We Groan and God Owns

It is a comfort to me when different passages of Scripture bear witness to the same truth, especially when the apostles echo the Lord Jesus (e.g., cf. Mt. 6:19-21 and 1 Tim. 6:17-19, Mk. 8:34-37 and Ph. 2:5-8, Lk. 6:27-36 and Rom. 12:14-21).  Such unison gives strength to interpretation.  As in court, so also in study, “Every fact is to be confirmed by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (2 Cor. 13:1).  It is a delight to report that such confirmation recently happened to me in reading through Ezekiel. 

In the apocalyptic visions of the opening chapters, the glory of the Lord is departing from the temple and the city of God is doomed to destruction.  But before the Lord sends destruction, he sends a man through the city with a writing case.  The Lord tells him, “Go through the midst of the city, even through the midst of Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations which are being committed in its midst” (Ezek. 9:4).  In Hebrew, the words “sigh” and “groan” are actually a rhyme—something like moan and groan, as in Daniel Block’s commentary.  Later in the book, these words, respectively, will refer to “a symptom of a broken heart and intense grief over an impending doom” (21:6-7) and to “the grief that Ezekiel expresses over the death of his wife” (24:17; Block, The Book of Ezekiel: Chapters 1-24, p. 307).  Interestingly, the mark is simply the Hebrew letter taw, which served at times as a signature, like our letter “X”, but in shape it looked like our letter “T”—and providentially, like a cross.

Two things stood out to me through this passage.  First, here is the God of Abraham, the Judge of all the earth, who will not treat the righteous the same as the wicked (Gen. 18:23-25).  Unlike the hypocrites, who act as if there is no “God of justice” and who say, “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord” and “It is vain to serve God” (Mal. 2:17; 3:14), the prophets testify that God differentiates among people.  He marks out His own and will save them in the day of wrath.  From Noah in the flood and Lot in Sodom to the final generations of believers, who are marked and sealed in the book of Revelation, it is a truth, “The Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment” (2 Pt. 2:9).

Second, the differentiating factor in God’s eyes is not simply what believers have done—they are said to be “righteous” in being God-centered in their deeds, although this does not justify them in the end, because only the blood of Jesus removes God’s wrath (cf. Hab. 2:4; Rom. 1:16-17; 3:21-26; 5:9-10)—what differentiates believers is how they responded to the wickedness around them.  In Ezekiel, they moan and groan.  In Amos, they feel “sick about” the “ruin of Joseph” (6:6; Shalom M. Paul, Amos, p. 209).  And in Malachi, they talk among themselves about the irreverence of those who claim that God does not differentiate among people.  God Himself pays attention and listens and has “a book of remembrance…written before Him for those who fear the Lord and who esteem His name” (3:16).  Indeed, the Lord declares of such people, “They will be Mine…and I will spare them as a man spares his own son…;” therefore, the prophet concludes, “So you will again distinguish between the righteous and the wicked, between the one who serves God and one who does not serve Him” (3:17-18).  Again, God differentiates.

Even the prophets themselves grieve over the coming destruction of the wicked.  Ezekiel cries out, “Alas, Lord God!  Are You destroying the whole remnant of Israel by pouring out Your wrath on Jerusalem?” (9:8).  Amos pleads, “Please pardon!” and “Please stop!” (7:2, 5).  Is this our attitude toward the ruin of our culture and the coming destruction?  If not, have we become callous or indifferent or even wishing for the day of wrath to come, so that others may see how right we have been?  Where is the echo of God, who takes no delight in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 18:23, 32; 33:11)?  Where are the tears of our Savior, who wept over Jerusalem?  Have we no grief over the sinfulness of our culture, our church, our lives?  Let us remember how blessed are those who mourn—and in the context of Jesus quoting and fulfilling Scripture, even this beatitude seems to come from the prophets, from the word about those who mourn over Jerusalem and are comforted (cf. Mt. 5:4; Isa. 66:10-13).

God still differentiates today.  Whether we are like Lot, vexed in spirit by the abominations of our culture, or like those in Revelation, who keep their garments white in the midst of a dead church (2 Pt. 2:8; Rev. 3:1, 4; cf. Rev. 2:24), we will be spared in the Day of Wrath through the blood of Jesus.  My concern here is for our heart.  In seeing the evil around us, both in the culture and in the church, we must not become callous or indifferent.  We must have the heart of the prophets and of those who grieved over Jerusalem.  And in doing so, may our God also remember us and spare us.  Oh Lord, “In wrath, remember mercy” (Hab. 3:2)!

