White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

We Love Pastors

As we get closer to our inaugural White Horse Inn Weekend, we want to invite you to send your pastors to the Weekend for free! We have a limited number of free tickets available for pastors. If you or your church can pay for your pastor’s hotel room and transportation to/from San Diego, we’ll pay the way into the Weekend: all materials and two meals for two people during the Weekend.

There are ten tickets available. Each ticket covers one couple. First come, first served. Use promo code WHI4Pastors to get the discount.

Pray For Fikret

A native Turk, Fikret Bocek never imagined being anything other than a Muslim, however nominal. One day in Istanbul, a European couple gave him a Bible and he couldn’t stop reading. After graduating from Westminster Seminary California, he returned and planted a Reformed church that now has planted a number of sister churches in the country. He also started a publishing company, is an author himself, and reflects a profound humility combined with courageous conviction. You may have heard on the White Horse Inn his story of coming to faith in Christ.

Like many pastors in Islamic countries, the Rev. Fikret Bocek is constantly under the watchful eye of the state. Our producer, Shane Rosenthal, recently forwarded a provocative piece in the Washington Post. The article contrasts the consequences of conversion from Christianity to Islam and vice versa. Shane wrote me, “Would love to see you comment on this. If not, perhaps we could ask Fikret to write something up….” Then, just an hour later, I received this message (below) from Fikret.

Please remember our brother and his family in your prayers at this challenging time.


“You see these dictators on their pedestals, surrounded by the bayonets of their soldiers and the truncheons of their police … yet in their hearts there is unspoken fear. They are afraid of words and thoughts: words spoken abroad, thoughts stirring at home — all the more powerful because forbidden — terrify them. A little mouse of thought appears in the room, and even the mightiest potentates are thrown into panic.”
Winston Churchill, Blood, Sweat & Tears

Fasil Say at his piano.

Fasil Say at his piano.

Last night we watched the movie called “The Pianist,” which is based on the life of famous Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman. Szpilman was the most famous of the Warsaw Ghetto “Robinsons,” who lived in hiding in German-occupied Warsaw.

Watching that movie brings home the hatred and wickedness inherent in man, especially toward anything that is “other.” The Germans did not like the Jews, and sought to destroy them. The above quote by Winston Churchill, poignently portrays the desire of powerful leaders to quelch independent thought.

It brings to mind futuristic totalitarian societies such as the one in 1984, where standardized thought was mandated by law. But in fact, places like that exist.

In Turkey, thoughts can be a criminal offense. In particular, thoughts against the government (or a government employee) or thoughts against the religion (or its Prophet Muhammed) are forbidden by law.

The pianist above, named Fasil Say, actually was a bunkmate of Fikret’s during their military service several years ago. Perhaps because Fasil Say is famous his case has hit the news and his thoughts are more liable to be criticized by the government. But in any event, he posted on Twitter an 11th century poem criticizing Islam, and he was charged and convicted of a crime against the State.

1984

“This is not Justice” Fikret’s Case:

As you may remember, a couple years ago Fikret posted a critical comment on an online newspaper regarding the results of a court case against a handicapped young man. He had said, “This is not justice.” The judge he criticized opened a case against all who commented critically about him below that article. Fikret was charged with criticizing the State (through his criticism of the judge), and was convicted of the crime (a pending 3 year prison term).

We appealed the case, and we just heard back from the higher court that the case was sent back to the lower courts. It has to be re-tried with certain “new laws” in mind.

What those new laws are, we are still discovering. Are they in his favor, or against him? Are they stricter judgments (ie: 10 year terms) or are they looser judgments (ie: freedom of speech is suddenly on the books?). We do not know.

All this to say, please pray.

MONDAY, June 3 (ie: Sunday night, June 2 PST) Fikret will appear in court here in Foca Izmir to give a statement regarding this new “thought crime” case.

While people in Turkey are free to have religious beliefs other than Islam, people are not free to think anything critical of the State or Islam. It’s a typical double-think conundrum.

In fact, as I write this I am being careful of how I word things, because it is quite probable that this email will end up in the hands of the Turkish authorities, and I will have to give account.

It’s no fun to know the First Amendment laws of the United States, and to be subject to a different scheme of laws.

