Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A Seed Must First Be Buried...

"Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him." (John 12:24-26)

Seeds are pretty amazing- something so small that holds so much promise. When buried in the ground and given the proper care, life springs forth from something that appeared certainly dead, and grows and brings forth more than ever could have been imagined. To reap the reward of the seed, it must first be buried.

All that I have seen with my eyes belongs to this life. I can observe how things function in the present. I can read documents of how life was lived in the past. People on the street, or at work, or in my neighborhood can testify to what makes a life valuable or successful because they have seen what this world offers. Jesus, though, knowing what lies beyond this world tells me to be willing to give away all that is offered here for something better than waits beyond. There is a kingdom here that is certain, but this Man tells me of another that is better. To gain the greater I must be willing to forfeit what I know by sight. My life is a seed that must be placed in the ground, and Jesus promises that by placing it there, an eternal reward, honor from the Father (v.26), will be given to me and any other that would lose his life for Christ's sake.

Will I trust Him? Am I willing to live a life of sacrifice now, probably forsaking many of the comforts offered me here for a greater gain, not just for me, but for those God has called me (and you) to minister to? My motivation in my words and actions with the people who are central in my life often come from selfish desires- my flesh always making war with the Spirit, battling for my own kingdom-creature-comforts. The flesh seeks to influence my every decision toward self-centeredness, rather than Gospel-centered love, which benefits others rather than myself. Jesus chose to give His life for the sake of a greater joy, both for Himself and for other people. His death meant greater gain for all. If I truly follow Him, my life will look more like His. What I should find is that to choose this path really isn't a sacrifice (more like wisdom), at least not in the long run, because my eyes are firmly set, not on what is offered here, but in Christ in the life to come.

So, trust in the Word of Christ rather than what you see with your eyes. Place the seed in the ground with the expectation of great fruit to come, and what we'll find is joy right now in the midst of dying for His sake and His glory, and a greater joy when we see with new eyes what we cling to now by faith.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Eternal Value of Good Works and Suffering

There are different degrees of happiness and glory in heaven. As there are degrees among the angels, viz. thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers; so there are degrees among the saints. In heaven are many mansions, and of different degrees of dignity. The glory of the saints above will be in some proportion to their eminency in holiness and good works here...It will be no damp to the happiness of those who have lower degrees of happiness and glory, that there are others advanced in glory above them. For all shall be perfectly happy, every one shall be perfectly satisfied. Every vessel that is cast into this ocean of happiness is full, though there are some vessels far larger than others. And there shall be no such thing as envy in heaven, but perfect love shall reign through the whole society. Those who are not so high in glory as other, will not envy those that are higher, but they will have so great, and strong, and pure love to them, that they will rejoice in their superior happiness. Their love to them will be such that they will rejoice that they are happier than themselves; so that instead of having a damp to their own happiness, it will add to it. They will see it to be fit that they that have been most eminent in works of righteousness should be most highly exalted in glory.

Jonathan Edwards “The Portion of the Righteous”

Edwards used this argument to make application to the passages in Scripture that speak of varying degrees of reward in heaven for those who have sown diligently for the Kingdom of God and the cause of Christ (Luke 6:38, 19:11-27, 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, Galatians 6:9). If each is rewarded according to their works, there will be varying degrees of blessedness in heaven, since there are varying degrees of good done by the servants of Christ. This might be hard to imagine since there will be nothing but joy in the eternal state, but Edwards comments that the intensity of the joy will vary from one to another based on the Christian’s life. Every vessel will be filled to capacity, only the size of each will vary. Some will be able to hold more, but those of less means will not envy those of greater because they too will be filled to overflowing. 

If this holds true for good works, it would seem to also be the case for suffering. If every believer were blessed in exactly the same way in heaven, then it would virtually eliminate the personal and lasting relevance of anything done or experienced in this life. There would be less reward for the trials endured by the eminent Christians of centuries past- missionaries who suffered in distant lands or martyrs burned at the stake. Obviously, the chief end of all that takes place is that each event increases the glory of God. So in that sense, there is a grand purpose for the sake of others and to the increase of God’s praise, but I’m speaking of the increase to the individual referenced in the previously cited passages. There is value in the good one does as well as in the pain he suffers, and it isn’t only of temporal importance. Everything has eternal ends as well. When God works all things for the good of the Christian (Rom. 8:28), His view is not just for the wilderness side of the Jordan River. He’s also looking to the time when His beloved are in the land promised to them, and they find rest from their works and suffering. Without this view, present experiences would certainly be useful for the building of one’s faith in this life, but it diminishes the significance of the deeds that one performs or the difficulties another endures if they receive the same in the end as he whose works are burned up by fire (1 Corinthians 3:15). This means that God has purpose for your cancer, for the loss of your spouse, for persecution, and so on. Patient endurance and childlike dependence work for the increase of your eternal joy. God is sovereign over every event that takes place in the world He has made (Matt. 10:29), and not one second or experience is in vain, but instead reverberates into and throughout eternity.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The God of Glory and Delight

