September 18, 2017

The Beauty of Baptism

This Sunday morning, Lord willing, we will have the privilege of witnessing five baptisms at Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church. Praise God for how He is working! And, on an occasion such as this, it is well if we ponder the spiritual beauty of what we witness when we see someone baptized. So consider, with me, three beautiful aspects of baptism:

1. Baptism is a picture.
Now, note well that baptism is only a picture. It does not wash away sins or contribute to a person’s salvation in any way. It is, rather, a portrait of what has happened already in the life of the man, women, girl, or boy who has been saved through Christ! And yet, though it is only a picture, it is indeed an important and beautiful picture! The Christian’s immersion (or burial) in water is symbolic of the marvelous reality that his or her old, sinful man has been buried with Christ! And, when that same person is then raised out of the water, we have a wonderful picture of the new, resurrection life that has been granted to everyone who is in Christ.
“We have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4)
It is because of this burial and resurrection picture that we baptize only believers (only people who have actually experienced burial and resurrection with Christ). And it is also because of this picture that we baptize by immersion (or burial) in water. For it is immersion, and not sprinkling or pouring, that actually presents to us the beautiful picture that Paul describes in Romans 6 – burial and resurrection with Jesus!

2. Baptism is an announcement.
When a person goes through the waters of baptism, he is, to the best of his ability, confirming his belief that burial and resurrection with Christ has actually taken place in his life. And the elders who take responsibility for the baptism are, to the best of their ability, confirming the same. And, since baptisms often take place in front of the gathered congregation, baptism is not only a confirmation of the saving work of God in a person’s life, but also an announcement of it as well! Baptisms are occasions for public celebration of what God has done; for joining with the angels (Luke 15:10) in the celebration of God’s saving work in the lives of those around us.

3. Baptism is a marker.
Consider the context of that baptism-as-burial-and-resurrection passage in Romans 6. What is Paul’s main point in that passage? Well, he is arguing that Christians must not go on carelessly in their sins. “How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” he asks in v.2. Good question! And, to nail down the fact that Christians have, indeed, died to sin (and to remind them that Christians can, indeed, “walk in newness of life”), Paul reminds his readers (in vv.3-4) of when they were baptized, and of what baptism pictures! He carries them back to the day of baptism as a reminder that, ‘When you were baptized, the picture was that the old you was buried … and that, in Christ, a new person had come to life. So live that way! “Consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (v.11).’

And the point I am making is that Paul uses baptism as a marker in the life of the believer – as something he or she can look back on as a reminder of what God has done … and of how we should live, in light of it! And so today is an important day, for that reason, too. We are setting up a marker, as it were, in these five lives – a picture to which, Lord willing, they will always be able to look back as a portrait of what God has done in their lives … and therefore of what they are able to be and do, in Christ.

September 5, 2017

"He Himself is our peace"

I’m from the American South. The place where racial tensions have often been at their height. The place where slavery, Jim Crow, and ‘separate but equal’ had their heyday. But also the place where I saw the gospel of Jesus Christ, in stunningly beautiful ways, quietly transcend the ethnic divide which is so much on the forefront of current cultural dialogue.

The place was Tunica County, Mississippi – in the northern tip of that beautifully unique region known as the Mississippi Delta. This is a region where cotton was once king; where huge-scale agriculture is still the order of the day; where magnificent yellow crop-dusters buzz like giant dragonflies overhead; and where, in many localities, the majority population is African-American. It’s also the place where, eager to get my feet wet in pastoral ministry, I was called as a mission pastor (in the little crossroads of Robinsonville, in the northern part of Tunica County) during the summer before my second year of seminary.

Robinsonville, once a sleepy collection of mammoth cotton, rice, and soybean fields, was in a state of flux in the early 2000's.  Nine large casinos had recently been built along the Mississippi River, and both African-Americans from elsewhere in the county, as well as out-of-the-area transplants of various backgrounds and ethnicities, were moving into the area to work at the casinos (and at the hotels, restaurants, and so on that follow, like hungry seagulls, in the casinos' wake).  And the idea behind my coming was that this burgeoning population in northern Tunica County to be reached with the gospel. And, indeed, it did (and still does!).

In the two years we were there, we were able to touch a few of the out-of-the-area transplants with the message of Christ. But it turned out that most of those we touched with the good news were from among the African-American folks who had lived most of their lives in Tunica County. And it was glorious! Gathered together around Jesus Christ, the congregation there became, truly, a family!  And within the church family, if my assessment is correct, there was little to-do made over the oddity of a white, suburban preacher-boy and his wife serving, and immensely loved and welcomed by, a congregation of mostly rural-background African-Americans.  For, in the midst of studying the Bible together, and considering the gospel of Christ together, and singing hymns together, and caring for each other, and just doing life together, I don’t think any of us thought too much about whether we were white, or black, or rural, or suburban. And we certainly didn’t experience any racial tension within the congregation. Were we different in some ways? Absolutely! Did we realize that fact? Of course (sometimes comically!). But it never became a point of contention, or even really much of a point of discussion. We had other, more pressing, things to be doing and discussing! Jesus was bringing us together around Himself!

This was not a part of any strategy or master plan for racial harmony. I was too wet-behind-the-ears to have had any ideas for tackling something like that (and, honestly, too na├»ve to know that it could even have been an issue). But Christ and His gospel really do make a difference when it comes to questions of ethnicity, heritage, culture, and so on! Writing about gospel unity among Jews and Gentiles, Paul said something that, I think, also applies to all sorts of other differences and potential divisions in the church: “He Himself [Jesus] is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall” (Ephesians 2:14). “He Himself is our peace” (emphasis added)! And how true we found that to be! Where people truly gather around Christ, and know Christ, and worship Christ … no matter how different from one another they may be in many respects, they will, by a new spiritual instinct, genuinely love each other! And their differences will seem fairly small in light of what they have in common in Jesus.

So, brothers and sisters, in this day of ethnic tension and dialogue, let us lift up Christ above all else. “He Himself is our peace.”

August 29, 2017

Paul's Letters

The apostle Paul (also known as Saul) is famous for his letters – to Christians in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, and so on. But, before Paul wrote any of these famous letters, we are told that he “asked for letters” (emphasis added) of a very different sort:
Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Acts 9:1-2
These were very different letters, indeed, which Paul had tucked into his satchel as he made his way down the road to Damascus! These were letters meant, not to instruct, encourage, and correct the churches … but to destroy them. These letters, unlike those for which he later became famous, had their inspiration in hell rather than in heaven! But praise God that, before Paul was able to execute the permission these letters granted, heaven intervened … not only on behalf of the Christians in Damascus, but on behalf of Saul himself!

Saul met Jesus on that trip to Damascus, and was forever changed! Now, instead of Saul “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” … now, through Paul’s letters, the Lord Himself would breathe out His very own words … “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Saul went from carrying letters for the devil, to writing letters for the Lord!

And isn’t God’s mercy rich? Isn’t His grace great? And isn’t “Jesus Christ … the same yesterday and today and forever”? He is! And that means that He is still saving souls … and even Sauls! So pray for them! Pray for the seeming ‘tough nuts to crack’ in your life – the people who, though not hateful or militant like Saul, still seem (to our weak faith) like they are among the least likely people who would ever turn to Christ, and to begin serving His kingdom. For, if Christ saved Saul, He can save the seemingly ‘unlikely candidates’ in our lives, too!

And He can save the militants, as well! So pray for the conversion, even, of people who hate the church, and wish to see her destroyed. “Is anything too difficult for the LORD?” Are members of ISIS, or the persecutors in North Korea, too difficult for the Lord to save? Absolutely not! So pray for them! Pray that they might be saved, and that they might be useful to God’s kingdom! They won’t, of course, write inspired letters, like the apostle did. But they might begin to preach from them!  They can go from handling the devil’s business, to delivering the Lord’s gospel mail!  Pray that it might be so!

