March 31, 2008

Take your Medicine

Do you ever have to take pills? Maybe you’re on regular, daily schedule of them; or maybe you’ve been prescribed a brief regimen of antibiotics, water pills, prenatal vitamins, etc. If it is really important to you to get (or stay) well, you make sure you don’t miss a dose. Maybe you have one of those pillboxes with a little compartment for each day of the week; maybe you leave yourself a note on the bathroom mirror; maybe you set the alarm at six hour intervals to remind yourself it’s medicine time. We all know how important it is to follow the regimen faithfully, don’t we?

Well, it occurs to me that God has given us some spiritual ‘pills’ too; some daily means by which He offers us His healing power; some medicine that we ought to take regularly if we want to become (or stay) spiritually healthy. We would all agree that the spiritual disciplines—the daily pills that God prescribes for us—are far more important than any antibiotic, or heart medicine, or multi-vitamin will ever be. But some of us, myself included, aren’t as diligent as we should be to take our daily medicine; to take advantage of the means by which God offers us daily (or weekly) help and encouragement. Have you been skipping any of your meds lately?

My purpose, in this little article, is not to give you a list of the doses you may have forgotten to take. If it were, I might include things like personal scripture reading and prayer, attendance at worship and prayer meeting, family devotions. But, of course I’m not making a list! Rather, I want to show you a couple of pill bottles that I tend to neglect—thanksgiving and confession. These two disciplines ought to be in the spiritual pillbox every day. Not because they (or any other spiritual disciplines) earn credit points with God; but because these two disciplines are like medicine to our souls. They (like prayer, reading, and public worship) help us to grow spiritually!

Yet I find that I can sometimes go days on end, perhaps feeling somewhat thankful, talking about God’s goodness, but never really pausing to tell Him about it; never really giving specific thanks directly to Him. Of course, what is most important is that we actually be thankful—not just what we say. But it seems to me that if I am really thankful, I will take the time to tell God about it. I will be like the leper in Luke 17 who stopped in the middle of his journey to Jerusalem and “turned back, glorifying God in a loud voice.” His stopping to give thanks was, obviously, honoring to God. But it was also healthy for his own soul. Any time we pause to verbalize our thanksgiving to Jesus, we are re-teaching ourselves the lesson of grace—that my successes (and ultimately, my salvation) are not the works of my hands, but His. “It is good to give thanks to the LORD” (Psalm 92.1)—good to God, and good for us! Thanksgiving—that’s a pill (and not even a bitter one!) worth pausing to swallow every single day!

I also find that it is easy for me to skip the needed doses of confession. By God’s grace, I often feel really bad about my sin. And by God’s grace, I often confess my sin to others—both to those I may have hurt, and to those who will pray for me. But, as with thanksgiving, I don’t always stop to talk these things through with the One who matters most! How foolish! It isn’t God’s loss, but mine if I don’t take my medicine. And confession is good, though hard to swallow, medicine! For “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1.9). That is not to say that we will be left unforgiven, and ultimately go to hell, if we don’t remember and confess every single sin. No, our forgiveness rests, ultimately, on what Christ did, not on what we do. But our experience of forgiveness; the fresh cleansing of conscience that God desires to give us does depend on our bringing it to Jesus, confessing it, and washing ourselves again and again in the medicinal waters of Jesus’ blood. What a fool I am to skip out on that healing power. A few weeks ago, if you’d offered me a pill, or a medicine bath that could have immediately rid me of the lethargy and pain of the flu I had a few weeks back, I’d have taken it! How much more should I daily swallow the pill of confession and experience the healed conscience that it brings!

So would you pray with me that I wouldn’t miss my regimen? And would you pray for yourself in the same way?

