Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Last Day and a Vision of Destiny

I was reading Revelation 22 on this last day of the year 2009. What an extraordinary chapter this is! One must read Revelation 22 with Genesis 3. All that was lost in Genesis 3 in the sin of the human race is regained in Revelation 22 in and through Christ. The curse is taken away ("There will no longer be any curse", verse 3), and people have, in this glorious eschatological destiny, access to the tree of life (verse 2), which access was lost in Genesis 3. As I read with relish each and every verse in this chapter, my heart's yearning for the future grew and grew until I thought my soul would burst open with joy. I cried out with John, "Amen. Come, Lord Jesus." Come, beautiful bridegroom of my heart; come and take Thy royal throne. Come, and before You our knees bow and our tongues confess Your glory and kingdom.

There is much about which to be concerned as we journey timidly (and perhaps frightfully) into a new year. But Christians rejoice to know that there is much that has not changed. God is still on the throne, and nothing happens to us except what God has wisely and lovingly decreed for our good. Also, our precious Lord will not abandon us, but He will accompany us in every trial and in every struggle. Our journey is His journey, and we journey together with God, hand in hand. And finally, God will by His sovereign grace, love, and power bring us this year toward home to heaven where we will joyfully share in His glory. Our destiny is assured and worthy of all we can give to it.

So, Christian friend, let us give of all we are and have for Him in this new year. May this year witness God's faithfulness to His own promise to His own people. "The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen (Revelation 22:21)."

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Beginnings, Endings and the New Year

The end of one year and the beginning of another is emblematic of life itself. Life is a series of beginnings and endings, of starting and finishing. But the Christian hope is linked to the great ending of all. And for the Christian this ending is the true beginning of something that will never end. In Revelation 21:1-4 states, "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, make ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.' "

Every completion of something in the time-space dimension is a reflection of the fleetingness of life. Life is transient at best. James said it was like a vapor that soon passes away (James 4:14). Ultimately no man (except Jesus) leaves a footprint, carbon or otherwise, on the face of history. We live, love, work, plan, grow, fail, and struggle until the end. Paul said that if only in this life the Christian had hope, then Christians are an extraordinarily pathetic people, and they should be pitied by all (1 Corinthians 15:19). The Christian's life is beyond the ravages of time and the vicissitudes of life. Our joy is beyond the grave, and the reflections of joy we share here pale in comparison to what is coming. It is the Father's good pleasure to share His kingdom with His children, and the children will giggle in divine glory beyond the distant ethereal sunset.

In the Book of Revelation the old apostle John, who had seen so much in his life (good and bad), was now waiting for the upward call to go home. Exiled on the penal island of Patmos he had a remarkable vision of Jesus. Jesus came to the sweet John and reminded the elderly, weakening apostle that Jesus was the alpha, the omega, the almighty God. Jesus was once dead, but now He is alive forevermore. He is the King of Life, and in His sovereign hands are the keys of the greatest enemies of all: death and Hades. For John that was the greatest news of all. John's aging eyes saw the end of that which will pass, and he saw the beginning of that which is to come. All of God's people, joyfully adorned as a bride for her husband, described also as a new city, will rejoice in the new heavens and new earth. And God, with tender mercy and intimacy, will touch their cheeks to wipe away every tear with His merciful finger. Those tears, salty with pain, sorrow, and agony of heart and body, are precious to our God. And He loves us enough to wipe these tears away Himself.

At the end of things there are often tears, but sometimes there are tears at the beginning of things. But the end of mortality and the beginning of immortality will be cause for the greatest wiping away of tears of all time. This awesome promise, this dynamic anticipation will make all worth while. So, finish your year, Christian friend, and begin with the joyful knowledge that you are in God's sovereign and good hands. And remember, "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, or entered the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love Him (1 Corinthians 2:9)."

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Scriptures and the New Year

I always become nostalgic, a bit sentimental, and do a whole lot of self-analysis as the end of the year approaches. As I near the beginning of a new year, I smell the fresh air of beginning over, and a newly minted vision is manufactured in my heart. All sorts of questions abound at a time like that: What will last? For what is worth giving my life? What is valuable in this life?

Pondering these type of thoughts, my meditations drift back to the preciousness of and the majesty in the divinely revealed Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. God has spoken! He has spoken in language, and as such, He has spoken perspicuously, authoritatively, sufficiently and with the energy of life. No wonder David wrote, "The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul (Psalm 19:7)." Again he would write, "Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day (Psalm 119:97)." Paul charged Timothy to "Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season (2 Timothy 4:2)." Jesus quoted the Scriptures to Satan when the evil one tempted the Master. Jesus gave the Scriptures the highest place of value and worth when He said, "Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4)." Paul urged Christians to take up the Word of God like a sword to fight off the evil one (Ephesians 6:17).

Thomas Cranmer extolled the Scripture when he said, "For the Scripture of God is the heavenly meat of our souls: the hearing and keeping of it makes us blessed, sanctifies us, and makes us holy: it turns our souls; it is a light to our feet: it is a sure, steadfast and everlasting instrument of salvation: it gives wisdom to the humble and lowly-hearted: it comforts, makes glad, cheers, and cherishes our consciences ("The First Part of the Exhortation to the Reading of Holy Scripture" found in "Certain Sermons or Homilies", 1864, p. 3)." God has not only spoken His mind and heart in the Scriptures, but God has also so empowered them as to accomplish His will in human hearts. Jesus spoke of the sanctification of His people when He said, "Sanctify them in truth; Your word is truth (John 17:17)." For, as Hebrews 4:12 states, "The Word of God is living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart." John Calvin said, "God is true, not only because He is prepared to stand faithfully to His promises, but because He also really fulfills whatever He declares; for He so speaks, that His command becomes a reality ("Commentary upon the Epistle of Saint Paul to the Romans")." God's Word understood, affirmed, and believed is part of the divine power that causes the sinner to be born again (1 Peter 1:23), and it the Word of God that will cause us to grow in faith and grace throughout our lives. Paul declared, "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing the Word of God (Romans 10:17)."

As we approach a new year, let us recommit ourselves to the God of the Word by being committed to the Word of God. Let's pursue the Word of God with a holy passion, an authentic hunger, and a deep desire to glorify God in the understanding and application of His Word. May we who are preachers refresh out commitment to preaching exegetically and systematically the Word of the Lord, and may every Christian plan to regularly and meaningfully read and obey the Word of God. For God's Word will never pass away. The Psalmist wrote, "Forever, O Lord, your word is firmly fixed in heavens (Psalm 119:89)."

Monday, December 28, 2009

A Divine Promise for the New Year

Reading in my private devotions today, I was reminded of the beautiful and tenderly scripted passage in Hebrews 13:5-6, "I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you, so that we can confidently say, 'The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?' " This statement in found in the context of the exhortation to extricate ourselves from the love of money. The real issue here is "security." Security is not found in money, power, prestige, or one's station in life. Security has always been, and forever will remain, an issue related to one's relationship to God. The Christian has the greatest of confidences, because the Christian has the Lord. I think this is the essential meaning of point in Hebrews 13. The writer reminds us that we need not fear because we belong to God. I hear in the Bible passage the clear and distinct ringing of divine providence applied by divine wisdom and love. Nothing can touch the Christian except what passes through the hands of the Christian's all-powerful God. Nothing occurs to the Christian except what God, in His all-wise providence, determines is best for the Christian. In addition, God will never withhold from the Christian all that would be desirable, beautiful, and favorable for the Christian in this life and in eternity. Psalm 84:11 states this truth emphatically.

But, though God gives many good and perfect gifts to the Christian (James 1:17), there is something more tender, personal, and intimate that gives the Christian hope and comfort. Hebrews 13:5 says that God Himself will never desert or forsake us! There are five negatives utilized in the Greek to EMPHASIZE the fact that God will never, ever, without question or doubt, desert or forsake us. The Christian must say, "I have God; what else do I need?" "What else" indeed! If one has the Lord, then one has all. As John Wesley once wrote, "One who has no money is poor, but one who has nothing but money is poorer still."

