Friday, December 29, 2017

The Joy and Pain of the Christmas Season

Christmas is a unique and fun time of year in which we get to do things and enjoy things we don’t normally get to do and enjoy. For example, at this time of year, we get to decorate our homes and houses of worship and even public places with trees and ornaments and lights and various things. We get to enjoy Christmas music, some of which is worshipful and some of which is just fun—although I must admit that I would pay Caribou Coffee to stop playing I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas set to rap music!

We get to enjoy special foods and drinks like Swedish coffee bread and Christmas cookies and eggnog. And although Christians sometimes do, and probably should, struggle with the commercialization of Christmas, it is still fun to buy thoughtful presents and wrap them up and surprise one another. In fact, this year our daughter Rachel asked for a mixer, and so we bought her a decent one along with all the fixings for Swedish coffee bread. This way, she was happy to begin with and we were happy later! 

And in addition to the uniqueness and fun of this time of year, Christmas is also a profound celebration. Christmas is the time we praise God for the fact that Jesus Christ, though he is God, emptied himself and took on flesh. We call this the incarnation, the process of God becoming a man, and while this process is stunning in itself, the reason for the incarnation strikes even more awe into our hearts.

Although Adam and Eve and every human being after them has willfully turned their hearts away from God; although this great sin of neglecting and disrespecting our Creator has brought upon us the just anger and punishment of God; although no human being could possibly pay the price for offending an infinitely valuable and holy God; although no human being could possibly restore their relationship with God on their own—God himself became a human being in the person of Jesus Christ so that he might live a righteous life and fulfill all of the life-giving commands of God, that he might die the death that sinners deserve to die, that he might overcome death by being raised again from the dead, and that he might ascend again into heaven where he remains seated to this day as the eternal King and High Priest of heaven and earth, so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life. Whoever believes in him is forgiven of all their sins, restored to a right relationship with God, and granted the ultimate surprising gift of eternal life. Indeed, the wisdom, grace, humility, and power of God that brought about the incarnation are profound and awe-inspiring and stunning and worthy of an annual season of reflection, thanksgiving, and worship.

And yet, even while we acknowledge that Christmas is unique and fun and profound, we must also acknowledge that for many people this time of year is very painful. In these days, some of us feel the sting of death as we deal with the loss of loved ones. Some of us are forced to deal with the complexities and realities of blended families. Some of us struggle with the fact that we’re low-to-very-low on money and can’t afford the things with which we’d like to surprise and bless others. Some of us have few or no loved ones around us and we have to experience the pain of being alone while others are enjoying time with their families and friends.

And in addition to our personal struggles at this time of year, the truth of the matter is that the incarnation of Jesus came with great pain. For example, the circumstances of Jesus’ birth were questioned and are still questioned to this day. His early days were filled with tumultuousness. As he grew, his own family was divided over him and acted differently toward him. And ultimately, although he came as a manifestation of the grace of God to the world, some of the leaders of his own people turned against him, arrested him, convicted him, tortured him, and crucified him. In the end, he overcame their evil plots and used their betrayal to provide salvation for the world, but the point remains—the Christmas story and all that followed it was profound and it was painful.

The truth of the matter is that Christmas is about hope breaking into the midst of despair, light breaking into overwhelming darkness, healing breaking into debilitating sickness and disease. And because this is true, there was great joy and great pain in the incarnation, there is great joy and great pain involved in our experience of the grace of God in Christ today, and there will be great joy and great pain until the day when Jesus comes again and brings everything to its appointed end. 
 
Friends, until we understand that Christmas is about joy and pain, we will never understand Christmas and we will never celebrate it or worship God for it as we should.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Let Us Fix Our Thoughts on Jesus


“Therefore, holy brethren, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high 
priest whom we confess.”
Hebrews 3:1

Behold the glory and grandeur and greatness of Jesus Christ, and you will gasp at His humility. That He who shared equality with God would empty Himself and take on flesh. That He who is the Lord of nations would chose and gladly embrace the life of a servant. That He who is light and life would be obedient to death on a cross for the glory of His Father, the salvation of the lost, and the joy set before Him.

Oh, my friends, this Christmas let us not be so much consumed with presents and trees and parties as we are with beholding the glory and humility of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Let us not be so much consumed with cultural traditions as we are with savoring and worshiping and telling of Him.

To help you with this, let me summarize for you some of the major things we learn about Jesus in the Letter to the Hebrews, for as we see his glory we are more prepared to worship him in sincerity. 
According to Hebrews, Jesus Christ is the Word of God (1:2; 2:3; 4:12-13). He is the Son of God and therefore the heir of all things (1:2). He is the One through whom the Father created all things, and He is the sustainer of all things (1:2-3, 10). He is the radiance of God’s glory, and the exact representation of God’s nature (1:3). He is the One who made purification for our sins and then sat down at the right hand of the throne of God, awaiting the day when the Father would put all things, even His enemies, under His feet, that is, under His command and control (1:3, 13; 2:8-11; 8:1-2; 12:1-3; 13:10-14).
He is the One who is exalted in name and being above the angels and is in fact worshiped by them (1:5-6). He is God, and His throne will endure forever and ever (1:8, 11-12)! He is the passionate lover of righteousness and hater of lawlessness, and therefore has received the anointing of gladness from the Father (1:9). He is the One who rendered the devil powerless over death (2:11-15).
He is superior to Moses and Aaron, and is the guarantee of a better covenant than that of Moses, because His life is indestructible (7:16, 22; 8:6-7; 9:15; 12:24). He is our High Priest who serves in the true sanctuary of God, that is, in heaven. And because He suffered, He is able to deal gently and sympathetically with us in our weaknesses and temptations. Indeed, He calls His throne “the throne of grace,” and bids us to come to Him there with boldness and confidence (2:17-18; 3:1-6; 4:14-16; 5:7-9). 
He is our forerunner who made a way for us to enter into the true Holy of Holies, the very sanctuary of God (6:20; 10:19-22). He is able to save completely those who come to Him because, as High Priest, He ever lives to intercede for them, that is, to pray for them (7:25). He is holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens (7:26). He is the One who offered up His very life and body as a “once for all” living sacrifice on our behalf (7:26-28; 9:11-14, 23-28). 
He is the One who will return again to earth, not to atone for sin, but to bring salvation to those who have eagerly waited for Him (9:28). He is the One who perfectly obeyed the will of God and used His perfection, not to condemn, but rather to purchase and purify and sanctify an army of true worshipers for the Father (10:1-18). He is the author and perfecter of our faith (12:2). He is ever-enduring truth—the same yesterday, today, and forever (13:8). He is the One through whom we continually offer sacrifices of praise and thanks to God (13:15). He is the great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the eternal covenant (13:20). He is the Lord, the One through whom the Father equips us to do His will and shapes us so that we are pleasing in His sight (13:20-21).

