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.