The Kingdom Difference

June 14, 2017

kingdomofgod

Recently while on vacation I met up with a good friend for lunch. As usual our discussion was wide ranging. Part of the conversation concerned how my 2017 preaching theme of seeking first God’s kingdom was transforming me—as well as my understanding of God’s kingdom—in profound and unexpected ways. The next day my friend texted me stating that he would enjoy a further conversation about this, specifically how this was personally affecting me.

I’ve ruminated over this a great deal in the few weeks since. Surprisingly I find it somewhat difficult to articulate it adequately. I have twice posted since about the impact the kingdom is making. It remains a journey for me—a process to grasp just how deep and wide the challenges of the kingdom are. Some of them I do not like. They make me uncomfortable and expose too many of my weaknesses.

But I am going to take a shot at it and attempt to explain what I am learning. To me the kingdom of God:

  • Is not about me. I really enjoy things being about me. I like to get my way. I dislike having to compromise. I generally believe that I have the best ideas and typically have a strong desire for events to turn out in my favor. But unfortunately this is not a kingdom focus—actually it is far from it. Read again the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7)— Christ’s first public teaching about the kingdom and its values—and you will see it threaded throughout. Then later (Matthew 16:24-26) he makes it even clearer. There just is no self-focus in the kingdom and I haven’t figured out how to get around it—even though a large part of me wants to do so.
  • Is about submission. Here we go again. The kingdom is about me submitting my will to the Father’s. Christ himself emphasized this (in John’s gospel) and modeled it perfectly—in a way I cannot even imagine. In order to fully embrace God’s kingdom and thrive within it I have to give up. Period. My old self will has to die and be buried according to Paul in Romans 6:3-4. Out of that submission God will raise me up anew and begin his process of reshaping me for the kingdom. Nowhere, however, is there ever a claim that this would be easy. Worthwhile—definitely, but easy, no. I typically like easy.
  • Is others oriented. I guess at this point, this could go unsaid. I posted about the “least of these” kingdom focus earlier. They are the others.
  • Upends conventional wisdom. Starting with the idea of submitting and giving up, but going deeper. The poor, the mournful, the pure, the merciful, and even the persecuted—they are the blessed ones. Enemies? They are not to be hated and destroyed but to be loved (when was the last time I prayed for or had a loving spirit toward a terrorist? Yea. Tough.). Being first is not what matters—being last does. Have a lot of money, land and stuff? Maybe the best use of it is not to invest it to gain more stuff, but to diverse yourself of it and give it away (like many did in Acts). Someone strikes you, don’t strike back, but rather turn the other cheek. Put your swords away. Go the second mile. Those are the actions reflective of God’s kingdom. Its values indeed come from another place (John 18:36). All of this creates big-time tension within me. Can I–coming from the place of conventional wisdom–really put into practice these unconventional teachings?
  • Is all about trust. And this is where the true test for me comes. I can know all of the above in an academic, skim-the-Bible-kind of way, but do I trust God enough to personalize them and go all in? The trust-building promises are all there. Seek first and God’s got your back–no need to worry. Humble yourself and God will elevate you in his way. Give of yourselves and God will give back many times over in various ways. Be last and then become first in the kingdom. To actualize this I really have to let go of the control of my life and hand it over to God. Can I see past the short-term to grasp the endgame of God? Short-term none of this has any appeal to me. Long term? I must trust God explicitly. It is the only way to see the value of what he is asking. It is the only way to really make the kingdom become present and alive within me (Luke 17:20-21). This, as they say, has rocked my world.

This is where I am—venturing out in baby steps toward greater trust and in so doing finding God changing me; learning to view people, possessions, and priorities differently; all while being constantly confronted by the kingdom. Sometimes I manage to be selfless through it all, but sometimes I don’t. I suppose that why it is called seeking–it remains a process.

In the end it is all about God’s will. That is the kingdom difference. I find myself praying more like Jesus:

Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.


Five Steps to Effective Bible Study

December 9, 2014

I’ve quite often heard how Bible study can be intimidating–and I get that. Everything about the Bible–its length; its historical time-frame; it’s language; it’s subject matter; Bible-studying-theit’s message; its divine inspiration–makes it not only unique but also incredibly challenging for many just to pick up and read.

