The Disobedient, Reluctant Ambassador and the Sovereign, Merciful God

July 21, 2017

The Apostle Paul tells us that we are ambassadors for Christ as God makes His appeal to others through us (2 Corinthians 5:20).

What happens when we fail to fulfill that role? What happens when we are disobedient and don’t speak of Him? What does God do in that case?

The book of Jonah tells us of a man called by God to be His ambassador to a people group that he hates. He is disobedient to the command. What does God do?

Let’s first of all look at four different ways that Jonah disobeys God, one way from each of the four chapters of the book.

God’s Disobedient, Reluctant Ambassador

God gives Jonah three commands in Jonah 1:2-3: Arise! Go! Cry out!

But how does Jonah respond in the next few verses? He does arise, but instead of going to Ninevah, he goes down again and again: down to Joppa in verse 3, down into the ship in verse 5, down into the hold of the ship in verse 5 – and then down into the sea in verse 15.  God tells Jonah to go one direction, to engage in cross-cultural ministry, and Jonah goes completely in the opposite direction.

It is easy for us to laugh at Jonah, and to judge him for failing to obey God. But who were the Assyrians? A cruel, ruthless, and powerful people – the major threat to Jonah’s country at this time. Less than 50 years after the time of Jonah this same Assyria will come and destroy the northern Kingdom of Israel.

Think hard now: What group of people do you dislike the most? What people frighten you, annoy you? What people would you least like to go stay with for several weeks? They are your Ninevites.

So how might we characterize Jonah’s disobedience in chapter 1? This is direct, defiant disobedience. God tells him to do one thing; he does exactly the opposite.

So now God gets the attention of His disobedient prophet by sending a storm and having the sailors throw him into the sea. Jonah thinks this is the end – but God appoints a great fish to come and swallow him. Jonah knows that God has spared his life miraculously.

So in chapter 2 Jonah prays. But does he repent? Read Jonah’s prayer (Jonah 2:1-9). What do you think? Does Jonah repent?

Amazingly, after God has performed miracles both to punish him for his disobedience and to save him, Jonah says not one word about repentance. He thanks God for saving his life, and he ends with the great cry, “Salvation belongs to the Lord!” – but he never acknowledges that he was in the sea needing God to save him because of his own disobedience. Furthermore, while salvation does indeed belong to the Lord, the Lord is interested in the salvation of all people groups. Jonah is interested only in the people of Israel.

So Jonah’s disobedience in chapter 2 is a failure to repent.

Chapter 3 provides further evidence that Jonah has had no change of heart. He now comes up with a new way to express his disobedience.

Do you remember the three commands God gives Jonah in 1:2? “Arise, go, call out.” Note that in Jonah 3:2 God repeats those three commands. Does Jonah obey these commands this time? In chapter 1, he arises, but he does not go where God commands and never calls out. This time he obeys the second command: He arises and goes to Ninevah. And he does eventually call out. But  what does he say? Does he say, “Ninevah has defied the Lord God. Now repent! Or God will overthrow you!” No, that is not what he says. He gives no reason for God’s anger and he provides no opportunity for repentance. Indeed, he does not even mention the Name of the Lord! (Jonah 3:3-4)

Is this what God told Jonah to say? The next chapter clearly shows that God intended for the Ninevites to repent at the preaching of Jonah. That being the case, wouldn’t God have instructed Jonah to hold out the possibility of not being destroyed upon their repentance? Indeed, although the Old Testament is full of proclamations of judgment on disobedient nations, in every case there is a clear reason given for God’s judgment. Jonah’s preaching stands in stark contrast to that heritage. We must conclude that Jonah is preaching only part of the message God gave him.

In chapter 3, therefore, Jonah is displaying perfunctory obedience. Perfunctory obedience is when you obey in a grudging manner – you don’t want to obey and you don’t obey from your heart. Instead, you just go through the motions and, in actuality, are disobeying.

So Jonah has disobeyed God directly, he has failed to repent, and he has subsequently obeyed only in a perfunctory manner. Chapter 4 highlights one more way that Jonah disobeys God. In Jonah 4:1-3, Jonah is angry because God grants repentance to the Ninevites and does not destroy the city. Indeed, Jonah accuses God of being “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2).

So Jonah is saying that God is too merciful! He is angry at God for forgiving the sins of the Ninevites. He did not want to come to Ninevah and be the source of blessing for these people. And he always thought that God might grant them repentance – that is why he didn’t want to come.

So Jonah is angry at God for fulfilling His character and displaying mercy to the Ninevites. But remember: in chapter 2 Jonah praises God for being merciful! He cries out, “Salvation is from the Lord!” So Jonah wants God to be merciful to him and to his people – he just doesn’t want God to be merciful to others. He fails to see God’s heart for ALL nations.

So we can summarize Jonah’s sin in chapter 4 as a lack of faith in God’s Word. God’s Word says that He has a heart for all nations – indeed, God’s command to Jonah was further revelation on this topic.

Thus, God uses Jonah as His ambassador, even though he is reluctant and even though he sins again and again and again.

The Sovereign, Merciful God

But although Jonah is prominent throughout the book, the main character is God, not Jonah. This book shows God’s loving persistence in bringing the lost people of Ninevah to Himself – and also His loving persistence in bringing the reluctant prophet to Himself.

What does God do in order to bring the Ninevites to repentance?