Praise the LORD, all nations! Extol him, all peoples! (Psalm 117:1). Repeatedly in the Psalms, the reader is commanded to praise the Lord. It might seem strange that God would command people to sing his praises, as if he needs the encouragement. In fact, elsewhere in the Psalms we are told:

For every beast of the forest is mine,
the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know all the birds of the hills,
and all that moves in the field is mine.
“If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and its fullness are mine.
(Psalm 50:10-12)

The one true God is not needy at all. He is completely sufficient- lacking nothing and possessing everything. So why would he command our praise? Consider this: Isn't it natural to praise the things you most delight in? How much more then should the One most enjoyable be praised? Far more deserving is he than your favorite movie, music, or sports team. C.S. Lewis provided wisdom when he wrote:

"...the most obvious fact about praise – whether of God or anything – strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honour. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless . . . The world rings with praise – lovers praising their mistresses [Romeo praising Juliet and vice versa], readers their favourite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favourite game. . . . I had not noticed either that just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: 'Isn't she lovely? Wasn't it glorious? Don't you think that magnificent?' The Psalmists in telling everyone to praise God are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about. My whole, more general, difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can't help doing, about everything else we value.

In short, without praise, the enjoyment of an object is not complete. God desires for us to worship because when we do so, we glorify the One worthy of praise, and to glorify him is the highest peak of delight in the human experience. God is commanding our delight at the same time he commands our praise.

When we come together as a church to worship on each Lord's Day, we praise the God who has redeemed us and provided through Christ the ability to enjoy the Most Enjoyable forever. We add nothing to him in this act. We do not make him more glorious, or more loving, or more gracious. We, together in Christ, tell of his eternal character and worth as the overflow of our hearts come forth on our lips. Digging deeper into this experience, however, we see that not only do we not serve him (by doing something he needs or lacks, Acts 17:25) but he continually serves his people while leading them toward himself. What he commands his people to do, he enables by his Word and Spirit. Jesus purchased a people for God at the cross, and the Spirit applies his work to sinners in real time through regeneration, which is spoken of through the prophet Ezekiel:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from  all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:25-27, also 11:19-20, Jeremiah 31:33-34, 33:8)

God makes possible through Christ what sin and Satan had bound men from- true delight in God, right desires, and the ability to honor Him. In the Gospel, our Lord makes us able to praise Him. He has done this great thing, "so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:29-31).

As you stand in worship this Lord's Day, and you sing the praises of the Eternal King, know that he not only commands and delights in your praise, he also gives you the ability to do so, and in doing that, serves and builds up the church he gave his himself for, as the Scripture says, "for from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen" (Romans 11:36). As the multitudes stand in His glorious presence, magnify him with their hearts, and encounter his Word of truth, he binds the broken-hearted, comforts the anxious, gives peace to those far off, and brings to pass a thousand other applications. So, praise the LORD! Peoples of the earth! Glory be to God as he magnifies his glory and increases your delight in Him.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

God's Sovereignty Over Satan

Jesus said that Satan has been a deceiver from the beginning. From the moment the snake stepped onto the pages of Scripture, his role and motives were firmly set. Satan tempted our first parents to believe a lie and the disaster that followed was immense. He continued this sinister trend as the biblical story unfolded- not always so obvious to the readers of Scripture. We don't always see his actions with perfect clarity, but he obviously sets himself against the saving plan of God. The curtain on his activity is pulled back in the temptation of Job, where Satan brings destruction to Job’s family, possessions, and health. Jesus revealed to Peter, before his denial of Christ, that the evil one desired to sift him like wheat. So, we know that the devil is behind the fall of many who willfully choose to follow the ungodly desires of their heart. He has always set his sights on those who seek to do the Lord’s will. He was certainly behind the rebellion of Israel during the Exodus, resulting in the judgment of an entire generation before they could enter the Promised Land. He, no doubt, had designs to thwart the plan of God by bringing nations to battle against the Lord’s people, by tempting Israel’s kings through lust and greed, and by enticing the people toward idolatry resulting in their exile. God’s grace must have been exhausting to him, but at every turn each man that had the appearance of God’s chosen one was found to be lacking. 

