Sunday, December 29, 2013

Walking Sermons

I ended Sunday's sermon by quoting what one person said about the 17th century British pastor, Richard Sibbes: "Heaven was in him before he was in heaven." I want to share in this post a quote from Sibbes: "Godly friends are walking sermons."

That is so true and so powerful. Those who seek to walk with God and to be like Jesus Christ put flesh and bones on the truths the Bible teaches us. They help us see what it looks like to follow our Savior and how to do it.

This is one of the reasons Psalm 1 begins with these words: "Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers;but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night." (Psalm 1:1-2)

The Bible never tells us not to be around the ungodly at all. After all, we cannot tell them about Jesus, if we are never around them. However, we must have a core of friends around us who bring us closer to our Redeemer, rather than move us further away at worst, or at best try to stay neutral in their influence upon us. 

So, here are two good questions to ask and answer in preparation for the New Year:  "Am I serving as a walking sermon for others?" Also, "Do I have others around me who are walking sermons?"

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sisters, You Are My Brothers?

After taking a hiatus from my blog in order to work on some writing projects, I admittedly return to it with a strangely titled post.  Yet, believe it or not, there is a way in which all followers of Jesus Christ, yes even you ladies, are my brothers. Let me explain.

There are a number of places in the New Testament where all the followers of Christ in a particular place (male and female) are addressed by the word, “brothers” (examples: Acts 11:29; 15:3, 7, 13, 23, 36; 18:18; 21:17; Romans 1:13; 8:12; 12:1; 1 Corinthians 1:10; 2 Corinthians 1:8; Galatians 1:11; Ephesians 6:10, and so on). One of the most striking is Acts 1:15 where we are told Peter “stood up among the brothers.” Luke goes on to tell us there were 120 people. We know from 1:14 that women were present in the crowd.

The question arises, “Why would the label, “brothers” be used when women are present? Some might answer that since both the Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures were male-dominated, it was just a matter of the women being ignored and the men being the focus of attention. It is true these were male-dominated cultures. However, that is not sufficient to account for this phenomenon. Luke very deliberately emphasizes the role of women in the ministry of Jesus (Luke 8:2-3; 23:49; and 23:55-56), highlights them as the first eyewitnesses of the resurrection of Jesus Christ (24:1-10), and clarifies they were among the group gathered to pray and to await the coming of the Spirit in Jerusalem (Acts 1:14). Likewise, Paul singles out women to greet who were a significant part of ministry in the church in Rome where he addressed the “brothers” (see Rom. 16:1-2, 3, 6, 12). In Ephesus where he used the designation “bothers” to refer to all, he stands out above the male-dominated Greco-Roman culture by not just telling wives they have a responsibility unto their husbands, but husbands also have responsibility to their wives (Ephesians 5:22-33). No, the New Testament authors were no misogynists.

I believe it most likely there is a theological reason behind the use of the term to refer to all believers. In Romans 8:14 Paul writes, “all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” Paul uses a term here that is normally used merely of males—“sons”. However, he uses it to refer to all believers: male and female. This seems to be not only supported from the implication throughout the book that he is speaking to all the Christ followers in Rome, but also from the parallel use of “children” in 8:17. I think we discover the reason why “brothers” or “sons” can be appropriate titles for male and female believers in the context. Paul writes that “you have received the Spirit of adoption” (8:15) and “we are…heirs of God and fellow heirs with Jesus Christ” (8:17). In both Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures it was sons who were usually the heirs and males were the ones to be adopted. What Paul is teaching here is that any true follower of Jesus Christ is a full-fledged heir of all the saving blessings of God because each one is united to Christ and so adopted into God’s family with all the rights and privileges that come with that. Later in that same chapter we learn that God is working in us that we might “be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29, emphasis added).   

It appears that Paul uses this language to show that no matter who we are (male or female) we are full heirs, wholly adopted into the family because of our union to the Son. As such, it appears that the significance of a mixed group being referred to as “brothers” is that an emphasis is being sounded—namely that our salvation is absolutely dependent upon the who has for all eternity been in a relationship to the Father as Son (John 1:14; 3:16; 1 John 4:9, NKJV). God worked in the ancient world in such a way (especially Jewish and Greco-Roman settings) that the sons were heirs, the ones who received firstborn double-portions of  inheritance, and males the ones who were adopted so that we could see very clearly that only in the Son, the firstborn, the one who is the heir, we find our full blessing and inheritance from God. In other words, I believe there is a strong possibility that terms like “brothers” and “sons” are used to refer to all believers at times to highlight our status is a reality only because we are united to the Son , i.e. we are “brothers” of the one who has won for us our adoption and our inheritance (see also Hebrews 2:11-17).

So, bottom-line, the term “brothers” is not merely saying believers have a special relationship to one another—that we are part of the family of God—it is also highlighting we have a special relationship to the Son, Jesus Christ (brother), which brings a special relationship to God (full adopted son and heir).  So, when the New Testament authors refer to fellow believers as “brothers,” they are not first and foremost highlighting they are males who have a faith-family relationship to other believers (though this is true for men). They are highlighting a relationship to God the Father and God the Son.

Does this mean that we should not translate “brothers and sisters” in those passages where “brothers” is used to refer to male and female Christians? No. That can be a fine translation to bring out that men and women are being addressed. Also, “sister” is a very appropriate  address to use of a woman who is a fellow follower of Jesus Christ (e.g. 1 Cor. 7:15). Nevertheless, whenever we see the title “brothers,” applied to all followers, it is good for us to remember this is calling us to consider our relationship to Jesus Christ and the full-salvation blessings we have in him.

So, sisters, you are my sisters as part of the family of God in Christ. But, sisters, you are also my brothers, my full-fledged, adopted children of God and heirs with Christ; “Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:28-29)!

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Joyful Discipline

Those who follow the Lord joyfully find delight in discipline. Whether it is discipline directly at the hand of God, that which comes by the hand of the church, or self-discipline, we know discipline is good; it is part of the road to godliness (1 Timothy 4:7).

Recently Burk Parsons captured this truth powerfully in his article, “The Assurance Of Discipline,” a piece that appeared in the August 2013 issue of TableTalk magazine. Here is an extended quote from that I believe you will find as helpful as I did.

The older I get, the more I wish my father had disciplined me more than he did, and the more I grow in Christ, the more I pray for my heavenly Father’s loving discipline.  When we’re immature we see discipline as a negative thing, but as we grow we begin to see it as one of the most enduring blessings of life. [As Proverbs 3:11-12 teaches,] discipline assures us that we’re loved and cared for. …Those without discipline are orphans. …Our conversion to Christ is God’s first gracious act of discipline in our lives—bringing us to repentance and faith in the One who was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, upon whom was the  Father’s ultimate discipline that brought us peace, and by whose wounds we are healed (Is. 53:5). …As members of the church, we are all under church discipline in that we have submitted ourselves to the discipline of the church and attend weekly to the discipline of the preached Word. The first step of discipline is admonition, and we come each week because we know how desperately we need to be admonished, to repent of our sins, to reaffirm our confession of Christ, and to receive Father’s assurance of pardon and benediction that carries us through the week, reminding us that our loving Father lifts up the light of his countenance upon us and makes His face to shine upon us that we might be blessed and kept to live coram deo, before His smiling face.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Joy Of Praising God

The late author, C. S. Lewis, struggled with the fact that God called us through the biblical writers so often to praise him (after all, how could a self-sufficient, fully satisfied God need praise?). Eventually he came to this important realization:
But the most obvious fact about praise—whether of God or anything—strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honor. I have never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless (sometimes even if) shyness or the fear of boring others is deliberately brought in to check it. The world rings with praise—lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, workers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game—praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors…. I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same time most balanced and [generous], praised most, while the cranks, misfits, and malcontents praised least…. Except where intolerably adverse circumstances interfere, praise almost seems to be inner health made audible…. I had not noticed either that just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: “Isn’t she lovely?  Wasn’t it glorious? Don’t you think that magnificent?” The Psalmists in telling everyone to praise God are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about….
I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment: it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed.[1]

The point is that we praise what we admire and love—and this praise is the culmination of our joy. If joy is at the heart of true life, then magnifying God’s glory and praising him also must be at the heart of true life.
This line of thought leads us to the summit of why it important for us to grasp that at the heart of true life is joy in God. It seems that based upon the way the Bible repeatedly appeals to our pursuit for pleasure,[2] all people are created for pleasure. “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”[3]  Since this is true, there will be no true life present or experienced apart from the presence of joy in Christ. This joy will lead us to praise God, which will lead us to greater joy.

[1] C. S. Lewis, Reflections On The Psalms, in The Inspirational Writings Of C. S. Lewis (New York: Inspirational Press, 1994), 179.
[2] See, for example, Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Joshua 1:8; Psalms 1:1-3; 16:11; 34:8; 37:4; 119:72; Matthew 6:19-21; 7:7-11; 16:25-26; 19:28-30; Luke 11:9-13; Romans 8:18; 2 Corinthians 4:17-18; 1 Peter 1:6-8; Revelation 21:1-22:5.
[3] Blaise Pascal, Pascal’s Pensees, W. F. Trotter (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1958), 113 (thought #425), cited in Piper, Desiring God, 15.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Character-Based Leadership

In recent posts I have been talking about the church: what it is, how it is to function, and what church leadership is to be like (last week). In order to continue this discussion I am including in this week's post an article I wrote in September of 2008 for our elders. I am including this article since it gives a good picture of what kind of leadership the New Testament says the church must have and it also shows that the same vision for pastors/elders I have now is the one I came to Minden with in July of 2008.


I have now had the privilege of serving as a pastor for over two decades.  In that time there are some trends among pastors/elders which I have picked up on and which I believe our congregation has avoided.  I pray that this avoidance will continue.  Let me explain.

First, among pastors/elders who have been through formal training and serve on the staff of a church, there can be a tendency (if they are not careful) to think that the degree, the spiritual gifts, the calling, and the association credential are enough.  These realities can give room for a man to be somewhat careless in his character.  Aside from the major moral failures which have been in the news (which are not indicative of most pastors I have met), the areas where it is easy to be careless are, for example, things like complaining and anger.  Countless times I have heard pastors complain about their congregations, the hard things which are happening, and what people are “doing to me”.  Also, countless times, I have seen pastors easily and quickly slip into sinful anger and justify it. (Let me be honest and say that I have been guilty of both of these sins!)  Now, I am not saying that there is never an element of truth in what is said.  What I am saying is that in these situations there is usually a lack of faith in God and the fact that God is sovereign and orchestrating all things together for our good.  What is more, we pastors must remember that whatever skills or training we may have do not “make up for” our negligence in matters of character.

Next, among pastor/elders who serve on boards—elected by churches—I have noticed a tendency to settle for men who are merely breathing and who can be talked into serving on a board.  Yet, these men have no idea what an elder is to be or do, nor do they have any idea of the qualifications of an elder.  In these situations there is a tendency to justify the lack of meeting qualifications.  After all, “We must fill this slot!”

With both the vocational pastor/elder tendency, as well as the board pastor/elder tendency, there is a similar problem:  a lack of considering the qualifications for elders as mentioned in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 (and Titus 1:6-9).  Notice the qualifications which Paul mentions to Timothy:  above reproach, a one-woman man, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but instead gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money, managing well his own household, not a recent convert, and well-thought-of by outsiders.  Notice that out of this list there are only two qualifications which address skills (which might be learned in formal education such as seminary or through a man’s on-the-job-training):  able to teach and one who can manage his house (and the church) well.  The rest of the qualifications have to do with character.

Since pastor/elders are called to shepherd the flock of God (1 Peter 5:2) and since we will some day stand before God and give an account of our ministry over the flock (Heb. 13:17), it is very important that we choose men to be elders who meet these qualifications and who understand the importance and nature of the task.  Bottom-line, Christian leadership is very much character-based, not merely skill-based.  Such character takes time to develop and time for current elders to discern in other aspiring elders.

Men, I am so thankful that we have solid men as pastor/elders in this church who have strong character.  I am also thankful that I am following a pastor-teacher who, for 14 years, modeled such strong character-based leadership.  Let’s keep in mind these qualifications as we pray about, look for, and train aspiring elders for future ministry in our church.  Nothing will bless or help our congregation flourish more than a high bar for character-based eldership.

Finally, as you and I pray about our own elder ministry, let’s ask God to help us run with endurance the character-based race that is set before us of leading and shepherding this wonderful church!

Joyfully pastoring and overseeing the flock with you,