“Should we listen to or sing the songs of bands with porous theology?” It’s a legitimate question and one that came to me, in similar form, this past week. From the dancing Israelites on the… More
The night when Jesus was born, the sun of righteousness began to rise on our dark world. Jesus came into our world “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” God’s only Son was born to deliver us from sin’s dark night and bring us into the light of God’s glorious day.
You see, Jesus lived the life of obedience that we could have never lived. He never chose the darkness of sin and pride, but obeyed the Law fully, loving God and neighbor from a true heart. Yet this Jesus, as truly God and yet truly man, took our sins upon himself when he laid down his life on the cross. He not only entered our dark world but also experienced the dreadful darkness of God’s judgment in our place—on behalf of all those who would believe in his name. Now, by believing in his name, his light can be our light. By receiving him as the gift of God’s grace, his life can be our life. Friends, only Jesus can deliver us from the darkness.
But though Jesus conquered death by his own death and resurrection, and though he ascended to his Father as the King and Savior of the world, his kingdom still hasn’t come in all its fullness. Today, we find ourselves still waiting in a world of darkness. It’s the darkness of sin, of evil, of injustice, of uncertainty, of pain, of suffering—and it has yet to be fully dispelled.
While God’s grace has appeared in Christ, from his cradle to his cross, we now wait “for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). One day, the risen Lord Jesus will return to rid this world of death’s dark shadow forever. He will make all things new. And until he comes, we walk by faith in the dark before the Dawn. I want to briefly focus our attention on the coming Dawn. I want us to consider the blessed hope that all who trust in Christ possess now. To do this, I want to read from the final chapter of the Bible: Revelation 22. It’s a passage full of imagery used throughout Scripture
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever (Revelation 22:1-5).
Just as the Bible begins with God and man, dwelling together in perfect fellowship in a garden full of beauty, life, and joy, here we see the same Eden-like imagery. This is a vivid picture of the new heavens and the new earth; the city of God; the people of God in a restored creation. Here, God and his redeemed people are together, face to face. The two images we find here—a river of living water, streaming from the throne of God and the Lamb; and “the tree of life” with its abundant supply of fruit and healing leaves—depict the results of Christ’s saving work.
Because of Christ’s death and resurrection, because he triumphed over sin and death, the effects of sin are completely overcome here. The eternal life which God gives to his people will be constantly available to nourish us, and will heal the effects of every former sin. All of this is a picture of eternal life. This is not simply everlasting life; it’s more so everlasting communion with God. It’s the experience of unending fellowship with God—knowing him, loving him, obeying him, and enjoying him forever. It’s rest, satisfaction, peace, and joy.
But notice the depiction of the new heavens and new earth found in verse 5: “And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Rev 22:5). The focus here is not so much on what this will look or be like literally. We’re not supposed to read this and ask “Will there be sun or moon in the new creation? Will we need to sleep? How can there be months (v.2) if there’s no day/night cycle to distinguish days and months?” No! John is describing eternal life with God in the restored creation with beautiful language that we can understand. Think about what this phrase is saying: “night will be no more“
The darkness of sin and evil will be no more. No longer will God’s creation be corrupted by sin, ruined by the curse of the Fall. No longer will this world be a place of danger, violence, uncertainty, and ruin. No longer will there be any evil! No longer will our hearts be plagued with sin, rebellion, or the powers of darkness. We will be glorified, saved to sin no more!
The darkness of suffering and death will be no more. No longer will we experience any kind of pain, sickness, or even death. Moreover, no longer will we experience any kind of worry, depression, anxiety, or fear about pain and death. No longer will be weak, tired, worn out, restless, insecure, confused, lost, unsure, or dismayed. We will only know life and joy.
So, when we read that “night will be no more”, this means that the curse of physical and spiritual death that entered world through Adam’s sin will be permanently removed by King Jesus. At the Dawn of the new creation, when Jesus comes back renew the world, we will experience total peace and security and relief from all suffering that characterized the old creation.
But the beauty of this passage—the most wonderful blessing of this passage in Revelation—is not simply that night will be no more, that darkness will be no more. No; it’s that we will see the Light of Day forever and ever. It’s that the Lord God will be our light! God will dwell us, his people, forever in perfect peace, rest, and joy. This is our hope as we wait in the dark before the Dawn.
Friends, we all know the present darkness of this broken world. Yet at the same time, everyone would like to believe that there’s a happy ending to this story; everyone wants to believe all will be well one day. We want to believe that the darkness of sin and death will be dispelled forever. But the truth of the matter is that, for those who fail to repent and believe in Jesus Christ, the Lamb who was for sinners slain, the coming Day of the Lord will only be a day of eternal darkness. Those who belong to the darkness will be dispelled with it.
If you are tired of the darkness of this world—and more importantly, the darkness of your own heart, with all of its sin and guilt and worry and depression and fear—then hear the words of Jesus Christ from John 8:12:
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
Behold the Son of God! Repent of your sins, trust in his finished work, and believe in his name. United to Christ by faith, the coming Day of the Lord will be the Day of your full and eternal salvation. Our God is merciful and patient and wants all to come to the light of Christ. While the offer of salvation stands, before Jesus returns, receive his light by faith.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, as we await the coming of our Lord and Savior, let us endure this present darkness with joy, with gratitude, and with a confident expectation that our God will fulfill every one of his promises. He will dispel the darkness and bring us into his light forever. Let us be encouraged that one day, sin’s dark night will be no more. One day, the Lamb who was for sinners slain will make all things new, and the Lord our God will be our steadfast light.
Certainly you have heard by now that former NBA star and Los Angels Laker icon Kobe Bryant was killed in a tragic helicopter accident early Sunday morning. He played 20 seasons in the NBA, was a 5 time NBA champion, and an 18 time all-star. He is considered one of the greatest NBA players of all time. His death is a great loss and he will certainly be missed.
Nobody woke up Sunday morning thinking that it would be Kobe’s last day on earth, certainly he didn’t wake up thinking that. The majority of us do not wake up thinking “today could be my last”, but the truth is it could be. We are not guaranteed tomorrow. Life is fragile and it could be over in an instant. I don’t mean to be morbid, but it is important that we consider these things from time to time: none of us will live forever and death could come suddenly. Certainly, it did for Kobe Bryant.
As we mourn the loss of Kobe and the others who were aboard the helicopter Sunday morning let’s consider two things…
Life is a Vapor
The Bible tells us that life is a vapor (James 4:14). Here today and gone tomorrow and it can be over in an instant even without any warning. The Bible tells us that we should number our days (Psalm 90:12) and live wisely (Ephesians 5:16) knowing that we may not have tomorrow. But how often do we live this way? The majority of us assume that we have years to live and as a result we do not make the most of our time. We don’t invest in people’s lives as frequently as we should, we don’t give of our time, talent, or treasure for the Kingdom of God as often as we could, and we are not striving to share the gospel or make disciples with any real urgency. As Christians we should go to bed each night knowing that we did something that day (no matter how great or small) of eternal significance.
We serve a great Savior who can do great things through us, let’s live that way.
Life Will Come to an End
Not only should we know that life can end suddenly for some, but we should also know that life will end with certainty for all. It doesn’t matter how successful, healthy, famous, or financially stable you are – you can’t stop death. As it’s been said, “There are only two things certain in life: death and taxes.” All of us (unless Christ returns first) will die. The author of Hebrews makes it clear, “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgement” (Hebrews 9:27). And when death comes you will either stand in judgement on your own and be found guilty resulting in eternity in hell or you will stand with Christ and be found righteous resulting in eternal bliss. The difference is faith. Do not neglect so great a salvation (Hebrews 2:3), but turn in faith to Jesus today. He alone can forgive your sin and save your soul.
May we live in light of this every day He gives us.
In Acts 20, we’re given a real treasure in Scripture: a pastor’s conference with the Apostle Paul. What pastor wouldn’t want in on that?! Paul had been on three missionary journeys preaching the Gospel about the known world and spent a chunk of his time in Ephesus. Now, before taking the brave trip to Jerusalem into the heart of Jewish opposition, the Apostle calls for a local pastor send off. As with any goodbye, this one was emotional indeed. Aware that he may never see them again, Paul calls these Ephesian elders to reflect on the model of his life and ministry and warns of false teachers on the horizon. He charges them to “be alert” and to “care for the flock of God.”
What we learn from this precious chapter are vital principles for faithfulness in ministry. These principles are nothing new and are no magic formula. They just lay out what any faithful pastor/elder should aim for in ministry.
