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Finishing What We Start

Monday, August 30, 2021

All of 2 Corinthians 8-9 is taken up with Paul’s discussion of the collection for the needy saints in Jerusalem.  Paul envisions this collection as an opportunity to bridge the gap between Jewish and Gentile churches, so these two chapters contain a host of reasons why the Corinthians should contribute.  Many of these are specific to the subject of generosity and material things, but some are not.  In particular, Paul points out in 2 Corinthians 8:10-12 that the Christians there already had promised to contribute.  Now they need to finish what they had started.

This argument implies that Paul was concerned that the Corinthians would not, in fact, do what they had said they would.  This is a familiar spiritual problem, not merely when it comes to contributing to the Lord’s work (though it certainly shows up there!) but also in every other aspect of our walk with God.

How often have we resolved to begin a Bible-reading plan but give up on it after a couple weeks?  How frequently have we decided to have a discussion with a neighbor or friend about the state of their souls, yet never actually get around to it?  How many bulletin-board signup sheets have we filled out without following through on the commitment we made?  Our intentions are good, but our lives are unfruitful.

This is the thorny-ground problem from the parable of the sower in Mark 4.  The word has been sown in our hearts and taken root, but it is competing with worry, greed, and worldly desires.  Today, we can add plain old distraction to the list too.  All of us know the dispiriting feeling of getting online to accomplish something but spending the next two hours looking at bright shiny objects on social media instead!

All of this suggests that our follow-through problems are really overcommitment problems.  Paul was worried that the Corinthians wouldn’t have money because they had spent it on other things.  In the same way, we often don’t have the time and energy to carry out the Lord’s work because we have spent it on other things.  When we spend all day rushing around from morning till night, there’s no room for extra service to God.

If we want to solve this problem, we must beware of the allure of busyness.  American society is obsessed with busyness, and few among us are willing to tell our friends about how we spent a whole day doing nothing.  We feel pressured to cram in after-hours work, extracurricular activities for our children, and involvement in a million and one different projects and causes.

However, if we want to say yes to God, we must learn to say no to many of those things.  A life that doesn’t have space for work of eternal significance is a life that has too much in it.  If we want to finish what we start, we must make sure that the resources are in place to allow us to finish.  Only then will we be the fruitful workers in the kingdom that we want to be.

Cry Out

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Cry out for joy before the Lord;
Exalt our God and King;
Let songs of gladness be outpoured;
Lift up your hearts and sing!
Though fire consumes His enemies
And darkness veils His throne,
His ears are open to our pleas;
He loves to hear His own!

Chorus:
Cry out for joy and come with praise;
Draw near to glorify,
For who can gladden and amaze
Like God, the Lord on high?

Cry out because His strength of old
Today is still the same,
So let His wonders be retold,
The triumphs of His name.
His people in a foreign land
Were troubled and oppressed;
He brought them with a mighty hand
Into His promised rest.

(Chorus)

Cry out because the Lord will bless
Our days as He has sworn,
That we may tell His righteousness
To people yet unborn.
Though heavy be the loads we bear
And shadowed be the way,
We know His providential care
Will be our strength and stay.

(Chorus)

A Message to X

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

The other day, a friend forwarded me a message from a friend of theirs.  In it, the friend of my friend described their waning faith.  They felt disconnected from their church, they were unhappy with being single, and they struggled with God’s behavior in Job 1.  In inviting Satan to consider Job, wasn’t God participating in evil?  The following was my response.

Dear X,

I'm a minister in Columbia, TN and a friend of Y's, who shared your concerns with me.  I'm not surprised by your struggles.  When the American version of Christianity is so focused on marriage/family, it's hard to be single!  I also understand why your suffering would shake your faith.  In my own life, I recently was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease.  It's terminal, has no cure, and probably will kill me within five years, even though I have a 11-year-old and a 9-year-old.  This is, to say the least, difficult to deal with!

