December 30, 2013

Sermons on the Book of Acts

We've just completed a lengthy series of sermons, working our way all the way through the book of Acts.  Listen in with us ... and benefit from this great New Testament book!

Acts 1.1-8 - The Acts of the Apostles - mp3
Acts 1.9-26 - The Ascension, and After - mp3
Acts 2.1-40 - Pentecost  - mp3
Acts 2.41-47 - First Church, Jerusalem - mp3
Acts 3.1-10 - “In the name of Jesus Christ” - mp3
Acts 3.11-4.22 - “We cannot stop speaking” - mp3
Acts 4.23-31 - The Prayer Meeting - mp3
Acts 4.32-5.11 - Liberality … and Lying to the Holy Spirit - mp3
Acts 5.12-42 - A Beautiful Church - mp3
Acts 6.1-7 - The First Deacons - mp3
Acts 6.7-7.60 - “Stephen, full of grace and power” - mp3
Acts 8.1-4 - “Those who had been scattered went about preaching the word" - mp3
Acts 8.5-25 - The Gospel in Samaria - mp3
Acts 8.26-40 - A Divine Appointment - mp3
Acts 9.1-31 - Saul’s Conversion - mp3
Acts 9.31-43 - How the Gospel Spreads - mp3
Acts 10.1-11.18 - “The Gentiles also” - mp3
Acts 11.19-30 - Gospel Advance - mp3
Acts 12.1-25 - Persecution in Jerusalem - mp3
Acts 13.1-12 - A Paradigm for Missions - mp3
Acts 13.13-52 - A Sermon in the Synagogue - mp3
Acts 14.1-28 - Ups and Downs - mp3
Acts 15.1-41 - "Dissension and debate" - mp3
Acts 16.1-40 - The Gospel in Phillipi - mp3
Acts 17.1-15 - A Tale of Two Cities* - mp3
Acts 17.16-34 - "AN UNKNOWN GOD" - mp3
Acts 18.1-19a - The Gospel in Corinth - mp3
Acts 18.18-19.10 - The Gospel in Ephesus - mp3
Acts 19.11-20 - "Jesus whom Paul preaches" - mp3
Acts 19.21-41 - Artemis ... or Jesus? - mp3
Acts 20.1-16 - Many Miles, Many Partners, Many Words - mp3
Acts 20.17-38 - Last Words - mp3
Acts 21.1-20a - On to Jerusalem - mp3
Acts 21.17-22.30 - Troubles in Jerusalem - mp3
Acts 23.1-35 - The Council and the Conspiracy - mp3
Acts 24.1-27 - Paul and Felix - mp3
Acts 25.1-26.32 - "Before governors and kings" - mp3
Acts 27.1-28.15 - "You must stand before Caesar" - mp3
Acts 28.16-31 - "With all openness, unhindered" - mp3



*The title of this sermon is taken, of course, from Charles Dickens' novel of the same title.

December 26, 2013

Read the Bible in 2014

It’s that time of year again. Time for resolutions, and purging, and fresh starts, and new routines, and the like. Have you thought yet about how you might like 2014 to be different than the year that has now almost passed us by? More discipline, less calories, better habits, deeper relationships, and so on? There’s never a bad time, of course, to make such good changes. But the new year seems to afford as good an opportunity as any for such resolves. And I heartily encourage you to seize the momentum afforded by the changing calendar, and to make some of them yourself.

And as you do; as you make preparations for the new calendar year that is nearly upon us, I hope you have (or will) put your Bible intake at the very top of the list. Are you feeding, as regularly as you should be, on the manna of God’s word? It’s more important even than breakfast, lunch, or dinner! Remember that “man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4.4)! And if that is true; if the word of God is our very life’s sustenance … then we will do well to feed on it greedily. And in this age of widespread literacy and unprecedented access to the Scriptures (in every format imaginable!), we have every advantage towards doing so!

But will you do so … in 2014? I hope that, among other resolutions you may make for the new year, that at the top of the list will be:
A. To be as faithful as you can possibly be to hear the word of God as it is made available, week by week, in your local church.
B. To be as faithful as you can possibly be to read the word of God each and every day on your own, and in your family.
I cannot overstate the importance of letter A. But allow me to focus, with the remainder of this article, on letter B – your daily personal and family Bible reading. And let me especially zoom in on the personal.

Please do plan to read the Bible daily in 2014. And plan to read the Bible daily in 2014 according to a plan. For a remarkable list of diverse reading options, see Justin Taylor’s recent blog post “How to Read the Whole Bible in 2014.”  See also an excellent list by Ligonier.

Or, if you’re new at this; or if (like me) you don’t like humongous checklists hanging over your head, simply read a chapter a day in the New Testament, beginning in Matthew and continuing to Revelation. You’ll finish in 9 months or so, and have plenty of time to go back and delve deeper into a book or two that intrigued you, or to read through some of the more vital books of the Old Testament – Genesis, Exodus, Proverbs, etc.

Read two chapters a day (and three on Sunday) and you will make it through the New Testament three times in one year!

Or try what Jim Elliff has called “saturation” reading – working through a given book of the Bible over and over and over again – reading and re-reading the same book (perhaps for a few months) until it’s practically in your blood.  (HT: Challies)

Or create your own plan. But do have a plan. Do plan to be in the scriptures every day, looking for the manna that God has liberally laid upon the ground for you to gather day by day.

December 24, 2013

Read the Christmas Story Aloud

Hello all.  Many of you will be gathering with friends and family this Christmas ... and will sit down together at some point to read the scriptures about our Lord's birth, and perhaps to sing about it, too.  After the page break below is a compilation of scripture passages that I have prepared to help you do just that --  beginning in Genesis 1, and moving all the way through the familiar nativity passages ... and beyond.  Periodically I have also inserted the title of a suggested hymn that might be sung here or there, to break up the reading and augment your worship.

Feel free to copy, paste, forward ... and most of all use.  Scripture is taken from the King James Version.

December 19, 2013

A Christmas Carol Pocket Dictionary

Have you ever been singing a song in church and thought: ‘I have no idea what I just sang’? ‘What is an Ebenezer anyway? And why would Mr. Robert Robinson have me singing about raising one?’ I think the experience is pretty common to us all, even with some of the songs that are often most familiar to us ... Christmas Carols. So I thought, as a sort of stocking-stuffer gift, I would present you with my version of Christmas Carol Pocket Dictionary. So …

What about … "Nowell"? Okay, maybe you prefer to spell it Noel. But either way, what does Noel mean? And why were the angels the first ones to sing it? Well, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary (via Wikipedia) Noel is an English version of a French word that comes from a Latin word that refers to birth. Got it? A little more simply, Noel is an old-fashioned way to refer to a baby being born. Through the ages, however, it has come to be used primarily to refer to the Baby being born. So the first Noel (the first announcement of the Savior’s birth) was made by angels to shepherds tending their sheep in the hillsides around Bethlehem. “The first Nowell the angel did say, was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay.”

