Monday, May 21, 2018

Why Discipleship is Best Done In Groups (Not One-on-One)

I have been having this discussion with some of our leadership.  From Gravity Leadership blog . . . 
When it comes to discipleship, one of the assumptions many people make is that we’re talking about one-on-one meetings over coffee, but I think discipleship is better done in groups, where several people gather to meet with a leader to walk through the discipleship process.
This is how our coaching is organized, and how we train leaders to make disciples in their local context, and there’s a reason for it!
In fact, there are (at least) 4 reasons for it. Here they are: 4 reasons group discipleship is better than one-on-one discipleship:

1. Jesus did discipleship in groups

The first reason discipleship is best done in groups is pretty simple, and fairly obvious when you think about it: Jesus did almost all of his discipleship in groups! The pattern the Gospels show us is that, in general, Jesus discipled in groups and evangelized one-on-one.
There are reasons for this (see below), but it’s worth remembering that sometimes it’s worth trying something just because it’s the way that Jesus did it. How did Jesus make disciples? He called a group of twelve to be with him and learn from him how to be like him.
And they were together a lot. Much of the discipleship Jesus engaged in happened “along the way” as they traveled from place to place for Jesus’ “job” as an itinerant prophet, and almost all of it happened when they were all together as a group.

2. Learning is multiplied in discipleship groups

The second reason discipleship is best done in groups is that when everyone is together, the learning is multiplied. What one person is learning and growing into can be multiplied into other people’s lives just because they happen to be present!
There are a lot of examples of this happening in the Gospels, but Mark 10:35-45 gives us a typical scene: James and John come to Jesus and ask him if they can have the two most prominent positions in Jesus’ new government. Jesus tells them they don’t know what they’re talking about, and he won’t grant their request.
Then the other disciples hear about it and “they became indignant with James and John” (most likely because they wished they would have thought of doing that!).
How does Jesus respond? He “called them together,” and gives them some exhortation on what it looks like to be a leader in his kingdom (“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant”).
Now all the disciples gets the benefit of learning about this new way of leadership. If Jesus had practiced one-on-one discipleship, none of this would have happened, because the disciples would never have heard the request of James and John (because they wouldn’t be together).
I’ve seen this happen time and time again in my own discipleship groups. We are processing a Kairos with one person, and it triggers all kinds of growth and learning for everyone else in the group as we walk through it.

3. Time is maximized in discipleship groups

A third reason discipleship is best done in groups is a practical one: the leader’s time is maximized when discipleship is primarily done in a group setting.
In the example above, can you imagine how much time it would have taken Jesus to schedule one-on-one meetings over coffee with each of the twelve disciples to discuss the leadership lesson he wanted them all to hear in that moment? If his disciples were as busy as most church members, it could have taken months!
Instead, because they’re all together, Jesus is able to deliver an important exhortation to all of them at the same time, and they all get the benefit of understanding why this leadership lesson was being given (because they were still all angry at James and John for trying to grab power!).

4. Community is fostered in discipleship groups

A fourth reason that discipleship is best done in groups is that community is fostered in discipleship groups.
Discipleship is not an individual sport. It’s not me as a private individual learning more facts about God and striving to be a better Christian.
Discipleship is about growing in union with God, and we can’t grow in our union with God if we’re not also growing in community with the Body of Christ, learning to follow Jesus together. Your discipleship will be stunted if you try and do it by yourself.
We need to walk together as disciples, because the challenges of learning to be a community will bring up the discipleship issues we’ll need to focus on (just like the request of James and John brought up the “content” for Jesus’ discipleship in Mark 10:35-45).
Plus, most of the commands of the New Testament are impossible to obey by yourself. It’s pretty hard to “love one another” if you’re the only person in the room.

How to get started

Part of our coaching is training leaders to invite people into and lead discipleship groups, and it typically takes 10 months or more to begin to learn the nuances and rhythms of it (!), but here are a few pointers to help you move the discipleship ball down the court:
  • If you don’t have any discipling relationships right now, write down a list of people that you think might be open to investment. Pray through your list and ask God to reveal who might be a good fit. Then think through how you’d invite them into a discipleship group.
  • If you have one-on-one discipling relationships right now, consider casting vision for gathering everyone into one discipleship group and see how they respond. What does their response indicate to you?
  • If you are currently leading a discipleship group, think about one takeaway from this article can you bring into your group. For example, many discipleship groups feel more like “classes” than communities… so if the community aspect of a discipleship group is often lacking in your group, think about ways to foster a sense of togetherness and mutual support in your group.

