Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Strange and Glorious Joy

Kim and I are in a season of transition. Due to some health and financial problems, we have to move from our home, get into a more affordable living situation, and otherwise reduce our expenses as much as possible. We’re staying in the same area, and staying at Glory of Christ Fellowship, but we have to move. We’re okay with this, life happens and God is good, but it would be less than honest to say that this season has been easy.

For example, though we’ve only lived in our house for six years, we’ve lived here longer than anywhere else in our lives. We’ve both been transient people for a long time, but now that we’re in our late 40s, it’s starting to wear on us a bit. And furthermore, we’ve made some significant advances with our neighbors, most of whom don’t believe in Jesus, and we’re sad to have to walk away from them before we see with our eyes the fulfillment of our prayers.

But here we stand, knowing that our gracious God is calling us to leave (again), not knowing where he’s calling us to land, and not knowing the details of what life will be like once we get there. We’re in a season of transition, of limbo, of mystery, of the unknown

And we’re in a season that holds much potential for a strange but glorious joy, if only we’ll have eyes to see and hearts to receive.

I find it difficult to explain what I mean, but let me give it a shot. When we have a serious and genuine need and we bring it to Jesus in prayer – not briefly and superficially but regularly and fervently – he will often grant us an assurance of his answer such that we experience a joy that’s usually reserved for those who see the answer with their eyes. To be sure, we do experience a sweet joy when God answers our prayers and allows us to receive what he’s supplied. But it seems to me that we experience a sweeter joy, a strange and glorious joy, when God gives us the assurance that he’s answered our prayers without allowing us to receive what he’s supplied – at least not yet. I find it nearly impossible to describe what it’s like to have such confidence in God’s answer, that we’re filled with joy before we see God’s answer.

When I was little, my daddy would sometimes tell me that he was going to give me something in a day or a week or a month. I believed him. I trusted him. I rested in his word. I had peace and joy in waiting, because I knew that my daddy would provide what he promised, in his time and in his way. And he did.

These experiences were but the smallest glimpse of the strange and glorious joy that’s ours each time we pray, receive assurance, and wait on our Father’s timing. And I think that the essence of this joy is love, trust, and the unshakable hope that our heavenly Father will provide what he has promised, in his time and in his way.

Indeed, Kim and I have no idea where we’re going to live, and how it’s all going to work out, but we know the One who knows. We know that he sees our new home. He sees where we’ll park our cars and walk our dog. He sees where all of our furniture, decorations, dishes, and things will go. He sees the place or two where Kim and I will spend the majority of our prayer time, and surely he rejoices at the thought of meeting us there.

We know next to nothing, he knows everything, and the strange and glorious joy we’re experiencing right now comes from resting in what he knows rather than stressing in what we don’t know. O how the words of Paul in Romans 15:13 have ministered to my heart in recent days, please savor them with me: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing [literally, “in faithing”], so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”

Indeed, may he do that, not only for Kim and I, but for all who call on his name and rest in him by faith. I look forward to writing a follow up to this blog in a few months and giving glory to our Father for all that he’s done!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Want to Get More out of Sermons? Become an “Industrious Hearer”

In the fourth century, Basil of Caesarea offered this advice to those who listen to sermons week in and week out. “The Scripture will reveal its depth to ‘industrious hearers,’ people prepared ‘to examine what they have just heard.’ Hearing is not enough. What is heard must be chewed and digested if it is to bring lasting benefit” (quoted from Christopher A. Hall, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, Intervarsity: 1998, 88).

I really like that term “industrious hearers,” and I’d like to offer a few thoughts to expand on what it means. And let me begin by saying that, even though I’m a preacher, these things apply to me because I too listen to sermons every week. So may the Lord give us all ears to hear and hearts to become “industrious hearers.”

First, come prepared. If you know the text in advance, read it. Meditate on it. Makes notes about it. Talk with others about it. Pray and ask the Lord to help you gain insight into his Word that you may bear fruit for his glory. If you don’t know the text in advance, do what you can to till the soil of your soul so that it’s ready to receive the seed of the Word.

Second, when the worship service begins, fix your eyes on the Lord. Do your best to take your mind off of other things and focus on him. Seek him. Sing to him. Speak to him. Receive from him. Love him. Ask him to help you care about his Word, listen well, and gain insight as you do.

Third, when the message begins, listen attentively and deliberately. For me, this requires that I take notes. I don’t know of another way to keep my mind fixed on what’s being said, and to remember what was said when the message is over. I know that there are different strokes for different folks and that not everyone likes taking notes, but I want to challenge you to try it for 4-6 weeks. If in the end this doesn’t work for you, then find some other way to fix your mind and heart on the Word of God and to pay close attention to what’s being said. Industrious hearers find a way to hear well.

Fourth, when the message is over, take time to process it. Talk with others about it. Think and pray about it. Look over your notes and determine what the main point of the message was. Ask the Lord to help you discern what the points of application ought to be for your life. This is very important because when the sermon is over, the work has just begun. Industrious hearers must chew and digest the message after the fact, so I encourage you to set some time aside every week to think about and apply what you’ve heard.

Fifth, as the Lord gives you insight, passion and power to apply his Word to your life, share what he’s teaching you with others. God has created us to be rivers rather than reservoirs, and the joy of the Lord increases when we freely give to others all that he’s given to us.

