Monday, September 27, 2010

Ancient Words for Modern Worries (1 Peter 3:10-12)

Audio available here

The writer of Ecclesiastes said, “my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless” (Eccl 12:12). Walk in any Borders or Barnes and Noble bookstore, and you will immediately see the truth of this statement. One estimate for 2008 was that in that year alone, 275,232 new titles and editions were published by traditional publishers in America. Of those, nearly 17,000 new titles were categorized as Religious Books. That is nearly 47 new religious books published every day of the year for 2008. When I worked in a Christian bookstore while I was in Bible College, I was amazed that we did not stock old classics like Augustine’s Confessions, Calvin’s Institutes, Luther’s Bondage of the Will, or Edwards’ Religious Affections. There was no room for them, with all the new books coming out each week. C. S. Lewis observed in 1944 that the “preference for the modern books and the shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology.” But he suggested that this was a “mistaken preference” because he said “a new book is still on its trial …. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages.” And this body of thought was primarily contained, according to Lewis, in “the old books.” So Lewis advocated two general rules of thumb when it came to selecting reading material. First, he said, if a person “must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old.” Second, he said, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you,” he said, “you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.”

As Christians, we are a literary people. A large percentage of books sold each year are written by Christians and purchased by Christians. But one Book demands our singular focus. Though we may read many books, we are rightly called a people of THE BOOK, because the Bible is to be the source for all of our faith and practice. Now, why, in a world where there are so many new books published every day, would we continue to turn back to a collection of ancient writings and rely on it to answer the most pressing questions of our lives and the world? It is because this Book is the Word of God. This is what faithful Christian people have always done through the centuries when we find ourselves in need of divine truth: we turn to the Bible. And in fact, this is what the first generation of Christians did. Though the New Testament was still being written at that time, Christians in the first century understood that God had inspired the Hebrew Bible, which we call the Old Testament, and that it was His Word, as valid for them and their daily concerns as it was for those in the days when it was originally written. So, when the Apostle Peter wrote to a struggling group of Christians in Asia Minor who were facing discouragement, opposition, and persecution, he pointed to the Word of God.

At least nine times in 1 Peter, the Scripture that informs what Peter is writing is the 34th Psalm. In the verses before us today, we find an almost exact quotation from Psalm 34:10-12. In that Psalm, David is reflecting back on God’s deliverance from a distressing situation in which his life was endangered, and in which he had acted deceptively and foolishly. But David’s foolishness did not undermine God’s faithfulness, and he praises God for graciously rescuing him. From that passage, Peter instructs Christians some 1000 years later, that in the midst of their troubled times, God will be faithful to them. Today, some 2000 years after Peter wrote this letter, and some 3000 years after David penned the Psalm, we find that God’s Word is still relevant and helpful to us in the midst of our distress as well. Whether we find ourselves in situations that are the result of persecution, life in this fallen world, evil committed against us, or the consequences of our folly, these ancient words come to our aid in the midst of our modern worries.

I. God is aware of the worries that His people face (v12a)

Nearly a half-mile below the earth’s surface in Chile, thirty-three miners have been waiting to be rescued for almost two months. No one is sure when the day of rescue will arrive, but the plan is that once a shaft can be drilled to reach them, a cylinder will be dropped down to extract the miners one by one. It may take two hours or more for each person to be pulled out. So, imagine being number thirty three. For two and a half days you have watched your colleagues go up one by one, and now you help number 32 buckle his straps. For the next two hours, you are alone at the bottom of a mine shaft. The entire time, you can’t help thinking, “They still remember I’m down here right? They are going to send it back down for me right? They did count the guys didn’t they?”

Well, we aren’t trapped in a mine, and we would certainly never want to make light of their situation or compare our often-petty concerns with such a severe issue. But sometimes, when things are not going our way, when situations arise that cause us to be concerned, to be anxious, to be worried, don’t we feel like the last miner in the hole? “Hey God, remember me! I’m still down here! Did you forget?” That may have been they way the Christians in Asia Minor were feeling when Peter wrote to them. They had been uprooted from their homeland, transplanted as colonists for an Empire they did not support in a land they didn’t want to live in, threatened and mistreated by their new neighbors in that place. Nothing seemed to be going right. It might have seemed like God had abandoned them in the midst of their distress. But Peter reminds them of a truth that is easy to forget on those hard days: “The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous, and His ears attend to their prayer.”

When David wrote these words in Psalm 34, he was thinking back to the time when he was running for his life from Saul. He fled to the priests at Nob, and he lied to them, putting them in a predicament that would eventually lead to their deaths. Then he ran to the city of Gath where he pretended to be insane before their king in order to escape danger there. David’s own dishonesty and foolishness to protect his own life only endangered him more and put innocent lives at stake. Finally, David sought the help of the Lord, who guided him into safety. And through this, David learned that he could have cried out to the Lord sooner rather than trusting his own craftiness to protect him. The Lord had never taken His eyes off of David, even though David found himself in a fight for his life. Now, with the 20/20 vision that hindsight provides, he beckons all of Israel to join him in praising the Lord whose eyes look upon His own people and whose ears attend to their prayers.

Before this truth can become a precious comfort to us, we have to wrestle with a particular qualifying term in this statement: the righteous. The good news is that God never loses sight of the righteous, and they are never out of earshot of Him. The bad news is that none of us are righteous. The Bible says, “There is none righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10). So, are we not then disqualified by our unrighteousness from this watchcare of God? It is true, we would be, unless God were to act in some way to grant to us a righteousness that we cannot manufacture in our own effort. And thanks be to God, He has. The same God who says in Isaiah 59:2, “Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God and your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear,” also says in Isaiah 1:18, “Come now, and let us reason together, though your sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow.” He accomplished this in the life and death of Jesus Christ. In Christ’s death, our sins are removed from us and placed upon Him, so that He bore the penalty of that sin on the cross. In exchange, God has given us the righteousness of Christ, which was demonstrated in His perfect life as a covering. So for those who have turned to Jesus as Lord and Savior, we are now declared to be righteous before God because of His grace. This is why Paul says in Philippians 3:9 that he does not desire to stand before God with a righteousness of his own derived from the Law, but rather with a righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. All of our own righteousness is but filthy rags. But the righteousness of Christ is given to us by faith so that we have a standing before God because of Him. We are still prone to sin, but in Christ we bear His righteousness. We are, as the theologians of old said, simul iustus et peccator, at the same time righteous and sinful. David and Peter are both good prototypes of this: godly men who do dumb stuff sometimes. That sounds familiar.

Therefore, those who are in Christ can know with confident assurance that their lives are being watched over by a sovereign God who attends to their cries. This does not mean we will escape trouble. David was in trouble, and when that trouble started, he had done nothing to cause it. Some of the things he had done had compounded the trouble. And trouble will always exist for the righteous in this fallen world – sometimes for no fault of our own, sometimes complicated by our own foolishness. But God will be faithful to His own in the midst of trouble. As David says in Psalm 34:19, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all.” He is aware of the things that worry the hearts and minds of those who are righteous in Christ. We’ve never been out of His sight, out of His hearing, or out of His love. You may be in troubled times, but you are not alone there. You can cry out to Him in the midst of it. Those are ancient words, but they meet us at the point of our need in our modern worries.

II. God blesses the life of the one who lives according to His Word (vv10-11)

All of us are, to some extent, dreamers. We have ambitions and desires in life. Many find themselves in pursuit of what has been called “the American Dream.” Nowhere is this dream more succinctly expressed than in the Declaration of Independence. There, we read those familiar words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Yet, when we consider the world we live in, and the lives of people everywhere, it would seem that these truths are not as self-evident as the founders of America considered them to be; nor are they universally found to be unalienable rights. When we look in Scripture, we see that indeed life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are gifts from God, but it may be a stretch to call them unalienable rights. In fact, we might find that the Bible teaches more accurately that these “rights,” if it was ever appropriate to call them that, have been forfeited by humanity in sin. They may be more appropriately considered blessings from God which are given to us from His hand when we in fact do not deserve them. But they are certainly universally desired, if not universally experienced.
Peter recognized that those to whom he was writing desired blessings of this sort in life, as did David when he penned the Psalm that is quoted here. David wrote in Psalm 34:12, “Who is the man who desires life and loves length of days that he may see good?” I want to raise my hand and say, “Me! I am that man!” I want to live! I want to have a long life and see good!” And likely you desire those things too. Peter paraphrases the Psalm here to suggest that the pathway to experiencing these blessings is to walk in obedience to Christ. We cannot claim that they are ours by right, but rather they are ours by grace. And in recognition of that fact, we must seek to align our lives with God’s word, to live in such a way that we experience these and other blessings in this life from God through Jesus Christ. While we have received in Christ a positional righteousness before God, there is a practical righteousness that we must live out. This is the proof that our righteousness before God is genuine. If we say that God has made us righteous, but our lives do not reflect that righteousness, then someone is lying. Either God is lying by saying we are righteous, or we are lying when we say we have received that righteousness. Now, we know that God is God, and He is holy, and He cannot lie. The Bible says that it is impossible for God to lie. That certainly narrows the options doesn’t it? While we will never attain perfection in this life, there ought to be a demonstrable progress and perseverance in righteousness throughout our lives as the indwelling Holy Spirit empowers to live in obedience to Him. For the true child of God, this becomes a desire, to live in the way that God has promised to bless.

