November 24, 2014

"That they may know You"

‘Christianity is about relationship, not religion.’ How many times have you heard it? Probably twenty-seven too many. It is a tired cliché after all. And it overlooks the fact that there is such a thing as “pure and undefiled religion” (James 1.27) … and that Christians are supposed to engage in it!

Nevertheless, clichés usually become cliché because they have hit on something that is mostly true. And such is the case with the religion/relationship slogan. While we might not agree fully that Christianity is not religion, it should be well-noted that it most assuredly is relationship. “This is eternal life,” Jesus said in John 17.3, “that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (emphasis added).

There is Christ’s own definition of eternal life – not streets of gold, first of all; not a reunion with grandma, primarily; not the absence of pain, or tears, or even sin (delightful as all those missing pieces will be!). All these things may be said to be aspects of eternal life … but the substance of eternal life is knowing: knowing God, and knowing His Son! The substance of eternal life is a relationship with the Almighty! That is what will make heaven so heavenly – that we will see, and know, and love the Lord our God forever!

And then let me say also that this eternal life is not merely future. Eternal life is not merely something that we will obtain when we die, or when Christ returns. No! God has already “made us alive together with Christ.” And I submit to you that this God-given new life is of an eternal quality! If you are in Christ, you have begun a new life – with new desires, and new hopes, and new spiritual abilities, and a new family, and a new King – that will last forever! If you have believed on Christ, then you have already begun to taste the famous promise that comes at the end of John 3.16! And if you have already begun your “eternal life” … then the substance of your life today is that you actually know God, and that you know His Son!

Christianity is not just the forgiveness of sins, and the assurance that you don’t have to go to hell. It is those things! But the greatest thing about your sins being forgiven is that they no longer present a barrier between you and your Maker! Now you can come to Him, and speak with Him, and know Him! And similarly, the greatest thing about being rescued from hell is not simply the avoidance of the flames, but the opportunity to live forever with the Lord! This is Christianity; and “this is eternal life” – that we have the great privilege of knowing the heavenly Father and His beloved Son!

Do you know Him? Are you really a Christian? And if so, don’t you want to know Him more? “That they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” This is the most distinguished privilege anyone can have!  And “this is eternal life.”

November 18, 2014

"The earth has yielded its produce"

That’s a thanksgiving kind of verse, is it not? The full text of Psalm 67.6 reads:

“The earth has yielded its produce;
God, our God, blesses us.”

How true! God has, indeed, blessed us! And what a distinct privilege we have to spend our earthly sojourn in a culture whose forbears thought it wise to commemorate God’s blessings, and the gathering in of the earth’s harvest, by means of a regular holiday dedicated to giving thanks! I hope you take advantage this Thursday. Even if 2014 has been one of the most difficult in your memory, you can surely look back over these nearly eleven months and see God’s provision, and help, and kindness along the way. And (to borrow a thought from an old friend), even if we had no other evidence of His kindness, the fact that God gave His own Son for us would be reason enough to hold thanksgiving 365 days a year! “God, our God, blesses us” indeed!

But we mustn’t read Psalm 67.6 without also going on to notice what follows quickly upon it on verse 7! Read both verses together, and notice, at the end of v.7, the reason God blesses us; the reason our harvest has come in again in 2014:

“6 The earth has yielded its produce;
God, our God, blesses us.
7 God blesses us,
That all the ends of the earth may fear Him.”

Don’t miss that purpose clause this Thanksgiving! “God blesses us”; God fills our barns and silos (or, in modern times, our refrigerators, and cupboards, and bank accounts) … why? So that we, His people, might be a blessing to those who live at “the ends of the earth”; so that people dwelling in far flung lands may come to fear our God. And how do such people come to “fear Him”? The same way that we did – by hearing the good news of Jesus Christ, which draws us to Him in repentance and faith! And so the thrust of verses 6-7 is that, to whatever extent God fills our pockets, He does so … not simply so that we can feast and enjoy the good life, but so that we might be the means of bringing the gospel of Christ to people living at the four corners of the globe! “God blesses us, that all the ends of the earth may fear Him.”

And how does this calling to get the gospel to “all the ends of the earth” relate specifically to full barns and wallets? Well, it costs money to send out missionaries, does it not? And to support them while they are on the field? It costs money to print Bibles and tracts to hand out to people who need the word of God in their own language. It costs money to show practical love to the people with whom the gospel is shared (many of whose cupboards are actually quite bare). And so when “God blesses us” (v.7), the idea is that we will share the wealth so as to get the gospel out in the cause of missions. In fact, that’s what the entire Psalm is really all about – the missionary task! And it is for this task that our barns are full!

So this Thanksgiving … yes, enjoy the feast! Delight in God’s bounty, and the blessings that we enjoy in this country because of it. That is a biblical thought, too (Deut. 14.22-27)! But remember that there is an even higher purpose to all this blessing than just enjoying it in the company of family and friends (or spending way too much of it on Christmas presents – most of which will be forgotten by next December 25, or maybe even January 25!). Think, too, about how you can use the monetary blessings God has placed in your hands for the sake of the gospel at “the ends of the earth.” Give generously to Lottie Moon, and/or Operation Christmas Child. Make an end of the year gift to a group like HeartCry or The Gideons. Pick up a Christmas gift catalog from Samaritan’s Purse, or World Vision, or Compassion and use some of the fullness of your barns to help fill up someone else’s in the name of Jesus. These are the reasons why our silos are full in the first place! “God blesses us, that all the ends of the earth may fear Him” (emphasis added).

