Monday, March 31, 2008

March pictures

It's been a busy month, but we are thankful for all the family that has visited us since Heidi's birth. Here are some of our favorite shots for this month's slideshow...

Friday, March 28, 2008

A letter from Jesus

What if Jesus Christ wrote a personal letter to your local church? In Revelation 2-3, Jesus wrote to seven churches in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey): Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. To those who were persevering in faith, He gave tender words of assurance. But to those who were compromising and disobeying, He offered a stern warning.

What would Jesus say if He wrote to your church? That's exactly what a friend of mine, Chips Ross, recently asked his congregation at Forest Ranch Baptist Church. And for two Sunday nights, they drafted a letter of what Jesus might say to them. (It's helpful to know Forest Ranch is a small community in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, just north of Chico, California). Here's the letter...

To the messenger of the church in Forest Ranch:

The One who sees into the deepest woods1, who is faithful to even a few, and who reigns over the trees and hills, says this:

I know your deeds, that you have persevered, worked hard, and have been faithful as a tree remaining firm in the midst of storms.

But I have this against you: you have sat like an old tree with too much fill around you2 and you have each pursued your own trails3.

Therefore, repent, lest I close the yellow gate4 before you. Come alive as a poppy and be faithful as the sun that rises over the mountain.

To him who overcomes, I will make him to be a conifer, standing tall and straight, in the land of my God and to be red dirt5 that remains through all.

Let him who has ears hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

1 – Pictures that Jesus sees all and thus knows all
2 – Pictures complacency; become like the culture around and thus have begun to rot
3 – Being independent from God and from each other
4 – Yellow gates are put up to close mountain trails
5 – Red dirt of Forest Ranch that clings to your clothing and can never quite be washed out; once it’s on, it’s on.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Praying God's promises

Our Sunday School class has been going through an inductive Bible Study by John Stott on the Book of Acts. When looking at the prayers of the disciples on those days between Christ's ascension and Pentecost, Stott comments,

[Jesus] had promised to send them the Spirit soon (Acts 1:4-5, 8). He had commanded them to wait for him to come and then to begin their witness. We learn, therefore, that God’s promises do not remove our need for prayer. On the contrary, it is only his promises which give us the warrant to pray and the confidence that he will hear and answer. (Acts: Seeing the Spirit at Work, p. 12)

Another great example of this promise-prayer relationship is found in the Babylonian exile. For centuries, Israel had rebelled against God with her idolatry and immorality. God was slow to anger, but eventually disciplined His chosen people. Yet even this discipline was for a season. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God promised His judgment would only last for seventy years:

You have not listened to Me, …Therefore thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘Because you have not obeyed My words, behold, I will send and take all the families of the north…This whole land will be a desolation and a horror, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years. Then it will be when seventy years are completed I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation… (Jer. 25:7-8, 11-12)

For thus says the LORD, When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans that I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. (Jer. 29:10-11)

A whole generation later, after Israel’s captivity and Babylon’s destruction, the prophet Daniel discovered God’s promise and prayed for God to fulfill His word:

In the first year of [Darius’] reign, I, Daniel, observed in the books the number of the years which was revealed as the word of the LORD to Jeremiah the prophet for the completion of the desolations of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years. So I gave my attention to the Lord God to seek Him by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes. (Dan. 9:2-3)

Notice that Daniel did not take God’s promise of deliverance for granted, but humbled Himself before God in prayer. And according to Ezra, God graciously answered Daniel’s prayer and finally fulfilled the prophecy given through Jeremiah so long ago…

Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he sent a proclamation throughout all his kingdom,...” (Ezra 1:1)

There is a lesson here for each of us today. Just as the early disciples prayed for the promised Spirit, and just as Daniel prayed for God’s promised deliverance, so we too should pray often for the fulfillment of God’s promises. For example, we should:

  • Pray that Christ will continue to build His church (Matt. 16:18)
  • Pray that people from every tribe and tongue and people and nation will hear and receive the gospel (Matt. 28:19-20; Rev. 5:9)
  • Pray that God will deliver us from temptation (1 Cor. 10:13; Matt. 6:13)
  • Pray that Christ will return soon (Jn. 14:3; Rev. 22:20)

May God’s promises increasingly instruct and occupy our prayer life. Only then can we know with certainty that we are praying according to His will, and that He will answer our prayers (Jn. 14:13, 15:7; 1 Jn. 5:14).

