Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Lessons from the Garden

[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church titled "In Christ Alone". Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

Mark 14:27-52 contains a dramatic series of events. Having finished giving the full interpretation of the Passover meal...namely that the bread is His body and the cup holds His blood...Jesus takes His disciples toward the Mount of Olives. Moving through these verses, Jesus goes from being surrounded and sharing a meal with His disciples to being alone and in the custody of the religious leaders who hate Him and want to destroy Him. In the midst of it all, we find Jesus in Gethsemane...a garden...praying about the death He must die in order to "give his life as a ransom for many" (Mk. 10:45).''

One often-requested hymn at funerals is "In the Garden." It begins, "I come to the garden alone..." Now, while Jesus' disciples were physically with Him in Gethsemane, He was alone. While He struggled in prayer, they slept. In these moments, we see a picture of the humanity of Jesus Christ...the real humanity of Jesus. Jesus was not pretending to be distressed or troubled. In v. 33, it is Mark, the narrator, who points out that Jesus "began to be greatly distressed and troubled." That means it was apparent...it was visible...Jesus was wearing His heart on His sleeve, so to speak.

Distressed and troubled, Jesus prayed: "Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will" (v. 36). The point of this prayer is to see the real humanity of Jesus as He struggles with His mission, but to see the commitment of Jesus to the Father's will through His submission. His struggle was unique in the history of mankind...no other man has faced what Jesus faced. However, I do think we can find some lessons for our own prayer lives...particularly when we are "distressed" or "troubled".

1. When we are distressed and troubled, we should pray. This seems quite elementary, but how often does it escape our mind when we are in the midst of trouble? How often are we wringing our hands in anxiety rather than casting our cares upon Him, because He cares for us? The Lord Jesus, who was truly troubled, cast His cares on His Father. Since that is the case, how much more do we need to be regularly casting our cares on Him? After all, God is our refuge and strength...a very present help in times of trouble (Psalm 46:1).

2. God must be our Father if we are to expect His help. Jesus called out to God as "Abba, Father." This type of intimate title for God was not normative in Jewish life. Yet, Jesus was uniquely the Son of God, and His utter dependence on the Father goes uninterrupted as He enters distress and trouble. Now, those who are in Christ by faith...who have been justified by His blood...have the Spirit of God dwelling in them. The Holy Spirit is "the Spirit of adoption...by whom we cry, 'Abba! Father!'" (Rom. 8:16). Because of the Spirit of adoption, we are sons, and sons have an audience with the Father. We can pray expectantly, knowing that God will intervene and do what is right and good. If God is not one's Father...if he is not in Christ...if he has not received the Spirit of adoption...then he has no confidence that God will answer.

3. Our prayers must be influenced by the attributes of God. Jesus has a clear understanding of who God is as He prays..."all things are possible for you" (v. 36). There is no doubt in Jesus' mind that God can do whatever pleases Him. The Father's sovereign power and prerogative are settled matters in the heart and mind of Jesus. His relationship to God as Father gives Him confidence that God will hear His request. Jesus' knowledge of the Father's abilities gives Him confidence that God can accomplish what He asks.

Here, we find a great intersection between our study of the Scripture and our confidence in prayer. If we are weak in our knowledge of God, then we will approach God wishing He could do something about our situation. "Here's the problem, God...I hope you can do something about it." We know that we should pray, and that's good...but we must also know the God to whom we pray. Being our Father, He will hear us and care for us...being the God revealed in Scripture, He can intervene and help us.

4. Confidence in God's power does not erase our pain. This is striking to me. Jesus Christ never doubted the character of God...He never wavered in His perfect confidence of God's sovereignty. Yet, He was still distressed and troubled...His soul was still sorrowful within Him. He felt like His grief was killing Him! This is encouraging to me. The last few weeks of my life have been up and down, and distress and trouble has marked many of those days. When we begin to feel distressed or overwhelmed, it is tempting to think we have lost faith...we have lost sight of God's sovereignty in all things. After all, if I was really confident about His sovereignty, would I really be this troubled?

I think the answer is...yes! There are troubling things in this world. Jesus promises we would have trials and tribulation (Jn. 16:33), and He tells us that each day has enough trouble of its own (Mt. 6:34). Sin and its effects are troubling to our souls. As long as we live in a sin-cursed world, this will remain the case. The caricature of Christianity is that nothing should phase a real Christian...real Christians are stoics that are moved by nothing. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reality of suffering troubled and distressed the real Christ...even with His knowledge that after three days, He would be raised to life. Apparently, not even knowing God's sovereign power over the permanence of death took away the pain.

The reality of suffering today will trouble and distress us. So, while we want to beware of hopelessness and questioning the character of God in His actions, we must realize that a deep, abiding confidence in the sovereignty of God does not excuse us from the pains of life.

5. We should feel free to ask the Father anything. Notice what Jesus requests. "Remove this cup from me" (v. 36). Jesus knew what was coming. In Mark 8:31, 9:30-32, and 10:33-34, Jesus expresses that He will die. In Mark 10:45, He says that this death will be a ransom paid for many. The only way His death would be a ransom for many is if it were a payment...a payment that would satisfy God on behalf of man. Jesus knew that He would be man's substitute in suffering the wrath of God, so that all who believe in Him would escape the wrath of God.

Yet, the firmness of this knowledge did not keep Jesus from asking for the cup of God's wrath to be removed. Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, makes a request in prayer that is contrary to the will of God. This, too, encourages us, for it lets us know that asking for things outside God's purposes is not sin. Asking to be relieved of suffering is not sinful. We often do not know what God's will is in the resolution of one situation or another. Yet, we can have confidence that all our requests are heard...our hearts' desires should be poured out in intercession to the Father.

6. We must submit to God's will. It's not simply that once we get to the end of our rope, we throw our hands up in submission. Rather, a knowledge of and willing submission to God's will should mark the entire course. As we go to God in prayer, it must be with the full knowledge that the trouble we face did not "slip past Him." He ordained the trouble...it is His will that we suffer in this life. While this trouble does develop perseverance and proven character (James 1, Romans 5), it also serves as a reminder of our dependence on God. When we are distressed and troubled, He is not, for He uses such trouble to continue His work of conforming us to the image of His Son.

Then, having gone to Him, as our Father, we express our pain and make our requests known to Him...leaving it to Him to answer as He would please. Jesus prayed this way, and He did not get what He requested. As Judas betrayed Him and the crowd seized Him, He had His answer from the Father. The hour would not pass from Him...the cup would not be removed from Him. He would face this moment and drink this cup. Yet, Jesus' greater desire...greater even than having the cup of wrath removed...was to please His Father and to do His will.

"Yet not what I will, but what you will" should not be an empty phrase in our prayers, and we should not say them as if they were an asterisk that gives God a way out of doing what we ask. Instead, their presence in our prayers should be genuine. Our hearts must beat with the fact that our holy God will only do what is good and right because He is good and right. Our skewed, sinful, finite perspective tempts us to question God when He does not answer our request exactly as we would prefer. Rather than shake our fist at the heavens as if we had the right to command God's response, let us remember the example of our Savior and accept God's answer (whatever it may be) with humility.

These are some lessons I think we can all learn from the garden. When distressed, pray...pray to God as Father, which means in a real awareness of our salvation and adoption as sons. Our prayers should be shaped by God's attributes. Our prayers may be borne out of pain, but the presence of pain does not mean our faith is weak. Because God is our Father, we can ask Him for anything at all, but however He answers, we must submit to His will.

One final thing...Jesus kept on praying. He went and prayed the same thing three times during that evening. His dependence on God was seen in His repetitious approach to God in prayer. We find an example of persevering prayer in the apostle Paul, as he went to God on three occasions to seek the removal of his thorn in the flesh (2 Cor. 12:7). We find an example of persevering prayer in the widow seeking justice from an unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8). If we are still unconvinced of the need to persevere, then let's look back to the garden, where we find our dear Savior...prostrate, in pain, and repeatedly praying to His Father.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Being Intentional in Bible Reading

[This entry follows a sermon preached by Glen Lockwood titled "Jesus Christ, Our Passover." Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

Today's blog entry was contributed by Glen Lockwood, who preached the sermon the entry follows. Read, and be encouraged.

This past week as I was preparing the sermon for yesterday, I couldn’t help but be impressed again by the richness of the Old Testament. The New Testament is what we study most, and that is as it should be; but there is so much in the Old Testament that can be of great profit to us. It is as much God’s Holy Word as the New. Understanding it adds a depth to the New Testament that we could never experience without it.

There is history, biography, poetry, proverbs, and prophecy in those first thirty-nine books of the Bible. I love the history and stories of the Old Testament; they all have an application to my life. I am instructed by the proverbs of Solomon and the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. (Frankly, the Proverbs have kept me from making mistakes I would have made if I had not known them.) I am blessed and encouraged by the Psalms, and challenged to holiness and understanding by the prophets. And the New Testament is the fulfillment of so much of the Old, that I need to know the Old to better understand the New. Someone has written, “The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed.”

