Recently, my oldest son had a birthday, so we rolled out the Star Wars table cloth, Star Wars balloons, Star Wars cake, Star Wars plates, and Star Wars napkins to throw him a little party. We had a blast and the light saber duels were epic, but it got me thinking about what we’re celebrating on birthdays. Yes, I know, it’s a celebration of growing up and getting older, but my son doesn’t have any control over that. He does not grow or age himself. It wasn’t like we were celebrating the hard work and discipline he put into making himself a four year-old… God made gave him that year and God made him taller and God developed his understanding! The same is true of us as adults, although I don’t think I’ll be getting any taller (but certainly my pants will get hiked up closer to my neck as the years go by). God is the one who gives us each year, therefore, my point is that He is the one we should be celebrating on birthdays as our Creator and Sustainer. Even more than that, if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, then each time you have a birthday, make it a habit of celebrating the fact that you are now a year closer to eternity with your King. That’s something to celebrate… or should I say someone to celebrate because it’s all because of Jesus that we get to look forward to a glorious, perfect future with Jesus!
As we get older, birthdays tend to be an occasion for depression and self-pity because we’re getting closer to death, but birthdays should be occasions for rejoicing because “to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Why is dying gain? Because death ushers us into the presence of God where we get to enjoy Him without sin and suffering! So, if we’re thinking right, then birthdays should be joyful occasions for all believers, and more increasingly the older we get. Generally, we have it backwards because we get the most excited about birthdays within the first 21 years of a person’s life. But we should be most excited when we go to the birthday of a ninety year-old lover of Christ, because that saint is almost there! We have more to celebrate on birthdays than we think. So, let’s break out the best Dr. Pepper, the best china and those shrimp that are wrapped with bacon and stuffed with cheese… because we’re getting closer to eternity with our King!
One of my favorite promises of God is found in James 4:8, “Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.” It reminds me that God isn’t playing hid-and-go-seek with us. If He were, the object for Him would be to remain hidden from our sight so that we could not find Him. But somehow I don’t think that God created us all so that He could revel in His utter dominance over us in hide-and-go-seek.
About five or six years ago, I was part of a men’s Bible study at church where we were referencing this verse, and one of the more devoted men got a look of realization on his face and said, “So… we have as much of God as we want.” Ever since that day this verse has had a profound effect on my life. He was spot on! He didn’t mean that some Christians, upon conversion, were given backstage passes to hang out with God, while the rest of the Christians had to settle for watching the show from the cheap seats. No, if you are a Christian then you have the same promises in Christ as any other Christian. What he meant was that often times we neglect our relationship with God so that we don’t experience the full joy and intimacy with Him that Christ achieved for us on the cross. We always have access to God through Jesus, but every time we choose the empty pleasures of the world over God, we deny ourselves that access and all of the glorious benefits that come with it. Haven’t you entered into seasons in your life where you complained that God had withdrawn from you and made Himself distant? This promise in James 4:8 makes it clear that if God seems distant, then the finger must be pointed at ourselves instead of God. Church, we have a responsibility to meet with God in His Word, in prayer, in praise, and with His people. You may say in response, “I’m doing all those things and God still seems like He’s hiding.” Then, examine your life and look for sin that has gone unconfessed and unaddressed and then, confess it and address it. God isn’t hiding; it’s more like we’re trying to hide from Him with our sin and neglect. We have as much of God as we want!
D.A. Carson once said that his students don’t remember everything that he teaches, but they remember the things he’s excited about (see Justin Taylor’s post for full quote). This should lead us to ask ourselves the question, “What do I get most excited about?” If what you get most excited about isn’t the Gospel, then what is it that you leave ringing in people’s ears? If it isn’t the Gospel, ultimately, then you really are doing a disservice to those who surround you. If you aren’t most excited about the Gospel, then functionally, you are helping to tempt people to believe that there is more joy and value in things that are shallow and even empty in view of eternity. I can sit down with my kids to read the Bible every single night of their lives out of obligation or pressure because I’m a pastor, but they will know what Daddy believes to be most important by the light in my eyes and the passion in my voice when I speak of it. If we want to point people to Christ, we need to get excited about Christ. If you’re a Christian who currently isn’t excited about Christ, how can you change that?Ask God’s forgiveness for not recognizing the awesomeness of His Son, plead with Him to change your heart, and permeate your life with the Gospel. God works through means (or avenues or conduits if you like), so spend more time meditating on the Word, ask people what God is teaching them, listen to sermons or podcasts, ask those closest to you to pray for your heart, and go to Church… to serve and be served. This will help cultivate an excitement for Jesus that will point people to what is rightly most exciting!
