New Covenant Ministry – Part 4

NEW2Continuing the thoughts in 2 Corinthians 3-5, so why is ministry glorious, yet so tough?

11. We should not expect our lives to match the glory of the gospel in respect to our strength, but rather  to manifest the glory of the gospel in our weakness. (2 Cor.4:7-12)  Others may look down on us because we are not impressive.  We may long for superhero strength in ministry – every spiritual gift, perfect life, abundant tangible blessing, being liked by everyone, etc.  But the treasure that we have is held in jars of clay.  Unimpressive, weak, fragile, often cracked and inadequate.  Life is worked into others as death seems to reign in our experience.  These are key verses for us in ministry.  How often do we feel afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, struck down, physically weak, struggling to sleep, discouraged from every angle?  Yet we are not crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, destroyed, or finished.  Just as Jesus was given over to death for the sake of others, so that is our privilege in ministry.

12. The challenges of life tempt us to be silent, but trusting we speak. (2 Cor.4:13-15) As we experience the trappings of death in our bodies, in our emotions, in our circumstances, in our ministry experience, so we are tempted to be silent, but instead, we speak.  Why?  Because we trust the God who raised Jesus from death to do the same with us.  We give ourselves as servants in proclaiming Christ, even at the cost of our lives, confident that God will raise both us, and those that He reached through our ministry.  What a day that will be!  So we may feel like we are being spent and extinguished, but God’s grace is extending to more and more people.  As more thank God for the gospel, so God is more glorified, and we are satisfied that He is worth it.

13. We are encouraged, not by externals, but by the lasting internal reality. (2 Cor.4:16-18) Sometimes we can grow discouraged internally because of all the struggles externally.  Many do burn out, and this is very different than be spent for Christ.  Let us pray that we can discern the wonder of what God is seeking to do in our inner selves day by day.  The expenditure and investment of life now is actually preparing an eternal weight of glory that will never bear any comparison to the cost to us in this life.  One day we will see the eternal fruit of our weak and simple ministry of grace in this life.  We will see the lasting treasure that is invisible now, but is more real than anything we see in this life.

Next time we will venture in to chapter 5.

New Covenant Ministry – Part 3

NEW2I am walking through 2 Corinthians 3-5.  The first two posts are here and here.

7. There will be many reasons to lose heart, but one main one. (2 Cor.4:1-6)  With the most exciting news, we will struggle with the apparent lack of response from many.   It will seem as if unbelievers have their thinking veiled so that they cannot see what is being offered – and that is exactly what is going on.  The god of this age is actively at work in the world, (and in the church), to keep people concerned with other things.  The lack of response will tempt us to force the issue . . .

8. New Covenant ministry will always face the temptation to trust something else.  (2 Cor.4:1-6)  Just as listeners struggle to see the gospel of the glory of Christ, so we will be tempted to force the issue.  We will be tempted to twist arms, force compliance, apply cunning, add to the message, etc.  But instead:

9. Our confidence is in the God who brings light to darkness.  (2 Cor.4:1-6)  The God who spoke light into existence across the cosmos is the same God who shines the light of knowing the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ into hearts.  He has awakened an appreciation, yes, a love for Christ in our hearts, so we will trust Him to do the same in others.  Our world is full of people blinded to the wonder of knowing Christ, the very image of the good God who they need to know.  In fact, our churches contain many people for whom the gospel remains a concept, but their emotions are driven more by life issues than life Himself.

10. So we proclaim Christ. (2 Cor.4:1-6) Anything else would be to proclaim our own wisdom (our clever plan to promote compliance), or ourselves.  As Paul will make clear moving on, our strength in ministry, or our lack of it, is not the focus – rather it is our weakness that makes it possible for the strength of God to be manifest.  So instead of promoting ourselves, we offer Christ.  We speak of Christ.  We present Christ.  And amazingly, by the mercy of God, the light will dawn in hearts and minds both in the pew and in the populace.  Jesus Christ is the image of God, he is the Lord, the supreme focus of all, and it is in his face – i.e. in relationship with him – that the riches of the gospel are to be found.

More ponderings on this coming tomorrow.

Why Didn’t God Reboot?

Reboot22I recently upgraded the operating system on my computer.  Frustratingly I now have a computer that freezes periodically.  The only solution appears to be reaching for the power button for an enforced reboot.

