"The unfolding of your words gives light ..." (Psalm 119:130a)

Month: April 2011

Preaching in the Last Days

Since the time of Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection and ascension, we have been in “the last days” (Acts 2:17; Heb. 1:1-2). Paul was correct, “in the last days difficult times [have] come” (2 Tim. 3:1). Peter’s mockers have shown up by the bus load (2 Pet. 3:3).

To whom are we preaching in these last days? What is the spirit of the age in the run-up to Jesus’ return? The Apostle Paul told us in 2 Timothy 3:1-5. At the root of it all are misplaced affections (vv.2-4).

So what should preaching look like in times like these? What kind of a preacher is God demanding for these demanding times?

I think Jesus’ words from Matthew 24 tell us. Who then is the faithful and sensible slave whom his master put in charge of his household to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master finds so doing when he comes” (vv.45-46).

This tells us that God is calling for a certain kind of preachers and a certain kind of preaching.

Preaching in the last days requires preachers who understand SUBMISSION.

The preacher is called a “slave” (doulos). The slave is one who has given up to another and thus lost any personal will as a determining factor of his life and daily choices. These decisions have been surrendered and given over to a master. In this case the Master is Jesus. Such a preacher may have an opinion (perhaps a very strong one) about his preaching and the specifics of carrying it out, but he has come to the realization that he has no personal will or choice in the carrying out of his call to preach. The message is not his. The congregation is not his. The delivery is not his. The style is not his. The substance is not his. The breadth is not his. The depth is not his. The recognition, reception or reward is not his to decide.

Preaching in the last days requires preachers who understand URGENCY.

This preacher is “on the clock,” in that his Master is returning at an hour which he does not know with certainty. He preaches and serves always looking for the day “when he comes.” All he knows with certainty is that the hour will come when His Master arrives. He preaches every sermon as if it may be his last.

Preaching in the last days requires preachers who understand ACCOUNTABILITY.

This preacher “has [been] put in charge” by the Master. When his Master returns, He will require an accounting of the preacher for his service. He preaches because God is listening and because Christ is judging, coming and ruling (2 Tim. 4:1). He preaches as a steward.

Preaching in the last days requires preachers who understand EQUIPPING.

The word translated “household” refers to the servants which make up the staff that serves the family of the house. This “slave” is thus administratively over the servants and must lead them to appropriate care for the Master and His family. Thus the preacher is called to not only care for the family of God, but, through His preaching, to move the members of the family to serve one another (Eph. 4:11-16). This preacher knows he alone cannot provide all the ministry the “household” needs to reach maturity. He seeks to raise up others to serve the family. He understands his need to feed the feeders of the family. The preacher is a part of the “household,” and thus beloved of God. But he is also over the household, standing in the stead of the Master, identifying, feeding, motivating, releasing and administrating their care of God’s family. The heart of His Master must rule his own heart and his relationship to those who make up and serve the “household.”

Preaching in the last days requires preachers who understand FAITHFULNESS.

This preacher is to be found “faithful” by his Master upon His return. The “faithful” preacher is not free; he is bound by responsibility. He knows no absolute autonomy. There is a divinely given message which must not be altered. There is a divine love that must be communicated. There is a calling that must be fulfilled. There is a Word that must not be altered. There is a day of accounting that must be factored into all he is and does.

Preaching in the last days requires preachers who understand WISDOM.

This preacher is to be found “sensible” by His Master upon His return. The word describes one who is prudent and wise. Obedience to Christ’s word is the touchstone of such wisdom (Matt. 7:24). So this preacher has learned first to search out and live under Christ’s word personally before he dares proclaim it to those to whom he is sent. The word is used again most immediately in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins which follows in Matthew 25:1-13 (cf. vv.2, 4, 8, 9). It describes those who are not lulled into a stupor by the times in which they live. Such a preacher heeds Christ’s warning (“be on the alert,” Matt. 24:42-43) and ever cries with Paul “let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober” (1 Thess. 5:6)!

Preaching in the last days requires preachers who understand NURTURE.

This preacher looks upon those whom God has put under his charge and understands that he is “to give them their food.” He feeds the flock (Psa. 23:2). He is a good shepherd, feeding not simply himself, but the flock of God (Ezek. 34:1-10). He knows how to give out both “milk” (1 Pet. 2:2) and “meat” (1 Cor. 3:2; Heb. 5:12) according to the need of those God puts before him. But he always feeds with a view to maturity (Heb. 5:14). In physical diet, what we want is not always what we need. He aims not to be popular, spoken of or to impress. He speaks to feed the flock of God under his charge.