And yet “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” True freedom is something that cannot be taken away. For this we thank God.

PLEASE PRAY:
**That the Spirit guides Fikret’s thoughts and words as he prepares and gives his statement to the courts.
**Pray that truth and reason will trump doublethink.
**We want the best for this country, and we hope that the judges will do what is right and good for the people.
**Pray for just judges and upright law-makers in Turkey.
**Pray that the light of Christ reaches even into the heart of Turkish judges, that they will be called from darkness to light.

Thank you for your faithful prayers.

Praise the LORD! We are grateful that God has provided transportation for us for our furlough. If you are currently in a position wondering if your needs will be met, and are waiting on an answer to prayer, remember this verse: “And my God shall supply all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.” Phil 4:19

What The Gospel Is & Why We Should Believe It, Part 3

Scholars have noticed that the information Paul passes on in 1 Corinthians 15 is presented in a stylized format. Paul appears to be using the form of parallelism, which is often used as an aid to memorization.

1Cor. 15:3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received:
that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
that he was buried,
that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,
and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

In fact, the structure is not unlike that of the Apostles Creed. This fact has led many commentators to conclude that Paul is actually reciting an early Christian creed, the form of which he had received from the earliest followers of Jesus. According to N.T. Wright: “We are here in touch with the earliest Christian tradition, with something that was being said two decades or more before Paul wrote this letter.” If Paul wrote this letter around 53 AD, two decades earlier would have been 33 AD, and that is only a few years removed from the crucifixion. This is essentially the same time that liberal scholar John Dominic Crossan said that Paul went to visit Peter (see Part 2 of this series).

Notice also that there is great specificity to the good news that Paul records. The good news is not merely about God in general or how we can have a relationship with him. Instead, it’s about Christ in particular. Christ is not presented as a groovy teacher or one who offers moral clarity. He’s not presented as a helpful guide to get us through life’s difficulties. There’s nothing here about him being “chicken soup for the soul.”

Rather, Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures. This is what the gospel is. It’s both Christ-centered and cross-centered. The gospel is the good news associated with an event regarding the person of Christ. That event includes a particular word in the past tense: he died. That is not an esoteric principle or proverb; it’s an historical claim. With that historical claim we find a purpose statement. According to this early Christian creed, Christ died for our sins. Here we discover that the gospel, as defined by the earliest Christians, was not a kind of therapy or plan for social justice. It was not a collection of groovy ideas by a wise sage. Rather this gospel was a particular historical claim related to the death of a particular Jewish Rabbi, wrapped together with the explanation of this event’s incredible significance.

This gospel was not merely Christ-centered and cross-centered, it was also Scripture centered: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.” What Scriptures? Perhaps Paul and the authors of this early creed were thinking of a text like Daniel 9:24-27. This text teaches that when messiah comes, he will “atone for iniquity.” Or perhaps the authors were thinking of the great servant song of Isaiah 53, which says that the man of sorrows will “make many to be accounted righteous and shall bear their iniquities, by pouring his soul unto death.” Or perhaps they were thinking of Zechariah 12 in which God himself says, “I will pour on the house of David… a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn….” That text goes on to say that on that day “there shall be a fountain opened up for the house of David… to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness.”

The framers of this early creed could also have been be thinking of the shadows of Christ that we find throughout the law of Moses. For example, earlier in this epistle (1 Corinthians 5:7), Paul writes, “Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed.” In other words, the Passover lamb was but a shadow of things to come but the reality was Christ. This is the same type of language that we heard from John the Baptist who, when he saw his cousin Jesus approaching, said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

But this gospel is not only rooted in atonement. It is also rooted in resurrection:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died
for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
that he was buried,
that he was raised on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.

Here this ancient creed argues that throughout the Old Testament not only was Christ’s death foretold but also His resurrection, and that on the third day. The fact that Paul does not cite any scriptures at this point is further evidence that he assumed his audience was familiar with these texts. He is presuming that what he is reciting is part of a memorized formula. In verse 4 we also discover the repetition of the phrase “according to the scriptures,” which is a particular construction not found elsewhere in Paul’s writings. His typical way of interacting with the Old Testament begins with phrases such as “Scripture says,” or “what do the Scriptures say,” along with their citation.

