A Theology of Clothing

After disputes over worship music, possibly one of the most debated issues in conservative church culture is what should be worn to church. Are only suits for men and dresses for women acceptable? Are shorts too casual?

Before delving into an answer to such a question, a prior issues needs to be settled: What does it mean to be biblical? Does quoting a few Bible verses or appending a few references to an essay make something biblical? To be “biblical,” Christians must allow the Bible to speak for itself and allow the storyline of Scripture to unfold according to its own plot and structure. Merely cherry-picking Bible verses does not do justice to what Scripture really is: God’s very words telling story of redemption through Christ.

Scripture unfolds with four great “chapters”: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation. The unfolding nature of the biblical drama is relevant to the application of Scriptural commands. Therefore, following what Scripture teaches about a certain topic or theme across the whole canon gives Christians the fullest meaning of the Bible. In this case, the theme of clothing can be traced out in all four “chapters” of the biblical storyline.

Creation

In the beginning, God created everything good. In fact, Adam and Eve were “naked and not ashamed” (Gen. 2:25). There was no shame in nakedness because there was no sin. They would not shame each other over their bodies because there was only sinless, mutual delight in one another. Therefore, clothing was not necessary.

Fall

Adam and Eve rebelled against God. Thus sin and death entered into the world. When Adam and Eve sinned, “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew they were naked” (Gen. 3:7a). In other words, they had moral awareness of what had happened. And they felt shame over their bodies because of sin. Adam and Eve attempted to sew clothes together to cover their nakedness (Gen. 3:7). The first attempt to make clothing was to cover over sin. Clothing, then, I think signifies the glory that was lost in the fall: “God ordains clothes to witness to the glory we have lost, and it is added rebellion to throw them off.”[1]

Redemption

Quickly after man’s rebellion, God steps in and provides a promise for redemption (Gen. 3:15). In a dramatic picture, God even slaughters an animal and provides clothing from the skin of an animal to replace humanity’s fig-leaves (Gen. 3:21). The significance of God’s action is twofold. First, it testifies that God, not man, provides redemption. Second, sacrifice is the means of redemption. From God’s action of clothing the man and the woman, I also see clothing as a picture of redemption. When we look around and see people dressed in clothes, it should point us to the fact that God has clothed us in perfect righteousness before His sight through the sacrifice of Christ.

Consummation

At the Second Coming, all of God’s people are “clothed in fine linen, with and clean” (Rev. 19:14). Whether these clothes are literal or not is not germane to the discussion. What does matter is that the clothes picture the final and full forgiveness of sins, and the church standing before God without blemish or spot (cf. Eph. 5:27). So I think that when we see imperfect, stained clothing today, it points us to future glory which we will receive as the church on the Last Day.

Conclusion

So clothes signify three things: the glory humanity lost in the fall, the redemption which is provided in the sacrifice of Christ, and the future glory that the church will receive on the Last Day.


[1] John Piper, This Momentary Marriage (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2009), 37.

Coming Home (Zechariah 1:1-6)

Diddy’s newer-ish song (or it is Puff Daddy, or  P.Diddy? I can’t keep up), “Coming Home” is an “autobiographical” account of his desire to return home to his family. In the song, Diddy admits some mistakes he has made, but there is an absence of a real acknowledgement of his sins and turning away from those things.

In a way, the whole book of Zechariah is an invitation to come home. The key difference is that God invites the returned exiles to embrace repentance and then come home. Ironically, in a sense the exiles are already home—they have physically returned to the land of Palestine. But the exiles still need to embrace repentance and come home spiritually.

Unfortunately, the idea of repenting is grotesque to some people. But Zechariah teaches that repentance is the pathway to receive God’s restoring work:

Zechariah 1:1-6 (NLT)

In November of the second year of King Darius’s reign, the Lord gave this message to the prophet Zechariah son of Berekiah and grandson of Iddo:

[2] “I, the Lord, was very angry with your ancestors. [3] Therefore, say to the people, ‘This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies says: Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.’ [4] Don’t be like your ancestors who would not listen or pay attention when the earlier prophets said to them, ‘This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies says: Turn from your evil ways, and stop all your evil practices.’

