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This Jesus

Friday, December 27, 2019

This morning, all of us are aware that this Wednesday, December 25th, is Christmas, a day on which people across the world will celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.  Most of us also are aware that there is nothing in the Bible that says that Jesus’ birth should be celebrated on December 25th, or, indeed, on any other day.  Nonetheless, it is true that at this time of year, more than any other, people are talking about Jesus.

What’s the big deal?  What’s so important about a baby born in a stable in a backwater of the Roman Empire that we should still be talking about it 2000 years later?  Certainly, the fact that Jesus was born of a virgin is impressive, but if that were the most noteworthy thing that Jesus ever did, He would be nothing more than an obscure historical footnote.  This morning, then, let’s turn to the Scriptures to see why we should care about this Jesus.

I had the idea for this sermon about six weeks ago, when Mike Young preached for us on Acts 2 and the first gospel sermon.  As I was following along in my Bible with him, I noticed something I’d never seen before.  At least in the ESV, the phrase “this Jesus” occurs three times in Peter’s sermon, and the three uses of the phrase highlight the most important things about Jesus’ life.

The first “this Jesus” phrase points out that He WAS CRUCIFIED.  Let’s read together from Acts 2:23.  There are three things in this verse that I want us to focus on.  The first is that Jesus was killed on the cross.  This might seem like a duh point, but believe it or not, there are plenty of folks who want to argue about this.  Muslims believe that Jesus only appeared to be crucified and was brought up alive into heaven.  Many skeptics argue that Jesus only passed out on the cross and came back to His senses in Joseph’s tomb.

Not so.  As Peter says here, and as everyone in Jerusalem at that point knew, Jesus died.  He breathed His last on the cross, and he was taken down dead from the cross.  Even extrabiblical writers like Suetonius and Josephus confirm that Jesus was killed.

Second, Jesus was delivered to crucifixion and death by the plan of God.  Around this time of year, people like to put up nativity scenes, and even though I don’t think that the shepherds and wise men came to visit Jesus and Mary at the same time, there they all are, gathered around the manger. 

Though of course it wouldn’t be historically accurate either, I think it would be thematically appropriate if all those nativity scenes also included a cross, because Jesus was quite literally born to die on that cross.  Indeed, the Bible tells us that even before the world was created, God had determined that Jesus had to die.  His death was the culmination of a plan that was older than the universe.

Third, let’s pay attention to “you”.  None of the people in the crowd that day were directly involved in Jesus’ death, but Peter tells them that they were responsible anyway.  This morning, I want us to consider our own responsibility.  Before anything else existed, God looked into the future and knew that He would have to send His sinless Son to die, and it was our sin that made His death inevitable.  We didn’t nail Jesus to the cross either, but neither can we walk away from our share in His suffering.

The second “this Jesus” statement in Acts 2 reports that He WAS RAISED UP.  Look at Acts 2:32.  Let’s pause for a moment to acknowledge how extraordinary a statement this is.  In my time as a preacher, I’ve preached many funerals and attended many more, but never once have I seen the body in the casket come back to life.  We know that dead people don’t rise from the dead, but Peter here is insisting that Jesus did exactly that.

In order to back up this extraordinary statement, Peter says that “we all are witnesses.”  There are a couple of senses in which I want us to consider his words.  First, he is obviously talking about himself and the other apostles who are standing next to him.  They saw the risen Jesus, they talked with the risen Jesus, they ate with the risen Jesus, and they even touched the risen Jesus. 

They were so sure that Jesus had risen that they spent the rest of their lives proclaiming that He had, and many of them even died because of their testimony.  Indeed, our word “martyr” comes from the Greek martus, which means “witness”.  Because they were willing to go to torture and death rather than take back their testimony, we can know that they were completely convinced Jesus had risen.

However, besides the human witness of the apostles, Peter’s sermon points out two other kinds of witness.  The first is the witness of prophecy.  Just before v. 32, Peter quotes from Psalm 16, which is only one of many prophetic passages in the Old Testament that foretold that God would raise His Holy One from the dead.  Today, we know that weather forecasters can’t correctly predict the weather next week, but the prophets of the Old Testament looked into the future and predicted the suffering, death, and resurrection of the Christ, right down to the tiniest detail.  This proves that both the prophecy and its fulfillment are the handiwork of God.