Questions for discussion

  • Does this challenge any assumptions or convictions you have about discipleship? How so?
  • Are there other benefits to group discipleship that you’ve experienced?
  • What have been your experiences in discipleship (one-on-one or in groups)?

Friday, May 18, 2018


From Lifeway Facts & Trends . . .

Too many songs. Not enough singers. That’s the problem facing many congregations these days, says Tony Payne, veteran worship leader and associate professor of music at Wheaton College.

Whether a church plays hymns or the latest worship songs, fewer people want to sing along, he says. “There are a lot of people standing there mute during worship.”

Congregational singing has long been a staple of Protestant churches, ever since the Reformation, when “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” was the latest hit worship song. And today churches have more songs to choose from than ever before.

LifeWay Worship, for example, has a catalog of 4,000 worship songs, while Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) has 300,000—all available at the click of a button.

Yet Payne and other veteran worship leaders worry congregational singing is on the decline.

That’s bad news, says Rick Eubanks, pastor of worship and students at Oak Grove Baptist Church in Burleson, Texas. Congregational singing is an essential part of Christian worship, he says. When churches don’t sing together, something vital is missing.

“Gathering for worship is not about watching other people perform,” he says. “And it’s not about the music; it’s about allowing people to connect with God.”

How did we get here?

Mike Harland, director of LifeWay Worship, says a number of factors have contributed to the decline in congregational singing. Among them: the fact that there are fewer places for congregation members to sing in church, in large part due to the decline of choirs.

In 1998, 54 percent of American churches had a choir, according to the National Congregations Study. By 2012, fewer than half had a choir (45 percent).

Larger evangelical churches, in particular, have steered away from choirs—in part due to finances and in part because they’ve embraced contemporary styles of music. More than two-thirds (69 percent) had choirs in 1998. By 2012, just over a third (36 percent) had choirs.

That’s troubling, say the authors of the National Congregations Study, as it means fewer lay people have a role to play in worship.

“The decline of choirs is worth examining in its own right because singing in the choir is one of the most common ways, along with Bible studies, for people to become more deeply involved in a congregation, and it is the single most common way for lay people to participate actively in gathered worship,” according to the study’s author.

Losing a choir can hurt congregational singing, says Eubanks.

“A choir can be a permission-giving organization,” he says. “They give people permission to sing along.”

Another factor could be the consumerist mindset prevalent in many churches today.

“We’ve been taught in our churches and in the Christian marketing subculture around us to treat music as another product to consume—just as we have the rest of our faith,” writes worship pastor Mike Cosper in his book Rhythms of Grace.

“If something doesn’t meet our preferences, we’ve learned to discard it, join another church, and buy a different CD. We’ve learned to be spectators on Sundays—listening, enjoying, and critiquing—but the Bible unapologetically calls us to be participants.”

If church members don’t come to church with an attitude of worship, they aren’t likely to engage.

A 2008 LifeWay Research study found many churchgoers feel disconnected during worship. Almost half (47 percent) of the 2,5000 Protestant churchgoers in the survey said they were often “going through the motions” during the singing and prayer portions of worship services.

Harland wonders whether churches unintentionally discourage singing during services.

About half of white evangelicals attend a church that uses multimedia screens during services, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. Turning down the lights makes the screens easier to read. But Harland says it can send an unintended message.

“When you turn the lights off and you have theatrical lighting on stage, you’re suggesting to the congregation they are here to watch something rather than participate,” he says.

Another factor: singing isn’t always seen as a discipleship strategy.

Harland says pastors and music ministers aren’t always on the same page. The music ministry does its own thing at times, rather than being integrated into the mission of the church. And pastors in turn don’t always value the contributions of music ministries. Instead, music is sometimes seen as a warm-up to the sermon.

“I think some pastors stopped seeing music ministry as a disciple-making enterprise,” Harland says.

Too many songs, too fast

Then there’s the overwhelming number of worship songs available to churches.

In the past, churches had a limited number of songs they could sing. A hymnal might have about 700 songs, and maybe half of those would be used on a regular basis, says Harland. Now worship leaders can choose from an almost unlimited number of songs, and the most popular worship songs don’t last long.

“Musicians like that because they tend to get bored playing the same songs,” says Harland. “They like to play new music, and congregations get lost in the wake of a constant song shuffle.”