We should not be surprised that when Jesus came, demonic activity increased dramatically. Indeed, there were more demon-possessed people in the narratives, but we must also be aware that Satan was certainly at work in events such as Herod’s slaughtering of the children and the Pharisees’ plot to murder Christ. In spite of the devil's efforts, Jesus proved Himself to be pure and righteous by succeeding where Israel had failed. Satan could not bring Him to sin in the wilderness. Our Lord was the obedient Son the nation could never be. He was the true Israel. Satan had always preyed on the weak, but Christ was strong. This makes the crucifixion such an amazing moment in the sovereign plan of God. By all appearances, Satan had gained victory over man once again. The hatred of the people for Christ had resulted in His death, but in God’s wisdom, that death would bring forth eternal life. Satan would have known that God was just and holy, and because of this, would punish sinful man. What he did not know was that God would justly atone for the sins of His people by punishing His Son, the God-man, in their place. Jesus bore His Father's righteous wrath, and then demonstrated His power over death through His own resurrection. Satan had been a pawn in God’s eternal plan to exalt His Son and demonstrate His glory in a holy people who have the Lord as their King. Every failure of man in the pages of Scripture had been a small victory for Satan at the time- but only for a short while. Even those events were part of the infinite wisdom of God to manifest his glory and power in the work of Christ, and in those who would believe in the saving power of Jesus and receive Him as their greatest treasure. What a God worthy of praise! 

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
“For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:33-36 ESV)

Friday, January 11, 2013

Our Joy in Ministry

This is a recent message I sent to those I serve alongside each week and know it applies to many others as well:

I've made the comment in the past that love is a burden. To pour yourself out for the sake of another often means the sacrifice of your own comfort. For instance, parenting children requires a great deal of time and energy, often at times which seem most inconvenient. This appears to warrant the label of "burden," maybe better, "burden of love." However, Scripture says love is not a burden at all. The apostle John goes through great lengths in his first epistle to link love and the commandments of God together as one and the same. When you obey the commandments of the Lord, you love, and vise-versa. The greatest commandment pertained to our loving God, and the second to our neighbor. These fulfilled the entire Law. John writes, "For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome" (1 John 5:3). If the commandments are not burdensome, then to love will not be either, since they speak of the same thing. How then should I understand what could be conceived as inconvenience, sacrifice, duty and the like, for the sake of others? Again, a parental illustration. My older girls will often accompany me to perform various tasks. There is not necessarily anything really exciting about what we do. The duties could even be described as menial, but somehow there is a joy they have in it. This isn't because they like the work (though they might somehow). Their main satisfaction in it comes from the desire to please their father. This carries them through the work and provides them with joy in it. Christian ministry can often be filled with duties and circumstances that could be viewed as inconvenient and burdensome if not for the sake of love. God-honoring, Christ-exalting love meets the needs of others in the face of our loss of comfort. The Son of God stepped down from His exalted and glorious throne for a time to meet our greatest need (doing so with joy, and because of the promise of joy in the midst of suffering- Hebrews 12:2), and continues to provide the grace necessary to minister with gladness. The desire to be pleasing to the Father and to see others become more like Christ keeps love from being a burden and makes it a joy. This desire outweighs all else. I need this always to be impressed upon my heart, whether at home, at work, or in the fellowship of my brothers and sisters in Christ. So, I should probably change my vocabulary and cease to say that love is a burden, but rather know it as a joy which enables and empowers ministry that supersedes any other emotion or desire the circumstance may contain, however difficult, painful, or inconvenient it may appear. This is what love does (1 Corinthians 13:1-7). 

Thank you for inconveniencing yourself during the past year for the sake of the Gospel, for your love for your God and neighbor, and for the joy you had in the midst of it all; whether you loved on our babies (who may have been crying), or shared the love of Christ with a two year old with glue on your fingers. Some of you stacked and unstacked hundreds of chairs so others could sit and hear the Word of God. Others of you have spent countless hours answering the many questions of our young people and have been amazed at their insight, which will one day be passed on to the next generation. Several of you have been up late at night preparing lessons or sermons when it would have been far more comfortable to close up the book of life and turn on the TV. God bless the moms and dads who have gotten up early to get little ones ready for church when sleeping in and staying home was so attractive. Thank you for the hours spent on your knees and face in prayer for fellow members, friends, our community, nation, and world- that God would be exalted as He ministers to and in each; for your joyful giving when it seemed like good judgement to withhold your offering; by soaking your heart, mind and life with the transforming Word of grace, for overlooking a fault or forgiving another when the temptation was to do the opposite. Thank you for providing needed words of encouragement at the right moment, taking time to disciple or open your home, blessing others with your musical gifts, delivering meals to the sick or new moms, taking up offering, ushering, welcoming, changing diapers, providing coffee, signing in kids at the children's desk, planning events- ALL for the sake of Christ and in plain sight of your God, fragrant sacrifices pleasing to Him and blessing your soul. I hope and pray the coming year is filled with His grace, enabling each of you to be joyfully spent for the sake of His name, This is what the love of God does.

Your Fellow Worker in the Kingdom of Christ,
Lonnie Atwood