Monday, June 28, 2010

Eating and Drinking to God's Glory

[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church, titled "A Glimpse of Jesus' Glory." Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

In Mark 9, we read of Jesus' transfiguration before Peter, James, and John. In this moment of revelation, three disciples get to see the kingly splendor...the majesty...the glory of Jesus. This is unlike the glory that one might associate with an earthly king, for it is the glory that Jesus shared with the father since before the world existed (John 17:5). This was not an internal revelation, but it was was visible. Jesus' clothes were radiant and brighter than anyone on earth could bleach them. His countenance changed, and his face shone like the sun.

In the Old Testament, God's glory often took the physical form of light. Even the word 'cloud,' often associated with God's glory, does not infer that it was dark where God's glory rested. Consider the following passages about the glory of God:

Ezekiel 10:4 - "And the glory of the Lord went up from the cherub to the threshold of the house, and the house was filled with the cloud, and the court was filled with the brightness of the glory of the Lord." (i.e.- the cloud was bright)
Exodus 14:19-20 - "Then the angel of God who was going before the host of Israel moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them, coming between the host of Egypt and the host of Israel. And there was the cloud and the darkness. And it lit up the night without one coming near the other all night." (Notice that to the enemies of God, the cloud was dark, but also, 'it lit up the night')
Other passages - Exodus 40:34-38 (the glory of God in a could resting on the tabernacle and guiding the children of Israel); 1 Kings 8:10-11 (the glory of God in a cloud filling the temple); Ezekiel 1:27-28 (the glory of God is bright like a rainbow in the clouds)

So, the glory of God is often displayed visibly in the Scripture. Let me remind you of John Piper's helpful definition of glory: "God's glory is the beauty of his manifold perfections. It can refer to the bright and awesome radiance that sometimes breaks forth in visible manifestations. Or it can refer to the infinite moral excellence of his character. In either case it signifies a reality of infinite greatness and worth" (Desiring God, p. 43). This last sentence is helpful, as we think of God's glory as the "reality of [His] infinite greatness and worth."

If this is true, then how does one do things to the glory of God? We are told in 1 Corinthians 10:31 - "So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God." How does one eat and drink in a way that honors and rejoices in the "infinite greatness and worth" of God? Answering that question will help set a pattern for "whatever [we] do." I think that Piper is helpful again in answering this question, so I want to summarize his thoughts in a chapter from Pierced by the Word called "How to Drink Orange Juice to the Glory of God."

1) Use eating and drinking as an occasion for sincere thanksgiving to God. 1 Timothy 4:4-5 reads, "For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer." The Word of God makes the receiving of food and drink a holy event because it reminds us that all that we have has been received by God (1 Corinthians 4:7). In response to that truth, we offer prayer from the heart, expressing our thanks to the God who has provided what we receive.

2) Eat and drink lovingly. This can be done in the attitude with which we approach our eating and drinking. If we push our way to the front of a serving line or take the largest portion of food for ourselves, then we are being sinfully selfish in our approach to eating or drinking. Even if we are very hungry, we are letting our physical craving push aside the spiritual act of considering others as more important than ourselves (Phil. 2:3). However, if our interest is to serve others and make sure they have what they need, then we display God's glorious transformation of a selfish heart into one that desires to serve others. Piper points out Paul's words 1 Corinthians 10:33-11:1, which read "...just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ." Then, Piper writes, "Everything we do - even drinking orange juice - can be done with the intention and hope that it will be to the advantage of many that they may be saved" (p. 29-30).

I think I would add a third thing to this list. 3) Eat and drink as good stewards. By this, I mean that in addition to food and drink being gifts, the very life and bodies which are sustained by the food and drink are gifts. So, as we intake food and drink, we should be thoughtful stewards of the bodies God has given us. I write this for my own benefit as much as for anyone else, but it seems that care for the body is something many overlook, as if it's not a spiritual pursuit. Now, I am not suggesting that we should pursue the world's image of identical, seemingly-anorexic bodies. However, I do believe that we should be exerting self-control and discipline in our eating and drinking. We want to serve the Lord to the best of our abilities for as many days as He grants us, and while many factors related to health are out of our control, this one is not. Being good stewards in this regard is a way in which we might "glorify God in [our bodies]" (1 Corinthians 6:20).

May we all take stock of how we walk through our daily lives. The glory of God is not something that is only to be considered when planning a Bible study, approaching an unsaved family member, or praying for missionaries. It is something for which all believers must be concerned on a daily basis. Are we concerned to eat and drink and do everything to the glory of God? If not, we must repent and ask the Lord for the strength to obey this lofty command. If we will make this our pursuit, then God's initinie greatness and worth will be visible in our lives, and we will "shine as lights in the world" (Phil. 2:15b).

