Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Thankful Gentile


28 years ago today, the Lord saved me.  As I glanced at my watch this morning in my office, I saw the date and was reminded of what took place on May 27, 1982.  What a difference that memory made in my reading of Scripture today.  As I read each passage, I thought of myself as a young boy, not fully aware of the unfathomable riches that became mine that day.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you…
One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple…
I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living…
As I continued to read, I noticed a common theme running through several of the Psalms I opened, that is, Israel and the Gentiles as recipients of the blessings of salvation.  What a mysterious blessing for you and me that God set apart Israel to be a light for the Gentiles.  Psalm 87 speaks of this plan in a unique way:
 1 On the holy mount stands the city he founded;
 2 the LORD loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwelling places of Jacob.
 3 Glorious things of you are spoken, O city of God.

Zion is the city of Jerusalem and the psalmist clearly conveys that it is a most special place in God’s sight.  It is the location of God’s temple, the symbol of His presence with His people.  The "glorious things" spoken of the city in the following verses are quite surprising:
  4 Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon; behold, Philistia and Tyre, with Cush-- "This one was born there," they say.
 5 And of Zion it shall be said, "This one and that one were born in her"; for the Most High himself will establish her.
 6 The LORD records as he registers the peoples, "This one was born there."

What are the glorious things spoken of Jerusalem?  Gentile nations, all of which were at one time enemies of God, were born there.  Rahab (another name for Egypt), Babylon, Philistia, Tyre, and Cush were born in Jerusalem.  In other words, these certain peoples are spoken of as citizens of Zion.
This may seem confusing until we look at the wider context of Scripture.  In Genesis 12:3, when God first called Abram, He said, “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”  Only in the New Testament do we see explicitly the scope of that blessing.  In Acts 26:22-23, Paul summed up the message of the Old Testament saying, “I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles." 
It was God’s intent from the very beginning to save both Jews and Gentiles through a gospel that would come through the Jews.  This was demonstrated by Jesus Himself when He brought salvation to the Gentiles of Samaria, saying to the woman at the well, “Salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22b).  This begins to shed light on the text of Psalm 87, but another reference will be helpful. 
In Ephesians 2:11ff, Paul tells of the Gentiles hopelessness prior to Christ: you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.  There was a barrier between the Gentiles and the Jews.  The Jews had been given the blessings of God, and there was no salvation for the Gentiles.  But…
 2:13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  In Christ, God made the Jew and Gentile one and reconciled them to Himself “in one body through the cross.”  The ramifications for the Gentile are staggering:
  19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,
 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone,
 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.

What we see in Psalm 87 is this magnificent reconciliation in poetic form – Gentiles, former enemies of God, have been brought into His house and made fellow citizens with the Jews and members of His household. 
The next psalm on my list this morning was Psalm 117.  A fitting response to the truths of Psalm 87.
  1 Praise the LORD, all nations! Extol him, all peoples!
 2 For great is his steadfast love toward us, and the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever. Praise the LORD!

God’s eternal providence began orchestrating my salvation long before 1982.  Amazingly, all the events of salvation history have been steps that God took to bring about the certain salvation His elect.  I’m thankful today to be a Gentile, a former enemy of God, saved by a Jewish Messiah, forever joined with believing Israel, reconciled together in one body to God through the cross. 
Praise the LORD.

Posted by Greg Birdwell

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Church

Let this be our prayer and desire...

"I want the Evangelical church to be the church. I want it to embody a vibrant spirituality. I want the church to be an alternative to post-modern culture, not a mere echo of it. I want a church that is bold to be different and unafraid to be faithful . . . a church that reflects an integral and undiminished confidence in the power of God’s word, a church that can find in the midst of our present cultural breakdown the opportunity to be God’s people in a world that has abandoned God. To be the church in this way, it is also going to have to find in the coming generation, leaders who exemplify this hope for its future and who will devote themselves to seeing it realized. . . They will have to decline to spend themselves in the building of their own private kingdoms and refuse to be intimidated into giving the church less and other than what it needs. . . . To succeed, they will have to be people of large vision, people of courage, people who have learned again what it means to live by the word of God, and, most importantly, what it means to live before the Holy God of that word."