August 25, 2017

"We shall always be with the Lord"

There are multiple reasons to be excited about your wedding day. One is, perhaps, just the sheer relief of having the weight of all the preparations and stresses finally coming to an end. Another, of course, is the joy of having the people you love most (and who love you most) all together in one place. And then there is simple delight in the beauty of it all … the dresses, the flowers, the table cloths and candles, the culinary fare. But most of all (as I have lately been reminded by listening to a recently married couple!) … most of all, the bride and groom long for and look forward to that day because, finally, they will get to be together! Finally they will wake up, every morning, to each other’s faces! Finally they will live together in the same dwelling!

And we can speak similarly about “the marriage of the Lamb” – about the coming of Christ to receive His bride. There are multiple reasons to long for and look forward to that day! In that day, the weights and stresses of this life will finally, mercifully have come to an end! In that day, there will be a family reunion of family reunions! And the beauty of that banquet? Well, let us just say that the beauty of our earthly weddings is only a foretaste of the beauty on which our eyes will feast in the new earth! And not only these things, but (unlike in our earthly marriages!) sin will have been forever abolished from the earth – “a new earth, in which righteousness dwells.”

But, as with earthly brides, what Christ's bride longs for the most (it is to be hoped) is the pleasure of finally getting to be with her bridegroom; finally sharing a dwelling together; finally living together ‘happily ever after!’

“The Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, emphasis added).

Oh, let us look forward to that day – all the stresses of this life ended, all the family of God gathered together in one place, all the beauty we can imagine (and more), all our sins forever banished, and all of eternity to live in the presence of our Bridegroom, our Redeemer, our King, our Friend!  Praise God, in that day, “we shall always be with the Lord”!

August 21, 2017

'Thine eclipse'

In his excellent biographical message on John Newton, John Piper quotes the following marvelous words from Newton's pen, on the occasion of an eclipse (albeit, of a different sort than today's):
Tonight I attended an eclipse of the moon. How great, O Lord, are thy works! With what punctuality do the heavenly bodies fulfill their courses. . . . I thought, my Lord, of Thine eclipse. The horrible darkness which overwhelmed Thy mind when Thou saidst, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” Ah, sin was the cause — my sins — yet I do not hate sin or loathe myself as I ought” (Richard Cecil, The Life of John Newton, edited by Marylynn Rousse, p. 134).
As you view the eclipse today, think on Christ , "the Light of the world", entering into the darkness of death and judgment on behalf of us sinners.  And thank God for His eclipse.

August 18, 2017

"His spirit was being provoked"

So we are told about the apostle Paul on his visit to the city of Athens: “His spirit was being provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols” (Acts 16:16). And, if we read on in the chapter, we find that he was provoked, not to disgust or isolation … but to gospel action! “His spirit was being provoked within him … So [because of the provocation of his spirit] he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present” (vv.16-17, italicized emphasis and words in [brackets] are mine).

Now, Paul’s provocation at the idolatry in Athens surely wasn’t the only reason Paul preached Christ to the Athenians! Paul was already on a preaching trip! But the word “so” tucked between Paul’s provocation and his preaching lets us know that the stirring of his spirit over the Athenians’ idols did motivate him to preach Christ! And his actions in Athens beg a few application questions concerning our own lives:

First, are we provoked by our city full of idols, and full of unbelief? Modern Americans don’t worship Zeus and Aphrodite, but there are still idols on the thrones of American hearts. And there is a great dearth of real faith in the one true God. Does that bother us? Are we sad when we see people mowing their lawns, or out for a jog, on Sunday morning … instead of heading to meet with God and His people? Are we troubled by our-co-workers’ man-centered worldviews? Are we bothered by the immodesty and immorality that are constantly paraded before our nation on television?

And then, second … if we are provoked in our spirits over the idolatry and unbelief around us, is it a provocation of disgust, or of concern? Do we badmouth our neighbors, or ache for them?

And, thirdly … if we are concerned, and if we do grieve, do that concern and grief move us, like Paul, to gospel action? Are we reasoning with people, like Paul did, in our own city? Are we sharing Christ with co-workers? Are we speaking of the cross to neighbors? Are we presenting the gospel to family members? Are we magnifying Jesus on our Facebook pages? We may not be full-time missionaries like Paul, but we all have our own particular niches where the gospel can go forward from our lips and fingertips!

May it be, in our city, that we would be provoked to concern … and to gospel action … over the idolatry and unbelief around us!

August 7, 2017

"Sawn in two"

“They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy).” Hebrews 11:37-38a

These and other sufferings (vv.35-38) were the excruciating fates of some of our forefathers in the faith. Great opposition and persecution are sometimes the lot of God’s faithful people. And among the most shocking forms of persecution listed in Hebrews 11 (or anywhere else, for that matter) is the torment of being “sawn in two”. Read it again, soberly: “Sawn in two”. That’s not a grisly scene from a fictional horror movie. It actually happened, says the author of Hebrews. Indeed, there is a tradition that states that it happened to that great and eloquent prophet of God, Isaiah. And all these other great pains and trials actually happened, too – to real people! And some of them still do! The people of God didn’t just suffer in biblical times, but they have suffered greatly at various points since (read, for instance, about the Covenanters or the Huguenots); and they are suffering still (see The Voice of the Martyrs). And thinking about the severe suffering of our fathers and brothers in the faith (and perhaps our own severe trials, still to come) should come with at least four upshots, it seems to me:

1. Let us not murmur about our current, light sufferings. Do we sometimes experience opposition or discrimination for our faith? Yes. Have we been stoned or sawn in two? No. And so, while we rightly recognize, and pray about, and groan under whatever pushback we may receive for our faith … let us not make it out as though we are some great martyrs. And certainly, let us not murmur (Philippians 2:14).

2. Let us pray and act on behalf of the sufferers. “Remember the prisoners, as though in prison with them, and those who are ill-treated, since you yourselves also are in the body” (Hebrews 13:3). Don’t forget the people who are suffering, even today, after the manner of Hebrews 11:35-38! Remember them in your prayers, and in your generosity, too. The Voice of the Martyrs is a good organization to help you do both.

3. Let us be serious about our faith. If our forefathers (and many of our contemporaries, too) have been committed enough to the Lord to have ended up stoned, sawn in two, and persecuted in many other ways … then this Christianity thing is serious business! And if the devil is so opposed to Christ that he incites people to carry out such torture of Christ’s followers, then this Christianity thing is serious business! Let us be sure we treat it that way in every area of our lives … whether it results in us being respected, rejected, or rent in two. “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us [in Hebrews ch.11, that is], let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:1-2a).

4. Let us hope in eternity. “Here we do not have a lasting city” (Hebrews 13:14). And, indeed, sometimes we have, in this life, a hostile city, or nation, or culture. Perhaps we are just on the cusp, in this culture, of finding that out, first-hand. But this life is not all there is; this city is not the lasting one! And “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). And so, while I do not say that we should not groan under our trials, yet we must not fixate on our trials … but on Jesus (Hebrews 12:2), and on “the glory that is to be revealed to us” when all these difficulties will be ended forever. Let us fix our minds on “the city which is to come” (Hebrews 13:14), where “they will hammer their swords into plowshares” (Isaiah 2:4) … and their saws, too! “Here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come.”

July 31, 2017

"Through what has been made"

Off my son went, out the front door, on an errand to check the mail. When, after a minute or two, he hadn’t returned … I made my way over to the front door myself, wondering what had happened to him. And through the doorway I saw him, standing stock still in the grass, staring up into the trees. He’d sighted a woodpecker, and the mail mission had been put on hold while he watched and wondered!

A few days earlier, spotting a tiny little moth (maybe the size of my pinkie nail), I had pointed it out to some of the children. And this same son then drew near to this little creature, and came back with a report that unfolded something like this: ‘Dad, that whitish, bluish, grayish moth had a black stripe down the edge of each wing, and a yellow stripe across the end of each wing, and his antennas were folded back.’

And I think this is a picture of health – not the health of the moth, I mean … but of the boy observing it! And not only health for a young lad, with his boyish interest in nature … but his wonder is a portrait of what would be healthy for us all! For does not the Scripture tell us, concerning our God, that “since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made” (Romans 1:20)? One way we understand God is by observing “what has been made” by Him – woodpeckers, moths, foxes, cumulonimbus clouds, magnolia trees, oceans, streams, human beings, and so on! And the closer we look – at the stripes on a moth’s wings, or the habits of a woodpecker, or the intricacies of a honeysuckle blossom – the more of God’s glory, wisdom, and creativity we will be able to admire!

