Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Priorities (Get the Big Rocks in First) - Haggai 1:1-15 - Part 2 of 5: The Word of God

by Doug Smith We are considering the message of Haggai 1 –- priorities. Or, to use the illustration from yesterday, we need to get the big rocks in first. Big Rock #1: The Word of God (The Basis of Our Priorities) -– v. 1-11 Whenever we hear a command, it is natural to ask, "says who?" If the one giving the command has knowledge, authority, or our best interests in mind, we are more prone to listen. Twenty-seven times out of thirty-eight verses, Haggai uses words that indicate the message he brings is from God. His message has authority because it comes from the One with all authority. We should read and hear God's Word as His message, not as man's opinion. We should receive it as communication from the king. Notice how the Word works. It exposes our excuses, even as it revealed theirs: "the time has not come yet" (v. 2). Sometimes God's work requires things of us that are not easy, but now is always the proper time for obedience to God's commands. It searches our hearts, rebuking our misplaced priorities, even as it reprimanded the people for being more intent to build up their own homes instead of restoring the place of the public worship of God (v. 3-4). They were living in paneled houses fit for royalty while the temple lay in ruins! God's Word interprets our experience, even as it showed them that they were experiencing hard times as a result of their disobedience (v. 5-6, 9-11). It reminds us of our responsibilities, even as they were reminded to get to work on the temple (v. 7-8). God's Word instructs us in the way we should go, and calls for us to examine ourselves, considering our ways, and change what we are thinking and doing. We need to take time for God's Word, making a point to read it daily. We need to listen to it. We need to study it, meditate on it, memorize it, obey it, and share it. Husbands, perhaps you need to give your wife a break from her responsibilities (particularly if you are parents) so she will have adequate time in the Word. Parents, be sure you are reading the Bible, even if it is something like Catherine Vos's The Child's Story Bible, is a good way to include this in your family life. As the children get older, set aside times specifically for them to read their Bibles, perhaps a 30 minute slot where everyone in the family quietly reads their Bibles. Single parents, it is hard, but find a way to fit it into your schedule, even if in shorter intervals. Make time for it. While not a single mother, Susannah Wesley would put an apron over her head to indicate to her many children that she was spending time alone with the Lord! Pastors, be sure that God's Word is central in your preaching. Let the text determine and shape the message. Preach the point of the passage you are expounding. Include plenty of Scripture reading in the worship service, and be sure it is read with enthusiasm and life. God's Word is the first big rock that we need in our lives. If we don't make a point to get it in, there will be enough distractions to make sure that it doesn't get in at all. Tomorrow we will consider the second big rock: the worship of God.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Priorities (Get the Big Rocks in First) - Haggai 1:1-15 - Part 1 of 5: Introduction

