Monday, March 29, 2010

The "Familiar" Temptation

[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church, entitled "Jesus: Lord of All Nature." Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

It is sometimes dangerous to become too familiar with certain texts in the Bible. I can already hear the objection: "Dangerous? How could being familiar with the Bible be dangerous?" Well, I do not mean that learning more from any given text of Scripture endangers us. What I mean is this: when we feel overly familiar with a particular text, we can pass over it to get on to other things.

We may be reading along in our M'Cheyne Bible Reading Plan, reading our way through a particular book of the Bible, or doing our daily devotional that takes us to various places in the Bible from day to day. When we get to John 3 or Philippians 4 or Romans 8, we come to familiar texts...texts about the sovereignty of God in salvation, the necessity of belief in Christ, the method to battle against anxiety, the security of the believer in Christ, and the work of the Holy Spirit. As we read, we might be tempted to think, "Yeah...I've read this before. I need to get on to something new," and so, we pass right over these familiar texts.

I want to suggest to you that this is a tragedy. When you find a fishing hole with an abundance of fish, you don't just casually move on. You come back to that spot over and over and keep casting your line until you get every last fish. It is foolish for the hungry person to look at that fishing hole and think, "Yeah...I remember the great taste of the fish from that spot, but I'll pass today." It is equally foolish to know the spiritual food that lies in a familiar text and walk away simply because we "already ate there." As we read the Bible, we come as hungry people...people who do not live on bread alone but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

In looking at Mark 4:35-41, we see that Jesus calms the storm. We've heard this story in Sunday school since we were children, we had a poster of the event in our classroom, and we acted it out in our youth group. As adults, we may skim over the story because it is so familiar, and if anyone should try to teach it to us again, we almost dare them to teach us something we didn't already know. Such familiarity can be destructive!

Well, I have three pieces of good news for the teachers (like me) and for the learners (like me). First, going back to familiar places in the Scripture can bring new insight into that text and can, at times, correct wrong views we previously had. When Mark tells us of Jesus calming the storm, (1) He does so to show us Jesus Christ, the Son of God...pointing to His humanity and His divinity and His power over nature. (2) He is not writing primarily about our storms in life, but what he writes about Jesus is certainly applicable when we face life's tempests. (3) The disciples' weakness is clear against the backdrop of the Jesus' strength. (4) Jesus overcomes the cowardice in the disciples by producing the fear of God in them. (5) The way the wind and sea obey Jesus demonstrates what Jesus is looking for when He says "Listen...let him attention" (4:3, 9, 23, 24). Something in that brief list (or something else from the sermon) may be a new insight to you...if so, praise God!

The second piece of good news is that there are times that studying familiar passages corrects wrong thinking. We may have completely convinced ourselves of the meaning of a given passage, and in studying it again, God graciously sends His Spirit to correct our errors. We may see the context more clearly, and that corrects our understanding. We may get some help from a Greek or Hebrew lexicon, and this gives us greater insight into the actual words being used...words that may not translate well into one English word. It's not necessarily that we have been believing heresy; instead, we may have just not seen everything as clearly as God means for us to see it. I've been corrected like this many times, and I suspect that this kind of Spirit correction will continue to happen as I study the Scripture.

The final piece of good news for us all is the answer to questions like these: "What if there wasn't any new insight? What if everything the pastor said was already something I understood? What if the illustrations were the only thing I hadn't heard before?" Here's the good news...that's okay. Time and time again, the Scripture calls us to remember. We are to remember God, His character, His work, His Son, and more. Peter writes these words: "This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder..." (2 Peter 3:1). Apparently, having reminders of things we already knew is important.

When we are reminded, though, we must not be apathetic toward what we hear. We must resist the temptation to tune out the teaching. Instead, we should remember the purpose of a is given so that we won't forget. Think of Mark 4 for a tragic it would be to lose a grip on the divinity and humanity of Jesus! And, even if we do not lose a grip on the concept, we need to be reminded of where the Scripture teaches us such wonderful truths. When our friends concede that Jesus was a man but don't know why we believe He is also God, we should have a biblical answer. Mark 4 reminds us of the biblical answer.

