February 27, 2012

Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, O My!

Those of you who began in January, attempting to read the Bible through in a year, have perhaps found yourself repeating the names of the second, third, and fourth books of the Bible much with the same trepidation as Dorothy and her friends in the woods outside of Munchkin Land: ‘Lions, and tigers, and bears, O my! Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, O my!’

Like the animals in an unknown forest, we fear those portions of the Bible which are unfamiliar to us! But, like Dorothy’s apprehension along the yellow brick road, our fears about the unknown corners of the Bible are actually quite unfounded … and may be assuaged if we just keep walking through the hills and woods of the Bible’s books. So, if you’re in the midst of one of those difficult books at the present moment, just keep following the road, putting one foot in front of the other!  It's probably not as daunting as you think!

And yet I must admit that these early books of the Old Testament – with all their instructions about sacrifices, all their descriptions about what is clean and unclean, and all their meticulous rules and regulations for priests, Levites, and so on – can be difficult to apply and appreciate in this era of New Testament worship. Surely, as you read along in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, you find yourself asking: ‘Heifers, rams, turtledoves, grains, oils, clean places, unclean places, ashes, spots, hairs, oozes, blood, water, gold, bronze, and so on – what’s it all mean for me?’

The question may be asked out of bewilderment, or even frustration … but it’s a good question nonetheless! “All scripture is inspired by God … and profitable,” says the apostle Paul – including those Old Testament rules and regulations that are so foreign to us. So there must be something in each passage ... for me! But what profit and personal application can we draw out of chapters and chapters worth of multiplied instructions regarding sacrifices, ceremonial cleansing, and so on? Allow me to suggest three responses that ought to arise in our hearts as we read Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers … 

1. Repentance. All the multiplied Old Testament sacrifices existed because sin exists! And Old Testament ceremonial uncleanness existed (disease, death, menstrual periods, and so on) because moral uncleanness has brought a curse upon the world! Indeed, the various sacrifices and cleansing ceremonies were continuously ongoing in the Old Testament because the people’s sin was continuously ongoing as well! Thus, when we read about the constant train of sacrificial animals that were led into the temple, we ought to remember the constant train of sins that dragged behind each of the people who brought them – and that trail behind us as well! We’re no different than the Israelites of old, in that regard. Therefore, reading the vivid reminders of the reality and penalty of sin that God gave them, we are reminded of our own sin as well … and given opportunity to repent.

2. Gratitude. This may not be the first thing you feel as you read the litany of instructions that God gave the Israelites regarding their cleanliness and sacrifice. Overwhelmed may be more like it. Many of the Israelites probably felt the same way. There’s a lot to remember and do in the Old Testament sacrificial system. For those who actually had to do it, I am sure it felt at times like a great burden. Perhaps that was intentional, on God’s part. But mixed with the potential burden of all the sacrifices surely ought to have been thanksgiving that, difficult and complex as the system often was … at least God had provided for their cleansing! Surely we can say the same, as we read these pages: ‘Yes, the sacrificial code seems never-ending! But God didn’t have to provide any sacrifices for sin at all! He didn’t have to make atonement for these people … but He did! And, O how marvelous – He has done so for us as well!’

3. Relief. I think this is one of my primary feelings as I read about the bulls, goats, lambs, rams, blood, smoke, oil, wheat, and so on! As I reflect on all the precise numbers, ages, amounts, and timing of the various sacrifices, I think to myself: ‘How did anyone – especially the common folks, who did not work in the temple – ever keep track of it all?’ And then I think: ‘What a relief that we no longer have to do so! What a relief that, no matter what the age, or type, or amount of the sacrifice … it is fulfilled in Jesus! I don’t have to worry that I am missing something; or that I have forgotten or misunderstood some portion of the sacrificial code. Jesus paid it all!’ Indeed, I suspect that perhaps this was part of the reason for the heavy sacrificial burden God placed on His people of old – He gave them a sacrificial system that they could never keep perfectly so that they would delight all the more in the One who could keep it all for them!

February 21, 2012

Prior Preparation

Part 9 in a series on the church’s “liturgy

OK, I admit that what happens “prior” to Sunday worship isn’t actually part of the liturgy itself. But, since I’ve spent two months writing about what we do on Sundays at 11am, it seemed good to me to remind you of what we can be doing on Sundays at 8am, or on Saturday at 8pm, to make sure we get the most out of the liturgy that lies ahead.

It is true that a person may simply stumble in off the street and be magnificently blessed by what happens at church on Sunday morning. No doubt heaven will be filled with people who were converted to Christ on just such disheveled Sunday mornings. But it doesn’t have to be that way. And, for those of us who know the Lord, it seems to me that far more benefit usually comes on those Sunday mornings when we arrive at church ready and eager, than on the weeks when we tumble in at the last minute, flying by the seat of our pants.

