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Friday, May 18, 2018

God Only Wise - Meditations And Applications Of God's Wisdom

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Romans 16:27 to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be the glory forever. Amen.

Introduction: 

This particular post aims to consider the phrase: "only wise God" in last verse of Paul's magisterial letter to the church at Rome. For the last year and a half, I have preached verse by verse through the book of Romans. I'm certain it won't be the last time, since preaching through such an extraordinary book causes the preacher to see details he never saw before. I was struck by how Paul began this massive exposition on the power of the Gospel by introducing it with God's grace (Romans 1:1-7) and concluding it with God's wisdom (Romans 16:27). 

God's grace and wisdom function as bookends, holding together all of the wondrous truths of the Gospel in both its theological and practical considerations. In closing out this series in Romans, one could go in many directions. 

As I was preparing this final message in the series, as well as this post, I asked God to minister to me His attribute of wisdom. I didn’t want to possess a theoretical knowledge, but, to arrive at a deeper level of acquaintance with it. The difficulties of life test the metal of one’s faith. The entirety of human emotion is tasted. It was this week I crossed from seeing God’s wisdom as something to read about to that of a reality in which I’m to live. His wisdom has been my food and drink of the soul, even though I don’t comprehend many of the details in our current life (more on this later). 

In today's post, we aim to grasp the importance of God’s wisdom for our lives. My hope is that through this post, you will discover why it is so vital to personally know this only wise God. 

Defining God's wisdom

The late author A.W. Tozer comments on wisdom in general:

“Wisdom, among other things, is the ability to devise perfect ends and to achieve those ends by the most perfect means. It sees the end from the beginning, so there can be no need to guess or conjecture. Wisdom sees everything in focus, each in proper relation to all, and is thus able to work toward predestined goals with flawless precision.”

In a similar vein of thought, author J.I. Packer remarks about wisdom in his classic book: "Knowing God" - 

“Wisdom is the power to see, and the inclination to choose, the best and highest goal, together with the surest means of attaining it.” 

As aforementioned, God’s grace and wisdom function like bookends to hold together the details of the Gospel, life and eternity. Wisdom is one of the attributes or characteristics of God. Per the doctrine of Divine unity (also called by the older term, "Divine simplicity"), whenever we have one of God’s attributes, we have all of God, since He is the sum of all His attributes. 

God's essential attribute of wisdom comforts me. His attributes are as light through a prism, transfiguring the white light of the sun into the manifold colors of the rainbow. By analogy, wisdom is that most noblest of virtues in creatures. If we consider the 11th century thinker Anselm's classic definition of God as: 

The greatest Being that can be conceived, compared to which none greater can be conceived" (i.e. the greatest conceivable being), 

then Divine wisdom is a necessary quality of God's being. In God, wisdom isn't something that God possesses. Instead, wisdom is what God is. No other rational creature (angel or human) can claim this unique point with respect to wisdom. No creature "is" wisdom, however, all rational creatures "have" wisdom in varying measure. Angels are wiser than human beings, with angels and humans exhibiting varying levels of wisdom among themselves. God, on the other hand, has no variation of wisdom, since He "is" wisdom eternally, infinitely and immutably (see Malachi 3:6; James 1:17). 

The infinite nobility and skill with which the Triune God executes His infinite life as God spills over into how He directs the course of creation to His intended end. Therefore, it is more than appropriate for Paul to refer to God as "God only wise", since all other created beings derive their limited ability to exercise wisdom from God that is, by nature, wisdom. We've attempted to define and explore a definition of God's wisdom. The question now before us is: "so what"? Below are three observations one can glean about "God only wise" in consideration of Romans 16:27 and other passages.

Gracious strength of God’s Wisdom. Romans 1:1-7; 1:16; 16:25-27. 

Romans begins and ends with grace and wisdom.  Reflecting on God's wisdom leads to certain questions:

1. Does God know what He is doing?
2. Can I trust God, even though I don't understand?
3. Is God still good, even though everything seems so bad?


Paul begins Romans 16:27 with this phrase: "To the only wise God". Such questions are answered in scripture by considering God's wisdom as a source of strength. Proverbs 3:5-6 - 

"Trust in the Lord with all your heart
And do not lean on your own understanding. 6 In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight."

The prophet Daniel writes in Daniel 2:20-21 - 

“Daniel said, “Let the name of God be blessed forever and ever, For wisdom and power belong to Him. “It is He who changes the times and the epochs; He removes kings and establishes kings; He gives wisdom to wise men And knowledge to men of understanding.” 

Thus we see in Daniel's prophecy how wisdom and God's strength are associated with one another (recall, whenever you have one of God's attributes, you have all of them). 

The gracious strength of God's wisdom aids us in those seasons wherein we don't grasp what God is doing. I'm reminded of an illustration I once read about the front and back of a clock or watch. If we were to take the back off of either, we would observe its inner workings. We would see gear works turning in opposite directions. We would note coiled springs, whirring wheels and dizzying motion. Unless we were the watchmaker, we might conclude the whole thing as a mess. However, once one turns the watch or clock over to the front, we see the hour, minute and second hands turning in the same direction. The wisdom of the watch maker is demonstrated in both the appropriated means of the design (the back) and the intended end (keeping time). 

God too is only wise. His gracious strength guides the believer's path and all things. Notice secondly, not only the gracious strength of God's wisdom, but also... 

