An article from Christinity Today

An excerpt from this article in Christianity Today: (Via youarethechrist.blogspot.com)

What makes the pastor’s job even more spiritually vulnerable is the expectation that he also be the cathartic head of the church—someone with whom members can identify and live through vicariously. Someone who articulates their fears and hopes, someone to whom they can relate—at a distance. This is key, because the pastor has time to relate to very, very few members. Thus it is all the more important that he be able to communicate in public settings the personable, humble, vulnerable, and likable human being he is.

Thus, preaching in the modern church has devolved into the pastor telling stories from his own life. The sermon is still grounded in some biblical text, and there is an attempt to articulate what that text means today. But more and more, pastors begin their sermons and illustrate their points repeatedly from their own lives. Next time you listen to your pastor, count the number of illustrations that come from his life, and you’ll see what I mean. The idea is to show how this biblical truth meets daily life, and that the pastor has a daily life. All well and good. But when personal illustrations become as ubiquitous as they have, and when they are crafted with pathos and humor as they so often are, they naturally become the emotional cornerstone of the sermon. The pastor’s life, and not the biblical teaching, is what becomes memorable week after week.

Again, this is not because the pastor is egotistical. It’s because, again, we demand this of our preachers. Preachers who don’t reveal their personal lives are considered, well, impersonal and aloof. Share a couple of cute stories about your family, or a time in college when you acted less than Christian, and people will come up to you weeks and months later to thank you for your “wonderful, vulnerable sermons.” Preachers are not dummies, and they want approval like everyone else. You soon learn that if you want those affirmative comments—and if you want people to listen to you!—you need to include a few personal and, if possible, humorous stories in your sermon.

The inadvertent effect of all this is that most pastors have become heads of personality cults. Churches become identified more with the pastor—this is Such-and-Such’s church—than with anything larger. When that pastor leaves, or is forced to leave, it’s devastating. It feels a like a divorce, or a death in the family, so symbiotic is today’s relationship between pastor and people.

I guess many pastors might genuinely benefit from a reminder that the Bible is his (and the church’s) primary authority, and that its chief message concerns Jesus Christ and his gospel. But I don’t necessarily read this excerpt as a scathing criticism of modern pastors. Maybe there is some (justified?) criticism in there, but I think this excerpt is a helpful reminder of the challenges most pastors face, and the pressure they’re often under to be what people want (demand?) them to be. The pastor’s life is not an easy one. I’d do well to remember that sometimes.

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Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith

Tim Keller on Christian obedience and on Jesus as the author and finisher (NIV perfecter) of our faith:

Hebrews 12:1-3

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

If that text had said “Jesus is the pioneer of our race” — if he was our example — he went first and now you follow him … In other words he ran the race of commandments first. He came to earth and he lived lived an obedient life as our example. He went first, now you follow him. That wouldn’t be very exciting to me. I would say I’ll never keep up with Jesus, I’ll never run like he did. He didn’t knock over any of the hurdles etc …

But it doesn’t say that, it says he is the pioneer and finisher of the faith. Jesus Christ was obedient. Jesus Christ came to earth. He humbled himself. Philippians 2 says he became obedient even unto death — on a cross.

But why did he die? Why did he obey? Why did he say “not my will but thine be done”?

Why did he follow the thread? Why did he accept the authority of the Bible? Why did he obey perfectly? Why did he accept the adventure? Why?

Not just as our example. As our substitute. He didn’t just run the race as our example. He ran the race for us. He obeyed for us. He satisfied … The gospel is not that we give God this great performance and then God blesses us, but that in Jesus Christ God gives us a perfect record which we receive by faith and then we bless him.

And what this means is there’s no way running the race, and there’s no way obeying the commands will be a delight and will be a love relationship if you don’t believe you’re already accepted. You can’t be condemned. You can’t flub up. I mean running the race would just be … you’d always be afraid — “what if I don’t do it well enough.” Unless you accept that the race is already finished for you. Unless you accept the finisher of the race. Unless you read verse 32 of Psalm 119 in light of Hebrews 12:1,2 and 3, your obedience won’t be a love letter. It won’t be an experience of love. It will be a grind. That’s the reason why that little hymn goes like this:

To see the law by Christ fulfilled
And hear His pardoning voice,
Changes a slave into a child,
And duty into choice.

Accept the finisher — you’ll be able to accept all the rest.

On Seeking the Will of God

We heard Charles Price preach this morning and something he said struck me. He was talking about deciphering God’s will — how do you know you’re in the will of God as you make a decision in life?

