Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Pitfalls of Poor Leadership: 1 Samuel 13:15-23

It has been so long since we interrupted our studies on First Samuel that I contemplated abandoning it altogether. However, I like to finish what we start, so I want to return there tonight and press ahead beginning at Chapter 13, verse 15. But first, I think it is necessary to do a quick overview of where we’ve been up until now. Context is everything in the study of the Scriptures, so we need the momentum of the backstory to carry us into this portion of the narrative.

In Chapter One, we met Elkanah and his two wives, one of whom was Hannah. After being barren for some time, the Lord granted her a son, whom she named Samuel. She sent Samuel to learn under Eli the priest, and there he met the Lord and committed himself to the Lord’s service. Because of the sin of Eli’s sons, God raised up Samuel as the prophet and priest of Israel. When Israel went out to battle the Philistines in Chapter 4, they were defeated. So they went back out for a grudge match, and this time they took the Ark of the Covenant with them as if it were a good luck charm, and they were defeated again. Eli’s sons were killed in battle, and the Ark was captured by the Philistines. When Eli heard this, he died. Chapter 5 tells of how the Philistines placed the Ark in the temple of Dagon adjacent to their chief idol. But the glory of God destroyed the idol and brought calamity on the Philistines, so they sent it back to Israel. In the wake of this, the Israelites defeated the Philistines in battle, but it was not a permanent victory.

In Chapter 8, Israel demanded that Samuel anoint a king over them as all the other nations had. Samuel warned them that they did not know what they asked, but God encouraged to Samuel to grant them their request. It was really the leadership of God they were rejecting, not Samuel. So, God led Samuel to Saul, who is described as a tall and handsome man. He was anointed as king and affirmed by the people, and soon thereafter led the Israelites to victory over the Ammonites. After this, Samuel gave a farewell speech to Israel, and they confirmed their allegiance to their king. After some time, Saul assembled a fighting force to defeat the Philistines once again. However, this time, the Philistines rallied quickly and assembled their largest recorded militia to come back against Israel.

With the people trembling in fear, they sought to make a sacrifice to the Lord to seek His aid. But when Samuel did not come on the appointed day to make the sacrifice, and with the troops beginning to scatter, Saul took it upon himself to offer the sacrifice. As soon as the offering was burned, Samuel arrived and rebuked Saul for his failure to obey and announced to him that his kingdom would not endure, for the Lord had sought out for Himself a man after His own heart. We have not even met David yet in the narrative, but we know that this is who God has raised up as the new king.

So, here we find Saul in a miserable state. And it is here that we will pick up the narrative beginning in Chapter 13, Verse 15, and discuss the Pitfalls of Poor Leadership.

& 1 Samuel 13:15-23

God had raised Saul up to a position of unparalleled prominence. He set before him tremendous opportunities to prove himself. On the battlefield, he demonstrated success, but in the matter of personal obedience to God, Saul proved to be a failure. He owed his entire rise to power to God, yet he failed to obey God by recognizing the limitations of his office, yielding to spiritual authority, and approaching God in a proper way. This debacle revealed the private man inside the public image. It really doesn’t matter how well we perform on the battlefield if we fail at the altar. It has been said the good leaders lead from their knees. This Saul did not do. And therefore he failed as a leader. The impact of his failure is seen in three ways in this short passage. I have called them the pitfalls of poor leadership.

I. A Diminished Following (v15)

A leader with no followers is merely a man taking a walk. And though Saul had amassed a sizeable army of 330,000 at the battle against the Ammonites in 11:8, and had sent away all but 3,000 of the most choice soldiers, his ranks had now dwindled down to 600. It is of interest that even as a fugitive whose life was constantly in danger, David was able to amass a group that size (23:13). When the can’t even rally a group larger than a fugitive, it is a sign that he has failed as a leader.

People who are confident in their leader will follow them into the very face of death knowing that their leader has a viable plan for victory. People who lack confidence in their leader would not follow him across the street, unless out of morbid curiousity to see how he might fail once he got there. Saul’s men had no confidence in him. They had lost confidence in their leader’s ability to bring about victory because they knew that God’s hand was not on Saul. In spite of his past success, they realized that a new day had dawned in which he could not repeat victory. Saul’s men had splintered and scattered as they trembled in advance of the impending Philistine attacks. Their fear of the enemy eclipsed their confidence in their king, and anytime that happens, it is a sad day for a nation.

Today, leadership is a popular subject. I get mail every day inviting me to various leadership conferences. The bookstores have entire sections devoted to the subject. Christian bookstores are no exception. However, a disturbing trend that I see in the field of Christian leadership is that secular principles are indiscriminately applied, sometimes with a veneer of pseudo-religious vocabulary (and woefully, sometimes not even that). Yet, none of those principles or patterns will amount to anything without the blessing of God on the leader’s life. So, those of us who find ourselves in positions of leadership must, first and foremost devote ourselves to live lives of personal obedience prior to public performance in order to know that we are walking under the hand of God. We must remember that leaders do not monopolize the Spirit of God, and when the followers who are spiritually discerning detect that God’s blessing has departed, they will no longer follow. So, followers must expect and demand this of their leaders, and hold them justly accountable for it, lest they ultimately fail as leaders.

Failed leaders not only face the pitfall of a diminished following, but perhaps more importantly there is the second pitfall:

II. An Endangered Following (vv16-18, 23)

The cities of Geba and Michmash stood on opposite sides of a valley, separated only by a couple of miles at the most. The 600 men with Saul at Geba knew full well that across that valley the Philistines had assembled for battle. Verses 5 and 6 tell us that they saw themselves in a strait (for the people were hard pressed). They saw 30,000 Philistine chariots, 6,000 horsemen, and people like the sand which is on the seashore in abundance. This is the largest recorded fighting force the Philistines ever mustered. The awareness of this caused the Israelites to hide in caves, thickets, cliffs, cellars, and pits (v6). Some of them fled in fear, scattering from Saul (v8).

And the Philistine raiders began their maneuvers. Raiders is sort of a sanitized term for them. Literally, they were destroyers, and they went out in four detachments. One went north toward Ophrah. One went west toward Beth-horon, and the third went east toward Zeboim. In verse 23, we learn that a fourth garrison went south to the pass of Michmash. The meager camp of Israelites were surrounded with no where to go. One Hebrew scholar suggests that the Hebrew verb rendered turned in the NASB implies repeated action, indicating that they repeatedly ravaged the regions to which they were deployed in order to whip the Israelites into submission or else to force an engagement on the battlefield.

So, not only were the 600 fighting men with Saul in danger, as fighting men always are, and moreover those who are so grotesquely outnumbered. Innocent people were suffering as well. The residents of these regions were being decimated by the destroyers. Saul’s failure as a leader bore consequences that trickled down to the men, women, and children who were going about their daily lives in the surrounding areas.

Leaders must always remember that no one sins unto himself alone. There are always ripples of impact that proceed from the epicenter of the individual’s moral lapse. And many times, those affected are innocent parties. The influence of leadership is a gift from God. Romans 13:1 says there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore leadership is a stewardship in which lives of individuals, organizations, societies and nations are placed in the hands of the leader. Certainly, Saul did not intend to endanger his people when he failed to obey the Lord. If we can trust his own testimony, he said that he was asking for God’s favor (v12). But God’s favor cannot be obtained by ungodly means. Any attempt to do so is poor stewardship of the influence God has given to the leader. And when leaders fail in this regard, it endangers their followers.

This is but one more of the pitfalls of poor leadership. But there is a third pitfall as well:

III. An Ill-Equipped Following (vv19-22)

When the Philistines dominated the territory, they put an end to whatever metal-working industry Israel had to that point (v19). This way, they squashed any attempts to manufacture weapons on the part of the Israelites. Of course, a parallel effect of this was that the Israelites could not even service their own farm equipment. They had to pay two-thirds of a shekel to the Philistines to fix their farming implements.

