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Friday, December 19, 2014

The Purposeful Humility of the Manger Scene

How many of us are willing to become poor to help the poor?  How many of us would become despised to reach the despised?  There are many charities out there with the admirable intent to help “the less fortunate,” but none go so far as to advocate becoming the less fortunate in order to help them.  We want to assist them, while holding on to our position, our comfort, and our reputation. 
Aren’t you thankful that Jesus didn’t feel the same way (Phil 2:5-7).  He came not merely to provide help, or to feed, or to heal, but ultimately to save men from sin, and in doing so He took the form of the lowest among them.  From His birth to His death, He was numbered with the less fortunate.  Christmas is the perfect time to reflect on such things.
There are numerous references in the Gospels, the Lukan account in particular, that point to the humility of the Baby King, as well as indications about why He came the way He did.
1. “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”  So said Nathaniel in John 1:46 upon hearing Philip’s claim that he had found the Messiah.  A variation of that sentiment is uttered by the Pharisees in John 7:52, “Search and see that no prophet arises out of Galilee.  In the first century there was a popular bias among the religious elites in Judea against Galileans.  It is peculiar then that this is the precise locale from which the Messiah would hail.  Luke records in 1:26-27 that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was from Nazareth of Galilee, and all four Gospels note that Jesus was raised there.
2. “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). The virgin birth, which today we rightly regard as miraculous, at the time was nothing if not scandalous.  (For a more detailed discussion of the shame that would have been heaped upon Mary and Joseph, read this.)  Before Joseph was read in on the Holy Spirit conception, he sought to quietly divorce Mary.  (They were only betrothed, but betrothal was so serious in that culture, that to break it required a legal divorce.)  Why would Joseph want to divorce her?  Because he, like everyone else, assumed that Mary had engaged in immorality – virgins don’t have babies.  Women who conceived out of wedlock were considered whores.  And there is no indication that Mary did anything to correct the predictable assumption that she was just such an immoral woman.  We also know that the stigma did not wear off over time, since we find the Jews in John 8:41 making the not-so-veiled implication that Jesus had been “born of sexual immorality.”
This baby was born assumed to be the illegitimate child of an immoral woman, a prostitute.  It would be difficult to conceive of a more lowly, discreditable beginning than this. 
3. “And she…laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7).  On countless occasions when I was a kid, I would run outside to play, forgetting to shut the door behind me.  The common rebuke from my mom came in the form of a question, “Were you born in a barn?”  Of course, she didn’t coin the phrase – I’m sure many of us have heard the same thing.  And what is the implication of the question?  Are you an animal? Are you so uncouth and unrefined that you would leave the door open? 
The Creator of the universe is reported in the Gospel of Luke to have been born in a barn.  And actually, the barn is simply an assumption.  The text doesn’t mention it specifically, but only that the baby was laid in a manger.  It could be that there was not a barn at all, and that He was literally born outdoors.  It could be that all of our Nativity scenes are giving the child an inaccurate upgrade in accommodations.  Whatever the details, this paints the picture of a birth so humble as to be almost degrading.  His first bed was a trough.  He had the birth of an animal, both in terms of location and company (more about the shepherds next).  The only thing notable about the situation, from a human perspective, was the humiliating circumstances.
4. “And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” (Luke 2:8).  When a child born to kings and queens, the wealthy and powerful, who in society takes note?  The whole world.  But only those in the upper echelon are given the privilege of greeting the child in person.  This is true no matter what era of history is being discussed. 
But what about the baby in Luke 2?  Who were the first to know of His birth?  Who were the first to come to greet Him?  It wasn’t just happenstance that the first to hear were shepherds – an angel of the Lord went to them specifically.  Shepherds were not high-class individuals.  Because of their trade – caring for sheep 24 hours a day – they were considered unclean peasants.  Sheep are dirty and smell bad.  Therefore, shepherds are dirty and smell bad.  And yet, shepherds were the first to hear of the baby’s birth, and were in fact told, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior…”  And they were the first invited to come and see Him. 
5. “…and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.’” (Luke 2:24).  Leviticus 12 describes the procedure for an Israelite woman to follow for her purification after childbirth.  She was to be considered unclean for a period of seven or fourteen days, depending on whether or not the baby was a boy or girl, after which she was to be purified for 33 days or 66 days.  After the days of her purifying were complete, she was to take to the priest a lamb a year old for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering, “and he shall offer it before the LORD and make atonement for her” (v7).  But v8 says, “And if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons…”
The baby in Luke 2 wasn’t born with a silver spoon in His mouth.  He was born poor.  His parents could not afford a lamb, so they offered a pair of birds.  They were, as we might call them today, “the less fortunate.” 
Isaiah wrote, “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men” (53:2).  By all earthly accounts, this baby was not even average.  Those who were average would have regarded Him as a poor, smelly animal born to a whore from the wrong side of the tracks and adored only by the lowest element of society. 
Was this all bad luck?  A series of unfortunate oversights on God’s part?  No.  Matthew 2:22-23 tells us that God intended for the baby to be a Nazarene.  His mother was not immoral – in Luke 2:30, Gabriel told her that she had found favor with God.  God, Joseph, and Mary all three knew that the birth would be regarded as illegitimate, but they went forward with the plan.  God prophesied that the baby would be born in Bethlehem, the city of David (Mic5:2), and He who turns the hearts of kings moved Caesar Augustus to order at exactly the right time, so that the baby would be born on cue, when there would be no place for them to stay in the inn (Prov 21:1; Gal 4:4).  He chose the shepherds.  The whole picture happened just as God wanted.
Why?  Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55 is clear:
 46 "My soul magnifies the Lord,
 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
 48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
 49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
 50 And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
 52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate;
 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
 55 as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever."
He was to be a lowly Savior for lowly sinners.  The angel told the shepherds that this good news would “be for all the people.”  No one would have to climb their way up to Him.  No one was too down and out.  No one was too far gone.  He would come to them.
We have a Savior who was willing to get His hands dirty to save sinful men.  He left the heights of heaven to become the lowest of the earth that He might save all who believe.  Let’s meditate on that and worship Him.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

