Look to Faithful Believers, But Fix Your Eyes on Jesus

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.

Don’t Underestimate Small-Town Ministry

Note from Tim: This is an article I wrote for The Gospel Coalition about what God is doing through Small Town Summits in New England, as I was part of this excellent conference last week. It’s so encouraging to be a part of gospel renewal here. Outreach Magazine online later shared this article as well.

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.

Large-Scale Revaluation

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.

For future summits and other events sponsored by Small Town Summits, visit www.smalltownsummits.com.

3 Reflections On Turning 40

This article was also featured on the Baptist Convention of New England blog and later at For The Church.

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.

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.

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.

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
.”

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.

4 Reasons Every Church Needs Senior Saints

This post originally appeared at 9Marks, then at For The Church, The Gospel Coalition Canadaand Church LeadersThe piece also was featured on Challies.com and The Gospel Coalition U.S. #rightnow links.

A couple of days ago, I received an email from a church member in his eighties, letting me know that he’s moving. We have known for some time that it’s best for him to move closer to his family due to his health and housing situation. But the news that the move was finally happening hit me unexpectedly, as if I’d lost a dear friend. I felt it in the pit of my stomach and the tears in my eyes.

Then I realized that is exactly why I felt that way: I was losing a dear friend, and a grandfather in the faith. And our church is losing him, too.

Sometimes senior saints question their usefulness in the church as they age. That’s unfortunate because they’re an essential part of the body of Christ. Although we trust in our sovereign and wise God to add and take away from his local body as he sees fit, church life is different without them. As pastors, therefore, we need to remind our elderly members that they’re not only loved by their Good Shepherd and Savior—they’re also loved and needed by his people.

Here are four reasons every local church needs senior saints.

1. We need your prayers.

My 80-something friend often leads our congregation in prayer on Sunday mornings. Visitors and members regularly comment on how his prayers are a blessing to them. We need older members to pray out loud during worship services, Bible studies, and prayer meetings. We also need their private prayers.

Sometimes, I’ll see God work in a way that can only be explained by a work of his Spirit in somebody’s life or in salvation. When this happens, I think, “God has answered the prayers of one of my sisters in Christ,” because I know there are several elderly ladies who pray for our church, our community, and my pastoral ministry regularly. Even if you’re reading this on your tablet from a nursing home—I visited an elderly lady doing just that the other day—we as the church need your prayers.

2. We need your practical, biblical wisdom.

My grandpa taught an adult Sunday School class until Parkinson’s robbed him of his voice. I’ll never forget a seminary professor who taught class using a special microphone because health complications made it difficult for him to speak. I’m so thankful that these men continued to pass on their biblical knowledge and life experience until they literally could not anymore. Whether through teaching a class or sharing a comment during a Bible study or encouraging a young mom during fellowship, every church members needs the wisdom that comes from decades of studying the Word mixed with decades of life experience.

Senior saints, please continue to speak into the lives of younger believers with love and truth and grace. The church needs your wisdom not simply because you’re older, but because you bring the practical, biblical wisdom that only comes from marinating in the Word and walking with Christ in both life’s joys and sorrows.

3. We need your encouragement.

My friend recently raised his hand at a business meeting as I was almost done explaining a new initiative, and simply said that he saw God’s hand in this and that the congregation should be supportive of where God was leading me with this initiative. We could have just stopped the explanation right then and gone straight to the vote. As a senior saint, your words of encouragement matter.

I’ve seen young, sleep-deprived parents light up when an older person in the church tells them, “Your kids are a joy.” I’ve seen discouraged empty-nesters, struggling with change, rediscover hope as they remember God’s faithfulness in your marriages of over 50 years

As the Psalmist exclaims, “One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts” (Psalm 145:4). Don’t hesitate to share your stories of provision and grace and forgiveness, and to remind us of God’s goodness and faithfulness. Senior saint, we need your encouragement.

4. We need your presence.

We know it takes a lot of work for older folks to get to church. We know that there will come a day that we need to come to you, rather than you coming to us. But until that day, we need your presence.

There’s something particularly special about the redeemed people of God coming together for worship and seeing a spectrum of ages. There’s something about coming together to worship with people who are different than us—even generationally—that points to the beauty of the gospel and the glory of God. There’s something about knowing fellow saints who can speak of God never abandoning them through decades that powerfully reminds us of the faithfulness of God.

We don’t call you “senior saint” because you’re perfect or because you don’t have struggles like the rest of us. We call you “senior saint” because your faith in Christ in your senior years points to the fact that the same God who saves is the same God who sustains. Lift your heads, dear senior saints.

You’re needed. Please don’t stop serving.

Autumn and the Beauty of Death for the Christian

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(Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash)

This post appeared on The Cripplegate.

I am a pastor in New England, and let me tell you–there is a reason people come from all over the country to see the Fall foliage. Here in New England, we call them “leaf peepers.” During peak leaf season, our sleepy tourist town of 5,000 goes into traffic-jam mode on the weekends. And with good reason. In our part of Vermont, we are surrounded by the Green Mountains on either side of the large valley we live in. When Fall really hits, there are a couple of weeks when the Green Mountains become the Orange, Red, and Gold Mountains.

We are currently easing into leaf season. There are bright bursts of brilliant crimson and orange on certain trees, but there is still plenty of green foliage that will have the chlorophyll leaving soon. Many leaves, however, are already floating to the ground. When a leaf falls to the ground, it is dead. The beauty of Fall foliage is death.

The Beauty of Christian Death
As I have watched the breathtaking hues begin to appear this Fall, I keep thinking about the fact that sometimes death is beautiful. In fact, for those who belong to Jesus, for those who are “in Christ,” death is always beautiful. “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15). If the LORD calls the death of those he has saved “precious in his sight,” then it is beautiful.

I am a pastor. I am not naively saying that the death of those who are in Christ is without sorrow, or always happens painlessly in our sleep. Just this week I visited a member in a hospice home, suffering under the ravages of Alzheimer’s. I have sat and cried with spouses and children moments after their loved one has departed this earth, sometimes after a terrible battle with death. I have visited church members in the hospital who are in excruciating pain days before their death. Accidents happen to saints and sinners alike. Cancer can visit us all. The Apostle Paul calls death the “last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26).

No, I am not talking about Christian death being beautiful because it is somehow less physically painful or less final on this side of eternity than non-Christian death. I am talking about Christian death being beautiful because the gospel gives us God’s perspective on even our final enemy, death.

Going Home–The Joy of Jesus’ Presence
Last night in Prayer Meeting we sang, “When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation, and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.” Great gospel truths like this one from “How Great Thou Art” can become white noise to us if we don’t stop and think about the wonder of death being the door through which we are usually “taken home.” In 2 Corinthians 5:8 Paul reminds us of the joy of Jesus’ presence that awaits us by exclaiming, “Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” Death for the Christian is beautiful because it brings us to the place we were made for. We are only pilgrims now. We will finally be home with the Lord either when Jesus returns, or on the day that we die. This is why there is beauty in Christian death.

But there’s more. Four verses earlier in 2 Corinthians 5 we are told why the day of our death is the day of our greatest joy: “…so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:4). We think that we are really living life here and that one day we will die, but one reason that the death of the LORD’s saints is precious in his sight is because he knows that our death day is the day that we pass from mortality to life. The beauty in Christian death is that it is when we begin to really live, with the One we were made to live with, our Savior–not to mention saved family and friends who will meet us there. In Jesus, it is not death to die. This is why King David can sing, “in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). It’s like arriving home to the family you love after a long trip–only a billion times better.

The Beauty of Fall and The Hope of Resurrection
Every time that I officiate a Memorial Service for a believer in Jesus, I feed my soul on 1 Corinthians 15 in the days leading up to the service. We need to weep as Jesus wept. We need to feel that death is so final on this side of eternity. But we need to remember that for the Christian, their death day was the most beautiful day they ever experienced.

And there is coming a day when Jesus will reveal that beauty to all of us. For on the day that he returns, the resurrection body given to each believer will be imperishable, glorious, and powerful (1 Corinthians 15:42-43)! “We shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

The beauty in Christian death is hard to see sometimes. Winter can be long and bleak. After the leaves fall, our trees will be barren here for over 6 months.

But lift your heads, brothers and sisters, because Spring follows Winter. It may be Fall now, but Spring time–and Resurrection Morning–is coming.

Only God Can Write a Story that Starts Out Perfect and Ends Better

Note from Pastor Tim: for privacy reasons, the names have been changed.

Words of Comfort from God’s Word at a Memorial Service in our Community

This afternoon, as I have the opportunity to bring you a message of hope from God’s Word, I want us to think about the basic message of the entire Bible in less than 10 minutes as we look at 4 movements in the Bible, just like a symphony has different parts or movements. Immediately as humans when we are faced with a tragedy like this, when it is forced on us that someone who we saw at the park a few days ago took his own life 2 days later, we want answers. I have heard many try to figure out answers over the last few days. What we do know though is that we will never have a final answer, except to accept that this is a choice that Sam made, and to not take responsibility ourselves. The immediate thought is, “If I had only known ______________.  Or if I had only done __________________.”

But the Bible gives answers for how things like this can happen. The Bible, as a message from God, faces reality. It does not gloss over the fact that we live in a broken world.

But this brokenness is not how it all began. The Bible begins with God, and God making a perfect creation. God created man and woman, and He created Adam and Eve in His own image. God set humankind apart because He simply spoke when He created everything else…but when He created man and woman, God touched them. He formed them with His own hands out of dust and the Bible says in Genesis that God breathed into them to give them their breath. This means that humans are different than any other part of God’s creation. We are made in God’s image. This means that every one of us in this room, whether elderly or disabled or healthy or in our 20s or in our 70s has meaning and a purpose in life. And that purpose, that identity is given to you by God Himself when you come to know God as your Savior through Jesus Christ.

But I am getting ahead of myself. The 1st movement in the Bible is Creation, and when God finished His work of creation He looked at it and said that it was, “Very good.”

The 2nd movement in the Bible is the Fall, and this is where sin and evil and suffering and brokenness enters God’s perfect creation. When Satan came to tempt Adam and Eve they had a choice to either obey God and to be His representatives on earth as they were made in His image, or to try to be King themselves and do things their own way. This rebellion against their Creator is when separation from God and suffering first began to happen, and it is the reason that we live in a world in which there is so much pain and hurt and tears.

From the moment that Adam and Eve sinned, the Bible explains how they no longer had a close relationship with a holy God and death even entered the world. Their own son Cain even killed his own brother Abel, and Adam now had to work hard to put food on the table and Eve now had pain in childbirth. Creation began to unravel. The rest of the Bible, from the moment of the Fall or sin entering the world in Genesis 3 to Matthew chapter 1 when Jesus comes on the scene, is a picture of what happens when people try to be King rather than letting God be King.

Then we have the 3rd movement of the Bible. First we saw Creation, then the Fall which answers why there is so much pain in the world today, then the 3rd movement is the Cross. Mark 1:1 explains it like this, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Do you know what “gospel” means? It is good news! It is not just any good news, it is an announcement of something that has been done for you.

Religion tells you that you have to do “x” “y” and “z” to be able to work your way back to God, but the gospel—the good news of Jesus Christ—tells you that Jesus has already done “x” “y” and “z” for you. The diagnosis for you and I is worse than we ever imagined. We are more wicked and evil than we ever imagined, but the good news is that we are more loved and important than we ever imagined. Jesus came to give us life, to give us forgiveness, to bring us to God. So Jesus lived for 33 years exactly like you would expect a man who is also fully God to live—healing, loving, caring for and teaching those who were the most rejected by the rest of society like the lepers and the sick as we read in the Gospels—doing miracles because He was fully God and the wind and the waves knew His voice. And then Jesus died on a cross to pay the punishment for your sins, the punishment you could never pay, and then He rose from the dead, to show that the price for your sins had been paid in full—and so that all who trust in Him alone for their salvation can become children of God.

Jesus brings us back to God! Jesus explained how He came to reverse the work of the devil in John 10:10, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” You see, we saw the Fall earlier. Satan comes to destroy, but Jesus comes to give life!

But it doesn’t end there. This is where the 4th movement of the Bible comes in, the New Creation. The Bible started out in a Garden, and at the end of the Bible there is a Garden in the capital city of Heaven, the New Jerusalem. Only God can write a story that starts out perfect and ends better.

Here is God’s promise for all who will trust in Jesus alone for their salvation, and accept that the good news of the gospel is that the work has already been done by Jesus: we just have to accept salvation and confess that we have sinned, and that we want Jesus to be our King and Savior, and ask Him to save us and help us to follow Him.

Here is what God promises for all who will do that, in Revelation 21: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will be with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God.” Do you notice how at the beginning of the Bible humans were made to be with God, but then sin separated us from God, Jesus came to bring us back to God, and then in the end we can be with God if we have trusted in Jesus?

God goes on in Revelation 21: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.  And He who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’”  God will make everything sad come untrue.

Today, we wipe away our tears with Kleenex, but on that day God Himself will wipe our tears away. Will you be there? Have you asked Jesus to save you? It’s ok to shed those tears now. When Jesus was faced with his friend Lazarus’ death, Jesus wept even though He would raise him from the dead just a few minutes later.

One of the things that I will miss most about Sam is seeing him at the park. My family loves going to the Manchester Rec Park and in fact that is the last time that I saw Sam just over a week ago—we waved and smiled at each other. About 1 year ago, I was with my 2 youngest who loved seeing “Mr. Keene” at the park, and Sam stopped me and said, “Pastor Tim—I need to show you some things on my phone. Why do I keep seeing crosses everywhere?” And he showed me picture after picture of shadows of a cross that he would see in nature or somewhere. I told Sam that day what I beg you to believe today so that you can be part of this New Creation that God will create for those who believe in Jesus, “Sam, the cross reminds us of God’s love for us. Romans 5:8 explains, “…but God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’”

Do you know God’s love? God wants to comfort you today, but you need to come to Him and trust in Jesus only.