The Swan Song of Two Apostles

The last words of famous men—sometimes called their swan song—are often interesting in their own right, but when two swan songs coincide in their messages, we have something of extreme interest.  What are these famous men both seeing, that we, who are left behind, need desperately to see as well?

Recently, in reading Second Peter, I was struck by its similarity to Second Timothy.  Both letters are final statements (cf. 2 Timothy 4:6-8; 2 Peter 1:12-15).  Both letters are public statements, especially if we assume that Second Timothy is an open letter (cf. 1 Timothy 2:7; 2 Timothy 1:11).  And both letters are apostolic statements.  Indeed, in these two letters, we have the final statements of the two main leaders of the early church—Peter and Paul—who both give us what they want remembered as the church moves ahead into the future without them.  As Peter states it, “I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things” (2 Peter 1:15).  Therefore, we must ask, What do these two apostles think is necessary as the church moves into post-apostolic times?  For us today, this is a critical question.  We live in exactly this kind of a church.

Strikingly, both letters emphasize the inspiration and sufficiency of Scripture.  As some of the clearest statements in the New Testament on the divine inspiration of the words of the Bible, these apostolic testimonies deserve to be quoted in full.  In Second Timothy, Paul writes, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (3:16-17).  In Second Peter, Peter writes, “And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place…knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.  For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (1:19-21).  Both statements agree: If the church lacks apostles, the church does not lack the Bible.  And the Bible is enough.  Wow!

Specifically, both letters affirm the primacy of Old Testament Scripture.  The apostle Paul tells even a pastor of the church (Timothy) that his knowledge of the Old Testament from childhood is sufficient for grounding his faith in Christ: “The sacred writings…are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15).  For the apostle Peter, the solitary “lamp shining in a dark place” is the Old Testament “prophetic word.”  Yes, the gospel witness of the apostle confirms this prophetic word (2 Peter 1:16-18).  And yes, the apostolic life of faith also confirms the word (2 Timothy 3:10-11).  But the grounding of the gospel remains “in accordance with the Scripture” (1 Corinthians 15:3, 5; cf. Isaiah 8:20).  The apostles affirmed that the church’s faith is built upon the Bible—the OT prophetic word confirmed by the NT apostolic witness.  What a legacy this united swan song gives!

Even more, both Peter and Paul affirm in their final days that the canon of Scripture now includes New Testament writings.  In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, Paul quotes Luke immediately after Deuteronomy as being what “the Scripture [singular] says” (1 Timothy 5:18).  In Second Peter, the apostle cites Paul’s letter in conjunction with “the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15-16). These references are extremely important.  Not only do we have apostolic sanction for the expansion of the Bible beyond the Old Testament to include New Testament documents, we also have testimony that the church has always regarded the gospels and the letter of Paul as Scripture.  No council was needed.  None has been found. 

In debates with Roman Catholicism, whose popes are the alleged heirs of Peter and Paul, one wonders why this sufficiency of Scripture is not emphasized.  Even if the authorship of these letters is denied, as liberal scholars often assert, both letters were received as Scripture; therefore, both letters give testimony to the early church’s view of the centrality of the Bible in post-apostolic times.  In other words, tradition itself affirms the inspiration and sufficiency of the Bible for the post-apostolic church.  Even creeds must follow the “pattern” of the apostles (2 Timothy 1:13).

Moreover, in debates with postmodern Christians, it is instructive to note that both letters affirm the verbal nature of revelation.  The Holy Spirit inspired human words (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21).  Interestingly, both letters also affirm that the denial of Scripture is often due to human lust, which accumulates teachers after their own desires (2 Timothy 4:3-4; cf. 2 Peter 2:1-3)—what apologist Mark Coppenger has called “consequences have ideas.”  In contrast, Paul charges Timothy to “reach the word” (2 Timothy 4:2) and Peter charges Christians to “pay attention” to this one light in a dark world.  Truly, this charge is the united swan song of the Christ’s leading apostles.  We truly “do well” to give it our full attention.

The Parable of the Plane Ride

Life is like a plane ride.  Strangers here.  There and there.  And sitting in my own seat, I’m not wanting to talk to anyone.  Well, perhaps with my family.  But only if I can rest.

Now imagine with me.  A big-hearted person sits next to me.  Engages with me in true conversation.  Listening.  Eager to learn.  To understand.

Then more conversation breaks out.  Neighbors (in the true sense of “nigh-unto-me”) begin to know neighbors.  And before long, the whole plane is lit up with the surge of life stories and concern for the other.  Even those with little outwardly in common begin to appreciate “the other.”  In fact, as less “the other” and more “the same.”

