The Church Devoted to Prayer (Green)

The Message of the Church (The Bible Speaks Today  Bible Themes Series) by [Green, Christopher] In preparation for a sermon series on the church I’ve been reading Christopher Green’s “The Message of the Church.  So far I’m very much enjoying it.  I just finished reading the part where he comments on Acts 2:42 (They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer NIV).  Here’s Green’s helpful summary explaining the early church’s devotion to prayer (using Acts as a portrait):

“They met ‘constantly’ (1:14), but also when a special need arose (1:24-25).  They took part in the temple prayers (3:1), but also informally at home (4:24-31).  They prayed spontaneously (3:1), but also define it as one of the two principle responsibilities of the apostles (6:4-6).”

“The rest of Acts fills out this pattern, and shows how inescapable prayer was in the early church. They prayed in prison (16:25), and for those in prison (12:5, 12).  They prayed on their own (11:5) and together (12:5).  They prayed indoors (12:12), outdoors (10:9), at midday (10:9) and midnight (16:25), in the Jerusalem temple (22:17) and in a Roman palace (26:29), at sea (27:29) and on a beach (20:36).

They prayed for non-Christians to be converted (26:29), and confused Christians to be filled with the Spirit (8:15).  They prayed when they ate (2:46-47) and when they fasted (14:23).  They prayed for the sick to be healed (28:8) and the dead to be raised (9:40).  They prayed when their leaders were initially commissioned (14:23) and when they were given final responsibility (20:36).  They prayed when they had just become Christians (9:11) and when they were seconds from death (7:60).  They early church ‘devoted themselves to prayer.’

Christopher Green, The Message of the Church (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013), p. 101.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI 54015

“God Walked Here Upon The Earth” (Machen)

Virgin Birth of Christ In the 1930’s J. Gresham Machen wrote that belief in the virgin birth “is certainly necessary to Christianity,” and also “necessary to the corporate witness of the Church.”  In the concluding chapter of his excellent scholarly book, The Virgin Birth of Christ, Machen made some great conclusions on his lengthy study of the biblical truth that Christ was born of the virgin Mary.  I’ll list one of them here:

“What shall we think of Jesus Christ? That is the question of all questions, and it can be answered aright only when the evidence is taken as a whole. It is a fact of history, which no serious historian can deny, that in the first century of our era there walked upon this earth One who was like none other among the children of men. Reduce the sources of information all you will, and still that mysterious figure remains, that figure who is attested in the Epistles of Paul, that figure who walks before us in lifelike, self-evidencing fashion in the Gospels, that figure upon whom the Christian Church was built.

Many have been the efforts to explain Him in terms of what is common to mankind, to explain Him as a product of forces elsewhere operative in the world. Those explanations may satisfy the man who treats the evidence, in pedantic fashion, bit by bit; but they will never satisfy the man who can view the whole. View Jesus in the light of God and against the dark background of sin, view Him as the satisfaction of man’s deepest need, as the One who alone can lead into all glory and all truth, and you will come, despite all, to the stupendous conviction that the New Testament is true, that God walked here upon the earth, that the eternal Son, because He loved us, came into this world to die for our sins upon the cross.

When you have arrived at that conviction you will turn with very different eyes to the story of the virgin and her child. Wonders will no longer repel you. Rather will you say: “So and so only did it behoove this One, as distinguished from all others, to be born.”

I always appreciate the reverent clarity of Machen’s writing.  While some parts of The Virgin Birth of Christ are harder to read, the concluding chapter isn’t too bad.  It’s very much worth reading if you haven’t – or re-reading if you have!

J. G. Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ, p. 381.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

God’s Sovereign Providence – and His Means (Horton)

The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way God is sovereign, and he is providentially in control of everything that comes to pass. He’s not surprised when things happen, nor is he unsure of the future, since all things happen according to his plan (Ps. 33.11, Prov. 19.21, Is. 46.10).  At the same time, he uses means and instruments to accomplish his purposes (cf. Is. 44.28).  I appreciate how Michael Horton said it in The Christian Faith:

“Ironically, many today who would not affirm a classic Christian notion of divine sovereignty in salvation nevertheless often speak as if God does all things in their daily lives directly, without any instrumental means or ‘secondary causes.’  If one attributes a remarkable recovery from an illness to the skill of the physicians, well-meaning Christians are sometimes inclined to reply, ‘Yes, but God was the one who healed her.’  In more extreme cases, some believers even excuse their laziness and lack of wisdom or preparation by appealing to God’s sovereignty.  ‘Just pray about it’; ‘If God wants it to happen, it will happen.'”

“To be sure, the truth of God’s providence is meant to assure believers that ultimately our times are in God’s hands, but God does not fulfill all of his purposes directly.  In fact, it is his ordinary course to employ means, whether human beings or weather patterns, social upheavals, animal migrations, various vocations, and a host of other factors over which he has control.  We are comforted by the truth that God works all things – even adversity – into his plan for our salvation.  God provides, but we are commanded to pray for our daily bread and to labor in our callings.”