How about the line: “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is giv’n”? Was it really all that silent that night? Wouldn’t there have been a great deal of kicking and screaming and crying inside that little stable? That’s the way it was like last time I was in a maternity ward! And that is surely what it was like that night. So how can Phillips Brooks (O Little Town of Bethlehem) say that the gift of Jesus was given "silently"? Good question. Answer? I am not sure that, by “silently”, Brooks is referring to the actual birth itself. Rather, I think he may be reminding us that Jesus was born in a little backwater town in a downtrodden country, on the backside of nowhere. As far as the rest of the world was concerned, the King of kings’ birth was completely unnoticed. In the grand scheme of things, Jesus came into the world rather quietly. And so, often, does the individual’s salvation. Brooks goes on to say in the next line: “So (in the same way in which Jesus came) God imparts to human hearts the blessing of His heav’n” … that is, silently. Most conversions to Christ do not happen with great pomp and circumstance. They are not written up in the papers. They do not usually come with all sorts of outward commotion. Quietly, humbly, unassumingly (in the same ways Jesus came to us), we come to Him.

Silent night”? As we already said, it seems unlikely. But what Joseph Mohr is probably referring to is the calm after the storm of birth. As the shepherds walked into that stable, they probably saw an exhausted but happy woman, quietly holding her precious, sweet, sleeping little boy. I've seen this in the maternity ward, too! What a picture of the peace that God gives to us through Jesus!

One final noise-related line: “Little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.” I think I have to agree with one of my seminary professors here – and say that I am not sure we can say this is true! As he pointed out in reference to this song, Jesus was in fact a real, live baby ... and so it would be fair to assume that He cried just like other real, live babies. Perhaps the anonymous author of Away in a Manger said “no crying He makes” because He thought that Jesus, as very God of very God, would not need to do such a thing. But let’s remember that Jesus was a real baby boy, too. So, though (as the sinless one) He surely never joined in the whining, demanding kind of crying that all other children begin assaulting their parents with at an early age … He probably did cry when He was hungry, or in pain, or cold. So maybe some poetic person out there can think of a better way to end the sentence, “The cattle are lowing, the Baby awakes…”. Any suggestions?

One more example to put on your Christmas crib sheet (pun intended): “Gloria in excelsis Deo”. This is simply the old Latin way to say “Glory to God in the highest” – Gloria (glory) in excelsis (in the highest) Deo (God). That is what the angels sang in Luke 2.14. Whether it was in Latin, there is some doubt! But I hope – whether in Latin, or in English – you find yourself singing, and saying, and feeling this truth over the next few days! “Glory to God in the highest.” 

And merry Christmas!

December 10, 2013

"The storehouses of the snow"

The book of Job is, on many different levels, a fascinating read. It gives us keen insights into the sovereignty of God, the suffering of mankind, and the work (and limitations) of the devil … as well as providing some very helpful do’s and don’ts of true Christian friendship. Furthermore, the final chapters are an incredible series of reminders as to just how small we human beings are; just how little we know in comparison to our omniscient, omnipotent, omni-competent God. God asks Job such questions as:
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”
“Have you ever in your life commanded the morning?”
“Do you know the time the mountain goats give birth?”
“Have you entered the storehouses of the snow?”
The purpose of such questions, of course, is to humble Job; to remind him that he is not God, and that his questioning of the Almighty has been out of place, and has been done in far more ignorance than Job has, thus far, been willing to credit to his own account. Job is not God! And if we read the final five chapters of the book, we will be reminded that neither are we!

God sees – and controls – things that happen on the tops of craggy cliffs, and at the bottom of ocean deeps, that human eyes rarely see. He keeps all the stars fixed in their constellations, and the planets in their orbits. And yes, He is the one who sends the snow … how, we don’t really understand. We haven’t entered into its storehouses!

Well, Job certainly hadn’t, anyway. But we might read the book of Job, all these centuries later, and think: ‘Well, today, there are people who actually do “know the time the mountain goats give birth.” And there are meteorologists who, by means of their equipment and scientific acumen, actually have, in a manner of speaking, “entered the storehouses of the snow.” So maybe we have caught up with God. Maybe mankind is not so small as the book of Job makes him out to be.’

Well, there certainly are people today who understand God’s world to a much greater extent than Job could have done. Such are the advances that science, plus technology, plus time have afforded us. And we’re thankful for these things, in many ways. But, because meteorologists can now explain the origin of all the winter white we have seen in the last few days, does that mean we are catching up with God? That maybe the final chapters of Job ought no longer make us feel as small as they might once have done? I think not.

So a select few individuals, with lots of study and expensive technology, can explain and even predict the coming of the snow. That’s impressive, I’ll admit … and really quite fascinating (and, indeed, very helpful when your family is travelling on a winter storm weekend!). But, for all our understanding of the snow, humankind can still do absolutely nothing to control it, or curtail it, or confine it. We’re still not God, even if we understand His working a lot better than we once did!

Furthermore, the meteorological insights that have been gained into “the storehouses of the snow” reveal that the process of snow making is even a lot more complicated than God lets on in Job 38.22. “The storehouses of the snow” are not just simple barns, set up in the heavens, with remote control doors ready to open at God’s command. No! They are actually gigantic meteorological engines, engaged in a process that (best I can tell) seems to involve such various cogwheels as the jet stream, and air pressure, and surface temperature, and temperature aloft, and moisture, and perhaps a handful of other factors that normal people like me don’t really understand! So, by figuring out where the snow comes from; by entering into its storehouses, mankind hasn’t actually demystified the power of God, but simply realized that His working is actually far more intricate and complex than we might have before recognized!

That is the wonder of all true science, in fact. Scientific enquiry and discovery do not render God obsolete, because now we supposedly have the real explanation for things that the men and women of Job’s day did not understand (and thus blindly ascribed to the idea of ‘God’). No! The more we discover about how the world works, the more we realize just how big God must be … because the processes He uses to create the snow, or to bring the baby mountain goats to birth, are far more complex than we might have otherwise dreamed! And complexity – even complexity that human beings have finally (in measure) figured out – speaks to an even greater God than we might have otherwise dreamed. So praise God for science! And praise God for the snow of recent days! Both of them, if we see aright, tell us that God is great … and that we, even with all our discovery, are still small.

December 3, 2013

10 Reasons to 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 – is 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 7,000 unreached people groups in the world today, comprising 2.91 billion (with a ‘B’) souls (according to The Joshua Project). 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!

November 30, 2013

What's up with Lottie Moon?

In recent years (and months, even!), the Lord has brought many people from wide and varied backgrounds into our congregation. Some of them have come from other states (or even other countries); some from other church or denominational backgrounds; and some have been newly brought to Christ, though growing up with little or no Christian background at all. Praise God for the diverse family that He is building here at Pleasant Ridge! Truly, what we have in common is Jesus!

But the fact of our diverse backgrounds means that, sometimes, certain things may get ‘lost in translation’, as they say. There are compartments of our lives that may not exactly compute with the folks down the pew, because they have landed at PRBC from a completely different chute. For instance, what exactly is this etouffee that the pastor and his wife keep serving at their Sunday lunches? And what is this Facebook thing that all the young folks seem to talk about? And what do why do we call our meals fellowships? And do Cincinnatians mean ‘vacuum cleaner’ when they say ‘sweeper’? And what’s up with all this talk about Lottie Moon? Is that a person? Or does it have something to do with those folks who wear strange hats and ring bells outside of Kroger at Christmastime? And what has all this to do with missionaries?

