Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Giving Thanks Always

Ephesians 5:17, 18b, 20
“Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is… be filled with the Spirit…giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…”

This last week we had opportunity as a people to celebrate Thanksgiving – remembering God’s faithfulness in our past and petitioning His grace for the future.

Today I would like us to reflect on why such feasts are fitting – and the reason they are fitting is that they express the will of God for us. Paul exhorts us in Ephesians that we are not to be “unwise” but are to understand the will of the Lord. So what is the Lord’s will? The Lord’s will is that we be filled with the Spirit. And what does it look like to be filled with the Spirit? Part of the answer that Paul gives is that when we are filled with the Spirit we will be giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Note carefully Paul’s words.

Paul writes that we are to be giving thanks always. He excludes no times – we are always to give thanks. When the car starts right away in the morning, when the car won’t start at all; when there are six inches of snow on the ground, when it fails to snow at all; when we’re feeling robust and well, when we have the stomach flu; when work is going well, when we have trouble with employees; when our children obey, when they disobey. We are always to give thanks.

How is this possible? Because the One to whom we are giving thanks, God the Father, is Sovereign over all. Nothing happens apart from His will. No one and no thing can say to him, “What have you done? Or why has your hand determined thus?” Our God is in the heavens – he does whatever he pleases. So if there is calamity in the city, will not our Lord have done it? God is the Lord – He raises up and He puts down. And so our calling as the people of God is to render thanks to Him – precisely because this One who is Sovereign, who is God, is also our Father – He cares for us and works on our behalf. So we can give thanks always. Our demeanor should be one of grateful acknowledgment of the wisdom of our Father – not just when it appears wise to us but when it is in fact wise, namely, always.

But not only are we always to give thanks, we are also to give thanks for all things. All things, we ask? Surely Paul didn’t mean to say it quite that way. But I’m afraid he did. For all things that enter our lives come from the hand of our loving Father who has orchestrated them for our good and for His glory. Thanking Him – for the kind and the hard providences – is the key to glorifying him in the midst of both. And this, to some extent, explains why we are to give thanks “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” – for he too gave thanks to God while suffering. So do we thank the Father for the hard providences, the failure of the crops, the loss of our job, the rebellion of a child, the loneliness of singleness, the frustration of working at a job we don’t enjoy? According to Paul we ought to. Why? Because God is the one who has brought this into our lives for a very good, distinct, and just reason. Therefore, we are to abound in thanksgiving.

And so, reminded that rather than abound in thanksgiving we frequently complain and grumble, let us kneel and confess that we are an unthankful people.

Our Father,

We have failed to be thankful for the gifts and graces which you have freely bestowed upon us. You have treated us much more graciously than we deserve – and yet we grumble and complain at your graces. Not only do we refuse to thank you in hard times, we forget to thank you in good ones. So too our culture. We refuse to give you thanks. We act as though we are entitled to the things we receive; we demand more; insist that what You have given is not enough. Forgive us for the sake of Christ and enable us to abound always in thanksgiving in all things.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Be Diligent to Enter God's Rest - Hebrews 4

This past Sunday I had the immense privilege of preaching on Hebrews 4:1-11. This passage has nettled me for years and so I was glad for the opportunity to work through it. Praise God I think I figured it out. I have been so dissatisfied with some of the treatments of the text that I wanted to recommend another sermon and provide the text of my own sermon - and, of course, you're welcome to listen to my sermon here.

D.A. Carson gives an excellent overview of the text in this message at The Gospel Coalition.

Here is the text of my sermon - hopefully some will find it helpful.

Of Lambs and Elephants (2 Pet 3:15-16)

Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome from 590 until 604, is credited with comparing the sacred Scriptures to “a kind of river… which is both shallow and deep, shallows where a lamb may wade and depths where an elephant may swim.” The Scriptures, in other words, contain a remarkable diversity. Some things are simple and straightforward, requiring little skill to grasp. Others are complicated and challenging, requiring rigorous study and careful meditation. The Scriptures themselves acknowledge this diversity. Peter writes about Paul’s letters, for example, that there are in them “some things hard to understand…”

Unfortunately, many American Christians, especially evangelicals, have in recent years confined themselves exclusively to the shallows – even claiming at times that it is sinful or wrong to try and plumb the depths. Consequently, our sermons are often trite and simplistic; our devotion to intellectual pursuits is often negligible; and our theological depth is frequently superficial.

