Theology

It's Easter Time!

 Photo by  Aaron Brunhofer  on  Unsplash

What are you celebrating?

When I see bright-colored eggs and chocolate bunnies in pastel-colored displays, I know it must be near Easter. Unless you understand the calendar timing of Easter Sunday, you probably have to check online like I do to find when Easter falls each year.

Easter isn't a big marketing holiday but stores do their best to feature lots of eggs, egg-coloring dyes, baskets, and chocolate and marshmallow bunnies and chicks. And don't forget the food! Ham is a favorite along with some scalloped potatoes or au gratin perhaps, and if you're traditional, some hot-cross buns.

But what are we celebrating with all of this? Is there a difference between Easter and Resurrection Sunday? Well, yes and no. And what about all those other traditional days people observe like Ash Wednesday, Lent, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday?

How are all of these things related or are they? Exactly! I think there's a lot of confusion about what is being celebrated and, of course, lots of back and forth about how Christians should celebrate Easter Sunday.

Some background on Easter

Easter Sunday is a big celebration for Christian churches. Not only is it an important celebration, it's one of those Sundays when a lot of people who don't normally go to church attend a service, especially if it's a sunrise service.

Our church holds an Easter sunrise service at the beach each year and it's a beautiful and well-attended celebration. I'm partial to sunrise services because it connects so well with the story of the Lord Jesus' resurrection in all four of the gospels.

Back to the question of whether there's a difference between Easter and Resurrection Sunday? There is but some background on other more traditional observances of the church needs to be considered first.

Ash Wednesday and Lent

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the Lenten season that runs for forty days up to Easter Sunday. It commemorates Jesus' fasting in the wilderness for forty days and His temptation by the devil at the end of the fasting (Matt 4:1-11).

It's observed as a time to give up some pleasure or part of daily life routine as a sacrifice. It was not observed by the early church but developed and set as a church observance in 325 BC. It's observed mostly by Catholic churches and many traditional Protestant churches.

Paschal Triduum

Palm Sunday combined with the final days before Easter Sunday are considered Holy or Passion Week. The Paschal Triduum includes three important days. Which ones? It depends on who you ask or what you accept as the three most important days.

The title is drawn from Pascha, the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew Pesach for the Passover. The Passover or Seder Supper is based on the first Passover in Exodus 12, which was fulfilled by the Lord's atoning death on the cross.

Which three days? Traditionally it's been Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday but others, including me, opt for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Resurrection Sunday.

Palm Sunday

 Lightstock.com

Lightstock.com

Palm Sunday is the Sunday before Easter Sunday. It commemorates Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey as He was hailed by crowds of people crying out, "Hosanna (Oh Save!) to the Son of David!" (Matt 21:1-11). It is the beginning of Holy Week that concludes with Easter Sunday.

Although the early church didn't observe it, the church in Jerusalem started to observe it about the late third or early fourth century. When Jesus entered Jerusalem that day it was a fulfillment of a Messianic prophecy (Zech 9:9; Matt 21:4-5).

Sadly, many in the crowd who waved palm branches and shouted out "Hosanna!" to hail whom they believed to be the Messiah later yelled out, "Crucify Him!" (Matt 27:15-26). It illustrates how quickly emotions and opinions can change people's minds regardless of the truth.

Maundy Thursday

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Maundy Thursday commemorates the last night Jesus spent with His closest followers as told in John chapters 13 through 17. It begins with Jesus washing the disciples' feet, which included His betrayer Judas (John 13:1-17), on the night He ate the Passover feast with them (Luke 22:14-23).

The word Maundy is taken from the Latin word for command in acknowledgment of the Lord's new commandment to love one another as He loved us (John 13:34-35). This is something that needs to be remembered and practiced far more often than once a year!

Good Friday

I remember participating in Good Friday services as one of a group of pastors in the community where we shared on one of the last seven sayings of Jesus on the cross. It was a good reminder of how we are one Body—one Church unified by Jesus and His work of redemption on the cross.

My first time in the Philippines was on Good Friday where the whole country virtually comes to a  standstill to observe this solemn day with processions and prayers. As believers, we need to reflect on the atoning death of Jesus—the Lamb of God (John 1:29). Not just for His sacrifice but the purpose of His sacrifice.