Great Mediator of God’s Wisdom. Rom. 5:1,6-8; 8:1

In addition to what Paul writes about "To the only wise God" in Romans 16:27, we see the next phrase: "through Jesus Christ". God's wisdom, as experienced and expressed by his creatures, is a mediated wisdom. Another comfort I find about God's wisdom is that whatever God sends my way, it has went through the Son. An old saying I heard years ago states that nothing comes down to us that has not already first passed through the nail-scarred hands of the Son of God. Thus, since Divine wisdom is mediated by the Second person of the Trinity, who is truly God (touching His divine nature), then truly He has my best interest in mind. Furthermore, by remaining truly man, Jesus Christ is pleased to associate with His people as the decisive revelation of God in human flesh. To find out that God's wisdom is associated with and is the Divine nature of Christ Himself, as well as shared with His people via his true human nature, we can affirm that God does care. 

Even though Old Testament saints did not yet possess the fullness of revelation like New Testament believers have today, they associated God's wisdom with the fact that He cares. Job 2:10 

"But he said to her, 'You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?' In all this Job did not sin with his lips."

Job didn't grasp all that was happening in his life. He knew that all of it directly or indirectly came as a result of God's wise actions. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:30 -

"But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption.”

Here we see that Christ Himself came to reveal Divine wisdom, since as God, He is wise by nature. With respect to God's wisdom mediated to the Christian in time of need, we are reminded of James 1:3-5 - 

“knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. 5 But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” 

This second point of Christ mediating Divine wisdom to us means so much whenever facing the unknown. To illustrate, this past week my wife received news that she had experienced a heart attack in the recent past. To say the news shocked us would be an understatement. The questions concerning God's goodness and trustworthiness began flooding my heart. But then, in meditating on the fact that God is only wise, and that His Divine wisdom is mediated to me through the Son, I found the strength to cope with this shock (even though I don't comprehend the "why's" and "what's next" sort of questions).  Again, the comforting thought strikes me: as I experience God in His wisdom, I experience all of Him, since in God there is no variation nor shifting of shadow (Jas 1:17). 

So, we've observed the glorious strength of God's wisdom and the great mediator of such wisdom - the Lord Jesus Christ. Now let's lastly consider...

Glorious Purpose of God’s wisdom.  

As with each of God's attributes, Divine wisdom brings the believer to the point of switching from study to outright praise. Paul's doxology in the middle of Romans both summarizes the first eleven chapters of his exposition on the Gospel and prepares us for the practical sections of Romans 12-16. This doxology (i.e. a statement of praise to God), is found in Romans 11:33-36 

“Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! 34 For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? 35 Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? 36 For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.” 

Whenever I see that last word, "Amen", the truth of whatever was written beforehand is affirmed. To put it another way, good or bad, God’s purpose to glorify Himself will prevail, thus, there are no pointless details of life. Whenever I read this doxology, it corresponds perfectly to the final phrase of Romans 16:27 - "be the glory forever and ever. Amen." These verses answer the question: does God still have a plan? with a resounding, yes! Romans 8:28-31 states:

"And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. 29 For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; 30 and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. 31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us?"

This idea of God's wisdom corresponding to life's purposes is expressed in James 1:3-4

“knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. 5 But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” 

If trials didn’t come, I wouldn't acquire the sense to see where I lack. Moreover, I would not depend upon the God, who alone is wise.

Closing thoughts:

In today's post, we considered the significance of God's wisdom in the phrase: "To the only wise God". After defining God's wisdom, we noted three observations about how His wisdom applies to our lives:

1. Gracious strength of God’s Wisdom. Romans 1:1-7; 1:16; 16:25-27 

2. Great Mediator of God’s Wisdom. Romans 5:1,6-8; 8:1


3. Glorious Purpose of God’s wisdom.    Romans 11:33-36  


Saturday, May 12, 2018

A Mother's Answered Prayer - Lessons About Prayer In 1 Samuel 1-2


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1 Samuel 1:26-28 "She said, 'Oh, my lord! As your soul lives, my lord, I am the woman who stood here beside you, praying to the Lord. 27 For this boy I prayed, and the Lord has given me my petition which I asked of Him. 28 So I have also dedicated him to the Lord; as long as he lives he is dedicated to the Lord.' And he worshiped the Lord there."

Introduction: 

My most precious memory of my mother as a child was when I saw her kneeling with my sister while she prayed to trust in Jesus as her Savior and Lord. I was ten at the time. It had been months since I myself had converted to the Christian faith. The Spirit of God had moved upon my heart through a Sunday School teacher's lesson. In those tender months following my conversion, I was eager to see my then five-year old sister come to faith. That was decades ago. Time flies! That scene was a holy moment. I never said a word as I quietly went into the living room. Soon afterward, my sister and mother emerged. With tears streaming down their faces, they relayed to my dad what transpired. He wept with joy. Such memories remind me of how powerful the combination of a mother's love and prayers for her children are in the hands of God. 

In thinking on the memory above, I'm reminded that some of the greatest expressions of Biblical faith derive from observing mothers in the Bible. Today’s post aims to impart the essential elements for an effective prayer-life. If we were to translate of 1 Samuel 1:10-11a from its original language, we would discover the heart of prayer in a woman named Hannah:

“Hannah was bitter in soul. She prayed fervently. She sobbed and kept sobbing, vowing again and again this vow: ‘O Lord of Hosts, if you will regard the distress of your handmaid, remember me. Please don’t forget your servant. Please give your handmaid a baby, and I swear, I’ll give him to the Lord all the days of His life.”

We find much pathos in Hannah's prayer. Her desire for a son drove her to the throne of God. I've witnessed godly women over the years that desired children but could not have them. I recall once a couple coming to me for prayer. They so longed for a child. As we prayed, the both of them wept. The experiences of ministry lend to my imagination in picturing Hannah's anguish in prayer. I can picture the desperation of her petitions. We can learn quite a bit about prayer from noting the details we find in 1 Samuel 1-2. Hannah would eventually end up being the mother of the most important prophet since the days of Moses - Samuel.

