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.

 

 

Your Way Was Through the Sea

December 1, 2017

What do you do when the path ahead seems fraught with danger – when there are a zillion ways that all could fall apart, when worries and cares abound? When your eyelids are propped open at night, as you lie in your bed imagining all that could go wrong?

This is the situation of the author of Psalm 77. God seems distant and uncaring; He seems angry, reneging on His promises. Remembering past times of intimacy with God only serves to magnify the sense of alienation the author experiences in the present.

So he asks: Has God’s unfailing love failed? Has He forgotten to be merciful and gracious? Will He never again be kind to me? (Psalm 77:7-9)

But instead of continuing in self-pity, questioning God’s character, in the following verses the psalmist wisely changes course: Instead of focusing on his past subjective experiences of God, he disciplines himself to meditate on the objective revelation of God through history – particularly through the history of His mighty acts on behalf of His people (Psalm 77:10-12).

The psalmist looks first at the big picture: Over the centuries God has proven Himself to be holy and mighty, a Redeemer of His people (Psalm 77:13-15). He then focuses on one specific act – God’s bringing His people through the Red Sea (Psalm 77:16-20). He imagines himself among the Israelites, with the Egyptian army behind them and the impassable waters in front of them. There is no way out. All seems lost. Despite God’s power and might exhibited in the nine plagues, despite the miracle of the death of the firstborn leading Pharaoh to let the people go, now they will all be slaughtered by the army or drowned by the sea.

But then God divides the sea! The waters well up, “a wall to them on their right hand and on their left” (Exodus 14:22). And the people make that long trek across the sea.

Yet as he imagines the event, the psalmist realizes something vitally important – important for him and for all of us facing challenging circumstances – a point we often miss in telling the story of the Exodus: “Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters” (Psalm 77:19a). God is leading them right into the midst of the sea! They must walk for miles, with the water piled up on both sides. Should that water pour over them, there is not a thing they can do to save themselves. There will be no escape. Is this a deliverance – or the path to their destruction? Clearly God has acted to part the waters – but will He keep the waters parted for the hours it will take them to cross?

Friends, this is characteristic of the way God acts toward His people. The way ahead looks uncertain and frightening. We can imagine thousands of ways all could fall apart, all could go wrong. We pass through the valley of the shadow of death and are tempted to fear all sorts of evil, for we question the power and the goodness of the Shepherd.

When you experience such fear and doubts, follow the example of this psalmist: Remember how God has revealed Himself through the history of His people. Remember that His way is often through the sea; we are to walk right into the midst of the dangers and challenges. Remember that He promises that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Remember that it is in such circumstances, when we are at our wits’ end, that He is most glorified in saving us. Remember – and then trust the mighty God who never changes, whose unfailing love never fails, who promises that nothing will separate us from the love He has for all of those who are in Christ Jesus.

Luther on the Authority and Clarity of Scripture

October 27, 2017

[Tuesday marks the 500th anniversary of the event that many cite as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation: Martin Luther’s nailing 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. While the Theses primarily address the sale of indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church, the underlying issue was the relative authority of Scripture and the Roman Church. The issue of the authority of Scripture remains of vital importance today; we’ll focus on it this coming Sunday as we celebrate 500 years of the Reformation.  To honor Luther’s role in the recovery of Scriptural authority, here are some of his own words on this topic – Coty]

[When Luther was under trial in the city of Worms for his writings, after being commanded to recant:]

I am bound to the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.

[Luther’s enemies mocked him for this stance, yet clearly recognized his position on Scripture. Here is part of the Edict of Worms, the final judgment from that trial:]

This devil in the habit of a monk has brought together ancient errors into one stinking puddle and has invented new ones. . . . His teaching makes for rebellion, division, war, murder, robbery, arson, and the collapse of Christendom. He lives the life of a beast. . . . We have labored with him, but he recognizes only the authority of Scripture.

[Luther was the first to translate the Bible into German. He wrote these words on the flyleaf of a German Bible:]

God will not be seen, known, or comprehended except through his Word alone. Whatever therefore one undertakes for salvation apart from the Word is in vain. God will not respond to that. He will not have it. He will not tolerate any other way. Therefore, let his Book in which He speaks to you be commended to you. For he did not cause it to be written to no purpose. He did not want us to let it lie there in neglect, as if he were speaking with mice under the bench or with flies on the pulpit. We are to read it, to think and speak about it, and to study it, certain that He Himself, not an angel or a creature, is speaking with us in it.