  • He calls Jonah.
  • He sends the storm.
  • He sends the great fish to save Jonah.
  • He causes the fist to vomit Jonah on the shore – and not on any shore, but on a shore from which he can walk to Ninevah.
  • He calls Jonah again.
  • He changes the hearts of the Ninevites.

What is the lesson in all this? Psalm 67:3-4 provides it: “The peoples must praise you, O God; all the peoples must praise you! The nations must be glad and sing for joy.”

God will bring the nations to Himself – despite their hardness of heart, despite the inadequacies of His ambassadors. God has begun a good work in this world and He will, He must complete it. Why? Because of His passion for His glory. Habakkuk 2:14: “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.”

God’s desire to glorify Himself is at the root of His bringing the nations to Himself. He has stated that this must come about, and just as He performed miracle after miracle to bring about the repentance of the Ninevites, just as He brought about that repentance despite the sin and attempted sabotage of His chosen ambassador, God will one day bring those from every tribe and tongue and people and nation to Himself. It must happen.

Do you see how this is a great comfort? God gives us the privilege of being His agents in this great task – He chooses to work through us – but the outcome is certain. We cannot fail. Whatever our weaknesses, whatever our failings, God will break down all opposition and will bring the nations to Himself.

But God is just as intent upon bringing His errant ambassadors to Himself! Consider how He treats Jonah in chapter four. Jonah has just stated how disappointed he is that God has not destroyed Ninevah. Now, in the midst of his pity party, he says, “Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:3).

Despite all his best efforts, Jonah has accomplished the task God set before him. God could have responded, “OK, Jonah, if that’s how you feel, ZAP!” And Jonah would be dead.

But God doesn’t do that. Instead He exerts the same loving persistence, the same sovereign mercy in bringing His prophet to Himself as He exerted for the Ninevites. Consider all He does just in chapter 4:

  • He sends a plant to sprout up and give Jonah shade.
  • He sends a worm to destroy the plant.
  • He sends a scorching east wind.

This leads Jonah to become even angrier, as he is upset about the death of the plant.

God then confronts Jonah with impeccable logic in Jonah 4:9-11: Jonah had nothing to do with bringing the plant into existence, and such a plant at most lives only a few days. But because it served a purpose for him, Jonah “pities” it, being sorry that it dies. But God created the Ninevites and had dealt with this city for hundreds and hundreds of years. Now at last the city is fulfilling the purpose for which He created it: to glorify God. Should He not pity them? If Jonah has any reason to pity the plant, God’s reasons for pitying the Ninevites are much greater.

So God pursues Jonah as He pursues the Ninevites: relentlessly, persistently, sovereignly, mercifully, until all opposition fails. God cares about us as individuals and pursues us until we come to Him; and God cares about us as peoples, and pursues peoples until all the peoples praise Him.

Jonah had no love for the Ninevites. Jonah had no desire to see God glorified through the praises of the Ninevites. So Jonah’s heart was not united with God’s heart.

What about you? Is your heart more like Jonah’s or God’s?

Don’t be disobedient. Don’t be reluctant. Don’t just give God perfunctory obedience. He is gracious and merciful to every type of person – even to those you intensely dislike, even to those who frighten you.

But know: Our God is sovereign. And He is merciful. In that sovereign mercy He sent His Son. And through that Son, He will bring all the nations to Himself. And He will bring to repentance all His reluctant ambassadors.

That is our hope. And that is our joy. Praise His Name!

(Much of this is taken and edited from a sermon preached March 16, 2003 – the first sermon I preached on a Sunday morning service at DGCC. You can read that sermon in its entirety at this link.)

Do Our Actions Please God?

January 6, 2017

How can you please God?

Can you please Him by working on His behalf?

We often think: If we would just witness more (or more effectively); if we would just give more to the church, or attend services more regularly, or pray more, or help the poor more diligently then God would be pleased with us.

Is that right?

Consider what Jesus said to His disciples after interacting with the Samaritan woman, telling her He was the longed-for Messiah: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34).

Jesus has quoted Deuteronomy previously, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Jesus loves the word of His Father. He delights to do His will. He finds sustenance and satisfaction and fulfillment in accomplishing the Father’s plan. So, in this particular case, He found joy and sustenance from seeing this woman whose life was a wreck come to saving faith as He shared the Good News of the coming of the promised Christ.

So Jesus found joy in following God. Surely we too should find joy in following Him.

But what about the flip side of that truth? Does our activity, our accomplishment, our obedience please God?

We have to be careful here. Scripture makes some subtle but vital distinctions in this area. Consider, for example, Psalm 147:10-11:

His delight is not in the strength of the horse,
nor his pleasure in the legs of a man,
but the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him,
in those who hope in his steadfast love.

We never impress God. However strong we may be, however great our accomplishments might appear, God doesn’t jump up and down, saying, “Awesome! I’m so happy you did that! Do it again! Show me what you can do!”

Instead, what gives God pleasure? He rejoices in our dependence on Him, in our acknowledgment of His power and authority, in our trusting in His love for us and commitment to us.

Furthermore, consider 1 Thessalonians 4:3: “This is the will of God, your sanctification.” That is, God’s will is for you to be made holy. For you to be set apart for Him. For you to be like Him, like Christ.

So putting these biblical thoughts together: We, like Jesus, delight to do God’s will and to accomplish His work. But God’s work and God’s will include not only actions on our part, but also our becoming like Jesus: Having patience, love, kindness, devotion, endurance, gentleness, piety, and self-control. So He desires us to become like Jesus – and for us to help others to become like Jesus. That never happens through our own strength, through our own will-power, through “the strength of a horse” or “the legs of a man.” No. That only happens as we devour His Word, as we depend on His grace, as we submit to His wisdom, as we rejoice in His love. Activity in and of itself does not honor Him. Becoming Christlike and acting Christlike honor Him.

