Strength By Grace

In 2 Timothy 2:1 Paul writes to Timothy, “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” Paul had faced desertion and difficulty as he suffered in his final Roman imprisonment. Abandoned by friends and even those he had won to Christ, Paul wrote this final admonition and encouragement to Timothy, his son in the ministry. Several affirmations arise from this verse that I hope will encourage you today.

  1. We often need strength. There are times we are all weak and tired. Timothy faced the challenge of pastoring, the burden of Paul’s imprisonment and the difficulty of Christians abandoning Paul. Our strength doesn’t come from effort, but from grace.
  2. We definitely need grace. We are helpless without God’s help. We deserve death, suffering and hell. But by God’s grace, we have life, hope and heaven. We have unmerited favor because of Christ Jesus. God’s saving grace and daily grace will strengthen us.
  3. We daily need the gospel. Our experience of grace and strength comes from a relationship with Jesus Christ. We are not strong enough or good enough on our own to make it. We need Christ and the reminder of the gospel everyday.
  4. We need to give the grace that we’ve received. Don’t be guilty of hoarding grace for yourself. What do I mean? Well, it is easy to give yourself grace for bad behavior while holding others to a higher standard. We should give away grace to others. I don’t mean we ignore truth. After all, grace is based on the gospel which tells the shattering truth about our sinfulness. But, as followers of Jesus, we should be quick to offer grace.

I don’t know what you’re facing today. Maybe a personal difficulty? Maybe frustration at the tumultuous political climate? Maybe an immovable obstacle? Maybe a pattern of sinful behavior? Maybe doubt and discouragement from your past? In whatever you face, pursue the strength of grace that comes through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

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Peace in the Storm

Some of you are like me and paying special attention to the news and weather. You are watching all the details about Hurricane Florence, her path, arrival times, estimated rainfall, etc. It is easy to look at a storm like Florence and wonder where God is. Why would he allow such catastrophic damage to happen?

Let me share a word of encouragement from the book of Acts. In chapter 27, Paul was a prisoner on a journey to Rome. He had to travel by sea and on that trip, he and the crew experienced a 14 day storm at sea. They were sick, water-logged and in desperation. They all feared for their lives. If anyone deserved a comfortable trip, it was the Apostle Paul. Yet, Paul faced the danger and discomfort of the storm just like everyone else. No matter what happens in the coming days around us or on the coast of our country, God is in control.

Remember this, God does not promise us a comfortable journey, but he does promise that he will never leave us. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that God has abandoned us. Storms (literal and figurative) occur in our lives because we exist in a fallen world where sin abounds. Paul affirmed in Romans 8:20-22, that creation itself is longing for redemption when the curse of sin will be lifted. Until then, we will experience storms and hurricanes. But we don’t face these days or these challenges alone. In the Acts account of the storm and eventual shipwreck, Paul and the crew suffered mightily. They faced hunger, sea sickness, lack of sleep, pain, worry, fear and the possibility of death. Yet, Paul was not alone; they were not alone. God was with them, and we can know that God is with us.

Paul had God’s peace. An angel appeared to him informing him that all would be saved. Paul used his peace to inspire courage in his shipmates. He invited them to eat a meal, blessed it in front of them and told them they would survive. God used Paul’s peace, wisdom and courage to instill courage in others. He can do the same through us today.

You should pray for protection and peace in the middle of this storm. Just before writing this, I took some moments to pray for family and friends that are likely to experience the storm more directly than we will. I prayed for their safety and peace. I even prayed that the hurricane would move away from as many people as possible. You say, “That’s a futile prayer.” No, even if the predictors are correct and the storm doesn’t move, the prayer is not futile. It is not futile because God can move the storm, he can calm the storm, he will give peace in the middle of the storm, and I know that we have his presence in the storm. We can pray boldly and expectantly because God promises that he will never leave us.

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Esther—Stand Down

Bible study originally published here at the Biblical Recorder. Focal Passage: Esther 4:1-3; 10-16

Haman was angry at Mordecai’s refusal to bow down. But not only did Haman hate Mordecai, he hated all the Jews as well. Wanting to rid himself of Mordecai’s dishonor and the Jewish people, Haman plotted to have all the Jews killed.

Mordecai and Esther messaged back and forth about the proper course of action. From this passage comes the most famous phrase in the book of Esther, “Who knows, perhaps you have come to your royal position for such a time as this” (4:14).

To readers looking backward at the sovereign intervention of God over and over again for the protection of His people, Mordecai’s statement is obvious. But Esther was the one who had to act. The future of the Jewish people depended, at least in part, upon her action. And yet, if the king did not receive her, she could be immediately killed.

Remember how quickly the king dealt with her predecessor, Vashti. But Esther did not act immediately. Notice what she ordered Mordecai to do. She insisted that the Jewish people fast for three days. While the word prayer is not included in the narrative, fasting in Jewish faith nearly always included prayer.

It is safe to assume Mordecai, Esther and the Jewish people fasted and prayed over this dilemma and over Esther’s opportunity.

