Out of the Frying Pan Into the Fire, February 2017

Out of the Frying Pan Into the Fire

    There is a scene in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit where Bilbo Baggins escapes from danger only to find himself in more danger.  With the help of a mysterious ring he stumbled upon in the dark and gloomy caves under the Misty Mountains, Bilbo escapes from the slimy creature Gollum and makes his way out by slipping undetected through a regiment of Goblins.  As chance would have it, he found his friends almost immediately and they set off on their adventure once again.

    As they begin to descend a mountain slope, the rocks give way and they slide to the bottom of the slope.  A grove of trees stops their slide, but all the noise alerted a pack of wolves.  Within moments, the wolves were upon them and Bilbo and the dwarves were about to be eaten.  In this moment of terror, Bilbo asks Gandalf the wizard, “What shall we do, what shall we do?”  Then Bilbo said, “Escaping goblins to be caught by wolves!”  Tolkien, the narrator, then says, “This became a proverb, though we now say ‘out of the frying-pan into the fire’ in the same sort of uncomfortable situations.”  Bilbo had escaped Gollum and goblins only to find himself surrounded by hungry wolves.  He was out of the frying-pan but he was in the fire!

    As I read this, I could not help but think how this describes so much of our everyday experience.  We find ourselves in the middle of all kinds of challenges, both small and large, and many times it seems that as soon as we get through one battle, we find ourselves right in the middle of another one.  We jump out of the frying-pan only to find that we are still in the fire!

    In light of this reality, is there anything to help us as we jump from frying-pan to fire?  Yes, there is.  There are promises in the word of God that can sustain our faith and strengthen our sanity in times of continual trial.  For example, the Lord says through the prophet Isaiah, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” (Isa. 43:2).  

Why are God’s people not drowned by the torrents of water and the flames of fire?  Because the Lord says, “I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (v. 1).  And, “You are precious in his eyes, and honored, and I love you” (v. 4).  And, “Fear not, for I am with you” (v. 5).  We can walk through water and fire with patience, poise, and courage because we know that we belong to God, he loves us, and he is never going to leave us.  

    There is another promise in Isaiah 43 that can help us.  It is a foreshadowing of what God will do for his people through Christ.  Verse 4b, “I give men in exchange for you, peoples in exchange for your life.”  The Lord has saved his people by exchanging the life of his Son for their life.  He can be trusted in the fire because he sent his Son through the fire in order to redeem us.  

A God who willingly entered into the pain and suffering of this world in order to save us from eternal pain and suffering in the next world can be trusted in every circumstance.  He doesn’t promise to remove suffering from our lives.  And we cannot understand why the flood comes in waves sometimes.  But we can trust in our God who has redeemed us, called us, honored us, and loved us through the precious blood of his Son.

Interestingly, Bilbo and his friends were saved from the wolves by the “Lord of the Eagles” and his flock of giant birds who swooped in and scooped them out of the trees before the wolves and goblins could devour them.  Bilbo and his friends were rescued by something greater than themselves.  They did nothing to deserve it or earn it.  But nonetheless, the eagles came at just the right time to save them from the fire.  May God turn our eyes upward so that we might see the salvation that he has worked for us in Christ.

In the Fire, With You,

 

Pastor John

     

 

   

How Much Should We Give? January 2015

How Much Should We Give?

Many Christians understand that giving is a basic part of their walk with Christ. The love of Jesus compels us to give our money and resources to further his kingdom and build his church. But many of us  do not know where to start. The question of how much a Christian should give has been debated for centuries. The best treatment I have found comes from a little book by Randy Alcorn called The Treasure  Principle. Because many of you do not own this book, I think that it is worth quoting Alcorn’s answer to this question at length. Read carefully, ask questions, and pray for God to grow in you a joy-filled discipline of giving!

You may understand that the Christian life is inseparable from giving. But you might be wondering, Where do I start? A logical place is where God started His Old Covenant children: “A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the  Lord;  it  is  holy  to  the  Lord” (Leviticus 27:30).

The meaning of the word tithe is “a tenth part.”  Ten percent was to be given back to God. There were freewill  offerings, too, but the 10 percent was mandatory.

Proverbs 3:9 says, “Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops.” God’s children give to Him first, not last.

When His children weren’t giving as they should, He said, “Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, ‘How do we rob you?’ In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse – the whole nation of you – because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house” (Malachi 3:8-10).

Jesus validated the mandatory tithe, even on small things (Matthew 23:23). But there’s no mention of tithing after the Gospels. It’s neither commanded nor rescinded, and there’s heated debate among Christians about whether tithing is still a starting place for giving.

I have mixed feelings on this issue. I detest legalism. I certainly don’t want to try to pour new wine into old wineskins, imposing superseded First Covenant restrictions on Christians. Every New Testament example of giving goes far beyond the tithe. However, none falls short of it.

