This month: 189 - Freedom in Christ
Exploring the Heart of Restoration

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Archives for May, 2021

Volume 4#1 and Volume 1#1

May. May 1992 specifically.

Last night I was digging in one of the half dozen boxes that remain in my garage from my move a couple years ago. Out came a stack of old magazines: Wineskins!

I flipped through the fifteen inch deep stack. I remember that one, that one and that one. Finally, I came to “Volume One, Number One” … May 1992.

This is May 2021. May 1992 was twenty-nine years ago. Wow! Casper and I grabbed a few issues and decided to reread some old stuff. But we read all of May 1992.

By May 1992 I had graduated with a BS majoring in “Old Testament” (looking back, even with a degree, I had shallow understanding of the Hebrew Bible). I was engaged but not yet married. I lived in a little apartment in St. Cloud, Florida. But in a couple of months I would be married, we moved into another apartment on Sherrod Ave in Florence, Alabama. Soon we would move to New Orleans and both Rachael and Talya were born there. I met Tom Olbricht in New Orleans and he impacted my life for the better ever sense.

I do not remember exactly how I learned Wineskins was coming, but my fiancé and I were inaugural subscribers. It followed us to Grenada, MS, then to Milwaukee, WI and then it went paperless at some point and my subscription died. Now it has been resurrected and I write for it.

We waited in eager anticipation for each issue which was devoured cover to cover. I would make copies of this, or that, article to share with friends and family who thought I was loosing my way.

In 1992 Harding Graduate School in Memphis, TN, hosted a lecture on Grace, Faith and Works. The docket included William Woodson, Richard Oster, some person named John Mark Hicks and the one we all were there for, Rubel Shelly. At the time I was still 55% in the Woodson camp but had been moving away from it steadily. Richard Oster came out and spoke on Ephesians and I was like wow! It was a model of exegesis. Woodson covered the same text and, compared to Oster, it was, even to my 1992 me, sophomoric at best. I remember him prodding the audience that he needed us to ask this or that question so he could address Shelly in the Q & A session. Then Shelly came out and what a display gentleness. I did not know if I agreed with him or not (Oster made me think I did, but I did not know jack about exegesis at the time if truth be told) but he made a fan out of me that day. Two men from that day came to have great influence in my life, Hicks and Oster.

From 2021, looking back, I can see now that Wineskins in many ways is sort of the story of the Valentines during the 1990s. I probably bought twenty subscriptions to Wineskins for people I was convinced needed to learn about grace. I recall writing an article and tried to submit it but I never heard back. So I assumed you needed to be famous to be published. I sent the article to IMAGE and Denny Boultinghouse literally called me on the phone to talk to me about it and then published in 1996. That started a wonderful relationship with Denny and we talked regularly until he passed away.

Wineskins, Volume One, Number One was edited by Mike Cope, Rubel Shelly and Phillip Morrison. Dan Anders, Sonya Colvert, Max Lucado, Jeff Nelson. Thom Lemmons, Joy McMillon, Larry James and Lynn Anderson all had articles. Reading through it has brought back a flood of memories.

The first issue sparked off a firestorm. The Spiritual Sword examined the “Purpose Statement,” and made much of the line that reads, “Our background and commitment is to the Church of Christ that was born of the American Restoration Movement.” Wineskins believes “The Lord’s Church [code language] is just another denomination.” The reaction of the Spiritual Sword crew to Wineksins, in retrospect, probably moved me further away from it.

But it was Doug Foster’s little article “The New Birth and Christian Unity: David Lipscomb’s Middle Way,” that made all hell break loose. William Woodson (along with Curtis Cates, Alan Highers, and many more) mercilessly excoriated Foster. All over a misprint in an opening heading that was not even part of the body of the article. The content of the article was accurate. David Lipscomb did in fact believe that Baptists were genuinely Christians. Woodson published his book Change Agents and Churches of Christ and continued the assault. Later there was a Gospel Advocate online forum and this article came up and Woodson was part of the discussion, I pointed out that in his book there was also a misquote and that Foster’s mislabeled quote did not affect the point of the article in the slightest. Woodson said I “sounded like the dog he ran over.” I wasn’t even on Foster’s side, yet. And who could forget the hoopla over Andre Resner’s “Christmas at Matthew’s House (vol. 1#11) in November of 1992! It is still a brilliant article today.

Wineskins always carried advertisements for books. Leonard Allen’s Distant Voices (I never had any interest in Stone-Campbell history till I read that book); Rubel Shelly, The ABC’s of the Christian Faith; Shelly and Randy Harris, The Second Incarnation; Cope’s, One Holy Hunger; and more. Then there was a video which Cope did one on Ecclesiastes (it was the “Old Testament!”). Like most preachers I was looking for stuff to help me preach.

By the late 90s, I lived in Mississippi. My eyes were slowly learning to see while we lived in New Orleans but it was Mississippi I got my baptism of fire with a culture of racism while everyone denied being a racist. One of the themes in Wineskins was that Christian faith had to engage the world around us, it is not simply a cerebral exercise done in a building and then forgotten. Being a Christian was not simply a series of approved acts of worship but living as a kingdom outpost bringing the leaven of God’s righteousness and mercy to the world. I had not given much thought to Christianity being anything but arguments over baptismal requirements, Wednesday night attendance, what can be done with money from the treasury and how money got into the treasury.

I also discovered that just because a congregation considers itself non-legalistic, does not mean it is a Colony of the New Creation but can in fact be stuck in the same structural evil as the folks deemed “legalists.” Whatever you do, do not talk about how Christians should deal with the racist culture we are swimming in. In 2021, I am not sure that legalism is substantively different from racist nationalistic civil religion that many progressives have pledged allegiance to (this is my opinion and you are free to disagree).

