Thursday, June 15, 2017

Christ's Great Love for His Bride

And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:3)

Familiarity with the Scriptures, distraction with the world, and degraded attention spans may lead us to read and be unaffected by passages of Scripture that should rattle our teeth.  It’s takes discipline to slow down and really think about what we’re reading and how significant it is.

Consider briefly the magnitude of John 14:3 for conveying the love of Christ for sinners.  Jesus doesn’t regard the mass of sinners whom He rescued at the cross a large group of cattle owned to be kept somewhere out back, so to speak, although He has every right to regard them that way.  There is nothing inherent in us that makes us lovely to the eternal Son.  Election is all of grace according to His divine prerogative (Deut 7:6-8; Rom 9:10-13, 11:6).  He chose us not because we were lovely, but because He is gracious.

So there is no obligation imposed on Him that He would treat us as more than cattle.  Saving us from our sins was far beyond the call of duty.  But passages like John 14 (John 13-16, in fact) expose to us that Christ genuinely delights in those whom He has saved.  Far from considering them a nameless and faceless throng of sinners, a herd of cattle, or a band of barely reformed delinquents, He loves them as a young husband loves his bride. 

The language of John 14:3 shows a Savior who longs to be with His bride.  I will take you to Myself.  Consider the other ways this could have been said.  “I will take you to heaven.”  “I will remove you from that horrible place.”  “I’ll prevent you from being alone.”  Those would all be sentiments no doubt cherished by the church, but none so precious as what the Lord actually said – I will take you to Myself.  Again this is the kind of language you’d expect of a lover to his bride.  It’s not merely that Christ wants to give us heaven.  But He wants to give us Himself and He wants us for Himself. 

Some of us may conceive of Jesus holding His nose as He kisses His bride.  But this is a dreadfully wrong understanding of how thoroughly His blood cleanses us from all unrighteousness.  He has never loved us because of what we were or what we offered but because of who He is.  And that is why noticing this kind of statement in John 14:3 doesn’t make much of man, but much of Christ.  It demonstrates the purely unconditional nature of His love toward the church. 

Behold, the great love of Christ!  Saving us was not enough to satisfy Him.  Revealing Himself was not enough.  Revealing the Father was not enough.  But He goes to prepare a place for us that we might be with Him…and be His for eternity.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

How To Out-Indulge The World

The human heart has a problem with moderation.  We tend to binge on whatever we enjoy.  This is why there are so many calls to self-control in the Bible – our tendency to over-indulge needs to be reined in (Pro 25:28; Gal 5:22-23; 1 Tim 2; 2 Pet 1:5-7).

We might say that this is due to our idolatrous hearts, but it may be more appropriate to say it is due to our propensity to worship in general.  We have been designed to be enamored…with God.  But due to the Fall, our impulse for fascination chases after the creature to the exclusion the Creator (Rom 1:25).  Certainly, there is nothing wrong with being fascinated with the creation, but only in moderation and only in appreciation for the Creator.  In excess, that fascination crosses over into worship, which should be reserved only for God. 

Our culture pushes this to the extreme by making over-indulgence a virtue.  Christians beset by as-yet-unsanctified flesh can feel frustrated by the constant pull in two directions – the pull by the flesh to enjoy the creation in excess and the pull by the Spirit to live a self-controlled life (Gal 5:17).  Perhaps the key to overcoming this frustration isn’t resigning oneself to a life of deprivation, but rather indulging to the fullest in the one thing that cannot be enjoyed to excess – the love of Christ.

The Puritan John Flavel, in his short treatise, Christ Altogether Lovely, wrote:

“The beauty and holiness of creatures are ensnaring and dangerous.  A man may make an idol out of them, and indulge himself beyond the bounds of moderation with them, but there is no such danger of excess in the love of Christ.  The soul is then in the healthiest frame and temper when it is most overwhelmed by love to Christ.”

