Monday, November 30, 2015

The Servant-King And His People Light Up The World: More To Say

In Sunday’s sermon from Isaiah 42:1-13 we found out one of the things we can expect to happen now that King Jesus has come and started the kingdom of God is he will work through his Church to bring light to peoples from all over the world so they will know and worship the true God. We discovered that since this is true, as we pray for and share the gospel with people, some (if not many) of them will respond positively. This brings us great hope as we teach the gospel to our children, grandchildren, family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers.

There were a number of encouraging truths I did not have time during the sermon to address that I want to in this post.

First, I hope you are picking up from our series through Isaiah 40-55 that the Bible and history are centered on Jesus Christ. This should not only motivate us to be Christ-centered in life, but also to read the Old Testament very differently from what we have previously. Jesus is the main character in the Bible’s story line. It all prepares for, points to, looks back to, or explains him.

Next, in the Greek translation of Isaiah the word for “praise” in 42:12 is the same word translated “excellencies” in 1 Peter 2:9. Since most of the New Testament authors give evidence of reliance upon this Greek translation, it is highly probable this passage in Isaiah stands behind Peter’s statement about one of the key purposes of the Church. Isaiah suggests in 42:12 that people in the future time of the kingdom will “declare his praise.” The apostle picks up on this in his epistle and affirms this is part of the reason God has saved us—that we might “proclaim the excellencies of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light.” We should note also the presence of “light” (see also Isaiah 42:6) is another indicator Peter had this passage from Isaiah in mind and sees it being fulfilled in this New Testament Church age. There are pieces of evidence all through these chapters that Isaiah looks forward to the time that spans the start of the kingdom (the first coming of Jesus Christ) to the fulfillment of the kingdom (his second coming).

In the sermon we also saw that God prophesied through Isaiah that he would certainly take the gospel to the ends of the earth and would save people from all the nations. I briefly mentioned this has been happening—especially over the past several generations. Here are some examples from a recent article titled “Church Planting Movements,” by David Garrison:
·         “In East Asia, a missionary reported: ‘I launched my three-year plan in November, 2000. My vision was to see 200 new churches started among my people group over the next three years.  But four months later, we had already reached that goal. After only six months, we had already seen 360 churches planted and more than 10,000 new believers baptized!’”
 ·         Chinese Christians in Qing’an County of Heilongjiang Province planted 236 new churches in a single month. In 2002, one church planting movement in China brought about 15,000 new churches and baptized 160,000 new believers in a single year.”
 ·         During the decade of the 1990’s, Christians in a Latin American country overcame relentless government persecution to grow from 235 churches to more than 4,000 churches with more than 30,000 converts awaiting baptism.”
 ·         “After centuries of hostility to Christianity, many Central Asian Muslims are now embracing the gospel. In Kazakhstan, the past decade has seen more than 13,000 Kazakhs come to faith, worshiping in more than 300 new Kazakh churches.”
 ·         “Missionaries in Africa reported: ‘It took us 30 years to plan four churches in this country. We’ve started 65 new churches in the last nine months.’”
 ·         “In the heart of India, in the state Madhya Pradesh, one church planting movement produced 4,000 new churches in less than seven years. Elsewhere in India, the Kui people of Orissa started nearly 1,000 new churches during the 1990s. In 1999, they baptized more than 8,000 new believers. By 2001 they were starting a new church every 24 hours.”
 ·         “In Outer Mongolia, a church planting movement saw more than 10,000 new followers. Another movement in Inner Mongolia counted more than 50,000 new believers—all during the decade of the 1990s.”
 ·         And, about a culture that is much more like our own, we read the following: “A pastor in Western Europe wrote: ‘Last year my wife and I started 15 new house churches. As we left for a six-month stateside assignment, we wondered what we’d find when we returned. It’s wild!  We can verify at least 30 churches now, but I believe that it could be two or even three times that many.’”
We should not only be motivated to share the gospel with others because they are lost and because we want to spread a passion for the supremacy of Jesus Christ in all things among all peoples, but also by the reality that the mission will see at least some progress and success. How do we know? Because God promised it would!

