Saturday, September 29, 2007

Epistles of Christ

Epistles of Christ
2 Cor. 3.1-3

Salvation and our relationship to the Lord are described in any number of ways in the New Testament, using a variety of images, metaphors, and analogies. Jesus is the Good Shepherd and we are the sheep. God is the giver of life and we are born again. He is the compassionate Father and we are adopted. God is the righteous judge and we are justified. The Spirit is an indwelling presence and we are his temple, and the list could go on without end.

But one of the more intriguing and instructive images is that of Christians as a letter or epistle which Jesus himself has written, the Holy Spirit being, as it were, the pen or instrument by which he has authored us. “And you show,” writes Paul, “that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor. 3:3).

Before we explore this rich metaphor, let me set the context in which it is found.

You will recall that Paul has just defended the integrity of his ministry at the close of 2 Corinthians 2. Unlike those who peddle the word of God, no doubt for financial gain, he speaks sincerely as one “commissioned by God”. He ministers “in Christ” as one who is ever under the scrutiny of God himself (v. 17).

Paul may well have feared that when his enemies heard those words they would once more accuse him of boasting and self-promotion. Perhaps they would say: “Well, there he goes again, commending himself to you, just like we warned.” Anticipating this possibility, he writes:

“Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor. 3:1-3).

The “many” (2:17) who peddled the Word of God are probably the “some” (3:1) who promoted themselves and gained a foothold in Corinth on the strength of letters of commendation. Paul does not altogether deny the validity of using such letters in certain circumstances, but insists that he does not need them when it comes to his relationship with the Corinthians. After all, he had devoted eighteen months to living in Corinth, ministering daily to their needs (cf. Acts 18:1-11). How could they possibly now require such letters from him before they acknowledged his apostolic office?

Paul's use of the word “again” in v. 1 does not mean he was actually guilty of self-advertisement on some earlier occasion, but simply that his opponents had accused him of it, possibly because of his exhortation in 1 Corinthians 4:16 and 11:1 that they “be imitators of me.” But let’s take note of Paul’s reference to “letters of recommendation.”

In my capacity as a pastor and professor these many years of Christian ministry, I have been asked to write dozens of letters of recommendation. Most were on behalf of prospective students seeking admission to a college or university or to a graduate program of study. A few were written as part of their application for employment.

There’s nothing wrong with this practice today. The nature of our society and the world of business and education often require it. But in Paul’s world the need for letters of recommendation could easily indicate that someone lacked sufficient evidence on his own to back up whatever claims he was making for himself. They were viewed by many, therefore, as “a substitute source of credibility” (Hafemann, 116).

Paul’s point is that the Corinthians themselves, their very existence as believers and the transformation in their lives, was sufficient recommendation in itself. He didn’t need additional proof of the authenticity of his calling. How could the Corinthians yield to the pressure of the false teachers and demand from Paul that he bring with him letters that testified to his apostolic authority? The Corinthians need only look at their own experience of Christ to realize that Paul was precisely who he claimed to be and ministered in the power and authority of Jesus himself.

“If it is a letter of recommendation you desire,” says Paul, “you are it!” In other words, the best evidence of Paul's apostolic credentials is the Corinthian church. As Paul Barnett has said, "The 'letter' written not on paper but in people –the Corinthian messianic assembly – is Christ's visible commendation of Paul, the church's founder. The church is the Lord's commendation of him" (166).

This, then, is the context for the remarkable statement that we find in v. 3. Taking advantage of his earlier reference to “letters” or “epistles” of recommendation, he describes the Corinthians themselves as a “letter” written by Christ! Their conversion is likened to the Lord, through the person and ministry of the Holy Spirit, writing a document that testifies to his glory and beauty and life-changing power!

The implications of this are stunning. Consider, for example, the contemporary discipline known as Graphology, perhaps better known simply as hand-writing analysis. Although some have questioned its scientific credibility, others contend that the shape, size, and other distinctive features of one’s personal script reveal much about I have no way of knowing if this is true, but it provides a helpful illustration of what happens when a person is born again and begins to grow in conformity to the image of Jesus Christ. My point is that the personality of Christ can be seen in the “letters” that he has graciously written, which letters we are! Just as the physical dimensions of a person’s handwriting may well reveal their character and emotional state of mind, so too the spiritual contours of a Christian ought to be a manifestation of the moral beauty of Jesus who has, in a sense, “penned” us.

-Sam Storms

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

New Life for Journey-Wearied Pilgrims

"You were wearied with the length of your way, but you did not say, 'It is hopeless; you found new life for your strength, and so you were not faint."- Isaiah 57:10

Weary in the journey? For all believers, there is a weariness that come with the longevity of living out this life in the battle of living for Christ. It could not be any other way. It is not intended to be any other way.

It is only an American fantasy that makes ones believe that this life is to be all good, easy, successful, and romantic. The reality is that this entire life's journey is hard, difficult, stretching, challenging, stressful, and enlarging. It pushes the frail human (yes, the Christian as well; in fact, especially the Christian) at times far beyond human ability to maintain strength and vitality.

We do become weary IN the journey, BECAUSE OF the journey. The length of our way, Isaiah says, is the cause. It is one thing to run 100 meters; it is quite another thing to run a marathon. This life, and living the Christian life year after year after year after year -- for years, is wearying. We go through too much, we experience too much, we face too much, we suffer too much, we grow tired, we have deepest sorrows, we over-extend ourselves, we don't function at times with wisdom, and we make choices that have seemingly negative consequences. In essence, we become wearied spiritually, emotionally, and physically because of the length of our way. Isaiah says so.

BUT the difference for the true believer is that they will never ultimately say, "It is hopeless"; Oh, he or she may feel that and even be tempted to say it to themselves for a brief time. But it doesn't last- such a feeling of hoplessness for the Christian is always and only temporal. Then changes and help comes.