And so maybe take this as a challenge for the next week (or longer)! Try, each day, to notice – and to really spend a few minutes observing – something that God has made. Maybe it will be the bark on a tree, or perhaps the details on a mushroom, or even the pattern of your own fingerprint. Take the time to observe such things … and to consider what they teach you about the One who made them! And, if you know (or can find) some science that explains in more detail what you’re looking at, and why it has been crafted as it has, then you’ll be able to marvel at the Maker all the more!

And make sure you do marvel at Him! Don’t just say to yourself: ‘Isn’t this peach amazing? Isn’t that butterfly marvelous?’ … but, ‘Isn’t the Maker of these things amazing? Isn’t God marvelous, and grand, and creative, and wise, and powerful, and good to have created such a marvelous thing?’

“Since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made”. Let us be sure that we see … and that we praise!

July 24, 2017

Coming in August and September

PRBC family … I thought it might be good to fill you in on the teaching and preaching plans for the next couple of months, and then to give you some practical suggestions for how you might participate in and benefit from what is to come. So, Lord willing, here are the plans for August and September:
  • Adult Sunday School: Ephesians. Brad and Tobey began, this past Sunday, leading the coed and ladies classes (respectively) through a study of the book of Ephesians.
  • Sunday Sermons: Matthew. I hope to begin a series through the book of Matthew beginning August 6. This will take a good bit longer than just the next two months … but we’ll try and make a start!
  • Wednesday Sermons: The Fruit of the Spirit. My hope is to look at one piece of the fruit– “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” – each Wednesday night in August and September.
Now, with all that said, here are a few ways you can participate in and benefit from these studies: 
  • Pray. As you pray through the week, ask the Lord’s blessing on Brad, Tobey, and myself as we prepare and present week-by-week. And ask the Lord to give you, and all of us, “ears to hear”.
  • Come. If you haven’t been to Sunday School or Wednesday night in a while (or at all), consider joining us for the studies in Ephesians and The Fruit of the Spirit. You will be blessed.
  • Prepare. Here I’m thinking, particularly, about Sunday School. Grab one of the study guides on Ephesians (from the adult Sunday School classrooms), work through the lesson each week, and come on Sundays at 10, ready to chip in to the discussion!
  • Read ahead. Perhaps use your family worship on Saturday night, or your quiet time on Sunday morning, to read the passage in Matthew that will (Lord willing) be preached on Sunday. If you’d like to read ahead, while my plans are always subject to change (and please forgive me if they do!), right now I’m planning on the following dates and passages in Matthew:
        o 8/6 – Matthew 1
        o 8/13 – Matthew 2
        o 8/20 – Matthew 3
        o 8/27 – Matthew 4:1-11
        o 9/3 – Matthew 4:12-25
        o 9/10 – Matthew 5:1-12
        o 9/17 – Matthew 5:13-16
        o 9/24 – Matthew 5:17-48
May “the LORD make His face shine on [us]” as we open His word together, and on our own, in the weeks ahead!

July 18, 2017

People of Song

Sitting in the little chapel each week, her tired head usually hung down toward the floor – her shoulders slouched forward, her chin angled towards her chest, her eyes either closed or staring blankly. She was weary with age, and cobwebs had settled over her mind. And yet (memorably, beautifully!), when greeted, or handed a hymnbook, her chin would lift, and her deep brown eyes would brighten – maybe almost surprisedly, because she had been gently startled out of the fog … but softly and thankfully, because she was grateful to have been awakened by an act of kindness.

In the few times we met, she never spoke to me. I doubt if she spoke much at all anymore. But it was one of the highlights of my occasional trips to preach in that little chapel to see her eyes brighten when she was approached. I hope I shall see them again in heaven … and hear her voice responding, for the first time, to mine in conversation.

Thinking back on that day, I am reminded of the importance of singing in the Christian life! Yes, we must memorize scripture itself. And learning a catechism by heart is excellent as well. But singing is also so helpful in learning and retaining our theology! Music – and good poetry, set to it – seem to have a way of sticking with us, perhaps (like my aged friend) even when many other things have drifted beyond our mental grip. My elderly friend didn’t seem to be able to say anything, but she could still sing something! And praise God it was a hymn!

Now, it’s very possible that my elderly friend’s memory, by that date, was outdistancing her cognizance. That is to say that I am not sure how well she understood what she was singing. Her mind was, indeed, very tired. But, be that as it may, the singing seemed beautifully to touch her in a way that nothing else did, so that I think she must have gotten something out of it, even if it was just a brief memory of the Lord’s goodness, and/or of the pleasure of singing to Him – either of which would be an exceedingly valuable ray of sunshine, living most of her days, as she did, in the fog. I don’t know, in her condition, that she got much from my sermons (indispensable as preaching is), but she did seem to get something from that old hymn!

So what will you (and your children) have to feed on, some day, in the nursing home, if you get to the point at which most other forms of memory and communication are virtually gone? Oh, let us be people of song! Let us sing, not only in our church services, but in our homes and daily lives. And let us sing the best songs! Let us imprint good theology deeply upon our minds so that it will perhaps still be there when so much other memory is gone!

And let us imprint it there, too, so that it will be there in all these intervening years when we can pause and think about what we are singing, and what our God is like. My friend may not have been able to really grasp all that she was singing on that day. But, if she still knew the song then, when her mind was all but withered away, surely she must have known it ten and twenty years before, when she would have still had the faculties for thinking it through. And so let us have songs stored in our memories, too! Let us sing and learn and have on our hearts the best songs of the faith … such that we can meditate on good theology while we still can! Let us be people of song!

July 13, 2017

The Ministry of Refreshment

Are there people in your life who refresh you? People whose presence, or encouragement, or perspective, or hospitality, or kindness, or generosity leave you feeling energized and happy as you walk away from your time together? People who, when you are with them, you find yourself loathe to leave, and desiring to linger? I hope you know that feeling! I hope you know and are loved by such people!

The church family in Colossae knew such refreshment. They had experienced it in the hospitality of Philemon, in whose home they met (Philemon v.2), and by whom they were loved (v.5). Paul commends Philemon in these memorable words in v.7: “the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.” Isn’t that a wonderful compliment? Isn’t it one that you’d like to be written of you? “The hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.”

Sometimes we might pour out refreshment in just the way that Philemon did – by hosting church gatherings in our homes. We normally meet, of course, in the church building, rather than in homes. But there is a delight that takes place in those times when we do gather in someone’s living room, and are blessed not only by the activity at hand, but by the setting and the hospitality. And praise God for the folks who host us!

But there are other ways, too, in which we can refresh “the hearts of the saints”. Maybe we host, not an official church gathering, but an informal dinner or dessert or time of fellowship with a handful of brothers and sisters in Christ. Or perhaps we send someone a hand-written note of encouragement. Or maybe we prepare dinner for the family of a sick or nursing mother. Perhaps we notice a particular physical need (or even want) of a young family, and find a way to meet it. Or we watch the kids so that mom and dad can have a date night. Or we regularly invite singles over for Sunday lunch. Or take time to go visit old friends out of town, to remind them that they are cared for and nor forgotten. And you can brainstorm other avenues of refreshment, too, suitable to the needs of the people around you.

I and my family have experienced a great deal of such refreshment from God’s people, near and far. Thank you! And I have seen it on display, as an observer, many times in our church … as many of you refresh, and are refreshed by, one another. Again, thank you! Like Paul, “I have come to have much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.” Let’s keep doing it! Let’s continue to excel in the ministry of refreshment!

July 4, 2017

"Power is perfected in weakness"

These were the Lord’s words to His servant Paul, as Paul quotes them in 2 Corinthians 12:9. And, in the context, the idea is clearly that it is the power of Christ that is perfected in the weakness of His servant! Christ shows Himself most strong in His people precisely when those people are weak! For it is then that we (hopefully) depend on Him most desperately. And it is in our weakness that it will be obvious that the strength comes from Him, and not from us (2 Corinthians 4:7). And so (2 Corinthians 12), Christ’s “strength is perfected in [our] weakness.”