All of this time I was traveling to Memphis for graduate school which began in 1993. It has been an adventure. And the adventure continues. The 1990s was a wasteland as far as music is concerned (some great exceptions) but Wineskins was a blessing in the night. I moved from Spiritual Sword to Wineskins … sort of like K. C. Moser went from Foy Wallace to G. C. Brewer in the 1920s. My life has changed drastically since May 1992 and in ways I could neither dream nor imagine.

If you read this I am grateful. But I wrote this down basically for me. It is amazing how pulling a magazine out of an old box can cause you to look back and see God in the Rearview Mirror. As our Lord said to Peter, “someone … will take you where you do not wish to go.”

But what an adventure it has been.

If they few do the work of the man, the body of Christ suffers just as if few body parts do the work of the whole body, the body suffers.

Having said that, allow me to ask a few questions:

Is it okay to allow most of our church members to be inactive? Is that faithful?

How do we enact high expectations and accountability to a biblical standard of discipleship without becoming cultish or a new kind of legalist?

What kind of metrics would we need that would actually account for a healthy, functioning congregation/church body?

These are difficult questions that need to be addressed.

Instead of having the few do the work for the many let’s flip the script. Don’t start with slots that need to get filled. Start with who God has given you. Consider what they do best and what they thrive while they do and put them to work doing that. If someone needs some training, train them. Invest in them. Raise up leaders and send them out.

If people don’t know what they are supposed to be doing then let’s go back to prayer and study. Ask God to show you what you need to be doing and study the Bible to see what kinds of things Christians are called to do. Find something and apply yourself to it.

We have to get the many doing the work of the many. When that happens, the body will be healthy and healthy bodies grow in healthy ways!

Capacity vs. Dependence

Last month, Jason Locke (Preaching Minister at the College Church of Christ in Fresno, California) posted a simple truth that church leaders should take to heart: “Leadership should generate capacity, not dependency.” 

For paid church leaders, ministry is both a calling and a career. Both sides of that can sometimes lead a minister to put an unhealthy pressure on themselves to do it all. Whether it’s a desire to give 110% of themselves to the church and ministry out of a genuine passion for God and his Kingdom, or the very real pressure to justify their paycheck (so they can support their family), many ministers take on so many roles that they inadvertently make the church dependent on them. 

Here’s what dependency can look like and why it’s a problem: When a single church leader is the only one who can do X, Y, or Z at a high level at their congregation, things will be great… until they’re not. An unexpected illness, a calling to go to another congregation, or a slow loss of passion for that particular ministry could leave the church without anyone new to step in.

And that’s why Jason Locke is right. Healthy, Biblical leaders don’t generate dependency, as nice as that might feel for the minister. They generate capacity by training and equipping others who can continue the work long after the original leader is gone. 

Keychain Leadership

The researchers behind the book Growing Young call this “Keychain Leadership.” It’s the idea that good leaders share the “keys” of the church with younger leaders who can continue the work long into the future. They keys represent access, leadership, and responsibility. When established leaders hog the keys, the work might continue at a high level as they continue to insist on doing it all personally, but eventually their work will come to an end—and no one will be ready to replace them.

The Biblical tradition from Moses to Joshua highlights the importance of Keychain Leadership. When Joshua took over for Moses in Joshua chapter 1, he had all the tools he needed for success. God had strategically orchestrated the events of Joshua’s early life so that he would have the necessary skills to lead Israel at a high level. And Moses was intentional about partnering with God in bringing Joshua along.

Four Themes in Joshua 1:7-9

When God called Joshua to lead Israel, he gave him this famous pep talk:

7 “Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. 8 Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. 9 Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:7-9, NIV)

If Joshua wanted to be a successful leader for the nation of Israel, he needed to keep these four themes in mind:

  1. Be Strong and Courageous.
  2. Obey the Law of the Lord.
  3. The Lord will be With You.
  4. Go Where God Leads You.
Joshua’s Early Life Prepared him for Success

It’s no coincidence that the four primary stories about Joshua in Exodus-Numbers correspond to these four key leadership principles.

1. Be Strong and Courageous: In Exodus 17:8-13, Moses appoints Joshua to lead the military battle against the Amalekites. As Moses held up his hands above, Joshua found victory in the valley below: “So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword” (Exodus 17:13, NIV). By the time Joshua was appointed to lead Israel into the Promised Land, he was already an experienced military leader.

2. Obey the Law of the Lord: In Exodus 24:13-14, Moses takes Joshua along with him to Mt. Sinai to receive the Law. Joshua had a front-row seat to this pivotal moment in Israel’s history.

3. The Lord will be With You: In Exodus 33:9-11, we see that Moses would often spend time in the Tabernacle in the presence of the Lord before returning to his leadership duties. “But,” the Bible says in Exodus 33:11, “his young aide Joshua son of Nun did not leave the tent.” Joshua learned to dwell in the presence of the Lord without departing from it.

4. Go Where God Leads You: Joshua was one of the twelve spies who scouted out the Promised Land in Numbers 14. Leaving the safety and security of his own people, he ventured into enemy territory full of faith in the power and protection of God. 

Each of the four stories about Joshua’s early life demonstrate that God was preparing him to be Israel’s leader. He had powerful and relevant experiences in all of the ways God called him to be a leader. Moses, to his credit, was enthusiastic about raining Joshua up in this way.

The Takeaway

Churches should take this example to heart. We need to practice keychain leadership by generating capacity instead of dependency. 

I believe we have developed an informal priesthood.

What we see in the early church is the priesthood of all believers. It is taught directly in 1 Peter 2. It is modeled in Acts, especially Acts 8, where the everyday people scattered and preach the word and the church grew.

