Singing the Song of Moses

March 24, 2010

How do we live in light of God’s once and for all conquest of sin and Satan at the cross? How does knowing the victory is won affect our lives? If “the LORD reigns forever and ever” (Exodus 15:18), how do we reflect that in our daily lives?

I concluded Sunday’s sermon with the first three verses of this hymn by Charles Wesley. He clearly had meditated on the Songs of Moses in Exodus 15 and Revelation 15 prior to writing these lyrics. Consider Wesley’s answers to these questions:

Head of Thy Church triumphant,
We joyfully adore Thee;
Till Thou appear, Thy members here
Shall sing like those in glory.
We lift our hearts and voices
With blest anticipation,
And cry aloud, and give to God
The praise of our salvation.

While in affliction’s furnace,
And passing through the fire,
Thy love we praise, which knows our days,
And ever brings us nigher.
We clap our hands exulting
In Thine almighty favor;
The love divine which made us Thine
Shall keep us Thine for ever.

Thou dost conduct Thy people
Through torrents of temptation,
Nor will we fear, while Thou art near,
The fire of tribulation.
The world with sin and Satan
In vain our march opposes,
Through Thee we shall break through them all,
And sing the song of Moses.

By faith we see the glory
To which Thou shalt restore us,
The cross despise for that high prize
Which Thou hast set before us.
And if Thou count us worthy,
We each, as dying Stephen,
Shall see Thee stand at God’s right hand,
To take us up to Heaven.

The church is already triumphant. We “give to God the praise of our salvation” for He is the author and finisher of our faith. His love has made us belong to Him, and He Himself will keep us, guard us, protect us, and bring us safely to His heavenly kingdom. Neither temptation nor persecution can separate us from His love. We together, as His beloved church, shall break through all opposition, and sing in triumph that He accomplished the victory; His deeds are great and amazing, His ways just and true.

The last verse alludes to several passages we must keep in mind to understand it rightly:

  • “For the joy that was set before him [Jesus] endured the cross, despising the shame (Hebrews 12:2).
  • “Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:38)
  • “We ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring. This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering” (2 Thessalonians 1:4-5)

So when Wesley writes, “the cross despise” he is referring to the shame that results from taking up our cross and following Christ. We despise the loss of reputation or goods or jobs that comes from our identification with Jesus. And, praise God, He counts us worthy of His kingdom when He gives us the grace to persevere to the end. It is all of Him

May we focus on His victory, His grace, His love, His joy, and thus live joyfully to His glory, knowing the battle is won.

Receive, Receive, Receive

March 18, 2010

What do you deserve? How much of what you have – family, goods, health, friends, ministry, influence – is yours by desert?

In Deuteronomy 26, God gives instructions for an offering of the firstfruits of the initial harvest after the Israelites enter the Promised Land. In addition to the offering, they are to say these words:

“A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation. . . . The Egyptians treated us harshly. . . . Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction. . . . The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. . . . He brought us into this place and gave us this land. . . . Now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O LORD, have given me” (Deuteronomy 26:5-10).

Moses then says, “You shall rejoice in all the good that the LORD your God has given to you” (Deuteronomy 26:11).

Notice the God-centeredness of this statement. The Israelites are to say, “We were not even a people, yet God chose us, guided us, and watched over us. He enabled us to multiply. He rescued and redeemed us – all we did was cry out! All we have is the result of His grace!”

Now, the Israelites might be tempted to say, “We had to fight battles to get here! We defeated the Amalekites, we destroyed the armies of Sihon and Og, we defeated the forces of numerous Canaanite kings. Furthermore, we worked the ground, we harvested the crops. Of course, God has given us much – but surely because of our hard work we deserve a considerable portion of what we have!”

But that is not the biblical attitude. Paul asks the Corinthians, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). And earlier in Deuteronomy, Moses warns the Israelites against thinking they deserve what they have worked for:

Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’  You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth (Deuteronomy 8:17-18, emphasis added).

“It is He who gives you the power to get . . .” Complete the sentence. Put in place of “wealth” whatever you have that you think you deserve. Your job. Your friends. Your spouse. Your children. If you have worked for and received something worthwhile, even that is a gift of God. You did not deserve the ability to work.

My friends, whatever we have, whatever we are, whatever we love – all is a gift. Everything is ours by grace. We don’t deserve goods. We don’t deserve friends. We don’t deserve abilities. We don’t deserve family. We don’t deserve breath.