Michael Horton, The Christian Faith, p. 361.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

The Red Heifer Law: What? Why?

There are some obscure and difficult sections of the Old Testament.  One example is Numbers 18-19, where we are given quite a few details about the duties of the priests and the Levites who served the priests.  In those chapters we also read about a purification law concerning the defilement that a dead body brings: it’s been called the “red heifer law!”

Some people read texts like these and it makes them think (or say) that the OT is irrelevant, sub-Christian, dated, and too obscure to be of any use.  Others dismiss the entire OT because of texts like these.  In light of this criticism, I like how Ronald Allen explained Numbers 18-19 in his commentary.  He asks – then answers – the question: “What is in these chapters for me?”

  1. The reader of Scripture needs to have general knowledge about the major institutions of the biblical period just for Scripture to make sense.
  2. Our understanding of the true worship of God begins with the sense that he controls and directs true worship; who the priests are and how they function are first his concerns.  This means that worship is not a game where we may make up the rules as we play.
  3. A general knowledge of the work of the priests in the Hebrew Bible gives many insights to the modern reader as to the interests of God in our own worship.  Often we think of worship in terms of what we like and appreciate.  This misses the mark; worship is principally for God’s pleasure.
  4. A general knowledge of the work of priests in the time of Hebrew worship gives the Christian reader significant insights into the priestly work of the Lord Jesus Christ.  The book of Hebrews has an intense priestly orientation in its presentation of the Lord Jesus Christ, priest of God in the manner of Melchizedek.
  5. In contrast with the highly regulated, highly structured patterns demanded of the priests in the Hebrew economy, the believer in the Lord Jesus Christ today has a direct access to God through the Savior that is nearly unbelievable.  We are all priests; we can come near the presence of the Lord without an intermediary.  Yet our privilege as believer-priests can only really be appreciated against the background of priests in the biblical period.

These are some good points: even the obscure and harder texts in the OT serve God’s purpose to instruct, inform, and give us a preview of the person and work of our Savior, Jesus, the great and final High Priest!

Ronald Allen, Numbers in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, p. 850.

Shane Lems

Sermons: Writing and Preaching (Kim)

Preaching the Whole Counsel of God: Design and Deliver Gospel-Centered Sermons I don’t listen to too many online sermons.  Recently, however, I downloaded a sermon from a popular sermon hosting website since I had a long drive in front of me.  I simply downloaded one of the “popular” sermons on a text I was preaching in the future to help me start thinking about it.  To put it bluntly, the sermon was very bad.  It was full of speculation, abounding in moralism, and completely lacking any gospel or grace.  I was reminded that being popular doesn’t automatically mean true to the gospel!

To be fair, though I do try to preach Christ in every sermon, as well as avoid speculation and moralism, I don’t for a moment think my sermons are awesome or groundbreaking.   I’m always trying to learn more about good preaching.  As I mentioned here before, Julius Kim’s Preaching the Whole Counsel of God is a good help for preachers as they seek to preach Scripture in a Christ-centered, applicable way.  One section I recently read again is the part where Kim talks about the actual process of writing a sermon – specifically the subpoints.  Here are a few of his helpful principles for this part of sermon writing (which have to do with preaching as well):

Simple: Adopt simplicity over complexity.  Overloading your audience with information that is irrelevant will undermine your sermon.  Eliminate details that are not supportive and clear.  Use language that is universal; that is, it appeals and is accessible to all types of peoples, in all times and in all places.  Your goal is maximum comprehension through clarity….

Specific:  Express yourself with words and sentences that are distinct and focused on the main point.  When you are specific in your statements, hearers do not have to fill in the gaps.  Say what you mean, and mean what you say.  This requires you to be precise in your language, removing any ambiguity or mystery that may hinder your hearers’ comprehension….

Succinct: Aim for brevity both in the presentation of ideas and the length of sentences.  While being succinct will often be influenced by the message you want to get across, editing ruthlessly will always benefit both speaker and hearer.

Sympathetic:  Reveal your care and kindness throughout the sermon.  It may be obvious, but being a sympathetic preacher is important.  Much of your sensitivity and care will be shown in your delivery, but having sympathetic content is just as important.   …A pastor is one who laughs and cries with his sheep.  You are a shepherd first, preacher second.  Preaching should be viewed as one of the main tasks of the shepherd, not something that defines you.

Sensitive: Anticipate and answer the potential questions and objections that may arise in your hearers’ minds and hearts as you preach.  Good preachers make wise assumptions about what their hearers will be thinking and feeling at different moments in the sermon.  Put yourself in the shoes of the hearers, asking yourself, What would I be thinking at this point in the sermon?   …Predict interior questions and objections, propose answers to questions and objections in order to persuade and convict.