More Questions About Eternal Rewards

The message on Sunday prompted some questions that I thought I would answer here since there are probably others in the congregation who may be pondering the same questions.
Does the Bible really teach that there will be degrees of rewards in heaven?  It is difficult to imagine another way to understand the passage that we looked at in 1 Corinthians 3.  We focused on vv10-15, which clearly address degrees of rewards for work done for the kingdom:
13 each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire (1Cor3:13-15).
Some might desire to view the concept of rewards as always referring to eternal life or to eternity in the presence of Christ.  However, the reward in this text cannot refer to either since v15 indicates that one can lose this reward but still be saved.  Therefore, this reward must be something other than eternal life or the presence of Jesus. Further, the text indicates that some will receive this reward and others will not.
Degrees of rewards are also mentioned earlier in the chapter, which we did not look at Sunday. 1 Cor 3:8 reads, He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor.  Also, the parable of the ten pounds in Luke 19:11-27 depicts servants being given authority according to their level of faithfulness: “Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities” (Luke 19:17).  The parable is preceded with the explanation that the Lord told the parable “because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.”  The parable is a call to serve faithfully until the Lord comes. Why should we serve faithfully until He comes? Faithfulness will be rewarded in the end. (Consider also the parable of the talents in Matt 25:14-30.)
The passage that we will look at shortly in Matt 20 regarding the mother of James and John requesting that they be appointed to places of honor in the kingdom assumes that there will be positions of distinction in the kingdom (Matt 20:20-28).  The Lord’s words in the passage confirm this truth rather than denying it.  Likewise, the passage in 19:23-30 also assumes this to be true – the 12 apostles will occupy 12 thrones and will judge the 12 tribes of Israel.  That is, they will occupy places of distinction in the kingdom. Similarly, Luke 16 portrays Abraham as having more prominence and authority in the kingdom than Lazarus.  Other passages that assume degrees of rewards include: Matt 6:2-4, 6:16-18,10:41-42,16:27; Luke 6:35; 1 Cor 15:41-42; 2 Cor 5:10; Eph 6:5-8; 1 Tim6:18-19; Rev 2:23, 22:12.
Wouldn’t the loss of rewards mentioned in 1 Cor 3:15 lead to sorrow?  How can there be sorrow in heaven?  Certainly, there will be no sorrow in heaven – He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore…(Rev 21:4).  But it is an unwarranted assumption that degrees of reward will lead to degrees of happiness.  Consider this quote from Wayne Grudem:
“Even though there will be degrees of reward in heaven, the joy of each person will be full and complete for eternity. If we ask how this can be when there are different degrees of reward, it simply shows that our perception of happiness is based on the assumption that happiness depends on what we possess or the status or power that we have. In actuality, however, our true happiness consists in delighting in God and rejoicing in the status and recognition that he has given us. The foolishness of thinking that only those who have been highly rewarded and given great status will be fully happy in heaven is seen when we realize that no matter how great a reward we are given, there will always be those with greater rewards, or who have higher status and authority, including the apostles, the heavenly creatures, and Jesus Christ and God himself. Therefore if highest status were essential for people to be fully happy, no one but God would be fully happy in heaven, which is certainly an incorrect idea. Moreover, those with greater rewards and honor in heaven, those nearest the throne of God, delight not in their status but only in the privilege of falling down before God’s throne to worship him (see Rev 4:10-11)” [Systematic Theology, 1144-1145].
Doesn’t the concept of heavenly rewards negate or harm the doctrine of grace? No – God is understood to be the source of motivation and power for the works that are rewarded.  Just prior to the statement in 1 Cor 3:8 that believers will be rewarded according to their labor, Paul writes, So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth (1 Cor 3:7).  Likewise, Paul prefaces his comments regarding the reception and loss of reward with the acknowledgement that his work was “according to the grace of God given to me.”
Here is a link to an article by John Piper explaining three ways that our deeds relate to our salvation.  It is so well written and helpful that to paraphrase it here would be to risk muddying up what he has made so clear.  It is not very long; I highly recommend that you take a minute to look at it.  It explains very well how these rewards should be understood as gifts of God’s grace.
If you missed my post last week regarding eternal rewards as a motivation for obedience, you may find that helpful as well.
If these questions have prompted still more questions, feel free to email me or leave comments below. If you have other theological questions that you'd like to see answered on the blog, I'm happy to receive those as well.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Should eternal rewards motivate us?