In the next edition of this blog series, we’ll investigate what Old Testament texts Paul and others might have been thinking of when they argued that Christ’s resurrection on the third day was foretold in the Scriptures.

Message to Graduates: “You Are All Going to Die”

It’s Commencement time again. Many of us can’t remember the address at our college graduation. Occasionally, though, there are some zingers. This year the buzz is Joss Whedon’s speech on Sunday, May 26 at Wesleyan University.

The full address may be found here: youtu.be/Wn866ryQ5RY. An accomplished screenwriter (“Toy Story” and “The Avengers”) and creator of the series “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer,” Whedon astonished graduates and well-wishers by announcing, “What I’d like to say to all of you is that you are all going to die.”

Whedon recalled that in 1987, at his own Wesleyan University graduation, Bill Cosby took aim at the usual “change the world” speech that has become the staple of such events. “You’re not going to change the world, so don’t try.” The best thing you can do is to live each day with integrity and responsibility, not expecting everyone to exist as props in your own life movie. Stop being narcissistic about your “dream,” getting everyone else to fit into it, Cosby also told Temple University grads in 2012. “You’ve got plenty of time, but don’t dream through it. Wake up!”

All of this is sort of jarring talk from Boomers. But, happily, it has struck a nerve. Judging at least by the media attention, Whedon’s daring mention of death to largely healthy, eager, young Americans is like a glass of cold water thrown in the face to wake us from our slumbers.

Much of the talk in Christian circles turns on various projects for changing the world. You can’t just be a disciple. You have to be committed to radical discipleship. You can’t just strive to make good choices, form healthy relationships, and do countless little things that add up to loving service to others. You have to be radically counter-cultural to show that you really mean business with God, which is sometimes tough because there are a lot of non-Christians who say and do those things too. Especially in years past, radical discipleship meant embracing private spiritual disciplines. When that was judged too individualistic and self-oriented, others saw radical discipleship as giving up the lifestyle of American consumerism and helping those less fortunate.

There are plenty of calls in Scripture to prayer and meditation on his Word—in private as well as in public. There are also many exhortations to loving those around us: in marriages and families, in the household of faith, and in our wider callings.

But growth in anything important takes time. Etymologically, “radical” means “going to the root.” The way it’s used today, though, it more likely means “pulling up the roots.” If by “radical” folks mean immediate, visible, and measurable, there are no New Testament calls to this sort of discipleship. The repeated analogy used by the prophets, Jesus, and the apostles is organic. Growth in Christ is often imperceptible—especially to us. When planting a garden with Mom, young children expect a strawberry after a few days. They sit and watch it. After a few days, the children stop asking about it. They pass it each day without any notice. “A watched pot never boils,” to change metaphors.

Only as we get older do we begin to realize that the most fruitful things in life take a long time—and a lot of care—to mature. If we’re impatient, overly enthusiastic, and over-confident, we easily become disillusioned or disinterested. Sure, there are some big events in our lives that provoke major turning points. For the most part, though, it’s the minutes, hours, days, months, and years that tell the tale. It’s not rallies and revivals, but God’s weekly meeting with his people that transforms them by his Word. Sure, there was a major turning point at Pentecost. Cut to the quick, Jews heard that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Abraham story, believed, and were baptized. But they weren’t looking for a spiritual high. They weren’t eager to discover the Next Big Thing—a program for radical discipleship. What happened next? “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of the bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

Everybody wants to experience something radical and to do something radical. The tougher thing is to be justified before God and transformed in the depths of our character through the ordinary means of grace. It’s hard work to grow up in Christ, bearing the fruit of love and good works, in ordinary ways through ordinary means in ordinary moments over time.

Are we prepared for the long haul? That’s something to ask not only in commencement addresses, but each day. And though we might differ in the details, that’s why Joss Whedon’s question to the graduates is so genuinely helpful.

Death puts life in perspective. It reminds of the things that matter most. In the prime of our life, we want to change the world. Too often, we lose big dreams and the zest for life precisely because we’ve figured out that we can’t change it. But freed up from impossible dreams and demands, we can finally love and serve our neighbors—not as abstract objects for our life project or instruments of our self-identity-creation, but as God’s gifts.