So, no, in and of itself working on God’s behalf does not please Him. He takes no delight in my puny strength, my puny abilities, my puny accomplishments.

But God takes great joy in our fulfilling His purposes for us – as we become more like Jesus inside and outside, in thoughts and attitudes as well as in words and deeds.

So by all means witness – out of the overflow of your joy in Christ. Give generously – knowing all you have is a grant from God to be used for His glory. Worship corporately – in spirit and in truth. Help the poor – with the compassion of Christ for the glory of Christ. Become like Jesus – and act like Him. This is how you can please God.

 

Unto You is Born . . .

December 9, 2016

How do you respond to Christmas?

  • Not to materialism, ads, crowded malls, TV specials, and fake Santas;
  • Not to performances of Nutcracker and Messiah and Dickens’ Christmas Carol;
  • Not even to caroling and Christmas Eve services.

But how do you respond to the story of the birth of Jesus?

Consider: How does a four-year-old respond to Christmas?

Most four-year-olds have only the vaguest memories of the previous Christmas, but they remember enough to be thoroughly excited.  All is fresh and wonderful and magical and delightful.

Can you recapture that wide-eyed response – to the true story of Christmas?

As we walk through Luke’s account of the first Christmas, put yourself in the place of someone who has never heard it before. Imagine yourself a traveler in Judea in the first century. You hear the story from a shepherd. All is new. All is fresh. How do you respond?

Let’s look at Luke 2:1-21 under 3 headings:

  • Action
  • Proclamation
  • Response

Action

The first action is taken by Augustus, emperor of Rome – seemingly the most powerful man in the world. He commands that all in the Roman Empire be registered for taxation. Among the Jews, this meant that the male head of each family would have to return to the town of his ancestors, Bethlehem.  So Joseph must travel with pregnant Mary.

Understand: Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem only because of the command of Caesar Augustus. Surely this is an unwelcome inconvenience for Mary, to take a several-days journey while pregnant.

But they had to go – for God had said through the prophet Micah that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2-5). So God uses Caesar Augustus to get Mary to Bethlehem, in fulfillment of prophecy.

Don’t pass over this incident. Marvel at the sovereignty of God.                Augustus had his own reasons for calling for this tax registration. He did what he thought would secure his own reign and build up his power own power. He had no idea that the most important effect of his registration concerned the new-born king who far surpasses him in power and might.

As Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.” And God turned the heart of Caesar Augustus in order that Mary gave birth in Bethlehem.

The second action: Mary gives birth to her son, wraps Him in cloths, and lays Him in a manger – a feeding trough for cattle (Luke 2:6-7). Unlike in most popular accounts, Luke does not say she gave birth the night she and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem. But the birth does take place as prophesied. The child is born. The son is given. And the government will be upon His shoulders. He is the long-awaited Messiah. He is the conquering King.

Yet this magnificent birth takes place in a far from magnificent setting: Within the prophesied city, yes, but not in a palace, not even in a house.

Traditionally, Mary gives birth surrounded by animals – “the friendly beasts.” But we don’t know that. All we know is what Luke tells us: There was no room for them in the normal place travelers would stay, so stayed elsewhere. Either there was an animal’s feeding trough in the place where they stayed, or, needing some resting place for the child, Joseph found an unused manger, cleaned it out, and carried it to where they stayed.

So a young girl, a virgin, gave birth to a tiny, crying baby and put him in a feeding trough.

Meanwhile,

  • the emperor gave commands,
  • armies marched,
  • politicians connived.

They all thought they were very important men of action.

But the most important event  – the most important event to that point in all of history – took place when that young girl gave birth. The Messiah is born.

Proclamation

God has planned this event since before the beginning of time. And so now He proclaims it, telling others the significance of what just happened. He sends a large number of angelic messengers to announce the birth of the long-awaited Messiah.

  • He could have sent them to Caesar Augustus, but doesn’t;
  • He could have sent them to King Herod,  but does not;
  • He could have sent them to the High Priest or the chief priests, but He avoids them.

Instead, God chooses to send His messengers to a group of poor shepherds herding their flocks in the middle of the night.

Picture the scene: The night is dark – exceptionally dark to our eyes, for of course there are no electric lights anywhere. There is not even any glow from Bethlehem or Jerusalem. They’ve collected the sheep and goats so they can guard them from predators, and have kindled a fire in their midst. It is dark. Quiet. No sound of cars or trains. Perhaps a dog barks in the distance. The only sound is the low murmur of their conversation.

Then: Flash! A tremendously bright light!  An Angel, blazing brightness, mighty in strength, overwhelming in power, appears in front of them. They are blinded, hardly able to see anything. In the midst of their surprise and fright, the angel speaks: “Fear not! For behold, I proclaim to you a good and great joy that will be for all the people.”

Why is this is so good, so joyous?

“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord!”

Why did the angel say, “Unto you”? He could have truthfully said, “For a Savior, Christ, the Lord is born this day!” But he adds, ‘Unto you.”

He adds the phrase because that’s what makes it joyous! Unto you! Unto all the people!

  • Not just to the rich and powerful
  • Not just to the Pharisees and Sadducees
  • Not just to the chief priests and the scribes

But to you shepherds! To all the people, young and old, rich and poor, healthy and sick, strong and weak! The prophecy in Isaiah had been, “Unto us a child is born,” so the angel says: This child is born unto you!

