Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Bend or bring?

One of the most enjoyable days of my school year was Ministry Leadership Day. In March, a day was set aside for pastors, teachers, and students to learn about an aspect of ministry. The theme this year was doxology; in other words, worship.

The session* given by our President, Dr. Reed, focused on how preaching is doxology. I am not a pastor, but I am a teacher, and as a teacher, I want my teaching to be an act of worship. Dr. Reed opened up the message by stating that not all preaching is doxology. Using John 7:14-18, he outlined what is necessary for preaching to be doxology:  1) the speaker speaks God's words, and 2) the speaker seeks God's glory. In the context of the first point, he referenced Haddon Robinson who said that the test of expository teaching is this:
Do you bend your thoughts to the text or do you bring your thoughts to the text?
That quotation has stayed with me all semester. And I think that test is one we need to apply to ourselves in contexts other than teaching and preaching. I think it should be asked every time we claim our words are based on the Word of God.

Bending my thoughts to the text implies I may have to yield to the text; that I may have to change how I think. If I give my thoughts equal weight to the text, my teaching is no longer an act of worship. Once I start putting my toughts above text, I am not teaching for God's glory by my own.
In John 7:18 we read: "He who speaks from himself seeks his own glory; but he who is seeking the glory of the One who sent him, he is true, and there is no unrighteousness in him." Every time we speak forth Scripture, it is good to pray for pure motives, to ask God to forgive us for times when we are seeking our own glory rather than his.

There are times when we teach and we already have an agenda in mind. We have something we're all fired up about, and we want to take that agenda and run with it. Oh, we find Scripture to support our views, but it wasn't where we began. To be able to bend our thoughts to Scripture, we seek Scripture first. We ask ourselves, "What does Scripture say?" As we strive to ensure that we learn to bend our thoughts to Scripture, we must first do two things:

Acknowledge our pre-suppositions

We all have pre-suppositions. If we have been in the Church for a while, or have been in a denominational tradition all of our lives, much of how we perceive Scripture will be influenced by how we've been taught. It's unavoidable. We have to be willing to lay aside our pre-suppositions and look at the text honestly. We don't look to Scripture to have our pre-suppositions confirmed. Laying aside those pre-conceived ideas requires humility, because we may have to consider that we are wrong, and being wrong is not always enjoyable.

Understand the focus of Scripture

Scripture is not about me. It is not about you. There is a temptation to believe that we, as God's people, are the central characters. While we are beneficiaries of the central story of the Bible, the story of redemption, we are not the the main characters of the story. God is not incidental in the redemptive story of man; he is the central focus. It will be difficult for me to avoid bringing my own agenda to Scripture unless I see first and foremost that this is a book about Christ.

Dr. Reed said that every preacher (and by implication, teacher) is a glory seeker; the question is whose glory are we seeking? When seeking my own glory, I take away from the glory which belongs to God. When I filter Scripture through my thoughts instead of filtering my thoughts through Scripture, I am taking away from God's glory. But when I bend my thoughts, I will step back, fade into the distance, and allow God's glory to shine. And when one is a teacher -- especially a teacher who commands large, expectant audiences --  it can be tempting to want that glory for ourselves. It is my prayer for preachers and teachers everywhere that we seek the higher glory, the glory of Christ.

* If you are interesting in listening to the message, his speaking begins at the 12 minute mark.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Hey Jude! — The Fine Art of Illustration

Gustav Doré - Lot Flees as Sodom and Gomorrah Burn

Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe. [6] And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day—[7] just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. (Jude 5-7 ESV)
An editor once read something I’d written and told me I needed to use more illustrations. I needed to add stories or examples from real life, books, or movies because “they draw readers in,” she said, “and connect with them.” An illustration makes an author’s points more vivid. An illustration draws a picture that can help make an argument—and help make the argument stick.

I am a just-the-facts person. When I read, I usually pass right over all the fluff (yes, that’s how I think—or used to think—of illustrations) to get to the important stuff, like the actual points being made, which I hope the author will summarize for me once she’s finished telling all the stories I’m skimming. Can you see why using illustrations doesn’t come naturally to me?

But the biblical author Jude was a better writer than I am. No editor had to encourage him to use illustrations. As we shall see, he wasn’t afraid to use one (or three) to make a point.

A few weeks ago I discussed verses 3 and 4 of the book of Jude in a post. I was solidifying what I learned from a Bible study I’m participating in. In those two verses, Jude urged the believers in the church he was addressing to strongly defend the Christian faith against the false teachings and immoral conduct of “certain people”—imposters, actually—who had infiltrated this church and were influencing others, drawing them away from the true faith.

