Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Audio: Matthew 2:1-12 Responding to Jesus

Audio from December 27, 2009 has been posted here:

Click to stream, right-click to download. You can also find this on our iTunes podcast.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Resolved: To glorify God in the ordinary ...

Following is my article for the January issue of The Messenger, the monthly newsletter of Immanuel Baptist Church:

As we enter 2010, undoubtedly many are making New Years Resolutions. As I thought about some resolutions that need to be made in the upcoming year, I sense God teaching me that I need to learn to value more of what we might call the "ordinary" things. Unfortunately, too often we are led to believe that God is most at work in the spectacular, the miraculous, and the moments of spine-tingling excitement. This can lead us to become spiritually disillusioned, discouraged and depressed. After all, I think it is safe to say that most of us do not experience the spectacular on a regular or frequent basis. If the miraculous were commonplace, it would not be miraculous. I think of Elijah, who likely experienced the miraculous on a more frequent basis and at a more spectacular intensity than anyone else in the Old Testament. Yet, in the wake of one of the most extraordinary displays of God's power in Scripture (the showdown with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel in 1 Kings 18), Elijah experienced fear and discouragement like never before in his life. As he hid in the cave at Mt. Horeb, God spoke to him and said, "Go forth and stand on the mountain before the Lord." And Elijah beheld a number of spectacular phenomena in that moment. There was a great and strong wind that literally shook and shattered the mountain. But the Bible says that the Lord was not in that wind. And then there was an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. After this there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire either. But then the Lord's voice came to Elijah from a gentle blowing breeze, or as the King James Version states it, "a still, small voice." It was in this still, small voice that God spoke encouragement, comfort and direction to His prophet. Perhaps we are too much like Elijah in that we expect God to only work and direct us through the hair-raising excitement of the miraculous. In truth, God is God all the time, and He is at work all the time, even when we do not expect or perceive Him. In the coming year, may we all be more focused on seeking, hearing, understanding, and glorifying God in the quiet moments, the ordinary times, and the mundane tasks we find ourselves doing each day. As we glorify God in these things, we may find that we are walking closer with Him than ever before, that our witness for Him is even more impressive to the unbelievers we know, and that our lives take on an entirely new level of significance and spiritual depth. May it be so for us all in 2010.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Miracle of Jesus’ Birth (Matthew 1:18-25)

Audio available here:

Sermon text as originally written follows. (When I preach, I do not follow my manuscript verbatim, so there are variations).

An unwed teenage girl turns up pregnant. The only man in her life knows with certainty that the child is not his. She claims that she is still a virgin, and that her pregnancy is a miracle of God.

This sounds like the stuff of daytime television; however, in this case at least, it is rather the stuff of New Testament Christianity. This is how Jesus entered the world – under these circumstances which would be nothing short of scandalous. In fact, in our day, we have become accustomed to the news of unwed teenage pregnancy, even those where the identity of the father is not known. In that day and in the moral culture of 1st Century Israel, the scandal would have been even greater than in our day and culture. Critics of the Bible say that the ancients were more willing to believe in a virgin birth because they lived in a pre-scientific age. Unlike them, the critics say, we must reject this belief today because we know that science simply will not allow for a human child to be born to a virgin mother. However, the ancients were sufficiently informed scientifically to know how babies are made. The claim of a virgin conceiving a child would have been as far-fetched for them as it is for people of the 21st Century.

In fact, this is one of the many evidences of the historicity of the virgin birth. Suppose early Christians wanted to invent details to make the claims of Jesus more believable … do you really think they would have invented a virgin birth story? That would seem to make the story harder to believe, not easier. Plus, considering that most of the earliest Christians were Jews, it would be a high act of blasphemy to speak of God’s involvement in this way if it were not true. By even telling the story of the virgin birth, these Jewish Christians risked death at the hands of the religious leaders of Israel. The most likely explanation for why the Bible records these stories of the virgin birth of Jesus is that the story is true.

It is amazing to read Matthew’s account for several reasons. First of all is the straightforwardness of it. He spends no time trying to give a defense for the virgin birth. He simply states it as a fact, saying, “The birth of Jesus Christ was as follows:” Second, Matthew’s account is very interesting because in it we find the events unfolding through the perspective of Joseph. The Christmas narratives with which we are most familiar are from Luke’s Gospel, and are told from Mary’s perspective. As we look at the birth of Jesus through Joseph’s eyes, we see an ordinary man, presented with information that would strike any of us as unbelievable, and then processing that information and responding to it. Though the story is told from Joseph’s viewpoint, he is not the main character here. The main character in this story is Jesus. It is a story of his birth – the miracle of His birth. And in this story we find at least three points about His miraculous birth which are relevant for us today, in the Advent season, and at every other time of our lives.

The first of these points is …
I. The Miracle of Jesus’ Birth is a Revealed Truth (vv18-20)

On my first day at seminary, I went to the bookstore to purchase my textbooks. One of them was Allen Ross’s Introducing Biblical Hebrew. I thought I would be a good student and come home and get a head start on this course, so I attempted to dive into Chapter One. It didn’t make sense. Hebrew has a different alphabet; it’s written right to left; the parts of speech and rules of grammar don’t correspond to anything I was familiar with. I tried to use a dictionary to help me grasp some of the concepts, but the words I was reading weren’t even in the dictionary. I was terrified when I walked into class the first day. But I had a good teacher, and over the course of two semesters, Hebrew became my favorite subject, and I went on to study it in depth over the next few years. But at first, it was an unfathomable mystery to me.

Have you ever had an experience like that, in which you are presented with information that seems absolutely impossible to comprehend? I am sure we all have. But with the right instruction and help, we find that we can eventually grasp it. There are some truths, however, which would be forever impossible to understand without divine revelation. By this, I mean that God Himself must make these things known to us because they defy human explanation and comprehension. The virgin birth is one such truth. It not only escapes comprehension for us in the modern age, it also did for those who were directly involved in the event.

Luke tells us about the angel Gabriel’s visit and announcement to Mary, making known to her that she would conceive and give birth to the Messiah, the Son of God. Her initial reaction to this news was to say, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). As the angel explained to her that the Holy Spirit would accomplish this miracle, Mary humbly submitted herself to the revealed will of God and said, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to you word.” (Luke 1:38). But remember that Joseph was not party to this conversation. While we may assume that Mary would have immediately told Joseph of this, in Jewish culture, the two may have had very little contact with one another, even during the days of their betrothal.

Jewish marriage typically occurred through a process I like to call “The ABC’s.” First was the arrangement. The parents of the young man and young woman would arrange the marriage of their children, often while they were merely children, and seldom with any input from their children. After the arrangement was settled, the young man and young woman would become betrothed. In many cases, the girl would be as young as twelve, and the boy merely fifteen or so. Betrothal was a form of engagement, but was a more binding covenant than we practice today. It is not unusual for young couples today to end their engagement, but a betrothed couple would actually have to legally divorce to end their relationship. At betrothal, they became husband and wife in a legal sense, but they continued to live apart for a year or more, during which time they prepared themselves for life together, the husband preparing the home in which they would live, and both parties demonstrating their purity and faithfulness by remaining committed to each other and sexually chaste in their relations. Then, following the days of preparation, the marriage would be consummated by the ceremony of marriage and the coming together of husband and wife.

Matthew tells us that it was in the days of their betrothal, before they came together in consummation, that Mary was found to be with child. The fact of her pregnancy became known. Pregnancy is one of those things that you can only hide for so long. Whether Joseph and Mary had previously talked about the angelic announcement she had received is unknown. What is known is that at this point, Joseph becomes aware that she is pregnant, and he knows that he is not the father of the child, because he has maintained his sexual purity. The only human explanation for her condition is that she has not.
At this point, Matthew tells us that Joseph was a “righteous man.” This is not the “righteousness” that later New Testament writings refer to, the righteousness of Christ that is imputed to Christians by faith through the divine act of justification. Joseph’s righteousness was one of devotion to the Mosaic law and concern for spiritual, moral, and ritualistic purity. Therefore he knew that he could not go through with marriage to an adultress. The law even allowed for her to be put to death. But Joseph’s righteousness exceeded the mere letter of the law, and was heavily saturated with mercy. Out of love for Mary, he did not desire death, punishment, or humiliation for her, but rather he contemplated “sending her away secretly.” In other words, he was considering a private and discreet divorce. This was seemingly the only solution to the dilemma. Human wisdom could fathom no other explanation for her condition than that she had been unfaithful; and no other resolution than divorce.

As Joseph considered this, we read that he received divine revelation for himself. Verse 20 says that “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.” The angel addressed him personally, “Joseph, son of David.” And the angel acknowledged Joseph’s dilemma, reassuring him with, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” Surely at this point, he has heard Mary’s far-fetched attempt to explain her pregnancy and has written it off as a clever cover-up for her apparent sin. But the angel’s message to him confirms that her story is true – “The Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” Perhaps it would be na├»ve for him to believe these words had they only been spoken by Mary, but now they have been spoken by God Himself, through His angelic messenger. Where human explanation fails, divine revelation breaks through to make this truth known to Joseph.