Now, there are tasks that God assigns to specific people like Paul and Barnabas in Acts 13. There are different roles like elder that not everyone fills. That is to be expected. However, what I believe we have unintentionally communicated is that many of the responsibilities of ministry fall on the shoulders of the few rather than the many.

The many watch. The few do.

That is job security for those of us in professional ministry…but is it best? I really don’t think it is. Again, I am not saying this was done intentionally, however, I believe we are seeing the effects of it in low expectations of the many that has resulted in anemic Christians who are not growing on to maturity. Not universal – but prevalent.

Was this caused by adopted a business model for church? Like in so many other areas of our lives, we professionalized and complicated ministry. Complicated ministry requires a high degree of competency and training to pull off. It used to be possible to work on your car at home. With all the computers and complication, that is getting increasingly difficult. The same is true with ministry. Churches want someone with a degree and so many years of experience to fill the role. I get it. It makes sense to a degree. We need to consider the advantages of that approach (solid teaching from someone who has a solid understanding of the scriptures, original languages, etc that you won’t get without someone taking years to be trained) and the negatives of that approach (that many in the congregation will take it upon themselves to take a back seat, give their contribution, and let the professional profess).

1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4 make it clear that the members of the body are in the body to do work. When the whole body functions at full capacity we will have healthy churches.

Here are a few things we can do and no, I am not saying you should fire your minister. They haven’t done anything wrong. We can have quality ministers while also engaging the whole body of Christ in ministry.

1 – Raise expectations for the members of the congregation. Tell them specifically what is desired for the members – to be involved in ministry, give of their time, etc (be concrete and realistic of people’s time but don’t be silent on this).

2 – Identify and affirm gifts. Some people don’t how God has gifted them for ministry.

3 – Make the on-ramp to serve easily accessible and obvious. People shouldn’t have to talk to a dozen people or wait 6 months to volunteer.

4 – The elders and ministers need to be in tune with the flock. When they see people not maturing, stagnating, etc they can walk alongside and encourage.

What would you add to the list?

The Greek philosopher Epictetus once said, “Know first, who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly.”

Epictetus offers a pearl of wisdom for us who profess the Christian faith, who seek to follow Jesus Christ and live under the kingdom reign of God. We must first understand our identity, what it means to be Christian and therefore be the church, if we are to truly live as followers of Jesus Christ. Then we begin to grasp what it means to participate in the mission of God. We learn to live as a people “communicating to the rest of mankind the universally valid truths concerning God’s liberating and redeeming work with fundamental openness, which in itself is but the continuation of God’s involvement in Christ for the sake of the world.”1

To Be Christian… The Church

That sounds great, very Christian and very missional, as it should. But let’s back up a bit and reflect a little more on what it means to be Christian and therefore be the church.

Writing to Christians in Asia Minor, the apostle Peter said, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people who are God’s own possession” (1 Pet 2:9).2 It’s a passage most of us are very familiar with. It’s often the go-to passage — book, chapter, and verse — for affirming the priesthood of all believers.

The universal priesthood of all believers is a legacy of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. Rather than the priesthood being limited to a special class of ordained clergy, every believer is a priest. That means we stand before God and people go-betweens. So any believer can offer up an intercessory prayer to God on behalf of someone, can proclaim the gospel to others, and can use their gifts of the Spirit to serve in the name of Jesus. Likewise, any believer can hear another person confess their faith in Jesus Christ and baptize that person in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. And any believer can hear a confession of sins and offer the assurance of God’s forgiveness.

What a blessing! The Protestant Reformers got this aspect of the priesthood of all believers right. So I believe it is good that churches have continued this emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. 

The Priesthood

That said, you may have noticed that I referred to “this aspect” with an indefinite voice, meaning that it’s not the only aspect. There is another aspect that often seems ignored in our day and that’s the communal aspect. That is, it is not just that every believer is a priest but that the church itself is a priest or priesthood. 

Again, Peter says, “But you are…” which is plural. “All Y’all,” as they sometimes say in the great state of Arkansas. Peter is addressing the entire church as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation…” Our western mindset, which is formed by individualism, misses the fact that Peter is talking about the identity of the church as a collective whole.

It makes more sense when we remember the language Peter uses is taken from the story of Israel, particularly their exodus from oppression in Egypt. God promised Israel that by keeping the covenant they would “be a kingdom of priests for me and a holy nation” (Ex 19:5). As a community, God set Israel apart as his elected nation and priesthood. They didn’t belong to any other nation but instead served as the people who stood before God and the other nations. Israel was to serve as the go-between God and the nations so that every nation would come to know God as the Lord. This was the mission God called Israel to participate in.

As Christians, we believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah who fulfilled this missional calling. Now the calling is extended to us who follow Jesus, becoming participants in the mission of God. Having been baptized in the name of Jesus and received the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38), we are now the people whom God has set apart as the ones elected to participate in his mission.3

This missional calling was fulfilled by the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. So now the church, that is us who believe in Jesus, are set apart as God’s elected people. That is why Peter appropriates the blessing God declared upon Israel and declares it upon the church of Jesus Christ. 

The Challenge Before Us

What then do we make of this? Is every individual Christian a priest? Yes. But we must also reclaim the communal aspect and live within its claim upon our lives as the church. 

Since the fourth century when the Roman Emperor Constantine accepted Christianity and issued the Edict of Milan (318 A.D.), the church and state began a slow merge. This merge became what is now known as Christendom, in which the church relied upon state power to advance a Christian society. Although America has always embraced the separation of church and state, Christendom remained operative in the sense that laws and public policies broadly reflected a Christian worldview.

