The Handwriting on the Wall

When we embrace the gospel message of Jesus Christ we become saints, sanctified ones, “set apart for God’s holy use or purpose.”  How does God view that which He has sanctified, but not being used for its holy purpose?  Let’s get a snapshot look in Daniel chapter 5.

“Belshazzar the king held a great feast for a thousand of his nobles, and he was drinking wine in the presence of the thousand.  When Belshazzar tasted the wine, he gave orders to bring the gold and silver vessels which Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken out of the temple which was in Jerusalem, in order that the king and his nobles, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them.  Then they brought the gold vessels that had been taken out of the temple, the house of God which was in Jerusalem; and the king and his nobles, his wives, and his concubines drank from them.  They drank the wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone.  Suddenly the fingers of a man’s hand emerged and began writing opposite the lampstand on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, and the king saw the back of the hand that did the writing.  Then the king’s face grew pale, and his thoughts alarmed him; and his hip joints went slack, and his knees began knocking together” (Dan 5:1-6).

Belshazzar, the king of Babylon, during a great feast brought out the sacred vessels stolen from the temple of God and profaned them by drinking from them and using them as items of worship to his pagan gods.  During this profanity, a man’s hand appeared and wrote an inscription on the wall.  It read, by Daniel’s interpretation, “God has numbered your kingdom and put an end to it.  You have been weighed on the scales and found deficient.  Your kingdom has been divided and given over to the Medes and Persians” (Dan 5:25-28).  Sure enough, before the night was out, Belshazzar was killed and his kingdom passed to Darius the Mede.

Why this punishment for Belshazzar the king?  Listen to Daniel’s summary of the king’s actions.  “Even though you knew all that happened to your father, Nebuchadnezzar [made to live like a beast of the field because of his pride], you have not humbled your heart, but have exalted yourself against the Lord of heaven.  They have brought the vessels of His house before you, and you and your nobles, your wives and your concubines have been drinking wine from them; and you have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see, hear or understand.  But the God in whose hand are your life-breath and your ways, you have not glorified” (Dan 5:22-23).  Belshazzar exalted himself by using the holy things of God in idol worship.  As a result, his kingdom was taken away and he was slain; all because he chose to desecrated the holy things of God.

Viewing the Old Testament as “examples written for our instruction” (I Cor 10:11), here’s the application that I take away from this story.  Your body is a holy temple.  Do not desecrate what God calls holy, what God purchased with the “precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ” (I Pet 1:19) by worldly living.  When we live in sin, we are treating Christ’s death – Christ’s substitution in our place – as trivial.  And it is a dangerous thing to desecrate or trivialize the holy things of God.  Remember, saint, your label over and over in the New Testament is “holy one.”  Live your life worthy of your holy calling (Eph 4:1).

One Tiny Example

It is easy to talk about the worldliness of our popular entertainment options with a broad brush, attacking the most offensive elements.  But when I label the world’s approach – advertised as enlightened, but actually profane – I am referring to many subtle messages as well.  Let me give you a tiny example.

When Rhonda was in France for nearly a month helping Annie and her family celebrate the birth of their son, I spent most of my time catching up in my work as a consulting geophysicist or writing.  By the end of the time, I was growing quite weary of a computer screen.  So I switched to the TV screen in my down time.  After watching just so many reruns of ESPN Sportscenter, I turned to the primetime offerings of the broadcast networks; something I have rarely taken the time for in the last five years.

I happened on to a show called “The Middle” airing their Christmas episode.  In this installment, the what appeared to be high-school age daughter was in a fit over the fact that her what appeared to be quite bright little brother did not believe the story of Christianity.  The episode included the typical complaints about Christianity we have come to expect on network television, painting our religion as not for thinking people.  However, the culmination of the Christianity discussion took a twist that is just a tiny example of what I mean by the profane in our entertainment industry.

A character named “Pastor Tim” attempted to allay the sister’s fears about her little brother by asking her if her brother was into Justin Bieber.  She said her brother was not “into” Mr. Bieber and she could not understand it.  “Pastor Tim” then made the leap to say it is the same way with Jesus.  Some people are “into” Jesus and some are not just like they are “into” Justin Bieber or not and for similar reasons that we really can’t explain or figure out.

I know it is a small point but it illustrates the word profane.  Comparing acceptance or rejection of the gospel message as being like choosing to be “into” Justin Bieber or not was a classic example of demeaning the sacred.  What does God think of demeaning the sacred?  We will find out with a story from Daniel chapter 5 next time.

Engaging the Culture

Several times in his letters to Timothy, the apostle Paul warns his young protégé to avoid “worldliness” (Greek word bebēlos, translated “profane” in the King James Bible).  Worldly or profane is such an apt description of our culture’s view on these lifestyle issues and nowhere does it come through more clearly than in the entertainment industry.