by Doug Smith As a student, I remember seeing an object lesson that you may be familiar with as well. The speaker took an empty jar and placed three or four large rocks into it. He asked if it was full. It looked full, so I thought the answer was yes. He then poured some gravel into the jar and asked if it was full. Of course it was now – right? Then some sand filled in the space between the rocks and gravels. It was obvious that nothing more could go in, but somehow I knew that there must be something else. The speaker finally poured in water, and the jar was full. I was a bit slow on this object lesson. I thought that the point was that no matter how much you have going on in your life, you can always squeeze something else in! Of course, I was wrong, and, thankfully, the speaker gave the correct interpretation. The moral was that if you do not get the big rocks in first, you will not get them in at all. Another way to say it is that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. The lesson dealt with priorities and so does the book of Haggai. If we do not get the big rocks in first, the sands of time will quickly fill our lives and we will fail to take care of those things that ought to be our priorities. Our mindset must be "first things first." Haggai is one of the Minor Prophets, so called because of the length of the book that bears his name, not because he is less important than other prophets. The only references to Haggai outside his book are Ezra 5:1 and 6:14. He is one of the last three Old Testament prophets, the other two being Zechariah (whose ministry overlapped Haggai's) and Malachi (who came along about 100 years later). Haggai, the first prophet for the returned exiles, preached so that people would rebuild the temple. Many years before Haggai, God called Abraham out of a land of idolaters. He made promises to him: he would receive a land and descendants, and he would be a blessing to the nations. He kept His promise to him by giving him Isaac, who was the father of Jacob. Jacob's sons became known as the 12 tribes of Israel. God had told Abraham that his people would be in bondage 400 years, and so they were. God brought them out by His mighty hand, cursing Egypt with plagues and parting the Red Sea so that the people walked through on dry ground. Eventually the people returned to the land. God gave them instructions for worship in the tabernacle, a movable tent. David desired to build a permanent house for the Lord's worship, a desire God did not grant to David. Instead, the construction of the temple occurred during the reign of David's son, Solomon. The temple was a sign of God's blessing and presence with the nation of Israel. It witnessed to His existence, supremacy, holiness, and mercy. The kingdom split after Solomon's reign, and eventually both parts were taken captive because of their rebellion and idolatry. The Northern Kingdom (called Israel) was overtaken by the Assyrians, and the Southern Kingdom (called Judah) by the Babylonians. In 586 B. C., the temple was destroyed and Judah was taken captive. But in 538 B. C., Cyrus, ruler of the Medo-Persian Empire, defeated Babylon and took charge. He allowed conquered nations, including the Jews, to return to their homelands. He even decided to finance the reconstruction of the Jewish temple. In 536 B.C., only about 50,000 returned to the land. This was a sign of their faithfulness to God. Many of the other Jews had become comfortable in Babylon and prospered; they were not interested in the difficult journey to the once-conquered homeland to undertake the difficult job of rebuilding. Their way of life was more important to them than re-instituting the public worship of God. Yet the faithful Jews made the journey and began the job. They laid the foundations of the temple in 536 B.C. But they encountered opposition. And they put the work on hold. They started to focus on building up their own homes and neglected the house of the LORD. In fact, the rebuilding of the temple was on hold for sixteen years, and that's why God sent His Word by His prophet Haggai. The application for us is not to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem but to focus on the things that matter to God. We need to rebuild our spiritual lives. Jesus replaced the temple – He is the One through whom we worship God. He is the altar, the sacrifice, and the great high priest. And He has made His people a temple for the Lord. One must first of all be trusting Christ for this message to have significance. There is no spiritual life apart from Christ. If you are not a Christian, realize that God is your holy Creator against whom you have rebelled, that you deserve eternal death in hell, and that God will forgive your sins if you will repent and trust in Christ, the Son of God who lived a perfect life, died as a sacrifice for sin, rose from the dead and is returning to judge the world in righteousness. But if you are a Christian, even the most committed among us need reminders to rebuild. We need to get the big rocks in first. Tomorrow, we will look at the first big rock we need to get into our jars: the Word of God.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Acts 16 Sermon Summary

Three Ways God Spreads the Good News

Acts 16:6-34

Doug Smith

 

     People have utilized many ways of spreading news.  In the past, the Pony Express and the telegraph were means people used to share information.  Today, people use a plethora of methods to broadcast and receive news, such as television, radio, text-messages, cell phones, e-mail, and the Internet.

     God can do anything He wants and could have chosen to write His good news, the Gospel, in the clouds.  He could have personally manifested Himself in a visible and audible form to every human being to communicate the message.  But God has chosen to spread His good news by other means.  In Acts 16, we see three of those means.

 

1. Obedience to Guidance (v. 6-13)

     In Acts 16, we find Paul on his second missionary journey.  Like the writer of "Amazing Grace," John Newton, Paul was now preaching the faith he had once labored to destroy because of the change God had made in his life.  Along with Paul were Timothy, Silas, and Luke (the author, whose pronouns change to "we" and "us" in verse 10 to indicate his presence with the group). 

     The missionaries thought they should go to Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), but the Holy Spirit did not allow them.  They were directed instead to Macedonia by a vision Paul received.  They immediately obeyed the vision, believing that God had called them to preach the Gospel there.  God used obedience to guidance to spread His good news.

     In what areas do you need to obey God?  If you know what you should do, then the response should be immediate obedience.  Is there someone you know you should share the Gospel with?  God may use your obedience to guidance to spread His good news.

 

2. Faithfulness in Clear Evangelism (v. 14-15, 30-32)

     Arriving in Philippi, a strategic and historic city, Paul speaks God's Word to a group of women gathered for prayer.  This implies that there were not enough Jewish men in the area to have a synagogue, since Paul's usual practice was to go first to the synagogue and preach Christ.  He went to people who needed the Gospel.  God opened Lydia's heart and she believed the word Paul spoke.  Paul also shared verbally with the Philippian jailer, telling him not only to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved but later speaking the Word to the jailer and his family, likely explaining matters more fully.  God used Paul's faithfulness in clear evangelism to spread his good news.