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Lightstock.com

When Jesus was lifted up on the cross on Golgotha (John 19:17-18), He fulfilled the Passover once and for all (Heb 9:12, 26; 10:10, 12). This is why it is Good Friday! It may have originally been God's Friday but morphed into Good—like God's spell (story) became Gospel.

The very purpose of Jesus dying on the cross was to provide a way for all humanity to be reconciled with God the Father. God came to earth Himself as the Son of God to offer Himself for all people.

All of Jesus' earthly ministry and presence was focused on this day followed by His resurrection—His death and resurrection cannot and should not be separated in our understanding of God's work of redemption. And so, it is Good Friday but remember—as an old hymn declares—Sunday is coming!

Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday is the official end of the Lenten season. It's also called Black Saturday in the Philippines and other places. It's a reminder of Jesus' burial in the tomb. But thankfully, it's not the end of the story!

Easter—Resurrection Sunday

Although most of us know this day of celebration as Easter, I prefer the use of Resurrection Sunday because it expresses what's most important. It's uncertain how it became known as Easter but an early connection to its origin is to the Saxon goddess of spring, Eastre. 

The important thing is to distinguish the difference between how the world around us observes Easter and why believers celebrate it. Without the physical resurrection of Jesus from the dead, there is no hope of eternal life and there is no true redemption (1 Cor 15:13-17). 

Without the physical resurrection of Jesus from the dead, there is no hope of eternal life and there is no true redemption
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Lightstock.com

The resurrection of the Lord Jesus on the third day after His death was the primary focus of the gospel for the early church, as seen throughout the book of Acts. It is central to Christian theology. The hope of salvation and eternal life hang on the physical resurrection of Jesus.

It's what the Lord pointed the disciples to before and immediately after His death and resurrection (Matt 16:21; Luke 24:44-47). The resurrection came on the first day of the week (our Sunday) and was the first true Christian holiday observed by the early church and the reason they began to meet on the first day of the week rather than on the last day.

I've written about this many times and in my book. Here are a few links if you're interested—

Easter or Resurrection Sunday?

So, what are you celebrating on Easter? It's easy to react to the idea of a pagan origin to Easter but the resurrection of Christ is biblical and important. It really doesn't matter what you call the day (Rom 14:5-9). What is important is why we celebrate it.

A traditional greeting for Resurrection Sunday is for one person to say, "He is risen!" and for others to reply, "He is risen indeed!" That is the essence of our hope in Jesus.

A simple way to get a true perspective on Holy Week, or Passion Week if you prefer, is to read the account of it all in the Bible. Sometimes it's easy to lose sight of the power of the story—God's story of redemption through His Son Jesus—trying to sort out the what and why.

Not that understanding isn't important, it is, but understanding often comes as we immerse ourselves in the story itself. When you read—allow yourself to soak in all that is written, even read it aloud, so you can see it with your mind's eye. Reading more dynamic versions of the Bible may help and you can also listen to audio versions of the Bible.

Understanding often comes as we immerse ourselves in the story itself

Here are some reading suggestions so you can do that—

Scripture Readings

Maundy Thursday and Good Friday

  • Matthew Chaps 26–27
  • Mark Chaps 14–15
  • Luke Chaps 22–23
  • John Chaps 13–17 and 18–19

Resurrection Sunday

  • Matthew 28
  • Mark 16
  • Luke 24
  • John 20–21
He is risen! He is risen indeed!

 

Faith—the Simplicity of Trust

 Photo by  Jon Flobrant  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

"In God we trust" is emblazoned in green ink on our American currency. This phrase became our national motto in 1956. After 9-11, it became popular to sing "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch at baseball games.

The idea of trusting in God is woven into the fabric of American history, despite the continuing efforts of atheists to remove all mention of God associated with anything government related. But is historical revision really necessary? I mean, does America really trust in God?

I'm not talking about atheists or agnostics or the more current category of the nones. I'm wondering about those who confess a belief in God and say they trust in God.

Belief isn't trust

Trust in God isn't a matter of belief—what a person believes about God. It's a confidence in God and His nature (Heb 11:6). Many people say they believe in God, in Jesus, in the Bible, have faith, and so on. But that belief doesn't always translate into trust.

