Living in the Light of the Resurrection

sheep

I’m excited for the new sermon series in the book of Acts we’ve begun at Cedar Creek. Yesterday I had the opportunity to introduce the book. My goal was to ask and answer the question, “What is true of a life lived in the light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ?”

While my observations were certainly not exhaustive, here are the six things I drew out of the book of Acts as distinguishing marks of the church this side of the empty tomb:

  1. To live in the light of the resurrection is to live in the power of the Holy Spirit.
  2. To live in the light of the resurrection is to live as witnesses.
  3. To live in the light of the resurrection is to live to please God and not man.
  4. To live in the light of the resurrection is to take sin seriously.
  5. To live in the light of the resurrection is to suffer for the sake of Christ.
  6. To live in the light of the resurrection is to live in joy-filled, God-centered community.

The sermon moved intentionally to number six given the importance of community to the other five. We hear a lot about “community” today. But too often it seems like “community” can mean just about anything as long as we’re doing it together. Luke, however, has a specific understanding of community when it comes to the people of God. Consider Acts 2:42-47,

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

The people of God together devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching; the people of God together devoted themselves to the fellowship; the people of God together broke bread and prayed.

I am struck by the manner with which all of this was happening: “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (vv. 46-47).

Our fellowship should be marked by “glad and generous hearts” as we praise God from whom all blessings flow. Why? Because we were lost, but now are found; we were dead, but are alive again; we were children of wrath, but now are children of grace; we were without God and without hope in the world, but now are heirs of God! We’ve been redeemed from the pit of sorrow and shame; freed from the shackles of sin and Satan; forgiven of our sins past, present, and future; transferred from the domain of darkness and into the kingdom of light; given a hope and a future where there is fullness of joy, pleasures forevermore!

With all of our differences, these are the priceless treasures we have in common in Christ. Therefore, we devote ourselves to the fellowship—an assembly of pilgrims, exiles, and sojourners joyfully moving along the King’s way. Indeed, God would not have us travel alone and begrudgingly to heaven, but in the glorious community of the redeemed.

[Photo Credit: Trey Ratcliff]

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The Scenery of God’s Grace

Tekapo

The only thing keeping my feet moving was the scenery. As I ran through the city of Richmond, Virginia what I lacked in energy I made up for in curiosity. What scenic treasures awaited me along my route?

I stumbled upon the historic “Canal Walk”—a partial restoration of Richmond’s historic canal system begun in 1785 and completed in 1840. Various monuments along the way tell the story. It is billed as “George Washington’s vision come to life.” Before the railroad made the canals basically obsolete in the 1880s (at which time they stretched 197 miles as far as Lynchburg), the waterways teemed with hundreds of boats carrying various goods such as tobacco and wheat along with many passengers.

Once there I remembered a gentleman talking about Belle Island and a 1.5 mile trail that loops through the 54 acre park that once housed a Civil War prison camp for Union soldiers. My pace picked up as I became excited about the destination. Along the nearly two mile journey I was pleasantly distracted by The American Civil War Center, the James River with its roaring rapids and the massive Robert E. Lee Bridge straddling the shores.

I was reminded how much easier runs are when you’re excited about the scenery. The legs don’t hurt as much, breathing isn’t as difficult, and the pace actually quickens. More than just “getting the miles in,” you feel exhilaration in the exercise.

As I exited the pedestrian bridge onto Belle Island my thoughts moved to how the Christian life is like a run. It requires endurance, perseverance, diligent effort. And just as the scenery on a run helps one endure, the “scenery” of God’s grace helps weary saints persevere in their faith.

Do I see it? Is it new everyday? Does it excite me? Move me? Leave me in awe?

I was challenged to behold the beauty of Jesus’ blood shed for me; the awesome power of His resurrection that conquered death; His unwavering advocacy on my behalf before the Father; the treasure of His perfect righteousness imputed to me. In a word, the cross and all it accomplished and represents for those who trust in Him. This, at least in part, is the glorious “scenery” of God’s grace that helps fuel our run of faith.

I want to run in such a way as to win the prize—to hear my Lord say, “Well done good and faithful servant … Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:23). To get to that finish line, I pray that God grants me eyes to see the wonders of His grace in Christ Jesus—scenery worthy of our eternal gaze.

[Photo Credit: StuckinCustoms]

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The Menaces of God’s Word

Godly_Mans_Picture_WatsonTo be ready to preach on Sunday requires resting your head on holy things throughout the week. And on Saturday evening it is especially important to have some reading of a devotional nature. Tonight I went to Thomas Watson’s The Godly Man’s Picture. I was particularly moved by chapter four, “Showing the Characteristics of a Godly Man.”

