Different (1 Thessalonians – part 5)

Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is like a training manual for a young church. He has taught about the impact of the gospel in chapter 1, giving ourselves to build up the body of Christ in chapter 2, and praying for each other to thrive spiritually in chapter 3. Then in chapter 4, he offered some truths that would make a difference in their lives. So now, in chapter 5, he lands the letter underlining some differences that the gospel makes for believers. In a sense, he has come full circle.

How is the church you preach to supposed to be different?

1. Not naïve, but alert & hopeful. How easily we can lose our bearings as believers. Especially as relatively comfortable believers. It is so easy to get caught up in the hype of our society and fall into the naïve trap of thinking, “there is peace and security.”  After all, our country has been free and secure for generations. And the everyday stuff of life is carrying on as it has for as long as we can remember: the sports calendar, the TV series, the progression of seasons, the endless cycle of monotonous news, etc. Yes, our world is declaring certain destruction of the planet and will pat itself on the back for every effort to rescue our future from its terrible fate. Meanwhile, some of the loudest voices continue to buy their beachfront properties while proclaiming the scientific certainty of destructively rising sea levels. And so we must all play along with their panic. But despite all the shouts, most people still have a naïve confidence that nothing will actually change. The news is just noise. There is no credible threat to my safety and sense of peace.

And yet, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 seems to expect Christians to be different. Christians are supposed to be marked by alertness, discernment, sobriety, readiness and hope. Our faith, hope and love are not typical of humanity in any age. We do not stand apart by pretending all is well or spouting nice Christian platitudes. This world is heading for sudden destruction and wrath. And amid a society that tinkers as the empire heats up, we know our salvation is in Christ, so we encourage and build one another up.

2. Not self-absorbed, but purposeful. How easily we can reflect the relational dynamics of our fallen world. When selfish materialism gripped society, it was easy for Christians to play that game with a smug sense of sanctification (God is blessing me!)  What if society is now becoming enchanted by a new, but still self-serving, moral ideology? Well, it will also be easy for Christians to play that game. Many already are. We only need to learn hypersensitivity to certain moral trigger concepts and remember to celebrate brand-new self-defined and unquestionable identities. The morality of intersectional identity politics is replacing the ethics of liberal democracy. However, Christians will still simply add a Bible verse to their version of it and fit right in. 

And yet, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-14 seems to expect Christians to be different. Like many in the New Testament, this passage describes a community gripped by a counter-cultural perspective that shapes a more purposeful and selfless set of relational dynamics. Instead of a subtle rebellion against leadership, there is to be respect, esteem and love. Instead of interpersonal squabbling, whether the garden fence gossiping of yesteryear or the proactive and unfiltered taking of offence and wholesale interpersonal condemnation of today, Paul’s language of living at peace is radically different. And instead of using the community for my selfish goals (think classic networking in strategic gatherings or contemporary social narcissism on the media platform of your choice), the Christian community differentiates need among people so it can selflessly address each need. A loving Christian community should feel radically different.

3. Not worldly, but distinctly His.  How easily we can lose our distinctness as followers of Jesus. We are like fish swimming in a spiritually fallen fish tank and still assume what we experience is normal. And since our experience defines normality, our conduct will tend to reflect it. We compete. We get our own back. We moan. We can be prayerless, thankless, and unspiritual. We can live only by what we see. We can indulge.

And yet, 1 Thessalonians 5:15-28 seems to be urging us to be different. There are instructions that counter the list of normal behaviours listed above. And there is the closing benediction, where Paul prays that the God of peace will sanctify, set apart, make holy, transform, and distinguish. How much? Completely.  How blameless? Every aspect of our being. And is that transformation down to us? No, God is faithful and will surely do it. The Christian church should be radically and progressively more different because we are not called to fix ourselves, but we are called by the One who can bring about the necessary change in us. 

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Hacks (1 Thessalonians – part 4)

1 Thessalonians is like a training manual for a young church.  So far, we have thought about the impact of the gospel, giving ourselves to build up the body of Christ and praying for each other to thrive spiritually.  Chapter 4 is like a catalogue of Christian truth-hacks – things that will help people to thrive in a challenging world.  As pastors and preachers, we need to know these truths and share them with our churches:

1.  They can know God’s will.  Bruce Waltke made a fascinating point in his book about guidance.  He says that divine guidance is often treated as a bit of a conundrum.  However, he points out that in the ancient world, pagan religions were obsessed with finding some sort of guidance from the higher realm.  They would diligently study the ashes, entrails, or whatever other indication they could find in order to get a hint from beyond this world.  Sometimes Christians act like we are in an ancient superstitious religion trying to make something out of nothing.  In reality, we have an entire collection of books inspired by God.  In some churches the Bible is subtly (or not so subtly) pushed aside in favour of some kind of speculative new revelation and guidance from God.  People engage in a game of celestial hide and seek with a God who is never easy to pin down.  And yet, we have the Bible.  Properly read, it will not tell you which specific college to attend or person to marry.  But it will tell you the kind of wisdom needed to make such decisions.  It will reveal God’s values so that as you know him more and more, you can better reflect his values in the decisions you make.  And in chapter 4 of 1 Thessalonians, it does underline something that should be self-evident if you have spent time in God’s Word – his will for you is your sanctification.  You do not have to wrestle with whether or not God wants you to succeed in your sinful scheme.  He does not.  And if your goal is to please Him, then you already have the Spirit of God, so live holy.

