Sunday, August 21, 2016

A Pathway For Others To Follow

As Christians one of our greatest desires is to lead others to God, to a real salvation experience through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The book of Proverbs is likewise concerned with the very same goal, and so will help us greatly in doing this. 

Proverbs 10:17 ESV “Whoever heeds instruction is on the path to life, but he who rejects reproof leads others astray.”

A Better Translation

“Whoever heeds instruction.” This is the person who meditates upon the Word of God and deliberately puts it into practice. “Whoever rejects reproof [i.e. correction].” This is the person who abandons the teaching he or she is given.

In this verse the phrase “is on the path to life” is more accurately and better translated from the Hebrew as “is a path to life.” This person who heeds instruction becomes a pathway to life for others to follow there. 

The point of this Proverb is the effect of our obedience on others, not just ourselves. As the apostate actively leads others astray (and gleefully quite often), so also, the faithful follower of God will show others the way to life. This is life both in terms of a quality and spiritually fulfilling life, but also in terms of eternal life with God.

Obedience Affects Everyone

In our culture, we tend to think that our obedience or disobedience only affects ourselves. Many social scientists strongly disagree and write, speak, and teach otherwise. However, it appears few of us listen, because we are so committed to our out of control individualism. Yes, even Christians.

Maybe some people would agree that on occasion our obedience or disobedience to God can have an effect others. Yet, this is usually acknowledged only if there is a direct and immediately observable effect. For example, we bless someone with kind words of spiritual counsel, or we hurt them with our angry words; we might meet some tangible need, or on the contrary commit some abusive act.

Instead, we should consider that obedience has indirect effects that can accumulate weightiness over time. Things like years of faithful time in the Word and prayer and letting the Holy Spirit change our lives. Things like faithful church attendance and simple, even behind the scenes, works of compassion and service. These will change lives and direct people to life often more than we realize.

Furthermore, there are ripple effects from our attitudes and behaviors that spread throughout the fabric of society, and especially within our Christian communities and our local churches. Our character is revealed by our attitudes and behaviors, again positively or negatively. It is especially grievous when we “reject correction” from the Word, the Spirit and fellow Christians, repeatedly refusing to be spiritually transformed and grow in wisdom. This is what “leads others astray.”

A Better Pathway

Perhaps, you have seen the truth and principle of Proverbs 10:17 at work, both positively and negatively? How a person’s, or one’s own, obedience or disobedience affects other people, even groups of people? The examples are limitless.

May we become a better pathway for others to follow and find life with God.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Not Just Any Verse For Every Situation

Pastors deal with complex situations in leading their churches, complex situations in counseling their congregations and complex situations in speaking to their broader communities.

Few troubles are as frustrating for pastors as church members who might be somewhat familiar with a situation, or outsiders with little knowledge of a matter, approaching them with urgent Biblical counsel they have discovered that will help him.

Where Do the Bible Verses Come From?

When Christians read their Bibles, sometimes verses strike them like never before, and they are eager to share them and apply them. Maybe it applies to this situation with which our pastor is dealing, they wonder.

Many Christians have favorite Bible verses they have memorized and find useful in their lives on many occasions. Somehow they made a connection from one of their favorite verses to the pastor’s situation. Maybe it will help, they reason.

Other Christians stay current with cultural trends and Christian trends. They know the Biblical passages under discussion these days. And so, they hope to inform their pastor and help him see how the situation with which he is dealing is addressed by this current discussion.

Yet other Christians believe that all of Christian theology and practice can be encapsulated in key verses. Often these key verses have to do with broad themes such as love, grace and mercy, or authority and submission, or divine sovereignty and human responsibility, and the list goes on.

In each of these examples, people wrongly think they have the secret answer verses providing simple solutions to complex problems. Sincerely motivated as they may be, not just any verse applies in every situation.

3 Unrecognized Problems

When we are excited by our new discoveries in the Bible we see perhaps more connections than are warranted. When we see the world primarily through our favorite verses we can miss a lot of other things in the Bible and in other people’s lives. When we vigilantly stay current, the foundations and the history too quickly fade from view. When we live by broad themes we might feel especially skilled, however, we might fail more often than we realize in specifics of life’s realities.