Today I turn 54 years old. This lesson – that I deserve nothing, that every good in my life is a gift and is not earned – is one I have needed to learn over and over again. So often, when matters don’t go exactly as I desire, the thought arises, “Surely I deserve. . . .” So often in times of joy I will pat myself on the back for what I have.

This evening there will be birthday presents to open. Last night before small group, there was a delicious birthday dinner complete with a 54-candle birthday cake. At moments like this, it’s relatively easy to say, “I don’t deserve these presents. I don’t deserve this party. I don’t deserve this 54-candle birthday cake.”

But, Lord God, help me to look at all else and say, “Everything good in my life is a gift from the Father. Whatever is good in my character, whatever I have received in pay, whatever joy in Beth or in the children or in athletics or in this loving church – all comes to me because of the mercy and lovingkindness of God the Father through Jesus Christ.”

And may I, in this next year of my life, say with the Apostle,

By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me (1 Corinthians 15:10).

Thank you, Lord God. May I be overflowing with thankfulness for the abundance of Your undeserved grace toward me through Jesus Christ my Treasure.

Finding Life Through Denying Self

March 13, 2010

The year is 1810. You are one of the parents of four daughters; your youngest, Ann, is 21. One day in July you receive a letter from a young man you met only one month previously, asking to begin a courtship of Ann. This is to be expected; she is attractive, vivacious, intelligent, and, after all, is 21; but no parent has ever received a request for courtship quite like this one. Let me quote:

I have now to ask, whether you can consent to part with your daughter early next Spring, to see her no more in this world; whether you can consent to her departure for a heathen land, and her subjection to the hardships and sufferings of missionary life; whether you can consent to her exposure to the dangers of the ocean; to the fatal influence of the southern climate of India; to every kind of want and distress; to degradation, insult, persecution, and perhaps a violent death. Can you consent to all this, for the sake of Him who left His heavenly home and died for her and for you; for the sake of perishing, immortal souls; for the sake of Zion, and the glory of God? Can you consent to all this, in hope of soon meeting your daughter in the world of glory with a crown of righteousness, brightened by the acclamations of praise which shall redound to her Savior from the heathens saved, through her means, from eternal woe and despair?

How would you respond?

The natural response would be to say, “No way! Not my youngest! She can serve God right here! She means too much to me to let her risk her life on the other side of the world! I need her!”

In Mark 8:34-37, Jesus confronts each of us with questions similar to those raised in this letter: Where do you find life? What is the source of life? Do you find life in the accomplishments and pleasures and relationships of this world? Or are you willing to give up all of those in order to know Him, and to follow Him?

Just prior to these verses, Jesus has asked His disciples who they believe Him to be. Peter responds for all twelve: He is the Christ, the Messiah, the One promised by God to usher in His Kingdom.

But then Jesus astounds them. He tells them He, their long-promised Messiah, will be rejected by the Jewish leaders and put to death in Jerusalem. He will suffer – and then rise again.

So He has stated that He will die. He then tells His followers that they too must die:

And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? (Mark 8:34-37)

What is true of the master is true of the disciples also. Jesus must die in order to become what God intends Him to be; His followers must die also, they too must take up a cross, they too must lose themselves in order to become what God intends them to be.

What does Jesus mean by these expressions: “deny himself. . . take up his cross . . . lose his life for My sake and the gospel’s . . . forfeit his soul”?

One key to understanding this passage is to recognize that the same Greek word is used for both “life” and “soul” in verses 35-37 (as noted in the ESV and NIV textual footnotes). This word psyche is more commonly translated “soul;” it emphasizes your individual life, your particular needs and wants – what makes you you. A different Greek word, zoe, is used for life in contrast to death.

The difference between these two words comes out in John 10:10-11, where Jesus says:

I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. 11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

In verse 10, “life” is the usual word for life in contrast to death, zoe; Jesus came to make alive those who are spiritually dead. But in verse 11, Jesus says the good shepherd lays down his psyche – that is, his “soul,” all that he is, his personal self, his wants and desires – he lays down all this for his sheep.