Much of modern science has attempted to explain the unexplainable in strictly human ways. Beginning with the assumption that there is no supernatural being, and therefore no real miracles, secular science has crafted a theory of how the world came into being, how human life began, and how the universe operates. In fairness, we must admit that they have done a spectacular job explaining how these things occur in a universe where God is absent. But, as Francis Schaeffer so eloquently put it, God “is there, and He is not silent.” He has made truth about Himself, His creation, and His plan for redemption known to us through His revelation in nature and Scripture. The mystery of cosmic origins, human origins, and theological doctrines such as the virgin birth, the Trinity, the atonement, and the resurrection of Jesus, defy human grasp in naturalistic logic. But these truths have been made known through divine revelation, and we like Joseph, must decide if we will believe that God is there, and that He has spoken, and whether or not we will believe what He has spoken. Otherwise we will merely resort to human wisdom and explain away the unexplainable with cleverly crafted theories. Yes, the virgin birth is a mystery that escapes comprehension if we insist on a merely naturalistic and humanistic framework. For that reason, this doctrine is commonly rejected, often with ridicule and scorn. But for those of us who are willing to believe that God exists, that God creates, and that God redeems those who trust in Him, we accept His divinely revealed truth on the birth of Jesus and every other doctrine that Scripture affirms.

The miracle of Jesus’ birth is a revealed truth. It required divine revelation for Mary to believe, and for Joseph to believe. God gave each of them His Word through angelic messengers. But we will not receive angelic affirmations of this truth in dreams and visions. We receive this truth through the revelation of His Word. And we must decide if we will believe it or not.

The second relevant point for us in this text is …

II. The Miracle of Jesus’ Birth is the fulfillment of a promise (vv21-23)

When I was in Africa a few years ago, one of the local Christians asked me if I would provide something for him. I really didn’t want to do it, and I knew that financially I and my church would be unable to, but I didn’t have the heart to just say, “No,” so I said, “Maybe. We’ll see about that.” We Americans understand that to mean, “No way. Not going to happen.” Well, a missionary friend pulled me aside and gave me a lesson in cross-cultural communication. He said, “You better go explain to him that you aren’t going to do that, because you just promised him you would.” I said, “No, I said Maybe.” He said, “In Africa, ‘Maybe’ means yes.” He said, “In fact, even if you say, ‘No,’ it still means ‘Maybe.’” I asked, “What do I say if I really mean ‘No?’” He said, “I’m not sure, I haven’t figured that out yet.” See, sometimes we say “Maybe,” when we really mean “No.” But when God promises something, it’s never with a “Maybe.” It means that we can be assured that what He has promised is going to happen.

Seven hundred years before Jesus was born, God gave a promise to all of Israel through the prophet Isaiah in a confrontation with King Ahaz. You can follow along with me in Isaiah 7 if you like. The background is this: Tiglath-Pileser of Assyria was rapidly encroaching on the region and threatening to overtake every nation he encountered, and he had the might to do it. Rezin, the King of Aram (aka, Syria) and Pekah, the King of Israel’s Northern Kingdom, had formed an alliance hoping to protect themselves from the Assyrians. They tried to persuade Ahaz to bring Judah (the Southern Kingdom) into the alliance. When Ahaz refused, Rezin and Pekah began what has come to be known as the Syro-Ephraimite War against Judah and they gained ground all the way to Jerusalem. It was a costly war for Ahaz and all of Judah. One biblical account says that Pekah slew 120,000 men in one day and captured 200,000 (including women and children). In spite of all this, Isaiah 7:1 says that they were unsuccessful in taking Jerusalem. But they didn’t give up. They set up camp and threatened to keep attacking until they had overtaken Jerusalem and installed their own puppet-king on the throne there. When Ahaz learned of this, Isaiah 7:2 says that “his heart and the hearts of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake with the wind.”

King Ahaz is more than just a character in a story. As a descendant of David reigning in Jerusalem, he “embodies all that God is presently doing to fulfill His promise and all that God will do in the future for the whole world!” A threat against the reign of Ahaz is a threat against the promises God has made to all Israel and to the house of David. And Ahaz faced a threat on two fronts now – the Syro-Ephraimite forces and the more powerful Assyrians. But God sent the prophet Isaiah to Ahaz with a message. Isaiah told the King in verses 4-9, “Take care and be calm, have no fear and do not be fainthearted … (they) have planned evil against you (but), thus says the Lord God: ‘It shall not stand nor shall it come to pass. … If you will not believe, you surely shall not last.’”

So the prophet has assured Ahaz that God Himself will be the protector of His people and all that Ahaz must do is believe – to trust God to keep the promises He has made. But Ahaz is not faithful to God. He was a pagan idolater, and he did not trust God. In order to persuade him to believe, Isaiah 7:10-11 says that the Lord spoke again to Ahaz, saying, “Ask a sign for yourself from the Lord your God; make it as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven.” But in a false display of piety, Ahaz says, I will not ask, nor will I test the Lord!” So now Isaiah speaks God’s word with even more boldness, not only to the King but to the entire house of David and he says in v14, “The Lord Himself will give you (plural) a sign.” And the sign that is given is this: “The virgin (there is a definite article present in the Hebrew, so it is not “a virgin,” but “the virgin”) … will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.”

Now the scholars have spilled much ink here on whether or not the Hebrew term used means “virgin,” or simply a “young woman.” In point of fact, every time this word ha’almah is used in the Old Testament, wherever context enables us to determine the precise meaning, it means a virgin. Besides that, she is to be a sign: something out of the ordinary that captures one’s attention and points us to a divine truth. There is no sign value in a young woman being pregnant. But a virgin who is pregnant, now that is definitely out of the ordinary. So the sign that God appoints is that a pregnant virgin will give birth to a son who will be called “Immanuel,” a compound Hebrew word that means, “God with us.” This baby who is born will Himself be God. This is made clear as the prophecy unfolds over the next two chapters of Isaiah and speaks of a child who will be born “unto us” and a Son who will be given “unto us,” whose name shall be “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” This child will be divine … God in human flesh. And how will we know when He has come? When the pregnant virgin gives birth.

Centuries pass by following the statement of this prophecy. The Northern Kingdom falls to Assyria, the Southern Kingdom falls to Babylon, the people return to the land under the Persians, the Greeks overtake the entire region under Alexander the Great, and no heir of David occupies Israel’s throne ever again following the Captivity. It appears that God’s promise has amounted to nothing. 700 years of suffering come and go, and no pregnant virgin has surfaced to bring this promised Divine Deliverer into the world. Until Mary. Never before has a virgin conceived, and never since.

Now the scholars differ over where the quotation marks belong in Matthew 1:18-25, and that is evident by surveying our English Bible translations. Most of them end the angel’s statement at the end of verse 21, and then verses 22-23 are handled as an editorial comment thrown in by Matthew. If that is the case, then it seems oddly out of place (a few verses too early). I tend to side with those who believe that the angel is still speaking through the end of verse 23. I believe that the message that God has sent to Joseph through this angelic messenger is a reminder to him that the promise He made so long ago has come to fruition, and it has come to pass through the virgin to whom he is now betrothed. And so the angel tells him, “She will bear a Son and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”

The name “Jesus” means “Jehovah is salvation.” And the promise here is that Jesus will save His people. Not all people, but His people, which we can understand through the progressive revelation that follows this in the New Testament as being those people, Jew and Gentile alike who come to Him by faith as Lord and Savior. But He will not save them from the enemies that the people in Ahaz’s day and in subsequent generations feared. Jesus had not come to free His people from Assyria, Babylon, Greece or Rome. He had come to deliver them from an even greater enemy – an enemy that was not attacking from the outside but from inside the human heart. He had come to save His people from their sins. And then the angel goes on to remind Joseph of that promise given in Isaiah that this child would be Immanuel. And for the sake of his readers who don’t know Hebrew, Matthew tells us that this means “God with us.” As God in human form, Jesus is able to enter our world and live the life that satisfies completely the righteous demands of God’s standard, and to die as our substitute so that our sins are punished in Him on the cross. And following His death and resurrection, He promised His followers that He would be with them even until the end of the age; that He would never leave us nor forsake us. And so according to His very reliable promise, Jesus, our Savior, is still our Immanuel – He is still with us and will be until the end, indwelling each of His people in the person of the Holy Spirit. And every promise He has made in His Word which is applicable to me and to you will come to pass just as He has spoken it. Though time may pass and we may feel like the promise has failed, Joseph was reminded on that night by the angel that all God’s promises are certain.

