I am the Pastor of Trinity International Church in Strasbourg, France. It's a church made up of people from around the world who love Jesus and find themselves here in France. These articles are written with them in mind, but feel free to read them wherever you are from!

Friday, May 11, 2018

Baptism...What is it all about?

Jesus came and said to them, 
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  
(Matthew 28:18-20 ESV)

Before he ascended into heaven, Jesus commanded his followers to make disciples of people from all the nations of the world. Known as the Great Commission, his words present a daunting task. Obviously, making disciples of people from all nations would involved incredible cross-cultural and linguistic challenges, but Jesus’s words contained some specific instructions about how these disciples were to be made. 
First, it involves going. They were not to simply remain on top of a mountain (or in a church building) and wait for people from around the world to come and find them. They were to actively find people. To be sure, not everyone was called to cross oceans and learn new languages to make disciples, but everyone was to be involved in going. It may be as simple as going to a neighbor or co-worker and sharing a testimony. This commission from Jesus involves all of us.
Second, it involves teaching. People need to understand what it was Jesus said and how it applies to life. There is content that needs to be mastered and integrated. This is not an instantaneous process, but requires mentoring and commitment.
Finally, and the subject of this post, the command involves baptizing. Why did Jesus command his followers to be baptized? What is it? What is its significance? How important is this?

The Word Baptism
The word  baptism is a Greek term which means “to dip” or “to immerse”. It was used often in ceremonial occasions for a symbolic purification. While the washing of hands was the most common practice for purification, there were certain instances where the washing of the whole body was necessary for ceremonial purity (Lev 16:24; 22:4-6; etc.). One of the steps of conversion to Judaism involved a ceremonial immersion in water. One reason why John the Baptist’s ministry was controversial was that he was baptizing Jewish people (Matthew 3:1-12).
Throughout the Bible, and in the Greek language in general, the term baptism means to immerse in water. There are many churches that today practice the rite of baptism by pouring or sprinkling water on a person. This form of baptism became common centuries after the Bible was written and found its authority in a book called the Didache, which was written in the second century. In that book, the writer deals with the question of how to baptize people. He writes that the person who has been instructed in and accepted the teaching of Jesus should be immersed in living (flowing) water. If living water is not available, then other water should be used (preferably cold!). But there was concern about a situation where it would be impossible to find a large quantity of water for immersion. What should you do then? The Didache instructs that a person in that situation could be baptized by pouring water over the head. 
There are two things to notice about that second century writing. First, the person to be baptized was to be instructed before they were baptized. This implies that baptism was a voluntary act. They made a decision to be baptized. Second, the ordinary means of baptism was immersion, not pouring or sprinkling. Pouring water over the head was an acceptable alternative when in extreme cases. One imagines a situation where a prisoner becomes a believer and has no access to a pool of water for baptism by immersion. 
This is in line with what we read in the New Testament. John the Baptist baptized people in the Jordan River. They confessed their sins and were baptized (Matthew 3:1-12). That Jesus was baptized by immersion in the river is implied by the fact that when he was baptized he “immediately went up from the water” (Matt 3:16). In Acts 8:26-40 Philip baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch and after he was baptized he “came up out of the water.” Time after time we see the pattern of people hearing the gospel, believing, and then being baptized by immersion. This is also probably true in the case of the Philippian jailer’s family. Paul tells him that in order to be saved he needed to believe in the Lord Jesus and adds that the promise was good for his whole family. Luke goes on to tell us that Paul and Silas then explained the gospel to the jailer and to everyone in his house. And the jailer and his family were then baptized. There is no indication in the text that anyone had been baptized that had not personally made a decision to follow Christ. In fact, everyone who had been baptized rejoiced that the jailer had decided to believe in God (Acts 16:25-34).
This is in keeping with the Jewish idea of baptism as a ceremonial cleaning or washing. In the case of someone converting to Judaism, the person is immersed in a ceremonial pool. This symbolizes the putting off or dying to their old way of life. When they come up out of the water, they are considered a new person: a Jew. The Talmud sums it up in two passages: “When he comes up after his immersion, he is deemed an Israelite in all respects” (Yevamot 47b) and “One who has become a proselyte is like a child newly born” (Yevamot 48b).
It is amazing how much of the Jewish symbolism is found in Paul’s writing about baptism in Romans 6. In that chapter, he explains that in baptism we are symbolically buried with Jesus and then raised to life again. The waters of baptism symbolize a death and resurrection, a new birth, and a cleansing from sin. One enters the water having confessed sin and received forgiveness in the name of Jesus. One comes up out of the water with a commitment and resolve to live out the faith one has professed.
It is important to notice that in the book of Acts we see people being baptized fairly quickly after they became followers of Christ. The idea of someone becoming a believer and waiting years before being baptized is foreign to the Bible. While a certain degree of understanding is necessary in order to believe, exhaustive doctrinal or biblical knowledge is not required. Instead, we see that a genuine expression of faith was made prior to baptism.

