Have You Been With Jesus?

A friend and I talked about a conference we both attended, during different years. I told him about the year I attended. Then he told me about the year he attended.

As he listed the speakers he heard, I asked about a particular name. I knew of this man’s ministry but had never heard him speak.  I inquired, “Can he preach?”

My friend answered affirmatively and emphatically. “He knows how to handle the text,” my friend expanded. “And you can tell he’s been with Jesus.”

The conversation ended there because I did not say anything else. I could not. I was stuck on the statement, “And you can tell he’s been with Jesus.”

The statement itself was not new to me. I recognized the biblical reference.

Peter and John were arrested, because of their witness for Christ. And they did not waver in the Christian witness, as they stood trial before the Jewish rulers, elders, and scribes in Jerusalem. Almost parenthetically, Luke notes…

“Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.” (Acts 4:13)

The apostles did not have formal education, institutional clout of ministerial prominence. But it was obvious that these men had been with Jesus. The religious leaders were not complimenting the Christlikeness of the apostles. It was just a plain statement of fact, even though these religious leaders did not know the magnitude of what they said. The words and deeds of the apostles made it obvious that these men had spent time with Jesus of Nazareth.

This is a great way to describe a preacher of the gospel. He has been with Jesus. Unfortunately, until my friend’s passing statement, I had never heard a preacher’s pulpit ministry described that way.

After scanning my mental files for a moment, I double-clicked on my own ministry. Could this be said of me? When I stand to preach, is it obvious to those who hear me that I have been with Jesus.

I take pride in the fact that I do not go to the pulpit unprepared. I labor in study to be faithful to the God-intended meaning of the text. I struggle in sermon preparation to be clear in my presentation. I saturate my heart and mind with the biblical truth to preach with passion. But the truth is that you can be faithful, clear, and passionate in the pulpit, without ever giving the sense that you have been with Jesus.

The technical, academic, and official aspects of ministry are important. Very important. But formal education, sound doctrine, spiritual giftedness, expositional preaching, and leadership expertise do not make you a Christian ministry. You need to spend time in school. You need to spend time in study. You need to spend time in the text. But none of those things make a real difference if you have not been with Jesus.

Ministry is about fulfilling a calling, not practicing a vocation. We are not professionals, who happen to do our work in a religious context. We are servants of the Lord Jesus Christ. Every aspect of our life and work should submit to the lordship of Jesus Christ. And our submission to Christ should be evident to others by what we do in ministry, and how we do it.

When a soldier was court-marshaled for sleeping at his post, he claimed he was praying. With mockery, he was asked to pray during his trial. When he finished, the chargers were dropped. It was concluded that he had to spend extended time in private prayer to pray publicly like that in a crisis.

Effective public ministry is the result of meaningful private devotion. You must spend time with Jesus, until you know what he wants you to say in that sermon. You must spend time with Jesus, until you get a sense of direction from the Lord about how to lead that congregation forward. You must spend time with Jesus, until you get wisdom from God about how to respond to that problem. You must spend time with Jesus, until you can hand that difficult person the fruit of the Spirit, rather than a piece of your mind. You must spend time with Jesus, until you can stand firm with spiritual boldness.

What does a pastor who has been with Jesus look like?

He has clean hands of unreproachable integrity. He has steady feet that walk in obedience. He has dirty knees from time spent in believing prayer. He has weary eyes from diligent study. He has a renewed mind of biblical conviction. He has a broken heart for lost people. He has a listening ear for spiritual direction. He has strong arms from bearing one another’s burdens. He has a faithful tongue that speaks the truth in love. He has firm legs that stand strong in spiritual boldness.

The pastor who has been with Jesus is a man of God. And he does not have to carry a big family Bible around everywhere for people to know it. He doesn’t have to put a religious bumper sticker on his car for people to know it. And he does not have to have a cross around his neck bigger than the one Jesus carried up Golgotha for people to know it. His walk, words, and ways make it evident to those who see him and hear him that he has been with Jesus.

Sure, you know how to handle the text. But can people tell that you have been with Jesus?

Editor’s Note: This originally published at HBCharlesJr.com

The Lord’s Remembrancer

Editor’s Note: This post is an excerpt from Jason Duesing’s recently released work, Historical Theology for the Church. The volume was co-edited with Nathan A. Finn and is available now from B&H Academic online and wherever Christian academic titles are sold.

When David Levin set out to describe the early years of the life of Cotton Mather (1663–1703), he dubbed him “the Lord’s Remembrancer.”[1] This title is, no doubt, taken from the oldest functioning judicial position in England, the King’s Remembrancer. Established in the twelfth century, this clerk serves the monarchy by reminding of previous business recorded. Yet, bestowing Mather with this honorific comes with some controversy given his role in the Salem witch trials. That chapter in Mather’s life often overshadows his prodigious work as historian, biographer, and biblical commentator.