The longer we study the Bible, the more often we will find ourselves in familiar passages. As we study these passages, we may find a nugget of truth that we had missed previously. God may correct some errant interpretation that we have held in the past. Or...we may find that we really have squeezed every last drop of truth out of the text. Whatever the case may be, we should praise God for the work of His Spirit in teaching us. We should praise God for the truth of the familiar text. In the midst of this knowledge, we should examine ourselves to see if we are doers of this familiar Word or hearers only (James 1:22). Finally, we should be challenged to make more of the Scripture as familiar as this text is.

Monday, March 22, 2010

A Nation or a Kingdom?

[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church, entitled "Insight into God's Kingdom." Click on the title to get the audio.]

In thinking about the teaching of Mark 4:21-34, I keep coming back to one word: kingdom. The four statements used in this sermon to summarize the text all include the word...

1. The kingdom of God is revealed in Jesus Christ. (v. 21-23)
2. The kingdom of God is grown by God. (v. 26-29)
3. The kingdom of God is the greatest of all kingdoms. (v. 30-32)
4. The kingdom of God demands our attention. (v. 24-25)

It is an interesting word...kingdom. It is not the same as 'nation.' A kingdom may be made up of separate nations or countries. Think, for example, of the United Kingdom, which is made up of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It is one kingdom made up of more than one nation. Such is true of the kingdom of is one kingdom made up of many nations. In fact, one day, a multitude of people will lift up their voices and cry out, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!" (Rev. 7:10). This is a beautiful picture of the fully-gathered kingdom of God, from "every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages..." (v. 9).

This is why we preach the gospel...this is why we exist as a glorify God by preaching a gospel that will build the throne room scene in Revelation 7. I love the mission statement of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis: "We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ." That little phrase "all peoples" pictures the end result...all peoples, nations, tribes, and languages gathered around the throne exalting the God who has saved us by His grace.

We live in a day where it seems that the main mission of the American church is to rebuild a Christian nation. is true that our nation has a distinctly Christian heritage. It is true that over time, we have seen sin become more pervasive and public and permissible...especially in recent decades. It is also true that, as believers, we must be concerned for the advance of the gospel and the kingdom of God in this wonderful country.

However, let us remember that whatever may happen in this nation, we proclaim a gospel which is building a kingdom...not just a nation. We serve a God who is calling out a people for Himself from every nation, not just the one in which we live. God's vision is so much bigger than ours. Many long to re-create an ideal time in American history, and Scripture would teach us that the only ideal will take place when sin is absent and we are with the Lord forever.

Do we want to see our nation changed? Absolutely! Do we want to see Christianity's influence grow in our neighborhoods, cities, and states? Yes! However, this kind of change does not begin or end with elected officials. It does not begin or end with certain types of legislation being passed or not being passed. A nation changes as the kingdom of God expands within that nation, and the kingdom of God expands within a nation as the gospel of God is proclaimed there. This is why the church was not founded by God to elect presidents but to ordain pastors. It's why the church was not founded to proclaim a political platform but to proclaim a Savior.

The gospel is proclaimed week in and week out in churches throughout the world to advance the kingdom of our great God. This kingdom is not like the opening ceremony of the Olympics, in which each nation marches in and the size of its delegation is noted. There are no national flags in this kingdom. Around the throne of God, we will stand as one people under one flag...under one banner. "...his banner over me was love" (Song of Solomon 2:4b).

Monday, March 15, 2010

Encouragement for the Good Soil

[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church, entitled "Different Responses to the Same Jesus, Part 2." Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

In thinking about the parable of the soils in Mark 4 for the last two weeks, it's been a wonderful reminder of encouraging truths. First, the gospel seed is the only seed that will produce gospel results. It seems simple, but it's so true...and, it's easy to lose sight of this in today's church culture. The truths (1) of a God who is holy and just, (2) of a humanity made in the image of God yet radically rebellious toward God, (3) of the certainty of God's wrath being poured out for all eternity, (4) of of God's mercy in providing salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and (5) of that salvation being applied to all who believe in Christ should be well known.

