Get Low

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

I originally wrote this post for the Far East Broadcasting Company Gospel Blog, where it was scheduled to appear on June 29, 2015. Unfortunately, there appears to be some sort of problem with the blog; the last published article is dated June 25, 2015. At this point I have no idea what is happening, though I pray that whatever issues have arisen will be resolved quickly.

Gentle Reader,

A few weeks ago the Holy Spirit drew me to the Book of Ezra. (I knew it was the Spirit because, well, it’s Ezra. I’m honest enough to say that this Old Testament book hasn’t been on the top of my “must read” list). As I continue to live with chronic health problems, I’m learning more and more that when God places a Scripture on my heart, it’s a time to drop everything and get alone with Him and my Bible. He never fails to bring me the exact word of encouragement or conviction that I need for that moment.

He also never fails to surprise me.

Ezra comes onto the ancient timeline at a critical point. The Jewish exiles in Babylon have been released to return to Jerusalem by the decree of Cyrus the Great (Ezra 1:1-4). The king commands the people to give those who choose to travel home whatever they need, whether it’s gold or silver or livestock. He also returns all the precious articles of the Temple, the ones that Nebuchadnezzar had stolen (1:7-11).

Under the leadership of Sheshbazzar (probably another name for Zerubbabel), they set out.

Utter destruction and chaos await them.

The saga is told across Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai and Zechariah. We get an intimate peek into this part of history though letters to kings, narratives about opposition and bravery (Ezra 3:3 is a great example of this), descriptions of construction, and encouragement from God through His prophets. The colors splash across the four books to form a beautiful and unique portrait of a humbled people, a people who strive to work together and restore their city.

There are many things that could easily grab my attention in the story of Ezra, but my soul is arrested by a single word.

Nethinim.

Beginning in Ezra 2:43, the names of the Nethinim, the “given ones,” are listed. They were a distinct group of men whose lives were given over to service in the Temple. Their focus was on the behind-the-scenes, often laborious tasks that kept the Temple functioning and enabled the priests to perform their duties. This term and office first applied to the Levites who were not of the line of Aaron, but eventually non-Jewish captives, taken in conquest and given to the Levites, came to fill this role.

Okay, did you catch that?

“Non-Jewish.”

This grips me. God specifically chose the people of Israel to be His nation, and part of their task was to be a light to the world (the origins of this are found all the way back in Genesis 12:1-3). They were not to bar anyone who sought God from joining their company (Exodus 12:48-49). These captives, these non-Jewish men, got an up-close-and-personal view of what it meant to worship the Lord. They knew how the Temple worked. No doubt they asked questions and learned about what it all meant. Along the way, they came to embrace the true God (Nehemiah 10:28).

Centuries before Christ and long before Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, we see God reaching out to gather to Himself all who would follow Him. We see the truth that “the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show Himself strong on behalf of those whose heart is loyal to Him” (2 Chronicles 16:9a). No caveats about ethnicity, class, gender or any other kind of background.

Yet this is not all that causes me to dwell on this single word.

The Nethinim were not the superstars. They weren’t the ones leading worship. They didn’t get to bless the people. They were the support team. In our terms, they were the ones who cleaned the toilets and kept the chairs in good repair. They mopped floors, fixed windows, repaired broken doors. They unclogged stinking toilets and made runs to the trash heap. They had the dirty jobs.

They lived out the words of the psalmist, “For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness” (Psalm 84:10). 

Does this encourage you? I hope it does! The Temple system would not have worked without the Nethinim. Neither can our churches, the Body of Christ around the world, work without those who do the thankless tasks. There really isn’t any such thing as a non-vital role.

Ah, but there’s more!

In learning about the Nethinim, it occurred to me that these men understood what it meant to be humble. You can’t exactly be scrubbing floors all day and have your nose in the air. They never knew what it was to receive the applause. Yet I doubt that they were self-loathing. We tend to assume that humility means just that, hating oneself, but it doesn’t. Humility is acknowledging and accepting reality. It is to have a correct estimation of self and abilities. For a Christian, humility extends to accepting the relation of self to God and knowing that He is King.

