I grew up in a church culture, a catechizing culture, and a family worship culture. Each of these was a tremendous, immeasurable blessing, I am sure. I am convinced that twice-each-Sunday services, and memorizing the catechisms, and worshipping as a family marked me deeply. I doubt I will ever forget that my only comfort in life and death is that I am not my own, but belong in body and soul, both in life and death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, or that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. I can still sing many of the psalms and hymns of my youth, and I have precious memories of my family bowing our heads around the kitchen table.
What was true of my family was true of many of my friends’ families. They, too, grew up around churches and catechisms and rigid family devotions. In fact, in all the times I visited their homes, I don’t think I ever witnessed a family skip over their devotions. It was the custom, it was the expectation, and it was good. Our church had near 100% attendance on Sunday morning and near 100% attendance on Sunday evening. It was just what we did.
But despite all of the advantages, many of the people I befriended as a child have since left the faith. Some have sprinted away, but many more have simply meandered away, so that an occasionally missed Sunday eventually became a missed month and a missed year. Not all of them, of course. Many are now fine believers, who are serving in their churches and even leading them. But a lot—too many—are gone.
Why? I ask the question from time-to-time. Why are all five of my parents’ kids following the Lord, while so many of our friends and their families are not? Obviously I have no ability to peer into God’s sovereignty and come to any firm conclusions. But as I think back, I can think of one great difference between my home and my friends’ homes—at least the homes of my friends who have since walked away from the Lord and his church. Though it is not universally true, it is generally true. Here’s the difference: I saw my parents living out their faith even when I wasn’t supposed to be watching.
When I tiptoed down the stairs in the morning, I would find my dad in the family room with his Bible open on his lap. Every time I picked up my mom’s old NIV Study Bible it was a little more wrecked than the time before, I would find a little more ink on the pages, and a few more pieces of tape trying desperately to hold together the worn binding. When life was tough, I heard my parents reason from the Bible and I saw them pray together. They weren’t doing these things for us. They weren’t doing them to be seen. They were doing these things because they loved the Lord and loved to spend time with him, and that spoke volumes to me. I had the rock-solid assurance that my parents believed and practiced what they preached. I knew they actually considered God’s Word trustworthy, because they began every day with it. I knew that they believed God was really there and really listening, because they got alone with him each morning to pray for themselves and for their kids. I saw that their faith was not only formal and public, but also intimate and private.
Here is one thing I learned from my parents: Nothing can take the place of simply living as a Christian in view of my children. No amount of formal theological training, church attendance, or family devotions will make up for a general apathy about the things of the Lord. I can catechize my children all day and every day, but if I have no joy and no delight in the Lord, and if I am not living out my faith, my children will see it and know it.
For all the good things my parents did for me, I believe that the most important was simply living as Christians before me. I don’t think anything shaped or challenged me more than that.
It was a lesson in the school of hard knocks for a promising young leader.
A crowd had gathered in an urban center, ready to hear him speak. He rose to the occasion, feeling a fresh anointing of the Holy Spirit. He spoke with conviction and clarity, and found remarkable reception among the people.
But word of his explicitness about Jesus quickly made its way to the powers-that-be and ruffled their feathers. Soon they descended upon the young firebrand, and he and his ministry partner spent the night in custody before facing interrogation the following day.
Still his courage had not been in vain. They may have arrested Peter and his companion John (Acts 4:3), but “many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand” (Acts 4:4).
Arrest didn’t sink the advance of the gospel. The two went hand in hand.
The American Anomaly
The days of gospel persecution in the United States no longer just hang on the distant horizon; they are already here, at least for some. It’s beginning with the bakers, florists, and photographers. Before long, the consensus may be that faithful biblical exposition is “hate speech.”
For 350 years, the church on American soil has enjoyed relatively little affliction for her fidelity to the Scriptures. This nation, though, is an anomaly in church history. And those days are passing, more quickly than many of us expected.
Once the most basic beliefs and morals of Christianity were taken for granted not only in the church, but in society at large. Now many of our most deeply held, once uncontroversial claims are under full assault, within and without. Barring some change in trajectory, it will only be a matter of time before some of our leaders will find themselves in custody.