Be encouraged, the Savior will work through you to bring his light to others around you. Don’t miss being part of this great work he is doing!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

On Flag Regulations And Fleeing Refugees

This past Wednesday one of our AWANA leaders had a bright AWANA clubber ask a perceptive question: “If Jesus Christ is to be more important to us than all things or people, why do we have the American flag higher than the Christian flag?” This leader encouraged him to seek me out for an answer.

Here is the essence of how I responded, “I believe we should be thankful to God for our country and admire it very much because of its history and how God has blessed it. We should be grateful for all those who have put their lives on the line and also those who have given their lives for the freedom that flag represents. However, the truth is that the Christian flag should be flown above the American flag to remind us that we must value our Lord above even our country.”

Now, some of you may think this inappropriate. After all, “Isn’t it law that we must fly the American flag above all others?” Here is how I would respond to that thought...

Let’s Be Precise On Flag Protocol
It is in The United States Flag: Federal Law Relating To Display And Associated Questions (found at: we find directions for how to treat and fly the American flag. On page one of that document we read: “Thus, the Flag Code does not prescribe any penalties for non-compliance nor does it include enforcement provisions; rather the Code functions simply as a guide to be voluntarily followed by civilians and civilian groups.” (emphasis added)  So, to be clear, it is not against the law to fly another flag above the American flag.

Lest we still not be convinced, let’s look at an example in this document where another flag is allowed to be flown above the American: “No other flag or pennant should be placed above or, if on the same level, to the right of the flag of the United States of America, except during church services conducted by naval chaplains at sea, when the church pennant may be flown above the flag during church services for the personnel of the Navy.” (p. 4, emphasis added) So, even United States protocol recognizes that a flag representing one’s faith can have a place of prominence over the American flag to show that allegiance to God trumps allegiance to our great country, or at least to let personnel know a service is taking place.

Let’s Be Precise On Biblical Teaching
I am grateful that this U. S. document recognizes an exception. But here is the realty. Even if it did not, I believe it very right that we would still fly the Christian flag above the American for the following reasons:
1. We are to have no other gods before the true God (Exodus 20:3). In other words, God and his values are to be more important to us than all things—and this includes giving priority to our allegiance to Jesus Christ (Matthew 6:33; Phil. 3:7-11). This means that as much as we should be thankful for this county, its heritage, and God’s blessings on it, our love for God should be greater. I would argue, as a result, that the flag that represents our Christian faith should be given priority to the American flag so we remember who and what is first.

2. Paul warns us against distorting the gospel so that we end up preaching another gospel (cf. Galatians 1:6-10). Now, I am not suggesting that one who is patriotic and wants to fly the American flag above the Christian flag necessarily will distort the gospel. But I am saying that there may be a tendency to do this through equating Christianity with American patriotism or merely being a good citizen. Or there may be a tendency to distort the gospel by implicitly or explicitly putting our nation above Christ. Part of the outworking of the gospel is that there is only one way to God and that is through Jesus Christ (cf. John 14:6; Acts 4:12) and when one comes to that God, HHHe is loved above all else—even our country.

3. The best way we can love our country is by loving Jesus Christ more than our country. This is a version of the truth, “The best way we can love our spouse is by loving Christ more,” or “The best way we can love our children is by loving Christ more.” The reason this is so is because when Jesus is our greatest love, we will want to follow his commands—all of them (John 14:15). This not only includes the desire to obey our Savior’s command rather than our government’s, if the latter calls us to oppose the former (Acts 5:29), it also leads us to want to love others in ways that we know are best for them according to God’s truth (1 Cor. 13:6). This makes for the greatest kind of love, that which is most beneficial for others (Deuteronomy 10:12-13). So, to be an obedient-to-Christ-and-Christ-above-country-Christian will make for the best kind of citizen in the country.