He said something like this:

“It’s like driving. You don’t leave your driveway and say to yourself, “Right, where’s the green light?” No, you keep going in the direction that is natural to you until you get to a red light, at which point you heed the light and you stop.”

So the way it often works is that you keep going until you hear his voice in some way (and as we go on in life we learn to recognize this) or we lose the peace we had before, or are confident God is speaking some other way. Perhaps this means going forward prayerfully with what you feel is the right way until it becomes clear to you that you need to stop, or turn left or right (or even do a u-turn!)

What we don’t do is sit still, paralyzed with fear, waiting for a green light.

Another point Price made was to say that some people ask him whether their desires are their own, or God’s. He says he sometimes responds by saying “Have you ever considered that your desires might be yours and God’s? Have you ever considered that because you delight in God he has given you desires that are in accordance with his will, and that he will give you what you desire?”

No doubt this is a possibility sometimes. The priority though, is to delight in the Lord first.

Psalm 37:4

Delight yourself in the LORD,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Our focus then, as we go through life, is not centered on the massive pressure of making the right decisions in every instance. Rather we see and delight in the Lord who knit us together in the womb, who knows how many hairs are on each of our heads, who knows the thoughts of our hearts, and who has brought us into intimate relationship with himself through the cross. As we receive him and walk with him he does his work in our hearts and makes us the people he created and redeemed us to be.

So it seems the starting point when making any decision is the cross, and the heart-delighting Christ who loved us and died for us, not because we are inherently loveable, but because he is just that type of God. What an unspeakable privilege it is to know a God like this, and to know that we are his and that he is ours.

The Challenge of a Preaching Pastor

I saw this on Christ the Truth blog yesterday. This looks at some of the challenges modern day pastors are faced with, and the decisions that they must make with regard to their priorities in ministry.

Preaching, says Brueggemann, is a bigger priority than many additional roles the main preaching pastor might also be given such as social worker or budget manager.

I think preachers have to decide what the main tasks are and practice enormous self discipline about not being drawn away to do other things that do not properly belong to the ministry of word and sacrament.

— Walter Brueggemann

Understanding God’s Sovereignty and Human Responsibility

Two propositions from Don Carson taken from his talk entitled How Could God Allow Suffering?

Proposition 1:

God is absolutely sovereign, but his sovereignty never mitigates human responsibility.

Proposition 2:

According to the Bible human beings are morally responsible creatures. By that I mean we believe and disbelieve, we obey and disobey, we choose and so on, and we are held accountable for all of these things … But all such moral accountability, all such moral responsibility, never makes God absolutely contingent. That is it never relegates God to the place where he is merely a reactor. Now the Bible holds that those two things, those two propositions, are simultaneously true again and again and again …

… The Bible does not explain the mystery of providence — it doesn’t — there are huge questions about how God’s sovereignty works with human will, and the relationship between time and eternity …

… But at the end of the day what the Bible does do is insist that those two propositions I gave you stand at the very heart of any faithful Christian understanding of the mystery of providence. God is sovereign. But his sovereignty doesn’t mitigate human responsibility. We human beings are morally responsible creatures but that doesn’t mean that God is contingent.

And we live with those tensions and all the mysteries about how God in his eternity relates to us in our time. We live with those tensions until the very end.”

Scripture of the day: Isaiah 50:7-9

I read this the other day. No doubt these are the words of Christ himself as well as Isaiah, but are they not also our words now that our accuser has been silenced by Jesus’ work on the cross?

Sometimes the great accuser confronts the believer with his or her sin. Satan’s arguments are forceful and convincing. They can throw you into despondency, depression, self-condemnation, spiritual apathy, faithlessness, prayerlessness.

But God’s word speaks into such situations. Remember that the accuser cannot now accuse those who are in Christ. And remember that He who vindicates you is near.

7But the Lord GOD helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
(R) therefore I have set my face like a flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame.

8(S) He who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who is my adversary?
Let him come near to me.
9(T) Behold, the Lord GOD helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
Behold, all of them will wear out like a garment;
the moth will eat them up.

Satan’s sphere is now restricted, and his time is short, Part 2 of 2

This is a continuation of the last blog post. I’ll say now, if you haven’t already bought a copy of Don Carson’s book Scandalous, then you need to. 🙂

A few verses to start with:

Revelation 12:7-9

And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

Luke 10:18

I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.

In Revelation 12:7-9 we hear about this ancient battle involving Satan and Michael and other angels (Michael shows up in Daniel 10 of course — are these two passages related in some way?) In Luke 10 Jesus describes the manner in which he has seen Satan cast out of heaven.

