December 31, 2011

Bible Reading Plans

'Tis the season to think about a Bible reading plan to begin on New Year's Day.  Let me strongly urge this habit upon you - whether you read a lot or a little.  We all need to eat true spiritual food each and every day!  Here are some potential menus for 2012:

Read the New Testament in six months. This plan gives you 1, 2, or (very occasionally) three chapters to read in a day, and will take you through the entire NT by July 1, 2012. Upon completing it, I'd suggest just going right back through again ... especially if you're new to reading through the Bible. Would work well to read in two portions - either morning and evening, or personal and family devotions.  Courtesy the ESV and Justin Taylor.

Read the Bible in two years. This plan, put together by Don Carson, will generally have you reading two chapters a day - one from one portion of Scripture, the other from another (Law, prophets, poetry, gospels, epistles, etc.). Would work well to read in two portions - either morning and evening, or personal and family devotions.  Courtesy of Robert M'Cheyne, Ben Edgington, and Don Carson.

Read the Bible in a year. 2-3 chapters from the OT, usually 1 from the new. A little more time consuming, but well worth it! Again, this plan would work well to read in two portions - either morning and evening, or personal and family devotions.  Courtesy the ESV and Justin Taylor.

Read the Bible in a year, in chronological order. For those of you who always wanted to get the timeline a little more straight in your minds, this is a good plan. It will require reading 3-4 chapters per day. If doing it in one year is too much, just disregard the dates and go at your own pace, circling each completed section as you go along.  Courtesy the ESV and Justin Taylor, via Back to the Bible.

If you're tech-savvy, Justin Taylor has a handy-dandy blogpost with web, RSS, iCal, and mobile ESV versions of these plans, and others.  Scroll down to the spreadsheet table near the bottom of his post.

If having specific dates tied to specific chapters will make you feel guilty when you get behind ... here is an at-your-own-pace-plan:

Read the New Testament at your own pace. If you start in Matthew and read a chapter every day, you'll finish in about 9 months. And, if you miss some days, just pick up where you left off, and know that you have three months' worth of days to catch up, or to go back and re-read a few books that were most intriguing or helpful to you, or to read some of the key books of the OT Genesis, Exodus, Proverbs, etc.).

Again, let me strongly urge the discipline of daily Bible reading upon you. The word of God is our food ... and we ought to eat well!

One other thought ... don't lose heart if you get behind! If we set our Sundays aside for the Lord and for rest, they will provide us great opportunity to catch up on any missed chapters through the week.  Happy reading!

December 19, 2011

Ten Reasons for Christmas

Birthdays are quaint days of paying token honor to friends and family. Celebrations happen. Thanksgivings are made. Gifts are given. Then one day later … life goes on just like before. And for many people, that’s Christmas. We reminisce about Jesus. We set aside a day to honor Him. Then we get back to our normal routine. But Christmas ought to be so much more! Christmas is cataclysmic! It’s the day when the barrier between earth and heaven began to be peeled back. It’s the day when the immortal, invisible God of the Bible took on flesh and pitched his tent among us! That’s not quaint … that’s earth-shaking. Let me remind you why, with 10 reasons God became a man:

1. So sinful men might see God. God, majestic on His throne, cannot even be approached by sinful men (much less seen by them), lest they be incinerated by His holiness. But in Bethlehem, Mary, Joseph, and a group of ragamuffin shepherds laid eyes on very God of very God. And so may we. “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him” (John 1.18).

2. To testify to the truth. Jesus was born to teach. The crowds were amazed as He spoke for God with authority and understandability. “For this I came into the world, to testify to the truth” (John 18.37).

3. To bring grace and truth together. Truth without grace is hard. And so many legalistic people (Old Testament and New) experience the hardness of the Law without a Savior. But Jesus came, upholding the highest standards of truth … yet lavishing the greatest mercy on people who were unable to live up to them – see John 8. “The law was given through Moses…grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ” (John 1.17).

4. So He might “save His people from their sins” (Matt 1.21). Sin must be punished. But God wants to set sinners free. So how will He do it? He will lay their sins on another. But who can he find who has no sins of his own to pay for? There is no one like that … unless God Himself, the only sinless one, becomes a man and dies for sins Himself!

5. To be a “light of Revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2.32). Up until that holy night in Bethlehem, God’s plan of salvation had been at work almost exclusively among the Jews. But the Babe was born to bring salvation to every tongue and tribe – and that means us!

6. So we might be God’s children. Not only does God forgive our sins and treat us as righteous. He also adopts us as His beloved children. That’s why “in the fullness of time God sent forth His Son, born of a woman … so that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal 4.4).