God created humanity and soon saw them corrupted by sin.  It was not gradual.  We read of the fall into sin in Genesis chapter 3. As soon as sin entered the story we see Adam and Eve hiding and protecting themselves, and when confronted they continued that pattern by blaming each other, and for Adam, even blaming God for what had happened.

In the next chapter we read of one of their sons murdering his brother.  Sin’s influence was immediate, and it was devastating to humanity.  We were created for loving fellowship with God and with each other.  But God watched as humanity spread like cancer across the globe, destructively devouring every opportunity to love in an insatiable quest for self-promotion.  The loving God created a world quickly filled with hate.

Why didn’t God reboot?

It is not that God didn’t have the power to reboot.  He spoke everything into existence by the power of his word, so he could just as easily wipe and begin again.  He did wipe the planet with the flood, and yet saved sinners through that to continue the same race that had pushed the boundaries of sin in the first place.

It is not that God wasn’t concerned about sin.  He hates sin and its devastating effects on his creation.  He hates death in all its forms – physical and spiritual.

So why didn’t he reboot creation, and especially humanity?

The two biggest questions we can ever face are central to understanding this question.  First, which god is God, or, what is God like?  Second, what does it mean to be made in his image, or, what is a human?

If we were to tour the god options on planet earth we would find an amazing consistency.  Most of the god options on display are gods defined by their power or desire for control.  In many ways they tend to be, as Feuerbach put it, “projection of our own ego onto the clouds.”  That is, the gods of the humans tend to be bigger and better versions of humanity – specifically, fallen humanity.  Since our life in a fallen world is marked by self-promotion and the desire to control our circumstances and our rivals, so the same must be true of God (or so we tend to think).

Yet the God of the Bible continues to surprise us if we are looking for a fallen and competitive human magnified into divinity.  Instead we find a God who is other-focused, a God who gives and gives.  He is a God who is prepared to give not only of his abundance, but of himself.

That is all good, but why didn’t God reboot a fallen and rebellious creation?

First, because God knew that humanity created in his image would always explore the realm of not loving God.  Since true love can never be forced, the exploration of the forbidden fruit would always have a certain strange attraction to creatures made with creative and inquisitive natures.  So God could reboot, but then it would all happen again.  But this doesn’t mean that God was somehow stuck with a badly designed creation – fatally flawed forever.

The second, and main, reason that God didn’t reboot is because he already had a plan.  Before the foundation of the world God knew what it would take to have a world inhabited by creatures joining in the loving fellowship of the Trinity. He knew it would take more than an impressive creation.

God is God and we are not.  That truth was challenged by the lie of the serpent in the garden.  Humanity was offered a rival god-like status and we grabbed it with one bite.  God was saddened, but not surprised.  He had a plan.

God’s right to be God and to rule according to his nature has been challenged for thousands of years.  Perhaps the greatest challenge is humanity’s counterfeit god-complex by which we act as if we are gods.  We play god when we corrupt God’s loving creation into a self-loving and self-serving realm.  Then without thinking we project a power-hungry, glory-grabbing, self-serving onto the clouds and say that God is just like us.

With billions of people living the lie, surely God is outvoted and his great plan is defeated?  Surely hell laughs in derision?  Actually, no.  God is God and we are not.  God is like God and not like the fallen us.  God remains loving and giving and generous and kind.  And most astonishingly, God doesn’t need to reboot to fix the fallenness of humanity.

In the Gospel we discover that God had a plan.  We can explore the darkest recesses of rebellion and hatred toward God.  We can live the lie with the resources of the world at our disposal.  But we can never turn the lie into truth.  God is God, we are not, and His intention still holds true.  God will have a creation filled with humans who love Him and each other, sharing in the eternal delight of Trinitarian fellowship.

Before the foundation of the world God had planned to give of himself for our sake.  He planned to send His Son to die in our place and so startle us with the entirely different character of God that he would win our hearts from the apparently unbreakable power of self-love.  When Jesus died on the cross he paid the penalty for our sin, but more than that, he revealed the true glory of the true God, and so is drawing sinful self-absorbed mini-gods back into fellowship with the true God.  God will share his glory with no other god-rival, but he will share the glory of his love with us who are his!

The serpent, and every human, and all hell has given everything to defeat God’s great plan for creation.  We have all failed.  One day everyone will know they have failed.  One day every knee will bow.  And in that day they will look on the bride of Christ in amazement.  God planned to bring a vast number of humans into the loving fellowship of the Trinity.  And that is exactly what he is doing!