Monday, March 24, 2008

An outpost of heaven

In A Call to Spiritual Reformation, D.A. Carson writes,
The Church is to see itself as an outpost of heaven. It is a microcosm of the new heaven and the new earth, brought back, as it were, into our temporal sphere. We are still contaminated by failures, sin, relapses, rebellion, self-centeredness; we are not yet what we ought to be. But by the grace of God, we are not what we were. For as long as we are left here, we are to struggle against sin, and anticipate, so far as we are able, what it will be like to live in the untarnished bliss of perfect righteousness. We are to live with a view to the day of Christ.

That means, of course, that Christians constitute a kind of missionary community...until the consummation, we live out our lives down here, a heavenly, missionary outpost in a lost, dying, and decaying world. We are to see ourselves as an outpost of a new heaven and a new earth in an old world that stands under the judgment of God.
Unfortunately, many people look at the church and see only its "contaminations." The church is often accused of being full of hypocritical, self-righteous, unloving people. Then disillusionment and resentment begin to set in. Yet we must not neglect to see God in the process of redeeming His people as a chosen race, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9). Yes, the church has many blemishes (because it's comprised of sinful people), but it is also a testimony of God's grace, as He purifies and prepares us for that glorious day when the Bride of Christ will be presented to Jesus Christ, the Bridegroom. And until that time, the church must remember our mission as an "outpost of heaven."

Friday, March 21, 2008

Look to Jesus

While preparing for tonight's Good Friday service, I came across this quote by Charles Spurgeon in the book Pierced for our Transgressions. It's a beautiful summary of the gospel, originally published from one of Spurgeon's sermons in 1895. I've updated a few of the words into more modern English.
Trembling sinner, look to Jesus, and you are saved. Do you say, ‘My sins are many’? His atonement is wondrous. Do you cry, ‘My heart is hard’? Jesus can soften it. Do you exclaim, ‘Alas, I am so unworthy’? Jesus loves the unworthy. Do you feel, ‘I am so vile’? It is the vile Jesus came to save. Down with you, sinner; down, down with yourself, and up with Christ, who has suffered for your sins upon Calvary’s cross! Turn your eye there; see Jesus only. He suffers. He bleeds. He dies. He is buried. He rises again. He ascends on high. Trust Him, and you are safe. Give up all other trusts, and rely on Jesus alone, alone on Jesus, and you will pass from death unto life. This is a sure sign - the certain evidence - of the Spirit’s indwelling, of the Father’s election, of the Son’s redemption, when the soul is brought simply and wholly to rest and trust in Jesus Christ, who ‘has once suffered for sins, the Just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God.'

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A timeline of Christ's passion

Today is Wednesday, and we are now at the mid-point of what has traditionally been called the “Passion week” or “Holy week” of Christ. Have you ever read the gospels and wondered how all the events of this critical week fit together? Below is a chronology of events that might be helpful:

“Palm” Sunday – Jesus' Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem

Monday – Jesus cleanses and controls the temple; fig tree is cursed

Tuesday – Jesus confronts His enemies, pronounces woes against the religious leaders, and delivers the Olivet Discourse regarding Jerusalem’s coming destruction and Jesus’ second coming; Judas bargains to betray Jesus

“Silent” Wednesday – no record in any of the four Gospels

"Maundy" Thursday – Jesus and His disciples prepare and then celebrate the traditional Passover meal as His “Last Supper” prior to His death; Upper Room discourse; Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane and is arrested; Jewish trials ensue. This is sometimes called “Maundy” Thursday because of Jesus’ new “mandate” (Latin mandatum > Middle English Maundy) to love one another, even as He loved us (John 13:34)

"Good" Friday – Jewish and Roman trials, crucifixion, darkness, death, and burial

Saturday – Jesus’ body lays in the tomb

“Easter” Sunday – Jesus rises from the dead early in the morning; Jesus makes five appearances: to Mary Magdalene, other women, two disciples on road to Emmaus, Simon Peter, and 10 disciples (Thomas absent)

It’s amazing how Jesus orchestrated every tiny detail in order to arrive on the cross by Friday afternoon. He would die for our sin at "twilight" - the very time the Jews slaughtered their Passover lambs (Exodus 12:4; Deuteronomy 16:6; Luke 23:44-46). Truly, He is "Christ our Passover" (1 Corinthians 5:7). And to think all this took place while we were still in rebellion against Him as His enemies (Romans 5:8-10). What wondrous love is this!

For a closer look at the passion week story recorded in the four gospels, I recommend A Harmony of the Gospels by Robert Thomas.