Godly wisdom is to be found in realizing that faithfulness is not ultimately about how well we’re doing, but how well our neighbor is doing—and what we can do to help. It’s not about changing the world—or even loving the world—but about changing the way we relate to actual people today and loving specific neighbors with whom we live, work, and whose paths we cross each day. More deeply—radically, even—it’s about accepting God’s condemnation and justification in Christ and being renewed each day by his Word. As we’re shaped by his gospel and guided by his law, we discover that godly wisdom is not finally about the sprint but about finishing the race. Death has a practical way of putting all of this in perspective.

What The Gospel Is & Why We Should Believe It, Part 2

1 Cor. 15:1 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you – unless you believed in vain.

In this amazing text, Paul starts out by reminding his disciples in Corinth of the basic components of the Christian gospel. Since he’s reminding them of what they had already received, a good question to ask would be, “When did Paul first preach this message to them?” This letter was written while Paul was in Ephesus sometime between 53-55 AD. Here he is reminding them of the basic gospel message which he probably first delivered to them around 51 AD.

1 Cor. 15:3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received.

I’d like to draw your attention to the particular words “of first importance.” The Bible is the word of God, yet this book contains some things that are more important than others. Jesus himself makes this same point to the Pharisees when he tells them that they have neglected the “weightier matters of the law, such as justice, mercy, and faithfulness.” Tithing wasn’t unimportant, but it was less important, he argued, than the incredibly significant issues of justice and mercy. Likewise, everything we find in the New Testament is important and inspired. But here Paul is reminding the Corinthians about the issue of first importance. He has already said in verse 1 that he’s reminding them of the gospel. So essentially Paul is saying that the gospel is the most important thing, the thing of first importance that we need to focus on and never lose sight of.

1 Cor. 15:3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received.

Now pay attention to that last word: received. This gospel message is something that he himself received? But from whom? Paul is arguing here that this is not merely something he came up with when he first delivered this message to them in 51 AD. In his letter to the Galatians (written in 48 AD), Paul provides a brief sketch of his own conversion. Paul’s conversion is generally fixed at around 32 AD, two years after the crucifixion. In Galatians 1:18 Paul says that “after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas,” which would mean he visited Peter around 35 AD.

This incredibly early timeline that I am presenting here is not disputed by even the most radical liberal scholars. According to John Dominic Crossan, one of the pioneers of the infamous Jesus Seminar: “Paul wrote to the Corinthians from Ephesus in the early 50s. But he says in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that ‘I handed on to you as of first importance that which I in turn received.’ The most likely source and time for his reception of that tradition would have been Jerusalem in the early 30s when, according to Galatians 1:18, he ‘went up to Jerusalem to visit Peter” (from his book Excavating Jesus, 2002, p. 298).

It’s interesting to note the actual word Paul uses when he went to visit Peter in Gal 1:18. The word translated in this text as “visit” is actually the word historesai, which is the root of our English word “history.” So the sense is not merely that Paul is going to visit a friend, but rather to inquire of Peter and possibly even to write down his story.

We would do well here to recall that Luke is one of Paul’s companions, as we discover in his letters to Philemon, Timothy, and the Colossians. We’re not sure when Luke began to be associated with Paul, but he certainly outlines this same approach in the beginning of his gospel, saying that he compiled his narrative by interviewing the eyewitnesses.

In the next installment of this blog series, we’ll continue our survey of 1 Corinthians 15 as we start to walk through the substance of Paul’s gospel message.

WHI-1156 | What the Gospel Is & Why We Should Believe It, Part 1

There is a lot of confusion today about the nature of the Christian gospel. On this program, we will walk through the definition of the gospel given by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. How early is this particular text in relation to other New Testament documents? What are the implications of Paul’s claims for our understanding of early Christianity? Most importantly, what does he say the good news is all about?

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What The Gospel Is & Why We Should Believe It, Part 1

There seems to be a lot of confusion today about what the gospel is. There are the obviously crass examples on display at Christian and secular bookstores everywhere, encouraging us all to have our “best life now” or, more recently, to Have a New You by Friday.