This is our community.  And this is our choice.  Which passenger are you?  Are you like me?  Wanting to stick to yourself.  Dutiful to family.  Appreciating a little peace in life.  Or are you like the big-hearted person?  Engaged in community conversation.  Familiar with cultures.  Current with the news.

Either way, both individuals are too secular.  Too much of this age.  And here is why.

The most important story is not what is happening inside the plane, but what is happening outside the plane.  If the plane is going down, what will it matter whether we were the selfish passenger or the engaged passenger?  Both will be dead.  And all will be vanity.

Some of us pride ourselves on caring for our families.  Some of us pride ourselves on being involved in our community.  Some of us even pride ourselves on knowing the news well, even when we do little more than pass it along on social media.  But do we know the Real News well?  The revealed news.  The true story on what will happen to the plane and how those inside can arrive safely through the coming crash.  Even more, do we tell this revealed Real News to those around us?

In the end, if we speak more on the nightly news than on the good news, how can we complain of others being too secular?  Life is like a plane ride.

Choose Your Love and Love Your Choice

This evening is an unexpected blessing to me.  Since we talked last summer and I left the invitation with you (under no expectations) to seek me out anytime for counsel, it became my desire to have that opportunity, and then, suddenly and unexpectedly, the Lord answered this desire of mine through the invitation to give this charge to you on your night of blessing.  What a praise!  God is so good.

In order to make things memorable—especially given the euphoria of young love that renders the mind a bit numb at moments like this—I would like to hang my remarks on one peg, on a proverb.  It is not a biblical proverb, but an English proverb that has helped me many times, both personally and in counseling others, and it is a proverb that I would like to share with you tonight.

An old Puritan once said, “Choose your love and love your choice” (Henry Smith). 

Pretty simple, but pretty profound.  Let me discuss each half separately. 

First, choose your love.

When my wife and I were first dating, I took her to a pie restaurant famous for its large selection of pies.  Lemon meringue.  Pecan.  French silk.  Coconut crème.  You name it and beyond, it was there, and all displayed on a large arrangement of circles hanging above the pie cabinet.  I can still see this arrangement in my mind over thirty years later.  And the reason I can is probably due to staring at it for half an hour as my girlfriend (my future wife) could not make up her mind what to pick.  She was paralyzed! 

Can you feel it?  The pressure!  The need to make the right choice!  “I won’t get another chance, so I had better make the absolute best choice.”  Can you see the reason for her indecision?

Now, perhaps you did not agonize over the choice of your bride the way that some young men do.  However, I want you to imagine what my future wife may have felt when her chosen piece of pie finally arrived.  “Hmm,” she says, “this is not as sweet as I thought it would be.  Perhaps I should have chosen a different one.”  Now, do you get my point?

At some mile down the marriage road, reality sets in.  “Hmm, she’s not as pretty as I thought she was.  Nor as kind. Nor as thoughtful. Nor as loving.”  Instead of seeing her as “the most beautiful among women,” the phrase used of the Shulammite in Scripture (Song 1:8; 6:1), you now notice that there are, in fact, quite a number of women more beautiful.  Instead of feeling that wonderful rush of “love,” which marriage counselor Gary Chapman rightly calls euphoria, you begin to have other feelings.  Irritations.  Frustrations.  Discontentment.  Even resentment.  Words are muttered under your breath, eye contact is avoided, and you begin to think that fishing more often might be a good idea.

Now, I’m not trying to discourage you, but I am trying to prepare you to own up to this fact: You are right now choosing your love.  No one is forcing you.  This is your choice, and it is a free choice.  Consequently, you will have no right in the future to go looking around and say to yourself, as my girlfriend back in the pie restaurant may have done, “Maybe I should have chosen a different one.” 

At that point in your marriage, I want you to realize how special your wife will be to you—how uniquely special.  She will be the only one you have chosen to be your wife.  Out of all the women in the world, she alone will be “the wife of your youth,” to whom God Himself will hold you accountable as the witness of your union, according to the prophet Malachi (2:13-16).  Moreover, as we learn from the Garden of Eden, she will uniquely be the one God Himself has joined to you.  Of no other woman will you be able to say, “God has granted me this woman.”  Regardless of how much her looks or personality may change (and both will!), these two facts will remain.  You chose her and God ordained it.  Therefore, because she is your choice, you must learn to love her.

And that brings us to the second half of our proverb: “Choose your love, and love your choice.”

Now regarding love, where do we start?  So much could be said!  Perhaps the broadest thing is the unique way that we as husbands can imitate Jesus in a marriage.  Just as He did not wait for us to become lovely before He loved us and died for us (Ephesians 5:25), so also, we have the privilege to love our wives, even when they are unlovely.  That especially is Christ-like love, and Christ in us can do this.  And then, no matter what it costs us initially, we have the privilege to seek her true beauty in holiness, just as Jesus Himself sanctifies and washes His church that “He might present [her] to Himself in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:27).