The reason is one thing- "you found new life for your strength"; new, fresh strength, hope, help, quickening, vitality, renewal, and power comes to us always. It cannot fail. It is a promise of God throughout His word that the believer will be renewed and strengthened by the mighty and supernatural help of the grace of the Spirit.

The result is "so you were not faint" - what a blessed promise and gift from our sustaining Saviour; He will never let one of His children down. Strength, help, new life, and hope will come. Look to Him; He created you, He has loved you with an everlasting love, He redeemed you, He saved you and called you with a heavenly calling, He has given you exceeding great and precious promises, and He will not fail you. Trust Him and ask Him for new life. It is available for weary saints.

- Mack T

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Fully Dressed and in a Right Mind

Fully Dressed and in a Right Mind

I, for one, will be glad when the first freeze comes - not just to eliminate the bugs and the pollen, but to see the public put their clothes back on. Admittedly, if I weren't a Christian it wouldn't bother me, I'd go ahead and feed my eyes like others; but now I want to side off with God and condemn this personified pornography in a day when jogging shorts reveal more than pajamas, nakedness is justified as art, products are promoted by sex appeal, and swimming pools and beaches have become even more bold as altars of body worship. Why do people dress scantily in public?

First, it is a matter of REBELLION AND LAWLESSNESS – "I'm free". It is an attempt to deny the fallen condition of man. Originally, man was naked and unashamed, but now sin has entered and the normal thing is to feel shame at nakedness.

Second, PRIDE is involved– "Look at me." It is a desire to wield the power of beauty.

Third, I mention LUST, that is, a spirit of fornication and adultery. I know that most might maintain their innocence on this, but to dress so as to stir up unclean thoughts in others is to assist in immorality. It is no accident that the prostitute dresses the way she does – she is trying to say something. And so we see cut off tee-shirts, partially unbuttoned shirts, and form-fitting clothes – it all speaks volumes. Rape has increased 700% in the last 50 years. Can we put all the blame on the men? The devil is a tempter and he does not need help doing his work.

Last, behind the scene, UNCLEAN SPIRITS are at work pouring gas on the fires of our lusts. Nakedness is inspired by demonic activity (Lk. 8:27).

No, I'm not advocating that we wear uniforms or return to the 1800's, but I am pointing out that modesty is a Biblical absolute (I Tim. 2:9). The Bible does say that the immoral will not inherit the kingdom of God. And we are in a day when 80% admit to fornication, 50% of the marriages fail, and 25% of the babies are born out of wedlock. Society is collapsing and only a return to God and His standards will stop the corruption. Let's keep our bodies for our spouse. Let's forget the short-lived tan.

The Lord Jesus died for sinners to break the penalty of sin and lives in believers to break the power of sin. God is looking for the inward beauty of humility and holiness (Prov. 31:30) – the product of a new heart created by Christ.

- Bob Jennings

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Smelling Good to God

2 Cor. 2.15-16

How do you measure success? By what standard do you assess how well you’ve done? When you take stock of your life or evaluate the effectiveness of whatever ministry God has given you, how do you determine the outcome? Do you count heads? Or money? Do you apply the criteria typically used in a Gallup poll or Barna survey? Do you size up your efforts as over against those of high-achieving folk in the market place or perhaps line up your congregation, side by side, with the mega-church down the road?

All of us are tempted to measure ourselves by comparing what we’ve produced with that of others, especially those whom we admire or whose names are cited often in the newspaper or on the blogs. Let’s admit it. We invest far too much in the opinion of the power-brokers in our society, whether spiritual or secular. What they think and how well they’ve done, as well as the size of their facility and the impact of their ministry weighs heavily on our minds and typically leads to feelings of inferiority and failure.

I can hardly overemphasize the devastating effects of embracing this perspective in the life of the church. It saddens me to see how many have compromised on truth, cutting corners on the gospel or softening the sharp edge of biblical morality in order to enhance one’s status or increase attendance or retain the support of some significant donor.

Equally as devastating are those who’ve abandoned church and ministry altogether, whether from burnout or the unbearable frustration of thinking they’ve failed God or shown themselves incapable of fulfilling the calling on their lives.

If that even remotely resonates in your heart or if you struggle with feelings of spiritual inferiority, ministerial incompetence, or simple inadequacy as a Christian, heed well the words of the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 2:15-16. The biblical standard for “success” articulated in this text is a much-needed remedy for what ails so many in the church today:

“For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life” (2 Cor. 2:15-16a).

Do you want to smell good to God? Then be true to the gospel! Be faithful to its terms, articulate its promises, and don’t back down from declaring the eternal consequences that come with its denial.

There are two, and only two, possible responses to the gospel of Christ. When the message is made known, everyone responds. There is no such thing as neutrality. Indifference or apathy is a myth. Not to believe the good news in Christ Jesus is to reject it. Pretending to ignore it is to deny it.

Either you are among “those who are being saved” or you are among “those who are perishing”. The word of the cross is either “folly”, utter and absolute foolishness, or it is “the power of God” unto salvation (see 1 Cor. 1:18). The message of Christ that Paul proclaims (and not the messenger) is itself responsible for dividing the hearers in this way.

Wherever, whenever, and to whomever the Christian proclaims the name of Jesus, a fragrance is released. To some it is an aroma of life and hope and renewal and forgiveness. Nothing can compare with the sweet smell of the Son of God. The gospel of his dying and rising for sinners awakens life and leads to life. To others it is a suffocating, poisonous stench.

