Thoughts on Death

Death comes like a thief. You are never prepared, and it always takes more than you thought it could. It is jolting, stunning, unbelievable. It is unnatural. We were not made for death, but it has its way with us all.

Perhaps the worst part is that none of us are immune. We will all be touched by death, both here in life and in our own death someday out ahead. The pain of it rips through like a summer storm – fast and mighty – but lingers like a snowfall in New England – long and deep.

Death is the anti-life. It is the end of all. It is the abrupt ending to the world we spend so much time creating. It is the leaving behind of all that we have. It is final. There is no recovery. There is no hope. Death is and life is not.

Unless.

Only that which is the more powerful life defeats death. Only if life supersedes death, outlasts it, was before it, and will be after it– then there is hope. Unless death meets the same end that it seeks to bring to us can we truly live. If death is immanent and final – truly final in the most real sense – then pack your bags and leave right now. The pain will only increase the longer and better you live.

But if death has a death day just as it had a birthday in the Garden of Eden then there is light at the end of the tunnel. There is a hope that shines at the end and what happens after death, if it is the final thing in life, must be the final final thing we face. And if there is light then death is not as final as it feels. It is final for this brief period, but leads into something that lasts longer. If there is a light, and the light has come into the world, and the light comes toward us, and we enter into the light, then death loses its sting. Death dies, if that light exists. The great question then becomes: is that light there?

Philosophers will say we cannot know for sure because we cannot know death and still have knowledge to impart back to the living. They are wrong. For philosophers to be wrong should be no great surprise. Thales thought the world was made of water – water was all that mattered. He was wrong, no one can argue his validity today. We need not a philosophy of life – or of death – to reason this out for us. We need a person to prove to us that there is life, and a person to prove to us that death is dead.

We have such a person.

Jesus is the light at the end of the tunnel. Not only that, he is the light that illumines the path of life. He is the light that we can enter into. We can do so because he came down into our darkness. He walked in the shadow of the valley of death. He let his bones be broken and his side be pierced and his life blood flow into death to go through death to defeat death for us. He is the life that defeats death. Death is a result of sin, and a sinless man cannot die – not unless he chooses to pick the fight to defeat the power. And that’s what Jesus has done. He picked the fight with our greatest enemy so that the bully would leave us alone.

He didn’t philosophize about that. He did it. He proved it in his very personhood, his very life. He lived. He died. He lived again. Now, death, what can you do to a man like that? Indeed, what can you do to his friends if he chooses to beat the bully for them?

You and I will die. It is inevitable. But because of the work of Christ on the cross the death we die is the entrance into the light that we can see only a pinprick of today. There is hope, because though death looms thick like a summer fog, the sun is rising to burn it all away. The way in? Faith. That’s all it takes.

So, death, where is your sting? Where is your great boast? Where is your victory? Where is your championship trophy? Where is your hall of fame? Where is your pride? It is nothing. You have nothing. Not as long as Jesus is King. Death, you are a joke. A terrible, terrible joke that causes pain and sadness, but a joke you are. Ten billion years from now when those in Christ are partying in heaving with him forever we will look back on you and laugh as you laughed at us. We may have born you into the world, but Jesus has taken you out. Goodbye, death. Goodbye, fear of death. There is a new, greater reality in town. His name is Jesus. His presence is life.

Confession is the Great Need of Our Time

The greatest need of our moment is to take a good look at the reality of our heart before God, confess the many sins that are there, and rejoice in the forgiveness flowing down from heaven. Nothing is more urgent. Nothing is more vital.

Confession of sin scares us. Rightly so. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). And before the holy God our sin condemns us. Confession is dark and messy and painful, but only through the pain of the broken path can we find the way back to the Savior. Because though we must fall on our faces before his holiness, his grace in the cross saves us from the condemnation we are due.

If the Lord were to grant a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit on our country that lead to mass confession, I wonder what problems would be solved? Why not pray for that with me this week? His grace can change the world. It already has. Let’s ask him to show his power again. May we confess and find forgiveness and reorient our lives around the Savior of the world.

“But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one, another and the blood of Jesus his son cleanses us from all sin.” 1 John 1:7

From an Enemy to a Brother

Acts 9 tells us of the conversion of a man named Saul. He was a Jewish man, opposing the church of Jesus Christ, and even arresting and approving of the death of Christians. He was an enemy of God’s church. And then he meets Jesus. In an instant he is converted. Jesus confronts him, blinds him, and saves him.

Saul changes his mission – or, more accurately, God changes Saul’s mission. On his way to Damascus to persecute the church, he ends up preaching sermons and proving Jesus to be the Christ to Jews in the synagogues rather than ravaging the homes of Christians. He’s a changed man, and the disciples, much less the Jews, aren’t sure what to make of him.