God did not need to reboot creation.  God had a plan that was not dependent on original creation, but on his great plan of redemption.  God had a better plan.

New Covenant Ministry – Part 2

NEW2Continuing on from the previous thoughts on 2nd Corinthians 3-5:

4. New Covenant ministry should generate boldness. (2 Cor 3:12-18)  Moses had to hide what being with God did to him.  Not so with us.  What happened to Moses was temporary and fading, but what God is doing in us is permanent and increasing.  It is so easy to think in terms of this life and fall for the lie of fading glory even today, but what God does in the New Covenant does not fade.

5. We cannot make people see, that is God’s work in Christ.  (2 Cor.3:12-18)  Israel experienced a hardening and a veil that would keep them from seeing the glory, and it is only by the work of God, through Christ, that it can be taken away.  We too minister to people who may still be unable to see the wonder of Christ.  We are not to focus on the veil and wrestle with it, but to boldly offer Christ so that the veil might be taken away from their hearts.

6. Transformation comes from beholding the glory of the Lord. (2 Cor 3:12-18)  Moses would enter the tent of meeting and encounter the Lord face to face, as a man meets with his friend.  Looking at that face changed him, but this would fade.  We too are transformed only by gazing on the face of Christ by faith, only now, under the New Covenant, the glory doesn’t fade.  Instead, we are transformed from one degree of glory to another.  (And one day, when we see him clearly, we will be fully transformed!)  It is the object of our gaze that determines who we are.  It is true for your listeners, so preach Christ.  It is true for you, so gaze on Christ.

New Covenant Ministry – Part 1

NEW2I want to walk through 2nd Corinthians chapters 3-5 as Paul describes New Covenant ministry and share a few thoughts.  This won’t be a full exposition of the passage, but rather a set of thoughts provoked by looking at the text.

1. We are called to minister Christ, not to defend ourselves in ministry.  (2Cor.3:1-6)  Ministry tends to create situations where we will be critiqued.  Sometimes, believe it or not, we deserve the critique.  Sometimes we don’t.  Either way, our ministry is to preach Christ, not to proclaim ourselves or defend ourselves.  Are you in a situation where you are tempted to defend yourself?  We are not sufficient in ourselves, our sufficiency is entirely of God.

2. We are given New Covenant ministry by God, who gives His Spirit. (2.Cor.3:1-6)  It is so easy to feel insecure in ourselves and therefore to seek to prove ourselves sufficient in life.  We are not.  Our sufficiency comes only from God, who himself has given us this ministry.  More than a mere past calling, He gives of His Spirit – the “key ingredient” of New Covenant ministry and so infinitely better than the old ministry “of the letter.”  Ours is not a ministry primarily defined by instruction and external pressure, but proclamation and internal transformation of the heart.  One way is death, but the Spirit gives life.

3. We must stop celebrating a glory now faded.  (2.Cor.3:7-11)  There is no question that Moses’ ministry was glorious.  After all, he glowed!  But that ministry of death, of letters, of stones, has no glory in comparison to what has replaced it.  A candle is wonderful in the dark, but walk out into the sunlight and the new glory far exceeds the old.  So it is with the ministry of righteousness rather than condemnation, and the ministry of the Spirit rather than that which is now passed.

10 Listener Fatigues – part 3

yawningman2We have looked at textual genre fatigues, and some preacher-related fatigues, but there are still more . . .

8. Outline Fatigue. If your sermons always follow the same structure, then you may well be draining some energy from your listeners.  I know some preachers follow a prescribed pattern and claim that listeners love to spot how they make the turn to Jesus.  But since every text has its own uniqueness, let’s look for ways to reflect the diversity of the text, and add some variety to sermon structure too.  Can you introduce an inductive approach (building to the main idea), or a combination of inductive and deductive (build to the idea and then develop the applications), or perhaps preach an epistle text with a narrative shape?

9. Text-Length Fatigue.  If you are preaching through a book, it will be easy to fall into making every text roughly the same length.  Half a chapter per week through an epistle can get monotonous.  Why not mix it up and cover a larger section sometimes, and a very tight section at other times?  Why not introduce, or conclude the series with a big sweeping overview?  Perhaps a long series needs a mid-point big picture message?