Now the third and final relevant point I want to call our attention to in this account is …

III. The miracle of Jesus’ birth calls us to a response (v24-25)

Many of us are familiar with Henry Blackaby and Claude King’s book Experiencing God. In that book, the authors say, “The moment God speaks to you is the very moment God wants you to respond. Some of us assume that we have the next few months to think about it and to try to decide whether this is really God’s timing. The moment God speaks to you is His timing. That is why He chooses to speak when He does. He speaks to His servant when He is ready to move. Otherwise He wouldn’t speak. … When God speaks, He has a purpose in mind for your life. The time He speaks is the time you need to begin responding to Him.”

We see in Joseph’s life this very thing happening. Notice how Joseph responds to God’s message that this angel delivered to him: he believed the message, and he obeyed immediately and completely. Verse 24 says, “And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.” There was no delay. He went to sleep, he had a dream, he heard an angel, he woke up, and he took Mary as his wife. Obviously he believed the word spoken to him, and he obeyed immediately.

And notice that he obeyed completely. The angel said, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” And he did that. The angel said, “The Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit,” and Joseph preserved the integrity of that message by keeping her a virgin until Jesus was born. Had they physically consummated their marriage prior to Jesus’ birth, there would have been some question about whether He was indeed born of a virgin or not. And the angel said, “You shall call His name Jesus.” The passage concludes by saying that Joseph “called His name Jesus.” It was complete obedience. Everything the Lord commanded him to do, he did, without delay, without complaint, without excuse, and without exception.

Now, the writer of Hebrews tells us in the opening verses of that great New Testament book, “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son.” In other words, in the former days, God spoke to His people through prophets, angels, dreams, visions, etc. But in Jesus Christ, God has spoken His final word to humanity. John tells us in his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, … and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” It is futile to expect God to speak afresh to us new revelation through new prophets, through angels, dreams, or visions. He has spoken finally through Jesus. We know Him and His truth as we encounter Him in the pages of Scripture, which God has authored by the inspiration of His Spirit, so that we have an infallible record of God’s Word and God’s Will. This written word points us to the living Word, the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ. And this written word tells us that Jesus took our sins upon Himself as He died on the cross, and that He arose from death, and that He will save all who call on Him by faith and impart to each one His very own righteousness. We are promised in this written Word the forgiveness of our sins, the empowering of the Holy Spirit for service in God’s Kingdom, and eternal life in heaven because of what Christ has done for us through His life, death and resurrection.

God has spoken, and now it is up to us to respond. Will we believe what God has spoken? And will we obey what God has spoken? Will we put our faith and trust in this Christ to save us? Will we turn from the sins from which He has come to save us? Will we devote ourselves to His work and the fellowship of His people through the remaining days of our lives? Joseph shows us the importance of responding in faith and obedience both immediately and completely. May each of us follow his example in so doing.

The birth of Jesus Christ is a miracle. He was born as no other person has ever been – born of a virgin. This is a revealed truth that defies human explanation apart from God imparting this information to us. And His birth is the fulfillment of a promise, a series of promises really, that God has made throughout the centuries to deliver us from sin. This promise has come to pass in Him. And in Jesus, God has spoken salvation to us, and called us to respond. Today I pray that we each have done so, or will do so in the moments we have even now. And I pray that we will extend that opportunity to others by sharing this good news of Jesus and His coming into the world with them.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

John Rymer -- Sticking By the Stuff

When I began my academic preparations for ministry, I sensed God leading me to Fruitland Baptist Bible Institute. One of the people who influenced me to take that step was Dr. John Rymer. On a whim, wondering if God may be drawing me to Fruitland, Donia and I drove up to Fruitland one day and met Dr. Rymer and had lunch with him. That experience and conversation confirmed that this was where God was leading me. I was blessed to spend two quarters studying under Dr. Rymer in Old Testament and Theology. To this day, I find myself going back to information I learned in those classes. On my second day at Fruitland, July 5, 1995, Dr. Rymer preached in Chapel. He preached a sermon that I understood he had become well-known for -- "Sticking by the Stuff." By his own admission in that message, it was not one of homiletical greatness, but it certainly has been a blessing to me in encouraging me to be faithful to what God has called me to do.

Today, Dr. Rymer is being honored at Fruitland for his retirement from 56 years of service as a professor, many of which he also served as Vice President and Academic Dean. I couldn't be there, but my heart is there with this great man of God whom God used in my life in so many ways as I started out in ministry. But I am doing what I can to honor Dr. Rymer in my own way today. I have pulled out some tapes of sermons he preached while I was at Fruitland, and I am listening to them all over again. What a blessing! As I listen to "Sticking By the Stuff," I can feel myself sitting there in that old plastic chair in chapel with the flip top desk (you who never were in Fruitland Chapel before about 1996 have no idea!) listening to this man bring this wisdom from Fruitland's old BIG wooden pulpit (which has been replaced, sadly, by a small plexi-see-through-plastic job). Here are some of the more salient points that strike me today even more proundly than they did almost 15 years ago when I first heard them.

Click here to listen to this message, or right-click to download.
"One of my gifts is not preaching to great crowds of people, but one of my gifts is teaching. And I've tried to hone that gift, and sharpen that gift, and practice that gift, and fulfill that gift in the light of the will of God for my life."

"When we graduated from the seminary ... we just all left. They went their way. I climbed into a 1938 Chevrolet, that was in 1953. I drove up the mountain 40 miles, and I ain't been nowhere since. Except I've spent a lifetime at Fruitland. Hundreds of students all over the world have come through my classes. I'm sure not all of them appreciated my methodologies. Not all of them appreciated my expertise. Or my mannerisms, or my personality. And come to think of it, some of them, I didn't appreciate. My calling has been here. I don't brag about it. I'm just saying that I did what God told me to do, and the thing that He equipped me with which to do it."

"God never called you to be successful, but He did call you to be faithful."

"First church I pastored had a pot-bellied stove right in front of the podium. You could see the ground between the boards in the floor. Very small, insignificant place. And Mr. N. A. Melton, for 40 years pastor of the Fruitland Baptist Church and one of the first four faculty members of this school, he was a real small man, N. A. Melton, Noah Abraham Melton, he came up to here on me and looked up into my eyes as a young preacher, and he said, "John, you go to Mills River, and you love those people, and you minister to those people, and you work with those people as if you are going to stay there a lifetime. And for a while I thought I was going to stay there a lifetime. But if God had wanted me there, I'd have stayed. I was determined to love those people and minister to those people in Jesus' name as long as He wanted me to do that. And if you have that kind of philosophy, you'll be successful. You may not be prosperous, but you'll be successful. You may not be popular, but you'll be successful. God wants faithful people."

Today, I give thanks to God for Dr. John Rymer and the influence he has had on countless men of God who have come through Fruitland these last 56 years. Dr. Rymer has taught every one of Fruitland's students in the entire history of the school except its first seven years. He has stood by the stuff! And his influence and example keeps us standing by the stuff too.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

David Cornelius - Acts 1:8 or Acts 8:1

This past Sunday, David Cornelius of the IMB was with us for a combined worship service of IBC, Greensboro Chinese Christian Church, and Ethiopian Christian Fellowship Church. David challenged us concerning the example of the Church at Antioch, and walked us through the book of Acts to show us how the Gospel advanced to Antioch. The question he challenged us with was "Will you be an Acts 1:8 church or an Acts 8:1 church?" His message can be heard here:
Click to play, right-click to download. The message will also be available on iTunes in our podcast.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Matthew 1:1-17 - The Record of Jesus

This Advent season, I will be exploring Matthew 1 and 2. We begin this series with the genealogy found in Matthew 1:1-17. You can listen to the audio of this message here: (click to stream, right-click to download).

It is also available on our podcast on iTunes.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Audio: Ephesians 5:8-14

Audio from Sunday's message on Ephesians 5:8-14 is available online here (click to stream, right-click to download). It is also available on our iTunes podcast.

Friday, November 06, 2009

God in the Midst of Evil and Suffering

Several years ago, I received a call that the spouse of a church member had been killed instantly in a very tragic car accident. When I was asked to speak at his funeral, I wondered what words I could share with hurting people who were asking God, "Why?" The words I felt impressed to proclaim in that service came to my mind this week once more. Having conducted two funerals in the span of two days, seen many tragedies unfold in the daily news (including the slaying of American soldiers at Fort Hood), I have been freshly reminded of the presence of intense evil and suffering in the world. I am aware that today, there are many in this city, this country, and the world asking "Why?" or "How could a loving God allow this to happen?" So, below, I present the words I shared in that funeral several years ago in hopes of providing hope, comfort, and assurance.

