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Understanding prophecy

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

A journalist heard about an old Jewish man who had been going to pray twice a day at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, for a long, long time. Sensing a good story, she went to the wall and there found the old man walking slowly up to the holy site. She watched as he prayed. Then after about 45 minutes, as he turned to leave using a cane and moving slowly, she approached him for an interview.

“Pardon me, sir, I’m from CNN. What’s your name?

“Morris Feinberg,” he replied.

“Sir, how long have you been coming to the Wailing Wall to pray?”

“About 60 years.”

“That’s amazing! What do you pray for?”

“I pray for peace between Christians, Jews and Muslims. I pray for all the wars and hatred to stop. I pray that all our children may grow up safely as responsible adults who love their fellow man. I pray that politicians tell us the truth and put the interests of the people ahead of their own interests.”

“How do you feel after doing this for 60 years?”

“Like I’m talking to a brick wall!”

How sad. Yet, I’m sure we can relate. Sometimes prayer seems like talking to a brick wall – especially when praying about the Middle East. For the last two years, that region of the world has been in turmoil, in what has been called the “Arab Spring.” The struggle for democracy in one after another Arab nation has added more uncertainty in an already volatile region. How it will all play out is anybody’s guess.

However, it is not anybody’s prophecy. Whenever events start heating up in Israel and the nations that surround it, prophecy buffs and pundits start quivering. “Is this it?” they wonder. “It” being the series of events that some believe will lead directly to the return of Jesus Christ. Well, let’s hope they are right. But don’t get your hopes up too high. They have never been right before. But it is not for want of trying.

For the last 2,000 years, self-appointed prophets have been appropriating world events to trumpet their personal interpretations of prophecy. It is a dismal record of pride, false expectations and shattered dreams. You’d think they would have learned from history to be cautious. And you’d think the rest of us would have learned to ignore them.

Yes, some argue: “But this time they may be right!” Possibly, but maybe not. Maybe things will, once again, settle down to the uneasy tension that passes for “peace” in this troubled region. Or maybe events will escalate into another major war, with Christ still not returning just then.

However, even with our caution we need to be careful. Note the warning in 2 Peter 3:3-4: “You must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, ‘Where is this “coming” he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.'”

While we can be skeptical of any particular prediction about Jesus’ return, we cannot allow hope of his promised return to be squashed. Followers of Jesus do indeed live in hope—in the wisdom and timing of God—even if not in human predictions.

That is why, even though it is tempting to poke fun at the dismal track record of the prophets of doom and their frantic efforts to recalibrate their end-time scenarios, I try not to scoff. Many prophecies do make specific references to events that seem to align with biblical teaching related to Jesus’ return. At least, that is one way of looking at them. But it is not the only way. One thing is certain: no one can know for sure until God is ready to make his intervention plain and clear.

2 Peter was written to help us keep our balance, not to send us careening off-center with speculation and irresponsible knee-jerk reactions whenever hostilities flare up in the Middle East. If there is one thing that trying to figure out “where we are in prophecy” should have taught us, it is that we don’t—and can’t—know.

What we do know is that the entirety of the Old Testament points to Jesus (John 5:39). Jesus himself explained this to the Pharisees so they could recognize God’s faithfulness to his word demonstrated in his first coming. While they seemed to miss the point, there’s no need for us to follow suit. Jesus’ appearance two thousand years ago confirms that what God promises he fulfills. Therefore, we are not fools to have hope.

It may be, as some biblical scholars have thought, that Jesus completely fulfilled all the promises made in the Old Testament. But one way or another, hope is not built on predictability. We are called and permitted to hope in the promise of Christ’s second coming in much the same way ancient Israel was given hope for his first coming. We can be ready and anticipate the sure fulfillment of God’s word, not because we can predict when and how, but because all of God’s promises will be fulfilled in Christ, one way or another. We can count on the same Lord Jesus who fulfilled Israel’s hope at his first coming to fulfill all our hopes upon his promised return. Jesus himself is our ultimate hope.

Even the most “timely” prophecy does not cancel out the timeless teaching of the Bible. Just before the warning about scoffing, 2 Peter 3:2 exhorts us to “recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Savior through your apostles.” Those messages reminded God’s people that Jesus would return unexpectedly, taking everyone by surprise. For those who are unprepared, that return will seem like a catastrophe. Indeed, there will be “winners and losers.” But the winners will not be those who have been able to sort out the “coded messages” of prophecy. Rather, the winners will be those who by patient, consistent and diligent discipleship have become those who truly seek the life of the kingdom of God and its righteousness and live in hope of it.

In some ways, I hope that the “end time” panic merchants are right this time. I’d like to see the end of the suffering and repeated cycles of war and destruction. I love Isaiah’s vision where he saw Jerusalem not as an epicenter of contention and strife, but a source of peace and happiness (Isaiah 2:2-4). I’m not sure exactly what it means, or when it will happen. But whatever and whenever it is, it is something to look forward to.

In the meantime, we’d do well, as the psalmist said, to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6). Because, whether this is “it” or not, people are being killed and maimed and lives and property are being wrecked while yet another generation is growing up knowing only a seemingly endless, bitter cycle of misery. We know that only Jesus, who has already broken into history and inaugurated the rule of his kingdom can and will bring his reconciling and saving work to its consummation.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Joseph Tkach

Memorial Day reflections

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Last Monday the United States celebrated Memorial Day. Formerly known as Decoration Day, this holiday originated after the American Civil War to commemorate the fallen soldiers of the Union Army. Since then, Memorial Day has been expanded to honor all who have served in the U.S. military to preserve our freedom and way of life. Many countries have similar celebrations. They are sobering reminders that human history has been a long and continuing story of war and conflict.

