Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Gift of Prophecy: Part 2


adjectivebolder, boldest.
not hesitating or fearful in the face of actual or possible danger; courageous and daring:
a bold hero.
necessitating courage and daring; challenging:
a bold adventure

Boldness is a great thing. Proverbs 28:1b, for example, tells us that "the righteous are as bold as a lion". That verse uses the Hebrew word bāṭaḥ, which signifies a complete trust or confidence in something. It often could be used in the sense of 'safety', because a sense of safety only occurs when one is confident that he or she cannot be harmed. In Acts 4:13 we see this boldness in action when the Jewish scribes were amazed at the "boldness of Peter and John". Though they certainly could be harmed in a physical sense, both men understood that they ultimately were in the hands of their loving Father, and therefore would not fear anything sinful man could do.

Paul tells us that "because we have such a great hope [in Christ], we are very bold" (2 Cor 3:12; compare Eph 3:12). He instructed the potentially timid Timothy that he had not been given a spirit of fear, but rather one of power (2 Tim 1:6-7). He certainly practiced what he preached, because Luke tells us in Acts 28:31 that Paul spent his time imprisoned in Rome "preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence." He even asked other believers to pray that he would be more bold (Eph 6:19), though its hard to imagine how one could be bolder than he already was! He was so bold he even confronted a Christian slave owner over his treatment of a runaway slave (Philemon 8).

The reason I wrote all that above was to make clear that I have nothing against boldness. Frankly, boldness is kind of awesome and it is something that is promised to every single Christian. No exceptions.

The reason I am bringing up the topic of boldness is because so often today we hear Christians, even pastors and teachers, equating boldness with the gift of prophecy. For example, a large Baptist publishing house recently produced a spiritual gift test where they offered the following definition of the gift of prophecy:
The gift of prophecy is proclaiming the Word of God boldly. This builds up the body and leads to conviction of sin. Prophecy manifests itself in preaching and teaching (1 Cor. 12:10; Rom. 12:6)
Other similar spiritual gift tests that I have encountered ask questions such as "Do you have spiritual insights from Scripture concerning issues and people that you feel compelled to speak out?" "Do you often have the boldness to speak from God's word regardless of the repercussions?" "Has God freed you from fear when declaring the truths of his Word?" All these tests imply that if you have answered 'yes', you might have the gift of prophecy. 

Boldness I get. But where did did they make the jump from boldness to the gift of prophecy? So is 'prophecy' simply a matter of preaching with confidence? If that is true, does the gift of teaching occur when once teaches with timidity and doubt? Is the difference between preaching and speaking prophetically based on how loud the speaker yells or on how urgently he calls the audience to repentance?

These sorts of distinctions just sound silly.

The Nature of Prophecy

Those who equate prophecy with boldness actually have a proper starting point.  They correctly note that very little of the ministry of Old Testament prophets dealt with foretelling future events. In fact, according to some statistics (which I have not independently verified), over 90% of the content of the message of the prophets had nothing to do with the future. Almost all of it dealt with reminding God's people of revelation already given, most typically the laws of the Covenant. We have, quite incorrectly, been culturally conditioned to equate prophecy with prediction of future events, but this is a gross and unfortunate misunderstanding of biblical truth. It may accurately reflect the mad ramblings of Nostradamus, but it's hardly what Scripture means by the term. We could even go so far as to say that the primary ministry of the Old Testament prophets was the confrontative rebuke of God's people who had rebelled from God's Word. And let's be honest, this often meant terrible things happened to them. Hebrews 11:37-38 tells us many of them were stoned, sawn in two, put to death with the sword, lived in poverty and destitution, were ill-treated, and hide in caves and holes in the ground. And many of them knew this was going to happen before they started prophesying for the Lord.

That's where boldness comes in. Supposedly.

But seriously, that's it. That's all the connection that is ever given. The thought goes something like this:

A. The Old Testament prophets were really bold dudes.
B. The New Testament talks about the gift of prophecy.
C. Therefore, the gift of prophecy means being a bold dude.

Just think of other ways we could apply that logic:

A. The Old Testament prophets were robe-wearing dudes.
B. The New Testament talks about the gift of prophecy.
C. Therefore, the gift of prophecy means being a robe-wearing dude.

Let's not stop there. We could apply this to speaking Hebrew, riding donkeys, wearing sandals, or writing on animal skins! The sky is the limit.

In all seriousness, there are plenty examples of boldness in the Bible that have nothing to do with the gift of prophecy. As we've already noted, boldness is a precious gift given to all believers in Jesus Christ. Paul told the Ephesian believers that because of Christ "we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him" (Eph 3:12). After Peter and John were released by the chief priests, they joined together with other believers who prayed for a spirit of boldness (Acts 4:29). Scripture says "after they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly" (Acts 4:31). Paul tells us that "God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power" (2 Tim 1:6) and the author of Hebrews reminds us that "the Lord is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?" (Hebrews 13:6).

Think of the boldness of Hannah, who in faith pleaded with the Lord for a son and then turned that same son over to be raised in the Temple (1 Samuel 1). Or consider the boldness of Abigail who threw herself before David, who had come to avenge the insult committed by her foolish husband Nabal (1 Samuel 25). Perhaps the clearest example of boldness, by any man or woman in Scripture, is the account of Queen Esther, who risked what should have been certain death all for a chance to saved her people from extinction (Esther 1-8). Or what about Moses' parents, who hid him in a basket because they "were not afraid of the king’s edict" which demanded their son be killed. Their boldness is so profound it made the author of Hebrews "Heroes of the Faith" list (Hebrews 11:23). That same chapter also lists Rahab, who hid the Israelite spies at great personal risk (Hebrews 11:31).

