Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Church and the Example of Hilkiah

As many of you know, I am currently in an undergraduate program of study in Bible with the Sunset International Bible Institute. This is a college run out of Lubbock affiliated with the Church of Christ. In my latest studies, I’ve come to the book of Jeremiah. Some of you may be unaware, as I was, that Jeremiah is actually the longest prophecy, by number of words, in the Old Testament. (Isaiah has more chapters, but contains less words.)

The thrust of Jeremiah’s prophecies have to do with the impending invasion by the Babylonians. This was brought about because of Israel’s continued disobedience and their insistence on worshiping and serving the gods of the nations that surrounded them. After centuries of such behavior (who ever said God is not patient!) they were finally delivered into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, at the time the head of the mightiest empire of the era. But before this took place, however, a great revival had been attempted by King Josiah. The catalyst for such a revival, was the finding of the book of the Law. When we witness the reverence and respect with which orthodox Jews treat the Law today, and indeed throughout most of history, it seems unbelievable that there could have been a time when they were so careless that it was not even read!

And this bring me to my primary interest in this attempted restoration. In 2 Kings 22, we find the story of such a restoration, but one of the things that is most amazing is that, although the work of the temple had continued apace, there was no apparent concern for what all those sacrifices and all those actions really meant. The priests were busy counting the money, slaughtering and offering the sacrifices, taking care of the temple building, but the purpose behind all these actions seemed to have been lost on all. The book of the Law, as I mentioned, was not even read and was even lost! As we often read in the book of Judges, the people feared the Lord and served other gods.

The lesson for us today, I believe, is clear. We are so busy taking care of the externals of our religion that we forget what that work is intended to accomplish. Our church buildings have become little cities with all the trappings that come with such edifices. The majority of our offerings, just as it happened during the time of Jeremiah, go to the ceremonies and the infrastructure rather than the work that the church is appointed to do. Think of the buildings that have been built for the church to meet in. You can see the landscape dotted with amazingly elaborate and intricate structures that have little to do with what the church really is all about. And in so doing, our labors become skewed in the direction of self-sustenance rather than the vibrant work that is evangelism and the growing of disciples.

There is no doubt that the church needs a place to meet. In the early years of the church era, however, the disciples met either in the already existing temple structure, the synagogues or, as it happened later with the admittance of the Gentiles into the church, in private homes. The building of church structures did not begin in earnest until later in the 2nd century and beyond. And even then, in the early years of such endeavors, the structures were simple and designed to serve the single purpose of housing a meeting.

Eventually, however, the “temple” of the church became an end in itself. More and more elaborate structures became the norm rather than the exception. This came about due to a fundamental misunderstanding as to what exactly such structures were supposed to accomplish. Many were of the mind that, since the temple in Jerusalem had been a grand and lavish structure, then the churches of the New Testament era demanded no less. And thus, the focus of the church was lost and meetings became end in themselves rather than the conduit to worship God and grow His people.

With the growth of the “seeker friendly movement,” the church today often finds itself in the same situation as the early disciples. Many have used the desire to reach the lost as reasons to build ever greater and larger venues with all kinds of facilities to allure the worldly mind: counseling centers, coffee bars, entertainment halls, gymnasiums, etc., etc. And that’s before we even mention what passes for spiritual music today. In the same way that sports venues have become “noise boxes,” the church has forgotten what the purpose of its singing is all about. Noise is the sign of this era, and unfortunately many in countless churches have appropriated that noxious habit. Thus, the mission of the church is buried under an avalanche of activity and noise.

There is no doubt that many today who engage in such practices are well-meaning, honest folks who think they are serving God. But just as in the days of Josiah, being honest and well-meaning does not always lead to the truth. Hilkiah and the other priests of old did what they thought they needed to do for God. But their ignorance of the Law and God’s revelation was such that their actions became end in themselves. Today, we face the same danger. If our buildings become so large and complex that we find ourselves working merely to keep them standing, we have lost the focus that the first century church had: to glorify God, make disciples and delight in His love and grace!