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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Critical vs. Graceful

Ephesians 4:29 –“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”
Do your words minister grace to those to whom you speak?  Or are your words critical?  Do you find yourself pointing out the flaws of someone’s effort or performance?
A critical spirit can expose itself in several ways…the husband who constantly reminds his wife that things just aren’t being done as they should be around the house, the dad who hammers away at his children’s mistakes but rarely praises their good works, the church member who must tell someone what was wrong with today’s service, and on and on. 
Let’s admit it; some of us are good complainers and criticizers. 
But what does this say about us?
We know that our words reveal our hearts.  Matthew 15:18 teaches, “the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart.”
A critical heart reveals our pride… “No one can do this or that as well as I”…“I need to point this out otherwise this person will never get this right”, etc...
And God hates our pride and it is something that we must root out. Proverbs 16:5, “Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the Lord; be assured, he will not go unpunished”. 
We should also remember that we are called to be kind-hearted and forbearing and patient with our brothers and sisters. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 says, “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
If we notice we are particularly attuned to finding and pointing out where others have not met our own standard, then our focus needs to be shifted.
Christ has lifted us from our own failures and shortcomings and God is glorified in our imperfections.  Is God more glorified when others do something “just right” all the time or when they at times make a mess of things and God still works it all out? 
If you’re looking for perfection, look to God. Deuteronomy 32:4 teaches us that “his work is perfect” and Samuel says “his ways are prefect” (2 Samuel 22:31).  Certainly, we see most clearly the Perfection of God in the manifestation of His Son, Jesus.  The author of Hebrews says this of him, “being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him”.
Praise God that he sent this perfect Jesus and demonstrated magnificent grace to us even though we are far from perfect.   The next time you’re tempted to be critical drive your thoughts to the cross and remember the cost of grace displayed there.  Prayerfully, we can give a little grace when so much has been given to us. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

He Sacrificed His Own Son

The tragedy last Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT has been heavy on the hearts of all. It is always natural to ask serious questions in times like this. Why did God let this happen? Why did some die and others lived? Some may even question the goodness of God.
Given that this mass murder took place so close to Christmas, I’m sure that many of you have thought about another mass murder that happened in close proximity to the first Christmas. We read about it in Matthew 2:16-18:
  16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.
 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
 18 "A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more."
Herod had instructed the wise men to find Jesus for him under the guise of desiring to come and worship him.  Of course, his real desire was to kill the Messiah whom he regarded as a threat to his own power (v8). But the wise men were warned in a dream not to return to Herod (v12). So Herod resorted to this horrific act of ruthlessness similar to what took place in Connecticut last week. He had every boy two years or younger in Bethlehem killed so that he could be certain Jesus would die.
Scholars estimate that a town the size of Bethlehem would have had as few as 20 boys that age, and with the surrounding area accounted for there could have been around 30.  30 young boys slaughtered simply because Herod was paranoid. It was from this slaughter that God providentially preserved Jesus by directing Joseph to take Him to Egypt (vv13-15).
Neither the evil displayed in Connecticut nor the scene of carnage in Bethlehem was an isolated event. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of history is aware of this. There have been countless mass murders since the beginning of time and all of them have at least one thing in common. They demonstrate the total depravity of mankind. They are the worst examples of what man is capable of. They are all a direct result of the Fall.
And though they may cause us to doubt God’s goodness, they should do the opposite, especially in light of that first Christmas slaughter. The murder in Bethlehem shows that in and through such tragedies God is moving history toward a day when all such evil will be ended. Christ’s being preserved from that slaughter was necessary to provide a solution that would address all evil. God was not saving His Son from death indefinitely.  It simply wasn’t time yet.
But the day did come when the Messiah was slaughtered by evil men in a fashion far worse than anything we have ever seen. God offered His own Son in order that all sin would come to an end, either by being covered with Christ’s blood on the cross or by being covered with His wrath on the last day.
All of this points to the goodness of God. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil (1John 3:8). Most of us will have the opportunity to discuss Sandy Hook with our unbelieving friends and family. Let’s not shy away from these conversations, but use them as occasions to share about what God has done to deal with evil. He sacrificed His own Son.
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Psalm 104 - Bless Our Providential LORD

Bible-believing Christians hold that God created all things.  But what do we believe about His continuing role in upholding the creation?  As our scientific knowledge has progressed and natural laws have been formulated, have we begun to view God’s providence over creation as a past event?  Did God create a self-sustaining system?  And if not, what does it mean for my life?

The truth is that God is actively involved in His creation.  Psalm 104 is a celebration of God’s creation and His continued providential care over all that He has made.   The psalmist begins by describing different parts of creation as God’s garments (vv1-2), His habitation (vv2-3), His chariot (v3), and His wings (v3).  In this, the grandeur of the creation speaks of the grandeur of the Creator.

He then describes God’s past acts in creation:
 5 He set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be moved.
 6 You covered it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains.
 7 At your rebuke they fled; at the sound of your thunder they took to flight.
 8 The mountains rose, the valleys sank down to the place that you appointed for them.
 9 You set a boundary that they may not pass, so that they might not again cover the earth.