Finally, repeat. And repeat and repeat. Industrious hearing takes work and time, but over time, industrious hearers are fruitful children. The preacher does have his part and we should all pray that he would be able to play his part well. But we as hearers also have our part and we should concern ourselves with this more than anything else. We can’t control the worship, the text, the preacher, the preaching, and many other things. But we can greatly influence the state of our souls and our readiness to hear, receive, chew on, and digest the Word, and we should do so.

The heart of our Father is to feed us by his Word that we may be shaped into his image. This is such a gracious and glorious vision, and so I pray that the Lord will cause us all to become industrious hearers and grow in him for the glory of his name.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Growing in Grace by Praising God

The Apostle Peter drew his second letter to a close with these wise and pastoral words: “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen” (2 Peter 3:18). The word “grow” is an exhortation and a command, and it implies that if we’re to progress in Christ we must play an active role, by the grace of Christ, in building habits that nurture our progress. Therefore, I am offering a series of devotionals this summer on eight essential habits that help us to grow in grace. For today, let’s consider the place of praise in the Christian life.

Paul writes in Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” The three clauses in this verse are often quoted in isolation from one another, but they are in fact designed to be kept together. As Jesus enriches our lives with his Word, by his Spirit, we cannot help but overflow with praise for God through teaching, singing, and thanksgiving.

As Jesus teaches us his will and ways, we naturally long to share what we’ve learned with others. As he reveals to us more of his beauty and excellence, we naturally long to say and sing our praise, sometimes in the privacy of our hearts and sometimes at the top of our lungs. As he applies his will and ways to our lives, we naturally overflow with specific thanksgiving for who he is and what he’s done. As the Word of Christ becomes our treasure, the expression of praise becomes our pleasure. Indeed, as C. S. Lewis pointed out, the verbalization of joy completes our joy (Reflections on the Psalms).

Now, having said that, I must add that there is discipline to praise. That is to say, we must discipline ourselves to treasure the words of Christ and receive from the Spirit of Christ day by day. We must sometimes press ourselves to overflow with praise through teaching, singing, and thanksgiving. We must sometimes force ourselves to fix our eyes on him who is the prize of life that we may exalt him in one another’s eyes. Praise is the natural overflow of a heart enamored of Jesus and rich with the Word of Jesus. And praise requires effort, discipline, and perseverance.

So my exhortation to you today is this: spend some time with Jesus and search your heart in the atmosphere of his grace. How are you doing with regard to his Word—is it dwelling in you richly or poorly? Are you overflowing with praise through teaching, singing, and thanksgiving? How can you grow in discipline with regard to these things?

May Jesus grant us the passion and power to grow in the grace and knowledge of him, and to overflow with the praise of him all the days of our lives. Lord, hear our prayer!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The King Who Cares for the Poor, Images the Lord

Solomon wrote in Proverbs 29:14, “If a king faithfully judges the poor, his throne will be established forever.” Proverbs has much to say about our relationship to the poor, broadly defined as people who are weaker than us in one way or another. In fact, even the poor are exhorted to take care for how they treat others who are poor (Proverbs 28:3). As I see it, the primary principle Proverbs teaches in this regard is this: to care for the poor is to image the Lord.

When we come to Proverbs 29:14, which is the second to last Proverb that directly deals with this subject, we see that this principle applies to the most powerful people on the earth. They don’t get a pass because of their position, power, and prestige. In fact, in some respects the call upon them is greater because their level of responsibility is greater. The Lord sees, hears, and knows all things, and he has promised that he will bless the king who acts justly toward the poor.

As I pondered this proverb, I came to see something that evoked worship in my heart. Namely, the king who uses his position and power to stand for those without position and power demonstrates the heart of God on earth in a unique way. Since he rules over so many people and things in an unusual way, he has the opportunity to image God in an unusual way by showing kindness and giving help to those who are weak. And again, the Lord’s promise is that he will establish the one who faithfully reflects his character in this way.

For me, this is an awe-inspiring vision, but for the king who has ears to hear it will take courage to obey. In order to stand for the poor, a king will at times have to stand against the rich who seek to use their power and influence to oppress others and control the king. To stand for the poor, a king will have to risk tarnishing his reputation since he is, in some sense, identifying with the lowly rather than the venerable. And this is an especially risky thing in the context of an honor-shame culture where identification with others determines, in large part, others’ perception of the king. To stand for the poor, a king will have to fear the Lord and no one else. He will have to be an impartial judge, favoring neither the rich nor the poor, and entrusting himself into the hands of the King of kings who sees, knows, and saves.

Proverbs 31:1-9 presents us with an oracle that was written by the mother of King Lemuel. We don’t know who Lemuel was, and it probably doesn’t matter. What matters is that he had a very wise mother who composed a very wise oracle that he should memorize it, take it heart, and stay focused on his calling all the days of his life. In essence, she said, “My son, avoid the deceptive allure of women and wine, and stay focused on your mission at all times.” She concluded her oracle with these words: “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.”

She obviously knew this truth and longed for the blessing of the Lord to be lavished upon her son: “If a king faithfully judges the poor, his throne will be established forever.” Indeed, the king who cares for the poor, images the Lord.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Basil of Caesarea: Some Wisdom on Interpreting the Bible

In the early centuries of the Christian church, a debate—a division really—arose between the theological center at Antioch in Syria and the theological center at Alexandria in northern Egypt. The Antiochene school taught that pastors, teachers, and Christians at-large should take a substantially literal approach to the interpretation of Scripture, for they argued that Bible mainly means what it seems to mean. They allowed for spiritual and metaphorical meanings, and they acknowledged that there are various genres within the Scripture, but they insisted that these meanings are rooted in, and constrained by, the literal meaning.