Mather’s magnum opus, the Magnalia Christi Americana, is an example of his careful work and is the primary reason why Levin gives Mather the title of the Lord’s Remembrancer. Written to provide an ecclesiastical history of New England, Levin praises Mather for his faithful historical work stating that his “strength as a historian grows out of the range and number of his examples, and the persistence of his theme – the piety, the faith, the struggle, the perplexity, and the resignation in dozens of actual lives.”[2]

Such is a fitting description of the task of the historical theologian—a servant of the church who reminds present and future readers of previous actions and theological developments from earlier eras in the history of Christianity. As the Lord’s Remembrancers, faithful historical theologians have the opportunity of serving the church present and future, but what does that entail? How is this work done?

What is Historical Theology?

Historical theology is the study of the doctrinal development of Christians through the ages and how they have transferred their tradition to the next generation. In this, the study of historical theology allows Christians and churches to make sense of what they have inherited as well as to receive instruction from those who have lived in other times and who persevered through other trials.

To illustrate this function, consider what happens when a person walks up to observe two other people playing the game of Chess. The two opponents started the game some time previous and thus the onlooker is forced to survey the Chess board, make an assessment of what has happened, who is winning, whose turn is next, and who has the advantage. The onlooker observes a game in progress and, depending upon her knowledge of the game, is forced to put the pieces together in order to appreciate what is happening. The more one knows the game, the more one can adapt to this quickly, but anyone would prefer to have observed the game from the beginning to appreciate the match in full. Second to that, the onlooker would find help if the opponents paused their game to explain to her how many moves had occurred, what mistakes had been made, and what each player was thinking at the time. A third level of intrigue and complexity could occur should one of the players leave his game and ask the onlooker to take over and play for him. At this point, for the onlooker to have a chance, she would have to have knowledge, experience, and a sense of not only what she has inherited, but also what she should do next.

Such it is with the study of historical theology. Christians of the present and future, once they start their journey in the Christian life, either as individuals or in local churches, are put in the position of the onlooker. Christians before them are playing or have played many Chess games with the Christian tradition, each developing their skills with the doctrines of the Bible as well as contributing new understanding to how the Christian life is lived in each era and under unique circumstances. The onlooker is helped if she has the opportunity not only to study and learn in community the rules of the game, that comes through the study of the Bible, but also to learn from and observe other Christians, nearby and in previous ages, how they have done the same. Further, often in local churches or in families, the onlooker is asked to take over a game when she is brought into a church tradition, or move to a new community, or join a new Christian family. The discipleship that comes through the study of historical theology can aid the onlooker in understanding her new surroundings, what has taken place before, and how to know what should take place next.

Historical Theology for the Church

In light of these definitions for this new book, the editors and contributors asked, “What would it look like to develop a historical theology for the church?” The result was the start of a list of characteristics that is, by no means, final or comprehensive. Yet, this list provides a tangible blueprint to give an outline for future and ongoing construction of historical theology for the church.

  1. Historical Theology for the church upholds the primacy of the Bible over tradition and history but recognizes the value of tradition and history.

Historical theology for the church should lean upon and listen to these contemporary guides who are seeking to uphold the primacy of the Bible as the sole authority while recognizing the value of the Christian tradition for reading and interpreting the Bible.

  • Historical Theology for the church follows the two Greatest Commandments as it is for the Church catholic and church local.

Historical theology for the church is done well when the church loves God and loves neighbor by valuing and learning from other expressions and traditions of the church catholic in history.

  • Historical Theology for the church is done as a means to the end of fulfilling the Great Commission and glorifying God.

Historical theology for the church functions as a tool to equip churches to learn and take their history of doctrinal development to those who do not yet even have a historical theology.

  • Historical Theology for the church is both academic and edifying as it functions as friend to the work of systematic theology, biblical theology, and applied theology.

When these disciplines stick closer than brothers (Prov 18:24) for the church, they are modeling what the Lord Jesus modeled and provides for his disciples. He is the one who, when his church was separated and far from him due to sin, brought her near at the price of his own blood (Eph 2:12-13). He loved the church, laid down his life, and called the church friends (John 15:13-15).

  • Historical Theology for the church as an academic endeavor is done as a servant of the church, not as a master.

Historical theology for the church, functioning as a donkey carrying the Master (Mark 11:3), serves his church well when it strives to provide correction of contemporary misapplications of the past for present and future churches.

The pursuit of scholarship for the church is not without cost. Nevertheless, historical theologians doing historical theology for the church have, on the one hand, the privilege of doing the humble work of a donkey for the Master carefully guiding the church to the good, the true and the beautiful in history, while on the other hand, simultaneously pointing out the lack of theological clothes worn by many Emperor’s of the academy.

The Lord’s Remembrancers

Benjamin Colman, preaching after Cotton Mather’s funeral, noted that in his written work Mather,

shone; being exceeding communicative, and bringing out of his Treasury things new and old, without measure. Here it was seen how his Wit, and Fancy, his Invention, his Quickness of thought, and ready Apprehension were all consecrated to God, as well as his Heart, Will, and Affections; and out of his Abundance within his lips overlow’d, dropt as the honeycomb, fed all that came near him, and were as the choice silver, for richness and brightness, pleasure and profit.[3]

Jesus instructed that “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matt 13:52).

Historical theology can be done for the church when historical theologians bring out the treasures from the doctrines of history and serve them as the Lord’s Remembrancers.

