Don’t Be A Fool

When I hear the word fool, I can’t help but picture Mr. T with mohawk, gold chains, and a cut-off T-shirt saying, “I pity the fool!” Whether or not you watched the A-Team, the truth is, we all can play the fool from time to time. So it is good that God’s Word gave us an entire book to warn against folly and encourage us toward godly wisdom. In the book of Proverbs, King Solomon lovingly pleads with his teenage son to walk in the way of wisdom. One of the best ways to guide us toward wisdom is to expose folly. Solomon describes the fool (or simple), the sluggard, the scoffer, and the wicked (or sinner) in similar ways: those whose life choices are governed more by self than the Lord and others. So when are we acting a fool according to God’s Word, and how can we turn from it? 

  1. We’re being fools when we resist negative criticism and always assume we’re right (Proverbs 1:7; 5:12-13; 9:7-9; 10:1, 17; 12:1, 15, 16; 15:5, 20; 17:10, 21, 25; 18:2; 19:13; 26:5, 12; 29:9)   

Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid” (12:1).

The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice” (12:15).

  1. We’re being fools when we ignore the clear warnings of God’s Word and other Christians (Proverbs 7:7ff; 10:23; 14:16; 15:21; 22:3)

One who is wise is cautious and turns away from evil, but a fool is reckless and careless” (14:16).

The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it” (22:3).

  1. We’re being fools when we are careless with our words (Proverbs 10:13-14, 19; 13:16; 14:3, 7; 15:2, 7, 14; 18:2, 6-7)

Whoever restrains his lips has knowledge…even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent…a fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (17:27a, 28, 18:2).

A fool’s lips walk into a fight, and his mouth invites a beating. A fool’s mouth is his ruin, and his lips are a snare to his soul” (18:6-7).

  1. We’re being fools when we are easily annoyed (Proverbs 14:29; 17:27; 19:11; 20:3; 29:11)

Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly” (14:29).

He who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding” (17:27b).

A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back” (29:11). 

  1. We’re being fools when we return to our folly and don’t learn from it (Proverbs 26:11; 27:22)

Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool who repeats his folly” (26:11).

Crush a fool in a mortar with a pestle along with crushed grain, yet his folly will not depart from him” (27:22).

How can we avoid being fools? 

Keep the Gospel front and center

The Bible is pretty clear that becoming occurs through beholding. Paul writes to the church at Corinth, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord are being transformed into the same image, from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). There is nothing that will keep you humble and gracious like reflecting on Calvary. When you’re presently aware you’ve been given marvelous and unfathomable grace by the God who should have judged you, suddenly it is okay when others think you’re in the wrong. Years ago a prominent Christian man was being interviewed by a liberal news media reporter. The reporter criticized him for his biblical views and the Christian simply said, “Well, I’m a much more horrible person than even you think, but my hope is in the Gospel.” This remark surprised the reporter, who quickly shifted gears in the conversation. When we’re aware of the ugliness of our sins and keep holding ourselves up against the backdrop of God’s holiness, we’re able to more readily own our faults and repent of them. Our failure to behold the Great Exchange by our Great Substitute is why we play the fool.

Be diligent with the means of grace

James described God’s law as a mirror, so we must daily let Scripture show us our faults and help us look away from ourselves and look to Christ’s righteousness for us. Also, the more we pray, the more we’ll avoid folly. Struggle with your words? Pray with David, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14). Keep ignoring God’s warnings? Pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13). Also by maintaining corporate worship and close, open-hearted fellowship with our church family, we open ourselves up to more of God’s leading in our lives and are better able to avoid folly, or at least turn from it before we go too far into it.   

Live Coram Deo

Those who loved R.C. Sproul will know this phrase as he often repeated it. Coram Deo means, “before the face of God.” We live all of life before God’s presence, but we often don’t live like it! This is what David meant when he wrote, “The fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good” (Psalm 14:1a). David was primarily warning against practical atheism. Christians can sometimes be practical atheists, denying by their lifestyle the doctrines they claim to believe. Brother Andrew was famous for saying we must, “Practice the presence of God.” In our fallen state, humans do not do this naturally. Even as believers, we live outside the garden, so we must constantly remind our hearts that, “The eyes of the LORD are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good” (Proverbs 15:3). 