One of the Greek New Testament words for humility is tapeinos, a terms that carries within its definition the phrase “not rising far from the ground.” This is what the Nethinim experienced on a daily basis both in a literal and a figurative sense. Their jobs brought them low. They spent time cleaning and scrubbing and serving, all for the Lord.

Tapienos is a term used in descriptions of Christ.

Let that settle on you.

Christ got low.

All of this comes together in one simple sentence: I must get low. We see this in Scripture time and time again; God is always higher, always the ruler. “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30). We must serve as the Nethinim served, content to do whatever job is placed before us, seeing it as a way of worshiping and serving the Lord. We can know that He honors whatever is done in wholehearted obedience to His command.

If you are like me, a modern-day Nethinim who doesn’t have the spotlight, I encourage you to revel in your status. You have been chosen for the tough jobs, the jobs that God alone sees – and that is special. That is honorable. Whatever your hand finds to do in service to Him and others, do it with joy. Know that He smiles upon your efforts.

Do it with a heart of worship. Do it out of a desire to praise the King.

Do it because you are a “given one,” consecrated and set apart to His service.

For this is not about our glory or gain. It’s all about Him.

My journey to faith. (15)

His Fragrance Surrounds Us

Now thanks be to God who always leads us (5)

Gentle Reader,

Do you realize how good the Lord is?

I’m not sure we think about that often enough. He’s just plain good. He has no dark side. He doesn’t need therapy. He’s not messed up. He’s never stepped wrong or made a bad decision.

And this good God, this holy Lord, responds to us.

I’ve been reading the Book of Ezra. Unfortunately I don’t have time today to get into all the richness I’ve discovered, but six chapters in I marvel at how tender God is toward His people. The people of Judah (at this point their religion begins to be referred to as Judah-ism, or Judaism, and the people as Jews) return to Jerusalem after 70 years in exile and captivity. The city is in ruins. The Temple is a wreck. Despite the passage of time, no rebuilding or restoration efforts have taken place. Men with names like Sheshbazzar, Zerubbabel and Jeshua lead their people across the long miles into the mess.

God’s activity is everywhere. He moves Cyrus to set them free (in fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 44:28). He grants them favor with their neighbors, who shower them with precious materials like gold, silver and livestock. The sacred items of the Temple, stolen by Nebuchadnezzar, are returned to them. They have all that they need to begin the process of rebuilding.

Almost immediately, they face opposition. They are harassed, tempted into bad alliances and falsely accused. Officials in the Persian government send letters to several monarchs, pointing out the past rebellion of the Jews. Why should they be allowed to restore their city?

Discouragement. Defeat. Exhaustion.

Onto the scene step Haggai and Zechariah, prophets of God. They spoke His truth to the weary remnant. They were “with them, helping them” (Ezra 5:2). The Lord knew what He had called His people to do and what it would take. He knew what hardship they would face.

He did not leave them to do a single thing on their own.

Because He is good.

He always leads us to victory. We may not choose to follow, but that’s His direction. That’s His path.

If we have a mind to, if we ask Him to grant us the perspective, we can see Him even in the toughest of times. We can hear His voice. We can even smell Him as the fragrance of His presence lingers. There is no opposition that can stand against Him. There is no plan of His that can be thwarted. He will see His plan through to completion. He will accomplish His purposes.

How humbling it is to realize that He does this for and through us! He doesn’t walk the triumphal parade route alone. He leads us on it. He equips our hands to do the work. He opens our mouths to speak His world. He uses us as atomizers, dispensing holy perfume throughout the world.

We are too quick to dismiss and avoid dwelling on the immense and even insane goodness of God toward us. That the infinite and majestic Lord would see our tears and send us comfort; that He would soothe our frustration; that He would remove roadblocks in His perfect timing because He wants to be good to us is too much for me to contemplate without tears of thankfulness and praise rolling down my cheeks.

He knew how these people had rebelled in the past and how they would rebel in the future. He knew all their faults and failures. He knew how overwhelmed they were, how big the project was. He knew they would face opposition and that the resentment of their neighbors would be palpable. Out of the richness of His goodness and grace, He covered them. He provided for all their needs.

So too with us. With you. With me. He knows each one of us so well. Better than we know ourselves. He knows how we rebelled and sinned yesterday and He knows how we’ll do it tomorrow. But He never lets up. He never abandons us.