Is Baptism necessary for salvation? 

Baptism is not required for salvation. We know this because the thief on the cross was not baptized, yet after professing his faith, Jesus told him that they would be together in paradise. In addition, Mark tells us that “Who ever believes and is baptized shall be saved, but he does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). 
Romans 10:9-10 tells us that “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’” (Romans 10:9-13 ESV). You will notice that baptism is not mentioned here. However, the profession that Jesus is Lord implies willingness to obey what he commands. And he commanded us to be baptized. Therefore, while not necessary for salvation, baptism is an important initial step of obedience to him. If you know you should be baptised and haven't been, what does that say about your saying that he is your Lord?

What about infant baptism? 

Early in the history of the church, the understanding of baptism slowly shifted. This was due to a number of factors. First, parents naturally had concern about the salvation of their children and asked that their infants be baptized as well. Second, as the influence of the church grew and eventually became the official religion of the Roman Empire, to be Roman was to be Christian. And thus people were baptized soon after they we were born. There was also a gradual change in the teaching about baptism. Baptism became seen as a means of grace where something was imparted by God to the person.
The church began to equate baptism with regeneration. The thought was that one became “born again” by being baptized. Instead of being a symbolic act like we see in Judaism and in the Bible, baptism was considered a vehicle by which God caused a person to be reborn. If a person was baptized then they were thought to be regenerated by God without faith being necessary. Thus, the baptism of infants became commonplace as the church became institutionalized.
While faith itself is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8:10), it is not taught in Scripture that baptism is the means of its impartation. To make it the means of impartation turns salvation into a product to be distributed by the church by means of participation in a rite rather than by faith. Of course, these churches do not express it this way! To be fair, churches that practice infant baptism usually emphasize the importance of the faith of the family and the church in a way that can be helpful in developing a community that nurtures the child in a way that they will one day make a profession of Christ. And these churches customarily also practice something like “Confirmation” whereby a young person, typically in their early teens, receives instruction in the doctrines of the church and then makes a profession of their faith in Christ. Millions of people have gone through this process. 
When these people have made a genuine commitment to Christ and believe that they are saved by grace I have little reason to doubt the veracity of their faith or their relationship with Jesus. I myself was raised in such a church and I understand that a person can have a strong relationship with Christ without having undergone believer baptism. It took me several years of prayerful study to see that I needed to be baptized out of my own conviction. I have a great deal of compassion for those who are in the process of looking at this issue.
One of the things that I have noticed is that often in churches that practice infant baptism the focus becomes the rite of the church as the means of salvation. People will say that they that they are saved because they were baptized. Often this is in full accord with the teaching of the church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Born with a fallen human nature…children also have the need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness…”. Lutherans as well teach that baptism is a means God uses to convert or regenerate an individual, even infants. As the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod puts it, “terms the Bible uses to talk about the beginning of faith include ‘coversion’ and ‘regeneration.’ Although we do not claim to understand fully how this happens, we believe that when an infant is baptized God creates faith in the heart of that infant.” 
Such an understanding of baptism is both unbiblical and potentially devastating. The clear basis of salvation is hearing and believing the gospel. If a person experienced a rite of the church and believes that as a result they are saved, their salvation is not based on faith in Christ, but faith in an ecclesiastical system. Like many of the Jews in the the New Testament that trusted their heritage rather than God, they miss the salvation that is freely available in Christ. If you were raised in a church like this, let me encourage you to examine where your trust for salvation is anchored. I was raised in the Lutheran church, and one of the gifts that both the church and my parents gave me was the importance of the Scriptures. In discussing this issue with both Lutheran pastors and my parents, I was able to affirm them in teaching me to follow the Biblical teaching wherever it led.
As I understood better the biblical teaching of baptism, I realized that my parents did what they thought best to set me on the path to faith in Christ. I honor them for that. At the same time, I realized that I had not been baptized according to biblical pattern. Faith precedes baptism. As a result, I chose to be baptized by immersion. It marked an important step in my journey with Christ. It was an act of obedience to the command to repent and be baptized. 

What now? 

You may be struggling with this issue. If so, let me give you a suggestion. The biggest piece of advice I could make is for you to do your own study of the Bible. There are numerous sites that allow you to search the Scriptures. Don’t start with articles like this one (sorry you read so far!). Instead, do a search of the Bible for the term baptism and carefully study the passages where the term is used (if you do a search on StudyLight, a search for “bapti*” will give you all the passages with those letters regardless of ending). Ask yourself what each passage says about baptism. What is it? What does it do? Who is participating? Let the Bible be your teacher. Don't try to do it in your head, but write down what you are learning. It helps with clarity of thinking.

