Monday, May 31, 2010

Fighting the Inner Pharisee

[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church, entitled "Beware of Following in the Pharisees' Footsteps". Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

As we study passages about the Pharisees and their errors, it is wise to take a long look at ourselves to consider ways in which we may be like them. In Mark 7, we see that the Pharisees were a deceived bunch. Though they were the religious elite and were considered theological scholars, they had conformed their lives and teaching to an idea of superficial cleanness which warranted the rebuke of Jesus. The word Jesus uses in Matthew 23 is "Woe to you..." It is a matter of utmost importance when God the Son looks at your life and pronounces 'woe.'

Not wanting to hear that 'woe' fall on our ears, we must be on guard against following in the Pharisees' footsteps. In fact, one great scheme of the devil seems to be to convince God's people that the essence of their religious success is to keep up Pharisaical appearances. Satan longs to convince us to honor the Lord with our lips but leave our hearts far from God (Mk. 7:6b). If we become convinced that God is truly pleased with us doing certain religious acts and saying right religious words of worship (regardless of the condition of our hearts), then the devil really has us. For when this happens, it is not long before we begin to believe, like the Pharisees, that it is these efforts that keep our status with God secure and right.

What is the ultimate danger in thinking this way? What effect does this have on the gospel's place in our lives? The answer to both of these questions is this: our heart abandons the gospel. In fact, it belittles the gospel of Jesus, such that the gospel is no more important than a movie ticket. What is it that you do with a movie ticket? Well, it is important to have a ticket if you want to get in, right? Once you're in, though, of what use is the movie ticket? One may keep the movie ticket from an important first date, as a kind of souvenir, but that's it. It goes in a scrapbook, and you pull it out every once in a while to fondly remember the day you used the ticket. You don't actually need the ticket already got in...and the ticket is mostly irrelevant to the rest of the experience.

When we choose to step into a Pharisaical understanding of our relationship to God, Jesus and His gospel are no more important than a movie ticket. Of course, the Pharisees never 'got in' to begin with, but you understand the analogy. For us as Christians, it is certainly true that Jesus Christ has made a way of entrance into the kingdom...that He is the door (John 15:7). We did 'make it in' by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Yet, is that the end of our need for Christ? Is the rest of the Christian life a self-made training session in which we become like spiritual Stepford wives? We work hard to keep up the right, religious, superficial appearance, and we train ourselves to be passionate about keeping up these superficial appearances!

I would suggest to all of us that, as Christians, we are just as in need of our Savior and just as dependent on Him as the first day we believed. The cross has become no less relevant and no less important...if we have grown in our spiritual life, it has actually become more important to us than ever. The blood of Jesus is still our only hope for cleansed sin. The grace of our God is magnified over and over again as we continue to sin and go back to God for mercy. Our justification before God is still based on faith in Christ...a continual faith in Christ over a lifetime. We are still right with God ONLY on the basis of Jesus Christ and His righteousness on our behalf...we never get past this!

So, if all that is true, then how can we battle our inner Pharisee? Well, I want to suggest four things that may help as we fight.

1. Remember the gospel: Don't let yourself forget the gospel or its importance. Pick up a book like The Cross-Centered Life by C.J. Mahaney or The Discipline of Grace by Jerry Bridges or The Cross of Christ by John Stott. These kinds of books will help you think on the wonder of what Christ has done and how it affects us daily. Read the first eight chapters of Romans over and over and over. Don't forget the gospel!

2. Remember the sinfulness of sin: This is part of the gospel, I know, but it seems that battling our inner Pharisee means being reminded of just how far gone we really are as sinners. It means remembering the depths of the sin from which we have been plucked. It means never forgetting how deceitful sin is and how easy it is to become sinfully self-reliant. The Enemy Within by Kris Lundgaard would be a helpful resource here.

3. Memorize Scripture: If we are to properly wield the sword of the Spirit (i.e.- the Bible), then we must make sure we have a firm grip on it. And, if we are going to fight a battle centered on the gospel in our hearts and minds, then it would be helpful to memorize those passages which are especially related to the gospel. Memorize 2 Corinthians 5:21 - "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." Memorize Galatians 3:13 - "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us..." These are just two examples of Pharisee-killing texts.