[1] David Levin, Cotton Mather: The Young Life of the Lord’s Remembrancer, 1663-1703 (Harvard, 1978).

[2] Ibid., 262.

[3] Levin, Cotton Mather, ii.

Spirits in Bondage: A Book Review

Lexham Press has done all Lewis enthusiasts a great service by publishing this new edition of Spirits in Bondage: A Cycle of Lyrics. The introduction by Karren Swallow Prior would alone be worth the price of the book, but the real prize is the window we receive into the pre-conversion heart of Lewis through these poems. Here we are introduced to a Lewis many of us have heard of, but have never met. There are certain enriching continuities—the love of words, the love of nature, the love of fantasy and adventure. But there are also stark discontinuities—cynical, hopeless, condescending. This Lewis is a house divided: enthralled by the enchanted world he insists is strictly material. This conflict of convictions is occasionally felt by Lewis, and when the materialistic disenchantment wins the battle, it is hard to grieve for the young soul-stricken Lewis—sitting in his dirty trench and suffocating from hopelessness:

False, mocking fancy! Once I too could dream,
Who now can only see with vulgar eye
That he’s no nearer to the moon than I
And she’s a stone that catches the sun’s beam.

What call have I to dream of anything?
I am a wolf. Back to the world again,
And speech of fellow-brutes that once were men
Our throats can bark of slaughter: cannot sing. (pg. 7)

This cynicism does at some places give way to throbbing conceit, as in the case of the ever-condescending poem, “In Praise of Solid People” (the delicious irony is that all the things young Lewis patronizingly praises in “solid people,” aged and converted Lewis praises in good faith). There is no mistaking the old self Lewis describes in Surprised by Joy many years later: a self who is very angry at God for not existing:

Come let us curse our Master ere we die,
For all our hopes in endless ruin lie.
The good is dead. Let us curse God most High.

O universal strength, I know it well,
It is but froth of folly to rebel,
For thou art Lord and hast the keys of Hell.

Yet I will not bow down to thee nor love thee,
For looking in my own heart I can prove thee,
And know this frail, bruised being is above thee. (pg. 27-28)

If this were all we ever had for this young poet, Spirits in Bondage would be a straightforward tragedy. But the looming and towering giant we as C.S. Lewis casts light backwards into these dark poems. And what we discover in the daylight of time passing is that the hound of heaven was at the young aspiring poet’s heels the whole time. Or rather, heaven was pulling him there irresistibly—he was always bound for Aslan’s Country. The fight between Lewis’s affections for “Northernness” and his pessimistic disenchantment was only ever going to go one way. Christ Jesus had him by the gut, and that was that. Lewis’s later conversion transforms moments of hopefulness and longing from pictures of inconsistency to pictures of destiny. These are the stabs of joy that were the beginning of the end of Lewis’s atheism:

Or is it all a folly of the wise,
Bidding us walk these ways with blinded eyes
While all around us real flowers arise?

But, by the very God, we know, we know
That somewhere still, beyond the Northern snow
Waiting for us the red-rose gardens blow. (pg. 63)

And the all of the roads is upon me, a desire in my spirit has grown
To wander forth in the highways, ‘twixt earth and sky alone,
And seek for the lands no foot has trod and the seas no sail has known:

—For the lands to the west of the evening and east of the morning’s birth,
Where the gods unseen in their valleys green are glad at the ends of the earth
And fear no morrow to bring them sorrow, nor night to quench their mirth. (pg. 81-82)

In this little collection of poems, we have the privilege of getting to know Lewis better. It is, in its way, a magnificent display of God’s saving grace. It is also a window into the aspirations of Lewis, who loved poetry more than prose, and desired to be a poet far more than an apologist. There are many references in Spirits in Bondage that I—as someone who did not receive the kind of classical education Lewis enjoyed, formal and informal—miss in ignorance. But the central and glaring truth in Spirits in Bondage is the truth Lewis himself missed in ignorance while he wrote: God is a gracious God who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. Lewis’s story, and the story of this whole world, begins and ends in some way or another illustrating this central truth.

The Way to God

Years ago, two cousins were visiting near the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia. Although they were told by their parents not to venture into the swamp, they disobeyed. As the sun was setting, they decided to head home in hopes that their absence would not be detected.

Neither boy made it back. When they were found dead a few days later, a note was attached to one of the boys. It read, “I thought I knew the way, but I was wrong.”

Do you know the way to God? Are you sure you are right?

Jesus declared that He is the way to God. He said in John 14:6, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” According to Jesus, if you hope to get to God, you must come through Him.

On Lake Geneva in Switzerland, the beautiful castle of Chillon sits on the water’s edge with a moat in front and the lake surrounding three sides. There is only one way to enter in—across the moat bridge and through the huge doors in the front. And one may enter there only if the gate is let down and the door is opened from the inside.

Jesus is the bridge let down and the door opened to God. His death on the cross is “the new and living way (Hebrews 10:20).” Peter said, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).” Jesus is the way.