God in the Wasteland - David Wells

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Is the Bible literally true?


Our definitions for the words we use are important.  One of the most noticeable examples of this when I moved to Ohio from Texas was how people up here referred to carbonated beverages.  In Texas, all carbonated beverages are referred to as “coke,” so down there if you order a coke at a restaurant, they’ll say, “What kind?”  Then you can answer "Coke," "Dr. Pepper," "Mountain Dew," "Diet Coke," etc.    However, in Ohio, a coke is always a Coke, and if you order a coke, you’re going to get a Coke every time no matter what you actually wanted.
Definitions matter.  This is why theologians will frequently begin a scholarly work by defining their terms.  They want to make sure people know what they mean by the words they are using. 
One word that could use some defining in the Church is the word literal.  I believe that some of the debate about the truth of the Word of God stems from people on either side of the issue all using the word literal in different ways, but perhaps not realizing it.  So let’s flesh this out a bit.
Some say that the Bible is 100% literally true.  These people may then be regarded as backward fundamentalists by those on the other side of the issue.  Others say the Bible is not 100% literally true and are then regarded as liberal pagans by their opponents.  So who is right?  It depends on whose definition you are using.
Those who deny that the Bible is 100% literally true typically understand literal to refer to the strict meanings of the words of the text, or the words taken at face value, regardless of the genre of the text.  In other words, literal as opposed to figurative.  By this definition, a literal understanding of “a woman clothed with the sun” in Revelation 12:1 is an actual human female actually wearing our sun as a garment.  So it is understandable that these people would deny that the Bible is 100% literally true because that would be mean, among other things, that Jesus is an actual vine and we are actual branches actually attached to Him with actual fruit growing out of us (John 15:1-7).
On the other hand, those in the other camp use the word literal differently.  To them, a literal interpretation is that sense which was intended by the author. (In this sense, a non-literal interpretation would be a hidden or subjective meaning.) If the author wrote in poetic language, he intended his writing to be interpreted figuratively.  If the author wrote an historical narrative, he intended the words to be taken at face value.  Both kinds are writing are to be taken literally, in that they are to be taken as the author intended.  So the literal interpretation of a text understands the words of that text figuratively or at face value, depending upon the genre of the text.  By this definition, a literal understanding of “a woman clothed with the sun” in Revelation 12:1 is that this is a description of a true sign, symbolized by a woman clothed with the sun.  So it is understandable that these people would affirm that the Bible is 100% literally true since it does describe actual events and truths in both historical and poetic language.
When you understand each side’s definition of the word literal, you see that they are both right.  They simply define literal differently.  However, it seems that the most natural understanding of literal in modern English is the first definition above, that is, a face value meaning.
Because this is what most people mean by literal, I would prefer to say, “The Bible is 100% true.”  All Biblical texts are true, whether they be poetic, apocalyptic, prophetic, historical, or figures of speech within an historical text. 
I believe that the Flood actually killed all mankind minus eight people (Gen 7:21-23).  I believe the Red Sea was actually parted (Ex 14:21).  I believe that giant hailstones actually killed the Amorite nations (Jos 10:11).  I believe that God created the earth and everything in it in 6 actual days (Gen 1:1-31).  I believe that Jesus was actually raised from the dead (Mat 28:6; Mark 16:6; Luke 24:6; John 20:11-18).  Why? Because each of those events were related in historical narrative portions of Scripture and for that reason should be taken at face value.  And in that way, they are true.
I do not believe that God is an actual shepherd, nor that He made David to lie down in actual green pastures, nor that He has an actual rod or staff that comforted David.  Why?  Those ideas come from the poetic literature of Psalm 23.  They are not to be taken at face value.  Rather, they speak figuratively of God’s providential care for David.  And in that way, they are true.
I do not believe that Jesus is an actual vine and that we believers are actual branches attached to Him (John 15:1-7).  I do not believe that Jesus wants me to pluck out my eyes or cut off my hands if they cause me to sin (Matt 5:29-30).  I do not believe that the Pharisees and Sadducees were actually vipers (Matt 3:7).  Why?  Because all of those things come from figures of speech within an historical narrative.  They are to be understood figuratively.  And in that way, they are true.
All of the Bible is true.  That truth is discerned when we interpret the Word according to its various genres of literature.  That is true no matter what your definition of literal.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Cutting Room Floor: The Unbreakable New Covenant


