My Parents Say Missions Is a Waste of American Blessings

My Parents Say Missions Is a Waste of American Blessings

If your parents think pursuing missions is a waste, win them to your vision and show them that Christ is sufficient to satisfy your soul.

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Revelation 4:10–11: How to Read Revelation

Revelation can be difficult to interpret. In this lab, Pastor John illustrates how to begin to understand the symbols, and apply them to life today.

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Five Marks of a Servant Leader

Five Marks of a Servant Leader

All professing Christians agree that a Christian leader should be a servant leader. Jesus couldn’t be clearer:

“The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.” (Luke 22:25–26)

Where there’s not always agreement is how servant leadership should look in a given situation. Sometimes servant leaders wash others’ feet, so to speak (John 13:1–17), but other times they rebuke (Matthew 16:23), and even discipline (Matthew 18:15–20). Sometimes they serve at their own expense (1 Corinthians 9:7), but other times they issue strong imperatives (1 Corinthians 5:2; 11:16).

Wading into Muddy Waters

Other factors muddy the waters even more for us. To begin with, all Christian leaders have indwelling sin, which means even at the height of their maturity, they will still be defective servants. Add to this the fact that most leaders have not yet reached their height of maturity. Add to this the fact that all Christian followers also have indwelling sin and most haven’t reached our height of maturity either. Add to this the fact that different temperaments, experiences, giftings, and callings influence both how certain leaders tend to serve, and how certain followers tend to perceive that leadership — a leader’s genuine attempt to serve might be interpreted by a genuine follower as an attempt to “lord it over” them (2 Corinthians 1:24). And then there are wolfish, self-serving leaders who, while deceiving their followers, appear for a time to behave in ways similar to servant leaders.

So, determining whether or not a leader is acting from a heart of Christlike service requires charitable, patient, humble discernment. It’s not simple. There’s no one-size-fits-all servant leader description. The needs and contexts in the wider church are vast and varied, and require many different kinds of leaders and gifts. We must guard against our own unique biases when assessing leaders’ hearts. Each of us is more or less drawn to certain kinds of leaders, but our preferences can be unreliable and even uncharitable standards.

Marks of a Servant Leader

Still, the New Testament instructs us to exercise due diligence in discerning a Christian leader’s fitness (see, for instance, 1 Timothy 3:1–13). What traits do we look for in a leader that suggest his fundamental orientation is Christlike servanthood? This list is by no means exhaustive, but here are five fundamental indicators.

1. A servant leader seeks the glory of his Master.

And his Master is not his reputation or his ministry constituency; it is God. Jesus said, “The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood” (John 7:18). A Christlike leader is a bondservant of Christ (Ephesians 6:6), and demonstrates over time that Christ — not public approval, position, or financial security — has his primary loyalty. In this he “swears to his own hurt and does not change” (Psalm 15:4).

2. A servant leader sacrificially seeks the highest joy of those he serves.

This does not conflict with seeking the glory of his Master. Jesus said, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant . . . even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:26, 28). Whatever his temperament, gift mix, capacities, or sphere of influence, he will make necessary sacrifices in order to pursue people’s “progress and joy in the faith,” which results in the greater glory of God (Philippians 1:25; 2:9–11).

3. A servant leader will forgo his rights rather than obscure the gospel.

Paul said it this way: “I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them” (1 Corinthians 9:19). What did this mean for him? It meant sometimes he abstained from certain foods and drinks, or refused financial support from those he served, or worked with his own hands to provide for himself, or went hungry, or dressed poorly, or was beaten, or was homeless, or endured disrespect inside and outside the church (1 Corinthians 4:11–13; 9:4–7). And he decided not to marry (1 Corinthians 9:5). This all before he was martyred. Paul’s servant bar may have been set extraordinarily high, but all servant leaders will yield their rights if they believe more will be won to Christ as a result.

4. A servant leader is not preoccupied with personal visibility and recognition.

Like John the Baptist, a servant leader sees himself as a “friend of the Bridegroom” (John 3:29), and is not preoccupied with the visibility of his own role. He doesn’t view those with less visible roles as less significant, nor does he covet more visible roles as more significant (1 Corinthians 12:12–26). He seeks to steward the role he’s received as best he can, and gladly leaves the role assignments to God (John 3:27).

5. A servant leader anticipates and graciously accepts the time for his decrease.

All leaders serve only for a season. Some seasons are long, some short; some are abundant, some lean; some are recorded and recalled, most are not. But all seasons end. When John the Baptist recognized the ending of his season, he said, “Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:29–30).

