September 18, 2017

The Beauty of Baptism

This Sunday morning, Lord willing, we will have the privilege of witnessing five baptisms at Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church. Praise God for how He is working! And, on an occasion such as this, it is well if we ponder the spiritual beauty of what we witness when we see someone baptized. So consider, with me, three beautiful aspects of baptism:

1. Baptism is a picture.
Now, note well that baptism is only a picture. It does not wash away sins or contribute to a person’s salvation in any way. It is, rather, a portrait of what has happened already in the life of the man, women, girl, or boy who has been saved through Christ! And yet, though it is only a picture, it is indeed an important and beautiful picture! The Christian’s immersion (or burial) in water is symbolic of the marvelous reality that his or her old, sinful man has been buried with Christ! And, when that same person is then raised out of the water, we have a wonderful picture of the new, resurrection life that has been granted to everyone who is in Christ.
“We have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4)
It is because of this burial and resurrection picture that we baptize only believers (only people who have actually experienced burial and resurrection with Christ). And it is also because of this picture that we baptize by immersion (or burial) in water. For it is immersion, and not sprinkling or pouring, that actually presents to us the beautiful picture that Paul describes in Romans 6 – burial and resurrection with Jesus!

2. Baptism is an announcement.
When a person goes through the waters of baptism, he is, to the best of his ability, confirming his belief that burial and resurrection with Christ has actually taken place in his life. And the elders who take responsibility for the baptism are, to the best of their ability, confirming the same. And, since baptisms often take place in front of the gathered congregation, baptism is not only a confirmation of the saving work of God in a person’s life, but also an announcement of it as well! Baptisms are occasions for public celebration of what God has done; for joining with the angels (Luke 15:10) in the celebration of God’s saving work in the lives of those around us.

3. Baptism is a marker.
Consider the context of that baptism-as-burial-and-resurrection passage in Romans 6. What is Paul’s main point in that passage? Well, he is arguing that Christians must not go on carelessly in their sins. “How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” he asks in v.2. Good question! And, to nail down the fact that Christians have, indeed, died to sin (and to remind them that Christians can, indeed, “walk in newness of life”), Paul reminds his readers (in vv.3-4) of when they were baptized, and of what baptism pictures! He carries them back to the day of baptism as a reminder that, ‘When you were baptized, the picture was that the old you was buried … and that, in Christ, a new person had come to life. So live that way! “Consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (v.11).’

And the point I am making is that Paul uses baptism as a marker in the life of the believer – as something he or she can look back on as a reminder of what God has done … and of how we should live, in light of it! And so today is an important day, for that reason, too. We are setting up a marker, as it were, in these five lives – a picture to which, Lord willing, they will always be able to look back as a portrait of what God has done in their lives … and therefore of what they are able to be and do, in Christ.

September 5, 2017

"He Himself is our peace"

I’m from the American South. The place where racial tensions have often been at their height. The place where slavery, Jim Crow, and ‘separate but equal’ had their heyday. But also the place where I saw the gospel of Jesus Christ, in stunningly beautiful ways, quietly transcend the ethnic divide which is so much on the forefront of current cultural dialogue.

The place was Tunica County, Mississippi – in the northern tip of that beautifully unique region known as the Mississippi Delta. This is a region where cotton was once king; where huge-scale agriculture is still the order of the day; where magnificent yellow crop-dusters buzz like giant dragonflies overhead; and where, in many localities, the majority population is African-American. It’s also the place where, eager to get my feet wet in pastoral ministry, I was called as a mission pastor (in the little crossroads of Robinsonville, in the northern part of Tunica County) during the summer before my second year of seminary.

Robinsonville, once a sleepy collection of mammoth cotton, rice, and soybean fields, was in a state of flux in the early 2000's.  Nine large casinos had recently been built along the Mississippi River, and both African-Americans from elsewhere in the county, as well as out-of-the-area transplants of various backgrounds and ethnicities, were moving into the area to work at the casinos (and at the hotels, restaurants, and so on that follow, like hungry seagulls, in the casinos' wake).  And the idea behind my coming was that this burgeoning population in northern Tunica County to be reached with the gospel. And, indeed, it did (and still does!).

In the two years we were there, we were able to touch a few of the out-of-the-area transplants with the message of Christ. But it turned out that most of those we touched with the good news were from among the African-American folks who had lived most of their lives in Tunica County. And it was glorious! Gathered together around Jesus Christ, the congregation there became, truly, a family!  And within the church family, if my assessment is correct, there was little to-do made over the oddity of a white, suburban preacher-boy and his wife serving, and immensely loved and welcomed by, a congregation of mostly rural-background African-Americans.  For, in the midst of studying the Bible together, and considering the gospel of Christ together, and singing hymns together, and caring for each other, and just doing life together, I don’t think any of us thought too much about whether we were white, or black, or rural, or suburban. And we certainly didn’t experience any racial tension within the congregation. Were we different in some ways? Absolutely! Did we realize that fact? Of course (sometimes comically!). But it never became a point of contention, or even really much of a point of discussion. We had other, more pressing, things to be doing and discussing! Jesus was bringing us together around Himself!

