Is Robust Theology for Blue-Collar Christians?

I pastor a predominantly blue collar church. Many in my congregation don’t have a bachelor’s degree. These are the kind of people I love. I grew up in a blue collar home and loved my childhood (my dad is a carpenter and my mom is an RN). That being said, the Bible is chock-full of rich theological concepts and terminology that often require serious study. One doesn’t have to read very far into the New Testament to encounter words like propitiation, predestination, regeneration, and justification. These and many other five syllable words shouldn’t be glossed over and are central to understanding our salvation. Then you’ve also got issues like the difference between Israel and the church and the struggle between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. Do blue collar Christians who work in the trades and spend their lives around common people really need this sort of robust theology? Should their pastors be more mission-driven and less doctrine-driven? Here are a few reasons why I think robust theology is indeed vital for all believers, including the blue-collar working class.

Paul was a blue collar worker himself

Oftentimes when we think of biblical texts that are doctrine-heavy, we think of Paul’s epistles. Even Peter said this of Paul’s writings: “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16). But we have to remember that Paul and the other New Testament authors were not theologians sitting in some ivory tower. They were blue collar workers. Paul was not just some talking head. He traveled throughout the known world preaching, planting churches, and getting persecuted. Sure Paul spent decades of his early life studying the text of Scripture in the tradition of the Pharisees, but his life was totally transformed the day Christ met him. He went from persecuting Christians to preaching their Christ. He even took up a common job that would help him carry this amazing Gospel to everyday people around the world. He worked with his hands, plying the trade of a tent maker (Acts 18:1-3). He spent much of his time gathering leather and other materials to sew and construct livable dwellings. He instructed fellow pastors like this: “I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak…” (Acts 20:35). When he discovered idle church members at Thessalonica, he wrote this: “You yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:7-10).

Also, we all need the theology of God’s Word because…

Paul’s letters were written for blue collar church members

Some may say, “Okay so maybe Paul was a hard working man, but 21st Century, working class Christians don’t need to understand all he wrote. They just need to love Jesus and live for Him.” Such reasoning sounds logical, but it is actually very arrogant and even dangerous. If we claim that Christians don’t need to understand Paul’s writings, we’re rejecting the Bible’s authority. Why? Because 2 Timothy 3:16 informs us (also Paul’s writings) that, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” God’s Word (and Paul) says that every word contained within is vital for our well-being. Most of the New Testament was written to actual churches and people, and most of them were for the blue collar type. Some argue for biblical illiteracy by saying they don’t know how to read at all, but I find this argument also has its flaws. God has revealed Himself in a book and books require the ability to read. A person who is truly born-again by God will so long to know God that if they don’t know how to read, they will get educated to do so. One godly man I know came to Christ while working on the railroad. He only had a third grade education and never even learned to read. Steve so longed to know the God who spoke in His Word that he humbled himself and had his wife teach him how to read. He told me this was so hard, but it was well worth it. His Bible is now marked up and underlined as he wakes each morning to study it.

Another reason the Bible’s rich theology is for blue collar people is that…

Theology drives mission

I recently listened to a podcast where a pastor in my home state discussed how he revitalized his church. I was intrigued until I heard his story a little more. He said this blue collar church was in serious decline and said the former pastor’s theological ministry stunted the church’s “growth.” He then went on to say that numbers are now high since he has shifted the church’s focus to reaching outsiders. His church is now very doctrine light and I wonder if his sheep will truly grow or if they’ll survive on a meager diet under him. On the one hand, I am grateful this pastor is leading his people to reach the lost, as sadly many churches do not evangelize as they ought. But it is a major mistake to say mission must take a backseat to theology. Doctrine drives worship and mission, not the other way around. Any church that isn’t doing mission well is probably confused on their theology anyway. Our understanding of man’s total depravity, for instance, will shape how we reach out to them. Passing out water bottles is great, but if faith comes by hearing, we must share Christ with them. Our understanding of God’s sovereignty in salvation also directly affects our witness. If we believe our evangelistic fervor is what saves, we’ll become boastful or discouraged or even negligent when we don’t see many saved. Also our understanding of the Gospel has a huge impact on our witness. If we get the Gospel message wrong and have a man-centered gospel, we won’t truly be ambassadors for God and people won’t truly be reconciled to Him through our message. 

So may none of us shy away from the hard, but glorious truths in our Bibles. May we not boast in our ignorance. God gave us a brain and He gave us words and truths to study. He did not waste a single word and so we as God’s people, blue collar and white collar, must be diligent to study it to better know and love Him.

A Faithful Ministry

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

    • Exhaustively

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.

    • Evangelistically

Testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christto 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. 

    • Persistently

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. 

    • Earnestly

“…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.

Don’t Wait to Enjoy Christmas

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?

To “Grow” Your Church

beautiful-branches-daylight-109645.jpgMost churches are small. That statement is not meant to be an indictment on bad pastoral leadership or a comment on the health of its members. It is also not meant to be fatalistic, saying we’re beyond hope and might as well accept defeat. It is merely a fact of life and yet it produces a fair amount of angst and anxiety in both members and pastors. There is a subtle lie in our culture that has crept into our churches. It comes packaged in different ways, but at its root the lie is that size equals success. Bigger is better. A leader without lots of followers isn’t cut out for leadership. This lie has led many depressed and exhausted pastors to go the route of the church growth experts and many members to push their pastors in this direction as well. They’ve “tried” God’s way lined out in the pages of Scripture and it hasn’t produced the visible results they wanted or expected (revealing a worldly mindset), so they then do things the world’s way. They frantically start branding their church or creating a fancier website or dressing trendier in the pulpit or hiring a talented “worship leader” in hopes that these things will grow the church. Some even try softening the hard edge of the Gospel in an attempt to make their preaching more “relevant” or seeker-sensitive. But even those who don’t go the route of tickling ears in the pulpit can still be duped by the lie of success. They start believing that a healthy church is measured solely or primarily by what one pastor calls, “nickles and noses” or “budgets and backsides.” Sadly, these pastors have chosen to exchange God’s measure of success for that which the world, the flesh, and the devil call success. They are falling prey to pragmatism and don’t even realize it. But Scripture says success isn’t measured by what “works”, neither is failure by what doesn’t “work”. 

Before I go any further, let me say: I have a heart for these pastors and members because I am one of them.  I’ve fallen prey to pragmatic thinking time and time again. Part of the reason I’m writing this is to remind myself to trust God’s Word over man’s approval. I admit that many times my passion in preaching has been far too affected by the size of the crowd that morning. When I find my heart either sinking or soaring based upon the presence or absence of bodies in pews, I know this reveals heart idols that I must put to death. The best way to do this is to go back to God’s Word.

What is God’s idea of success in ministry? What is God’s recipe for a healthy church? What is God’s consideration of a good pastor? What is God’s idea of growth and how can we experience it? Paul actually wrote the pastoral epistles to address these issues. 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus make up only 13 chapters in our Bibles, but they have profound significance for how we view church life. In the pastoral epistles we are given a glimpse into healthy church life and leadership. What we discover there is that church growth, health, and success in God’s estimation isn’t about numbers at all; it’s about biblical faithfulness. 2 Timothy 3:14-4:2 is perhaps the clearest passage in the pastoral epistles displaying God’s design for a church’s growth, health, and success. 

Paul writes, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.”

Notice how there is no mention of the “size” of Timothy’s church or how big the church budget is. Rather, what we have is a clear and weighty charge that Timothy be faithful to preach the Word of God. Why?

THE WORD ALONE SAVES

Paul says the “sacred writings” that Timothy had learned from childhood are the very means of salvation. In Romans 1:16, he calls it, “…the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…” James 1:18 states that God, “…brought us forth by the word of truth…” 1 Peter 1:23-25 says, “…you have been born again…through the living and abiding word of God…and this word is the good news that was preached to you.” When God sent Ezekiel to prophesy to dry bones, it was the very preached Word that turned the bones of the people of Israel into a living army. It was the Word of Christ spoken that brought the dead Lazarus to life and it was the Word of God that created all things in existence. 

These days people have latched onto the phrase “church revitalization,” but only the Word preached in the power of the Spirit revitalizes or gives life. David writes in Psalm 19:7, “The Law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul…” Don’t get me wrong; there are many helpful steps churches can and should take to improve their membership process and impact the city in which they live, but none of these have the power to save one soul…God’s Word alone does. 

