One of my heroes of the faith is a pastor 20 years older than me. He was the first pastor I had who preached expositionally verse-by-verse. His family has been an example to my wife and I for family devotions and what godly discipline and love looks like, as they often welcomed us into their home. He officiated our wedding and preached a short wedding sermon that I still remember to this day. I have called him when I didn’t know who else I could get wisdom from for certain sticky counseling or church situations. I admire his love for missions and his willingness to go build up and encourage the church where others fear to go. If you can’t tell, this mentor and friend is someone I have looked up to and benefited from for the last 24 years of my life and ministry. I look to him as an example. But I don’t look to him to give me daily strength.
Faithful Christians whom we love and know can inspire us, but they cannot be our source of strength. We look to them, but we fix our eyes on Jesus.
My devotional life and pastoral ministry have been greatly shaped by the writings and lives of faithful men and women like Luther, Spurgeon, Corrie Ten Boom, Elisabeth Elliot, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. I look to them as examples of great faith and faithfulness. But I don’t look to them for strength.
Although faithful Christians who have gone before us can inspire us, they cannot strengthen us. We look to them, but we fix our eyes on Jesus.
As we prepare our hearts to remember Christ’s death and ultimately his triumph over death, I have been thinking about this distinction. We gather encouragement and help from others, whether our friends and mentors or people we admire from church history, and in that sense you could say they strengthen us. But only the Spirit of Jesus lives within us (Romans 8:9). He alone is always there for us.
In Hebrews 11, we have the “Hall of Faith” in which the writer of Hebrews lays out example after example for us, 39 verses, about faithful men and women who inspire us. In fact, as he turns the corner to Hebrews 12, he uses them as motivation for godly living today: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1) He tells us, “Look–they faced incredible challenges and obstacles to their faith, but they made it. You can too.”
But in those 39 verses of chapter 11, while he holds them out as examples to look to, he never tells us to fixate on them. In fact, he never commands us to look to them. They are simply mentors, guides, brothers and sisters in Christ, who were also frail, as we are. As the saying goes, they were “beggars showing other beggars where the bread is.” But Jesus is in a different category entirely.
After wanting us to consider the lives of believers who have gone before us by explaining for an entire chapter how they were able to be faithful, in Hebrews 12:2 we see a difference between them and Jesus. We run this race of life and ministry “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
My heroes of the faith, both living and before my time, are a grace from God. They are an encouragement and I can look to their lives and gather inspiration, wisdom, and hope for whatever circumstances God has me in.
But they are not always with me. They are not seated at the right hand of the Father. They never promised, and never could promise, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) Only Jesus can do that.
Look to your heroes of the faith, but fix your eyes on Jesus. He is closer than your breath. Always. “He upholds the universe by the word of his power.” (Hebrews 1:3) And at the end of the day, only he can uphold you.
When evangelicals think of gospel ministry in New England, they may think of Jonathan Edwards or the Great Awakenings. They may think of the least religious states in the United States. They may think of a region many have labeled “the preacher’s graveyard.” But what may not come to mind is what happened recently: hundreds of pastors and ministry leaders gathering with eager expectation, learning how to better advance gospel work in the small places of New England.
On March 18, Small Town Summits, in partnership with The Gospel Coalition New England, held a New England regional Summit at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with the goal of developing a theological vision for small-place ministry. Previous Small Town Summits have been hosted in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine, in towns even people in those states have never heard of. And that’s the point. Our typical summits are intentionally smaller and local, as a way of embodying our message. But it felt like a good time to gather rural laypeople and pastors from around the New England region, and many responded. (The summit was sold out.)
Small-town pastors often tell us that they struggle not only with the normal stresses of pastoral ministry, but also with the extra discouragement of ministry in a small town. Ministry in small places is often slow and not regarded highly in the world’s eyes—whether the unbelieving world or the evangelical world. But on March 18, hundreds of ministry leaders were affirmed in their callings to go to the ends of the earth, including often-forgotten small towns. Rural churches need skilled, solid, vibrant gospel ministry just as much as suburbs and cities do.