There’s a timeless truth behind the concept of giving God our firstfruits. Whether or not the tithe is still the minimal measure of those firstfruits, I ask myself, Does God expect His New Covenant children to give less or more? Jesus raised the spiritual bar; He never lowered it (Matthew 5:27-28).

Maybe you believe exclusively in “grace giving” and disagree with the church fathers Origen, Jerome, and Augustine, who taught that the tithe was the minimum giving requirement for Christians. But it seems fair to ask, “God, do You really  expect less of me – who has Your Holy Spirit within and lives in the wealthiest society in human history – than You demanded of the poorest Israelite?”

Nearly every study indicates that American Christians give on average between 2 and 3 percent of their income…Isn’t it troubling that in this wealthiest society, “grace giving” amounts  to a small fraction of the First Covenant standard? Whatever we’re teaching about giving today, either it’s not true to  Scripture, the message isn’t getting through, or we’re being disobedient.

The tithe is God’s historical method to get us on the path  of giving. In that sense, it can serve as a gateway to the joy of grace giving. It’s unhealthy to view tithing as a place to stop, but it can still be a good place to start. (Even under the First Covenant it wasn’t a stopping place – don’t forget the freewill offerings.)

Tithing isn’t the ceiling of giving; it’s the floor. It’s not the finish line of giving; it’s just the starting blocks.  Tithes can be  the training wheels to launch us into the mind-set, skills, and habits of grace giving.

Malachi says that the Israelites robbed God by withholding not only their mandatory tithes but also their voluntary “offerings.” By giving less in their freewill offerings than He expected of them, they were robbing God. If they could rob God with insufficient freewill offerings, can’t we do the same today?

Paul encouraged voluntary giving, yet also described such giving as “obedience” (2 Corinthians 9:13). God has expectations of us, even when our offerings are voluntary.      To give less than

He expects of us is to rob Him.

Of course, God doesn’t expect us all to give the same amount. We’re to give in proportion to how He’s blessed us (Deuteronomy 16:10, 16-17).

Some say, “We’ll take this gradually. We’re starting with 5 percent.” But that’s like saying, “I used to rob six convenience stores a year. This year, by His grace, I’m going to rob only  three.”

The point is not to rob God less – it’s not to rob God at all.

True, some would be sacrificing more by giving 5 percent  of their income than others would be by tithing or even giving 50 or 90 percent. Certainly the affluent should never “check off the box,” as if giving 10 percent automatically fulfills their obligation. The 90 percent belongs to God, too. He doesn’t look at just what we give.  He also looks at what we keep.

I’ve had the privilege of interviewing many givers. In the great majority of cases they mention tithing as the practice that first stretched them to give more. They tithed and then watched God provide. They saw their hearts move deeper into His kingdom. Now, years later, they’re giving 60, 80, or even 95 percent of their incomes! But it was tithing that set them on the road to giving.

When God’s people were robbing Him by withholding tithes and offerings, He said, “Test me in this…and see if I will not  throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it” (Malachi  3:10).

Ironically, many people can’t afford to give precisely because they’re not giving (Haggai 1:9-11). If we pay our debt to God first, then we will incur His blessing to help us pay our debts to men. But when we rob God to pay men, we rob ourselves of God’s blessing. No wonder we don’t have enough. It’s a vicious cycle, and it takes obedient faith to break out of it.

When people tell me they can’t afford to tithe, I ask them, “If your income was reduced by 10 percent would you die?” They say, “No.”  And I say, “Then you’ve admitted that you can afford  to tithe.  It’s just that you don’t want to.”

I’m not saying that it’s easy to give. I’m saying – and there are thousands who will agree – that it’s much easier to live on 90 percent or 50 percent or 10 percent of your income inside the will of God than it is to live on 100 percent outside it.

Tithing is like a toddler’s first steps: They aren’t his last or his best steps, but they’re a good start. Once you learn to ride a bike, you don’t need the training wheels. Once you learn to give, tithing becomes irrelevant. And if you can ride the bike without ever using training wheels, good for you.

I have no problem with people who say “we’re not under  the tithe,” just as long as they’re not using that as justification for giving less. But in my mind the current giving statistics among Christians clearly indicate most of us need a giving jump- start. If you find a gateway to giving that’s better than the tithe, wonderful. But if not, why not start where God started His First Covenant Children?

Randy Alcorn, The Treasure Principle: Unlocking the Secret of Joyful Giving (Colorado Springs: Multnomah Publishers, 2001), 61-­‐67.

How is Death Precious to God? December 2016

How is Death Precious to God?

Meditation on Psalm 116:15

“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.”

As the creator of life, God does not like death. He created man and woman to live with him forever in the Garden of Eden. When Adam sinned, death entered the world as the penalty for sin and spread to all of Adam’s descendants because “we all sinned” in Adam (Rom. 5:12).

Death is a fair penalty for our rebellion against the God who made us, but it was not handed down by God in a cold or unfeeling way. God told Adam that if he disobeyed his word, he would “surely die” (Gen. 2:17). But God has not kept this promise without great sorrow. “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God” (Ezek. 18:32).