I would suggest, though, that what you're struggling with isn't really God's existence, but rather God's goodness.  Logically speaking, even if God is participating in evil in bringing Job to Satan's attention, that doesn't show anything about God's existence one way or another.  Both of us know lots of evil people who nonetheless exist.  It's equally possible for God to be cruel and uncaring yet still exist too.

The problem you're identifying is that God's actions in Job 1 appear to be inconsistent with the Biblical portrait of a God who is loving and kind.  You're saying, "A good God wouldn't have pointed out Job to Satan, so God isn't good."  In your own life, your suffering leads you to question God's goodness. 

However, the Bible does not claim that the goodness of God means that the righteous never will suffer.  Indeed, the opposite is true.  Exhibit A here is Jesus.  He was perfectly righteous, yet a good God handed Him over to torture, humiliation, and death, despite the great grief this caused God.  The Father and the Son shared in suffering to accomplish a greater good.

Consequently, if I have committed to following in the footsteps of Jesus, I also have agreed to accept the suffering that God allows.  Jesus suffered despite and even because of His righteousness; should I expect anything different?  Indeed, how could it be possible for the Christian to be conformed to the image of Christ without suffering?  Christianity without suffering also is Christianity without the cross.

Suffering presents every believer with a choice.  We can turn inward and dwell on our misery, or we can determinedly seek God through the trial.  There is no promise in the Bible that we will be spared trial, but every trial will offer a way to glorify God.  When we endure through trial, we accomplish the greater good He desires.

Back to Job 1.  I think all of the above reveals the answer.  God wanted to give Job the opportunity to accomplish a greater good.  Part of the greater good was that the arc of the story revealed God to be compassionate and merciful, as per James 5:10-11.  Job's story also gave believers before the time of Christ insight into the suffering of the righteous that otherwise wasn't available.  If you have not read the book of Job beyond the opening and closing chapters, I strongly encourage you to do so!

I wish I could talk these things over with you in person.  Regardless, my prayers are with you.  May the Lord bless you richly, even in the midst of trial!

Matt Bassford

The Problem Isn't New Versus Old

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

For years, I’ve been an advocate of using quality hymns in worship.  Not surprisingly, there are plenty of folks who disagree with me, particularly when I get to picking on contemporary praise songs that I don’t think are useful in congregational worship.  They’ve even been known to get upset about it.  It’s like I called their dog ugly or something.

One of the most common countercharges is that I don’t like the contemporary songs I don’t like because I’m stuck in the past.  According to this way of thinking, I believe the only good hymns are the ones written in the 19th century, filled with “Thee” and “Thou”, and possessed of syntax so convoluted that only Yoda could love it.  Oh, and the music has to sound like it was born on a pipe organ too.

There are certainly people who believe such things, but I’m not one of them.  I think “Abide with Me” is a wonderful hymn, but not every hymn has to sound like “Abide with Me” to be good.  Instead, my usual indictment of many modern worship songs is that 1) they lack strong Biblical content, and 2) the music is too complicated for a congregation to learn easily. 

Neither one of these things is a necessary attribute of sacred songs written in the past 50 years, though such songs often fail on one or both counts.  Rather, they are frequently problems because modern authors and composers generally don’t make good content and congregationality their priorities, particularly the latter. 

Chris Tomlin doesn’t write music for me and my modest range.  He writes music for Chris Tomlin, Chris Tomlin’s wonderful range, and Chris Tomlin’s backup band of professional musicians.  Most brethren, however, have musical gifts much more like mine than like Chris Tomlin’s.  Is it any wonder when they struggle with the Chris Tomlin repertoire?

However, when contemporary writers pay attention to content and the musical abilities of ordinary worshipers, they can turn out some excellent work that is eminently suitable for use in our assemblies.  By now, most brethren are familiar with “In Christ Alone”, written by Stuart Townend and Keith and Kristin Getty.  Together and separately, they’ve written plenty of other hymns that are comparable in quality and usefulness.  The same goes for Bob Kauflin and the many writers who have been associated with Sovereign Grace through the years. 