The rise of modernity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries served as the death notice of Christendom. Although the demise has been slow, with some Christians still grasping on to her last vestiges, Christendom is pretty much gone. Today we live in a post-Christendom society but one that is also very secular. The rise of secularization has resulted in the compartmentalization of the sacred, where the existence of God makes little difference in the lives of people. A secular mindset, one that is distant, if not separated, now forms the collective imaginations of people with regards to the way the world operates.

Christianity in America is not exempt. Regardless of how often Christians might “go to church,” many identify themselves by their nation of origin rather than their baptism. Too many Christians sound more like an elephant or donkey than the crucified Christ. Stories of abuse and corruption among churches seem never-ending. Church itself has become a big business of marketing and production all to build the brand. And what is troubling is how the Bible has been co-opted, proof-texted, and used so that it fits with whatever story — other than the gospel — which defines reality. 

This is the challenge that stands before us as we reclaim the communal aspect of our identity in Christ.

Conclusion: The Baptism We Have Received

The way beyond this morass begins with remembering who we are, that we are the church. The story of America, or for that matter, Canada, Great Britain, or any other nation-state, is not the story of the gospel told throughout scripture and we can’t live into two different stories. So now we must remember that in Christ, along with the baptism we have received, makes a new claim upon us. We are now the ones chosen by God to serve as his priest, living as a holy nation among the nations of this world. When we come to grips with that and allow the Spirit to reform our imaginations around that reality, we’ll rediscover what it means to be the church on mission with God.

____________________

  1. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Engagement With God, trans. R. John Halliburton, Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1971; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008, 32.
  2. All scripture quotations are taken from the Common English Bible, copyright 2011. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
  3. Christopher J.H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking The Bible’s Grand Narrative, Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2006, 369, “We cannot speak biblically of the doctrine of election without insisting that it was never an end in itself but a means to the greater end of the ingathering of nations. Election must be seen as missiological, not merely soteriological.” In other words, election is about participating in the mission of God rather than just being saved. This makes sense when we consider that election in the Bible begins with Abraham, whom God elects as the one through whom all nations (not just a limited number) will be blessed (cf. Gen 17:1-8).

K. Rex Butts serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE. He holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.

“When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

~ Luke 14:8-11

Court of the Women
I move among these, my sisters
Here in the court of the women
Where the altar smoke
Drifts out from the
Distant and inaccessible altar
This is the place of shes
The blessing-site, the giving-way
I do not strain to see
The lampstands, the bowls,
The sacrifice;
For the light that shines from there
Moves toward me:
The Priest has brought
The rites to me
And together we fellowship
Here,
In the court of women
He knows submission
Better than I

The word “submission” is a hateful one in our society, because people assume that submitting to someone else is an admission that you are in some way inferior.

But Jesus taught just the opposite. We submit to one another to show honor; not because we are wretched, but because we choose to do so. Submission as a choice is a great source of strength and power—Jesus said the servant of all is the greatest of all. When women choose to be silent in worship, they exercise this same kind of power of submission, and mirror the fact that in the Old Testament temple, the court of the women was where all the giving took place.

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

~ Matthew 11:28

Polyfacet
Just as He is God
Who is served by
A Spirit
Who is the faces of
Lamb ox eagle lion man

Who is a wheel
Within a wheel
Covered by eyes
All around

I lean now
Upon His breast
Becoming with the church
Millions of ears
That lie just under
His clavicle
Straining to hear
The comfort of
His beating
Heart

 
Jesus made the most marvelous barter of all history. Come to Me, He said, and I’ll take all your messes, all your regrets, all your guilt and pain, no questions asked. In most translations, He is quoted as saying “I will give you rest.” But the word “rest” in Greek is a verb, not a direct object. It’s not something He gives you, it’s something He does to you.  

Come to Me, He says. I’ll rest you.

—————————————————

So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go until you bless me.”

~ Genesis 32:24-27

The Match

Like Jacob and the angel
We face each other warily
Our eyes never releasing their vision-lock
What soundless circling,
Sliding of bared feet
Upon the mat of my life
I have heard the bell
For the opening of the match:
It rings even now in my brain
Insistent, insistent,
Sounded by
My divine Opponent
And I sigh
Because I do not know if I have the strength
I do not know the outcome
(For He with whom I joust
Is also judge)
My crowded consciousness chants:
“Though He slay me
Yet will I hope in Him”
The wrestling match
Begins

The walk of the faithful with God is not a trouble-free stroll. In fact, those who become close to God often find themselves struggling with Him in one way or another. Abraham, for instance, bargained with God over the safety of the people in Sodom, wrangling back and forth over numbers. Jacob literally wrestled with God. Paul asked the Lord over and over to remove his “thorn in the flesh,” and even this great hero of faith was denied his request. Even our Lord Jesus was told that He must drink from the cup He’d asked repeatedly to have taken away. Throughout the ages of Christianity, people have struggled with God. One believer, Teresa of Avila, once wrote a letter to God in which she told him how difficult her life had become since she had attempted to surrender it fully to Him.

 “If this is how You treat Your friends,” she penned ruefully, “it’s no wonder You have so many enemies.”

So take heart, brother, sister: you can’t wrestle with Someone who isn’t at least touching you.

Dr. Latayne C. Scott is the recipient of Pepperdine University’s Distinguished Christian Service Award for “Creative Christian Writing,” and is Trinity Southwest University’s Author in Residence. Her newest book is Talking with Teens about Sexuality: Critical Conversations about Social Media, Gender Identity, Same-Sex Attraction, Pornography, Purity, Dating, Etc. with Dr. Beth Robinson (Bethany Books.) The author of over two dozen published books, including Passion, Power, Proxy, Release (TSU Press) in which these poems appear, she lives and writes in New Mexico. She maintains two websites: Latayne.com and Representationalresearch.com.

And the Word became flesh and dwelled among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth … From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” (John 1.14, 17-18).