Most of what is being delivered to us today as entertainment is best described as profane.  It cheapens and demeans the sacred, replacing it with the profane.  Gratuitous sex, graphic violence, and blasphemous language in music and movies takes the sacred – the beauty of sex within marriage, life created in God’s image, and calling on the name of the one true God in times of trouble – and cheapens them for thrills, drama, or laughs.  It is worldly.  It is ungodly.

And the red flag it raises for me is how much Christians swallow what is being offered.  We are encouraged to overlook those objectionable elements and explore the world’s movies and music as a way to engage our culture; a way to establish common ground with our unbelieving neighbors.  I believe this approach is the exact opposite of the New Testament approach to engaging our culture.  And if this appears to just be another legalistic railing against the entertainment industry, please read the following verses prayerfully and carefully.

“Therefore, since Christ has suffered death in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered death in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.  For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousals, drinking parties and abominable idolatries.  And in all this, they are surprised that you do not run with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they malign you; but they shall give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead” (I Pet 4:1-5).  These characterizations of a pagan lifestyle clearly describe the current “flood of dissipation” coming out of Hollywood.  How do we respond?

We are called to a life of holiness that, as Peter points out, will actually lead to derision – “they malign you” – for not participating in the world’s lifestyle.  This criticism from the world is in God’s view a badge of honor.  There is no honor in legalism, self-righteousness, or pride.  There is no honor in looking down our noses at the lifestyle excesses of our unbelieving friends.  There is no honor in a lack of love toward any person.  But there is honor and great reward for a godly lifestyle that refuses participation in evil and accepts the demeaning and even abusive responses that may accompany a godly stand.

Will our holiness efforts separate us from the lost or will it surprise and raise curiosity among the lost?  It all depends on our attitude.  If the attitude that accompanies our desire to keep a godly lifestyle is in any way self-righteous or condescending, we are doing the gospel and our audience a great disservice and any ridicule we experience is of no spiritual value.  However, if we are winsome and humble and cheerful and loving in our efforts to develop a holy lifestyle, we will actually become a curiosity to outsiders.  In this way, we will engage the culture by seeking the good of our neighbor, rather than joining them in their sin.

Biblical accommodation and engagement is conversing and drinking coffee in a neighbor’s apartment when you hate the taste of coffee.  It is going to dinner with your obnoxious co-worker in order to build a bridge of friendship.  It is dying your hair yellow to become more approachable while attending a university that celebrates such nonconformity.  Nonbiblical accommodation is when our participation leads to sin.  The eye is the gate to the mind and the mind is the gate to the heart.  I can’t help but believe that the current fair coming out of our entertainment industry and entering the eyes of believers is at least dangerous if not outright sin for the follower of Christ.

Holy Temples

In the area of lifestyle issues, we must teach our children – and understand ourselves – the important distinction between the sacred and the profane, between the holy and the carnal, between godliness and worldliness.  By virtue of our relationship (children of God) and affinity (moral resemblance) to God, we now inhabit the world of the sacred, the holy, the godly.  Not because we keep a certain list of do’s and dont’s, but because God has placed us there by the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross.

Look at these New Testament labels for believers.  “As those who have been chosen by God, holy and beloved…” (Col 3:12), or “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation…” (I Pet 2:9).  Over and over, the apostle Paul calls believers “saints”, or literally, “holy ones.”  The import of this for Christian living is the idea that godliness is not only our destiny; it is our capacity as well.

Think about the word “holy” for a minute.  It is the ultimate attribute of God.  Holy, one-of-a-kind, unique, off-the-charts, and unlike any other are all attempts to describe God’s unique character.  And everywhere God dwells is holy.  In His interaction with man in the Old Testament, God’s presence was largely geographic.  He inhabited the Holy Mountain (Mt. Sinai), the Holy Land (Palestine), the Holy City (Jerusalem), and of course the Holy of Holies in the Holy Temple.

But under the New Covenant, the veil has been torn and the physical temple destroyed, and God now lives in the heart of every believer by the Holy Spirit.  The fact is we are made holy by the Holy Spirit living in us.  This is not an exclamation of pride or perfection or self-righteousness; it is a simple fact of the New Covenant.  We are living stones (I Pet 2:5) and our bodies are holy temples (I Cor 6:19).

Framing the discussion about lifestyle issues in terms of our bodies, God’s temple, takes the focus away from the Christian life as a legalistic set of rules to follow.  It turns our attention to a lifestyle that reflects who we already are; a lifestyle that reflects our relationship with the Father.  What this looks like in the specifics is a topic for next time.