May this confidence of heart, which is God's gift to you in Christ, be your comfort this day and in the new year. Christian friend, God will never cast you out, never throw you over, and He will never walk away from you. Though none of us know what the future will bring, we do know that God will never forsake us at any step in the journey to the glorious celestial city. Hallelujah!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Life Reflections at the End of the Year

Soon 2009 will be but a memory and become a part of the mosaic of the past. It always seems strange to me when a year passes out of my present radar of experience. Where do years go? What happens to the time that was the year past? Alas, I digress from my original intent.

As I finish a year and begin a new year, I have many wonderful Christian truths that serve as an anchor for my soul and the solace of my heart. Of these, three great mountains of truth rise to bear witness to me and to comfort me in my moments of anxious distress and uncertainty.

First, there is the great veracity and liveliness of the holy Scriptures. I have never found the Scriptures lacking in any substance of value. They are absolutely true, and they are the means by which we come to know saving truth and enter into that truth in a personal way. The Scriptures teach us of the nature and decrees of God, and the Scriptures guide our feet into the paths of holiness and Christian discipleship. Many times the Scriptures have been the balm of Gilead to my hurting soul. Many times my aching and weary heart has been renewed by the fresh wind of the Holy Spirit blowing through the canyons of Scripture.

Second, the hurts and pains of the Christian's life are but a reflection of the great cosmic struggle between Satan and God. Satan would attack Christians because Christians are God's beloved people. It is very encouraging to know on which side of this struggle we are. Christians bear the mark of Christ, and they may even bear the marks of persecution for Christ. Ours may be a journey that is rife with disappointment and sorrow, but in all of life's vicissitudes we overwhelmingly conquer in and through Christ, because we belong to Christ. Christians rejoice in the Lord and in the glory of the Lord. We do so because we are His.

Third, the providence of God is my most beloved comfort of all. There is no greater help to the hurting Christian than the sovereign providence of God. The sovereignty of God is absolute, and He asserts His sovereign power to watch over His own people. Even Satan must bow before the sovereign God of heaven and earth. Even in the darkest of days, when Satan seems to do his worst, God is able with wisdom and grace to weave patterns of glory with threads that sparkle with His love. The Christian can and must trust God fully, and they will breathe the air of hope. And biblical hope never disappoints.

The power and life of the Scriptures, the loving and victorious relationship with God, and the sovereign providence of God are the three pillars upon which the weakest Christian can lean with certainty and assurance. As we face the new year, let every child of God rejoice in the knowledge that the darkness of the unknown is brightened by the promise of God for His people. Thanks be unto God!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas from Bethlehem's Manger

Each Christmas I imagine what it was like to be in Bethlehem on that day when Jesus was born. I stand a short distance away and watch as the shepherds excitedly run to the stable and breathlessly look upon the scene before them. The undiscerning observer would have seen a humble, poor family unfortunate enough to arrive too late to get a room in Bethlehem. But to the shepherds who had received a crash course given by angels in Christology the scene was filled with glory and amazement. The shepherds, after a pause to gaze intently upon the face of the Christ child, joyfully explain what the angel had said to them not far away in a simple field outside of Bethlehem.

I wait patiently until the shepherds leave with their news of the new born Savior, then I humbly approach the stable. Timid to barge in unannounced, I wait until Joseph sees me. Then, with a knowing heart, he nods his approval, and I slowly step into the faint light of that little scene. Mary is tucking baby Jesus with a small wrapping, as she has done many times that night to make sure he is snug and warm. Then she lifts her eyes to me, and sweetly smiles. I shuffle closer to the manger, and look down into the face of the Son of God in human flesh. Suddenly every Christmas carol I ever heard bursts into song. Every Scripture verse on the incarnation I know explodes with fresh meaning and inspiration in my heart. I look at the lips of Jesus and think of how He spoke His Word into existence. I gaze upon His hands and think of the power that flung galaxies into space. I look into His eyes, and I see glory; the glory of God in the highest of heaven. And trembling with delight and awe I speak to Him. Out of my heart flows effervescent praise and joy. "Glory to God in the highest; Immanuel has come! All is well; God's redemptive plan is alive and assured. One day there will be a cross; one day there will be a resurrection, and one day the world will be filled with the knowledge of God. All because of this very night."

Soon I sense it is time to go. It is time to go back to pressure, stress, commitments and duties, dreams and challenges. It is time to go back to the job of living. But how can I ever see a sunrise or a sunset without thinking of the glory of God? How can I ever preach a sermon without thinking of the power of the Bethlehem's moment of glory? The world is still filled with problems, complications, bloodshed, sickness, and death. But hope is born in Bethlehem, and all is well. I can never be a pessimist again. Tomorrow will be a beautiful day!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Faithfulness

I have preached on the incarnation of Jesus Christ for many, many years. I never tire of thinking about the miraculous, majestic, magnificent meaning of the Son of God becoming man resulting in our salvation. The rich depth and cavernous truth contained in this biblical and doctrinal truth concerning the incarnation of Christ is overwhelming and enriching. How can any thinking Christian get bored with this story and message?

One of my very favorite parts of the incarnation of Jesus Christ is how the promise of Jesus' birth, the birth of Jesus itself, and the surrounding contextual narrative of the nativity manifests gloriously the faithfulness of God. The coming of Jesus Christ to earth proves once again that God is faithful, and He can (and ought to be) trusted as the dependable and trustworthy God. God's faithfulness is found everywhere in the biblical narrative concerning the promise and birth of Christ. Some messianic and divine promises fulfilled in Christ's birth include the following: God said in Micah that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (and it was so). Matthew explains that the birth of Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah that a virgin would conceive and bear a son, and His name would be called "Immanuel - God with us." The Magi coming from the east fulfilled the Old Testament promise that the Gentiles would come to Christ's light. Even Simeon's experience with the Christ-child eight days after Jesus was born, was a fulfillment of the promise God made to Simeon, indicating that Simeon would not die until he saw the Christ of God. That promise was fulfilled.

As we think about the faithfulness of God in the incarnation of Christ, let us ponder the following thoughts that seem to be profoundly imbedded in this incarnational truth:
1. God is by nature faithful, thus He is absolutely and immutably faithful to every promise He makes. He cannot be unfaithful.
2. God's faithful promises center in the person and saving work of Christ.
3. God's promises are intended for His covenant people; we can depend upon God undeniably.
4. Just as God's promises were fulfilled in Christ's first coming, so God's promises will be fulfilled in the second coming of Christ.
5. Redemption itself is anchored in the faithfulness of God to save His people in Christ.
6. God's promises are fulfilled in history in the remarkable experiences of God's people.
7. As Christians journey on to the celestial city, they should look to the faithful God who promises faithfully to faithfully care for them and fulfill their deepest hopes for divine glory. Heaven itself is colored with divine faithfulness.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Christmas' Consolation

Every year at Christmas I am freshly struck by the awesomeness of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. I enjoy preaching a series of Christmas sermons on the nature and meaning of the incarnation each and every year. And I never fail to find wonderfully fresh meaning from the biblical text outlining the powerful message of God becoming flesh and dwelling among us.

I was reading through Luke chapter 2 when I was gripped by verse 25 and a word contained therein. The passage deals with Simeon. Simeon had received a message from God that stated that he would not die until he had seen the Lord's Christ (verse 26). In verse 25 the Scripture describes Simeon's life as one of "waiting for the consolation of Israel." What a remarkable implication is given here concerning the meaning and impact of the life and work of the Messiah, Jesus Christ! Simeon was waiting for the Messiah, by whom would come the consolation of Israel. The Greek word for "consolation" is akin to the word used for the Holy Spirit ("comforter") in John's Gospel. It includes the ideas of peace, serenity, comfort, blessedness, and favor. Later, in verses 29-30 Simeon prayed to God having seen and recognized Jesus as the Messiah, "Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace...for my eyes have seen your salvation." Jesus Christ is our salvation, our consolation.

Jesus Christ is called by the Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 1:1 "our hope." The world today is talking a great deal about hope. Where lies the hope of the world? What can give the world a sense of joyful expectation of futuristic blessing? The answer lies not in the life or work of a politician, national leader, or human achievement. The hope for the world resides in Jesus Christ alone. In Christ alone our sins are forgiven by virtue of His atoning work on the cross, in Christ alone we are given eternal life, in Christ alone we are rightly related to God, in Christ alone we fulfill our human purpose for which God created us, in Christ alone we will ultimately reside in and enjoy the glory of God forever and ever. Christ alone is the hope for forgiveness, eternal life, justice, and goodness in this world. What a glorious consolation!

