When the Skies Roar in Justice

Yesterday the President of the United States, President Biden, reported to America the death of al Qaeda notable Ayman al-Zawahiri in a “precision strike.”  To be clear, I welcome this as good news for which I am thankful, though I hope not gleeful (Proverbs 24:17).  And yet, in reading about this development I cringe at President Biden’s language, and, frankly, at his stunning hypocrisy.

In his remarks given yesterday, President Biden stated, “Now justice has been delivered…”  I wonder what he meant exactly by that phrase?  On the one hand I agree with the President.  Indeed, Zawahiri’s death was a thing of justice.  And yet, by what standard (to borrow a phrase)?  To what standard of justice does President Biden appeal?  The standard can’t merely be the sovereign determination of a nation-state (the United States) to act in its own security interests and conduct an extra-judicial lethal strike in another country.  If that were the standard of justice that justified killing Zawahiri, then we ought not expect anyone outside the United States to affirm this action as a good thing.  No, the “interests-based” determination of the United States to kill Zawahiri may have been the means of administering justice, but it isn’t the thing itself.  President Biden’s statement, “Now justice has been delivered,” reached for something higher, something greater, something more determinative than the mere exercise of national power in the national interest.  It reached for a standard that President Biden hopes, at least rhetorically (if not in reality), every thinking person can intuitively recognize; a standard that makes it right and good for the commander-in-chief to order the exercise of deadly U.S. power against a murderous terrorist bent on harming others.  But the question remains: Is President Biden right to appeal to such a standard, and if so, what is it?

In order to get to my point, let me simply assert that President Biden was right to appeal to justice, and that the standard – whether he recognizes it or not – is the character and holiness of God expressed in the law of God.  Among other things, God’s law says, as an expression of his character, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13, ESV).  Zawahiri broke God’s law, and it was an appropriate exercise of government power to call him to account, even at the cost of his own life (Romans 13:3-4).  But now consider this (and here’s where the stunning hypocrisy comes into play): Does President Biden realize that he stands under the same standard of justice?  If so, how does he not shudder in fear?  With one side of his mouth he directed an airstrike targeting a murderous terrorist, while with the other he is hell-bent (I use this phrase intentionally) on supporting murder on an industrial scale, namely the murder of children in utero.  In his statement on Zawahiri, President Biden said: “After carefully considering the clear and convincing evidence of his location, I authorized a precision strike that would remove him from the battlefield once and for all.”  Has the President applied the same care to consider the “clear and convincing” biblical and biological evidence for life in the womb?  I’m reminded of these words of Jesus to his hypocritical hearers in Luke 12:54-56 (ESV): “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, ‘A shower is coming.’  And so it happens.  And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat,’ and it happens.  You hypocrites!  You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”  The subtext to these verses is simply this: They couldn’t interpret the present time because they were sinfully unwilling to do so!  The President can rightly understand justice so as to kill a man half-a-world away.   And yet, he also remains willfully blind to justice, and thus actively supports the murder of millions right here at home.  That’s hypocrisy.

This morning I read in Jeremiah 25 these words of prophecy spoken against all the nations of the earth:

“The LORD will roar from on high, and from his holy habitation utter his voice; he will roar mightily against his fold, and shout, like those who tread grapes against all the inhabitants of the earth.  The clamor will resound to the ends of the earth, for the LORD has an indictment against the nations; he is entering into judgment with all flesh, and the wicked he will put to the sword, declares the LORD.  Thus says the LORD of hosts: Behold, disaster is going forth from nation to nation and a great tempest is stirring from the farthest parts of the earth!” – Jer. 25:30b-32

Last weekend, American missiles roared from the sky against a house and a man in Kabul, Afghanistan.  While the strike against Zawahiri accomplished its purpose, in light of what’s coming it sounded, sounds now, and will sound like the faintest “twirp” of a sparrow uttered at dawn.  One day soon Yahweh will roar from the heaven of heavens over all the earth.  In that day President Biden will answer before God just as Zawahiri has done.  May he not be left in defenseless hypocrisy.  May he find himself covered by the blood of the Lamb, the Lord Jesus Christ, who alone can save Joe Biden from the wrath of God.  May he repent of his hypocrisy and rest in the justice of Golgotha.  Such is my prayer for the President of these United States.