[5] “Where are your ancestors now? They and the prophets are long dead. [6] But everything I said through my servants the prophets happened to your ancestors, just as I said. As a result, they repented and said, ‘We have received what we deserved from the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. He has done what he said he would do.’”

Rely on God’s Word (1:1)

Isn’t it weird that the book of Zechariah opens with a pretty specific date? “In November of the second year of King Darius’s reign.” This date sets Zechariah’s prophetic activity at a particular time in history. God’s word comes to His people in history. It is not merely infallible spiritual truth injected into a fallible historical husk, which can then be shucked off. God is the God over history. He works in world history, and He works in your history. Repentance means relying on His word: heeding His warnings, trusting His promises, and ultimately, embracing Christ as Savior.

Return to God’s Way (1:2)

The call of repentance is the call to come home. To return to God. This text points out that if the returned exiles would return to God, then He would return to them! I believe in God’s total sovereignty over all history and life. But God desires a personal relationship with His people so I don’t think it’s good to so emphasize God’s sovereignty that God seems unconcerned, uncaring, and unemotional.

God does respond to His people!
“You will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13).

Turning from your sins means God will accept you back through the sacrifice of Christ:
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9)

Recall God’s Warning (1:3-6)

The essence of God’s warning is this: “All your ancestors are dead, but My Word continues on. Repent, or you too will pass away.” God’s Word will come to pass and will be accomplished! Will you resist it? Or will you submit to it and obey it?

 

God’s restoring work comes through repentance: turning away from your sins and embracing God’s way. With the coming of Jesus, God has made a way for all people to be accepted: coming to Christ for forgiveness.

But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law, as was promised in the writings of Moses and the prophets long ago. We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are. Romans 3:21-22  (NLT)

The Suburban Christian–A Short Review

This past year, my wife and I moved from the city—Louisville, KY—back to the suburbs of New Jersey. I went from being a member of a church in a poorer part of the city to being a pastor of a fairly affluent, suburban church. So with great enthusiasm I cracked open Albert Hsu’s book, The Suburban Christian: Finding Spiritual Vitality in the Land of Plenty.

It was a mixed bag. I guess what took me off guard the most was the amount of space Hsu devoted to diving into the history and development of the suburbs. Not that this was bad per se, but it was a more technical discussion than I expected.

Where Hsu really shined was providing Christian ways to think about commuting, consuming, and community. Suburban culture promotes a fast-paced, drive-everywhere mindset. Probably the most visible aspect of suburbia is the sprawling shopping malls and the emphasis on consumption. Suburbia also encourages individualism. Hsu shows that God calls Christians to a different way of living. Christians can embrace contentment and community, instead of consumerism and individualism.

The biggest strength of Hsu’s book is the practical ideas he gives for challenging the idols of suburbia. For example, he suggests to fast from driving (p. 73). Would this be considered ludicrous in a suburban setting? Absolutely. But being less dependent on the car would force people to be more dependent on God and people.

Unfortunately, the book contained less gospel assurance than I would have liked. Hsu spends a lot of time pointing out the pitfalls of suburban culture. And he even offers a lot of suggestions of things to do to live more faithfully in the suburbs. But I fail. A lot. I am already stuck in a lot of the pitfalls he points out. And reading all of his suggestions breeds a certain level of anxiety in me, because I know that I will never live up to fulfilling those things.

The good news is that even though I will fail, Jesus perfectly triumphed. I am often faithless, but Jesus is always faithful. And He forgives all of our suburban sins. And He sends the Holy Spirit so that we can begin walking in newness of life, even in the suburbs.

The Suburban Christian is good for suburban pastors to read and think through. The book could have a wider impact if a pastor distilled the practical ideas for how to live in the suburbs and then presented them to the church. But if I were a normal congregant I would probably borrow this book, not buy it.

God Renews, Restores, Repairs

The book of Zechariah can be summed up in one word: Restoration. It’s about the restoration of Israel’s land, temple, city, priesthood, prophetic office, and even the people. Just as every aspect of Israel had been corrupted by sin and lead to exile, so also, every part of Israel will be renewed, restored.

A Brief History: Slavery, Freedom, Exile

Israel’s history roughly covers three “periods.” Israel was first enslaved in Egypt. God then sent Moses to lead Israel out of Egypt through the great event known as the Exodus. God redeemed His people, and gave them freedom. God brought Israel out from the land of slavery into the Promised Land of Palestine. On the way to her inheritance, Israel received God’s Law at Sinai. If Israel would obey the Law, then she would have long life in the land. Disobedience, however, would lead to exile, being kicked out of the Promised Land.

