How Does Your Garden Grow?

May 18, 2018

Imagine different gardeners and their plants.

In one case, there is but an overgrown pot. Everything is under control, but growth is stifled. The plant could be several times its current size, but that would mean being repotted or placed in the garden. It would mean having room to grow.

In another case, the garden is neglected. The plants are sickly. They need weeding and pruning. They need water and fertilizer. With attention, the garden could be lush and fruitful, but this garden has many a brown spot and plants that are about to die.

The third garden is hardly a garden. Dead plants really do not a garden make. It is evident that something toxic had been in this garden. Instead of water and fertilizer, these plants received poison.

The final case is a lush, green, and fruitful garden. It has received good care from the gardeners. Weeds have been pulled. Water and fertilizer have been applied, and the increase is great.

The story of the gardeners provides a lesson for the church. The selection of elders and deacons is a vitally important decision. As the work of gardeners affect the garden, so does the work of elders and deacons affect the church.

Overbearing leaders (see 1 Peter 5:3) can stifle the life of the church. The church can be like the pot bound plant—capable of great growth if given the chance but stifled instead.

Neglectful leaders fail to do the work that needs to be done. The church can become like the neglected garden in need of weeding, pruning, fertilizing, and watering.

Toxic leaders bring false teaching (see Titus 1:9-11) or emotional abuse. Instead of the sound doctrine that produces spiritual health. False teaching kills off the life of the church.

Finally, good leaders do the work that needs to be done in the church. The result is a healthy church. The members are equipped for service (Ephesians 4). The church grows and produces good fruit.

The health and growth of the church are dependent on the quality of leadership we have. May we choose wisely. Good leaders promote “sound (healthy) doctrine (teaching).” Along with equipping people for ministry, this should lead to a healthy church. Such a church needs to be biblical in its teaching, moral in its ethical life, and loving in deed and in truth (1 John 3:18). This love is demonstrated in service and ministry as we encourage one another and reach out to the world around us.


A Spiritual Debt, A Spiritual Legacy

May 11, 2018

Timothy became a traveling companion and assistant on Paul’s second missionary journey. Timothy had a good reputation with the church, and he proved to be a valuable worker. Timothy is mentioned with Paul as a sender in 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon. He worked in Berea, Macedonia, Corinth, Thessalonica, and Ephesus. He accompanied Paul on his final trip to Jerusalem, and Hebrews mentions his release from prison (Hebrews 13:23). But we gain a personal insight into Timothy’s life, when Paul wrote: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well” (2 Timothy 1:5, ESV). Timothy owed a spiritual debt to his mother and grandmother.

Eunice and Lois were not a perfect mother and grandmother. Why did Eunice marry a Gentile? Was that a good spiritual decision given the instructions of the Law? Were they grieved when Timothy’s eighth day of life passed without a circumcision as the Law commanded (Acts 16:3)? Yet, maybe that can be reassuring to us. We can have a positive spiritual impact having made some bad decisions in our life. Few of us would volunteer ourselves as models of perfect parenthood. The past is past. We must live for God today, and that is what Eunice and Lois did.

Eunice and Lois had a sincere faith. Faith is more than having your name on a church membership role or occupying a pew on Sunday morning. Faith must be lived in daily life. Our devotional life must overflow from the assembly into family and private devotions. Our moral life must be demonstrated on how we treat real people and not what lessons have we heard. If we have strong faith, it is more likely that our children will have strong faith. If we have moderate faith, our children may see the inconsistencies and have weaker faith. If we have weak faith, our children may have no faith. We can’t pass along what we don’t have. The greatest gift we can give our children is being people of sincere faith.

Eunice and Lois nurtured faith in Timothy. Paul reminded Timothy of his past: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:14-15, ESV ). We can imagine Timothy taught Bible stories from his earliest years. We can imagine spiritual insights shared in daily life at those teachable moments.

Timothy owed a spiritual debt to his mother and grandmother. Lois and Eunice had a spiritual legacy because of their sincere faith and faithful instruction.

Mothers are important to us in many ways, but a spiritual legacy is the greatest gift of all. Happy Mother’s Day!


