Scribal Homilies from First Timothy: Loving Doctrine

As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work—which is by faith. The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have departed from these and have turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm. 1 Timothy 1:3-7 NIV

~

I once knew a man who didn’t think doctrine mattered, in fact, he believed it was harmful. I remember how he tried to warn me away from studying theology. I was honestly really disappointed by his attitude because he was someone I respected for his enthusiasm and love for the Lord, and because I had just discovered the world of theology and I was smitten. Needless to say, one degree in theology later and another under way, I didn’t heed his advice.

Since then, the closest thinking I’ve came across similar to this view (and its quite far away from it) was from someone who thought the Bible and academia went together like pickles and ice cream, ironically he was himself working towards a Bachelors Degree in Theology.

Saint_TimothyTo be fair to this position, the people who think in these (and usually less extreme) ways prioritise a vibrant, experiential relationship with God which they tend to see as in some ways at odds with serious thinking about who God is. This concern is one I sympathise with because I know I’m prone to equating knowledge about God with loving God (which should be, but often isn’t, the case). And I know, from personal experience, that “knowledge puffs up” (1 Corinthians 8:1 NIV).

At the other end of the spectrum, there are people who know a lot about the Bible and theology (or think they do, cf. 1 Corinthians 8:2) but, to be honest, they’re kind of jerks or just unpleasant to be around (again, speaking from personal experience!) because all that knowledge has filled their brains but it has yet to filter down deep into their hearts. They’ve forgotten, or simply not yet realised, that is isn’t those who know a lot about God who are known by God but, rather, it is those who love God who are, in fact, the ones known by God (1 Corinthians 8:3).

Again, to be fair, the more theologically minded among us, those of us with our bookshelves filled with myriads of books (or our friends, as they’re affectionately called – in private), we’re not against experiencing God in deeply emotional ways (generally) but we are aware of historical excesses that have resulted from a lack of understanding concerning Scripture and God’s usual means of operating in our lives: through the mundane regular reading of Scripture, prayer, church attendance and Christian friendship, etc. Or we are slightly more reserved in our personalities, perhaps preferring longer periods of solitude for reflection and discussions with a few similarly inclined friends to rambunctious worship services and raucous get-togethers with large groups of people. Even though knowledge has the danger of inflating our egos we also believe with Paul that we are “transformed by the renewing of [our] minds” (Romans 12:2 NIV).

However, what both groups need to keep in mind is that we don’t have to choose either/or but instead learn to grow in appreciation and practice of both approaches to living as Christians because God is just as concerned about us knowing the truth about him as he is about us loving him from the depth of our hearts. We all fall somewhere along that spectrum between knowledge and experience, but by God’s grace to us through Jesus we can grow in both of these areas because God has given us a brain and a heart (literally and metaphorically). Like the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman in L.F. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz we tend to be in need of one more than the other because God has given us each different strengths and allowed us to experience different weaknesses so his strength could be manifest in our lives as he “[transforms us] into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18 NIV).

It is this concern, the wedding together of love and theology, knowledge about God and experience of God, which the Apostle Paul addresses at the beginning of his letter to Timothy because loving doctrine should be loving doctrine. Thinking correctly about who God is should cause us to develop deep affection for God and others which in turn should find expression in concrete, real life ways.

In Ephesus, where Timothy was ministering, false teachers had infiltrated the church and their false teaching, their bad doctrine, was infecting the congregation with the result that people stopped acting in love towards one another and instead got bogged down in controversial speculation and meaningless talk because they became concerned about myths and genealogies instead of God’s act of sacrificial love in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

When the gospel is displaced in our lives we too become easily distracted by all sorts of things,

“Who were the sons of God in Genesis 6:1-4?”

“How old is the earth?”

“When will Jesus return?”

And other questions we simply don’t know the answer to because God hasn’t told us. Moreover, we can get tangled up in all kinds of false teaching such as denying that on the cross Jesus bore God’s wrath in our place, or believing that somehow we can merit favour with God by our good works.

When we lose focus on the centrality of the gospel as the foundation of our doctrine and how we live, falling into false teaching or simply becoming unceasingly distracted by peripheral questions (which have no answers), we are no longer able to fulfil God’s command to love from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith because we will no longer be incarnating the sacrificial love of God in our lives.

We lose focus on the centrality of the gospel when we fail to understand the doctrines taught in Scripture, thereby making us susceptible to every kind of false teaching. However, we also lose focus on the centrality of the gospel when we get caught up in simply accumulating knowledge but never taking the time to pray that knowledge deep into our hearts.

We each have our own proclivities, whether that be not wanting to take the time to learn what God has revealed about himself in Scripture or being satisfied with simply having learned what God has revealed about himself in Scripture but neglecting to allow all that knowledge to transform our hearts so we really, experientially, love God and others. The good news is that God doesn’t want to leave us as we are, he wants to make us whole, he wants to make us complete, he wants to join together our knowledge of him with a deep, heartfelt love for him and others.