Repent and believe…rinse and repeat!

The first of Martin Luther’s famous 95 Theses that sparked the Protestant Reformation was, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” I think Luther would probably say the entire life of believers should be one of faith as well. We don’t merely repent and believe at the start of our Christian life, but everyday we live as Christians. As we turn from our old manner of life and turn toward the Gospel and God’s will for our lives, we are then able to avoid folly and walk in wisdom. So let’s keep on repenting and keep on believing until our faith becomes sight.

May we all examine our hearts for folly and strive after the wisdom that pleases our great God.

Pray for Your Church! (8 Biblical Prayers)

Do you pray for your church? We all would love to see our churches grow in number and spiritual fruitfulness, but do we actually pray for this? As the Apostle James put it so clearly, “You do not have because you do not ask” (James 4:2b). The next question is, how should we pray for our church? For what should we pray? Surely it is not enough to merely pray for one another’s physical needs or the constantly changing conditions they encounter. If we have taken the time to get to know one another’s struggles and discouragements, we can have much more informed prayers for each family in the body. At the same time, we can never improve on biblical prayers. Thankfully, the Bible is full of rich prayers. We’ve probably all found deep, personal comfort praying with David in the Psalms, but where can we go for prayers of intercession? We have a treasure trove of models for intercessory prayer in the New Testament. In his book Praying with Paul: A Call to Spiritual Reformation, Don Carson helpfully provides a number of biblical prayers we can use when praying for our church. Inspired by Carson’s book, here are some biblical prayers to use when interceding for your church family. So go grab your church directory and join with me in praying these over the families of your local congregation.

  1. Pray God shows them the hope to which He has called them

For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.” -Ephesians 1:15-21

  1. Pray God empowers them to grasp the depths of Christ’s love for them

Ephesians 3:14-21 states, “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

  1. Pray their love abounds and they bear the fruit of righteousness to the end

Philippians 1:9-11 states, “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

  1. Pray they have power to know and do God’s will for the long haul

Colossians 1:9-12 states, “And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.

  1. Pray they increase in love for the church and the world

1 Thessalonians 3:12-13 states, “and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.”

  1. Pray God makes them worthy of His calling

2 Thessalonians 1:11-12 states, “To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

  1. Pray their fellowship in the body is effective

Philemon 1:4-6 states, “I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.

  1. Pray God equips them to do His will

Hebrews 13:20-21 states, “Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.”

May we regularly cycle through these and many other biblical prayers as we intercede for one another on the way to glory.

*Another helpful resource in this regard is Donald Whitney’s Praying the Bible.

Private Sin Is Never A Private Matter

“What I do in private is between me and the Lord.”

This a thought I’ve heard from several believers. Others, when confronted about ongoing sin in the body retort Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1, “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” not realizing that Jesus also said in that same chapter, “You will recognize them by their fruits” and, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (vv. 20, 21).

Scripture clearly teaches us that we are members one of another (Romans 12:5; Ephesians 4:25) and therefore our private sins are not really a private matter. Such thinking reveals we’ve adopted a little more of the culture’s mindset than we may like to admit. But the Bible says our personal identity is always connected to our corporate identity as members of our local church body and the two cannot be divorced from one another. We may assume that since we’re positionally right with God through faith in Christ, then what we do in the dark affects no one but ourselves. Wrong. If there is one thing we learn from the story of Ananias and Sapphira, it is that unrepentant, secret sin in our lives affects the health and witness of the whole body. Our gossipy whispers and the silent glow of our phones in the dark must not deceive us. Our Lord told His disciples, “…nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops” (Matthew 10:26b-27). Paul likewise told Timothy, “The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later” (1 Timothy 5:24). In Acts 5, God teaches His young church several important lessons, but one such lesson is that private sins in the life of a church member are a public matter for the church.

Luke provides us with several amazing snapshots of the early church in the first chapters of the book of Acts (1:12-26; 2:42-47; 4:23-31; 4:32-37; 6:1-7). In one such scene, we read this, “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (4:34-37). All was well. This was a church marked by unity, prayer, love, Scripture, holiness, and Gospel witness. Then we notice what happens when some believers give way to personal sin: “But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him” (5:1-6). The story continues as Sapphira is also struck dead by the Lord a few hours later.