HOW WE MUST SERVE THE LORD
- With all humility
“You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility…” -vv. 18b-19a
Humility requires a lot of work in ministry. We have a position with a title and people want to compliment us on our sermons, but if pride creeps in we’ll harm and not help others. Nobody likes a pastor with a swollen head. I once heard a pastor use a convicting illustration on pride in ministry. He said that when we’re glory thieves, we’re like an officiant at a wedding trying to get the bride to look at us when we should be getting her to look at the Bridegroom. May we remember where we came from and what we are without Him.
- With endurance
“…and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews”- v. 19b
Nobody told me ministry would be easy, but I never thought it would be this hard either. Yet none of us should be surprised when we know seasons of discouragement and drought. We must learn with Paul to endure the tears of seeing people leave the Lord and leap in bed with the devil. And when our ministry faces enemies, may we cling ever more to our ever faithful Friend.
- With godliness
“…I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel.” -v. 33
Peter called us to be examples to the flock and this starts with our holiness. We must keep the fire burning in our private devotions and live with battle readiness. Only then will we be able to continually offer live coals from the fire week after relentless week. If we are not vigilant to kill our sins, we’ll slowly become talking heads with shriveled hearts for God.
- With hard work
“…You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak…” -vv. 34-35a
The work of a pastor is demanding in many ways and you must balance many arenas of life. Then well-meaning sheep often have their own various sets of expectations also. A pastor must be hard at work in the study, on his knees, counseling, visiting the sick and shut-in, discipling, planning, equipping and training new leaders, etc. The office of the pastor is not fit for the lazy. May we learn from Paul to, “not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit” (Romans 12:11).
HOW WE MUST PREACH THE WORD
“I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable…I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” -v. 20a and v. 27
This doesn’t mean that every time we preach we shouldn’t leave anything on the cutting room floor (that only exhausts our people). We are to be exhaustive in scope of God’s Word. We shouldn’t simply preach genres of the Word that we’re comfortable preaching. We must give the people the full diet of God’s Word: law, history, poetry/wisdom, prophecy, gospels, Acts, epistles, apocalyptic. We also shouldn’t get stuck for years and years in one series, neglecting the other portions of Scripture. I have learned to appreciate Mark Dever’s approach to preach sermon series that don’t extend beyond thirteen weeks and to preach with a high altitude (whole chapter sermons/book level sermons) and low altitude (passage, verse, phrase).
- Publicly and privately
“…teaching you in public and from house to house” -v. 20b
We must devote ourselves to the public reading of Scripture (1 Tim. 4:13), but never neglect to nail it down with private exhortations too. Sometimes a word of Scripture spoken eye to eye and heart to heart can have a more direct and lasting effect on a person’s life than a whole year of public preaching. Brothers, let us be going house to house with our people for this.
“Testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ…to testify to the gospel of the grace of God…I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom” -v. 21, v. 24b, and v. 25b
We must never neglect the Gospel in our preaching. The lost need it to be saved and the saved need it to grow. We’ve all sat through sermons from other men who missed the Gospel and felt they missed the entire point of it all. We must remember to give them the person and work of Christ from every text.
“I did not cease night or day…” -v. 31b
Many pastors are ready to call it quits on Mondays. We must neglect this fearful and foolish desire to count our success by what we see. Let us learn from Paul and our deceased faithful brothers to not give up till Christ calls us home.
“…to admonish every one with tears” -v. 31c
When we find ourselves becoming preaching machines with no emotion or feeling, it is time to get away and be refreshed. Dull and stoic preaching that merely informs the brain must be banished from our ministry. Of course, we must be rigorous and theologically precise, but we need not be drab or cold about so great a Savior. This tenderness can often return as we pray faithfully for the sheep and get to know them better.
HOW WE MUST LEAD THE FLOCK
- Aiming for the goal
“But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus…” -v. 24a
We live in an age of towering preachers whose ministries have spanned the globe and impacted thousands and can be greatly tempted to be someone well known. May we learn with Paul to not account our lives as precious to us. May we learn from Jesus to lose our lives for his sake, for only then will we ever find it (Mt. 16:25).
- Paying careful attention
“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock…to care for the church of God…from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore, be alert.” -v. 28 and vv. 30-31a
We must seek to know our own soul well and know the souls of those under our care also. Strengths, weaknesses, challenges, victories. We must not let the sheep wander far and we must look for the wolves of false teachers that prey on the flock and lure them from the good pasture.
- Praying for God’s people
“And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all.” -v. 36
It was fitting that Paul prayed with the Ephesian elders after these words. He was a man constantly praying for the churches. All one needs to do is record all the times in the New Testament where he mentions praying constantly to realize the priority he placed on it. As the old Scottish saying goes, “No prayer, no blessing. Little prayer, little blessing. Much prayer, much blessing.” We must pray with and for the people to whom we preach and among whom we minister. Otherwise, our ministries will only be carried out in the power of the flesh and not the Spirit.
May we all implement these principles so that we can become more faithful pastors and elders.
As we continue our listing journey here in 2020 I wanted to highlight a few websites and blogs you may not be familiar with, and encourage you to check them out.
The Rabbit Room is run and moderated by Andrew Peterson and his brother Pete. On this page you will find a plethora of articles on art, faith, and life. If you dive into their Spotify playlists you will also find a whole host of fantastic music. They are Christians dedicated to make much of the glory of God through their art, and while doing so encourage us to think more deeply about the things of God.
The Redeemed Mind is a weekly Bible commentary blog written by Dr. David Jones of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. The purpose of this blog is to help Christians understand the scriptures verse-by-verse and applying these truths to their Christian walk. His work in examining the text in its historical and Christological framework helps guide the reader to be a better student of the Word of God, also he is currently working through Revelation.
Here you will find a host of articles written from an academically reformed perspective along with some very practical article geared towards the daily Christian experiences of life in a fallen world. This site also features the very enjoyable Podcast: The Mortification of Spin.
Many people are not aware of the plethora of academic work that these two amazing men have written over the years dealing with a range of topics within the Christian life, and most of them are available for free on their website. Specifically, John Frame and Vern Poythress are a must read when thinking about the ethical implications of the scriptures, a topic tackled often in their writings and blogs.
Operation World is very useful website to aid in praying for the nations. Each day another nation is highlighted along with information to help guide prayer for the region and its people. This is a site that has been an encouragement to me for many years and helped me to see the beauty of God’s mission to reach the nation and the continued need for prayer in missions.
Over the past several years, the Christian church has been blessed with an abundance of good music; some might even say an overabundance. New songs are being written and recorded for corporate worship just about daily, and there are Christian artists covering almost every musical genre out there—not to mention the fact that music is more accessible today than it ever has been throughout all history. As a result, it can often feel overwhelming trying to keep up with the latest artists or discovering new albums to enjoy with your family that are both theologically sound and musically satisfying.
Here are a few albums that my wife and I recommend for both personal edification and family worship. We enjoy listening (as well as singing and dancing ) to a wide variety of music in our home, but these are the songs that have been on rotation when it comes to corporate worship and general Christian music. We hope this list helps provide you with direction and good alternatives to some of the other religious music options out there.
Corporate Worship Music
CityAlight, Yet Not I.
CityAlight sets biblically-rich lyrics and memorable melodies to beautiful music with excellence. Their compositions include both original hymns and modern worship songs with a contemporary arrangement, all of which are perfectly suited for congregational singing. The title track of this album, “Yet Not I, But Through Christ In Me,” might just be your new favorite worship song. Check out their other albums as well: Yours Alone and Only a Holy God.
His Mercy Is More: The Hymns of Matt Boswell and Matt Papa
Matt Boswell and Matt Papa have written many beloved hymns such as “Come Behold the Wondrous Mystery,” “How Rich a Treasure We Possess,” and “Christ the Sure and Steady Anchor.” Their songs have been a tremendous blessing to our church over the past few years, and this album is a compilation of some of their best. In particular, the creative choices and musical arrangements of each song on this album are simply wonderful. I highly recommend the other albums released by these guys individually, as well as the books and blogs they each have written.
Sovereign Grace Music, 30: Three Decades of Songs for the Church
Sovereign Grace Music serves local churches with songs that are theologically-driven and gospel-rich. This album includes some of their greatest hits, including “All I Have is Christ,” “Behold Our God,” and “Now Why This Fear.” Each song was recorded by a different artist and the production quality is excellent. Check out their Christmas album, “Prepare Him Room,” and their great kids albums: “Listen Up!” and “The Ology.” For those of a more church-choir and gospel-music persuasion, check out their collaboration with The Shiloh Church Choir, “Behold Our God.”