March 24, 2008

"Spread it out before the LORD"

“Then Hezekiah took the letter from the hand of the messengers and read it, and he went up to the house of the LORD and spread it out before the LORD”2 Kings 19.14

Hezekiah was king in Judah during treacherous times. Sennacherib, the powerful king of Assyria, had already ransacked God’s northern kingdom, Israel. His troops had overrun the cities, carried the people into exile, and resettled the land with Assyrian squatters. Now only two of the original twelve tribes remained in the Promised Land, with Hezekiah as their king. And Hezekiah knew that they were next. He was no match for Sennacherib. Without the LORD’s help, it would be only a matter of time before Sennacherib was breathing down his neck, and burning down his city. And then came the letter from Sennacherib’s general: “Do not let your God in whom you trust deceive you saying, ‘Jerusalem will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.’ Behold, you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all the lands…Did the gods of those nations which my fathers destroyed deliver them?” (2 Kings 19.10-12). ‘Your God can’t save you’ in other words. ‘You’d better listen to us instead of calling out to Him.’

Did you ever receive a ‘letter’ like that … a threatening, discouraging, accusing message from the enemy? Maybe it came in the form of a letter; maybe a phone call; maybe a dream; maybe in the form of overwhelming guilt. Did you ever receive a message to the effect that God was through with you; or that God was unable (or unwilling) to help you; or that God was, after all, not really on your side?

Even if you know it’s not true (and Hezekiah did), it is still difficult to absorb the devil’s darts of discouragement and doubt. So what do you do when the devil sends you a nasty letter? Notice Hezekiah…

You don’t write a nasty letter back to the devil (or to the person he used as his secretary). You don’t get angry with the secretary. You don’t take the devil’s discouragement to heart. You don’t stew over it. No, none of these things. You read the letter, as Hezekiah did. But then you “spread it out before the LORD.” When you face doubts, discouragements, and accusations you don’t let the devil have the final say. You “spread it out before the LORD.” You let Him read the letter. You let Him show you if there is any validity to the criticism or conviction. And, most importantly, you let Him write the response. You don’t need to write a defensive reply to the devil. Instead you lay down your pen, lay down your pride, and “spread it out before the LORD” in prayer, as Hezekiah did in 2 Kings 19.15-19 (you’d be encouraged if you read over his wonderful prayer!). Do this, and the LORD will fight your battles. Sennacherib’s army lost 185,000 foot soldiers without a spear being slung from the walls of Jerusalem. And He will fight for you to, if you “spread it out before the LORD.”

So, what sorts of discouraging letters has the devil sent you lately? How has the accuser been attacking you? And have you been defending yourself; fighting back; or maybe listening a little too closely to the accusations? It’s time to give Him the ‘letter’ and leave it in His hands. It’s time to “spread it out before the LORD.”

March 17, 2008

Hoax? Or Hope?

I am fully aware that our main theme this weekend—the resurrection of Jesus—is considered by some shaky ground, at best. We don’t have any ‘scientific’ way to prove resurrection is possible. So, many people conclude on a day like Easter Sunday, that all this resurrection stuff is just a quaint religious allegory that teaches us the power of a fresh start, and encourages us never to give up. Many pulpits will preach it that way this Sunday morning! But that is, emphatically, not what I will offer the folks at PRBC. I am offering a Jesus who really bled and died in our place; a Jesus who rose, literally and bodily, on the third day; a Jesus who is, literally and bodily, alive today in that unseen realm we call heaven. Does that sound pie-in-the-sky? Unscientific? Primitive? Well, science may not be able to explain resurrection, but logic says it’s true! Consider some evidence…

1. The Old Testament prophecies. Did you know that, hundreds of years before the fact, Old Testament preachers were predicting the coming of a Messiah who would suffer, die, and rise from the dead? Take Isaiah 53, for instance—an entire chapter prophesying the death of the Messiah on a cross (a few hundred years before men invented crucifixion, I might add). In the middle of it is this sentence: “If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days.” The only way that could happen, after a chapter of death, is resurrection! And so we see that the resurrection was not just a hoax created by a few disciples who couldn’t let go of their dream—it was a long-expected hope of the people of God!