     No one likes a garbled, confusing message.  Therefore, we ought to be clear when we share the Gospel with people.  We know from other parts of the book of Acts that Paul made the matters of the Gospel clear to others so they would know what they should believe and why.  The Gospel is more than "Jesus loves you" or "ask Jesus into your heart."  We ought to tell people about the greatness of God and His right as our Creator to tell us what to do.  We need to explain sin as rebellion against God, and that we are all sinners who deserve to be punished forever for despising God.  We need to tell them who Christ is (the God-man, the Son of God in human flesh) and what He did in His perfect life and substitutionary death for sinners.  We must tell them of his ascension and that He will one day judge the world in righteousness.  We must not merely leave them with these facts, but must call upon them to repent of their sin and trust in Christ alone for their salvation so that they may have eternal life and enjoy God forever.

     Even as God opened Lydia's heart to respond, He does the same with people today.  We are not responsible for the response to the message.  We are responsible to deliver the message faithfully.  God uses faithfulness in clear evangelism to spread His good news.

 

3. Praise in Suffering (v. 16-34)

     Although Paul would not have adopted the motto, "Preach the Gospel – if necessary, use words," he understood that his life should reflect the saving message he proclaimed.  He wanted His walk to support, not hinder, the spread of the words of life.

     A demon-possessed girl annoyed Paul by following the missionaries and announcing, day after day, that they were servants of the most high God who were proclaiming the way of salvation.  Paul cast the demon out, much to the chagrin of her masters, who owned her as a slave and had profited from her fortune-telling business.  Paul and Silas were falsely accused of instigating chaos in the city, and were then stripped and beaten.  They were cast into the inner prison of the jail, and their feet were fastened in stocks which spread the legs apart and created much cramping.      

     These men who had come to proclaim God's good news were now suffering for righteousness.  How did they respond?  At midnight, they were heard praying and praising God with singing.  They gave God praise in suffering, and He used it to spread his good news.  He sent an earthquake that nearly resulted in the jailer's suicide, which Paul prevented by informing him that no one had escaped from the jail.  Trembling, the jailer asked what he must do to be saved, and Paul shared the Gospel with him.  He and his family came to know Christ through Paul's and Silas' praise in suffering.

     Joni Eareckson Tada is another fitting example of praise in suffering.  She became a quadriplegic, losing the use of her arms and legs, as a result of a diving accident as a teenager.  Instead of remaining angry at God, she has praised Him for His goodness to her and has shared His good news with many – from her wheelchair.  I recently attended the funeral of a woman named Lisa, who reached the point of thanking God for her brain tumors because He used her suffering to help reach others with the Gospel.  It was fitting that one of the songs at Lisa's memorial celebration was from Job 1:21, which speaks of how God gives and takes away, but His name is to be blessed, that is, praised.

     Are you afraid to suffer for the Gospel?  Can you praise God in trials?  Have you considered how your reactions to suffering may bring to you greater opportunities to share the good news?  Rodney Griffin wrote a song from this passage in which he made the point that the times of suffering are the times that "God wants to hear you sing." 

     Remember that James told us to count it all joy when we suffer (James 1:2-4) and Jesus said that we are blessed if we suffer for His sake and have great reward (Matthew 5:10-12).  Your best life is not now, but in the world to come.  Let's not forget the power of God and his time-tested method of using praise in suffering to spread His good news.

 

     Our communication methods may come and go.  E-mail and cell phones may one day be as obsolete as the Pony Express and the telegraph.  But until Christ returns, God will continue to use the methods He has utilized for the last 2,000 years to spread the Gospel:  obedience to guidance, faithfulness in clear evangelism, and praise in suffering.  As we obey, share, and worship Him, may He be pleased to use us to spread His good news.

 

For audio of this sermon, preached as a guest speaker at Fellowship Chapel on July 15, 2007, visit click here (left-click to listen now, right-click to download).

Thursday, July 19, 2007

More on Spiritual Disciplines
 
Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D. C., has some helpful resources (including teacher guides and student handouts) posted from their CORE Seminars (their version of Sunday School) to teach Don Whitney's Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life at this link.

Monday, July 16, 2007

How to Pray Through Scripture

A Simple, Helpful Lesson Learned in Don Whitney's Class

by Doug Smith

In the recent course on Biblical Spirituality I took, Dr. Don Whitney showed us how and why we should pray through Scripture. This practice has benefited me greatly, and I have been able to share it with some others. I requested Dr. Whitney's permission to post handouts I have prepared for use in sharing this material, which he has granted.

After Dr. Whitney instructed us on praying through Scripture, he said that if we ever taught this to others we must be sure to do two things:

1) Give people time to pray Scripture themselves.

2) Give time for people to give testimonies about their experience.