To do this he has given us the Holy Spirit to convict us of our sins, reveal our weaknesses, and empower repentance and change. He has also given us one another, with our various strengths and weaknesses, to be instruments of the Holy Spirit in one another’s lives as we challenge and love another. If we want to become whole people, who know who God is and love him, then we need one another: to see our weaknesses in light of the strengths of others and to have those same weaknesses bolsters by those very same strengths as we serve one another has God has so gifted us.

So where do your strengths and weaknesses lie?

How can you serve others using the strengths and gifts God has given you?

In what ways can you use your weaknesses as an opportunity to grow in Christ and be served by the strengths of others?

Advertisements

The Primacy of Preaching

There I was again ready to read through 1 Corinthians 12-14.

Before I began I felt somewhat agitated – sure chapter 13 is a great chapter on love, but this stuff about spiritual gifts, order in the church and the enormous debate concerning cessationism always makes this section of Scripture seem complicated and difficult to understand.

As I read through these chapters though, I was struck in chapter 14 at the weight that Paul puts on prophecy over and against speaking in a tongue. This chapter struck me with a new clarity that I had not picked up on before.

Image by Mars Hill Church
Image by Mars Hill Church

In this I saw Paul speaking about the primacy of preaching.

I do not want to enter into the cessation/continuation debate here. I understand prophecy here to be a message delivered in the local language, which is clearly understandable to the congregation. Additionally, it seems there is a strong case for this being a forth-telling as opposed to a fore-telling (Check out the ESV Study Bible notes on this passage and 1 Cor. 12:10).

What does Paul say?

Paul begins by encouraging the Christians at Corinth to earnestly desire spiritual gifts, especially prophesy (v1). The reason for this is prophesying builds up the church, encourages those gathered and offers consolation to those who need it (v3-4). Hence, it is to be desired above a tongue (v5).

Paul proceeds to argue, with a list of illustrations, that prophesying is of greater benefit than speaking in a tongue (v6; v7-11 for illustrations). So much so that Paul would rather speak five words that could be understood by the Corinthian Christians than 10,000 words in a tongue (v19).

As the chapter begins to close Paul offers one final argument for the primacy of preaching – the conversion of unbelievers. Paul assures the congregation that if an unbeliever were to enter a meeting and hear prophecy they would be convicted, called to account, fall on their face and worship God (v24-25).

Paul says ‘earnestly desire to prophesy’ (v39).

Let’s return to the beginning of chapter 14 now and consider the limitations that Paul mentions concerning speaking in a tongue.

Paul begins by warning that speaking in a tongue only communicates with God, not men (v2). Immediately this identifies limits to its use – most prominent, in a congregational setting, is that speaking in a tongue only builds up an individual (v4). Therefore, prophecy is greater than a tongue (v5).

Subsequently, Paul asserts that there is little benefit to speaking in a tongue in a congregational setting (v6). In fact, he goes as far as to say that a tongue is unintelligible – it cannot be understood (v9). Furthermore, Paul then states that praying in a tongue is unfruitful for the mind (v14).

As the chapter heads toward a conclusion Paul then draws the distinction between prophecy and a tongue. While prophecy may call an unbeliever to salvation, a tongue will only encourage them to think that believers are out of their minds (v23).

Paul clearly puts speaking in a tongue in a secondary position in this chapter.

Whether or not you hold that sign gifts have ceased or continue to this day – the implication from this chapter is the same: There is a primacy for a message delivered in the local language in an intelligible way.

In other words, there is a primacy in preaching.

While much, much more could be said on this topic I have cut this post short to encourage you to take 5 minutes to now read 1 Corinthians 14 and see this for yourself – don’t just take my word for it.

If you have longer than 5 minutes I would encourage you to read the whole section, 1 Corinthians 12-14.

Evidences of Grace (Acts 11:19-30) by Paul Ritchie

I was talking to a parent recently who told me that his daughter was showing evidence of grace.  It seemed to him that her faith seemed really to be making a difference in her life.  There seemed to be signs that her Christianity is real.

sherlockOne of the weaknesses of evangelicalism is that we put more emphasis on the moment of conversion than we do on the evidence of having being converted.  Christianity is not simply about making a decision or praying ‘the sinner’s prayer.’  Becoming a Christian must demonstrate itself in a changed life.  That is because becoming a Christian is about God giving us the gift of repentance (a change of mind) accompanied by the gift of the Holy Spirit (who enables a change of heart and life).

When I was a student in Dublin I read a book entitled Transforming Grace. God’s kindness and favour changes the lives of his people.  In our passage Barnabas could see that Gentiles (non Jews) in Antioch had been truly converted because there was evidence of grace.  God had enabled them to turn away from their former way of living and enjoy new life in Christ.  In fact this whole passage is filled with evidences of grace.

1.  Grace makes evangelists (19-21)

The opening words of our passage bring us back to chapter eight.  There, after Stephen had been stoned to death, all but the apostles were scattered from Jerusalem.  These ordinary Christians shared the good news about Jesus wherever they went.  Most of these new Christians spoke only to their fellow Jews.  But some men, from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch (a large cosmopolitan city in what is now Turkey) and evangelised Gentiles.

