A Word to Pastors….Read Good Books!

Last week I had the privilege of leading a group of 20-25 pastors and their wives in a time of learning and fellowship. The topic I chose to speak on was that of Reading Good Books. Typically, most pastors have a reputation for reading a lot, as well we should. But more often than not, our busy schedules tend to crowd out time for reading. This should not be. No doubt ministry can be demanding and challenging, but pastors must find time to read good books.

Let me say up front that first and foremost, the pastor is a man of one book – the Bible. There is no substitute for immersing yourself in Scripture and drinking deeply from the fountain of God’s Word. As the Psalmist puts it, “his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:2). Day and night, night and day, the pastor feeds and nourishes his soul with the manna of God’s Word. He does so not simply for his own relationship with the Lord, but also that he might feed the flock of God (John 21:15-17, 1 Peter 5:2) and supply them with the nourishment they so desperately need. Just to reiterate, the pastor is a man of the Book – God’s Book.

Having said that, it is vital for the pastor to surround himself with other books that aid him in better understanding God’s word. I have in mind books like biblical commentaries and books on biblical theology and such. Obviously, those are not the only books you should read, but they should make up an important part of your reading diet. We are all going to gravitate towards different kinds of books, but strive to ensure that the books you read challenge you, point you to Christ and His glory, and broaden your understanding of Scripture.

Reading is perhaps not as difficult as we think. John Piper breaks it down this way: “Suppose you read slowly, say about 250 words a minute (as I do). This means that in twenty minutes you can read about five thousand words. An average book has about four hundred words to a page. So you could read about twelve-and-a-half pages in twenty minutes. Suppose you discipline yourself to read a certain author or topic twenty minutes a day, six days a week, for a year. That would be 312 times 12.5 pages for a total of 3,900 pages. Assume that an average book is 250 pages long. This means you could read fifteen books like that in one year.”Later on Piper quotes John Stott, who suggests a minimum of one hour per day. “Many will achieve more. But the minimum would amount to this: every day at least one hour; every week one morning, afternoon or evening; every month a full day; every year a week. Set out like this, it sounds very little. Indeed, it is too little. Yet everybody who tries it is surprised to discover how much reading can be done within such a disciplined framework. It tots up to nearly six hundred hours in the course of a year.” (both quotations from: Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for Radical Ministry, 2002)

Let me also suggest that is not so much about the quantity that you read, as it is the quality of books that you read. As Piper and Stott tell us, read as much as you can, but strive to read the best of the best – what we would call “the classics.” Strive to read those books that have proven themselves to be of tremendous help to their readers. The logic goes something like this – if we are already short on time (which all pastors seem to be) then why not read what is going to be most edifying and beneficial to yourself and to your people. This approach is admittedly pragmatic, but Scripture calls us to “make the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:16).

The other day I met a man by the name of Dave Lewis. Pastor Lewis has been a minister of the gospel for several decades now and he noted that he was a ‘friend’ of Tozer. A.W. Tozer died back in the 60’s so at first I was a little confused, but then I quickly realized what he meant. Having read so much of the writings of Tozer, he considered him a friend. As pastors, we should all have those trusted friends, whether dead or alive (often the dead friends are the best), that we often consult. There are a lot of great books out there and we must be disciplined enough to read some of them. Better yet, many of them. As the saying goes…leaders are readers. Truly, reading is an absolute must for the preacher of the gospel and therefore we must endeavor to set aside time every day for this important practice. Happy reading!

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).

No Room For Jesus

A sermon from Luke 2:1-7

Two thousand years ago, the most powerful man in the world was Caesar Augustus and Caesar made a decree that everyone within the Roman Empire had to be registered. In order to register, however, you had to return to your hometown. Joseph, the man engaged to Mary, lived in the region Galilee and the town of Nazareth, which was over 60 miles from his hometown of Bethlehem. Even though his wife was pregnant and in need of care, there would be no exceptions to be made in his circumstances. Joseph would have to make the trip south to Bethlehem in order to be registered and his wife would have to come along with him.

Now, for those of you who are familiar with the story of David, you will know that he grew up in Bethlehem – which is why Luke calls it “the city of David.” But don’t be fooled by that terminology – Bethlehem was not some thriving metropolis. Our largest cities grow by tens of thousands of people every year, but Bethlehem, 1000 years after the time of David, was still just a modest city. It was into this modest locale that the Son of God would enter into the world. The amazing thing about this was that it was all part of God’s marvelous plan. Centuries earlier, this had been prophesied. “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” Micah 5:2

As these events unfolded, they were not by random chance. They were all part of God’s sovereign plan right from the beginning. The world is constantly telling us that everything happens by chance, including life itself. We are simply the product of random mutations that have evolved for billions of years. But everything in the natural world sends us a very different message. As we look around us, we see order and design. We see creativity and magnificent beauty. The only reasonable explanation is that what we see is God’s handy-work – His remarkable creation. And we clearly see His sovereignty in the Nativity story. It was God’s plan all along that His Son, the Savior of the world, would be born in Bethlehem – the city of David.