Now that sounds really great, when rolling off the tongue, doesn't it? Christ’s “power is perfected in [my] weakness.” Marvelous! Print it on a greeting card!

But when we actually begin to be put in a position to experience this truth … well, that’s sometimes a horse of a different color, isn’t it? IBecause most of us don’t actually like to be weak! We don’t like the feelings of struggle or inability or feebleness. We want to be strong! We want to be able to do it! And so, quaint as it may sound to say: ‘O yes, Christ’s “power is perfected in [my] weakness”’ … it is not so quaint when we are actually confronted with our weakness, is it? What our flesh so often wants to say is not: “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10) … but simply: “I am strong.”

Wouldn’t we often prefer that God prove Himself strong by taking our weakness away, rather than by manifesting His power in our weakness? There’s nothing wrong with asking Him to remove the weakness, of course. Three times Paul asked for God to do so; for God to remove his “thorn in the flesh” (vv.7-8). But God’s answer (v.9) was: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” ‘I’m going to leave you in weakness,’ in other words, ‘because it is in your weakness that My power is most gloriously manifested.’

What about that? What if God does that in your life? What if, in order to most gloriously demonstrate His grace and His might … what if God decides to leave you with “a thorn in the flesh” that “torment[s]” you (v.7)? What if He decides to show His power in and through your weakness, rather than by taking it away? Even though God will be showing Himself strong, you are still going to feel weak in the midst of it all, aren’t you? Because you are weak! And oh, my friends, I have to confess that I don’t like the sound of that! It’s not what I wish for. I don’t want to be weak. I don’t want to be frail, and afraid, and unable. And yet it seems, lately, that this has become my lot. And surely some of you could say the same. But let us believe the word of the Lord, and be “content with [our] weaknesses” (v.10) – and even embrace them – since it is in them that Christ shows Himself most strong!

And so the truth of 2 Corinthians 12:9 may not be as quaint as it at first sounds. But it is true!  And it is glorious, and best.

June 29, 2017

"More hope for a fool"

The first eleven verses of Proverbs 26 have some strong words to say concerning fools – don’t honor a fool (vv.1,8); don’t trust a fool as your courier (v.6); don’t hire a fool (v.10); there is “a rod for the back of fools” (v.3); and other pointed statements as well! Indeed, ten of these first eleven verses of Proverbs 26 speak to the subject of fools … so that we have, in this portion of scripture, some very practical counsel for how to respond to them!

But then, in verse 12, comes this brief and fascinating little surprise:

“Do you see a man wise in his own eyes?
There is more hope for a fool than for him.

Wow! After all he has said about the folly of fools (and perhaps after we have nodded our heads, knowingly, at his description of the very sorts of people that we actually know), Solomon throws verse 12 in for a kicker … saying, in effect: ‘But, as bad as it is to be a fool, there is someone worse off, even, than that! For even a fool has more hope than “a man wise in his own eyes”!’

Now, first we must ask: What does Solomon mean by “wise in his own eyes”? What sort of person is he critiquing? Does he have in mind the person who thinks himself wise, but who actually isn’t as enlightened as he thinks? Or is he referring to the person who actually has accumulated some wisdom, but is all too aware of that fact, to the point of arrogance? I tend to think it is probably the former, rather than the latter (see vv. 5 and 16 for contextual clues). Neither position is a good one, of course! But I believe Solomon is probably referring, in verse 12, to the man who believes himself to be wise, but who isn’t nearly as sage as he thinks.

And Solomon’s statement, there in v.12, comparing this over-confident man with the fool … that statement would be quite striking, even if we just took it by itself. It would be a significant thing to say, even if it were said in a vacuum, that is better to be a fool than to over-estimate one’s own wisdom! But Proverbs 26:12 does not come to us by itself; it does not exist in a vacuum! We find it, rather, at the tail end of the eleven verses that precede it … ten of which portray for us the fool in all his folly!

And it’s quite the unflattering portrait, isn’t it … this portrait of a fool? Solomon’s brushstrokes reveal the character of a person who is untrustworthy; whose counsels are not worth heeding; who is not to be honored; who needs sometimes to be put in his place; and who (like an animal) requires stern discipline to keep him on track. He’s a sad clown of a man, the fool.

And yet even this man has “more hope” than “a man wise in his own eyes”! Because perhaps the fool will receive the rebuke “his folly deserves”, and at least allow himself to be put in his place (v.5). But “a man wise in his own eyes” will think he knows better, even when the rebuke has come! And nor will he seek out or listen to more gentle forms of counsel, either! He already has the answers!

Beware of this, brothers and sisters! Beware of over-estimating your own wisdom! Beware of being unteachable! Beware the folly by which we spurn the counsel of God and of others – or (maybe even more often) by which it just never occurs to us to ask for such counsel – because we have yet to learn (or perhaps to accept!) just how little wisdom we ourselves have actually obtained, and how much we still have to learn.

There is great wisdom in realizing that you are not as wise as you might be tempted to think … and in seeking wisdom from God and from wise fellow men and women! Have you come to realize that? Are there areas in which you need to humble yourself, and to admit that you need counsel, and to seek it out, and to heed the wisdom that God provides you through it? Is there counsel or rebuke that you have spurned, but need to revisit? Bad as it would be for you to be a Proverbs 26 fool, there is even less hope for the man, woman, girl, or boy who thinks he already has all the answers!

June 22, 2017

"Arise!"

So said Jesus to a young man in the seventh chapter of Luke: “Young man, I say to you, arise!” But the most interesting thing about Jesus’ hearer, in this instance, is not that he is young, but that he is dead! Indeed, it is his funeral day. His widowed mother is there, walking along with the coffin. The funeral procession inches along to the graveside. And there is the young man, to whom Jesus spoke, being carried along by his pall-bearers. And what sort of person interrupts such a procession? What sort of person comes from the outside and stops a funeral party on the way to the graveside? What sort of person, indeed, not only interrupts a grieving funeral party, but actually begins speaking to the corpse, and expecting lifeless ears to hear? This had better work! The dead man had better be able to hear, and to arise, or the whole thing is going to be incredibly embarrassing … and quite impertinent, and hurtful to the grieving company.

But, of course, the voice is that of Jesus! And so it does work! The dead young man does indeed hear the Master’s voice; and he does indeed sit up in his coffin! Praise God! Praise the Son of God whose voice is so powerful, He can make even the dead to hear!

You’re probably familiar with the story. So familiar, in fact, that we know that it is inevitable that the dead man will hear Jesus’ voice and respond to it. That’s what happens in the New Testament, right? But does it occur to you to apply this same logic to that person in your family, or your workplace, or among your friends … that person who is spiritually dead, and seems like the last person on earth who would actually listen to the word of Christ, and heed it?

The reason why such people seem so unlikely to respond is because they are, indeed, dead! Dead to God. Dead to spiritual realities. Dead to the life that is in the Son. And so of course he or she is uninterested in your gospel, and in your Savior, and in coming to church with you. He or she really is, spiritually, dead! And, perceiving that to be so, we may sometimes hold out very little hope that they will ever listen, or that they will ever believe. And we are right in ascertaining their deadness to our message! But let us not forget that the voice of Jesus is so powerful that, whenever He chooses, He can speak to dead ears (and hearts, and minds) and cause them to hear, and to arise! As it was with the young man being carried by the pallbearers in the ancient city of Nain, so it is with young and old in your city, and in your family. Yes, they really are spiritually dead! But that is no impediment if Jesus deems that they should hear His voice and live! So keep giving them His word! Keep speaking to them His gospel! Keep warning them of their sin, and of hell. And keep attempting to woo them to the Savior, and to His heaven. Time may come when He will interrupt their slow march to an eternal grave, and bid them arise from the dead … to the rejoicing of mothers, friends, and the crowds round about!