As we celebrate the Christ child in the manger this Christmas, let us remember who He really is and what He really means. In Him, in Christ Jesus, is all the hope of mankind. Christ is our CONSOLATION.

Friday, December 18, 2009

America's Syncretistic Christianity

Every biblically grounded, Scripturally informed, and theologically sound Christian pastor knows a very sad secret about American evangelical Christianity: it is eclectic! This is not a new phenomenon, and it has been a challenge for a very long time. Many life-time church going people think they remember a time when "all was well" with the church. They might regale others with anecdotal recollections about "back when I was a kid, church was great!" But the truth is that church in every generation had challenges to face and flaws to mend. One might be surprised to note that by Acts chapter 6 the first church in Jerusalem already had a major problem to fix. This birthed what we think is the ministry of the deacon.
But the problem has developed in the modern era to the point that the church is definitely in danger of losing the gospel of Jesus Christ. Some might suggest that the gospel is already lost, and we don't know it.
Colleen Carroll Campbell said in a recent editorial entitled, "Christmas Wars Begin Within" (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Thursday, 17 December 2009) that the problem of eclecticism in American Christianity has reached critical mass. She states that in a recent survey by the Pew Foundation that 22 percent of those who call themselves Christian believe in reincarnation, 23 percent believe in astrology, 23 percent believe that spiritual energy resides in objects (i.e. trees and crystals), 17 percent believe in the power of casting of spells or curses, 17 percent believe they have been in the presence of ghosts, and 14 percent believe in the veracity of fortune tellers and psychics. These are folks who would claim to believe in Jesus, the Bible, and Christian teaching. You can't get more syncretistic than that!
We are certainly "reaping" what we have "sown" in the churches for many years. One of the biggest problems with Christianity in America for decades surprisingly has been Christian ministry of the pastors, denominations, and churches. The pragmatic theme of "bigger is better, quicker is best" has been the watch word of the American church. Raising money, manufactured conversions, and theological animosity are taking their toll. The new wave of post-modern Christian leadership is not helping, because their call is for the church to be culturally relevant. Today we are told we must change to survive. I agree, but the change we are given by post-modern Christian leadership is to back off our hangups, retool biblical doctrine, and become more culturally sensitive. One gigantic post-modern seeker-friendly church did a survey of its ministry some years ago, and it discovered that the church was not producing disciples of Jesus Christ. For a brief moment I hoped the next statement that the staff and church would make would be something like this, "We realize now that we need to go back to the sufficiency of Scripture and the teaching of the doctrines of the Christian faith as the means of growing disciples." But no, they next stated that they need to take another survey and find out what the culture wanted now. Incredible imbecility! What will the next harvest be? I shuddered to think about it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Negative Christianity - the Latest Trend

Since when did it become cool to be negative to Christians and to Christian thought? No, I am not talking about pagans; I am talking about cool, modern (post-modern!) Christians who demonstrate their loyalty to Christ by being apologists for the worldly culture and polemical enemies of traditional Christianity. There was a time when Christians gave traditional Christian thought the benefit of the doubt (too much benefit of the doubt, probably), but now the trend is to attack everything traditionally Christian in the name of openness and Christian "cool." I begin to see how the religionists who think of themselves as "with -it" will become the persecutors of those who dare to speak prophetically to the secular culture. These so called "Christian evangelists" will continue to back themselves up beyond the point of irrelevancy; no, they will be backed up to oblivion.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Lord of Life

On this Easter Sunday we Christians celebrate the day of all days, the life of all lives, the victory of all victories.  On that Easter Sunday morning, before the sun rose over the eastern horizon, the Son of Light had risen from the tomb.  The FACT that Jesus arose physically, materially, really, and gloriously is not to be disputed by serious students of the biblical text.  But we must ask, "WHY is this glorious fact significant?"

This is significant because of the gift of life that Jesus gives to all who trust in Him as Savior and Lord.  "Because I live", said Jesus, "you shall live also (John 14:19)."  Yes, sweet Jesus, You live, indeed you live.  I rejoice in Your victory and life.  But because You live, I shall live also!  I do now live.  I live the life of God living in me.  I live that mystical, transcendent existence that comes from experiencing and knowing that God lives in the life of humanity.  What joy, peace, love, and hope abounds and supersedes the greatest trial.  The light of life glows with an other worldly job because of the living Jesus. 

But more, yes more, I shall never die because I am living the life of Jesus, the resurrected Lord of Life.  Jesus said, "He who believes in Me will never die (John 11:26)."  I will never die; how can that eternal life ever cease to live?  The living Christ, living in me, will ever live within the context of the saved sinner's soul.  And one day, by the promise and grace of God, my grave will open and my mortal remains will shine with ethereal glory, fashioned after the exalted Christ. And I will forever be with the Lord in His place of love, holiness, and light.  

Yes, Jesus is the Lord of life, and those who know Him, receive Him, live in Him, will live forever in glory.

Friday, April 10, 2009

"Behold, the Man!"

"Pilate then took Jesus and scourged Him.  And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on His head, and put a purple robe on Him; and they began to come up to Him and say, 'Hail, King of the Jews!' and to give Him slaps in the face.  Pilate came out again and said to them, 'Behold...I find no guilt in Him.'  Jesus then came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe.  Pilate said to them, 'Behold, the Man!"  (Gospel of John 19:1-5)

On this Good Friday, let us BEHOLD THE MAN!

Behold the man who is also God, full of grace and truth, expressing in life, mind, and words the heart of God the Father, about whom the angels sang on that starlit night over Bethlehem.

Behold the man who is the perfect servant of the heavenly Father doing His will and being obedient to the Father to the point of death upon the cross.

Behold the man who bears the weight of the sinner's guilt; counted as guilty before the Law and God's justice, enduring the full force of divine wrath and punishment that the sinner may go free.

Behold the man who loves His sheep so much that He gives Himself them.

Behold the man who sees the light of glory glistening over the distant horizon where time and eternity will be changed because of the cross, and as such gives Himself to the malevolent deeds of sinners for the "joy set before Him."

Behold the man who will purchase the sinner's forgiveness and justified state in His blood.

Behold the man who will rise again in glorious triumph over death.

Behold the man who will ascend to the right hand of God the Father to intercede for His darling church.

Behold the man who will come again to take His rightful place before the world and history as King of kings and Lord of lords.

Behold the man who will one day kiss His church-bride full mouth with joy and love, and take her home to His heavenly place where they will live in eternal bliss shining with divine glory.

Yes, with joy, awe, wonder, mystery, and love - BEHOLD THE MAN!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Long Way from Berea

One of the most remarkable passages of Scripture on the authority and use of the Scriptures in the life of the church is found in Acts 17:11.  The place was a town named "Berea."  Paul and Silas had come to Berea where they began preaching Christ at the local synagogue.  Verse 11 says,
"Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they (the Bereans) received the Word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so."
I have been amazed at this passage for many years.  Paul and Silas are preaching Jesus to these Jewish people, and the text says three important things about what the people were and did. They were noble-minded, they received the Word of God preached by Paul and Silas, and finally they checked with the Scriptures to see if the preaching they heard was true to the authoritative Scripture.  The Old Testament canon of Scripture had already been established by this time, and it was in use in the synagogues all over the empire.  These people knew the Scripture, they trusted the authority of the Scripture, and they knew how to use the Scripture in checking ideas that they heard.

If the American evangelical churches are to regain the spiritual and theological punch they once had, this ministry of the Word must be restored.  We must be willing, able, and ready to check out anything we read or hear with the Word of God.  This presupposes the following.  First, there is a body of biblical teachings that comprise the teachings of the Christian faith.  These are non-negotiables that need to be taught and embraced in the church.  Second, the laymen and laywomen in the church must be taught (and they must be willing to be taught) these biblical teachings.  And third, the people must be willing and able to be discerning about the teachings and ideas they hear by using the Bible as their guide.  This ministry of discernment is vital to the spiritual health and ministry of the church if it is to be what the Lord would have it to be.  Amen!

The All-Sufficient Scriptures Insufficient?

