briefing, Albert Mohler

Friday, April 10, 2020

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Friday, April 10, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Is Religion Merely Functional? How the Secular Worldview Transforms Religion into Something Not Very Religious At All

A sign of the times comes in an article published at the Washington Post by Kate Cohen. She’s identified as a writer in Albany, New York. The headline of the article: “Even Those of Us Who Don’t Believe Need What Religion Can Provide Right Now.” It’s a sign to the times reminding us that many people around us especially in the intellectual class, have what you could only call a functionalist understanding of religion, of any kind of theistic faith. They believe that it might have a functional purpose. It might meet a certain kind of need. It could be a psychiatric or psychological need, a sociological need, some kind of a relational need, a need for meaning, but nonetheless, religion is to be understood primarily as a human invention and it is to be defined in functionalist terms. You just asked the questions, what function is religion here providing?

That’s the entire background of this article by Kate Cohen. She begins writing, “The first virtual gathering that anyone in my family thought to organize was Shabbat. My dad organized it. I jumped on the idea, my big sister offered to host the meeting. The thing is,” she writes, “we are not a religious family, although we used to have a Shabbat or Sabbath dinner when I was a kid. Only one of us still does and only sometimes, but there we were on Friday across six Zoom windows from four states, nine adults, six teenagers, one four year old and three sets of candles.” She then asked this very interesting question, “Did the global pandemic suddenly make believers out of us?” She continues, “Now would indeed be the perfect time to pledge fealty to a capricious, plague-wielding Old Testament God, but I can’t make myself believe.”

Now that in itself is one of the most telling sentences you could imagine in an article like this, because when she speaks of believing in God, she raises the issue of whether or not she would believe in a God defined as a “capricious plague-wielding Old Testament God.” Now, her family background is clearly Jewish. That’s the entire setting for the article, but the entire point of the article is that she now sees in the middle of this pandemic perhaps a functional purpose for her own Jewish faith, for Judaism writ large. But she doesn’t believe in God. She doesn’t really believe in any of the truth claims of Judaism. She just believes in Judaism as something of a tradition, of something of a family tradition in particular, and it fulfills certain functions—functions that she now understands that she needs in the middle of the pandemic, but she makes it very clear, “I can’t make myself believe.”

She then cites an article published in the New York Times by the Jesuit priest, James Martin. He asked the question, “Where is God in a Pandemic?” But she points out that what she really got as the point of that article by James Martin is that there might still be kind of a functional need for religion in the midst of this pandemic. She writes honestly about the experience many of us are observing in which it’s hard, given the disruption in our everyday lives to know exactly which day is which. We have to look at the calendar because our normal cycles that remind us, “It’s Monday, it’s Tuesday, it’s Saturday, it’s Sunday,” those markers are largely gone, at least gone in terms of the physical movement of our bodies and especially away from our homes.

Cohen continues her article, “We don’t need religion, but as the crisis reminds us, we still need certain things that religion can provide. We need ways to express gratitude, to face death, to comfort ourselves. We need community and ritual and dates that can’t easily be deleted. I may hide the Jewish calendar,” she says, “so that it does not show up on my app or in my life, but I cannot change or cancel it. It will always be there.” Two things: she is really acknowledging the persistence of Judaism as a tradition, not as a truth claim. She clearly doesn’t believe in the truth claims, but she also has this functionalist understanding of religion, Judaism or otherwise. The functions that religion provides, she says are ways to express gratitude, comfort in facing death, comforting ourselves, community ritual, and as she says, dates or festivals, she means, that can’t easily be deleted.

But at the end of the article, she makes a theological point and, yes, even as an atheist, here’s what we understand. She is making a theological point. She writes, “As an atheist, I believe we can get all we need without God and I have tried to make that true for my kids.” She says, even later, “So I said ‘yes’ when my big sister invited us over for a virtual Passover Seder. Passover, to my way of thinking,” she concludes, “is a holiday that celebrates the deadly plagues wielded by a capricious Old Testament God who doesn’t exist. It begins on the 15th of Nisan every year. This year, I’m really looking forward to it.”

The irony is deliberate, but the unbelief is apparent. It is pervasive. She’s writing merely to say that at this point in the context of this pandemic, even as an atheist, she yearns for certain comfort, certain functions that religion had provided even especially in the midst of traditional celebrations and rituals such as Shabbat and the Passover.

And yes, this week our Jewish neighbors are commemorating the Passover and there has been a lot of media attention devoted to the fact that central to the Passover commemoration for the Jewish people, is a feast. The youngest child, the family feast has a strategic role and a central part is played by the historic four questions. The most important question: why is this night different than all other nights? The response in the Haggadah, the order of the Passover celebration recounts the story of the Jewish people as revealed the book of Exodus.

