Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Master of Disguise? Become another Person

Today is day two of our seventeenth week, reading the Bible through in a year.  Our scriptures today are:  1 Sam 11-13; Acts 9; Psalm 38.

Today, I want to share with you a really stupid video clip.  The movie is cute, and hilarious because it's so stupid.  It's one of my kids' favorites.  In the 2002 movie, Master of Disguise, Dana Carvey plays a buffoon who learns to be a secret agent and, well, a master of disguise.  In the following scene, his character, Pistachio Disguisey, learns from his grandfather (played by Harold Gould) that it's not enough to dress like another person or look like another person--he must become another person.  Take a look:

Yes--perhaps Dana Carvey should apologize for his stereotyping.

In yesterday's reading,  Saul also learned to become another person.  In 1 Samuel 10:5-7 (ESV), the prophet Samuel tells the young man Saul:

After that you shall come to Gibeath-elohim, at the place where the Philistine garrison is; there, as you come to the town, you will meet a band of prophets coming down from the shrine with harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre playing in front of them; they will be in a prophetic frenzy. Then the spirit of the Lord will possess you, and you will be in a prophetic frenzy along with them and be turned into a different person. Now when these signs meet you, do whatever you see fit to do, for God is with you.

The Spirit of God so filled Saul that he not only behaved differently, but he was completely transformed.  In today's reading another Saul goes through a similar transformation:  Acts 9:1-22 (ESV) says:

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21 All who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?” 22 Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.

 23 After some time had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, 24 but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night so that they might kill him; 25 but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.

26 When he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus. 28 So he went in and out among them in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 He spoke and argued with the Hellenists; but they were attempting to kill him. 30 When the believers learned of it, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.
31 Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.

It took a long time for Saul to convince the believers that his conversion was genuine.  They were afraid that he was simply putting on an act, that he had become another "Master of Disguise," and that he hadn't really become another person.  Only time would tell whether he was genuine or not.  And the testimony of an encouraging friend who decided to take a risk on Saul's behalf.

Many who call themselves Christians are really just masters of disguise.  They know how to put on a costume, how to dress and how to look like believers--but in reality they haven't become another person.  Today, I want to ask you whether or not you have been totally transformed.  God doesn't want you to look like a Christian unless you are one.  It does no good to put on a Christian act.  You might fool people, but you won't fool God.  Like Saul--and like Saul--you've got to let a higher power take control.  And no, Pistachio, it's not called Energico.  It's called the Holy Spirit.

I hope you will begin your real transformation today, and that by God's power you will "become another person."


Monday, April 29, 2013

The Holy Spirit at Work

Good morning!  Today is the first day of our seventeenth week, reading the Bible through together in a year.  Our scriptures this week are:
  • 1 Samuel 9-10; Acts 8
  • 1 Sam 11-13; Acts 9; Psalm 38
  • 1 Sam 14; Acts 10; Psalm 124
  • 1 Sam 15-16; 1 Chr 1; Acts 11; Ps 39
  • 1 Sam 17; 1 Chr 2; Acts 12
Today, I want to look at the role that the Holy Spirit plays in choosing people for God's service.  Some churches elect their leaders, while others have them appointed by bishops or other supra-church authorities.  But we deceive ourselves if we forget that it is the Holy Spirit who really selects our leaders.  We see this in both our Old Testament and New Testament scriptures today.

In 1 Samuel, God's hand is at work, orchestrating every event that leads up to Saul's selection.  Who do you suppose it was who made the donkey go wandering, anyway?  Who put it into Saul's servant's head, to go to the seer to find guidance?  The events in chapter nine (ESV) are uncanny, leaving no room for doubt that God's hand is in it all:

15 Now the day before Saul came, the Lord had revealed to Samuel: 16 “Tomorrow about this time I will send to you a man from the land of Benjamin, and you shall anoint him to be prince over my people Israel. He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines. For I have seen my people, because their cry has come to me.” 17 When Samuel saw Saul, the Lord told him, “Here is the man of whom I spoke to you! He it is who shall restrain my people.” 18 Then Saul approached Samuel in the gate and said, “Tell me where is the house of the seer?” 19 Samuel answered Saul, “I am the seer. Go up before me to the high place, for today you shall eat with me, and in the morning I will let you go and will tell you all that is on your mind. 20 As for your donkeys that were lost three days ago, do not set your mind on them, for they have been found. And for whom is all that is desirable in Israel? Is it not for you and for all your father's house?” 21 Saul answered, “Am I not a Benjaminite, from the least of the tribes of Israel? And is not my clan the humblest of all the clans of the tribe of Benjamin? Why then have you spoken to me in this way?”
22 Then Samuel took Saul and his young man and brought them into the hall and gave them a place at the head of those who had been invited, who were about thirty persons. 23 And Samuel said to the cook, “Bring the portion I gave you, of which I said to you, ‘Put it aside.’” 24 So the cook took up the leg and what was on it and set them before Saul. And Samuel said, “See, what was kept is set before you. Eat, because it was kept for you until the hour appointed, that you might eat with the guests.”