Open Letter to Santa Cruz Bible Church

Dear Reader,

Insomuch as this post reaches beyond the normal consumers of this occasional blog, it may elicit strong emotion – even anger perhaps – on the part of some.  Please know, stirring up anger is not my purpose in posting.  Rather, I’ve written in order to make public an open letter to Santa Cruz Bible Church (SCBC) attached here .  I invite you to read it and consider its contents.  Here’s why the letter was written:

Back in February and March of this year, the leadership of Santa Cruz Bible Church preached a series of sermons establishing a new direction for the congregation.  The series, titled, “Where are We Going,” culminated in a final sermon on the word “Inclusive.”  In it, lead pastor Matt Roden established inclusivity as a characteristic that must define SCBC in the future.  Regrettably, both the content and the nature of this sermon were so egregiously contrary to God’s Word that I, joined by two other local pastors, felt it necessitated a response.  Accordingly, we sent the letter referenced above to the elders and pastoral staff of SCBC (Note: The copy at the previous link does not include our names/signatures).  In an attached cover letter, I expressed our concern, welcomed clarification, and stated our availability to meet in person.  The response back from SCBC was a one-line email (other than the introduction and signature block) that said this: “On behalf of the Santa Cruz Bible Church Board of Directors this email is to acknowledge that we have received your letter and have determined that no action is needed.”

Now, while I’m grateful that SCBC took the time to actually respond, it’s sad that the church seems committed to its present course.  I believe SCBC has compromised sound doctrine, and thus Christian unity.  I believe that if it stays this course it will eventually lose any modicum of true Gospel witness.  I pray that won’t happen.  What’s more, I pray that my words here, and those in the attached letter, will prove consistent with Proverbs 27:6 – “Faithful are the wounds of a friend…”

In Christ,

P.J.

Reject California Senate Bill 871

Dear Reader,

This evening I began an online petition effort urging the rejection of California Senate Bill 871.  If you live in California, please take two minutes to read the petition and consider adding your name/signature.  This is a serious matter, and it’s important to speak clearly to our representatives in Sacramento.  Please share the petition link with any and all.  Thank you in advance.

P.J.

Lord, We Want to Grow…

If you’ve been a part of Felton Bible Church during the past ten years or so, undoubtedly you’ve heard the word “growth” mentioned more than once.  The demographics of FBC skew decidedly older in terms of age, and we are by no means a large church, at least not in our own limited self-conception.  Let me be the first to praise and thank God for a smallish group of people graciously endowed with the wisdom of age in Christ.  “Young” and “large” does not necessarily equal “faithful” and “good,” and I love the long history of faithfulness here at FBC.  Many of you are part of that history.  I praise God for you!  Nonetheless, as we’ve articulated to one another, and as we’ve persistently prayed, we long to be refreshed for present and future ministry.  It seems to us that refreshment has something to do with growth, and so “growth” is a word never far from our thoughts.

What is growth and how does it happen?  We ask questions like these because we care about the growth of Jesus’ kingdom.  Insomuch as FBC is a faithful embassy of that kingdom (to borrow an allegory championed by another pastor), then we also care about the growth of FBC.  I want to offer two basic thoughts: First, a definition of growth, and second, a brief consideration of the words attractional vs. attractive:

Here is my working definition of growth: Growth, in the context of a local church, is the process whereby disciples of Jesus progress in sanctification; that is to say, they progress on the path of being truly conformed, by God’s Spirit, to the image of Jesus Christ.  Notice that this definition has nothing to do with numbers, though, as I suggest below, it also has everything to do with numbers.  Growth in a local church is not first a matter of how many people attend worship, how big the membership roll happens to be, how many programs are underway (we should all be allergic to the word “program” with reference to ministries of the church), or how big the budget is in terms of dollars.  Growth is first a matter of increasing faithfulness and obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ, both on the part of the church corporately, and on the part of each individual believer within.  Here we must pay close attention to the New Testament.  It’s crucial to note that while we read of the church growing numerically, particularly in Acts, nowhere does the Bible prescribe how big a congregation should be, how much it should progress year-by-year in terms of numbers attending, or any other such measure.  The concern in Scripture, and especially in the apostolic letters, is always for godliness.