Though many view Memorial Day as no more than an unofficial celebration of the beginning of summer, veterans take it seriously. They form up on parade once more and remember their fallen comrades in commemorative services and ceremonies. Memorial Day is a poignant reminder of a time in their lives when they were called on to serve in an extraordinary way.

Many of these veterans are elderly men and women now. The uniforms are faded and the marching no longer has the crisp precision of former times. But they hold their heads high and wear their rows of medals with pride. Others are younger, but their experiences have made them old before their time. And there are those in wheelchairs, or who hobble along on crutches – their bodies, and perhaps their minds, still showing the scars of war.

Veterans have told me that war is a bittersweet experience. There are many moments of trauma, fear and uncertainty. But the experience of combat also forges some strong relationships that last long after the fighting stops. War has a way of bringing out the best and the worst in us.

Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz

There is a greater irony in this. The wars that cause people to band together in new relationships are a result of the breakdown of relationships. Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz who died in November 1831 was a Prussian soldier and German military theorist who made a deep study of the moral, psychological and political aspects of war. He wrote a careful, systematic, philosophical examination of war in all its aspects. The result was his principal work entitled On War, which was not completely finished by the time of his death.

Clausewitz is often remembered for his shrewd observation that “War is…the continuation of politics by other means.” To put it another way, war is the tragic outcome of the breakdown of relationships.

The first chapters of Genesis tell us how, at the beginning of human history, the relationship between God and humanity was fractured. That broken relationship spawned even more broken relationships between humankind. It does not take much for nations and tribes to find an excuse to start a war. In 1969, two Central American nations actually went to war over the result of a soccer match. And in the 18th century, Britain and Spain fought each other because a Spanish sea captain cut off the ear of his British counterpart. The epistle of James tells us where this madness originates:

Where do you think all these appalling wars and quarrels come from? Do you think they just happen? Think again. They come about because you want your own way, and fight for it deep inside yourselves. You lust for what you don’t have and are willing to kill to get it. You want what isn’t yours and will risk violence to get your hands on it. You wouldn’t think of just asking God for it, would you? And why not? Because you know you’d be asking for what you have no right to. You’re spoiled children, each wanting your own way (James 4:1-3 The Message Bible).

The grim history of war demonstrates that humanity cannot reconcile disputes without resorting to the “continuation of politics by other means.” How then, can reconciliation be accomplished?

It required God’s own intervention to bring about reconciliation, and that is exactly what he did in sending Jesus. Jesus came among us as the ultimate freedom fighter of all space and time. Jesus gets at the root causes of sin and death. He conquers all evil that destroys life and establishes justice, making everything right. He brings permanent solutions of sustained forgiveness, eternal reconciliation and healed relationships.

This is something to remember when we honor the men and women who have given so much in the cause of freedom. We can appreciate their heroism and sacrifice that war has demanded of them. But as we honor them, those who have fully experienced its horrors do not ask us to glorify war. They, of all people, appreciate Isaiah’s prophecy of a world at peace:

He will judge between the nations, and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore (Isaiah 2:4).

Though the fullness of this vision unfolds at Jesus’ return, in knowing Jesus and having him live in us, we experience that world now. As followers of Jesus, we share in our Lord’s ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18), and that, to paraphrase von Clausewitz, is the resolution of conflict by other means.

With love, in Christ’s service,

Joseph Tkach

Theology in perspective

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

In the Peanuts cartoon strip below, Lucy is like so many people today who are stressed out about what they see happening in the world. Linus reassures her with some sound, Bible-based theology.

Sound theology is important, for unsound theology distorts our understanding of God and our relationship with him. However, it’s important to note that we are not saved by theology. And so we need to keep it in perspective.

PEANUTS © 1965 Peanuts Worldwide, LLC. Used by permission of Universal Uclick. All rights reserved.

Christianity has never been theologically or doctrinally perfect. We often hear preachers urging people to “get back to the faith once delivered.” By this, they usually mean the early apostolic church, which they assume had a complete and uncorrupted understanding of the faith. However, those apostolic churches were not perfect. They too had to grow in their understanding of what was “sound doctrine.”

In fact, much of the New Testament is polemic – meaning that it was written to correct various wrong ideas. In Corinth, for example, some Christians were tolerating incest, suing one another in court, offending each other by their understanding of what they were permitted to eat and becoming drunk at the Lord’s Supper. Some thought they should be celibate even if married and others thought they should divorce their non-Christian spouses. Paul had to correct these ideas, and history tells us that he had only limited success. But the people were Christian despite their lack of complete doctrinal understanding.

There are many examples of the disciples failing to understand Jesus, even when he was with them. For example, after Jesus miraculously fed thousands of people, he and the disciples got into a boat and Jesus warned them, “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod” (Mark 8:14). The disciples concluded that Jesus meant that, since they hadn’t brought any bread they would have to buy some on the other shore; moreover, they shouldn’t buy any bread from a Pharisee or Herodian because something was incorrect about the yeast they used.

Why didn’t they just ask Jesus what he meant? Perhaps because they were afraid of looking foolish (that happens today, too!). Jesus chided them for not understanding something that they should have been able to grasp. The disciples didn’t need to worry about bread or yeast. Jesus had just shown that he could make bread miraculously. They could remember facts (verses 19-20), but they didn’t always draw right conclusions from those facts. The miracle of the loaves was not just a way to save money — it also had a much deeper meaning that the disciples had failed to understand (Mark 6:52). It figuratively symbolized the fact that Jesus is our source of life.