It is likely that there were a large number of people who were in the same situation as Joseph. At one time, perhaps they had lived in Bethlehem or had family there, but for whatever reason, they moved away and now would have to return. After Caesar issued this decree, the town activity would have picked up considerably. With all these people returning in order to register, it was not surprising that Mary and Joseph could not find any room at the Inn. You might be wondering, what about Joseph’s family and relatives? Surely they could house them or find a place for them? But such a scenario was not meant to be – there was simply no room, especially for a family of modest means.

The situation was further complicated when Mary’s pregnancy moved along so fast that the time came for her to give birth. There would be no place for pickiness – they would have to find a place and find it fast and it would have to be a non-conventional place. The place they found is probably the last place in the world that you or I would think of – baby Jesus was born in an animal stable. We are not specifically told that in the text, but we can infer it from Luke’s use of the word “manger.” A manger was a trough – the place that the animals drank from. Let’s think about this for a moment – the birth of the Son of God – the Savior of the world – the birth of the most important person in history, took place in the most humble setting imaginable.

And we wonder: how could this be? How could God’s very own Son, be born in an animal stable? Why didn’t they make room for Mary and Joseph someplace else? From our human perspective these are legitimate questions. But if we take a quick history tour over the past 2000 years, we would see that seldom has there ever been room for Jesus in the world. Over the past 2000 years, mankind has been doing its best to push Jesus out of everything – the result is that we have no room for Jesus anywhere. Let’s take a quick tour of our current situation.

There is no room for Jesus in the courts today. We have determined that there is no need for the Divine law in our justice systems. We are rational beings, so we think, and therefore, God has been left out of the law courts. What is the result? The result is little, if any regard for human life or morality. We have killed millions and millions of babies and called it “choice.”

There is no room for Jesus in our schools today. Our children are taught to be suspicious of anyone who claims to know “the truth.” Any professor that goes against the theory of Darwinian evolution puts their career in jeopardy. And there is little room for the very name “Jesus” in any educational curriculum across our land.

There is no room for Jesus in our government today. Aside from trying to get a few votes from the evangelical demographic, our government officials show no regard for the Son of God. They govern in a godless, immoral way, and constantly invite God’s judgment.

There is no room for Jesus even at Christmas. Ironic as it is, the celebration of the birth of our Savior takes second place to a fictional character that wears a red suit and has a long beard and gives kids whatever they want. We don’t say Merry Christmas anymore – we say “happy holidays.”

There is no room for Jesus in our families today. Instead of valuing this God-ordained institution, our society has placed its emphasis elsewhere – primarily on “the self.” As a result, the family unit has broken down and our whole society is suffering, as a result. The single parent has almost become the norm and the nuclear family has become a novel idea from long days past.

There is no room for Jesus in our conversation today. The mere mention of his name brings feelings of hatred to some, but indifference to most. He might have been a good moral teacher centuries ago, they say, but certainly not the Son of God. We often hesitate to bring Jesus up in our conversations for fear of “offending” someone.

There is no room for Jesus in our busy lives today. We have things to do, people to meet, and places to see. How could we possibly fit Jesus into all that? If we do have a little extra time here and there, we might be able to fit him in, but it had better not inconvenience us, or so we reason.

Finally, there is no room for Jesus in our churches today. Rather than affirm and teach the exclusivity of Jesus Christ – that He is the way, the truth, and the life and the only way to God, we dumb down the teaching of the bible.

So you see, this world that we live in, is not much different than Bethlehem at the time of Christ. We have pushed Jesus out of our country, our families, our churches, and our lives. As you know the results have been devastating. But let me put it to you – is there room in your heart for Jesus? Is there room in your heart for Son of God? Just because the world has pushed Jesus aside, does not mean that you must do the same. You might be wondering; how can I make room in my heart for Jesus. Perhaps your heart is filled with anger, despair, shame and sufferings from long past. How can I make room for Jesus when I am so broken, you ask? Well, I can assure that there is always room for Jesus. No matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done, Jesus can forgive you and make you whole again.

Let me share with you the gospel. The word gospel means “good news” and the gospel is the greatest news in the world. This news is nothing like the news we watch on TV or read about on the internet. This news is actually “good news.” But before we get to the good news, we must understand the bad news first.