Unfortunately, Israel did not obey the Law of the Lord, and was sent away into exile. Due to God’s mercy, exile is not the end for Israel. God sends His prophets to Israel and they promise that a day is coming when Israel will return from exile. The return from exile will be characterized by the resurrection from the dead, the restoration of the temple, and the ushering in of the new creation.

After seventy years in Babylon, Israel did return, but not in the glorious way expected by the prophets. The question persisted: You can get the people out of Babylon, but how do you get Babylon out of the people? The answer unfolded in the Hebrew Bible is that the exile has two dimensions: a physical return, and an even greater spiritual return.

The Message of Zechariah

It is at this moment when Zechariah the prophet steps on the scene. Zechariah is prophesying in Israel when the people have physically returned from exile. Israel is back in the land. But the people have not experienced the greater return from exile. The people are waiting for the return, or to use exodus language, the Second Exodus.

The reason why the people have not experienced the greater return—and restoration—is because sin had not been dealt a definitive blow. The returned exiles are just as sinful as the generations which lead up to the exile (as demonstrated in both Zechariah and Malachi). When the new day dawns, however, sin will be wiped away and restoration will commence. God’s restoration will cover all aspects of Israel life:

Land

“I will remove the iniquity of that land in one day” (3:9).

“‘It will come about in that day,’ declares the Lord, ‘that I will cut off the names of the idols in the land, and they will no longer be remembered’” (13:2)

Temple

“Look, a man whose name is Branch, for He will branch out where He is; and He will build the temple of the Lord” (6:12)

Prophecy

“I will also remove the prophets and the unclean spirits from the land” (13:2).

Priesthood

“Thus, He will be a priest on His throne, and the counsel of peace will be between the two offices” (6:13)

City

“I will return to Zion and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem. Then Jerusalem will be called the City of Truth, and the mountain of the Lord of hosts will be called the Holy Mountain” (8:3)

Why Does This Matter?

Zechariah matters because it points to Jesus. Jesus is the One whose sacrificial death on the cross puts away sin and makes restoration possible. It is Jesus’ resurrection which ushers in the new creation into this broken, fallen world. What God will do for Israel, He will do for the whole world. Amazingly, the prophet Jeremiah talks about a return from exile for Gentile (non-Jewish) nations (Jeremiah 12:14-17). Zechariah also talks about Gentiles being made family with the Jews:

“Many nations will join themselves to the Lord in that day and will become My people.”

All people can be made family together through faith in the One man, Jesus Christ. So, Zechariah is all about restoration. And restoration comes through Jesus.

 

Your Small Group Model Probably Won’t Work in Jersey

I’m almost six months in as Pastor of Community and Outreach at Lincroft Bible Church. My first big task was re-launching the small group ministry (now: Community Groups). The church had three groups already in existence when I got here, so I wasn’t operating from a clean slate. Here’s what I have learned so far.

1. Team is Invaluable

I am extremely happy to work for a church which is lead by a team of elders (which is the Biblical pattern by the way 😉 ). The elders set the agenda for the church. So, re-launching Community Groups was not going to be something I did as an individual. I had to assemble a team around me. The result was getting valuable feedback and wisdom. Coming from those team meetings, I learned…

2. Context Matters

When we lived in Louisville KY, my wife and I attended a church which had its groups meet every week. Now we live in New Jersey. New Jersey is not Kentucky (Obviously enough!). The Northeast is a whole different culture than Bible-belt America. The busyness of Northeastern culture is astounding. The consensus from the CG team was that every week groups would not work.

The groups at LBC had been meeting twice a month for a long time. So…twice a month it is. The verse which was particularly convicting to me was James 3:17 which describes true wisdom:

“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.”

The important phrase here is “open to reason,” which ranges in meaning from “submissive, compliant” to “reasonable.” Am I willing hold my plans (and models of ministry) loosely? Am I willing to submit to the wisdom of people who have been in this church and context for much longer than I have?

Context matters. What works in one part of the country may not work in another. (Which brings me to the big problem of most books written on small groups. They tend to fall into: “This worked for me! So you should do this!” But that’s a post for another time).