Charles Spurgeon reminds us:

"The gospel is preached in the ears of all; it only comes with power to some. The power that is in the gospel does not lie in the eloquence of the preacher; otherwise men would be converters of souls. Nor does it lie in the preacher's learning; otherwise it would consist in the wisdom of men. We might preach till our tongues rotted, till we should exhaust our lungs and die, but never a soul would be converted unless there were mysterious power going with it – the Holy Ghost changing the will of man. O Sirs! We might as well preach to stone walls as to preach to humanity unless the Holy Ghost be with the Word, to give it power to convert the soul.”

But what I want you to see is that Paul is a fragrance to God regardless of the response to his message! When, in the midst of suffering, he faithfully proclaims the gospel and is mocked, slandered, and the name of Jesus is blasphemed, Paul smells good to God. When, in the midst of suffering, he faithfully proclaims the same gospel and is embraced and loved and people bow the knee in love and loyalty to Jesus, Paul smells good to God.

We are a fragrance to God even when our message is rejected. So long as we remain faithful to our commission, we smell good to God. Though our crowds be small and the offering paltry, success is measured by fidelity, not fruit. Whether our efforts lead to "life" or "death", we remain "an aroma of Christ to God" (v. 15a). We have succeeded when we preach Jesus truly and biblically.

This will be a difficult pill to swallow only if our fear of man is greater than our fear of God, only if our preference is for their praise rather than his. Some of the worst failures in ministry are found in mega churches, where pragmatism often (though not always) trumps principle. Many who appear small in the eyes of man are giants in the kingdom of God. Both success and failure can be found in churches of every size, whether mega or mini.

There’s no escaping the fact that you smell, and so do I. May we strive in the power of God’s grace to be a fragrant aroma, pleasing to him (even if putrid to the world).

- Sam Storms

Life is a Speeding Bullet to Eternity

"Lord, teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom."

How has the past five years passed so quickly? My 15 year old son was just ten. I turn around and the daughter that was as high as my belt not long ago is now as tall as I am.

Where is life going? Where has it gone? How have the past 50, 30, 20, 10, 5 years passed so quickly? What have I done? What is the present counting for? What does the future hold and how long do I have? If the next 10 years pass as quickly as the previous ten, I find that I am, at times of weak faith, actually scared or at least very sobered by it all; what can I do to redeem my remaining time? What can I do to have no regrets when I am dying? Such thoughts often fills the mind of one who is in the second half of life.

O, how fast is life. It is a vapor, a mist, a disappearing cloud; it is churning away and passing like a bullet toward its target- eternity. The brevity and speed of this life reminds us, as dear Geoff Thomas says, that we are not here to stay but we are here to go, and while we are in this world we are strangers on a swift journey. This certainly becomes more real with each passing year, especially when birthdays come around.

Birthdays, for younger folk, are times of celebration and encouragement, with feelings that are affirming and uplifting. You are glad to be getting older and feel that you have 500 years to yet live. But not so for those who are getting older. When people get into their forties, fifties and beyond, birthdays become a different thing altogether. They are not the fun things they were when young, but rather are sobering reminders that the days have quickly turned into years and you are feeling the great reality- "I don't have many years before it will be my funeral that others will be attending and I will not be here-- I will be in eternity." This is what becomes more and more real with second-half birthdays. By second-half, I mean birthdays that come in the second half of life. The second half has become very, very real to me.

If we are realistic, when one turns forty, he is already in that "second-half", because Scripture promises three score and ten- 70 years; but we all know that it is not a promise that is certain for all believers; there have been many wonderful Christians who have died before the age of ten, twenty, thirty, and forty. So those thirty-nine and older ought to welcome themselves into the second half of life. Everyone's life is passing away and will soon be gone.

We tend to live life before fifty as if we are never going to die; intellectually, we know we will die, but we don't feel it and we certainly don't dwell on it enough; it is not real to us; we don't prepare for it like we ought to; we don't meditate on it enough and develop an eternity-conscious mentality. Then when our later years are upon us, we are not ready for the reality that comes with it-- "O my, I am approaching sixty-- seventy-- where have the years gone? what have I accomplished? What do I do now? How can I best use the few and fleeting years I have left, whatever that might be?" This can bring with it a dampening, depressing feeling which can cast one down for months if they are not mindful of it and don't guard themselves against it.

What is the remedy for such a trap? It is the Bible. And more specifically, particular needed graces that the Bible alone and Christ alone gives-- an eternal perspective, a deeply satisfied heart that is satisfied in Christ alone, and a life that is truly kingdom-centered. Any heart that is attached to this world will feel sadness as they realize that before long they will be leaving it. But the heart that is in heaven, that has its mind set on things above, that longs for Christ, that sees this vile world for what it is-- temporal and passing vanity-- such a heart will not continually be cast down with the passing of time and the second half of life. Each passing day, month, and year brings the true Christian closer and closer to being with their Saviour forever and forever. Can you imagine the moment when you actually see Him and know that you are now with Him forever?

More and more, I find myself saying to my close friends, "It won't be long before one of us will probably be standing at each other's funeral." We know it's coming. At that time, as someone has said, I seriously doubt that anyone on their death bed will ask, "Would you read me the amount I have in my bank savings account and the summary of my financial port folio?" No one will be asking that. Rather, all earthly things are behind them and they are starring death and eternity in the face big time. Then-- at that moment-- nothing except Christ Himself will matter. That day, the day of our death, is fast approaching for you and for me. We ARE going to die. John Wesley was right, "This life is only a dressing room for eternity."

I must confess that I at times feel dread at the though of dying and leaving my children and grandchildren in this world without me. It casts me down at times. But then I remember that, though every Christian must pass from this life, the God and Father of that Christian lives on and He can and will work in the lives of those descendants of ours we love so much. I can trust Him with their future here without me. I can't keep them now; I can't protect them now; so why should I worry about their future life when I am gone? God is real; He is able; He is the everlasting God and Father. I can trust Him with their lives present and future.

