Thursday, May 31, 2007

New Podcast Available!

We are excited to announce that Sunday sermons are now available as a podcast.

iTunes users can subscribe one of two ways:

1. The easy way: Open iTunes, and go to the iTunes Store. Search for "Russ Reaves." You should see the podcast in the returned results (if you don't see it when you search, leave me a comment about it and I will check into it). Click on subscribe. You're done.

2. The less-easy way: Open iTunes, and go to the "Advanced" tab. Click "Subscribe to podcast". In the pop-up box, enter the following address:

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

God's Plan for Growing His Kingdom - Mark 4:26-29

You may not know the name of Donald McGavran, but you have likely been influenced by him. In fact, every church, every pastor, and every Christian has to some degree. McGavran was born in 1897 and died in 1990, and spent 30 years of his long life among the unreached people of India. But McGavran’s mark was made on modern Christianity in 1970 when he published a seminal work entitled “Understanding Church Growth.” Before that time, the phrase “church growth” was rare in the Christian realm. Today, hardly a day goes by without hearing it. For that reason, McGavran is called the father of the modern Church Growth Movement.

Today, churches are evaluated by a single factor: size. Someone asks you, “Where do you go to church?”, and you say, “I go to Immanuel Baptist Church.” What is the next question that gets asked? “How big is it?” And if you say, “There are around 130-160 people there on a given Sunday,” they will say, “Oh.” And it is the kind of “oh,” that you might hear if you just told someone your dog died. There is a note of sadness in the tone. There must be something wrong with a church that does not have more people than that attending it, they think. After all, every day, they drive past monstrous edifices where thousands gather every Sunday. Those are good churches, they are doing things right, everyone else must be doing something wrong. This is the way Christians have thought for the last 35 years, due in part to the movement sparked by McGavran.

Now, I don’t want you to think badly of Donald McGavran. When McGavran talked about “church growth,” he did not merely intend to talk about big churches where the number of people in attendance was the measure of success and health. McGavran coined the phrase “church growth” because he was aware that the word “evangelism” carried a lot of negative baggage. I have often said that saved people and lost people have at least one thing in common: the word “evangelism” makes them both nervous. So for McGavran, church growth and evangelism – the sharing of the gospel of Christ – were synonyms. For McGavran, the goal of “church growth” was not the building of bigger and bigger facilities or the launching of more and more programs. It was seeing lost people saved and the Kingdom of God advanced to the ends of the earth. It is an undeniable fact that in many of the largest and fastest growing churches, personal evangelism and global missions take a backseat to the church’s own programs and priorities. They continue to grow rapidly because of the synergy and excitement of the crowd, but most of their growth comes from folks who are transferring in from other churches. I am not speaking out of school here. For several years before I became a pastor, I counseled new members in one of the largest and fastest growing churches in North Carolina. I would say that 80-90 percent of that church’s new members were already saved and were coming from other churches. And it is often the case, though not in the church where I served, that the church’s financial burdens of maintaining its own facilities and ministries forces global missions to a sideline activity. The church may be growing leaps and bounds, but little impact is being made on its own community or the world for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Yet, the church is hailed as a success story by all who see it – and for one reason: it is growing numerically.

It is said that, before McGavran’s death, he remarked that he wished he had referred to the movement as effective evangelism because so many churches focused on numerical growth to the detriment of evangelistic outreach—something he never intended by using the phrase “church growth.” Now, I said in my opening statement that you have been influenced by McGavran. You have been led to think that if we have empty seats in the pews and aren’t seeing new faces in the crowd every Sunday, that something is wrong.

I don’t want to suggest that these things are unimportant, but I want to be very clear about something. The growth of this church or any other is not an end unto itself, but should be a means to a greater end, and that end is the building of the Kingdom of God by seeing lost souls saved and lives transformed by the indwelling presence of Christ. It is not only possible, but very common, for churches to grow without this. Marketing, entertainment, social action, political involvement, and a host of other activities can draw a crowd, yet they make little or no difference in the magnification of God’s glory or the establishment of His Kingdom. It is the growth of His Kingdom in the world, rather than the growth of any particular church, that brings Him the most glory. And it is the growth of God’s Kingdom that Jesus has in focus in the parable found in our text today. This parable is the only parable which is unique to Mark. It is not found in other gospels.

Here in these verses, Jesus begins to teach the multitudes what the Kingdom of God is like. What great and glorious image would He use? Would He liken it to a great empire of world history, or the entrepreneurial vision of a financially successful mogul? Would He employ a simile of grandeur and majesty? No. He says, “The Kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil.” One of the commentators says, “A more banal comparison could not be imagined.”[1] There are all kinds of activities in the world which capture our attention and imagination. If you flip the channels on any given night, you find all kinds of so-called “reality shows,” which document the daily activities of such diverse things as fishing for lobsters and the daily routines of a family of meerkats. But, no one has ever made a reality-show about seed sowing, and no one ever will. Who wants to watch plants grow? This is not the most exciting imagery in the world. I had this friend in high school who lived what seemed to be a very boring life, and we called him “Fescue,” because being with him was like watching grass grow. This is very ordinary stuff, but it is the imagery Jesus uses here nonetheless. Jesus likens the Kingdom of God to a process of seed growing unto a harvest, and in so doing, reveals to us God’s Plan for Growing His Kingdom.

I. The Activity of Kingdom Growth.

Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil. The wording is of a farmer taking handfuls of seed and casting the seed broadly across his fields. It is reminiscent of what we saw in the parable of soils earlier in Chapter 4. He slings the seed far and wide. Some of it falls on the road, some on rocky places, some among thorns, and some on good soil. But he isn’t rationing the seed. There’s plenty of it and he does not discriminate – he just throws it out there. That is how it all begins.

Earlier in this Chapter, Jesus said that the seed is the Word of God. So the advance of the Kingdom begins with the announcement of God’s Word. And where seed falls on good soil, just as in the earlier parable, growth begins to occur. So when God’s Word gets planted into the life of an individual whose heart has been prepared by the sovereign activity of God to receive it, that Word begins to develop in that person’s life. The Kingdom of God begins to dawn within that individual – “the seed sprouts and grows.”

As Jesus went about proclaiming God’s truth, He was met by opposition, misunderstanding, and rejection. One would think that the seed He was sowing was destined for a crop failure. But He was confident that the process was in the works – the seed was being sown, and where it found good soil, it would begin to produce its crop in stages: first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. At first, faith might spring up inside of a person’s heart as a mere positive interest in the things of Christ, and then mature into a confession of Him as Lord and Savior, then a willingness to forsake everything for His sake and follow Him even unto death. And as that took place in people’s lives, the Kingdom of God was being established – at first, appearing to be a barren land, but then little sprouts, then leafy stalks, then fruit ripe and ready for harvesting.

And so as we think about the growth of the Kingdom in our day, we must not forget the activity to which Jesus likened it – the casting of seed upon the soil. Spreading God’s Word far and wide is the activity of the Kingdom. Today, many of us are busy with a thousand other activities, but it is this task which God has said will bring growth to His Kingdom. We can make a church grow by other activities, but that church growth is taking place with no impact for the Kingdom of God unless it grows by the sowing of the seed of God’s Word.

II. The Mystery of Kingdom Growth

So, the farmer sows the seed, and then what? Surely he must work himself to the point of exhaustion to make the thing grow and to bring about the desired outcome! No, Jesus says after he sows the seed, the man goes to bed. And the next morning, he gets up. And this happens over and over again. Imagine you go into Barnes and Noble and make your way to the gardening section, and you find a book entitled, God’s Way to Grow a Garden. You open it up, and it’s one page. It says, “Step 1: Plant the Seed. Step 2: Go to bed. Step 3: Get up. Step 4: Repeat steps two and three until the seed has grown into a mature plant.” That will be 24.99 please. No, you wouldn’t buy that book. It sounds too easy. Everyone would be a farmer if this is the way it worked. “What do you do for a living?” “Well, back in the spring, I planted some seeds, now I just go to bed and get up everyday while I wait for it to grow.” But that is exactly how Jesus said His Kingdom is going to grow. Sow the seed of His Word – then by faith, wait patiently for it to bring the harvest.

How does a seed grow? You say, “Well you plant them, water them, give them sunlight, etc., and there you have it.” You still haven’t said how they grow. What makes them grow? What process happens to bring a plant into existence from a seed? Is it chemical, biological, supernatural? Jesus says that the man who sows the seed doesn’t even know. We still have a hard time explaining this one. Think of it this way – you can count how many seeds are in an apple; but do you know how many apples will come from a seed? No. It is a mystery, how seeds grow. We don’t know. It just seems to happen automatically. That’s exactly what Jesus said.