We live in a world where it is not uncommon to encounter much evil, much tragedy, and much suffering. It has been called by some a vale of tears. There is moral evil, whereby suffering is inflicted upon us by the sinful choices made by ourselves or others. There are natural tragedies, whereby calamity strikes in the form of a disaster like an earthquake, a tornado, a hurricane, or something like that. And there is physical suffering, which we deal with nearly daily in the forms of pain, disease, and ultimately death. And the unsettling thing in the midst of it all is the seemingly uneven distribution of it, and the sometimes overwhelming magnitude of it. Some appear to endure very little if any trouble in their lives. Others seem to face it at every turn. And often, one calamity is compounded on top of others, causing us to say, “When it rains it pours.” Scoffers stand by asking with biting cynicism, “Where is your God?”

Underlying this question is what appears to some as a logical conundrum. If God is all knowing, all powerful, and all good, as the Christian church has asserted, then how or why does He cause or permit such things to happen? Yet, if were not for the subconscious awareness that such a Being as this does exist, then our frequent encounters with pain and suffering would be no problem for us at all. The fact that these experiences send us searching for answers is in itself a proof that this all knowing, all powerful and all good God is there, and we need desperately to hear some word of promise to us.

Since the days of Augustine, the great theologian of the later fourth and early fifth centuries, Christians have suggested that God is at work in the midst of the tragedy bringing about a greater good. Well-intentioned though that response may be, often it leaves widows, orphans, and other victims of tragedy disillusioned searching for some unspecified good, and wondering what it might be, to whom it will come, and when it might come. God’s word does promise in Romans 8:28 that He is working all things together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purposes, but this does not mean that there will be a one-to-one correspondence between the particular evil or suffering a person experiences and some specific good that may come in the long run. This would seem to indicate that the good that God brings about is dependent in some way upon the evil or the tragedy which occurred. This is a very low view of God’s providence, for He does not “need” the evil to occur in order to bring about the good. He is sovereign over both. In His general providence God is working all of our circumstances together (the entire “trajectory” of our lives and experiences) for our good and His glory, but that does not mean that in every bad thing that happens, we should seek or expect a reciprocal good to come about as a direct result.

We take the easy way out when we shake our fists at God for the problems that arise in life. The fact of the matter is that these things are not God’s fault, but rather the fault of our human condition. The suffering we endure in this life is the result of sin’s entrance into the world. When God created humanity, He created an order in which man might live forever without suffering, enjoying unhindered fellowship with his Maker, and the bliss of a perfect environment. Yet, when Adam and Eve yielded to the temptation to disregard the promise of God and disobey His command, sin and all its disastrous effects came rushing in like a whirlwind. Each of us is born with a nature bent toward rebellion against God, and we demonstrate that fact with every act of disobedience. This world in which we live experienced a catastrophic geological upheaval in the judgment against sin in the universal flood in the days of Noah, opening, as it were, a “Pandora’s Box” of potential natural disasters. And the death that God promised would follow that initial act of sin is working in us from the days of our conception, causing pain, sickness, and disease as our corruptible bodies break down over the course of life.

In Luke 13:1-5, Jesus spoke about two unexpected tragedies that had recently occurred. First He spoke of a slaughter of some 3,000 Galileans who were put to death by the order of Pilate as they offered their sacrifices of worship. And second Jesus mentioned a tower in Siloam which fell and killed 18 people. In both of these instances, innocent people died in the course of living out their daily lives. Both of these tragedies involved the reality of life in this fallen world—one being the result of a sinful decree of a godless governor, the other being an unexplained calamity that struck without warning. The number of casualties was greatly different, but that doesn’t soften the blow of each spouse, parent, child, and friend who learns that their loved one’s life has been taken.

In response to these tragedies, Jesus tells us not to think that these things occurred as an act of judgment against the sins of those people. The Galileans who died at the hands of Pilate were not worse sinners than any other Galileans, nor were those in Siloam guiltier of offense than anyone else living in Jerusalem at that time. In saying this, Jesus is speaking to our hearts that we must not think that God is in the business of zapping people out of this life in response to particular sins that they have committed. If He was, then who among us would be left? Part of the reality of survivor’s guilt is the realization that often the one who died was a much better person, morally speaking, than those of us who are left. The tragedy often leaves us dealing with the remorse that we who survive were more deserving of death than those who died. Granted, there are sins that a person might commit which would bring about their death, but we must not assume that in every case the person’s death is the immediate result of something they have done or not done. If death struck immediately as the result of some sin, then none of us would be here to have this conversation.

Jesus also says concerning these tragedies, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” In saying this, Jesus reminds us of two important facts. First, is that life is uncertain from the human perspective. None of us knows what a routine drive down the street might bring. None of us knows from one moment to the next what severe affliction we might suffer. We simply do not know what a day might bring. There are no guarantees of another moment of earthly existence. Life is a vapor, here one moment, gone the next. We cannot presume in the midst of any given moment that there will be hours, days, or years left for us to live. And that brings us to the second important fact in Jesus’ statement. Since life is so uncertain, then each of us must live in preparation for death. Jesus said we must repent. The Bible tells us, and human experience affirms, that all of us have sinned and failed to live up to the righteous standard of God. But because God loves us and desires for us to know Him and spend eternity with Him, He has made a way of reconciliation.

In the person of Jesus Christ, God has come in human form and lived the life that none of us could ever live. Scripture tells us that He was tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin. He alone lived the righteous life that satisfies the standard of God. And yet, Christ suffered and died a horrific death upon Calvary’s cross. Now, if the Bible says that the wages of sin is death, why would such a sinless one as Jesus endure such? The answer is that He did it for us. He died our death for our sins. The Bible says that God demonstrated His love for us in this—that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. And He defeated our sins and their just penalty in His resurrection from the dead. And Jesus Christ lives today, having conquered death by His resurrection, and will receive all who come to Him in repentance and faith, recognizing our own sinful condition, and trusting Him alone as Savior. And not only does He promise to forgive us of our sins because of the death He died in our place, He also promises to give us His very own righteousness, which He lived out for us in His life. This is the gift of salvation which, if we receive this gift, eliminates the fear of the brevity of life. In the promise of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we are assured that when we stand before God at life’s end, He will receive us, not on the merits of our own goodness (for we have none), but on the merits of Christ’s righteousness, which He lived and died to impute to us.

Life is brief. It is all too often punctuated by tragedy, sorrow, and suffering. But God has proven His faithful love to us in the gift of His Son. So in the wake of what seems unexplainable, we should not look for some guilt that brought about the tragedy, and we should not look for some specific good that might come which would justify the tragedy. Instead, we must look for God to bring us help, comfort, and assurance of His perfect love. We find Him in Jesus Christ who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except by Me.” So come by way of Jesus into the loving arms of Him who is Lord of life and death, and you will find Him faithful and near to your heart in the midst of life’s most difficult days.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Audio: Ephesians 5:3-7

Audio for Sunday's sermon on Ephesians 5:3-7 (Mandates for Saints) can be found here:

It is also available on iTunes.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Audio: Ephesians 4:31-5:2 -- Imitate God

Audio from Sunday's message on Ephesians 4:31-5:2 is now online and can be streamed or downloaded here. It is also available on the iTunes podcast.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Paul Tillich

I have just finished reading Fred Sanders' post on the anniversary of Paul Tillich's death. I can't recall anything I have read in recent years that was more excruciating to endure. Fred Sanders wrote accurately and beautifully. It was his subject which was so hideous. For many years, I have known that Tillich's theology was repulsive -- so repulsive, in fact, that I never probed deeper into his life. So I was shocked to read what I did in Sanders' post. I would commend the entire post to you for reading (misery loves company):

A few salient points from the post:

"His 3-volume Systematic Theology is a desert where the harsh sun of existentialism beats down on the dry sand of historicism. But there are oases within that desert, and just when I think I’m going to sell off all my Tillich books at cheap rates, I flip through them and find underlined sections in which he manages to say something helpful that nobody else has said."

"As for his life, it was infamously licentious. He was a kind of rock-star academic, broadcasting his professorial charisma and harvesting dalliances and liaisons with adoring groupies. Many were sexual, some were long-term, and all were wounding to his hapless second wife, Hannah."

"After his death, Hannah wrote one of the strangest biographies ever written about a theologian, From Time to Time. ... the book is like one of those very long Ingmar Bergman movies where everybody screams at each other in Swedish and then the camera does a close-up on a face that starts bleeding for no reason while Liv Ullman blows smoke at it and laughs. Yes, it’s that bad."

"She is at his side when he dies, offering to read the Bible to him but being waved off. After his death, she returns home and opens his locked drawers. 'All the girls’ photos fell out, letters and poems, passionate appeal and disgust. Beside the drawers, which were supposed to contain his spiritual harvest, the books he had written and the unpublished manuscripts all lay in unprotected confusion. I was tempted to place between the sacred pages of his highly esteemed lifework those obscene signs of the real life that he had transformed into the gold of abstraction –King Midas of the spirit.' "

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Reformation Primary Source Readings

Some of us are reading The Reformation: How a Monk and Mallet Changed the World by Stephen Nichols in preparation for a group discussion of this book November 5. If, in the reading of this book, you develop an interest in reading some of the documents Nichols mentions that were important during the Reformation, I have put together this little list of links.

