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.