Here’s a recent post that I contributed to the blog of an organization in Atlanta called “Urban Gospel Mission.” Tried to articulate my hopes and prayers for college students as they engage in both the local church and campus ministries during their college years.
Lack of Personal Gospel Work
What I am talking about here, of course, is essentially one-on-one discipleship. Now, it may be surprising to you that I would identify this as a problem in youth ministry today. Most youth pastors, it seems, are all about discipleship. In fact, almost every youth pastor I know is excited about meeting one-on-one with students, building relationships, and doing “discipleship” with the young people in his ministry. Here’s why I think it’s a problem today: Many youth pastors are doing “personal work” with their students, but not “personal gospel work.” They are building relationships, “doing life” with students, meeting in coffee shops and school cafeterias – but often without opening up the Bible and actively applying its message directly to the lives of students.
What we need here, really, is a tight and biblical definition of discipleship. Far too often, our youth pastors are calling things “discipleship” that really have no business being labeled as such. A better title would be “hanging out” or – in a slightly more positive way – “building relationships.” Unfortunately, much of the time “building relationships” doesn’t actually arrive at “discipleship.” Personal work remains only personal; no “gospel” work enters the meeting. I will be the first to admit that I have failed in precisely this area. Why? Because it’s hard to turn “hanging out” into real “discipleship.”
But, that is what youth pastors are called to do – perhaps more than anything. They are commissioned to teach the disciple the young people of the church according to the gospel of Jesus Christ, as revealed in God’s Word. And, many of our youth pastors are simply not really getting this done.
Untrained Student Leaders
Every youth ministry I know of has some form of student leadership team. Often, these are the naturally gifted leaders in the group – the students who are confident in leading games, music, events, or who are willing to invite friends from school to youth group events. These kinds of students are a great gift to a youth pastor! They bring energy to a youth ministry, and the ones who are heavily invested in the ministry offer great encouragement and support to its leader.
The problem comes when student leaders are “turned loose” without being intentionally trained. I don’t mean “trained” in a general way either; I am talking about intentional training in gospel ministry – especially the ministry of the Word. You see, the danger for youth pastors is actually extremely grave; they are in danger of doing great harm to these “student leaders.” What harm am I talking about? The harm of simply using them for the good of the events and vibrancy of the youth group, rather than equipping them for the good of their eternal souls and the growth of their local church congregations in the future. This is a devastating reality in many of our youth ministries across the country.
Student leaders should primarily be viewed by youth pastors as trainees – the “Timothy” to their “Paul.” They should be equipped to handle God’s Word, lead a Bible study, present the gospel, and disciple a younger believer. Too often, we turn loose our student leaders simply to run events, get people excited, and promote our youth group experience. That is using them without equipping them.
I’m going to be posting, one by one, a few major “problems” that I observe in youth ministry in local churches. So – today – problem #1…
Almost always, what I would label as “shallow” teaching comes under the guise of being “relevant.” Failing to truly expound a text of Scripture is excused as “trying to connect with my audience.” Evidently, youth ministers have somewhere along the line bought into the idea that God wants to connect with young people in some way other than through his revealed, inspired, written Word. But, much more on that later.
Sometimes, “shallow” teaching will actually appear to be very deep. And, I certainly don’t intend to say that people who teach in shallow ways to young people are themselves shallow people. Many times they have, on their own, an incredibly deep and vibrant relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. Many times, they are extremely intelligent, culturally aware, philosophically thoughtful, and wonderfully engaging as speakers. Shallow teaching, by my definition, is teaching that is guided by – and rooted in – something other than the careful exposition of Scripture. By definition, such teaching will be shallow, because its outline, main point, and main application will come from somewhere other than God’s (deep!) Word, in the precise way it has been revealed to us.
I hesitate to actually equate shallow teaching with topical teaching, but it’s certainly tempting! The danger about topical teaching is that the teacher is forced to form his own outline, structure, main point, and main application, rather than submitting all of those things to the text that he is bound to expound clearly and faithfully. No matter how “deep” a topical message is, it will necessarily be not as “deep” as the inspired words of the God of the universe.
Just a few reasons why I am incredibly blessed to be serving as the college pastor at CCIW.