Having said the above, let me now offer a caveat.  While my definition of growth has nothing to do with numbers, as I said, it also has everything to do with numbers.  What do I mean by that?  I mean three things.  First, I mean that we shouldn’t expect God to grow FBC if our perspective on growth isn’t the Bible’s.  If our perspective on growth isn’t first a matter of discipleship – if we’re fascinated by numbers and not faithfulness – then we shouldn’t expect that God will add to our number.  Indeed, we should pray that he doesn’t!  A sizable church built on a hollow foundation is a disaster waiting to happen.  Second, I mean that God often works to increase the size and impact of faithful local congregations.  We see it in Acts, and we’ve seen it in the history of the church across time.  Let’s be clear, it isn’t a rule that good and faithful churches must grow numerically.  God isn’t bound by our expectations, and larger does not mean better.  Sometimes the largest churches are the most unfaithful, looking a lot more like the congregations of Sardis or Laodicea than those of Smyrna or Philadelphia (Revelation 2-3).  Sometimes the smallest are the most faithful, punching far above their weight in terms of kingdom impact.  Still, it’s worth noting that often it pleases God to increase the size and influence of faithful local congregations (Matthew 25).  If such should ever be the case for FBC, may God mercifully protect us in humility.  Third, I mean that there is a certain logical connection between faithfulness and growth in a local church.  Again, I’m speaking proverbially here, and not definitively.  A proverb makes a general statement about life, and not a definitive pronouncement for all cases.  What’s the logical connection between faithfulness and growth in a local church?  Simply put, it’s the matter of attractiveness.  Faithfulness after Jesus Christ is attractive.  It wafts the aroma of Eden-restored into the world.  Who among those God has called, or is calling, to himself can ignore that scent?  This last point brings me then to the matter of attractional vs. attractive. 

Sometimes in discussions of church growth, conversation will turn to the question of how we attract people into our doors, as if we’re a business seeking customers.  Where, from Scripture, did we get the idea to conceive of Jesus’ body, an embassy of his kingdom, as a business?  Often such conversations are well-intended.  Sometimes they’re even appropriate.  But, I venture to say, more often discussions of church growth informed by the word “attract” tend to confuse the ideas of attractional and attractive.  It’s a dangerous point of confusion, and potentially lethal to a local church.  What’s the difference between attractional and attractive?  Nothing less than the difference between what’s fake and what’s real, or between what’s hollow and what’s solid.  An attractional church doesn’t major on discipleship, it majors on numbers in attendance, or external metrics of effectiveness (like number of programs, or dollars in the budget, or community reputation, etc.), or lowest-common-denominator Christianity.  Do such things as numbers, or metrics, or “mere Christianity” (to quote C.S. Lewis) have their place in the church’s consideration?  Yes, sort of, but only as questions of faithfulness in making mature and maturing disciples of Jesus Christ.  On the other hand, an attractive church – a church that is attractive with the image and aroma of Christ – majors on matters of discipleship.  It takes the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:7-8) in its fullness seriously.  Think of the attractional vs. attractive difference as the distinction between a made-up television model and a bride about to walk down the aisle.  The model feigns attractiveness (with make-up, fine clothing, and the like) in order to sell something.  Hers is the attractiveness of commerce, not covenant.  In contrast, the bride is truly attractive in her beauty, her purity, and her readiness for the sober joy of marriage.  The bride doesn’t try to attract anyone.  She already has the groom!  She simply glows, publicly, with the radiance of anticipation as the moment of pronouncement approaches: “You are now husband and wife.”  Jesus’ church is his bride, not his model.  We are to be attractive as the people of Christ, not attractional.