Surely this is part of what Solomon means when he says, in Ecclesiastes 5.1: “Guard your steps as you go to the house of God.” Don’t just wander in, unprepared. “Guard your steps.” Be careful and thoughtful as you come to worship. How so, in our context? Here are a few suggestions:

Pray. Do you take time, perhaps on Saturday night or Sunday morning, to pray for what goes on in this building? Do you ask the Lord to warm your heart in the singing? Do you ask the Lord, specifically, to help you concentrate, and believe, and apply what you are going to hear? Do you plead His blessing over your Sunday School teacher and pastor? Charles Spurgeon preached to thousands upon thousands of people in the 1800’s … and people were brought to Christ every week under the sound of his voice. Asked the secret of his great fruitfulness, his simple reply was: “My people pray for me.” Would you give 5-10 minutes to this, each week? What a difference it might make!

Sleep. It’s a little bit disingenuous to ask the Lord to help you concentrate on the Sunday sermon if you are unwilling to go to bed at a decent hour on Saturday night! Frankly, this is a significant problem for many church-goers (perhaps some reading these words). When we stay up too late – and either miss church, or doze through parts of it – we are dishonoring the Lord, and doing a great disservice to ourselves.

Be on time. In fact, be a few minutes early. Rushing in at the last minute means that, while you are gathering your thoughts, dropping off your kids, taking off your coat, finding your seat, pulling out your Bible, and so on … you likely miss whatever blessing there is to be garnered in the first few minutes of worship. And, like the folks who inevitably sidestep their way to their seats (right in front of your sight lines) just as the football game is kicking off, latecomers inevitably distract others sitting around them from the very portions of worship they themselves are missing.

Leave other things for other days. What a wet blanket can be thrown over your Sunday morning if your family argues on the way to church, or if you ride in listening to ESPN or WLW, or if you spend your Sunday morning fretting about some business or personal matter that, however much you fret, you can do nothing about until tomorrow. I know these things by experience! So make a habit, when you get up on Sunday morning, to simply set certain things aside for another day. Get your heart in a heavenly frame by taking your mind off of earthly business.

My hope, in this series of articles on the church’s “liturgy”, has been to fill our weekly worship routine – the praying and preaching, the singing and silence, and so on – with a little more clarity and meaning. But, if each of us will do the four simple things suggested in this final article … I think we will be surprised at how well we will not only understand what is taking place on Sundays at 11, but enjoy and benefit from it, as well!

February 20, 2012

Personhood Ohio

Some courageous folks in our state are gathering signatures to get a proposed "personhood" amendment to our state constitution on the ballot for this November's elections.

The amendment would define all human beings, from the moment of fertilization, as being "persons" under state law - persons with every inalienable right and recourse defined by law.  In effect, the amendment would make it  just as illegal to abort a human fetus as to murder an adult - effectively eliminating legal abortion in the state of Ohio.

We hope to have volunteers at PRBC some time soon, gathering signatures.  To find out more about the amendment, or about how you might sign the petition, or get your church involved, or become a part of the signature gathering team, please visit the Personhood Ohio website soon.  The time is short and 385,000 signatures are needed.  Please pray ... and act.

February 14, 2012


Part 8 in a series on the church’s “liturgy

“Preach the word,” Paul told his protégé-turned-pastor, Timothy. “Be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Timothy 4.2). That is a powerful and unforgettable statement – surely one that every faithful pastor has, more or less, committed to memory. “Preach the word”! This, along with prayer, is the task of the gospel minister.

Now, of course, preaching the word is not restricted to Sunday services. The preacher is to be ready “in season and out of season.” In other words, there will always be unexpected, unrehearsed opportunities to open the Bible – beside the hospital bed, at the funeral home, in over-the-phone crisis counseling, when offering a ride to a neighbor walking home in the snow, and so on. The gospel minister is always to have the Bible ready at his mental fingertips, prepared to give a word from the Lord to whomever he may meet – even when those opportunities are unexpected, unrehearsed, and “out of season.”

But the fact that there are “out of season” times for preaching the word clues us in to the fact that there must also be an “in season”; a normal routine for preaching the word – namely, when the Lord’s people are gathered on the Lord’s Day! Preaching “in season” was vital to Timothy’s task as pastor in the city of Ephesus. And, if these Sunday sermons are vital to the pastor’s task, they are surely also vital to the congregation’s spiritual need as well!

Christians, in other words, don’t merely need to read their Bibles, or even to discuss them with other believers. Both of those are vital, of course. But it is also vital to hear the Bible; to have it publicly proclaimed. That is the inference to be drawn from 2 Timothy 4.2. If Timothy needed to preach; if he needed to open the book of God and use it to “reprove, rebuke, exhort” and offer “instruction” to his congregation, then the congregation must have needed such exhortation and instruction! They needed sermons just as they needed discussion groups and private reading opportunities. I hope it is plain, from 2 Timothy, that I am not merely saying that because I am usually the one giving the sermons!

