Giving and Thanksgiving

May 26, 2010

I am not an auto mechanic. Indeed, that is an understatement. I know almost nothing about cars.

But I do know one thing about timing belts. That is: When the timing belt breaks, bad things happen.

So last week, when we decided to drive our 1999 Honda Odyssey to Michigan for my oldest son’s wedding this coming weekend, I checked in my records to see when we last changed the timing belt. Answer: 113,000 miles ago. Not wanting bad things to happen during this 1600 mile round trip, we took the van to C & S Auto.

This was a major expenditure by our standards. Now, we know that cars cost money to maintain, and had budgeted an amount for the year. This expenditure would have pushed us a few hundred dollars above budget through the end of May. We basically would have to spend money for car maintenance for June and July in May, and hope that we would not have to pay anything in this budget category for the next two months.

But it had to be done. We certainly were driving to the wedding, and taking the van made the most sense. So I dropped off the car at C & S.

Beth went to pick it up that evening. She gave the manager, Jeff, the credit card – using the card whose cycle had just ended, so the money wouldn’t actually have to come out of our checking account until mid-July.

Jeff said, “There’s no balance. It’s already been paid.”

“Oh! Did Coty pay this morning?”

“No. I can’t say who paid. But someone loves you very much.”

We do not know who paid this bill – Jeff kept his promise. But we thank you. This is “a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (Philippians 4:18). For this gift is ultimately both from God and to God. It is God Himself who provides for every need of ours, using others as His agents (Philippians 4:19); and He provides to the glory of His Name (Philippians 4:20).

So we thank our provider God, who “supplies seed to the sower and bread for food,” who we trust

will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.  You will be enriched in every way for every expression of sincere concern, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. (2 Corinthians 9:10-11, own translation)

What are we trusting God to do? That is: What do these verses mean?

The main form of economic production in ancient Israel was agriculture. So seed and bread represent the inputs and the outputs of the nation’s most important economic production process. So Paul is saying that God is the provider of both the inputs and the outputs of production. We could say today, God is the one who provides steel to General Motors and the cars for us to drive.

But the expression “seed to the sower and bread for food” is a quotation from Isaiah 55:10-11, where it refers to God’s Word going out and being productive. It is not referring to the provision of material blessings, but to the provision of spiritual blessings.

So, in 2 Corinthians 9, Paul’s argues in this way: If God provides both the inputs and the outputs even in secular production, surely He will give you the inputs and the outputs of spiritual production – He will give the inputs and outputs of your righteousness. He will give you what you need to become righteous, and He will ensure that they produce that righteousness. So Paul says in verse 11, “You will be enriched in every way for every expression of sincere concern.” That is: He will give you all you need to show sincere concern to others – that is, to love your neighbor as yourself.

So clearly, “you will be enriched in every way” refers in this context to much more than money. Indeed, “the harvest of your righteousness,” the output of your having the righteousness of Christ, refers primarily to spiritual riches – becoming like Christ.

Nevertheless, God can and often does provide us with material blessings. Why does He do this? So that we can produce thanksgiving to Him through exhibiting sincere concern to others materially.  Thus, Randy Alcorn says, “When God provides more money, we often think, This is a blessing. Well, yes, but it would be just as scriptural to think, This is a test.” God has enriched you so that you might show sincere concern to others. Is that how you will use your riches?

So in verses 10 and 11, Paul in effect is saying, “Remember, God is the one who provides both the means to create wealth and all wealth itself. So when you are acting out of obedience to Him, when you are giving yourself first to God, when you are resting on His righteousness, He will provide all you need to become what He intends you to be. He will give you an abundance of Himself – the harvest of your righteousness – so that you might show what He is like to others.”

This is what some of you have done through this gift of a new Odyssey timing belt. And this is what many others of you are doing regularly through offerings to DGCC, through assistance to the needy, through support for missions work, through pouring your lives into international students, and a thousand other ways.

May God continue to give us more of Himself as we give ourselves wholeheartedly to Him – and thus may His Name be magnified as we express His sincere concern for those around us.

Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift.

Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain

May 25, 2010

The audio for last Sunday’s sermon on the Third Commandment is now posted at this link. Here is the G. Campbell Morgan quote read near the end of the sermon, from The Ten Commandments (Fleming H. Revell, 1901), p. 41-43.

The last and most subtle form of breaking the third commandment is committed by the man who says, “Lord, Lord,” and does not the things that the Lord says. Prayer without practice is blasphemy; praise without adoration violates the third commandment; giving without disinterestedness robs the benevolence of God of its lustre and beauty. Let these thoughts be stated in other words. The profanity of the church is infinitely worse than the profanity of the street; the blasphemy of the sanctuary is a far more insidious form of evil than the blasphemy of the slum. Is there a blasphemy of the church and the sanctuary? The prayer that is denied by the life, the praise offered to God which is counteracted by rebellion against Him when the hour of that praise has passed away, that is blasphemy, that is taking the name of God in vain. If a man passes into the sanctuary and preaches and prays and praises with eloquent lips and beautiful sentences and devotional attitude, even with tears, and goes home to break the least of these commandments, that man blasphemes when he prays; but if he deceives the world, he never deceives God!  . . . The form in which this third commandment is broken most completely, most awfully, most terribly, is by perpetually making use of the name of the Lord, while the life does not square with the profession that is made. . . . Unless the last name, the name of Jesus, gathering into itself all human beauty and all Divine attributes – unless, as it is used, it is the keynote of the soul, the talisman of deliverance from evil – then had the name better never be mentioned, for so it is taken in vanity. May it be to all more than that.