Pastoral Ministry – 5 Years “In”
After 2 years of pastoral residency at Holy Trinity Church in Chicago, and with 2 years behind me as part of the pastoral staff at College Church in Wheaton, it seemed an appropriate time to humbly offer a few lessons from these initial years in pastoral ministry. I’m young, and I have much to learn! In fact, I am, in many ways, still learning for myself the “lessons” that I’ll offer here. Still, God is faithful, and so I offer these encouragements as a young pastor who knows he still has a long way to go.
First, three lessons regarding PREPARATION for pastoral ministry…
1. PREPARE BY ATTENDING, SERVING, AND JOINING A LOCAL CHURCH
Seminary years are wonderful years! You get to sit under brilliant professors, next to students who actually are excited about engaging in discussion about theological subtleties and the meaning of a certain Greek participle. Yet, if you take a 3 or 4 year “time out” from real deep engagement in the local church during your years of seminary, you are putting your heart – and perhaps even your soul – in serious peril. There was nothing that kept me grounded in my faith and alive in my walk with Christ during my seminary years more than life in the midst of a wonderful – yet imperfect – local church. Why is this?
Service and involvement in a local church during seminary years puts your training and learning to work – even as you are in the midst of it. It prevents you from becoming, metaphorically, an “out of shape” Christian – someone who carries around a load of Biblical and Theological knowledge, but never uses it for gospel ministry with real people. Second, service and involvement in a local church keeps you humble. This is true especially if you serve in a role where you are doing some kind of Word teaching, even in a Sunday school or small group setting. In most such gatherings, the participants won’t care whether or not you’re dealing with an infinitive of purpose or an infinitive of means! You will be forced toward clarity – and even simplicity (in the best sense of the word) – as you teach Scripture to the Christians of the church.
2. PREPARE BY STUDYING AND KNOWING YOUR ENGLISH BIBLE
One well-known professor at TEDS during my years there once lamented the fact that, while he taught many incredibly intelligent and gifted seminary students, very few of them knew their Bibles extremely well. In fact, some of his brightest students – who could discuss deep theological topics with him at an extremely high level – couldn’t demonstrate basic Bible knowledge (listing the books of the Bible in order, quoting the Lord’s Prayer, naming the 10 Commandments, etc.). I have found that there is no better way to prepare oneself for gospel ministry than to know the Bible extremely well. It sounds basic, I know – know your Bibles! Seminary students may be able to parse Hebrew verbs, but do they know all the main characters of the Bible? Bright young scholars may write brilliant papers on theological subtleties, but do they know the Scriptural reference for the Sermon on the Mount, or the Valley of Dry bones, or Paul’s teaching on spiritual gifts? Nothing helps you in pastoral ministry more than a solid and comprehensive grasp of Scripture. The ability to find a biblical reference in the midst of a difficult counseling session. A sufficient knowledge of every book in the Bible – at least the basic structure, central characters, and main point. Rev. Kent Hughes – former pastor of College Church in Wheaton – was fond of saying: “You cannot be profoundly influenced by that which you do not know.” Prepare for pastoral ministry by reading, studying, memorizing, and knowing the Bible!
3. PREPARE BY IMMERSING YOURSELF IN THE TRADITION AND TEACHING OF A PARTICULAR DENOMINATION
Years of training – in seminary, graduate school, or other ministry training programs – are years for general and broad preparation. It is good to be exposed to many different theological viewpoints and church traditions, especially to see the variance in the church that existed throughout the centuries, and exists today around the world. Still, I would strongly encourage pastors-in-training to go “deep” in one theological tradition and/or denomination as they prepare for ministry. For me, it was the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). This denomination has family ties for me, but I also line up most closely with its theology, tradition, church practice, and teaching. It was an opportunity for me to go deep into one tradition. While preparing for my ordination exams, I studied the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Book of Church Order. I was forced to learn the entire history of the development of the PCA, tracing its roots back to the English and Scottish Reformation – and even earlier than that. This was a very rigorous period of study and preparation for me, and I have never regretted one moment of it. In your years of training for pastoral ministry, get past simply reading books called “Four Views on…etc.” Steep yourself in a certain tradition and theological viewpoint.