2.  They can know a human shortcut for decision-making.  There is always complexity in making decisions, but sometimes the Bible gives us some simplicity too.  For the Thessalonians, they were loving one another, and they simply needed urging to do so more and more (see 1Thess.4:9-12).  It is a bit like Colossians 3:12-14, where Paul gives a list of instructions and then says, “above all these, put on love, which binds them together in perfect harmony.”  They should live in such a way that they are not making an unnecessary show of themselves, or being an unnecessary burden on others, or giving an unhelpful testimony to outsiders.  Do the loving thing.  I know there is complexity in that, but let’s be thankful for the simplicity too!

3.  They can know encouragement in the face of death.  This young church was introduced to the hope of Christ’s return during Paul’s brief visit to their town.  Bizarrely, we live in a time when secular reporters and political leaders might use the language of “disasters on a biblical scale,” “Armageddon,” “apocalyptic,” etc.. Yet, the church can be eerily quiet on our subject of eschatology.  The Thessalonians were not concerned with sinister global plots.  They were concerned because some of their fellow believers had died.  When death hits a congregation, the focus is understandably localised.  Did those who had died miss out on Christ’s return?  Paul wrote to encourage them, and to encourage them to encourage one another.  That’s what a biblical understanding of the end times will do for a church – it will stir hope and a heavenward, Christ-ward gaze.  Death is brimming with the pain of separation.  But we have a hope that answers that pain.  Those who have died will be brought “together with” Jesus when he comes (v14).  When Christ calls, we will be caught up “together with them” in the clouds.  Together, our forever state will be “together with the Lord” (v17).  Death, for believers, stirs anticipation of being together!  As death becomes a more prominent feature of your congregation’s experience in the coming years, let’s encourage one another with these words (v18).

Prepared (1 Thessalonians – part 3)

The letter of 1 Thessalonians is like a little manual for ministry. Chapter 1 presents the reverberating impact of the Gospel. Chapter 2 lays bare the motives and manner of Paul’s ministry in the city. Now let’s look at chapter 3.

1. Young believers need to be prepared for suffering. Paul understood their context. They were in a city and a society that would react antagonistically to their newfound faith. So Paul had prepared them for suffering, and as time passed, Paul knew that they needed to be supported in their struggle. He knew the enemy would be on the attack against these new believers. Maybe we need 3:1-5 to direct our path more in our ministry? Do we understand our context? Our believers are in a culture that is increasingly antagonistic to their faith. The enemy is very much prowling around today seeking to pick off vulnerable believers. As much as ever, and perhaps more than ever, we need to prepare believers for suffering. There is the immediate and usually subtle antagonism of our time. And surely we can’t be so naive as to think that our cultures can undergo such radical shifts as we have seen in recent years, and yet remain essentially unchanged in the coming years? Are our people prepared for living in a society that may bear more resemblance to countries we used to pray for than the countries we used to live in?

2. Don’t just let vulnerable believers drift. Paul’s team adjusted to offer support to the Thessalonian believers. Timothy was sent back and returned with an encouraging report. Let Paul’s statement bounce around your heart for a moment, “For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord.” (3:8) For now we live . . . I wonder how often I hold back from this kind of concern for the sheep under my care? It is true that life change is God’s business and I can’t force it; and it is true that sometimes people need to drift in order to become sensitized to their need for Jesus; and it is true that with limited ministerial resources we will inevitably prioritize the sheep that are leaning in to be fed and cared for, etc. However, with all the practical wisdom of real-life ministry acknowledged, let us never grow calloused and comfortable with people drifting away from Christ.

3. Is there a more important ministry than prayer? Remember Acts 6:4 – the apostles didn’t want to get dragged into serving tables (which included negotiating inter-racial tensions within the new church: a significant and important role!) But what did they not want to be dragged away from? The ministry of the Word and prayer. And prayer! Is there a more important ministry than prayer? For many in ministry, it can appear that the priorities are preaching and leadership. Or preaching and organisation. Or preaching and publishing. May we all gain a secret reputation before God for the priority of prayer in our ministry. And somehow, let’s also encourage our whole church to be prayerful. Look at the Paul-team and how they prayed in 3:10-13. “Most earnestly night and day” and, “may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all,” and “that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God…” Earnest prayer for growing love and established holiness. What believer would not want to be the beneficiary of that kind of concern?

What would you add from chapter 3?

Legacy (1 Thessalonians – part 2)

Paul’s brief visit to Thessalonica and his follow-up letter makes for a goldmine of ministry insight for preachers. Last time I thought about the reverberating impact of the Gospel in chapter 1. Let’s look at chapter 2 and get a glimpse into the ministry dynamics of Paul and his team. There are some vivid lessons here for us:

1. Ministry motivation matters massively. They pushed through suffering in order to declare the gospel, selflessly seeking the best outcome for the people and to please God. I am sure we would all aspire to that in our settings too. But there are a host of alternative motives listed. Error, impurity, attempting to deceive, trying to please people, with flattery, greedy, glory-seeking, self-elevating…what a list that is in 2:1-6. Why do I preach? Knowing my fleshly tendency to self-deceive, perhaps it is wise to take a list like this to God and ask him “to search me and try and see if there be any wicked way in me.” And it would probably be wise to bring one or two others into that conversation too. Any hints of impure motivation in your ministry? It would be better to face it, rather than allow something bad to become established.