And what is this way of living? Quoting Psalm 34:13-14, Peter says here in verses 10-11 that the one who desires these blessings must “keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit.” This refers to righteous speech. The area in which we are most prone to sin in our speech. That is why James 3:2 says that though we all stumble in many ways, “if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.” The tongue seems to be the most stubborn holdout in our sanctification. We are so quick to speak evil and to speak deceptively. Remember that these were the circumstances surrounding David’s writing of Psalm 34. He lied! And he intentionally deceived the priests of Israel and the king of Gath in order to protect himself. Perhaps some of Peter’s readers found themselves tempted to speak deceptively to defend themselves in the midst of the hostilities they were facing. But we also know that they were tempted to speak evil of others, particularly those who were speaking evil of them. In the preceding verse (3:9), Peter admonished them not to return evil for evil or insult for insult. The temptation is strong isn’t it? When we find ourselves on the defensive, our first natural instinct is to be deceptive or to retaliate with evil speech. That is why Peter uses a Greek verb tense here that literally means, “stop the tongue from evil and the lips from deceit.” He suggests that they were already speaking evil and deceit, but God cannot bless that kind of unrighteous speech. In order to experience the blessings that they so desired from God, like David, they must put away those patterns of unrighteous speaking, and allow the Holy Spirit to control their tongues so that they speak blessing and truth instead. And so we too must not expect God to bless our persistence in sinful practices that He has condemned, and this includes in our way of speaking to each other and to those outside the church.

But notice that this goes beyond just our speech. He says more generally that the person who desires the blessings of God on his or her life must “turn away from evil.” Our speech is one area where we are prone to practicing evil, but it is not the only place. Wherever we find evil present in our lives, we must die to it, and allow the Holy Spirit to uproot it. But, we must not fall into what I call a “spirituality of negation.” In other words, the idea here is not just that our righteousness consists of the evil we do not do. There is a positive injunction here. As we turn away from evil, we must also simultaneously “do good.” What are we doing to bless those around us? Remember that Peter said in verse 9 that we have been called for the very purpose of blessing others, even those who do evil against us, and that blessing others is the avenue of being blessed. So the challenge for Peter and his Christian friends in the first century, the challenge for those of David’s generation, and the challenge for us today is to discover from God’s Word how we might do good in Christ’s name and for God’s glory, rather than just not doing bad.

One of those ways is specified here – seeking peace and pursuing it. Jesus is the Prince of Peace, and those who are subjects of His Kingdom are a peace-loving people. He said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt 5:9). So, when peace is threatened or violated by evil and insult, it is the child of God who must seek peace. This we do by not responding with evil for evil or insult for insult, but by responding with a blessing instead. We are seeking to make peace with others, to facilitate peace between others who are at odds with one another, and to reconcile them under the Lordship of Jesus. But peace is elusive in a world filled with sin. A nineteenth century preacher wrote, “This great blessing (peace) does not voluntarily present itself; it must be sought; Even when sought it often eludes the grasp; it flies away, and must be pursued.” Many times the price we must pay for peace is great, and demands a sacrifice. Sometimes, the price of peace is too great. Paul says in Romans 12:18, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” This implies that sometimes it is not possible. Often we are offered peace in exchange for compromising our convictions on the Gospel or an essential doctrine of the Christian faith. This is a sacrifice that cannot be made, for faithfulness to Christ is a higher priority than peace. But faithfulness to Christ leads us to pursue peace, and to be spiritually mature enough know when we can sacrifice to attain it and when we must not.

Aside from these uncompromisable convictions, we should always be willing to do what is necessary to make peace, as Paul says, “so far as it depends on you.” David was running for his life from Saul, and though he did not always make the best decisions in those situations, he never sought to retaliate against Saul. He had opportunities to kill Saul, end the turmoil, and take the throne God had promised him by force. But he did not do it. He did not return evil for evil, but sought peace. Saul continued to pursue David. But as much as it depended on David, he pursued peace. And so must we. The olive branch may not be received by the other party, but you stand before God knowing that you extended it in good faith.

So, as we go through worrisome situations in life, there is ancient truth here from the life of David, repeated to first century believers, and relevant for us, that God’s blessings can be experienced when we walk in obedience to His word. Among those blessings are life, love, and good days.

III. God actively opposes those whose ways are evil (v12b)
While the eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous, watching over them, blessing them, providing for and protecting them as His ears attend to their prayers, notice that the face of the Lord is against those who do evil. This does not mean that He doesn’t see them or know what they are doing. He knows everything and sees everything. But when He sees evil being done, He actively works against the evildoers in His holy wrath. This is a promise of both great comfort and liberation, as well as a solemn warning.

First, we are comforted to know that when we are the victims of evil, that God is concerned for our suffering and that He is working on our behalf against the evildoers. God has set His face against them, even as His eyes look toward us, if we are the righteous in Christ. What a comfort to know that the God of the universe is personally involved in our worrisome circumstances. But there is also a great sense of liberation here, for it means that we do not have to fight these battles. We can return evil and insults with blessing and peace, knowing that God will fight whatever battles need to be fought on our behalf. If we are in Christ, and living in obedience to His Word, we can fully expect Him to be our defense. Therefore, we are free to forgive, free to bless, free to love even our enemies and trust Him to bring justice where it is necessary.

We must not ignore the solemn warning of these words. If the face of God is turned away from those who do evil, then if we begin to do evil, we are not exempt from His chastening and His discipline. So we must be on guard against the temptation to fall into practicing evil, whether as an initiator or a retaliator. It would be tragic for us to expect blessing from God only to find chastening; to expect His defense of our cause only to find His active opposition to it.

Now in closing, let me set the truths of this text in a larger context. All of us know when we examine ourselves honestly that we have not kept our tongues from evil and our lips from deceit. We have not turned away from evil; we have not done good; we have neither sought nor pursued peace. In fact, only one has ever lived such a life with perfection and that is Jesus Christ. And when He died on the cross, all of our evil, all of our lies, all of our strife, and all of our sin was placed upon Him. And the face of the God the Father turned against His only begotten Son as He bore that sin. Jesus bore the wrath that God the Father poured out on all of our sin as He died, and He cried out in the agony of that moment, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” Luther said, “God forsaken of God, who can fathom it?” God the Son, wearing my sin, bearing my wrath, for me, and face of God the Father turns away from Him because of my evil and my sin. But as a result of what Christ did in bearing my sins, I can now be made righteous in Him. His perfect righteousness is placed on my life, so that, because of Christ, the eyes of the Lord are now toward me in mercy and blessing, and His ears attend my prayers, and the blessings of life, love, and good days are available to me. What wondrous love is this? What mercy, what grace! These ancient words help us in our modern worries, but there is a timeless worry that ought to gnaw away at every human soul: How can a sinner like me ever stand before a perfectly holy God? The answer is Jesus; my sin imputed to Him in His death; the righteousness of His life imputed to me by faith. If you have never come to know Him as your Lord and Savior, then beloved today should be that day. Salvation is extended to you in Christ, God is offering you the olive branch of peace; have you received it? If not, will you this day?

And if you have, then the promises and the truths of these ancient words will be of great help to you in the matters that worry you today. If you are in Christ, then you are righteous before God, and His eye is on you; His ear attends your prayers; and as He empowers you to walk in obedience to His word, He will lead you in paths of righteousness that will be blessed with life, love, and good days, even in the midst of this fallen world’s troubles. And that life will never end, for it is eternally secure through our Risen Lord Jesus.

Ethnic Blends: Obstacles and Challenges

In the final session of Ethnic Blends, Mark Deymaz presented the obstacles and challenges that must be overcome in multiethnic churches. Audio can be found here.

Ethnic Blends: Obstacles and Challenges

In the final session of Ethnic Blends, Mark Deymaz presented the obstacles and challenges that must be overcome in multiethnic churches. Audio can be found here.

Ethnic Blends: Core Commitments

In the second session of the Ethnic Blends Conference, Mark Deymaz spoke about the Core Commitments that a multiethnic church must resolve. Audio is available here. (There were technical difficulties in the recording of the first few minutes of the session, so it picks up a few minutes late).

Ethnic Blends: Biblical & Theological Foundations


In session 1 of the Ethnic Blends Conference, Mark Deymaz addresses the biblical and theological foundations of a multiethnic church. Listen to it or download it here.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Advice from Spurgeon on Testifying (from Psalm 34)

In his excellent volumes entitled A Treasury of David, the great Charles Haddon Spurgeon treats us to a thorough commentary on the Psalms. I am presently reading his work on Psalm 34, which is alluded to several times in 1 Peter, and quoted at length in 1 Peter 3:10-12 (cf. Psalm 34:12-16). This Psalm bears the inscription, "A Psalm of David when he feigned madness before Abimelech, who drove him away and he departed." This is a reference to 1 Samuel 21:10-15. In that passage, the king mentioned is Achish, king of Gath. This presents no problem for bible scholars, as Mitchell Dahood points out, "it is quite possible that Abimelech was the Semitic name of the king of Gath." In that account from 1 Samuel 21, David pretended to be insane before the king of Gath, prompting one of the most humorous responses recorded in Scripture. The king said to his servants, "Why do you bring him to me? Do I lack madmen, that you have brought this one to act the madman in my presence?"