From 1995-1999, the most popular CCLI songs remained fairly stable. In that period, three of the top five songs stayed in the top five, as did seven of the top 10, and 20 of the top 25.

By contrast, from 2011 to 2014 (the last year data is available), none of the top five songs remained the same, and only three of the top 10 songs and 13 of the top 25 remained.

Payne worries about the pace of modern worship music. Learning new songs takes time and repetition, he says. He wonders if worship leaders try to rush the process and end up giving up too soon.

“We’re constantly learning songs that have a limited shelf life,” says Payne. “In a few months they’ll be gone forever and we’re on to something else.”

No one wants to sound bad

There’s also the reality that most people don’t often sing in public. Church attendance has become less frequent, so people have fewer chances to sing in a group during a month. And corporate singing of any kind has steadily declined in American culture the last half century.

It’s not surprising people don’t sing when they’re in church, says Keith Pipes, a veteran worship pastor in Nashville. Singing in a group can feel awkward these days, he says.

“There are people who have never sung in an organized group before,” he says. “Then they show up to church and they are asked to sing with a couple hundred people. They may feel that is really odd.”

If people don’t feel comfortable with a hymn or worship song, they’re unlikely to sing, says Rita Ruby, a voice teacher and worship leader from Chicago.

Singing in public is hard enough, she says. Singing a song you don’t know well in public is worse.

“No one wants to sound horrible—especially with someone sitting right in front of you,” she says.

Moving an unengaged audience to full engagement is not an easy task. It may take some time, patience, and intentional training. There’s no magic formula or even one style of worship that will convince people to sing.

Fortunately, say Harland and other worship pastors, there are some steps church leaders can take to help congregations enjoy singing and participate.

Don’t sing a worship song like it’s on the CD

Finding the right key is essential, says Eubanks. Most worship leaders, he says, sing in a key that fits them, so they can lead out as strongly as possible. Unfortunately, people can’t always follow them in that key. Instead, he says, pick a key that has the widest appeal.

“A song will be in the key of B flat on the CD, but most people can’t sing that high,” he says. “If we can bring it down to the key of G, that will be OK for most vocal ranges.”

Take more time to teach a new song

Few people can hear a song or hymn once and be ready to sing along. So break down a song into smaller pieces, says Pipes. Take a few minutes to sing the chorus a couple of times until people become familiar with it. Then add the verses.

Repetition is also crucial. Don’t be afraid to sing a new song two or three weeks in a row until people learn it, Pipes says.

Tell church members what they will be singing ahead of time

Let church members know in advance what songs will be sung on Sunday and provide links to the music in a church newsletter, email, or post on the church’s website. Churchgoers can listen ahead of time and be ready to sing.

Let the congregation win

Harland tries to include a favorite hymn or worship song in every service. It’s usually a song the congregation knows well, one that is set in a comfortable key, and one the congregation loves to sing.

With enough wins, the congregation’s confidence will grow. Plus, people will learn to trust the worship leaders—and will be willing to follow them.

And don’t forget the power of a familiar hymn—one that’s lodged in the collective memory of a church. Those songs can help a congregation sing without having to worry about remembering the words or how the tune goes.

Engage the congregation

Want people to sing? Turn on the lights. Having the room even somewhat illuminated can help the congregation engage in worship.

Frank Byers, media director at the Bridge Church in Spring Hill, Tennessee, says church leaders can learn from secular musicians who intentionally take steps to connect with their audience.

One of those ways is to make eye contact with audience members. By contrast, he says, many worship leaders close their eyes during the service. That can shut them off from the congregation.

“If I don’t look at them, how can I welcome the congregation into worship?” he says.

He sees the role of worship leader as a facilitator—helping the congregation as a whole connect with God through singing and worship.

“As facilitator, my job is to keep the conversation going,” he says. “My job is to facilitate this conversation between God and His people.”

Body language also matters when leading music, says Payne. Worship leaders should guide the congregation through a song—giving them cues and encouraging them to sing.

“Something as simple as a smile on your face can give the congregation permission to sing,” he says.

“Good pastoral leadership will include wise decisions about songs and dynamics, ensuring that services create space for the congregation to hear themselves, to hear one another, and to join their voices in song,” writes Cosper.

Remember why you sing in the first place

Pastors, worship leaders, and congregations have to believe singing matters, or they won’t ever want to sing, says Harland. Churches sing, he says, because Scripture expects them to.

They also sing because it’s a powerful form of discipleship that marries truth and melody and imbeds that truth in people’s souls.