Jesus also said, “I am the truth.” He is the truth about God. God has told you the truth through His Word, but He did it “in person” through the coming of Jesus Christ. Jesus, who is also called the Word in John 1, is the perfect expression of God (Hebrews 1:1-3). “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father,” Jesus claimed (John 14:9).

There are people who believe in a concept of God but only think of Jesus as just another philosopher, though perhaps of superior quality. The Bible says that Christ came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive Him (John 1:11). Is it possible for people to believe only in God and to dismiss Christ as merely a teacher?

Jesus taught that it was impossible to truly believe in the Father without believing in the Son as well. Once He told some religious leaders, “You do not know me or my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also (John 8:19).” He also said, “I and the Father are one (John 10:30).” To reject Christ is to reject the Father completely, for they are one in essence.

Jesus was worshipped as God, controlled nature as God, forgave sins as God, did miracles as God, and lived perfectly as God. Jesus is the truth about God.

Jesus also asserted that He is the life.

A friend of mine was once in a serious car accident. He was taken out of the car as dead. When the medics examined him, they said to each other, “This one is gone.” My friend could hear them speaking but could not move. He wanted to shout, “Get to work on me. I’m not dead. I’m alive!” But he could not get a word out of his mouth.

The Bible teaches that you are worse off than my friend. The Bible says that you are spiritually dead, not just paralyzed (Ephesians 2:1). This is why you need Jesus so badly. He is the life. He can bring life into your dead soul, life that is transforming and exciting for now, and life that will last forever in eternity. John said, “And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life (1 John 5:11).”

We used to hang a colorful picture of heaven and hell in our children’s room. It depicted a huge cavern full of fire, representing hell. On one side is a city awaiting destruction. On the other side is heaven. Across the cavern is a huge cross over which some people are walking.

The scene is a graphic reminder that Christ is the way to God, and nobody comes to the Father but through Him. It also shows us that the cross is the means by which He has secured a place for sinful people in heaven. Peter said, “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God (1 Peter 3:18).”

You must trust Christ as the only way to the Father. He demands that you depend upon Him alone for your salvation. There are important facts you must believe about Christ, that is true, but ultimately you must put your faith in the person Himself. He is the way and nobody, including you, will get to the Father but through Him.

Editor’s Note: This was originally published at Christian Communicators Worldwide.

The Simple Gospel of Carl Henry

If you examine a list of the best preachers of the 20th century, you will find the names of great orators such as Billy Graham, G. Campbell Morgan, and Gardner C. Taylor, but one name that most likely will not appear on the list would be Carl F. H. Henry. Much more powerful with a pen than in the pulpit, Henry tells a brief anecdote about his preaching prowess in his autobiography Confessions of a Theologian. He wrote:

In the early afternoon I sauntered through Hyde Park, where scores of crusaders daily mount their soapboxes in behest of a hundred and one causes. Billy Graham had been there some weeks earlier when, accompanied by media coverage, he drew thousands of observers. But I was less known than even the unknown God of the Athenians. I listened momentarily here and there to some thumping radical or partisan until I happened on a father and son team who from a stepladder took turns exhorting listeners to put their hearts right with God. I commended them. “Do you have a word from the Lord?” asked the father. Introduced as “an American visitor” I somewhat reluctantly mounted the ladder to give my testimony about God’s forgiving sins and saving me. “Right now,” I continued, “if you will repent and receive Christ as Savior, God will forgive your sins, too, and give you new life.”…I disengaged myself from my lofty perch as discreetly as possible and listened to the father and son a bit longer until I could saunter away unobserved. I paid no attention to two men walking nearby until I overheard one of them remark, “That blooming American didn’t have very much to say, did he?” Graham’s calling and mine, I mused, are very different, and I was willing to leave it that way.

Lessons from Hyde Park

Henry’s mockers would have probably been surprised to learn that one of the foremost evangelical theologians had been in their midst. That “blooming American” was the founding editor of Christianity Today and the author of the six-volume magisterial defense of the Christian faith, God, Revelation and Authority. Anyone who has encountered Henry will quickly observe his towering intellect and know that this man indeed had much to say. What then, can we learn from Henry’s unassuming trip to Hyde Park?

First, Henry was not Graham, nor did God intend for him to be. The Neo-Evangelical movement was strengthened by the diversity of gifts. It was not that Henry thought the calling to be a preacher was wholly distinct from the calling to be a theologian. Both tasks require a resolute reliance upon the power of the gospel. Nevertheless, Henry understood that it was the Lord’s prerogative to endow his people with various gifts to build His kingdom. Henry was once called the “brain of the evangelical movement,” but he understood that the movement must also have hands, head, and heart. There is a temptation for the modern Christian academy to forget our role in this organism. Not only is there diversity in the various disciplines within Christian academia, but the many outside the academy are within our family. Cultivating this spiritual symbiotic relationship not only strengthens the academy but, more importantly, it strengthens the church.

Second, although Henry mined the depths of Christian theology, he was not so complex that he could not offer sinners a simple gospel. Once when asked by Paul House about the most important thing to teach seminarians, Henry responded, “Never let them forget the glory of a soul saved.” Henry certainly did not forget. His former students at Fuller recount his passion for evangelism, whether it was seen in Henry spending the night on the streets of Pasadena sharing the gospel or simply sharing the gospel with the local mailman. He continued all of his life in holy amazement for the God who speaks and saves.