In the book of James, we're told that demons believe in God. They know He exists but they don't trust in Him, they fear Him (James 2:19)!

Belief doesn't always translate into trust

The Bible is full of examples of people who have a belief in God but don't trust in Him. One book of the Bible illustrates this well—the book of Judges. Thankfully, many examples of people who believe and genuinely trust in God are found throughout the Bible.

The obvious examples

Noah built an ark—a huge ship—because he heeded God's warning and trusted His guidance (Gen 6:11-22). God warned Noah of a cataclysmic flood. He believed God even though Noah had never experienced either rain or flooding.

Noah's obedience to God demonstrated his trust in God—a personal and complete trust.

Abraham, the great patriarch of Israel, became the father of many nations—people groups—because he trusted in God. His trust in God transcends mere belief as seen by his willingness to slay the son God promised to give him (Heb 11:8-12, 17-19).

God considered Abraham to be righteous and a friend, not because of a mere belief but his complete and personal trust in God (James 2:23).

Genuine faith is a simple, personal, confident trust in God

King David trusted God in a very personal way as expressed through the many Psalms he wrote (Psalm 23). He trusted God through many difficulties, betrayals, and even when he utterly failed God (2 Samuel 12:7-13; Psalm 51).

These three men led extraordinary lives and appear to have extraordinary faith. They did. They do. But this is the very type of faith—a simple, personal, confident trust in God—any person can have that exemplifies true faith in God.

Faith, trust, and risk

Faith, believe, and trust are common words in the Bible and may be used interchangeably. But their true biblical meanings are best understood and illustrated through the lives of people such as Noah, Abraham, and David.

The eleventh chapter of Hebrews gives many examples of these people. The genuine faith of all of them is described in Hebrews 11:6—

No one can please God without faith. Whoever goes to God must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

Genuine faith involves an element of trust and trust is always a risk. It requires a commitment to move beyond the fear of failure.

Genuine faith involves an element of trust and trust is always a risk

Faith in the face of failure

Real faith—a commitment of trust—is often clarified and confirmed by what appears as a failure at first. Consider Abraham who was known as a father of those who live by faith (Rom 4:10-12 GW).

Abraham was promised a son but he and his wife tried to make this happen through Sarah's servant Hagar and it was a colossal failure (Gen 16:1-6). Abraham waited 25 years for the son God promised to give him through his wife Sarah (Gen 12:1-4; 17:15-19).

Even after Isaac, the promised son was born, Abraham's faith was tested beyond belief. God told him to sacrifice him! As God saw Abraham's childlike trust in his willingness to slay his son, God honored Abraham and promised even greater blessing (Gen 22:1-18).

The story of Abraham, Isaac, and God's command to sacrifice this promised son is a story all its own—a story of redemption.

Genuine faith is often clarified and confirmed by what appears as a failure at first

Faith is impractical

For more than 45 years, my wife and I have lived by faith in a simple way. At times we've been questioned and even mocked for the simplicity of our faith. Yet, God has proved faithful and blessed us with many opportunities to serve Him and blessings beyond.

Our faith was tested in many ways over the years. It still is tested as we move into different phases of our life. This is to be expected.

Faith is not a practical pursuit, it's a matter of trust in God and His faithfulness to honor our trust in Him (Heb 11:6). Faith is more than what we believe about God.

True, genuine faith is a complete and personal trust in God—a childlike trust. What kind of faith is needed to please God? This is what Jesus instructed His first followers—

I can guarantee this truth: Whoever doesn’t receive the kingdom of God as a little child receives it will never enter it. (Luke 18:17 GW—context– Luke 17:15-17)

True, genuine faith is a complete and personal trust in God—a childlike trust

What kind of faith do you have?

Is your faith more than beliefs about God?

One Throne—One Gospel

 Christ before Pilate-Mihaly_Munkacsy-public domain

Christ before Pilate-Mihaly_Munkacsy-public domain

It's easy to oversimplify and generalize truth. Doing so can make it seem shallow or trivial. But my observation is that teachers who teach well take difficult to understand truth and make it simple. This enables people to gain a good understanding of what's taught and internalize it.