The Hebrew text literally reads that the charge was a pim. This used to present a conundrum, because this is a hapax-legomena. That means that this is the only time in the Bible that this word is used. When that is the case, it makes translation very difficult because we have no other reference to determine precise meaning. However, archaeology has unearthed sets of Hebrew weights, some of which are marked with this word. From that, we can determine that the pim was equivalent to approximately two-thirds of a shekel, and we know that this was an exorbitant price for the Israelites to pay.

So, the Philistines strategy was successful in keeping state-of-the-art military technology out of the hands of their enemies, while economically oppressing them as well. The Philistines, on the other hand, benefited from iron weaponry. They controlled the seaports, and had access to the materials and a monopoly on the industry, so they made for themselves an unmatched arsenal of cutting-edge (no pun intended) armament. The Israelites were limited to whatever weapons did not require a blacksmith. They had slings, bows, arrows, javelins, clubs, crude stone knives, and the like. Perhaps they would even carry their farming tools into battle. These were deadly enough, but no match for the superior bronze and iron weapons of the Philistines. One old commentator said that the Philistines probably regarded Israel as an “unarmed mob of rustics.”[1] And so, on the day of battle, neither sword nor spear was found in the hands of any of the people who were with Saul and Jonathan (v22).

Somehow, however, Saul and Jonathan, his son, did have swords and spears. A poor leader always takes better care of himself than his people. While he had the tools he needed for battle, the people did not. They did not have access to them, and could probably not afford them if they did, because they were financially strapped because of the Philistine strangle-hold on them. As a leader, Saul had an obligation to equip his people with the tools they needed to stand a fighting chance against the enemy.

Leaders must be people-builders, not empire builders. I am reminded of Ephesians 4 here which states that the leaders of God’s church are to “equip the saints for the work of service,” with the result that God’s people are built up, unified, mature, no longer tossed about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming. When leaders fail to build the people under the influence, their people are ill-prepared for the challenges they face on the battlefield we enter daily called life. So, we must ask ourselves as leaders, in the day of battle, will the people under my watchcare be found with their armor on?

Ephesians 6 tells us that the armor of God which we must wear consists of the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of the gospel, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. It will matter very little in your day of battle if your pastor, or your deacon, or your Sunday School teacher, have that armor and have that sword in their hands. If we have led well, then our people will have the armor and the sword as well. It is a poor testimony of a leader if they do not. It will not matter how much I know, how quick I am with a verse, or how strong I can stand, if you cannot stand up in your battle because I have failed to equip you. So, those of us who are leaders must use our influence to build people up and equip them toward maturity in the faith, lest we face this pitfall of an ill-equipped following as well.

Warren Wiersbe concludes his treatment of this passage in this way: In the way it functions or doesn’t function, the church of Jesus Christ today may sometimes resemble Saul’s army, but if we do, it’s our own fault. Through His great work on the cross, our Lord has defeated every enemy, and His power is available to his people. We have the armor and the weapons we need and His Word tells us all we need to know about the strategy of the enemy and the resources we have in Christ. All He asks is that we trust Him and obey His orders, and He will help us win the battle.[2]

So, may we be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might, and may God grant His church leaders who avoid these pitfalls by walking in personal obedience and godliness, and equipping God’s people for the battles we face.

[1] Pulpit Commentary, 229.

[2] Wiersbe, Be Successful, 69.

The Giving Christian: Philippians 4:10-19

The Giving Christian

Philippians 4:10, 14-19

When it comes to preaching about stewardship, there are a number of errors that can be made on the part of the preacher. The first is to not define the term. Many people hear the word stewardship, and instantly think that money is the subject. Stewardship, however, refers to all of life. It is the recognition that everything that is within our grasp ultimately belongs to God. He has allowed us to be managers, or stewards, over these things as we live for Him and serve Him. So, stewardship applies to our finances and material possessions, but also to our time, our talents and abilities, our relationships, and everything else that is in our hands. So, when we don’t define the term, we run the risk of being misunderstood by those who are completely unfamiliar with the concept of stewardship and by those who understand it only applying to money.

The second error is to preach too often on the subject. It is no secret that many people have a preconceived notion that if they come to church, they are going to hear the preacher beg for money. This is because many preachers do this on a frequent basis. Perhaps this is your first Sunday here, or one of a very few you have spent with us. I assure you that in ten months as pastor of Immanuel, this is the first time I have ever preached a message on financial giving, though I unashamedly stress stewardship of one’s total life nearly every Sunday. This is because I have learned from experience that giving is something that has to be caught rather than taught. I know very few people who have decided to be generous givers because of a sermon they heard on the subject. However, sometimes a sermon meets a person right where they are, and God has been dealing with their hearts already about their total life stewardship, and a commitment is made as a result. But rest assured that if you are visiting with us today, your presence and attentiveness are the most precious gifts you can give, and we are grateful for both.

The third error is to preach on giving as if God needed our money. If we correctly understand stewardship, we understand that He doesn’t need anything, because it is all His anyway. And though you may not be a generous giver to God’s kingdom causes, you are not depriving God of anything. The Bible says that God owns the cattle on a thousand hills. The Bible says the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. The Lord says through the prophet Haggai, “The silver is mine and the gold is mine.” God is not in danger of filing for bankruptcy because you withhold your tithe.

A fourth error is to be so hyper-sensitive to the perception of outsiders that the subject of financial giving is avoided altogether. We don’t want to turn anybody off who may be seeking spiritual direction. However, we cannot claim to preach the whole counsel of God and avoid the subject of giving, because the Bible has much to say about our finances and possessions. And, we do not want to minimize the scriptural responsibility of Christians to support the work of the Lord through giving. If we never teach on the subject, and that seeker decides to follow Christ, what will he or she think when suddenly they begin to hear that the church expects its members to be generous givers?

I could go on indefinitely, but I want to specify one more error. There is the error of preaching on giving in such a way that non-Christian people feel that a financial gift in the offering plate makes them right with God. If you have come here believing that God will accept you because you have made generous gifts to religious causes in the past, let me have the unfortunate privilege of disappointing you. If you have never given your life to Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, then your gifts are unacceptable before the Lord because you are separated from Him because of your sins. The only remedy for that dilemma is Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross whereby He took your sins’ penalty and makes forgiveness available to you. And as our resurrected High Priest, He presents the offerings of His followers to the Father as a fragrant aroma which are pleasing and acceptable to Him. So, the first and most important gift that God desires to receive from each one of us is our hearts and lives as we surrender ourselves to Him.

Now, in the passage before us today, Paul has much to say to the Philippian Christians who have given him a generous financial gift to assist him in his work of spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ across the world. As he discusses this gift, we learn much concerning the characteristics of the giving Christian.

I. The Giving Christian Shows Concern for the Work of the Lord (10, 14)

The giving Christian recognizes that God’s Kingdom work is bigger than one individual. Each of us is part of an interconnected web of giving, receiving, praying, and serving. Paul traveled the then-known-world preaching the gospel and planting churches. Not everyone has that kind of ministry. Most of us are busy working to make ends meet and put food on the table. So, if it weren’t for those who are willing and able to go to the ends of the earth, the Great Commission to reach all nations with the gospel would never be fulfilled. However, if they are venturing forth for the gospel, how shall their needs be met? Food still costs money, and it is still a requirement to live. Beyond just the basic living expenses, ministry costs money. I told Stephen Chang last week when we were talking about the costs of seminary education, “The Gospel is free, but the ministry isn’t.” There are costs relating to conducting ministry, and the need to help those in need who are encountered along the way.