[Luther’s response to Erasmus’ claim that Scripture is obscure. From Bondage of the Will:]

God and his Scriptures are two things, just as the Creator and his creation are two things. Now, nobody questions that there is a great deal hid in God of which we know nothing. . . . But the notion that in Scripture . . . all is not plain was spread by the godless [without evidence.] . . . And Satan has used these unsubstantial specters to scare men off reading the sacred text, and to destroy all sense of its value, so as to ensure that his own poisonous philosophy reigns supreme in the church. I certainly grant that many passages in the Scriptures are obscure and hard to elucidate, but that is due, not to the exalted nature of their subject, but to our own linguistic and grammatical ignorance; and it does not in any way prevent our knowing all the contents of Scripture. For what solemn truth can the Scriptures still be concealing, now that the seals are broken, the stone rolled away from the door of the tomb, and the greatest of all mysteries brought to light—that Christ, God’s Son, became man, that God is Three in One, that Christ suffered for us, and will reign forever? Are not these things known, and sung in our streets? Take Christ from the Scriptures—and what more will you find in them? . . .

The profoundest mysteries of the supreme Majesty are no [longer] hidden away, but are now brought out of doors and displayed to public view. Christ has opened our understanding, that we might understand the Scriptures, and the Gospel is preached to every creature. . . . I know that to many people a great deal remains obscure; but that is due, not to any lack of clarity in Scripture, but to their own blindness and dullness, in that they make no effort to see truth which, in itself, could not be plainer. . . . They are like men who . . . go from daylight into darkness, and hide there and then blame . . . the darkness of the day for their inability to see. . . .

The truth is that nobody who has not the Spirit of God sees a jot of what is in the Scriptures. All men have their hearts darkened, so that, even when they can discuss and quote all that is in Scripture, they do not understand or really know any of it. They do not believe in God, nor do they believe that they are God’s creatures, nor anything else. . . . The Spirit is needed for the understanding of all Scripture and every part of Scripture.

[From Luther‘s exposition of Psalm 45:4, delivered as a lecture to his students. He here comments on the words “go forth and reign” (translated “ride out victoriously” in the ESV):]

Everywhere there is nothing but misfortune: outside they persecute the Word; among us they despise and neglect it; pastors almost die of hunger and receive no other reward for their godly labors than ingratitude and hatred. Where is the prosperity here? Certainly only in the spirit.

Therefore rouse yourself. Do not give in to evils, but go forth boldly against them. Hold on. Do not be disheartened either by contempt or ingratitude within or by agitation and raging without. . . . It is in sorrow, when we are the closest to despair, that hope rises the highest. So today, when there is the greatest contempt and weariness with the Word, the true glory of the Word begins. Therefore we should learn to understand this verse as speaking of invisible progress and success. Our King enjoys success and good fortune even though you do not see it. Moreover, it would not be expedient for us to see this success, for then we would be puffed up. Now, however, he raises us up through faith and gives us hope. Even though we see no fruit of the Word, still we can be certain that fruit will not be wanting but will certainly follow; for so it is written here. Only we should not be discouraged when we look at present circumstances that disturb us, but we should much rather look at these promises.

 

By Grace Alone

October 19, 2017

[As we approach the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church, consider one of the key points of the Reformation: We are saved by God’s grace alone. Here is a shortened and edited version of my sermon on Galatians 1:6-12 on this theme, preached April 29, 2007. You can listen to the sermon at this link – Coty]

What really angers you? Think about a time recently when you’ve been ticked off. What prompted that reaction?

When did the apostle Paul become most upset? Scripture records several such times. But the beginning of Galatians displays some of his greatest anger.

All of Paul’s letters to churches begin by stating who they are from, whom they are to, and then calling on God for a blessing of grace and peace to the church. This is usually followed by a statement thanking God for the people of that church, or praising God for the blessings He has given to that Church or to His people in general. (See, for example, Romans 1:8, 1 Corinthians 1:4, 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, and Ephesians 1:3.)

But Galatians is different. After calling for grace and peace, Paul cries out:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel (Galatians 1:6)

Paul is angry – and he minces no words. What has angered Paul?

Remember, in Corinth the church was tolerating a man who was sleeping with his father’s wife. And when they came together for a meal around the Lord’s Supper, some were getting drunk. But even to Corinth, Paul says, “I give thanks to my God always for you.” Paul is angrier with the Galatians than with the Corinthians.

What makes Paul most upset?

The loss of the Gospel.

The Gospel was so precious to Paul that its distortion troubled him deeply. God’s glory in the Gospel is so precious to Paul that he found the perversion of the Gospel most disturbing.