Update: Here's a satellite image showing the relative location of these events in Google Maps. Thanks to Justin Taylor for pointing out this link.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Southern Baptists heat up over global warming

On Monday, Fox News ran an article called "Southern Baptist Leaders Issue Surprising Call to Fight Climate Change." The subtitle explained that a group of Southern Baptists now believe we have a "biblical duty to stop global warming." Since this story first broke, the Southern Baptist blogosphere has been swirling with strong opinions and responses. If you want to learn more about this environment and climate initiative, you can visit the official website. Tony Kummer has put together a good compilation of quotes and comments on the issue.

So, what is our Christian duty toward the environment? One of the key issues is stewardship. Genesis 2:15 says, “Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it." With these words came the official decree that
man would serve as the appointed caretaker of creation. God graciously offered Adam and Eve the privilege of guarding that which He created in those first six days. What an honor! Yet what a responsibility.

Amazingly, all of God’s handiwork has been entrusted to the hands of mortal men. As the Psalmist beheld creation, he shook his head in wonder: “What is man, that Thou dost take thought of him? And the son of man, that Thou dost care for him? Yet Thou hast made him a little lower than God, And dost crown him with glory and majesty! Thou dost make him to rule over the works of Thy hands; Thou hast put all things under his feet” (Psalm 8:4-6).

It seems quite clear that the Christian should honor and care for the environment because God commanded us to be stewards of it. But another reason perhaps even more fundamental is that creation bears the signature of God. Psalm 19:1 says, “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands." Romans 1:20 states, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that [those who suppress the truth] are without excuse." There is a sense where all creation is a reflection of the character of our Maker. What greater reason do we need to take care of the world around us?

The Bible tells us that God made the world (Genesis 1:1; John 1:1; Hebrews 1:2), and since He made it, it has value. Francis Schaeffer, in his book Pollution and the Death of Man, explains, “[F]or the Christian the value of a thing is not in itself autonomously, but because God made it. It deserves this respect as something which was created by God, as man himself has been created by God."

Because we are commanded to be good stewards, and because this world is God's workmanship, we should take steps to conserve and protect our environment. So, for example, my family recycles as much as possible. We pick up litter when we see it. We embrace certain energy-efficient and environmentally-friendly technologies.

Humans are not, however, subordinate to nature. We have been given dominion over it. The environment was made for man, not man for the environment. While creation care is important, we must be careful not to expend our resources dabbling in the politics of environmentalism. Yes, we should be good stewards of the earth. But is there really enough scientific consensus about global warming to warrant a denominational resolution against it? I don't think so.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Resolved 2008

This summer, young adults from across the country will come to Palm Springs for Resolved 2008. This year's theme is "Heaven & Hell," and it's a rare treat to have such a lineup of speakers in our area: John MacArthur, John Piper, CJ Mahaney, Steve Lawson, Rick Holland, and Randy Alcorn.

Take a moment to check out the promo trailer:

The conference is June 13-16. Early bird registration has been extended through March 31. You can click here to get more information, or click here to register.

Prices and registration deadlines are listed below:

$135 Jan. 1 - Mar. 31
$155 Apr. 1 - Apr. 30
$175 May 1 - Jun. 9
$200 Walk-up registration

Two births

Our little Heidi is three weeks old today, and she is a priceless treasure! She is such a joy to hold and cuddle and rock to sleep. She’s eating well, and becoming more interactive every day. Someone once said that “a baby is a small member of the home that makes love stronger, days shorter, nights longer, the bankroll smaller, the home happier, clothes shabbier, the past forgotten, and the future worth living for.” I can relate to many of those things right now.

We are so thankful for our daughter. But even as we celebrate her birth and welcome this new member into our family, we have already begun praying for her “second birth.” What do I mean by “second birth”?

The idea of being “born again” comes directly out of John chapter 3. When a Jewish teacher named Nicodemus approaches Jesus late one night, Jesus says to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Then a few moments later, Jesus declares, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Because these verses are close to each other and have very similar wording, Jesus seems to be employing a common Hebrew literary device known as “synonymous parallelism.” He is saying that being “born again” and being “born of water and the Spirit” are one and the same event.

What, then, does it mean to be “born of water and the Spirit”? To understand this expression, we need to go back into the Old Testament (which Nicodemus would have been very familiar with). In the Old Testament, forgiveness of sin and spiritual cleansing were sometimes described as being washed with water. So, for example, Isaiah 4:4 speaks of the Lord one day “washing away the filth of the daughters of Zion and purging the bloodshed of Jerusalem from her midst.” Particularly important is Ezekiel 36:25-26, where God describes a future salvation in these terms:

“Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”

This idea of cleansing and new life is precisely what Jesus is talking about when He says “You must be born again” (John 3:7). It's also what Peter means when He rejoices that God “caused us to be born again to a living hope” (1 Peter 1:3).