1. The 95 Theses
2. The Augsburg Confession

1. Selections from Zwingli's sermons

1. Schleitheim Confession
2. The Martyr's Mirror

John Calvin
1. Calvin's Institutes of Christian Religion
2. Canons of the Synod of Dort

The British Reformation
1. The 39 Articles
2. The Books of Homilies
3. The Book of Common Prayer

1. Westminster Confession
2. Westminster Shorter Catechism
3. Westminster Larger Catechism
4. Pilgrim's Progress
5. Bunyan's "Grace Abounding"

Anne Bradstreet
1. Poems

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Audio: Ephesians 4:25-30 -- Don't Grieve the Spirit

In this message we examine Paul's admonition to not grieve the Spirit, comparing it to the Old Testament example in Isaiah 63. We give attention to having Spirit-controlled speech, Spirit-controlled temperament, and Spirit-controlled work-ethic. Audio is available here.
You can also find this message on our iTunes Podcast by searching for "Russ Reaves" or "Immanuel Greensboro" in the iTunes store.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Audio: Ephesians 4:17-24

Sunday's message was from Ephesians 4:17-24, entitled "The Old Self and the New Self." Audio can be downloaded or streamed here or on the iTunes Podcast.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

God's Strategy for Church Growth

Last Sunday's message weighed so heavily on my heart, that I decided to summarize it in IBC's newsletter for October. Since I no longer use a typed manuscript for my sermons (I'm still not sure which way is best!), the text of my sermons on Ephesians have not appeared here on the blog. Some of you have asked for them, and I simply don't have the time to transcribe them after the fact. Who knows? Maybe in the future I will return to typed manuscripts again? Or perhaps one of my blog readers (either of the two of you) will volunteer to transcribe my sermons for the blog? (How do you spell "uh"?). But anyway, I digress. I summarized the main points of last Sunday's sermon in this brief article for our newsletter, and thought I'd share it here ...
On a recent Sunday, I spoke about "God's Church Growth Strategy" from Ephesians 4:7-16. There are many opinions about how to grow a church but God has only one way, and I believe it is contained in this passage. The first thing we notice in this passage is that God has graciously given gifts to His people. Every Christian has been indwelt by the Holy Spirit (if that person is truly born-again), and the Spirit manifests Himself through us in ways that help one another grow in spiritual maturity (see 1 Cor. 12:7). These various gifts I call "blood-bought," for Jesus has provided them to His people as a result of His incarnation, death, and resurrection. We also notice in the passage that God has given spiritual leaders to the church to equip His people for service in the church through their gifts. Specifically, in the time in which we live, the passage speaks of the Pastor-Teacher (or teaching-pastor). Though many of us have ideas about the role of the pastor, this is the clearest statement in the New Testament about his role. According to Hebrews 13:17, the pastor will give account to Jesus for the spiritual condition of those to whom he ministers, therefore his primary task is to labor in word and doctrine so that the people are fed by the Word of God and equipped to exercise their gifts in the service of Christ and His church (see also 2 Tim. 5:17). Finally, this passage teaches us that when pastors shepherd the saints with the Word, and the people exercise their gifts, the body (or church) is built up from the inside out. So, how does one discover and develop his or her spiritual gifts? It happens in a context of relationships and service. As meaningful relationships are developed within the church and we begin to serve wherever there is opportunity, our brothers and sisters will "speak the truth in love" to us about how God is at work through us for the benefit of one another. As we hear the Word preached in worship and study the Scriptures for ourselves daily, we are not just encountering "empty words." These words are like a whetstone sharpening us for service. We should be reading and listening intently to discover how we may better use the gifts Christ has given us for the good of all. If we think we have nothing to offer one another in the congregation, then we take for granted what Christ has done for us, we ignore the Spirit's power at work in us, and we deny the truth of God's Word. So, I pray that each of us will begin to prayerfully seek areas that we may serve the Lord and His people in the church, and that as a result we will see God work mightily through our church for His glory. If I may serve you by helping you discover or develop your spiritual gifts, please contact me.

On Attending Conferences ...

I am probably not unusual, at least not in this sense; I like attending conferences. Some enjoy conferences where the material they will hear is all brand new and they will be exposed to ideas they have never heard or thought about before. I am not like that. I like attending conferences where I already know, believe, and agree with the information being presented. Such is the case each Spring when I attend the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology (PCRT), each Summer when I attend the Southern Baptist Convention, and other occasional conferences. This year, I have been blessed to attend the "Kingdom Perspective" conference on multicultural churches and the "God Exposed" conference on expository preaching. Next year I will attend the "Together for the Gospel" conference (instead of PCRT). I do not expect to hear anything at these events that is totally new, unfamiliar, or disagreeable to me. Some may wonder, "Why bother?" During a break at the God Exposed conference last weekend, I made a list of reasons why I attend conferences like this, where I am not likely to be challenged about any existing belief or practice or change my mind about anything as a result.

1) To be a steward of the deposit already placed within me.
I am deeply grateful for the education and experiences I have had in the last fifteen years of my life and ministry. I have been well-trained in expository preaching, systematic theology, pastoral ministry, church administration, and other subjects by some of the sharpest minds on those subjects alive today (and some who are not alive today sadly). While I know that none of us are perfect, and all of us have room to gain new insights and perspectives, I attend "agreeable conferences" as a steward of the information I believe others have deposited into my life. I do not despise the information, the time, and the godly examples others have imparted to me, so I attend these conferences.

2) To be reminded.
All of us are forgetful. All of us are inclined to move into the direction of bad habits and ideas. Christianity is not "new" and does not depend on "newness." A conference wherein I hear "old ideas" that are already familiar and agreeable to me does much to remind me of things I have forgotten, become dull to because of overfamiliarity, or relegated to places of lesser importance because of the tyranny of the new and the urgent.

3) To be reinforced.
The truths I hold sacred are truths that are under relentless and perpetual attack by forces all around me, inside and outside of the church. In a moment of weakness, I may willingly or ignorantly shift perspective or practice if I am not careful of who and what I am being influenced by. A conference where old and agreeable truths are imparted reinforces conviction and stabilizes us against cultural forces that would separate us from foundational moorings.

4) To be broadened.
I may exaggerate when I say I expect to learn nothing new. In fact, I hope I will! But not something "brand-new." Rather, I hope to encounter a new nuance, a new perspective, a new skill, or a new angle on the old truths that will enhance my grasp or dexterity with the information or practice. This broadening, I believe, occurs most effectively in a context of familiarity. In a context where the bulk of the information presented is unfamiliar or disagreeable, defensiveness and arrogance may prevent the absorption of new information. In a context of familiarity, one is able to see the logical connection between what one already believes and does and the new information imparted.

5) To be encouraged and/or comforted.
In the faithful task of preaching and pastoral ministry, one encounters much discouragement. Often there is a strong temptation to abandon the older ways for new and more creative ways. Perhaps more often, there is a strong pull toward depression, disillusionment, and despair. Surrounding oneself with likeminded people who are older, wiser, more well-seasoned and successful with the old principles and practices is refreshing, encouraging, and comforting. Following a conference of "familiarity", I am always revived, refreshed, and reignited with passion.

6) To develop relationships.
It is easy to think, in a context of discouragement, that one is all alone. Elijah was the most powerful man of God in his generation, but in the midst of dark days, he felt isolated and alone. God met his need by reminding him of a multitude that had not bowed to Baal. When I attend conferences where my principles, practices and priorities are championed, I am always greatly encouraged to know that I am not alone. Often I travel with likeminded brothers to these events, and the time spent together is a rich opportunity for fellowship and sharing of joys and sorrows. My closest friends in ministry (both pastors and laypeople) are those I have traveled with and spent countless hours with before and after sessions, over meals, and in late night conversation about struggles and successes. In addition, I have been greatly helped in my spiritual journey by meeting new people in these conferences, or reconnecting with acquaintances over a mutual interest in the conference subject. I recall my first trip to PCRT when I ran into an old acquaintance I hadn't seen in years in the men's room. I had shared many conversations with this brother in the past, but never about our mutual interest in the subject of that conference. The reconnection with one another, I think, was a great spark to renewed and strengthened fellowship between us.

So, when I go to a conference, I go not because I am convinced I am doing everything wrong and need a new handle or a new gadget to overhaul my spiritual life or ministry. I go to be reminded, reinforced, refreshed by ideas and practices I already hold dear. And these are the reasons why.

God Exposed Conference: Notes on Session 6

Mark Dever
"Expositional Preaching: A Defense and Charge"

Preaching symbolizes that we are created by the hearing and believing of God's Word.