The interesting thing about the list above is not a single one of them had the gift of prophecy. While the prophets may have been bold, their boldness was not part of their spiritual gift. It was part of their faith and inheritance as believers. 

Throughout the Old Testament God calls upon the people of Israel to "be strong and of good courage". One thinks of Deuteronomy 31:6 where Israel is told “Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid or tremble at them, for the LORD your God is the one who goes with you" or in Joshua 10:25 where Joshua tells them “Do not fear or be dismayed! Be strong and courageous, for thus the LORD will do to all your enemies with whom you fight." We find similar calls to confidence and fearlessness throughout the Pentateuch, and also in 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, Psalms, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Haggai, and Zechariah. Paul tells believers in Corinth to "be courageous, be strong" (1 Corinthians 16:13) and to the Ephesians he says "Finally, be strong in the Lord and the power of his might" (Eph 6:10). He tells Timothy to "be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus" (2 Timothy 2:1).

Like I said above, boldness is kind of awesome.

But it belongs, most properly, with every single believer, not just a sub-section of "prophets" within a given congregation. In Scripture, boldness would identify you as a believer in Jesus. To be identified as a prophet, you would need to communicate divine revelation from the Lord.

It is true that the majority of the ministry of biblical prophets was reminding Israel of previously-given revelation. But, you see, what the "prophecy is boldness" proponents fail to see is that the ministry of these biblical prophets also included the presence of new revelation from the Lord. That is what made a prophet a prophet.

Are you bold in the Lord? Great, you may not have the gift of prophecy, but you are probably a really solid believer who I would like to hang around.

Part 3: Is there a non-authoritative form of prophecy?
Part 4: Does the gift continue?
Part 5: How do we identify false prophets

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Gift of Prophecy: Part 1

A godly sister in Christ approached me one Sunday at church, grinning from ear to ear, obviously excited and joyous about something.

"Pastor", she began, "I have a word from the Lord for you!"

While I can't remember everything, it contained gems such as "God has a plan for you", "you will go through difficulty but will prevail", "Do not give into despair", etc. Not exactly on par with Daniel's vision, but well-intentioned to be sure.

We hear this kind of language quite often, and not just in overtly charismatic churches. I would suggest this kind of language is probably commonly found in the average evangelical church, both from the lips of congregants as well as pastors. Pastors claim divine revelation for everything from new building programs to hiring additional staff (i.e. "God has given us a vision for our congregation as we begin this new year", etc) and fellow Christians claim divine revelation for any number of personal decisions they have made (i.e. "God is telling me to attend another church", God is telling me to find a new job", God is telling me to take a break from children's ministry for a while", etc).

On another occasion I sat down with a young man who zealously desired to preach. During our discussion, he flatly told me that he had the gift of prophecy. When I asked how he knew this, he told said "because I love preaching God's Word boldly."

SO WHAT IS PROPHECY? Is is bold preaching? Does God give special messages to people today? Are those messages binding and authoritative? What if the person is wrong about their message or prediction?

Over the next five blog posts we will seek to answer those questions, but in this first post let's focus on a question that is even more fundamental: How does the Bible speak about prophecy?

First, biblical prophecy is God's message, not man's message:
Exodus 7:1-2 tells us that "the LORD said to Moses, 'See, I have made you as god to Pharaoh, and Aaron your brother shall be your prophet. You will speak all that I command you; and Aaron your brother will speak to Pharaoh." Notice that this passage clearly indicates that the message was God's message, and as such carried his divine authority.

In Deuteronomy 18 we see something similar. Here the LORD spoke to Moses and told him "I will raise up for them a prophet like you among their brethren, and will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I commanded them" (v.18). A true prophet, then, is one who speaks the pure and authoritative words of God. The apostle Peter is explicit and concrete regarding this, flatly declaring that "no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1:21).

Second, biblical prophecy is clear revelation from God, not subjective impressions.
The very nature of the word 'revelation' indicates clarity...God REVEALS something (i.e. makes clear, shows, demonstrates, etc). The means through which God gave the message to his prophets could vary, as the author of Hebrews tells us that "God spoke long ago in various portions and in various ways to our ancestors through the prophets" (Heb 1:1). This could include dreams or visions (ex. Numbers 12:6; Daniel 7:1), being audibly given the message directly from God (Exodus 24:4; 34:7), or by having God place the message directly into the mouth of a prophet (Jeremiah 1:9; 2:1). 

Yet notice prophecy in the Bible is never subjective. One never hears a prophet using language such as "I feel the Lord is telling me to ________". Instead, they boldly proclaim his truth by declaring "thus says the Lord", a phrase (and others similar to it) used nearly 3,000 times in Scripture. Nor does the Bible allow room for the idea that while the message from God was authoritative, perhaps the prophet misinterpreted it. Both Joseph and Daniel affirmed that both the divinely-given dreams and the interpretation of those dreams belong to the Lord (Genesis 40:8; Daniel 2:26-27; 45b).