Begin to read it! Make it a goal of yours to read the entire Bible through in 2011. It has been proved that those who set specific goals are much more likely to reach them than those whose goals are rather general. And those who write out their goals are the ones who most consistently achieve them. Any goals you have for 2011 should include spiritual goals; surely they should include the reading of the Bible.

How do you go about reading the Bible through in one year? First, you decide to do it. You set it as a goal. Then you develop a plan. (Luke 16:1-8 is the story of a man who set a goal, developed a plan, and then followed his plan, achieving his goal. Jesus indicates that it would be good for us to be as wise as that man.) It won’t be easy, since the world, your own nature, and Satan will oppose you. Decide what time each day you will do it. Decide where you will do your reading. Be specific in the details of your plan; it will help you to follow through.

There are 929 chapters in the Old Testament, and 260 in the New. If you read three chapters of the Old Testament every day, you will finish reading it about the first week in November. If you also read one chapter of the New Testament each day, you will complete it about the middle of September. That’s just four chapters each day for less than one year, and you will have read the Bible from cover to cover!

Another way to do it is to purchase a chronological Bible. It follows a simple plan. You just open it and read what is there for January 1st, and continue with each day’s reading. You’ll finish on December 31. There are other methods also. Some are undoubtedly available on the internet. The key is to make a decision! Then find a plan and implement it. God will bless your life, and you will certainly be glad you did! 2011 is just around the corner. Become a diligent reader of God’s Word!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Sunday's On the Way

[The sermon associated with this entry is "Is It Waste or Is It Worship?" Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

In Mark 14:1-11, we read an account of what set out to be an ordinary dinner party. However, things changed when a woman's purse opened, and an alabaster flask full of expensive perfume was pulled out. The crash of the breaking flask gave away to the overwhelming scent of its contents. It had not slipped out of the woman's hand...she had not been bumped by a fellow guest. No, she brought the flask on purpose, and she broke the flask on purpose. She had done all of this because she was overwhelmed with love and devotion for One who was in attendance that night. She came prepared to worship the Lord Jesus Christ.

As we think about this woman's action, we find an example of how we should prepare for our weekly gatherings of worship. Is setting an alarm clock and ironing clothes your idea of what it means to prepare for Sunday morning worship? Is there anything more we could do to prepare this important time in our week? Is a corporate worship service meant to be an event at which we show up wondering if the people on stage will be able to coax us into "deep worship"...whatever that means? Or is corporate worship the intentional gathering of God's people to hear God's Word proclaimed, picture the gospel through baptism and the Lord's Supper, sing His praises, express dependence on Him through prayer, and honor God's place as Provider of all things through giving?

If this last question best represents what corporate worship is, then it seems that the word "intentional" should indicate some level of preparation on the part of all those involved. Of course, the one preaching will prepare. Those leading in music will prepare. The ones reading Scripture or praying publicly will prepare. Even the logistics of those serving the Lord's Supper, baptizing new believers, or collecting the offering are prepared. What about the rest of us? How are we to prepare for a Sunday morning worship service? Well, here are a few suggestions:

1. Take in the Bible regularly. Regularly taking in the Bible through reading, meditating, and studying are not just good for the soul. It will also prepare you to worship on Sunday. The Bible is God's revelation of Himself to us. It shows us the glorious attributes of God...His justice, mercy, grace, love, faithfulness, patience, omniscience, omnipotence, etc. When we arrive at corporate worship with a week's worth of reading, studying, and meditating on the Bible in our hearts, then we are more apt to come to God correctly...humbly...with a sense of awe regarding the One in whose presence we gather. If we are regularly setting our minds on things above (Col. 3:2), then our hearts are fueled by God's truth as we gather to sing God's praises.

2. Pray daily. One thing is for certain...if we are to worship God as He deserves, we must worship in the strength He supplies. We need God to give us the holy passion needed to sing His praises with gusto. We need God's grace to enable our cheerful giving. We need God to give clarity and power to the man who preaches His Word, and then we need God to teach us as we hear His Word proclaimed. All of this is needed if our corporate worship is to be pleasing to God, and all of this is only possible if God is at work in us to will and to do His good pleasure. So, we must call on the Lord in prayer. We must pray for God's intervention with our preachers, our musicians, and mostly, ourselves.

3. Think seriously about Sunday morning. Many things could be said here. In our congregation, we make an effort to send out a tool every week so that our members and regular attenders can know what we will be singing and studying on the coming Sunday morning. This may not happen at your church, but if your pastor is preaching through a book of the Bible, you can probably deduce what his next text might be. If so, read that text during the week, study it for yourself, and meditate on it. If your pastor doesn't preach through books of the Bible, then ask him if he would mind sending you an email once he chooses a text, and let him know what you're doing. It is encouraging for any pastor to know that he's not the only one seriously preparing for the sermon on Sunday morning.

Also, if we are to think seriously about Sunday morning, we should consider Saturday night. What do we plan for Saturday evening? Do we plan late activities that could possibly lead to a tiring battle on Sunday morning? Do we try to get to bed at a reasonable hour so that our minds are sharp on Sunday morning? I'm not trying to set your bedtime, but I am saying that we should all be mindful that exhaust effects what we do...whether it's at our job, in school, or in a Sunday morning service.

I hope none of these are new thoughts to you, but it is helpful to be reminded of the importance of what we do each Lord's day as a church. On that note, let me finish with a story. Each Thursday morning, I usually find my way to a local Starbucks, where I will drink coffee and read a lot of material pertaining to my Sunday morning sermon. Recently, I sat in a corner reading away, and I could not help but hear a man sitting near me talking on his phone. I couldn't help it because he was speaking so loudly. By the content of his conversation, I could tell he was deeply involved in a fantasy football league. For those who don't know, a fantasy football league is where a bunch of football fans pick certain offensive players, a defense, etc., at the beginning of the year. They do this as if they were running their own team. Each fantasy owner's players will earn him/her points based on their performance in real NFL games. The owner with the most points at the end of the year wins.

Anyway, back to my story. The man talking on his cell phone was speaking of injuries to key players. He talked about trades he made the week before. He was making predictions about the coming week. I won't bore you with any more specific details, but needless to say, this man's conversation went on for about an hour and a half! Yes...you read that correctly....an hour and a half. He was obviously deeply committed to fantasy football. He had spent hours on the internet and on the phone. He spent a lot of time thinking about his team, making trades, and positioning himself for the best Sunday possible. He aimed his whole week at those Sunday afternoon games.

I recall this story to encourage us all to consider how our services might be different if we spent as much time preparing for Sunday morning as this man does preparing for Sunday afternoon. The content of the service may not necessarily change, but I think our hearts would be more engaged and affected if we took our preparation seriously. Wouldn't that be wonderful?

Now, let's start getting ready for Sunday.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Holiness of God, Chapter 6

As I read this week's chapter, my most striking takeaway centers on a sentence found on page 124: "What amazes us is justice, not grace." This is absolutely true. It wasn't until I was in seminary that God began to show me the folly of asking, "Why doesn't God save everyone?" it was then, as I was immersed in my studies, that I came to ask, "Why does God save anyone?" I was part of that group that was seeking to put myself and my fallen, warped view of justice and fairness above God's view of justice. I picture myself foolishly shaking a finger toward the heavens saying, "God, now you know my way is the only fair way to hand out salvation." What a horrible perspective I had! I am so thankful God showed me that He is not obliged to treat all people equally.

With that said, I think there is something lacking in this chapter. I think Sproul is right on the mark about God's justice and our not deserving even the breaths we take as we write/read this blog entry. Justice means we are cut off from the moment of conception, but mercy allows us to live. However, as a pastor, I've walked into the tragic living rooms of life, and while this truth is in my mind, it's not coming out of my mouth in the times of pain and loss. I'm not putting my arm around the woman who lost her husband saying, "Well, this was just justice...he didn't deserve to live anyway...by the way, you don't either."

That's why I say something is 'lacking' and not 'wrong.' I actually don't think R.C., who is pastoring a church in Florida now, would enter a living room and say something as insensitive as that either. He would weep with those who weep, as he ought. This doesn't mean that the idea of God's "fairness" never gets discussed through the grieving process, but we must remember that "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver" (Prov. 25:11). It's like always having "all things work together for the good" on the tip of your tongue walking into a tragedy. It is always true, but it is not always a "word fitly spoken."

Overall, this chapter does serve to give a lofty view of our holy God and a low view of man, which is good and right. When I read about our sin bearing false witness against the image of God we are meant to bear as humans, I had to set the book down and just chew on that tasty morsel of an idea. I was especially thought-provoked when Sproul was talking about Uzzah and the ox cart, and he drew the conclusion that the filth of the ground would not pollute the ark nearly as much as the filth of Uzzah the sinner. I'll close by quoting the passage I highlighted here:

Was Uzzah's act "an act of holy heroism? No! It was an act of arrogance, a sin of presumption. Uzzah assumed that his hand was less polluted than the earth. But it wasn't the ground or the mud that would desecrate the ark; it was the touch of man. The earth is an obedient creature. It does what God tells it to do. It brings forth its yield in its season. It obeys the laws of nature that God has established. When a temperature falls to a certain point, the ground freezes. When water is added to the dust, it becomes mud, just as God designed it. The ground doesn't commit cosmic treason. There is nothing polluted about the ground."