It is in keeping with this general purpose of Christ for His own wife, that I want to stress to you one aspect about love: Love does what is right.  According to Paul, the apostle of this Christ, love “does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6).  According to another apostle, we should “entrust [our] souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right” (1 Peter 4:19).  “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10).

This truth will be extremely important for you to remember in decision-making.  When you know the right thing to do, even if it may not please your wife—and believe me, every husband has been there—please, please, please choose the right thing.  Entrust yourself to God and go for it.  If you do not, you may have her short-term happiness, but you may also have the long-term temptation to resent her, as if she made you choose the wrong option.  You are the husband.  The choice resides with you as the leader.  Therefore, own this responsibility and make the right choice.  Does that make sense?

Now, let me clarify this point, before I illustrate it.  First, I am assuming the matter at hand has some weight.  On many mundane things, such as how to stuff a card in an envelope or how to cook the turkey well, doing the “right” thing is not a moral issue, so deferring to each other’s preferences is often the truly right thing to do.  It just does not matter!  But then, with regard to weighty things, you may not always know what is right.  You will need counsel from older men, time with God in prayer and the word, and a readiness to learn from your wife, as women often notice aspects of life different than us, especially with regard to children.  As you can see, I am not saying that you should go with the first idea you think is right and then not be open to counsel from your wife.  No, seek her counsel, weigh it well, and then, after due deliberation, if you think an option is truly right, regardless of whether she will be pleased or not, pursue the right thing with all your heart.  This choice will be loving to your wife and to your family.

Now let me illustrate it for you.  Let’s imagine your posteuphoria marriage, seven years down the line, which is a typical time for couples to divorce.  Perhaps you have learned to be content with your choice of pie, but you may discover that your wife has begun to have her doubts about her choice of pie!  At first, it may be over small things.  You need a new hair style or a better stock of clothes.  Perhaps it is a new job, more money, better times, more fun.  Whatever it may be, you may find yourself trying harder and harder to please her expectations, in order to keep her satisfied with her choice.  What should you do?  What is loving?  What is right?

As a pastor, I can attest that this scenario is not uncommon.  Men and women both do it.  When the euphoria is long gone, both partners can sense that something is missing and both may look at the now-obvious deficiencies in the other and say, “There’s the problem!”  At that moment, brother, I want you to take the lead and give her Jesus.  This is not a cliché.  I’m dead serious.  At that moment, yes, confess your desire to improve, to love her truly, but then confess that the best that you can offer to her deepest needs is the Lord Jesus Himself.  Be the leader at that moment, and take your wife to Jesus.  It will be the right thing to do, because only Jesus satisfies our true and deepest needs.  And because it will be the right thing to do, it will be the loving thing to do!

Well, may God truly bless you to be the husband you need to be for your future wife and your future home!

Remember, “Choose your love, and love your choice!”

Marriage Tattoos

A Marriage Blessing for a Young Man

On this night, a week before your wedding, I am encouraging you to get a tattoo.  In fact, two tattoos.

But first, let me explain.

In the middle of the Bible, we have the wisdom literature—Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs.  Each of these books covers a practical topic of everyday life, such as suffering, worship, family and work, the meaning of life, and marriage.  Just think.  Here, within the pages of inspired writings, are God’s very thoughts about things we experience every day.  So, what does He say about marriage?  (I imagine this topic has some interest for you at the present time!)

Admittedly, the Song of Songs is difficult to interpret.  A love song, with many flashbacks and the musical equivalence of montages, this inspired poem is mysterious.  Perhaps the form itself is teaching us about marriage.  Instead of a life lesson learned in the linear fashion of step one, step two, and so forth, marriage is messy, something we learn by experience as we go, with memories of the past and dreams of the future crowding within the turbulent present.  And yet, even with the patchwork structure of this book, there does seem to be a very, very basic timeline of married life.

The middle of the book is the wedding night, with its veiled descriptions of intimacy and its rich imagery of taste and smell.  The section closes at the moment of union with the encouraging words, “Drink and imbibe deeply, O lovers” (Song 5:1).  This line is a blessing on the physical union, the divinely-sanctioned oneness of the newlywed couple.  It shows us how physical intimacy works with God’s blessing.  Literally, it is a blessing of inebriation.  While it is a sin to become drunk with wine, it is wise to lose your mind in the moment of marital union.  A true wonder.  What happens next in the book, however, is what interests us today.