Once you have a handle on the term in the Bible, then expand your search to articles. Don't start with the articles. Read widely and examine every reference to see if the author is quoting it and interpreting it correctly. Prayerfully ask the Lord to teach you what he wants you to do.

If you have never been baptised and you are a follower of Christ, it will be clear that you need to baptised. Find a Bible-teaching church and ask to be baptised.

If you were baptised as an infant, prayerfully consider whether this is in agreement with what the Bible teaches. If you come to the conclusion that what you experienced as an infant was not according to the biblical pattern, then find a Bible teaching church that will baptize you.

Finally, if you want to talk about it, let me know. I would be happy to talk over the issues with you.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

What I've Learned from the Suffering Church

I was a teenager and went to a special event at the Lutheran church I attended. The pastor introduced the guest speaker who came forward, took off his shoes, and immediately sat down in a chair on the platform. Picking up the microphone he said, "I hope you will excuse me for taking off my shoes and sitting down this evening. When I was in prison the guards would frequently beat my feet. Wearing shoes or standing for any length of time is very painful for me." With that, Richard Wurmbrand began describing his life as a pastor in Romania under Communist rule. I was sure that he was leaving out the most horrific details, but what he chose to include in his talk was more than enough to make an impression. I looked around the room and wondered how many people would have renounced their faith in order to escape what he went through.

It was my first experience with the suffering church. Before that moment, "suffering church" meant little to me. As an American living in the land of the free, suffering for the faith meant little more than enduring a sermon that ran five minutes too long or sitting in pews that lacked padding. The things this man spoke about were far beyond my understanding. It piqued an interest in me, not of morbid fascination with torture and suffering, but of what these believers learned and went through as a result of persecution.

In America, the "rock stars" of the faith are the mega-church pastors. They write books, speak at large conferences, and receive large incomes. Granted, some of these pastors choose to live relatively humbly, but others live flamboyant lifestyles proclaiming that their extravagance is a sign of the blessing of God.

In contrast, in the early church, the heroes were those who had suffered. Martyrdom, while not to be sought after, was considered to be a badge of honor. Discipleship was about learning to be faithful to Christ regardless of the circumstances. Loss of job, exclusion from social groups, jail, and beatings were the frequent schools by which endurance was learned.

In the years since my first exposure to the suffering church, I have had the opportunity to meet others who have been persecuted for their faith. I have read many books about the persecuted church. With every story I have grown in my relationship with Jesus and have been challenged to pray for my suffering brothers and sisters around the world.

Here are some of the most important things I have learned:

The Reality of Jesus and the Power of the Holy Spirit to Sustain Faith
Having been raised in a Christian context, there were moments when I wondered if the reason I believed the gospel was because everyone else around me did. What would happen if I were put in a position where following Christ meant imprisonment or death? The book of Acts tells us that Christ-followers were at times beaten (Acts 5:40-42) but that did not stop them from proclaiming the truth about Christ. Being thrown in prison did not intimidate them from continuing to witness (Acts ) and at times their imprisonment meant times of worship and witness (Acts 16:23-25) and the spread of the knowledge of Christ (Philippians 1:12-14). The martyrdom of others just seemed to embolden their witness (Acts 8:1-4). But that is in the Bible. One expects to find heroes in the Scriptures.
People who have experienced persecution like they did in Acts have been driven deeper into their relationship with Jesus. They testify of the presence of Christ in the midst of intense suffering. They were persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed (2 Corinthians 4:8). They are witnesses of the living Christ who sustained them in their time of greatest trials. They have shared in his sufferings and know the power of the resurrection (Philippians 3:10). Their experience strengthens my faith.

The Importance of the Scriptures
Paul writes that "faith come from hearing and hearing by the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). The importance of the Bible in sustaining faith in times of persecution is affirmed again and again in the testimonies of those who have undergone persecution. Paul and Silas encouraged one another through the singing of psalms. Believers in the suffering church have a tremendous hunger for the Word. They copy it by hand if necessary. They memorize it. They will take great risks to obtain it. It is the bread they eat to give them endurance.

