Membership: Hebrews 10.19-25

The whole idea of membership is in trouble. For one thing, we aren’t “joiners” like we used to be in the days of our grandparents. Compare our grandparents with the Millennial generation—who soon will be just about everybody—and the younger group comes off looking just about post-institutional.

Then, we have the added burden of competing with lots of negative images. Ask around to find out what people really think about local church membership and you’ll likely get descriptions of an inner ring of especially holy people … an exclusive club with privileges … a business with a bottom line, competing for limited resources … or, a group of people who gather to take care of the business operations of the church. Hardly anything to aspire to.

What is local church membership, anyway? 

The biblical doctrine of church membership is an especially interesting one, in that we don’t have a passage or verse that says, “This is what membership is, and here’s how to do it in the 21st century.” It is, rather, like the doctrine of the Trinity—not found in chapter and verse, but found through the Scriptures in numerous pictures of God interacting as a unity and in His “Three-ness”. Take away this doctrine, and the whole system comes apart.

So it is with the Bible’s teaching on church membership. It comes to us in pictures of groups of God’s people in particular places committing to meet together under the Lordship of Christ. In Acts 2, we see local church life—teaching, fellowshipping, breaking bread and praying. In Philippians 3, there’s the picture of heavenly citizenship: “… our citizenship is in heaven, and we await a Savior from there.” First Timothy 5 gives us a picture of family: Treat “… older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity”. First Peter 5 describes the roll of appointed pastor-elders who lead particular groups of people. Matthew 18 describes the work of the local church in disciplining—excluding from membership a professing brother who doesn’t properly represent Jesus: “… whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”.

My recent favorite, among these pictures, is Hebrews 10.19-25. We often hear this passage preached to embolden us to come to God shamelessly and with confidence, as individuals. Less often, we hear it preached to describe what local church life should look like.

Hebrews 10.19-25 describes two things that are true: We have confidence to go to God (:19-20), and we have someone to take us to God (:21). All of this is set against the Day of Atonement we read about in Leviticus 16. The priest of the Old Testament would make himself ready for God’s presence through washings and sacrifices. He’d carry the blood of sacrifices through the curtain separating God from everyone else. And, he’d enter God’s presence with fear and trembling, lest his sacrifice be found wanting.

Ah, but here’s the good news! We go to God through the very body and blood of Jesus. And, He’s perfect! And, while the priest would tremble to enter God’s house, we’re ushered into God’s house by the Son Himself, who transforms us (to mix the image) into the very house of God: “… Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope” (3.6, ESV).

In light of this confidence, we have some things we need to do with other believers in our local fellowships. Notice how, in verses 22-25, the commands grow more specific, more relational, more corporate, and more local. These are local church responses describing what membership looks like.

We’re to draw near to God (:22). We do this in full assurance of faith, consciences cleaned, bodies set aside for God’s purposes. The image here is, likely, that of baptism. It reminds us that our churches should be places where we come without shame. Whatever pathway God has taken to bring us to Himself, we’re clean. “Past is prologue,” as Shakespeare wrote. The church is not a place for shaming. Draw near to God …

We hang on to the Gospel (:23). The local church is the place where we preach the Gospel to each other. It’s not the place where we perfect ourselves, but the place where we hang on to Jesus. And, not only is the Gospel powerful, but it includes all of life. Marriage in trouble? Struggle raising kids? Tempted to sin? Run toward the church where the Gospel is preached. Hang on to the Gospel …

We’re to motivate each other (:24). “Stir one another up” (ESV). We get our word “paroxysm” from the word behind this expression. Think: hydrogen peroxide, bubbling away. We’re to have a godly agenda for each other. Motivate each other …

We’re to meet regularly (:25), ” … not neglecting to meet together as some are in the habit of doing.” While the original readership was having trouble breaking from the synagogue, our modern equivalent is the family who can’t decide on Saturday night whether they’ll come to God with others the next morning. Healthy church partners make the gathering of God’s people a commitment. Meet regularly …

And, we’re to encourage each other till Christ comes (:25). The word “encourage” will be variously translated as urge, exhort, implore, summon, or comfort. Push each other toward the prize, till Christ returns. The local church is the home field of the Christian life. It’s where we remind each other of our victory through Christ and come to God … together.

Healthy church members commit to come to God with others in the local church.  


Find someone to talk to and work through the following questions of local church membership.

What is your picture of church membership? Negative? … Positive? … Necessary? Necessary, but for what? 

If the thought of joining a local church is negative for you, what objections do you have? 

Have you ever thought of Hebrews 10.19-25 as describing the life that we have in Christ together? How does this passage help you think about church membership? 

Have you ever heard a sermon on the need to join a church in membership? How has considering this passage in Hebrews changed your thoughts about what joining a church might look like for you? 