“Melody helps people to remember,” Harland says. “Singing is a powerful tool for developing followers of Christ.”

Pipes says singing also strengthens the community of believers.

“In Ephesians 5, Paul writes that we should speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” says Pipes.

“When we gather in corporate worship, we’re not only singing to God—we’re singing about God to one another. Through song, we can encourage and instruct our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Our worship through song also serves as a witness to non-Christians sitting in our pews.”

There’s a joy that comes from singing in church, says Payne. “It builds community and helps churches learn spiritual truths and live them out.”

Harland agrees: “The gathering of the body of Christ is a body that ought to be singing.”

BOB SMIETANA ( is senior writer for Facts & Trends.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Benefits and Negatives of a Long-Term Pastorate

I identify with much of both the benefits and negatives of a long term pastorate, having been at my current church fourteen years!  found this on the 9 Marks blog.
Editor’s note: From 1973 until 1978, Ron Pracht served Olivet Baptist Church of Wichita, Kansas in various roles: as the minister of music, as the minister of students, and sometimes as the minister of both music and students. In 1978, the church recognized him as an associate pastor. And then, from 1989 until 2015, he served as Olivet’s senior pastor.
Finally, in 2015, he helped the church find his replacement, at which point he transitioned yet again into an associate, yet part-time role.

Given such a lengthy tenure in one church—all told, over 45 years—we asked him to reflect on the pros and cons of a long-term pastorate.
* * * * *
Benefits of a Long-Term Pastorate
  1. You get to know your people more intimately because you walk with them over a long period of time.
  2. There is stability in the church family. Even support staff tends to stay longer than in the average church.
  3. Your family has a sense of being rooted and not displaced every 3-4 years. My daughters had the same friends from kindergarten through high school graduation.
  4. Trust grows stronger every year you stay.
  5. Developing reproducing disciples becomes easier. You tend to make wiser choices about the men with whom you invest your life because you have watched them over a longer period of time.
  6. You get to watch generations be born, grow, marry, and invest in the kingdom. I am now seeing the grandchildren of members who grew up in my student ministry.
  7. You learn to stand and fight rather than give up and run when opposition comes against you. Some battles are worth having.
  8. You learn to be open and confessional, personally and in your preaching, because you have failed, sought forgiveness, and displayed to the people you pastor what it means to intentionally follow Jesus.
  9. You learn the importance of relationships and keeping them right before God. You have fought through difficulties and walked with people in success and failure—both yours and theirs.
  10. You earn the right to lead significant change because of the relational investments you have made.
  11. There is a depth of relationship with people with whom you have shared joys and sorrows, disappointments and successes.
  12. You truly learn to love people as you walk with them in good and bad times. You know what is “out of character” for them when they react poorly in times of stress.
  13. You stand in a long tradition of men who have invested their lives in one place rather than those who have chosen the “free agent” path. I love athletes who stayed in one place for their career (when it was their choice), and didn’t jump around just to find a few more dollars.
  14. You can make a difference on the local and state levels of your denomination because you have invested in one place and are known by other pastors as a faithful man.
  15. You are forced to grow in preaching and leadership instead of repeating old sermons and processes in a new setting.
  16. You get to see the fruit of your ministry as church members begin their service to the body of Christ, locally and internationally. Men in whom I have invested my life are now serving overseas and pastoring local churches throughout the US.
Disadvantages of a Long-Term Pastorate
  1. A pastor can become comfortable in his role, and passion can diminish because he knows how to do things.
  2. The pastor’s family does not learn to be stretched by moving to a new city, congregation, or school.
  3. When you are not looking, a sense of personal ownership of the church can creep in, and where you serve can become “my church” rather than the church God has blessed me to pastor.
  4. The pastor is not stretched by having to learn to deal with new situations and problems.
  5. People who fail do not get a “do-over” like those whose pastor changes every 3-4 years.
  6. You don’t get a “do-over” because you chose to stay instead of run from a problem.
  7. Your resume is much shorter! (Wait, that can be an advantage as well!)
  8. When a long-time friend or supporter decides to leave the church, the pain is deeper for a long-tenured pastor than it is for the man who moves frequently.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Holy Spirit, Prayer, and Preaching

Simple truths that are easily overlooked in the busyness of ministry by David Helm at 9 Marks blog. 
I have a growing conviction, and it is this: The great need of the church today is for a fresh and long-lasting work of the Holy Spirit. This conviction, for me at least, is not simply about the church’s need for the Holy Spirit to come down and revive or empower us. Rather, this conviction is related to our need for him to reveal the reign of Jesus Christ both to others and for us.
If, like me, this conviction is surfacing in your heart and mind with renewed energy and force, it might be good to ask: “How will we know when the conviction has truly taken up residence within us?” That is, “What proves that we genuinely embrace it?”

