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.

February 13, 2017

The Prayer Meeting

My friend Anthony recently commented that:
True churches are sustained by prayer meetings.
Churches are strengthened by prayer meetings.
I assume, since he’s recently begun preaching on the book of Acts, that his study of that book is what prompted these observations. And they are right on! For, when one reads the book of Acts, the importance of corporate prayer is an inescapable theme. Gathered prayer is vital to the health and strength of the local church! And so, allow me to make three pleas regarding the prayer meeting:

1. Start a prayer meeting. Every church should have a prayer meeting. That may sound a little strong, me suggesting that every church should hold this particular kind of service (especially when many churches do not). But it seems an inevitable conclusion that we must draw if we believe that the book of Acts gives us a paradigm for church life. The church, as God designed it, includes regular gatherings for corporate prayer. Maybe in larger churches, that will mean having several smaller prayer meetings available throughout the week (or corporate prayer as a significant component of small group meetings). In smaller churches, church-wide prayer meetings are easily feasible, and greatly helpful (nor are they impossible in larger churches). God hears prayer! Christ is in our midst when even two or three of us are gathered! Fellowship is strengthened as we pray together! And on and on we could go, listing the benefits of a prayer meeting … such that, if you are in a position of influence in your local church, I plead with you to try and begin a prayer meeting. Not a Bible study with a little prayer tagged on somewhere, but a whole meeting (or a very significant portion of a meeting) dedicated entirely to prayer! Maybe only a few people will come at first. But all you need is “two or three”! So get going, and see what God does!

2. Attend the prayer meeting. Can I urge you to make use of the prayer meeting that your church (hopefully) provides every week? Prioritize it. Venture out to it. Give it a try! Even if you don’t say anything out loud for the first little while, you will benefit so much from hearing other saints pray; from learning on what is on your fellow believers’ hearts; and from discovering needs in their lives that you can both pray for, and sometimes that you can ask about or help meet throughout the remainder of the week. Iain Murray has said that no pastor has ever come to his death bed lamenting that he prayed too much. And no Christian, I think, will come to his dying day thinking he spent too much time praying with other believers. So prioritize the prayer meeting. You won’t be sorry!

3. Actively participate in the prayer meeting. I said, under the last heading, that you can benefit greatly from the prayer meeting even if you don’t pray aloud yourself. Just hearing the prayers is worthwhile! But let us not stay, forever, in hearing mode only. Let us also join in! We can do this in two different ways. 

One is simply that, even without praying aloud, you can add your quiet agreement by praying along with brothers and sisters silently, and ‘amen-ing’ their praises and petitions quietly in your own mind and heart. Indeed, you should do this even if you do pray aloud! Let not your out-loud prayers be the only ones you offer when the saints are gathered before God’s throne of grace! 

But then let me also urge you to participate, if you don’t already, by praying aloud, too! Bless the gathering by allowing others to hear you pray. Not for the sake of attention (Matthew 6:5-6), or because your prayers are so exemplary and awe-inspiring! But so that others can quietly ‘amen’ your humble and simple requests, and be encouraged by your heartbeat for God. Your vocal participation need not be long or eloquent – just Christ-reliant and sincere. At PRBC, it is a blessing, during the first (large-group) part of our prayer meeting, that we have a handful people who are always willing and able to participate in this way. But there are many others – who have something to contribute, and whose hearts we would all benefit from hearing – who remain almost perpetually silent during that time. If that is you, know that we want to hear you pray, and to join in quiet agreement with you! Indeed, it is to the group’s loss if we do not benefit from your prayers. So I urge you, those who often remain silent in the large group time – chime in! God delights when His people come to Him in prayer. And so do the rest of His people!