When it comes to enjoying the love and fellowship of Jesus, we never reach a roadblock that says, “this far and no more.  You’re going to overdo it.”  Rather, listen to what Paul prayed on behalf of the Ephesian church:

[I pray that you] may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph 3:18-19)

Don’t miss that – Paul prays that they would know something that can’t be known!  He prays that they would know the love of Christ…that surpasses knowledge.  And he prays that they would be filled with all the fullness of God – another impossibility.  Finite creatures can’t be filled with an infinite God.  What can this mean other than that Paul’s great desire for the church is for them to keep knowing and keep knowing the love of Christ – an unending journey – AND that they would keep being filled and keep being filled with God – an unending filling? 

The reason that overindulging is a bad thing isn’t because too much joy in itself is a bad thing.  No, overindulging is a bad thing because the object of that joy is bad for you, when enjoyed in excess.  NOT so with Christ.  Your innermost desire to indulge in joy was created for this very thing – to know and love Christ.  Therefore, there is no such thing as OVERindulging in Him.  We might call it super-indulging, but never overindulging.  There is no overdosing on Jesus.  It’s only, only good for you.  That’s fantastic news. 

Our impulse for joy, when focused on the wrong thing, leads to overindulgence, which must be reined in by self-control.  But when it comes to enjoying Christ, all restraint can be laid aside!  For it is in Him that our created desire for joy finds its intended purpose. 

Further, obsession with Christ is the one area in which moderation is not only not called for, but is positively dangerous.  One of the most common causes of spiritual malaise is that believers enjoy things other than Christ to excess, while enjoying Him only in moderation, if at all.  Is it any wonder then that they fall under the weight of anxieties, depressions, besetting sins, and spiritual apathy?  Moderation in enjoyment of Christ will drown the soul! 

It would not be a stretch to say that the lion’s share of sorrow and pain experienced in this life is due to overindulging in created things and underindulging in the love of Jesus.  What a tragedy to be frustrated by the confines of moderation regarding lesser joys, when Christ calls for unrestrained enjoyment of Him.  He came that we may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10).

Believers, by focusing on the one thing we were created to enjoy without limitation, can out-indulge and out-enjoy the world.  And in the process, we can point the way to true life and worship in Him through the gospel of Christ. 

Thursday, May 25, 2017

"Why is the Bible soft on polygamy?" IT'S NOT!

“Why doesn’t God ever condemn polygamy in the Bible?  It seems like people get away with it all the time!” 

I’ve heard things like this quite a few times over the years, and it’s usually from our ladies.  Totally understandable.  It does seem like the Bible has little to say about this issue and it’s always men who have multiple wives and not the other way around.

So what is there to say about this?  Well, most of us have noticed that the Bible doesn’t read like a modern day how-to manual.  What may not be so obvious is that even when it is not giving us straightforward dos and don’ts, it is still teaching us.  Old Testament narrative in particular teaches us lessons implicitly rather than explicitly.  It’s really quite rare in OT narrative to get anything close to a statement saying, “here’s the point of all this.”

Certainly, we would love to have a passage somewhere in the Bible that says, “Any man who has more than one wife is a jerk and deserves to die.”  But just because the Bible doesn’t say that explicitly does not mean it has nothing to teach about polygamy at all.  In fact, what it does teach about polygamy is quite damning – it simply teaches it implicitly, or through the storyline by showing what happens to people who engage in it.

If I were to summarize this implicit teaching and make it explicit, I would phrase it this way: “Any man who takes more than one wife has rejected God’s design for marriage, is a fool, and will pay for it.”   

First, we’re all familiar with God’s creation of the man and woman in the garden.  He made one man and one woman and said of them, “…a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen 2:25).  One man plus one woman equals one flesh.  That’s the formula, and it’s reiterated in the New Testament (Matt 19:5; Eph 5:31).  In each of these NT texts, Jesus and the apostles always refer to the husband and his wife, not the husband and his wives (e.g. Eph 5:25-33).  NT teaching about divorce, remarriage, and adultery presupposes that one can only be married to one person (Matt 19:3-9; 1 Cor 7:10-16).  All of this NT commentary confirms that Genesis 2 sets up a specific design for marriage – one husband and one wife.  Anyone who deviates from this has rejected God’s design.  When we deviate from God’s design, problems will ensue, which is exactly what we see happening as the OT storyline continues.