Then, if Saul had any doubt about God selecting him, the Spirit confirmed it by filling him with prophetic ecstasy, just as Samuel predicted (10:1-13).

Finally, after Saul has been privately anointed as king, chapter ten has Saul selected once again--this time, by lot.  What are the odds that a selection by lot would reveal the same person that God had selected simply by revealing him to Samuel's heart?  That "chance" would point out the man whom God had already anointed?  Not very likely!

20 Then Samuel brought all the tribes of Israel near, and the tribe of Benjamin was taken by lot. 21 He brought the tribe of Benjamin near by its clans, and the clan of the Matrites was taken by lot; and Saul the son of Kish was taken by lot. But when they sought him, he could not be found. 22 So they inquired again of the Lord, “Is there a man still to come?” and the Lord said, “Behold, he has hidden himself among the baggage.” 23 Then they ran and took him from there. And when he stood among the people, he was taller than any of the people from his shoulders upward. 24 And Samuel said to all the people, “Do you see him whom the Lord has chosen? There is none like him among all the people.” And all the people shouted, “Long live the king!”

We see the Holy Spirit at work in the selection of the Ethiopian Eunuch as well.  In Acts 10 we find him:

 26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. 27 And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” 30 So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this:
Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
    and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,
    so he opens not his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
    Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”

34 And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. 36 And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” 38 And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. 39 And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

My intention here is not to go into an in-depth study on this fascinating account.  You can click here for that.  In his "God Triumphant: Reflections on the Church after Calvary," Donald X. Burt writes:

There is a tradition that this newly baptized man returned to his native Ethiopia and became a missionary for Christ there. Through his influence the first Ethiopian Christian community was created. (2) So powerful was the Spirit working in this Church that (after some centuries of dormancy) it was revived in the fourth century and was made the official religion of the country. It lasted as such for 1644 years up to the fall of the Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. 

So, God wasn't converting just anybody to Christ.  The Holy Spirit carefully orchestrated this meeting between Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch.  Not only did the Spirit tell Philip to go to the desert road--He also timed their journeys perfectly so that their paths would intersect.  The Spirit moved the Ethiopian to read the Scripture, and chose a passage for him to read that would cause questions to arise in his mind--all of this, just before he encountered Philip on the road.  The Spirit guided their conversation and led the Ethiopian to receive Jesus.  He even geographically placed their meeting in such a location that there was water nearby for baptism--in the middle of a desert!

While I believe in free will, it is always exciting to see that when we follow God's path, the choices that we make have the Holy Spirit guiding them.  In my transition from Antioch Baptist Church to Bethel Baptist Church, I can see "God-things" that have let me know that the time is right.  Events that are beyond coincidence have taken place to confirm these things in my mind.  Just as God led people throughout the Old and New Testaments, guiding events one step at a time until His perfect will became unquestionable, so I have seen uncanny and astonishing events taking place in my life that leave no room for doubt that I'm on the right path.

I pray that if you are earnestly seeking God's will in your own life, that the Holy Spirit will orchestrate situations so that there's not doubt in your mind what God wants you to do.  I pray that you'll go through life with your spiritual eyes and ears open, and that you'll be ready to step through the doors that the Lord opens for you.  I pray that you'll  see the hand of the Holy Spirit at work in your life today and every day.

Friday, April 26, 2013

What is an Ebenezer?

Today is the final day of our sixteenth week, reading the Bible through together in a year.  Our scriptures today are:  1 Sam 6-8; Acts 7.

This morning, I wanted to share with you a video of Mumford and Sons singing "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing."  Mumford and Sons is an up and coming indie group that's been around for a long time, but is just now  being discovered in the mainstream.  They're not specifically a Christian music group, but I've been amazed to find how many Christian songs they sing.  I was especially glad to find this video of them singing God's praise in a pub setting!  Way to go, Mumford and Sons!

