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.

Taking on the Character of Jesus

January 26, 2018

Are you patient? Are you kind? Are you good?

Romans 12:2 tells us not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewal of our minds.  As the Apostle Paul says earlier in Romans, God predestined us to be conformed to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29). In the book of Galatians, Paul elaborates on what that looks like, saying the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

So, Jesus must have acted with patience. With kindness. With goodness. Right?

Consider the incident recorded in Mark 9. Jesus and three disciples return to find a distraught father, a boy with a demon, and the other disciples unable to help. Jesus says, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” (Mark 9:19).

Was Jesus being patient?

Or consider a story from Luke 11. A Pharisee invites Jesus to eat with him. When Jesus arrives, He does not perform the normal ceremonial washing prior to the meal. The Pharisee doesn’t say anything, but is surprised. Then Jesus upbraids His host: “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness” (Luke 11:39).

Was Jesus being kind?

Consider also John 2. Jesus find people selling oxen, sheep, and pigeons in the temple, together with money-changers. He takes the time to make a whip out of cords, and then uses that whip to drive them all out (John 2:14-15). Note that the Greek word translated “goodness” especially refers to showing an “interest in the welfare of others.”

Was Jesus showing concern for the welfare of these people?

Or imagine you hear me say, “O these church members, how long do I have to put with them!” Or we both are invited to dinner with a prominent Charlotte businessmen and I insult our host. I don’t think your first thought would be, “Wow, Coty’s really displaying the fruit of the Spirit! He’s so patient and kind!”

Now, we know that Jesus perfectly displayed God’s character in every interaction in His life. Thus, He always displayed the fruit of the Spirit. As those who are in Christ, we are indeed to exhibit patience, kindness, and goodness. But our reactions to these stories about Jesus show that we need to learn better what it means to exhibit them.

If we are to become like Jesus, we need to understand how Jesus displayed patience, kindness, and goodness – NOT how our culture would like to define those terms, NOT how the world expects kind people to act. In this way, we will not be conformed to the world, but will be transformed by the renewal of our minds.

To explore this topic, we will first consider examples of Jesus displaying extraordinary patience, kindness, and goodness. Then we will look at the seeming contradictions, when to our eyes He seems not to show these qualities. From these contrasts, we will gain insight into the true nature of Jesus’ character, and thus the fruit of the Spirit. We’ll use those insights to help us see how we can live transformed lives, taking on the character of Jesus.

Examples of Jesus’ Patience, Kindness, and Goodness

Examples of Healings

In Mark 2:1-12, Jesus is teaching in a crowded house – when the roof above Him is removed and a paralyzed man is let down in front of him! Instead of rebuking this man’s friends for disturbing His teaching, Jesus sees the paralytic’s faith, forgives his sin, and heals his paralysis.

In Luke 7:11-15, when Jesus approaches a town, He meets a funeral procession. The dead man is the only son of a widowed mother. In that society, she could well face destitution. Jesus has compassion on her, brings the dead man back to life, and gives him to his mother.

An Example of Feeding

After several days of teaching, Jesus says to His disciples:

“I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way” (Matthew 15:32).

Jesus is concerned for them and is willing to take responsibility for them.

Examples from His Passion

Again and again during this most severe trial, Jesus display patience, kindness, and goodness toward others around Him.

On the night He is to be betrayed, Jesus knows that Peter will deny Him. But He tells him, “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32).

What patience! Jesus says, “You will deny Me. You will claim that you don’t even know Me. Satan wanted to condemn you for that. But, Peter – though you deny Me, I will not let you go.                 I have prayed – and my prayer is effective. You WILL turn again. So when you deny me, don’t despair.  Don’t give up hope. I have much work for you. I will use you to strengthen your brothers.”

Fast forward about fifteen hours. Jesus, condemned to death, whipped, beaten, and mocked, stumbles toward the place of His execution. A crowd follows, many of them women who are mourning. Jesus – weak as He is, knowing He is about to die a horrible death – turns to them and says, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children” (Luke 23:28). He foresees the horror that will come upon this city within forty years when the Romans will destroy it. He feels compassion and sorrow for them – even when He Himself is suffering immensely.