2. Godly ministry is just like godly parenting. We’ve all seen parenting navigated as if it is a distraction from more important personal pursuits. You can provide a home, food, resources and a bit of guidance, all the while watching the calendar until they leave home and your life becomes freer for your own hobbies and interests. Many do parent that way, but it feels like an imitation of the real thing. The real thing involves a selfless love that literally gives yourself away for them to thrive. The real thing requires labour and toil, setting a consistent example, and being willing to exhort, encourage and charge these blessings from God. The heart of a mother and a father are poured out in the ministry of parenting. So it is with godly church ministry too. Paul says so in 2:7-12. Paul, Silas and co were not insecure men competing to look tougher than each other. They were like a nursing mother in their giving to the new church, and they were like a father too. How is your church ministry in parenting terms? Is the congregation becoming a hindrance to your personal goals? Are you just throwing some food in front of them and hoping they will entertain themselves in front of a screen so you can get on with your own pursuits? Or are they like children you love dearly?

3. Church ministry is an invitation to profound enrichment. Paul was only in Thessalonica for a short time, but consider how he continually longed to be with these people (see 2:17-20). They were his hope, joy, crown of boasting, and glory. The logic is fairly simple, but let’s ponder it anyway. The nature of God’s character should flow into our ministry, which will then characterise our connection with the church. You can guarantee the enemy will try to disrupt that, but the invitation remains in place. We can easily view Paul’s description as challenging – “I should work harder at ministry because I’m not sharing his sentiment for the younger believers God has given to me.” Instead, let’s view Paul’s description as an invitation – “I get to give myself away for these people, and in the process gain the kind of connection that many in the world around us would give their left arm to experience with anyone.”

4. Gospel ministry can really hurt, love anyway. Paul wrote these words to the church because he was separated and wanted to be there for them. He felt the pain of a parent’s heart when they are forced apart from their children. You don’t need me to tell you that getting hurt in ministry is not at all unusual. And it would be totally understandable to grow calloused in order to cope with that pain. Maybe even in Paul’s separation and longing we can be reminded that ministry does hurt, but we can love others anyway. In the end, we will get to our forever home where there will be no pain, no separation, no hurt, no sin, no church splits, no backstabbing, no misunderstanding, no failing bodies, etc. I am not saying we should choose to burn ourselves out, there is selflessness in genuine self-care too. But let’s not choose the calloused coping approach. For this brief moment, let’s keep our eyes on our suffering Saviour as we prayerfully press on.

1 Thessalonians chapter 2 is like a ministry training manual, what would you add?

Reverberations (1 Thessalonians – part 1)

I have been enjoying 1 Thessalonians recently and thought I would share a few highlights for us as preachers. Paul was in Thessalonica for a relatively short visit in Acts 17:1-10, but the gospel hit home. As I look at chapter 1, I wonder if my expectations might be too low in preaching the Gospel today.

1. The Gospel establishes churches. Notice how Paul mentions their work of faith, labour of love, and steadfastness of hope (1:3). He may have only been there for three sabbaths plus whatever amount of time before he was chased out of town, but these new believers were already bearing fruit. At the very foundation, they were people who knew they were loved by God (1:4). The preaching of the Gospel establishes churches. We should preach the truth that can change lives as if it will change lives.

2. The Gospel is not just words. Notice how Paul describes the coming of the Gospel to these people in 1:5 – the Gospel came “not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” When we preach the message of Jesus we are just one part of a team, and the other players are impressive! There is the message itself, focusing on Jesus. There is the Holy Spirit actively driving that message home. By extension, we know that the Father’s plans and purposes are being worked out. When we preach the message of Jesus we ourselves are still part of the team. We see in 1 Thessalonians that how Paul and his colleagues were amongst the new believers was really significant. We are part of a trinitarian team when we preach, and even though we are incomparably small compared to the other team members, our part matters nonetheless.

3. The Gospel impact reverberates globally. It is easy to think of my little sermon to my little congregation in this little insignificant corner of the world. Actually, when the Gospel lands in a life it can reverberate around the world. These new young believers in Thessalonica became an example in Macedonia and Achaia (1:7) and everywhere! (1:8) When the Gospel sounded in their lives they turned from idols, to serve God, and to wait for Jesus (1:9-10). And what is more, people heard about it!

It is easy for us to think small thoughts when we preach the Gospel. This Sunday is coming. Think about the impact of the Gospel in Thessalonica – a brief visit, with much tension, and affliction for the preacher and the listeners, as well as the preacher chased out of town entirely too soon from a human perspective. Even against such odds, the Gospel impact was huge, it changed lives and that impact reverberated globally. Let’s preach in light of 1 Thessalonians 1 and dare to believe that we are participating in the transformation of lives for eternity!

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FYI – I am coming to the end of this playlist of videos on the Psalms of Ascent:

Something to Ponder

The book of Psalms tends to become a favourite for people who have faced some challenges in life. Perhaps you have experienced grief over the loss of a loved one, discouragement during a dark season of life, or any other challenges that set the Psalms into vivid colour in our hearts. Once we know of the soul food kept in that storehouse, we tend to find ourselves returning again and again.

Sometimes the Psalm writer has found words for the ache in my heart. Other times the psalmist points my heart to where it needs to be looking. The book of Psalms is a real treasure – a refreshing spring for the weary times we all have to endure.

The book of Psalms sits at the centre of our Bibles for the times we are just reading through. Maybe there is no experienced crisis that leads us to this vast collection of Hebrew poetry. Sometimes, we will find ourselves reading it simply because it comes next in our Bible reading. It can be a great experience to read it through with fresh eyes and notice the uniqueness of each Psalm and the recurring themes.

Let’s look at the first Psalm of book five – Psalm 107. This Psalm sets the tone for the section that will follow. It begins as you might expect, with a call to thank our good God for his enduring, steadfast love. This call goes out to all who have been redeemed and rescued by God (v1-3).

