Saturday, December 31, 2011

Getting the Message Out

As I began pastoring our church in 2011, part of our vision for our church was to help us move forward with newer ways to reach people with the same old, wonderful message of the Bible: that God saves us in Jesus Christ.

Fellowship WebsiteIn September we were able to roll out a newly redesigned website for Fellowship at www.fellowshipfamily.com. I pray that this will be great way for folks in our city to get initial information about who our church is, and why we do what we do. I hope you can stop by the website also, and maybe even our church.

Another small facet of this year’s vision for progress was to bring our sermons online. In the process of working toward this goal, I found that our church had in prior years podcast the sermons, but that it had stopped somewhere along the way. I am happy to announce that it has begun again.

Fellowship ResourcesWe have once again begun audio podcasting of our Sunday messages. You can listen to them on your computer, tablet, or mobile device, or you can download them to listen later. You may also subscribe to receive all updated sermons as they become available, using iTunes or generic podcasting subscription services.

All of the messages from the current series, Luke's Gospel: Good News for the Nations, are now available. Just go to the Media tab of our website.

We pray these resources will point you to faith in Christ for the first time, or strengthen your faith in Him!

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Church, The Community of Truth

We have finally completed a series of thoughts on 1 Timothy. This trust of guarding the gospel, as the community of truth, is a great and awesome privilege for your church and mine. I pray these notes can be encouraging and challenging.

  1. A Loving Command (Introduction)
  2. Protecting the Integrity of the Gospel (1 Tim 1.3-4)
  3. Promoting the Goal of the Gospel (1 Tim 1.5-7)
  4. Proclaiming the Grace of the Gospel (1 Tim 1.8-11)
  5. Preserving the Progress of the Gospel (1 Tim 1.18-20)
  6. Intense Desire for Ministry (1 Tim 1.12-17)
  7. Gospel-Advancing Prayer (1 Tim 2.1-8)
  8. Purposeful, Ordered Design (1 Tim 2.8-15)
  9. Proven Character for Leadership (1 Tim 3.1-7)
  10. Respectable Volunteer Leaders (1 Tim 3.8-13)
  11. The Pillar and Pattern of the Truth (1 Tim 3.14-16)
  12. Falling Away from Faith (1 Tim 4.1-5)
  13. Good Servants of Christ Jesus (1 Tim 4.6-16)
  14. Church Life as Family (1 Tim 5.1-16)
  15. Maintaining Trustworthy Elders (1 Tim 5.17-25)
  16. When God Doesn’t Change My Circumstances (1 Tim 6.1-2)
  17. Godliness with Contentment (1 Tim 6.3-10, 17-19)
  18. Guarding the Trust (1 Tim 6.11-16, 20-21)

Guarding the Trust

When you hear the word “command,” what kind of impulsive feeling does it bring? Do you immediately have a sense of warm fuzzies when you hear it?

I can remember growing up hearing all kinds of commands from my parents that were intended for my good. I also remember having a nagging feeling that commands were a bad thing. I don’t know any kid who likes commands. Or adults, come to think of it. And that’s not a good thing.

Why? Because, among all sorts of other reasons, the Apostle Paul says that the law (he was referring to Moses’ law, which included all kinds of rules and commands) was actually “holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7.12). When law is not misused, it is a wonderful thing because it points us to the truth (see 1 Timothy 1.8). Which reminds me that my disdain for commands was wrong-headed. If they are motivated by love, issued in love, and if the goal of them is love, then commands are wonderful.

This all brings us to the closing words of Paul in his letter known as 1 Timothy. In this series we have seen that he was communicating to Timothy the importance of the gospel, and reminding him that the church is to be the community of truth, pointing people to Christ. Here at the conclusion of his letter, in 1 Timothy 6.11-16, 20-21, Paul again issues important instructions (commands) to Timothy, as he did in the opening section of the letter. He commands Timothy and the church in simple reminders for guarding the gospel with which we have been entrusted. There are certain things we must flee, follow, fight, and fulfill.

Flee (v. 11)

There are certain things we must run away from—individually and as a church. Paul tells him to flee from “these things.” What things? The greed and false teaching that were already rampant in their day, and which he just described in verses 9-10. He tells Timothy to be content, and run away from these earthly pursuits.

Follow (v. 11)

There are certain things we must run toward—individually and as a church. He tells Timothy that instead of earthly pursuits, he should pursue “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.” These character traits need no explanation; they are obvious goals for the believer in his progress with the Lord.

Fight (v. 12)

There are certain things we must contend for—individually and as a church. Fighting may not seem like something you expect in this list. But Paul says that there are some things we must fight for. He reasons it this way in verse 12: Since you were called to the truth, and have confessed the truth, you must now contend for the truth. This means standing against deception wherever it may be found—especially fighting it when it rears its ugly head in the church. False gospels, which are not good news at all, must be exposed and eliminated. Lots of New Testament ink makes this obvious.

Fulfill (vv. 12-16)

There are certain things we must complete and keep—individually and as a church. Since he just described fighting for the truth, in verses 13-16 he reminds Timothy of what the true, good confession is. The church should “take hold of eternal life” (v. 12) and then keep clinging to our confession, while we wait together for the appearing of our rescuer, the Lord Jesus Christ (v. 14). He ends this section with a great theological hymn of praise for the One who deserves all glory.

The Community of Truth

Paul commands Timothy, and therefore us, with simple reminders to flee, follow, fight and fulfill certain things in order to guard the trust: we have been entrusted with the one, true, glorious gospel (vv. 20-21). He ends his letter by saying that this truth, the glorious gospel, is a stewardship that has been entrusted to us, and from which we should not deviate.

This trust of guarding the gospel as the community of truth is a great and awesome privilege. My prayer for my church and yours is that we stay close to the One who calls and sustains us by His glorious grace. To God be the glory.

[This is the final part of a larger series on 1 Timothy called The Community of Truth.]

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Godliness with Contentment

I realize it may seem harsh to post an entry on contentment just days after the most materialistic day in America, but I promise it was not intentional. As I am blogging through 1 Timothy when I find time, we have come to this section.

We are all rich in contrast to most of the rest of the world. There is no mistaking that we in America are rich. Yet we all want more. This year, government officials in Washington were once again arguing about the right process to raise our national debt ceiling. As I write, the national debt stands at approximately the $15.1 trillion mark. Why did they need to raise the debt ceiling? So that more money, that we don’t have, can be spent.

Even though in 1 Timothy 6.3-10, and 6.17-19 Paul turns his attention to address the rich and the greedy of Ephesus in their day, we have to realize that there are a few ways their context fits our present cultural context. How do we also grow towards godliness with contentment, and what will it accomplish in and through us?

Godliness with contentment is promoted by sound teaching. (1 Timothy 6.3-8)

Paul teaches here that the one who strays from and promotes teaching that is inconsistent with the teaching of Jesus ultimately is proven to be greedy, and only concerned about himself. This type of person actually thinks that a public speaking ministry is a way to get rich. They are shown however, to have a fake form of so-called godliness for the sake of material gain. On the contrary, genuine godliness is great gain when it is accompanied by contentment. We entered this world with nothing, and we will leave it with nothing.

Perhaps the most challenging and compelling point of Paul’s thought is how he defines what should make us content. He says that with food and clothing, we should be content.

Godliness with contentment prevents evil greed. (vv. 9-10)

When people are not content with the basics that God provides, and desire to be rich, Paul says that kind of discontent is like a snare or trap, and will plunge them into destruction. Then in his explanation comes an often-misquoted verse of Scripture. He does not say that money is root of evil. He says that the love of money, that is, greed, is a root of all kinds of evil, since it will produce in us all kinds of self-centered actions. Ultimately, unrepentant greed will lead you away from faith in Christ. To prevent that, God’s word says to be content, and keep trusting in Jesus.

Godliness with contentment provides for sharing and investing. (vv. 17-19)

In these final verses, directed toward the rich, it is important to note that he does not criticize them for being rich. Again, as with verses 9-10, the issue is not money itself, it is the love of money, in our hearts. He reminds them not to become conceited or arrogant, and not to place their faith in money. Paul simply teaches them the right way to handle their money: Be good stewards of it.