Introduction

I came of age in a fellowship that rarely opened the pages of the first seventy-six percent of the Bible.  Since we did not really read those Scriptures, it never occurred to me to read Jesus and the New Testament in light of those texts. But believers in the first century did not have a New Testament to read the New Testament in light of.  When first Jesus, then Peter, then Paul and John sat down to talk about God’s ways and what God wants, they turned to what we today call the Old Testament.  John wrote his story of Jesus in light of the Hebrew Bible. Because I did not grow up immersed in the same Scriptures as Jesus and the apostles, I sometimes misunderstood what those apostles wrote.

A classic example of missing what was in neon lights is the Prologue to the Gospel of John.  I grew up on teaching that asserted John was making a sharp distinction, a contrast, between the “Old Testament” and the “New Testament,” between “law” and “grace,” between “Judaism” and “Christianity.” Barton Warren Johnson summed it up succinctly in his classic New Testament Commentary, Vol.III-John, “It [OT] was not a system of grace, nor could it make men perfect; in contrast with it the system of grace and truth (see verse 14) were given by Jesus Christ” (p.31).  Or as Ashley S. Johnson wrote that the law was “of a character that held a sword or a menace over the people from the day that they were born until the day they died” (The Two Covenants, p.63). The contrast could not be starker.

What did not occurred to the Johnsons was that the Gospel was actually quoting from the “Old Testament” when it describes Jesus in the words “grace and truth.”  They make two mistakes. They fail to hear John through the Hebrew Scriptures and they limit themselves to the King James Version. The KJV renders 1.17 as “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” Law came by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus. However, the italicized “but” lets the reader know this term does not occur in the Greek text, it is not for the sake of emphasis. The KJV inserts the “but” and creates a contrast that John did not intend. This has been corrected by modern translations where there is simply a semicolon. There is no antithesis in the text as Raymond Brown notes in his Anchor Bible Commentary on John (vol.1, pp.16-17).

Rather, John is operating more on the level of type and anti-type. John is telling his story of Jesus in light of the Scriptures he held to be sacred. And John’s description of Jesus, in neon lights, is one of the most common, and dear to Jews, description of Yahweh found throughout not only the Hebrew Bible but also other literature like the Apocrypha.  Over the years, I have come to call this description “the God Creed” and it is first vocalized by God when God’s glory was revealed to Moses after the horror of the Golden Calf debacle.  The Beloved Disciple is narrating our text using ink from Exodus 33 and 34.

Moses and God’s Glory

Israelites of John’s day were well aware the God of Israel was characterized by the language John uses: grace, truth, glory and dwelling.  The premier exemplar of these themes is the story of the Exodus. Yahweh does battle with the gods of Egypt in order to rescue a group of oppressed aliens from the kingdom of death. Yahweh brings these redeemed slaves through the Red Sea in a stunning act of grace. Yahweh leads these nobodies to a mountain to invite them into a covenant of love (Deuteronomy 7.7, 12), to be God’s bride. Then Yahweh decides to move from the top of the mountain to dwell with the newly covenanted Israelites. Plans for a honeymoon suite are drawn in exquisite detail. While one man, Moses, was receiving these architectural drawings for the dwelling of God, Israel shockingly falls. “They exchanged the glory of God for an image of an ox that eats grass” (Ps 106.20). The covenant of love is seemingly shattered. Yahweh responds as any lover would, God was hurt. The pain of betrayal is among the deepest. That is the first thirty-three chapters of Exodus. In this chapter we are left hanging: will God, in all God’s glory, still dwell with us.

Moses insists no angel will do. The mere presence of an angel will not mark Israel as God’s treasured possession.  No. Instead Moses insists (yes, he insists!) that Yahweh forgive Israel and that God fulfill the goal of the Exodus, that is dwell with them. It is divine dwelling that would be the distinctive mark of the people of Israel (Ex 33.16).

God declares to Moses, “I will do the very thing you ask.” Yahweh has forgiven Israel and God will tabernacle, dwell with, Israel. The glory of the Lord will dwell with Israel. It is at this moment that Moses prays, “Show me your glory” (Ex 33.17).  But God tells Moses that he will make his goodness, the glory, pass before him as he utters his name, but he cannot see his face for Moses would perish (Ex 33.19-23).  When Yahweh’s glory is revealed, the words Moses hears are grace and truth.

“The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
abounding in/full of
hesed and ‘emeth”
(Exodus 34.6)

Moses fell on his face in worship at the revelation of the glory of the Lord. Yahweh graciously renews the covenant (34.10ff). The honeymoon suite is constructed and “the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle” and even “Moses was unable to enter the tent” (Ex 40.34-38). The climax of Exodus is God’s glory tabernacling with Israel. But even Moses could not see the face, the essence, of God.

The God Creed and John

The self-revelation of Yahweh – grace and truth – is all the more astonishing against the backdrop of Israel’s (our) gross infidelity to the God who not only rescued Israel but brought them into the covenant of love. This revelation though, which I was completely unaware of growing up, thunders throughout the biblical story nearly forty times. See my article Exodus 34: The Pulse of the Bible.[1] It appears in the Torah, the Prophets, and the Psalms. To this day the declaration of Yahweh is known as the Thirteen Attributes in Judaism. This is who and what God claims to be.

“The Lord is slow to anger,
and abounding in hesed …” (Num 14.18)

“All the paths of the LORD,
are hesed and ‘emeth” (Ps 25.10)

“God will send forth his
hesed and ‘emeth” (Ps 57.3)

hesed and ‘emeth will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss” (Ps 85.10)

“But you are a God ready to forgive,
gracious and merciful,
slow to anger,
abounding in hesed,
and you did not forsake us” (Neh 9.17)

We can multiply these examples. God’s name, hesed and ‘emethgrace and truth, is God’s glory revealed. Grace and Truth are the central “Old Testament” designations for the God of Israel. John quotes it, he is not contrasting Jesus with it. Rather John is claiming Jesus is it.

