Billy Graham and Celebrity Christianity

February 22, 2018

“No one ever spoke the Gospel like Billy Graham!”

So said a guest on WBT Wednesday, as the radio station devoted the entire day to remembrances of the Charlotte-born evangelist.

Praise God for the way He worked through Billy Graham. Praise God that many came to faith through his preaching. Praise God that he built an effective parachurch ministry that continues to spread the Gospel.

But: No one spoke the Gospel like Graham? Ever? How many preachers of the Gospel had that guest heard? How many Christians had he heard tell their story and Jesus’ story? Was Billy Graham better at speaking the Gospel than any of these others? Even if that were the case – how would the guest have known?

Now, let’s give the guest a pass – he exaggerated while rightly honoring a man whom God had used to influence his own life.

But this radio broadcast highlights a danger Christians face today, in the US and around the world: The danger of exalting a person, a speaker, a public figure, and thinking because of crowds or web page hits or books or overall prominence that this person is the One, that this person is the Person my friends and family members need to hear. If only they will listen to this celebrity, they will come to faith.

Churches exhibit the same mindset when they attempt to get to the “next level,” to achieve more prominence in their city or in their country, by hiring a well-known author, a celebrity in their theological circle, as their preacher.

We gravitate to celebrities because of several confusions: Confusing results with faithfulness; confusing prominence with the Holy Spirit’s power; and confusing public ministry with personal ministry.

We serve a sovereign God who orchestrates all that happens for the glory of His Name. He raises up kings and presidents, countries and corporations, pastors and preachers, and brings them down. He may use a weak man with few natural gifts to save thousands, while cutting off the life of a woman of deep faith and incredible potential in her teens. He can do anything with anyone: the One who can turn stones into bread – and even into children of Abraham! (Matthew 4:3) – can use anyone who speaks the Gospel to bring others to faith. Our responsibility is not to bring about results; our responsibility is to be faithful to Him – to live our lives to His glory, offering all we are as a sacrifice to Him, speaking the Gospel and living out the Gospel in our families, neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools. He will bring about the results.

Furthermore, there is no link between prominence and the presence of the Holy Spirit. Every believer in Jesus is indwelt by the Holy Spirit; every believer has a ministry granted by the Holy Spirit; every believer remains in this world to be as Jesus is (1 John 4:17). Remember, the Apostle Paul prays that we all would know “the immeasurable greatness of His power toward us who believe” – indeed, the same resurrection power that raised Jesus from the dead (Ephesians 1:19-20). That power is yours if you are in Christ – just as much as that power was in Billy Graham.

Finally, our celebrity focus downplays private ministry while exalting public ministry. Now, I praise God for preaching! Our Lord has helped me time and again through the public proclamation of His Word, and I hope that He has used my preaching in many of your lives to good effect. But the responsibility of pastors and teachers is to equip all of God’s people for the work of ministry, for the building up of the Body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-12); the entire Body grows when each part works properly, enabling the entire Body to grow up in love (Ephesians 4:16). That proper working includes much more private ministry than public ministry. The private ministry is just as vital as the public.

So, yes, let us thank God for the life of Billy Graham.

And let us thank God for those pastors and teachers and parents and fellow believers whom God has put in our lives personally, who taught us and loved us and wept with us and counseled us and prayed for us.

And let us thank God for thousands of unknown pastors, teachers, missionaries, and church planters who go out to rough neighborhoods and to despised peoples and to villages with no witness to Jesus – and day after day preach and live out the Gospel.

And let us be faithful to the personal ministries God has given us, as we step out in the power of the Holy Spirit, as we speak the Gospel, as we comfort and counsel, as we offer ourselves to Him as a living, holy, well-pleasing sacrifice.

We are the Body of Christ. Every joint, every capillary is vitally important. May we delight to do His will – and may we thank Him for all the others who also do His will.

School Shootings and the Beginning of the Gospel

February 15, 2018

[As we mourn another school shooting, I was reminded of a sermon preached April 25, 1999, five days after the shootings at Columbine High. Here is an edited excerpt. You can read the entire sermon at this link – Coty]

The time: Tuesday, this week, around midday. Cassie Bernall is studying in her high school library, the Bible she brings to school every day on the desk in front of her. Suddenly she hears shouting, screaming, and the sound of something like firecrackers. She stands and turns toward the door. Two of her schoolmates, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, run into the room, shooting guns, yelling. One of them approaches her. “Do you believe in Jesus?” he sneers. Cassie — who accepted Jesus as Savior about two years ago, and is active in her church youth group — replies: “Yes.” Her schoolmate shoots her dead.

The killings at Columbine High School show with startling clarity the ever-present reality of sin in this world. These grisly murders join the well-publicized suffering of hundreds of thousands of Kosovar refugees, and the hardly-publicized suffering of millions of Sudanese Christians, driven from their homes, tens of thousands sold into slavery. Yes, in 1999, slavery.