In v28, He says, “The soil produces crops by itself.” Those words “by itself” translate the Greek word automate, from which we get the word automatic. The seed contains within itself the power of growth and generation. Human effort adds nothing to that mysterious power. Human insight fails to explain it rightly. And in this way, the Kingdom of God is like this. How can we bring it about? In Jesus’ day, the Zealots tried to force it into being through political revolution. The apocalyptics thought they could hasten the coming of the Kingdom by careful observations and reckonings about times and signs; The Pharisees thought they could midwife the Kingdom into being by their scrupulous legal observances. These attempts are still being made today. But Jesus said that this Kingdom begins with the planting of a seed, and that seed contains all that is needed to bring the Kingdom into existence.

God spoke in Isaiah 55, saying:

· 8 "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways," declares the LORD. 9 "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways
And My thoughts than your thoughts. 10 "For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, And do not return there without watering the earth And making it bear and sprout,
And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; 11 So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire,
And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.

God’s Word contains the power to produce the result for which He sends it out. All we have to do is share it, and He has promised to do the rest. His purpose is the establishing and building up of His Kingdom, and He does that by transforming lives through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul said in Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation.” How do you convince someone that they should fear a lion? Really simple, just let the lion out of the cage. Done! Convinced! How do you make a lost person come to know Christ? You can’t make them. You just share the gospel with them. Unleash it, let it out of its cage. You just sow God’s word into the soil of their lives. That seed will do the rest. Yes, there is a place for apologetics, and there is a place for relationships, but nothing takes the place of the sharing of the message God’s word, because that is where the power is. And if you share it and nothing happens, then it is the fault of the soil, not the sower or the seed.

Here is where I want to go back to my opening thoughts about McGavran and church growth. The school of thought that has emerged, rather unintentionally, from McGavran says that the only good and healthy churches are the ones that are growing large and fast, whatever the means. The end (rapid and sizeable growth) justifies the means, in their view. But this parable is showing us that God is concerned most with the growth of His Kingdom, and is most concerned that the seed that brings about that growth (His Word) is being sown. And the growth is not instant or rapid, and may not be a very impressive process. The skeptical onlooker will say, “Nothing’s happening! Something’s wrong! That church is dead because it isn’t packing the house every Sunday!” But the right perspective understands that true growth comes from God’s word, and where it is being proclaimed within and without, that church is healthy and a vital part of God’s kingdom work. We can go to bed at night and rise up in the morning confident that, despite all initial appearances to the contrary, God is going to do His part to build His kingdom through the seed we have sown, in His way and in His time. We don’t have to obsess over the details of it, or be able to explain it, put it in a box, and sell it at Lifeway. We just sow the seed, and let the harvest come as God has promised.

The mystery of this is great – God has come to establish His kingdom in Jesus Christ. He has tread into enemy occupied territory, as C. S. Lewis put it. But He did not bring a militia, He did not hurl a thunderbolt, rather He sowed a seed, and that seed will grow and accomplish His purpose. That brings us to the final point:

III. The Certainty of Kingdom Growth

Just as surely as the seed was sown, a harvest is going to come. In God’s time, and in God’s way, it is going to happen. And when it does, that farmer will be ready with the sickle. And for some, the day of harvest will be good news, and for others it will be bad news. In Matthew 13, Jesus tells another parable, one of wheat and tares, in which He says that there are tares (weeds) growing in the midst of the wheat, and the only way to deal with them is to let them grow, and when harvest time comes, take the sickle to the whole field. The wheat will be gathered into the barn, an image of believers in Christ being taken to their eternal dwelling place in the presence of God. But the tares will bound up and burned, a picture of the eternal torment of hell. Which will it be? The day of harvest is coming for certain, the sickle is sharpened and ready, and it will not miss when it sweeps across the field.

Is this good news or bad news for you? If it seems to be bad news, then you need to hear and respond to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The word “Gospel” means “good news.” And it is the best news in the whole world. God created you in His image and longs for you to know Him and be with Him forever. But because of our sins, we are separated from Him. Yet, He has come to us in the person of Christ, to live the righteous life we never could, and to die in our place as a sinless substitute. He took our sins upon Himself in death so that He might cover us in His righteousness. If you have never received Him, you can today, by turning from sin, and calling upon Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. The seed has been planted; what is the condition of your soil?

[1] James R. Edwards, The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 142.

Monday, May 21, 2007

See What You Hear: Mark 4:21-25

Listen or download sermon audio here

It was a common practice in days of old in Europe for people to take “walking tours,” where they would travel through the countrysides on foot as far as their feet would carry them, and then they would stop and rest at homes and inns which were open to travelers and resume their tour the next day. Once, a man was walking through the countryside and he grew weary, so he stopped at a monastery and asked the friar if he might stay there over night. The monks welcomed him in and prepared a room for him to get some rest. As he prepared to go to sleep, he heard the most amazing sound he had ever heard. He had never heard anything quite like it. It was so beautiful that he could not sleep. The next day, the monks asked, “How did you rest?” He said, “Not very well. I couldn’t sleep for I heard this amazing and beautiful sound all night long. Tell me please, what was that sound.” They said, “Oh, we can’t tell you sir, for you are not a monk.” The man was disappointed, but said, “Then please allow me to stay one more night, that I might get some rest. Perhaps tonight I will sleep better.” They agreed, and that night, once more, he was kept awake by this amazing and beautiful sound. This went on for a week or so, every night the same thing. Finally, he said, “I must know what this sound is!” They said, “We can’t tell you, because you are not a monk.” The man said, “Alas, I must know, therefore I will become a monk.” They said, “But sir, that involves a year of preparation and study.” He said, “I don’t care. I must know the source of this beautiful and amazing sound.” And so he began the process of becoming a monk. Every night he heard this beautiful and amazing sound, and every morning he inquired about it. But every morning, he heard the same answer. “We can’t tell you; you aren’t a monk.” Finally the year of preparation and study came to an end, and the man became a monk. And then he finally learned what this amazing and beautiful sound was.

“Well, what was it?” you might ask. Well, I can’t tell you, because you are not a monk. And I don’t know myself, because I am not a monk.

In the last few sections of the Gospel of Mark, we have seen the reality of “insiders” and “outsiders.” The insiders are those who have seen Christ’s miraculous power and heard His authoritative word, and responded by faith to Him and committed themselves to follow Him and do the work of His Father. The outsiders are those who have seen and heard, but whose hearts were hard, and they did not respond in faith, but in unbelief. This was the point of Jesus interaction with the Scribes and with His family in Chapter 3. It was the point of the parable of the soils and His explanation of that parable in the earlier part of Chapter 4. It is the same point here in our text today.

In these verses, we find two miniature parables – one of a lamp and one of a measure. And between the two parables are two sentences which serve as a key to understanding the point of both. In verses 23 and 24, we read the words of Jesus, “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear. … Take care what you listen to.” “If anyone has ears,” Jesus says. Well, do you? Go ahead and check, I think most of us do. But are they ears to hear? Well, that is what they are for, but apparently not everyone uses them for that purpose. Do you have ears to hear? Jesus says, if so, then hear what it is He is saying to you in His word! In v24, our English translations offer the words Take care, take care, pay attention, consider carefully, to render the single Greek word blepete. That word literally means “to see.” “See what you listen to.” So, ears are not just for hearing, but also for “seeing.” “See what you hear.” You have ears, but can you hear? You hear, but are you listening? Do you “see” the truth of what He is saying to you? That is the point of the two parables Jesus speaks in these verses.

In the first parable we find a picture illustrating the idea that …

I. Light is for Seeing (vv21-22)

Jesus says, “A lamp is not brought to be put under a basket, is it, or under a bed?” The obvious answer is “No!” The lamps found in homes in Jesus’ day were small clay lamps filled with oil, which would give off light sufficient to light an entire room, if it were placed in the proper location. That would be on a stand designed for just such a task. What would happen if you put it under a basket? Not only would the light be hidden, but the flame would be extinguished, because a flame needs air in order to burn. And what if you put it under the bed? The bed of which Jesus is speaking is not a bed like we sleep on, but probably the reclining couches used at the dinner table in those days. If you put the lamp under that, you can’t see what’s going on, and you might just catch the thing on fire. Don’t put the lamp there. Put it on the lampstand where it belongs and it will give light to the whole room.

Now there are two things going on here grammatically here that you don’t pick up on in the English translations. First is that Jesus is using the definite article here: it’s not just any lamp, it is the lamp. And secondly, the wording He uses does not indicate that the lamp is brought, but rather that the lamp comes. Well we clean it up a little for English, because only in Disney movies do lamps walk around by themselves. But this is no ordinary lamp Jesus is speaking of. It is the lamp that comes into the world to enlighten every man, as stated in John 1:9.

