The Spirit of Biblical Leadership

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Everything rises or falls on leadership, so the old adage goes. But, unlike the world, where leadership is grounded on things like confidence in self, emotional intelligence, and excellent communication skills, biblical leadership is grounded in one’s ability to die to self. The fundamental difference between the world’s view of leadership and the biblical model of leadership is best seen in the contrast between the leaders of the world and Christ. Unexpectedly, Christ’s greatest act of leadership was seen when he willingly died on a cross for those who would follow him. Many have died for the leaders of the world and for their vision of life; but Christ came to die so he could, in fact, deliver an abundant life – and only his vision of life will become an eternal reality.

However, this act of sacrifice did not begin at the cross, but began much earlier when, as the Second Person of the Trinity, Christ disrobed himself of his glory in heaven and took on human flesh to become a man. Over the centuries there has been no small amount of ink spilled in an attempt to explain this divine act. Today scholars discuss the Kenotic Theory of Christ. Kenosis is a Greek word that means “an emptying.” The word comes from the book of Philippians, 2:7. The text reads,

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men (Phil. 2:5-7 ESV).

It is the view of this author that for biblical leadership to be authentic, those who would aspire to positions of leadership in the church must reflect this act of self-emptying. Specifically, the nature of God expressed in Christ reveals that for leadership to effectuate the Kingdom of God it must necessarily be self-emptying, and therefore self-sacrificing. Therefore, denial of self as expressed through kenosis is not an optional characteristic of biblical leadership. It is its foundational element; without which biblical leadership, Continue reading

An Eye-Opening Moment

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I had an eye-opening experience last week. I was driving to Shaw AFB where I serve. The weather turned bad and the rain came down in sheets. As I approached the base there was flooding on the roads and surrounding areas. When I finally arrived at the front the gate, I handed my ID card to the MP and said, “I heard there was an ark here.” He looked up from my ID, squinted his eyes and shook his head indicating he didn’t understand the reference. So, I said, “Noah’s ark?” He looked at me with the same lack of recognition. I finally said, “Flood, big boat, saved people?” There were cars behind me. The MP still didn’t understand the reference. He shook his head and said with a nervous laugh, “I don’t know.” He handed back my ID, saluted, and said “Have a good night sir” as he looked to the car behind me.

As I made my way to lodging I was a bit stunned. This was a young man in his early twenties and had no clue about Noah’s Ark. Given the weather I expected a short laugh at a corny joke. Instead I got an embarrassed “I haven’t a clue about what you’re talking about.”

I have been a pastor for almost seventeen years. It is so easy to become insulated from the outside world. And to remind me of that reality Continue reading

Serving Who?

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“Did you really fast for me?” (Zechariah 7:5).

In the book of Zachariah, there is a tragic event that takes place. Sometime after the captives have returned home from their seventy-year exile, a group of men inquire of the priests and ask this question: “Should we mourn and fast in the fifth month as we have done these many years?” Apparently, the people fasted and prayed during this period while they were exiled in Babylon. On the surface both the fasting and the question seem legit. After all, they were in exile being punished for their sin. Responding with prayer and fasting seems the appropriate thing to do.

However, God’s response to the question reveals a startling fact of the human heart (both theirs and ours). God responds to the question with these penetrating words, “Ask all the people of the land and the priests: when you fasted and lamented in the fifth and in the seventh months for these seventy years, did you really fast for me?” Ouch. I don’t think the delegation asking the question anticipated such a response. Maybe they thought they would be commended on how pious they were during those solemn times of fasting. Instead, God placed a mirror before their heart and revealed something they thought was hidden from view. God continues His response, “When you eat and drink, do you not eat and drink simply for yourselves?”