Of particular importance in the days of trial are the words of Scripture that have been hidden in the heart through memorization. The memorized Bible is a library that cannot be removed by the persecutors. With days and years of endless suffering in jail, the Word hidden in the heart becomes incredibly important. Of course, the time to memorize the Bible is before the hour of trial, not before!
The Scriptures give the persecuted Christian endurance and courage to remain faithful when denying Christ would make life easier. The enemy is trying to destroy them by offering them ease. Like Jesus in the wilderness, they battle him with the Word of God (Matthew 4:1-11). The Evil One does battle in different ways, sometimes with persecution but often with the allurements of this world if we simply deny or disobey Christ. Why do we often think that the Bible is relatively unimportant in our daily lives? Why do we neglect memorizng it? Our Lord has told us that being in the Word day and night is essential to success (Psalm 1).

The Ability to Forgive and Love
One of the most amazing things to learn from those who undergo suffering for the faith is that they find that they can forgive and love their enemies. The excruciating pain of torture is fertile ground for anger and resentment. Watching others die can lead to bitterness and rage. Yet Jesus commands his followers to forgive, love, and pray for those that persecute them (Matthew 5:43-48). Stories abound of captors who have been converted in large part because of the ability to forgive.

Corrie ten Boom tells of meeting one of the concentration camp guards after the war. As this man, who was in part responsible for her suffering and her sister's death came towards her, she was angry, but then made an amazing discovery. In her own words, "Even as the angry vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord, Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him...Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me your forgiveness...And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world's healing hinges, but on His. When he tells us to love our enemies, He gives along with the command, the love itself." (The Hiding Place).

I have not suffered like Corrie ten Boom. But the testimony of those who have endured persecution and forgiven their enemies makes me pause and consider why I am holding petty grudges in my heart. If they can forgive so much, shouldn't I forgive the the little things that I "suffer"?

The Frivolity of Much of What is Considered Important
Persecution boils life down to the bare essentials: Praying for daily bread. Forgiving and loving others. Witnessing about Jesus. Humble serving. Meditating on the Word. These things are important. The suffering believer knows that real joy does not come from the things of this world, but from enjoying fellowship with Jesus. The result? Contentment and freedom to truly follow Christ.

One of the stories coming out of Syria is of a group of believers who prayed and fasted about whether they should flee or remain in Syria as witnesses of the gospel. They decided to stay. The seriousness of their decision led to an agreement to pool their money and buy a small plot of land for the days to come. It would be the graveyard where they would bury each other.

One of those believers writes, "There is remarkable freedom in having no expectations, no plans for tomorrow. The question I and many others start every day with is this: 'Jesus, what do you have planned for me and my family?' Only today matters. Only how I live for Jesus counts. Everything else is superficial. When I hand my life over to my Lord, knowing each day may be my last on earth, I am more at peace than ever before." (Killing Christians, Tom Doyle p. 42).

This is what Paul was talking about when he spoke of being content in all circumstances. (Philippians 4:11-12). He knew times of plenty and times of hunger. He stood in palaces and slept in prison cells. He was unafraid, even though he knew that suffering and imprisonment awaited him (Acts 20:19-24).
The reality of their physical lives is not one that we would choose, but the depth of their relationship with Jesus is something that we should all want. I am challenged to remember that this world is passing away and that true joy cannot be found on Amazon, but only in Christ (1 John 2:15-17).

The Importance of One Another
The suffering church also teaches us the importance of our relationships with other believers. Paul gives thanks for the encouragement that he received in prison (Philippians 4:10-20). He writes to the Corinthians about the persecution that he endured and asks for their support in prayer (2 Corinthians 1:8-11). In fact, one of the fundamental activities of the church in Acts is gathering to pray together, especially during seasons of persecution. When Peter and John were called before the Council and ordered not to talk about Jesus any more, the church gathered and prayed that they would speak all the more boldly and that God would confirm his message with miracles (Acts 4:23-31). When James is martyred and Peter is arrested, the church gathered together and prayed (Acts 12:12).

One cannot read the stories of persecution, both in history and currently, without noticing how persecution pushes believers towards one another. It strengthens their relationships and drives them to their needs in prayer. The intensity of their fellowship with God and one another is an example of what God intends for his people.

Our brothers and sisters in the suffering church need our prayer and practical support. But perhaps even more, those living "in freedom" need the wisdom that comes from intimacy with the Lord which those in the suffering church can share with us.

Friday, April 27, 2018

The Measure of Success

There are some common definitions of success:
"Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm." - Winston Churchill
"The more you're actively and practically engaged, the more successful you will feel." - Sir Richard Branson, Virgin founder
"Success is not having to describe what's been accomplished...others do it for you." - Deborah Hopkins, Chief Innovation Officer, Citibank
“A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night, and in between he does what he wants to do.” - Bob Dylan

Browse any bookstore or newsstand and you will see books telling you how to be successful. They feature smiling authors who have become successful and want to share their secrets with you so you can be successful, too. Many have become wealthy by selling being successful! The quotes and books and seminars about being successful all tug at our desire to succeed. When you look up the word success in the dictionary you will find this definition: "the attainment of wealth, power, or fame." Each of these authors as achieved one or more of these things. 