In the OT, a lamp is frequently used as a metaphor for God, the Messiah, or the Word of God. In 2 Samuel 22:29, David sings, “For You are my lamp, O Lord; And the Lord illumines my darkness.” In 2 Kings 8:19, after lamenting of the wicked unfaithfulness of the house of Ahab, we read, “However, the Lord was not willing to destroy Judah, for the sake of David His servant, since He had promised him to give a lamp to him through his sons always.” That lamp was the Messiah. And David says in those well-known words of Psalm 119:105, “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” You remember that from VBS, don’t you? Well, in keeping with these Old Testament images, Jesus says that a true lamp has come into the world.

John put it this way in the first chapter of the Gospel that bears his name: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. … There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

The Old Testament says that the Lamp is God, God’s Messiah, and God’s Word. The New Testament agrees, and all are found in the Person of Jesus Christ. He is God. He is God’s Messiah. He is God’s Word. And He has not come to be hidden, but to enlighten with spiritual truth. But hasn’t He just said in vv 11-12 that some of His truth is hidden? Indeed, He has. He has veiled the truth of the Kingdom of God in parables from the hard-hearted who refuse to hear and believe.

But, why are things hidden? Are they hidden so as to never be seen again? No, you don’t call that “hidden.” You call that “lost.” When children play hide and seek, they go and hide, but they don’t hide forever. They are either found, or else the cry goes forth, “Come out, come out, wherever you are!” But first they are hidden, so that later, they might be revealed. You hide things that are precious so that they will not be abused or misappropriated by those who do not recognize their true nature or function. But you hide them so you can bring them out again when the time and conditions are right.

Jesus explains the parable in v22, saying that there are some things that are hidden, but those things are intended to be revealed. For now there are secrets, but later they will come to light. This is a theme that runs all the way through the Gospel of Mark. When will they come to light? A clue is given to us in Mark 9:9. After taking Peter, James, and John up to the Mount of Transfiguration where they could see the glory of Christ unveiled before them, He ordered them to not tell anyone what they had seen UNTIL the Son of Man rose from the dead. And after the resurrection, what does He tell His followers? GO AND TELL IT TO EVERYONE! So for now, there are secrets, mysteries, hidden things, only accessible to the insiders of the Kingdom, but later, those things will be made known through the resurrection of Christ and the proclamation of His followers.

This Light is not for hiding, but for seeing. Some will not see, because their eyes are shut. They will not hear because their ears are shut. They will not understand, because their hearts are hard. And for them, these truths of Christ remain veiled and hidden until they are willing to hear, to listen, and to believe. So, “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” The light is for seeing.

But secondly, Jesus moves on to tell us that …

II. Truth is for Understanding (vv24-25)

See what you listen to! Since the light is for seeing, we will see the truth of what He is saying, if we have ears to hear. Here Jesus tells a parable of measures. “By your standard of measure it will be measured to you; and more will be given you besides.” Similar statements occur in various contexts in the other Gospel accounts, and this passage has often been abused by some to indicate financial or material blessing to those who give generously. But what is the context here? It is hearing and understanding God’s truth and rightly responding to it. And we must leave it in that context in order to understand it rightly.

There will be different degrees of response to what is heard. You have heard it all your lives – you get out of it what you put into it. That was true of your education, it is true of work, it is true of your relationships, and it is true of your participation in worship and the receiving of God’s Word. It is a principle of reciprocity. The diligence you expend in understanding and responding to Jesus will be proportionately rewarded. If you bring a small shovel of interest, you will get a small shovel full of understanding. But if you bring a large shovel of interest, then you get a large shovel full of understanding. And God’s grace exceeds the limits of mere reciprocity. Even more will be given in return for what you put in.

Jesus explains this further in the next verse: “For whoever has, to him more shall be given.” Truth received and carefully absorbed into one’s life will enlarge one’s capacity to receive more truth. Proper understanding will lead to accepting Jesus and entering the Kingdom of God, and then to more and more blessings from God. But notice that the converse is true also. “Whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.” The one who does not use his ability to understand the truth, who does not use his ears to hear, his eyes to see, his heart to understand, that one further blunts his ability to understand it. Not only did you grow up hearing, “You get out of it what you put into it,” you also heard, “If you don’t use it, you will lose it.” That is what Jesus is saying here: neglect of spiritual ability results in spiritual atrophy—a progressive weakening and wearing down of that ability until it becomes utterly useless. For now, the invitation is given, the doors of God’s Kingdom are open to all who will hear and respond. But if they do not, then the door will close forever, and they will find themselves separated for eternity.

And so it is, as R. T. France has said, that the optimism of vv21-22, that all that is now secret will in due time be revealed, is balanced by the realism of vv24-25, that there will still be those who fail to benefit from divine revelation.[1] That is why it is of such great importance that you see what you hear! If you have ears, God gave them to you so you could hear. And if you can hear, then will you listen? And if you will listen, will you understand? God has given light so you can see, He has spoken truth for you to hear and understand. And it is the most important matter in this life or the next that you do so.

When the Bible was translated into the Conob language of Guatemala and Mexico, that first part of verse 24 was stated so as to mean, “Hear dying what you listen to.” It is a life and death matter, both for now and eternity. Do you listen to God’s Word as if your very life depended upon it? Did not Jesus say that this Word was more important than food? He did! In Matthew 4, when tempted by the Devil to turn a stone into bread, Jesus said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” Where is it written? It is written in Deuteronomy 8, where Moses says to the people of Israel that God let them be hungry and fed them with manna so that He might make them understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord. The great Puritan pastor Richard Baxter was fond of saying, “I preach, as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.” This may be the last sermon I ever preach. It may be the last one you ever hear. Does that thought enter your mind as you enter worship on a Sunday? Does it enter your mind as you open your Bible each day? It may be the last passage you ever read. So, do you listen, do you read, do you digest the Word of God as though your very life depended upon it, as though this truth was more important than the very food you eat?

That is the kind of listening Christ is calling for: the kind that begins with a willingness to hear, and moves on to a determination to understand, which then finds belief and obedience arising within the heart and sets out to follow Christ by faith. If you listen that way, you will not listen in vain to His word, for you will receive from God deeper and deeper understanding of His truth as you allow it to take root in your life. Neglect this word, and what little understanding you bring to the task will soon slip away leaving you to grope in darkness when inestimable light was offered to you.

It is like looking at a tapestry. Is there anything more beautiful than an image that has been hand woven with its individual threads coming together to present a unified depiction of some real object? Well, it depends on which side of the tapestry you are standing on. If you are looking at the back, then its all strings and knots, and nothing looks right; it just looks like a big mess. Oh but if you are looking at the front, you become lost in the breathtaking detail of the image. And so it is with the truth of God. To some it is meaningless, just a fragmented hodgepodge of meaningless sayings. But to those who stand on the right side of it, it is a thing of great beauty, and becomes all the more beautiful as He graciously guides us in our understanding of it. It is as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 1:18: “The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.”

Yes, it has become quite clear in these last several passages we have examined that when it comes to the Kingdom of God, there are only two kinds of people. There are insiders and outsiders. Paul says, “those who are perishing” and “us who are being saved.” But the good news is that the door to the Kingdom is open to that one on the outside who recognizes his or her true spiritual condition and discovers their need of salvation from sin. Christ alone is the answer – by His death on the cross, your sins are paid for, and by His resurrection power, new life is afforded to you if you will turn from sin and come to Him by faith.

[1] R. T. France, The New International Greek Testament Commentary: The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 212.

Friday, May 18, 2007

A Forthcoming Article by Terrance Tiessen

If you saw my previous posts, "On the Scent of a Tulip and Whether it Bears Thorns," and "Thoughts on Middle Knowledge and Divine Inspiration," you are aware that my position on the conundrum of divine sovereignty and human freedom is one of "Middle Knowledge," which I liken to Terrance Tiessen's position of "Middle Knowledge Calvinism," articulated in his monograph, Providence and Prayer. I had a chance to correspond with Dr. Tiessen following my "Thoughts on MK and DI" post, and he mentioned his forthcoming article in the Westminster Theological Journal. Since I do not subscribe to that journal, Dr. Tiessen was kind enough to send me a copy of the article in email. I have just completed a thorough reading of it, and I can say without a doubt that he has well defended the compatibility of middle knowledge and Calvinism. In fact, he has well answered both the grounding objection, and the other normal objections one often hears from those in the Calvinist camp. In fact, I have now found in his wording the precise label for the position I hold: "A Monergistic Appropriation of Divine Middle Knowledge." I like that much better than Molinism or any kind of hyphenated-Calvinism.

