Hold On to the God Who Holds You: How He Comforts Us with Election

This article first appeared on DesiringGod.org.

Desiring God water pic

As a pastor, I had visited church members in the psych ward before, but this time the church member was our dear friend Sarah (her name has been changed for privacy). She had no family nearby, but lived just a few miles from us. When Sarah was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, my wife began to bring her meals. We would visit her whenever we could. One of the treatments had taken a horrible turn. Dark side effects landed Sarah in the psych ward.

She looked at me that afternoon from her hospital bed, almost without recognition, with deep pain in her eyes. I reminded her of the care of her church family and the love of Christ for her. A tear rolled down her cheek and she whispered, “Guilty.”

I knew that Sarah needed bedrock gospel truth under her feet, so I turned to Romans 8 and began to read to her, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Her eyes flashed with recognition. I continued to read until I got to verse 30, and then an amazing thing happened. Sarah was crying out the words of Romans 8:30 with me, like a drowning woman holding on to a life preserver.

We both exclaimed those precious promises out loud in the stark and sterile room, tears streaming down our faces: “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:30). At that moment, neither of us was arguing for the doctrine of God’s absolute sovereignty over salvation. We were exulting in our election. Sarah could not hold on to God in her darkest hour, but she knew that he was still holding on to her.

Comfort of God’s Choice

“God didn’t give us insight into the great mysteries of his sovereign grace to confuse us, but to comfort us.”

I used to experience election merely as theoretical. Too often I saw the doctrine through the lens of debate rather than through the lens of worship and trust. Sarah changed that for me. Seeing election anchor Sarah in the psych ward gave me a fresh perspective on why God has revealed to us that we were chosen by him before he formed the world. God didn’t give us insight into the great mysteries of his sovereign grace to confuse us, but to comfort us with his unstoppable, eternal love for us.

Being reminded of God’s choice to love her in eternity past was a comfort for Sarah on that bleak afternoon. She knew that nothing could separate her from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.

Our salvation did not start with us, is not sustained by us, and will not be completed by our strength. The domino effects leading to our salvation did not begin at birth, or even at Christ’s birth, but in eternity past when God foreknew us. Unconditional election knocks the wind out of our pride, but it also buoys us up when we feel like we’re drowning.

When the clouds seem to be blocking our Father’s face, when all of our relationships are being dragged through a valley, when we hear of a relative diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, we need the security of electing grace. And when the sun is shining, our spouse loves us, our kids are well-behaved, and work is going better than we ever expected, God’s electing love reminds us that every gift is a gift of grace.

Holding On, Being Held

When I visited Sarah a few days later, she was doing better. The medications were being balanced and the side effects had diminished, although she was still being kept and monitored. As we sang “In Christ Alone” together, our voices rose loudest when we sang, “From life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny. No power of hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from his hand.”

There is something profoundly stabilizing about knowing that the most powerful One in the universe holds you (John 10:28–29). He knew everything about our frailties and even our sins, but he chose us, came for us, and redeemed us anyway.

“Unconditional election knocks the wind out of our pride, but it also buoys us up when we feel like we’re drowning.”

That stay in the psych ward was not the end of the story for my sister in Christ. Just as God makes each of us more than conquerors, he empowered Sarah to conquer. She is not a conqueror because she overcame her depression immediately, or because the cancer stopped spreading. In fact, she died a couple of years later. Sarah is more than a conqueror because the God who predestined her also promised that she would be glorified.

That was the promise she was holding on to the last time I saw her, and it is the promise that she will be praising Christ for the next time I see her.

Advertisements

“Is My Baby In Heaven?” Why I Believe God’s Word Assures Us We Can Say, “Yes.”

TMS baby picThis post first appeared on The Master’s Seminary blog.

When my wife first showed me the positive pregnancy test, we were overjoyed. Ecstatic. It was hard to believe that in 7 1/2 short months we would be holding our baby. A little person who looked like both of us, who would soon be calling us “Mama” and “Dada.”

Since I was a pastor several states away from family, we wanted to make this announcement really special for them. That Friday, we bought the books What Grandparents Do Best and What Aunts and Uncles Do Best to send in the mail. We planned to write notes to accompany the books over the weekend so they would be ready to mail on Monday. But Saturday morning, we were in the E.R. We were having a miscarriage.

If you received a call from a grieving husband like me, what would you say to the question: “Is my baby in heaven?” Too many Christians, and even some theologians, believe we need to be agnostics when it comes to this question.

