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The Next Right Thing

Saturday, April 04, 2020

“And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.”

(Acts 16:6-8)

I’m not proud to admit it but, only a few weeks into this limited shelter-in-place thing, Rachael and I have already allowed our children to watch Frozen 2 four times. Yes. Four times. Don’t get me wrong. The movie is colorful, fun, well animated, skillfully voice-acted and has great music. But four times is a lot. Needless to say, the soundtrack is now stuck in my head. In the darkest moment of the film (don’t worry, no spoilers here) Anna sings through her grief and uncertainty. And in that darkness, she remembers the wise words of Grand Pabbie, “When one can see no future, all one can do is the next right thing.” She sings:

I won’t look too far ahead

It’s too much for me to take

But break it down to this next breath, this next step

This next choice is one that I can make

She resolves to move forward by simply doing the “next right thing.” This lesson is perhaps the greatest contribution of the film. We find ourselves in similar times now when, faced with uncertainty, all we can do is the next right thing. (Note the structure of Anna’s song resembles that of many Psalms of lament in the Bible, albeit lacking that one all-important quality of being prayers sung to God)

As Paul and Silas journeyed through the Cilician Gates into familiar territory in Southern Galatia, they picked up young Timothy in Derbe to join them on what we call the Second Missionary Journey. They traveled west “strengthening the churches” along the way (Acts 15:41) by communicating the important decisions of the Jerusalem council of the previous chapter (16:4).

Their natural route would have led them west into Asia but, for some mysterious reason, the Holy Spirit forbade them from preaching there (v.6). So they headed north through Phrygia into Bithynia, a 200-mile journey of about 2-3 weeks on foot, “but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them” there either (v.7). Their northward progress stopped, the band was forced west toward the coast and Troas (v.8). And because Troas was technically part of Asia they couldn't preach the good news while they were there (cf. v.7). 

Who knows what Paul was thinking in Troas, let alone Silas and not to mention poor Timothy! “What are we doing here? What did I sign up for? What does God want me to do? Where does he want me to go? Everything seems so muddled.” They were ‘in the dark,’ so to speak. Uncertainty, confusion, and perhaps small seeds of doubt, were trying to lodge themselves into their hearts. Only when we see a map of their progress does it become clear what God was doing. He was channeling them towards Macedonia, guiding them as one does the blind, keeping them on the right path.

But the view looked quite different from the ground. Paul and his friends didn't have a clue what their next move was. We all have moments in life when the future is uncertain and we’re not sure how to proceed. But in those moments, all we can do is trust the Lord and “do the next right thing.” God didn’t reveal his whole plan to Paul all at once. Rather, he did so in stages. Paul almost certainly would have been praying and waiting for the Lord to make his path clear. Who knows how long he waited in Troas. But finally, one night, he received a vision calling them to preach the good news in Macedonia (vv.9-10). God didn't want them rehashing old ground so he led his ambassadors into fresh, uncharted territory for the gospel!

What are we to learn from this? We never know what’s around the corner in life but we don’t have to because we know how the story will end. Walking in the light of God’s word (1 Jn. 1:7; cf. Psa. 119:105) doesn’t mean every future decision is revealed to us. But the light illuminates enough of the path for us to take the next step.  It's a bit like driving home at night with your headlamps on. You know where you eventually want to end up and you can see what's right in front of you but everything in between is a mystery. This is partly what it means to "walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Cor. 5:7). 

God’s word gives us the tools to prayerfully and faithfully “do the next right thing” each day. In the meantime, we can trust that God will bring us where he wants us in his own time. Pray for wisdom (Jas. 1:5) but understand it may come at an unexpected time and in unexpected ways. But when it does come it will be exactly what you need when you need it. While we might love to have a clear vision like Paul that night in Troas, the wisdom the Father gives his children is no less perfect a gift (Jas. 1:17).

The fact is, we lack imagination to conceive of the many thousands of possibilities that God might have in store. In what ways will he use us in his service? Whose lives might the Lord touch through us? How will he bring beauty out of tragedy? God knows and that is enough. Through it all, God works everything together for good to those who love him. And as we put our trust in him, he shapes us, experience by experience, into the image of his Son (Rom. 8:28-29).