Be on the lookout for Tiessen's article: "Why Calvinists Should Believe in Divine Middle Knowledge, Although They Reject Molinism," in a forthcoming issue of Westminster Theological Journal. I am hopeful that this will be the seedbed for a monograph from Dr. Tiessen on the subject.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Good News for Movie Lovers

If you are a movie lover (as I am), then I can't encourarge you strongly enough to look into ClearPlay (which I discussed in a previous post entitled "Watching Movies Without Violating Your Conscience"). ClearPlay is a DVD player with a built-in software that "filters" objectionable content from most DVDs (see for a full list of movies; the list is expanding every day). The great news is that these DVD players are now available at Target stores, where you can buy them at a great savings over the ClearPlay website. What's more, the Target deal also includes the "Filter Stick" (a USB flash drive you use to download movie filters), a free trial membership to the filter subscription service, and over 2,000 filters (which I assume are pre-loaded onto the USB drive). So, if you love movies, head out to Target and get one of these things. We got ours from ClearPlay last fall, and now enjoy watching movies together as a family without worrying about what the kids (or adults!) will see or hear.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Principles Behind the Parables: Mark 4:10-13

Mark 4:1-2, 10-13

The Principles Behind the Parables

It is nearly universally accepted that Jesus is one of history’s greatest teachers. Even those who do not share the Christian view of Him that He is God incarnate and the Savior of humanity would not deny His effectiveness as a communicator. Personally, I agree with C. S. Lewis, who said that Jesus has not left this option of judging Him to be only a good teacher open to us. If He was not who He claimed to be in His teaching, then we should label Him as a lunatic or a demoniac, and stop with any nonsense of Him being a good teacher. But humanity as a whole throughout the last 2,000 years has been enamored by Him to such a degree that no one wants to dismiss Him so abruptly. It is much safer for those who deny His claims of Deity and His offer of salvation to just say, “He was a good teacher.” And certainly much of the intrigue about His teaching stems from His use of parables.

So appealing are these parables that they have infected our vocabulary and our entire way of thinking. We regularly hear non-Christian people talk about things like “a good Samaritan,” “a prodigal son, ” “a city on a hill,” “faith of a mustard seed,” or “a pearl of great price.” These all stem from the parables of Jesus, and their universal place in thought and speech demonstrate their sticking-power. Jesus was not the first to use the parable as a form of teaching. We find parables in the Old Testament, and in ancient literature from outside the Judeo-Christian tradition. But few of those parables have invaded culture the way the parables of Jesus have. He may not have been the originator of the form, but He was certainly the master of it.

Unfortunately, many in our own day have misunderstood this method of Jesus’ teaching. Many assume that Jesus’ parables are nothing more than quaint stories. So, they say, effective teaching and preaching today must be done with creative storytelling. Gone are the days, we hear, when people desire to hear didactic expositions of biblical instruction and systematic theology. After all, this is the 21st Century, and people’s attention spans aren’t what they used to be. So, the effective preacher and teacher will work hard to hone the craft of storytelling so as to capture the imagination of his audience as Jesus did. And books and conferences abound calling for an end to the dispensing of propositional truth for a newer, or more ancient perhaps, method of telling stories. After all, you can remember stories you heard from childhood better than you recall last Sunday’s sermon, don’t you? Please, don’t raise your hands.

I suggest to you that in all this modern rhetoric about storytelling misses the point. They point to Jesus as an accommodating storyteller, and attribute the greatness of His teaching to this simple fact. But, the fact that so many who laud His greatness in teaching do not know Him and do not believe the underlying truth of the stories He told indicates that they might remember the characters and events of the stories, but they have missed the point of His stories, and in fact, they have missed the reason for His telling of these parabolic stories. In using parables, Jesus was not putting the cookies on the bottom shelf, but rather challenging the minds of His hearers to reach to a higher shelf where true nourishment for their souls could be found.

C. H. Dodd defined a parable as, “a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought” (emphasis mine).[1] Certainly not everything Jesus ever said was in the form of parables, but much of his public teaching was. And the reactions of those who heard His parables indicate to us that not many got the point. In our passage today, even His own followers had questions about the parables. Mark does not state what those questions were. Fortunately, we have other gospel accounts to shed light on their questions.

In parallel contexts, Matthew 13:10 indicates that they were asking about the reason for His parables. “Why do you speak to them in parables?” Luke 8:10 indicates that they were asking about the meaning of His parables. “His disciples began questioning Him as to what this parable meant.” We may draw from this that the disciples did not understand the parables, and if they didn’t get it, then why on earth would Jesus expect other people to get it?

Well, their questions are like ours, and like those swirling around the debate between storytelling and exposition in our own day. And I would suggest that before we abandon exposition and propositional truth-telling in exchange for new creative parables in an effort to be more like Jesus, the master teacher, then first we must understand a few important principles behind His parables.

I. The Audience of Jesus’ Parables

In verse 11 of our text, Jesus puts his hearers into two distinct groups. The first is “you,” a plural pronoun whose antecedent is found in verse 10: His followers along with the twelve. We will call them the “insiders.” These were the ones who had come to Jesus, seen His miraculous power and heard His authoritative teaching, and in faith, believed in Him and chosen to follow Him.

They represent one group of hearers. The second group, Jesus calls “those who are outside.” We will call these the “outsiders.” They too had come to Jesus, seen His miraculous power, and heard His authoritative teaching, but in unbelief, they rejected His claims and refused to follow Him.

We were introduced to this dichotomy of insiders and outsiders in the previous chapter of Mark — Chapter 3.There we saw that the insiders were those who were gathered around Jesus, sitting at His feet, listening to His word, and committed to doing the will of His Father. The outsiders were those who could not get to Him. They weren’t prevented because of the size of the crowd, but because of their erroneous conception of Jesus. The outsiders were those scribes who had concluded He was demonic, and even His own family who had concluded He was a lunatic.

The insiders and the outsiders heard the same parables, but the insiders got something else. They got an explanation. They got additional information to help them decipher the meaning behind the story. If the parables are so self-explanatory as some would have us believe, why was this necessary? Were the disciples just extraordinarily dense, or were the parables ambiguous and somewhat difficult to understand?

Take one parable for example: In Matthew 13:33, Jesus said, "The kingdom of heaven is like leaven (the rhyme is unintentional, because in Greek, heaven and leaven don’t come close to rhyming), which a woman took and hid in three pecks of flour until it was all leavened." Is the meaning of this parable transparent upon first hearing? Some of you will say it is perfectly clear because you have studied the Scriptures to some degree in the past, and you know about leaven spreading, and all that. But, put yourselves into the shoes of Jesus’ original audience. Put their ears on. Is it clear? Most of us would say, if we were honest, “No, what in the world is He talking about?” And that is exactly the way Jesus’ hearers, even the insiders, responded. So, for them, Jesus gave further explanation when they were alone.

The outsiders just got the story, and no explanation. They were left to make of it whatever they could. And if those who believed in Him had a hard time making sense of the parables, we need not wonder if the outsiders got it. But they were given no explanations, no further information. Just a story. Jesus says in v11, “Those who are outside get everything in parables.” The Gospel According to Matthew says, “All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables, and He did not speak to them without a parable.”

So who was the audience of the parables? The insiders and the outsiders. These are the only two people in the world today. Those who are inside with Christ by faith and those who are outside because of unbelief. Each group heard the parables, but only those inside were given the explanation to make sure they understood. Why is that? The answer is found in another Principle.

II. The Purpose of Jesus’ Parables

Why did Jesus teach in parables? Was it to make the truth easier to swallow? Was it to make the lesson more memorable? And why did He only explain it to the insiders, rather than to the outsiders also? Weren’t the outsiders the ones who needed the explanation more? Jesus answers the question for us.

In explaining why the outsiders get everything in parables, Jesus quotes from Isaiah 6:9-10.

“While seeing, they may see and not perceive, and while hearing they may hear and not understand, otherwise they might return and be forgiven.”

Mark offers a condensed version of the quotation, but it is sufficient to point us there. In that passage, Isaiah responds to the call of God to go and preach God’s word to a people whom God knew beforehand would reject the message. And when Isaiah asks, “How long, O Lord?” he is told to proclaim it until judgment falls, but he is comforted to know that there will be a believing remnant who will be like a stump when a great tree is felled. Isaiah is told that this stump will be like a holy seed from which new growth will occur.

Like Isaiah, Jesus came into the world to proclaim God’s truth to a people who would not receive it. It is written in John 1:11 that Jesus came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But He kept proclaiming, knowing that there would be those who did receive Him, and from those, the Kingdom of God would be established. John says, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God.” These are the insiders and the outsiders. And the parables of Jesus became a sifter of His hearers, some of whom received God’s truth and others of whom rejected it.

Remember Dodd’s definition of parables we cited earlier: they leave the mind in sufficient doubt about their precise application to tease the mind into active thought. Some who heard the parables found their interests provoked enough to mine for the truth of what was being said. Others didn’t. Though they saw Jesus’ miracles, they didn’t perceive the truth of what they signified. Though they heard His parables, they didn’t understand their deeper meaning about Christ and His Kingdom. Their eyes and ears were closed to truth, and as a result their hearts were as hard as desert road, preventing the seed of God’s word from penetrating and producing faith in their hearts.