In other words, it may be true that God saves babies. They say the attributes of God point us in that direction, but they believe Scripture is silent on the issue. Many parents are left to wonder where their baby is—not believing they can know for sure until they enter heaven themselves.

God does not want us to be agnostics on the eternal destiny of babies. Shouldn’t we expect that He would give us an answer to something that affects so many? I believe that God is clear in Scripture that He welcomes into heaven each baby who dies, born or unborn (Ps 139). And this extends to young children and the mentally disabled who die before they are able to understand salvation. God is not silent on this question.

When our miscarriage happened during our first pregnancy, I dove into the Scriptures to find comfort for my wife. But I had already found biblical answers for my mind years earlier. When I was a young associate pastor, while the senior pastor was on vacation, a new couple in our church went into the hospital to deliver conjoined twins. The babies died in their mother’s arms within a minute. When I went into the hospital room to pray with the parents and saw those tiny faces, I knew I needed to be more biblically sure of the destination of those babies’ souls.

That night I went home and read an entire book that I received at a Shepherd’s Conference, John MacArthur’s Safe In The Arms of God. It confirmed what I already knew from Scripture, but also gave me great confidence in the eternal destiny of infants, young children, and the mentally disabled who are unable to understand salvation.

Why do I agree with what Calvin stated in his Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, “It would be too cruel to exclude that age from the grace of redemption”? What Scripture passages can give you this kind of confidence?

GOD’S VIEW OF CHILDREN

God has special care for all babies, even the babies of unbelieving idol worshipers. As MacArthur explains, “God considers all babies to be His.” God condemns sinful child-sacrificing Israel in Ezekiel 16:21, “You slaughtered My children and offered them up to idols by causing them to pass through the fire.”

Some may object that this only applies to children who are part of God’s covenant people. However, Jonah 4:11 explains God’s mercy even on the children of a pagan nation: “Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand…”

This would include both children and the mentally disabled who were unable to understand facts such as this. God takes ownership of these “innocents” (Jer 19:4), those who do not yet “know enough to refuse evil and choose good” (Isa 7:15-16).

JESUS’ LOVE FOR CHILDREN

If you want to see God’s heart for children, you need to look no further than Jesus, who is God incarnate. In Mark 10:13-16Luke 18:15-17, and Matthew 19:13-15 we see Jesus hugging little children (and even infants!). But these passages teach more than Christ’s tenderness or the fact that He wanted children to be cared for within the church and trained in His ways.

It would be inconsistent if little children who die before they can understand law and grace and sin and salvation go to hell. There is no other instance in Scripture of Jesus specifically blessing those who are destined for hell. William Hendriksen, in his Gospel of Mark commentary, writes that it is significant that Christ did not view them as “little heathen,” but rather saw them as being in the kingdom.

DAVID’S BELIEF

When David’s infant son dies, his servants are surprised that David gets up from his fasting and weeping once the child is dead. David answers, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows, the LORD may be gracious to me, that the child may live.’ But now he has died; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.” (2 Sam 12:22-23)

Some have said that David simply meant he would join his son in the grave. But that is no comfort! He was not just shrugging off the fact that his child had died, ready to move on. He was encouraged enough to want to worship, clean up, and eat! David knew that he would be in heaven forever after death (Ps 23:6). David also knew that this was the eternal destiny of his baby.

THEOLOGICAL REASONS

One major theological argument in favor of heaven as the eternal home of infants is that we are saved by grace, but damned by works. Whenever Scripture describes those who will inhabit hell, the emphasis is on their willful sin and rebellion against God (1 Cor 6:9-10Eph 5:5, etc.). Listen to the account of the Great White Throne Judgment: “And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books…And they were judged, each one according to his works.” (Rev 20:12-13) Infants, young children, and the mentally handicapped who have the capacity of children do not fully understand the difference between right and wrong, between God’s law and God’s grace, so they do not have willful sin.

This brief overview has given us just some of the main reasons to believe that a baby who dies goes to Heaven. The flip side of the debate—that babies who die go to hell—has very few people willing to explain their position and little if any biblical support. Spurgeon explained this in his sermon Expositions of the Doctrines of Grace in a way that only Spurgeon can…

There may have existed somewhere in some corner of the earth a miscreant who would dare to say that there were infants in hell, but I have never met with him, nor have I met with a man who ever saw such a person…we hold that all infants [who die] are elect of God and are therefore saved, and we look to this as being the means by which Christ shall see of the travail of His soul to a great degree, and we do sometimes hope that thus the multitude of the saved shall be made to exceed the multitude of the lost…I believe that the Lord Jesus, who said ‘of such is the kingdom of heaven,’ doth daily and constantly receive into His loving arms those tender ones who are only shown and then snatched away to heaven.