The Alexandrian school, following the Jewish Philosopher Philo, taught that there are four levels of meaning to Scripture: the literal meaning, the allegorical meaning, the tropological (ethical) meaning, and the anagogical or eschatological (end times) meaning. While some in the Alexandrian school were well intentioned and had a genuine love for Jesus, their method of interpretation often led them on such flights of fancy that it’s hard to understand precisely what they believed and who they loved. Were they pursuing the true Jesus, or were they using vain philosophies to construct an idol that they called Jesus? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

Basil of Caesarea (330-379) firmly aligned himself with Antioch. He argued that the desire to find fanciful meanings in the Scripture was the fruit of hearts that were not satisfied with its plain meaning, And this in turn was the fruit of a lifestyle that was not submitted to the Lord, or seeking him through prayer, worship, and humble study. The primary solution he offered, then, was for those being influenced by Alexandria to submit to, and seek, Jesus from the heart, remembering that his words are sacred, that they are inspired by the Holy Spirit himself, and that they are sufficient in their plain meaning to grant the knowledge of God, the knowledge of his will and ways, and the satisfaction of the soul.

To give a specific example, Basil once remarked that the word “darkness” in Genesis 1:2 most likely means “darkness”! Others had written entire treatises speculating about the philosophical and ontological meanings of this word in this context, but Basil and his kind stood up and said, enough is enough. Let the plain meaning of Scripture be the meaning of Scripture, and let us submit to the God who revealed his word to give us light and life in Christ. We need not give ourselves to the entertainment of fanciful interpretations, rather, we need to give ourselves to the worship of Christ – plain and simple.

Now, Basil and his contemporary Antiochenes argued that, while we can appeal to the broader teaching of the Bible in order to interpret a particular text, we have to exercise great caution in doing so. For instance, with regard to Genesis 1:2, both the Apostle John and the Apostle Paul refer to the specific language of this verse, and its surrounding verses, to teach that Jesus is the speech and light of God that breaks into the darkness of sinful hearts and effects salvation.

John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:1-5). And Paul writes, “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:5-6).

To appeal to John and Paul in the effort the interpret Genesis 1:2 well, is to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. It is to allow inspired writers to show us that the good news of Jesus Christ was being metaphorically proclaimed from the first words of creation. It is not to allow human philosophies or the unanchored wanderings of our minds to tell us what a particular passage means.

So again, Basil and his kind argued that we may appeal to Scripture in order to interpret a given text, but he warned that we should exercise caution in doing so. We should take care to submit to, and seek, the one who breathed out the words of the Bible. We should strive to understand each text on its own terms, and according to its plain meaning, appealing to other texts only when they clearly allude to or otherwise effect the meaning. We should seek to understand and obey the clear will and ways of our Father and refuse to press obscure and unfounded meanings into his words.

Amen. May the Lord “give [us] the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him (Ephesians 1:17), and a heart to show great care when interpreting his Word.  

(For more on Basil, see Christopher A. Hall, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, Intervarsity: 1998, 81-93).

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Growing in Grace by the Word of God

The Apostle Peter drew his second letter to a close with these wise and pastoral words: “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen” (2 Peter 3:18). The word “grow” is an exhortation and a command, and it implies that if we’re to progress in Christ we must play an active role, by the grace of Christ, in building habits that nurture our progress. Therefore, I am offering a series of devotionals this summer on eight essential habits that help us to grow in grace. For today, let’s consider the place of the Word in the Christian life.

Isaiah wrote, “The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary. Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught” (Isaiah 50:4).

The longing of our God and Father is to draw near to his children morning by morning, opening our eyes to his glory and our hearts to his mercy. He wants to use his Word, by his Spirit, to lavish his love upon us that we might lavish his love upon others. For it is in receiving mercy that we’re able to give mercy, in receiving wisdom that we’re able to give wisdom, in receiving encouragement that we’re able to give encouragement, in receiving blessing that we’re able to be a blessing.

Therefore, our Father most lovingly calls us to allow the word of Christ to dwell richly in us (Colossians 3:16). His heart is not that we would legalistically hear, read, study, memorize, meditate on, apply, and teach the word. No, his heart is that we would seek him, that we would long for him to draw near to us and minister to us and transform us into his image, that we would share in his joy and become a blessing to others.

So whatever place the Word of God has in your life right now, I want to challenge you to press on and let the word of Christ dwell in you all the more richly. Grow in the daily habits of hearing, reading, studying, memorizing, meditating on, applying, and teaching the Word of God. And as you do, remember that the aim of pressing on in the Word is to connect, heart to heart, with our Father. Mere reading and such will do us no good.

Let us remember the words of Isaiah: “The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary. Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught” (Isaiah 50:4).

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Set Free to Worship

Do you know that God sets people free from something and also to something? Do you know that his deliverance is not an end in itself, but only a beginning? Consider the words of Psalm 105:43-45. “So he [the Lord] brought his people out with joy, his chosen ones with singing. And he gave them the lands of the nations, and they took possession of the fruit of the peoples’ toil, that they might keep his statutes and observe his laws. Praise the Lord!”

We learn several important, worship-evoking truths from these words. First, God brought his people Israel out of Egypt, that is, he delivered them from something. This fact was a fountain of joy and singing for them because they lived with the conscious memory of being freed from their long oppression and suffering. And oh what joy there is in being released from captivity!