But there are also others in our time who point to the ongoing work of social rather than personal transformation. They tell us that we should partner with God in his redemptive mission to change the world through the pursuit of social justice. Now I’m not saying that these aren’t worthy goals. The pursuit of justice either for an individual or for a society is a noble calling, and I would encourage most of the readers of this blog to become better versions of you. But the question is whether these things actually provide a good description of what the gospel is.

Alexis De Tocqueville was a Frenchman who came to America in the early 1800s and was fascinated by differences between America and Europe. He published his observations in a book titled Democracy in America. In that book he focused primarily on politics but also made some fascinating observations about religion in this country. He writes,

Priests in the Middle Ages spoke of nothing but the other life; they hardly took any trouble to prove that a sincere Christian might be happy here below. But preachers in America are continually coming down to earth. Indeed they find it difficult to take their eyes off it. The better to touch their hearers, they are forever pointing out how religious beliefs favor freedom and public order, and it is often difficult to be sure when listening to them whether the main object of religion is to procure eternal felicity in the next world or prosperity in this.

That emphasis is certainly still with us today. Churches, we are told, need to be relevant, down to earth, practical. They need to meet people where they are. But what if where we are is in a world of consumerism, entertainment, and narcissistic hedonism? In such a time a gospel about me, my prosperity, or my worship experience will always be relevant. But churches that focus on something outside of ourselves, something rooted in an ancient and unfamiliar culture – explained and unpacked with big and unfamiliar words like propitiation, justification, and predestination – will always appear to us as irrelevant if we fail to challenge the world’s way of thinking.

Paul helps us in 1 Corinthians 15 by giving us a very good definition of what the gospel is. But before we dive into that definition, here is a little historical background. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are among the earliest writings of the New Testament, a fact is undisputed in our day even by the most liberal scholars. This is a wonderful concession because it means that historians everywhere must explain how by 53-55 AD (which is the generally accepted date of the Corinthian epistles) we find a monotheistic Jewish Pharisee professing faith in the divinity of one of his fellow Rabbis who had gotten himself crucified just a couple decades earlier. It’s a fascinating historical drama in and of itself, especially when you add the fact that before he became a Christian leader and evangelist, Paul was a fierce opponent of this strange Jewish sect, persecuting other believers even unto death. Of course the way the story is usually told is that Jesus was a nice groovy teacher who preached peace, love, and harmony until he unfortunately got himself crucified . The story continues like a good fish story: tales about this Jesus evolved over time so that by the late first century, when the story was finally written down, this teacher is pictured with a halo, walking on water and performing miracles. In other words, the man was turned into a God over time by the believing community.

But if that’s really what happened, how do we explain Paul’s conversion in the early 30s AD? How do we explain the various documents that he left behind, some written in the late 40s (ie. his epistles to the Galatians and Thessalonians)? It’s one thing to get a Greek or Roman pagan to believe in the divinity of one of his neighbors (you might recall the story of when Paul and Barnabas were mistaken for incarnations of Zeus and Hermes in Lystra). But Jews were different. Pharisees in particular were very strict monotheists. So how do we get a man like this to profess the divinity of one of his fellow rabbis at such an early date? This question is totally ignored by most liberal scholars as well as by a popularizer such as Dan Brown in his book the Da Vinci Code. In that story, the teacher Jesus wasn’t declared to be divine until a decree by Constantine in 325 AD. It made for interesting fiction, but it is far from the complexity of actual historical events.

The great thing about Paul is that we don’t have to speculate. We have his writings and no one disputes the early dates of their composition. So the best way to find out what made Paul tick would be to go back to the original sources. And this text for 1 Corinthians 15 is one of the most important such sources.

In the next installment of this blog series, we’ll start walking through Paul’s arguments from this text in order to get a better understanding of what the gospel is and why we should believe it!

Outsourcing Our Job Description? A Plea to Fellow Ministers

“Given all the demands on my time every day, it’s really hard to invest a lot of hours in preparing my sermons.” I hear this sentiment a lot out there these days. It’s expressed in a series of clips for a new service. The ad invites pastors to take advantage of an energetic team of researchers who help do a lot of the legwork for sermon-writing. Explaining “what we do,” the site offers the following services: “(1) Research Briefs (stories, statistics, quotes, connections to culture, theological insights, exegetical analysis of Scripture)”; (2) book summaries: “content you need to know but don’t have time to read”; (3) book projects, including “research, editing, and collaboration.”

