A Nudge

April 5, 2019

I recently visited the congregation where I attended from infancy through college. It’s nostalgic going back. Of course, I hoped that maybe I would recognize or know someone from the past. I’ll confess that I don’t look like what I did in college, so recognition on their part was going to have to come my name not necessarily my face. And yes, there were people I remembered, and who remembered me.

After the service, the song leader came up and greeted me. I didn’t recognize his face, but once he said his name, I exclaimed, “You’re an important person in my life.” He smiled. He knew what I was talking about, so let me tell you the story.

I was fourteen years old, a church attender, a participant in the youth group activities, but not a baptized believer. I’ve mentioned in lessons that there were times I gripped hard the pew in front of me during the invitation. I was struggling. What was my problem? I was shy and nervous about getting in front of the group. When closing in on 39 years of preaching that may sound odd, but this was my 14-year-old self.

My important Sunday was the beginning of a gospel meeting. I went home for lunch with a friend. We went back to the church building and joined a group doing a nursing home sing. After the singing, the youth who had gone were sitting around hanging out. While I was sitting there in the auditorium with my friend talking, my “important person” came up and sat beside me. He was several years older. I don’t know exactly what he said, but the gist was, “Do you want to be baptized?” I said yes and confessed my fears.

My “important person” stayed with us. When worship started, he seated my friend and I on the second pew and sat with us. It’s not a long walk from the second pew. I now had this support that helped me go forward. And of course, once I was there none of my fears were real.

After I was baptized, I was warmly greeted. But I remember one voice saying, ÒI thought he already was a Christian.Ó My “important person” knew my true spiritual condition, and he was willing to address it.

Would I have become a Christian without this incident? I don’t know. Fortunately, I was wise enough not to turn down help the first time it came my way. Putting off responding has risks. Hearts can cool, and sin can deceive.

In writing about this “important person” who gave me a nudge, I want to encourage you to look around for people in your own life who need a nudge. Many spiritual encounters are not about a long, prepared lesson. It is about saying something meaningful that helps to move someone a step closer to God. It was life changing for me, so I’m thankful for my “important person” who gave me a nudge.


Outposts of Heaven

March 29, 2019

I’m a citizen of the State of Michigan. I live here. I’m a citizen of the United States of America. I live here. But Paul claimed, “But our citizenship is in heaven…” (Philippians 3:20, ESV).

I obviously don’t live in heaven at the moment, although I want to be headed there. What does it mean for me to be a citizen of the New Jerusalem? Paul used this language in a section of ethical instruction – “join in imitating me…” (Philippians 3:17, ESV). This occurred in a context where for some “their god is their belly.” The context is dealing with ethical living. So why did Paul bring up the subject of “our citizenship is in heaven.”

It helps to understand something about the Roman world. Paul was writing to Philippi, a Roman colony. How would they have understood citizenship? What insights do we gain? C.B. Caird explained the background.

Paul was by birth a Roman citizen, and Philippi was a Roman colony, i.e., a city situated in one of the provinces, but with the full rights of Roman citizenship… Citizenship of Rome had first been extended to the whole of Italy, and then under the Empire, had been granted to cities in the provinces where veterans from the army were settled, and occasionally to individuals distinguished in public service. The purpose of this policy was that the colonies should be centres of Roman culture, law and influence through which eventually the provinces would become thoroughly Roman; and so successful was it that even in the course of the first century A.D. many of the most distinguished figures in Roman life were of provincial extraction. With this model in mind Paul depicts Christians as holders of the citizenship of heaven, established in the provinces of God’s empire as the means by which the whole might be brought within the influence of his reign.*

While we are on our way to that heavenly city, we are to spread the culture and influence of Jerusalem that is above. We are to live in this world like citizens of heaven. Our moral life should be showing what God and Christ are really like. We should be influencing people to join us in our journey to heaven, so that we are helping extend the borders of the kingdom. Christians are outposts of heaven.

*G.B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible, pp. 179-180


False Reports

March 15, 2019

Although the Internet makes spreading a false report easier to do, it is obviously not a new human problem. Moses address the problem over three millennia ago, “You shall not spread a false report” (Exodus 23:1, ESV).