The ground we walk on is more fit for the holy things of God than our hearts and lives. It's not just that sin negated all our holiness...it is that we are positively depraved! Our depravity cursed the ground Adam and his descendants worked...the universe was an innocent by-stander...sharing in the effects of sin's curse because of our rebellion against a holy God. This is why the creation longs for the revelation of the sons of God (Rom. 8:19). When that glory is revealed, then the groaning of creation and the groaning of our souls will be answered by God graciously giving birth to a new age...one in which creation will be redeemed and so will our sin-ridden bodies. Maranatha...come Lord, Jesus!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Living with the End in Mind

[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church, titled "Living with the End in Mind". Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

In Mark 13, Jesus speaks about two ends...the end of the temple, and the end of the age. His prophecy would be fulfilled about 4 decades after His death and resurrection, as the Romans finish a prolonged siege on the city of Jerusalem by destroying the temple. This judgment in time points us to the judgment that will come at the end of time. As Jesus instructed His disciples how to live as they awaited the end of the temple, so we should heed His instruction as we await the end of the age.

There are four phrases that summarize Jesus' teaching that we should keep in mind as we seek to be the good servants waiting for the master of the house to return (v. 33-36).

1. Do not be deceived (v. 5-8). As we wait for God to bring this age to its rightful end, we must stay clear-headed and refuse to be deceived. We live in a confusing age...an age in which the nature of the gospel is twisted. We live in a culture in which sound doctrine is seen as divisive...as if it were opposed to love. Clear thinking does not mark the church today, but it must mark us if we are to avoid deception. And...not being deceived is directly linked to the other three instructions.

2. You will suffer opposition (v. 9, 11-12). This is particularly true in light of the need to be clear in our thinking about Christ and the gospel. It seems that the clearer we are, the more fierce the opposition will be. It will come from outside the church, as those who openly hate Christianity. It will come from inside the church...from those say that Christians should "lighten up" with their gospel preaching. For many, it will even come from within the home. This opposition may be felt in some measure in American culture, but it is especially serious for of our brothers and sisters in other cultures. Whenever you need to be reminded of this, just visit the Voice of the Martyrs website, read their stories, pray for our brothers/sisters, and remember that the world hates them (& us) because the world hates Jesus.

3. You must preach the gospel (v. 10). Clearly, if we are to preach the right gospel, we must not be deceived about the gospel. We must think clearly about man's real problem. The real, eternal problem that man faces is that while we are sinful, we will be judged by a holy God. Our holy God created everything, and because He is the Creator, He has authority to judge all of mankind. His justice is thorough, and our eternal sin against our eternal God has earned the wage of eternal death. Yet, our of sheer grace, God has sent Christ to bear the punishment of sin. All who turn from their sin and trust in Christ will enjoy the benefit of Christ's death and resurrection, be forgiven of their sin, and rather than bearing their sin before God, they will bear the righteousness of Christ. This message rightly exalts and glorifies God as holy, just, merciful, and gracious. This message is also the only hope of salvation we have, and it is the only hope that any man or woman has as the end of the age approaches. So, we must continue to preach the gospel.

4. You must endure to the end (v. 13). The only way we will endure is if we continue to think clearly and continue to avoid deception. We must not allow our minds to be clouded by the ideals of the world. The writer of Hebrews encourages us on: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart" (12:1-3, NIV).

There was nothing worse in school than dozing off in class because I lost sleep the night before. Ok...there was something worse. It was made worse when my teacher would notice my dozing and ask me a question about whatever he/she just said. That was the worst. It was embarrassing. Much as I might try, my ignorance of the information in question was clear.

Dozing off in our responsibilities as Christians is not an option. The end is coming...that is certainly one truth about which we should not be deceived. As Christians, we must continue to work until the master of the house (i.e.- the Lord Jesus) returns. We must not fall asleep on the job. And what Jesus said to His disciples, He says to all...even all of us, "Stay awake!" (Mk. 12:37)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Holiness of God, Chapter 5

As I began this chapter of Sproul's book, I was hoping for a rebound from what I saw as an Of Mice and Men fiasco. I was met with a chapter that I truly appreciated. I have never read a biography of Luther, and so I found the narrative of his story fascinating. After all, it's good and comforting to know that flatulence even plagues monks. I'm not sure about recommending it to my congregation as "a most effective device to repel the attacks of the devil" (p. 78), but it sure did make me giggle.

Of course, the thing which captivated me most was the reason Sproul included all this information...namely, Luther's pre-conversion response to the holiness of God. He was terrified...he was speechless. It is challenging and humbling to read of an unbeliever's fear-filled view of approaching God. My only inability to be in front of a group and not produce sound came in the ninth grade, when I tried to sing my first duet (with a girl I had a crush on, no less). I stood in front, the music began, I opened my mouth, and nothing came out. All my practice ended with embarrassment and the crushing of my naive delusion of potentially dating a senior!

That's not the case with Luther. What made him silent in front of others was the palpable sense of the One he was approaching in worship. As Sproul recounts, "He was supposed to say the words, 'We offer unto thee, the living, the true, the eternal God.'" However, that's not what happened, and his reflection on that moment is what really pierced me. Luther wrote, "At these words I was utterly stupefied and terror-stricken. I thought to myself, 'With what tongue shall I address majesty, seeing that all men ought to tremble in the presence of an earthly prince? Who am I, that I should life up mine eyes or raise my hands to the divine Majesty? The angels surround him. At his nod the earth trembles. And shall I, a miserable little pygmy, say, "I want this, I ask for that"? For I am dust and ashes and full of sin and I am speaking to the living, eternal and true God'" (p. 80).

I suppose I could go on a rant about how "evangelicalism" has made approaching God too casual, but that's the easy way out. "They" are out there as undefined group of people with whom I don't interact. I'm sure "they" are out there, but again, it seems that God wouldn't have me focus there. It seems that I ought to re-evaluate how I approach God. The King James Version of Romans 2:11 says, "For there is no respect of persons with God." God need not be a respecter of persons, for He is God, and we are not. However, it seems that it is all too easy to reverse the verse...for there is no respect of God with persons.

God graced Martin Luther, as an unregenerate man, with an appropriate fear of God...not simply a fear of hell or of consequences, but a fear of God. That fear of God silenced him, it enraged him, and it confounded him until God graciously opened his eyes to see "the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God" (2 Cor. 4:4b).

Now, I understand that I can come boldly to the throne of grace seeking mercy and grace, and I think it's inappropriate for a child of God (i.e.- an object of mercy) to have the same kind of fear as an object of wrath. However, the overwhelming sense of holiness that Luther experienced is needed more in this heart of mine.

Monday, November 08, 2010

A Few Resources to Keep in Mind

[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church, titled "Important Questions About Orphan Care". Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

Yesterday was Orphan Sunday, so it was appropriate to preach on orphan care. In two weeks, the congregation I serve will be taking a special offering, part of which will be used to begin intentionally promoting and supporting orphan care. So, it was doubly appropriate to preach on orphan care. I won't go through all that was said in the sermon...that's what the audio is for.

What I want to do here is supply you with a few resources to help you think more our charge to care for orphans as believers. First, I want to recommend a book. It is called Adopted for Life by Russell Moore. The book is not a theological treatise on adoption...the author says so in the introduction. However, it is a powerful book about adoption...specifically about the distinctly Christian nature of adoption. Moore also deals with a wide variety of issues surrounding adoption. Whether you are considering adopting or just want to better support those who do, you will benefit from Russell Moore's knowledge as a theologian, his experience in adopting two boys from Russia, and his passionate heart for the orphan. You can order the book here.

In addition to this book, I want to pass along four others that are recommended by Jedd Medefind, president of the Christian Alliance for Orphans. I have not personally read them yet, bu I think they'll be worth your time. If you want to order any of these books, just click on the title. First, he recommends The Connected Child by Karyn Purvis, David Cross, and Wendy Lyons Sunshine. This book is particularly geared for those who adopt children from different cultures/countries, with physical/emotional needs, or from troubled backgrounds. Another recommendation is There is No Me Without You by Melissa Fay Greene. This book "opens unforgettable windows into the plight of children orphaned by HIV/AIDS."

The third book from Medefind's recommendations is Fields of the Fatherless by Tom Davis. "Davis paints a simple yet powerful picture of what it looks like when Christians come to share God's passion for orphans"...including practical steps to getting involved. One final recommendation from Medefind is The One Factor by Doug Sauder, and it includes real stories of children in foster care. We may be overly familiar with the idea that one person can make a big difference, but Sauder turns this "tired adage" into a "vibrant, vivifying confidence."