If this is true, how can the Psalmist say that the death of the saints is “precious” to the Lord? The answer lies in the meaning of the Hebrew word for “precious.” This word (yaqar) can also mean “costly” or “weighty.” The New American Bible thus translates the verse like this: “Too costly in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his faithful.” In other words, when a follower of Christ dies, it costs God something. It pains him. It moves him. It breaks his heart. The best example of this in Scripture is when Jesus wept after he learned of the death of his close friend Lazarus (Jn. 11:35). God is emotionally moved when one of his children dies.

This is not the picture of God we usually have in our minds. We think of him as strong and mighty and holy and righteous. But do we ever think of him as feeling emotions like sadness and sorrow? This truth ought to instruct us when we face the loss of someone who belonged to God. If God can grieve over their death, then so should we.

God the Father has firsthand knowledge of losing someone he loves. He sent his Son Jesus into this world with a singular purpose: to die for the sins of his people (Matt. 1:21). He had to turn away from his Son while his holy wrath was poured out on him for our sins (Matt. 27:46). God knows the agony of losing a loved one.

One of the reasons why God became a man was in order that he might experience what we experience and feel what we feel in times of loss. Jesus was a “man of sorrows” and was “acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). And the beauty of the gospel is that he willingly experienced these things and more for our sakes. “He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed” (vv. 4-5). Jesus became like us so that he might meet us where we are. So that he might meet us in our pain, our grief, and our sorrow. So that he might give us his strength and his peace. So that he might heal us.

An implication of this truth is that Jesus’ followers, his church, must be like him in these ways. We must “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). Because Jesus “comforts us in all our affliction,” we must “comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor. 1:4).

God calls his church to be like Jesus in times of loss. He calls us to grieve deeply and genuinely at the passing of one of his sons or daughters. He calls us to feel the weight of the penalty of sin that is ours because of the fall. He calls us to draw near to those who are weeping, not with empty and trite clichés, but with a comforting and loving presence that is willing to enter into their pain and feel what they feel.

The only thing able to give us the strength and grace we need to do this is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus died on the cross so that “our souls might be delivered from death” (Ps. 116:8). And he rose from the dead to remove the sting of death and give eternal life to all who will repent of their sins and put their trust in him (1 Cor. 15:55; 1 Pet. 1:3).

In light of what God has done for you in Jesus Christ, may you “offer to him the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the Lord” (Ps. 116:17). May you “love the Lord, because he has heard your voice and your pleas for mercy” (v. 1). And may you feel the weight that God feels when he calls one of his children home. The death of a saint is precious and costly to God. May it be no less to us.
Grieving With You,

Pastor John

Unity in Diversity

Unity in Diversity

One of the ways that the church should be different from the world is by having a unity amidst diversity. Unity and diversity are both important goals for the church. Having one or the other is not enough. They both serve to set the church apart from the world. They are both to be prayed and worked for in order to display the glory of God in the church of Jesus Christ.

Have you ever thought about how the glory and nature of God can be more fully reflected in a church that pursues unity amidst diversity because God is himself one and three? God loves unity and diversity because both are inherent to his own nature. We worship and serve one God who exists in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our skeptical culture will better see and understand this mysterious and beautiful reality when local churches embody the very nature of God by pursuing a unity amidst diversity.

In a culture that is increasingly fractured along racial, economic, and political lines, the church should be a picture of genuine unity. The church should be a place where people unite for the sake of Jesus and his glory. The church should be an alternative to a culture that fights and competes and divides over everything.

The church’s unity is actually part of its evangelism. Jesus prayed, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20-21). People will be encouraged to believe that Jesus is God’s Son when they see genuine unity in the church.

The apostle Paul says that one of the ways we “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which we’ve been called” is to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3). An eagerness to maintain unity in the church is one of the ways we live out our calling as Christ-followers. Failing to pursue unity is to not live in a way worthy of Christ.

The church should also be a picture of genuine diversity. Our culture loves diversity. We celebrate the fact that we are a country of immigrants from all over the world. Corporations even offer “diversity training” in order to help their employees appreciate each other’s racial and ethnic differences.

Diversity is a virtue in our culture, but we struggle to live it out. For example, most of us gravitate toward friends who are just like us – people with the same ethnic, economic, and educational background. Just go to your neighborhood Junior High or High School. Why do the white students primarily hang out with other white students? The black students with other black students? The Hispanic students with other Hispanic students? The Asian students with other Asian students? The football players with other football players? The skateboarders with other skateboarders? The musicians with other musicians? Sadly, the same reality is true in offices and neighborhoods and civic clubs all over America. There are, of course, many exceptions. But I think the rule holds true that most of us gravitate toward people that are like us rather than people who are not like us. We like diversity until it comes time to choose our friends.