Everything I’ve said above is important because how we think about the church and its growth – attractional vs. attractive – will directly impact how we live as the church.  Are we more interested in selling ourselves, or in being the bride and publicly pointing others to the groom?  Needless to say, I’m convinced we must be the bride.  Scripture commands and demonstrates as much.  I’m also convinced that attractive (not attractional) churches attract people.  Who do they attract?  Precisely the people whom the Chief Shepherd sends them.  Some of those people are not yet followers of Christ and need to meet him.  Others are already believers who, for one reason or another, need a new expression of the universal church with whom to fellowship.  Regardless, attractive churches will attract Jesus’ sheep; the not-yet saved and saved alike.  Because this is true, even as faithful churches must think about growth, they need not worry about numbers.  We may pray about numbers, we may desire a certain critical mass in terms of church membership and age demographic, but we need never worry over that which God, and God alone, determines.

I’ll close with three practical considerations for FBC as we seek to be attractive, not attractional:

1. In order to grow and be attractive let’s concern ourselves with being the church, faithful to our groom. At heart, this means giving close attention to God’s Word in every aspect of our corporate life (not to mention our individual lives); in our worship (praying, singing, preaching, and teaching), discipleship, ecclesiology, doctrine, evangelism, service, etc.

2. Let’s pursue excellence in communication. I’m thinking here of the testimony we give to those outside of FBC about whom and what we value, and why. I’m also thinking of the person, who isn’t a part of FBC, and yet walks in our doors on a Sunday morning, or a Wednesday evening, or any other time and place we gather.  Let’s be ready and able to welcome that person with joy, and to clearly point them toward the groom for whom we wait.

3. Let’s not put unnecessary barriers, roadblocks, in the way of those who need to meet Jesus through the life and ministry of this church. What are we doing (or not doing) that isn’t a matter of faithful discipleship, and which might otherwise hinder someone from encountering Christ among us? Are there things we should let go of, or should begin doing (according to gifts and opportunities), in order to be a more winsome bride?

May the Lord grow this congregation, and may he mercifully sustain us in humble faithfulness.  Amen!

“I’ve Touched the Face of God”

I’m an Air Force guy…or at least a part of me is.  I grew up wanting to fly fighters, though, toward the latter half of my time at the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA), that ambition changed.  As it turned out, the only aircraft I’ve ever soloed was a stodgy, stalwart glider that probably would have flown itself.  Still, while not a zipper-suited sun god (read “fighter pilot”) myself, my life has nonetheless been profoundly shaped by the U.S. Air Force, and thus in some measure by an interest in aircraft and flight.  

So what?  Why is that worthy of comment in a blog post?  Here’s why…

Recently we began a preaching series at Felton Bible Church intended to take us through the first eleven chapters of Genesis.  In pursuit of this series, I’m presently working through Genesis 1 rather closely.  If you read Genesis 1, it’s striking how many times the text refers to “an expanse,” which God calls “heaven” (Genesis 1, English Standard Version).  The Hebrew word for “expanse” shows up nine times in Genesis 1, and the word for “heaven” another ten times (sometimes paired with the word “expanse).  This “expanse,” or the “heavens,” refers especially to what we would call in English the “sky.”  

Now, here’s something interesting…at least it is to me.  As you read Genesis 1, it’s clear there’s no break, as it were, between the “expanse” (or “heaven,” or the “sky”) and earth.  Yes, they’re different domains (to borrow a military term), but there’s an inherent link between the two.  They’re contiguous, but more than contiguous.  In fact, what exists in the sky exists with special reference to the earth.  So, for instance, the sun, moon, and stars exist not only to mark out “signs” and “seasons” and “days” and “years,” but also to “give light upon the earth” (Genesis 1:14-15, ESV).  Even in their role of marking out time, these heavenly lights do this particularly for the sake of human beings created in God’s image.  What’s the point?  The point is that things of the heavens, the sky, exist with special reference to things of the earth, especially human beings.  