He says that the rich can do good works with their cash. They can help others; they can share. In so doing, they are investing in the future—not just the future lives of those around them, but even storing up eternal treasures in heaven, awaiting the real life that the new age will bring.

One other interesting note that these sections bring to light is that Paul addresses these groups differently. Those who are rich are not necessarily greedy, and conversely, those who are greedy are not always rich. Greed is a state of mind, or rather, of the heart. It’s not that God doesn’t care about our finances—He does. But God really cares about our hearts.

Our hope should never be in the things of this life. We should quickly learn that relying on money is futile. Our hope and help comes from the Lord.

[This is part of a larger series on 1 Timothy called The Community of Truth.]

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

When God Doesn’t Change My Circumstances

You’ve probably heard the old saying that troubles come in threes. That if a couple of bad things have happened to you, you might as well hunker down and get ready because another one is coming. There’s no such biblical evidence for this, of course…just some people’s observation. Difficulties do sometimes come in bunches. But what about those people that we know of who seem to face troubles—not in threes or fives—but in eighteens and forty-twos?

What about those who seemingly live in a constant state or condition of tough circumstances? As a specific example, what about those over the centuries who were subjected to slavery? Slaves are the very group Paul addresses in 1 Timothy 6.1-2.

I used to wonder: What in the world do we do with those tough verses? Some scholars and pastors simply redefine these sections to say they address employer-employee relationships. I think something deeper is at stake.

In the middle of ongoing, persistent difficulties, our common and natural response is to desire to change the situation. We pray about it, but God hasn’t—by our standards—fixed it yet. Paul’s brief comments to slaves in this section of the letter are exceptionally challenging. We all probably would want the same the questions answered: What happens when God doesn’t change my circumstances? I think there are two main reasons given here.

When God doesn’t change my circumstances, it allows me to demonstrate the gospel more clearly. (v. 1)

Having grown up in East Tennessee, I remember periodically driving through the foothills of the mountains and seeing some farmers still using the old process of yoking a beast of burden to till the ground for their crops. The reason for the yoke is obvious: it places the work on the animal and reminds it who its master is.

Paul apparently decides to use this figurative language to remind his readers that he knows their plight. He simply encourages them to bear up under the yoke with grace, even when their authority figures don’t deserve it. He uses their negative circumstance to point them to a positive outcome. When they continue serving their masters and regard them with honor in spite of and in the midst of their difficult circumstance, they demonstrate the gospel clearly. This is a hard truth, but an important one. The entire letter of 1 Peter says the same basic principle. When we bear up under pressure well, we live under grace and represent the God who saves us.

Listen to how Paul emphasizes this elsewhere:

Slaves are to be submissive to their masters in everything, and to be well pleasing, not talking back or stealing, but demonstrating utter faithfulness, so that they may adorn the teaching of God our Savior in everything. (Titus 2.9-10, HCSB)

So when anyone facing ongoing difficult circumstances keeps on patiently trusting and serving God by honoring those over them, they show the gospel’s power by not only preventing others from having fodder to revile God’s name, but also by putting on display His glorious saving grace.

That’s a hard principle. Who thinks like that? It’s not natural to think about preserving the progress of the gospel through our difficulties. No, it’s not natural; it’s supernatural. Which brings us to the second idea.

When God doesn’t change my circumstances, it tends to transform my thinking more constantly. (v. 2)

When we are in the middle of a trying time, especially when we feel it’s at the hands of Christians, it seems the most important thing is to pray, and hope it ends soon. That’s the normal reaction. But again Paul takes a different approach here in verse two. He says that slaves who have Christian masters should not disrespect them because the masters claim to be brothers, but instead the slaves should serve them all the more, since the ones benefitted are beloved Christians. Again, that’s hard.

There’s a general principle that Paul is getting at. We often have a problem with our attitude, with our thinking, and it needs to be transformed. It’s not wrong to desire a change in our circumstances, but we are missing an opportunity to let our thinking be transformed in the process.

A while back I wrote about how my thinking changed during a season of constant pain with a pinched nerve. The continual pain was a continual reminder. It forced me to think differently. And that is what Paul through the Holy Spirit is teaching here. If I were a slave, I would want to get out of it, and I would certainly expect a Christian master to either set me free or at least treat me well. But Paul says in this instance: Think differently and keep serving well.

Who thinks like that? God does. Look at this verse regarding transformed thinking:

Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God. (Romans 12.2, HCSB)

Take a look at these verses regarding not focusing on changing your circumstances, and how slavery comes up again:

Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity. For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God. (1 Corinthians 7.17-24, ESV)

In this long explanation in 1 Corinthians 7 regarding marriage and singleness, Paul speaks to the idea that some were focused on (or perhaps obsessed with) changing their marital status. He uses the illustrations of circumcision and slavery (admittedly both are points which had more impact in their day) to essentially say three times: Don’t be focused on changing your status; rather, live well representing God in whatever status you find yourself (see vv. 17, 20, 24). That’s radically different thinking.

Certainly this by no means implies that those who are being abused should endure it just to help them think differently. The slave trade and trafficking that exist to this day are horrific tragedies and we must pray and act to put an end to them. There have been many forms of slavery over the millennia, and a look at Paul’s short letter to Philemon regarding a slave named Onesimus is helpful in understanding slavery in their day. And even for their form of slavery he specifically says to gain your freedom if you can (1 Corinthians 7.21). But his basic point is clear: Let the pressures and hardships constantly transform your thinking, like iron in a fire.

For those who follow a health and wealth gospel, this will sound hollow. But God is doing a deep work in us when He lets us go through hard seasons, or even a hard life. He is for us, not against us.

So when God has caused or allowed our circumstances to be hard ones, our response must be one where we remember that we are able to demonstrate the gospel more clearly, and transform our thinking more constantly.

We tend to say, “This junk in my life isn't fair. It's not right!” No, it's redemptive.

We tend to say, “I can't respond to this mess with love and grace—that’s not normal!” No, it's not normal, it's Christian.

[This is part of a larger series on 1 Timothy called The Community of Truth.]

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Reflections and Celebrations

I love the month of December.

December makes most people either smile or cringe. I realize that the season is difficult for many, but it also reminds us of some very important truths.

First, I love December because of the obvious: It is the season of Christmas, the continual recognition that God came down to earth to be with us and save us. For this most incredible reason alone, this season is a glorious one.

Another reason I love this month is for all the Holidaypalooza around the season—with all the music and parties and decorations. The period of Thanksgiving through Christmas and then New Year is full of great celebrations. If you can wade through all the commercialization, it’s a really sweet time.

Finally, the end of the year marks a time of reflection. This year, like any other, brought many hardships and joys for our church family. We have been stretched. That’s why December can be so hard for some. But we grow through that process also. With the change of season comes an opportunity to remember all that God has done—even the hard things. And at the same time, it gives us an opportunity to refuel and start thinking about days ahead, and the plans God has for us. There is great hope for the coming year.

So I pray that you and I can both reflect and celebrate as we share this season together.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Maintaining Trustworthy Elders

Being a pastor can be interesting. Pastors are either loved or hated. Some are given too much credit while others aren’t given enough. As we said earlier in the series, pastors aren’t supposed to be superhuman, but they are required to have proven character.

In this section of his letter, after speaking about caring for church members as a family, in 1 Timothy 5.17-25, Paul addresses the way we care for our church leaders. Perhaps in speaking about how we should honor (financially support) widows, he is reminded about how he wants to address honoring and financially supporting pastors, since that is how this section begins. In any case, he speaks concerning how we care about the principle of a trustworthy, honorable eldership by maintaining a healthy process for graciously holding these leaders accountable—which in turn helps keep us accountable. So how can we best care for, and care about, our church leaders? In each of the three sections, it seems the tone is reasonableness.

We ensure that our church leaders are given a reasonable compensation. (vv. 17-18)

It’s always odd as a pastor addressing this issue, but when you are teaching straight through a book of the Bible, you have to address it as it comes! God’s Word addresses this, so I am. Paul says here that pastors who lead well are worthy of double honor, meaning among other things that in order to receive reasonable compensation, church leaders should work hard at serving well. He says that reasonable support ought to be especially true for those whose specific task is preaching and teaching. To prove his point, he then quotes from Deuteronomy (25.4) and Luke (10.7). (As a side note, it is significant that Paul quotes Luke’s Gospel alongside the Hebrew Scripture book of Deuteronomy. In doing so to his pre-New Testament-era readers, he is affirming a contemporary, first century piece of writing as Holy Scripture, giving it the same weight as ancient texts.)