Connected to this is another lesson/encouragement: take a position on theological matters (baptism, Lord’s Supper, eschatology, etc.). Do your work in the Bible, of course, but then land somewhere. Too many seminarians use their years of training to read widely (which is good!), but they never settle anywhere. They become lifetime “shifters,” never able to take a conscience-based and Word-grounded stand on a theological doctrine. I’m not saying you can’t change your mind on something, if you’re convinced by Scripture that you’ve been mistaken, but don’t be afraid to come down somewhere.
As I enter my fifth year of pastoral ministry, I will be the first to tell you that I have much to learn! Even so, by God’s grace, I have learned some important lessons during my first few years. So, I offer three important lessons – lessons that this young pastor is still learning – about Word ministry.
1. THE WORD DOES THE WORK
Paul, in 2 Timothy 3:14-17, takes time to remind his young protégée of the power, authority, and utter sufficiency of Scripture for “teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (3:16). His charge, which follows, is based on the power and sufficiency of the Word; Timothy is to commit himself to the preaching of that Word. Friends, the minute that we in pastoral ministry forget that the Word does the work, we are lost. It is God’s Word that holds power and sufficiency – power to touch and change people’s hearts by the power of the Spirit, and sufficiency to accomplish God’s sanctifying work in the lives of those same people. As pastors, we need to trust that God’s Word does the work. Our job is to preach it – and then get out of the way.
As a youth pastor, I’ve certainly felt the pull to let something else – really anything else – dictate what I’m teaching to my students. In fact, I told them on Sunday that if I did more “Sex & Dating” series, we might have a lot more students show up on Wednesday nights! Yet, I have humbly learned that God’s Word does the work; I need to get myself under that Word, and speak it faithfully. Our best teaching series in our youth ministry thus far was actually not even really a “teaching” series (and I don’t know what that says about my teaching!). It was essentially a “live” Bible study on Wednesday nights, in the book of Philippians. We spent 40 minutes each Wednesday night asking simple questions of the text together, and allowing God’s Word to speak to us. And God’s Word did its work in the lives of the students. I’ve heard from many of them that the Philippians study was by far their favorite – and most formative – series thus far.
2. THE WORD DOES ITS WORK BEST IN THE CONTEXT OF RELATIONSHIP
God’s Word does the work, yes, but what if no people show up to hear God’s Word? Deep relationships are necessary for God’s Word to take root in people’s lives. In our ministry, the students who have gotten connected, and have then grown in Christian maturity, holiness, and knowledge, have done so because of genuine relationships and friendships with others in the group. The relationships became the fertile ground for Word ministry to accomplish its purpose. The ministry of the Word and the growth of the gospel in people’s lives is the end game, but people almost always get there through relationships.
This point has huge implications for the commitment of a pastor to the personal work of gospel ministry. Preach the Word up front, yes, but engage in gospel ministry with people in smaller groups, and one-on-one, as well. For a beautiful example of how this can look in the ministry of a very ordinary pastor, read this wonderful little story (http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2010/09/13/good-pastors-dont-let-you-off-the-hook/). David Helm, in his book “Reading the Bible One-to-One,” also offers some valuable insights and tools for the personal gospel work of the pastor. The point is this: pastors must be committed to the growth and ministry of the Word in the lives of their people. People get to that point through relationships. I need to commit myself to personal, relational, Word ministry.
3. THE WORD DOES ITS WORK AS WE WORK HARD
You may have heard it said that the pastorate is a place where lazy men hide. The saying is a bit harsh, but it is unfortunately true in some cases. The fact is, it is possible to be a lazy pastor! It is quite easy, actually, to create an illusion of extreme busyness, importance, and stress, all the while actually doing very little work. Friends, this must never be. Pastors – men called to the ministry of the gospel – must work harder than everyone else. We are called to excellence in gospel ministry, and while the results belong to God, shame on us if we do not spend ourselves for the sake of the growth of the gospel in our churches.
Perhaps the best lesson I’ve learned in this is about accountability in hard work – first to God, of course, but then to your pastoral colleagues. At our church, a question on this point is asked of all of us by our supervising pastors. Under the “benchmark” of HARD WORK, we are asked: “How are you working hard and maximizing your time for the sake of the gospel and the church?” This is a great question! As pastors, it is not somehow unspiritual to talk about things like efficiency and productivity. We need to get up and go to work. We need to work hard to get things done for the sake of the gospel and the growth of Christ’s kingdom. The results are His; the labor is ours.