In light of this, look again at Mark 8:34-37. Here, Jesus tells us to do what He does in John 10:11. This paraphrase attempts to bring out these truths:

If you want to follow Me, you must first deny yourself, and take up your cross – you must die to yourself. Only then can you truly follow Me. 35 For if you want to hold on to what makes you you in this world, you shall never become what God intends you to be; but if you give up what you think makes you you for My sake and the Gospel’s, you shall become what God intends you to be. 36 For what does it profit you to gain everything the world has to offer and to actualize what you think you should be, if you then forfeit what your Creator intends you to be? For what shall you give in exchange for the very thing that truly makes you you, the essence of who you are?

Jesus himself is headed toward a physical death – and then a resurrection to a glorious new life in a new body. Just so, He tells us to die to self – so that we can become what God intends us to be, perfect in Him.

Jesus asks every one of His followers this question. And so, in the letter quoted above, Adoniram Judson, the first missionary to go out from the United States, asks John Hasseltine to give up His daughter for the sake of the glory of Christ among the nations.

Mr Hasseltine did give his consent to the courtship; about 18 months later, Adoniram and Ann Hasseltine were married. Less than two weeks after the wedding, they boarded ship for the four-month journey to India and, subsequently, Burma. She knew the cost was high. That day she wrote in her journal:

My heart bleeds. O America, my native land, must I leave thee? Must I leave my parents, my sisters and brothers, my friends beloved, and all the scenes of my early youth?

In the next 15 years, Ann and Adoniram suffered hardships that are almost unimaginable to us today. They were blessed with children, but all of them died in infancy. Ann and Adoniram were separated almost as much as they were together, frequently not knowing if the other was still alive. It was during one of these lengthy separations that she became ill and died. She had not seen her husband for 3 1/2 months. Four weeks passed before news of her death reached Adoniram.

Evaluated at the time of her death, many might have said she wasted her adult life. She was instrumental in the conversion of only a handful of Burmese, and most of those had been dispersed or lost their lives during a war between Burma and England. Was it worth it?

Ann wrote this in her diary prior to her marriage: “Might I but be the means of converting a single soul, it would be worth spending all my days to accomplish.”

She had no regrets, even given what she could witness. But the impact of her willingness to die to self and live for Christ becomes much more apparent from our perspective. Without her devotion and care, Adoniram would have died during the persecution he suffered. Instead, he survived to translate the entire Bible into Burmese, and see thousands come to the Lord. His translation remains the Burmese Bible used today.

What about you? What is it that you need to die to? What treasures are you holding on to that hinder your becoming like Christ, your becoming what God intends you to be?

Are you willing to die to your sinful desires?

Are you willing to die to your desires for things which are good in and of themselves, but get in the way of your following Jesus? Money? Career? Possessions? Pleasures?

Die to self – that you might have true life. Take up your cross – to find the fulfillment that only God can provide.

(This devotion is excerpted and edited from a 1999 sermon on Mark 8, “Gaining True Life Through Losing False Life.”)

Spreading a Passion Through the Overflow of Your Heart

March 4, 2010

Why are we here?

Why are we here as a church? Why are we here as individuals?

Why doesn’t God just open our eyes to see the magnificence of Jesus, save us by grace through faith – and then translate us into His presence? Why doesn’t He immediately remove us from this world? It seems like that would result in our having a lot more joy and a lot less sorrow. Think of the various sorrows you would not have experienced had He acted that way.

Indeed, if God’s goal were to minimize the pain that His people go through after salvation, undoubtedly He would take us to Himself immediately.

But He doesn’t. Why not? That is: Why are we here?

Over the six years of our existence as a church, we answered that question with different phrases. Our mission statement is a direct answer to that question: We exist as a church to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ. We have taught that the Bible gives the church a threefold purpose: Expressing joy in Christ, deepening joy in Christ, and spreading joy in Christ. The first two occur both now and in eternity. The last is peculiar to our time in this world.

Scripture uses different images to get this point across:

  • Paul says we are “ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20).
  • Jesus refers to us as those who are sent out: “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21)
  • Our Savior tells us we are to lovers of God: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37)
  • And He tells us we are to be lovers of our neighbors: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39).
  • When we live this way by His grace through His Spirit, we are godlike, spreading His image: “As he is so also are we in this world” (1 John 4:17).

Do you see the connections among these descriptions of us? As John Piper notes, “You can’t commend what you don’t cherish.” If we are spread a passion for Him, we must be passionate about Him. Then we can be His ambassadors, sent by Him, like Jesus, both the proclaim the Good News, and to live out the Good News in acts of love. In this way, we truly are like Him in this world, displaying His image, His likeness

So this is why we are here. God gives us Himself, and then He gives us pain, He gives us trials, He gives us challenges – as well as joys, successes, and accomplishments – so that we might display Who He is.