These verses speak of the permanence of God’s work as well as the meticulous detail. The mountains are where they are because He put them there.  The water stays where it is because God made it so.

But beginning in v10 is an account of God’s continued providence over and in the world He has created.  For example, vv10-11:  You make springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills; they give drink to every beast of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst.  In other words, rivers flow because God makes them to do so.  Likewise v13 declares that God Himself waters the mountains with rain – “the earth is satisfied with the fruit of Your work.”  The chapter is full of such celebrations of God’s perpetual activity in the world.  He causes the grass and plants to grow so that man can enjoy food, wine, bread, and oil (vv14-15).  He waters the trees to provide a home for the birds (vv16-17).  He marks the seasons with the moon and the sun (v19).  He brings darkness every night (v20). 

Even the animals depend upon the providence of God: “the young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God (v21).  This is true not only of the animals on the land, but also those in the sea; the very earth depends upon Him for its existence:
 27 These all look to you, to give them their food in due season.
 28 When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
 29 When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.
 30 When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.

What are the implications of this for you and me?  One area in which we may give little thought to God’s providence is in our own work.  “My work is my responsibility.  If it get’s done, it is because I did it.  If it doesn’t, it is because I failed to do it.”  While this is true in a sense, Psalm 104 would tell us that even our own work depends upon God’s providence.  v23 reads, Man goes out to his work and to his labor until the evening.  We might take this to imply that what man accomplishes depends upon himself.  But v23 is part of a section on which v27 comments: These all look to you, to give them their food in due season.  The following verses note that the success or failure of our work depends upon the giving or withholding of God’s hand. That should cause us to approach our work with humility, understanding that ultimately we depend upon God's blessing.

But there is an even more significant way in which I am constantly dependent upon God.  v29 implies that each breath I take is given by God.  It is up to His providence to give that breath or withhold it.  If He gives it, I live.  If He withholds it, I die.  What this means is that my life, every second of every day, is held in the palm of His hand.

This should be comforting to me as a believer.  If God is so intimately involved in something as simple, yet consequential as the breaths I take, how can He not also be in the other details of my life?  My circumstances?  My concerns?  And if He can be trusted with my life, how can He not also be trusted in lesser things? 

Psalm 104 speaks of the wondrous power of God’s providence.  It also tells us the appropriate response to this providence.  The first and last verses of the psalm both declare, Bless the Lord, O my soul!  That is, worship Him!  Worship this God who upholds all things, including your own life.

Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Should exorcism be a priority for the Church?

As we have seen in our study of Matthew, exorcism was a normal part of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  In addition to stories like the one from the passage last Sunday, there are blanket statements in the Gospels that indicate that these stories were not isolated events, but happened on a regular basis. 
Matt 4:24  So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them.
Matt 8:16 That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. (cf Mark 1:32, 34, 39)
Further, Jesus gave His disciples authority to cast out demons as well, an authority which they successfully and repeatedly exercised (Matt 10:8, Luke 10:17).  This has prompted some in the church today to claim that exorcism should be a regular part of the ministry of the church.  Indeed, some have even created parachurch organizations dedicated to locating the demon-possessed and freeing them from the affliction.
Are these people on the right track?  Should PBF start an exorcism ministry?  If not, why not?  Why would exorcism be such a large part of the Lord’s ministry and the ministries of the apostles, but not the modern day church?
I think there are several reasons why exorcism is not and should not be a part of the regular ministry of the church the way it was a regular ministry of Jesus and the apostles.  First, demonic activity during Jesus’ earthly ministry seems to have been much greater than it is now.  This does not mean that the devil and his demons are vacationing.  They are very busy (1 Pet 5:8; Eph6:10-12, 16; 1Tim 3:6-7, 4:1; 2 Tim 2:24-26).  And there is no reason to think that demon possession doesn’t happen today.  But we simply do not see the manifold expressions of it that Jesus and the disciples encountered. 
Why demonic activity was at a peak during the time of Jesus is not made explicit in Scripture.  Some have conjectured that Satan was making a last ditch effort to disrupt the plan of God in Christ.  That does make sense to me, but we can’t know for sure.  At any rate, we simply are not confronted with demonic possession as regularly now, therefore a major emphasis on this is not necessary in the church.
Second, like the other “signs and wonders” performed by Jesus and he apostles, a major purpose for exorcism was to validate the message.  Jesus reveals as much in Matt 12:28: “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (cf Luke11:20).  The writer of Hebrews similarly notes that the message of the gospel was validated by various signs and wonders (Heb 2:3-4). Acts19:11-20 shows that the gospel was spread as a direct result of the healings and exorcisms performed by Paul in Jesus’ name. 
But now that the canon of Scripture is complete, such validating signs and wonders are no longer necessary.  This is why we don’t see the same kinds of miracles and healings on a regular basis today that were prevalent in the early church.  I do believe that God still performs miracles and heals, but these acts are not as prominent as they were in the apostolic era.  My opinion is that the same thing is true of exorcism.
Third, there is no teaching on exorcism in the NT epistles.  To me, this is the most compelling reason why exorcism is not a regular part of the ministry of the church and why it should not be actively pursued.  The epistles apply the gospel of Jesus Christ to the life of the believer.  They show how believers are to function for God’s glory in every area of life – the home, the church, and the community.  Instruction is given on such diverse topics as how to pray, how to serve your spouse sexually, and how to endure an unjust employer (Phil 4:6-7; 1 Cor7:3-5; 1 Pet 2:18-25).  Major emphasis is placed upon exalting Christ, holy living, and selfless service.  We are told that through God’s Word we have everything necessary to be saved and sanctified (2 Tim3:16-17; 2 Pet 1:3-4).  In other words, everything that we need in order to live the kind of life that we are called to live as believers is found in His Word. 
In light of this, the epistles’ silence on the subject of exorcism is deafening.  Nowhere in the NT epistles are we given instruction on how to cast out demons.  The subject is even mentioned!  What should this tell us?  It should tell us that exorcism is not intended to be a normal function or ministry of the church.  Further, a preoccupation with such things is a distraction from the mission of the church.  We should major on that which is major in the NT: knowing Christ and making Him known. 
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Son of Man