Antioch was known as a morally lax city.  Five miles south of the city was a shrine to Daphne, where ritual prostitution took place.  There were many religious cults in the city promising salvation and immortality.  But the men from Cyrus and Cyrene looked upon these people with pity.  Their heart went out to lost people who were stumbling in the dark.  Compelled by love they pointed people to Jesus as the one who offers forgiveness, hope and an eternal rest.

Grace makes people evangelists.  Grace makes people want to share the good news with others.  Grace makes us evangelists.  God blessed these men’s efforts by using their witness to bring many people to himself

2.  Barnabas – an example of grace (22-26)

The church in Jerusalem shouldn’t have been surprised to see Gentiles come to faith.  Didn’t they recall that God had brought revival to the Gentile city of Nineveh in the time of Jonah?  Yes, Jesus had focused his mission on the Jews but that was only to be the starting point.  Indeed, we can see Jesus witness to a Samaritan woman and commend the faith of a Centurion.  In this book of Acts the gospel has already being pushing boundaries, with the conversions of the Ethiopian Eunuch and the Roman centurion Cornelius.

The leaders in Jerusalem commissioned Barnabas to go and investigate what was going on in Antioch.  Barnabas was originally a Jew from Cyprus, like some of those who had evangelised the Greeks of Antioch.  They choose a good man for the job.  He had been nicknamed ‘son of encouragement.’  Remember how Barnabas had stood up for the newly converted Saul when many were sceptical about the reality of his conversion.

When Barnabas arrives in Antioch he sees evidence of grace.  God had truly done a work in the lives of many Gentiles.  He was overjoyed.  Biblical encouragers are easily gladdened.  Joy is a part of the fruit of the Spirit, we rejoice in who God is and what he is donning in the world. Encouragers are not sceptical and cynical.

Barnabas is a great example of the evidence of grace in a person’s life.  He is described as a good man.  God makes his people Good.  Goodness is listed as a part of the fruit of the Holy Spirit.  He was full of the Holy Spirit, co-operating with God’s influence in his life.  He was noted for his faith, having confidence in the God who can do great things.  The number of Christians in Antioch continues to grow under his influence.

Barnabas has the humility to realise that he needs help.  He thinks that Saul would be the ideal person to work alongside him.  Saul would have been more educated than he was but Barnabas is not insecure.  He is not jealously guarding his leadership position but willing to work as part of a team.  He takes the hundred mile trip to Tarsus to find Paul.  Tarsus was Paul’s home place.  Years earlier the Christians of Jerusalem had told him to take refuge there after his conversion and zeal had stirred up the wrath of the Jewish authorities.  Saul had spent those years in Tarsus sharing his faith.  Saul and Barnabas valued the young church at Antioch, teaching them for a year.

3.  Grace makes people generous (26-30)

I think that the church at Antioch must have been wonderful.  There was a mixture of people from Jewish and Gentile backgrounds, yet there is harmony.  It is at Antioch that the believers are first called Christians (it would have been Gentiles that would have come up with this name because Jews would not approve of referring to Jesus as the promised Christ).  Presumably the Antioch believers are called Christians because they spoke about Christ.  He was their passion and joy.  Now we see more evidence of grace as they give to their Christian brothers and sisters in Jerusalem.

Some prophets had arrived from Jerusalem.  One of them, Agabus, foretold a severe famine.  So everyone in the Antioch church gives as much as they can afford to help their Christian brothers and sisters in Jerusalem.  Note that grace makes us one with Christians in other churches, not just those in our local fellowship.  In our context, grace doesn’t focus on denominational allegiance and cherishes the global church.  Grace fills people with compassion for those in need, and not just for believers in need (Galatians 6:10).  Barnabas had shown such generous grace before, in chapter four, when he had sold a field and presented the proceeds at the apostles’ feet to be given to those in need.

Conclusion

It is not being able to name the day or hour of our conversion that matters. What matters is that there is evidence of God’s transforming grace in our lives.  Not that we are perfect but that we are in the process of being changed.  The reality of our faith must be demonstrated by the influence of the Holy Spirit over our hearts.  Do we want to be people who are good, full of the Holy Spirit and faith?  Is God giving us a love for those who do not yet know Jesus and a compassion for Christian brothers and sisters in need?

I enjoy reading biographies of evangelical heroes.  One such hero is William Carey, an English Baptist in the late 1700s.  Carey demonstrated many of the evidences of grace illustrated in this passage.

Carey had an evangelical zeal.  Yet some within his denomination ridiculed him.  He left for India, never to return to England.  He persevered, labouring seven years before he saw his first converts.  He was given a post teaching at a prestigious colonial college, and poured all his earnings into the mission.  He cared deeply about the India’s spiritual and social needs.  He was open-minded, when established a Christian college, he refused pressure to make it exclusively Baptist.  He had amazing faith, exhorting people to ‘expect great things from God, attempt great things for God.’

~

Used with permission. For more blog posts by Paul Ritchie check out his blog: To Whom It May Concern.

For the Love of Marge

One of my guilty pleasures is a love for The Simpsons!