You and me and everyone on planet earth is a sinner. We have fallen short of God’s perfect law and now the wrath of God is upon us. So even if you think you are a good person, you are really not. The Bible says that no one is good but God alone. The Bible also teaches that the wages of sin is death. So the result of our sin is certain death and ultimate separation from God. With that in mind, let’s get to the good news part.

God is love. And God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son, Jesus Christ. The nativity story tells how Jesus was brought in the world. We sometimes call this the incarnation – how God became flesh and dwelt among us. But there is more to it than that – Jesus grew up and became a man and was ultimately crucified on a cross. You ask, how could the Son of God be crucified? The answer is that God the Father actually “gave” God the Son, over to death. Why would God the Father do such a thing? The answer lies in His love. God knew that because we were dead in our trespasses and sins, the only way to bring life to us was through His Son. So Jesus took our place on the cross and by his blood sacrifice, we have forgiveness of sins.

The only way to explain this is grace – amazing grace. There is nothing that you can do to save yourself. The bible says that it is by grace that we are saved. It is not by good deeds or by our good works. Rather, it is by grace, through faith and the message of the gospel is the greatest news you will ever hear. But how can I receive that forgiveness, you might be wondering?

First off, you must believe that Jesus is who He said He was – the Son of God. This is what is called “faith.” Second, you must trust Him for your salvation. Along with that, you must repent and turn from your sins, and follow Jesus. Perhaps at this point in your life, you feel like you have tried everything. You’ve tried to be a good person, you’ve tried to live a good life, but you’ve never truly been satisfied. You feel like your life is empty and without meaning. If that’s where you’re at, you are actually in a great position because you know that you are helpless in your own strength and in great need of Christ.

I want to assure you that there is room at the foot of the cross for you. Don’t be like the rest of the world – they have no place for Jesus. But is there room in your heart for Jesus? I can assure you that if you take this step of faith, the road ahead will not be easy, but it will be entirely worth it. Is there room in your heart for Jesus?

I preached this sermon December 24, 2013, at our Christmas Eve service. It was inspired in part by a sermon Charles Spurgeon preached December 21, 1862, at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London.

What the Word of God Does

When the Word of God is faithfully proclaimed, good things happen. The Bible tells us, “so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11). So what are some of those Divine purposes?

  1. The Word Saves:

“So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Ultimately, it is God who saves sinners, but the means in which He uses is the preached Word.

  1. The Word Sanctifies:

“Sanctify them in your truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth” (John 17:17-18).

  1. The Word Supplies:

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and is 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” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). We could also say, the Word is sufficient. As we go into the world as ministers and ambassadors of Jesus Christ, the Word is sufficient to supply our every need.

  1. The Word Separates:

“For the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).” When the message of the cross is faithfully proclaimed, it doesn’t allow us to sit on the fence. It doesn’t allow us to be neutral. No, it is sharp – it is so sharp that when it pokes it forces you to go one of two ways. Either you accept and embrace it’s message, or you reject it.

“The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” Isaiah 40:8

The Pastor and Study

In three separate spots around my office, I have Nehemiah 6:3 posted: “And I sent messengers to them, saying, I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?” Why post such a verse, you ask? Well, it is a reminder to me that the work I do as a pastor, primarily prayer and the Word (Acts 6:4), is a great work not to be neglected. That doesn’t mean I neglect other things like spending time with people, but it is a reminder of my primary calling as a pastor.

 

I have another verse posted, 2 Timothy 2:15, right next to the Nehemiah verse. “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” As a pastor, I will be the first to admit that teaching and preaching God’s word is hard work. Without putting forth the needed time and effort, I will soon find myself “handling the word of truth” in a careless manner and in way that is not edifying to my hearers. This verse reminds me that I am accountable to God and have a responsibility to teach sound doctrine (Titus 1:9).

 

I have yet to post this one in my office, but another verse that serves as a helpful reminder is Ezra 7:10. “For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.” Ezra is a model for pastors in that he first set his heart to study, then to do it (apply what he learned to his own life), and finally to teach it (to the people under his charge). As Alistair Begg and Derek Prime put it, “The key to success in study is that we always study with a view to our own obedience first. A trap that Satan regularly tries to set is for us so to concentrate upon others’ obedience to God that we neglect our own obedience. Whatever we study in the Scriptures – even though we inevitably have our preaching to others in view – we must first relate to ourselves, and practice. Then we may teach other what we ourselves are striving to obey.” (On Being a Pastor – p. 103)

 

The pastor who has not done his homework, so to speak, will starve the sheep and disqualify himself from leadership. The faithful pastor, on the other hand, is a reservoir of truth, constantly feeding those who hunger and thirst for the manna of God’s Word. If you are a pastor, I trust you see the importance of diligent and prayerful study in ministry. As pastors and local church leaders, we have been entrusted with the gospel (1 Thessalonians 2:4) and this is a high calling indeed. One day we will give an account to God as to how we fed and nourished God’s flock under our care (Hebrews 13:17). God help us to be faithful in this charge.