In our passage last Sunday, Jesus referred to Himself for the first time as “the Son of Man” (Matt 8:20).  When a scribe came to Jesus pledging to follow Jesus wherever He went, the Lord replied, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” 
The title “Son of Man” is Jesus’ favorite designation for Himself in the Gospels.  It occurs in all four Gospels, and Jesus is the only one who uses it.  I remember the title puzzling me when I was young – if Jesus is the Son of God, why does He call Himself the Son of Man?, I thought.  Knowing that each of the Gospel writers desired to convince their readers that Jesus was the Son of God, it seemed strange that they would include the phrase “Son of Man” so consistently.  So what is the significance of this reference?
Virtually all scholars agree that this title was not a native Greek expression.  Therefore, its explanation must lie in the Hebrew/Aramaic background of the Gospels.  That being the case, if this self-designation is to make sense to the New Testament reader, there must be something in the Old Testament to shed light on it. 
Actually, there are a number of OT passages that use the phrase.  These uses tend to fall into three categories.  The first category employs the phrase as a generic reference to humanity.  That humanity is the referent is clear from that fact that many of these uses are found in parallel lines, being synonymous with “man.”  For example:
God is not man, that he should lie,
or a son of man, that he should change his mind.  (Num 23:19)

how much less man, who is a maggot,
and the son of man, who is a worm!" (Job 25:6)

What is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him? (Psa 8:4)

Who are you that you are afraid of man who dies,
of the son of man who is made like grass…? (Isa 51:12 ESV)

Blessed is the man who does this,
and the son of man who holds it fast… (Isa 56:2)

The phrase “son of man” as used in these and other OT references should not be considered a title as it is simply another way of referring to mankind.  Could this usage be what Jesus had in mind when He used the phrase to refer to Himself?  It is not out of the question.  Jesus was fully man.  He had to be in order to pay the penalty for our sin.  Perhaps, He used the phrase to identify Himself with the human race, maybe as our representative before God.  This is possible, but because this kind of usage was not a title, it seems doubtful that it would be Jesus’ primary self-designation.

A second category can be found primarily in Ezekiel.  In the book that bears his name, Ezekiel is referred to by God as “son of man” 93 times! An especially important passage is found in ch2:
  1 And he said to me, "Son of man, stand on your feet, and I will speak with you."
 2 And as he spoke to me, the Spirit entered into me and set me on my feet, and I heard him speaking to me.
  3 And he said to me, "Son of man, I send you to the people of Israel, to nations of rebels, who have rebelled against me. They and their fathers have transgressed against me to this very day.
 4 The descendants also are impudent and stubborn: I send you to them, and you shall say to them, 'Thus says the Lord GOD.'
 5 And whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they will know that a prophet has been among them.  (Eze 2:1-5)

God used Ezekiel as His representative/messenger, His prophet, to rebellious Israel.  It is in this capacity as God’s spokesman that Ezekiel is referred to as the son of man.  So is this the usage that Jesus had in mind?  Was He identifying Himself as a prophet, as God’s representative and spokesman?  Certainly, this works theologically.  Jesus was widely regarded as a prophet (Matt 14:5; 21:11; Mark 6:15; Luke 1:76; 7:16; John 4:19;6:14; 9:17).  Further, all three of the Synoptic Gospels record the Father commanding the disciples to listen to Jesus, implying that He was God’s spokesman (Matt 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35). 