I understand the challenge. There are many demands on a pastor’s time—even distractions that are part of the legitimate calling of a minister. However, are we turning to a Wikipedia-style of ministry? Some pastors in recent years—even in our own circles—have been brought up on charges of “borrowing” sermons verbatim from well-known preachers. I suppose this new service isn’t as bad as outright plagiarism. But what does all of this mean for the ministry?

I’ve been asking that question as I run into aspiring pastors who don’t think they need a seminary education. After all, there are so many on-line resources. Apparently, we’re way beyond that now.

It’s not just that people think they can teach themselves the languages, the art of biblical interpretation and biblical, systematic, and historical theology, or the practical insights from God’s Word in how to preach and apply God’s Word. You can even refer to the Hebrew and Greek of a passage without ever having actually studied the languages. Ironically, we teach students to study a passage in the original languages without showing their work in the sermon; increasingly, ignorance is being passed off as skill. It’s one thing to Google-search a figure or date; quite another thing to write a doctoral dissertation as a web-surfer. You wouldn’t go under the knife of a surgeon who learned medicine from Youtube clips. Why would you entrust your knowledge of God and his truth from someone who didn’t actually know how to “rightly handle the Word of truth” for himself?

The deeper question is this: What has become of the pastoral office when many who hold it seem to think that they are too busy to study, pray, read, and deepen their own understanding of God’s Word so that they have more to dish out?

Do we really believe, as the apostles and the reformers did, that the church is the creatura verbi—”creation of the Word”? That faith comes by hearing the Word of Christ as it is proclaimed by those who are sent? That the heart of sanctification is the renewing of the mind by the Word?

Pastors would never tell their congregations to outsource their discipleship to others: to pay someone else to pray, read the Bible, and witness for them. Why do some think that it’s fine for them to do this, especially when—unlike their parishioners—pastors are called to devote their full time to this work?

The tragedy is that pastors are often overwhelmed even by important things that are nevertheless subordinate to their ministry of the Word and the sacraments. Too often, elders are taken from the ranks of leaders in business, industry, and other professions, even if they lack the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3. Not surprisingly, the church is run like a corporation, with the pastor as the CEO. Or in other contexts, the pastor is the young and independent entrepreneur—more like Mark Zuckerberg than St. Timothy. He has to keep reinventing himself and his ministry and this requires enormous energy. But what really matters?

Amid these obvious extremes there are the faithful pastors who are wearied by parts of their job description that are in fact mentioned in Scripture. They may have godly elders who rule well and generous deacons who look out for the temporal needs of the sheep. Yet even with such blessings it’s difficult to avoid the constant interruptions.

What are those “other things” that have pastors so busy? Are those other things as explicitly mentioned in the job description laid out by Christ and his apostles? Or are we—even in “gospel-centered” and “Bible-believing” circles—coming to recast the office in terms more aligned to the managerial, entrepreneurial, or therapeutic styles of leadership that our culture prizes? A minister friend recently quipped, “The most embarrassing question you can ask a group of pastors in our circles today is, ‘What’s the latest book you’ve read?’”

Last week, after explaining my symptoms, I asked my doctor about a prescription that I saw advertized. The ad sold me. Sounded like my symptoms and promised to solve them (with the appropriate qualifications at the tail end). My doctor said he had prescribed that very medication many times, but after reading a ground-breaking report he was taking all of his patients off of it. I’m glad he keeps reading.

Imagine your pastor exhorting the congregation next week to stop coming to church and simply visit websites to become “self-feeders”? Well, perhaps that’s a bad illustration, since it’s actually happening today.

It takes a long time to become a craftsman, a skilled expert, and a wise steward of natural gifts. If pastors expect Christ’s sheep to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Savior Jesus Christ,” then are they exempt from first-hand study? Who are these people writing up the quotes, cultural connections, and even theological points and exegesis? Are they seminary-trained? According to the site I saw, yes—they have Master of Divinity degrees or more. If so, then why not attend their church instead of the one where the heavy-lifting is farmed out?