This tendency to stay in the shallows – and to boast of staying in the shallows – is not something that the book of Hebrews countenances. Indeed, Paul rebukes his audience for failing to go deeper in their grasp of the faith. He writes (5:12) that “Though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again…” – and this, he insists, is a shameful thing. We are to press toward maturity with our minds as well as with our hearts.

I say all this by way of introduction to our text today (4:1-13) because it is one of the most challenging texts in Hebrews, it is a deep part of the river. It requires a great deal of concentration, attention, and meditation in order to understand it aright. For years now I have attempted to get my mind around this text – I think I’ve got it now; but I’m not positive. The main points, the shallows, are easy to grasp. But there are depths here that are very challenging. And Paul doesn’t apologize. He insists that it is our obligation as disciples of Jesus to understand and apply this word in our lives. There is no such thing as Christianity-lite. We are all called to serve Christ to the best of our mental ability. So don’t expect today’s sermon to be easy – it will most likely reflect the text I’m preaching. But it is the Word of God and worthy of our attention.

II.           God’s Rest

A.   Overview (cf. 1 Cor 10:1-5)

As I already indicated, this passage is one of the more challenging in Paul’s letter to the Hebrews. Let’s attempt, first, to get an overview of the text and then we’ll look in more detail at Paul’s argument and conclusion.

I think that part of the reason this text is challenging for us is that we moderns do not know how to read the Old Testament typologically. Let me illustrate with a parallel passage. In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul compares the church to the Jews in the wilderness period – the very thing he is doing here in Hebrews 3-4. I want you to notice some of the comments Paul makes in that passage that will perhaps assist our study of Hebrews:        READ 1 Cor 10:1-5

Paul writes that our fathers in coming out of Egypt and passing through the wilderness were a type – a picture, an anticipation, a shadow - of the church. NB verse 11: Now all these things happened to them as types, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. In other words, Paul tells the Corinthians, by observing Israel’s history, we can learn the particular challenges and dangers we will face as God’s people. So notice the things that Paul sees when he looks at the wilderness story:
         v.2 - Our fathers were “baptized” into Moses and the sea – Baptism
         v.3 - They ate spiritual food and drink spiritual drink – the Eucharist
         v. 4- They drank from the Rock – Christ
                  Nevertheless, they died in the wilderness

Note that in reading the wilderness narrative, Paul sees Christ and the church at the center of it. Christ was leading them; they had essentially the same sacraments we do; so we must be careful to learn from these incidents. Now how many of us, when reading our OT, read with this perspective? Would we have seen Christ there? Seen baptism and the Lord’s Supper there? Not likely. And this inability to read typologically dogs us as we approach Hebrews 4 – for Paul is using this same typological framework to read the wilderness narrative again. Christ and His people, His Church, are at the center of the OT.

So let us return to Hebrews where Paul is discussing the same wilderness incident through the lens of Psalm 95 and warning his generation even as the psalmist had warned his: Beware lest you harden your hearts like our fathers. Take care! Don’t imitate their unbelief! Don’t die in the wilderness!

Now here’s a question you should be asking of the biblical text – but which we frequently don’t because “This is the Bible and we can’t ask questions!” But questions are absolutely necessary. When we’re reading the Bible, in order to understand we need to ask good, penetrating questions of the text. So here’s the question we need to ask: why must the psalmist’s generation, why must Paul’s generation, why must we beware lest we harden our hearts? Well, the texts say, remember what happened when our fathers hardened their hearts - they failed to enter God’s rest; they died in the wilderness. So beware lest you harden your heart. But again we ask: why? After all, the psalmist’s generation wasn’t on the cusp of entering into the land of Canaan – they were already in it; Paul’s generation wasn’t – they’d been in it for generations; we aren’t – we don’t even live close to it. What relevance does the wilderness judgment have for each of these generations? Much, if we’re thinking typologically.

Consider: from what were our fathers excluded? Well notice what God says in the text (4:3): “So I swore in my wrath, they shall not enter My rest.” Note that the fathers were excluded from God’s Rest. Now when God excluded our fathers from the Promised Land, was the Promised Land synonymous with God’s Rest? They didn’t get to enter into God’s Rest, that is, they didn’t get to enter the land of Canaan? No! That doesn’t seem right. How could God’s Rest be limited to the land of Canaan? Ah, now you’re on to something – you’re on to the same thing that the psalmist saw, that Paul saw: the land of Canaan was a mere type, an anticipation of the true rest that God was offering our fathers. Their failure to enter the Promised Land was symptomatic of their failure to enter God’s Rest. They did not believe God, did not live in anticipation of His promise to grant them true rest. So this is why the psalmist reissues an invitation to God’s Rest to his generation. The rest from which the fathers were excluded was a rest that remained accessible to the psalmist’s generation – unlike their fathers they could enter into God’s Rest – and, Paul writes, so can we.