On Sunday, we finished considering the Lord’s interaction with the rich young man and Jesus’ subsequent conversation with His disciples.  In response to the Lord’s comments about how difficult it is for the rich to enter the kingdom, Peter asks Jesus in Matthew 19:27, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” 
Some commentators think that Peter is asking a self-centered question, that he’s just interested in what he’s going to get.  They suppose that his mind has strayed from the mission and he’s focused only on personal gain.  And they say that his mind should only be on serving Jesus strictly for the pleasure of serving Jesus and not for the eternal rewards that come with it.   
Is this the best way to understand Peter’s question?  This is an important issue to consider.  If it is self-centered for Peter to ask this question or to wonder about his eternal reward then it must be self-centered for us to do the same.  If Peter shouldn’t think about such things, neither should we.  The big question is, is it inappropriate for Christians to ponder and to be motivated by their eternal rewards?
There are several reasons to disagree with the view described above.  First, it makes more sense to just understand Peter to be clarifying what Jesus said earlier.  As I mentioned Sunday, the disciples, like most others in the 1st century, believed that the rich were especially favored by God.  When Jesus said that it was extremely difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven, the disciples wondered, “if the rich, who are especially favored by God, cannot be saved, who can?”  The implied concern is, “can we even be saved?”  The Lord responds, “with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”  It is most likely the case that Peter asked his question to clarify that the Lord was leaving open hope that the disciples would be saved even though the rich may not.
Second, Jesus gives no sign of displeasure at Peter’s question, but even affirms that the disciples are those "who have followed me.”  Jesus recognizes here that the disciples did indeed leave all in order to follow Him.  He recognizes that they did what the rich young fool refused to do. 
Third, the apostles writings don’t seem to align with the idea that eternal rewards are not supposed to motivate us.  The Gospel of Matthew mentions the concept of eternal rewards more than any other book in the NT.  The word “reward” is used 26 times in the NT and almost half of them are in Matthew.  And each time it is used, it is intended to motivate obedience.  It is used both positively and negatively.  “If you do this, great is your reward.”  “If you don’t do this, you will have no reward.”  That’s Matthew.  Mark and Luke do the same thing in their Gospels, just not as frequently.
Then there is Peter.  In his first epistle, he spends half of the first chapter describing the inheritance waiting in heaven for believers, using that to motivate them to persevere through the testing of their faith (1Peter 1:3-12). 
Then there is Paul, who describes in 1 Cor 3 the eternal rewards that await those who serve well (1Cor 3:5-15).  In Colossians 3, he writes, Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.
Then the writer of Hebrews, in 11:6, writes, And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.  Then in v26, describing Moses’ faithfulness, he writes, He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.  What reward?  His heavenly reward – that’s the only thing that makes sense.
Then there is John, who writes in 2 John 8, Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward.  Even Jude, in his tiny little epistle, references the eternal life that is given to those who remain in the love of God.  Every writer in the NT then appeals to the rewards of heaven to motivate believers to remain faithful.  Why would the Holy Spirit move these men to speak so often about the inheritance waiting for us if He did not intend for it to be a motivator for us?
So should we believe that Peter is just being self-centered and focusing completely on the reward and not on serving Jesus?  No, first of all, it makes more sense to believe that Peter is simply clarifying Jesus’ earlier statement.  But even if he is merely inquiring about the reward the disciples will receive, he is only asking about something the Holy Spirit intends to be a valid motivation to faithfulness.   Due to the prevalence of exhortations to look forward to our eternal rewards, we must not think that meditating on these things is self-centered.  The Lord has revealed them to us to help to us persevere until He comes again.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Spiritual Leadership Boot Camp

From the very earliest pages of the Bible, it is clear that God has designated men to be the spiritual leaders of their homes. Several features of the text of Genesis 2 indicate that this was God’s design from before the Fall. For example: the man was created before the woman (Gen 2:7, 15-17; cf. 1 Tim 2:11-13); the woman was made for the man (Gen 2:18; cf. 1 Cor 11:9); the woman was made from the man (Gen 2:21-22; 1 Cor 11:8); and the man named the woman, not once but twice (Gen 2:23, 3:20).
Each of these features of the Genesis 2 narrative reveals a clear difference of role between the man and the woman. From the beginning man was called to bear the responsibility of headship, while the wife was called to be the man’s perfectly suitable helper.  Male spiritual leadership in the home is God’s original ideal.
I am so thankful that at Providence Bible Fellowship this theology is accepted as the norm.  There are many churches in the world where it is not.  Our membership embraces what has been called complementarianism – the view that God has created both men and women in His image, equal in status before God and in importance to the family and church, but distinct in role.  Men are to lead in the family and church, and women are to help them.  This is widely accepted in our local body.
But there is a big difference between believing the right things and living the right things.  It may be the case that we all agree wholeheartedly that God has woven a complementarian structure into the family, but that does not automatically mean that our homes reflect it.  In fact, if there is one thing that I hear consistently from men and women in our congregation about their homes, it is that this ideal of male spiritual leadership is not being lived out.  I frequently hear from men that they know they are called to lead their families and that they want to but that they are not doing it well. I also frequently hear from women that they long for spiritual leadership from their husbands, but that it simply isn’t happening.
So what is the problem?  It may be that in some cases there are men who simply don’t want to lead or for whom it is uncomfortable, but it seems that the most common issue is that they simply don’t know how.  Most men have not been raised in homes where this was modeled for them by a father figure.  Additionally, it is an area of discipleship that has been all but ignored by the church in recent decades.  Consequently, we have several generations of men in the church who have the strong conviction that God calls them to lead but who aren’t leading or who aren’t leading well because they just don’t know what that leadership should look like in everyday life.  Typical questions that men wrestle with include:
·      What is spiritual leadership?  What does it look like? 
·      Should a man’s leadership in his wife’s life look different than his leadership in his children’s lives?  
·      Should man’s leadership of his children change as they get older?
·      Are there certain tasks or activities associated with spiritual leadership, specific things that a man should be doing on a regular basis? 
·      Why doesn’t this just come naturally to a Christian man?
·      Are there any helpful resources out there, like a “Spiritual Leadership for Dummies”?
·      How does God’s Word equip a man for this?