Egalitarian views of preachers often are part of a rejection of authority at all levels. In the Bible, there is a good, right, and proper notion of authority. Submission to that kind of authority is good. It all points us back to God's authority. To say that submission is inherently demeaning is a lie of Satan. Consider the Son's submission to the Father.

Preaching has always typified Christians. It was a scandal in the early church. Christians were considered atheists because they had no physical statue to worship. They only had words.

Preaching should be central in the service and shape the rest of the service.

The Bible is silent concerning the length of a sermon. Therefore we are free in this regard. We should not judge others in this regard. On the whole, evangelical preaching used to be longer than it is today.

In expository preaching, people will not be amazed at our insight, but at God's Word.

The "visual age" is not new. Humans have always been visually oriented. This is not the age of the eye but of the ear. Jesus didn't teach the disciples how to draw. He gave them the Spirit to write books. We desire to see with the eye, but in this world we cannot. We must hear and believe until the day when we will see.

9 Marks of Expository Preaching
1) Preach consecutively through books
2) Preach the whole Bible (Don't hide anything or hold back on anything addressed in Scripture)
3) Preaching should be "connected." Show how the text fits within the message of the whole Bible.
4) Preaching should be centered on the gospel. The whole gospel should be presented in every sermon.
5) Exposition is theological.
6) Exposition is critical of idols and false worldviews.
7) Exposition should be evangelistic, calling people to faith and modeling for the congregation how to speak to non-Christians.
8) Preaching must be applied. Not JUST the work of the Holy Spirit. We can't do it for them, but we can help them.
9) Preaching must be integrated, worked out in my own heart and life.


God Exposed Conference: Notes on Session 5

Thabiti Anyabwile
"Will it Preach? Exposition in Non-White Contexts" (Nehemiah 8)

African American expositors are criticized from within their cultural context with statements like, "You preach like a white man," or "that was teaching, not preaching."

Objections to exposition in some cultural contexts include:
1) Exposition is culturally inappropriate
----- One African American preaching scholar said that exposition in an African American context may lead Christians to become pathologically disoriented requiring institutional care. In other words, exposition will make you crazy. (Source?)
2) Cultural styles
----- Hooping, Howling, and Whining. In those contexts, exposition is considered irrelevant.
3) Exposition is too intellectual

In Neh 8:1-8, the people responded to the activity of God by holding an expository preaching conference.

When God needed to awaken His people, He sent preachers. When preaching awakened, it was expository.

Weeping and celebration are seen in vv9-12 as results of exposition. If there is weeping and celebrating without exposition, what's creating that effect?

The people of Nehemiah 8 were not upper-class white scholars. They were poor Jewish exiles.

Exposition is trans-cultural. Are you or are you not part of a new humanity and new culture? What part does THAT culture play? We are a Word-people.

Exposition frees us stylistically. Clarity is trans-cultural and diminishes the importance of style.

Exposition is relevant because it is God's Word.

Your intellect as a preacher has a benefit for your hearers as you make the word clear so their intellect as hearers can be developed.

Your fundamental task is to stand in the gap and expose this God by expounding the Word. Don't be reduced to a slave holding a fan and feeding people the grapes they want. Their itching ears may desire politics, moralism, therapy, prosperity, etc., but we make them happy by showing them God.


God Exposed Conference: Notes on Session 4

C. J. Mahaney
"Expository Faithfulness" (2 Timothy 4:1-5)

Timothy's reception and initial reading of 2 Timothy - A moment of historic transition in the early church

Timothy's ministry in Ephesus was difficult and soon he would have to endure it without his father in the faith, but he would have this letter.

Apart from a godly example, your preaching is the most effective way to serve and lead your church

Never assume that those you serve have sufficient knowledge of the Gospel. Assume they need a fresh reminder

Never address another subject without connecting it to the gospel

Never be more passionate about any other subject than the gospel.

Lloyd-Jones - "The traveler through the biblical landscape gets lost if they lose sight of the hill called Calvary." Our people must know that there will be a sighting.

We must be committed to being UNORIGINAL.

Faithfulness to the message requires priority, content, and pastoral discernment and skill (reprove, rebuke, exhort)

You cannot pastor or preach without patience regardless of your precision with the text. Preaching is easier than practicing patience. Lack of patience will show up in your preaching. When I'm impatient with others, I've forgotten God's patience with me.

Sanctification is a very slow process, not an event. It is not ordinarily affected by a single sermon or even your best series. If someone thinks it happens that way, we need to teach them to protect them from disillusionment.

Your expectations of your people should be:
1) Be grateful they even come back.
2) Don't expect them to comprehend quickly what has taken you years.

All Christians will suffer to some degree. Pastors will endure additional suffering. It is inevitable, so prepare for it, don't be surprised by it, understand the sanctifying purpose of God through it, and glorify God in it.

If you address the lost in every message, they will come back and know that you will be addressing them in the message.

Fulfilling your ministry involves persevering until the task is complete, regardless of success or the lack thereof, regardless of suffering. Do it all today, wake up tomorrow and do it all again, and every day thereafter.

Awareness of God's presence and the final day of reckoning will transform our ministry and our souls.

Discouragement over a sermon usually reveals that I was intending to impress rather than to serve.

On the final day we will never be more aware of our sin, more amazed at grace, and more grateful for the cross.

On the last day we will not be standing before our critics. We will stand before God, who has every right to condemn us but will reward us.

Audio here:

God Exposed Conference: Notes on Session 3

Michael McKinley
"The Centrality of the Word" (Luke 10:38-42)

The story of Mary/Martha launched 1000 mediocre books for women.

One thing necessary - listening to Him. The listening, not the feet, is key.

Sitting at his feet is not leisure and rest but listening.

This story means, for preachers, that we must devote ouselves to teaching & preaching Gods Word.

Luther - if I had a chance to hear God speak in person, I'd run my feet bloody to get there. But you have Him speaking in the church.

Our highest calling - faithfully study, prepare, deliver

Before you preach you must spend time listening to Him.

M Henry - those who teach by their doctrine must also teach by their life. Otherwise they pull down w/ one hand what they build up w/ the other.

Our task is not particularly glamorous; there's not much applause.

Church's #1 need is for pastors to teach them the word so they can hear God speak. Do they understand this? We have to teach them that they need us to teach them.

Tell your people they can sit at His feet and listen. They don't have to run around trying to earn God's love.

There is a danger that Quiet Times and note taking can become Martha tasks

Audio here:

God Exposed Conference: Notes on Session 2

Danny Akin
"The Preacher on Preaching" (Ecclesiastes 12:9-14)

What you say is more impt than how you say it. But how you say it has never been more impt.

Theological exposition - explaining text and doctrines it touches

Good preachers listen to great preachers

Many mistakenly think they are expositors because they open the Bible, read it, and make some comments about it.

Use of notes - do what works for you. Some are masters w/o notes; some are disasters.

Dullness can be a danger to truth. It is a sin to be boring.

Content and delivery is not either/or

Audio here:

God Exposed Conference: Notes on Session 1

Mark Dever: "The Power of God's Word" (Mark 4:26-34)

Things happen beyond our ability when we preach.

Dever's vision 15 years ago @CHBC - Christ's Kingdom is absolutely victorious. He may choose to shut us down; I may shepherd this flock to the grave but His kingdom is victorious and He has invited me to participate in it.

If you think you can be filled w/ the Spirit w/out being filled w/ the Word you better check to see what spirit is filling you.

We are tempted to think of ourselves as children of other influences. True Christians are the result of God giving life through His Word.

Appearances can be deceiving. Never confuse size w/ significance. Don't be discouraged by small things. Be careful of being influenced by large things.

Audio of this message is available here:

Ephesians 4:7-16 -- God's Church Growth Strategy

This message is one of the most pressing concerns of my heart, and I believe that it, like some others in this Ephesians series, is one of the most important and relevant messages I have ever proclaimed. Thanks be to God for His Word, His Spirit, and His calling to make His truth known. I pray you will hear His truth conveyed in this message. Audio for this message is available here:

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Cooperative Program: How Southern Baptists Fund Missions

Often I am asked by those outside of or new to Southern Baptist life about how our church goes about supporting missions. Sometimes, those who have been long-time members of Southern Baptist Churches have heard about the "Cooperative Program" but don't really understand what it is or how it works. So, in an attempt to answer some of these questions, without providing a history of the Cooperative Program and its predecessors, I will seek herein to describe what the Cooperative Program is and how it has enabled Southern Baptists to support a wide array of mission activities since its inception in 1925.

Ideally, each Southern Baptist Church determines a percentage of its undesignated offerings to be given to the Cooperative Program. This money is sent to the Baptist State Convention (in the case of our church, the North Carolina Baptist State Convention). The State Convention keeps a percentage of the money which it distributes to its own ministries and mission efforts, and then sends the rest to the Southern Baptist Convention where it is distributed to the various SBC causes.