Second, God not only delivered his people from something, he also delivered them to something which he prepared in advance. Specifically, God brought his people into the Promised Land and allowed them to take possession of riches that they didn't earn. He lavished unspeakable grace on them, because he's like that: he’s a gracious and bountiful God.

Third, the purpose of delivering his people from something and to something was that they might listen to him, learn from him, and gladly submit to him all the days of their lives. It was to praise the Lord, to give thanksgiving and glory to him who had been so gracious to them.

In other words, God freed his people for worship.

The grace of the Lord upon the people of Israel was a sign and symbol of the grace he would one day pour upon all the nations of the earth, and indeed is now pouring. His desire and design from before the foundation of the world was to redeem worshipers for himself from every tribe, tongue, and nation, and through the spread of the good news of Jesus Christ he's doing just that.

Accordingly, the Lord delivers each and all of us from something. For me it was drug and alcohol abuse, among other things. For others it was something else, but what’s common to us all is that God delivers us all from something.

Furthermore, God delivers us to something. He brings us all into a spiritual land, namely, the heart and soul and mind and strength of Jesus Christ, and this land is full of great and glorious things that now belong to us, though we didn’t earn them. By God’s grace, we have been united with Jesus Christ, and being united with him we have been granted riches that are literally beyond measure, riches that are not to be compared with the finest gold and the choicest silver in the world. And these riches are the free gift of God in Christ given for his glory and our joy and the blessing of the nations.

The primary purpose of these twin graces is that we might draw near to God in Christ and listen to him, learn from him, gladly submit to him, and praise him all the days of our lives, and indeed for eternity. God set us free that we might sing his praise and give him thanks forever!

So may the prayer of the Psalmist be the deep prayer of our hearts as well: “Save us, O Lord our God, and gather us from among the nations, that we may give thanks to your holy name and glory in your praise” (Psalm 106:47).  

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Gregory of Nazianzus on the Deity of the Holy Spirit

As I mentioned in my last post, Gregory of Nazianzus (ca. 329-390) spent his life standing against the fierce tide of Arianism that threatened to destroy the church. The main issue for which he, and others, contended was the unified but dual nature of Christ, that is, that Jesus is fully God and fully man. A less prominent but related issue, was the deity of the Holy Spirit. If those standing for biblical truth had to argue for what is plain on the pages of Scripture, so did they have to argue for that which is also plain but somewhat less obvious.

In a sermon entitled, “The Third Theological Oration—On the Son,” Gregory argued for the divinity of the Holy Spirit and then summed up his remarks with these insightful and inspiring remarks. I encourage you to read his words prayerfully and carefully, and to meditate on the reality of who the Holy Spirit is.

“This, then, is my position with regard to these things, and I hope it may be always my position, and that of whoever is dear to me; to worship God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, these persons, one Godhead, undivided in honor and glory and substance and kingdom. For if He [the Holy Spirit] is not to be worshiped, how can he deify me by baptism? [See 2 Peter 1:4.] But if he is to be worshiped, surely he is an object of adoration, and, if an object of adoration, he must be God; the one is linked to the other, a truly golden and saving chain. And indeed from the Spirit comes our new birth, and from the new birth our new creation, and from the new creation our deeper knowledge of the dignity of Him from whom it is derived” (quoted from Christopher A. Hall, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers [IVP Press: 1998, 76]).

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Growing in the Grace and Knowledge of Christ

Do you want to grow in love for Jesus? Do you long to experience more of his grace day by day? Do you desire for your life to bring glory to Christ? Most Christians will, of course, answer “yes” to these questions, but I want to encourage you to join me in searching our hearts to see if our “yes” really means “yes.” Are we willing to take up our cross daily and die to anything that stands in the way of our progress in Christ? Are we willing to sell everything we have in order to gain him?

The Apostle Peter drew his second letter to a close with these wise and pastoral words: “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen” (2 Peter 3:18). Beloved, this is an exhortation from an elder brother in Christ, and it’s also a command. The word “grow” is in the imperative mood which means that it’s a directive. Peter is saying to people he loves very much, “Forsake the fading pleasures of this world and make every effort to pursue Christ” (see 1 Peter 1:5-11).

So I ask again: do you long for growth, grace, and the glory of Christ in your life? If you answered “yes,” then know that you will have to play an active role, by the grace of Christ, in building habits that nurture this longing. We cannot sit idly by and expect to grow, rather, we must apply ourselves according to the will and wisdom of God.

Therefore, over the next several weeks, I’ll be writing a series of devotionals on eight essential habits that create an atmosphere of growth in our lives. These habits do not, in themselves, cause us to grow in Christ, but they are tools and fertilizer in the hands of the God who does cause us to grow.

Specifically, I plan to write about the Word of God, praise, prayer, fasting, giving, community life, evangelism, and mercy ministry. As you read these devotionals each week, please join me in the quest to understand what our Father is asking of us and why, and in the effort to apply his wisdom to our lives by the grace and power of Christ. Those who hear and do the will of God will be blessed indeed.

Finally, please join me in praying that Jesus will do a great work at Glory of Christ this summer. Peter’s call to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ is not only imperative, it’s plural. It’s a command issued to us as a people, not as isolated individuals. So again, please pray that God will bind us together as we seek him together.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Gospel in the Book of Job

Several months ago, my good friend, Dave Fergus, shared the following meditation at our church in preparation for taking communion. It blessed me so much to see the good news of Jesus Christ in what might be the oldest book of the Bible, and I hope it blesses you as well. 