Sometimes a leader is the first to recognize his season’s end, sometimes others recognize it first, and sometimes God lets a season end unjustly for purposes a leader can’t understand at the time. But a servant leader graciously yields his role for the good of Christ’s cause, because his identity and trust are not in his calling, but in his Christ.

Be Gracious with Your Leaders

No earthly Christian leader is the perfect incarnation of these five fundamental marks of servanthood. Jesus alone bears that distinction. The vast majority of our leaders are imperfect servants trying to be faithful.

So, some of the greatest gifts we can give our leaders are 1) our explicit encouragement when we see any of these graces in them (loose our tongues), 2) our quiet patience with their stumbling (hold our tongues), and 3) our charitable judgment and gracious feedback regarding decisions that raise questions and concerns (bridle our tongues). And all three can be as easily applied in speaking about our leaders as in speaking to them.

If a leader needs help recognizing the ending of his season, let his faithful friends bring a loving, gracious, gentle, and patient encouragement, and if necessary, reproof.

But sometimes, like Diotrephes (3 John 9), a leader’s sinful defects are too damaging, or like Judas (Luke 6:16), they prove to be a wolf. At that point a gracious response looks like appropriate, godly, mature followers taking the servant initiative to rebuke (Matthew 16:23), and even discipline (Matthew 18:15–20). We’ll know we’ve reached that point because, after a season of observation, it will become clear that these five marks are conspicuously missing in that leader.

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God Saves People with Bad Theology

You can be saved without ever having studied theology. The Holy Spirit doesn’t depend on perfect theology to make Jesus our hearts’ treasure.

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What Is Really Best for Me? Applying the Bible to the Same-Sex-Attracted

What Is Really Best for Me?

Which produces better fruit for same-sex-attracted men and women: the traditional or the progressive interpretation of the Bible’s sexual ethic?

The exegetical debate between these two stances has been well-documented. Ultimately, the truth of either position hinges on the interpretation of biblical passages concerning sexuality. Although it’s important to make strong, exegetical arguments that the historic Christian interpretation of these passages is biblically faithful — and that the progressive interpretation is not — that is not my intention here.

Rather, my goal is to defend this traditional sexual ethic against an argument progressives level against it downstream from exegesis. This argument is not about what the Bible says, but about the fruit these two interpretations produce in the realities of a same-sex-attracted person’s life.

The Progressive Argument

The argument, as fairly as I can put it, goes like this: The progressive interpretation of the Bible’s sexual ethic bears good fruit in people’s lives. Progressives claim that affirming same-sex marriage and monogamous same-sex relationships produces the good fruit of love, relational care, intimacy, and a hundred other benefits. The historic interpretation, they say, does not produce any of these things; rather, it often bears the bad fruit of pain, discouragement, and even despair.

Affirming theology gives. Non-affirming theology only withholds. That is the argument.

It’s true that historic biblical interpretation teaches that marriage is reserved for one man and one woman (Matthew 19:4–5), and that “men who have sex with men” is a sin listed alongside drunkenness, greed, and slander as worthy of exclusion from God’s kingdom (1 Corinthians 6:9–10). So, the traditional sexual ethic does restrict in a way the progressive ethic does not.

But does this necessarily lead to bad fruit? And do progressive interpretations have a corner on good fruit? Far from it. Consider three counterarguments to the progressive claim that the traditional ethic produces bad fruit.

1. The best fruit comes from self-denial.

First, we need to distinguish between bad fruit and self-denial. While it is true that the traditional sexual ethic requires denying desires that feel natural for many of us who experience same-sex attraction (SSA), self-denial comes with any gospel worth its salt. Jesus himself said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). If there is no daily cross-carrying, no moment-by-moment crucifixion of the remaining vestiges of the flesh in all of our hearts (Romans 8:13), then it is not Christ we are following.

In order to consider this self-denial bad fruit, we must believe that sexual and romantic fulfillment are required for human flourishing. Are we really willing to go there? As Sam Allberry said, “The most fully human and complete person who ever lived was Jesus Christ. He never married, he was never in a romantic relationship, and never had sex. If we say these things are intrinsic to human fulfillment, we are calling our Savior subhuman.”

That doesn’t make self-denial easy. Many like me are laying down desires for sexual and romantic fulfillment on a daily basis. But make no mistake, giving up a lesser pleasure for the greater pleasure of Christ is no loss at all in the end, for “in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). We deny now in order to gain the reward later, and that reward is most definitely good fruit. This is the model of Christ, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2).

Jesus promises good fruit at the other end of all godly self-denial. And that includes the self-denial of the traditional sexual ethic.