Then we find ourselves walking through four examples of challenging circumstances from which God rescues his people:

First, we read of the weary wilderness wanderers failing to find a place of sanctuary (v4-9). They cried to the LORD, and he delivered them. (Those words will come up again.) So, with stomachs full and souls satisfied, the psalmist encourages them to thank the LORD for his steadfast love. 

Second, we read of the helpless prisoners, tired and broken by hard labour (v10-16). They cried to the LORD, and he delivered them. With their bonds broken and bodies set free, they are called to thank the LORD for his steadfast love.

Third, we read of the afflicted starving to death, suffering for their sin and facing their demise (v17-22). They cried to the LORD, and he delivered them. With healed bodies and joyful hearts, they are invited to thank the LORD for his steadfast love.

Fourth, we read of the fear-filled seafarers, tossed to and fro by the raging seas, despairing and at their wit’s end (v23-32). This example gives more vivid detail, but again, they cried to the LORD, and he delivered them (see v 6, 13, 19 and 28). With the storm stilled and safely brought back to the fellowship of humans on shore, they are encouraged to thank the LORD for his steadfast love (see v8, 15, 21, 31)

The final section of the Psalm underlines some of the points made throughout. God is in charge. Just as he can bring about change in nature (v33-38), he can reverse his people’s fortunes (v39-42). And so, the final verse ensures we have not missed the point. If we are wise, we will ponder what this Psalm says. Indeed, if we are wise, we will ponder, contemplate, consider and meditate on the steadfast love of the LORD (v43).

The Psalm begins and ends with the spotlight on the steadfast love of God. The Psalm invites us to consider four examples of people in dire straits who called out to God and discovered why they should thank God for that steadfast love.

Perhaps Psalm 107 is the food for thought that we need. It could be that we feel like we are close to death or tossed in every direction and despairing of life itself. Or it could be that we are calmly moving through the second half of 2022, thankful for God’s blessing and a season of tranquillity and peace. Whatever may be going on around us, Psalm 107 suggests what should be happening inside us. We should be considering the steadfast love of God. Honestly, it is hard to think of a wiser thing to do.

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Growing Worship

Genesis is the book of foundations.  It lays down so many foundational truths on which the rest of the Bible can helpfully build.  For example, consider the life of Abraham.  His is the first extended biographical narrative in the Bible.  His story is about as far removed from our world as can be – geographically, culturally, religiously, technologically – and yet, it all feels so strangely relevant.  This is not surprising; God is a great communicator and knows exactly how to introduce us to the concept of living a life of faith in a God and his good-promise plan.

I recently revisited the most famous story in the epic biography of Abraham – Genesis 22.  So much had already happened in the preceding chapters.  God had called Abram to give up everything and go to an as-yet-unspecified location.  And then the rollercoaster of Abram’s growing faith takes us through some real highs and surprising lows.  There is the daring battle and rescue of Lot, his nephew, later followed by intercession as Lot’s town faced imminent judgment.  There is the powerful covenant scene in the darkness after the declaration of Abram’s belief in God’s promise.  But there is also the repeated risking of Sarah’s life with foreign kings, not to forget the turmoil created by having a child with Sarah’s maidservant.  Finally, after many years, the child of promise arrives to change the tone of the laughter in the family tent.  Abraham’s story is a rollercoaster of growing and struggling faith in a good God – and so is our story.

Coming to Mt Moriah – After all the ups and downs, we arrive at Genesis 22.  Back in chapter 12, Abraham had been called to go, to leave everything, and to journey to a yet-unspecified location.  Now in chapter 22, he is again called to go to an unknown location and to give up everything.  Before, his life included a whole host of people and the perks of life in sophisticated Ur.  Now, everything was wrapped up in the breathing body of his long-promised son. 

Abraham’s story teaches us that life is not about continual novelty.  God repeats and restates his promise, Abraham repeats the same struggles and sins, and God is repeatedly gracious.  We see God again calling Abraham to give up everything, just like He had asked at the beginning, and also not just like that – this felt much bigger. 

Your life, and mine, is not filled with brand new experiences and lessons.  How often do we despair when we slide back into the same old struggles, and yet how often do we get to marvel at God’s patient kindness in lovingly rescuing us and helping us learn the same lessons at deeper levels?  When the gospel first stirred our hearts, we were called to leave everything and follow him, so why are we surprised if years later we are again called to give up yet more in order to follow him even more closely?  As the years pass, the light of God’s goodness shines deeper into the corners of our lives.

So, the story of Genesis 22 unfolds in a masterpiece of ancient storytelling.  The writer underlines the pain of God’s call as he labours over the identification of the sacrifice in verse 2 – “it is your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love.”  The writer piles verb upon verb in verses 3-4 to give a sense of the progressing action as Abraham obeys God’s call.  The writer slows the progression of the narrative as Abraham’s hand is held high over Isaac, bound on the altar in verse 10.  It really is brilliant storytelling.  Perhaps most telling is what the storyteller omits – specifically, Abraham’s feelings.  We read of his unflinching obedience, but our hearts break as we read it.  Perhaps the writer did not mention Abraham’s feelings because no words could ever describe them adequately?  Perhaps because any empathetic reader would already know better than words could convey?