Carl F.H. Henry’s Greatest Treasure

It could be said that the goal of Henry’s great magnum opus God, Revelation and Authority, was simply to present the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ. Henry believed that effective evangelistic outreach should be shaped by biblically faithful theology. The academy must go before the pulpit, helping to make straight the paths and remove obstacles. The life of Henry reminds us today that it is the gospel that is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16). Henry knew this power personally and it fueled him throughout his life. He closed his autobiography by reflecting on his life and ministry. When asked about his greatest treasure, he wrote:

Family aside, I’d begin with Scripture…the most read book of my life. And communion with God…waiting before God. I have done less waiting than working, and my works would have been better had I waited more. But I have enjoyed God’s incomparable companionship…My deepest memories are those spent waiting before God, often praying for others…sometimes waiting before him in tears, sometimes in joy, sometimes wrestling alternatives, sometimes just worshiping him in adoration. Heaven will be an unending feast for the soul that basks in his presence. And it will be brighter because some will be there whom I brought to Jesus.

This is the simple gospel of Carl Henry. This is the gospel that raises the dead to life from the God who speaks and shows.

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared at the blog for Credo Magazine and is used with permission.

The Miraculous Ministry of Jesus

The ministry of Jesus is miraculous. It was miraculous from the beginning, being born of the virgin Mary. It was miraculous at the end, being raised from the dead on the third day. And it was miraculous every moment in between.

In our world, where “normal” is an acceptance of brokenness and an expectation of disappointment, miracles feel like a break from reality. An interruption. Something crashing in from outside this world. But the Bible doesn’t present miracles as a break from reality. The Bible presents miracles as an in-breaking of ultimate reality.

In his book, Can We Trust the Gospels?, Theologian Peter J. Williams explains biblical miracles this way.

“They are presented not as random disturbances of an otherwise orderly universe but as events that actually form an orderly pattern pointing to God’s meaningful action in the world. Reports of miracles surrounding Jesus are not disruptions of order but signs pointing to who he is.”

Miracles point us not only to what God can do but to who God is. The Bible includes them to display the character of God. Whether we realize it or not, that’s why we love the miracles of the Bible. They give us what our heart longs for: the miraculous hope of God. Our hearts long to believe in something greater than what our eyes can see and what science can explain. Miracles point to the power and glory and healing and provision and satisfaction of God who made this world, oversees this world, and one day will restore this world. Miracles prove that even when all looks lost, in the hands of God, it never really is.

The New Testament bears witness to the reality that God’s kingdom has been inaugurated in Christ. But while that new kingdom reigns, it does not yet reign as it will. There is an “already” but also a “not yet.” Jesus has already come but not yet consummated his kingdom as he one day will. As the entirety of the Christian life, miracles find their place somewhere here. The kingdom has broken in, and miracles are signposts pointing to what one day will be every day. But it’s not here yet.

John Stott said:

“Is not the most helpful way to approach the gospel miracles to place them within the familiar and inescapable tension between the already and the not yet, kingdom come and kingdom coming, the new age inaugurated and the new age consummated? To the skeptical (who doubt all miracles), I want to say ‘but already we have tasted the powers of the age to come.’ To the credulous (who think that healing miracles are an everyday occurrence), I want to say ‘but not yet have we been given resurrection bodies free from disease, pain, infirmity, handicap, and death.’” (Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal Evangelical Dialogue)

The miraculous ministry of Jesus points us to the kingdom God brought—and is bringing—into this world. But there is more yet to come. As great as a miracle is, we know—and God knows—a healing, a raising, a providing, a calming, a restoring in this world, no matter how real, is only temporary. All who were healed, raised, provided for, calmed, and restored one day died.

The miraculous is fascinating, but it’s not the point of God’s work. To see only the miracle and not raise one’s eyes above to the giver of the miracle is like licking the rock splattered with the water from the raging river beyond. Miracles are calls to come to the source and open wide. They reveal what only God can do, and create a longing for another. No one who saw a miracle ever wanted to see only one miracle. That’s why the crowds followed Jesus. They wanted another. Another they have, if they’ll look not for the miracle itself.

God’s miracles are funny things. They provide for our most pressing needs while revealing our need far beyond. Jesus never performed a miracle someone didn’t need that very moment, but he also never performed a miracle for someone that didn’t have a greater need. As much as we may cry out for something only God can do, miracles point us to someone only God is. Only God can give sight to the blind. Only God can grant hearing to the deaf. Only God can calm the storms at sea. Only God can make five loaves into a feast for thousands. Only God can raise the dead. But none of those things are the point. All are but mere pointers to the God who is there and is not silent, calling out through the miracles to our need for him.

Editor’s Note: This originally published at Things of the Sort.

Redeeming Pastoral Ambition

Forest fires rage each year in California and Arizona in the summer consuming everything in their path. Saplings as new as the spring and mature trees as old as the Declaration of Independence are scorched to ash. Too often, our desire for greatness is like that—an all-consuming fire.


