Reflections on Marriage and Idolatry on our 36th Anniversary

December 31, 2015

On Tuesday, Beth and I completed 36 years of marriage. As stated last week, the love I had for her on our Wedding Day has grown many-fold as we have shared life these decades, as I have come to know her better and better, as God has worked in both of our lives – often through each other – conforming us more and more to His likeness. Our relationship gives me more joy and delight than anything else in this world.

Could that be idolatry? Can I make my wife an idol?

Yes. Idolatry is a danger whenever we delight in things of this world.

And yet we are to rejoice!

Let’s flesh out how we can properly rejoice in God’s good gifts while avoiding idolatry by looking at Scripture’s commands to husbands and examining the nature of idolatry.

  • Husbands and wives are a unity, one flesh (Genesis 2:24). So we are to love our wives as our own bodies (Ephesians 5:28).
  • Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the church (Ephesians 5:25). And Christ delights in His church! He rejoices over His church (Zephaniah 3:17).
  • Indeed, Scripture commands the husband to “be intoxicated always” in his wife’s love (Proverbs 5:15-19). This passage in Proverbs especially emphasizes joy in the sexual relationship – a central part of both husband and wife that is shared with no other.
  • A husband is to recognize, rejoice in, and honor his wife’s character and accomplishments, acknowledging God’s blessings in her (Proverbs 31:10-31).

So Beth giving me more joy and delight than anything else in this world – and my acknowledging that before others – might be biblical, might be healthy, might be God-honoring.

Yet instead it might be idolatry.

How can we make the distinction?

First, let’s clarify what an idol is. An idol is any person, power, or spirit that you rely on instead of God for satisfaction, security, accomplishment, and honor. Such idols can become the primary source of your identity – how you see yourself, how you define yourself.

So Beth becomes an idol if I find joy and satisfaction in her in and of herself, if I act or think as if I can only be happy if we are together, if I rejoice in her without seeing her as a gift from God, a lovely token of His love.

Instead, I am to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4, emphasis added); I am to give thanks “always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20, emphasis added – note that this is part of the same passage on being filled with the Spirit in which the Apostle gives his teaching on marriage); I am to “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17, again in the context of instructions on marriage), that is, to His glory and praise.

Thus, our Lord Jesus says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). Surely the statement carries over to husbands and wives. God must be supreme. Jesus must be our treasure. We must see ourselves as lost, without hope, without joy, without even identity unless we have Jesus. We must say with the psalmist, “Whom have I in heaven but You? And earth has nothing I desire besides You” (Psalm 73:25).

But when the Lord is our delight, when we see ourselves as His people, His sheep, His precious possession, when we do all things to His glory and praise, when we see all the good things in this life as tokens of His love and overflow with thankfulness when we receive them, then we are not only free to delight in our wives (and husbands and friends and health and trees and birds and sun and stars . . .), but we are commanded to do so. For that glorifies God.

C.S. Lewis uses the analogy of standing in a dark toolshed, looking at a beam of light shining through the crack above the door. He sees nothing else – the beam of light, shining on dust, is the most glorious thing visible. But then he turns his head to look up the beam, towards the sun itself. That is the source of the beam’s glory, and that is far, far more glorious.

Just so with us and all things in this world, including our spouses. There is glory in this world – and there is a special, personal display of glory for me in Beth. I can and should delight in her. But if she is not to be an idol, I must look up the beam to the source of all glory – to the One Who created her, Who gave her to me, Who made us one, Who redeemed us and sanctified us so that we would build up and not destroy our marriage, Who continues to work in us to our good and His glory. So my great delight in her becomes the prompt for praise and thanksgiving to the One Who is all-glorious.

Husbands, loves your wives. Delight in them. Be intoxicated with their love.

And look up the beam, thanking and praising Jesus. May He be your greatest delight.

Christmas and Missions

December 24, 2015

What does Christmas have to do with missions?

Biblically, missions should never be far from the center of our Christmas celebrations, for two reasons:

  • First, Jesus is the greatest example of a cross-cultural missionary. For missions concerns crossing cultural boundaries. We, the church of Jesus Christ, must send missionaries cross-culturally if we are to fulfill the task our Lord gives us: Bringing worshipers from every tribe and tongue and people and nation to Him. And, think: Who crossed the greatest cultural divide ever? Jesus Himself! He came from the glory of the throne-room of God into the womb of a woman, and then into a feeding trough for cattle. What an example!
  • Second: Jesus is more than an example. Jesus became man in order to purchase for His own possession ONE people made up of all the peoples of the earth. He came so that all will see that NO CULTURAL BARRIER will keep people from God. He came so that God will be praised in EVERY language. He came so that the purpose of the creation of every people group would be fulfilled: To glorify God.