The third witness in this text is the witness of miracles.  The apostles confirmed the word they preached with signs and wonders.  In Acts 2, they display the miraculous ability to speak in foreign languages.  Other miracles that are even more impressive appear throughout the New Testament.  If somebody says they saw a dead man come back to life, you can safely ignore them.  If they claim that, then raise a man from the dead themselves, then you’d better start listening!

Our third “this Jesus” phrase reveals that He WAS MADE LORD AND CHRIST.  Consider Acts 2:36.  Let’s begin by talking about what “Lord” and “Christ” mean.  “Lord” is straightforward.  God put Jesus in control of everything.  “Christ” is less so.  I suspect that most Americans believe that “Christ” is Jesus’ last name.  It isn’t.  It’s a title, like “King”.  It means “Anointed One”, and it carries with it the idea that Jesus is God’s anointed prophet, priest, and king.  In short, Jesus was the fulfillment of everything the prophets had told the Jews to expect.

Second, notice that Peter says that we can “know for certain” that Jesus is Lord and Christ.  This is the consequence of the witnesses we talked about in the last section.  If you accept the eyewitnesses, the prophecies, and the miracles, you also must accept the pre-eminence of Jesus.  As the next verse shows, the people who saw these things certainly were convinced!

That, in turn, is a belief with consequences.  We can’t accept that Jesus is Lord and go on living the way we used to live.  That would be like acknowledging that we live in the United States of America, yet refusing to obey any of its laws.  Like the Jews in v. 37, we also have to ask, “What shall we do?”  Sometimes, the answer is the answer of v. 38.  We have to obey the gospel.  We have to become Christians through baptism for the forgiveness of our sins.  Always, though, the answer must be that we will devote our lives to the One we call “Lord”.

Stepping Up in Discipleship

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

A few weeks ago, I preached a 20,000-foot view sermon on 2 Timothy, in which I spent a lot of time reading and a little time highlighting main themes.  The brethren here seemed pleased with that, so this evening, I’d like to return to the concept.  Let’s see what Philippians can teach us about stepping up in discipleship.

Let’s begin by reading PHILIPPIANS 1.  Here, Paul teaches us to see the world through Christ’s eyes.  Paul could have been depressed about his situation.  He was imprisoned, and his enemies were cynically using the gospel to make him look bad.  However, because he had learned Jesus’ perspective, he was able to see good in both of those things and even rejoice in them.

Next up is PHILIPPIANS 2.  This text calls us to show Christ’s humility in the way we treat one another.  It’s so easy for worldliness and selfishness to slip into the thinking of even mature Christians.  Let’s say, for instance, that the coming auditorium remodel doesn’t turn out exactly to our taste.  Are we going to be upset that we didn’t get our way, or are we going to rejoice because others in the church got theirs? 

PHILIPPIANS 3 offers us another valuable spiritual lesson.  It tells us to be willing to sacrifice anything for Jesus.  As a Jew, Paul had it all, and he gave it all up for Christ.  What’s more, it was a trade he was glad to make.  All of us are called to give up things in our lives too.  Usually, these things are minor in comparison to what Paul gave up.  Do we cling jealously to them anyway, or, like Paul, do we gladly forfeit them for Christ’s sake?

The epistle concludes with PHILIPPIANS 4.  This chapter calls us to find the solution to our problems in Christ.  If we are anxious, we can find peace in Christ.  If we are tempted, we can find strength by meditating on the things of Christ.  If we are suffering, we can find contentment in Christ.  If our hearts are set on Him, there is nothing we cannot overcome!

Racism: a Biblical Perspective

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

I am willing to preach on any Biblical topic, no matter how fraught with controversy it may be.  However, I must admit that even my spirit quails a little bit at the thought of preaching one of the sermons that has been requested—a sermon on racism.  It’s both a very simple and a very complicated topic, and the complications come from our personal and national history with race.

