Category: Devotions

Men’s Ministry Brainstorming

Men’s Ministry Brainstorming

As many of you know, David and Erica Richards recently moved to Dallas, Texas. David and Erica both served at PVCC in numerous ways, and we miss their entire family – but we’re also happy to hear that they’re settling in well to their new home.

One of the areas of service where David left his mark is our Men’s Ministry. For several years, David did the lion’s share of the work of our Men’s Ministry, mainly through leading a monthly Men’s Breakfast. We met on Saturday mornings, starting at Hardee’s, and then ended up at Panera Bread. Along the way, we read “Disciplines of a Godly Man” by R. Kent Hughes, as well as “Visual Theology” by Tim Challies. Most recently, we studied the Book of James. From there, we took a brief hiatus over the summer.

But as fall quickly approaches, we’re ready to start back up. Our next Men’s Breakfast will be Saturday, August 4. However, we’d like to try some different things as we turn the page:

1. Instead of starting at 8 AM, this Men’s Breakfast will start at 8:30 AM. It might not sound like a big change, but an extra 30 minutes of sleep is always welcome!

2. In addition, we’ll be meeting at the church, and providing coffee, milk, juice, and donuts. We’ll have more privacy that way – and even better, you won’t have to pay anything!

3. And finally, we’re excited that our own Joe Fenimore has agreed to share a short devotion with the group.

When we meet on August 4, we’d like to have as many men present as possible – mainly to hear how we can better serve the men of our church in the future. Is the traditional monthly breakfast the best option, or are there more helpful resources we can offer? Are there better days or times to meet together? Are there books of the Bible, doctrinal questions, or practical topics that would be particularly appropriate to study? Do we need to focus less on studying, and more on simply spending time together and building friendships? What about conferences, outings, or retreats? This is your opportunity to share your thoughts, that way we can strive for more effective ministry this fall and beyond.

Of course, many men in our church have benefited greatly from our past Men’s Ministry efforts. However, we also want to know if there are adjustments we can make to benefit even more of our brothers in Christ. That’s the main goal of this event; so we hope you’ll join us!

Contact Ben Halliburton for more information.

You’ve Gotta Read This: Job 28

You’ve Gotta Read This: Job 28

Every now and then, I’ll come across a passage of Scripture and simply say, “Wow.” Even though I’ve been reading and studying Scripture for some time now, I still come across passages that take my breath away. When I’m done reading passages like these, I often find myself wondering: “How did I not recognize the beauty of this text before now?”

That’s what this new series of blog posts is about; I’m affectionately referring to it as the “You’ve Gotta Read This” series. When I come across a passage in my personal reading that takes my breath away, I’ll write about it here. Of course, much of this writing is in hopes that you’ll be inspired to read the passage yourself – and that you’ll be as amazed by it as I am. The first passage in this series is Job 28.

 

When I read Job 28 this week, I was stunned. I’ve read this chapter plenty of times before; I’ve always loved the Book of Job. But for some reason, with this most recent reading, Job 28 stuck out to me in a way that it never has before. That’s part of the beauty of Scripture – no matter how many times you read God’s Word, you never know when a certain passage might strike you in a deep and meaningful way.

In Job 28, Job reflects on several massive theological themes: the transcendence of God (meaning that God is greater than any finite human being can fully perceive), the wisdom of God, and the revelation of God. We’ll talk about each of these themes below.

Job compares man’s search for wisdom to man’s ability to mine into the darkest recesses of the earth (VS. 1-11). Apparently even in Job’s day, mankind had developed the technology and know-how to dig deep below the ground, and come up with precious metals. Mankind has learned how to transport light into those dark recesses (VS. 3), and can even access treasures that water once made inaccessible (VS. 11). These are places no bird or beast has seen (VS. 7-8) – but man can now get there.