The Bible recounts story after story of men and women who sought their own greatness. We see this in godless rulers such as Pharaoh in the book of Exodus and Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Daniel. Sometimes we see worldly glory seekers among the faithful, like when God rebuked Jeremiah’s trusted scribe, saying, “And do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not” (Jeremiah 45:5).

Yet the quest for glory still rages. Incalculable amounts of exertion, passion, money, and skill are employed in the pursuit. If we could know our own hearts perfectly, we’d have to admit that this is our story too. Some vision of greatness, whether consciously or not, tugs us along. It seems to be the subject of every commencement speech. “Go change the world,” ambitious graduates are told, which usually means, “Go become great in the eyes of the world.” Our current culture of side-hustles can stoke discontentment too; at times I’ve struggled to feel like my calling to pastor a local church is enough, as though if I did more then I’d be something more worthwhile. I’m probably not the only pastor who feels this way.

The disciples of Jesus had this same problem. In Mark 9, after beholding the glory of their Lord in his transfiguration, Mark tells us the disciples engaged in quite possibly the dumbest argument in the history of the world: a fight over which of the disciples was the greatest.

The context of the conversation makes their argument even more ridiculous. Consider what happened in Mark 9. Jesus revealed his glory on the mountain, showing he’s not weak and feeble but strong and glorious. Jesus then received the stamp of approval from God the Father and was highlighted as far more important than Moses and Elijah, two significant Old Testament prophets. Then Jesus victoriously battled a demon which had previously defeated the disciples. Then Jesus promised to rise from the dead, invoking imagery of himself as the exalted “Son of Man” figure mentioned in Daniel 7:9–14. The grossly understated takeaway from Mark 9 is that Jesus is a big deal.

When Jesus asks the disciples what they discussed, Mark says they kept silent because “on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest” (9:34). They won’t answer because of shame. They’ve got hands in the cookie jar but reckon that if they slide the jar behind someone’s back, well, maybe Jesus won’t know.

But he knows. He sees the crumbs on the floor and the chocolate on their cheeks. Their petty and myopic argument about worldly greatness is sin, just like when we pastors size each other up at conferences and seminary students view classmates as competitors.


Zack Eswine notes in his book The Imperfect Pastor that ambition has a certain “arson” to it. That’s certainly true. But if we read Jesus’s words carefully, we’ll see Jesus doesn’t want to put the fire out. He wants to douse our desire for greatness with gasoline.

You might expect Jesus to issue a harsh rebuke. I mean, he is a prophet, and prophets do that sort of thing from time to time. Instead what they got—and what we get—is patience. He teaches; he instructs; he redefines; and he redirects. We would fire these disciples and hire others. But Jesus loves them. He tells them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” Notice the exact phrasing: “servant of all,” not just servant of the greats, like servant of a famous pastor or a seminary president. His point is that the greatness of our service is enhanced not diminished by the lack of greatness of those we serve.

For us visual learners, Jesus goes on to illustrate his point. He called a child to himself, took the child in his arms, and said to the disciples, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me” (9:37). Jesus implies that greatness is receiving children because they are a specific example of the broader principle of servanthood. In receiving children, Jesus shows us that true greatness—by his definition—is serving, loving, and caring for the needs of people who cannot repay you.


Of course, the disciples don’t get it—not before the cross and resurrection, anyway. As Luke records, even during the last supper with Jesus, this same argument flared among them. “And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, ‘Take this, and divide it among yourselves. . . . A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest” (Luke 22:17, 24).

Christ’s lesson on true greatness didn’t stick. Ultimately we need more than a lesson or an invitation. We need redemption. Our definition of greatness is too corrupt. We all have in us what comedian Brian Regan calls the “me-monster.” I give away 20% of my income. I memorized the book of Ephesians. I have 2,000 Facebook friends. My church had a dozen baptisms last month. I bench press 350 lbs. and run marathons. I . . . I . . . I . . .

Jesus told his disciples, “I am among you as the one who serves” (Luke 22:27). Indeed he was. And his service to sinners leads him to the cross where he dies for our sins, including those we commit pursuing greatness in the eyes of the world. And he redeems our corruption and shows us a better way. If you want to change the world, have the ultimate side-hustle, and be a modern prince of preachers, then by the grace of God be a servant of all.

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared at the 9Marks blog and is used with permission.

The Blessing of a Bothered Conscience

The Infused Courtroom

The Apostle Paul unfolds for us in Romans 2 that even the Gentiles who don’t have the Law actually know it by nature because it “is written on their hearts” (2:15).

Paul then communicates to us the global, natural purpose of this God-infused courtroom in the heart of every man: to either accuse or excuse (2:15b). Therefore, every one knows God’s Law (literally: con [with] + science [knowledge]). Every sin, every trespass against God’s moral Law expressed in the 10 Commandments is a known sin, i.e. the sinner knows that when they lied, committed adultery, stole, blasphemed God’s name, etc. is wrong. And their conscience will either accuse them or excuse them. The unbeliever knows with absolute certainty that it is sinful to lie on that paperwork at the office — and so does the one who has been born again. So, what is the difference?