Monday, June 21, 2010

A Well-Recieved Message about Denial and Death?

[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church. The title is "Jesus Defines Discipleship", and you can get the audio by clicking on the title.]

One of the great benefits of preaching, teaching, or studying your way through a book of the Bible is that you get to deal with every passage in that book. One of the challenges of this same approach is that you have to deal with every passage in that book. There is no skipping things that are difficult to comprehend or communicate...instead, you must wrestle with them. The "hard sayings of the Bible," as they are often called, cannot be avoided.

Let's face it...every preacher wants his message to be well-received week by week. A pastor may adamantly proclaim, "I don't care what anybody thinks, I preach the Bible straightforward and tell it like it is." However, the truth behind this bold exterior is that he wants his congregation to like that he doesn't care what anyone thinks and 'tells it like it is.' On the opposite end of the spectrum, the same desire to be well-received may drive a pastor to water down what he says or avoid passages that may be too counter-cultural.

In Mark 8:34-38, we come to a counter-cultural passage...a 'hard saying of the Bible' as Jesus says that His disciples will be marked by denial, death, and devotion. They will deny themselves, renouncing allegiance to themselves and being fully loyal to the will and work of Jesus Christ instead. They will take up their cross, accepting the rejection and suffering that Jesus would experience...even to the point of death. They will follow Jesus, meaning His gospel message will be their gospel message, His ethical teachings will guide them in making decisions, and His life will exemplify to them what it means to glorify God in this world. Jesus' disciples will deny, die, and be devoted...that's counter-cultural. That stands contrary to much of what is taught in the evangelical church today.

Sadly, a call to these difficult things from a pulpit in the United States makes a church unique. So, what is the temptation for the pastor who wants his message to be well-received? Well, for our previously mentioned "bold pastor", the temptation is to hammer away at the text in a way that can come across as harsh and uncaring. For our other pastor friend, he may speak about denial and death and devotion, but he may speak in a way that changes the meaning of Jesus' teaching that denial isn't really self-renouncing, and death isn't really painful.

Now, you must know that I am not immune from these temptations. How does one battle against this? Well, I think the best strategy is to change one's perspective in two ways. First, it is not a bad desire for one to want his message well-received. If one is preaching the gospel, then the reception of that message means salvation for the lost and the edification of the saints. A pastor who is apathetic as to whether that message is well-received by his hearers in this way should examine whether he should be preaching at all! This would be like a shepherd working hard to lead his sheep to green pastures and then not caring if they ate...even though not eating would mean malnutrition and death. Would such a shepherd be considered one who actually cares for his sheep? No. Likewise, no pastor should be uncaring about whether people actually eat from the green pasture of the gospel each week.

Second, when many of us talk about our message being well-received, we are usually talking about people's approval of what has been communicated. A preacher typically wants to know that his content was biblical, that his words were clear, that the message was powerful, or...if we dig deep enough into the inner recesses of the preacher's heart...that people just liked the message and like him a little more as a result. Here, we see the desire to please others and be applauded...yet, "if I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ" (Galatians 1:10).

Now, before I suggest a shift in our perspective, I want to make sure I'm balanced in what is said. Every preacher needs to be growing in his call and gift...I know the one writing this blog does. This often takes the honest, gracious, sometimes difficult feedback of trusted counselors. Within the last 12 months, I was exposed to a counterproductive aspect of my preaching ministry. I went back and listened for myself, and I asked others for insight. Through this difficult and humiliating process, the Lord convicted me deeply. I wept as I thought about how my deficiency could have been a stumbling block to those listening to the gospel. As a result, and by God's grace, I believe I have experienced growth in this area and will continue to do so. This is not the only place where I need to grow as a preacher, but it's a tangible illustration of how pastors sometimes need input from others to grow.

With that in mind, I'll continue. A preacher may want his message to be be acceptable. Yet, the perspective that needs to change comes in answering this question: To whom do we want our message acceptable? The answer must be that we want our message to be acceptable to God, for ultimately, it is an act of worship to preach the Word of God to the people of God in the presence of God. We do not just sing and pray and give in response to who God is and what He has done. We preach in response to who God is and what He has done. Our hearts overflow with musical praise, prayerful praise, financial offerings of praise, and with sermons that exalt our God and His Son, Jesus Christ. As much as we want our music to be acceptable to God and our attitude in giving acceptable to God, we want our preaching to be acceptable to God.

