Read the Whole Bible in 2014

December 28, 2013

Should you read the Bible?

Jesus says, “Blessed . . . are those who hear the Word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:28)

How will reading the Bible bless you?

Paul writes, “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 competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

How then should you read God’s Word?

Those same verses from Paul imply that we should read all of it, since every part of it is profitable.

Surely also you should read it daily; in addition you should read it submissively. In Proverbs 8, personified Wisdom cries out:

Hear instruction and be wise, and do not neglect it. Blessed is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors. For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the LORD, but he who fails to find me injures himself; all who hate me love death (Proverbs 8:33-36, emphasis added).

But what does this look like on a day to day and year to year basis?

If we are to read the Bible daily, with a goal of reading it in its entirety, we will need a plan. I first followed an annual, comprehensive Bible reading plan in 1984. This plan was purely chronological; I began reading with Genesis 1 on January 1 and finished with Revelation 22 on December 31, but in between the plan guided me through Scripture in the order in which events and prophecies occurred. This was eye-opening to me. Though I had grown up in church and in fact had read all of Scripture previously, I had never before seen the overall flow of God’s plan of redemption. In particular, the writings of prophets like Ezekiel and Jeremiah became much more meaningful to me as I read them in conjunction with the historical books. In addition, many psalms came to life as I read them in the context of surrounding events.

I followed chronological plans several more times in subsequent years. However, there are significant weaknesses in following such a plan repeatedly for your daily devotional reading. First of all, you read nothing from the New Testament for more than nine months of the year. Second, a strictly chronological plan jumps around in the four Gospels. The reader therefore misses what Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John communicate through the way they each order and select from the events of Jesus’ life. Finally, following chronological plans requires a lot of page flipping.

So in December of 2000, I developed the Bible Unity Reading Plan, which yields the benefits of a chronological approach while avoiding these weaknesses.  The Bible Unity Plan has two tracks for each day. The longer track – the left hand column in each day’s reading – is chronological. The second track, in the right column, is a shorter reading from another part of Scripture. This second track includes Mark, Luke, and John – read straight through – and several epistles while the chronological track makes its way through the Old Testament; it then focuses on Psalms and Proverbs while the chronological track takes you through the remaining books of the New Testament. And with only two passages to read most days, there is minimal page-flipping. The Plan also follows a helpful feature of the Discipleship Journal Bible Reading Plan, scheduling only 25 days of reading per month. This allows you to read something else on Sundays (which I like to do), or to catch up easily if you miss an occasional day.

I have used this plan (or a variant of it) every year from 2001 to the present. I enjoy beginning each New Year with Genesis 1:1 and John 1:1-3:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.

I also enjoy the 14th reading in November, which pairs the message of Acts 15 – those from other nations need not become Jewish to be saved – with the foundation of that message in Psalm 67: “Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you! Let the nations be glad and sing for joy!”

In 2001 – the first time I read through the Bible following the plan – I was astounded by God’s providence. Living in West Africa, on September 11 we did not hear about the destruction of the Twin Towers until late afternoon. That evening I turned to the 11th reading for September – and read three times of the heart-rending but long-prophesied destruction of Jerusalem from 2 Kings 25, Jeremiah 39, and Jeremiah 52.

Finally, every year I look forward to the final day’s readings, which sum up the entire storyline of the Bible:

“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” . . . The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price. . . . He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:12-13, 17, 20)

Praise the LORD from the earth, you great sea creatures and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind fulfilling his word! Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! Beasts and all livestock, creeping things and flying birds! Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! Young men and maidens together, old men and children! Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his majesty is above earth and heaven (Psalm 148:7-13).

I expect to follow this plan, and to finish each year reading those words, as long as I live. I encourage you to join me in 2014.

[A shorter version of the Bible Unity Plan – which covers all the New Testament and about half the Old – is available here. This Sunday, copies of both plans will be on the table in the foyer. This article is edited slightly from the original, published in December 2012.]

 

Good Cheer For Christmas

December 20, 2013

[From Charles Spurgeon’s sermon of December 20, 1868 on Isaiah 25:6: “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.”]

We have nearly arrived at the great merry-making season of the year. On Christmas-day we shall find all . . . enjoying themselves with all the good cheer which they can afford. Servants of God, you who have the largest share in the person of him who was born at Bethlehem, I invite you to the best of all Christmas fare. . . . Behold, how rich and how abundant are the provisions which God has made for the high festival which he would have his servants keep, not now and then, but all the days of their lives!