THE WORD ALONE IS GOD-BREATHED

Paul combines two words here to create a new word (something he loves doing). He combines the word God and breath to define the inspiration and authority of Scripture. Breath is used often in the Bible to refer to the Holy Spirit. So Paul is saying that the Bible is God exhaling and revealing Himself in speech. As I’ve heard it said before, “Where the Bible speaks, God speaks.” This is why Hebrews 4:12 states, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” Scripture is scalpel of the Spirit, or as Paul calls it in Ephesians 6:17, “…the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” As preachers, we have no authority on which to stand other than the Bible. Therefore the pulpit is no place for theological hobby horses or politics or one’s thoughts on a subject. Our ministry will only be as effective as we are faithful to expose our people to the search light of God’s Word. This is why people often tell the preacher after the service that they felt like the sermon was directed at them. We cannot have this internal and eternal impact on the souls of the people in our charge unless we preach the word. We must do as Paul did and as he charged the Ephesian elders to do in Acts 20 and, “not shrink from declaring the whole counsel of God.” David was right when he wrote in Psalm 12:6-7, “The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times. You, O Lord will keep them…” When we helplessly search for authority with the people while failing to rely on the preaching of God’s Word in the power of the Spirit, we are shooting ourselves in the foot. 

THE WORD ALONE GROWS THE CHURCH

Paul told young Timothy that God’s Word is profitable for everything necessary to grow the man and the church. The Word is successful to teach them. The Word is successful to reprove and correct them. The Word is successful to train them in righteousness so they’ll be, “equipped for every good work.” Paul also said to the Ephesian elders, “I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” Jesus said in John 17:17, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” 

You may be preaching or your pastor may be preaching God’s Word in the power of the Spirit (meaning your life and ministry are aligned with the Holy Spirit) and yet seeing little visible results of your labors. Don’t run too quickly to the world’s methods of growing the church. Trust that God’s Word alone is what will do the trick. Look around your church and consider the faithful members: is the Word teaching them, reproving and correcting them, training them in righteousness, equipping them? Then your church IS growing. As for the growth in numbers, God can take care of that part as He wills, but certainly don’t try to force His hand by soft-peddling God’s Word. As one who grew up in a mega-church, I can tell you that we had a mega amount of very surface-level, nominal Christians who didn’t understand the Gospel. Thankfully now the pastor at my home church is faithfully preaching the Word and the church is growing like never before, though there numbers are only a tenth of what they were. Jesus took 12 men and changed the world and a faithful pastor can take 12 believers growing under God’s Word and see God do great things as well. When Martin Luther saw the impact of the protestant reformation, he stated, “I did nothing. The word did it all.” Never underestimate the power of the Word! 

I conclude my thoughts by referencing it. Isaiah 55:10-11 has been my rockbed in ministry. It states, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” 

Boasting in Our Weaknesses

Weakness. It is something each of us has an abundance of and yet none of us want to admit it. Even the word weakness conjures up a negative mental image of someone we never want to become: I think of that Norman Rockwell painting of the scrawny teenage boy with glasses looking at a picture of a bodybuilder while curling some light dumbbells. Why is weakness such a terrible concept in our minds? Why do we try to avoid it at all costs or choose the route of masquerading as though we’re strong? I think it is because at the root, we are all far too man-centered. Our sin nature and the confused culture around us deceive us into thinking that true strength resides somewhere deep within. Because we assume strength is found somewhere in us, the only solution for tapping into that strength is self-esteem or self-discovery or self-expression. This is the lie we are spoon-fed to believe in 21st Century Western civilization. Isn’t it odd how we’ve even projected that facade of self strength into the way we respond to terminal illness? When diagnosed with cancer, people say, “I’m going to beat this.” Now don’t get me wrong: it is good to have a positive outlook on life, but that should stem from a source more trustworthy than us. Even in our strongest moments, a microscopic virus or bacteria can wipe us out. At the end of the day, we just don’t want to be weak because weakness is seen as the enemy of all true progress; but that is just dead wrong.

What if God hard-wired weakness into us for some grander purpose? What if our weakness and frailty and vulnerability in life were all sovereignly intended to point us to the source of true strength, outside of ourselves? This is what Paul discovered. In 2 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul is writing to defend his ministry against those denying his credibility as an apostle. They said, “his bodily appearance is weak” along with his speaking skills (2 Cor. 10:10). Although Paul goes on to defend his ministry and authority as an apostle, he never denies their claims concerning his weakness. As a matter of fact, he seems to wear this weakness as a badge of honor. Paul writes tongue in cheek about all the things he could boast in such as his beatings and shipwrecks and hunger and poverty. He then goes on to say, “If I must boast, I will boast of all the things that show my weakness…I will not boast, except of my weaknesses…I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses…I am content with weaknesses…I am nothing” (11:30; 12:5; 12:9; 12:10; 12:11).  Wow. It’s almost like Paul is saying, “Hey everybody, I’m really good and not being good enough! Watch me as I dominate not dominating anything.” Why would Paul be so backwards from the culture and boast in his weakness? It wasn’t just because he was jaded and fed up with the church. It was another reason altogether. It was because God taught Paul that the very weakness that made life miserable for him at times was part of God’s plan to point him to true strength.

We see this in 2 Corinthians 12:8-10. Paul was given a “messenger of Satan” to torment him, which he also calls a “thorn” in his flesh. Theologians have debated for two millenia about what exactly this is (many say an eye disease perhaps received after being blinded by the vision of Christ; others some opponent to his ministry), but the point is the same nonetheless. He writes, “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

When we don’t see our prayers answered the way we want, we can be encouraged to know God didn’t answer Paul’s prayer the way he wanted here (and Jesus’ prayer in the garden either for that matter). God was teaching Paul and us something marvelous about His purposes: weakness reveals to us our insufficiency, but it can also remind us of the sufficiency of God’s grace for every trial. Paul’s ailment lead to his repeated pleading, which led to the promise of God’s all-sufficient grace. There are moments in each person’s life where God gives us a nice reminder of our own weakness. Sometimes it is in the form of an illness; sometimes in the form of a sudden brush with death; sometimes in the form of the loss of a loved one. Yet there is that moment when our frailty is exposed and we can sing with the band Kansas, “All we are is dust in the wind.” If we could just learn to keep that mentality we would be less quick to pretend we’re strong and more prone to abide in Christ, our refuge and strength.

In the first chapter of 2 Corinthians Paul expresses this: “For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.” The statement, “God will never put on you more than you can handle” is false. He will and often does. But He has a purpose in doing so: to drive you to rely on His strength. Pastor Matt Chandler has pointed out that when skeptics call Christianity a crutch they are correct, for we are all crippled and it is far better to acknowledge that than to hobble around on our broken femurs declaring we’re fine.

Years ago, my wife and I gathered the family for pictures outside our home. It was a beautiful Easter day and we were all in our “church clothes” looking good. There was a stunning array of azalea bushes we used as a backdrop. However, as many parents can testify, toddlers and babies don’t always do great at picture time. The picture we finally ended up with was priceless: both kids were screaming as my wife and I were holding them in a death grip with exhausted smiles on our faces. When we posted it on social media, it was interesting the response. People loved it because for once they felt they could identify and weren’t seeing just another picture of someone who appears to have it all together. It sure is easy to present a nicer image of ourselves than is reality…not only in social media, but in real life too. In our churches we can shy away from real community when we don’t open up about struggles in our sanctification. If we don’t embrace our weaknesses, then this Gospel we preach and believe can easily appear unnecessary for us who clearly aren’t that bad off. There is a reason why James 5:16a calls us to, “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another.”

So instead of hiding behind the mask of our sufficiency, may we all learn to embrace our weaknesses and run to the strength God provides in Christ. The next time you’re out of energy and feeling the only way out is sin, remember His grace is sufficient in that moment. When you just want to give up hope because things just seem too hard, remember: “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness through the knowledge of Him who called us to His own glory and excellence” (2 Pet. 1:3). May we say with Paul, “I am content with weaknesses”, knowing His power is perfected in weakness. After all, how else is the world going to see the power of the Gospel if not in the midst of our own weakness and clinging to His strength? 

