Wrong Questions & Bad Neighbors: Beginning Our Christian Faith by Asking the Right Questions

Luke 10:25-37

But wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29)

What has happened to our society? We are barraged constantly by news reports of worthless politicians attacking one another, the tragedy of daily shootings in our malls, and a society that seems to have thrown civility to the wind. What has happened to our world? Where is God in these situations? In seeking answers to these pressing questions we must first ask ourselves if we are asking the right questions.

Have you ever been in a situation where you did not know what to do? When we find ourselves in these predicaments we sometimes make the situation worse by asking the wrong questions. This is what takes place in Luke’s parable of the Good Samaritan. But, before we begin our exegesis of this parable we must first note how the parable is framed with the concept of listening to God.

In verses 23-24 Jesus turns to His disciples and says, “Blessed are the eyes that see the things you see, for I say to you that many prophets and kings wished to see the things that you see, and did not see them, and to hear the things that you hear, and did not hear them.”

In verses 38-42 the story of Martha and Mary emphasizes the significance of Mary’s decision to sit and listen to Jesus rather than assisting Martha in her preparation.

I. Howard Marshall noted in his commentary on Luke that parables often have a deeper meaning than what they first appear.1 Likewise, the reader must recognize that Jesus is being portrayed as the Samaritan in the parable who comes to us in our time of need. Notice the striking parallels of how Jesus’ work in going to the cross corresponds to the work of the Good Samaritan:  He bandages our wounds, He pays our debt, He promises to return.

So what does this parable teach? This is a parable about God and it is often misinterpreted to provide only a model about humanitarian compassion rather than answering the deeply theological question, “Who is my neighbor?”2 In answering this question the story teaches us a great deal about the character of God, because Luke is emphasizing that God is our neighbor. He is the one who comes to us in our time of need!

The lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” reveals both his character as well as his true intentions. He is not serious about following Jesus. He has all of the right answers, but his heart reflects a man who has followed boundaries endorsed by society’s unwillingness to listen to God. He is more interested in re- assuring himself of his own self-centered limitations that pertain to salvation and discipleship. Consider this, in a system with precise boundaries mankind will habitually attempt to justify himself before God and his fellow man. The lawyer wants it this way, because once he has reduced the system down to a series of do’s and don’ts he can easily accomplish the task of justifying himself to others.3 But in seeking to defend himself before both God and his fellow man, the lawyer asks the wrong question. An expert in the law and rhetoric should know the right questions to ask. The question should have been, “Who is God?”4 When we begin the Christian faith by asking the wrong questions we will inevitably come up with the wrong answers.

Jesus answers the lawyer’s question (challenge/repost) with a response that has a leveling type of effect that puts the lawyer squarely in his place. The lawyer begins the story by rising up to justify himself, but Jesus begins the parable with the religious elite going down from Jerusalem. Luke is emphasizing Jesus’ bold response by lifting up a model of what a neighbor is supposed to be. A neighbor is one who comes to us during our time of need. He bandages our wounds. He pays the price for us and then promises that He will return.

The boldness of Jesus’ response is often over looked in our culture, but Kenneth Bailey added the proper emphasis when he claimed that in twenty years of ministering to Middle Eastern Arab Christians he never “had the courage to tell a story to Palestinians about a noble Israeli, nor a story about a noble Turk to an Armenian.”5 The on-going debates that Jesus won at the expense of the religious elite in His day would eventually culminate with a conspiracy to crucify him. If this doesn’t emphasize the devastating cost of winning and losing debates in a culture based upon honor and shame nothing will. What are we prepared to pay in our society today?

So, how do we summarize this parable? In a world bent on self- destruction this parable is crucial for making sense of a culture that does not know what to do (listen to God) or what to ask. The story begins and ends with the emphasis for humanity to listen to God. Asking the right questions is essential for listening and to develop an understanding of both our faith and the fallen world in which we live. This is a parable that teaches us about the character of God. In His grace, he recognizes that we were failing to be neighborly and we are not even asking the right questions. It shows us that God looked down from heaven and saw the plight of broken humanity and came to us in our time of need through His Son, Jesus Christ.

Because God is our neighbor. He is the one who comes to us in our time of need in every circumstance, but are we listening to God or are we simply seeking to justify ourselves before Him?

                                                                     
1 I. Howard Marshall, The New International Greek New Testament Commentary: Luke (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing,1978), 440.
2 David Garland, Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Luke, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 2011), 447.
3 Garland, 447-48.
4 Ibid.
5 Kenneth Bailey, Poet and Peasant and Through a Peasants Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1976), 48.

 

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Waking a Sleeping Giant in the Post-Modern Church

Throughout my ministry I have advocated that expository preaching is the most effective way to communicate the meaning of Scripture to a congregation. Expository preaching unpacks the complete tenor of a biblical passage and explains it in ways people can understand and apply into their lives. Academic books on the subject of preaching have chronicled the various forms or methods of preaching styles that have come to us across ecclesiastical (church) history, but the expository method is timeless and is not a cultural or generational obstacle.