There's one line that says:
Here I raise mine Ebenezer;
Hither by Thy help I'm come;
And I hope by thy good pleasure
Safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wand'ring from the fold of God;
He to rescue me from danger
Interposed His precious blood.

A lot of folks have wondered what this "Ebenezer" means in this song.  This morning in our readings, we come across the story of Ebenezer.  Before we get to that, though, I want to talk about Ebenezer Scrooge.

In Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge was a man who had wandered from God, and who had been brought back to God not because he was good, but because of a gracious gift he received at Christmas.  Every year when his story is told, Ebenezer Scrooge becomes a marker for people who have wandered.  His story reminds us that there is always room for repentance and change in our lives.

1 Samuel 7:12 says: Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, “Till now the Lord has helped us.”  

The word "Ebenezer" means "Stone of Help."  Samuel set it up as a memorial to all the Israelites, so that future generations could remember that God helps those who turn to Him.  

Israel had wandered from the fold of God.  Disobedience and idolatry had crowded out the true worship of God.  Verses 3-4 say:  And Samuel said to all the house of Israel, “If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your heart to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” So the people of Israel put away the Baals and the Ashtaroth, and they served the Lord only.  When the people were willing to return to God, then He was willing to show His pleasure toward them again.  Samuel set up the Ebenezer, or "Stone of Help" to remind them that God will always be there to help, as long as we turn to Him.

Today, I wonder--how have you been wandering from the fold of God?  Maybe you haven't been serving idols made of metal and stone.  But it could be that you have allowed other things to crowd God out of your life.  God's grace longs to bring you back to Him.  God raises Ebenezers in your life all the time, reminding you that you can always turn back to Him.  Pay attention to those reminders, and respond to God's invitation to return.

O to grace, how great a debtor
daily I'm constrained to be.
Let Thy grace, Lord, like a fetter
bind my wand'ring heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord I feel it.
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here's my heart, Lord, take and seal it.
Seal it for Thy courts above.

Text: Robert Robinson, 1735-1790 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Chosen to Lead--Chosen to Serve

Samuel tells Eli that God has spoken to him.
Today is day four of our sixteenth week, reading the Bible through together in a year.  Our scriptures today are:  1 Sam 3-5; Acts 6; Psalm 23.

The common thread between our 1 Samuel passage and our Acts passage is the theme of people being chosen to serve God.   Samuel is chosen directly by God to be a prophet.  Seven are chosen by God's people to be the first deacons.  It's important to know the similarities and differences between these two positions, and between these two processes of choosing.

Prophets aren't chosen by people--their chosen directly by God.  Often, as in Samuel's case, Old Testament prophets were called to be political as well as spiritual leaders (eg. Moses and Deborah, just to name a couple).  Prophets don't tend to be humble people.  Though they may be humble at the time of their calling, prophets readily develop quite a large sense of self.  They need such confidence in order to perform their task, which is declaring to (often obstinate) people a word-for-word message from the Lord.  Prophets can't shuffle their feet and look to the floor, saying, "I guess that maybe God has given me an impression that... (fill in the blank)."  Instead, they need to be able to stand boldly and say, "Thus saith the Lord!"

Deacons aren't chosen directly by God--they're chosen by God's people.  Their task is not to give verbatim messages from God to the people.  Their task is to serve--to do the "dirty work" of the church.  The word "deacon" literally means someone who goes "through the dust."  The image is of someone who's so busy serving that they're kicking up a cloud of dust behind them.  If deacons are leaders, then it's by the example of extreme servanthood that they demonstrate in their lives.  While God determines whom He will call as prophets, God's people need guidelines in order to discover those who are fit for the office of deacon.  Acts 6:3 (ESV) describes desirable deacons as people who are "of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom."  

1 Timothy 3 (NRSV) says:

Basin and towel: traditional symbols of deacon ministry
Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not indulging in much wine, not greedy for money; they must hold fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 And let them first be tested; then, if they prove themselves blameless, let them serve as deacons. 11 Women likewise must be serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things. 12 Let deacons be married only once, and let them manage their children and their households well; 13 for those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and great boldness in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.