In treating the background of Psalm 34, Spurgeon writes:
Although the gratitude of the Psalmist prompted him thankfully to record the goodness of the Lord in vouchsafing an undeserved deliverance, yet he weaves none of the incidents of the escape into the narrative, but dwells only upon the grand fact of his being heard in the hour of peril. We may learn from his example not to parade our sins before others, as certain vainglorious professors are wont to do who seem as proud of their sins as old Greenwich pensioners of their battles and their wounds. David played the fool with singular dexterity, but he was not so real a fool as to sing of his own exploits of folly.

Perhaps you have heard testimonies, as I have, wherein a person goes into great detail about their past sins, wearing them almost as a badge of honor in the Assembly. Spurgeon's insights here are instructive. It is not necessary to rehearse all the details of our sinful folly. After all, we were all sinking in the miry clay of sin; it does not enhance the greatness of our salvation to rehearse the texture and color of the mud. It takes just as much of the blood of Jesus to save the best and the worst of us. Rather than making much of the details of our sinful past, we should rather make much of the glorious grace of Jesus Christ in saving us, and emphasize His work of transformation in the present day in our lives, and the marvelous inheritance we now share in Him.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Right Attitude in the Church

On Sunday, we were blessed to worship together with members of the Greensboro Chinese Christian Church, the Ethiopian Christian Fellowship Church, and believers from many nations in our combined worship service. Dr. Scott Kellum, professor of New Testament and Greek at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, was on hand to bring the message. He preached from Philippians 1:27-2:4, a message entitled "The Right Attitude in the Church." Audio from this message is available here or on our podcast on iTunes (search the iTunes store for Immanuel Greensboro, and find the podcast entitled "Searchlights from the Scriptures").

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Announcing the Sermon in Advance and Larger Issues

Every day I ride by churches that have message board signs out front. We have one here at Immanuel. Typically, our sign carries one message: "A Church for All People". There are times throughout the year that we might put something on the sign to announce a coming event, or to recognize a particular season. For instance, during Christmas, we might list special services; during Easter, we might have "Christ the Lord is Risen," and when the area colleges start their fall semesters, we might post "Welcome Students," or "Welcome Back Students." Two things we do not list on our signs are idiotic little slogans and the title of the upcoming Sunday's sermon. My friend Bryan Rhoden has published a book on the problem with idiotic little slogans (Signs of the Times: The False Messages, Half-Truths, and Poor Theology of Church Marquees), and I would commend that book to anyone in a church that is fond of these mindless and sometimes blasphemous one-liners. But I have often wondered as I drove by those churches which post the upcoming Sunday sermon title, "Does anyone show up because they are interested in that subject?" Is it my own laziness that prevents me from doing that? Is it my rather unorthodox study habits? After all, sometimes on Friday morning, when the bulletin is printed, I am still at a loss for what I am going to call the message.

I was skimming through D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones' excellent book, Preaching and Preachers, today, and was reminded of his thoughts on this subject in the chapter entitled "What to Avoid." He recognizes that "it seems quite clear that most people seem to like this," but then confesses that "this is a practice of which I disapprove and which I have never followed." He proceeds to detail the reasons:

1. "People should come to the house of God to worship God, and to listen to an exposition of the Word of His Truth, whatever it may be, whatever aspect, whatever portion is being considered." Lloyd-Jones considers this to be "the first and overriding reason" for his opposition to announcing the sermon in advance because it "encourages a pseudo-intellectualism." He describes how, in the middle of the 1800s, "people began to regard themselves as now educated and intellectual and felt that they must have 'subjects.'"

2. Lloyd-Jones also says that this encourages a "too-theoretical approach to the Truth" which is bad for both the preacher and the people. He expounds on this elsewhere in the book.

3. "It has the tendency to isolate subjects from their context in the Scriptures; indeed ultimately it regards the Scriptures as but a collection of statements about particular subjects." The result of this is that "one loses the sense of the wholeness of the biblical message and becomes interested in particular subjects and questions."

4. According to Lloyd-Jones, the reason why people are interested in particular subjects and not others is "that they think they know what they need, and they only want to hear about the things in which they say they are 'tremendously interested.'" Lloyd-Jones contends that "they are not in a position, ultimately, to know what they need," and "so often their idea as to what they need is quite wrong." Rather, "they should be interested in the whole of truth and every aspect of it, and we must show them their need of this."

5. A related but distinct concern is that of developing 'lop-sided" believers who "lust after particular subjects." Therefore, he concludes that if we "announce our subjects we tend to increase this danger of a lop-sided, imbalanced Christian life."

On the whole, Lloyd-Jones concludes that announcing the subjects in advance was one of many developments to arise during the Victorian era of the mid-1800s. He suggests that "we are now experiencing a kind of hangover from this." Therefore, he says, "the urgent need today is to break free from these bad habits, this false respectability and intellectualism." He acknowledges that he feels that "they detract from the preaching of the Gospel and the centrality of the preaching of the gospel." "How different," he says, "the state of our churches would be if we were all as concerned to be orthodox in our beliefs as we are to be orthodox in our conformity to 'the thing to do' and "the done thing' in the churches."

Now, why, on a busy Wednesday afternoon, am I devoting this time to re-read, and then to blog, about announcing sermons in advance? Because all of Lloyd-Jones' critiques of this rather silly practice could be just as well applied to the widespread practice of topical preaching in general. By picking and choosing selected topics for one-off sermons or even brief, eight to twelve week series, we cater to the same sentiments that Lloyd-Jones was addressing. We are better served by, and of greater service to the church by, returning to the ancient form of Lectio Continua, the systematic exposition of entire books of Scripture, verse-by-verse, considering both the whole and the constituent parts.

Secondly, in his summary of the matter, he touches on a trend that has never died and likely never will. This is the trend of being trendy, the false-orthodoxy of methodology that consists of keeping up with the Ecclesiastical Joneses. If a well-known pastor or large church does one thing, then the expectation arises that all churches and all pastors must do those same things. Lloyd-Jones called it an orthodoxy of "conformity to 'the thing to do' and 'the done thing.' He is right when he says that we must be more concerned with the orthodoxy of beliefs, and such orthodoxy is developed only under the preaching of the whole counsel of God. So, let us come into the place of worship with our fellow believers hungry for the Truth of God. If the topic of that day's exposition is not of interest to us, the problem is most likely to be found in the depravity of our interests. After all, if God considered the matter worthy of canonization in His inspired Book, then we must not consider the matter unimportant or of no interest. And, let us be content that we are being fed this milk and meat, even if it is disagreeable to our tastebuds. The best foods we can eat are those which usually require an "acquired taste." Over time, the regular, systematic exposition of Scripture will produce an appetite for the same. If you aren't fed what you prefer, be thankful that you were fed what is good for you, namely the Word of God. Then finally, let us not tolerate any sort of preaching in our midst that does not exposit God's truth, regardless of how interesting we may find the topic under consideration.

1 Peter 3:9 - Responding Rightly to Wrong


About 3 weeks ago, I overheard a ethical discussion between my children from another room in the house. The discussion had to do with whether or not is right to give someone a noogie. Now one of my children said, “I hate it when you give me noogies. Stop doing that.” And the other one said, “Well, you give me noogies, and you know about the Golden Rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. So you must want me to give you noogies, because you keep giving me noogies.” And then the other one said, “Yeah, but when you give me noogies, then I give you back noogies,” and on and on this discussion went for sometime until the long arm of the law, who is also called Daddy, stepped in to say, “How about nobody give anybody else any more noogies!” But in my mind, I was kind of proud of my kids trying to reason through this whole noogie-giving situation and applying biblical wisdom to the situation.

Most of us grew up hearing about the Golden Rule. I am not sure many of us could find it in our Bibles if we had to, but it is there. In Luke 6:31, and paralleled in Matthew 7:12, Jesus said, “Treat others the same way you want them to treat you.” But most of us did not grow up practicing the Golden Rule. What we grew up practicing is what we might call the Brass Rule. Brass looks like gold from a distance, but it is significantly cheaper, softer, and more corruptible. The Brass Rule states, “Treat others the same way they have treated you.” Someone hits you, hit them back. Someone speaks evil of you, speak evil of them. The Brass Rule is not as virtuous as the Golden Rule; it is not an ethical code for individual Christians to live by; but each one of us would probably readily confess that we have more often followed the Brass Rule than the Golden Rule. It may not be what we should do, but it is what we want to do, and what we find easier to do.