What they did was wrong (the privacy of the sin doesn’t make it any less sinful)

I remember being confused upon my first reading of the account of Ananias and Sapphira. I thought to myself, “What did they do wrong? Don’t we all keep back a portion for ourselves when we give to the Lord?” But the problem for Ananias and Sapphira isn’t that they kept back some for themselves. Peter tells Ananias in verse 3, “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?” The problem was that they lied about what they were giving (v. 3). This is why Peter questioned Sapphira about how much the land was sold for compared to what they’d given the apostles (v. 8). We may say something was a “white lie” or that we “stretched the truth,” but God calls a spade a spade: “You have not lied to man but to God…you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord” (vv. 4b, 9b). In the same way, private sins are not somehow less sinful. The sin of Achan was a private sin and yet God called His people to purge the evil from among them (Joshua 7). And many times in Israel’s history, private sins which were otherwise unknown the the whole assembly had to be made known in order to experience the blessing of God upon them.

What God did was right (the public nature of the judgment upholds God’s holiness)

Many in our culture aren’t even aware that they approach the Bible with a lens of superiority and judging. They stand in judgment of it instead of letting it stand in judgment of them. I remember teaching through this scene years ago and a man sharing how he thought God’s judgment here was too severe. He said the punishment didn’t fit the crime. We need to be reminded, however, that God is the only truly just Judge there is. If a judgment seems too severe, the problem isn’t with Him…it is with us. The problem here is that we are looking through the wrong end of the binoculars. There is no such thing as a little sin because there is no such thing as a God who is a little holy. I’ve heard the illustration that if you punched a stranger on the street, you’d get punched in return. If you punched a police officer, you’d get a jail sentence. If you punched the President, you’d get a life sentence or the death penalty. It was the same crime, but the penalty is heightened with the authority of the one we offended. It is the same with God. Every sin is major to God and especially sin in the church. What good could come from such severe discipline on sin? We see it in verses 5 and 11: “Great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.” Luke had said that the apostles had great power and great grace was upon them (4:33), and now he says that great fear came upon all. God was upholding the purity of His holiness along with the purity of His people.  And He was doing this before the eyes of a watching world.

What we do in private matters (the church must be a repentant, distinct people)

The church is to be a purified people, but not because we are better than others. Our purity is derived from repentant faith that clings to the Gospel day after day. We must regularly come for cleansing, even though we’ve already been washed from sin’s penalty (John 13:5-10). How do we regularly remain clean and pure as a church? We confess our sins to God and one another and pray for each other (James 5:16), and we discipline the unrepentant among us (1 Corinthians 5; Matthew 18:15-20). As we do these things, we are lovingly preparing each other for the great Judgment to come on each of us. A church that doesn’t discipline sin in its midst will not have this penetrating impact on the culture around them as did the early church. We read, “None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women” (5:13-14). If we wish to be a purified people that pierces the darkness of this world, we must be truly repentant of sins and distinct.

May we never view our private sins as private matters before the Lord.

The Preacher’s Motives

Mondays are the one day of the week many in the secular world lament, because it means an end to the weekend and the beginning of another long work week. Ironically, I’ve talked to several pastors over the years who have shared that Mondays are their least favorite too, but for different reasons. I think these pastors dislike Mondays because of how Sunday turned out. In fact, I’ve heard older pastors advise me never to quit the ministry on a Monday because of this, and yet that is the one day pastors often feel the most discouraged.

So there I was feeling discouraged going into the next Monday morning and wanting to leave the ministry. I’d prayed, prepared, and preached my heart out only to feel like all my efforts were wasted. Then I read this by D.A. Carson and it pinned me to the wall:

“That is the ultimate test: it is the test of our motives. Some of us pursue what is excellent, even in the spiritual arena, simply because we find it hard to do anything else. Our perfectionist natures are upset when there is inferior discipline, inferior preaching, inferior witness, inferior praying, inferior teaching. If we are concerned over these things because we sense in them a church that has sunk into contentment with lukewarmness and spiritual mediocrity, if we try to change these things because in our heart of hearts we are zealous for the glory of Christ and the good of his people, that is one thing; if, however, our concern over these matters is driven primarily by our own high, perfectionist standards, we will be less inclined to help, and more inclined to belittle. Our own service will become a source of secret pride, precisely because it is more competent than much of what we see around us. And sadly, much of this ostensible concern for quality may be nothing more than self-worship, the ugliest idolatry of them all.”