However, no matter how far man digs into the earth – no matter how much gold, silver, onyx, or sapphire he finds – he won’t find wisdom there (VS. 12-19). When I was in college, I went on a trip to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. Mammoth Cave is one of the largest cave systems in the world – and it was well worth the visit. We went far below the surface, and for just a few moments, experienced the complete absence of light. It was a memorable experience, but I can confirm what Job says: there wasn’t any wisdom there. It cannot be found through the human ingenuity that makes mining possible – and even if it could be found, man would not value it appropriately (VS. 13). True wisdom cannot be found “in the land of the living” (VS. 13) or the depths of the sea (VS. 14). True wisdom is priceless (VS. 15-19). In these reflections, Job 28 sounds similar to one of the classic “wisdom passages” – Proverbs 8. In that passage, we read this about wisdom: “My fruit is better than gold, even fine gold, and my yield than choice silver.” (Proverbs 8:19)

Up to this point, Job’s words may seem discouraging. It may sound as though Job is arguing that wisdom is completely inaccessible to mankind, and that any effort to gain wisdom will ultimately prove fruitless. The man looking for wisdom is going on a wild goose chase; he’s searching for a prize he’ll never attain. In VS. 20-22, Job asks the question on everyone’s mind: “From where, then, does wisdom come? And where is the place of understanding?”

In VS. 23, we get our answer: “God understands the way to it, and he knows its place.” God is omniscient (knowing all there is to know), omnipresent (not limited by the constraints of time and space), and omnipotent (all-powerful). He is the true source of wisdom, and it is only by turning to him that mankind can find true wisdom.

As the chapter ends, God says: “Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding” (VS. 28). Yet again, this matches well with the classic wisdom literature of Proverbs: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7). Man’s search for wisdom is not in vain; but that is only thanks to God’s gracious revelation of himself.

As passages like Proverbs 8:1-7 and James 1:5 tell us, God is quite willing to share His wisdom with us. Another important wisdom passage that sometimes get overlooked is 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, where Paul differentiates between the “wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age” (VS. 6), and the “wisdom of God” (VS. 7). Believers in Christ are indwelt by the Holy Spirit – “that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (VS. 12). At times, this wisdom may seem like utter folly to the world; godly wisdom will often rub up against, or even directly contradict the world’s ideas of wisdom, “common sense”, or “street smarts”. However, thanks to God’s grace, and with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, Christians are wise in the things that matter in eternity – namely, the things of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16). Earlier in 1 Corinthians, Paul that Christ is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1:24).

Don’t get me wrong; worldly wisdom is valuable. We gain it through observing the created order of our world, life experience, and even making mistakes. Worldly wisdom helps us understand that we shouldn’t have a picnic in the middle of an interstate, buy every item we see peddled on TV, or go swimming right after we eat a large meal.

However, worldly wisdom isn’t sufficient for eternal life. For that, we need God’s gracious revelation of himself. We need the help of the Holy Spirit. We need Christ himself – “the power of God and the wisdom of God”. 

I don’t know about you, but I find Job 28 to be an awe-inspiring bit of Scripture. Upon reading Job 28, may we be moved to look to God for wisdom – because we can’t find true wisdom anywhere else, no matter how much our society learns, advances, and develops. And may we be humbled and grateful that this transcendent God is so graciously willing to share his wisdom with us.

 

“Hosanna!”

“Hosanna!”

This Palm Sunday, we’ll spend time reading Mark 11:1-11 – an account of Jesus’s “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem. One of the more well-known features of that passage is the cry of “Hosanna!” from those welcoming Jesus into town (Mark 11:9-10).

Much ink has been spilled writing about what the crowds meant when they used that word; we’ll talk about that some in this week’s sermon. It’s generally agreed that the crowds had very specific expectations of Jesus’s time in Jerusalem; expectations that were mostly misguided.

But I’d like to dedicate some time to the passage being quoted when the crowds shout “Hosanna!”. That word comes from Psalm 118:25, meaning “grant salvation” – or as the ESV translates it: “Save us”. To shout the word “Hosanna” is to make a very specific request of God; it is a way of asking God to act on an oppressed person or group’s behalf.

That’s what Psalm 118 is all about. The author recounts his own personal experience of God “granting salvation” from his enemies in the past (VS. 10-13). He repeatedly reminds and encourages others that the LORD’s “steadfast love endures forever” (VS. 1-4; 29). In other words, the author wants all to know that the character of God is stable and unfailing; God can be counted on and trusted in. It’s no wonder, then, that this psalm is often read during the Jewish celebration of Passover, commemorating God’s freeing Israel from slavery in Egypt generations earlier. The Exodus is the single greatest Old Testament example of God “granting salvation” to His people.