So this is the long-awaited day, the day when there would be no more delay. The child is born. At last.

But who is this child? How does the angel describe Him? With three words: Savior. Christ (or Messiah). And Lord.

Realize: The normal Jewish teaching at this time did not consider the Messiah to be divine. He was clearly a descendant of David. With great power He would restore the Kingdom of Israel. So they thought of Him as a Savior in that sense: He would deliver them from their earthly enemies, their earthly oppressors.

But throughout the Old Testament, God Himself is termed the Savior, or the “God of my Salvation.” And God saves not only from earthly enemies, but also from spiritual enemies – and even death itself.

So in the Old Testament God is Savior, and the Messiah is Savior.

But the angel doesn’t only call the child Savior and Messiah. He also calls this child Lord.

This word is not usually associated with the prophecies of the Messiah in the Old Testament. Rather, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament used in Jesus’ day, this same word translated “Lord” is used in place of Hebrew name of God (Jehovah or Yahweh).

So is the angel then saying: “God is Savior; the Messiah is Savior. God is Lord; the Messiah is Lord. Therefore the Messiah is God”?

Since the word “Lord” can also be used of a king or a prominent individual, we can’t be definitive. Nevertheless, there is a strong hint in the angel’s words: “This is the Messiah that you have expected, that you have hoped for – but He is greater than you ever imagined! This Messiah is Savior – He will save you from a far greater enemy than the Romans. This Messiah is Lord – not just an earthly king, but Immanuel, God-with-us, Yahweh, God Himself.      This child born unto you is God Almighty.”

Picture the shepherds at this point: Overwhelmed with fear and surprise at the angel’s appearance; astounded and confused by the angel’s words; knowing they are at the center of a great event. And then the angel says something preposterous: “This will be a sign for you. You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

That might have been the greatest surprise of the night! That these angels would appear to poor shepherds to announce the Messiah’s birth is quite surprising. But the long-awaited Messiah – wrapped up like a common poor infant, placed in a feeding-trough?

But as if to underline that this is the greatest news the world has ever heard, so that shepherds see that being a baby in a manger does not diminish His glory, a huge number of angels now suddenly appear, praising God: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased.”

Indeed, God’s is bringing the highest glory, the deepest praise to Himself through the birth of His Son. And He promises peace among those with whom He is well-pleased. Not a general “goodwill toward men.” But peace with God for those who are His people, for those who are His treasured possession, for those who are the true Israel.

In the same prophecy in which Micah names Bethlehem as the place of the Messiah’s birth, he says, “He shall be their peace” (Micah 5:5). And so the angels say: “The time is now! The child is born unto you! God’s peace is here! God’s glory shines forth! The Messiah, the Savior, the Lord is with you!”

Response

The shepherds are the first to respond. They say, “We’ve got to get to Bethlehem, now! We’ve got to see what God has told us about.” So they go as fast as they can.

It must take a while – where are they to find a baby lying in a feeding trough? But they succeed. In some nondescript place, they find Mary, and Joseph, and the infant Messiah.

The shepherds excitedly tell Mary and Joseph all that happened, all the angels said. “And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (Luke 2:20).

So how do the shepherds respond?

  • Not with pride “Aren’t we special! God sent his angels to us!”
  • Not with marketing savvy: “Let’s see if we can get a book contract for the story!”
  • Nor with skepticism: “How can that poor little baby be David’s heir?

Instead, the shepherds respond with joy.  With faith. They give glory to God. They tell others – not to make a buck, but to share this great good news.

What about Mary? What is her response?

Verses 18 and 19 contrast Mary’s response with the response of those who heard the shepherds’ story: “And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:18-19).

Those who hear the shepherds wonder at the news. The word translated “wonder” can imply surprise, or even being disturbed. So for most who hear the news, the shepherds’ report becomes an interesting tidbit of news:  “Did you hear what old Joe said happened last night?” “And I heard from Sarah that . . .” The news sparked conversation. It made life interesting for a while. Each person wanted to be the first to let others know of this strange report. But like most news stories today, after being a topic of conversation, of concern for a  while, life goes on. People forget about it. They don’t talk about it any more. Oh, they have some vague recollection of the story. But it has no real impact on their lives. They have no change of heart, no deeper understanding of God.

Mary’s response was different. She took all this to heart. She turned them over and over in her mind. She didn’t understand them, but more and more she sees that her conception of her baby, this Messiah, needs to grow.

Indeed, her question is: “What child is this who laid to rest on Mary’s lap is sleeping?”

And that’s your question too: Who is this child? What is your response?

  • Can you respond like a four-year-old – with wide-eyed wonder at the good and great joy?
  • Can you respond like the shepherds – with faith and excitement, praising God, telling others?
  • Can you respond like Mary – pondering these truths, treasuring them up, thinking about them over and over?

How we need all three responses!

For this is the joyous news, the greatest of all joys!

  • Unto you has been born a Savior, the Messiah – the Lord!
  • Unto you – lost in sin, dead in rebellion, doomed to destruction;
  • Unto you – mockers of God, violators of His Law, idolaters at heart;
  • Unto you  a child is born.
  • Unto you a son is given.

This Child Himself will be your peace. This Child will be your entryway to God. This child will die to pay the penalty for your sins, if you only believe in Him, if you only see Him for who He is: Your Savior, Your Messiah, Your Lord.

Unto you is born this day a Savior!