Our culture and family can put different spins on what success looks like. But they almost always are simply variations of the wealth, power, or fame theme. Even in the the Christian subculture we can have variations of these themes. What does it mean to be a successful Christian?

For some, it is being an active and wealthy follower of Jesus. So they set their hearts on earning as much money as possible while being busy with church things. Often they will give generously. But the words of Jesus are clear: You cannot serve God and money. Pursuing wealth is not compatible with following Jesus (Matthew 6:24). Yes, I checked the Greek. "Cannot" means "cannot", as in "not possible to". 

For others, it is the Pentecostal gifts of the Spirit manifest in their lives. Miracles, words of knowledge and prophecy are the goals that are pursued. Often these things are also gained. But Jesus is clear once again: "On that day, many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness" (Matthew 7:22-23).

Moses was a mighty man of God. Raised in Pharaoh's household, he fled for his life and lived in obscurity for years before God called him to lead the children of Abraham out of Egypt. Incredible miracles accompanied his life (just think of the plagues in Exodus 7-12!). He met with God with such intimacy that his face shone (Exodus 34:34-35). He wrote five books of the Bible (Genesis-Deuteronomy). Talk about a leader! It would be intimidating to be his replacement.

Joshua was that man. Leadership can look easy until its mantle falls on your shoulders. Joshua would be faced with leading the people into the Promised Land and conquering the people who lived there. His mentor was dead and could not give advice any longer. He was on his own.

It was at this moment that God spoke to him and revealed to him the secret of success.

"Be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go.  This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.  - (Joshua 1:7-8)

The Lord told Joshua that the Bible was essential to his success. He needed to be continually meditating on its truths. Day and night the words of the Bible needed to fill his thoughts. Then he needed to be careful to do what it said. This would be the key to his success.

And it is the key to our success as well. Our culture teaches us that we can be successful by pursuing career, family, fortune, and fame. God says the way to be successful is by continual meditation on his Word and then putting it into practice in our lives. In fact, he says that doing anything else is like building a house without a foundation. Foundations are boring. It is tempting to overlook them and concentrate on the things that are above the ground. Skimp on the foundation and we can afford to put in a swimming pool! A swimming pool seems like a sign of success until the storm comes and reveals that our house lacked a foundation (Matthew 7:24-27).

The key to success is mediation on the Bible and putting its truths into practice. We cannot just pick things that we like to do and ignore other things. We need to allow the Bible to shape and mold our thinking and behaviour. We will learn to pray, and work, and give, and worship, and will discover the joy of serving Christ. We will be filled with a peace that passes all human understanding. We will be blessed beyond measure. We will have built a house that cannot be shaken regardless of the strength of the storm. 

We need to understand that the people around us are not the judges of our success. Nor are we the judge. Instead, the Bible tells us that there is coming a day when each of us will stand before a God. He will judge whether we have been successful or not. The standard will be the Word that he has given us. Have we meditated on it and obeyed it? If so, we will hear "well done, good and faithful servant." On that day we will be able to say, "I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge will award to me on that Day" (2 Timothy 4:7).

So today I urge you to begin the the journey toward a successful life. Pick up the Bible. Read and meditate on its truths. Then obey it. You will be amazed at what happens.

Warning: It may be that you think that this does not apply to you because you are not a pastor. 
You are a student, a business executive, a lawyer, or a diplomat. Your life is busy and the Bible seems unimportant to what you have going on this week. Please remember: Joshua was not a priest. He was the leader of several million people. The demands on his time were overwhelming, yet God insisted that the key to success was continual meditation on the Word and obedience to what it says. If it was true for Joshua, it is true for you.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Abiding in the Word: Some Practical Help

Last Sunday I preached a message about the importance of abiding in the word of God. You can listen to it here (English) (French). I was pleased by the fact that there were several people who told me that the Lord had been telling them that they needed to spend more time in the Word. Few things are more important than the habit of spending time in God's Word.

Before I sat down to write this blog article, I popped over to Desiring God and noticed that their lead article was by Jimmy Needham. He gives us five reasons to read the Bible every day. If you are looking for motivation, that is a great article to read. I will focus on giving you some practical advice about abiding in God's Word.

So how do we go about it?

Pick a time and place.

We have a plan for everything that is a priority in our lives. Whether it is going to the gym or picking up groceries, we figure out ways to get them done. I am convinced that making a specific plan will multiply the time we spend in God's word many times.