They stood down. They paused their planning in order to pray. They waited in faith-filled fasting rather than in worry and fret.

Why? I think Esther and Mordecai knew it was entirely possible she had been ordained for this moment, but that did not mean they would act in brazen self-confidence. They stopped to pray.

I think sometimes we are not wrong in our assessments of situations, but we are often wrong in the bravado of our actions. Instead of praying, we plot. Instead of waiting, we work. Instead of trusting, we talk.

Esther and Mordecai give us an example we would be wise to follow – stand down, fast, pray and trust.

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My Takeaways from the #SBC2018

I grew up going to the SBC. My father retired a couple of years ago from a more than 40 ministry serving as a pastor to a number of SBC churches. We attended SBC meetings as a family in cities like Atlanta and Orlando. Now, I attend as a Sr. Pastor representing my SBC church. Some things about the SBC remain the same. There always seems to be media attention pinpointing whatever controversy threatens discord in the largest Evangelical denomination in the US. There are always interesting comments and motions as our congregational form of government gives the microphone to messengers from across the nation. There are always reports offered by leaders, both encouraging and discouraging regarding the state of the SBC. Here are several takeaways from this year’s SBC in Dallas, TX.

Takeaway #1—The frontline passion and emphasis on evangelism from the IMB must become prominent locally and nationally. The most poignant moment for me by far at this year’s meeting came during the commissioning ceremony for the IMB. The theme, “Every Church, Every Nation” reminds us that when we give cooperatively, we all participate in evangelism to the nations. In many ways, we perceive the IMB as frontline evangelism. We celebrate missionaries whose names and faces remain anonymous because they are being sent to unsafe places for the gospel. We cheer their courage and applaud their obedience. It is time that we pastors and churches adopt a frontline mindset for evangelism in our communities. We say regarding the IMB, “If we don’t send, how will the unreached hear?” We must say about the lost around us, “If we don’t share, how will they hear?” While we look forward to denominational vision, we must not wait on the denomination to lead us in evangelism and discipleship. The responsibility for evangelism, discipleship, church planting and international missions rests with the pastors and churches of the SBC.

Takeaway #2—Some SBC leaders have misused their positions of influence, but the misuse of power and authority does not appear to be systemic. We need to learn from the failures of others. Our churches and entities need to become safe places for the abused and disenfranchised. We must implement policies and protections that will lead us to defend the abused and protect our churches from predators and abusers. One of the tensions in the SBC leading up to the convention regarded Dr. Paige Patterson’s failure to appropriately handle an accusation of rape while he served as president at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Encouragingly, the other seminary presidents affirmed that this was not a systemic issue at their schools. Surely, we have had and will have situations where one or more leaders misuse their power and authority. But thankfully these appear to be exceptions.

Takeaway #3—Pastors and churches need to engage the theological conversation within their churches regarding complementarianism—what it means and does not mean for the important roles women serve in our churches. It seems unconscionable to me that a complementarian position can be used to silence women who speak out about abuse. Complementarianism is affirmed in the Baptist Faith and Message and recognizes the biblically derived view regarding gender roles in the home and church. But to hold this view does not mean women remain silent, don’t serve or don’t teach. More women than men were commissioned with the IMB this year (in the spirit of Annie and Lottie). And to quote Dr. Albert Mohler from the convention platform, “There’s not a man in this room who has not learned from a woman.”

Takeaway #4—Many, at this year’s meeting, appear to be moving away from public political party affiliations, and I think that’s a good thing. Personally, I found Vice President Mike Pence’s speech uncomfortable. Let me explain. I’m conservative. But VP Pence spent more time lauding presidential policies than he did commending his Christian beliefs. It was a campaign speech. By the way, I’m fine with campaign speeches and conservative policies, but it was out of place at the SBC. I know that his speech fit historically, as we’ve had political leaders speak before. But to me at least, it did not fit thematically. Around two hours after David Platt reported on Muslims coming to faith in Jesus, VP Pence promised to destroy ISIS. I realize one is speaking from the realm of theology and one from the realm of politics, but that’s the problem. Those two realms are divisive, distinct and require nuanced conversations. And I believe the SBC would do well in the future to refrain from having sitting politicians use our denominational platform for campaign speeches (a motion that was referred to the Executive Committee for action in Birmingham next year in 2019).

Takeaway #5—If we want a voice, then we need to be present and be willing to serve. Dr. Steve Gaines represented the SBC well as president. And Dr. Ken Hemphill would also have led well. But it is good for the present and future of the SBC to have Dr. J.D. Greear elected as SBC president. His election as well as the makeup of the messengers at SBC 2018 reflects an invigorated engagement from Gen Xers and Millenials. The congregational format of our denomination provides an opportunity to be present, have a voice and serve. If you like the direction of the convention, then be engaged and be involved. If you don’t like the direction of the convention, then be engaged and be involved. Either way, you have a voice and an opportunity to speak. It was an honor to attend the convention this year, and I’m already looking forward to the NC Baptist Convention meeting later this year and the SBC meeting in Birmingham next year.