Some one might object to Exodus 34.6 being the source of John’s “grace and truth” on the basis that the Septuagint does not use charis (grace) but eleos (mercy).  But the argument is not forceful.  The closer the Greek translation of the Septuagint gets to the time of the first century we find charis indeed as the translation for hesed.  We find this in Esther 2.9 and Sirach 7:33 and 10.17.  In rival Greek translations of the Hebrew Scriptures such as Symmachus and Theodotion hesed is rendered as charis.[2] In his study of this text, New Testament scholar A. T. Hanson concluded that grace and truth is “a perfectly reasonable rendering of the Hebrew phrase” that John likely translated himself directly from Hebrew.  New Testament scholar, F. F. Bruce offers this comment on our text,

“These last words spell out the goodness which is God’s surpassing glory. But the Greek words of John 1:14, translated ‘full of grace (charis) and truth’ (aletheia), are readily recognizable as a rendering of the last phrase of Ex. 34:6, ‘abounding in steadfast love (Heb, hesed) and faithfulness’ (Heb, ‘emeh). The glory seen in the incarnate Word was the glory revealed to Moses when the name of Yahweh was sounded in his ears.”[3]

Moses Heard, We Have Seen

What Moses experienced on Mount Sinai was astounding. John does not in any way diminish what happened there. It was the revelation of God in glory, a glory that was to intense for even Moses. John is not anti-Moses, not even a little. John would even claim later that we will sing the Song of Moses and the Lamb in eternity (Revelation 15.3). What, then, is John doing?

Moses did experience a theophany of the God of Israel. But what he experienced was not simply a matter of seeing God’s beauty or God’s glory. What Moses heard was a description not of what God looks like but of who God is. This vocalization of the name – the glory – of God so overwhelmed Moses that he fell to his face in worship (Ex 34.8). John declares that the words Moses heard on the mountain, we have seen. The word spoken to Moses has become flesh and now tabernacles with us. Jesus is the grace and truth, the word, spoken to Moses. Jesus is Exodus 34.6 in three-dimensional space and time. Jesus is the incarnation of the revelation of God’s glory to Moses.

John tells his story of Jesus not as the repudiation of the Exodus but as the pinnacle of it. The goal of Exodus is reached in the tabernacling of grace and truth, the very glory of God, in a Jewish man from Nazareth. As Moses bowed before the glory of the Lord in worship, John’s Gospel will suggest we do too.

What a fresh look the New Testament takes when we read it through the lens of the Scriptures used by the first followers of the Messiah, we call them the “Old Testament.” I am glad I discovered the God Creed (Ex 34.6) many years ago, now I am delighted to see how John uses it to tell the story of the King of Kings.[4]


[1] See the outstanding and very accessible work by Harold Shank, Listening to His Heartbeat (Joplin, MO: College Press, 2009), 200-203.

[2] See the articles by J. A. Montgomery, ‘Hebrew Hesed and Greek Charis,” Harvard Theological Review 32 (1939), 97-107; A.T. Hanson, “John I.14-18 and Exodus XXXIV,” New Testament Studies 23 (1976), 90-101. John Ronning has argued that the Jewish Targums actually make John’s use of Exodus 34.6 even more conclusive, The Jewish Targums and John’s Logos Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 62-69.

[3] F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), p. 42.

[4] The literature on Exodus 34.6 and John is extensive. In addition to sources already mentioned see as examples: Lester J. Kuyper, “Grace and Truth: An Old Testament Description of God, and its Use in the Johannine Gospel,” Interpretation 18 (1964), 3-19; Dirk G. van der Merwe, “Old Testament Spirituality in the Gospel of John,” Verbum et Ecclesia 35 (2014), 1-9; H. Mowley, “John 1.14-18 in the Light of Exodus 33.7-34.35,” Expository Times 95 (1984), 135-137.  An excellent book length study is Michael P. Knowles, The Unfolding Mystery of the Divine Name: The God of Sinai in our Midst (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012).

When we hear of “priests,” we typically bring to mind the image of a religious figure: most often that of a Jewish priest, oft encountered in our biblical studies, or a Catholic priest, with whom most are at least somewhat familiar. Although, in general, these individuals are viewed with a certain amount of respect for their lives of service to God and mankind, they are also quite often viewed with disdain for the many abuses that have arisen among the priesthood (whether in ancient Judaism or over the centuries in Catholicism). William Cowper (1731-1800), one of the most popular English poets of his day, once opined that “a priest is a piece of mere church furniture at best.” Not a ringing endorsement, to say the least. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), an American essayist, lecturer, and poet, was even more disparaging: “Once we had wooden chalices and golden priests, now we have golden chalices and wooden priests.” Let’s face it: some of the negative criticisms over the centuries of “the clergy caste” are quite valid, for these religious leaders have not always been paragons of virtue, or living examples of Christlikeness, or devout ambassadors of God’s love, mercy and grace.

My focus in this article, however, is not on priests or the priesthood as it is usually envisioned (whether Jewish or Catholic). Rather, I want to direct our thoughts to a concept not often promoted by the established clergy (regardless of religious persuasion): the priesthood of ALL believers! In this present dispensation of grace, every true believer is regarded by the Lord as a priest engaged in priestly service. And yes, that includes women! There are no exclusions based on gender, race, nationality, or social standing. If you are saved by grace through faith, if you are “in Christ Jesus,” you are a priest in God’s sight. You are a fully functioning member of His priesthood, and you are called to serve Him and others in that capacity. Isaiah prophesied about “the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61:2) which would come upon the people of God (a prophecy with more than a single and/or immediate fulfillment, but one that would be applicable to both present and yet-to-come dispensations), saying, “You will be called priests of the Lord, you will be named ministers of our God” (vs. 6a). Although this certainly had meaning and application for the ancient Jews, it also looked to the era of the new covenant. “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9). “You, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (vs. 5). For the Lord Jesus “has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve His God and Father” (Revelation 1:6, NIV).