When the honeymoon is over—both physically and metaphorically—the man comes home late one night, all damp and drenched with dew, and asks his wife to open the door.  She refuses with the typical, petty excuses of everyday marriage life, “I have taken off my dress, how can I put it on again?  I have washed my feet, how can I dirty them again?” (Song 5:3).  It is as if she said, “Honey, I have a headache, and that headache right now is you.”  He still advances for a bit, but once she relents of her pity party, the man, in typical fashion, is gone!  The couple is no longer clicking, and this progression in the poem from the wedding night seems intentionally linear to me, as if we have here a typical pattern of marriage.

Right now, you and your bride-to-be are in the stage of marriage that veteran counselor Gary Chapman calls euphoria.  Like a Mountain Dew rush, you are running on the rarified fumes of high-octane love.  And this may last for a year or two.  Couples in this stage are very clingy and love to touch each other at any spare moment.  At some point, however, the honeymoon ends, and the Holy Spirit is warning you of a fallout.  No longer clingy, it will even be hard to look the other in the eye.  And it will feel difficult for you, perhaps even hopeless, to know how to repair the ruins.  In this stage of my marriage, my wife strongly resented me as the source of her unhappiness; but she would never tell me, because it would have hurt me.  However, I remember telling myself in those days that I was romancing the stone (a play on words from a movie at the time).  Then, after a decade, I remember feeling the frustration of her irritation with inner blurts in my mind, “Well, just divorce me then!”  Those days were not fun.  Again, what does the word of God say about this post-euphoria fallout?

First, it takes risky initiative to repair the ruins.  While earlier in the book, the woman is unharmed in her dreamy search for her lost man, she now is beat up (cf. Song 3:1-4; 5:7)!  Admittedly, both episodes are dreams, but I see reality portrayed.  It is a challenge to search for an estranged spouse, especially in taking the first step! 

Second, it often takes counsel.  She is helped by the ladies who ask her to describe her man and then offer to her their assistance.  Rather than receiving counsel for divorce, the wife is led to recall what about him she first enjoyed.  In doing so, the original match is struck and the search continues.

Third, once reunited, the couple enjoys even deeper intimacy than before, with both richer details of beauty and fresh plans of being together.  Ironically, studies have shown that marriages with seasoned love often have more satisfying sexual oneness than those in the early years of euphoria.  Marriage love is far more than physical touch and sufficient hormones.  In the words of counselor Larry Crabb, marriage love works best as the sequence of spirit oneness, soul oneness, and then body oneness.  As you and your wife find satisfaction and security in Christ, you will manipulate less and minister more.  You will become true friends and true lovers (cf. Song 5:16).  Such marriages have beautiful body oneness.  But it is gained through the risky reconciliation of post-euphoria fallout.

Here is where the tattoos come in.  At the climax of the book, the wife tells her husband, “Put me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm.  For love is as strong as death, jealousy is as severe as Sheol; its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the LORD” (Song 8:6).  Like “Susie” inked on his shoulder of an old sailor, she too wants to be visible on his arm.  As a seal signifying ownership, she too wants to be proudly displayed as belonging to him.  And I too want you to wear your wife with pride before the watching world.  Be proud of her.  She is yours.  But even more, I want you to wear her on your heart.  It is perhaps significant that she mentions the heart first.  Just as the mouth speaks what fills the heart, so also a man will be outwardly proud of what he inwardly prizes.  Please, please take this message seriously.  Do not just tattoo her on your arm.  Tattoo her on your heart.  Make her the permanent possession of your deepest cherishing.  Obviously, as in the poem itself, we are talking about something much deeper than physical tattoos.  I believe that deep love—love that fights through the fallout—will first impress her deeply into your heart and then express her naturally in your pride.  Do not settle for anything less than such a deep impression and natural expression.

In the effort to fight euphoria, too many preachers and counselors point to the will.  “Love is a decision,” they say.  Or, “Love is obedience.”  And certainly, there is a truth here.  Love will lead to obedience.  “If you love Me,” Jesus said, “you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15; cf. 2 John 6).  Love will lead to patience and kindness and a whole list of virtues, but love itself is something mysteriously deeper.  It treasures and desires and holds onto what we love with natural tenaciousness (cf. Matthew 6:24).  No wonder the wife describes love as stronger than death, an unquenchable fire that can never be bribed or purchased for any price (Song 8:6-7).  Truly priceless!  That is what I want for you.  Do not be satisfied with mere willingness, let alone tolerance.  Strive for love, pursue it; ask for it, and beg it.  When the euphoria evaporates and you are tempted to be either separated or stay irritated, hold onto the hope of a better day.  A renewed, deepened love will tattoo her deeply on your heart and tattoo her proudly on your arm.