But as believers in Jesus, Christians read Psalm 118 in a new way. While this passage is certainly appropriate for looking back on the Exodus, it’s also good for far more than that. This passage looks ahead to Jesus. When we read VS. 19-23, we can’t help but think of Jesus’s “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem. Jesus quotes VS. 22 in reference to himself in the “Parable of the Tenants” (Mark 12:1-12). And along with the crowds lining the roads in Jerusalem some 2,000 years ago, we quote VS. 25-26 as we look at Jesus.

We look at Jesus, knowing that God has indeed “granted salvation” to us. We know that “blessed is he” who entered that city to a royal welcome – even though he would leave that city on a criminal’s death march. This salvation wouldn’t come about the way the crowd (and even Jesus’s own disciples!) likely expected. It wouldn’t come through Jesus exercising power and authority on man’s terms; it wouldn’t come through worldly political or military force. But as Psalm 118 also tells us, it’s foolish to look to men or princes for salvation anyway (VS. 8-9).

This Palm Sunday, we shout “Hosanna”, knowing that God has “granted salvation” to us through Jesus’s sacrificial death on the cross – and confirmed it through Jesus’s victorious resurrection from the grave. We “give thanks to the LORD”, not only because he “granted salvation” to Israel long ago, and not just so that he may “grant salvation” to us from our latest challenge or hardship – but because he has “granted salvation” from sin to all who look to Jesus as the cornerstone of our faith.

Funeral Reflections

Funeral Reflections

On Saturday, November 18, 2017, my wife’s great-grandfather, Obie Henderson, died. You can read more about Obie hereby all of our usual cultural criteria, he was an upstanding citizen, husband, and father. 

That following Monday, we got an unexpected phone call from a family member, asking me to preside over the funeral on Wednesday. I’ve been in vocational ministry for almost ten years now, but had yet to oversee a funeral. I was flattered and humbled to be asked; but also intimidated. I take everything I do in ministry very seriously, and this was certainly no exception. I wanted to say things that would appropriately honor the dead, comfort the grieving, and glorify God.

But in addition, I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to make those present think more deeply about how they live their own lives, the reality of death, and their standing with God. After all, at a funeral, many people are present who might not normally set foot in a church building on a Sunday morning. 

So in my short sermon, I focused on three ways funerals make us think:

1. We think about the person who has died. Even though believers in Jesus do not “grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13), we still grieve. It is right and appropriate to mourn the fact that the one we love is no longer with us in this life.

2. We think about our own lives. Are we living in a manner that pleases God? Are we pursuing qualities that properly reflect our identity as God’s image-bearers?

3. We think about death. Every attendee at a funeral is confronted with the undeniable reality of death. I mean, think about it: it’s harder to believe the lie of invincibility we tell ourselves when we’re in the same room as an occupied casket.

The truth is that most of us don’t think about death very often. Sometimes we intentionally avoid thinking about it because it’s unpleasant; other times we’re simply distracted by the joys and sorrows, the cares and concerns of this temporary existence. However, perhaps it’s healthy to occasionally take a moment to reflect on the reality of death. It’s humbling to be reminded that we are not invincible; eventually, we all die.

But the biggest question funerals force us to wrestle with is this: “Am I ready for when the time of my death arrives?” My wife’s great-grandfather was; as he passed away, he calmly held his wife’s hand and told her it was “his time to go”. How did he have such peace as he stared at death’s door? Because he was confident that by God’s grace, through his faith in Jesus Christ, he had nothing to fear; he knew he would receive his reward.

I’m sure many (if not most) of us at PVCC have been touched by death in one way or another this year. Perhaps we’ve lost a family member, friend, or coworker. It may have been gradual and expected, or sudden and shocking. 

Either way, take a moment and think about your own mortality. In the words of Psalm 27, ask God to “teach us the number of our days”. Consider what matters, and what doesn’t matter. Remember those you’ve lost, examine how you’re living, and contemplate the inevitable day of your own death. And as you contemplate that day, ask yourself this: “Can I face death with confidence, and peace?”