In the midst of this cultural reality, the church should be a picture of genuine diversity. And not diversity for diversity’s sake. Not diversity in order to meet some kind of corporately mandated quota. Followers of Christ must pursue diversity, must put aside ethnic and cultural differences, in order to unite for the sake of something bigger than themselves.

The glory of God is the goal of diversity in the church. Jesus and his gospel of peace look glorious and powerful and compelling when Christians work toward genuine diversity in the church. The power of the gospel becomes tangible and cannot help but be noticed when people from diverse backgrounds love and serve one another.

Jesus’ love and grace is evident when Christians intentionally pursue relationships in the church with people who are very different than them. Diversity never happens accidentally. God’s power and grace in the gospel is the only thing strong enough to create and sustain it. But God’s people must desire it and work for it and pray for it. Diversity does not just happen.

The banner of Jesus and his glory is meant to fly over people of every nation, race, language, education level, and economic situation. And not just one day when we all get to heaven. It’s meant to fly over local churches here and now. Jesus died to create a unified and diverse church. “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:13-14). The blood of Jesus is meant to break down ethnic and racial and economic walls so that “he might create in himself one new man” (v. 15).

Churches that love the cross must love unity and diversity because Jesus died to create a unified and diverse church for the display of his glory (Eph. 3:10). Unity amidst diversity is our goal. We must unite around the gospel of Jesus and celebrate his goodness and grace. And we must unite around the gospel with people who are very different than us and celebrate the uniqueness of every person that God calls to himself.
May Preston Highlands Be both Unified and Diverse, for the Glory of God,

Pastor John

The House of Mourning is a Good Place to Live

The House of Mourning is a Good Place to Live

Meditation on Ecclesiastes 7:1-4
and Psalm 90:12

“A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth. It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” – Ecclesiastes 7:1-4

“So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” – Psalm 90:12

Our church family has had to live in the “house of mourning” over the last few weeks, and the Bible actually says that this is a good thing. It is tempting to suppress the grief of losing someone we love, tempting to put on a tough face and pretend that we are okay. But the Bible teaches us that it is good to grieve, good to live in the “house of mourning.” Even Jesus wept when he found out that his friend Lazarus had died (John 11:35).

There are many reasons why it is good to grieve. We should grieve because the world is not as it should be. To not grieve over the way things are would be to live out of touch with reality. Death is unnatural. So grieving is the natural, and even necessary, response to death. To not grieve is to not understand the world we live in.

But the Bible says that there is another reason why we should grieve. Ecclesiastes 7 says that “the day of death (is better) than the day of birth” (v. 1), that it is “better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting” (v. 2), and that “sorrow is better than laughter” (v. 3). Why is this true?

The answer lies in our text. Verse 2, “This (the day of death) is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.” And verse 4, “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” Here is what Solomon is saying: “Death is the destiny of everyone who lives. Therefore, those who are alive should consider the reality of their own deaths in order to gain a heart of wisdom.”

One of God’s good purposes in our grief is to teach us wisdom. Grieving the loss of a loved one, while deeply painful, is one of God’s most effective tools in teaching us spiritual wisdom. Even more effective than the joy of a newborn child. Funerals are better than feasts because it is important for us to remember that we will all die. The “house of mourning” is a good place for us to live because it is where we are confronted with the realities of our finite existence. And those with a teachable heart will learn much wisdom by living there.

Moses makes this even clearer for us in Psalm 90:12, “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” Moses is asking God to help him to remember that his days are numbered so that he might be given a wise heart. Do you ever pray this way? Our death is imminent. The mortality rate is still 100%. The wise will lay this to heart.

Moses prays this way because he knows that, left to ourselves, we will not think this way. We are naturally disinclined to consider our deaths. John Calvin describes this reality like this: “It is surely a monstrous thing that men can…know how many feet the moon is distant from the center of the earth, what space there is between the different planets…that they can measure all the dimensions both of heaven and earth; while yet they cannot number threescore and ten years in their own case. It is therefore evident that Moses had good reason to beseech God for ability to perform what requires a wisdom which is very rare among mankind.” In other words, we love to measure everything in the universe except the span of our lives. Which is why we must pray for God to give us a wisdom that will not come naturally to us, a wisdom to number our days.

The reason it is wise for us to think about the shortness of our lives and the certainty of our deaths is because we are all prone to spend our days pursuing things that have no eternal value. We live our lives with no thought to the Day when we will stand before our Maker and give an account for everything we have done (2 Cor. 5:10).

This is why we waste so many days in idleness and folly. It has been said that our culture is entertaining itself to death. We spend countless hours in front of the television watching sitcoms and reality shows with no eternal value. We are so attached to our phones that we disregard people made in the image of God who are right in front of us. We are far more interested in our sports teams than we are in our neighbors. We go to work every day only looking forward to the weekend.