Look at Paul’s summary of the Gospel in Galatians 1:4-5. The overarching theme is obvious: GOD gave Himself, GOD delivers, all according to GOD’s will, to GOD’s glory forever. God is at the center. The Gospel is all about God – His glory, His holiness, His mercy, His love. If we change the Gospel, we desert God. And Paul could not stand for that.

Let’s see how Paul elaborates on that point in verses 6-12.

The True Gospel: Called by God’s Grace

Having stated the Gospel in his intro, Paul keeps reminding his readers of its central points:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ (Galatians 1:6)

Paul could have simply said: “so quickly deserting God.” But instead he highlights the Gospel itself. The one they are deserting is:

  • The one who called them
  • The one who spoke to them with life-giving force
  • The one who miraculously touched them, when they were His enemies
  • The one whose grace and mercy are their only hope
  • The one who displayed that grace in sending Christ Jesus to die for their sins.

Paul will elaborate on this summary of the Gospel a few verses later:

[God] who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles. (Galatians 1:15-16)

The apostle’s point: There is only one Gospel. It is all about God. It is all about His grace – not our works! So be overwhelmed by that grace!

What is at Stake: Deserting God

In verse 6, Paul says the Galatians are deserting the One who called them by grace.

I think Paul’s readers were absolutely shocked by that accusation. They probably thought:

“Deserting God? Paul, we’re not deserting God – we’re trying to know Him better! These other teachers came and provided us with an alternative way of thinking. They said circumcision and the traditional Jewish ceremonies would lead us into a deeper, fuller understanding of God, into things we didn’t know before. How can you possibly say that we are deserting God?”

In that context, Paul then refers to God as the one “who called you in the grace of Christ.”

Paul emphasizes: “The Gospel is about God’s GRACE. Add ANYTHING to God’s grace, and you have left the Gospel. You have deserted God.”

Thus he says they are “turning to a different gospel – not that there is another one” (Galatians 1:6-7).

There is only one Gospel.

Another teacher might label his message a gospel – but it’s not. Any message other than salvation by God’s grace through faith in Christ apart from works of any kind is not Good News. Any “Christ plus” gospel is a false gospel – and to follow such a false gospel is to abandon God.

Thus, Paul calls such false teachers those who “trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ” (Galatians 1:7).

By adding to faith in Christ works that we have to do – even Old Testament ceremonies – these teachers are changing the Good News into Bad News. They are turning their backs on God’s offer of Himself freely to all who believe – and thus they are changing the Gospel of God’s grace into a way to make yourself acceptable to God. This is indeed flipping the Gospel on its head. This is abandoning God.

What does Paul then say about those false teachers who are leading these Galatians astray?

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:8)

To be accursed is to be eternally condemned (NIV), to be condemned to hell (NET).

These folks who look so kind, so friendly, so warm, so engaging, inviting you to a deeper knowledge of God – these lovely people deserve hell, because they are leading God’s people astray.

So Paul says, “Even if I myself came back and preached another Gospel, you should say, “Paul, go to hell for that teaching! Don’t lead us astray from the one true Gospel!”

He imagines the most glorious possible being – an angel appearing to them. And even if this angel should preach something other than salvation by grace through faith in Christ, they should say, “Angel, go to hell!”

The GOSPEL is authoritative. Not the individual. Not even an angel

As Martin Luther writes concerning these verses:

Paul subordinates himself, all preachers, all the angels of heaven, everybody     to the Sacred Scriptures. We are not masters, judges, or arbiters, but witnesses, disciples, and confessors of the Scriptures, whether we be pope, Luther, Augustine, Paul, or an angel from heaven.

Paul continues:

For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. (Galatians 1:11-12)

There is not one gospel according to Paul, another according to Peter, and another according to John, with each stating the result of his own philosophical speculations on the nature of reality, and how man can be put right with the ineffable sovereign power. No. Paul says Jesus Himself revealed this Gospel to him – and that this is the same Gospel He lived before the twelve disciples, the same Gospel that they continue to preach. There is one Gospel, from God, not based on the authority of any man, but revealed and put into effect by God Himself.

This is GOD’s gospel – so anyone who preaches another is NOT representing God.

Thus the false teachers, despite their speaking of grace, faith, Christ, and salvation, are teaching the opposite of the true Gospel. For it is God’s grace that saves us – nothing else. That is the only possible Good News. As Philip Ryken writes:

Not everyone who calls himself a Christian serves Christ, and not everything called the gospel is the gospel. It is not mere words that save; it is the realities of the one true gospel that save.

Our salvation comes about only by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone to the glory of God alone.