So for a true believer in Jesus – as opposed to someone who is simply a cultural Christian – Christmas should be a time of particular focus on the task that Christ gives His church – the task similar to our Lord’s cross-cultural journey, the task made possible by His incarnation: Crossing cultural barriers, going even to hard, resistant peoples – even when that is uncomfortable and dangerous – for God’s glory, for our joy, for the joy of those peoples.

Thus, one of our primary objectives at Desiring God Church is to lift our eyes! To help us all to see this worldwide vision of God!

So many think that Christianity is about having a place to unwind on Sundays, a place to make friends, a place where you will learn to be a better husband or father or wife or mother; a place that will teach your children to respect you; a place that might make you look more respectable; and/or a place that will provide you with a death insurance policy, so that when you die you won’t go to hell.

I hope if you’ve attended Desiring God Church even one Sunday, you no longer think that way – if you ever did.

I have nothing against making friends, or learning to be a better marriage partner. I have nothing against teaching children the truths of God’s Word, and helping parents to love their children and raise them. We do indeed try to make DGCC a place where all those happen. I don’t even have anything against unwinding – though I don’t think listening to me preach helps anyone unwind.

But we are about something much greater than any of these:

  • Our mission is to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.
  • Our mission is to go ourselves and to help others go to make disciples of ALL NATIONS, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey all that Jesus commands us.
  • Our mission is to fill the earth with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

Our vision is thus not small and achievable. Rather it is huge and biblical.

How do you respond to such a vision and mission?

Your first response is probably, “I can’t fulfill that personally! And we can’t even fulfill that corporately!”

That’s right. You can’t. We can’t.

But don’t stop with that response and despair!

Ephesians 3:20 says God is “able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.”

That is, God is so great, so mighty, so creative, that our best efforts at imagining what He is able to do are far beneath His capabilities.

And, with that in mind, think: He not only COMMANDS us to make disciples of all nations; He guarantees that HE will bring that about THROUGH us. Similarly, He not only COMMANDS us to be the light of the world; He guarantees that He will fill the earth with the knowledge of His glory as the waters cover the sea.

And what else that we can’t imagine might God do?

William Carey was born in 1761 into a poor family in England. He had little schooling, having been apprenticed to a shoemaker from the age of sixteen.

But God called him to Himself during those teen years. From that early age, Carey began to study the Bible voraciously. He then began to preach. For several years he served as pastor in tiny churches, while still supporting himself and his family through shoemaking.

In 1792, the 31 year old Carey – still unknown, still serving in small churches – preached at a meeting of Baptist ministers. His text was Isaiah 54:2-3:

Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes.  For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left, and your offspring will possess the nations and will people the desolate cities.

Do you see the picture?

Your tent is set up. It seems sufficiently big for those who take shelter in it. But even though it doesn’t look like it now, you’re going to need a much bigger tent! So pull up the stakes, and get stronger ones! Place them much further away! Lengthen the cords that attach the tent to the stakes! Sure, this will be disruptive, difficult, and unpleasant – but do it! Why? “You will spread abroad!” Your offspring will possess the nations! You will multiply greatly!

Carey was preaching to pastors from a few small Baptist churches in an insignificant section of England. They had thought their only task was ministering to their people and evangelizing their villages. Instead, Carey said : Yes, you have a task here. Do it well! But God is also calling you to target all the nations! And he continued: “Expect great things from God! Attempt great things for God!”

So these ministers took up a collection, and a couple of years later sent Carey off to India as a missionary. He experienced many years of frustration and difficulty and tragedy. But in the end he was the translator or publisher of Bible translations into 40 different Asian languages; some of his translations are still used today (even by some of us at DGCC). Carey is rightly called the father of modern missions.

As Ruth Tucker writes, “Carey’s life profoundly illustrates the limitless potential of a very ordinary individual. He was a man who, apart from his unqualified commitment to God, no doubt would have lived a very mediocre existence.”