4. Don't be satisfied with spiritual intellect: Books and sermons and theological resources abound in our culture...I mean, I've already suggested a few in this blog entry. There are more Bible study helps today than ever before. The temptation is to believe that gaining more and more knowledge makes us more and more acceptable to God. If we just read "x" amount of theological books this year, then we will feel that we have sufficiently grown. If we can just make it through our Bibles in a year (or less), then we have jumped forward in the Christian faith. Now, do not is not a bad things to set a goal to read a certain number of books in a year or to read through the Bible. However, it is not sufficient. Our learning must impact our lives...the way we think, love, treat our wives, comprehend the atonement, raise our children, etc. I listen to Alistair Begg on the radio sometimes, and I love the little slogan that comes just before the music swells at the end of each program: "Where the learning is for living." That's what I'm trying to say here...learning is for living, not just for learning. The inner Pharisee loves when we learn for learning's sake...fight against it and apply what you learn.

5. Pray: There are times in all our lives when we feel as though we are merely going through the motions. We may do certain spiritual disciplines, but we are certain our hearts are not engaged. We read or study as if to 'check the box' for that given activity. When we sense this, it is important to lay our hearts bear before God, to confess our apathy or distance from Him, and to ask Him for the grace needed to re-engage our hearts. We should ask Him to shine His holy spotlight on our hearts and expose any patterns of sin we may have ignored. Our feelings must not be our determinative measure of faith, but we should pay attention when our hearts are not fully engaged in spiritual disciplines.

6. Find some help: This is not an invitation to seek out a professional counselor. All I mean by this is that you should involve someone else in helping you fight the inner Pharisee. If you are married, then your spouse can be a valuable resource because he/she knows you better than anyone else. If you are not married, then find someone older than you, of the same gender, and open your life up to him/her. Allow these kinds of people to ask you probing questions, to seek our your motivations, and to help you see your own heart. You must be honest and vulnerable to do this because it is sometimes a painful process, and yet, it can be extremely beneficial to the fight for spiritual authenticity.

The fight against the inner Pharisee is not one that will go away in this lifetime. As long as the presence of sin remains, the path to superficial spirituality remains clear and might say it is a broad way. By God's grace, may we continue to find the strength to fight the inner Pharisee.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Good News & Good Deeds

[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church entitled "The Men Who Missed the Meaning of the Miracles". Click on the title to get the audio.]

If you follow the disciples through the gospel of Mark, you will see that the author is constantly reminding you of their inability to fully comprehend the identity of Jesus. This is very clear in Mark 6:45-52 and 8:1-21. After two large-scale miraculous healings, the disciples are exposed as not understanding what these miracles really meant...specifically, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.

As Jesus goes about the region teaching, His message is that people must repent and believe in order to be part of God's kingdom. The miracles He performs are meant to amplify this message. If you think about how a sound system amplifies a pastor's voice, then you have an idea of the role Jesus' miracles served. The purpose of the sound system is to take the message and make it more audible and understandable for those in the congregation. In the same way, Jesus miracles are meant to make His teaching clearer. So, the good deeds of Jesus (i.e.- the miracles) amplified the good news of Jesus (i.e.- the message).

In the same way, our preaching of the good news should be accompanied by good deeds. We could just state that the Scripture commands certain behavior...certain deeds...from followers of Jesus. However, there's more. Our good deeds can either open a door for our good news, or our good deeds can put a few exclamation points at the end of our good news. There is a distinct connection between our good news and our good deeds.

There are times when a church may choose to emphasize one of these over the other...or, a group of believers may even define what the 'real church' should look like based on one or the other. Take the fictional "Good News Church," for example. The emphasis in all the church's activity is the proclamation of the good news. They produce their own tracts, they buy radio space for the preaching of the Word to get to more people, and they work hard to make sure the gospel permeates everything they do. There is nothing wrong with any of these activities, is there?

Now, think about the fictional counterpart..."Good Deeds Church." This church is always doing. They have a clothes closet, a food pantry, and a weekly meal for homeless men and women in their city. They open their gym to house the homeless one or two nights a month. They have a strong orphan care and adoption ministry, and their pews are littered with families who either foster or adopt. They have a ministry to bring meals and visitors to widows and widowers, and at every major holiday, they make sure none of these people are alone. There is nothing wrong with these activities is there.