Last Sunday, we saw in Joshua 9:16-10:15 that our God is a covenant-keeping God.  Because He is faithful, to break a covenant would be to deny His own nature.  And because God is a covenant-keeping God, and His character is the standard for our conduct (Lev 11:45; 1 Pet 1:14-16), He expects us to keep our covenants as well.
This truth was depicted in stark terms in the Joshua 9 passage in that Israel was expected to keep the covenant with Gibeon even though the covenant was based on Gibeon’s deception of Israel.  A covenant is a covenant, and we know from 2 Samuel 21:1-9, that God considered this particular covenant to be binding even on subsequent generations.
While the thrust of the message Sunday was on our responsibility to keep covenants and the power that God gives us to do so, we did not have the time to look at the other side of this issue.  The fact that covenants are absolutely binding doesn’t just affect us in that we are bound to keep covenants.  One of the grandest truths in all of Scripture is that we are the beneficiaries of the greatest covenant of all, the New Covenant.
This New Covenant is first mentioned in Jeremiah 31:31-34: "Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more." 
(There are some who would deny that this passage has any relevance for Gentile believers today.  They contend that this is a promise to Israel alone and will take place at the end of the age.  The problem with this view is that everywhere that the phrase “new covenant” is used in the NT, it refers to the covenant inaugurated by the blood of Christ and in effect at the time of writing.  Also, in 1 Cor 11:25 and 2 Cor 3:6, Paul, writing to Gentiles, speaks of the New Covenant as if it is applicable to current Gentile believers.  So, it is my position that the New Covenant promised in Jeremiah 31 is a covenant of which you and I, as Gentile believers, are now beneficiaries.  When Jeremiah 31:31-34 is read in light of the argument of Romans 11, it seems clear to me that there is at the present time a great number of Gentiles and a remnant of Jews who are partakers of this covenant.  The complete fulfillment of Jeremiah 31 will take place at the end of history when ethnic Israel will be brought to faith in Christ.)
These verses clearly layout the terms of the New Covenant between God and His people.  1) God will write His laws upon their hearts; 2) He will be their God; 3) They will be His people; 4) They will know God; 5) He will forgive their iniquity.  It is not my intention to exposit this passage, but simply to note that God promised to bring about a change of heart, a qualitatively new relationship with His people, and to forgive their sins.
As we turn to the New Testament, we find that this New Covenant was inaugurated by the blood of Christ on Calvary.  We celebrate it every time we observe the Lord’s Supper.  On the night of Christ’s arrest, as He reclined in the upper room with His disciples, after giving them the bread which represented His broken body, He then gave them the cup, saying,  “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). 
There are two kinds of covenants, bilateral and unilateral.  Bilateral covenants involve mutual promises between two parties, so that either party is capable of breaking the covenant.  Unilateral covenants involve one party making promises to another party so that only the promising party is capable of breaking the covenant.  If we look closely at the terms of the New Covenant outlined by God in Jeremiah 31:31-34, we can come to only one conclusion – the New Covenant is a unilateral covenant!  (Some might contend that it is a bilateral covenant in that it is conditioned upon the repentance and faith of the believer.  Technically, that is true – one must repent and believe in order to be saved. However, Scripture teaches that both faith and repentance are gifts of God wrought in the hearts of those who believe [Acts 5:31, 11:18; Rom 2:4; Eph 2:8-10; 2Tim 2:24-25]  Therefore, God alone is the initiator and author of our salvation.)  What does that mean to you and me?  The only way for that covenant to be broken is for God, the initiator of the covenant, to break it.
I’ll save the traditional New Testament texts regarding the perseverance of the saints for another time.  For now, simply recognize that the very character of our covenant-keeping God ensures that those who are in Christ, who have partaken of the New Covenant, are secure in their salvation. 
If God enforced the Joshua 9 deception-based covenant between Israel and Gibeon 400 years after it was inaugurated (2Sam 21), do you think that God Himself would break a covenant inaugurated by the blood of His own Son?  Impossible. 
If we pay close attention to the Old Testament scriptures, we can find a treasure trove of such truths that point us toward our unfathomable riches in Christ.  Let’s continue to keep our eyes open.