Remember, that is the context of this passage – it occurs in between the parable of the soils and the explanation of that parable. That is why Jesus says in essence in v13, “If you don’t get the parable of the soils, you can’t get any of the rest of them.” The parable of the soils is the key to all the parables. Some get it and some don’t. Some get it, but they don’t let the truth go deep enough into their hearts to produce enduring faith. Some get it, but it gets choked out because of the worries of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and their desire for other things. These outsiders are the ones to whom Jesus was referring when He spoke about the seed falling beside the road. The insiders are the ones represented by the good soil, where the seed is able to sink in deeply and produce a fruitful harvest of faith.

“Jesus told parables to sift the crowd, separating out the hard-hearted from those who had the heart to understand.”[2] He was content to let them walk away. He never chased them down. By veiling the truth in a parable, He was mercifully protecting the hard-hearted from the guilt of rejecting the plainly spoken truth of God. But those who endured the sifting demonstrated that their hearts were ready to receive truth and respond in faith and action.

Why did “the insiders” endure the sifting? Jesus tells us in verse 11: “To you has been given the mystery of the Kingdom of God.” It was not because of some quality in them, but because of a gift they were given. It was because of the grace of God. Why is it that some of you have responded to the Gospel of Christ while so many others you know have heard it and not responded? R. C. Sproul writes, “Did we exercise faith in Christ because we are more intelligent than they are? … Did we respond to the gospel positively because we are better or more virtuous than our friends? We all know the answers to these questions. I cannot adequately explain why I came to faith in Christ and some of my friends did not. I can only look to the glory of God’s grace toward me, a grace I did not deserve then and do not deserve now.”[3] It wasn’t because somehow, within myself, I ascertained God’s truth while others did not. No, it wasn’t because I got it, but because He gave it to me.

The mystery of the Kingdom is Jesus Christ. A mystery, in the biblical sense, is not some inscrutable and esoteric secret, but rather something that was hidden in days past that can’t be grasped by human wisdom, but is revealed to us by God Himself. The mystery of all the ages is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It was there all along, but it was hidden in types and shadows, in prophecies and poems. But in Christ, the mystery was unveiled. He is the embodiment of God God’s Kingdom, and His words and His works point us to that reality if we have the faith to receive it. But that faith comes to us as the result of God’s gracious seed-planting in our lives. When He does, the seed is able to grow and thrive in good soil. Good soil is found where God has graciously plowed us and prepared us to see the pictures, to hear the parables, and then to inquire, to dig deeper into His truth. And when we inquire of Him, He will answer us and move us beyond pictures and parables into the deeper mystery – the mystery of the gospel of salvation in Christ. But if our hearts are hard and our eyes and ears are shut to God’s truth, then we will never turn to Him in faith and repentance, and never find that mystery. The tragedy is not that we go on in ignorance, when wisdom is offered us, but rather that we remain in our sins when forgiveness is offered us. We remain outside His kingdom, when He has graciously offered us entrance through the door of faith.

So if today, you find yourself an outsider to God’s truth, inquire of Him, for He has promised us in His word that if we will call out to Him, He will answer us and will tell us great and mighty things which we do not know (Jer 33:3). It may well be the case that this day, God is graciously sowing the seed of His truth on your heart. Our prayer would be that the soil would receive it and allow it to spring up in faith that you may enter in and be one of His insiders to whom this mystery is given.

[1] C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (New York: Scribners, 1961), 5.

[2] Michael Simpson, Permission Evangelism (Colorado Springs: NexGen, 2003), 54.

[3] R. C. Sproul, Grace Unknown: The Heart Of Reformed Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 151.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

A Thank-You, An Apology, A Clarification, and a Good Cup of Coffee

Today, a box arrived at my office from Franklin, Tennessee. In it was a copy of Nate Larkin's book, Samson and the Pirate Monks, and another special gift. Of course, this is in response to my recent post about Lifeway carrying this book. Who is it from? The return address was from a pack-n-ship type place in Franklin, but inside, the book is inscribed to me and signed by the author, Nate Larkin. Since the package did not include Nate's personal address, I can't write him back directly (though I will scour the internet for an email contact when I have time), and I feel that my previous public statements deserve some public clarification here as well. So, this post is both a public statement, and a personal one directed at our brother, Nate Larkin.

First, a thank you. Nate, this gesture on your part is an expression of genuine grace and a demonstration of true Christian maturity, and for that I am thankful. I think we would enjoy sharing the other gift you sent with the book were I in Franklin or if you are ever in Greensboro. Should you ever find yourself here, I hope you will take me up on that offer. The gift involves a beverage that neither of us apparently have any conscientious objection to.

Nate, I pray that God will continue to use your ministry to help men in crisis. I look forward to diving more thoroughly into the book, and look forward to drawing help from it for my own ministry and personal life. And should our paths ever cross, know that I will embrace you as a brother, and enjoy fellowship with you centered around the person of Christ and His saving and life-changing power. And should our paths not cross here, I am confident that we will have all eternity to spend together in worship of the Lamb.

Now, an apology. Nate, it was a rather unfortunate turn of providence that caused me to sample the chapter that includes the description of "the meeting after the meeting." I think aside from this, there is probably very little I would take issue with in the book. After all, I was intrigued enough to read a sample chapter, something that doesn't happen with every book I pick up to browse. I did not intent to convey in my initial post on the book that you were a bad person, an immature Christian, or that the book was completely without merit. If you took personal offense to the comments I made, I am deeply sorry for that. You explain your position on the issue of alcohol in the book, and it one on which we disagree. But mature Christians can do this on a number of issues without breaking fellowship. As I stated in the paragraph above, I am sure that you and I could enjoy fellowship together, as I am confident we agree on more than we disagree.

Here is a clarification. My post about this issue involved two concerns: A) That I do not believe Christians should partake or encourage the use of alcohol. I attempted to set forth a scriptural argument (as opposed to an existential one or one from ecclesiastical history) in my post called "Not Addicted to Much Wine." Where this concerns Nate Larkin is that I believe his book would have been more appealing and more constructive without the information about alcohol. In including this bit, I believe a stumbling block has been set in place, in spite of Nate's effort to allow for conscientious abstinence. Did this information have to be included in the book? I would say No. B) That Lifeway carries (and apparently rigorously defends the appropriateness of carrying) this book, in spite of a strongly worded and controversial resolution passed in our most recent Southern Baptist Convention. This is the deeper issue in my former post. Nate Larkin can write whatever he wants to write and conduct his meetings however he chooses. However, Lifeway is an arm of the SBC, and I believe they should honor the actions taken by the SBC by being selective with their product choices. There are many products available through Lifeway today that would not have been in days past. It appears to me that there has been a lowering of standards of what is acceptable for the SBC bookstore to offer. I take no issue with the book being sold at Barnes and Noble, Borders, Family Christian Stores, Cokesbury, Walmart, or any other retail outlet. My concern is over the SBC bookstore marketing the book because it stands in contradiction with our published position on the issue of alcohol. I hope that clarifies my concern, and Nate, I hope you understand that this was the root of my concern.

For now, a hearty pirate yo ho ho, but hold the bottle of rum for me.

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Sower, The Seed, and The Soil: Mark 4:1-9, 13-20

Download audio by right-clicking here.

A week ago, Bill and I were traveling back from a wonderful weekend conference in Philadelphia, and planned our return so that we might visit Capitol Hill Baptist Church, where Mark Dever is the pastor. After worship, we walked down Capitol Hill to the National Gallery of Art, where we had lunch in the subterranean Cascade CafĂ©. Following lunch, I suggested to Bill that we walk around the Gallery and see some of the timeless pieces of art on display there. As we entered one room of the gallery, I couldn’t help chuckling, for there, a delightfully pleasant and diminutive little lady was teaching a group of children about the paintings on display. This particular one was Mary Cassat’s piece from the late nineteenth century entitled, “The Boating Party.” The painting depicts a man, woman and small child in a boat. The lady said to the children, “What do you see in this painting?” And they were calling out, “A man rowing a boat!” “A baby on her mother’s lap!” She said, “How would you feel if you were in this boat?” And the children said, “Sleepy!” and “Calm!” and “Scared!” She said to them, “What sounds would you hear if you were in this boat?” And they said, “Wind blowing!” and “Waves crashing” and “The baby crying!” Now, the baby is not crying in the picture, but that is what one of the kids said. And they made the noises that they thought they might hear. On and on this went, and I was chuckling. Now what is so funny about this? I was laughing because it seemed like many Sunday School classes and Bible studies I have attended over the years.