This fastens the truth to their minds and hearts better than simply lecturing and moving on to other things. If a person is told how to use a tool, he should then get some practice in utilizing it. People need the experience of praying through Scripture in order to have its advantages driven home to them. As Dr. Whitney put it, many people will be likely to get "hooked" on praying Scripture if you explain how to do it and then let them do it and give testimonies.

Let me explain the handouts. There are three pages I have posted.

  • The first is the outline of the need, method and reasons to pray through Scripture. This can be used for individual study or in a group setting. I hope it is simple enough for a Christian to view it alone and then understand how to practice it. If you teach this, be sure you go through it on your own first. In the blanks, list all the benefits you can think of for praying through Scripture after you have tried it. Then, if you teach it, do not share those benefits until after you have given others a chance to try it for themselves and given testimonies about their experience. You will likely be gratified to find that they will mention many of the things you have already thought of, and it has more effect if you let them express it first.

  • The second handout is an explanation of the Psalms of the day (point IV. A. 1. in the outline). The formula of using today's date and adding 30 until you get 5 Psalms is an alternative to the practice some have of reading 5 consecutive Psalms each day. There is nothing wrong with using 5 consecutive Psalms (since this would take one through the whole book of Psalms in a month), but the idea of the Psalms of the day on the handout gives more freedom and is more flexible if you miss a day, because you don't have to feel like you need to catch up.
  • The third and final handout is a quote from George Müller, a man known for his devoted prayer life who had some of the same struggles many of us face (such as a wandering mind). His prayer life was transformed for the good by praying Scripture. In the outline this example comes after the Scriptural precedent, for which you should look up the references and read them to show the connection of Scripture and prayer in the life of Jesus and the apostles.

I cannot overemphasize the value of praying Scripture. Please contact me at glorygazer@gmail.com if you have any questions about the handouts. For additional information about this practice, I commend to you Dr. Whitney's book Simplify Your Spiritual Life: Spiritual Disciplines for the Overwhelmed (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2003), especially pages 60 and 80.

Handouts for Praying Through Scripture:

UPDATE (12/20/07): Listen to Don Whitney teach on this topic from a seminar at Omaha Bible Church:

Getting My Spirit in Shape

Lessons Learned from Biblical Spirituality with Don Whitney

by Doug Smith

Our bodies are not the only component of us that needs exercise. Our spiritual lives can sometimes become too flabby and weak as the result of a lack of discipline in our lives. Recently, I was privileged to get the benefits of several weeks of a spiritual workout, the most intense part being the time I had at a modular course at the Midwest Center for Theological Studies in Owensboro, Kentucky last month. Dr. Don Whitney taught Biblical Spirituality to a group of eager students. Dr. Whitney is a seminary professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and author of Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life and several other books. He also offers many helpful resources (including bulletin inserts) at the Center for Biblical Spirituality website

The course was book-ended by lectures on 1 Timothy 4:7 and 1 Timothy 4:16, commencing with the implications of the Bible's command for us to exercise (or discipline) ourselves for the purpose of godliness and closing with the sober warning that we pay close attention to our lives and our doctrine. The lectures covered a number of the Biblical Spiritual Disciplines. Dr. Whitney emphasized the fact that these are Biblical Spiritual Disciplines. Since the Bible has everything we need for life and godliness, the Bible contains all the exercises (disciplines) needed for us to grow spiritually. Any practice that promises spiritual growth but that has no basis in God's Word (such as the example he gave of labyrinth walking) is not a Biblical Spiritual Discipline, and, therefore, is not needed by the Christian.

The Bible gives us many exercises for godliness and this course covered several of them: the importance of Bible intake, meditation (which focuses on better understanding Scripture so that one may live in obedience to God), prayer, family worship, fasting, silence and solitude, how to approach the Lord's Day, and keeping a journal. These exercises help us to have time with, and grow to be more like, Jesus Christ. We were given the Biblical basis for all the Spiritual Disciplines covered and much practical advice for practicing them.

Our reading assignments also drove home the importance of the Spiritual Disciplines. We were assigned four books: John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Roger Steer's George Müller Delighted in God, and Dr. Whitney's Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life.

The entire course was quite helpful. All of these disciplines are important. But three things have left a stronger impression than the others.

1) The importance of keeping a spiritual journal

Journaling is not explicitly commanded by Scripture, but it is demonstrated. The book of Lamentations and many of David's Psalms are forms of journals. Church history, while not our authority, confirms for us the value of journals for preserving a record and growing in godliness. Many of the Christians known for their godliness, such as George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, kept spiritual journals where they recorded their struggles and progress. David Brainerd's journals have been an encouragement to the missionary cause.