To illustrate this, let me talk about the complications of my own history.  Don’t let the lack of accent fool you.  The roots of my family tree are firmly in the South!  The man in the picture on the screen is my great-great grandfather.  His name was Thomas Jefferson Tynes.  Though the picture is of him as an old man, in his youth, he fought for the Confederacy.  In 1862, at age 16, he lied about his age to enlist in the 6th Virginia Cavalry.  For the next three years, he fought with Robert E. Lee and rode with Jeb Stuart.  During the Gettysburg campaign, he was wounded.  I believe that he fought bravely, as did countless thousands of others who fought for the South.

However, it is also true that my great-great grandfather came from a family of slaveowners.  He benefited from and probably participated in cruelty and injustice wreaked upon the innocent.  Closer to home, I don’t have any trouble thinking of older relatives of mine who loved me and were good to me, but also were as racist as they could possibly be.  They thought and did wrong, but these are my flesh and blood.  These are my people, and that makes it complicated.

I say all this for several reasons.  First, if you’ve got complications in your backstory too, I totally get where you’re coming from.  Second, when we encounter those who speak passionately from their own history and experience, let’s remember to respond with understanding and grace.  If somebody looks at my family and says, “What a bunch of evil oppressors!”, I get where they’re coming from too. 

Third, though, as present as the past is when it comes to racism, we can’t allow the past to define us.  Rather than being conformed to history, we must be transformed by Christ.  With this in mind, then, let’s consider racism from a Biblical perspective.

From this perspective, I see three problems with looking down on someone else because of their race.  The first of these is that GOD SHOWS NO PARTIALITY.  Look at Acts 10:34-35.  The context here, of course, is Peter preaching the first gospel sermon to the Gentiles.  Why is he doing this?  Fundamentally, because everyone is equal in the eyes of God.

The usual racist argument, by anybody against anybody, is that Race X is better than Race Y because members of Race Y aren’t as smart, aren’t as moral, etc.  I have two issues with that.  First, I don’t think it can be proven.  For instance, lots of racists like to point to standardized test scores as evidence, but I suspect that test scores do a much better job of measuring wealth and educational opportunity than they do of measuring intellectual ability. 

Second, it’s ungodly to measure anybody’s inherent worth by their ability.  Jesus didn’t just die for smart people.  He didn’t just die for people who are good at math.  He certainly didn’t just die for white people!  He died for everybody, regardless of ability, regardless of race, and if Jesus looked at somebody and said, “He’s worth dying for,” who am I to argue? 

We have no right to assign to anybody a value different than the one that Jesus assigned, and to Him, everyone is precious.  When we consider how to treat others, we’re not supposed to take our cue from our families.  We’re not supposed to take our cue from the world around us.  We’re supposed to take our cue from the Lord, and His love allows no room for racism.

Second, racism is problematic because IT BELONGS TO THE OLD SELF.  Look at Colossians 3:9-11.  In this context in Colossians, Paul is talking about the spiritual transformation that Christians are to undergo.  There are attributes that Christ calls us to put off, and there are attributes that He calls us to put on.  We aren’t to be our old selves anymore.  We are to become new creations in Him.

As this text reveals, one of the characteristics of unregenerate humankind is that it assigns different values to people in different categories.  We think of racism as a uniquely modern and American problem, but in reality, it’s as old as the tower of Babel.  2000 years ago, there were all sorts of labels that the people of the ancient world liked to assign to each other.  You were a Greek, you were a Jew, you were a barbarian, you were a Scythian, you were a slave, and so on.  Typically, you sought out the company of people who shared your label, and you sneered at the ones who didn’t.  Many of the ancient Roman plays were filled with racial stereotyping.  The more things change, the more they stay the same!

Paul says, though, that such a labeling mindset is part of the old way of thinking.  Just as Christians are to put aside anger, lying, and dirty jokes, they are to put aside the labeling of racism.  Racial labeling is evidence of a mind that has not been renewed in knowledge after the image of God.  We’re not supposed to look at people and see skin tone and ethnic background.  We’re supposed to look at people and see souls, because that’s what God wants us to see.

The third issue with racism is that WE ARE ONE IN CHRIST.  Consider with me Galatians 3:27-29.  As Christians, it is wrong for us to evaluate anybody according to characteristics that have no spiritual significance.  It’s doubly wrong for us to evaluate one another that way. 

