Monday, January 15, 2018

Keeping Your Resolution to Pray

Part 2 of What's Your Resolution?

Text: 1 John 5:13-15




And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him (1 John 5:14-15). 


Don't Ditch Your Resolution!

This is the time of year when people are trying to keep New Year’s resolutions. Two of the most common Christian resolutions are to read the Bible daily and to pray daily.

Did you know that January 17 has been named Ditch Your Resolutions Day? Why? Probably be-cause it only takes about two months into a new year to feel like ditching our resolution. Resolutions are hard to keep: 50% of people make New Year’s resolutions, but 88% of those resolutions ultimately fail. How can we keep our resolution to pray daily?


Direct Access to God

When you call to make an appointment with your doctor, you don’t speak to your doctor. You speak to your doctor’s receptionist. And you almost never get to see your doctor immediately. You have to make an appointment to see your doctor on a future day. Then when that day finally arrives and you go to your doctor’s office, you have to sit in a waiting room and wait.

It’s very different when we want to meet with God. “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). “The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are attentive to their cry” (Ps. 34:15). We have direct access to God!


Keeping Our Resolution

If we are to keep our resolution to pray daily, we should remember five things. First, when we pray, we should remember that it’s normal to be frustrated with prayer. There are many biblical examples of people who were frustrated with prayer. One of these people was the prophet Habakkuk. The book of Habakkuk begins with the prophet complaining to God about unanswered prayer: “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you, ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?” (Hab. 1:2). Sometimes it’s encouraging to discover that other people struggle like us. (We’re not happy about the struggles of others, but we are happy to know we’re not abnormal.)

Second, when we pray, we should remember that we’re approaching a Father who loves us. Throughout 1 John, John emphasizes that believers are God’s children (“born of God”). In 3:1, he writes, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God.” God is a Father who loves his children more than we can imagine. Because we know God loves us, we can have “confidence” (v. 14) when we pray.

Third, when we pray, we should remember that prayer really does work. But prayer is not a waste of time. It’s possible that when we pray we can “have the requests that we have asked of him” (v. 15). Of course, this doesn’t mean that we can make God do things he doesn’t want to do.

Fourth, when we pray, we should remember that prayer isn’t all about us. Prayer is about getting God’s will done, not ours (“if we ask anything according to his will,” v. 14). We should also pray for the needs of others, not just our own needs (see v. 16).

Fifth, before we pray, we should have a plan. Instead of saying to ourselves, “I want to pray daily,” we should make a specific plan. An ideal plan would be to combine Bible reading and prayer. Here’s one possible plan: (1) set aside 20 minutes; (2) pick a quiet time and place; (3) read a portion of Scripture; (4) meditate upon the words you have read; (5) ask God to speak to you through those words; (6) pray.


An Appointment with God

I’m sure most of us have a few appointments on our calendars for this month: an appointment to see your doctor, an appointment to get your car repaired, an appointment to have coffee with a friend. We do our best not to miss our appointments.

We have an each day appointment to meet with God—to hear his voice through his word and speak to him through prayer. But many of us miss that appointment. This is nothing new. Martin Luther—who lived 500 years ago—wrote a letter to his barber about how to pray. In the letter he said this:
It is a good thing to let prayer be the first business of the morning and the last at night. Guard yourself carefully against those false, deluding ideas which tell you, “Wait a little while. I will pray in an hour; first I must attend to this or that.” Such thoughts get you away from prayer into other affairs which so hold your attention and involve you that nothing comes of prayer for that day. [1]
Think about the incredible privilege it is to meet with God each day. And what’s most amazing is that he is “always more ready to hear than we [are] to pray.” [2]

If you struggle with taking time to pray, my purpose is not to make you feel guilty about your lack of prayer. My purpose is to encourage you—starting today—to make sure you keep your daily appointment with God.

____________________

[1] Martin Luther, A Simple Way to Pray.
[2] Book of Common Prayer.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Keeping Your Resolution to Read the Bible

Part 1 of What's Your Resolution?

Text: 2 Timothy 2:15; 3:14-17




All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17).