This plan does not have to be complicated and can vary depending on a person's stage in life. If you have not yet developed the habit of Bible-reading,  I suggest a timeframe of fifteen minutes as a starter. As you grow, you will find that is not enough time.

As a university student, I found time before or after class. When I had a traditional job, I found that getting up a little earlier worked the best for me. I needed the quiet before the kids got up to spend time alone with the Lord. Sometimes parents have to find a time when they have a break from parental duties. Whatever your life's situation figure out how you can get it done. Sure, you have to jettison television or facebook time, but what is more important?

I've always found that first thing in the morning is the best time. I am fresher and it seems to put my day in a good perspective. Some people tell me that late at night works better for them. Personally, would probably fall asleep!

The place should be free from distractions. Jesus told his disciples to go into their room and shut the door (Matthew 6:6). A busy living room would be too distracting. Find a place and make it a routine to use it regularly.

Remember the Goal.
The goal is a relationship with God. It is easy to make the goal growing in the knowledge of the Bible, being prepared for a life group, or simply checking something off our list of things to do. We need to consciously remind ourselves that this time is for developing a deeper relationship with Jesus. It helps to begin and end the time with prayer. That keeps the focus on actually meeting God rather than mastering some biblical content.

Remember the Means.
God gave us the Bible as a means to meet and interact with him. So we want to spend time in its pages. I have found that my devotional life varies depending upon the leading of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit seems to emphasize different things throughout the year.

Reading: The Broad View. Sometimes I will spend my time reading one of the books of the Bible. For example, I may read the gospel of Luke over a period of several days. As I read, I am listening to for the Holy Spirit to point something out to me. Sometimes he does, and when he does I will stop and think about whatever it is. Other times I will simply read for most of the time. Then I will pray based on what I learned as I was reading.

Studying: The Accurate View. Studying is deeper than reading. Reading is like looking out over the garden of Versailles and drinking in the beauty. Study is deciding to go and take a closer look at one particular part of the garden. In studying, the goal is to do the best we can to determine what the author intended. What did he want to communicate to us by using those particular words? We are looking with the understanding that God wants to speak to us through the words that he inspired. So those words (the verbs, nouns, pronouns, articles, and prepositions) matter. In studying we seek to understand what they mean.

Memorizing: The Profound View. There have been times when the Lord has led me to memorize a chapter or an entire book of the Bible. This leads to a much deeper and richer understanding than is typically possible through simple reading or studying. You might memorize the 23rd Psalm, 1 Corinthians 13, or Romans 8. Learning these chapters word or word will unlock treasures that you never realized were there.

Meditating: The Transforming View. Reading, studying, and memorizing all lead to meditation. Meditation is simply pondering about a passage. Joshua 1:8 tells us that meditating on the law day and night is one of the keys to success in life. We think about what we were read that morning as we take the tram to work, go jogging, or make lunches for the kids.  As we do, the Holy Spirit begins to change the way we think about things and draws us closer to God.

Remember When You Walk Out the Door.
Once your time in the Word is over, then comes the need to obey what you read in "real life". It may involve loving your enemy, confessing your sin, helping the weak, or remembering to thank Him for the blessings you experience during the day. The Lord expects us to follow through on the things that we are learning. Jesus told his disciples, "Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them" (John 13:17).

Friday, April 13, 2018

Upon This Rock

Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.  And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”   (Matthew 16:16-19 ESV)

There are three basic interpretations of this passage. They all revolve around the question of the identity of "the rock" upon which Jesus says he will build his church.

Interpretation #1: Peter is the Rock.

This is the common traditional interpretation of the passage. It is based on two primary facts. First, Jesus calls Simon "Peter", which is Greek for rock. Then he says that "upon this rock I will build my church." In the context, it is not difficult to imagine Jesus pointing at Peter as he says this. The second fact is that Jesus says, "I will give you the keys to the kingdom" and it is important to understand that the "you" in that phrase is singular, not plural. Jesus is giving Peter the keys. This is the natural reading of the passage.
The statute of Peter
holding "the keys" in
St. Peter's Basilica, Rome.

Of course, this is also the passage that the Roman Catholics turn to in order to support the idea of the Roman papacy. Is the best application of this passage the idea that Jesus was establishing an ecclesiastical structure with Peter as its head?

It is an important question because of the prominence of Roman Catholicism. The importance of the church in Rome developed early in the church. In 96 AD, the church in Corinth turned to Clement, the leader of the Roman church, to help them with some internal problems. While the Catholics point to that as an example of Clement being the pope, there is little evidence, however, that the first generations of Christians thought of Rome as being the "head church" or that Peter had been the head of the church. Rome gained in importance primarily because of its location as the center of political power. When Christianity became the state religion, it was natural for the leader of the church in Rome to be seen as the leader of the whole church.

