The Best Resolution for 2019: To Live to Make Jesus Famous!

Photo by Jason Betz on Unsplash

A slightly different version of this article (targeted more to ministry leaders) was featured at the Baptist Convention of New England blog.

On the first day of 2019 I can think of no better resolution than to live for the fame of Jesus Christ more than ever this year. The Christian missionary Henry Martyn was surrounded by religious leaders once who were trying to convert him to Islam. One of the clerics blasphemed Jesus’ name. Henry began to weep. They were surprised and asked him why he was crying. Martyn explained, “You have just blasphemed the name of my wonderful friend and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

In my context in New England, there are many who blaspheme the name of my wonderful friend and Savior, Jesus Christ. But it is more often that they don’t even know his name. Yet I don’t weep about this very often. I am resolving in 2019 to have more of a heart like Henry Martyn, which loves nothing more than to see Jesus lifted up.

The fact that so many around us don’t know who Jesus is should give us a holy angst, a desire to live to make Jesus famous.

Where the Good News of Jesus Goes, His Fame Goes
While words like “glory” and praise” are used much more often to describe the honor that Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord should receive, the word “fame” is used in the Bible as well.

Moses talks about the fame that the LORD had among the surrounding nations (Numbers 14:15), and Psalm 145:7 sings to God about generation after generation pouring “forth the fame of your abundant goodness” and singing “aloud of your righteousness.” In the New Testament, the Gospels talk about Jesus’ fame spreading throughout certain regions, often after he taught or did miracles (Matthew 4:24, 9:31, 14:1, Mark 1:28). As the “gospel of the kingdom” spread, “His fame spread…” (Matthew 4:23-24).

Just imagine what it would be like if our churches were full of people who desired nothing more than to make Jesus famous. We can do this by spreading the gospel of the kingdom. For where the good news of Jesus goes, His fame goes.

Our Core Motivation
Doing ministry, purposefully practicing evangelism, and making disciples through teaching the Word and modeling what it means to follow Jesus are all ways to make Jesus famous. But this core desire to make Jesus famous must motivate all of those ministry activities. Our love for Jesus must burn in our hearts so much that ministry comes out of a desire to see him become more famous, not vice-versa.

Our problem in ministering to others is often not doing the wrong things, but doing the right things for the wrong reasons. When we have our priorities right, God will often bless with stronger churches, more churches, more converts, and more disciples. But a desire to spread Jesus’ fame undergirds these activities in such a way that even if God does not bless in the way we expect or hope or pray, we will continue, because our hearts burn with a desire to see Jesus glorified.

May our longing prayer in 2019 be, “Father, there are so many around me who don’t know your Son. Show them Jesus through me! Show them Jesus through your church!” God loves to answer that prayer. One of the Holy Spirit’s main jobs is to shine the spotlight on Jesus. When we do the same, we are working with Him. Jesus explained, “He [The Spirit] will glorify me…” (John 16:14a).

The New Year is a good time to step back and reevaluate. Maybe it is time for you to refocus. First, are you involved in ministry through a local church and then in your community, region, or the world? Second, is your ministry about you or about Jesus? Is your core motivation the joy of doing ministry, or first and foremost the joy of loving Jesus? Jesus died and rose again “that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for Him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:15). There truly is no greater resolution.

15 Christ-Centered Insights Gleaned From 15 Years of Marriage

My wife Melanie and I are celebrating fifteen years of marriage today. I’m not going to lie; we have a great marriage. Sometimes it seems that people think that because our marriage is sweet, that it must be easy. I am actually skeptical of people who proclaim that marriage is easy. Joyful, yes. Easy, most days. A Christ-honoring marriage requires commitment, sacrifice, and a willingness to grow. We are both sinners (especially me!), but God in His great grace loves to empower, strengthen, redeem, and bless couples who are committed to growing in love for God and for each other.

Knowing Jesus should make a difference in our marriage. Here are fifteen Christ-centered insights gleaned from fifteen years of marriage. These are not listed in order of importance, nor are they comprehensive. But I pray that they are helpful to your marriage.

1) Stay close to God. When I am reading my Bible daily and talking regularly to the Lord in prayer, my relationship with my wife is usually improved greatly. Why? Paul David Tripp helpfully explains in his book, What Did You Expect?, “A marriage of love, unity, and understanding is not rooted in romance; it is rooted in worship…No marriage will be unaffected when the people in the marriage are seeking to get from the creation what they were only ever meant to get from the Creator.”

2) Don’t forget your covenant vows. Love is a wonderful gift from God, but feelings or even acts of love in and of themselves will not sustain a marriage. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from prison to an engaged couple in his church, “It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but…the marriage that sustains your love.” When you said “I do,” you entered into a covenant. You made a vow before God and witnesses. Remember that, love your spouse unconditionally, and the marriage will sustain and even strengthen your love.

3) Love is a sweet gift of God. Enjoy every moment of wedded bliss. Life in a fallen world will throw curve balls at you. Sickness and stress will remind you often enough that you do not live together in Eden. So relish those moments together that are echoes of Eden! There is a verse in Ecclesiastes 9:9 that reminds me to enjoy life with my wife and that not everybody is allowed to enjoy fifteen years or fifty together: “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that He has given you under the sun…” “Vain” can also be translated “fleeting” or “vapor.” Life is like a vapor. Enjoy your spouse’s love as a sweet gift of God, and love your spouse back with all that you have!