Confusing, I know! The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering® is a Southern Baptist tradition like no other. And yet, if you are not coming out of the Southern Baptist chute, you too might wonder at an offering with such a strange name! As a kid, I think I had it confused with some group of people I’d heard of called the Moonies – whom I think I pictured as quasi-Shriner’s (or something like that)! Some of you may be similarly confused! So let me demystify you just a bit.

Who was Lottie Moon, and what exactly is this offering named in her honor? Well, to put it briefly, Charlotte Diggs ‘Lottie’ Moon was the most famous of all Southern Baptist missionaries. Born in Virginia in 1840*, she set sail for China at the age of 32 and spent her life there, sharing Christ with a feistiness that must have been a sight to see for someone who reportedly stood only four feet, three inches tall! For nearly forty years she lived among, loved, and shared Jesus with her Chinese neighbors and friends. Surely many are in heaven today, worshiping at the feet of Jesus, because of her witness for Him!

But many more have since followed in that heavenly train – not only because of Lottie Moon’s direct missionary work, but because of the way she stirred up the churches at home to give, so that many more like her could go and speak for Jesus at the ends of the earth. In 1887, she wrote a famous letter in the Foreign Mission Journal, urging her fellow Southern Baptist to open their purse strings to the cause of world missions, and suggesting Christmas as the perfect season for doing so:
Is not the festive season, when families and friends exchange gifts in memory of The Gift laid on the altar of the world for the redemption of the human race, [is this not] the most appropriate time … to send forth the good tidings of great joy into all the earth?
And thus it was that Southern Baptists began the tradition of collecting, each Christmas season, a special offering to support their international missionaries. The tradition continues down to this day, the offering having since been named in the great missionary’s honor. 100% of the money that is given goes directly to international mission work. Today our denomination fully supports nearly five thousand international missionaries. And over half of the money needed to do so is collected through this one offering! It’s an incredibly worthy cause (the gospel!); and an incredibly sound kingdom investment. And I hope, now that you know the story behind its unique name, that giving liberally to this offering will become a tradition of your own … so that many, many more – “from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues” – will someday join Lottie Moon (and you, and me!) worshiping at the feet of King Jesus.



*My information about Lottie Moon comes mostly from the International Mission Board pamphlet: Lottie Moon: Remarkable Gift, Incredible Life.  For more on her life, visit the IMB's "Who's Lottie" page.

November 18, 2013

‘God will never give us more than we can handle.’ Really?

‘God will never give us more than we can handle.’ This is one of those statements that we’ve probably heard multiple times, from multiple lips. Some of us have said it ourselves. After all, it sounds right, doesn’t it? I mean, isn’t this what we’ve always been told? ‘God will never give us more than we can handle.’

But, as we tell our children, just because everyone else is doing something, doesn’t mean it’s right. And just because everyone (even among fellow Christians) is saying something, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily right either! Rather, when we hear little clichés like this, it is important to ask whether or not they’re actually true.

So what about this one? Is this adage – that ‘God will never give us more than we can handle’ – is that a biblical saying?

Well, it’s true that God “will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able” (1 Corinthians 10.13). Maybe that’s where our more over-arching cliché comes from. But that statement is specifically about temptation to sin, not a generic statement about all the trials of life. So then, what of the over-arching statement: ‘God will never give us more than we can handle’? Is that sentiment true, not only of temptation to sin, but of life in general?

Well, we need look no further than the apostle Paul for evidence that the answer is surely ‘no.’ Because Paul, speaking of the trials that he underwent in his missionary travels, says something that we will do well to take careful note of (2 Corinthians 1.8):

“We were burdened excessively, beyond our strength”

Read it again, carefully: “We were burdened excessively, beyond our strength.” That doesn’t sound like the modern mantra does it? Neither does the Israelites’ being backed up against the Red Sea, with Pharaoh’s army breathing down their necks, and no place to hide; or Daniel being tossed into the lion’s den, or his friends into the fiery furnace. Do you see? Both Paul and his Israelite ancestors faced difficulties that were, frankly, more than they could handle! They faced situations in which they would have utterly collapsed had not God Himself intervened on their behalf! And so may we – perhaps more often than we realize. And if we do not make room for this fact in our theology, bad fruit will result.

For one thing, if we buy into the idea that ‘God will never give us more than we can handle,’ then what happens when actually do find ourselves “burdened excessively, beyond our strength”? We may be tempted to doubt the Lord; to question why He has not done for us what we were always told He would do – namely protect us from these unbearable situations.

On the other hand, believing the catchphrase may also result in robbing God of the praise He deserves for upholding us when we could not uphold ourselves. For, if we believe that ‘God will never give us more than we can handle,’ we presume that, while God knows our limits, and will not go beyond them … we actually can handle at least a little a bit of difficulty ourselves. And so when a situation arises, and our backs are against the Red Sea, and all hope seems lost, but then we make it out alive, and with our faith still intact … the presumption will be: ‘Boy, I’m more resilient than I thought. God will never give me more than I can handle. And I just handled that awful situation. So my faith must be quite robust after all.’

And that is completely the wrong response! We ought to walk out of the lion’s den, or the fiery furnace, saying: ‘Praise God! I was as good as dead. I had no way out. I could not handle what was being thrown my way … “but God” intervened! God was strong when I was weak. God did it!’ And I submit to you that that sort of praise will happen, not when we buy the line that ‘God will never give us more than we can handle,’ but when we realize that, for wise, loving purposes, He might well do precisely that – give us more than we can handle! “So that we [will] not trust in ourselves, but in God” as Paul concluded in 2 Corinthians 1.9; so that we will realize that the ability to ‘handle’ life’s problems is in God, and not in us!

So the catchphrase is not exactly true. Better that we learn to say: ‘God will never give us more than He can handle.’ Or better still, that we memorize the Bible’s own words about such things (e.g. 2 Corinthians 1.8-9), and learn to quote them in times of trial!

November 11, 2013

"Earthen vessels" - Hope for the Mentally Ill

One of God’s great gifts to the English-speaking world has been the Christian publishing trust known as The Banner of Truth. For over fifty years, they have been achieving their goal of “Biblical Christianity through literature.” One of their trademarks has been the attractive re-issue of old, otherwise hard-to-find books by men that the contemporary world has largely forgotten (but shouldn’t have!). Because of the Banner’s hard work and commitment to the wisdom of the former ages, modern readers can bathe in the wisdom of the Puritans, benefit from the beautiful simplicity of J.C. Ryle, read the sermons of Whitefield and M’Cheyne, get to know Spurgeon, set sail with John Newton, and so on!

One of Banner’s recent re-issues is a classic book called The Atonement, originally published in 1870 by a Scotsman called Hugh Martin. In the foreward (written by John and Sinclair Ferguson, and printed as a separate article in the October 2013 issue of The Banner of Truth magazine), one can read about Martin as “a thinker of extraordinary penetration and great power”; one “whose works … every Christian should possess and read carefully.” His writing is described as “a powerful, original, compelling, sometimes blazing light and gospel logic.” He is lauded for the interpretive freshness with which he approached the Bible, never leaving his readers bored! I wish those things were said of my preaching and writing!

In short, Hugh Martin was a great man, a gifted thinker, and a tremendous blessing to the Christian church!