I believe, and Obie Henderson believed, that death is not the end for us; it is only the beginning. And for those who believe in Jesus Christ, that new beginning will be glorious.

“And Be Thankful”

“And Be Thankful”

I love the holidays; but in my family, the best holiday celebration is Thanksgiving. Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas; after all, we’re celebrating the birth of Jesus himself! But when it comes to which family gathering I enjoy more, Thanksgiving takes the prize. The food is better, the day is less stressful, and the entire holiday is less expensive.

If you read every verse in the Bible containing the words “thanks”, “thanksgiving”, or “gratitude”, you’d be reading for quite some time. This theme is all over the pages of Scripture, seen in both reminders to thank God for what he’s done, and in warnings about what can happen when sinners forget how much God’s given us to be thankful for.

But as I read this morning, I came across Colossians 3:12-17. The Apostle Paul writes in VS. 12-15:

“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.”

In the first part of the chapter, Paul reminds the believers of who they are in Christ: new creations. The old person has died, and the new person has been raised. But we as believers in Jesus haven’t just been given a new title, or even a new status; we’ve also been called to pursue a new life.  That includes “putting to death” the attitudes and actions that once defined us, and separated us from God. This is true for every believer in Jesus, regardless of nationality, prior religious practice (or lack thereof), or socioeconomic standing.

But in addition to putting the old ways to death, Paul tells us “put on” the new ways of life. He gives a list of identifying markers of someone who’s been raised to new life in Christ – including thankfulness. As he continues in VS. 16-17, this trait gets even more attention:

“Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

Simply put: those who have been “raised with Christ” have much to be thankful for; in fact, they have more to be thankful for than anyone who hasn’t been “raised with Christ”. In the big scheme of eternity, the poor, oppressed, suffering believer has more to be thankful for than the rich, powerful, prospering non-believer. Why? Because as Paul says earlier in the Chapter:

“When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Colossians 3:4)

As believers in Jesus, we have been given the greatest gift God could ever offer sinners: resurrection, and eternity in his glorious presence. We didn’t deserve it, we didn’t earn it, and we could never repay it; and yet, it is ours. It’s no wonder, then, that Paul stresses thankfulness as one of the identifying markers of those raised to new life in Christ.

If your family is like mine, you may do the classic, somewhat uncomfortable “go around the table, and name one thing you’re thankful for” exercise after you’ve eaten your turkey. There’s more than one right answer, of course; God has given us countless good gifts in this life. However, don’t lose sight of the fact that in the big scheme of eternity, we are to be most thankful for our new life in Christ; that we have “been raised” with him. Even when it appears that you have very little to be thankful for compared to those around you, nobody can take this gift away from you. Jesus lived, died, and lived again, in order that we who live for ourselves, might die to ourselves – and live with God forever.

Let your thankfulness for this glorious gift permeate everything you do – in word and deed.

 

The Power of Words

The Power of Words

In Matthew 8, we see several instances of Jesus speaking, and his words having great impact. Matthew 8 comes directly on the heels of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus’s words leave people in awe:

And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes. (Matthew 7:28-29)

This theme continues throughout Chapter 8, as Jesus displays astonishing power and authority through the words he speaks. For example:

In Matthew 8:1-4, Jesus cleanses a leper. Jesus reaches out and touches the man; a gesture which would make any other practicing Jew “unclean” by Old Testament standards. But Jesus is different. When Jesus touches unclean people, their status changes; not Jesus’s status. Jesus remains clean; the leper is made clean. But Jesus doesn’t just touch the man; he also speaks.

And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” (Matthew 8:3A)

In Matthew 8:5-13, a centurion approaches Jesus, begging that his servant be healed. The centurion must have been desperate; he was likely affluent in his community, and thus unlikely to turn to a traveling Jewish religious teacher for assistance. Jesus agrees to visit the servant at the centurion’s home, but the centurion has a better idea:

“Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” (Matthew 8:8B)

The centurion knows what it’s like to have authority. When a man in his position speaks, things get done. This Gentile centurion recognizes the authority and power in Jesus’s words; and in fact, he’s so confident in the power of Jesus’s words that he bets his servant’s fate on it. Sure enough, Jesus heals the servant by speaking from a distance, and the centurion is commended for his faith.