Indeed—to Jesus Christ rightly belongs the glory forever and ever (13:21)!

Oh, my dear friends, who share with me in the heavenly calling, let us firmly fix our thoughts on Jesus Christ this Christmas season! Let us not so much pay attention to trees and presents and parties and traditions, as we do to the glory and grandeur and greatness of Jesus Christ. Let us reflect on the awesome and unfathomable fact that this great God emptied Himself and took on flesh, being born in a stable and found among us as a servant. Let us make little of cultural Christmas and much of worshiping Christ.

Heavenly Father, open our eyes anew that we may see Jesus for who He truly is. Allow us to wonder at His glory and gasp at His humility. Breed in us a great distaste for the commercialism of the world that makes a mockery of Jesus, and instead give us a voracious appetite to see and savor and worship Him with glad and sincere hearts. Help us not to think so much about what we can buy people so as to please them, but rather how we can help people see Jesus so as to glorify You.

Great God of Heaven, by Your grace, please give us the greatest gift of all this Christmas season—give us a fresh vision and experience of Jesus!

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Jesus Enables us to Pray Without Ceasing

Okay, one more long quote from Andrew Murray! These are the final words of his great book, Teach us to Pray () and I encourage you to read his words carefully and prayerfully, learning all that you can from a proven, fruitful intercessor. 

"The sight of our ever-praying Lord as our life enables us to pray without ceasing. Because His priesthood is the power of an endless life, that resurrection life that never fades and never fails, and because His life is our life, praying without ceasing can become to us nothing less than the joy of heaven. So the apostle says, 'Be joyful always, pray continually, give thank in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). 

"Borne up between the never-ceasing praise, never-ceasing prayer is the manifestation of the power of eternal life.  The union between the Vine and the branch is a prayer union. The highest conformity to Christ, the most blessed participation in the glory of His heavenly life is that we take part in his work of intercession. In the experience of our union with Him, praying without ceasing becomes not only a possibility but also a reality, the holiest and most blessed part of our fellowship with God. We make our abode within the veil in the presence of the Father. What the Father says, we do; what the Sons asks, the Father does. Praying without ceasing is the earthly manifestation of heaven come down, the foretaste of the life where they do not rest day or night in the song of worship and adoration" (page 219).

O Friends, this life is not for the Christian-elite, rather, it is the calling, privilege, and destiny of all who are in Christ and will enjoy fellowship with him forever. So let us draw near to our intercessory Savior and learn to live his way of life for the glory of his name, the ever-increasing joy of our souls, and the blessing of our neighborhoods and nations. 

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Key to Becoming an Intercessor

What do we need more than anything to enter into the life of prayer and intercession, and thus become like Jesus who saved and sanctifies us? Andrew Murray answers, "But the most important thing we need for such a life of unceasing prayer is to know that Jesus teaches us to pray. We have begun to understand a little of what His teaching is. It is not the communication of new thoughts or views, not the discovery of failure or error, not the stirring up of desire and faith--however important all of this is--but by receiving us into the fellowship of His own prayer life before the Father, Jesus teaches us to pray" (Teach Me to Pray. 2002. Minneapolis: Bethany House, page 218). 
 
O Friends, please read that last line again and let it sink in: "but by receiving us into the fellowship of His own prayer life before the Father, Jesus teaches us to pray." So let us surrender, and allow him to teach us to pray.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Trusting the Promises of God in Intercession

Andrew Murray (1828-1917) was a South African pastor, teacher, and author who had a passion to practice and teach the art and disciples of prayer and intercession. In the last few blogs I've posted some of Murray's thoughts about the nature of intercession and the sacrifices required to become an intercessor. Today I want share with you a quote about believing in the promises of God and not limiting what God can will do through the intercessions of his people. 

"Let us no longer by our human reasoning limit and weaken such free and sure promises of the living God, robbing them of their power and ourselves of the wonderful confidence they are meant to inspire. Not in God, not in His secret will, not in the limitations of His promises, but in us is the hindrance. We are not what we should be to obtain the promise. Let us open our whole heart to God's words of promise in all their simplicity and truth. They will search us and humble us. They will lift us up and make us glad and strong. To the faith that knows it gets what it asks, prayer is not work or a burden but a joy and a triumph. It becomes second nature" (Teach Me to Pray. 2002. Minneapolis: Bethany House, page 217). 

So indeed, let us enter into that joy and learn what it means for the life of intercession to become "second nature"! 
 

