At times it is discouraging. At times, it feels as if God has forsaken her. At times, you wonder how many pastors will fall into scandal, how many children will be abused in her day care centers, how many wives will suffer at her hands, how many husbands will have nowhere to go.
At times, you watch evil men soar away in their 60 million dollar jets paid for out of the pensions of widows they have defrauded and abused.
How many times will the sheep be driven away to make room for the wolves? You find them huddled at home, in caves, barred from the communion of the saints – and you wonder, “Has God forsaken the church?”
I understand the voices of those who have declared that they are done with the organization, that they will never join a church again. I hear the stories and I understand. It makes me sad, though. The church is the bride of Christ, the fellowship of the saints is precious. The preaching and the sacraments are indispensable means of grace. So I understand, but I cannot agree with cutting yourself away from the body of Christ. So perhaps this will help.
Please hear me closely, and think about this, especially if you have been driven away from your church by wolves. My goal is not to throw stones at those who have been greatly hurt. I long for your healing. My goal is only to be faithful in my calling and point you to Christ. Christ still loves his bride and still calls you to fellowship with the saints. So think about this: Were you truly driven from the church? Or were you delivered from a synagogue of Satan?
I was thinking this through as I was preparing a Bible study on King Jeroboam.
The Book of the Kings of Judah and Israel (1 and 2 Kings) opens with King Solomon. Solomon is given a great kingdom, promised the blessing and favor of God, and has been granted the privilege and responsibility to build the great Temple of Jehovah in Jerusalem.
The Temple is where God had chosen to place his name. He revealed himself there, accepted the sacrifices and the worship of his people there, atoned for sin there, and there he communed with his people.
But Solomon rebelled against God towards the end of his life, and God divided the kingdom. The ten tribes in the north rejected their allegiance to the house of David in the days of Solomon’s successor, Rehoboam. The northern tribes established their own king. His name was Jeroboam.
Jeroboam made a crucial and deadly theological error. Jeroboam believed that God, whatever he might be named, was an indifferent or hostile being that could be manipulated and controlled through religious ceremonies.Religion, to Jeroboam, was for the purpose of gaining control of the favor and blessings of God, or the gods. The most important thing to Jeroboam was the establishment of his own kingdom, not the fellowship of the one true God.
If Jeroboam had understood the truth, he never would have built for himself temples and calves at Dan and Bethel. God cannot be manipulated or controlled by men. The distance between God and man is so great and profound that it can only be crossed by God himself. Man cannot reach up to God; God must reveal himself to man.
The Westminster Confession puts it like this:
The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He hath been pleased to express by way of covenant. (Westminster Confession of Faith, 7:1)
Men don’t manipulate, control, or coerce God. God said to Job,
11 Who has first given to me, that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine. (Job 41:11 ESV)
But God, who was under no necessity and no compulsion, chose freely to condescend to reveal himself to men. This is what we mean by the word “covenant”. He made a covenant with David, that David’s house would be established forever. Eventually, that would be fulfilled in David’s greater son, Jesus. Through David’s house, the usurpation of the devil would finally be overthrown and the kingdom of God established. This was pictured in the kingdom of David and Solomon, but not fulfilled until the King of Kings was raised up on a cross, to finally crush the power of death by his resurrection.
God chose the tribe of Levi to mediate the sacrifices, pointing to Christ who would be the Great High Priest as well as the flawless Lamb of God. God chose the Temple in Jerusalem to picture his own throne in heaven, where we now have perfect access to the God of Mercy because of our true great High Priest, Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, for us and for our salvation. Outside of David’s Seed, through the covenant made to the house of David, there is no salvation. There is no fellowship with God apart from God’s covenant with David.
But Jeroboam was a true pluralist. He believed that there are many ways to God. He offered sacrifices because he thought that God perhaps was hungry or needed something from him. He made his worship huge and magnificent, and devised it from his own heart, thinking that God would be impressed and be forced to bless him. Look at how the bible describes what he did:
26 And Jeroboam said in his heart, “Now the kingdom will return to the house of David.
27 “If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the house of the LORD at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will return to their lord, even to Rehoboam king of Judah; and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah.”
28 So the king consulted, and made two golden calves, and he said to them, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem; behold your gods, O Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt.”