Keith and Kristyn Getty, Sing! Psalms Ancient and Modern
The Getty’s are arguably the most successful modern hymn writers of the twenty-first century. Their songs teach Christian doctrine across the genres of traditional, classical, folk and contemporary composition, and are sung all over the world. Recorded live at the Sing! 2018 National Conference in Nashville, TN with several special guests, this album contains a variety of new and old hymns inspired by the Psalms.
General Christian Music
Andrew Peterson, Resurrection Letters
Peterson is an accomplished recording artist, folk singer/songwriter, producer, filmmaker, publisher, and award-winning author. His lyrics are saturated with biblical themes and imagery, and his music is soul-stirring. Resurrection Letters is a three-album concept, beginning with a prologue that contemplates Christ’s death, and moves into Volumes 1 and 2 which explore Christ’s exaltation and the implications of the resurrection for our lives, respectively.
Timothy Brindle, The Unfolding
While the Christian hip-hop genre has been growing in popularity in recent years, few artists exalt the Lord Jesus Christ lyrically like Timothy Brindle. This album provides a survey of redemptive history in order to see how the various themes of the Bible connect to the person and work of Jesus Christ. This is biblical theology at its finest (Note: Brindle, as a Presbyterian, is convinced of infant baptism and alludes to the practice in one line of this album. However, the other 99.99% of this 100 minute masterpiece is simply brilliant!)
Psallos is a team of Christian artists and singers, ministers and musicians, thinkers and theologians, led by composer Cody Curtis. What they have achieved on this album is a systematic musical adaptation of an entire New Testament epistle. In other words, this is not simply the text of Hebrews with nice music behind it; this is the use of music to “exegete” the text in an imaginative way. Psallos uses the musical tools of melody, tempo, rhythm, style, and lyrics to convey the truths of the book of Hebrews. The result is breathtaking, symphonic, and theological masterpiece.
The Rizers, Rise Up!
The Rizers (short for “memorizers”) is a band that sings Scripture verses in the form of upbeat, kid-friendly music. Scripture memory is a vital spiritual discipline for all believers, and music is one of the most powerful tools to use to that end. However, whereas most memory-verse songs for children are rather corny and unimaginative, these songs are well-written, catchy, and incredibly fun to sing. Several music videos are available online as well.
This past Tuesday our good friend and regular contributor Jake Stone wrote a review of the top ten books he read this past year, and it was grand! But as I was reading it I thought to myself, ‘Man! This is a good list…I’ve read some good books this past year as well, maybe I should post my top ten list.’ So I decided to.
I know some of you might be thinking ‘More books Adam?’ To which I reply, ‘YES!!’ Without further ado, here are the top ten books I enjoyed most in 2019:
10) With One Voice, Reggie M. Kidd
This book doesn’t cover the ins and outs of everything one needs to know to interpret a Psalm and preach it well, no. Rather, Kidd writes to help us understand one thing and one thing alone: Jesus Christ is our Singing Savior and we ought to do all we can to hear His song and be caught up in it ourselves. My oh my, words are hard to come by when explaining how much I enjoyed this read. From the get-go hearing him explain how God intends for us to communicate our deepest emotions, affections, and feelings through songs grabbed hold of me and carried me along to the tune of the Psalter. After initially pleading with us to see our relationship with God as more than a mere contract but a romantic intimate mystery, it goes on chapter after chapter showing us that very thing through looking a certain Psalms. He then ends with a plea to love one another over our preferences for certain kinds of music in a section about Bach, Bubba, and the Blues Brothers. These closing three chapters were a perfect way to end his book as he made the case that each of these has its own unique place among our churches. Great read!
9) The Worship Pastor, Zac Hicks
Leading any part of the worship service, from call to close, ought to be done in a pastoral manner. Hicks gives seventeen attributes in this book to help guide leading in worship, and each we’re great but four of them stood out to me. Worship pastors are to be emotional shepherds, liturgical architects, worship curators, and tour guides. Hicks explains this means worship pastors not only seek to care about the emotions of God’s people but seeking to reorient the emotions of God’s people so as to renovate the soul in worship that is anchored in and saturated with the gospel flow (glory, guilt, gratitude). Building services that retell the gospel story and working hard so that those who come and worship will do just that, worship. We’re to so order and fill the space of the church that people’s interaction with God in worship is an actual experience with God in worship by paying attention to everything, from flow to feel, songs to sermon to the Supper, etc. All in all, we want to do this well so that worship isn’t distracting or merely entertaining but rather greatly edifying to God’s people, and more importantly glorifying to God.
8) Interpreting the Psalms, Mark Futato
Dr. Futato has done a great service to pastors everywhere with this book. It’s deep in its nuance and yet accessible and relatable as well. The book is a complete overview of how rightly handle interpreting and preaching the Psalms. From the ins and outs of structure, line, and strophic divisions, to the new understanding of parallelism, to seeing the whole scope of the Psalter as well as the context of each Psalm, plus two ending sections on preparing exegetical outlines with expositional notes to walk into the pulpit with not only makes this is a book worthy of returning to again and again, it separates it from others easily. Most books on the Psalms I’ve read are either technical or applicable, yet this was both. For this fact alone, each time I pull out a Psalm to preach, I’m sure this book won’t be far away to ensure I’m doing what I ought to be doing to faithfully interpret and preach the Psalms.
7) Contemporary Worship Music: A Defense, John Frame
Frame states that in reformed theology there is an unhealthy trajectory needing to be addressed. Namely, the way the reformed interact and deal with others (regarding contemporary worship) reveals a deep unwillingness to critique our own traditions and even denominational cultures. Frame believes if we don’t face these problems many of our churches will begin to cease presenting the gospel to our present time/culture persuasively. From this point on Frame begins to unveil his argument: God is both transcendent being Lord over all and exalted above everything, as well as immanent being the God who condescended to walk among us and be near us in Christ. God’s transcendence doesn’t contradict His immanence and visa versa. Therefore the worship of God’s people ought to reflect this. In worship we need to feel the inaccessible distance between God and us (transcendence) just as we need to feel the accessible nearness of God in Christ (immanence). Musically, this implies the great need for both high and lofty hymns as well as simple and reflective praise choruses. To lean too heavily on either side is an error in practice. Worship saturated with only inaccessible transcendence as well as worship saturated with only immanent nearness both miss the mark. God isn’t glorified when people do not understand what they sing in worship, just as God isn’t glorified if people are never challenged in worship. This book was a breath of fresh air to my soul. I am further convinced that a balance is needed in the worship of God’s people. I need to be overwhelmed by God’s glory, just as I need to be sorrowful over the gravity of my sin, and amazed at gospel grace. Our worship should reflect these things.
6) Covenantal Worship, R.J. Gore Jr.
Rare. That is the one word I’d use to describe the material in R.J. Gore Jr.’s book Covenantal Worship. Why rare? Because I’ve never heard of anyone else with the guts to do a project on the problems with the Puritan regulative principle regarding worship at Westminster Seminary! But, novelty isn’t alone what makes this book stand out. Gore not only tackles one of the sacred cows of reformed theology, he slays it thoroughly, and might just be leading the way forward into a healthier and more biblical worship. At least, I hope he does. I was greatly encouraged by this read. I have too often seen and felt the deep conviction about the regulative principle of worship, that God alone through His Word governs and commands what ought to be done in worship. Yes and amen! But I’ve also seen how widely and broadly ‘regulative principle’ guys apply this in their own contexts. There is little agreement, and as Gore points out this problem is vast. His answer is compelling. The way forward isn’t by reinstating the glory days of Geneva, or Knox, or puritanism, no. The way forward looks like being willing to follow Scripture more than a tradition so dear to us.
5) Saving the Reformation, W. Robert Godfrey
Over at Ligonier new books are being pumped out left and right these days. This read is evidence that these new books are not only well written but very much worth your time. Between my reading for classes this past year I picked up this book and was reminded of the the glory and robustness of the when – the why – and the what that stands behind the Synod of Dort and the Canons of Dort that came from them. We are a reformed people. What does that mean? What does that entail? When did this begin? Are we as reformed today as they were back then? And what does this mean for us today? Should we still be reformed in our doctrine? All of these questions and more are brilliantly handled by Godfrey in this read, I cannot recommend it enough. 2019 was the 400th anniversary of this Synod, so it’s timely to read up on our history.