So Paul is out doing the ministry of global evangelization, and how is he going to meet the expenses that he encounters in so doing? He doesn’t want to be a financial burden on new Christians and he doesn’t want to depend on non-Christians for support. So, we know from Scripture that on several occasions, he made tents to provide an income for himself. However, more time spent making tents means less time sharing the gospel. So, Paul was glad to receive the offerings of God’s people in churches like the one at Philippi. He says that their gifts are an expression of “concern”, and that they have done well to give.

Perhaps it is unfair to say that the giving Christian is concerned about the work of the Lord, as if to imply that those who do not give are unconcerned. Certainly giving is not the only outlet of concern. However, in the first chapter of Philippians Paul referred to this church as being his partner in the gospel, and we learn here that this partnership is based heavily on their giving. The giving Christian understands that, though he or she may be unable to go and do all that some others are doing in the kingdom, through giving, they become just as much a part of what is being done as the one on the front lines. We think of Billy Graham as being probably the most influential Christian in modern times, but Billy Graham could not have accomplished half of what he has without the financial gifts of those who have supported his ministry through the years. The same is true of a local church. There is much we can do to impact the community and the world. However, in order to do it, we need every member to realize that their giving enables them to be a partner in all God accomplishes through us.

Now, notice in verses 15 and 16 that also…

II. The Giving Christian is Committed to Faithfulness (15-16)

The Philippian church was faithful in their participation. They were not content to say, “Some other church will come through for Paul.” Nor were they willing to say, “We will give if others give, but if no one else is giving then we won’t either.” Paul said, “No church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving but you alone.” They were the only ones! In 2 Corinthians 11:8-9 &, Paul said to the Corinthians, “I robbed other churches by taking wages from them to serve you; and when I was present with you and was in need, I was not a burden to anyone; for when the brethren came from Macedonia, they fully supplied my need.” Probably this is a reference to Acts 18:5, which tells us that when Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul was able to abandon making tents in order to devote himself completely to the ministry of the word. And the reference to Macedonia is primarily a reference to Philippi.

There is an old adage that says that in churches, 20% of the people give 80% of the money and do 80% of the work. That may be true, but it is probably more likely that 10% are giving and doing 90% of what gets done in most churches. Often times, unfortunately, all that is heard is the complaining that others are not doing more. We need to just go on record today and say, “Praise God for the 10% or 20% who have been faithful when others have not!” Praise God for the ones who were not content to say, “Someone else can give to Lottie Moon or Annie Armstrong. Someone else can tithe. It’s not for me to do.” Praise God for those who were willing to say, “If no one else will give, I will give!” And while certainly we pray that their tribe might increase, we should never fail to commend the faithful participation of so many in the work of the Kingdom through giving.

Notice also that they were faithful in their continuation. He says it was after I left Macedonia …Even in Thessalonica, that they gave. Many people might give as long as they know they are going to receive something tangible in return. Not the Philippians. They gave, even when Paul was ministering in some other region, and they would see no direct impact of his work. They shared with him in the matter of giving and receiving, knowing that some other church or some other individuals had given to him so that he could come and preach to them. They received the gospel of Jesus Christ from him, and they gave, so others could receive Christ as well. Paul implies that many receive, but do not give. The Philippians did both. As individuals and as a church, we must be committed to giving beyond what impacts ourselves. You and I may never need the help of Urban Ministry, but those who do need that help could not receive it if people like us didn’t give to them. We have to get our eyes off of ourselves and realize that the Kingdom is bigger than you and me, and it is bigger than Immanuel Church, and give accordingly. I lament the fact that 80% or more of our church budget funds only what takes place under our own roof. I long for the day when we give away more money in ministry and missions than we keep for ourselves, but that cannot happen until all God’s people are faithful in continuing to give beyond what impacts themselves directly.

And notice also that this cannot be one-time giving. Paul says that the Philippians gave more than once. Some Christians believe that one-time designated gifts are the best way to give. However, the needs of missions and ministry are year-round. In many churches, the power bill and the Sunday School literature and the staff salaries are being paid primarily by widows and single-parent families who are barely making ends meet, but who are committed to tithing. And meanwhile some Christians, often wealthy Christians, only give sporadically and to their favorite projects. One-time gifts cannot keep the church advancing. We must be faithful in our participation and continuation as a giving Christian.

Now thirdly, notice…

III. The Giving Christian Understands the True Value of the Gift (v17-18)

The real value of giving is not the financial transaction that takes place when the check is cashed and the funds transfer from one account to the other. There is a greater value because Christian giving is both a spiritual investment and a pleasing sacrifice to God.

Paul says that his primary concern is not the gift in itself. He is grateful for the gift, but you recall from verses 11-13 that he has said that he has learned to be content in famine or feast. He says that his greater concern is the profit which increases to your account. He uses the terms of financial banking to describe the reality of spiritual investments. There was a transaction taking place that was of eternal value. The word he uses for profit is the word karpos which means literally fruit. Here Paul has in mind the idea of interest which is increasing in their spiritual account. This interest is being compounded and is accumulating all the time until the last day. I like the way F. F. Bruce describes this – Their gift “is a token of heavenly grace in their lives and, so to speak, a deposit in the bank of heaven that will multiply and compound interest to their advantage. They meant Paul to be the gainer from their generosity, and so indeed he is; but on the spiritual plane the permanent gain will be theirs.”[1] I do not know how you will collect, but I know that God is faithful and He will not forget your faithfulness in giving. And maybe, just maybe, when we stand before Him in heaven, He will show us all that took place in His kingdom because of our giving – souls saved, lives changed, societies transformed. That my friends will be an awesome return on the investment of our tithes and offerings we gave throughout our lives.

But also, the true value of giving is not only the spiritual investment, but also the pleasing sacrifice that it is to God. Paul says that their offering is a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God. Under the Old Testament Law, a person would approach God with a burnt-offering which was said to be a fragrant aroma to God. That sacrificial system was superseded by the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ as the final payment for sin. In Ephesians 5:2, Paul said that Christ gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma. Here, our giving is said to also be a fragrant aroma to God.

Our gifts are an acceptable sacrifice. The word sacrifice implies giving something up. Much of our giving today is not sacrificial. We give out of abundance in many cases. But some have committed to giving sacrificially. The widow’s mite was commended by Jesus in Mark 12 because, although many others gave large sums, Jesus said, she gave more than all of them. “They all put in out of their surplus, but she, out of her poverty, put in all she owned, all she had to live on.” The Philippians gave in this sacrificial way. In 2 Corinthians 8:2, Paul spoke of the Philippians’ gifts, saying, “in a great ordeal of affliction their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality or generosity.” Some have rendered deep poverty as rock-bottom poverty. This was not a wealthy church, but they gave abundantly. Some might chastise Paul for accepting gifts from such impoverished people, but Paul said in 2 Corinthians 8:4, that they begged with much urging for the favor of participation in the support of the saints. They were going to give whether Paul wanted it or not. They viewed it as a privilege, and they begged for the opportunity. Why the enthusiasm? Because they recognized that their gifts were an acceptable sacrifice. They weren’t giving to Paul or to some ministry program. They were giving to God, and entrusting His servant Paul to administer that gift properly. And viewed this way, their gifts were well-pleasing to God.

Do you view giving as just going to the church? Just the preacher? Just paying the power bill for the sanctuary? No, when you give, you give to God. Hopefully, you trust your church to administer that gift (if not, then I wonder why you haven’t found another church). And though your check may be made out to Immanuel Baptist Church, know that God is using that money to accomplish His purposes all over the world as we fund the work of ministry and missions starting in our own community and extending to the ends of the earth.