Baptism: Romans 6.3-4

This week at Woodland we return to our study of healthy church partners (members, that is). Since the last two weeks were all about making much of Jesus as we celebrated our participation in His death, burial and resurrection, this Sunday’s mark of the healthy church member is an appropriate follow-up to Easter.

We’ve been experiencing storms in the Northwoods. With each gusty mix of wind and rain I’ve lost another half-dozen spruce trees. In our old life, that would have been tragic. Now, we have hundred, maybe thousands, to spare. So, no real damage. An unearthed tree is a thing of wonder. There’s the trunk and branches we’ve always seen. But then, there’s the sub-terrainian tangle of roots and earthen matter formerly concealed. That  much of the tree has always been below the surface is a great discovery after a storm.

This week we’re thinking about baptism and the church partner: the healthy church partner makes the invisible work of God visible through baptism. In our understanding at Woodland, baptism functions, along with the Lord’s Table, as an ordinance. Together, they make visible the invisible work of God in the one who has trusted Jesus by faith. The spirit of the thing is that, soon after trusting Christ, the new believer makes a living picture of the Gospel through baptism, then reaffirms her participation with Christ at the Table throughout her life. It’s like a wedding that signifies the beginning of a marriage, but then an anniversary that reaffirms the ongoing permanence of the marriage as long as the marriage covenant lasts. Both ordinances serve to reveal the work of God that—like unseen roots connecting a great tree to the earth—connect the believer to God, through participation with Christ.

No passages makes this more clear than Romans 6.1-11. While the passage comes on the heals of Paul’s manifesto of justification by faith (3.21-5.21) and serves to demonstrate how the mastery of Christ leaves the believer forever changed in his self-estimation, it’s Paul’s picture of water baptism (verses 3-4) that illustrates all God has done in Christ.

Through faith (pictured by baptism) we participate in Christ’s death (verse 3). Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? There’s grammatical subtleties in these verses. Prepositions in the accusative case indicate movement: “into Christ” … “into his death”. Such movement indicates that, through faith, we’ve moved into the reign, the realm, the sphere where Christ is our representative. Then, there’s the “suv” prefixes attached to many of the verbs, which even a casual glance at the passage in the Greek New Testament makes obvious. The preposition means, simply, “with,” but, attached to each of the verbs, broadcasts our (with)burial, (with)uniting, (with) crucifixion and (with) living with Christ. All this brought about by faith.

While the thought of our participation in Christ’s death, burial and resurrection thousands of years before our birth might cause us to tilt our heads a bit in puzzlement, we’re not completely unfamiliar with the idea representation. We send representatives to our nations capitol to serve us in government. And, while we might find ourselves in the minority in voting and at odds with the final decisions of our lawmakers, it’s beyond dispute that we’re vicariously present in the halls of congress.

So it was at the cross. Credo-baptism (that is, “believers’ baptism”) serves especially to make a visible picture of our representation by Christ. We’re lowered into the water as Christ was lowered into the stormy waters of God’s wrath. (Think: Genesis 6-7, or Peter’s picture of Noah above the waters of wrath, 1 Peter 3.21). Ah, but here is the good news! Instead, of tasting God’s wrath, we don’t remain in God’s judgment …

Through faith we participate in Christ’ resurrection (:4). We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. Here again, in rising from the waters, baptism pictures our forgiveness for sins, in Christ (Col 2.11-13). And, as we rise, the cleansing, renewing work of the Spirit likewise is made visible (Titus 3.5).

The remainder of our passage serves to show that through faith we participate in Christ’s life (:5-11). We don’t have to sin anymore (:6). Just as a person who has died is finished doing things in the body that now lies in the casket, so we are done doing things in that old person who has died with Christ. Baptism, then, pictures the destruction of sin in the life of the believer. Likewise, we don’t have to go down to death anymore. The death Jesus died, he died once for all (1 Pet 3.18). Now, our inner-persons rest eternally with Christ.

All of this results in a new self-estimate (:11). Following Christ, not sin, is our new way of life, pictured in baptism.

A few implications follow form the powerful, multi-faceted picture of baptism. First, Baptism is really about Christ’s work, not us. And, while we might take joy in a new believer’s “decision” for Christ, that faith response is in response to something Jesus has done. It’s easy to see why the church, since ancient times, has celebrated its baptisms on Easter Sunday, together with its observance of the Lord’s work.

Second, the symbolism of water baptism reminds us that we don’t live the Christian life apart from Jesus. Jesus himself was baptized in preparation for his identification with us. It was at this identification with sinners that the three Persons of the Godhead met to rejoice. The Spirit descended as a dove and the Father applauded the Son: This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased (Matt 3.17; Mk 1.11).

The healthy church partner, then, makes the invisible work of God visible by taking baptism seriously. 

