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Finishing the Race

Monday, January 14, 2019

 

American society has many quirks, but one of the strangest of them all is our cultural denial of old age and death.  Everybody tries to keep the same youthful body type they had when they were 18.  We have Rogaine and Botox to conceal the effects of our advancing years.  We hide our elderly away in nursing homes where nobody has to look at them, and many funeral homes these days are in financial trouble because nobody goes to funerals anymore.  Basically, Americans want to pretend that we’re all a bunch of perpetual teenagers who will continue to live on this earth forever.

However, all of us are here tonight because we know better.  Our earthly lives are not limitless.  Indeed, the opposite is true, and every day, each one of us moves one day closer to the end. 

This is a sobering thought, but it doesn’t have to be a hopeless one.  In Christ, every one of us can have the hope of a life that is limitless, though it is not here.  However, if we want that hope, we have to be faithful to Him until the end.  With this in mind, let’s consider the apostle Paul’s thoughts about finishing the race.

In the first of these final reflections, Paul encourages Timothy to PREACH THE WORD.  Here, let’s read from 2 Timothy 4:1-5.  There are two things in this text that we need to attend to, and the first has to do with our work.  Not all of us are preachers, but all of us have a ministry to fulfill.  All of us have some work that God has given us to do in His kingdom, and we are responsible for carrying out that work in the same way that Timothy was.  We have to do what we know is right, and we have to continue doing it, regardless of what anybody else says or does.

We also must pay attention to the kind of hearer of the word that we are.  As Paul observes, some Christians will have itching ears.  They are more concerned with hearing things that please them than hearing sound teaching from the word of God.  Indeed, they are offended by sound teaching.

At this thought, all of us will say, “Oh, no!  That’s not me!”  However, we need to pay attention to ourselves to make sure it isn’t us.  Let me ask you this.  The last time you heard a preacher say something you didn’t like, how did you react?  Did you check his teaching against the Scriptures and show him his error from the Scriptures if he was in error?  Or instead, did you get mad about it and complain about it to him or others?  Brethren, hearing the truth and not honoring it is a sign of having itching ears.  We all must make sure that we endure sound teaching, especially when we don’t like it.

After this injunction, Paul contemplates HIS DEPARTURE.  Look at 2 Timothy 4:6-8.  Even though Paul speaks euphemistically, it is clear that he is about to die.  We might expect to die at home, or perhaps in a hospital bed someplace.  Paul knew that wouldn’t be his fate.  If tradition is accurate, and we have no reason to doubt it, he met his end by the sword of a Roman executioner.

However, Paul’s faith is such that he contemplates his imminent and violent death with joy.  He says with confidence that he has done what God expected him to do, and because of that, he knows that he will receive the crown of righteousness. 

From this, we must learn that it is possible for a Christian to die with assurance.  We don’t see Paul being all wishy-washy here:  “Oh, I hope I’ll go to heaven!”  Instead, he knows he’s going, and he’s left his confidence on record for 2000 years. 

He doesn’t have this confidence because he thinks he’s so perfect.  After all, in 1 Timothy 1, he calls himself the foremost of sinners.  Instead, his hope is founded on Jesus and His word.  If we will set our hope in the same place, then every one of us can die with confidence too.

From here, Paul turns his attention to INCONSTANT BRETHREN.  We see his description of recent events in 2 Timothy 4:9-15.  Basically, he wants Timothy to come to Rome to see him because pretty much all of his other companions have gone elsewhere.  Some of them are off working, one has left the Lord, and one has even started actively opposing Paul!

From this, we should learn to put our trust in the Lord rather than in other Christians.  We tend to think of ourselves and others as relatively stable, but the reality is that all of us change and sometimes change dramatically.  Sometimes the change is good.  Mark is the same guy who left Paul in the lurch during his first missionary journey, but now he’s useful for service.  At other times, though, the change is for the worse, and if somebody we depend on is headed in the wrong direction, we’re in a world of hurt!

In my experience, one of the most common reasons that Christians give for falling away is that the other people at church weren’t treating them right.  I’m not going to get into what I’ve seen of the validity of those accusations, but I will say this:  if the bad behavior of Christians can damage your faith in Christ, your faith was never in Christ to begin with.  People change.  People let us down.  The Lord doesn’t and won’t.

In fact, Paul’s closing thoughts are about THE LORD’S RESCUE.  Let’s wrap things up by reading 2 Timothy 4:16-18.  Paul reveals that this isn’t the first time that Christians let him down. During his first trial before Caesar, everybody abandoned him for fear of their own lives!  However, the Lord was with him through the whole process, start to finish.  Jesus got him through it.