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Becoming an Intercessor

Andrew Murray (1828-1917) was a South African pastor, teacher, and author who had a passion to practice and teach the art and disciples of prayer and intercession. In the last two blogs I've posted some of Murray's thoughts about the nature of intercession and the sacrifices required to becoming an intercessor. Today I want again to get out of Murray's way and allow him to explain the cost and joy of entering into this way of life. 
To become an intercessor, and thus to become like Jesus, requires "the entire sacrifice of one's life to God's Kingdom and glory. He who seeks to pray without ceasing simply because he wants to be very pious and good, will never attain to it. It is by forgetting oneself and yielding one's life to live for God and His honor that the heart is enlarged to know the light of God and His will. It is the recognition that everything around us needs God's help and blessing; that all adversity is an opportunity for His being glorified. 

"Because everything is weighed and tested by the one thing that fills the heart--the glory of God--and because the soul has learned that only what is of God can honor Him, the whole life becomes one of looking up, of crying from the inmost heart for God to prove His power and love and show forth His glory. The believer awakens to the consciousness that he is one of the watchmen on Zion's walls, one of the Lord's remembrancers, whose call really does touch and move the King in heaven to do what would otherwise not be done. 

"He understands how real Paul's exhortation was: 'Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints' (Ephesians 6:18), and 'Devote yourselves to prayer...and pray for us, too (Colossians 4:2-3). To forget oneself, to live for God and His kingdom among men, is the way to learn to pray without ceasing" (Teach Me to Pray. 2002. Minneapolis: Bethany House, page 215-16). 

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Come and Be an Intercessor

Andrew Murray (1828-1917) was a South African pastor, teacher, and author who had a passion to practice and teach the art and disciples of prayer and intercession. To Murray, the heart of intercession is learning to be like Jesus Christ. We learn in Hebrews 7:25 that Jesus ever lives to make intercession for those who live by faith in him, and thus, to learn this way of life is to become like Christ. 
 
Yesterday I shared a brief quote from Murray in which he issued a call to this way of life. Today I want to share a longer quote in which he spells out the cost and benefits of this way of life. I urge you to read his words prayerfully and carefully. 

"Are you willing to offer yourself for this work? You know the surrender it demands: nothing less than Christlike giving up of all, so that the saving purposes of God's love may be accomplished among all peoples. Do not be any longer one of those who are content with their own salvation and who work just enough to keep themselves warm and alive. Let nothing keep you back from giving yourselves to be wholly and only priests of the Most High God. The thought of unworthiness, of inadequacy, need not keep you back. Through the blood, the objective power of the perfect redemption works in you. 
 
"Through the Spirit, its full subjective personal experience of a divine life is demonstrated. The blood provides an infinite worthiness to make your prayers most acceptable. The Spirit provides a divine fitness, teaching you to pray according to the will of God. Every priest knew that when he presented a sacrifice according to the law of the sanctuary, it was accepted. Under the covering of the blood of Christ and his Spirit, you have the assurance that all the wonderful promises concerning prayer in the name of Jesus will be fulfilled in you. Abiding in union with the Great High Priest, 'You may ask...for anything in [His] name and [He] will do it" (John 14:3). You will have power to pray the effectual prayer of the righteous man that avails much. You will not only join in the general prayer of the church for the world but also be able in you own area of influence to take up your special work of prayer--as priests, to make transactions with God, to receive and know the answers, and so to bless others in His name. 
 
"Come and be a priest for God. Seek to walk before Him in the full consciousness that you have been set apart for the ministry of intercession. This is the true blessedness of conformity to the image of God's Son" (Teach Me to Pray. 2002. Minneapolis: Bethany House, pages 211-12).

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Andrew Murray: A Call to Intercession

Andrew Murray (1828-1917) was a South African pastor, teacher, and author who had a passion to practice and teach the art and disciples of prayer and intercession. To pray is to express our praises to and share our needs with the Lord, and to intercede is to bear the needs of others before Him. To Murray, the heart of intercession is learning to be like Jesus Christ. We learn in Hebrews 7:25 that Jesus ever lives to make intercession for those who live by faith in him, and thus, to learn this way of life is to become like Christ.

Over the years, I’ve blogged quite a bit about Murray’s works because they have greatly influenced me, and over the next few weeks I’m going to blog about them even more! For today, I want to share with you a quote that helps us understand Murray’s vision of prayer, and more so, the life of prayer to which the Lord calls us. At one point he asserts that God “needs” intercessors to draw near to him and pray, but in fact God has no such “need.” He does, however, desire that we would learn the art of intercession and know the joy of living like Jesus before the throne of God above. So let’s forgive him this poor word choice, and carefully ponder what he has to say.

“As the blood [of Jesus] gives the right, the Spirit gives the power and equips us for believing prayer. He breathes into us the priestly spirit: burning love for God’s honor and the saving of souls. He makes us so one with Jesus that prayer in His name is a reality. He strengthens us for believing, persistent prayer. The more the Christian is truly filled with the Spirit of Christ, the more spontaneous will be his life of priestly intercession. Beloved fellow Christians, God needs priests who will draw near to Him, who will live in his presence, and by their intercession bring down the blessing of His grace on a waiting world. The world needs priests who will bear the burden of the perishing and intercede mightily on their behalf” (Teach Me to Pray. 2002. Minneapolis: Bethany House, page 211).

Thursday, December 07, 2017

The Gospel and the Commands of Hebrews 13

Over the last several weeks, I've written about the seven commands in Hebrews 13:1-19. Now that I've finished, I want to reiterate what I wrote at the beginning of this series of blogs, namely, that God’s Word is organized in a particular order, for particular reasons, and thus we would do well to honor that order.

This is a simple but very important idea.

For example, the commands of Hebrews 13 do not come after chapter 1 or chapter 5 or chapter 8, rather, they come after chapters 1-12 because they’re built upon the entirety of the truths that are taught there. We must read, interpret, and apply Hebrews 13 in light of all of Hebrews 1-12, or else we will fall into serious error. 
 
Indeed, if we were to go straight to chapter 13 without the benefit of chapters 1-12, we would likely take its commands as a sort of “To Do List” or a set of moralistic obligations that are no different than what you can get from Alcoholics Anonymous or any self-help group or Oprah or Dr. Phil or whomever.

