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


"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!