We need to be trained for this.  For that reason, we are going to begin what could be thought of as a spiritual leadership boot camp for the men of PBF early next year.  Our objective will be to answer the above questions so thoroughly that everyone knows exactly what spiritual leadership is and how to do it, and we’ll be working together to implement these principles in our homes.  The training will run for eight consecutive Saturdays beginning on February 7 and going through March 28.  We’ll gather together each Saturday morning from 7-8:30. 
Men, if you love your families, put this on the calendar now and make a commitment to come.  You may already have things squared away in your home – that’s great – you can come and mentor others who have yet to begin the journey.  Women, if you love your families, encourage your husbands to make this a priority and do what you can to free them up for those eight Saturdays.  These could be the most consequential two months ever for the spiritual health of your home.
There will be more details to come in the next few months.  But right now, while you’re thinking about it, get out the calendar.  Seriously, right now.  Jot down (or type in) “spiritual leadership boot camp” every Saturday AM (7a-8:30a) from Feb 7 to Mar 28.  I’m praying for 100% participation.  Will you pray, too?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Some Thoughts on Application

 As we have been studying Colossians together on Wednesday nights, I’ve been encouraged by the thoughtfulness of the participants as we have sought to apply the Scriptures to everyday life.  Thus far, we have only studied the more doctrinal sections of the book, and yet everyone has offered helpful insights into how those sections can be applied to real life. 
Unfortunately, many in the modern church do not take Bible study to its proper final step of application.  How easy it is to study a passage intently and diligently, to find its proper interpretation, to thank God for His beautiful truth, and then to walk away with nothing but a bigger head and duller heart. You know, the devil can use God’s Word as a tool to work pride ever deeper into our hearts, and he does that by tempting us to focus on the process of study and not the goal of study.  Most of us have probably fallen for this trick at some point in our Christian lives.

What is the goal of Bible study? Some may be tempted to say “knowledge.”  Bible knowledge is a good thing as long as it produces something else, but it is not the ultimate goal.  Others may say, “a transformed life” or “sanctification.”  This also is good, but it is not the main thing.  The ultimate end of all things, including bible study, is the glory of God.  How does bible study glorify God?  Through the knowledge we attain, we apply the Scriptures to our lives which causes us to grow in Christlikeness which brings glory to God (Matt 5:14-16).
 The Holy Spirit has given us the Holy Word for the purpose of knowing God and being transformed into the image of the Son for His glory. That goal – that God would be glorified – should be kept at the forefront of our minds as we study the Bible. Our desire to understand should serve our desire to become more like Christ, which should serve our desire for God to be glorified. If I find myself studying and digging into the Scriptures simply to have a better grasp of doctrine rather than to be sanctified for His glory, I need to spend some time on my knees confessing that and asking for a heart that hungers for much to be made of Him.  God is not glorified in my study until application has happened.  

Once we have interpreted a passage soundly, our final question should be, “how do I live this?” 2 Tim 3:16 is a helpful guide for breaking down truth to see how it should be applied: All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.

Teaching is doctrine. It is what the Word says about any given subject. The epistles are heavy in teaching. Let’s use Ephesians as an example. The first three chapters are all doctrinal teaching. How do you apply that? Well, one common misconception about application is that we have to do something external in order to obey the Word. But sometimes what we really need to do is change our thinking on a certain issue. For example, Ephesians 1 makes a very strong case for the absolute sovereignty of God. He chose us (v4) and predestined us (v5) according to his purpose (v9) and plan (v10), and He is working all things after the counsel of His will (v11). How do I apply that? By deciding to believe it and incorporate it into my understanding of God. I obey that truth by accepting it.

The same could be said for the depravity and inability of man in chapter 2. Man is unwilling and unable to turn from His sin (vv1-3). His faith is a gracious gift from God (v8). The whole of his salvation and sanctification is God’s work (v10). How do I apply this? By believing that my salvation has nothing to do with my own will to follow Christ. I believed because it was given to me to believe. So I humble myself and give all glory to God. That’s application.

Reproof and Correction work together to expose our sin and to correct our course. When we arrive at a proper interpretation of any passage, we should pray that the Holy Spirit would reveal to us where we are missing the mark in relation to the truths we’ve found. When we hold that text up to our lives like a mirror, we may find that we are thinking ungodly thoughts, exhibiting ungodly attitudes, harboring ungodly desires, or engaging in ungodly acts. Sin is not simply outward actions. We can be in grievous sin without showing any visible signs. It is important to prayerfully meditate on the truths we found, using them like a torch to expose any iniquity in our lives. We then apply that truth through confession, repentance, seeking forgiveness, putting off & putting on, and renewal of the mind.   

Training in righteousness refers to positive instruction from God’s Word. The text we have studied may not show that we are in sin, but it may give us promises, exhortations, or warnings. If there are promises, we cherish them. If there are exhortations, we follow them. If there are warnings, we heed them. If there are positive examples in the lives of biblical characters, we emulate them. If there are negative examples in the lives of biblical characters, we learn from them. We seek to use these truths to discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness like an athlete running so as to win the prize (1 Tim 4:7; 1 Cor 9:24-27).