Preaching in the last days requires preachers who understand DISCERNMENT.

This preacher understands that he is to give God’s people their food “at the proper time.” He thinks, prepares and preaches strategically—with an acute awareness of both the times in which he and the rest of God’s people live (1 Chron. 12:32) and the peculiarities of their individual needs. Indeed, as a good shepherd, he knows well the condition of his flocks (Prov. 27:23). He also understands “how delightful is a timely word” (Prov. 15:23) and that “Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word spoken in right circumstances” (25:11). Thus he prays and prepares before the Lord in hopes that his words might be wise.

Preaching in the last days requires preachers who understand HOPEFULNESS.

This preacher serve with an eye to His Master’s pronouncement of “Blessed”! The favor of the Master is his single desire. Hearing his Master’s “Well done, good and faithful slave” (Matt. 25:21, 23) is his driving motivation and abiding goal. He looks not for his rewards in time and space, but in a future, but certain existence in open fellowship with his Master. The applause of the present crowd holds no attraction to him for he performs even now, even here for an audience of One. A million slaps on the back hold not the power of one “Well done,” from his Master’s lips.

Preaching in the last days requires preachers who understand TENACITY.

And all of this, the preacher is to be found “so doing” when His Master returns. He knows that he has been called to speak in momentous times and so to be a “lazy slave” is a great wickedness (Matt. 25:26). Like Ezra of old who “had set his heart to study the law of the LORD and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel” (Ezra 7:10), he too is a man of the Word. Thus he rises daily to engage God in His Word—that He might live out the sacred pattern: study—obey—speak. He does not lift his hand from the plow to look back (Luke 9:62) or to gaze around at what others might feel free to do. He is always “making the most of [his] time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:16). Like Jesus he says, “We must work the works of Him who sent Me as long as it is day; night is coming when no one can work” (John 9:4).

Preaching in the last days requires preachers who understand LONELINESS.

Have you noticed that Jesus casts this entire matter as a question? He thus points to the rarity of finding such a preacher and such preaching in the last days. Any preacher who stays the course will find himself in a lonely place and often as a lonely person. But in that place the Spirit of the Master will draw him into a fellowship so deep, personal and rich that he will know “him who sticks closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24). He labors and serves with Jesus’ promise ever on his heart: “He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him.” (John 14:21).

Heavenly Father, these are perilous days in which you have called us to speak. We often grow weary and discouraged. Feed our hearts richly from your written Word. Give us the humility to preach to ourselves before we preach to others. Give us a heart which preaches from anguish rather than anger. Give us the faithfulness to stay the course and to preserve your Word in days when many do not wish to listen. Save us from playing to applause rather than simply serving you. Let us speak with the anointing of your Spirit. Let us trust to you the results you bring forth. Enable us to serve with an eye to and patiently wait for your “Well done.” In Jesus’ Name, amen.

Faithfulness in the Absence of Revival

“Where are all his wonders that our fathers told us about when they said, ‘Did not the LORD bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the LORD has abandoned us . . .” (Judges 6:13)

“We have heard with our ears, O God; our fathers have told us what you did in their days, in days long ago.” (Psalm 44:1)

“My tears have been my food day and night, While they say to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?’” (Psalm 42:3)

How is one to “do” ministry in the absence of revival? What does faithful ministry look in those times and places where God’s Spirit is not moving in revival power? In other words, how am I to be doing ministry most of the time?

Perhaps it would include at least these things . . .

  • Seek to live in personal revival.
  • Seek to whet people’s appetite for “more” of God.
  • Seek to preach the Word under the anointing of the Spirit.
  • Pray with a view to “more” – both publicly and privately.
  • Personally and intentionally take specific steps of risk in obedience, confession, repentance, humility and sacrifice.
  • Trust that God already is doing more than you can now (or may ever) see.

God and Disasters

We all wrestle with trying to reconcile what we see in this world with what we know of God from His Word.

Not long ago a well-known and much-respected journalist began his interview of a Christian leader by raising the issue of Japan’s recent tragedy with the earthquake, tsunami, and now the nuclear power plant. His opening salvo was this: “Help us with this tragedy in Japan. Which of these is true: Either God is all-powerful but He doesn’t care about the people of Japan and therefore they are suffering or He does care about the people of Japan, but He’s not all-powerful. Which one of these is it?”

The one being interviewed struggled, as we might guess, to provide an answer that satisfied his interviewer. So the one conducting the interview put it to him once again: “So which of these is true? He is all-powerful and He doesn’t care? Or He cares and isn’t all powerful?”