June 19, 2017

“All my desire is before You”

So says David in Psalm 38:9 –

“Lord, all my desire is before You;
And my sighing is not hidden from You”

Now, as the second line of that couplet seems to reveal, David’s desire in Psalm 38 was, it would appear, an as-yet unfulfilled desire. For notice that his desire (v.9a) and his sighing (v.9b) run parallel to one another … as two halves of the same sentence; as two motions of David’s soul, walking hand-in-hand. It would appear that his sighing, then, was related to the status of his desire. He sighed because his desire had not yet been fulfilled; because he was longing for fruit that had not yet appeared upon the tree. And most of us know what that is like – a promotion that doesn’t come; a pregnancy that doesn’t happen; a relationship that doesn’t pan out; a prayer that goes a long time (seemingly) unanswered. We have desires, too, don’t we? And often we sigh.

Probably the unfulfilled desire, in David’s life, was related to his sin (see vv.1-8, 18). It may have been a desire to overcome sin; or perhaps the “desire” in v.9 was some hope or dream that had gone unfulfilled because he hadn’t overcome it. Or the desire may, perhaps, have been for healing of the bodily infirmity that his sin had brought upon him (vv.1-8). But in any case, David spends long enough talking about his sin and its repercussions that it seems likely that he had pinpointed sin as at least part of the roadblock in his life; at least part of the reason for his unfulfilled desire. That’s not to say that sin is necessarily the culprit in your unfulfilled hopes and dreams! It may be. Or it may not. But for David, anyway, it seems likely that sin was at least one ingredient in the bitter soup of unfilled desires that David was tasting.

It could also be that David’s unmet desire (v.9) was related to the strained relationships he mentions in v.11, or the opposition he faced from certain enemies (vv.12-15). Or perhaps it was some overlap or correlation between some or all of these things – strained relationships, opposition, and sin. It could also be, of course, that there was some other (unknown or unmentioned) reason, added to the mix, why David’s desire had gone, thus far, unfulfilled. We don’t know for sure how all the ingredients mixed together, and in what proportions … just like it’s hard, many times, to figure out why it is that our desires may seem to go unsatisfied. Is it my sin that’s holding me back? Or roadblocks thrown up by other people? Or is it something else? Or a combination of things? It’s often very hard to tell for sure. For God doesn’t always reveal to us all the various strands that He weaves into the web of His providence.

But one thing we do know is that – whatever our desire; and whatever our sighing over its failure, as yet, to take wings – our heavenly Father knows our desires and our sighings! “Lord, all my desire is before You” David exclaims. “And my sighing is not hidden from You.” Our Father knows our hopes, our dreams, our longings, our prayers. And He knows the tears, sighs, and groans that wring out of us when those desires are unmet. He knows! If ever an earthly father knew his child’s most earnest Christmas wish, then surely this Father knows the desire of His children … and their sighing, too. And He is kind and gracious enough that, even when sin is the culprit in our unmet desires (and even if we require His discipline for it), He still cares about His children’s hopes, and sent His Son to die for His children’s sins … and always does us, His children, ultimate good, even in spite of ourselves!

Can I guarantee that God will grant you exactly what you’re dreaming of? I cannot. He may have reasons for not doing so. But I can tell you that a Father who knows the desires of His children, and who hears their groanings, and who loves them enough to have given His only begotten Son for them … this God will not let His children down (remember Romans 8:32!). This God, whether or not He fulfills your every dream, will surely satisfy your soul, if you are His child. And sometimes He will fulfill your dreams, too! So cry out to Him, as David does in Psalm 38, and in so many other psalms. And believe that He hears, that He knows, that He cares, and that He will surely “give what is good” (Matt 7:11) to His children.

May 4, 2017

Uncle Keith

I was young in my faith, new on campus, and four hours from home. I had a couple of local connections … but did not know a single fellow student. It’s daunting to think what may have become of me had a man in my home church (an alumnus of the same university) not said to me: ‘When you get to Ole Miss, don’t bother with joining a fraternity, go to the Baptist Student Union.’ And then one day, before classes had even begun, came a knock on my dorm room door, inviting me to – guess where – the Baptist Student Union (or BSU as we called it)! And so I went. And I saw lots of other students committed to this ministry, and to Christ. And I saw, on a video, a pretty young lass from Louisiana, inviting people to be a part of a prayer ministry. And I even signed up to be a part of a guys’ discipleship group!

Soon afterward, the BSU director, Keith Cating – a tall and rather imposing figure (with a head shaved completely bald!) – walked up to me, handed me a slip of paper with a Bible verse or two written on it, and said: ‘Memorize these verses for our meeting next week.’ And when you’re nineteen, and a big, strong man walks up to you and says such a thing … well, I guess you do it! And so I did! I learned the verses, and I showed up to the meeting along with three other guys my age. And, over the weeks, we memorized more scripture. And we talked about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. And, rather important among it all, we simply had an older man, a more mature Christian, spending time with and taking an interest in us concerning the things of God.

'Discipleship.'  This is Keith's watchword.  Making and shaping followers of Jesus.  And this was what Keith was doing with me and these other young men (and so many more through the years) - discipleship!

And so, thank God for Keith Cating! He was crucial at that stage of my life – surrounded as I was by collegiate temptations, potentially very lonely had God not provided this fellowship, and (little did I know it) being prepared by the Lord for a calling to gospel ministry (part of which has included my own opportunities to be the older man, spending time with and taking an interest in younger men concerning the things of God).  

Eventually Keith became ‘Uncle Keith’ (by means of his niece, the pretty young lass from Louisiana!) … and I am so thankful for him as an uncle! But I first knew him as the man who discipled me; who walked beside me, and showed me how to walk with the Lord.  Where might I now be without such a helper sent from the Lord?

And, as I think about his impact upon me, it occurs to me that, in some way or other, we should all grow up to be a Keith Cating for someone; a Paul for some Timothy. Because of his calling to campus ministry, Keith had a chance to disciple many, many people. And, though we may not all have quite the same volume of opportunities, yet as we mature in Christ ourselves, surely each of us can, in our own measures, be that older man or woman – working through the scriptures with some younger believer; teaching them how to walk with the Lord; and just walking with the Lord with them, and before them.

This week, after 36 years of ministering to college students like me, ‘Uncle Keith’ retired. And I salute him, thank him, and wish him all the Lord’s best in this next stage of his life. And I hope this little tribute to him will commend his disciple-making example to those who read it. It was worth it, Keith! And it will be worth it for all of us who make the same investment!

April 25, 2017

Upheld Hands

Then Amalek came and fought against Israel at Rephidim. So Moses said to Joshua, “Choose men for us and go out, fight against Amalek. Tomorrow I will station myself on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought against Amalek; and Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. So it came about when Moses held his hand up, that Israel prevailed, and when he let his hand down, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands were heavy. Then they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it; and Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other. Thus his hands were steady until the sun set. So Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword. Exodus 17:8-13

It’s an interesting thing, the way the ups and downs of this battle followed the ups and downs of Moses’ hands. The key, I think, is that in those hands was “the staff of God” – the same staff which, in Moses’ hand, had been part and parcel of God’s mighty working several times in Israel’s recent history (in the bringing of some of the plagues, in the parting of the Red Sea, and in bringing water from a rock earlier in Exodus 17). The staff was not magical or powerful itself, but the way God had used it in Moses’ hands seems to have made it emblematic of His power! And thus it was on this particular day! God evidently wanted this staff – this emblem of His mighty acts on behalf of His people – held aloft as a reminder that the battle was His, and that it was His power that would win the day. “Apart from” Him, as Jesus reminds us in John 15, we “can do nothing.” And so, when the reminder of God’s power was held high, God’s people prevailed in His strength.

But then there is something else to notice in this battle with the Amalekites. And that is that, while “the staff of God” needed to be held high in this fight, Moses couldn’t do it alone. After a period of time, “Moses’ hands were heavy” … his arms grew tired, as we can imagine they would! And so thank God for Aaron and Hur, who “supported his hands”! And thank God for those who perform a similar ministry, today, on behalf of the leaders of God’s people! For, by their preaching of the word, God’s ministers today are continually holding God and His power aloft before His people, so that the people come under the influence of that power, and go out and “fight the good fight” in His strength. And, by their prayers for the flock, these same ministers are calling down that power from on high. It’s not exactly the same as Moses’ uplifting of the staff (for the word of God is far more than an emblem of God’s power!), but there are parallels, are there not? And one parallel is that, like Moses, the minister’s arms and hands can grow tired and heavy, too! And blessed are the Aarons and Hurs who uphold their minister’s arms in prayer! Blessed are those who pray for their pastors and elders! Make sure you do that – praying for their teaching and preaching, for their counseling and evangelism, for their family life, and for them to have the energy and wherewithal to keep going, holding the word aloft before the people. God’s people prevail when the word is constantly held up in the midst of the battle-field of this world. So please do lift the arms; please do pray for those who hold it aloft in your midst!