I don’t want to live a very mediocre existence. You don’t want to live such an existence either.

So we put Carey’s words in the DGCC vision and values statement:

Each person [is] encouraged to expect great things from God and to attempt great things for God, as God develops the gifts He gives to each believer.

Expect great things from God – because even in our weakness, He is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all we ask or imagine! We do not have a millionth of the passion for God’s glory that He does! So imagine how God might use us for His glory!

And then, expecting great things from Him, step out! Attempt great things for God, by His power.

William Carey had to leave his beloved congregation, his beloved England; he even had to override the protests of his wife. It was hard. But he trusted God. He stepped out. And God used Him far beyond his greatest dreams.

Just so, we must step out.

But how can you step out – when you’re shackled by the customs of your culture? How can you think outside the box, and expect great things from God, and then attempt great things for God?

That only happens when you move toward fulfilling not only the Great Commission, but also the Great Commandment.

Jesus says the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, strength. And we won’t disciple all nations unless we love God; we won’t spread a passion for God unless we experience that passion for God. As John Piper says, “You cannot commend what you do not cherish.”

So how do we go about raising our affections for God?

How do we come to love God more than we love our ease and comfort – more than we love our jobs and salaries and four bedroom houses – more than we love our health insurance and retirement benefits – more than we love our Toyotas and Hondas? Indeed, how do we come to love God more than we love our fathers and mothers, more than we love our sons and daughters (Matthew 10:37)?

If we are to love God, we must KNOW Him. We must know what He is like. And as we come to know him better, we should love Him more.

Beth and I will celebrate our 36th wedding anniversary next week.

When we first married I thought I loved her. And I’m sure, in a sense, I did.

But that love pales in comparison to the love I have for her today.

For in the last decades I have come to know her much more deeply than I knew her before our marriage.

  • I have watched her six times as she gave birth to our children
  • I have seen her discipline and love and raise those children
  • I have seen her faith and steadiness in times of crisis
  • I have partnered with her in teaching and counseling others, and thus seen and heard the wisdom God has forged in her
  • I have been the recipient of her love and care year after year
  • I have seen her hurt, and weeping, and overcome
  • I have seen her support and lift me up, even when I took our family in challenging directions
  • I have seen her deep and solid faith in God in all circumstances.
  • I have seen her sin – and I have heard her confessions
  • I have seen her forgive me, by God’s grace, time and again

I know her now in a way I could not have known her 36 years ago.

And so, I love her today much more profoundly.

In the same way, we deepen our love for God by coming to know Him better and better. Thus, if we are to fulfill the greatest commandment, we must strive to know Him! As the Apostle Paul writes,

I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ. . . . I want to know Christ (Philippians 3:8,10)

Hosea is even more explicit: “Let us know; let us press on to know the LORD” (Hosea 6:3).

So, my friends: Make that your goal in 2016. Aim to know God – through prayer, through His Word, through others in the church, through loving your neighbor. Aim to love God more as you know Him better. And as you love God more, your passion for His glory will multiply.

Then pray: “Lord God! What does loving you with all my being mean in my life? Open my eyes! Help me to dream God-sized dreams! Use me for your glory!”

In light of that prayer, ask yourself: “What is God calling me to do? As I expect great things from my beloved God, what should I attempt for Him?”

Don’t be satisfied with comfort! Love God above ALL. And dream about how you might glorify His Name

  • Among the nations overseas
  • Among the nations in Charlotte
  • Among the urban poor
  • Among unwed mothers
  • Among needy children
  • Among academic elites
  • Among your neighbors and colleagues and fellow students

Follow the cross-cultural example of the Christ of Christmas!

Spread the news of the salvation bought by the baby in the manger!

Imagine. Dream. And then let’s step out together in 2016 to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.

(Much of this is taken and edited from a sermon preached 12/12/2004, “Christmas and the Great Commandment.” Text and audio are available.)

 

Why Does God Save Anyone?

December 17, 2015

In this Sunday’s sermon, we will consider the link between the baby born in the manger and the call to missions. What is that link? What does Jesus becoming man, becoming Immanuel – God With Us – have to do with our making disciples of all nations? The link is partly explained in Revelation 5:8-14, which we will read during the service.