It ought to be our continual prayer: "Lord, teach me to number my days and teach me to apply my heart to wisdom; give me enabling grace to redeem whatever days and years I have left and fit me for eternity, as well as enabling me to leave a Christ-fragrant legacy behind when I am gone. It was just such a person with such a perspective who wrote:

Only one life
Twill soon be past;
Only what's done
For Christ will last.

And when I am dying
How glad I shall be,
That the lamp of my life
Has been burned out for Thee.

For those who want to learn to number their days and apply their hearts to wisdom,
Isaac Watts is always a help:

O God our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come;
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.

A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten as a dream
dies at the opening day.

Any funerals to attend soon? Yes, O yes, for each of us.
And precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.

From a dying friend to a dying friend, hopeful that we will spend one bright eternal day forever together.

- Mack T.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Crucified to the World

"I am crucified to the world," says Paul. That word "world" is used in Scripture with varying meanings. Sometimes it stands simply for the numbers of our fellow-men and women around us. In that sense, God loves the world-- the foolish, sinful, ailing world-- loves it enough to give his Son for it. And we must learn to love it too.

But often the world means that vague, dim, ever-present threatening mass of earthly things which are dangerous to the soul, such as:

- the currents that sweep one away from what is high, true, and unselfish.

- the pressure of the crowd about us, tending to carry us along with it into the customary, the mediocre, and the earthly.

- the throng of interests that crowd our minds and leave no room for the Lord Jesus.

Whatever robs our alligience, whatever cheats us out of our inheritance in Him, whatever drags us down and back-- that IS the world. Not necessarily anything evil of itself, but just the fulness of life, the rush of things, the babble of busy affairs, and even our hopes, dreams, ambitions, and desires. Matters that are quite harmless, even true and beautiful in themselves, can grow into one's world. A man's home, says Christ, can even become the "world". For he may sink back luxuriously into that, grow soft, flabby, and self-indulgent, and forget that those around him need his help.

If anything at all is crowding God out of our lives, if anything is making us throw aside the high purposes of God, if anything is convincing us that some of Jesus's words are mere poetry and are not meant for literal obedience, then that is the world to us. Whatever it is, it is the world to us and we must be crucified to it. It is through things like that by which souls are mostly lost, for the flesh and the devil are open and deadly, but the world is far more subtle and deadly.

"Crucified to this world"- are we really?

- Arthur J. Gossip

Thinking as God Thinks

Am I bound to think of sin as God thinks? Most certainly. Have I no liberty of thinking otherwise? None. You may do so if you choose to, but the consequences are fearful, for error is sin. We are not bound to think as man thinks. In this respect, we have entire liberty; not tradition, but free thought may be our formula here.

But we are bound to think as God thinks, not in one thing only, but in everthing. Woe be to him that presumes to differ from God or reckons it a light matter to be of one mind with Him, or tries to prove that the Bible is inaccurate, unintelligible or only half-inspired, in order to release himself from the responsibility of receiving the whole truth of God and afford himself license to believe or not believe at his pleasure, freed from the limitations of a fixed revelation. We have no option but to be bound to think as God thinks about everything.

- Horatius Bonar

Thinking as God Thinks

Am I bound to think of sin as God thinks? Most certainly. Have I no liberty of thinking otherwise? None. You may do so if you choose to, but the consequences are fearful, for error is sin. We are not bound to think as man thinks. In this respect, we have entire liberty; not tradition, but free thought may be our formula here.

But we are bound to think as God thinks, not in one thing only, but in everthing. Woe be to him that presumes to differ from God or reckons it a light matter to be of one mind with Him, or tries to prove that the Bible is inaccurate, unintelligible or only half-inspired, in order to release himself from the responsibility of receiving the whole truth of God and afford himself license to believe or not believe at his pleasure, freed from the limitations of a fixed revelation. We have no option but to be bound to think as God thinks about everything.

- Horatius Bonar

Saturday, September 15, 2007

His Lambs

"He shall gather the lambs with his arm and carry them in his bosom." - Is. 40:11

Mark in this sweet scripture how Jesus is described, in not only attending to all the various needs of his fold, but also to the very method of imparting to all their needs in a way corresponding to his own character.

In the fold of Jesus, some are sheep and some are lambs; some of advanced age and some of younger standing. Where does the Lord put the lambs and weaklings of his fold? Certainly, if there be one place in the heart of Jesus softer and more tender than another, there the lambs shall lay. And as Jesus himself lay in the bosom of the Father, so the lambs of his flock shall lay in his bosom.

Sweet thought to encourage you and all the followers of the good Shepherd. Jesus will not thrust out the lambs into the dangers of the wilderness, where the prowling beasts of prey are, nor expose them to over-driving or to the speed which the more mature sheep can travel. But he will proportion their burden to their own back and their day to their specific strength.

Beside this, he will keep them nearer to himself; his arms shall clasp them; the warmth of his bosom will nourish them; if they cannot walk, they will be carried; when they cannot find their way, they will be led.

O, thou great Shepherd of the sheep, is it thus that you sweetly deal with your little ones? Here then it is explained why it is that young believers, in the first seasons of their knowledge of Thee, find so many blessed refreshings, which they afterward to not so much sense or enjoy. Yes, Lord, it is thus that you gather the lambs and carry them in your bosom. And sweetly do you do all this, and in a way which fully proves your love and compassion to the necessities of thy flock.

- Robert Hawker

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Satanic Stratagies

2 Cor. 2.11

When it comes to the life and unity of the body of Christ, Satan is anything but a passive, innocent bystander. Although he may be invisible to the eye and undetected by physical means, you may rest assured that he is present, employing every imaginable device (and some unimaginable) to undermine the integrity of God’s people and to sow seeds of discord and confusion. Paul was himself extremely careful and deliberate in how he sought to resolve the problem in Corinth, lest they all “be outwitted by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his designs” (2 Cor. 5:11).