Now that I'm done recommending books, another resource I want to share is a website: http://www.togetherforadoption.org/. This is a fantastic site with all kinds of information to keep the orphan's need and our responsibility in front of us. Take some time to check it out, make it one of your favorites, and go back often!

The last resource I want to share is a video. It lasts about five minutes, and it is from John Piper. It's called "Adoption is Greater than the Universe." Piper uses Ephesians 1 to justify making this kind of strong statement. I hope you are encouraged by it!

Thursday, November 04, 2010

The Holiness of God, Chapter 4

I have to make a confession right out of the gate...my engagement with the chapter began to fade once Sproul began to relay the plot of Of Mice and Men. I understood the point of all of it...it just didn't strike me like I think it was designed to do. Maybe it was the length of the illustration...I don't know. That was one drawback of the chapter. [My desire is to stay humble in giving even slight criticism.]

So, after reading chapter four of this book, I realized that I not only have something in common with R.C. Sproul. I have something in common with Billy Graham, as well. I, too, have been playing golf, watching a sporting event, and getting my haircut when I have had the same experience. I get asked, "What do you do?" The answer is that I am a pastor. I have received apologies on the golf course for behavior displayed prior to that revelation. I have also heard what seems to be the obligatory "Didn't the Lord give us a great day?" in the bleachers. Of course, the strangest response was when I told the woman cutting my hair that I am a pastor...all she could say was, "Awwwww!" The written word fails here...imagine she just saw a newborn baby cooing and smiling because he has gas...that was the "Awwwww" I heard.

After these initial reactions, silence and focus on the task at hand ruled the day. The words of Sproul were definitely proved true. "People have an appreciation for moral excellence, as long as it is removed a safe distance from them. The Jews honored the prophets, from a distance. The world honors Christ, from a distance" (p. 59). I do not claim moral excellence for myself, but the title "pastor" is associated with it. I assume that the silence comes because our conversation could turn to the holy, and when the holy comes into contact with the unholy (especially through the vehicle of the ears), there can be a violent reaction.

I love the story from Mark 4 of Jesus calming the storm, and I am glad that Sproul focused on the greater fright caused by a display of Jesus' power. The Holy God is the only One who can control the uncontrollable sea (Ps. 77:16; Ps. 89:8-9; Job 38:8, 10-11; Amos 4:13). "It is one thing to fall victim to the flood or to fall prey to cancer; it is another thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (p. 53). I am actually preaching through the gospel of Mark on Sunday mornings at this time, and I decided to look back on my notes for this text. Seven months ago, I preached this text under two main points. They were (1) Jesus calms a storm, (2) Jesus causes a storm. As I was studying for that Sunday, I ran across this from Sinclair Ferguson: "The message is not that Jesus calms the storm in people's hearts but that Jesus causes a storm in people's hearts." Wow!

One last thought about man's reaction to holiness. Thinking about the calming of the storm in connection with this, it is interesting that the nature of the sea submits to the Holy One in Mark 4, yet the nature of man slaughters the Holy One in Mark 15. This is yet more evidence of our desperately wicked hearts and our need of redemption.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Scary Words from Jesus

[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church called "A Tale of Two Religions". Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

While our study this past Sunday was on Mark 12:35-44, I would like to focus on the last four verses. Here, there is a distinction drawn between the rich people and the poor widow. It is a stark contrast. Jesus has just finished condemning the superficial, hypocritical religious activity of the scribes...activity that would earn them "the greater condemnation" (v. 40b).

Next, He sits down to watch people put their money in the offering box in the temple. While this text will ultimately be about the condition of the heart, do not be mistaken...Jesus sees how much is given. He sees the "rich people put in large sums" (v. 41b), and He sees a poor widow who "put in two small copper coins" (v. 42a). Then, Jesus judges what He has seen. He exalts the giving of the widow rather over the giving of the rich. Jesus concludes that she is generous, giving "more than all those who are contributing to the offering box" (v. 43). As we hear these words and we see this scene, we nod in agreement. Jesus is right; He is perfectly wise and has assessed this situation accurately.

What we see here is that Jesus is assessing the heart condition of the woman giving, not just calculating her gift as a % of income. External matters, like % of income, can be deceiving...but Jesus sees the heart. That was the whole problem Jesus had with the scribes...they appeared spiritually together on the exterior, but beneath the surface was the clear stench of depravity. We should take heed to Jesus warning and "beware of the scribes." We shouldn't just beware of the scribes "out there" somewhere...we should beware of the scribal tendency in our own flesh. Let's take a couple of minutes to think about this warning.

To do that, take your Bible, turn to Matthew 6, and take time to read verses 1-18 (I'll be writing under the assumption that you have your Bible open...just so you know). Here, we find the warning to "beware" applied to three areas of spiritual life. These areas are important spiritual disciplines...they are giving, praying, and fasting. Each warning follows the general statement in verse 1: "Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven."

Let's walk through these one by one:
1. Beware in your giving. Read verse 2 again...can you imagine something like this actually happening? Say you get off the interstate, see a homeless man without legs begging for money, and you give him some cash. Then, before driving off, you lay on the horn for a few seconds and yell out the window, "Lord, I sure hope some other people will show this same kind of generosity!" That's about as ridiculous as what Jesus describes here. Of course, being seen in giving is often much more subtle and deceiving than that...and we must avoid drawing attention to our giving.
2. Beware in your praying. Verses 5-6 deal with our prayer lives. Have you ever bowed your head to pray at a restaurant because you figured other people were watching and you wanted them to see you praying? After all, it's Sunday afternoon, and you're in "church clothes." Well, while there's nothing wrong with giving thanks for God's provision of food in a public restaurant...we should receive all food with thankfulness (1 Tim. 4:3-5). However, praying to be seen praying is exactly what Jesus says we must avoid!
3. Beware in your fasting. Fasting, especially fasting for an extended period of time, is a difficult discipline. Some can't do it for health reasons...that's because fasting isn't the normal way of life. Normal life means eating on a regular basis; eating is a God-given means of sustaining life. So, when one sacrifices this in order to seek the Lord, it can be hard. You may feel weak, get headaches, etc. The temptation is to wear that feeling on your sleeve so someone will say, "Is everything okay?" Then, you can respond, "Well, I've been fasting for four days now. It's been really hard, and I'm just feeling a bit tired...don't worry about me." Jesus says beware of this.

Rather than "blowing our own horn" when we give, we should do so in secret. Rather than praying to be seen and heard as "pray-ers", we must make sure our heart is aimed toward the Father and not toward others. Rather than dramatizing our spiritual disciplines so they are recognized, we should simply act as we would any other day.

Why? Why should our giving, praying, and fasting be hidden rather than displayed? Well, the answer is in the scary words of Jesus. These are found in verses 2, 5, and 16. When we make a show of our spiritual lives...hoping that people recognize us for it...at least give their approval of it...Jesus looks at us and says, "they have received their reward." In other words, the "wow"s, the accolades, the plaques, and any other human recognition are our only reward.

So, when we look back at Mark 12, we remember that the spiritual lives of the scribes were on display for all to see. We see that they loved the honor of men...they loved the special seats at feasts and in the synagogue...they loved the titles. And Jesus would say, "they have received their reward." For while they may be greatly rewarded in this life, when they stand before God, "they will receive the greater condemnation" (Mk. 12:40). That is scary!

Now, let's look at our own lives...why do we do what we do? Why did we give what we gave this last Sunday? Why did we pray at lunch today? Do we want to be seen? Are we looking for reward from men, or are we looking for reward from God? Let us constantly be testing our hearts, testing our motives, so that we can look forward to the reward from our Father, who sees in secret and rewards what He sees.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Holiness of God, Chapter 3

Two things stand out from reading chapter 3 of R.C. Sproul's The Holiness of God this week. The first was the helpful reminder that the holiness of God is not simply one among many of His attributes...it is the defining characteristic of who He is. Sproul writes, "The tendency is to add the idea of holy to this long list of attributes as one attribute among many. But when the word 'holy' is applied to God, it does not signify one attribute among many. On the contrary, God is called holy in a general sense. The word is used as a synonym for His deity. That is, the word holy calls attention to all that God is" (pp. 39-40).

Some theologians divide God's attributes into two categories - communicable and incommunicable. Those that are incommunicable belong only to God (e.g. - God is eternal, God is unchangeable, etc.). The ones that are communicable are those that He can choose to share with creatures. So, human beings can be described as faithful, gracious, or just (just to name a few).

While we might exhibit some form of these attributes, we never display them in the same way as God. God's justice is holy justice, where humans may accept a bribe or pervert justice for other reasons. God's faithfulness is holy faithfulness, while we our faithfulness is often fickle and based on our feelings at any given moment. What separates God from human beings in these communicable attributes is that He is holy...He is altogether separate, He is far above and beyond us in grace, faithfulness, wisdom, justice, etc. As Sproul would say, He is "a cut above."

