January 25, 2016

A Winter's Covenant

While the earth remains,
Seedtime and harvest,
And cold and heat,
And summer and winter,
And day and night
Shall not cease.
Genesis 8:22

Here is the most poetic portion of God’s promise never again to destroy the earth by the waters of a flood. The weather will never go so out of whack again, says the Lord in Genesis chapters 8-9! On the contrary, as long as the earth exists, there will be fall and spring, summer and winter, cold and heat … such that the changing of the seasons is a four-times-yearly reminder that God is still doing what He said He would do; still sparing and upholding the earth just as He promised in His covenant with Noah.

That’s a wonderful thought, isn’t it? That when the daffodils begin to sprout from their winter sleep, God is being faithful to His promise. And when the long days of summer sun are upon us, God is being true to His word. And when the greens of summer flame into the crimson, gold, and pumpkin of autumn, God is keeping His covenant! The seasons are not spinning all out of whack, but marching in time to the rhythm of God’s covenant faithfulness.

But do we think that way even when winter comes on – with all of its biting cold, and its grey days, and its dead branches, and the wrenches it sometimes throws into our pace? I wrote last winter that we aren’t necessarily meant to see the dead shades of winter brown as beautiful. But they do serve a purpose in the sermons that God preaches to us in His creation. And one of the purposes of winter is the same as the springing flowers of spring and the falling leaves of fall – to remind us that God is keeping His covenant; that the earth is still rotating around the Sun and the keeping up its customary routine just as God promised that it would. “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease” (emphasis added).

That doesn’t mean that there won’t be catastrophes, or that nature isn’t also under the curse. It is (witness the deaths from the recent blizzard on the East Coast). But what Genesis 8 is telling us is that the weather, while it may rage locally from time to time, will never wreak havoc on the whole world like it did in the days of Noah. And the fact that we still have spring, summer, fall, and winter every successive year confirms that God is faithful to that covenant!

So think of that when the crocuses blossom, and when the days grow long and warm, and when the forest is ablaze with the colors of autumn. And think of it, too, when the skies grow murky, and the nights grow long, and the mercury rests deep in the glass like a hibernating bear, not to arise until April! Winter may not be the most comfortable reminder that God is keeping the earth in orbit just according to plan. But it is a reminder just the same! And it’s better than the alternative that our sins deserve!

January 19, 2016

Strengthening the Church's Muscle

John Piper has given to the church (both online and in book form) a collection of delightful biographical sketches of various worthy saints of old. One of the best, in my judgment, is his message on the life and labors of that great Scottish missionary to the New Hebrides, John G. Paton.

Drawing heavily from Paton’s own autobiography, Piper draws a number of lessons to be learned from this godly, intrepid, and sometimes humorous missionary saint. And one that is on my mind as I write is Piper’s observation that, when a church spends and is spent on missionary labors … God never allows such mission-minded generosity to hurt that church! We might think the opposite, from a human perspective: ‘If we are generous to missions (financially or with our man-power), we might weaken the work right here inside our own church doors. We might be giving away the very things that our church needs to survive.’ But not so, says Piper. God does not allow missionary zeal and generosity to handcuff the local church! And he cites the testimony of Paton to demonstrate this reality. And here is how the story goes:

After serving for four years in what is now called Vanuatu, Paton was basically chased from the island by hostile natives. And so, before eventually returning to engage in a highly successful work on another local island, Paton toured both Britain and Australia, telling his story and marshalling support for missionary work in the South Seas. And the result in his own native Scotland was remarkable – to the extent that, by the time Paton was himself ready to return to the Pacific islands, one out of every six ministers in his denomination was now a missionary!

Just think that out: One in six pastors sent to the mission field! Imagine if one in six of the churches in your fellowship sent its pastor to the mission field. You might naturally think that the church back home would suffer. But not so, says Paton:
Nor did the dear old Church thus cripple herself; on the contrary, her zeal for Missions accompanied, if not caused, unwonted prosperity at home. New waves of liberality passed over the heart of her people. Debts that had burdened many of the Churches and Manses were swept away. Additional Congregations were organized.
What a testimony of God’s faithfulness! “Give, and it will be given to you.” “Those who honor Me I will honor.” And thus it always is – maybe not always in exactly the same way as Paton saw in 19th century Scotland; but the principle will not fail. God will not cripple His church when she reaches and gives and sacrifices to share the gospel beyond her own neighborhood and walls! And that encourages me as it regards my own little flock. Recent days have seen them with a good number of opportunities to give time, effort, energy, and money to churches, missionaries, and ministries other than our own. And many have been faithful to extend themselves in this way. And yet, at the same time, our own budget is flourishing like it hasn’t in the 13+ years I’ve been in Cincinnati. And it also seems to me that those who are spending themselves in this way, far from being sapped for local church ministry, are being all the more re-charged to give their all here at PRBC, too! Our attendance is as high as it has been in a good long time, fellowship is happening outside the regular meetings of the church, our new Sunday School curriculum is being well-received, and so on.