This gospel should be the well-worn path of Christian thinking and evangelizing, and yet, it is not. Rather than a God who saves, too many feel we must preach a God who fiscally promotes and physically heals all who believe. Rather than a gospel which focuses on eternity, too many feel that we must preach a Savior who smooths out all the wrinkles and rough edges of this life. Yet, this is not the gospel. While there are wonderful, purpose-giving, joy-sustaining, peace-providing benefits of the gospel for this life, its true focus is the day on which we will stand before God. No horror in life will match the horror of that day for those who are not saved by grace through faith. The gospel seed is the only seed that will produce gospel results.

Second, the growth or stagnation of that gospel seed is not dependent on me...the sower. Verse 14 tells us the full responsibility of the sower. Want to know what you must do in evangelism? Want to know how you can be assured of your faithfulness in personal evangelism? Listen to Jesus in Mark 4:14, "The sower sows the word." That's it! Of course, we pray, we prepare, we study, and we look for opportunities. We use varying gifts to sow this word...from mercy, to hospitality, to teaching. However it is God has gifted us, we sow the Word. The results, according to this parable, lie with the listener. The mouth of the sower must sow the Word, but the heart of the listener will determine the outcome.

In addition to providing encouraging truths, there has also been the reminder of a sobering reality. Jesus' words from Matthew 7:21 say it best, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." These people may have done many works 'for the Lord,' and yet they will be sent away (Mt. 7:22-23). In our parable, these are the ones on rocky soil or thorny soil. The temporary response of the rocky soil is not sufficient for salvation. The immediate, emotional response is not acceptable to God. The double-minded response of the thorny soil, which seeks for the things of the world AND God, is also unacceptable.

Both of these responses devalue God and His work. The testimony of the rocky soil is that God did not complete the work that He began and, thus, makes God out to be a liar (cf. Phil. 1:6). The testimony of the thorny soil puts God among other things in life that seem beneficial, thus reducing the value of the infinitely holy and glorious God to equal temporal pleasures from things like power, money, or sex. Neither of these testimonies reflects gospel fruit in a person's life, and it is sobering to think how many people may be under the delusion that they are saved when, in fact, they are not. As J.C. Ryle wrote, "To be without fruit is to be on the way to hell."

So, in light of all this, what is the encouragement to those who believe they are the good soil? The words of Colossians 2:6 come to mind. "Therefore, as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving." In this book, Paul is fighting for the spiritual lives of his readers, "warning and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ" (1:28). The idea that there is no concern for further growth and maturity once one receives Christ Jesus the Lord is not biblical. I think Paul would say this is the kind of thing that he is warning the Colossian believers about in this verse: "I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments" (2:4).

The 'plausible argument' of many is that once you 'pray a prayer,' nothing else matters. Paul, on the other hand, combats this by saying that once one received Christ, he must 'walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith.' It is true that we are gloriously saved when the wind of the Holy Spirit blows into our lives, our eyes are opened, and we turn from our sin and trust Christ as Lord. Tied to this may have been a time of praying with a friend or a parent or a pastor who explained the gospel to us. However, the power of the gospel is seen over time, as roots grow deep, as we are built up in Him, and as our lives are marked by His presence and authority.

So, the encouragement to the good soil is to stay steady, keep believing, and keep seeking spiritual fruit. Keep hearing the Word, keep accepting it, and keep bearing fruit in accordance with its teaching (Mk. 4:20). Apart from this, there is no real assurance that we are, in fact, the good soil.

Monday, March 08, 2010

The Danger of Missing Mark 4:1-20

[These thoughts follow a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church called 'Different Responses to the Same Jesus'. Click on the title to get the audio of this message.]

The parable of the soils in Mark 4:1-20 exposes an important truth for all of us who are concerned to spread the gospel. Specifically, Jesus teaches that there will be different responses to the same gospel. Far from discouraging gospel ministry, it should encourage it. In this parable, the reason that 3 out of 4 soils do not produce the desired grain is because of the soil in which the grain lands. Likewise, the reason that fruitfulness in evangelism wavers is because of the hearts of the hearers of the gospel. In this parable, the sower of the word is constant, and the word is constant. The difference lies in the hearts of the hearers.