But then, in the midst of the Fergusons’ foreward, one also reads this startling fact: Some time in his late 30’s (just maybe 2-3 years older than me), Martin “became mentally incapacitated for the duties of his office.”* We then learn that, in 1865 (only in his early 40’s), Martin’s struggles finally necessitated permanent retirement from his pastorate … and that he died 20 years later, having spent his final two years in an asylum.

O, how sad it made me to read of this marvelous man being so mentally debilitated! My heart aches to think of the great theologian, bent double by fears, or delusions, or anxieties, or whatever it may have been that he just could not fully overcome. But Martin’s story also gives me hope! Because Martin published his classic book on The Atonement in 1870 – five years after he had to retire from his pulpit due to mental illness! I suspect that he was probably, in many ways, still a broken man. Perhaps the clouds had cleared for a season, but the mental struggles evidently weren’t completely gone (since he didn’t go back to a pastorate, and eventually died in an asylum). But in the midst of whatever it was that plagued his mind so heavily, Hugh Martin was yet able, by God’s grace, to be useful in the Lord’s work … and even to continue writing “powerful, original, compelling, sometimes blazing light” kinds of words about his Lord Jesus! And that gives me great hope that God can use me, with all my foibles and quirks.

I’ve recently had occasion to hear the stories of several Christian men (a few of them in the ministry) who have suffered significant mental or emotional breakdowns. And it seems (and is!) so tragic in so many ways. The world, and mankind in God’s image, were not intended for this kind of suffering. And yet, fallen and cursed as we and our planet are, there will always be Hugh Martin’s in this life, even among God’s elect – those who struggle mightily to keep their sanity together. And yet God can use them! Through the brokenness of the “earthen vessels” (2 Corinthians 4.7), the light of Christ can and does still shine through! And therefore our modern-day Hugh Martins are not finished yet! And, if you are reading this, having struggled with mental or emotional breakdown, you are not finished yet!

Incapacitated for his work as a gospel minister, Hugh Martin was still ministering the gospel; still sitting in his study, glorying in Christ … and writing gloriously about Him! I don’t know the details of his struggle, but I wonder if there may have been many days when Martin was fretful, paranoid, or just incredibly fearful of the kinds of who-knows-what that plagues many people in his shoes. But he still reveled in Jesus! In fact, maybe it was the reveling in (and writing about) Jesus which kept him sane enough to keep doing so! But whatever the case, God was not finished with Mr. Martin, even when he came to the end of his own rope!

In 2005, John Piper wrote an excellent piece on Alexander Cruden, another mentally sick man whom God used extraordinarily. And here is what Piper says by way of lesson from Cruden’s life:
What encourages me about this is to realize that God’s ways are strange. And in this strangeness, sinful and sick and broken people fit into God’s designs. He has purposes for the mentally ill and for the emotionally unstable and for the socially maladjusted. And he has purposes for you.^
So take heart, you who cannot seem to hold yourself together. And take heart, you who love those who can’t. As the Fergusons remind us, “The glory of the gospel is indeed contained in jars of clay.”#

____________________________

*Quoted by the Fergusons from the Proceedings and debates of the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland (1881), p.46, under the heading ‘Dr Hugh Martin.’
^From the “The Good, Insane Concordance Maker” at desiringgod.org.
#For "jars of clay" see 2 Corinthians 4.7 (ESV).

November 5, 2013

Gentleness

It’s a biblical theme that I’ve run up against a few times lately – and been convicted by. God’s people ought to be marked by gentleness (or meekness in the King James rendering). Indeed, the more I think about it, the more I see that this ought to be one of our primary character traits. After all, this quality finds itself in some of the greatest character checklists in all the Bible!

What are some of those check lists?

One is the beatitudes in Matthew 5. Do you remember that list? “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” “Blessed are the pure in heart,” “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and so on. What about gentleness? Does it make the cut? Check. “Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5.5).

And then there is Paul’s famous basket full of “the fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” So there it is again, in another very famous place – gentleness!

Paul also compiled a famous list of elder qualifications in 1 Timothy 3. And, you guessed it … gentleness makes this list, too! Among other things, “an overseer” (or elder / pastor) “must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle.”

The beatitudes, “the fruit of the Spirit,” and the qualifications for elders. Along with the Ten Commandments, I think we’d agree that these are some of the most important moral and spiritual checklists in the Bible! And all three of them encourage gentleness in God’s people. And that’s not by accident! God must hold this quality in very high regard! He must consider it one of the great marks of true spiritual maturity – that we, each of us, grow in and exhibit gentleness!

Are there times when even Christians must be stern, or even forceful? The examples of Jesus, Paul, and other godly men surely tell us that there are (especially when religious hypocrisy rears its ugly head). But for all the times when severity is called for, it seems to me that there are many, many more times when gentleness is the order of the day.

For most of us, the rubber meets the road most obviously in our home lives. How many husbands, at the end of a long day’s work, are less-than-gentle with their wives? We tell ourselves that we’re just grouchy about our monotonous or stressful jobs. But the Bible doesn’t call for gentleness only when we’ve had a good day! In fact, it’s on the lousy days that our true character probably shows itself most. Are you gentle, men, even then? Am I?

And what about moms and dads? Do we discipline in anger, rather than with deliberate and patient consistency? Do we respond to our children’s repeated questions with great irritation, rather than helpful explanation? Do we snap at them from above instead of kneeling down at eye-level and explaining to them why mommy is disappointed in their behavior (and why, more importantly, it is displeasing to the Lord)?

Grandparents, older siblings, pastors, supervisors, co-workers, teachers, and many, many others can be guilty along these same lines, too. And, oh, I am convicted by these things – by how easy it is just to dominate a situation with severity, rather than to teach, and explain, and motivate, and actually lead others forward with gentleness.

The character of Jesus Himself, found in the four gospels, is our great guide and example in these things, of course. But let me leave you with another testimony that I came across recently. It’s from the introduction to the Diary of Kenneth MacRae (edited by Iain Murray). MacRae was one of the great preachers of the last century. But here is what his daughter said of his family life, away from the public eye: “his rebukes … were given in such a Christian and fatherly spirit that they drew one yet closer to him, and made one admire him more than ever.”

That, to me, is a marvelous picture of biblical gentleness – and one I wish to emulate! That, even when I offer critique or rebuke, people would sense the Spirit of Christ in me, by means of a spirit of gentleness … and would therefore be drawn to me (and to Jesus in me) rather than pushed away! Make it your aim to be the same. “Blessed are the gentle.”

October 29, 2013

"And to prayer"

“They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”  Acts 2.42

Acts 2.42 has been for me, through the years, one of the most formative verses in all the Bible. And I still believe it is one of the most important! It describes, in seed form, both what a local church ought to look like; and how individual Christian health ought to be pursued. Indeed, without overstating the matter, I think it is fair to say that, if a believer in Jesus understands the four commitments referenced in Acts 2.42 – and actually gives him or herself to them – the result will inevitably be spiritual growth and health. And the same is true of any local church. If a local church will follow the Acts 2.42 blueprint – truly "devoting" itself “to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” – then spiritual health and growth and flourishing will happen in that church, whatever else may be going on around them!