Okay, so what?  What’s the significance of that observation?  While there’s much I could say in answer to that question [consider, for starters, that the sky is the medium linking God’s dwelling place in heaven-beyond-the-heavens (2 Cor. 12:2) with his dwelling place on earth alongside humanity (first in Eden, then in the Temple, now in the church, soon in the new Jerusalem)] – think about this: The essential continuity between earth and sky, and the earth-centered, man-serving focus of things in the sky, makes our fascination with this domain goodnatural (in the truest sense)…instructive.  Even in our fallen state as rebels against God who violently suppress his truth (Rom. 1:18), we nonetheless retain a fascination with the sky that testifies to its God-given purpose, its beauty, its splendor, its direct relevance to life on earth as we know it.  No wonder we, for millennia, wanted to explore this domain!  No wonder that we maintain a fascination with flight, with flying machines, and even with the heavens beyond the “sky.”  Ultimately our fascination with the sky, with the heavens, is a response to the glory of God in creation, even if we sinfully deny it! 

Let’s go back then to the Air Force Academy, which some of us lovingly refer to as a “small technical school at the base of the Rocky Mountains.”  There’s a poem I learned at USAFA during my days as a cadet.  I’m pretty sure it was one of the many pieces of literature – useful and useless – branded on my brain during those heady days as a “Doolie,” a fourth-classman, a freshman in civilian parlance.  The branding works well when it happens while you’re in the “front-leaning rest” (push-up) position, sweating onto the hallway floor, waiting for a slug classmate to “get the lead out.”  The poem, titled “High Flight,” was written in 1941 by John Gillespie Magee Jr, an American flying in the Canadian Royal Airforce.  Gillespie was killed in a midair crash not long after writing this and sending it to his parents.  As you read the poem (or listen to it sung here), do so thinking about Genesis 1, and appreciate how these words capture something of truth Moses wrote: 

“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth 

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings; 

Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

of sun-split clouds, and done a hundred things 

You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung

High in the sunlit silence.  Hov’ring there, 

I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air…

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue

I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace

Where never lark nor ever eagle flew-

And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space, 

Put out my hand, and touched the face of God” (text available here

The next time you get on an airplane, rather than white-knuckling the take-off and landing (ahem…Mom), relax and consider how humans’ presence in the air domain reflects the goodness of our good God in his good creation!  

In Light of Ukraine

Brothers and Sisters, 

I’m grieved this morning – not to mention disturbed – by what we see unfolding in Europe as Russia has showed its hand and begun a no-kidding invasion of Ukraine.  Before I go further, someone might ask, “Why make public comment on this war, and not the many other armed conflicts underway around the world.”  It’s a good question and elicits some self-reflection on my part.  But, the answer isn’t too difficult to articulate.  Some wars strike closer to home than others in our conscious awareness of the world, and rightly so.  Consider these factors at work in Ukraine: 

1. It’s not often that we see clear-cut examples of large scale state-on-state conflict.  Yet, that’s the scenario we’re watching now in Europe. 

2. Here we have an autocratic government under the authority of a bully – Vladimir Putin – acting in unjustified aggression against its neighbor.  Sometimes the “justice” of an armed conflict is “gray.”  I see little that is “gray” about what’s underway in Ukraine. 

3. The United States spent a generation and more concerned with the threat from the U.S.S.R.  Present-day Russia is not the U.S.S.R., but in its current political iteration it looks and feels much like the “enemy” we encountered for decades from 1945-1991.  I say “political iteration” because I don’t want to paint all Russians with a broad brush.  Indeed, we have Russian brothers and sisters in Christ, some of whom may even now be serving in that country’s armed forces! 

4. Given our NATO treaty commitments, this conflict directly impacts U.S. national security interests. 

These reasons and more explain why what’s unfolding in Ukraine captures our attention in a particular way. 