The Temptation: Aim First to Please Men, not God

For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10)

Paul’s opponents may have been claiming Paul did not tell these Gentile believers to be circumcised because he was trying to please them. They may have argued: “Paul himself is circumcised, and he even circumcises men himself on occasion.”

Was Paul a man-pleaser? Should we be man-pleasers?

Pleasing men in and of itself is not wrong.

On non-essentials we are right to remove barriers to the Gospel, as we subordinate our personal and cultural preferences to communicate the Gospel more effectively. Paul did that (1 Corinthians 9:22-23, 1 Corinthians 10:33). But we must never change the Gospel in order to please men.

Notice in verse 10 that Paul admits that he used to try to please men – when he was a Pharisee. He implies that his opponents are now acting like he did when he was a man-pleaser.

In what ways were Paul’s opponents – and we ourselves – tempted to please men rather than God? Perhaps so that:

  • We might get along with those in power by submitting to another man’s authority or reasoning
  • We might fulfill our own natural desire to take credit for our salvation, for being master of our fate
  • We might accomplish an important but secondary goal, such as unity or kindness,

Conclusion

What is central for you?

Are you aiming in your life for popularity? For others to think highly of you?

My friends, the central goal of the church of Jesus Christ is

  • Not about marketing,
  • Not about church growth
  • Not about making money
  • Not about gaining political power
  • Not about attaining great health
  • Not about self-esteem
  • Not about building better families
  • Not about ending poverty
  • Not about ending abortion
  • Not about ending racial discrimination

If we make any of these the central goal of the church – even those that are good, biblical goals – then we have no Gospel at all. We have become man-pleasers of one type or another. We are putting ourselves, or some other group of people, at the center – not God.

If we do that, we are not making just a little adjustment to the Gospel. Instead, like the Galatians, we are deserting God; we are distorting and destroying the Gospel.

The church of Jesus Christ exists to herald the message of the Gospel: Your creator God made you for a purpose – to show what He is like, to marvel at who He is. Yet you have despised Him, treasuring attainments and objects in this world more than Him. You deserve His wrath and condemnation. But God in His grace sent His Son Jesus to die on the cross for your sins, to pay the penalty you deserve. You can be put right with God – you can be part of his intimate family – if you will have faith in Christ, if you see Him as your treasure, your hope, your joy.

The church of Jesus Christ exists to proclaim and to live out this Gospel radically in our lives as we, overflowing with forgiveness, overflowing with grace and mercy, become His humble servants, loving God, loving man, and rejoicing in the grace of Christ that we know we don’t deserve.

Is this central for you? Not a ticket to heaven after you die – but is this what you are most passionate about, what drives you?

There is only one hope for the world. There is only one hope for YOU: The Gospel of God’s grace.

So believe and be saved: By Grace alone. Through Faith alone. In Christ Jesus alone. To the glory of God alone.

 

 

An Excellent Wife Who Can Find?

September 29, 2017

Friday September 29 marks 40 years since our first date.  Beth and I were students at Davidson. I had been in Kenya from January to August; Beth had been in Europe spring term, then worked in Shenandoah National Park during the summer. That year she lived in Mt Mourne, off campus. After cross country practice that Thursday, I drove out to her house; we mixed and kneaded bread, leaving it to rise while we went for a walk in the woods nearby (now Lowes corporate headquarters).  Returning, we baked the bread, made a salad, ate the first of thousands of wonderful meals together, and then looked at slides from Kenya and discussed what that trip meant.

When most of my friends asked me about Kenya, they wanted a five minute response. I was frustrated with that – the time in East Africa had affected me profoundly, and I was sorting through how I had changed. Beth, on the other hand, wanted a several hour response. She asked questions. She listened. She talked about how Europe and Shenandoah had affected her.

Five weeks previously my girlfriend of over two years had broken up with me. I had rather enjoyed dating just for fun in the intervening weeks, and was in no way looking for another serious, long-term relationship. But as I drove home that night I knew: Either Beth and I were not going to keep seeing each other, or this would be a serious relationship. And I couldn’t imagine not seeing her.

I just about destroyed the relationship right at the beginning. A few days after our first date, while walking down Main St, I ran into a girl I had dated a few times. We started going the same direction – and she took my hand. I was uncomfortable, but I had not yet said anything to her about Beth, and that didn’t seem the time or place to talk. So we were holding hands, and Beth drove by. I didn’t see her. She did see me – us – but wondered, was that really Coty? Beth decided to forget about it.

Two years and three months after that first date, we were married. That’s how I found an excellent wife.