Kim did have a few more suggestions than these, but these are the ones I especially appreciated (and try to work on myself!).  If you’re a preacher and need another helpful book on preaching, I do recommend this book.  It’s a great tool for learning more about how to faithfully, clearly, and lovingly preach the Scriptures – and specifically the One who is at the center of the Scriptures!

The above quotes are found on pages 158-160 of Preaching the Whole Counsel of God by Julius Kim.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

Robin Hood, History, and Neo-Atheists (Copan)

Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God Some people have “issues” with aspects of the Old Testament.  In the OT you find stories of stoning, incest, polygamy, bloody warfare, and so forth.  Neo-atheists try to make hay out of these OT stories and argue that God is immoral, unjust, blood-thirsty, hateful, and sexist (etc. etc.).  What do Christians do in light of such accusations?  Paul Copan gives some helps for Christians in his book Is God a Moral Monster?  I’ve mentioned this book here before, so I won’t give all the details again.  But I do want to quote a section that I’ve highlighted more than once, a section where Copan assess the anti-Christian arguments of many Neo-atheists.  I’ll summarize the first and third point, and spend a bit more time on the second point:

First, for all their emphasis on cool-headed, scientific rationality, Neo-atheists express themselves not just passionately but angrily. …Michael Novak, author of the thought-provoking book ‘No One Sees God,’ comments about the Neo-atheists’ writings that there’s ‘an odd defensiveness about all these books – as though they were a sign not of victory but desperation.”

Second, the Neo-atheists’ arguments against God are surprisingly flimsy, often resembling the simplistic village atheist far more than the credentialed academician.  The Neo-atheists are often profoundly ignorant of what they criticize, and they typically receive the greatest laughs and cheers from the philosophically and theologically challenged.  True, they effectively utilize a combination of emotion and verbal rhetoric, but they aren’t known for logically carrying thoughts through from beginning to end. …I’ve observed that while these men do have expertise in certain fields…, they turn out to be fairly disappointing when arguing against God’s existence or Christian doctrine.  And a quick check of Dawkins’ documentation reveals a lot more time spent on Google than at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library.

“…Rodney Stark puts it this way: ‘To expect to learn anything about important theological problems from Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett is like expecting to learn about medieval history from someone who had only read ‘Robin Hood.””

Third, the New Atheists aren’t willing to own up to atrocities committed in the name of atheism by Stalin, Pol Pot, or Mao Zedong, yet they expect Christians to own up to all the barbarous acts performed in Jesus’ name.  …I think the reason it’s difficult, if not impossible, for New Atheists to acknowledge immorality in the name of atheism is because it would take much wind out of their sails when criticizing religion.”

I appreciate these three points – and I recommend reading them in full.  They’re found in the first chapter of Is God a Moral Monster? by Paul Copan.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015


When Darkness Hides His Face

calvincommentaries Sometimes life for the Christian is just plain hard.  We’re not exempt from the effects of Adam’s sin, so we face debilitating illnesses, allergies that nearly cripple us, mental anguish that makes for dark days, and other people often are like thorns in our flesh.  Sometimes we still wander and stumble into sin.  Following Jesus doesn’t mean life will be painless and easy!  I know a contemporary version of the hymn My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less says “When darkness seems to hide His face;” however, I think the original is more accurate: “When darkness veils His lovely face.”  It reminds me of Cowper’s great hymn, God Moves in a Mysterious Way, which says,

“Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.”

This also makes me think of the criminal on the cross, who truly repented and made the good confession.  He was loved by Christ, promised heaven, but his pain and torture didn’t immediately end.  He still suffered terribly as a convicted criminal.  Calvin comments well on this:

What is promised to the robber does not alleviate his present sufferings, nor make any abatement of his bodily punishment. This reminds us that we ought not to judge of the grace of God by the perception of the flesh; for it will often happen that those to whom God is reconciled are permitted by him to be severely afflicted. So then, if we are dreadfully tormented in body, we ought to be on our guard lest the severity of pain hinder us from tasting the goodness of God; but, on the contrary, all our afflictions ought to be mitigated and soothed by this single consolation, that as soon as God has received us into his favor, all the afflictions which we endure are aids to our salvation. This will cause our faith not only to rise victorious over all our distresses, but to enjoy calm repose amidst the endurance of sufferings. (John Calvin and William Pringle, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol. 3 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 314.)

Dear Christian, if you’re suffering, facing affliction, or if your cross has recently been very hard to bear, don’t take it as a sign that God is angry with you, has stopped loving you, or has forgotten about you.  By God’s grace, our suffering is productive (Rom 5:3-4).  Our feelings are not a reliable guide in the Christian life; God’s gracious promises are.  “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust him for his grace!”

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church
Hammond, WI, 54015