We ensure that our church leaders are granted a reasonable doubt. (with regard to accusations; vv. 19-21)

Since Paul just spoke of provision for those leaders who are serving well, he now makes provision for those who are accused of not serving or living well. He explains that, just like everyone else, reasonable doubt should be granted when someone is in a leadership role. Crowds will often jump to conclusions when a leader has been accused, and Paul reminds them that pastors should be granted the same biblical due process that Mosaic Law stated and that Jesus reaffirmed. Here is Paul’s basis:

One witness cannot establish any wrongdoing or sin against a person, whatever that person has done. A fact must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. (Deuteronomy 19.15, HCSB)

If your brother sins against you, go and rebuke him in private. If he listens to you, you have won your brother. (16) But if he won’t listen, take one or two more with you, so that by the testimony of two or three witnesses every fact may be established. (17) If he pays no attention to them, tell the church. But if he doesn’t pay attention even to the church, let him be like an unbeliever and a tax collector to you. (Matthew 18.15-17, HCSB, emphasis reflects OT quote)

After giving a reasonable doubt, however, if the church leader in question has been proven to be continuing in sin, he says that the rebuke should be public. This is so that church members as well as other pastors will be reminded of the serious nature of sin: “…that the rest also may fear.” He says these principles should be applied consistently, without prejudice or favoritism.

We ensure that our church leaders are examined with reasonable scrutiny. (vv. 22-25)

Finally in this section, we are given the approach we should take in approving and installing new church leaders. Paul already gave us the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3.2-7. Now, he reminds readers of the care and the deliberate attitude with which we must perform this process. No one should be placed in a leadership role too quickly; to do so is to share in their sins when they become evident. In this regard, he explains that whether a person is sinful or well qualified, it will show up. It may be immediately obvious, or it may show up later, but it will show up at some point, so it’s better to do the testing and approving on the front end and save everyone the trouble. In an interesting aside directed to Timothy, Paul tells him that it’s okay to use a little wine as medicine for his stomach without fear that he will be disqualified if he does.

With reasonable consideration, we can ensure that our church leaders are taken care of, and granted the proper amount of attention. Too much or too little attention to church leaders can be disastrous.

[This is part of a larger series on 1 Timothy called The Community of Truth.]

Monday, October 24, 2011

Church Life as Family

I once heard a conference speaker tell me that I was God’s favorite. What was immediately confusing about that statement is that I wasn’t the only one in the audience. Others must have heard him say the same thing. Which means that a few hundred were told they were God’s favorite. Which seems to diminish the idea of what it means to be a favorite just a little bit.

The fact is the Bible says that God is no respecter of persons in the sense that He has no favorites of earthly influence. He doesn’t need to.

At the same time, God’s word is also clear that He is always looking out for widows and orphans in a significant way. Take one example (there are several):

God in His holy dwelling is
a father of the fatherless
and a champion of widows.
(6) God provides homes for those who are deserted.
He leads out the prisoners to prosperity,
but the rebellious live in a scorched land.
(Psalm 68.5-6, HCSB)

As we have worked our way through the letter of 1 Timothy, we have previously noted a couple of places where Paul implies that the family unit is like a little church, and the church is like a big family. God cares how families treat each other, and particularly how families treat their orphans and widows. At this point in his letter, in 1 Timothy 5.1-16, Paul addresses the way we treat each other in the church, responding to each other and our needs. How can we regard our fellow church members as family?

We treat every member with gentle respect. (vv. 1-2)

Verses 1 and 2 of chapter 5 could perhaps align better with what came immediately before them, but it seems appropriate to understand them as part of a larger discussion on family-church life. Paul speaks of our interactions with fellow church members, that communication should happen with gentleness and respect, as if they were family members. He adds a special phrase as a reminder to treat young ladies with all purity. So first, we are to treat each member of the church (family) with gentle respect. But there is another important admonition.

We care for true widows with loving support. (vv. 3-16)

This is a large grouping of verses to put together under one point, but they begin and end with the exhortation to assist those who are genuinely widows, or truly widows. Paul describes widows who are left without any family to help take care of them.

God’s word is clear that the church has a responsibility to help take care of those church members who have no one else to assist them. He says that if anyone has family members, the family should provide assistance, monetary and otherwise. Those who could help but refuse to do so are, according to the Holy Spirit, “worse than” one who claims no Christian faith at all. The Scripture simply recognizes that even those not operating from a Christian ethic understand the basic desire to and necessity of support for family members. Christians who don’t are without excuse.

Here God sets up a process whereby genuine widows (and perhaps by extension, anyone who is without any real means of support) can and should receive assistance from the church when possible. Paul and the church there know that many people tend to abuse the assistance process, and so he sets in place a series of guidelines as to who should receive the available support. The list or enrollment mentioned in verse 9 implies those who qualify for support. Regarding widows, to receive church assistance, he said they must be:

  • Genuinely left without support (vv. 4-5, 16)
  • Genuinely trusting in God (vv. 5-7; contrast vv. 11-15)
  • Genuinely faithful in serving (vv. 9-10)
  • Genuinely senior in age (v. 9; contrast v. 14)

Paul doesn’t want the church or the process to be abused, so parameters are set in place. And there are pretty stern warnings for those who reject this plan. We’ve already noted the “worse than an infidel” section. But notice also in verses 14-15 that those who would abuse this process for support are risking the accusations and temptations of Satan himself. This is serious business for the church to get right.

Why? Because the church is the community of truth. And how we treat widows really matters.

[This is part of a larger series on 1 Timothy called The Community of Truth.]

Monday, October 3, 2011

Good Servants of Christ Jesus

What did it take for you to become good at what you do? What did it take for you to become skilled at it? Did you have formal education or training? Did someone teach you how to do it?

For the believer, this is ultimately what discipleship is—God is training us, maturing our character, making us more like Jesus. Certainly, we must have the Holy Spirit working in us, enabling and empowering us. But the Bible also teaches that on our part, it takes practice; it takes rehearsal. Today we look at 1 Timothy 4.6-16, the next section in this series. In my own life, this section in chapter 4 had an early and lasting impact on my progress in character. These verses are among the first I memorized—because I knew I would need to remind myself often.

After warning about the real danger of falling away from faith and from the true gospel, Paul immediately addresses the church’s continual need of God’s Word. He says it in a way that Timothy and everyone there will understand—in terms of what makes a good servant or minister. He speaks of the training and practice it will take. Although he is specifically talking to Timothy in the role in which he was serving, these principles are true for everyone: The word for minister (in some translations) in verse 6 is the same word as servant. What was true for Timothy is true for us. So what makes someone a good servant of Christ?

1. Good servants of Christ grow through regular intake of God’s Word (vv. 6-7).

We grow through God’s Word, instead of being deceived through false teaching. This proves or demonstrates that we have been nourished and trained already—note that Timothy has already been following these things. Just like a baby needs milk, and instinctively desires it, we need the Word of God to be nourished (see 1 Pet 2.2-3). Are you taking in God’s Word regularly?

2. Good servants of Christ engage in disciplined training for an eternal reward (vv. 7-10).

We engage in disciplined training as opposed to being deluded through common folk fables in receiving an earthly benefit. Paul calls them “old wives’ tales,” showing that term’s usage from at least the first century. He simply means that Timothy should not get caught up in silly fables and myths that have little or no value. So it takes exercising, training, disciplining (ourselves) to avoid falling into error. Actually, it takes ongoing discipline to develop in anything.

Just like companies that offer continuing education credits to keep their employees trained, we all need continuing training. Many folks engage in physical exercise, and certainly it has some benefit. However, the Scripture here says that spiritual exercise offers benefit and promise for this life and for the eternal life that will extend beyond this one.

If you want to make an impact that will last into eternity, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness. Are you training yourself, through the Word of God, to exercise toward godliness, with the understanding that you are progressing toward an eternal reward?