God orchestrated all events for centuries so that a Roman emperor would issue a command bringing an unknown young girl from Nazareth to Bethlehem. God enabled her to give birth in humble surroundings, yet sent His majestic army to proclaim the great joy. And similarly God has brought you to the point where you have heard this story, this great joy.

Unto you a child is born: So glory to God in the Highest! Praise Him!

How will you respond?

 

(This is a shortened and edited version of a sermon preached December 18, 2005 at Desiring God Community Church. The audio is available here.)

 

 

 

What is a Member Initiative Driven Church?

August 31, 2016

Desiring God Community Church is a member-initiative driven church, rather than a program-driven church.

What does that mean?

Let’s get to that question first by asking: Did the first-century church have programs? That is, did the leadership set up ministries in the church, decide what positions were necessary to operate those ministries, and then fill those positions from within the church?

The answer? Maybe.

Consider the church’s support of widows, first mentioned in Jerusalem in Acts 6 and discussed more fully by the Apostle Paul about 25 years later in 1 Timothy 5:3-16. Paul, writing to Timothy in Ephesus, describes conditions under which certain widows should be “enrolled” (ESV) or “placed on the official support list” (HCSB). So there must have been at least a somewhat formal organization, defining who was to be served, who was doing the serving, and what services would be offered. We don’t know how the ministry to widows began – whether by church leadership, or by an individual beginning to minister, and then as the ministry expanded gradually bringing in others to help. In any event, this is an example of a ministry that at least takes on some characteristics of a program. We want to be careful, therefore, not to think of programs per se in a negative light.

Today, many churches not only have programs, but are program driven: That is, their programs define the church. Ask why you should attend such a church, and the answer often will be a list of the various programs that are set up to serve members, or to reach the community.

What are some advantages of a program-driven church?

  • First, the leadership may have a good feel for the needs of the congregation and the opportunities in the community, and can set up ministries that will effectively meet those needs
  • Second, when people come to the church, the leaders can guide them quickly and easily into a slot in a program, and thus assimilate them into the life of the church.
  • Third, the leaders can define a plan for the future, and see that plan implemented over several years.

What are some disadvantages of a program-driven church?

  • The first is the flip side of one of the advantages: The leadership may not have a good feel for the needs of all parts of the congregation, or for the opportunities in many segments of the community. Church members may have a much better sense of these needs and opportunities – particularly in the relationship circles in which they regularly function.
  • Second, when ministry is understood to consist of participating in the church’s programs, members often will close their eyes to needs and opportunities outside those programs.
  • The third disadvantage is related to the second: In a program-driven church, it is easy to fill up all your spare time with the church’s programs. Then, even if you notice needs and opportunities elsewhere, you don’t have the time and energy to serve.

So, as stated above, we aim to be a member-initiative driven church. What does that mean?

Fundamentally, it means that all of us are taking initiative to grow as disciples and to step out in ministry in our circles of relationships, in the Charlotte area, and with unreached peoples around the world. Our leaders speak the Word to us, provide us resources, set an example, help us partner together with others, pray for us and with us, speak with us about the needs and opportunities that they discern, and help us imagine what God might do in us and through us – but we all are responsible to grow in Christlikeness and to serve faithfully and lovingly, reaching out with the Gospel and with Christ’s love.

When that happens, it is impossible to plan for what God might do. For in a member initiative-driven church, a key way the church fulfills its ministry is by everyone in the body stepping out and ministering. A member may see a need, and begin to serve. Opportunities to serve may expand. In consultation with leaders, that member may invite others to participate and serve. As the ministry grows, it may take on some characteristics of a program. But it all began with one person stepping out faithfully. And this is replicated time and again, the church’s array of ministries can become what the leaders never imagined.

We want our people to be like the Good Samaritan – on his way, presumably traveling for business, he encounters a needy man, and is a neighbor to that man (Luke 10:25-37). Or like Philip – in response to mysterious leading by the Spirit, he heads away from town on a road, and encounters an Ethiopian reading Isaiah. He takes the initiative to begin from that passage to speak the Gospel (Acts 8:26-39). Philip wasn’t participating in the Jerusalem church’s evangelism program – he was simply sensitive to the way the Spirit was leading him in his day to day life. Or – especially – like Jesus. Whether He unexpectedly encountered Jairus, or the woman with the flow of blood (Mark 5:22-43), or the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-22), or the widow from Nain (Luke 7:11-17), or a woman wiping His feet with her hair (Luke 7:36-50), or a blind man (Mark 10:46-52), or a man with a demon (Mark 5:1-20), He loved them, He served them; He glorified the Father.

So, we thank and recognize the many of you who are taking initiative, stepping out, and serving faithfully, whether that is with international students, with neighbors, with refugee women, or with poor children. We encourage all of us: Do this more and more. Open your eyes. Grow in Christ. See the fields ripe for harvest. Pray. Go. Speak the Gospel. Live out the Gospel.

And may God be pleased to build up from our initiatives hundreds of people coming to faith, hundreds of lives changed, hundreds of people loved and served , all to the glory of God.

See That You Do Not Refuse Him Who Speaks

August 25, 2016

“A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’  But they all alike began to make excuses.” (Luke 14:16b-18a)

God the Father invites us to a celebration – a party, if you will. He invites us to the greatest celebration of all time: The company will be the best; the nourishment will be the most satisfying; the conversation will be the most interesting; the love will be the deepest possible.