The true value of giving is the spiritual investment we are making and the pleasing sacrifice that our giving is to God. Now finally …

IV. The Giving Christian Will Never Be in Need (v19)

This is another one of those promises that all too often is divorced from its context and applied universally to all people in all circumstances. However, this promise takes on a specific nuance when we keep it rooted in its context. The promise is that God will faithfully provide for the needs of those who are faithful stewards of what He has given them. The Philippians could rest in the comfort of this promise because they had been faithful to invest sacrificially in God’s kingdom work, even from the depths of their poverty, because they knew it was all God’s anyway. God would never forget their stewardship. Hebrews 6:10 says, “God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name in having ministered, and in still ministering to the saints.” Because they were faithful with the meager resources they had, God would see to it that they never lacked anything they needed. Now this is not a promise of prosperity, it is a promise of survival. We don’t need most of what we think we need. But, all that we have was given to us by God, and if we use it for His glory, He will continue to faithfully provide for our needs.

I began today by speaking of some errors that preachers and churches often commit when it comes to discussing finances. I hope I have avoided them today, and simply unpacked what the Scriptures teach in this passage about this subject. But I want to be very clear in closing about a couple of things. If you do not know the Lord Jesus Christ in a personal way, or if you are not sure, then we want you to give God a gift that money cannot buy – your very life. Your life is valuable to God. So valuable, He gave something very costly for you. The Bible says that you have not been redeemed by perishable things like silver and gold, but with the blood of a lamb without spot or blemish – the lamb of God, Jesus Christ, who was slain on Calvary’s Cross for your sins and mine, so that you could be forgiven and know God and live for Him in the way He intended for you from the day He made you. He presents this infinite and eternal offer to you as a free gift. You cannot buy it with money. You receive it by giving your life to God through Jesus Christ as you turn from sin and receive Him as your Savior and Lord. That is the most important gift you can ever give God, and until you do, He is not interested in any other gift you may desire to give. So I invite you today to receive Him, and to give yourself to Him.

And then I want to be very clear about another thing – God is a giver. God so loved the world He gave. And God loves a cheerful giver, the Bible says. If you are a Christian, and a member of this church, I am not ashamed or afraid to say that you have a responsibility. You receive ministry from this church, and you have a responsibility to give to see to it that the ministry continues. And your gifts should be to God, offered to Him as a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice which is pleasing to Him. It is a spiritual investment on your part. You might say, “I don’t have much.” It doesn’t take much. Just say to God, “I trust you enough to provide for me to return to you this small portion of what you have given me.” Some of you tithe faithfully – giving God 10% of your income. God bless you. But for some of you, God may lead you to go above and beyond that. There is no biblical Law saying to only give 10%. God may lead someone to give abundantly more than that, and to refuse to do it in the name of the tithe is sin. Others may give sporadically, irregularly, inconsistently. I want you to know every bit of it is appreciated and we hope that we will administer those gifts faithfully. But I want to challenge you to give consistently, systematically, and sacrificially. Make a plan today to say, “Lord, it is my desire and my goal to give this amount, or this percentage, on a weekly or monthly basis to you through this church, so that your word will go forth from here and change lives in our community and around the world.”

I hope you know, we aren’t begging for your money. God is faithful beyond what we give or don’t give. But we desire for all God’s people to be obedient and faithful and mature. And we do this by growing in the stewardship of our whole lives. Our money is just one part of our lives. So today God may challenge you about your stewardship in some other area of life. So however he is leading you in regard to this matter, I pray your response and mine will be one of faith and obedience.

[1] F. F. Bruce, NIBC, 154

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Is God a Racist?

In order to understand the Scriptures, it is absolutely essential that we understand God’s dealings with the Jews, and their perception of the security they have in Jehovah, and their perception of Gentiles. We also need to understand God’s heart toward the Gentiles. So, let’s have a pop-quiz:

Who are God’s chosen people?

Where is the Promised Land?

Whose side is God on in Middle Eastern struggles?

When did God decide to let Gentiles in on His blessings? Hmm, the New Testament maybe, how about Acts 13:45-46. Sounds good. Right. We’ll see.

Now, you might wonder why I ask those questions. You might think that I am surely an imbecile if I don’t know the answers to those questions. But I am going to suggest to you that we have formed our understanding of God’s relationship to Israel on the teachings and traditions of man and not on the revelation of the Bible.

In Genesis 1-9, we do not find any variation among the people of the earth. When Chapter 9 comes to an end, we have Noah, Mrs. Noah, Ham, Shem, and Japheth, and their wives. Chapter 10 begins by listing the descendants of Ham, Shem and Japheth. We refer to this chapter as the table of nations because of v32. When the Bible speaks of nations, rarely, if ever does it mean a geopolitical entity like we think of when we use the word nation. Usually if not always, what is meant is a group of people linked together culturally by ethnic, linguistic, and societal similarities. The Greek word in the New Testmant for nations is the word ethne, from which we get the word ethnic. So, when we refer to nations, we are speaking of people groups, not geopolitical states.

We know that the descendants of Ham migrated generally speaking into Africa, and the descendants of Shem occupied, generally speaking, the Asian regions, and the desendants of Japheth occupied primarily the European regions. This dispersion of people took place at the tower of Babel, which is spoken of in Genesis 11 (11:8-9). Up until this time, there is no mention of Jews or Gentiles. There is one family of people on earth, who are divided into nations (that is, ethnolinguistic people groups), and scattered over the whole earth.

Bible scholars agree that there are 70 distinct people groups mentioned in Chapter 11. Now, at this point, do we have any reason to believe that God loves any one of them more than the others? No. We should therefore assume that God desired to reach out and redeem them all. And we believe that God is big enough to speak to them all at one moment with the announcement of the gospel message. But He didn’t. Why not?

When God doesn’t do what we think He should, it means that He knows something we don’t, and His ways and thoughts are much higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8-9). God prefers, it would seem, to make His glory show through human instruments, and to use people to draw one another to Him. So, in order to reach all nations, God chose one group of people to show Himself to through special revelation, in order to use them. So who do you think He chose?

He chose a man named Abram, who we come to know as Abraham. At Chapter 11, verse 10, we begin to pick up a further development of the descendants of Shem. And we trace that family line to Abram. He is a descendant of Shem (hence the word Semite), and a descendant of Eber (hence the word Hebrew, first used in Genesis 14:13).

We learn a little about his background in Chapter 11, but in Chapter 12, God calls Abram to be His own. Read Genesis 12:1-3.

Now so often, we want to understand only half of this promise. It is more than just a promise to bless Abraham and his descendants. God also promises to make him a blessing. He promises him preservation, and finally that in you all the families of the earth will be blessed. This is in fact, the Great Commission. It is equivalent to God telling Him, “Go ye therefore and make disciples of all nations.”

Now, God directed Abraham to a region. It goes by different names. The Arabs call it Palestine, its original name was Canaan, today we call it Israel, but in order to not confuse it, let’s just refer to it as “The Promised Land.” Now, why did God give it to Abraham and his descendants? Now, if you want God to be a racist, you will say, “Because it was a land flowing with milk and honey, and God loved them so much he wanted them to have the very best.” But you’d be wrong. God tells them why He gave them that place: Ezekiel 5:5. Every major trade route passed right through it. If God was going to use one people in one geographic location to reach the world for Himself, the Promised Land was a strategic location for them. All these merchants and travelers would pass through and hear of this God, different from their gods, a God without a statue or an image, who had done these remarkable things for this little group of people. And as they traveled they would tell others, and they would tell others, etc.

So Abraham had two sons, Ishmael (who was illegitimate), and Isaac (the one to further the promise). Isaac had two sons, Esau (who got suckered out of his birthright), and Jacob (the unlikely candidate to continue the promise of God). Jacob had his name changed—to what? ISRAEL! And he had 12 sons. So there are twelve tribes of Israel, who have inherited the Great Commission to be God’s missionary agents to reach the 70 scattered people groups in the world. By the way, the reason we refer to the “children of Israel” is not because they were children, but because they were all descendants of Jacob, or Israel.