There are serious problems with seeing this passage as the founding of the office of the head of the worldwide church. There is nothing in the text or in the rest of the Bible that indicates that this is an appointment that could be transmitted from one person to another. Certainly, there is nothing in this passage that gives Peter either infallible or supreme authority in the church. In fact, in just a few verses Jesus calls Peter Satan!

The Reformers were correct in saying that the passage does not establish the papacy.

Interpretation #2: The Confession is the Rock.

Over the centuries a highly organized church structure developed with the pope as the head of the church. It was said that the pope "occupied Peter's seat" and his power was absolute. Corruption and unbiblical practices had infiltrated the church and it was in desperate need of reform. The pope fought against the reformers and turned to this passage as a key basis for their authority.  Protestants have tended to interpret "the rock" as being Peter's confession of Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God. The church, according to this interpretation, is built upon the foundation of people's profession of faith.

This interpretation draws on many other passages of Scripture. The reformers noted that all believers are living stones that are being fit together into a living temple and that Jesus himself is chief cornerstone (1 Peter 2:1-5). In addition, Paul writes that we are being built into a temple with Jesus as the cornerstone, only he indicates that the apostles and the prophets are the foundation of the building! (Ephesians 2:18-22). A person's profession of faith is an indication of their salvation and their inclusion in the church (Romans 10:9).

The reformers also pointed out that Jesus had chastised the teachers of the law in Luke 11:52. They held in their hands "the key of knowledge" and they had not used it and had hindered others from entering. This supports the idea that the "Rock" is the confession of faith. Peter had understood and declared the truth about who Jesus is. The declaration of truth unlocks the door to the kingdom so a person can enter it. Thus the teachers of the Word hold the key to the kingdom.

Interpretation #3 The Revelation of Jesus is the Rock

In more recent times there has been an interpretation that identifies the revelation of Jesus's identity to Peter by the Father as being the rock upon which the church is built. This interpretation tends to be more common in more charismatic churches which stress the ongoing work of the Spirit and its importance in building up the church.

It rightly emphasizes that human ingenuity and reasoning are not sufficient to understand who Christ is in a way that brings salvation. This revelation must come from God to each individual. No one can come to Christ unless the Father draws him (John 6:44). It is similar to the interpretation that the confession of Christ is the rock, only that it goes back up the timeline to point to the work of the Spirit in Peter's life.


If one asks the question, "What was Jesus pointing to when he said 'upon this rock I will build my church?" the answer would have to be Peter. Protestants today too quickly reject that answer because they reject Catholicism. But if the Bible is our authority, then we must submit to what it says. It is clear that Peter is the rock. But he was not the only rock that made up the foundation. The other apostles and prophets were also part of the foundation. And we demonstrate that we are living stones by making the same profession of faith that Peter did. In that sense, Peter's profession of faith is foundational in building the church. That the identity of Jesus was revealed to Peter (and to us) by God is good theology. However, it is not the intent of the passage or the answer to the question of what the rock is.

A final thought:

Protestants should think about why they so quickly reject the idea of the papacy. It should be rejected because it is not biblical. I fear that too often people reject it for a different reason: They object to the idea of there being a spiritual authority that they must submit to. However, we must remember that the scripture does teach us to submit to leaders in the church (Hebrew 13:7). We must ensure that our individualism is not a subtle form of simple rebellion against authority.

Friday, April 6, 2018

10 Characteristics of Followers of Christ

There is no message more important than the gospel. It is the means by which people can be forgiven of their sins and become citizens of the kingdom of heaven. For some, the message of the gospel is a new idea. They never had a chance to hear about Jesus and his death on the cross for their sins. For others, the message of the cross is common. There are many who follow Jesus and their impact is felt upon the culture in which they live. When the culture mimics biblical values, there can be a question about whether a person is a follower of Christ or merely part of the broader culture. To put in another way, some people culturally identify as Christians when they have never been born again by the Spirit of God. They are in great danger of counting on their culture rather than Christ for salvation.

As ambassadors of Christ who have been entrusted with the gospel, it is important to discern as best we can the condition of people around us. When Paul wrote to the church Thessalonians, he listed 10 things he saw in their lives which were signs that they had been born again by the Spirit through the power of the gospel message. These are a good starting point to use when trying to ascertain a person's spiritual condition.

1. They heard the clear articulation of the gospel. Simply going to church is not enough. Sadly, what is proclaimed in many churches today is not the gospel, but some sort of deistic moralism.  Prosperity preaching attracts large crowds of people wanting to gain wealth and "the good life." Other churches advance a generic humanistic message of loving one another while ignoring the eternal consequences of our failure to love. The cross, repentance, and faith must be central to the message that a person has accepted.