In the opening verses of the chapter, John, the author of Revelation, sees God sitting on His throne, holding a scroll. An angel asks, “Who is worthy to open the scroll?” But no one is found worthy. This leads John to weep. But an elder tells him not to weep, for there is One who is worthy: The Lion of the tribe of Judah. John looks up to see the lion- but instead sees a Lamb, looking as if it has been slain. The Lamb takes the scroll. Praise then erupts in the throne room of God.

These words of praise are well-known to many of you. To help us see why God saves anyone, I’m going to quote those words incorrectly. Without looking at your Bibles, see if you can identify what is wrong:

“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests, and they shall reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:9-10, modified)

That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? There is no obvious heresy in those modified verses.

However, that modification leaves out the most important part of our redemption. That modification leaves out the main point of the incarnation, the main point of the cross, the main point of the resurrection.

Here is how it really reads, with the previously left out words in bold:

“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:9-10)

The point of redemption is not primarily to save us from hell.

The point of missions is not primarily to save people groups from hell.

The point of evangelism is not primarily to save our neighbors from hell.

The point of redemption, the point of missions, the point of evangelism is to purchase a people FOR GOD, a people who will live TO HIS GLORY, a people who will DELIGHT IN HIM ABOVE ALL ELSE, and MAGNIFY HIS name.

The incarnation is not primarily about you.

The cross is not primarily about you.

The resurrection is not primarily about you.

The incarnation, the cross, and the resurrection are primarily about GOD.

Indeed, if we are to leave out any words from Revelation 5:9, we should leave out the word “people.” For that word is not in the original language. The middle of verse 9 reads, literally:

“You ransomed for God by your blood from every tribe and language and people and nation.”

The word “people” is clearly implied – it’s right to include that word in our English versions. But the Greek shows even more clearly than the English versions that GOD is the focal point of our redemption!

And Revelation 5 is not alone in this regard. All the great texts on redemption make this clear – if only we would open our eyes!

  • Consider Ephesians 1:7: “In him we have redemption through his blood.” Is redemption then about us? No, for Paul begins by saying, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” and he goes on to say that this redemption is “to the praise of his glory.”
  • Or consider Romans 3:25-26: “This was to show God’s righteousness. . . that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” Redemption is to show GOD’s righteousness. Redemption was not accomplished because of how special man was. Rather, redemption displays God’s righteousness.
  • Or consider the closing words of Romans 11, as Paul wraps up the great doctrinal section of his letter: “From him and through him and to him are all things, to him be the glory forever!” He is the center!

So: God’s eternal plan of redemption is not primarily about saving man from sin. It is primarily about bringing glory to God. The Gospel is God-centered, not Man-centered.

So be careful not to talk about it in a man-centered way! Christ did not ransom people just to ransom them from hell. He ransomed people FOR GOD. He sends us out on mission FOR HIM.

Know that if you are ransomed, you are ransomed for HIM.

If you are not yet ransomed: Yes, He offers to save you from hell. But He doesn’t stop there. He saves you FOR GOD – so that your life will be lived for Him. He will love you, hold you, wipe away your every tear. You will find your joy in Him, and in nothing else. He saves you so that you might fulfill the purpose of your creation: To glorify Him.

So remember this Christmas season: Christ became man FOR GOD. Jesus died on the cross FOR GOD. Jesus rose from the dead FOR GOD. We make disciples of all nations FOR GOD. And you too can be saved – FOR GOD.

 

(Much of this devotion is taken from a sermon on Revelation 5:9-13 preached Easter Sunday, March 27, 2005. Text and audio are available.)

How Should I Think About Muslims?

December 11, 2015

Donald Trump has called for the US to block all Muslims from entering the US for a period of time in order to keep US citizens safe from terrorists. Franklin Graham says he was the first to call for such a policy.

Let me respond to those calls first by highlighting some facts and inferences relevant for US policy, and, second, by suggesting how we should act given Scripture’s injunctions concerning Christians’ attitudes toward those who do not know Christ.

Some facts and inferences relevant to US policy:

Fact: Islam is highly variegated, as is Christianity. Think of all those who have some sort of roots in Christian tradition; not only Baptists, Methodists, and Roman Catholics – with wide differences even within those groups – but also Russian Orthodox, Egyptian Copts, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and cults like Westboro Baptist, the Branch Davidians, the followers of Jim Jones, and the leaders of the 19th century Taiping rebellion. Those having roots in Islamic tradition are similarly diverse.