1. Desperation. 1 Samuel 1:11,16

Times were desperate in Hannah's day. Even when young Samuel was barely a young lad, the Biblical text testifies to the spiritual famine plaguing Israel. 1 Samuel 3:1-3 

"Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord before Eli. And word from the Lord was rare in those days, visions were infrequent. 2 It happened at that time as Eli was lying down in his place (now his eyesight had begun to grow dim and he could not see well), 3 and the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord where the ark of God was."

Just as the times were desperate, Hannah was too. She cried out to God. Gone were the niceties. Abandoned was the conventional prayer-talk. Hannah cast all safe-praying to the wind. Her cry was so deep that her voice was quenched. Have you ever experienced that level of anguish mixed with desperation. I'm sure that is part of what the Apostle Paul writes about in Romans 8:26-27 

"In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; 27 and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God."

David reflects this attitude of desperation in prayer in Psalm 63:1-3 

"O God, You are my God; I shall seek You earnestly; my soul thirsts for You, my flesh yearns for You, In a dry and weary land where there is no water.
2 Thus I have seen You in the sanctuary, To see Your power and Your glory. 3 Because Your lovingkindness is better than life, My lips will praise You." 

Whenever we are desperate for God, the ability to rise above our situation is available. Take for instance Acts 16:25 

"But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God, and the prisoners were listening to them."

Paul and Silas were prisoners at Philippi, a Roman outpost in ancient Macedonia. They were beaten, bruised and battered. Yet, Paul and Silas were desperate for God. Their prayer-life overflowed into praise. All around them saw and heard the reality of their faith. Hannah exemplified this first crucial trait of effective prayer - desperation.

2. Discernment. 1 Samuel 1:20

What distinguishes "knowledge", "understanding" and "discernment"? Knowing = apprehending whatever is before us. Understanding = apprehending our relationship with whatever is before us. Discernment = apprehending the true nature of what is before us. Take flowers for example. A little child brings flowers from the yard. We know they are flowers. We understand that the flowers are for the child's mother. We discern the intention of love in their giving. For the Christian, discernment can only grow with prayer. 1 Chronicles 12:32 reminds us of a particular group of men in the nation of Israel:

"Of the sons of Issachar, men who understood the times, with knowledge of what Israel should do, their chiefs were two hundred; and all their kinsmen were at their command."

Hannah discerned that her child was an answer to prayer. She and Elkanah conceived. Hannah carried the child and once it was born, named the child "Samuel". Why? Per 1 Samuel 1:20, Hannah discerned that the Lord heard her prayer. Imagine having a name that literally means: "I'm a walking answer to prayer"! This is why the Apostle Paul prayed like he did in Philippians 1:9 

"And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment."

Paul prized discernment. Whenever we discern in prayer, we are recognizing God's hand in our lives. Hebrews 5:14 notes how such discernment marks spiritual maturity:

"But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil."

Hannah prayed with desperation. God heard her prayer. She recognized such as a result of discernment delivered to her through prayer. Notice another trait of effective prayer learned from Hannah's prayer life.

3. Dedication. 1 Samuel 1:21-28

One thing about Hannah, she did not wait for grass to grow underneath the feet of obedience. For three years Hannah weaned young Samuel. As soon as the lad was weaned, she stayed good to her vow with which she promised God back earlier in the first chapter. She gave Samuel to the Lord for His service. Dedication is the fruit of the desperation and discernment born in prayer. James 5:16b-18 reminds us:

"The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. 18 Then he prayed again, and the sky poured rain and the earth produced its fruit."

Whenever we are consistent in prayer, we will find ourselves consistent in dedication to God. To illustrate, take my late grandmother. My grandmother had prayed for God to raise up preachers. When she heard I was called by God as a teenager, she dedicated herself to getting me brochures from different Bible colleges. She drove over 30 minutes out of her way to send them, so that none would recognize their origin. It was only a few years before her death that my grandmother had shared this detail. Dedication is immediate obedience done repeatedly until the task is done. When I look at Hannah's actions at the end of 1 Samuel 1 and into 1 Samuel 2, I find them flowing from her fervent prayer life. So what were the consequences of Hannah's desperation, discernment and dedication to God in prayer?

4. Delight in God. 1 Samuel 2:1-11

Space and time preclude a detailed breakdown of Hannah's extraordinary doxology in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. We can offer at least a basic outline that highlights the heart of God in Hannah:

I. God's Attributes. 2:1-3
II. God's Actions. 2:4-9
III. God's Names. 2:10 

A study of this prayer reveals no less than twelve attributes, four actions and three names of God. True theology leads to doxology. Hannah's heart for God displays a mind on God. This reminds one of David's words in Psalm 16:8-9 

"I have set the Lord continually before me; Because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. 9 Therefore my heart is glad and my glory rejoices;
My flesh also will dwell securely."

Similarly, the Apostle Paul states in 2 Corinthians 12:9 

"And He has said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.' Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me."

The depth and heights of Hannah's prayer are consequent of the breadth of her prayer life. I find it quite interesting to compare the prayer of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 to the Magnificat of Mary in Luke 1:46-55. Both prayers express sheer delight in God. Both Hannah and Mary experienced extraordinary circumstances surrounding their pregnancies both tie their prayers to God's covenant promises. 

Closing thoughts:

Today we explored the elements of effective prayer by observing the answered prayer of Hannah for a child (i.e. Samuel, who would be a premier prophet in ancient Israel). We discovered the following elements in Hannah's prayer and praise:

1. Desperation for God
2. Discernment from God
3. Dedication of obedience to God
4. Delight in God 

Friday, May 4, 2018

"Connect-Four" Preaching - A Method For More Effective Sermon Preparation And Delivery

Image result for connect four game
1 Corinthians 1:21 "For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe."