I am encouraged to know that Jesus’ own disciples frequently didn’t fully comprehend what he was doing. Nevertheless, Jesus still co-ministered with them, as he does with us. It demonstrates that any “success” we have is the result of God’s guidance, not our human ability to figure things out exactly.

Those first disciples were thrown into confusion by Jesus’ death even though he explained it to them more than once. But, like us, they could only absorb so much at a time. If you follow the flow of the conversation at the Last Supper, you can see by their questions and frequent attempts to change the subject that the disciples did not understand what was going on. So Jesus told them, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:12-13).

After his resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples and instructed them for 40 days, after which he ascended to heaven. While with them, he said, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:4-5).

Jesus’ words were fulfilled on the day of Pentecost. And as we read in Acts 2:4, the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and through his guidance, what had been isolated facts and an unsound theology came together in a new and exciting way. The apostle Peter preached his first public sermon, urging his audience to repent, to believe in Jesus Christ as their Messiah and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (verse 38). On that day, some 3,000 people were baptized and became the people of God (verse 41). The church had been born.

From that day on, the Holy Spirit has continued to guide the church into “all the truth,” helping her to “prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:9). The New Testament writers, led by the Holy Spirit, showed those first Christians how to live godly lives in the turbulent environment of the first century. He is doing the same with us today, as we struggle to “get it right” while facing the complex and controversial challenges of our time.

We need to remember then, that the ultimate object of our faith and the only object of our worship is our Triune God, not our theological statements. We want to tune our theological understandings as best we can to do nothing less and nothing more than serve our faith in and worship of the Father, Son and Spirit. By the Spirit and the Word our theological understandings can be continually sanctified. This coming week on Pentecost Sunday we celebrate the descent of the Spirit that gave birth to the church. While not yet perfect, the children of God have been given the good and perfect gift of the Spirit, who will in the end enable all of us to share in Jesus’ own perfection!

With love, in Christ’s service,

Joseph Tkach

Is image really everything?

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

The author of Hebrews tells us about God-fearing men and women who “went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated,” who “wandered in deserts and mountains and in caves and holes in the ground” (Hebrews 11:37, 38). The writer said that the world was not worthy of such people. Most people would not have thought of them as glamorous role models and certainly would not have wanted to look and act like them.

We associate glamour with the rich and famous – how they dress, where they live, what they eat. We are fascinated with their comings and goings, and they, of course, make sure to come and go in ways that keep them in the limelight. Actually the word “glamour” originally meant the opposite. It referred to a magic spell used by witches and wizards to conceal their identity. King Arthur’s legendary sorcerer, Merlin, swathed himself with a glamour spell so he could travel as an old man, or a young woman, or as the sort of unexceptional person none would turn their heads to look at. The word has morphed in our modern times. Sadly, our society is growing ever more preoccupied by the physical trappings of glamour.

Professor Joan Brumberg of Cornell University has made an interesting study comparing the diaries of teenage girls (The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, Vintage, 1998). In 19th-century diaries, she found teenage girls focused on being good, useful, caring, positive contributors to society. They had a sense of personal responsibility that motivated them to reach beyond themselves. In diaries of our time, she found teenage girls focused on becoming slim, pretty, well-dressed and popular – preoccupied with copying the clothes, hairstyles and lifestyles of celebrities.

Being a celebrity used to involve a measure of specialized training, talent and skill. Now, sadly, it’s often only about the bling. A whole industry has grown up to help you attain your proverbial “15 minutes of fame.” Here are examples of what is offered (and I share these with my tongue buried deep in my cheek):

  • You may not be able to own the runway at the Oscars, but you can borrow a designer dress from a company called Rent the Runway for about $75. The owners of Rent the Runway say their business has tripled in a year.
  • Need some bling to go with that dress? Jewelry company Adorn will rent you a $24,000 diamond necklace for $260 and a pair of $8,250 earrings like Princess Kate wore at her wedding for just $160 (yes, there’s a security deposit). Avelle will rent you a Louis Vuitton handbag (retail price $1,680) for just $60 a week.
  • Of course, none of this matters if no one is looking. So why not head out on the town in style in a Bentley, Maserati or Rolls-Royce rented from Gotham Dream Cars? A Rolls Royce Phantom convertible will cost you $1,950 a day, which is chump change compared to its retail price of $427,000.
  • And doesn’t a celebrity, even a fake one, need a pack of paparazzi? Well, you can rent that too. For just $499, Celeb 4 A Day will rent you four personal paparazzi to follow your every move and shout questions at you for 30 minutes. Or you can upgrade to the MegaStar package, and get a two-hour experience that includes six personal paparazzi, one bodyguard, a publicist and a limousine.

Dressing up to look like something you are not is not a new idea. In fact, it may have been what Paul had in mind when he encouraged Christians at Rome to “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14). He was using an expression that his readers would recognize as describing an actor donning a costume to play a part in a play. Of course, Paul did not mean that Christians should seek to draw attention by dressing in “Jesus costumes” (Jesus did not stand out in a crowd because of his clothing!). Paul certainly was not advocating wearing glamorous clothes or riding in stretch limousines (something some religious “celebrities” seem to forget). Rather, Paul was talking about the life transformation that occurs through our union with Christ. John makes a similar point in writing that “whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did” (1 John 2:6).