At the time, I did not even know how to describe an excellent wife biblically. My conception of marriage was quite a mishmash of popular culture, marriages I had seen, and not-well-thought-out ideas about partnership and equality. But in God’s grace, He put the two of us together, made the two of us one on December 29, 1979, and has since washed us with the water of the Word, strengthened us by His Spirit, and nourished us through each other.

“Charm Is deceptive and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (Proverbs 31:30). So let me turn to praise:

Beth, your outer beauty is fleeting only in the sense that everything in this world is passing away. In forty years, there has rarely been a time when I did not think you were the most beautiful woman in the room. Thank you for the attention you pay to your health, to your physical condition – and thank you for the many runs, hikes, and rides we have done together.

But your inner beauty is beyond compare. Even in Davidson days, an older man said of you, “She is so gentle – and yet so strong!” Those words characterize you time and again. You have displayed your strength in six births, after traffic accidents, in emergency room visits, when I have let you down, and when others have hurt us. And you have shown your gentleness to our children and grandchildren, to weeping friends, and to a hurting husband.

Naturally God graced you with these traits. Supernaturally He expanded and extended them, in calling you to Himself, in gracing You with His Spirit, in implanting in you a deep love for Him. He enabled you to be as He is in the world (1 John 4:17), to show not only your natural gentleness and strength, but to point to His gentleness, His strength, His forgiveness, His love, His goodness. And you display Who He is daily, hourly – whether through teaching a refugee woman to sew, helping your parents build a walkway, or laughing with your children about our foibles.

Thank you for helping me to see our unity, and for being my ally in the fight to maintain and deepen it. “They are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, man must not separate” (Mark 10:8-9). As you know, in Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy says of Levin and Kitty (in the middle of a fight!), “He could not now tell where she ended and he began.”  Just so with us. Our lives are intertwined, molded together – not in an unhealthy codependency, but, strengthened by our Lord, complete in Him, together we miraculously picture the unity of Christ and His Church. What a privilege to do that together with you.

Beth, you are far more precious than rubies. I love you with all my heart. Should God grant us another forty years together, I will be blessed above all men.

Mercy and Justice

September 21, 2017

Arise, O God, defend your cause; remember how the foolish scoff at you all the day! Do not forget the clamor of your foes, the uproar of those who rise against you, which goes up continually! (Psalm 74:22-23)

Jesus is speaking from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)

Jesus has just been condemned unjustly, beaten, and nailed to the cross. And He asks God to forgive the perpetrators.

In Psalm 74, Jerusalem has just been conquered by the Babylonians, with her temple destroyed, her God mocked, and her citizens murdered and raped. And the psalmist asks for God to honor His Name through implementing justice.

Are these inconsistent responses to evil?

No.

Jesus Himself promises or calls for justice again and again:

“Will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them?  I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily.” (Luke 18:7-8a)

“Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”– for they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.” (Mark 3:28-30)

And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ (Mark 9:47-48)

We see similar calls for justice throughout the Bible, New Testament as well as Old Testament. Revelation even pictures martyrs rightly crying out for justice from the heavenly altar of God (Revelation 6:9-11). They are promised that justice will come.

  • God is a god of justice. Justice is central to His character. He must punish every wrong, and He will. We rightly call on God to display His character, to implement justice, when we are faced with evil.
  • And God is a god of mercy. Mercy is central to His character. We rightly call on God to have mercy, to show forgiveness to those who harm us personally.

How does God show both aspects of His character?

Mercy and justice come together at the Cross. Indeed, God planned the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of His Son in order that He might justly show mercy, in order that He might mercifully show justice (Romans 3:21-26).

In the end, there are only two categories of people: Those who deserve eternal punishment for their rebellion against God, and receive that punishment, all the while continuing in their rebellion; and those who deserve eternal punishment for their rebellion against God, whose punishment God the Father transfers to God the Son on the cross. United to Christ, forgiven in Him, having His Law written on their hearts, having received the gift of the Holy Spirit, they then delight in Him above all else and live to His glory.

So, yes, call out for justice. And come to the Father for mercy through the sacrifice of His Son. Do all this for the glory of God.

 

Is Anything Too Hard for God?

September 15, 2017

Is anything too hard for God?

God tells the prophet Jeremiah that He is going to punish the people for their rebellion against Him. Indeed, He promises to destroy Jerusalem and the very temple that pictures His dwelling in their midst. But He also promises that decades later He will gather the people from where they are scattered and show them His redeeming love; they will be His people, and He will be their God. It is in this context that He says: “Behold, I am the LORD, the God of all flesh. Is anything too hard for me?” (Jeremiah 32:27).

If God can do that – if He can punish and He can redeem, if He can scatter and He can unite, if He can use human empires both to destroy according to His plan and to build up according to His plan – is there anything He cannot do?

