When the Gospel is All Past Tense

 

whiteclock5I grew up in a church tradition that diligently preached the Gospel every Sunday evening.  I heard faithful folks pray in prayer meetings that folks might “come under the sound of the Gospel” and I watched the weekly routine of preaching the Gospel message.  But something was typically missing.

Essentially the problem was that the Gospel message was preached in past tense.  That is, not only was it the preaching of a past event (which it is), but it was also past tense for most of the listeners.  They had heard it before, responded before and were saved already.

So more than once I asked what the point of this service was since guests were not a common feature?  I was told that it was right to preach the Gospel, and that those of us present who had already trusted Christ for salvation could use it as an opportunity to be thankful, and to pray for the unsaved who may or may not be present.  Essentially this meant that I was hearing a Gospel that was not for me.

Here’s the problem: it was for me.  Instead of simply being thankful and praying for others, I needed to learn that I needed the Gospel to live the Christian life too.  It is not just the way in – responding in trust to the Christ who gave himself for me is the way on too.  For years I sat and heard messages that seemed to be targeted at someone else (and often that someone else was not there).  What a wasted opportunity.

The Gospel is not just past tense, it is what I need present tense.  Why?  Because I need Christ and the grace of God that is offered in Christ – I didn’t just need that once.  I need that now.

Fully Known, Fully Loved

fully-known(This post was first posted on www.cordeo.org.uk)

Human beings tend to default to a self-at-the-centre mindset in everything.  We even bring this predisposition to our understanding of Christianity and end up with variations on the same theme.  We are the seekers, we find Jesus, we commit to Jesus, we live for Jesus, etc.  If we are not careful we can paint our own self-at-the-centre approach in the colours of Christianity and assume all is well.

Perhaps we have heard counter arguments against our being the seekers.  After all, the great initiative surely rests with Christ in this regard since he came from heaven to earth, from the throne to the manger, from God’s side to ours.  As one of the great punchlines of Luke’s Gospel tells us, “the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19:10) The story of Christmas and the first Easter are conclusive, “while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

Accepting that Jesus moved toward us before we could ever move in his direction, let’s ponder what we might call the encounter.  In John’s Gospel we get the stunning opening prologue that introduces us to the Word of God who is at the Father’s side, but who pitches his tent among us, comes to reveal the Father, full of glorious grace and truth, who comes to his own but they do not receive him, and yet is able to give the right to become the children of God to those who do.

After this prologue, the introduction really continues for the first four chapters or so as we are introduced to great themes that will continue to develop under the intense pressure of the tension between Jesus and the authorities.  In these opening chapters, we are introduced to themes of belief, of glory, of signs, of witness and more.  And in these opening chapters we get incident after incident of people encountering Jesus.

John the Baptist comes as our first witness to Jesus, declaring that he is not the Christ, but is just a voice preparing the way.  He declares that he is just baptizing with water.  But he points to the coming Christ who is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and the one who will baptize people with the Holy Spirit.  The focus is well and truly on Jesus when he finally walks into the action and starts to meet people.

After a couple of John’s disciples follow Jesus, one of them brings his brother to Jesus.  Jesus seems to already know him.  As soon as they meet, Jesus renames him.  Next verse we have another person being brought to Jesus by the witness of another, this time it is Phillip bringing Nathanael.  Nathanael is understandably skeptical about the idea that the Messiah could come from Nazareth, but as he approaches Jesus he also finds that Jesus already knows him.

What Jesus says to Nathanael seems to stir an extreme change in Nathanael.  Jesus makes one comment about the lack of deceit in Nathanael and he suddenly declares that Jesus is the Son of God and king of Israel.  That is a big shift from his skepticism about Nazareth.  Looking at the clues in the text at this point it feels like Nathanael may have been pondering the story of Jacob as he sat under the fig tree, maybe he was praying about it.  Jesus knew Nathanael.  He knew what he had been thinking or praying and proved it with his deceit comment.  He reinforced it with a reference to angels ascending and descending (but notice who is the connection between heaven and earth – it is Jesus!)

In the second chapter, Jesus starts to reveal his glorious kindness, sensitivity, and power at the wedding in Cana, before heading for the temple in Jerusalem.  He created a stir there and people started to trust in him at some level.  But interestingly we are told that Jesus did not entrust himself to them.  Why?  Because he knew what was in man.  So we are introduced to an example man – Nicodemus.