But the fact of the matter is that chapters 1-12 come before chapter 13 so that the commands of chapter 13 are built on the massive foundation of the gospel. They are built on who Jesus is and what he has accomplished and the kind of life he has called us to live. Indeed, Christ is not a moralizer, he’s a Savior. Therefore, the main issue of life for Christians is what Christ has done on our behalf and what he has promised to do in us and through us for the glory of his name and the joy of our souls. The Christian life arises from the word “done” and not the word “do.” We who believe in Jesus are not striving to make ourselves acceptable to God through our moralistic behavior or our acts of reverent worship. Rather, we are seeking to surrender to our Father’s wisdom and will because he’s already perfected us in his sight through the all-sufficient work of Christ. We are striving to enter Christ’s rest, and one sign that we’re succeeding in this is that the kind of fruit that’s pleasing to the Lord begins to emerge from our lives.

Our acts of worship, whether in the form of praise or obedience, are simply the visible fruit of the invisible work of Christ in our lives. Thus, obeying the seven commands of Hebrews 13 will not earn us anything before the Lord, rather, it will serve to express the reverential, awe-filled worship that’s growing in our hearts. And when we fail to obey, the all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus covers our sins and shortcomings. When we fail, Christ continues to patiently teach us how to love him and walk in his will and ways.

Friends, the commands of Hebrews 13:1-19 are built upon the massive foundation of the gospel and we need to hear and heed them in this way. 
 

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Obey Your Leaders and Submit to Them - The Limits of Authority

In the last three blogs I've written about the command in Hebrews 13:17-19, "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things. I urge you the more earnestly to do this in order that I may be restored to you the sooner."

In this entry I want to say a few things about the limits of authority in the life of the church, for leaders are not granted absolute rights of leadership in the church and followers are not required to submit to their leaders without question or exception. Of course, it's not possible to say everything that needs to be said in one blog entry, but I hope to summarize a few foundational things that will help us strike a biblical balance.

First, the fundamental call upon leaders and followers alike is to submit to Jesus, the Lord of all and the Savior of those who trust in him. Paul counsels believers to "submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (5:21), and while he goes on from there to define the terms of leadership and submission in a number of social relationships, he does so on the basis or our mutual submission to Christ. We will never understand the biblical call to submission aright until we understand that it is fundamentally about the believer and Christ.
 
Second, although some are called to lead within the church and are granted the requisite authority to do so, every Christian is called to submit to Christ and to others in practical and regular ways. For example, the pastors at Glory of Christ submit to one another with regard to the specifics of our ministry, we submit to the members of the church in that they have the power to question us, correct us, and remove us if need be, and we submit to the leadership of the Treasuring Christ Together Network with which we are affiliated. While I'm willing to lead and take joy in urging God's people to walk in his ways, my deepest satisfaction comes from living a life submitted to others because I know that in so doing I'm pleasing Christ and becoming more like him.

Third, while Jesus does grant authority to some in the life of the church that is distinct from the rest, human authority over others is never absolute. In other words, the call upon every believer is to follow Christ and submit to his gracious and life-giving commands. When our leaders lead us in this way, we are to follow them with humility and joy, but when they lead us in some other way (for whatever reasons), we are not required to follow them. The leader's mandate is to clarify the will and ways of God through the Word of God, equip the people of God for obedience, and then exhort them toward obedience. When the people stray, leaders are granted a staff to guide them and a rod to discipline them, both of which are the Word of God. 

In the end, the extent and limit of the authority of leaders in the life of the church is the proclamation and application of the Word of God in the lives of the people.
 
Fourth, while pastors and other leaders do have authority in the life of the church, they are first sheep and then shepherds. They are first followers and then leaders. They have need of the other members of the body even as the body has need of them. In a family, the husband has the privilege and responsibility of loving his wife in the same way Christ loved the church and laid down his life for her. This does not mean, however, that he is Christ! Likewise, the under-shepherds of God's people have the privilege and responsibility of watching over the flock in the same way Christ watches over them as the Good Shepherd. This does not mean, however, that they are Christ! Rather, they are sheep under his care who've been given limited authority to lead others in the flock in the ways of their true and eternal Shepherd.

Finally, the heart of the call to submission is the call to become like Jesus, for he was perfectly and happily submitted to his Father all the way to death on a cross. He endured all things for the joy set before him, and now he is forever seated at the right hand of the majesty on high where he rules and reigns forever as the King of kings and the High Priest of heaven and earth (Philippians 2:1-11; Hebrews 1:1-4; 12:1-2). Indeed, submission has more to do with our hearts before God than our relationships with others. It is sanctifying to be submissive. So let us be focused on Christ, trust his wisdom, and head his call to obey our leaders and submit to them.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Obey Your Leaders and Submit to Them, Part 3

In the last two blogs I’ve written about the command in Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” In this entry I want to address what the author writes in verses 18-19, namely, “Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things. I urge you the more earnestly to do this in order that I may be restored to you the sooner.”

The reason the author calls on his readers to pray for him and his companions is because he sees himself as one of their current leaders whom they are called to obey. He’s one of their pastors and he cares for their souls and, despite his own frailties and failings, he knows that his heart is pure toward them and so he begs for prayer. He needed their prayers.

In his case, this was all the more urgent because, for some reason, he was separated from them and wanted to return to them. But his plea is the plea of every pastor who sincerely loves Jesus and the people he’s been called to serve. And so I beg of you, my dear readers, please pray for your pastors by name. You pastors love you with the love of Jesus and they’ve sacrificed much to serve you in Jesus’ name, but they need you as much as you need them. They need you to intercede for them as they seek to equip you for the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12).