God, in the verse before us, has been pleased to describe the provisions of the gospel of Jesus Christ. . . . When we behold the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, whose flesh is meat indeed, and whose blood is drink indeed—when we see him offered up upon the chosen mountain, we then discover a fulness of meaning in these gracious words of sacred hospitality. . . .

I. First, then, we have to consider THE FEAST.

It is described as consisting of . . . the best of the best. . . . Let us attentively survey the blessings of the gospel. . . .

One of the first gospel blessings is that of complete justification. A sinner, though guilty in himself, no sooner believes in Jesus than all his sins are pardoned. The righteousness of Christ becomes his righteousness, and he is accepted in the Beloved. Now, this is a delicious dish indeed. Here is something for the soul to feed upon. To think that I, though a deeply guilty one, am absolved of God, and set free from the bondage of the law! To think that I, though once an heir of wrath, am now as accepted before God as Adam was when he walked in the Garden without a sin; nay, more accepted still, for the divine righteousness of Christ belongs to me, and I stand complete in him, beloved in the Beloved, and accepted in him too! Beloved, this is such a precious truth, that when the soul feeds on it, it experiences a quiet peace, a deep and heavenly calm, to be found nowhere on earth besides. . . . Here is marrow indeed when we perceive the truth and reality of the substitution of Jesus, and grasp with heart and soul the fact of our great Surety standing in our stead at the bar of justice, that we might stand in his stead in the place of honour and love. . . .

Meditate upon a second blessing of the covenant of grace, namely, that of adoption. It is plainly revealed to us, that as many as have believed in Christ Jesus unto the salvation of their souls, are the sons of God. . . . Shall a worm of the dust become a child of God? A rebel be adopted into the heavenly family? A condemned criminal not only forgiven, but actually made a child of God? Wonder of wonders! “Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the children of God!” To which of the kings and princes of this earth did he ever say, “Thou art my son”? He has not spoken thus to the great ones and to the mighty, but God hath chosen the base things of this world and things that are despised, yea, and things that are not, and made these to be of the seed royal. . . .

Passing on from the blessing of adoption, let us remember that every child of God is the object of eternal love without beginning and without end. . . . Long before the Lord began to create the world, he had thought of me. Long ere Adam fell or Christ was born, and the angels sung their first choral over Bethlehem’s miracle, the eye and the heart of God were towards his elect people. . . .

[Furthermore,] this love which had no beginning shall have no end. He is a God that changeth not. . . . Where he has once set his heart of love upon a man, he never turns away from doing him good. . . . Remember that not merely has the Lord thought of you from everlasting, but loved you. Oh! the depth of that word “love,” as it applies to the infinite Jehovah, whose name, whose essence, whose nature is love! He has loved you with all the immutable intensity of his heart, never more and never less; loved you so much that he gave his only begotten Son for you; loved you so well that nothing could content him but making you to be conformed into the image of his dear Son, and causing you to partake of his glory that you may be with him where he is! Come, feed on this, ye heirs of eternal life! . . .

[Now feed on] union to Christ. We are plainly taught in the word of God that as many as have believed are one with Christ. . . . They are in him as the branches are in the vine; they are members of the body of which he is the head. They are one with Jesus in such a true and real sense that with him they died, with him they have been buried, with him they are risen, with him they are raised up together and made to sit together in heavenly places. . . . They are dead and their life is hid with Christ in God. . . . . [If] we are one with Christ, then because he lives we must live also; because he was justified by his resurrection, we also are justified in him; because he is rewarded and for ever sits down at his Father’s right hand, we also have obtained the inheritance in him. . . . Oh, can it be that this aching head already has a right to a celestial crown! . . . That these weary feet have a title to tread the sacred halls of the New Jerusalem! It is so, for if we are one with Christ, then all he has belongs to us, and it is but a matter of time, and of gracious arrangement when we shall come into the full enjoyment thereof. . . .
I cannot bring forth all the courses of my Lord’s banquet; . . . but I would remind you of one more, and that is the doctrine of resurrection and everlasting life. This poor world dimly guessed at the immortality of the soul, but it knew nothing of the resurrection of the body: the gospel of Jesus has brought life and immortality to light, and he himself has declared to us of Jesus, that he that believeth in him shall never die. . . . Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Not the soul only, but the body also shall partake of immortality, for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. . . . To us the coming of Christ will be a day of joy and of rejoicing: we shall be caught up together with him; his reign shall be our reign, his glory our glory. Wherefore comfort one another with these words, and as ye see your brethren and your sisters departing one by one from among you, sorrow not as those that are without hope. . . . Our expected immortality is not that of mere existence, it is not the barren privilege of life without bliss, existence without happiness—it is full of glory; for “we shall be like him when we shall see him as he is;” we shall be with God, at whose right hand there is fulness of joy and pleasures for evermore. He shall make us to drink of the river of his pleasures; songs and everlasting joy shall be upon our heads, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. . . .