And before the Internet, we still had photocopiers. I remember the first time someone handed me an article that this person wanted placed in the bulletin. My response was I would run the article if it was true, but I wanted to research it first. This person’s body language indicated surprise and maybe some impatience at the idea of research. After all, the article was so urgent.

Researching the article in the 1980s meant going to the public library. It was a more difficult and time-consuming process. But in this case, the article turned out to be a false report.
Since that first experience with a false report that someone wanted me to duplicate for others, I’ve come to realize that there are many of these false stories out there. And the false stories don’t seem to die. Once released to the public, they have a life of their own. The truth is out there too, but it never seems enough to rid us of the false report, because people don’t check the facts before repeating the report.
The Internet speeds up this process. We can spread a false report to hundreds of people in our news feeds on social media at the click of a few buttons. But the Internet also allows us to use a search engine and gather information on the report. Most of the time, you can tell quickly whether something is true or false.

False reports harm someone. The report may cause prejudice against an individual where people know the report but not the person. This prejudice may impact the person targeted in the false report financially and even in judicial settings. False reports can be divisive. Douglas K. Stuart observes, “False reports could also create factionalism as one group believed the report about a member of another group, and the person’s own group determined that the report had to have been started by the other group.”*

Before sharing a report on the Internet or conversing about it with others, ask these basic questions Is it true? How do I know that it is true? Have I confirmed the truthfulness of this by a reliable source (which from observation needs to be more than a friend posted this)? Don’t spread a false report.

*Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, vol. 2, The New American Commentary, 524.


What Spills Out

March 11, 2019

A man had a short temper. He seemed nice enough until he lost his temper, and then, he could inflict emotional pain with his words. The outbursts would come with the frustrations and accidents of life, and those kinds of moments always come. In his book, After You Believe, N.T. Wright tells this story.

A famous preacher had a friend who was well known for his short temper. One day, at a party, he asked this friend to help him serve some drinks. The preacher himself poured the drinks, deliberately filling several glasses a bit too full. He then passed the tray to his friend. As they walked into the room to distribute the drinks, he accidentally-on-purpose bumped into the friend, causing the tray to jiggle and some of the drinks to flow over the brim and spill. “There you are, you see,” said the preacher. “When you’re jolted, what spills out is whatever is filling you.”

When you are jolted, what spills out reveals your character. In a discussion about unclean foods, Jesus makes the same point.

And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:20–23, ESV)

That is why Jesus talks about trees and their fruit. (Matthew 7:15-20, 12:33-37). A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. Somehow, I don’t think Jesus is giving a lesson on tending orchards. He instructs us to “make the tree good.” Jesus’ solution for behavior (“fruit” in Jesus’ parable) is to transform us on the inside (“make the tree good”). When our character is transformed to be more Christ-like, we don’t have to worry much about the actions that spring from such character. After all, good trees (people) produce good fruit (behavior).

This really is God’s plan. When Jeremiah prophesies of the new covenant, it is about “the law written on hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33). When Paul summarizes the big picture of what it is all about, he says, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29, ESV, my emphasis). We are to be like Jesus.

Character transformation is a lifelong process. We must cooperate with God to allow Him to change us on the inside. It takes God’s word. It takes prayer. It takes effort. It takes time. When you are jolted, what spills out?


Passing Through Vanity Fair

February 22, 2019

John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is a wonderful, allegorical tale of Christian living. Christian, the main character, and Faithful come to the town of Vanity where there is a yearlong fair. The fair is named Vanity Fair because all is lighter than vanity. All that come there and all that is sold there is vanity.

Therefore, at this fair are all such merchandise sold as houses, lands, trades, places, honors, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures; and delights of all sorts, as harlots, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones, and what not.

And moreover, at this fair there is at all times to be seen jugglings, cheats, games, plays, fools, apes, knaves, and rogues, and that of every kind.

Here are to be seen, too, and that for nothing, thefts, murders, adulteries, false-swearers, and that of a blood-red color.