It is possible that Jesus had His role as a prophet in mind, just as He could have been referring to Himself as a representative of mankind.  However, the statements in which Jesus uses the phrase “son of man” would seem to point to someone more extraordinary than a normal man or even a prophet.  Consider the following uses in Matthew alone:

the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…” (Matt 9:6)

“For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” (Matt 12:8)

"Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom." (Matt 16:28)

"Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead." (Matt 17:9)

"The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men," (Matt 17:22)

"And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death" (Matt 20:18)

"…the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Matt 20:28)

"For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man." (Matt 24:27)

"…and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory." (Matt 24:30)

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne." (Matt 25:31)

"You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified."" (Matt 26:2)

"…from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven." (Matt 26:64) 

These are spectacular statements that would seem to be more suited to a third category of usage in the OT, from one passage in the book of Daniel:

"I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.  And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.” (Dan 7:13-14)

When we take into account Jesus’ heavy emphasis on the coming kingdom in the book of Matthew and the other synoptics, together with the above references in Matthew that connect the phrase “Son of Man” with other kingdom references (authority, Lord, clouds of heaven, kingdom, power, glory, angels, throne, etc), it seems likely that Jesus sees Himself as the son of man figure in Daniel’s prophecy.  Indeed, most evangelical interpreters not only see Jesus as the fulfillment of this prophecy, but believe that Jesus Himself had this in mind when He used the self-designation “Son of Man.”

So when we see this title wherever it is found in the Gospels, we need to understand the implicit claim that Jesus is making – “I am the coming King.”

What then should we make of the use of this phrase in Matt 8:20 (“the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head”)?  I believe it highlights the condescension of Christ in coming to save man.  The one who has no home is the majestic King.  Reminds me of Phil 2:5-11.

 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,
 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
 (Phi 2:5-11)

Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Healing in the Atonement?

Our passage from Sunday in Matthew 8:14-17 pointed to Jesus’ healing ministry as a fulfillment of Isaiah 53.  This chapter in Isaiah is a prophecy regarding the substitutionary atonement of Christ, that is, Christ's satisfying the wrath of God by suffering for our sin in our place.  Because there is this link between the physical healing ministry of Christ and the atonement, some Christians claim that believers should never be sick – “there is healing in the atonement.”  So, if there is healing in the atonement, why do we find that believers still suffer illness and death?
All of salvation history can be summed up in four words: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.  In the beginning, God created a world in which everything was good (Gen1:31).  When man violated God’s command, sin entered into the world, and not only did man fall, but the entire creation was affected.  Paul writes in Rom 8:20 that the “creation was subjected to futility.”  This affect on the creation is seen in several details in Genesis 3, including the appearance of thorns and thistles in the ground and the fact that the woman would experience pain in childbirth.  Because all of God’s creation suffered in the fall, all of His creation would need to be redeemed - set free from its bondage to corruption (Rom 8:21).
Of course, Scripture reveals that Jesus Christ was that redeemer.  Through His life, death, and resurrection, He saved man from sin and death.  Not only that, but His saving work provided for the restoration of the creation as well (Col 1:19-20).  But it is important to keep in mind that redemption and restoration are not the same thing.  Redemption has taken place, but the creation has not been completely restored yet.  Occasionally, we talk about the “already, not yet” theme found in Scripture.  In Matthew, we are told that the Kingdom of God has already come (3:2, 4:17, 10:7, 12:28) and that it has not yet come (6:10).  The kingdom has come in the rule of Christ in the hearts of His people, but it has not come in the sense of His literal reign over the earth.  
The same can be said of all the blessings that are ours in Christ.  It is written that we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (Eph 1:3).  So they are currently ours, yet this inheritance is being kept for us to be revealed in the last time (1Pet1:4-5).  It could be said that in one sense they are already ours, and in another sense, not yet ours.
This is also true of Christ’s defeat of sin, death, and disease, accomplished in the atonement.  There is a sense in which those who are in Christ have been saved from these things in this life, yet the fullness of that salvation will not be experienced until Christ returns.  The Lord’s atonement saved us from the penalty of sin, and yet we still live in the presence of sin and still commit sin.  It is only at Christ’s return that we will be removed from the presence of sin and no longer commit sin.  The restoration is yet future – on the last day the church and creation will experience the fullness of redemption.
Jesus’ healing ministry on earth was like a sneak peak at the paradise that would be experienced at the restoration of creation – no sickness, no pain, and no death.  What Christ did in Palestine for a short three years – eradicating disease – He will eventually do in the new heaven and new earth for all eternity (Rev 21:1-4). 
So is there healing in the atonement?  Certainly.  But we will not experience the full extent of it until the Lord returns.  Until that time, we will still know the temporal effects of disease just as we still know the temporal effects of sin.  And that is all the more reason to eagerly anticipate the day when the trumpet will sound and we will meet Him in the air (1 Thess 4:16-18)!
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Act Like a Man