Changing the run of the thought, . . . let me now bring before you the goblets of wine. . . . These we shall consider as symbolising the joys of the gospel. What are these? . . . One of the dearest joys of the Christian life is a sense of perfect peace with God. . . . A quiet heart, resting in the love of God, dwelling in perfect peace, hath a royalty about it which cannot for a moment be matched by the fleeting joys of this world. . . .
This joy of ours will sometimes rise to an elevation yet more sublime when it is caused by communion with God. Believers, while engaged in prayer and praise, in service and in suffering, are enabled by the Holy Spirit to hold high converse with their Lord. . . . We tell to God our griefs; discoursing upon our sorrows not in fiction, but declaring them in real conversation, as when a man speaketh with his neighbour: meanwhile the Lord’s Spirit whispers to us with the still small voice of the promise, such words as calm our minds and guide our feet. Yes, and when our Beloved takes us into the banqueting-house of real conscious fellowship with himself, and waves the love-banner over us, our holy joy is as much superior to all merely human mirth, as the heavens are above the earth. Then do we speak and sing with sacred zest, and feel as if we could weep for very joy of heart, for our Beloved is ours and we are his. . . .

We will place on the table one goblet more. . . . We have provided for us the pleasures of hope, a hope most sure and steadfast, most bright and glorious—the hope that what we know to-day shall be outdone by what we shall know to-morrow; the hope that by-and-by what we now see, as in a glass darkly, shall be seen face to face. . . . We are looking forward to a speedy day when we shall be unburdened of this creaking tabernacle, and being absent from the body shall be present with the Lord. Our hope of future bliss is elevated and confident. Oh, the vision of his face! Oh, the sight of Jesus in his exaltation! Oh, . . . the word, “Well done, good and faithful servant” from that dear mouth! and then for ever to lie in his bosom. . . .

II. Notice the Banqueting Hall . . .

III. Thirdly, let us think of THE HOST of the feast.

“In this mountain shall the Lord of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things.” Mark well the truth that in the gospel banquet there is not a single dish brought by man. The Lord makes it, and he makes it all. . . . The Lord makes the feast; and, observe, he does it, too, as the Lord of hosts, as a sovereign, as a ruler, doing as he wills amongst the sons of men, preparing what he wills for the good of his creatures, and constraining whom he wills to come to the marriage-feast. . . .  If God spread the feast it is not to be despised; if the Lord has put forth all the omnipotence of his eternal power and Godhead in preparing the banquet for the multitude of the sons of men, then depend upon it, it is a banquet worthy of him, one to which they may come with confidence, for it must be such a banquet as their souls require, and such as the world never saw before. O my soul, rejoice thou in thy God and King.