One thing that is certain: we’re glad we weren’t the one being interviewed! But now, with the leisure of time and reflection, how should we respond to such reasoning?

The interviewer has stated the problem precisely as it is so often held before us. Is God all-powerful and can do something to stop or relieve this suffering, but has not (and thus must not be all-good)? Or is God all-good and thus wishes to do something to stop or relieve this suffering, but is impotent to enact His wishes?

This pits God’s goodness and God’s power over against one another: Which one has the greater claim upon God — His moral goodness or His mighty power?

But this, it seems to me, is misguided reasoning precisely because it is built on the premise that these two qualities (goodness and power) must be the two highest claims upon God and are therefore the determining factor in the matter of judging His response or seeming non-response to this (or any) tragedy.

It is correct to say that God’s love is an all-powerful love and His power is a all-loving power. Neither violates the other.

But, how can this be maintained when we look upon suffering?

The mists begin to clear when we realize that Christian theology makes neither God’s goodness nor His power the highest claimants upon His actions. Rather–if it is possible at all to speak of God having a most fundamental, core or supreme attribute–Christian theology holds that it is God’s holiness which defines all else we know about God.

Yes, God’s love is an all-powerful love. But this is not the most fundamental thing we can say about God’s love. No, the most fundamental thing we can say about God’s love is that it is a holy love. And, yes, God’s power is an all-loving power.  But this again is not the most fundamental thing we can say about God’s power. No, it is even more fundamental to say that God’s power is a holy power.

What, then, if we look upon this suffering (or any other example we may come upon) and instead of pitting God’ s love against God’s power and vice versa, we asked ourselves: Just what is a holy-love? And what is holy-power?

Holiness at its root means to be separate, to be set apart. God in every facet of His being is Holy. Utterly, awfully, terribly holy. He is “other” than, different from anyone or anything we can know. We cannot come at a right understanding of God in His holiness by means of comparison. He is simply other than, different from and beyond in nature and scope everything else we know. We do not learn what His love is like by looking at a human expression of love. This is to place the tape measure at the wrong end and measure in the wrong direction! This is to measure the Creator by the (now fallen) creation. No, we discern what is truly love here on earth by looking first upon His love. And that love is Holy . . . beyond, over, other than any other love we might see or know here. Thus there are dimensions and facets of love which we can never understand on this sin-cursed earth, through sin-clouded minds. As also there are dimensions of power for which we have no categories of understanding.

Where then might we look to see God’s Holy love and Holy power at work that we might set the end of our measure there and draw it out toward the tragic events of our earth? Just here: the cross. Here is HOLY LOVE! For God, looking upon a race which rebelled against and rejected His rule over them, now moved to redeem them by the sacrifice of His Son! There are simply no human categories by which to understand such a holy love (Rom. 5:6-8)! This is a love that did not take a vacation when God in His holy power judged sin. Rather it is a love that placed Him Son in the cross hairs of His holy, all-powerful judgment of that sin rather than pour it out upon us! What did God do in the face of a necessary tragedy, caused by our sin and rebellion? He entered that suffering, focusing it upon Himself and away from us. This is powerful Holiness–judging sin, the cause of all suffering. This holy love–embracing the judgment of His holiness and exhausting its penalty in Himself.

An answer to the age-old conundrum as articulated by this interviewer? The question is simply wrongly conceived from the beginning. For it is not love and power which most fundamentally define God. It is His holiness. What does holy love and holy power look like? Look at Jesus upon the cross.

There you find a God who does not run from tragedy, wishing He could do more. There you find not a God who does what He wishes, though with less than stellar motives. No, there you meet the God who in holy love removed the cause of the suffering by directing His own all-powerful, holy judgment against that sin now laid upon His own Son in our place.

Ponder. Repent. Live.

The Hope of the Gospel

“To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.  Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” (Colossians 1:27-28)

The hope of the Gospel might be summarized in these three statements:

  • Jesus lived to provide the righteousness you lack.

  • Jesus died to pay the penalty you incurred.

  • Jesus lives again to produce in and through you the life required of you.

The first two describe the truth of your being “in Christ.” The last sets forth the hope of “Christ in you.”

“To be in Christ—that is redemption; but for Christ to be in you—that is sanctification! To be in Christ—that makes you fit for heaven; but for Christ to be in you—that makes you fit for earth! To be in Christ—that changes your destination; but for Christ to be in you—that changes your destiny! The one makes heaven your home—the other makes this world His workshop.”  (Major W. Ian Thomas, The Saving Life of Christ, p.20)

Here is a more visually helpful picture in a pdf file: hope of the gospel

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