So, the pastor must always want his message to be well-received. For the men and women listening week by week, he must long for the message to be received as the the Word of the authority that must change and shape the lives of God's people. As an act of worship, he must long for his message to be well-received by a fragrant offering. It is not wrong to verbally encourage a pastor in his work, but the greatest encouragement a pastor can have is to see his congregation walking according to the teaching of the Scripture. "I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth." (3 John 4)

Monday, June 14, 2010

On the Path of Progressive Growth

[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church, entitled "Turning Toward the Cross". Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

In Mark 8:22-33, we see progression in the work of God. In the encounter with the blind man (v. 22-26), we see that Jesus progressively heals him, laying hands on him twice. Then, we see that this healing was like a visible parable as the passage continues. The blind disciples have their eyes open to see that Jesus is the Christ (v. 29), but they do not understand what it means for Jesus to be the Christ. This is evidenced in Peter's rebuke of Christ in v. 32.

Once Jesus touched the blind man's eyes, he could see...but he could not see things as they really were (men looked like trees walking). Once the Father revealed Jesus' identity to the disciples (v. 29; Mt. 16:17), they could see...but they could not see Jesus as He really was. Their spiritual sight still needed another touch. So, Jesus continues to teach them what it means for Him to be the Christ, and the disciples continue to be fuzzy on the whole issue (9:30-32; 10:33-37). It will become clear to them, but not until after the resurrection.

Gradual progression in spiritual growth for the Christian is the normal pattern. When one is saved by God, he/she is not immediately transformed into a perfectly mature believer. Do not misunderstand. That person is a new creature in Christ; the old has gone, and the new has come. That person is completely justified...declared 'not guilty'...counted as righteous before God. However, from the moment of the new birth, this new creature is to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus (2 Peter 3:18). At the moment of conversion, God changes our identity because He makes us His child. The old self is crucified with Christ (Rom. 6:6), and God says, 'This is who you are now.' From that moment, spiritual growth means becoming, in reality, what we have been declared positionally. The message of this growth is: 'Be who you are.'

In 2 Corinthians 3, we see this idea pictured. Paul talks about our conversion as a moment in which the veil of unbelief is lifted (v. 14-16). Yet, even though the veil has been removed, and we 'behold [or reflect] the glory of the Lord,' we still grow. In Paul's words, 'we...are being transformed from one degree of glory to another' (v. 18). As we grow in our understanding of the gospel and of its implications for our lives, we are transformed.

Also, it's interesting that Paul saw his own life as a process. In Philippians 3:12-14, we see the great apostle saying that he has not achieved the fullness of knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection (v. 10). He is still pressing on to it, and he makes it his singular goal in life to achieve it. In 1 Corinthians 9:27, Paul makes an incredible statement that reveals this same self-understanding. He says that he disciplines himself, so that after preaching to others, he himself will not be disqualified. This is not a man who questions the person and work of Christ, as you know from all his other writings. This is a man who takes seriously the idea that God's work in him and through Him is progressive, and he takes seriously the call to persevere in pursuing his own holiness.

Seeing this in Paul, it's not surprising that he would urge the Philippian believers to ' out your salvation with fear and trembling' (Phil. 2:12b). He urges them to do it because he himself is doing it. He's not looking down on them as inferior; he's inviting them to join him on the journey of spiritual growth. Then, in chapter 3, he tells them of his own striving toward growth (as we've already seen), and he says 'join in imitating me' (3:17). Why? Not because Paul has already attained perfection but because Paul is on the God-ordained path of progressive spiritual growth, which will lead to 'attain[ing] the resurrection of the dead' (3:11).

We may take three steps forward and two steps back, but we must never stop pressing on "toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:14). We must persevere in this important task...working out our salvation with fear and trembling. We must put to death the deeds of the body by the power of the Spirit (Rom. 8:13). We must grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord. We must be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2). We must "take every thought captive to obey Christ" (2 Cor. 10:5). We are to discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness (1 Tim. 4:7). All of this is essential, and all of it happens over time, as we grow progressively in our walk with Christ.

The last question, then, is how can we do this? Where do we find the power for such a strenuous, lifelong, sporadic, sometimes-stagnant marathon of Christian growth? Let's listen to the words of Paul once again. How is it that we "are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another" (2 Cor. 3:18)? He finishes the verse with the answer: "For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit." How is it that we can "work out our salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil 2:12)? The next verse answers: "for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure."

The answer is that the power to accomplish God's purpose of spiritual growth comes from God himself. In sending His Spirit to give us eternal life, He has obligated Himself to us as His children. He did not have to, but He has graciously made us His own, and because we are His, He is committed to glorifying Himself in and through our lives. Since God is committed to our becoming like Christ (Rom. 8:28-29), then He will complete the work He began at our conversion to do so (Phil. 1:6).

The truth is this: God is more committed to our spiritual growth than we are! His glory is at stake in those He calls His own. If He has promised to make us like Christ and then He fails to do so, His character is compromised. He would not be glorified as He should, and one thing we can be sure of...God is committed to His glory. He said, "I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols" (Is. 42:8). Because of this, we are greatly motivated and encouraged to press on and to work out our salvation and to grow.