This past week, my little Bible study group moved on to Jude 5-7.1 In these verses, Jude used three illustrations to make his point. He drew his readers (or listeners) in by drawing their attention to three stories from the Old Testament. He didn’t need recount the details of each story. No, a few words summarizing each one was enough because his original readers already knew them by heart.

The first story Jude used to illustrate his point is the story of the Israelites who, he wrote, Jesus “saved . . . out of the land of Egypt.” While the reference to Jesus2 as the one who rescued Israel might seem strange, most of us know the basic tale. God brought his people out of slavery in Egypt, and almost into the Promised Land. When the time came for them to enter the land of Canaan, however, the Israelites balked. They were intimidated by the strength of the people occupying the land. They didn’t trust God to give them victory over the powerful inhabitants of Canaan.

And so, Jude said, Jesus judged them. He sent them to wander in the wilderness until every one who had been a responsible adult at the time of their rebellion had died—all, that is, except Joshua and Caleb, the two who had trusted God.

What point was Jude making by reminding his readers of this incident in Old Testament history? He used the Israelite’s experience of God's judgment as a warning to the counterfeit Christians, and also—and more importantly—as a warning to those who were enabling them. He was reminding them that rebellion against God is serious business. Unbelief will always result in God’s judgment.

The next illustration Jude used may be obscure to us, but not necessarily to his first readers. The basic story is found in Genesis 6:1-4, but most of the details Jude refered to came from popular Jewish tradition and the intertestamental book of 1 Enoch,3 a book you won’t find in your Bible. Some angels, it seems, abandoned their God-given place, came down to earth, and cohabited with human women. God judged them for their rebellion against him and for their sexual immorality.4 Right now, he is holding them "under gloomy darkness" as punishment. And they are destined for more and worse punishment after they are judged on the great Day of Judgment.

The point of this illustration is similar to the first, but with the addition of judgment for the sin of sexual immorality. This is a powerful warning that God punishes those who rebel against him, and he punishes those who indulge in sexual immorality. Judgment is certain for both.

And last, Jude used the example of Sodom and Gomorrah. I’m sure you know this Old Testament story. God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah by fire because of their rampant homosexuality, or as Jude wrote, because they “indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire.” Their fiery destruction foreshadowed God’s eternal judgment. (The site of Sodom and Gomorrah was, after all, still smoking when Jude wrote his letter.) Jude used this story as another example of what will happen to those who indulge in sexual immorality. God will judge them with “a punishment of eternal fire.” It’s a sure thing.

With these three illustrations, Jude bolstered his plea for the true believers in this church to contend for the faith. The so-called Christians who had crept in among them, those who were teaching untruths and behaving in ungodly ways, were already designated for condemnation. Their sins were like those of the Israelites, the rebellious angels, and the people of Sodom of Gomorrah—and their end would be similar, too. There was nothing to be gained, and everything to lose, by joining with them, or placating them, or even simply ignoring them. They must be put out of the church; their teachings and their ways must be rejected. And all the true believers must join the fight to protect “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.”

Jude began his epistle with a summons:
I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. (Verse 3, ESV)
These three Old Testament examples explain why his appeal was so urgent. They explain why his readers needed these warnings. Jude wanted them to understand that the consequences of unchecked false teaching and immorality in their church would be deadly—eternally deadly.

His illustrations are warnings to us, too. False teaching and immorality are dangerous.  Are you guarding your own church? Are you on the lookout for infiltrators? Are you preparing to do battle if necessary?

And aren’t you glad Jude used illustrations?

1 I hope this will be a series of posts on the book of Jude. (Unfortunately, I can’t retroactively put Hey Jude! in the title of the first post because the URLwould change.)

2Jude’s reference to Jesus as the one who saved the Israelites isn’t as weird as it might first appear. After all, the apostle Paul says that Christ was spiritually present with the Israelites as they traveled (1 Corinthians 10:4), so that when they complained about God’s provision for them, they were putting “Christ to the test” (1 Corinthians 10:9-10).

3 I believe that as Jude filled in the details of this story, the Holy Spirit, who governed all the authors of scripture, kept him from introducing any error. We can accept Jude’s account of the angels and their fate as completely true even though his source for this info is not Genesis 6:1-4, but rather, Jewish tradition.

4 In verse 6, Jude mentioned only that these angels did not stay within the boundaries God gave them. But in verse 7, he wrote that Sodom and Gomorrah “likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire.” I think likewise refered back to the rebellious angels of verse 6. The angels, like the inhabitants of Sodom,  "pursued unnatural desire." And they were judged for this sin, too.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Good Part — Preparing for Old Age and Death

We are thrilled to be able to post this piece written by our dear friend and former contributor Diane Bucknell.
“There are two things that elderly Christians, who have many long years believed and lived by faith in Christ, long for when they are nearing eternity. The first is, that all their spiritual backslidings will be healed and that they may be spiritually revived and recovered from all the spiritual declensions and decays to which they were liable in their daily walk with God. The other is that they may flourish in holiness and fruitfulness to the praise of God, the honor of the gospel, and the increase of their peace and joy. They value these things more than all the world.” 1 –John Owen
My boomer generation has a serious problem with denial when it comes to aging and death. It’s driven, in part, by our culture’s worship of youth and beauty—60 is the new 40 and all that nonsense. I think advancements in modern medicine that prolong the inevitable have also contributed. Additionally, death has become so sanitized in western society that many people may never even see a dead person in their lifetime. More than ever before, we have been anesthetized to the reality that life is but a vapor and what we do in our short stay here will have eternal consequences.
But preparing for old age and death is something that hopefully, Christians begin doing when God saves us. Our battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil will rage against us until our last breath, and so we must continually fight against it whether we are 20 or 80.

So then, how can the Christian live in such a way that we will be as prepared as possible when we’re visited by affliction, the infirmities of old age, and ultimately our own death?

Written at the end of his life, Owen’s The Glory of Christ points us to the absolute necessity of daily meditating on the person of Christ in all His glory.

Some might think of meditation as something only mystics practice, but true Christian meditation doesn’t focus on “silence,” nor does it attempt to receive new revelation from heaven. The purpose of Christian meditation is to turn our thoughts as often as we can towards Him who loved and redeemed us. And what we know of Him can only be found through His Word. We don’t need to find a special place in order to meditate on the ever present person of Christ. Our thoughts can turn to Him wherever we are. And in so doing we will find comfort in our afflictions, hope in our sufferings, and joy in our everyday life. By this we are also preparing ourselves for that day when death, the last enemy, is swallowed up in victory as we pass from this life into His glorious presence.

And yet how easily our contemporary world distracts our thoughts with so much unnecessary clutter. Social media and television have increased our tendency to be distracted to a level the saints in times past could not have imagined. Regardless, there is still nothing new under the sun and the things we fill our minds with each day will guide our course as surely as the helm guides the ship. Our ruminations will impact our emotions, behavior, and can even effect our health. “A joyful heart is good medicine, But a broken spirit dries up the bones.”

While it goes without saying that we need to put the brakes on entertaining evil thoughts, we can also veer off course in more subtle ways by focusing more on the good gifts than the Giver himself.
“Others are of a more noble mind and spend their time meditating on the works of creation and providence. This is a work worthy of our nature. But in all these there is no glory to be compared to with the Glory of Christ’s person.

Let us diligently study the Bible and the revelations of the glory of Christ revealed there. This is what Christ himself tells us to do and the prophets in the Old Testament show us how to do”. 2
If we are to prepare ourselves for the ravages of old age and dying, we need to be continually hitting the reset button to focus our attentions on that “good part.”
“but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part,
which shall not be taken away from her." Luke 10:24

1The Glory of Christ, John Owen, Puritan Paperbacks, Abridged, Banner of Truth Trust; 1994;
pg. 141
2Ibid, pg. 31.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Are You a Contender?

Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints. For certain persons have crept in unnoticed . . . ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (Jude 3-4 NASV)
A few years ago I read a news story about a British Columbia woman who saved her son from a cougar. She saw a cougar mauling her seven year old son as he played outside, so she ran out and fought off the predator with the kitchen towel she carried in her hand. She courageously risked her own life to protect her boy.

Looking for the news story about this incident, I googled the phrase “mom saves child from cougar,” and on the first page of results I found four other stories of heroic mamas. One mother used a camping cooler, one a water bottle, and another her bare hands to save their children from a cougar attack. The last mother saved her child but died from her injuries.

Faced with a dangerous attack on a beloved child, would any mother simply stand and watch? No, a mother's love for her child compels her to protect and defend—and fight to the death if necessary.

When Jude wrote his New Testament letter to one of the early Christian churches, he urged the members to fight to protect and defend the faith—or, to use his language, he called them to contend earnestly for it. “Certain persons” who claimed to be believers, had "crept" into the church. They looked like ordinary Christians, and they settled into the body like ordinary Christians did, but they had joined the group for shady reasons. We don’t know the details, but it seems that both their actions, which were immoral, and their teachings, which were false, attacked “the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.”

The believers in this church (the true ones, that is) knew enough about the doctrine of the apostles—the teachings that were probably already set down (and handed down) in a not-yet-completed New Testament canon—that Jude didn’t need to flesh out the “the faith once for all delivered.” These early Christians were already united around the body of doctrine that was the faith, so Jude could jump straight to his appeal for them to defend it.