If someone were to decide to randomly start reading the Bible and flipped it open to, say, 1 Chronicles 26 or Revelation 18, well, good luck with that.

It is not that these biblical texts cannot be understood–they can. But unlike a novel or a good historical read or even a text-book, to effectively read, study and understand the Bible takes some preparation.

And that is not as big a deal as you might think. With all of the resources we have available now in biblical scholarship, preparation is frequently just a click away. It is now easier than ever to find the Bible study tools needed to assist us (such as introduction information on individual books of the Bible; historical and cultural background information on biblical cities; biblical language helps; etc)

Of course I am sort of a geek when it comes to Bible study. It is something I truly enjoy and I know not everyone shares this passion. But regardless of your passion (which I believe would increase with more effective study) or knowledge level here are five steps to help you to enjoy more effective Bible study.

  • Never approach text with an agenda. Yep, I start with a negative. Far too often we open up our Bible to find a verse to support something we think we already believe. This does not engender healthy Bible study. No text was ever written simply as a “proof text” for us to parse and use to win a debate or prove a point. When we bring our agendas into Bible study Scripture gets twisted and taken in all sorts of never-intended ways. Granted it is difficult if not impossible to go into Bible study unfiltered. We all have our biases to sort through, but appropriating biblical text to use for our own personal agendas is not a profitable Bible study method.
  • Let text speak in context. This is the key that unlocks the amazing teaching found in the Bible. In order to understand what Scripture is teaching now, we must understand what it first taught then–when it was originally written. To do so means digging into context–all about the original recipients; their situation; the world in which they lived; about the person who wrote the book and their purpose in writing; and what is going on in the surrounding text itself. (This is where all those resources mentioned earlier help out.) It is too easy to take Scripture out of context and make it mean anything we want (see first point). By anchoring text in context we can avoid that while unpacking a treasure trove of teaching within the text of our study. Scripture comes alive by realizing it was first given to real people struggling to live out their faith.
  • Get to know the Bible one book at a time. Recently we had a guest speaker, Dr. Cecil May, Jr. make this point at my church. Instead of bouncing around all over the Bible–take it one book at time. Let that book’s text speak in its context. Get to know who wrote the book; why it was written; the folks who first received it. Learn their story and the story in the book. It is a wonderful approach.
  • Then understand that there is a greater narrative within the Bible. In one sense the Bible is one story–an incredible narrative about the Christ. Each book in both testaments tell something of his story–some more than others, but it is undeniable that his story is the Bible’s story. So as you journey through the Bible one book at a time you will begin to see the connective thread of the story of Jesus. Understanding this larger narrative will open up the Bible in new and exciting ways.
  • Wrap up Bible study in prayer. To borrow a phrase, Bible study and prayer go together like “peas and carrots.” Pray before you start; during; and after. “Pray without ceasing.” To borrow another phrase, pray that “the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for those who believe” (Ephesians 1:18-19).

Bible study can be exciting, enjoyable, enlightening, and even entertaining. The Bible is an amazing and surprising book. The reasons to study it are eternal. It is forever God’s inspired Word (2 Timothy 3:16). It is one way we get to know him. I hope these five steps will encourage you to study and help you get more out of your time with God’s Word.


Five Transformative Texts

July 2, 2014

All Scripture is inspired, but there are some texts that speak a weightier word from the Lord.bible pic

Here are five transformative texts which do that for me:

  • Exodus 20:1-7. These are the first three of the Ten Words. It is Yahweh identifying himself; speaking of the overarching significance of recognizing Him and His Name alone. In a culture with competing gods, Israel was to honor the Only True One. Their identity was to singularly flow from who He was. Their purpose as a people all depended upon this. If they failed to have “no other gods” before Him; they would completely fail regardless of any other factors. In fact this is what happened. It all connected back to a failure to heed these first three commandments. This is why this text remains transformative. Prioritize God first. Honor His Name above all names and our hearts will remain The Potter’s clay.
  • Hosea 6:6 (restated by Christ in both Matthew 9:13 & 12:7). The prophet Hosea lived in unstable and ungodly times. Israel had drifted far away from her purpose to be a light to other nations. Dramatically, Hosea’s own life revealed the adultery Israel had committed with other gods. Still, they managed to hold onto ritual–offering sacrifices to Yahweh, which were totally void of heart and meaning. Generations later Jesus would encounter a different Israel, but with the same empty ritualistic approach to God. So he recalled Hosea’s words: I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings. Generations after Christ, we still gravitate toward ritual and away from mercy. “Doing” church can never trump “being” Christ.
  • Micah 6:8. Staying in the Minor Prophets during the same general historical time-frame as Hosea. Micah’s plea to an unrepentant Israel beautifully reveals the kind of people God desires in any generation: He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. This remains a watershed text–wonderfully summing up who God wants us to be.
  • Matthew 22:26-40. The Greatest Commands. This connects to all the other texts. Love God first with everything you’ve got. Then you can proceed to humbly express that love or that mercy or that justice toward others. It is transformation. It is God breathing life and meaning from His being into ours. When His Name is above all names, everything changes. We are truly free to love, serve and obey Him and to freely share these incredible gifts–without boundaries to others. Which brings us to my last text…
  • Matthew 28:19-20. The Great Comission. Yes, Christ urges us on toward sharing: to tell what the Lord has done for us; to “go into all the world.” It is part of our purpose–as it was for Israel. It is the outflowing of the kingdom of God to every tribe and people. It is the way others hear of the One who is above all else.

All of these texts are life-changing. At least they have been for me.

Perhaps you have some transformative texts of your own to share?


Five Ways to Destroy your Church

June 26, 2014

All churches struggle to some degree. No way around it as long as we are a part of them. This should be nothing new or surprising. Just read the New Testament.

But some struggles do more damage than others. Some can destroy the health and vitality of our church. They can just zap The Spirit right out of us. Literally.

Here are my not-so-fab five:

  1. Apathy. One of the most infamous churches in the New Testament is Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22). Christ called them “lukewarm.” Our word is apathetic. They had no passion; no desire to serve; no zeal to share. They were dying and this was distasteful to Christ. Apathy sits atop my list because it invades and makes its home in too many churches. No growth. No concern. Status quo. Until the doors close for good.
  2. Fear. It partners with apathy. It is the antithesis of the spirit of God (2 Timothy 1:7). Yet it reigns supreme in many churches who are too timid to shake off failed methodology and stale tradition; who are unable to embrace the full significance of God’s power due to a need for control; who allow fear to paralyze and prevent vision. God has the antidote for fear (1 John 4:18). Healthy, growing churches embrace it.
  3. Division. God literally hates disunity (Proverbs 6:19). When churches unhappily divide they undermine the reconciling message of the cross (1 Corinthians 2:2). Our unequivocal “endeavor” in our churches is to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-4). Division sends the wrong message; it devastates the church’s influence; and damages it ability to be the church. Division has destroyed many churches.
  4. Judgmental Spirits. The Roman church in the New Testament was rife with this. Finger pointing and self-righteousness defined them (Romans 2:1-4). This is one reason Paul reminded them that, “there in no one righteous; not even one” ( 3:10). When anyone begins to think of themselves more highly than they should and then begins to make judgments toward others based on that self-inflation, trouble usually follows within a church. In Rome, Paul’s finger pointed to the cross- to Christ (3:21-26). When churches focus on him- judgmental spirits will end. If not churches may end.
  5. Hypocrisy. Perhaps nothing stains the image of the church like hypocrisy. It destroys the ability of the church to impact community. Jesus made clear his attitude about hypocrisy (Matthew 23:13-37). It is unattractive and ungodly.

And we cannot forget this one:

  • False Teaching. Of the kind present in Galatia and Colossae. Though different, each in its own way undermined the lordship and supremacy of Christ. Paul called the Galatia teaching “another gospel” (Galatians 1:6-9). The heresy in Colossae was based upon “human tradition and the basic principles of the world rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:8). Both had to eradicated from these churches. False teaching comes in diverse forms–from subtle shifts that nudge Christ into the background to full broadside attacks on his sovereignty. Either way when a church ceases to be connected to its head- Christ (Colossians 1:17-20), it ceases to be church.