Living the Christian life often involves overcoming our natural desires and tendencies. If we have believed in Christ, we have entered the realm of the supernatural. A great exchange has occurred in which our sin was placed on Christ in His death, as He bore the penalty of our sins and conquered sin and death through His resurrection. His perfect righteousness has been placed on us in the divine act of justification, and God has indwelled our lives in the person of the Holy Spirit, enabling and empowering us to live out that righteousness. Therefore, we find ourselves in a struggle between doing what comes naturally and relying upon the Spirit’s power to do what only comes supernaturally. The Apostle Paul spoke of this struggle in Romans 7, where he confesses, “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. … For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. … I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good.”

The lifelong process whereby the Holy Spirit transforms us into Christlikeness is called sanctification. There are areas in our lives where we can detect progress in this transformation: sins that no longer ensnare us, temptations that no longer appeal to us, habits from which we have been set free, attitudes and actions that have been radically changed. As we find this effects of the Spirit’s sanctifying work within us, we are seeing the evidence of our salvation in Jesus Christ. But then there are those areas where the process of sanctification seems slow, areas of life where the natural tendencies of the flesh are still far too strong. In these areas, we find out that God is not finished with us yet, that we have not yet arrived, and that there is still much sin that needs uprooting in ourselves. And the area where this is most frequently evident is when others treat us wrongly. I don’t know of a stronger temptation than that of defending ourselves, getting even, and seeking revenge. Even this very week, as I have been praying and preparing to give this message today, God has given me opportunities to realize that I still have a long way to go when it comes to responding rightly when wrongs are done to me. We can gain control over many areas of our lives; better yet, we can surrender more and more areas of our lives to the control of the Holy Spirit. But there is one thing we can never control. We can never control how other people treat us. And when they treat us badly, our knee-jerk reaction is to respond in similar fashion. We fall back on the old Brass Rule and our greatest desire in that moment is to do to them what they’ve done to us. We want revenge.

Peter is writing this letter to a group of Christians in Asia Minor who were under harsh treatment. It is likely that they had been kicked out of Rome and exiled to Asia Minor to form a new colony there. Having been transplanted to this new area where Christians were in an extreme minority, they were not being received well by their new neighbors. They were being slandered, insulted, discredited and verbally abused. Over time, this would only intensify as the Roman Empire would begin to launch an all out pogrom against Christianity. For many years, Christians in the Western world have found it difficult to relate to First Peter because we have not lived under this hostility like they did. However, while this book was being ignored by us, it was being treasured by our brothers and sisters living in parts of the world where hostility and persecution raged against the church. And now in our day, anti-Christian sentiments are spreading in our own culture, and we find ourselves turning to this book with fresh eyes for wisdom in how to respond. Surely those first-century believers were no different than we are. They faced the temptation to respond in hostility just as we often do. But Peter writes them to admonish them that in Christ there is a better way – a right way to respond to wrongs that are done to us.

This verse is couched in a context of summary. Verse 8 begins, “To sum up.” And in verse 8 Peter summarized the characteristics that are necessary for us to be the church God has called us to be. Verse 8 speaks to the attributes that enable us to have unity and strong fellowship within the church. Now verse 9 adds a summary of his instructions on how we as Christians should respond to a largely non-Christian culture when there is hostility directed toward us. Certainly, as we apply these truths to our lives we find that there are times when even inside the church we must consider our responses. It would be nice to think that our fellow Christians would never do us wrong, but some of us have experienced it. And the admonition is the same, whether we are dealing with hostilities outside the church or antagonism inside the church. We cannot control what others do or say to us, but by the Holy Spirit’s transforming power, we can surrender our responses to His control and respond rightly to wrong. How do we do this?

1. We respond rightly to wrong when we resist the temptation to seek revenge

Not returning evil for evil or insult for insult.

One of the most ancient law codes in history is the principle of lex talionis, or “the law of retaliation.” In its most familiar form, we would express this as “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” Hammurabi of Babylon was one of the first to record this principle as a law, some 100 years or so before the time of Moses. The principle is found in the Law of Moses in Exodus 21, where it applies to punishments that suit crimes of personal injury: “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” This law prevented people from responding with excessive punishment beyond what is warranted by the crime and to warn all in society of the dangers of wrongdoing. An often overlooked reality is that this law of retaliation was to be carried out by a civil justice system of judges who heard cases and prescribed sentences. It was not to be carried out in a vigilante system of individuals seeking revenge on others. Nowhere did the Law allow an individual to seek revenge on another for himself. It is like the old tagline that Doug Llewelyn used to say at the end of Judge Wapner’s People’s Court program: “Don’t take the law into your own hands; you take ‘em to court.”

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made stark contrasts between what God’s will for His people was and what they had been taught by rabbis and scribes that actually contradicted God’s will. This was one of those areas. In Matthew 5:38, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Yes, we have heard that; in fact, we have read it in the Bible. But over time, rabbinic traditions corrupted the original intention of this law, and actually encouraged people to take the law into their own hands and seek vengeance on their own rather than entrusting the matter to the civil authorities. So what people heard was not what God had originally spoken in the Law, but rather a corruption of the Law. Jesus therefore said, “You have heard this, but I say to you” something different. Jesus did not question the right to carry the matter to a judge or jury for retribution, but He spoke to the issue of seeking to exact revenge on your own. He said, “I say to you do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.” He is simply saying this: If someone strikes you on the cheek, you have no biblical right to strike him back. If striking another person is evil, then you striking someone in response is still evil. Thus Peter says here that we must not return “evil for evil.”

Most of us are not often in a case where we might be tempted to return physical harm for physical harm. If you find that you are often being beat upon and physically battered, I’d suggest that you need to think about removing yourself from that situation somehow. But, isn’t it the case that most often the evil done to us is a spoken evil? This is what Peter intends by insults here. In the original language, the word had to do with cursing, abusive speech, insults and mockery. It is the same word translated just a few verses before, in 2:23, as “revile”. There it refers to Jesus. There has never been anyone to walk on this earth who faced more undeserved insults, more hateful cursing, more abusive speech, than Jesus. Do people speak ill of you? Would you trade it for what Jesus faced? Not if you are in your right mind. But how did Jesus respond to the reviling He received? Notice that Peter said there “He did not revile in return; while suffering He uttered no threats.” He must be our example as well. Peter says in 2:21 that Christ has lefts us an example for us to follow in His steps.

The natural inclination we have to get even, to get revenge, or to even go one up on someone is strong. We desire it, others encourage and expect it of us when we’ve been wronged, but it is a temptation that must be resisted. To respond to evil with evil, or insult with insult, only perpetuates the cycle. It is a mark of Christian maturity to step up and stop the cycle by resisting the urge for revenge and obeying God’s word in the Spirit’s power. We respond rightly to wrong by resisting the temptation to seek revenge.

2. We respond rightly to wrong by becoming a channel of grace

Things have been kind of hectic lately, and I have been spending a lot of time catching up on stuff that I’ve been behind on, and I’ve still got a long way to go. But last Sunday morning, Donia and I decided we needed to catch up on some family time, so after church we went up to Ridgecrest for the night with the kids. We had a great time hiking up and down the mountains there and just enjoying the beauty of our Father’s world. Hiking up the Rattlesnake Trail at Ridgecrest, we crossed and walked alongside of several clear, running streams. There’s nothing like the sight and sound of a mountain stream flowing. But later that day, we hiked up to Craggy Pinnacle on the Blue Ridge Parkway. There are no flowing streams there. Along the way up to the top there, we’d come across some soggy ground and puddles of water that had just gathered there from rainwater, dew, and ground moisture. And it was not as lovely. In fact, it smelled bad. All the rotting organic matter decomposing in those pools let out a foul odor that we didn’t experience while hiking by the flowing streams. When I think about the difference between those two mountains, I am reminded about how grace works in our lives. We are saturated with blessings by God’s grace, pouring into our lives in abundance. But does that grace have anywhere to go? Is it just gathering in pools in our lives, or is it finding an outlet through us? See, like the water on those different mountains, I have observed that when people receive grace from God but never extend it to others, they became bitter and foul, like a spiritual cesspool. But where people receive grace, and extend it to others in like measure, there is flowing through their lives a crystal clear stream of grace and blessing that refreshes themselves and others.

Grace is only grace when it is extended to someone who doesn’t deserve it. That is how you receive it from God – when you least deserve His favor; and that is how you must extend it to others – when they least deserve to be treated well by us. And here Peter says that we are not to respond to evil with evil, or to insult with insult. Rather, we are to respond to evil and insult with blessing! As if it wasn’t hard enough to simply not seek revenge, now we are under the command to seek the good of another by blessing them.