I was impressed with the fact that if I do not record my thoughts and many of my experiences, my children will have no way of knowing about them. I know very little about most of my ancestors because I have no access to any record of their lives or thoughts.

Keeping a journal also helps me chart my spiritual growth. I can look back over what I have written and see how I am progressing in my spiritual life. This motivates me in the other Spiritual Disciplines. It gives me a place to record insights from Scripture and to reflect on what God is doing in my life and what I am learning from Him.

My journal gives me a place to pour out my heart. Writing helps me by providing an outlet for expressing things that I might not be able to express to just anyone.

Dr. Whitney made sure that we understood that keeping a journal did not require daily entries, although we should write with regularity if we want to keep it as a practice. He also emphasized that the right way to do a personal journal is whatever is best for that person. For some it may be typing, but others may do better handwriting it. Even a weblog could have potential for serving as a journal (just to clarify: I make far more entries to my personal journal than to my blog, so they are not the same thing for me). There is no set amount of words one needs to write each time; short entries and long entries may both be appropriate.

2) The delight of silence and solitude

One of our assignments was to spend at least four hours in silence and solitude before the Lord. In other words, we needed to get away from other people and distractions so we could focus on the Lord. We were to spend time praising Him in song, reading His Word, praying through Scripture, meditating on Scripture, journaling, and reading a devotional book of our choice (I chose Joseph Carroll's How to Worship Jesus Christ). We were to do no sermon preparation or studies for class.

This was a time of great refreshment. I wish I could have spent more time this way, and hope to be able to take extended time for silence and solitude at least every several weeks. Much of my time dealt with how worthy our God is of praise. I prayed through Psalm 29 and meditated on Revelation 4:11: "Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created." I spent some time in Revelation 4 and 5 (especially verses 9-14), mainly because of the devotional book dealing with those chapters. I ended my time listening to "Worthy Is the Lamb" and "Amen" from Handel's Messiah and thought about how the glory of that music is nothing to compare with the praises we will give and hear in Heaven for our Lord Jesus Christ. This was a little taste of heaven on earth for me.

3) The blessing of praying through Scripture

Prayer has been an area in which I have struggled much. I have often been frustrated with wandering thoughts. My mind has drifted onto things other than what I was supposed to be focused upon. Sometimes I have felt like I was in "autopilot" mode, praying but not engaged in thinking about what I was saying to God. Praying through Scripture has helped combat these tendencies.

I had heard about praying through Scripture, but had not made it a practice. I came away from the lecture on this topic with a different approach to prayer and a renewed desire to pray. Dr. Whitney shared – very simply – how to pray through passages of Scripture (particularly Psalms) line by line, turning the words of the Bible into praise for God and requests for ourselves and others. This helped me deal with much of the drudgery, coldness, formality, and frustrating repetition and wandering of mind I have suffered from in prayer. It should be no big surprise, but my immediate reflection was that this is like having a real conversation with a real Person (and God is real). I was struck by the realization that we don't have to think of everything to say when we pray. Praying Scripture lets God initiate and carry the conversation – He sets the agenda. He speaks in the Word, we respond in prayer, then He speaks and we respond, and so on. I still have much growth to do, but praying through Scripture has been of more help to me spiritually than anything else I am conscious of.

A spiritual workout was very helpful to me, but I realize that getting in shape does not keep one in shape. There must be continual exercise. Even so, I must continue to practice Spiritual Disciplines. I have to contend with the world, the flesh, and the devil. Each is a formidable enemy to my soul. It is a battle. A soldier must be trained and conditioned to face the conflict, and this course was a great help in reminding me of those things I need to be doing regularly to stay in shape spiritually, so that I may be strong in the Lord and grow to be more like Christ.

If you are interested in more information about these things, I strongly recommend to you Don Whitney's books Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (chapters covering 10 spiritual disciplines in detail) and Simplify Your Spiritual Life: Spiritual Disciplines for the Overwhelmed (bite size chapters covering various aspects of the Spiritual Disciplines). Also, be sure to visit the Center for Biblical Spirituality at www.BiblicalSpirituality.org.

UPDATE (12/20/07): Here are links to some audio very close to what I was privileged to hear -

From Omaha Bible Church:

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Should One Stay in a Church with Problems?
Some church situations can create the difficult dilemma of whether to stay or go, especially when there have been scandals. There is not necessarily a cut-and-dried answer for every case, but I found the testimony of Matt Schmucker to be very refreshing. God worked in him a commitment to stay because of others. This type of commitment goes against the consumeristic attitude many Americans take toward church (many of whom flit from church to church with no commitment at all). Read about his experience of staying at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D. C. through a very tough time.