Regardless of whether a person is called to be a leader or servant, one common thing unites them all:  Each one must say "yes" to God.  They must say, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening."  God has placed a call on everyone's life.  Has God called you as a servant?  Has He called you to be a leader.  There's a fine line between the two.  Matthew 20 says:

25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

In John 20, Jesus brought the disciples together for his last supper with them.  He wrapped a towel around Himself and washed their feet.  

12 When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

I pray that God will make you a leader in His church.  I pray that God will first make you a servant.  I pray that you will find God's will for your life, and that you'll be faithful to follow His leading.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Spirituality or Religion?

Today is day three of our sixteenth week, reading the Bible through together in a year.  Our scriptures today are:  1 Samuel 1-2; Acts 5; Psalm 120.

She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord
The common thread that I see that runs between the 1 Samuel passage and the Acts passage is this:  True believers have got to choose real spirituality over perceptions of religiosity.

In 1 Samuel, Hannah goes to pray in the house of God.  We don't have a vivid description of her demeanor when she prayed.  All we have is verse 10 (ESV), which says, "She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly."  Then verses 12-16 say:

12 As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard. Therefore Eli took her to be a drunken woman. 14 And Eli said to her, “How long will you go on being drunk? Put your wine away from you.” 15 But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman troubled in spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. 16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation.”

Whatever her demeanor was, it's clear that the priest, who observe people praying every day and who set an example for them by the way that he himself prayed, did not recognize what she was doing as prayer.  He thought she was drunk.  Ephesians 5:8 hints that being filled with the Spirit can be much like the stupor of alcohol--only it's God-centered instead of drink-centered.  "And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit."  To be drunk with wine is to be controlled by it.  To be controlled by the Spirit means that you are no longer controlled by social custom or decorum, but that God has His way with your soul.  Hannah didn't care that her expression of spirituality didn't mesh with the opinion of her religious leaders.  She simply followed God's Spirit as she poured her heart out to Him.

Likewise, the disciples chose to follow God rather than the commands of the sectarian authorities.  Acts 5:27-29 (ESV) says:

27 And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man's blood upon us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men."

As you move through your life of faith, undoubtably if you are following God then you'll have religious leaders telling you that you're doing it all wrong.   Most likely, they're well-meaning, and who knows--they just might be right!  But sometimes they're not right, and that's when you've got a choice to make.  Do you choose the spirituality that God has placed in your heart, or do you obey the institutions of human religion?  When religious leaders tell you to stop doing something that God has directed you to do, I hope that you'll listen to God.  It's only when we walk in obedience that the Lord's blessings will follow.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Is Jesus the Only Way to be Saved?

Today is day two of our sixteenth week, reading the Bible through together in a year.  Our scriptures today are:  Ruth 3-4; Acts 4; Psalm 37.

I'm surprised at how often Christians ask me, "Don't you think that there are people who aren't Christians, who will be in Heaven?  Don't you think that there are other ways to salvation, other than Jesus?"

The answer is really short.  No.

Acts 4:12 (ESV) says of Jesus, "And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men[c] by which we must be saved.”

That might sound awfully narrow-minded, but Jesus said, "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it (Matthew 7:13 ESV)."

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16 ESV)."

"For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23 ESV)."

In John 14:6 (ESV), Jesus says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
Frankly, I don't understand how a Christian can ask questions like this.  Not if they know their Bibles.  The problem is that Satan, also called "the god of this age... has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4 ESV)."  Personally, I wonder whether Christians who believe that there are many ways to God are believers at all--it certainly seems that their eyes have been blinded to the truth.  If Jesus isn't necessary for salvation, then He certainly went to a whole lot of suffering for nothing.  Because nothing that God does is purposeless, then Jesus' gift to us must have been necessary for our salvation.  

These are just a few scriptures that only scratch the surface.  I hope you'll do your own study and find that the exclusive way to God is through Jesus.  To miss this would be to miss the imperative of the gospel message.  Only by your relationship with Jesus can you inherit eternal life.

Monday, April 22, 2013

(((Drool))).........The Perfect Bible

Somebody recently asked me if I believe that the Bible is infallible.  I told him that I don't like that word, simply because it's been a fighting word for many years.  I prefer to use the word perfect.  And I gave him many scriptural reasons why I feel that way.  But there's another way to talk about the perfect Bible...meaning the print copy that works best for you.

I've searched high and low.  And out of all the print copies of the Bible available out there, I think I've found the perfect edition for me.  I don't think I've ever blogged about a specific Bible before...but there's a first time for everything.  I think this is just about the perfect Bible for preaching.