Now as you are aware probably, Israel (the nation), did not stay in the promised land. They spent a little time in Egypt. This was no accident, and it did not take God by surprise. See, if God is a racist, then we say, “He took them to the promised land, and because He liked them more than everybody else, He told them to kill everybody and steal their land, because they didn’t matter to God anyway.” But, if we’d say that, we’d be wrong. Turn to Genesis 15, and let’s read the whole chapter, remembering that this event occurred several hundred years prior to Israel’s journey to Egypt.

Several hundred years before it happened, God said that they would go to Egypt, and that it was necessary because the present occupants of Canaan were going to continue in sin, and when God’s patience was exhausted with them, he would bring Israel out of Egypt and use them to enact His judgment on them. This is why Israel was commissioned to purge them from the land. It was the fulfillment of God’s judgment on them for their sins, and the fulfillment of the curse on Canaan, grandson of Noah. (Genesis 9:22-27). Some people have used this to justify the mistreatment of people of African descent, because they say God put a curse on Ham, but the curse, as you can easily see, was on Canaan, his son, and that curse was carried out completely when Israel took possession of the land after the return from Egypt.

Now, keep in mind, these twelve tribes are to be God’s missionary representatives to the 70 people groups scattered throughout the world at that time. So God is bringing them back to the land, and He leads them to a place where they can stop and rest on the journey, and where He can remind them of His purpose. Exodus 15:23-27.

But, by and large, Israel did not get it. They continually prided themselves on the false notion that God was a racist. They thought that they were so special and that God did all this great stuff for them because they were better than everybody else. But, go back to the Old Testament and look at the great miracles God did, and ask, “Why did God do this?” Did He do it because He was a racist, or for a different reason?

Daniel and the den of lions: Daniel 6:25-26

David and Goliath: 1 Sam 17:45-46

The plagues on Egypt: Exodus 12:38

Parting the Red Sea: Joshua 2:8-11

The Ten Commandments: Deuteronomy 4:6

Solomon’s wisdom: 2 Chronicles 9:22-23

Solomon’s temple: 1 Kings 8:41-43

Jonah and the great fish: Jonah 2:10-3:2

I could go on and on, but I think you get the point now.

So, why then, did Paul speak of Gentile inclusion in the plans of God as a mystery? What do I mean? Ephesians 3:2-6. Romans 16:25-26. Colossians 1:25-26. The mystery, he says, is twofold: 1) Gentiles can be saved; 2) Gentiles can know the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. But how can that be a mystery, when we have just seen it over and over again in the OT?

It has to do with the fact that the Jews themselves understood God to be a racist. See how Paul said in Colossians 1:25 “the word of God in its fullness.” That implies that previously, it was not known in its fullness. Indeed it wasn’t. The rabbis taught what they wanted the people to know, and rabbinic tradition became as reliable as the Old Testament to the Jews. That is why when Jesus was giving the Sermon on the Mount, He kept saying, “You have heard that it was said ….” This occurs 5 times in Matthew 5. And each time, He concludes by saying, “But I tell you ….” What is He doing? He is saying, “You have not been told the word of God in its fullness.” So, before recommissioning the disciples with the Great Commission, we read, Luke 24:44-47.

The Israelites so misunderstood God’s purposes for them, that in order to keep from bringing destruction upon them, in order to preserve them as the line from which Messiah would come, God locked them in a prison of blindness to His spiritual truth. See 2 Corinthians 3:14-15; Romans 11:25-36.

Now, as we understand this then, we need to realize, God has not ever promised eternal security to every person born to the line of Abraham. John the Baptist told them plainly that this was not the case, Matthew 3:7-10. Jesus also: John 8:31-44. There is now, and always has been only one people of God: those Jews and Gentiles who come to Him by repentance of their sins and faith in the promise of His salvation. See what Paul says in Romans 2:28-29.

Yes, God chose a people for Himself: Israel. But in choosing them, He was choosing them to be His missionary people. His choosing of them in no way supplied them with special access to salvation that was not also intended to be extended to others as well. Jews were still obligated to enter a relationship with Him through repentance and faith in order to be “saved.” Of course we realize that those in the Old Testament were saved by looking ahead to the promise of Messiah, while we are saved looking back on Him. But, nonetheless, no one was ever saved by keeping the Law or by being a Jew. In fact, the Law itself contains provisions for repentance and forgiveness.

Now, its important for us to learn this lesson because much in the Bible depends on it, but that’s not the only reason. We also need to learn this lesson because we are in danger of falling into the same trap as Israel. I have found American Christians to be extremely arrogant when it comes to the way God has blessed us. Beloved if God has blessed us in extraordinary ways, we must realize it is so that we will allow Him to use us as a blessing to the rest of the world. No one is going to heaven because they are American. God is not the God of Reagan, Bush, and Bush. He doesn’t love America more than the rest of the world. He has extended much grace and mercy on America, and has blessed us extraordinarily so that American Christians will be a mighty missionary Army for Him in the world.

And friends it is true individually as well. God has not blessed you so that you could just feel what it is like to be blessed. He blessed you to bless others. He works in your life so you will work in others. And your mission field is the globe. Across the street, across an ocean, across a living room, are you allowing God to have His way with your life, and make your existence count for Him?

Have you been guilty of seeing God as a racist? Can you see how Israel made the same mistake? Rather than seeing God as a racist, let’s understand Him as a compassionate Savior. He chose a group of people to be His missionaries to the rest of the world. But, let’s be sure that we realize, now, then, and forever, there is only one people of God. The people of God are those who unite themselves to Him through repentance and faith in His promised Messiah. That will help us understand the Bible and our lives as well.

Philippians 4:10-13 -- Contentment in the Christian Life

This is the message from Sunday Morning, July 16, 2006. Due to a file corruption, the text of my message from Sunday, July 9 is irretrievable. If I am able to retrieve it later, I will post it with a prefatory note. Thank you all for your prayers. I have felt well for 48 hours -- the first consecutive 48 hours in a month that I have felt well. Donia and Salem still have lingering effects of sickness, but they are improving.

Once there was a king who was suffering from a serious illness. Concerned about how he might be made well, he called together his counselors and wise men, seeking their advice. His most trusted advisor told him that the only cure for him was to find a contented man, get his shirt, and wear it night and day. So the king sent his servants out in search of a contented man, with orders to bring back his shirt. Months passed before one day the servants returned empty-handed. The king was perplexed and said, “Could you not find one contented man in all my kingdom?” The servants replied, “Yes, O king, we found one, but just one in all thy realm.” The king looked upon them with anger and demanded, “Then why did you not bring back his shirt?” They answered the king, “Master, the man had no shirt.”[1]

Indeed, the shirt of a contented man is hard to find. Contentment is a seldom-found virtue in our day and time. In fact, history hasn’t known very many contented men and women. But there has been at least this one – the Apostle Paul. Contentment is not a uniquely Christian virtue. When Socrates was asked who the wealthiest person in the world was, he replied, “The one who is content with least, for contentment is nature’s wealth.”[2] The whole world would recognize the value of contentment, but the whole world has been unable to produce many who could attain it. Yet, the Apostle Paul claims to have become content, and in that claim, he testifies boldly to his confidence in Christ.