So, there it is. These lessons are not profound, but I do hope that they ring true for those of you who are seeking to faithfully labor as Word ministers. By God’s grace, for as many years as He gives me in pastoral ministry, I hope to put myself under His Word, and allow it to accomplish His purposes in the lives of my people. I hope to do all I can to build and encourage deep relationships in my ministry – fertile ground where Word ministry can grow, thrive, and bear fruit. And I want to – for God’s eyes alone – work hard at all of this, spending myself for the wonderful Word work to which He has called us as gospel ministers.
Finally, a few lessons regarding the “FIRSTS” in the personal life of the pastor…
1. FIRST, I MUST BE A CHRISTIAN…THEN A PASTOR
Friends, this may seem like the most obvious lesson thus far! But, it is in fact the most important. I must first be a Christian, then a pastor. There is perhaps no better writing on this point than from Charles Spurgeon. Listen to his words from his lecture, “The Minister’s Self-Watch” (in Lectures to my Students):
“How horrible to be a preacher of the gospel and yet to be unconverted! Let each man here whisper to his own inmost soul, ‘What a dreadful thing it will be for me if I should be ignorant of the power of the truth which I am preparing to proclaim!’ Unconverted ministry involves the most unnatural relationships. A graceless pastor is a blind man elected to a professorship of optics, philosophising upon light and vision, discoursing upon and distinguishing to others the nice shads and delicate blendings of the prismatic colours, while he himself is absolutely in the dark! He is a dumb man elevated to the chair of music; a deaf man fluent upon symphonies and harmonies! He is a mole professing to educate eaglets; a limpet elected to preside over angels. … It is a dreadful position for a man to be in, for he has undertaken a work for which he is totally, wholly, and altogether unqualified, but from the responsibilities of which this unfitness will not screen him, because he willfully incurred them. Whatever his natural gifts, whatever his mental powers may be, he is utterly out of court for spiritual work if he has no spiritual life; and it is his duty to cease the ministerial office til he has received this first and simplest of qualifications for it.”
It would be good for all of us as pastors to go back to this lecture from Spurgeon at least once a year, if not more often than that! We must be Christians – changed men with the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirits – or else we will find ourselves, not only disqualified from ministry, but disqualified from an eternity with Jesus as well. What does this mean for me as a pastor? It means that I need to be vigilant against sin. It means that I need to take care to nurture my own relationship with Jesus – as a Christian man. It means that I must be doggedly pursuing holiness, purity, and obedience, by the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit. It means that when I think about myself, I’m not “Jon, the Pastor,” but “Jon, the Christian.” I am a Christian – a sinner saved by grace – who is also called to be a pastor.
2. FIRST, I MUST PASTOR MY FAMILY…THEN MY PEOPLE
The above point tells us that, as pastors, the gospel of Jesus Christ must have its way in us. This point tells us that the gospel of Jesus Christ must have its way in our marriages and our families. As a pastor, I need to first pastor my wife! I need to care for her soul. I need to contribute to her sanctification, as I embrace my role as her husband to one day present her before the throne of God as my truest trophy of grace. My marriage will one day end, as I “hand off” my wife to her true bridegroom – Jesus Christ her Savior. Pastors, let’s pastor our wives. Let’s be shepherds of their souls. By God’s grace, I am still learning to do this, and I have a long way to go!
We also are called to pastor our families – our children. One dear friend and mentor of mine has expressed to me several times this sentiment: “How dreadful if I arrived in heaven, surrounded by hundreds of people I had helped to convert, and my kids were not among them!” Now, children do sometimes go astray, and if children reject Christ, it is certainly not always the fault of the parents! But, shame on us as pastors if we do not do everything we can to pastor, shepherd, disciple, and evangelize our children. By God’s grace, I want to commit myself to pastoring my family first.