I had been assuming that my discouragement and disillusionment with ministry was well-reasoned and pure. However, it was owing more to my own love of self than it was the glory of Christ and the good of my flock. Hidden beneath the surface was this internal motive that was truly deceptive and dangerous. So the takeaway for us preachers and teachers is that we must consistently check our motives before, during, and after the preaching/teaching event and stop assuming they are altogether pure. Sure your sermon may have been one huge 45 minute dud, but are you more concerned with a polished delivery or strengthening your weary flock? So maybe your congregation seems unmoved and unmotivated, but are you more frustrated at the weeds present or more thankful at the small buds of life that are sprouting up? One pastor friend of mine gave me a helpful piece of advice I’ve never forgotten from his own painful experience: “We aren’t called to beat the goats. We’ve been called to feed the sheep.” If you aren’t a preacher or teacher, jot down some ways you have grown spiritually under your pastor or Sunday school teacher’s ministry and write them a thank you note detailing this or tell them about it this Sunday. This Sunday a member approached me and just mentioned one thing they learned from a sermon I’d considered a dud that really helped them. This was so encouraging. Another two mentioned that they were reading their Bibles more than they ever have lately…smalls signs of God’s hand at work, yet huge encouragements to the one delivering God’s Word each week. They may appear to be fueled by proper motives, but you’d be surprised to discover they may be wanting to quit because they see their efforts as wasted. Satan has a fine way of inserting lies between the one speaking for God and the ones they are addressing. Go to war with his subtle tricks for the good of your church and the ministry of God’s Word as it goes forth week by week.

May the Lord help us all to have pure motives as we expound the glories of Christ through the preaching of God’s Word this Sunday.

ENDNOTES
  1. D.A. Carson, Praying with Paul: A Call to Spiritual Reformation, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), 119.

The Fear of God is for Christians Too

“It will put the fear of God in you.”

This phrase is often stated by someone as a warning to another before they try some fiery hot sauce, watch a scary movie, or ride a looping roller coaster. Parents have even said it to their wayward children to warn of future discipline if they disobey. Outside of these uses, we don’t often hear much of the fear of God these days, but the Bible talks a lot about it. The fear of God is a theme taught throughout the pages of Scripture and which shows up hundreds of times in our Bibles. 

Some may consider the fear of the LORD to be something for non-believers and they say true Christians shouldn’t fear God. They may even quote 1 John 4:18, which states, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” But we must never build a system of theology on one verse, but instead let the whole of revealed Scripture illuminate a matter. The verse from 1 John reveals not that we shouldn’t fear God, but that our fear of God is different now that we’re in Christ. 

The great protestant reformer Martin Luther is known for distinguishing between servile fear (that of a child facing an abusive bully at school each day) and filial fear (that same child’s deep respect for his loving father and the desire to only do what pleases him). This is illustrated well in one of my favorite books on the topic: The Joy of Fearing God by Jerry Bridges. In his book, Bridges uses the illustration of a soldier who trains under a strict drill sergeant and is terror-stricken around him. But as the soldier gradually moves up in rank and begins to have a deeper respect for this officer over him, his fear of him changes. Eventually, the soldier and his commanding officer are both in an IED attack and the soldier is injured badly. While in an army hospital, the soldier’s commanding officer visits regularly to check on him and the soldier’s fear grows even deeper towards such a loving and yet authoritative man. Sinclair Ferguson has defined the fear of God as, “that indefinable mixture of reverence, fear, pleasure, joy, and awe which fills our hearts when we realize who God is and what he has done for us.” 

So how does Scripture address us with this concept of the fear of God?

1. The fear of the LORD compels…our proclamation

Sharing Christ with another person can be scary work. Our minds so quickly and unconsciously present us with a multitude of possible negative outcomes: “What if they think I’m a weird religious fanatic? What if they never want to talk to me again? What if they insult me or make fun of me in front of others?” Jesus told his disciples, “…proclaim on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell…So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 10:28, 32, 33). Jesus often answered our unhealthy fear of persecution or lack of provision with a healthy fear of Him. Paul likewise told the church at Corinth, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others” (2 Cor. 5:10-11a). In both Jesus’ words and Paul’s, we get a sense that our evangelism and witness are to be driven by the fear of God. Our proclamation of the Gospel should be bold even in the face of opposition because both we and our hearers will answer to God in the end.  