A week after I prayed with the parents of the conjoined twins, I received a phone call from their father who was preparing for their funeral. He asked, “Can you show me the verse that says that babies who die go to heaven?” I brought him to 2 Samuel and we talked about David’s hope of seeing his son in heaven. I brought him to Revelation 20 and we talked about how we are saved by grace but condemned by our sinful works. We talked about the fact that his babies had never done neither good nor evil but were saved by Christ’s great and quiet grace, because of His blood.

But I mostly talked with him about Jesus’ love for children and that He said that the Kingdom of God belongs to them. That is what he spoke about a few days later as he stood next to their tiny coffin: that he and his wife knew they would see their twins again because they knew that Jesus loved their babies. They were and are in Christ’s Kingdom.

If you are reading this because your arms are empty today, remember that Jesus loves the little children. If you trust in Jesus, part of the glory you will experience on the day you enter heaven will be meeting your little one again.

Oh, praise our Savior, because “little ones to Him belong!” Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves my baby. The Bible tells me so.

Feed the Sheep – No Matter How Many Are in the Pasture

One of the last ministry conversations I had with my grandpa is one that will stick with me for the rest of my life. I was driving home from Prayer Meeting. I was tired. I was discouraged.

I had been pastoring for five months in Vermont, and Prayer Meeting had slowly shrunk as the excitement of having a new pastor ebbed and as summer activities and travel amped up. I had decided to begin a “How To Study the Bible” series in the Fall that we would dip into each Wednesday evening before our time of prayer. It was the first Bible study that I had created a graphic for. I advertised it for weeks and sent out special e-mails. I studied and prepared and prayed. Four people showed up that first night.

As I drove home, I remembered that my grandpa had pastored faithfully for over 40 years in several small churches. Surely he had been discouraged at times with the number of those he preached to or taught a Bible study to, so I called him. Here is what he said that I will never forget:

“God’s job is to worry about the number of sheep. Your job is to feed the sheep.” – Cordell Baker

What my grandpa taught me that night has echoed in my mind again and again since then, because it was backed up with the faithfulness of his life. He had consistently fed the sheep that God gave him even as he served in hard places like a small town in Utah.

As Jesus told Peter, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:17) Jesus didn’t tell Peter to only feed the sheep if the pasture was overflowing. If we think that Christ is only worthy of being preached to a larger church, we are committing two major errors: not valuing Christ highly enough, and not valuing people that Christ values.

The Value of Preaching Christ is Not Dependent on The Number of Listeners
When we tie our value as preachers to the number of people that we are preaching to, what we don’t realize is that we are devaluing the Christ that we preach. Jesus is all-glorious and he is worthy of being proclaimed in both small churches and mega churches, both small towns and large cities.

The reason that we devalue Christ when we look down upon preaching him to a small congregation is because we are essentially telling him, “You are worthy of being proclaimed when there are lots of ears to hear, but when there are fewer ears, I don’t see you for who you are.” When we promote missions we will talk about the fact that Christ is worthy to be proclaimed in a small village among an unreached people group in another country. But do we remember that the same Christ is worthy to be proclaimed in our small churches on Sunday morning?

All things were created through him and for him.” (Colossians 1:16b) Since all things were created for him, he is Lord of our small towns today. Jesus is worthy of being proclaimed in all places.

The Value of the People You Preach To is Not Dependent on the Size of Your Church
The other error that can creep into our thinking is not valuing people that Christ values. You don’t have to read far into the Gospels to realize that Jesus often ministered in the small places. He did travel to Jerusalem now and then, but he spent the bulk of his time in out-of-the-way places with people that were often looked down upon by the cultural elite. Yes, Jesus preached to thousands. But Jesus also healed one man with a withered hand in one small synagogue in small town Galilee. And he preached in the small towns again and again (Mark 1:38).

I had to wrestle with this before I accepted a call to the least reached state in the U.S., to a church that had 50 people in the pews on a larger Sunday. The church I was in at the time had 300 on an average Sunday. Would I be wasting the gifts that God had given me by preaching to fewer people? As I prayed through this, I was struck by who I would be preaching to there: brothers and sisters in Christ who need to be fed the Word week in and week out, and people who desperately need to know Christ as Savior. The needs of both believers and unbelievers are the same in any church, no matter the size. And the Savior who meets their needs is the same One.