Paul expects this to be the invariable outcome.  He says that Jesus will rescue him from every evil deed and deliver him safely to heaven.  In light of what we just read a few minutes ago, this sounds like Paul has lost his mind.  He’s expecting to get beheaded, and yet he says that the Lord is going to keep him safe???

The truth is that the safety that concerns Paul isn’t the safety of the body, nor should the safety of the body be the primary concern of any Christian.  Ever since Genesis 3, it’s been true for all of us that if the earth continues, sooner or later we won’t. 

Instead, Paul is concerned with the safety of his soul, a soul that has a much more fearsome enemy than any Roman emperor.  He knows that only Jesus can keep his soul safe from the evil one, and he knows that Jesus will do it.  For that, he anticipates praising Jesus forever and ever.  We should too.

Preachers, Numbers, and Church Growth

Friday, January 11, 2019

 

I’ve known and appreciated Terry Francis for a number of years now, but his recent series of posts on preachers and churches may well prove to be more valuable to the Lord’s work than anything else he’s done.  In them, Terry has confronted some hard truths about elders, about churches, and, yes, about preachers.

In his most recent post, he highlighted the propensity of the latter to get trapped in a Rick Warren church-growth mindset, with a resultant focus on numbers and neglect of brethren.  Ouch.  Caught me right between the eyes with that one, Terry.  Like him, I can look back with sorrow at times in my work when I cared more about number of baptisms per year than I did about fostering relationships with those who were already members of the congregation. 

Don’t get me wrong.  Saving souls is wonderful, but so too is dwelling with other Christians in unity and peace.  We must do the first, but emphasizing the first at the expense of the second is a perversion of Scripture.

I think this is another one of the areas in which the church has taken its lead from wider American society.  Society teaches us that the preacher is an employee and the church leadership is his employer.  So too, society teaches us that if you want to evaluate the usefulness of your employee, you need data.  You need metrics, even if useful metrics really don’t exist.  Another one of those American illusions is that only the measurable is important.

According to this way of thinking, the preacher’s job is to keep the church in the black.  As long as the attendance and contribution keep rising, all is well.  If either starts declining, hmmm.  It might be time to “look for a new direction”.

Preachers, at least the ones who think they can “grow the church”, like this metrical method too.  It gives them job security (they think), and it gives them justification to become puffed up and proud.  How dare any member get crossways with them???  They’re growing the church!

As Terry points out, this is a dangerous delusion.  When it comes to the Lord’s work, no man can give the increase.  Both preachers and churches must acknowledge this.  The data that offer the appearance of objectivity end up distorting the truth instead, either about our preachers or about ourselves.

If we want to test the quality of a man’s work, we have to use Scriptures, not spreadsheets.  Three whole books of the Bible are devoted to a discussion of the work of the evangelist, and there is much other material besides.  The word reveals quite clearly what questions we ought to be asking.

Among them are these:  Does a man work hard?  Does he accurately handle the word of truth?  Is his conduct an example for other believers?  Does he preach the word, in season and out of season?  Is he humble and patient in his dealings with others, especially when they’re wrong?  Above all, does he love the Lord his God with all his heart and soul and mind and strength? 

These things cannot be measured, but their value is immeasurable.  A man who is and does these things, regardless of the number on the attendance board, has won the approval of God.  Preachers need to rest themselves in this truth; church leaders need to honor it. 

If, conversely, numbers begin to matter to us more than godliness, surely ungodliness will not be far behind.

Are Christians Getting Churched Out?

Thursday, January 10, 2019

 

Last week, my friend and brother Kent Berman shared some of his spiritual reflections on Facebook.  He observed that the crush of worship services and church activities on Sunday, and indeed through the rest of the week, left him and his family feeling rushed and stressed out.  He suggested that many churches would be better off in thinning out their calendars, leaving more time for Christians to spend on prayer, Bible study, family activity, and getting to know their neighbors.

I thought this was an intriguing idea, and I both partially agreed and partially disagreed with it.  On the “agreement” side, I think it’s easy for American churches to follow the pattern of American culture, which tends toward stress and excess.  To the American mind, the answer to every problem is a program.  Young people leaving the church?  More youth devotions!  Christians with marriage problems?  Let’s have a series of studies! 

I don’t mean to suggest that any of these things, or other things like them, are ungodly.  Individually, they may even be wise.  In the aggregate, however, they result in a calendar so cluttered with worship services and small-group activities and special events that you basically have to be the preacher to show up to all of them.  When many Christians are already leading lives that are overheating with stress, this may well push them to apathy rather than spiritual excellence.

It’s good, then, for church leaders to reflect long and hard before throwing a program at the problem.  That extra teen devo may well be coming out of the few hours a week that teens have to spend with their families, and time with parents is (or at least ought to be) more spiritually influential than anything the devo leader might say.  If parents aren’t spending significant time on spiritual interaction with their kids, well, we’ve found the real problem, haven’t we?  No program can overcome that.

