Thursday, January 31, 2013

Let's read the Bible!


All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2Tim 3:16-17)
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. (Psa 119:105)
Most likely we would all agree with these words from Scripture. There is great joy, help, and guidance to be gained from knowing and applying God’s Word.  Yet, for most of us, the Bible remains a big, foggy enigma.  Why is this?  It’s HUGE!  And it is composed of 66 diverse books from numerous genres, all written a long time ago in languages foreign to us.  It just doesn’t read like the books we read for pleasure today.
For many Christians, the Bible is a large, confusing book composed of smaller, confusing books.  Because of its size, most of us never purpose to read the whole thing in a compressed time frame with the whole storyline of Scripture in view.  Instead, we read through it slowly and/or sporadically, which makes it very difficult to get a sense of how everything fits together.  For that reason, there doesn’t seem to be any unity to the various parts.
Can you identify with that?  Is the Bible largely a mystery to you?  Do you desire to gain a broad familiarity with God’s Word, but the task just seems too big?  If we’re all being honest, the vast majority of us are in the same boat. 
What we need is a plan to read through the Bible systematically and quickly, with help to see the unifying theme that runs through the whole thing.  So…
You are invited to join me in doing just that.  Beginning on Saturday, February 23, I will be starting a reading group open to anyone who is interested – man and woman, young and old.  Our objective will be to read through the entire Bible in 180 days.  To help us see a major unifying theme that runs through every book of the Bible, we will also be reading God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment: ABiblical Theology, by Dr. James Hamilton.  (I’ve recently read this book. I found it to be an invaluable help in seeing and celebrating the unity of Scripture.)  We will meet every other Saturday at 7:30a at the church to discuss what we’ve read and to offer one another encouragement.  Lord willing, our final meeting will be on Saturday, August 24, when we will celebrate and praise God for His grace in seeing us through.
How will this systematic approach be helpful to you?  First of all, we will not be doing it alone.  It is always easier to do something difficult when others are doing it right alongside you.  Second, we will be doing it relatively quickly, which will make it far easier to see how the pieces fit together and to get a feel for the flow of Scripture.  Third, we will benefit from each other’s observations.  You will observe connections between the various parts of the Bible that others will not, and vice-versa.  As we share and discuss, we will gain a greater appreciation for the unity of Scripture.  Fourth, because we will using God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment as a companion, it will be like reading through Scripture with a godly, world-class scholar sitting next to us, pointing out important landmarks as we go.  Fifth, it’s aggressive.  It will require both commitment and dependence upon the Lord.  I have found that tasks requiring those two things are generally more rewarding and more likely to be completed than those that allow a casual, I-can-do-it-in-my-own-strength approach.
All of that being said, this will be a condemnation-free group.  If you miss a week, if you get behind and have to skip some reading, or if you have to drop out altogether, you will not be condemned.  If you read even one chapter – praise God!  On the other hand, if you really want some firm accountability, let the group know and we will offer that as well. 
You may be wondering how much time it will take you to do the reading each day.  Since everyone reads at different speeds, it’s difficult to say.  But here is a good way to gauge for yourself: the first day’s reading is Gen 1-7.  Since the length of each day’s reading is roughly the same, if you time yourself reading Gen 1-7, you’ll have a pretty good estimate of the amount of time needed each day.  If you read God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment as you go, you’ll most likely only need 2-5 additional minutes each day for that.  It’s going to seem like a lot.  But I’m confident that if we look at how we use our time each day, most of us will be able to find enough time to do the reading.
Give it some thought.  At our first meeting on Saturday, February 23, I will hand out the reading schedule and give a general overview of how we will use our time together.  If over the next three weeks you still haven’t decided, come to that first meeting – it may help you make a decision.  Coming to the meeting certainly doesn’t obligate you to join the group. 
I’m so excited about taking on this adventure!  By God’s grace, at the end of six months, we’ll have a greater understanding of God’s Word, a greater hunger to know it more, and a greater passion to apply it to our lives.  I hope to see you on the 23rd!
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, January 24, 2013