In other words, “the dear old church” that meets here at the top of this pleasant ridge is not crippling herself by extending her reach beyond our four walls … but is only strengthening her muscles to lift all the more weight here locally as well! And so it will ever be! We can cripple ourselves by spending foolishly, but never by being sacrificially kingdom minded.

So pastors, as you read this, be encouraged to do more, not less, to bless and partner with other like-minded church, missionaries, and ministries. Your church will grow, not suffer, from such large-hearted endeavors. And individual Christians, be encouraged yourselves to commit wholeheartedly to those who meet inside the walls of the local church, yes! But seek to bless, serve, and fellowship outside those walls, wherever possible. You might be surprised how much more you will give to your own church if your heart is more and more set on the larger Kingdom of which she is only a small sliver!

January 12, 2016

"Mere men"

That is what the apostle Paul called the Christians in Corinth when he heard about the infighting that was going on in the church there. “Are you not walking like mere men?” An interesting question! And an interesting critique! Especially because there is a very real sense in which the Corinthians were mere men.

Becoming a Christian doesn’t make us any less human, does it? It doesn’t mean that we are no longer made of clay; no longer creaturely; no longer distinct from our transcendent Creator. Of course not! Christians are, in fact, still “mere men”. That’s why this same Paul was so distressed, in the city of Lystra, when the people there wanted to offer sacrifices to he and Barnabas! “Why are you doing these things?” he exclaimed. “We are also men of the same nature as you”. We are indeed (and always will be, throughout eternity) mere men … mere creatures, who are far beneath our Creator.

And yet the scolding that Paul gives to the Corinthians, saying that they are acting like “mere men,” lets us in on the fact that, while in comparison to God, we will always and forever be “mere men”, yet in comparison to the world (and to what we once were as part of the world) we ought to be walking on a higher plane; we ought no longer be “mere men.” We ought no longer be as base and “fleshly” as fallen men are, by nature. We ought no longer be driven about by the same winds of passion, and pride, and self-interest, and worldly allegiances. Because, in quite an important sense, we are no longer “mere men” – at least not mere fallen men! We are, rather, men and women who have been born again by the Spirit of God! And so, while we haven’t become any less human, yet there is a sense in which we can say that, by our new birth, we are becoming less fallen; less fleshly; less like “mere men” in their state of depravity.

Furthermore, because of the Spirit’s residence in us, something more than just the human is operating within us! Now let’s be careful to say that this doesn’t mean that we ourselves have become more than human; that we have somehow become partially divine. No! But we do have the divine dwelling in us – distinct from us, yes; but truly in us and ever available to us! And so, while we are “mere men” in comparison to that Holy Spirit who resides within us, the very fact that He does reside within means that we can live above the level of mere fallen men! We can lay down fleshly passions and pride. We can walk in a level of holiness and unselfishness and humility that is unknown among those who have not been renewed and indwelt by the Spirit of Christ!

And so we should ask ourselves, as we go about our daily routines at work and school, in the neighborhood and in the family, in church and in business: ‘Am I living as a mere man? Or do people perceive in me something that is so different and better that they would be convinced that there must be something more than merely human going on with me? Something that might attract them, and provoke some of them to ask me to “give an account for the hope that is in [me]” (1 Peter 3:15)?’

These questions ought to be important to us, not so that people will fawn over us, and over our lifestyles and character (see Acts 14!), but so that, seeing something more than human hovering about our countenances, they might begin to seek, and by God’s grace to find, the same divine intervention that is so patently evident in our lives! And then we can say to them, with Joseph, “It is not in me; God”! Then we can “give an account” for our hope, and for the supernatural aroma about our lives. Then Christ will be praised in us and through us! And that is what a Christian – in all the ways in which he is a “mere man”, and in all the ways in which he is not – should live for!