November 10, 2014

The Mustard Seed Kingdom

“And He said, ‘How shall we picture the kingdom of God, or by what parable shall we present it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the soil, though it is smaller than all the seeds that are upon the soil, yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and forms large branches; so that THE BIRDS OF THE AIR can NEST UNDER ITS SHADE.’” Mark 4.30-32

What encouragement there is in this parable of Jesus! Encouragement for small churches. Encouragement for their pastors. Encouragement for daily Christian living … in which we are usually trying to serve the Lord in fairly mundane situations, and sharing the good news with people usually in ones and twos. Encouragement for moms who sometimes feel like their only significant evangelistic opportunities are those that happen in their own home, among the same little gaggle of kids with whom they spoke of Jesus yesterday, too (and the day before that).

So much of what we do for the Lord doesn’t seem all that spectacular, does it? We share Christ with a co-worker here or there. We sit down, once more, for family worship with our children. We pack and pray over a shoebox. We post a verse of scripture on Facebook. We attend a small church. And so it may often seem like we’re not really accomplishing all that much for Jesus. But the parable of the mustard seed reminds us that advances in God’s kingdom do not always come with a thunderclap for emphasis!

“The kingdom of God … is like a mustard seed.” And thus, when you see it in its seed form, initial appearances might not lead you to expect it to mushroom into something great. That was certainly the case with Jesus’ first disciples. Just a handful of them – and in some ways, a little bit rag tag. But look at what they eventually became; and what has become of the church over these last two millennia! The people of God may still be a minority … but when you consider our beginnings, the advance of the kingdom has been spectacular!

And so it often will be with the little enclaves and outposts of the kingdom scattered hither and yon across the modern landscape. Someone might walk into one of our church services, and think that it is quite noble that we continue to gather, even with so small a group of people, and so little influence on the community around us. But they may not expect any great advances in the kingdom of God from such a small collection of everyday folks! And they might think the same if they sat in on our family devotions, or attended one of our Backyard Bible Clubs, or listened in on our prayer meeting. And yet who knows what God may do with our little mustard seed? Who knows what people groups may be reached for Christ through a few missionaries God might be raising up in this little church? Who knows but that, after years of slow and steady witness, the Holy Spirit might one day break a dam in our city, so that dozens of new faces suddenly begin cramming into our pews to listen to us “give an account for the hope that is in” us. Or who knows how a couple more generations of faithfulness in our little church might more slowly blossom us into a larger congregation that is able to have a significant voice for Jesus in our community?  Or maybe we remain small ... but have an impact on the growth and flourishing of God's kingdom in some way that we haven't yet imagined!

This is how mustard seeds work, isn’t it? And that is how we should “picture the kingdom of God.”

Small seeds can become great flourishing plants. Let us pray that it may be so with our own churches, and families, and personal witness for Christ!

November 4, 2014

"Fishers of men"

That is what Jesus promised to make His first disciples (Mark 1.17) – “fishers of men.” And it was an apt description. “Simon and Andrew … were fisherman” (v.16). They knew what it was to lower their nets, looking for a catch. They knew what it was to toil all night, and come up empty. They surely also knew the elation of hoisting the nets and finding them crammed full with a shoal of fish. And hopefully they had learned to be grateful even when the fish came into the boat in only ones and twos. These two men knew how to fish! And following Jesus and becoming His disciples was going to be something akin to that. But “from now on” they would “be catching men” (Luke 5.10, emphasis added).

And that is the task of each of Jesus’ disciples ever since – “catching men” for the Savior; letting down the nets of the gospel, and hoisting men, women, girls, and boys into the boat of God’s kingdom. And it is a noble task. But (like fishing) it may also be tiring, sometimes disappointing, work. Many are the occasions when we can say with Simon: “we worked hard all night and caught nothing” (Luke 5.5). Many are the times when the net is lowered faithfully, and dragged with great care through the waters, only to come up (again) with nothing. And then there is that one elusive fish that you so desperately want to catch for Jesus – and you keep fishing for her, or trying to scoop him into the boat – but to no seeming avail.

But Jesus would have us keep lowering the gospel net; keep casting the line of the good news into the water; keeping fishing for men – trusting that the Lord does, indeed, have the power (in the words of my historical hero, Thomas Boston) to ‘drive the fish into the net.’ Witness the stunning catch made by Simon and his brother in Luke 5.1-11. They had “worked hard all night and caught nothing.” But Jesus sent them out again. And Simon (in spite of his brief protest) dutifully obeyed. And do you remember what happened? This time they caught so many fish that “their nets began to break” … and they had to call for a second boat so as to have room to haul them all in! And it was a lesson in “catching men.” Jesus 'drive[s] the fish into the net'! Our job is simply to lower that net at His command – and to keep lowering, even in spite of many an empty lift.

And so, as one who has only ever caught a very small handful of fish, I am encouraged to keep trying. And I hope you are, too. Who knows when the Spirit will move in mighty power, and the church pews will begin to be so filed with new and hungry converts that we will have to call for help from other churches, trying to find places to fit them all in? So keep fishing. Do not lose heart. Keep lowering the nets of the gospel, waiting for the Lord to ‘drive the fish into the net.’