Note that this book is now available in its entirety online at Google Books.

What is Worship?

May 20, 2010

What is worship? That is: What is the nature of true, biblical worship?

In response to the question, “What is worship?” many think primarily of singing. Indeed, Christians often ask each other, “Is the worship in your church traditional or contemporary?” The question, of course, refers to musical style. But biblically, worship is both much broader and much narrower than singing praise choruses together. Broader, in that worship includes much more than singing; narrower, in that it is perfectly possible to sing praise choruses for hours and never worship.

Let’s probe this issue by examining a well-known passage that at first glance seems to have little to do with worship: Philippians 1:20-21. Paul is in prison, not knowing for certain what is ahead of him. But he maintains his focus on one central goal, writing:

It is my eager expectation and hope . . . that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

Paul writes Philippians from prison. He has come close to death several times. Looking forward, he realizes he might live for several more years, or he might die soon. But neither possibility concerns him. Paul’s concern, Paul’s major desire, is that God be honored, or magnified.

The Greek word translated “honored” here means to make large; we might say “make much of”. Mary uses this same word in her song of rejoicing at the house of Elizabeth, saying, “My soul magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:46). The Greek translation of the Old Testament uses this same word often; a good example is Psalm 70:4: “Let all who seek You rejoice and be glad in You; And let those who love Your salvation say continually, ‘Let God be magnified.’” Given the context of Philippians 1:20, I think it likely that Paul had Psalm 70 in mind as he wrote these words. He is rejoicing and being glad in God despite his circumstances; and he is asking that God would be magnified continually in his life and even in his death.

Now, God created mankind to glorify Himself, as Isaiah 43:6b-7a tells us:

Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory.

But to magnify, exalt, extol, or make much of the Lord is to glorify Him. Thus Paul is fulfilling the purpose of creation even while in prison.

The implications for worship come out as we consider verse Philippians 2:21. Since this verse begins with the word “for”, it explains why verse 20 is true. Let’s consider how this explanation works for each of the two possibilities, life and death, in turn. Paul says, “It is my hope . . . that Christ will be honored in my body . . . by life . . . for to me to live is Christ.” And Paul says, “It is my hope . . . that Christ will be honored in my body . . . by death . . . for to me . . . to die is gain.”

Do you see what he is saying? Paul’s death will honor or magnify Christ, because he knows that dying is gain – dying is “far better”, as he says in verse 23. In his last seconds of life, Paul will be confident that he is being ushered into the very presence of Christ, to live with Him for all eternity, to see Him face to face, to know even as he is fully known; Paul knows that the Lord will give him the crown of righteousness. So he can go to his death honoring Christ by taking no account of the loss he is suffering. To be with Christ is better than to be alive; to have Christ for all eternity is better than to have all the possessions and accomplishments and fame the world has to offer. In this way, Paul honors Christ in his death.

What if he lives? Paul honors Christ in his life by saying, “to live is Christ.” He elaborates on this idea in chapter 3 verse 8:

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.

Paul says nothing else matters to him other than knowing Christ Jesus. Remember, Paul was a man of considerable accomplishment and influence; he had been to the best schools, he was on a career track to be a leader of the Jews; indeed, he may have been on the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, at the time of his conversion. He likely was a man of some wealth also. But Paul threw all that away in order to follow Christ.

Furthermore, does Paul sit back and say, “Weighing the two in the balance – knowing Christ versus all my worldly accomplishments and possessions – knowing Christ is a little better. I made the right decision”? No! Paul says all that he once held dear is rubbish compared to knowing Christ. And “rubbish” is a rather euphemistic translation of this crude Greek word, which was often used to refer to human excrement. There is no comparison. The value of Christ far surpasses the value of everything else. For Paul, to live is Christ. Thus, Paul honors or magnifies Christ in his life by living in such a way that all will see that Christ is worth far more to him than anything this world has to offer. Nothing else matters.

What does this have to do with worship? Everything! For worship in the New Testament does not refer to a regular religious event, but to the attitude of our hearts, and the continual outward expression of that attitude. Consider: When the Samaritan woman tries to divert Jesus from his pointed statement concerning her life by asking about the right place to worship, He emphasizes the internal attitude of worship by saying, “True worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:23). Paul tells us in view of God’s mercies to “offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1). Our act of worship is thus a spiritual act – having the attitude that all of our time and all of our members belong to God, to be used for His glory. Thus when Paul writes, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31), he is saying, “Make all of your life worship! Value Christ above all, and display His value in all your outward actions – even seemingly trivial actions like eating and drinking.”