3. Good servants of Christ model a mature life in front of other believers (vv. 11-14).

We model a mature life as opposed to allowing immaturity, whether real or perceived, to diminish our serving influence on others. Paul has just described the common grace of God, and the particular grace to save to the uttermost those who trust in Him (v. 10), which is why this purpose is worth living for, and then teaching and modeling for others.

Many youth group leaders have turned to verse 12 over the years as a key verse for their teens. While it’s a great verse to inspire them, this statement was not only addressed to teenagers, but a call for any servant of God’s Word to be demonstrating maturity. Timothy was not a teen. He was probably 30 years old or more, but still considered young for his day contrasted with the elders in the church who might look down on him (in their era) and despise his youth.

In our day, we have almost the opposite trend: America tends to idolize young people in our culture. In Paul’s day there would have been a great respect for the elders in the church. So his encouragement to Timothy was to lovingly and graciously show that maturity doesn’t always equate to age. The goal is to be above reproach—not to allow anyone to be able to raise an accusation about spiritual immaturity in each of these key areas (v. 12). This was proved by the confirming acceptance of God’s calling on his life, and it must not be neglected. Do you live in such a way that folks can watch your life, and then imitate it?

4. Good servants of Christ labor over good theology for Godward progress (vv. 15-16).

We are to work hard at having a good theology, as opposed to leading our churches and ourselves on a path to destruction. Paul describes the path to a healthy theological understanding: Being fully into God’s word, devoted to it. Bible translators always come up with interesting ways to render the second phrase in verse 15. Actually, it is simply a form of the word be, so that the meaning is: Be in it; soak it up; saturate yourself in the things of God through His word.

Right theology then informs and influences right living, although we sometimes think it’s the other way around. What we know about God impacts what we do on a daily basis. It will have a Godward redeeming influence on us and on those who watch us. If people watch your life, would they come to you with a question about God because they know you pore over the Scriptures? Can they see that you’re making progress?

5. Good servants of Christ share this glorious gospel for mutual transformation (vv. 6, 11, 13, 16).

We are to share this as the good news that it is, as opposed to merely gaining personal knowledge. We get to tell others. If we miss this point, we have missed Paul’s reason for these paragraphs. Are you sharing this glorious gospel with anyone?

[This is part of a larger series on 1 Timothy called The Community of Truth.]

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Gospel

[For our church website I revised the wording and changed some verses from this earlier blog post on the basic gospel message. Same message, just updated. Here is the revised re-post.]

How can we know God? By trusting in Him through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Do you believe the gospel of Jesus? What is the core of the Good News? Although the effects of the gospel are profound, the basic message is simple.

Ruler
God, the holy, loving, joyful Creator, is the sovereign One over all people and things, and He deserves the worship, reverence and obedience of His creation.

Our Lord and God, You are worthy to receive glory and honor and power, because You have created all things, and because of Your will they exist and were created. (Revelation 4.11)

For His invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what He has made. As a result, people are without excuse. (Romans 1.20)

Rebels
We, the creation, have chosen our own path in life, and walked away from our holy Creator. As a result we deserve our due penalty—death and separation from the loving and joyful God.

For God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all godlessness and unrighteousness of people who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth, since what can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them. (Romans 1.18-19)

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6.23)

Redemption
Jesus the Christ (the Messiah), who is fully God, took on a human body, lived a perfect life, died in our place (thus taking our death penalty), and rose from the dead. As a result, the ability to know our Creator and live in His joy was restored and made available in Christ.

For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring you to God, after being put to death in the fleshly realm but made alive in the spiritual realm. (1 Peter 3.18)

He [God the Father] made the One who did not know sin [God the Son—Jesus] to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Corinthians 5.21)

Renewal
The available redemption cannot be earned, but must be applied to us individually as the Holy Spirit pulls us, and we respond to His grace in repentance and faith—accepting the gracious gift of life in Christ, and growing in Christlike character. This involves immediate soul renewal, and later at the return of Christ, it will involve the physical renewal of our bodies and all of creation.

And if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, then He who raised Christ from the dead will also bring your mortal bodies to life through His Spirit who lives in you. (Romans 8.11)

But based on His promise, we wait for the new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness will dwell. (2 Peter 3.13)

My sincere prayer is that you would be able to experience God’s joy and delight in Him through the gospel of Jesus Christ. He offers Himself to you. Will you trust in Him, and accept His gracious gift?

If you are just beginning your life with God in Christ, I encourage you to connect with a local church community of Christ followers.  In the meantime, for more information, click here.

*All Scripture references are from the HCSB.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Falling Away from Faith

For the Apostle Paul, nothing was to be considered more dangerous than a false gospel. That’s obvious from his letters. But sadly, for far too many Christians, ancient and modern, being concerned about the vital integrity of the good message about God in His redeeming work has drifted to a less important matter. When that happens, and local churches are not on guard, dangerous and destructive teachings can creep in.

We see it all the time. I’m sure some reading this would roll their eyes (as I probably used to do) and say, he’s at it again. But the fact is that Paul speaks to this grave concern yet again in 1 Timothy 4.1-5, so as we work our way through this letter, we can’t help but see his heart. Deceptive, false teachings are real, and they can cause us to walk away from the faith.

Paul describes the danger and concern with falling away in clear terms. What do we need to be aware of, in order to preserve us from falling away?

1. The certainty of some falling away from faith cannot be taken lightly (v. 1).

Perhaps the scariest part of this brief section is how adamant Paul is. He says it is absolutely certain that some will depart from the Christian beliefs they once held to be true. That ought to cause some pause for every one of us. He says the Spirit “explicitly says” that some “will leave” the faith. It is certain, and therefore it should not be taken lightly—by any of us, since the false teachings are so deceptive. Peter concurs:

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. (2 Peter 2.1, HCSB)

2. The subtlety of falling away from faith must be recognized (vv. 2-3).

When people have seared consciences, their hypocrisy and lies don’t matter to them any longer. As such, Paul says they even invite demonic influence. People don’t like to talk about demons these days. It seems outdated. But the danger remains real, and subtle. In fact, part of the primary danger is the subtlety factor. It can happen when we’re not on guard. Also, it doesn’t happen merely in those instances when a biblical teaching is completely disregarded; it can happen when a correct teaching is barely twisted into something else with any mixture of error.

Many believe this example in verses 2-3 may have been a gnostic or pre-gnostic set of teachings that obviously altered God’s plan for marriage and food. It is possible to fall into the trap of false teachings through subtle shifts and exploitations in our weaknesses. See what Peter has to say in agreement:

They will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, and will bring swift destruction on themselves. (2) Many will follow their unrestrained ways, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. (3) In their greed they will exploit you with deceptive words. (2 Peter 2.1-3, HCSB)

3. The antidote to falling away from faith must be repetitive (vv. 4-5).

The only realistic way to combat false teaching is to fight it continually. Paul speaks to this particular false teaching with the reminder that both spirit and matter are created by God, who declared them good (which contrasted with basic Gnosticism). He explains that the repetitive, ongoing way to recognize this is through the intake of His word (the Scriptures), and through prayer, both of which are always intended to be continual practices. Again, Peter agrees:

Dear friends, this is now the second letter I’ve written you; in both, I awaken your pure understanding with a reminder, (2) so that you can remember the words previously spoken by the holy prophets, and the commandment of our Lord and Savior given through your apostles. (2 Peter 3.1-2, HCSB)

I used to read these texts and think, Well, it’s not going to happen to me! But the Bible also says, Let him who thinks he stands take heed, lest he fall (1 Corinthians 10.12). My assumption was foolish. I need to stay in God’s word and in prayer to keep focused on the one, true gospel, through which God is able to keep us from falling (see Jude 24).

Let’s take heed.

[This is part of a larger series on 1 Timothy called The Community of Truth.]

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Pillar and Pattern of the Truth

My first staff ministry opportunity was to serve as an interim youth pastor. I thought I needed to be cool, but knew that I wasn’t. Among my cool attempts that flopped: the creation of a new ministry theme and logo. I wanted to somehow illustrate the importance of the church being the “pillar and support of the truth,” as Paul calls it, in 1 Timothy 3.15. And what logo did I choose?

A pillar.

Nothing generates enthusiasm, stirs excitement and wells up emotion in young people quite like a pillar.

So I tried. But at least I got the content right: The truth about God in the gospel, as demonstrated through the church, is vitally important to everything that we are and everything that we do as individuals and families in a community of Christian faith.