No. Nothing is too hard for Him.

Consider a few of the many Scriptures that make similar claims:

  • [When God promises that a 90 year old woman who has been barren her entire life will bear a son fathered by her 99 year old husband] “Is anything too hard for the LORD?” (Genesis 18:14a)
  • [Similarly, when the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she, a virgin, will give birth to a son, and that her elderly, barren cousin Elizabeth is already pregnant] “For nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37)
  • [Job speaks after God has displayed and spoken of His power, glory and wisdom] “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” (Job 42:2)
  • [When there are hundreds of thousands of Israelites in the wilderness and God has promised them meat. Moses is skeptical]  And the LORD said to Moses, “Is the LORD’s hand shortened? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not.” (Numbers 11:23)
  • Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? (Num 23:19b)
  • Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases. (Psalm 115:3)
  • Whatever the LORD pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps. (Psalm 135:6)
  • For the LORD of hosts has purposed, and who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back? (Isaiah 14:27)
  • Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. (Isaiah 40:28-29)
  • “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’ . . .. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.” (From Isaiah 46:9-11)
  • All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?” (Daniel 4:35)
  • [When a man asks Jesus for healing for his son, after Jesus’ disciples were unable to heal him]  “But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.”  Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:22-24)
  • [When the disciples wonder if anyone can be saved if it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom] Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:27)

So the claim of Scripture is all-encompassing: God has authority over conception, over illness, over sin, over rebellion, over repentance, over faith. We need His help always, in all areas – including our faith!

But God is not our all-powerful genie in the bottle, at our beck and call, who grants us any wishes that we might ask. He has already declared the end; He will accomplish His purpose. Our purpose will not stand; God’s will.

And so consider the way that Jesus Himself prays as He notes the Father’s unstoppable power:

“Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:36)

Jesus shrank back from the horror of the cross. He knew that protecting Him from the Jewish leaders and the Roman governor was simple for the Father. God could thwart their plans; that was possible for Him. But Jesus also knew that God’s plan, God’s will, included His going to the cross. He knew that the end God had stated from the beginning – blessing all nations through the seed of Abraham, covering the sin of rebels by the sacrifice of His Son, ushering in an eternal Kingdom of righteousness and peace ruled by a descendant of David – Jesus knew that this glorious end required that He go to the cross. And so He went.

So God is more powerful than the illness you face, than the sin that tempts you, than hardness of anyone’s heart; God is well able to comfort every sorrow, to grant wisdom to the foolish, to bring rebels to repentance. Nothing is too hard for Him.

Therefore, trust this almighty God! He works all things together to fulfill His great plan. Whatever trials you are facing, however weak you are in yourself, look to Him! Delight in His sovereign power, which He wields for the good of His people and the glory of his Name.

 

Questions at the Installation of an Elder

September 5, 2017

[We installed Daniel Camenisch as an elder last Sunday, following the unanimous vote in his favor at our members meeting of 27 August.  These are the questions we asked him at the installation, as well as  two questions we asked the congregation, along with some brief commentary. These began as questions used by our friends at Capitol Hill Baptist Church; we have edited and added to them over the years.]

Do you reaffirm that the God of the Bible is the one and only true God, eternally existent in three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

(In a time of much doubt about the reality and character of God, we must stand firm on this most central point.)

Do you reaffirm your faith in Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Trinity, the Head of the Church as your Lord, Savior, and Treasure?

(That is: Do you believe in Jesus as your Master, who has a right to control your entire life? Do you believe in Him as your Savior, the only One who can pay the penalty for your sin and grant you entrance into God the Father’s presence? Do you see Jesus as your Treasure, worth more than all the world has to offer?)

Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, totally trustworthy, completely sufficient, fully inspired by the Holy Spirit, the supreme, final, and only infallible rule of faith and practice?

(We as elders acknowledge that we thus have no authority over what we as a church believe – faith – and what we as a church do – practice – except as we guide this congregation to follow God’s Word. We also admit that to put anything other authority on an equal standing with Scripture is effectively to put that other authority over Scripture.)

Do you sincerely believe that the covenant and the Statements of Faith of this church contain the truth taught in the Holy Scriptures?

(Similarly, our covenant and Statements of Faith have derivative authority: we as elders affirm that we believe they are useful summaries of the truths of Scripture. But they have no authority apart from Scripture.)

Do you promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with anything in the Statements of Faith or covenant, you will on your own initiative make known to all the other elders the change which has taken place in your views since your assumption of this vow?