One final word.  Ironically, you are already tattooed.  As a believer in Christ, your heart is already tattooed.  It is a promise of the new covenant, which we have in Christ through the gospel, that God Himself will write His law on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33).  While the Ten Commandments in stone failed to transform a people, the life of Christ in our hearts supplies what the law requires, and the law is summarized in love.  Praise God!  “Love is from God” (1 John 4:7) and you have already received this love.  Love is truly the “flame of the LORD” (Song 8:6) and you are already on fire.  You already possess what you need to love your wife for life.  Therefore, enjoy the euphoria, but know that the marriage tattoos will someday come through the tattoo of love which you already have in Christ.  God bless you much!  Amen.

The Knowledge of Log College

Over eight centuries before Christ, the Lord contended with His people:

There is no faithfulness or steadfast love, and no knowledge of God in the land; there is swearing, lying, murder, stealing, and committing adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, and all who dwell in it languish” (Hosea 4:1-3).

No knowledge of God in the land.  In short, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6).

Later on, the Lord declares, “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6).  It is the knowledge of God that is the essence of eternal life, and the means to “all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3; cf. John 17:3).

At Countryside Bible Church, we believe that the knowledge of God is fundamental to our growth in grace, and to our transformation in experience.  To achieve these ends, we aim in the Lord to train leaders who know Him well, and who can articulate His thoughts and ways to dying sinners in need of grace.  Unlike the days of Hosea, when it was said to their detriment “like people, like priest,” we aim to see this pattern work for our benefit, with both leaders and congregation knowing God well.

In order to do this, we have launched an in-house ministerial training program called the Log College.  The name comes from colonial America, when middle-aged minister William Tennent, Sr. trained over twenty men for the ministry in a 400-square-foot log cabin, which his enemies put down as The College.  Many of those men became leaders in the Great Awakening, and laid the gospel foundation for the Presbyterian church in America.  Like Tennent, we too aim to provide the church with solid ministers—men who know God experientially, and preach Him fervently.

At Countryside, we believe it is the responsibility of current ministers to train the next generation of ministers.  In his final letter, the apostle Paul charged Timothy, “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2).  There are four generations here—Paul, Timothy, the faithful men, and the others to be taught.  In looking down road, who knows how far the ripple effect will be in training men here for the ministry.

The program is simple—one year of study amidst ministry followed by one year of ministry internship.  The study involves reading, discussion, prayer, and Bible exposition.  The internship involves observing, helping, doing, and leading ministry under the theological guidance of an experienced mentor.  Currently, we have eight men scheduled to pursue God together this year in the study group.

Please pray for these men, and for their future ministry.  We live in exciting days, but also in days when the knowledge of God is lacking, and the people of God are suffering because of it.  May the Lord grant us to be faithful with the opportunities ahead of us!

Three Factors in Church Hopping

Recently I conversed with a Christian about how to break a pattern of church hopping.  You know the situation.  A couple eagerly joins your church and throws themselves into a variety of ministries and conversations.  Then, after a year or two, they show signs of losing interest and eventually no longer attend.  What are some factors that contribute to this pattern of behavior?  Here are three possibilities.

First, some Christians struggle with issues.  The list is endless.  The style of music, the form of sacraments, the polity of governance, and the strategy of leadership and ministries and sermons are among the weightier matters.  Lesser matters, of course, exist.  We all have them.  According to Paul, the church needs to allow for a diversity of opinion in matters beyond the gospel and the moral law.  A healthy church allows for liberty of conscience, as long as members behave towards God and others in faith and love (Romans 14).  If members, however, hold too tightly to their “own faith” and demand that others comply, the church will soon be fractured.  And if a member seeks a church that matches his growing list of issues, he will quickly move from one church to home church to no church.  He will soon be homeless and helpless—unless, of course, he unfortunately has the charisma and audacity to start his own church with his own conscience guiding pastoral decisions.

In reality, the list of absolutes is quite concentrated around the gospel (Romans 1-11) and the moral law (Romans 12-13).  This list is in keeping with Jesus’ own criteria of identifying true Christians, and by extension, a true church.  First, we must ask: “Do they hold to the words of Jesus as the truth?”  Jesus said, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32).  Those who leave His teachings do not have God (2 John 9).  Second, we must ask: “Do they maintain the fellowship of believers in love?”  Jesus said, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).  It is not enough to have the truth, but not love.  The church in Ephesus had departed from its initial love and Jesus threatened to remove them as a church, even though they had rightly tested false apostles and shared in Jesus’ hatred for what the false teachers did (Revelation 2:2-7).  Dead orthodoxy is still dead.  But if truth and love are present, the local church is a viable candidate for our membership, regardless of the particular issues.  We must beware of letting issues drive us from church to church.