10. Disconnect Fatigue.  Listeners can’t help but grow tired if the preaching goes too long in a disconnected mode.  That is, preaching historical and explanatory information without demonstrating its relevance (or even your relevance) to the contemporary situation.  The one exception is probably narrative where it can, if told well, grip people for longer than other types of text.  Nevertheless, if you make people listen too long without any hint of relevance to them, they will grow tired of the message.

What would you add to this list?

10 Listener Fatigues

yawningman2When listeners listen to preaching there are many different fatigues that can undermine the effectiveness of our preaching.  If we are aware of these fatigues, then maybe we can craft our preaching with sensitivity to the listeners.  Let’s jump into the list:

1. Genre Fatigue.  Each genre will tend to create a sense of same-ness in a series.  Let’s say you are preaching through an epistle for weeks and weeks.  Eventually, if we are not careful, the default patterns will prove tiring to listeners.  For instance, the description of historical background, the complex sentences in the text, the pattern of explanation and application, etc. can all become a bit too similar week after week.  Look for ways to be creative in such a series so that there is variation.  (Many of the following “fatigues” will help to see how this variation can be found.)

2. Key Text Fatigue.  Many Bible books contain a key text that will tend to be repeatedly referenced throughout the series.  For instance, any series in Colossians should probably reference 1:15-20, and maybe 3:1-4, to make sense of the subsequent sections.  This can get tiring for listeners, especially if the vocabulary of Colossians 1:15-20 is not really understood by the listeners.  Look for ways to reference the key text with variety – simple summaries, variations in wording, different styles of phraseology, but without losing recognition of what is being referenced.  Reference it without the reference.  Don’t always be overt, but let subtlety in reference to the key text be part of the series too.

3. Main Point Fatigue.  A true series of sermons through a book should be reinforcing the main point of the book, not just providing the launch texts for entirely disconnected messages.  But beware that listeners don’t get bored or annoyed by the repetition of the main point.  Keeping with Colossians, it is true that Paul could hardly do more to point us to Christ as the all sufficient one for salvation and growth, but figure out ways to preach the series so that listeners don’t start getting annoyed at hearing that we need to look to Christ in everything.

We’ll continue the list tomorrow…

My Shepherd Today

ShepherdSil2Our church is in the midst of a season of transition.  The team of leaders who committed to starting the church are leading the church through a process of recognizing its long-term leadership as we move forward into the future.  Inevitably potential change creates opportunity for uncertainty.

Who should the pastoral leadership be?  One fact holds us steady.  The chief shepherd of the church is Christ.  And he wants to be our shepherd today.

Yet how easily we can view the work of Christ only in past and future terms.  In his days on earth we saw the Good Shepherd who would lay down his life for the sheep (John 10).  In the future we know that the chief shepherd will appear (1Peter 5).  But is Jesus our shepherd today?

The shepherd’s work is to lead the sheep to food, to care for them and protect them from harm.  This forms the start of a strong list for church leadership job descriptions – we are to lead, to feed, to care and to protect.  Perhaps we should add in “to equip” and we have a good grasp of the roles of church leadership in the New Testament, most of which are shepherding roles.

Jesus is our great shepherd today.  He is in charge of building his church.  He is the one most concerned to care for the sheep, including you and I.  It is a thrilling thought that Jesus desires to feed me, lead me, care for me, protect me, and even equip me, right now!

I was speaking with a friend about a tough time of loss he experienced last year.  He looked back on that time and his realization that only Jesus could really shepherd his soul through an intense season of grief and loss.

Perhaps we too easily look elsewhere and don’t spend time leaning into his loving care of our souls.  Perhaps some of us are too busy leading others to stop and be quiet long enough to hear his tender care of our hearts.

The Lord is my shepherd, today.

There are other biblical images we could consider in the same way.  My wife is expecting a baby and that means in a few months we will have another season of interrupted nights as the little one needs the care that only a mother can give.

In Ephesians 5, addressing the subject of marriage, Paul uses a pair of descriptive words.  After telling husbands to love their wives with a self-sacrificial love, and with a washing in the Word kind of love, then he adds the need for a “as you care for your own bodies” kind of love.

At this point he uses two words – nourishing and cherishing.