In this chapter Watson details 34 specific characteristics that mark a godly man. In characteristic number 9, “A Godly Man is a Lover of the Word,” Watson writes of the “menaces” of God’s Word:

A godly man loves the menaces of the Word. He knows there is love in every threat. God would not have us perish; he therefore mercifully threatens us, so that he may scare us from sin. God’s threats are like the buoy, which shows the rocks in the sea and threatens death to such as come near. The threat is a curbing bit to check us, so that we may not run in full career to hell. There is mercy in every threat (61).

A godly man does not come up to the threatenings of the Word and say something like, “God sure seems harsh; he really should lighten up.” No, the godly man says, “Thank you, God, for loving me so much that you sound the alarm of sin and its tragic consequences. Incline my will to forsake evil and pursue holiness.” Indeed, the godly man loves the menaces of the Word.

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A Preacher’s Decalogue

As a seminary professor, I am deeply grateful for how the new year has opened with seasoned pastors and teachers offering their wisdom for young (and not-so-young) preachers. For example, in “Advice to a Young Preacher” Peter Adam outlines fourteen indispensable principles for preachers, none more important than the first:

Learn to love the Bible. We love God, so we love His words. We know the mind of God from the mouth of God and we live by every word that comes from His mouth. Preacher, learn to love all of the Bible. Learn to meditate on it day and night. Fill your mind and heart and life with God’s truth. If God’s words are not in your mind, heart, and life, they will not be on your lips. Learn the self-discipline to avoid reading your ideas into the Bible. Whenever you read the Bible, don’t think, “I know what this means, so I don’t need to read it carefully.” There is always more to find, more to uncover.

Indeed, no man should preach who doesn’t love the Bible. Love for God and His words is the essential first ingredient in the making of a preacher.

Ferguson_Pastors_WTS_imageAlongside Peter Adam we have Sinclair Ferguson. In chapter 39 of his new book Some Pastors and Teachers: Reflecting a Biblical Vision of What Every Minister is Called to Be, Ferguson offers his “Ten Commandments” for preachers. As Ferguson explains, these principles were born out of the question, “What ten commandments, what rules of preaching-life, do I wish someone had written for me to provide direction, shape, and ground gaining momentum in ministry along the way?”

Ferguson’s answer is worth reading and embracing given his over five decades of faithful pulpit ministry. He’s learned much through study and practice. This is wisdom from above.*