Dave's Words: 
Job is one of the oldest books in the Bible. It is most usually dated to the era of the patriarchs, around the time of Abraham. The Hebrew language did not exist in written form at the time of the patriarchs, but the poetic nature of Job would have facilitated memorization and would most likely have been available in recited form to Moses, the author of the Pentateuch, who is also the most likely recorder of Job as it is now written in Hebrew.  

Ezekiel identifies Job's righteousness as on par with Noah and Daniel. James commends Job's perseverance to us. This book is also one of the few accounts of God interacting with Satan in that place that is not earth (heaven). 

Chapter One is a remarkable text in that it shows Satan having an actual conversation/debate with God.  Several side questions come to mind that do not have an answer: Who observed this interaction? Who and how was it conveyed it to the person who eventually wrote out the book in the Hebrew language? For that matter, what language do God and Satan use? Who observed/recorded the rest of the book with the dialogues of Job, Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, Elihu, and finally the discourses of God? We don’t know the answers to these questions, but we can glean much from this book, including a very clear rendering of God's redemptive plan.

My Creator exists:
9:8  God alone stretches out the heavens
10:8  Your hands shaped me and made me.
12:10  In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.

My Creator possesses limitless power and wisdom:
9:4 His wisdom is profound, and his power is vast.
9:10  He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted.
37:23  The Almighty is beyond our reach and exalted in power.

My Creator is active in the world and uses nature for multiple purposes including teaching us about himself:
36:22-26  God is exalted in his power.  Who is a teacher like him?  Who has prescribed his ways for him, or said to him, ‘You have done wrong’?  Remember to extol his work, which men have praised in song.  All mankind has seen it; men gaze on it from afar.  How great is God—beyond our understanding!  The number of his years is past finding out.
37:6-7  He says to the snow ‘Fall on the earth’, and to the rain shower, ‘Be a mighty downpour’.  So that all men may know his work, he stops every man from his labor.
37:10-13  The breath of God produces ice, and the broad waters become frozen.  He loads the clouds with moisture, he scatters his lightning through them.  At his direction they swirl around over the face of the whole earth to do whatever he commands them.  He brings the clouds to punish men, or to water the earth and show his love.

My Creator cares for me:
10:12  You gave me life and showed me kindness, and in your providence watched over my spirit.
7:17-19  What is man that you make so much of him, that you give him so much attention, that you examine him every morning and test him every moment? Will you never look away from me, or let me alone for an instant?
36:16  He is wooing you from the jaws of distress to a spacious place free from restriction, to the comfort of your table laden with choice food.

My Creator is good, and perfection is his standard:
10:14  If I sinned, you would be watching me and would not let my offense go unpunished.
34:12  It is unthinkable that God would do wrong, that the Almighty would pervert justice.

My Creator sees and knows everything I do and say:
23:10  He knows the way that I take.
34:21  His eyes are on the ways of men, he sees their every step.  There is no dark place, no deep shadow, where evildoers can hide.

We all fall hopelessly short of the Creator’s goodness, and deserve annihilation:
9:2 How can mere mortals prove their innocence before God?
9:14  How then can I dispute with him?
14:4  Who can bring what is pure from the impure?
15:14  Who are mortals, that they could be pure?
34:33  Should God then reward you on your terms, when you refuse to repent?

Because the Creator is powerful, wise and loving, he has a plan to redeem me:
14:14-15  I will wait for my renewal to come.  You will call and I will answer you:  you will long for the creature your hands have made.
16:19-21  Even now my witness is in heaven; my advocate is on high.  My intercessor is my friend as my eyes pour out tears to God; on behalf of a man he pleads with God as one pleads for a friend.
33:14  For God does speak—now one way, now another—though no one perceives it.
33:29-30  God does all these things to a person—twice, even three times—to turn them back from the pit, that the light of life may shine on them.

Without this intervention by the Creator, we would be annihilated:
34:14-15  If it were his intention and he withdrew his spirit and breath, all mankind would perish together and man would return to the dust.

My Redeemer rescues me from my sin:
9:15  I can only plead with my Judge for mercy.
13:15  Though he slay me, yet I will hope in him.
14:17  My offenses will be sealed up in a bag; you will cover over my sin.
17:3  Give me O God, the pledge you demand.  Who else will put up security for me?
33:26-28  He prays to God and finds favor with him, he sees God’s face and shouts for joy; he is restored by God to his righteous state.  Then he comes to men and says, ‘I sinned, and perverted what was right, and I did not get what I deserved.’

My rescue is assured, and after my death, I will rise to physically be with him:
19:25-27  I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth.  And after my skin has been destroyed (worms eat me, KJV), yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another.  How my heart yearns within me!
23:10  When he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.

If I reject the Creator’s offer, my condemnation is assured:
19:28-29  if you say, ‘How we will hound him, since the root of trouble lies in him’, you should fear the sword yourselves; for the wrath will bring punishment by the sword, and then you will know that there is judgment.

Job’s response to the truth of this plan of redemption and a clear understanding of God’s sovereignty is as follows:
42:2-6  I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted.  You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’  Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.  You said ‘Listen now, and I will speak, I will question you and you shall answer me.’  My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.  Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.

Let us now do this too in remembrance of our Redeemer, Jesus the Christ.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

An Invitation to Stress Free Living

As I draw near to the beginning of my vacation, my mind is going back to the end of my last vacation. This morning I remembered a lesson that the Lord taught me at that time, and that I need to remember, so I thought it might be helpful to re-post what I wrote upon my return. I know that this has blessed me today, and I hope it will bless you, too. 