There is something peculiar that happens when a local pastor (who knows the word, and who knows his flock, and who has spent his week soaking in a particular passage with them in mind) opens the book to them in the power of the Holy Spirit. I don’t know all the reasons why, but it appears to me a plain fact that the Holy Spirit often seems to bless this weekly proclamation of His word in a peculiar way – so that the mark left by a single Sunday sermon is often more pronounced than a whole week’s worth of personal reading. I dare say that many who read this little article will be able to say ‘Amen’ to that assertion. Many (though surely not all) of the times when the Spirit has convicted, or moved, or broken, or warmed your heart most signally have been under public proclamation of the word, and not simply when you were reading it alone. If it were not so, there would be no great reason for Sunday sermons, would there?

Mind you, it is proclamation of the word that is powerful – not the preacher’s style, delivery, education, or ability. It is the word that contains the dynamite, not the preacher. But the fact remains that the Holy Spirit often seems to give the preacher the distinct privilege (and solemn responsibility) of lighting the wick! Perhaps the reason is simply that the things we read in the Bible are too grand and important and wonderful to be savored privately! They must not merely be read, but proclaimed from the rooftops! Perhaps that is why the Spirit often reserves His greatest outpourings of blessing for the sermon-hour. Perhaps there are other reasons as well.

Whatever the case, scripture, history, and experience all demonstrate the great power and potential of the Bible sermon, preached with the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven. Therefore I conclude that one of the most important things a church can do as part of their Sunday liturgy is to give every attention to the public proclamation of the word. Who knows what the Lord may do if His minister is thoroughly, mentally, spiritually, and prayerfully prepared; and if His people will pray for the preacher ahead of time, and arrive on Sunday morning well-rested, alert, eager, and expecting a word from heaven!

February 6, 2012

New Sermon Series

Sunday mornings in February and March:

Songs, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

Part 7 in a series on the church's "liturgy"

Why do we sing in church? Is the musical portion of the service designed simply to get our juices flowing, or to warm us up for the preaching? Is it the drawing card and the window dressing that brings folks through the doors? Well, our singing may in fact do all of these things – sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. But none of these are the reason for music in the church. No! We sing in church because God has told us to do so; because song is one of the chief ways the Bible urges us to praise the Lord!

The entire book of Psalms, remember, is a hymnbook! Each poem in that collection of 150 was actually written for the purpose of singing! God wants us to sing! Indeed, in the New Testament, we find the following set of instructions: “Do not get drunk with wine … but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms, and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the LordEphesians 5.18-19.

Now, of course, those instructions are not to be carried out only in our corporate worship. There are many, many occasions for the Christian to sing! But if there is one occasion where we must not miss the opportunity for doing so, it’s when we are all gathered together in the hour of worship. Indeed, Paul not only tells us that we should sing together, but also how. Our singing, he says, should be:

Plural. Simply note that Paul’s instructions were written to the entire Ephesian church, not just to those who ‘liked’ singing, or had a talent for it! No! All Christians are to join in the song! God does not critique what sort of voice you have (if it’s not so great, He’s the one who gave it to you, after all!). It is the melody of your “heart” – not your vocal chords – that is so important!

Vertical. Surely this is the most obvious thing. When we sing, we are “making melody … to the Lord.” He is our audience. He is the one we seek to please, not our neighbor or even ourselves. That puts a new spin on ‘what style of worship music I prefer.’ The first question is not about what I prefer, but about what please the Lord! It’s to Him we sing!

Horizontal. Though our singing is not aimed at pleasing or impressing our neighbor, Paul does say that our singing ought to help our neighbor. When we sing, we are “speaking to one another.” In other words, both the words we sing, and the passion with which we sing them, can be a real encouragement to those sitting next to us in the pews. So sing with all your might, and those sitting next to you will likely be encouraged to do the same!

Multiple. We are to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” In other words, our singing ought not be limited to one specific genre, but ought to include various different kinds of melodies and words – including singing right out of the Bible’s hymnbook, the psalms!

Spiritual. Where ought the “melody in your heart” come from, according to Ephesians 5.18-19? From our being “filled with the Spirit”! Christian singing, in other words, is not merely about saying the right words and hitting the right notes; it is not a personal performance, but a genuine act of worship – energized by the Holy Spirit Himself! This is another reason why our seasons of prayer and the reading of Scripture are so vital to our worship – they give opportunity for the Spirit’s moving in and upon us, so that our singing might be all that God intends it to be!

So then – let’s take full advantage of our opportunities to sing together – each and every one of us, both “to the Lord” and “to one another,” with “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” and having been “filled with the Spirit.”

February 2, 2012

Sermon Series: The Seven Words of Jesus from the Cross

We recently completed our series entitled "Seven: The Words of Jesus from the Cross". Here's the audio:

Luke 23.34 - "Father, forgive them"
John 19.28 - "I am thirsty"
John 19.30 - "It is finished"

Let me say that I enjoyed preparing and preaching these messages as much as any set of sermons in recent memory.  What a privilege to have the dying words of Jesus on my mind and lips for a solid month now!  Here's hoping they encourage some of you as much as they have me.