Fast forward another two hours. Jesus hangs from the cross. He is hardly able to breathe. He experiences a stabbing pain whenever He lifts up His body to breathe. And He fights for the breath to able to say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

Then, when Jesus sees His mother and John standing near Him, He says to her, “Woman, behold, your son!” And to John, “Behold, your mother!” (John 19:26-27). He thus provides for the needs of Mary while He suffers intensely.

This is our Savior. This is our Lord: Exhibiting patience, kindness, and goodness, showing great concern for the welfare of others, even in the midst of torture, even in the midst of cruel and inhuman punishment.

Resolving the contradictions

These incidents contrast sharply with the ones cited earlier. Could this Jesus – so patient and kind with Peter, so patient, so kind with his tormentors while hanging on the cross – could this same Jesus exhibit a lack of patience with His disciples?

Let’s look back at these seeming contradictions.

In Mark 9, when the disciples couldn’t cast out the demon, what was Jesus exhibiting? Commentators from the Puritan Matthew Henry to the Reformation Study Bible to John MacArthur admit Jesus was impatient or exasperated. But this was not a sinful impatience. Why not?

Some impatience is good and godly. There are times when we should be impatient.

Ask yourself: What must we long for? What must we hope for with all our being?

We must long for the new heavens and the new earth! For God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven!

THAT is Jesus’ longing here.

Our impatience so frequently is a longing to have our burdens lifted NOW – quite apart from any longing for God to change the entire world around us and glorify His Name.

If when you are burdened by this world, you burst out, “Lord Jesus, come quickly! Right this wrong! Bring in your justice! Usher in the new heavens and the new earth! Show who You are!” Then you are exhibiting a godly impatience.

So be patient with affronts to you personally. And long for His coming kingdom. Long for justice to be done. Long for Jesus to be recognized as King.

That’s the true fruit of the Spirit.

Turn now to the cleansing of the temple In John 2. Note that Jesus paused to make the whip. At first, you might think, “This was a premeditated action! That’s even worse!” But think: Jesus did not let His emotions get the best of Him. He did not drive out the moneychangers in a fit of passion. He knew exactly what He was doing. He knew what was right.

Why?

He says, “Do not make my Father’s house a house of trade!” And His disciples remember the Scripture, “Zeal for your house will consume me” (John 2:16-17).

God’s house, the temple, is a picture of His presence – indeed, a picture of His glory. Jesus is consumed with zeal for the glory of God.

Godly patience, kindness, and goodness are always for the purpose of glorifying God. That is our goal – to magnify His Name, not to be nice to people or to make people think highly of us. Oftentimes we CAN glorify God by being civil and nice, according to the standards of our society. But at other times, magnifying God’s glory means appearing unkind, means breaking the rules of civil conduct.

Jesus was ready not to conform to the standards of this world for civil conduct, when by doing so He could glorify the Father.

Thirdly, look again at Luke 11, when Jesus pronounces woes on His host. How is He showing kindness and goodness in this case?

If we are truly concerned for the welfare of others we will say what they most need to hear. And this host most needed to hear of his sin. He and the other Pharisees thought they were right with God. They needed to be shocked. So Jesus was doing what was in their best interest.

Our goal is not to avoid offending others. We instead must love others enough, care about their souls enough, that we are willing to offend them – if those words are what they most need to hear.

How Then Are We to Have Patience, Kindness, and Goodness Like Jesus?

We can take away two principles from these passages:

1) To Be Like Jesus We Must Love the Glory of God

Like Him, we will desire to glorify God through showing compassion for physical needs. One day, God will wipe every tear from our eyes and end all mourning, sorrow and pain. We foreshadow that by showing compassion and helping the hurting.

And like Him, we will desire even more to glorify God through bringing many to saving knowledge of Jesus, who then share this Good News with others who also come to saving faith. We, the church, will not end poverty, disease, and suffering in this world. But we will preach this Gospel of the kingdom as a testimony to all nations before the end comes (Matthew 24:14). We will see those from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation come to faith. We pray for and work to alleviate physical suffering not INSTEAD of proclaiming the Gospel, but rather to BETTER proclaim the Gospel, to the glory of God.

So we are to love the glory of God as much as Jesus, and thus proclaim the Gospel in word and deed.

2) To Be Like Jesus We Must Hate Sin

Jesus was sinless. We don’t take on that aspect of His character in this life.

But we must long to be sinless like Him, and so hate our own sin.