29 And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan.
30 Now this thing became a sin, for the people went to worship before the one as far as Dan.
31 And he made houses on high places, and made priests from among all the people who were not of the sons of Levi.
32 And Jeroboam instituted a feast in the eighth month on the fifteenth day of the month, like the feast which is in Judah, and he went up to the altar; thus he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves which he had made. And he stationed in Bethel the priests of the high places which he had made.
33 Then he went up to the altar which he had made in Bethel on the fifteenth day in the eighth month, even in the month which he had devised in his own heart; and he instituted a feast for the sons of Israel, and went up to the altar to burn incense.
(1Ki 12:26-33 NASB)
He wanted to establish his own kingdom. He had no interest in obedience and in trusting Jehovah for salvation. He wanted nothing to do with restored fellowship with God. He wanted money and power.
So he appointed his own priests, he devised his own theology, he created his own worship days, he chose his own place and his own architecture. Notice how many times the Scripture says, “which he had made”.
I imagine him as the first Frank Sinatra, singing in his heart as he ascended the steps of the altar,
“I planned each charted course
Each careful step along the byway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way.”
But God had commanded him to do the exact opposite:
38 ‘Then it will be, that if you listen to all that I command you and walk in My ways, and do what is right in My sight by observing My statutes and My commandments, as My servant David did, then I will be with you and build you an enduring house as I built for David, and I will give Israel to you. (1Ki 11:38 NASB)
The inauguration day of new form of worship at Bethel arrives. The faithful, including the Levites and a few from the other tribes, have narrowly escaped and fled to Judah. The rest of the people (so, so many of them) gathered around the new calf at Bethel. It was magnificent. All the movers and shakers were there. All the singers and wise men and famous people in Israel were there. And Jeroboam solemnly ascends the stairs to the great and wonderful altar – that he devised out of his own heart.
But suddenly from the crowd, there is one voice calling out the Word of the Lord:
“O altar, altar, thus says the LORD, ‘Behold, a son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name; and on you he shall sacrifice the priests of the high places who burn incense on you, and human bones shall be burned on you.'” (1Ki 13:2 NASB)
Jeroboam reacts as expected. He throws out his arm and commands “Arrest that man!”
There is much more to say here and wonderful truths to be meditated on. But there is really only one thing I would like to talk about here (blogs can’t address everything):
The man of God wasn’t persecuted by the Church of God. He was persecuted by a usurper, an enemy of the cross of Christ, and an enemy of God masquerading as a religious leader.
Jeroboam devised his own theology, created his own worship, ordained his own priests according to his own criteria, chose his own days of worship, and built his own temple according to the plan of his own mind. And he did it all for only one reason: to establish his own kingdom. It was all about money and power.
The same issue arises frequently in the church. Money and power are powerful aphrodisiacs. This is why Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and Mammon.”
500 years ago, the whole church was under the bondage of the papacy. They faced the same questions while the faithful were driven away from the church, locked in prisons, beaten, and burned alive as criminals. We will soon approach the 500th anniversary of Luther’s bold stand.
And they struggled with the same question: We know that Jesus loves his church, but I am separated from the church because I confessed the truth. Am I schismatic? Am I guilty of dividing the body of Christ?
And the wise pastors of that day realized something. There is a true church and a false church. There is a difference between the two. We know that Christ loves his bride. We know that Jesus commanded us to never forsake the gathering of ourselves together. The apostles commanded the faithful to submit to the pastors and elders of the church.
Does that mean that those who have been driven away from the church are sinning in God’s eyes for not submitting to the wolves in power?
This is why it is so important to learn how to distinguish the true church from the false. The old confession of faith of Reformed Churches summarizes the teaching of scripture this way:
ARTICLE 29 of the BELGIC CONFESSION
THE MARKS OF THE TRUE CHURCH, AND WHEREIN IT DIFFERS FROM THE FALSE CHURCH
We believe that we ought diligently and circumspectly to discern from the Word of God which is the true Church, since all sects which are in the world assume to themselves the name of the Church. But we speak not here of hypocrites, who are mixed in the Church with the good, yet are not of the Church, though externally in it; but we say that the body and communion of the true Church must be distinguished from all sects that call themselves the Church. The marks by which the true Church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if it maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in chastening of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church. Hereby the true Church may certainly be known, from which no man has a right to separate himself.