You Can’t Serve What You Don’t See
Stephen Witmer, a member of the Small Town Summits leadership team and author of the forthcoming A Big Gospel in Small Places, encouraged the packed chapel: “We need to develop a theological vision for small-place ministry so we can see small towns as God sees them. You can’t serve what you don’t see.”
The plenary speakers and workshops helped us to see small-town ministry the way God does, and also to see that understanding our context enables us to be better ministers of the gospel. Richard Lints, professor of theology at Gordon-Conwell, helped us develop a theological vision for small-town ministry (just as he has helped Tim Keller cultivate a theological vision for ministry to the city). Brad Roth, author of God’s Country, explained how the doctrine of God sends us to the small places, and Donnie Griggs, author of Small Town Jesus, clarified what gospel-shaped small-town ministry looks like in practice. The workshops focused on discipling women, soul care, church planting, church revitalization, community ministry, the pastor as public theologian, and building a healthy ministry marriage. All gave careful attention to the nuances that ministering in small places brings to each of these areas.
If small-town pastors, laypeople, and ministry leaders are to serve well, we must see that God has sovereignly positioned us in our small places and sovereignly granted us a big gospel. We must see that we’re not alone, and that there are unique privileges, not just difficulties, in our ministries. We must cultivate a vision of shepherding well no matter the size of our flock, and of evangelizing well no matter the size of our town.
Collaboration Rarely Seen
One Vermont church-planting leader commented that in more than a decade of ministry in New England, he’s never seen a movement of so many gospel-centered leaders, outside of their own tribes, working together to advance God’s kingdom. There were even some city and suburban pastors who attended the March 18 summit to know how to better encourage ministry and plant churches in New England’s small towns.
David Pinckney and Ben Ruhl, who serve on the Small Town Summits leadership team, both prayed for ministry in larger places as well during the plenary sessions. We’re not anti-city or anti-suburb or anti-large church. Rather, we’re pro-big gospel.
We want to make sure that small-town pastors, laypeople, and church leaders know and are reminded that God sees and values their ministry. It’s rare for them to hear that preaching a gospel-rich, Bible-centered sermon to 60 or 16 people in a forgotten place is important—but it is.
When a currency is revalued, its value is calculated again, often with a higher value than before. The Small Town Summits team wants to be a part of a large-scale revaluation of small-town ministry. We’re grateful for the palpable excitement in the Gordon-Conwell chapel on March 18. It indicates what we’ve already seen in our state-specific summits: God isn’t the only one who values the souls in the small towns.
Today is my 40th birthday. As I sit here with my feet firmly planted in middle age, I find that I am joyful rather than fearful. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a stoic. The other day I typed “my forties” for the first time and I felt sick to my stomach. But as I reflect on God’s goodness in my life and on what I have to look forward to in Christ, my soul is full and content, and I can’t wait for the future, gray hair and all. Here are 3 reasons.
1. At 40, I have so much to be thankful for.
As I look back over the last 40 years of my life, I am amazed at God’s hand and God’s goodness to me. I heard about Jesus and His sacrifice and love for me literally while still in utero (Babies in the womb react to singing in church!). My parents always loved me and encouraged me to follow Jesus all of my growing up years. I have a wife who loves Jesus and loves me unconditionally–but most surprising–who also likes me! I have three kids who bring such joy and laughter to my life. I get to pastor a church made up of people who love God’s Word and who love my family well.
At 40, I can thank God for His material blessings like the privilege of owning a home, but I can also see that physical things are so temporary. At the end of the day, my car is rusting and my house constantly needs repair, but the spiritual blessings God has given me, as well as the people God has put into my life, are eternal.
We sang a hymn when I was growing up, “Count your blessings, name them one by one. Count your blessings, see what God has done.” This is an ancient practice that God’s people have always done. So many of the Psalms are God’s people recounting His blessings in their lives.