Because He is good.

My journey to faith. (15)

Prophet, Priest, King

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com (2) Gentle Reader,

Studying fundamentalist ideology can leave one with a sour taste in her mouth.

A very sour taste.

I was not raised in a fundamentalist home. I wore pants, played sports, went to public school, read books. listened to music, had boyfriends and asked questions. A lot of questions. I probably drove my parents and teachers up the proverbial wall.

Now, as an adult, I’m still not a fundamentalist. The more I study the Bible and the longer I walk with Jesus, the more convinced I become that God never asks us to turn off our minds. He does not desire us to be simpletons. He does not ask us to turn lumps in the ground into mountains and then die on them. These things – anti-intellectualism and harsh stances on small issues – are often the unfortunate destinations when traveling the fundamentalist road.

Another is the sloppy interpretation and misapplication of God’s word.

I’ve come across several articles recently that take titles belonging to Christ – prophet, priest and king – and transfer them to husbands. (I won’t link to any – save one – of the articles here because this is a definite instance of not wanting to drive traffic to the sites. You can locate them via a simple Google search).

I have a problem with that.

A real problem.

This piece has been under my skin for days. I realize that the author makes it a point to quote Paul’s admonition that husband’s are love their wives as Christ loved the church (sacrificially, even to the point of death; Ephesians 5:25) and I’ll give him credit for that. Still there are problems:

It has been widely accepted that Christ’s activity on behalf of the church can be summarized in these three functional titles: Prophet, Priest and King. A brief look at each will give us keen insight into our role as husbands.

Christ as Prophet: A prophet is someone who brings forth the Word of God to mankind. He is responsible for accurately discerning what God is saying and communicating that to others. Christ performed this prophetic role perfectly in two ways. First, He accurately spoke and taught the Word and words of God to others. Second, He was the actual expression of God and the Word made flesh.

The Husband as Prophet: We have the amazing privilege of bringing forth the Word of God to our wives. While this might involve some actual Bible-teaching time, we need to see the various other forms this should take. We can proclaim His Word and His will as we counsel our wives, as we make family decisions and as we plan for our family’s future. The common ingredient in all of its forms is God’s Word. Without the Word of God, a prophet has nothing to say; his words are empty and meaningless.

In addition to bringing forth the Word in our actions, we too must personify the Word made flesh in us. We must model the truth we are teaching. We must personify what we desire our wives and our marriages to become. Without personally living the truth we proclaim, we can expect no higher praise from Christ than the Pharisees received. (Matthew 23:2-4)

Christ as Priest: A priest is an intercessor: someone who seeks God on behalf of someone else. As Priest, Jesus is constantly seeking God on our behalf. Through Him, we are made holy, righteous, and acceptable to God. Yet, this Priest is different from all others in that He did not sacrifice a lamb, dove, or bull. This Priest sacrificed Himself on our behalf.

The Husband as Priest: As we love our wives, we must serve as priest. Our wives and marriages need prayer. We have the privilege and duty of petitioning God on their behalf. We should pray for their purity, their protection, their joy, their faith, and their burdens. We should pray for their success as a wife, as a mother, and as a woman of God.

We must again follow Christ’s example and allow our priestly sacrifice to be our very selves. Hebrews 12 tells us that Jesus looked past His own sacrifice to the joy that would occur on the other side. With that in mind, look at all that your wife could become. Consider what God might want to do with her, in her, and through her. And, for that joy set before you, willingly endure when you are called to sacrifice yourself. In so doing, you will love your wife as Christ loves His church.

Christ as King: A king is someone who is supreme or preeminent. As our King, Christ deserves our honor, our praise, our obedience, and our servitude. He is in charge … the undisputed leader of the church. Paul speaks many times of Jesus as the head of the church. Yet, while this King rules and reigns, He also serves and ministers to His people. His rule is peculiar in that He models leadership by serving. He says that the greatest among His people will be those who serve. He also is an accessible King. In many courts throughout history, subjects were never permitted to be in the presence of their king. King Jesus invites us in; He leaves open the door to His throne room.

The Husband as King: Ephesians 5:23 makes it clear; the husband is the head of the wife. In essence, kingship undeniably belongs to the husband. As we embrace that, we as husbands must lead. We must lead clearly and boldly. We must be out there on the edge looking to the provision and the protection of our kingdom. To do less is to fall short of our calling to headship. The privilege is ours to rule our home.