I told a Bible Study recently, “The only kind of drunkenness God encourages is being drunk with love for your spouse. In fact, He commands it.” Proverbs 5:19 instructs, “…Be intoxicated always in her love.” That is a stunning grace of God.

4) Help each other grow in Christlikeness. Help your spouse “get in the way of grace”: make it easy for him or her to be involved in a Bible study. Talk about what God is doing in your life and what you are learning about Him. Get deeply involved in a local church where you can worship together, where you will have good teaching, and accountability. Serve in your local church together. When you serve Christ together, you not only build up the body of Christ through serving others, but also encourage each other in following Him. When you serve Christ together, you also grow together in unity with your spouse.

5) Have fun together. My grandparents, who were married for 64 years, used to say that one of their secrets for a happy marriage was laughing together. They were right. If your marriage seems more like being roommates recently than friends and lovers, maybe it is time to plan a fun outing together that you will both enjoy. The happiest part of any day is seeing my bride laugh.

6) Grow in communicating with each other. It is well known by married couples, but not often studied enough by married couples, that we don’t automatically communicate in God-glorifying ways that lift each other up and help each other grow in grace. God has put you on the same “team” to help each other out in life as you raise kids, create a home together, work, serve God, and grow old together. “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:11)

7) Always look to Christ for both your example and your strength. We as married couples have the awesome job of reflecting the relationship between Christ and the church to the world, our families and children, and other believers. Ephesians 5:22-33 means that every one of our marriages reflect some sort of picture of the gospel to others. When I look to Jesus for how to treat my wife, He also gives me strength to do so. The gospel is the engine that keeps me on the train track of growth as a husband.

8) Plan time for each other. Ministry can be very consuming, just as many jobs can be. I am so thankful for the pastor I worked with when Melanie and I were married. He brought me to Deuteronomy 24:5 and taught me how the Israelite men would stay home from war for one year after getting married so they could focus on their new marriage. He taught me that spending time with my wife was never wasted time. God makes it a priority and so should we. Don’t coast in your marriage!

9) Pursue and embrace forgiveness. Melanie has taught me more about how Jesus loves me than anyone else because she has lived with me point blank for fifteen years and yet she continues to love me and forgive me when I sin against her. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)

10) Grow in understanding that you are on the same team. We clear up conflict much quicker than we did when we were first married fifteen years ago. Why? Partly because we know that we are on the same team! There is only one “person” who is our enemy, and that is Satan. It is no accident that the famous spiritual armor passage of Ephesians 6 that outlines the cosmic spiritual battle we are in, is close to Ephesians 5, the longest New Testament passage on marriage. When you know deep down that you are on the same team, it goes a long way to building the “one flesh” kind of unity that God calls us to (Genesis 2:24).

11) Love with a serving love. The Savior wants me to love my wife like He loves her. While I know I will never replace His love, it is a joy to grow in reflecting His love. One of the best ways I can do that is by learning to serve my wife. Jesus showed his love to His disciples with a basin and towel as He washed their feet. There is nothing God can call me to do for my wife that is too great of a sacrifice (John 15:13). My Savior laid down His very life for His bride.

12) Love with a hopeful love. “Love hopes all things…” (1 Corinthians 13:7) God calls us to not only love our spouse for who he or she is, but also to pray for him or her to grow into a godly man or a godly woman even as you grow in your walk with Christ. Remember that God is not finished with your spouse yet. We should be filling each other’s sails to help each other grow in whatever God has called us to. We don’t want others to think the worst about us, but sometimes we don’t extend the same courtesy to our spouse. Who your spouse is fifteen years from now will in part be a reflection of how well you have loved him or her.

13) Pray together. I am still growing in this. No one has challenged me more to pray with my wife than Dennis Rainey through his ministry at FamilyLife. He challenges husbands to pray every day with their wives (and more than just at meals). It is very hard to be angry with somebody you are praying with. In fact, praying together will help you to pursue God together. It will reveal your hearts and knit your hearts together as you come to the Throne of Grace together.

14) Remember that you are building a legacy. Live with each other not just for this moment, but for the next decade or the next five decades. During your first year of marriage, it is hard to see past the next couple of months. But having the perspective that our choices today will impact our children and grandchildren–even generations that we will never meet–will build habits and patterns in our lives that put eternity first. The legacy of a couple that is deeply in love with God and madly in love with each other has a bigger impact than we will ever know until Heaven.

15) I married the best woman out there. Really; I thank God every day for Melanie. I can’t imagine life and love without her. She’s mine and mine alone.

But guess what? If you are married, this applies to your spouse too! The pastor who married us said in our wedding sermon, “Tim, Melanie is God’s best for you.” Then he looked at Melanie and said, “Melanie, Tim is God’s best for you.” Believing this means following God’s will; disbelieving it means listening to the lies of the evil one. Jesus said, “So they are no longer two but one flesh. What God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Mark 10:8b-9)

If you are single, remember that once you are married, that person is God’s best for you. Pick wisely. I know I did!

Don’t Be Afraid to Question What We’ve Been Told

Photo by asoggetti on Unsplash

This article was featured in the Opinion section of The Manchester Journal.

It used to be that it was countercultural to question what we had always been told about God by the Bible. But today, it is countercultural to question what we have always been told about God by our culture.