I'll close by answering this question: If God is committed to my spiritual growth, and He will accomplish it, then why are there so many days when I feel stagnant or like I'm even going in reverse? Why does my growth often progress at a snail's pace? I want to suggest that even these experiences in spiritual growth are meant for your spiritual growth. Imagine if the opposite were never felt stagnant, you never went backward, and you could completely control the rate of your maturing. Seems ideal, doesn't it? Where's the danger in that? Here's the can lead to pride and self-reliance. Humility and dependence are essential to the Christian life, so it makes sense that God would work to produce these fruits in our lives.

There is something good about wanting to grow quickly because it means that, at the very least, we want to grow! However, when we don't and when our lives feels stagnant or slow-growing, let's pray that God will use those times to instill in us a greater sense of humility and dependence on Him. For while we may work hard in cultivating the field of our own souls, "only the growth" (1 Cor. 3:7).

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Talking to the Deaf, Raising the Dead, and Evangelism

[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church entitled "Jesus Cares for Dogs and Deaf Men". Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

As I continue to think more about the deaf man in Mark 7, I cannot help but think more about the power of God in evangelism. I know that, at first glance, these two things may not seem to be connected in any way, but let's meditate on it a bit, shall we? Remember, this man was brought to Jesus by the crowd in the Decapolis. Jesus put His fingers in the man's ears, spit on the man's tongue, looked to heaven with a prayerful sigh, and then spoke one Aramaic word, "Ephphratha," which means "Be opened."

It is quite wonderful that Jesus did all these visible things that the man could see. He did these so the man would know who healed him (i.e.- Jesus) and the power that healed him (i.e.- God's power). Yet...did you notice something strange? Jesus spoke. That's not unusual in the way Jesus works, but it is still striking. Maybe it strikes me more here because Jesus is speaking to a man who can't hear Him, and He's telling this man to hear. He may as well write a postcard to a blind man explaining that he should see. It's reminiscent of Jesus looking toward a tomb and speaking the words "Lazarus come forth" to a dead man, isn't it?

Imagine you're stopped at a red light in front of a cemetery. You glance in and see a man in a suit standing among the tombstones. He is behind a pulpit with an open Bible in front of him. From what you can see, it seems the preacher is pouring his heart out as he preaches. You wonder what he is saying, so you roll your window down a bit. That's when you really feel shocked because he's saying, "Get up! Get out of the ground! Come to life!"

My friend, this is what evangelism is. It is crying out "Come forth" to the tombs of those who are dead in their trespasses and sins. Of course, those who are dead in their trespasses and sins don't often feel dead. They feel quite alive (thank you very much) and feel they don't need to hear this call to come to life. In fact, it's offensive that anyone would speak as if they were, in fact, dead. Truly, the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing (1 Corinthians 1:18). It's as foolish as talking to a deaf man and expecting him to hear you.

Yet, this is exactly what we see Jesus doing here, and it's exactly what He has left for us to do in the Great Commission. It is through the act of speaking words that the great gospel of God is carried to the world. God spoke in Genesis 1 and created everything out of nothing, and He is still speaking today through the lips of His people proclaiming the gospel, and He is making new creations out of dead men.

Peter explains how Jesus did all His work in Acts 10. He says that power and the Holy Spirit marked the ministry of Jesus during His life, especially as "He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him" (Acts 10:38b). What we see in the interaction with the deaf man is evidence of what Peter was saying. Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit and power, and in the Great Commission, Jesus invites us to carry on His mission, receiving power from the Holy Spirit to do the work (Acts 1:8).

The mission Jesus hands to us is a word mission. We are to use words to call the dead to life! The gospel says that a man is dead, and if he is to be saved, he must come to life! As Jesus told Nicodemus so we tell the world, "You must be born again!" (John 3:7). The problem is...dead people don't just come to life of their own accord. They must be acted on by something outside themselves...more specifically, Someone outside themselves. The Author of life, God, must grant life if anyone is to have it.

Whew!, many think, if God does it all, then I can just sit back and see when and where He'll do it. The pressure's off! This is a familiar excuse for evangelistic laziness (one that I subscribed to at one time in my life), and yet it is a wrong understanding of how God works. You see, God has not ordained that people will be granted spiritual life in a wordless vacuum. Their lives must actually intersect with the gospel. The words of the gospel must fall on the ears of the unbelieving man or woman, or that person will not believe, call on the Lord, and be saved (Romans 10:13-17).

We who have a high view of God's sovereignty in salvation must not lose sight of this truth, and therefore, we must not lose the drive to share the gospel and call men to repent and believe! By God's strength and Spirit, may we faithfully call the dead to life through the gospel, and by His grace, may we see the dirt on many soul's graves stirred by the power of God in the work of His Holy Spirit.