Avoiding these church destroyers must be our goal. Never should these define us.

Always–Christ should.


Changes Along the Way

November 5, 2012

As a young preacher I was preparing to preach a gospel meeting. In a conversation with the older local minister he shared his conviction that unless a sermon had at least twenty-five biblical verses in it– it really was not a true “gospel” sermon. Absorbing that bit of wisdom I revisited each planned sermon and added more verses to ensure I had my twenty-five. After all, I wanted to preach the gospel! 🙂

Well, that was then. Since, that time I have made some changes along the way in my approach to preaching and ministry:

  • I no longer have twenty-five verses in a sermon. Usually, I concentrate on trying to teach one text. Not only is this easier for the listeners to process, the value of stopping to unpack one section of Scripture is tremendous.
  • I try to go into Bible study unfiltered (I say “try” because this is never totally possible. We all bring along preconceptions to the study process.) Earlier in my ministry I quite frequently went to text to prove a point or reprove a doctrinal position. While reproving is still profitable when needed (see 2 Timothy 3:16) I no longer believe it should be primary in approaching Scripture. Now I do my best to let a text inform me (rather than me inform it) by spending time with it in context. It takes more time then the “concordance” approach I used to take, but it is so much more valuable.
  • I no longer obsess over Sunday attendance or bang the congregation up over it. Sure, I still want as many as possible every Sunday, but instead of getting upset over who isn’t here, I rejoice over those who are. Attendance remains a gauge, but not the only or even primary one. Had I understood this earlier I would have spared myself (and my church) major grief!
  • I finally figured out that what worked so well at that workshop speaker’s or famous writer’s church usually did not work so well at mine. There simply is no “one size fits all” church growth plan.
  • I learned that God is much broader, bigger, more awesome, and encompassing than the little box I kept him in for a while. Along the way I constructed bigger boxes until finally realizing I had to throw them all away. Then I begin to see how truly little I am and how incredible it is that God has been mindful of me.
  • I try to no longer take myself and what others say (positive or negative) as seriously as I once did. What I try to take more seriously is that whatever I do or say, I do it to please God and to his glory.
  • More and more I embrace Paul’s approach to teaching and preaching and that being to simply preach “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). The scandal of the cross was his solution to the Corinthian situation and it remains central to redeeming our human condition. In the end it is that empty tomb that matters most.  That is where I want to take people in my preaching. I cannot always say this has been so.
  • Finally, I have discovered that the more I learn, the less I know. Although occasionally I long for the days when I knew it all. Life was easier then!

I am reminded of this quote from Augustine: “The Bible was composed in such a way that as beginners mature, its meaning grows with them.” I do pray that my changes along the way reflect this.

Or it could be like a friend tells me, “Just because you are older does not mean you are wiser!”


We Are All in it Together

September 20, 2012

From the archives:

 

To say that the Corinthian church had problems would be more than a slight understatement. Even though they were God’s church, they weren’t acting much like it. They allowed personalities, noncritical issues, and jealousies to divide them. They forgot the wonderful and imperative principle of unity. They were splintered and hurting. They needed a strong dose of spiritual medicine and the Apostle Paul provided it.

In 12:12-26 he reminds them of a crucial and basic truth. It is all about unity. In essence his message to them was “We are all in this together.” We still are:

  • Everyone is Extremely Important. By using the human body to analogize, Paul demonstrates the essentiality of every member. The weak, the feeble, the struggling are just as significant and necessary as the strong and vibrant. The church cannot function in the fullest sense without any of them. Every single person is needed in God’s church. We don’t dare think otherwise. Instead of allowing our weaker parts to fall away, we should be fighting for their souls.
  • We are Not in Competition. Our eyes do not compete with our ears. They each have their place and function and both contribute vitally to the well being of the body. Shouldn’t it be this way in the church as well? Our ministry efforts should support one another. Each of us should be in the glorious business of encouraging one another. Why should anyone ever feel threatened by the good work of others? Rather we should be rejoicing and giving God all of the glory and praise for the fruitful labor of those in Christ’s body.
  • God Put Us Here. Just where he wanted us to be (vs. 18)! Who are we to question his wisdom? It is an arrogant act to bind where God has not bound and draw lines of fellowship and acceptance that have never existed. To mistreat or turn away from our brothers and sisters because of jealousies or pettiness (or any reason) is totally out of place in God’s church.
  • We Need Each Other. No one should ever be so presumptuous as to think or say otherwise. In this context Paul emphasizes that even the weakest  among us is “indispensable.” Yes, some among us will struggle and stumble, but God wants us to allow them space to grow and encourage that process within them. We will not make heaven alone. We need each other and we need to express it. Let’s love and encourage our brothers and sisters all along our journey together to heaven!
  • Let Division Never Be! This was Paul’s foundational message to Corinth. Division on every level is damaging. Are personalities, jealousies, pride, prejudice, and issues really worth the hurt and pain of division? The wounds and scars of division run deep and call for long recovery. It ought not ever be in God’s house. We are all one in Christ Jesus.