My wife and I recently brought our kids to see the movie Smallfoot and by the end of the movie I found myself thinking about the countercultural claims of Christianity. The movie is about a community of Yetis who live high up in the mountains. One day, one of them discovers a “smallfoot,” a human. Even though the human is carried away by his parachute, the discovery won’t leave the Yeti’s mind and he begins to tell everyone. That is when the community stone keeper comes out of his cave and reminds everyone of what the stones say. He wears a huge robe of stones that have certain “truths” engraved upon them. One of the stones proclaims that there is no such thing as a smallfoot–end of story.  Another stone says that Yetis shall never go below the clouds. Eventually, however, the Yeti finds a human below the clouds, at a village at the base of the mountain. It is then discovered that the stone keeper has been protecting an elaborate cover-up and that even the clouds that surround their mountain community are not real. The Yetis discover that there is a whole different world below the clouds.

Any American with religion on his or her mind who watched this movie maybe even fifteen years ago, would have thought of religious leaders as the stone keepers of our own communities. Christians were often seen as people who believed in an elaborate cover-up. But today, things have changed.

The “stone keepers,” the keepers of “truth,” in our communities are usually not seen as Christians anymore, but rather anyone who proclaims that there is no God. From before we are even able to read or write, we are now told over and over and over by the media, by textbooks, and by government officials, not only that there is no God, but that he is a topic that is off limits.

If anyone brings up God in a public discussion, that person is immediately told something along the lines of “separation of church and state forbids that.” But the lines of community life and state life are so often blurred in our public conscience now. People are more and more afraid to even say “God” in public anywhere, let alone discuss him.

However, there are curious minds who are questioning what they’ve been told. The Bible talks about this. Romans 1:19-20 explains, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” God says in the Bible that everyone knows that he exists, even if we like to say that he is not up for discussion anymore.

So don’t be afraid to question what we’ve been told. As we come up to Thanksgiving, don’t be afraid to think about the fact that what you have been told may be wrong, and there may be a God who does need to be thanked. As we come up to Christmas, don’t be afraid to crack a Bible open and read in the Gospel of John about a man named Jesus whom we are told was not only a man but also God in the flesh (John 1:14), and in fact “God with us” (Matthew 1:23).

Don’t be afraid to peek beneath the clouds and see that there is a whole different reality out there that you may be missing. You might have your mind blown. And your soul saved.

Bruised Reeds and Smoldering Wicks Are Not Useless to Jesus

bruised reed 1

This article was featured at For The Church and then at Challies.com.

The scene is astonishing. Jesus has just given his magnum opus, the Sermon on the Mount. The people are amazed at his teaching. He begins to walk down the mountain, and great crowds follow him. His teaching ministry coupled with his healing ministry seems to be making many wonder if he is indeed the Messiah. Then it happened.

As Jesus walked with this crowd around him, suddenly the crowd parted as gasps of horror were heard. Then perhaps the bravest began to express what was on the mind of many: “What is he doing here?” “Get away from the Teacher!” “Go back to where lepers belong, outside of the city!”

But it was too late. The man who was not supposed to be near others, the man nobody was supposed to touch, was kneeling in front of Jesus. I imagine that he was louder than the accusers. He had nothing to lose and he knew that Jesus was his only hope: “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.”

Then the unthinkable happened. Jesus touched him. Jesus talked to him. Jesus healed him. Matthew 8:3 continues, “And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I will; be clean.’ And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.

Jesus never turned away a person who came to him broken, hurting, and deemed “useless” by society and religious people. In fact, it seems that he often gathered these people around him. Think about how staggering this is. Lepers. Prostitutes. The blind. The physically disabled. The demon possessed. Jesus did not crush them, but rather healed them. Spent time with them. Forgave them. Put them into his service.

Jesus loves bruised reeds and smoldering wicks. Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t. Bruised reeds can seem useless. Smoldering wicks can make a lot of smoke and give little light. Yet since when did God love us based on what we can offer him? The Apostle Paul goes out of his way to make sure the Corinthians–and we–understand that it is only because of the grace of God that we are in Christ, not because of our own wisdom, status, or great things we have done (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).

When we know and remember the mercy, grace, patience, and love that Jesus has given to us, we will be able to reflect his heart. Pouring out mercy, grace, patience, and love to those who cannot or will not pay it back to us mirrors Jesus and shows him to be the strong and gentle Savior that he is.

Bruised Reeds, Smoldering Wicks, and the Love and Gentleness of Jesus
Matthew 12 helps us to understand how Jesus simultaneously fulfilled prophecy and showed God’s heart towards those who are hurting, broken, and looking to Jesus. Jesus has just healed the man with the withered hand in the synagogue, even though the Pharisees disapproved since it was the Sabbath. This compassion to a hurting person during a “worship service” made them want to destroy him.

So “Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all…” Then Matthew explains that this was to fulfill what Isaiah wrote in chapter 42, part of which describes how the Messiah would treat people: “…a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench…” (Matthew 12:20, Isaiah 42:3)

Isaiah, in his expressive word pictures and poetic prophecy, describes hurting people as bruised reeds and smoldering wicks.

Bruised reeds were useless. Shepherds would make small musical instruments from reeds and once they were cracked, they would no longer make music. So they would be thrown out. Nobody would blame the shepherds for that. But when it comes to people who are like bruised reeds, Jesus does not despise or reject them. He will not break them, but he welcomes them and offers them healing if they will but come to him.

Smoldering wicks were useless. In a time that people depended on lamps for light, smoldering wicks did nothing but create smoke in the house and give little or no light. So they would be snuffed out. This made sense. But when it comes to people who are like smoldering wicks, people who create more smoke than light, people who seem to create more problems than they are worth, Jesus does not despise or reject them. He will not snuff them out, but he welcomes them and will make them a light for him if they will but come to him.

Reflecting Jesus’ heart towards broken and hurting people does not mean that we are never appropriately firm with someone who needs boundaries, and this does not mean that we believe in a squishy love that does not love someone enough to tell them the truth. Jesus was perfect truth and perfect grace all the time. But it does mean that we will see broken and hurting people as people who need Jesus like the rest of us.

This is part of what Ray Ortlund calls a “Gospel Culture” in a church. In other words, a church professing the gospel should have a church culture that encourages reflecting the gospel in the way we treat each other. It is easy to love others who love us. But I need Jesus to help me love those who cannot seem to offer myself or my church anything but brokenness and smoke.

Jesus, help me to reflect your heart towards bruised reeds and smoldering wicks. Jesus, may the bruised reeds and smoldering wicks in my life, in my church, and in my community know that you are a gentle, patient, and loving Savior through the way we treat them. They are not useless to you; may they never be useless to us.

Stubborn Love: Reflecting the Gospel By Keeping Your Marriage Covenant

This post originally appeared at The Master’s Seminary Blog and was then featured at Challies.com.

It happened again just the other day. My wife and I were shocked to hear of yet another Christian couple we knew and loved who were getting divorced. I felt sick for several minutes, thinking about the aftermath for years and decades to come.

It’s almost as if Christians are getting used to our marriages mimicking marriages in the world. We think of divorce like a car crash: unpleasant, destructive, but something that just invariably happens now and then. However, the effects of divorce on the couple, their children, and their families are worse than any car wreck. Divorce not only affects the family, but it is devastating to our commission to reflect the gospel to the world.

On the flip side, a couple who keeps their wedding vows “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part…” can have a huge impact for Christ.

I recently officiated a memorial service for a woman who had been fighting Alzheimer’s. The last years of her life were extremely difficult and she rarely recognized her husband. Yet week after week he faithfully drove four hours just to see her. On his last visit, she cradled his face in her hands and told him, “I love you.” At the memorial service, the impact their marriage of 58 years had for the gospel was tangible—including their stubborn love for each other through thick and thin.

There are two biblical truths that can help us to understand why God calls us to reflect the gospel by keeping our marriage covenant: 1) Satan hates your marriage. 2) Jesus will never leave his bride.

SATAN HATES YOUR MARRIAGE

If we understand that we have an enemy, and that enemy is not our spouse, it can make all the difference in the world. Satan has hated marriage from the beginning, just as he hates all of God’s good creation.

When God created Eve and then ushered her as the first bride to Adam, the Scriptures say this: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” (Gen 2:24-25)

But Satan wasted no time in tempting them to sin, ultimately creating a rift between them so giant that only Jesus could heal it. Right after God created marital bliss, we are introduced to the great enemy of marriage. “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made.” (Gen 3:1) In the following verses, we see the immediate results of Satan’s temptation. Eve tempts her husband to sin. And Adam blames both God and his wife for his sin, rather than taking responsibility for it.

Satan continues to hate marriage because it was created by God to reflect the relationship between Christ and His bride, the church. (Eph 5:31-32) When we give up on our marriages, when we are unfaithful to our covenants through infidelity or pornography, when we stop fighting for our marriages with a holy stubbornness that says, “No matter what, I will not let you go,” we are allowing Satan to win. More than that, we are reflecting his evil desires for our marriage rather than reflecting the love of the One who came to destroy the work of the devil.

JESUS WILL NEVER LEAVE HIS BRIDE

Although Satan hates your marriage, the glorious truth is that Jesus will never leave His bride. Sally Lloyd-Jones described God’s covenant love as His “never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever love.” When Jesus came to earth as God in the flesh, He put skin on this kind of unconditional love. He showed us in action what love looks like. When we display Jesus’ love for us in the New Covenant of the gospel by keeping our marriage covenant, we show His love to the world and reflect the gospel.

Jesus will never leave His bride. Followers of Jesus shouldn’t either.

Yet, Jesus does more than provide a supreme example of stubborn love for His bride. Part of the good news of the gospel is that believers are given the power to act righteously. Because of Christ’s death and resurrection, we can lean into Jesus today to give us the strength to follow Him in giving His kind of covenant love to our spouse.

I remember hearing the testimony of a young couple who had been on the brink of divorce. The husband had struggled with anger their whole marriage and the wife had committed adultery. After he and his wife had separated, the husband repented and turned back to the Lord. In an attempt to reconcile, he looked at her one day and said, “Do you believe that Jesus died on the cross for your sins and rose from the dead?”

“Yes,” his wife replied, “I do believe that.”

He responded, “And do you really believe that God could raise a dead man back to life and not breathe new life back into our marriage?” They began going to church together and then biblical counseling soon after, and were restored.

If Satan seems to have the upper hand in your marriage right now, and if you are weary of trying to love your spouse in your own strength, the gospel has a better word for you.

Sing this prayer to Jesus today as you seek to reflect His faithful love to your spouse:
O love that will not let me go, 
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow, 
May richer, fuller be
.”

5 Reasons Every Pastor Should Be Involved in VBS or Camp Ministry

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Me with 185 campers at Camp Gilead for Junior Camp, July 2018 (www.campgilead.org)

This article was featured at For The Church.

I know, I know, I can already hear the objections and excuses. We pastors are often tired, overworked, and burdened men. That is exactly why I ask you to consider being involved in VBS and/or Christian camp ministry next summer, or this summer if it’s not too late. We need the joy these ministries offer.

I didn’t say that you or I should be directing VBS or Camp Ministry, but involved. I do believe in pastors equipping the saints for the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12), and that churches are healthiest when all the members are serving and using their gifts.

Yet, the sheep are encouraged when they see their shepherd getting in the sheep pen with them. Here are five reasons you should climb in, although there are many more:

1. It will bring you joy.
I just came off of 2 weeks of summer youth outreach ministry. The first week was serving as the camp pastor for a Christian Junior Camp (3rd-5th Grade). The second week was simply assisting with the VBS at our church for 4-6 year olds, taking pictures at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes sports camp for older kids that we sponsored at the same time, and teaching 3 Bible studies during the week. I am tired. And full of joy.

It is good to step away from the day to day grind of the church office and admin, and even be outside a bit more. Spurgeon said so: “A day’s breathing of fresh air upon the hills, or a few hours ramble in the beech woods’ umbrageous calm, would sweep the cobwebs out of the brain of scores of our toiling ministers who are now but half alive…[It] would not give grace to the soul, but it would yield oxygen to the body, which is next best.” (Lectures to my Students)  

Take a vacation day–or week or two–and do what Spurgeon recommends. But during the week of Vacation Bible School, rearrange your ministry schedule and do what Spurgeon recommends by serving and interacting with kids. If you are only teaching during the Bible study time, step outside with them for game time too.

Hearing children laugh, being in the room with them when they sing and do motions, witnessing a child’s eyes light up when they first hear that Jesus rose from the dead, meeting parents in the community who didn’t even know your church existed before, and doing this all together with others in your church for the glory of Christ, will bring you a large dose of joy.

The complaining and disgruntled church member can wait a week. Seeing the joy of the gospel through children’s eyes can’t wait.

2. You get to share the gospel.
You get to share the gospel with some who have never heard the good news–ever. You get to share the gospel with children who are in your church week after week, but maybe never hear the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection for them from your lips. Church members get to see you in the trenches with them, explaining the gospel with both love and seriousness in your eyes and on your face. You get to share the gospel with kids at camp who have never stepped foot in a church, and “church kids” at camp who were in church before they came out of the womb. You get to share the gospel. Enough said.

3. You will appreciate your Children’s Ministry volunteers more.
The Children’s Ministry volunteers in your church probably get little recognition this side of Heaven, and seeing them work so closely with little ones will help you to appreciate them more, and shepherd them better. There is something about seeing them wipe little noses, and wipe glue off of tables, and help a Kindergartner glue a “Jesus Loves You” heart onto a craft stick, and hug a little kid who fell down on the playground, that binds your heart with their hearts. You are in this together, for Jesus’ fame.

Serving with them in Vacation Bible School, or seeing another youth or children’s ministry such as a Christian Camp, will also help give you new ministry ideas for your church and community.

I love VBSDon’t miss out on the fresh ministry ideas and opportunities to improve your ministry to families and the community because you think you need to keep your nose to the grindstone. Sometimes looking up from the grindstone and seeing what is happening around you in ministry through other believers is even more productive for Christ’s Kingdom.

4. It will sharpen your teaching to adults.
If you get an opportunity to teach children–whether it’s a week of chapels at a Christian camp, or even one Bible study during VBS–take it! Being forced to see the Scriptures through the eyes of a 5 year old or a 5th grader will help you to boil it down to the most basic truths. It will help you see the big picture. It will help you illustrate the Word better. It will help you pray for children more. It will help you think of fresh ideas for teaching adults.

5. What would Jesus do?
Think about it: WWJD? Do you really think Jesus would stay holed up in His office while a team of volunteers loved on kids and taught the good news about His death and resurrection to them? His disciples thought so.

But Jesus corrected them: “Now they were bringing even infants to Him that He might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to Him, saying, ‘Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.'” (Luke 18:15-16)

Brothers, for your own heart, and for your ministry, be involved in VBS and camp ministry!

Hold On to the God Who Holds You: How He Comforts Us with Election

This article first appeared on DesiringGod.org.

Desiring God water pic

As a pastor, I had visited church members in the psych ward before, but this time the church member was our dear friend Sarah (her name has been changed for privacy). She had no family nearby, but lived just a few miles from us. When Sarah was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, my wife began to bring her meals. We would visit her whenever we could. One of the treatments had taken a horrible turn. Dark side effects landed Sarah in the psych ward.

She looked at me that afternoon from her hospital bed, almost without recognition, with deep pain in her eyes. I reminded her of the care of her church family and the love of Christ for her. A tear rolled down her cheek and she whispered, “Guilty.”

I knew that Sarah needed bedrock gospel truth under her feet, so I turned to Romans 8 and began to read to her, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Her eyes flashed with recognition. I continued to read until I got to verse 30, and then an amazing thing happened. Sarah was crying out the words of Romans 8:30 with me, like a drowning woman holding on to a life preserver.

We both exclaimed those precious promises out loud in the stark and sterile room, tears streaming down our faces: “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:30). At that moment, neither of us was arguing for the doctrine of God’s absolute sovereignty over salvation. We were exulting in our election. Sarah could not hold on to God in her darkest hour, but she knew that he was still holding on to her.

Comfort of God’s Choice

“God didn’t give us insight into the great mysteries of his sovereign grace to confuse us, but to comfort us.”

I used to experience election merely as theoretical. Too often I saw the doctrine through the lens of debate rather than through the lens of worship and trust. Sarah changed that for me. Seeing election anchor Sarah in the psych ward gave me a fresh perspective on why God has revealed to us that we were chosen by him before he formed the world. God didn’t give us insight into the great mysteries of his sovereign grace to confuse us, but to comfort us with his unstoppable, eternal love for us.

Being reminded of God’s choice to love her in eternity past was a comfort for Sarah on that bleak afternoon. She knew that nothing could separate her from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.

Our salvation did not start with us, is not sustained by us, and will not be completed by our strength. The domino effects leading to our salvation did not begin at birth, or even at Christ’s birth, but in eternity past when God foreknew us. Unconditional election knocks the wind out of our pride, but it also buoys us up when we feel like we’re drowning.

When the clouds seem to be blocking our Father’s face, when all of our relationships are being dragged through a valley, when we hear of a relative diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, we need the security of electing grace. And when the sun is shining, our spouse loves us, our kids are well-behaved, and work is going better than we ever expected, God’s electing love reminds us that every gift is a gift of grace.

Holding On, Being Held

When I visited Sarah a few days later, she was doing better. The medications were being balanced and the side effects had diminished, although she was still being kept and monitored. As we sang “In Christ Alone” together, our voices rose loudest when we sang, “From life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny. No power of hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from his hand.”

There is something profoundly stabilizing about knowing that the most powerful One in the universe holds you (John 10:28–29). He knew everything about our frailties and even our sins, but he chose us, came for us, and redeemed us anyway.

“Unconditional election knocks the wind out of our pride, but it also buoys us up when we feel like we’re drowning.”

That stay in the psych ward was not the end of the story for my sister in Christ. Just as God makes each of us more than conquerors, he empowered Sarah to conquer. She is not a conqueror because she overcame her depression immediately, or because the cancer stopped spreading. In fact, she died a couple of years later. Sarah is more than a conqueror because the God who predestined her also promised that she would be glorified.

That was the promise she was holding on to the last time I saw her, and it is the promise that she will be praising Christ for the next time I see her.

“Is My Baby In Heaven?” Why I Believe God’s Word Assures Us We Can Say, “Yes.”

TMS baby picThis post first appeared on The Master’s Seminary blog.

When my wife first showed me the positive pregnancy test, we were overjoyed. Ecstatic. It was hard to believe that in 7 1/2 short months we would be holding our baby. A little person who looked like both of us, who would soon be calling us “Mama” and “Dada.”

Since I was a pastor several states away from family, we wanted to make this announcement really special for them. That Friday, we bought the books What Grandparents Do Best and What Aunts and Uncles Do Best to send in the mail. We planned to write notes to accompany the books over the weekend so they would be ready to mail on Monday. But Saturday morning, we were in the E.R. We were having a miscarriage.

If you received a call from a grieving husband like me, what would you say to the question: “Is my baby in heaven?” Too many Christians, and even some theologians, believe we need to be agnostics when it comes to this question.

In other words, it may be true that God saves babies. They say the attributes of God point us in that direction, but they believe Scripture is silent on the issue. Many parents are left to wonder where their baby is—not believing they can know for sure until they enter heaven themselves.

God does not want us to be agnostics on the eternal destiny of babies. Shouldn’t we expect that He would give us an answer to something that affects so many? I believe that God is clear in Scripture that He welcomes into heaven each baby who dies, born or unborn (Ps 139). And this extends to young children and the mentally disabled who die before they are able to understand salvation. God is not silent on this question.

When our miscarriage happened during our first pregnancy, I dove into the Scriptures to find comfort for my wife. But I had already found biblical answers for my mind years earlier. When I was a young associate pastor, while the senior pastor was on vacation, a new couple in our church went into the hospital to deliver conjoined twins. The babies died in their mother’s arms within a minute. When I went into the hospital room to pray with the parents and saw those tiny faces, I knew I needed to be more biblically sure of the destination of those babies’ souls.

That night I went home and read an entire book that I received at a Shepherd’s Conference, John MacArthur’s Safe In The Arms of God. It confirmed what I already knew from Scripture, but also gave me great confidence in the eternal destiny of infants, young children, and the mentally disabled who are unable to understand salvation.

Why do I agree with what Calvin stated in his Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, “It would be too cruel to exclude that age from the grace of redemption”? What Scripture passages can give you this kind of confidence?

GOD’S VIEW OF CHILDREN

God has special care for all babies, even the babies of unbelieving idol worshipers. As MacArthur explains, “God considers all babies to be His.” God condemns sinful child-sacrificing Israel in Ezekiel 16:21, “You slaughtered My children and offered them up to idols by causing them to pass through the fire.”

Some may object that this only applies to children who are part of God’s covenant people. However, Jonah 4:11 explains God’s mercy even on the children of a pagan nation: “Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand…”

This would include both children and the mentally disabled who were unable to understand facts such as this. God takes ownership of these “innocents” (Jer 19:4), those who do not yet “know enough to refuse evil and choose good” (Isa 7:15-16).

JESUS’ LOVE FOR CHILDREN

If you want to see God’s heart for children, you need to look no further than Jesus, who is God incarnate. In Mark 10:13-16Luke 18:15-17, and Matthew 19:13-15 we see Jesus hugging little children (and even infants!). But these passages teach more than Christ’s tenderness or the fact that He wanted children to be cared for within the church and trained in His ways.

It would be inconsistent if little children who die before they can understand law and grace and sin and salvation go to hell. There is no other instance in Scripture of Jesus specifically blessing those who are destined for hell. William Hendriksen, in his Gospel of Mark commentary, writes that it is significant that Christ did not view them as “little heathen,” but rather saw them as being in the kingdom.

DAVID’S BELIEF

When David’s infant son dies, his servants are surprised that David gets up from his fasting and weeping once the child is dead. David answers, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows, the LORD may be gracious to me, that the child may live.’ But now he has died; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.” (2 Sam 12:22-23)

Some have said that David simply meant he would join his son in the grave. But that is no comfort! He was not just shrugging off the fact that his child had died, ready to move on. He was encouraged enough to want to worship, clean up, and eat! David knew that he would be in heaven forever after death (Ps 23:6). David also knew that this was the eternal destiny of his baby.

THEOLOGICAL REASONS

One major theological argument in favor of heaven as the eternal home of infants is that we are saved by grace, but damned by works. Whenever Scripture describes those who will inhabit hell, the emphasis is on their willful sin and rebellion against God (1 Cor 6:9-10Eph 5:5, etc.). Listen to the account of the Great White Throne Judgment: “And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books…And they were judged, each one according to his works.” (Rev 20:12-13) Infants, young children, and the mentally handicapped who have the capacity of children do not fully understand the difference between right and wrong, between God’s law and God’s grace, so they do not have willful sin.

This brief overview has given us just some of the main reasons to believe that a baby who dies goes to Heaven. The flip side of the debate—that babies who die go to hell—has very few people willing to explain their position and little if any biblical support. Spurgeon explained this in his sermon Expositions of the Doctrines of Grace in a way that only Spurgeon can…

There may have existed somewhere in some corner of the earth a miscreant who would dare to say that there were infants in hell, but I have never met with him, nor have I met with a man who ever saw such a person…we hold that all infants [who die] are elect of God and are therefore saved, and we look to this as being the means by which Christ shall see of the travail of His soul to a great degree, and we do sometimes hope that thus the multitude of the saved shall be made to exceed the multitude of the lost…I believe that the Lord Jesus, who said ‘of such is the kingdom of heaven,’ doth daily and constantly receive into His loving arms those tender ones who are only shown and then snatched away to heaven.

A week after I prayed with the parents of the conjoined twins, I received a phone call from their father who was preparing for their funeral. He asked, “Can you show me the verse that says that babies who die go to heaven?” I brought him to 2 Samuel and we talked about David’s hope of seeing his son in heaven. I brought him to Revelation 20 and we talked about how we are saved by grace but condemned by our sinful works. We talked about the fact that his babies had never done neither good nor evil but were saved by Christ’s great and quiet grace, because of His blood.

But I mostly talked with him about Jesus’ love for children and that He said that the Kingdom of God belongs to them. That is what he spoke about a few days later as he stood next to their tiny coffin: that he and his wife knew they would see their twins again because they knew that Jesus loved their babies. They were and are in Christ’s Kingdom.

If you are reading this because your arms are empty today, remember that Jesus loves the little children. If you trust in Jesus, part of the glory you will experience on the day you enter heaven will be meeting your little one again.

Oh, praise our Savior, because “little ones to Him belong!” Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves my baby. The Bible tells me so.

Feed the Sheep – No Matter How Many Are in the Pasture

This article was featured at For The Church and LifeWay Pastors.

One of the last ministry conversations I had with my grandpa is one that will stick with me for the rest of my life. I was driving home from Prayer Meeting. I was tired. I was discouraged.

I had been pastoring for five months in Vermont, and Prayer Meeting had slowly shrunk as the excitement of having a new pastor ebbed and as summer activities and travel amped up. I had decided to begin a “How To Study the Bible” series in the Fall that we would dip into each Wednesday evening before our time of prayer. It was the first Bible study that I had created a graphic for. I advertised it for weeks and sent out special e-mails. I studied and prepared and prayed. Four people showed up that first night.

As I drove home, I remembered that my grandpa had pastored faithfully for over 40 years in several small churches. Surely he had been discouraged at times with the number of those he preached to or taught a Bible study to, so I called him. Here is what he said that I will never forget:

“God’s job is to worry about the number of sheep. Your job is to feed the sheep.” – Cordell Baker

What my grandpa taught me that night has echoed in my mind again and again since then, because it was backed up with the faithfulness of his life. He had consistently fed the sheep that God gave him even as he served in hard places like a small town in Utah.

As Jesus told Peter, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:17) Jesus didn’t tell Peter to only feed the sheep if the pasture was overflowing. If we think that Christ is only worthy of being preached to a larger church, we are committing two major errors: not valuing Christ highly enough, and not valuing people that Christ values.

The Value of Preaching Christ is Not Dependent on The Number of Listeners
When we tie our value as preachers to the number of people that we are preaching to, what we don’t realize is that we are devaluing the Christ that we preach. Jesus is all-glorious and he is worthy of being proclaimed in both small churches and mega churches, both small towns and large cities.