Think It Not Strange
Do not panic. For two thousand years, this has been what it has meant to identify with Christ in the world — the normal experience of those who follow a man who was crucified. Suffering for the gospel was not just tolerated in the early church; it was expected. Peter learned the lesson in Acts 4, and again in Acts 5. Then Stephen was stoned in Acts 7. After Acts 3, only three of the book’s remaining 25 chapters have no mention of persecution.
The storyline of the early church turns on opposition and oppression. This same Peter writes, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12).
For now, deluded by American history, we’re prone to think it strange. We aresurprised. “Give us our country back!” Our angry, desperate reactions only show how out of step we are with the tenor of the New Testament. Our entitlement and resentment reveal a heart foreign to the reality of “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16).
Soon enough, though, our expectations will necessarily adjust to what is normal for the true church in other times and places. We will increasingly realize that when we proclaim a gospel like ours, and make the sort of claims we do, the world won’t receive it well. For Christians, it really is strange not to be persecuted.
Through Many Tribulations
Jesus said as much. “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). Paul picks up the refrain. “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). The Scriptures seem to suggest we should be more concerned if we’re not being persecuted, than if we are.
Embracing persecution for the sake of the gospel is Christianity 101. How did Paul and Barnabas minister to fledgling churches? “They returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:21–22). It is a sobering word, but not a cause for despair.
Arrest and Advance, Together
To say we will suffer opposition is not to say that the spread of the gospel will be stymied. In fact, what we learn from Peter and John in Acts 4:3–4, and from the life of the apostle Paul, and from Jesus himself, is that arrest and advance go together in God’s invincible story.
The same is true today, and will be tomorrow. We will find that our newfound opposition and affliction, while being difficult and painful, is a good and fruitful phenomena. It will be more and more like the first century, when the gospel was attacked on every side, and spread like wildfire.
Paul describes this powerfully from a prison cell in Rome. Look for the irony.
I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. (Philippians 1:12–14)
You can’t arrest the gospel. In fact, when you imprison one whose words and life boldly declare the good news of Jesus, you only help it grow and spread. You may shackle the feet of the messenger, but his message will run. “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound!” (2 Timothy 2:8–9).
Affliction Joyfully Accepted
But our message will not run if we go kicking and screaming. It is not the grumblers and complainers who shine as lights in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation (Philippians 4:14–15). Rather, it is those who embrace suffering for the name of Jesus with joy.
But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. (1 Peter 4:13–14)
Christians are not a dour people, even in the darkness of a dungeon. We don’t whine and bellyache as our society lines up against us and our convictions. We plead. We grieve. But beneath it all we have untouchable strongholds of joy. Even in the worst, most inconvenient, most lonely days, we rejoice. The suffering days are good days for gospel advance. We have great cause to be optimistic about our good news, to “joyfully accept” prison and the plundering of our possessions and even our freedoms.
After all, they can take our civil liberties, garnish our wages, and smear our names, but they cannot take our Treasure, who is “a better possession and abiding one.”
So we are not surprised. We do not retreat. Instead, grounded in God’s eternal promises, armed with joy in him, and assured of victory in the end, we ready ourselves for whatever opposition comes. Perhaps one day it will be said of us,
You endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. (Hebrews 10:32–34)
“Here is a call for the endurance of the saints” (Revelation 14:12).
We all long for rest from the fatigue of living. God placed the desire for rest in our souls, and he promises to fulfill it: “I will satisfy the weary soul, and every languishing soul I will replenish” (Jeremiah 31:25).
The “Now” and “Not Yet” of Our Rest
In a very real way, Jesus gives rest to “all who labor and are heavy laden” and come to him (Matthew 11:28). But in this age, we cannot find complete rest.
In this age, Jesus grants us the gospel rest of ceasing the impossible labor of self-atonement for our sins (2 Corinthians 5:21). But in embracing the gospel, we find ourselves also drafted into a war — a war to keep believing the gospel and a war to keep spreading it to others. In this age we “strive to enter that [complete] rest” of the age to come (Hebrews 4:11).
Wars are exhausting — especially long ones. That’s why you are often tired. Many soldiers, who experience the fierceness of combat, want to get out of it. That’s why you’re tempted to escape. That’s why you’re tempted to give up.