Contentment in the life of a Christian is a great testimony, for it says that we are confident in God’s sovereignty and providence. It says that we are never out of His Fatherly care for us, and that He will never leave us nor forsake us. When the world hears us talk about God’s love and care, but they do not see contentment in our lifestyles, they detect hypocrisy on our part. All too often they see in us the same sin that besets most of humanity and that is the polar opposite of contentment – that of covetousness. Whereas contentment is a state of satisfaction knowing that God has supplied all that you need for the situation at hand, covetousness never has enough. Life for the covetous is always lacking just one thing. And so the pursuit begins for that one thing, and if it is attained, it does not satisfy. There is despair, and then the realization that there is one more elusive thing out there that will satisfy, and the cycle begins again. Contentment knows nothing of these pursuits. Contentment says, “God has given me all that I need.”

Most of us, truth be told, fall more in line with the covetous than the contented. But recognizing the surpassing virtue of contentment, and the need for it in our Christian lives, how do we make the transition? How can our lives begin to be characterized by contentment? Here in this passage, I believe Paul tells us three secrets to contentment.

First, let me explain a little of what is going on in the passage. The Apostle Paul traveled through the then-known world preaching Christ and starting churches. He received no salary, but often churches would give him financial assistance to help with his mission. He also supplemented this by his trade of tent-making. Paul has received a financial gift from the Philippian church delivered to the place of his house arrest in Rome by a Christian named Epaphroditus. This is not the first time they have sent him a gift, for we find out in vv15 and 16 that this had been done on multiple occasions in the past. He even boasted of their generosity in 2 Corinthians 11:9. But some time had elapsed since their last gift had come. He describes this recent gift as a renewal of their concern, but quickly adds that he understands they never lacked concern – only the opportunity to express it. Paul had been in jail in Caesarea and then in transit to Rome, when he suffered shipwreck. So, after much delay, he was finally in one place for a long enough period of time for them to send him support.

Upon receiving that gift, Paul says, “I rejoiced in the Lord greatly.” Their gift assured him of their love and their support at a time when Paul’s future was uncertain. It was a great encouragement to him. But notice that Paul says, “Not that I speak from want.” In other words, he was not pacing the floor wondering when the next support check was going to come in so he could eat. He never once lost confidence in God to supply all his needs. But he recognized that sometimes God’s provisions comes through the hands of His people. So although Paul was not dependent upon the gifts of God’s people, he was appreciative of the gift and recognized it as coming through them from the Lord. Had he not received the gift, he would not have complained. Without it, he says he was not in want. Paul was content. So how did he do it? How can we do it? How can we become known as contented Christians?

I. Contentment is Learned (v11)

I have learned to be content …

It isn’t automatic. None of us are born with this quality. Left to our own devices most of us would be insatiably covetous and greedy. But contentment has to be learned. The word that Paul uses for learned in v11 means to learn through experience or practice. In its grammatical construction in this passage, it means “to learn how to” do something rather than to learn something in a theoretical or strictly academic sense. It also has the idea of something learned over a process of time rather than at an instant. In other words, you won’t learn contentment today listening to this sermon. But, as you seek to live for Christ, and encounter numerous experiences along your life’s journey, one day you will realize that the Lord has taught you contentment through it all. You won’t remember the day or the time that it dawned on you, you will only know that it has.

In v12, when he says I have learned the secret, this phrase translates one Greek word which was used by the pagan mystery religions to denote being inducted into a secret society. In those religions, a person would go through a ritual, memorize a few formulas, and be initiated into an elite core of people who were privileged to engage in certain rituals and know certain secrets. And all of this was in vain, for they were false religions dedicated to the worship of idols. But Paul says that those who know the true and living God through Jesus Christ have secrets of our own. But they are not learned in dim-lit rooms by saying oaths and incantations. They are learned in the crucible of human experience as one lives and walks with Christ. It is here that Paul says he has been initiated into the society of those who know true contentment.

There are no shortcuts to being content. It has to be learned.

II. Contentment is not dependent upon circumstances (v12)

In this verse, Paul uses three contrasts to describe the spectrum of life he has endured. He has seen humble means and prosperity. He has seen hunger and fullness. He has seen abundance and need. And in these circumstances he learned that God is faithful. Though at times his circumstances were perhaps more comfortable than others, he was never without his most basic needs.

Paul enumerated some of his experiences in 2 Corinthians 11, saying that he had endured hard labor, imprisonment, beatings without number, the danger of death on numerous occasions, whippings, stonings, shipwrecks, robbery, hardship, sleepless nights, hunger, thirst, cold, and exposure. So, he is not merely saying that he has always food, clothing, and shelter. He is saying that often he has not even had these essential things. Yet, he has learned to be content – see in v11 – in whatever circumstances I am. In every situation, the Lord enabled Paul to be content by providing exactly what he needed for that moment. It may not have always been all that Paul wanted, or all that human wisdom deemed necessary, but essentially, if God didn’t supply it, Paul didn’t need it. And the same is true for you and I in the circumstances we face.

Unfortunately today, much of what is being taught and practiced in the name of Christianity runs implicitly, if not explicitly, contrary to this. The most popular spiritual teachers (I hesitate to say Christian, though they use the term freely), are saying that if you have enough faith and walk close enough to God, then you will never be sick, never be poor, and moreover you will be wealthy and everything you do will prosper. So, if you are sick or poor, according to their teaching, you just aren’t yet there spiritually. But don’t fear. A fifty or one hundred dollar gift to their ministry will supply you with a book on how to get there, and maybe even some miracle water or an anointed prayer cloth to help pave the way. But rather than producing genuine spiritual maturity in their followers, these teachers are undermining the truth of God’s word and breeding discontentment in them because they are proclaiming that their circumstances dictate their spiritual condition. So, I am to understand this to mean that when Paul, or Jesus for that matter, underwent times of hardship, they had forsaken the Lord? I don’t think so. Rather Paul said that even in those very difficult circumstances, the Christian can still be content.

That contentment has to be learned, and it is learned through enduring circumstances that are pleasing as well as trying. But once it is learned, you can endure whatever life brings your way knowing that God is in control and He will see through. That is contentment. And that brings us to the third secret of contentment.

III. Contentment comes from the Lord (v13)

I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

How is it that Paul can be content in times of abundance and in times of famine? He does it through the Lord. This is one of those great verses that all too often gets ripped from its context and applied universally to everyone in every circumstance. Although it is true that nothing is too difficult for the Lord, this promise needs to remain situated in its context of contentment. “All things,” are, in this case, the diverse range of circumstances which face Paul on a daily basis.

In the writings of the Stoics and Cynics, the essence of all virtues was a self-sufficiency that enabled the individual to find within himself or herself all the resources necessary to endure the most challenging circumstances. It was the mark of a wise person who had found in himself the sufficiency that made him independent of all things and all people. But this was not the kind of attitude that Paul describes here, though the same Greek word is used to describe both. Paul is quick to differentiate Christian contentment from Stoic or Cynical contentment by grounding it in the Lord.

It is not self-sufficiency that enables the Christian to remain content whatever circumstances befall him; it is Christ-sufficiency. This notion of Christ strengthening His people occurs throughout the New Testament. Here the phrase is a present participle indicating the ongoing empowerment that Paul experiences daily as the Risen Christ works in and through him.

Daily, you and I face a roller-coaster of circumstances. Life is full of ups and downs. Few of us will ever endure the hardship that Paul faced, and few of us will ever be used of God in the mighty way that Paul was. But the same Christ who strengthened him and enabled him to be content in all of his circumstances can enable us to do the same thing. And as we walk with Christ through the ups and downs of life, we learn that He is faithful and can be trusted to always provide for us exactly what we need in that situation. If He doesn’t provide it, we don’t need it. And over time, as we prove God over and over again through these diverse situations, we learn this contentment. We learn it in the good times, and we learn it in the bad times. We are able to be content in whatever circumstances we are, because the Lord gives us the strength to endure, supplies our every need, and providentially guides us through for His glory.