Inference: It makes no more sense to lump all Muslims together than it does to lump all of those “Christians” together. Many, many Muslims have no more sympathy for ISIS or Al-Qaeda than you and I have for Jim Jones.

Fact: War is raging within Islam. Indeed, the army that has fought ISIS most effectively – the Peshmerga – is made up of Muslims. Muslim leaders such as Egypt’s President el-Sisi have called for a repudiation of terrorism, and a revolution within Islam. See also this recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal by an American Muslim, calling for Muslims to act against radicalism.

Inference: It makes no sense to implement a policy that would exclude our allies in the fight against radical Islamic terrorism from entering the US – and a policy which excluded all Muslims would do exactly that.

Fact: A high percentage of Muslims in some countries hold positions which are contrary to basic American values. For example, survey results from the Pew Research Center indicate that more than half of the Muslims in Malaysia, Pakistan, and Egypt think Muslims who convert to other religions should be put to death. (Highlighting the variegation within Islam, only two percent of Muslims in Turkey agree).

Fact: No foreign national has a right to enter any country. I have been granted a temporary right – a visa – to enter India any time in the next four years. But the Indian government can cancel that right at any time for any reason. They need give no explanation. And I would have no legal recourse. The Indian government did just that 30 years ago to a friend of mine (for no reason he could ever discern); the Chinese government did just that recently to a friend of a friend (presumably because a text message that seemed innocuous to this person raised suspicion in some official’s mind). Any sovereign country has the right to bar entry to any foreign national.

Fact: Radical Islamic terrorist groups are actively trying to get operatives into the US, and to radicalize American Muslims (as noted previously).

Fact: During the Cold War, the US denied entry to those whose ideology was thought to threaten the US. In some cases, ideology was a sufficient reason to deny entry; the person did not have to give evidence of being a direct threat.

Inference from these last four facts: It would be consistent with past US policy for this country to exclude from entry those whose ideology is contrary to basic American values. This would not and should not result in all followers of any religion being excluded. But the government could institute ideological tests for entry into the US. Note: This inference still leaves open the question whether such ideological tests are wise and, if so, how they should be implemented.  Would they be effective in making the US safer? Would they advance American interests here and around the world? The answers aren’t clear. But this country should have a reasoned debate about the issue, rather than the hurling of invective back and forth that has characterized the last week.

Those facts and inferences concern public policy. But how should Christians act in our churches and in our individual lives? How does Scripture guide us?

First, we have a clear mandate to disciple all nations (Matthew 28:18-20). The knowledge of God’s glory will indeed fill the earth as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14). And He will accomplish that through us, through His people, as we go out and speak of Him among the nations who have not seen His glory, and they in turn go out with the same message, so that all flesh will worship before Him (Isaiah 66:18-23).

Second, this mandate obviously extends to Muslim peoples, here in the US and around the world.

Third, I am to love my neighbor as myself – indeed, I am even to love my enemy (Matthew 22:39, 5:43-48).

At this point in history, a large percentage of the people groups still unreached with the Gospel are Muslim. As we complete the missionary task God has given His church, much of our work will be with Muslims.

So what can you do? Here are suggestions:

First: Visit your Muslim neighbors. Ask them to tell you about their beliefs, and then tell them part of the Christmas story. Tell them you’re happy they are your neighbor and apologize for any sense of fear they may have because of the political gamesmanship going on. Look for a chance to tell them a summary of the story of the Bible. Always be a genuine friend. In my experience, most Muslim immigrants will be delighted to invite you in, and may well treat you more hospitably than your neighbors who grew up in this country.

Second: Consider visiting a mosque. Such a visit is no more dangerous than visiting Wal-Mart. Meet people; make friends. If you want to visit a mosque together with others, let us know.

Third: Don’t get caught up in the political grandstanding. Read from Christians thinking biblically about this issue, including the Zwemer Center at Columbia International University and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Finally and most importantly: Pray. Pray for those we support in southeast Asia who are working with Muslims. Pray for those we support in India, who want to have more effective outreach to Muslims. Pray for Muslims in this country and around the world.

More Muslims have come to faith in Jesus Christ in the last two decades than in all prior history. God is working in the Muslim world – and He is even using radicalized Islam to open eyes to the Gospel. So pray – and ask that God might use you also in being a witness to the grace of Jesus Christ to those who need to hear.