Hopefully, my next Bible is going to be this specific one.

This is the English Standard Version (my new favorite version), Cambridge Wide-Margin Reference Bible.  Click here for a review of the ESV itself, written by Rodney J. Decker.  It's an elegant translation that I have come to use most often.  The wide margins are perfect for preaching.  A few months ago, I totally transformed the way I preach, moving from twenty pages of PowerPoint notes to simply a few words jotted down in the margins of my Bible.  The difference has been dramatic, and totally liberating!  The problem is that the Bible I am using has margins that aren't quite big enough, and the type is too small.  What I've found is that not all wide-margin Bibles are created equal.  This one is the best!  I mean the best!  When preaching, you want to be able to glance quickly, not squint at the page.  With its extra-wide margins and readable font and type-face, this Cambridge Wide-Margin ESV Reference Bible would be perfect for preaching.  Plus, the cross-references down the center column make for engaging Bible study as you look up passages that have to do with the ones you're reading.

Click here to read J. Mark Bertrand's wonderful review of this Bible in his Bible Design Blog.  

You can click the links that follow for purchasing information.  This Bible comes in black goatskin leather, which retails for $194.68, and is out of almost anybody's price range.  But it also comes in brown bonded leather, which sells for $108.57 (still a bit pricey), but you can also get the black hardcover reference edition for $50.15.

Even if you're not a preacher, wide-margin Bibles are perfect for keeping your Bible study notes right beside the text that you're reading.  You'll be able to re-visit these notes and add to them for years and years!  A good study Bible with publisher's notes and commentaries is imperative for learning, but having a Bible where you can write your own notes is an invaluable tool.

Whether it's a special gift for me (hint, hint) or a quality purchase for yourself, I highly recommend the Cambridge ESV Wide-Margin Reference Bible.  It'll be the best Bible that you (or I) ever own!

Faith, Hope, and Charity

Today is the first day of our sixteenth week, reading the Bible through together in a year.  Our scriptures this week are:

  • Ruth 1-2; Acts 3;
  • Ruth 3-4; Acts 4; Psalm 37
  • 1 Samuel 1-2; Acts 5; Psalm 120
  • 1 Sam 3-5; Acts 6; Psalm 23
  • 1 Sam 6-8; Acts 7
Today in both our Old Testament and New Testament passages, we find the unifying theme of charity.  Boaz exercised charity in the hope that he might alleviate the suffering of Ruth and her mother.  Peter and John exercised charity, along with faith that Jesus could make the beggar rise and walk.  These two stories share the idea of helping those who are less fortunate, yet they take two different approaches to the assistance they give.

"Ruth Gleaning" by James J. Tissot
In the case of Ruth and Boaz, we find that the young woman is physically capable of working.  All that she lacks is employment.  Boaz is a wealthy man, and can afford the charity that he gives.  According to Hebrew law, farmers were told, "When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the LORD your God (Leviticus 23:22 NIV)."  As Boas follows this law, he actually goes above and beyond the mandate.  Ruth 2:15-16 (ESV) says, "When she rose to glean, Boaz instructed his young men, saying, “Let her glean even among the sheaves, and do not reproach her.  And also pull out some from the bundles for her and leave it for her to glean, and do not rebuke her.”

This story represents an ideal situation where charity is put into action.  The recipient of charity is able to  work.  Her work preserves her dignity and her integrity.  The giver of charity is able to employ the needy person.  It is so much better to give a hand up, rather than a handout.  But there are times when a person in dire straits is unable to assist themselves.  Then, charity must take a different approach.  Acts 3:1-7 (ESV) says:

Peter and John heal a beggar at the temple gate
Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. And a man lame from birth was being carried,whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple that is called the Beautiful Gate to ask alms of those entering the temple. Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked to receive alms. And Peter directed his gaze at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them.But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.

In this case, the beggar is incapable of working for the charity he receives.  His incapacity doesn't make him unworthy of assistance--if anything it make him more deserving of help.  Unfortunately, just as he is helpless to work, Peter and John, having no money, are helpless to give him any alms.  I imagine Peter saying at first,  "I have no silver and gold..." and then a long pause.  They think for a bit.  Maybe they reach deeper into their pockets just to make sure.  And then it hits them--a prompting of the Spirit.  Finally, Peter says, "But what I have I give to you."  God doesn't expect His people to give what they do not have.  But He demands that we share what we do have.  In the absence of money, they realize that they have something better.  "In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!"  And the man leaps to his feet, never to beg again.