(Churches have frequently gone astray when following leaders who have gone astray. And many leaders have not been open concerning their doubts about the truths of Scripture. Elders here affirm that should their beliefs change, they will make that known – and therefore resign, unless the other elders and the church as a whole agree that the truths of Scripture are better stated in a different way.)

Do you promise to submit to your fellow elders in the Lord?

(Hebrews 13:17 holds for elders as well as for the rest of the congregation. This doesn’t mean that one elder always gives in to what the other elders desire. But elders should have an inclination to work as a team, a desire to be unified, a willingness to hear from others and to be persuaded by them. We don’t come together each representing part of the congregation and fight it out for our private subset of the congregation; each of us is working for the good of the entire body. )

Is it your desire, as far as you know your own heart, to serve in the office of elder from love of God and a sincere desire to promote His glory in the Gospel of His Son?

(That is, are you serving in this position for your own glory or for God’s glory?)

Do you promise to be zealous and faithful in promoting the truths of the Gospel and the purity and peace of the Church, whatever persecution, criticisms, opposition or discouragement may arise?

(All elders will face opposition – sometimes from outside the church, sometimes from loved ones within the church. An elder must be aware of the certainty of future opposition, and he must be prepared to continue to serve faithfully despite opposition. Similarly, discouraging circumstances and events will happen to every elder, and he must be prepared to continue the labor despite the discouragement.)

Will you pursue and strive for unity of this church, committing yourself humbly to a ministry of biblical peacemaking and reconciliation?

(An elder must be humble, gentle, bold and resolute in pursuing confession and repentance in himself and the flock. Restoration and reconciliation of fellowship with God and fellow believers within the flock must be an essential priority.)

In dependence upon Jesus Christ’s redemptive work in your life and by the power of the Holy Spirit, will you strive to love your wife as Christ has loved you and gave Himself for you?

(Elders are to be examples in all aspects of their lives; marriage is the area Satan is most prone to attack, and where, conversely, God can be most glorified by our faithful example.)

Will you be faithful and diligent in the exercise of all your duties as elder, whether private or public, and will you endeavor by the grace of God to adorn the profession of the Gospel in your manner of life, walking with exemplary piety before the congregation?

(That is: Are you going to walk the walk and not just talk the talk? “Piety” is not a word we use frequently these days; it refers to a godward orientation of one’s life, a respect for God that pervades all of one’s thoughts and actions. Who is equal to this? None of us, except by the grace of God.)

Are you now willing to take personal responsibility as an elder by God’s grace to oversee the ministry and resources of the church, and to devote yourself to prayer, the ministry of the Word, and the shepherding of God’s flock, in such a way that Desiring God Community Church and the entire Church of Jesus Christ will be blessed, built up, and protected against false teaching and division?

(Here we lay out the responsibilities of the elders: Prayer, the Word, and shepherding/pastoring the flock. As elders fulfill these three responsibilities, the entire Church is blessed.)

Questions to the Congregation:

Do you, the members of Desiring God Community Church, acknowledge and publicly receive this man as an elder – a gift of Christ to this church?

(Who is the Giver of this gift? Jesus Himself! He is the One who raises up elders, not the existing elders and not the church. God equips men and raises them up to serve in this capacity. So praise God for your elders!)

Will you love him and pray for him in his ministry, and work together with him humbly and cheerfully, submitting to him and giving him all due honor and support in the leadership to which the Lord has called him, that by the grace of God you may accomplish the mission of the church, to the glory and honor of God?

(This is a wonderful summary of the responsibility of the congregation to the elders. How we need your prayers; how we covet your love. And note what happens when the congregation rightly loves, prays for, and submits to her elders: The church fulfills its purpose – glorifying God. May God be pleased to glorify Himself through this church as the elders and the congregation work together by His grace.)

 

 

Taste and See that the Lord is Good!

August 25, 2017

[This devotion is the sermon from last Saturday’s marriage ceremony of Joel Pinckney and Louise Goodfellow in Chapel Hill.]

Joel, you have heard many wedding sermons from me, including four at your siblings’ marriage ceremonies. We’ve spoken on many other occasions of marriage as a picture of Jesus and His Church, and the unity, love, headship/submission, and perfection that God intends in marriage.

In addition to the joys of marriage, we’ve spoken of its challenges and trials – and thus the necessity of commitment and the constant need for dependence on Christ.

You know I came near to destroying my marriage 35 years ago, and God worked through those problems to show us His grace, His love – indeed, to show us what marriage truly is.

You’ve heard of the necessity of forgiveness, of keeping short accounts, of the centrality of forbearance.