New Year's Resolutions

This is the time of year when people make New Year’s resolutions. A common New Year’s resolution for Christians is to read the Bible more regularly. Unfortunately, most people don’t keep their resolutions: 50% of people make New Year’s resolutions, but 88% of those resolutions ultimately fail. Those numbers are discouraging, but I still think that resolutions are worth making. How can we be more successful in keeping our resolution to read the Bible daily?


Keeping Our Resolution to Daily Read the Bible

If we are to keep our resolution to daily read the Bible, we must do two things. First, we must believe that the Bible is worth reading. In other words, we must have a high view of the Bible. We must believe that the words of the Bible are the words of God. Paul writes, “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (3:16). The Greek word for “breathed out by God” (“inspired,” NASB) is theopneustos. The word does not occur in any other Greek text (biblical or secular) prior to 2 Timothy. Some people think that Paul might have invented the word.

The apostle Peter states, “No prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (1 Peter 1:21). The Bible is both a divine book and a human book. It was written by humans but breathed out by God. God used each author’s unique style and experiences, but, at the same time, they were “carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

Second Timothy 3:16 and 1 Peter 1:21 actually refer to the OT. What about the NT? Peter implies that Paul’s writings are Scripture: “There are some things in [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16). And Paul quotes the words of Jesus in Luke 10:7 as Scripture: “The Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages.’”

The psalmist says, “I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word” (Psalm 119:16). The Hebrew word for “forget” (shakach) means to lay aside, to forget, to take for granted, to neglect. If we believe that the words of the Bible are the words of God, we shouldn’t neglect to read the Bible’s words. As Paul writes, the words of the Bible are “profitable” (cf. 1 Tim. 4:8; Titus 3:8).

Second, we must have a plan. Paul tells Timothy, “Do your best [be zealous] to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handing the word of truth” (2:15). Paul compares a Christian to a “worker” (i.e., a laborer). To work effectively, a worker needs a plan. Of course, with a plan we also need to have dedication.

Blogger Tim Challies recently wrote an article entitled “How to Make a New Year’s Resolution That Sticks.” Here are some tips from that article.

  1. Make resolutions, not wishes. Wishing upon a star might work in Disney movies, but not in real life. Merely making a resolution won’t somehow magically make things change. 
  2. Make just one resolution. Make it specific and realistic—big enough to be meaningful, but small and defined enough to be attainable. 
  3. Convert your resolutions to habits. Challies says, “Willpower is enough to get you started, but you will need habit to sustain it.” [reward system] 
  4. Make a plan. It’s often said, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” If you are resolving to read the Bible regularly, you need a plan. David Murray has some tips for Bible reading in his article entitled “Re-ignite Bible Reading That’s Become Boring.” A few of the tips: ban the cellphone, read a different version, use a devotional first, and use a study Bible. 
  5. Share your resolution. Tell a friend about your resolution so that they can keep you accountable. 
  6. Pray. 

Why We Read the Bible

But we must not read the Bible just to read it—to merely get it done. Reading the Bible is important, but being changed by the Bible is much more important. As James writes, “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22).

Do you believe the words of the Bible are the words of God? Do you believe there is value in reading the Bible? If you do, you need to have a plan to regularly read the Bible—a wise plan you can stick to. And as you read it each day, seek to understand it and obey it.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Grace and Truth

Part 3 of God Incarnate

Text: John 1:17




For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (John 1:17). 


God in Human Flesh

What’s the big deal about the birth of Jesus? It’s a big deal because Jesus was none other than God in human flesh! “The Word [i.e., Jesus] was God” (John 1:1). “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (v. 14). The firstborn son of Mary was none other than God in human flesh! The baby that the shepherds found lying in a manger was none other than God in human flesh!


Who God Is

In Exodus 33, Moses wants assurance from God that his presence will remain with him and the Israelites. So he says to God, “Please show me your glory” (v. 18). God replies, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name, ‘The LORD’” (v. 19). The next day on Mount Sinai,
The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with [Moses] there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod. 34:5-6). 
In the original Hebrew, “LORD” is Yahweh. Yahweh is God’s name. (God’s name isn’t God, just like my name isn’t man.) When God proclaims to Moses his name, he tells Moses who he is—not what he is, but who he is (i.e., his “goodness”). Yahweh is a God who abounds in steadfast love and faithfulness. “Steadfast love” is unwavering or loyal love. “Faithfulness” means to be true to one’s word, reliable.