As we reflect on Genesis 22, here are three thoughts to ponder prayerfully for our journey of faith in God today:

1. Genesis 22 is about worship.

Christianity is a uniquely diverse global worship movement.  Across the globe, every week, millions of people gather to sing in worship to God.  Since singing is so central to our ongoing experience of faith, it is easy to assume that our worship consists entirely in our shared singing.  However, the Bible does not restrict the concept of worship to our shared harmonization of heartfelt truths.  The Bible speaks of worship also in terms like Romans 12:1, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice . . . this is your spiritual act of worship.”  And so perhaps there is no better passage to get us thinking straight about worship than Genesis 22.  Abraham was called not to murder his son, but to make an offering of him to God.  Abraham himself spoke of their plan to “go and worship” (v5). 

Genesis 22 is about worship.  And it makes clear that worship, our expressed response of devotion, adoration and honour to God, involves more than singing.  Abraham was called to leave everything and live for God back in chapter 12.  But now, years later, he is again called to live for God by giving everything to him.  What will it look like for you to worship God today?  Perhaps you look back on your conversion and see a greater fervour in your expression of worship.  But this story does not urge a return to our first love.  It invites us to a more costly, deeply-felt sacrificial offering of our everything to God. Worship means giving God everything.

2. Genesis 22 is about faith.

There is no doubt that this story is the high point of Abraham’s biography as the father of faith.  But what is the nature of that faith?  Notice that in verse 5 he tells his servants that he and the boy will “go worship and come again to you.”  Hebrews 11:17-19 reveals that Abraham had faith that God would raise Isaac from the dead.  After all, he had been born out of the death of Sarah’s womb, so why wouldn’t God be able to do it again?  Also notice that in verse 8 he tells Isaac that “God will provide.”  Abraham could not know exactly what would happen, but he seemed to know exactly who was in charge.  After God provided the ram, Abraham speaks again, naming the place “The LORD will provide” (v14).

The only way you and I can really worship God today, if worship means giving everything to God, is if we have faith that God himself will provide.  Can I give up this relationship that the Spirit of God is calling me to walk away from?  (That is not your marriage, but it could be an unhealthy friendship that threatens your future or present marriage!)  God will provide.  Can I give up this promotion and the security that may come with it in order to live out my spiritual values, even though I need that greater salary?  God will provide.  Can I give sacrificially when I don’t even know how expensive everything will become in the next months?  God will provide.  Worship means giving everything to God, trusting in his giving character.

3. Genesis 22 is about God.

The ultimate worship question is the Mt Moriah question.  If worship is about giving our everything to God, and if that requires faith in God’s giving, then let’s ask the Mt Moriah question.  Who gave up everything on Mt Moriah?  Abraham was willing, but was spared by a God-given sacrifice.  Years later, God himself brought his son, his only son, whom he loved, Jesus, to Mt Moriah.  God was willing, and did not spare his own son, but made him the God-given sacrifice for us.  God really did provide. 

And that brings us to the heart of worship.  It is our expressed response of devotion, adoration and honour to God.  We cannot work it up in ourselves by practice or by determination.  It is a response.  So, we must look to Mt Moriah.  We worship by giving our everything to God, because he first gave his everything for us. 

Worship is so costly.  It cost God everything.

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Walking Through the Psalms

During 2022 I have been enjoying a slow walk through the book of Psalms. I have been working through the book one Psalm at a time. I have shared the journey via YouTube and sought to convey a detail and a point of application from each Psalm to help others enjoy reading the Psalm. I will attach the playlist below this post.

As we are now at the halfway point in the year, I thought I would pull together some reflections:

  1. Slowing down and pondering a Psalm allows you to appreciate the artistic crafting contained within a Psalm. For instance, if I look at the short five verses of Psalm 70, I notice the key terms repeated in the first and last verses: haste, O God, deliver me; O LORD, help me. Actually, while I knew that Psalms can give a sense of completion by using similar terminology at the beginning and end, I have been surprised by how often that occurs. And the use of inclusio, or “bookends”, is only one of many types of artistry to be found in the Psalms.
  2. Scribbling on the text of a Psalm allows you to notice the flow of thought more easily. Again, sticking with Psalm 70 as a simple example, there are two movements within the body of the Psalm. In verses 2-3, the repetition of “Let them…” shows David’s concern regarding those opposing him. He wants God to deal with them. Then verse 4 has the repetition of “May…”, which points to the positive request and anticipation. David knows that seeking God leads to good for his people. Judgment of them; the blessing for us.
  3. Study intensity does not preclude devotional impact. I remember Gordon Fee writing about the need for exegesis and devotion. He noted that just as a church does not need an exegetically precise pastor who is lacking in devotional warmth as he studies his Bible in sermon preparation, the people in the pew should not be devotionally warm while being exegetically imprecise in their personal Bible times. Sometimes we fall into the trap of separating technical study from devotional reading. But when I scribble on a printout of a Psalm, note the structure, the parallelisms, the imagery, and even when I turn to a technical commentary to probe a specific issue, none of this precludes the devotional impact of the Psalm. The end goal should be that the Psalm speaks to my heart, affects my life, and potentially gets shared as an encouragement to someone else.
  4. Simplicity in Psalm study is sometimes where we find the treasure. Some of us set the bar very high for our Bible engagement. We think we have to plumb the depths and find high-level technical insights in every study. But in Psalm 70, the bottom line is straightforward. David starts the final verse with an extra line before returning to the terms that bring the Psalm full circle as they repeat the opening ideas from verse 1. What is the additional line? “But I am poor and needy.” The enemies of David need to be judged. God’s people have reason to rejoice in God. David is poor and needy. So, hasten, O God, deliver and help me. The bottom line that we can take away? “I need God.” It is not high-level original thought, and I will not get a PhD for noticing it, but it might be just the thought I need as I walk with God today.
  5. Short Psalms do not have to mean brief study. Psalm 70 is just five verses long. It is essentially a repetition of the final verses of Psalm 40. So, with it being brief and recently studied, does that make it a quick cursory study? It does not have to mean that at all! God’s Word can always be a fruitful chew! I understand the benefits of a quick read and simple study – we all need those too. But there is nothing to say that a brief Psalm must not linger longer than a few minutes in our minds and hearts. Meditate on God’s Word, day and night – that even sounds like a healthy Psalms idea!
  6. Some Psalms point overtly to Jesus; every Psalm points to God’s character. Some Psalms clearly point beyond themselves to the coming greater son of David. In other Psalms, the connection to the coming Messiah is less overt. But every Psalm points to God’s character, which is an excellent focus for your heart. It is never too big a step from God’s goodness, grace, mercy, and blessing to the fulfilment of God’s great plan in the coming of Jesus. You don’t have to force a detail to make the link explicit. But do make sure you are enjoying the God who is revealing himself through this beautiful book.
  7. Say what you see – the Psalms ask to be prayed or sung. As you read through Psalms, you may find a tune already in your mind. For example, Psalm 34 and Psalm 68 seem to strike up several songs because of songs sung in my church growing up or today. Other Psalms may feel very unfamiliar in their wording. Yet, often they offer the very words my heart wants to be praying to God. That feeling of profound contemporary relevance is not rare when spending time in Psalms. So let the words work in your heart and then let the words work on your lips, whether you are singing God’s praise or crying out to God in prayer.
  8. Share what you see – the Psalms are asking to be passed along. There is something incredibly transferable about the blessing of Psalms. The simplicity of application, the power of the imagery, the brevity of the written context – it all means you have something to share with others in conversation or with friends via text message. Psalms is a book that joins you in the most secret place of suffering or struggle, and yet it is a book that can spill out to others in the everyday activities of life. Share what you are blessed to see.