One implication of this truth is that while sowers of the word should avoid discouragement if the work is hard and the fruit seems sparse, the sowers of the word should also not grow proud when the harvest is great. Why? Because it is God who gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:7). The question that lies before us today is this: what is the danger in not understanding and embracing this truth? I think looking at this first letter to the Corinthians can help answer that question.

Apparently, those in the Corinthian church had been converted under the ministry of either Paul, Apollos, or Peter (i.e.- Cephas). As is natural, each Christian had an affinity for the man who taught them the gospel and whom God had used to bring them to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. However, this affinity had apparently gone too turned into loyalty...divisive loyalty. Thus, some were claiming to "follow Paul," "follow Apollos," or "follow Cephas." In other words, the congregation was divided. Paul doesn't want this to be the case, but it's been reported that it's happening all the same (1 Cor. 1:10-11).

Paul comes back to this division in chapter 3, and he wants to make something very clear. The division of loyalties to various leaders is based on bad theology. Wait a second! What? Where do you find that? How did theology get into this concern over a divided church? These are great questions. Here's what 1 Cor. 3:5-7 says: "What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth."

Now, do you see the bad theology? These various factions in the Corinthian church were giving glory where it was not deserved. They were exalting Paul and Apollos and Cephas to a god-like status because, in their minds, it was their individual ministries that brought conversions. Paul sets the record straight with two phrases: "the Lord assigned to each" and "God gave the growth" (2x). In other words, there was evangelistic fruit in Paul's ministry because the Lord assigned fruit to his ministry. There was evangelistic fruit in Apollos' ministry because the Lord assigned fruit to his ministry. The reason there was evangelistic fruit at all is because God gave the growth.

So, Mark 4:1-20 reminds us that there will be varying responses to the same gospel because the hearts of those hearing will vary. The danger of missing this point is that it can bring division because of an unhealthy means of evaluating the faithfulness of a servant of God (e.g.- "he doesn't measure up to another man"). Let me finish with an example from my own life. Then, having considered the teaching of Mark 4 and 1 Corinthians 3, think about the questions with which I will close.

I once served on a church staff in Florida. Each week before staff meetings, we had to fill out a contact sheet. This contact sheet recorded the number of hospital visits, home visits, phone calls, and evangelistic opportunities we had in the previous week. If someone professed faith in Christ as a result of that evangelistic opportunity, then those contacts were highlighted. At the end of a random month, our senior pastor took all the sheets from the month and evaluated them. He had gone out the night before and purchased a $50 gift certificate to Outback Steakhouse, and after looking at all the sheets, he gave the certificate to the man who had the most evangelistic fruit in that given wasn't me.

For the purpose of this exercise, we'll assume that all the professions of faith were genuine. Now, think about these questions:
1. Was I more faithful or less faithful than the one who had more visible, immediate results? If you think I was more faithful, how did you come to that conclusion? If you believe I was less faithful, how did you come to that conclusion?
2. Is there a better way to measure faithfulness in evangelistic ministry? If so, what would it be?
3. Does giving a gift certificate for evangelistic fruit contribute to clarity or confusion about who's responsible for the conversion of a soul? How?
4. In this story, who gets the glory?

I hope you will take time to solemnly consider these issues. Then, my prayer is that you and I will take seriously the call to be sowers of the word...and take seriously our dependence on God to give the growth.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Family Membership

[These thoughts follow a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church entitled "The Family Ties of the Savior." Click on the title to find the audio of that message.]

Looking at Mark 3:31-35, we see that physical family ties are not what matters in being related to Jesus. Being related to Jesus...having a vital, spiritual connection to based on how one responds to Jesus. Jesus says, in v. 35, that it is those who do the will of God who are his brother and sister and mother. It is those who respond to His call to repent and believe (Mk. 1:15) that are accepted into the family. It is Christians who have been adopted as sons (Rom. 8:15-17; Gal. 4:4-7; Eph. 1:4b-5), and Jesus "is not ashamed to call them brothers" (Heb. 2:11). These who have repented and believed...who have received Christ...have been born of God (John 1:12-13).