If anyone of us needed further evidence that this world is not improving, decade after decade, this week we received it. The truth that we live in a fallen world should be obvious to all.

Why such hatred? Why such inhumanity? Why?

My friends, that Bible that Cassie Bernall had on her desk holds the answer. But the answer is not a pleasant one, for any of us. In such situations we all want to separate people into the bad ones — those who do such terrible deeds — and the good ones: and of course we all want to include ourselves among the good.

But the Bible’s message is that, left to our own devices, there are no good people. I am not good, you are not good. Every one of us is filled with sin; were it not for God’s grace, every one of us would be capable of the most horrid sin that we can imagine.

So is there no hope? If even the best of men is so terrible, where can we find hope?

Turn with me, please to the book of Mark. The first verse reads: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

“Gospel” means “good news.” The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. There is good news for this hurting, suffering world; there is good news for those of us trapped in sin and its effects. That good news is found in this little book of Mark.

The Author of the Gospel

Who wrote the gospel of Mark?

From the earliest days of the Christian era, this gospel has been attributed to John Mark, who is mentioned in Acts and several epistles.

Mark first appears in person in Acts 12:25, when he accompanies Paul and Barnabas upon their return to Antioch, after they have brought gifts to the poor Christians in Jerusalem. He then accompanies these same two on their first missionary journey to Cyprus, but leaves them, going home to Jerusalem (note: not Antioch), when the journey is far from complete. There is no note of censure when Luke reports his departure, but later we find that Paul feels betrayed. He refuses to allow Mark, who deserted them, to join them on the second missionary journey. This leads Paul and Barnabas to take separate trips.

We hear nothing more of Mark in the book of Acts. The epistles, however, give us important insights into his life. Paul mentions Mark three times, all positively, in Philemon, Colossians, and 2 Timothy. By the end of his life, Paul appreciates Mark as a valuable fellow servant of his Master.

Finally, Peter mentions Mark, referring to him as a son — perhaps meaning that Mark came to know the Lord through Peter’s ministry (1 Peter 5:13).

There are two other passages in Mark’s gospel that might possibly refer to the author. In Mark 14, a young man following Jesus at the time of His arrest runs away naked when seized, leaving his garment behind. This event is recorded only in the Gospel of Mark. Why? Perhaps this young man was Mark himself.

The second possibility is more speculative, but intriguing. All three gospels include the story of the rich young ruler. But Mark’s account (Mark 10:17-22) gives more details, describing the man running up to Jesus and kneeling, and recording that Jesus looked at him with love.

Possibly, Mark himself was that rich young ruler. He remembered the details of his running up to Jesus; he remembered the excitement he felt waiting for Jesus’ expected statement of approval; and most clearly, he remembered Jesus’ look of love before he asked Mark to do what, at that point, he could not.

If this is the case, then Mark’s following Jesus begins with three failures: The failure to obey Jesus’ command to sell his goods; the failure in the Garden of Gethsemane; and the failure on the first missionary journey.

But God did not give up on Mark! This very man, the man who failed, becomes a dear fellow-worker to Paul, becomes a dear son to Peter, and authors the most-translated book in the world. His ministry has now had an impact for 2000 years, and will continue to have an impact until Jesus comes again.

The Beginning of the Gospel

Mark begins by quoting Isaiah’s prophecy about John the Baptist: A voice crying in the wilderness to make ready the way of the Lord.

Why did God send John to the wilderness around the Jordan – a desolate place twenty miles or more from the population center?

I believe God uses the wilderness as a picture of our spiritual state. The beginning of the gospel comes to us not in our protected cities, not where we feel comfortable, not where we feel safe and secure. If we think we are fine on our own, we do not hear the message. But God uses difficulties in our lives to awaken us to our need for Him. So God sends the message of hope to us in the wilderness, in the midst of troubles and trials.

John then prepares the way for the coming of the Messiah by “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4). Repentance means turning away from the old way of life, acknowledging that that is worthless, and turning to a new way of life. John prepares the hearts of the people for the coming Savior, as they must acknowledge their sinfulness, their need of a Savior before they can respond to a Savior.

But is John preaching Good News? At first glance, John’s preaching may not sound that way. He is calling them to repentance, after all, bringing them to acknowledge that they themselves are in a spiritual wilderness. Why is this the beginning of the gospel, the beginning of good news?

Verse 4 contains the answer: John was “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” He tells people to repent, yes: but then they are forgiven! How contrary to the preaching they had been receiving from the Pharisees and the teachers of the law! These false guides would have said that a series of formalistic, legalistic steps was necessary to receive God’s forgiveness for even the most trivial, unintentional sin. As for those serious sinners — the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the intentional Sabbath breakers — there was no hope for them. They deserve death!