Studying the Bible is hard work. It takes much time, energy, and commitment. But once we have finished the process of actual study and begin to apply truth to our lives, the work has only begun. …work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Phil 2:12-13).

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Getting Into The Word

In our Wednesday night bible study this week, we briefly discussed how important it is to be constantly refreshing our minds with the Scriptures in order to guard against adopting the thinking of the world.  It prompted me to consider the importance of several different avenues of Bible intake.  Below are my thoughts, most of which will not be news to you, but could perhaps prompt you to reincorporate a discipline that may have fallen by the wayside.
A primary tool that God has granted for the purpose of transforming us into the likeness of Christ is the intake of His Word. One of Jesus’ primary concerns for the disciples on the night before His death was that the Father would use His Word to make them holy. He prayed, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). Indeed, it is the God-breathed Scriptures that are uniquely and sufficiently able to make us mature in Christ, equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:16-17). The Spirit uses His Word to expose our hearts and to transform our minds (Heb 4:12; Rom 12:2).
This means that if a believer is going to grow in godliness, he must make intake of the Word a major discipline of his life. R. Kent Hughes offers this: “You can never have a Christian mind without reading the Scriptures regularly because you cannot be profoundly influenced by that which you do not know. If you are filled with God’s Word, your life can then be informed and directed by God—your domestic relationships, your child-rearing, your career, your ethical decisions, your interior moral life. The way to a Christian mind is through God’s Word!”[1] The apostle Paul exhorted the Colossians to “let the word of Christ dwell” in them richly (Col 3:16). The only way this can happen is if we are intentionally taking in the Scriptures.
The simplest form of Bible intake is hearing the Word, which would include listening to sermons, participating in Bible studies, and listening to audible recordings of the Scriptures. At the very least, this discipline entails becoming a part of a New Testament church where the Bible is taught on a regular basis.[2] 
One text that demonstrates the importance of hearing the Word is 2 Timothy 4:1-2: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” While most would regard this as an imperative to the preacher, and rightfully so, it also holds an implied imperative to the listener. If it is crucial that the content of the pastor’s preaching be the Word of God, it also must be crucial for the church to hear the Word of God. The necessity of hearing the Word is founded upon the previous passage in which, Paul notes that the Word of God is able to make the believer complete and equipped (2 Tim3:16-17). As God has commanded the preaching of the Word to the people of God, certainly it is intended to be a vital part of the believer’s diet.
A second essential method of intake is Bible reading. With the wide availability of electronic and print copies of the Word, reading is perhaps the most convenient and most readily available method of taking in the Scriptures. The Word itself seems to assume that believers will read the Bible. For example, Jesus frequently questioned people’s knowledge of the Word, beginning with the words, “have you not read…?”, implying that it is to be expected that God’s people would read God’s Word.[3] Given the repeated references in the Bible to the role of Scripture in our sanctification, it is difficult to imagine a person growing in godliness without spending regular time reading the Word.
George Mueller provides an excellent example of the power of consistently reading the Bible:
“It is absolutely needful…we should read regularly through the Scriptures…  For the first four years after my conversion I made no progress, because I neglected the Bible. But when I regularly read on through the whole with reference to my own heart and soul, I directly made progress. Then my peace and joy continued more and more. Now I have been doing this for 47 years. I have read through the whole Bible about 100 times and I always find it fresh when I begin again. Thus my peace and joy have increased more and more.”[4]
Mueller would live to the age of ninety-two, never changing his pursuit of satisfaction in God through the reading of the Scriptures.[5] He noted in his later years, “I saw more clearly than ever, that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the Lord…I saw that the most important thing I had to do was to give myself to the reading of the word of God.”[6] He view the reading of the Word as the primary means by which he grew in the knowledge of God, which led to his being happy in God.[7] Regular Bible reading is a crucial part of the spiritual diet of a Christian.
Another method of Bible intake championed by the Scriptures is memorization. The Bible notes numerous benefits of memorizing God’s Word, just a few of which will be noted here. First, it supplies spiritual power to deal with temptation. The psalmist proclaimed, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Ps 119:11, cf. Matt 4:1-11). Second, it can strengthen one’s faith. Proverbs 22:17-19 exhorts the reader to internalize God’s Word “that your trust may be in the Lord.” Donald Whitney comments, “Memorizing Scripture strengthens your faith because it repeatedly reinforces the truth, often just when you need to hear it again.”[8]  Third, Scripture memorization can be a means of God’s guidance. Psalm 119:24 reads, “Your testimonies are my delight; they are my counselors.” When the Scriptures are internalized, these counselors become constant companions able to give guidance at any time of day or night. Fourth, memorization facilitates Scripture meditation. Indeed, memorization is the only way to be like the psalmist, meditating on the Word “all the day” (Ps119:97). With verses of Scriptures tucked away in one’s memory, the believer can meditate no matter the time or place. Memorization is a vital method of Bible intake for the Christian.
Meditation, a fourth method of taking in the Word, consists of “deep thinking on the truths and spiritual realities revealed in Scripture for the purposes of understanding, application, and prayer.”[9] The Bible has much to say about the significance of this discipline. It promises success and spiritual fruitfulness to those who meditate on God’s Word (Josh 1:8; Ps 1:1-3). It indicates that Scriptural understanding comes through meditation (Ps 119:27, 99). It also teaches that love for the Word results from meditation on it, which motivates further meditation (Ps 119:14-16, 48, 97).
It is possible that meditation is the most important of all the methods because in it the believer takes what he has heard, read, and memorized and thinks deeply about what it means and how it should be applied to his life. Meditation makes the other methods truly useful, for it is conceivable that one could take in the Word by other methods but without ever pondering them for the purpose of application. For this reason, it is critical that a believer discipline himself to regularly meditate on the Word of God. (For several suggested methods of meditation, see this post.)
So what about you?  Have you made Bible intake a priority lately?  Why not find another brother or sister and challenge one another to get into the Word, hearing it, reading it, memorizing it, and meditating on it?  Let us strive to be people of the Word, understanding that it is food for our souls (Matt 4:4, cf. Deut 8:3).