4) The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien
You didn’t think all of these books would be theology did you? HA! It was a joy to pick this one up again and re-read. It is a hard read the first time through, but while that is true, it gets much easier after that. I think this was my fourth or fifth time reading it (???) and I was glad to find myself able to follow it more closely and enjoy it more deeply this time. Go ahead, give it a go. You’ll enjoy it.
3) Thoughts For Young Men, J.C. Ryle
Goodness gracious! If there ever were a book wrongly titled it’s this one. I don’t mean that in a negative way, it’s a magnificent read. I say it’s wrongly titled because it’s fitting for more than just young men. Indeed, Christians of all ages could (and should!) pick this one up to read. Classic Ryle, challenging, comforting, enlivening, gripping. Few authors are up to the challenge of actually writing a book that pierces deep within us but this one does it. Conclusion? Christians look far too much like the world. We must be holy. We must live holy. We must follow hard after Christ. Ryle’s small book here will aid you in doing this.
2) Morning and Evening, Charles Spurgeon
I’m personally not a big fan of daily devotionals. Some of them are good, great even, but sadly most of them just miss the mark for being far too light and trivial. And when it comes to daily Bible reading ‘light and trivial’ is the last thing my soul needs and the last thing the Church needs today. This one does not do that. It’s Spurgeon…everyday…twice a day…and I loved it. In fact my wife and I enjoyed it so much we still read it. Get it. You’ll be glad you did.
1) The Bible
Can there really be another number one? Looking back on 2019 I can say as a fact that I grew in my knowledge of Scripture. That it ran after me and grabbed ahold of me in new ways and for this I am thankful. May my testimony be the same of 2020.
Hope you enjoyed looking over my list for the past year. There are many more books that could be added to this list but overall I think it reflects my year of personal and corporate study. Thoughts? What are your favorite reads of last year? May 2020 bring us many new books and old books that open our eyes to the infinite and everlasting glory of our God!
Is it ever possible to read too many books (or have too many books)? I do not think so! It was a blessing to read some wonderful, stirring, challenging, and invigorating books this past year. Here are the ten books I read in 2019 that would be my top recommendations for you to pick up and dive into in 2020!
10) “Still Protesting” by D.G. Hart
When confusion still exists as to whether the Protestant Reformation is still going on and needed, Hart provides a compelling case as to why the divine between Protestants and Rome still exists. Furthermore, Hart deals with some of the main arguments that individuals make as to why they embrace the theology of Rome. We need to be aware of why we are Protestant and why it still matters in the 21st century.
9) “Favor: Finding Life at the Center of God’s Affection” by Greg Gilbert
Many Christians seem to think that they must do things in order to maintain or keep the favor of God. Why do I have bad things happen to me if I am faithful to read my Bible and pray in the morning? Gilbert offers much needed encouragement for weary saints. In showing the favor we have in Christ is unchanging, this book will seek to reorient how we view our lives.
8) “Made for His Pleasure” by Alistair Begg
We walked through this book on Wednesday evenings as a church. This book deals with ten benchmarks for the Christian to look at in our lives. Begg weaves personal stories and doctrinal truths that make this a compelling read that would work well for a small group or church study.
7) “Here I Stand” by Roland Bainton
If you ever look at biographies of Martin Luther, Bainton’s book usually ranks high on the list. This book does live up to the hype! Bainton does a wonderful job of painting visuals of what took place in Luther’s life. You will feel like you are walking through the streets with the German Reformer!
6) “Being a Pastor: A Conversation with Andrew Fuller” by Haykin and Croft
This short volume is a must read in the area of pastoral theology. Haykin and Croft provide historical context and practical application with the thrust of the book being a collection of ordination sermons Andrew Fuller preached. This is a great introductory book if you have never read Fuller. As a pastor, his sermons challenged me and stirred me to gaze at Christ continually.
5) “True Bounds of Christian Freedom” by Samuel Bolton
In a time where this is so much confusion on the law and the gospel, this Puritan paperback provides so much clarity and guidance in how we understand law and gospel. Bolton shows how the law functions in the life of an unbeliever and a believer. This classic Reformed book should be read by all!
4) “Communion with God” by John Owen
There are times when John Owen is a hard read. However, the Puritan paperback edition of this classic will feed your souls. Owen walks through how the Christian possesses communion with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The riches of our Trinitarian salvation are often overlooked. Owen will show you how this is the foundation of all our hope and peace.
3) “From Shadow to Substance” by Sam Renihan
This is the first book from Renihan that I would recommend. In this book, he traces out the historical development of Particular Baptist covenant (or federal theology). As Renihan demonstrates, the Baptists were a part of a diverse Reformed community when it came to covenant theology. They did not stand alone but used the theological principles of men like John Cameron and John Owen to develop what is now called 1689 Federalism. This book sheds light on the historical theology of the first Particular Baptists.
2) “The Mystery of Christ” by Sam Renihan
Renihan provides a biblical study and overview for a comprehensive understand of biblical covenants from a 1689 Baptist standpoint. Renihan’s treatment of the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants is especially helpful in seeing some of the differences between Presbyterians and Baptists. This is not a polemical work but seeks to present a positive case for the Baptist view. Renihan does a masterful job and it is a must read to understand the Baptist view.
1) “Reformed Preaching” by Joel Beeke
Sinclair Ferguson was correct when he said you would need a lot of highlighters as you read this book because of how much you will mark! If I were teaching a homiletics class, this would be one of the required text books. Beeke provides a balanced approach of strengths in Reformed preaching while giving attention to blind spots that develop in the tradition. Utilizing historical examples, offering nuggets of practical application, and being an easy read, every preacher should pick this book up and read this year! Beeke will sharpen your preaching!
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb (Luke 2:8-21).
Christmas is a wonderful time of the year. We decorate our houses. We give and receive gifts. We spend time with family and friends. And we eat many festive meals. I really enjoy this season as I am sure many of you do as well. However, we often fail to celebrate the true reason for the season. We fail to focus on Christ. We celebrate Santa more than we celebrate Jesus and this shouldn’t be.
Jesus brings much more than a red sack of small toys, He brings salvation to the world (10-11). It’s the best news that brings the greatest joy: the enemies of God become the friends of God, all because of the work of God on their behalf. Jesus steps into His creation. He puts on flesh and dwells among us. He lives a life of perfect obedience in our place, dies a sacrificial death for us, three days later He rises from the dead defeating sin and death. Now all who repent and believe in Him will not perish but have eternal life. This is the reason for the season. This is cause for celebration and great joy.
Notice the reaction of the angels, shepherds, and Mary in our passage above as they ponder the news of Jesus. In verse 14 we are told that a multitude of angels all proclaimed, “Glory to God in the highest.” In verse 20 we read, “the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” And in v. 19 we see that, “Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” The news of Jesus was not dull, unimportant, or casual to the people in our passage and it should be to us either.
The news of Jesus’ incarnation should bring great joy that leads to worship and adoration. As you spend time with family and friends over the next few days do not forget the reason for the season. Make Jesus the center of the celebration.
What is something shocking or remarkable that you have heard recently?
I’m a Clemson football fan, and as a Clemson fan I heard something shocking the other day about our quarterback, Trevor Lawrence. As a sophomore quarterback, he has now never trailed, through 28 games, as a college quarterback in the second half of a football game. Whether you’re a Tiger fan or not, that’s pretty shocking!
Or how about this one — According to Smithsonian, there are more pet tigers in the United States than there are wild tigers in the rest of the world!
Or how about one more — this one a bit more frightening. Apparently, the U.S. Military has permanently lost at least 8 nuclear weapons. Just gone. And no clue where they are.
As we think about God’s Word, there are certainly some shocking truths in Scripture, aren’t there? Just think about the Trinity — that there is one God in three Persons, each fully God but each distinct as a Person. Or how about prayer — that the sovereign God of the universe actually cares enough about each and every one of us that He hears us as we cry out to Him in prayer. Those are pretty shocking.