Both of these churches are doing good things...godly things...things which fulfill the Scripture within the life of a church. Sometimes, within a single church body, you may have a segment of 'good news' people and a segment of 'good deeds' people. Each group's motivations are good and ideas are often godly. However, what I would suggest (and the pattern Jesus has laid down for us) is that good news and good deeds are not to be mutually exclusive. They are meant to co-exist in every church and in every believer.

A commitment to the truth of the good news without a commitment to the action of good deeds is empty, and vice versa. Odds probably lean to one side or the other. Which would it be for you? Do you love teaching the gospel and participating in personal evangelism but shy back a little when it comes to physical acts of service or ministry? Would you jump head first into a pro-life ministry but shy away when your church offers to train you in personal evangelism or in how to study your Bible?

The argument may be given that these things are a matter of gifting by the Holy Spirit. In some sense, this is true. Some of us are gifted in service, while others are gifted in teaching. Some are gifted in mercy, and others are evangelistically gifted. However, various giftings only indicate where our greatest strength is, not where our only participation in the body lies. After all, we cannot eliminate our personal responsibility in the Great Commission based on gifting...we cannot by-pass our responsibility to teach our own children just because we aren't especially gifted at it. Likewise, we cannot do away with commands about how we treat the least of these and and the necessity of showing mercy based on gifting. While some may excel in each of these areas, all must participate.

Now...let's remember the point. Good news must be connected to good deeds, and good deeds must be connected with good news. Where are you in all of this? What 'camp' are you in? Where do you need to grow? What are you going to do about it? Don't let your good deeds be hollow and voiceless...give them the voice of good news. Don't let your good news seem hypocritical, Pharisaical, or muted...amplify it with a life of good deeds. May we all endeavor to be men and women of the good news who do good deeds.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Real Compassion Leads to Teaching

[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church preached by Kevin Shingleton, entitled "The Heart of Jesus and His Ministry." Click on the title to get to the audio.]

As a pastor, I don't often get to listen to live preaching. I can listen on my computer or my mp3 player, but this past week, I had the privilege of listening to lots of live preaching. I attended a conference on pastoral ministry called the Basics conference from Monday-Wednesday, and yesterday, I got to hear my brother, Kevin Shingleton, preach at Gray Road.

As Kevin continued our congregation's study of the book of Mark, he dealt with a very familiar passage of Scripture...Mark 6:30-44 (a.k.a. - the feeding of the five thousand). In a prior entry, I mentioned the temptation to skip over passages of Scripture that we feel like we already understand, but I'm glad Kevin didn't do that. My thought in this entry follows right on the heels of something he emphasized in the message yesterday.

In Mark 6:34a, we read, "When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd..." The eyes of Jesus have a way of diagnosing the conditions of those standing before him. As he glanced on this crowd, he didn't see moms, dads, farmers, fishermen, bakers, and fellow carpenters. He didn't see upper, middle, and lower class. Jesus saw sheep, but not just any kind of sheep. He saw lost sheep, helpless sheep, harassed sheep...sheep without a shepherd.

What Jesus saw led to how Jesus felt. He felt compassion on them. Quite literally, he was moved in the depths of his bowels because of their helplessness and hopelessness. Have you ever seen someone that seemed to be in a desperate condition, and it just about turned your stomach? I have. On my way back from Cleveland on Wednesday, I made a pit stop to get something to drink. As I walked through a fast food restaurant, my stomach turned, but it wasn't because of the nature of the establishment's food. It was because I saw a boy...about 4 years old...and he was doing some major league sobbing. His eyes were huge and like those of a puppy dog, glazed with the continually presence of tears. He was heaving breaths and constantly wiping his nose. He was looking around, as if he was searching for someone. And...the restaurant was empty.

I went into the restroom thinking this boy's mother or father would be comforting him when I emerged, but I was wrong. He was still alone. My stomach turned all the more, my fatherly instinct kicked in, and I went to him and asked if he was okay. He nodded through tears. I asked if his mom or dad was close by, and he pointed behind the counter. Whew! The knots finally left...and so did I.

However, when I saw that boy, he looked harassed and helpless. Certainly my compassion toward this crying boy's temporal difficulty is not the same as the Savior's compassion toward the crowd's eternal condition, but I think I felt something of it. As Jesus looked at this crowd, their condition created a pit in his stomach. He saw the sheep without a shepherd, and he had compassion.