Don’t Disdain What Christ Values
I was encouraged in the importance of preaching Christ in the small town the Lord has placed me in at a recent Gospel Coalition Small Town Summit. Just as my grandpa reminding me to feed the sheep–no matter how large the flock–continues to shape my view of preaching week in and week out, there is one phrase I heard there that keeps echoing in my head:

“The gospel does not disdain what is small.” – Stephen Witmer

At the Small Town Summit, Whitmer reminded us that God often works through the small. God saved the world through sending one baby. Jesus trained 12 disciples. The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. Only the Lord knows what he will do with an army of preachers who are committed to expositing God’s Word with precision and passion week in and week out in small churches across America.

Brothers, remember that the value of preaching Christ is not dependent on the number of listeners hearing you preach, but dependent on the value of the Christ that you preach. The supremacy of Christ over all things is what makes preaching him valuable, whether it is to 30 or 3,000 people. So study, and pray, and preach with all the strength that you have, to the glory of God–no matter how many people are in the room.

Why Christians Get Excited About Easter

empty tombThis article appeared in The Manchester Journalthe The Burlington Free Press, and The Bennington Banner.

Just over three months ago, my family and I were wondering if we would get our first white Christmas after three years in Vermont. As I write this today, we have 18 inches of snow on the ground and my kids are amazed by the mountains of snow on the edges of the church parking lot. There is no doubt that cabin fever has set in, as the prospect of snow on the ground for Easter is looking more likely each day. Yet I have begun to hear what I have come to expect from the resilient people of Manchester and the mountains: “Another storm next week, but spring is coming.” This is always said with a twinkle in the eyes, a twinkle of hope. There is snow on the ground now, but the peas will be planted in the ground before too long. That’s just how it is some years.

I can’t help but see a faint shadow of resurrection hope in our sure hope for the arrival of spring. The reason that Christians get so excited about Easter is because we need to be reminded that although we live in brokenness now, resurrection is coming. It’s the same attitude that can say with snow on the ground, “Another storm next week, but spring is coming.” Easter is the reason that Christians can face difficult things with a twinkle in our eyes, “Another diagnosis of cancer, but resurrection is coming.” The reason we can be resolute in our faith when life is hard is exactly because of the resurrection.

Sometimes even Christians forget how crucial the resurrection is to our faith. We need Easter to remind us that the resurrection is promised, and it matters. The Apostle Paul explained this in the Bible, “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). Paul doesn’t say that if the resurrection is not true then at least Christians are bringing some good into the world, so keep doing what you’re doing. No, he says if the resurrection is not true, let’s pack it up. Let’s close our doors. But then six verses later he exclaims, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead…”

I experienced the weight of the resurrection a few years ago as I stood with a 17 year old at a headstone. We had just had coffee. I was checking in on him one on one because his mother had passed away a couple of months earlier. As we sipped the last remains of our Frappuccinos, he surprised me by asking, “Do you want to go with me to my mom’s grave?” When we arrived at the cemetery, there was grass from the lawn mowers strewn across the headstone, so I watched as he bent down and gently cleaned off her name. We stood in silence for a few moments, talked about her for a few minutes, and then I prayed with him, thanking God that because of Jesus’ resurrection he would see her again.

So you will have to excuse us if we get excited about Easter. You would be excited too if you believed that you would be raised from the dead. Easter means so much more to us than a change in the weather, or a poetic metaphor of new life. Spring weather and metaphors of new life have their place, but we know that they won’t give us the rock solid hope that we need when we stand in front of the grave of a loved one. We have something better to celebrate, which is the resurrection of our savior Jesus–and we know that his resurrection means that we have the hope of resurrection.

Just before he raised Lazarus from the dead, Jesus comforted Lazarus’ grief-stricken sister Martha with words that no mere man has ever been able to repeat, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26). Then he asked her the key question, “Do you believe this?” Christians get excited about Easter because we do believe this, and Easter reminds us that as surely as the snow will melt into spring, resurrection is coming.

White As Snow, Though My Sins Were as Scarlet!