Now, what can we, followers of Jesus living in this country, with little direct involvement in what we’re hearing, reading, and watching, do in response?  We can pray to the one who said, “Now therefore, O kings, show discernment; Take warning, O judges of the earth.  Worship the LORD with reverence and rejoice with trembling.  Do homage to the Son, that He not become angry, and you perish in the way, for His wrath may soon be kindled.  How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!” (Psalm 2:10-12, NASB).  As you pray, let me encourage you to pray specifically in the following ways: 

1. Pray that the Lord would remove Vladimir Putin from his position of authority and power.  

2. Pray that the Lord will give wisdom to our country’s leaders as they respond to this situation. 

3. Most of all, pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ who are Ukrainian or otherwise live in Ukraine.  Be specific here as you pray.  Read the article at this link written by Vasyl Ostryi, one of the pastors at Irpin Bible Church, located nearby Kyiv, Ukraine.  Let us, Felton Bible Church, adopt this Ukrainian congregation as a focus for prayer over the next month.  

All creation groans waiting for the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (Romans 8:22).  Sometimes that groaning erupts in war.  Today we can join the prayer of Revelation 22:20: “Come, Lord Jesus!” 

In Christ, 

P.J. 

Please Be in Prayer Tomorrow…

Brothers and Sisters,

Tomorrow is a day for particular prayer with respect to the Supreme Court of the United States.  As you may know, tomorrow the court will hear a case from Mississippi known as Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.  In oral arguments, the justices will specifically consider, “Whether all pre-viability prohibitions on elective abortions are unconstitutional” (see the Supreme Court website).  As has been widely reported, this case has the potential to overturn the infamous and wicked decision reached by the court in Roe vs. Wade (a decision that made in utero murder a legal “right” across our country).  While, sadly, the overturn of Roe vs. Wade will not make abortion illegal everywhere, it will lead to its abolition (or effective abolition) in some states.  Depending on how it happens, an overturn could be a major statement of justice consistent with God’s character and commands.  For such a development we should hope and pray.

As Christians, we know that life is God’s good gift, even when it begins amidst tragic, evil circumstances.  We know life begins at conception and extends through death.  We know that human beings come into existence, created in God’s image, in their mother’s womb.  God forbid that we would extend our violence into such a space!  God be praised when that violence is restrained or otherwise barred!

Will you pray tomorrow for what takes place in the Supreme Court’s chambers?

…Pray that God will overrule and overturn the rebellious foolishness of our country.

…Pray that the nine justices – Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Thomas, Justice Breyer, Justice Alito, Justice Sotomayor, Justice Kagan, Justice Gorsuch, Justice Kavanaugh, and Justice Barrett – will listen with wisdom.

…Pray that God will give power and clarity to the words of the Mississippi Solicitor General, Scott Stewart (who will argue for the overturn of Roe vs. Wade).

…Pray that God will expose and render powerless the words of those arguing for the Jackson Women’s Health Organization (and thus in favor of Roe vs. Wade), Julie Rikelman (of the Center for Reproductive Rights) and Elizabeth Prelogar (the Solicitor General of the United States).

It may be that the Mississippi law in question is ultimately not the best model for dealing with the matter of abortion.  But, for tomorrow, that’s not our chief concern.  Our chief concern is that the law of this land not condone and enshrine the genocidal evil that is abortion.

I’ll end this email where perhaps all conversations of abortion should end, indeed, perhaps all conversations about sin of any sort.  God’s grace in Christ is sufficient to cover your every sin.  There is no sin and no sinner for whom Jesus’ death was not sufficient to cleanse you in the sight of God!  Has your life been touched in some way by murder in the womb?  If so, the good news of the Gospel beckons you to come to Christ in repentance for the forgiveness of that sin and any other.  I will not cast stones at you (I too have sinned), I will only exhort you, invite you, plead with you.  You need not be defined by your sin.  It need not be your identity.  A life of freedom and joy in the body of Christ awaits those no longer burdened by the blood of another human being (Proverbs 28:17).

Praying with you,

P.J.

A Mighty Fortress…Is Our God!