February 6, 2017

"According to the word of the Lord"

As my friend Nathaniel recently pointed out to me, the theme of the biblical books of Kings is that God always keeps His word; that God’s word always comes to pass. And few instances of that reality could be more striking than this little note, mentioned almost as if in passing, at the end of 1 Kings 16:
In his days Hiel the Bethelite built Jericho; he laid its foundations with the loss of Abiram his firstborn, and set up its gates with the loss of his youngest son Segub, according to the word of the LORD, which He spoke by Joshua the son of Nun. (1 Kings 16:34).
No further comment is given. And indeed, none need be! It was plain and simple. When Joshua and his men destroyed Jericho, God’s solemn warning, through Joshua, had been straightforward and no-nonsense:

Cursed before the LORD is the man who rises up and builds this city Jericho; with the loss of his firstborn he shall lay its foundation, and with the loss of his youngest son he shall set up its gates. (Joshua 6:26).
God was that serious about Jericho’s remaining in ruins. And yet, along comes this man named Hiel, and flouts the curse of God. Perhaps he was simply an infidel, suggested one Scottish preacher of a day gone by. Perhaps Hiel was so atheistic, said John MacDuff, that he considered such a warning from five centuries past as a mere folktale. Or, more moderately, suggested the same preacher, perhaps Hiel believed in the one true God, but reasoned with himself, concerning this 500-year-old prophecy, something like this: “There surely could be no great sin, or risk, or danger now, in rescuing such a noble site from ruin. … The curse, binding and literal at the time, ha[s] now, surely, become obsolete.”  In other words, ‘God’s promise was very real and very serious in its day … but surely, now that all this time has passed, the parameters have changed and updated with the times.’

I wonder how many people today think this way about various warnings, commandments, and prophecies in the Bible – even people who would otherwise claim to believe in and follow the Lord. They presume that certain parts of the word may have been really serious back then, but surely God has slackened the reins a little over all these centuries: ‘Surely the commandments, warnings, and prophecies of old aren’t quite so literally binding now. I mean, we live in the 21st century after all!’

But the graves of Hiel’s two dead sons speak otherwise! It didn’t matter if the warning was five hundred years old. The word that God had spoken five centuries prior was just as binding, and just as definitely to be enforced in Hiel’s day, as it was when the smoke of Jericho had first cleared. And, by the same token, God’s words are just as true for us as they were in either Hiel or Joshua’s day! And we do well to take that to heart. God’s standards of morality, God’s promises of the wrath to come, and (yes!) God’s promises of blessing are the same today as they ever were. The times may have changed, but God’s word (and His commitment to that word) do not!

Let us not forget these things when our culture, or our own desire for expedience, tell us that these changing times mean that the Bible’s teachings are outmoded when it comes to sexual ethics, or gender roles, or the value of the unborn and elderly, or the need for Sabbath rest, or the fact of creation, or the spiritual importance of words (over against pictures), or the exclusivity of Christ, or whatever is the next thing along the pike that our culture will blow off as an obsolete way of thinking. Like Hiel, we imperil both our own happiness, and the futures of our children, if we assume that God’s words, because they are old, must not be applicable.

February 4, 2017

Sermons from Zephaniah

We recently completed a four week study of Zephaniah.  Listen in:

Zephaniah 1:1-2:3 - "Near is the great day of the LORD" - mp3
Zephaniah 2:4-3:7 - "He will starve all the gods of the earth" - mp3
Zephaniah 3:8-13 - "My worshippers" - mp3
Zephaniah 3:14-20 - "He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy" - mp3

February 2, 2017

Godly Examples

Wednesday night, in our introduction to the book of 2 Timothy, we thought about the need for endurance; the call to keep going, putting one foot in front of the other, in the ministry that God has given each of us to do. And we said that one of the resources for such endurance is the power of godly examples. “You followed my … perseverance” Paul said to Timothy (3:10) – now keep following it (3:14)! And so we talked about finding examples of godly endurance which we might follow; and I mentioned, fairly briefly, that one source of such godly examples of endurance is to read the stories of the saints of old. With that suggestion in mind, then, here are a few such good reads (the first three of which are available on the PRBC Resource Rack ):

Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor: The Life and Reflections of Tom Carson, D.A. Carson. Here is one of the most heartening books I have ever read. It’s the re-telling, as the title indicates, of the life of an ordinary pastor – a Canadian man whose ministry was never great or glamorous, who actually faced a good bit of disappointment, who eventually had to become bi-vocational, but who just kept preaching and teaching, discipling and evangelizing, visiting and praying, year after year after year. And in the end (and indeed, beyond his own life) the fruit proved marvelous. Not least is that his son, who wrote the book (sprinkled throughout with his father’s own journal entries), is perhaps the foremost New Testament scholar of our time.