What would it mean to bless someone who is committing evil or speaking insults against you? The Greek word here is one that is familiar to us – eulogeo. We’ve all been to a funeral and heard someone deliver a eulogy before, right. Now, you may be thinking, “OK, now we are on to something. Respond to evil or insult by preaching someone’s eulogy.” No, you need to slow down a bit. The original word did not have to do with funerals, at least not exclusively. The word means “to speak well of.” So, the idea is that if someone is insulting you, you respond by speaking well of them. But just as the wrongs that are done are both of word (insults) and deed (evil), so must our blessing be in word and deed. Not only are to just speak well of those who insult us, but Jesus said that we should love them and pray for them. In another portion of the Sermon on the Mount, He says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” Indeed, the Law did specify loving one’s neighbor, but it never said anything about hating an enemy. That was an addition to the Law that rabbinic tradition supplied. But Jesus contrasted that unbiblical tradition when He said, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Now, praying for someone who is treating you harshly may seem like a simple thing to do. I once knew a man who had the ability to pray for someone else in a very unorthodox way. I likened it to being dragged before the throne of grace and beat to death. I got nervous every time he said, “Let me pray for you.” I don’t listen to country music, so I had a learning experience this week when someone explained a current country song to me called “I’ll Pray for You.” Some of you have probably heard this song. The heartbroken singer says that he went to church and heard the preacher say to pray for someone who has done wrong to you, so this is what he prays:
I pray your brakes go out runnin’ down a hill
I pray a flowerpot falls from a window sill and knocks you in the head like I’d like to
I pray your birthday comes and nobody calls
I pray you’re flyin’ high when your engine stalls
I pray all your dreams never come true

It would be easy to pray that way for someone who has done wrong to us. But that kind of praying can hardly be called a blessing. What Jesus means is that we should pray for God to bless these individuals in remarkable ways, and particularly, we should pray that they come to know saving faith in Jesus Christ. If they claim to be followers of Jesus already, we should pray for them to grow in their relationship with Him and be empowered to overcome their hurtful ways. It may be that the reason that they hurt people is that they have been hurt themselves. So perhaps we need to pray for the healing of their past wounds, or for God to meet some other need in their life that is causing their bitterness. It is difficult to pray for someone who has hurt us in this way. Difficult, yes, but not impossible. God does not command us to do what He does not enable us to do. It will require a surrender to the control of the Holy Spirit, and as He works in our hearts we can genuinely pray in that way for the person.

But, what about loving them? Surely it isn’t possible to love someone who is evil or insulting toward us, is it? Again, Jesus would not command it if He could not empower us to do so. Our problem is that by default we associate love with an emotion rather than an action. It may well be impossible feel loving toward someone like this, but we find in God’s Word that love has more to do with what we do to others than how we feel about others. So our challenge is to find ways to actively do good to those who are actively doing evil against us. That is no small order, and it will require the power of the Holy Spirit to overcome our natural inclination to get even.

The Bible also tells us that we must forgive those who treat us harshly. In fact, Jesus said in Mark 11:25-26, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your transgressions.” What if God used your standard of grace toward others to measure His grace toward you? How would you fare? Well, in fact, this is exactly what Jesus is saying here. Forgiveness means that I give up the right to get even with someone, and move from a position of hostility toward them to a position of seeking their good. This is what God has done for us in Christ; this is what we must do for others who sin against us. Otherwise we have become receivers only of His grace, and not channels of grace. As we allow grace to flow through us, we posture ourselves to be continual recipients of grace from God. I like to think of it like this: God allows you to choose the measurement of grace you receive. You choose it by how much you are willing to extend to others. Therefore, because I see myself in desperate need of abundant grace, I want to use the largest measure possible in dealing with others. Otherwise, what I am actually doing is minimizing the work of Jesus Christ on the cross to save me. I am saying that my sins were not very big at all compared to the sins of this other person. If my sins were not big, then they did not require a big sacrifice or a big Savior. Oh, but when I see the magnitude of my own sin, and I see what they cost … the shed blood of God-Incarnate on the cross … then what I actually see is that the sin that has been committed against me is quite small in comparison. And as my perspective changes in this way, I find myself becoming more and more a channel of God’s grace as it flows into my life, and then through me toward others.

Now, Peter says that we have been called for this very purpose. We have been saved for a specific purpose. What is it? It is the purpose of blessing those who are evil toward us. If God wanted us to hate our enemies and exact our own revenge, He wouldn’t need to redeem us from sin. We can do that just fine in our fallen, corrupted and sinful state. But God has rescued us from that life so that we can live on a higher plane. He has saved us to be His agents of grace and blessing in the world. And as we do this, by His power and for His glory, what do we find? We find that we are inheriting blessings of our own. We never outgive God. God’s grace that we receive will always exceed that which we give others. God’s blessings that we receive will always exceed those blessings that we bestow on others. So, be as gracious as you can be in light of our great salvation; be a blessing to as many as you can, even and especially those who do not deserve it. For God has blessed you in the same way, when you least deserved it; when, in sin, you had postured yourself as His enemy, He rescued you by His love. Who is to say then that the love you show to one who insults you or does evil to you will not be used of God to rescue them as well? The grace you show to them may be the first glimpse of God’s saving grace they have ever seen. You have been called for that very purpose.

You and I will never be able to control how others speak or act toward us. But, if we have been saved through Jesus Christ and empowered by His indwelling Spirit, we can choose how we will respond to them. And in His power, and for His glory, we can respond rightly to wrong by resisting the temptation to get revenge and by becoming channels of blessing and grace. It is only impossible for those who have never experienced God’s saving grace for themselves. So today, perhaps the Holy Spirit is speaking to your heart about your need to be saved through faith in Christ. He died for your sins, and conquered death through His resurrection. He desires to be Lord and Savior of your life if you will trust in Him. And if you have received His grace in Christ, He will empower you to share it with others who are as ill-deserving as you were when you first came to Him.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Honesty is the Best Policy

(from Pastoral Ministry class)

When a pastor has the opportunity to dialog with another church about a potential transition, the conventional wisdom is that it should be done secretly. There are several advantages to doing it this way. First, there is concern that if you announce the possibility that you might be considering a move, you will become a "lame duck" and lose the right to lead in the present church (even if the move doesn't happen). Second, there is the idea that the present church may not appreciate you considering that opportunity and therefore vote to terminate your ministry there. Third, some pastors are concerned that if the present church is aware of a potential move, some trouble-maker in the congregation may call the potential new church and "poison the well" by telling them all of your faults and shortcomings. Fourth, there is a fear that the announcement that a beloved pastor may be leaving will create panic and disorder in the present church. These are all legitimate concerns, and should not be dismissed without caution. However, I found by experience and scriptural consideration that honesty is always the best policy.

Telling the truth may, in fact, get you fired. But consider this on the other hand. What if you decide that the move is not right for you and you stay put. Then later on, word gets out that you were a candidate for the other position. Might that news not also lead to your termination? Wouldn't it be better to get fired for telling the truth than for hiding the truth?
Consider the ethics of "springing the news" on the present church. Popular wisdom says to keep the talks with the new church under wraps until the matter is settled, and then announce it to the old church simultaneous with the resignation. I think this is questionable ethically. My policy has always been to tell the truth from the beginning. I have not always told the church initially about every time my name was dropped to a search committee, or every contact from a search committee. Most of the time, those are premature contacts that never lead to anything. But, once a committee is serious about engaging in discussions and we commit to dialog, I go to the church leaders and let them know and ask their opinion on making the information public. I have had experiences where the leadership was in agreement with making it known, and experiences where the leaders thought it was best to keep it confidential until it develops into a strong probability. If you invite the wisdom of leadership, you need to accept the wisdom of leadership. But, it should be agreed among the leaders that if an issue arises concerning this, that all will acknowledge that you were willing to disclose the information but were abiding their requests to keep the matter concealed.

Throughout the process, from the beginning, I am also committed to answering any questions from members honestly. Recently, a search committee visited our church. I knew that they had my name, but had received no contact from them prior to their visit. They came unannounced, unsolicited, and unexpected. The following Wednesday night, a member asked me, "Pastor, was
that a search committee here on Sunday? Are you going to leave us?" I answered honestly. "It was a search committee, however, we have had no conversations and there is no indication that this is a possibility. I have no desire or sense of divine direction to leave here and go there, and if I ever do, or if talks begin, I will let you know." I feel that this answer was received and appreciated well.

Here are some examples:
I left my first church to go to seminary, not to take another church. In God’s providence, I did take another church, but that was not my reason for leaving. I decided to go to seminary in September of 2002. As soon as I made that decision, I told my chairman of deacons and let him know that I wanted to share it with the whole church. He agreed. We set a timetable for my departure in May, 2003, with a provision for leaving in January 2003 should I be called to another church. I asked their blessing for seeking other church positions. We were able to work together toward the May date and make a smooth transition. It was a blessing for me to share that with the church so that they could work with me and pray for me as we moved toward that transition. Not only did the church pray for me to find another church to serve, it was a member of that church who passed my name along to the church I eventually served while in Seminary. Members of the first church even volunteered to move us when the day came. This would not have happened if I had decided to spring this on the church at the last minute.