What to Watch for in Ministry

As I took off my headphones, I told my wife, “I think I just heard the best sermon I’ve ever heard. I need to listen to more from this guy!” I told this to my wife about a famous preacher last year and was surprised to discover recently that he had fallen to sexual immorality and left the ministry. In recent years, others have fallen also, some of which were once stellar preachers and theologians. Names like Joshua Harris and Marty Sampson remind us that apostasy is not some ancient phenomenon to the church. 1 John 2:19 reminds us that news like this will be the case until Jesus comes back and for that reason, we need not be surprised. But when news like this comes to our attention as believers, it should sober us. We need to be reminded from time to time that no amount of homiletical skill, theological astuteness, or ministry fruitfulness protects us from making shipwreck of our faith and leading others astray. But in light of this, what can pastors and elders do to stay the course? Paul charges the church leaders to keep watch. First on ourselves, then on our teaching, and finally on the flock entrusted to our care.

1. Keep a close watch on yourself 

Keep a close watch on yourself...”-1 Tim. 4:16a

Pay careful attention to yourselves…”- Acts 20:28a

Just after announcing in verse 1, “in later times some will depart from the faith,” Paul urges Timothy: “Train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Tim. 4:1, 7b-8). Godliness is not a helpful add-on to ministry effectiveness. It is not the sprinkles on the cake; it is the eggs and flour that make up the cake. It is a vital ingredient we cannot afford to do without. Let us remember that God will hold us accountable just as He will the rest of His people.

In the Acts passage, Paul had gathered the Ephesian elders together and shared that from among their own selves would arise false teachers. He charged them to “stay alert.” This charge to, “keep watch” and “stay alert” is found throughout Scripture, but Paul takes it a step further. He calls the church leaders among us to an even more careful scrutiny of our lives: “Keep a close watch on yourself…pay careful attention to yourselves.” This is cautious and careful watchfulness that refuses to rest the eyes of the soul. This is the kind of watchfulness a man has when looking for his lost wedding band in the parking lot or the kind of watchfulness a soldier exhibits when walking into a field full of mines. It is the kind of watchfulness the Wallenda family exercised recently while walking a tightrope over Times Square amid the chaos of flashing lights, city sounds, and strong wind gusts. If even First Century pastors who knew Paul could become false teachers and apostates, we must beware in our Twenty-First Century age.

But how? Puritan Thomas Brooks was right when he closed his book on Satan’s temptations stating that this world is full of snares. How does one maintain such careful and cautious watchfulness while living in such a self-centered culture?

This is only possible by the Spirit’s enabling. Therefore, we must strive to maintain a position of weakness and dependency upon God. One of the sins in ministry that lead to other sins is pride or spiritual independence. As pastors, we are prone to being people-pleasers and know-it-alls. People look to us for spiritual guidance and biblical wisdom, and it can be easy to forget Paul’s warning: “What do you have that you did not receive?” We must stay humble. None of us are indispensable. God doesn’t need a hero. He is it. When the most meek man, Moses failed to uphold God as holy before the people, God put him on the shelf. Let’s stay humble.

I feel it important to point out also that we and our spouses know us best, so we know what else we must keep watch on. Perhaps you are prone to make ministry a mistress in your life and need to show more affection to your family and prioritize your schedule to aide this. Perhaps you often give into envy of other “successful” pastors or churches and slip into unhealthy discouragement or competitive relationships with other church staff. We must know ourselves and then keep watch on the sins to which we are prone. One helpful thing to do is to take your wife or a close friend out for coffee and ask them to share some helpful feedback on your life and specific areas in which you could improve. This is humbling, but it can be part of careful watchfulness. We must keep a close watch on our devotional lives, our marriages, our family. We must know what causes us to stumble and actively resist these and rest in Christ.

2. Keep a close watch on the teaching 

Keep a close watch…on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”-1 Tim. 4:16b

In the Pastoral Epistles, Paul often emphasizes the importance of sound teaching or doctrine. James warned that teachers will be judged with greater strictness (3:1). Jesus said we will give account for every careless word we speak. This should cause us to think more carefully over the words we let roll out of our mouths and strive to teach  in a way that aligns with God’s infallible, inerrant, and inspired Word. Indeed, since God’s Word alone has the power to save and stands alone in its authority, our preaching/teaching/writing must never stand apart from it. We are even promised that if we are careful to watch our lives and teaching, God will save us and our hearers. What use is preaching if it fails to save? Therefore, let us live and preach in a way that will help the grace of salvation be displayed and not hinder it. I believe the best way to preach and teach in a way that keeps such a close watch is to preach expository messages where the preaching is merely exposing what God has said clearly in His Word. This way the preacher doesn’t have to constantly wonder if his words are valid, for they will merely be the unfolding of God’s Word.

The last thing we must keep watch on is the sheep under our charge…

3. Pay careful attention to all the flock 

Pay careful attention…to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers to care for the church of God, which He obtained with His own blood.”-Acts 20:28b

It is entirely possible to watch our own souls and our teaching, while neglecting the souls of those to whom we preach. But we certainly don’t want to be the kind of shepherd described in Ezekiel 34 who fails to feed the flock. We want to take Jesus’ charge to Peter seriously and to, “Feed my lambs…tend my sheep…feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). Or as Peter put it, “Shepherd the flock of God among you” (1 Pet. 5:2). We must strive to know our people and be involved in their lives to the point that they feel comfortable opening up to us. As one pastor told me recently, we must smell like the sheep. Paul had just previously told the Ephesian elders that he went “from house to house”, and we would do well to follow his example. Pastors who know their people discover that living rooms, hospital rooms, job sites, and ball games are often great places to speak the truth of the gospel into the lives of their members. We must also invest in discipling other men, not content to let the pulpit be the only preaching they hear from us. Paul charged Timothy to entrust the gospel to faithful men who will then teach it to others (2 Tim. 2:2). All these things require time outside of the office and pulpit. Whenever we feel ourselves isolating ourselves from our people, we are forgetting they are the entire point of our ministry. In his book, Praying with Paul, Don Carson writes, “There are preachers who so loudly declare their love of preaching that it is unclear whether it is their own performance and their love of power that has captured them or their desire to minister to the men and women who listen to them.” Let’s not be preachers who are seldom seen but in the pulpit. Let’s pay careful attention to God’s flock entrusted to us.

So if we wish to experience God’s blessing on our ministry, we must not neglect any of these three important areas of which to keep watch.

God & The Problem of Evil

“God, what are you doing?” is a question many of us are dying to have answered from time to time. We see the evil on our news feeds and in our neighborhoods and wonder how bad things will have to get before God intervenes. Thankfully we have an entire book of the Bible devoted to this issue. Habakkuk saw the problem of evil around him and could not understand how it could coexist with a good and sovereign God. Yet we discover in the book that evil does not present a problem to God at all.

Habakkuk is one of the twelve minor prophets (minor referring to their size, not their substance). The minor prophets contain colorful and majestic statements about God’s character and ways. They are a kaleidoscope of God’s glory for God’s people. Each minor prophet presents the same faithful God in very unique ways. In Hosea, God is the faithful Husband to harlot Israel. In Joel, God wields an army of locusts. In Amos, God roars like a lion. In Obadiah, God brings down eagle-like Edom from his nest. In Jonah, God runs down the runaways. In Micah, God is a witness in court against His people. In Nahum, God comes like a storm, earthquake, fire, and flood. In Habakkuk, God enters into a dialogue with man. In Zephaniah, God sings. In Haggai, God shakes the nations. In Zechariah, God sends a fountain to cleanse the filthy. In Malachi, God rises like a sun and has wings like a bird. It is a shame if this part of our Bibles still have the shiny gilded-edge pages. The minor prophets contain a rich supply of promises as well; many are fulfilled, reminding us of God’s faithfulness, while others remain unfulfilled and call us to expectant faith in the future reign of Christ over the nations. So if you are pastor reading this, I encourage you to consider preaching through the minor prophets. I’m currently in the middle of a series which gives an overview sermon for each book and have found it thoroughly enriching to my devotional life and very practical for leading Christ’s sheep to live by faith.  

We must engage with God over the concerns on our hearts

What sets Habakkuk apart among the twelve is how it presents us with a conversation in prayer between the prophet and God over the problem of evil. Critics of Christianity often cite the problem of evil as the reason God cannot exist. Greek philosopher Epicurus developed what he considered an air-tight argument proving God’s non-existence. David Hume summarized it this way: “Epicurus’s old questions are still unanswered: Is he (God) willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? then whence evil?” (Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion by David Hume). At first glance, this seems reasonable. After all, you don’t have to look far to see evil abounding. But this logic is faulty because it is founded upon a false assumption: that a good God cannot possibly use evil without being evil. Yet this is the very truth we are given in the book of Habakkuk. Habakkuk discovers that God uses evil and yet promises to judge evil. 