He has two attempts on his life in verses 20-30. The Jews try to kill him in Damascus and in Jerusalem. It’s not going well for him. Every comfort he once had is gone and in its place is the fear of death. But he doesn’t seem to mind. The disciples have to remove him (I’m guessing against his will) to Caesarea so his life would be spared. He’s relentless for Jesus.

The entire episode is amazing for its historical importance, its intense drama, and its witness to the power of Christ. But what has struck me the most as I’ve read and thought over it is how Saul goes from an enemy of the church to a brother in the church in a matter of a few verses.

Where else in the world can this happen but in the church, where everyone is saved by the same gospel and brought into the same family of God? How beautiful is the reality of salvation, that it makes enemies brothers and restores and reconciles relationships so that opponents become family?

May God continue to save and bring unity to his Church.

“But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord…” Acts 9:1

“So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hand on him he said, ‘Brother Saul…’” Acts 9:17

From an enemy to a brother. Grace upon grace.

“Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” Romans 15:7

King Jesus

He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.

Hebrews 1:3

I barely have the capacity to understand these words. Jesus is so big that I cannot fit his grandiosity into my little brain. But my heart understands something about this verse that my head can’t wrap itself around. My heart understands the magnitude of this verse at the personal level. My heart understands that this verse means Jesus is the God that I need. He is a God big enough for all of my needs. He is big enough for you, and for me, and for the whole world. This verse tells us that Jesus does have the whole world in his hands. It relieves my heart, even if my mind cannot grasp its totality.

This verse means that Jesus can do anything in the world that he wants to do. He has power over all. He can end evil kingdoms with a breath. He can raise up the humble to powerful positions in a matter of days. He can send a flood to cover the earth. He can stop the sun in its place. He can do whatever he wants. He’s the king. So what does he choose to do?

He chooses to love you.

He chooses to save you.

He chooses to sanctify you.

He chooses to hold on to you.

He chooses to give you joy.

He chooses to redeem your suffering.

He chooses to intercede on your behalf.

He chooses to bring you into his glory.

This king, who can do anything he wants, chooses to care for you. He doesn’t care from a distance but from the place of personal nearness. He is not a distant king ruling and reigning with an iron fist and a closed door. He is a king that has come near – near enough to suffer and die. He is a king with a heart wide open, welcoming you. He is a king with a kingdom far beyond your wildest imagination. He is a king with unlimited power and he chooses to use that power for your good, because it brings him glory.

He is a glorious king, and you are his glorious prize. Jesus loves you.

You Are Not What You Want

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Sometimes we actually empower Satan by the way we speak of Christian conversion. We highlight the testimony of the ex-alcoholic who says, “Since I met Jesus I’ve never wanted another drink.” Now that happens sometimes, and we should give thanks for God’s power here. But this liberation is no more miraculous, indeed in some ways less so, than the testimony of the repentant drunk who says, “Every time I hear a clink of ice in a glass I tremble with desire, but God is faithful in keeping me sober.

The girl with same-sex desires might conclude she is doomed to be a lesbian because she isn’t drawn to boys and still fights her attraction to girls. Family members who have to cut up their credit cards to keep from spending every paycheck on what they see advertised may conclude they’re just not “spiritual” enough to follow Christ because they still war against their wants. Nonsense. You are not what you want. You are who you are. And that’s defined by the Word of God. It might be that God frees your appetite from whatever it’s drawn toward, but usually he instead enables you to fight it. This might go on for forty days, for forty years, for an entire lifetime. That’s all right. There must be room then in our churches for a genuine bearing of one another’s burdens when it comes to the appetites. Pretending the appetites are instantly nullified by conversion is a rejection of what God has told us – that we are still in the war zone.

Moore, Russell. Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011. 72-73.

If we are to make any progress in our churches in the area of mutual sanctification and mortification of sin, we must begin to see one another as co-sufferers. We are all controlled, at some level, by the strength of our desires. We want what we want, and to not want it is painfully difficult. But we are not alone (or we shouldn’t be, anyway) in the church. The church is made up of people who have stared sin straight in the face and seen a greater power break the chains. Jesus is alive, which means there is hope even for the hopeless. The key to encouraging sin-strugglers, of which we all are, is to continually point them to the only real sin defeater, who works endlessly on our behalf.

The struggle is real. The fight is exhausting. Admit that. Bear one another’s burdens. Be there when it gets hard. That’s not only the job of pastors and church staff, that’s the job of Christian brothers and sisters, of Christian friends. Walk in the light – together, forever.