2. The fear of the LORD compels…our worship

There are so many factors that can negatively affect our worship of God: impure motives, unrepentant sin, prayerlessness, wasting our time. Yet we must remember just who this God is that we’re to worship and how He alone is worthy of our whole-hearted worship. The author of Hebrews tells us, “let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28b-29). Unacceptable worship is any worship that fails to rightly acknowledge the awesome majesty of the God before whom we come. So we must approach Him as those who deserve His just wrath and yet enjoy His smile because of the wonder of Christ’s propitiation. Our prayers must be humble and serious, our Scripture reading must be disciplined and meditative, and our service must be zealous and grateful as sinners redeemed by the blood of God’s Son.

3. The fear of the LORD compels…our holy living 

The pursuit of holiness is hard work because we are fighting against ourselves for ourselves. One of the reasons we struggle with practical holiness is that we forget how it is to be motivated by our fear of God. Anytime we divorce holiness from a healthy reverence for God, we turn it into a self-wrought work or a set of morals. Paul told the church at Corinth, “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1). We see this also in the Old Testament: “And he said to man, ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding’” (Job 28:28). Here God equates fear of Him with personal holiness. One who is not growing in holiness is not living with a fear of God. God told the prophet Isaiah, “For the LORD spoke thus to me with his strong hand upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying: “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread” (Is. 8:11-13). How do we not walk in the way of “this people” who don’t know God? By a letting God be our fear and dread. 

4. The fear of the LORD compels…our bold obedience 

This is similar to the others and yet distinct. A fear of God produces a boldness that chooses to obey Him no matter the cost. Among the hall of faith in Hebrews 11 are two women who protected the Hebrew baby boys from evil Pharaoh in Moses’ day. Where did they get such boldness in the face of such evil and opposition? You guessed it: the fear of God. Moses records their names for us and informs us, “But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live.” He later tells the people of God wandering through the wilderness, “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 10:12).

5. The fear of the LORD compels…our fellowship with God 

If we want close communion with God, we cannot have it without a fear of Him. David writes, “The friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant” (Ps. 25:14). In other psalms, we are informed: “Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear him,” and, “The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them” (Ps. 33:18a; 34:7). In each of these psalms, David shows us that a right fear of God leads to the blessing of His friendship. Some may think they’d never want to be friends with a God who demands we fear Him, but any lesser god isn’t worthy of our friendship. Think of the wonder of these verses! The God of all creation is inviting us to be His friends! We ought to enter in with joy-filled reverence before such a God. Why wouldn’t we want such a friend on our side and for us?

6. The fear of the LORD compels…our safety 

Solomon writes, “The fear of the LORD leads to life, and whoever has it rests satisfied; he will not be visited by harm” (Prov. 19:23). Yes many who feared God have died martyrs for Christ, but they’ve never truly been, “visited by harm.” Listen to Jesus’ words to his disciples: “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives” (Lk. 21:16-19). Read over that again. He is literally saying, “They are going to hate you and beat you and arrest you and kill you…but you will live.” I was speaking with a pastor friend about this one day and he said something that really struck me: “In reality, nothing bad ever happens to the Christian.” Sure you may get COVID-19 or pancreatic cancer or you might be killed by a drunk driver or die at the hands of some vigilante, but this is all part of God’s sovereign plan. Isn’t that glorious! How liberating the fear of God is for us!

7. The fear of the LORD compels…our prayers 

We are told in Jeremiah 26:19b of King Hezekiah, “Did he not fear the LORD and entreat the favor of the LORD, and did not the LORD relent of the disaster that he had pronounced against them?” Want a more earnest and passionate prayer life? Then before you pray, contemplate who it is you are approaching. A good fear of God will make for good prayers.