7. To rule the world. The lowly child in the manger came to take over this planet – and your life. “His kingdom shall have no end” (Luke 1.33)

8. To bring peace for the future. Isaiah prophesied that “every boot of the booted warrior in the battle of tumult, and cloak rolled in blood, will be for burning, fuel for the fire. For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us…” (Is 9.5-6). That baby is going to one day bring about an end to all war, famine, pain, revenge, and evil. What a day!

9. To bring peace on earth now. The angels sang “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace among men with whom He is pleased.” Resting in Jesus, we have peace even now, though the world crumbles around us.

10. To prove that God does the impossible. If God can become man, and confine Himself to a teenager’s womb, surely He can meet you an your “impossible” circumstances as well! For “nothing will be possible with God” (Luke 1.26-38).

December 15, 2011

Ephesians Sermons

We recently completed a relatively quick survey of the book of Ephesians.  If you'd like to listen in, click away!

Ephesians 1.1-2 - "To the saints who are at Ephesus" MP3
Ephesians 1.3-23 - "Every spiritual blessing ... in Christ" MP3
Ephesians 2.1-10 - "Alive together with Christ" MP3
Ephesians 2.11-3.21 - "Brought near by the blood of Christ" MP3
Ephesians 4.1-16 - Out of Many, One MP3
Ephesians 4.17-5.21 - The Christian's Wardrobe MP3
Ephesians 5.22-6.9 - The Christian's Work and Family  MP3
Ephesians 6.10-24 - The Christian's Warfare  MP3

December 12, 2011

Ten Reasons to go to the Mission Field

The task of getting the gospel to the hidden peoples of this earth is not reserved for a select and adventurous few. It is too big for that. It’s a church-sized task. Under God, the whole church in this world should be involved in the Great Commission. All of us should pray fervently for the work. All of us should leverage our dollars to support the work. And though not all of us will go be missionaries … all of us should at least consider going … for the short term, or for a lifetime commitment. So, ten reasons why we should all consider going with the good news:

1. There is no other name by which men can be saved. So says Peter in Acts 4.12. Unless they hear the name of Jesus, the nations perish.

2. There are so many who have never heard. Consider the Siwa ... 30,000 tribal living completely isolated from the world in a steep ravine in the Egyptian desert. None of them have heard the gospel.

3. There are so few who are getting out the message. No one has ever gotten to the Siwa people with the gospel. Generation after generation has come and gone without a Savior. Should we not have the attitude of Paul who said: “I aspired to preach the gospel, not where Christ had already been named” (Rom 15.19)?

4. It’s hard to pray for the nations without being willing to go. Paul taught us to “pray…that the word of the Lord would spread rapidly and be glorified” (2 Thess 3.1). But if we pray that way, we must be ready for God to use us as part of His answer!

5. God will be with you if you go. Jesus sends us to strange, confusing, even dangerous places to make disciples … but not alone. “I am with you always,” He says, “even to the end of the age” (Matt 28.20).

6. You cannot fail in the task of missions. There are many pursuits which you can try and fail. But if your pursuit is gospel missions, you cannot fail. “As the rain and snow come down from heaven and do not return there without watering the earth … so will My word be which comes from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty” (Is 55.10-11).

7. Compassion compels us to go. “Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand?” declares the Lord in Jonah 4.11. Should our compassion be any less?

8. The command of the Lord constrains us to go. Jesus’ final instructions were: “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28.19). It’s awfully hard to “go and make disciples” if we are unwilling to “go!”

9. The example of Jesus urges us to go. Phil 2.5-11 describes Jesus as a great missionary who left His home and came to bring mercy to the nations. Food for thought … The passage begins this way: “Have this (missionary) attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus.”

10. God deserves to be made famous among the nations. The main reason we do Missions is because God is worthy of being made known. It is wonderful when sinners avoid hell. But even better that they go instead to heaven to forever declare the worth of God! So the task is to help the nations see how beautiful God is: “I will … send … them to the nations: Tarshish, Put, Lud, Meshech, Rosh, Tubal, and Javan, to the distant coastlands that have neither heard My fame nor seen My glory. And they will declare My glory among the nations” (Is 66.19)!

December 5, 2011

Brethren, Pray for us...

We spent a good bit of time, this past Sunday, on 2 Thessalonians 3:1. Paul (the missionary) wrote to Thessalonica (the supporting church) as follows: “Brethren, pray for us that the word of the Lord will spread rapidly and be glorified, just as it did also with you.” What a great text to motivate us to pray for our own missionaries! We unpacked much of what Paul said during the course of the sermon. But allow me, in the lines that follow, to point out one more missionary prayer lesson that I did not mention on Sunday.