So notice the typological connections: rest in the land of Canaan was a type of the ultimate rest that God has promised to those who trust Him. Just as the Rock pointed to Christ; just as the passage through the Red Sea pointed to baptism; just as the manna and water pointed to the Eucharist, so the rest in Canaan pointed to the final resurrection. Canaan Rest was a mere type of the Resurrection Rest that God has promised to those who love Him. And it is this Rest that remained open in the psalmist’s day, this rest that remained open in Paul’s day, this rest that remains open in our day. So long as it is called “Today” this Rest remains accessible. Therefore, we must be diligent to enter that Rest.

B.   Basic Structure

So with this overview of what Paul is saying – let’s look at the way Paul says it. Paul’s words are organized as a sandwich. He gives an exhortation in v. 1 that he repeats in v. 11. Between these exhortations he gives his rationale. So let us begin by looking at his exhortation.

1.    Paul’s Exhortation (vv. 1, 11)

We begin in v. 1 - Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest – notice that immediately Paul is highlighting that the rest held out to the fathers continues to remain open to the present. By warning his hearers, “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts…” the psalmist is indicating that God holds out the promise of rest for the psalmist’s generation even as He did for the fathers in the wilderness. And Paul’s point is that this promise continues to his own day. A promise remains of entering God’s rest.

Therefore, since this promise remains, since God continues to hold out to His people the prospect of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it. This command represents the heart of Paul’s message here in Hebrews 4. The command in v. 1 – let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it – is reiterated in v. 11 – Therefore, let us be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience. Paul is reiterating the necessity of perseverance. Do not grow weary – don’t turn back; don’t drift away; don’t harden your hearts. All these commands serve the same basic function – Paul is reminding his readers of the absolute necessity of perseverance. Persevering in the faith is not an option; if we fail to persevere then we will not enter into God’s rest.

2.    Paul’s Rationale (vv. 2-10)

Between these two exhortations, the bread on either side, Paul substantiates his assertion that a promise remains of entering God’s rest. After all, if the rest does not exist, then what’s the point exhorting us to enter into it? It would be the equivalent of urging us to make our way to the land of Oz – a vain journey since no such country exists except in fairy tales. So Paul wants us to understand that the rest toward which we are pressing is not some fictional country but a real place. Note that this is the point of the word “for” (v.2, 3, 4, 8) – Paul is giving the rationale for his assertion that a promise remains of entering God’s rest.

Paul’s rationale is very elaborate and difficult to follow. I will do my best to explain it –but if my explanation goes over your head just remember that the issue is with the text. This is “hard to understand.” Nevertheless the central thrust of Paul’s comments is clear and it is this: Scripture demonstrates that God’s rest, begun at the beginning of creation, continues to be open and accessible to those who believe.

So look at Paul’s argument. It is divided into two main sections: in vv. 2-5 he insists that the rest from which our fathers were excluded is a rest that has existed from the beginning of creation; then in vv. 6-8 he insists that it is to this rest that Psalm 95 invites God’s people; in vv. 9-10 he states his conclusion: this rest remains open to us.

a.     The Origin of God’s Rest (vv. 2-5)

So let us look first at the origin of God’s Rest – Paul insists that the rest from which our fathers were excluded is a rest that has existed from the beginning of creation.

·      We have had the gospel preached to us just as they did – God said to them – “I will bring you into a land of milk and honey and I will give you rest from your enemies”; Jesus says to us, “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” We receive the same invitation they did – the invitation to enter into God’s rest.
·      But the fathers didn’t enter this rest because they didn’t believe God’s word; “No, God’s not going to bring us into the land of milk and honey, he is going to destroy us here in the wilderness.”
·      But those who believe do enter the rest - witness Joshua and Caleb who said, If the Lord delights in us, then He will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land which flows with milk and honey.
·      So notice the wording of the psalm - “they shall not enter My rest” – God is making a distinction; some are entering into the rest and others are not. So what is this rest? It’s God’s Rest.
·      And where else does Scripture speak of God’s rest? In Genesis. So note Paul’s words, “And yet this rest (that some entered and others did not) has been accessible from the beginning of creation” – it wasn’t something that originated after the Exodus. It was something that existed from the beginning of creation into which the fathers were invited to enter. After all, what does it say in Genesis? On the 7th Day, God rested from all His works.
·      And it is from this rest, God’s Rest, this creational rest, that God excludes the unbelieving.

Note, therefore, that the rest from which God excluded our fathers was the rest into which He Himself had entered upon finishing the creation. It wasn’t primarily the land of Canaan that they missed out upon – it was God’s rest to which the land of Canaan pointed. God’s Rest originated at the beginning of creation.

b.    The Invitation to God’s Rest (vv. 6-8)

But the psalmist didn’t warn his readers to no end, to no purpose. He wasn’t just issuing the warning for fun. Why is he warning his generation about the failure of our fathers to enter God’s rest? Because God’s rest remained open to them: Today if you hear his voice, don’t harden your hearts. The invitation to enter God’s Rest was still open in the psalmist’s day. Notice Paul:
6a – Since therefore it remains that some must enter it – since God’s rest remains open and accessible;
6b – And since our fathers failed to enter it because of disobedience and unbelief;
7a – God reissued the invitation through David saying, “Today
7b – if you hear His voice do not harden your hearts

God continued, through the psalmist, to invite His people to enter into His Rest, the rest that had been established since the foundation of the world. You see when God preached the Gospel to our fathers – I will bring you into a land of milk and honey and grant you rest from all your enemies – he wasn’t just inviting them into Canaan. The rest in Canaan was a mere type or picture of the rest God was promising. For (8) if the rest which God promised our fathers was exhausted by entering into Canaan, then God wouldn’t have spoken of another rest much later through David.

c.     Conclusion (vv. 9-10)

Notice, therefore, Paul’s conclusion in v.9 – There remains, therefore, a Sabbath rest for the people of God. So long as it is called “Today” we can enter into God’s Rest. There will come a time when the strenuous push to persevere is completed; when our sanctification, now begun, ends in glory. At that time we will be able to rest; to concern ourselves no longer with the constant need for vigilance and perseverance. Just as God completed His labor and rested, so our labor will be complete. But it’s not complete yet! So (v.11) let us be diligent to enter that rest!

C.   Meaning of God’s Rest

What then is this rest to which Paul is pointing? As I’ve already indicated, the rest to which Paul points is the resurrection – when Christ returns in glory, the dead are raised, and we are transformed into glory. This is evident from a comparison of chapters 3&4 with chapters 1&2. Remember the flow of Paul’s words in chapters 1&2:

1:5-14     - Demonstration: Jesus is the Exalted King, God’s Son
2:1-4       - Warning: Beware Drifting Away
2:5-18     - Why should we beware falling away? Because the mission of the Son of God is to bring us to glory & honor; to teach us to rule; to make us fully human. Remember 2:10-11: “For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren…”

Notice now the similarity with this new section:

3:1-6 – Demonstration: Jesus is the Exalted Prophet, Greater Moses
3:7-19 – Warning: Do not harden your hearts
4:1-13 – Why should we beware hardening our hearts? Because Jesus has put before us the promise of rest, the promise of glory and honor. The promise of rest, therefore, is the promise of our ultimate exaltation. When we are crowned with glory and honor we will sit down just like our elder brother; we will enter into our rest. Rest, in other words, equals glory and honor, equals resurrection.

So let us close with two brief observations/applications:

·      Consider, brothers and sisters, what God has placed before us: rest. Not mere cessation of activity but rest, enjoyment, satisfaction, delight, fullness of joy. Is not God good and gracious? Despite our rebellion against Him, He has provided for us a way to enter into rest; to no longer be harassed by our enemies – the world, the flesh, the devil and those various folks in league with these forces. God promises us rest. We’ll consider this more next week.
·      In light of this promise, the promise of entering God’s rest, let us fear lest any of us come short, lest we miss out on that which as human beings we all long for without knowing it. We all long for rest, peace, delight, and enjoyment. We labor for it; we sin trying to achieve it; we destroy others to try and grab hold of it. And the sober reality is this: it is possible to miss it. Our fathers missed it and we can too. So let us be diligent to enter that rest.

III.         Conclusion

To remind us of the nature of this rest toward which we are pressing, this rest we are striving toward, God invites us to this feast, to this Table. He invites us to eat with Him. But it’s a feast not open to all: it is open only to His people, reminding us that the final meal too is not universal. There are some who will have no part in that feast even as there are some who have no right to this one. So let us be diligent to enter that Rest even as we come here to this anticipation of it.

Washington's Thanksgiving Proclamation 1789

“Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.”
         Proverbs 14:34
“Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, all of whose works are truth, and His ways justice. And those who walk in pride He is able to put down.”
Daniel 4:37

By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation.

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor-- and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.

Now therefore I do recommend and assign [the 4th] Thursday … of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—

That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks
--for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation
--for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable [interventions] of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war
--for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed
--for the peaceable and [reasonable] manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately [ratified]
--for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge;
--and in general for all the great and various favors which he has been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions
--to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually
--to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed
--to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord
--To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us
--and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

President George Washington

So reads the first Thanksgiving Proclamation of our great republic. Reminded that we as a people no longer think this way and have neglected our duty to our Creator and Preserver, let us kneel and confess our sins to Him.

Almighty God,

As a people we have fallen far. We have neglected our duty to give you thanks for your many kind providences to us. We have failed to petition you to grant us your forgiveness and your favor. We have imagined that we are the light of the world – but our light has become dim and is near to being put out. Forgive us, our Father; grant us grace to turn from our sinful self-importance, to turn from our pride and indifference to you, to seek your face and render true thanksgiving to your Name. We ask all this in the Name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,


Thursday, November 15, 2012

All Nations Shall Serve Him

Make a joyful shout to God, all the earth! Sing out the honor of His name; Make His praise glorious. Say to God, “How awesome are Your works! Through the greatness of Your power Your enemies shall submit themselves to You. All the earth shall worship You And sing praises to You; They shall sing praises to Your name.”  Selah  
Psalm 66:1-4

When we look toward the future, what do we expect? And how does our expectation shape the decisions and investments that we are making with our time today?

For the last 100 years, the predominant Christian view of the future has been pessimistic. It is believed that we are living in the last generation before Christ’s return, that the world is destined to get worse and worse prior to this momentous event, and that there is nothing Christians can, or even perhaps should do to reverse the trend. After all, to attempt to reverse the trend would be to postpone the imminent return of our Lord.

The impact of this particular vision of the future upon our nation has been catastrophic. America has become, in many respects, an increasingly ugly place – sexual licentiousness, covenantal unfaithfulness, and governmental intrusiveness have become the norm. And a large share of the blame belongs to the Church and to our erroneous view of the future.

So how does this pessimistic view of the future mesh with David’s view in the psalm before us today? It is the exact opposite. Notice that David’s describes his anticipation for the future like this:

Through the greatness of Your power Your enemies shall submit themselves to You. All the earth shall worship You And sing praises to You; They shall sing praises to Your name.

Did you catch David’s vision? In light of the power of God, David sees the future full of hope: all the earth shall worship the Lord, all shall sing praises to Him, even His enemies shall submit themselves to Him. Why? Because God is Almighty.

How does this vision of the future shape David’s exhortations in this passage? Notice that David is issuing an exhortation to the nations – “Make a joyful sound to God, all the earth!” David calls upon all creation, upon all the nations of the earth, to worship and serve the Lord; to join him as he praises God for His might and power. Jesus is Lord so throw down your weapons and surrender!

It is in response to David’s summons that we have gathered here today. And we in our turn now join David in calling the nations to join us: smell the fragrant aroma, behold the goodness of God, come see the glory of our King and join us in praising Him. And this praise, which starts here each Lord’s Day, is to eek out of here and make its way into our lives during the week so that folks can’t help but declare – how good and how pleasant it must be to know the Lord. And in this way the world will be transformed into a better place, a more beautiful place.

This morning, then, as we enter the presence of the Lord to sing let us consider how David exhorts us to enter. Note three things:
              i.         We are to sing joyfully – Make a joyful shout to the Lord
            ii.         We are to sing loudly – Make a joyful shout
          iii.         We are to sing beautifully – make His praise glorious

And so let us fill this building with the praise of God – but let us begin by seeking His forgiveness for failing to live now in light of the glorious future that He has promised – let us kneel and confess our pessimism and doubt to Him.

Our Father,

You promised Abraham that through him all the families of the earth would be blessed – and Abraham believed you and you credited it to him for righteousness. This promise to Abraham you have repeated again and again and have fulfilled in the Person of our Lord and Savior Jesus. But instead of embracing your promise in faith, anticipating the day when all the families of the earth shall be blessed, we have responded in disbelief. We have grown weary and despondent and failed to look to you in faith. Forgive us our sin and doubt; enable us to trust your promises and so to act that all nations might serve You and bow before You. Through Jesus Christ our Lord.