The first birth and second birth are two separate events. The first birth (our physical birth) begins with a mother's mild contractions and slowly crescendos into a time of intense labor and delivery. The first birth involves a human being navigating the birth canal and suddenly emerging into a whole new world full of bright lights.

The second birth, on the other hand, is a spiritual birth. It's a birth that belongs to those who turn from their sin and rely completely on the death of Christ for forgiveness. It's a journey out of spiritual darkness and into God’s marvelous light. And it's a transformation so radical, and so miraculous, that nothing less than “birth” can adequately describe the process.

Have you experienced this second birth? And if so, does your life demonstrate a visible change? The Bible says that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). I pray this for my daughter, and I pray this for each of you.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Beware the church of the tares

John MacArthur preached a powerful opening message on church growth at last week's Shepherd's Conference. Below is an excerpt:
The question for us is this: as the Lord builds his church, by what means does he do it? And secondly, has He revealed the means to us? If we undershepherds of Jesus Christ are to be the human instruments to build His church, we need to understand how He does it. We need to get in line with the divine pattern. There are many ways to build the “first church of the tares,” behind which Satan is the real power. It can be done very effectively; it can be big and enduring. The gnostics did it, and it’s still around. The Roman Catholics have done it, the liberals, the cults. They’re all still around.

The church of the tares is actually bigger than the church of the wheat. Even those who call themselves evangelicals today are busy doing it. There are a number of places called “churches,” where tares gather in increasing numbers. The successful assemblies of tares will eagerly market their skills as “tare development.” It can be very seductive to those motivated by pride, numbers, popularity.

If you want to compete with other “tare pastors,” there is ample information, seminars, data on the internet, to work on building your church of the tares with a smattering of wheat. However, if you serve Christ and recognize him as the head and builder of the church, then all you want to know is, “How can I be useful to him in the building of his church?”
May we stay faithful to God's ordained means of growing His church - through prayer, perseverance, purity, and gospel proclamation.

Thanks to
Evers Ding for providing the liveblog for last week's conference. Seminar notes should be posted in the next few weeks, and all general sessions and seminars are available for purchase here.

Friday, March 7, 2008

The best way I can serve a church...

Earlier this week, Sovereign Grace posted an excerpt from a recent Leadership Interview. In it, C. J. Mahaney had this to say about the activity of reading:
...I would want to encourage pastors who I think might be tempted to view reading and study as selfish. I view reading and study as one of the most important ways I can serve the church. So it is not a selfish act for me to set aside this time. It is really the most effective way I can serve this church, by tending to my soul and by preparing for the various forms and expressions of ministry. The best way I can serve a church is by responding to the command to watch your life and watch your doctrine (1 Timothy 4:16). It is the example of a pastor over a period of years and decades that will make a difference in the life of a congregation. And therefore I want to guard my heart from growing familiar with the pastoral world, growing familiar with God’s Word, growing familiar with corporate worship, growing familiar when I am listening to preaching, growing familiar when I am taking communion, growing familiar with God. I want to guard my heart from that. And the best way I can do that is by attending to his Word and applying his Word to my heart on a daily basis. I think that is the most effective way I can serve those I care for and those I have been called to serve and lead.
Do we really believe reading and study are among the best ways we can serve our churches? And if so, how should we regulate our schedules? How do we set aggressive - yet realistic - goals for reading and personal enrichment? How much time should we spend in general reading versus preparing for next Sunday's sermon? What other ministries and activities should we decrease or delegate so we can devote ourselves more fully to our personal life and doctrine? Should reading time ever replace family time? These are issues I continue to wrestle through.

I'm reminded of the apostles' decision in Acts 6:4 to appoint "deacons" so the apostles could devote themselves to the priorities of prayer and the ministry of the word. I am compelled, too, by Ephesians 4:12, which says that the primary duty of the pastor-teacher is not the work of service, but rather the equipping of the saints. Yet it can be challenging to flesh these principles out practically at the local church level in a typical week. So many "good" things compete for our time.

I do spend a significant amount of time each week preparing for Sunday sermons, but I probably do not spend enough time doing "general reading." I once heard Al Martin classify "general reading" into eight categories. He said we should have regular exposure to each of these: devotional (e.g. Bunyan, Ryle); theological (e.g. Calvin, Owen, Dagg); biographical; historical; pastoral; polemical (refuting false doctrines and engaging controversies); technical (e.g. textual criticism, archaeology, seminary journals); and contemporary (both secular and religious). Blogs, newspapers, and magazine articles would mostly fall into the final category.