In Matthew 8:14-17, we read that Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, along with many who are sick. But we also see an easily overlooked detail about Jesus’s method of casting evil spirits out of those oppressed by demons. How does he do it? “With a word” (Matthew 8:16).

We see similar examples in Matthew 8:23-27, as well as Matthew 8:28-34. In the first passage, Jesus calms a storm by “rebuking” (Matthew 8:26B) the winds and the sea. In the second passage, Jesus casts a large number of demons out of two men – and all he has to do is say, “Go” (Matthew 8:32A).

After seeing multiple examples of the power of Jesus’s words, we should have the same reaction the crowds had to the Sermon on the Mount: astonishment. Who else can speak with such authority? Who else’s words are so powerful that creation itself obeys? Why, none other than God himself:

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. (Genesis 1:3)

He set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be moved. You covered it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains. At your rebuke they fled; at the sound of your thunder they took to flight. (Psalm 104:5-7)

Only God himself is supposed to be able to speak with such power and authority – and yet, here we see Jesus doing just that. Perhaps this proves that Jesus really is who he says he is: the Son of God.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.” (John 5:19)

When God speaks in the Old Testament, things happen. When Jesus speaks in the New Testament, things happen. That’s because Jesus is not only fully man; he is fully God. The crowds were right to be astonished at Jesus’s words, and to observe that he spoke with far greater authority than their scribes. He’s the very son of God, united in power and authority with his Father. When we read the words of Jesus, I pray we’d have the same sense of awe.

Know Your History

Know Your History

Who are the most influential people in your life as a follower of Jesus? What places have played a major role in shaping you as a believer?

As I look back on my own Christian life, I can name many people and places God has used to challenge, encourage, teach, and grow me. I owe of all these people and places a great debt for their willingness to love and serve me. A few examples:

My parents.

As a young child in Tennessee, I was raised in a Christian home. My family attended Collierville First Baptist Church consistently (except for when my sister and I could convince our parents to stay home and eat McDonald’s sausage biscuits instead). I attended Vacation Bible School each year, and participated in RA’s (essentially a Southern Baptist version of Boy Scouts). I played Upward Basketball, and my sister was getting involved in the Youth Group before we moved to the Cincinnati area. My parents taught me the truth about Jesus from a young age, and emphasized the value of a church family.

Hebron Baptist Church (Hebron, KY)

This is the church we joined when we moved to the Cincinnati area. I sat and listened to sermons from a preacher named Shawn Edwards. He loved Scripture, and taught it faithfully. BJ Sanders, my Youth Minister, took a great interest in me. He was a wonderful friend, mentor, and discipled me patiently throughout my teens. Through the work of this church, I first sensed a calling from God to go into vocational ministry. God used this church in big ways during some of the most formative years of my life.

Cincinnati Christian University (Cincinnati, OH)

I attended CCU for both my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, and met many friends along the way. The professors were gifted, experienced, and Scripturally-grounded teachers. I learned more about Scripture at CCU than I ever could have imagined, and my love for Christ, the Church, and vocational ministry was nurtured well there.

Journey (Union, KY)

Journey was a small church plant close to my house, and the first church to ever issue me a paycheck. I was a VERY part-time Youth Minister, and only served there for about a year – but I met wonderful people who loved God, and got my first taste of what it’s like to be in vocational ministry. I also learned about some of the unique challenges of working at a brand new church, still trying to get off the ground.

Batesville Christian Church (Batesville, IN)

While finishing my Bachelor’s degree at CCU, I worked here for two years as part-time Minister of Youth and Family Life. Upon my graduation from CCU, I moved to full-time at BCC for another (almost) two years. Steve Yeaton, the Senior Minister at BCC at the time, quickly became one my most trusted and valued mentors. Steve taught me just about everything I knew about vocational ministry prior to arriving at Prairie View. This is the church Olivia and I were married in; we lived in this church’s parsonage when we brought Javan home from the hospital; this is the first church to give me consistent preaching opportunities. This church gave me financial support to begin my Master’s degree at CCU. We have wonderful memories at BCC, where so many godly believers loved us, cared for us, and showed us grace as we learned how to be spouses, parents, and church leaders. Those relationships still mean the world to us, and we keep in touch with many of the believers here regularly.