Recently, the Australian group CityAlight has attracted my attention (the tagline on their website is “Christian worship music with Biblically rich lyrics”, which is a good sign).  Yes, they use drums and guitars, but brethren have been adapting denominational hymns for a-cappella use since the Restoration.  We can do it here too.

Consider, for instance, the CityAlight song “Jesus Strong and Kind”, which I recently encountered for the first time.  Its lyrics are:

1. Jesus said that if I thirst
I should come to Him;
No one else can satisfy;
I should come to Him.

2. Jesus said if I am weak
I should come to Him;
No one else can be my strength;
I should come to Him.

Chorus:
For the Lord is good and faithful;
He will keep us day and night;
We can always run to Jesus,
Jesus, strong and kind.

3. Jesus said that if I fear
I should come to Him;
No one else can be my shield;
I should come to Him.

(Chorus)

4. Jesus said if I am lost
He will come to me;
And He showed me on that cross
He will come to me.

(Chorus)

That’s good.  It doesn’t look like the hymns Isaac Watts wrote, nor yet like the hymns I write.  It’s still good.  It reveals Biblical study and contemplation, it is focused, and it is deeply meaningful to the believer, especially those who also have spent time in study of the word. 

If I may indulge in hymn-geekery for a moment, it’s also good because of its structural strength.  Like many modern praise songs, it doesn’t use a strong rhyme scheme and can’t develop structure that way.  Instead, it employs repetition, mixed with a few powerful word changes, as its structural element.  The change from “thirst” and “satisfy” to “weak” and “strength” makes v. 2 meaningfully different from v. 1, even though most of the words are the same.  However, the whole still has unity because of those similarities.

The music is also (or should be, at least) congregationally accessible.  The use of verses means that brethren who learn music by rote don’t have to learn as much.  The range is limited to a congregation-friendly octave, C to C in the original sheet music, though I’d probably raise it to D or Eb for four-part a-cappella use.  I like the tune, too.  Churches of Christ should be able to sing this one easily.

When was this fine piece of hymnody written?  2019.  All it takes is somebody in the denominational world who cares about the Bible and congregational singing, and they’ll hand us something we can use.

Indeed, this happens frequently.  This year, I wrote a workbook called Singing with Understanding for a Bible class I taught.  Each lesson of the workbook pitted an unfamiliar hymn I liked against an unfamiliar hymn I didn’t so that the class could analyze the qualities of good and bad hymns.  For the sake of fairness, I segregated hymns by time period:  old good against old bad, new good against new bad.  Of the four categories, I had by far the easiest time filling out the “New Good” category because so many of the best worship songs being written now are unfamiliar to the church.

That’s a shame.  Rather than allowing CCM icons and praise teams to drive the additions to our repertoire, we ought instead to be looking for songs that are written for and will benefit the congregation.  If we seek, we will find, and our song worship will benefit immeasurably thereby.

Death and Life in Jesus

Monday, August 23, 2021

Only God knows how many times y’all have heard me declare about some Bible passage, “This is one of my favorite verses!”  However, favorite contexts are a bit rarer.  On that list, though, must appear 2 Corinthians 4-6, the heart of what Clay called “the Great Digression” last week.

However, that much Scripture is a bit much for even me to tackle in a single sermon, so this evening, we’re going to zero in on the section from the middle of 2 Corinthians 4 to the middle of 2 Corinthians 5. 

I think this portion is especially valuable because it shows us just how different the Christian perspective on life is from the worldly perspective.  People of the world generally will agree that you need to go through life not causing trouble, looking after your physical health, and generally making yourself a priority.  After all, if you don’t look after yourself, who will do it for you?

To Paul, though, life isn’t focused on the self.  It’s focused on Christ, not only in seeking life through Christ but also in embracing His death.  This evening, then, let’s consider how earthly existence looks when viewed through the lens of the death and life of Jesus.

In the text, this duality shows up in three contrasting pairs, and the first of them is SUFFERING AND SPEAKING.  Let’s read from 2 Corinthians 4:7-15.  In this text, two main things are going on.  First, he describes his suffering.  Second, he describes the effect that his continuing to speak has had on the Corinthians and others.

