Thursday, September 21, 2017

Why don't we literally wash feet?

This is a typical question that arises when studying our passage from Sunday’s message, John 13:2-17.  After all, Jesus says in v14, “If I then have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”  Jesus literally washed the disciples’ feet, so shouldn’t we literally wash one another’s feet as a ritual, similar to our regular observance of the Lord’s Supper?

There are a number of reasons to hold that Jesus intended His disciples to understand this command as a metaphor for broad, selfless service to one another, not confined to the ritual of washing one another’s feet. 

First, washing of one’s feet was a real, cultural need for Jesus and His disciples.  Their feet were truly filthy and needed to be washed.  Had the scene taken place in the 19th century, the command may have been, “shovel one another’s horse stalls,” which would be very much out of place in the 21st century.  I would argue footwashing is equally out of place today.  We don’t wash feet today because we don’t wash feet at all outside of our showers.  It’s not a real need.  The idea is to find what is a real need and meet it.

Second and more importantly, the scope of the Farewell Discourse (John 13-17) indicates that footwashing is a metaphor for loving one another.  In just a few short verses, after Judas is removed from among them, Jesus will return to His teaching and give further instruction regarding what He is calling the disciples to: “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”  He’s explaining what He means by the metaphor of washing feet.

Third and related, it is generally accepted that Jesus’ act of washing the disciples’ feet was a prefiguring of His humbly laying down His life for the disciples.  In accordance with the new command to love one another, Jesus calls the disciples in John 15:12-13 to the same kind of love: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”  It appears that Jesus is adding another layer to their understanding of the new commandment – to love one another as Jesus does is to lay down one’s life for the brothers.  Just as Jesus’ washing of their feet was a metaphor for His greater service on the cross, so also His call to the disciples was a metaphorical call to lay down their lives for one another. 

To this, some may object that though it was a metaphor, Jesus literally washed their feet.  So shouldn’t we literally wash each other’s feet, simply understanding it as a metaphor for broader service?  In answer to this I would add a fourth reason why it is unlikely Jesus intended this to be a normal ritual or ordinance of the church:

There is no biblical or early church historical evidence that the church washed one another’s feet as regular ritual on par with the Lord’s Supper.  Consider the difference between the call to wash feet and the call to observe Communion. The Lord’s Supper is depicted in all three of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), in which the Lord gave to the disciples and they ate and drank right there and then.  We would expect that if washing feet was to be a ritual similar to Communion, the disciples would have been expected to wash one another’s feet that night immediately after Jesus commanded them.  However, that did not happen.  (If one were to say, “they didn’t need to wash each other’s feet – their feet were already clean,” it would support the first argument above!)  Further, the only mention of footwashing in the rest of the NT is in 1 Tim 5:10, where it is not indicated to be an ordinance of the church, but an example of humble service by a widow.  All of this makes footwashing as a ritual highly unlikely, compared to the universally accepted ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which are repeatedly attested in the NT and early church history.

So, is there anything wrong with literally washing feet?  Certainly not.  I’ve participated in footwashing services and found it to be very meaningful.  It can be a way to express to one another our intent to serve each other with our lives.  But it simply should not be understood to be a mandated, ongoing ritual for the church.  Rather, we should understand the Lord’s command to be a call to adopt His heart and His love for one another, laying down our lives in broad, humble service. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Questions About the New Sermon Series

It was a blessing to open the Word to the book of John with you on Sunday.  I heard from many of you that the series is coming at just the right time.  May the Lord use John 13-17 to stoke the fire of our hearts to love Christ more and more.