My basic philosophy of learning is that unless a person (myself included!) struggles to think something through, they won't fully understand it or internalize it. Simple questions and challenges to see truth from different perspectives are useful in stirring up productive thought.

I've been writing on a certain track of thought with previous posts (see links below) and want to bring it to a conclusion—there is only one throne and one King of Kings believers need to submit their life to and this is based on the simplicity and depth of the gospel of Jesus.

Believers need to submit their life to only one throne and one King of Kings

A short review

The presentation of gospel truth—the good news of God's redemption for all humanity—is most often given in bits and pieces within a western cultural context. I wrote about this earlier.

A cursory reading of the New Testament (NT) reveals the gospel is presented in five narratives—4 Gospels and a history of the early church (Acts).

The remainder of the NT books explain this gospel narrative and give an understanding of how the truth of the gospel and its theology impact daily life within the church and among people outside the church. 

The larger narrative of God's Story, as it unfolds throughout the Bible, is important for those unfamiliar with the theology of redemption. Even Revelation, the last book of the Bible, is a heavenly narrative of how God's Story will conclude at the end of the Age.

The larger narrative of God's Story is important for those unfamiliar with the theology of redemption

Worldviews and the gospel

Consider again how truth is processed by different people with different world-views. Generally speaking, western thought presents bits and pieces of information strung together until the whole picture is seen.

In MOTROW, information and truth are understood as a whole, while bits and pieces are only seen as part of the whole. When the truth is presented in bits and pieces a disconnect between what is believed and how one lives often happens.

The post-modern mindset is similar to MOTROW when it comes to understanding truth. This mindset may still approach things in a linear fashion, but there's a freedom to associate other truth or information to a belief. This leads to a belief system like Moralistic Therapeutic Deism mentioned in a previous post.

Are you performing well?

A common emphasis in American Christianity is on what is termed a performance-based Christian faith. This is the idea that I need to do something as proof of believing in God or being a Christian. I need to give something to show my commitment to God.

This is often spurred on by well-intentioned calls to the altar—to accept Christ, to recommit your life to Christ, to serve Christ, and so on.

As mentioned in an earlier post, altars are for offering sacrifices and gifts. I see this as an expression of self-focused performance, especially when repeated many times in different services.

Are these responses or calls to some altar of self-sacrifice genuine? Yes, often they are. But the question ought to be, are they necessary?

A common emphasis in American Christianity is termed performance-based Christian faith

Only 2 vows necessary

I realized long ago that there were only two vows a person ever needs to make—one to follow Jesus and the other being joined in marriage. Both are all-inclusive and exclusive. Neither requires any additional commitments because they are all-inclusive commitments.

The call to follow Jesus is simple and requires no further clarification—Matt 16:24; Luke 14:26-27, 33. God's view of marriage, repeated four separate times in the Bible, is just as simple—Gen 2:24; Matt 19:5; Mark 10:7, Eph 5:31.

Some may argue, "But there's more to it than that!" But I ask, does God see it that way?

Reading through the book of Hebrews, I'm reminded of the great access provided for believers in the New Covenant established by God's grace—direct access to God's presence.

This access requires nothing of ourselves as believers—no giving, no doing, just coming into His presence—

Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb 4:16)

There are no minimum requirements for entering and remaining in the Kingdom of God. The only thing God asks is that we come to Him—Matt 11:28-30.

Access to God requires nothing of ourselves as believers—no giving, no doing, just coming into His presence—His throne of grace

What compels you to seek God?

So, back to the question—altar or throne? How are you compelled to come to God? Are you offering Him something rather than yourself? Or, are you coming to Him in all circumstances, good or bad?

When my children were young and I was a young pastor, I had an open door policy for my children and wife when I studied for messages. I can become so absorbed in studying that I block everything and everyone out.

My wife would remind me of my need to make myself accessible to my children and her., so I didn't elevate my work or my interests over them.

This is how I see a believer's access to God's presence. I can come at any time, in any condition, in any situation and His door is open. I don't need to offer anything or ask special permission.

The Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit are our promised intercessors (Rom 8:26-27, 34) ready at all times to hear us and be our advocates. Nothing and no one stands between believers and God.

How are you compelled to come to God? Are you offering Him something rather than yourself?

Guilt or grace?