So in light of Hebrews 13:17-19, the very words of God, resolve right now: (1) to live a submissive life before Christ and your leaders, and (2) to pray for your leaders as they seek to lead you for the glory of Jesus, the good of your soul, and the blessing of the nations.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Obey Your Leaders and Submit to Them, Part 2


In the last blog, I made some introductory comments about the clear and yet difficult command of Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” This command reminds me of Ephesians 5:22-6:9 where we find several calls to submission: wives are called to submit to their husbands, children are called to submit to their parents, and slaves or employees are called to submit to their masters or employers.

In each of these cases, the call to submission comes first and it is without caveat. For example, wives are called to submit to their husbands, and no words like “unless” follow the command: unless you don’t like him or don’t agree with him or whatever. Rather, the call is clear: wives, out of love for and submission to Jesus, submit to your husbands. The same can be said of the other calls to submission as well, and of course, we know that if a husband or whomever is leading in a way that’s clearly displeasing to the Lord or forbidden by him, the followers are not required to submit. But generally speaking, the call is very clear and very strong.

Now, once the call has been issued, the Lord then turns his attention to those who have been given authority and instructs them about how they are to use their authority. And without going into the details, the point is basically the same every time: use your authority to build people up for the glory of Christ. Do not use your authority to lord it over them or to tear them down. You have been given authority for the good of the other, not simply that you might have power over the other. So again, lead for the glory of Christ and the prospering of those you lead.

It seems to me that the reason these commands are first issued without caveat to those who must submit is this: the great need of the human heart is for humble submission. Arrogance and rebellion have been at the heart of the problem that has plagued humanity from the days of Adam and Eve until now. But we who believe in Jesus Christ are new creations in him, and as such he calls on us to live in a different way. He calls on us to live in the way that he has always lived and that he will always live. From before the foundation of the world, Jesus Christ has lived in glad-hearted, humble submission to his Father. And because this is so, he obeyed the Father all the way to death on a cross for the joy that was set before him. The result of his humble obedience is that he has been forever exalted to the highest place. He has been forever given the name that is above all names. He has become the source of eternal salvation for all who believe in him.

And now, as our great and gracious Savior who wants nothing but the very best for us, as our King and High Priest who wants to sanctify us that we might share in his holiness, he calls upon us to live the kind of life that he has always lived and that he will always live. In the end, the call to submission is the call to be like Jesus to the glory of God the Father, and there will be much advantage for our souls if we will listen to him and follow in his ways.

As the pastor of a local congregation, my aim in this blog is to issue a biblical call to all believers who read this to submit to their local leaders, although I do so with fear and trembling. And I want you to hear me say that I’m issuing this call on the basis of the Word of God as one who’s eager to submit to the Word of God in my own life. Indeed, by God’s grace, I serve the church under the authorities God has placed in my life.

Specifically, my life is subject to my fellow pastors and to the leaders of the Treasuring Christ Together Network of which our church is a vital part. In other words, I am living the kind of life that I’m calling others to live and I have much joy in doing so. For example, when I look out into the future and think about what I’m going to preach, I don’t just come up with a plan and then dictate that to the elders. Even though I’m the Pastor for Preaching, I develop a plan, submit that to the other pastors, and then discuss it with them. So far they’ve agreed with the plans I’ve set before them, but I promise you that if they ever disagree with my plan and suggest another direction, I will accept their wisdom and go in that direction. I do not own this pulpit, it is not under my authority but the Lord’s, and I am submitted to my fellow pastors as I seek to steward the ministry that flows from here.

To give you another example, when I get invitations to preach at other churches or events, I first go to the leaders of our church and ask them for permission. If they say yes and I feel called to it, then I’ll say yes. If they say no, I say no, for I know that they are prayerful men and faithful partners in the ministry who are seeking to do all they can do for the glory of Christ and the good of the church. And even if I don’t agree with their point of view, I would rather submit than fight because submission is more glorifying to Jesus and advantageous for me.

Friends, the call of Hebrews 13:17 is issued to every Christian, and it’s very good for every soul. Humility is better than arrogance. Submission is better than independence. I am well aware that there’s much resistance in our hearts to this call because there’s much resistance in my heart, but if we’ll prayerfully meditate on this verse I believe that the Lord will give us insight and willingness to obey.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Obey Your Leaders and Submit to Them, Part 1

Over the last several weeks, I’ve been blogging about the seven commands of Hebrews 13:1-19, the seventh of which is this: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (13:17). In verse 7, the author had in mind his readers’ former leaders who had died, and now here in verse 17 he had in mind their present leaders which included the elders or pastors of their local church and even himself, as we will see. But first I want to say a few things about the command that’s issued here so that we’re clear about what the Lord is calling for and why it’s so good for our souls.

The original word for “obey” here literally means “to be persuaded” by someone, but in the context it’s fair to translate it “obey” which is the way every major English translation renders it. The word for “submit” here is a stronger word that literally means “to yield or give way” to someone, or more to the point, “to submit to their leadership and do as they say.” Both of these words are very clear, they’re very strong, and they’re put in the form of a command rather than a suggestion. As uncomfortable as it may be for us, this verse commands lovers of Jesus Christ to submit to those who have been put in authority over them. And since Jesus is the one who has put our leaders in authority over us, to submit to them is to submit to Jesus and to rebel against them is to rebel against Jesus.

Now, the reason the author gives as to why we ought to submit to our leaders is not because our leaders are of a different class of Christian or because they are something special in themselves. Rather, the reason we are called to submit to our pastors and other leaders is because they have been appointed by God to watch over our souls, and this for our good. And lest we think that this is a minor idea with no real meaning or consequence, the author reminds us that our leaders will have to give an account of our souls to God.