As I mentioned then, I’d like to answer a few questions that the new series may have raised.  It is unusual for us to study a chunk of a book rather than the whole thing.  There are twenty-one chapters in John.  We’re studying five.  So, some obvious questions:

Why aren’t we doing the whole book?  There are couple of reasons.  First, I desire to keep a broad representation of the counsel of God in front of you.  One way to do that is to cycle through different parts of the Bible on Sunday mornings.  It’s possible no one has noticed this, but there has been a pattern to the books I’ve preached in the last almost ten years – Ephesians, Joshua/Judges, Matthew, Philippians, Exodus…  We’ve gone so slowly that the pattern may not be obvious, yet.  NT Epistle, OT Book, Gospel, NT Epistle, OT Book, Gospel, NT Epistle…  I’m not married to that pattern, but I like it.  (As I mentioned Sunday, I was leaning toward James or Galatians until about a month ago, so the pattern isn’t set in stone.)  So a Gospel was next in line, but having just spent almost six years in Matthew, I wasn’t ready to launch into another multiple year series just yet.  So, doing a smaller section allows us to spend time in a Gospel without being there for several years. 

Second, these particular chapters have been on my heart and I felt led by the Lord to put them in front of you now.  The numerous testimonies I heard on Sunday (“this is so timely”; “I need this so much”) would seem to confirm this is the right time for this particular part of John.

Are we in danger of taking things out of context?  If you’re thinking this, good.  Context is essential.  We should always have it at the front of our minds.  It is my responsibility, no matter what text we study, to keep the context in mind and present it to you.  You’re right to be concerned about this.  I’ll just ask you to trust me to handle the text carefully, while you commit to being good Bereans, checking for yourself to “see if these things are so” (Acts 17:10-11).  While we are not walking slowly through the whole book together right now, I have studied the whole thing and am comfortable saying I know this Gospel well.  We’ll be using all of John to help us understand this section.

Will we ever study the whole book of John together?  I certainly hope so.  Lord willing, it will be years down the road, but I fully intend to study the whole thing with you at some point.  My bucket list doesn’t have things on it like “skydiving” or “bullriding.”  It’s got “preach Romans, Hebrews, and all of John.”  All in the Lord’s time.

May the Lord bless our study of His word and help us to live in light of it.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Impassioned Prayer

It often happens that points made in the sermon on Sunday morning coincide with points made in Sunday School in the next hour without any coordination between the preacher and the teacher.  Pastor Rick and I have marveled at this for years.  The Holy Spirit frequently weaves together influences to push us in a particular direction to accomplish the Father’s purpose in us.  Many times in my life I’ve heard a particular truth from one source only to hear the same thing the next day from a different source and then from a friend and then from another source, etc.  I know that others of you have experienced this kind of thing because so many of you have told me.

The same phenomenon is happening once again at Providence.  Earlier this summer as I began to consider and pray about what to teach on Wednesday nights in the Fall, I became burdened that we needed to focus on prayer.  Not just talking about it, but doing it together on Wednesday nights.  (This Spring and Summer have been for me the most vibrant season of prayer I have ever known.  And I received more specific answers to prayer in that short period of time than ever before.) 

Then when Pastor Rick came back from the FBI Academy in June, he told me he was working on choosing a book for the Home Fellowship Groups for the Fall and was looking exclusively at books about…prayer.   Again, no coordination other than the Holy Spirit working in both of our hearts.

So I wonder where the Holy Spirit might be leading us?  Perhaps it is to become a people passionate about prayer! 

I trust that this will be timely news to a good number of us.  Who among us has not struggled in this area of life?  Some of us – maybe most of us – are struggling right now.  If we’re being honest, some of us might admit to being in a season of complete prayerlessness.  But it may be that the Lord is graciously working to free us from that difficulty through the HFG study and our new Wednesday night service in order to turn a weakness into a Spirit-empowered strength. 

PBF has a reputation as a Bible-focused church.  Being students of the Word, we should have no problem answering this question: what happens when God’s people pray?  For His kingdom to come?  For each other to grow in godliness?  For the lost to be saved?

What might happen if our Bible-focused church gave itself to impassioned prayer?  Wouldn’t you love to find out?

Each week, we’re going to take a very brief look at the Scriptures and talk about prayer.  Initially, we’ll be looking at the typical difficulties we have getting into prayer and the best ways to overcome those difficulties.  Then we’re going to pray.  I’ll give you more details this Wednesday night, Sept 13 at 6:30 at the church.  Please make every effort to come!

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.