The second thing that stuck is closely related to this first one. One can easily feel puffed up in displaying God's attributes through his life. I might feel like a better human being when I am just. I may feel myself 'a cut above' when I display wisdom in one situation or another. Yet, it is crucial to maintain a firm grip on the holiness of God if I am to avoid slipping into pride. How quickly I would forget that He is God, and I am not...how quick I am to believe the lie that when I am ___________, I "will be like God, knowing good and evil" (Genesis 3:5b). Even in seeking to be an imitator of God (Eph. 5:1), I must beware of the slippery slope of pride and self-idolatry and remember that any holiness...and separateness...displayed in my life is a result of the gracious work of a holy God. Only "His touch on the common makes the common suddenly uncommon" (p. 40).

Sproul reminds me that "when we are aware of the presence of God, we become most aware of ourselves as creatures" (p. 44). His holiness should strike a chord of sobriety in my soul. Even when God is described as greatly immanent, we can never forget that He is greatly transcendent. Even when we sense His closeness, we cannot forget just how far we are from His holy perfection. Of course, we must be holy because He is holy, but we must always remember that the only reason we can be holy is because He is holy. The holy One has touched the unholy ones and made us holy....we have a derived holines...He is inherently holy!

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Importance of Intellect

[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church, titled "The Insufficiency of Intellect". Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

In Mark 12:28-34, we see a scribe coming to Jesus to have his question answered. Discussions about weightier and lighter matters of the law was familiar among teachers of the law. My guess is that if you were a fly on the wall of a first-century coffee shop, you would hear some of these ongoing discussions, sorting through the 613 individual commands and their importance. Jesus' skill in answering difficult questions prompted the scribe's inquiry: Which commandment is the most important of all?

When we get to the end of the story, we find that the scribe's intellectual curiosity was satisfied but his soul was still in need. Jesus said he was "not far from the kingdom of God" (v. 34b), which means he was not in it. Intellectual division and systematization of God's Word, dissecting it to discover the meaning of every jot and tittle, and settling the big questions of theology are insufficient to gain entrance into the kingdom of God. It is only through heeding Jesus' words, 'repent and believe in the gospel' (Mark 1:15), that one will find himself in the kingdom of God rather than near it.

Now, while I believe this is the thrust of the passage, we must take a few minutes to make sure we do not think improperly about the place of intellect. It is true that intellect is insufficient as a means of salvation...mere mental assent to the facts of the gospel does not change a man's heart. It is also true that intellect is insufficient as a means of sanctification...godliness is not measured by the amount of theological material ingested. If that were the case, Ph.D.'s in theology would automatically be the godliest men of all.

With that said, we cannot discount intellect...we cannot dismiss the role of the mind in the life of the Christian. The Scripture does not dismiss it, and we see that in Mark 12, as we are to love God "with all [our] mind" (v. 30). While there are many passages that would help us think about this truth, I want to guide us to two.

First, let's look at Romans 12. Verse 2 reads, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." This is the beginning of a large section the practical application of the gospel to daily living (12:3-15:7). Where does daily living for God begin? What is it that will help us to test and live by the will of God? The life of the Christian cannot be properly lived with the constant transformation and renewal of the mind...a process that happens by constant exposure and submission to the Word of God.

If we do not intellectually engage with the text of Scripture, then we will not ultimately find its meaning. We may have feelings about what a passage says, but we will not understand it as God intends. If we fail to understand the Scripture, then our minds will not be renewed, and we will find ourselves more conformed to the world than transformed by the Word. So, we study the Scripture...we work hard to get to the meaning of the text...we pray for the Spirit to teach us and change our minds. The Christian life is not to be governed by our intuition or our ever-changing feelings. Rather, it is to be ruled by God and His Word applied by the Spirit. For this to happen, we cannot 'check our brains' at the door of Bible study.

Paul goes on from this verse to talk about the kind of life produced by a renewed, transformed mind...a mind intellectually engaged with and spiritually changed by the Word of God. This one will be humble and energetically use his gifts to serve others in the body (12:3-8). His relationships with both friends and enemies of the gospel will be changed (12:9-21). His life within society will be distinct and godly (13:1-7). Godliness and obedience to the law will mark his life (13:8-14). Rather than flaunting his spirituality with those who differ from him, he will tolerate differences in secondary matters (14:1-23). Overall, his life will not be self-oriented, but he will aim to please and serve others (15:1-7).

Where does all that start? It starts in the mind...a mind renewed and transformed by the gospel, first of all. However, it is also a mind renewed and transformed daily by the Word of God. The only way God's Word is properly taken in is through some kind of intellectual engagement. All of us are not intellectuals, but each of us must use his/her intellect to passionately pursue understanding of God's Word so that we might seek to apply that knowledge to our lives in the power of the Spirit.

The second passage to which I will point will probably be familiar to you, as well. It is Philippians 4:6-9. Often, we break this passage into two parts, but Paul didn't write it that way. One part flows from the other as the author seeks to instruct the Philippians. The first portion is one that we often quote to ourselves (or others) in the midst of difficult situations: "Do not be anxious about anything, 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 understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus" (v. 6-7). Here, we rightfully find instruction to take all our cares to God, knowing He cares for us and will provide us with peace in the midst of our storms.

The second part of this passage deals with the focus of the mind. Our minds should be on things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, etc. The end result of doing this, Paul says, is that "the peace of God will be with you" (v. 9). While this is a good instruction on its own, I think it's best to see this as a continuation of the first part of the passage. Why? Because "the peace of God" connects both sections. If we seek God in prayer when feeling anxious, we will find the peace of God with us guarding our hearts and minds. If we will focus our minds where God says to, the peace of God will be with us.

Here, we see that the role of the mind is crucial. It is our mind that thinks on the problems that we may face (and sometimes problems we will never face). It is our mind that speculates how things could go terribly wrong, though nothing may have yet gone wrong. It is our mind that often produces hypothetical situations that lead to disaster. It is our mind that takes us to the worst possible scenario. It is this kind of thinking that leads us to anxiety, and Scripture tells us to take that anxiety to God in prayer.

If we stop there, we will quickly be anxious again. As you and I well know, our minds do not stay empty for very long. To paraphrase something R.C. Sproul wrote, when you try to think about 'nothing' you inevitably end up thinking about something. So, how do we avoid that anxiety? How do we keep from stumbling back into unbelief and worry? This is where the intellect comes in yet again.

Paul points us to those things on which our minds should focus. Rather than let our minds go where it wants, we should be training our minds to focus on those things that are true, just, lovely, commendable, etc. If we have not intellectually engaged in studying the Scripture, then "what is true" may change from one day to the next, rather than resting on the revelation of God. If our minds have not been immersed in the Bible, then "what is lovely" will be more determined by our fleeting emotion rather than God's assessment. The battle over anxiety is a battle for the mind, and if we are to win this battle for the mind, we must train our mind through disciplined study of the Scripture...and that takes intellect.

More passages could be examined, but time prohibits. To reiterate the point, intellect alone is insufficient for salvation and sanctification, but intellect is not unimportant. If we are to properly obey God's Word, then we must properly understand God's Word. If we are to properly understand God's Word, then we must use the intellect God has given us to pursue that truth, depending on the Spirit for illumination all along the way.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Holiness of God, Chapter 2

I read chapter 2 from R.C. Sproul's The Holiness of God this week, and it was pretty amazing. It focused on Isaiah's vision and calling in Isaiah 6, and though I have been gripped in the past by reading the text and hearing sermons on it, I was gripped once again as I read this chapter. To begin on a light note, it was good to see that I have something in common with R.C. Sproul. I, too, make sure that I capitalize references to God in my own writing, and I do it out of respect for His name and character. When I quote a passage of Scripture, I typically leave the pronoun the way it appears in the text, but when the idea is mine, I capitalize...always have.

There are three things that really hit me as I read...the effect of God's holiness on the angels, the effect of God's holiness on the temple, and the effect of God's holiness on His servant. (Why would you expect anything other than 3 points from a pastor?)

First, Sproul pointed out the actions of the angels in the presence of a holy God. They covered their face, and they covered their feet...much like Moses was not able to look at the face of God and had to remove his shoes in the presence of God. What is striking to me (and what Sproul points out) is that these angels are not fallen in sin! They live in the presence of God as His holy angels. Yet, their holiness does not originate with themselves...they were created this way by a holy God. God alone is independently holy, and the angels' holiness is dependent on their Creator making them that way. The covering of their faces and feet point to a clear, unmistakable distinction between God and His angels.

Second, I love these sentences about the shaking of the temple in the presence of God. "We note here, when God entered the temple, the doors and the thresholds were moved. The inert matter of doorposts, the inanimate thresholds, the wood and metal that could neither hear nor speak had the good sense to be moved in the presence of God" (v. 26). Truly, as the temple shook, it was declaring the glory of God along with the heavens (Ps. 19:1).