I know you’ve heard me tell stories about O.J., a black brother who was part of the Joliet congregation and a dear friend of mine.  Sadly, during my last few years in Illinois, O.J. developed brain cancer and died.  The man who preached his funeral was John Meyer, one of the former elders there, a man who is as white as I am. 

O.J. was an important man in the black community in Joliet.  The funeral home was packed, and the only white people there were members of the Joliet church.  John began his eulogy by saying, “O.J. was my brother.  I’m sure you can all see the resemblance.”  He brought the house down!

The thing is, though, I can see the resemblance between John and O.J.  They didn’t look a thing alike, of course, but they both loved God, loved His word, and earnestly desired to be more like Jesus.  In the things that matter, they were and are brothers, and they loved one another as brothers.

This is how we must be.  As I said at the beginning, blood is important.  Family ties matter.  However, the most important blood in our lives must be the blood of Jesus, and the most important ties, the ties that bind in Christ.  Perhaps overcoming racial division is impossible in the world, but it is mandatory in the church.  Only when we find unity with one another can we find unity with God.

Saving Faith

Friday, December 06, 2019

As I continue to make my way through the list of sermon requests on my phone, the next on it came from Spud, who asked me to preach a sermon on faith.  For the rest of you who have asked for a sermon, there are six more on the list, so I haven’t forgotten you! 

That notwithstanding, I think that faith is an excellent subject for a sermon.  This is true for a number of different reasons.  First, it is a subject that is generally misunderstood in the wider religious world.  Commonly, when we talk with our friends and neighbors about faith, we find that they mean something along the lines of mental assent, a bare acknowledgement that Jesus is the Son of God.  This concept has about as much in common with Biblical faith as a jumbo shrimp does with a jumbo jet!

It is also true, though, that distortion of the Bible’s teaching on justification by faith has led some brethren to go too far in the opposite direction.  Just to make sure that we don’t end up in the camp of the do-nothings, too often, we turn salvation from the work of God back into our own work.  Neither one of these alternatives is useful, so this evening, let’s look at Bible teaching on saving faith.

In particular, I want to consider three characteristics that saving faith has.  The first of these is that it COMES FROM THE WORD.  This is evident from Romans 10:17.  This is a familiar text to many of us, but I think there’s much more here than we commonly notice.  It’s not only true that we have to hear the gospel in order to become a Christian, which is how we commonly apply this passage.  Instead, throughout our lives, our faith always will be connected to the time we spend with the word.

This is most obvious in those who don’t spend time with the word.  Back when I still lived in Illinois, with some regularity, I was invited to preach the funeral of unbelievers.  Somebody knew that I was the preacher where Mom and Dad had gone to church, or where Grandpa and Grandma had come to church, and so, when there was a death in the family, even if they’d never met me before, they’d call me.

These people were not churchgoers, but at funerals, just about everybody wants to be religious, because otherwise you have to believe your loved one is dead forever and you’ll never see them again.  So I’d hear all these irreligious people talking about how Mama had gone to heaven to be with Jesus, but the funny thing was, you could tell from their voices that they didn’t believe it.  They didn’t spend time with the word, so they didn’t have any faith, so they didn’t have any hope.

To the extent that we will not commit to spending time with the word, that’s where we will end up too.  If we decide that we’re only going to come to church once a week, or once a month, we’re going to hear less of the word, and our faith will weaken.  If we decide that we’re too busy to spend time reading our Bibles every day, we’re going to take in less of the word, and our faith will weaken.  Without exception, the more we interact with the word, the stronger our faith will become.

The second characteristic of saving faith that I want to consider is that it TRUSTS IN GOD.  Look at the way Paul expresses this idea in Romans 4:4-5.  In this text, we see two kinds of people.  The first is purely hypothetical.  It’s the man who earns salvation for himself by perfectly keeping the law of God.  Nobody on earth today is doing this, and the only who ever has done it is the Lord!  Nonetheless, if we were to keep the will of God perfectly and never sin once, we could contemplate the day of judgment with great confidence.  We could demand entrance into heaven, because by our own righteousness, we had earned it.