Filling up the Afflictions of Christ, John Piper. This is the story of three men – William Tyndale, Adoniram Judson, and John Paton who (like Paul in 2 Timothy) suffered greatly in order to disseminate the gospel among those in darkness. But they kept going! And Piper tells their stories, briefly and marvelously, in this little book! It make for a good three-Lord’s-Day’s afternoon readings. (Piper’s bios of these men can also be read or listened to online at desiringgod.org).

Captain Allen Gardiner of Patagonia, Jesse Page. Here’s the story of a man who was not a preacher (but a ship captain!), but who labored, and labored, and labored for the gospel in spite of much difficulty. His death will sadden you, but his perseverance will inspire you. And the fruit of it was tremendous!

Singing in the Fire, Faith Cook. Cook employs her excellent writing skills to tell 14 brief stories of men and women (and one little girl) who suffered in various ways, but who kept going with and for Christ, “singing in the fire.” These brief re-tellings would work wonderfully for two weeks of nightly reading!

God Took Me By the Hand, Jerry Bridges. I just came across this title in an excellent review, by Geoff Thomas, in The Banner of Truth Magazine. It is now on my reading list! In it, the late Jerry Bridges, one of the excellent soul-physicians of our time, tells the story of his hardscrabble beginnings, growing up with health issues and exceedingly poor … and how God ‘took him by the hand,’ called him to Himself, and blessed his work of Bible teaching over many long years of ministry. What made me want to read the book, though, is Bridges’ statement that, over the course of his ministry, he experienced 25 years of definite blessing, 15 years of pain, and 16 years that “were neither particularly painful nor blessed.” That intrigues me! I want to know how he kept going through the painful years … and, especially, how he kept putting one foot in front of the other through 16 years of the mundane! I suspect you’d be helped by finding out, too!

So then … Paul instructed Timothy to continue in “perseverance” …  “knowing from whom [he had] learned” it (2 Tim 3:10-14). And now you know a few more people from whom you can learn it, too.

January 23, 2017

"More glory than Moses"

Well do I remember going, with an early Christian mentor of mine (my high school baseball coach), to a Sunday evening service in which the pastor gave what was, I am sure, a well-thought-out Bible study (from Deuteronomy 18:15-19?) on the similarities between Jesus and Moses. Such a comparison does make for an interesting study. After all, the promised Messiah would be, said Moses, “a prophet like me.” And therefore there are indeed many parallels to be drawn!