This post was originally published at The Cripplegate and later at For The Church.
Image result for snow field

Have you ever looked at a blanket of freshly fallen snow and thought, “That looks good enough to eat?” Ask any kid, and they will tell you that it is. Ask any Vermonter, and they will give you a recipe. The ingredients are simple: freshly fallen snow, and pure Vermont maple syrup. It even has a name: “Sugar on snow.” As a Vermont pastor, I can tell you that we don’t scoop up snow like Ben and Jerry’s with every snowfall. Sugar on snow is especially popular during sugaring, when there is fresh maple syrup from the trees and snow still on the ground. This unique treat proves that snow can not only look good enough to eat, it can also be clean enough to eat!

Vermont is famous for its snowscapes, but when most people think of the land of Israel, snow does not come to mind. While not an every year occurrence in Jerusalem, snow is common enough in Israel that it is mentioned 24 times by the biblical writers. But there is one breath-taking word picture involving snow that comes from the lips of Yahweh himself.   Continue reading “White As Snow, Though My Sins Were as Scarlet!”

4 Reasons Every Church Needs Senior Saints

This post originally appeared at 9Marks, then at For The Church and Church Leaders.

A couple of days ago, I received an email from a church member in his eighties, letting me know that he’s moving. We have known for some time that it’s best for him to move closer to his family due to his health and housing situation. But the news that the move was finally happening hit me unexpectedly, as if I’d lost a dear friend. I felt it in the pit of my stomach and the tears in my eyes.

Then I realized that is exactly why I felt that way: I was losing a dear friend, and a grandfather in the faith. And our church is losing him, too.

Sometimes senior saints question their usefulness in the church as they age. That’s unfortunate because they’re an essential part of the body of Christ. Although we trust in our sovereign and wise God to add and take away from his local body as he sees fit, church life is different without them. As pastors, therefore, we need to remind our elderly members that they’re not only loved by their Good Shepherd and Savior—they’re also loved and needed by his people.

Here are four reasons every local church needs senior saints.

1. We need your prayers.

My 80-something friend often leads our congregation in prayer on Sunday mornings. Visitors and members regularly comment on how his prayers are a blessing to them. We need older members to pray out loud during worship services, Bible studies, and prayer meetings. We also need their private prayers.

Sometimes, I’ll see God work in a way that can only be explained by a work of his Spirit in somebody’s life or in salvation. When this happens, I think, “God has answered the prayers of one of my sisters in Christ,” because I know there are several elderly ladies who pray for our church, our community, and my pastoral ministry regularly. Even if you’re reading this on your tablet from a nursing home—I visited an elderly lady doing just that the other day—we as the church need your prayers.

2. We need your practical, biblical wisdom.

My grandpa taught an adult Sunday School class until Parkinson’s robbed him of his voice. I’ll never forget a seminary professor who taught class using a special microphone because health complications made it difficult for him to speak. I’m so thankful that these men continued to pass on their biblical knowledge and life experience until they literally could not anymore. Whether through teaching a class or sharing a comment during a Bible study or encouraging a young mom during fellowship, every church members needs the wisdom that comes from decades of studying the Word mixed with decades of life experience.

Senior saints, please continue to speak into the lives of younger believers with love and truth and grace. The church needs your wisdom not simply because you’re older, but because you bring the practical, biblical wisdom that only comes from marinating in the Word and walking with Christ in both life’s joys and sorrows.

3. We need your encouragement.

My friend recently raised his hand at a business meeting as I was almost done explaining a new initiative, and simply said that he saw God’s hand in this and that the congregation should be supportive of where God was leading me with this initiative. We could have just stopped the explanation right then and gone straight to the vote. As a senior saint, your words of encouragement matter.

I’ve seen young, sleep-deprived parents light up when an older person in the church tells them, “Your kids are a joy.” I’ve seen discouraged empty-nesters, struggling with change, rediscover hope as they remember God’s faithfulness in your marriages of over 50 years

As the Psalmist exclaims, “One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts” (Psalm 145:4). Don’t hesitate to share your stories of provision and grace and forgiveness, and to remind us of God’s goodness and faithfulness. Senior saint, we need your encouragement.

4. We need your presence.

We know it takes a lot of work for older folks to get to church. We know that there will come a day that we need to come to you, rather than you coming to us. But until that day, we need your presence.

There’s something particularly special about the redeemed people of God coming together for worship and seeing a spectrum of ages. There’s something about coming together to worship with people who are different than us—even generationally—that points to the beauty of the gospel and the glory of God. There’s something about knowing fellow saints who can speak of God never abandoning them through decades that powerfully reminds us of the faithfulness of God.