Find a friend and answer a few questions about this mark of the healthy church partner:

How has our brief look at Romans 6.1-11 (verses 3-4 especially) changed your thinking about the significant of baptism? 

What questions do you have, perhaps coming form your own religious upbringing or family background, about baptism? 

Why is it important to remember that baptism is a picture of God’s work and not the means of salvation itself? 

What thoughts do you have about the way we should speak to our children about baptism? 


The Christ We Serve: Matthew 28.1-10; 16-20

Have you ever had a completely inadequate mental picture of something?

In my formative years my father believed with all his heart that he was from the Pacific Northwest. During these years he would take us on long family vacations across the western United States. On one of these trips I was told we would visit Tuscan, Arizona. And, somehow, I got it in my child mind that Tuscan, Arizona was a person—likely a mature woman with a tall, bouffant hairdo who lived in a dark, air-conditioned house with lots of colored glass and things children couldn’t touch. So, there we were, thundering across the desert on our way to see “Mrs. Arizona”.

Inadequate mental pictures are not consequential when a child. But, when we come to Christ, our picture of the kind of person he is today, right now, is very consequential. And, there’s danger in coming up with the wrong image. Ask your man on the street to describe his mental picture of the risen Christ, and you might get a description of anything from a Renaissance Christ surrounded with chubby, naked angels to a “buddy” Jesus who might hang with you, but who can’t do much to change your life, to a picture of Christ on the cross, though he isn’t anymore.

What is your mental picture of the Christ you serve?

When we turn to Matthew’s account of the resurrection, Jesus’ followers must get their minds around the Christ they’ll now serve. The Christ we now serve is powerful (:1-7). 

In the setting to the account Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary”, the wife of Clopas and likely Jesus’ aunt, go to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. Before they arrive (the grammar suggests) there’s an earthquake. Since the New Testament records such quakes at Jesus’ death and at his future return, something enormous has taken place. They arrive to find an angel: … his appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow (:3). The unbelieving guards seize up at the display of power: … for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men (:4). The angel instructs the women on how to respond to the power: … Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified … Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead … he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him (:5-7).

Jesus will demonstrate his power by doing what he promised (26.32). His plans will go forward, unabated. And, for all the display of power in Matthew’s account, Jesus has not yet appeared in the story! How awesome will be the power when he enters the account, we believe.

Does our mental picture of the Christ we serve include his power? And indeed, he is powerful, we must conclude. He’s powerful when we’re permitted to suffer hardship … he’s powerful. He’s powerful when we lack the will for obedience … he’s powerful. He’s powerful when we need strength to persevere … he’s powerful. And yet, there’s danger in seeing Jesus as only powerful.

The Christ we serve is also compassionate (:8-10). The women obey the angel and meet Jesus in the act of their obedience. Greetings! Jesus says (literally, “rejoice”). And, unlike the angel, Jesus permits the women to worship him. And, if it weren’t for his power, we wouldn’t recognize his compassion. Then Jesus repeats the command of the angel, Don’t be afraid … go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me (:10). The disciples had all abandoned him, but Jesus speaks of them with compassion. Still, if they want to see him, they’ll likewise have to exercise belief.

And we ask, does our mental picture of the Christ we serve include his compassion? And, he is compassionate. He’s compassionate when we feel crushed by our sins, and so come to him for the thousandth time in confession … he’s compassionate. He’s compassionate when we pray for a lost or rebellious family member … he’s compassionate. He’s compassionate when we are disappointed in life, and we simply want to be with him … he’s compassionate. And yet, there’s more to the Christ we serve than his compassion.

The Christ we serve is present with his church (:16-20). The disciples do obey, and they meet Jesus in Galilee. Some doubt, perhaps more from hesitation than from unbelief. Who wouldn’t? Their new understanding of the risen Christ had to be refined and completed. Jesus instructs them: All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me (:18). He tells them what to do: Go therefore and make disciples … (:19) He tells them how to do it: … baptizing them … teaching them (:19b-20). And then, perhaps the greatest news of all! He tells them that he will be present with his church, And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age (:20b).

Notice how Matthew ends his account, not by focusing on the disciples’ task, but by focusing on Jesus’ attributes. And notice how Matthew forms a link back to the beginning of his gospel. Way back in 1:23, Matthew introduced Jesus, Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us). 

Does your mental picture of the Christ you serve include his presence with the church? The Christ we serve is present with his church. He’s present when we come together on Sunday mornings to open his Word … he’s present. He’s present when one in our churches is hurting immensely … he’s present. He’s present when we surround someone who has fallen into sin and needs to be restored … he’s present.

The Christ we serve is powerful, compassion and present with his church. 