But what I remember from that night was not the parallels that the preacher drew, but the comment that my baseball coach made as we headed for home: ‘It was not my lesson, but if it had been, I’d have talked about how Jesus is even greater than Moses.’ It wasn‘t meant as a slight toward the pastor, but as a reminder that, when all the comparisons have been made (between Jesus and various of His Old Testament forerunners), Jesus must, by the Father’s design, “come to have first place in everything” (Colossians 1:18). Or, to borrow language from Jonathan Edwards, on a different (but similar) theme: Moses, David, Joseph, Solomon – ‘these are but drops, but [Christ] is the ocean.’ And thus any study on Deuteronomy 18 must come to its crescendo in Hebrews 3:1-6, and particularly in v.3:
“For [Jesus] has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses, by just so much as the builder of the house has more honor than the house.”
Arthur Pink, the great Bible teacher of the last century, commenting on Hebrews chapter 3, put it like this:
The history of Moses was remarkable from beginning to end. The hand of providence preserved him as a babe, and the hand of God dug his grave at the finish. Between these termi he passed through the strangest and most contrastive vicissitudes which, surely, any mortal has ever experienced. The honours conferred upon him by God were much greater than any bestowed upon any other man, before or since. During the most memorable portion of their history, all of God’s dealings with Israel were transacted through him. His position of nearness to Jehovah was remarkable, awesome, unique. He was in his own person prophet, priest and king. Through him the whole of the Levitical economy was instituted. By him the Tabernacle was built. Thus we can well understand the high esteem in which the Jews held this favoured man of God—cf. John 9:28, 29..
Yet great as Moses was, the Holy Spirit in this third section of Hebrews calls upon us to consider One who so far excelled him as the heavens are above the earth. First, Christ was the immeasurable superior of Moses in His own person: Moses was a man of God, Christ was God Himself. Moses was the fallen descendant of Adam, conceived and shapen in iniquity; Christ was sinless, impeccable, holy. Again; Christ was the immeasurable superior of Moses in His Offices. Moses was a prophet, through whom God spake; Christ was Himself “Truth,” revealing perfectly the whole mind, will, and heart of God. Moses executed priestly functions (Ex. 24:6; 32:11); but Christ is the “great High Priest.” Moses was “king in Jeshurun” (Deut. 33:5); Christ is “King of kings.” To mention only one other comparison, Christ was the immeasurable superior of Moses in His work. Moses delivered Israel from Egypt, Christ delivers His people from the everlasting burnings. Moses built an earthly tabernacle, Christ is now preparing a place for us on High. Moses led Israel across the wilderness but not into Canaan itself; Christ will actually bring many sons “unto glory.”
What exalted prose! And what an exalted subject! Let us be sure, in all our study of the Bible, that we read it like Pink, and coach Rivas, and the author of Hebrews, and Paul … giving Jesus “first place in everything.”

January 16, 2017

Chipping Away

183,300 men! That is the tally of laborers employed in cutting timber, hewing stone, and hauling materials for the building of the temple of the Lord in the days of King Solomon. 183,300 according to 1 Kings 5:13-16! That’s a lot of men … and thus a lot of timber and stone that they were cutting and hauling! Which gets me thinking …

What must it have been like to be one of those men? They must have known what the project was to which they were contributing. They must have known it was going to be grand, that it was going to be beautiful, and that it was going to be for the Lord. And I am sure that, on many days, these facts made the work all the more fulfilling. And yet, if I can put myself in their sandals for a few moments … Though I might have some idea of the grandeur and value of the project, at the end of the day, I am still just planing boards all day; or maybe chipping away on the same piece of stone, for days on end, to form it into the right shape and size. And the job of carrying all that stuff must have been even all the more tedious! So that – while these men knew they were working for the Lord, and building what would be the most important building that ever was built – some days it probably didn’t seem all that grand, or exciting, or moving, or maybe even fulfilling. Many days it must have been hard to see the splendor of the big picture, and much easier just to focus on this giant rock sitting in front of me, or on this tree trunk that has to be planed today. And that doesn’t light the fire the same way as does being on some big ‘adventure’ for God. And yet, whether they realized it or not, each of these 183,300 men (and their repetitive daily labor in the forests and quarries) was vital to the great project!

And it occurs to me that this is how the life of faith works, still today. We, in Christ’s church, are working on a grand project, too (even far grander than Solomon’s temple)! We are Christ’s hands and feet as He builds a kingdom that "will have no end"! Surely it is the most glorious project that was ever undertaken! And, like the 183,300, we know this! And, on our better days, we are glad to be a part of it! But, though we know the big picture, most of our actual work is done on the small picture. Most of our kingdom work is less like being the architect of the temple, and more like cutting away on the same block of stone day after day. Which means that many a time – when keeping the church nursery, or reviewing the catechism with our kids, or handing out bulletins on Sunday morning, or praying for some prayer request on a Wednesday night, or teaching a lesson, or paying a pastoral visit – many a time we may just be doing what is right in front of us, without any great thought about how it all fits in the grand architecture of the kingdom. Sometimes we may even feel rather humdrum about the work that God has given us to do. And, while I do not say that that is good … I also don’t know that it is all that uncommon. We are hewers of stone, cutters of timber, haulers of rock. And, while we ought to realize what privileges these are, the reality is that, even when we don’t set our sights as high as we ought, God is still working through our hands and feet, and the kingdom is still being built! And it will be grand! And when we see it in its completion, we will be so glad for the little bit of sweat and muscle that God allowed us to put in!