3. Slow Change Is Probably the Best Change

When I was in college, I would often get frustrated by how slowly churches made their decisions, and even adopted change. Now being in vocational ministry for just six months, I have a growing appreciation for slow change. If the church allowed me to come in and overturn the direction of the church really fast with no discussion, then someone could come up right behind me in the future and overturn all the work I have done just as quickly! Building for the long haul is much more important than short-term success. I always need to keep the long view.

 

Maybe We Need To Change Seminary A Bit

Richard Pratt, a former Old Testament chair at a seminary, weighs in on how he would change seminary:

If I could wave a magic scepter and change seminary today, I’d turn it into a grueling physical and spiritual experience. I’d find ways to reach academic goals more quickly and effectively and then devote most of the curriculum to supervised battle simulation. I’d put students through endless hours of hands-on service to the sick and dying, physically dangerous evangelism, frequent preaching and teaching the Scriptures, and days on end of fasting and prayer. Seminary would either make them or break them.

Do you know what would happen? Very few young men would want to attend. Only those who had been called by God would subject themselves to this kind of seminary. Yet they would be recruits for kingdom service, not mere students. They would be ready for the battle of gospel ministry.

I like his ideas.

Thousands of Small Steps for God’s Mission

To get involved in God’s mission does not necessarily require selling all of your possessions and moving across the globe. God wants you to be involved in His mission right where you are. But if you feel stuck, consider taking one small step today.

I wrote for Lincroft Bible Church’s Community Groups blog 3 Ways To Be Involved in God’s Mission. I wanted to take some time to expand on those three ways.

1. Team Up

I was trained in “personal evangelism” growing up. Basically, personal evangelism meant sharing your faith one-on-one with someone else. In college, my evangelism class consisted in some training on what to say, and then an assignment to “cold call” someone and share the gospel with them.

I think there are two deficiencies in this approach. One, you are only trained in how to share the gospel one particular way, whether through Evangelism Explosion, Way of the Master, or the Romans Road. But people often come to God in a variety of ways so you need to be able to get to the gospel by a variety of routes. Some people struggle with God’s existence. Others believe that a God exists, but grapple with the problem of evil. So on and so forth. You need to be able to engage with people on their level. Second, it is not truly personal! “Personal” evangelism implies some sort of personal relationship, not merely doing “hit and run” evangelism.

I think there’s a better way.

Accomplishing God’s mission happens through community. When Jesus gave the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20), He was not merely giving it to individual Christians; rather, He gave it to the disciples who were representative of the church. God’s church is sent out on mission.

That’s why LBC does Community Groups: to further God’s mission. On a practical level, no Christian is omnicompetent. So having a diverse “team” surrounding you makes furthering the mission much easier, because you are able to rely on others who different gifts than you do. You may be great at hosting parties and events in your home, but get tongue-tied about spiritual things. That’s ok. Someone in your Community Group may be especially gifted at sharing the gospel with unbelievers. All you need to do is make the introduction!

So get involved in Community Group. You can find more information about Groups here.

2. Link Up

I find in my own life that I often don’t do things because I don’t know where to start. At LBC, the pastors are committed to mobilizing the church for service and mission. We want to give you a start. If you are looking for opportunities, just keep your eyes and ears open. By serving with your Community Group, you will build deeper relationships with everyone in the group. You will also grow in faith because you are now “walking the walk,” performing good works like Jesus commanded.

3. Throw a Party

If “personal evangelism” is to be truly personal, then you need to get know people. The first step is to meet people. Throwing a party is just one way to meet your neighbors and co-workers. At first, it might seem like throwing a party is a big deal. I mean, don’t you need to clean the house, make food, and decorate? That takes time, and usually lots of it!

One question that has helped me when trying to reach out to others is this: I am trying to look good or do good? If I’m trying to look good, then yes, throwing a party will be a burden because I am trying to impress others. But if I am trying to do good—to get to know people—then I don’t need to work for human approval. I throw a party for the good of others, and therefore, it doesn’t really matter what the house looks like.

 

I hope that fleshes out of the points I made in my first post. God’s mission is huge, but He is asking us as a church to begin taking small steps. After a while, we’ll look back and see that thousands of small steps accomplish much.