What do you appreciate about the book of Psalms? What have I missed?

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Navigating the Mess

Everything looks lovely down below when flying 10,000 meters above the earth. The land is green, the mountains look stunning, and the sea is bright blue. But real life is not lived from 10,000m up; it is lived down here in the mess of real life. We feel this messy reality, especially when it comes to relationships.

Every engaged couple looks forward to their wonderful married life to come. It is loving to help them prepare for marriage knee-deep in the mess of real-life challenges! The anticipation may be eighteen years of joy and giggles when the first baby comes along, but reality will be much more down to earth. The same is true of friendships, church fellowship, ministry teams, etc. Genuine relationships are much messier and need more guidance than a simple “love one another” or “be kind” (although these instructions are essential, of course).

If only God had given us a little note to offer some guidance in the messy confusion of real-life relationships. He did. For almost two millennia, God has placed a little personal note in his collection of inspired documents. It is a personal letter of twenty-five verses from Paul about a runaway household slave. We call the letter Philemon.

Paul’s Little Letter

Philemon was a relatively wealthy man from Colossae. We know this because his home was large enough to host a church, and he had slaves working for him. He had encountered Paul at some point in time – perhaps while visiting Ephesus. Paul had told him about the good news of Jesus, and Philemon was turned upside down on the inside. With this new fire burning within, he became a crucial person in the new church in Colossae.

At another point in time, Onesimus, a slave working in Philemon’s home, had decided to start a new and illegal life for himself. He stole whatever he could carry and travelled far away to Rome, hiding among the swirl of criminals and runaway slaves who wanted to hide their crimes there. Somehow, in God’s goodness, Onesimus was introduced to Paul. Paul had told him about the good news of Jesus, and Onesimus was turned upside down on the inside. With this new fire burning within, he became a crucial helper to Paul, living under the constraints of house arrest in Rome.

Eventually, the story came out. Onesimus had stolen and run away from Philemon, Paul’s old friend in Colossae. So, Paul urged Onesimus to return and make things right with his owner. Despite Onesimus’ fear of arrest and possible capital punishment, Paul wrote his short letter to Philemon. Onesimus would have guarded that letter closely, treasuring the truth it contained. We should do the same.

Why? For Onesimus, it made a way to do the right thing with hope. For us, the epistle to Philemon gives us hope as we try to navigate the messy realities of interpersonal relationships in the Christian community. Let’s consider briefly two critical realities and then three additional features revealed in this letter:

1. Such a great debt. Paul appealed on behalf of Onesimus, making it clear that Onesimus had become a follower of Jesus and a very useful companion to Paul (v8-11). But did Paul know about the crimes committed back in Colossae? Yes, he did. And he promised to pay that debt in full (v18-19).

When there is sin, there is always a debt. When someone hurts you, even if they did not steal something tangible, they leave behind a debt of hurt, shame, or whatever. Everything in us wants to make them pay. Everything in us wants that debt made up to us in some way. Onesimus’ debt could have cost him his life, but Paul charged it to his own account.

What Paul did for Onesimus, Jesus had done for Paul. Like every one of us, Paul had a debt with God’s eternal justice that he could never repay. But Jesus died to pay that debt in full. If Jesus has done that for us, then it makes sense that we will start to look for ways to do that for others. We can never make the atoning sacrifice Jesus made for us. Still, we can accept the cost of hurt and release others from our desires for revenge or our need for compensation. A Christian community navigates the mess of relationships with plenty of forgiveness – the acceptance of interpersonal pain costs that we no longer hold on the accounts of others.