Today, many modern pastors when questioned on the subject of preaching styles claim to preach expository sermons and so it would appear that expository has finally won out over topical sermons in the preaching wars. But upon closer inspection the topical style has reemerged under a new name and fueled by a new culture called Post Modernism in where the nucleus of this movement is on individual needs and the focus is “what about me?” I am grieved by the path Christian preaching has taken. This Post Modern culture has influenced the listening audience of the church and in doing so, many pastors have adjusted the much needed sermon depth to stories about shallow life topics like time management all while hinging it with a biblical platitude and a few nifty slides and calling it a Christian theme series. Seriously?

There are some common misunderstandings as to how thematic sermons are composed and the ways in which they differ from topical sermons. For a sermon to be classified as a thematic sermon it must explain a biblical theme within a given passage, not a modern cultural topic. A biblical theme is an idea within a passage of Scripture that carries an underlying thought. Below are three paragraphs explaining the biblical theme of thanksgiving in both the New and Old Testaments. Notice the depth of theological understanding we grasp when we dive deep into the text in opposition to a shallow modern topic.

An example of a biblical theme can be seen in the book of Colossians where Paul repeatedly encourages believers to give thanks to God.1  According to New Testament scholar David Pao, giving thanks to God calls us to remember His mighty works.2  As a result, thanksgiving is more than personal gratitude for receiving God’s blessings. For Paul, thanksgiving was tied to the mighty works of God as recorded in both Old and New Testaments.3 The premiere event in the Old Testament that reflected God’s mighty work took place through the exodus. In this glorious event God delivered Israel from Egyptian bondage and this event was so significant that He called Israel repeatedly to remember and celebrate it annually through the Passover. This was a way for Israel to never forget the greatness of what God had done for them.4 In remembrance, there is thanksgiving.

In the New Testament where the mighty works of God are found in Jesus’ pilgrimage to Jerusalem and His crucifixion, it is not a coincidence that in the Greek text Luke described His departure on the Mount of Transfiguration as an exodus (Luke 9:31). Following in the typological pattern begun by Moses, Jesus delivers humanity (not just Israel) from an even greater bondage than Egyptian slavery. He delivers all who believe in Him from the bondage of sin in salvation.

Just as the Old Testament called Israel to never forget, Luke reminds believers in the same way to remember the greatness of what God has done for us through the cross. In Luke 22:19 he wrote: “Do this in remembrance of Me.” One final note we should recognize is the Greek verb for “do” is a present tense verb that denotes an on-going type of action. We, like Israel, are called to never forget the greatness of what God has done for us through Jesus. Clearly, this underlying theme of thanksgiving carries a deeper understanding than a word taken at face value in a passage. This is a biblical theme. This is expository preaching!

In contrast, a topical sermon is one that is based upon a specific subject where a word or phrase is mentioned within a biblical passage and communicates a basic level of understanding. The problem with topical sermons is when we remove words from their original context in order to fit a sermon topic we empty the sermon of any theological meaning the word or phrase had once carried. As a result, shallow theology has become one of the hallmark characteristics in the evangelical church in a Post Modern culture. Tragic.

In his book, God in a Whirlwind, David Wells made this explicit point by noting that believers have misunderstood the word love as it is used in the Scriptures.5 Love is not an emotion we experience when we see a puppy wagging his tail at us from a pet store window. According to Wells, love as it is most often used in the New Testament, is a sacrificial type of love that gave a begotten son to a world immersed in sin.6

To summarize, topical preaching does not unpack the underlying meaning behind a particular word or phrase; by contrast, it empties any theological meaning the word once carried in order to fit the topic of a particular sermon. Thus, topical preaching has not disappeared, but rather reemerged under a new term carrying with it the same problematic baggage it always had. By using this inferior form of preaching in our services I fear that we have awakened a sleeping giant that has come about from a Post Modern culture bent on redefining the Christian faith into what we want it to be- about ourselves. The ominous warnings of David Wells from three decades ago are now ringing true. If the church continues to move in this direction then historical Christian theology will die and all that will be left of it is an empty shell of what wisdom used to be.7

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1 In the book of Colossians the word for thanksgiving appears in various grammatical forms in 1:3, 1:12, 2:7, 3:17, and 4:2.
2 David W. Pao, Thanksgiving: An Investigation of a Pauline Theme, (Downers Grove, Intervarsity Press, 2002), 39-58. See also G. K. Beale, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry, (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2008).
3 Ibid.
4 Daniel I. Block, For the Glory of God: Recovering a Biblical Theology of
Worship, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic Publishing, 2014), 288-89.
5 David F. Wells, God In a Whirlwind: How the Holy-Love of God Reorients
our World, (Wheaton: Crossway Publishing Company, 2014), 15-40. 6 Ibid.
7 David Wells, No Place for Truth or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), 101.

 

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Where Does Worship Begin & End? Grasping a Holistic Posture to Worship

Daniel Block begins his book, For the Glory of God: Recovering a Biblical Theology of Worship, by telling the humorous story of a church service he was asked to preach in one Sunday. The church was quite large with three morning services. During a transitional moment at one of three services the music minister declared to the congregation, “Now before we continue our worship, let me read from Colossians 3” – as if reading and hearing the Scriptures are not exercises in worship.¹

Block’s point touches on a key issue that many evangelical believers fail to understand. Where does worship begin and end? Worship in numerous modern churches has become equivalent with music and if we are not engaging in the singing then we are not worshiping. As a pastor I am deeply grieved by this belief. This reflects a gross misunderstanding of what true worship of God actually is and it also reflects a poor and shallow theology that has come to plague the 21st century church.