As for the all-inclusiveness of these called-ones in the new dispensation, the prophet Joel gave us a glimpse: “I will pour out My Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. On my servants, both men and women, I will pour out My Spirit in those days” (Joel 2:28-29). Peter declares to the crowds on the day of Pentecost that this prophecy was being fulfilled in their presence, saying that what they were witnessing “is what was spoken by the prophet Joel” (Acts 2:16). “The time of the new order” (Hebrews 9:10b) had arrived; it was a time of great change. As Jesus declared to the Samaritan woman, “The time is coming – indeed it’s here now – when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship Him that way” (John 4:23, NLT). Yes, it is a new day; things have forever changed, and changed dramatically! In this new order we who are in Christ are ALL priests before our God, performing priestly service. The rigid religious restrictions and exclusions of the past are gone; the era of a new sanctuary and a new priesthood has arrived (Hebrews 9:1-10)! The way into the very presence of God by ALL believers, entering through the veil as priests serving before God under our great High Priest Jesus Christ, has been opened unto us (Hebrews 10:19f). We are indeed a chosen and blessed people; a royal priesthood; freed from bondage to oppressive law; living in the freedom of God’s grace.

As the people of Israel made their escape from their centuries of bondage in the land of Egypt, they were led to Mount Sinai. It was here that the Lord God entered into a gracious covenant with the Israelites. “You shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6). Although the people were initially thrilled with this prospect, their history would be one of repeated detours from this “highway of holiness” laid out before them. By these deviations from God’s will for them, the people of Israel would fail to rise to the regal reality to which their God had called them. Although there were a number of bright moments, spiritually speaking, in their long history as a nation, it would not be until the era of the new covenant that God’s redeemed ones would truly become, in the way anticipated by the Lord, “a kingdom of priests.” In Revelation 5:9-10 we find the four living creatures and the 24 elders singing a new song, declaring of the Lamb of God, “Worthy art Thou to take the scroll, and to break its seals; for Thou wast slain, and didst purchase for God with Thy blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. And Thou hast made them to be a kingdom of priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.” It would be a kingdom “not of this world” (John 18:36), Jesus told Pilate, but a spiritual kingdom in which the Spirit of God would dwell within His subjects: thus, while living in this world, we would nevertheless not be of this world.

In the new dispensation there would be no need for a literal physical structure (a temple) in which religious, ceremonial acts would be performed, for God would now dwell within the sanctuary of our hearts. There would be no further need for a priesthood (after the pattern of the Levitical priesthood who ministered in the Jewish temple), for every person who was in Christ Jesus would be a priest performing priestly duties. God’s temple is now the church, and the sanctuary (the “naos“) is our hearts. “Do you not know that you are a temple (literally: a “naos” = sanctuary) of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16, c.f., 1 Corinthians 6:19). The “temple” of this new dispensation of grace is not a building made by human hands, but a spiritual edifice (the church) made up of living stones (i.e., individual believers). We are the household of God our Father, “having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple (literally: “naos” = a sanctuary) in the Lord; in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:19-22). “You also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5), for “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (vs. 9). Yes, our Lord Jesus Christ “has made us a kingdom, priests to His God and Father” (Revelation 1:6). “What Israel was to be, Christ made us to be” [Dr. R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John’s Revelation, p. 46].

No longer is the Lord’s priesthood limited to a specific people (the Jews), and a specific tribe (the Levites), and a specific gender (males only). The priesthood of God under His new covenant is open to all who are indwelt by His Spirit. Men and women, Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, rich and poor — ALL may serve Him within this priesthood of all believers. “Thus, the Church is an unlimited priesthood to offer upon the altar of the consecrated, dedicated heart of the believer spiritual sacrifices, not animal sacrifices as in the case of the Levitical priests, but the activities of the human spirit of man energized by the Holy Spirit” [Dr. Kenneth S. Wuest, Wuest’s Word Studies from the Greek New Testament, vol. 2, p. 53]. This priesthood of all believers is “one of the basic premises of the New Covenant: He invites all of us to be members of His royal priesthood; all of us have been called to ministry; all of us have both the joy and the responsibility of serving Christ and each other” [Dr. Paul Cedar, The Communicator’s Commentary: 1 & 2 Peter, p. 143]. He is King of a kingdom “that transcends all geographical borders or political differences” [ibid], one in which we reign with Him by virtue of being in Him, “seated with Him in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 2:6; c.f., 2 Timothy 2:12). Further, we are a kingdom of priests, a priesthood that transcends both nationality and gender. We are truly, in every sense of the word, a universal church of our Lord Jesus Christ: all are welcome; all may serve in whatever capacity God has called them and equipped them! “The distinction of priests and people, nearer and more remote from God, shall cease” [Drs. Jamieson, Fausset & Brown, Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, p. 1528]. “All believers alike, and not merely ministers, are now the dwelling of God and priests unto God” [ibid, p. 1471]. “Each member of Christ shares in His eternal priesthood” [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 22, p. 4]. “Natural descent and all other differences are obliterated” [Dr. R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistles of St. Peter, p. 99].