In these classes, a passage or portion of a passage is read, and then the leader says to the class, “Now tell me, John, what does the passage mean to you?” And John says something in response. “OK, that is interesting. Now Mary, what does the passage mean to you?” And she says something altogether different. “Wow, thanks Mary, that was really interesting. Now who else wants to say what it means to them?” And on and on it goes. And no matter how ridiculous a person’s answer to the questions may be, the leader never says, “Well, I think you misunderstood that passage,” but always, “OK, that’s interesting.” And everyone leaves thinking that the Bible can mean whatever you want it to mean.

In the first part of the passage we read today, Jesus tells a story about a sower who went out to sow seed. But Jesus does not say, “Now class, tell me what this story means to you.” Instead, in the latter part of the passage, Jesus tells us what it means to Him, and whatever it means to Him is what it really means. Now Jesus doesn’t always explain the parables – at least we don’t have record of any other explanations except this one. And not everyone hears the explanation, here only the disciples do. But this explanation is sufficient to tell us that the message of the Bible is not up to us to determine for ourselves, but rather it is dependent on what God intends for His word to mean. We cannot apply the word to our own lives until we understand the Word as God has spoken it.

The first word of the parable we have read today is Listen. The last word of the parable is hear. The parable itself seems on the surface to be nothing more than a lesson in agriculture – How to Sow Seed for a Harvest. Or perhaps a negative lesson – Why The Harvest Fails. But in the explanation, He tells us that the meaning is something far deeper and far more significant. It has to do with hearing and listening, and responding to the Word of God. While all these are interrelated, they are distinct. One can hear without listening, and one can listen without responding. And there are differing levels of commitment in our responses to the Word. So, let us Listen, and let us hear, and let us respond to the Word of God set forth in this parable and its explanation, that the seed of God’s word might produce a bountiful harvest in our lives.

Now it is vitally important for us to see that the seed is the Word of God. Jesus tells us that plainly in v14. Now I would like for you to all know what this Word is, and hopefully you already do. I happened to drop in at a church several months ago and noticed on their publications the phrase, “Seeking God’s Truth.” Here at Immanuel, we are not seeking His truth. We have found it, and we are proclaiming it. When Jesus prayed in John 17:17, He prayed that the Father might sanctify His people according to the Truth, and then He said, “Thy Word is Truth.” The Word of God is Truth. But what is the Word of God? Where can we find it? In Isaiah 55, God says that His Word goes forth from His mouth. Jesus quoted Deuteronomy in His temptations, saying, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” So the Word of God is that which comes from His mouth. In 2 Timothy 3:16, the Apostle Paul says, “All Scripture is inspired by God.” The Greek word he uses there is theopneustas, which the NIV translates literally, saying, “God-breathed.” The breath of God that proceeds from His mouth carrying His very Word is found in the Scriptures! And not just in some Scripture, as if to say that the Bible contains the Word of God, for Paul says all Scripture, a Greek word being used pasagrafe, which is to say “every part of the whole.” No, the Bible does not merely contain the Word of God, it IS the Word of God. And when you are involved in the task of proclaiming it, publishing it, or otherwise distributing that Word of God, then you are sowing seed into the soil of those who hear you.

Jesus was doing this very thing in the passage. Earlier, in Mark 3:9, Jesus was faced with another crowd, and had a boat prepared as a means of escaping them. Here, the boat becomes a means of engaging them. This boat became a floating pulpit for Him. We can’t know precisely the location where this event took place, but there is a place just south of Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee where the land gently slopes down to a bay forming a natural amphitheater. This has come to be known as the “Bay of Parables,” and assumed to be the location, for scientists conducted studies and determined that a human voice could effortlessly reach thousands of hearers on the shore. But Jesus knew they would not all listen, they would not all hear, and they would not all respond in the same way.

In the four parts of this parable, Jesus explains that the four soils represent four different groups of people, all of whom are said to “hear the word.” They have that much in common. However, each one hears and responds to the word differently.

We begin by looking at …

I. The Stolen Seed (vv4, 15)

As the sower goes out to sow, so wide and so broadly is he casting his seed that some of it falls beside the road. Here on this hardened path, there is no soil present so the seed cannot take root. It lays there to become food for the birds which come and take it away. If you want to see this in action, go out to the street where you live and dump a pile of seeds on the road. Soon, birds will swarm in and feast on that seed and it will be gone before you know it.

Jesus says some people hear the word in this way. So hardened is their heart that the seed of His word cannot take root—indeed there is nothing there for the Word to root in. And no sooner is it heard but that Satan comes and immediately takes away the word. They hear the word, but their hearts are so hard that it can never sink in, and they soon forget whatever it was that they heard.

Satan knows the power of God’s Word. He knows that it is powerful to produce faith, as Paul says in Romans 10:17. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God. He knows that the Word is powerful to save, as Romans 1:16 says, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel for it is the power of God unto salvation.” So, if Satan can keep the individual satisfied in their hard-heartedness, satisfied that they have done their duty to be at church or to have “heard” the word in some way, and he can steal that word away immediately lest it slip through some crack in the concrete of their heart and mind, then he is able to keep them in his bondage.

So this scene is a warning to those hard-hearted hearers of the Word. Break up that pavement that guards your heart, lest the Word of God which you hear become only a feast for Satan who continues to deceive you and keep you separated from God. The more you hear the word, and do not allow it to take root in your life, the harder the path to your heart will become, and in the end, you will perish eternally, your life having become nothing more than a serving table for Satan. What a terrible epitaph that would be. But such is the tragedy of the stolen seed from the hard-hearted hearer.

II. The Scorched Seed (vv4-6, 16-17)

As the sower sows the seed, Jesus says some of it fell on rocky ground. On this rocky ground, there is soil, but not to a sufficient depth to stabilize the sprout once it begins to grow. And notice, that the growth is immediate. Because the soil is shallow, the seed is able to quickly get the water and sunlight it needs to sprout. But because the roots are unable to go deep into the soil, it becomes scorched and withered by the heat of the sun.

In His explanation of this parable, Jesus points out that the individuals represented by the rocky soil have heard the word, and immediately, they received it with joy. What a delight it is for us to see someone respond so enthusiastically to the Word of God! But how often have you been disappointed to see such a person begin to fall away from following Christ in a relatively short amount of time? Jesus uses the same word immediately to describe their falling away as He uses to describe their reception of the Word. I have seen it very often. Why does this happen? Why does a person who seems to delight themselves in God so soon fall away? Sometimes they offer us reasons – someone treated them badly, their circumstances in life are so difficult that they can’t make any real commitments, etc. Sometimes we never hear from them, but offer excuses up for them, and often we look at externals as if the person were a victim of someone else’s actions. But Jesus says that the problem is not outside of the individual, it is inside.

He says that they have no firm root in themselves. Because the soil of their hearts is so shallow, it cannot sustain true spiritual growth. When affliction and persecution arises, and Jesus promises us that both will arise, the faith of this individual withers and fades away. Notice that He does not just indicate that the person experiences hardships. Every human being will experience hardships. We are all prone to sickness and suffering. Jesus is speaking here of a particular variety of affliction and persecution. He says that they are afflicted and persecuted because of the Word. The Word makes demands on us. And those demands are not always comfortable to bear. There may be a life-change that God’s Word calls us to make. There may be a difficult and unpopular stance we are called to take, and persecution will arise because we have stood unwavering on the Word. But when a person is unwilling to endure those afflictions and persecutions that come our way because of God’s Word, Jesus applies a frightening label to this individual – He says they are temporary.

This raises the question of what we believe concerning the permanence of salvation, the doctrine of eternal security, or as it is commonly called, the notion of “Once Saved, Always Saved.” Here I believe that our little cherished Baptist phrase has done a great disservice to many individuals, many churches, and the witness of Christ in the community. Let me say without hesitation or apology that I believe the Bible teaches that once a person is genuinely saved, He or she is saved forever. Their salvation is permanent; they are eternally secure. Scriptures I would point to which teach this are: Let’s use our Bibles here. Turn to…

John 10:27-29

Romans 8:1, 29-39

But, I am also not reluctant or ashamed to say that the Bible plainly teaches that not every who claims to be saved genuinely is saved. Again, turning in our Bibles, look at …

Matthew 7:21-23

1 Jn 2:19

2 Cor 13:5

So, while I would say that on the surface, I agree with, “Once saved, always saved,” I would deny that all who call themselves saved have ever been saved. The grand mark of saving faith is perseverance in that faith, not momentary episodes of temporary enthusiasm. In other words, if it is temporary, then it is not authentic, for authentic saving faith is permanent.

How do you respond to the Word? If you hear it and receive it immediately with joy, it is no sure sign that you are genuinely converted. The evidence of your salvation will be demonstrated in how you endure the afflictions and persecutions that come your way in this life because of the Word. But if those things scorch the seed of God’s Word in the shallow soil of your heart, and you fall away, then you demonstrate that you were never converted in the first place. So, we must cultivate the soil of our hearts as we do our gardens. No one plants a garden without first going to great effort to rid the soil of rocks that will prevent the seed from rooting deeply into the ground. It is grueling effort of plowing and shoveling and repeating over and over again until there is sufficient depth of soil to receive the seed and produce the harvest. So we must be with our hearts. We must strive to keep ourselves sensitive to the Word of God, and strong in the midst of tribulation, relying on God’s grace and power to work through us for endurance, lest we bear that shameful label of temporary.

III. The Strangled Seed (vv7, 18-19)

As the sower was sowing his seed, some of it fell among thorns. Though the seed may sprout and grow, it will not produce fruit. There will be no external demonstration of the vitality of the plant. Because the weeds and thorns are able to grow faster and higher than the cultivated crops they soon overshadowed and choked out the seed. Anyone who has ever dealt with weeds in their gardens or flower beds knows that we must always be on guard against weeds. I wish we could find a market for kudzu. I have driven past places where the kudzu has not only taken over the fields, but the barns, the cars, and everything else in its path. You aren’t going to get anything to grow there, because the kudzu will choke it out.

Jesus explains that this kind of thorny ground represents those who hear the word, but there is no indication of any response on their part. Perhaps they received the word, perhaps they didn’t. It’s so hard to tell, because there isn’t any fruit being produced in the person’s life. They are virtually indistinguishable from the unsaved person’s life. They might call themselves a Christian, and I suppose only God knows if they really are. But there is no manifestation of God working in and through them. Why does this happen? Because the thorns strangle the seed of God’s word and prevent it from producing fruit in that person’s life.

What are the thorns? Jesus identifies a triumvirate of thorny seed stranglers in verse 19: the worries of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and desires for other things. These things demand our earnest attention here, for our Lord says that these three things are able to strangle out the growth of the Word of God in our lives and prevent us from bearing fruit for Him. There may be green leaves that indicate some presence of life in the seedling, but there will be no fruit. That fruit, Paul says in Galatians 5:22-23, that indicates the fullness of the Spirit in us is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Where the Spirit of God is bringing growth to the Word of God in our lives, this will be the fruit we bear. But God has sovereignly determined that where we allow ourselves to be consumed by these thorny seed-stranglers, He will not compete. He doesn’t have to. So infinitely greater is He than anything we encounter in this life, He will allow us to learn our lesson the hard way.

The worries of this world will do it. One cannot live in this life without facing stressors, but danger arises when those stressors begin to distract us from the one thing that is important – our walk with God. When that happens, the worries of this world have strangled the seed of God’s word.

And the deceitfulness of riches will do it just as quickly. Here me carefully here. The Bible does not say that money is the root of all evil. There are many great and wonderful things that can be done with money, and much of the work of God’s Kingdom involves our careful management of money. But the Bible does say in 1 Timothy 6:10 that “the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” It is so deceitful. We are so easily led astray by it. So we must always be on guard against the persistent temptation to elevate the accumulation of riches over the demonstration of righteousness. Many will awake to find that their pursuit of the American dream has actually been a nightmare of the most severe consequences.

Desires for other things can also strangle the fruit-bearing growth of the Word of God in our lives. You should know that God has so wired us that we will only find true satisfaction of our desires in Him alone. Augustine said, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until we rest in Thee.” Everything in this world which we desire for ourselves has a built-in disappointment factor. Have you noticed that? Whether it is a possession, a relationship, an activity, or anything else, have you ever set your sights on something and said, “Ah, if only I could have that,” “If only I could be with that person,” “If only I could do this thing or that, then I would have it made!” And God forbid that we should lay ahold of that thing, that it should be actualized in our experience, what will we always find? It does not satisfy. It never can. God has created you so that the only thing that will satisfy the deepest longings of your heart is Him.

C. S. Lewis said in The Weight of Glory, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” But we aren’t pleased. There is always that sneaking suspicion that we need just a little more. The world parades these objects like bait before our eyes, promising us fulfillment and satisfaction if only we will take a bite. But be warned – there is a hook in that bait! It will not deliver—it cannot. Over every fountain that promises satisfaction in this life, we should mark the words of Jesus which He spoke to the woman at the well in John 4:13-14: “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.”

Do you want contentment and satisfaction in this life? You can have it, but it is not found in anything this life affords. It is found only in God, whom you can only know through Jesus Christ. And following hard after other desires, being consumed by the worries of this world, and being deceived by riches will only thwart that satisfaction as it strangles the seed of God’s word in your life and prevents you from bearing fruit for Him. Your life will be qualitatively no different from the average pagan around you. So we must search the soil of our hearts and look for the presence of these thorny weeds, and where we find them we must pull them up from the roots. We must fight against them with all the effort the grace of God will supply. We must pray, we must make it a matter of utter desperation and pray as if our life depends on it, that God would guard us from these seed-strangling snares and allow His word to abide in us richly to bear that fruit that marks us as His disciples.

IV. The Successful Seed (v8, 20)

As the sower sows his seed, some of it falls on good soil, and that seed which falls on good soil will produce a harvest, thirty, sixty, a hundred-fold. No farmer in that day would have experienced results of this measure with the best seed in the best of soils. He would have counted himself immeasurably blessed to see a ten-fold increase. But this seed is far superior to any garden variety seed. This seed is the matchless Word of God. And Jesus says that where it comes to rest in good soil, that seed will be accepted and there will be a bountiful crop of spiritual fruit in our lives.

So, how do you hear the Word of God? You have heard it today. What response will there be in your life to it? Will it lie fallow on the hard ground of your hard-heart, and there be stolen away by Satan as a bird plucks seed from the road? Will you respond immediately with joyful enthusiasm, only to fall away just as quickly because your faith in that Word is temporary? Will you hear it and allow it to take root, only to have its fruit strangled out of your life by worry, by the love of money, and by the desire for the bait that this world dangles before your eyes? And in so doing, will you allow your life to appear as if Christ makes no difference whatsoever? Or will you allow it to sink its roots deeply into your heart, and with persevering faith, see the Holy Spirit producing fruit of righteousness in you as you live for Christ and serve Him?

Perhaps today, the seed of this word falls on the soil of your heart, and it is calling you to salvation in Christ. Every human being stands separated because of our sin from the God who made us and loves us. But God has come to rescue us in the person of Jesus Christ, and promises that whoever will turn from sin and trust that Christ has died in your place and ever lives to save you will receive forgiveness and eternal life. Now what will become of that seed in your life?

Maybe you are a sower of this seed. You are sharing Christ and proclaiming God’s word regularly, but you aren’t seeing any harvest. Maybe you aren’t, but you know you should be. Well, be encouraged, brothers and sisters. It may be that only ¼ of the seed we sow will produce fruit. But God will judge the hearer for his response. Your task is to sow, and if you keep doing it, there will be a harvest.

Or it could be that today, this seed is cracking open in your heart to convict you of a persistent habit of soil inspection in others without examining your own. You know, this time we’ve spent today isn’t really about you and me. It is about you and God. And it isn’t about one who isn’t here. Don’t worry what someone who doesn’t hear this word would do with it. You have heard it. The seed has been sown into your life. What kind of soil will it find there?

Friday, May 04, 2007

Reading Over My Shoulder: Bock, The Missing Gospels

Following are some quotes and paraphrases from Darrell Bock, The Missing Gospels:

Karen King: “The variety of phenomena classified as ‘Gnostic’ simply will not support a single, monolithic definition, and in fact, none of the primary materials fits the standard typological definition.

Gnostic texts reflect a set of religious ideas within the same family of concerns.

There is no single, “magical” trait that guarantees a Gnostic presence.

The issue is not which one thing counts, but what does the whole work reflect.

Gnostic works share a common general outlook on the world that we can describe and define.

Hans-Josef Klauck: “We have no literary testimonies to a developed gnosis that can be dated indubitably to the first century CE or even earlier. The unambiguous attestation of gnosis by means of quotations by non-gnostic authors of the original documents begins, at the earliest, at the start of the second century CE; this fact would speak in favor of the Church history hypothesis [i.e. that the church belief was first and the alternative of Gnosticism followed—DB].”

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Lifeway, Pirate Monks, and Resolution 5

A few weeks ago, I was at Barnes and Noble perusing some books. Typically, here is how a visit to B&N goes for me. Upon walking in the door, my wife and kids go to the children's section, and I peruse the sale racks first, then look at a few new release tables, then I check out the religion and philosophy sections. I grab as many books as I can carry which catch my eye, and I go sit down with the family at the Thomas the Tank Engine table in the kids section and start skimming. If something catches my attention, I will likely make a purchase. If a skim of the front and back covers, table of contents, bibliography, index, and one sample chapter don't intrigue me, I reshelve the books.