IV. Lastly, a word or two upon THE GUESTS.

The Lord has made this banquet “for all people”. What a precious word this is! “For all people.” Then this includes not merely the chosen people, the Jews, . . . but it encompasses the poor uncircumcised Gentiles, who by Jesus are brought nigh. . . . Blessed be God for that word, “unto all people,” for it permits missionary enterprise in every land. . . . Dwell on that word, “all people,” and you will see it includes the rich, for there is a feast of fat things for them, such as their gold could never buy; and it includes the poor, for they being rich in faith shall have fellowship with God. “All people.” This takes in the man of enlarged intelligence and extensive knowledge; but it equally encompasses the illiterate man who cannot read. The Lord makes this feast “for all people;” for you old people, if you come to Jesus you shall find that he is suitable to you; for you young men and maidens, and you little children, if you put your trust in God’s appointed Saviour, there shall be much joy and happiness for you. . . . None have ever been rejected of all who have ever come to Christ and asked for mercy. Still is it true, “Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.” Some very odd people have come to him, some very wicked people, some very hardened people, but the door was never closed in any one’s face. Why should Jesus begin hard dealings with you? He cannot, because he cannot change. If he says, “Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out,” make one of the “hims” that come, and he cannot cast you out. . . . Between the covers of the Bible there is no mention made of one person who may not come. There is no description given of a person who is forbidden to trust Christ. . . . Do not limit what the Lord does not limit. I know he has an elect people; . . . but still this does not at all conflict with the other precious truth that whosoever believeth in the Son of God hath everlasting life. If you believe in Jesus Christ, all these things are yours. Come, poor trembler, the silver trumpet soundeth, and this is the note it rings, . . . “Come and welcome, come and welcome, sinner, come! Come as you are, sinful as you are, hardened as you are, careless as you think you are, and having no good thing whatsoever, come to your God in Christ!” O may you come to him who gave his Son to bleed in the sinner’s stead, and casting yourself on what Christ has done, may you resolve, “If I perish, I will trust in him. . . .” You shall not perish, but for you there shall be the feast of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined.

The Center of Christmas: Fully God and Fully Man

December 13, 2013

Luke 2:7  And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths
and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

Amidst gift-buying and Santas and reindeer and “folks dressed up like Eskimos,” what should be the center of Christmas?

Luke 2:7 tells us. “She gave birth.” Mary, a young girl, a virgin, a woman who had never had sexual relations with a man, gave birth. The conception was a miracle – but there is nothing here in the text to indicate that the birth was anything other than the normal process of labor. Mary gave birth just as billions of other women have given birth: her water broke, she began to have contractions, she felt overwhelmed by the process going on inside her body; her back hurt, there was pain and effort and sweat and pushing and stretching and burning – and then, finally, amazingly, this new little creature came forth from her body; a new creature covered with mucous and amniotic fluid and blood and vernix – hair (if any) plastered to his head, that head possibly misshapen from hours of pushing, his skin bluish in color until the first breath, and first cry. Mary gave birth – and the baby, Jesus, came into this world just as you and I did, through His mother’s strong efforts, bloody, slippery – and yet beautiful.

The point of all this? Jesus was a baby – a normal baby, born in the normal way.

Jesus was really human. Jesus was a baby who soiled himself, spit up, cried when He was hungry; He was completely dependent upon his parents for meeting His every need. He could do nothing for himself. With His little hands, he grasped fingers held out to Him. He couldn’t communicate at first except by crying. He took months to learn to crawl, and more months to learn to walk, and to speak. Jesus was a normal, human baby with normal human needs.

Jesus continued to exhibit normal human needs and problems throughout his life. The Bible tells us:

  • He became tired (John 4:6).
  • He became thirsty (John 4:7, 19:28).
  • He was tempted to sin (Matthew 4:1-10, Hebrews 4:15).
  • He wept (Hebrews 5:7, John 11:35).
  • He suffered (Hebrews 2:18).

Indeed, the book of Hebrews tells us he was “like his brothers in every respect” (2:17).

Scripture is clear: Jesus was a real baby. Jesus was a real man.

But Jesus was not only a man. He was “Immanuel, which means God with us” (Matthew 1:34). Jesus is truly God. How do we know this? The Bible shows this in three ways:

1) While on earth, He claimed to be God

a) Jesus said, “I and the Father are One” (John 10:30-31). His audience clearly understood him to claim deity – for they proceeded to try to stone Him for committing blasphemy! Now, there are many pantheists who would say something that sounds similar on the surface: “All things are God – all things are one – I am one with the universe.” But that’s clearly not what Jesus meant. The Bible never confuses God with His creation. Indeed, the very first sentence in the Bible makes a clear distinction between God and the created order: “In the beginning God created.” Jesus is not saying, “I and the Father are One – You and the Father are One – we’re all One!” He is saying, “I am unique. I am God.”

b) Jesus said, “Before Abraham was born, I am” (John 8:58-59). Here Jesus clearly claims to have existed prior to Abraham – who lived more than a thousand years earlier. But He is claiming even more than that. Why does Jesus say, “Before Abraham was born, I am” instead of “Before Abraham was born, I was”? Remember God’s revelation of Himself to Moses at the burning bush. There God answers Moses’ request to tell him His name by saying,

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.'” Exodus 3:14

So when Jesus says, “Before Abraham was born, I am,” He is echoing the name of God. He is hinting at His equality with God. Once again, His listeners understand this and consider such a statement blasphemous.

c) Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 15:24). This is an audacious claim. “Look at Me and you will see what God is like.” Only the God-man can say that.