8. The fear of the LORD compels…our church health 

One of the major errors of the church growth movement was a failure to stand on the truths that highlight the fear of God. Doctor Luke informs us that it is this fear of God which grew the early church. “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied” (Acts 9:31). A healthy and multiplying church isn’t one whose mere numbers grow, but whose members grow in the fear of God. Even when God’s hand of discipline fell on wayward members, we’re told, “And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things. Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women” (Acts 5:11-14). A church that fears God will be marked by holiness among its members and will eventually grow numerically as outsiders see Christ among them.

9. The fear of the LORD compels…our labors 

Paul told the church at Colossae, “Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord” (Col. 3:22). Here the Bible’s reference to earthly masters and bonderservants has been compared to more of an employer-employee relationship and not so much the American system of slavery with which we’re familiar. Paul addressed those in the congregation who were bondservants because God cared about their daily lives just as He did the others in the flock. He commends a fear of God which lends itself to honest and diligent work. Find a man or woman who fears God and you’ll find someone who refuses to cut corners at work or steal time from the clock. They don’t hold back from these things because they’re afraid of God, but because they wouldn’t dare offend such a gracious and good God who has given them His only Son’s life.

10. The fear of the LORD compels…our leadership 

Every organization needs good leadership and yet the best leaders aren’t those who’ve built great empires, but those who fear a great God. When Moses’ father-in-law recommended a plurality of leadership to help he and the struggling flock of Israel, he wisely instructed him to look for men of both caliber and competence. “Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens” (Ex. 18:21). David’s last words even highlight the beauty of God-fearing leadership. We read in 2 Samuel 23:3-4, “The God of Israel has spoken; the Rock of Israel has said to me: When one rules justly over men, ruling in the fear of God, he dawns on them like the morning light, like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning, like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth.” Leaders who fear God are a true blessing to those under their leadership. 

May we all learn to live with this fear of God and let it pour down into every aspect of our daily lives so that all may see the glory of our great and awesome God.

A Story of True Confession

There is no more joyous person than one whose sins have been covered by God. Likewise, there is no more miserable person than one who tries to cover his sins from God’s sight. In Psalm 32, David shares his personal acquaintance with the shame of unconfessed sin and the wonder of having all those same sins forgiven. 

Most of us know the story of David’s sin, but the valuable lessons we can glean from it mean we should never tire of hearing it. God called the ruddy shepherd boy to be king of Israel when nobody else saw it coming, not even the great prophet Samuel (1 Sam. 16). God said David was, “a man after his own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14). Hopes were bright for David and yet in time, those hopes were dashed through one dark night of sin. David let down his guard and grew a little too comfortable with his own power and position. Seeing a woman bathing, David gave his heart away to lust and the downward spiral began. From lust to adultery to lies to murder, David seemed to descend the dark stairwell of his sinful heart. With every step down, David saw depths of depravity he never thought possible. When Bathsheba informed him she was pregnant, David quickly began the cover up process. He was like a child frantically attempting to hide the broken pieces of the cookie jar he’d wrongly gotten from the shelf Dad said not to open.

But there God was lurking in the shadows, watching and waiting for David’s contrite confession, even as He tenderly began to expose David’s sin. God gave Bathsheba a fertile womb that night, but David tried to cover it up by calling Uriah home from battle and getting him drunk so he’d have sex with his wife. If Uriah lay with his wife, perhaps the sin would be successfully hidden. But God loved David too much to let him cover up his sin that long. God gave Uriah such noble character that he was “a better man drunk than David was sober”, and he wouldn’t enjoy sex with his wife while his comrades fought in battle. So the only viable option for a clean cover up now meant the death of Uriah. David’s sin was as his son Solomon called it, “the letting out of water” (Prov. 17:14)…the mess he tried to hide kept spreading beyond his control and getting away from him. The execution was ordered. Uriah carried it with his own hands. The report came back that Uriah was killed. The cover up was successful. David’s reputation had been spared. He was now free to marry Bathsheba and hopefully nobody would do the math once the baby was born. No one knew, thought David. The only problem was that God knew.