However, we are not called simply to take our crowns and dominate our wives. We must rule as Christ rules … with humility. He modeled precisely how He wants us to love our wives. As our King, Christ knelt and washed the feet of His disciples. We must follow His example and serve. Lead boldly, yet serve. Never let the brawn of your leadership outweigh the sacrifice of your leadership. Christ kept them in perfect balance; that is our calling as well.

There’s a lot wrong here.

I make no secret of the fact that I’m not a complementarian. While I do believe that men and women complement each other, I do not believe that there are strictly defined gender roles. I don’t believe that men have one set of gifts and callings while women have another (all of 1 Corinthians 12, but especially verse 11; there is no mention here that the Spirit gives “x” only to men and “y” only to women). I don’t believe that women have to stay home and wait for the men to bring home the bacon.

Neither to I deny the innerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture, so I know and accept what it says about the marital relationship. A lot of people like to skip over the whole “submit to one another” part of Ephesians 5, though (vs. 21). They gloss over the fact that a man who loves his wife sacrificially will do all he can to support her, and she in turn will have no trouble supporting and respecting him.

A lot of people read a whole lot of stuff into that passage. (And 1 Peter 3). They miss the mutuality of marriage. They forget that the two become one (Genesis 2:24).

Neither Paul nor Peter equate the husband with Christ. They never grant him an authority or position on par with Christ. None of the inspired authors of any book of the Bible ever say that a husband functions as a prophet, priest or a king for his wife.

The only way to draw such a conclusion is to read a preconceived notion of “headship” into the passages. Within this system, the Ephesians 5 verses are interpreted with the understanding that “head” means “authority.” However, the Greek kephale is not used to connote authority. It means “source” or “origin.” Consider:

1 Corinthians 11:3: “the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.”

Once again, Paul is dealing not with creational hierarchies but with creational sources. As we already saw, if this passage taught hierarchies it would teach the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father, which was a central teaching of the Arian heresy. Thus, God being the head of Christ must refer to Christ’s source as the eternally begotten Son. And since all three pairings are compared and parallel, the other two cannot mean “authority” either. In the Greek there are not two separate words for “man/husband” and “woman/wife.” The same word is used for both English terms. Thus, the best rendering is not “husband” and “wife” here, but “the man” and “the woman.” Adam and Eve. Paul’s point in this verse is that the “source” of Adam was Christ since Christ made all things and Adam was made in the Image of Christ. And Adam is the “source” of Eve since she was drawn from his side. – Against Patriarchy, Part 6: Concerning Headship

But what about Eden? What about life before the Fall? Didn’t God set up a hierarchy? No:

Using basic principles of interpretation, one comes up with a very simple explanation of the consequence of God’s curse on Adam and Eve – a consequence that has infiltrated every home since the beginning of time. Simply put, the woman will desire to dominate or control the man, but the man, perhaps even with superior strength, will fight hard to rule over and dominate the woman. Where the curse is present there is a constant battle for control. This is how things are because of sin, not how things in the home ought to be. – God Calls Patriarchial Headship a Sinful Desire

The struggle in marriage isn’t because wives just need to put up (and out) and shut up. It’s because men and women both have a sinful desire to control and dominate. Neither was ever meant to be in authority over the other.

This teaching that men are somehow prophets, priests and kings in marriage strays dangerously close to Mormon ideas about the role of men. (I don’t have time to get into this right now, but please do some digging of your own). It also strays dangerously close to the Catholic idea of an alter Christus, or “another Christ.” Further, this teaching conveniently forgets that women are part of the “chosen generation, the royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9). It is a direct appeal to the male ego. Sadly, it sets women up for abuse. (I do not claim that every marriage within a fundamentalist framework is abusive. I’m simply saying that it’s not a long leap from the ideas to the abuse).

I love my husband. I love him dearly. I respect him. But there is no way, no how, he is my prophet, priest or king. Those are functions and offices specifically and clearly filled by Christ. I cannot subscribe to any system that promotes, even unknowingly, the usurpation of His rightly exalted position.

My journey to faith. (15)