2. Such a great welcome. Paul offered to pay the debts of Onesimus. He also urged Philemon to welcome his runaway slave as if he were his dear brother, Paul himself (v16-17). Suppose it had just been a promise of debt repayment. In that case, Onesimus could have headed back to the servants’ quarters or, in a non-slave setting, be free to walk away. But Paul asked Philemon to welcome Onesimus as if he were Paul himself. The guest room, the seat of honour at dinner, etc.

What Paul did for Onesimus, Jesus had done for Paul. Like every last one of us, Paul had no business being welcomed into God’s family and home. But Jesus makes it possible for us to be welcomed into God’s family, home, and table of feasting as if we were Jesus himself! Accepted in the beloved Son – what a privilege!

If Jesus has done that for us, then it makes sense that we will start to look for ways to do that for others. So the Christian community because a place that is uniquely welcoming in a world of simulated tolerance. Hurt and broken people can find the welcome of a true family when they meet Jesus and join a healthy local church. And it is not just at the moment of conversion, either. Continually we forgive one another, and we express genuine love and acceptance toward each other. We navigate the mess of relationships by remembering the Gospel – what has Jesus done for us? And then we look to spill that same goodness toward one another.

If Philemon only pointed us to the beautiful truths of forgiveness and acceptance, it would already be a treasure. But there are at least three more features to notice as you read it. Three more ways that the Gospel shapes us to navigate the complexity of life knee-deep in the mess of relationships:

Connected – Meeting Jesus and joining his family gives us a sense of connectedness that we could never have outside the church. The world strives to achieve self-serving networking. We are brought into the extended family of God. Look at the connections described in verses 1-2 and 23-24. And be sure to pause on the level of connection described in verse 12 – Onesimus: “my very heart.”  We can mean so much to each other because we first mean so much to God!

Refreshing – Look at how Paul thanks God for Philemon’s faith in God and love for others in verses 4-7. As we grow in our relationship with Jesus, we almost imperceptibly grow in our impact on others. In a world of people who feel like their existence makes essentially no difference to anyone, we discover that our participation in the body of Christ is a source of refreshment to others!

Giving – Paul would have benefitted from keeping Onesimus with him in Rome. After all, “Useful” (the meaning of the name) had become very useful to Paul. But healthy Christians are marked by Christlike generosity. The Gospel makes us givers, not grabbers. In a world full of grabbing and self-serving, it is beautiful to become part of a family of givers.

How can we navigate the mess of human relationships in the church? None of us lives at theoretical heights of 10,000m. If we are involved in church life and ministry, it is messy. The answer to the question is not a pragmatic suggestion or a simple how-to guide. The answer flows from the reality of who God is and what he has done for us. Let’s allow the book of Philemon to become a treasure in our lives – treasured because it reminds us that the Gospel speaks of how we can be saved and how we can navigate the messy complexity of human relationships.

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Brief videos on the Psalms . . . a great book for the mess!

Resurrection Reverberations

We have recently celebrated another Easter. Almost two thousand of them have come and gone since the first one. Yet, the ongoing impact of Jesus’ explosion of life continues to reverberate in this world of death. 

Since Jesus is still alive today and still actively bringing people to faith, let’s go back to the first Easter and see the pattern and progression of his work. John’s account is fascinating. It also gives us some incredibly intimate and personal moments of transformation and teaching as people met the risen Jesus. This same Jesus is alive today and still leads many through this same pattern and progression.

1. Hearing a report: Peter and John (John 20:1-2)

After the devastating spectacle of Jesus’ brutal death on the Roman cross, the Sunday morning began quietly. Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early. She longed to show her devotion to the one who had made such a difference in her life. But the tomb was open and empty. Not understanding the significance of this, but knowing something was not right, she ran to report the missing body. The empty tomb should still unsettle people today – in a world of death and sadness, and something does not fit.

2. Checking the empty tomb (John 20:3-10)

Peter and John ran to the tomb, to the place of death, with John out in front. The competitive lifelong friends were aware of each other as they tried to make sense of Jesus’ death. But the tomb was, indeed, empty. It did not look like a crime scene with body wrappings strewn around the floor. It felt organized, orderly, and obviously, something highly unusual had happened. John saw and believed. Throughout the gospel, this disciple had been especially close to Jesus. It was no surprise that he would respond quickly with faith. But what about others? What about nobodies, doubters, and failures? Keep reading.

3. Meeting the gracious risen Jesus: new faith and family (John 20:11-18)

Mary Magdalene was the last person you would expect to have the honour of meeting the Risen Christ first – especially in that culture. She was a woman of no significance with a cartload of baggage from life. It is beautiful to recognize that Jesus came first to a woman, and a woman with question marks all over her reputation. If we wrote the story of Jesus’ return from the dead, we might have him knocking on Pilate’s door – “Remember me?”  Or perhaps we’d have his silhouette darkening the door of a Sanhedrin council meeting – “I’m back!”  Or maybe we would be less dramatic and have him come to the key leaders of the soon-to-launch church movement. But we didn’t write the story; eyewitnesses did. And the facts were clear: Jesus chose to make this insignificant and baggage-laden woman the first eyewitness!

Please take note of what this passage tells us about Jesus. First, and of utmost importance, she looks for the body lying but instead sees Jesus standing: he is very much alive! Even if we have read this account a thousand times, let us never lose the wonder of this moment and this truth! Second, as we have already underlined, he chose to meet with Mary Magdalene. Perhaps he knew how her tender heart would be breaking at his death after all he had done for her. (Still today, Jesus loves to meet with nobodies burdened by the baggage of life and feeling desperately small in a world of death!)