Which brings us to the second point – people who do this are fools who will pay for it.  The first closeup example of polygamy that we see is in the life of Abraham.  God promised Abraham (whose name was Abram at the time) that He would make him into a great nation with many offspring (Gen 12).  In Gen 15, God reiterated this promise, making it explicit that an heir would come from Abraham’s own body. 

Now, given God’s design for marriage – one man, one woman – obviously, that heir is going to be born to Abraham and Sarah.  But Abraham and Sarah got tired of waiting so they went outside of God’s design and added a wife, Hagar, to birth the promised son.  How did that work out for everyone?  Massive pain and drama.  That’s the whole point.  Immediately, they were all miserable.  Hagar looked on Sarah with contempt (Gen16:4).  Sarah hated Hagar and was angry at Abraham, cursing him even though the whole thing was her idea (16:5).  Abraham gave Sarah permission to do whatever she wanted to Hagar and she did, treating her harshly (16:6).  Large portions of the following narrative are dedicated to depicting the misery caused by that one foolish decision (16:7-14; 17:17-21; 21:8-21).  It caused nothing but sorrow. 

And God still did things His own way.  In other words, their rejection of monogamy did not benefit them in the way they hoped.  That God rejected Ishmael and named Abraham’s descendents through Isaac emphasized His upholding of His own design for marriage.  “No, we’re not going to do things your way, Abraham.  We’re going to do things My way” (Birdwell paraphrase, Gen18:9-15). 

It would have been great if Abraham and his family learned this lesson, but polygamy turns into a sordid family tradition.  It does skip a generation with Isaac and Rebekah, but consider all the heartache that comes from Jacob having numerous wives.  There are multiple layers to that situation, including the fact that Jacob was tricked into taking Leah to be his wife, when he really wanted Rachel (Gen 29).  So we might not say that Jacob took a second wife just because he was greedy for love.  Yet the narrative still shows polygamy as an evil thing.  Many commentators believe that Jacob’s being deceived into taking two wives was a judgment upon Jacob for his deception of his brother Esau (Gen 27).  In other words, the tables had been turned – Jacob was no longer the deceiver but the deceived.  It should tell us something that this messed up situation with multiple wives was a form of judgment on Jacob rather than a blessing.  Here, too, strife ruled the day (Gen 30, 37).  We might even say that the strife caused by competing wives in Jacob’s household led to the slavery of the nation of Israel! (Gen 37-Exo 1). 

We could look at other examples, including David and Solomon.  In each case, the rejection of God’s design of one husband and one wife leads to horribly painful consequences.  This is one way that the Bible teaches.  It doesn’t always make outright pronouncements, but sometimes shows in a big picture fashion what happens when we don’t do things God’s way.  Such is the case with the Bible’s teaching on polygamy.

So does the Bible have anything to say about polygamy?  Yes.  Is polygamy condemned by God?  No doubt.  We just have to read carefully, understanding the different ways that the Bible communicates truth. 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Help For Tortured Souls

Over the years, I’ve counseled with a good number of people struggling with the issue of assurance.  How can I know that I’m saved?  For many people, it comes down to wrong thinking about how their performance relates to their standing with God.  For others, it’s doubt about whether they had a genuine conversion.  Regardless of the circumstances, it can be a paralyzing question to grapple with.

Even with all the people I’ve talked to about this issue, I’ve never come across anyone as tortured by it as John Bunyan.  The Puritan tinker/theologian/preacher/author is best known for writing The Pilgrim’s Progress.  What many people don’t know is the agony that he endured for years while wrestling with this issue of assurance.  I don’t use the word “torture” lightly.  The poor man was tormented.  In his autobiography – Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners – he details his road from debauched unbeliever to confessing believer to tortured doubter to elated son of God. 

For those who struggle with assurance of salvation, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.  First of all, it will put to words what you perhaps have thought you alone have experienced.  There is great hope in seeing that others have suffered as we have.  “I’m not alone” is a comforting thought indeed.  Even greater comfort and hope can be derived from the knowledge that this venerable giant of the faith suffered horribly from doubt and that his doubt was eventually remedied.  If John Bunyan doubted and found a resolution, you can, too.