God saw their piety was, in fact, a self-serving act. During those years of hardship, they fasted and prayed because they wanted the hardship to end. But, God was revealing they should have wanted to draw closer to God, which would have led the people to live a life of obedience before Him. So, God says to them, “Should you not have obeyed the words which the LORD proclaimed through the former prophets when Jerusalem and the cities around it were inhabited and prosperous, and the South and the Lowland were inhabited?” In other words, should you not have responded during the exile the same way the prophets urged your fathers to respond before the exile occurred? Should you not have sought obedience to God during your time in exile?

Their fathers ignored the prophets. The message of the prophets was for the people to return to God. “Return to me and I will return to you” was the heart of God’s message (Zach 1:3; Jeremiah 15:19; Malachi 3:7). The message entailed more than simple obedience. It was a call to seek God and to love Him (Deut 6:4-5). Obedience flows from a heart of love (John 14:15). Their act of piety where they fasted for a month during those seventy years was not an act of love whereby they were truly seeking and worshiping God. It was an act of self-interest where they were seeking their lot in life to be improved. The fact they even asked the question betrayed what was in their heart. In effect they were asking, “Since things are improving for us, God doesn’t really need to us continue those times of fasting, does He?”

After seventy years in exile, nothing really changed. The hearts of the people were the same coming out of exile as they were going in. God was not the object of their love: comfort and security was. Their religion was skin deep. When life got better their desire to worship diminished proportionally.

“Did you really fast for me?” This is a penetrating question. It revealed that the people’s religious life had nothing to do with God. They went about their religious activities only because they believed it might make life better. Through Isaiah God said, these “people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me…” (Isa 29:13; Matt 15:8). It challenges us to ask the question of ourselves: why do we really worship? “Did you really fast for me?” Do we really worship to seek God? Do we really pray to discern His will? Do we really love God? Do we want to obey Him? Or, does our motivation lie elsewhere?

The next time we’re sitting in church we should let the question ring in our ears: “Did you really fast for me?” God already knows the answer. Do we?

Grace. How good it is.

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“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1-5).

There are many things that can be said about these verses, but I want to point out one area that we sometimes overlook. These verses, in a roundabout way, speak to the reality of God’s grace sinners receive when they come to Christ. We are not to stand in judgment of others lest we forget that we too are sinners who are guilty of sin. To not judge others does not mean we suspend our powers of spiritual discernment or ignore sin, but it does mean we recognize we are no better than others. Only a hypocrite can pass judgment on another without realizing how much he/she has received by way of God’s grace.

Grace is the overwhelming force of love, forgiveness, and acceptance that floods our life with God’s presence, peace, and joy. We sometimes forget that only Christ was without sin. We cannot make such a boast. It is through Christ that the floodgates of grace are opened to us. What if God did not give grace to sinners, and instead gave sinners exactly what they have earned through their sin?  Banish the thought! But, we don’t have to look far. Jesus spoke about hell more than anyone in scripture, and He took no delight in knowing people were going there. Indeed, He said, “The Son of Man came to seek and save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). Though judgment is real, God seeks to save sinners from eternal judgment. This is the point of the gospel, and it is why it is called “Good News.” It is good news because through Christ, and because of the cross of Christ, God saves sinners from the eternal doom of hell.

Yet, there are people (whom Jesus is speaking to in this text) who do not want to give away God’s grace through the gospel. Instead, they seek to stand over and above sinners as though they were, themselves, without sin. The absurdity is self-evident.

God’s people are called to make known God’s grace through the gospel. That is why Paul confidently proclaimed that, “I am not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God to salvation to everyone who believes…” (Romans 1:16). Those who are recipients of God’s grace know how good it is to stand under the shower of God’s love and feel the warmth of His forgiveness wash over their needy souls. As recipients of God’s grace, we are called to flood each other’s lives with the same love and forgiveness we have received. But, tragically we often don’t give God’s grace away as freely as we have received it. We want it for ourselves but find it hard to freely give it away. So, Jesus was warning that God’s people should not hoard God’s grace.