Namely, I want you to notice that Paul asked two things concerning the advance of “the word of the Lord” – both that it would “spread rapidly” and that it would “be glorified.” Those are two quite unique requests. On the one hand, Paul wants to see people saved and churches planted in swift succession. After all, the time is short, and people are dying without Jesus. So Paul prays that the word of God would “spread rapidly.” But, on the other hand, he prays that it will “be glorified” as it spreads – i.e. that the message of Jesus will not be trivialized, or watered down, or abridged, or handled carelessly. No! “The word of the Lord” is a treasure! And it must be treated as such; it must “be glorified.”

So Paul wants the best of both worlds – the rapid spread of a deep, profound, glorious gospel! That is not an easy balance to strike. Indeed, my hunch is that almost every missionary leans toward one side of the ledger or the other.

Some missionaries are rightly eager to see the word of God “spread rapidly.” They desire to plant churches as quickly as possible, and to raise up local, indigenous leaders ASAP. And, of course, this is a biblical desire. It’s what Paul himself wanted. But, without the balance for which Paul pleads in 2 Thessalonians 3:1, that rapidity can sometimes lead to a lack of caution and/or discernment. Corners can be cut in order to make Christianity ‘more palatable’. Certain pillars of Christian belief and practice may not be driven as deeply into the ground as they ought, because the missionary is keen to hurry on to the next church plant or village. And leaders can be put in place who are not yet ready to lead – perhaps either theologically, or morally. In other words, it is possible for the word of God to spread rapidly, but not to “be glorified” as it ought; for the gospel to advance quickly, but shallowly … leaving future generations of the newly planted churches to suffer the consequences. People may be saved in the short term, but the church turns to error and even heresy over the long haul because the foundations were not laid carefully enough. The word spread rapidly, but was not adequately glorified.

On the other hand, some missionaries lean quite in the other direction. They want the word of God to “be glorified” – to be carefully, fully, and systematically taught to the native people. They want to make sure they cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘i,’ and not leave the people with a shallow understanding of the truth. And those are good instincts! After all, they are not merely planting the gospel for this generation, but for the next ten generations, if the Lord tarries. So they must take adequate time to get it right! But this concern to make sure the word of the Lord is carefully taught can become imbalanced if it leads to stagnation; if it prevents missionaries from the desire to see the word of the Lord spread rapidly; if it causes them to drag their feet and to assume that local people will never be able to lead their own churches; or if it causes them to be slow to plant new churches because they’re not sure if they’ll be able to get their theology down pat.

Incidentally, every potential imbalance I have pointed out is a danger, not only for foreign missionaries, but for local churches and pastors, too! So, if the shoe fits, you know what to do with it!

What our missionaries (and pastors, and churches) need is balance. We all need to have a great urgency and a desire to see the Lord’s work done as rapidly as possible … but, at the same time, a great care not to move so quickly that corners are cut and foundations laid hastily. And, O, what a difficult balance that must be to strike! That’s why Paul requests prayer … and why we ought to pray for our missionaries, precisely along these lines – “that the Lord of the Lord will spread rapidly and be glorified.” Will you join me in that prayer?

December 3, 2011

The Perseverance of the Saints

We Baptists are fond of using the phrase “once saved, always saved.” And rightly so! No one will snatch Jesus’ sheep from His hand (John 10.28). God will surely finish the good work He began in us (Philippians 1.6), all the way until Jesus returns. So it is true that once a person is saved he is always saved … and will never lose his salvation.

But “once saved, always saved” is not the whole truth. It’s not only true that once a person is saved, he will always be saved … but that, once a person is saved, he will go on living like he is saved as well! The benefit of being a Christian, in other words, is not simply that God delivers us from sin’s penalty at the last day, but also that He delivers us from sin’s power in the present day. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature” (2 Corinthians 5.17). If anyone is in Christ, therefore, he is surely different than he was before. If anyone is truly in Christ, he will surely grow, and change, and become more like Jesus. He will surely persevere and press on in the faith. That’s what new creatures do!