We don’t deserve to be invited – for we have denigrated the One who invites us. We’ve spurned His invitation before. We’ve chosen to spend our time and energy seeking after thrills and accomplishments and honors, or safety and protection and health – yet the thrills get old, the honors and accomplishments fade to insignificance, what we thought was safe and guarded is lost, and health deteriorates.

Yet He invites us. He calls to us. He sent His Son to this world so that He might display His love, mercy, grace, and justice to these invitees. He has paid that high price – and now all is ready. The banquet is prepared.

But so many refuse Him Who speaks! So many make excuses! In Jesus’ story, the excuses are a newly-purchased field, a new yoke of oxen, and a new wife. What are our similar excuses today? Why do we today refuse the invitation? Here are some possibilities:

  • “It’s all I can do to put food on the table, take care of my kids, and get too little sleep! I don’t have time for that.”
  • “My life is great – why should I attend that banquet?”
  • “I doubt what you say about that great celebration. It can’t possibly be as great as the parties I attend! Here – let me get you an invitation for one of them.”
  • “God the Father wouldn’t want me at His party. Yes, I see the invitation – but there must be some mistake. He didn’t really invite me.
  • “I don’t like the others invited to the party. I can’t associate with such people.”

My friends: Don’t make excuses. The invitation is genuine. God invites you: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). The celebration is joyful beyond imagining. Whatever you must give up to attend, whatever others may think, this is the one party you must not miss.

For to turn down the invitation is to malign the God of the universe. To make excuses, to explain why other activities are more important than the celebration, is to claim that God is not glorious, that pleasures are not at His right hand, that wisdom and love do not dwell with Him.

And the Inviter says, “I tell you, none of those men who were invited [and made excuses for not coming] shall taste my banquet” (Luke 14:24). He will fill His banquet hall, and one day it will be the only joyous celebration, indeed, the only place of joy – but if you make excuses, if you refuse, you will be left out.

God speaks. The Gospel goes forth.  He invites. Don’t refuse Him Who speaks.

What is T4T?

May 13, 2016

What is T4T?

If you are a part of Desiring God Church for long, you will hear the phrase “reproducing discipleship,” and the acronym, “T4T.” You may also be aware of debates within the wider evangelical church about whether T4T and church planting movements are biblical.

The name “T4T” stands for “Training for Trainers.” The name was coined by a missionary in southeastern China, Ying Kai, as he tried to describe a discipleship and church planting movement in which those who come to faith are trained immediately to share their faith with unbelievers in their circle of relationships. The movement that developed subsequently saw at least a couple of million people come to faith and gather in multiplying house churches in a short period of time. In this movement, all new believers were taught one way to share the Gospel, and one introductory set of Bible stories.

Praise God for that movement to Christ. But that history of the term “T4T” has led to misconceptions about its core principles. So let’s begin by making four “Not Statements” about T4T.

  • First, T4T does not consist of using a particular Gospel presentation, or a particular set of discipleship materials.
  • Second, T4T does not contend that if we follow the right program, many people will come to faith and many churches will be planted quickly. Indeed, T4T is not really about the number or speed of conversions.
  • Third, T4T is not contending that the church gathering in worship is unimportant, or that preaching is unimportant.
  • Fourth, T4T is not contending that house churches are better than churches that meet in church buildings.

Yes, some practitioners of T4T at times have spoken as if one or another of those “Not Statements” is true. But T4T does not imply any of them.

Instead, T4T begins with these five biblical foundations. We all should begin with these same foundations whenever we consider our role as God’s agents of change in the world:

  • First, we start with the Word of God. The Word and only the Word is authoritative; the Word is able to make us wise unto salvation; the Word will guide us, instruct us, rebuke us, train us, and correct us so that we are equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:15-17).
  • Second, all nations must hear the Gospel. We must take God’s message to every people group – not only to those like ourselves, but to every tribe and tongue and people and nation. For “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). Thus, whatever evangelism, discipleship, and church planting strategy we devise must at least have the potential to reach every people group.
  • Third, there is no other name than Jesus Christ by which men must be saved (Acts 4:12). Specifically, no program, no formula, no technique has ever saved anyone.
  • Fourth: God the Holy Spirit is the agent of change, miraculously shining the light of His glory in our hearts, thus giving us new life by grace through faith in Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6). God converts people, not us. We bear witness. We testify. We must do so. But only a miracle brings people to faith.
  • So, fifth: We must pray diligently, persistently, unceasingly for God to do that great work. Even the Apostle Paul tells others they must help him by prayer (2 Corinthians 1:11).

T4T rightly emphasizes those five truths, which are common to all biblically solid evangelism and missions. Always interpret missionary accounts of church planting movements and techniques used in light of those biblical truths.

But in addition to those five truths, the proponents of T4T emphasize four additional biblical truths, arguing that these have often been overlooked in the church.

First: “Go!” not “Come!” Our Lord tells us in the Great Commission:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19-20a).

Too often our churches have thought of evangelism in terms of inviting unbelievers to an evangelistic service, or to an evangelist’s crusade. Praise God, some come to faith through such events. But our estimates in Charlotte are that somewhere between 40% and 60% of the population – including 100% of some people groups – will never come to an evangelistic event. Our Lord tells us to go to them, and we must do so. An evangelism and church planting strategy for a city does not even have the potential to reach all people groups unless it includes our going.