Recently, I’ve been mulling over these kinds of questions, and think at least two signs would be observable.
First, this conviction is embraced when a commitment to prayer is present; the praying person “gets it.” In fact, I’m tempted to say that only those who regularly go before God in prayer are those who really embrace the conviction. For by their prayers, they demonstrate a belief that God alone, in and through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, is able to accomplish the work of regeneration. If we’re a non-praying people, it indicates we still think we can get the job done.
Now, if I’m right, that is, if prayer is a manifest evidence of our conviction, then those who desire God to do a fresh gospel work in our day will be people who pray.
Interestingly, at decisive points in Luke’s Gospel, this dynamic connection is made. At least four times people recognize Jesus for who he is in close proximity to someone praying:
  • Right before Peter acknowledges that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus prays alone. (9:18–20)
  • Peter, John, and James go up on a mountain to pray, and then the voice of God comes down from heaven to reveal not only who Jesus is, but what his followers are to do in light of this knowledge. (9:28–36)
  • At his baptism, Jesus is praying when the heavens open, the Holy Spirit descends, and a voice from heaven affirms Jesus as his Son. (3:21–22)
  • Aged saints, Simeon and Anna, recognize Jesus for who he is through the ministry of the Holy Spirit and in the ordinary context of offering regular prayers.
These four vignettes are important. And they are given to us, I believe, by design. They teach us that when people come to Christ and begin to follow him, they do so through the fresh and ongoing work of the Holy Spirit—and that, through prayer.
When we genuinely embrace the conviction of our need for the Spirit, we give ourselves to the work of prayer.
Second, when the conviction for a fresh and long-lasting ministry of the Holy Spirit is embraced, prayer isn’t the only thing present. A commitment to biblical exposition emerges, too.
As the church recovers a sense of our great need, people and preachers alike will hunger for a simple and raw exposure to the proclamation of God’s Word. Put another way, the one in prayer is the same one who will give himself to the biblical text, and this by necessity.
Now I’m aware, for many readers anyway, that the relationship between our conviction on the Holy Spirit and preaching is not readily understood. After all, many of us have been led—mistakenly so—to believe we must choose between a commitment to the Holy Spirit or a commitment to the Word of God. One can seek “street cred” or “spiritual maturity,” but not both.
These same folks would have us believe that one attends a “Spirit-led church” or a “Word-centered church,” but one cannot attend both. This conventional wisdom has been ingrained in us. But it is a false notion to think one has to select between relevance in our neighborhoods, or relevance to those who already believe.
To be blunt, I am weary of it all. I am tired of those who frame the discussion along these lines, as though the Spirit and the Word were at odds with one another. The dichotomy is a false one—and it’s about time we learn how to put it to rest.
What I would argue instead is that the person who recognizes the church’s need for a fresh and long-lasting ministry of the Spirit will be the same one who devotes himself not only to prayer, but to biblical exposition. This is because the ministry of the Holy Spirit has always been dynamically related to the ministry of the Word.
One text, though many could have been selected, is sufficient to illustrate the point. Look at Hebrews 3, particularly verse 7, which begins this way: “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says . . .”
Two wonderful surprises exist in these five words. First, notice, the writer refers to the authorship of the Holy Spirit when he quotes Psalm 95. This is striking, and we are meant to take notice. He didn’t say, “As the Bible says,” or, “As the Psalmist says,” or even, “As the Scriptures say.” Rather, he writes, “As the Holy Spirit says.”
The significance of this is important: If you want to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit, you’ll find it dynamically related to biblical texts. That is, the Holy Spirit is already present as the author, in words long ago set down in Scripture. I think it was John Piper who tweeted something like, “If you want to hear God speak to you today, go in your room, shut the door, and read the Bible out loud.” I concur. The Word of God is the voice of the Spirit. Therefore, our conviction that the great need of the church is for a fresh and long-lasting work of the Holy Spirit means, out of necessity, that an equal commitment is made to biblical exposition.
The second surprise in Hebrews 3:7 is one of grammar: the verb is in the present tense! It reads, “As the Holy Spirit says. . .” The significance of this shouldn’t be missed. Psalm 95, originally given to an ancient people who lived in a very different time, is said to be God’s present and living Word for those of a much later generation—and the same is true for us today. Hebrews 3:7 establishes an ongoing and dynamic relationship between the present-day ministry of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God expounded.
And there you have it. A conviction for a renewed work of the Holy Spirit is needed, and we’ll know that conviction is settling into our bones and marrow when the attending commitments of prayer and preaching are also present.
In recent days, this conviction has been seeping into my own soul with fresh force and vitality. I know this to be authentic because prayer and preaching are increasingly having practical effects in my life. And I want the same to be true for you.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Why We Must Understand the Covenants to Understand the Bible