Second, Bunyan explains how this doubt was remedied.  Nothing is more discouraging than vague platitudes prescribed for real, felt despair.  Bunyan is specific and detailed as he prescribes the truths that freed him from doubt forever.  I won’t give it away here by summarizing it; the benefit of reading the whole account is too beneficial.  Suffice to say you will not be disappointed.

Third, Bunyan explains why he believes the Lord allowed him to suffer under his doubt for so long.  He believed that God was gracious, loving, and kind to put him through such a dark and horrible years-long season because it taught him things that benefited him and others for the rest of his life.  Indeed, we could say, those lessons continue to benefit the church through Bunyan’s writings still today.  You could benefit from those lessons by reading this book.

Fourth, reading the Puritans is good for the soul.  I’ve never doubted my salvation for a single day, but this book has blessed me tremendously.  So compelling is Bunyan’s experience that I found it difficult to put the book down.  His eventual joy and love for the Savior after finding the truth that freed him from doubt is so infectious it will delight any believer, whether you’ve struggled with doubt or not.  I’ve found this to be true of every Puritan I’ve read.  Some modern books tend to be somewhat shallow, unclear, and repetitive.  Not so with the Puritans.  (Some Puritans are difficult to read – I wouldn’t start with John Owen!)  John Bunyan certainly is a great place to start.

You can find it free on the Kindle Store.  Or get it on the cheap here.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Is Respect Something That Must Be Earned?

It’s not unusual to hear that “respect is something that’s earned.”  The idea is that respect is not automatically afforded to anyone.  A person must live in a respectable manner before they deserve to be treated with respect and highly regarded. 

I’ve often heard this from people about authority figures that they don’t respect.  This is a pertinent topic given the content of the message on Sunday.  We’re commanded to submit to authority in the Scriptures.  As we saw in both Paul and Peter, we’re taught to obey authority in any context in our lives – in the community, the home, and the church.  But does that entail respect?  Is it appropriate for Christians to adopt the common notion that “respect must be earned” – especially as it pertains to authority figures?

The short answer is that according to the Bible, when it comes to authority figures, respect is not something that is earned…it’s something that is commanded.  In fact, in every New Testament text we referenced on Sunday regarding the command to submit to authority, there is an accompanying command to respect that authority.

In Rom 13, Paul calls believers to be subject to governmental authority.  In v7, he concludes the teaching with, Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.  The previous verses indicate that taxes are owed by virtue of the fact that those authorities are in power.  By extension, we should understand Paul to be saying the same thing about respect or honor. 

But some might argue that what Paul really means is that we “owe” respect to those who have earned it.  I think that requires us to read something into the text that isn’t there.  However, a more significant rebuttal is the cross-reference in 1 Peter 2:17, where the apostle Peter calls us to honor governmental authorities without reference to their having earned it.  It appears from both Paul and Peter’s writings that we are to respect all governmental authority.  Remember that both Paul and Peter wrote these things under Nero, an evil tyrant.  If they required believers to respect governmental leaders in that context, what excuse do we have to do otherwise?

What about authority in the workplace?  Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust (1Pet 2:18).  Here we could say that Peter explicitly commands respect for those who have not “earned” it in that he includes the phrase “but also to the unjust.”  Even the unjust, unreasonable boss or master should be obeyed, not just with a modicum of respect, but as Peter writes, “with all respect.”

And in the home?  Let the wife see that she respects her husband (Eph 5:33).  That’s Paul’s command, but Peter agrees and adds specifically that it should be done in the case of an ungodly husband, that is, one who has not “earned” respect: Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct (1Pet 3:1-2).  As you know, Paul tells children to honor their mother and father in Ephesians 6:1-3.