Have you ever heard someone say, "Act like a Man!"  We most likely have and would probably have different interpretations of what that means.  I have been giving much thought to what acting as a man looks like especially when I am confronted, or treated harshly by others for no apparent reason.  The Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 16: 13-14, "Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong.  Let all that you do be done in love."  I often wonder what should I do when I do not know what to do.  Prayer is one solution.  Every Wednesday night we have a time of prayer at Providence.  We have prayer time at home over dinners, or before we go to sleep, but what does one do when praying seems pointless and nothing changes.  In counselling others often I would encourage them to continue praying and, by digging into the scriptures to see what God's Word has to say, right, but often we tend to take the situation into our own hands instead of seeing what God would have us to do.  Will taking things into my own hands and finding my way to solve problems work?  As I look into scripture, I see that it has worked for many of God's children, lots of times.  King David, for example, took Bathsheba as a wife at the cost of killing her husband, but that did not make it right.  Samson took matters into his own hands, and it worked for a short time.  There are times when I as well try to make life work for me and my family by taking matters into my own hands.   While I have never stolen another man's wife, or ripped the gates off a city and killed thousands with the jaw bone of a donkey, I have at times tried to negotiate with God by doing what I think will impress Him.  Then when things go wrong I pout and whine, declaring, "Why have you brought me here just to abandon me?"

I recently had lunch with a guy I used to work with, and when he discovered that I counseled people including other pastors he said, "I never thougth they have real problems."  If perhaps you are reading between the lines we to have real problems just like everyone else, but one thing for sure is that I am learning that I cannot deal with these so-called problems the way as I have in the past.  I cannot take matters into my own hands as I used to, but instead I must put my heart and family into the hands of my God who, even when He seems far from me I know He is there, and I will "wait patiently for the LORD..." Psalms 40.  When I read the Psalms I am amazed at how they become more significant to me when I am desperate, or downcast.  Contrary to popular opinion, being a man does not mean I know the way, or have all the right answers, but as I read the Word of God it becomes exceedingly clear to me. "Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong.  Let all that you do be done in love."  This is not the behavior of a wet nosed boy this is a man-sized job that can only be done when my faith is put to the test, and only then will I live "complete, lacking in nothing? James 1: 2-4.     

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Presidential Elections and Trusting God

In case you didn’t notice, it’s a presidential election year, which can be a trying time.  Since it seems that political campaigns are starting earlier and earlier, it’s probably time to retire the phrase “election season” and just go with “election epoch.”  There was a day when we could count on a good three and a half years of peace before experiencing campaign overload.  Not anymore.  If you have a TV, radio, computer, smartphone, or windshield, it is virtually impossible to not be overrun by campaign ads, private citizens’ opinions, talking heads, and headlines all declaring this to be “most consequential election in modern history.”  
Though the constant political news, polling data, and campaign strife can begin to wear on me, I’m thankful for presidential elections because they provide me with another occasion to rest in the sovereignty of God.  It cannot be denied that presidential elections are consequential.  History shows this.  But what we will never read in history books or the news is that every last vote cast serves the sovereign will of God, bringing about precisely what He has ordained.  And not only are the votes ordained, but the candidate that is elected has been chosen by God.  Romans 13:1 tells us that there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.
If we believe the Bible, we must believe that no one becomes a president or senator or governor or school board member apart from the foreordination of Almighty God.  We also know that God is forcing all things to work together to conform His followers into the image of His Son (Rom 8:28-30).  That is, all things, including this election, are contributing to my sanctification.  So whether “my” candidate wins or not, the results of the election, including the possible drastic change in the direction of the country, will be used by the Father to make me more like Jesus. 
Beyond that, we know that God is moving history toward the return of His Son to set up His earthly kingdom.  Undoubtedly, every election, whatever the outcome, contributes in some way to preparing the circumstances for Christ to come back.  There is hope and rest in that.  So, whenever I hear about the election being consequential, I should keep in mind that the most glorious consequence will be a stage set for Jesus to return.
A few weeks ago, Pastor Rick mentioned during the Sunday morning announcements about how the attendees of the political conventions treated the Presidential candidates like gods, worshiping them.  All too often, even believers place their hope in a political candidate rather than in God.  But as believers in Jesus Christ, even as we participate in the election process, we must worship God and trust Him alone with our future.  He is sovereign and is committed to bringing about our ultimate good and His ultimate glory.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