January 5, 2016

Using the Cross-References

I had a friend once tell me that he was reading through the Bible, and pausing to look up every cross reference as he went along. I’m not sure how his Bible was formatted. But if it was anything like mine (with maybe a hundred verses cited in the center column of every page!), it would have taken him an hour just to get through a single chapter, say, of Mark’s gospel! Not to mention how difficult it would be to keep one’s head wrapped around the immediate context of Mark (or Genesis, or Isaiah, or whatever) when taking forays into other books 2-3 times per verse!

And yet it there are some important reasons why these references, though not a part of the biblical text itself, are nevertheless often included by modern editors! Probably not so that you can look up every last one during your quiet time. But if you’re doing a careful study of a passage (or a particular doctrine) for the purpose of teaching, the cross-references will be a real bonus. Also, even in your personal Bible reading … there may sometimes be a place name, or a personal name, or an important theological word that makes you think: ‘I need to know more.’ And the cross-references will tell you where, in the Bible, you can go and do so!

Allow me to give a case in point.

Because it is, for me, one of the least familiar of all the New Testament books, I hope to spend the month of January working through 1 Corinthians in my daily reading. And so I began my reading this morning, and before I even got to the end of chapter 1:1, I found myself confronted with the name of “Sosthenes” as Paul’s co-author (did you know it’s actually Sosthenes’s epistle to the Corinthians, as well?). And so I wanted to remind myself of who this fellow was, and how he got connected with Paul. And, praise God, linked to his name (and right in the center column of my Bible), there was a note telling me that Sosthenes is also mentioned in Acts 18:17. And so I turned that passage up, and found myself reading the description of the very origins of the church in Corinth … which not only reminded me of who Sosthenes was, but also added an added little layer of depth to my reading of Paul’s letter to that church.

Of course, in a study of 1 Corinthians, I should have thought to go back to Acts and read about the founding of the Corinthians church without having to be reminded by Sosthenes and his cross-reference. But since I didn’t think to do so … the cross-references were a great blessing! And they will be for you, too, if you will make use of them now and again when bumping up against an unfamiliar or important word, name, or concept.

So maybe it’s a mundane subject for a blog article. But, this week, I thank God for cross-references!

January 1, 2016

Three Encouragements for 2016

As the New Year dawns, some of us are flush with enthusiasm about what the next 366 days may bring, and how we might make new strides, form new habits, and tackle new ventures. Others of us are, perhaps, already beginning to feel the crush of the workload that lies ahead. For, on Monday, the curtain falls on the holidays, and we all go back to normal. But whether you look forward to 2016 with enthusiasm, or with trepidation, or even with just a bad case of the blahs … there is reason, in the character of God, to look forward in hope! Indeed, can I show you just three biblical encouragements for the New Year?

1. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). 2016 will certainly bring its fair share of change; of new; of different – sometime happily so, and sometimes not. But the one constant is the Lord. Just as He was with you in 2015, through the good times and the bad; just as He answered prayer in the year just passed; just as He has been willing, in Christ, to forgive sin after sin for the previous 52 weeks … He will remain just the same for all 366 days of this new calendar year! He has been “our dwelling place in all generations” (Psalm 90:1). And He will be, again, in 2016 … “and forever.”

2. “The LORD’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, For His compassions never fail. They are new every morning” (Lamentations 3:22-23). It’s true that God’s character and commitments are always the same. But those old commitments lead to new compassions each and every day! Each day God provides sufficient grace to get you through that day. Each morning He spreads your table anew. And, with the setting of every sun, ends another day in which the Holy Spirit has ordered your steps. And if that is true of every day, then it is true of this entire new year on which we are embarking. God’s compassions will be laid out for you this year, like manna – fresh every morning! There will be new grace for each and every day! And that is reason to go forward in hope!

3. “I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). If you belong to Christ, then you can be sure that the new compassions of every day are not the hurried provisions of a God who is just trying to get you through to the weekend. No! The daily provisions and the yearly guidance are all a part of a larger plan in which God knows exactly what He is doing with you, and where He is taking you, and what He is making you. And not only does He know these things, but He is infallibly working them out in your life! And so the daily grace that He gives is all adding up to something, just according to the Father’s plan! And the days when all that grace seems to do is to allow you to hang on by the skin of your teeth? Even then God is faithfully connecting all the dots to make you more like Jesus! He will perfect His work … and each of the 366 days in this New Year will be a part of that wise and certain purpose.

So take heart! 2016 holds great promise – not that all will turn up roses, but that God Himself will be ever constant; that His compassions will be ever new; and that, in Christ, your life is headed where He would have it go, even when you seem to have lost all sense of direction in the fog. “He who began a good work in you will perfect it” all throughout the coming year, and all the way “until the day of Christ Jesus.”