April 18, 2017

Weddings and Babies!

This spring and summer is shaping up to be the season of weddings and babies! There is a lot to look forward to! And it occurs to me to write a few lines to help us make the most of these days of blessing. May I suggest four activities that we, as a church family, take up during this season (and whenever there is a birth or a wedding amongst us)?

1. Rejoice. “Rejoice with those who rejoice” says Paul in Romans 12:15. And there are few occasions for rejoicing that are on par with a wedding or a birth! And so let’s make sure we are a part of the enjoyment, both in our own hearts, and as we participate publicly in various celebrations. Let’s enjoy these moments!

2. Pray. Joyful as weddings and births are, they are also the launch points for tremendous responsibility! It is no small thing to enter into a relationship in which the goal is to be a living, breathing reminder of the relationship between Christ and His bride! Nor is it a light thing to raise children, and to do so “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). And so these couples need the support of our prayers!  And, not only do marriage and children come with significant responsibility, but they are sometimes just plain hard, too. Marriage is not all roses and beautiful music! And child rearing, we soon realize, can be exhausting. Both are worth it! Both are definitely worth it! But both require great help from the Lord, do they not? And so let’s make sure we pray for these soon-to-be newlyweds! Let’s pray for these moms and dads! And then let’s pray, too, for the health – physical and spiritual – of the newborn children themselves. And let’s pray for all the marriages, all the parents, and all the children here at Pleasant Ridge!

3. Serve. Since these are tall tasks these couples are entering into (marriage and child-rearing), let’s make sure we give them all the hands on help we can, too! Wise counsel and godly example to fledgling couples. Gifts that will help them (newlyweds and parents) get started along their way. Meals after childbirth. Offers to help with laundry, and housework, and other children while mommy re-acclimates to the care of a newborn. And so on!

4. Reflect. Weddings, marriage, childbirth, and children – all of these things are fraught with gospel reminders. God’s eternal kingdom will be a wedding feast – “the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9); the celebration of Christ having His bride at His side! Think of that as you enjoy these upcoming weddings and receptions! They are a little portrait of the heavenly glory! And the marriages that are being formed are, themselves, portraits of the ongoing relationship between Christ and His church. A husband giving himself for his wife, as Christ has done for the church; and the wife submitting to and following her husband, as the church does to Christ (Ephesians 5:22-32)! Think of these things as you ponder the marriages soon to be formed (and as as you ponder other marriages, too)! And when the children are born, realize that this first birth teaches us something about the second birth! As our parents have brought us into the world by physical conception and birth, so we need God to bring us to life spiritually through a new birth (John 3:1-8)! And when we think of children, in general – and of how much we parents love them – we should reflect on God’s great love for us who, in Christ, are His children (Psalm 103:13)!

So then, four good ways to spend your time this spring and summer – “rejoic[ing] with those who rejoice”; praying for husbands, wives, moms, dads, and babies; serving them; and reflecting on how these various blessings of marriage and family point us to the even higher covenant blessings that are ours in Christ!

April 10, 2017

Christ’s Resurrection … and Ours

Here is one of the great blessings of Christianity: “newness of life” (Romans 6:4). A Christian is a person who has been changed; made new; “born again” the Bible calls it. He has been given a new heart of love toward God and man. Her eyes have been opened to God, and to His Son, and to His truth. His mind has been changed about sin, and about righteousness, and about the remedy for our fallenness. Her life has taken on a whole new dimension, and direction, and set of desires. He or she has become a new person, spiritually and morally! Christianity brings “newness of life”!

And all of this newness ties back to that first Easter morning! We who are united to Jesus have “newness of life” because Jesus Himself has “newness of life”! “As Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). Our new life is bound up in His new life! Our resurrection (spiritually and morally, in the new birth) is tied to His resurrection. He is our trailblazer … such that, because He died for our sins, we die to them, too; and such that, just as He rose from the dead, “we too might walk in newness of life” (emphasis mine).

Do you want to be a new person – spiritually and morally – today?  Such a change comes to those who are united to Christ!  "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature” (2 Corinthians 5:17).  May that happen for some of us, even today!

Or, if you have been made new in Christ, do you want to "walk", all the more, in that “newness of life”? Well then the resurrection of Jesus is good news! For, if you belong to Him; if you are united to Him, then you are new, and you may walk in that newness, too (Romans 6:4). You don’t have to keep sinning in the same old ways, with no recourse! 

But then let me ask you, also: Do you want, at the end of this age, to have a new body and to walk with new physical life in a new and perfected planet earth? This, too, is tied back to that first Easter morning! Christ is called “the first fruits” of the bodily resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20). And if there is a first fruits, then there will also be other fruits as well, reaped from the earth where they were once buried like seeds. So that, first of all, Christ is risen, bodily, from the dead … and then His people are also given new, bodily, life as well!

And all of this makes Easter, and the fact of Christ’s resurrection, very personal, does it not? Or resurrection – both morally and spiritually (in the new birth), and physically (when Christ comes again) – are inextricably tied to the empty tomb, and to the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus on that first Easter Sunday morning! And that is reason, among others, to celebrate this Easter Sunday (and every Sunday) the risen Savior!

April 5, 2017

The Remedy for Anxiety

“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7

Here is a set of instructions, for me at least, which is easier to write about than to actually put into practice. Usually, when I am anxious, what I want to do is to fix whatever is causing my anxiety … and not to cease from my fixing in order to pray! Sometimes I even tell myself that I need to stop and pray (as soon, mind you, as I finish doing some last minute tweaking on whatever my problem happens to be!) … but I often end up just carrying on with the tweaking. So I write as one who needs to grow in practicing what I’m about to preach. But I write nonetheless. And I point our four simple truths from the wonderful remedy for anxiety that Paul sets down in Philippians 4.

1. Don’t be anxious! Easier said than done, I know! And yet it is a command, is it not? “Be anxious for nothing.” That is not just a suggestion, but an imperative! We must not be anxious! But then also, by extension, if Paul (and the Holy Spirit through Paul) commands us not to be anxious, then that means that, with God’s help, it really is possible not to be anxious! And that is hope giving, isn’t it? If we are commanded not to be anxious, and if it must therefore be possible (with God) not to be anxious … well then that means that, with God, nervous personality though I may be, anxiety is not inevitable! With God’s help, I’m not stuck with an irremediable problem! Not only must I not be anxious, but, by God’s grace, I don’t have to be anxious! That’s what Philippians 4 tells me, in a roundabout way! And not only does it tell me that I don’t have to be anxious, it also tells me how. Don’t be anxious, but …

2. Pray instead! Notice the important word “but” in v.6! It introduces an alternative to what has gone before it! “Be anxious for nothing, but…”. And what follows the “but” is Paul’s alternative to (and remedy for) anxiety! Don’t be anxious, but pray instead! “By prayer and supplication … let your requests” – about the anxiety itself, and about whatever may be the trigger for it, and about “everything” else – let all these “requests be made known to God.” Pray instead of worrying! Pray instead of brooding! Pray instead of nervously tweaking. Don’t be anxious! Pray instead!

3. And give thanks! It is “with thanksgiving” that we must present our requests. In other words, when you pray, don’t just come with your wish lists, but also with your thank-you-notes, so to speak! Be thankful for past answers to prayer. Be thankful, in advance, for how God will answer this prayer. Be thankful for how God is always watching out for you even when you don’t pray. Be thankful for how often He has blessed you with good things for which you never thought pray. And be thankful, especially, for His gift of His Son! God richly deserves the praise for all these things! And offering such praise will also have the effect of strengthening your faith to pray that God, who has blessed you so much already, will do so again! Thanksgiving, so often, can be the missing ingredient in our prayer lives (or at least in mine). Let it not be so in yours! Don’t be anxious! Pray instead! And give thanks!