David soon discovered that life with unconfessed sin was far worse than life with a shattered reputation. Sin exposed would have brought far less agony for David than sin hidden. God had tenderly used Bathsheba’s pregnancy to expose David’s sin, but he fought that. Then God used Uriah’s noble character to expose David’s sin, but he fought that too. Now God used David’s guilty conscience to bring about a confession, but David even fought that. For perhaps all of Bathsheba’s pregnancy, David pretended all was well while the alarm of his conscience rang out like a smoke alarm that won’t turn off while smoke is present. He writes in Psalm 32:3-4, “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.” When David refused to confess after all these more gentle exposures, God sent the prophet Nathan. I believe it was David Platt who said, “If we cover our sin, God will uncover it. If we uncover our sin to God, He will cover it up.” God knew it was time for the big reveal. He loves his children too much to let them linger in unconfessed sin.

Nathan told the story of a man to whom God had given an abundance of wealth and possessions and another poor man who only had one little ewe lamb whom he treated as a child. The rich man had guests coming, so he stole the poor man’s only ewe lamb and slaughtered it to feed his guests. David’s rage was palpable at this rich man and demanded justice. Then, with his finger extended to the great king’s face, the bold prophet Nathan announced that David is the man from the story and that David is the one who deserves justice. Then something astounding happens in the story: confession. Instead of killing the prophet, the God-fearing David comes out from hiding. Upon David’s clear owning of his sin in confession, this same fiery prophet quickly remarks, “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die” (2 Sam. 12:13). This declaration from the mouth of the LORD was a jaw-dropping change in affairs. Owning his sin in total confession brought from the Lord total cleansing. He moved from being the most miserable person to being the most joyful person. In Psalm 32:5, David described it this way: “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.” Notice how many times David used the personal pronoun “my” to describe his sin and how he gave various descriptions of the nature of his sins. This is true confession. Confession that shifts the blame (“I’m sorry you were hurt”) or downplays the extent (“My bad”/”It was an honest mistake”/”I didn’t mean to do it”), is not confession at all. David’s contrition led to his confession, which resulted in his cleansing. Faulty confession comes from lack of contrition and will never result in true cleansing. This is why he begins Psalm 32 with the words, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.” Paul picks up this verse in Acts 4 to show it teaches the beautiful doctrine of imputation, or as theologians call it, the great exchange. For those who truly confess their sins and come clean before God, He does two things: 1) He refuses to impute/count/reckon their sin to them and 2) He imputes/counts/reckons them His own righteousness by faith. The Gospel of Christ is the good news that God not only pays off all of our debts, bringing our bank account back to zero. The Gospel goes beyond this to actually credit us with all the riches of Christ’s righteousness. Justification by faith means not only that we are declared, “Not guilty,” but that we are declared, “Righteous!” There is only one vehicle that can move a person from rebel to righteous, from sinner to saint, from hell-bound to heaven-bound: conversion…and God is the One driving this vehicle. And what is conversion? A turning from delighting in sin and a turning to delighting in Christ. Repentance and faith. A contrite heart that confesses and owns personal sin while trusting the cleansing power of Christ.

Such true confession doesn’t mean the removal of all consequences, however. Nathan’s next Spirit-inspired words to David were, “nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD, the child who is born to you shall die” (2 Sam. 12:14). The child died and David’s sin was publicly known to all Israel and recorded in the Psalms for all future generations. His kingdom was never the same, but his account of confession and repentance in Psalms 32 and 51 have proven a help to millions of believers struggling with indwelling sin. May the words of David and Bathsheba’s next son Solomon ring in our ears: “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy. Blessed is the one who fears the LORD always, but whoever hardens his heart will fall into calamity” (Prov. 28:13-14).

May we all learn from David the joy of confessing and forsaking our sins and the danger of hardening our hearts to them.

May we uncover our sins to our brothers and sisters in Christ, knowing such confession rescues us from our shame and restores to us the joy of our salvation.

Selah: Points to Ponder in a Pandemic

Selah. Its a word that shows up 74 times in our Bibles. 71 of those are in the book of Psalms and 3 are found in the book of Habakkuk. The word was most likely a musical term and reveals to us that the psalms were indeed written down for the congregation of Israel to sing the words. Most Christians throughout history have said it refers to a pause in the music. Perhaps a call for silence from those singing. This pause is a call for people to reflect on the words just spoken. Each of our lives in one way or another have been put on pause during this season of the COVID-19 pandemic, therefore I think it would be a good use of our time to pause and reflect on God’s Word. The following are a selected number of phrases from the Psalms followed by the word Selah which contain weighty truths for us to consider in this uncertain season.