This article was originally published here at the Biblical Recorder.

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Esther—Stand with Conviction

This devotional was originally published at the Biblical Recorder here.

Focal Passage: Esther 2:21-3:6

Mordecai, though a Jew in a foreign land, was loyal to his king. Overhearing a plot against the ruler, he promptly informed Esther who reported the planned crime. Mordecai’s loyalty to the king came from a deeper source. He would not compromise his faith in God.

When Haman was paraded through the streets, Mordecai would not bow. He would not worship a man. He would only worship God. These two mini-narratives in the book of Esther remind us that it is always right to do the right thing.

Mordecai’s conviction reminds me of another man a few centuries later, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Not content to stand idly by under Adolf Hitler’s evil Third Reich, Bonhoeffer actively opposed the Nazis. Bonhoeffer held his Christian faith firmly and even served as a spy for the German resistance. Eventually, Bonhoeffer was captured and sent to prison. While at Flossenberg prison, Bonhoeffer was executed. He was only 39 years old. The doctor at the prison commented about his execution, “Through the half-open door in one room of the huts, I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor, praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer.

“At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps of the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost [50] years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

How was Bonhoeffer able to die with solemnity and peace? I believe the clue is the same as Mordecai’s strength. Standing with conviction begins by kneeling in prayer. We can pray with that same boldness and conviction because Christ died to give us the right to pray.

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Esther—Be Ready to Stand

The next few devotionals I will post come from the book of Esther. She is a wonderful character in God’s redemptive story. She embodies humility, characterizes courage, and reflects God’s sovereignty. I trust you will be both encouraged and challenged by the lessons this book teaches us.

Focal Passage: Esther 2:5-10, 15-17. Originally posted at the Biblical Recorder here.

Sometimes it is easy to have present-day bias. We think that today’s culture is more advanced than previous cultures. Or we think that today’s culture is more evil than previous cultures. Or we think that politics today could not be any worse.

Of course today’s politics are filled with corruption, partisanship and intrigue. Even a cursory glance at any major news network will reveal the perversion and corruption of too many politicians, but our culture and the nature of politics today are not really that unique.

King Ahasuerus of Persia was known for his selfishness, disregard for others and immorality. Perversely dismissive of his first queen, Vashti, the king needed a new queen.

The suggestion for finding a new queen pleased King Ahasuerus. Virgins from across the kingdom were brought to the harem, pampered, then sent to spend the night with the king. The story of Ahasuerus and Esther is neither a fairy tale, nor a model of biblical morality. But the story of Esther should give us confidence in the Lord.

Behind the immorality and the machinations of king and court, God is accomplishing His purposes. God is working through the integrity of Mordecai. God is working through the humility of Esther.

We must be careful not to judge Esther’s conduct in the same manner we would criticize the king. Esther really had no choice but to present herself at the king’s proclamation, but Esther stood out. She stood out precisely because she acted out of humility. She was not governed by queenly ambition. She knew who she was, a Jew, and knew who God was. As a result she found favor with everyone she met.

That favor is very important to the story as God was poised to use the humble character of the new queen who stood out to keep His promises to His people. The lesson for us – we can stand up and stand out for the Lord because He is sovereignly orchestrating events, even behind acts of immorality and corruption.

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Christ—Our Righteousness

Bible Studies for Life Sunday School lesson originally published here at the Biblical Recorder.

Focal Passage: Jeremiah 33:3-8; 14-16

In Jeremiah 33, the Lord makes a great many claims: “I will answer you” and “will tell you,” “I shall strike down,” “I have hidden my face,” “I will bring it to health and healing,” “I will heal them and reveal to them,” “I will restore” and “rebuild,” “I will cleanse them,” I will forgive,” “I will fulfill the promise,” “I will cause a Righteous Branch.” Finally, Jeremiah declares that Jerusalem will be called, “The Lord is our righteousness.” I hope the pattern is obvious. The Lord is the active agent when it comes to righteousness. We are like the people of Israel. We have been given commands and expectations, but we consistently fail. We are certainly to strive toward righteousness. No doubt the Scripture teaches that God expects holiness. But we must acknowledge that we have no hope of earning the righteousness we desperately need. When we examine our lives against the expectations of righteousness that God has for us, we can grow depressed and discouraged. Thankfully, the Lord does not leave us wandering in hopelessness. He acts, answers, heals, forgives, fulfills and provides a Righteous Branch. The Righteous Branch is none other than the Lord Jesus who is the incarnated fulfillment of God’s righteousness for us. Jesus came to do what we could not. He obeyed God’s Law, kept every standard and fulfilled every expectation. He did what we could not do. Because he is Righteous, he could take our place. He became our substitute, carrying our sin on the cross and transferring his Righteousness to us. Again, I hope the pattern is obvious. Jesus is the active agent with regard to righteousness. We cannot hope to earn God’s approval. But we can receive it. We should heed the Lord’s command to Jeremiah, “Call to me.” If we will call upon the Lord, we can receive the Righteousness without which we cannot know the Lord.

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