Jesus was teaching that those who have received the matchless grace of God should not be quick to pass judgment on others (as in sentencing them). To do so is to negligently overlook the sin and failures of their own lives before God. How can needy beggars pass judgment on other beggars? Or, how does a beggar become greedy thinking his crumb is a symbol of his great wealth? No, freely we have received (of God’s bountiful grace) and freely we are to give away (Matthew 10:8). When one beggar receives bread, he would do well to tell others how to get that same bread – and he would do well to generously share the bread he has freely received with others.

God’s grace cannot be exhausted. God’s people should rejoice in that truth and seek to give as much away as possible.

Look Up

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“They turn, but not to what is above” (Hosea 7:16).

Trying times came upon the children of Israel. They were threatened by foreign nations. They were facing a very real existential crisis. But, they did not know that turning away from God led to their problems – and the further they walked away from the Lord, the greater their problems became. Yet, when all seemed lost, they refused to come back to God. They refused to call upon Him. Instead they turned to false god’s. They turned to Ba’al, Marduk, Molech, and Ashtoreth, amongst others. They turned everywhere but to the one true God who was calling to them (Hosea 7:7, 10, 14). As they called to Ba’al they cut and mutilated themselves. As they called to Molech, they sacrificed their children. But, despite the intensity of their actions and the sincerity of their misguided beliefs, there would be no answer. They called, but silence is all they received. Yet, during all this, God was there watching them; and through His prophets calling them. The message was simple, “Seek me with all your hearts, and you will be found by me” (Jeremiah 29:12-13). God longed to save them, but they would not “cry to Him from their hearts.” Even in all their sin He was ready to save and protect them. How much sorrow do people bring upon themselves because they don’t “turn to what is above?” God never turns from people. People turn from God. God loves with an everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3) and will gladly receive anyone unto Himself. There is no sin that can carry one too far away from His reach. No one is too far gone for the Lord’s help. He comes – He always comes – to those who look to Him and cry out to Him from their heart. When we turn to Him, even in the depths of our sin, we will be met with compassion, kindness, love, and hope. All we have to do is, “Look to what is above.” When we do, we will discover that God is already looking at us.

Agonizing Joy

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“And what communion has light with darkness? God is light and in Him is no darkness at all” (2 Corinthians 6:14, 1 John 1:5).

Light and darkness are incompatible. Where the one is the other must flee. When I was a non-believer I detested the things of God. God was offensive to me. Of course, I couched my contempt for God in a different language. I cloaked my disdain in the language of righteous indignation. I piously proclaimed my own righteousness while heaping disdain on those who might dare to point out my deception. Then one day the light itself came. Uninvited, it entered my sphere of consciousness and began as a dim glow. Even when the light was barely visible it was enough to cleave the darkness that clung to my soul. It was through the light of the gospel that I began to see how the darkness obscured what was real. It not only clung to me, it enveloped me. It had entered my soul and was forming it, shaping it, sculpting it to become something entirely foreign to what God had created it to be. Of course, at the time I did not know that God had created my soul with a purpose – until the light came. Absent this understanding I let the dark shape me, believing that’s what I wanted.

At first it was painful. Upon entering one’s life the light hurts. There is an agonizing power in the light. First, it reveals what really is there. Part of the pain is in seeing this reality. All pretense to self-righteousness evaporates in its presence. It showed me who I really was. It showed me that my identity was far removed from the fantasies the darkness whispered to me in the night. It revealed to me what I desperately did not want to see. Looking into the mirror with the light on is not the same as Continue reading

If?

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“If you are the Son of man, come down from the cross” (Matthew 27:40).

After all the people experienced and saw Jesus do, they yelled, “If you are the son of God….” Jesus gave sight to the blind. He healed all sicknesses, cast out demons, and even raised the dead. How short the people’s memory was when it came to remembering all he did for them. So they yelled, “Come down from the cross” as though that would be the definitive proof he was the son of God. Raising the dead did not lead them to consider the truth, but coming down from the cross would? This verse demonstrates how blind the human heart is when overcome by sin. The people were blind to Jesus’ true identity, despite his teachings and miracles. They were blind to the true ways of God, not knowing who God really is. They were also blind to the Word of God, not understanding the Scriptures foretold that the Messiah must suffer and die. And they were blind to the love of God, not realizing he was dying for them. No, the Son of Man did not come down from the cross precisely because he was the son of God.