On the other hand, we have the one who does not work, who has not kept the law perfectly.  This does not mean that he’s not trying to keep God’s law at all, merely that in some point, he has failed.  He has not earned the right to eternal life. 

However, this non-worker does trust in God’s ability to justify him even though he is ungodly, and as a result, his faith is reckoned to him as righteousness.  In other words, even though he has not been righteous, he is counted as righteous because of his faith.  He gets the reward of eternal life even though he did not earn it, an accounting maneuver that is only possible because of the blood of Jesus.

Notice, though, that just as the perfect law-keeper contemplates eternity with confidence, so too can the one who is justified by faith.  The law-keeper is confident in himself, but the recipient of grace is confident in God.  I know that in my life, I have sinned, both before and after my baptism.  Even though I hate sin and struggle against it, I am sure that at some point in the future, the cunning of the devil will tempt me to sin once again.  I hate that thought, but I’m not discouraged by it, because my own personal record of righteousness is not the determining factor in my salvation.  Instead, I trust in God to deliver me, and as long as I continue to trust Him, my salvation is certain.

Nonetheless, it is also true that saving faith IS OBEDIENT.  Among other passages, this thought appears in Romans 1:5.  Just as one of the characteristics of a tree is that it has a trunk, one of the characteristics of faith is that it obeys.  Indeed, the more perfect the faith, the more perfect the obedience.  Conversely, as the notion of a tree without a trunk is ridiculous, the notion of faith that doesn’t trouble itself to obey is ridiculous too.

This is true for several different reasons.  First, belief that Jesus is the Son of God is an idea with consequences.  If I believe that Jesus is King and the Bible is His word, then I am going to do my best to do what the Bible says.  If the Bible says, “Be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins,” I’m going to be baptized for the forgiveness of my sins, because that’s what King Jesus told me to do.  For that matter, if the Bible tells me to stand on my head for 30 seconds while singing “Baby Shark” at the top of my lungs for the forgiveness of my sins, I’m still gonna do what King Jesus says--because I believe He’s King!  What we believe is always going to be reflected in what we do.

Similarly, saving faith leads to obedience as an expression of gratitude.  Once I know and understand all that Jesus has done for me, I should be overwhelmed by it.  It’s not that Jesus merely saved my physical life.  He saved my soul from eternal torment in hell, not because it was easy, not because I deserved it, but because His love for me was so great that it drove Him to the cross to die for me.  Once I get that, how can I possibly think that my life belongs to me anymore?  So-called Christians who don’t live lives of obedience have lost touch with the sacrifice of Christ.  The more that sacrifice is in our hearts, the more we will strive to live for Him.

Women Leading in the Church

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

The other day, an article from Harding University’s student newspaper wandered across my news feed.  It described the decision by the Downtown Church of Christ in Searcy, AR, to begin allowing women to take leadership roles in the church.  Henceforth, among other things, they will be allowed to teach mixed adult Bible classes and to read Scripture from the pulpit. 

In many ways, this is no longer surprising.  Self- described churches of Christ all over the country are restudying the issue of female leadership in the church.  Unlike our brethren for hundreds of years before us, they are coming to the conclusion that this is Scripturally acceptable.

This is what is being done, but what does the Bible actually say?  This morning, let’s consider women leading in the church.

As will come as a surprise to no one, I do not believe that women should become religious leaders, and I see three main problems with the practice.  The first of these is that IT BREAKS WITH THE BIBLE.  Look with me at 1 Timothy 2:11-14.  This is a simple passage.  It explains what should not be—women teaching or exercising authority, and then it explains why it should not be—Adam was created first, and Eve sinned first.  As Paul notes in the next chapter, all of this is part of his instructions for right conduct in the church.  Thus, no women leaders in the church.  It has nothing to do with women being inferior or anything like that, and everything to do with events that happened thousands of years ago.

This is a strong prohibition, and it’s based on an equally strong argument from creation.  Because of the events of Genesis 1-3, we never should see women leading men in religious matters, not in the Old Testament, not in the New Testament.  Indeed, this is exactly what we see.  In both Old and New Testaments, those in religious authority, from priests to preachers, are always male.  Some people try to locate female apostles in Romans 16:7, but there, as with many other places, what can be asserted from the text and what can be proven with the text are two different things.