You know of the need for marriage’s compost pile, where you can take the tough parts of your relationship and leave them, so they become fertilizer for later growth.

You’ve seen the complicated portrayals of marriage in Scripture, as well as in the novels of Wendell Berry, Leo Tolstoy, and other authors.

But this afternoon, for you and Louise, I want to emphasize a different point – a point found in Psalm 34 from which we read.

I’ll highlight two verses in this psalm of David, say a few words about the circumstances in which he wrote it, and then draw out some implications for your marriage.

First, Psalm 34:1: “I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.”

Notice David’s emphasis: He doesn’t just say, “I will bless the LORD; His praise shall be in my mouth.” Rather, he underlines that he will do this at all times, continually. There will never be a moment when he will not be praising the Lord.

And out of that praise in his heart, in Psalm 34:8 he exhorts his listeners, including us: “O taste and see that the LORD is good!”

That is, for us today:  Don’t just acknowledge the fact that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is good; don’t just check a theological box that says, “Oh, yes, Jesus died on the cross for my sins.” Taste that truth. See that truth:

  • When the hummingbird hovers outside your window,
  • When the clouds turn yellow then orange then deep red
  • When the moon moves in front of the sun near midday on Monday
  • When a rabbit hops across your path on an early morning walk
  • When a friend counsels you and encourages you and stands beside you
  • And, yes, when in a few moments you commit the rest of your life to the one you love:

See that these are all good gifts, tokens of love from the One who loves you with a love that surpasses knowledge; taste His goodness in each of these experiences, and thereby fulfill verse 1: Bless the Lord at all times. Continually have His praise on your lips.

Here today, in this lovely setting, with these beloved friends and family, standing together with your one true love, I’m sure you do taste and see God’s goodness.

But now, let’s turn to the circumstances in which David wrote this psalm. He had just come out of a very severe danger, during which he seemed to have lost all earthly hope, all earthly expectation of success. Furthermore, he continued to be in a weak position as he wrote, with only a handful of men around him,             under potential attack both by the armies of his own country and by suspicious leaders of a foreign nation. So his future looked bleak and uncertain.

In addition, in the midst of such danger, in the absence of earthly hope, he knows his life is brief, like a mist. Indeed, as he will write later in Psalm 39:4-5: “Let me know how fleeting I am. . . . Surely all mankindstands as a mere breath!”

Therefore, realize: It is in tough circumstances that David says, “I will bless the Lord at all times.” That is when David commands us: “O taste and see that the LORD is good.”

So then some implications for your marriage.

Joel and Louise, this is your responsibility and your joy everyday, whether all seems to be going well or you’re under great stress: To wake up each morning and to pray:

“We will bless You, O Lord, this day. We will go to Your Word today and taste and see your goodness, reminding ourselves that as rebels against you, apart from Jesus we have no hope but only a fearful expectation of judgment. But because of His sacrifice, because of Your sovereign work of granting us eyes to see Jesus for Who He is, we are loved with an everlasting love this day and all the days of our life. What amazing goodness!

  • “Today and every day we will go to each other and taste and see Your goodness.
  • “Today and every day we will go to the world around us and taste and see your goodness: Weeping with those who weep, crying out for the pains of the world, rejoicing with those who rejoice, and rejoicing in your daily gifts of breath and vigor and . . . coffee.
  • “We will praise You continually as we rejoice in sustenance and love and family and friends,
  • “We will delight in Jesus above all the world has to offer
  • “By the power of the Holy Spirit we will live and love as Jesus in this world.
  • “Knowing that our life is a mere breath, we will breath in deeply, love fully, and live in light of eternity.
  • “We will taste Your goodness, O Lord; we will notice those tokens of love You drop in our path.
  • “You have placed us in this world to show – individually and as a couple – who You are and what You are worth, how You love, how You forgive.
  • “We may live a long life together, we may not;
  • “One of us or both of us may have successful and lucrative careers, we may not;
  • “We may have good health for decades, we may not:
  • “But whatever happens, whatever our circumstances, we will praise you continually with our mouths; we will taste and see that You are good.”

Joel and Louise, I know you already do this; I encourage you: Do it all the more, for this is the message of Psalm 34 for you: For you to treat this wedding day and every future day as a gift from God’s goodness – indeed, a picture, a foreshadowing of the final great day, the wedding banquet of Christ and His church. So that our tasting and seeing that He is good each day prepares us for that deepest, most satisfying joy, that final state that marriage points to: When Jesus Himself rejoices over His Bride, His Church, His people, redeemed by His blood and perfected by His love.

Live this out in your marriage; and so help prepare both yourselves and us all for the perfect marriage yet to come.

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