Yes, I know that there are other things for a Christian and a church to do and say, besides just the four-fold commitment of Acts 2.42. So I’m not saying that Acts 2.42 completely exhausts all of the New Testament's instructions for believers! Just that, if a church is giving itself, truly, to these four disciplines … most all of the others will come with them.

But today let me focus, specifically, on prayer.  If Luke were to write the spiritual history of your church ... would he be able to write what he wrote of the believers at Jerusalem - that you all are “continually devoting [your]selves … to prayer”?  And could it be said, in the singular, of you with them?

Almost assuredly, the sort of prayer that is being referenced in Acts 2.42 is corporate prayer – gathered prayer; believers praying together. The other commitments on the list took (and take) place in groups. So it is logical to assume that the prayer to which Luke refers took place in the same setting – together. But can that be said you? Does your church have a weekly prayer meeting?  Or maybe small group gatherings in which gathered prayer plays a vital part?  And are you actively attending, listening, praying, and adding your own 'amen' to the petitions and praises that rise to heaven during that hour?

It may be that your church doesn't have corporate times for prayer.  If not, perhaps you could politely request such of the leaders.  Or maybe there is a prayer gathering, but your schedule makes it difficult for you to be a part.  But for many of us, it may not be that complicated. It may simply be that we don’t come together for corporate prayer for the same reason that my son doesn’t eat mushrooms – not for lack of availability, but simply because he hasn’t the appetite for them. Ask yourself if that is true of you and corporate prayer. Do you have an appetite for it? And if not, why not? Is there some other activity – sleeping in, TV, the Sunday paper – that is filling you up instead? What is keeping you from devoting yourself “to prayer”? And how might your spiritual growth, and health, and flourishing be different if you gave yourself to praying with your church family? How might your spouse or children benefit from such a commitment? How might your church flourish if more of its members were active at the prayer meeting?

Would you pray with them? Jesus died so that you might come to God in this way!  So go and make use of this gift that He has purchased with His very life's blood!  

Maybe you’re uncomfortable praying out loud at this point. No problem. Go along to the prayer meeting anyway, and listen to others, and add your own silent agreement and 'amen' to their requests. That’s just as vital as what is said aloud. Go and learn, from others, how to pray. Go and sit in the kind of gathering in which Jesus promises to be. Be a part of making your church an Acts 2.42 church! Do your part so that it may be said of your local congregation: “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

October 22, 2013

"A dimly burning wick"

“A bruised reed He will not break
And a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish”
Isaiah 42.3

Those words were written about God’s “Servant” (v.1), His “chosen one” – the Messiah, Jesus. And, O, what gentleness they reveal to us! Gentleness from a heavenly Father who is willing to send such a Servant into the world. And, of course, gentleness, meekness, kindness, tenderness, compassion, and patience on the part of the Servant himself!

Aren’t these attractive pictures of the tenderness of Jesus? “A bruised reed He will not break.” He does not, in other words, walk into His Father’s garden, find a stem that has been trampled upon and bent at a 90 degree angle … and then just immediately determine to cut His losses by grabbing the bruised reed between His thumb and forefinger and finishing the job. No! Jesus sees such bruised, bent-down people, and is tender with them. He splints them with His word, and with the encouragement of His saints, so that wounded Christians begin to grow strong again, and stand straight again, and produce fruit again. Perhaps you have known Him to do that for you from time to time.

And then the Lord goes on to say of His Servant that “a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish.” Or, as the KJV renders it, “the smoking flax shall he not quench.”

Another beautiful portrait! And one upon which the Puritan, Richard Sibbes, elaborates marvelously in his classic book The Bruised Reed.  Among his many helpful observations is to note just how a “dimly burning wick” or “smoking flax” portrays many a Christian (especially many a new Christian):
“In smoking flax there is but a little light … and that little mixed with smoke. The observations from this are that, in God’s children, especially in their first conversion, there is but a little measure of grace, and that little mixed with much corruption, which, as smoke, is offensive; but that Christ will not quench this smoking flax.”
Isn’t this true, at times, of the Christian (and even sometimes beyond our “first conversion”)? Our light doesn’t always shine as brightly as we would hope. It is more like a little glowing ember than a burning flame. And, in such a state, we sometimes produce as much smoke as we do light. But even so, Jesus does not place a snuffer over the “dimly burning wick” so as to save Himself any further trouble. For, as Sibbes also points out, even amidst all the smoke; and even though the light we emit is “but a little light” – yet that “little light”, that glowing ember is Christ’s ember … and He values it highly! He is committed, not to blow it out, but to fan it into flame!

Do you ever feel like “a dimly burning wick” – like you are producing as much smoke as light (and maybe more)? Isaiah 42.3 is not, of course, an excuse to settle comfortably into that state. But it is a reminder that Christ loves you there; and that Christ will not abandon you there, or blow out your candle altogether! He is not into cutting His losses … but splinting bruised reeds, and fanning dimly burning wicks. And His people should know Him as such, and believe Him as such, and love Him for such gentleness to us, His sometimes struggling – but always beloved – people!

October 15, 2013

Dust

"Just as a father has compassion his children,
So the LORD has compassion on those who fear Him.
For He Himself knows our frame;
He is mindful that we are but dust.”
Psalm 103.13-14

“Dust.” That is what the word of God calls us. Not very flattering, mind you – but, oh, so true. “We are but dust.”

That’s true of us, of course, physically. We are made out of the same sorts of material from which the rest of creation is composed – all of which amounts, basically, to dust. And someday, when our souls have departed and the breath of life has gone out of our bodies, this will become quite obvious. Because of the corruption that sin has brought into the world, our physical make-up – so amazingly complex and fascinating right now – will one day break right back down into the common matter from which it was originally composed. “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3.19).

But the fact that “we are but dust” shows itself, even now, does it not? God “knows our frame.” He knows, as the NASB margin note puts it, “what we are made of” – namely, “dust”! He knows that, even in this life, we are weak, and fragile, and infirm. That’s clearly true, as we have been saying, in the physical realm. Sometimes our bodies give out physically. They grow tired. They grow old. The hurt. They falter. Because “we are but dust.”

And sometimes the faltering of our bodies affects our minds, and wills, and feelings as well. We are whole creatures – made of body and soul together; body and thoughts, feelings, emotions, and will … all wrapped up into one whole person. And because those not-so-physical aspects of our humanity are connected to a tangible body that is “but dust” … we are often weak and faltering in these intangible areas, too. Add to that the fact that our souls (and not just our bodies) have been corrupted by mankind’s fall into sin … and we can see very well how weak and brittle we really are. “We are but dust.” Some of us, perhaps, can feel that quite palpably, even right now.

But here’s the thing about Psalm 103.13-14. The point of these verses is not simply to remind us that “we are but dust,” but to show us that God has compassion on us for precisely that reason! ‘The LORD has compassion on those who fear Him. For [or because] He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust” (emphasis mine)! Isn’t that word “for” a good word? It signals that your dustiness is one the very things that motivates God’s compassion! He has compassion on you “for” – or precisely because – He knows that you are dust!