God Isn't Like Jonah

When God told the prophet Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah refused. Why? Because he knew the character of God (i.e., who God is). He knew that if the people of Nineveh repented, God would spare them. And Jonah didn’t want that to happen. But that’s what did happen, and Jonah wasn’t happy about it. “It displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry” (Jonah 4:1). So he complained to God:
“O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (v. 2). 
Jonah hoped that God would change his mind about sparing Nineveh, so he went outside the city and sat down and waited. Where he was sitting there, God caused a plant to grow up beside him. The plant provided shade for Jonah, and Jonah was happy. But then a worm came along and destroyed the plant, and Jonah was angry. God rebuked Jonah for not caring more about the plant than the people of Nineveh:
“You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than 120,000 persons…” (vv. 10-11). 
Thankfully God isn’t like Jonah! Thankfully he abounds in steadfast love and faithfulness! He cares about people. Do we?


What God Did

What did John mean when he said that “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (v. 17)? “Grace and truth” are John’s way of saying “steadfast love and faithfulness.” D. A. Carson writes, “This pair of expressions [‘steadfast love and faithfulness’] recurs again and again in the Old Testament. The two words that John uses, ‘full of grace and truth,’ are his ways of summing up the same ideas” (The Gospel According to John, 129).

Through the Word (i.e., Jesus) God spoke to Israel (and to us). He proclaimed to us that he is a God of steadfast love and faithfulness, grace and truth. Israel’s Messiah had been born! God still loved them! He kept his promise!

Who you are (i.e., your character) affects what you do. God did what he did because he is who he is. Jesus came to us because God is a God who has a heart full of steadfast love and faithfulness. Jesus is the Father’s “only [i.e., beloved] Son” (v. 14). We have broken the law that was given through Moses (v. 17), but “God so loved the world [i.e., us], that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (3:16). In the cross we see mankind’s hatred for God and God’s love for mankind.


Don't Forget Who God Is

Whenever we start to doubt God—his love for us or his promises to us—we should hear him say, “This is me, Yahweh…Yahweh. You know you can trust me. I abound is steadfast love and faithfulness. I am full of grace and truth. Don’t doubt.”

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Glory of God

Part 2 of God Incarnate

Text: John 1:14




And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). 


What's the Big Deal?

What’s the big deal about the birth of Jesus? It’s a big deal because Jesus was none other than God in human flesh! The baby lying in the manger was none other than God in human flesh!
Lo, within a manger lies
He who built the starry skies. 
In John 1:1-18, Jesus is called “the Word.” Why? As we can tell others who we are by our words, God has told us who he is by the Word, Jesus—God in human flesh.


We Have Seen His Glory

John writes, “We have seen his glory.” “Glory” in this context means brightness, splendour, or greatness. “Glory” is used this way when it’s said, “Let’s plug the lights in and see the Christmas tree in all its glory.” John wants us to think of the experiences of the Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness (found in the book of Exodus). On Mount Sinai, Moses said to God, “Please show me your glory” (Exod. 33:18).

It was God’s plan for his glorious presence to dwell with his people. God told Moses, “Let them make me a sanctuary [i.e., the tabernacle], that I may dwell in their midst” (Exod. 25:8).” After the tabernacle was made, “The glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle” (Exod. 40:34). As God dwelt with the Israelites in the wilderness, John says that the Word “dwelt (skenoo) among us.” A more literal translation skenoo is “pitched his tent” or “tabernacled.” As the Israelites saw the glory of God when God dwelt among them, John and the other apostles saw the glory of God when Jesus dwelt among them. “We have seen his glory.” How did they see the glory of God?


The Glory of the Cross

Jesus once said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23). How would he be glorified? Jesus also said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people [i.e., all kinds of people] to myself” (John 12:32). John adds, “He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die” (v. 33).

When Jesus was crucified, he was literally “lifted up.” Another meaning of “lifted up” is “glorified.” Hundreds of years earlier, the prophet Isaiah foretold that the servant of the Lord (i.e., Jesus) would be “lifted up”: “Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted” (Isa. 52:13). The next verse says, “His appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind” (v. 14).