On this particular occasion, one of the books I picked up to skim was by Nate Larkin, entitled Samson and the Pirate Monks: Calling Men to Authentic Brotherhood. I had just finished Raising a Modern Day Knight by Robert Lewis, which calls men to recapture the ideals of chivalry manifested in medieval orders of knights and pass it on to our sons. That is a great book which I would recommend to all Christian men, and dads especially. I like this idea of being knights. So, my eyes were drawn to a book that is calling us to be pirates as well! Monastic pirates, even! Front cover, back cover, table of contents, introduction, all looked good, so I decided to randomly pick a chapter to begin reading.

In the chapter I chose, I began to lose interest quickly as Larkin spoke of gathering with his fellow pirate monks in a local pub for beers after their regular meetings. There, they would drink beer and pray together. Book closed, reshelved. I am no longer interested.

If you have read my posts entitled "Not Addicted to Much Wine" and "Is That Hypocrisy I Smell?" then you know my position on Christians and alcohol. In short, I think Christians have no business consuming alcohol in any quantity. In the "Not Addicted" post, I attempt to set forth a biblical argument for that position. A statement in our church membership covenant (which is the same as that used by many SBC churches) says that we covenant together "to abstain from the sale and use of intoxicating drink as a beverage." I firmly support that commitment.

At last year's SBC, I was glad that Southern Baptists overwhelmingly supported Resolution 5, "On Alcohol Use in America." The final "Whereas" of this resolution reads, "WHEREAS, There are some religious leaders who are now advocating the consumption of alcoholic beverages based on a misinterpretation of the doctrine of 'our freedom in Christ'." The first "Resolved" of the resolution renews our historic commitment to "total opposition to the manufacturing, advertising, distributing, and consuming of alcoholic beverages."

Out of curiosity, I decided to surf the Lifeway website to see if our SBC agency was selling Larkin's Pirate book. I was not surprised to find it there. Immediately, I went to the contact form on the website, selected the appropriate category ("Objectionable Content") and sent the following message:

Dear friends at Lifeway, I notice online that you are selling "Samson and the Pirate Monks" by Nate Larkin. As a SBC Pastor, I have some concern with this. I perused this book recently and found it to be a pretty good resource, UNTIL the author began talking about going out with his men's prayer group for beers after their meeting. This is a product of the church culture that the SBC spoke out against with resolution #5 last year in Greensboro. I would encourage you to examine this book carefully and see if it is keeping with our historic Baptist convictions, especially in regard to alcohol. Please let me know your decision. Pastor Russ Reaves Immanuel Baptist Church Greensboro, NC

Within 24 hours, I received the following message back from a Lifeway representative, whose name I shall withhold:

Dear Pastor Reaves, Thank you for your email of April 16, expressing your concern about some of the content in Samson and the Pirate Monks by Nate Larkin. I am pleased to respond. I have ordered a copy of the book to evaluate, but will be out of the office the rest of the week and will not be able to get back to you on this until next week. I hope that will be satisfactory.

I sent the following response just a few hours later:

Thanks [name withheld]. I appreciate you looking into it. I would be very interested in hearing your thoughts. Again, it is not a bad book through and through. It has much good to say. But all of that is undone, I believe, by the brief recounting of the guys from church swilling beers after prayer meeting. I feel that might lead people astray who are struggling to find help and hope in their season of need. Thanks for hearing my concerns.
Pastor Russ Reaves

Finally I received my long awaited response on May 1. The contents are below, in full:

Dear Pastor Reaves, Thanks again for your emails, expressing concern about some of the content in Sampson [sic] and the Pirate Monks by Nate Larkin. I have secured a copy of this book and am pleased to try to respond. You mentioned Resolution #5 at the Greensboro Southern Baptist Convention last June. I was at that convention and heard the debate and witnessed the overwhelming support for the resolution as was shown by the vote. Regarding the specific content of the book that you pointed out, several things come to mind: On pages 122-3, the author gives a rationale for the practice of meeting at a pub after the prayer meeting by citing Christian history and by stating that, "I personally know several men who only attended their first Sampson [sic] meeting because we go to the pub afterward. Our willingness to be real, our determination to give secondary issues secondary status, gave us credibility with these guys. Other Samson groups have decided the matter differently, mostly out of concern for alcoholics within their ranks, and that's perfectly fine too." Larkin is respectful of those who oppose the consumption of alcohol as a beverage. I live in Franklin, where the author's church and the pub are located. The church has an excellent reputation for evangelism, missions, and discipleship and is theologically conservative. As you probably know, many denominations with churches and members served by LifeWay Christian Stores do not have the same stated opposition to alcohol that Southern Baptists have adopted. For example, the church described above is a PCA Presbyterian Church, and that denomination does not oppose the use of alcohol as a beverage. I have read nine reviews of this book, and they all give it the maximum rating. They point out how helpful it is to men who are dealing with crises in their lives and it does this from an unapologetically Christian perspective. Our vision statement at LifeWay Christian Stores is, "As God works through us ... we will help people and churches know Jesus Christ and seek His Kingdom by providing biblical solutions that spiritually transform individuals and cultures." We have product standards and work hard to carry only products that are in harmony with our vision and standards. With some 100,000 products on our website and 30,000 in our chain of stores, this is a formidable task. We know that not every customer or stakeholder will agree with all the content of every book we carry. In this case, we feel that the other content of this book is compelling enough to overcome the passage you cited. Thank you for shopping at LifeWay Christian Stores and for taking the time to write and express your well-stated concerns on this important and pertinent issue. I am circulating your emails to our merchandising leadership team, and we will use this input as part of our ongoing product evaluation process. I hope this information is helpful and encouraging to you. May God richly bless you and Immanuel Baptist Church as you serve Him in Greensboro.

Well, I am disappointed, but not surprised. I am surprised that this individual twice misspelled the name "Samson" ("Sampson"), but not surprised to see Lifeway taking this stance. However, the reasoning befuddles me.

I believe that we Southern Baptists ought to be concerned that Lifeway apparently has the option of disregarding the official actions taken by the SBC in its regular session.

It concerns me further that a denominational agency employee would defend this book using the author's statement: "I personally know several men who only attended their first Sampson [sic] meeting because we go to the pub afterward. Our willingness to be real, our determination to give secondary issues secondary status, gave us credibility with these guys." It wouldn't take much imagination to see how morally dangerous this kind of logic could be. Being all things to all men does not include being like the drunkards in order to reach the drunkards!

It is also discouraging to find yet another example in SBC life of pragmatism trumping doctrine. Because "The church has an excellent reputation for evangelism, missions, and discipleship and is theologically conservative," we should turn a blind eye to their tolerance of immoral activity.

There is also found in this Lifeway employees response a postmodern kind of relativism in the statement, "the church described above is a PCA Presbyterian Church, and that denomination does not oppose the use of alcohol as a beverage." This is the "what's true for you doesn't have to be true for me," kind of reasoning that has our culture in such turmoil! Right is right, and truth is truth, no matter whether another person or group accepts it. I am Southern Baptist, and Lifeway is Southern Baptist. Why should I care what the PCA position on alcohol is? We have formulated a position that we feel is biblical and resolved to act in certain ways in support of that position -- What hath Nashville (the home of the SBC) to do with Lawrenceville (the home of the PCA)?

The Lifeway rep says, "I have read nine reviews of this book, and they all give it the maximum
rating." I would ask, "Who wrote these reviews?" I know many who would object to nothing in the book, but that doesn't make it acceptable. He says, "They point out how helpful it is to men who are dealing with crises in their lives and it does this from an unapologetically Christian perspective." Excuse me, but endorsing the consumption of alcohol is neither unapologetically Christian, nor is it helpful for helping men deal with crises in their lives.

One final concern (though I could share more) with the message I received is this statement: "As you probably know, many denominations with churches and members served by LifeWay Christian Stores do not have the same stated opposition to alcohol that Southern Baptists have adopted." So, in other words, Lifeway needs to be more sensitive to and concerned with the positions of PCA and other churches than with the SBC. Does this seem incongruous to anyone else but me?

Well, what more can I do? I have brought it to their attention, and my concerns have been dismissed: "We know that not every customer or stakeholder will agree with all the content of every book we carry. In this case, we feel that the other content of this book is compelling enough to overcome the passage you cited." There is one other thing I can do. I can refuse to shop at Lifeway, and I can discourage others from doing so as well. This won't require a major sacrifice on my part, for I seldom shop at Lifeway. For one thing, typically when I am searching for something deeply theological or academic in nature, I can't even find it at Lifeway. Secondly, as a steward of the resources God entrusts to me, I can often find better pricing elsewhere on the items I need. Now I have one more reason to not support them.

In closing, here is my response to the Lifeway employee's message:

I am sorry that I must beg to differ. You are not a PCA bookstore, you are a SBC bookstore, and therefore should see to it that your products fall in line with the BFM and official resolutions and actions taken by the convention. This response from you further confirms my long developing hunch that Lifeway has become less concerned with faith and practice and more concerned with marketing and profits. Pastor Russ Reaves