God understands what you’re made of. He knows how weak you really are – far better than you know it yourself! And we might think that such knowledge would turn Him off; that He would be disgusted with all our foibles and weaknesses. But, says the psalmist, His knowledge “that we are but dust” actually moves Him to compassion! Because He looks down and sees that you are “but dust,” His heart is moved with fatherly concern for you – like an earthly father has a soft spot for the weaknesses and difficulties of his children.

Just watch a Christian father or mother some time, whose child has a disability of one sort or other. See how tender and protective they are! See how they go to great lengths to get that child whatever help can be found – precisely because their child is fragile! And will not your heavenly Father all the more defend, and care for, and be patient with His feeble children?

“We are but dust.” It’s not the most flattering thing that could be said of us. But we do well to remember that it is true – not least because it is our very weakness that arouses our Father to be strong for us!

October 11, 2013

Hands, Feet, Eyes, Ears ... and You

“For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot says, ‘Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,’ it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. And if the ear says, ‘Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,’ it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. If they were all one member, where would the body be?”
1 Corinthians 12.14-19

Those six verses are, of course, an extended metaphor for the church (“the body”) and her members (the body parts). Each member of the church is like a part of the human body – placed where it is, by God, for a specific reason, and with specific roles and purposes. Each member has a part to play – and is important! We, each of us, are like the hands, feet, eyes, and ears of Christ’s body.

Some members of the church, it’s true, may be a little more or less noticeable than others – just like certain body parts seem a little more or less prominent than others. Most of us probably think about our eyes more than our ears; our hands more than our feet. And so it may be in the church. Some of our roles are more or less public. And we may presume, then, that those roles which are less noticeable and less public are less important … and that perhaps no one will really notice or care if they are not fulfilled. Certainly no one will probably be any worse off, right?

But just think about your hands and feet for a moment. Unless you have problems with them, your feet may seem far less important than your hands. After all, your hands are used for a great many more things. Your hands have a great deal more motor skill than your feet. Indeed, you use your hands to put the shoes on your feet each day! Therefore hands may seem a great deal more important than feet. But let your feet become crippled; or let it be that you begin to have severe pain, or broken bones in your feet … and you will soon find that your hands suffer, too! Because many of the very tasks that seem so hand-oriented cannot be done if your feet cannot carry you to the jobsite, or stand up to do the work! And so, “If the foot says, ‘Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,’ it is not for this reason any less a part of the body.”

So then ... feet cannot assume that they are unimportant just because they don’t do all the things that hands can do. And hands, conversely, cannot assume that feet are dispensable (see v.21)! And all of this is written, of course – not because Paul is interested in anatomy, but in the life of the church! Every member is important, he says – even those members that seem, at first glance, to be less essential! Every member of Christ’s body, just like the members of the human body, has a purpose … without which the rest of the body will function just a little less effectively!

If every church member were a teacher or preacher, who would take care of the finances? Who would care for the children? Who would welcome and show hospitality? And the list could go on! And if no one cared for the money, how would the preacher live? And if no one cared for the children, how would the parents be able to concentrate on his sermon? And if no one greeted, and welcomed, and cared for guests, how much smaller might be his congregation? And what would your preacher do without people praying for him?

O, how important each of you is to the health and well-being of your local church … and the advance of the gospel in your city! Do not sell yourself short by thinking that your role is unimportant. It is vitally so, even if it seems small to you … or goes unnoticed by others. God notices! And the church benefits, whether she realizes it or not! So play your part! Be the best eye, or ear, or foot, or hand, or toenail you can be!

October 1, 2013

Thou Shalt?

Sometimes listening to sermons can be confusing. One Sunday we hear a sermon on one of God’s Ten Commandments, and the importance of keeping it … and we begin to take measures to be more serious about obeying the Law of God. But then, a few weeks later, the same preacher preaches about salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone … and not by our ability to keep the Law. And so maybe we back off our zeal for the commandments, and are tempted to lean in the other direction. And it can be confusing! How do we beware trying to work our way into favor with God … and, at the same time, avoid throwing out the commandments of God altogether? Well, the answer is surely fuller than I have space for here. But let me suggest a few word pictures that may clarify things just a little bit.

1. The commandments of God are NOT a ladder. In his sermon series, Pathway to Freedom, Alistair Begg says it best: “The commandments are not a ladder up which we climb to acceptance with God.” In other words, trying to keep every commandment will never make you right with God. Why? Because you can’t do it. By your sin, says Begg, you’ll break every rung on the ladder! Indeed, you’ll never go even a single day without breaking the commandments, either in your actions, or in the attitudes of your heart. So do not read God’s commandments as though you might actually climb to heaven by them. See Romans 3.10-26 ... and run to Jesus alone as your salvation!

2. The commandments of God are NOT a microscope. In other words, God did not put the commandments in the Bible so you could go around examining everyone else’s life and judging them. Don’t use the commandments as a microscope through which to nit-pick others who are sinners like you! “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7.5).

3. The commandments of God are a mirror. To complete Alistair Begg’s aforementioned saying, and once again borrow his analogy: “The commandments are not a ladder up which we climb to acceptance with God, but a mirror in which we see our sin.” This is what Paul has in mind when he says: “through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3.20). One reason the Law (or commandments) of God exists, in other words, is to show us the sin in our own hearts and lives. For, without the commandments, we might convince ourselves that we are pretty decent folks … with few, if any, marks on our faces. But, says Begg, when we hold the Ten Commandments, like a mirror, in front of our faces … we realize that we don’t look as good as we thought! We see black marks and stains that we never thought were there. And, praise God, we are therefore reminded of how badly we need Christ … so that we might flee to Him! And that is good reason for taking the commandments seriously – even though they don’t save us! Because they show us we need to be saved by Christ!

4. The commandments of God are a fence-line. No, the commandments do not get us into the narrow way that leads to life. That happens only by faith in Jesus (Ephesians 2.8-9). But once we are, by faith, on that narrow way … the commandments serve as a kind of fence, lining both sides of the road, and helping to keep us on the straight and narrow. Perhaps that’s why the Ten Commandments were given to the Israelites after they had been redeemed from the Land of Egypt. They were meant, not as a means of redemption, but as a safeguard for those who had already been redeemed … to keep God’s people in happy, smooth, and safe places all the days of their lives. And so they will be for the redeemed, today, if we will joyfully keep them!

So, the commandments are a tremendous blessing from God, if used properly – not as a ladder or microscope, but as a mirror and a fence-line. Let us, then, make full use of this precious gift from our heavenly Father!

September 24, 2013

“A pillar of cloud … to lead them”

“The LORD was going before them in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them on the way, and in a pillar of fire by night to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night” (Exodus 13.21). “Whenever the cloud was lifted from over the tent, afterward the sons of Israel would then set out; and in the place where the cloud settled down, there the sons of Israel would camp” (Numbers 9.17).

Have you ever wished that the Christian life was that easy? That God would make His will so clearly known to you, and order your steps as plainly, as He did for the Israelites in the wilderness? If they were to break camp on a particular Tuesday morning, and set up in a new location … the cloud would lift from its usual position over the tabernacle, and move on ahead of them like a guide on a travel tour. And if the Lord would have them stay put for a while, the cloud stayed put as well. Wouldn’t that be nice? Wouldn’t decisions be so much easier if God still guided us by His pillars of cloud and fire?