The cross displays for us the glory of God. How? When you go to a funeral for a person who was greatly admired, do you hear much talk about the dead person’s beauty? No. Usually the characteristics that are most praised are the person’s humility, generosity, kindness, and sacrificial love. Those are the characteristics that we see when we look at the cross (if we believe that Jesus is God in human flesh). That’s how we see the glory of God in the cross. That’s how John saw the glory of God in Jesus.


Do They See the Glory of God in Us?

Do our lives bring glory to God? “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you” (1 Cor. 6:19). “So glorify God in your body” (v. 20) How can our lives bring glory to God? Be like Jesus.

Monday, December 4, 2017

God With Us

Part 1 of God Incarnate

Text: John 1:1, 14a




In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:1, 14a). 


Who Was Jesus?

Most people know that Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus. But who was Jesus? There isn’t a more important question than this one. How often do we stop to think about the identity of the baby in the manger? The Gospel of John begins with an amazing claim about Jesus: Jesus was none other than God in human flesh! The baby in the manger was none other than God in human flesh!


The Word Became Flesh

“The Word” is Jesus. In verses 1 and 14, John says five things about Jesus.
  1. Jesus “was in the beginning.” The Gospel of John begins at the beginning. Before the uni-verse existed, Jesus existed. 
  2. Jesus “was with God.” This means that Jesus enjoyed a relationship with God. 
  3. Jesus “was God.” He is not a god; he is God. How can Jesus be with God and also be God? Though there is only one God, God exists as three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Jesus is God (the Son), and was “with” the Father and the Spirit. 
  4. Jesus “became flesh.” Jesus was not always human. He became human when we was miraculously conceived in the womb of the virgin Mary. Jesus in God incarnate (i.e., God in human flesh). 
  5. Jesus “dwelt among us.” Joseph was told that Mary’s baby boy would be called Immanuel, which means, “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). 
Why is Jesus called the Word? Think about why we use words. We use words to express ourselves (i.e., reveal to people who were are). When someone says to us, “Tell me about yourself,” we use words to reveal who we are. We also use words to get things done. If we’re eating at a table with others, and we can’t reach the pepper, we use words to get the pepper: “Please pass me the pepper.” When Jesus, the Word, lived among us, he revealed to us who God is and accomplished for us what we most needed. In the words of Linus van Pelt, “That’s what Christmas is all about.”

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Undeserved

Part 3 of Two Lost Sons

Text: Luke 15:11-32




[The older son] answered his father, “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends” (v. 29). 


He Doesn't Deserve This!

Question: Should we always want to get what we deserve? In Luke 15, Jesus tells three parables: the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the lost son. In each parable, there is great joy when what was lost is found (vv. 6, 9, 22-24).

In the first two parables, everyone celebrates when what was lost is found. But the third parable is different. Not everyone is happy. The older son is angry (v. 28). He’s thinking, “My brother doesn’t deserve this! I deserve this!” (vv. 29-30).


What Makes God Celebrate?

The older son is like the Pharisees and scribes (i.e., religious leaders) who had grumbled about Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners (vv. 1-2). The parables in Luke 15 were meant to teach the Pharisees and scribes that there is always great joy in heaven when one lost person (i.e., someone who needs reconciliation with God) repents of his or her sin. (There always needs to be repentance before reconciliation can occur.) God celebrates—throws a party in heaven—whenever one sinner repents (vv. 7, 10).


Both Sons Were Lost

Both sons were lost. Both sons didn’t love their father. Both sons needed reconciliation. There are two ways to be lost. You can be lost be being bad (like the younger son), and you can be lost by being good (like the older son).

Jesus says, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (v. 7). Jesus is speaking ironically. When he says, “Righteous persons who need no repentance,” he means, “People who think they are righteous and think they have no need to repent.” People like the older son (and the Pharisees and scribes) think they have no need to repent.

Where do we find people like the older son? In churches. There is no delight in their religion, only duty. Where does the delight (i.e., joy) come from? It comes from an appreciation for God’s grace. By saying, “My brother doesn’t deserve this!”, the older brother reveals that he doesn’t value grace. 


Jesus Didn't Deserve That!

Imagine standing before the cross. What would you be thinking? “He doesn’t deserve this!” Jesus didn’t deserve that! But he chose to endure that. Why? So that you and I could be treated in a way we don’t deserve. Jesus chose the suffering of the cross so that our sins could be forgiven. We aren’t forgiven because of what we’ve done to atone for our sins. We’re forgiven because of what Jesus has done to atone for our sins. That’s grace.