As you read both the larger Old Testament story and the larger New Testament story, you find that neither Ruth nor the lame beggar remain in their position as charity cases.  Both are elevated beyond the status of permanent poverty.  This is God's goal for benevolence.  Those who can work, should.  Those who can give their money, should.  Those who can't work, aren't expected to.  Those who can't provide financially, should find a way to provide in other ways.  One way or another, it is God's great desire to alleviate suffering.  He has placed a heart of compassion in you, to be able to help those in need.  

The apostle Paul writes:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.  And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing...And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:1-3, 13 NKJV).

The King James Version translates the word "love" as "charity."  The Greek word, agape, means love without condition.  But how often is the charity that we practice clothed in one condition or another!  Boaz doesn't tell Ruth, "You may glean in my fields if you fill out this application and let me do a home inspection." Peter doesn't tell the beggar, "Let me inspect your finances and then I'll see what I can do."  Instead, their charity is given out of a sense of unconditional love.  Love that is patient and is kind.  Love that does not envy, does not boast, is not proud.  Love that does not dishonor others, is not self-seeking, is not easily angered, and keeps no record of wrongs.  Love that does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth.  Love that always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love that never fails (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a).

I hope that the charity that you give, and that your church gives, is based not in a sense of obligation or of self-exaltation.  I hope that your charity is based first and only in unconditional love.  And I hope that you give more than silver and gold.  I hope that you give the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, which helps all who are in need to rise up and walk.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Church's Job Description

Today is the final day of week fifteen, reading the Bible through together in a year.  Our scriptures today are:
Judges 19-21; Acts 2.

Right now, I find myself in a time of transition, in which I'm thinking a lot about job descriptions.  For those who don't yet know, I have accepted a call to serve as pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Scottsburg, Virginia.  Along with Beth and our kids, I will be leaving behind many dear friends and family in Fluvanna County, where I have served as pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Scottsville for seven years.  So as I think about my transition, my mind has been on job descriptions--what I need to do, and what I need to do differently.

Churches, as well as pastors, need to think about their job descriptions.  We can get really busy doing a lot of "good" things that sidetrack us from doing the most important things.  Don't get me wrong--churches need to have committees, boards, programs, projects, and emphases.  But what does the Bible say that churches really need to be about?  In 2013, I gave Acts 2:42 (ESV) to Antioch as a "Gold Nugget" verse.  This is a verse that will hopefully guide God's people throughout the year, helping to focus on what we really need to be about in the Kingdom.  Here's the longer passage below:

Are you devoted to teaching, fellowship, worship, & prayer?
42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day,attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

Let's take a look at these things in detail.

They devoted themselves...  This means that they were absolutely dedicated to what was going on at church.  It doesn't mean that they attended when they had nothing better to do.  It means they were totally committed to what God was doing in the body of Christ.  How's your level of commitment been lately?

The apostles' teaching...  Maybe your church doesn't have any living apostles, but certainly you have gifted teachers and preachers who have a lot to share.  They probably put a lot of work into the lessons that they teach.  Have you been availing yourself of their wisdom?  Have you been supporting them by attending Sunday school, worship, and other Bible studies?

Fellowship...  People who attend church only on Sunday mornings often miss out on the great fellowship that takes place when God's people get together simply to enjoy one another's company.  I hope you not only participate in the ritual exercises of your church, but that you are actually friends with the people that you call your "church family."  Close relationships strengthen believers and lay the foundation for real discipleship.

The Breaking of Bread...  In the early church, Communion was shared every Sunday at a weekly Agape (love) Feast.  This was part of worship.  So when the book of Acts refers to the breaking of bread, that's not just a redundant way of saying "fellowship" (even though some denominations would define "fellowship" as "eating together").  Instead, the breaking of bread is a synonym for worship.  God's people should be worshiping people.  Every church has some people who will attend Sunday school and not worship, and others who attend worship but not Sunday school.  Both are essential, if you want to be a well-rounded believer.  The natural response that the Christian should have to God's goodness is to praise and worship Him in the assembly of the saints.

Prayer...  It's been said that "the family that prays together stays together."  That's true of church families as well.  Bearing one another's burdens through prayer strengthens the bond that God's family has for one another.  It also makes a powerful difference, because prayer accomplishes things.  James 5:17 (ESV) says, "The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working."  