Bothered, or a Holy Bothered

Perhaps one of the most concrete examples of this distinction can be found in the life of Joseph in Genesis 39. At this point in Joseph’s life, he has been bought by Potiphar (the captain of the guard in Egypt) as a slave to work in his house. Thus, after some time he moves up the ranks and is now the in charge of Potiphar’s house and is entrusted with the care of it all!

Enter Potiphar’s wife who finds the very handsome Joseph, handsome (v.6-7). She throws herself at Joseph and Joseph responds thus: “[Potiphar has not] kept back anything from me except you, because you are his wife. How then can i do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (39:9).

According to Roman 2, the typical unbeliever might respond with thoughts similar to Joseph’s, but different. And the distinction is an eternity of difference.

If Joseph was a pagan, he may initially respond the way he did with a “No, I better not; you’re the boss-man’s wife.” But, then, he could think, “Well, Potiphar is a jerk. And his wife is here alone with me. And who would find out anyway?” It is possible to keep sin enclosed and secret for a lengthy amount of time if there is the utmost precaution. The sinner’s conscience would be, by the Apostle’s authority, bothered. It would accuse him to do that to someone; adultery against another man’s wife, even to a pagan, is pretty messed up at the least — especially considering the coming angry husband if he finds out (cf. Proverbs 6:30-35).

Even unbelievers can have a bothered conscience — but Joseph had a holy bothered conscience. His concern was not primarily against his neighbor, but against God.

Signs of Life

Christian, consider your life. When you have the opportunity (or are in the act of) to sin, your conscience is going to sound like the tornado alarm — similar to a pagan’s. But, consider the strength of your conscience’s appeal: not to man, but to God. Yes, part of obeying our conscience is loving our neighbor as the Law is summed up with; but the primary offender of breaking God’s Law is always God first and primarily (cf. Psalm 51).

Do you know that loud, keeping-you-awake-at-night, bothersome conscience? Do you feel that holy bothered conscience? Thought it is painful, though it is strong — when you respond in repentance and faith in God’s Law and God’s promise and find your conscience clean before the Lord, rejoice! Rejoice that this is a sign of your being made alive together with Christ (Ephesians 2:4-5)! Your new and highest desire is to please the Lord, to fear God and to keep his commandments because they have been supernaturally written on your heart as part of the New Covenant (cf. Jeremiah 31:31-34). Unbelievers do not feel any inclination towards offending the God that created them because there is no fear of God before their eyes (Romans 3:18). Their main thought in this process is one of great rebellion, as if God didn’t exist in the first place (Psalm 10:4).

When God’s Word convicts you and accuses you of trespassing God’s Law, your conscience will loudly remind you and accuse you for your good. You have a fear of God before your eyes. It is good that this is your experience; this is a gracious blessing that the Spirit has worked within you. You are alive to Christ and his glory! How could you sin against that God?

Your Conscience Before the Court

The good news of the gospel is that as you stand before God, Christian, you can do so with a clean conscience cleansed from evil (Hebrews 10:22) because you are standing in the New Covenant. We can have full assurance that God has declared us righteous in Christ because of “the blood of Jesus” (Hebrews 10:19). Your final courtroom day before the Most High will be one of absolute freedom of judgment for your sins, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. Therefore, rest in Christ’s work for your rest and safety from condemnation and not in your conscience, ultimately.

But, because of Christ’s work for you and his cleansing blood, we must listen to and work to obey our conscience when it accuses us before God and his Law. Seek direction from God’s Word and renewal by seeing more of his revealed will in the Scriptures. Desire wisdom and direction from your local church and your pastor on issues where you are unclear or unsure. Trust your conscience by binding it to God’s Word. And may we sing with Charles Wesley:

Almighty God of truth and love,
to me thy power impart;
the mountain from my soul remove,
the hardness from my heart.
O may the least omission pain
my reawakened soul,
and drive me to that blood again,
which makes the wounded whole.

Don’t Run to the Hills!

“A Song of Ascents. I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.” (Psalm 121)

Psalm 121 is designated a “Song Of Ascents”—one in a collection of psalms for pilgrim-worshipers as they made the journey to the temple site in Jerusalem for festal worship (1 Ki. 12:28; Ps. 122:3-4). The mountains along the road that led to the city featured many pagan worship sites, which were often advertised as being able to offer protection from bandits who preyed on unwitting travelers by night and from the dangerous heat of the mid-day sun. Such constant threats tempted pilgrims to settle for worshiping with the pagans in the mountains rather than with God’s people in Jerusalem. To make matters worse, pagan priests and cult prostitutes stood alongside the road, trying to coax less resolute travelers into the hills.

Lifting their eyes, these exhausted pilgrims faced a choice. Would they settle for false worship in the hills with its promise of immediate relief? Or would they remain on the road and trust that God would be faithful to bring them to their destination? That’s what the psalmist is asking in verse 1, “From where does my help come?” Then in verse 2 comes the answer: “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth!  “

We, like these ancient travelers, would do well to see ourselves as pilgrim-worshipers walking in the Spirit toward an Everlasting City “whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). Along the way, we are coaxed by a pagan world. Its siren songs bellow from the side of the road, advertising false promises:

Want to be immovable? We have just the product for you—got that (overused) credit card ready? Want to preserve your life? Consider divorce—isn’t your family really just an obstacle to your authenticity and happiness? Want to keep yourself from evil? Take another peek at that porn site and don’t think about it too much—who’s to say what’s evil anyway?