We begin by acknowledging our rebellion against our rightful King, our Creator, seeing Jesus and His righteousness as our only hope, confessing that apart from His death on the cross, we have no access to His presence.

Then we confess our sins day by day, hating our own hardness of heart, our own lack of faith, the puniness of our desire for His glory.

After confessing our own sin and repenting of it, we, like Jesus, need to speak to others of sin. Having patience, kindness, and goodness does NOT mean we never speak to others of their sin. However, we do speak:

  • Humbly, knowing our perceptions can be wrong
  • Carefully, knowing we could fall into the same sin, or into pride because we don’t share that person’s sin
  • With discretion and wisdom – Jesus did not confront every sin, either in unbelievers around Him or in the disciples. Oftentimes, silent forbearance is the right action. But too often, we are silent NOT because that’s what is best for the other person, but because we are afraid, or lazy, or just don’t feel like speaking. Sometimes we should confront gently, as Jesus confronted the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11); sometimes we should confront offensively, as Jesus did with the Pharisees.

To take on the character of Christ is to hate sin, and deal with it. Jesus dealt with it – even at the risk of appearing unkind and impatient. Are you willing to do the same?

Appearing patient, kind, and good is not our goal. Our goal must be to be transformed into Christlikeness. Thus we will sometimes appear ungracious and inconsiderate – even when we truly have the welfare of others at heart.

Is that your desire? To be truly like Christ?

May God be pleased conform all of us into Christ’s character, by His Spirit.

[This devotion is an edited and shortened version of a sermon preached December 9, 2007. You can download or listen to that sermon at this link.]

Wrath and Love

December 29, 2017

Is the God of the Bible a God of wrath? Or is He a God of love?

The answer is yes – the Bible presents Him as both.

We see both pictures of God clearly in the book of Revelation. In chapter 6, the Lamb opens six seals of the scroll of history. After He opens the sixth seal, we read:

Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Revelation 6:15-17)

These rebels against God see Jesus. They see the Lamb who was slain, who by His blood “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9) – yet they see Him not as loving but as wrathful. They look upon the One who is their only hope – and they only see judgment, they only see wrath. They don’t fall on their knees and worship Him, saying “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:10). Instead, they want to hide from Him.

Later we read that those who remain in rebellion against God despite plagues “cursed the name of God who had power over these plagues. They did not repent and give him glory” (Revelation 16:9). Without repentance, without the redemption that comes from the Lamb’s blood by grace through faith, they are left with only a “fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” (Hebrews 10:27).

So, yes, God is a God of wrath to those who remain in rebellion against Him. Indeed the Lamb Who was Slain is a God of wrath, a Lion, to those who refuse to bow before Him, the King of kings and Lord of lords.

Yet in the immediate context of these pictures of wrath we see pictures of His great love and tender mercies:

“He who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:15b-17).

The first group calls upon rocks and mountains to shelter them from God’s wrath. God Himself shelters the second group. The Lamb Himself shepherds them; He leads them beside still waters; He restores their soul.

The first group looks upon God and the Lamb and sees only wrath. They might even say, “God is wrath.” The second group looks at the same God, the same Lamb, and sees love. They gladly proclaim, “God is love.”

At the Last Day, we all will be in one group or the other. God will be to us either a God of wrath or a God of love. There will be nothing in between. And so the Apostle Paul says, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved!” (Acts 16:31).

The Lord God offers you forgiveness freely. Without cost. You don’t have to clean yourself up to come to Him. Rather, you must admit that you cannot clean yourself up; you must admit that apart from His grace and mercy, rebels like you cannot stand before His holiness.

So end this year of 2017 by repenting of your rebellion. Fall before the Lamb. Be reconciled to the Lord God Almighty through Him.

And He will reveal Himself to you as a God of love.

Christmas Questions

December 25, 2017

The Apostle Paul tells us:

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31)

How can we fulfill this verse this week? That is, how can we celebrate Christmas and New Years to the glory of God?

Christians frequently lament that Christ is not at the center of our Christmas celebrations. While this is indeed lamentable, we often speak as if those celebrations are like the weather, completely out of our control. But by our attitudes, actions, and questions we can move every celebration – whether an office party or a family gathering – more toward Christ-centeredness. The movement may consist of only one conversation, but by our boldness in broaching these subjects we let the light of the Gospel shine through us onto our families and friends.