Contentment – it is that state of complete satisfaction knowing that God will be faithful in whatever circumstance you find yourself. And covetousness is that insatiable desire for more, feeling that you never have enough. So, if contentment is on one end of a spectrum, and covetousness is on the other, where are you on that line? Are you still learning contentment? Most of us are. But hopefully, the longer you walk with Christ, the more you find yourself content in the circumstances life brings your way.

But perhaps this learning process has not even begun for you yet, because like the Cynics and the Stoics, you are looking in yourself for the contentment you need, rather than to the Lord. Perhaps you have never allowed God to meet your life’s greatest need – that of forgiving your sins and reconciling you to Himself. If that is where you are today, then that need can be met immediately by placing your faith and trust in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, recognizing that He died on the cross for your sins and is alive today to give you eternal life, the forgiveness of sins, and the strength you need for daily living. I invite you make that decision if you never have before.

And if God is dealing with your heart about contentment today, then speak to Him prayerfully about that. Recognize that contentment is a great testimony to the faithfulness of God and your confidence in Him. Covetousness, on the other hand, declares that God has failed you and has left you in need. And the world around you watches your life and mine, and basis their understanding of God on what they see in us. Let’s learn this lesson of contentment, so that the world sees our trust in a faithful God who strengthens us to handle whatever comes our way.

[1] Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 15,000 Sermon Illustrations, NavPress Software, 1988. Number 1787.

[2] F. F. Bruce, NIBC: Philippians, 151n.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Ten Commandments for Use of Music in Worship

Pastor lists ‘10 commandments’ for use of music in worship - (BP)

As a pastor who is concerned for the growing apathy and anemia that is plaguing our churches in this consumer-driven, niche-marketed generation, the above title caught my eye as I perused the Baptist Press headlines this morning. At first I thought I would not even skim the article because I am nauseous of discussions of music styles. Also I am nauseous because of my continued battle with pneumonia, but that is something altogether different. For years I have preached that we must exalt the Lord in our worship and focus on the substance of what we sing rather than the style of how we sing.

I decided to give the article a read based on the word "Commandments." I thought this was awfully strong language to use in a discussion of worship music, so I read the article. I was so pleased to find myself in total agreement with everything said therein. So, I wanted to link to it for you to read as well.

Pastor lists ‘10 commandments’ for use of music in worship - (BP)

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Philippians 4:8 -- The Thinking Christian

This is the Sunday morning message from 7/2/05. I apologize for the late posting, but my son Solomon was hospitalized on that day for pneumonia. He was released on 7/4, and on 7/5 Donia and I found out we had it too! So Blogging has been low on my priority list this week.

Prolegomena for the blogosphere: I do not preach sermons relating to "national holiday" themes (Mothers Day, Fathers Day, July 4, Veterans Day, etc.). I do typically preach several messages relating to the incarnation and resurrection around Christmas and Easter. My prioity in the pulpit is to exposit God's word faithfully and systematically. I cannot do this with effectiveness or any "flow" if I am constantly having to pause for government and Hallmark holidays. So, I usually press on with the exposition with mixed feedback from the congregation. However, I feel that on these "holidays," (and I question the usage of that term for them) our culture will make up for my neglect of those certain themes. However, if I fail to proclaim God's word, who will pick up the slack?

Philippians 4:8 -- The Thinking Christian

To some this sounds like an oxymoron – thinking Christian. They associate Christianity with ignorance, mysticism, mythology, and narrow-mindedness. They believe we have three racks at the door of the church. One for your coat, one for your hat, one for your brain. Take it out when you come in, pick it up when you leave. For many centuries, the greatest and brightest minds in the world were Christians who demonstrated the reasonableness of Christian faith. But over a slow and gradual shift, two spheres of thinking evolved. Reasonable faith was divided into FAITH and REASON. Individuals who held to Christian convictions were excluded from the REASON category unless they were willing to suspend their FAITH in Biblical teaching. Whereas once nearly all the world’s leading scientists, philosophers, and mathematicians were men and women of faith, now those who claim to be Christian are viewed as mystics rather than intellectuals. People will demand of a Christian that he or she put away myths and fairy tales and do business with real SCIENCE instead.

And lest you think that is how people in the culture feel about Christians, you’d be surprised at how many Christians I have met who feel the same. Many are intimidated by intellectual discussions and scientific studies. They are afraid that that they might encounter some obstacle to their faith that they will not be able to overcome, and so they surround themselves with the comforts of insulated Christianity. And so the problem we face today is nearly the same as that described by J. Gresham Machen in 1913, when he said, “The chief obstacle to the Christian religion today lies in the sphere of the intellect. The Church is perishing today through the lack of thinking, not through an excess of it.” In our own day, William Lane Craig has said that “our Churches are filled with Christians who are idling in intellectual neutral.”[1]

The saddest thing about idling in intellectual neutral is that we feel as if somehow it is all pleasing to God. Yet the irony is that Scripture commands us to be “attentive, wise, discerning, prudent, circumspect, understanding, teachable, lovers of truth, intellectually humble and intellectually tenacious,” and to “defend our faith, instruct others in the faith, to confute those who oppose true doctrine, and so on.” And in the same Bible, we are warned against, “laziness of thought, folly, immaturity in our thinking, being easily duped or gullible, … egaging in idle speculation, intellectual arrogance or vicious curiosity.”[2] Moreover Jesus said that the Greatest Commandment is to love God with all of our heart, soul, MIND, and strength. How do we do this? Paul said in Romans 12 that we must be transformed by the renewing of our minds. We cannot become thinking Christians if we believe that God has called us to the removal of our minds.

Our need is great today for thinking Christians. We often decry our culture saying that our values are not being respected or represented as they once were in bygone days. We often hear reports and statistics from pulpits about laws that prohibit prayer and Bible reading in the schools, witnessing on the job, and encourage abortion, euthanasia, the breakdown of marriage, and sexual deviance. However, our culture turns a deaf ear to the contemporary church, for they are not ignorant of the fact that prayer and Bible reading have less and less prominence in the CHURCH with each passing day. Our divorce rates are no lower than theirs. We would probably all be shocked to know how rampant abortion is among those who claim Christianity as their personal belief. We shout about the value of unborn lives, but show little compassion for the homeless, the poor, and the famine-stricken. We talk about creation and our God-given dominion over the earth, but we commute great distances every day in gas-guzzling SUV’s and sports cars, and call anyone who cares about the environment a liberal kook. (See Ken Connor's excellent editorial entitled God, Gore, and Global Warming). We pass resolutions at our national convention calling for total abstinence from alcohol, but in private we laugh at jokes like, “How many Baptists do you take on a fishing on a trip?” Do you know the answer? The answer is at least two, because if you only take one, he’ll drink all your beer. We may laugh, but it is tragic that there is apparently enough truth to it to give rise to the humor. That is not to mention the winking endorsement we give to numerous other addictive drugs. We say we want intelligent design to replace evolution in our schools, but we are helplessly engulfed in an evolutionary economy and social culture, and we defend it with labels like capitalism, individualism, and progress. We speak about losing future generations, but we are so myopic that we do not even recognize that we have lost our own. Churches today are full of individuals and families whose children have chosen alternative spiritual and moral foundations on which to build their lives.

We face a problem of tremendous proportions today when it comes to Christian thinking. But, the problem is not that the culture thinks less and less like the church. In most of history and in much of the world today, this has always been the case. It is perhaps a happy accident that we have not noticed it in America. No, our problem is that the church thinks too much like the culture, or else doesn’t think at all. We want to have it both ways. We want to come into a church one hour (give or take a few minutes) every week, and be made to feel better about ourselves, and then go out and spend the other 167 hours per week keeping up with the unsaved Joneses.