In the case of North Carolina Baptists, a typical Cooperative Program gift (that has not been allocated to an "alternate giving plan" or negatively excluded in any way, as the State allows), is divided with 66 percent remaining in the hands of the Baptist State Convention, while 34 percent is forwarded to the SBC.

The State Convention allocates funds based on the following percentages (based on the 2009 NC CP Budget allocations):
12.5% for Higher Education (institutional and scholarship funding for Wingate, Campbell, Chowan, Gardner-Webb Universities, and Mars Hill College)
9.66% for Christian Social Services (Baptist Children's Homes, Ministry for Aging Adults, and NC Baptist Hospital's School of Pastoral Care)
1.07% for the Biblical Recorder, the news outlet for NC Baptists
0.28% for the NC Baptist Foundation
8.91% for the Convention and General Board Operations
1.16% for Fruitland Baptist Bible Institute
4.86% for Administration and Convention Relations
2.51% for Public Relations and Resource Development
4.00% for Business Services
4.86% for Mission Growth and Evangelism
3.65% for Church Planting
6.78% for Congregational Services
5.76% for Special Reserves for NC Baptist Ministers (Ministers Emergency Reserve and Supplemental Annuity Contributions)
34% to the Southern Baptist Convention

The percentage that is forwarded to Southern Baptists is then divided up as follows:
50% to the International Mission Board
22.79% to the North American Mission Board (serving the USA and Canada)
21.92% to the six SBC Seminaries (Southern Baptist [KY], Southeastern [NC], Southwestern [TX], Golden Gate [CA], Midwestern [MO], New Orleans [LA])
0.24% to the SBC Library and Historical Archives
1.65% to the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission
3.4% for Convention Operating Expenses

If a church's budget is $225,000 and designates 6% to the Cooperative Program ($13,500), here is how that church's money will be allocated over a year:
$8,910 will be retained by the State Convention
$4,590 will be sent to the Southern Baptist Convention

Of the money kept by the State Convention, it will be allocated on this example as follows:
$1687.50 for Higher Education
$1304.10 for Christian Social Services
$144.45 for the Biblical Recorder
$37.80 for the NC Baptist Foundation
$1201.85 for the Convention and General Board Operations
$156.60 for Fruitland Baptist Bible Institute
$656.10 for Convention and General Board Operations
$338.85 for Public Relations and Resource Development
$540 for Business Services
$656.10 for Mission Growth and Evangelism
$492.75 for Church Planting
$915.30 for Congregational Services
$777.60 for Special Reserves for NC Baptist Ministers (Ministers Emergency Reserve and Supplemental Annuity Contributions)

Of the funds sent to the Southern Baptist Convention, they will be disbursed as follows:
$2295 for the International Mission Board
$1046.06 to the North American Mission Board
$1006.13 to the six SBC Seminaries
$11.02 to the SBC Library and Historical Archives
$75.74 to the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission
$156.06 for Convention Operating Expenses

To bring it down to an individual level, consider a church member who gives $5,000 annually to his church, which then gives 6% to the CP as stated above. $300 of that member's gifts will be sent to the Cooperative Program. It will then be distributed as follows:

$198 would remain in the State Convention, while $102 would be forwarded to the SBC.

That member's money kept in State would be allocated as follows:

$37.50 for Higher Education (institutional and scholarship funding for Wingate, Campbell, Chowan, Gardner-Webb Universities, and Mars Hill College)
$28.98 for Christian Social Services (Baptist Children's Homes, Ministry for Aging Adults, and NC Baptist Hospital's School of Pastoral Care)
$3.21 for the Biblical Recorder, the news outlet for NC Baptists
$0.84 for the NC Baptist Foundation
$26.73 for the Convention and General Board Operations
$3.48 for Fruitland Baptist Bible Institute
$14.58 for Administration and Convention Relations
$7.53 for Public Relations and Resource Development
$12 for Business Services
$14.58 for Mission Growth and Evangelism
$10.95 for Church Planting
$20.34 for Congregational Services
$17.28 for Special Reserves for NC Baptist Ministers

That member's SBC portion would be distributed in the following way:
$51 to the International Mission Board
$23.25 to the North American Mission Board
$22.36 to the six SBC Seminaries
$0.24 to the SBC Library and Historical Archives
$1.68 to the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission
$3.47 for Convention Operating Expenses

My hope in setting this information forth is three-fold. First, by seeing how money is distributed, I would hope that church members would be encouraged to see their wide and diverse investment in Kingdom work that is carried out simply by making undesignated contributions to his or her local church. Perhaps, seeing this information may even challenge church members to consider giving more, seeing that their money is being used to fund such significant ministries and mission activities. Second, by examining these figures, perhaps individual churches would be encouraged at the efficiency and effectiveness of the Cooperative Program and consider increasing the allocated percentage of their budgets for Cooperative Program giving. An increase of even one percent can make a large difference in the funding that reaches the ends of the earth through CP giving. Finally, by seeing how these funds are allocated within State Conventions and the SBC, I would hope that messengers to the State Convention meetings would be emboldened to ask their Convention leadership to give away as much or more money as they keep in-State. The unreached peoples of the world and the future of our churches here in the USA depend on more money reaching our mission boards and seminaries.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Future of the SBC

These have been eventful days in the life of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). When we met in June in Louisville, I think every messenger left with a sense of anticipation that we are on the verge of major changes in our denomination. I, for one, had a sense of curious expectancy at what the Great Commission Resurgence (GCR) Task Force would be doing over the next twelve months and what recommendations they would bring to Orlando. The realistic side of me (which is often very pessimistic) believed deep down that most of their forthcoming recommendations would amount to hollow rhetoric with no substantive change in the direction of the SBC. There were just too many seemingly insurmountable obstacles for there to be a significant overhaul in the way the SBC operates, regardless of how much those changes were needed. Oh how things have changed over the last 90 days.

The first major post-convention event came with the dismissal of Geoff Hammond as President of the North American Mission Board (NAMB). Though it seems that we rank-and-file Southern Baptists may never know all of the reasons behind this controversial decision, we have to accept that it has happened in the providence of God, and NAMB's future is now in the hands of its trustees. What recommendations will they bring? Who will succeed Hammond at the helm? Will anyone be willing to step into that position after so much turmoil at NAMB in the last 10-15 years? Will NAMB be able to prove that it is still a viable arm of missions for the SBC? I do not know the answers to any of these questions.

The second major post-convention event came with the somewhat unexpected announcement of Jerry Rankin's retirement as President of the International Mission Board (IMB). I will say up-front that I love Jerry Rankin. I was so blessed when he accepted my invitation to speak here in our church when the SBC was in Greensboro in 2006. I believe that history will show that God used him in ways that have yet to be fully realized in bringing the unreached peoples of the world to Jesus. But now the future of the IMB is uncertain, though not as uncertain as that of NAMB. The IMB has always been, and will continue to be, the backbone of SBC cooperation. Through the IMB, Southern Baptists are fully funding the work of over 5,000 missionaries serving around the world in some of the most strategic places and roles. Recent restructuring at the IMB may prove to only increase the effectiveness of this agency.

However, with the leadership positions of both SBC mission agencies now vacant (Rankin's retirement is not effective until mid-2010), the table appears to be set for the GCR Task Force to propose a radical change in how Southern Baptists do missions. I remember sitting in Binkley Chapel at Southeastern Seminary when I heard Alvin Reid say that the day may be approaching when Southern Baptists see the need for only one unified mission board. At the time I thought that it was a radical and far-fetched notion that would never transpire in my lifetime. At this point, I view it as not only a possibility but a probability. What would it look like? How would it function? How would the emphasis be divided between the USA and international efforts? At this point, any attempts to answer those questions would be merely speculative.

This week, a third post-convention event of monumental proportions has taken place with the announcement of the retirement of Morris Chapman, President of the SBC Executive Committee (XCom). As I understand it, the XCom acts on behalf of the Convention between annual sessions and serves as the chief promoter and guardian of the Cooperative Program (CP). For those outside of Baptist life, and those within who have not been properly oriented, the CP is the formula used for the distribution of funds between Baptist entities to ensure cooperation and to eliminate competition between them. It is really a marvel to behold, and has been the lifeline of SBC funding since its inception in 1925. It is probably no stretch to say that the CP saved the SBC from ruin in 1925. However, the CP has fallen on hard times in recent years. Disproportionate distributions between State Conventions and the SBC (some states keep upwards of 65% of CP money in-state, forwarding only 1/3 of it to the work of the IMB, NAMB, and SBC Seminaries), the increase in "special offerings" promoted among churches, and the tendency of churches to personalize mission giving through more designated channels, have caused the CP to reach a plateau. Something about the CP will have to change if it is to remain the lifeline of Baptist funding. Chapman's retirement could open the door for those changes to occur.