Christ paid the ultimate price for this unity. We do not have the right or authority to tamper with it. “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body” is how Paul states it in this text. We are all in it together. What a marvelous blessing. Let’s demonstrate it!


On Biblical Interpretation

June 18, 2012

Biblical interpretation is an exciting pursuit for me. Call me a Bible geek, but I consider digging around in God’s Word to be thrilling. The Bible never ceases to amaze me. It has many layers which always inform, inspire, and involve me at every level.

One of my goals in biblical interpretation is accuracy. That is, to do my best to understand and present the biblical text as accurately as possible.  I want to communicate as completely as possible the meaning and message within each passage. I do not want to get in the way of the text. I do not want my bias to influence communicating the intent of the text.  I like the way John H. Walton is his book,  The Lost World of Genesis Onesays it:

Sound interpretation proceeds from the belief that the divine and human authors were competent communicators and that  we can therefore comprehend that communication. But to do so we must respect the integrity of the author by refraining from replacing his message with our own.  (page 19).

I have three rules I follow when studying a passage of Scripture that help me “respect the integrity of the author” of the text.

  • I remember that not a single verse in the Bible was originally written to me.  (Walton makes this point well in his book.) As I approach a biblical text I do so understanding that it was originally written for someone else in a completely different context then that of my own. This helps me to not insert me and my situation into the text before I ever attempt to discover the initial reason and purpose of the text.
  • Scripture cannot mean now what it did not mean then.  Therefore it is critically important that I work to uncover what it meant then. That is, I do my homework to find out the original purpose and setting of the text. If my text is in Ephesians, for instance, then I need to learn about who they were and what was happening in their situation. I need– as much as possible– to know why Paul wrote to them and what their context was. By so doing, I can better avoid trying to make the text say something it was never intended to say.
  • A text without a context is a pretext. I do not remember when and where I first heard this, but it is so true. Proper biblical interpretation will always factor in the context to help unpack the many layers of rich truth in each text.  If we ignore context we do so at our own peril when it comes to understanding text. Without context, we can manipulate Scripture, hold it hostage to our own bias, and pretty much make it say what we want. Again, this is why it is so crucial to do our homework; find out what the text first meant by placing in firmly in its original time and setting.

These three simple rules help keep me “honest” when approaching a text. Maybe they can be helpful to you as well. The goal of biblical interpretation is to “correctly handle the word of truth”  (2 Timothy 2:15) in order to present its message as accurately and honestly as possible so its full intent and impact can be discovered and lived out in our lives today.

If you would like more information about biblical interpretation there are many excellent resources available.  Here are a few I suggest:

  • Walton’s book: While not really a book on biblical interpretation per se, it does provide some real nuggets in the intro and first part of the book about biblical interpretation. His exploration of his topic is also an excellent example of researching the broader context of the setting of a text.
  • How to Read the Bible for All it is Worth by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stewart: This is an easy-to-read resource that is extremely informative and practical. It is written so that everyone can benefit from reading it.
  • Toward an Exegetical Theology by Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.  This is an older book, but it remains a standard when it comes to understanding biblical interpretation. If you are interested in digging a little deeper, then this book would be very helpful.
  • The Hermenutical Spiral by Grant R. Osbure.  Okay, if you are a geek about this like me, then here is your book.  It is textbook thorough. Plan to spend a little time with it.