The watering down of Christian doctrine and abandonment of conviction that is rampant in many Christians today is to be blamed on churches and pastors who have forsaken faithfulness for relevance, and in the end, have lost both. Os Guinness calls it a “self-inflicted stupidity” and says, “It’s sad to say that rarely has the church seen so many of its leaders solemnly presenting the faith in public in so many weak, trite, foolish, disastrous, and even disloyal ways as today.” He went on to say, “Never have Christians pursued relevance more strenuously; never have Christians been more irrelevant.” [3]

We desperately need a revival of Christian thinking today, but it cannot start out there in the culture until it starts in here – until there is a renaissance of thinking Christians among those who claim to BE Christian in this church and every other one, and until you and I are willing to take seriously this idea of loving God with all our minds. So today I would like for us to consider from the text before us this threefold idea of the Thinking Christian by discussing what Christians ought to think, and how Christians ought to think.

I. What a Christian Thinks

Paul gives a list of virtues that should pervade the thought-life of the follower of Christ.

A. Whatever is true.

This would exclude those things that are lies, speculations, rumors, exaggerations. What does it include? What is truth? That is a question that Pilate asked of Jesus and a question that has been asked for centuries since. In this day of postmodern thinking, many people have given up on any objective standard of truth. But I believe that as Christians we have an obligation to insist on a correspondence view of truth. What does that mean? It means that something is true if it corresponds to reality and the way the world actually is. When people ask me how I know that Christianity is true, I try to explain to them our worldview and suggest that it uniquely approaches the world as it is and makes the most sense of it. C. S. Lewis said that he believes Christianity is true in the same way that he believes the sun has risen. Not because he sees it, but because by it, he sees everything else. So, when out thoughts are pervaded by truth, it means we dwell on the things that are real, sincere, proper, reliable, and genuine.

B. Whatever is honorable (KJV: honest; NIV: noble).

Things that are respectable, decent, dignified, excellent. It is opposite of those things which are vulgar, debased, and profane.

C. Whatever is right (KJV: just).

This comes from the same Greek word as the word righteous. It means that which is in keeping with God’s holy standards. It speaks of justice, or of “fittingness.” Psalm 11:7 tells us that the Lord is righteous and He loves righteousness. He loves those who are fitted to his character. The opposite of this is evil or wicked, like the one in Psalm 36. There we read of an ungodly person, whose transgression speaks within his heart, who does not fear God, who has abandoned wisdom and goodness, and who plans wickedness on his bed that he intends to carry out when daylight comes. The prophets spoke against those who “trample the needy” (Amos 8:4) and those who deprive people of justice. This must not be true of the Christian, and therefore our thought should be just and right.

D. Whatever is pure.

Those things which are innocent, wholesome and chaste, which are free from contamination or blemish. It applies broadly to all areas of moral integrity and uprightness.

E. Whatever is lovely.

This might better be characterized as that which calls forth love in us. Some have suggested beautiful or pleasing as synonyms. Much of what is done by Christians in our day demonstrates a disregard for this virtue, and it is to our shame. God has shown us beauty in the world we live in, far beyond what is necessary for survival. At our home, we are reaping the benefits of the green thumbs who tended our gardens long before we took ownership, and there we see a variety of flowers and foliage. Is it really necessary for our survival or for the good of the ecosystem to have yellow flowers, and red flowers, and blue, and purple, and pink and orange flowers? Certainly not. One variety and one color would be sufficient. But God has given us variety so that we would think on the beauty of these things and that beauty would turn our affections heavenward to the Creator of it all, evoking love in us for Him and His creation.

F. Whatever is of good repute (KJV: good report; NIV: admirable; NRSV: commendable).

What would others think of you if they could read your thoughts? Ouch. That is where you say “Oh man,” instead of “Amen.” The opposite of these kinds of thoughts are offensive. So the believer’s thoughts should be positive, constructive, and edifying.

The list of virtues is summarized by the two ideas, “excellence” and “worthy of praise.” What occupies the mind of the Christian? Those things which are excellent and worthy of praise. I can’t help thinking that there are many churches which would benefit from this kind of thinking among their members. I certainly know that our communities need to see this kind of thinking in us. In fact, I believe that our culture is turned off by Christianity because they don’t see this kind of thinking among us. You see, it is an interesting fact that the list Paul gives is not expressly theological or inherently Christian. By and large, this list of virtues can be found almost in its entirety in the secular and even pagan writings of Paul’s day. The Greek philosophers lauded these characteristics. And there is an awareness in the hearts and minds of morally good but spiritually lost people that these are the virtues which are excellent and worthy of praise. And it is a sad commentary on the church when they do not see these things in us. When the world lives by a higher standard than the church, we have slouched to a pathetic depth. So, may the world see Christian thinking taking place in us which is dominated by these virtues.

Now secondly, consider …

II. How a Christian thinks: dwell (or think) on these things

What does it mean to think or dwell on something? The word that Paul uses here does not merely refer to mental exercise or occupation. This is not daydreaming or fantasizing. This is the kind of thinking that refers to calculation, deliberation, the process of thought that leads to a volitional act of outward expression. It is the word that is sometimes rendered reckon in our English Bibles. But it is not “reckon” as we use colloquially here in the South, meaning no more than a mere guess. It is the reckoning that involves careful calculation. So in essence, what Paul is saying here is that we think on these things, the excellent and praiseworthy things, in the process of deciding how to act out our Christian faith in the world in which we live. These are the filters through which we deliberate and calculate the course of action we will externalize as we live for Christ.

What happens if we fail to do this kind of thinking? We coast along relying on our instincts, our flesh, and our emotions to control us. We REACT carnally instead of deliberately ACTING Christianly. We make knee-jerk reactions according emotional impulses, we fire off words like deadly bullets from our mouths, and we do things that a moment of careful deliberation would have discouraged us from doing. We are to weigh heavily every action by thinking on it according the virtues which are enumerated here as characteristic of Christian thinking.

Jay Wood has written, “A godly mind is not merely one devoid of vile thoughts, nor are the faithful stewards of the mind necessarily the ones who die with all their doctrinal p’s and q’s in place.” Wood says that brainwashing might just as well accomplish that.[4] Rather, he says that a godly mind is one that displays intellectual virtue. So how does one become intellectually virtuous? First, one must recognize that it takes a lifetime, and there are no shortcuts. Our minds are developed with exercise, and exercise is hard work. It takes time devoted to Bible study, to ministry service, and to grappling scripturally with the problems of our day. Second, we must have the proper motivation. Our drive to be intellectually virtuous must not be so that we can be smarter than everyone else. It must be done for the purpose of bringing glory to God through godly living and sacrificial serving. Therefore, one cannot become a thinking Christian in a vacuum. He or she must be related to others in the covenant bond of church life. Finally, Christian thinking and Christian living are so closely intertwined that if we fail to live morally, we will lose our grasp on intellectual virtue as well, and vice versa.

Yet we must also say that moral living and sharp thinking are not Christian unless they are part of the life of a Christian. In other words, until you have given your life to Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, it doesn’t matter how good or smart you are. Moral goodness and intellectual astuteness will not save you from hell. All of us are separated from God because of sin, the only remedy available to us is faith in Jesus Christ. But this is not faith that exists in a realm apart from reason. It is a reasonable faith, whereby we acknowledge that the God who created us loves us so much that He remedied our sin problem in Himself, by dying for our sins and conquering death for us in His resurrection. And he beckons us to come to Him saying, “Come now, let us REASON together. Though your sins are as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.”

[1] Both quotations are cited in Chapter 1 of Allan Moseley’s Thinking Against the Grain.

[2] W. Jay Wood, Epistemology, 19.

[3] Os Guinness, Prophetic Untimeliness, 11-12.

[4] Wood, 18.