Second, some Christians struggle with love.  Due to indwelling sin and imperfect judgment, church members will inevitably hurt each other.  We are like porcupines—as one church sociologist once said—the closer we get to one another, the more we poke each other!  For this reason, the Christian virtues of humility, patience, forbearance, and forgiveness are absolutely necessary, if we are to maintain “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).  True, there are times when an offence must lead to separation—as when a church member or leader interposes himself between us and God and unrepentantly demands that we listen to him (Luke 17:1-4; Matthew 18:15-17)—but such times are fewer than imagined by those who hop from church to church.  If we are easily offended and cannot forget a comment, it will not be long before we find it hard to continue at a church—especially if was caused or said by the leadership.

Related to this problem is the self-serving church member, who chooses a church based on how it meets his needs or the needs of his family.  Certainly, this can be a factor in decision-making—after all, we really do need each other (1 Corinthians 12:21)—but when it becomes The Factor, then the church becomes a means for our personal ends.  Eventually, we find ourselves using others to meet our needs.  Surely something is wrong here.  “Love…does not seek its own” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5).  At the very least, we must remember that Christ alone meets our needs.  If He is present, all things are possible.

Finally, some Christians struggle with authority.  This struggle could be due to an abusive pastor in the past or to a legalistic church environment.  As stated earlier, Christ intends for the church to afford liberty of conscience.  Leaders are expressly told not to lord their authority over the faith of members (1 Peter 5:3; cf. 2 Corinthians 1:24).  Each Christian should be fully convinced in his own mind and have his own faith before God (Romans 14:5, 22).  And through their teachings, leaders should facilitate this growth in faith and love.  Any leader, however, who longs to be first among the brothers and who isolates their loyalties to himself should be resisted with a firm conscience.  It is not only acceptable, but advisable to leave a church under such unrepentant leadership (3 John).  And it is certainly understandable why the victims of such a church would have difficulty joining another church.

Whatever the cause of the struggle, each Christian should recognize his personal need for church authority.  We are sheep.  And sheep should have shepherds—literally, pastors.  While a church with truth and love is a true church, we thrive best in a true and ordered church, complete with a plurality of elders and deacons (1 Timothy 3:1ff; Titus 1:5ff; e.g., Acts 14:21-23).  While it is tempting to think that God’s word alone will keep our souls safe, as if merely preaching the gospel will keep everyone well, we know from the New Testament and from the analogy of God as our Father that the internal word works well with external discipline (Hebrews 12:5-11).  Truly, “the rod and reproof give wisdom” (Proverbs 29:15).  Therefore, we should welcome such authority into our lives.  Symbolically, this welcoming occurs through church membership, which allows for our leaders to know, in particular, for whom they must give an account (Hebrews 13:17).  To be clear, it is not solely the pastors who disciple and discipline the flock.  The ultimate authority under Christ rests in the church as a whole, especially in cases of excommunication, but the elders of a church have genuine authority.  They should be obeyed with appropriate submission (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 5:5).

Issues, love, and authority—three factors that contribute to church hopping.  As a pastor, it breaks my heart to see members leave our church for little reason.  It hurts.  Yes, I recognize that the Church is bigger than a local church, so that in one sense it is healthy for there to be a fluidity between churches, both in members and in leadership.  After all, in the New Testament, we see Priscilla and Aquila in Rome, then in Corinth, then in Ephesus.  We also see Paul sending Titus and Timothy from church to church.  We are not to understand a church covenant to be a marriage covenant, nor are we to expect our pastor to stay for life, long past his effectiveness, as many pastors did in eighteenth-century England to the detriment of their churches.  The later awakenings in America showed the value of mobility.  That said, there should be a good reason for leaving a church.  In keeping with a church covenant, other members are entitled to hear of our reasons for leaving.  Hopefully they will see the validity of the choice; but even if not, the respect given should help to offset any hurt or offence.  They will simply be sad to see us go.  At the very least, we owe this respect to each other in Christ.  Such loyal-love and being-true-to-each-other finds favor both with God and with men (Proverbs 3:3-4).

Spring Branch Academy

“I wish I was their teacher!”  As a youth pastor, I had one hour a week with them.  Teachers had thirty!  Right then, the Lord formed in me the desire for a Christian school.  Now, twenty years later, our church has a Christian high school, Spring Branch Academy, with seventeen students.  This fall marks its tenth year!