4. Related to the third truth is this one. We will not only be concerned about some of Christ’s truth being followed in the country, we will know it is best for all his truth (or as much as possible) to be followed. Let’s apply this to a current event—the Middle East refugees and whether or not they should be allowed into the United States. The debate over this has at times been childish, sanctimonious, and, less-than-helpful on both sides. One side says the right and/or Christian thing to do is to reach out to the refugees and help them—period, and no other considerations. If you don’t agree, you lack the compassion of Christ. On the other side it is argued that Christians should use common sense and recognize the government’s biblical calling to protect its citizens and to carry out God’s justice upon wrongdoers (Romans 13:3-4). So, to talk of help for the refugees is unwise and unsafe. It seems to me that the obedient-to-Christ-and-Christ-above-country-Christian will value both calls—the missional call and the safety call. Keeping Christ first gives us clarity—although it does not always lead to 100 percent agreement.

Let’s Be Precise On Application
So, how should we apply these reminders?

1. I believe in AWANA and in any other place where we fly both flags, it is time for us to fly the Christian flag above the American. This in no way diminishes our great country. Rather, it puts into proper focus the one who is to have our ultimate allegiance. I believe this precision is more important now than at any time in our history. Our country is not only tottering from the loss of the Judea-Christian ethic, there is a larger and larger divide between those who are followers of Jesus and those who are not. The latter need to see, hear, and experience with great clarity what it is to be a follower of Jesus. It is not merely to be an American who also is a fan of Jesus (provided that he fits into our American dream). It is to follow him first, follow him fully, follow him no matter the cost, follow him for the sake of the gospel, follow him for the fame of his name, and follow him in a way that benefits our country the most—namely by calling others to him.

2. As we discuss what to do with the refugees, let’s keep both the security/defense and the missional calling of the Bible in view. In a recent Washington Post opinion piece (“Stop Pitting Security And Compssion Against Each Other In The Syrian Refugee Crisis”), Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote the following:

While this kind of complicated geopolitical situation requires prudence, it also requires virtue. We should debate what it would take to ensure adequate vetting of refugees, but we should not allow ourselves to engage in the kind of rhetoric we’ve heard in recent days—about, for instance, requiring ID cards for Muslim American citizens or considering warrantless searches of their homes or houses of worship.
It is one thing to have disagreement about whether the vetting process is adequate. It is quite another to seek to permanently turn our backs on Syrian refugees altogether.

I do not have a specific answer for how to do this. But what I believe we should be discussing and praying about is how we can follow Christ in both a call to security of the people around us (including family) and the call to mission (which can include stepping out of our comfort zone and even into harm’s way to serve others and the cause of Christ in the gospel). And, on this latter point, I believe this involves more than simply saying, “Someone(s) in our government should do the compassion thing of helping refugees.” No!  It is first and foremost the call of the Church to exercise sacrificial and Christ-like compassion. The government should look at protecting, vetting, and securing, but in a way that allows for refugees to be helped. The Church should be at the forefront of the helping!

The opportunity before the Church is stunning. As David Crabtree in a recent Desiring God post called to our attention, there are eighteen unreached people groups represented in these refugees that God is now relocating. These peoples have remained unreached even in spite of all our missions work and strategy. Could it be that God is working that the nations might come to him in faith and worship?  What a glorious work to do as the Church, at the same time the government does its God-given task of working for national security.

May we Christ-obeying-and-Christ-first-above-country-Christians be fervently praying for both objectives and may God give us the grace to work toward that dual end!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Glorifying God In Our Weaknesses As His Joyful Followers

In Sunday’s message, the first sermon in our Isaiah 40-55 series, we brought out that though we can expect great things from God in the age we live, we cannot expect life to be pain or trouble-free. Since we brought up this subject, I thought it might be good to look at the Apostle Paul’s view toward weaknesses and difficulties in his own life, as stated in 2 Corinthians 12:9—to give perspective on how we ought to approach them.