Introduction:

One of my favorite games as a child was what was known as "Connect Four". The object of the game involved two players with black and red checkers attempting to line up their respective colors in a yellow upright game board. Each player would take turns, dropping their checkers into the upright board. The board was so designed to allow each player to see all the checkers. The first player to align four of their colored checkers either diagonally, vertically or horizontally resulted in "connected four". Consequently, once "connect four" was achieved, the game was won. Once the game ended, one of the players would then slide a small lever at the bottom of the game board to release the checkers for the next game.

Whenever it comes to preparing sermons, I think of the game "Connect Four". Each week I preach three messages. For the last 26 years I have had the honor of following God's call on my life to proclaim His word to whomever will give a hearing. As a pastor, I'm charged to give heed to myself, to doctrine and to preaching - since all three are enabled by God to save my soul and the souls of those hearing the sermons (see 1 Timothy 4:13-16). God has chosen by the Person of the Spirit to attend and empower preaching as His main vehicle for converting sinners and changing lives (see Romans 10:11-17). 

Whenever I have finished preaching the Sunday night message, my mind begins to consider the following week's messages. As I go through the spiritual and mental process of preparing sermons, I find four areas to which I must connect to preach more effective messages. I call this "connect four" preaching. So, what are those four areas necessary to have connection to prior to and during the preaching of any sermon?

1. Connect to God in prayer.

I once heard it stated that true, Spirit-filled preaching will manifest when the preacher has become thoroughly acquainted with the God of the book. Whenever we look at the greatest preacher of all - the Lord Jesus Christ - scarcely do we find any episode in His life untouched by prayer. He prioritized time with the Father in prayer (see for example Mark 1:35). To the degree the preacher spends time on their knees in prayer, only then will power in their preaching be witnessed on their feet. Acts 4:13 divulges the secret behind the Apostles' preaching and lives:

"Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus."

Theological training is important. Investing one's time for education in how to rightly expound the scriptures is an expression of devotion to the Divinely-called task (see for instance 2 Timothy 2:15). However, unless a man has given himself to a life of prayer - his sermons will have no life. So, connecting to God in prayer is the first point of contact towards effective sermon preparation and delivery. Now notice the second connecting point...

2. Connect to your audience.

How well do I as a pastor know the people to whom I preach every week? The pastor must not only invest himself in prayer, but also into the people for whom He prays. I have found that as I get to know the people and they in turn become more familiar with me - God begins to break down walls. Undoubtedly, the warfare waged by the kingdom of darkness against the church deals with matters of unity. Why? Unity in the church is the chief evidence the Christian has to a watching world that the Christian worldview is true and relevant. Pastors and their congregations need unified for the proper atmosphere in which the Spirit can work in their lives. 

Whenever I have spoken in conferences, nursing homes or other churches, there is a certain way I find myself preaching. The connection between myself and the audience is more general. However, when I am preaching at the church I call "home", my preaching is more specific and pointed. Why does this happen? 

In the ancient world, the Greeks (mainly from the writings of Aristotle) developed a method for determining what made for effective public speaking (i.e. "rhetoric"). The quality they assigned to this particular element that describes the connection between the speaker and their audience was termed "ethos". A speaker could possess eloquence of content (what they called "logos") and powers of persuasion (or what they called "pathos"). However, if the speaker lacked "ethos" or that quality of connecting his life and subject to the lives of his audience, the given message would have no impact. This criteria gleaned from the ancient world still has much bearing in how we evaluate effective sermons. 

Whenever you read Paul's letters in the New Testament, notice how often he references individuals. Paul was a people person. He knew his audiences in varying levels. The more "ethos" or "rapport" Paul had with the churches to whom he wrote, the more personal and specific his correspondence became (remember, Paul was Jewish and ministered in and among a predominately Greco-Roman world). 

So now whenever we consider these observations, how do they operate in the context of Biblical preaching? "Ethos" or "personal connection" between oneself and the congregation requires the Person of the Holy Spirit to complete the circuit. As preachers pray for their people and the people in turn pray for their pastors, the Spirit's work in making this connection is enhanced. Connecting to God in prayer and connecting to the given audience makes for even stronger preparation and preaching of sermons. Notice the third connecting point....

3. Connecting to the text.

Connecting to whatever Biblical text I'm looking to expound is essential if the sermon aims to be Biblical, Christ-centered and practical. Out of all the methods for preaching sermons, none connects the preacher to the text any more than expository preaching. Expository preaching takes seriously each word, phrase and turn of expression. The aim of expository preaching is to "expose" the people to the meaning of the text. Preparing expository sermons takes work. Effort. Much prayer. The time need to dig into the original languages (whether through the use of concordances or original language texts, if so equipped to do so) behind our English Bibles is well worth the time. Reading commentaries, understanding the historical backgrounds and various theological motifs are entailed in the sermon preparation process. Why? So as to connect oneself to the text. 

I have found in the process of preparing sermons, whenever the text makes its journey from the realm of mental analysis to heart-level emotion to gut-check conviction, only then do I find myself "connecting-to-the-text". Each preacher will have different methods of preparing sermons. Some will know the languages in which the scriptures were revealed (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek) while other preachers will possess a great familiarity with the English text. Whatever other tools and resources lie at the preacher's fingertips, the goal is to connect to the text and to have that text connect to the preacher. Remember: God's word isn't just another book, its the Living Book! The Bible alone convicts sinners and changes lives (see 2 Timothy 3:16-17; Hebrews 4:12). 

So in "connect-four" preaching, one needs to connect to God in prayer, connect to their audience and connect to the text. Now let's consider one last contact point for effective sermon preparation and deliver...

4. Connect the sermon to yourself

It is usually near the end of the week that I find myself reviewing sermon notes and whatever I'm aiming to preach. On average, I find that 90% of what I bring to the pulpit never gets said. Why is that? Admittedly, I prepare way more than I could ever preach in the allotted time I have. Moreover, in the delivery of the sermon, the Holy Spirit will bring to mind other details that were not "in the notes". As I pour over dozens of scriptures in preparing a given sermon, I will often ask myself: "am I living out this sermon?" My wife and I are convinced that whatever God is trying to teach or looking to teach us, it is usually indicated by the sermons I'm preaching. 

Connecting the sermon to one's life gives credibility to the sermon, since the preacher's ability to press his hearers to a decision is connected to whether he himself has pre-committed to whatever he is preaching. Put another way: although I may point a finger in the direction of the congregation, yet, there are three fingers point back at myself. To illustrate: consider the episode in 1 Samuel 17 of David and Goliath. King Saul offered David his own personal armor. David tried on the armor but chose to forego the King's enticing offer. Why? 1 Samuel 17:39 reports David's reasoning: "these have not yet been tested". David would not go into battle against the giant with untested armor. The preacher that has not applied his sermon to his life will find himself at a great disadvantage. David's sling and five stones were chosen because he had used them in previous experiences. Each point or key thought the expositor  delivers in the sermon must first had made personal contact in their lives. The river of God's word is chocked full of smooth stones. Sermon preparation is all about selecting which truths are needed to knock down the giants of unbelief. Before the sermon ever goes public, it must first find its application in the private life of the preacher.  

Whenever the preacher as effectively connected the sermon's application to his own life, it makes all the difference between preaching "at" the people versus preaching "to" the people. So often we hear accusations of hypocrites populating our churches. What is worse than hypocrites in the pews are hypocrites occupying God's sacred desk. If preachers will but make sure they are connecting God's truth, in God's book, into their life - only then will they have  the ability to connect the truth to others. 

Closing thoughts:

In today's post we considered a way towards more effective sermon preparation and delivery: i.e. "Connect-Four" preaching. We discovered four vital connections necessary for ensuring proper preparation and delivery of Biblical sermons:

1. Connect to God in prayer
2. Connect to one's audience
3. Connect to the Biblical text
4. Connect the sermon to one's life


Friday, April 27, 2018

God's Divine Perfection - Definitions, Reflections And Applications

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Exodus 15:11 "Who is like You among the gods, O Lord? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, Awesome in praises, working wonders?"

Introduction: Why Nothing Can Ever Be Like God

As a runner, I find myself ever striving for improvement. My plans are to run a 10K race tomorrow and a half-marathon in two weeks. Racing reminds all participants that there are persons faster and better than themselves. The paradox of running is that in finding out how much better I could do, I find the drive to improve. On a spiritual level, I find myself as a Christian ever needing improvement. The biblical term for Christian growth is "sanctification" (see 1 Thessalonians 4:3). I always find other Christians that are further along in their faith or deeper in prayer than myself. On a moral, spiritual and physical level, I as a creature am being perfected. As A.W. Tozer once remarked:

"The paradox of faith is that all at once, when we think we have apprehended God, we are ever in pursuit of Him". 

Anything else - whether animals, human beings, galaxies or angels - have room for improvement. There are other comparable objects and beings that are better, bigger and brighter. Our Milky Way Galaxy, for instance, is physically immense. 

Image result for milky way galaxy

Astronomers tell us that on average, the Milky Way Galaxy is composed of over 100 billion stars and is 100 thousand light years across. Yet, the Andromeda Galaxy, lying some two-million light years distant, is twice as large and may contain over twice as many stars. Angels are revealed in over 400 places in the Bible. Whether good or bad, they all exists in varying ranks. They are comparable to one another. 

There are always stronger angels, bigger galaxies and better runners. All objects and beings are incomplete by themselves - capable of improvement - viz. imperfect. Job 15:15 reminds us:

"Behold, He puts no trust in His holy ones, And the heavens are not pure in His sight." 

Even angels, which are spiritual beings devoid of sin, possess a creaturely form of perfection that is ever possible for improvement (that is, arch-angels have a level of perfection that their angelic counterparts do not possess). 

Nothing in all creation is like God. The Danish philosopher Soren Keirkegaard once used the somewhat cumbersome phrase: "infinite-qualitative distinction" to describe God's quality of life and perfection to that of His creation. In a more clearer description, A.W. Tozer compares the life and intrinsic value of a little child lost amidst mountains as qualitatively different from all the vastness of such mountains. 

Clearly nothing compares to God. Isaiah raises a rhetorical question in Isaiah 40:18 that points us in the direction of considering God in terms of His Divine Perfection:

"To whom then will you liken God?

Or what likeness will you compare with Him?"

I heard author Ravi Zacharias describe God once in a lecture, which fits well within our topic of "Divine Perfection":

"God is the only being who is explained by Himself within Himself. All other entities are characterized by requiring something outside of themselves to account for their existence. God, however, is alone in being His own reason for why He exists".

Ravi Zacharias' thoughts may aid us in approaching what we mean when we speak of Divine Perfection.

Arriving At What We Mean By God's Perfection

This question raised in Isaiah 40:18 (as well as the opening text Exodus 15:11) of "who is like God?" forces us to cross a boundary that reason alone cannot cross. Faith alloyed with reason is needed to wing the precarious flight from our created realm to God in His infinite perfection. God's word and so-called considerations of God's perfection of attributes (i.e. perfect being theology) will act as navigational controls in attempting to express God's perfection.

But now what about God? Whenever we speak of God's perfection, are we talking merely of a level above the highest archangel? As to perfection itself being a scale upon which we place people, galaxies and angels - is God somehow at the highest level of that scale? Or ought we consider God's perfection in a completely different sense? Answering this question is part of the project of what we call "perfect being theology". 

So what is Divine perfection? God as the most perfect being is, in and of Himself, incapable of improvement. Put another way, God is completely complete. Theologian Keith Ward describes this quality of God as "Perfect Being" as: "having the consciousness to enjoy all things beautifully good." 

Isaiah 40:25 has God raising the question we observed in verse 18 of the same chapter:

“To whom then will you liken Me

That I would be his equal?” says the Holy One."

God's perfection (i.e. His quality of being "completely-complete" or "incapable of improvement") makes all other wanna-be deities not worthy of worship. The idols of antiquity were material deities made of precious metals and stone. In the Greek and Roman Pantheons, the various deities were always subject to improvement. They each had deficits that required supplementing from their fellow deities. These schemes of religion, wherein multiple deities are worship, is called "polytheism". All forms of polytheism either collapses in on itself or requires the invention of more sub-deities by its devotees. 

No concept of Divine perfection was conceived of in ancient Greece and Rome (even though such a quality was sought after and much discussed). The Apostle Paul critiques such a Graeco-Roman religious system in Acts 17:29 - 

"Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man."

Is it no wonder that all other so-called deities are concluded as non-existent or human figments somehow connected to the deceptions of the kingdom of darkness (see 1 Corinthians 10:18-22).
The God of the Bible alone is Perfect. In terms of moral attributes, we call God's perfection "holiness". Holiness refers to the sum of all His moral attributes (goodness, wisdom, grace, justice, mercy, etc.,) in "perfect union" within His nature as God. Nothing can be added to nor taken away from God as holy. The prophet Micah comments on God's perfect being expressing such Divine moral qualities in Micah 7:18

"Who is a God like You, who pardons iniquity And passes over the rebellious act of the remnant of His possession?
He does not retain His anger forever,

Because He delights in unchanging love."

Other attributes that describe God in His infinite existence are suffused with this quality of Divine perfection. God's Divine Aseity, which refers to His self-sufficiency and independence (from the Latin a se meaning 'from oneself'), expresses His perfection of self-sufficiency, as stated in Isaiah 44:6

“Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts:
‘I am the first and I am the last, And there is no God besides Me."

We could speak of other attributes. The point is that God alone is "completely complete" or "incapable of improvement" in regards to His perfection. 

To summarize the great theologian Thomas Aquinas in his section of his massive work "Summa Theologica" on the topic of Divine perfection, God's perfection refers to how He possesses all excellencies of life and wisdom in an of Himself, never lacking nor in want. The sun may shine on various objects and possess the qualities of the objects upon which it sheds its light. Still, the sun exhausts its fuel and requires objects for us to appreciate its light. God on the other hand requires neither ourselves nor His creation, since His light is both inexhaustible and undiminished with or without us.  

Applying Divine Perfection To Our Everyday Lives

So how can God's Divine perfection help me out in everyday life? For one thing, God's Divine perfection means He is worthy of my worship. When I preach on Sunday morning, sing songs of praise or live daily for Him - I find He alone is worthy. Revelation 4:11 demonstrates how God's perfection is cause for worship around His throne in Heaven:

“Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and because of Your will they existed, and were created.”

The 11th century theologian Anselm of Canterbury described God in His perfection of being as:

"the greatest conceivable being, apart from which nothing can be greater conceived". 

In other words, if I could think of a greater being, then that being would be God. However, the God of the Bible is incapable of improvement. Hence, He alone is worthy of my thoughts, my time, my worship. The fact that God by definition is a being of which no other greater being can be imagined (since He possesses attributes like omniscience, omnipotence and all-goodness), then He alone is Perfect, since He is completely-complete or perfect. 

One final application of Divine perfection relates to how one thinks of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Divine Person of the Son came to incarnate Himself in true humanity (see John 1:14; Philippians 2:4-11; Colossians 2:9; Hebrews 2:11-14). Touching His divinity, Christ never changes (Hebrews 1:8) and is the same yesterday, today and forever (Revelation 1:8). By way of His incarnation, we discover that Christ took unto His Person a truly human nature so that I as a human being could somehow participate, have access to and enjoy the otherwise inaccessible Divine Perfection of which He shares with the Father and Spirit as One God (see Romans 9:5; 1 Timothy 2:5; 2 Peter 1:3-4). Christ alone, as truly God and truly man, bridges by His Person the otherwise inaccessible, infinite divide between God in His infinite perfection and everything else. Truly Christ alone makes knowing God in salvation not merely a possibility, but a reality for those who by grace through faith trust in Him as Savior, Lord and Treasure (see John 14:6; Acts 4:12).  

Saturday, April 21, 2018

How God's Grace And Wisdom Frame The Book Of Romans

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Romans 16:25-27 "Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, 26 but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith; 27 to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be the glory forever. Amen."

Introduction:

Have you ever turned to the back cover of a book to see how it ended? Paul's letter to the church at Rome is consider his most important. The Epistle to the Romans presents a full treatment on the theological and practical implications of the Gospel. The introductory section to Romans contains themes that mesh well with the closing of the book. Romans 1:1-7 states:

"Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, 4 who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake, 6 among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ. 7 to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."

How God's Grace and Wisdom Frame The Book Of Romans

The introduction, Romans 1:1-7, describes how people are brought to saving faith in Jesus through the Gospel. The closing verses of Romans 16:25-27 focus upon the basis upon which the Gospel rests. 

As a note: the reader is urged to view the underlined portions I have underscored in the texts of today's post, since we will recall them later in this post. 

It is with the beginning and end that we respectively witness the means by which sinners are won to faith and the marvelous foundation upon which faith in the Gospel is rooted. The signature note of Romans 1:1-7 is that of God's grace. The closing melody of Romans 16:25-27 is that of God's wisdom. 

God's grace is God doing and providing for us what we could never provide nor achieve by ourselves. God's wisdom involves God's use of His divinely appointed means (both good and bad) to achieve His most noble ends (which are always good), (see Genesis 50:20; Romans 8:28). Therefore we see two book-ends to the book of Romans: God's grace and God's wisdom. 

What details about God's Grace and Wisdom Bracket the Book of Romans

We have observed how God's grace and wisdom function as book-ends to hold together the Book of Romans. The question is, what details of each of these attributes of grace and wisdom depict God's work in salvation? If we look first at Romans 1:1-7, wherein is expressed God's grace in human salvation, we find a particular chain of avenues by which God ordained to bring forth the Gospel to sinners:

1. "through His prophets", 1:2

2. "through whom we have received", i.e. Christ, 1:5

3. "among whom", i.e. the nations or gentiles, individual sinners are lovingly called by God, 1:6

When Paul speaks of "through the prophets", that is theological shorthand for the Old Covenant or Old Testament scriptures. We mustn't forget the foundation of scripture as the chief instrument by which human salvation derives (see 2 Timothy 3:15; Hebrews 4:12; James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:23). 

This first "instrument" of scripture, that God in His grace uses to call forth sinners, points beyond itself to Christ. Christ is the center and circumference of the prophetic scriptures (see Luke 24:44). Christ is the one by whom grace is channeled and is the source of all salvation by grace through faith (John 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 Timothy 2:5; Titus 2:11). 

Then the last instrumental means that God uses to channel His redemptive grace to sinners are the nations themselves. Passages such as Matthew 24:14 and Romans 11 detail how God is calling forth all kinds of people from every nation to respond to His gracious call. Both God's general revelation, or non-saving common grace on all men, as well as His focused saving grace on sinners in each nation, provide the context of genuine responses of faith to the Gospel. None can say they have not somehow benefited from all Christ achieved. For those persons that truly respond to the Gospel, the same shall be redeemed (Ephesians 2:8-9; Romans 10:8-9). Anyone saved by grace through faith can only credit God's saving grace for their salvation  (see 2 Corinthians 4:1-6). All others that persist in their refusal of the Gospel or actively reject God's revelation of His power through the general revelation of creation and the conscience perish in their sins as consequent of their choice to refuse God's well-meant offer of grace (John 3:36; Acts 13:46-47). 

Interestingly, when we turn to the closing verses of Paul's masterpiece of Romans 16:25-27, we find three related categories as those found in Romans 1:1-7. The following function as foundations for the Gospel as expressions of God's wisdom:

1. "according to my Gospel", Romans 16:25, i.e. "according to the Gospel as preached by me". Paul is the author of Romans and apostle to the nations. The Gospel he preaches was taught to Him by Christ following his conversion (see Galatians 1-2). This is the message of the Gospel which he states was "handed down to him" as Christ's death, burial, resurrection and post-resurrection appearances according to the scriptures (see 1 Corinthians 15:1-10). It is the Gospel which comprises the key theme of Romans itself (see Romans 1:16-17). The Gospel expresses God's wisdom and derives from Him (see Romans 11:33-36). 

2. "according to the revelation", Romans 16:25, i.e. the mystery as hidden from plain sight to the Old Testament prophets but fully disclosed in the New Testament. This mystery is two-fold. Firstly, how God would send forth Christ, the second Person of the Trinity, to incarnate Himself in the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth. Then secondly, included in the mystery was the commissioning of the church as the main instrument for propagating the Gospel in this present age until Christ's return (see Matthew 24:14; 28:18-20). 

3. "according to the commandment of the eternal God", 16:26. The Gospel is rooted in the "all-wise God". The covenant of redemption agreed upon by the Father, Son and Spirit concerning the Son's incarnation and plan of salvation came before the creation of the world (see Isaiah 43:10-11; 2 Corinthians 5:15-21; Ephesians 1:1-14; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 1:2; Revelation 13:8). God found it best to raise up a chosen nation among the nations, namely Israel, in the Old Testament (see Exodus 19; Deuteronomy 7:1-9; Amos 3:1-4). Once Christ came, God temporarily set-aside Israel so as to call for all sorts of people from every nation and language (including those among the Jews) to compose His church. Romans 11 spells out the two complementary arrangements God has for Israel and the nations. The salvation of the nations will drive Israel to jealousy to pine after the Messiah - Christ. Meanwhile in temporarily setting aside Israel, the nations get the chance to hear the Gospel in this present age. Once Christ returns, Israel as a nation (not necessarily every individual Jew) will be redeemed upon seeing her Messiah (see Romans 11:25-26; Revelation 1:7). This combined arrangement enables sinners responding to the Gospel call to compose the body of Christ - i.e. the church. 

Closing thoughts:

When one takes the time to read the introduction and conclusion to Paul's epistle to the Romans, the discovery is made of God's grace and wisdom framing the letter. The details are extraordinary when we begin to see how God's grace (Romans 1:1-7) and wisdom (Romans 16:25-27) weave their ways like two threads of gold through the tapestry of Romans. May we look today to the God of grace who is all wise in setting forth salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. 

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Holiness of God

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Isaiah 6:3 “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory.”

Introduction:

Sometimes there is still an advantage to owning a car with a cassette player. This past week I had the occasion to listen once again to R.C. Sproul's classic teaching series: "The Holiness of God" (I happened to have the original 1988 cassette tapes). Dr. Sproul passed away in December 2017. Through his books and message are now available online, the legacy of his concern for Biblical truth continues. Out of all the things he taught, "the holiness of God" stands as his signature teaching series. I'll never forget the time I read his book by the same name: "The Holiness of God". The truth of God's holiness was never so made clear as it was in R.C. Sproul's book and teaching series. 

Re-listening to the series reminded me of the crucial importance of the holiness of God. In the above opening text of Isaiah 6, we find God's holiness repeated in redounding praise three times. Many commentators have noted that as each angel cried out "holy, holy, holy", another angel would join in antiphonal chorus, then another, and another - resulting in all of Heaven filled with this overwhelming theme of God's holiness. 