Even as a young believer, I felt manipulated to respond to altar calls. I don't like being manipulated with emotion, nor do I want to just do something because it's expected or because I feel guilty about something. 

I'm not against altar calls per se, just the manipulative way they can be used and the assumptions made based on responses to these calls. I'm especially concerned about the self-effort I see people exerting to get into God's good graces. It's just not necessary.

God didn't ask Abraham to offer his son Isaac more than once. God accepted it and declared Abraham as righteous by faith (Gen 15:6; 22:1-18). Jesus only died once to justify those who trust in Him (Heb 9:12-14), this is made clear in several places in Hebrews.

Is there any need for doing something additional? If you think so, you don't understand God's grace. God doesn't manipulate us nor does He use guilt or shame to bring us to Him.

God doesn't manipulate us nor does He use guilt or shame to bring us to Him

Confidence in God and His grace

I laid my life at God's altar and I made a vow to my wife over 45 years ago. I don't need to make any more vows or make any sacrifices to gain the Lord's acceptance.

I approach God's throne with confidence when I am in need, though I still fall far short of perfection. My perfection—my sense of completeness—is only found in my Lord and Savior Jesus. I had nothing to offer long ago and still don't, but He has all I am.

What about you?

Are you going to God's altar and waiting for Him to accept you? Or, are you going boldly before His throne of grace at any time whatever your need? (Heb 4:14-16)

Jesus calls each of us to deny our self and take up the Cross, and then follow Him in faith. He doesn't ask us to make more vows at an altar of self-sacrifice. He invites us to come to Him because of His grace, and as the traditional hymn declares—Just as I am.

God doesn't ask us to come to an altar of self-sacrifice but invites us to come to Him because of His grace

Links of previous related posts—

Many Altars but One Gospel

Altar or Throne?

Altar or Throne?

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Last week I started looking at what may seem an anomaly but is more typical than we'd like to accept. By we, I mean Christian believers who hold the Bible as authoritative in matters of faith.

Over many years, a cultural shift took place within the church in America. It impacted both beliefs and practices. This shift has been addressed by many, and in one instance given a term—moralistic therapeutic deism.

This cultural shift impacts the church in a powerful way because what people believe in their hearts is directly connected to how they live.

Professed beliefs don't always line up with what's held in the heart. You've likely heard the expression, "do as I say, not as I do," but the reality is that actions speak louder than words.

What people believe in their hearts is directly connected to how they live

A disconnect

Perhaps the question to answer is—Why is there a disconnect between what is believed and how one lives? What people say they believe and what they do and say in their daily lives are often incongruent. They may talk like Christians but they live like agnostics and atheists.

It's similar to what cross-cultural missionaries contend with when sharing the gospel within another culture than their own. Beliefs are often traditional, even cultural, but don't seem to have much impact on daily life.

An article I read by Dr. Philemon Yong said this about how westerners present the Gospel and why it can lead to an animistic belief—

"The gospel comes not as a story that has a beginning, middle and end. The parts, though true, are not always connected. Worse yet, the content of the beliefs is never defined, and the relation of the gospel to specific cultural practices is often left untouched, leaving the hearer to decide for himself what it means for him to now follow Jesus."

Along with articles noted in a previous post, it's not hard to see similarities to how the gospel is often presented in the US with similar results.

Is there a disconnect between what you believe and how you live?

What gospel have you heard?

How have you heard the gospel shared with you? How do you share it with others? Was it something like—"Jesus died for your sins!"—or—"God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life!"?

Phrases and statements like these are certainly true, but they are just fragments of the whole truth of God's redemption. I've posted about this on many occasions (see links below) and wrote a book prompted by this concern.

When we reduce the gospel to a phrase focused on what's needed to get into heaven, we minimize the work of Christ's redemptive work on the cross. We also ignore the gospel Jesus preached (Matt 4:17; 5:1–7:28; Luke 4:18-19; 9:1-2).

Do we preach the gospel Jesus preached or a minimized version?

Why this matters

In western culture, thinking is more linear—a line of thought in a logical and systematic thought process. Piecing separate bits of information together to understand a larger truth comes more naturally for well-educated people in a western culture.