Habakkuk was written a few decades before Judah fell to Babylon. It had been about a hundred years since God sent Assyria to conquer the northern kingdom, yet Judah in the south was still comfortable. Habakkuk complains to God about the evil and injustice of the southern kingdom and questions when God is going to act. He doesn’t bottle up his concerns, but pours them out like water before the Lord. He casts his cares on God because he knows God cares for him. He casts his burden on the Lord. He worries about nothing, but prays about everything. As one commentator put it: “It is a wise man who takes his questions about God to God for answers” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Daniel-Malachi, section on Habakkuk by Armerding). Waylon Bailey points out, “One of the wonders of Habakkuk’s message is the engagement of God with His people. He answered Habakkuk” (The New American Commentary: Micah-Zephaniah, section on Habakkuk by Waylon Bailey). How many concerns do we have that we never express in prayer? May we learn to engage with God over every concern that strikes us in the day.

God’s response to Habakkuk reveals the depth of His wisdom: “Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told. For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation…” (Hab. 1:5b-6a). This verse is not meant to be used for vision-casting Sunday, but is intended to communicate the depth of God’s wisdom. When we have unbelievable news to announce, we say: “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” God is here preparing Habakkuk for news that his finite mind won’t comprehend. Judah will fall to the Chaldeans (Babylon) and it is God who will send them. This of course demands another question from Habakkuk: “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?…Is he then to keep on…mercilessly killing nations forever?” (Hab. 1:13, 17a). He wonders why God would use worse sinners to judge His own sinful people. Then, Habakkuk eagerly awaits God’s response. 

We must learn to wait in faith on God’s promises

God puts his finger on Habakkuk’s pulse and says, “Write the vision…for still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay…but the righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:2a, 3, 4b). He tells Habakkuk first to learn one important lesson: wait in faith on God’s promises to be revealed. Waiting and trusting are two of the hardest disciplines in our walk with God, yet they are vital. We must maintain a deep well of faith that trusts the person and promises of God over what our eyes can see. The Apostle Paul quotes Habakkuk to say that the justified live by this faith (Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11). How do we learn to trust God more than our eyesight? By looking backward at God’s faithfulness and forward in faith. This is the kind of faith that keeps you preaching when you see little fruit and the kind of faith that keeps you praying when you see no answer and keeps you hungry for God in the desert seasons.

God then pronounces the woes to come upon the Chaldeans. So God will use evil Chaldea to judge His people, but will then judge them for it. Some may wonder, “How can God use evil in His purposes and then judge those He uses to commit the evil?” This is a profound question and one we cannot and dare not avoid. The answer is found in the cross of Christ. Was God sovereign over the death of His Son? Yes. Did God hold those responsible who killed His Son? Yes. Acts 4:27-28 give it to us clearly: “for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” We see this also with the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. At times, God is said to harden his heart and at times Pharaoh is said to harden his heart. The answer is both. God guides the evil without compromising His justice. In the midst of God’s answer to Habakkuk’s second complaint is one of those profound promises of end time salvation for His people. Habakkuk 2:14 states, “for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” The end result of God’s mysterious ways is God’s greater glory.

We must root our joy in God, not better circumstances

At the end of this dialogue with God, we find a different man than at the start. He began perplexed by God and he ends praising God. He began confused by God’s ways and he ends comforted by God’s wisdom. God called Habakkuk to a deep faith and he now displays it. Habakkuk ends his prayer with praise: “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places” (Hab. 3:17-19). Habakkuk rooted his joy in a sovereign and good God, not better circumstances. This deep joy in God is the key to a living faith. Missionary pastor Samuel Pearce once wrote, “I felt that were the universe destroyed, and I the only being in it besides God, HE is fully adequate to my complete happiness; and had I been in an African wood, surrounded with venomous serpents, devouring beasts, and savage men, in such a frame I should be the subject of perfect peace and exalted joy” (A Heart for Missions by Andrew Fuller).

May we praise our God along with Habakkuk. And may we learn to sing with Paul, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom. 11:33).

The God Who Runs Us Down

“Run, run, as fast as you can, you can’t catch me I’m the Gingerbread Man!”

When my children were younger and encountered this famous nursery rhyme, they requested I read it to them every night. They didn’t realize at the time, but their story choice was an indicator of much more than they knew. There is something in each of us, even from an early age, that longs to run; and we often can’t explain why that desire is there. It is more than what psychologists refer to as our “fight or flight response,” because of what we often run from. We run not only from danger, but also from grace. We run from a God who intends not our harm, but our ultimate good. As Augustine has put it, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.” This is one reason the story of Jonah is so appealing to us. Yet in the book of Jonah we meet a God who outruns sinners and graciously overpowers their stubbornness and sin. There are two important lessons we learn from Jonah.

We Run because We’re Deeply Depraved

The minor prophets, or “The book of the twelve” as their referred to, are among the least familiar portions of Scripture. Even the best Bible students among us would be hard-pressed if asked on the fly to summarize Obadiah or Zephaniah. Yet this portion of Scripture gives us a vivid panorama of God’s glory. In the minor prophets, we aren’t merely told that God is gracious or loving or holy or just. We see God in high definition. We encounter the God who roars like a lion, loves like a Husband, consumes like a fire, and sings over His people. But when we come to Jonah, God flips the script a bit. Instead of meeting another prophet ready and willing to relay God’s message, we find one running in the complete opposite direction. Also, instead of God sending His message to Israel/Judah, He sends it to their enemies. And that’s why Jonah started strapping up His sandals and getting ready to run. “Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.’ But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD” (1:1-3).

With a population of over 130,000, Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. And Nineveh was a perverse and cruel city. A city that combined rampant sexual immorality with some of the most gruesome war crimes. Not only that, but Nineveh had earned a reputation for being the bitter enemies of God’s people. When called upon to preach coming judgment on this city, you would think Jonah would have leaped at the chance. Yet the reason Jonah didn’t is revealed later in the book. In the prophet’s own words, he says: “That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (4:1) Even though God’s message was one of judgment, Jonah knew God’s character better than that. He didn’t want the slightest chance that God might show grace to such an evil city.

Like Jonah, we run from God because we are rebels in our hearts. Ever since our first ancestors ate that fruit in the garden and listened to the snake, we’ve been pursuing our own authority. We have chosen to be our own gods. And when God calls us to share His message with those undeserving, we run because we are unloving. The reason Jonah ran is the same reason we run from sharing God’s message: we are selfish to the core. We may give several reasons for why we don’t share the gospel with others, but the ultimate reason is that we’re selfish. In Jonah, we see just how selfish we are. By the end of the book, Jonah is angry at God and even begs God to kill him rather than redeem the Ninevites. It’s a good thing God didn’t leave Jonah to himself, and it’s a good thing He doesn’t leave us to ourselves. That never turns out too well anyway (read Romans 1:18-32).

God Runs us Down because He is Truly Gracious

It says a lot about us that we run from God. But it also says a lot about God that He runs us down. If Jonah were the only biblical book preserved for us, it would be sufficient to give us a robust theology of man’s depravity, God’s sovereignty, and mission. God sovereignly appoints one thing after another to stop Jonah and get him set on the mission God intended. He hurls a great wind in the direction of Jonah’s ship, then appoints a great fish to swallow him up once he is thrown overboard, then calls the fish to spit Jonah up. While in the fish, Jonah asserts, “salvation belongs to the LORD” (2:9) and it is this truth that leads to God speaking to the fish to spit him up. Since salvation is solely the prerogative of God, then none but God can determine who can and cannot enjoy this salvation. So God has officially run down Jonah, but that wasn’t all God was after. “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.’” (3:1-2). God got to Jonah so he could get to the Ninevites.

In his book Rediscovering Discipleship, Robby Gallaty famously stated, “The Gospel came to you because it was on its way to someone else.” It is truly gracious of God to use weak and often stubborn sinners like us in the grand plan of saving others. When Moses made several excuses why God should use someone else, God ran Him down and used Him. When Gideon doubted and questioned God’s choice of Him, God was determined to use Him. Why is God so determined to use such sinners in His plans of global missions? To better display the glory of His saving grace to those who don’t deserve it. The reluctant prophet finally caves to the omnipresent God of the universe. He goes to Nineveh and preaches his eight word sermon of God’s coming judgment and the people miraculously repent. I was given an audio Bible for Christmas one year and the story of Jonah ended at chapter 3. Listening to the narrator go from reading the end of Jonah 3 to the beginning of Micah seemed like a perfect ending to a great story. But Jonah contains another chapter for a reason. God has more for us to learn about ourselves and God’s mission in this world. Jonah sits a safe distance from the city to watch God perform Sodom and Gomorrah 2.0. It’s as if he’s got his popcorn ready for a fireworks display. He’s perhaps the only prophet who didn’t want his recipients to repent of their sins. Then God appoints a nice and shady plant to grow to protect Jonah from the baking sun. Then a worm to eat the plant and an east wind to leave Jonah hot and miserable.