A lot of churches go through long, intensive periods of introspection and self-evaluation.  They strategize for growth and formulate statements of their goals, missions, and visions.  I'm not saying that these things are bad.  They can be an effective way of getting your head around why your church exists.  But when you boil down the results of such planning, I hope you'll find Acts 2:42 at the root.  And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  This is the church's job description.  

You may say, "Wait a minute...I don't see evangelism in that job description anywhere."  You're right.  That's because evangelism goes without saying.  It's the natural overflow of a spirit-led body of believers who are growing in the faith through godly teaching, prayer, worship, and fellowship.  Well-grounded Christians will hardly need to strategize their evangelistic efforts--they'll just happen.  Verses 43 and following are the result of what happens when believers follow verse 42.

  • People will have a sense of awe about what God is doing.
  • God will do signs and wonders through the leaders, among the believers.
  • Benevolent needs will be taken care of.
  • Relationships will grow.
  • The unsaved will be converted, and the saved will continue to be transformed.
As I'm thinking about the transition that I'm about to make, I've been pondering a pastor's job description.  I hope that your church, and you as a believer, will give thought to your church's job description.  The pastor can't do it alone.  He can't transform your church into the on-fire body of believers that God wants them to be.  Pastors can only lead as far as the people will follow.  The rest is up to you.  Will you be the kind of church member--the kind of Christian--who follows the job description given to you by our Lord in His Word?

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Forcing God's Will

Today is day four of our fifteenth week, reading the Bible through together in a year.  Our scriptures today are:  Judges 17-18; Acts 1; Psalm 21.

Today, I want to talk about how easy it is for Christians to try to force God's will--or, rather to force their will on God and make it look like it was God's will.  When we want what we want, then we want God to want it too.  And we can go to some real extremes to make our will look like God had planned it all along.  One example of believers doing this is found in Acts 1.  Here the disciples, led by Peter, make a rash decision.  Interpreting the scriptures quite strangely, they decide that it's their job to fulfill prophecy and select a replacement for Judas.  The scriptures that they select seem almost arbitrarily pulled out of context and given new meaning, in order to make them fit Judas' situation.  Take a look at Psalm 69:25 and the surrounding verses, and also at Psalm 109:8 and its context, and see what I mean.

Here's the account of what happened in Acts:

15 In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, 16 “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. 17 For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” 18 (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong[d] he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. 19 And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 20 “For it is written in the Book of Psalms,
“‘May his camp become desolate,
    and let there be no one to dwell in it’;
“‘Let another take his office.’
21 So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” 23 And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus, andMatthias. 24 And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen 25 to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” 26 And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.
First of all, it's not our job to decide to fulfill prophecy.  When God wants to fulfill prophecy through us, He does it, generally without our knowledge.  It just sort of happens, and then people say, "Wow--that fulfilled prophecy!"  But to contrive a situation in order to fulfill prophecy looks a bit squicky to me.  (The exception to this is when Jesus does it.  He's God, so He gets to fulfill His own Word all He wants.)
Next, this all seems to have been done without the benefit of the Holy Spirit.  Remember, Pentecost hadn't come yet.  They had been told to wait for the promised Spirit, yet in their impetuous desire to get stuff done, they decided to force God's will.  Notice the method they used for determining God's will--casting lots--didn't involve real seeking but simply involved chance.  Old Testament people cast lots to determine God's will, because they didn't have the Holy Spirit, but you never see that practice after the Spirit is given to the church.  Why?  Because God's Spirit-filled people have a better way.
Finally, it seems that if Judas' position was truly meant to be filled by someone (I'm not convinced that there MUST be 12 apostles anyway) then it was meant to be filled by Paul.  Consider that once they selected Matthias, you never hear from him again.  He seems to have been a pretty ineffectual apostle.  But Paul, on the other hand, was used mightily by God.  And Paul struggled his whole ministry to be recognized as an apostle.  That's why he asserted his own apostleship in almost everything he wrote.  
Today, I invite you to ask yourself, in what areas of my life am I trying to force God's will?  How have I decided what God must want, simply because it's what I want?
The Christian life is about us following Christ, not about Christ following us.  I pray that you, being led by the Spirit, will seek and follow the will of God in all things, and that you will unselfishly find yourself at the center of God's will, however and wherever He calls you.