Jesus and the teacher of Israel have a conversation in chapter three that again begins with Jesus revealing that he does indeed know what is in man.  Nicodemus comes to Jesus with kind words and Jesus seems to rebuff him by stating that unless he is born from above, then Jesus can’t chit chat with him about the God subject.  Jesus knows that this great teacher is actually still spiritually dead on the inside.  Nicodemus is confronted not by a Rabbi come from God that he can approach, but by someone who sees to the core of who he is and what he lacks.

In chapter four we get another person encountering Jesus.  This time it is a troubled woman shunned by her own peers who meets Jesus at a well.  Not surprisingly it soon becomes clear that Jesus knows what is going on in her life too.  While she is still thinking this is just another man trying to make a connection with her, Jesus tells her about her five husbands and live-in lover.  She is undone.

Just as we cannot take credit for seeking Jesus, nor can we take credit for getting to know him first.  When we meet Jesus we are meeting one who knows all about us.  Maybe this is an aspect of evangelism that we have let slip over the years?  Perhaps we are proclaiming a gospel that focuses too much on the person, and too little on Jesus?  Perhaps as people encounter Christ they will be undone as they come to discover that he already knows them, and yet loves them still!

Maybe this is an aspect of our own relationship with Christ that has slipped from our awareness too?  How easily we can slip into presenting ourselves carefully to Christ as if he does not know all the gritty reality of our inner lives.  How easily we can pray wearing a mask.  How easily we forget that Jesus really knows us, and fully loves us.  We are totally vulnerable before him, whether we know it or not, he knows us.  We are fully known, and yet fully loved!

Journey in the Dark

darkness2God delights to transform lives.  There are many ways to depict this journey of transformation, but let’s focus on one example from the Old Testament.  In Psalms 130 and 131 we have a three-picture portrayal of a life transformed by God’s goodness.  In this progression of pictures we can find a helpful perspective as we care for the souls of others, and as we take stock of our own spiritual state too.

These Psalms come in the collection known as the Psalms of Ascent (120-134). These were probably a collection of songs used by the Israelites as they journeyed up to Jerusalem three times each year for the pilgrim feasts.  When we think of pilgrimage we tend to think of a difficult journey with a spiritual goal – typically the idea that there is some merit in taking the journey and therefore some benefit. However, the Jewish feasts were actually celebrations of a salvation to which they had contributed nothing.  It was not about earning anything, but about celebrating God’s goodness.

When we focus in on Psalms 130 and 131 we can notice a repeated phrase introducing the conclusion in each Psalm, “O Israel, hope in the LORD!”  Intriguingly this phrase is only found here in the whole book of Psalms.  This at least opens up the possibility that these two Psalms work together in some way.  Then recognition of the progression of imagery underlines the idea that thesecan be read together.  So let’s look at these three images and what they show us:

1. Our desperation for the forgiveness God gives.  In Psalm 130 the writer begins with the terrifying image of being swallowed up by the sea.  He describes the cry of desperation from someone as they sink below the waves of the sea into the darkness of the depths below.  This isn’t a literal situation (unless you are Jonah, of course), but it is a description of what it feels like to realize your guilt before God.  It is a cry for mercy that reaches upwards.

Most people don’t live constantly aware of the gravity of their situation.  Nonetheless, without God’s mercy, all are sinners living in anticipation of horrifying judgment.  Sometimes a glimpse will peak through and the fear will grip them before they distract themselves again.  Without God’s mercy things may not feel bad, but the reality is there nevertheless.  If God were to watch out for our sins in order to keep track of them, if He marked iniquities, then nobody could stand before Him.  But there is great news for the sinner – God forgives.

God forgives sinners, the first step in bringing great peace to the guilty.  He forgives fully, finally, freely and forever.  And when the wonder of God’s forgiveness grips us, we live wide-eyed in awe of God’s remarkable kindness toward the undeserving.  Fully forgiven, forever, really?

2. Our hope is in God himself.  The second half of Psalm 130, from verse 5 onwards paints a second picture.  No longer is it the overwhelming darkness and terror of judgment, but it is the darkness of night that is portrayed.  Having been gripped by God’s forgiveness, the next stage in the transformation of the believer is to discover that we are given so much more than an offer of forgiveness (amazing as that would be).  God gives us His Word (v5), He is a God who makes promises and keeps them.  God gives us Himself (v6).  And with God comes not only forgiveness (v4), but also steadfast love (v7) – the committed self-giving love of God that is ever and always loyal to the undeserving.  He loves us for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, etc.  And with God comes plentiful redemption (v7).  This is forgiveness-plus!

As we grow in relationship with God we discover that He forgives, and He gives so much more – ultimately He gives us Himself.  So we still live in a dark world, but we are like watchmen who have learned over the years to watch for the light of dawn.  Morning always comes.  We live in darkness, but we live with hope.  And our hope is God Himself.