By God's grace, I would like to improve my general reading by (1) better balancing my book selections into these eight categories; and (2) being more purposeful in goal-setting, weekly scheduling, and daily discipline.

How about you? What guidelines have you established in your scheduling and study habits? How would you like to improve?

Fridays are often dedicated to practical church ministry issues. If you have a question or suggested topic for the future, please email me.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Marriage on trial

On Tuesday, March 6, the California Supreme Court held four hours of hearings over whether is is constitutional to limit marriage to one man and one woman. They now have 90 days to reach a decision on the matter. The California Family Council has a brief article on Tuesday's hearings, and links to more in-depth coverage.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

A description of Christ

John the Baptist has to be one of the strangest figures in all the Bible. Here’s a guy who wanders around in the desert, never cuts his hair, eats a steady diet of locusts and wild honey, clothes himself in camel hair, and spends his time preaching and plunging people under water. Let’s just say John the Baptist probably wouldn’t have made it on the cover of GQ Magazine.

But for all his peculiarities, John was a humble and holy man who deeply loved and profoundly understood the Messiah like no prophet before him. In John 1:29-30, we get a glimpse of the passion and affection John had for Jesus Christ. John’s heart must have skipped a beat that day he saw Jesus walking toward him…

The next day [John] saw Jesus coming to him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. This is He on behalf of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’ ”

These words of John reveal three central truths about Jesus Christ:

  1. Jesus is our great sin-bearer. By calling Jesus the “Lamb of God,” John instantly applies the entire Old Testament sacrificial system to this one person, who would offer Himself once-for-all for the sins of the world. Jesus didn’t come to save the Jews only, but to save all people from all the nations of the world. Whoever will confess their sins and cast themselves completely upon Him can receive eternal life. By dying on the cross, Jesus Christ bore the sin we’ve committed, and endured the wrath of God that we deserved. Yet through His shed blood, our sins were “taken away” as far as the east is from the west. Praise God!
  2. Jesus is a genuine human being. In verse 30, John the Baptist calls Jesus “a Man.” Jesus was not a mythological figure, or some kind of apparition. He was a literal, flesh-and-blood human being who dwelled upon this earth at a fixed point in time. His virgin birth, public ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection are some of the most well-documented and indisputable events in human history. And because Jesus was a genuine human being, He was able to represent the human race as our “second Adam,” living the life of perfect obedience that the first Adam never achieved (Romans 5:19).
  3. Jesus is the eternal Son of God. John humbly acknowledges that Jesus “has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.” This is quite a statement, since John was born six months before Jesus! Yet John rightly understood that Jesus Christ had always existed as the eternal Son of God. Jesus points to this reality again and again in the Gospel of John when He declares He has “come out of heaven” (6:38) and has been “sent” by the Father (4:34; 17:18; etc.). So, while John identifies Jesus as a man, he immediately identifies Him as something more than an ordinary man. Jesus Christ is the God-Man, the only-begotten Son of God, who was sent by His Father to seek and save those who are lost.

Let us listen to the words of John, and fix our eyes completely on the One whom he described. Jesus Christ alone is our glorious sin-bearer, our perfect representative, and the eternal Son of God.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Shepherd's Conference 2008

Tomorrow marks the beginning of the 2008 Shepherd's Conference at Grace Community Church. Please be praying that all the pastors and church leaders who attend will be challenged and refreshed.

If you are not attending this year, you may want to check out the blog of Evers Ding, who is liveblogging the event, or watch the live video stream at the Shepherd's Fellowship website.

Monday, March 3, 2008

You are God's sword

A week ago, we had a deacon ordination service at our church for a dear friend and man of God who recently joined our deacon ministry team. During my sermon on 1 Thessalonians 2:5-11, I read a quote by Scottish minister Robert Murray M'Cheyne. It comes from a letter M'Cheyne wrote to a young missionary in 1840, and is one of my very favorite quotes. It applies not only to leaders, but to all who call themselves followers of Christ.
My dear friend, I trust you will have a pleasant and profitable time in Germany. I know you will apply hard to German; but do not forget the culture of the inner man – I mean of the heart. How diligently the cavalry officer keeps his saber clean and sharp; every stain he rubs off with the greatest care. Remember you are God’s sword – His instrument – I trust a chosen vessel unto Him to bear His name. In great measure, according to the purity and perfections of the instrument, will be the success. It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God. (quoted in Wiersbe, On Being a Servant of God, p. 39)

New Blog

Today I'm closing up shop and launching a new blog called Pinch of Clay. You can visit it by clicking here . Please stop by and...