But I would submit to you that the words of John 1:14 takes the cake and ranks among the highest for shock-value for a first-century Jew — “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.“
The idea that Yahweh would become flesh was considered blasphemy. The incarnation is God’s greatest wonder — one that no creature could have ever imagined. Perhaps the Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck has best summed up the difficulty that lies before us as we think about God’s greatest wonder in the incarnation when he says:
“It is completely incomprehensible to know how God can reveal himself and to some extent make himself known in created beings: eternity in time, immensity in space, infinity in the finite, immutability in change, being in becoming, the all, as it were, in that which is nothing. This mystery cannot be comprehended; it can only be gratefully acknowledged.”Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 2, 49
The incarnation is that glorious truth that God the Son — the eternal second person of the Trinity — in the fullness of time took on human flesh, being born of the Virgin Mary, in order that He might become fully God and fully man in order to reconcile His people with the Father. What a glorious truth this is that we celebrate!! We are reminded in the incarnation that God is made accessible through His Son. We are reminded that this incarnate Jesus is the only mediator between God and man. We are reminded of God’s humility and glory through the incarnation. And we, as God’s people, are compelled to godly living as we consider this glorious truth of the incarnation.
As we remind ourselves this Christmas season of the glorious truth of the incarnation — that God the Son took on human flesh — and as we contemplate the humility, the love, and the grace involved and shown to us through the miracle of the incarnation, let us not forget that the incarnation itself was not enough. You see, the incarnation was for a purpose. Listen to how Donald MacLeod puts it:
“In reality, the incarnation was but the prelude to the atonement, an absolutely indispensable prelude because only this man, in our place, could expiate sin and propitiate God. But this enfleshment was not itself propitiation. He became flesh only in order to give his life as a ransom, and there could be no tetelestai [it is finished] till that life was given. He could make peace only by the blood of his cross.”Donald Macleod, Christ Crucified, 141-142
You see, Jesus took on human flesh in order that he might give his life as a ransom for many. And why was this necessary? Because you and I, as God’s created beings — men and women created to honor God and glorify Him — have done everything but that. We have rebelled against our Creator. We have turned to false gods. We have sought the pleasure of self over the pleasure of God. We have robbed God the glory due His name. And as such, on our own, each and every one of us stand as condemned sinners before the throne of God with no hope of forgiveness, with no hope of peace, with no hope of reconciliation with our Maker.
But God, in His infinite grace, love, and kindness chose in eternity past to send His Son at the appointed time in order that this perfect God-man, this incarnate Christ, would be born of a virgin, live a perfect life, die a substitutionary death, rise from the dead to defeat sin, death, and satan, and ascend to the right hand of God the Father — in his perfect, glorified fleshly state — where he now awaits to return and fully and finally save His people and judge the world.
You see, the incarnation is an indispensable, crucial, and pivotal doctrine and time in human history for us. But it is not enough. It was not an end in itself. Rather, it was but the beginning of the end, whereby this incarnate Christ would give His life as a ransom for His people.
Let us this Christmas season meditate on this truth, proclaim this truth, believe this truth, and cherish this truth. Let us not grow cold to this truth, but let us with fresh reminders behold the appearing of the grace of God in the incarnation.
As I finish writing this, let me share with you a quote from the Church Father Augustine that stirred my heart and warmed my affections for Christ this Christmas season. I pray that it will do the same for you.
“Man’s maker was made man,Augustine, Sermons 184-229, 191.1
that He, Ruler of the stars, might nurse at His mother’s breast;
that the Bread might hunger,
the Fountain thirst,
the Light sleep,
the Way be tired on its journey;
that the Truth might be accused of false witness,
the Teacher be beaten with whips,
the Foundation be suspended on wood;
that Strength might grow weak;
that the Healer might be wounded;
that Life might die.”
The hardest thing about Christmas for me every year as a child was the waiting. In fact, the waiting seemed so unbearable at times that my siblings and I sometimes found a way to sneak a peek at our presents before the big day. I’m sure someone reading this has a similar confession.
In Galatians 4:1-7, the Apostle Paul compares the Jewish believers in Galatia to children waiting…not for presents under a tree, but for the right to their father’s inheritance. Jewish children were placed under a tutor/school master until the time set by their father. Even though technically in the family already, they had no more privileges than a household servant. But when the fullness of time came, those who seemed to have little rights in the home at all became heirs of the whole estate.
Paul writes, “I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.”
Paul’s phrase, “enslaved to the elemental principles of the world” has been interpreted in all manner of ways, but we need not worry. When taken in context with the rest of Galatians, it seems most convincing that Paul is referring to the slavery we found ourselves under as a result of the demands laid on us by God’s law. In 3:23-26, Paul even says God’s law is a schoolmaster as well. He writes, “Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.”
So what does this have anything to do with Christmas? Everything! Paul is telling these Jewish Christians and us that with the arrival of Jesus’ birth, a new era in salvation history has come. In Christ, we have obtained what the law could never have provided: God’s acceptance. Why couldn’t the Law win us God’s favor? Was it somehow deficient? No, rather we were deficient and couldn’t keep its demands. In his famous allegory of the Christian life, John Bunyan compared the strict commands of the law to a hill no pilgrim could climb. Bunyan describes the hill of the law as so high that it bends over on oneself. Bunyan was also attributed with this pithy statement that probably came from Ralph Erskine:
“A rigid matter was the law,
Demanding brick, denying straw,
But when the gospel tongue it sings,
It bids me fly and gives me wings.”
Now that Christ has come, the righteous demands of the Law have been met on behalf of all who hope in Jesus for their salvation. Paul gloriously declares in Romans 8:1-4, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
So don’t wait for Christmas to enjoy the benefits of Christmas. If you’re hope is in Christ and His finished work, you have gone from being a slave of sin to an heir of God and a co-heir with Christ. The whole realm of the eternal inheritance from God is yours now believer. So this Christmas, be humbled by the lavish riches that are already yours through Jesus. Paul tells the saints in Ephesus, “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” The wonder of Christ’s incarnation at Christmas is that we who were slaves of sin and condemned under the law have now been adopted into the family and given the rights to this inheritance. If this is true, and it is Christian, we ought to be the most joyful, humble, patient, and gracious people. After all, what more could you possibly need than you’ve already been given?
One of my first thoughts was, “This is an odd time of the year to be handling the covenants.” But on second thought, “The covenants are the purpose of the advent of Christ.” This time of the year exists because YHWH is a covenant-making & covenant-keeping God.
Our little country church is in the midst of amending our church covenant in the pursuit of recovering meaningful church membership. I know that “recovering meaningful church membership” is a popular catchphrase among Reformed circles but it caught on for a reason.
For many churches, like ours, membership has become “Your name on a page” or “Your right to vote” or “Family tradition.”
But membership, especially covenantal membership, is so much more. We are a covenantal people because God is a covenantal God. And most importantly, we are in a covenantal relationship with YHWH because Jesus Christ is our Covenant-keeping Federal Head.
In my pursuit of faithfully “shepherding the flock of God…as one who will have to give an account” (1 Peter 5:2 & Hebrews 13:17), I discovered the importance of covenantal church membership. I would go so far as to say the centrality of covenantal church membership for the Christian life. Allow me to lead you from the God-head to the Body (quickly not comprehensively) in three sweeping movements: (1) The Covenant-making & Covenant-keeping God; (2) Christ, Our Covenant Fulfiller; and (3) The Body, Covenanted for His Glory & Our Good.
The Covenant-making & Covenant-keeping God
One cannot pick up the Bible, open its pages, and read a single word where they will not find God interacting with His creation outside of a covenant. Covenants are the divinely ordered mechanism by which God has entered into relationship with His creation.
From Adam to Noah, Noah to Abraham, Abraham to Moses, Moses to David, and David to Golgotha (the New Covenant, see Jeremiah 31, Ezekiel 36, and Luke 22:20) God has always and will always relate to humanity through his “precious and very great promises” (2 Peter 1:4).
This would encompass all of humanity; from the elect to the reprobate.
And YHWH has always fulfilled His end of His initiated covenants, without fail, whether that be in covenant blessing or covenant curses. From Numbers 23:19, “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” to Titus 1:2, “…God, who never lies, promised…”, believers rejoice in the steadfast, immutable, faithfulness of God!
Christ, Our Covenant Fulfiller
My heart rejoices as my mind overflows from the incomprehensible wisdom of God displayed in Christ Jesus. His advent was for the purpose of fulfilling mankind’s obligation to God in all of the covenants of works, laying his life down as a substitutionary atoning sacrifice to pay the penalty of covenant-breakers chosen by God for redemption, and to conquer death for those who, by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, would be given eternal life.
This, my friends, is the Hope to which you were saved.
Because of Christ, the covenant blessing of “I will be their God and they will be my people” has been fulfilled. Indeed, “It is finished,” which is why “all the promises of God find their Yes in Christ” (2 Cor. 1:20).