2. The empty tomb. In the first century, no one disputed that Jesus of Nazareth died that day outside Jerusalem. Neither did anyone dispute the fact that He had claimed He’d rise again. That is why the Romans posted guards outside His tomb (Matthew 27.63-66)—to make sure nobody stole that body and started a resurrection rumor. And yet, in spite of the political and religious expedience of a dead Jesus, when the ‘resurrection rumor’ did indeed begin, none of the opponents of Christianity could produce a body. Had they done so, the Christian’s message would have been quashed right away as a hoax and a scam. But it wasn’t. The tomb was empty, the body was gone, and no one had a reasonable explanation besides resurrection.[1]

3. The Apostles’ boldness. Remember, 10 of the 12 disciples of Jesus were brutally murdered for their preaching of a crucified and risen Jesus. Would these men, in such large numbers, have gone to their grisly deaths over a hoax? It seems unlikely.

4. The eye-witness accounts. Some modern readers may not be convinced of the validity of the four biblical gospels. But in the gospels we have four accounts written within a few decades of the events themselves—when many other, less-sympathetic, eye-witnesses were still around. If it was all a sham, there were plenty of other witnesses around who could have written to prove it. But no one did. No other first-century witnesses had an explanation for the empty tomb. So maybe we ought to listen to these four men. Maybe they know a lot more about what happened in their own lifetimes than we who live 1,970 years later!

5. The God factor. It is difficult to say (with a straight face) that we believe in God…but not in the miraculous. But that is the pickle that many religious leaders will face this Sunday morning—encouraging people to find help and hope in God…but in a God who isn’t godlike enough to do the impossible. I choose to believe in a different kind of God—a God with whom nothing is impossible; a God who raises the dead. The evidence leaves me with no other logical choice.

[1] I am well aware of the discovery of the so-called Jesus Family Tomb. Aside from the fact that serious archeologists do not consider it a noteworthy find, logic tells us that these can’t possibly be the bones of Jesus of Nazareth. Think it out: If you were living in the first-century, and had the bones of Jesus Christ, what would you do? If an opponent, you’d bring them out for all to see, not bury them. And if a supporter of the ‘resurrection hoax’, you’d bury them in an unmarked grave, not in a box with Jesus’ name on it! There is no common sense explanation for why Jesus of Nazareth’s bones would have been disposed of in such a way! Thus I don’t include this solution as ‘a reasonable explanation’ for the empty tomb. Read more here.

March 12, 2008

Evangelical Priests?

Last Sunday, preaching on Jesus as our Great High Priest from Hebrews 4.14-5.10, I made the following statement:

A priest is a go-between, arbitrating between God and man. This is why the Roman Catholic Church calls its clergy priests. Having rejected the idea that there is only “one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2.5), the Roman Church is still in the business of appointing religious go-betweens “on behalf of men in things pertaining to God.”

Make no mistake. Whether the reason is misinformed theology, a play for hierarchical power, or just a lagging tradition, this is what the Roman church believes and practices. The average Joe cannot approach God completely without the aid of his local priest. Thus the confessional, where the priest doesn’t simply offer counsel and prayer, but grants “absolution” – or forgiveness of sins – on God’s behalf. Thus also the mass, which is said to literally become the body and blood of Jesus when the priest blesses it. Why? Because the priest, in the manner of the Old Testament, is offering up “sacrifices for sins” (Hebrews 5.1). In the Catholic system, the common folk need these men to intercede, to absolve, and to offer sacrifices for sins – and thus the people are robbed of Christ, the one mediator. Instead of the infinite, sinless, all-compassionate, nail-pierced Savior, they are left with Father Bill, who may be a wonderful man, but who has his own sins and weaknesses to deal with. It is an empty system.

‘Thank God we don’t think like that’ someone says. ‘We Evangelicals know better than to offer salvation in the form of a priest. We know that only Jesus saves.’ Do we really? Let me tell you a little story that might make you think otherwise.