So be glad, you servants of the Lord! While you work on your little projects, and chip away at what is right in front of you … God, in Christ, is doing far more than you can yet see. And your part is important. And you’ll be glad, in the end, that you stuck with it!

January 11, 2017

Rain, Rain Go Away?

This past Sunday evening, I looked at the weather app on my phone and, after clouds on Monday, it showed eight consecutive days of rain! And when the little weather icons on a phone app look so depressing, how much more might the actual weather?! And so, even as I type, the clouds are thick, the ground is saturated, and the days have been exceedingly gray. Such is often winter in Cincinnati, I suppose. And I don’t doubt that it can have a dampening effect on our minds. Maybe that’s even by God’s wise design. Maybe the rainy, cloudy days help us appreciate the sun all the more (both literally, and in a spiritual sense … see 2 Samuel 23:3-4). But if so, that still makes the gray days … well, gray.

But it occurs to me that I shouldn’t be too quick to sing ‘Rain, rain, go away, come again another day.’ For God has good purposes for the rain (does He not?) even outside the purpose of making us appreciate the sun when the rain finally goes away! Rain is so often spoken of, in Scripture, as being the blessing of God. Rain was one of the examples Paul marshalled, when preaching to a group of pagans in Acts 14, to demonstrate to them the reality of the Creator God! And rain was one of the blessings God promised to Israel, in Deuteronomy 28, if they carefully obeyed His word!

So rain is a good thing! And of course, when we are thinking big picture, we understand these things. Much as we may not personally like the rain falling down, day after day, in the winter time … we’d not trade it for a drought, I can promise you! We need rain … not only for the lawns and flowers and trees to be beautiful around our homes, but (all the more) for the crops to grow which provide us (and the animals we eat) with grains, vegetables, fruits, and so on! The rain, says Isaiah, makes the earth “bear and sprout … furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater” (Isaiah 55:10).

And, if you know well that passage in Isaiah 55:10-11, you’ll remember that, embedded in it, is yet another reason to be thankful for the rain.  And that is the way the rain (along with the snow!) reminds us of the blessing of God’s word – not in the grayness that accompanies the rain, but in its fruitfulness!

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
And do not return there without watering the earth
And making it bear and sprout,
And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater;
So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth;
It will not return to Me empty,
Without accomplishing what I desire,
And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.”

Think of that, when the rain falls, day after day! Think of the blessing that the farmers, and grocers, and consumers (like us) will reap from it in the weeks and months ahead. And then thank God that His word works like that as well – even when (like the rain) you may not always realize or even appreciate it, at first! It will produce its fruit. And you will be glad, when the blossoms begin to open, for the rain!

January 3, 2017

"Much closer attention"

“We must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it.” (Hebrews 2:1)

A Christian, just like anyone else, can become distracted, drowsy, even bored. Sad to say, we can even slip into these ruts when it comes to our attention to the word of God. Some of our lapses, no doubt, are related to physical weaknesses (sometimes self-inflicted, sometimes not). Some distraction also has to do with the ever shortening attention spans that modern technology daily ingrains in us. And a good bit of our spiritual inattentiveness can have to do, alas, with the state of our souls. But we must fight against every sort of weakness and distraction that would keep us from really hearing the word of God, and thus drifting from it (Hebrews 2:1)! “We must pay much closer attention to what we have heard” and to what we are hearing! And so, in the lines below, allow me to make a few practical suggestions as to how we can do so (especially as it relates to hearing God’s word preached) – whether our weaknesses be physical, spiritual, or related to the modern lack of attention span.