This issue grows much deeper than poor theological insight. It is a matter of misalignment in our spiritual attitude. Our position in worship falls short of loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. This is not God-centered worship! Worship should always point away from ourselves and toward, with laser guided precision, the Holy One in heaven. New Testament scholar Edith Humphrey rightly listed five maladies that plague worship in North American churches. I agree with her completely.

  1. Trivializing worship by a preoccupation with mood (it’s all about how music makes me feel).
  2. Misdirecting worship by having human-centered rather than God-centered focus (it’s all about me, the worshiper).
  3. Deadening worship by substituting stones for bread (the loss of expository preaching of the Word of God).
  4. Perverting worship with emotional, self-indulgent experiences at the expense of true liturgy.
  5. Exploiting worship with market-driven values.²

The Problem:
The problem in my estimation is the term worship as it is used in church life today carries far too narrow of an understanding and application. Worship constitutes more than singing praise and worship songs in our church services. More importantly, worship of God did not begin in the today’s modern church or in the New Testament church. The God whose glory filled the sacred space in the Old Testament temple (Holy of Holies) is the same God whose glory is found in the new and greater temple of Jesus Christ (John 2:19-21) in the New Testament.

The Solution:
The solution to this dilemma requires that we develop our understanding and practice of worship to include the whole of our lives. Worship is devotion to God. In the biblical world there was no distinction between what was practiced in church services and how they spent the remainder of their week. Whether we recognize it or not how we our live reflects our worship of God. In addition, Christians who view life as worship are far less susceptible to the sin of compartmentalizing our lives into categories of what is deemed acceptable and what is unacceptable to God.³ This means worship cannot be confined to just Sunday mornings.

Summation:
So, where does worship begin and end? Worship of God begins when we accept Jesus as Savior and Lord and it never ends. Even at death we step from mortal life into eternal life and that will include worship as well. When we view worship as something we spend the whole of our lives doing we begin to understand that worship should conform to God’s will rather than the will of fallen humanity. From this perspective worship is spending the whole of our lives in a sacrificial style of living that declares to God that I will treat Your heart with a greater tenderness than how I treat mine! This is the attitude of true worship that God desires. To Him we give our all.

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1 Daniel I. Block, For the Glory of God: Recovering a Biblical Theology of Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic Publishing, 2014), xi-xv

2 Edith Humphrey, Grand Entrance: Worship on Earth as in Heaven (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011), 155-87.

3 Daniel I. Block, For the Glory of God: Recovering a Biblical Theology of Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic Publishing, 2014).

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God’s Commands & Man-Made Ceremony: Exchanging Biblical Doctrines for Traditions

Leaving behind the commandments of God you are holding fast to the traditions of men. (Mark 7:8)

In my years as serving as a pastor I have noticed an increase in the tendency for church members to gravitate toward man-made ceremonial type services and while in doing that, pushing away the spiritual realm- God-centered worship. We see it most often in services like baby dedications, baccalaureate ceremonies and the list goes on. While these services have their place, they cannot become the replacement or the focus of our worship. We cannot exchange doctrine and worship for ceremony. Even prayer services often place the emphasis on the injury or the injured rather than the one who sustains all things including our health. In these events, as Christians, we push God’s spirit far away and build an instant road block to proper worship. We cannot live our lives apart from God and build a growing relationship when our heart is focused on man-centered traditions.

The division or pushing away of God happens on many levels. We see it in prayer services when believers will make prayer requests for people as far removed from us as possible. I’m speaking of prayer requests such as, “my wife’s friend’s sister’s daughter works with someone who is not a believer.” Any pastor who has mid-week prayer services can attest to this request. But what about our family? Our neighbors and coworkers? Anyone connected to us who is lost? There is no shame is admitting we have lost friends and family and we need help in reaching them. God desires for us to draw near to Him and lay our burdens down. This is God-centered worship!

Likewise, baby dedications can be a moving experience for the families participating, but in my experience often these families rarely attend services on a regular basis. Often those desiring these ceremonies are looking for a replacement to true commitment and worship by creating an event or experience they can show to their family and friends and say, “look we’re Christian! I have a certificate that says so!” Since baby dedications hinge on the concept of parents setting the example for the children, unfortunately, the service itself can become ritualistic and ceremonial by nature when the parents do not take the Christian faith seriously. There are exceptions, but this is still not worship.

I was inspired while listening to Dr. Rob Plummer’s Daily Dose of Greek1, that
while this problem of replacing worship and doctrine with ceremony is significant today, it is not unique to our generation, but rather is something humanity has struggled with as far back as into the biblical world. Dr. Plummer used Mark 7:8 as an example of what I have been describing. The verse reads, “Leaving behind the commandments of God you are holding fast to the traditions of men.” The verb “leaving behind” describes an action that is a completed type of action. The Jewish leadership had left behind the commandments of God. In addition to leaving behind the commandments of God these Jewish leaders were gravitating toward man-made ceremonies. The verb for “holding fast” is used in a present tense form describing an on-going type of action.