3. Our growth to find peace in the presence of God now.  As the believer matures in the transformation that God’s love brings, we come to the final picture in Psalm 131.  The mature believer is not caught up in their own significance, or in their own ability to make sense of everything.  Almost strangely the image pictures the believer as a child.  How can this be the picture of greatest maturity?

Well this is a weaned child (v2).  That is, a child that no longer screams and grabs for the sustenance they need.  Rather, it is a child that is at peace in the arms of their mother.  We’ve all seen a child who leaves the pile of toys to go and peak in the other room to make sure mother is still there.  We’ve seen a child who wants a story read not so much for the thrill of the tale, but for the security of the embrace.  A weaned child can be in the dark, but all is well, because the mother is there holding them.

A mature believer grows to not only hope for deliverance in the future, but also to enjoy the peace that is found in God’s presence now.  Not self-focused and grasping for things, but content to know that they are safe in God’s embrace.

From the terrifying darkness of despair, to the hope-filled darkness of anticipation, to the contented peace in the midst of darkness – this is the progress of God’s transformation work in our hearts.  God gives great peace to the guilty, because God gives Himself to us!

Uncorrupted Crowns

wreath2Many Christians feel slightly awkward about the idea of receiving a crown or reward from God.  For a quick check, take a look at James 1:12, 2 Timothy 4:8, 1 Peter 5:4, and Revelation 2:10.  Crowns for loving God, for loving the appearing of Christ, for serving as an elder, for remaining faithful to the point of death . . . crowns, for people.  Awkward.  Surely crowns should only go to God?

One of the great challenges we all face is extricating ourselves from the brine in which we are pickled in this world.  Actually, we can’t do it.  We are so immersed in the glory grabbing ethos in which we live that we can’t see any other way.  This world has become our home and we need someone from outside to come in and rescue us.  God has done that in Christ.  Without that rescue we have no hope of understanding how heavenly crowns work.

So we are here, in a fallen world where power is corrupted, where power is abusive, and where power is always linked to clambering over and suppressing others.  If someone is at the top of the pyramid, then they must have stood on others to get there.  In this world it is hard to see how power can ever not go hand in glove with corruption and selfishness.  That’s this world.  What about in another and better world?

We should take the angst we feel about crowns and rewards and then let that energy drive us into the Bible to explore what God is like.  How does God wear His crowns?  Why would He ever give any away?

The Bible’s presentation of God gives to us the fact of three persons within the one God.  The Father is ever the initiator.  Surely He has the right to demand His position, the worship of everyone else and an exclusive right to eternal preeminence.  Indeed He has every right, but what does He do?  He elevates, honours and glorifies the Son.  He gives everything to the Son.  He puts all things under His feet.  He gives Him the name above every name.

Alright, so the Son is the ultimate pinnacle of the heavenly pyramid.  Fine, all crowns to Him then.  But what does the Son do?  Ultimately the Son will subject everything, and be subject, to the Father.  In the most humbly glorious way imaginable we find the heavenly interchange to be “to me, to you” as the Son receives and reciprocates the totally giving and selfless nature of the Father.

Fine, but what about the Spirit?  Is there not tension within the Trinity because the Spirit is never crowned or elevated like the Son is?  There would be if the Spirit was from us.  But the Spirit is also forever proceeding from both the Father and the Son, so His nature is like theirs, so He too is humbly preferring the other – the Holy Spirit is the humble Spirit because that is a key feature of the holiness that is uniquely God’s.  No clamour.  No grabbing.  No “me first.”  Glorious divine humility.

So, what about us then?  Surely we can’t come into that world and do anything but corrupt it, can we?  We certainly would if we entered unchanged from this world.  If God gave me a crown right now I know I would make a mess by immediately feeling the powerful impulse of my rebellious flesh to honour myself.  God is wise enough not to give us crowns too soon.  Once the transformation of our life, in full heavenly sanctification is complete, then we can receive crowns and rewards.

In that day we won’t consider elevating ourselves.  Neither will we bring with us a false humility that rejects the crown.  Instead we will handle crowns and rewards in a way that befits the heavenly world of God’s love that we have entered.

Crowns, for people.  Awkward.  Surely crowns should only go to God?  Ultimately they will.  Surely the heavenly way is to take off the crown and give it away as we see in Revelation 4:10.  And in casting our crowns at His feet we will have joined in the love-driven glory-giving life of the Trinity.

Preacher What Are You Doing?