  1. Know your Bible better
    Ferguson writes: “As an observer as well as a practitioner of preaching, I am troubled and perplexed by hearing men with wonderful equipment, humanly speaking (ability to speak, charismatic personality, and so on), who seem to be incapable of simply preaching the Scriptures. Somehow God’s word has not first invaded and gripped them.”
  2. Be a man of prayer
    Ferguson writes: “I mean this with respect to preaching — not only in the sense that I should pray before I begin my preparation, but in the sense that my preparation is itself a communion in prayer with God in and through his word.”
  3. Don’t lose sight of Christ
    Ferguson writes: “Know and therefore preach ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (1 Cor. 2:2). That is a text far easier to preach as the first sermon in a ministry than it is to preach as the final sermon . . . . Paradoxically, not even the systematic preaching through one of the Gospels guarantees Christ-crucified-centered preaching. Too often preaching on the Gospels takes what I whimsically think of as the ‘Find-Waldo-Approach’. The underlying question in the sermon is ‘Where are you to be found in this story?’ (Are you Martha or Mary, James or John, Peter, the grateful leper . . .?) The question ‘Where, who, and what is Jesus in this story?’ tends to be marginalized.”
  4. Be deeply trinitarian
    Ferguson writes: “. . . my concern here arises from a sense that Bible-believing preachers (as well as others) continue to think of the Trinity as the most speculative and therefore the least practical of all doctrines. After all, what can you ‘do’ as a result of hearing preaching that emphasizes God as Trinity? Well, at least inwardly if not outwardly, fall down in prostrate worship that the God whose being is so ineffable, so incomprehensible to my mental math, seeks fellowship with us!”
  5. Use your imagination
    Ferguson writes: “Imagination in preaching means being able to understand the truth well enough to translate or transpose it into another kind of language or musical key in order to present the same truth in a way that enables others to see it, understand its significance, and feel its power — and to do so in a way that gets under the skin, breaks through the barriers, and grips the mind, will, and affections, so that they not only understand the word preached but also feel its truth and power.”
  6. Speak much of sin and grace
    Ferguson writes: “Preaching on sin must unmask the presence of sin, and undeceive about the nature of sin, as well as underline the danger of sin. This is not the same thing as hammering a congregation against the back wall of the ‘sanctuary’ with a tirade! That requires little more than high levels of emotion. A genuine, ultimately saving, unmasking and undeceiving of the human heart is more demanding exegetically and spiritually. For what is in view here is the skilled work of a surgeon–opening a wound, exposing the cause of the patient’s sickness, cutting away the destructive malignancies, all in order to heal and restore to life.”
  7. Use ‘the plain style’
    Ferguson writes: “There are many ways this principle applies. Do not make eloquence the thing for which you are best known as a preacher; make sure you get the point of the passage you are preaching, and then you make it clear and express its power. True evangelical eloquence will take care of itself. Despite Charles Hodge’s reservations, Archibald Alexander was in general right in urging his students to pay attention to the power of biblical ideas and then the words used in preaching will take care of themselves.”
  8. Find your own voice
    Ferguson writes: “We ought not to become clones. Some men never grow as preachers because the ‘preaching suit’ they have borrowed doesn’t not actually fit them or their gifts. Instead of becoming the outstanding expository preacher, or redemptive-historical, or God-centered, or whatever our hero may be, we may tie ourselves in knots and endanger our own unique giftedness by trying to use someone else’s paradigm, style, or personality as a mould into which to squeeze ourselves. We become less than our true selves in Christ.”
  9. Learn how to transition
    Ferguson writes: “Many of us are weary of the pandemic of ‘how-to-ness’ we find in much contemporary preaching. It is often little better than psychology (however helpful) with a little Christian polish; it is largely imperative without indicative, and in the last analysis becomes self- and success-oriented rather than sin- and grace-oriented. But there is a Reformed and, more importantly, biblical, emphasis on teaching how to transition from the old ways to the new way, from patterns of sin to patterns of holiness. It is not enough to stress the necessity, nor even the possibility, of this. We must teach people how this happens.”
  10. Love your people
    Ferguson writes: “This is a litmus test for our ministry. It means that my preparation is a more sacred enterprise than simply satisfying my own love of study; it means that my preaching will have characteristics about it, difficult to define but nevertheless sensed by my hearers, that reflect the apostolic principle: ‘What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as ur servants for Jesus’ sake’ (2 Cor. 4:5); ‘We were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us’ (1 Thess. 2:8).”

*While the list is exhaustive the quotes from Ferguson are merely excerpts from the explanations he gives for each principle. 
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Technology and Preaching

The Street of Colors-X4

I recently had a student tell me that he preached in a church in Tennessee that had him speaking from a platform that turned into the equivalent of an IMAX experience for the congregation. The technology allowed him to “take” his listeners to places like outer space and the holy land of Israel with moving, high-definition digital images, changing weather patterns, and movie-theater quality sound.

As he was selling me on this experience and the value of it for all churches, I kept thinking to myself, “In all this noise, how could they hear a word he said?” But being distracted from my student’s words is not the biggest risk of using technology in preaching. The greater danger is missing God himself.

My theology of preaching understands the preaching exercise as nothing less than a monologue from heaven. In other words, the expositor (peaching as monologue from God requires exposition of biblical texts) is a messenger for God as he heralds the truth of any particular biblical passage. This, of course, is how the apostle Paul understands preaching when he describes preachers as “ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20). According to this text, God is actually appealing to the world through a human herald. Breathtaking.

What does all of this have to do with technology use in preaching? Everything.

Let me explain this with the help of Jean Twenge from an article she wrote for The Atlantic posted yesterday. In “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” Twenge chronicles the thinking of a 13-year-old girl regarding her smartphone use and that of her peers. At one point the girl (under the pseudonym “Athena”) admits her frustration over friends who do not listen to her when she’s trying to talk with them about something important to her:

In my conversations with teens, I saw hopeful signs that kids themselves are beginning to link some of their troubles to their ever-present phone. Athena told me that when she does spend time with her friends in person, they are often looking at their device instead of at her. “I’m trying to talk to them about something, and they don’t actually look at my face,” she said. “They’re looking at their phone, or they’re looking at their Apple Watch.” “What does that feel like, when you’re trying to talk to somebody face-to-face and they’re not looking at you?,” I asked. “It kind of hurts,” she said. “It hurts. I know my parents’ generation didn’t do that. I could be talking about something super important to me, and they wouldn’t even be listening.”

Once, she told me, she was hanging out with a friend who was texting her boyfriend. “I was trying to talk to her about my family, and what was going on, and she was like, ‘Uh-huh, yeah, whatever.’ So I took her phone out of her hands and I threw it at my wall.”