We have had a remarkable period of time in the life of American evangelicalism in the last century with respect to the relationship between evangelicalism and the Scripture.  On one hand American evangelicalism has vocally and formally fought in favor of an inerrant Scripture, which needed to be done.  Glorious efforts have been made in denominations and evangelical institutions to take a stand on the important truth that the holy Scriptures are inerrant.  I applaud this because it is both important and needed.

But at the same time, during the same period, American evangelicalism has been drifting from the Scriptures in several critical areas.  It has increasingly distanced practical gospel ministry from the Scriptures resulting in doing ministry without using the Scriptures at all.  Evangelism is attempted without the use of the Scriptures, expository preaching is becoming rare, and Scripture is only infrequently read in the worship services.  The leadership training ministry of the church rarely, if ever, uses the Scripture as its textbook for doctrinal teaching and leadership development.   As a result the average church evangelical is increasingly illiterate in the Scriptures.  And more than that, the average evangelical is ignorant of the fact that he is ignorant.  And evangelicals have been growing in their use of extra-biblical resources and tools for communicating with God and serving God.  Pastors learn leadership techniques from the business world, charismatics claim to have direct revelation from God, and the church sometimes uses those who claim to have died and gone to heaven only to return to give their "testimony" of what heaven is like.  So, wasn't it the evangelical world which criticized Roman Catholicism for putting tradition and the church's teaching on a level plane with Scripture? Aren't we doing a similar thing when we use subjective experience as a basis for guidance in Christian ministry, living and thinking?

It is not that we can't learn from and use resources and information outside the Bible, but nothing needs to be received as authoritative that come outside the Bible. The church's doctrine and ministry, and the Christian's guidance for living, must all be rooted and anchored in the Scriptures.  All that the church needs for its beliefs and guidance on Christian living and church ministry is contained in the Bible.  This is what the sufficiency of Scripture means.  If we are not careful, we will be found to be preaching a sufficient Bible yet treating the Bible as if it is insufficient for ministry and Christian living.  A church that believes the Scriptures, rightly interpreted, will be a church grounded in the truth.  Amen! 

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Bane of Religious Pragmatism

If I hear one more time, "That church must be doing something right, because it is growing in number", or an advertisement to pastors stating, "Come to our preacher conference where you will learn how to grow your puny, small church to a mega, bodacious size in no time at all", then I just think I will spit in the wind and enjoy the shower!  It is getting crazy out there in evangelical land, and true Christians are experiencing an ever shrinking island of good, biblical preaching and ministry. And pastors who go to preacher meetings and even imply to other pastors that good, solid biblical preaching will do the work of the ministry are looked at by contemporary, hip, and "with it" preachers with the same disdain as might have been given to a leper in the first century.  What is happening to us?

Well, what is happening to us is not something that just started ten, twenty, or thirty years ago. The encroaching crud has been slowly eating away at the lively marrow in the church for over a century.  The twentieth century demonstrated the dangerous and destructive components that is killing the church (Although in truth nothing can kill the true church; perhaps it is best for the institutional church to experience the dead wood gathering of the Father which Jesus spoke of in John 15).  At the heart of all the disconcerting factors creating this deadening effect is the problem of RELIGIOUS PRAGMATISM.  Religious pragmatism is comprised of the following elements:  Disbelief in the power of the Word to change lives and accomplish the work of the kingdom, the mistaken idea that God is passive expecting His covenant people to "get the job done" in ministry, the disengagement of theology from practical ministry, and the greatest and deadliest factor of all - numerical growth equals eternal success.

These deadly factors began at the end of the 19th century in evangelical America, and in the early 20th century they picked up speed with the growth of religious institutionalization.  The church was augmented (now in the 21st century is being supplanted) by para-church organizations, and church identity became equal to institutional denominationalism (Denominationalism is the unique contribution of American evangelicalism to the worldwide church of Jesus Christ, and we ought to consider repenting.), and religious programs and plans substituted for Bible preaching and teaching.  Everything in the church increasingly became subservient to the question of "What works?", rather than "What is true?".  The underlying concern for this question ("What works?") was and remains "What works to get people in the pew, on the membership roll, and start tithing and serving in the church?"  Evangelism became salesmanship, and worship became a meeting to "reach the lost" (whatever "reach" means?). This was the passionate quest of church ministry as a result of religious pragmatism. From this moment on the game was lost for the American evangelical church.  Its destiny was linked with numbers and numbers are linked with attractive appeal, and this is linked to cultural acceptance.  It would only be a matter of time till the culture, like some dark monster, would swallow the church and its identity and message.  It has happened!  It is not "going" to happen; it has happened!  And the deception is so complete that many Christians do not even know it has happened, except for the nagging feeling inside of true Christians telling them that something is fundamentally wrong in their church, and they are starving for some good Bible preaching!

Now we come to the twentieth century where in most evangelical churches (Hark!  I paint with a broad brush for emphasis!) where the biblical vision of the declaration aspect of the gospel is completely lost (The gospel declares the unsaved to be lost and under the condemnation of the just and holy God, and declares Christ's atonement and resurrection to be the only solution to this problem.  The gospel does not survey lost people to see how the gospel can address their symptoms of lostness so that people do not feel so lonely and rejected.).  It is not only a reasonable suggestion, but a high percentage probability that we have a substantial number of lost people in our churches.  Good Bible preaching is now opposed on the grounds that "Well, we just don't believe that."  One person recently told me that in this person's home church the idea of Jesus being the only way to God has become strongly opposed as unreasonable (This is a Southern Baptist church!).

So, what is the answer?  The answer today is the answer that has always been - faithfully preach the truth of the Scriptures with accuracy, fervor, humility, consistency, love, and prayer.  The Bible and its doctrines must be preached no matter what the people in the churches say about it.  The truth will stand for all time; the truth will endure the scorn and the criticism of well-meaning, but misled people in the churches.  It may be that one of the only answers to the present state and dilemma is for new churches to be formed; churches rooted and centered on Christ and the teaching of the Scriptures.  If this is the case, then so be it.  Eschatological writing in the Scriptures refers to a religious ("church"?) institution in the end of of time, but all true Christians have always known that there is a difference between Church History and Christian History.  Just because a religious group has a "church" sign in the front yard doesn't mean it is a true biblical church. But the true church will prevail because it is the church of Jesus which He is building by His sovereign grace.  Amen!

Monday, February 2, 2009

God's Training School

For those of us who have felt the sweet charms of divine grace, there have probably been several (perhaps many) times when we have prayed this kind of prayer, "Lord, make me like Jesus!"  Or perhaps we prayed, "Lord, I want to be what You want me to be!"  We prayed this with heart sincerity and with full intention of being what the Lord would have us to be.  But most of us (if not all of us) had no earthly idea how God would answer a prayer like that. Usually we assume God will give us a book to read, a class to take, or a degree to pursue at school. Possibly we thought God would open doors of opportunity for us to grow in our abilities in serving Him.  But do we really know how God causes His children to grow spiritually into maturity?

James 1:2-4 has been a passage that has inspired and frightened me.  This passage has comforted me and at times made me tremble with fear.  "Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing."

I recently reviewed this passage for my own soul's edification.  The command given that serves as the heart of the passage is, "Consider it all joy...when you encounter various trials."  This command drives me to my knees begging God for mercy and divine grace and strength.  I never respond to trials initially with joy.  If I have any joy at all when tried and tested, it is because of much prayer, soul-searching, and spiritual discipline.  Somehow I seem to have received an abundant ability to fuss and complain - I do that real well!!!  I don't rejoice in trials very well. But this is the point of the command.  If we always rejoiced in trials easily, then there would be no point to giving us this command.  Thus, we are to obey God in this area by running to Jesus and our heavenly Father confessing our desperate need for help in this area.

But our obedience is not blind obedience.  It is a reasoned, logical obedience.  The text continues to explain why we must rejoice in trials.  First, the text tells us what this trial really is ("testing of your faith"), and second, it explains what goodness trials bring to our lives when we rejoice in the Lord during times of difficulty.  Trials are really a time of testing the believer's faith. This is because (according to 1 Peter 1:7) trials are God's instrument to demonstrate genuine faith in our hearts.  Trials do not destroy our faith; trials reveal our faith (unless we have no faith at all).  And second, these trials become, for the believer, the didactic process that develops the Christian into Christ-likeness.  It is only in times of trials that "endurance" can be processed.  But it is through endurance that we are made "perfect, complete, and lacking in nothing."  That is a pretty good description of Christian maturity.