Well, let’s first say that the Israelites’ wilderness experience was not, at bottom level, an easy one … even if it was very clear, from day to day, where God would have them be. I don’t think we’d trade places with them very readily!

But let’s also say that, while our experience of God’s guidance is different from that of the Israelites in the wilderness … God has given us our own pillar of cloud and fire, so to speak. For, as I thought and read about the pillars of cloud and fire this week, it occurred to me that these pillars serve us as a kind of metaphor for how the Lord guides us by means of His word.

After all, these pillars were meant to guide the Lord’s people in the wilderness; to show them where they should go; to order their steps, quite literally. But how does the Lord order our steps? Where do we go for guidance in life’s decisions? Is it not to the Bible? To be sure, the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments do not guide us exactly like the cloud guided God’s people of old. They do not tell us exactly where to live, or when to move or stay. But when we make decisions like these, the Bible does give us principles to go on; and it does reassure us that the Lord is guiding us, even if we don’t always realize, in the moment, how He’s doing so (Romans 8.28).

And more importantly, the Bible very clearly – just as clearly as the movement of the Old Testament cloud – orders our steps when it comes to moral and spiritual decision making. In these utmost of matters, we (like the Israelites) have not been left alone in the dark! The “pillar of fire” was established for the Israelites “to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night” – literally, “by day and by night.” And, more figuratively, we too must travel God’s path, many times, “by night” – surrounded by darkness and difficulty which can impair our vision and obscure God’s path … and leave us longing for “a pillar of fire” to light the way. And God has not left us without such light! For the psalmist calls God’s word “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119.105). The Bible guides us, even when all around us seems shrouded in a darkness that obscures the way of truth. And, if we will simply keep to the path that God’s word lights for us, we will always be exactly where God wants to be – as assuredly as if He moved a visible torch light from place to place to show us the way!

So be a man, woman, girl, or boy of the word! Wake up in the morning, like the Israelites of old, looking for the “pillar of cloud” – eager to discover God’s direction for the day ahead. And when it’s dark, allow the “pillar of fire” to give you light … always saying with the psalmist (119.133, KJV): “Order my steps in thy word.”

September 17, 2013

The Crown Rights of the Redeemer

Among my historical heroes are the Scottish Covenanters – those lesser-known contemporaries of the English Puritans – who stood (and suffered) for the faith during the reign of the Stuart dynasty in Britain in the 1600’s.

The issue in Scotland, in those days, was: ‘Who is king … in the church?’ The Stuart kings of England and Scotland seemed to think that, in fact,they themselves were! They presumed that, since God had put them on the throne of the land, then they should have ultimate say in the churches of the land, too … in determining who pastored where, and how the churches worshipped, and so on. To make matters worse, these Stuart kings proved woefully incapable of making such decisions according to biblical doctrine and principal. So it wasn’t just that they usurped a power that wasn’t their own … but that they used that power to infect the churches with bad preachers, bad theology, and unscriptural worship practices. And so the churches often had ungodly, sometimes infidel ‘ministers’ foisted upon them, along with forms of worship that still smacked of the superstitions of Roman Catholicism.

But the Covenanters would have none of this nonsense. Loyal to the king as they wished to be in civil affairs, their great contention was that Christ, and no other, is King in His church! He and He alone, speaking through His word, sets the parameters of doctrine and worship for His covenant people. And the king, lawful as his jurisdiction is in other areas, has no right to interfere in the governing of Christ’s church!

Now that’s a message and a commitment that we will do well to remember in the decades ahead. In civil matters, Christians are to be as loyal as we possibly can to the governments that God has given to us (see Romans 13.1-7). But no other crown has authority to rule in Christ’s church. No king, or president, or congress, or parliament has the right to tell the subjects of Christ how to worship, or what to believe, or what to preach (or not preach) in His church. In those matters, Christ alone is King!

And I say that we will do well to remember these things. For a time may well be coming (and perhaps the first small storm clouds have already arisen over the land) in which it will not be so obvious, to the pressure groups and powers-that-be in our own land, that Christ alone is King in His church. We hope, and pray, and vote, and work against such a turn of events. But it may well come anyway. And we, like the Covenanters, may someday be forced to answer – perhaps with a law-enforcement officer standing over us – which King we intend to obey: King Jesus, or the civil authorities.

In many such cases, when the Covenanters would not bow the knee – when they kept on preaching without the king’s permission; or kept meeting for worship outside of the ‘approved’ churches – they were imprisoned, tortured, shot, drowned, hanged, and even dismembered. All because they wouldn’t let the Stuart kings tell them how to worship King Jesus. But it was worth it to them, if only they might uphold ‘the crown rights of the Redeemer.’

Will the American church be so bold and willing to suffer for Jesus? Do we even give Jesus full authority in His church now, without much outside pressure? The evidence, in many places, is sparse. So what will become of us when the screws are tightened? How will the American church stand for Christ’s kingship against outside pressures when, in so many places today, we are standing against it by our own pragmatism, biblical illiteracy, and lack of discipline? Maybe government pressure would serve to harden us like steel. Or maybe much of the American ‘church’ will collapse under pressure. But let’s pray that we will stand firm under trial – even willing to go to the gallows for Jesus, if He should call us to it. And let us prepare ourselves for such days by giving King Jesus crown rights in His church, even today.

Sermons from Acts 1-14

We've reached the halfway point in the 28 chapters of the book of Acts, as we study it together on Sundays and Wednesdays at PRBC.  So I thought I'd post the audio links for any who are interested in listening in.  Join us as we learn from the life and example of the early church, and watch the gospel spread (Acts 1.8) ... first of all "in Jerusalem"; then overflowing into "all Judea and Samaria"; and beginning, in the middle chapters of the book, to make its way toward "the remotest part of the earth."

Acts 1.1-8 - The Acts of the Apostles - mp3
Acts 1.9-26 - The Ascension, and After - mp3
Acts 2.1-40 - Pentecost  - mp3
Acts 2.41-47 - First Church, Jerusalem - mp3
Acts 3.1-10 - “In the name of Jesus Christ” - mp3
Acts 3.11-4.22 - “We cannot stop speaking” - mp3
Acts 4.23-31 - The Prayer Meeting - mp3
Acts 4.32-5.11 - Liberality … and Lying to the Holy Spirit - mp3
Acts 5.12-42 - A Beautiful Church - mp3
Acts 6.1-7 - The First Deacons - mp3
Acts 6.7-7.60 - “Stephen, full of grace and power” - mp3
Acts 8.1-4 - “Those who had been scattered went about preaching the word" - mp3
Acts 8.5-25 - The Gospel in Samaria - mp3
Acts 8.26-40 - A Divine Appointment - mp3
Acts 9.1-31 - Saul’s Conversion - mp3
Acts 9.31-43 - How the Gospel Spreads - mp3
Acts 10.1-11.18 - “The Gentiles also” - mp3
Acts 11.19-30 - Gospel Advance - mp3
Acts 12.1-25 - Persecution in Jerusalem - mp3
Acts 13.1-12 - A Paradigm for Missions - mp3
Acts 13.13-52 - A Sermon in the Synagogue - mp3
Acts 14.1-28 - Ups and Downs - mp3

September 10, 2013

"But the midwives feared God"

I’ve recently begun reading through the book of Exodus, a chapter a day. And, though I have read and heard their story many times, I’ve found myself encouraged more than ever by the mettle of those two women in Exodus 1, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah – the valiant midwives who took care of pregnant Hebrew ladies and their babies in the days of Israel’s bondage in Egypt.