Let’s start with the context of this verse.

Chapter 12 continues the thrust seen in 11:16-33. Paul is calling the Corinthians not to boast in self-effort or human accomplishments or credentials (as his opponents do). Paul continues to make the point that he could boast if he desired. After all, fourteen years earlier he received a glorious vision from God that may cause anyone to think he is really something. But, Paul’s point is that regardless of experiences or ministry successes and the like, he will not boast about or trust in anyone but Christ (1-6).

He goes on to say that in order to keep him from boasting a “thorn in the flesh” was given him, also called “a messenger of Satan to harass” him (7). In context, it seems most likely that what is being said here is that Paul was afflicted with a physical malady sent by Satan (but ultimately decreed by God since its purpose was to keep him humble). Though Paul repeatedly prayed for its removal, the Lord said, “No,” and told him that his grace is sufficient because in such situations Christ’s servants are able to see his sufficiency and his power in even greater ways because of their weaknesses and are able to see more clearly the need to trust him (8-9). So, Paul makes the point that his boasting and trust are in his weaknesses and Christ’s strength, not in his abilities and credentials, for these kinds of things keep his heart and mind focused in the right direction, namely on the strength and glory of Christ (9-10). As such, Paul is content in his sufferings and difficulties, even if the Corinthians and his opponents suggest these somehow show his inferiority.

This prepares us to zero in on verse nine. Here is how it reads: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

In the first half of this verse Paul records the response of Jesus Christ to his prayers to remove the thorn in the flesh.  Literally, the verse begins this way:  “And he has said to me”. The way this is worded suggests that Jesus Christ said this in the past and its effect has continued on in the present. In other words, what he said in the past still stands.

There are two parts to the short message from Christ. First, literally, “My grace is continually sufficient for you.” What Jesus Christ is saying here is that his transforming and empowering unmerited favor (“grace”) has been and continues to be enough for Paul to go on in a way that honors God and carries out every good work to which he is called (2 Cor. 9:8), even though he currently struggles with this malady. There is nothing else Paul needs to honor God with great joy other than the empowerment that comes from Jesus Christ.

Before we move on we must pause and note something very important about the point that Jesus Christ makes to Paul. If our joyful God-glorifying service rested in our comfort, in our health, in having all the right circumstances in accordance with what we had deemed necessary, then the grace of Jesus Christ would not be sufficient. In other words, Paul would need to be delivered from the thorn; he would need to have better and more comfortable, more palatable circumstances restored to him. However, if these things are not necessary for his greatest purpose and pleasure in life, then this text makes perfect sense. We must not miss the implication arising from this text about what our chief end is and how it is accomplished. We exist to glorify God by enjoying him forever and this is often aided by suffering!

The second part of the message from Jesus Christ gives the reason why (“for”) the first part is true. Literally, we read: “For power is perfected in weakness.” Somehow, what the Savior is teaching is that power from Jesus Christ to glorify God through faith-fueled living is made complete, i.e. it reaches its full potential, in the sphere or situation of weakness.  Verse 10 moves us closer to how this works: “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” When we are weak, we are driven to trust in Jesus Christ even more and, as such, we look to him in an even greater way for his help, for his grace, for his power. As such, not only do we see more of his power displayed in such times, but also that power shines forth all the more brightly up against our weakness. It seems to me the comparison of the power to the weakness is also intended, not just the movement to trust more, since the thorn is not removed. If it were only about the increased faith, one might argue that healing would display this where lack of healing might not. Yet, when the thorn stays, faith must be continual and there is also a continual trusting in Jesus Christ for the empowerment to make it through and to honor God in our contentment. The continued faith and display of Christ’s power up against our weakness shows how strong and how valuable Christ is.  He is worth the suffering and greater than it!