The picture of the church being the pillar and support (or foundation) of the truth helps us to see the main point of Paul’s letter, and should be understood by churches still today as the central focus of who we are and why we do what we do. We are to be the ones who the broader culture can look to as those who uphold the truth.

In 1 Timothy 3.14-16, Paul explains his reasons for writing this letter, and in the process gives the gospel as the pattern for living.  What does it mean to be the pillar of the truth, and the pattern of the gospel?

First, we—as the church of the living God—are to uphold and support the truth (v. 15). The Word of God is very clear. Paul writes this letter so that if he can’t see them soon, he wants to go ahead and share with them what he would say in person if he were there: We’re about upholding the truth in society. In a very literal sense, Christian church buildings ought to be able to be seen in the larger community as a place of truth (and love and care). The church can and should be a respite from all the ills in the broader culture. We have to ask ourselves: Does my church look like that?

But of course, it’s not about the building. The regular worship gatherings and smaller group settings can and should serve as an example of the truth for nonbelievers. As the “household” and family of God, as Paul puts it, we have the opportunity to show the truth when we gather. But it’s more than just on Sundays.

How we conduct ourselves shows a pattern of life (v. 15). Precisely because the church is to be the pillar and support of the truth, it needs to be on display in how we as church members live and go about our daily activities. Paul in v. 15 says it matters how we behave and conduct ourselves. So it matters, not just that we as the church are the pillar of the truth; we are to be the pattern of truth.

That pattern of life must be transformed by and then point to the gospel of Jesus Christ (v. 16). People ought to be able to understand more about the truth by how we live out the gospel. Once again the gospel is shown as not merely the path to salvation, but also the way of life after we begin believing, and a pattern to be followed and displayed until God calls us home.

The ultimate pattern of godliness? Jesus. So Paul lays out the “mystery of godliness” that has now been revealed in Jesus, and essentially presents the gospel in a nutshell in one verse (16).

He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated in the Spirit,
seen by angels,
preached among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.
(1 Timothy 3.16, HCSB)

In this beautiful hymn about Jesus, it is clear from the context that how we conduct ourselves as the church reflects the gospel. But not just the pillar of the truth about how to get us into heaven. As the “mystery of godliness” it is also the pattern of life to be lived.

Wearing a pillar logo might not be too hip, but young and old alike in the church have a far greater privilege: actually being the pillar and pattern of truth.

[This is part of a larger series on 1 Timothy called The Community of Truth.]

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Respectable Volunteer Leaders

Recently as we continued on Wednesdays to work our way through the biblical letter 1 Timothy, one of the deacons at our church decided to be a little funny. He said that in the qualifications for deacons, they have a little bit of leeway with drinking wine. He was referring to the fact that in 1 Timothy 3.8-13, as contrasted with the section that immediately precedes it concerning overseers/pastors, it says that deacons should not be addicted to, or given over to, “much” wine, rather than outright prohibiting being a drunkard.

Of course, he is joking, and he knows that the Apostle’s main point is that the deacon, and any volunteer leader in the church, must live a life above reproach, as outlined in these sections. Last time we looked at proven character for leadership, but with specific regard to the pastors and elders that God has placed in leadership roles within their churches. In this section, Paul for a brief moment takes a gracious aim at volunteer ministry leaders.

In fact, the clear similarities between the section for pastors and the section for deacons are striking. It is immediately noticeable. The general approach is the same: they are to lead lives of godly character. These leaders described in 1 Timothy 3.8-13 must be respectable people of integrity.

Without superimposing a 20th or 21st century ministry model on Paul, I believe he is speaking with regard to all the volunteer ministry leaders of his day. A very interesting interpretational clarification is necessary regarding verse 11. Paul addresses the “women” by using the Greek general word for women. Many translations have chosen to interpret that Greek word in this context as wives, often without footnoting that the word is actually women. Several Bible commentators note this distinction as well.

It seems odd that Paul would be putting forward a brief set of qualifications for deacons’ wives since he did not do the same for the wives of pastors in the preceding verses. Also, the English possessive word Their (as in, “Their wives”) is not in the Greek manuscript, which further seems to indicate that he is not necessarily referring to deacons’ wives. Finally, the list of qualified widows (to receive support), which he talks about in chapter 5, includes a similar list of character qualities (see 1 Timothy 5.9-10). For these and other reasons, no one can be dogmatic about it referring to deacons’ wives, and therefore it seems best to translate the word as women, instead of interpreting it as wives. (Indeed, Paul does say in verse 12 that deacons should be one-woman men, but the fact that he again uses the word Deacons appears as though he has returned again to the group he addressed in verse 8, thus potentially addressing a different group in verse 11).

So what’s the point? Perhaps Paul realizes that he has already addressed specific male servant-leader roles, and wants to speak to those female servant-leaders in the church also, so that everyone in leadership—paid or volunteer, male or female—needs to understand the weighty responsibility of living a life that models integrity to the rest of the flock.

In any case, the overall admonition for these men and women is to live lives that are worthy of respect (vv. 8 and 11). Every other qualification falls under this general banner. Just as there are tests for pastors (see vv. 4-7), these volunteer leaders are to be tested first, and then they can serve as deacons and leaders. Finally, he refers to the lasting legacy that deacons and volunteer leaders acquire when they pursue godliness and serve with humility as His leaders in His church.

On every level, in every way, integrity matters.

[This is part of a larger series on 1 Timothy called The Community of Truth.]

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Proven Character for Leadership

After taking quite a hiatus from publishing notes on a series I have previously taught and that I am teaching now on Wednesday evenings at my church, I wanted to return to these posts on the biblical letter known as 1 Timothy. You can find the first several parts of the series here.

Sadly, even a mention of the topic of pastoral integrity can conjure up mental pictures of all the prominent pastors we know of who have fallen in ministry. We remember them because they were placed on a proverbial pedestal, implicitly or explicitly stating that they were men of character worth following. Pastors aren’t supposed to be superhuman, as some seem to think, but they are to be pursuing God and godly character in such a way that their progress is evident to everyone. Notice how the Apostle Paul describes Timothy’s proven character to the Philippians:

Now I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon so that I also may be encouraged when I hear news about you. (20) For I have no one else like-minded who will genuinely care about your interests; (21) all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. (22) But you know his proven character, because he has served with me in the gospel ministry like a son with a father. (Philippians 2.19-22, HCSB, emphasis added)

After talking about God’s purposeful, ordered design for church gatherings and the life of the church, now in 1 Timothy 3.1-7, Paul speaks about the qualifications of those who would lead and teach the church. What types of prerequisites are placed on church leaders? The men who would oversee the church must first have done these things.

Proven Personal Integrity (1 Timothy 3.1-3)

He begins by affirming that if someone senses an ongoing deep longing to serve as an overseer (pastor), his desires are good and noble. But he must live out his stated desires by proving his character. The apostle gives a list of qualifications for serving as an overseer. The pastor must practice these qualities, he says. We won’t detail the list here, but a brief look will show Paul’s heart.

The pastor must be above reproach. He must be a one-woman man. He must have the character and integrity that anyone would expect of a pastor. But perhaps what is most striking about this list is that every trait except one is actually expected of every follower of Jesus. The only unique prerequisite listed is that he must be able to teach. In other words, every believer should pursue godliness to the degree that he or she has proven progress in character. But the pastoral overseer must not only demonstrate these traits, he must also be able to teach adequately if he is to lead a church.

Modeled Family Leadership (vv. 4-5)

In many ways, a spiritually healthy church is like a big family. And the reverse is true. In many ways, a spiritually healthy family is like a little church. This principle runs as a subtheme throughout 1 Timothy. As I mentioned in the last 1 Timothy post, when it’s done well, male leadership in the church is simply an extension of what’s taking place in the home.

As such, the home is not so much a pastor-dad’s proving ground for leadership ability as it is his primary place of ministry. He simply must be a good husband and father. He is to lead and minister (that is, serve) effectively in both the home and church, and he is disqualified from church leadership if he can’t be a servant-leader at home.