If not for these people and places, I would not be serving at Prairie View Christian Church today. God used each of them in unique ways to help me become the man, husband, father, and Pastor I am today. I owe each of them a great debt, and am incredibly grateful for all of them.

Now that you know some of my history, back to the original question of the post: Who are the most influential people in your life as a follower of Jesus? What places have played a major role in shaping you as a believer?

As you reflect on that question, thank God for those people – whoever they are. Pray for those people, and for those churches and institutions that served you well. It may be easy for you to look back and lob criticisms at those people and places; that’s true for me as well, and some of those criticisms may have merit. However, don’t forget the debt you owe them. God – in his wisdom – put you in the right places, at the right times, with the right people, to get you to where you are today.

There’s great value in knowing your history. I hope reflecting back on your history as a believer would bring about the humility of knowing how much you owe God and others. I also hope you’ll be filled with gratitude for the people and places God used to shape you into the believer you are today.

Sawing Logs, Catching Flies, and Resting in God

Sawing Logs, Catching Flies, and Resting in God

In a previous blog post, I mentioned that I’d begun reading The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions. One of entries I read most recently caught my attention:

SLEEP

BLESSED CREATOR, Thou hast promised thy beloved sleep; Give me restoring rest needful for tomorrow’s toil; If dreams be mine, let them be tinged not with evil. Let thy Spirit make my time of repose a blessed temple of his holy presence.

May my frequent lying down make me familiar with death, the bed I approach remind me of the grave, the eyes I now close picture to me their final closing. Keep me always ready, waiting for admittance into thy presence. Weaken my attachment to earthly things. May I hold my life loosely in my hand, knowing that I receive it on condition of its surrender; As pain and suffering betoken transitory health, may I not shrink back from a death that introduces me to the freshness of eternal youth. I retire this night in full assurance of one day awaking with thee. All glory for this precious hope, for the gospel of grace, for thine unspeakable gift of Jesus, for the fellowship of the Trinity. Withhold not thy mercies in the night season; thy hand never wearies, thy power needs no repose, thine eye never sleeps.

Help me when I helpless lie; when my conscience accuses me of sin, when my mind is harassed by foreboding thoughts, when my eyes are held awake by personal anxieties.

Show thyself to me as the God of all grace, love and power; thou hast a balm for every wound, a solace for all anguish, a remedy for every pain, a peace for all disquietude. Permit me to commit myself to thee awake or asleep.

We’re often told how important a healthy sleep pattern is to our physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. I remember hearing that the average human needs eight hours of sleep per night to function to his full potential. But in reality, it seems as though each person is different – some need more, or less sleep than others. I try to get seven hours of sleep per night – and now that we have a child in school, we’ve been more disciplined about making sure the kids get plenty of sleep as well.

After reading this entry, I also found myself thinking of all the stories in the Bible that feature sleep. When God created Eve from Adam’s rib, God put Adam to sleep before the operation. After he drinks too much and falls asleep, Noah is shamed by one of his sons (a somewhat similar instance of sin occurs when Lot falls asleep after drinking too much as well). Passages in the Book of Proverbs warn us against the love of sleep, to the point of laziness and poverty. David had the opportunity to get revenge on Saul while he slept, but showed mercy. When Elijah defeats the prophets of Baal, he mocks their unresponsive “god” by suggesting that he might just be taking a nap. In the New Testament, Jesus tells us “not to let the sun go down” (i.e., go to sleep) while we are still angry. Much to his disciples’ dismay, Jesus peacefully sleeps in the stern of a boat while they fear for their lives in a storm. He warns his disciples to “stay awake” as they wait for his second coming after his death and resurrection. Ironically, not long after he issues that teaching, Jesus finds these same disciples asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane just before his arrest. Sleep is featured repeatedly in Scripture.