A Call to Counsel

The New Testament teaches that the Lord has gifted all believers to be able to serve the body in specific ways (Rom 12:3-8; Eph 4:7-16).  He has gifted teachers to teach, administrators to administer, the merciful to show mercy, etc.  These spiritual gifts enable us to serve in ways that are not common to all believers.
But there are some capacities in which all believers are called to serve.  There is one in particular that some people are quick to resist by appealing to a lack of gifting.  It is the call to counsel.  Did you know that Scripture calls all of us to counsel?  It’s true.  
But before we look at some of those passages, we should recognize what counseling is.  Counseling is simply helping another person to apply God’s truth to his or her life.  Because counseling depends upon God’s Word and because there are other man-made methods of dealing with life’s problems, we call it “biblical counseling.”  There are some in the church who refer to it as “nouthetic counseling.”  “Nouthetic” comes from the Greek verb noutheteo, which is the word used in the New Testament for counsel, teach, and instruct.  A word search for noutheteo leads us right to those passages that call for believers to counsel one another.  A foundational passage is Romans 15:14, where Paul writes:
I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.
Again, noutheteo is the Greek underneath “instruct.”  Now, the book of Romans was not written specifically to pastors.  Nor was it written to anyone with any specific set of gifts.  No, in Romans 1:7, Paul reveals exactly who the recipients are: To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints.  Paul intended for every believer in the city of Rome to understand that they were able to counsel.  So was this some special arrangement only for believers in Rome?  No, of course not.  This applies to all believers of all times.
There is evidence in Ephesians 4 that such instruction is something that we are equipped to do through the teaching of the church.  vv11-12 read, And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.  This indicates that the members of the body are responsible for the work of ministry and not only the pastors and teachers.  A few verses later, it is revealed that part of this ministry is “speaking the truth in love.”  It is not only the leaders or the specially gifted who are to engage in this kind of ministry, but all the members of the body.
1 Thess 5:14 is another passage where we find noutheteo.  It reads, And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.  This verse lays out the essential tasks of counseling.  We are to teach/warn, encourage, and help one another.  And where do we find the content of that counseling?  We saw it in Eph4:15 – we speak the truth, that is, God’s Word.  And once again, Paul is talking to all believers.
So we are all called to counsel – to speak the truth to one another, to warn one another, to encourage one another, to help one another.  And we do this by lovingly applying the Word to each other’s lives.
But if we think back to that passage in Ephesians 4, we see that our ministry to the body does require some equipping.  We all have the capacity to counsel, but we need to be equipped for it.  The equipping that you get through the diet of the Word at Providence is probably sufficient to be able to informally come alongside others and help them.  But there are counseling needs in any church that require a bit more equipping, equipping that prepares us to do what we could call formal counseling.
At this point in the life of our church, we have a relatively small number of people who are equipped for formal counseling.  We need more.  We need as many as we can get.  The more people we have who can counsel formally the more we will be able to not only meet the counseling needs of our members, but also to offer counseling help to our community, which really serves as a tool for evangelism.  
 I’d like to ask all of you to consider taking the time to be equipped for this kind of ministry.  You don’t have to ask yourself if you are gifted for it – the New Testament says that we all have the capacity to counsel.  It really is just a question of time and desire.  If you are having a difficult time finding where you can serve at Providence, consider the counseling ministry.
There are several opportunities within driving distance to get the kind of training necessary.  Clearcreek Chapel in Springboro will be offering biblical counseling training next Spring.  It consists of four weekends – one per month for four consecutive months.  You can click here for the details. We already have a couple of people who are making plans to take advantage of this training, so you wouldn't be going alone.
Training is also available at Faith Church in Lafayette, Indiana on Feb 10-15, 2013.  This is a great way to get the training knocked out in a short period of time.  Clear here for more information.
You may have some questions about what the training entails or what the counseling experience is like.  Whatever you want to know, I’d be happy to sit down with you and discuss it.  Just shoot me an email and we’ll schedule something.  You can also ask Amy Ebert or Susan CarterAsking questions or even getting the training does not obligate you to counsel formally.  At the very least, it will help you with your own sanctification as well as prepare you to informally help people whenever the need arises.  I can tell you this with confidence, though – formally counseling other believers is one of the most rewarding ways to serve the Lord.  All of the counselors at Providence would tell you the same thing.  There is nothing like watching God’s Word transform another person.  
Give it some thought.
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Gossip - Dealing with the Tongue and the Heart