When the clink of the glass is loudest, you need a nagging friend who breaks the glass with the power of the gospel.

We Are At War

We are at war. It’s an old war, as old as the earth. It’s an invisible war that, at times, reveals itself in the visible world. We are at war, and we would do well to recognize it. Our enemy is as real as flesh and blood, though he takes not the form of it. He’s working in the spiritual realm – planning, scheming, attacking. This enemy never tires of his evil. He is unrelenting. He’s made up his mind – he is greater than God, and he’s out to prove it, whatever it takes.

And here we are, all of us Christians, following the Lord wherever he calls. The enemy hates us. It’s not as if in a worldly war, where upon one side seeing the face of the man he’s fighting against grows some form (even small) of sympathy and sadness for the man he’s trying to kill. Our spiritual enemy knows our face, but does not care, because he hates our Godward heart. He hates what Jesus has done to us in saving us. He hates what the Spirit bears witness to us. He hates the throne of God.

In the book of Ephesians, Paul instructs us about this battle.

11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15 and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. 16 In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; 17 and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, 18 praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, 19 and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.

Ephesians 6:11-20

We need to know whom we are wrestling with. This is not a benign threat, nor a mere warning of what may be. This is a full-fledged attack, with a draft into the Lord’s army.

What would it look like for your ministry if you realized you are in the midst of war? A wartime mentality, while taken too far can be weird, taken too lightly can be disastrous. There is a real war going on, and if you are a Christian serving in ministry, you are an officer with a bounty on your head. The enemy wants you dead, and he’ll go to any lengths to make sure he succeeds.

But he can’t succeed. He’s already lost the war. This doesn’t mean we can underestimate him now, or take him lightly. He still has his flaming darts, and he’s a good shot. But he can’t ultimately defeat you, because he has already been ultimately defeated.

He thought he won at the cross. As Jesus hung there in agony and frailty, he rejoiced as only evil can. His hellish laughter rose to its pinnacle as the spear entered the side of the Savior. His devilish pride ascended above the cross to look down upon his defeated foe. He walked away with a smile on his face, and a pep in his step – all the way into the empty grave, upon where he realized with horror his utter defeat. The cross was his shining triumph, but it was also his staggering downfall

We cannot even agree on the meaning of days anymore. That first Friday was not good. It only became good because Sunday followed. Our enemy sees it the other way. We are utterly opposed to one another. There is no hope of restoration. He’s made up his mind. God must go. But he won’t. He can’t. He’s the victor, and victors don’t give up their kingdom.

Now we are the ambassadors of the King. We are sent out to proclaim this good news of the victory of Jesus on the cross. But we do so not as proud soldiers in that heavenly war. We were not there to take up our swords. We were on the ground, rebelling against God right along with our enemy, because we too are the enemy. Our own hearts have rejected God. And the cross was our defeat as well, if we’ll have it.

The difference between the enemy of God and the friend of God is the difference between humbling ourselves at the foot of the cross and propping ourselves up on his throne. The glory of the gospel is that Jesus didn’t kill us at first sight. Instead, he yielded his throne for a manger. He traded his crown for a cross. He laid down his shield and let the flaming darts penetrate deep inside his body – all the way to death. He let us, and Satan, kill him, because it was the only way to save us.

So as Hellish Friday turned into Good Friday as morning rose on Sunday, those in Christ went from citizens of the underworld to citizens of heaven as quickly as the sun turned night into day. The Savior walked out of the grave and defeated his challengers by the power of an indestructible life. He could die yes, but he could not stay dead. And that makes all the difference.

You can’t keep a good man down. But our enemy doesn’t see this yet. So he fights on. Now he attacks the King’s ambassadors. We must pray for them, for they are our brothers and sisters – they are us. We must take up the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit. Under that protection – His protection – we cannot fall. We have become good men through the Good Man’s death and resurrection.

It’s Almost Launch Day

Refuge

Christians always want to put themselves in positions to be used by God. On Sunday, August 7, 2016, a group of Christians will do just that at 10:30 inside of a school cafeteria. Refuge Church will officially launch in Franklin, TN.

We have come from different churches, from different areas of town, from different backgrounds, with one sense of calling: to plant a church in Franklin for Franklin. We believe Jesus has called us to this work. He has led us here, for this moment, at this time, for this purpose. He is building something new, and we are along for the ride.

As I look forward to Sunday, I am grateful for a few things, and hopeful for a few more.