Paul and John, each in their own way, were referring to the transformation that occurs in the life of a believer. As the Holy Spirit unites us to Christ, Jesus’ life – his regenerated human nature – becomes our own (Colossians 3:10). We become new creations with Jesus’ Spirit filling us (2 Corinthians 5:17). The Spirit gives us the power to really become children of God (John 1:12) and so brothers and sisters to Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Hebrews 2:11). The resulting change is not superficial or artificial, but authentic, deep and lasting.

Sharing in Jesus’ living and loving in the world will get you noticed, although as mentioned earlier, it does not usually lead to glamorous celebrity status. What matters most to God is not the image we create, but rather the image God has created in us. To be all that we can be, we must realize and trust in the source of our life, breath and being. The record of Scripture shows us that God does great work through those whom the rest of the world would not give 15 minutes of fame.

In Christ’s service,

Joseph Tkach

Happy Mother’s Day

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Joseph Tkach Jr. and Mrs. Joseph Tkach Sr.
Joseph Tkach with his mother Mrs. Joseph Tkach Sr.

Mother’s Day in the U.S. is next Sunday (May 13). Other countries have a similar occasion on different days. Even a quick search with Google shows that literally dozens of nations, in all parts of the world, set aside a day to honor mothers and motherhood.

It is a reminder that one of the most important roles God has given to human beings is assigned exclusively to women. However, it is a role that often goes unrecognized and unappreciated.

I imagine that we all have memories of interactions with our moms. So it is appropriate that we remember the things they taught us. They were not only the voices in our heads, but around the kitchen table, the living room, just about everywhere. Like:

  • My mama taught me religion: “You better pray that will come out of the carpet.”
  • My mama taught me time travel: “If you don’t straighten up, I’m going to knock you into the middle of next week.”
  • My mama taught me logic: “Because I said so, that’s why.”
  • My mama taught me irony: “Keep laughing and I’ll give you something to cry about.”
  • My mama taught me osmosis: “Shut your mouth and eat your supper!”
  • My mama taught me contortionism: “Will you look at the dirt on the back of your neck!”
  • My mama taught me stamina: “You’ll sit there ‘til all that spinach is finished.”
  • My mama taught me about weather: It looks as if a tornado swept through your room.”
  • My mama taught me about the circle of life: “I brought you into this world and I can take you out.”
  • My mama taught me about behavior modification: “Stop acting like your father!”
  • My mama taught me about genetics: “You’re just like your father.”
  • My mama taught me about envy: “There are millions of less fortunate children in this world who don’t have wonderful parents like you do.”
  • My mama taught me about anticipation: “Just wait until you get home.”
  • My mama taught me wisdom: “When you get to be my age, you’ll understand.”

All kidding aside, we honor our mothers this weekend for the enduring love we receive from them from the womb to the tomb. A mother’s love for her children is perhaps the closest we human beings ever come to understanding the unconditional love that God has for us.

Since God reveals himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, some mistakenly view God only in masculine terms. Of course, God is neither male or female and not subject to the limitations of gender. Nevertheless, God created us in his image and likeness and it is not wrong to say that masculinity and femininity do reflect indirectly, each in their own way, something that does indeed correspond to God’s own life and character. So in Scripture we find images can be used of God’s character which align with the feminine gender. In four passages God is said to be like a human mother in labor or caring for her children (Isaiah 42:14; 45:10; 49:15; 66:13). There are three times where God is likened to a mother bird (Deuteronomy 32:11; Is 31:5; Matt 23:37) and one where God is compared to a mother bear (Hosea 13:8). The Spirit is described in Genesis (hovering, Genesis 1:2) and in the Gospels as being dove-like (Matthew. 3:16) and the dove is sometimes in the Bible viewed to have feminine characteristics. The apostle Paul compares his ministry to a nursemaid (1 Thessalonians 2:7). But even more to the point, readers of Scripture are directed to honor mothers (Luke 18:20).

Of course, no human mother is perfect. But whatever their flaws and shortcomings might be, most mothers do love their children in a profoundly deep and unconditional way. Whether you see it – or receive it – remember that motherhood is a reflection of the unconditional and nurturing love our heavenly Father has for us.

My surname is Russian, from my Dad’s family, but my mom is half-Greek. My dad was employed outside the home while my mom was a traditional stay-at-home, homemaker. So, in my preschool years, I was her constant companion. And I remember much of it very well. She taught me to read before I went to school. She taught me to pray as soon as I could talk. I remember watching her take several hours to make baklava from scratch. And I watched it all disappear in mere minutes once my dad arrived home from work.

My dad told me that he married my mom because he knew that in several areas she was smarter and how good it was to have her complete his team. Her father was a Greek immigrant, and I most remember him telling me that “the Greek part of you came from your mother” and that it was “the most important part” of me. I still smile every time I think about it.

I realize that Mother’s Day is not a God-ordained celebration, but for all its commercialism, Mothers’ Day is still a good thing. This year, remember to let your mother know how special she really is.

To all of you and all mothers I say: Χρόνια Πολλά σε όλες τις Μανούλες της Γης! (Happy Mother’s Day to all mummies!)

With love, in Christ’s service,

Joseph Tkach

P.S. In your Mother’s Day celebrations at church, please remember that it is not an easy day for some women. For those women struggling with fertility issues—longing for children they do not have—Mother’s Day can be an agonizing experience. So be sure to acknowledge them and their struggle on this special day.