Better than Silver and Gold

May 4, 2018

With so many English Bible translations to choose from, we may be under the impression that everyone in the world has easy access to the Bible in their own language. However, that is not the case. Statistics from the Wycliffe Bible Translators put this in perspective. There are about 7000 languages known to be in use today. More than 1,500 languages have the New Testament and some portion of the Bible in their language. More than 650 languages have a complete Bible in their language. More than 2,500 languages across 170 countries have active Bible translation projects for their language. Approximately 1600 languages still need a Bible translation project to begin. At least 1.5 billion people do not have a complete Bible in their first language. More than 110 million do not have a single verse of the Bible in their language.*

English speaking people are fortunate from the standpoint of history. In the 1300s if an Englishman wanted to read the Bible, he needed to know Greek, Hebrew, or Latin. The first English Bible was that of John Wycliffe in 1382. But translators had a great resistance to overcome, because the mood of religious leaders of the day was that the Bible should not be in the common language of the people. As a matter of fact, the Council of Constance in 1415 angered at Wycliffe order his body to be disinterred, burned, and his ashes thrown into the river Swift.

The first printed English Bible was published in 1525 and was the work of William Tyndale. In Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, a dispute with a learned man is given in which the man argued that it would be better to be without God’s law than the Pope’s. Tyndale is said to have replied: “If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.” But due to opposition, Tyndale had to flee England to do his work. The first printed English Bible was published in Germany and had to be smuggled into England in bales of cloth. Tyndale was later betrayed, tried for heresy, and executed in 1536.

The easy availability of the Bible in English is a blessing that is easy to take for granted. However, history testifies to the fact that some have risked and given their lives so that we may have it, and others must still wait for it to be given in their own language.

May we cultivate the attitude of the Psalmist: “The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces” (Psalms 119:72, ESV). Have you read your Bible recently? Having and reading the Bible is better than silver and gold.

*https://www.wycliffe.org/about/why


The Storyteller’s Parable

April 27, 2018

With a twinkle in his eye, the Storyteller began his tale:

“There were two families that were very much alike — parents, children, a house, and many material blessings, but there was one very big difference.

The first family was very close to one another. Since the time the children were very small, a concerted effort had been made for the family to have time together. Meal times were special as each shared their day. Family outing were always eagerly anticipated. Certainly, each family member had his or her own interests. No two family members were exactly alike, but they had learned to enjoy one another’s company.

As the children grew, the stresses of busy and competing schedules were felt, but the family was resolute in setting certain when all were together. Sacrifices were made so that the whole family could have that togetherness.

The second family was not very close. They had not seen the importance of time together. In fact, as they grew up they found it increasingly hard even to have a conversation with one another, and what was worse, when problems came, it was hard to share the burdens for feel real support.”

Pausing, the Storyteller asked, “To which kind of family would you want to belong?”

“The close one, of course,” I replied, hardly thinking that it was much of a question.

As the Storyteller turned to leave, he said softly, “Your spiritual family has set aside times to be together, and they’ve requested your presence. Which kind of family do you want it to be?”


Like a Thief in the Night

April 20, 2018

Yes, someone has predicted the Second Coming of Jesus for April 2018. No, I won’t give the details or promote the speculation. There will never seem to be a lack of those who have constructed elaborate time tables predicting the Second Coming of Jesus or the end of the world. Whether they be religious fanatics, scientific quacks, or a mixture of both, Christians should remain calm.

Apparently, the Christians at Thessalonica were upset over the coming of the end, and Paul reminds them:

Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. (1 Thessalonians 5:1–2 ESV)

Thieves come suddenly without making appointments with us, and so shall the end be, the Day of the Lord.

Yes, I’m aware of the next verse: “While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape” (1 Thessalonians 5:3 ESV). Some will claim that pregnancy is a timed event. Doctors can calculate a due date, so if we can just search the scriptures for the appropriate times, we can know the due date of the Second Coming.

We should be suspicious of such thinking because it makes Paul immediately contract himself. The problem is how do we handle metaphors. We should not take every possible lesson from an image. We should use the lesson that the author intends. Paul is clear about the lesson he intends. The point is one of inevitability: “they will not escape.” Having taken Lamaze classes and been a birthing coach for my wife, I know that a woman in the midst of contractions may say: “I don’t want to do this.” It’s probably not the time to say to her, “It’s too late.” Rather, just let her squeeze your hand as she goes through the contractions. She already knows that it’s too late. The pregnancy image is not to get us to find a timetable but to realize the inevitable end.

Jesus instructs us in Matthew 24:36 “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (ESV). And then repeats himself in Matthew 24:42: “Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (ESV). Again, it seems to me that date setters are contradicting Jesus’ own teaching.

How should Christians conduct themselves in a world that will someday come to an end? If we return to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, maybe we can receive some clues as to how we should live our lives. They were people following the instructions on how they should walk and please God. They were to live moral lives. They were to love one another. They were to have as their ambition to lead a quiet life working with their hands and minding their own business. They were to behave properly to outsiders. They were people who lived with the hope that at the Lord’s return they would come to be with him always (1 Thessalonians 4).