We don’t call you “senior saint” because you’re perfect or because you don’t have struggles like the rest of us. We call you “senior saint” because your faith in Christ in your senior years points to the fact that the same God who saves is the same God who sustains. Lift your heads, dear senior saints.

You’re needed. Please don’t stop serving.

For Those Who Need Hope (All Of Us)

the-hope-of-christmasA shortened version of this post appeared in The Manchester Journal.

I love everything about Christmas. The decorations. The lights. The snow. The music. And yes, Christmas movies. My wife and I began a yearly tradition of watching White Christmas when we were first married fourteen years ago, and two years ago we watched it in Vermont for the first time, after I became a pastor here. “Vermont should be beautiful this time of year, all that snow…” But the last two years Christmas has been snowless just like in the movie, except without the surprise snow on Christmas Eve. Maybe this year will be our first white Christmas!

I have noticed over the years that there is one recurring theme in every Christmas movie, even if it has nothing to do with the Christmas story from the Bible:  HOPE. In White Christmas, it is the hope of snow and true love on Christmas. In It’s a Wonderful Life it is the hope of finding purpose and joy in life again. In How the Grinch Saved Christmas it is the hope of even the most depraved person finding their heart and caring for others again. We could go on and on. Hope–in every one.

I think this is because innately, people know that things are not the way they should be, and if a miracle is ever going to happen, a miracle that changes things, then why not on Christmas?

Pushing Back the Cultural Haze
There are so many messages in our culture about what the basic meaning of Christmas is: love, giving, a warm feeling, family, or friends. Christmas means lots of things to lots of different people, and all of these things are good things. But since Christmas began as a holiday to celebrate Christ’s birth, we need to push back the cultural haze to see clearly what the Bible says Christmas is all about. What is the most basic meaning of Christmas? The angels can tell us.

Mary was startled to learn from the angel Gabriel, “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” (Luke 1:31-32a)

Joseph had his moment of clarity from an angel of the Lord in a dream: “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)

On the night that is now known as the hinge of history, the fog was really pushed back when an angel of the Lord appeared to shepherds in a field outside Bethlehem and assured them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)

Don’t Let Christmas Be Stolen From You
The Bible boldly proclaims that the greatest miracle that ever could happen already happened on Christmas. Jesus is the reason for Christmas. God was in the manger that night. God entered into our suffering world, physically. God himself appeared in the flesh, in the person of Jesus Christ. God is not “out there,” God is here. Jesus is Immanuel–which means, “God with us.” That is why we celebrate Christmas, because Jesus didn’t just give us hope in the past; Jesus’ salvation and presence today give us hope today.

This is good news. If Christmas is mostly about love, then Christmas will be stolen from me if I don’t feel like loving others, or if I am hurt by someone I love. If Christmas is mostly about giving, then Christmas will be stolen from me if I am ever in a tough situation and can’t give. If Christmas is mostly about a warm feeling, Christmas will be stolen from me if I wake up on the wrong side of the bed on Christmas morning. If Christmas is mostly about family and friends, Christmas will be stolen from me if I am ever far from my family and find myself with few friends. But if Christmas is not about what I can do or what my circumstances are any given year, but about God himself coming to me, then I can be joyful each and every Christmas. Jesus is for those who need hope–and that is all of us.

Autumn and the Beauty of Death for the Christian

jeremy-thomas-79493
(Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash)

This post appeared on The Cripplegate.

I am a pastor in New England, and let me tell you–there is a reason people come from all over the country to see the Fall foliage. Here in New England, we call them “leaf peepers.” During peak leaf season, our sleepy tourist town of 5,000 goes into traffic-jam mode on the weekends. And with good reason. In our part of Vermont, we are surrounded by the Green Mountains on either side of the large valley we live in. When Fall really hits, there are a couple of weeks when the Green Mountains become the Orange, Red, and Gold Mountains.

We are currently easing into leaf season. There are bright bursts of brilliant crimson and orange on certain trees, but there is still plenty of green foliage that will have the chlorophyll leaving soon. Many leaves, however, are already floating to the ground. When a leaf falls to the ground, it is dead. The beauty of Fall foliage is death.

The Beauty of Christian Death
As I have watched the breathtaking hues begin to appear this Fall, I keep thinking about the fact that sometimes death is beautiful. In fact, for those who belong to Jesus, for those who are “in Christ,” death is always beautiful. “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15). If the LORD calls the death of those he has saved “precious in his sight,” then it is beautiful.