So, is the believer to pray for trials?  Heaven's no!!!  You live in a fallen world, you will have enough trials to come along as it is.  God measures, forms, and shapes each trial for His specific purpose in our lives.  He will allow them (and send them) in accordance with His loving purpose and grace.  But I know of no way to grow spiritually other than through trials.  So, let's have a time of personal reflection and contemplation when troubles and trials come our way. Let us not give in to despair or a sense of hopelessness.  But rather, let us seek the Lord and His strength trusting in Him for every need and the ability to keep going for His glory.  Amen!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

God and a Sleepless Night

I was reading Esther 6 today, and once again I was surprised and amazed at the providence of God as evidenced in this passage.  God's power and timing are demonstrated in their perfections in such a way as to protect Mordecai from the evil intentions of Haman.  On the very night before Haman was to ask for Mordecai's killing, the Lord caused the king to be unable to sleep (God did that).  In an attempt to induce sleepiness on himself, he asked for the royal chronicles to be brought to him and to be read.  I wonder how many scrolls there were in the royal library, but the very one that could save Mordecai was chosen (God did that).  Just hours before Haman is to walk into the royal palace to request regal permission to destroy Mordecai, God was preparing the king to deliver Mordecai and the Jewish people (God did that).  And I think it is hilarious how God even used Haman, the hater of Mordecai and the people of God, to honor Mordecai before the people. Humor is all over this!  And God did it all!

Even though God's name is not found in this passage, God is all over this event.  God is the unnamed mover and controller of all events, even to the point of keeping a king from sleeping and the choosing of a scroll to be read to the king.

The providential goodness of God has been such a blessing to me personally over the years.  I cannot think of another biblical truth (outside of the gospel itself) that has given to me more comfort, more strength, more help, and more serenity than to know that God is sovereignly watching over me and taking care of me.  In times of sickness, illness for family members (including a terminal diagnosis of my son), uncertainty about financial resources and life's direction cause times of struggle and pain.  But the one truth that has brought me more calm in anxious moments is that God has chosen me for Himself, and He is watching over me to bring good and glory through my circumstances.  He does not promise ease, convenience, or the fulfillment of personal preferences.  But He does promise to be faithful and true to us, to His promises in Christ, and to His own nature.  Nothing that is eternally damaging can happen to us; all is good seen from the perspective of eternity.  My mother drilled this truth into me as I was growing up, and I have sought to pass it along to my children.

So, no matter what the day may bring, no matter the difficulty or the hardship, God is with us. And God is controlling the events that control us.  Some day, some how, in some way God's glory will shine through my life and experiences.  This is THE HOPE of the providence of God in human life.  Thanks be unto God!  Amen!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Baby Boomer Advises Generation "Whatever"

"Baby Busters", "Generation X", "Generation Millennium" - I haven't heard what the present generation designation is.  I don't know, I guess I got lost along the way of designating generations, or perhaps we ran out of monikers.  My ignorance may be explained by the fact that I quit reading those Church Growth publications that have articles entitled, "How to Make your Puny Little Church into Megachurch within Six Months - Guaranteed!"  It seemed to me to be fallacious to "guarantee" growth (defined by numbers only) without referencing our use of Scripture and our dependence upon God.  But alas, I digress...back to my point.

I would like to speak today to the "Whatever the Latest Evangelical Generation is Called" Christians, and say, "Be careful what you rebel against and to."  Speaking as the official designated spokesman of the Baby Boomer evangelicals (who promised to get it right since the previous generation had messed everything up - - psst...did you know that every generation when they are in their 20's thinks the previous generation messed everything up and the "up and coming" bunch will straighten everything out; you know, sort of like "A Change we Can Believe in."  Hmmm, we'll see...).  The older I have gotten the more certain I am that the previous generation was not as dumb as I thought, and I was not as smart as I thought at age of 25.  In fact, the older I get, the less likely I am to trust my opinions.  My cultural and ministerial arguments from 30 years ago seem to have lost their fizz.  Is it possible...oh no, I can't believe I'm saying this...that we did not know what we were talking about 30 years ago? As is always the case, the answer to this is - there was some good, and there was some bad. Keep everything in perspective and be humble.

The one thing that continues to gnaw at me is this important fundamental idea - young people and young adults seem have to a built in propensity for rebellion against the bunch that precedes them, but the young folks must be careful what they rebel against and what they rebel to.  In the case of young evangelicals today, the enemy is not the previous generation, traditionalists, or Baby Boomers.  I have heard some young evangelicals speak with such tenderness about lost people, then turn definitely angry talking about the "traditionalist, no-change, stick-in-the-mud" Christians at the local church.  Every time I hear something like this I think of Jesus' command for Christians to love each other and the Apostle John's teaching in his First Epistle that true Christians love other Christians.  Faithfulness and biblical ministry are not determined by reacting against other Christians.  Mainstream Evangelicals for years have tragically determined their beliefs on certain things by reacting against other groups (i.e. "Roman Catholics" and "Pentecostals") rather than simply studying and believing the Bible.

I admit that the previous two generations (an opinion I hold myself, and perhaps no one else) our collective popular evangelical beliefs have been set by Strong's Concordance rather than books on Systematic Theology. If we can't find the word in Strong's, then we assume the Bible has nothing to say on the subject represented by that word.  The upshot of that is that the previous evangelical community became rather somewhat unbiblical in some ways in both doctrine, Christian living, and ministry.  So, here come the new evangelicals to save the day; they are going to show those old codgers how to get it right.  So, they rebel, and what is the chosen battlefield of the new generation of evangelicals?  "Cigar smoking, alcohol drinking, and global warming, and no more hymns in church" - HUH?!  Is this the strategic and important sign of reformation of the modern evangelical church?  Is this what the Reformers meant when they said the church must continue to reform?  I say again to the new evangelicals - please, I beg of you, my dear, precious brothers in Christ, be careful what you rebel against and what you rebel to.  You are setting a course for generations to come.  Your generation will reap a harvest of whatever you sow.  What harvest will come to such unwise decisions such as these?  I will give a passage of Scripture and be done with this diatribe - Galatians 5 says that Christ set us free.  Amen and Hallelujah!!!  Yes, we must not be legalistic or bound in works theology.  But Galatians 5 also says we are free to serve each other in love.  Let's try to use our freedom in Christ for sacrificial love which takes others into account (see Philippians 2:1-8 for the greatest example of this).  Let us seek to be wise, considerate, courteous, and caring with all, including those "stick in the mud" Baby Boomer Christians - yuck.   Amen!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Pulpits, White Coats, and Mystic Entertainers

Where is the power base in a community?  There was a time in early American history when the pastor standing behind the pulpit was the power person in the community (this was probably not as true in the frontier areas).  This was true for two reasons:  first, the pastor was the most educated man in the community, and second, there was an acknowledgment by the community at large that God was sovereign and to Him they were accountable.

But that all changed with the inculcation of scientism which defined the era now known as modernity.  The change began to occur in the late 19th century and certainly became full-blown in the 20th century.  Essentially, science was considered by the community to be the context of truth, and scientism (scientific method based on the assumption that reality is only defined by material nature; this is in contrast to early scientists in Europe who based their scientific method on the created order) became the order of the day.  Thus, the power moved from the man behind the pulpit to the man who wore the white medical coat.  Studies have shown that people today trust those who wear the white medical smock.  Whether or not we realize this, this is the consequence of the effects of scientism in modernity.

But now things are changing again.  The advent of Eastern Religious thought garbed in western ideology (or I should say preferential philosophical desire) resulted in New Age teaching, Post-Modern religious blubbery, and radical individualism (meaning, "I make my own religion, thank you very much!").  Now, who bears the power of the community?  It may be argued, in light of recent developments, that those who become popular through entertainment and media become the voices of truth to the masses.  It is almost as if one assumes that one on television, or anyone in the movies, or anyone who sings songs in the pop culture, becomes suddenly an expert on everything.  And these mystic entertainers tell us what to drive (God forbid that we drive SUVs), and what to eat (i.e. "We must defend the defenseless chickens from that great tyranny known as 'Kentucky Fried Chicken"), and how to save the planet (Lord knows how many times someone tries to make us feel guilty if we don't try to save the planet). These mystic entertainers have become the power-brokers for radical environmentalism and, perhaps, the instrumentation of political and social engineers.