But even as we’re thinking about this, we need to recognize that for many of those who are observing Passover, it is really more about Judaism than it is about God. It is really more about an ethnic and religious tradition than it is about the truth claims. Now, that is simply a matter of fact. There are many Jewish people who do believe all that is revealed in Scripture, but they’re a part of Rabbinic Judaism and especially in its more Orthodox variants. But as poll after poll has indicated, the vast majority of American Jewish citizens are far more secularized and their Passover is as well.

This leads us to another interesting story that ran just recently at the Washington Post. This one’s by Jennifer Rubin and the title of this, the headline is: “The Bidens’ Powerful Passover Message.” This would be Joe and Jill Biden, Joe Biden, the former vice president of the United States, of course, the now almost sure Democratic nominee for the 2020 presidential election. But Rubin is writing about a message that the Bidens together address to the Jewish community this Passover, and this is what she writes, “The Bidens plainly understand the religious underpinnings of the occasion.” They said, “If Passover teaches us anything, it’s that a united and openhearted people can come through any challenge and emerge stronger on the other side.” The Bidens continued in their Passover commemorative address, “The American people and the people of all nations are facing down a new challenge today, a treacherous journey across unfamiliar terrain and like the heroes of the Passover story, we will survive that journey by calling upon the values that define us: our caring for strangers, our strength and unity, our faith in better days.”

Now, what’s most ironic and interesting about this article is that the statement from the former vice president and Mrs. Biden was proceeded by the statement from Jennifer Rubin, “The Bidens plainly understand the religious underpinnings of the occasion.” And yet what she cites has really nothing to do with any religious underpinnings at all. To look to the religious underpinnings of the Passover, you need to look evidently not to the Washington Post, but more importantly to the book of Exodus—Exodus chapters 11 and 12 in particular. My point in looking at the Bidens’ comments here in the article about them by Jennifer Rubin isn’t really about politics at all. It is about the fact that what we are witnessing in our strange era is the culmination of a long process of secularization that has transformed virtually all religious or theistic truth claims into nothing more than functionalist and traditionalist categories.

Religion has completely been transformed into something that isn’t all that religious. Religion in this case where Jennifer Rubin says, “The Bidens plainly understand the religious underpinnings of the occasion,” has to do with the heroism of the Jewish people as reflected in their experience of the Exodus. But if you read Exodus 11 and Exodus 12, it is not the Jewish people who are the heroes of the story. It is the God of Israel who made covenant with Israel and preserved Israel even through the most horrifying of the 10 plagues, the final plague of the death of the firstborn sons.

The Lord revealed through Moses and Aaron that if Pharaoh did not let the children of Israel go, that he would bring about this climactic final tenth plague that would mean the death of every firstborn son. But there was an exception. The Jewish people who followed the orders of God and sacrificed a lamb and put the blood of that lamb on the doorpost of their home would experience the rescue of their firstborn sons because as the angel of death passed by, that mark on the door would indicate that the angel of death would not bring about the firstborn son in that household. But as the Scripture reveals in Exodus chapter 11 and chapter 12, the angel of death did take away all of the firstborn sons of the Egyptians.

The Lord speaking to Moses in Exodus 12:13 said, “The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you are and when I see the blood, I will pass over you and no plague will befall you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.”

But notice carefully, the Lord continued to Moses, “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord throughout your generations as a statute forever. You shall keep it as a feast. Seven days, you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day, you shall remove leaven out of your houses for if anyone eats what is leaven from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel. On the first day, you shall hold a holy assembly and on the seventh day a holy assembly. No work shall be done on those days. But what everyone needs to eat that alone may be prepared by you and you shall observe the feast of the unleavened bread for on this very day, I brought your host out of the land of Egypt. Therefore you shall observe this day throughout your generations as a statute forever.”

The children of Israel did exactly what God had commanded them to do through Moses and then in chapter 12, verse 29 we read, “At midnight, the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon and all the firstborn of the livestock. And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he and all his servants and all the Egyptians, and there was a great cry in Egypt for there was not a house where someone was not dead. Then he summoned Moses and Aaron by night and said, ‘Up, go out from among my people, both you and the people of Israel and go serve the Lord as you have said. Take your flocks and your herds as you have said and be gone and bless me also.’”

But then before leaving the book of Exodus, we have to look at chapter 13, verse 3, “Then Moses said to the people, ‘Remember this day in which you came out from Egypt out of the house of slavery for by a strong hand the Lord brought you out from this place. No leaven bread shall be eaten.’”