Non-western cultures, as in Asian, Mideastern, or African nations, think more globally or holistically. The parts are seen in the whole but not extracted or extrapolated apart from the whole. The details of the whole aren't separated out to consider but seen as part of the whole.

This fits with how eastern cultures put less importance on individuality, which is typically emphasized in western cultures. Non-western cultures elevate the value of a group, family, community, or national identity over individual interests.

People who are non-analytical thinkers don't piece things together the same way as analytical and linear thinkers. Consequently, the less analytical thinker hold bits and pieces of truth that can also be associated with other information or beliefs.

Global thinkers don't piece things together as analytical and linear thinkers do

Altar or throne?

When you come to God, are you coming to His altar or His throne? Perhaps you wonder if there's much of a difference. There is!

Altars are erected as places of offerings, often sacrificial offerings. Thrones are places of authority. Things offered on altars typically cost a person something. There's effort involved in presenting what's offered.

People sit on thrones—people in authority. Those who approach whoever sits on the throne acknowledge the authority of the one who sits on the throne. Their acknowledgment is shown by some type of submission, allegiance, respect, or honor.

When you come to God, are you coming to His altar or His throne?

Christian altars

As a young believer, I remember calls to "come to the altar" to give my life to Jesus or rededicate it to Him. At other times, calls to come to the altar were for repentance, healing, dedication to some service for God, or whatever else the speaker exhorted people to do.

In my early days, I responded to these calls because I thought it was expected. As I matured in my faith, I realized I didn't need to respond to these various altar calls because they often didn't apply to me.

The throne of grace

I also realized that Jesus' call to follow Him was an all-inclusive commitment (Matt 16:24-26). I didn't need to make individual or special commitments, I just needed to follow through on my initial commitment to follow Jesus.

I realized Jesus' call to follow Him was an all-inclusive commitment of my life

This singular and continuous commitment is reinforced in the book of Hebrews—

...let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 
Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16 ESV)

How do you approach God?

Let me ask my earlier question again. When you come to God, are you coming to His altar or His throne? We are told in the book of Hebrews that the tabernacle under the Old Covenant was a copy of what was in heaven (Heb 8:5-6).

The layout of the tabernacle had the altar outside. This is where sacrifices were made. Only the blood of atonement was brought inside to the innermost room and only once a year by only one person (Heb 9:7-8, 11-15).

That innermost room—called the Most Holy Place—represented the very presence of God above the mercy seat with its golden cherubim (Heb 9:4-5). Jesus made His atoning sacrifice once for all (Heb 7:27; 9:12, 26, 28; 10:2, 10, 12, 14) in the very presence of the Father.

No sacrifices needed or required

God neither desires or requires any further sacrifice from us—those of us who trust in Him by faith because of His grace. Jesus invites us to follow Him in a simple way. If we choose to follow Him, He says we need to deny our selfish nature and die to our self and live for Him (Mark 8:34-37).

Personally, I accepted the sacrifice of Jesus as perfect and complete, and that I could not nor need not offer any further sacrifice to Him. I chose to commit my life to Him many years ago and I affirm that commitment on a daily basis (Luke 9:23).

So, how do you approach God? Are you bringing Him a sacrifice of some kind or trusting in Jesus and His perfect, once-for-all atoning sacrifice?

Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace!

Many Altars but One Gospel

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Most religions have some form of an altar as a means of worship. Primitive altars are where sacrifices, sometimes animals or humans, were made to appease a deity or god. In the Old Testament, altars were part of the worship of Israel using prescribed sacrifices for specific reasons.

Altars can also be figurative. In most traditional churches, a table or cabinet serves as an altar where certain elements of the worship service are placed. More contemporary churches might consider the front platform area as an altar.

Physical altars or places to offer gifts or sacrifices are common in many cultures around the world. I'm more familiar with Thailand and the Philippines. I've traveled and ministered in Thailand many times. It has an abundance of altars in many places.

Most religions have some form of an altar as a means of worship

Land of many altars

Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist nation, and Buddhism breeds and thrives on an animistic belief. One look around at all the spirit houses and altars or shrines erected throughout the nation makes this clear.

It is difficult to preach the Gospel in Thailand and see genuine conversions to following Christ—both culturally and spiritually. The truth can get lost in the various layers of culture and spirituality present in Thailand and in other nations.