This new relationship to God in Christ has brought us also into relationship with one another. We are no longer strangers and aliens, we are now part of the household of God and should behave as such, taking care of one another as family (Eph. 2:19-20; 1 Tim. 3:14-15; Gal. 6:10). This picture of being brought into the worldwide family of God is best pictured in the local church, and as such, membership in the church family is important.

In writing to the Corinthian church, Paul tells them that the man who committed public, scandalous sin should be removed and turned over to Satan (1 Cor. 5). If the man is to be removed from their congregation, it implies that he is now part of it. In the other letter we have in the New Testament, Paul has said that the punishment carried out "by the majority" has been sufficient, and this man should be extended forgiveness (2 Cor. 2:5-11). Majority? Majority of what? Majority of the congregation. Again, if this church reported to Paul that a majority of the people agreed to discipline the man, then the church must have had some idea of what the total number of persons in the congregation was. This, again, points to some kind of formal church membership...knowing "who is in" and "who is out".

This idea can give a bit of a sour taste to some because the church, in their minds, is to be inclusive of anyone and everyone. Well, spoken in the right context, these words are true. Is the church open to anyone? Yes and no. Yes, the church is open to anyone, but the church is only open to anyone who has repented and trusted in Jesus Christ to save them. The members of a church must be saved or else the church loses its biblical meaning. It is not a social club or political activist group...the local church is to be a gathering of those saved by God's grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

Now, let's connect the ideas of family and church membership. Let's say that some friends of yours are going on a 10-day cruise (not a bad idea as winter is still lingering), and you have agreed to care for their son while they are gone...let's call him Billy. Billy is the same age as your son, so you figure they will get along well. The first few days are wonderful, and everyone gets along well. However, as the week goes on, Billy's attitude gets worse. He begins acting out, he refuses to eat the meals you have planned, he isn't doing his homework as he should, and he is getting your son to follow his lead. What do you do? Well, of course, you know how to discipline your own child, but what about Billy? Billy's not part of the do you handle that? He's doing things for which your children would get 'the rod', but again, he's not part of the family. You can expect obedience or manners all you want, but without being part of the family, there is a limit to how you can help Billy stay in these boundaries.

Now, let's forget all the bad behavior and the friend's cruise. Billy and your son are great friends and never fight. Would you go and pick up Billy every evening to bring him to your house and have family devotions with him? Probably not...he's certainly welcome to stay if he came over for dinner, but you won't pursue discipling Billy like you would your own son. Why? Because he's not part of your family. His family is primarily responsible for his discipleship. You may encourage him spiritually and be very effective in doing so, but again, he's not in the family.

Do you see where I'm going with all this? Do you see the connection between the family and church membership? Or, are you still 'coming down' off the stress of thinking about watching a friend's child for ten days? If so, let me help.

In the New Testament, we see the reality of church discipline. We see the need for church leaders to care for their flock. We see the need for the congregation to submit to its leaders. We see that leaders will give an account for their congregation. We see that excommunication really exists. We see that the church is a body, whose members (i.e.- persons) are intimately connected with one another. All of this 'seeing' shows us that it is vital to actually be a member of a local church...without formally committing oneself to the local church, you're still on the outside of God's intended blessing for believers.

Not committing oneself to a local church would be equivalent to a selfish child moving from one house to another in the foster care system. He goes into a house, and he then takes advantage of the kindness and love of that family. Once he gets bored with it, he'll move on to another. That sounds a bit like the American church culture of today, doesn't it?

I want to encourage you...if you are a member of a local church, get engaged. Treat others as family. Start serving others without regard for your own needs. Be a brother or sister to that body to which you belong. If you are not a member of a local church, get out of the spiritual foster care system, and be part of the family. God wants you to be a real, vital, formal part of a church. Stop being an outsider, and join the family!