What is a Christian to do in such situations?  First, we must learn what the Christian faith is in its fullest extent.  This is commonly referred to as a "worldview" in the modern era.  The Christian faith says something about ultimate reality (God), the nature of material reality (creation), the nature of truth and morality, the purpose of history (God's sovereign will achieved in the incarnation of Christ applied redemptively in human history through the church and the ministry of the Holy Spirit), and the meaning of death and eternity.  Every Christian can and must be ready to respond to these great questions if they want to present themselves as a logical, consistent, biblical Christian.  Second, the Christian must courageously link himself to the teachings of Scripture for authority and instruction.  The Berean Christians have become model Christians in this regard (see Acts 17) where they even put Paul to the test of Scripture. Finally, we must exercise integrity in living out this vision.  The Christian must resist the temptation to accommodate the spirit of the age (and the pressure of media, political parties, unions, and other organizations) if one is to live an eternal life focus.  As one has quaintly put, "If we marry the spirit of the age in which we live, then we will become a widow in the next."  May God help us to look to the Lord in these things; He is the sovereign of heaven and earth.  Amen.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Tyranny of the Pseudo-Relevant

One of the great plagues that has come upon the modern American evangelical church (and God forbid that international churches seek to emulate the Christian evangelical church on this point) is the absolute intoxication with relevancy.  Relevancy is the great eleventh commandment that drives the evangelical, ministerial engine.  Everything that is deemed "relevant" is unquestioningly adopted as, well...relevant.  And it is invariably linked with that great text of all texts for ministry, missions, and evangelism...drum roll please..."I have become all things to all men that I might win some", which many cool and relevant Christians who want to be effective in ministry interpret to mean, "I have become relevant in all things that I might win some."

There are two BIG problems with the embedded idea of man-centered relevancy in Christian ministry:  first, relevancy means nothing until we determine who defines what is relevant (and in the case of Christian ministry, God determines relevancy), and second, there is no biblical evidence (and I mean absolutely no biblical evidence) that man-centered relevancy is God's chosen means of reaching people for Christ (perhaps we need to talk about what "reaching people" really means, but that is for another blog entry).

Pseudo-relevancy in Christian ministry asks people what is relevant to them (man-centered), then it modifies its worship, Bible study, preaching, ministry, and service to accommodate this so-called relevancy.  The bottom line is that the unregenerate sets the agenda for the church. Doesn't anyone see a problem with this?!  Can you imagine Lot doing a survey in Sodom asking, "We are going to start a Baptist church in Sodom.  What seems to be relevant to you Sodomites? We want to build a need-meeting ministry at the 'What's Happening Church'.  Our motto is:  'We are a church for everyone!  So, tell us your expectations of our church, Mr. Lost Sodomite."  What foolishness, and yet this methodology is applied every day in the American church in the name of evangelism and "reaching people."

How much we need to hear the voice of God in Scripture calling us to a biblical ministry.  A biblical ministry is declarative in nature.  It declares what God has done in Christ redemptively. It declares that what God has said is true.  Sinners have lost their mental and spiritual balance because of sin.  They are, in fact, dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1).  How can sinners know what is relevant to them? Christ has sent the church with the message of God's redemption in Christ. Let us preach this message with love, with prayer, with tenderness, with gentleness, with tears of compassion, but with bold resolve.  Ours must not be a ministry of the interrogative ("What would you like our church to do for you?").  No, ours is that ministry that bears the authority of being called and sent by God as ambassadors for Him (see 2 Corinthians 5:18-20).

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Ties and Blue Jeans

There are a few advantages to being a minister for more years than I would like to recount.  As I count the number of AARP invitations I have gotten in the mail, I am also reflecting on the strange and often bizarre way that church was and is done.

A long time ago in that little church on the hill outside of middle America the trendy motif was the necktie.  Neckties spoke of tradition, reverence, conservative values, and (until the 70s when those awful paisley prints on ties became popular) conservative fashions.  I remember hearing in "yesterday's" church, "We never did it that way before" - the seven last words of the "funding fathers" (and as long as the funding fathers of the church kept the budget balanced, no one dared challenge them).  But then the 60's and the 70's washed over the little church like a tidal wave colored by hippy freedom and libertarian possibilities.  The little church that had nursed itself on evangelical pragmatism intoxicated with a passion for numbers could not resist the "whatever works" mentality of the new era.  Suddenly acoustical guitars were replacing the organ as the primary instrument of melodious accoutrement behind stained glass windows.  In the summer, when the windows of the church were opened, the soft strains of "Cum Ba Yah" could be heard across the valley as the sanctuary choir sang sincerely and sweetly even though they had no idea what "Cum Ba Yah" meant - they traded their "Ebenezer" for latest contemporary chorus.  Suddenly the evangelical landscape was dotted with Christian bookstores selling Jesus t-shirts, bumper stickers; the air waves were filled with Christian music that followed cultural trends, and preachers learned to market the gospel instead of preach the gospel.  The neckties had turned into blue jeans.  Now it was the blue jean era where God was cool, doctrine was out, preaching turned to sharing, and the worst thing a church could do was to not be "cutting edge."  Once, if a young man entered the church with long hair, earrings, a dirty shirt, and blue jeans with holes in them, you would send him to the pastor. Now he is the pastor!

Now church is niched for age groups, life experiences, and whatever seems to be trendy and culturally fashionable.  Now people in the church, wearing their blue jeans and flip-flops, drinking their lattes from Starbucks want nothing to do with neckties or their dad's way of doing church.  Today is the day when anything goes in church except what has been done in church from the last generation.  It is basically a form of modified teenage-like rebellion.  The contemporary Christian scene has institutionalized the attitude of "I don't want to think, act, talk or be like my dad."  One of the most surprising elements of this not-so-impressive trend is how angry younger aged Christians are with anything related to the previous generation.  They despise patriotism to America, the moral and ethical values of their parents, and expository preaching.  They want nothing to do with the established church; church planting is all the rage.  
Of course, nothing is as consistent as change.  The question is, "What does the coming generation rebel against?  What comes from the 'Latte, blue jean, flip-flop' church?"  I'm kind of scared, kind of curious, kind of ready to close up shop.  Some days that little cabin on the mountain looks really, really good.  

Monday, January 12, 2009

Who Needs the Bible?

Unfortunately this is the day when subjective religious experience is the trendy thing.  It is common to hear evangelicals use language like, "God told me", "I got a word from God", and my all time favorite, "the Lord led me to...". Our modern evangelical sensibilities seem to allow for any and all religious experiences validating them because, well...we had the experience!  No one can say anything against our own testimony right?  I am reminded of a man I once knew who humorously called attention to this lunacy by saying, "It must be the will of the Lord; it seems so right to me."  Of course, he said this with a wry smile and a twinkle in the eye.  We could never misread God, could we?  Certainly if we are sincere and totally committed to Christ (and throw in a little fasting and prayer), then God will talk to us directly right?

Being a minister has its advantages, not the least of which is the junk mail I get.  In recent days I keep getting junk email.  Recently I got a piece of junk email designed to excite and scintillate my spiritual senses.  The email promoted a meeting that I just have to attend if I want to be in God's will.  The tease came in the form of seminar titles:  "Direct Encounter with a Supernatural God", "Engaging the Revelatory Voice of God", and that can't miss seminar called, "The Breaker Anointing:  Releasing the Prophetic Breath of God."  Hey, this conference will tell me how to meet directly with God, get a revelatory word from God, and release the power of God's breath through my life.  Hey, when you have all of this, who needs the Bible?

Well, that's the problem.  The Bible now has become the manual for "whatever I want to find there."  I teach biblical hermeneutics in the college setting, and I find students often fall into the fallacy of "The Bible means what I want it to mean."  But students hold no corner on that mistake.  Students must line up behind pastors, youth ministers, deacons, and Sunday school teachers who do this regularly.  In fact, we have been "using" the Bible for years - we call it the priesthood of the believer (i.e. the Bible says what I think it says, and doggone it, nobody better tell me different, because I am a BAPTIST  who believes in the priesthood of the believer!  I'd like to have few words with whoever popularized, but prostituted, that oft maligned doctrine.) Where does the objective, propositional truth of God's Word come into play?  As Baptists get together to "share what the Bible means to me" (when in fact this is often a pooling together of our ignorance), when do we stop to do healthy exegesis of the text?  Doesn't the text mean what the author meant it to mean?  Shouldn't we find out what the author meant by the text before we apply the text to our lives?  I should think so.