I have gleaned much from Tom Schreiner's writings over the years.  This is a helpful and concise summary of the covenants and how they are a seamless thread of redemptive history. . . 


By Thomas R. Schreiner
The covenants are crucial to properly understanding Scripture, as Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum have argued, because they are the backbone of the storyline of the Bible. The Bible isn’t a random collection of laws, moral principles, and stories. It is a story that goes somewhere; it is the story of redemption, the story of God’s kingdom. And the story unfolds and advances through the covenants God made with his people.

If we don’t understand the covenants, we will not and cannot understand the Bible because we won’t understand how the story fits together. The best way to see this is by quickly surveying the covenants in the Scriptures.

If we don’t understand the covenants, we will not and cannot understand the Bible.

God created the world and human beings, showing he is the sovereign ruler of all. He created Adam and Eve as priest-kings, as those made in his image, to rule the world for God. They were to extend God’s rule over the entire earth.

As God’s son and daughter they would be confirmed in life and righteousness if they obeyed the Lord, but they would be cursed if they transgressed the command not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In other words, there was covenant blessing and covenant cursing. They ate from the forbidden tree and experienced the covenant curse.

By God’s grace the story doesn’t end there, for the Lord promised to triumph over the serpent through the offspring of the woman (Gen. 3:15). The rule originally given to Adam and Eve would be restored through the offspring of the woman.

As history unfolds, the horrific consequences of the sin of Adam and Eve became evident. Evil and corruption permeated the world. By the time of Noah there were only eight righteous people left in the world, and the promise of redemption through the offspring of the woman seemed like a distant memory.

The entire world, except for Noah and his offspring were wiped out in the flood. God made a covenant with Noah, promising that the human race wouldn’t be annihilated again until the plan of redemption through the offspring of the woman was fulfilled. Noah was in some ways a new Adam on a new earth, and thus the creation covenant with Adam was rejuvenated. Still, salvation would not come through Noah because like Adam he sinned in the garden, and the fundamental evil in the heart of human beings persisted.

After Noah the world again slid into sin, with the tower of Babel as the signature of sin. In this dire situation God called one man, Abraham, and made a covenant with him. The Lord promised Abraham land (Canaan), offspring (Isaac), and a blessing that would extend to the ends of the earth.

Abraham was like a new Adam and Canaan was to be a new Eden where God dwelt with his people. As the children of Abraham trust in the Lord and obey him the promises would be fulfilled. At the same time, the Lord promised in a dramatic covenant-ceremony that the promise would certainly be fulfilled (Genesis 15). God pledged that he would keep his promise but he would do it through the obedient offspring of Abraham.

A covenant was also made with Israel after they were freed from Egypt by God’s grace. Israel was God’s son and Abraham’s offspring and the means by which blessing would flow to the whole world. They were priest-kings, mediating God’s blessing and rule in the world. They lived in Canaan, which was to be like a new Eden, a place where God ruled and dwelt in the midst of a holy people.

The stipulations of the covenant with Israel are summarized in the ten commandments, and the Lord promised blessing if they obeyed but if they violated God’s prescriptions they would suffer the consequences. Indeed, they would even be ejected from the land and go into exile.

The promise of victory over the serpent and his offspring will come through a child of Abraham (Gen. 3:15; 12:1–3), but in God’s covenant with David a new feature of the promise appeared, though if one reads the story carefully there were indications of this promise all along (2 Samuel 7). The new feature is that victory over the serpent would come through a king. The child of Abraham who will conquer sin and death will be a son of David. The promise of land and universal blessing will be secured through David’s dynasty.

The king, then, was a kind of new Adam in a new land, and for a brief time it almost looked as if all the promises would come to pass during Solomon’s reign. The covenant with David, however, had conditional and unconditional elements as well. If the kings transgressed, they would face God’s judgment.