Make no mistake: Satan has a plan. Although sinful, he is not stupid. He does not act haphazardly or without a goal in view. He had “designs” for the church at Corinth and he most surely does for your congregation today as well. In Ephesians 6:11 Paul referred to the “schemes” (lit., methodia, from which we derive our word “method”) of the Devil. He has cunning and wily stratagems not only for the individual believer but also for the corporate body of Christ. It is essential, therefore, that we be aware of them and fully prepared to respond.

Here in 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 we are made aware of his determination to incite disunity and division. This appears to be an instance in which Satan seeks to exploit the otherwise good intentions of the church. Certain people in Corinth, ostensibly to maintain the purity of the church, were reluctant to forgive and restore the wayward, but now repentant, brother. This harshness would give Satan an opportunity to crush the spirit of the repentant sinner and drive him to despair, most likely resulting in his being forever cut off from the church.

What are some of Satan’s other “designs” and “schemes” and activities in both the church and the world? Here are a few.

1. He works in active opposition to the gospel, blinding the minds of unbelievers to keep them from seeing the truth about Christ (2 Cor. 4:4). There are at least two factors in spiritual blindness: fleshly, sinful, self-resistance to the truth, on the one hand, and satanic/demonic hardening or blinding on the other. Before we ever arrive on the scene with the gospel, Satan is exerting a stupefying influence on the mind of the unbeliever. In other words, we face more than merely intellectual obstacles. We face supernatural opposition. How does Satan do it? There is any number of possibilities. For example:

He distracts them when an opportunity to hear the gospel is at hand: interruptions, day-dreaming, the phone rings, an emergency of some sort, the sudden remembrance of a job or other responsibility that needs immediate attention, the intrusion of a friend (cf. Acts 13:7b-8), etc.

He stirs up hostility and suspicion in the person's mind concerning the competency and integrity of the person presenting the gospel. The unbeliever suddenly imputes sinister motives to the Christian: "He's in it for the money," or "She only wants to gain control over me," or "He's just looking for another notch on his Bible so he can boast to others of one more convert," etc. Sometimes the unbeliever will excuse his/her unbelief by questioning the intellectual and academic credentials of the believer ("he/she is so uneducated; what does he/she know anyway").

Satan also stirs up the non-Christian to distort what is being said into something the speaker never intended (cf. John 2:19-21; 6:48-52; 7:33-36; 8:51-53). He prompts them to draw false conclusions or implications from the gospel that make it seem absurd. He inclines their minds to link the believer with people who've disgraced Christianity in the past, giving him an excuse to reject what is being said (i.e., guilt by association). "All you Christians are just like those hucksters on TV! You're in it for the gold and the glory!"

He puts in their minds all sorts of questions and convinces them that if they can't get completely satisfying answers, Christianity can't be true. Right in the middle of witnessing to someone, he/she suddenly blurts out questions like: "What about evil?" "What about all the hypocrites in the church?" "What about the heathen in Africa?" "Why is there only one way? It seems egotistical." "Why are there so many denominations?"

Just as the gospel is beginning to make sense, Satan stirs up pride or produces feelings of independence and self-sufficiency: "I don't need a religious crutch. I'm my own man!" Before serious consideration is given, Satan snatches the seed of the gospel (Mt. 13:4,18-19) from their mind: on the way home from church the car breaks down, or the conversation turns to politics or sports, or a sexy billboard diverts attention, or something on the radio captivates his mind.

Satan might suddenly prompt him/her to place a higher value on things he/she might lose if one were to become a Christian: friends, fame, money, fleshly pleasures, approval of others. Satan stirs up feelings of hopelessness: "Not even this will work. There's no hope. My life is a lost cause. Not even Jesus can help."

Satan will do all he can to oppose and disrupt missionary endeavors (1 Thess. 2:18), by disrupting travel plans, influencing the minds of state officials to delay or deny the issuing of visas, inflicting illness, provoking military conflict, etc.

2. He is often (but not always) the source of sickness (cf. Acts 10:38; Mt. 8:16; Mark 9:17-18; Luke 13:10-17).

3. He can inflict death as well as provoke the paralyzing fear of it (Heb. 2:14; see Job 1:13-19; John 10:10).

4. He plants sinful plans and purposes in the minds of men (Acts 5:3; John 13:2; Mt. 16:21-23). It is instructive to observe that in the case of Acts 5 "it is not through some act of terrible depravity, but through an act of religious devotion, that Satan brings about the downfall of Ananias and Sapphira. . . . It is sobering to think that the very good that God's people attempt to do can be their undoing" (Sydney Page, 132).

5. On occasion, Satan will himself indwell a person (John 13:27). By speaking of Satan as "entering" Judas, John uses language reminiscent of demonization (cf. Lk. 8:30-33). It is important to note, however, that Judas's motive was also greed and nowhere is he exonerated from his action simply because he was indwelt by the devil.

6. He sets a snare or trap for people, perhaps with a view to exploiting and intensifying their sinful inclinations. According to 1 Timothy 3:6-7, Satan is able to exploit any blemish on the reputation of a Christian leader. In 2 Timothy 2:25-26, Paul appears to speak of believers who have been led astray through false teaching. Satan thus strives to hold people captive to do his will by deceiving them to believe what is false and misleading. If nothing else, this text emphasizes how crucial sound doctrine is.