Most everyone today, I imagine, can relate to Athena’s experience. Many of us have felt the urge to grab someone’s phone and move it aside in an effort to make way for real, uninterrupted conversation.

Now, here’s the simple (and profound) point I want to make from this regarding preaching: if it really is God speaking through the preacher (which it is) then God forbid we miss one word he’s saying. And technology use (whether screens up on the stage or in a listener’s hand via smartphone or tablet) dramatically increases the risk of this happening. As an expositor I am delivering a message from the King. Therefore, when I’m preaching I want all eyes on me, not wandering into some starry abyss of high def images born along by a Hans Zimmer-like score. (Can you imagine coming into the presence of the King of glory and while he’s talking you look down at your smartphone to read a text? Do not expect him to take it lightly when you look up and say, “Wait, what was that? I missed what you said because I had to reply to a text real quick.” This would not end well for you.)

O preacher! Preach as if God really has spoken in the inspired Scriptures (all 66 books of the Bible), and with the conviction that he still speaks through what he has spoken! And as you listen to sermons by faithful expositors, do everything in your power to give the preacher your undivided attention. For in his words you’ll hear something infinitely greater than any text or tweet or chat — you’ll hear God himself.

[Photo credit: Trey Ratcliff]

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What do you long for?

Trey Ratcliff

What do people do who long for something? They run toward it. This struck me anew on my way back from a recent mission trip to Ethiopia. Upon arriving back in the states my heart was longing to see my family. When I saw them for the first time in 10 days I made a beeline to embrace Anna and the kids. Indeed, longing is not a weak emotion — longing moves you to run (either literally or metaphorically) toward the object of your affection.

As Christians we long for Christ. He is the object of our ultimate affection. Therefore, we design our lives around the single, earnest pursuit of Him. Isn’t this what Jesus meant when he said, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). In other words, our lives are not about seeking “all these things,” but Christ.

There is an important implication of this understanding of the Christian life. Christianity is not primarily about running away from things, whether drugs or alcohol or pornography or greed or jealousy or anger or envy or strife. To be sure, we do flee that which is evil (cf., Romans 12:9), but only in the glorious pursuit of something greater, namely, Christ. In this sense, Christianity is not “defensive” in its posture. Rather, given that “Christ always leads us in triumphal procession” (2 Corinthians 2:14), we are marching forward in the unstoppable advance of the gospel.

This is the note the author to the Hebrews strikes in chapter 12. He says that one of the ways we “run with endurance the race set before us” is by “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (vv. 1-2). The best runners in a race are not looking to their left or right or backwards, but ever forward to the goal. And in the race of faith that is our life, we fix our eyes on Jesus. For he is the longing of our hearts; he is the goal of our salvation.

So if you find yourself getting weary on your run, lift your head to heaven. Look to Jesus, the One who promises to finish the good work he’s begun in you. He will provide all the grace you need to finish your course so that you “receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).

[Photo: Trey Ratcliff]

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Better Blessings

Like millions of Americans this week, my mind is on the Fourth of July holiday and what it represents: our freedom as a nation. This freedom is a precious thing, bought with the sweat, toil, and blood of countless Americans who initially fought to obtain it, as well as those who have fought to secure it in the centuries since that fateful day in 1776. This freedom is one of the great blessings of being an American.

Of course, political freedom is not the only blessing that comes with being an American. Having recently traveled to Ethiopia on a mission trip, I appreciate still more the blessings of the infrastructure our country enjoys, excellent medical care, sanitary conditions, general prosperity and relative peace. To be sure, we are blessed among nations. (To affirm this is not to turn a blind eye to the many shortcomings of our nation or to white-wash the atrocities of our past and present such as slavery/racism and abortion, to name just two.)

But even as I prize the many blessings of being an American, I am moved this Fourth of July to consider the infinitely greater blessings that come to us through the gospel, things like peace with God, our standing in grace, and the hope of the earth being “filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14). These are the blessings that come to all people who have a citizenship not of this earth, but of heaven (Cf., Philippians 3:20). Blessings, that is, for all those who are justified before God in Christ. This is the breathtaking reality that the Apostle Paul describes in Romans 5:1-2, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”

The Fourth of July is a wonderful time to count our blessings—as Americans and as Christians. Our national blessings are precious, but our blessings in Christ are of infinite worth.

Therefore as we celebrate our nation’s independence on Tuesday and recognize the many blessings that come to us as Americans, may I add to your patriotic playlist a song that speaks to the flow of better blessings?

Joy to the earth! the savior reigns;
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

Because of the gospel of Jesus Christ we sing of joy to the world and of blessings that will never end. Now that’s worth celebrating, now and forever.

[Photo credit: stuckincustoms.]

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