Don’t Give Up
But don’t give up. No, rather “take courage! Do not let your hands be weak, for your work shall be rewarded” (2 Chronicles 15:7).
Don’t give up when that familiar sin, still crouching at your door after all these years, pounces again with temptation.
No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:13)
Don’t give up when you feel that deep soul weariness from long battles with persistent weaknesses.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Corinthians 12:8–9)
Don’t give up when your long asked-and-sought-and-knocked-for prayers have not yet been answered.
And he told them [the parable of the persistent widow] to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. (Luke 18:1)
Don’t give up when the devil’s fiery darts of doubt find flesh and make you reel.
Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day…in all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one.(Ephesians 6:13,16)
Don’t give up when the fragmenting effect of multiple pressures seems relentless.
“But as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger . . . (2 Corinthians 6:4–5)
Don’t give up when the field the Lord has assigned you to is hard and the harvest does not look promising.
And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. (Galatians 6:9)
Don’t give up when you labor in obscurity and you wonder how much it even matters.
Your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:4)
Don’t give up when your reputation is damaged because you are trying to be faithful to Jesus.
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. (Matthew 5:11)
Don’t give up when waiting on God seems endless.
Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:30–31)
Don’t give up when you have failed in sin. Don’t wallow. Repent (again), get your eyes off yourself (again), and fix your eyes on Jesus (again). Get up and get back in the fight.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9); if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself. (2 Timothy 2:13)
Hope and Help in the Hard
Living by faith in “things not seen” is hard (Hebrews 11:1). Jesus reminds us: “the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:14). But the way has always been hard, and you are not alone in the difficulty. You are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who have passed this way ahead of you (Hebrews 12:1). Many have suffered far more and have remained faithful. Remember them and imitate their faith (Hebrews 13:7).
Above all, remember Jesus Christ (2 Timothy 2:8). Jesus knows your works (Revelation 2:2) and he understands your war (Hebrews 12:3). His grace will be given to you in your time of need (Hebrews 4:16) and it will be sufficient for you, even at the very worst times (2 Corinthians 12:9).
So, look to Jesus (Hebrews 12:2), “fight the good fight of the faith” (1 Timothy 6:12), and finish your race (2 Timothy 4:7). When you have done the will of God, you will receive what is promised: his great and eternal reward (Hebrews 10:35-36). Measured by eternity, the hardships of this life will not be long, and “by your endurance you will gain your lives” (Luke 21:19).
Tis the season to think about next season. As 2014 draws to a close, our thoughts begin to turn to the new year. Whenever I consider a new year, I think of how I will approach another 365 daily devotions. At this point I am still undecided. There are so many good ways to read the Bible and each one seems better than the last. While I think and pray about it, I thought I’d share what I have found so far.
Here is a round-up of some of the ways you can read the Bible in 2015.
Ligonier Reading Plans. Ligonier offers what is probably the best and most thorough round-up of reading plans. They have plans that will take you through the Bible in a year, plans that will take you through the Bible in a few years, and plans that you can do at your own pace. Some of the plans involve only reading the Bible while others offer daily devotionals. There is something for everyone here.
ESV Bible Plans – The ESV site offers 12 different plans that are available in a variety of formats. You can also subscribe to their podcast which will allow you to listen to the Bible; if you do that you will go once through the Old Testament each year, and twice through the New Testament and Psalms.
Logos. The Logos software has Bible-reading plans built right into it, but you will need to use the Logos software to access them.
Bible.com – Bible.com, which offers the amazing Bible app, has a long list of plans to choose from. You will need to use the site or app to access them.
Here are a few plans that look particularly interesting or different.
Professor Horner’s System – Professor Horner’s System is intense—10 chapters per day. You’ll read 10 chapters from 10 different books each day, which means you’ll always be reading different combinations. It’s a great system but takes a lot of commitment.
A Bible Plan for Readers – Peter Krol’s plan begins with reading through the entire Bible as quickly as you can, then slowing the pace a little bit.
The Change Your Mind Plan – This plan is very simple: “1. Choose a book of the Bible. 2. Read it in its entirety. 3. Repeat step #2 twenty times. 4. Repeat this process for all books of the Bible.”
God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment. This plan structures Scripture readings around Jim Hamilton’s book God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment. Through the year you will read both the Book and the book about the Book.
Denny Burk’s Plan. Denny Burk’s plan goes through the Bible in a year in canonical order, one book at a time. There are a handfull of “catchup” days thrown in in case you get behind. (Denny also offers a Greek New Testament plan.)
The greatness of God is most clearly displayed in his Son. And the glory of the gospel is only made evident in his Son. That’s why Jesus’ question to his disciples is so important: “Who do you say that I am?”
The question is doubly crucial in our day because not every Jesus is the real Jesus. Almost no one is as popular in this country as Jesus. Hardly anyone would dare to say a bad word about him. Just look at what a super-fly friendly dude he is over there. But how many people know the real Jesus?
There’s Republican Jesus who is against tax increases and activists judges, and for family values and owning firearms.
There’s Democrat Jesus who is against Wall Street and Walmart, and for reducing our carbon footprint and spending other people’s money.
There’s Therapist Jesus who helps us cope with life’s problems, heals our past, tells us how valuable we are and not to be so hard on ourselves.
There’s Starbucks Jesus who drinks fair trade coffee, loves spiritual conversations, drives a hybrid and goes to film festivals.
There’s Open-minded Jesus who loves everyone all the time no matter what, except for people who are not as open-minded as you.
There’s Touchdown Jesus who helps athletes fun faster and jump higher than non-Christians and determines the outcomes of Super Bowls.
There’s Martyr Jesus, a good man who died a cruel death so we can feel sorry for him.
There’s Gentle Jesus who was meek and mild, with high cheek bones, flowing hair, and walks around barefoot, wearing a sash and looks German.
There’s Hippie Jesus who teaches everyone to give peace a chance, imagine a world without religion, and helps us remember all you need is love.
There’s Yuppie Jesus who encourages us to reach our full potential, reach for the stars, and buy a boat.
There’s Spirituality Jesus who hates religion, churches, pastors, priests, and doctrine; he wants us to find the god within and listening to ambiguously spiritual musical.
There’s Platitude Jesus, good for Christmas specials, greeting cards, and bad sermons; he inspires people to believe in themselves, and lifts us up so we can walk on mountains.
There’s Revolutionary Jesus who teaches us to rebel against the status quo, stick it to the man, and dream up impossible utopian schemes.
There’s Guru Jesus, a wise, inspirational teacher who believes in you and helps you find your center.
There’s Boyfriend Jesus who wraps his arms around us as we sing about his intoxicating love in our secret place.
There’s Good Example Jesus who shows you how to help people, change the planet, and become a better you.
And then there’s Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God. Not just another prophet. Not just another Rabbi. Not just another wonder-worker. He was the one they had been waiting for: the Son of David and Abraham’s chosen seed, the one to deliver us from captivity, the goal of the Mosaic law, Yahweh in the flesh, the one to establish God’s reign and rule, the one to heal the sick, give sight to the blind, freedom to the prisoners and proclaim good news to the poor, the lamb of God come to take away the sins of the world.
This Jesus was the Creator come to earth and the beginning of a new creation. He embodied the covenant, fulfilled the commandments, and reversed the curse. This Jesus is the Christ that God spoke of to the serpent, the Christ prefigured to Noah in the flood, the Christ promised to Abraham, the Christ prophesied through Balaam before the Moabites, the Christ guaranteed to Moses before he died, the Christ promised to David when he was king, the Christ revealed to Isaiah as a suffering servant, the Christ predicted through the prophets and prepared for through John the Baptist.
This Christ is not a reflection of the current mood or the projection of our own desires. He is our Lord and God. He is the Father’s Son, Savior of the world, and substitute for our sins-more loving, more holy, and more wonderfully terrifying than we ever thought possible.
Not too long ago I had the opportunity to speak to a gathering of young adults from several churches across our city. I chose to speak about how any Christian (not only young adults) can make a church better and stronger. Here are some of the things I came up with: 7 things your church needs from you.
Your church needs you to…
There is no character quality more important than humility. While humility does not come naturally to any of us, it can be learned, because here’s the thing: Humility isn’t a feeling or an attitude—it’s action. If you want to learn humility, you need to act humble. Here are 3 quick tips on becoming humble:
- Find mature Christians who exemplify humility and spend time around them. Learn from them and learn to be like them.
- Volunteer for the lowliest of tasks. Don’t ask to be in the public eye when you serve, but be content to stay in the back. Find joy in doing the lowliest jobs and do them when and where only Jesus will see.
- Get to know Jesus. It was Jesus who said, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:12). And it was Jesus who humbled himself the deepest and was exalted the highest.
Every church has people who make the public gatherings of the church a low priority. These are the people who only come to church when it is convenient and who use any excuse to miss a day or miss a service. Every church desperately needs people who will make the public gatherings a top priority. Today is the day to begin elevating the importance of church in your life.
Let me give you two reasons:
- First, you need your church. God made you part of your church for your good. You cannot do life on your own. You aren’t strong enough, you aren’t wise enough, you aren’t mature enough, you aren’t godly enough. Without the beautifully ordinary means of grace you encounter in the church, you won’t make it. Without the support of your brothers and sisters, you won’t make it.
- Second, your church needs you. God made you part of your church for the good of others. 1 Peter 4 says, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” God has gifted you to be part of your church, and those gifts are to be used for the good of other people. So prioritize church as an expression of generosity toward others.
…CONSIDER GIVING GOD A DAY
Why don’t you considering setting aside an entire day of the week and dedicating it to the Lord in a special way? We believe that the Old Testament law has been fulfilled in Christ, though there is some disagreement among Christians about the implications. But even if you believe that the Sabbath command is no longer binding on us, there is still value in learning from it.
It completely changes Sunday when you give the entire day to the Lord and his people. Now you’re not having to decide whether to take that class or join that club that meets Sunday afternoon. You’re not skipping church during exam time because you’ve got studying to do. You’re not leaving early to get home before the football game starts. Instead, you’re leaving behind all the cares of life, and even many of the joys of life, and dedicating an entire day to worship, to fellowship, and to serving others.
…LIVE LIKE A CHRISTIAN ALL WEEK LONG
It is easy enough to be a Christian at church, but then you get home. But then you go to work. But then you go to school. And then you’re surrounded by people acting ungodly, and even worse, you’re left along with your own thoughts and your own desires. Yet your church needs you to live like a Christian all week long.
Each of us faces different challenges and different temptations. But one key to living like a Christian all week long is spending time in Word and prayer every day. Make this a priority no matter how busy you are and no matter how crazy life seems. Make this something you do no matter how badly you’ve sinned and how little you feel like doing it. Pray day-by-day not only for yourself, but for your church. Take that membership directly and pray through it from A to Z, and then start over.Make your devotional life something you do not just for the good of yourself, but for the good of others.
…GET TO KNOW PEOPLE NOT LIKE YOU
Churches are involuntary communities—we don’t get to pick who comes to them, God does. So what we have to do is learn to live with these people and learn to love these people, even when they are very different from us. “For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” If your church is divided so that all the young adults hang out together and all the older folk hang out together, or if all the people with accents hang out together and all the people without accents hang out together, that makes a statement about the gospel—that the gospel is not big enough and powerful enough to really make people love one another even though they are different.
So commit to get to know people not like you. There is no reason you shouldn’t be able to say that some of your best and closest relationships are with people who are very different from you.
Few things reveal the heart better than money. Money has an amazing way of displaying what you really believe and what you really value. No matter who and what stage of life you are at, there is no better time than now to learn to be generous with your money. Here’s what the Bible says: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” You must give, and you must learn to do it cheerfully.
Here are just 2 quick tips:
- Remember that it’s not your money. The money belongs to God—he just gives it to you to manage it. And he means for you to manage it well and to his glory.
- Give to the Lord first. I know people who say they can’t give to the church, and yet they’ve got a new cell phone and are carrying a cup of Starbucks into church every week. That doesn’t compute. Learn to give the first and best of your money to the Lord. The harder that seems, the more you need to do it.
…BE A GREAT CHURCH MEMBER
Make yourself invaluable to your church, and do this by serving other people. I love reading about Dorcas, the woman Peter raised from the dead who was described as being “full of good works and acts of charity” (see Acts 9). “When Peter arrived, they took him to the upper room. All the widows stood beside him weeping and showing tunics and other garments that Dorcas made while she was with them.” Dorcas was a great church member. She loved people so much, and did so much good to them, that the whole community mourned when she died.