So Jesus clearly claimed to be God. Now, over the centuries, a number of men have claimed to be God. Today, we put most such people in mental institutions. So making the claim does not establish the point. That leads us to the next point: These other claimants to deity have not done what only God can do.

2) While on earth, Jesus did things only God could do

  • He fed 5000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish (Mark 6:35-44).
  • He turned water into wine (John 2:1-11).
  • In the midst of a storm, He commanded the wind and the waves to be still – and they obeyed (Mark 4:39).
  • He raised the dead to life (John 11:43-44).
  • He Himself was raised from the dead, and was seen by more than 500 people (1 Corinthians 15:3-6)
  • He forgave sins (Mark 2:5-7).

Consider this last incident. Friends bring a paralyzed man to Jesus. They can’t get in the door, so they climb on top of the house, open a hole in the roof, and let the paralytic down through the hole. Jesus looks at him, and the first thing He says is, “My son, your sins are forgiven.” The scribes who are present think, rightly, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At that point, Jesus chooses to heal the man – to show that He had authority to forgive sins. He thus proves He is God by forgiving the man’s sins, and then showing that those sins are truly forgiven by the physical healing.

We could point to many more incidents, but these alone show that Jesus did what only God can do.

3) Other New Testament writers tell us that Jesus is God

Once again, we could point to any number of passages. We’ll look at only two:

Hebrews 1:3 [The Son] is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.

The second phrase is the easiest to understand: Jesus is the “exact imprint of [God’s] nature.” He is exactly like God. Since God is perfectly loving, Jesus is perfectly loving. Since God is perfectly just, Jesus is perfectly just. Since God is perfectly holy, Jesus is perfectly holy.

Use that phrase to help you understand the first: “The radiance of the glory of God.” Jesus is the glory of God shining forth! He displays God’s attributes in ways that no one else does, in ways that nothing else can.

Finally the last phrase: “He upholds the universe by the word of his power.” The entire creation is sustained by His might. He not only created all things, but without Him all things would cease to exist.

Clearly the author of Hebrews claims that Jesus is God.

For our second passage, consider four verses from John 1:

John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

John tells us that Jesus existed before creation – but more than that, He was God from the beginning.

John 1:3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.

Jesus was the active agent of God in creation. Apart from Him, nothing has come into existence.

John 1:14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Jesus is man, but Jesus is God also. His glory is the glory of God. He, like God, is full of grace and truth.

John 1:18 No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known

Look at this verse carefully. When John says, “the only God, who is at the Father’s side” who is he talking about? Jesus! So he says, “No one has ever seen God the Father, but Jesus, who is God also, who is at the side of God the Father, has shown us what God is like. When we see Jesus, we see God the Father.”

There can be no question. These passages say that Jesus is God.

Put these thoughts together now. Meditate on what it means for Jesus to be both God and man:

Those same infant hands which grasped Mary’s finger were the hands that created the myriads of stars; that same voice that cried out moments after birth was the voice that named each of those stars.

So consider the tremendous truth of the incarnation. We get so used to the words “Immanuel, God with us, God incarnate, God in the flesh,” they role off our lips and we don’t begin to fathom what they mean. Think, now think! The One who made the sun became infinitesimal compared to it. The One who had all glory and power and purity and praise became despised, poor, needy, helpless; the One who was before the world began became – a tiny, seemingly insignificant speck in that world.

Jesus is man, fully man. Jesus is God, fully God.

That’s the mystery in Bethlehem’s manger. That’s the center of Christmas.

[Much of this is taken from a 2004 sermon, “Knowing and Loving God Through the Incarnation.”

When Do You Give Up on Someone?

December 5, 2013

When do you give up on someone?

Think of someone you have prayed for time and again, someone who has heard the Gospel and rejected it for years. Should you conclude, “It’s hopeless – this person will never come to faith.”

We considered Jesus’ story about two sons last Sunday:

“What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” (Matthew 21:28-31)

The sermon emphasized the second son; consider now the first. He initially refuses to obey his father. Later, however, he regrets that decision and fulfills the command.