Jesus is the Second Adam, the Seed of the Woman, the Seed of Abraham, the Great Prophet, the Great High Priest, the Seed of David who reigns forever, and inaugurator of New Covenant, the Covenant of Grace, the Eternal Covenant.
In Christ, you have been given every blessing from every covenant for eternity to the praise of His glorious grace. Rejoice, brothers!
The Body, Covenanted for His Glory & Our Good
“Be imitator of God” (Ephesians 5:1). Having been made partakers of His divine nature, in Christ, be imitators of God. Because God is a covenant-making & covenant-keeping God so His people, from all time, have always been. And we need not find or make some random covenant.
Jesus summarized the covenant-keeping nature of His people when He commissioned His disciples at His ascension, “…teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you…” (Matthew 28:20).
Our church covenant is nothing more than a summary of the Lord’s descriptions of life in Him. The covenant we make is in Christ, with Christ & His Body, for God’s glory which is our greatest good.
Why would any Christian shy away from such thing? For me, early in my walk with Christ it was because of indifference brought about by ignorance; nothing more, nothing less. Today, I run to the Covenant knowing that God has given it to me for my good, others have bound themselves to it for my good, and that by doing so I imitate my covenant-making & covenant-keeping God.
May God be glorified as I, and I pray we, seek to honor Him together! Merry Christmas, friends!
With the season of Advent coming into full bloom and the music of the season in the air I want to revisit one of the most popular songs of the season: O Come, O Come Immanuel.
It is a song rich with history, being originally traced back to the 8th century as a responsive reading, it is one of the oldest songs of advent we still sing in the modern Church. One of the reasons I believe it still holds a place so near and dear to most of us is its reliance on the biblical text to bring comfort, truth and grace through music to God’s children. This 1200 year old hymn points us straight back to Scripture and brings life and comfort to the weary soul.
Specifically I want to look at the opening verse of this amazing hymn.
O come, O come, Immanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
shall come to you, O Israel.
This first verse has its origins back in Isaiah 7 in the days of Ahaz king of Judah. In that day God offered the king a chance to ask of Him whatever he wished as proof of God’s love and protection for His people, but rather than accept this gift of God, Ahaz spurned the gift and God in the process. Rather than trust in God for deliverance and protection for the people, Ahaz turned to political allegiance and military strength to find peace. It is in this setting that God brings forth the prophecy that a virgin will bear a son and he will be named Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14). This sign was meant to be a reminder that God was the only hope for His people, because before this even would come to pass His people would suffer at the hands of the very alliance the king had established.
However, The king’s disobedience and sin would make a way in time for God’s ultimate blessing. For God didn’t leave His people in exile and suffering but rather brought forth in time the fulfillment of the words of Isaiah to king Ahaz in the giving of His Son to the world. In the midst of the great fear of the ages and the new captivity of Israel to the people of Rome, God would now dwell with His people. Immanuel was to be born to a virgin in the city of David.
Now before the child would be born the Lord sent an angel to instruct her fiancé in the truth of what was to take place. We see this in Luke 1:18-23 with a picture of the angel’s interaction with Joseph. In this vision he is instructed to name the child Jesus, for He would save the people from their sins, but not only would He be named Jesus, He would be Immanuel. In this short passage of Scripture the name Immanuel became intricately connected to the name Jesus. In Jesus we see that God’s presence with His people is linked with His love for them and the desire to set them free from the lasting pain of sin. He takes on the name that echoed back to the very founding of the nation in the land of Canaan as Joshua lead his people to political freedom. Now the new Joshua (the Hebrew name that Jesus comes from) will set them free from a far greater danger, that of sin and death, and the only means by which he could do this is if he was the Immanuel, God himself residing with His people.
For us we are blessed to know that God did keep His promise to the people of Israel and we are the humble recipients of His grace and mercy. God came to us and set us free form our sin and set us on the path of righteousness, but He did not leave us on that path alone.
In both narratives we see God’s faithfulness to His people in the midst of uncertainty. So too in this advent season we know that God is still faithful to His people, though it took over 700 years for the true fulfillment of Immanuel to take place, He was faithful. In our day and age we have the blessing of seeing and experiencing the gift of the first Advent. As believers we experience the grace of God daily, all the more if you are not born Jewish, for in Christ He brought us gentiles into the family of God.
Today, while we experience the great blessings of Christ, may we also look forward to the eternal blessing of His second advent. One of the great blessings of God being with His people is that it is more than a metaphysical reality of the past, it is a real present experience, and a future hope in His final return.
So let us sing out with gladness not only because He has come and set free the first captive Israel from their sin, but that He shall return again to bring the true Israel to Himself for eternity.
Recently, I had a pastor ask me what my thoughts were concerning church members who never bothered to show up to celebrate and commemorate the Lord’s Supper. It struck me when he asked me that question because it reminded me of what I saw growing up. Only once did we celebrate communion and only a handful of people bothered to show up on a Wednesday night when it was held. The two ordinances given to the church are not options. These are not means of salvific grace whereby we know justification through the waters of baptism or the meal at the Lord’s Table. Yet, there should be concern for someone who can profess to be a Christian yet has no desire to be obedient to the Word and to celebrate the means of grace that God has given to us.
When we come to the Lord’s table, we are enjoying a preview of what is to come! We have come to a banquet to feast upon the riches of the gospel. The bread and cup are tokens of the King of His love for us and what we enjoy in Him. Consider what we celebrate…
How can I be admitted to the table apart from the righteousness of Christ? The Lord’s Supper points me to the fact that the access I have to God is free, full, and open. The reason that I have that access is due to me being justified in Christ. I do not come to the table in hopes of being justified. This is not a part of my duties to perform whereby I hope to earn credit and merit before God.
When I come to the table, I am celebrating the fact that I come as one who is in Christ. I am justified due to Him and Him alone. The bread and the cup are symbols that remind me of what it cost in order for me to be righteous in Christ. The bread proclaims that God took on flesh. As the God-man, the second Adam, the Christ lived a life of full obedience to the law of God and was in submission to the Father. His active obedience is imputed to us. His passive obedience is seen in the cup whereby He pours Himself out as the sacrifice on our behalf.
Our hope is truly built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. Our justification is based upon what He has done and what He has given us. By faith, we trust and rely upon His finished work. So, when we come to the table, we understand our admittance is rooted in the fact that we are clothed in the robes that Christ has given to us.
We come to the table still sinners but also justified. The supper does not mean that we are here perfectly righteous in that we have not sinned. It does mean that I am perfectly righteous in the sight of God and accepted in the beloved Son! We celebrate the wondrous truth of justification when we come to communion. Delight in this that you have a seat at the table because you are justified.
Second, we celebrate our salvation at the table when we consider the truth of adoption. Notice, that for us to be given a seat at the table testifies to the fact that our status has changed. We were enemies of God, now we are adopted and made the children of God.
Do you understand that the doctrine of adoption is connected to the doctrine of election, the covenant of redemption, and our being called out of this world? We are a gift from the Father to the Son. Those who were opposed to Him now love Him. Adoption does not happen because we choose for it to happen or because we will it to happen. Nothing exists in us that would demand that God adopt us and bring us into His family.
Third, the Lord’s Table aids us in growing in sanctification. We refer to the table as one of the ordinary means of grace that the Lord gives to us. These are meant to strengthen our faith and assurance. We come to the table in order to be reminded of who we are and why we press forward. This is a time for us to rest and rejoice in the gospel of grace. This is to be wind under our sails in a lifelong pursuit of sanctification.
As we come to the table, we are being reminded of who we were and who we are now in Him. The meal causes us to see our dependence is upon His grace not just in justification and adoption but also in sanctification as well. This celebration of our sanctification is not only in the individual’s life but in our life corporately. As this is a new covenant meal, we are calling one another to pursue Christ, to run for Christ, and that we are doing so together. This is not a pilgrimage that we face alone but that we are unified together in Christ.
Let us delight in the ordinary means of grace the Lord gives to us. Let us not despise them but desire them more and more.
In instituting the Lord’s Supper, Jesus spoke of a future time when He would drink of the fruit of the vine in the kingdom. All that we enjoy about the table is a preview of what awaits us in the consummation. When Christ returns, we will be glorified and made perfectly like Him. At the table of the king, we will see and focus our attention not upon one another’s greatness but upon His greatness.