Here lies the problem. This progression from leaving behind the doctrines of God
to the on-going repetition of holding fast to the traditions of man is a key problem in modern evangelical life. Too many evangelicals today have come to believe that we can lead good and moral lives apart from God’s direction and insight that His word brings.2 So as we turn away from good solid theological study and commitment to God’s word, we drift progressively closer to man-centered ceremonial type services that bring us a false assurance that our relationship with God is good enough.

In his commentary Mark Strauss discussed the emergence of this situation in Isaiah’s time that had continued on in Jesus’ day.3 The people were merely giving God lip service rather than true dedication of their heart.4 Because of the corporate nature of their lip service to God they elevated their own traditions above the authentic commands of God.5 The problem of giving God lip service while at the same time elevating our own man-centered traditions continues unabated today.

Here is the solution. Mark’s Gospel portrays Jesus as the model of what constitutes true discipleship while at the same time asks the reader a somber rhetorical question, “How will we respond?”6  Are we prepared to submit ourselves to authentic worship of God or will we merely give lip service like in Isaiah’s time? Will we leave behind the commandments of God for the traditions of man like in Jesus’ time? Fallen humanity repeatedly attempts to push God away through these ceremonial, albeit man-centered actions. We must return to true discipleship, worship and study of God’s word and leave behind unauthentic actions led by the traditions of man.


 

1 Rob Plummer, http://www.dailydoseofgreek.com
2 John M. Frame, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, (Phillipsburg:
P&R Publishing, 2015), 363-415.
3 Mark Strauss, Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Mark (Grand
Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 2014), 300.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Mark Strauss, Four Portraits, One Jesus: A Survey of Jesus and the Gospels,
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 2007), 171-212.
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Temples, Heresies & Poor Hermeneutics: Moving from the Temple of God to God as the Temple

And Jesus said to them destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up. (John 2:19)

One of the great tragedies in the modern evangelical church is the lack of doctrinal teaching coming from the pulpit. This unfortunate fact has been documented repeatedly over the last several decades¹ and this dilemma continues to have a devastating effect upon evangelical congregations. In many cases the ministers themselves have failed to grasp key hermeneutical principles that deal with Jesus and New Testament fulfillment. If pastors are unwilling to dig deeper into theological studies, how can we ask or expect the congregations to do so? As a result, evangelical churches have become progressively ignorant in how to interpret the Bible and in how to apply its teachings into our lives. It is heart wrenching.

As an example of what I have been writing about over the last several years, let me present a classic problem by one of the most well known evangelical pastors. In a 2015 sermon series called “Brand: New” Andy Stanley described Jesus’ ministry as not only something entirely new, but also an approach that completely eliminated Old Testament practices. In the introduction to a sermon outline Stanley wrote:

Jesus stepped into a world where religion was characterized by the temple model: sacred places that housed sacred text that were interpreted by sacred men who used those texts to control superstitious people. Jesus initiated something entirely new, a complete departure from the temple model. But soon enough some of his followers began to assimilate Jesus into the temple model.²

This outline is plagued with so many problems it’s difficult to decide where to begin. First, Stanley is wrong in advocating that Jesus’ ministry approach was something entirely new It was not. In fact, not only did it fulfill Old Testament prophecies, but also Jesus’ ministry continued a typological pattern that began in the Old Testament.

So what is a typological pattern? An example of typological patterns can be seen in Jesus’ sacrificial death. In dying on the cross He became the perfect sacrifice that the
temporary animal sacrificial system of Judaism only pointed to.4  The typological pattern Stanley failed to recognize in this outline was that Jesus did not eliminate the temple system used in the Old Testament, but rather He became the new and better temple in the New Testament. Fulfillment, replacement, but not elimination.

There are four passages in John’s Gospel that indicate that Jesus is the replacement for the Old Testament temple.5 Most of these passages deal with shared words that were used to describe the temple/tabernacle that are applied to Jesus in John’s Gospel. Because of space limitation let’s just focus on one of the more obvious passages. In John 2:19, Jesus tells the Jews “destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” They think Jesus is talking about the temple building, claiming it took forty-six years to build, but in verse twenty-one John teaches that Jesus was talking about the temple of His body. Jesus was claiming to be the new and better temple. So, the temple system of the Old Testament was not done away with as Stanley suggested, it was replaced, fulfilled by a new and better temple, namely Jesus. As a result, Jesus becomes the new locus of worship in the New Testament. To stand in the presence of God, to worship, to pray we do not go to the temple building in Jerusalem, we come to the new temple who is Jesus Christ.  He is the temple of God (skenoo). Praise God the temple still exists!