3. FIRST, I MUST REMEMBER THE GOSPEL PERSONALLY
What do I mean by this? I mean that, as a pastor, I need to be personally returning to the cross – daily, regularly, humbly, worshipfully. I need to be constantly reminded of the miracle of my own salvation – that somehow, by the death of Jesus on a cross, I am actually accepted by God. There is no better fuel for gospel ministry than an intense and worshipful wonder at our own salvation. I need to be experiencing the gospel’s work in my own heart, so that I can further the gospel work – by God’s power – in the lives of others. Friends, I know from my limited experience that I cannot commit myself at all costs to something that has not profoundly influenced my own heart and life. We preach, teach, disciple, and lead as we are – and because we are – saved men. Saved by the grace of Jesus Christ, and growing daily in that same grace.
One of my most respected mentors expressed a sentiment to me the other day that rang very (and frighteningly) true. “There are many young men and women, these days, who are excited about the gospel – gospel preaching, gospel teaching, gospel centrality, and certainly gospel grace. I fear that what may be lacking in these young Christian leaders today, though, is the right biblical emphasis on holiness.”
I have certainly seen this to be true – at least anecdotally. Many of my peers have embraced their “freedom in Christ,” rejecting the legalistic leanings of their parents’ generation, and their resistance to the use of alcohol and tobacco products, as well as their strict views on dating and physical intimacy before marriage. But they’ve pushed the envelope too far, stepping beyond “freedom” at times, and into downright abuse and excess. Bible study groups and theological meetings have, for some, become more about the beer and cigars than about the Scriptures. Others are leading in churches, and spending their nights in the same bed as their girlfriends, justifying this practice with the “but we’re not having sex” argument. Crude language abounds as well, defended with pleas to cultural relevancy, and the desire to “become all things to all people.” An enthusiastic embrace of the overwhelming grace of the gospel has become, in some sense, a license – if not to outright sin, at least to extremely questionable activities.
I once sat in a large PCA church, and actually listened to the senior pastor wrap up his sermon in this way (I’m paraphrasing a bit): “Friends, you wouldn’t believe the ugly and sinful thoughts that I had in my heart this very morning. I’m a sinner just like you! But isn’t it wonderful that we have grace – abundant grace – and that Jesus accomplishes our salvation for us.” End of sermon. What??? I mean, yes, we have grace from Jesus, but what about a call to holiness? Is it acceptable that a minister of the gospel is filled with ugly and sinful thoughts? No one is perfect, surely, but where does the doctrine and the reality of sanctification fit here? We shouldn’t really be surprised at the excess and “freedom” of my generation; we’re hearing it from our pastors!
Now, I believe in salvation by grace alone, through faith alone. I know that I am a sinful wretch; all my righteousness is like filthy rags, and Jesus lived the life I should have lived, and died the death I should have died. My salvation is all a work of God – from beginning to end. And, I believe I have a good deal of freedom in Christ! But, I also believe that the grace of Jesus that saves me calls me to an intense pursuit of holiness by the power of the Holy Spirit. In other words, while I should revel in the scandalous grace of God that, in Christ, “justifies the ungodly,” I should be launched forward by the experience of that very grace toward a life that is more and more obedient, more and more holy, and more and more conformed to the image of my Savior.
I know I’m not saying anything revolutionary here (at least for biblical Christians). And no one who I am addressing here would disagree with the theology being presented. The point is the emphasis. Sometimes, when grace is preached fully – and even truly – the emphasis on holiness for those who accept God’s grace is absent from the message. My generation is so reticent to anything that even smells like legalism, that the imperatives – and the warnings – of Scripture to Christians are silenced.
Take that pastor that I mentioned before. What he said was true; it is wonderful that, in Christ, we live under God’s grace, forgiveness, and His eternal smile. And yet, when we sin, our attitude should be: “By God’s grace, I will never go there again!” It’s the attitude of wanting to KILL our sin that may be missing in our Christian lives today. Listen to the old words of Richard Baxter on this topic:
Consider well of the office, the bloodshed, and the holy life of Christ.—His office is to expiate sin, and to destroy it. His blood was shed for it: his life condemned it. Love Christ, and you will hate that which caused his death. Love him, and you will love to be made like him, and hate that which is so contrary to Christ. These two great lights will show the odiousness of darkness.