What is God’s point? Jonah’s love for the plant and the shade and lack of love for the Ninevites reveals just how inwardly bent he is. “And the Lord said, ‘You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?’” (4:10-11). And with that the book of Jonah ends. No story of Jonah repenting of his poor attitude and rebellion. Just a question from God to Jonah and all the perpetual readers of his book: should not I pity Nineveh? God wants everyone to know that He has a heart for the heartless. He shows mercy to the merciless. For all who repent and believe in Him, God promises full and final salvation. Later Paul would come from the place to which Jonah was running: Tarsus (same area as Tarshish). And Paul would go on God’s mission around the known world to spread the Gospel of His Son. He would write, “No one seeks for God” and yet He would also write, “God demonstrates his love for us in this, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 3:11; 5:8). So God’s redeeming grace is more stubborn than our rebellion. The opposite of running from God is to abide in Him. This is why Jesus would later say, “Abide in me and I in you” (John 15:4a).

In his book Running from Mercy, pastor Anthony Carter writes, “You cannot hide from God. A better course of action is to hide in God.”

May we all humbly confess our selfish tendency to run from God and seek to live abiding in the light of His relentless grace.

Hosea & The Scandal of the Gospel

Unfaithfulness.

It’s a tragic word in any context, but especially so in the covenant of marriage. As a pastor I’ve had the privilege of performing wedding ceremonies with couples I’ve counseled and seeing their smiling faces as they exchange vows. I’ve also watched marriages fall apart in my office or around our dining room table, because a spouse did not hold up their end of the covenant.

In the book of Hosea, God displays the sheer depth of His covenant faithfulness to unfaithful Israel. Israel broke her covenant with God, but He refused to break His covenant with them. It was the covenant He made and reiterated throughout the Scriptures that He would be there God and they would be His people (Gen. 17:7, Ex. 6:7, Eze. 36:28, Jer. 7:23, etc.). No one forced God to make such a promise, but He made it nonetheless.

The love story God tells in Hosea is unlike any Hollywood romance. Here’s the plotline: man marries woman; they have a child together; woman leaves man and becomes as promiscuous as a dog in heat; man renews his love for the woman despite the increasing children she has with other men and her total lack of faithfulness. As awkward and alarming as this story is, this is the story God considers a fitting illustration of His relationship with Israel. He is the faithful husband and she the unfaithful wife. In his commentary on Hosea, Duane Garrett writes, “Hosea…is a book that jolts the reader; it refuses to be domesticated and made conventional. It does comfort the afflicted, but it most surely afflicts the comfortable. It is as startling in its presentation of sin as it is surprising in its stubborn certainty of grace. It is as blunt as it is enigmatic. It is a book to be experienced, and the experience is with God.”

The events leading up to Hosea are important. After Solomon’s death, the kingdom was divided between Israel/Ephraim in the North and Judah in the South. About 100 years after Elijah and Elisha, Hosea arrives. It was a period of relative peace and prosperity for God’s people under Jeroboam II. Many of us know from personal experience that peace and prosperity are not friends of spiritual growth.

In Hosea’s day, God’s people had forgotten the Lord and began worshiping Baal, the fertility god. The nation of Assyria grew steadily stronger and instead of turning to God for help, Israel turned to other nations, like Egypt. They even paid Assyria to leave them alone. Nothing was helping. For thirty years, they’re kings were assassinated one after another in a saga worse than the Kennedy’s. God was waking up His people. He sent the prophets to warn of coming judgment. Hosea called God’s people to repent of their spiritual adultery and return to Yahweh, their faithful Husband.

The book is full of powerful imagery to convey God’s faithfulness despite Israel’s unfaithfulness. In their book, How to Read the Bible Book by Book, Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart write, “Striking metaphors are Hosea’s specialty. Yahweh is lion, leopard, bear, eagle, trapper, as well as husband, lover, parent, and green pine tree. And Israel in her sins is even more vividly described: adulterous wife, stubborn heifer, snare and net, heated oven, half-baked bread, senseless dove, faulty bow, headless stalk, a baby refusing birth; she will disappear like mist, dew, chaff, and smoke; she will float away like a twig on water; she has sown the wind and will reap the whirlwind. It is hard not to get the picture.”

So what does Hosea teach us?

When we sin we’re committing spiritual adultery

One would think that after all God did for Israel and the miracles He performed to rescue them time and again, they would have learned the lesson to avoid idolatry. But like us, Israel was constantly forgetting the Lord. Throughout Hosea, we are given descriptions of Israel’s sin: “the land commits great whoredom, forsaking the LORD” (1:2); “[she] went after her lovers and forgot me, declares the LORD” (2:13); “they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins” (3:1), “you have forgotten the law of your God” (4:6); “they have forsaken the law to cherish whoredom” (4:10); “they have left their God to play the whore” (4:12).

Sin is more serious than we realize. When we sin against God, there is something much deeper going on than mere thoughts, words, or actions. We are bowing before the idols of our hearts. Idols of comfort, control, pleasure, the praise of men, or something else. Also, because we are acting this way against the backdrop of God’s covenant faithfulness, we’re rebelling against a faithful Husband. To put it bluntly, when we sin we’re jumping in bed with Satan. It made no sense for Gomer to turn her back on godly and faithful Hosea and it makes no sense for us to turn our backs on God. Our response to sin must be in line with what God commands: “acknowledge [our] guilt and seek [his] face…come let us return to the LORD…by the help of your God, return” (5:15; 6:1; 12:6).

God must chastise us when we continue in rebellion

When our children are being watched by a babysitter, they behave because they know that though the babysitter cannot discipline, mom and dad will take care of it when they come home. We love our children too much to let them wander off into reckless rebellion. God is the same with us. The author of Hebrews points out, “If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons” (Heb. 12:8). For the people of Israel, this came by means of Assyrian overthrow and eventually exile. He tells them in Hosea 11:5-7, “They shall not return to the land of Egypt, but Assyria shall be their king, because they refused to return to me…My people are bent on turning away from me, and though they call out to the Most High, he shall not raise them up at all” (11:5-7).

We must not take lightly the discipline of the Lord. He is graciously seeking to tear the idols from our grasp.

God’s commitment to His people is unwavering

The most shocking thing about Hosea is the way we see God’s constant promise of restoration after judgment. Even as He rebukes them for idolatry and promises judgment, His heart breaks for them. Just after the promise of judgment in 11:1-7, God says, “How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?…My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender” (11:8). Then there is the great promise in chapter 1: ““Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered. And in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God”” (1:10).

All this ultimately points us to the Gospel.

How can God both punish our sin and pardon us sinners? Only by means of the cross. At the cross, God’s bleeding heart for His people was put on full display and His roaring wrath against their sin was poured out…on the head of Jesus. The Gospel is truly scandalous because it tells us of a God who pardons the guilty on the basis of faith in the Innocent being punished.

How could we turn our backs on such a faithful Husband and gracious Redeemer?

Why They Call It Good Friday

Typically when we tack the word “good” onto something, we are communicating that we have had a positive experience with it. This makes sense when we are giving our opinion on the latest superhero movie or the new restaurant in town. It doesn’t make sense to use the word “good” in reference to a tragic event. You can just imagine the angry looks you’d get if you did so in a public setting. Yet the most tragic event in world history, the murder of God’s only Son, is termed “Good Friday.” Why is that? Before answering that question, we need to remember that one event can be intended by some for evil while simultaneously being intended by God for good. When Joseph was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, falsely accused, and imprisoned, he told his brothers, “What you meant for evil, God meant for good” (Gen. 50:20). Had it not been for Joseph’s circumstances, thousands could have died in the famine that struck the land. This is how the early church thought of the cross. They prayed in Acts 4:27, “Truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” So on one side, we’ve got evil motives from Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Gentiles, and the peoples of Israel. While on the other side, God has good motives for the death of His Son.