Any follower of Christ who speaks the Gospel regularly has heard such refusals. God makes His appeal through us: “Be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ!” (2 Corinthians 5:17-21). Yet as we make this appeal, many reject the command. Like the first son, they answer, “I will not.” Even after multiple appeals, many continue to say no.

But gloriously, many also, after decades of refusal, change their minds, come to faith in Christ, and are reconciled to God. We could tell of those among our own church family, but instead hear of “Staffordshire Bill,” who came to faith in a poor town in Wales around 1930, under the ministry of Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Bill was near 70 years old at this time. He drove a fish-cart around town, pulled by a pony, selling fish door to door – and it was not uncommon for the pony to pull the driverless cart back home after Bill, drunk, fell back, asleep, into the rear with the fish. One evening Bill was drinking in a club:

There he was, drinking himself into his usual sodden condition, and as he afterwards confessed, feeling low, hopeless, and depressed, trusting to the drink to drown those inward pangs and fears which sometimes disturbed him.  There were several men in little groups of twos and threes in the Club room, drinking and talking, and suddenly he found himself listening, at first involuntarily but then anxiously, to a conversation between two men at the table next to his [discussing Lloyd-Jones’ preaching]. . . . ‘Yes,’ said the one man to the other, ‘I was there last Sunday night and that preacher said nobody was hopeless – he said there was hope for everybody.’  Of the rest of the conversation he heard nothing, but, arrested and now completely sobered, he said to himself, ‘If there’s hope for everybody, there’s hope for me – I’ll go to that chapel myself and see what that man says.’ . . .

[He aborted his first two attempts to attend, as his nerves failed him.] The third Sunday evening he was again at the gate, ‘wondering nervously what he should do next’, when one of the congregation welcomed him with the words, ‘Are you coming in, Bill?  Come and sit with me.’

That same night ‘Staffordshire Bill’ passed from condemnation to life.  ‘He found,’ Mrs, Lloyd-Jones tells us, ‘that he could understand the things that were being said, he believed the gospel and his heart was flooded with a great peace.  Old things had passed away, all things had become new. The transformation in his face was remarkable, it had the radiance of a saint.  As he walked out that night, [a church member introduced him and said], “Mrs. Jones, this is Staffordshire Bill.” I shall never forget the agonized look on his face, for he flinched as though he had been struck a sudden blow.  “Oh no, oh no,” he said, “that’s a bad old name for a bad old man; I am William Thomas now.”‘

William Thomas was a new creation. He died at peace with God three years later.

How many times had Staffordshire Bill heard something of the Gospel? How many times had he refused to obey the call? How many times had he cursed those who spoke to him of Jesus?

The power of God can transform the greatest drunk and the most arrogant intellectual, the vilest criminal and the most upstanding citizen. God commands all: “Be reconciled to Me!” There are many “first sons” who have responded, “I will not!” But, like Staffordshire Bill, God may not be done with them.

So be His mouthpiece. No matter how many rejections you have heard, no one is hopeless. “In Christ God [is] reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19). So don’t give up. Be His ambassador. And may God be pleased to bring many who have rebelled for decades into His family.

[The story of Staffordshire Bill is taken from Iain Murray, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The First Forty Years (Banner of Truth Trust, 1982), 222-223.]

Thankful for the Word

December 5, 2013

In this Thanksgiving season, I am especially thankful for the Word of God.

Consider: Why don’t you love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength?

Here are three barriers that hinder such love:

  • The bad things in this world – including natural disasters, oppression, torture, and slavery. These can lead to doubts about the existence or power or love of God.
  • The good things in this world – God’s good gifts that we love more than the One who gives them. These lead us to take our eyes off of God. Even a wonderful spouse can lead us away from having an all-encompassing love for God, as we love that husband or wife more than we love Him. But temptations fit into this category also. Most temptations are for good things that we want in the wrong context: Sexual expression outside of marriage, more money or possessions than what God has granted us. So, often we respond in two wrong ways to the good things in this world: We either have them, and let our enjoyment and love for them become greater than our love for God; or we don’t have them, and spend our lives coveting them, thus failing to love God above all else.
  • The busy-ness of this world. Third, a lack of love for God may result not from some other desire or from tragedy – but just because we never even think of Him. We are so busy! We get up, get to work, get home, get dinner, watch our regular TV programs, exercise, call our parents, help the kids with the homework, take care of the dog. And, suddenly, it’s bedtime. The day’s over. Oops, no time with God today. So we say, “Well, tomorrow I’ll do that.” But then tomorrow zips by in the same manner.