Why bother with theology?

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Many people find theology to be complicated, confusing and even irrelevant. They wonder why they should bother with it at all. “Surely,” they exclaim, “the Bible isn’t that difficult! Why read the works of head-in-the-clouds theologians with their long sentences and fancy terms?”

Sadly, it is common to ridicule what we don’t understand. But doing so is a formula for continuing in ignorance and possibly falling prey to heresy.

I acknowledge that some academic theologians are hard to understand. In fact, it is unusual to find a genuine scholar who is also a gifted communicator. People in academic circles often deal in lofty ideas, and speak and write mainly with their peer group in mind. They leave it to others to bring those ideas down to earth. The situation is not unlike the difference between the practices of science and technology. The experimental scientist in his laboratory discovers a new process or material, and leaves it mostly to others to harness the idea into something practical for the ordinary person.

Theology has been called “faith seeking understanding,” and we should not despise it. As Christians we trust God, but God has made us to want to understand the one we trust and why we trust him. Our God apparently wants us to grow in our knowledge and trust in him, having our minds more and more transformed. But knowledge about God is not something that we humans can just come up with on our own by thinking it out. The only way we can know anything true about God is to listen to what he tells us about himself.

God has chosen to preserve the revelation of himself to us in the Bible, a collection of inspired writings compiled over many centuries under the supervision of the Holy Spirit. However, even the most diligent study of the Bible does not automatically convey to us a right or full understanding of who God is. Most heresies come from wrong understandings of who God is, often promoted by one or a few individuals who fail to grasp how God has revealed himself in the Bible and ultimately in Jesus Christ, and who have given little or no attention to the biblically based teaching of the church down through the ages.

What then do we need? First, we need the Holy Spirit to enable our minds to understand what God reveals in the Bible about himself and give us the humility to receive it. The Bible and the work of the Spirit together are sufficient to bring the humble reader (or hearer) with a mustard seed’s worth of faith to an initial trust that repents of unbelief and acknowledges that Jesus is Lord and that he alone brings us God’s gracious salvation. Second, growth in our knowledge of who God is calls for a comprehensive grasp of the whole of Scripture with Jesus Christ standing at the center of it all. No one can do that for themselves in even a lifetime. We need the wisdom of others. Third, we may misunderstand some or much of what we read in the Bible due to assumptions we bring with us into our study of the Bible. We need help to remove these obstacles to spiritual growth. Fourth, we will not instantly know how best to communicate our understanding to those around us. Some are specifically called to help sort all these things out. And this is where theology comes in.

The word theology comes from a combination of two Greek words, theos, meaning God, and logia, meaning knowledge or study—study of God. Theologians are those members of the body of Christ who are called to synthesize and sum up the biblical witness to the nature, character, mind, purposes and will of God. In doing this they survey the results of others in the history of the church who attempted to do the same. They also analyze our contemporary context to discern the best words, concepts, stories, analogies or illustrations that most faithfully convey the truth and reality of who God is. The result is theology. While not all theologies are equally faithful, the church is wise to make use of those results that do help it keep its proclamation of the Gospel resting on the firm foundation of God’s own revelation of himself in Jesus Christ according to Scripture.

The church as a whole has an ongoing responsibility to examine its beliefs and practices critically, in the light of God’s revelation. Theology, therefore, represents the Christian community’s continuous quest for faithful doctrine as it humbly seeks God’s wisdom and follows the Holy Spirit’s lead into all truth. The church ought to make use of those members of the Body who are specially called to help it do just that. Until Christ returns in glory, the church cannot assume that it has reached its goal. That is why theology should be a never-ending process of critical self-examination. Theology can thus serve the church by combating heresies, or false teachings, and helping us find the most faithful ways we can speak the truth in love today in our current context.

My point is that theology – good theology based in a profound respect for the biblical revelation and a sound understanding of its intent, background, context and comprehensive meaning for today – is a vital ingredient to a growing Christian faith. The 21st century is posing unprecedented challenges that are not addressed directly in the inspired Scriptures. Times change, but “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). At the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you” (John 16:12-15).

So let’s not despise the understanding that comes from good theology, even though it sometimes comes wrapped in difficult language. As the “resident theologian” to the people you serve, strive to understand it and then serve it up to your people in a way they can also understand.

With love, in Christ’s service,

Joseph Tkach

PS. At www.gci.org/God/theology you’ll find a useful article on this topic. It might provide you with material for a sermon or two. You will also find an ongoing discussion concerning Trinitarian theology on The Surprising God blog at thesurprisinggodblog.gci.org/.

Thoughts about liturgy

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

In my Weekly Update letter last week, I discussed worship and noted how liturgy is an important component. This week I add some thoughts about liturgy.

Churches with a “non-liturgical” worship tradition tend to equate liturgy with formal worship that has lots of ritual (what my friend Professor Eddie Gibbs describes as “bells and smells”), including standardized prayers.

Copyright 1982 Larry Thomas and Christianity Today. Used with permission.

Though a “liturgical” approach toward worship might seem contrived and stiff to those used to a less formal style, it is perfectly valid when given to the Father, through Jesus, “in spirit and in truth” as Jesus explained to the Samaritan woman at the well in John chapter 4.

But please note that liturgy is much more than a style of worship practiced by “high churches” like Roman Catholics, Anglicans and the Eastern Orthodox. Whether we recognize it or not, liturgy is fundamental to the rhythm of a Christian’s daily life before God.

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word abad is used to describe both worship and work. In the New Testament, the equivalent Greek words are latreuo and leitourgia, from which comes our English word “liturgy.” The original meaning of leitourgia was not just religious good works, but any public duty or service rendered by a citizen for the benefit of the state. A person who did not accept this duty was known as an idiotes – an idiot!

In Romans 12:1, Paul writes, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sister, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your true and proper worship (from latreia).” He saw a parallel: as citizens of a community accepted their responsibility for public service, so Christians should make themselves available to God for the work of the kingdom. Paul also draws from his own Jewish background of sacrifice in temple worship. The sacrifice here seems to represent an act of total self-giving of one’s life for the benefit of and in response to God’s mercy. But notice the radical transformation of the idea of sacrifice. In ancient Israel the animal gave up its life as it poured out its blood. It died as its life was given over for others. Here Paul proclaims that we are living sacrifices, continually self-giving.

Where did Paul get this striking insight? From the gospel of grace, which he had set forth in the previous eleven chapters! Our sacrifice is a mirror image, reflecting Christ’s own self-giving, which passed through death to eternal life, never to die again! We join in and participate in Christ’s own liturgy of pouring out his life even to the extent of death, but in a way that leads to fullness of life.

Indeed Christ’s own worship transforms the very notion of sacrifice and worship. Paul goes on to say: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (verse 2). Our sacrificial worship demonstrates a whole new pattern of living that comes from sharing daily in the grace of Christ, our crucified, risen and ascended Lord. As we read in Hebrews 8:2, as one of us, in our place and on our behalf, Jesus truly is our worship leader in every moment of our lives. In union with him, we daily die to ourselves in repentance and rise with him to newness of life through total faith in him.

Note that liturgy is not just something “religious” we do in church, or when we pray or study the Bible. It is characteristic of the whole rhythm of our daily life. When, in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 (KJV), Paul admonished Christians to “pray without ceasing,” he was not saying that we continually pray and never stop. The Greek word he chose is used outside the New Testament to describe a hacking cough. When you have a hacking cough, you do not cough all the time, but you feel like you are. That is what it means to pray without ceasing. It means being in an attitude of prayer at all times. So, when I say that worship is the rhythm of daily life, it is like saying that we pray without ceasing or breathe without ceasing.

The temple in Jerusalem was a liturgical place that involved more than sacrifice. At its dedication, Solomon prayed, “May your eyes be open toward this temple day and night, this place of which you said you would put your Name there. May you hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place” (2 Chronicles 6:20). We no longer have (nor do we need) a physical temple. Now God’s people are God’s temple—built up by the Holy Spirit (1 Peter2:5), where acts of sacrifice and service continue day and night, “without ceasing” as together we share God’s love and life with those around us.

And so now, perhaps we can see how in formal times of worship the exact same truth and reality are depicted. Baptism and communion in the context of proclaiming the grace of God in Jesus announce in action both the sacrifice of self-giving and the transformation to new life we share with Christ. We die with him in immersion and in the breaking of the bread and we rise with him as we ascend through the surface the water of his baptism and partake of his lifegiving blood by drinking his covenantal wine of life. And in both instances we share in what is his, enveloped in his baptism and partaking of his bodily death and resurrection. Yes, that’s liturgical too!

Next week I am travelling to Chicago, where I will meet with our denominational leaders from around the world. When these men and women share what has been happening in their areas of ministry, I anticipate receiving exciting reminders that in our part of being God’s spiritual temple, the sun literally never sets on our liturgy and worship.

With love, in Christ’s service,

Joseph Tkach

Thoughts about worship

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

In the last two decades, our denomination has made major changes in the way we conduct worship. Many of us remember when our worship services began with a song leader and a pianist. They would lead the congregation in two or three hymns as a prelude to the “main event.”

We have become more flexible and even adventurous. We have realized that “praise and worship” (as worship in song and prayer is often referred to) is an important component of our services. We have learned to embrace multiple music styles (understanding that people of different backgrounds and cultures express themselves very differently, especially in music). We have learned the importance of skilled worship leaders, musicians and others who facilitate worship. Many of our congregations have praise bands with multiple musicians. Also, many of our congregations have learned to use modern technology to enhance worship.

Copyright 2004 Thom Tapp and Christianity Today. Used with permission.

However, not all our congregations have the same resources. And so I want us to remember that, though advanced technologies and live praise bands can enhance worship, they are not essential to worship.

Worship is an interesting word. It comes from an Old English word, weorth meaning “worth.” In its earliest form, weorthscipe (worth-ship) meant the appropriate treatment of something or someone of worth. So worth-ship or worship is the act of affirming God’s worth. It does not mean we flatter God to boost his self-esteem. Rather, it is a declaration that God is worthy – to be praised, preached about, confessed to and served.

Jesus makes one of the most pointed scriptural statements concerning worship in his encounter with the Samaritan woman. Living in a society polarized over the details of “getting worship right,” this woman seized the opportunity to ask Jesus about it. “I can see that you are a prophet,” she said. “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem” (John 4:19-20).

Jesus explained that the practical details of worship were not what was most important. “A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks” (John 4:23).

The true worship of God is expressed in a number of ways. We see this by noting the three basic meanings to the Greek and Hebrew words translated as worship. The first meaning is that of praise and adoration. We express this when we sing and pray (together and individually). The second meaning pertains to public or ceremonial gatherings, like church services where we sing, pray and fellowship together. The third meaning, which is the broadest, is to serve. In the Old Testament the Hebrew word abad is used for both worship and for work. The Greek verbs for this meaning are latreuo and the similar word leiturgeo which is the root word for our English word liturgy.

The most important point about worship is found in the New Testament book of Hebrews, where the risen and ascended Jesus is said to be our Leiturgos (“minister”); our worship leader (8:2). He leads us in worship, conveying all of God’s graces to us and taking all our responses to him, sanctifying them and giving them to the Father in the Spirit.

Our worship of God, with and through Jesus, can occur in large groups and small. For the first 300 years of Christianity, church services occurred mostly in homes, and thus in small groups. There is a purity about this original pattern that carries the inherent blessing of simplicity.

The early church did not set up a bank of amplifiers, speakers, soundboards, microphones, projectors and such. These resources are not needed in a very small congregation. In fact, it would be ridiculous to set up for a group of 250 people when there is only going to be 10 to 20 in attendance. Sitting in a circle is just as good as sitting in several rows – in fact, it is often better for small congregations, providing an intimate environment where genuine, quality worship can happen.

If you are a small congregation, you need not feel that you are inadequate because your worship service is not a “mega-media-event.” Keep it simple – make use of the resources you have, knowing that God will meet you where you are. Instead of becoming preoccupied with the mechanics of doing church (like Martha in the kitchen!), embrace the freedom that Jesus gives you to focus on worship (like Mary at our Lord’s feet). Remember what Jesus told us: “For where two or three have gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst” (Matthew 18:20).

With love, in Christ’s service,

Joseph Tkach

P.S. For more about this perspective on worship, see our Trinitarian Worship blog at http://trinitarianworship.blogspot.com/.

Jesus: the unexpected Messiah

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Why didn’t Jesus go down in history as a failure? In fact, why did he go down in history at all?

He lived on earth at a time when his people were expecting a Messiah to deliver them from the Roman occupation. It seems there were many zealots and fanatics eager to appoint themselves to that position. Some even gained a following, but their efforts came to nothing. Most died unknown, and even those we know about are just footnotes in history. However, Jesus is not a footnote in history. He remains considered one of the most influential, if not the most influential, human being who has ever lived.

When he was crucified two thousand years ago, his followers were left in confusion. Most were expecting the Messiah to be a royal military leader who would overthrow the enemies of Israel and be honored by the Jewish religious leadership as king. This would be the proof of his Messiahship and this is what they expected Jesus would do.

Just a few days earlier, he had entered Jerusalem to the acclaim of the crowds. At last, it seemed, he was going to make his move and lead them in a war of liberation against the Romans. Then he would establish his kingdom, restoring the fortunes of his people. Those who had followed him would be given key positions. But before the week was over he was dead – executed like a common criminal, rejected by the religious leaders and his followers went into hiding.

No one expected this to happen. Although there were different ideas among the Jews about what the Messiah would do, there were some common themes. Being crucified was not one of them. In fact, coming to such an end would have been high on the list of events proving someone was not the Messiah. So why did his followers continue to believe in a Messiah who, instead of leading them to victory, only seemed to have brought ignominy and suffering on himself?

Let’s look at it from the disciples’ point of view. Clearly, Jesus did not fulfill any of those common expectations for the Jews of his day. Instead of routing the Romans, he came as the Prince of Peace, not even carrying a weapon. He was born in a borrowed stable and buried in a borrowed tomb. He was executed in mid-life by a method reserved for slaves and common criminals. So, why would his followers maintain that he was the Messiah? Why would they not just cut their losses after his death and move on? Why would they even be willing to be killed themselves for this Messiah?

New Testament scholar N.T. Wright explains it well:

There were, to be sure, ways of coping with the death of a teacher, or even a leader. The picture of Socrates was available, in the wider world, as a model of unjust death nobly borne. The category of “martyr” was available, within Judaism, for someone who stood up to pagans… The category of failed but still revered Messiah, however, did not exist. A Messiah who died at the hands of the pagans, instead of winning [God’s] battle against them, was a deceiver… Why then did people go on talking about Jesus of Nazareth, except as a remarkable but tragic memory? The obvious answer is that… Jesus was raised from the dead (N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1996, p. 658).

Suffering would not have been necessary for the kind of Messiah the people of his time were expecting. He could have lived to a ripe old age, and then have been enshrined in legend and history like David, Joshua, or Gideon. Even if he had lost his life in a struggle against the Romans, he could have had a place of honor. But to live in relative obscurity and then die in disgrace – what kind of a Messiah is that?

But Jesus was so much more than a military hero. He had come, not just to deliver Israel from the Romans, but to rescue all humanity from captivity to evil and death and reconcile humanity to God. And to do that, he had to suffer and die. On the very day that Jesus rose from the dead, he spoke of himself saying, “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26 NASB).

The full glory of the Messiah is seen on the cross. This was an important point that Jesus’ disciples had missed until after his resurrection. Many still miss this point today. The glory of Jesus as our Savior was not shown only through his power and resurrection, though it could have been. His glory certainly was not shown through any status or position he had on earth. Rather, his glory was also shown in the incredible suffering he willingly endured as an expression of his immeasurable love for those he came to save.

As Paul wrote to the church at Philippi:

[Jesus] being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:6-8).