[1] R. Kent Hughes, Disciplines of a Godly Man, Rev. ed.; 10th anniversary ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2006), 77.
[2] Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, 29.
[3] Ibid., 32.
[4] George Muller, A Narrative of Some of the Lord’s Dealings with George Muller. Written by Himself. (Muskegon, MI: Dust and Ashes, 2003), 2:834.
[5] John Piper, When I Don’t Desire God: How to Fight for Joy (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), 119.
[6] Muller, A Narrative of Some of the Lord’s Dealings with George Muller. Written by Himself., 1:271–272.
[7] Ibid., 2:740.
[8] Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, 43.
[9] Ibid., 48.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Does Adultery End the Marriage Covenant?

During the last couple of sermons, we looked at the text of Matthew 19:3-9 regarding divorce and also spent some time answering some of the common questions that arise when discussing this issue.  There was one question that we did not have time to tackle, yet it is one that is common enough that I’d like to take some time to deal with it here.
As you know, the Lord teaches in Matthew 19:9 that cases of sexual immorality represent an exception to the rule that to divorce and remarry another constitutes adultery.  This leads some people to assume that infidelity effectively ends the marriage covenant and that must be why these cases represent an exception to the rule. 
Is that the case?  Does infidelity break the marriage covenant in such a way as to end it?  This is an important question.  Should the offended spouse consider himself or herself still in a covenant with the unfaithful spouse?
Scripture may not answer this question explicitly, but I believe we can gather principles that will help us to arrive at a conclusion.  As with some of the other questions we considered, God’s relationship with the Israelites in the Old Testament is instructive.  We find many times in the OT that the Israelites are described as having broken their covenant with Yahweh through their spiritual adultery: “They have turned back to the iniquities of their forefathers, who refused to hear my words. They have gone after other gods to serve them. The house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken my covenant that I made with their fathers” (Jer 11:10, cf Deut 31:16-21).
We need to consider in what sense the people broke the covenant.  Did they break it in the sense of failing to abide by its stipulations?  Or did they break it in the sense of causing it to come to an end?  Or both – did their failure to abide by its stipulations result in the ending of the covenant? 
Clearly, they broke it at least in the sense of failing to abide by its stipulations.  Yahweh was as clear as crystal that the covenant required them to worship Him alone (Exo 20:3; 23:32; Deut 6:1-25; Jos 23:15-16).  Yet, they “played the whore” on “every high hill and under every green tree” (Jer 2:20, 3:1-2).  But did that failure cause the end of the covenant?  There are at least two reasons we have to say no.  First, the people were still bound by the stipulations of the covenant.  Though they violated the covenant, God still held them to its stipulations.  They were still expected to obey all of the Law.  That indicates that the covenant was not ended by their violation of it.  Second, God gave Israel and Judah a decree of divorce, only after which did He say, “you are not my wife.”  That is, it was Yahweh who officially ended the union and He did so via a certificate of divorce.
What does this tell us about a marriage in which there has been infidelity?  The unfaithful spouse has broken the marriage covenant in the sense the he or she has failed to keep the stipulations of the covenant, but not in the sense of having ended the covenant.  Though infidelity has taken place, the marriage still exists and the two members are bound by its terms.  The only thing that can end the marriage, other than death, is divorce.  As Yahweh was justified in ending His marriage to Israel and Judah, so the offended spouse is justified in ending his or her marriage to an unfaithful spouse.  It is not the violation of the covenant that ends it, but divorce that ends it.
I’d like to reiterate that while we spent a good deal of time talking about various questions, exceptions, and scenarios, we need to keep in mind that the Lord’s main point in Matthew 19:3-9 was to call His disciples to a lifelong commitment to marriage, understanding that this is God’s design for that institution.  Please remember that if you are struggling in your marriage, we want to help you.  We have a number of folks who are trained and qualified to come alongside you and help you find the hope that God’s Word offers no matter what your circumstances.  If you are a husband whose wife is not interested in counseling, we have godly men who can help you.  If you are a wife whose husband is not interested in counseling, we have godly women who can help you.  If you and your spouse agree that you could use some help, whether it is dealing with serious issues and just addressing some bad habits, we can come alongside you as well.  Please let us know.  We would love to help.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

His All-Powerful Love

“Behold, I am the LORD, the God of all flesh. Is anything too hard for me?” (Jer 32:27)

At one time or another, we have all been frustrated by a lack of power.  We have wanted to do something - achieve a goal, heal a loved one, or perhaps end a trial - but we were prevented by our own inability to act.  As human beings, we have limitations.  We are not always able to do what we want to do.

