create our own perceptions of reality and truth. I asked him if he took a flame of fire and held it to his hand would he feel pain. He said, “Not unless I chose to feel pain. I create my own perception of suffering.” I then asked him if his bank statement showed an error of several thousand dollars in the bank’s favor what he would do. He replied that he would take his bank statements and records and prove the bank was wrong. I then asked him, “But if there is no absolute truth, and we can create our own perceptions of truth, what would you say to the banker if he said, ‘That’s your perception of truth and this is ours’?” The young man looked at me with disdain and got up and stormed off. He suddenly realized that there are times for absolute truth and he had no argument against it.

Many are advocating a gospel that is supposedly real and will really save. But it isn’t the Gospel of Christ or His apostles. Because of this, we deem it necessary to use a redundancy to describe who we are and what we are about. For years the media ministry of Oak Grove Baptist Church was called Living Priorities. But in the last year we have increasingly felt the need to rethink the name and find something to counteract our times and its false gospels, and definitively say this is what we are about. And of course, the Real Truth is none other than our Lord Jesus Christ.

We hope you like the new name and look of our website. We now have the ability to archive all sermons and resources for your availability. We have also added an easy-to-use online store to purchase any hard copy of the resources you will find on the site. All downloadable products will remain free of charge. We want to make available to you real truth because—real truth matters.