After his resurrection, the full realization of who Jesus was, and what he had come to do began to sink in. As his followers absorbed the wonder, grace and glory of both his crucifixion and his resurrection they were transformed. Led by the Holy Spirit, only then did they began to fulfill his “Great Commission,” taking his message of forgiveness of sin, victory over evil and death, and of salvation to the whole world. Convinced of the truth and reality of who Jesus was and what he had accomplished, not even the suffering of hardships, persecution and, for some, execution could stop their proclamation reaching “to the uttermost parts of the earth.” And we today are the beneficiaries of their mission and ministry that was handed on to others who were also faithful channels of God’s own reconciling and renewing work down through the generations.

As Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15:

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

In this season of Easter continuing on to Pentecost, let’s take time to renew our own sense of wonder and commitment, as we each do our part in carrying on the Great Commission. It is a message this world needs. It has been well said, “he may not have been the Messiah all had hoped for, but he is indeed the Messiah of great hope for all.”

With love, in Christ’s service,

Joseph Tkach

P.S. For a song about the cross, composed by GCI member Deborah Glenister, see the YouTube video at http://youtu.be/3vVRVbUSt7g

A message for Holy Week

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

There was something about the regional conference we held last month in Vancouver, WA that made it the best one I ever attended in that region (others mentioned similar impressions).

I was still thinking about the conference when I boarded the plane for home. As always, I wondered who would sit next to me. It was a short flight, on a regional jet with two seats on each side of a narrow aisle. If you have an aisle seat, as I did, everyone boarding after you gets to bump you with their arms, hips, cabin baggage and whatever! It is best to stay alert until everyone is seated. So much for the “glamor” of travel!

A fellow carrying a big screen TV squeezed by and then came a young woman who looked like Miss America. But they kept going. Then I saw the young man who was to be my seat mate. Actually, I smelled him before I saw him. “Oh no!” I thought, but tried to resist the urge to judge. The flight attendant gave me a look, wondering how I was going to react. I kept the consummate poker face. He certainly was not the guy I would have chosen to sit with. But I could not help thinking that Jesus would probably have chosen someone like him.

As it turned out, despite his lack of familiarity with personal hygiene, he was a really nice fellow. He was a graduate student who worked with computers for a hotel chain. He told me he had been on vacation. Then he told me (in some detail) of the women he had met (I won’t share the details here). You should have seen the look on his face when I told him what I did for a living!

We chatted and drank a beer together on the short flight back to southern California. As we prepared to land, he told me I was the kind of person he would like to hang out with. I took that as a compliment.

A verse came to mind as I considered this encounter with a challenging though pleasant fellow human. As you may recall, Jesus’ enemies criticized him for the company he kept. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them,” they said (Luke 15:2). I confess that I have come to rather enjoy this kind of opportunity. I think of it as a “Jesus moment.”

Jesus eats with “sinners”

In Jesus’ day, the people you chose to be seen with, and especially to eat with, established a “pecking order” of righteousness. The self-righteous religious leaders would have probably classified my travel companion as a common and unclean “sinner.” But not Jesus! He sought out the people others rejected. He broke down artificial barriers that would keep him from connecting with those who by the Spirit were open to receiving from him new life.

When Jesus ate with the common, unclean and immoral, he had a way of making them sense the forgiveness and acceptance he offered them. In response, many of these “least” were motivated to receive his forgiveness by repenting and changing for the better. Remember how the despised tax collector, Zacchaeus, decided to mend his ways after Jesus had selected his home as a place to eat? (Luke 19:1-10). There were many incidents in Jesus’ life where he chose the company of social outcasts. I could picture him pointing to the seat next to my odiferous and libidinous companion and asking, “May I sit here?”

It was not that Jesus exalted immorality above morality or failure above success. He was willing to take his message of forgiveness and reconciliation to the rich and influential as well as to the poor and downtrodden. Here is another story in Luke’s gospel where Jesus accepted an invitation to a meal with one of the top religious leaders:

One time when Jesus went for a Sabbath meal with one of the top leaders of the Pharisees, all the guests had their eyes on him, watching his every move. Right before him there was a man hugely swollen in his joints. So Jesus asked the religion scholars and Pharisees present, “Is it permitted to heal on the Sabbath? Yes or no?” They were silent. So he took the man, healed him, and sent him on his way (Luke 14:1-6, The Message Bible).

The prim and proper guests were outraged, since they were not at all ready to repent and receive anything from Jesus. So Jesus could only show them the way forward by exposing their pride and hypocrisy and instructing them to try a whole different way of relating to others:

“The next time you put on a dinner” he told his host, “don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be—and experience—a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned—oh, how it will be returned!—at the resurrection of God’s people” (vv. 12–14).

Since they wouldn’t repent and receive from Jesus now, he opens the door to them for doing so in the future.

I realize that social convention and custom have their place, but I more strongly identify with Jesus’ behavior that deemphasized the significance of social barriers when it comes to extending God’s own hospitality to others. All such distinctions, categories, evaluations and pigeonholes should be left behind when we dine with Jesus.

Surely we should keep this in mind during Holy Week when we will partake of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus welcomes his dinner companions into a new family – the household and family of God. There, as the Apostle Paul says, we enter into our new life of communion in Christ. Jesus invites us all to his table. And as we gather ’round for that meal, we are reminded of the future Messianic banquet which will host those from every land, nation and people. Then, we will celebrate the coming of his Kingdom in fullness, the first course of a banquet that never ends.

The mood of Holy Week, including our time at the Lord’s Table, is one of holiness, joy, confidence and hope as Easter approaches, when we will celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and King. Let’s enjoy it, wherever and whoever we are, being especially ready to welcome the stranger as Christ himself has welcomed us.

With love, in Christ’s service,

Joseph Tkach