God has no such limitations.  He is able to accomplish all His holy will.  He is all-powerful, or omnipotent.  This is repeatedly affirmed in the Scriptures.  When God reiterated His promise to Abraham that he would have a son by Sarah, who was old and barren, He said, “Is anything too hard for the LORD?” (Gen 18:14), the implied answer being, “of course, not!”  And sure enough, one year later Sarah gave birth to Isaac.

In Numbers 11, when the people grumbled against God because they had no meat, the Lord vowed to give them meat for a whole month, “until it comes out at your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you” (11:20).  Moses wrongly assumed that the Lord would provide this meat from their own flocks and herds, which would never be enough for the whole nation to eat for a month.  God replied, “Is the LORD’s power limited? Now you shall see whether My word will come true for you or not” (11:23 NAS).  The result was a spectacle I would love to have seen.  The Lord caused a wind to spring up and carry quail from the sea and dump them around the camp of Israel so that quail were piled waist-high for a day’s journey in every direction!  

In Luke 1, when the angel came to Mary to tell her that she would give birth to the Son of the Most High, she replied, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” He said, “For nothing will be impossible with God” (1:37).  There are many other passages that could be consulted, but the uniform testimony of Scripture is that God is able to do anything He purposes to do.  

We should note that this is not the same thing as saying that God can do anything.  There are some things God cannot do.  He cannot lie (Heb 6:18; Titus 1:2),  be tempted or tempt others (Jas 1:13), or deny Himself (2Tim 2:13).  He cannot do anything inconsistent with His nature, which is why we should understand omnipotence as His ability to accomplish all His holy will, rather than the ability to do anything.

What might God’s omnipotence tell us about His love for His people?  Remember that love is valuing the highest good of another.  God desires our highest good.  That God is omnipotent indicates that He is able to accomplish our good.  Last time, we looked at how God’s knowledge and wisdom benefit His love for us.  They indicate that He knows what is best for us and He knows the best way to accomplish it for us.  His omnipotence means that not only does He know what is best and the best way to accomplish it, but He has the power to accomplish it!  There is nothing that can stand in the way of God working good for those He loves.  

Without His unlimited power, God would only be a really nice guy with great intentions, but no ability to come through on those intentions and possibly no ability to keep the promises He’s made.  That God loves us is only good news because it is this God who loves us.  All of His other attributes coalesce to make His love as powerful and certain as it is.  

Consider the things facing you today.  There are people in your life who have promised you things that they may not have the ability to accomplish.  But there is One who has never made a promise that He cannot keep.  There is One who will never fail to love you by working good for you.  What affect should the knowledge of God’s all-powerful love have on your outlook on your current circumstances?  Think on these things.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

God's Omniscient, Omnisapient Love

O LORD, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.  (Psa 139:1-4)

As we continue to consider how God’s various attributes help us to understand the qualities of His love for His people, we must look at two attributes that are closely associated, His omniscience and omniscience.  That God is omniscient means that He knows all things that can be known, that is, everything actual and possible, past, present and future.

When we say that God knows all things actual we mean that He knows all things that exist and happen.  Psalm 147: 5 teaches that “His understanding is infinite.” Job 37:16 says that He is “perfect in knowledge.” Perhaps most explicit is 1 John 3:20, which reads, “…He knows everything.” He knows every bird and every star (Psa 50:10-11; Luke 12:6-7; Psa 147:4).  He knows our prayers before we pray them, our thoughts before we think them, our words before we say them, and every intention of our hearts (Matt 6:7-8; Psa 94:11; 139:1-4; Heb 4:11-13). 

He not only knows everything that actually is, but also all things possible, which means that He knows all the possible outcomes of all contingencies.  In Matt 11:21-23, the Lord Jesus chastised the Jewish cities where most of His might works had occurred, saying, “If the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”  There are similar examples in 1 Samuel 23:11-13 and 2 Kings 13:19.  

God knows absolutely everything that can be known, therefore we say that He is omniscient.  Most of us are already familiar with that term, but what is omnisapience?  For God to be omnisapient is for Him to be all-wise.  Wisdom is the application of God’s infinite knowledge to accomplish the best ends by the best means possible.  God’s omniscience makes His omnisapience possible.

After recounting God’s plan of salvation via the election, rejection, and return of Israel, Paul marvels at the matchless wisdom of God: Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?”  (Rom 11:33-34, cf. Eph 3:10).  God is so wise that His foolishness is wiser than men (1 Cor 1:25).

What do the attributes of God’s perfect knowledge and wisdom mean for His love for us?  It is easy to see the connection if we understand God’s love to be a commitment to our highest good.  That God knows all things means that He not only knows us inside and out (Psa 139), but He knows with absolute certainty what is best for us.  He knows what we need before we need it.  He knows what we need far better than we do.  His knowledge equips Him to envision the best ends for us.  

His wisdom equips Him to accomplish those ends by the best means possible.   Some of us may never doubt that God intends to do us good, but we may struggle with His means.  Difficult trials don’t always feel “right.”  We may think that there must be a better way for God to do us good than through this particular trial or that one.  But the truth is that God is always accomplishing what is best for us, and He is doing it in the best way.  

Consider what God would be like if He was loving but not all-knowing and all-wise.  We might expect salvation history - and our lives - to be a series of well-intentioned messes.  God would desire to do us good, but He would often be wrong about what that good is and how to accomplish it.  If God were loving but not knowledgeable and wise, we could never have faith that He would certainly do good for us.  We could only have faith that He wanted to.  