Shown Spiritual Maturity (v. 6)

New believers and those immature in their faith have not proven their character and are not ready, yet, to be an overseer or pastor. Paul’s concern is basic, and obvious: Immature believers are perhaps especially susceptible to pride, which can bring them down just like it did for Satan. So in order to serve as a leader in the church, a man must not be too new in his understanding of the gospel, or of God Himself.

Earned Public Respect (v. 7)

The final qualification that Paul mentions here is that the church leader must have a good reputation in the public eye. His integrity must begin at home, proceed into his church, and extend out into the larger community. Even if his family and church love him, if a pastor has not demonstrated a keen appreciation for how he comes across to nonbelievers or the general public, he is not fit for leadership. Paul doesn’t mince words: he says to neglect this idea is to risk falling into a trap of Satan and into disgrace. Certainly a pastor’s real evaluation comes from God and he should live for an audience of One (see 1 Corinthians 4.3-4). However, while not being driven by public opinion, a pastor should care about how he represents God in view of an outside community that is watching. If he doesn’t, he’s not qualified to lead in the first place.

God certainly cares about the character of the men who would lead His church. To ignore His requirements concerning proven character is to follow a recipe for disaster. It is out of His love that He places such requirements: for the glory of His name, the good of His church, and the hope of the larger community.

[This is part of a larger series on 1 Timothy called The Community of Truth.]

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Principles for Progress in the Church, Part 5: Plans

Somehow when we consider our finances, or education, or career plans, we have no trouble being intentional and putting a strategy in place to help us make progress. But with our families, and with our churches, too often we let things go on autopilot. When we do, we almost guarantee that we will drift in the wrong direction. If you’re not progressing, you’re automatically regressing.

With this series we have been advocating a simple approach to ensuring that we continue to move forward, specifically here with reference to our local churches. Using the Scriptures as our principled guide, we begin with an understanding of our purpose as a church. From purpose we move to values. Then vision. Then goals. With each of these areas, we move from talking about universal ideas (every church’s purposes) to a more specific identity (individual church plans).

Plans

In the last post we described an approach to goal setting that requires faith in God’s promises and character. Now with faith-filled goals to set parameters, plan now and re-plan regularly to meet the goals the Lord has helped you to set. The next logical step is to ask God to help you meet your goals by planning your church’s life.

Design a progress plan that will help direct your church in meeting your God-given goals. Again, if a vision is in place and goals have been set, this task is simply placing items on our calendars and in our budgets to make sure they happen, if God grants them. There are all kinds of ways to do this effectively, and my intent here is not to promote one particular style of developing strategic plans. However, there are a few ideas from the Scriptures that are particularly helpful.

First, pastors need to be leaders, but not blindly. They need to be faithfully diligent (see Romans 12.8), and humbly seek wise advice:

Plans fail when there is no counsel,
but with many advisers they succeed.

(Proverbs 15.22, HCSB)

Also, I think that plans should be important, but held loosely. We all need to shift things around on the fly, because there is no way to predict the future. So expect the unexpected. This means having a balanced understanding of God’s sovereignty and our responsibility. In the last post we looked at Proverbs 16.9, but take a look also at 16.3 (HCSB):

Commit your activities to the LORD,
and your plans will be achieved.

In other words, be faithful to make plans, but also entrust them to God, who will act according to His pleasure and our good.

There are of course some practical and perhaps obvious (but sometimes overlooked) ideas, like weekly meetings and planning as far in advance as possible. But equally important are mid-course corrections, as circumstances change. To help do this, many wise leaders schedule one or two staff (or volunteer leadership) progress getaways per year to check the status of their goals and vision (even though most folks call this type of session a “staff retreat,” that name seems counter-intuitive; one pastor calls it a “staff advance”—I prefer “progress getaway”; regardless of what you call it, do it).

I’m no expert, but I know that these strategies need to happen regardless of church size. It may seem easier to do in large churches. But these practices can and must be used anywhere. As a small church pastor, I can seek the advice and agreement of our deacon team. And we can certainly schedule time away together to plan for our church’s progress.

Purpose, values, vision, goals, plans. A general-to-specific approach that is biblical, and that will help us keep progressing toward who God has called us to be, and what God has called us to do.

[This is part 5 of 5 in the series, Principles for Progress in the Church. Here are the previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.]

Monday, July 11, 2011

Principles for Progress in the Church, Part 4: Goals

In writing these posts on strategic thinking for progress in our churches, it has crossed my mind more than once that there have been many, far more eloquent and astute thinkers to write about these ideas. So in adding my two cents, I’m essentially encouraging my church and any who read here that this type of intentional strategy is absolutely necessary to move us forward to where we need and want to be. There are certainly great resources available to help you think through effective goal setting.

Goals

Previously we looked at developing a godly vision. Now, with a godly vision guiding you, set realistic goals for what you pray your church will become by God’s grace and ability. This is the next logical step: Ask God to help you establish legitimate, measurable, attainable, faith-filled goals.

By legitimate I simply mean reasonable. God may choose to work miraculously on your behalf, but your mid-term goals shouldn’t bank on the miraculous. Don’t illegitimately presume upon the grace of God. Your goals should also be attainable, but that doesn’t mean without faith. In fact, without faith it is impossible to please God (see Hebrews 11.6), and whatever is not done from faith is sin (see Romans 14.23).

How can our goals be full of faith? On one hand, there are times when God’s vision for you will be bigger than your expectations (or goals) for yourself:

Now to Him who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us— (21) to Him be glory.... (Ephesians 3.20-21, HCSB)

In those cases, follow Him in full faith that He will accomplish whatever He promised, just as Abraham learned to trust through near-unbelievable circumstances (see Romans 4.18-22).

On the other hand, there are times when it is as thought God is silent on a particular concern. It is in those times when God does not give specific answers that we must obediently follow His principles, again, in faith. So in goal setting, whether God seems to give specific paths or not, He requires our faith.

Either way, think of your goals as intermediate steps to obediently fulfilling God’s longer-range vision for you, your family, or your church.

What does it look like to set clear goals? I think a couple of examples from Paul’s life are instructive. Paul had set a goal of going to Rome. He was determined to get there. He wrote to them and expressed that desire (see Romans 15.20-32). Eventually he got there, but not by taking the path he had hoped: he was taken as a prisoner. In another instance, Paul had clearly communicated his intention (goal) of going back to Corinth, but when he was unable, he wrote a brief explanation to let them know he was sincere and not fickle (see 2 Corinthians 1.15-18).

Goals are to be put in place to act as reminders of a larger direction and directive. We’re following God, who always puts our steps in order:

A man’s heart plans his way,
but the LORD determines his steps.

(Proverbs 16.9, HCSB)

In the final post, we’ll talk about plans to accomplish the goals.

[This is part 4 of 5 in the series, Principles for Progress in the Church. Here are the previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.]

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Principles for Progress in the Church, Part 3: Vision

Can you imagine the end of your life? Most people probably don’t want to do that. But I mean it in the best possible way. Imagine that you have reached old age, and that you are satisfied and content with the way your life and ongoing legacy have turned out.

It’s what I affectionately call the rocking chair moment: You’re near the end of your life sitting in cozy chair with your favorite coffee or tea, and you’re thinking through all that God has done in and through you. Again, imagine that things turned out the way you would want them.

Can you imagine that scenario? Now ask yourself: What would have to happen in order for that life reflection to be a satisfying one? How would you have treated your spouse, or what would you have done with your single life? Your children? Your career? Your finances? Once you think through what that would look like, what would you need to do in the next 30 years in order to get there? The next 20? 10? What would you need to do now in order to get there?

Now apply that to the church. What would we need to do in our churches to get us where we would want to one day be? We would probably come up with ideas that are different than what we’re actually currently doing on a weekly basis.

We have been looking at principles for progress in the church, and have noted that making progress requires intentional and strategic action. In the previous post, I mentioned that after understanding God’s purpose for the church, every local church should agree upon mutually held values. Once values are agreed upon, it’s time to start thinking about God’s vision for your church.

Vision

With godly values in place, develop a church vision for what you pray your church will become by God’s grace and ability. The next logical step is to ask God to show you what our church can become—for His glory.

Think of your vision as God’s guiding work to make you into what He has already planned. Notice how the KJV translates Proverbs 29.18: “Where there is no vision, the people perish….” We can see that the proverb is saying that when there is no guiding, agreed-upon principle, people throw off any restraint and recklessly do whatever they want.