Third, biblical prophecy is perfect and infallible
Error, falsehood, and inaccuracy are characteristics of false prophets, not godly ones. When the Israelite people asked Moses how they can tell if someone is actually speaking for the Lord (Deuteronomy 18:21), Moses tells them "when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him" (v.22). In other words, they were not to obey this "prophet" because he was in reality a false prophet. Jeremiah 28:9 says something similar. In fact, this was taken so seriously that the Lord commanded that those who spoke prophecies in God's name that did not come to pass were to be put to death (Deuteronomy 18:20). It is a weighty and significant thing to speak for the living God, and the standard for doing so has always been truth and 100% accuracy.

Fourth, biblical prophecy is authoritative and must be obeyed
Because true prophecy is comes directly from the Lord, who always speaks truth, it is a message that is to be obeyed. There is no room in the Christian faith for acknowledging the truth of biblical revelation but steadfastly refusing to obey it. 

Notice what Moses says in Deuteronomy 18:15, "the LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers--it is to him you shall listen". God reveals things to us so that we will obey what he has revealed. Jesus came to die on the cross in order that, in him, we might be in perfect obedience to God's word. Our very existence as Christians is "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets" (Eph 2:20), and true believers will cherish and seek to fully obey the teachings of our Lord.

Fifth, all biblical prophecy is authoritative but not all biblical prophecy is part of Scripture
There are numerous prophets and prophecies mentioned in Scripture, but the details of those prophecies are not always given. For example 1 Kings 18:4 notes that the prophet Obadiah took 100 prophets of the Lord and hid them in caves from the wicked Queen Jezebel. There is no record of the prophecies of these 100 men, nor are we even given their names. Likewise, 2 Kings 23:2 mentioned nameless prophets, as does Acts 11:26-27 and Acts 13:1 (and numerous other passages). In Acts 21:9 we are told that Phillip's four daughters prophesied, and 1 Sam 10:11 and 19:24 tell us that Saul uttered prophecies. In none of these cases are we told what those prophecies were. This shouldn't concern us, since we also know that the apostles wrote letters to various churches that were not preserved in Scripture (Colossians 4:16; 1 Corinthians 5:9).

However, it would be a grave mistake to somehow think these unrecorded prophecies were somehow less authoritative than Scripture. For the people to whom these messages were given, they were supremely authoritative, as they were the very words of God. Yet whatever these revelations were, God did not deem them relevant for the universal church throughout history.

Part 2: Is prophecy being bold?
Part 3: Is there a non-authoritative form of prophecy?
Part 4: Does the gift continue?
Part 5: How do we identify false prophets?

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Gift of Apostleship

"And Christ himself gave some to be apostles..."
Ephesians 4:11a

Some years back we were driving through a large Midwestern city on the way to visit some dear friends. As we exited the freeway, there was a large billboard advertising one of the local churches in the area. The billboard depicted the smiling face of a middle-aged man, dressed in an expensive suit and his hands sparkling with gold rings. The message read "Come hear God speak through the Apostle __________". I've long since forgotten this man's name, but I clearly remember the implied message of that billboard. Does the church still have apostles who give us new revelation? Do these men speak authoritatively for the church?

Or consider another example. You can look online and find a number of spiritual gift tests, most of which list the gift of apostleship. However, when you look at the questions it becomes clear that the test seems to be equating apostleship with missions. For example, one such test suggested that if you have a desire to take the Gospel to unreached lands, then you just might have the gift of apostle.

So what exactly is an apostle?

The word apostle appears some 80x in the New Testament and comes from the Greek word apostolos. That word simply meant 'delegate' or 'messenger' (or more literally, 'one who is sent'). In the Greek and Roman world, it could be used for something as important as an official messenger sent from the Roman government or something as mundane as a servant sent into town with a message from his master. In our modern ears, the word has taken on a special significance because of its association with the Twelve Apostles of Christ, but originally it was a very simple word.

In the New Testament the word almost always has something to do with the Gospel. As such, although it was a simple (and even common) word in the Greek world, for Christians it carried an importance because the message that was spoken originated from God. In the Bible we see this word used in three distinct ways:

Christ: The Messenger/Apostle from the Father
In Hebrews 3:1 we are told to "fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest...." Yet in what sense is Jesus an apostle? In John 12:49 Jesus provides the answer: "For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken." In John 8:28 he said something similar, "I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me." Scripture tells us that not only is Jesus the perfect Message (the Gospel), he is also the perfect Messenger, revealing all that the Father wishes to communicate regarding himself.  As such, Jesus is an apostle in a very unique and distinct sense.

The Messengers/Apostles from Christ
Most typically when we think of the word 'apostle' we think of the twelve apostles that Christ commissioned to be his authoritative messengers. These men were given authority by Jesus to do many things to establish the church, including writing Scripture and performing miracles (John 14:26; 2 Peter 3:15-16; 2 Corinthians 12;12). In Mark 3:14 we are told that Jesus "appointed twelve--designating them apostles --that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach." As part of this role, these men were commissioned to lay down the theological and doctrinal foundation of the church. Of course, this wasn't a license to teach anything they wanted, but rather those things that Christ has previously taught them. Ephesians 2:20 tells us the church was "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone."

Technically, this wasn't limited to just the Twelve. The Lord told Ananias that Paul was "a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel" (Acts 9:15) and Paul rightly refers to himself as an apostle numerous times in the New Testament. He even vigorously defends his apostleship in 1 Corinthians 9:1-2. But there were perhaps others, as Paul indicates in 1 Corinthians 15. There, discussing the resurrection of Jesus, Paul notes that Jesus "appeared to Cephas and then the Twelve" (v.5). However, in v.7 Paul says "then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles". Clearly the apostles of v.7 were different than the apostles of v.5 (the Twelve). Whereas the Twelve appeared to hold a place of prominence and special significance, there were others who were called by Christ to be his delegates and authoritative representatives to the church. James, for example, is one of these as were perhaps some of the Seventy witnesses that Jesus had commissioned (Mark 10; Luke 10). The teachings of these men were binding upon the church and they spoke with the full authority of Jesus. Such men needed to be called directly by Jesus, had known Jesus during his earthly ministry and seen him alive after his death and resurrection (Acts 1:21-22), and performed signs, wonders, and miracles in the name of Jesus (2 Corinthians 12:2). Their authority derived from Christ.

The Messengers/Apostles of the Churches
There is a third, and very distinct, use of the term apostle in the Bible. Often Bible translators render this as "messenger(s)" in our translations, but the word in the original Greek text is apostolos. As the apostles of Christ and the newly formed churches grew in their desire to see the message of the Gospel spread, others were commissioned/sent to declare the good news of Jesus and/or carry out aspects of Gospel ministry outside the sphere of their local church. For example, Epaphroditus was sent by the church in Philippi with a financial gift to help Paul while Paul was imprisoned. In Philippians 2:25 Paul refers to Epaphroditus as their apostolos (often translated 'messenger' in some English translations). In 2 Corinthians 8:23 Paul refers to the apostoloi (plural form of apostolos). These men were part of a delegation sent by their churches to carry a special offering to the church in Jerusalem. We also see Barnabas being called an apostle (Acts 14:1-4, 14) and in 1 Thessalonians 2:6 the "we apostles" Paul was referring to was himself, Timothy, and Silas (1 Thess 1:1).

We should note that during the period of the New Testament, believers readily made a distinction between the messengers/apostles sent by the churches and those sent by Christ himself. No one considered Epaphroditus to be authoritative. Neither were the apostles of 2 Corinthians 8:23 allowed to write new revelation of sacred Scripture. Furthermore, there is no indication that these men performed miraculous signs and wonders as part of their ministry. Believers of that period intuitively understood that while these men were communicating the authoritative message which had been previously given, they were not an authority in themselves. 

What if someone today claims to be an authoritative messenger of Jesus, insisting they have received new revelation that is binding upon the church? They are to be considered false teachers and removed from our churches. Scripture makes clear that apostolic authority was tied directly to being an eyewitnesses to the ministry of Jesus and his physical resurrection. In addition, 2 Corinthians 12:2 tells us that signs and wonders must accompany their ministry. Most charismatic Christians readily acknowledge that this type of Apostleship was limited to the New Testament era.

However, there is an ongoing gift of apostleship in the third sense mentioned above. There are individuals, uniquely gifted by God, who are commissioned by their local churches to do ministry abroad. Today we generally refer to these individuals as Missionaries, partly to avoid the confusion that the word apostle brings. Whereas the believers in the first century seemed to be able to easily make the distinction between the various categories or types of apostle, the modern believer (removed by language, culture, and time) tends to get confused.

Our churches must actively strive to find, equip, and send out those who have this third type of apostleship.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Are the Sign-Gifts for Today? An Introduction

"Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues,[a] and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines."
1 Corinthians 12:7-11 

As a pastor, I love it when Christians ask questions about the Bible. Most of what a pastor deals with are the struggles and difficulties associated with spiritually shepherding (sin, death, divorce, depression, etc), so when a believer comes to us with a Bible question we tend to get excited. Perhaps one of these days I'll write a book titled "The Top 10 Questions Congregants Ask Their Pastors". While I'm not sure of the ranking, I can almost guarantee this will be one of them:
"Pastor, are the sign-gifts mentioned in the New Testament still present within the church today?" 
It's a great question, but one that perhaps causes the pastor some major headaches. The difficulty arises from the fact that Christians (and even many pastors!) tend to hold very militant positions on this issue and quickly get angry, defensive, and even accusatory. Considering that the apostle Paul taught us that the whole point of spiritual gifts was to demonstrate love (1 Corinthians 13:1-3), isn't it sad that this question can illicit such negative reactions?

But nevertheless it is a question that needs to be answered. Over the course of the next several days, I will be discussing each of the so-called "sign gifts" mentioned in the Bible. Sometimes these are also called the "Foundational Gifts" or the "Miraculous Gifts". Specifically, I will walk through the Biblical teaching regarding the gifts of apostleship, prophecy, tongues, interpretation of tongues, healing, and miracles. Lord willing, we plan on posting one article each day that explores a specific gift.

As we approach this subject, there are essentially three different views:

Cessationists are those who believe the miraculous gifts have ceased. In their view, these gifts had a temporary purpose, which was the establishment of the Gospel in the early years of the Church. As such, once the Gospel was established and the New Testament revelation was given to the Church, this view claims that such sign-gifts were no longer necessary.

Continuationalists, as the name implies, believe the sign-gifts are ongoing and the Holy Spirit currently equips believers with these gifts. In continuationalist churches (in a wide variety of denominations) they claim there are believers who exercise the ministry of tongues, healing, prophecy, etc.

This is where the vast majority of Christians in America land. This view recognizes that there are no clear verses in the Bible that tell us sign-gifts have come to an end and therefore they wish to stay open to the possibility that the miraculous gifts continue. However, they are also alarmed by much of the emotionalism and silliness that they see in the charismatic/pentecostal sectors of Christianity.

As we look at each of these miraculous gifts, I pray that you keep two things in mind.
  1. God doesn't want you to be ignorant regarding the spiritual gifts. That was exactly the problem with the church in Corinth. At the beginning of 1 Corinthians 12 Paul wrote "now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed" (v.1), and he proceeded to give three entire chapters worth of teaching on the subject. Clearly, God wants us to know and understand the nature, purpose, and ongoing significance of the spiritual gifts.
  2. Without a heart of love, we will never arrive at the right place. In 1 Corinthians 13, which is sandwiched right between two chapters discussing spiritual gifts, Paul tells us the whole discussion is a waste of time unless we have an attitude of love. So even if we arrive at the right position, but use our knowledge in a divisive, accusatory manner, we have not benefited the Body of Christ. In fact, Paul bluntly told the Corinthians that they had gotten so argumentative and divisive that they were doing more harm than good (1 Cor 11:17)! You might have the right answers, but without a spirit of gentle, unifying love you will only be a noisy gong (1 Cor 13:1-3), disruptive to the beautiful harmony and melody that Christ desires for his Church

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Preachers, Avoid Alliteration Always

To some preachers I am a heretic. No, not because of any doctrinal deviation but rather because I oppose alliteration.

You know what that is, right? It is when a pastor forces each of his sermon's points to start with the same letter. Entire generations of believers have been forced to listen to sermons offering the "3 F's of Forgiveness" or the "6 P's of Salvation". Recently I stumbled across a sermon on John 3:16 which offered the following outline:

  1. The PASSION of God's love: "so"
  2. The PERIMETER of God's love: "the world"
  3. The PROOF of God's love: "he gave"
  4. The PRICE of God's love: "his only begotten Son"
  5. The PREREQUISITE for God's love: "whosoever believes"
  6. The PROTECTION of God's love: "will not perish"
  7. The PROVISION of God's love: "have everlasting life"
Now, some of you might be looking at that and ask, "what's the problem?" Some pastors would even consider me a heretic for daring to question the appropriateness of alliteration. I've had at least one pastor tell me that he doesn't believe faithful preaching can be done without it! 

Listen, I am not saying that alliteration can never be helpful. In the example above, I would argue the preacher certainly captured the thought of the biblical verse. But there are several reasons why I am dead set against ever using alliteration and strongly recommend that other pastors stop the practice. 

First, it isn't helpful as a memory device: This is the standard line we are fed by alliterating preachers: "people need alliteration in order to be able to remember the sermon". This assumes that people are actually trying to remember the points of your sermon. Let's be honest with ourselves, we don't even try to remember our best friends' phone numbers (that's what the Contact list is for on our phones). I have never bumped into the Christian whose told me "last month my pastor preached on the '4 G's of Love' and it revolutionized my life." The reality is that our congregants have never remembered the points of our sermon. Now, they may remember the big idea of the sermon, but rarely the main points.

Second, the congregation doesn't care: This may be hard for alliterating pastors to hear, but all the labor you spent on trying to find that third G-word or the seventh H-word was wasted time. The Body simply doesn't care. Several times, back in my alliteration days, I experimented by offering all of the sermon's points in alliteration with the exception of the last one. I was curious if anyone would be annoyed or even notice. No one did. Not a single person. Ever. 

Third, it tempts pastors to use a word nobody knows: Consider this sermon given by an alliterating preacher on the subject of Prayer: (1) The PURPOSE of Prayer, (2) The POWER of Prayer, and (3) the PERSPICACITY of Prayer. All that will happen is that 98% of the congregation will wonder "what in the world is perspicacity" and spent 10 minutes trying to google the word on their smart phones. Or consider the pastor who preached a message titled "Three Things God Wants From You": (1) Surrender, (2) Service, (3) Supplication. Really? The word "prayer" would have been more natural to most hearers and easier to understand. The whole purpose of preaching is to make things clear and relevant, but these kinds of words make the message unclear and harder to understand.

Fourth, it runs great risk of changing the author's meaning: Don Sunukjan, another critic of alliteration, offer this example: Suppose one hears a sermon from 1 Samuel 17:17-54 titled "Characteristics of a Leader". The preacher then lists the following points:
  1. Cooperative (17:17-24)
  2. Curious (17:25-27)
  3. Courageous (17:31-37)
  4. Careful (17:38-40)
  5. Confident (17:41-47)
  6. Conclusive (17:48-51)
Many would walk away praising God for a powerful "expository" sermon from a preacher who was "faithful to God's Word". Well, all except for the fact that the sermon wasn't faithful to God's Word. Not even a little. The first problem, as Don points out, is that many of these 'characteristics' of a good leader are not even mentioned in the passage. In what sense can someone legitimately claim that in vv.25-27 God's message is that godly leaders are to be curious? Worse yet, in what sense can one claim that 1 Sam 17:17-54 is even talking about the necessary characteristics of a godly leader? This isn't even the message of the biblical text. 

I would go so far to say that the vast majority of alliterated sermons I've heard have twisted the text to fit the alliteration, at least on one of the alliterated points. The temptation is just too great, as pastors bend the meaning of the text to fit one of more alliterated words. I believe this is usually done unconsciously and without malicious intent, but it is done nonetheless. I'm to the point now that when I hear a pastor alliterate my brain immediately sends up red flags, as the preacher is most likely bending the text instead of being bent to it.

Fifth, it can become overly complicated: This is the problem with the example given above from John 3:16. That verse is remarkably simple and clear, yet the outline is complicated and therefore confusing. Perhaps there is a reason thousands flocked to hear Jesus speak and the majority of our churches have a few dozen.

Sixth, it feels contrived and does not sound natural: Let's be honest. Nobody speaks this way. Preachers, read that statement again: NOBODY SPEAK THIS WAY. Real life doesn't rhyme and, frankly, an alliterated sermon sounds phony. Your job as a preacher is to connect with your audience...something you are making much harder by speaking in a way that is unnatural and foreign to them.

Seventh, people prefer one practical idea over several points that happen to be alliterated: A decade of preaching ministry is teaching me the need to be clear, simple, and straightforward. What is the takeaway for my people? What is the big idea I want them to get behind? What is the single truth that I want to plant into their heart with this message?

This doesn't mean you can never alliterate. But it does mean that as preachers we need to rely more on the flow and logic of the Biblical passage, not try to repackage and recreate it into something more "memorable" (though see point #1 above).

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Finding Wise Counsel

"Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool,
but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered."
Proverbs 28:26

Navigating through difficult issues or major decisions can be a stressful process. As believers, we often find ourselves in situations where we simply don't know the best way to proceed. While we might yearn for a black and white world where lines are always clear, the reality is that we live in a gray, opaque world full of difficult issues that don't have easy answers. 
  • Who should I marry? 
  • Where should one go to school? 
  • Which job is a best fit for my gifts and family situation? 
  • Which church should I attend? 
  • How should one respond to an angry neighbor? 
  • How can we best confront an unruly friend? 
  • What is the best way to prioritize my finances? 

The list is never ending. Years ago I recognized the need to seek wise counsel for the major decisions of my life. But distinguishing good counsel from bad counsel, or perhaps better stated 'wise counsel from unwise counsel', can be difficult. Over the past few decades, I have followed three basic practices that have proven effective and fruitful in making wise decisions.

First, I listen to my spouse
This doesn't mean that all spouses are discerning or wise. At the very least, this recognizes that your spouse is your partner in life and that you need to be of one mind on all decisions. Yet in a Christian household, where one's spouse is a fellow believer living victoriously for Christ, involving him or her in the decision making process becomes key. Your wife or husband knows you better than anyone else. They can usually tell when your are deceiving yourself or when your being thick-headed or stubborn. They are also in the best position to have the strongest impact on your thoughts and feelings. 

Over the years, my wife has served as my 'go-to counselor' on all my decision-making issues. Getting on our knees together, pleading with the Lord for guidance, has been one of the most effective decision-making tools I've experienced.

Second, I listen to godly counselors
I've learned to avoid yes-men; that is, those friends who I sense just agree with everything I say. While I value those men as friends, they are unhelpful to me when it comes to making decisions. Instead, I have several trusted friends I can go to who will tell me the truth. I have a couple of men who have been involved in every major decision in my life over the past 20 years.

I've also found that it is most helpful when I can get these men in a room together and let them interact with each other. This protects me from introducing unnecessary bias or misrepresenting someone else's counsel. The best counselors are those who listen, ask hard questions, and don't automatically accept my version of the situation or the answers I give. I also look for men who are clearly Bible-driven in their thinking and are willing to take me to chapter and verse.

Third, I search the Scriptures
This isn't meant to be the last step but rather this needs to be done throughout the decisions making process. Search the Scriptures with your spouse. Search the Scriptures with your friends. The reason I list it as the last step is to emphasize the need for Scripture to be the final thing that determines my thinking.

Actively avoid trying to find Bible verses to support your thoughts. The whole goal is for you to submit to Scripture, not to put Scripture into a headlock so that it can submit to you. Also actively try to submit to the whole counsel of God, not just select Bible verses. For example, if you are trying to determine if or how to confront someone, you could easily live out Titus 2:15 ("rebuke with all authority"). But remember you also have to live out Prov 10:12 ("love covers all sins"). 

Often my most fruitful times in the Word are during periods of fasting and praying. These are spiritually intense times, full of Satanic attack, but also filled with the intense working of the Holy Spirit as I grapple with God's revealed truth. Allow these powerful times to shape and determine your thinking.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Healing Power

"My soul clings to the dust,
give me life according to your Word."
Psalm 119:25 (NIV)

When is the last time you felt emotionally crushed? While we all experience moments of sadness, major episodes of depression leave an individual overwhelmed and hopeless. The sufferer feels hopeless and persistently sad, often has trouble concentrating or making even simple decisions, is plagued with fatigued, and loses interest in activities and hobbies that he once considered pleasurable. The depressed person can even acquire persistent aches, pains, headaches, cramps, and digestive problems--none of which ease with medical treatment. For this person, everything seems stale, lifeless, and dead.

In ancient times, those who deeply mourned would often pour dust and ashes over their heads, symbolizing that they had hit "rock bottom". They had reached an emotional point where they felt they couldn't go any lower. In Psalm 119:25, the psalmist acknowledged that he experienced times when it felt like his soul, the very essence of his person, clung to the dust. That is what depression clings tenaciously to our hurt and pain, refusing to let go. It clouds our mind and warps our perspective.

That is why God's Word is so important. The psalmist had learned the only thing that could help him through the most difficult moments of life was the healing perspective of God. Depression lies to us. It twists our thinking and distorts our feelings. In this fog of deceit and misery, the light of God's truth shines through, giving clarity.

In your darkest moments, let God be your guide. Don't trust your mind or your heart. Instead, trust the One who always speaks truth.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Love That Cures

"And we urge you, brothers and sisters,
warn those who are idle and disruptive,
encourage the disheartened,
help the weak,
be patient with everyone."
1 Thessalonians 5:14

"Loving others" is the mantra of Christianity and with good reason. Scripture is adamant that love, above all else, be the mark of a true Christian. We can easily see this in the Old Testament Law, where God declared through Moses "love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD" (Leviticus 19:18). In other words, we are required to love because God is God, and he is a God of love. Jesus repeats this message in the New Testament, telling his disciples "My command is this: love each other as I have loved you" (John 15:12) and "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:34, 35). Scripture even tells us that if we don't love other believers, we cannot truly be saved: "whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar" (1 John 4:20).

But what does it mean to love a fellow believer?

Well, there are all kinds of theories, but perhaps one of the most pervasive, and most damaging, is what we could call accommodating love. This is the kind of 'love' that desires a relationship with the other person above the spiritual growth of a brother or sister in Christ.

Let me give you an example. Say you've been going to the same church for several years and have become good friends with a number of believers. One believer in particular has become especially close to you. For several years you have shared life together, been in each others homes, attending Bible studies together, and helped encourage each other during times of emotional crisis.

There is just one problem, this brother has a serious problem with arrogance and pride. Or to slightly change the scenario, perhaps this brother has legalistic attitudes and judges other who don't adhere to his personal preferences. Or perhaps he disparages his wife and speaks of her in demeaning ways. Whatever the issue may be, this is a dear brother in Christ but you are fully aware of a spiritual weakness in his life. Yet you've never said anything to him about this.


Perhaps you are afraid if you say something he would leave the church or even end the relationship. I know many pastors who think this way. Many years ago I became aware that a man in the community was involved in an affair. He was a member of another congregation and in a conversation with me, bragged openly about an affair with a younger women. Not listening to my counsel, I sat down with his pastor and informed him of the situation. After I was done, the pastor looked at me and said "thanks, but I'm not sure what you expect me to do about this." Somewhat shocked, I replied, "Well, I simply expect you to address a spiritual sin in the life of one of your members". To my horror he replied, "Well if I did that he would leave the church."

Is this love? 

If anything, it is a selfish form of love, more appropriately called lust, because you value your friendship with this person more than you value them as a fellow sibling in Christ. You care very little about their relationship to God, but only the enjoyment you receive from the friendship. You've just gotten really good at hiding your selfishness under the thin veneer of Christian language. Throw in a couple of Bible verses about love, and you all set.

But is it really loving to allow a weaker brother or sister in Christ trapped in a pattern of sin to go unchallenged? Is it loving to allow this person to walk through life ineffective for Christ and undermining, by his sin, the very Gospel he claims to cherish? Is it loving to allow such a person to go to their death unwarned of the righteous judgement that is in store for them unless they repent?

The Christian way to love is to administer healing love. In olden days, pastors were sometimes referred to as "curate of souls". This comes from the Latin word curatus, which referred to one who sought to cure or heal someone's soul. A modern equivalent would be "counselor", which is one who attends to, provides for, cares about, and seeks to bring healing to someone who is troubled in soul and spirit. Perhaps the greatest compliment I ever received as a pastor was when a congregant, who was encouraging someone else to come to me for pastoral counseling, told her "don't go see Pastor Josh unless your willing to change, because he will always take you to God's Word."

In other words, Christians are not to treat other believers like they are in a hospice ward: bandaging wounds, administer painkillers, and stupifying immobilized believers so they can live their lives (if it can be called life) in complacency. Instead, we are called to bring the healing of the Gospel to our brothers and sisters in Christ who are spiritually wounded. Sometimes this means helping them cut out the spiritual cancer in their lives. Sometimes it involves a difficult intervention with a brother addicted to his pride. Other times it involves reminding a sister of God's great and comforting promises. It always involves a loving willingness to open God's Word and point them towards God's healing truths.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Good 'Ole Days

"Say not, 'Why were the former days better than these?' 
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this."
- Ecclesiastes 7:10

Remember when things were, well, better? We often hear people talking about the wonder of yesteryear. For some, this is the smell of grandma's freshly baked bread or the slight cherry tobacco aroma of grandpa's beard. For others, it was a time when there was less crime and more neighbors who were friendly and caring. Or perhaps back in those days when kids were more well behaved and more respectful to their parents.

Christians think this way about matters of faith, too. Some bemoan the present state of worship music, longing for "better" times when the church sang the hymns they knew as youth. Or perhaps they long for the days when all the church men wore stylish suits and all the ladies wore pretty dresses and even prettier hats. You hear people say "well, my generation was a generation of prayer", or "the church used to be more reverent for God when I was growing up."

For others, they long for a past when our country was "better" and "more Christian". After all, our great-grandparents didn't have to deal with moral issues such as the acceptance of gay marriage, abortion, or rampant (and public) sexualization of culture. Most people went to church on Sundays, and men didn't cuss in front of women, children, or the preacher.

Still others have enshrined ages of the past as being the doctrinal standard. I know entire churches that insist on using the 1689 Baptist Confession as their official church statement of faith. I know others for whom the era of Jerry Falwell & D. James Kennedy marks the the epitome of biblical faithfulness.

The real problem here is twofold: First, we are specifically commanded in Scripture not to speak this way. Second, it simply isn't true. The past was never what we try to make it out to be.

Ecclesiastes 7:10a offers us a command: "Say not, 'Why were the former days better than these?'" I admit I am not the most brilliant individual who ever graced a pulpit. But I can recognize a command when I see one. Solomon is not even offering us a suggestion: "Hey, it might be a good idea not to say...etc". He is straight to the point: "Do not say". Simply put, Christians are not allowed to talk this way. God doesn't want his people to have their gaze stuck backwards, because it distracts us from our current spiritual assignment. Paul reminds us that we are to "make the most of every opportunity right now" (Eph 5:16), because time is short and we are surrounded by much evil. A soldier on the battlefield is no good if, instead of taking the fight to the enemy, he sits in the grass moaning about how great life was before the battle. When we demonize the present and idealize the past, we are in disobedience to the command of our King.

But Scripture also gives a reason for this command. Frankly, the idealization of the past is based on a lie. In Ecclesiastes 7:10b, Solomon continues his thought: "For it is not from wisdom that you ask this." Believing that former days were better is foolish. Utterly foolish. It is based on a faulty presupposition and an inadequate understanding of sin.

Nostalgia is a seductive liar. The church of your past was not more holy than the church of today. The America of the past was not more "Christian" than the America of today. Sin isn't more of a problem today than it was a couple of generations ago. Satan was just as much the "ruler of this world" in 1850 as he is in 2014. 

The problem with such thinking is that is a ploy of the devil. Such thoughts creep into our minds, robbing us of the thing we are supposed to be yearning for. The Devil would LOVE for you to spend all your effort trying to recapture some spiritual experience of the past instead of living as one destined for Heaven. But the apostle Paul is emphatic: "forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way" (Phil 3:13b-15a). The Gospel forbids us to look backward to some mythical golden era of our past, but to look forward to Heaven, that "city whose builder and maker is God" (Hebrews 11:10).

I love much of my past. There were some spiritual experiences that greatly shaped me, and I praise God for them. But the past is just that. The past. It is't heaven, far from it, and not an ounce of me ever wishes to return to some bygone era. Not in a million years. It simply isn't the direction my King is calling me. Soldiers of Christ aren't supposed to retreat, but press forward.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, forget what is behind. Press forward.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

You're Disturbing My Worship

"You are disturbing my worship". Have you heard fellow Christian brothers or sisters make that statement? Have you yourself ever uttered it? Perhaps you've heard a version of it: "they are disturbing my worship", "that family is disturbing my worship", "that song leader is disturbing my worship", "that style of music is disturbing my worship", etc.

Forget for a moment the inherent paganism in such a statement. Yes, paganism. When we say "I can't worship to that kind of music" or "I can't worship in an environment like this", how different is that from the pagans of old who would need to perform the "correct" magical incantation to achieve their desired state of spiritual ecstasy? As pagan as that mindset is, there is an even deeper problem.

The older I get in the faith, and the more time I spend in God's holy Word, the more I am convinced that the reason we become so easily disturbed in our worship is because we have been giving the wrong offering in the first place. We've made worship about ourselves, instead of making it about God and others. Sadly, this problem is as old as humanity itself.

In the early chapters of Genesis, in the very first human family, two brothers came together for worship. One of them, Abel, came with a right heart and offered God a sacrifice of praise. The other brother, Cain, also offered God a sacrifice. The only difference was that Cain offered what he wanted to offer. Not only did he care little about what God actually wanted, he also cared nothing at all about his brother.

Across the worship spectrum, whether it be traditional or contemporary, I hear many Christians complain about worship. Many of my Christian friends complain about the worship styles in their churches. Old people complain. Teenagers complain. Mothers complain. Pastors complain. My neighbors in my community, who attend other churches, complain. And yes, even within my own congregation such complaints are heard every now and again. Is there a church in America that is really free from this evil spirit? At the center of all of this is the heart of Cain, an individual who is so obsessed about what he or she wants. "True worship be damned" (such is the attitude), "both God and fellow Christian must take only what I have to offer."

How different is the attitude Scripture commands us to have. "And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus" (Colossians 3:17). Or consider 1 Peter 2:9, which commands us to "proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light." This means, first and foremost, that in all circumstances and situations we are called to declare God's worth. So yes, you can worship with the baby 3 rows in front screaming. You can worship even though some teens up front are raising their hands and slightly swaying to the music. You can worship if a vocalist is singing off tune. You can worship if the song leader is using a style you don't care for. You can worship if the music is loud. You can worship if someone dances in the aisle. You can worship if the organist is playing so slow you are convinced she might be dead. You can worship if the guitarist is wearing flip flops. You can worship if they are singing old hymns with painfully archaic 17th century English.

You can, but like Cain you might be choosing not to.

Thankfully, there is another model we are supposed to follow. Consider how Paul and Silas could worship God with joy after being stripped, tortured, and shackled in iron chains. Or even better, consider how Jesus was able to praise the Father on the eve of his arrest, knowing the horror that awaited him. They didn't need the "right" music or the "correct" atmosphere. True worship is a "living sacrifice", meaning that it only becomes an offering acceptable to God when it ceases to be about what you enjoy.

Has something disturbed your worship? Then my dear sibling in Christ, it is time to face an uncomfortable truth. The only one disturbing worship is the one who is being disturbed by worship.