Why do we live this way? One reason is because we do not have hearts of wisdom that understand the shortness of our days. Instead, we have foolish hearts that love the house of pleasure (Ecc. 7:4). Again, John Calvin is instructive here: “What can be a greater proof of madness than to ramble about without proposing to one’s self any end?” In other words, it is crazy to live our lives without ever thinking about the end of our lives.

The Bible teaches us, however, that living with our end in mind creates a life of wisdom and purpose and joy. And the gospel of Jesus Christ is the only thing powerful enough to give us hearts that want to live like this. The gospel is why we can be “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10). The gospel is how we can know that our death is actually the beginning of everlasting and ever-increasing joy.

So may we live in the “house of mourning.” But may we live there with an unshakable joy in our Master who is currently preparing a “house of feasting” and a “house of pleasure” for all who trust him (John 14:1-3).
With You in the “House of Mourning,”

Pastor John

What I Learned in Israel, July 2016

What I Learned in Israel

As I traveled around Israel last month with over thirty other pastors, I learned so much from our guide. Erez, a messianic Jew, did a phenomenal job of explaining how biblical events were affected by the geography of the land. For example, it was easy to understand why Gideon was afraid to attack the Midianites after the Lord shrunk his army from 32,000 to 300 (Judges 7). Not only was his army much smaller now, but the Midianites camped at the hill of Moreh were within eyesight of the springs where Gideon and his men were camped. The Lord wanted Gideon to face his fears, literally.

This is but one of many examples of what I learned in Israel. The Bible came to life in new ways for me as I was able to associate actual places with stories in the Bible. But there was one lesson that I learned that I did not expect – one thing that the Lord drove home to my heart and mind above everything else.

The most important thing I learned in Israel is that God’s power is preeminently revealed in the Bible, not in a place. This truth is something that I would have gladly affirmed before I went to Israel. This was not a new idea or concept for me. But the weight of this truth did not really sink in to my heart and mind until the last few days of the trip.

Before I left for Israel, several people told me about their wonderful spiritual experiences in Israel, how they had felt closer to God, sensed his presence in special ways, or felt something different than they did when they were at home. I’m sure these folks had a great experience while in Israel – it truly is a once in a lifetime kind of trip.

But what if traveling to Israel is so powerful for so many people, not because there is some special power within the borders of the modern nation-state of Israel (which is significantly smaller than the land promised to Abraham), but because being there reminds us of the special power of God which is revealed clearly in the Bible? What if a great experience in Israel is the result of being reminded that we worship a God who acted in history? A God who used real people with real fears to do real things at real places? What if being in Israel is life-changing because it reminds us what we already know from Scripture – that God is real and powerful?

Several times on the trip, I thought I’d “feel” something more than I did. For example, when we visited the Garden Tomb, I expected to be overwhelmed with emotion. It had been a long day and a long week, but the emotions I expected to feel simply were not there when we saw the probable locations of Golgotha and the empty tomb. Don’t get me wrong, it was very encouraging to be reminded that real blood was shed by a real Savior at a real place. But I did not feel the emotions there that I thought I would.

Interestingly, my personal bible reading times that week came from the end of John’s Gospel where John gives the account of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. On several mornings in particular, I noticed that I was more overwhelmed with awe and wonder and thankfulness and worship as I read the accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection than I was when we visited the probable sites where it happened. God was showing me that his power and truth and grace and glory are most clearly revealed in Scripture, not at the sites where the events of Scripture took place.

It concerns me that many evangelicals, like many Catholics, view the various sites around Israel, and even Israel itself, with superstition. Some folks – myself included, go to Israel expecting a great emotional or spiritual experience, expecting to experience more of God’s presence by visiting different sites. Again, visiting Israel was extremely encouraging for my faith, but only because it challenged me to know God deeper through his Word and prayer, not because I got chill bumps at the empty tomb.

All the way back to Mount Sinai, God has revealed himself to his people by speaking to them, by giving them a testimony, by revealing his nature and character through words, not images. God has decided to make himself known through words, not places. We can only know God through his written word, the Bible, as his Spirit shows us the glory and grace of the Living Word, Jesus Christ. If we want to be close to God, we need to go to God’s Son Jesus, not any place. And the way we go to God’s Son Jesus is by knowing and placing our confidence in God’s word the Bible.

“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward” (Psalm 19:7-11).
May we desire God’s word more than gold, and may it be sweeter to us than honey,

Pastor John

 

Who Should I Vote for in November?

Who Should I Vote for in November?

Ever since I wrote the article titled “The Sacred Duty of Voting” in March of this year, I’ve realized that the Presidential election this November might present Christians with one of the hardest choices they have had to make in a long time. The option of not voting at all seems preferable to many, and, unfortunately, the choice to not vote will be the choice that many Christians make.

As I argued in March’s newsletter, I think that Christians have a sacred duty to vote. We are made in the image of God and therefore have an equal voice and responsibility in the direction of our government. And, because of the human potential to sin, there should be limitations on the power of human governments. These limitations are enacted through voting.