Before we close this blog article I would like to lead us all in a prayer (Don't get excited, it's not the prayer of Jabez!).  "Lord, deliver me from trying to get information from You concerning things you have already spoken about in Scripture.  Keep me from such prideful thoughts that I can be absolutely right on everything at any one moment.  Dear Lord, forgive me for thinking I am smarter than the many Christians who came before me and some of who left good confessions, creeds, and biblical resources to help me study my Bible.  And Lord, teach me how to accurately and humbly study the Scriptures with good hermeneutical and exegetical techniques that I may see wondrous things from Your written revelation.  Then, dear Lord, give me the wisdom to see how all of this applies to my life, and give to me the grace to seek to apply Your truth to my life.  And finally, Lord, when I think the next time that I have a new revelation from You, please put cotton in my mouth to shut me up."  Amen

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Importance of Balance in Biblical Interpretation

I suppose there are some important things one learns after 35 years of ministry. Amazing, simply admitting that I have been in ministry for 35 years makes me feel old. Alas, I digress...One of the important observations I have made in these many years of ministry is the vital necessity of balance in biblical interpretation.  

But what do I mean by balance in biblical interpretation?  Balance in this context involves the mature interpretive skill of seeing two related contrasting truths that give a broader, fuller, and balanced understanding of the full biblical teaching on a subject. A good example might be the twin, but distinctive truths, that God wants Christians to trust Him for their financial survival, but He also wants Christians to work hard to earn a living. Both of these truths are in the Scriptures, and they are clearly taught there. One can find Scripture verses that obviously tell us to not be anxious about anything, including money.  In fact, Jesus exhorted believers to not serve "mammon" or money in His teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus repeatedly warned about the danger of greed and worldly concern about money (i.e. parable about the sower - see the soil that had thorns).  But the Ten Commandments clearly affirms private ownership in its prohibition on coveting, and Paul commands that one should work hard to provide for one's family.  This Pauline commandment was made in such strong terms that Paul stated if one neglected or refused to do such, then he was to be treated like an unbeliever (1 Timothy 5:8) (WOW!).  So, who is right;  Jesus or Paul? The answer is - both are right.  They are giving two important contrasting (not contradicting) truths that together give a balanced biblical perspective on a vital issue. Jesus was not teaching that the believer should be lazy and not work, nor was Paul teaching that we should not trust God with our financial needs.  Taken together these teachings give a full expression of biblical instruction on these issues.  

Another significant example of this is the role of faith and works in salvation found in both Paul's writings and the Epistle of James.  It sounds like Paul discounts works in salvation altogether, and James discounts faith as a basis for justification.  But a closer observation of both authors reveals that each contributes central ideas regarding the necessity of both faith and works in their proper place in the overarching subject of salvation.  So let me pull some central ideas together that need to be regarded as central to this topic of balance and biblical interpretation.

Warning:  To neglect balance in biblical interpretation not only results in a misunderstanding what the Bible says about the topics involved, it sets the stage for aberrant teaching and ultimately heresy itself.  Every cult I know is partially created because of unbalanced teaching.  It is a requisite that we maintain balance in our understanding of Scripture.

Example:  I saw an example of unbalanced Scriptural study not long ago in a marriage where the husband took the biblical idea of husbandly and fatherly authority way out of proportion.  He used it to dominate over and dictate to his wife and children.  His mistake was that he forgot LOVE, and it was destroying his wife and children.

Suggestions:  So, how can Christians protect themselves from falling into unbalanced interpretations of biblical teaching?
1.  Look for opposite and contrasting truths.  Ultimate truth is so large that it is composed a many sub-truths.  These sub-truths taken together form the large composite of the ultimate truth.  Without a complete view of all sub-truths, one does not get the big picture of ultimate truth. 

2.  Be honest with yourself.  Let's be honest, there are some truths we like and some with which we struggle.  Those truths that seem to be contrasting with our basic personality and emotional constitution are as important as those truths that fit easily within our natural makeup.  When you study the Bible, be honest with yourself and the text.

3.  Listen to other Christians.  We Christians need each other.  Let's listen to each other as we share together the Word of God.  Often we will find that others have a perspective of a passage that we missed and desperately needed.  Not all Christians have discerning insight into biblical passages, but Paul taught us in 1 Corinthians that we are the Body of Christ made up of many different types of members.  We need to listen to each other.

4.  Be humble.  Don't think at any one point in your Christian journey that you understand everything about anything.  Christians are learners (disciples), and we will learn (we should learn) until the day we die on earth.  And in heaven we will continue to learn for all eternity.  Don't become obnoxious by stating or implying that you know it all.  Keep learning!

Summary and Conclusion:  My Systematic Theology professor in seminary years ago used to say he learned much about boats and water when he was growing up in Holland.  He remarked one of the most important things he learned was that it really did not matter which end of the boat one fell off of, he still got wet.  Let's be careful as Christians about extremism in biblical interpretation.  To be faithful to the text of Scripture we must give attention to balance.  Amen!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Reminders to Those who Preach

In Acts 4:4, the Scripture says, "But many of those who had heard the message (word) believed..."

Peter had been preaching Jesus Christ in response to the gathering crowd.  A man had been healed in the previous chapter, and many came expressing their amazement. Then Peter preached Jesus, the crucified Son of God, to the people.  The Jewish priests, the temple guards, and the Sadducees came and arrested Peter and John, taking them into custody and putting them into jail.  Then our text is given, "But many of those who heard the message (word) believe..."

Here we have some gentle but important reminders to those who preach the Word of God to the people.

First, preachers should preach Christ.  This is what Peter did; he preached Christ.  But what does it mean to preach Christ?  Does preaching the crucified Christ simply mean to recount the historical crucifixion of Christ?  No, the text says the people believed the message or word about Christ.  Peter said several significant things about the crucified Christ.  He called Jesus the "Prince of Life (3:15)", he referred to Christ's resurrection (3:15).  Peter talked about the power of Jesus' authority and the faith engendered in Christ by the working of God's grace (3:16).  He referred to God's foreknowledge and prophetic word (3:18), and he implied God's sovereign power to fulfill this prophecy regarding Christ (3:18).  He talked about repentance and forgiveness of sin (3:19).  He talked about eschatological hope and judgment (3:20-23).  What a powerful sermon!  Here we learn that to preach Christ means to preach the doctrine of Christ.  It is sad to observe that many modern preachers feel and act like doctrine is the obstacle (even enemy) to ministry and preaching.  But we must preach Christ by preaching all that Christ is and has done.  It is only by such method will sinners be saved.

Second, people come to believe in Christ through the preaching of the Word of God about Christ.  When preachers preach Christ to the people, the Spirit of God is pleased to move in a sovereign way for the salvation of sinners.  The salvation of one sinner is evidence of the sovereign power of the Spirit of God, but when many are brought to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, then we are seeing the sovereign work of God in great expressions of joy.  But people come to the saving knowledge of Christ by virtue of the preaching of Christ.

Third, it is clear from our text that the Spirit calls people to believe in Christ in a saving fashion.  Salvation is linked to believing in Jesus Christ and all He is and has done.  This implies a great inner change in the mind and heart and will of the sinner. Only the Spirit of God can make such a change, but this change does occur because of the work of the Spirit through the preaching of the Word of God.  People are called to believe the message about Jesus, and they will express that belief in personal trust in Him.  Ministers must remember that the ministry of the Word deals more with exclamation marks rather than questions marks.  The question marks of doubt and cultural sensibilities will never save the soul.  The preacher must not put his finger to the wind to see which way the social wind is blowing before he speaks.  He must have a "thus says the Lord" tone to his preaching.  He must know the Word, and he must preach the Word authentically, earnestly, lovingly, and prayerfully.