The reason that we devalue Christ when we look down upon preaching him to a small congregation is because we are essentially telling him, “You are worthy of being proclaimed when there are lots of ears to hear, but when there are fewer ears, I don’t see you for who you are.” When we promote missions we will talk about the fact that Christ is worthy to be proclaimed in a small village among an unreached people group in another country. But do we remember that the same Christ is worthy to be proclaimed in our small churches on Sunday morning?

All things were created through him and for him.” (Colossians 1:16b) Since all things were created for him, he is Lord of our small towns today. Jesus is worthy of being proclaimed in all places.

The Value of the People You Preach To is Not Dependent on the Size of Your Church
The other error that can creep into our thinking is not valuing people that Christ values. You don’t have to read far into the Gospels to realize that Jesus often ministered in the small places. He did travel to Jerusalem now and then, but he spent the bulk of his time in out-of-the-way places with people that were often looked down upon by the cultural elite. Yes, Jesus preached to thousands. But Jesus also healed one man with a withered hand in one small synagogue in small town Galilee. And he preached in the small towns again and again (Mark 1:38).

I had to wrestle with this before I accepted a call to the least reached state in the U.S., to a church that had 50 people in the pews on a larger Sunday. The church I was in at the time had 300 on an average Sunday. Would I be wasting the gifts that God had given me by preaching to fewer people? As I prayed through this, I was struck by who I would be preaching to there: brothers and sisters in Christ who need to be fed the Word week in and week out, and people who desperately need to know Christ as Savior. The needs of both believers and unbelievers are the same in any church, no matter the size. And the Savior who meets their needs is the same One.

Don’t Disdain What Christ Values
I was encouraged in the importance of preaching Christ in the small town the Lord has placed me in at a recent Gospel Coalition Small Town Summit. Just as my grandpa reminding me to feed the sheep–no matter how large the flock–continues to shape my view of preaching week in and week out, there is one phrase I heard there that keeps echoing in my head:

“The gospel does not disdain what is small.” – Stephen Witmer

At the Small Town Summit, Whitmer reminded us that God often works through the small. God saved the world through sending one baby. Jesus trained 12 disciples. The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. Only the Lord knows what he will do with an army of preachers who are committed to expositing God’s Word with precision and passion week in and week out in small churches across America.

Brothers, remember that the value of preaching Christ is not dependent on the number of listeners hearing you preach, but dependent on the value of the Christ that you preach. The supremacy of Christ over all things is what makes preaching him valuable, whether it is to 30 or 3,000 people. So study, and pray, and preach with all the strength that you have, to the glory of God–no matter how many people are in the room.

Why Christians Get Excited About Easter

empty tombThis article appeared in The Manchester Journalthe The Burlington Free Press, and The Bennington Banner.

Just over three months ago, my family and I were wondering if we would get our first white Christmas after three years in Vermont. As I write this today, we have 18 inches of snow on the ground and my kids are amazed by the mountains of snow on the edges of the church parking lot. There is no doubt that cabin fever has set in, as the prospect of snow on the ground for Easter is looking more likely each day. Yet I have begun to hear what I have come to expect from the resilient people of Manchester and the mountains: “Another storm next week, but spring is coming.” This is always said with a twinkle in the eyes, a twinkle of hope. There is snow on the ground now, but the peas will be planted in the ground before too long. That’s just how it is some years.

I can’t help but see a faint shadow of resurrection hope in our sure hope for the arrival of spring. The reason that Christians get so excited about Easter is because we need to be reminded that although we live in brokenness now, resurrection is coming. It’s the same attitude that can say with snow on the ground, “Another storm next week, but spring is coming.” Easter is the reason that Christians can face difficult things with a twinkle in our eyes, “Another diagnosis of cancer, but resurrection is coming.” The reason we can be resolute in our faith when life is hard is exactly because of the resurrection.

Sometimes even Christians forget how crucial the resurrection is to our faith. We need Easter to remind us that the resurrection is promised, and it matters. The Apostle Paul explained this in the Bible, “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). Paul doesn’t say that if the resurrection is not true then at least Christians are bringing some good into the world, so keep doing what you’re doing. No, he says if the resurrection is not true, let’s pack it up. Let’s close our doors. But then six verses later he exclaims, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead…”

I experienced the weight of the resurrection a few years ago as I stood with a 17 year old at a headstone. We had just had coffee. I was checking in on him one on one because his mother had passed away a couple of months earlier. As we sipped the last remains of our Frappuccinos, he surprised me by asking, “Do you want to go with me to my mom’s grave?” When we arrived at the cemetery, there was grass from the lawn mowers strewn across the headstone, so I watched as he bent down and gently cleaned off her name. We stood in silence for a few moments, talked about her for a few minutes, and then I prayed with him, thanking God that because of Jesus’ resurrection he would see her again.

So you will have to excuse us if we get excited about Easter. You would be excited too if you believed that you would be raised from the dead. Easter means so much more to us than a change in the weather, or a poetic metaphor of new life. Spring weather and metaphors of new life have their place, but we know that they won’t give us the rock solid hope that we need when we stand in front of the grave of a loved one. We have something better to celebrate, which is the resurrection of our savior Jesus–and we know that his resurrection means that we have the hope of resurrection.

Just before he raised Lazarus from the dead, Jesus comforted Lazarus’ grief-stricken sister Martha with words that no mere man has ever been able to repeat, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26). Then he asked her the key question, “Do you believe this?” Christians get excited about Easter because we do believe this, and Easter reminds us that as surely as the snow will melt into spring, resurrection is coming.