7. He infiltrates the church and plants within it his own people (Mt. 13:37-39).

8. He tests or tries Christians, the malicious “sifting” “like wheat” of Peter’s faith being an excellent example (Luke 22:31). Clearly, Satan is unable to act outside the parameters established by the will of God but must first ask permission. He wanted to destroy Peter by inciting him to deny Jesus. But God's intent in permitting Satan to do it was altogether different. God's purposes with Peter were to instruct him, humble him, perhaps discipline him, and certainly to use him as an example to others of both human arrogance and the possibility of forgiveness and restoration. This points to the fact that often we cannot easily say "Satan did it" or "God did it". In cases such as this, both are true (with the understanding that God's will is sovereign, supreme, and overriding), but their respective goals are clearly opposite. Sydney Page's comments concerning this incident are important:

"Luke 22:31-32 reveals that Satan can subject the loyalty of the followers of Jesus to severe tests that are designed to produce failure. So intense are the pressures to which Satan is able to subject believers that the faith of even the most courageous may be found wanting. Satan is, however, limited in what he can do by what God permits and by the intercession of Jesus on behalf of his own [cf. Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25; 1 John 2:1]. Furthermore, those who temporarily falter can be restored and, like Peter, can even resume positions of leadership. It is implied that Satan cannot gain ultimate victory over those for whom Jesus intercedes" (124).

9. He incites persecution, imprisonment, and the political oppression of believers (1 Pt. 5:8-9; Rev. 2:10).

10. He is the accuser of the Christian (Rev. 12:10).

11. He performs signs and wonders to deceive the nations (Exodus; 2 Thess. 2:9-11).

12. He seeks to silence the witness of the church (Rev. 12:10-12).

13. He promotes false doctrine (1 Tim. 4:1-3; Rev. 2:24; 2 Cor. 11:1ff.).

14. He can manipulate the weather (but not by virtue of his own inherent power; it is only to the degree that God permits, as is clear from Job 1:18-19; cf. Mk. 4:37-39).

15. He influences the thoughts and actions of unbelievers (Eph. 2:1-2). It is a stunning thought, similar to that in 1 John 5:18, that Satan is at work in and energizes the disobedience of all unbelievers. This does not mean that all non-Christians are demonized, but it does imply that their unbelief and unrighteous behavior are stimulated and sustained by the enemy. Yet, they remain morally culpable for their actions.

16. He attacks married believers in regard to their sexual relationship (1 Cor. 7:5). Paul approves of the decision by married couples to refrain from sexual relations to devote themselves to prayer, but only for a season. To abstain entirely for a prolonged period of time exposes oneself to unnecessary temptation (i.e., lust and the satisfaction of one's sexual desires outside the bonds of marriage). Again, we see here an example of how the enemy takes an otherwise godly intention and exploits it for his own purposes.

17. He exploits our sinful decisions, most likely by intensifying the course of action we have already chosen (Eph. 4:26-27). Note that Satan is not credited with or blamed for creating the anger in the first place. We are responsible for it. Satan's response is to use this and other such sins to gain access to our lives and to expand and intensify our chosen course of behavior.

18. He confronts us with various temptations (1 Chron. 21:1; Mt. 6:13; 1 Thess. 3:5).

Yes, Satan has “designs” and “schemes” all of which, in one way or another, are intended to undermine our enjoyment of all that God is for us in Jesus. May God grant us both the wisdom to discern his stratagems and the strength and resolve to resist him at all times.

- Sam Storms

Sunday, September 9, 2007

For Joy

2 Cor. 1.23-2.4

Do you fight for joy? Do you think of joy as something to be sought as the object of diligent striving and focused labor? Or do you think of it more as an after-effect, a by-product of other and more important pursuits? Or am I splitting hairs, leaving you to wonder, “Sam, what difference does it make?” I think we should let Paul answer that question.

As we’ve already noted on several occasions, Paul goes to extraordinary lengths to explain why he changed his plans about visiting Corinth. Here at the close of chapter one and the start of chapter two, he again accounts for his behavior and in doing so pulls back the curtain, so to speak, on his own heart and exposes the driving force in his life and ministry.

“But I call God to witness against me - it was to spare you that I refrained from coming again to Corinth. Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith. For I made up my mind not to make another painful visit to you. For if I cause you pain, who is there to make me glad but the one whom I have pained? And I wrote as I did, so that when I came I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice, for I felt sure of all of you, that my joy would be the joy of you all. For I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you” (2 Corinthians 1:23-2:4).

Some in Corinth felt that Paul’s behavior and change of travel plans was indicative of an arrogant and authoritative style of leadership. But the apostle is quick to remind them that it was neither indifference to their needs nor pompous posturing that governed his actions. Rather, he made his decisions based on what he believed would best serve their joy! Look again closely at v. 24 – “we work with you for your joy.”

The two verses at the close of chapter one deserve close attention. Obviously, Paul is concerned that his comments in v. 23 might lead to a false conclusion. His words, "Not that" or "This is not to say" is his way of introducing a clarification of what has preceded, lest they draw an unwarranted inference from he had said. Paul apparently fears that his statement about wanting to “spare” them (v. 23) could be misunderstood, as if he were presuming to have such authority over their lives that their every move was subject to his control or that his every move impacted their lives. "No," says Paul. "I have no intention of trying to tyrannize your faith, nor could I even if I wanted to, for your faith rests in the power of God, not in me or the wisdom of any human being" (cf. 1 Cor. 2:5).

Ultimately, the Corinthians, as is true of all believers (including you), are accountable to God alone. Although they may have come to faith through Paul's ministry, their faith is in God, not in an apostle or a pastor or an elder or a teacher or a theologian. "You have only one Lord," says Paul, "and it ain’t me” (or something similar; cf. Rom. 14:4).

Both 1 and 2 Corinthians must have been difficult for the church to swallow. Paul had some harsh things to say to the church in Corinth (deservedly so, I might add). His rebukes often stung. He pulled no punches and cut no corners. As far as Paul was concerned, compromise was the language of contempt. If you love someone, you speak the truth, no matter how painful or discomfiting it may be. But in every case, beneath and behind every word in every verse in every chapter, Paul’s aim was the same: joy!