Thank you so much, Glory of Christ, for praying for me while I was away over the last few weeks. I enjoyed many lengthy times with the Lord wherein I read over 300 chapters of the Bible, memorized and meditated on several verses, talked with our Father about many things, and simply enjoyed being with him as one of his sons in Christ. Please receive my appreciation for your prayers, for I am sure that the Lord heard and answered them and that means the world to me.

One of the texts I spent quite a bit of time savoring is Philippians 4:6-8. This is a well-known text that we memorized together as a church earlier in the summer, and though I have quoted it hundreds of times over the years in a variety of contexts, I heard the opening line in a way I have never heard it before—I heard it as an invitation. 

“Do not be anxious about anything”—not one single thing. Ponder this. Savor this. Receive this. Our Father is inviting us to live a completely stress-free life because of the power of what he has done for us in Christ. He is inviting us to join Jesus as he sleeps in the bottom of the boat while the storm rages fiercely and threatens life and limb. I am not saying that this way of life is automatic or easy to learn, but I am saying that God is inviting us into it and that he can teach us how to actually live this way—resting in Christ stress-free. 

Why do we get anxious anyway? There are at least two reasons. First, we want to be in control and fear that we are not. In other words, arrogance leads to anxiety. Second, we fear people, circumstances, the future, and many other things. In other words, uncertainty leads to anxiety. And under both arrogance and uncertainty is a common denominator that manifests itself in different ways, namely, unbelief. 

Our Father would teach us that on the basis of what he’s accomplished in Christ, we are free to fear him and no one or nothing else. We are free to live by faith, trusting that our Father is in total control of everything and that he has the future in his hands and that his purposes for us in Christ are good. When we learn to live by faith in this way, all other fears are vanquished because perfect love casts out fear, and with it all related anxieties. 

So may we hear the words of our loving Father, rest in him, and learn to live a stress-free life: “Do not be anxious about anything” but talk to your Father about everything. 

The Glory of Christ: Fully God and Fully Man

Gregory of Nazianzus (ca. 329-390) was a champion of biblical truth who stood strong against the fierce storms of Arianism. The Arians (named after the false teacher, Arius), taught that Jesus was but a man and certainly not God. They argued that those portions of Scripture that stress the humanity of Jesus necessarily imply that he was merely human, for if he was divine, he could not by definition be tired or hungry or ignorant of the future. Gregory, among others, responded by arguing that these kinds of passages display the true humanity of Jesus without denying, or destroying, his divinity. In fact, when held in balance with other texts, we are forced to conclude that he is fully God and fully man, or that the Bible itself is a farce.

That latter is most certainly not true, and therefore we are left to marvel in the unified, but dual, nature of Jesus. In one of his most famous sermons entitled “The Third Theological Oration—On the Son,” Gregory helps us to gain greater sight of the glory of Christ. Please join me in savoring these awe-inspiring comparisons.

“He [Jesus] was baptized as man, but he remitted sins as God…He was tempted as man, but he conquered as God…He hungered, but he fed thousands…He was wearied, but he is the rest of them that are weary and heavy-laden. He was heavy with sleep, but he walked lightly over the sea…He pays tribute, but it is out of a fish; yea, he is the King of those who demanded it…He prays, but he hears prayer. He weeps, but he causes tears to cease. He asks where Lazarus was laid, for he was man; but he raises Lazarus, for he was God. He was sold, and very cheap, for it is only for thirty pieces of silver; but he redeems the world, and that at a great price, for the price was his blood. As a sheep he is led to the slaughter, but he is the shepherd of Israel, and now of the whole world also…He is bruised and wounded, but he heals every disease and every infirmity. He is lifted up and nailed to the tree, but by the tree of life he restores us. He dies, but he gives life, and by his death, he destroys death” (quoted from Christopher A. Hall, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers [IVP Academic: 1998, 73]).

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Freedom in Christ = Joy in Life!

This fall I plan to preach through the book of Luke, and in preparation for the series I've been meditating on Luke 4:16-21 because here Jesus declared his life's mission, namely, to proclaim good news, liberty, healing, and the favor of God to those who have ears to hear and hearts to receive. 

Jesus' life was, then, 100% focused on this mission, and he accomplished everything he set out to accomplish. He was perfectly obedient to God the Father all the days of his life, and now "whoever calls upon the name of the Lord [Jesus] will be saved" (Romans 10:13). Through simple faith in Christ we can be free - truly, deeply, eternally free. And in being free, we can be happy. We will not always be without trouble or difficulty or sorrow or suffering, but by faith in Christ we can have unshakable joy in Christ. 

Indeed, freedom in Christ = joy in life! 

So, here's the text of Luke 4:16-21. Please savor these precious words and cling to Christ: “And he [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.’ And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” 

Character, Community, and the Study of Scripture

Recently I’ve been re-reading Christopher A. Hall’s fine book, Reading the Scripture with the Church Fathers (IVP Academic, 1998). By “Church Fathers” Hall means the leaders of the Christian church in the first several centuries of her existence, two of which are Athanasius (295-373) and Gregory of Nazianzus (ca. 329-390). 

Early in the book, Hall draws attention to these two leaders in order to illustrate what was true of the church fathers in general: they believed that the serious study of Scripture ought to take place within the community of the church, and that it required regular progress in Christian character. To put it in a principle, Christian community and progressive sanctification form the atmosphere for right interpretation.