First, people often miss the point of the text they are referencing. It certainly holds great and godly instruction. It is inspired by God and intended by Him for proper use according to His intention. But such a misuse of the text will not really advance God’s purposes.

Second, people often miss the point of the situation into which they are trying to speak. Likely, they don’t really understand the life situation and the spiritual dynamics of it. As a result, they mismatch it to their selection of Scripture.

Third, people often miss the best and proper texts that could provide the counsel that is needed. Because of a cursory search of Bible passages and only a surface analysis of the situation, they draw hasty and inaccurate conclusions on both fronts.

3 Constructive Solutions

First, as a pastor and leader, make sure to pushback against off-base counsel. Often people are simply too eager to share their point of view without understanding other points of view. They are mistaken about the Bible, the situation and their relationship.

Second, teach people about how to use the Bible, and how to use it well and appropriately in conjunction with its purpose. Assume those who would counsel you are well meaning, even if you suspect they are not.

Third, explain with patience both the situation about which they are concerned and the Bible verse they about which they are excited. We do not have to share all details, and obviously most often we can’t do this. But, we can share what we are doing, our approach to the situation and the Bible, and our seeking of counsel.

Finally, simply thank those who visit you in this manner. Thank them for their concern. Thank them for their love of the Word of God, and eagerness to live by it and please the Lord. Thank them for praying for you and others involve. Then, close by asking for their prayers and praying together with them.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Why Don’t We See More Of Our Missionaries?

A few years ago a fellow pastor and friend of mine asked me, “Why don’t we see more of our missionaries? Is there something wrong with our church?”

Perplexed and Hurt

This seemed strange to him because overseas missionaries who are on home assignment are usually eager to visit their supporting churches and reconnect with many friends in the church. This church considered itself very mission-minded, genuinely devoted in prayer and partners in the work. My friend was somewhat offended and hurt.

I happened to know this church and its approach to missions fairly well. True, it was somewhat of a mission-minded church, but the leadership and the congregation were not as committed to missions as they thought they were. It is safe to say that those outside the church would not describe the church as a mission-minded church.

3 Measurements of Commitment

So, I asked how much the church supported each of its missionaries.  It was a modest sum, probably a little too modest. Then we talked about the travel costs for the missionaries to visit the church. This cost was not reimbursed by the church, either. Their missionaries seemed to visit when their church was an easy add-on to a trip, but they were not the main destination.

Then we talked about what a missionary visit would look like. Were opportunities created for the missionaries to give an in-depth view of their work, and would they have freedom to ask others to become supporters of their ministry? It turns out that the church didn’t take the initiative to create such opportunities, or much else.

Then I asked about recent mission trips taken by the church. The last significant one was over five years ago. Occasionally people still talk about it and reminisce about its value and glory. However, in today’s world of inexpensive travel and easy to organize short-term trips of value, it should be routine practice to have church leaders and others visit a church’s missionaries. This is a wonderful opportunity to encourage them, bless them, learn from them and be of value to them.

Making Necessary Adjustments

My pastor friend agreed that they were really a low mission commitment church. And their missionaries probably didn’t sense great commitment on the church’s part. The relationships had not been nurtured. Gladly, my pastor friend decided to make the necessary changes! 

Since our conversation a few years ago, the church has been steadily increasing their financial support of all their missionaries. The church leadership communicates much more and at a higher level of quality with their missionaries and their congregation. 

There is a new level of engagement that is obvious to all. Missionaries are highlighted and given greater access to people. Slowly, new trips are being organized, well-planned for added value, and they are being seen as a key investment for the advance of the Gospel!

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Sermons Are Not Meant To Be Remembered

How many of you remember the sermon from last Sunday?  Don’t worry, you were not supposed to anyway.

Look at and Listen to the Preacher:  Not Obnoxious Learning Devices

The congregation really wanted sermon notes in the bulletin, so I gave in. However, I don’t like people looking down when I am preaching. Much more preferable is to have everyone engaged with me in the amazing biblical text, enjoying it together.

Another bad idea is having people looking to the side at a screen as if this holy event were a business presentation or educational lecture. And yet, the ultimate bad idea is fill-in-the-blank preaching notes, especially when bloated with alliteration.