Unlike so many in his own day and even more in ours, Paul didn’t discharge his apostolic calling to expand his personal power or to broaden his influence or to bolster his reputation or to increase his control, far less to pad his bank account, but to intensify their joy in Jesus.

Paul can almost be heard to say, “Whether I’m rebuking you for sectarianism in the church (1 Corinthians 3) or laxity in moral conduct (1 Corinthians 5-6) or abuse of spiritual power (1 Corinthians 12-14), my aim is your joy in Jesus. Whether I appeal to you to be financially generous (2 Corinthians 8-9) or warn you of false apostles (2 Corinthians 11), my aim is your joy in Jesus.”

Should Paul have been pressed for an explanation, he would have said: “I aim to intensify their joy because apart from their souls relishing and resting in the all-sufficiency of Jesus Christ, they don’t stand a chance against Satan.” I believe he would have answered like the good Christian Hedonist that he was: “I work for your joy because God is most glorified in you Corinthians (and all believers) when you are most pleased and satisfied and enthralled with the plenitude of divine beauty seen only in the face of Jesus Christ.”

Let’s be clear about one thing: the joy for which Paul labored and prayed and preached should never be thought of in terms of “feeling good about yourself” or living in the lap of luxury. This joy is far and away removed from any form of self-indulgent smugness or that superficial psychological giddiness that comes from reaping the material comforts of western society.

The joy that Paul has in mind is a deep, durable delight in the splendor of God that utterly ruins you for anything else. It is a whole-souled savoring of the spiritual sweetness of Jesus that drives out all competing pleasures and leads the soul to rest content with the knowledge of God and the blessings of intimacy with him. This is the kind of joy that, rather than being dependent on material and physical comfort, actually frees you from bondage to it and liberates you from sinful reliance on worldly conveniences and gadgets and gold.

Paul’s commitment to their joy in Jesus was motivated, at least in part, by his belief that Satan was no less committed to their joy in the passing pleasures of sin (cf. Hebrews 11:25). He knew all too well that the diabolical strategy of the enemy is to seduce us into believing that the world and the flesh and sinful self-indulgence can do for our weary and broken hearts what God can’t (or won’t).

This is the battle that we face each day. We awaken to a world at war for the allegiance of our minds and the affections of our souls. The winner will be whoever can persuade us that he will bring greatest and most soul-satisfying joy. That is why Paul labored and prayed so passionately and sacrificially for joy in Jesus in the hearts of that first-century church.

To reinforce his point, he tells them in the opening verses of chapter two that if he had visited them when he had first planned to do so it would only have led to the diminishing of their joy and thus the deprivation of his own. “If I had come at that time,” says Paul, “I would have been compelled to deal with your unrepentant sin. It would have been unprofitably painful for you. And if you are in anguish, your joy is lessened. And if your joy is lessened, so too is mine in you.” This is why Paul delayed his trip, namely, to give them opportunity to put their house in order so that upon his arrival their joy in Jesus might enrich his and his joy in Jesus might in turn enrich theirs.

As you consider your involvement in the lives of others or your ministry to the broader body of Christ, do you consciously think in advance: What can I do to help them set aside obstacles to full and lasting satisfaction in Jesus? What can I do to portray the glory and beauty of Christ so that the allure of the world, the flesh, and the devil loses its luster? How can I live that others might see in me the superior pleasures that are found in Christ alone?

I awakened this morning, as did you, and as the Corinthians did each day of their lives, with an unshakeable, inescapable, relentless longing for joy. I can’t wash it from my skin in the shower or hold my breath in hopes that it will disappear. Psychological catharsis will not drive it from me. Willpower will not suppress its influence. And contrary to much so-called “Christian” counsel, I should not exorcise its presence or pray for its defeat.

Paul’s counsel to them and to us, I believe, is to pursue God’s presence where “fullness of joy” may be found (Ps. 16:11), to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8), to drink from the river of his delights (Ps. 36:8), and to avail ourselves of every means possible to increase and intensify our delight and satisfaction in him who is joy incarnate.

Writing for your joy

- Sam Storms

Monday, September 3, 2007

A Normal Day in the Life of George Whitefield

Sunday, March 4, 1739 - Age 24

Rose much refreshed in spirit and gave my early attendants a warm exhortation as usual. Went to Newgate and preached with power to an exceedingly thronged congregation. Then hastened to Hannam Mount, three miles from the city, where the miners live altogether. God favored us in the weather. Over four thousand were ready to hear me and God enabled me to preach with the demonstration of the Spirit.

The ground not being high enough, I stood upon a table and the sight of the people covering the green fields, and their deep attention, please me much. I hope that same Lord, who fed so many thousands with bodily bread, will feed all their souls with the Bread which cometh down from Heaven, for many came from far away.

At four in the afternoon, I went to the mount on Rose Green and preached to over fourteen thousand souls. God was so good to allow all to be able to hear me. I think it was worth while to come many miles to see such a sight. I spoke with great freedom, but thought all the while, as I do continually, when I ascend the mount, that hereafter I shall suffer, as well as speak, for my Master's sake. Lord, strengthen me for that hour. Lord, I believe (O help my unbelief!) that Thy grace will be more sufficient for me.

In the evening I expounded at Baldwin Street Society, but could not get up to the room without the utmost difficulty, as the entry and court were much filled with people. Blessed be God, the number of hearers much increases and as my day is, so is my strength. Tonight I returned home much more refreshed in joy and longed to be dissolved and to be with Jesus Christ. This has been a sabbath indeed to my soul!

- George Whitefield

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Cinderella no more!