JobDesc2What are we doing when we preach?  What are we aiming for?  I suspect most preachers would say we preach to see lives changed for the glory of God, or something similar.  I agree.  But what are we doing?

Some preachers see themselves essentially as life trainers.  They know Christianity brings transformation, they long for their listeners to be changed and they know they have a key role to play.  Consequently it is always tempting to take on the responsibility for life change through direct and clear instruction, moral pressure and vocal encouragement, along with the necessary warnings about the dangers of living in other ways.  Is this your model of preaching?  Are you conformity coaching?  If this paragraph describes your ministry then it is time to prayerfully take stock and investigate more intently how Christ changes lives.

Some preachers see themselves essentially as teachers.  They believe in a God who has spoken and whose Word is the treasure they share from the pulpit.  They know that a life is transformed as the truths of Scripture take root and weed out the rubbish of life lived according to the many words of the world, the flesh and the devil.  Are we information investing?  We should be, but it should be more than that.

Some preachers know their role is primarily introductory.  That is, they know that what brings change is not merely Christianity, nor even Christian teaching, but rather Christ Himself.  It is as we look on His glory that we are being transformed.  Thus the preacher’s role is more humble than conformity coaching since what is needed is transformation at a far deeper level – something we know we cannot achieve by our instruction, pressure and exhortation.  The preacher’s role goes beyond information investing to something much more personal.  The preacher’s role is primarily that of match-making . . . let me point you to Jesus and how wonderful He is.

Whatever label you want to use, make sure you understand the difference between conformity coaching, information investing and match-making.  The difference can make all the difference in the world.

5 Ways to be a Good Bible City Tour Guide

TourGuide2When you move to a new city it can be very overwhelming.  I remember moving to South London back in the days before my phone knew how to get me to my destination.  I had a huge book of street maps on the passenger seat and I gradually learned to navigate between key landmarks.  I would have loved a tour guide sitting there instead – as long as it was a good tour guide.

I would not have appreciated hearing meticulous details about the front of several houses in an obscure cul-de-sac.  “Turn right into Downing Close.  Pull over behind the white care.  Notice how houses 3, 5, and 7 all have a black gate, but different colour front doors?  Isn’t it intriguing to note how number 5 in particular does a good job keeping the side hedge trimmed and the roses look pretty good too?”

That kind of detail, presented with a dull lack of enthusiasm, would have quickly pushed me back to trusting in my book of maps.

What makes a good tour guide?  And what has this got to do with preaching?

We live in a time when very few people grow up with a good level of biblical awareness. Consequently our churches have a growing population of people who find themselves lost when they open the pages of the Bible.  They need help, and the preacher might be their main “tour guide” to help them get around.

Here are some thoughts to ponder:

1. Preacher Bible Guides should believe that their listeners need to journey in the Bible for themselves during the week – a sermon on a Sunday is not enough Bible for anyone.  We must realize how much people need to be in the Word when we aren’t there to preach it to them.

2. A good tour guide knows the big picture and the key landmarks.  It is not enough to know your way around a few key streets, you need to know how the whole fits together and what the significant landmarks are.  In Bible terms this means you need to know the big story, and understand the key landmarks: can you tell the Bible story by key characters (Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, Paul), or by key covenants (Abrahamic, Palestinian, Davidic, New), or by key events (creation, exodus, exile, cross, second coming), etc?

3. A good tour guide knows fascinating details that help to make sense of, and add colour to, the big picture.  It is important to be able to slow down and help someone see the significance of what is happening in a particular passage of Scripture, but not as a cul-de-sac in isolation.  The best tour guides can point to a detail, tell the story, and make the big picture make more sense.

4. A good tour guide knows when to go to a big landmark and when to go to a little detail.  The same is true for the preacher.  Learn how and when to give a sense of the whole, as well as how and when to make much of a detail.  You need to be able to do both, and you need to learn when to do each one.

5. A good tour guide genuinely loves the city.  Nothing worse than good knowledge offered dispassionately as if it actually doesn’t matter.  A good tour guide will help you fall more and more in love with the city and its story and its people and its charms.  How much more is this true for a Bible City Tour Guide?

Believe that your listeners should be discovering more for themselves all week long in Bible city.  Know the big picture and key landmarks, as well as the fascinating details that bring the big story to life, and know when to offer big picture or little detail.  Love the Bible city and the God revealed there.  Put that all together and you are the kind of Bible City Tour Guide that people in our churches are crying out for…

The Power of an Applicational Phrase

mirror1bIt seems like a lot of people want to hear practical and applicable teaching.  This is understandable. If the alternative is impractical and irrelevant messages then by all means sign me up for the former option.  The problem is that application in preaching can so easily direct our gaze in the wrong direction.