If you grew up going to church, then you can probably speak Christianese: the language of Christianity. It includes terms like righteousness, redemption, pot luck, and hedge of protection. But even though you may have known the language to a certain degree and had a vague idea of where to insert these terms in your prayers, you probably didn’t understand all of what was meant when your pastor or teacher used them. For me, that’s the way it was with the term “spritual bankruptcy”. The church has been using this terminology for some time now to explain what is meant by the first beattitude in Matthew 5:3, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit“. “Spiritual Bankruptcy” (a term I didn’t understand) was being used to describe “poor in spirit” (a phrase I didn’t understand), so instead of asking questions, sadly, I mimicked a look of realization on my face so the teacher knew to move on.
Well, eventually, I did the work and discovered that being spiritually bankrupt means to realize you can’t buy God’s favor with your righteousness because you have no righteousness to put on the table. It is to have your pockets turned out before God, understanding that you have absolutely nothing that can save you from His judgment. This is a wonderful truth that must be embraced before a person crawls to Jesus to be saved, but it is also an example of the assumptions that the Church makes about the explanations and sometimes obscure words we use in conveying the message of the Bible. So, I urge you to search out the meanings of words and phrases that have always confused you and on the other side, be careful to teach the words and expressions of Christianese in clear and fresh ways so that people actually understand and don’t just pretend to understand.
Here’s an example of another way to explain “poor in spirit” that gets you to the same place as “spiritual bankruptcy”: being poor in spirit means that you have nothing to defend. Every time I hear my almost 2 year-old scream from the other room, I hurry down the hall to find my 4 year-old already defending himself as I enter the scene. He desperately tries bend my perception of what happened in his favor so that he appears justified in what he did. If we are poor in spirit, then we must come before God with our mouths shut, without a defense because we know that we have no righteousness to defend and we are completely dependent on His mercy to escape His just judgment for our sins.
I found this profoundly moving!
During my last year in seminary, Mark Dever, the pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church and the founder of 9 Marks Ministries, was invited to teach my systematic theology class for a week. He took this as an opportunity to work through the 1689 Baptist Confession and expound some sweet theology for us. When our senior pastor, Pastor Dan, got wind that Dever was going to be teaching, he asked if he could tag along. About half way through Dever’s lecture, Dan leaned over to me and said, with a boyish snicker, “Ask him why this confession sounds so reformed (i.e. God being the one who chooses us for salvation)?” I felt daring that day so I asked. What was Dever’s response? He said, “Because the guys who wrote this Confession were SLOBBERING CALVINISTS!” Exhilarated by his statement, I then asked, “Is ‘slobbering’ bad?” “If you’re a serial killer” He said, “it’s bad; if you’re a Calvinist, it’s good!” It was unexpected and knee-slapping hilarious!
One thing I didn’t mention to you about my seminary is that it is largely Arminian (i.e. man chooses God for salvation) instead of Calvinist, but that didn’t stop Dever from expressing to the entire class his passion for the doctrines of Calvinism. Why do I bring this up? I bring it up because if you are like me, then you feel, at times, a need to confess your Calvinist beliefs like they’re sins whenever you’re talking to someone of an Arminian bent. You may get to talking Bible, and when the conversation is brought to a place where you can’t hide it anymore, you give a sheepish grin, raise your shoulders, tilt your head, and whisper, “I believe God is the initiator of salvation”. It doesn’t have to be this way, and, in fact, it shouldn’t be this way. If you believe Calvinist doctrine, then do not be ashamed of it! I know there is a stigma attached to the label “Calvinist” that says you must also be arrogant, cold, and unevangelistic, but it’s only a stigma, and you can help change it! What Mark Dever shows us is that there is a way for us to be passionate about Calvinism that is winsome and funny, but unapologetic. Join me in helping to give Calvinists a better name with this kind of spirit!
Many of you will be familiar with that short little verse in 1 Thessalonians 5, “Pray without ceasing” (v. 17). It’s this verse that provokes instantaneous guilt within us and sends us running for the prayer closet because we all know we don’t pray as much as we should. But there’s probably another thought you have when you run across this verse, one that says, “This is impossible!” Are you really called to pray when you’re trying to listen to all three of your kids ask you a question at the same time or trying desperately to finish a report to turn in to your supervisor by the end of the day?
Obviously, it is impossible to fill our minds with more than one thought process, so it is impossible to pray 24/7. But if “pray without ceasing” doesn’t mean praying every second of every day, what does it mean? The best explanation I’ve heard was given in an illustration by Donald Whitney in his book, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. It went like this: imagine you are sitting at a desk with several phones in front of you. You pick up one of the phones to talk to God; this represents your prayer life. You talk to God for a while then one of the other phones on the desk starts ringing; this represents one of the many responsibilities in your day. Instead of telling God you’ll call him back and hanging up the phone, you set the phone off the hook on the desk to take the other call. Doing this creates a sense of urgency for you to get back to your call with God, just as it would if this were a real phone and you left someone waiting on the other end. As soon as you’re done with the second call, you immediately pick up your call with God again, and so it goes for all the other calls (or responsibilities) in your day. As soon as you can get back to praying, you should.
Hopefully now, the next time you think of 1 Thessalonians 5:17, you’ll be encouraged to pray more, instead of discouraged at what once seemed so impossible.