I find it interesting that Isaiah, the first of the writing prophets, highlights this quality of God in the escalated degree of what is called in the Hebrew "plural of majesty". Holiness alone, among all the attributes, is thrice mentioned. John the Revelator, the final author of scripture, repeats this same refrain in his vision of God in Revelation 4:8

"And the four living creatures, each one of them having six wings, are full of eyes around and within; and day and night they do not cease to say, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come.”

Briefly defining "the holiness of God"

The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 states about God's holiness:

"God is infinite in holiness and all other perfections."

On one level, holiness can and often refers to moral purity. We often refer to the "Bible" as "the Holy Bible" because of the purity and reverence it carries. However, the idea of "moral purity" is but a starting point when thinking of this quality of God. Whenever we apply holiness to objects or other people, it connotes "separation". In scripture, we find the distinction made between "the profane" or "common" and "the holy". Once God has touched a particular object or person, that individual or object is "set-apart" from the surrounding space. Wherever God in His deity intersects with our human experience - such experience is described as "sacred". Space and time itself is made holy or "sacralized" whenever God acts and works within a particular point and time. 

A.W. Tozer writes the following on God's holiness in his landmark book: "Knowledge of the Holy":



"God’s holiness is not simply the best we know infinitely bettered. We know nothing like the divine holiness. It stands apart, unique, unapproachable, incomprehensible and unattainable. The natural man is blind to it. He may fear God’s power and admire His wisdom, but His holiness he cannot even imagine. Only the Spirit of the Holy One can impart to the human spirit the knowledge of the holy. Yet as electric power flows only through a conductor, so the Spirit flows through truth and must find same measure of truth in the mind before He can illuminate the heart. Faith wakes at the voice of truth but responds to no other sound. “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”

God is intrinsically holy

God alone is "Holy" in the most essential sense. Sometimes theologians and philosophers make the distinction between something having "intrinsic value" versus "extrinsic value". The former refers to the value a person or object has in and of itself apart from considerations of outside related objects or people. Extrinsic value refers to how an object or person is valuable relative to another person or object outside of itself. 

God alone is intrinsically Holy. He was holy before creation. He is holy regardless of whether we exist or do not exist. In fact, we could add a third definition of God's holiness - namely, the uniqueness of God in His being. New Testament scholar D.A. Carson has noted that out of all the adjectives used to describe God's holiness, "uniqueness" gets us the closest. God's intrinsic holiness has led many thinkers to refer to God as "Wholly Other", as well as of course referring to Him by the similar sounding phrase: "Holy Other". We could clarify holiness further by reinforcing it with the definition: "uniquely other".

Some Biblical Texts That Speak Of God's Holiness

Numerous texts could be cited to demonstrate the volume of Biblical teaching on God's holiness. However, for sake of space, we will reserve ourselves to a handful of key texts on this subject. Proverbs 9:10 is the text from whence derives Tozer's book mentioned above: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding." Psalm 99:1-3 gives us one of the clearest expositions on God's holiness:

"The Lord reigns, let the peoples tremble; He is enthroned above the cherubim, let the earth shake! 2 The Lord is great in Zion, And He is exalted above all the peoples. 3 Let them praise Your great and awesome name; Holy is He."

From Psalm 99, we learn how God's holiness informs us of His other attributes. Holiness is what makes God, God. Holiness is all of God's goodness and attributes in concentrated, unapproachable, uncreated light. Other qualities of God, such as His divine necessity (that is, God cannot be other than what He is); Divine aseity (that is, God's self-sufficiency and independence); transcendence (that is, God quality of infinite life unshared by any creature, as well as He alone being the Creator of all things) and sovereignty (that is, God's eternal government and influence over, in and through all things) are all realities because of God's holiness. Holiness is both an attribute of God and His essential quality. Holiness also informs the other attributes of love and govern His character. 

How Christ's Holiness is Truly Divine Holiness

Whenever we come to the New Testament, we discover further truths of holiness. To save on the length of today's post, we will restrict ourselves to the Person of Christ in the Gospels. Holiness describes Christ. In Mark 1:24, the demonic host refers to Christ as "the Holy One of God". Luke 1:35 ascribes this quality of holiness to Christ not only due to His Divine nature as God, but also as a result of His assumption of true humanity in the virginal conception by the Holy Spirit. Peter confesses Jesus to be
the Holy One of God" in John 6:69. This quality of holiness in Christ is not the extrinsic holiness we mentioned earlier that results from people or objects touched by God. Christ as the eternal Son of God came as "intrinsically holy". Furthermore, as a Divine Person becoming incarnate, Christ's humanity meant that in a unique way, the incarnate Son's humanity was "intrinsically holy". Peter's response to Jesus' calming of the storm on the Sea of Galilee in Luke 5:8 is much like how people and angels would respond when in the presence of God: 


"But when Simon Peter saw that, he fell down at Jesus’ feet, saying, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” 

As we look at Christ's ministry in the Gospels, we find both repulsion and intrigue. Christ's uniqueness and unparalleled life and ministry marked Him separate. His touch upon sinners rendered them saints. His commissioning of twelve unlikely men resulted in those men becoming apostles. 

Closing thoughts on God's holiness - Applications

Christ's expression of holiness was unique, pure and "wholly other" due to His being God in the flesh. God's holiness is crucial to Christian identity, mission and purpose for living in this world. Is it no wonder that the Christian is called to holiness (see 1 Thessalonians 4:7-8; 1 Peter 1:16). We are called to "be holy, as God is holy". Only with Christ, by the Holy Spirit (Whom we didn't get to discuss in today's post, however, He as the third Person of the Trinity possess the same eternal property of Divine holiness as the Father and Son) can the Christian live out this command.