The second problem Stanley created with his muddled theology was the concept that nothing of value could be taken from the Old Testament and applied into modern times or even worse that if we take any concepts from the Old Testament we do so at the expense of love. Stanley wrote:

We’re all tempted to connect with God based upon the temple model. It seems easier, more clearly defined. But Jesus gave us a better way-a way characterized by love. If we drag even a bit of the old into the new, the old will win out. We will have sacred places ruled by sacred men who interpret sacred texts to control superstitious people. But we won’t have love.6

Ichabod! To suggest that love was sacrificed in the Old Testament, or the temple setting is simply a fatally flawed argument. In fact, meditation upon God’s word was done primarily out of love and respect for Yahweh and obedience to His illuminating instructions. For example in Psalm 19 the psalmist uses the metaphor of the sun to graphically describe the illumination of God’s word (Torah) and its effect upon humanity. The main thrust of this psalm is that just as the sun illuminates the heavens so God’s word (Torah) illuminates mankind! Ironically, many of the Psalms are based upon the temple setting and the OT sacred texts that Stanley rails against. God’s love for mankind did not begin in the first century. The history of God’s love was experienced and recorded  for thousands of years in the Old Testament.

Finally, Stanley failed to grasp basic concepts of the progressive revelation the New Testament provides believers in understanding the Old Testament. Jesus’ emergence did not bring entirely new concepts to ministry, but rather further revealed the works of the Father and of His love for humanity.

So what’s the answer to muddled theology and heretical teachings?  The great tragedy in the evangelical church stems from a lack of orthodox training of the congregation and often times this lack of doctrinal teaching comes directly from the pulpit. More than anyone the pastor must be an intentional, avid Bible student and this theological diligence does not end with seminary graduation. True growth must include knowledge and understanding of the Bible not just Sunday morning attendance. Pastors and congregants alike, must push themselves into a deeper understanding God’s word and theological concepts. The fruit that we bear, rather than the pews that we fill on Sunday morning, will be the true measure of our success. To Him we must give our all.


1 David Wells, No Place for Truth or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993). See also Mark A. Knoll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1994).    

2 Sermon Outline from North Point Ministries website from the sermon series entitled “Brand: New” 2015.

3 Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, vol. 1 (New York: Harper One Publishing, 1984), 7-13. Early Christian believers did not see Christianity as a new and unique religion but rather as fulfillment to the prophesies of Judaism.    

4 Paul Hoskins, Jesus as the Fulfillment of the Temple in the Gospel of John (Waynesboro: Paternoster Press, 2006).    

5 The four passages in John’s Gospel that describe Jesus as the replacement for the temple are 1:14, 1:51, 2:18-22, and 4:20-24.

6 Sermon Outline from North Point Ministries website from the sermon series entitled “Brand: New” 2015.

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Standing Before a Holy God: Contrasting & Evaluating Our Spiritual Journey

John Calvin once claimed that the Psalms were a mirror to our soul because they reflected whether we were on a path that led to Godliness or a path that moved us away from God. So much of our faith in Christian life has to do with how we stand before God. I’m not talking about the day we made a profession of faith, instead I’m talking about where we stand before God on the last day, because for most of us there is a large span of time that lies between our spiritual birth and our physical death. Let’s check ourselves: Have we grown from a spiritual perspective since the day we came to know Jesus as Lord and Savior? Have we spent our lives studying Scripture and seeking to apply it into our lives? Do we grasp the progressive nature of sin and ponder its impact upon our lives?

Psalm 1 calls believers to give an honest assessment of our standing before God. The psalmist invites Christian believers to evaluate our relationship with God based upon one of two paths that we can take in life. These two paths contrast the difference between Godly living and wicked living (living according to the world). More importantly, Psalm 1 gives believers concrete markers that help us to identify whether or not we are on God’s path. In life, no one sets out to be on the path of the wicked, the way of the world, but sin can enter quietly into our lives and with great subtlety and take us to places we had never dreamed we could one day be.

The psalm opens with a three-part verse that reflects progression down a path the righteous person will refuse to live upon as they go through life. In short, God’s people avoid wicked people and the way they have chosen to live. The purpose of this abstinence is to not get enticed or entangled in the sins of their lives. We notice that the psalmist records a three-part progression as he moves the reader down this literary path of iniquity. From walking, to standing, to sitting; this path of sin slowly consumes the individual and is revealed in our actions of our life. The path is described like a set of stairs leading downward as sin becomes the dominant force ruling one’s life.

Standing Before God_rev

And this is exactly the way sin works in our lives.  Discreetly, in a soft whisper, sin leads us one step at a time progressively deeper into iniquity. Time after time, I have seen believers slip into this hollow routine where irregular church attendance and sporadic Bible study leads them astray only to recognize their spiritual apathy after it has destroyed their lives. Notice the progression corrupts at a personal level as the psalmist records the movement from being described as wicked, to sinners, to scoffers. He guides the reader across this path of deconstruction and reflects the downward spiral that sin will take us as it pollutes our lives and ways. Those on this path are called the wicked. They are described as a rootless, dry chaff whose lives will ultimately amount to nothing.

How dark! But there’s hope! The righteous, by contrast, spend their days pondering God’s word and meditating over its application into their lives. They are compared to a tree that is firmly planted near a stream that bears its fruit regularly throughout life. This describes a fulfilled life!