I find the social commentary to be penetrating, the humour tasteful (usually) and the life portrayed by the Simpson family normal (apart from bright yellow skin and four digit hands).

I also find the truth of Scripture illustrated again and again.

Allow me to show you just one of these illustrations.

The Simpsons

Let’s begin by meeting the family.

Homer – Homer is the father of the family. He loves beer and food, and because of that he is overweight and grossly unfit. He has frequent outbursts of rage and often exhibits little use of his mental faculties. Laziness is his number one character trait; if there is a corner to cut he has cut it. Naturally, all of this leads to him being a pretty poor employee at the Nuclear Power Plant where rather comically he serves as the safety inspector. In sum, Homer is a bit of a letdown.

Bart – Bart is the eldest child of the Simpson family. The saying ‘like father, like son’ comes to mind when thinking of Bart. He has behavioural issues, both at home and in school. Academically he consistently underachieves. Therefore, he is constantly in trouble with his parents, his teacher, the school principal and the authorities. Bart is the one the family are worried about. While he takes after his father, it seems the potential is there for him to ‘outdo’ him, and that is worrying.

Lisa – Lisa is the middle child, and perhaps suffers from middle child syndrome a little. Academically she excels. In terms of behaviour she is rarely in the wrong, and therefore rarely corrected. She is also an excellent musician, and a keen conservationist. She is something of a diamond in the rough. However, she is something of an annoying diamond in the rough. Even though she is a bit of a role model, she knows it. This leads to flashes of pride and arrogance, often flaunted in front of Bart.

Maggie – Maggie is the youngest child. There is not much can be said about her, she is just a perpetual baby. Never learned to talk, never learned to walk, and never seemed to grow either. She is a perpetual baby that needs perpetual care.

Marge – Finally we reach the glue of the Simpson family, Marge the mother. Marge is loving, caring, motherly, forgiving, accepting and so on and so forth. She is the constant in the Simpson family, always home, always cooking, always cleaning, always on top of things and always able to get the rest of them out of trouble!

The Church

I believe that the Simpsons reflect another family; the church.

Homer Christians – These are often slightly older Christians. They are the Christians who have failed to put to death the deeds of the flesh. They have allowed their bad habits to continue, and they have continued so long that to stop them would be very painful. However, not to be caught out they have devised the perfect plan for being part of a church, hiding when they need to hid, cutting corners when no one is looking and failing to commit without it being obvious. These Christians are the half-hearted Christians who are a bit of a letdown.

Bart Christians – These are the younger versions of Homer Christians. They often get into trouble, get caught out and find themselves ‘flunking’ the Christian life. In all reality they live their life little differently from the Homer Christians, it’s just they aren’t quite as cunning about it. Worry is shared over these Bart Christians because the path cut ahead for them looks fraught with peril.

Lisa Christians – These Christians have grown up in church, aced all the Sunday School quizzes, been doted on by the older Christians and they know it. In front of people they have it altogether. There seems to be no cracks or dents in their shiny armour. They are involved in most things, and the ‘important’ things, in church life. The only problem is there is a definite air of pride and arrogance about them.

Maggie Christians – Most often these Christians have been identified with the young men in their 20s and 30s who refuse to grow up. They play computer games all night, date girls for seven years and either live with their parents or get fed and have their washing done by their parents. But this is too narrow a scope for Maggie Christians. Maggie Christians are both male and female, are both young and old. The common factor is not gender and age, but maturity. Many Christians fail to grow up, they are still drinking milk and throwing their toys out of the pram whenever they should be chewing meat and acting like an adult.

Now, there are some Marge Christians – godly, spiritual, mature Christians.

But, I don’t think that does justice to the illustration. See Marge is not just the example for the family – she is the Saviour of the family. And so what we find as we look for Marge’s in the church is that there is only one – the head.

Marge is a picture of God – the ever constant, continually loving, consistently forgiving, always providing God.

The church is not held together by the ‘good’ Christians, it is held together by God – the loving Father, the redeeming Son and the unifying Spirit. The unchanging, eternally loving and constantly present God keeps the church family together – the church family with all of its letdowns, worries, ‘rough diamonds’ and babies.

This is how Scripture says it:

The LORD is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.

Psalm 103:8-13 (ESV).

Holy Habits For Fighting Laziness (for young people, and older ones too)

Author’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Baptist Insight Magazine back in February of this year and I’m posting it online for all our non-Baptist readers.

~

Youth is an unparalleled time full of energy and potential.  But all too often we squander it, failing to appreciate this once in a lifetime gift and using it unwisely.  One of the reasons we so easily throw away our youth is laziness.

lazySomeone once said laziness is getting into the habit of resting even when you’re not tired.

Laziness is a huge temptation for many of us, especially in our youth.  The habits we develop when we are young will go on to shape the rest of our lives.

The Teacher in Ecclesiastes offers us this counsel, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth” (12:1 NIV). Being a Christian means continually remembering who God is and all he has done for us in and through Jesus: his sinless life which makes us righteous before God, his sacrificial death through which God is justly able to forgive us, and his victorious resurrection which secures all of this, and more, for us.