While I’ve neglected this blog for some months, I find the afternoon of Reformation Sunday a good time to stop and offer a few thoughts; thoughts that formed a greeting for my church family with this morning: 

Lucas Cranach the Elder, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Reformation was nothing less than a rediscovery – in Scripture itself – of the Gospel by the church, or a portion thereof.  Put differently, the Reformation was a rediscovery of confidence in the Gospel.  While as a whole the Reformation was a process that took place over time (and, arguably, is still taking place), it began with special intensity on October 31, 1517.  On that day, reportedly, a German monk named Martin Luther nailed what came to be known as the 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.  Not quite four years later (and 500 years ago last April), Luther appeared in front of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, at the Diet of Worms, and there confirmed his determination to stand on, and for, the truth of God’s Word at all costs (Luke 21:12 comes to mind).  

It’s interesting that in our day most associate October 31st with Halloween.  Popular imagination increasingly links this day to what Paul calls the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).  Martin Luther wrote a hymn titled, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”  The third verse of that hymn reads:

And though this world with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us.  The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him; His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure: One little word shall fell him. – (Hymns for the Family of God, #118)

How can we sing those words with real confidence?  Only if we believe the Gospel that Luther and others with him preached, a Gospel summarized in what we now know as the five “solas” (or “only” statements) of the Reformation: We are saved by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone (sola Christus), for the glory of God alone (sola Deo gloria), according to Scripture alone (sola Scriptura).  It is this Gospel that we rejoice in today because, as the Holy Spirit through Paul tells us, this Gospel is “…the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16, ESV). 

Happy Reformation Day! 

A Prayer for FBC: “Lord, Shake Us!”

Being Californians, the people of Felton Bible Church know something about earthquakes.  They (we) know that most earthquakes subside (and blessedly so!).  The ground shakes, and quivers, and rolls for a time, before returning to its “normal” state.  That’s true of most earthquakes…but not all.  One quake began approximately 2,000 years ago, and it’s only been gathering strength since the shaking started.  In the day that Jesus died, Matthew 27 tells us the earth shook and the rocks were split (Matthew 27:51b).  Of course, these were only two of the powerful signs that accompanied Jesus’ crucifixion, soon to be followed by his powerful resurrection.  The earthquake that happened that spring day somewhere around A.D. 30 is still going strong…and stronger…and even stronger.  It began in the literal earth and it transferred into the hearts of men and women the world over.  The earthquake that happened when Jesus died proved a mere warning tremor for the globe-shaking wave that birthed Jesus’ church; a wave that continues to the moment in which I’m writing.  We sometimes think of the church with a “ho-hum” perspective born of routine daily life.  I assure you, God does not.  The world is shaking at the hand of Christ as he works through his people!  

Here then is a prayer for the people who gather in Jesus’ name as Felton Bible Church:

“Oh God who shakes the earth out of its place so that its pillars tremble, let the shaking that began at Jesus’ death overtake us!  Shake us oh God.  Grant that a ripple wave of divine seismic activity would find its way to the San Lorenzo Valley and ignite our hearts with the holy fear of joy in Jesus.  Your voice shakes the wilderness, and we, Lord, are living in the wilderness.  So, let it shake us!  We need to be shaken oh Yahweh from our complacency, from our weariness, from our angst, from our habits of sin, from our inattentiveness, from our comfortable and yet unfruitful patterns of thinking and living.  Permit that the cross would grow so enormous in our minds that it pushes out all lesser contemplations.  Let the earth quake beneath our feet and bring with it the smell of Jerusalem – a waft of the old, and an overpowering scent of the new.  Your angels cry out like an earthquake; let us hear their voice!  You freed your servants Paul and Silas in a great earthquake.  Free us!  Our voice, our hearts, our expectations, and our prayers are turned to you.  Will you now shake this place?  Let the Spirit so move among us that the aftershocks reverberate for years to come.  Oh Sovereign Lord of all Creation, shake us, the people of Felton Bible Church.  It’s in Jesus’ name we pray…Amen.”  