Third, Isaiah shook. I have taken note of this repeatedly in the past, but what Sproul pointed out was something I think I have overlooked in previous examinations of the text. Isaiah was considered a righteous man. Here's what he writes: "If ever there was a man of integrity, it was Isaiah ben Amoz. He was a whole man, a together type of fellow. He was considered by his contemporaries as the most righteous man in the nation. He was respected as a paragon of virtue. Then he caught one sudden glimpse of a holy God. In that single moment, all of his self-esteem was shattered. In a brief second he was exposed, made naked beneath the gaze of the absolute standard of holiness. As long as Isaiah could compare himself with other mortals, he was able to sustain a lofty opinion of his own character. The instant he measured himself by the ultimate standard, he was destroyed - morally and spiritually annihilated. He was undone. He came apart. His sense of integrity collapsed" (p. 29).

It is in these types of things that stir the reminder in my soul of just how holy our God is. It is thinking on these things that hallows the name of God in my heart. I join the angels, the temple, and Isaiah in shaken awe of our holy God, and as I continue in the book, I look forward to more time meditating on this great perfection of Yahweh, my Adonai.

Monday, October 18, 2010

What is Going on Here? The Story of Moses, You and Me

[This entry follows a sermon preached by John Tierney at Gray Road Baptist Church, titled "Why Do Bad Things Happen...?"]

Today's blog has been written by John Tierney, who preached in my place during yesterday's service. John writes:

On an otherwise non-descript day, Moses saw a bush that was burning, but wasn’t burning. In the ensuing encounter with God, he learned that he would be going before the Pharaoh of Egypt, in order to procure the freedom of God’s people, the Israelites. “But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go, except under compulsion” (Ex. 3:19), said the Lord. So Moses loaded up the family and headed back to Egypt. Along the way, God again spoke to Moses, reminding him that Pharaoh would not acquiesce to his demand: “When you go back to Egypt see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go” (Ex. 4:21)

In time, Moses did come before Pharaoh. Along with his brother, Aaron, Moses told Pharaoh what God had said. At God’s direction, Moses requested a three-day reprieve, so the Israelites could go into the wilderness and sacrifice to the Lord. And wouldn’t you know it? God was right. Pharaoh was indignant at the request, and accused the Israelites of being lazy.

Perhaps also sensing the dangerous notion of freedom beginning to make its way through the Israelite camp, Pharaoh responded, not only by denying the request, but by increasing the workload of the Hebrew slaves. Whereas before, the Egyptians supplied the straw necessary for making bricks, now the Israelites were forced to gather it themselves. And, “let the labor be heavier on the men”, Pharaoh said, “let them work at it so that they will pay no attention to false words” (Ex. 5:9). And so, the Egyptians turned up the heat on the Israelites, and the plan worked to perfection.

The Israelite foremen, whom Pharaoh had ordered to be beaten if the quota of bricks diminished, accosted Moses and Aaron: “May the Lord look upon you and judge you”, they said, “for you have made us odious in Pharaoh’s sight and in the sight of his servants, to put a sword in their hands to kill us” (Ex. 5:21). Shaken by this dreadful turn of events, Moses returned to God. “O Lord”, he cried. “Why have you brought harm to this people? Why did you ever send me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has done harm to this people, and you have not delivered your people at all” (Ex. 5:23-24).

Poor Moses. All he did was obey God, and as a result he lost any chance whatsoever at the “Emancipator of the Year” Award. So Moses cried out to God and asked, “Why? Why have you brought harm to this people, and by the way, why did you send me to do it?” But if the truth be told, you could make the case that Moses’ cry was, “Why me? Why me?!?”

Now, somewhere in the back of his mind, Moses probably knew. After all, God had told him what would happen, and it was coming to pass right before his eyes. What God didn’t do was give Moses all the details. He gave him some, but definitely not all. He gave him a mission, and he told him how it would end, but He didn’t give him step-by-step snapshots of each day’s excitement. Still, unless Moses had completely forgotten the details of his one-on-one conversations with the Omnipotent Creator of the universe, he probably knew.

If you think about it, Moses’ personal journey into, and out of, Egypt isn’t all that different from the life of the New Testament believer. We read God’s Word, we accept its truth, and we launch our ship of faith. But quite often when the storms come, we’re shocked. “Hey, what’s going on here!?” we scream. “Well, I told you this wouldn’t be easy,” says the Lord’s Word. “Yeah, but come on,” replies the heart, “this is HARD!” We READ that in this life “you WILL have trouble”, but we tend to SEE, “you MAY have trouble”. That sort of hoping against hope (and hoping against reality) only sets us up for unnecessary shockers along the way.

But praised be our God; He is patient, He is kind, and He is longsuffering. And – He loves us. And so when Moses or Gideon or the Psalmist or you or I ask, “Why does it have to be this way?” God doesn’t respond harshly. (As He could!) Instead, He teaches us, grows us, points us to His Word, carries us, and loves us. Again, praised be our God!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Holiness of God, Chapter 1

For the next several weeks, I will be reading The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul, one chapter a week. I am doing so as part of Tim Challies' group: Reading Classics Together. If you're interested in joining us on the journey, just go to www.challies.com. This Thursday blog will be my comments and reflections following each chapter.

Chapter 1 of this modern classic begins with a biographical sketch from Sproul's time in college. When I first started listening to Sproul teach on the radio, I felt like I had to keep a dictionary beside me at all times. He is a brilliant theologian and a gifted teacher, and what I loved about the way this chapter opened was that it gave insight into his personal life.

What was particularly striking about this first chapter was Sproul's description of God's act of creation. It was mind-stretching to, once again, try to wrap my mind around the idea of God creating everything 'out of nothing'. He writes: "Before the world began, there was nothing. But what in the world is 'nothing'? Have you ever tried to think about nothing? Where can we find it? Obviously nowhere. Why? Because it is nothing, and nothing doesn't exist. It can't exist, because if it did, then it would be something and not nothing. Are you starting to get a headache like mine?" (p. 7)

Then, God speaks, and everything changes. Here's part of Sproul's imaginative description of creation that was particularly gripping to me:

"The first sound uttered in the universe was the voice of God commanding, "Let there be!" It is improper to say that this was the first sound 'in' the universe because until the sound was made there was no universe for it to be in. God shouted into a void. Perhaps it was a kind of primal scream directed at the empty darkness.

"The command created its own molecules to carry the sound waves of God's voice farther and farther into space. Yet sound waves would take too long. The speed of this imperative exceeded the speed of light. As soon as the words left the Creator's mouth, things began to happen. Where His voice reverberated , stars appeared, glowing in unspeakable brilliance in tempo with the songs of angels. The force of divine energy splattered against the sky like a kaleidoscope of color hurled from the pallet of a powerful artist. Comets crisscrossed the sky with flashing tails like Fourth of July skyrockets."

The God who did all of this is holy. He is worthy of worship and reverence. He demands that we be holy because He is holy, and if we are not, there are real, severe consequences. My prayer is that, as I read along with everyone participating, God will hallow His name (Mt. 6:9) in my heart and cause me to freshly stand in awe of Him as the holy God.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Don't Repeat the Tragedy of the Sadducee

[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church: "Jesus Answers a Theological Riddle". Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

In Mark 12:18-27, the Sadducees approach Jesus with something of a theological riddle...a question that is meant to stump Him and discredit Him as a teacher. Thinking about the question as a riddle throws my mind to old Batman episodes in which the Riddler poses some difficult enigma with regard to his evil plan. I would try to solve it myself, but just as my brain was getting in gear, Batman would beat me (and Robin) to the punch. (There's a quick glimpse into my mind...filled with rabbit trails!)

In this passage, Jesus is not merely interested to display His intellect by answering the Sadducees' question...He is interested in exposing the Sadducees' condition. They are wrong...they are quite wrong (v. 24, 27). I find myself dwelling on one of the reasons they were wrong...they do not know the Scripture (v. 24). They had a deep conviction about the absence of any life after this one, and they were ready to go to war over it. Yet, their theology had spun off in a wrong direction because they had wrongly understood the Scriptures they claimed to know and treasure.

We need to avoid this tragedy. We need to avoid sharing this error with the Sadducees. We do not want to be those of whom it could be said, "Is this not why you are wrong...because you do not know the Scripture?" Our desire is not to simply be right for the sake of being right...it is to be right about the Bible so that our lives are right. Bruce Milne put it this way: "...getting doctrine right is the key to getting everything else right. If we are to know who God is, who we are, and what God wants of us, we need to study the Scripture. That means its teaching as a whole, and that means doctrine" (Know the Truth: A Handbook of Christian Belief, p. 14).

So, the goal isn't to grow fat heads full of sound doctrine...the end of which can often be theological pride. The goal is to get our doctrine right through the study of Scripture so that our lives might be right as Scripture studies us. But how can we stay on course? How can we avoid the pitfall of doctrinal pride? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Take in the Word regularly. There will be no right doctrine apart from the steady intake of God's Word. Whatever the amount one reads, it must be truly taken in. As I was growing up, the offering envelopes in my church came with a checklist of weekly tasks. There were things like: "Brought Bible to church", "Made contacts", "Read Bible daily", etc. The Sunday school teacher would sometimes run through these after we turned in our offering, asking each one. I tell you that to say this...taking in the Word regularly should not be done in order to check off one of our spiritual duties. This can actually contribute to pride rather than fight against it. Rather, we must take in the Word with the goal of growth.