I Don't Deserve This!

When I understand God’s grace, I say, “I don’t deserve this!” Should we always want to get what we deserve? No, it’s a mistake to demand that we should always get what we deserve. God’s justice demands that there should be punishment for my sin; God’s grace gave Jesus to die in my place on the cross. “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).

God deserves everything I can give him. “He deserves this!”

Monday, November 20, 2017

The True Older Brother

Part 2 of Two Lost Sons

Text: Luke 15:11-32




And [the servant] said to [the older son], “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.” But he was angry and refused to go in (Luke 15:27-28b). 


No One Searched for the Lost Son

In Luke 15, Jesus tells three parables : the parable of the lost sheep (vv. 4-7), the parable of the lost coin (vv. 8-10), and the parable of the lost son (vv. 11-32).

In the first two parables, someone searches for what’s lost. The shepherd searches until he finds the lost sheep. The woman searches until she finds the lost coin. So when we get to the third parable, we expect someone to search for the lost son. But no one does. Who should have searched for the lost son?


Lost Sons and Daughters

Humanity is like the lost son. Like a rebellious child, humanity has turned its back on God and gone its own way. In the beginning, though, it was different. The first man and women enjoyed a perfect relationship with God. But when sin entered the world, humanity’s relationship with God was broken. We need for that broken relationship to be restored. We need to be reconciled to God.

The prodigal son thought that he would find happiness in a place far away from his father. Instead, he ended up in a pigsty. Many people think that living for themselves will make them happy. But whether we realize it or not, what we really long for is to go back to what we had in the beginning: an enjoyment of the presence of God.


Jesus, the True Older Brother

Who should have searched for the lost son? The older brother. But he didn’t go searching for his brother because he didn’t care about him. Jesus is the true older brother who was willing to do whatever it took to bring us back to God. He once said, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). He left heaven and came to earth to bring us back to God.

When the older brother discovers that his father had welcomed back the younger brother and is celebrating his return with a great feast, he’s furious. The cost! He said to his father, “This son of yours doesn’t deserve this!” Unlike the older brother, Jesus disregarded the cost to bring us back to God.
[Jesus], though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:6-8). 
Forgiveness is free for us to receive, but it was incredibly costly to Jesus. We enjoy the feast because Jesus took the cup of wrath.


My Brother's Keeper

Do you remember the story of the first two brothers? The older brother Cain murdered the younger brother Abel. When God asked Cain, “Where is your brother?”, he answered, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9).

The truth is, we are to be our brother’s (and sister’s) keeper. We are to show concern for the welfare of others. We are to be like Jesus, the true older brother, not like the prodigal son’s older brother.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Father's Love

Part 1 of Two Lost Sons

Text: Luke 15:11-32




But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him (Luke 15:20). 


A Story About a Father's Two Sons

In the Gospels, Jesus tells many stories. One of his most popular stories is the story of the Prodigal Son. The title is a bit misleading because it’s not a story about just one son; it’s a story about two sons. And it’s also a story about a father whose heart is full of love for his sons.

In the story, the younger son is a rebellious son who leaves home and breaks his father’s heart. The older son remains home and appears to be the good son, but he also breaks his father’s heart.


The Story's Purpose

Why did Jesus tell this story? [1] To answer this question, we need to go back to the first three verses of Luke 15.
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” 
So he told them this parable…. [2]
The story was told to the Pharisees and scribes—religious leaders. The Pharisees and scribes had “grumbled” because the tax collectors and sinners were “drawing near” to Jesus, and he was welcoming them—even eating with them.

The tax collectors and sinners were non-religious people. They were like the younger brother. The Pharisees and scribes were self-righteous people. They were like the older brother who angrily complained when his father—who represents God—had welcomed back the rebellious son.