But as we think about the entry above from The Valley of Vision, we see four main observations about sleep:

  1. Sleep is a gift from God. Be thankful for the opportunities God gives you to rest – including the bed you sleep on, the walls around you, and the roof over your head. Not everyone gets to sleep as well (or as much) as you do.
  2. Our need for sleep reminds us of our weakness and mortality. It’s good, healthy, and humbling to remember that we are finite human beings who need rest. It’s no coincidence that sleep deprivation is commonly used as a form of torture, and can eventually lead to death. We are not God; we need to sleep. And that’s OK.
  3. Sleep is an exercise in trust. Bad things certainly can happen to us while we sleep – so when we lie down and close our eyes, we are placing our security in God’s hands.
  4. Believers in Jesus know that when our eyes close for good in this life, we will awake in God’s presence. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul addresses a church concerned about the fate of fellow believers who have already died. Paul reassures the living believers that “those who have fallen asleep” (i.e., believers who have died before Christ’s return) will experience the joys of salvation in all their fullness. Because of Christ, we  too can be confident that our final sleep in this life is only the beginning of our eternal rest.

Thanks be to God that even though we need sleep, he doesn’t. He’s the all-powerful, eternal King of the universe – the one who sees everything when we close our eyes.

I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

(Psalm 121:1-4)

Isaiah’s Burden

Isaiah’s Burden

I recently started reading the Book of Isaiah (for thoughts on Bible reading plans, see our July 19 blog post). I found myself asking the question: was Isaiah’s ministry a success?

Isaiah prophesied “in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” (Isaiah 1:1 – for more details about this period of time, see 2 Kings 15-20 and 2 Chronicles 26-32). All is not well in Israel at this time; in fact, the once united kingdom is now split in two: Israel in the north, and Judah in the south. Up to this point, there have been wicked kings in both Israel and Judah; but to be honest, Israel’s kings have been worse. More often than not, they’ve been marked by injustice, corruption, idolatry, and violence. And while Isaiah’s dealings are mostly with the kings in Israel, he also prophesies concerning the later judgment of Judah.

God has given Isaiah a thankless job: announcing God’s judgment upon the people of Israel for their sin. Making this job even harder, God specifically tells Isaiah that the people will not listen to his words. They will be dull, deaf, and blind to Isaiah’s warnings.

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.”

And he said, “Go, and say to this people: ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”

Then I said, “How long, O Lord?”

And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and house without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the LORD removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains when it is felled.”

The holy seed is its stump. (Isaiah 6:8-13)

Only later in the book do we see glimmers of hope that eventually, a “remnant” of God’s people will heed Isaiah’s warning, and turn back to God in repentance. Perhaps that’s also alluded to in the above phrase, “The holy seed is its stump.” Some will listen; but not many.

In that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on him who struck him, but will lean on the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, in truth. A remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God. For though your people Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will return.” (Isaiah 10:20-22A)

Now, back to Isaiah’s God-given mission: preaching to people who will ignore him. In light of these clear, God-established expectations, how do we evaluate Isaiah’s ministry? Was Isaiah’s ministry “successful”?

In this day and age of ministry, we often define “success” with large numbers, observable results, and a high “return on investment”. We ask questions like: “What’s your Sunday morning attendance now? How many baptisms have you had? Are you expanding your building yet? How big is your budget? Has your social media platform grown? Have you been invited to speak at any conferences recently?” By those standards, Isaiah’s ministry was a failure.

But by God’s standards, Isaiah’s ministry was a success. Why? Because Isaiah faithfully did what God told him to do. 

God will use some people to accomplish all the things we listed above: increased church attendance, numerous baptisms, building expansions, and budget increases. God will give some people large social media platforms, and big conference stages to do so. Who knows – you may be one of them.

But that may not be me, and it may not be you. God may be calling you to a ministry like Isaiah’s: preaching, teaching, shepherding, and praying faithfully – with little to no obvious success.

At times, that will feel less like a ministry, and more like a burden. You too may ask, “How long, O Lord?” But keep obeying and listening to God. Your ministry success is not determined by your ability to force or manufacture impressive results; your ministry success is determined by your faithfulness to the mission God has given you. Perhaps God will use you in big, flashy ways; perhaps he won’t. But either way, God calls you to be faithful – like Isaiah.

And like Isaiah, you’ve been given a message to share: the Great Commission. Some will listen to your words; more than likely, most won’t. But keep preaching. Keep teaching. Keep shepherding. Keep praying. Keep loving. Keep serving. Don’t give up, even when people don’t listen. Your job isn’t to convert the world; your job is to be faithfully announce the Gospel. God will do the heavy lifting; you’re simply the messenger.