I am a pastor. I am not naively saying that the death of those who are in Christ is without sorrow, or always happens painlessly in our sleep. Just this week I visited a member in a hospice home, suffering under the ravages of Alzheimer’s. I have sat and cried with spouses and children moments after their loved one has departed this earth, sometimes after a terrible battle with death. I have visited church members in the hospital who are in excruciating pain days before their death. Accidents happen to saints and sinners alike. Cancer can visit us all. The Apostle Paul calls death the “last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26).

No, I am not talking about Christian death being beautiful because it is somehow less physically painful or less final on this side of eternity than non-Christian death. I am talking about Christian death being beautiful because the gospel gives us God’s perspective on even our final enemy, death.

Going Home–The Joy of Jesus’ Presence
Last night in Prayer Meeting we sang, “When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation, and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.” Great gospel truths like this one from “How Great Thou Art” can become white noise to us if we don’t stop and think about the wonder of death being the door through which we are usually “taken home.” In 2 Corinthians 5:8 Paul reminds us of the joy of Jesus’ presence that awaits us by exclaiming, “Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” Death for the Christian is beautiful because it brings us to the place we were made for. We are only pilgrims now. We will finally be home with the Lord either when Jesus returns, or on the day that we die. This is why there is beauty in Christian death.

But there’s more. Four verses earlier in 2 Corinthians 5 we are told why the day of our death is the day of our greatest joy: “…so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:4). We think that we are really living life here and that one day we will die, but one reason that the death of the LORD’s saints is precious in his sight is because he knows that our death day is the day that we pass from mortality to life. The beauty in Christian death is that it is when we begin to really live, with the One we were made to live with, our Savior–not to mention saved family and friends who will meet us there. In Jesus, it is not death to die. This is why King David can sing, “in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). It’s like arriving home to the family you love after a long trip–only a billion times better.

The Beauty of Fall and The Hope of Resurrection
Every time that I officiate a Memorial Service for a believer in Jesus, I feed my soul on 1 Corinthians 15 in the days leading up to the service. We need to weep as Jesus wept. We need to feel that death is so final on this side of eternity. But we need to remember that for the Christian, their death day was the most beautiful day they ever experienced.

And there is coming a day when Jesus will reveal that beauty to all of us. For on the day that he returns, the resurrection body given to each believer will be imperishable, glorious, and powerful (1 Corinthians 15:42-43)! “We shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

The beauty in Christian death is hard to see sometimes. Winter can be long and bleak. After the leaves fall, our trees will be barren here for over 6 months.

But lift your heads, brothers and sisters, because Spring follows Winter. It may be Fall now, but Spring time–and Resurrection Morning–is coming.

Let the Lion Loose!

Charles Spurgeon famously compared the Word of God with a lion: “There is no need for you to defend a lion when he is being attacked. All you need to do is to open the gate and let him out.” Pastors must have such a high view of the sufficiency of Scripture that we would say with C.H. Spurgeon, my job each Sunday morning is to let the lion of the Word of God loose.
lion cage

I have been preaching through the Gospel of Mark, and I have just come off of the two Sundays that everyone who has preached Mark verse by verse knows are coming: the back-to-back passages on Hell (the end of Mark 9) and divorce (the beginning of Mark 10).  Not exactly the way to become known as “the popular pastor.”

But this is the Word of God. My job is not to change the message in any way, but to deliver the Bread of the Word right out of the oven. Jesus said that our very life is dependent upon every word from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4).

As we understand Hell better, we understand grace better. We understand our own need for Jesus better, and we are motivated to share the gospel more. As we understand divorce better, we understand marriage better. We understand God’s wisdom for life and human prospering better. And we understand Jesus’ love for his Bride, the church, better.

We need not fear when we get to these difficult passages, but we need to let the lion loose. Explain the text clearly, illustrate it winsomely, and apply it with grace. One of the best ways that we as pastors can love God and love people is to preach all of God’s Word, not just the parts people are excited to hear. This Sunday I get to preach on Jesus’ love for children (Mark 10:13-16). But I’m so glad we heard Jesus’ words on Hell and divorce first. We need all of Jesus’ teachings for all of life because we need all of Jesus for all of life–and eternity.

I am not Jesus’ editor, I’m his messenger.

So let the lion loose, brother pastors. Make sure you’re in a church where the lion is let loose every Sunday, brothers and sisters. When the lion of the Word of God is let loose, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah reigns. Which means that the impostor, the evil one, who prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour, will go hungry this week.