I am grateful that Refuge is already a church body. Sunday, in some ways, doesn’t change much. Our worship service will look much the same as it has the past few months. We will sing praises to God, we will come before the throne of grace in prayer, we will preach the glory of the gospel of Jesus Christ, we will come to the communion table in remembrance of him. We will come and gather together and go and scatter throughout our city during the week. We will meet in our Community Groups to help one another press the gospel deep into our hearts. We will pray for one another, bear one another’s burdens, encourage one another, confess sin together, be needy and hopeful Christians together. Our commitment to church planting in our city, our country, and throughout the world will not falter. The same Jesus Christ that we love and follow will be the same Sunday as he was yesterday and as he’ll be today.

I am grateful that Jesus has called us into this mission. He has provided for us. We have a place to meet, we have a large core group that has been faithfully praying and working toward this new work, and we have many partnerships all throughout the country. Our sending church, Immanuel Church, has prepared us well and sent us out with great joy. We are, in the hands of the Lord, as ready as we can be.

So in one sense, on August 7, 2016 nothing changes for Refuge Church. We will continue meeting and continue preaching and continue praying and continue pressing the gospel message out into the world. But in another sense, everything is about to change.

I’m also hopeful for a few new things. Of course, I have no idea what God might do with this new church, but I believe that as we give it all to him, day by day, he will work within our church miracles of grace that will ring throughout the heavens and outlast this dying world. He will save and he will restore and he will make all things new to the praise of his glorious grace.

So here are a few things for which I am praying and hoping.

I am hopeful for an influx of unbelievers and tired Christians. I’m praying that Refuge Church will become a Refuge to our city. That those who are tired of church, who have been wounded by the church, who do not know the Lord, and don’t even want the Lord find Refuge underneath his wings of salvation.

I am hopeful for an explosion of joy – the kind of joy that heaven is filled with. Franklin is a great city. It’s my hometown. I love it. And in so many ways it is already filled with joy. Families rush downtown for the latest festival, business move in because of new opportunities, houses can’t be built fast enough. There is joy in that. But the kind of joy I’m praying for is the kind that can only come from above, not crafted by human hands.

I am hopeful for new opportunities. Franklin is one of the wealthiest and fastest growing areas in our state. The median income of Franklin is twice the median of the state of Tennessee. If a majority of the city were to come to saving faith and cause an explosion of generosity our state, our country, and the entire world could be changed. Now, that might sound overly optimistic, but isn’t that what the gospel inspires? What if just 10% more people were to have their conscience cleansed by the Holy Spirit? Let’s say a new 10% begins giving 10%. At our current medium income level and current population, which are both growing rapidly, that would release over $55 million annually into mission. How many new churches could be planted? How many new missionaries could be sent? That’s not just a financial impact, that’s a people impact. 10% more people loving and following Jesus wherever he leads.

I am hopeful for an awakening. I believe that God is not done with this country. I believe that God will bring a renewal to our country as more and more people bend their knee in repentance and faith. Every city has a tipping point. The pastor of Immanuel, Ray Ortlund, calls this the threshold of non-ignorability. It is the point at which something reaches such a height such that it becomes a topic of conversation. I’m really ready for a new conversation, one centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ. What would it look like for Jesus to become the topic of the town?

I am hopeful for the advancement of the gospel. One way Refuge Church will advance the gospel in our time is through church planting. Our pastor, Dustin Neeley, is uniquely gifted to do just this. He understands the ins and outs of church planting well. God has prepared him. But Dustin isn’t the only one in Refuge that longs for, works toward, and prays for more churches. God has brought people that want to see the church multiplied. I am hopeful that in our life as a church, for as long as God gives us, we will be involved in training, sending, and planting churches throughout this world. The gospel is going to go out from Franklin, TN and many who hear the message will never know our names. That’s fine with us. This is not about us at all, it’s about Jesus.

Finally, I am hopeful for fresh grace. In Ephesians 3 Paul prays that God may grant us to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in our inner being, so that we can have the strength we need to comprehend all that Jesus is. Essentially, he’s praying for our hearts to be strengthened by grace for grace. Our weak hearts are too frail for all the wonder of Jesus Christ. So God strengthens our hearts to experience more and more of him. That’s fresh grace, and Jesus never runs out.

On Sunday a new church will officially open her doors to Franklin, TN. But it is not flesh and blood who will unlock that door, it is the Holy Spirit of God who will do that. This is, and has been, and, by God’s grace, will always be Jesus’s church. Refuge Church is a gift from God coming through his people to a city that needs the love of Christ. Whatever he asks of us, our answer is “yes.” 

Pray with us as we near our launch. May Jesus be glorified. May people be saved. May the gospel go forth. May we find fresh grace and everlasting joy in the only Savior in all the world.

God be praised for his overflowing grace!