To do this, maybe we need to reduce the amount we are reading and spend more time meditating (i.e.- thinking deeply) on what we read. You could choose a book of the Bible, ask your pastor to recommend a commentary for that book, and spend the next year reading a portion of the Bible with the corresponding part of the commentary each day. The point is...we will not know the Scripture if we do not take in the Scripture.

2. Take in the Word prayerfully. Taking in the Word is not merely an academic exercise. When we come to the Bible, we must come as those who need its teaching. We must come confessing our need. We must come knowing that unless God teaches us its truth, we will remain doctrinally clueless. One way to intentionally acknowledge this is to begin our daily Bible reading with prayer.

Here's one example of this kind of prayer: "O God of truth, I thank thee for the holy Scriptures, their precepts, promises, directions, light. In them may I learn more of Christ, be enabled to retain his truth and have grace to follow it. Help me to lift up the gates of my soul that he may come in and show me himself when I search the Scriptures, for I have no lines to fathom its depths, no wings to soar to its heights. By his aid may I be enabled to explore all its truths, love them with all my heart, embrace them with all my power, engraft them into my life. Bless to my soul all grains of truth garnered from thy Word; may they take deep root, be refreshed by heavenly dew, be ripened by heavenly rays, be harvested to my joy and thy praise.

"Help me to gain profit by what I read, as treasure beyond all treasure, a fountain which can replenish my dry heart, its waters flowing through me as a perennial river on-drawn by thy Holy Spirit. Enable me to distill from its pages faithful prayer that grasps the arm of thy omnipotence, achieves wonders, obtains blessings, and draws from streams of mercy. From it show me how thy words have often been unfaithful to thee, injurious to my fellow-men, empty of grace, full of folly, dishonouring to my calling. Then write thy own words upon my heart and inscribe them on my lips; so shall all glory be to thee in my reading of thy Word" (The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions, p. 190).

3. Take in the Word in community. What I mean is that the taking in of the Bible is not only a solitary activity...it is meant to be done within the realm of the local church. God has given the church teachers to equip the body by expounding God's Word (Eph. 4:11-14). He has not given them only for those who are young in their faith...He has given them for ALL who are in the faith. We all need to take in the Word in community. Believing that one does not need to sit under teaching or preaching is an expression of the pride of independence. It is the ear saying to the mouth, "I don't need you," which those in the body of Christ must never do (1 Cor. 12:12-26).

Valuing this time as a benefit to our souls will mean making every effort to sit under the teaching of the Bible. If there are small group classes at your church, get involved in those opportunities! You may have to stop wandering hallways and drinking coffee during Sunday school, but when we see studying the Bible in community with others as spiritually beneficial, this is an easy decision to make. For some of us, we've been in these small groups all our lives because it's just what we've done. We may just need to readjust our perspective a bit...knowing that part of our knowing the Scripture and avoiding the tragedy of the Sadducee is taking in the Word in community.

4. Approach theological conflict with humility. This is obviously absent from the Sadducees' interaction with Jesus, and it is all too often absent in our interactions with one another. As long as our minds are affected by the presence of sin (and they are), there will be genuine differences between godly, Bible-believing, gospel-loving Christians. Even when I have a deep, firm conviction that my doctrine is sound and biblical, approaching others with "guns blazing" is not appropriate. Timothy was dealing with false doctrine in the church at Ephesus, and read Paul's counsel to him: "And the Lord's servant [i.e.- you, Timothy] must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness" (2 Tim. 2:24-25a).

This is not an approach which gives up doctrine for the sake of peace with another person. It is an approach that is passionate and yet patient. It is not filled with sarcasm but with gentleness. John Newton spoke about this with regard to the way some who believed in the doctrines of grace (i.e.- Calvinism) approached those who didn't. He writes, "Professors who own the doctrines of free grace often act inconsistently with their own principles when they are angry at the defects of others. A company of travelers fall into a pit, and one of them gets a passenger to draw him out. Now he should not be angry with the rest for falling in nor because they are not yet out as he is. He did not pull himself out. Therefore, instead of reproaching them, he should show them pity. He should avoid, at any rate, going down upon their ground again and show how much better and happier he is upon his own...A man truly illuminated will no more despise others than Bartimaeus, after his own eyes were opened would take a stick and beat every blind man he met" (Out of the Depths, p. 155).

5. Remain teachable. There will never come a day when we cease needing to take in the Word regularly, prayerfully, and in community. The Sadducees' believed that their educational background and present power excused them from the need to learn...especially from a Nazarene rabbi! The truth is...in this life, we will not reach a day when we should stop striving to learn from the Scripture. In this sense, we never "arrive". It is only once God rescues us from this world that we will know as we are known (1 Corinthians 13:12). Until that time, we must remain teachable.

Humble, consistent submission to God's Word will help us to avoid the tragedy of the Sadducees. May each of us avoid the pitfall of the oxymoronic state of spiritual pride!

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

I Have to Submit to Them?

[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church, titled "Jesus Escapes a Political Trap". Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

As we read Jesus' interaction with the Pharisees and Herodians in Mark 12, we hear the Lord say, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (v. 17). In the political climate of Jesus' day, there was an understandable antagonism toward the Romans and their government. However, Jesus indicates that Caesar has a legitimate realm of authority in this world. It is, in fact, an authority that has been ordained by God, and because it is ordained by God, resisting Caesar would be the equivalent of resisting God (Romans 13:1-2). So, while the antagonism was understandable, it was not acceptable.

Submission may be an unpopular word in today's culture, but it is a word that marks how God has ordained human culture to function. Families that will please God must function by submission. A child must submit to His parents' authority because God has ordained that child to belong to a particular family. The Scripture says that wives are to submit to their own husbands as to the Lord (Eph. 5:22) because God has ordained that the husband be head of the wife (1 Cor. 11:3). Husbands are submitting humans as well. In their family, they must submit to the Lord Jesus, who is the head of every man (1 Cor. 11:3).

Generally speaking, there is plenty of submission to go around. In work, we must submit to our bosses. In churches, we must submit to the elders. Even those who are elders must submit...they must submit to one another in accountability. In society, we must submit to the government. Submission has been ordained by God to keep things orderly...in the family, in the church, and in society. None of us escapes the need to submit, and none of us should want to escape the need to submit. If we desired to escape all submission...to be completely independent of all human authority...then we would be longing to escape from God's ordained means of living. We would be rebelling against Him.

So, how does one get along if submitting is difficult? What happens if you are in a society in which the government is making bad decisions for its citizens with regard to critical issues? What if you are a believing wife married to an unbelieving husband...and he is not leading in godliness? What if your boss is a jerk and makes work difficult for you? What if you are a believing teenagers whose unbelieving parents restrict your activity at church? What if the elders at your church are deciding to add a staff member and you're not convinced such a position is needed? What are we to do when we feel that the authorities are making wrong decisions?

Well, I won't address every one of these. I will simply give some general things to remember when submission "rubs us the wrong way."

1. Remember that all of these submission relationships have been ordained by God. God's providential rule over all things includes the societies in which we live and the familes into which we are born. When a Christian woman believes she made "the wrong choice" when she married an unbeliever, even this was not outside God's providential care. Two unbelievers get married, and one is converted while the other remains lost...this is not outside God's providential care. An ungodly man or woman is elected to an important position of leadership in government and proceeds to make atrocious decisions...this is not outside God's providential care. And the list could go on. Remembering God's sovereignty over all things should remind us that when things seem out of control, we can trust the One who never loses control.

2. Remember that submitting to humans is just that...submitting to humans. That seems pretty obvious, but when we remember that humans are "prone to wander," we recognize that there will be times when the best possible decision may not be made...when errors in judgment or direction will occur. We will never be free of this, but as believers, when we are the husbands or parents or politicians or pastors who wander from wisdom for one reason or another, we must be quick to repent and seek forgiveness. And...when we resolve only to complain about those who are in authority, we may be forgetting our own tendency toward corruption while we live in these bodies.

Thinking of this in relationship to government, I can't help but recall the words of C.S. Lewis. "I am a [proponent of democracy] because I believe in the Fall of Man...A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved in a share in the government...The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked powers over his fellows." We are given a privilege not held by all nations...the privilege of being part of electing and removing people from power. Still, even those we support the most fully are likely to disappoint us.

3. Remember the teaching of the Scripture about difficulties and trials. The difficulties and trials of life are God's designed means of building things like character, hope, and perseverence into the lives of His children (Romans 5:1-5; James 1:2-4). We all experience things like this...events and relationships and difficulties that are meant to refine and build our faith. In fact, we cannot be made like Jesus apart from them. He was a Man of Sorrows...He was acquainted with grief...He experienced the depths of difficulty, rejection, temptation, and trial, and He endured faithfully. If we are to "follow in his steps" (1 Peter 2:21b), then we must walk these roads as well.