 

God Knows

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“But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. (Matthew 6:33-34).

God is the Lord of history. It has been said that history is His-Story. In Daniel chapter eight (verses 1-8), God gave Daniel a vision of things that would take place in the future. This vision came to pass two centuries later. It is an amazing thought that God can reveal in detail things that will not occur for centuries. No wonder Jesus told us not to be anxious. The gentiles, He said, are worried about the daily affairs of life. But, our Father not only knows our needs, He knows the events of the day long before the day arrives. Because He is our God, we can leave the worry to Him. He said, “Seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness” and all our needs will be provided for. In Christ we are free to let God be God – which releases us from all worry, anxiety, and fear. If God can direct the affairs of nations centuries before they occur, He is capable of meeting my meager needs. My eyes can only see to the horizon. But, my faith anchors me in the One who sees through the centuries and directs all of time.

God Sees

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“…For the dark places of the land are full of violence” (Psalm 74:20).

The psalmist retells how the enemy of God’s people destroyed the sanctuary “Where God met with us.” There was great violence in the land. The invaders had no regard for the sacred things of God. But, what is not told is why the enemy came in first place. God’s people had deep darkness in their hearts long before the enemy destroyed the sanctuary. And in the place where they met God, they themselves had no regard for the things of God. Through their idolatry and sin, they brought spiritual darkness into Gods house. In response, God sent the enemy, so they could see just how dark their darkness was. The violence they experienced at the hand of their enemy was proportional to the violence they brought into God’s house through their idolatry. And when the darkness came to light, they felt the violence of it and longed for the light of God’s presence.

Going to the house of God does not mean we are walking in the light of Gods countenance, nor that we are truly seeking Him. God sees what is in our heart and responds to what is truly there. And, for our own sake He will expose what is in our heart. God wants to meet with His people. And, He wants to bless His people. But He cannot respond to what is not there. If what is in our heart is different than what is on our lips, then God’s response will be to jar us into seeing our real spiritual condition – even if He must hand us over to what we truly long for (see Romans 1:18-32). The people didn’t know that the idolatry they practiced, and loved, was the same sin that drove their enemy to so great a violence against them. Their sin was one and the same. The outward violence of their enemy was proportional to the inward darkness in their own heart. So, the Psalmist gives the warning: “For the dark places of the land are full of violence.” When we allow the darkness in, violence is all that is left for us. So, Jesus said, “If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:23).

However, Jesus came so that we may be delivered from the darkness. And He will deliver us, even when we call from its depths.

 

Preaching 101

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“Preacher, your long winded! I’ve got lunch plans and your preaching is interfering!” So said the anxious church member who thought a twenty minute sermon once a week was all the church needs, because, “No one remembers what you say anyhow!” I hope his chicken and dumplings were memorable. Church life has some interesting twists and turns. But, such encounters raise the question, “What is the real purpose of preaching?” Every preacher knows that the closer they get to the 12 o’clock hour, the more fidgety the people become. Pass that sacred time threshold and worship becomes something else altogether.

Over time it’s easy to forget why something was started. And what had a specific purpose becomes obscured as time passes. Church worship services sometimes fit into that category. Many people attend church every week, and if you were to ask them what the purpose is, they would most likely say, “To worship.” On the surface, that sounds good. But, then ask, “What is worship, and why do we do it?” At that point, the answers become thin and vague. The reality is that many people who attend church don’t really understand the purpose.

When Christ created his church, he was very specific in its purpose. Over time, his vision for the church has been obscured. Today, people think the purpose of church life is to attend church. It’s not uncommon to find people who believe attending church on Sunday morning is what God desires. Bring up the topic of church life and it’s not uncommon for people to say, Continue reading