One way to glorify God in our holiday gatherings is through the questions we ask. Here are some questions, most from Don Whitney (Christmas questions, New Years questions), that you can use around Christmas and New Years to deepen conversations and to move toward a discussion of Christ Himself. Some are baby steps in that direction, others are deeper; some are appropriate for anyone, others only for professed believers. But consider how you might use these this next week:

  • Which past Christmas stands out in your memory? Why?
  • What’s the most meaningful Christmas gift you’ve ever received?
  • What was the most appreciated Christmas gift you’ve ever given?
  • What was your favorite Christmas tradition as a child?
  • Is there a particular Scripture passage you look forward to hearing at Christmas? Why?
  • Do you have a favorite Christmas story other than the biblical accounts? Tell me about it.
  • What do you do to try to keep Christ in Christmas?
  • Why do you think people started celebrating the birth of Jesus?
  • Why do you think Jesus came to earth?
  • Why do you think Jesus was born to a poor family?
  • Do you think the birth of Jesus deserves a big celebration?
  • What’s the relationship between Christmas and Easter? Why do you think Christmas is celebrated so much more than Easter in our country? Do you think this is right?
  • What Christmas carol do you think captures the meaning of Christmas particularly well? What truths does it bring out?
  • What’s the best thing that’s happened to you in 2017?
  • What habits do you want to break or develop during the New Year?
  • What is the biggest time-waster in your life, and what steps will you take to overcome it this year?
  • What single thing do you want to do in 2018 that will matter most in 10 years? In 100 years?
  • For whose salvation will you pray for consistently this year? Can I ask you about that in a few months?
  • What habit would you like to establish this year?
  • In addition to the Bible, what book do you look forward to reading this year?

Consider how you will you respond if your conversation partner turns any of the above questions back to you. “Do all to the glory of God.” How will your answers fulfill that command?

The answers we give to other questions can also help move conversations in ways that magnify our Lord. When we see relatives and friends after a long separation, many will ask, “How have you been?” What will you say? I encourage you to answer by describing one of the ways God has blessed you in Christ this year, or a particularly challenging circumstance that God has brought you through or that you continue to struggle with by God’s grace. Resist the urge to say, “Fine! Good!” or to focus on your job, your possessions, or your physical health.

God created us to glorify Him. This season presents us with unusual opportunities to magnify the grace of God through Jesus Christ in our lives, despite all the distortions of commercialization and secularization. I pray that each of us might take advantage of those opportunities, showing that we savor Jesus above all by the questions we ask and the answers we give, by our listening ears and our willing hands.

 

Taylor Allen’s Baptism Testimony

December 14, 2017

(Taylor was baptized on November 26. Here is his testimony:)

On August 8th I was in Ukraine and I was challenged by a pastor to write down what I believe. I accepted that challenge and spent quite a few hours on my essay. It started, “I believe in the world…” and you can imagine where it went from there.

But in the process of writing that essay, the Holy Spirit made me write something significant that stuck with me; when I was younger I always liked John 15:13 “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” I interpreted that to mean I should give love to people around me and I tried my best. But I think it is harder to accept love.

In my essay, I quoted Victor Hugo, “The supreme happiness in life is the conviction that we are loved–loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves.” And this stuck with me in a profound way, because the love Christ offers us is an undeserved blessing. None of us deserve salvation because none of us are blameless, nor are we capable of earning salvation through our attempts to love others. But I didn’t know Christ at the time. I didn’t even want to admit that God was real.

On August 18 I wrote an email to a Christian asking how they know God. Maybe these questions sound familiar to you. “What assurance do you have that God exists? What feeling do you have, what evidence do you have for the promise of salvation? When I look out my window, I wonder to myself if this earth is all there is. Why does there have to be more? Why does life have to be anything other than the miracle of life, self-awareness, and then cellular death? Why does life have to be fulfilling, or fair, or enjoyable? What if life is just life and we make the most of it while we are alive. To me, that doesn’t sound depressing, because it is great that I am alive and self-aware and have experienced a lot of good things in my life.” As you can see, this Christian was quite patient with me.

I continued in the email, “Furthermore, in my most hateful, hard-hearted moments I listen to the beliefs of Christians and it sounds naive to me. What if the promise of salvation and life eternal was simply developed by humans as a natural fear of death, rather than as a gift from a divine creator?”