2. Miracles. Many cases of true conversion have a sense of the supernatural about them. Miracles may have been encountered in their life leading them to faith. Of course, not every testimony of conversion includes miraculous events or dramatic deliverances, nor does the fact that someone claims to have experienced a miracle mean that they are a follower of Christ, but God sometimes reveals Himself in powerful ways as he brings someone to himself. Remember, the new birth itself is a miracle!

3. The power of the Holy Spirit. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is an experience they should be able to talk about. The reality of the Spirit in their life may be difficult to explain, but it will be something that they should be able to talk about. If not, something is lacking in their experience

4. The overwhelming sense that the gospel applies to them. Many people can explain the gospel. The person that is born again is overwhelmed by the fact that each part of the gospel applies to them personally. It is interesting to ask people the question, "Who is Jesus Christ to you?" Some will talk about him like a figure from history. Others will say things like, "He is the Son of God" and "Jesus died to pay the penalty for sin." While these things are true in a theological sense, they are stated in an impersonal way. A person who has been born again will almost always answer the question "Who is Jesus to you?" in personal terms. "He is my Savior" is a common response.

5. A change of life so that they begin to imitate the lives of other followers of Jesus. Those who have been born again want to be like Jesus. It is part of the transformation that takes place. It is normal for new believers to look at other believers, particularly those influential in their coming to faith, as models of what it means to be a follower of Christ. 

6. They make their commitment to Christ in the context of suffering for their faith. There is little social risk in becoming a follower of Christ in countries where Christianity is the majority religion. As a result, in Christian-majority societies, there are those who will flippantly make a commitment to Christ for a number of spurious reasons. Perhaps they like a girl who will only date Christians, or they want to belong to a certain social clique who happen to be church-goers. While they may seem to fit into local churches, these people will inevitably walk away from Jesus when the going becomes difficult because of him. In countries where loss of job or family connections, imprisonment, or even death are the common experiences of belief in Jesus, it is much more likely that conversions to Christ are genuine.

7. Joy. The redeemed are filled with a deep and abiding joy that burns even in the midst of affliction. It is not that they are simply putting on a happy face and have a pollyannish view of life, the believer knows that whatever troubles they face now are only temporary and God will ultimately use them for their good. Thier joy is not based on the things of this world. Their joy is found in their relationship with Jesus.

8. Welcoming other believers. When a person becomes a Christian, they become part of a family. This fellowship of the redeemed causes them to be open to and welcome other believers. They sense a common bond in Christ that transcends race, nationality, or language.

9. Repentance from former idols. The redeemed person must turn away from serving idols. This includes physical idols made of stone or wood as well as other things which they looked to in hopes of receiving life.  A job, money, popularity, drugs, sex, athletics, or any number of other things can serve as an idol. Serving Jesus means renouncing those things and following him wholeheartedly.

10. The anticipation of seeing Jesus. Jesus is the greatest treasure of those who have been born again. As a result, one of the great longings of their heart is to see him face-to-face. This is not a nebulous going to heaven where there will be no more pain or sorrow, but a heartfelt desire to be with their Redeemer. It is Jesus that they are looking forward to being united with.

These 10 things are indicators that Paul saw in the Thessalonians that convinced him that they have been chosen by God. It is not a fool-proof list, but it can help us discern whether a person has been born again. This can help us know how to minister to the person. It may also convict us that we have not experienced what the Thessalonians did and can spur us on toward a relationship with Jesus.
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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

A "Good Friday" Hymn

Bernard of Clairvaux was one of the most influential Christians of his era. This hymn is widely attributed to him and certainly marks the depth of his devotion to our Lord.

O Sacred Head now wounded,
with grief and shame weighed down,
now scornfully surrounded
with thorns Thine only crown;
O Sacred Head, what glory,
What bliss, till now was Thine!
Yet though despised and gory,
I joy to call Thee mine.

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered
Was all for sinners' gain;
Mine, mine, was the transgression,
But Thine the deadly pain;
Lo, here I fall, my Saviour!
'Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor,
Vouchsafe to me Thy grace.

What language shall I borrow
to thank Thee, dearest Friend,
for this Thy dying sorrow,
thy pity without end?
Oh, make me Thine forever;
and should I fainting be,
Lord let me never, never
Outlive my love to Thee!

Be near me when I'm dying;
Oh, show Thy Cross to me!
And for my succor flying;
Come, Lord, and set me free!
These eyes, new faith receiving,
from Jesus shall not move;
for he who dies believing,
dies safely, through thy love.

Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153)
English Translation: James Waddell Alexander