So what is worship? Worship is acting and thinking and feeling in a way that reflects the glory of God. And the inner essence of worship is valuing Christ far above all earthly possessions and attainments. May we live in continual worship, and may God see fit to bring many more worshipers to Himself through us.

[This is a lightly edited excerpt from a longer document on worship written as we were laying the groundwork for planting this church. Here is the entire document, which includes a section on why public worship is of great importance. John Piper's exposition of Philippians 1:20-21 was helpful in preparation.]

Idolatry and Scripture

May 18, 2010

Ponder these words from Martin Luther, quoted in Sunday’s sermon:

This is . . . establishing idolatry: undertaking to worship God without God’s bidding, on the basis of one’s own devout inclinations. For he will not have us direct him how he is to be served. He intends to teach and direct us in this matter. His Word is to be there. This is to give us light and guidance. Without his Word all is idolatry and lies, however devout it may seem and however beautiful it may appear. . . .

For here you learn that it is not enough to say and think: “I am doing this for the glory of God; I intend it for the true God; I want to serve the only God.” All idolaters say and intend just that.

(As quoted in Michael Horton, The Law of Perfect Freedom: Relating to God and Others Through the Ten Commandments (Moody, 1993), p. 83-84.  The original source is Luther’s 1532 Preface to the Prophets, which is available online at this link, although in a different translation. The section on idolatry begins at about the halfway point with the phrase  “since the prophets cry out most of all against idolatry.” This quote begins with the phrase, “That is the real committing of idolatry.”)

How Can I Approach God?

May 6, 2010

How can I approach God?

As we saw in last Sunday’s sermon, God reveals Himself as unapproachable. Paul tells us that God “dwells in unapproachable light . . . no one . . . can see [Him]” (1 Timothy 6:16). God sets up limits around Mt Sinai for the Israelites, and more than once warns the Israelites not to touch the mountain, on pain of death.

God tells us He is holy. He is other. We cannot study Him as we would a plant, or an insect, or another human being. He is above us. He is beyond us.

And yet this same God says to the Israelites that they can be His “treasured possession” (Exodus 19:5); He calls them His “firstborn son” (Exodus 4:22). He promises through Isaiah, “With everlasting love I will have compassion on you” (Isaiah 54:8). Indeed, the author of Hebrews says that those in Christ have “confidence to enter the Most Holy Place” (Hebrews 10:19 NIV).

How can this be? How can God, on the one hand, be unapproachable, and yet, on the other hand, invite us to enter into His very presence?

Keep reading in Hebrews 10: “We have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus” (Hebrews 10:19 NIV).

Reflect on this. Don’t dismiss the idea, thinking, “Oh, of course, I’ve heard all that before.”

Let this thought seek deep into you: There is absolutely no way for you to approach God through your investigations, through your searching, through your moral choices – unless He chooses to reveal Himself to you. And He graciously has decided that there is one way He will allow those who deserve His condemnation to approach Him: Through their trusting in the death of His Son, through their uniting with His risen Christ, the Lord Jesus.

So we can approach this holy, other, unapproachable God through the one means He provides: His Son.

Some of you may be thinking, “Oh, yes, I did that years ago!”

But, my friend: Have you done that today?

God tells the Israelites to consecrate themselves before He descends on Mt Sinai and speaks to them (Exodus 19:10). What is the equivalent for us today?

Every morning as you wake and thus enter God’s presence; every Sunday before coming to worship Him publicly, live out Hebrews 10:19 by building up your confidence to enter boldly into God’s holy presence by appropriating for yourself once again the blood of Jesus.

How can we do this?

Begin by examining your heart (1 Corinthians 11:28): Pray that God would help you see if there is any grievous way in you, any hidden sin (Psalm 139:24; Psalm 19:12). Confess those sins you are aware of to Him. Pray words like these: “Father God, I am worthy of your eternal punishment. I deserve nothing from you, not even to be alive this moment. But you have showered me with your blessings, including . . . (thank Him for specific gifts). Most of all, you have opened my eyes to see the beauties of the Lord Jesus Christ, and have saved me from the punishment I deserve by His blood shed on the cross. Forgive these sins I have just confessed by that same blood; cleanse me from all unrighteousness as You promise (1 John 1:9). Amaze me once again that I have access to Your very presence through the cross. Enable me this day to worship you from the heart, to encourage others in their walk with you, spurring them on to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24-25).”

How can I approach God?

  • Not on the basis of my intelligence – His intelligence is of a completely different order of magnitude!
  • Not on the basis of my holiness – He “is light, and in Him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).
  • Not on the basis of my good works, or my obedience – for even my best works are stained by improper motives, and His command is, “Be perfect, as Your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

But I can approach God as a condemned sinner desperately in need of His grace. I can approach God through faith in His Son who died for His enemies. I can – and must – approach God daily as a supplicant, asking forgiveness on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice.

And when I do, He says to me: “I have loved you with an everlasting love.”