We don't know what the next few months will bring. We can't know for sure. The virus may continue to spread and the death toll may rise but it will not go unchecked forever. Our holy God will not allow it. "He will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in his faithfulness." (Psa. 96:13) In the meantime, may our Father equip us with the wisdom and strength to "do the next right thing," in the name of Jesus and in the power of his Spirit.

The Devil in John's Writing

Saturday, March 28, 2020

“You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

(John 8:44

The outbreak of COVID-19 has many thinking about the origin of evil. Who's to blame, ultimately, for the spread of this pandemic? The short answer is the devil, the source of all evil and death in God's world. The Bible doesn’t answer all the questions we might have concerning the devil - he appears without explanation on page 3 in the form of a serpent (Gen. 3:1ff; cf. Rev. 12:9) - but it gives us enough to go on. The writings of the Apostle John in particular shed a great deal of light on the issue. John wrote the gospel and three epsitles that bear his name as well as the book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible. 

First of all, John tells us something about the devil’s origin. Looking at Jesus’ statement in John 8:44 we notice that the devil “does not stand in the truth”. This seems to indicate that the devil did at one time stand in the truth but has since fallen from the truth. So, the devil is a created being that went rogue. Now, “there is no truth in him”. This absence of truth is evidence of the devil’s fallen state. The devil has been this way “since the beginning” (Jn. 8:441 Jn. 3:8). Not, of course, since the beginning of creation but since the beginning of his fall. In other words, he is the original sinner, the very origin of evil.

John also tells us of the devil’s activity. He is evil distilled in spiritual form. From his presence in the Garden of Eden the devil’s work has been to lead humanity into doubt and suspicion toward their Creator. He is constantly malicious because he is by nature “the evil one”, a term used by Jesus (Mt. 6:13) and six times by John (Jn. 17:151 Jn. 2:13143:125:1819). His evil takes shape in three realms: truth, love, and righteousness, the very issues that correspond to John’s tests of spiritual life in 1st John. 

  1. First, the devil is devoid of righteousness. He has “sinned from the beginning” (1 Jn. 3:8) and tempts others to sin (Mt. 6:13). His sinful nature is so certain John can say that all those who make a practice of sinning are “of the devil” or are his offspring (cf. Gen. 3:15). 
  2. Secondly, the devil is devoid of love. He was “a murderer from the beginning” (Jn. 8:44). So Cain killing his brother gave evidence of his spiritual heritage being “of the evil one” (1 Jn. 3:12). Likewise, the Jews who sought to kill Jesus were of their “father the devil” (Jn. 8:40-4144). Being defeated by His resurrection, the “destroyer” (Rev. 9:11Heb. 2:14) now turns his attention to persecuting the children of God, the church (Rev. 12:4-613-17). 
  3. Thirdly, the devil is devoid of truth. He is “a liar and the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44). Now that “there is no truth in him” he accuses God’s children (Rev. 12:10, Satan means adversary in Hebrew), slanders them (slander comes from Greek word diabolos), and seeks to lead them into error by the teaching of false prophets (1 Jn. 2:21-224:2).

John has also written on the devil’s power. Just look around and you can see the effects of his rule. Not only can he insinuate evil thoughts and designs into the minds of people (Jn. 13:2Lk. 22:3) so as to enter them personally (Jn. 13:27) but “the one who is in the world” (1 Jn. 4:4) is the “prince” or ruler of this world (Jn. 12:3114:3016:11; cf. 2 Cor. 4:4Eph. 2:1-26:12). He rules from a place of limited authority, a “throne” of sorts (Rev. 2:13), and his dominance is so widespread that “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 Jn. 5:19). That is why those who have rejected Jesus are not just under the power of the devil but rather are “of the devil” because he is their father (Jn. 8:441 Jn. 3:10). The devil has real influence over people’s lives so that they are motivated by his evil desires (2 Tim. 2:26). Their will is to do his will.

