Pastoral Faithfulness

Death happens. It happens as a result of the normal aging process. It happens when disease invades the body. And it happens when tragedy strikes. No matter the circumstance, all cause great suffering for those left behind. But it’s hard to imagine any death that challenges our faith, and quite frankly makes us question God’s goodness more than a death that results from especially tragic circumstances. When we suffer, how is it possible to still find satisfaction in God? In an article entitled, Preparing People to Suffer: What Expectations Do Our Sermons Create? John Piper addresses from a pastor’s perspective that very question, not only in the case of suffering due to tragic circumstances but suffering due to any circumstance at all.

            “Have compassion on your servants. Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.” In this section of Psalm 90, Moses appealed to God to pour out His grace so that people would find satisfaction in Him above everything else. This would enable them to rejoice all their days. Piper suggests that in times of personal suffering, the wise pastor cries the very cry of this passage and then preaches its truth to those he shepherds. This doesn’t mean that the hurt doesn’t hurt. Nor does it mean that tragedy will not bring about questions. But thankfully, through the hurt and the questions, by God’s grace and the Spirit’s help, we can accept the truths taught in Scripture. Thankfully, we have a God who sees where we can’t, whose purposes are perfect, and though it may appear otherwise, who is always working for our ultimate good (Romans 8:28).

Pastors have an awesome responsibility to preach the whole truth of God, including the reality of suffering. It may not be easy to preach, and it may not be what people most want to hear, but it has got to be done. Piper says by teaching the reality of suffering and God’s sovereign goodness in and through it, when tragedy strikes, it leaves you needing only to embrace those in the midst of their pain.

I’m thankful for my pastor for his faithfulness in not dodging the difficult truth of sufferings reality. Even in their pain, I’m sure many in our congregation have been blessed because he didn’t. However, teaching it is not only a pastor’s responsibility. It is the responsibility of all who minister in any manner. So be grateful for your pastor for preaching it and anyone else who teaches it. Because when they do, it not only better prepares you to deal with suffering in your own life, but also minister to others in theirs.

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Nothing But the Blood

“…without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22)  

There are people and even some churches that would deny or downplay the necessity of a blood sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin. Scripture, however, is clear. “…without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22). Under the old covenant, repeated blood sacrifices were required to atone for sin. These sacrifices were never meant to permanently deal with sin, but only to point forward to the new and everlasting covenant mediated by Christ. “He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12). The blood of bulls and goats dealt only with external cleansing while the blood of Christ was meant to “purify our conscious from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:14). So, whereas the old covenant sacrifices were incapable of changing people’s hearts, the sacrifice of Christ could.

            Though the author of Hebrews is not known, the purpose for which he wrote is. A primary purpose of the book of Hebrews is that we might see the supremacy of Jesus above all things, greater than the angels and the Mosaic system; the truly great High Priest whose once for all sacrifice cleanses us from our sin. 

            In our day, there is an increasing tendency to deny the necessity of the cross for salvation. I suppose if we could, we might choose another way; a way that didn’t require the cross or a blood sacrifice, but instead a more palatable way, a way good enough for all to enter in. But it’s not our way to choose, only God’s. He is the author of salvation and as such, the manner in which redemption comes belongs only to Him. Salvation is in Christ alone. All of us need forgiveness for sin. If you have received it, it came only by the blood of Christ; if you haven’t, it’s the only way salvation will come. For us to accept anything less is less than Christian, and if it’s less than Christian, it’s not Christian at all. Don’t believe the world. Believe the Bible. Your salvation depends on it.

Detours

“The mind of a man plans his way. But the LORD directs his steps” (Proverbs 16:9)

A detour is a longer, less direct way to get where we’re going. Sometimes the detour is intentional, perhaps to visit something or someone. At other times, they’re unintentional, taken to help us avoid a problem and get us back on track as soon as possible. This is the sort of detour that frustrates us. It’s the kind that gets in the way of our plans and the course we’ve set for ourselves, the one where we lose control over things. And for many of us, that’s a problem.

I think most of us probably like to be in control. We make our plans fully intending they be carried out just as we devised them. But that doesn’t always happen. Providence is defined as God’s ongoing relationship whereby He is actively involved in His creation, though distinct from it. Providence denies things happen by chance but are instead divinely planned. Though a weighty and somewhat controversial doctrine, God’s providence is clearly affirmed in Scripture. One such passage is Proverbs 16:9, which simply teaches that all our actions are under God’s providential care.