Brothers and sisters, if we celebrate the gospel of grace, revel in the wonderful forgiveness of our Savior, and do not take the next step of hating “that which caused his death” – especially in our own lives – then perhaps we have not truly understood the gospel. To put it bluntly, the saving grace of Jesus should make us better people. And we should be getting better and better – growing in holiness and obedience as we follow Christ. Charles Spurgeon has some extremely challenging words on this point:
Professing Christian, is sin subdued in you? If your life is not holy, your heart is not changed; and if your heart is not changed, you are not saved. If the Savior has not sanctified you, renewed you, and given you a hatred of sin and a love of holiness, then He has done nothing in you of a saving nature. So-called grace that does not make a person better than others is nothing but a worthless counterfeit, for Christ does not save His people in their sins, but “from their sins.”
With this sobering warning from Spurgeon ringing in our ears, let me just offer a few suggestions for gospel preachers as they seek to preach the gospel of grace, and also the need for holiness in the lives of gospel people:
- 1. Don’t “punt” to imputation too quickly
When those of us who love grace, and understand human sinfulness and inability to perfectly please God, stumble upon a passage of Scripture that carries with it a clear imperative, our tendency is (as one pastor friend put it) to “punt” to imputation immediately. Take 1 Samuel 12, for example. It’s Samuel’s farewell address to the people of Israel, who have chosen Saul to be king over them. It is all imperatives! “Do not turn aside from following the Lord” (12:20). “Do not turn aside after empty things” (12:21). “Fear the LORD and serve him faithfully with all your heart” (12:24). The temptation for preachers who understand imputation will be to lessen the imperatival force that a passage like this is meant to have on God’s people. To say, for example: “You can never do this! But, the gospel word today is that Jesus does this for us. He is faithful when we are faithless. He doesn’t turn aside, when we turn aside so often.” That’s true, I suppose. Jesus is true Israel, and he alone lives perfectly as our divine representative. Nevertheless, the call in 1 Samuel 12 is to the people of God, and it is a real call. God’s people are called to not turn aside – to follow the Lord and be faithful to him completely. They do this by His grace alone, of course. But they are called – with imperatival force – to obey!
- 2. Don’t take the “teeth” out of biblical warnings
There is a tendency – similar to the one above – for gospel-grounded preachers to lessen the weight of a warning in a biblical passage. Consider, for example, the book of Jude. Jude begins his letter this way: “Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (3). Jude is offering a stern appeal – a warning, even – to the people to whom he writes. He wants them to contend for the faith they have received. He goes on, later, to give words with similar force: “But you, beloved, build yourselves up in your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God” (20-21a). It’s, again, a call to work hard in order to stay in line with the love of God that has been shown to his audience. Now, it’s true that Jude ends with a wonderfully comforting benediction – “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy” (24). This is God’s work, after all! But we, as preachers, need to lean with equal weight on both of Jude’s emphases: we are to keep ourselves in the love of God, even as He ultimately is the one who keeps us. Let’s not take the “teeth” out of the warning to persevere, even as we rightly emphasize the role of God in our perseverance.
- 3. Don’t be afraid to preach morality to Christians
It is silly to call unregenerate people to clean up their lives – to stop having premarital sex, stop losing their tempers, and start serving others more. If they have not been washed by the blood of Jesus and made new through faith in Him, they are incapable of that kind of change. They need to hear the gospel first and be changed in their hearts; changed lives will come later. But, Christians – people who have saving faith in Jesus Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit – are capable of and called to holy and obedient living. We can, in other words, preach morality to Christians! In so doing, we are not telling them what they must do in order to be saved; they have already been saved by grace alone through faith alone. We are telling them how they must live if they truly have been saved, forgiven, and set apart for new life in Christ. This is not legalism! This is a stern (biblical) challenge to Spirit-filled believers to live up to the calling they have received. Christian preachers should not back down from this kind of call, even as they affirm again and again the gracious gift of salvation that comes through Christ’s work alone.
Let me summarize this discussion in this way. We who are at peace with God through Christ are forever (at least in this life) called to be at war with sin. Let’s commit ourselves, as gospel ministers, to preaching both the “peace” and the “war” of that sentence. Let’s preach gospel grace – fully and joyfully. And let’s challenge ourselves and our people toward gospel-grounded holiness – holiness empowered only by God’s Holy Spirit.