“The whole body of Christians is in fact a priesthood. Everyone is engaged in offering acceptable sacrifice to God. The business is not entrusted to a particular class to be known as priests; there is not a particular portion to whom the name is to be especially given; but every Christian is in fact a priest and is engaged in offering an acceptable sacrifice to God. … The term ‘priest’ is applicable to all Christians alike” [Dr. Albert Barnes, Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. “Collectively,” writes Homer Hailey, “the redeemed are a kingdom; individually, they are priests” [Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary, p. 101]. Within this new covenant kingdom, brought into existence by the Messiah, we find some significant changes from the kingdom of the old covenant, but one of the most prominent, and to some: problematic, is the fact that ALL disciples are priests before God. Indeed, efforts have been made throughout the history of Christendom to exclude certain disciples from realizing this new reality. “This truth of the ‘priesthood of all believers,’ however, was rediscovered and restressed during the Reformation” [The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 12, p. 230]. Offering up sacrifices unto the Lord God was no longer restricted to the Levites, nor even to male “priests” alone (as seen in some “high church” denominations). “Every Christian can offer up spiritual sacrifices” [Dr. B.W. Johnson, The People’s New Testament with Explanatory Notes, p. 359]. “Under the law of Moses, the priests constituted a special class empowered to officiate in worship; inasmuch as all Christians are authorized to engage in the worship of God, all Christians are priests, and thus together constitute a priesthood of believers. … Such are a priesthood, because empowered to officiate in worship; and the priesthood is a ‘royal’ one because of its relationship to the King” [Guy N. Woods, A Commentary on the NT Epistles of Peter, p. 58, 63].

Burton Coffman, in his Commentary on Revelation, noted that “Christ has made us a kingdom, each member of which is a priest unto God. This is not some far-off thing that will happen in some so-called millennium; it is the status of things now in Christ’s church” [p. 23]. The kingdom of our God and Father — His forever Family; His blood-bought Church universal — is made up of believers who are also commissioned as priests to offer up sacrifices unto Him. And yes, this transcends race, culture, nationality, and even gender! “Every stone – son and daughter – being a spiritual sacrificer or priest, all offer up praise and thanksgiving to God through Christ; and such sacrifices, being offered up in the name and through the merit of His Son, are all acceptable in His sight” [Adam Clarke, Clarke’s Commentary, vol. 6, p. 851]. Where too many get “hung up” here is in their view that our priestly functions occur primarily within a church building in an official “worship service” during which we perform regulated “acts of worship.” And of course: No Women Allowed!! The phrase “worship service,” however, NEVER appears in the Bible …not even one time!! We have created a monster by taking a beautiful spiritual relationship with our Father and turning it into a rigid, regulated religion. By organizing and institutionalizing this relationship we have lost sight of the Father’s universal spiritual Family, and all we are left with is a host of warring religious factions, sects, and denominations (and, yes, that includes my own denomination: Churches of Christ = one of a number of warring wings of the Stone-Campbell Movement). Frankly, it is shameful what has happened in Christendom over the centuries, which is why many of us are seeking to awaken our wayward brethren and bring about a much-needed spiritual reformation and transformation.

God is little concerned with what happens within our buildings during a “worship service.” Those times are for our own edification and encouragement, primarily. Where you and I truly serve as new covenant priests is in our daily lives as we offer up the sacrifice of Jesus-focused, grace-centered, love-motivated lives in service to others (to His glory). “I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and well-pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2). Did you notice that Paul spoke of our priestly “service of worship,” NOT of our partisan “worship services”? We, as kingdom priests under the new covenant, no longer offer ceremonial and/or bloody sacrifices in a physical structure (temple), but rather spiritual sacrifices motivated by the Spirit indwelling God’s people: the new “naos” (sanctuary) of God. We are not only the “temple/sanctuary” … we are not only the “priesthood” … we are also in an incredibly special way the “sacrifice” being offered. “Present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice” (Romans 12:1). John Calvin (1509-1564) wrote, “Among spiritual sacrifices the first place belongs to the general oblation of ourselves, for never can we offer anything to God until we have offered ourselves (2 Corinthians 8:5) in sacrifice to Him. There follow afterwards prayers, giving of thanks, alms-deeds, and all exercises of piety.” “Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name. And do not neglect doing good and sharing; for with such sacrifices God is pleased” (Hebrews 13:15-16). Our spiritual sacrifices are “not actual ceremonial observances,” but are rather exemplified in our daily “pattern of social conduct” [Dr. J. Ramsey Michaels, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 49, p. 101].

Little wonder, then, that James, the brother of our Lord Jesus, observed, “This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27). This prompted John Wesley (1703-1791), in speaking of our duty as priests of God, to say, “You are to offer up your souls and bodies, with all your thoughts, words, and actions, as spiritual sacrifices to God” [Explanatory Notes on the Whole Bible, e-Sword]. Brethren, let’s cease the endless sectarian strife over what we may or may not do in a church building during a “worship service.” We have divided over such nonsense long enough. Let us rather focus on our “spiritual service of worship,” and, as priests of God, let us offer up ourselves in daily godly living as ambassadors of His grace and representatives of His love. In this way we fulfill our commission as a kingdom of priests.

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I have come to believe more and more in the importance, even essentiality of the priesthood of all believers. We often operate like we have a special class of priests. We do that because we adopted a business model rather than a spiritual model and the Catholic influence on our governance and church structures still hovers over our assemblies.

This is killing us.

It is killing us by stifling the use of gifts of the whole body.

It is killing us by communicating that only special people do special things.

It is killing us because only 10% of our body is functional. Tell me how a body can function at 10% and be healthy?

It is killing us because it is unbiblical.

We must get back to equipping and encouraging everyday people to use their gifts. Ministers must become equippers, coaches and encouragers.

This doesn’t mean all the ministers need to be out of a job – we just need to prayerfully rethink how we deploy our staff to make the most kingdom impact.

Welcome to May and a conversation on the priesthood of all believers! This conversation must move from anti-denominational rhetoric to actual practice.