Why should you consider a student for this school?  For some, it is a time to grow up, to take some steps towards independence.  For others, it is a time of renewal, a break from the distractions, temptations, and bullying at school.  For all students, it is the opportunity to worship God through academics.  Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them (Psalm 111:2).

Personally, I think the best reason is the pursuit of worship through wisdom in the word.  Consider these wonders:

Creation is digital!  Right now, bursts of light are hitting you in rapid fire, not in a smooth flow of energy.  Inside every cell, your body’s specifications are microscopically encoded in DNA.  How amazing is that!  By divine appointment, both the physical and biological worlds are digital (Psalm 119:91).  Could we have easily understood these things before the digital revolution of pixels and CDs?  And what is God saying to us through this reality?

Medical terms are in Greek!  A hundred years ago, Dr. Plummer of Mayo Clinic urged doctors to obtain a classical education in Latin and Greek.  Why?  They are the languages of science!  For example, the tissue around your bone is called the periosteum, which in Greek is literally “around-bone.”  Similarly, hypodermic is literally “under-skin.”  As Adam named the animals, so have we, but often in Latin and Greek!

Infidelity affects history and culture!  As President Wilson excused his love affair, so he arrogantly handled Europe after World War I, thereby setting the stage for World War II.  Similarly, how far should we trust the sentimentalism of Ebenezer Scrooge’s conversion, when the author Charles Dickens later divorced his wife over interests in a young actress?  How much wisdom is found where the fear of God is lacking?

The Incarnation defined personhood!  In articulating that the Son of God was an individual person, separate from His divine and human natures, the early church was able to define personhood independent of function.  In contrast, moderns have reverted to a pagan understanding of personhood as the accumulation of personal traits, such as self-reflection and self-determination.  If these traits are lacking, as in a vegetative state (mark the language!), then do we still have a person with personal rights?  Similarly, the little embryo fresh from fertilization in the lab?  We need to regain the riches of our Christian heritage.

God gave us a Book!  Why not read it for credit?  Starting this year, we are offering middle school students the opportunity to read and study the entire Bible as history and literature.

Do you see my point?  Christian education is more than the absence of things.  It is the pursuit of worship through wisdom in the word.  Please, I invite you to bring to me your questions and let’s explore the options!  As a church, we do not believe that parents must educate their children in a particular way, but we do appreciate options—and Spring Branch Academy is an option that we can offer!  So, come, let’s explore together if this option is a good fit for your student this coming year.

For more information, please contact me, Pastor Bob Snyder, or visit us on the web at sbacademy.us.

Thoughts on Robin Hood

How should we think about Robin Hood’s ethics of robbing from the rich to give to the poor?

On the surface, Robin Hood is robbing the rich.  Stop the sentence right there.

But what if the rich obtained their riches wrongfully, at the hands of the poor?

Surely giving back to the poor what is rightfully theirs would not be wrong.

Good point, but we must also ask whether Robin Hood is authorized to do this act.

But what if those duly authorized are not doing their duty?  Should not someone do something?

But Robin Hood is robbing.  When do two wrongs make a right?

Well, even if Robin Hood is technically robbing, he does not keep the spoils for himself.

He repeatedly gives them away.  Why should we not respect such bravery and generosity?

Biblical Thoughts

I appreciate the sensitivity of students to this issue.  They realize that both the situation and one’s personal perspective color how Robin Hood’s actions appear.  Now, to gain perspective on all aspects of the situation, one must see it through faith.  “Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

Most of these kinds of stories leave out God—and if there was no God, then perhaps we are left with nothing more than Robin Hood.  However, vengeance belongs to God (Romans 12:19) and to the ones He has authorized to use it (Romans 13:1-4), i.e. the government.  Ironically, by taking vengeance into his own hands, Robin Hood is robbing God!

Our job—our privilege, by faith—is to learn how to “overcome evil,” i.e. to defeat it, to conquer it, through doing good (like feeding an enemy—Romans 12:20-21).  Interestingly, the memory verse from theology class (Ephesians 4:28) brings all the elements under discussion together: “steal no longer” (no stealing) and “performing with his own hands what is good” (doing good in labor) and “share with one who had need” (giving).  This is exciting!  What will God do to enable us to overcome evil with good?  With God in the picture, Robin Hood could have sought God earnestly for His blessing on more honest work for giving.  And if the government is not bringing judgment on the wicked, then we need to cry out to Him who “performs righteous deeds and judgments for all who are oppressed,” as in the Exodus (Psalm 103:6).  At any rate, we are warned in Romans 3:1-8 about doing evil that good may come.  Returning evil for evil is not our place (Romans 12:17).

May the Lord bless us all with discernment and with the firm faith of love in Christ!