Friday, August 29, 2008

Church signs

by John D Ramsey

Today, as I was driving to work I passed a church on the highway, and I smiled when I read their sign, “I AM WHO I AM.” This was God’s answer to Moses’ question, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” Exodus 3:13 (NIV) I smiled because it is a message that people need to hear and it is simple enough to fit on a sign.

I am not a big fan of church signs. Some church signs attempt to be cute; others manage to be funny without trying. Some signs are heretical. I have never attended a church because of a sign, but I have known to stay away because of them.

I once sent my mother a mock photograph of a church sign from in which I had misspelled a couple words. She was mortified. She begged me to tell her the location of the church so she could phone them and insist that they correct their signage. I had to let her off the hook. Of course, the church sign generator imprints their URL on every photo, so she had enough information to detect the hoax.

I dislike church signs' limited space. Is it possible to convey the whole story when there is much to tell? I suppose the psychology of church signs appeals to human curiosity. Perhaps they cause some people to inquire for more information.

Faith is not a slogan, yet God’s truths are simultaneously complex and simple. While they are complex enough that men can spend their lives pondering God’s mysteries, they are also simple enough that a child can grasp them. Perhaps their simplicity is sublime. Perhaps I should rethink my prejudice against church signs. Today, I was encouraged to see the quote from Exodus 3 because it addressed an issue that has been on my mind.

In creation, God made man in His image, and since the fall of man, mankind has attempted to redefine God into the image of His creation. Yet God reminds us, “I AM WHO I AM.”

In the bawdy movie, “Talladega Nights, The Ballad of Ricky Bobby”, Will Farrell prays to “Dear Eight Pound, Six Ounce, Newborn Baby Jesus . . .” While Farrell’s portrayal is blasphemous, he is not too far beyond what Christians do every day when we delicately redefine who Jesus is.

The book of Judges devotes two of its twenty-one chapters to an account that illustrates man’s confusion about who God is. Before we glance at Judges, let us recall just two of the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20.
  • You shall not make for yourself an idol . . .
  • You shall not steal.
With these two commandments in mind, read the following few verses from Judges 17 and make your own judgment.

Now a man named Micah from the hill country of Ephraim said to his mother, “The eleven hundred shekels of silver that were taken from you and about which I heard you utter a curse—I have that silver with me; I took it.”

Then his mother said, “The LORD bless you, my son!”

When he returned the eleven hundred shekels of silver to his mother, she said, “I solemnly consecrate my silver to the LORD for my son to make a carved image and a cast idol. I will give it back to you.”

So he returned the silver to his mother, and she took two hundred shekels of silver and gave them to a silversmith, who made them into the image and the idol. And they were put in Micah's house.

Judges 17:1-4 (NIV)

Micah later hired a Levite to be a priest in his idolatrous shrine even though priests were to serve only at the Tabernacle or temple and only Levites descending from Aaron were entitled to be priests. Later raiders from the tribe of Dan stole both Micah’s priest and his idols. Micah objected, but he was outnumbered and he would not die for the sake of his idol. The tribe of Dan then continued to worship Micah’s idol until the time of the Babylonian captivity. Coincidentally, the tribe of Dan is excluded from the 144,000 from the twelve tribes Israel mentioned in Revelation 7. The tribe of Joseph (Manasseh was Joseph’s son) has a double portion of the total. I state this as correlation. If you can prove or disprove causation, please leave a comment.

I am confident that Micah and his mother rationalized their idols. Perhaps they thought the ban on idols was culturally relevant only to previous generations. Perhaps they did not consider Micah’s idol as equivalent the Baals that the pagans worshipped. Obviously, they thought that they had license to worship God as they saw fit without regard to God’s commands. Micah and his mother's idolatry became a stumbling block to countless other people. This is a warning that we should be cautious. God is who he is.

When I was a child, I remember receiving Sunday School literature that portrayed Jesus as a white man. When Lisa and I were first married, Lisa’s grandmother would not smoke in front of me because she thought that with my long bangs and my blue eyes, I looked like Jesus. Evidently, she had seen Sunday School literature similar to what I had known.

My parents once knew graphic artists who had been missionaries in Africa. Their artwork portrayed Jesus as a black man. When Lisa and I travelled to Mexico, we toured several churches that displayed wax or plaster sculptures portraying Jesus as a dead man. At Christmas, we display crèches portraying Jesus as a baby.