Truly transformational preaching will always point us toward God for the transformation.  It is as we encounter God’s self-revelation that we will feel genuine conviction.  It is as we look to Christ that we will find genuine transformation.  Of course we are either responsive or unresponsive to the work of the Spirit in all of this, but if we are not careful we can easily leave God out and look to ourselves for change.

One phrase that I’ve heard Andy Stanley use a few times is potentially very powerful in this regard.  More than once I’ve heard him say that such and such a sin won’t be visible in the mirror.

Our fallen tendency will be to look at ourselves, self-evaluate with a liberal dose of self-justification and rationalization, and thereby skirt around any sense of conviction.  The whole process of conviction-repentance-transformation is thereby cut off before it even begins.

I have seen this in my own life and I am sure you have in yours too.  I have seen this in otherwise very mature believers.  Somehow we seem to be wired not to see certain issues in the mirror.  This means that we cannot simply rely on God for the transformational help at the end of the process.  Instead we have to look to God for the conviction to begin with.

Before we even preach to others lets be sure to ask God to help us see our own blindspots – those issues that we have been rationalizing and covering for too long.  As those who are genuinely learning, let us then preach to others, reminding them that their own self-evaluation will be flawed and blind, since certain sins “will never show up in the mirror.”

One Critical Conviction

conviction2A preaching ministry is built on a whole set of convictions.  Convictions about God, the Gospel, about people, about ministry.  It is right that we let these convictions grow over time as we spend time in the Bible, and learn from mentors, from experience, from life.  In this post I’d like to flag up one of these convictions.

Here it is: God is a good communicator.

This seems so obvious, but so many build a preaching ministry without this conviction in place.  Here are some implications of this conviction to ponder:

1. No matter how clever you are, what you can make it say is not as good as what God made it say.  So do your best to preach what the text is saying.  Do your best to let the details, and also the form of the text influence how you preach it.  Try not to just say what it says, but also to do what it does.  Seek to re-create the effect and the affect of the text!

2. Our job is not to make the Bible interesting.  Whatever other good reasons there are for using “illustrations” in your preaching, this is not one of them.  We should seek to explain, prove and apply as well and as interestingly as we can, but first of all we must be gripped with enthusiasm for God and His Word if we are to communicate it with any contagious influence.  Simply trying to add interesting material like spicing a bland steak is not our calling.

3. We do not make the Bible relevant, we demonstrate and emphasize its relevance.  All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful.  All of it.  Our task is to help people see that.

4. Reading the Bible is not a curse.  Forget preaching it for a moment, some of us seem intent on convincing Christians that reading the Bible is a negative thing.  I’ve heard well-meaning Christians teach that it is hard to enjoy the Bible, so just go for the smallest goals possible.  If we give the impression that reading the Bible is a drudgery that can only be achieved by courageous acts of self-determination, then let’s not be surprised if people don’t spend much time in it.

God is a good communicator.  That conviction is critical for effective preaching.

Love Your Church

church fuzzy2To be an effective preacher you need to love your local church.  It is not enough to love the church in general.  Even if your ministry takes you to other places, still it is healthy to love your local church.  (I know that it is not our church or my church, it is Christ’s, but let’s go with this terminology for the sake of this post.)

It is the people in your own local church who know you, who pray for you, who know your family and care for them.  It is the people in your own local church who will sense when something is not right in your life.  It is these people who will speak the truth to you, even when you don’t want to hear it.

Of course, there are complexities.  The local church can become an antagonistic environment.  It can become both a source and a threat to your livelihood.  Receiving a salary from your local church means that you can be fired, or opposed, or any number of other challenges.  Nevertheless, it is important to love your local church.

It is not enough to love the church in general.  It is unwise and ungodly to love the income, the respect you get, or the power you develop. It is possible to use your local church position to get power or respect both within that church, and more widely.  We have to be wary of using the church instead of loving it.

So we need to love our local church.  Why? Because God loves it.  This is the local expression of the Bride of Christ and God is at work there.  This is the local gathering of believers that need not only your gifting, your time, your contibutions and your energy, they also and preeminently need your love.  You can work fifty or sixty hours per week, preach and lead multiple meetings, visit people in their homes or in the hospital, give of your time, gifting and energy, but if you do not have love you have nothing.

Maybe it is really obvious. Or maybe this has become your greatest challenge in ministry.  Maybe you are feeling loved and encouraged, or maybe you are feeling beaten up and ready to quit.  Whatever the circumstance, it is vital to look to Christ and to love your local church.