Several years ago I took a doctoral course at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School on the life and ministry of Jonathan Edwards. Edwards was an eighteenth-century pastor and theologian, and in preparation for the course I read an account Edwards wrote of the people who attended his church in Northampton, Massachusetts, as well as those who lived in his town. As I read, I was gripped anew by the fact that one day the elders of the church I serve will have to stand before Jesus Christ and account for certain souls by name. We will have to answer for how we have sought to shepherd them toward Christ and his will and his ways. No one is sufficient for such a calling and at times it feels unbearably heavy upon me, but by his grace, Christ will make your pastors sufficient and he will prepare us for that great and awesome day of accounting as we humble ourselves before him.

Since the authority that Jesus has granted to our pastors and leaders is real, and since they will have to give a full account to God of our souls and their ministries, we should therefore do everything in our power to make their labor a joy and not a burden. For example, we should seek Christ with all of our hearts so that they can stand before Christ and give a good account of us. We should do our best to listen to them and learn from them as they teach us the Word of God. We should be humble and eager learners. We should humbly follow them as they seek to lead us by the Word of God, and even if we disagree with this or that aspect of how they’re trying to lead us, we should follow anyway, for it will be of more advantage to our souls to humble ourselves and follow rather than to be arrogant and resist. We should engage in the work of the ministry toward the church and toward the lost, so that our leaders will be able to say in the presence of Jesus that, despite all our foibles and imperfections, we were in the game. We were running our race. We were seeking to know and grow and go with Christ by faith.

I could go on, but I trust that you get the point. By the grace of Jesus, we should do everything in our power to make the burden that is upon our leaders a joy rather than a pain, for what advantage will there be to us if our leaders have to stand in the presence of Jesus and testify against us? Answer: there will be no advantage. But conversely, if we will humbly and passionately follow Christ under the care of our leaders, there will be great advantage for our souls.

I’ll say more about these things in the next entry, but for now I want to call on you to contemplate these things and allow the Lord to grant you insight into your way of life and any adjustments you may need to make.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Reflections on Thanksgiving

“Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His lovingkindness is everlasting!” (1 Chronicles 16:34)

Thanksgiving is a time when we, as Americans, pause to reflect on our nation’s history and “give thanks” for a pilgrim people who dared to venture into a strange land, for a native people who had lived here for centuries, and for a time when they gathered around a table and enjoyed a common feast. It is a time when we give thanks for a similar feast and family gatherings and football games and a four-day weekend.

And it can also be a time when we pause to reflect on what life could be like if we lived with an attitude of thanksgiving.

So it is that I came to ask myself these questions over the last week: What does the Bible mean when it instructs us to be thankful? Why does the Bible instruct us to be thankful? and What does the Bible instruct us to be thankful for? What follows is the outcome of my study into these questions.

What Does the Bible Mean When it Instructs us to be Thankful?
In the original languages of the Bible, there are a couple of key words that are translated “thanks” or “thanksgiving.” The Old Testament Hebrew word is pronounced “yadah” and it essentially means “to confess,” in the sense of recognizing and declaring the truth about something whether good or bad. If we have sinned, we recognize what we have done and “yadah” or confess or declare it openly. Conversely, if we see something good or beautiful or breath-taking in the Word of God or the character of God or the works of God, we “yadah” or confess or declare it openly as well. So, to be thankful is to confess the truth about something with gladness and gratefulness and sincerity—it is to praise the object of our thanks.

The New Testament Greek word for “thanks” is pronounced “eucharisteƍ,” and it literally means “to offer a good gift.” More generally, it means to be grateful and appreciative for something to the extent that we verbalize our thoughts and feelings—it means to praise the object of our thanks.

So, when the Bible instructs us to be thankful, it is encouraging us to see and savor the glory and greatness and goodness of God, and then to thank and praise Him for what we’ve seen. This leads us to the second question…

Why Does the Bible Instruct us to be Thankful?
Second Corinthians 4:15 perfectly summarizes the answer to this question: “All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.” In other words, all of the good gifts and graces of God are given to us for our benefit and satisfaction and joy, so that we may thank and praise Him for who He is and what He does, so that He will be greatly glorified among all peoples! The Bible instructs us to be thankful because God wants us to have great joy in Him and to greatly glorify Him by speaking of that joy.

Now, this gives rise to two other questions, namely, How do thanksgiving and joy relate to one another? and How does joy produce glory for God? First, thanksgiving, when it is earnest, is simply a response to finding benefit and satisfaction and joy in something or someone. When I thank my wife Kim for doing something for me, it’s not because I’m obligated to do so—it’s because I find so much joy in the fact that she wants to do life with me and treat me kindly and do nice things for me. I thank her, both privately and publicly, because I take great joy in doing life with her!

Likewise, when we see something of the glory or greatness or goodness of God in our lives, we thank Him because we take so much joy in the fact that He is God and that He loves us and that He took the time to reveal things about Himself to us. We thank Him, both privately and publicly, because we take great joy in doing life with Him!

So, to reiterate, thanksgiving, when it is earnest, is simply a response to finding benefit and satisfaction and joy in something or someone.

It should be obvious, then, how our joy produces glory for God. As we delight in Him to the extent that our hearts overflow with thanksgiving and we speak of our delight in the presence of others, the praise and honor goes to God. One day a family member of mine commented, “I’m so impressed with how you’ve turned your life around.” To which I joyfully responded, “I appreciate that, but I didn’t do it—Jesus did.” I wasn’t trying to one up her or anything of the sort, I was simply speaking the truth with joy, and it gave glory to God.

What Does the Bible Instruct Us to be Thankful For?
If you were to peruse the 150 or so verses in the Bible that speak of thanksgiving, you would find that the Bible mostly instructs us to thank God for who He is and what He does. For example, we are to thank Him for His power and might over creation (1 Chronicles 29:13), for His faithful defense and protection (Psalm 28:7), for His work of salvation (Romans 6:17), for the victory that He always brings to His people and will complete for them on that great and final day (2 Corinthians 2:14 & 1 Corinthians 15:57), and for his eternal lovingkindness (1 Chronicles 16:34).