What about us? So what is an honest assessment of our spiritual growth? God has provided Jesus Christ as our refuge for shelter to avoid the wicked paths that always destroy our lives. One point is perfectly clear from this psalm: the righteous do not live on a path of sin. They avoid associations with wicked people and live a life of repentance always turning away from world approved behavior and turning toward a life that honors our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. As a Christian, we assess our growth by our obedience to God’s redemptive plan for our lives. If we are in alignment with Christ we can stand, humbly, before a Holy God on the last day.¹

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¹ Tremper Longman, “Entering the Holy Place” in Devotions on the Hebrew Bible: 54 Reflections to Inspire & Instruct. ed. by Milton Eng & Lee M. Fields. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 2015, p.119-21.

 

 

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Binding the Strong Man: Returning to God’s Path with Disciplined Eyes & Ears

“But no one can enter the strong man’s house and plunder his property unless he first binds the strong man, and then he will plunder his house.” Mark 3:27

How long will we as evangelicals continue to close our eyes and deafen our ears to the unsettling truth that so many of our churches have turned away from God’s path? Sadly, the signs are not hard to see. In fact, these signs have been staring at us in the face for quite some time now. Evangelical professors have pointed to these trending problems for decades¹ such as revolving doors of pastors coming and going,² believers that have drifted away from theological teaching and discipline,³ churches that have become more inward focused and interested in entertainment rather than sacrificial living.4

We have closed our eyes and ears to these predicaments by making ourselves the zenith of our Christian faith and thereby turning God into our own personal genie that exists only to make us happy. This is a prominent deficiency in the understanding of God’s role in the order of the cosmos. As God’s servants, as HIS followers we are subservient to Him, hence the title of servant. He is Holy, we are sinners. Our God provided a path to salvation through the atoning work of His Son, Jesus Christ. He created the universe and all of its contents- including us! The inventory of His great works are infinite. He is God and He demands our complete and total dependence. It’s not about us. For the believer, this should be the level of understanding that frames our lives.

In his book, Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend, Andy Stanley, suggested that believers are on a happiness quest and that the church must simply adjust our cultural sails to accept this phenomenon as the new norm in church life. He wrote:

Culture is like the wind. You can’t stop it. You shouldn’t spit in it. But, if like a good sailor you adjust your sails, you can harness the winds of culture to take your audience where they need to go. If people are more interested in being happy then play to that. Jesus did.5

     Ichabod! Ignoring or sidestepping the problem as Stanley suggested has failed to solve the problem and has actually exacerbated it. We have invited the secular world into our churches and instead of changing them through Christian discipleship as commanded in Matthew 28:19-20,  we have become like them. We have yoked ourselves to an unbelieving world and have allowed it to steer us in a wrong direction. Sure- we can close our eyes and ears to these problems and pretend they don’t exist, but the signs are unmistakable now. The strong man has entered God’s church and we have invited him in.

So, how do we bind the strong man? How do we get our churches back on track to God’s path and to His ways once again?  

First, as pastors, we must devote ourselves to much prayer and the commitment to God’s Will being done on earth as it is in heaven. The pastoral ministry is well described in 2 Timothy 4:1-5:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 5 As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

Binding the strong man (Satan) in our churches (house) will come at a high cost and could include the pastor’s termination or forced resignation and members may lose popularity or friendships when they stand for Christ and against the world. Satan will not go without a fight. What are we prepared to pay? Are we ready for that sacrifice?

Secondly, I would suggest using Mark 1:21-28 as an example of how we can bind Satan in our churches. It is important that we grasp this passage as a microcosm of how Jesus is going to bind Satan in Mark’s Gospel. So, as we go through this gospel notice that we find Jesus (the stronger man) regularly casting out demons, healing the sick, and curing lepers. He is in effect, binding Satan by plundering/rescuing mankind from Satan’s grasp.

The passage is organized in a chiastic structure that reflects the reversing effects of Jesus’ teaching upon a fallen world. The chiastic structure can be seen below.

A) Immediately Jesus went in the synagogue (v21)
|    B) They were amazed at His teaching (v22)
|    |    C) Man with unclean spirit (v23)
|    |    |    D) Unclean spirit saying (v24)
|    |    |    D) Jesus saying (v25)
|    |    C) Unclean spirit comes out of man (v26)
|    B) They were amazed and ask “Is this a new teaching”(v27)
A) Immediately Jesus comes out of the synagogue (v29)

Notice at every step Jesus reverses the effect Satan has upon a fallen world. Essentially, He is binding the strong man through the teaching of God’s word. We must do the same!

Adjusting our sails to accommodate the “cultural shifts in our society” is exactly why the evangelical church finds itself in its current predicament. As pastors we must be prepared to do the hard work of preaching, i.e., the educating and training of our congregations. The church also has a critical obligation of being obedient to the practice of following God’s path in sacrifice and at any cost. Without this synergy of discipline and commitment between the pastorate and believers many of our churches will continue to be bound by the strong man. We must be mindful of the cost, but focused on the reward that awaits for us in our Lord and Savior with His arms open wide to receive us into His Father’s house.  For HIM, we give our all.

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1 David F. Wells, No Place for Truth or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), 101.

2 In Southern Baptist life the average length service for a pastor is now down to eighteen months.

3 David W. Brown, Grounded: Anchoring the Evangelical Sermon in Theological Doctrine, (Atlanta: JEM Publishing, 2014), 1-5.

4  David F. Wells, God in a Whirlwind: How the Holy-Love of God Reorients Our World (Wheaton: Crossway Publishing Company, 2014), 15-40.