Posted by Greg Birdwell

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

10 Reasons Everyone Should Attend the 1st Annual PBF Bible Conference


1. It’s the first one.  Our young congregation has experienced some incredible blessings during our two years together.  Already, we are having a for real Bible conference.  But we only get to have the first one once.  You will never again have this opportunity.  If you are able to attend, decades from now at the 32nd Annual PBF Bible Conference, you will be one of a select few who can say, “I was at the very first PBF Bible Conference” (Lord willing).  And everyone will say, “wow” (Lord willing).
2. It’s annual.  Which is to say, it is only annual.  If you miss this one, another one won’t come around for a whole year.  For 12 months, you’ll have to sit and listen to the rest of us joyfully reminisce and share inside jokes about the 1st Annual PBF Bible Conference. 
3. It’s Biblical.  Everything you hear will come from the text of Scripture.  No man’s wisdom.  No good advice.  No helpful tips.  Just pure unadulterated truth and how to apply it.
4. It’s a conference.  One great benefit of coming to a conference like this is that you get a very concentrated body of teaching at one time.  Getting 5+ hours of teaching in a 24-hour period makes the material more accessible, memorable, and understandable than 5 one-hour sessions of teaching spread out over the course of a month.  For that reason, conferences like this one are often the most convicting, inspiring, enlightening, challenging, and encouraging times of teaching that we can have as believers. 
5. It’s free.  No cash register at the door, no cover charge, no love offering, no kidding.  Just sign up and show up.  If you do anything else on May 22-23 instead of coming to the 1st Annual PBF Bible Conference, you will most likely spend money on it.  Be a good steward and come to the conference instead.
6. I’m sure it’ll rain anyway.  But even if it doesn’t, there is no better way to spend a Saturday evening and Sunday morning than studying the Scriptures, worshiping the Lord, and fellowshipping with His people. 
7. I’m not speaking.  How often does this happen?  We all need a break, don’t we? 
8. Dr. Bruce Ware is speaking.  This man is one of the most precious people I have ever met.  He is also one of the most brilliant, humble, and gracious people I have ever met.  Dr. Ware is professor of Christian Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY.  On my very first day there in the Fall of 2006, I sat in Dr. Ware’s Systematic Theology class with tear-filled eyes praising God that He had orchestrated the circumstances of my life that I might spend several years under the teaching of such godly men.  Prior to that day, I thought I was alone in many of my convictions about the church, God-centered worship, reformed theology, and the centrality of Scripture.  As I listened to Dr. Ware preach his first lecture, I thought to myself, “Okay.  There are at least two of us.”  Now I know that we are many.  While I have had the blessing of learning from a large number of wonderful professors at Southern Seminary, Dr. Ware has had the greatest impact on me.  I love him deeply, and because I love you, it is a great blessing to be able to introduce you to him and him to you.
9. You don’t understand the Trinity.  Neither do I.  None of us do fully.  However, through the Scriptures we can attain a certain level of understanding, which will benefit our interpretation of the Bible, how we pray, and how we understand our own salvation and sanctification.  Many in the church today have no idea why the doctrine of the Trinity is even important.  Dr. Ware will assist us in coming to a greater understanding of this doctrine, why it is important, and how it affects our everyday lives. 
10.           I’ll watch your kids.  Along with a few other yet-to-have-volunteered volunteers.  (Anyone?)  You drop them off and we’ll keep them breathing until the end of the conference (Lord willing).
No doubt many have now been persuaded to sign-up.  Please email me (greg@providencebiblefellowship.com) and I’ll put you on the list.  Be sure to note how many kids you are bringing (5th grade and younger).   Or you can put yourself down on the sign-up sheet this Sunday. 
One thing is for sure – you don’t want to miss it!

Posted by Greg Birdwell

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Great Love of God

How great the father's love for us! Have you considered your calling lately?

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