1. Get adequate rest. Someone has said that a good Sunday begins on Saturday night. How true! It is very difficult to pay careful attention in the morning when you have stayed up too late the previous night. So know your body. Figure out how much sleep you need. And go to bed on Saturday night well in time to receive it! Your body will thank you on Sunday morning, and your soul will do so throughout all eternity!

2. Avoid being a distraction. We’ve all been there – coming to after about 20-30 seconds, and realizing we have lost track of what the preacher was talking about. Because our eyes were following someone who got up and took a bathroom break, or because of a child (maybe even the preachers’ kid!) being rambunctious, or because of someone nearby fidgeting with a cell phone, or nodding off. And of course, we could all stand to force ourselves to focus, even in spite of these things. But we can also do one another a favor by doing all we can to set ourselves up to be unobtrusive during the service. Some distractions are minor, of course. And others can’t be helped – there are bathroom emergencies, and surprises with the children, and other hiccups that can’t be avoided (and so don't feel guilty when they happen!). But if we can go to the bathroom before the service, and quickly take our children out when they begin to be a distraction (and sit near the back if we think they might be), and keep ourselves from fidgeting, and so on … we can, in many instances, avoid unnecessary distractions, and help those around us “pay much closer attention.”

3. Cultivate a lengthening attention span. One reason some of us may struggle to follow a sermon is not always because the preacher is too long, but because our attention spans are too short – not by nature, but by cultivation. We spend a lot of time watching TV, which breaks every 8 minutes; and maybe even more time staring at tablets and phones, whose screens we can flip, change, and refresh every few seconds (count me as guilty here, too). And so we often have more difficulty than our forebears following words (as opposed to pictures). It can be challenging for us to follow that which lasts more than a few minutes, and does not come with moving pictures.*  But if we are to hear the word of God, we must be able to give attention to an extended series of words! For “faith comes from hearing” (Romans 10:17). And thus we must cultivate longer attention spans … and the ability to hear and think and stay focused even without pictures! And so I charge you: turn off the television. Curtail your time on tablets and phones. And increase the time you spend in books (which use the same medium as the book) and in face-to-face conversation with real people. Learn to listen, and to focus on words in the day-to-day, and you’ll be helped to do it, with matters of the soul at stake, on the Lord’s Day.

4. Cultivate an anticipation for Sunday meeting. I wonder if some our distractedness in worship might have its root in a low view of the Lord’s Day itself. Are Sunday services merely one of many 2-3 hour time blocks that we look forward to in the week? Or is our time together around the word the centerpiece and fulcrum of the entire week’s rhythm? Is your weekly rhythm built around the Lord’s Day, or is the Lord’s Day just one piece of the puzzle? To put it simply: Is Sunday the most important day of the week to you? And are Sunday services the most vital event? Your answer will go a long way toward determining if you are really eager to be in the worship, and eager for the spiritual meal that will be served to you there. For if Sunday meeting is the high point of the week, attention will much more easily follow!

5. Pray for the preaching. If a survey was taken of your church, what would the percentage of people be who actually pray for the preacher and the preaching each and every week? More directly, what would you have to answer to such a question? Iain Murray has said that it is not only true that preachers make congregations, but also that the congregation makes the preacher in the way that they pray for and support his ministry of the word! And so, if you’re having trouble staying with the preacher on Sundays (and even if you are not!), pray for him and his preaching each and every week – for the Holy Spirit’s power in his heart, in his preparation, in the actual preaching moment, and in the hearts of his hearers! And, as you pray (and as God answers!), it will come about both that the preacher himself will do a better job, and that you (the hearer) will be more invested in (and thus more attentive to) what he is bringing forth out of God’s book!

“We must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it.” And these have been just a few practical ways in which we may go about it. May they prove a blessing to you.

_____________
*Read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death for more on this phenomenon. My observations on this subject are always indebted to Postman’s excellent analysis!