Sometimes, God allows detours in our lives, some alternative route we never saw coming. The detour may be for no apparent reason at all, or it may be because we’ve strayed off course. Whatever the reason, they can be painful. I read a great quote that says, “God has His own way of getting His own way”. It’s true. Overlaying every choice we make is God’s hand. His providence often encroaches into our lives for reasons that He alone knows. John MacArthur says that as Christians, “rather than being content in the success of our plans, we need to find contentment in God’s sovereign, providential control. We need to remember that even when things don’t go our way, God is still on His throne, orchestrating events for His glory and our good”.

God has a plan for each of us. It might not be the plan we would have set for ourselves, but we can rest assured it’s a perfect plan. God knows what’s best and He often uses these detours as a way of rerouting us back into His will. The writer of Hebrews tells us these “detours”, these times of training serve an important purpose and are meant for our good (Hebrews 12:11). The choice we must make is whether or not we will be trained by them. Will we become better, or will we become bitter? God allows these challenging moments in our lives to teach us that we really don’t have control of things. He uses them to teach us that ultimately, all we have is Jesus. And the truth is, He really is all we need.

When You’re Down, Look Up-Our God Is Faithful

“…for I know whom I have believed” (2 Timothy 1:12)

How are we to “count it all joy” (James 1:2) when we’re going through trials, “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18) even when those circumstances are bad, and how are we to believe that just because we love God “all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28)? I believe those are pretty good questions, but I also believe God has even better answers.

It is in the context of some sort of suffering that each of the passages above exist. Suffering is always a potential barrier to worship and to living out one’s faith. Ultimately, as Christians, we manage through these times by drawing strength from the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit.

The reality of our lives lived in the flesh makes it easy see all that happens, whether good or bad, from only a human perspective. God’s perspective must be our goal. It’s easy to thank God for the good times just to turn around and blame Him for the bad times. Our perspective must be centered on His promises. God never promised difficult times wouldn’t come, but He absolutely promised to be with us when they do. We must trust and seek to know Him more each day.

In his devotion Morning and Evening, Charles Spurgeon likens the knowledge of Christ to climbing a mountain. He says at its base, because we can see only a little bit, the mountain appears to be only half as high as it really is. However, as we move up the mountain, we are able see more and more. Spurgeon concludes by talking about how at the end of his life, the Apostle Paul was able to say, “for I know whom I have believed” (2 Timothy 1:12) and that “each experience had been like climbing a hill, each trial had been like ascending another summit, and his death seemed like gaining the top of the mountain from which he could see the whole panorama of the faithfulness and love of Him to whom he had committed his soul”.

We live in a fallen world and our view is sometimes cloudy. This makes it easy for the circumstances of life to bring us down. But when they do, look up and keep climbing, because our God is faithful.

Do Not Be Moved

“[Let no one] be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this” (1 Thessalonians 3:3)

In his book Desiring God, John Piper uses an analogy of a camera to help explain the idea in which God sees our suffering. He says that on one hand, God uses a narrow lens in which He looks and grieves with us as we undergo suffering. This is often the only lens you and I see through. But according to Piper, God also uses another lens, a wide-angle lens in which He sees beyond the immediate situation. This is the lens that sees what has occurred before and what will result from this moment, ultimately working for our good and God’s glory. This “good” may be realized in our lives as God works out the circumstances, or it may only be realized in death.

Paul knew about suffering. It was a topic he wrote about in almost all of his letters. He knew its purpose and the importance of teaching that purpose to others. He also demonstrated the proper response to it. Through his suffering, Paul knew his strength came from the Lord. Jesus was Paul’s reason for living. To see Him magnified was his passion. But Paul also knew that to die was gain (Philippians 1:21). As he wrote his final words in 2 Timothy 4:6-8, he was comforted knowing he had fought the good fight, finished the race and kept the faith. He also knew what awaited him—a crown of righteousness. That was worth everything Paul had endured in his life and it will be worth everything suffering may cost you in your life as well.

So how do we respond in times of suffering? We trust God. He is sovereign. We allow His Word and His Spirit to penetrate our shaken and shattered lives. We live each day in view of eternity knowing that no amount of suffering can compare to glory (Romans 8:18). And we trust that His grace is sufficient to see us through (2 Corinthians 12:9).