The sneaky false teachers were attacking this church from within, and Jude’s letter is a plea for every single true believer there, everyone “called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ” (Jude 1), to rise up and defend the apostles' gospel. And because Jude’s letter is scripture, it is, by extension, a plea for every true believer down through the ages and across the world to be ready to protect and defend the gospel. The call to defend the faith is not just for pastors and deacons, but for all laymen and laywomen, too. God calls us all to be defensive warriors, fighting against imposters within the church who destroy others by distorting the truth.

Like the brave mothers who snatched their children from the cougar’s jaws, our fight to defend is compelled by love. We fight, first, because we love the truth, and second, because we love people and want to save them from certain death. We fight to “save others by snatching them out of the fire” of God’s judgment against unbelief and apostasy. We defend the truth as an act of mercy toward "those who doubt” (Jude 22-23).

But we can’t contend for the faith if we don’t know what it is. We won’t recognize infiltrating false teachers if we don’t know what the apostles taught. We can’t discern a destructive false gospel if we don’t understand what the real gospel is.

Step one for contenders, then, is to know the truth. Jude’s first readers (or hearers) had a partial canon of scripture, yet he assumed they understood what the faith once for all delivered to the saints was. We have a complete canon, and our own personal copies of scripture, so we have no excuse for not knowing the whole body of doctrine handed down to us from the apostles. If we don't know it, we can learn it as we study the Bible, or as we read or listen to faithful Bible teachers.

Step two is to step up and defend the faith we know. Although there may be cases in which false teachers need to be physically removed from the body, fighting for the faith is mostly a war of words. We fight for the faith by talking (and maybe writing). And while we may sometimes be forced to use strong language as a weapon against wolves in our midst, most of our contending won’t look like a war—even a word war. No, our most most common defense tactics will be teaching and reminding.

We contend for the faith when we teach the truth to those among us who don’t have a firm grasp of it. Our hope is that as they learn, they become more grounded in the faith and less likely to be snatched away by false teachers with a false gospel.

And for those who are already established in the faith? As we remind each other of the beauty of the truth we already know, we encourage faithfulness to it (2 Peter 12-13). We fight for the faith by helping each other remember how lovely our gospel is, because those who are busy basking in the glory of the real gospel aren’t fooled by a false one.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Hope in a vale of tears

I just got off the phone with my dad. Today was a rough day for him and my mom. He never knows what the dementia may bring, but the stress ramps up when my mom won't comply with the care that is necessary and good for her. Because of the disease, she will question and argue, and because of the disease, trying to reason with her is futile. This is hard for my dad when all he wants to do is help his wife whom he loves. I encouraged him as best as I could, and we prayed together on the phone.

When I hung up, then I could release the tears I had been holding inside. It's no wonder the Heidelberg Catechism refers to this life as a vale of tears. It's not just family circumstances either. Brothers and sisters in my little local church are weathering heavy trials. If you broaden the circle, there probably isn't a person on earth whose life has not been touched by suffering even if they are not experiencing it at the present moment. It would be easy to throw in the towel because reality is too much to bear. But that's not the whole the story.

26. Q. What dost thou believe when thou sayest: I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth?

A. That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who of nothing made heaven and earth, with all that in them is, who likewise upholds and governs the same by His eternal counsel and providence, is for the sake of Christ His Son my God and my Father; in whom I so trust, as to have no doubt that He will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul; and further, that whatever evil He sends upon me in this vale of tears He will turn to my good; for He is able to do it, being Almighty God, and willing also, being a faithful Father.

My pastor preached on this Q&A from the Heidelberg drawing from Matthew 6:25-34. In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his hearers to not be anxious because our Heavenly Father knows what we need. If he takes care of the birds and the grass of the field, will he not take care of us? Even as I typed out that previous sentence, it's easier said than done when anxiety attacks or dementia strikes, but it then becomes a time for "I believe! Help my unbelief!" 

When circumstances are overwhelming, walking by sight is next to impossible because the way seems so foggy, but that's where faith comes in. It's not faith in the strength of my faith or even how well I can recall God's promises. It is the hand that reaches out and clings desperately to the One who is really holding on to me and not letting me fall. He knows I am dust because he made me. And no matter how much the prosperity gospel may distort this truth, my Father loves me. I only have to look at the cross if I wanted further proof, and oh how I need reminding of this fact!

I don't know what your vale looks like at the moment. Mine seems hard to see at times because of the tears, but even though I may doubt and forget, God's care doesn't depend on my memory. I have a Father who will provide all things necessary for body and soul. Whatever trial he sends, he will turn to my good, the good of my family, and the good of my brothers and sisters. He is Almighty God. He is a faithful Father, and he is my hope in this vale of tears.