This is the key to fighting laziness and seeing transformation in our lives. However, this transformation does not happen all by itself.

In his goodness God has provided means to facilitate gospel transformation in our lives. He has given us a number of gifts to help us remember our Creator in the days of our youth.

  • Scripture: In our fight against laziness we should be spending time with God is his Word, allowing it to saturate and transform our minds and our hearts and showing us how to live in a way that is pleasing to God.
  • Prayer: Like any good Father, God wants to hear from us. He wants us to share our deepest feelings and even our passing thoughts with him. Prayer is a conversation with our loving Father who wants to hear from his beloved children.
  • Church: As my pastor likes to say, “God didn’t save us to be Lone Rangers”. He saved us to be part of his church. Being involved in your church is a fantastic way to fight against laziness! Get baptised, take communion, become a member of your church and find ways to serve others with the gifts God has given you. As well as being active members’ in our churches we also need a smaller group of Christians with whom we can read Scripture, pray, share our lives, and confess our failures and sins. Being part of a community like this is an invaluable catalyst in gospel transformation.
  • Creation: Maybe you love nature or cooking or painting or music or whatever. God has given us a vast number of natural gifts that bring him glory simply from our sheer enjoyment of them. So take the time to enjoy God through these gifts he has given to us; go outside and enjoy the smell of fresh air, learn to play an instrument, use your time to enjoy the many wonderful gifts God has given us. And if possible find other people who enjoy the same things you do and meet to enjoy them together.

Fighting laziness is hard work but God is with us, he gives us grace to “strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in [us]” (Colossians 1:29 NIV) as we use all the means he has so generously and graciously given to us. By God’s grace and power at work in us we can put our laziness to death and be transformed into people who love Jesus and work hard for his glory and our joy whether that be in our studies, our hobbies or a part-time job in the local corner shop.

“Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically.” (Romans 12:11 NLT)

A Major Message in the Minor Prophets

‘For God does speak – now one way, now another – though no one perceives it’ – Job 33:14 (NIV).

God speaks and no one perceives it.

This verse and its truth struck me as I was doing my daily readings recently.

God speaks. I have been a Christian for eight years now, led a ministry in my home church, served as a deacon, worked for another church, completed a theology degree, currently studying for a Masters in theology and have been an avid reader for some years now. Yet this reality which I have had a mental assent to for so long, in fact which I have experienced repeatedly, hit me afresh.

Haggai-prophetGod speaks.

But we often fail to hear him.

This is perhaps the reason why it hit me afresh this last week. See during the previous eight years (and long before that) I have refused to listen to God speaking time and time again. Sometimes it has been ignorance. Sometimes there have been too voices competing for my attention at once. Sometimes I have chosen not to hear God speak. The sad reality is that we fail to hear him.

But praise God that he is a gracious God and one who loves his people.

A major message in the Minor Prophets is that God speaks – but he does not just speak once, he speaks again and again and again and again. Look at how these books begin:

‘The word of the LORD came to Hosea…’ – Hosea 1:1 (ESV)

‘The word of the LORD came to Joel…’ – Joel 1:1 (ESV)

‘Thus says the LORD…’ – Amos 1:3, 6 (ESV)

‘Thus says the LORD GOD…’ – Obadiah 1 (ESV)

‘Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah…’ – Jonah 1:1 (ESV)

‘The word of the LORD that came to Micah…’ – Micah 1:1 (ESV)

‘Thus says the LORD…’ – Nahum 1:12

‘The word of the LORD that came to Zephaniah…’ – Zephaniah 1:1 (ESV)

‘The word of the LORD came to the prophet Zechariah…’ Zechariah 1:1 (ESV)

‘The oracle of the word of the LORD to Israel…’ – Malachi 1:1 (ESV)

This is only a selection from the Minor Prophets, but look at how all the books begin – they begin by telling the readers that God is speaking to his people through his prophets!

This is a major message in the Minor Prophets:

God speaks.

I have found this as I have tried to preach my way through Haggai.

The book of Haggai can be divided into four sections, each section is a message delivered by Haggai on a different day. What really struck me as I have preached from this small book (only two chapters long) is that these messages are not just some religious wacko letting off steam – these messages are God speaking.

Look again at the prominence of this theme:

‘The word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet…’ – Haggai 1:1 (ESV)

‘The word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet…’ – Haggai 2:1 (ESV)

‘The word of the LORD came by Haggai the prophet…’ – Haggai 2:10 (ESV)

‘The word of the LORD came a second time to Haggai…’ – Haggai 2:20 (ESV)

God speaks.

However, the lesson is not only that God speaks. It is also that He speaks into human time.

Haggai is instructive in this – each of Haggai’s messages are dated with some detail. God spoke on certain days to his people. God spoke on the first day of the sixth month in the second year of Darius the king (1:1), on the twenty-first day of the seventh month in the second year of Darius the king (2:1), on the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month in the second year of Darius the king (2:10) and the final message came on that same day (2:20).