With respect to those who are members of the Church, they may be known by the marks of Christians; namely, by faith, and when, having received Jesus Christ the only Savior, they avoid sin, follow after righteousness, love the true God and their neighbor, neither turn aside to the right or left, and crucify the flesh with the works thereof. But this is not to be understood as if there did not remain in them great infirmities; but they fight against them through the Spirit all the days of their life, continually taking their refuge in the blood, death, passion, and obedience of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom they have remission of sins, through faith in Him. As for the false Church, it ascribes more power and authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God, and will not submit itself to the yoke of Christ. Neither does it administer the sacraments as appointed by Christ in His Word, but adds to and takes from them, as it thinks proper; it relies more upon men than upon Christ; and persecutes those who live holily according to the Word of God and rebuke it for its errors, covetousness, and idolatry. These two Churches are easily known and distinguished from each other.
I know it is long, but I trust it will be helpful for you. Notice the three marks: first, is the gospel preached purely? Do you know who Jesus is and what he has done. Does the pastor preach what he has been commissioned to preach? Has he been called and set apart according to the command of Christ (1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, many other passages) or is he self-appointed? Remember that Paul said, “How can they preach unless they are sent?” They might be doing something up there in something that looks like a pulpit, but if he is not qualified and not properly called and set apart, it isn’t preaching, and there is no voice of God there.
How much pain and suffering could be avoided if we insisted that those who fill our pulpits have the qualifications that God commands us to look for!
What does he preach? What is his confession? What does he believe? Is the church about money and power, or about the exaltation of Jesus Christ. Usually those churches that exalt Christ are small, struggling, and insignificant in the eyes of the world. The reason this is so is that Jesus will never give his glory to another. He is most glorified when men are weak and insignificant and small.
Are the sacraments administered faithfully, or do the church leaders think that they know better than Jesus and invent rites and ceremonies out of their own hearts? Is Jesus worshiped purely according to the scriptures, or is the worship invented by the cunning of the hearts of men?
What about discipline? Are the wolves praised and sheep driven away? This does not simply mean “do they practice excommunication?” for the popes practiced excommunication. So did Jeroboam, Jezebel, Ahab, Sennacherib, Nebuchadnezzar. Their excommunications were particularly brutal, as is always the case with the children of the devil. What the scripture speaks of is not that, but of wicked men, children of the devil, driven away no matter how much money and power they have. Are the littlest ones protected? Does the church seek to imitate Jesus, who said,
42 “And whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to stumble, it would be better for him if, with a heavy millstone hung around his neck, he had been cast into the sea. (Mar 9:42 NASB)
11 Sing praises to the LORD, who dwells in Zion; Declare among the peoples His deeds.
12 For He who requires blood remembers them; He does not forget the cry of the afflicted. (Psa 9:11-12 NASB)
This is what we should be looking for. When you visit a church, look for these things. Does the church seek to be faithful to the marks of Christ? Or do they cover up sin and deny affliction and oppression? Are they too busy throwing arrows at far away places that they cannot cleanse the filth in their own nest? Are their pastors self-appointed and self-ordained? Are they accountable?
I love the church of God. I love the communion of the saints. I long for her houses to be full of the saints of God. But I fear that what mostly passes for the church in this day is closer to the calves at Bethel than the temple in Jerusalem. Don’t look for the programs, the money, the entertainment, or where all the popular kids go. Look for the marks of the church, and join with them.
I know that there are times when God’s people are exiled from the temple. I know David fled for years – but he longed for the day when he again would walk on the streets of Jerusalem. This was where God chose to place his name.
Today God still reveals himself. But not in the synagogues of Satan. He reveals himself in the still, small voices of mostly forgotten and insignificant men proclaiming his word to the few faithful in the pews. It isn’t in the flash and show. It isn’t in the money and power. These guys aren’t getting invitations to the White House. They are building the kingdom of God one soul at a time, so they don’t make headlines.
But their names are written in heaven. The Lamb knows those who are his.
For another post on the same topic, see here.