We all start out with an inadequate picture of Christ. At first, we don’t know him at all. The solution for us is to recognize that we’ve missed the mark and run from him all our lives. Then, we understand that Jesus came for us, and those like us, to take our rebellion on himself and die, conquering sin and death. And then, we trust him by faith, transferring the dependence of our lives from ourselves to him. Only then do we begin to have an accurate picture of the Christ we serve.

This Easter we’ll gather. “Christ is risen!” someone will say. And then, we’ll respond, “He’s powerful. He’s compassionate. He’s present with his church. And, he is risen indeed!”


Forsaken: Mark 15.34

Some years ago, when returning to the States from some ministry training, Amanda and I shared an airplane aisle with a young, Indonesian software engineer named Bashir. Sharp, clean-cut, intelligent, Bashir turned out to be a devout Muslim and a ready apologist for Islam. Our own description of our work prompted lively discussion about God. We had a wonderful time! But, at each mention of the Christian Gospel, we’d smack an invisible wall: “God cannot sacrifice His majesty to become a man,” Bashir would repeat, endlessly. And so we reached our cordial impasse. We exchanged some emails later, but that was pretty much much that.

Looking back in reflection, I applaud Bashir for his conviction that God is bound by His own nature. But, unlike Bashir, my Christian understanding of God’s Person(s) allows me to approach God through Christ as One who is relational, personal, knowable; not distant, wholly other, or entirely transcendent.

Tonight at Woodland, we meet for Good Friday. We’ll meet to prepare for Sunday and will enrich our understanding of the death of Christ. In meeting, we’ll consider that transaction that took place between the Father and the Son at the cross that reflects the dynamic relationship between the Persons of the Godhead as—for one enormous, eternally weighted moment—the Father forsook the Son in our behalf. We’ll consider Mark 15.34, one of Christ’s Seven Last Words from the cross. My, God, my God, why have you forsaken me? 

This Word has troubled many. Jesus appears confused, and it’s understandable how liberal scholars have pointed to Jesus’ questioning as showing that Jesus, in His humanity, lost control, that He was a victim. We don’t believe this. And, let’s consider why by looking at the Word in its parts.

My God, my God … We’re given Jesus’ address to the Father by way of translation from the original, Eloi, Eloi. Here we remember that the New Testament comes to us through the Greek language, the cultural language of the eastern Roman Empire. But, Jesus and His Palestinian Jewish contemporaries spoke Aramaic, and sometimes the original soaks through. The Eloi of this verse finds its Hebrew equivalent in the Hebrew term Elohim, the term referring to God in His power and majesty.

Catch the backdrop here. Jesus is dying in the world his Father created by him, through him, for him. All this takes place against the backdrop of the eternal relationship of the Father and the Son. Jesus has prayed (John 17.24), Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, be with me where I am, so that they may see my glory which you have given me before the foundation of the world. 

It’s not that the cross is unexpected by Jesus. It’s that the cross is, so to speak, profoundly wrong!

My God, my God, Why … Here, we note that Jesus, far from actually asking a question, is actually quoting Psalm 22.1. That psalm takes the form of a lament. And, like a Shakespearean sonnet that has a certain rhythm and rhyme scheme, the Hebrew lament has a required shape that includes: a cry for help, a formal complaint, a confession of trust, a formal petition, a motivational element, a curse on enemies and concluding praise.

When Jesus quotes the cry for help from Psalm 22, he is referencing the psalm in its entirety. The psalm ends, amidst other declarations of triumph: … before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, even the one who could not keep himself alive. Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn that he has done it. 

In this Word from the cross, Jesus is identifying with those He came to save. This is not, in very fact, a question but a declaration of triumph!

And yet, there is real anguish at the cross. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Even more than unsurpassed physical anguish, there is unparalleled spiritual anguish as the wrath of the Father falls on the Son bringing about separation.

The forsakenness language describes this separation. Now, we find ourselves in the language of the Day of Atonement, originating in Leviticus 16. On that high day of Israel’s sacrificial year, the high priest entered the most holy place. He entered the presence of God to open the holy place, to bring cleansing and to provide final purification for any sins yet uncovered by sacrifice. As part of the sacrifice a “scapegoat” would be banished to carry the sins of the people outside the camp. To be “forsaken” is to be as the scapegoat who carried the sins of the people outside the camp. He made him who had no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him (2 Corinthians 5.21). This is Jesus’ work for us. As the goat identified with the people of Israel in their sin, so Jesus identifies with us at the cross. Forsaken!

What do we make of this? We see in this Last Word from the cross that Jesus laments his rejection by the Father in order to identify with those he had come to save.

It’s all horrific! And, by any account but God’s, wrong! But it’s the sacrifice God, in the Person of Jesus, could and did make for us … Praise Him! And, when we consider this Word of Christ, we come to God as One who is not unloving, distant, weak or small. We prepare ourselves for Sunday by enriching our understanding of the death of Christ when we will say, “He is risen! … He is risen, indeed!”