In the past we’ve spend quite a bit of time in Eph 4:22-24 on the biblical principle of putting off the old self (v22), being renewed in the spirit of our minds (v23), and putting on the new self (v24).  In this post we’ll look at how to apply these principles to the sin of gossip, putting off and putting on both on the behavior and heart levels.
Dealing with the Tongue
Gossip could certainly be classified as a sin of the tongue.  As such, it has a number of cousins – lying, slander, clamor, critical speech, insults, sarcasm, ridicule, and harsh words.  Eph 4:29 calls us to “let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”  So we are to put off gossip, and put on edifying speech.  It’s important to note that if we have made gossip a habit, it will take much effort to rid ourselves of it and make edifying speech a habit.  However, because the Holy Spirit dwells within us, we can make this change.
A first step in dealing with this sin of the tongue is to identify what the Bible teaches about it.  We must have this information because it is the Word of God that transforms our minds.  Eph 4:29 itself is a great reference.  According to this verse, as a believer my speech is to be only edifying.  According to Rom 1:29, gossip is a sin characteristic of the depraved mind.  Other references could be used as well, but the idea is to gather a collection of Biblical truths and either memorize these passages or meditate on them.  We need to use God’s Word to help us think rightly about the sin of gossip.  We also want to know these passages well so that they are available to us prior to and in the moment of temptation.  I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you (Psa 119:11).
Second, we must try to identify when and where we are most often tempted to commit this sin.  Is it on Facebook, at our kids’ sporting events, at work, or at church?  Once we have identified those trouble spots, we can prepare for temptation ahead of time.  How do we prepare?  Remember that Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness praying just prior to being tempted by the devil (Matt 4:1-11).  He also exhorted His disciples to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane that they might not enter into temptation (Matt26:41).  We should follow their example and use prayer to prepare.  It would be wise to pray about this at the beginning of each day, since we never know for certain when temptation will come.  Then as we are approaching a time and activity when we know we will be tempted, we could pray again asking for the Lord’s help to be strong and put off gossip and put on godly, edifying speech.  It would be helpful to spend a minute meditating on those passages that we have stored in our hearts for the occasion.  We could also remind ourselves that because we are in Christ, we have been freed from slavery to sin and have become slaves to righteousness (Rom 6). 
Third, when temptation finally comes we must decide not to engage in ungodly speech and in the power of the Spirit engage in speech that builds up instead.  That may require changing the subject completely, or it could involve saying something positive about the subject or something encouraging to the listener.  If we are successful in that moment, we should glorify God and ask Him for help when the temptation comes again.  If we fail, we should immediately confess, repent, and ask the forgiveness of the Lord and whoever we were gossiping with. 
Our objective is to prepare for temptation as best we can through prayer and bible meditation, strive to use godly speech, and get into the pattern of immediately praising God for the success and repenting of the failures.  If this process becomes a habit, eventually we will see the character of our speech changing drastically.  If those you come into contact with hear you repeatedly asking for forgiveness for gossip, their consciences will most likely become sensitive to the issue, too.  You will be creating an atmosphere where gossip is not welcome and edifying speech is the norm.  Praise God for that.
Dealing with the Heart
Now, if we only deal with gossip at the behavior level, we will not adequately deal with the issue.  We can’t only address the fruit and not the root.  Jesus taught in Matt 12:34, For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.  Likewise, in Mark 7:21-22,  “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.”  In our time in the Sermon on the Mount, we noted that Jesus was concerned that His disciples would apply God’s Word at the level of the heart.  For example, abstaining from the physical act of adultery did not make one innocent before God: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matt 5:28).
Clearly, if we want to remove the sin of gossip from our lives, we must deal with the heart motive behind it.  So what is at the heart of gossip?  Most often it will be some form of pride.  What would cause me to talk disparagingly about someone else or to talk about the sins of someone else?  A low view of my own sin.  You will never see someone experiencing godly grief about their own sin while throwing stones at others.  Isn’t this the heart of the Lord’s teaching regarding hypocritical judgment in Matthew 7:1-5? 
1 "Judge not, that you be not judged.
 2 For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.
 3 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?
 4 Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when there is the log in your own eye?
 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.
(Matt 7:1-5)
This obsession with the sins of others is remedied by developing a realistic view of my own sin.  There are several ways to do this.  First, meditating on the gospel reminds me of the magnitude of my sin.  God’s forgiveness of my sin was only made possible by the death and resurrection of His Son.  I couldn’t redeem myself no matter how hard I tried.  Second, healthy introspection – examining myself for areas of my life where I am harboring sin – is an essential part of keeping my sin in perspective.  Those of you who were at the Bible conference know that examining yourself for manifestations of pride can lead to a heaviness and grief over sin that can only be relieved by reflecting on the cross.  An awareness of how far I still have to go toward Christlikeness will leave me far less likely to focus on and talk about the sins of others.  Third, beyond identifying sin, I must be actively seeking to kill it.  This too reminds me of the long road of sanctification I have ahead.
I believe there is another heart issue underneath gossip: a lack of love for the body.  Love for a brother or sister will lead me to address their sin with them alone (Pro27:6; Matt 18:15-17).  Love will lead me to keep that situation to myself (Pro 11: 13).  It is then a lack of love that leads me to discuss the sin of a brother or sister with others, or to disparage them behind their backs.  So how do I remedy this?  Again, meditating on the gospel is a helpful tool.  It reminds me that Christ gave His blood for my brothers and sisters in Christ just like He did for me.  His work on the cross served to unite us with one another (Eph 4:1-16). 
Second, Paul teaches that it is through serving one another that the body “builds itself up in love” (Eph 4:16).  If this is true, what better way to grow in my love for my brothers and sisters in Christ than to selflessly serve them any way I can? 
Third, we are called to pray for one another (Eph 6:18; Jas5:16).  We encourage our members to pray through the membership directory on a regular basis.  This is a good way to make their concerns our concerns and to care for them. 
Though gossip can get a strong grip on us, God has given us the resources to deal with this sin.  We just need to make sure that we are dealing with both the fruit and the root.  May the Lord grant us the grace to make strides toward Christlikeness in this area.
 Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Gossip - How Do I Identify It?