Just note this: what you find in the Bible is nothing like a functionalist understanding of religion. What you find in the Bible is a warning against any understanding of religion as religion and religion is basically functional. Instead, what the Bible presents as the one true and living God and what God reveals to us is truth, and the Bible comes to us making on virtually every single page and every single word a claim to truth, what we rightly understand as truth claims.

It is certainly true, as the Bidens said, that the story of the Exodus includes, “A treacherous journey across unfamiliar terrain,” but the hero of the story is God and God alone. What struck me most and struck me first about that article is simply the fact that the reporter tells us that the Bidens understand the religious background, but there was nothing truly religious about what was then described. But that’s really the point. I think that the writer in this case, Jennifer Rubin, thinks that that is a reference to religious underpinnings. If you look at the book of Exodus, you’re going to get a very different story.

Part II

The Cross and Resurrection at the Center of Christianity: The Importance of Remembering God’s Acts That Took Place in Space, Time, and History

But then that takes us to the fact that it’s not a coincidence that as the Jewish people are observing Passover, Christians now find themselves this week in what throughout history in many traditions has been referred to as Holy Week, the week between Palm Sunday, last Sunday, and the celebration of the resurrection this coming Sunday, and yesterday what in many churches is recognized as Maundy Thursday and today, which is known even throughout most of Western civilization even if they don’t know why, as Good Friday.

There are some very interesting background issues here. For one thing, evangelical Christians following in the reformation tradition have generally not been very devoted to the liturgical calendar. That’s begun to change at least somewhat where the language not only of Good Friday but even of Maundy Thursday has entered into many evangelical congregations. What’s most important to recognize however, is the fact that there’s not only an historical background here. But we have to remember as Christians we are not just talking about a story that unfolded that we are commemorating, we are talking about the truths that took place in space and time in history, the very acts of God in Jesus Christ our Lord that brought about our salvation from sin. You also have to note that the New Testament is replete with references to our salvation through Jesus Christ as a parallel to and a fulfillment of the Exodus of the children of Israel from captivity to Pharaoh.

Even as the Lord appointed Moses to be the leader of Israel, his covenant people, and even as he brought his people out of captivity to Pharaoh in Egypt by his outstretched arm and his mighty hand, so in an even greater, infinitely greater Exodus, the Lord Jesus Christ has rescued his people from captivity to and has brought them into his own kingdom. We have been, as we are told in the New Testament, transferred into the kingdom of his marvelous light.

Several thoughts are extremely timely as well as eternal as we consider this particular celebration and commemoration of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead, yes, in the midst of a pandemic. But our concern as Christians is first and foremost about the saving truth that is revealed here, the saving acts of God and Jesus Christ our Lord, and yes, when we talk about everything from Palm Sunday when we commemorate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, to the event so central to our salvation, the arrest of Christ, the trial of Christ, most importantly Christ’s penal substitutionary death on the cross on the day we dare to call Good Friday, then most importantly, his resurrection from the dead on the third day as Christians we’ll celebrate on Resurrection Sunday, sometimes called Easter.

But as we consider all this, we need to ponder a few truths. For one thing, let’s just remind ourselves we do not hold to this functionalist understanding of religion. We understand, instead, the gospel of Jesus Christ to be true, to be true in a sense that we mean statement A plus B equals C to be true, true in space and time in history. We believe that these events actually took place exactly as they are revealed in the Scriptures. We believe that these events, the cross and the resurrection, to be the very center of God’s saving acts by which we as Christ people are saved from our sins.

Today, of course known even to most to non-Christians as well as Christians it is the day known as Good Friday on the Christian calendar. It is the day on that calendar in which there is a particular reenactment in our minds and in our memories of the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ. It took place on a Friday. We call it Good Friday precisely because it is the Friday on which atonement was paid for our sins, not only for time but for eternity for those who are in Christ.

The fact that it did take place on a Friday and that the resurrection took place on the day we called Sunday are important historical markers to remind us that the saving acts of God took place in space, in time, and in history. It wasn’t just once upon a time. It wasn’t even just on some day or another. It was on that Friday when Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Passover feast. It was on that first day of the week three days later, that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead.

Part III

Will There Be Something Missing As Christians Don’t Gather on This Resurrection Sunday? A Biblical Theology of the Lord’s Day

But going back to the Passover for a moment, it is really interesting to see how much media attention was given to the fact that the one thing that most Jewish people do for the Passover is to gather together for that Passover feast, for that festival, for that dinner and that’s the one thing that now, families in particular, extended families cannot do.