Thanksgiving in the Bible is radically God-centered. It’s all about God. And this helps us to interpret what the Bible means when it says in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, “…in EVERYTHING give thanks, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” In other words, learn to see and savor what God is doing in every circumstance and aspect of life and give Him thanks for what you see.

Thank God, not so much that you’re having a turkey dinner, but that God provided the food for you and gave you the sense of taste with which to savor each and every bite. Thank God, not so much that you’re with family, but that He gave you this family and you to them. Thank God, not so much that you’re team is winning, but that He gave humans the ability to make up games and play them with passion. Thank God, not so much that you have a few days off, but that He provided them for you to rest or spend time with your family or get a few things done around the house.

Learn to see and savor God in all things, to take joy in Him in all things, and to express your thanks and praise to Him for all things. Why? That He may be greatly glorified among all peoples!

If we will have eyes to see and ears to hear, this Thanksgiving can be for us the beginning of a new way of life. And indeed, that is my prayer for us all:

Our heavenly Father, please give us eyes to see you in all things this Thanksgiving, and well beyond. Give us new hearts that long to see and savor your glory and greatness and goodness, for truly there is nothing else in all creation that is worthy of our attention and affection. Give us hearts full of joy at who You are and what You do, that we might speak our thanks both privately and publicly to the end that You will be glorified in all the earth. Thank You for Your kind answers to our prayer. In Jesus Name and for Your glory we pray, Amen.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Remember Your Leaders and Trust in Jesus, Part 3

In the last blog I wrote at some length about the sixth command in Hebrews 13:1-19, namely, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (13:7-8). Today I want to summarize the heart of what the author is saying to his readers, and to us, in this section of his letter. If you read the last blog, this will be somewhat repetitive for you. If you haven’t read it, this one will perhaps make you long for more detail in which case you can read that blog. Either way, here’s how I would summarize what’s happening in Hebrews 3:7-16.

In verses 7-8, the author called upon his first readers to remember the leaders who first introduced them to Christ and taught them how to follow Christ. Those leaders had now died, but the author wanted his readers to carefully consider the outcome of their faith in Christ so that they too would live by faith in Christ. Thus, in these somewhat confusing verses he’s simply saying something like this to them:

“Beloved, you will suffer, but it will be worth it. You will pay a price, but it’s nothing compared to the price you will pay for rejecting the grace of God in Christ. You will have to bear reproach, but in the end that will be a glory for you because it will serve to make you more like Jesus and bond you with Jesus. When Christ is for you, nothing can ultimately work against you, so go to Christ outside the camp and cling to him with all your might!”

As for us, we’re not ancient Jewish people and so the warning of verses 9-14 doesn’t apply to us in precise detail, but the heart of this warning does apply to us. No matter what the details, we are all tempted, in one way or another, to walk away from Christ and embrace the things we left for Christ. Thus, the author would say something like this to us as well:

“Remember your Christian leaders, those who led you to Christ and who otherwise lived a life of faith to their dying day. Contemplate their way of life and the outcome of their lives, and imitate their faith. Go to Christ outside the camp and cling to him no matter what the cost or consequence, for if you have gained Christ, you have gained all!”

This is our acceptable worship, and I pray that we will offer it to God with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:28-29). 
 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Remember Your Leaders and Trust in Jesus, Part 2


In the last blog we began to consider the sixth command in Hebrews 13:1-19, namely, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (13:7-8). We saw that the author wanted his readers to look to the faith of those who led them to Christ, as well as their subsequent death, and to recognize that the faithfulness of Jesus is what kept them faithful to the end. As they pondered this, he wanted them to press on in their own journeys with their eyes firmly fixed on Christ.

At this point, the author takes a bit of a rabbit trail but it was an important one for his first readers because they were being tempted to drift away from Jesus and go back to their former ways. They were tempted to return to Jewish rites and rituals that had been fulfilled in Christ and therefore were no longer valid or necessary. And so as a man who loved these precious people, the author once more warns his readers in verses 9-14, and I want to warn you that this is going to take a little thinking on our part. What the author says makes sense, but it’s going to take a little work to see how it makes sense.

He writes, “Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them” (13:9). Since Jesus Christ is faithful yesterday and today and forever, the clarion call upon these believers was to cling to him and avoid any teaching that would lead them away from him. This was particularly hard for them because the teaching that was threatening to lead them away from Jesus was the teaching that guided the Jewish people for some fourteen centuries before this time. They had to do with the system of worship that included the tabernacle and then the temple and the priests and sacrifices and rites and rituals and festivals and feasts, and all manner of rules about food and drink and washing.

And all of these things were designed, not to lead people away from God, but to lead people toward God. Yet, as we have seen in the earlier chapters of Hebrews, none of these things could ultimately pay the price for sin and transform the sinning soul and perfect the conscience of the worshiper and heal the broken relationship between God and his people. Therefore, in the fullness of time, God sent his only begotten Son to become the all-sufficient sacrifice so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life. Whoever believes in him will be perfected in him and be fully and eternally reconciled to God. Whoever believes in him will begin to feast upon the pleasures of God that will belong to them forevermore in Christ.

The readers of Hebrews had believed this message that was preached to them by their former and now departed leaders, and it was imperative that they continue to cling to Christ and the truths they once embraced about him. It was important for them to realize that all those former laws, well intentioned as they were, accomplished nothing of significance for those who practiced them. But simple faith in Jesus Christ accomplished all things because Christ is now the eternal King and High Priest over all things.

So it is that the author pleads with his beloved readers not to be led away by strange teachings but instead to cling to Christ by faith. Then in verse 10 he reminds them that as believers they have a right of access to God that not even the priests or the High Priest of Israel had. This was a stunning thing to say to Jewish people but it was true. Jesus Christ has opened up the way to the true Holy of Holies in heaven, and through faith in him every believer can now approach the very throne of God with boldness and confidence. We don’t come with arrogance—God forbid that we would come with arrogance—but we do come by the blood of Christ with boldness and confidence because Christ has made the way and invited us to stay where he lives and breathes and has his being.