Lastly, John has given us a word concerning the devil’s defeat. His downfall began with the arrival of the Son of God. He just couldn’t get a hold of Jesus like he could with other humans (Jn. 14:30Mt. 4:1ff). Jesus came to face off with evil, to destroy all the devil’s work (1 Jn. 3:8). He accomplished this by His death and resurrection. Now, when believers participate in Jesus’ death and resurrection, the devil loses his grip on our lives. Looking forward to His death and resurrection, Jesus could say, “now” (Jn. 12:31), the “ruler of this world is judged” (Jn. 16:11) and as a result He would draw all people to Himself (Jn. 12:32). 

Satan’s downfall has begun in earnest. Today, he is bound (Rev. 20:1ffMk. 3:27), his power is limited, and his time is running out (Rev. 12:12). For now, the devil is merely dethroned but not yet destroyed. His final defeat will take place when Jesus returns to set all things right (Rev. 20:10). 

Today, though the devil still has power in this world, through faith in Jesus, the Father can protect us from the evil one (Rev. 12:11-12, 17). This is the substance of Jesus’ high priestly prayer: “I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one” (Jn. 17:15). In fact, all those who are born of God are kept safe from the evil one so that the evil one cannot even “touch” them! (1 Jn. 5:18)

It is possible to “overcome the evil one” (1 Jn. 2:13) only through the new birth offered through Jesus who has overcome the world (Jn. 16:33). John says, “For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 Jn. 5:4-5) Indeed, the faithful can overcome the devil “because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world” (1 Jn. 4:4).

The devil will be definitively destroyed when our Lord returns. The serpent’s head, the very source of all the evil in the world, will be crushed once and for all (Gen. 3:15). But you and I have a part in the devil’s downfall. Through righteous living, loving our neighbor, and living in the truth, God will crush Satan under our feet (Rom. 16:20). And along with him, all the manifestations of his power (greed, disease, war, pride, etc.) will be totally eradicated by the overwhelming power of the Lord's judgment. Then the faithful can enjoy eternal life with God and one another in the new heaven and new earth (Rev. 21-22). 

Perfectly United

Saturday, March 21, 2020

“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”

(1 Corinthians 1:10)

Jesus’ desire is for His disciples to be perfectly united (Jn. 17:22-23). Like love (Jn. 13:35), unity is like God’s signature on a church. The Corinthian church, however, was giving God a black eye in their community. Paul wrote to expose and correct their shameful disunity which was a direct result of their lack of mutual love. 

A Brotherly Appeal

He begins with an “appeal,” or an exhortation, as opposed to a command. First, Paul urges the Corinthians on the basis of their spiritual kinship as “brothers” and sisters in God’s family. Sharing this family tie by the blood of Christ they should conform their behavior to the gospel, not as law but as a response to the grace that is in Christ who brought them together.

An Apostolic Command

Paul does not end with a mere exhortation. By the middle of his sentence he flexes his apostolic muscles with the phrase “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul isn’t just requesting unity in Corinth, he is commanding it with his full apostolic authority! The name of Jesus, and all that it stands for, is the bedrock of his appeal. His appeal for unity is stated both positively and negatively three ways in an A, B, A pattern. He is teaching the same truth from three different angles.

Paul is urging them that…

  A.   “all of you agree” (positive)

        B.   “there be no divisions among you” (negative)

  A.   “be united in the same mind & the same judgment” (positive)

Universal Agreement

Positively, Paul urges unity by repeating “the same” three times in the mirrored lines (A) – that they all “agree” (literally, “say the same thing” NET) and be “united in the same mind” and “the same judgment.” Christians who work and worship together must agree on the fundamentals of the gospel, which Paul later spells out in the letter (1 Cor. 1:18-3:23). Paul isn’t suggesting that every Christian is uniformly “the same” and shares the same function in the body (ch.12). There is a necessary diversity in the church that serves to strengthen the body. 

Rather, Paul is teaching that Christians must agree on the fundamental matters of the gospel, like the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:3-5) or the seven “ones” he lists to the Ephesians (Eph. 4:1-6, esp. vv.4-6). How then could the Corinthians be in agreement? To find out, we must note how Paul states his teaching negatively (line B).