Third, notice his sensitivity to her: “Why are you weeping?”  And then, fourth, observe his personal connection with her; he spoke her name. (How beautiful it is to see hurting people discover that not only is Jesus alive as a historical fact. More than that, he is sensitive and personal in his desire for connection with them – he knows my name!)  This personal connection leads us to the fifth observation, and a critical one: in v17, Jesus has created a new family and invites his followers to join. For the first time in the gospel, he calls his followers “my brothers.”  He overtly extends his special relationship to them for the first time, “my Father and your Father, my God and your God.”  And Mary is launched with the privilege of reporting this to the others. Not only had she seen him alive, but he had “said these things to her!”

4. Hearing Christ’s commission (John 20:19-23)

The scene shifts from the garden that morning to a behind-closed-doors gathering of the disciples in Jerusalem that evening. The reports were swirling in the conversations and the hearts of the disciples, but then Jesus joined them. Again, notice how his character is not seething and bent on revenge. There is a tenderness and a purposefulness about him. He speaks peace to these troubled hearts. He shows his hands and side – Jesus is far more willing to share evidence of his death and resurrection than most humans are willing to pursue it! He lays out their commission – just as His Father sent him, so now he would be sending them out to spread the news to others. And they would be empowered by the Spirit of God, with forgiveness at the heart of their activity and message.

5. Checking the living evidence: faith and worship (John 20:24-31)

The account continues in the same room, but eight days later. Now is the moment for Thomas to receive the unfortunate label that has stuck ever since. The rest had seen Jesus’ hands and side, but Thomas had declared that his belief would need the same evidence. Notice how the chapter began with disciples running to check the evidence of an empty tomb. It ends with another disciple seeking proof of the resurrection – our faith is founded on fact. 

So, Jesus joined them again, and his focus settled on Thomas. Notice that Jesus did not rebuke the doubter; instead, he offered evidence. And Thomas’ response has echoed down through the centuries, “My Lord and my God!”  (I am glad that Thomas got to speak the punchline of the whole Gospel of John!)

Jesus offered evidence to Thomas. And Jesus also gave hope to all who would not have the same direct opportunity to reach out and feel the wounds. It is possible, even blessed, to believe based on eyewitness testimony and the preponderance of historical evidence. Actually, the whole of John’s gospel was written to invite people to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and by believing, to have life!

6. Meeting the gracious risen Jesus: commission reminder – what kind of fishing? (John 21:1-14)

The final chapter of John continues the expanded presentation of the Great Commission. Already we have seen Matthew’s “All authority . . . given to me . . . Go!” (In John, that sounds like “As the Father has sent me, even so, I send you…”)  We have seen the “I am with you always . . .” (In John: “Receive the Holy Spirit…”). But what about the specifics of what disciple-making will look like – the bringing people in and then building them up element of Matthew’s Great Commission? Here comes John 21, with Jesus tenderly and graciously meeting his followers again. This time, by the Sea of Galilee.

This passage is filled with gentle reminders of their commissioning. The adrenaline of those weeks in Jerusalem had faded. Now seven disciples were out in a boat trying to catch fish again. Jesus gently reminded them of his first encounter with some of them, back at the beginning, in Luke 5. He had called them to fish, not for fish, but people.

As they came to shore, he gently reminded them of another earlier lesson. As they worked with Jesus, he could provide necessary provisions by the Sea of Galilee. He had done it before: bread and fish for thousands. Even today, we need these reminders. If we have met the Risen Christ, then there is a calling on our lives, a calling to fish for people and join Jesus in his mission to draw people to himself out of this dark world.

But there was another reminder there, too: the charcoal fire strategically placed to cook the breakfast and pull Peter’s heart back to that night in Jerusalem.

7. Commission clarification for Peter (& John): feeding family and following faithfully (John 21:15-25)

We know from the other Gospels that Peter had already met with Jesus alone on Easter Sunday. But his failure to follow Jesus during the trials may still have echoed in his hurting heart. Or perhaps the echo was in the estimation of the others. In chapter 20, we see Jesus come to the nobody and the doubter, but what about the failure? If we fail, are we finished? Another tender conversation follows, with Jesus offering three opportunities to Peter to declare his devotion and three affirmations of his commission to feed the flock. Peter had declared his loyalty even unto death, but he had not made it through the night in his own strength. But now, Jesus offered Peter the privilege for which he longed – the opportunity to live for Jesus and, eventually, to die for Jesus.

Peter and John walked along the beach and, ultimately, towards their deaths, with Peter out in front. The competitive lifelong friends were aware of each other as Peter tried to make sense of Jesus’ words about their deaths. One would face martyrdom for his master. The other would suffer the challenges of growing old and dying. We are all on one path or the other. Some of us will be killed for Jesus. Others of us will grow old and die following Jesus. Either way, the instruction Jesus gave still stands. For now, we are to fish for people and feed the flock. And how can we follow faithfully to the end? “Follow me.”  Simple. Keep your eyes on the risen Christ.

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That same pattern and progression are still at work today. In a world of death, something does not fit. As people hear about Jesus, they are invited to check the empty tomb. Hopefully, as they gather evidence, they will meet the risen Lord personally. He still loves to come to nobodies, doubters, and failures. And as we meet him, we discover life in the relational bonds of the Trinity and find the purpose for our lives in this world. We are here to fish for lost people and feed God’s people. And as we keep our eyes on the living Christ, we are empowered to live for Him and eventually die for Him – confident that death is not the end of the story!