It is true that in both Old and New Testaments, there were prophetesses, for instance, Huldah the prophetess, who shows up in 2 Chronicles 34.  However, nowhere in the Bible do we see prophetesses taking leadership roles religious gatherings.  Whatever the prophetesses of 1 Corinthians 11 are doing, Paul, the same man who condemned women teaching men in 1 Timothy 2, thinks it’s OK.

To sum up, 1 Timothy 2 makes a strong claim that women shouldn’t be leaders, and nowhere in the Bible do we see evidence to the contrary.  Those who want to exalt women to leadership roles, then, are not breaking with “Church of Christ tradition”.  They are breaking with the practice of the early church.  Indeed, they are breaking with the way God’s people have done things since the beginning.

Second, turning to women for religious leadership FOLLOWS THE WORLD.  We see how big a problem this is when we consider Romans 12:1-2.  As Christians, we are to be transformed by Christ, not conformed to the world.

Here, I think it’s illuminating to consider an excerpt from the statement that the eldership of the Downtown church issued.  They said, “We live in the midst of both great and rapid socio-cultural change.  These changes tear at the fabric of our culture, polarizing and fragmenting community. How does the community of the church respond to this rending of unity?  Is it even possible to maintain a body with a transcendent unity in the midst of divergent opinions?  This was the question that the elders at the Downtown Church of Christ faced when they began to grapple with issues surrounding the role of women within the body of Christ.”

Basically, the eldership is saying that due to influence from the world, there were lots of people in their congregation who believed that women should be religious leaders, and it was to keep those people from splitting off that they decided to restudy the issue of women in religious authority.

With all due respect to them, that’s exactly wrong.  No congregation should determine its convictions according to socio-cultural change.  Instead, we must determine them according to the word of God, which does not change.  Similarly, we must never seek to please Christians who have been influenced by the world.  Instead, we must seek to please God and allow Him to be our only influence.

If we follow this path, the answer to questions about women as religious leaders, along with many other answers, becomes clear.  However, if we stray from it, that is when doubt and confusion arise. 

This is what happened to the Downtown church.  The article says they restudied this issue for four months.  That makes me awfully suspicious.  Women in religious authority is not a particularly rich topic.  There are only a few passages that address it.  I could polish those texts off in a Bible class or two, much less four months! 

I think, then, that what probably happened is that they brought in a whole bunch of authorities from outside the word, and those authorities muddied the water enough that they could reach the conclusion that would allow for peace in the congregation.  The problem is that peace with the world and peace with God are mutually exclusive.

The final difficulty I want us to examine this morning is that having women as religious leaders UNDERMINES CHRIST’S AUTHORITY.  Let’s read together from Ephesians 1:22-23.  As this text makes clear, Christ’s authority over the church is supposed to be absolute.  We do what He tells us to, and whether it seems like a good idea to us is irrelevant.  However, once we start rejecting Christ’s authority in one area, we will find that He has no authority in any area.

Let’s start with some low-hanging fruit.  According to the article, despite these changes, the Downtown church has decided that they won’t have a female preacher, nor will women be allowed to serve as elders.  Frankly, I think this is a distinction without a difference.  As long as a woman is teaching and exercising authority over men, does it really matter whether she’s standing behind a lectern or a pulpit? 

Indeed, I predict that over time, the distinction will prove meaningless.  In a few years, the Downtown church will have a female preacher.  In a few more, it will have female elders.  The momentum of the position they have taken is irresistible.

Nor do I think the momentum will stop there.  Consider, for instance, the Biblical case against the practice of homosexuality.  It looks an awful lot like the Biblical case against women as religious leaders.  In both cases, you’ve got a few clear passages that have come under severe criticism from the world. 

Once you have decided that you’re going to tolerate female church leaders, how do you say that you’re not going to tolerate practicing homosexuals in the church, or even practicing homosexual leaders?  The arguments for and against are exactly the same.  If you’re going to bend with the cultural wind in the one area, you will in the other too. 

Once culture becomes king in the church, Christ cannot be.  You may be going through with the charade that you’re loving Jesus and serving Jesus, but really, each man and woman are doing what is right in their own eyes.

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