The Minister as a Shining Light

Jonathan Edwards:

A minister is set to be a light to men’s souls, by teaching, or doctrine. And if he be a shining light in this respect, the light of his doctrine must be bright and full; it must be pure without mixtures of darkness; and therefore he must be sound in the faith, not one that is of a reprobate mind; in doctrine he must show uncorruptness; otherwise his light will be darkness. He must not lead his people into errors, but teach them the truth only, guiding their feet into the way of peace, and leading them in the right ways of the Lord.

He must be one that is able to teach, not one that is raw, ignorant or unlearned, and but little versed in the things that he is to teach others; not a novice, or one that is unskillful in the word of righteousness; he must be one that is well studied in divinity, well acquainted with the written Word of God, mighty in the Scriptures, and able to instruct and convince gainsayers.

And in order to be a “shining light,” he must be one that really knows what religion is, one that is truly acquainted with that Savior and way of salvation, that he is to teach to others, that he may “speak the things that he knows, and testify the things that he has seen” [John 3:11], and not be a blind leader of the blind. He must be one that is acquainted with experimental religion, and not ignorant of the inward operations of the Spirit of God, nor of Satan’s devices; able to guide souls under their particular difficulties. Thus he must be a scribe well instructed in things that pertain to the kingdom of God; one that “brings forth out of his treasures things new and old” [Matthew 13:52].

And in order to his being a “shining light,” his doctrine must be full, he must not only be able to teach, but apt to teach, ready to instruct the ignorant, and them that are out of the way, and diligent in teaching, in public and private; and careful and faithful to declare the whole counsel of God, and not to keep back anything that may be profitable to his hearers. Also his being a “shining light” implies that his instructions are clear and plain, accommodated to the capacity of his hearers, and tending to convey light to their understandings.

Adapted from an ordination sermon Edwards preached on August 30, 1744. The sermon is called The True Excellency of a Minister of the Gospel.

Give Me Five! – Rules for Teachers

  1. Eyes on the Speaker.
  2. Mouth Quiet.
  3. Be Still.
  4. Hands Free – put things down or away.
  5. Listen.

One of our elders, Jim Wells, passed these simple yet powerful rules on to me. When students follow these rules, you will have an environment that is very conducive to learning. When they don’t, the classroom will be chaos and learning will be difficult. Of course these rules are more applicable to those who teach children, but any teacher can benefit from them. Whether you are a Sunday School teacher, a Bible Study teacher, a Small Group leader, or something else, work hard to ensure that you create a good environment for learning.

These principles also got me thinking about our relationship with the Lord. If we, as Christians, are not able to be quiet, to be still, and to rid ourselves of distractions, we will have a hard time listening to God. Let me encourage you in the direction of finding space in the midst of your busy schedule for “quiet time” with the Lord. A time where you can feast on His Word, mediate, pray, and listen to what God has to say to you. Obviously, this is a discipline that should be constant, and not just once a day, but I think it starts with having a scheduled time set aside each day to meet with the Lord.

“And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he (Jesus) departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.” Mark 1:35

What People Believe About Hell

According to a recent poll (June 6, 2013), “56 percent of Americans surveyed believe in the devil, 53 percent believe in hell and 43 percent believe in hell as “a place of suffering and punishment where people go after they die”. Some might think these numbers are low, but it is quite remarkable that more people believe in hell than don’t believe in hell. The only explanation for this is Christianity’s influence on the culture. The other side of the coin is as follows: “An equal amount of respondents (38 percent) believe that people who commit violent criminal acts go to hell as well as those who don’t ask God’s forgiveness for their sins before they die. Greater than 61 percent of respondents believe they’re going to heaven, while only 1.5 percent believe they will go to hell.” So while most people believe in hell, almost nobody (1.5 percent) thinks they are going there. Of course this doesn’t surprise us. If a person has a notion of heaven and hell, chances are they believe they are going to heaven.

In short, Christian’s have been successful in helping people see that hell is real, but unsuccessful in helping people see that apart from Christ, they are headed there. Back in the day, hellfire and brimstone preachers made a name for themselves by focusing on God’s judgment. In my estimation, most preachers today focus on God’s love with little or even no mention of God’s judgment. The Bible speaks of both and if we are going to be faithful to our calling as preachers, we must preach the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Jesus spoke more about hell than everyone else in the Bible combined and did not shy away from speaking about the consequences for those who reject God’s gracious offer of salvation. So whether we are preaching, doing personal evangelism, or counseling a friend, let’s not shy away from speaking the truth about God, and the consequences of rejecting Christ.