This was not a part of any strategy or master plan for racial harmony. I was too wet-behind-the-ears to have had any ideas for tackling something like that (and, honestly, too na├»ve to know that it could even have been an issue). But Christ and His gospel really do make a difference when it comes to questions of ethnicity, heritage, culture, and so on! Writing about gospel unity among Jews and Gentiles, Paul said something that, I think, also applies to all sorts of other differences and potential divisions in the church: “He Himself [Jesus] is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall” (Ephesians 2:14). “He Himself is our peace” (emphasis added)! And how true we found that to be! Where people truly gather around Christ, and know Christ, and worship Christ … no matter how different from one another they may be in many respects, they will, by a new spiritual instinct, genuinely love each other! And their differences will seem fairly small in light of what they have in common in Jesus.

So, brothers and sisters, in this day of ethnic tension and dialogue, let us lift up Christ above all else. “He Himself is our peace.”

August 29, 2017

Paul's Letters

The apostle Paul (also known as Saul) is famous for his letters – to Christians in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, and so on. But, before Paul wrote any of these famous letters, we are told that he “asked for letters” (emphasis added) of a very different sort:
Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Acts 9:1-2
These were very different letters, indeed, which Paul had tucked into his satchel as he made his way down the road to Damascus! These were letters meant, not to instruct, encourage, and correct the churches … but to destroy them. These letters, unlike those for which he later became famous, had their inspiration in hell rather than in heaven! But praise God that, before Paul was able to execute the permission these letters granted, heaven intervened … not only on behalf of the Christians in Damascus, but on behalf of Saul himself!

Saul met Jesus on that trip to Damascus, and was forever changed! Now, instead of Saul “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” … now, through Paul’s letters, the Lord Himself would breathe out His very own words … “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Saul went from carrying letters for the devil, to writing letters for the Lord!

And isn’t God’s mercy rich? Isn’t His grace great? And isn’t “Jesus Christ … the same yesterday and today and forever”? He is! And that means that He is still saving souls … and even Sauls! So pray for them! Pray for the seeming ‘tough nuts to crack’ in your life – the people who, though not hateful or militant like Saul, still seem (to our weak faith) like they are among the least likely people who would ever turn to Christ, and to begin serving His kingdom. For, if Christ saved Saul, He can save the seemingly ‘unlikely candidates’ in our lives, too!

And He can save the militants, as well! So pray for the conversion, even, of people who hate the church, and wish to see her destroyed. “Is anything too difficult for the LORD?” Are members of ISIS, or the persecutors in North Korea, too difficult for the Lord to save? Absolutely not! So pray for them! Pray that they might be saved, and that they might be useful to God’s kingdom! They won’t, of course, write inspired letters, like the apostle did. But they might begin to preach from them!  They can go from handling the devil’s business, to delivering the Lord’s gospel mail!  Pray that it might be so!

August 25, 2017

"We shall always be with the Lord"

There are multiple reasons to be excited about your wedding day. One is, perhaps, just the sheer relief of having the weight of all the preparations and stresses finally coming to an end. Another, of course, is the joy of having the people you love most (and who love you most) all together in one place. And then there is simple delight in the beauty of it all … the dresses, the flowers, the table cloths and candles, the culinary fare. But most of all (as I have lately been reminded by listening to a recently married couple!) … most of all, the bride and groom long for and look forward to that day because, finally, they will get to be together! Finally they will wake up, every morning, to each other’s faces! Finally they will live together in the same dwelling!

And we can speak similarly about “the marriage of the Lamb” – about the coming of Christ to receive His bride. There are multiple reasons to long for and look forward to that day! In that day, the weights and stresses of this life will finally, mercifully have come to an end! In that day, there will be a family reunion of family reunions! And the beauty of that banquet? Well, let us just say that the beauty of our earthly weddings is only a foretaste of the beauty on which our eyes will feast in the new earth! And not only these things, but (unlike in our earthly marriages!) sin will have been forever abolished from the earth – “a new earth, in which righteousness dwells.”

But, as with earthly brides, what Christ's bride longs for the most (it is to be hoped) is the pleasure of finally getting to be with her bridegroom; finally sharing a dwelling together; finally living together ‘happily ever after!’

“The Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, emphasis added).

Oh, let us look forward to that day – all the stresses of this life ended, all the family of God gathered together in one place, all the beauty we can imagine (and more), all our sins forever banished, and all of eternity to live in the presence of our Bridegroom, our Redeemer, our King, our Friend!  Praise God, in that day, “we shall always be with the Lord”!

August 21, 2017

'Thine eclipse'

In his excellent biographical message on John Newton, John Piper quotes the following marvelous words from Newton's pen, on the occasion of an eclipse (albeit, of a different sort than today's):
Tonight I attended an eclipse of the moon. How great, O Lord, are thy works! With what punctuality do the heavenly bodies fulfill their courses. . . . I thought, my Lord, of Thine eclipse. The horrible darkness which overwhelmed Thy mind when Thou saidst, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” Ah, sin was the cause — my sins — yet I do not hate sin or loathe myself as I ought” (Richard Cecil, The Life of John Newton, edited by Marylynn Rousse, p. 134).
As you view the eclipse today, think on Christ , "the Light of the world", entering into the darkness of death and judgment on behalf of us sinners.  And thank God for His eclipse.