Let’s take a look at three reasons why the cross was (and is) good…

1. Jesus traded places with us

Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted. And they had then a notorious prisoner called Barabbas…Pilate said to them, ‘Whom do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?’…‘Barabbas.’ ‘Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?’ They all said, ‘Let him be crucified!’” -Portions of Matthew 27:15-23

So the option was given: release “the Christ” and punish the “notorious prisoner” or vice versa. The crowds that day, lead by the jealous religious leaders, cried out for Jesus’ crucifixion and the pardon of this convicted criminal. In his account of the Gospel, Mark tells us Barabbas was a murderer and the leader of an insurrection. Jesus, however, was no murderer and actually brought people back from the dead, among other things. Jesus led no insurrections and rather sought to overthrow Satan’s power. The name Barabbas means, “Son of a father” and yet the true Son of the Father was about to be condemned in his place. We see a much deeper story developing behind the story of Barabbas. It is the story of the Gospel, which the whole Bible is telling. The story of how a holy God made a way to dwell with unholy people, and at the very center of this story stands the cross. It is your story and my story. It is what theologians call the Great Exchange. At the cross, Jesus stood in for us to take our deserved punishment and gave us all His perfect righteousness, which we could never have earned.  

So we call it Good Friday because Jesus traded places with us and yet also because…   

2. Jesus granted access to us

And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” -Matthew 27:50-51a

Once Jesus had endured six trials, been brutally scourged, mocked and beaten, He was finally crucified. For six grueling hours, Jesus felt not only the nails, but the holy hatred of His Father against sin. Paul says in Galatians 3:13 that Jesus “became a curse” for us and he says in 2 Corinthians 5:21 that he “became sin.” The prophet Isaiah foretold that He was, “smitten by God…the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all…it was the will of the LORD to crush Him” (Is. 53:4, 6, 10). Every sin every believer would ever commit was fully punished in that one moment…on the head of the sinless Son of God. And the dividing curtain which had separated man from God since the garden was finally removed. The temple’s four inch curtain was torn from top to bottom, signifying this salvation was God’s initiative and accomplishment. Unhindered access to God is now ours through faith in Christ.

Good Friday is good not only because of Jesus traded places with us and gave us access into God’s presence, but also because…

3. Jesus tasted death for us

Joseph…went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had cut in the rock. And he rolled a great stone to the entrance of the tomb and went away.” -Matthew 27:58-60

The body of Jesus that once moved about throughout Judea and Galilee now lay cold, still, and lifeless. It is good for us to stop and consider the weight of this. Jesus became not only a curse for us, but a corpse for us. His life snuffed out. The grave sealed shut. Why? What is the significance of this odd reality? The prophet Ezekiel states, “The soul that sins shall die” and the Apostle Paul writes, “the wages of sin is death…” and it was on the cross that Jesus took our sins. Had Jesus never died, our sin would have never been fully dealt its true punishment. Also, if Jesus had never died, we would still face the uncertainty of the grave. Yet because Jesus died and rose again, the grave has fully and finally been conquered. Death has now been transformed from an end, to a beginning, for all whose hope is Christ.

Good Friday is truly a good day for us because our most “notorious” sins have been placed on Jesus, we have been given eternal access into God’s presence, and our coming death has been transformed into a new beginning in the presence of God. So I think it’s safe to say these are good things and this very, very good news.

Linger at the Cross

Recently my wife and I were blessed to enjoy a four day retreat with Winshape at Berry College in Rome, GA. The whole four days we were served amazing meals, developed some new ministry friends, and had a ton of time to rest and enjoy the beauty of God’s creation in the mountains. The best part of all wasn’t the hiking trails, the Filet Mignon, or even the fact that this trip was free (if you’re a senior pastor and spouse, do yourself a favor and sign up). The best part was the fact that we had time to linger over the Gospel individually and as a couple.

I was raised in a church where the Gospel was presented in every message, and for that I am very grateful. My pastor heralded the Gospel message clearly and unapologetically, pleading with sinners to surrender their hearts to Christ. Yet the Gospel that was preached every sermon was targeted at unbelievers and seldom believers. The main message for believers were the Bible’s moral imperatives, but seldom it’s Gospel indicatives. I assumed that the Gospel got me in God’s kingdom and obedience kept me in it.

The New Testament, however, always roots our obedience in the Gospel, so we need the Gospel more than ever as believers. The Gospel is not merely one story among many in Scripture; it is Scripture’s main story, and the constant refrain from Genesis to Revelation is that we linger over it. Tim Keller said it this way: “We never ‘get beyond the gospel’ in our Christian life to something more ‘advanced.’ The gospel is not the first ‘step’ in a ‘stairway’ of truths, rather, it is more like the ‘hub’ in a ‘wheel’ of truth. The gospel is not just the A-B-C’s but the A-Z of Christianity. The gospel is not just the minimum required doctrine necessary to enter the kingdom, but the way we make progress in the kingdom.”

When believers fail to drink deeply from the fountain of the Gospel, they shrivel spiritually. So if we reserve the Gospel to unbelievers in our church’s, we may see increased professions of faith, but we may also see decreased spiritual growth among those who profess faith. On the other hand, A church that preaches the Gospel to believers while unbelievers listen in will have a stronger and more stable family from which to launch this message into the community and world.

The soul that is regularly enjoying and resting in the truths of the Great Exchange will find constant motivation to obey God’s commands. It is there at the cross that we learn about the ugliness of our sin, God’s holiness, Christ’s sinless nature, the Judgment to come, astounding grace, our salvation, and sacrificial love. A cursory glance at the Gospel will not impress these realities upon us, so we must spend time each day lingering in it. Memorizing and meditating and mulling over the wonder of Christ’s substitutionary atoning death is the best fuel for everything in the Christian life, from holiness to missions. Whenever we find ourselves treasuring sin, it always stems from a failure to glory in the Golgotha event. May we rehearse the wonder of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection to ourselves and one another until He returns.

 

Ministry Can Be Dangerous

“Did you hear about all the pastors convicted of sexual abuse?”

My wife’s question left me with an ache in the pit of my stomach. As a Gospel minister who struggles daily to love Jesus and kill indwelling sin, I can’t say that I’m surprised. In fact, to be surprised would expose some bad theology on my part. The more I read the Bible, the more I’m reminded that I’m more sinful than I ever imagined and the Gospel is more glorious than I ever imagined. Still, news of sexual abuse must always be received with a heavy heart. The Houston Chronicle reported some 220 Gospel ministers convicted of sexual abuse, leaving about 700 victims affected. Many of the stories are well documented and put a chill in your spine as you read them. I broke down over footage I saw of a police officer questioning a four or five year old boy molested by his “church-man.” Other footage was of jailed pastors sharing how they compromised on their convictions. Each of these were truly disturbing and humbling. Then only a day or two later, Christian news turned to abuse of authority by leaders. I learned famous pastor James MacDonald was fired by his church for serious abuse of authority. Before MacDonald, there was Driscoll, Tchividian, and Mahaney; all men whose sermons have greatly impacted me, and all left with question marks over their character, yet who went on to preach and lead other churches. Not to mention Patterson and Pressler, men who stood on biblical convictions against a tide of liberalism in my demonination, and yet who fell over bad counseling methods and sexist comments and actions. Meanwhile, some Southern Baptist pastors with massive ministries flaunt massive pride in the pulpit and we put up with it.

In light of this, here are five essentials for avoiding moral failure in ministry. There are many others, but these are just a few we would all do well to heed…

Don’t be a glory thief (Jer. 45:5)

The biggest ministry problem out there is theft. By theft I don’t mean stealing possessions, but stealing praise. All of us can be glory thieves from time to time, but stealing God’s glory in ministry is especially dangerous. As one pastor has remarked, we must never intercept the bride’s affection for the Bridegroom. Jeremiah 45 is a short chapter in the book and yet it packs a heavy punch. In it, God uses Jeremiah to challenge his assistant Baruch with this: “And do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not…” I remember my first class at Southern Seminary was with Dr. Don Whitney and was called Personal Spiritual Disciplines. Dr. Whitney was about to share with us about Charles Spurgeon and he made a humbling remark to this effect: “If one of you were going to have an impact like Charles Spurgeon, we would all already know by now.” I was guilty of seeking great things for myself and this reminded me how foolish I had been. We must learn to pray with the Psalmist, “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory…” (Ps. 115:1). Better to be unknown and faithful than known and unfaithful. As those who love the phrase, Soli Deo Gloria, it would be quite ironic to minister as though it were about us. We must glory in the Gospel we preach, but never in the way we preach it. We are like Moses in with a glow about us from being in God’s presence, but we must always be turning people’s attention off us and onto Christ, the source.