Consider the following quote: “Neither Athanasius nor Gregory envisioned exegesis or theology as the academic activity of biblical scholars or theologians divorced from the life of the church or personal spiritual formation. Rather, the fathers believed, the best exegesis occurs within the community of the church. The Scriptures have been given to the church, are read, preached, heard and comprehended within the community of the church, and are safely interpreted only by those whose character is continually being formed by prayer, worship, meditation, self-examination, confession and other means by which Christ’s grace is communicated to his body.

“That is to say, the fathers argue that any divorce between personal character, Christian community and the study of Scripture will be fatal for any attempt to understand the Bible. This holistic, communal approach is surely a methodology that warrants a close investigation in our highly individualistic, specialized, segmented world” (page 42).

That's worth chewing on. I pray that the Lord will help us to grow in love for himself and one another that we  might gain true and fruitful insight into his Word.

Monday, July 07, 2014

"Religion Causes War": Fact or Fiction?

I just read a fascinating article by Robin Schumacher. It turns out that religion is responsible for only 7% of some 1763 wars that have been fought over the course of human history, not the near 100% that atheists and skeptics would have us believe. You can read the article here, it's short and to the point.

And let this be a lesson to us all to do our homework rather than simply believing the over-confident claims of unbelievers.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

The Wisdom of God is all Wrapped up in Grace

I'm working on my sermon for tomorrow from Proverbs 10:31-32. I did my research for the message earlier in the week, but now that I'm putting my thoughts together, several important ideas and quotes have to be left for another time. That's why God created blogs! 

So here's an important quote from The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Harris et al.) regarding the meaning of the Hebrew word for Wisdom, Hochmah. The Bible's take on wisdom is quite different from what we're used to hearing about this word, so please read carefully: “Reflected in OT wisdom is the teaching of a personal God who is holy and just and who expects those who know him to exhibit his character in the many practical affairs of life…The emphasis of OT Wisdom was that the human will, in the realm of practical matters, was to be subject to divine causes. Therefore, Hebrew wisdom was not theoretical and speculative. It was practical, based on revealed principles of right and wrong, to be lived out in daily life.” 

So biblically speaking, God envisions wisdom as the manifestation of his character in the lives of those who love him and follow in his ways. Wisdom is not about saying smart things, or always having the answer, it's about loving God, becoming like him, and overflowing with his wisdom in daily life. Since we're all broken, imperfect, and fallible human beings, this requires that we constantly soak in the ocean of God's grace. 

Indeed, the Bible teaches us that Jesus, who made a way for our sins to be forgiven that we might be reconciled to God, IS the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:21, 24). Simply put, this means that the true wisdom of God comes all wrapped up in the grace of Christ, and to let him pour his grace out upon us is the beginning of wisdom. As Jesus transforms us through his grace, we become like him and walk in wisdom day by day. 

Wow, breath-taking for me, and I hope for you. May the God of wisdom and of grace capture our hearts and minds for the glory of his great name! 

(And by the way, Proverbs 10:31-32 says this: "The mouth of the righteous brings forth wisdom, but the perverse tongue will be cut off. The lips of the righteous know what is acceptable, but the mouth of the wicked, what is perverse.") 

Friday, July 04, 2014

In Search of True Freedom

It is said that America is a free country, and when freedom is defined in a certain way this is true. However, many Americans are anything but free. They are enslaved by pornography, by legal and illegal substances, by greed, by debt, be envy, by jealousy, by anger, by deceit, by unhealthy relationships, by hidden sin, and similar things. Many of us appear to be free, but in truth we are slaves in disguise.

The Bible tells us why people can seem to be free but are not – it’s because they are living under the letter of the law of God, and the letter kills (2 Corinthians 3:6). Their knowledge of the law comes either from the Bible itself, or from their conscience which is the law of God written on the heart. People who’ve never even seen a Bible know that they should not kill, lie, commit adultery, and many other things. This is because God created us to know right from wrong, and we all do.

When we knowingly or unknowingly use our freedom to choose against God’s law, we do violence to our freedom. By exercising our will against God’s will, we enslave our will because sin comes at a great price. In fact, for sin, God demands our life. As the Lord told Adam and Eve, on the day they rebelled against him they would surely die. They did rebel, and spiritually they did die. They lost their freedom and were now slaves of sin, and eventually their physical bodies past from the earth as a sign of what was true of their spirits.

This dynamic of sin and death occurs for everyone who violates the law of God on the page or in the heart. In this way, “the letter kills.” It’s not that God’s law itself is evil, quite the opposite, it is holy and true and good. In fact, it came with great glory (2 Corinthians 3:7). It’s our sin that veils us from seeing the glory that’s plainly in the law of God. It’s our sin that hardens our hearts toward God and his will, wisdom, and ways. It’s our sin that kills because we cannot honor the glorious letter of God’s gracious law.

“But when one turns to the Lord [Jesus], the veil is removed” (2 Corinthians 3:16). Why? Because Jesus paid the price for our sin by dying on the cross. He took our punishment for us that we might be reconciled to God, and being in a right relationship with God is true freedom. This is why the Bible says that “where the Spirit of the Lord [Jesus] is there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17). Freedom from sin, freedom from the penalty of sin, freedom to be in a right relationship with God, freedom to choose what’s right.

And once we find true freedom in Jesus, this lifelong privilege becomes ours: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Jesus has bought our freedom to see his glory and our freedom to be changed into his image. So why not turn to him, forsake your slavery, and enter deep into true freedom today?