Interestingly Don Carson draws a parallel between Revelation 12:7-9 and Luke 10:18. Here’s what he says:

With the onset of Messianic ministry, Satan is banished from heaven. When Jesus says this during his ministry, he does so in connection with the preaching and displays of power of the gospel itself as it is promulgated through his own appointed disciples–all of this in anticipation of the cross and resurrection that are just around the corner. “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” So also hear “The great dragon was hurled down–that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray (Rev. 12:9). The decisive turning point has taken place; he is defeated in principle. That happened at the cross, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus, at the dawning of the kingdom of God.

This is a major theme in scripture. In Job, for instance, Satan appears in the presence of God along with “the sons of God”–other angelic beings. It is almost as if Satan has access to God at that point precisely because the redeeming work of Christ is not yet done. Satan is “the accuser of our brothers” (12:10) …

But now Satan is cast out of heaven. The accuser of the brothers and sisters is gone. Why? There has been war in heaven, and he has been cast out. The reason he has been cast out is the triumph of Christ. Satan has no basis for such accusation anymore. Why? Because a redeemer has arisen.

So we see that Satan’s situation has fundamentally changed since the cross, resurrection, and ascension. We understand how complete Christ’s victory is, and what a brutal, total defeat has been inflicted on Satan. He has no access to Christ and cannot contend with him. And he no longer has access to God as our accuser. This gives us some insight as to what lies behind the rage of the red dragon in Revelation 12.

Satan is furious, and he is attacking the church with astounding ferocity. However, he is doing this, not because he thinks he can gain the victory, but because his sphere is now restricted, and he knows his time is short. (Rev. 12:12).

This is reason to rejoice in Christ. Satan is ultimately defeated. But it is also a reminder not stray from the refuge of Christ, and not to be complacent (as is my tendency).

Ephesians 6:10-18a:

10Finally,be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 12For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. 14Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. 16In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; 17and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, 18praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.

Satan’s sphere is now restricted, and his time is short, Part 1 of 2

More from Don Carson’s book Scandalous.

In Revelation 12 there is a pregnant woman (the messianic people from whom the Christ came) and a red dragon (Satan). The woman gives birth to a male child and the red dragon is determined to snatch away and eat this male child. He does not succeed in doing this because the woman’s son is “snatched up to God and to his throne”. So the dragon then turns his full attention to the woman in an attempt to destroy her.

This, says Carson, is a depiction of Satan’s rage against God’s people. The Son born of the woman has been taken up to God and reigns from his throne so he is now far beyond the dragon’s reach. The woman though has now become the sole focus of the dragon’s rage.

Here is what Carson says:

Once Satan has been hurled to the earth (v.9), John “heard a loud voice in heaven say: ‘Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ’” (v. 10a). The kingdom has dawned. It is here. It is not yet consummated, but it is now come. It has started. One of the ways in which this has been demonstrated is that Satan himself has been decisively defeated. Or in terms of the symbolism of 12:7-9, Satan has been cast out of heaven. He has no standing before God whatsoever. He cannot bring accusations against the brothers anymore, “for the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down” (v. 10b). Satan, though doubtless he has been operating on earth since the beginning of the creation, is now restricted to the earth and has lost his access to God that enabled him to accuse us before God so directly.

So Satan turns all his rage and vengeance upon the woman (i.e., upon us, the messianic community): “When the dragon saw that he had been hurled to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child” (v. 13). It is precisely the Devil’s restriction in authority that is the fundamental reason here for his rage in this restricted sphere. Satan is not only wicked; he is frustrated, angry, and vituperative. “He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short” (v. 12). Satan is full of rage not because he is so spectacularly strong, but because he knows that he is defeated, his end is in sight, the range of his operations is curtailed — and he is furious. He knows that in principle he is already undone.

Carson goes on to give examples from the first Gulf War and the Second World War, showing how Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler both reacted to their imminent defeat (they were both facing impossible odds) by causing as much destruction as possible. Hussein set hundreds of oil wells alight and sent many of his troops to die and be taken prisoner in vain. Hitler, in his fury at his impending demise, sent thousands of his troops to fight the Russians on the Eastern front. The fighting that ensued was some of the bloodiest of the whole war, yet there was no way it could have led to victory for Hitler. Like Hussein, he was a dictator in decline. and he was furious.

This is how Carson explains Satan’s current position, and his ongoing destructive rampage against the church.

And he suggests that it’s in this context that we’re to see the suffering, the division, and persecution the church is facing, and has faced for the past 150 years. The causes are not primarily political, or social, or cultural, or psychological. They are primarily spiritual.