Response Requested

Response Requested

This morning, I read Matthew 12. However, I found myself focusing especially on VS. 38-50. My Bible has these verses broken down into three sections: “The Sign of Jonah” (VS. 38-42); “Return of an Unclean Spirit” (VS. 43-45); and “Jesus’ Mother and Brothers” (VS. 46-50). While these three sections may have differences, I think there’s a common thread holding them together.

In our first section (VS. 38-42), some of the religious leaders challenge Jesus to give them a sign. Jesus has already done this numerous times, only to be criticized by these same religious leaders. In the last instance, they even accused him of performing the sign by the power of Satan! (Matthew 12:22-32) It’s safe to say their request for a sign is less than genuine. Jesus refuses to give them some spectacular sign, instead alluding to his upcoming death and resurrection. He compares his death to Jonah’s time in the belly of a fish. Jonah came out of the fish’s belly, and likewise, Jesus will come out of the tomb.

But then Jesus gets confrontational. He tells the religious leaders that they will be judged by those notoriously wicked Gentiles from Nineveh – people so depraved that Jonah ran the other direction when God sent him there. It’s not exactly a compliment when Jesus says people like them will judge you. Jesus then brings in a second story from the Old Testament: the Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon (1 Kings 10). Like those evil people of Nineveh, the Queen of Sheba will “rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it” (VS. 41, 42). The Queen of Sheba is also – gulp – a Gentile.

Next, we go to our second section (VS. 43-45). Jesus tells the story of an unclean spirit leaving a person, failing to find rest, and then returning. When the spirit returns, he finds his old hangout looking better than ever, and invites some demonic buddies to shack up as well. Jesus says the person within whom the evil spirits now reside is worse than they were before.

Finally, we have our third section (VS. 46-50). Jesus’s mother and brothers seek him out; we have no idea what they wanted to discuss with him. But Jesus disregards the request from his family, instead focusing on the larger family of God – everyone “who does the will of my Father in heaven” (VS. 50).

Three passages, all covering three seemingly unrelated teachings. However, here’s the thread that holds them all together: Jesus is giving us a glimpse of how to properly respond to him, using the religious leaders in these verses (“this generation”) as an example of how NOT to respond to him.

VS. 38-42 show us how the religious leaders have rejected Jesus’s proofs of his identity as God’s son. As a result, Jesus says they’ll be judged by Gentiles (hence his using the people of Nineveh and the Queen of Sheba in his illustration) who do accept Jesus’s proofs and identity. In other words, it’s better to be a Gentile who responds properly to Jesus than a Jew (and a religious leader, no less!) who rejects him. The people of Nineveh responded properly to Jonah’s preaching by repenting of their sin. The Queen of Sheba responded properly to Solomon’s wisdom by honoring him. Jesus is greater than Jonah, and greater than Solomon; and yet, the religious leaders have rejected him. The idea that Gentiles would respond properly to God, while Israelites would reject God would have been scandalous in Jesus’s day – but that’s exactly what’s already happening. VS. 46-50 drive the point home, showing us that belonging to the family of God isn’t a matter of bloodlines, ancestors, and family trees. Those who belong to the family of God respond properly to Jesus – in faith and obedience. God’s family is made up of those who repent of their sin, and believe in, worship, and obey his son.

So where do VS. 43-45 fit in? It’s a warning to the religious leaders about the danger of continual rejection and false repentance. The person who continually rejects Jesus – or even worse, continually practices false repentance – will only find themselves more hardened than they were before.

But here’s the big question: How have you responded to Jesus? Have you rejected him like the religious leaders in this passage – demanding one sign after another, even though Jesus has already given the ultimate sign of his death and resurrection? Have you assumed you’re a part of God’s family because your parents responded properly to Jesus, or have you actually responded to him yourself? Has your life been filled with some occasional, false repentance of sin when times get bad – or genuine faith and discipleship?

The beauty of the Gospel is that by God’s grace, and the power of the Holy Spirit, sinners can respond to Jesus properly. We can repent of our sin, believe, trust, and obey the Savior who died for us – and didn’t stay dead. So…how have you responded to Jesus?