Second: “Disciples” not “converts.” Jesus tells us to make disciples. We are to teach new believers not only all that Jesus commands, but how to obey all that He commands. This implies practice and repetition; this implies looking at Scripture and asking how to obey it, then after a period of time looking back, being accountable, and seeing if I did obey. This also implies continuing in relationship with the person who has come to faith through my witness, helping him or her to become self-feeding from the Word, and day by day to become a more obedient follower of Jesus.

Third: Disciples make disciples. If that new believer is to learn to obey all that Jesus commands, he must learn how to make disciples of all nations – for Jesus commands that! So the new believer must learn to share the Gospel, to share the story of what great things God has done for him, and to lead others to share the Gospel and their story. So T4T emphasizes helping brand new believers to learn and practice a simple Gospel presentation, and then to learn and practice how to lead others in the same steps of discipleship they themselves have gone through.

The New Testament tells us of brand new believers whom God uses as evangelists, such as the woman at the well (John 4:1-42) and the man who had had a legion of demons (Mark 5:1-20). In the latter case, just hours after his healing, Jesus tells the man not to accompany Him. Instead He commands him: “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (Mark 5:19).

Many in our churches think they are not gifted in evangelism, and use that as an excuse for not sharing. T4T rightly emphasizes that we all share in the privilege and responsibility of sharing the Gospel – even while we value those with evangelistic gifts. A gifted evangelist may know 100 ways to share Gospel. He or she can adjust the presentation, respond to questions, and switch method depending on the listener’s response. A new believer, on the other hand, is probably better off knowing only one Gospel presentation. But he needs to know that one well.

Fourth and finally: Disciples gather into churches. As people come to faith, as they are taught to obey all that Jesus commands, they must become part of a church. Many of us in the American church have assumed that when someone local comes to faith, that new believer should become part of the same church as the one who spoke the Gospel to him. But that’s an extra-biblical assumption. Instead, T4T emphasizes that we should ponder the question: What should church look like for this new believer? And part of the answer to that question is: What church structure will help this new believer to continue to grow in obeying all that Jesus commands – including the command to go and make disciples? That is: What will keep the reproduction process going? If this new believer immediately shares the Gospel with friends and relatives who also come to faith, one possibility to consider is the beginning of a house church – with the initial evangelist continuing to invest in building up this new believer in understanding what a church is biblically, and being able to teach and share with those he has brought to faith.

Some are disturbed by the notion that a new believer could lead a church. But consider Acts 14. Paul and Barnabas spend a little time in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. People come to faith, but opponents become stirred up also, and they drive out the apostles. But then – perhaps only a few weeks later, at most a few months – Paul and Barnabas return, and appoint elders for them in every church (Acts 14:23). They appoint as elders men who had not been believers for more than a few months.

So the reproducing discipleship process called T4T is built on foundational principles common to all biblical evangelism. T4T emphasizes four other biblical principles which also should characterize our disciplemaking. I encourage you, like the faithful Bereans, to search the Scriptures and see if these things are true (Acts 17:11) – and then to go, make disciples who make disciples, and gather them into disciple-making churches.

(For a book-length examination of the biblical foundations of T4T and church planting movements, see Steve Addison, What Jesus Started: Joining the Movement, Changing the World.)

Christ the Door: The Secret of Access to God

February 13, 2016

[Lilias Trotter (1853-1928) was an accomplished English artist who spent the last forty years of her life as a missionary to Muslims in what is now Algeria. Beth and I saw a new film about her, Many Beautiful Things, Thursday night. The following is taken from the third chapter of The Way of the Sevenfold Secret (1926). Trotter wrote this book (originally in Arabic) to reach out to those involved in a mystical branch of Islam, Sufism. Note particularly the clear presentation of the Gospel and the uniqueness of Christ, all the while showing respect for her readers. We can learn much from her – Coty]

We have considered . . . the words of our Lord the Christ, — “I am the Light of the world.” Now . . . there comes through Him by the light the revelation of another wonderful secret: the secret of access to God. This access is the next step to that union with Him which is eternal blessedness. . . .

In the words of Christ [“Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep” (John 10:7)], we have the step of drawing near to God set forth to us by the symbol of a door— the door into a sheepfold.

Now a sheepfold is a place of safety in the midst of danger: the wilderness may be all around, and wild beasts may be heard growling only a stone’s throw off, but the sheep in the fold are as safe as if no enemies were there. They have entered in and they are saved.

So, in this new secret, God makes known to us that there is a place where even now in the wilderness of this world with evil prowling all around we may rest in safety as sheep within the fold. There is a place of nearness to God where the devil dares not venture that he may snatch the soul away; there is a salvation that is here and now.

We know, our brothers, that this is to you a new thought. Your belief is that no one can tell with certainty that he is saved until the day of account. You feel yourselves like sheep that may at any moment become a prey. Listen, for Christ speaks of a sheepfold right here in the wilderness, and of a door whereby we may enter in.

Now the symbol of a door of access to God is also to you a new thought. You think of man as separated from Him by the seventy thousand veils; and you hold that of these, ten thousand are abolished at each stage of the road: so that the state of access will only be bestowed by God’s grace when you have accomplished the long journey.

But the door is something different: it implies an entrance that needs but a single step, as we all know in daily life. No one thinks of a gradual progression in entering by a door: one moment he is without — the next he is within.