These teachers of the law prided themselves on their understanding of the Law, but they completely misread the Old Testament. The Old Testament is the story of God’s grace! God provides for the weakness of the people, he provides a way to receive forgiveness, foreshadowing the death of this very Savior John proclaims.

So John’s message comes with startling freshness to these poor Jews burdened with a legalistic interpretation of the Old Testament. There is hope! Repent, and be forgiven! Grace is abundant! I know I am in the wilderness, I know I deserve judgment, I know I cannot live up to the law as the Pharisees say I must — but John tells me to repent, and I will be clean! To turn my back on sin, and God will forgive!

This is why “all Jerusalem” travels that long, dangerous road to hear John. He offers something they have never heard before: God’s grace.

But why, then is this just the beginning of the Gospel? John makes clear that he is only preparing the way; there is even better news to come. A mightier One is coming – He will pay the penalty for sin, and He will baptize with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:7-8).

Repentance is necessary. Forgiveness is wonderful. But God is doing much more than offering forgiveness: God is offering these people new life in Christ! New power! Indeed, God offers Himself! The indwelling of the Holy Spirit!

The gospel of Jesus Christ is not only about the forgiveness of sins. That’s the beginning of the gospel. The full gospel is the hope of being God’s precious bride: perfect, spotless, Christlike. The full gospel promises that we will be transformed completely into His image through the power of the Holy Spirit within us.

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God, comes to us in the wilderness of April, 1999. The wilderness of shooting deaths at a surburban high school; the wilderness of ethnic hatred in the Balkans; the wilderness of slavery and oppression in Sudan; the wilderness of our own hardened and self-righteous hearts. This gospel proclaims not that you’re OK and I’m OK, not that the problems of the world lie with all those other bad people; but the gospel proclaims that God has dealt with sin and death. You can be free.

The first step is repentance. Will you?

Cassie Bernall took that step when she received Jesus as Savior two years ago. She turned her back on the false gods she had been serving, and placed her faith in the Lord of the universe. She knew this good news.

Then she went to school last Tuesday, thinking it would be like any other day — and five hours later she was dead. She knew the Lord; she believed this gospel. She made the good confession on her day of trial. Jesus accepts her now into his heavenly kingdom.

What about you? If some random act of violence affects you today: Are you ready? Have you repented? Are you keeping short accounts with God?

Mark himself had much to repent of: If our speculation is correct, he initially rejected Jesus’ call to follow Him. He ran in the garden. He deserted Paul and Barnabas.

But he did repent. And he received God’s grace. And God turned this failure into the author of the most widely-translated book in the world.

No matter how large your failures, no matter how short of a perfect life you fall, God is ready to accept you, by the blood of our Lord and Savior. Won’t you repent? Turn to the God of mercy! You too can have the power to overcome sin; you too can become part of the perfect, spotless bride of Christ.

This is the beginning of the gospel.

Repent! The kingdom of God is at hand!

“Linism” and Resisting Evil

February 14, 2018

In our journey through the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, we have reached chapter 13, in which he discusses our submission to government. We know – as Paul did! – that governments often do evil acts. An evil man might succeed in killing hundreds; it takes a government to kill millions.

On February 11, we considered Paul’s injunction to submit to the governing authorities, and whether or not we should ever resist them. But along with that teaching, consider today our Lord Jesus’ command in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not resist the one who is evil” (Matthew 5:39). Does this settle the issue? Should we never do anything to stop evil?

Remember the context of this statement. Jesus has just said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). What type of righteousness did the scribes and Pharisees have? They had an outward, apparent righteousness. They redefined God’s Law as a set of rules, of lines we should not cross, and then equated righteousness with staying on the right side of the line. Then they made a show of keeping the rules to gain the praise of others. As Jesus says, “They do all their deeds to be seen by others” (Matthew 23:5).

I’ve termed this approach to morality “linism” (see this sermon). Whenever we limit morality to such rule-keeping, to avoiding certain behaviors, we can easily become self-satisfied like the Pharisees. Furthermore, such linism is perfectly consistent with being consumed internally with desires to cross the line. Since I want to cross line, I’ll get as close to line as possible without crossing it – and then congratulate myself that I didn’t cross line.

Even many Christians approach morality in this way, becoming proud that they didn’t cross lines (unlike those other people!) all the while wanting to cross the line, and having endless discussion about exactly where the line is.

Note: Linism is not taught in the Old Testament. For some of the Ten Commandments, this is obvious: Worship God and Him alone, honor your father and mother, do not covet – these three cannot be stated as lines of behavior we must not cross. But, indeed, all of the Ten Commandments push us to become like God, to take on His character. We are to be holy as He is holy (Leviticus 19:2); we are to love Him with all of our heart, soul, and might (Deuteronomy 6:5). They command internal change, not only external actions.