So, the supper serves to remind us that while this is an earthly meal, it bears great spiritual significance. It serves for us as a type of picture of what we will enjoy for all eternity with the King of kings and Lord of lords. Does that not excite you? Can you imagine what it is going to be like to be seated with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Cornelius, Apollos, and Timothy, Augustine, Athanasius, and Polycarp, Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, Fuller, Carey, Spurgeon, Sproul, and Lloyd-Jones? As wonderful as that will be, our attention will not be on the apostles, the church fathers, the Reformers, or other great heroes we love to read. Our attention will be on the head, the king, the ruler: Christ!
The table does not save us. Rather it is a celebration of the wondrous salvation that has been wrought in our lives by the grace of God. Meditate each time you come to the table on your justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification. Celebrate the amazing grace of God in this sacred and special meal!
But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, 33 sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. 34 For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.
The Christian life is not easy life. At times we face difficulty, suffering or even persecution as we strive to live for Christ. And as these troubles arise, we may be tempted to walk away from the faith, but when those temptations come, we must remind ourselves of the verses above.
In these verses from Hebrews, you’ll notice, the author of Hebrews is writing to a group of Christians who had and who were likely continuing to face persecution as a result of their faith in Christ. After just having warned them severely about walking away from the faith the author now seeks to encourage them by reminding them of when they first believed and what it is they believed in.
In v. 32 and 33 he tells them, “after you were enlightened” (that is after your eyes were opened to the truth of the gospel and you believed), “you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, 33 sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. He goes on, in v. 34, to say, “you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.”
He is essentially telling them: “Listen you have dealt with difficulty before. You have experienced suffering and persecution before, and you got through it because you knew that the sufferings of this life do not compare to the glory of the life to come with Jesus. So, you can get through difficulties again knowing that your future with Christ is far greater than any comfort, possession, or freedom you might have here. And so, if you lose those things, even if you lose your life, you’ve lost nothing because you still have Jesus and to have Jesus is exceedingly greater than to have any other thing.”
And this is the truth that the author of Hebrews was reminding his readers of in light of the difficulties that they were experiencing or were about to experience. And this is the truth that you and I need to be reminded of as well: Jesus is exceedingly greater than any other thing this world has to offer. And when difficulty, suffering, or even persecution arises we can know that these are temporary afflictions that don’t even remotely compare to the joy that we will have with Jesus for all of eternity.
2 Corinthians 4:17 tells us, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” It is this hope, this promise, this truth that propels us through the Christian life in all of its ups and downs. And just as the author of Hebrews was reminding his readers of this truth so we too need to remind ourselves and others of this truth regularly: We have a far better and abiding possession in Christ (v.34), than any other thing this world has to offer. As difficulties, heartache or even persecution arises in your life remember this truth regularly: Jesus is better.
The phrase “Spirit-filled” is tossed around a lot today in evangelicalism. Most often, this label is used to describe a Christian or a church that emphasizes spiritual gifts, experiences authentic and emotional worship ‘encounters,’ and seeks to avoid “putting God in a box” when it comes to the expression of faith.
However, the phrase “Spirit-filled Christian” or “Spirit-filled church” is actually quite misleading (and often used in a divisive way, suggesting that someone or some church isn’t Spirit-filled). It’s like using the phrase “born-again Christian.” How are these phrases misleading? Because every true Christian is born again; there’s no such thing as a Christian who is not born again. Similarly, every true Christian has received the Holy Spirit, and thus every true Christian church is Spirit-filled. The church of Jesus Christ is the assembly of those called by God the Father into the fellowship of his Son by his Spirit (1 Cor. 1:9; see also 3:16-17; 12:13; Eph. 2:18-22).
Now of course, there are all kinds of ‘churches’ in all kinds of ‘Christian’ denominations today that are not true churches of the Lord Jesus Christ and therefore not Spirit-filled. However, the true church of Christ is the Spirit-filled, indwelt, baptized, empowered, illuminated, sanctified, and sealed assembly of the restored people of God under the saving rule of the risen Lord Jesus.
But, what does a true “Spirit-filled” church look like? There is no better place to answer this question than to look at the results of when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the new covenant church in fullness on the day of Pentecost.
The Restored People of God
In Acts 2:41, we read that those who received Peter’s word—who believed the gospel of the risen Lord Jesus—were baptized and were added to the church. Some 3,000 Jews in Jerusalem received the forgiveness of sins through Christ’s atoning death. They received the promised gift of the Holy Spirit from the ascended Christ. And then immediately, we are given a comprehensive portrait of the life of the early church.
In fact, the description of the church in Acts 2:42-47 is one of the clearest proofs that the Spirit of Jesus had indeed been poured out upon the restored people of God. This passage reveals that a true, “Spirit-filled” church will be one that is joyfully devoted to doctrine, to fellowship, and to prayer. Those who, by grace through faith, receive the gift salvation and the very Spirit of Jesus (i.e., Christians) are those who obey the word of their King, who love the people of their King, and who rely on the power of their King.
But before we look at each of these areas in more detail, it’s important to notice the way Luke describes how they did all of these activities: “they devoted themselves.” They continued steadfastly, passionately; they were persistently committed to the Christian faith. If Luke is painting a portrait of the church, he is painting with the boldest and most vibrant of colors. The life of the church was one of radical devotion to their risen Lord. These Christians began to live as though Jesus really was the king of the world, all because they had received the Holy Spirit.
A Spirit-Filled Church is Joyfully Devoted to Doctrine
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42).
The first thing Luke mentions is the church’s radical commitment to the teaching—the doctrine or message—of the apostles. And what was this teaching? It was what Peter had just preached in Acts 2: the gospel of the risen Lord Jesus. Their message was the good news of the kingdom of God under the saving rule of Christ! They taught that the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth, was the fulfillment of all of God’s covenant promises. He is the second Adam, the prophet like Moses, the Passover Lamb, the true Israel, the perfect redeemer, the greater Son of David. This Jesus offered up his own life as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of all who would believe in him and was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father for our justification.
Their doctrine included everything revealed in the Old Testament, everything spoken by Jesus during his earthly ministry, and the significance of his death and resurrection—all of which they would go on to explain in letters and sermons in what has become the New Testament. And the church was radically devoted to this gospel, the word of God. They not only heard it and studied it but proclaimed it and bore witness to Jesus in the power of the Spirit.
“With Signs and Wonders Confirming”
How did the people in Jerusalem know that the doctrine of the apostles was the truth? Luke tells us in verse 43: “Awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles” Just as God performed miracles through Jesus to validate his identity as the Son of God (Acts 2:22), the teaching of the apostles was also confirmed by signs and wonders! Jesus empowered his official representatives to lay the foundation of the church as the new leaders of the restored people of God.
But the church wasn’t devoted to these signs and wonders; they were devoted to doctrine! This is not to say that the early church didn’t believe God for miracles (as we’ll see in just a moment), but they weren’t seeking to perform signs; their focus was on the Person to which the signs of the apostles were pointing: King Jesus! Throughout the book of Acts, it is repeatedly stated that miracles, signs and wonders, were performed by the apostles and their associates. Why? Because the apostles were chosen and entrusted by the risen Lord Jesus to lay the foundation of the church; it was their word about Jesus was to be received and believed (2:41). Thus we read that “all who believed were together” (2:44).
Centered on the Word of the Risen Lord Jesus
Today, the doctrine of the apostles is found in what we know as the New Testament, along with the revelation of God that is the Old Testament. Being devoted to joyfully doctrine to doctrine means being joyfully devoted to Scripture—hearing, believing, obeying, and continuing steadfastly in the Bible! Simply put, a Spirit-filled church is centered on the Word of the risen Lord Jesus. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth who guides the people of God into all truth (John 16:13). He bears witness about Jesus (15:25). We are sanctified in the truth, and God’s Word is truth (17:17). So, to receive the gift of the Spirit is to receive a passionate desire to be centered on the Word.
God’s Word is the instrument of our salvation: It is how we come to faith in Christ (Rom. 10:17); it is how we are born again (1 Pet. 1:23). But God’s Word is also sufficient for our sanctification: It is how we are trained in righteousness and grow in godliness, becoming complete and equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17). We need gospel doctrine! A true church is a community of believers where God’s Word is loved, read, studied, and obeyed in its entirety. Bobby Jamieson writes: “Sound doctrine is the lifeblood of the church. It shapes and guides the church’s teaching. It nourishes holiness. It fosters love. It grounds an repairs unity. It calls forth worship. And it informs and motivates our witness to the gospel.”
So, for those who claim to be “Spirit-filled”: Are you devoted to doctrine? Do you consume God’s Word? Do you meditate upon it day and night, rehearsing the gospel to yourselves daily? Do you teach this doctrine to your children? Do you believe and obey it? Is your entire life centered on and nourished by the Word of Christ?