4. And God will give you peace. When you pray, God may or may not immediately take away the circumstances that tempt you to anxiety. Praise God when He does! And praise God that, in the last day, He will change our circumstances forever! But in the meantime, Philippians 4:7 promises that, even if the difficult circumstances remain, God will give the thankful petitioner peace in the midst of them; peace in the midst of the storm! “The peace of God … will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Whether or not God immediately calms the storm, He will calm you, if you pray as Paul urges! And so I urge you to do so! Don’t be anxious! Pray instead! And give thanks! And God will give you peace.

April 3, 2017

Sermon Series: Face to Face

Listen in to our latest Sunday series: Face to Face ... a look, in the gospel of John, at several personal encounters that various New Testament individuals were privileged to have with Jesus of Nazareth:

John 3:1-21 - Face to face with ... a Pharisee - mp3
John 4:1-26 - Face to face with ... a Sinner - mp3
John 11:17-27 - Face to face with ... the Bereaved - mp3
John 12:1-8 - Face to face with ... a Worshipper - mp3
John 18:28-19:16 - Face to face with ... a Pragmatist - mp3
John 20:24-31 - Face to face with ... a Doubter - mp3
John 21:15-22 - Face to face with ... a Stumbler - mp3

March 30, 2017

2 Timothy Sermons

We recently completed a series of sermons from the book of 2 Timothy.  Listen in, benefit, and enjoy!

2 Timothy 1:1-4:22 - Endurance in Ministry - mp3
2 Timothy 1:3-12 - Courage in Ministry - mp3
2 Timothy 1:13-2:7 - The Work of Ministry - mp3
2 Timothy 2:8-13 - The Heart of Ministry - mp3
2 Timothy 2:14-3:9 - Pitfalls in Ministry - mp3
2 Timothy 3:10-14 - Examples in Ministry - mp3
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 - The Tools of Ministry - mp3
2 Timothy 4:6-8 - The Finish Line of Ministry - mp3
2 Timothy 4:9-22 - Fellowship in Ministry - mp3

March 27, 2017

Why a New Hymnal?

If the Lord is willing, Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church will be transitioning to a new hymnal in the next few days. I am excited to begin using Hymns of Grace! And I thought it might be profitable, in this space, to offer some reasons why.

First I should note that we aren’t changing hymnals just for the sake of change. In other words, we didn’t first decide that we needed a new hymnal, and then go shopping, as it were, to find one we liked. What happened, rather, was the opposite. Scott (our deacon for musical worship) and I came across three new hymnal projects that really caught our attention, and which (by their quality) posed to us the possibility of a change. Hymns of Grace was one of the three, and the one we felt was the best fit for us. So it was not a desire for change that brought us to a new hymnal, but the quality of these new hymnals that brought us to a desire to change!

And here are three reasons why I am excited to begin using Hymns of Grace.

1. Selection. The hymnal has an excellent selection of theologically sound hymns, old and new. And the theology is important! God’s people often learn a good deal of their theology from the songs they sing! So we are thrilled that Hymns of Grace is chocked full with solid, singable theology! It also helps that the hymnal has a good balance of the great classics, alongside many newer selections as well! We are living in a kind of hymn-writing renaissance right now, with many wonderfully solid new hymns being written which, like Watts and Wesley, will (I believe) stand the test of time. We’ve been blessed to learn many of them already, and will be blessed to learn even more by means of the new hymnal! And it is a great boon to have these modern classics, along with so many older ones as well, all under one cover!

2. Music. Speaking of those excellent newer hymns, while we have been singing many of them from a projection screen already, it will be good to now have the music to go along with them, for those who are able to make use of it.

3. Take-Home Format. It is a great blessing (maybe the greatest of all, in my book) that all of this solid, singable theology is now available in a format that our people can take home with them, for use in personal and family devotions. We can’t do that with the songs on the screen, but we can with a hymnal! And so we are making a copy available to each PRBC household. And, as our folks make at-home use of them, this will surely add richness to our Sunday singing, introduce families to wonderful theology, and enrich private and family devotional times all with one resource!

So then, those are a few reasons I’m excited for the days ahead, and for this new opportunity in the life of our church. Pray for us in this transition, and check out Hymns of Grace for yourself.

March 20, 2017

The Verbs of Our Salvation

Often times, in our Christian vernacular, we use the word ‘saved’ in the past tense – ‘I was saved on such and such a date.’ Or we might say, ‘I date my salvation to such and such a time.’ This is how we often speak of the concept of salvation – in the past tense – such that that the words ‘save’ or ‘salvation’ refer to the point in time, in the past, at which we were brought to repentance and faith in Christ, and were forgiven and declared righteous in God’s sight. We were ‘saved’ (past tense) at that point in time. And that is a right use of the term.

It’s also right to speak of salvation in the present perfect tense. We have been saved – meaning that we were forgiven and justified at some point in the past, and that those statuses (forgiven and justified) are ongoing. If we were ever forgiven, well then we are still forgiven, right? And, in the same way, God’s declaration that we are righteous in Christ happened once, at a moment in time … and such that our standing in this blessings continues! We remain forgiven and justified. And so it’s right to speak of having been saved.

But, though we often use the words ‘saved’ and ‘salvation’ as shorthand for forgiveness and justification (which happened at a past moment in time, with continuing effect) … these words (‘saved’ and ‘salvation’) can be used to describe even more than that. Our complete salvation from sin, in other words, includes more than just our initial coming to faith, and being once-and-for-all-time delivered from sin’s penalty, at some wonderful point in our past. We can also use the word ‘salvation’ to refer to the process of progressive sanctification, whereby God is presently, gradually molding us into the image of His Son. In sanctification, we are being saved (in the present) from sin’s power! And, further, the words ‘salvation’ or ‘saved’ can also be used in reference to our glorification – that future moment in time when, at death or at Christ’s return, we will be completely made like Him; when will be saved, finally, from sin’s presence in our lives!

To distill all that down, here is how theologians and Bible teachers have put into words this multi-tense unfolding of our salvation:

• In justification, we have been saved from sin’s penalty.
• In progressive sanctification, we are being saved from sin’s power.
• In glorification, we will be saved from sin’s presence.

And so, yes, it is right to say ‘I have been saved,’ or to refer back to the date of your ‘salvation.’ But it is also right to realize that, while we were forever saved, at a point and time, from sin’s penalty … God is not finished with us. He is still saving us, no longer from the penalty of sin (which has been forever done away, if we are in Christ), but He is still saving us from sin’s power! And, when our lives in this world are complete, He will finally save us, even from sin’s very presence in our lives!

We have been saved in justification. We are being saved in sanctification. And some day, marvelously, we will be saved, finally, in glorification!

And, if you like grammar, you’ll notice that those are all passive verbs! It’s not that we have saved, are saving, and will save … but that we have been saved, are being saved, and will be saved! These passive verbs refer to things done for us … not by us! “Salvation is from the Lord” (Jonah 2:9). And therefore “blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3)!

March 7, 2017

Reputations as Well as Bodies

“There will be a resurrection of reputations as well as of bodies”
C.H. Spurgeon

Isn’t that good to hear? Yes, it is true that, as followers of Christ – who was hated, plotted against, falsely accused, and crucified – so we, too, must “through may tribulations … enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). And it is also true that, among these “many tribulations,” it may be that we (both as individuals, and as the larger body of Christ) are sometimes unjustly thought ill of, looked down upon, maligned, belittled, misrepresented, and even falsely accused and scandalized. There is a real devil. And he delights to tear down the reputations of God's people – whether for their faith, or by attempting to discredit their faith. But in the judgment day; in “the great assize” as Spurgeon called it (preaching on 2 Corinthians 5:10), “there will be a resurrection of reputations as well as of bodies.” “A resurrection of reputations as well as of bodies!”