The Prince of princes himself, when here, went through this town to his own country, and that upon a fair-day too; yea, and, as I think, it was Beelzebub, the chief lord of this fair, that invited him to buy of his vanities, yea, would have made him lord of the fair, would he but have done him reverence as he went through the town.

It was Bunyan’s way of warning about worldliness. It was his colorful way of picturing the warning of 1 John.

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world–the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions–is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. 1 John 2:15-17, ESV

The desires (lust) of the flesh is the fulfillment of physical desires in wrong ways. This desires of the eyes is covetousness. Covetousness is an unreasonable desire for what we do not possess. Pride in possessions is arrogance, arrogance that forgets dependence on God.

The town of Vanity is no lasting city. All that it contains is temporary and fleeting. We must be pilgrims to the Celestial City (heaven) and not linger or be caught up in Vanity Fair. The danger is real. It takes prayer, stewardship, and discernment not to be charmed by Vanity Fair.


Not Bound

February 15, 2019

Timothy was a traveling companion and fellow worker with the Apostle Paul. He receives two personal letters from Paul that are a part of the New Testament. The two letters address him as he does the work of evangelist in the city of Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3, 2 Timothy 4:5). Paul breaks out into good news and writes:

Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound! (2 Timothy 2:8–9, ESV)

In one sense it may seem odd to say to a preacher of the gospel: remember Jesus Christ. Isn’t he going to anyway? Yet, the two thoughts that follow it make the statement much more understandable. Remember Jesus even when there is suffering attached. Remember Jesus because the word of God is not bound.
I need that last reminder. The sharing of the good news can at times be discouraging. Paul is reminding all of us that the power is in the message not the messenger. Paul may be bound and in prison, but the word of God isn’t.
Other passages remind us of the same great truth.

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40:8, ESV)

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. ” (Isaiah 55:10–11, ESV)

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. (2 Corinthians 4:6–7, ESV)

I need reminding that the power is not in the messenger but in the message. It is the gospel that is the power of God for salvation. The word of God when presented will have its effect. It will not return to God void. The word of God is not bound.


Love in Marriage

February 8, 2019

I’ve frequently heard 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 read at a wedding ceremony. Paul’s ode to love is beautiful and appropriate for the occasion. But there is something to notice about Paul’s definitions of love. They are actions and not feelings. This passage contains things we do and don’t do to fulfill love. This kind of love can be commanded. This kind of love is a matter of the choice of will. When we think of romantic love, we often are thinking about an emotional high which we feel towards our loved one. This emotion seems quite involuntary. Paul’s teaching about love is different from this.

Now I am all for romantic love. I suspect that Jacob had romantic love for Rachel, or he wouldn’t have worked another seven years for her. And the Song of Solomon definitely seems to be love poetry. But we need wisdom as we deal with it.

Scientists have even studied romantic love. Researchers from the University of Pavia found that the powerful emotions of new love are triggered by a molecule known as nerve growth factor (NGF). But after one year, the couples who have stayed together find their levels of NGF dropping down to the same level as singles and couples in a long-term relationship. This chemistry may be important to bonding two people together, but this emotional high does not last. Although researchers can now point to a particular molecule, the wise have always known this truth from human experience.

Marriage has its ups and downs: children, illnesses, and stress. The reality of life means our feelings of love for our spouse may also ebb and flow. We need the commanded love of 1 Corinthians to sustain romantic love. Marriage is a covenant—the vows say how you promise to treat one another, not necessarily how you will always feel. These feelings of love may also ebb and flow. The vows call on you to place your actions before feelings—to allow your actions to deepen and at times even rekindle your feelings. That’s why Paul’s teaching on love is so important. He places the emphasis on right actions. This kind of love seeks the best for the beloved.

Love sums up and encompasses every other virtue. To treat with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and forgiveness is to love. Love boldly acts with the other’s best interest at heart. Love is the fulfillment of the law. Love encompasses all the virtues. This kind of love seeks the best for the other. This is the love that can fulfill vows which say for better or for worse until death do us part.