However, being devoted to doctrine does not stop at centering our lives on God’s Word. No, being devoted to the teaching of the apostles leads to transformation; doctrine leads to devotion.
A Spirit-Filled Church is Joyfully Devoted to Fellowship
And they devoted themselves to . . . the fellowship, to the breaking of bread (Acts 2:42).
There’s not just a body of doctrine that must be believed and obeyed; there is a body of believers that must be loved and encouraged. Sound doctrine teaches us that not only have we been saved from the King’s judgment, but that we have been saved to his kingdom and his people.
The word ‘fellowship’ is a beautiful and significant word that, all too often, gets thrown about carelessly. When we hear ‘fellowship,’ we usually think handshakes, hellos, and howdy-dos; we think fellowship halls, church lobbies, and potlucks; we think socializing and mingling. But this is not what Luke is describing. This is the Greek word koinonia, and it means “a close association involving mutual interests and sharing.” It’s translated as fellowship, communion, participation. (Outside the New Testament, it was used to express the marriage relationship.)
This is the word used to describe our union with Christ by faith! Listen to the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:9: “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Paul later explains that this fellowship with Christ is from the Holy Spirit we have all received (2 Cor. 13:14; Php. 2:1) John writes that “our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). Because we have fellowship with God in Christ by the Spirit—because we have been united to Christ by faith and are now members of his body—we also have fellowship with one another in Christ by the Spirit. By the Spirit of adoption, we have become the new creation family of God!
Bearing Burdens in Love
And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need (Acts 2:44-45).
Describing the togetherness of the early church, Matthew Henry writes: “Wherever you saw one disciple, you would see more.” Their communion with Christ and one another completely changed their priorities. They were family. And their newfound devotion to fellowship was seen in two ways. First, being devoted to fellowship meant bearing burdens in love. Every member of the church held his possessions at the disposal of others. Their shared fellowship with Christ, and the forgiveness they had all received led them to share even their possessions with each other.
Verses 44-45 are often misunderstood. This doesn’t mean everyone got rid of everything they owned; rather, the believers were ready and willing to help those in need. If this meant sharing or selling their possessions, they would do so eagerly, joyfully, and generously. This also doesn’t mean the church didn’t care about unbelievers or those outside the church. Luke is showing us just how radically devoted the church was to the fellowship of the saints.
Breaking Bread with Joy
And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people (Acts 2:46-47).
Second, being devoted to fellowship also meant breaking bread with joy. Not only were the believers meeting together daily in the temple courts to hear the apostles teach and have fellowship with one another, they were also gathering often for meals with one another.
In v.42, Luke wrote that they devoted themselves “to the breaking of bread.” This phrase refers both to the ordinary meals the believers shared as well as the Lord’s Supper, which they would commemorate at their regular meals, remembering their Lord and his sacrifice. It was while breaking bread that the believers would begin to get to know one another, learn about their needs, yet also pray and worship their Lord and Savior together. Just as Jesus came eating and drinking, and revealed himself to his followers “in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35), the early church celebrated gospel fellowship the same way.
The main force of this sentence is the statement at the end of verse 46: “They received their food with glad and generous hearts.” ‘Glad’ here literally means extremely joyful, full of exaltation; and ‘generous’ means simple—they ate with humble, honest, and sincere hearts. The church was characterized by a spirit of rejoicing and generosity. Even their meals were occasions for praising God with great joy, with hearts full of thanksgiving. This was the joy of salvation—a true sense of gratitude, contentment, and delight given by the Holy Spirit.
Transformed by the Love of the Risen Lord Jesus
Beloved, the reason the early church was devoted to such deep, intimate fellowship was because they had received forgiveness of their sins and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. This community wasn’t simply inspired by the love, forgiveness, patience, and generosity of the risen Lord Jesus; they had received the very Spirit and power of the risen Lord Jesus to actually walk in forgiveness, love, patience, and generosity!
In other words, a Spirit-filled church is transformed by the love of the risen Lord Jesus. Those who have had the love of God poured into their hearts by the promised Holy Spirit; those who have become new creations in Christ by the life-giving, regenerating power of the Spirit; those who have been called by grace into the fellowship of the blessed Trinity will be devoted to fellowship—both bearing burdens and breaking bread.
John pulls no punches when he writes: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. . . . By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:14, 16-18).
This is profound: John is saying “Do you want to know if you are a believer? Do you want to know if you have been born again, saved from death and given new life? Then answer me this: Do you love the church? Are you devoted to fellowship?” Say all you want that you are a Christian, that you love Bible doctrine, that you give, that you shovel your neighbor’s driveway. But if you can go about your whole life, day to day, week to week, completely separated from and uninvolved in the life of the church, your failure to show love and concern for the believers testifies against you.
This is why membership in a local church is of the utmost importance for living the Christian life. Membership gives definition and direction to the commands given to Christians. How can you bear the burdens of every Christian? How can you pray for every Christian? How can you show hospitality to every Christian? You can’t. But by joining a local church, you have a defined community of believers with whom you can be devoted to fellowship in these ways.
But what explains the growth of the church? What explains the awe, the reverence, and the favor of the unbelievers towards the church? This brings us to the final aspect of our portrait…
A Spirit-Filled Church is Joyfully Devoted to Prayer
And they devoted themselves to . . . the prayers (Acts 2:42).
The church in Acts was a praying church. The rest of the New Testament shows that the church is to be a praying church (Eph. 6:18-19; 1 Thess. 5:17; 1 Tim. 2:1). And just like Jesus, who spent much of his ministry praying to his heavenly Father, the church will be devoted to prayer because it has received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry, “Abba, Father!” (Rom. 8:15). These believers knew that in their own strength, they were helpless. They knew that on their own, they would fall into temptation and sin. They knew that if the world hated their King, it would surely hate them. But they also knew that they had been reconciled to God and brought into fellowship with him, and this fellowship was expressed in prayer.
The results? “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). What a powerful and beautiful and assuring truth! The church bore witness to the risen Lord Jesus in the power of the Spirt, prayerfully preaching the word of God, and God brought about the miracle of salvation (talk about doing greater things!). It is the risen Lord Jesus alone who builds his church, but he has graciously given us the opportunity to participate with him through prayer. And a church that that truly depends upon God to change hearts of stone, to raise the dead to life, and to build up his church will pray. Salvation belongs to the Lord, and praise God he is still saving today!
We saw before that the early church wasn’t devoted to signs and wonders. Yet in one sense they were, because they were devoted to prayer. They knew that greatest miracle of all was the raising of a dead sinner to life by the resurrection power of God, and so they prayed. They knew that faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ, and so the prayed for boldness (leaving the demonstration of the miraculous up to God).
For example, in the face of persecution, they would later pray: “‘Grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.’ And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:29-31).
Dependent Upon the Power of the Risen Lord Jesus
In a true “Spirit-filled” church, devotion to doctrine is central; we must aim to be centered fully on the word of God. In a true “Spirit-filled” church, devotion to fellowship is a nonnegotiable; we must seek to be transformed continually by the love of Jesus. But the church will only grow when the power of God is acknowledged, sought after, and depended upon in passionate prayer; we must be devoted to prayer.
You can substitute doctrine for entertainment and your church might see numerical growth. You can substitute online services for fellowship and your church might see a form of growth. But authentic numerical growth due to the salvation of sinners is the result of prayer.
Jesus of Nazareth was crucified on a cross, raised from the dead, and exalted to the right hand of God not only to provide forgiveness of sins and the gift of his Spirit by faith in his name, but to create a people for himself: the Spirit-filled, new-creation, born-again, restored people of God. And the true Spirit-filled church is a church joyfully devoted to doctrine, to fellowship, and to prayer.
Does such devotion characterize you? Can you say that you are centered on the word of the risen Lord Jesus, seen in a devotion to doctrine? Have you been transformed by the love of the risen Lord Jesus, seen in a devotion to fellowship? Are you dependent upon the power of the risen Lord Jesus, seen in a devotion to prayer? To profess to believe in the risen Lord Jesus and yet fail to be devoted to the teaching of the apostles and the fellowship of the saints and to prayer shows that you may never have received the forgiveness of sins and the promised Holy Spirit. Only the gospel of the risen Lord Jesus will fuel such devotion.
So whatever else the phrase “Spirit-filled” may mean today, let this portrait of a true, Spirit-filled church be true of our local churches today. May we all live as though Jesus really is the King of the world.