The purpose of the story of the Prodigal Son is to teach two truths: First, God welcomes all repentant sinners. What happened when the younger son returned home? “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embrace him and kissed him” (v. 20). Tim Keller writes, “It’s not the repentance that causes the father’s love, but rather the reverse. The father’s lavish affection makes the son’s expression of remorse far easier.” [3]

Second, some people who think they’re on the “inside” are actually on the “outside.” On a different occasion, Jesus said to some other religious leaders, “The tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you” (Matt. 21:31). The religious leaders thought they were on the “inside,” but they were actually on the “outside.” When the story ends, it’s the younger son who’s inside the father’s house, not the older son (v. 28). Both sons are invited into the feast, but only the younger son enters. The older son’s pride keeps him out. “Good” people don’t go to heaven. Only repentant sinners go to heaven.


The Prodigal God

Tim Keller’s book on the story of the Prodigal Son has an unusual title: The Prodigal God. Here’s Keller’s explanation of the title:
The word “prodigal” does not mean “wayward” but, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, “recklessly spendthrift.” It means to spend until you have nothing left. This terms is therefore as appropriate for describing the father in the story as his younger son. The father’s welcome to the repentant son was literally reckless, because he refused to “reckon” or count his sin against him or demand payment. This response offended the elder brother and most likely the local community. 
In this story the father represents the Heavenly Father Jesus knew so well. St. Paul writes: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not reckoning to them their trespasses” (2 Corinthians 5:19—American Standard Version). Jesus is showing us the God of Great Expenditure, who is nothing if not prodigal toward us, his children. [4]
How did God the Father make reconciliation possible through Christ? Second Corinthians 5 goes on to day, “For our sake [God] made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). God sent his own Son into a “far country” to die so that we could be reconciled to him. God was willing to endure the sorrow of losing his own Son so that he could know the joy of welcoming us back home.


Imitate the Father

Many churchgoers are like the older brother—like the Pharisees and scribes. They see themselves as better than other people, more deserving of a place in God’s family. We are to be like the father—like God. We are to have compassionate hearts.

____________________

[1] The stories of Jesus are called “parables.” A parable is a fictional story told to teach a truth.
[2] Jesus told three parables: the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the lost son. In each parable, something is lost. And in each parable, there is joy when what was lost is finally found.
[3] Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God, 74.
[4] Ibid., xiv-xv.

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Priority of the Gospel

Part 8 of The Gospel Gone Viral

Text: Acts 20:17-38




“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (20:28). 


What Matters Most?

What should matter most to a church?

In Acts 20:17-38, Paul speaks to the elders of the church of Ephesus. The elders are the leaders of a church. In verse 28, we find two responsibilities of an elder: (1) to oversee the church (“in which the Holy Spirit as made you overseers”) and (2) to care [1] for (i.e., shepherd ) the church (“care for the church of God”). [2]

In 1 Peter 5, the apostle Peter addresses another group of elders, and he mentions the same two elder responsibilities:
So I exhort the elders among you…: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory (vv. 1-4). 
If elders are to effectively shepherd and oversee the church, they need to know the correct answer to the question “What should matter most to a church?”


The Gospel

The thing that should matter most to the church is the gospel. Why? There is nothing people need more than the gospel.

  • Paul describes the gospel as “the gospel of the grace of God” (v. 24). Since we are saved by grace, God deserves all the glory for our salvation.
  • The gospel tells us that we matter to God. Jesus “obtained [the church of God] with his own blood” (v. 28).
  • People accept the gospel (and are saved) by repenting (i.e., turning from sin) and believing (i.e., turning to Jesus): “repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 21). Repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin. 
  • The gospel is not just for the beginning of the Christian life. Believing in the gospel is sort of like learning the alphabet. That’s the first thing you learn when you go to school, and knowing the alphabet is something that’s incredibly helpful throughout your whole life. We don’t forget about the alphabet once we finish grade 1. And we shouldn’t forget about the gospel after we put our faith in Christ. The gospel inspires us to do the right thing. For example, Ephesians 4:32 says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” 

What We Need to Do with the Gospel

Since there is nothing people need more than the gospel, we must do two things. First, we must proclaim the gospel. Paul says, “I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (vv. 26-27). Why would we “shrink” from declaring “the whole counsel of God”? Because parts of it offend people. They don’t want to hear the reason why they need the gospel: they are sinners who deserve condemnation, not salvation.

Second, we must preserve the gospel. Paul warns them, “After my departure fierce wolves will coming in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away disciples after them” (vv. 29-30). “Be alert” (v. 31), Paul says. People who want to draw a church away from the gospel could come from outside the church (v. 29) or inside the church (v. 30).