RECAP from BIG GROUP (12/7/11)
It’s been a great semester together in HYACKs. I have especially loved our times on Wednesday nights – both in Big Group and in Small Groups – studying the book of Philippians. It is an old letter, surely, but one that we’ve seen to have incredible relevance and power for our lives today. That shouldn’t surprise us, really; it’s God’s Word, and God’s Word is “living and active!” God speaks to us – here and now – through his written and inspired Word. I think we’ve witnessed that together this semester.
Tonight, as we prepare to begin studying the final chapter of Philippians in the coming weeks, I want to call a brief “timeout” in our study. Tonight is a chance to recap all that we’ve been learning through the book of Philippians thus far – to stop for a moment to gather and collect our thoughts before moving forward into chapter 4. We’re going to do that by looking at some of the major themes of the book that have begun to emerge clearly before us – the main emphases of Paul as he writes this letter to the church at Philippi.
Before we do this, I want to say to all of you – on a personal note – that I have been personally benefitting from this study in God’s Word together with all of you. I’m the teacher/discussion leader, yes, but I have been learning much from you all – through your comments, insights, and applications of the text. I feel like I understand the book of Philippians more clearly because of our work together in the Word this semester. So, thank you all!
As we said at the beginning of our study this semester, the Apostle Paul is writing to a church at Philippi that is relatively healthy. He thanks God for them enthusiastically (1:3), and we’ll see that he has received their support with great gratitude (4:18). Nevertheless, we’ve observed together that Paul certainly sees some problems among the Philippian believers. The church at Philippi, we’ve seen, is a church that is experiencing:
- 1. LOST UNITY
Listen to Paul’s words to the church in 1:27: “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.” Paul’s concern for the church is that they possess a “oneness” in the gospel. That’s what he wants to see…the church having “one mind” as they serve Jesus together. That is obviously not happening in the right way.
Paul picks up this same idea in 2:1-4: “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Here Paul tells the Philippians that his own personal JOY over them hinges in some way on their unity. He longs for them to be a community of Christians who have the “same mind” together as they serve Jesus and labor for the gospel. This kind of mind would demonstrate itself by their counting others more significant than themselves.
Finally, in chapter 4 (which you’ll study in Small Groups next week), Paul actually calls out by name two of the (perhaps many) culprits: Euodia and Syntyche. Can you imagine being one of those women? The letter is being read out loud to your church…and all of a sudden you hear your name? Here’s what Paul says in 4:2-3: “I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.” Paul gives at least one clear example of a relationship that lacks unity, and calls these two women to “agree in the Lord.”
So, there has clearly been a loss of UNITY in the church at Philippi. What is Paul’s solution to this loss? Look up at what he says in 4:2-3 again. The women to whom he appeals have “labored in the gospel” together, and their names are written in the “book of life.” Paul’s answer to disunity is to seek GOSPEL unity. Paul does not appeal to these women on the basis of their friendship, their personalities, or their family connections. He appeals to them on the basis of the GOSPEL of Jesus Christ – their common salvation in Him and their consequent service on His behalf. The foundation for true unity for Christians is the gospel itself. That is Paul’s solution to this problem.
- 2. LOST JOY
The church at Philippi, it seems, had lost its joy. And it seems that this had happened for a fairly obvious reason: they had “fastened” their joy to circumstances, which are ever-changing, and therefore their joy was going up and down with the changes of life. It seems that one of these negative changes that had gotten them so down was the abuse of their beloved Paul by competing preachers while he was imprisoned. They loved Paul; they surely hated to see others take his imprisonment as an opportunity to get “one step ahead” of him in ministry. Paul’s answer to this? Listen to 1:12-18: “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.” Paul refuses to lose his joy in the midst of the rivalry of his enemies. His joy is rooted in the advance of the gospel of Jesus Christ – even through its advance through the efforts of sinful and competitively-minded men. It’s almost as if he’s saying to the dejected Philippians: “Don’t worry about me! The gospel is still moving forward; I’m happy!”
If the Philippians were upset about Paul’s imprisonment, they were most certainly down in the dumps about his imminent death (which Paul talked about frequently, it seems!). Again, Paul does not let them off the hook; there is no reason, for Paul, to lose joy because of physical death. Hear again his well-known words in 1:21-23: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” No reason here for lost joy! If Paul lives, he will work for the gospel and for Jesus. If he dies…that’s even better, because he gets to actually BE with Jesus.