Several days ago, I woke up about early on a Sunday and spent some time praying for our church and the upcoming worship service, as well as some other things. When I was finished and came out from my place of prayer, I had an irrepressible smile on my face because it hit me anew that I was just speaking with God Almighty and he actually heard what I had to say. Why in the world should God care about or value what I have to say?

O Beloved, this is the privilege of every child of God in Christ, and the author was trying to help his first readers understand that if they returned to that former system, they returned to nothing, for Christ had fulfilled all things and would soon bring an end to the shadows which pointed to him.

But herein lies a problem: in order to go to where Christ is, we have to suffer as he suffered because embracing him means rejecting everything else. Certain people and systems of people will not be happy when we walk away from them in order to walk toward Jesus, and that is a price we must be willing to pay if we are to inherit everything through him and be content in him.

This is why the author writes in verses 11-14, “For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. [That is, after the priests spilled the blood of the animals, their bodies were removed from the temple and burned outside the temple or what in former days was called “the camp.”] So Jesus also suffered outside the gate [that is, outside of the temple in Jerusalem, on top of that hill called Calvary or Golgotha or The Place of the Skull. And he did this] in order to sanctify [or make holy] the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. [Let us leave the people and systems and practices we know and embrace him by faith who is the fulfillment of all things.] For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.”

Like Abraham and his family, like Moses, like those leaders who shared the gospel with us, our hope is not in this world and therefore we can let go of this world and all it affords that we might gain Christ. And if we gain Christ, we gain all things for all of the fullness of deity and all of the riches of God dwell in him and him alone. We will have to suffer in order to gain him but why would we not suffer given all that we gain in him?

So the author is saying, “Remember your leaders and consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith because no matter what they had to suffer, it was worth it. By grace through faith they gained Christ and therefore they gained all. And they preached Christ to you and by believing you too gained all. So hang in there, press on, keep believing, keep trusting, keep clinging, keep running your race by grace for you do not run alone. Keep striving with all your might to know him and grow in him and go with him together, and you will share in the reward of those who have gone before you.”

This, I believe, is what the author is trying to communicate to his readers, and also to us, which is why he writes this in verse 15: “Through him [Jesus] then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” Jesus, our great King and High Priest, has offered the all-sufficient sacrifice for sins and since we believe in him, we have no further need of such a sacrifice. Some of you will remember the saying I shared with you several months ago, namely, for all our sins but one thing will suffice: the all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ.

Since this is true, there is only one sacrifice that God requires and that’s the sacrifice of praise. It’s the sacrifice of lips that are not ashamed to acknowledge Jesus in the presence of other people, no matter what the cost or consequence. It’s the sacrifice of deep and heartfelt thanksgiving. And we see in verse 16 that it’s the sacrifice of service to others, for there the author writes, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”

Beloved, the Lord is not calling on us to make such sacrifices in order to earn anything from him, for Christ has already earned it all for us. Rather, the Lord is calling on us to let the fountain of Christ so richly flow in our lives that we cannot help but overflow with praise to God and public confession of Christ and good deeds and glad-hearted giving toward others. He’s not calling us to a new kind of work, rather, he’s calling us to rest in Christ and then let him work all things through us. And as Christ works all things through us we will naturally overflow with “the sacrifice of praise” and with “the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” We will naturally thank him, sing to him, call upon him, walk with him, tell of him, brag about him, care for others because of him, and share what we have for the glory of his name. These kinds of things are the fruit of souls that have been captured by Christ.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Remember Your Leaders and Trust in Jesus

In the last two blogs we considered the fifth command in Hebrews 13:1-19, and today we will begin to look at the sixth command, namely, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (13:7-8). For the most part, biblical scholars are agreed that when the author uses the word “leaders” here, he has in mind the people who first preached the good news of Jesus to his readers but had since died.
Therefore, the author was calling upon them to remember these people, and also to do something more: he wanted them to carefully consider and meditate upon their way of life and the outcome thereof. He wanted them to think about all that their leaders believed, all that their leaders did, all that their leaders endured for the sake of Christ, and all the fruit that their leaders had borne for the glory of Christ.

And he wanted them to carefully meditate upon their deaths and see that they lived to the end by faith. Like Abel and Abraham and Sarah and Moses before them, all these died without receiving the fullness of the promises of God and yet they died in peace. They died with joy. They died believing that God would accomplish all of his purposes and fulfill all of his promises in due time. They believed in those words from the prophet Isaiah which say, “I am the Lord, in its time I will hasten it” (Isaiah 60:22). In other words, when the time is full, God will cause all of his words to come to pass precisely as he has spoken them. 


So for the good of their souls, the author wanted his beloved readers to remember these people and carefully consider their way of life. He wanted them to think about this. He wanted them to speak with one another about this. He may have even wanted them to write about this. And then, he wanted them to do something more: he wanted them to imitate the faith of their leaders. He wanted them to be encouraged by their faith, so that they themselves would learn to live by faith no matter the cost or consequence. He wanted them to ponder how these men and women trusted Jesus, so that they themselves would learn to trust Jesus.

This is the point of verse 8, which in some ways seems to come out of left field: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” That is to say, Jesus was the author and perfecter of the faith of your leaders, and he has not changed. He is the author and perfecter of your faith as well, and if you will fix your eyes on him and run your race with passion and endurance, you will find him faithful. The author is saying, “The faith of your leaders is not mainly about your leaders; it’s about Jesus, so look to him, cling to him, and trust in him.”

This, then, leads the author onto a bit of a rabbit trail but we’ll consider that in the next blog.