Living in another culture different than your own helps you see things from a different perspective.  This is one of the values of true cross-cultural missions. In a sense, I had two home cultures—American and Filipino—while living in the Philippines for fifteen years.

Living in another culture than your own helps you see things from a different perspective

Although they are quite different from each other—one is western and the other eastern philosophically—a vast difference exists between both of those cultures and Thai culture, at least on the surface.

Is there really that much difference between how Christianity is practiced in America, Roman Catholicism in the Philippines, and Buddhism in Thailand? Perhaps not as much as you think.

Buddhism and altars

Buddhism with its thousands of gods is intertwined in its origin with Hinduism, an ancient religion with millions of gods or deities. How can there be so many gods?

Most ancient religions were prone to associating deity or god-likeness with creation. This is noted in the first chapter of Romans (Rom 1:25). It's termed animism—the worship of non-human things as if they had souls or spirits.

Animism exists throughout the world today, even in unexpected places and ways.

It's common to see small altars of fruit, toys, incense, and other things offered in many places to many gods throughout Thailand. Ancestor worship is also mixed into many ancient religions with animistic belief systems.

Most ancient religions were prone to associating deity or god-likeness with creation

Roman Catholic shrines

Throughout the Philippines, it is common to see both Roman Catholic statues or images along with Chinese religious symbols, where ancestor worship is common. Shrines to Mary and to the infant Jesus are found in homes, businesses, as well as in churches.

Riding in a Filipino cab one day, I noticed the driver—a Roman Catholic—had a Chinese religious symbol hanging from his mirror and a Christian image or two on his dashboard. As he drove me across town, we talked about Jesus. "He's my protector, I trust in Him," said my taxi driver. 

It made me realize how many Christians in America have a similar approach to covering all the bases. Of course, as evangelical Christians, we don't see it that way.

Many Christians in America have a covering-all-the-bases approach to their faith

American altars and shrines

People in animistic cultures have a difficult time with the typical western approach of sharing the Gospel in bits and pieces—"Jesus died for your sins" or "God so loved the world." It's difficult for them to disassociate these bits and pieces from what they already believe.

When bits of pieces of the truth spoken without their greater context come across as abstract truths. Abstract truths connected to testimonies of success and blessing as often occurs in evangelism, lack the scriptural frame of reference to be understood well.

People in such cultures can both accept and reject the Gospel readily. They pick and choose between what appeals to them and what doesn't fit their belief system and worldview of life.

Are American Christians much different than religious people in other places?

The church potluck

American Christians tend to pick and choose what does and does not appeal to them regarding the Gospel, and with doctrine and practice. It's as if the gospel and Christian beliefs are laid out on a table as with a church potluck.

Perhaps it doesn't seem this way, but consider how many different Christian churches exist. Often times, the only distinction between one church and another is the presentation or methodology of the church service itself.

There's too much to get sidetracked on with this issue, but consider what draws you to a certain church or type of worship service. What do you expect when you go to church?

American tend to pick and choose what they like and don't like about the Christian faith

Is your Christianity animistic?

For more than four decades, I've heard questions from prospective churchgoers like, "What do you have to offer that's better than the church down the street?"

Why are so many American Christians like this? Is it because we are so self-focused? Well, yes! 

We take the bits and pieces we hear of the gospel and Christianity and connect them to our own perceptions of blessing and success. In this way, our Christianity becomes more animistic than the gospel in the Bible.

Christians prefer bits and pieces of the gospel that connect to blessing and success

The western church promotes this with how we present the Gospel, Jesus, and various concepts of church-community. Consider the following questions—

What appeals to you about church, the Gospel (God's Story), and Jesus?
What is it you like or dislike? What makes you comfortable or uneasy?

Over the next couple weeks, I'll continue to look at this issue of altars and the gospel. Next week, I hope to challenge you to answer whether you come to God's altar or God's throne?

The gospel and animism—

The following articles may provoke you to thought, even upset you. I hope so. They are written by missionaries—one in Thailand and one in Zimbabwe in Africa. You can post responses on this blog or on social media— but let them be edifying and gracious

Animism and the Prosperity Gospel

Why Your Gospel May Be More Animistic Than You Think