But when faced with two candidates that seem blatantly opposed to Christian principles and ethics, what are we to do? Rather than try to answer this in my own words, I want to share an article written by Dr. Russell Moore for Christianity Today in March of this year. He summarizes an approach to the upcoming election that should be thoughtfully considered by all professing Christians.

May we heed the call to be more committed to King Jesus than any political party,

Pastor John
Should Christians Vote for the Lesser of Two Evils?
Even at the ballot box, morality is not relative.

By: Russell Moore

For years, I have urged Christians to take seriously their obligations as citizens, starting with exercising the right to vote. In the public square and at the ballot box, we must be more engaged, not less.

But what happens in a race where Christians are faced with two morally problematic choices? Should voters cast a ballot for the lesser of two evils? This unpredictable election cycle could go in any number of directions, and I keep getting asked this question.

For starters, unless Jesus of Nazareth is on the ballot, any election forces us to choose the lesser of evils. Across every party and platform, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Still, the question is a valid one. Believing in human depravity doesn’t negate our sense of responsibility. By the standard of God’s law, every person is a liar, but that doesn’t mean we should hire an employee we know has a pattern of lying. Jesus taught that all who have lust in their hearts are adulterers, but that doesn’t mean a woman should shrug her shoulders when she learns her potential new husband is a serial philanderer.

When considering the question of choosing between the lesser of two evils, we must begin with what voting is within our system of government. In our system, citizen is an office; we too bear responsibility for the actions of the government. Just as the lordship of Christ made demands for public justice on office-holders in the New Testament (Luke 4:15), the same is true for those who rule as citizens.

The apostle Paul taught that the sword of Caesar is given by God to commend good and punish evil (Rom. 13:1-5). The Bible addresses the limits of this role, recounting those who use the sword in unjust ways and are held accountable to judgment (i.e., Revelation 13).

In a democratic republic, the authority over statecraft rests with the people themselves. In the voting booth, we delegate others to swing the sword of public justice on our behalf. If we think of a campaign like a job interview, we cannot ethically contract someone to do evil on our behalf.

Can a candidate make promises about issues then do something different in office? Yes. Can a candidate present a sense of good character in public then later be revealed to be a fraud? Sure. The same happens with pastors, spouses, employees, and in virtually every other relationship. But that sense of surprise and disappointment is not the same as knowingly delegating our authority to someone with poor character or wicked public stances. Doing so makes us as voters culpable. Saying, “the alternative would be worse” is no valid excuse.

Think of military service, another office of public responsibility, as an example. Members of the military don’t need to approve of everything a general decides to be faithful to their duty to the country. But if they’re commanded to either slaughter innocent non-combatants or desert and sign up with the enemies of one’s country, a Christian can’t merely choose the least bad of these options. He would have to conclude that both are wrong and he could not be implicated in either. If a Christian doctor were forced to choose between performing abortions or assisting suicides, she could not choose the lesser of these two evils but must conscientiously object.

That said all political issues are not equal. I’ve voted for candidates I disagreed with on issues like immigration reform or family medical leave because I’ve agreed with them on the sanctity of human life. I could not, though, vote for a “pro-life” candidate who is also for racial injustice or war crimes or any number of other first-level moral issues. There are some candidates I agree on issues like economic growth or national security for whom I could not vote for because they deny the personhood of the unborn or restrict religious freedom for all people.

Given these moral convictions, there have been times when I’ve faced two candidates, both of whom were morally disqualified. In one case, one candidate was pro-life but a race-baiter, running against a candidate who was pro-choice. I could not in good conscience put my name on either candidate. I wrote in the name of another leader. Other times, I’ve voted for a minor party candidate.

Candidates from outside the two major parties sometimes win. Abraham Lincoln ran as a Republican in an era when the major parties were the Whigs and Democrats. Even when third-party candidates don’t win the election, they can introduce issues and build a movement for the future. Write-in candidates have occasionally won; US Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska won her re-election as a write-in candidate in 2010.

In the cases when I’ve voted for an independent or written in a candidate, I didn’t necessarily expect that candidate to win—my main objective was to participate in the process without endorsing moral evil. As Christians, we are not responsible for the reality of our two-party system or for the way others exercise their citizenship, but we will give an account for how we delegate our authority. Our primary concern is not the election night victory party, but the Judgment Seat of Christ.

When Christians face two clearly immoral options, we cannot rationalize a vote for immorality or injustice just because we deem the alternative to be worse. The Bible tells us we will be held accountable not only for the evil deeds we do but also when we “give approval to those who practice them” (Rom. 1:32).

This side of the New Jerusalem, we will never have a perfect candidate. But we cannot vote for evil, even if it’s our only option.

Russell Moore is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and author of Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel.