Tearing Up the Church

Our English word “schism” is derived from the Greek word for “divisions” (schismata) that Paul uses here. Paul is not necessarily speaking of parties or factions in this verse (although he will later, 1:12ff). The word means “tear/rent” (cf. Mk. 2:21). The same word could be used to describe a plow dividing the soil into two separate lines in a field. John uses the word to describe the divided opinions different groups had concerning Jesus which resulted in them arguing with one another.

“Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?” And there was a division (schisma) among them.” (Jn. 9:16; cf. 7:40-43; 10:19-21)

This was the situation in Corinth, though their divided opinions were not of Jesus. The Corinthian division was over their divergent opinions of their various church leaders. This tear within the congregation had developed into jealousy and quarrelling. “For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers” (1 Cor. 1:11; cf. 3:3). What is Paul’s solution to this worldly problem?

Mending the Church

Rather than tearing up what Jesus had died to unify, the Corinthians needed to work towards being “united.” This would require diligent effort on their part (Eph. 4:3). The word Paul uses here is the same word Mark uses for the “mending/restoring” of fishing nets (Mk. 1:19). In other words, the Corinthians had torn the threads that once bound them and now needed to be “knit” back “together” (1 Cor. 1:10 NET). 

A torn congregation can only be knit together by the same thread that united them in the first place: the love of God. This lack of mutual love was at the heart of all of the Corinthian’s problems which Paul highlights later in the letter (1 Cor. 8:113:1ff; 14:1; 16:14). 

Exhibiting the same selfless love Jesus showed us is the one-size-fits-all approach to mending a torn congregation. We are to be “knit together in love” (Col. 2:2), “rooted and grounded in love” (Eph. 3:17) and “owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13:8). For unity to exist, love must abound.

What Motivates You?

Saturday, March 14, 2020

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

(Romans 12:1)

Every New Year’s day, the Pasadena Tournament of Roses hosts the Rose Parade to mark the start of the Rose Bowl game. Each float is elaborately decorated and filled with the most exquisite and vibrant roses you’ve ever seen. Really, you should Google it! During the 1938 parade, as the floats were slowly cruising down Colorado Boulevard, one float ran out of gas. The theme that year was “Be Prepared.” If that weren’t ironic enough for you, the sponsor for the stranded float was Standard Oil Company.

What is fueling your life? What gets you started everyday and keeps you motivated to do the next right thing? We typically have two problems when it comes to spiritual motivation:

  1. There are times when we are unmotivated to do the good works we are called to do in Christ. We simply ‘run out of gas’ and become spiritually apathetic or give up altogether.
  2. Other times, we can be doing the right things but we’re doing them for the wrong reasons. Having wrong motives can be worse, in the long run, than running out of gas. If you’ve ever put diesel fuel in a petrol car you’ll know what I mean.

We may find ourselves, from time to time, in either situation. We know the changes we need to make in our lives but we lack the proper motivation to follow through. We know we should attempt to repair that broken relationship but we can’t bear to pick up the phone. We know certain behaviors are destructive but they have become so habitual we rationalize them. We lack the proper motivation to take the next step by faith.

Or we may be doing good things but for the wrong reasons. Here are some bad ways to fuel good behavior:

  1. Monetary rewards — Doing the right thing in pursuit of material gain is a deceptive motivation. Paul warned against thinking “godliness is a means of gain.” Those who “desire to be rich” will be ruined in the end. (1 Tim. 6:5-10)
  2. Recognition of others — Doing good to gain the approval of others is equally unhealthy. Jesus warned against “practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward” from God. (Mt. 6:1)
  3. Proof of superiority — Doing good to prove to ourselves or to others that we are better or more spiritual than them is also dangerous. Jesus said, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mk. 9:35)
  4. Fear of punishment — Doing good simply because you want to escape the wrath of God is not a bad motivation to begin with but if that is your only fuel it will result in a very shallow, weak faith. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” (1 Jn. 4:18)

So what is the right fuel to motivate our behavior? What will give us the power to live lives of faith? Paul would often write his letters in such a way to fill up our spiritual gas tank, so to speak, with all the wonderful things that God has done. And then, after expounding on all the “mercies of God,” he would call upon the reader to respond in view of God’s love and grace.