It is also infuriating to listen to powerful (and often long) illustrations, well-crafted story-telling, creative reconstructions of a Bible story (sometimes even including theatrical garb and voice), because the Bible gets lost, and really fast.

Entertaining, motivating, counseling, providing practical steps, creating artsy set designs—can we just stop it and just preach the Word? This is all for getting people to remember. And we falsely assume that remembering brings about transformation. It doesn’t.

What if we gave up on getting people to remember sermons and just went for the transformation outright?

It is actually easier, less time consuming and much more enjoyable for everyone, trust me. Simply listen to the preachers as they explain and apply the Word for us all. It is a good and beautiful thing. Look at the preacher!

Look at and Listen to the Book:  Preaching is Unique Communication

I have never preached so that people remember outlines, stories, life principles or any other cute Christian slogans or quaint Christian sentiments. I don’t want people to remember my sermon, I want them to know and love God more through the Scriptures, and be able to do so on their own, in their families and with other people.

There is no parallel for preaching, not school teaching, not academic lecturing, not business presenting, not inspiring, not theater, not solving problems. We really need to stop trying to find an analogy, because no analogy exists.  Preaching is a unique event.

If the goal is to rejoice in God and His Word before His People, trusting the Holy Spirit who wrote the Bible and indwells His People to stir their hearts for the glory of God, then what are we doing messing around with inferior methodologies and delivery methods that cannot hold the weight of the message!?

We need to believe more in God and His Word. Our goals of transformation are going to be accomplished through the Biblical text. Each person in the congregation should be able to go back to the text and remember by the Holy Spirit and re-preach it to themselves. They should be able to see God’s transformational truth from the Word themselves without the added baggage of the preacher’s outline obscuring the text and confusing them.

This kind of preaching is what the people of God really hunger for. This kind of preaching is what those without God really want and really need to hear. We preachers need to stop playing games and simply love our people and preach the Word. Look at the book!

( See related blog post: Hijacked Preaching)

I remember when I became a Christian at the age of 17. All I wanted was someone to teach me the Bible, someone who knew the Bible, loved the Bible and simply explained it to me without pulpit antics or goofy gimmicks to get me to like the Bible.

As our Apostle Paul instructed Pastor Timothy (2 Timothy 3:14-4:5):
“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. 
“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”
Lest you think I am a complete iconoclast, I will grant that add-ons can be helpful, but they are not preaching, they are add-ons. All I am asking for is a more thoughtful and prayerful reconsideration of what we are doing when we are preaching the Word of God, the Holy Scripture.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Personal Holiness Has Fallen On Hard Times

Maybe it is just me, but it seems like the topic of personal holiness is overlooked these days.

Even though Christian discipleship is a hot topic today, the part about “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” by Jesus Christ is missing from many discussions and from many lives. Do Christians actively pursue personal holiness still, I wonder?

Possible Reasons

There might be a number of reasons for this lack of pursuit.
  1. Christians don’t see it as that important, beyond the basics of acceptable morality.
  2. Christians have adopted the best of current cultural standards as their own standards.
  3. Christians don’t really know the biblical standards, and there is significant self-doubt about the ones they think they might know.
  4. Christians are living outside of God’s moral will, they know it and they feel it.
  5. Christians are fearful that they will become self-righteous, or will be viewed that way.
Of course, the biggest category these days has to do with all views, practices and proprieties in the area of human sexuality. It is astounding how difficult it is to have a biblically honest conversation around matters that have historically been clear for millennia even up to about 10-15 years ago in America.

Preferred Conversations

Instead, Christians prefer to talk about transformation. This is a large theological term, a good term, but it has been co-opted for speaking in general terms about many things. It sounds much more comprehensive; though it provides an excellent opportunity to hide. By focusing on others and on matters of community and social justice it is easy to avoid our own shortcomings whether minor blemishes or even serious sins.

Supposedly getting into morality specifics could be offensive, so we leave it up to the individual brother or sister and their personal relationship with God. This only seems more noble because we are either ignorant of God’s Scriptural commands, or we are afraid of them, or both. But we miss that true transformation, both at the personal level and for the greater good, is rooted in personal character.
1 John 2:15–17 ESV “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”
Push the Envelope

It is possible to go beyond current acceptable norms in Christianity. How odd it is to use the phrase but we can “push the envelope” on Christian personal holiness. We need to speak honestly and spiritually with our closest friends.
Ephesians 5:3–17 ESV “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”
The goal is to please the Lord, at least it ought to be! Three books that have been helpful to me:  The Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges, The Holiness of God by R. C. Sproul and Holiness by J. C. Ryle.