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Serving the Lord as Worship, April 2016

Serving the Lord as Worship

Meditation on Joshua 24:14-15

“Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” – Joshua 24:14-15

We often think of “serving the Lord” and “worship” as two separate things. For many of us, “serving the Lord” means doing various things to help out the church, things like cooking a meal, teaching a class, cleaning a bathroom, visiting the sick, or giving an offering. And in a sense we are “serving the Lord” when we do these types of things. Anytime we use our gifts, abilities, time, or resources to build up the church, we are serving the Lord who gave us these things (1 Cor. 12:4-7). We are in fact commanded to use the gifts we have received to serve one another so that God may be glorified (1 Pet. 4:10-11). So when we do things to bless others in the church, we are in one sense “serving the Lord.”

However, in Joshua 24, Joshua seems to be using the idea of “serving the Lord” in a much different way. Joshua contrasts “serving the Lord” with worshipping false gods, or idols. He tells the Israelites to “put away” the false gods of their forefathers and to “serve the Lord” (v. 14). He says that they must choose what God or gods they will serve, either the false gods of the nations or the Lord (v. 15). Then he tells them that he and his family have made their choice, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (v. 15). Joshua makes it clear that he and his family will worship the Lord and not the false gods of the nations.

So for Joshua, serving the Lord is a matter of worship. In his mind, serving the Lord and worship are not two separate things. They are the same thing. Serving the Lord is to worship the Lord. Worshipping the Lord is to serve the Lord. He is saying that who you serve is who you worship, and who you worship is who you serve.

When we think of worship, we typically think of the songs we sing in church. “Worship” is the thing we do before the sermon. But the biblical idea of worship is more than merely singing songs. Worship in the Bible is about our ultimate allegiance. It’s about who or what owns us. What we worship is our master – it rules over us, tells us who we are, defines us, gives us our identity, charts our course, and tells us what to do. Whatever receives our highest allegiance, or love, is what we worship. Whoever or whatever we are ultimately committed to is our god.

This understanding of worship is why Joshua can equate serving with worshipping. He knows that the people of Israel will serve whoever or whatever claims the allegiance of their hearts. This is why he tells them to “put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the Lord, the God of Israel” (24:23). Our ultimate allegiances are matters of the heart. What do we love and cherish above all else? What do we rejoice and delight in? What gives us our identity? What do we find ourselves thinking about more than anything else? The answers you give to these questions will show you what you worship.

The trouble is that many of us think we do worship the Lord because we are active in “serving the Lord.” We do religious things like go to church, sing songs, listen to sermons, and help others in various ways. These are all good things. But these things are not the essence of worship. They should be the result of worship. They should be the result of a heart that is in love with God, a heart that wants to know him, delight in him, praise him, understand him, and helps others do the same.

Doing religious things is actually not that hard. But doing them from a heart of worship is a miracle that God must work inside us. Only God’s grace can create genuine worship in our hearts. The people of Israel understood this. In Joshua 24:16-18, the Israelites say that they will not forsake the Lord to worship other gods because the Lord is the one who delivered them from slavery in Egypt and defeated their enemies in the Promised Land. In other words, they tell Joshua that the Lord’s grace toward them is why they will worship him.

Joshua reminds the people that if they fail to worship the Lord, there will be great consequences. Verse 20, “If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you, after having done you good.” The people must know that their lives depend on worshipping the Lord. If they change their minds and worship other gods (which they eventually do), God will turn against them and stop being for them.

Joshua’s challenge to the people of Israel is held out to us today. “Choose this day whom you will serve” (v. 15). Who or what will be your master, have your ultimate allegiance, be the source of your joy, be the consuming love of your life? Will it be your job or career? Your kids or grandkids? Your friends or social life? Your money or possessions? Your image or reputation or achievements? Your religious activity? What will you serve? What will you worship? According to our text, your life depends on what you worship, so choose wisely.
May God’s grace toward us in Christ compel us to worship and serve the Lord only,

Pastor John

The Stewardship of Voting

The Stewardship of Voting

As I drove home from work on “Super Tuesday” (March 1st), I saw something really encouraging. The local library on Frankford Road near Preston Highlands had a line of people coming out the front door, down the sidewalk, and almost into the road. There were people parking across the street and running through busy traffic to get over to the library. There was a line of cars trying to get into the parking lot of the library. It was a scene you typically do not see at a local library – especially since reading books is a lost discipline in our society!

What I saw was encouraging because it reminded me how many people still make the effort to get out and vote on Election Day. People stood in lines all over Texas (and ten other states) on that day in order to vote in the Presidential Primary Election. I hope that you made the effort to vote on “Super Tuesday” (or earlier), and if you did not, let me encourage you to make sure you are registered to vote so that you can be ready to vote in the general election in November. If you are not sure if you are registered, or if you are not registered, go to www.teamrv-mvp.sos.texas.gov to check on your status.

Voting is a Sacred Duty
Before I go any further, let me assure you that this article is not about a particular candidate or even a particular political issue. The intent of this article is simple: to encourage you to vote. Voting is a sacred duty for every individual, but especially for Christians because our faith provides two of the bedrock principles upon which any democracy is built.

