A friend e-mailed me today with a question I’ve never heard before.
Referring to Isaiah’s experience of worship in the 6th chapter of his prophecy, my friend said, “Is that descriptive or prescriptive?” That is, does this account of Isaiah’s experience simply show us how he worshiped on that occasion or is it saying this is how it’s to be done, and that all these elements must be present for worship to take place?
My correspondent felt it was descriptive. However, he has friends, he says, who were taught in seminary that Isaiah 6 is a blueprint for worship which must be followed.
I agreed with him. This passage makes no pretense at ordering all God’s children for all time to worship in the same way or to touch all those guidestones. It tells what happened to Isaiah on that day. Period.
All you have to do is think of others throughout Scripture who worshiped God in many different ways. Some had visions like Isaiah, but most seemed not to have done so. Some were shaken to the core, but most seem not to have been. Some experienced a life-changing call into the ministry, but they were in the minority.
What troubles me is how some among us–pastors and Bible teachers–take a wonderful passage with much to teach us and make of it something God never intended.
We turn the coat of many colors into a strait jacket.
We all know the joy of reading a passage and finding teaching values for God’s people.
This is one of the blessings of being a Bible teacher or pastor. You read a text that ministers to you, and through your in-depth study you discover additional layers of truth. And then, you get to stand before a class or congregation and share them with others.
It’s pure joy to show God’s children the wonders of His Word.
And we know there are some passages that do indeed issue blanket commands for the Lord’s household.
The most obvious of these is the Great Commission: Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19-20)
I know of no one who believes Jesus meant those words for the handful of disciples standing before Him that day in Galilee. These were given for all His people and are to be obeyed so long as this world stands.
The Lord’s people must learn to distinguish between stories and narratives of the Lord’s actions in people’s lives and those places where He lays down the Law, so to speak, for their behavior and ministry.
Take the incident in the second chapter of Mark where four men of Capernaum bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus. Unable to get him into the house where Jesus is teaching, they tote him onto the roof, tear open the tiles, and lower him into the room. The Lord sees this happen, notes their great faith, and both heals the paralytic and forgives him of his sin.
It’s a great story with a truckload of preaching values.
Over many years of pastoring, I have used that story on numerous occasions to illustrate elements necessary to bring people to Jesus. The outlines have varied, but this one is typical. The person who brings others to Jesus will need:
–A confidence in Jesus.
–A compassion for their needy friend.
–A cooperative spirit to work together.
–A commitment to get the job done.
While these are solid truths with great teaching value for the Lord’s children, we dare not turn them into an iron-clad formula. The fact is we have seen people bring their friends to Jesus when their compassion was lacking and their motives were impure. We’ve seen them bring others to Jesus when they acted alone and cooperated with no one.
I think I know what happens: a text speaks to us so strongly and our sermon is so convincing that we over-reach ourselves. We overstate the case in our message.
In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if this flawed form of discipleship lies at the root of much denominationalism. We find something that works for us and want to make it normative for all the Lord’s people.
After Saul of Tarsus’ conversion on the Damascan Road, the amazing thing is that he did not thereafter instruct people wishing to be saved to wait for a bright light which would blind them for days and then wait for a divinely-sent disciple to lay hands on them. Instead, the man who became the Apostle Paul said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” (Acts 16:31)
Someone came to know the Lord and when he was baptized, the scales fell off his eyes and he came up Spirit-anointed. Thereafter, unless he was careful, he instructed everyone who heard him preach that this was how God worked: believe, water baptism, Spirit-filling.
Sometimes it happened that way. But sometimes it didn’t.
And therein is the rub.
Why do we insist on making God follow our rules? On creating formulas and expecting the Holy Spirit to obey them? On requiring God’s people to kow-tow to our limited understanding of His Word?
There is no greater tool to bring with us to the study of God’s Word than humility.
In the study, pastor, leave your Ph.D. behind. God is impressed by no man’s credentials.
With the Bible open in front of you, minister, you are a child. You come, not as a learned professor of any language or science, but as an infant asking to be taught and fed and helped.
Anything less or more will get you into trouble, and will sentence the people who follow you to even worse difficulties.
The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit. (John 3:8)
Until we have learned to harness the wind, pastor, let us tread softly in these matters.