2 Cor. 1.21-22

Theologian Alister McGrath once identified the Holy Spirit as “the Cinderella of the Trinity. The other two sisters,” he said, “may have gone to the theological ball; the Holy Spirit got left behind every time” (Christian Theology, 240). My, my, how times have changed! Contemporary interest in the person and ministry of the Spirit is unparalleled in the history of the church. As a result, passages such as 2 Corinthians 1:21-22 are being given renewed attention. It’s hard to imagine two verses anywhere in Scripture that speak more directly and powerfully of the work of the Spirit than do these:

“And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.”

I want to draw our attention in this passage to three glorious truths concerning the Spirit, the third of which being the primary focus of this meditation.

First, God the Father has “anointed” us with the Spirit, even as he anointed Jesus. Paul deliberately juxtaposes two words to highlight this remarkable truth. Here is a translation that makes the point unmistakably:

“It is God who establishes us with you in ‘Christ’ (christon) and ‘christed’ (chrisas) us.” Or again:

“It is God who establishes us with you in the anointed one and anointed us.”

Thus, just as Jesus said of himself, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me” (Luke 4:18), likewise Christians are spoken of as anointed ones because we too have received the same Holy Spirit and are thus set apart and empowered to serve God and authorized to act on his behalf. The Spirit who indwelt and energized the ministry of Jesus indwells and energizes us! All Christians, therefore, are anointed (as confirmed also in 1 John 2:20-21,27).

Second, God has “sealed” us with his Spirit. As Paul said in Ephesians 1:13, “in him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (cf. also Eph. 4:30).

The term "seal", when used literally, referred to a stamped impression in wax pointing to ownership and protection. When used metaphorically, it meant (1) to authenticate (John 3:33; 6:27; 1 Cor. 9:2) or confirm as genuine and true, including the idea that what is sealed is stamped with the character of its owner; (2) to designate or mark out as one’s property; to declare and signify ownership (see Rev. 7:3-8; 9:4); or (3) to render secure or to establish (i.e., protect; cf. Eph. 4:30; Matt. 27:66; Rev. 20:3).

With what, precisely, are we sealed? Both Ephesians 1:13 and 4:30 would appear to suggest that the seal is the Spirit himself, “by whom God has marked believers and claimed them for his own” (Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, 807). In other words, it isn’t so much that the Spirit does the sealing as the Spirit is the seal (although it certainly could be both). Hence, sealing is nothing less than the reception and consequent indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Third, God the Father has “given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.” Before we explore this word translated “guarantee” (or “pledge”), I want to draw our attention to something all Christians experience.

I have in mind that ill-defined but inescapable ache in your heart for something better, that instinctive sense that all is not as it should be, that there is a world yet to come where justice will prevail and truth will be known and peace will reign and all will love righteousness and beauty will radiate and permeate everything. You know what I’m talking about. One struggles to put it in words. It’s as if you’ve been allowed to smell the flower but not see it, taste the feast, but not consume it.

I suppose there are even times when we’d just as soon not at all be aware, even in the slightest degree, of the “not yet” in God’s redemptive purposes. The frustration in knowing it is coming but not seeing it is often more than one can endure. It would almost be better never to have caught a glimpse of the glory to come than to have seen it but be compelled to continue life in its absence. But then we come to our senses. “Of course I’m glad to have touched the reality of future glory, if only in part, if only in a passing glance, if only in a gentle twinge in my spirit that says, Wait, be patient, it will be worth it all.”

Where does it come from, this unfulfilled confidence in what is not yet, this unconsummated longing for what we can’t see? It’s as if we are given just enough water to sustain us in the desert, with the ever echoing reassurance that an oasis of unimaginable and transcendent refreshment is just beyond our grasp.

It comes from the deposit of the Holy Spirit in our hearts! On three occasions Paul describes the Spirit as the down payment, the pledge, or as the ESV renders it here in 2 Corinthians 1:22, the guarantee. The term (arrabon) itself was used in commercial transactions to refer to the first installment of the total amount due. The down payment effectively guaranteed the fulfillment of whatever contractual obligations were assumed. "The Spirit, therefore," says Fee, "serves as God's down payment in our present lives, the certain evidence that the future has come into the present, the sure guarantee that the future will be realized in full measure” (807). John Eadie’s explanation beautifully sums up Paul’s point:

“It is the token that the whole sum stipulated for will be given when the term of service expires. The earnest is not withdrawn, but is supplemented at the appointed period. . . . But the earnest, though it differ in degree, is the same in kind with the prospective inheritance. The earnest is not withdrawn, nor a totally new circle of possessions substituted. Heaven is but an addition to present enjoyments. Knowledge in heaven is but a development of what is enjoyed on earth; its holiness is but the purity of time elevated and perfected; and its happiness is no new fountain opened in the sanctified bosom, but only the expansion and refinement of those susceptibilities which were first awakened on earth by confidence in the Divine redeemer. The earnest, in short, is the ‘inheritance’ in miniature, and it is also a pledge that the inheritance shall be ultimately and fully enjoyed” (67-8).

In giving the Holy Spirit to us, writes Peter O’Brien, “God is not simply promising us our final inheritance but actually providing us with a foretaste of it, even if it ‘is only a small fraction of the future endowment’” (121).

In other words, when you become consciously and experientially aware of the presence within of transcendent deity, of a joy that is inexpressible and full of glory, of a power that triumphs over the allure of fleshly lusts, of a delight that is sweeter than the passing pleasures of sin, of a satisfaction that puts earthly success to shame, you are sensing, if only in small measure, what will be yours in infinite and unending degree in the age to come!

It is nothing less than the precious Spirit of God quickening your soul to the reality of what awaits us on the other side, assuring you that he is here, “in our hearts” (2 Cor. 1:22b), to guarantee that all God has promised will come to pass. We have it on no less authority than the Holy Spirit himself that what we sense in our spirit now is a foretaste of what we will see and hear and feel and taste and enjoy throughout the ages to come in all the fullness of God himself.

Even so, come Lord Jesus!

- Sam Storms