But there’s more. The word behind what was translated vision has the sense of revelation. In other words, we need to hear God’s desire and plans, and then build our lives around that. The second half of the verse makes that clear. Here it is in the HCSB:

Without revelation people run wild,
but one who listens to instruction will be happy.
(Proverbs 29.18)

So vision does involve dreaming up big plans, but not without the revelation and instruction of God, primarily through His Word, driving the dreaming. How do we do it? I think Paul gives us an idea of that in Philippians.

For I have often told you, and now say again with tears, that many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. (19) Their end is destruction; their god is their stomach; their glory is in their shame. They are focused on earthly things, (20) but our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philippians 3.18-20, HCSB)

The answer is that we start to dream and cast a vision for our churches as citizens of heaven. I think there is an interesting play on words in verse 20 above. Certainly it is true that the Savior for whom we wait will come again from heaven. But Paul was also addressing their (and our) mindset as citizens of heaven. Our thoughts should be there. So while we wait for Him to return, through heavenly thinking it’s as though the work is already accomplished, and as though we wait from there for Him to finalize the work down here.

In other words, take a heavenly view of life now.

Outline a vision based on lasting, godly values. Ask:

  • What type of church will we be?
  • How will we spend our funds?
  • How can God use us in the coming months…years?
  • What can we be doing now to prepare ourselves for Him to work in and through us?

When we do so, we’ll be casting a lasting vision for ourselves, our families, and our churches, that is driven by His purposes and shaped by His values. Next time we’ll look at setting goals.

[This is part 3 of 5 in the series, Principles for Progress in the Church. Here are the previous posts: Part 1, Part 2.]

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Principles for Progress in the Church, Part 2: Values

It’s always fun talking to young couples just before marriage, and asking them about their value system. Most people tend to think they don’t officially have an actual system of values. But the facts are otherwise. We all have and use a value system whether we know it or not. And it affects everything else we do, so it is vital in young relationships to talk about values and establish an intentional forward-thinking strategy.

In the previous post we began talking about making intentional progress in the church, and how that must begin by understanding that our purpose comes from God through His Word, or we’re not the church at all. If we understand God’s purpose for all local churches, we can begin to see our church’s unique identity by building our church life together on strategic, stated values.

Values

Again, as with purpose, these are derived from Scripture, and it is the next logical step: to determine our mutually held values, based on God’s Word.

And as before, the Bible is clear about values that fade versus values that last:

Who is wise and has understanding among you? He should show his works by good conduct with wisdom’s gentleness. (14) But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your heart, don’t brag and deny the truth. (15) Such wisdom does not come from above but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. (16) For where envy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every kind of evil. (17) But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peace-loving, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without favoritism and hypocrisy. (18) And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who cultivate peace. (James 3.13-18, HCSB)

To make progress in our churches, we start with knowing God’s purpose(s) and then begin to define who we are by what we value. The above paragraph from James makes it obvious that there is a profound difference between the type of wisdom we get from the world as contrasted with what we receive from heaven. Worldly advice is even described as demonic in verse 15.

Progress requires intentionality. We must be strategic by the Holy Spirit’s power. And we must therefore ask the tough questions to ensure that we are being driven by God’s Spirit. Is our church carefully navigating the demands of ministry with an eye for what God desires from us? Do we value the things He values? Or are we just floating along without any real direction?

Real change in value systems starts with individuals, and then families, and then the church together. So ask yourself: Are my values…

  • Physical or spiritual?
  • Temporal or eternal?
  • Earthly or heavenly?

In a family, these types of questions become important in practical ways when it’s time to decide on a newer vehicle, or on how many meals you eat out, or on how to spend that extra time on Saturdays. It helps us to actually think about daily decisions that add up to a value system.

On the church level, it could just change the direction of your church.

Ultimately I have to ask myself, are my values from the world or from the Word? Next time we’ll talk about vision.

[This is part 2 of 5 in a series titled, Principles for Progress in the Church. Here is Part 1.]

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Principles for Progress in the Church, Part 1: Purpose

I like to talk about progress. This blog is named for our forward walk with Jesus. But when it comes to the church, too often we think we can float along, without any real direction or effort. We like to drift. The problem is that when we drift, we automatically go backwards. The sobering truth is, if you're not progressing, you're automatically regressing. So my desire for my church is to be intentional about being healthy and growing the way God intends.

Progress in the Local Church

Over the years, I have been fascinated with how many models and approaches there are to being and doing church. I love being a student of the Bible regarding the church, and I can’t help but watch as church models come and go, even within my lifetime.

More interesting is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. I’m thankful for the idea that our methods must change while our message must not. We are here to uphold the gospel. So when it comes to being the church, it matters not only what we do, but how we do it.

There are all kinds of advice out there telling us to how be relevant and stay relevant as culture shifts. There are also plenty of advocates to teach us how to lead and maintain a healthy, growing church in the midst of changing times. Ultimately what matters are the principles that God has clearly outlined in His Word. If we desire to be His church, which He even calls His bride, our local churches’ existence will be based on His principles and driven by His purposes.

The Bible teaches basic principles regarding how to be intentional and strategic in making progress as a healthy church. In fact, plenty of church leaders use these ideas to equip their congregations, although the wording and order may vary. Today we will look at the primary consideration: our purpose in being the church.

Purpose

God’s Word has much to say about the purpose of the church. The New Testament is rich in these concepts. And the bottom line is that if we don’t understand what we are to do, and the reason why we’re doing what we do, then nothing else matters. Our churches have to be driven by what Jesus has said are His purposes for His church, or we’re not Christian communities.

Many have described these purposes or functions of the church. Some have a list of seven items, others have three, but there is general agreement on the basic functions of what the church is supposed to be about. They include evangelism, fellowship, discipleship, service, and worship. Some list prayer separately; I would maintain that prayer supports each of these purposes.

These functions of the local church are taught in the Bible, and specifically, we see them in the Great Commission, and what Jesus Himself called the Great Commandments.

Here’s the Great Commission:

The 11 disciples traveled to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had directed them. (17) When they saw Him, they worshiped, but some doubted. (18) Then Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. (19) Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations [Evangelism/Missions], baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit [Fellowship/Community], (20) teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you [Discipleship/Teaching]. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28.16-20, HCSB, notes added)

And the Great Commandments:

And one of them, an expert in the law, asked a question to test Him: (36) “Teacher, which command in the law is the greatest?”
     (37) He said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind [Worship/Exaltation]. (38) This is the greatest and most important command. (39) The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself [Service/Care]. (40) All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”
(Matthew 22.35-40, HCSB, notes added)

Again, these five basic ideas are all over the New Testament. But to miss any of them makes us an imbalanced, unhealthy church.

These functions of the church are our purpose. It’s why we are the church. Next time we’ll move forward to consider our set of values.

[This is part 1 of 5 in a series titled, Principles for Progress in the Church.]

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Believers Participate in Baptism

There will always be some disagreement among Christians about what baptism really is.  Since I am new to my church, it seemed wise not to assume that everyone in our Baptist congregation has been baptized, or that everyone completely understands why we do it.  So I preached about baptism—why we do what we do with regard to this ordinance of the church.  Many have skillfully written about the necessity and purpose of baptism.  But for my own church and those who may later join the membership, and for anyone it might help, I thought I would publish the brief notes here.

For all biblical Baptists, the most important idea regarding baptism is that baptism will not and cannot save you—or bring you into fellowship with God.

The Bible is absolutely clear that fellowship with God cannot be earned, neither by baptism nor any other work.  Fellowship with God must be accepted by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone (a basic Protestant belief that is taught in the Scriptures).  The Apostle Paul, who clearly could have emphasized baptism if he had wanted to, chose instead to diminish the role of baptism in his ministry, out of the concern that someone might misunderstand either the gospel or his authoritative preaching:

For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with clever words, so that the cross of Christ will not be emptied of its effect (1 Corinthians 1.17, HCSB).

So if baptism doesn’t save us, what is it and why does it matter?  Why and how do we practice baptism, and why is it only for believers in Christ?

Baptism is an ordinance for believers in Jesus, as a picture of our faith.  Here are five quick points to describe what baptism is, and why we participate in it.