5  Andy Stanley, Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 2012), Kindle 1216-1234.

 

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Living for the Applause: Becoming a Celebrity in a Redefined Faith

As a committed Christian pastor I am saddened by the state of Christianity today. Maybe it is the same feeling Paul struggled with when he wrote of his hardships and sacrifices that he had suffered and also of his deep concern for all the churches recorded in 2 Corinthians 11:24-29.  I watch our worldly society and Christians alike attempt to popularize the faith by redefining it as the faith with no commitment or sacrifice. Christianity has been made consumer driven so it must be pleasing & popular and to both the church and the world and about as contextually accurate as the reality show of the week. In short, we have placed the teachings of our Lord and Savior on a secular rating system based on popularity and ease among the masses. New Testament scholar Grant Osborne once wrote, “Christianity was never meant to be easy,”* and when we lower the bar we throw our pearls to the swine (Matt. 7:6).

The Gospel writer Matthew wrote of a narrow path that only a few will take (Matt. 7:13) and I am convinced this is true because of the difficulty the narrow path brings. As we travel this path we will meet a number of would-be believers who turn back claiming the path is too difficult, demands too much sacrifice and is far too great of a commitment. But it is also a path that leads to enormous happiness in a place Jesus called paradise and where no one will ever hurt or cry and the greatness this path leads to will never end.  The old path created by Adam and Eve will go away.

So what is commitment & sacrifice? How do we change?

One of the problems North American Christianity struggles with stems from the fact that we have made ourselves a celebrity of the Christian faith.  This is a result from a consumer driven society that has been absorbed into our churches. As retail consumers, we choose and usually get everything in an item we want; from size, shape & color. We also choose the cost and what we are willing to pay or sacrifice for that item. It becomes about us- our choice, our selection, our style. We become the celebrity of that retail transaction. We applaud ourselves on our wise selection and bask in our good stewardship or shrewd bargaining ability. Sadly, we have taken that consumer driven, center focus ideology and have blended it into our doctrine of faith.

Christianity was never meant to be about us alone and our personal salvation. Rather it is about God and His Kingdom.** More specifically, it is about the work that Jesus did on the cross.  We must put into practice of placing ourselves last behind our Lord and Savior and others around us. Jesus repeatedly modeled the behavior of commitment and sacrificial living.  Never more evident than in Gethsemane while praying, “not as I will, but as you will” (the Father’s will) and on the cross giving His life as atonement for our sins.  We often wrongly believe that Christianity is about us and our wants and preferences. We are not the celebrity of the Christian faith. Instead we should celebrate the Savior who gave His all for us!  In her book, Discerning the Voice of God: How to Recognize When God Speaks, author & speaker Priscilla Shirer wrote;

As I meditate upon a verse, I will often insert my name or a personal pronoun into it to make it more personal. If I’m reading and meditating on a Bible story, I will become the main character so that it’s not merely someone else’s experience with God, but my own. I often ask myself what God would have me do as a result of what I contemplated.***

I understand her intention, but this leans toward an ideology- actually a theology about making ourselves the center-point or the celebrity of the biblical passage. It is wrong to change scripture in this way. Context drives interpretation and if we become the central character of a passage, it changes the context. As believers, we must learn to understand and properly grasp the meaning of the passage in context so that we can apply the correct message into our lives as it directs us individually and in the faith as a whole.

God created human beings for the purpose of worshiping Him and to look after His creation as wise stewards.  As a result, our time on earth should not be spent focusing on ourselves and the work of this world, but instead on the sacrificial work on the cross by Jesus Christ. It is through Christ alone believers are saved and we should strive to stay on the narrow path designed by God that has no room for our celebrity status. In heaven, we will continue His original plan to worship Him alone and to look after His creation, the new heaven and the new earth, for all eternity. This is God’s purpose for our lives.

This level of unwavering sacrifice and commitment to our Lord and Savior will change every aspect of our lives for the better– our walk with God, family, work and even in our recreation. Living for Christ will make the narrow path the only way to go. As your pastor, I encourage all believers to endure the sacrifices and difficulties the narrow path brings….. because our reward will be great!
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*Grant Osborne, Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew ed. Clinton E. Arnold (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 2010), 269.

**N.T. Wright, Paul’s Use of Adam is More Interested in the Effect of Sin on Humanity and Has Nothing to Say About Human Origins in The Lost World of Adam and Eve by John Walton (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015), 180.

***Priscilla Shirer, Discerning the Voice of God: How to Recognize When God Speaks, (Chicago: Moody Publishers: 2012,), 39.

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Sacrificial Living & Committing to God: Putting Our Money Where Our Heart Is

As the summer months approach, as Christians we must guard ourselves against the historical trend of placing all-things-recreational before our obedience to God. Church attendance, outreach & tithing often take 2nd, 3rd & last place in the order of our summer plans. Vacations and seasonal outings take time and require extra money. Meanwhile, our obedience to sacrificial living such as God’s command to tithe takes a back seat to our personal priorities. Because of this trend, the leadership at Roseland Park, both staff and deacons have been emphasizing the need for our faith family to tithe to our church. This obedience provides financial support for the ministries of the church and teaches us to live sacrificially– to put our money where our heart is.