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Fathers, Date your Daughters (and image God in the process)

I’m sitting in the commuter lounge of the Coffman Union Building at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities Campus. Rachel is in a meeting with the Homecoming Committee, after which we’ll hop in the car and head to Elk River together. We’re both tired, and feeling a little goofy, so we might not talk about anything substantial, but then again we might. We often do. I know my daughter well, I love her deeply, and that hasn’t come cheap.

When I was in seminary, I had a friend who grew up as an only-child and a pastor’s-daughter so I asked, “Deborah, Rachel is three now (or maybe she was four), what would you say to me as I prepare for the ministry and work with Kim to raise Rachel?” Tears welled up in her eyes as she answered, “I always wished that I could capture my dad’s attention the way the church did.”

Tears welled up in my eyes, too. I committed myself on the spot to pursuing my daughter, capturing her heart, and without making an idol of her, putting her before my ministry. So that week we went on a date, and then we went on another and then another and then another…and by the grace of God in Christ, we did this for the next fifteen years, and we still do when we can.

Fathers, if we’re to raise our children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 2:4), then we must know them. Discipleship happens through relationship, and relationship takes time. It was the love between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit that propelled the Son into the world, and the purpose of his mission was to enfold the elect into that love. The heart of the gospel is the very heart of God, and if we’re to teach our children the gospel we must capture their hearts and draw them close to God’s heart.

And as we do, we image God to them. We show them the heart of the Father who gave his only begotten Son, not to secure external conformity to the Father’s commands, but to create in us a heartfelt desire to do what our Father desires.

Over the years, Rachel and I (and Kim, of course) have walked through many ups and downs together, and through it all she has gained emotional security, the ability to communicate, the gift of laughter, an understanding of relational commitment, a model for what marriage might look like, and many more things. But more importantly, she has seen with her eyes an image of the God who pursues his beloved from the heart, and who aims for their heart.

So, fathers, date your daughters. Capture their hearts. It will take time, commitment, sacrifice, creativity, and prayer, but the dividends will far outweigh the costs as you learn, by the grace of God, to image the heart of God to your precious girls.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

The Purposes of God Cannot be Stopped

“Father, I must be honest: it seems impossible to me.”

After a six-hour layover in Mumbai, I’m on another flight to Hyderabad, India. It’s early in the morning, in fact, the sun has yet to rise and Mumbai is all aglow. As we ascend over the city, I can’t help but notice how massive it is. Nearly twenty-million people live here – that’s four times the population of the State of Minnesota. Of these, about 67% are Hindus, 18 % are Muslims, 5% are Buddhists, 4% are Christians, and 6% adhere to some other religion like Zoroastrianism, Sikhism, or Judaism.

As I think about all of these people and their various gods, I feel overwhelmed and somewhat hopeless about the prospect of Christianity gaining a significant foothold here. It is said that the good news of Jesus Christ was first preached in India almost twenty centuries ago by the Apostle Thomas himself. There’s no way to be sure about this, but even if it’s not true, scholars are certain that the gospel has been preached in India for many centuries, and yet it’s still largely non-Christian. Indeed, it’s still widely hostile to Christians and the message they preach.

A sense of despair grows heavy in my heart, and I say to the Lord, “Father, I must be honest: it seems impossible to me. I want to believe that the gospel can capture the hearts of these precious people, but I just don’t see how that’s going to happen.”

Like a good Father and teacher, the Lord lets me sit with this feeling for a few minutes, after which I hear his gentle whisper: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). Oh how I needed to hear that. How I needed to be reminded that the burden for winning worshipers for Jesus from every tribe, tongue, and language is on the shoulders of Jesus. His purposes may not be fulfilled in the way we expect them to be, but they will be fulfilled nonetheless.

As this truth sinks in, I feel relaxed and joyful in Christ, and so I turn my attention to the tasks I planned to accomplish on this leg of my journey. My flight is fruitful, as are the twelve hours I spend at the airport in Hyderabad awaiting my final flight. I continue to feel the relaxed joy of Christ, but two days later the Lord raises the issue with me again.

I’m sitting on the roof of a house in Ventrapragada, India. Many houses here are made of concrete, and thus they use their roofs as decks, if you will. So I’m spending a little time with the Lord before I go and teach prospective pastors and leaders about preaching the Word in the life of the church. It “just so happens” that among my assigned readings for the day is Psalm 46, and as I meditate on what it says, I remember the content and feelings of my experience over Mumbai.

The Psalm comes to a crescendo in verse 10 where the Lord says, “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” This is an emphatic statement, not a possibility. This is a declaration, not a suggestion. The Lord who created the entire universe with nothing more than the word of his power, has determined that his name will be revered in all the earth and we can be sure that this will come to pass. The purposes of God cannot be stopped, and the exaltation of his great and glorious name is surely his primary purpose.

And now that I’m here teaching a small group of Indian Christians and spending time with others who are not Christians, I remember – deep in my heart, I remember – that my part is simply to love Jesus and obey him day by day. His part is everything else! It is his job to exalt his own name among the nations. It is his job to bear the painful burden of those who refuse to acknowledge his name. It is his job to guide the march of history toward his own ends. It is his job to assign each person his or her part and give them passion and power to play that part. 

The purposes of God in Christ are massive. And they’re unstoppable because he is God and he has the ability to do whatever pleases him. So, for a second time, I relax and feel an indescribable joy as I relish this declaration: “Be still and know that I am God, I will be exalted among the nations” (Psalm 46:10).