Four Things I Love About Jesus

This post appeared at For The Church and Top Christian Books.

Note: For a couple of months, I was preaching The Gospel of Mark in our Sunday Worship Service, then teaching Sunday School in the Gospels using The Gospel Project, and then teaching our Men’s Bible Study mid-week in The Gospel of John. Usually I am teaching from many different areas of the Bible. But rather than getting bored with Jesus, spending concentrated time in the Gospels has made me fall in love with Him deeper as I have had the privilege of looking to Jesus for hours each week. May a couple of things I have seen in a fresh way from gazing at Jesus, encourage you in your pursuit of looking to Jesus today (Hebrews 12:2)!
Jesus Name
1) His Unlimited Power
Jesus has power like no other. As I have watched him take 5 loaves and 2 fish and feed 20,000 people, I am reminded that He is the One who provides for my needs and the needs of my family and the needs of my church today. As I have watched him talk to a storm and have seen it obey him, I am reminded that even the weather answers to his command. As I have watched him deliver a man who under the possession of thousands of demons broke chains, cut himself, and lived in tombs–I am reminded of his sovereignty over even my spiritual enemies. As I have watched him speak to Lazarus’ stinking tomb, I am reminded that whenever Jesus goes toe to toe with death he always wins.

Did you catch that last part? He doesn’t just have the power to feed a multitude from a little boy’s lunch, he doesn’t just have the power to stop a storm with his voice, he doesn’t just have ultimate power over spiritual darkness, he actually has power over our greatest and final enemy, death itself. We literally have the antidote for death. His name is Jesus. His power is unlimited! 

2) His Unbounded Compassion
If Jesus were all power without compassion, he might not be worthy of worship. After all, Hitler had a lot of power, but he used it to destroy. But Jesus’ unlimited power is wed with his unlimited compassion. And how thankful I am that these two characteristics of Jesus will never be divorced from each other. I need an all-powerful Savior who can conquer Satan, and sin, and death. But I need an all-compassionate Savior who cares about my helpless situation and acts on my behalf.

The same Jesus who wept at Lazarus’ grave is the same Jesus who sees each of my tears. The same Jesus who raised a little girl from her death bed, is the same Jesus who moments earlier stopped in the middle of the road to seek out a suffering and shame-stricken woman. His compassion is unbounded!

3) His Unrestrained Truth
A true friend will tell you if you have broccoli in your teeth. “Friends” who tell us what we want to hear are a dime a dozen. But friends who care about us so much that they tell us what we need to hear are a rare jewel. We tend to remember the resolution to Jesus calming the storm with warm fuzzies. But after Jesus rebuked the wind (!) and spoke to the sea (!), he said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:40). It was an uncomfortable moment–but one the disciples never forgot–as the Creator looked them in the eyes with water dripping off his beard and asked them why they did not trust in him.

If we read all of Jesus’ words in the Gospels, not just the ones that we want to read, we will be confronted with truths like Hell that we need him to speak unreservedly about. I won’t trust my doctor if he doesn’t want to use the word cancer because it makes me uncomfortable. Jesus not only tells us the truth about our hearts and eternity and our need for him, he IS the truth (John 14:6). In a world of compromise, his truth is unrestrained!

4) His Unmatched Grace
Just as Jesus is both all-powerful and all-compassionate, only Jesus can be all grace and all truth at the same time. This is because this is who the living God is. This is because Jesus is God with skin on. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth (John 1:1, 14).” It is no accident that one of the few “calling stories” that the Gospel of Mark goes into detail about is Jesus calling Levi, a tax collector, to follow him. And then Jesus has a leisurely meal at Levi’s house along with many tax collectors and sinners. I am so thankful that Jesus eats with sinners. I remember this every time I come to the Table during the Lord’s Supper.

When a deaf and mute man was brought to Jesus, this man who had always been a spectacle was taken aside, one-on-one, so that he could understand Jesus’ simple sign language and read Jesus’ lips without distraction. The Savior who taught the multitudes showed grace to one man who needed it. This grace is yours today because this Jesus is yours today. Through Jesus’ cross and resurrection, you have the grace of forgiven sins, the grace of strength for today, and the grace of bright hope for tomorrow. His grace is unmatched!

If you have been bored with Jesus recently, maybe it’s time to read the Gospels with fresh eyes again. May you be in awe of Jesus. More than that, may you be in love with him.