What Are We if We Don't Have the Gospel?

As we saw in verse 28, one of the responsibilities of church elders is to provide pastoral care. When we think of pastoral care, what do we normally thing of? The best way to care for the flock is to make sure the church doesn’t lose the gospel because all of the comfort and encouragement we have to share is based on the gospel.

What is a church if it doesn’t have the gospel? It’s merely a charity that does good deeds. But the gospel changes lives. There is nothing people need more than the gospel, so we must (1) proclaim it and (2) preserve it.

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[1] To “care” for the church means to “shepherd” the church, which is called “the flock” (v. 28; 1 Peter 5:2).
[2] In the New Testament, elder, pastor, and overseer are three titles for the same office.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Expect the Unexpected

Part 7 of The Gospel Gone Viral

Text: Acts 16:6-34




[The jailor] put [Paul and Silas] into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks.... Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:24, 30). 


This Wasn't the Plan!

I’m someone who likes to make a detailed list of everything I’d like to accomplish each day. But often our days don’t go according to plan.

That was the case with Paul and Silas. I’m sure they didn’t plan to be beaten and imprisoned when they went to Philippi. But they probably also didn’t expect that the jailer of the prison would be saved. Sometimes an unexpected turn of events—even a very bad turn of events—can lead to a great opportunity to share the gospel.


A Change of Course

Paul and Silas are “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word [i.e., the gospel] in Asia” (v. 6). Then when they try to go to Bithynia, “the Spirit of Jesus [doesn’t] allow them” (v. 7). Later, Paul has a vision in which a man says, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (v. 9). Paul and Silas interpret the vision to mean that God wants them to take the gospel to Macedonia (v. 10). They were willing to change course when they sensed that God wanted them to go in a different direction. They had made travel plans, but God had a different plan for them.

 Sometimes we sense God’s leading and decide to change course. Other times circumstances force us to change course. Whenever God changes our course—when he takes us in a different direction—it could because he wants to use us to lead someone to faith in Jesus.


Your Reactions Are Showing

Paul and Silas have some initial success in Philippi. A woman named Lydia is saved and baptized (“the Lord opened her heart,” v. 14). But after that, things go bad. Paul is repeatedly harassed by a slave girl who is possessed by a demonic spirit. Eventually, Paul becomes “greatly annoyed” (v. 18) and casts the demonic spirit out of the girl. This angers the girl’s owners because the girl had made them lots of money from fortune-telling. They drag Paul and Silas to the authorities who order Paul and Silas to be beaten with rods and thrown into prison.

How would you have reacted to this turn of events? It would be natural to doubt God’s wisdom: “Why did God want me to come to this city?” Sometimes an unexpected turn of events in our lives can be an annoying setback (e.g., a flat tire) or a serious problem (e.g., cancer). We often react to a bad turn of events by complaining or being discouraged.

Amazingly, that night in prison Paul and Silas prayed and sang hymns to God—not usual activities for people who had been beaten with rods and thrown into prison! And we’re told that “the prisoners were listening to them” (v. 25). Our reaction to a bad turn of events can open a door—or close a door—to an opportunity to share the gospel. Or maybe our reaction to a problem could make such an impact on someone that we become a link in a chain of events that leads them to one day being saved.

Circumstances Can't Stop the Gospel

Paul and Silas’s imprisonment didn’t stop the spread of the gospel. Actually, their imprisonment helped spread the gospel! There’s an earthquake that night. It causes the doors of the prison to open. But the prisoners don’t run away. Instead of seeing the earthquake as an opportunity to escape, Paul and Silas saw it as an opportunity to witness.

The jailer, though, thinks all the prisoners have escaped. This would mean that the jailer is in big trouble. So he decides to kills himself. But just as he’s about to end his life, Paul cries out to him, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here” (v. 28). The jailer can’t believe it. Paul and Silas’s reaction to their problems showed the jailer that they were different. Are we any different because of the gospel? 

The jailer asks, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (v. 30). They answer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (v. 31).

So this week when you experience a bad turn of events, think about how it might open a door to an opportunity for you to be a witness. We can be a witness by how we react to a bad situation or maybe even be able to speak about the gospel.