I continued, writing, “I’m still struggling with deciding if I want to be a Christian, because it feels like I am giving up part of the human condition (self agency, independence, things I value). I wish God would speak to me again or soften my heart. I don’t deserve it, but I want it. I hope you’ll pray for me.”

Then on August 21 I wrote this: “The times I’ve tried to pray over the years it has been impossible to escape my head and I can’t get through a whole prayer without asking, ‘Who am I talking to right now?’ I can’t explain why, but last night I got down on my knees in front of the couch and started to pray out loud. I just started talking and it occurred to me that He was the right person to be honest with: “God, why did you give me all these doubts? Why am I questioning everything? Why can’t I believe? Do you see how I am?”

And you know what, God moved my heart… and I wept–my heart melted in sadness. I heard the Spirit encouraging me: Yeah, Taylor, I know everything about you and I love you anyway. You know all those questions you’ve been asking? Ask ME! Pray and ask Me. And I did; I asked Him why He would care about me? Why am I worth anything? Why would You want to save me?

I said, “I DO NOT understand it, God!” I was seeing everything I had become, all the sins and pride and anger and disappointment I have felt in my life, all the things that ruined my relationships and made me take false comfort in my abilities, all the doubt and weight I had been carrying around. And I swear to you, I didn’t know about all the weight I carried until I prayed about it. I saw everything and I felt so worthless, so humbled that I wept and said again, “Why would You save me?” And all I heard was, I love you.

Because, truly Christ loves us and has always loved us even with the foreknowledge of our sin and our pride and our anger and our rebellion.

From Psalm 139:

O Lord, You have searched me and known me.

You know my sitting down and my rising up;
You understand my thought afar off.
You comprehend my path and my lying down,
And are acquainted with all my ways.

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?

My frame was not hidden from You,
When I was made in secret,
And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed.
And in Your book they all were written,
The days fashioned for me,
When as yet there were none of them.

And not only do I know that Christ loves us, I know that His death and resurrection are sufficient to save us, which we are unable to do. From Romans 8:1-4

There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

So my ongoing prayer for myself and for everyone who knows Christ or wants to know Christ is that you become like the seed in Matthew 13 that falls on good ground. Hear this good news, this gospel, this undeserved gift of love! Let it bear fruit for you.

I am praying for fruit to spring forth from a life lived for Christ rather than one lived for myself. Love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

And as I am about to be baptized today, I am grateful for the work the Spirit has already done in my heart to bring me to this point. And I am aware how much further I can grow in my knowledge and obedience of Christ.

Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14)

My prayer for all of us today:

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Try me, and know my anxieties;
And see if there is any wicked way in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting.
(Psalm 139)

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you [us], who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Peter 1:3-5)

So I pray, Lord, that You sustain us, remind of us Your undeserved love for us, and teach us how to live for You, in worship of You and for Your glory. I ask this in Christ’s name, Amen.

 

Why Do You Say Merry Christmas?

December 14, 2017

Why do you say, “Merry Christmas”?

  • Some celebrate their family;
  • Some celebrate their cultural or family traditions: What they do on Christmas Eve or morning;
  • Some celebrate gift-giving, especially Santa Claus;
  • Some celebrate the winter season: snow and sleighs and Jack Frost nipping at your nose.

Indeed, the song containing that line, modestly entitled “The Christmas Song,” is a good example of all these:

  • “Jack Frost,” celebrating winter;
  • “Tiny tots with their eyes all aglow,” for family;
  • “Yuletide carols being sung by a choir . . . turkey and some mistletoe,” for tradition;
  • ‘They know that Santa’s on his way; he’s bringing lots of toys and goodies,” for gift-giving.

But “The Christmas Song” makes not one mention of Jesus Christ. And although the song ends with the words, “Merry Christmas to you,” it might as well end with “Happy Holidays.”

Celebrating family, traditions, gift-giving, and winter are not bad in and of themselves; on the contrary, all are good.

But for those who know Jesus as Lord and Savior, for those who see Jesus as the greatest Treasure, Christmas should primarily be a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Why? Because He is the One responsible for all the good we receive; He is the One to Whom all those goods point.