If you’re not already convinced that the Philippians had lost their joy, then scan again the letter, looking for the words “joy” and “rejoice.” They show up a lot! Paul, sometimes seemingly in the middle of a thought, keeps telling the church to “rejoice” (2:18, 3:1, 4:4). It’s definitely a focal point for what Paul thinks they need to hear.
What is Paul’s solution to lost joy? It’s to find – and then hold onto – GOSPEL joy. It’s to stop “hooking up” your joy to ever-changing circumstances, and to “ground” your joy in the Lord God. Remember, Paul’s command is not simply to “rejoice,” it’s to “rejoice IN the Lord.” In other words, rejoice in God – in all He is and all He has done for us in Jesus. That is something that will never go away; it is the key place to find and keep permanent joy.
- 3. LOST DRIVE
The final “problem” that the church at Philippi is experiencing is something that I’ve called “lost DRIVE.” That is, they seem to have lost a passion for “pushing forward” in their faith, their obedience, and their relationship with Jesus Christ. Listen to Paul’s exhortation to them in 2:12-13: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” While Paul certainly does not ignore that fact that the one ultimately responsible for our spiritual health and growth is God (2:13), he does call the Philippians to “work out” their salvation – to put EFFORT into it, and to deal with their souls with great care, in light of the holy God they serve and follow.
This call becomes even more explicit in chapter 3, when Paul uses his own approach to his relationship with Christ as an example that the church at Philippi should follow. Here’s what he says in 3:12-15: “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way.” Paul, the incredible man of God and faithful apostle of the gospel of Jesus, essentially says here: “I’m not there yet!” His attitude personally is one of “straining” – pushing forward with great effort to know Christ more and to reach the glories of heaven by God’s grace. He ends by saying that those who are “mature” should think like this! That is, for Paul, Christian maturity is – at least in part – tied to an “I’m not there yet” kind of attitude…an attitude that pushes forward with humility to grow in Christ, know him more, and seek heaven with all energy and effort. This seems to be something that the Philippians had missed.
Well, what is Paul’s solution to a loss of drive? This is getting a bit predictable, but I think his solution is to adopt a GOSPEL drive. In other words, the gospel of God (and the gospel that Paul preaches) is certainly a gospel of grace; we are saved completely by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection on our behalf. But, for Paul, the necessary and right response to the gospel is not to “stay put” and relax – it’s to PUSH forward with all effort, energy, passion, and discipline. It’s to “strain” to know Christ better and to make Him known. Gospel GRACE for Paul leads to a gospel DRIVE.
THE GOSPEL IS THE ANSWER
Friends, for Paul, the gospel is always the answer. The gospel is the answer to the main problems in the church at Philippi. It’s the answer to their lack of unity; they need gospel-grounded oneness. It’s the answer to their lack of joy; they need permanent, gospel-grounded joy. It’s the answer to their lack of “drive” – they need a drive that comes from the true experience of gospel grace. Disunity, discouragement, depression – these problems meet their solution in the life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ!
FOR US TONIGHT
I want to ask you a few questions as you continue to apply this scripture to your heart and life:
- Are you at “war” with people around you? Do you fight, hate, insult, or gossip about other brothers or sisters in Christ? Paul’s response to you if you do: find UNITY in the gospel with your brothers and sisters in Christ. Remember that your names are written with theirs in the book of life. You were saved at the foot of the same cross, washed in the same blood, and united through faith to the same Savior. Serve HIM together with one mind.
- Are you struggling to find permanent joy? Have you harnessed your joy to your circumstances, so that your joy goes up and down literally every single day of your life? Attach your joy to the LORD. Find permanent joy by making GOD – and his gracious salvation to you in Jesus – your rock on which you build your joy. If you are in Christ, your greatest problem – SIN – has been dealt with. You are a new creation. You have in Christ the basis for a deep joy that literally no circumstance can ever touch or destroy.
- Are you standing still in your relationship with Jesus? Have you put your faith on cruise control? Push forward to know Christ more! Work harder to obey your Savior and make Him known to the people around you! Respond to God’s grace to you in Jesus by straining forward to serve Him, know Him, love Him, more…and one day be in his presence forever.