How People Change


Common to human existence is the constant experience of less than ideal circumstances. On any given day, all of us have some situation in our lives that is not what we want it to be. We may have a difficult boss or co-worker who is making our time at work miserable. We or a loved one may have a health problem that is causing us great stress. Perhaps we are struggling financially. Maybe there is an issue in our marriage that has us either disillusioned or desperate. Or there might be a strained relationship at church that makes our time there a strain.
What is the solution that we instinctively run to? We want to change our circumstances. We think that the problem is external to us, when in reality God has brought about those circumstances to show us what is in our heart, which is what really needs to change. Our less-than-ideal circumstances are gifts from God to show us where we need to grow in Christlikeness.
Last night, we had our introductory session for the new Wednesday night teaching series, How People Change. This series was written by Timothy Lane and Paul Tripp to show how the gospel accomplishes change in our lives.
Paul Tripp teaches from 2 Pet 1:3-9 that God has given us in Jesus Christ the greatest gift imaginable.  He has given us in Christ everything that we need in order to be transformed into His image.  Yet, like a child who would rather play with the box than with the toy that came in it, we resort to minimizations of the gospel to make ourselves feel better rather than using true gospel resources to deal with the issues of our hearts.  Tripp calls this “externalism”: being driven by Christian stuff, not by gospel change.
Externalism comes in a number of forms. First, there is formalism, where we make the Christian life all about church meetings and ministries.  As long as our calendars are filled with Christian busyness, we feel like we are doing okay. Second, there is legalism, which entails focusing on keeping a list of rules.  This is like being a Pharisee – you have everything together on the outside while you are a mess on the inside (Matt 23:27-28). Third, there is mysticism, where we focus on emotional, spiritual experiences.  Here the goal is to stay emotionally whipped-up so that we feel close to the Lord. Fourth, activism. This is where we occupy ourselves with Christian causes.  The Christian life becomes all about standing up for the unborn and for the sanctity of marriage. 
A fifth form of externalism is biblicism, the mastery of the bible and theology. Here we focus on having right theology and going after those who don’t. Meanwhile, we are no more like Christ than when we started. Sixth, there is psychologism, where we look to Jesus as our heavenly psychologist who exists to heal our emotional pain. Our focus becomes how others have hurt us rather than how we have responded. Seventh is socialism, where the Christian life is all about having great relationships.  Connecting with others becomes the ultimate goal.
Each of these things take some element of the Christian life and blow it out of proportion so that it eclipses the gospel in our lives. These forms of externalism allow self to be at the center so that we are consumers of the faith rather than being consumed by the faith. The problem is that most of us never consider that we are settling for a substitute gospel, when the real power for change is in the one biblical gospel.  Further, we don’t know how to apply the gospel to our lives.
Most of us understand what the gospel means for our past – we have been forgiven for our sins – and our future – we have hope that we will spend eternity with Christ.  But what about the here and now?  What does the gospel mean for the present?  What power does the gospel hold to help me live a godly life today?  The How People Change series is all about how the gospel offers us hope here and now.  This series may be one of the most practical series we will ever do here at Providence.  Don’t settle for externalism.  God has given us so much more in Christ.
Don’t think that because you missed the first week it is too late. We've only watched an introductory lesson.  The main material starts next Wednesday night at 6:30 at Partners in Prime next door to the church.  If you are interested in using the study guide that goes with the material, you can get it here, but it is not required.  Hope to see you there!
 Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Book Recommendation: We Become What We Worship


   Psa 115:4-8:
 4 Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands.
 5 They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.
 6 They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell.
 7 They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat.
 8 Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.

What is one of the greatest dangers of worshiping false gods? We become like them. That is, we become spiritually blind, deaf, and dumb. What the psalmist makes explicit in Psalm 115 is assumed and implied all over Scripture: we take on the characteristics of what we worship. If worship idols, we become like them. If we worship Christ, we become like Him.

This is the main theme explored in Gregory K. Beale’s We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry. Beale is a biblical scholar currently serving as Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. The title of the book reveals his thesis in paraphrased form. Beale asserts that we become what we worship, that is, “what people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or restoration” (16).

Beale explores this idea beginning in Isaiah 6:9-10: 9 And he said, "Go, and say to this people: "'Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.'  10 Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed." He argues that having eyes that do not see, ears that do not hear, and hearts that do not understand—represents a judgment for idolatry. In other words, the judgment for worshiping idols is becoming like them.