That would seem to cover every kind of authority.  If we could think of another kind of authority not explicitly mentioned in such passages – perhaps the leadership of a homeschool co-op or the leadership of a homeowners association, some authority that we might not be able to easily fit into governmental, workplace, church, or home authority – is it likely that the character of God would be different in those situations?  Remember why God holds earthly authorities to be so important – they are extensions of His authority.  All authority is from Him (Rom 13:1-4).  So His desire that we respect any authority should apply to all authority. 

We are required not only to obey, but to treat authority figures with respect.  Rightly understood, submission assumes a respectful attitude toward authority.  If we understand that submission is a matter of the heart and our hearts are on board with that, treating an authority with respect will be a relatively easy task.  It’s only those who hold to a merely outward submission – with hearts inwardly twisting against that authority – who would find it difficult to be respectful in obedience.  True submission will be respectful submission.

Perhaps, admiration is earned.  But respect is not.  It’s commanded.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Gift of Rebuke

How should we receive the rebuke of other believers?  I’m often asked questions about when and how to confront others.  But I’m not sure if anyone has ever asked me about how to receive confrontation well.  That’s regrettable since it seems that the vast majority of us don’t do it well.  We probably need to give at least as much thought and prayer to how we receive confrontation as to how we give it.

Everyone loves to give and receive gifts.  When someone sees me in need and gives a gift to meet that need, it tends to endear that person to me.  I’m touched that they would be so thoughtful and caring.  Typically, I will look for ways to show them my gratitude and to reciprocate in some way.  I’m sure you can relate. 

But consider how differently we receive rebuke.  When someone confronts us to correct or rebuke, what happens in our hearts?  We certainly don’t receive it as a gift.  Many of us are moved instantly to a defensive posture.  Our heart rate increases, we become anxious, our skin flushes – a textbook fight-or-flight response.  We begin, at least internally, to justify ourselves.  Like the scoffer of Proverbs, we stop listening to the person talking to us and we mentally outline our rebuttal (Pro 13:1).  Indeed, we may even go on the offensive, finding reasons why the person in front of us doesn’t understand or doesn’t have the right to say these things.  Perhaps, we even think of ways they have sinned that in some illogical sense make them unqualified to confront us. 

Proverbs is treasure trove of wisdom on this issue.  Consider what Proverbs 9:7 would tell us about our typical response to correction: Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse, and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury.  If we tend to turn the tables on those who confront us, what are we?  We are wicked scoffers.  

Other proverbs indicate that there are two approaches to the reception of reproof: the way of wisdom and the way of the fool.  Proverbs 12:1 teaches, Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid…

I’m pretty sure the Bible just called most of us stupid.  The wise person who loves knowledge will welcome correction.  But only stupid people hate reproof.  That’s strong language.  But why would the Word say such a thing – that only the stupid hate reproof?  Because reproof shows us where we are wrong and gives us the opportunity to change.  Correction leads to growth, and the wise want growth.

We all have an inborn instinct for self-preservation.  That’s why we don’t throw things at the doctor when he or she gives us a diagnosis.  The doctor is helping us by revealing what’s wrong so that we can recover and be healthier.  To ignore that internal issue will only lead to bigger problems later on.  We’re usually thankful when doctors are able to tell us what is wrong with our bodies. 

We could think of correction or rebuke as a much needed x-ray of our hearts.  It’s for our good.  We’ve been called to be like Christ, and if we love Christ, we’ll want to be like Him.  Therefore, we should desire to know what parts of our lives do not resemble Him so that we can change.  Correction is similar to a diagnosis that says, “hey, something’s wrong and if you ignore it, there’s gonna be big problems ahead.”  If we rightly think of sin as detrimental to our spiritual wellbeing and we desire more than anything to be like Christ, ought we not welcome others pointing out to us those faults that we don’t see in ourselves? 

When we think in those terms, it makes logical sense that we would welcome correction and receive it as a gift.  So why don’t we?  Why do we so often get angry and turn on the person helping us?  Well, here’s another diagnosis that applies to every one of us: when we get angry or defensive in response to rebuke, we can know that we are eaten up with pride.  So in addition to whatever the person in front of us is rebuking, we can add pride to our list of spiritual maladies.  Pride is at the core of our impulse to defend ourselves against correction.