(Click here to read the previous posts in the series:  Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4)
So far in this series, we’ve worked to formulate a definition of gossip, we’ve considered the damage that gossip does, and we’ve identified God’s standard for our speech.  Now we need to move into the more practical arena of identifying gossip in everyday life.
Though we have defined gossip already, being able to recite the definition is not the same as being able to identify gossip when you hear it in real conversation.  That being said, the definition can serve as a starting point for devising a method for evaluating the things that we say and the things that we hear.  Our working definition is that gossip is secret slander or providing harmful information about a person in a secretive manner.
Last time we saw that gossip obviously falls short of God’s standard for our speech found in Eph 4:29, Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.  Gossip harms, corrupts, or tears down the relationships and reputations of those involved.  With that in mind, we can formulate some questions to use to test our speech.  Here are some suggestions:
Am I using edifying speech right now?  If I am only supposed to speak words that are good for building up, this question is great for holding up that standard.  I need to ask this question regarding everyone involved.  Will this lead to the edification of the person I am talking to?  Will she be encouraged in the faith?  Will her relationship with the subject be strengthened?  What at about the subject – will he be built up if I share this information?  If the answer is no, I should not share it. 
Was this information shared with me in confidence?  If the information was shared with me in confidence, I am not free to pass it along.  A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret (Pro 11:13).  Sometimes we try to cover ourselves by prefacing the information with “don’t tell anybody I told you this,” as if we are guilty only if we get caught.  Whether the person who trusted us with the information ever finds out or not, if we divulge something shared in confidence, we are guilty.
Am I just “venting”?  If you think about it, the only thing that distinguishes venting from gossip is that venting has the added element of personal frustration.  We think of venting as an innocuous itch that we may legitimately scratch in the presence of others, but there is no excuse for this biblically.  We call it “venting,” but God calls it “complaining” and “slander,” and He hates it (Lev 19:16; Num 11:1; Psa 101:5;Phil 2:14; Jas 5:9).
Is what I’m about to say about this person good or for their good?  The following quote from Stuart Scott’s “From Pride to Humility” identifies this manifestation of humility: “Talking about others only if it is good or for their good. A humble person will speak well of others, not negatively. He will convey something negative about someone only if he must do so in order to help that person.”  What reason might a person have for helping someone by sharing something negative about them?  Moving beyond the first step of confronting sin would definitely require someone to do this (Matt18:15-17).  Yet how often is this our motive?
Am I discussing someone’s sin who is not present?  This one is related to the previous one.  If I am not discussing someone’s sin for the purpose of their good, that is, graduated levels of confrontation, what justification do I have for talking about it? 
What is my motive for sharing this?  A word of warning: our hearts are deceptive (Jer 17:9).  We are masters at justifying ourselves, especially when it comes to our own motives.  We must consider whether or not our desire to share information is motivated by genuine love for the subject.  If it is not, we should end the conversation or change the subject.  If we think it is motivated by love and we are sharing for that person’s good, we need to be able to identify how it will do them good.  If we can’t do that, we should not continue.
Our primary concern should be our own speech, however, there are at least three good reasons to develop the ability to identify gossip in the speech of others as well.  First, the Bible condemns listening to gossip. He who goes about as a slanderer reveals secrets, Therefore do not associate with a gossip (Pro 20:19).  So we should be able to identify gossip so that we are not guilty of entertaining it.  Second, we have a responsibility to help brothers and sisters in Christ to walk in faithfulness.  The ability to identify gossip will enable us to bring loving correction, which is a blessing to the speaker and to the entire body.  Third, if enough people refuse to listen to gossip, it dies for lack of fuel: For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases (Pro 26:20).  If we are going to put out the fire, we need to be able to recognize it. 
In evaluating whether or not what I’m listening to is gossip, I really need to ask questions of the speaker.  I don’t know what their motive is, nor do I know where they are headed with the information they are sharing.  The only way to know is to ask them.  Suggestions:
I just want to make sure we are not veering into gossip – are we discussing this for this person’s good? (If yes,) How are we benefitting them?  (If no,) Why don’t we talk about something else then?
It sounds like you are sharing with me about another person’s sin – have you confronted this person one-on-one? (If yes,) Are you asking me to go with you to confront them again or are you asking me for counsel?  (If no,) I would encourage you to go and talk to them about it.
Are you telling me something that was shared with you in confidence? 
Do you think we are edifying one another by talking about this?
By asking these kinds of questions, not only are you confirming whether or not you are listening to gossip, but you are also making a statement that you do not want to listen to gossip.  Even if the person speaking was not engaging in gossip, they will know that you do not entertain such things.
If we are committed to glorifying God with our speech and we make it a habit to test ourselves with questions like the ones above, we will develop the ability to spot gossip very quickly.  But identifying gossip is not the ultimate objective – stopping gossip and replacing it with godly speech is.  So what if I’m a habitual gossip?  What do I need to do to change?  That’s what we’ll look at next time.
Until then consider the benefit of striving for obedience in this area.  Not only will our speech not be filled with harmful communication, but since we are only speaking words that build up, our every conversation will be edifying to the body of Christ.  And in that, our God will be glorified.
Posted by Greg Birdwell