  • He gives us our true, eternal, perfect family (Romans 8:15-17).
  • He gives us our deepest traditions, pointing to the most significant underlying realities (Matthew 26:26-29, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
  • He Himself is the greatest gift imaginable: He is the reason we receive any good and perfect gift, the one who sacrificed Himself so that we might have the gift of faith and righteousness and reconciliation with God the Father (2 Corinthians 9:15, James 1:17, Ephesians 2:8-9, Romans 3:21-25, Romans 6:23).
  • All things – including seasons – were created through Him and for Him (Colossians 1:15-16).

Imagine that today is your birthday. Imagine all sorts of people come to a party on your birthday. And at that party they celebrate their families. They celebrate winter: snow and sleighs and snowmen. They celebrate with birthday cakes and candles and games. Furthermore, they give many gifts to each other. But they ignore you. They don’t look at you. They don’t speak to you. They give no gifts to you. There is no indication that this is your birthday.

What would you think of that?

That’s what many do with Christmas – Jesus becomes at most a minor part of a seasonal celebration, whether we say, “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.”

Don’t let that happen this year. Remember who Jesus is.

  • Remember why Immanuel, God with us, had to come as that baby in the manger.
  • Remember how He lived, loving God with all His heart, soul, mind, and strength, loving each person He encountered as He loved Himself.
  • Remember Him sacrificing Himself on the cross so that you might be reconciled to God the Father through Him.
  • Remember Him risen, reigning, and returning so that the kingdom of this world becomes His Kingdom, and He reigns forever and ever (Revelation 11:15).
  • Remember God the Father wiping every tear from your eyes; remember the coming time when there will be no more sorrow nor crying nor pain, because of His work (Revelation 21:4).

So by all means, shout out, “Merry Christmas!” By all means, celebrate family and traditions and winter; give gracious and thoughtful gifts to one another.

But this year may we clearly show that all these good gifts come to us only because Jesus was born of Mary two thousand years ago. May He be our greatest joy. May we praise Him – and may we thank God with all our heart for His indescribable gift.

 

When Will Christmas Come?

December 8, 2017

When will Christmas come?

Imagine that you didn’t know when Christmas would come; it might be December 25. But it might be much later. All you have is a promise: Christmas will come. Wait for it. Expect it. Be ready for it.

Imagine that went on day after day, week after week, month after month.

Would you still believe that Christmas is coming?

At the beginning of the Gospel of Luke, the Jews are in that situation. Through the prophets God had given them many promises about a future king, a future messiah, a Son of King David who would reign in righteousness. But no such king had come.

  • King David had reigned about a thousand years previously – as far in the past as William the Conqueror’s invasion of England is today.
  • Isaiah had prophesied, “Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given” about seven hundred years previously – today, as far in the past as Geoffrey Chaucer’s composition of “The Canterbury Tales.”
  • About four hundred years previously, Malachi had prophesied, “I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.” Today, that is as far distant as when William Shakespeare wrote “Hamlet.”

Then after Malachi, there have been no other Scriptural prophecies. Just waiting. Waiting. And more waiting. No Messiah. Only long periods of oppression broken by short periods of political freedom.

But God had promised that His salvation would come at exactly the right time: “Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. . . . The righteous will live by his faith” (From Habakkuk 2:3-4).

So God’s people waited and waited and waited.

Two thousand years ago, during the reign of Herod the Great, God at long last brings about His plan – the plan He had formulated before the beginning of time to redeem and perfect His people for Himself, to the praise of His glorious grace.

He chooses for the parents of the messenger prophesied in Malachi a couple too old to have children, Zechariah and Elizabeth, a godly man and woman from priestly families. They “were righteous before God” (Luke 1:6) (not meaning they were sinless, but that when they sinned they repented and offered the appropriate sacrifice ordained by God.) For many years they had prayed long and hard for a child. But that child never came. By this point, they are too old. And I think they had stopped praying for a child. God had not seen fit to give them children.  They accepted His judgment.

Zechariah was one of about 18,000 priests among the Jews at this time.  One of the most important priestly tasks was to enter the temple twice a day to burn incense. Remember, the temple as a whole is a picture of God’s presence with His people. But inside the temple was the Holy of Holies – the Most Holy Place, where God was specially pictured as present. The incense altar was right outside that room, and thus pictures the point of contact between God and His people.