The first part of this text isn’t as famous as Paul’s later description of his hardships in 2 Corinthians 11, but this is still not a list that anyone would want to take on!  He is afflicted.  He is perplexed.  He is persecuted.  He is struck down.  He is delivered over to death for the sake of Jesus.  However, there are also things that he isn’t.  He isn’t crushed, in despair, abandoned, or destroyed, and everywhere he goes, he displays the life of Jesus. 

This teaches us a vital lesson:  the Christian is never totally defeated.  There might be all kinds of things going wrong in our lives, but God won’t let us be overcome by any of them.  Additionally, the more we are given over to death, the more the life of Christ becomes evident in us too.

Indeed, suffering gives us a powerful voice.  Like Paul’s suffering allowed him to bring life to many, our example of faith in suffering gives us a platform.  When we stand strong through trial and continue to glorify God, we inspire other Christians, and we pierce the hearts of the people of the world. 

Suffering is a fact of life.  It will come to all of us.  The question is how we are going to suffer.  Are we going to suffer like a worldling or like a Christian?  That choice makes all the difference.

The second pair is DYING AND BEING RAISED.  Look at 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:5.  Once again, the death-versus-life contrast is clear.  Despite his faith—indeed, because of his faith!—Paul knows himself to be dying.  However, he also knows that through Jesus, he will have an eternal life in heaven that is perfectly secure.

There are two things that we should draw from this.  First, it shows us that dying should remind us of eternal life.  Whether we feel it or not, it is true for all of us that our outer man is decaying day by day.  In my case, I do feel it.  One of the primary early-stage ALS symptoms is fasiculation.  It’s a bunch of little involuntary muscle twitches all over my body.  They are caused by motor neurons that have been poisoned by toxic proteins and are dying. 

I feel them every hour of every day.  They certainly remind me that my days are numbered!  However, they also remind me that my inward man is being renewed every day, and that I have an incomparable and eternal weight of glory waiting for me.  Thus it is for all of us.  What hastens us toward our doom also hastens us toward our goal.

Second, this also shows us that we can be confident in our resurrection.  In particular, Paul says that we can know that we will be raised because of the Spirit in our hearts as a down payment.  Some might say that this is about the feelings of confidence that the Spirit gives us, but that doesn’t make sense to me.  Have you ever heard of a bank that would accept a feeling as a down payment?

Instead, this has to be something tangible that fills us with justified confidence.  In the case of first-century Christians, it was the miraculous gifts.  When you could speak foreign languages or predict the future, that proved to you that your faith was more than a matter of wishful thinking.

Today, the Spirit carries out this work through the word.  I don’t merely feel that I will be raised.  I know that I will be because of the Biblical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.  The Scriptures assure me that my faith isn’t based on wishful thinking either.

Our final pair of the evening is BELIEVING AND FOLLOWING.  This plays out in 2 Corinthians 5:6-15.  Believing seems like an odd thing to link with death, but Paul does so in two ways.  First, he points out that because of our faith, we no longer fear death but rather even long for it.  It is much better to be away from the body and at home with the Lord! 

However, and more provocatively, he says in v. 14 that believing in the death of Jesus leads us to die to ourselves.  When we understand that the holy Son of God loved us so much that He died for us, it’s a life-changing realization.  If we’re decent people at all, we don’t shrug that one off.  It moves us to devote ourselves to Him like He devoted Himself to us.

The following part is twofold too.  First, following Jesus leads us on the path to heaven that He blazed.  When we are in heaven, we are not merely at home.  We are at home with the Lord, and it is the presence of our Lord that makes heaven our home at all.

Second, when we die to ourselves because of the awe-inspiring sacrifice of Christ, we don’t stay dead.  Rather than continuing to live for ourselves, we live for Him.  He died and was raised, and we strive to conform to that pattern as closely as possible, knowing that union with His death means union with His resurrection too.

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