As history progresses, it becomes evident that something was radically wrong with the kings and with the nation. In fact, the sin of the kings of Judah (and Israel) were so significant that Israel was expelled from the land. God had pledged that the world would be transformed through a son of David, but the promise was going backwards! Israel and Judah were thrown out of the land in 722 and 586 BC respectively.

What was happening to God’s great promise?

Israel had made a mess of things, and it almost seems as if the promise of triumph over the serpent had been withdrawn, but we remember that the promise in Gen. 3:15 was unconditional, and that the Lord also guaranteed that victory would come through a child of Abraham and a son of David.

Still, there was a problem with covenant made with Israel, and the cancer resided in the people: they failed to keep God’s commands and thus experienced the curses of the covenant. The Lord enacted a new covenant with his people which fulfilled the promises made to Adam, Abraham, and David (cf. Jer. 31:31–34).

The new covenant finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ who is the true son of Abraham, the true Son of God, the true Israel, the true David, the Son of Man, and the Servant of the Lord. The new covenant promise of forgiveness of sins is fulfilled in Jesus himself, and thus he pours out his Spirit on his people so that they are enabled to do God’s will (Ezek. 36:26–27).

All those who belong to Jesus are his offspring: they are the children of Abraham and members of the Israel of God. The land promise is also fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The first glimmer of the promise is located in Jesus’s resurrection, which guarantees the resurrection of believers and the new creation which is coming. In the new creation the entire world is God’s temple, and the whole universe is the new Jerusalem where God and the Lamb dwell (Rev. 21:1–22:5).

The universal blessing, blessing for all nations and peoples, also comes to pass in Jesus. In the old covenant God’s people consisted almost exclusively of Israel, but the fullness of God’s promise to Abraham has become a reality and every tribe, tongue, people, and nation are blessed in Jesus Christ, as they trust in him for eternal life.

This article was originally published on the Crossway blog

Thomas R. Schreiner
James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation and Professor of Biblical Theology
Thomas R. Schreiner is the James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation and Professor of Biblical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he also serves as associate dean of the School of Theology.


Thursday, April 26, 2018

Wild Wild Country

An observation from James Emory White on a Netflix documentary on what people will do who are looking for community, spiritual experience, and a sense of purpose. . .
One of the more provocative and fascinating documentaries you will ever watch that released last month on Netflix is "Wild Wild Country."

It's the true story of the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, often called Osho, his personal secretary, Ma Anand Sheela, and their community of followers in what became known as Rajneeshpuram in Wasco County, Oregon.

The goal was to build a utopian commune in the Pacific Northwest, but it didn't end up very utopian at all. Instead, after conflict with local residents escalated, the cult responded with bombings, assassination attempts, poisoning and the first bioterror attack in the United States.

Along the way, you enter into the dynamics of this cult, which include the removal of any and all sexual boundaries, manipulation and mind control, mass wiretapping and too many Rolls Royces for the Bhagwan to keep up with.

But as fascinating as the story of the rise and fall of the cult itself proves to be (brought to life through extensive documentary footage), it is the stories of the people who were involved that are most engaging.

And enlightening.

To this day, they look back on their involvement with an air of wistfulness, while acknowledging the horror of the drama's end. As I watched each installment, I was struck by how these smart, seeking people, were drawn into such a ridiculous mess. Three things seemed to pull them in: the longing for community; the longing for some kind of spiritual experience; and the longing for some sense of purpose. Three things they still long for and look wistfully back on as having existed—even if for a fleeting moment before ending in chaos.

The commune certainly gave them community. The Bhagwan led them into a spiritual experience (occultic, but an experience). And the building of the utopian paradise gave them their sense of purpose.

What was lacking, of course, was truth.

And therein lies an important lesson. There is nothing wrong with the desire for community, experience and purpose. They are good and God-planted desires. But, when divorced from God, they turn in on themselves and lead to decay and eventual destruction. In this case, community became dictatorial, experience became amoral and purpose was used to rationalize every manner of evil with the means justifying the end.

This is the riveting story of "Wild Wild Country."

Christianity traffics in all three desires as well, but adds the important dynamic of the truth God has revealed about community, experience and purpose. When we were first given the Garden of Eden, it provided community, experience and purpose, but we were also told of the tree from which we must not eat, establishing authority, truth and boundaries. Community does not exist for itself, nor does experience or purpose. That is the great difference between the cult's manifestation of all three and the Christian vision for all three.