On and on they go, tempting us to believe there’s a better life awaiting us in the hills. All we need to do is worship their gods, they claim, and we’ll have everything we’ve ever wanted—protection, security, pleasure, satisfaction. But listen to their siren songs closely enough, and you’ll soon realize that something is askew. If you’re starting to get the feeling that their whole sales pitch is a ruse, you’re absolutely right. Psalm 121 blows their cover:

Want to be immovable? God will not let you be moved. Want to preserve your life? He is your keeper. Want to keep yourself from evil? He will keep you from all evil.

God’s Word cuts through the noise and counters the world’s phony sales pitches with His unbreakable promises. Hearing His voice, we have a decision to make. Will we settle for the idols of our pagan culture? Or will we stay on the pilgrim way, devoting ourselves to worshiping the God whose sovereignty and faithfulness infinitely surpass anything this world can offer? You know the answer: it’s time to stop running back to those old hills—they can’t deliver what they promise. Instead, lift your eyes to them and defiantly declare, “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth!” Then keep moving toward that Everlasting City.

Sermon Delivery Matters

“Sermon delivery does not matter. The content of the sermon is what matters,” the student stridently asserted. As his preaching professor, I said, “The delivered sermon is the content.” I pressed a bit further, asking him, “What do you think constitutes the content of the sermon?” He did not have much of an answer but it was clear that in his mind his sermon notes were the content of the sermon.

But a sermon is not what you write. A sermon is what you say. Nothing about a sermon is atheological, including the verbal delivery of the sermon. What is said in the sermon cannot be severed from how it is said. Sadly, in evangelical preaching circles, talking about sermon delivery of the content is often treated as an afterthought in homiletics. There is an almost gnostic-like separation of the sermonic ideas written on paper, viewed as spiritual, and sermon delivery, which is treated as a discomfiting less relevant addendum.

The idea that uninspiring sermon delivery could be taken as a virtue is a bizarre proposition. How could indifference to the delivery of a sermon be proof that you take the task of preaching seriously? I once heard a group of self-styled sophisticated evangelical types almost mocking John Piper because of his passionate and energetic delivery. I asked, “Do you think it is fake passion? An over-dramatized act or genuine?” Their answer was that it is genuine but still dangerous. I told them to sign me up for that kind of dangerous passion.

Such an attitude is a far cry from Martin Luther who declared, 

The church is not a pen house, but a mouth house. For since the advent of Christ the gospel, which used to be hidden in the Scriptures, has become an oral preaching. And thus it is the manner of the New Testament and of the gospel that it must be preached and performed by word of mouth and a living voice. Christ himself has not written anything, nor has he ordered anything to be written, but rather to be preached by word of mouth.” (Wood, Captive to the Word, 90).

Some misappropriate Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 2:1 to sustain this delivery-does-not-matter view of preaching, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom.” But they miss the point entirely. It is the delivered message of Christ crucified that his opponents objected to and would have had him neglect. 

No matter how well and persuasive Paul proclaimed biblical truth, they did not want to hear about a crucified Messiah. The only way, according to them, Paul could have lofty speech or wisdom was to abandon the proclamation of the cross. 

According to Paul’s opponents, “the word of the cross is folly” (1 Cor 1:18). Unlike the wisdom teachers and the rhetoricians who paraded their cleverness, Paul did not speak of himself but “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). Human wisdom puts self on display but the wisdom of God puts Jesus Christ on display. As Paul writes, “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor 4:5). 

In the book of Acts, Paul heals a lame man and the crowds cry out “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” (Acts 14:11). Then starting with Paul they attempt to identify the gods who had come. Paul, the primary preacher they decided must be Hermes, the Greek god of oratory, and inventor of speech. I am pretty sure this description was not because he was a listless preacher who did care much about how he said what he said. 

When our manner of delivery conforms to the message of the biblical text, it becomes obvious that the text we are preaching has pierced our own heart. Our sermon delivery acts as a window to our preaching soul, which ultimately weights the power of our words. 

Above all else in delivery, allow your cruciform passion and genuine enthusiasm for what you believe show in order to make much of the cross.

Preaching is a God-given, Word-based, Christ-centered, Spirit-anointed, dynamic and living transaction between the preacher and the congregation. It serves as an eschatological act that points to the consummation of the Kingdom of Christ when every tribe, tongue, and nation will gather and hear the voice of the chief Shepherd (1 Pet 5:2-4Rev 7:17Rev 22:4). 

Until then, preach. Spend and be spent, for this highest of all tasks in a fallen world. Toil, strain, and sweat to say what is biblically true, and surrender every single molecule to say it as clearly, passionately, and powerfully as possible.

Editor’s Note: This originally published at Prince on Preaching.