So, in Jesus’ day, the Pharisees had perfected the art of appearing to obey the rules. Jesus says: That’s not the way citizens of my Kingdom live. We cannot out-Pharisee the Pharisees.

How, then, will our righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees? When we love God and love our neighbor like Jesus.    When we avoid linism. When we hunger and thirst for the righteousness of God.

With that understanding, let’s go back and consider Matthew 5:38-39:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

The linism of the Pharisees interpreted the Old Testament phrase “an eye for an eye” to mean: Seeking revenge is fine as long as the pain you inflict is no worse than the pain you suffered.

But what does Jesus say?

He is not saying, “Never resist any evil.” How do we know this? Because Jesus Himself resisted evil! Indeed, in His attacks on the righteousness of the Pharisees here in Matthew 5 and in Matthew 23 and elsewhere, Jesus is resisting evil. Similarly, John the Baptist verbally condemned the evil around him, and that is a form of resistance (Luke 3:7-14). And of course Jesus resisted the temptations of Satan in Matthew 4.

Nor is Jesus saying, “Justice for crimes should not be implemented by the state.” For when Pilate threatens Jesus, saying that he has authority to crucify Him, our Lord does not question Pilate’s statement. Instead, He says – consistent with Romans 13 – that Pilate’s authority came from God (John 19:10-11).

Rather, Jesus is saying: Be like God! Take on His character! Be the same on the inside as you appear to be on the outside!

Specifically, in light of Jesus’ life and teaching, He says in Matthew 5:38-42:

“Your Father God is gracious and merciful. I am going to the cross so that He can grant mercy to the undeserving. So you, like Him, grant mercy to the undeserving – even to the one trying to take advantage of you, even to the one attacking you. Be holy as He is holy! Display the character of God. Don’t put your personal comfort above displaying who God is. Lay down your life to glorify God, to serve others.”

Thus, Jesus is not defining a rule, a line, that says, “Don’t resist any evil.” Instead, He is giving an example of what following Him might entail. Consistent with His entire teaching, with the teaching of all of God’s Word, He tells us: Be like God, by His grace, by His power. Live to His glory. Be willing to be taken advantage of if that will show who God is. Care more about His glory than your personal comfort and personal rights.

So there will be times when we, like Jesus, resist evil in order to display God’s character. And there will be times when we, like Jesus, will refrain from resisting evil in order to display God’s character.

The Christian life is not about the line. It is about God’s glory.

[Parts of this devotion are taken from a sermon preached March 10, 2013 on Matthew 5. You can listen to the audio at this link.]

What Book Are You Writing With Your Life?

February 2, 2018

Why did John write his Gospel account? He tells us at the end of chapter 20:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:30-31).

John did not write the definitive biography of Jesus. He did not write for the sake of history, or to satisfy anyone’s curiosity. He was not trying to write great literature or to tell a good story. He was not trying to gain accolades from critics or to gain status as one of the Four Evangelists.

Instead, what did he write?

Note first that he wrote what was true – most of which he had seen himself. As John states after recalling blood and water pouring out of Jesus’ side after His lung was pierced, showing that He really died on the cross:

He who saw it has borne witness – his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth – that you also may believe. (John 19:35)

Second, in selecting among the many true events he could have related about Jesus, John chose those that would show most clearly that Jesus is who He claimed to be: The One sent from the Father, who always did the will of the Father, who always spoke the Father’s words: that is, the Word made flesh, the Son of God, the long-promised Messiah on whom the Lord would lay the iniquities of us all.

Third, John is not writing as a neutral observer, relating what he has seen, leaving other neutral observers to draw their conclusions. For John heard Jesus Himself say that there are no neutral observers of Him: “Because I tell the truth, you do not believe me” (John 8:45). John instead writes as a recipient of God’s love, as one invited into friendship with the Son of God Himself (John 15:14), as one who is connected to Jesus the Vine, as one who can do nothing apart from Jesus’ life-giving power (John 15:4-5), as one who will spend eternity knowing Him and performing His work (John 12:50, 17:3). Therefore, John writes to show his readers what they most need to know:

Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. (John 5:23b-24)

So John writes with the hope and expectation that his readers will honor the Son; that they will believe and so have eternal life.

That’s the book John wrote.

Shouldn’t we live our lives in the same way?

What book are you writing with your life? A book that leads to your fame and accomplishment? A book that leads to a relaxed, comfortable, easy life? Or are you, with John, writing a book that shows others what they most need to know: That Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life; that no one comes to the Father, that no one has true life, abundant life, apart from Him? (John 10:10, 14:6)

That is what those around you most need to hear. That is their greatest need. Communicating that truth in word and in deed is the most effective way to love them.

As we choose how to live, what to speak, what to do, may we all with our lives write books like John’s Gospel, so that many will believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and believing have life in His Name.