Again, this is not where it ends though. Not only does God speak; and not only does God speak into human time; but God also speaks to humans.

Haggai shows us this again. There are three recipients of the messages that Haggai delivers: Zerubbabel who is the civil leader, Joshua who is the religious leader and then the people at large. God speaks to these people with a message relevant to their need.

The amazing thing is that this is not just a message to be found in the Minor Prophets. In all reality this is the message of the Bible – God speaks. It begins with God speaking everything into creation (Gen. 1:3) and ends God telling his people he will come again soon (Rev. 22:20).

What we find central to the Bible though is the pinnacle of God speaking to his people – that pinnacle is God’s Word, The Word.

‘Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…’ – Hebrews 1:1-2 (ESV).

The pinnacle of God speaking into human history to human beings is His Word in the flesh. Jesus came with a message relevant to our need, relevant to everyone’s need – the need to have sin dealt with. He came to this earth, lived at a particular time and in a particular place, and he told us that God must deal with sin through a perfect sacrifice so that He may gather His people from all nations, tribes and tongues.

We must strive to listen to God as he continues to speak to us by revealing himself through His Son, Jesus, in His Word.

As I finish, I am once again amazed at the lengths God goes to in order to speak to people who often fail to hear him. I find myself praying that the Holy Spirit would open my ears to hear Him again.

I ask can you hear Him?

Ten Things You Should Know As You Start Your Ministry

It’s 25 years this month since I visited Switzerland as a pastoral candidate. At the time there were two of us under consideration. During the weekend I was there, I became increasingly convinced that the other guy (10 years older, more appropriate life experience) was the man for the job! When my wife and I headed back home to Ireland (a little shell-shocked at what had felt like quite a gruelling weekend), it was with a sense of ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you’!

But they called us.

And we spent 17 years there before returning to Northern Ireland where I was pastor at Portstewart Baptist Church for 4 years.

A quarter of a century on, some of you are where I was then. Here are ten things I think you should know as you embark on ministry. Hopefully they will help you make some sense of your own leadership journey.

  1. You need to live out your calling and not someone else’s.
    You will probably not have to be in ministry too long before you discover ministerial insecurity and (believe it or not) ministerial envy. The other guy’s church is bigger. They have more talented musicians. They are experiencing more conversions. He gets invited to speak on significant platforms. Jesus says, ‘What is that to you? Follow me.’ (John 20:22) He will not ask you what you did with the other guy’s gifts, resources and opportunities. Just yours. Be faithful with what you have and don’t worry about what someone else has.
  2. If you live for people’s praise, their criticism will really hurt you.
    Image by Jake Liefer
    Image by Jake Liefer

    It’s fairly normal to hope for some affirmation in what you do. You probably don’t want to preach your heart out for 35 minutes after spending a couple of days in preparation, only for people to doze off in the pew and expressionlessly  shake your hand as they leave for Sunday lunch. But there is a fine line that we cross when we don’t just hope for affirmation; we long for it to the point that we cannot live without it. When that shift takes place, you leave yourself open not only for discouragement when it doesn’t come but also for devastation when you receive criticism.

  3. You should (not) be professional about your work.
    Take this in the spirit of fools and folly in Proverbs 26! You should be professional in the way you go about your work. It may sound crass to say it, but if the Lord is providing for your material needs through the kindness of the people you serve, you owe it to them to work hard. More than that, you want to be able to present yourself and your work to the Lord in the knowledge that you have done the best that you can. Sloppy work neither honours God nor does it benefit you or anyone else. On the other hand, you must never reduce what you do to the level of a mere job. Your ministry is a God-given privilege.
  4. There is a difference between perseverance and stubbornness.
    Not everyone will applaud (or even support) all of your ideas and initiatives. Some people may even oppose you and what you want to do. If you give up or back down at the faintest hint of opposition, you will not achieve very much beyond maintaining the status quo. There are times when you will have to persevere when you believe that God is leading you. One of the significant characteristics of successful leaders is their resilience. But there may be times when you have got it wrong (or you are fighting a battle that does not really need to be fought): at times like that perseverance becomes stubbornness.
  5. Conflict is inevitable: you need to learn how to handle it well.
    There is enough sin and selfishness about us and the people we serve to ensure that the sea will not always be calm. The carpet will be the wrong colour, the music will be the wrong style, the dress code will be too informal: that’s just the easy stuff! Some of us have personalities that would prefer to run a mile rather than face conflict: if that’s you, you are going to have some work to do. Since it’s inevitable, you’ll need to learn to deal with it. Reflect much on Matthew 18.
  6. Being a great preacher and a compassionate pastor should not be an either/or.
    Be the best preacher you can be. Don’t be happy with sloppy, superficial sermons and avoid homiletical junk food. But in being the best preacher possible, you need to accept that the fact you sat in a waiting room with one of your church members while his wife went through major surgery may stand out more in his mind than your alliterative outline of Leviticus 16.
  7. There are people who will be glad to help you: ask them.
    Don’t be afraid to seek out friends and mentors in ministry. Busyness and ministry envy are two of the things that might keep you back from that. Sometimes it’s the perceived busyness of an older, more experienced colleague that keeps you from asking him to meet with you from time to time to encourage you and pray with you. If he’s too busy, he will tell you. But he will be glad you asked, and you might just be surprised.
  8. Being teachable and correctable is a virtue.
    You don’t know it all: either theologically or in terms of ministry philosophy. So you will make mistakes. Sometimes you will be tempted to be plain stubborn! Reflect on what Proverbs has to say about reproof and correction.
  9. It is (not) about you!
    This is another one of those fools/folly conundrums (like #3). Your ministry is about you. You need to be guarding your heart, feeding your soul and drawing from God. But it’s not about you: it’s about Jesus. Your job is to point people to him. If you make it all about you, you could be heading for trouble.
  10. The gospel is true.
    One day, as Jesus’ disciples returned from a ministry trip, enthusing about the supernatural work they had seen done, Jesus told them that that was not why they should rejoice. ‘Rejoice that your names are written in heaven’ – he told them. That is the constant. Remember, as Jerry Bridges likes to say, that on your good days you are not beyond needing the gospel and on your bad days you are not beyond its reach.