Some time back I was having coffee with an astute clergyman of another denomination—a self-described liberal. I was explaining to him why I could not, in good conscience, participate in the local gatherings of various ministers, pastors, and priests. After having drawn a line in the sand between his beliefs and mine (on things like the infallibility of the Scriptures, virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the deity of Jesus, etc.), he threw me a curve ball: ‘Well, the Roman Catholics believe all those things, and Father ______ still comes to our meetings.’

‘I have to tell you that we are about as far from the Catholics as from yourself’ I told him, going on to detail, among other things, the unbiblical and Christ-obscuring nature of the Roman priesthood. End of conversation, right? No. Without flinching he said: ‘Come on, you Baptists do the same thing.’ ‘How is that’ I asked? ‘Do you mean to tell me that you don’t give an altar call, and have people repeat a sinner’s prayer at the end of your services? That is the same thing.’ Here he thought he had me – except that I must have been the first Baptist preacher he met who doesn’t do those things! ‘No’ I said. ‘I preach Jesus and ask people to look to Him.’

So he couldn’t nail me to the wall. But do you know what … he could have seven years ago. And he could have nailed most of our denomination, even today. For when we say to people: ‘If you want to be forgiven, come down front and the preacher or one of our counselors will lead you in a prayer for salvation’, we may as well be asking them to come into a confessional. The message is the same isn’t it? ‘Salvation is in Jesus, sure. But to get to Him, you need to come to a certain religious place, talk with a certain religious person (priest, counselor, pastor, whatever you want to call them), pronounce a certain religious formula, and have someone assure you that, having gone through the right motions, you are now absolved of sin.’

Is that the gospel? May it never be! As I pastor, my door is always open to listen to people in need of help. But my job is to point you to the Great High Priest, not to become a makeshift priest myself. My job is to point you to the Forgiver, not to assure you that you are forgiven. My job is to point to the Savior, not to try to do the saving. So, God give us more pastors, and fewer priests!

March 10, 2008

The Luck of the Irish?

Do you ever ask yourself the really difficult questions? You know, those deep philosophical queries that take you all the way to the core of the meaning of life? Questions like: Why does everybody wear green on St. Patrick’s Day? And why do I get pinched if I don’t? And why are the Irish so lucky, anyway? Well, this little leaflet may not fully answer those questions. But I can say this: there is no such thing as luck! God is orchestrating everything in this universe—from the orbit of the planets (Isaiah 40.22) to the exact time when a sparrow falls out of a tree (Matthew 10.29). He controls it all! And the story of St. Patrick is an example of this truth—a great illustration of God’s loving hand designing our days for good …

Contrary to our childhood imaginations, Patrick of Ireland was not a quirky little Irishman who went around pinching people and searching for four-leafed clovers! It is also highly unlikely that he wore a funny green suit. In fact, Patrick wasn’t even Irish! So who was this man who has a holiday named for him?*

Patrick was a modestly educated boy who lived in late 4th century Britain. Though his father was a deacon, and his grandfather a pastor in the local church, Patrick was unimpressed with Christianity, unconcerned with eternity, and unacquainted with Jesus Christ. That is, until he was sixteen. That was when he was captured by pirates and ferried across the Irish Sea to become a slave of those ‘barbarian’ people called the Irish.

For six years Patrick served as an enslaved farm-hand. But there on the Irish hillsides, desperate and alone, he began to call out to the living Christ whom his grandfather had preached. There, in the midst of harsh slavery in a pagan land, Patrick became a committed follower of Jesus! Gone were the trappings of mere outward religion; and in their place came a genuine trust in the life and death of the historical God-man, Jesus Christ. God allowed this young man to hit rock bottom, so that he might finally turn his eyes heavenward!

Isn’t that a wonderful illustration of how “God causes all things”—even the lowest moments of suffering—“to work together for good to those who love God” and are “called according to His purpose” (Romans 8.28**)?

And God’s goodness did not end with Patrick’s conversion to Christ …

After six years of slavery, Patrick escaped and was eventually reunited with his family in Britain. It must have been a glorious reunion! His parents must surely have thought that neither they nor their son would ever have to think of those pagan, unchristian Irishmen again. But God made them think again! Patrick began to sense that God was summoning him to return to the land of his captivity … this time, not as a slave of the Irish, but as a servant of Jesus Christ—a missionary!

And that is exactly what Patrick did! He went and gave himself to the people who had so demeaned and abused him, and laid out his life in missionary labors among them—just like his Lord had done four centuries before! Within decades, under Patrick’s preaching, Ireland began to glow for Jesus! Thousands of people became followers of Jesus, and little congregations began to be planted here and there among the Irish hills!

To this day, many thousands of Irish believers can trace their history to God’s grace in sending such a man to their island. Talk about ‘the luck of the Irish’!

But what did this ancient saint teach? What message did Patrick bring to Ireland? And has it any relevance for today? Well, quite simply, Patrick taught the Bible! Indeed, his writings are chocked full of Bible quotes! Let me mention just a few of Patrick’s biblical quotations,^  expounding myself on the meaning of each verse as I go along:

  • “There is no other” God (Isaiah 45, v.5) – only one true God … who reveals Himself (as Patrick was eager to point out) in the persons of the Father, the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit.
  • “He who sins is a slave” (John 8, v.34). And I hasten to add that all of us are, by nature, thus enslaved—knowing what we ought to do and so often failing to do so; knowing that there is a God (who made us, owns us, and loves us), and yet failing to honor and obey Him as we know we should.
  • “Those who do evil … are to be damned” (Romans 1, v.32). Simple and sobering. We deserve to die for our dishonoring of God.
  • And yet, Jesus Christ “gave his own soul for [us]” on the cross (1 John, 3, v.16)—taking the death penalty that we deserve, so that we might be rescued from it ourselves; so that we might be forgiven, and granted “everlasting life which is in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6, v.23).

Now that last point is really good news, isn’t it? Yes, we have sinned our way out of God’s good graces … but we do not have to earn our way back in! Jesus has done that for us – by “[laying] down His life for us”! And so forgiveness and heaven are a gift! “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6.23). That is the good news young Patrick discovered as he sat enslaved and alone on those ancient Irish hills! That is the good news he preached to the Irish in the fifth century AD. This is the good news that Jesus and the apostles preached in the first century. And this is the same good news that will rescue 21st century men and women, too!

So let me ask you: Have you recognized your Maker? Have you realized that “your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God” (Isaiah 59.2)? And have you turned from those sins and placed your eternal hope squarely into the nail-scarred hands of Jesus? This is what Patrick, all those centuries ago, urged the Irish to do! And this is what I urge you to do today: stop running from God; stop hiding from God; stop ignoring God; stop defying God … and, like young Patrick so long ago, turn to Jesus for mercy. And when you do, He will forgive all your running, hiding, ignoring, and defying!

And (for us religious types), let us lay aside the idea that we must earn our way back to God with all our religious activity (penance, mass, confession, good works, etc.). And let us believe, rather, that salvation really is a “free gift”! And if we will; if we will simply trust that, by His sinless life and sacrificial death, Jesus Christ has earned our way back to God for us – then God will forgive our sins, too! For “whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3.16)!


*My sources for the life of St. Patrick are his own The Confession of Saint Patrick. Translated by John Skinner. (New York, NY: Image Books, 1998); and Philip Freeman’s Patrick of Ireland. (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2005).

**Aside from those scriptures quoted directly out of Patrick’s own writings (and placed in bold print), all other Scripture quotations are taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®. Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. Italicized emphasis within scriptural quotations is inserted by the tract’s author.

^These scripture quotations are drawn from Skinner’s The Confession of Saint Patrick (which includes both Patrick’s actual Confession, as well as a letter of rebuke he wrote to a group of barbarous soldiers).