(Job 9:6, Psalm 29:8, Ezekiel 3:12-13, Acts 9:26)

The Stunning Stupidity of Satan

I’m amazed by the stupidity of Satan in dealing with the Son of God.  I make that statement advisedly and circumspectly, mindful of Jude 9-10.  And yet, it is true, Satan was profoundly dumb when he came “face-to-face” (as it were) with Jesus Christ.  Here’s what I mean: 

Maybe you recall the incident in which Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness of Judea, just before Jesus began his public ministry.  Both Matthew (Matthew 4:1-11) and Luke (Luke 4:1-13) describe the event in some detail, though with a slightly different order between the two gospels.  What fascinates me most at the moment is the second effort of Satan as recorded in Matthew, the third as recorded in Luke.  In this case, Satan took Jesus to a high place on the temple in Jerusalem and quoted Scripture, saying, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and, ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone” (Luke 4:9b-11, ESV).  Satan couldn’t have said a stupider thing to living Son of God.  Why?  Because he chose to quote for Jesus from Psalm 91!

The words that Satan quoted for Jesus come from Psalm 91, specifically verses 11-12: “For he [meaning Yahweh, the covenant God of Israel] will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.  On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.”  Satan, apparently, forgot what Jesus did not.  He forgot that Psalm 91 continues with verses 13-16, and especially verse 13! Jesus, steeped in the Scriptures…Jesus, the Word incarnate…did not forget the rest of the Psalm.  Here then is Psalm 91:13-16, with verse 13 highlighted in bold: “You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.  Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name.  When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him.  With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation” (ESV).  

Now, it must have been that when Satan quoted Psalm 91:11-12 to him, Jesus’ mind continued through the rest of the song.  It must have been that verse 13 rang in Jesus’ thoughts with a special clarity, calling to mind other truths…like, for instance, the first promise of a Messiah as spoken by Yahweh to the serpent (Satan himself) in Genesis 3:15: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”  It must have been that when Satan quoted Psalm 91, and Jesus thought of verse 13, he contemplated truth that would later reflect in Peter’s words from 1 Peter 5:8-9a: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.  Resist him firm in your faith…”  Do you see what happened?  In quoting Psalm 91:11-12 to Jesus, Satan spurred Jesus’ mind toward verse 13 (and following), which then reminded Jesus of his role as the snake crushing Messiah, and also helped him to see Satan for what he was (and is): a lion’ish devouring adversary of God who cannot stand before the faith of God’s people!  Satan made a blundering tactical error on the day he tempted Jesus, and in the end it cost him the battlefield (not that he ever stood a chance of winning in the first place).  I love it! 

We should note here…and it’s important to note…that Satan’s tactical error didn’t happen by chance.  Jesus forced him into this stupid move.  How? By simply applying God’s Word to the temptation of the moment.  When Satan met Jesus with temptation, Jesus met Satan with God’s Word.  I can imagine that Satan, in exasperation, finally thought, “Okay then, if you’re going to use Scripture against me, then I’ll use Scripture against you!”  How well did that work out for the evil prince of demons doomed to Hell?  Jesus – God embodied, the GOD-man, divinity-in-humanity – used God’s Word against his adversary as a weapon of war (see Ephesians 6:10-18a, especially verse 17).  If that’s how Jesus did battle with Satan and Satan’s temptation, should we who follow him do any less?  

Brothers and sisters, perhaps Satan isn’t nearly so stupid in dealing with us as he was in dealing with the Son of God.  Perhaps he isn’t so prone to tactical error when coming against our sinful flesh as he was when tempting the sinless Messiah.  But you know, as Christians, we’re not supposed to think of ourselves except as people in union with Christ.  By God’s grace we are united with Jesus in a “one-flesh” union as it were (see Genesis 2:24 and Ephesians 5:25-27), through faith in him as Lord and Savior.  So, in the truest sense, when Satan comes against us, he again comes against the Lord Jesus Christ.  We have available to us the same sword of the Spirit that Jesus picked up for battle. We can rest assured that when we wield it against the adversary, Satan will make the same stupid errors he did in the past; the same tactical, battle-losing errors as before.  It may not happen immediately, but the moment will come when Satan overplays his hand.  When he does, we’ll be left in possession of the field, victorious in the day of struggle, all to the glory of Christ! 

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,

We will not fear, for God hath willed, His truth to triumph through us.

The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;

His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,

One little word shall fell him.

“A Mighty Fortress is Our God” – Martin Luther