So then, my friends, “Since we have these promises [in the Gospel], beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.” (2 Corinthians 7:1)

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Eradication Of Sin

We long for the day when sin will be finally and fully eradicated. At that time we will live in perfection in all our relationships—with God, ourselves, one another and the world. This Day is the Day when Our Lord Jesus Christ Returns. This will be the Day when God will triumph over sin in His People and in His Creation.
Romans 8:18–25 ESV “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
Our Glorification in the Resurrection

Glorification is the final step in the application of our redemption, including the redemption of our bodies as well as our souls.
Romans 8:29–30 ESV “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
The Old Testament promises our resurrection and generates hope. It prepares us for the full revelation of its reality in the New Testament with Our Lord Jesus Christ. Such passages as these: Job 19:25-26; Psalm 16:11; 49:15; 73:24-25; and others.
Isaiah 26:19 ESV “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead.” 
Daniel 12:2 ESV “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”
The New Testament brings clarity to this long standing testimony of hope from the Old Testament. Jesus Christ’s teachings on this topic are abundant in the Gospel accounts. His own Resurrection of course being the greatest testimony and hope ever! As a result, the New Testament is filed with encouragement to look to this hope at the final Day. Such passages as these: John 11:23-24; Acts 24:15; 1 Corinthians 15; 2 Corinthians 5:1-10; 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17; Hebrews 11:16-19; and others.
1 Thessalonians 4:16–17 ESV “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.”
This teaching of the reality of the resurrection is one of great hope and comfort, and for encouragement to persevere and please God. We will be like Christ in glory, fully renewed in strength, beauty and spirituality. We will be recognizable, being same person in body and soul. All of this is a celebration of God’s triumph over sin
Colossians 1:19–20 ESV “For in him [Christ Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”
We are not fully capable of explaining how this will work with out limited scientific minds. This will be a different type of existence, in full righteousness. There will be a renewal of the creation in perfect harmony. We will be embodied, enjoy society and work, all in an endless perfection of God-centeredness.

Jonathan Edward’s Meditations

Heaven, as Jonathan Edward’s taught, is God’s “fixed abode of manifestation” along with His angels and His saints. We cannot exaggerate its glory, and there we will “swim in an ocean of love and be swallowed up by the bright light of infinity.” 

In 1740, Edwards preached a famous sermon on heaven entitled “The Portion of the Righteous.” It is a captivating sermon. John Gerstner referred to Edwards as “the rhapsodic seer” of this beatific vision and summarizes the sermon in this way:
In his sermon, Edwards describes how Christians will behold God with their souls’ eyes, as an experience of their whole being, in the beatific vision of pure love. They will continually grow in perfection with ever new discoveries of God and one another as His saints, like lovers. And they will enjoy blessed fellowship in perfect love together in perfection and perpetual youth.  
Even now, those glorified in heaven are interested in the saints still on earth, for there is One Church of God. But in glory, all the saints of God will be rewarded for their works in Christ according to their capacities, each being full, and yet our blessedness will increase forevermore as we delight in one another’s blessedness. As the stars vary in degrees of brightness we will differ in glory but each being satisfied, according to 1 Corinthians 15:41.
Five Applications

Here are five ways we can apply the coming reality of our glorification and the eradication of sin that will impact our lives today.
  1. Actively anticipating heaven and glorification will build up our hope. John Calvin said, “Meditation on the future life is a primary mark of a Christian.”
  2. Reflect on the deaths of Christians, especially those you know. Consider their present existence and experience, and let joy of glory fill your soul!
  3. Truly hoping for the Day of Christ will have observable effects in our lives. It will actually work to change us and make us more like Christ! (1 John 3:2-3)
  4. We are to live out the future we know is secure. We need to keep renewing our minds in thinking this way so that we live this way. (Colossians 3:1-3)
  5. Read Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “The Portion of the Righteous.” It will thrill your soul like nothing else you have probably ever read about heaven! It will take you to new heights of praise, delight, and worship!