Imperative

We participate in believers’ baptism because of the imperative from Jesus.  In the Great Commission (Matthew 28.18-20), Jesus commanded that the church baptize believers.  Ultimately this imperative or command from Jesus is to the church.  He was saying that we must baptize those who come to faith in Him.  Those who don’t want to participate in baptism are causing the church not to fulfill its commission from the Lord.  Why?  As part of His commission to the church, it is a demonstration to the world that you believe in Jesus.  To avoid baptism is to deny His command, and a rejection of His imperatives equals a rejection of Him (see John 14.15).

Instruction

We participate in believers’ baptism according to the instruction of the Scriptures.  The Bible clearly instructs, even from the beginning as John the Baptizer baptized Jesus, that baptism was and is a picture of repentance and faith in Jesus and His work (see John 1.25-34).  By being baptized, Jesus validated John the Baptizer’s message of repentance and faith, although Jesus didn’t have anything to repent of.  So for all those who are baptized now, we look backwards to the picture Jesus painted for us, and as such we are saying that our repentance and faith are wrapped up in what Jesus already did for us, not through anything we could do (see Acts 19.4).  This is also why we don’t baptize infants, since they cannot yet cognitively express repentance and faith in Jesus.

Immersion

We participate in believers’ baptism by immersion for its symbolism.  Not only does the term to baptize mean to immerse, or to be dunked under water, but also there is a far greater reason why we practice baptism by immersion.  Again, we follow after the pattern of Jesus who went down into the water (see Matthew 3.16-17).  But we also do it primarily because baptism by immersion is a great picture of death, burial and resurrection.  Rather than signifying cleansing, baptism points to our death, burial and resurrection with Christ.  Spiritually speaking, we die with Him, and we are raised with Him.  In water we see a demonstration and illustration of what is taking place, but the real ministry is in our hearts (see Colossians 2.12).

Identification

We participate in believers’ baptism for its identification with Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Just as above we mentioned that immersion is a symbol of the real death and resurrection of Jesus, therefore also by identifying with Him, it means that in Christ we benefit from His accomplishments.  If Jesus conquered death, we in Christ conquer death.  If He conquered sin, we in Christ conquer sin.  If He lives a victorious life, we in Christ have a victorious life (see Romans 6.3-4; Galatians 2.20).  So because we identify with Christ in His death and His resurrection, He takes our sin off of us, and he puts on us His righteousness.  We can put off the old way of life, and put on a new, victorious one (see Galatians 3.27).

Initiation

We participate in believers’ baptism as an initiation into the church.  When someone identifies with Christ as described above, it also indicates his or her initiation into the church of God in Christ.  Even in the Great Commission, the act of baptism marks those who are baptized as members of a group—the ones who belong to Christ, His church.  Scripture also speaks of caring accountability and discipline for those included in the church, and baptism acts as a visible seal of faith, showing the members as those who identify with Jesus.  We are all spiritually baptized into one body in Christ, and water baptism reflects that spiritual baptism into Christ and His church (1 Corinthians 12.13).

Ultimately, we participate in baptism for believers because we know and love Jesus, we live for His glory, and it marks us as His.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

God Is Still Faithful

A couple of weeks ago brought some highs and lows for our family.

First, a major high point.  Monday that week marked our son’s third birthday.  We continue to be blessed by the amazing gift that God has given us in Luke.  Like every child he has his rough moments, but overall he is the sweetest, funniest, cutest little guy I know—and shouldn’t every dad say that!  But I think it’s true.  We had both sets of grandparents in town as well as two of his aunts, and other dear friends from out of town as well. 

We were expecting to close on the sale of our house on his birthday.  We didn’t plan it that way, but that was how the timing fell out.  However, in the height of our joy with his birthday weekend celebration, we got word on Friday afternoon that there was a problem with the sale due to a fence encroachment issue that neither we nor our neighbors knew about.  So we didn’t close on Monday.  In fact, a lot of the weekend and Monday and Tuesday were filled with a flurry of emails and calls and legal agreements and rewritten agreements and on.  It was a little struggle, and a little stressful for a bit.

Then on that same Monday, we received an email that the 34-year-old husband of one of Amy’s oldest and dearest friends had gone into cardiac arrest, that they had revived his heart, but that he was in CCU without any real idea of what had gone wrong.  At first, their family thought that he would not make it—he had even said his goodbye to her.  Amy and I love this family dearly, so this whole episode struck us deeply, and she prepared plans to drive the five-plus hours to see them and help in any way she could.

Throughout these events and others like them, our trust in God’s goodness and providence doesn’t waver—but we sure don’t always understand it.  In the midst of back-to-back types of difficulties, sometimes people offer words of encouragement like: “God is faithful—He’s going to sell that house for you, I just know it.” Or, “God is faithful—I just know He’s going to pull your friend through.”  Although extremely well intentioned, ideas like these miss the mark on God’s faithfulness.

Even if God doesn’t sell your house, He is still faithful.  Even if God doesn’t heal your friend, He is still faithful.  Even if God doesn’t spare your life, He is still faithful.

God’s word is clear about who He is and what He does.  God makes promises, and then keeps His promises.  His faithfulness is often described in terms of promise and fulfillment.  In fact, the entire Bible has been aptly summarized as promises made (Old Testament) and promises kept (New Testament).  Here are four quick reminders about the faithfulness of God.

1. God’s faithfulness is shown as essential in His character.

The Bible teaches from cover to cover that He is faithful, both in spite of and because of our circumstances.  Simply put, it says God is not like us—He is faithful:

God is not a man who lies, or a son of man who changes His mind.  Does He speak and not act, or promise and not fulfill?  (Exodus 23.19, HCSB)

2. God’s faithfulness is shown by example in His consistency.

Even when we waver through unbelief, God is proved to be true.  Our periodic unbelief marks us as “liars” contrasted against the backdrop of God’s faithfulness:

What then?  If some did not believe, will their unbelief cancel God’s faithfulness?  Absolutely not!  God must be true, but everyone is a liar…  (Romans 3.3-4, HCSB)

3. God’s faithfulness is shown by pattern to be constant.

Not only is He consistent in each instance, but He is described as constantly faithful.  He remains faithful:

This saying is trustworthy:
For if we have died with Him, we will also live with Him;
if we endure, we will also reign with Him;
if we deny Him, He will also deny us;
if we are faithless, He remains faithful,
for He cannot deny Himself.
  (2 Timothy 2.11-13, HCSB)

4. God’s faithfulness is shown as redemptive through His plan’s completion.

What we humans often lose sight of in our problems is that, for those who call upon the name of the Lord, we will ultimately have victory in Jesus.  God does care about our relationships, health, and provisions.  But regardless of our money or health or relationships, His faithfulness will complete His redemptive plan and will bring us into His presence—the greatest gift of all:

And we ourselves proclaim to you the good news of the promise that was made to our forefathers.  God has fulfilled this to us their children by raising up Jesus, as it is written in the second Psalm: “You are My Son; today I have become Your Father.” …Therefore, let it be known to you, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is being proclaimed to you…  (Acts 13.32-33, 38, HCSB)

In God’s great providence, our house sold two days later, and our friend was diagnosed three days later not with a heart problem, but with a nerve problem that has been treated with a pacemaker.  God is good, and He is faithful.  But He would still be faithful if these things hadn’t turned out the way we hoped.

It’s reassuring to know that, regardless of what we think about our circumstances, God is still faithful.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Sharing the Gospel and Our Lives

Recently at our Progress:Church event, I was able to share a little about my thinking regarding where the Lord might take us in coming days (and weeks and years).  Sort of preliminary vision casting.  I praise God that many among our church community are excited as well, as we partner together for the advancement of the faith of the gospel of Jesus.

I also shared my heart concerning some of my convictions about pastoral ministry.  One of the primary principles comes from 1 Thessalonians 2.8, where Paul says to the church there:

We cared so much for you that we were pleased to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us.

As we progress together toward the future of our church, my family’s desire is that we would serve side by side with our people in such a way that we’re not only verbally proclaiming the gospel, but that we’re sharing life together in demonstrating the gospel to and with each other.  My prayer is that we would continually remind each other of the grace of God in Christ, so that we are ready to consistently worship Him, and intentionally share about Him to others.

This is partnership in the gospel.