Even after seminary, habits of lifelong study and prayer are essential. Pastors are spiritual craftsmen, not the equivalent of busy guys who buy a Home Depot book to construct their patio. Even the best seminary education can merely equip ministers with tools that they can use and develop in their own ongoing study.

We typically invest our time in things that matter to us, things that we’re called to. And we typically appreciate—and patronize—those specialists who focus on the quality of their work. Comedians and other entertainers might have other people write their material. But if we farm out our sermons, aren’t we assuming with the world that there is some other story that’s more ultimate than the new creation that God is summoning into being by his Word and Spirit?

Isn’t there something a little contradictory about shepherds touting the virtues of truth, spiritual maturity, and knowing God through his Word while they outsource their own study? If a pastor is too busy to mine Scripture to distribute Christ’s treasures to his people each week, what does that say about the priority of “the ministry of the Word and prayer” that Peter identified as the pastor’s primary job description (Acts 6:4)? That’s why deacons were appointed: to take care of the temporal needs of Christ’s flock.

Paul was absorbed in his calling, which he defined with laser-sharp focus:

Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places (Eph 3:7-10).

What a calling!

The prophets actually served those who now bring the good news, “in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look” (1 Pet 1:12).

Those who labor in preaching and teaching are especially to be honored (1 Tim 5:17), though they are also held especially accountable (Jas 3:1). “Until I come,” Paul counsels young Timothy, “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the presbytery laid their hands on you” (1 Tim 4:14). Don’t get entangled in “civilian pursuits,” he exhorts. Teach God’s Word and then “entrust [it] to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim 2:1-4). “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (v 15).

Bottom line: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Jesus Christ, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching…[D]o the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Tim 4:1-2, 5).

In his last reported conversation on earth with Peter, Jesus asked solemnly, “‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ He said to him a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ and he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep’…And after saying this he said to him, ‘Follow me’” (Jn 21:15-19).

To follow the Good Shepherd as his emissaries is to feed his sheep. It’s a calling not to be taken up lightly. If we’re going to take it up, we need to prepare for it. And then we need to keep ourselves in his Word and in whatever resources that can help us deepen our own wisdom rather than outsource it to others. Great numbers of pastors out there are fulfilling this calling “in season and out of season” today. Nevertheless, there is a troubling proliferation of preachers who are not so much lazy as distracted by expectations—either their own or those of others—that turn the pastor’s study into an office, building their own ministry rather than serving Christ’s. Here, as always, we all need to be reminded that Christ is the only head of his church. We didn’t write the job description and he knows best what his people—and we ourselves—need most.

Modern Reformation Conversations–Practically Pulled

Having spent most of my life in school, taking notes has become an almost pathological habit of mine–it doesn’t matter if I’m at a lecture, morning worship, in a classroom, or an informal talk; if someone is speaking in an official capacity, out comes the notebook and pen.  The result is a nicely organized outline and a mind utterly unburdened with any remembrance of what was just said.  I get so pre-occupied with my understanding of what the speaker is saying, that I completely ignore what it is he’s saying–I’m not receiving; I’m appropriating.  There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that–I want to understand what I hear–but if I become so focused on comprehending that I stop listening, that’s a problem.

According to certain authors, I’m not the only one who does this–Americans in general are especially prone to focusing on what we can get out of a thing, rather than understanding the thing in itself.  It turns out that there’s an explanation for this–we sat down with White Horse Inn producer Shane Rosenthal and asked him why it is that we’re so drawn toward the active life, and got some very interesting answers.

Enjoy!

Zondervan e-Book Special

In conjunction with this week’s show, “A Place for Weakness,” our good friends at Zondervan are discounting the e-version of Michael Horton’s book, A Place for Weakness, to $3.99.

This is a great opportunity to go a little deeper into the problem of suffering through what is undoubtedly Mike’s most personal book.

The promotional pricing ends on June 3rd, so get your copy today! The discount is already available through these retailers:

Amazon’s Kindle

Barnes and Noble’s Nook

 

 

For more on the book and what personal and pastoral problems led Mike to write it, check out the following video.

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