Fundamentally, though, the reason why Christian families are stressed out and don’t have time for spiritual growth and each other isn’t the church.  It’s the culture.  Three assemblies and a small-group meeting aren’t going to stress you out if you aren’t doing anything else with your week (which is why retired Christians show up to things like that and gripe about how younger Christians aren’t).  However, if both husband and wife are working 50 hours a week to make the payments on a 3000-square-foot house, two late-model SUV’s, and $10K in credit-card debt, then yeah, those extra five hours will push you over the edge.  In fact, you may already be over the edge because of little Johnny and Jane and their 50 million extracurricular activities that you have to take them to or be a Bad Parent.

It’s good to question whether the church is trying to do too much.  It’s better to question whether in our personal lives, we are trying to do too much.  In many cases, we have drunk too deeply of our society’s assumptions about prosperity and success, and they’re causing us to wreck our lives. We careen through life screaming at our loved ones, and we blame the church and its five-hours-a-week drain on our time because those materialistic assumptions are too deeply ingrained to question.

I’m all for churches being respectful of their members’ busy schedules.  However, if our lives are crazy and out-of-control, we need to be honest about where the problem really lies.

Four Characters in Proverbs

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

 

Much of the book of Proverbs is made up of one-shot epigrams without any obvious connection to their context.  However, the first portion of the book isn’t like that.  Instead, it’s dominated by four imaginary characters, all of whom make speeches that frame the rest of the book.  Each one of them personifies some kind of wise or foolish behavior.  In the order in which we encounter them, they are:

The Wise Father.  Whether or not we have earthly fathers who said and did foolish things, the father in Proverbs does not.  Instead, he embodies the wisdom that comes from experience.  In his time, he’s seen it all.  He’s watched as other young men have gone down inviting paths that ended in disaster.  He doesn’t want his son (the reader of Proverbs) to meet the same wretched fate, so he’s instructing him in both wise and unwise choices.

In Proverbs, listen to Dad.  He’s right, though the wisdom of his advice may not be obvious.  Even if you don’t get it, do what he says.  In time, you’ll look back and be glad you did.

The Evil Companions.  In Proverbs 1, Dad’s first warning is about some wicked friends who have a speech of their own to make.  They want the son to come with them and become a highway robber.  They’ll waylay passersby, kill them, and take their stuff.  Everybody will be rich!

Don’t listen to these guys, the father says.  You might think you’ll end up rich, but really you’ll end up dead.

There is more literal value in this advice than we might think.  A young man I once taught in Bible class is currently up on charges for robbery and murder.  However, for most of us, other applications are more relevant.  First, we have to beware of peer pressure.  If we run with the wrong crowd, they will lead us to do the wrong thing. 

Second, we must watch out for all the ways that the love of money can distort our conduct.  In God’s eyes, Bernard Madoff isn’t any better than Jesse James.  If we seek dishonest gain, sooner or later, it will wreck us.

Lady Wisdom.  She has the next speaking part in Proverbs 1, and is neither more nor less than a feminine personification of wisdom and its consequences.  If you listen to Lady Wisdom, she is very generous.  She will see to it that you are rewarded with wealth and honor. 

On the other hand, if you ignore her, she turns into a hag.  She will watch as you ruin yourself, and she will laugh at you the whole way down.  How many of us have known the sting of looking back, seeing what we should have done, and regretting that we did not do it?

The Woman of Folly.  Though the woman of folly (my mother would have denied that she was a lady) doesn’t get a speaking part until Proverbs 7, we’re warned about her from Proverbs 2 on.  She is the stereotypical seductress:  eager to get her hands on naïve young men and destroy them.

From her, all of us, whether male, female, old, or young, have much to learn.  She represents the attractions and dangers of sexual sin.  The woman of folly lurks in schools and workplaces, at parties, and even on the Internet.  Whether we give our bodies to her or merely our hearts, the consequences will be brutal.

Finding God in the New Year

Monday, January 07, 2019

 

Even though I still have to think to make sure that I don’t write “2018” at the top of my sermon notes, 2019 is officially upon us.  There’s really nothing that makes January 1, 2019 any different from December 31, 2018, it’s still a time that many of us use to take stock and consider the year ahead.

Of course, pondering the future is an activity as old as mankind, and we certainly see it in the Scriptures.  For instance, in 2 Timothy 3, Paul tells Timothy what the future will hold for him and what he should do about it.  Because the wisdom of God is timeless, these same things apply to us today.  Let’s consider Paul’s words, then, to learn how we can find God in the new year.