That the God who loves us is omniscient and omnisapient means we can bank on the fact that God desires to accomplish our good, that He infallibly knows what that good is, and that He will accomplish it in the best way possible.  If we believe that, it will make our current trials seem far less dark and far more promising.  

What does God’s all-knowing, all-wise love have to say about your current circumstances?  Think on these things.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

God's Ever-Present Love

Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. (Psa 139:7-10)

Think about you would have felt if you were in Joseph’s shoes. His brothers sold him into the hands of foreigners, who took him to a land he did not know and sold him to an Egyptian officer. The initial language barrier, the realization of permanent servitude, and the finality of his separation from his loved ones must have made him feel a loneliness that few people ever know.

And yet the narrative of Joseph’s life in Genesis 37-50 demonstrates that he most certainly was never alone. From the time of his being sold into slavery to the time when he comforted his brothers with “what you meant for evil, God meant for good,” Joseph knew the blessings of God’s presence, provision, and love. A statement in the story of Joseph’s imprisonment is thematic for his entire time in Egypt: But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison (Gen 39:21, cf 39:2, 3, 5, 23). No matter where Joseph went, the Lord was present with him, loving him.

To the idolatrous culture of the ancient near east, the notion of an omnipresent god was unthinkable. In their minds, gods were territorial. They lived in temples made by the hands of their worshipers and did not venture beyond these boundaries. It is with this concept of localized, “kept” gods that Yahweh contrasts Himself in Isaiah 66:1-2a:

Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be,” declares the LORD. 

Man can make no habitation for this God because He cannot be contained (2 Chron 2:6; Acts 17:24-25). He is everywhere present at all times. He knows no boundaries.

And His omnipresence means wonderful things for His people, not the least of which is that they cannot be separated from His love. David marveled at this truth in Psalm 139:7-10, noting even if he was buried in the uttermost parts of the sea, “even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.”  

God’s love for His people becomes an constant comfort when we understand the omnipresence of our Father. There is nowhere that we can go that we will not know the provision of His love. No earthly barrier can prevent our fellowship with Him. Truly nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:39).

Have you felt alone recently? If so, be reminded of the truth: as a believer, you enjoy the constant presence of the Father and you are the blessed recipient of His ever-present love. You’re never alone.  Think on these things.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

God's Self-Sufficiency & Love

(In considering the great love of the Father for His children, I've spent some time thinking about what His various attributes demonstrate about His love.  I'd like to share some of those thoughts with you in a series of articles here.)  

The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. (Acts 17:24-25)

…the earth is full of the steadfast love of the LORD. (Psa 33:5)

As created beings, we are inherently needy.  There are things we must have in order to survive - air, water, food, clothing, shelter, etc.  Most people would agree that we also have lesser needs that are necessary in order to live fulfilled lives.  We need to be part of a community.  We need relationships.  We need love.  Because our various levels of needs, our relationships with other people are in some measure governed by our neediness.  Our affection for one another is usually at least partially tied to how we meet one another’s needs.  Why do I love the people I love?  They benefit me in some way. 

My family has a Valentine’s Day tradition of taking turns telling why we love each member of the family.  Almost invariably, the reasons we give are related to something that each person does.  Certainly, we love each other for the simple reason that we are family, but additionally we have affection for each other because of how we benefit each other. 

Truly unconditional love among created beings, if it is even possible, must be extremely rare.  We love because of what we get from one another.

Consider then that God has no needs whatsoever.  A.W. Tozer wrote, “Need is a creature word not worthy of the Holy.”  That is a truth duly supported by Scripture.  Paul told the Athenians in Acts 17:24-25, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”  God needs nothing.  Rather He meets the needs of all His creatures. 

This quality has been referred by theologians as the self-sufficiency of God.  Dr. Bruce Ware defines it this way: “God possesses within Himself intrinsically and eternally every good quality in infinite measure.”  That He possesses all good qualities intrinsically means that they are part of His essence.  That is, He has not acquired them, but they are part of His being.  That He possesses these qualities eternally means that there was never a time and never will be a time when He lacked or will lack any good quality.  He has always been completely self-sufficient.  That He possesses these qualities in infinite measure means that they are not finite, not limited, not measured, not restricted, and without boundary.  God never runs low on mercy, justice, truth, knowledge, or any other good quality.

It follows from God’s self-sufficiency that nothing can be added to Him.  He lacks nothing.  He needs nothing.  There is nothing that can be done to benefit Him in an absolute sense.  That is, He has nothing to gain from anything or anyone.

What does this mean about His love?  It is truly unconditional.  It is given without thought for how it will benefit Him since He is incapable of being benefited.  This has huge ramifications for the believer.  There is nothing we can do to cause God to love us more.  More good works will not curry more of His favor.  Greater devotion will not earn more of His affection.  He loves us because He loves us.

God is not like a half-empty cup that we fill up with our love.  Rather, as C.S. Lewis noted, “God’s love is bottomlessly selfless.  It has everything to give and nothing to gain.”  God’s love fills us; we do not fill Him.  In the cross of Jesus, we see the gift of a God who needs nothing but who gives everything because of His great unconditional love. 

Are you trapped in a cycle of thought that pushes you to perform in order to gain or retain God's love?  You did nothing to gain it in the first place and you can do nothing to retain it.  His self-sufficiency indicates that He loves you for nothing that you have added to Him.  He loves you unconditionally.  Think on these things.