Keep a close watch on yourself and the teaching (1 Tim. 4:16)

It is amazing how our eyes can play tricks on us. Years ago there was a video going around of basketball players dribbling and passing the ball back to each other and the viewer was asked to count the number of times the ball bounced. But when you watch the video and don’t focus on the ball, you notice a man dressed in a gorilla uniform casually walks out right in the middle of the screen and waves, before walking off. Lazer-like focus on one thing will eliminate even the most glaring distractions. Paul told Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16). Watching ourselves requires knowing the snares that tend to trip us up and avoiding them and staying in the Word and prayer. Watching our teaching requires caring about our words when communicating God’s Word. A ministry that fails to emphasize what God emphasizes is bound to mislead and fall short.

Be appropriately honest about your weakness (James 5:16)

All sheep are not shepherds, but all shepherds are sheep. Sometimes pastors fall into this weird mindset that they are not really sheep in need of the Chief Shepherd. We begin to live and believe as though we have to attain some standard not given the rest of God’s people. The truth is, however, that we are all weak and easily tempted. We must learn to share regularly with our people of our struggles, while not sharing too detailed of course. James 5:16 reminds us of this: “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed…” A church that thinks its pastor has to be above this is only adding to his burden. We need honesty and openness again about pastoral struggles.

Maintain healthy accountability (Prov. 18:1; 27:17)

Proverbs 18:1 always stands out to an introverted guy like me: “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment.” It is very easy to isolate oneself in pastoral ministry. Most pastors are preparing three to five different messages a week, not to mention all the phone calls and visits necessary. Then there’s administration, hospital visitation, counseling, event planning, discipleship groups to lead, and a whole host of others. But pastors who isolate and insulate themselves from people looking into their personal lives are setting themselves up for disaster. We need godly men who will ask us the hard questions and still choose to love us and pray for us. This is why Proverbs 27:17 states, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” We must not let our own spiritual blade or that of our brothers grow dull.

Pray, pray, pray…and did I mention pray? (1 Thess. 5:17)

When your eyes are on Jesus, it is nearly impossible to look for hope elsewhere. Puritan George Swinnock has said it well: “A Christian’s prayer may have an intermission, but never a cessation. There is no duty given to a Christian for his constant attention so much as prayer; pray always, pray continually, pray without ceasing, pray with perseverance, and pray forevermore. To pray without ceasing means: 1)To be in a praying frame all the time….2)No important business is undertaken without prayer…3)Set a regular time aside every day for prayer.” Prayerfulness is dependency and so the opposite of praying is living independently of God, which should terrify us. In his book entitled Prayer, Tim Keller has pointed out, “The infallible test of spiritual integrity, Jesus says, is your private prayer life.”

So may we all study, live, and pray in such a way that we avoid shipwreck and we pursue the safe haven for our souls and those who hear us.

 

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

This week in 1973, an important supreme court decision legalized abortion nationwide. Since then, some sixty million babies have been aborted. While a mother’s womb was once the safest place for a child, it is now one of the most dangerous. But the issue that lies at the root of the abortion debate is whether or not there is life within the womb. Recently in the news, I saw the terrifying report about Chris Watts, the Colorado man who murdered his wife and two daughters. Then there was mention that he was being charged with four counts of murder because his wife was pregnant with their unborn child. Yet what is not explained is how our society can justify the taking of unborn life for millions of others. Since the rise of postmodernism, our culture affirms that each of us can come to our own conclusions in these matters and neither opinion is right or wrong. But the ultimate question that remains is whether or not there is life in the womb.

In Psalm 139, David is basking in the limitless expanse that is God. He marvels at God’s omniscience (perfect knowledge of all), omnipresence (existing fully everywhere), and omnipotence (infinite in power). In verses 13-18, David is particularly humbled by God’s intimate acquaintance with him while in the womb. He shares that God, perfectly knit us together, sovereignly planned our days, and graciously upholds us even now.

God perfectly knit us together

For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” -Psalm 139:13-15

Our family has been given quilts and rugs after the birth of a child by sweet church ladies or other friends. These knitted hats and hand-woven quilts or scarves are greatly appreciated because of the amount of detailed work involved by the giver. We know that someone put a lot of thought and energy into these, though we didn’t know they were doing so at the time. They were knitting in secret and we were blessed with the finished product. God’s involvement in the birth of a every human life is not minimal. He is intimately involved in the womb and throughout the days of that child’s life. David uses a Hebrew word here that speaks specifically to the creation of one human life. It is the same word used in Job 10:11 which states, “You clothed me with skin and flesh, and knit me together with bones and sinews.” David speaks of the most secret parts of human anatomy and declares that we are each, “intricately woven” by God. We ought to be humbled to know that there is no part of us that is hidden from the gaze of God. Nothing about us was accidental or haphazard, for it was none other than the Divine Creator who formed us. H. Hammond, a deceased commentator, remarks that our flesh, bones, skin, nerves, and arteries are so weaved together, “that no embroidery or carpet-work in the world can compare with it.” We are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made. But not only were our days in the womb planned, but everyday of our lives thereafter.

God sovereignly planned our days

Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.”- Psalm 139:16

Until our generation with the invention of the Ultrasound (sadly after Roe V. Wade), life in the womb was totally unseen and mysterious. It was reserved for God’s eyes only. Now we can see 4D images of babies in the womb, yet it is still a shadowy form we behold. The life in the womb remains for scientists a beautiful mystery that cannot be explained satisfactorily without mention of God. Yet this is merely the earliest stages of that life. God has a book which contains every day each of us will ever live, perfectly planned out to the nanosecond. Our God not only knits us together in the womb, he predetermines every passing moment of our entire lives before any of them even come to be. This is such an encouragement for us in the daily pressures of life. God is never shocked or surprised by our pain. Like a Master storyteller, He is orchestrating all these crazy events by Divine design. Ephesians 1 says God has been doing this from, “before the foundation of the world,” and that He, “works all things according to the counsel of his will.” In Ephesians 2:10 we’re informed that, “we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” This goes for not only everyday we will face, but the very one we call `today.`

God graciously upholds us even now

How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with you.” -Psalm 139:17-18

Every time our family goes to the beach, it seems we bring more sand back with us than is possible. David says if we could count God’s thoughts of us it would be more than all the sand on all the beaches in all the world. His thoughts toward us are best exemplified in the Gospel. His care for us led Him to send His only Son into this world as a baby who would bear the curse of our sin and drink God’s judgment for us on the cross. We will never get over the depth of God’s mercy and grace to us in Christ. It doesn’t make sense why God loves us sinners with such breadth and depth and height and length. And so may we spend eternity marveling that such a Creator is also our Redeemer.

Three Benedictions for Christmas

Hectic. Busy. Frantic. Rushed. These are just a few words that describe the Christmas season for most. What we could all use is a little endurance, encouragement, hope, and peace. The good news for us is that our God is all about giving us these very gifts, but not in a detached sort of way. God gives us something far better than hope or peace…He gives us Himself, the God of hope and peace.

The book of Romans is the Bible’s theological tour-de-force. Paul paints for us a picture of God’s impeccable holiness, our utter depravity, and the splendor of the Gospel to save such wretches. But there is a threefold benediction that is easy to miss in the last pages of this epistle. In Romans 15, Paul prays three benedictions over the church and each of these highlight a different aspect of God’s gift of Himself to His people.