Which priest had the honor of burning incense at the altar? The privilege rotated among several different groups of priests  – but within each group, the priest was chosen by lot. With so many to choose from, most likely a priest would have this privilege only once in his entire life.

So finally, in his old age, the lot falls to Zechariah! This is a real high point of his life, as he approaches God representing the people.

Now, this daily incense offering has been going on for years and years. Zechariah never heard of anything unusual happening.

But suddenly, while he is burning the incense, a mighty angel appears! Zechariah is astonished and afraid.

But the angel says, “Fear not! Your prayer has been heard! Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will call his name John.”

God had heard his prayers from long ago, and although Zechariah didn’t know it, God’s answer to his request for a son was not, “No,” but, “Not yet.”

The angel tells this fearful and puzzled man that he personally will have joy and gladness. But not only that: “Many will rejoice at his birth.”  So this child is not only the answer to Zechariah’s prayers for a child, but also the answer to all these prayers the Jews have offered for centuries.

The angel continues:

“For he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Luke 1:15-17).

This boy John will fulfill the promise through Malachi; the messenger like Elijah preparing the way for the Messiah is here, at long last. Like Elijah, he will turn the people to repentance and faithfulness before God, preparing the people for the coming of His Messiah.

The time is at hand! The messenger will be conceived! The Messiah will come! The long wait is over!

But how does Zechariah respond to this great news?

The angel has told Zechariah that he and many others will have great joy at this birth.

Yet faithful old Zechariah has a hard time believing this, asking, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years” (Luke 1:18). That is, “I can’t just take your word for this. This is too hard to believe! Give me a sign!”

Are you like Zechariah?

Everyone who rejects the Gospel acts like this! We hear, “This is the way to true joy! This is the way to God, the way He planned before the beginning of time! Just believe in the Lord Jesus!” And we have a tendency say: “Hey! I won’t let you pull one over on me! I’m too bright for that! Prove it to me!”

But this doubting tendency manifests itself among believers too. For we often reject God’s plan for us.

  • God says, “I am with you always even to the end of the age.” Yet we are afraid to step out in faith when it implies doing something embarrassing or receiving less income or moving to a place with much disease and poor medical care.
  • God inspires the psalmist to say, “Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides You” (Psalm 73:25). But we hold on to all our little trinkets and pray, “Oh, please God, don’t make me give these up!”
  • God says through Paul, “If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content” (1 Timothy 6:8). But we think, “How can I possibly serve God without broadband internet access?”

God says, “Here is great joy! Follow Me!” And Zechariah – and we – say, “Hold it! That’s too hard to believe!”

Note Gabriel’s response to Zechariah’s doubts: “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news” (Luke 1:19).

That is: “Hey! Zechariah! Do you know who’s speaking to you! God sent me here! And did you notice? This is GOOD news!”

Then, to paraphrase verse 20: “You asked for a sign? I’ll give you a sign! You won’t be able to speak until the prophecy comes to pass. But note: This prophecy WILL come to pass!”

Now, Zechariah comes around. Elizabeth does become pregnant. She gives birth to a son. And when Zechariah writes, to the surprise of those present, that the baby’s name is John, his mouth is open, and he sings a great hymn of praise to God (Luke 1:68-79).

But consider how the lesson Zechariah learns applies to us today.

We too have a promise from God from long ago. We too have been waiting for centuries and millennia for that promise to be fulfilled. So long ago Jesus said, “Surely I am coming soon!” (Revelation 22:20). And, indeed, many of the Old Testament promises that Zechariah knew will only be fulfilled when Jesus returns.

So wait expectantly. Trust His promises. Pray for Jesus’ return.

But we can do more than wait. We can do more than pray. Peter speaks of our “hastening the coming of the day of God” (2 Peter 3:12). Our Lord says, “This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14).

God has a role for you in hastening the return of our Lord. It may be giving to enable that Gospel to be proclaimed to all nations. It may be sending others who go. It may be going internationally yourself. It may be going to the nations who have come to Charlotte. It may be going to your next door neighbor.

But whatever role God has for you – whatever the trials, whatever the difficulties, whatever the challenges – that role for you is joyous and fulfilling. Completing that role will give you the greatest joy you can have in this life, as you fulfill the purpose for which God created you and chose you.

So eagerly expect the Second Coming. Pray for Jesus to return. And fulfill your role in hastening that long-promised return – to your great joy.

 

 

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