And so, even as you look at the major media, they’ve been giving attention to the fact that Jewish authorities have been generally offering reassurance to Jewish people that even though they cannot be together in the festival of the Passover, the feast of the Passover, the Seder as they would habitually do and have done even in times of plague and pestilence and total war, the reality is that most Jewish families, extended families cannot gather together as they otherwise would and there is something that’s missing from their experience.

Now, that raises for Christians a huge issue: will there be something missing from our experience on this Sunday, which many will call Resurrection Sunday, some will call Easter. I generally preferred not to call it Easter simply because of the mixed background of that word, but rather it is the festival of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is Resurrection Sunday. Well, here’s where I want us to turn to Scripture and just to remind ourselves of some assurances that go far beyond even what the media has talked about and assurances for the Jewish people at Passover. Here’s our assurance: every single Lord’s Day is the celebration of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead.

We do not depend upon any given Lord’s Day. There’s not just one Lord’s Day in the midst of the fifty-two weeks of the year that is devoted to the celebration and commemoration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead rather, the very fact that Christians meet on the first day of the week for the assembling of ourselves together in what is referred to even in the New Testament as the Lord’s Day is specifically tied to the fact that it was on the first day of the week that the Lord Jesus Christ was raised from the dead.

As you look to the New Testament in John 20:1, we are reminded that Jesus was raised from the dead on the first day of the week. In Revelation 1:10 and 1 Corinthians 16:2, we are reminded that Christians met together for worship, gathered together in the assembly on the first day of the week known as the Lord’s Day. This is where Christians look back to the Old Testament and understand that the Sabbath command was a part of the creation ordinances given by God to the human creatures he made in his own image. And that was to be a day of rest on the seventh day of the week to follow an example, the fact that the Lord God himself rested on the seventh day, even from the acts of creation. By the time you get to the 10 Commandments, there’s a commandment to remember the Sabbath, that would be the seventh day of the week to keep it holy.

That raises huge questions. Why do Christians then gather on the first day of the week? Well again, we have the authority for doing so in the New Testament, the transference from the Sabbath of the Old Testament to the Lord’s Day of the New Testament. And furthermore, we also have the theological rationale given in the New Testament: Jesus Christ was raised from the dead on the first day of the week, the earliest Christians gathered together on the first day of the week precisely because it marked that day that Jesus was raised from the dead and it was renamed in the Christian experience as the Lord’s Day.

Here’s also where Christians operating out of a biblical theology understand that the Sabbath of old was looking forward to Christ and the fulfillment of the Sabbath and all things in Christ is seen in Hebrews 4:10, and now as we meet on the first day of the week, we’re not looking forward to Christ, we’re looking backwards to the historical fact that on the third day, the Father raised him from the dead.

A part of what makes the Old Testament Sabbath different from the New Testament Lord’s Day is the fact that Jesus said, even on the cross, “It is finished.” On the Lord’s Day, every Lord’s Day, we meet on the Lord’s Day precisely in order to celebrate the fact that Christ’s work is finished and that God the Father raised the obedient Son from the dead on the third day. Atonement has been accomplished, our salvation is secure. All who come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and repent of their sins are given the gift of eternal life and union with Christ forever.

By the way, this is also why Easter is often referred to on the Christian calendar as a moveable feast. It doesn’t depend upon any particular date. Instead, that is merely set in Christian tradition, especially in Western Christianity. A moveable feast that isn’t celebrated on a fixed date is tied not coincidentally to the Passover, but is timed for the Sunday after the ecclesial full moon on or after the 21st of March. That means that Easter can actually fall on any one of thirty-five dates on the annual calendar from March the 22nd to April the 25th. This year is April the 12th, but every Lord’s Day is the commemoration of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. Evangelical Christians had better be the first to understand that.

We will be missing something this Lord’s Day is what we missed most of us in the last Lord’s Day and probably in the Lord’s Day after that, and that is the assembling of ourselves together, but only for a time and only in this moment of urgency.

But here’s what we will not miss: we will not miss the celebration of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. Here’s what we will not miss: we will not miss any opportunity for sacramental grace. Here’s what we will not miss: we will not miss a ritual necessary for our salvation or for our spiritual good. We will miss the assembling of ourselves together, but wherever we are, wherever Christians are found, every day is lived in the light of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and every Lord’s Day, when we are together or when we are apart, is a joyous celebration and commemoration of the fact that Jesus Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.

And so may the Lord bless your homes and your hearts and our churches wherever we are found as we celebrate together the saving acts of God in Christ, and let us hold fast to this truth and to the sure and certain hope, when we are together and when we are apart.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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