Yes, true Christians sometimes struggle, and may even have periods of ‘backsliding.’ But if we are genuine, those periods will not be the norm in our lives. If we are true Christians, the overall tenor of our lives will be one of continuing in the faith and growing in Jesus. True Christians do not make a profession of faith, go through the waters of baptism, and then largely disappear from the life and service if the church! No! True Christians are “new creatures” … and their lives show it! This is why the Bible constantly uses the word “if” in relation to our assurance of salvation. Let me give a few examples:

*John 8.31: “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of mine.”
*Colossians 1.22-23: “He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach – if indeed you continue in the faith”
*Hebrews 3.6: “Christ was faithful as a Son over [God’s] house – whose house we are, if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end”
*Hebrews 3.14: “For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end”

What gives with all the “if’s”? Are the New Testament authors saying that we keep ourselves saved by holding fast, and continuing on in the faith? Do we have to do something to stay saved? No! It is Jesus, remember, that holds tight to His sheep, not the other way around (John 10.28). It is God, not we ourselves, who will finish the work He began in us (Philippians 1.6). And yet the Bible is constantly telling us that we are truly Christians, and that we have been reconciled to God, only “if” we continue or persevere in the faith. How can that be?

The answer is simple: The “if” clauses in the Bible do not signify conditions we must keep to stay saved. They simply signify evidence in our lives that God has already saved us! If God has really saved you, in other words, He will ensure that certain things will be true of you. You’ll continue in God’s word (John 8.31), and in the faith (Colossians 1.21-23). If God has really saved you, you’ll hold fast your confidence in Christ (Hebrews 3.6). You’ll love the brothers and put away sin (1 John). These are the marks of a “new creature”! And it is only “if” we demonstrate the marks of a “new creature” that we can be sure that we are “in Christ.”

Again, let me be clear. The Bible does teach that once we are saved, we are always saved. But it also teaches that, once we are saved, God will demonstrate His work in us by enabling us to persevere in faith and growth and steadfast hope in Jesus. And if we don’t see these demonstrations of God’s handiwork, then we have every reason to doubt whether He has yet begun the good work of salvation in us. For, whenever God begins a good work, He completes it!

December 1, 2011

Why give to World Missions?

The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering® – which supports our missionaries who leave homes, jobs, and family; and who go to remote places to bring the good news of Jesus to lost and dying people – will soon be in full swing. So let me give you ten reasons, which I have shared before, why I love the Lottie Moon offering, and why every Christian should support the cause of world missions. We should all give to world missions because:

1. Knowing Jesus Christ is the only pathway to God. Jesus said that “no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14.6). “No one” will be saved without Jesus … including those our missionaries work to reach.

2. There are over 6,600 unreached people groups in the world today, comprising 2.84 billion (with a ‘B’) souls (according to The Joshua Project, via the 2010 edition of Operation World). In other words, over 40% of the world’s populous lives in regions where there is little or no chance to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. “How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher” (Romans 10.14)? And how will there be a preacher if we do not support missionaries?

3. “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest” says Jesus in Matthew 9.37-38. And it seems only right, doesn’t it, that if we are going to ask God to send missionaries, we should be willing to support them.

4. God has blessed us so we can bless the nations with Jesus. There’s a reason why God made you and me Christians in America: so that we’d have more money than most of the world … to sink into missionary purposes! “God blesses us, that all the ends of the earth may fear Him” (Psalm 67.7)!

5. If we neglect God’s work, moths will eat our money! Not literally, perhaps … but money has a way of disappearing when God’s people use it unwisely. Therefore … “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal” (Matthew 6.20).

6. Missions is a fool-proof investment. God promises that people “from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues” will worship Jesus in heaven (Revelation 7.9). The task will be accomplished, and therefore your money will not be wasted! More than we can say for Wall Street!

7. Sacrificial giving is rewarded. When we give greatly to something greatly worthwhile, God returns our generosity with joy, and often with more resources for more generosity! “He who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (2 Corinthians 9.6)!

8. We are Christians because someone supported a missionary. Most of us have our ethnic roots in Europe and Africa, a few in S. America or Asia. Guess how the gospel got to many of these places? A missionary came with a Bible under his arm and a prayerful, generous support team in his homeland! Let’s make sure many more missionaries arrive in many more places with Bibles under their arms and generous support teams back home!

9. Our missionaries are worthy of our support. Most of our missionaries are away from family, some with little Christian fellowship, often in danger, yet serving the Lord faithfully in the middle of nowhere. That is why John said “we ought to support such men” (3 John 8).

10. God is worthy of the worship of the nations! Ultimately, we support missions because God is worthy of being made famous! People from every tribe and tongue ought to worship Him! The missionary task, therefore, is to win the multitudes to Jesus so that God’s praises will be sung as loudly as they ought to be sung! Here are God’s missionary marching orders: “Bring my sons from afar and My daughters from the ends of the earth, everyone who is called by My name, and whom I have created for My glory” (Isaiah 43.6-7)!

May God give us grace, once again this Christmas, to invest in His glory among the nations!