Romans is no exception. For eleven chapters, Paul elaborates on God’s eternal plan, fulfilled in Jesus, to justify sinners by faith as a gift (Rom. 1:16; 3:23-24). Based on God’s “mercies” (the visible expressions of God’s compassion and love toward us), Paul then voices his “appeal” to give ourselves fully to God (12:1). Though Paul has the authority to command such obedience, he would rather “appeal” to us so that our motivation for doing good is based on God’s grace. May God fill our lives and motivate us to faithfulness with his limitless love and mercies (Eph. 3:14-19).

What is "Good" Preaching?

Saturday, March 07, 2020

“In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following.”

(1 Timothy 4:6)

What makes a sermon “good”? Having preached my fair share of stinkers, I often ask myself this question. We have examples in the Bible of topical, textual, and narrative approaches that were all effective. Jesus spoke plainly, used props, and told stories to get his point across. Apollos spoke eloquently. Paul, Peter, and John, though different, were all powerful. Stylistically, one listener may gravitate toward a studious academic approach while another prefers to listen to more conversational preaching. Others may thrive on a delivery filled with passion. But personal preferences aside, a few principles should apply to all these approaches.

Preach Biblically – The first and most important aspect of good preaching is its Scriptural content. Since the Scriptures come from God they are practical and effective to strengthen us (2 Tim. 3:16-17; Acts 20:32). Therefore, one of the main focuses of preaching is to get others to know the truth (Jn. 8:32; 1 Cor. 2:12-13). Preachers can do this effectively by showing Jesus in every text (Jn. 14:6). Jesus is the key to unlocking the power of the Old Testament Scriptures and therefore must be at the center of every sermon (1 Cor. 2:2; Lk. 24:27). Enlightening and informing the listener is the first goal of “good” preaching.

Preach Attractively – The power to transform sinners into saints rests with God and His living word (Jas. 1:18, 21; 1 Pet. 1:22-25; etc.). Thankfully, the salvation of others does not depend upon our eloquence or ability (2 Cor. 4:7). But God does choose to make his appeal through us (2 Cor. 5:20). With that being said, it is entirely possible to have all the ingredients for a “good” sermon only to botch it with a poor delivery. A haughty tone, a meandering outline or inappropriate comments can derail an otherwise good sermon. The answer is not to remove all traces of personality from the preaching and to simply read the Scriptures (though this has its own merits [1 Tim. 4:13]). The preacher’s role extends beyond simply dispensing information. His job is not merely to get others to know the truth but to present it in such a way as to encourage listeners to love the truth (Psa. 19:10; 119). This is done not simply by showing Jesus in every text but by showing Jesus as someone to love. It is not enough simply to enlighten and inform listeners but we must also to persuade and compel listeners (Acts 2:37; 17:17). In other words, we must try to get them emotionally invested in the gospel story.

Preach Powerfully – Lastly, preachers must be bold in their delivery of God’s word (Acts 4:13, 29, 31; 28:31; Titus 2:15). The only way a person can preach boldly while maintaining a good conscience (1 Tim. 1:5; 1 Pet. 3:16) is to embody the teaching in his own life (1 Tim. 4:12). A hypocritical teacher may hinder the message (1 Cor. 9:12; Rom. 2:17-24; Jas. 3:1). When teachers do the truth they are showing Jesus not only as someone to be admired and loved but as someone to be followed. By presenting the truth correctly, the preacher is informing and enlightening the listeners. By preaching the truth attractively, he is persuading and compelling them. But by enjoining his example to his preaching, he is moving the listeners to action. This 'double preaching,' a consistent message in word and in deed, is the goal of every faithful servant of the Lord (Ezra 7:10).

Similarly, Aristotle sums up his approach to effective persuasion in three words: Logos (appeal to logic, persuasion by reason), Pathos (appeal to emotion, persuasion by evocation), and Ethos (appeal to ethics, persuasion based upon the credibility of the speaker).

So, what constitutes “good” preaching? Styles of delivery may vary but to be effective we must make the gospel clear, make the gospel real, and make the gospel life itself. These are a few things I try to keep in mind when preparing and delivering a sermon and I hope you will too if you ever have that privilege.

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