During another pastorate, I faced much conflict. Some of it stemmed from a sad departure by my predecessor. Though few expressed it, there were many hurt feelings and much damaged trust when I arrived. After approximately two years there, I had the opportunity to express interest in Immanuel. I did not do it because I felt that there were conflicts that needed to be resolved. Praying through it however, I felt inclined that the Lord wanted to move me in the near future. Therefore, I began working through a process of intentional conflict resolution and transition. Five months later, the opportunity to talk with Immanuel resurfaced, and we had gotten to a more stable place with the other church. I began talking to the committee, and announced to the whole church that we were talking, and that it was a possibility, but that it was far from certain. We committed to pray together as these discussions took place, and I assured them that I would not leave them unless I was certain God was calling. I also assured them that if God was calling me elsewhere, it meant that God was raising up someone new to lead that church. I did accept the opportunity to serve Immanuel, but I gave the former church 6 weeks notice to finalize things there. I believe that my honesty and intentionality in transitioning out of that church enabled my successor there to have a better beginning than I had.

Why is it best, in my opinion, to tell the truth?
1. Because it is a sin to lie, and morally questionable to be sneaky.
2. Because I am a member of the church I serve. They are my faith-family. I should feel like I can share my burdens and prayer concerns with them.
3. It opens the door for conversations that need to be had within the church about our present and future state.
4. It enables conversation and input from a variety of counselors.
5. In the tech-world we now live in, word will get out. Someone will blog about it, post it on Twitter or Facebook, or put it on a church website. I would rather my brothers and sisters whom I love in Jesus to hear it from me first.
6. If you should decide to stay put, you will have enhanced the trust of your people by showing them that you are a man of integrity.
7. Because people have a hard enough time trusting pastors as it is. Leaving them on short notice only strengthens their distrust and makes your successor's job more difficult.
8. The only gains I can see in being sneaky are selfish ones, and as I understand the Scriptures, selfishness is something I should be dying to, not living for.

Finishing Well

Here are some thoughts from our Pastoral Ministry class about finishing well in a place of service when God directs us to move elsewhere:

Finishing

There is no certain sign that it is time to leave. Surely some leave too soon, but also some stay too long. This is a matter of prayer, and there must be confident assurance that God is the one who is leading. Here are some guidelines.

“Don’t Chase Money or Prestige”
Never assume that just because another church offers more money or a more “important” position that God is calling. There are no unimportant places of serving Christ. God is the provider.

“Win-Win-Win”
A move to another place always involves three parties: the old church, the new church and the pastor (and family). Most often, a transition is either win-win-lose (e.g., good for the pastor, good for the new church, bad for the old church), or win-lose-lose (e.g., good for the pastor, bad for both churches). A win-win-win situation is one that is good for all parties involved.

“Don’t go away mad”
I have made it a practice to never leave a church in the middle of conflict. While it may make sense, humanly speaking, for the short run, there are long term effects of doing this. First, the church is left in conflict with no one at the helm to pilot them through the troubled waters. Often the burden either falls to a denominational leader or an interim, neither of whom know the people and the roots of the conflict. More often perhaps, the conflict is brushed under the rug and never dealt with in a healthy way, and this makes it worse over time as it festers. Second, the pastor and his family are hurt by the conflict and the departure, and this creates baggage that he will inevitably carry into the new church. This will then create obstacles in the new church, not to mention broken fellowship between the two churches and others who are indirectly involved. It has always been my desire and practice, when times are troubled, to help lead the church to a healthy resolution of conflict first, before entertaining offers to leave. Usually, once the conflict is resolved, the desire to depart fades and there can be a longer, happier ministry there.

“The Uncertain Signs” – Things that should NEVER be interpreted as indicators of time to leave:
- Problems in the present church: There will be problems in the next one too. Part of your calling is to help the church sort through its problems and resolve them.
- Problem people in the present church: There will be problem people in the next church too. If you leave, you strengthen their position as power brokers in the church. Sometimes, you need to stay and confront them. As one pastor told me, “Someone has to be Gandalf and stand on the bridge and say to the beast, ‘You cannot pass.’” To which I said, “Yeah, then he died.” To which he said, “But he came back stronger and better than ever.” For the sake of the whole church and any future pastor there, you need to confront that person in an appropriate way. Also remember that God is still working on you too. One of the ways He does this best is through adversity. The problems and problem people in the church may be His heavenly sandpaper by which He is accomplishing your own sanctification.
- Spiritual dryness: This may be a dry season in the life of the church or the life of the pastor. Both can be remedied by the Lord through the pastor. If it is a dry season in the pastor’s life, that is certainly not a healthy place to begin a new ministry somewhere else. Confess it to the church and ask for prayer. Recommit to personal spiritual disciplines. If it is a dry season in the church, part of your role is to help them move beyond that. All churches go through cycles and dry seasons are somewhat normal. Learn to deal with them, not run from them.
- An open door somewhere else: This may just as likely be a temptation from the devil as a sign from God. You better know before you go.
- An obvious need you can meet somewhere else: This could be an appeal to your own ego rather than a sign from God. Remember, you are not the Savior, and you are not indispensable in the purposes of God. Someone else may be able to meet that need better than you can. But no one else may be able to step in where you are and serve the way God called you to serve there.
- “Staff infections”: You may be the one who needs to go in this case, but often you are the one God has put there to fix the situation, not to make it worse by fleeing.

“The Yellow Lights” – Proceed with caution when …
- Theological conflict – If you are a Bible-believing pastor and the church is liberal or moderate, there will be constant conflict. You may be tempted to think, “This church would be better off with a liberal pastor.” But stop and think, “Is any church better off with a liberal pastor?” Surely not.
- A fulfilled vision – You’ve accomplished all that you feel God put you there to do. Prayerfully consider that God may still have a plan for you there. He may be challenging you to broaden your vision and stretch yourself and the church.
- Loss of leadership – For one reason or another, your leadership may have been undermined. It could be the fault of a power-hungry individual or group that has undermined you. You may need to stand firm and oppose them. It could be your own fault because of poor choices. Can you confess that to the church and seek restoration? You certainly don’t want to begin at a new place with unreconciled sin from the past.

“The Certain Signs”
- Termination – the people (in a congregational church) or leaders (in an elder led church or similar) have spoken and they do not desire your leadership any longer. Here you have no option. Do not fight or resist. Go in grace.
- Staying would hurt the present church – Whatever the circumstances, if staying put would harm or hinder the work of God in that local church, you must leave.
- Convergence of Providences – Things come together in an undeniably divine way. The open door elsewhere, the development of a new leader in the present place, the resolution of past conflicts, the answers to specific prayers, etc. These are often more than coincidences.
- A better fit – Churches, like people, have personalities. It may be an educational misfit, a social misfit, an ethnic misfit (be careful here), or a cultural misfit. Example: Are you an urban person in a rural church? An opportunity to go to an urban church may be the right move.
- Family turmoil – If a pastor’s family cannot support the church he serves, then a move is definitely in order. Just make sure that the family can support the new church. It may be a deeper issue.

How do we know the will of God?
It is both easier and harder than you think. Harder, because the will of God is not always discernible by the hunches and strong feelings we have in our gut. Easier, because the will of God is not hidden away in a black box, detectable only by mystic and hyperspiritual rituals. I highly recommend Bruce Waltke's book Finding the Will of God.

“Just leave well enough alone”
- Leaving well enough
---Say thank you to the people who made your ministry a joy inside the church and out
---Don’t dig up old skeletons to leave behind. Forget about the hurts and hardships, don’t try to settle scores on the way out the door. One caveat – it may be necessary to point out to leaders certain individuals who have hindered the life and health of the church. They may be unaware.
--- Maintain friendships, but don’t meddle. Keep contact with special Christian brothers and sisters, but do not get involved in church situations unless the new pastor invites you to do so.
People are hurt when pastors disappear without a trace.
--- Remind the people of what God has done and what He can do through them. Leave them assured that God is not finished with them.
--- Help them get a search committee established and coach them in the process, if they request or allow it.
--- Pay debts in the community, return things that belong to the church and to members, resolve interpersonal conflicts as much as you can, forgive those who hurt you.
--- Help the new guy. Help him through preaching. Preach on supporting the pastor. The fact that you are leaving enables you to do this without appearing selfish. Be his friend and prayer partner, his counselor when he requests it, and help him in any way he asks. Let him be the initiator beyond the first contact. Keep him in the loop when you are interacting with the members after you leave. This will eliminate suspicions. Speak highly of him to members.
--- Make a list and check it twice. The new pastor will benefit from from you leaving him a list of information that will be helpful: Community resources (hospitals, funeral homes, other like-minded pastors, “friendly” media contacts, etc); Info about the building and grounds (how to run water in the baptistery, where the light switches are, which keys unlock which doors, etc.); Long range goals of the church (not your own); Prospect contacts; KEYS!!!; Instructions on specific things in the church and community (e.g. how the copier works, clergy credentials for the hospitals, etc.)
--- Prayerfully consider the pros and cons of invitations to return for weddings and funerals, and always in consult with the new pastor.
- Leave alone. Don’t recruit the members to go with you. Don’t encourage them to leave behind you. Do what you can to keep the church intact as you go.


Staying Long

Following are some thoughts I shared with the Pastoral Ministry class last night about staying long. I hope they will be of help and encouragement to others as well.