In this text, Paul first warns against WORLDLINESS IN THE CHURCH.  Look here at 2 Timothy 3:1-5.  Much of this text is taken up with a horrendous catalogue of sins, but of it all, the part that most concerns me is v. 5.  There, Paul notes that the people who will practice these things have the appearance of godliness but have forsaken its power.  In other words, all of these awful sins will be committed by people who outwardly look like Christians! 

Brethren, this is the future that the devil wants for every one of us, and we can rest assured that he will spend 2019 working as hard as he can to make sure that this is where we end up.  He wants us to be people who show up for church on Sunday morning but have lives that are every bit as rotten and corrupt as the people around us.  One Christian like that does more harm to the cause of Christ than a hundred atheists! 

This year, before we gossip, before we look at porn, before we nurture hatred in our hearts, let’s remember the devil’s goal.  Let’s resolve that whatever else happens, we’re not going to let him put us in this category.  We can’t control the choices that the world makes, but we can and must control ourselves.

Next, Paul predicts WORLDLINESS IN CHURCH LEADERS.  Let’s keep going in 2 Timothy 3:6-9.  There are two main problems that the apostle identifies in this text, and the first has a very modern ring to it.  It is the problem of leaders in the church using their position to sexually abuse and exploit others.

All of us are familiar with the child-molestation scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church for decades.  However, in recent years, similar problems with the abuse of girls and women have emerged among some evangelical churches.  Those things are bad enough, but it’s even worse when churches cover up sexual misconduct by their leaders.

That must never happen here.  I hope and pray that this never becomes an issue, but if it does, all credible accusations of criminal sexual activity by church leaders here must be reported to the authorities.  In that event, we can’t worry about the damage reporting it will do to the reputation of the church.  It would be far better for this congregation to close its doors forever than to be engaged in sheltering evil.

As Paul observes, part of the problem is that those who prey on the weak and vulnerable will also end up abandoning the truth.  You can’t let Satan have that much real estate in your heart and remain useful for preaching Christ or serving Christ or shepherding others in Christ.  Leaders, we have a job to do.  Let’s pursue godliness so we can do it.

In contrast to this, Paul urges Timothy to FOLLOW HIM.  He explains what this means in 2 Timothy 3:10-13.  He first of all notes that Timothy has been doing this, but that what Timothy has seen from Paul doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence.  Yes, Paul’s life has shown faith, patience, love, and steadfastness, but the result of this for Paul has been persecution and suffering.  Not much of a recommendation!

However, as Paul notes, this is to be expected.  Persecution is for everybody who is trying to live godly in Christ Jesus.  In fact, as other parts of the Scriptures observe, pushback from others is an important sign that we’re on the right track. 

This certainly can be about people giving us grief because of our faith in Christ, but I think the applications are broader than that.  We can’t expect doing the right thing to result in earthly blessing.  Let’s say that Brother Joe Bob has a rotten marriage.  He decides that he wants to make his marriage better, so he dedicates himself to loving his wife, Emma Sue, as Christ loved the church.  However, his better behavior does not guarantee her better behavior.  She may well continue being a hag.

Nonetheless, doing the right thing, even to the point of suffering, does guarantee that God will be with us as He was with Paul, and that’s what truly matters.  The wicked can go on fooling themselves right on into destruction, but only the righteous will please their Creator.

All right.  If we want a bright future, we have to continue to follow God, but how do we do that?  Paul tells Timothy and us both to look to THE SACRED WRITINGS.  Let’s finish up our reading with 2 Timothy 3:14-17.  In this text, there are two things that we must appreciate.  The first is the extent of what Paul is talking about.  Notice that Paul tells Timothy that these are the sacred writings that he has known from childhood.  That can’t be the New Testament.  It has to be the Old Testament. 

Sometimes, I’ll hear Christians grump and complain about studying the Old Testament.  “Why bother with this stuff?” they grumble.  “Everything we need is in the New Testament anyway!”  Well, Paul tells us otherwise.  Timothy needed, and we need, the Old Testament to make us wise for salvation too.

Second, let’s pay attention to Paul’s words about all Scripture, which of course includes both testaments.  He tells us that the Scriptures are both inspired and adequate.  They come from God, and in them, we have everything we need to know to equip us to serve Him.  If it isn’t in the Bible, we don’t need it. 

However, if we don’t know the word and incorporate it into our hearts and our lives, it won’t do us any good.  Last week, Shawn urged us to make sure that we read our Bibles every day.  Let me echo his words.  Let me make you a promise. 

Even though every chapter in this year’s reading is in the Old Testament, if you will dedicate yourself to doing every reading, by the end of this year, it will change your life.  If it doesn’t, I will give you your money back!  Seriously, though, the word of God is powerful and active.  It is certain to transform us if only we will let it.

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