Scribal Homilies from First Timothy: Gospel Saturated Friendship

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Saviour and of Christ Jesus our hope,
To Timothy my true son in the faith:
Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.” (1 Timothy 1:1-2 NIV)

~

“It is not good for the man to be alone. ” (Genesis 2:18 NIV)

So spoke the Lord God in his Garden Paradise.

Though all his needs were met Adam still lacked companionship. Friendship. Community. Another human being to share his life with.

We are made for others.

Called to community.

Drawn to friendship.

We aren’t meant to be alone in the world.

We need other people in our lives.

We need friends. Friends who are able to love us at our worst, rebuke us in our folly, and shower us with grace in our weakness.

Friends who, in word and deed, bring us back to the gospel.

Like Adam in the Garden of Eden we can survive on our own but only together with others can we ever hope to thrive.

Saint_TimothyThrough this letter we are able to glimpse into the gospel saturated friendship between Paul and his young protégé Timothy. Already, within these first two verses, Paul is directing his friend, one he calls “my true son in the faith”, to gaze upon the glory of the gospel. To bask in its beauty. To marvel at its majesty.

Paul wrote to Timothy because things were not going well in Ephesus. A dangerous heresy had infiltrated the church through a number of false teachers and many were being lured away from the gospel. While we don’t know the specifics of what was being taught it is clear that the false teachers were drawing upon various sources, religious and pagan, in order to distract the Christians in Ephesus from trusting in Jesus and living in joyful obedience to the call he had placed upon their lives.

God our Saviour and Father, Christ Jesus our Hope and Lord

Paul portrays to Timothy a compelling vision of the first two members of the Trinity; contrasting yet complementary.

The Greco-Roman world of the first century was a bleak place. The gods were fickle and the Fates fickler still. All that was yours could be ripped from your feeble grasp in an instant for no discernible reason by powerful and volatile deities who were above the toil of humanity. Complaining would only turn their apathy to outright wrath. All you could do was adopt a still upper lip and try to appease the gods. As for Fate, it had no favourites; you got the life you were assigned and that was that.

Into this world Paul paints a picture of a God who is powerful to save yet who also loves his children as a Father.

By definition gods had to be powerful but loving, that’s new!

Today we are more comfortable with a loving God. We struggle with an all powerful and all loving God because we see the two as somewhat incompatible. Surely one has to limit the other because God can’t be all powerful and all loving? If he was then there wouldn’t be any evil or suffering in the world. However, is it possible that an all powerful God knows something we don’t, and in allowing evil and suffering to continue for a time is actually accomplishing something far more loving that we are capable of imagining?

Paul goes on to qualify his characterisation of God by showing the same to be true of Jesus who is both our Hope and our Lord. We cannot have him as one without the other. If we want the certainty of the Kingdom he has promised then we must necessarily submit to him as our King.

The truth of the matter is that we often want God as our Father and Jesus as our Hope so our lives can be successful and existentially fulfilling but we are reticent to have them as our Saviour and Lord who invade our lives, making drastic changes, convicting us of our sin, and calling us to obey them in all things. Not only is that messy but it’s terribly difficult. It would really get in the way of life as we like it. However, when we submit to God as both our Saviour and Father, and Jesus as both our Hope and Lord rather than ruining the life we want it produces an even better life than we previously imagined could exist.

The Givers of Grace, Mercy and Peace

This new life is created by God’s grace, mercy and peace.

Our attitudes are transformed as we receive God’s grace to us in Jesus, embrace his mercy towards us because of Jesus, and rest in the peace he has purchased for us though Jesus.

All of God’s gifts to us are the result of his greatest Gift: Christ Jesus.

It is only through Jesus we are able to receive God’s grace.

It is only through Jesus we are able to embrace God’s mercy.

It is only through Jesus we are able to rest in God’s peace.

It is only through Jesus we are able enter into this relationship with God that is at the same time deeply intimate and personal but also humbly submissive.