The missionaries rationalized their artwork by saying that portraying Jesus as a black man is no worse than portraying him as a white man. Yes, it is no worse; it is merely as bad. Some might rationalize all of these misrepresentations of Jesus as being culturally relevant, yet I wonder whether God would not simply call all of them idols.

Some idolatrous images of Jesus are not graphical or physical they are conceptual. I once complained about the legalism taught in Christian schools. I was told that the legalism was age-appropriate lies. Legalism is a type of idolatry because it masks the true character of God. Why would Christian schools protect students from discovering who Jesus is? What amount of deceit is “age appropriate”? Apparently, my teachers were uncomfortable with who Jesus is, and they took the opportunity to correct the record.

Nearly everyone will tolerate some Jesus depending upon what the meaning of Jesus is. Some Christian denominations encourage ambiguous vocabularies so as to envelope the widest consortium of those who will confess Jesus as their “personal Savior”. Yet it is not our ideas about who Jesus is that matter, rather it is the truth about who Jesus is that is important.

Who is Jesus?

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

Matthew 16:13-16 (NIV)

Many try to appropriate Jesus’ authority by saying that he built his church upon Peter and after Peter died they inherited his authority somehow. The language of the Greek proves this interpretation to be self-serving and absurd. Peter means pebble, but the rock upon which Jesus would build his church was an immovable stone. Compared to Peter's pebble, Jesus was building his church upon a geological feature! Yes, it was a play on words, but the antecedent of “this rock” is not Peter, but rather it was Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” Paul confirms this saying, “No one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” 1 Corinthians 3:11 (NIV) We need to emphasize here as well that Peter’s confession came by the revelation of the Son by the Father. Men are not allowed to define who Jesus is. If they redefine Jesus, if they substitute a false foundation for the true Rock of Ages, they do not worship Jesus Christ; they erect an idol.

Late in his life John wrote a letter to his “little children”, that is to the believers in the churches in which he had ministered. John begins the letter with an allusion to the first verses of his gospel account. John reminds the reader of what he had seen and heard. In chapter four, he begins a new theme asking those he loves to test the spirits,

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.

1 John 4:1-3

The heresy of Gnosticism was taking root in the later part of the first century. The Gnostics believed that Jesus was a spiritual apparition, not an actual man. Yet John knew better. He had seen and touched Jesus. He had stood at the base of the cross when Jesus was crucified. He had heard him cry out in agony. He had cared for Jesus’ mother (John 19:26, 27) for the remainder of Mary’s life. He knew the real Jesus.

John knew Jesus as a man, and he knew him as God. John had heard the words of John the Baptist proclaiming, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” John had witnessed many of Jesus’ miracles. John had seen Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. John was among the first to enter the empty tomb. He was perhaps the first to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead.

Obviously, John’s words in 1 John 4 warned against the deception of the Gnostics, but his words encompass much more. When John calls his Jesus, “Jesus Christ”, he was calling him by both his name and his title: Jesus the Christ. The title Christ carries with it all the expectations of the Old Testament prophecies. The title Christ carries with it all the testimony of the Apostles: their Gospels and their letters. The title Christ carries with it all the words Jesus spoke including those he spoke about himself.

A heretic might be able to define a new Jesus, but John asked his beloved to test whether the Jesus that men proclaimed was actually the Christ.

Who did Jesus say that he was? In John chapter eight, Jesus told the Pharisees, “I tell you the truth; before Abraham was born, I AM.” John 8:58 (NIV) Jesus’ words echoed back to God’s declaration to Abraham, “I AM WHO I AM.” Jesus was boldly claiming to be Creator God. The Pharisees realized this and tried to kill Jesus in the temple courtyard.

John’s testimony about Jesus, indeed Jesus’ testimony about himself, is that he was both God and man. As God, he is the Creator of all things, and as a man he is the Judge of all men. Should we not confess him the Christ, the Son of the living God, before we stand before his judgment seat?

Near the conclusion of John’s Gospel he writes,

Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ,

the Son of God,

and that by believing you may have life in his name.

John 20:31, 31 (NIV)

I know the real Jesus. I want to know this Jesus better.

Hmm. How would that look on a church sign?

1 comment:

  1. has another bunch of sign generators (write your own passage on church signs), you can even add neat effects & borders (hundreds of templates).