How can we overcome these barriers and truly love God?

At the heart of all these barriers is ignorance of God – a practical ignorance if not an intellectual ignorance. If we let these barriers interfere with our love for God, then we are ignorant of God’s ways, of God’s delights, of what is most important.

How do we combat this ignorance? How do we tear down these barriers to loving God?

God’s Word is the key. God’s Word is the revelation of Who He is. God’s Word is the revelation of the only way to know Him, the only way to be acceptable to Him – through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ. God’s Word shows us the way to true life, giving us the right perspective on all the rest of life.

So the key way, the only way to deal with those impediments to loving God is knowledge of His Word.

Note this carefully: Knowledge is necessary for love.

This is very different from the way many people think. Even some churches say, “Let’s not emphasize teaching. Let’s not emphasize doctrine. Let’s just give everyone enough teaching so that they are saved, but then forget the rest. Doctrine divides. Let’s just all love God, and love our fellow man.”

But the Bible tells us that we must know His Word if we are to love Him, and through His Word we are enabled to love our fellow man. Correct doctrine, rightly taught and rightly prompting love, is key for the Christian life.

Consider Philippians 1:7-11. Paul says he holds the Philippians in his heart. He yearns for them with the affection of Christ Jesus. So what does he pray for them? He prays that their love may become like His love: that is, coupled with or abounding with knowledge:

[I pray] that your love still more and more might abound in knowledge and all discernment, so that you might test and approve the things that really matter, in order that you might be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, being filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1:9-11, own translation)

Do you see what he is saying? He starts by acknowledging their love for God. He then prays that that love might be coupled with more and more knowledge, so that they can know the difference between what is important and what is not. Then they will take on character of Jesus Christ – thus fulfilling their purpose of glorifying Him, and loving Him that much more. So for Paul, love and knowledge are intimately related.

We must think in these categories! Love and knowledge are not antithetical. To say ‘I love God” and

  • not to be in His Word,
  • not to hear Him proclaimed through preaching,
  • not to listen to the public reading of the Scripture,
  • not to read good books about Him –

is to be stating a falsehood. You do not love God if you are not trying to know Him better. Truly to love God is to have the desire to know Him. And we know Him first and foremost through His Word.

Jesus says the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:28-30). But these are not four independent ways of loving God! We cannot love God with all our heart unless we are also loving God with our mind. And vice versa.

Rather, loving God with all our mind is the way to love God with all our heart. So as we love God, we desire to know Him better. We thus will prayerfully fill our mind with His Word, and ask that God would open up His Word to us all the more. We therefore will know Him better, and love Him more – prompting us to seek Him through His Word all the more.

This is a type of virtuous circle, or positive feedback loop. Consider John 15:7:

If you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be done for you.

Loving God prompts us to pray, and prayer leads us to love God more. So our primary request is that the first part of the verse be true for us: We pray that we might abide in Him, and that His Words might abide in us. Note that Jesus chooses to say, “If My words abide in you” and not simply “If I abide in you.” He is thereby making the point that abiding in Jesus is not a state of higher consciousness that we somehow attain. Knowledge of Jesus does not come in some mystical way, but from His revelation of Himself. Jesus became incarnate, and those who saw Him, wrote of Him, and the prophets who lived prior to Him were carried along by the Holy Spirit to write of Him. God superintended all that, so that we might come to know Him through the way He ordained.

So our love for God – as well as our love for each other – must be based on the truths presented in God’s Word. Our love for each other is not based on some general idea of human worth. Nor is it based on feelings of human oneness. Our love for God is not based on whatever conception of God and Jesus I come up with in my head. Our love for God – if it is a love that fulfills the Great Commandment – must be a love that is based on the revelation of God in His Word.

Therefore, a genuine love for God must prompt us to know more of His Word. If it does not, it is not a true love for God.

So be thankful for God’s Word! And may we be devoted to that Word in our churches, in our homes, and in our private lives. May we know His revelation better and better – and so love Him and love our neighbor more and more.

[This devotion is an edited version of the introduction to a sermon on Psalm 119 from 2005.]