In the rest of the ninth verse Paul gives his conclusion (“therefore”) to the message from Jesus Christ: “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”  The clause rendered “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses,” gives a very emphatic sense of the pleasure, the gladness, Paul will have as he speaks of and lives with his weaknesses. Literally, it would be translated: “All the more I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses.” Very provocatively Paul is asserting, “Hey, you want to see pleasure or gladness?  I will show you the most intense pleasure as I boast in my weaknesses!” 

Paul does not merely say he will endure or begrudgingly embrace his weaknesses out of duty to Christ. He words this in a way that some armchair psychoanalysts may dub him “crazy, a masochist!”  How could Paul find such great pleasure and gladness in those things that hurt?  Simply because Paul finds such great delight in glorifying God in all he does (cf. Rom. 1:5; 1 Cor. 10:31; 2 Cor. 2:3; Phil. 1:9-11; 2:14-15) that if suffering would enable him to know God in a greater way, to serve him more, to increase his glorification of him, he is all for it!  After all, this is the man who affirms that for him to live is to put Christ on display, but to die is gain since he gets to be with Jesus (Phil. 1:21, 23). That is why Luke records these amazing words of the apostle in Acts 20:24:  “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, ‘to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.’”  Paul finds his absolutely radical pleasure in putting Jesus Christ on display through his life and ministry as he proclaims the gospel and, as such, if trials and difficulties aid in that task, he rejoices in them.

There is perhaps no one statement in all the Scriptures that displays what John Piper has termed “Christian Hedonism” any more than this one. There can be little doubt that the apostle shared with Piper (and others like Jonathan Edwards) this God-glorifying pleasure in the Savior that would move him to be glad in God and in all that God has for him. Whatever the Savior decrees for Paul is sufficient, provided that he gets to enjoy Jesus Christ and put him on display through the proclamation of the gospel of his grace and the living out of its entailments!  Oh, Christian, understand this is no mere dutiful submission by Paul, but a joy-filled, pleasure-producing embrace of whatever God decrees for him that enables him to enjoy God more and live for the fame of his name!

Note also that Paul writes: “I will boast…of my weaknesses” (lit. “with respect to my weaknesses”).  The plural suggests that Paul is taking the present situation of the thorn in the flesh and now broadening it to speak of all his weaknesses. It is as if he is saying, “Hey, if that is the case in regard to this thorn in the flesh, then I will boast in all my weaknesses!”  The apostle is using the verb “boast” here in its technical sense that speaks of both trusting in, as well as speaking confidently about, something or someone, namely the LORD.

The Old Testament background for this boasting is Jeremiah 9:23-24: “Thus says the LORD: ‘Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, 24but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.’” 

Elsewhere, Paul uses the verb in the same fashion (1 Cor 1:27-29; Eph. 2:2-10). When Paul says “I will boast…of my weaknesses,” he is saying that he will not treat them as if they mess up everything. Instead, he will use them to realize his dependence upon the Lord and will speak of Christ’s greatness. To boast of his weaknesses is a shorthand way of Paul saying, “I will put my confidence in and praise the Lord for his strength shown through my weaknesses; I will not put my confidence in myself!” And, keep in mind, he will do this with great pleasure!

Paul closes out his statement in this verse by affirming the purpose for his exceedingly glad boasting in the Lord working through his weaknesses:  “so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” The sense here is that Paul must look to Christ, trust in him, and praise him for his power, for his empowering grace, in order that Christ’s power may be experienced by him in its fullest sense. Paul wants this power to know Christ and make him known to his glory more than all things. This power is a secondary purpose to the ultimate purpose of glorifying Christ. It drives Paul to embrace suffering with exceeding gladness!

Oh, Christian, hear and heed what Paul is saying here. When we find our joy, our delight, our pleasure in Christ and glorifying him, there is nothing that can take that away, there is no suffering, trial, hardship (not even death itself! Phil. 1:21, 23) that can thwart our pleasure in our God and his ultimate purpose for us!  What is more, we see the important connection that empowering grace has to our ultimate purpose of glorifying God. Finally, we also see that John Piper’s dictum, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him,” is so true!  May it be so for us, who long to be his joyful followers!