When Heaven Looked Away

And at about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)

Scripture records seven statements Jesus made from the cross. All of them speak volumes about the character of Christ. But of the seven, one of the most mind-blowing to me is Jesus’ statement recorded in Matthew 27:46, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” On the cross, God abandoned Jesus as He bore the wrath for sin. Isaiah 53:10 tells us that “it was the will of the LORD to crush him”. Wouldn’t it seem like God the Father might choose a way of salvation different than that? What Father would give His Son for undeserving sinners such as us? What Son would agree to submit to the Father’s will and die for those same people? But that’s what God willed and that’s what Jesus did.

Though it may seem confounding in many ways, the fact that Jesus willingly bore the weight of our sin teaches us a great deal. It teaches us about the holiness of God, the just judgment sin deserves and the payment it requires. It teaches us that our sin runs deep, but that God’s grace runs deeper.

There’s a worship song written and sung by Kari Jobe called Forever. In fact, the title of this devotion was taken from a portion the lyrics. The song’s flow takes the listener from the humiliation of Christ on the cross, to His defeat over sin and death, to the worship that will one day take place in heaven— from the crucifixion and resurrection account recorded in the Gospels to the worship described in Revelation. It’s a great song. We sing it from time to time at church. One of the things I’ve learned being in choir is that whenever there’s a break in our singing during a song, it’s there for a purpose. Its purpose is to allow time to reflect on what we have been singing and to respond accordingly. The times we have sung Forever at church, there has been such a time, a time to reflect on the words of this song and respond to all God has done on our behalf, to respond to the love He has shown us.

Thankfully, Jesus’ abandonment by the Father as He bore the wrath for sin was only temporary. When Jesus said “It is finished” it signified sin’s payment was complete (John 19:30). Three days later the stoned was rolled away from the tomb. Death had been defeated. Jesus was no longer in the grave. He now sits at the right hand of the Father, interceding on our behalf. What a great truth told in a song. The mercy and grace God has shown in order to save us is amazing. And that the Son would willingly pay the price to secure that salvation is a love unparalleled. Our only response, not just today, but one day in an even greater way, is for us to sing “Hallelujah”. “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:12).

I Guess the Kitchen Got a Little Too Hot

“For Demas, in love with the present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica…” (2 Timothy 4:10)

We don’t hear much about Demas in Scripture except to know that he ministered with the Apostle Paul for some period of time. He must have been a close associate of the apostle’s because Paul refers to him as a “fellow worker” in his letter to Philemon, and in his letter to the Colossians, he is included as one who sends greetings (Philemon 24, Colossians 4:14). But at the end of his life, as Paul sat in prison in Rome penning what he knew would be his last letter, he mentioned Demas again.

The Apostle Paul’s last letter was written to Timothy. Timothy was most likely Paul’s closest partner in ministry. He wrote to Timothy for several reasons. First, Paul wanted Timothy to bring him some of his personal items. Secondly, he wanted to encourage Timothy to carry on faithfully in his ministry ahead. Lastly, but in fact the primary attention of Paul’s letter was the gospel. Paul’s greatest concern was the glory of Christ and the preservation of the gospel as Jesus had revealed to him. In this letter, Paul also took the opportunity to update Timothy about those in which they had ministered together. One of those he spoke of was Demas.

At the time of this letter, everyone with the exception of Luke had pretty much deserted Paul. Specifically, Paul said Demas had deserted him because he was “in love with the present world.” The “present world” that Paul spoke about was the world apart from Christ, the world dominated by Satan. In Paul’s mind, Demas had proven, at least for the time being that he was unwilling to count the cost of a genuine commitment to Christ. Persecution of Christians had intensified. Ministry was tough, and evidently, Demas had had enough. Scripture doesn’t tell us how Demas’ story ends and we shouldn’t suppose his denial of Christ was permanent, only that in this particular moment, his own safety, convenience and love for the world overtook his commitment, not only to Paul, but also to Christ.

It’s easy for us to be so in love with the world that we become ashamed of the gospel of Christ, particularly when there’s a risk we might suffer for it. The truth is, comfort, convenience and acceptance appeals to us all. If we are to minister in difficult times to an unbelieving and often hostile world, we must be willing to count the cost. The kitchen can get pretty hot. Therefore, we need to pray for the Lord’s presence and power each day, always remembering the promise of His Word as we go, confident in that promise because we know that God keeps all His promises. “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6).