At 40, I look back with amazement at God’s goodness to me. At 40, I also look back and see my sin. I don’t deserve His grace. But that is why it is called grace. I can rest in God’s grace to me through Christ, and that gives me unbreakable hope.
2. At 40, I don’t need to fear getting older. The amazing thing about the gospel is that our best days are always ahead of us. At 40, I am beginning to feel things in my body that I never knew could go wrong (I didn’t know there’s a nerve in that part of my leg?!). I still have lots of energy, but I need more sleep than I did in my 30s. I am trying to take better care of my body in my 40s than I did in my 30s. That is good stewardship. But knowing Jesus means that although I am not promised my “best body now,” I know that one day I will have my best body ever. It won’t have gray hair, creaking knees, back pain, or the fear of having more “senior moments.”
The Apostle Paul explained, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” (Philippians 3:20-21)
In eternity, there won’t be any birthdays. But there will be celebration. There will be food, but I’m sure there won’t be calories. There will be bodies, but there won’t be aging. But most importantly, there will be Jesus and all of our loved ones who have gone before us in Christ. I don’t know what my 40s hold, but I know who holds my future, both on earth and in heaven.
3. At 40, I need to hold onto Christ more than ever by remembering He is holding onto me.
So many of the things we struggle with as we age are answered in the gospel. I may have seasons or moments when I will question if I am accomplishing what God wants from me, but I don’t need to despair because I know my identity. I know my purpose. I am a child of God created to glorify Him with my life.
His word does tell us to contemplate whether or not we are living each day for Him in light of eternity: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12) I want to give God my all. But at 40, I no longer think I need to impress Jesus with my work for Him. Any sacrifice, any hard work, any daily faithfulness will be a result of leaning into what Jesus has already accomplished, not me trying to prove my worth to the One who has already accepted me in Jesus.
In Prince Caspian from The Chronicles of Narnia, Lucy sees Aslan years later:
“AsIan,” said Lucy, “you’re bigger.”
“That is because you are older, little one,” answered he.
“Not because you are?”
“I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”
My heart is fickle and I will not remain faithful to Christ if I don’t remember how great He is and hold onto the gospel. But if I remember that the most glorious One in the universe is holding onto me, I will hold onto Him with all of my might for the next forty. At 40, that is what I want for my birthday.
Pastors and wives, don’t forget that there is one time the Bible commands you to get drunk: “…Be intoxicated always in her love.” (Proverbs 5:19) God wants you to be drunk with love for your spouse. This is best for you, best for your spouse, best for your kids, best for your church, and it glorifies God. Pastors and wives face unique pressures and challenges due to our roles in the body of Christ. Here are three ways a pastor and wife can stay madly in love through all of the ups and downs of pastoral ministry.
Remember Jesus is married to the church. You are not. It is no secret that pastors often struggle with working too much. There is always more to do. Unlike a contractor who can look at a remodeling project and say it is done or an accountant who can say the books are balanced, pastoral ministry is never ever finished until Jesus comes back.
But remember, Jesus is married to the church. You are not. Don’t try to be Jesus for your church. The church only needs one Savior, and you are not Him. But you are married to your spouse. We will all stand before God and answer not only for how we loved His church, but also for how we loved our spouse.
Yes, there will be weeks and seasons that are overly busy, and every pastor and wife has to grapple with that fact and communicate, work together and show grace during those busy times. But not every season can be that way or something is out of balance, and your ministry, not to mention your marriage, will suffer because of it.
Over the years I have been guilty of prioritizing discipleship of others over prayer and Bible reading with my wife. But when I love her as Christ loves the church (Ephesians 5:22-33), including having time for her, I also love His church better. Sometimes this may mean taking a “comp day” off after an especially busy season and doing something fun together, or going home early without guilt to help with home projects if they have been neglected due to your recent ministry schedule.
Remember your friendship. Both a pastor and his wife can struggle with forgetting to prioritize their friendship. Pastors often have trouble letting go of things at church, and because ministry is a joint endeavor (as it should be), pastor’s wives can also easily prioritize ministry opportunities over their husbands.
My grandfather was a pastor for over 40 years, and he and my grandmother, who were married for 64 years, would often say that one of their secrets for a happy marriage was laughing together. Make sure you are taking all of your vacation days, and not just taking care of ministry and home responsibilities together. Play a game. Watch a funny movie that you both enjoy. Exercise together. Go outside together. Get a babysitter or do a child care swap so you can go out on a date together. Invest in each other as friends.
Ecclesiastes 9:9 reminds us that life is fleeting, and that God has given us a spouse to enjoy life with. “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 and invest in your friendship with your spouse, and your oneness will grow: emotionally, mentally, sexually and spiritually. Time with your spouse is never wasted time.
Remember your first love is Jesus. When I am closer to Jesus, I am closer to my wife. I mean truly closer to Jesus, in my heart, not just thinking I am closer because I am doing the right things. Why is this?
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.”
This applies to pastors and wives as much as anyone else. When you remember that Jesus is your first love (see Revelation 2:4-5), then His love naturally overflows out of your life onto your spouse. Rekindle your love for Jesus, and be in tune with His heart for reflecting the Gospel in your marriage. Then your marriage will be like a fireplace on a winter day that keeps you both warm, and at the same time gives warmth and light to others.
What many did not realize and still do not realize is that New York’s neighbor, the smaller state of Vermont, has been quietly doing exactly what was celebrated in New York for years, but even more extreme. Vermont is now trying to codify this, first with a bill, and then in the state Constitution. This bill, H.57, would not only codify abortion with zero restrictions into state law, it would also strip any remaining rights that an unborn child has in Vermont, effectively giving that human being the status of property (but having less rights than an animal).
While I applaud and am thankful for the voices of non-Christians who are speaking against unrestricted abortion in Vermont, I write here specifically to Vermont Christians because I am a pastor. Scripture gives us even more reasons to protect the lives of the unborn (for example, to list some, Genesis 1:27, Exodus 4:11; 21:22-25, Job 31:15, Psalm 22:10, Psalm 127:3-5, Psalm 139:13-16, Isaiah 45:9-11; Isaiah 49:15, Jeremiah 1:5, Luke 1:41, 44; Galatians 1:15).
We also have specific responsibilities as Christians to protect the vulnerable and speak for the innocent who are being harmed or even killed: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute…” (Proverbs 31:8-9)
Compare those words of Holy Scripture with the chilling words of Vermont H.57, “A fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus shall not have independent rights under Vermont law.”
We all know from the rest of the bill, not to mention current Vermont practice, that a baby just seconds from appearing outside the womb is still considered a fetus. No rights? Does this mean that he or she is property, worse than slavery, because he or she may have body parts that could be sold or used for scientific experimentation? It seems so. Many have expressed these concerns about this bill already.
The bill states: “Every individual who becomes pregnant has the fundamental right to choose to carry a pregnancy to term, give birth to a child, or to have an abortion.” Think about the audacity it took to put those words in there. Words matter, and they matter almost more in law than anywhere else, as lawyers–and lawmakers–will tell you.
Our lawmakers are admitting in their bill that would grant absolutely unrestricted abortion, that a child is the result of a pregnancy carried to term. There is something missing in this sequence: “…give birth to a child, or to have an abortion.” They are clearly saying, you either give birth to a child, or you kill that child through an abortion. The word “abortion” does not cover up that fact. It is the logical conclusion of this phrase in the wording of the bill itself.
It is time to act. Here are 8 things you can do, starting today. 1) Pray. Enough said. This is the most important thing, and what we as Christians must do first.
2) Go testify at the committee hearing THIS Wednesday, February 6th at the State House in Montpelier from 4:30-6:30 PM.Those who wish to testify can sign up starting at 4 PM, and will be given 2 minutes to speak. Even those who cannot make the drive can still testify by submitting an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Each one of these is read by the committee and becomes a public document. Go on record in support of the unborn.
3) Write and go visit your representatives. It is so easy to write or call your state representatives. Even if you don’t know what to say to them, just let them know that you are opposed to H.57, the bill that gives unlimited restrictions on abortion. A couple of sentences with your main concerns are enough to make your voice heard. Each of these letters matters.
Better yet, go visit your representatives. When abortion decisions are being made at the U.S. Supreme Court level, we feel there is nothing we can do other than to pray. But the new territory in the fight for life is now in your own neighborhood. My state representatives, one of whom is a sponsor on the bill, hold office hours in local cafes in our community. They will be visited by me, and I hope you will visit your representatives, as this process unfolds. Don’t be afraid of not knowing all of the answers. You simply need to express your concerns as a citizen. Bring ultrasound pictures of your children in their third trimester and talk about how your children responded to your voice while in the womb. They are not property or a clump of cells, which everybody knows; science even admits that they are babies. They should have rights. Speak for them.
5) Support your local crisis pregnancy center. Your local crisis pregnancy center does not receive tax dollars as they counsel women to consider adoption, and give them hope and help. They need our dollars, they need our encouragement, they need our prayers, they need our volunteer hours. They are on the front lines; join them!
6) Get involved with foster care and adoption. When courageous women do give birth to a child who was in danger of being aborted, she and the child often need our support through foster care or adoption. There are so many ways to get involved, whether it is taking a child into your home or organizing a toy or school supplies drive for foster children. This is one way we care for orphans in the U.S. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction…” (James 1:27)
7) Ask your pastor for ways you might be able to help your church minister to women who have had abortions, or who have made the courageous decision to give birth. As a pastor, I have cried with women who have tearfully shared that they were deceived at some point in their life and had an abortion. It has been especially helpful to have women in the church who can be an additional listening ear and a reminder of Christ’s forgiveness to these women who need our love and support. Those who were considering abortion but who made the courageous decision to give birth also need our help, in so many practical ways.
8) Remember our duty to love. Protecting the unborn is one way you can love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31). But this also includes loving those we disagree with. Abortion is an emotional issue for both sides, for obvious reasons. But even as we confront those we disagree with, and don’t back down, we don’t call them names or ever threaten to harm them. They may be harming, or protecting the “right” to harm innocent children, but our only duty to them is to tell them the truth, pray for them, and–as hard as it may be in this circumstance–to honor and love them (Romans 13:7-8). As Christians we don’t flinch to call evil, evil. It is hard to imagine much more evil than advocating for the death of a child up to moments before birth. But it is our Scriptural responsibility to do this in a way that still shows respect to lawmakers.
Start with one or two of the above items, and then keep working through them. If we are ever going to act for the unborn, this is the time.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor during the Nazi regime who ultimately was executed by the Nazis for speaking out against their atrocities. We still have much, much more freedom to speak than he did and really, at very little cost to us. But what he said about the murder of those who were deemed “non-people” by the government of his time applies to pre-born babies in Vermont today who are being deemed “non-people” by our government. Bonhoeffer courageously declared, “Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
Let’s speak. Let’s act. Let’s pray. Let’s love. The unborn in Vermont need our speaking, actions, prayers, and love right now.
Two months ago I was preaching a series on the gospel, and in one sermon I preached Romans 3:21-26 which includes this gold nugget, talking about Jesus: “…whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” (Romans 3:25) Today, I preached 1 John 2:1-6 as part of our verse-by-verse study through the book of 1 John, which includes this jewel, talking about Jesus: “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2)
They were some of the most encouraging sermons I have preached for months, not only for me but also for the church family as we rejoiced in the gospel together.
I believe that in our preaching and Bible study, when we come across technical, “big” words that the Bible uses, we should use, study, and explain those words, rather than skirting around them or simply glossing over them with an alternative phrase.
We Use “New To Us” Language All the Time
When we moved to Vermont from the West Coast for me to pastor here, my family and I woke up the next morning and drove around town to familiarize ourselves with our surroundings. It was May, and we kept seeing signs that said “Tag Sale.” They often looked like Yard Sale or Garage Sale signs, and once we followed a few of those signs and saw a Yard Sale happening, we incorporated this new phrase into our thinking and speaking. We now don’t give it a second thought to say, “We should clean out the garage and have a Tag Sale this summer.” To function well in a new environment, you have to learn some of the new vocabulary that will help you to understand things you encounter.
When somebody becomes a Christian or begins to really study the Bible on their own, they need to learn some of the new vocabulary that they will come across in the Bible or they will always struggle with those passages. When we as pastors or Bible Study Leaders don’t take the time to slow down and explain what difficult doctrinal words and concepts mean as we encounter them, we risk doing unintentional damage. We stunt the spiritual growth of those we minister to, because they will flounder when they run across these words in their own Bible study, and we also unintentionally teach that the words God chose to put in the Bible are too hard for us to understand.
Why You Should Love the Word “Propitiation”
With less educational resources at their fingertips, the Bible writers of both the Old and New Testament did not flinch to use technical words when they taught about God. Although the same could be said for Bible words dripping with meaning like “justification,” “redemption,”and “regeneration,” let me give you an example using the word that recently made me pause and ask how to teach it, “propitiation.”
As I studied to preach Romans 3:25 and then 1 John 2:2, I was amazed to discover that the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) uses a form of the same word 6 times. It is often used to talk about the Day of Atonement, but one use made my jaw drop. In Psalm 130:4 the Psalmist rejoices: “But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.” Yes, it is forgiveness, but he didn’t use the word for “forgiveness,” he used the word for “propitiation.” Those who sang Psalm 130 understood that in order for forgiveness to happen, their sins needed to be paid for.
But we really begin to understand what Jesus did for us so he could be our propitiation when we look at how a form of the word is used in Hebrews 9:5. There the writer of Hebrews uses a form of the word “propitiation” to describe the mercy seat, the covering of the Ark of the Covenant (this form of the word is found 28 times in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, 24 of which also refer to the mercy seat that was on top of the Ark of the Covenant).
The covering of the Ark of the Covenant is under the two golden cherubim and it represented God’s throne on earth. It was the place where God’s Shekinah Glory, his special presence on earth, resided. Only the High Priest could go into God’s presence there, and only once a year on the Day of Atonement. But when he went in there, he would sprinkle the blood of a sacrifice on the mercy seat; he sprinkled it, in other words, on the “propitiation.”
Inside of the Ark of the Covenant, in addition to Aaron’s budded staff and a pot of mannah, was God’s Law. The blood of the sacrifice went between God’s Law, which the people had broken, and God’s presence, which the people could not stand in without a worthy sacrifice.
This is where Jesus comes in. Jesus is not only our High Priest, Jesus IS our propitiation. Today. 1 John 2:1 explains that Jesus IS the propitiation for our sins. Present tense.
Have you broken God’s Law recently? What about the 10 commandments? Have you lied, coveted, lusted (Jesus pointed out that adultery happens not just with our bodies but also in our hearts), or not honored your parents recently, just to name a few of those 10 commandments? Jesus IS your propitiation! Jesus’ blood stands between you, the Law-breaker, and the holy God. Now that silences the accuser!
Let the people God has entrusted to you in your congregation or Bible Study glory in the gospel from the many different angles the Bible gives us, by not running away from the difficult words in the Bible. Explain them when you use them, but study and explain these technical and rich Bible words in such a way that they will want to sing hallelujah when they encounter them, whether it is in church or during their personal Bible study.
We want them to run TO propitiation, not away from it! Because when they run to propitiation, they are running to Jesus.
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.
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!
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.
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.