1. “Salvation belongs to the LORD; your blessing be on your people! Selah.” (3:8)

How easily we forget our complete dependence on God. When doctors are looking for a vaccine and businesses are looking to government aide and families are looking to stimulus checks, may God’s people look to Him for their salvation.

2. “You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance. Selah.” (32:7. See also 85:2)

David may have been on the run from murderous king Saul, but he knew he was safe in God. He gives us a glorious picture of God shouting as a warrior who has just conquered his greatest foe. Indeed He has conquered Satan, sin, and death for the believer by means of the cross. Jesus is a true hiding place for us. Corrie Ten Boom knew this. When she could no longer hide from the Nazis, she was hidden in God. May we remember as God’s children that we are, “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). We can be no safer! 

3. “Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! Selah.” (39:5. See also 9:16, 20; 89:48)

A handbreadth is the four fingers in your hand minus the thumb. It was one of the smallest units of measurement in Bible times. This pandemic should give us pause to reflect on our own mortality. Sickness and death have this positive effect on prideful humans and may we learn to use our moments for God’s glory. Instead of binging Netflix episodes or wasting time pursuing sinful pleasures, let us remember how frail we are.

4. “The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah.” (46:7, 11. see also 62:8)

Life in this stay-at-home, self-quarenteening season can stir up loneliness, especially for the single. But here is a glorious promise from our faithful God who calls us “friend” (James 2:23; John 15:14-15). It can be argued that God dwelling with man again is the point of the entire biblical narrative. Let us not forget that our Immanuel has come and now we abide in Him and He in us. He is a fortress for us, protecting us and preserving us.

5. “[He] rules by his might forever, whose eyes keep watch on the nations— let not the rebellious exalt themselves. Selah” (66:7)

Pandemics shouldn’t make believers panic. We must remember when all seems out of control, every tiny droplet of this virus is in God’s sovereign control, being guided according to His predetermined and perfect will for our good and His glory. As R.C. Sproul once said, “there is no such thing as a maverick molecule.” This is not a time for Christians to blush over, but to boast in God’s sovereignty. May we display the humility and submission to an invisible Sovereign even as the “rebellious” exalt themselves.

6. “Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth. Selah” (67:4)

Be glad and sing for joy in a pandemic? Yes. As Paul has said, “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10). Why? Because our God judges and guides the nations with equity. Right now, through this pandemic, God is accomplishing His worldwide purposes and believers from every nation will eternally praise Him for it one day. 

7. “Blessed be the Lord, who daily bears us up; God is our salvation. Selah” (68:19)

May we remember that each day of this pandemic, Christ, “upholds the universe by the word of His power” (Heb. 1:3). He bears you up each day and is your true source of salvation. 

8. “When the earth totters, and all its inhabitants, it is I who keep steady its pillars. Selah” (75:3)

The earth is tottering from COVID-19. Riots in the streets, businesses crumbling, unemployment rising, economy failing. But in the midst of it all, there is God. He is like Atlas under the world, bearing us up.  If our faith is in Him, we are eternally and gloriously secure.

9. “You forgave the iniquity of your people; you covered all their sin. Selah” (85:2)

Take this time to reflect on the sheer wonder of God forgiving all your sins…and at the cost of His Son’s precious blood! Every one of them. Forgiven. Cast into the bottomless sea (Mic. 7:19). Thrown behind His back (Is. 38:17). Forgotten forever (Is. 43:25). As far as the East from the West (Ps. 103:12). Borne away by our precious Redeemer (1 Pet. 2:24).

10. “What man can live and never see death? Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol? Selah” (89:48)

This question from the psalmist is rhetorical. The answer is obvious: no one. The wise Solomon has written, “No man has power to retain the spirit, or power over the day of death” (Ecc. 8:8). Sober way to end, but a good reminder for us all. Since Jesus tasted death for us on the cross, we need not fear the grave (Heb. 2:9, 14). Take precautions and obey the governing authorities, but do not attempt to run from the day appointed for all of us. Embrace that your good and all-wise God knows the end for your earthly life and will sustain you until He calls you to Himself. 

May you spend time to pause and reflect on these and many more of God’s precious promises in His Word. And may the Lord give us all a deeper gratefulness and trust in His good hand of providence in our current season. Selah.

 

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.