Staying Long

I am convinced that the greatest need for churches and pastors today is for a pastor to stay put for a long time in one place. This will not be easy, and will require patience and endurance. My longest tenure in one place has been five and a half years. I have served my present church for five years. While no one has any guarantees, it would be my desire to stay here for many more years. As time goes by, our ministry and fellowship together becomes richer, truer, and more meaningful and significant. My heroes in the faith have been men who have stayed put in one place for a long time. My pastor served one church through his entire pastoral career of over 40 years. I thank God for his wonderful example. I pray that I may have that opportunity in one place as well as I serve Christ and His Church. Here are some pointers I have picked up from some of these men who have modeled faithfulness to one church over a long pastorate:

“Remember who called you”
You were called by Christ, and it is ultimately Him whom you serve. Be committed to stay as long as He is using you, in spite of visible results. He opened the door of ministry there for you; make sure He is the one who closes it and opens another before you run from that place.

“Bloom where you are planted”
All of us think that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. It may be, but it still has to be mowed! There are no perfect churches. One of my old professors said, “It’s the same devil you have to fight in every church. You might as well stay and fight him where you are.” Every year you stay, you are earning more credibility and more trust of the people. Why leave and start over somewhere before you have given the Lord the opportunity to use you where He placed you?

“Heart of a shepherd, hide of a rhinoceros”
There will be conflict. We must not wear our feelings on our sleeves. We must be the most forgiving people in the Kingdom. We must never allow conflict to embitter us toward the church.

“Know your enemy”
The enemy is Satan, not the church or the grumblers in the church. If there are people posturing themselves as enemies, they are under the influence of the enemy, and this requires compassion, not combativeness.

Humility
Sometimes when people complain, they are correct. 2 Kings 19:14 – When Hezekiah received a nasty letter from Senacherib, “he took the letter from the hand of the messengers and read it, and he went up to the house of the LORD and spread it out before the LORD.” Are we humble enough to let the Lord read our hate mail and point out to us which parts are accurate? If we are in error, we must model the gospel by repentance and confession, seeking the forgiveness of the people involved, showing grace to all, and seeking to regain the trust of the people.

Preaching to Stay
We should preach in such a way that if what we say angers people, it will be clear that they are angry at God and His word, and not at us. We cannot use the pulpit for a whipping post or a platform for personal agendas. We must stick to the Word in its simplicity and sufficiency. Steady biblical preaching will develop an appetite for the same, and people will begin to wonder what they would do without your regular, systematic and faithful exposition of God's truth.

Praying to Stay
Our success in ministry will be directly proportional to the depth of our prayer lives. We must pray about all aspects of the church and ministry. Use Jesus’ high-priestly prayer (John 17) and Paul’s prayers in the epistles as models. Pray for your preaching and your ministry, and the people’s reception and response. Pray for increasing love and spiritual maturity among the members. Pray for the lost. Pray for ministry and evangelistic opportunities. Pray for your members systematically and spontaneously.

Developing Koinonia
Be a member, not an employee. Become part of their faith-family in every way. Develop personal relationships as you would with other friends and fellow believers. Invite others into your home and into your life. 1 Thes 2:8 – “Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives , because you had become very dear to us.” Pick out some people to pour yourself into.

Patience
A fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22); The byproduct of suffering (James 1:2-4). If suffering makes you flee, you can only expect more of it until you learn to stick through suffering. Dever (Deliberate Church): “It would be wise for many of us to lower our expectations and extend our time horizons. … It is wise to show care for the congregation and concern for the unity of the church by not running so far ahead of them that people start falling behind. Run at a pace that the congregation can keep. ... Patience in the pastorate requires thinking in terms of 20, 30, 40, or even 50 years of ministry.” Keep things in an eternal perspective. What is five or ten years compared to eternity? Don’t gauge success by the numbers, but by your faithfulness to what God has called you to do. It has been said that it takes 5 years to really begin “pastoring” a people. That is somewhat artificial, but the wisdom in it suggests that we not be in a hurry. Average pastoral tenure: 2-3 years. No wonder churches and pastors are so unhealthy.

The example of Charles Simeon
Members boycotted his ministry for 12 years, locking the pews, throwing benches out into the street, and throwing dirt and eggs on Simeon while he preached. But he endured “with faith and patience” and loved the church through it all, and managed to have a ministry of 54 years in one church.

“Just say no”
Over time, you may be contacted by other committees, or asked to place your name into other places for consideration. You can do this, but always from a position of “I shall not be moved.” In other words, it should be up to that other church to convince you that the time is right for you to go to them, and not vice versa. Your default commitment should be to stay.

Characteristics that Cultivate Christian Community - 1 Peter 3:8

Audio available here

A little nursery rhyme that was taught to us as children says, “Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow? With silver bells and cockle shells, and pretty maids all in a row.” Roald Dahl wrote a parody of the rhyme that went like this: “Mary, Mary, quite contrary, How does your garden grow? I live with my brat in a high-rise flat so how in the world would I know?" Some of us have no problem getting a garden to grow, but I just can’t seem to do it. It seems to me that the chipmunks want the stuff more than I do, so I have given up and let them have it. Everyone wants to help me out a little bit, saying “make sure you do this and make sure you do that.” But no matter what, my garden doesn’t grow. I have concluded that I do not have the ability to cultivate a garden.

God is also cultivating something like a garden for Himself, filled with His people. Thankfully, He doesn’t have the troubles I have with it. He plants the seed of His word into the soil of our hearts, and new life in Christ sprouts up. And it is like the most glorious flower garden you have ever seen. The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in southwest London is home to more than 30,000 varieties of plants. They are diverse in shape, size, color, fragrance. In the garden of His people that God is cultivating, there is also great diversity. But God is bringing all these different people together into one body under the Lordship of Christ. They are connected to the Lord by faith, and connected to each other in Him. This garden is the Church of Jesus Christ, and it is a community of lives that are intertwined through mutual faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Earlier in 2:4-9, Peter described in vivid imagery the doctrine of the church. There he said that we are being fitted together as living stones, built upon the chief cornerstone of Jesus Christ. We are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession. We have a commission to proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called us out of darkness and into His marvelous light. With this understanding, this right belief of who we are, Peter now gives a summary of the characteristics that must exist in the lives of God’s people if the church is to be what God created it to be. These attributes cannot be produced in our lives apart from the Holy Spirit of God transforming us as we surrender to the Gospel, as we live under the Lordship of Christ and the authority of His Word. But notice that they are still imperative commands, indicating that we must not resist the movement of the Spirit in shaping us along these lines. We must rather cooperate with the Spirit by obeying these commands.

Out west, there is this little saying that pastors sometimes say, but only out west. They say, “Ministry would be easy if it weren’t for people.” Of course the irony of that statement is that people are our ministry. If there were no people there would be no ministry. Another little slogan that gets passed around sometimes goes like this: “To live above with the saints we love, that will be glory. But to dwell below with the saints we know, well, that’s another story.” If we stop and think about it for a moment, what is the most frustrating thing about church life, or any other part of life for that matter? Is it not relationships with other people? And why is this? It is because we are all sinners. It is not just that I have to put up with a bunch of sinners, but also that I myself am a sinner. We are going to disagree with each other, disappoint each other, frustrate each other, and sometimes anger each other. It is true in the church, it is true at home, it is true where you work, eat, shop, exercise, and anywhere else where two or more sinners are gathered. And I am just as likely to blame as the next person. I am just as prone to say or do the wrong thing as he or she is; and I am also prone to misinterpret, overreact, prejudge, or otherwise misconstrue what someone else does. And so within the church, we are surrounded by all of this imperfection, yet we are gathered together for the sake of, and for the glory of, the only Perfect One, the Triune God whom we worship. As Dave Harvey has written, in the church we “join our imperfect selves with other imperfect selves to form an imperfect community—all for the glory of God.”

Now in order for all of this imperfection to exist in such close proximity, certain characteristics need to be manifest. What are these characteristics that cultivate Christian community?

I. Christian Community is Cultivated where there is Harmony

Some of you have the ability to read music. I cannot. The notes on a piece of printed music are utterly meaningless to me. I tried singing in a choir once, and it wasn’t pretty. I didn’t know what part I was supposed to sing. And when they pointed out the line I was supposed to be looking at, I had no idea what all those little dots and things meant. When you look at a piece of music, such as we find in our hymnals, often you see multiple notes stacked on top of each other. Those who know how to read it understand that it means that the sopranos sing one note, the altos another, the tenors another, and the basses another. When you hear this choir sing, they are singing four different notes at the same time, but they are singing the same song from the same page. The beautiful sound that you hear is called harmony. The same is true of a symphony. All the musicians are playing different notes on different instruments, but their sounds come through together and form one great piece of music in our ears. What we hear is not the diversity of each individual part, but the unity of the whole. The diverse instruments and notes and sounds blend together in such a way that what you hear is actually more pleasing than if they were all singing or playing the same notes.

The choir is not the only place in the church where harmony needs to be found. Harmony needs to be pervasive through the entire church at all times. And I am not just talking about musical harmony. When we are harmonious with one another, we recognize that there are differences. We don’t all look the same or talk the same. We don’t all come from the same backgrounds and may not even speak the same language. There is a great diversity among us. And like in singing, what binds us together is the fact that we are all on the same page. We have harmony with one another as we appreciate each others’ differences, but moreover we celebrate our commonalities, namely that we follow the same Lord, we are saved by the same Savior, we are indwelt by the same Spirit, and we are under the authority of the same truth, the Word of God.