A rebuke goes deeper into a man of understanding than a hundred blows into a fool (Pro 17:10).  The more we grow in Christlikeness and the more humble we become, the more we will welcome correction as a gift.  We’ll thank the Lord for it.  We’ll not regard those confronting us with suspicion or question their motives or put them on our “list,” but we’ll have greater affection for them – they’ve helped us become more like the Lord.

I’ve got a long way to go on this.  But I’ve begun to pray for my own heart that the Lord would help me to regard correction as a loving, gracious gift from Him.  And I’ve prayed that He would help me to regard those who correct me – even those who correct me in a spirit of harshness – as tools in His hands doing me good by His sovereign, gracious design.  You’re invited to join me.  Imagine the growth that would take place in us if we all regarded rebuke as a gift.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

He First Loved Us

Today is the Thursday before Good Friday, an appropriate day to think about the events of the night of the Lord’s arrest, when Jesus made a number of startling predictions, all of which came true, and all of which demonstrate the depth of the Lord’s commitment to save sinners.  We can read about these things in Matthew 26.

In 26:21, the Lord foretold that one of the twelve, Judas, would betray Him, would hand Him over to the authorities to be crucified.  He was right.  In 26:31, He predicted to the remaining eleven, “You will all fall away because of me this night…”  That is, Jesus predicted that He would be abandoned by those whom He had chosen and discipled.  He was right.

Perhaps the most gut-wrenching and memorable prediction is introduced in 26:33, when Peter responded, "Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away."

“Lord, I’m different.  I’ll stand by you no matter what.”  Those of us who know what is coming – that Peter will deny the Lord – engage in some Monday Morning Quarterback pity – “poor Peter.  Poor foolish Peter.”  We think that we would be different…which makes us just like Peter.   

Peter thought he would be different than the other disciples who might abandon Jesus.  When we think we would be different than Peter, we are just like Him.  Isn’t that what we think when we read this story?  “If I was one of the disciples, I’d stick beside Jesus.  If I was Peter, I would never deny Him.  I’d stay right there and follow Him all the way to the cross.”

It seldom occurs to us that we abandon Him in various ways now.   We deny Him in various ways now.  We abandon Him for the sake of idols, the world’s pleasure.  We forsake time with Him.  We ignore His Word and fellowship with Him and His church.  We deny Him by the way that we live our lives.  Did you know that that was Paul’s major concern for the professing believers at Crete when he wrote his letter to Titus?  There were people there who claimed to know Christ, but who denied Him by their works (Titus1:16). 

We abandon Him.  We deny Him.  Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves.  He demonstrates this to Peter:

Jesus said to him, "Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times." Peter said to him, "Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!" And all the disciples said the same.  (26:34-35) 

“And all the disciples said the same.”  Why do you think Matthew included this detail?  Likely, there are many reasons, but perhaps one is that disciples tend to have a higher opinion of their own faithfulness than they should.  All of them swore they wouldn’t abandon Jesus.  And how many of them were right?

Another reason to mention this is that these details remind us that Jesus knew precisely what was going to happen.  He knew precisely how He would be treated even by those closest to Him…yet it did not deter Him in the least.  Jesus is the only hero in the story.  Everyone else fails.  This casts a long gospel shadow. 

Do you love Jesus?  I’m sure we all do in some way and in some measure, but we all undoubtedly fail Him in many ways.  The beautiful thing about this scene is that the disciples’ love for Jesus or lack thereof had absolutely no bearing on whether or not He would proceed with the Father’s plan.  He was going to die for these men without regard for how they had loved Him or failed Him.  The disciples’ betrayal, abandonment, and denial introduced no hint of hesitation on the part of the Savior. 

It was for these very sins that they needed a Savior.  By their poor treatment of Him, their disregard for Him, their dismissal of Him they demonstrated the depth of their desperate need for Him.  And this Savior is the only Savior who would save such band of unfaithful sinners. 

Jesus doesn’t love us because we first loved Him.  We love because He first loved us.  He loved us when we had nothing to offer Him, when we wanted to offer Him nothing.  What a Savior.