My complaint with date setters is simple. Failed dates bring discouragement and doubt. I’ve known some people who were convinced of a date, dressed in white robes, and spent a night in a vigil, but the Lord didn’t come. I think they lost their faith in the process, which unfortunately was misplaced faith in a date setter, but led to loss of faith in Jesus. Failed dates also bring ridicule from unbelievers and may get in the way of the legitimate message that Jesus is coming again.

The end will come like a thief in the night, but we are not to live in panic, but rather in preparation. I don’t need it scheduled on my calendar to be ready. We should live in preparation as we lead lives of faith that honor God.


Speak A Good Word

April 13, 2018

One communication researcher did a study on people’s ability to identify another’s emotional moods from facial expression, body posture, and tone of voice. Not surprisingly, these non-verbal forms of communication actually do communicate. People can accurately identify emotional moods without words at a higher rate than chance would explain. Further, some people are better at reading emotions than others. Women did a better job than men in this particular study.

But one interesting fact from the study confirms the wisdom of Solomon: “Better is open rebuke than hidden love” (Proverbs 27:5, ESV).

The researcher divided the moods into four categories: pleasurable or distressing, active or passive. The easiest emotions for his test subjects to spot were the active/distressing ones such as fear, anger, and disgust. Test subjects almost always identified them correctly. But when the moods were passive/pleasurable, such as feelings of love, admiration, and satisfaction, the test subject often missed them. The subjects either confused these emotions with one another, or half the time, labeled them as boredom or dislike. The researcher notes:

The implications are obvious: if two people like each other but never give voice to their affection, there’s good change at least one of them will miss it. Yet if one party is temporarily upset by the other, it will come through loud and clear, even without a word spoken. Remedy: if you feel positive toward someone — say it.*

We communicate even when we are not saying a word, but effective communication of the good feelings we have towards others needs the added touch of the spoken word.

*Em Griffen, Making Friends (& Making Them Count), pp. 88-89.


Just and Justifier

April 6, 2018

God forgives sins, right? The answer is, of course, yes. But I fear that many people have mistaken notions about forgiveness. One faulty idea is akin to balancing scales. If I have more good deeds than bad deeds, then the scales are in my favor, and God should forgive me. I’m a pretty good person after all. If my bad deeds outweigh my good deeds, then I’m in trouble and subject to judgment. But in this faulty idea, only really bad people have to worry about this.

The problem is that this is not the biblical view. Sin separates me from God. If I imagine my sin as a debt, then I must also imagine all of my good deeds as something I already owe. My good deeds are not extra credit that a teacher assigns to help students get a passing grade. My good deeds are not extra funds which I can place in an account that is overdrawn.

But the problem goes deeper. We must ponder how a just God can forgive sins. Is it as easy as we might first think? Imagine someone accused of a crime who opts to have the trial by judge rather than a jury. All of the evidence is presented, and it is quite overwhelming that the accused is guilty. But when the judge comes to sentencing, he declares the accused as not guilty. How would we respond to such a thing? Wouldn’t there be an outcry that justice had not been done? Wouldn’t the judge be accused of being unjust, and maybe the newspapers would investigate whether a bribe had taken place. The public would question the character of the judge.

In Romans 3:21-26, Paul uses three terms to explain the death of Christ. Justified comes from the realm of the law court. To be justified is to receive a favorable verdict, to be in right standing. Redemption is a marketplace word. It is to purchase something or in the case of the ancient world, someone out of slavery. The redemption in Christ is like a new Exodus from slavery — in this case slavery from sin. The third term is propitiation. It comes from the realm of the temple. It was a sacrifice that averts the wrath of God. Paul’s point is that Christ has done something in dying on the cross to make it possible for God to forgive sins.

This leads to Paul’s statement in 3:26: “It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26, ESV). In other words, without the death of Christ God could not be the just judge and forgive sins. The penalty had to be dealt with. The redemption price had to be paid. The sacrifice had to be offered. But in doing this in Christ, God could maintain his justice and yet be the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus. God could forgive. He could render the favorable verdict without it compromising his character as in my story of the unjust judge.

Popular understandings of forgiveness are faulty. We must learn the biblical view and help others to see this view. Forgiveness is not possible without the death of Christ, and receiving forgiveness is not possible without faith in Jesus and all that it entails (ponder “obedience of faith,” Romans 1:5, 16:26).