There is another great difference in the two symbols. Your thought in the veils is that it is the ignorance and imperfection of man that separates him from God. But the idea of a door implies a wall, and we find in the teaching of the Holy Book, that man is separated from God, not so much by his ignorance and infirmity, as by his sin: as it is spoken by the mouth of the prophet Isaiah: “Your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid His face from you, that He will not hear.” [Isaiah 59:2]

This wall has arisen, not as a veil under which we were born, but by our own building. It is true that the foundation of the wall between man and God rests on the sin of our father Adam, but it has been raised by the million sins of his race. The foundation of our sinfulness lies buried, so to speak, in the sinful nature that is our heritage, but since our childhood the wall has been built up by stone after stone of personal sins, great and small, that are uncounted by us, but counted by God. . . .

If indeed any ray of light has come to you, my brother, from Him who is the Light of the world, then you will see this wall of your sins to be great and high. What then is to be done to find the way of access? Man may go round the wall that he has built, seeking entrance, but he finds none. He may seek, as it were, to loosen the stones, that is, he may think that he throws down a stone from the wall of his sin when he performs a good action, but in truth he only replaces one stone by another, for even our good deeds are full of sin before God, and our very repentance needs to be repented of. [Like Paul in Acts 17:28, Trotter here is quoting a saying of the people she is writing to.] He says in the Holy Book, “In all your doings your sins do appear.” [Ezekiel 21:24]

Man’s repentance cannot undo his sin, and even the intercession of the saints and prophets is unavailing in this, for they shared our sinful estate. Neither our own repentance nor the intercession of others will move the wall, and the sin that has built it must be taken away if we are to find entrance.

You cannot get to God till you have found someone who can take away those sins, just as you cannot get through a wall except by finding some means of taking away that with which it was built

This brings us back again to the symbol of a door, . . . a door broken through in a wall that stands strong and high. If the wall is of brick, you must take away the bricks; if the wall is of stone, you must take away the stones. If the wall is of sin, a means must be found by which sin can be taken away.

Now Islam, my brother, shows no way by which these stones of sin can be removed: there is no revelation set forth in it showing a ransom whereby sin can be put away.

So this is the next of these seven secrets: God has found a way in Jesus Christ for the taking away of sin. It is said of Him,— “Now once, in the end of the world, hath He appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.” [Hebrews 9:26] He could do this, for He was of another nature from us, one with God, pure and sinless. “Christ hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God.” [1 Peter 3:18] “He was manifested to take away our sins, and in Him is no sin”. [1 John 3:5]

The way in which this was accomplished was foretold in prophecy by the prophet Isaiah, when he said, —”All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way, and the Lord hath laid upon Him (that is, on the Christ) the iniquity of us all.” [Isaiah 53:] This word was fulfilled, and Christ gathered the sin of the world on Himself, though its touch must have been agony to Him, and “His own self bare our sins in His own Body on the tree”. [1 Peter 2:24] He bore them six hours till their burden and their darkness shut Him away from the Presence of God, and at last His Heart broke, and death came, when He could say, “It is finished.” [John 19:30]

In those hours God identified Him with our sin in His sight, as it is written.—”He hath made Him to be sin for us Who knew no sin”. [2 Corinthians 5:21]  And so when He went out of the world by death, with His Heart broken, the sin of the world was borne away from before God, and the door was left. [John 1:29] Christ Himself by gathering our sin on Himself and taking it away, has become the Door. Praise be to His Name.

Now see the words that follow: “I am the Door, by me if any man enter in He shall be saved.” [John 10:9] This does not mean only that he shall enter heaven after death. . . . These words mean that the man who takes Christ as his Door can pass here and now from the state of danger, shut out from God and a prey to Satan, into a state of shelter and rest as of sheep within the fold.

This is the rest and the nearness for which you long. You have wearied yourself to find the door by many efforts, by prayers and meditations and fastings. . . . But this new secret is that nearness may be yours to-day. If you have come to see that your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and that you need a Mediator who is not of this earth, then you are on the threshold. Take one step more and trust yourself to Christ in faith that His death for you has broken down every barrier, and that He brings you into reconciliation with God, here and now.

Fear not, for the word “if any man enter in” must mean you, for no exception is made of race, or creed, or state: you cannot be outside that number. It is not over-boldness when we enter in, just as we are, through this wonderful door. The overboldness would [be] seeking for some way other than the way God has appointed.

There is no other way: the sheepfold has only one door. You may go round about it, and you will find but the one opening. Christ says not “I am a Door,” but, “I am the Door.” God has but one door to the fold and that door is Christ.

Make haste to enter, my brother, for whilst you are yet outside, even on the threshold, you are still within reach of Satan, who “as a roaring lion walketh about, seeking whom he may devour”. [1 Peter 5:8] Dare to “enter in.”

With one more word from that same verse we end this chapter. The verse ends,— “He shall be saved, and shall go in and out and find pasture.” [John 10:9]

For when we have come to this state of salvation, we can, if we are under the guidance of the Good Shepherd, go back with Him, so to speak, into the world, to help those who are still outside the fold, and to find in this our joy. He does not mean our lives to be spent in idleness when we are saved or even in reading and meditation, but in seeking that we may follow His steps “Who went about doing good.” [Acts 10:38]

 

Christmas and Missions

December 24, 2015

What does Christmas have to do with missions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you respond to such a vision and mission?

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

That’s right. You can’t. We can’t.

But don’t stop with that response and despair!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you see the picture?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just so, we must step out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so, I love her today much more profoundly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Why Does God Save Anyone?

December 17, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The incarnation is not primarily about you.

The cross is not primarily about you.

The resurrection is not primarily about you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

How Should I Think About Muslims?

December 11, 2015

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

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

Some facts and inferences relevant to US policy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what can you do? Here are suggestions:

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Next Page »