In that day, we who have been called prudish, or even bigoted, because of our stand for biblical morality, will be maligned no more (at least not outside of the gates of hell!). We who have been criticized for ‘sticking our noses in other people’s business’ because of our attempts to protect the unborn, will hear God’s “well done, good and faithful slave.” We who have been called narrow for simply taking Jesus at His word when He claims to be the only way to the Father, will be found to have been attempting to love our neighbors, not exclude them! And any of God’s people, against whom the devil has used human voices and false accusations to run a smear campaign, will be smeared no more. For as Spurgeon reminds us (quoting Jesus in Matthew 13:43): “Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” It won’t be seen, in that day, that we were perfect (for we aren’t [yet!]). But it will be seen that Christ made a difference in our lives, and that we were not what the world said of us, but what God made of us! “There will be a resurrection of reputations as well as of bodies.”

And what that means is that, though we don’t want our reputations to be unjustly torn down (any more than we want our bodies to deteriorate), it’s not the end of the world if and when it happens – whether to the individual Christian, or to the church at large. That’s not a permit, of course, for us to throw our reputations away ourselves, by ill behavior (any more than we are licensed to abuse our bodies!). But it is to say that, if people unfairly malign, misrepresent, and falsely accuse you, you are not ruined forever! Even if you go to the grave with undue discredit and criticism looming over your life; or even if the church should dwell under an unjust cloud of criticism and misrepresentation from now until kingdom come, this disrepute will not last forever. For Jesus is coming again to consummate His work of redemption! And in that day, “there will be a resurrection of reputations as well as of bodies.”

February 27, 2017

Keep it Simple

A Bible. A church family. Maybe a songbook and a catechism. And plenty of time. Can you think of anything else you absolutely need in order to walk with and grow in the Lord? Other things can be beneficial, of course (like good Christian books, which would be a big bonus item on the list!). But we really don’t need all that many resources, events, activities, and plans in order to bask in the gospel and move forward in the faith, do we? Indeed, there is a tipping point at which addition eventually becomes subtraction! A kitchen, or a tool shed, can only be so full of equipment before the clutter begins to be unwieldy and inefficient. Now, with more gear, you’re actually getting less done!

The same is true with our Christian endeavors. Too many resources, activities, and irons in the fire is a recipe either for burnout, or for hop-skipping from thing to thing without ever drinking all that deeply at any of them. Either way, you end up with diminishing returns – more activity, but less fruit. Which is better – to dip your toe, week-to-week, into a dozen different books, reading plans, devotionals, studies, small groups, podcasts, and blogs? Or to drink steadily, deeply, and (sometimes) even slowly at the same life-giving streams at which the saints have found their thirst quenched for century upon century?

Many of us, of course, are hustling and bustling over things far less valuable, even, than the spiritual game of hopscotch I’ve just decried. And when we realize that we are chasing our tails, the tendency is to think that, instead of all this secular busyness, we need to get spiritually busy instead! But the solution is not to just baptize your frenzy. The solution is not to just leap onto a different and more spiritual sort of hamster wheel! Delightfully, the solution to the delirious pace of modern life is to take a deep breath and slow down; and to clear out the tool shed, so to speak – to streamline; to get back to basics!

So what are the basics? What do you really need to be doing, on a regular basis, to bask in the gospel and to grow in grace? Space forbids me elaborating, but (fitting for an article about simplicity!) how about a bullet-point list?

  • Corporate worship and teaching, weekly (Heb. 10:24-25)
  • Corporate prayer, weekly (Acts 2:42)
  • Meaningful Christian fellowship, weekly (Acts 2:46)
  • Meaningful Christian service, periodically (Eph. 4:11-12)
  • The Lord’s Supper, periodically (1 Cor. 11:23-26)
  • Family worship, daily (Deut. 6:6-9)
  • Personal worship, daily (Mark 1:25)

I hope the simplicity here is refreshing! Very few resources are required for such a regimen, right? A Bible. A church home. Maybe a songbook and a catechism. And then a few other incidentals, like maybe paper, pen, etc. Other things may be helpful. But they are not usually needful!

But what definitely is needful is time! You cannot follow through on these basic biblical commitments if your life is so frantic that you only have 5 and 10 minute windows in which to try and wedge your spiritual disciplines. You must have blocks of time – uninterrupted and unhurried! Time! This is the resource that we moderns need to stock up on most of all! All the other resources are easy enough to get our hands on. But will we carve out time for using them? Will we stop running the American rat-race, or sitting down all night in front of our American TV’s … and streamline our schedules so as to drink deeply at Christ’s well? We’d find such simplicity refreshing if we did!

And, while we’re talking about the refreshing streamlining of our lives, can I say that so much of our time and busyness problems would be solved if we would only “remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.” If we’d set Sunday aside – free from work, shopping, laundry, chores, ballgames, TV, and so on – we’d have all the time in the world for the first five bullet points above! Even if we hadn’t time to get together with other believers, or visit the sick, or serve the church during the week … we’d have a whole day for doing so every Sunday! We’d often have time for the ‘bonus’ resource of good Christian books, too!  And so, if the seven bullet points above seem like a lot ... the reality is that, if we just kept the sabbath, most of these blessings we would be able to provide for ourselves in a single, unhurried, restful day!  That's why the Puritans called Sunday 'the market day of the soul'!  Because, if we use it as it was intended, we will be able to garner, in one trip to market (so to speak), so much of what we need to live on for the rest of the week!  Talk about simplifying our lives!  And if we trained ourselves to say ‘no’ to the hamster wheel on Sunday, then we’d find it even all the easier to jump off of it, at the appropriate times, during the rest of the week as well … making family and personal worship not so difficult-to-find-time-for as we might currently think!

There is a rhythm to the Christian life – both daily and weekly. And it’s generally far less like the frenetic beat of techno music, and far more like the gentle, steady lapping of waves upon the seashore. I hope that’s a relief to you! Jesus’ yoke is easy, not hard-driving; and His pace is usually steady, not hurried! And so get into His steady, slow, and simple rhythm, and you will find that the Christian life is not all that complex. Difficult sometimes, yes! But not complicated! Just keep it simple.

February 20, 2017

Sing Lustily

John Wesley, the 18th century evangelist, once wrote down seven “Directions for Singing.” Considering how his Methodists were known for their singing, and how great an era of hymnody the 18th century proved to be, Wesley’s directions are worth noting.  Let me mention just one of the seven:

Fourth on his list, Wesley instructed his people as follows:
Sing lustily [heartily, we would say] and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half-dead or half-asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sang the songs of Satan.
This is good advice! Some songs are laments, of course … and will be sung differently. But when it comes to the songs of God’s praise, they ought to be sung heartily, in such a way that it is clear that the noise we are making is a joyful one!

It may very occasionally even be that the pastor or song leader may need to stop the singing mid-song and remind folks of these things, when the congregation slips into singing as though ‘half-asleep'! Not how you’d want someone to sing Happy Birthday to you, right? And not the way, surely, that we want to sing to our Maker, Redeemer, and King! Or think of when you’re trying to teach your child how to say ‘thank you.’ You don’t let him get away with mumbling it under his breath, all while looking down at Mrs. so-and-so’s shoes, right?  Indeed, sometimes you even make him start over ,because you want him to look her in the eyes, to speak clearly, and even to actually seem glad!  Let’s be sure we show at least as much honor, attention, and enthusiasm when giving thanks to our God!

I write these things, not to scold you, but to stir you up – so that you don’t sleep-walk through the first half of Sunday worship! Let it be that visitors to your church remember the earnestness of the singing (not just the musicians, but the singing!) almost as well as they remember anything else!

To get yourself ready, give close attention to the Scripture readings that precede the singing, letting them rouse your heart to praise. And, even if your heart is not always roused, train yourself to rouse your voice, at least … and perhaps the trumpet of your voice will help awaken the rest of you as well! ‘Lift up your voice with strength,’ my friends! ‘Sing lustily and with a good courage.’ “Shout joyfully to the LORD, all the earth” (Psalm 100:1)!

February 15, 2017

Why I Won’t Be Seeing (or Reviewing) The Shack Movie - Tim Challies

Why I Won’t Be Seeing (or Reviewing) The Shack Movie - Tim Challies: The Shack presents God in human flesh. It makes the infinite finite, the invisible visible, the omnipotent impotent, the all-present local, the spiritual material.