You may remember the story. After the death of Joseph, the population of Israelites living in Egypt had grown prolifically – “so that the land was filled with them.” And Pharaoh became nervous – fearing that the Israelites might turn against the native Egyptians. So he determined to “deal wisely with them” – first by inflicting “hard labor” upon them, and eventually with a kind of ethnic cleansing program whereby he sought to eliminate all the newborn Hebrew baby boys. And, to aid in his plan, he pressganged these two midwives – Shiphrah and Puah – into his service (or so he thought). He ordered them that “when you are helping the Hebrew women to give birth and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, then you shall put him to death.”

‘That’ll take care of the Hebrew problem,’ Pharaoh must have thought to himself. Surely these simple, low-ranking midwives would do his bidding, posthaste! After all, who would dare stand against mighty Pharaoh?

“But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt had commanded them, but let the boys live.” “The midwives feared God”! Isn’t that marvelous? They stood up to the most powerful man in their known world … not because they necessarily had no fear, but because they feared God more than they feared the king!

And I am stirred by their example! Because how often do I compromise, or cower, or just fail to stand and be counted because I fear man? I fear what people will think. I fear criticism. I fear hard conversations, or of being thought fanatical or overzealous. Maybe sometimes I am overzealous! But many times I’m just plain afraid – and often of people a lot less frightening than Pharaoh! But I am encouraged by Shiphrah and Puah! They weren’t in-your-face in their reaction to Pharaoh (and perhaps there’s a lesson in that for some of us, too). But they just kept on quietly doing what they knew was right. And what an example they are to us all!

They are an example especially, it seems to me, to Christians in the medical community today who, like Shiphrah and Puah, may increasingly have to face government pressure to participate in the snuffing out of little human lives. They’re also an example to other Christians who may, in other areas of conscience, find themselves pressured by the government to set aside their beliefs in order to maintain the secular status quo* (when it comes to healthcare coverage, and free speech, and so on).

But these midwives are also an example to those of us who are afraid of people a lot less influential than Pharaoh or modern day law-makers. We can do the right thing, even if it’s unpopular or difficult. We can just quietly go about our business – doing right, speaking for God, loving the least of these, honoring the commandments, and so on – no matter what man may say about us. And, if Sphiphrah and Puah are any indication (Exodus 1.20-21), God will reward our faithfulness!

So let’s be like these two courageous women. “The midwives feared God.”



*Charles Tassell's recent article “In Search of Religious Freedom in Ohio” (in the Ohio Conservative Review) was helpful to me in forming this point of application. In it, he gives an example of the sort of pressure I mention above, and highlights some work going on to protect religious freedom in Ohio.

September 9, 2013

Kids' Quotes

A couple of recent funny quotes from the kids:

Sally, requesting some of that zesty soda that comes with a maroon label:

Can I have some Dr. Seuss?

Silas, on the way into the mall, where we planned to visit the LEGO® Store:

I can smell LEGOs!

September 4, 2013

Sunday Reading

Last Sunday I urged you to spend your Sundays well – delighting in the Lord and His work in the world, rather than in the distractions and toils of everyday life. Sunday is meant to be something of a weekly slice of heaven, brought down to earth! And one of the ways we can spend it well is by reading – reading the Bible; and reading good Christian books that will encourage us in the Lord. I do hope and pray that many of us will, more and more, become readers! With that in mind, we have a whole slew of newly arrived materials on the PRBC Resource Rack in the church foyer. If you're local, check out these 20+ new books and booklets … and some videos for kids, too!

Additionally, I thought this might be a good time and place to recommend some other books to you as well. And, since we have recently been thinking about the persecuted church; and since I also mentioned, last Sunday, the need to help our children “call the sabbath a delight” as well … this list will have a slant in those two directions.

So then, here are some books worth checking out at the local library, purchasing online*, or ordering through your local Christian bookstore:

The Crown and Covenant series by Douglas Bond (P&R Publishing). These books, written for pre-teens (but excellent for adults, too) follow the adventures, trials, and faith of a fictional Scottish family (the M’Kethe’s) living in the very real period of persecution in the late 17th century in Britain. Each of the three books focuses on a young boy who learns, as the story unfolds, what it means to trust God in trying times, and how to stand for Christ under pressure. Great for family read aloud times!

Fair Sunshine by Jock Purves (Banner of Truth). A gathering together of the true stories of several great saints who lived during (and some who died because of) the great persecution of the Scottish Covenanters (mentioned in the previous paragraph).

The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. Written (from prison) during the aforementioned times of trial in Britain, Bunyan’s classic novel is an allegory on the often trying process of coming to Christ, and on following the narrow path in allegiance to Him. One of the great books (Christian or secular) ever written … and available in some abridged versions for smaller children, too.

John G. Paton: Missionary to the New Hebrides (Banner of Truth). This missionary autobiography will whet your appetite for the beauty of the Christian family, the glory of the cause of missions, and the goodness of a God who is sovereign over all life’s twists and turns. Along the way, it will also give you good perspective on the suffering of God’s people – particularly on the mission field. This book is available in the “biography” section of our church library, but is currently checked out!

Singing in the Fire by Faith Cook (Banner of Truth). A gathering together of several mini-biographies of historic Christians who struggled and suffered while (and sometimes for) following Jesus. Several moving accounts of the faithfulness of God are re-told in this excellent little book.

Huguenot Garden by Douglas Jones (Canon Press). Another historical fiction book, in the same vein as the Crown and Covenant series mentioned above … following the story of two young girls and their family during a time of great opposition to the Protestant churches and Christians in 17th century France. I haven’t read this one yet, but hope to have it in hand soon, and to read it aloud together as a family.

The Crook in the Lot by Thomas Boston, my historical hero. This is one of only two books in the list that are not either history or biography (can you tell I love church history?).  The Crook in the Lot is, rather, a series of sermons on Ecclesiastes 7.13 (KJV): “Consider the work of God: for who can make that straight, which he hath made crooked?” Boston expertly works the reader through appropriate, biblical ways to deal with the various sufferings that God allows in our lives. 

The Building on the Rock series by Joel Beeke, Diana Kleyn, and Jeff Anderson (CF4K). This series of five children’s books contains roughly 2-3 dozen brief, real-life stories per book, each of which teaches lessons of faith, courage, obedience, God’s faithfulness, the gospel of Jesus, and so on. These stories are great for children’s own personal reading, and for family read aloud times as well … and each contains a suggested corresponding Scripture reading, and two questions for discussion.

So there you have it. Just a few suggestions for how you and your children might warm your hearts and stir your souls on Lord’s Day afternoons and evenings (and on any other day of the week, too!). May these books and others make for happy, helpful reading!




*Please do remember that, while online retailers do not always collect state and local sales tax, you are still required to pay any applicable state and local tax on internet, through-the-mail, and other purchases for which tax is not collected by the retailer.  In Ohio, this can be done by following the instructions connected with the “use tax” line on your state income tax return.  For residents of other states, consult your state tax office for details. Matthew 22.21.