I could not help but feel like "Wild Wild Country" is a depiction of what C.S. Lewis once called the "apeing" of the Christian faith by the evil one. This is the "apeing" of the new community and God's desire for humans within it.

"Wild Wild Country" should be required viewing for leaders, though it is often difficult to watch and deserves its "Mature" rating. It reminds us of the foundational longing inherent within us that cries out for community, spiritual experience and purpose.

And how we need to offer each of them, along with truth, to the world.

James Emery White

Monday, April 9, 2018

On Pastoral Failings and the Fallout

By Trevin Wax at TGC . . .

When I was a college student in Romania, I served a church in a farming village near the Hungarian border. One of the leaders was an older man who lived next door with his wife. He was the keeper of the keys to the one-room church building. He led prayer meetings, gave the tone for congregational songs, and kept the fire going in the stove at the center of our sanctuary. We all called him Grandpa, because he treated us young people like we were his spiritual children. He had the kind of relationship with God that, when you talked with him, made you feel like you’d just been with someone who had just been with Jesus.
One day, our conversation turned to fears for the future, and considering the fact he was getting up there in years, I expected him to mention the fear of losing his loved ones or the fear of a terminal illness. Instead, he looked right at me and, with a pained expression marked by watery eyes, he said: What I fear most is doing something that would embarrass my Lord and bring shame to his people.
That answer bothered me at the time. Surely this fear was misguided—a leftover of legalism, perhaps. Why fear sin when we’re under grace?
I believed this fear was also irrational. Here was a man in his 70s, whose walk with the Lord was evident to everyone. I couldn’t imagine him falling into a sin grievous enough to bring shame upon the church he loved so dearly. His answer bothered me because it seemed so groundless.
Fast forward nearly 20 years. His answer doesn’t bother me anymore. In fact, the older I get, the more that fear makes sense to me. It is not groundless. Neither is it faithless. It is inoculation against spiritual pride and presumption.
Truth be told, that man of God knew himself better than I knew him. He knew that we do not “graduate” from sinful struggles on this earth. Never do we reach a spiritual plane where we are totally untouched by the traces of former rebellion. He knew the stories of men and women who stumbled into sin after lifetimes of faithfulness—failures that cast a long shadow over many years of fruitfulness, tainting even the good years of faithful ministry.
Scripture gives us example after example of men who finished poorly. David’s adultery left his family in shambles. Solomon’s appetites turned his heart to idols. Asa fell prey to a prideful spirit that kept him from relying on the Lord when he grew ill. Hezekiah’s pride left the kingdom vulnerable. Moses’ moment of faithlessness kept him from the Promised Land.
In recent months, we’ve seen a number of Christian leaders acknowledging their complicity in immoral or unethical behavior. In each of these cases, sinful patterns in the present have caused a reevaluation of ministry fruitfulness in the past. Tragic, isn’t it? Perhaps the evil one is not interested in sidelining older leaders because he wants to stop them from future ministry; instead, he wants to stain their reputation so that all the fruit from their past becomes spoiled as well.
To be clear, sin does not erase the good fruit of people in the past. The psalms David wrote when he was truly a man after God’s heart still minister to us today. We can praise God for the ways someone has blessed us, and we can be deeply grieved by the ways that same person has disappointed us.
Still, sin does affect our view of the past. That’s why I now have a better idea of what my Romanian “Grandpa” felt when he shared his fear of slipping up in his later years. He was wise. He was not presumptuous. He didn’t see himself as a member of a saintly class of Christians (the way that I viewed him at the time). He saw himself as a follower of Jesus who remained vulnerable to sins and temptations. He knew that sins in his future could undermine the credibility of his Christian witness in the past. That’s why, as he approached the valley of the shadow of death, he prayed fervently to escape the shadows of sin that would bring disrepute to God’s people.
Brothers and sisters, we will waste the sense of profound grief we feel if recent revelations lead us to judge rather than repent. Public revelations of private sin give us all the opportunity for repentance and renewal.
As Eric Geiger has pointed out, the apostle Paul urged Timothy to “pay close attention” both to his “life” and his “teaching.” Stumbling into personal sin or falling for false doctrine—both are ways we can finish poorly. “Persevere in these things,” Paul wrote, “for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
Let’s not waste these painful moments of sin and sorrow. Let’s not presume that we are above a fall. Instead, let’s persevere with a holy stamina in life and doctrine, so that Jesus is exalted and his people are edified.