Join me as we behold our great God…

The God of Endurance and Encouragement…

“May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” -Romans 15:5-6

Paul had just mentioned these two words in the previous verse. He told the church in Rome that the Old Testament was, “Written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” Then Paul turns his focus from God’s revealed Word, to God the Revealer. He literally stops mid-sentence and prays this over them. But Paul doesn’t just pray for us to endure and have encouragement. His prayer hinges upon God, the source of endurance and encouragement for His people. Endurance and encouragement are two things God knows a little something about. Our God alone has endured from the beginning and has always been the source of encouragement to His people. But why does Paul pray this aspect of God’s nature over Christ’s church? It is not for their individual benefit, but their corporate unity and worship as a church. Endurance and encouragement are things that show up in relationships among fellow church members. Even as we celebrate the peace of Christmas together, we can be at odds with each other. We easily give up on one another and get discouraged by these relationships. Spouses in the church throw in the towel on their marriage too quickly. Once strong friendships in the church dissolve over harsh words said in a meeting or outside the worship gathering. This is why we need God’s endurance and encouragement. All that we need to relate well with one another in harmony and love is found in our God Himself. He will empower us to love as we have been loved. After all, God has shown much long-suffering in dealing with our sins, so we should in dealing with the sins of others. Along with endurance and encouragement, we need hope…

The God of Hope

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” – Romans 15:13

Paul had already said the Old Testament was written so that, “we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). Then Paul said of Christ that, “in Him will the Gentiles hope” (Rom. 15:12). Now he once again turns this into a benediction for the church. Our God is not only the enduring One and the source of all encouragement. He is also the source of hope for His people. Verse 13 is packed with significance for us as it mentions hope, joy, and peace; these are realities Christ came to give us. Paul prays for God to fill us with all joy and peace, which comes through believing the truth of God’s Word. He is praying that through faith in Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we might abound in joy, peace, and hope. There is no greater hope than that which was accomplished through Christ for the believer. We who once were in a hopeless predicament because of our sin have been given the greatest hope of all. I love how the author of Hebrews describes it: “We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain” (Heb. 6:19). The hope of the Christian is not wishful thinking, but a fixed reality that awaits consummation. People say all the time they hope this or that will happen, but the believer’s hope is as secure as the ground under their feet and as certain as God’s faithfulness. God is the enduring source of encouragement for His people and gives them abounding hope, but these would not help us if there was no peace…

The God of Peace

“May the God of peace be with you all. Amen…the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet…” – Romans 15:33, 16:20

Octavius Caesar or Caesar Augustus was known for his “reign of peace”, but it was more fear than anything. In his commentary on Luke 2, R. Kent Hughes points out, “There was “peace,” but it was a dark peace—a Hitler’s peace—and no man or woman or boy or girl could say a word against it without fearfully looking over their shoulder.” The true reign of peace was announced by the angels at the birth of King Jesus. He was the Prince of Peace Isaiah had foretold who would also rule the nations. Our God is the God of peace because He has never known a rival. His reign is one of endless peace because there is nothing outside of His power and everything is dependent on Him for life. Another instance where Paul refers to “the God of peace” is found in Philippians 4. Paul says, “the peace of God…surpasses all understanding” and “will guard [our] hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Php. 4:7). He also says this peace is granted to us through prayer (Php. 4:6). But you can’t enjoy the peace of God until you are at peace with God. How? Jesus was God’s peace treaty to man. God in Christ was reconciling a world of enemies to Himself and doing so by means of Jesus. Christ endured the wrath of God so that the children of God might be at peace with God for all eternity. This is the peace that was foretold back in Genesis 3:15. God warned the snake that a son born of woman would crush his head even as the serpent bruised his heel. At the cross, God made peace with His people by taking their punishment on the cross and defeating Satan’s power of accusation. Now, we await the day when the enemy of our peace is decisively defeated. But we do so with the certain hope that this peace is ours by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone and all to the glory of God alone.

May the God of endurance and encouragement, the God of hope, and the God of peace grant you to enjoy His gifts as you enjoy Him in the person of His Son Jesus.

When We Pray

Prayer. From the outside, it can look like little more than resting one’s eyes. And to the fast-paced, microwave culture in which we live, prayer to the God of the Bible seems like an extravagant waste of time. Yet we know as believers that there is more to prayer than what meets the eye. Prayer is warfare and prayer is worship. Prayer is confession and prayer is communion. Prayer is beholding and prayer is becoming. Prayer is one of the means by which God advances His kingdom in this world and a means by which He advances us spiritually.

We know prayer is more than what meets the eye and yet our behavior doesn’t always align with our belief here. We sleep in that extra 30 minutes we had planned to spend in prayer because, after all, we reassure ourselves, we don’t need to be so legalistic. We turn on Netflix when we had planned to pray with our spouse because, it’s been a long day and we need a break. We run around frantic all day from the house to work to school to our kid’s ball game and crash in bed at night without realizing what perpetual prayerlessness is doing to us and our family. What we need is a good, strong, biblical reminder about how and why to pray when we don’t always see prayer’s immediate fruitfulness for us.

In Colossians 4, the Apostle Paul gives us a small theology of prayer. He concludes his letter to the church at Colossae with commands that we pray and requests that we pray. He even gives us a glimpse of the warfare that is prayer when he highlights one of the first prayer warriors. In these verses, we’ll see six things to keep in mind when we pray…

 

  • Be steadfast in prayer

“Continue steadfastly in prayer…”

One of the hardest things about prayer is this reality that it requires persistence. Our God loves us too much to give us what we want right when we ask. We all know that a child whose every wish is granted the moment he requests it becomes spoiled. But in prayer, God is more concerned with a relationship than a simple request that will come and go. When we expect our prayers to be answered in the way we want every time, we are forgetting God’s sovereignty and treating Him as our servant. Great prayer warrior George Muller once said, “It is not enough to begin to pray…nor is it enough to continue for a time to pray…we must pray patiently, believing, continue in prayer until we attain an answer.” He lived this out himself. Mueller wrote in his diary, “In November 1844, I began to pray for the conversion of five individuals. I prayed every day without a single intermission, whether sick or in health, on the land, on the sea, and whatever the pressure of my engagements might be. Eighteen months elapsed before the first of the five was converted. I thanked God and prayed on for the others. Five years elapsed, and then the second was converted. I thanked God for the second, and prayed on for the other three. Day by day, I continued to pray for them, and six years passed before the third was converted. I thanked God for the three, and went on praying for the other two. These two remained unconverted.” Thirty-six years later he wrote that the other two, sons of one of Mueller’s friends, were still not converted. He wrote, “But I hope in God, I pray on, and look for the answer. They are not converted yet, but they will be.” Believe it or not, 52 years after he began praying for them, and even after his own death, the final two friends were converted.

 

  • Be watchful in prayer

“…being watchful in [prayer]…”

Spiritual alertness is vital to a faithful prayer life. We must pray with a certain expectation that God is going to answer, even though He may not answer as we would have it. Another side of this watchfulness is the realization that distractions come very easily in praying. We can be distracted from praying for something through a sudden trial or through a random thought in the midst of praying. To help with this, we can actually pray that God help us not get distracted from prayer.

 

  • Be thankful in prayer

“…[pray] with thanksgiving.”

In his book A Praying Life, Paul E. Miller writes, “Thankfulness isn’t a matter of forcing yourself to see the happy side of life. That would be like returning to naive optimism. Thanking God restores the natural order of our dependence on God. It enables us to see life as it really is.” Gratitude is at the heart of prayer itself. The mere fact we sinners can approach God, and at the price of Christ’s blood on the cross should make our every prayer one of gratitude. I’ve been to several countries and heard believers pray in their languages, but the one word I always can identify is their word for thanks. May we never “enter His courts” without thanksgiving in our hearts.

 

  • Be evangelistic in prayer

“…pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ…that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.”

In Star Wars: The Last Jedi, there is a scene where Luke Skywalker is able to teleport his body somewhere else and defeat the enemy while actually being somewhere else. Prayer is actually very similar to Skywalker’s teleportation in that when we pray for the Gospel to advance in another place, we are actually assisting it’s spread while not being there ourselves. We ought to pray for open doors, but also clear words so that the Word will spread effectively. One practice we’ve begun to do is to pray, along with about 1,000 others for an unreached people group of the day using the Joshua Project. We can also pray daily for sister churches in our area and for missionaries we know sharing Christ abroad. Our prayers are what early Baptist Andrew Fuller called “holding the rope” for these missionaries, as he held the rope for William Carey serving in India.  

 

  • Be serious in prayer

“Epaphras [is]…always struggling on your behalf in his prayers…”

This is what I meant by saying prayer is warfare. In prayer, we struggle. We wrestle with God as Jacob did. We must not view prayer as some casual thing and approach it very nonchalant and lackadaisical. We must pray with vigilance. Jesus spoke of those who would enter the kingdom as those who “force their way into it.” Without this element of striving and straining, prayer becomes just another lifeless ritual. We must learn to pray as those who are speaking to a sovereign who is all-powerful over the universe and who has promised to hear us when we pray.

 

  • Be intercessory in prayer

“…on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.”

Epaphras’ prayer warfare had the purpose of seeing Christ’s church grow to maturity. So often church prayer meetings are nothing more than what one friend called “organ lists” where we ask God to heal this person and that person. But in his book entitled Prayer, Tim Keller points out something remarkable: “In all of his writings, Paul’s prayers for his friends contain no appeals for changes in their circumstances.” Paul and Epaphras give us a model here to pray for the spiritual growth and progress of our church and its members more than merely physical improvement.

These are just a few ways we can pray more effectively and I pray they prove helpful.