Cherishing is a term Paul only uses twice.  It speaks of a tender, warming kind of care.  It’s a bit like the way we put on a sweater when our bodies feel cold.  We cherish our bodies.  He also uses it in 1Thessalonians 2:7 of how a mother takes care of her little child.  There is a gentleness, an inclination to hold carefully and to protect.  (And in the Old Testament, the term is used twice to translate references to mother birds warming their eggs!)

Paul also tells husbands to nourish their wives as they naturally do their own bodies.  Again, the term is used twice.  It speaks of providing for and helping the growth of the other.   Husbands need to remember not only to put food on the table, but also to provide spiritual nutrition for their marriage.  Paul uses the term in Ephesians 6:4, in reference to bringing up children.

He also uses the shorter form of the term in the same phrase in 1 Thessalonians 2:7.  It is the nursing mother who takes care of her child.  This is a vivid picture, the giving of yourself that only a mother can do for an infant.

So Paul urges husbands to nourish and cherish their wives, just as they naturally do their own bodies.  And in his other use of the pair of ideas, as mothers nurse and care for their infants.  All very poignant images for the darkness we experience in the middle of the night.

But there is one more critical link to notice here.  What is he really speaking of in Ephesians 5?  Even after making the connection throughout the passage, we are still surprised at the end to discover he is actually speaking of Christ and the church.  Husbands, love your wives just as Christ nourishes and cherishes the church – what a thought!

I wonder if we more easily think back to the self-sacrificial love of Christ, which stands historically behind the launch of the church.  We look back to Calvary and rightly so.  But here Paul ties Christ’s loving of the church not to a past event, but rather to a present ongoing reality.  Maybe we don’t ponder that enough.  The present care of Christ for his own is such a glorious truth.

Not only did he give himself in self-sacrifice at the cross, but now he continues to tenderly give of himself to the church he loves so dearly, seeking to warm us and help us to grow.

Jesus is our bridegroom, nourishing and cherishing his bride, today.

It is no mistake that the Bible uses such relational imagery for the reality of our relationship with God.  We have a devoted bridegroom, a loving Father, a faithful friend, a good shepherd.  And we have them all right now.

Perhaps we need to pause for a moment in our leadership and our care for others, and thank Christ for his present care for us.  Let us ask God to tune our hearts to discern what he may be doing very quietly in our lives each and every day.

Jesus is our shepherd, and our bridegroom, today – exactly when we need him.

12 Pointers for Effective Epistle Exposition (pt.3)

envelope2And to finish off this series of pointers on preaching epistles, here are the final four:

9. Root imperatives in their own soil.  It is tempting to simply harvest imperatives and preach a to-do list.  Don’t.  Instead let each imperative be felt in its own context, including the earlier sections of the epistle where our gaze was pointed to Christ.  Don’t let application sections become self-focused when they actually are intended to present guidance for what flows from the doctrinal sections.

10. Be clear.  You can never be too clear in the way you structure the message and present the content.  Look for ways to help your listeners follow you, and also follow the author in his thought.

11. Preach the text.  The church has a full history of preaching messages from texts, but instead preach the message of the text.  There is a world of difference.  God inspired the Bible as it stands, He doesn’t promise to inspire every thought that is provoked in our minds as we read the text.

12. Engage in conversation.  Don’t just sit alone with your preaching notes.  Get into conversation.  First, with God.  Second, with others – commentaries and co-preachers, as well as listeners, etc.  Conversation about your sermon will almost always improve your sermon!

12 Pointers for Effective Epistle Exposition (pt.2)

envelope2Continuing the brief list of a dozen pointers from yesterday…here are four more:

5. Master the whole.  Don’t just preach chunk by chunk through the epistle without getting to grips with the flow of the whole.  You cannot accurately preach a portion of an epistle without a good grasp of how the whole is working together.

6. Get the author’s logic.  Don’t read a section and look for three preachable parallel points.  Instead wrestle with what the author is trying to do in this particular section.  Sermon outlines can always adjust to fit the text, and they should do so.  Don’t adjust the text to fit your outline.

7. Preach to today.  Don’t just present a set of commentary labels and then try to apply “back then” truths to today.  Instead, preach the text to today, and go “back then” to substantiate what you are saying.  Wrestle with how that audience is similar to, and different from, your audience today.

8. Let truth be felt.  Epistles can lull us into a false sense of abstraction.  Don’t give theological theory, preach the gospel applied to real life (both then and now).  Preach tangibly, use implicit imagery, be vivid, help images to form on the heart-screens of your listeners.

The final four tomorrow.