Here's where my thoughts have lingered. What Jesus saw led to how Jesus felt, and how Jesus felt led to what Jesus did. The rest of verse 34 says, "And he began to teach them many things." The pit in Jesus' stomach did not immediately lead Him to fill their stomachs. The overwhelming grumble He heard was not their empty stomachs but their empty souls, so He taught them. What did He teach them? Well, we don't have everything He said here in this text, but Luke does hint, in his parallel, that Jesus spoke to them about the kingdom of God (Lk. 9:11). So, though we don't have a transcript of the sermon, we do know the flavor of Jesus' teaching, in general: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel" (Mk. 1:14-15).

This was the meal they needed. Though they would receive bread (and that in a miraculous way), they must understand that man doesn't live merely by bread he puts in his own mouth but by the words that come from God's mouth (Deut. 8:3). The feeding and satisfying of this massive crowd reminds us that the real feeding...and the real satisfaction...comes from the message of Jesus. As with any other miracle, its purpose is to put a divine stamp of verification on the message being preached.

So, what Jesus saw was a flock of lost, hopeless, helpless sheep. What Jesus felt was a gut-wrenching compassion for the sheep. What Jesus did was feed the sheep...He led them to the green pastures of the gospel so their souls would be filled, and then His status as the source of life was verified as the bread and fish were miraculously distributed. Let us ask God for the grace to see what Jesus saw, feel what Jesus felt, and do what Jesus did!

Monday, May 03, 2010

Forgettable or Famous?

[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church entitled "Learning from Jesus' Interns". Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

In Mark 6, Jesus sends out His apostles two by two to preach in many villages. This mission is not a break in the work He had been doing to that point. In fact, the sending of these men is an extension of His ministry. His words became their words...His works became their works...His authority became their authority.

This is how faithful ministry continues today. Our words must be God's words. The work we do must be the work He has given us to do. Any display of supernatural power in our ministries must find its source in the One who taught us, "Apart from Me, you can do nothing" (Jn. 15:5). Our faithfulness does not guarantee mass acceptance of the gospel, but one thing is certain...if we are not faithful to the gospel, then the danger is that men and women may accept a gospel which is no gospel at all (Gal. 1:6-7).

Thinking about these men as they went out to preach, three words come to mind: ordinary, unlikely, and forgettable. In choosing these men to be his twelve, Jesus certain chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise (1 Cor. 1:27). It is the third of these words (i.e.- forgettable) that has stuck in my mind this week. The list of apostles in 3:12-19 contains names that, apart from lists such as these, are almost completely forgotten.

The reason this sticks with me is that we live in a culture of fame. The line of thought seems to be that if we are going to do anything of lasting value for the kingdom of God, then it will surely draw the eye of many people. Being forgottable is unacceptable. The problem with this is that most of God's servants are in forgettable locations with forgettable has been this way throughout history. Of course, God sees and knows these faith men and women, and He will surely reward them. However, they are forgettable in a celebrity-driven culture...they aren't on Christian radio, in Christian magazines, or widely published.

Now, before you hit the 'comment' button and begin writing about your favorite radio pastor or Christian author, keep reading. I do think that God graciously exalts certain men and women in order to encourage and evangelize a wider audience. I have been greatly helped by several men whose ministries have been blessed in this way. However, it is deceiving to think that this is normal or, even worse, that fame is any real way of measuring success.

Even while we read the New Testament, we must be reminded that while God had certain men who were known far and wide (e.g.- Paul, Peter, Barnabas, etc.), most of those who were part of these first churches were people whose names are unknown to us. Here's a name you may or may not know...Tertius. Does that sound familiar? I have to be honest, it's a name I have forgotten more than once in my life. Yet, this man was used by God in an amazing way. He's forgettable, but the echo of his work still impacts us today. How so? Romans 16:22 indicates that he was Paul's scribe, taking down the letter to the Romans...yes, Romans! You may never have known his name, but you didn't need to in order for his work to be significant.

The normal way that God's work is done is through forgettable people in local churches. That's the plain and simple truth, and since this is God's primary way of achieving His purposes, then we must be content to do His will in His way. We will most likely never be famous...our pastors will most likely never be on the radio, on TV, or published. We won't be famous, but we must be faithful.