So every pain, every trial, every challenge is an opportunity to display the glory of God. We will display that glory if in the midst of trials we remember Who He is, live in accordance with that truth, and proclaim that truth to others.

If we, then, are here in this world rather than in God’s presence in order to spread joy in Christ, how does this spreading happen?

Let me answer that in a roundabout way. Trust me that we’re going to get back to biblical spreading.

In a program-driven church, spreading occurs in large measure through scheduled activities:

  • “We do evangelism 10am to noon Saturday mornings. Come out with us and speak of who Jesus is.”
  • “Tuesday nights at 7 we have a class on sharing the Gospel. Come learn how to spread!”
  • “Thursday evenings at 6pm we offer a meal and then a course that takes 6 weeks to explain the Gospel to unbelievers. Bring your unsaved friends!”

None of those activities are bad. We have often done similar activities. We may do all again in the future.

The problem arises when we attend a Saturday morning evangelistic effort and then say, “OK, I can check off evangelism for this week!” Paul did not say, “We are ambassadors for Christ two hours each week.” We are ambassadors. We exist to spread joy in Christ. We are always as He is in this world.

So the biblical mandate is to be an ambassador, to be a sent one, to be one who loves God with all your heart.

One who is an ambassador of Christ may well structure formal activities in order to live out that calling. But he is an ambassador all the time. And we certainly cannot schedule love for God with all our heart for a few hours each week!

So what are we aiming at here at Desiring God Community Church?

We aim to be a community of God-enamored people, of Gospel-enamored people, spurring each other on to love Him all the more, speaking to each other out of overflowing hearts about who Jesus is. As my friend Tim Cain puts it, we want DGCC to be a church where we exhort one another, “Tell me something that you learned this week that blows you away about the majesty of Jesus.” We want to leave Sunday morning services asking each other, “What did you see of the glory of God the Father in that sermon?” “What lyrics or Scriptures today thrilled you about the person of Jesus?” We want to come together in small groups and ask, “What have you seen of God’s character in your devotions this week?”

So, a program-driven church might emphasize that everyone should be in a small group in order to get to know a few people well, to feel attached to the church, to give each person a task, with the goal of assimilating everyone into the life of the church.

Once again, those are not bad things. Hopefully our small groups will yield those secondary benefits.

But in a Gospel-enamored church, small groups are a scheduled opportunity to do what should be happening all the time: Fulfilling the biblical one another commands.

Here is a partial list of those commands (here is a complete list, with references)

  • Love one another (earnestly, from a pure heart)
  • Abound in love for one another
  • live in harmony with one another
  • do not pass judgment on one another
  • welcome one another
  • greet one another
  • care for one another
  • serve one another
  • bear one another’s burdens
  • bear with one another in love
  • be kind to one another
  • Address one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs
  • submit to one another
  • do not lie to one another
  • forgive one another
  • teach one another
  • admonish one another
  • encourage one another
  • exhort one another
  • build one another up
  • do good to one another
  • stir up one another to love and good works
  • do not speak evil against one another
  • do not grumble against one another
  • confess your sins to one another
  • pray for one another
  • show hospitality to one another
  • clothe yourselves with humility toward one another

My friends, these are the marks of a Gospel-enamored church. These are the marks of hearts changed by God’s grace. Out of the overflow of that grace, in chance meetings and in scheduled meetings, we give grace to one another, we speak of God’s grace to one another. Our cups overflow in word and deed. Speaking of Christ to one another becomes natural.

So what does this have to do with spreading? Much in every way!

First, when speaking of Christ is natural with believers, speaking of Christ will also become natural with unbelievers. We will then commend what we cherish. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34).

Second, when such interactions are common among us, the church as a whole is a tremendous witness to the truth of the Gospel. When we live out the “one another” commands, others will notice the depth of our relationships, the extent of our love, the sincerity of our concern, and the quality of our joy. Living in this way commends the Gospel in ways that words never will.

So will you pray to this end? Will you pray that we would be such a community? Will you pray that each of us individually might be so enamored with Christ that our lips cannot but speak of Him? Will you pray that our life together would be characterized by the fulfillment of these one another commands?

And will you pray that we then might indeed spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ?