July 26, 2010

Take it and Read

Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts. Romans 13.13-14

These are some of the most important verses in church history … really in human history. How so? Well, let me take you back about sixteen hundred years to a man called Augustine. He was one of the greatest leaders in church history … most say the greatest between the apostle Paul and the Reformation in the 1500’s A.D. In other words, in the opinion of most historians, there was no more important Christian than Augustine for eleven centuries after his life and death!

Why? Well, among other things because he wrote definitive early theological books on the Trinity, on God’s sovereignty in election and predestination, and on the relation of the church to the world. He helped shape, not only church doctrine, but western culture … because western culture as we know it grew up out of the melding together (for better or for worse) of the Roman empire with the Christian church. And since Augustine was the greatest thinker and writer in the Christian church during those crucial years, his vision for the church and the culture was, in some ways, more influential in shaping the western world than any politician today could ever dream of being.

Augustine was a pastor, a scholar, and a statesman. And no one quite like him came along until Martin Luther and John Calvin arose out of the ashes of medieval Roman Catholicism with the Bible in their hands and the pure gospel on their lips. And even they often quoted and learned doctrine from reading Augustine!

But Augustine wasn’t always a great Christian. In fact, he lived his teenage and early adult years as a profligate, carousing, sexually immoral school teacher. And over time, he came to loathe himself. He read stories of early monks who gave up all their earthly possessions … and he hated himself because he couldn’t even give up his live in girlfriend. In fact, one day the conviction of the Holy Spirit was so deep that he found himself face down in his back garden, pounding his hands on his forehead and pulling out his hair. But over the garden wall, he heard the voice of a child (which proved to be a messenger of God) chanting, as if as part of some childish game: ‘Take it and read, take it and read.’

Augustine decided that this strange chant must be a message from on high … and went immediately to pick up the New Testament that was laying nearby in the garden. And the first words his eyes fell upon were those in Romans 13.13-14: “not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh.” What a word in season for this addict to sexual immorality! Augustine’s eyes were immediately opened and he came to Christ! And what a providence of God it was that the children were playing their game at just the right time, and that the book fell open to just the right passage! No wonder Augustine would later love the truth that God searches us out before we ever think to look for Him!

I hope that this story is a word in season for you! Perhaps it will remind you of how God came looking for you when you were lost and blind in your sin. And perhaps it will also encourage you to love and use the word of God all the more! I don’t know what it is that you need to hear from the Lord in these days. But I’ll just bet that if you’ll ‘take it and read’, the Bible will lead you to exactly the right place. And if you’ll also take every opportunity of hearing God’s word, you’ll be amazed at how many times the sermon or lesson seems tailor made for your need. So ‘take it and read, take it and read!’

July 20, 2010

Hold on Tight!

“Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good” Romans 12.9

O, how easy it would be, in reading Romans 12.9, to just skim over those words and think: ‘I’m doing that. I live like a Christian. I go to church and read my Bible. So surely I’m already clinging to the good and abhorring the bad. Next verse.’ But not so fast! There are some strong words in that verse … namely the words “abhor” and “cling.” The verse does not say: ‘Dislike what is evil; be involved in what is good.’ There would be no need to say that. For every true Christian (and I do mean every) already does those things. We would have no right to call ourselves Christians if we didn’t have an aversion for evil and an attraction to that which is good. For as sure as the Holy Spirit comes to live inside every Christian, He also begins the process of bending our crooked hearts back toward that which is good and acceptable in God’s sight.

Therefore, as I said, Paul had no reason to tell Christians to dislike evil and approve of good. They all already do that. But what he did want to say to every Christian is that we must not rest on our laurels. We must not be content simply to have a new sense of right and wrong, and a new tenderness of conscience toward good and evil. We must take that new and tender conscience and, by the Spirit’s power, tenderize it even further! We must not stop at a distaste for evil … but apply God’s grace and embrace the Spirit’s conviction so that we positively “abhor” what is evil. And many of us, quite frankly, aren’t there. We don’t like what we see on TV commercials, it’s true. But, for many of us, that hasn’t changed our entertainment habits. We don’t like the way our co-workers use God’s name in vain, but we haven’t said anything about it. We feel uncomfortable when we get caught up in a situation when a family member involves us in their dishonesty or immorality, but we don’t always call a halt to our involvement … because it would be too embarrassing to do so. And therefore, I say, we (myself included) often dislike evil, but do not really “abhor” it.

Similarly, every true Christian is disappointed and even bothered by his own personal sins – his or her gossiping, or impatience, or lust, or laziness, or wasting of time. But how many of us truly hate those things enough that we make war on our own flesh, and seek accountability, and confess our sins regularly and with anguish in our hearts? I know some of us do not actually cry readily … but do you ever at least feel like crying because of your sin? If not, you probably haven’t quite mastered Romans 12.9! And neither have I.

And, in the latter half of the verse, the word “cling” is similarly strong. I know that, if you know Jesus, you approve of what is good, and like what is good, and often do what is good. But do you cling to it … the way a child clings to some little trinket that he has got hold of and thinks to be more valuable than gold? How hard it can be to pry a coin, or a toy, out of a child’s hand! But is it that difficult to pry you away from your daily time in God’s word? From the regular habit of being at prayer meeting and worship? From commitments you have made to the members of your church family? How easily are you able to come up with excuses for not sharing your faith, or for not helping that person in need? Often times it’s quite easy for me! My fingers are clenched, far too loosely, around that which is “good”.

Indeed, sometimes our fingers grasped, not all that tightly, to the nail-pierced hands of Jesus Himself. And, while we know – like a child holding his daddy’s hand as they cross a busy street – that we are secure, not so much because of how tightly our fingers grip Him in faith, but because of how tightly His loving hands grip us … it is sometimes true that if we could get away, we just might. Thank God we can't! But sometimes, as I walk through the grocery store or a parking lot, I end up holding Silas’s wrists instead of his hands … because he is so anxious to venture out on his own, that his fingers let go altogether. And there is a danger that we live that way as Christians … wandering instead of clinging tightly to Jesus. No, He will not let go of those who are truly His. But Paul is saying that we shouldn’t let go either!

Cling to what is good! Don’t hold God’s blessings lightly! Grip them like the treasure they are … and especially the blessing that we have in the person of Jesus!

July 12, 2010

Down a Few Pegs

“I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think” Romans 12.3

Isn’t it easy to fall foul of what Paul is saying in that verse? Now I know … most of us probably don’t think of ourselves as prideful. But that’s probably just because we are not humble enough to assess ourselves properly! For the reality is that – when someone makes us wait too long in line; or when someone suggests that we might do such-and-such more effectively; or when we look around at some of the ‘knuckleheads’ that we have to deal with at work, or in the drive thru window – it is easy to think more highly of ourselves than we ought! It is easy, I say, for us to become impatient or indignant with others; to be frustrated because we are not being given a fair shake; to criticize people behind their back (because it makes us feel better about ourselves); and so on. We all have problems acting as though we are the ones that people ought, really, to be catering to! If it weren’t true, we’d very rarely become angry. And we’d never be personally offended or impatient.

So we need to hear what Paul says in Romans 12.3. And we need to let it take us down a few pegs. We need to lower our own self-opinions. At least, I know I need to lower mine. And I’ll give you a few reasons why:

First is a church reason. In fact, this is the main point Paul is making in verse 3. He says that we ought not think too highly of ourselves because God has given all the other church members “a measure of faith”, too. In other words, I am not the only one who has the Spirit of God. And you are not the only one who works hard for Jesus, or who ‘gets it’. “God has allotted to each a measure of faith” (v.3), and to each a spiritual gift (vv.4-8). And therefore, we are all on equal footing (low and needy footing, in fact) at the cross of Jesus.

Second, let me give you a personal reason why we shouldn’t have inflated egos – namely because each one of us is more sinful than we know. I mean, just think about how sinful you know you are! And you probably don’t even know the half of it … and neither do I, about myself. For even my righteous deeds are as filthy rags (Isaiah 64.6). So how can I boast? ‘Well, at least my dirty clothes basket in not quite so full as hers is!’ Surely that is not how we want to talk! Surely we must realize, if we know anything of our own sin, that we have nothing to boast about; and no reason to look down on one another.

And let me give you, finally, a gospel reason why we ought not think too highly of ourselves – because none of us has given our lives for the sins of the world. None of us has been tempted in all things … yet without sin (Hebrews 4.15). None of us has walked out of a sealed grave alive from the dead. And none of us is interceding for the saints at the right hand of the Father. Do you see what I am getting at? The point of the Christian life is to think highly of Jesus; to esteem Him; to understand that the world revolves around Him. So if someone made Jesus sit in the waiting room for three hours, then maybe we would be right to be indignant. If someone suggested that Jesus had room for improvement, then we might be taken aback. If someone won’t give Jesus a straight answer, then perhaps we would have reason to be hurt and disappointed. But if He is the one that people ought to be catering to – and, indeed, if we ourselves will bend down and do the catering ourselves – then we will have little time or energy left for worrying about how people are treating us; or how we are perceived by our peers; or whether we’re getting a fair shake.

So, for Jesus’ sake, “I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think.”

July 5, 2010

Those Lovely Prepositions

Every word of God is tested”. So says the wise man in Proverbs 30.5. And, says the One who is wisdom personified, “man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4.4). And what that tells me is that we really ought to pay attention to all the words of Scripture … every jot and tittle, as Jesus put it in Matthew 5.18; every pronoun; every ‘and’, ‘but’, or ‘although’; and every preposition. In fact, if we take seriously the fact that every word of God is our life-bread; that every word has been “tested” and carefully placed exactly where it needs to be, we will discover that, sometimes, the smallest words can make all the difference. Sometimes there can be silver mines full of truth hidden beneath a single two or three-letter word.

Such is the case in Romans 11.36. It’s a rather famous verse. But it’s the prepositions; the short, easily overlooked two and three-letter words that make all the difference. Notice them with me:

For from Him [God] and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.

Did you see them? The words “from”, “through”, and “to” make this verse what it is! Think of all the treasure that is buried beneath each of those words:

From Him are all things. That one little word carries us back to Genesis 1, where God made all things by the word of His power, and called them good. It carries us to the book of James, where we are reminded that every good and perfect gift comes from above, from the Father of lights (James 1.17). It carries us to the book of Job, where we are reminded that both prosperity and adversity come from the wise, loving hands of God (Job 2.10). Indeed the word “from” carries us to the manger in Bethlehem. For, though Jesus always existed and was not created, in His humanity, He did proceed from the Father. Even Jesus is “from Him”. And so there is a wealth of theology and encouragement to be unearthed beneath the word “from”. It teaches about God’s creative power, His providence, His good gifts, and even His Son!

Through Him are all things. The word “through” surely says some of the same things about God as the word “from”. But it adds a layer. Not only do good gifts come from God, but they come through God. He does not simply create good things. He personally delivers them to His people as well! In other words, god is not a like a watchmaker who winds up a clock and then lets it tick away on its own. That is not at all how God deals with His creation. For, though we can surely say that our watches are from the watchmaker, we cannot really say that every tick of the second hand comes to us through the watchmaker. He just sets the gears in motion … and the batteries make it go. But not so with planet earth! God not only ordained and designed all that is. But He is infinitely involved in every tick of the clock, so to speak. The sun does not rise simply because of gravitational forces and scientific laws that God has created. Those things are true! But God Himself makes the sun rise every day. He actively makes the laws work … every day! He actively makes your heart beat. He actively causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. He is not simply Creator, but Sustainer. All these things come to us, not only from Him, but through Him as He upholds all things by the word of His power (Hebrews 1.3).

To Him are all things. All things come from God and through God. And all things are created and upheld so that they might reflect glory and praise back to God. The heavens are declaring His glory, says the psalmist. And the rocks will cry out if we do not! So, since all things are from Him and through Him … and since those things are so good, and merciful, and kind … let’s make sure we consciously, willingly reflect His glory back to Him!

“From from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen”!