Now, think about the Christian wife whose husband is lost. It is absolutely true that the wife of a believing husband may have a relatively easier time submitting than the wife of an unbelieving husband. However, God's providential plan in making this Christian woman like Jesus includes the struggles of having an unbelieving husband. It will most likely drive that woman to prayer, to the Scripture, and deeper abiding trust in God as Father and Christ as Husband. It is through this kind of submission that God delights to save unbelieving husbands (1 Peter 3:1). Even if he never believes, her struggle to submit ultimately makes her like Jesus and honors God.

4. Remember that no submission to human authority is absolute. This is something that we must remember. No wife's submission to her husband is absolute. No Christian's submission to government is absolute. No employee's submission to his/her employer is absolute. The only submission that is absolute is submission to God and His Word.

A Christian is not obligated to submit to those things which are clearly sinful and violate God's Word. When Caesar's commands contradict God's commands, God's will must rule in the life of a Christian. There are countries in which it is illegal to practice Christianity, yet this does not mean that Christians in these societies should reject their faith...nor does it mean that missionaries must cease doing their work in dangerous places. For as Peter and the apostles answered the demand to stop preaching the gospel, "We must obey God rather than man" (Acts 5:29).

This is not a line to be used when we don't like what authorities say...it is a call for allegiance to God when the kingdom of Caesar collides with the kingdom of God. The same could be said of a Christian whose husband, parent, or employer would demand sinful actions be taken. Absolute authority belongs only to God...not to men.

5. Remember that you may have an opportunity to use your voice to change a hard situation. A wife may approach her husband with concern over something happening in the family. As citizens of the US, we have the opportunity to express our desire for change through voting. There are typically systems within companies that give employees opportunity to improve or correct procedures or policies when needed.

In these things, there is a great danger to be proud and walk into a conversation feeling like you hold all the cards...ready to throw down a nice "I told you so" before it's all over. This does reflect much of the political talk radio of our day. Too often, it does reflect the way that husbands and wives speak to one another. It does reflect the way a child will speak to his parents. And it does reflect how an employee may "go off" on his/her employer. However, it most certainly does not reflect a heart that wants to be submissive. When we have an opportunity to voice a need for change, we must even do this submissively.

6. Remember that as you struggle with those over you in authority, there is One who will hear your plea. "The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those crushed in spirit" (Psalm 34:18). God is not distant as you and I struggle with anything, including submission to those in authority. He is the One who put the authorities in their place, and He can remove them. This is not the case for husbands and parents, but it is certainly the case of bosses and governing officials. It is not a bad thing to call on the Lord for relief...we see David doing it throughout the psalms. It is also only by His Spirit that you will persevere in the humility necessary to submit to authority, so call on Him for help. Cast your anxieties on Him because He cares for you (1 Peter 5:7)!

7. Remember that the goal of submission is to honor God...not to get what you want. This is where humility comes in. Submission is easy when the ones you are submitting to always choose what you think is best. We Americans, in particular, feel that we should make a fight out of everything with which we disagree. The goal of submission is to honor God as the One who has placed us in these submission relationships. His authority is honored when human authority is honored.

Let me leave you with some artillery for the battle of submission. It reminds us of the attitude in which we should approach all things...including submission. It is in Philippians 2:14-15: "Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world..."

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Them's Fightin' Words!

[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church. The title is "Why We Speak to Nations", and you can find the audio by clicking on the title.]

This past weekend, our congregation had a missions conference. Missionaries gave testimonies about work being done in Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea, Chile, South Africa, and here in Indianapolis. We had the opportunity to be encouraged by these men and women, and we had the opportunity to encourage them in return. I think this kind of exchange may be what Paul wanted when he wrote to the Roman believers. His desire in seeing them was to preach the gospel among them (Romans 1:15) and also to "be mutually encouraged by each other's faith" (Romans 1:12).

We closed our conference by seeking to answer this question: "Why do we speak to nations?" In doing so, we thought about God's revelation of Himself in words. We also thought about the role of words in the ministries of the prophets, the Lord Jesus, the apostles, and even the pastors who would follow after the apostles. We finished by being reminded that the words of the gospel carry inherent, inexplicable power, and they explain the way in which sinful mankind can be reconciled to a holy God. Christianity is a wordy faith, and if we want to be part of God's gathering of souls from every nation, tongue, tribe, and people, then we must be wordy Christians. We must continue speaking to nations.

This big picture of remaining involved in God's mission is important, but there may be a tendency to disconnect such ideas from today's experience of living. How does the importance of words intersect with my life today? This is an important question.

The answer that comes immediately to mind is that today we are living in a war zone. I don't mean physical wars between nations. I mean what Paul expresses in Ephesians 6:12, "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places."

First, notice who the war is between...the war is not between God's angels and Satan's demons. This is not some epic battle that happens 'above our heads.' No, the battle is between Christians and "the spiritual forces of evil." We are actively engaged in this battle. The difficulty for many evangelical Christians is that we live as if such warfare is not happening at all, and if you ask a soldier on the front line, I'm certain they would tell you how dangerous such an attitude is.

Second, notice the position from which we fight. If you look back at Ephesians 1:20-23, you will see the great victory that Christ has achieved over "all rule and authority and power and dominion" (v. 21). The great Captain of our Souls has already defeated all that we will battle in this life. You have probably heard that we "fight a defeated foe" or "we fight from victory not for victory." That's what Paul is telling the Ephesians, and it is actually part of his prayer life on their behalf...that God would often bring this truth to their minds and hearts. This is why, in chapter 6, Paul applies that reality to their hearts by telling them that the Lord is their strength (v. 10). It was the Lord's strength that defeated their enemies through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and it is the Lord's strength which will enable them to now stand.

Third, notice our means of fighting. In verses 14-17, Paul talks about the defensive portion of our preparation for battle, and I will only mention them briefly. We are to be girded with the belt of truth...a belt which holds everything together. We must wear the breastplate of righteousness. This is not the imputed righteousness of Christ, for Paul is writing to those who are Christians...they have already been given His righteousness. This is the righteousness of life...of daily living...of obedience. We must wear the shoes of the gospel, carry the shield of faith, and wear the helmet of salvation.

Then, he moves on to the offensive. We know how to protect ourselves against the "flaming darts of the evil one" (v. 15), but we are not to simply avoid spiritual injury. We are to fight! This battle is one fought with words, and thus, we have found the relevance of the importance for words in our lives. These words are those given to us by God...the sword of the Spirit...the Scripture (v. 17). By reading, studying, and knowing the Word of God, we are better equipped to wield this great weapon against our enemy. By doing this, "we destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5).

Our weapon, then, is one that is used to destroy weapons that would come against us. Arguments, lofty opinions, and various thoughts come against us every day...from our media, from liberal scholars, from our friends, and sometimes from within our own brains. The enemy loves to tempt us with his various Trojan horses, but inside each resides the poison of evil spiritual forces...ready to destroy sound doctrine, ready to alter our gospel, and ready to lead us into indifference. The only weapon that can fight against these is the Word of God, and the only way we will aptly use this weapon is to know it...to practice handling it...to train ourselves for such encounters (which happen more than we realize, by the way).

The other word weapon is prayer. It is an act of warfare to call on our God to empower us to withstand the attack of the evil one. It is an act of warfare to pray for those who are the preachers and teachers of God's Word. It is an act of warfare to pray for God to save family members and friends, for what we are asking is that they be delivered out of the kingdom of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of God's Son (Col. 1:13). We use words to call out to God, and He empowers us through His words for us. So, our weapons are the words of God to us (the Scripture) and our words of dependence on God (prayer).

Let's face it...we're in a battle that we cannot endure apart from words. Yes, Christ has already defeated sin, death, and the devil, but until the consummation of all things, we live in a world where our enemy's efforts still echo in the lives of believers. He has always been a thief who wants to steal, kill, and destroy...and his defeat did not change his aim. If it were not so, we would not be told to prepare for battle in such strong language.

In this life, we will face temptations to believe our good works make us more acceptable to God, and such pride must be defeated through the words of God to us and our words to God. We will face trials, tribulations, diagnoses, and disappointments through which we are tempted to toss aside faith because 'it doesn't work.' The battle will only be won through the words of God to us and our words to God. Our relationships with spouses, children, family, and friends will all be affected by the presence of sin and could fall apart...we may even be tempted to think that avoiding reconciliation is the best possible thing we could do. The only way to save them is through heeding God's words to us and calling out our words to God.

Our worldwide mission is a word mission, and personal mission is a word mission. Nations, tribes, and tongues will be conquered through words, and our soul's battle with the spiritual forces of evil will be won through words. So, the next time we open our Bibles to read and to study, we must not see it as a merely intellectual exercise but as the polishing of a weapon we need to survive. Maybe the next time we open the Bible, we should first remind ourselves...them's fightin' words!