The Bible teaches that every person is made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). Christians therefore believe that all people are created equal and should have an equal say in their government. This biblical principle influenced the way the Founding Fathers of the United States crafted the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” they said in the second sentence of the Declaration, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” This political idea was revolutionary because it stood in direct contrast to the assumptions of many European nations at that time, who held the view that only a special group of people known as “royalty” had the right to rule over ordinary people. The Founders of the U.S., however, said that, because everyone is created equal by God, everyone has the right to be a part of the “ruling party,” or government. Our democracy – our right to be part of the political process through voting, is based on the biblical principle of all people being made in the image of God.

As your pastor, one of my responsibilities is to apply the teachings of Scripture to our everyday lives. Here are my two biblical reasons

Voting is a privilege and a responsibility given to us from God

It remains to be seen who the nominees for our next President will be, but the process leading up to their nomination is exciting because it reminds us that we actually have a say in who the leaders of our country will be.

Five Wrong Views About Christians and Government

Significant Christian Influence on Government
“Christians should seek to influence civil government according to God’s moral standards and God’s purposes for government as revealed in the Bible” (Grudem, 55).

 

Our Hope is in Our Future Sight, July 2015

Our Hope is in Our Future Sight

Friday, June 26, was a day when many Christians in America lost hope. On that day, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down one of the most important decisions in its history. In a 5-4 ruling, the Court legalized same-sex marriage across all fifty states, stating that individual states do not have the right to decide on this issue for themselves. Most states had already legalized same-sex marriage before this ruling, and the winds of American culture have been blowing in this direction for over ten years, but the Court’s decision has nonetheless jolted and disheartened many Christians in our country. We have been reminded yet again that secularism and the celebration of sin are a fundamental part of our national identity.

The Court’s ruling has weakened our hope in some of the founding principles of our country. We wonder if “we the people” really have much say in major decisions like this one, given the fact that it was made by nine unelected judges who serve lifetime terms. We wonder if our religious liberties will begin to erode away in the wake of the ruling, as churches and other non-profit institutions face possible legal challenges if they refuse to honor the ruling by defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman. The gravity of these issues make it hard to hope for a bright future for America.

This historic move in the legal landscape of our culture has created an opportunity for Christians to state clearly (and demonstrate with our lives) where our ultimate hope is found. Our hope is not in any nation but in the Lord. As followers of Jesus, we have come under the Lordship of another King and have become citizens of another kingdom. “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20). This moment in our history has given us a great opportunity to state clearly that our first allegiance is to, and our ultimate hope is in, Jesus and his kingdom, not any court or kingdom of this world.

Hope is a powerful thing. Our attitudes and actions and words and lives are driven and guided by what we hope in. If our hope is in money, we will be happy when we have lots of it and sad when we only have a little. If our hope is in marriage, we will be happy when we find a spouse and sad until we do, or delighted if things are going well in the marriage while despairing when they’re not. If our hope is in our country, we will rejoice when things are going in the direction we want them to, and complain when they’re not. What we place our hope in will have a driving force in our lives.

The Bible recognizes the powerful nature of hope and gives us much help on how we can live hope-filled lives. The Bible instructs us to put our hope in God and not in any outward circumstance (Ps. 42:5-11). This is because God created us to know and enjoy him, not the things he has made. He has “richly provided (for) us…everything to enjoy,” but he has also told us to not “set our hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God” (1 Tim. 6:17). Our hope is to be set fully on God because he is the only One who will endure forever. Everything else will pass away.

One of the best biblical examples of someone who hoped in God despite his circumstances is Job. Job had everything the world could offer. He had a big family, lots of possessions, and great influence in his community (Job 1:1-4). The Lord, however, allowed Satan to take all those things away from Job in order to test his allegiance to God (Job 1:6-2:10). The main point of Job’s story is that, despite his suffering, Job continued to hope in the Lord. He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).

Later in the story, as Job is being wrongly accused by his closest friends, the specific nature of Job’s hope becomes clearer. In one of his responses to his friends, he says, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has thus been destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another” (19:25-27). Job’s ultimate hope was in the fact that he would see the Lord after his death. In the midst of all his suffering, he knew that God was alive and that he would see him face to face when all the troubles of his life were over.

As Christians, our ultimate hope is no different than Job’s. Our fundamental hope is that we will see God one day face to face. “We know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn. 3:2). In the new heavens and new earth, we will “see God’s face” (Rev. 22:4). Our hope is in our future sight of God. For Job, the future reality of being with God face to face outweighed the troubles and suffering and persecution he faced. In the same way, our current circumstances as individuals, as a church, or as a nation, however bleak, must be seen in light of the reality of our future sight of the living God.

May we not give in to the temptation to hope-less-ness. May we “set our hope fully on the grace that will be brought to us at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:13). And “may the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit we may abound in hope” (Rom. 15:13).

Waiting patiently with you for the day when our hope will be realized,

Pastor John