Finally, the ministry of preaching always has two effects:  some believe and some don't.  This has always been true in the context of preaching the truth.  Some believe, some have faith, and some don't.  The minister in his preaching cannot determine who will believe and who won't.  This is the doing of God in the sacred hall of the individual soul.  This is the mystery of the working of God in the lives of people.  The minister cannot determine who will believe, but we say with Paul, "How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? (Romans 10:14)"  Thus, we need preachers.

So, preacher, go forth in the joy of the Lord!  "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things! (Romans 10:15)"  May God bless your work this day for His own glory!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

"Why did you ever send me?"

There is a question that Moses asks God in Exodus 5:22.  Moses had been called by God for a very special purpose on the mountain in Midian.  Moses had been extremely reluctant to obey the Lord for a number of reasons (all cogent).  And God had demanded that Moses go, even though Moses thought someone else could have done a better job.  So, Moses went back to Egypt perhaps timidly, reluctantly, and reticently.  But he was going, and he was going because God, the God of His fathers, had told him to go.  He was going because the God of heaven and earth sent him.

But from the moment Moses hit town everything went awry.  Pharaoh did not acknowledge the Lord's authority in Egypt (after all, Pharaoh thought of himself as a god).  Even the Hebrews, enslaved and struggling, didn't even believe Moses.  And to top everything off, when Moses made his move in the name of the Lord ("Thus says the Lord" Exodus 5:1 - this is the prophetic formula used by the prophets of the OT to add authority to their revelatory message), instead of everything working out well, everything fell apart!  Instead of making things better, Moses only seemed to make everything worse than they were before - not an auspicious beginning!

I wonder if one were to talk to Moses at this point of his journey and tell him the truth, what would Moses say?  What if one were to say to Moses, "It's OK, Moses; God has everything under control. God knew about all of this ahead of time, in fact, God made it turn out like this.  But God is going to use the problems of 'now' to bring about the blessings of 'tomorrow'."  Perhaps Moses would have said, "Oh sure, that's easy for you to say; you don't have to face the wrath of Pharaoh and the disappointment of the Hebrews!"  But God did have everything in control, and before the story ends, Pharaoh's army is defeated in the Red Sea, the Hebrews leave with parting gifts from the Egyptians, and the name of the Lord is honored where once is was unknown or despised. But Moses didn't have the benefit of reading the last chapter of the story like we do.  He was living the story, and this moment of the story was a moment of disappointment and concern.

I would like to make an observation and postulate on that observation for a moment.  My observation is that by virtue of a cursory study of Scripture (augmented by some empirical data based on human experience) it appears that it is the normal situation for God's servants to have problems.  I think Paul, the apostle, would confess that he had many more problems after he was converted to Christ and started serving Him.  What would Jeremiah say about this sitting at the bottom of a well, or what about Isaiah, who confessed "Who has believed our report? (53:1)", say about all of this?  Or, what would John the Baptist, who ended up in jail for speaking out against a politician, say about this?  Dietrich Bonhoeffer once offered the assessment of divine calling when he said that when Christ calls someone he bids him, "Come and die."  It seems the normal and common experience of God's servants to have problems, difficulties, and hardships because of their ministries.  

So, what is the servant of the Lord to do or think at such at time as this?  What should be our thoughts as we face disappointment, discouragement, and even depression over our ministerial circumstances?  What would we have said to Moses in his lowest moments?
1.  God is still on the throne, and we can trust Him to do what is right, best, and good.
2.  God will not abandon us in our hour of need; we can, and must, look to Him out of the context of our struggle.
3.  We must keep doing the right thing, in the right way, for the right reason, trusting in God for fruit.
4.  We must never expect life to be perfect; our perfection is in heaven.
5.  We must believe that God will provide for us in His way, in His time, for His glory.
6.  It is acceptable to be human and weak; learn to accept yourself as a weak vessel for God's service.  Jesus sympathizes with us and our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15).
7.  Trust God to provide His strength and resources to do His will in, through, and outside of our weakness.

When we think like this, transferring the pressure of our ministries onto God, then we can work hard and smile.  The results are His.  Let us try to pray hard for each other as we seek to serve the Lord in every situation of life.  Amen. 

Friday, January 2, 2009

In the Beginning God

Genesis 1:1 says, "In the beginning God..."  Now, it is very common to overlook a statement like this because it seems to carry no transcendent or practical significance.  But on further, and closer, inspection one begins to see that this is the fundamental explanation for life itself.  This simple, yet profound statement, gives insight and expression to the nature of meaning.

What do we know about the beginning?  Why does it matter?  It is obvious that no one was there to record the beginning.  That is to say, there was no reporter from the local newspaper or television station to give a live account and perspective of the beginning.  Because this lack of human presence in the beginning, many wrongfully conclude that the beginning is shrouded in myth and ethereal vagueness.

But this is not true at all.  God was there!  Are we to dismiss His testimony of the beginning as untrue, insignificant, or less valid than the perspective and expression of a limited, sinful, biased, mutable reporter?  I think not!

The real questions about the beginning is not what?, but who? and why?.  God is the all-knowing Knower, the all-being Essence, the all-sovereign Sovereign.  He is both the ultimate Cause and the ultimate Reason for ultimate reality.  He is not only the ultimate One who was there in the beginning, He is also the ultimate Purpose for the beginning.  And as such He is the ultimate Point of life itself.  God doesn't give explanations, He is the explanation.  To know Him is to know why.  If we know Him, we don't need any other "whys."  It is only when we know Him that we see the nature and significance of the beginning.  And only as we understand the beginning in the context of who God is that we begin to understand the now and the end as well.  It is only as we understand God that we understand time and life at all.

But to understand God one must understand God in the flesh - the incarnation of the Son of God.  The New Testament argues that the incarnate Christ made God known.  And as such He made life and its meaning known.  God in flesh is the only logical, reasonable, and biblical understanding for life.  Without knowing and grasping Him in flesh do we appreciate and see the meaning of flesh.  That is why time seemed to stand still on that night in Bethlehem when Christ was born.  Time stood still because in Christ, time took on its true meaning and purpose.

This is why Jesus revealed Himself to John the Apostle (Revelation 1, 21, 22) as the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End.  This is why Paul presented Jesus Christ as being preeminent (Colossians 1), and this is why Paul said that we are made complete only in Jesus Christ (Colossians 2).

In Christ there is a reason for getting out of bed in the morning; there is a reason for living.  He is the reason for living.  Simply put - Jesus is the Reason!  And it is only as we come to know Him through illumination by sovereign grace that we come to see the meaning of the beginning, the now, the end, yea, life itself.  That is why we must understand the first statement of the Bible, "In the beginning God..."

Thursday, January 1, 2009

New Year Anticipations

I'm not sure which I like best, the ending of something or the beginning of something. Sometimes at the end (like the end of the year) one can reflect upon accomplishments gained. However, at the end there are also regrets and sadness over sin, failure, and weakness demonstrated in the living of life each day.

But the beginning of something is fresh and new.  I heard once that one can think of the beginning of the new year as a clean sheet of paper upon which one will write in the coming year.  But in some ways the new year is like the old year.  This year there will be blessings from God, joys (both anticipated and also surprising), challenges, struggles, temptations, trials, and even perhaps tragedy.  It is interesting how life changes, yet stays the same.  But no matter what happens this year, there are some key transcendent truths that will always remain the same:
1.  God will be sovereignly good intervening in human history (including the particular experiences of believers) providentially with wisdom, love, power, and grace.
2.  The gospel of Jesus Christ will still be true.  The rich, effectual consequences of Jesus' active righteousness, death, resurrection, and mediatorial reign are all in effect continuously and ever more.  Time and it's fluctuations cannot change the eternal gifts that God gives to His covenant people in and through Jesus Christ.
3.  The destiny of God's people is both secure and glorious.  As difficult as earthly experiences may be, nothing compares with the glory that will be shared with us by Christ in our eternal, heavenly home (Romans 8:18; 2 Corinthians 4:16-18).  And one day, in our flesh, we shall see our beautiful Savior in all His glory (The Beatific Vision!).  And as a part of His Bride, the church, we shall each share in the joy of that glory.  What a promise!  What a blessing!

So, as we begin a new year, we Christians are pulled evermore forward to the glorious colors of the transcendent sunset (sunrise?) of our future in Christ.  Rejoice!