He then takes this theme and shows its presence in numerous places throughout the Bible, including the golden calf narrative in Exodus 32 and the Pharisees’ worship of tradition in Matthew 13. Beale makes an excellent case that one of the primary biblical truths regarding idolatry is that we become like what we worship. Throughout, he is faithful to allow the Biblical text to speak without forcing his thesis onto the Word.

But the value of this book goes beyond its faithfulness to the text. In the latter portion of the book, Beale applies this biblical truth to everyday life. There may not be any of us at Providence who bow down to literal idols, but undoubtedly there are things in our lives that fit the definition Beale derives from Scripture: “whatever your heart clings to and relies upon for ultimate security” (17). If we love and worship the world, we will become more like the world. If we worship the god of pleasure, we will become more hedonistic. Beale challenges readers to search their own hearts, to turn from whatever idols they are worshiping, and worship Christ alone.

This is an excellent book that is very faithful to Scripture. Many of its passages are deep, but unlike many scholarly writings out there, it does not require a PhD to understand. If you are interested in study that will broaden your understanding of a critically important doctrine and spur you on to greater fidelity to the Lord, I highly recommend this one.
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Taking Certainty into 2013


The first of the year is usually a time of renewal and optimism.  In some sense, it’s like we get to start over. 
But for many, the coming of 2013 may be characterized more by uncertainty and doubt than by optimism and renewal.  We experienced several high profile mass murders in 2012, including the horrific school shooting in Connecticut just weeks before the end of the year.  The air of violence and insecurity is still freshly lingers.  Then there is the “fiscal cliff” crisis promising more economic uncertainty in the New Year.  No one knows what kind of taxes they’ll be paying.  Employers are afraid to create new jobs.  Many are convinced that we are headed directly for the kind of financial nightmare being experienced right now in parts of Europe.  On top of that, the future of health care is still a huge question mark.  It’s getting more expensive, not less, but we seem to be getting sicker, not better. 
Uncertainty.  We don’t know exactly what the future holds, but many of the signs we see indicate that it holds trouble.  So what are we to do?
In spite of appearances, not everything is uncertain.  There are numerous blessed certainties that we can take with us into 2013.  Here are a few things that we know to be true, that cannot fail:
 
1. God will remain on His throne in 2013.
Psa 45:6 Your throne, O God, is forever and ever.
Earthly rulers will come and go this year, but the sovereign ruler of all creation has been and always will be on the throne.  Even if the government and economy of the United States collapses, there will be nothing that is truly out of control.

2. God will without fail accomplish His holy will in 2013.
Eph 1:11 …[He] works all things according to the counsel of his will…
Some things may surprise us this year, both pleasant and unpleasant things, but nothing will surprise our God.  Nothing surprises Him because He has laid out His plan from the foundation of the world and He is actively accomplishing it.  All that we see that seems to be chaos has been precisely timed and implemented to bring ultimate glory to our God. 

3. God will cause all things to work out for the good of His people in 2013.
Rom 8:28-30 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
Essentially, God is going to see to it that those who love Him are more like His Son at the end of 2013 than they were at the beginning.  All those who love Him are delighted by this truth.  There is nothing to fear.  We have only to look forward to greater conformity to the image of Christ.

4. God will grant us countless opportunities to bring Him glory in 2013.
1 Pet 2:9-12  9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. 11 Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
By how we handle adversity and conduct ourselves in the midst of trying times, we have the ability to cause the world around us to glorify God.  He has chosen us and given us this mandate.  We must recognize this and seize every opportunity He gives.

5. God will provide for all our needs in 2013.
Phi 4:19 19 And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.
Rom 8:32 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
Psa 37:25 25 I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging for bread.
We all have physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.  We will most likely be stretched in one or more of these areas this year.  But we can rest assured that what we absolutely need He will supply.  He already provided for our greatest need by giving His Son to save us from our sins.  He is more than capable of providing for lesser needs.

6. God will bring us closer to the return of His Son in 2013.
1 Thess 4:16-18 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
With every day, with every moment, we get closer to seeing our Savior.  The Father is orchestrating events all around us to usher in that day.  Therefore encourage one another with these words.

God’s Word never changes.  And if we take the time, we can find countless other certainties there to bring us comfort and joy as we begin a new year.  May these certainties cause all uncertainties to fade before us as we trust Him in 2013.
Posted by Greg Birdwell

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