A person who lacks harmony disrupts the unity of Christian fellowship by demanding that others become uniform with himself or herself, i.e., that others have the same opinions on every minor issue, or that others agree as to how certain things are to be done, when there are really a variety of possibilities, etc. Harmony recognizes that there is great diversity among us, but that we bring our diverse and imperfect selves together around the Word of God and the Lordship of Jesus Christ to make something more beautiful than uniformity can produce. Harmony is not uniformity, but it is unity, a sense of togetherness, as we stand together with others who are different from us on the common ground of the Gospel.

II. Christian Community is Cultivated where there is Sympathy

Over the last week or so, many of you have sent me cards following the death of my grandfather. We call these “sympathy cards.” Usually, we understand “sympathy” to mean something like “feeling sorry for someone.” But the word that Peter uses here goes deeper than this. It means “to suffer together.”

It would be one thing to stand on the top of a mountain, and to see someone suffering in the valley below, and look down on them with pity. “Oh what a shame,” we might say. It is something altogether different when we see that suffering and make the treacherous journey down into the valley of suffering to come along side of that person. Sympathy indicates that we actually “suffer together” with them. We go down into the valley and walk through it with them. Their hardships become our hardships. We do not show a pity that expresses without words, “Oh how I wish your life could be as good as mine right now.” We say with word and deed, “Brother, sister, because all is not right with you, all is not well with me.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer used the phrase “life together” to describe Christian fellowship. Your life and my life are wrapped up together because of our mutual relationship to Christ. So not only do we suffer together, we also rejoice together, as Paul says in Romans 12:15, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” When something good happens to our brother or sister in the faith, something good has happened to us all. We do not look upon them with envy, covetousness, and jealousy, we come along side of them and say, “Your successes are my successes because we live together in Christ.” So, if we are to live rightly under the Lordship of Christ, there must be this kind of sympathy, this kind of mutual affection for one another, that shares together in the joys and sufferings of life.

III. Christian Community is Cultivated where there is Brotherly Love

Across from City Hall in Philadelphia is Love Park. At the center of the park is the famous and often photographed sculpture of the word LOVE. The reason why this word is found in the center of that city is that the word “Philadelphia” is the Greek word for “brotherly love.” It is found here: the word is philadelphos. We are indeed brothers and sisters to one another under the fatherhood of God in His family.

Growing up, my brother was considerably older than I was so we did not do many things together. I will never forget the day when I was playing in the dirt while my brother was at football practice, and I met a boy named Will. His brother was also much older than he was, and like me, he was just looking for something to do and someone to do it with. We became the best of friends that day. Interestingly, we also looked very much alike, and people would often ask if we were brothers. So, we began to pretend that we were twins. On one occasion, we even tried to fool our elementary school teachers by switching places in class, and it almost worked! But we were only pretend brothers. It was a game we were playing. It was fun and we enjoyed it, but we were not brothers in any real sense of the word.

Now, often when we speak of being brothers and sisters to one another in Christ, we are tempted to think that it is just pretend, just imaginary, just a fun game we are playing. No, far from it, this family is as real as any other. When viewed in light of eternity, we might even say it is more real than all other family ties. Those of you who grew up with siblings know that you didn’t always get along, did you? Sometimes you would get on each other’s nerves and argue and squabble about things. But did you ever stop loving each other or cease to be family? Of course not. Family ties are a bond that is deeper than petty differences and irksome irritations. And the same is true in God’s family. Sometimes, our brothers and sisters will annoy and agitate us. But we don’t leave the family, and we don’t kick them out of the family for that. We are brothers and sisters. God is our Father. The commitment between us is a permanent bond that we must labor to preserve for the sake of our Father. And we must allow nothing to sever that bond. Christian community forms around this bond, where we love one another, and where we know that we are loved by one another, and that no power of earth or hell can sever that tie.

IV. Christian Community is Cultivated where there is Kindheartedness

Have you ever felt something so strongly, an emotion, a grief, a joy, a fear, an affection, that it made your stomach hurt? I’m sure we all have, if we would admit the fact. That’s odd isn’t it? What do my emotions have to do with my intestines? The ancients observed this phenomenon in their own bodies and concluded that the internal organs like the intestines must be the seat of emotion and affection. So, they came to use the Greek word for intestines to describe pity, compassion, and kindness toward others. That is the case here. The word we find in the original language is a compound of a prefix that means “good” and the root that means “internal organs, bowels, or intestines.” That would not make sense to us today if we said that Christian community required a characteristic of good-guttedness. We no longer view the intestines as the seat of emotion, though ironically, we still feel it there. Today we speak of the heart. We talk about heartaches, and heart-breaks, and things that are heart-warming. To our sensitivities that sounds better, doesn’t it? We would not really want to tell someone, “I am suffering from a tremendous bowel-ache.”

So, for our sake, the translators have rendered this word as kindhearted. In the family of God, the Church of Jesus Christ, our hearts are to be moved with genuine kindness toward one another. I should be seeking to do good to that person, to act favorably toward them, in a genuinely kind way. Throughout the Gospels we see this characteristic in the person of Jesus Christ, where it is usually translated as compassion. He had compassion on those whom He saw as sheep without a shepherd; He had compassion on those who needed healing; He had compassion on those who were without food and He fed them. Two of the most endearing characters in Jesus’ parables are described as having this kind of compassion: the father in the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:20) and the man we know as the “Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:33). In each of these cases, kindness is shown to those who do not necessarily deserve it. But Christ shows compassion to them, as the prodigal’s father, and the good Samaritan, out of genuine kindness.

So, where brothers and sisters in Christ show this kind of compassion and kindness to one another, where we are moved in our innermost being to act for the good of one another, Christian community will be cultivated.

V. Christian Community is Cultivated where there is Humility

Did you hear about the man who won a medal for being humble? They took it away from him because he wore it. Humility is a funny thing isn’t it? We know we are supposed to have it, but the moment we begin to recognize it in ourselves, we can become proud of it and undo it all. And of course, humility can be faked at times too. A person can discover that the deflection of praise and compliments actually gains them more praise and compliments and so they maintain a veneer of humility while internally becoming more puffed up and proud. Sometimes, people demonstrate humility outwardly, but it is not a true reflection of their inner person.

That is not the kind of humility that Peter is talking about here. He speaks of a humility of spirit, which is actually just one word in Greek. It means humility of the mind, or an internal humility. This is not just an external show, it is an internal state of being. This kind of humility recognizes that I am not better than anyone else, and that others in fact need to be regarded as more important than myself. That is what Paul says in Philippians 2:3-4: “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” And he follows that with the great statement about having the same mind as Christ had, who humbled Himself to become a man and die on the cross for us, and was exalted by God the Father. This is a spiritual law; Jesus said it Himself: “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted” (Matt 23:12). That doesn’t mean we embrace humility as a path to exaltation (that’s hardly humble). But it means that we humble ourselves in the confidence that Jesus is Lord and God is sovereign, and if we are to be exalted at all it will be in His way in His time. God does not need me to be my own public relations promoter. My job is to humble myself and to leave the rest to him.

In the pagan society of Peter’s day, humility was not considered a virtue outside the church. To call someone humble in that day would have been an insult. I once read, but I have forgotten where, that prior to the New Testament, this word was never used in Graeco-Roman writings to describe a positive attribute. Therefore we can say that it is a distinctly Christian virtue. But our present society is much like that ancient one. Humility is lost in our world of self-aggrandizement and self-promotion today. And this creeps into the church when one person exalts himself or herself above others and looks down on others as inferior or of lesser importance. This kind of self-centered arrogance will rupture Christian fellowship, and certainly it is no true reflection of Jesus Christ who described Himself as “humble in heart” (Matt 11:29). But where genuine humility is found, a rich sense of Christian community will be cultivated.

So, from this list of five attributes found in verse 8, we see that Christian character demonstrates itself in attributes that lead to the building up of godly relationships. Harmony, sympathy, brotherly love, kindheartedness, and genuine humility are all about having the right attitudes and characteristics in us that enable us to have healthy fellowship with others. Where these are absent, there will be division, disunity, and discord among the brethren. But where they are present, as the Spirit of God produces them in us and we cooperate with His working by obeying these commands, there is a beautiful fellowship like that described by the Psalmist when he said, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious oil upon the head, coming down upon the beard, even Aaron's beard, coming down upon the edge of his robes.” Just as that oil symbolized the setting apart of Israel’s priests for God’s holy purposes, so when the church dwells together in unity, in depth of fellowship and in genuine community, we are likewise fit for God’s holy use as priests to one another and indeed to the world. Our unity in the body of Christ speaks to the outside world. Jesus said that when we are one with each other, the world will believe that the Father has sent the Son into the world, that God loves the world. Where our lives are marked by these relational characteristics, God is showing Himself to the world through our fellowship.