Additionally, in recent Conventions, Chapman's reports have become increasingly divisive. I was not in the room during his most controversial report in 2009, having adjourned to the Exhibit Hall to speak with a colleague in higher education. When I returned, my companions who heard the report were outraged at the comments Chapman had directed at Calvinists in the SBC and a few other statements in his address. The last thing Southern Baptists need in this day is an infight about Calvinism and anti-Calvinism (no serious Southern Baptist can be rightly called an Arminian) led by one of our own leaders! Though Chapman has served Southern Baptists well, and been an important figure in our recent history (his election as SBC President may well have been the end of the war between Conservatives and Moderates in the SBC), his retirement opens the door for a new leader at the XCom, or perhaps even more radical changes. I hear fellow pastors questioning the need for the XCom, and even questioning the viability of the CP in our day.

There is much uncertainty about what the future holds for the SBC. Several things are now certain. First of all, and most importantly, our future is in God's hands. We must look to Him, seek Him, humble ourselves before Him, and trust Him. He does not need the SBC. We are not "God's last and only hope" as one zealous voice spouted long ago. The Christian Church existed, advanced, and thrived for 1800 years before the SBC came into being, and can do so after our demise. God is gracious to use the likes of us in such powerful ways as He has in our history, and we must be good stewards of the trust He has placed upon us.

Another certainty is that major changes WILL be recommended in Orlando in June, 2010 concerning the SBC Mission Boards. Whether these will include a unified board or substantial changes to the function of the existing boards, only God knows. But change is on the horizon, and vacancies at the top of both boards will only accelerate that change.

Another certainty is that the CP WILL undergo a massive overhaul. This may come in any number of ways, but it will happen. As it happens, State Conventions will have a difficult task of proving to Southern Baptists that they continue to deserve so large a slice of the Baptist money-pie. I also expect other changes related to the allocation of CP funding at the SBC level. Some entities may disappear all together or be lumped into others.

Finally, some younger Southern Baptists have pleaded for the opportunity to be heard. It seems that their voices are being heard louder than ever now, and the open offices at the tops of three important SBC entities may offer opportunities for fresh voices in Baptist life. This presents a bit of a dilemma for me personally. I think that the best fit for all three of these positions (assuming they will ALL be filled) are pastors who have led biblical and gospel-centered churches or missionaries who have been faithful through many years of experience and perhaps hardship. But, that means that those individuals will be removed from those churches in order to serve the denomination, and I am not sure that is a good thing. I am sure that it is better than the alternative of having other individuals serving those positions. I am also confident that the best people for those positions will probably not be chosen because they will not seek them. I have "ideal" future-presidents of the IMB and XCom. I do not have one in mind for NAMB because I am not sure what to think of NAMB's future and I am certain that no one in their right mind would want to take that position. Both men I have in mind for the IMB and XCom are great pastors in great churches. I do not believe they would (or should) step aside from those positions for a job in the denominational hierarchy.

Change has been demanded. Change will occur. No one likes change except babies with dirty diapers. I believe in five years we may look back on these days as being the most significant days in Southern Baptist history. But will they be significant for positive or negative reasons? God knows the answer, and Southern Baptists must look to Him now.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Psalm 2: A message from Phillip Cole

Pastor Cole of Water of Life Community Church preached here at Immanuel this past Sunday, and delivered this message on Psalm 2. Hope you enjoy hearing it. Click here to stream, right-click to download.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Audio: Ephesians 3:14-21

Resuming the thought he interrupted in 3:1, Paul now prays for the Ephesian church. This prayer shows us how we can pray for what our church and every church needs most. Listen here (Click to stream, right-click to download).

Audio: Ephesians 3:8-13

In this text, Paul gives us a glimpse into his ministry ... which then helps us all to understand how God wants to use each of us. Listen to the message here (Click to stream, right-click to download).

Monday, August 24, 2009

Vintage Church: A Review

Mark Driscoll is one of the most polarizing figures in modern Christianity. Among my very small circle of friends, some think he is a dangerous person spreading toxic ideas about Jesus, the Church, and sex. Meanwhile, others hold him in near idolatrous reverence and cling to his every word and emulate his every practice. I don’t know Mark Driscoll, but something tells me that he would likely be the first to admit that both of these extremes are wrong. One thing is certain, and that is that we who do ministry in this generation need to be familiar with Driscoll, for he will certainly be remembered as one who shaped the Christian faith in this era. If we are to familiarize ourselves with Driscoll, we must resist the temptation to understand him by proxy, relying on the caricatures painted of him by his critics. They would have us to believe that Driscoll is a man whose sermons are filled with vulgarity and perversion and that he is out to ruin good churches with dangerous ideas. But if we do the intelligent thing, and read and listen to Driscoll for ourselves, I believe we will come to far different conclusions.

Having many friends who are planting churches under the umbrella of Driscoll’s Acts29 movement, I want to understand their philosophy of ministry and the convictions and assumptions they bring to their task. Having read Vintage Church (co-authored by Driscoll and Gerry Breshears), I have been helped and greatly encouraged. I picked the book up out of curiosity, suspicion, and fear. I put it down after reading it grateful to God for voices like Driscoll in our day.

Aside from its unquestionably tacky cover, Vintage Church ranks among the best overall books on ecclesiology I have come across. It is a wonderful blend of theory and practice, and thoroughly rooted in New Testament truth. Though I may “do church” differently from Driscoll, we agree wholeheartedly on what the church is and what the church should be doing. The book is immensely user-friendly. It is written in easy-to-understand language that is not ashamed of theological jargon, but defines it carefully. It is filled with biblical, historical, and theological insights, all of which are documented carefully in footnotes and indices. It is interspersed throughout with personal testimonies of Driscoll and Breshears about their own successes and failures. Each chapter concludes with a “FAQ-like” question and answer section about the common difficulties encountered in each of the areas addressed.

While each reader is likely to encounter something he or she doesn’t agree with along the way through Vintage Church, even this is profitable for challenging us about why we disagree, and whether our differences are based on biblical convictions or personal preferences. For example, I found Chapter 10 (dealing with Multi-Campus Churches) to be very questionable. As I wrestled with Driscoll’s argument, however, I had to ask myself if my objection to multi-site churches and video-preaching was based on something Scriptural, something assumed, something engrained, or some selfish motive. While I found Driscoll’s argument to based largely on silence and on deductive rather than inductive hermeneutics, I also found that my own position had its share of both as well. In the final analysis, though I remain unconvinced that multi-sites and preaching via satellite is ideal, I am convinced that this is more a personal preference than a biblical conviction and can appreciate my brother’s attempt to reach other through these methods with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Extremely refreshing were the chapters on the Christian Life, the Christian Church, Preaching, Discipline, and the final chapter which emphasizes the need for a focus on urban ministry in our generation. Many will undoubtedly object to some of the ideas found in chapters dealing with church leadership, multi-campus churches, technology, and a few statements made throughout the book about alcohol, it is good to see that even those we do not agree with on every point are striving to build their ministries on the foundation of God’s Word. We can agree to disagree out of regard for one another in humility and mutual submission to the Lordship of Jesus and the authority of His Word. Some of the most practical sections include those on preaching, discipline, love, unity, and technology. The appendix, which features the membership covenant of Mars Hill Church where Driscoll pastors, is helpful for church leaders thinking through what responsibilities ought to be required of their own church members.

Of the hundreds of books I own which have the word “Church” in the title, very few combine theory and practice as effectively as Vintage Church has. Most are either sterilized academic treatments of what the church ought to be (failing to take into account the reality that depraved human beings bring into the system) or are so man-centered that they fail to do justice to the biblical ideals of what Christ intends His church to be. Vintage Church wrestles with Scripture, theology, and church history honestly and practically, demonstrating through testimonies of success and failure how the principles contained within can be applied in each local church.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with all, most, or any of the conclusions drawn in Vintage Church, the book will undoubtedly help church leaders think through important issues that many others seem reluctant to even discuss today. It would be wrong to read this book in order to make one’s church to be a carbon copy of Mars Hill Church. Each pastor has to be himself (not try to be Mark Driscoll), and our churches are not Mars Hill, nor are cities Seattle. But we can glean from this book important truth as we seek to apply these insights into our own local contexts.

I would recommend the book to pastors and church leaders, teachers of church administration, pastoral ministry, and practical theology, and new Christians who are getting their first glimpse of what the church of Jesus Christ should be and do. I would also recommend the book to those who have only learned of Driscoll through critical caricatures. I believe their opinion of him as a person and a pastor will be challenged as they read his own words and see his love for Christ and the church in the pages of this book. I intend to challenge leaders in my own congregation to read the book with discernment in order to discover what we need to learn to be and do all to which God has called us. My hope is that soon it will be available in paperback to make it more affordable and accessible to the average reader. While it is certainly worth every cent of the $22 cover price, a cheaper edition would certainly increase its circulation to those for whom the price is an obstacle.