One of the major struggles the modern Christian faces today deals with our commitment to live sacrificially as Paul often exhorts believers to do. How is the average Christian supposed to live modestly or sacrificially in a world obsessed with luxurious living? In his book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, (Thomas Nelson, 2005), Ronald J. Sider claimed that much of this has come about from deceitful advertising models used in our society. He wrote, “One of the most astounding things about the affluent minority is that we honestly think we have barely enough to survive in modest comfort.

From a spiritual perspective, tithing plays an important role in our relationship with God, because it echoes our obedience to our Lord in observance to His command in Malachi 3:10 to “bring the whole tithe into the storehouse.” The verb bring is a Hebrew imperative that commands believers to bring a tenth (tithe means tenth) of our first fruits. Therefore tithing is not a suggestion or something we should do only if we feel led in this direction. Believers are commanded to tithe and the ministries of the church depend upon that obedience.

When I was in seminary years ago I visited a fellow student to pick up a book he was loaning me for class. I had stopped by his campus apartment that he shared with his wife and family and had interrupted their dinner meal. My heart sank as I noticed them eating a very meager, inadequate “meal” for dinner. In seminary, we were all on the same page- struggling to make ends meet and it taught us to be good stewards of what the Lord had provided for us. I told myself that day that if I were ever in a position to help students, I would do so. In my family, all that we have in life belongs to God and since graduation, we have kept our promise to put our money where our heart is. In addition to our tithe to our church (our first fruits), Melinda and I send a monthly donation to support the work at the Center for New Testament Textual Studies at NOBTS. The primary work in this research center is the study of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, but it also provides jobs (income) for students who are studying this in this field and who will also be our future pastors and professors.

So what’s the point? The Christian faith is based upon a resignation of ourselves. We are called to place ourselves last in the order of the world- to  live sacrificially. In the New Testament this is established by our Lord and Savior and His atoning death on the cross. He placed God’s will first and He is the model of sacrificial living. Let us be a people who model our Lord’s behavior by committing to obedience and to a life that honors that sacrifice.

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Making Disciples: Seeing God’s Work in Disciplined Lives

In January, I delivered a message to the church about a five-year plan for Roseland Park Baptist Church to enable growth both spiritually and numerically. The core of this plan included two major aspects: the first, Outreach and the second was Discipleship. The command to make disciples recorded in Matthew 28:19-20 and to do so as you go creates the framework behind this missional outreach lifestyle. In two short verses, Matthew records a high calling for believers to share the good news of Jesus Christ and to get plugged-in to God’s redemptive plan for the entirety of their lives.

As an outreach tool, we are using the model described in Scotty Sander’s text called, One Focus Living: Reaching the World by Reaching One (Brown Christian Press, 2011). This missional driven outreach is simply asking God to make us aware and to focus on one person who does not have a church home and who needs the Lord. This person can be a friend, an acquaintance or even a relative that we have contact with on a regular basis. Regardless of the new or existing relationship, we must build a stronger relationship with that person and also begin inviting them to our church services. This is an easy ice-breaker to open the door for God to accomplish His work.

So how do we start? It all begins with daily prayer. Ask God to provide an opportunity to meet, connect or speak with someone for the purpose of ultimately sharing the gospel either privately or in our church setting. Next, remember your story. What happened in your life to soften your heart and to recognize your need for a Savior? Last, share that experience to get the conversation started about the Christian faith. Let God work through you as His ambassador to the faith (2 Corinthians 5:20).

I have also moved our Wednesday services to PJ’s Coffee Shop on the last Wednesday of each month to make contact with people outside the church. This is great opportunity to find your One or invite your One to our church services. The Outreach Committee has also begun participating in local events in the city of Picayune for the same reason. Our next gathering is in June to connect with seniors and families in our community. This is all designed to reach people who need a church home and to build a relationship with our Lord.

The second aspect to our five year plan is Discipleship. Matthew 28:19-20 commands believers to make disciples and this requires an ongoing  work of commitment, self-discipline, training and obedience to God’s holy word. The relationships we forge during our One Focus Living will continue to grow over time and be a blessing in our lives. This blessing of discipleship can only take place with a steady diet of God’s Word. His word will be the fuel that energizes and sustains us to reach out to our lost and dying world.

The concepts of Outreach and Discipleship are pillars of church growth and are firmly grounded in the Scriptures. RPBC must guard itself from becoming apathetic to God’s will of making disciples. Spiritual growth cannot take place in a setting where people have become stoic to God’s will. Therefore, we must discipline our own lives with the same instruction that we advocate to new believers- attendance, participation, study & prayer.  The church, as we enter into the summer months must work hard to keep our focus upon God. Summer activities & sporting events can easily become the priority in life if we are not fully devoted to our Lord.

I want to encourage everyone at Roseland Park BC to commit themselves to becoming the disciples God calls us to be and to make our priority to grow in the knowledge and understanding of our Lord. In all that we do, let us be dedicated to our Lord in church attendance, participation, outreach, discipleship, tithing and personal quiet time. Allow God the opportunity to grow us spiritually in His wisdom so we can see the fruit of His work in our disciplined lives.

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