The Mountain in the Middle
In our Sunday school discussion on worship, we moved from Mount Sinai (Ex 20) to the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7). In past weeks, we examined in Exodus how the law was given to Israel to bring her into a relationship of worship with God. Moving to Matthew, our understanding of worship helps us to see that Jesus was not unfairly making the satisfaction of the law a moving target - and who could fulfill it anyway? - but showing us how worship of God looks when we embrace the law. Understanding the context of worship keeps us from a whole slew of misunderstandings of what Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount. If we see Jesus as making ethical requirements as conditions for satisfying God, we might well hate the Sermon on the Mount. Or if we view the Sermon through the warm fuzzy lens of contemporary evangelicalism, we might see Jesus as teaching us that the law is really about ethics and morality and we might drift toward antinomianism. But Jesus does not redefine the law; instead, he gives us a picture of who he is and what we will one day enjoy in direct relationship to God and one another. Not only do we not commit adultery, we look upon one another in love, respect and righteousness. We strive toward these teachings of Jesus in order to worship God. As a sidebar to our discussion, we noted the Sermon on the Mount shows us how to live out the ethical and social aspects of worship. There is a great impetus in the church to be salt and light in the world. To do this, we often turn to Christian organizations committed to helping in various ways, from medical relief to feeding the hungry to education. But the challenge for these organizations is to keep the ethical and social aspects of our response of worship in proper place relative to God's work of initiating worship. And so Matthew 4 precedes Matthew 5 and gives us three essential elements of God's initiation of worship. 1. The faithfulness and righteousness of Jesus. 2. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." 3. "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." Now, we get these three elements in a narrative, so what Matthew proclaims is one way of stating the gospel of salvation. Many of us desire to serve God through volunteering in service-oriented organizations. To avoid making the kind of missteps that our church has stumbled through in the past, these elements must be at the heart of an organization's mission. That means doing a bit of digging to see what the on-the-ground ministry looks like, and not just looking at their statement of faith. Yes, doing that does really make things harder and requires us to exercise wisdom and discernment. But isn't that exercise of maturity also part of our worship? "And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God." Ph 1:9-11. Here is a helpful discussion between three church leaders and scholars on the issue of the importance of keeping the gospel central to the social and ethical aspects of worship. I tried to summarize the main points that each speaker made below.
(Carson) How do we safeguard our mercy ministries so that they do not fall into the common pitfall of having the mercy ministry overshadow the ministry of proclamation? (Keller 0:40) Keep proclamation of the gospel of grace central, so we see that sin is an offense to God and that substitutionary atonement is the way the offense is taken away. This keeps the social gospel out. (Piper 2:10) We do need mercy ministries to be neighbors as Jesus commanded. To keep compassion from sweeping away concern for evangelism, we must continue proclaiming and believing the eternal torment of hell. Bethlehem's motto: "We exist to relieve all suffering, especially eternal suffering." (Keller 6:15) We have to give gospel, evangelistic ministry primary place. In proper proportion, caring must be secondary to evangelism. Otherwise you become a church just interested in improving social conditions. (Piper 7:53) Does this imply that getting converts is necessary in mercy ministries? (Carson 8:30) Absolutely not. Some fields are harder than others. Our responsibility is to proclaim the gospel faithfully, and faithfulness is not counted on the basis of fruitfulness.
Reprinted with permission from a contributing author, Hans Sun. The original post is from his blog: In Praise of Worship. We gratefully thank all our contributing authors.