Cultivating Gospel Saturated Friendships

This new life and relationship created by God’s grace, mercy and peace through Jesus is sustained through Gospel Saturated Friendships.

Like Timothy we need a Paul to remind us of the gospel: of God’s grace, mercy and peace towards us in Jesus.

We are tragically forgetful creatures who need constant reminders of who our Powerful and Loving God is and all he has done for us through Jesus. We need friends who will tell and retell the gospel story. And we need to be friends who tell and retell the gospel story. But we can only do this by first being a friend, to do this we need to put the time and effort into cultivating friendships in which we have earned the right to speak into the lives of others. To do so is a privilege and an honour but one that doesn’t come without a price. Such friendships require a constant in-pouring of grace and love, especially when it comes to correction or rebuke. Such grace and love are what give us the credibility to be able to correct and rebuke our friends when it is our duty to do so for their good and that of the gospel.

However, before we can pour grace and love into others we must first have grace and love poured into us by imbibing the gospel through reading Scripture, prayer, and corporate worship. Only then will we have grace and love to pour into others. By God’s grace, mercy and peace through Christ Jesus let’s devote ourselves to knowing and loving God more deeply and humbly through the Scriptures, in prayer, and in worship together with our church family for his glory, our good and the joy of our friends so we are able to pour God’s grace and love into their lives as it overflows from our own.

Top Five Books on the Gospel

‘Gospel’ – this is a word which is thrown around by many Christians, but often with little understanding of what it actually means.

For some ‘gospel’ simply means a sermon which mentions key words such as blood, death, cross, nails, sin, forgiveness, heaven and joy everlasting. For others ‘gospel’ means incarnational living and has little to do with any message. Still others use the term ‘gospel’ to legitimise extravagant use of money.

Now I think the gospel certainly includes those things mentioned above, but it is much, much bigger. Below are my top five reads on the gospel (so far) that have helped me understand this bigger picture of the gospel.

whatisthegospel1. Greg Gilbert – What is the Gospel? (2010) This is an excellent introduction to a fuller understanding of the gospel. This book is a contribution to the Nine Marks series, and is of the same calibre as other Nine Marks publications. It is a relatively short book, and accessible – this makes it a great resource for giving away or reading with others. Gilbert is a pastor, but writes with clarity and humour. This would be the first book I would give to someone asking the question ‘What is the gospel?’ because Gilbert provides a clear and articulate answer.

2. Don Carson – What is the Gospel? – Revisited in For the Fame of God’s Name: Essays in honour of John Piper (2010)
As is suggested from the title this is an essay as opposed to a book. However, the only problem with this is that it is no
t long enough. The book as a whole is well worth purchasing with helpful essays on a range of topics. Carson’s essay is of benefit for those who wish to broaden their understanding of the gospel. In it he undertakes a word study of gospel words and their cognates. While fully aware of the pitfalls of word studies he effectively demonstrates their usefulness and in the process gives us a faithful picture of what the New Testament describes as the gospel.

3. John Chapman – Know and Tell the Gospel (1998)
The strength of Chapman’s book is most certainly the practical side. Chapman is a gifted evangelist, and in this book he quickly illustrates what the gospel is (know) before moving on to offer help in how to share the gospel (tell). I have often come across books which do one or the other, the problem I find with them is the gospel I am taught to know does not always translate well into the gospel I am taught to share. This is why Chapman’s book is so important, he teaches us what we must know and then proceeds to teach us how to share what we must know. Additionally, he covers the spectrum of one to one conversations to evangelistic sermons. This book is a great asset to any library.

4. Matt Chandler – The Explicit Gospel (2012)
Anyone who has come across Chandler cannot deny that he is a funny guy, but he is so much more. This book contains some material from Chandler’s sermon series’ and would cover some of the same ground that Gilbert covers in his. However, there is one aspect to this book which has not been covered in most of the above mention books, namely, the cosmic nature of the gospel. Chandler calls this ‘the gospel in the air’. What he means is creation, fall, reconciliation and consummation – in other words the big picture of Scripture, the grand narrative. This gives us a much wider understanding, and a much bigger view, of the gospel. It is worth its price just for this section of the book!

5. Tim Keller – The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith (2008)
As I have said in a previous top five posts, most things (if not all) by Keller are well worth reading. Why has this book come so far down my list then? Well it has come so far down my list because it is not explicitly a book on the gospel. Rather, it is a book exploring the issues surrounding the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15. However, as you can appreciate there are many gospel themes connected to the parable of the prodigal son. Keller’s contribution to the discussion on what the gospel is, is more about who it is for. In this book he shows the necessity of the gospel for both the younger and older brothers, for both the rite-off and the self-righteous.

There are four more books I would like to mention. These haven’t made it into the list because they don’t explicitly answer the question ‘what is the gospel?’ However, they do aid our development of a wider understanding of the gospel and so should be read with that in mind.

Tullian Tchividjian – Jesus + Nothing = Everything (2011)

John Piper – Seeing and Savouring Jesus Christ (2001); The Passion of Jesus Christ (2004)

Charles Swindoll – The Grace Awakening (1996)