2. A tradition’s abuses don’t equal the tradition.

Second, and related, we must identify the specific “bad fruit” that traditionalist theology is accused of producing. Much of what progressives label “bad fruit” reflects abuses of the traditional sexual ethic rather than the ethic itself.

To be clear, the abuses do exist. During a question-and-answer session at the 2014 Together for the Gospel conference, seminary president Al Mohler confessed what he called “the sins of evangelicalism” in responding to the gay community with fear, bravado, and stereotypes. These attitudes have produced bad fruit, and it is right to acknowledge past failures and repent of ways we have joined in these harmful expressions.

However, the abuse of a thing does not equal the thing itself. When applied in love, the historic Christian interpretation does not tell homosexual people that they are worthless. Rather, it tells them that their ultimate worth is found in the image of God that they bear (Genesis 1:27), instead of in their sexual expression. It does not encourage SSA Christians to hate themselves or deny who they are, but rather to find their identity in the loving Savior who gave his very life for them (Ephesians 5:2). It does not treat SSA believers as second-class citizens, but rather as beloved brothers and sisters whose gifts are necessary for the church to function properly (Romans 12:4–8).

Insofar as the traditional sexual ethic is wielded as a weapon, it produces harmful fruit. But the harm is in the wielding, not in the ethic itself.

3. Intimacy doesn’t depend on marriage or sex.

Third, although the conservative position does withhold same-sex sexual activity and marriage, it does not withhold sacrificial love, life-giving intimacy, and deep relational community. The only way someone could argue that the traditional ethic withholds these good gifts is if they believe that a sexual relationship is the only place to experience them. But this is patently false. Deep friendship, loving community, and kinship in Christ’s blood are all beautiful occasions for sacrificial love and intimacy that are not contingent on sexual expression.

Most progressives would not disagree with that last statement, but some might push back that these good gifts are not the direct fruit of the traditional sexual ethic. But that’s the point. Love, intimacy, and community do not depend on marriage or sex, and therefore they are not the direct fruit of any sexual ethic — progressive or traditional. What, then, is the good fruit reserved for the affirming position? Sexual fulfillment? See point one.

Yesterday, Today, Forever

Every day, thousands of SSA brothers and sisters faithfully live out the beauty of the traditional sexual ethic. To say that good fruit does not flow from the historic Christian interpretation is to ignore their stories and the grace of God at work in their lives. The path does involve self-denial. It isn’t always easy. But the fruit is clear: real love on earth that leads to the eternal love of Christ.

The fruit doesn’t get any better than that.

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What’s the Appeal of Heavenly Rewards Other Than Getting Christ?

What’s the Appeal of Heavenly Rewards Other Than Getting Christ?

Christ is our reward — as is everything else that more fully reveals him and more fully enables us to enjoy him.

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My Joy in the Desert

My Joy in the Desert

For most of us, the single greatest threat to our faith in God and his promises has been the miles we have walked in the desert. Suffering is the proving ground for what we believe. How will we respond when things go badly? Will adversity, disappointment, and crisis undo our trust in God and hope for the peace, joy, safety, and love of the gospel?

The apostle Peter writes his first letter to Christians in conflict. Since following Jesus, these believers have not found the peace, safety, or relief that they might have expected. This world and their lives continue to be marred by inconvenience, disease, disappointment, persecution, and even death.

Peter writes, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice” (1 Peter 4:12–13). Is there a more counter-cultural, counter-human-nature message in the Bible than this? Jesus invites us to follow him and enter into inexpressible and glorious joy, even in the most bitter, heartbreaking, and excruciating moments of our lives.

Our prayer in the desert is not simply for strength and survival, but for joy. Only Christians can truly rejoice in trials, because only Christians find more of God there.

Death-Defying God

Ironically and beautifully, in God’s providence, trials are meant by God to serve our fullest and most lasting good and happiness. Peter begins that same letter with praise: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” (1 Peter 1:3). Why?

According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you. (1 Peter 1:3–4)

Blessed be the life-giving, death-defying, all-powerful God of absolutely miraculous mercy. If you believe and follow Jesus, you will face really difficult — likely even more difficult — things in this life. But the God who raises the dead is now your God. He is now with you, not against you. God has given you a new, true, and full life through his Son, Jesus. And the life he gives is filled with an unconquerable, unquenchable hope.

Unfading Future

One day, this hope will give birth to an inheritance in and with God beyond our wildest imaginations. This inheritance is imperishable. It doesn’t need an annual checkup. It can’t be used up. It will not die. It cannot die. Because our heavenly Father, who gave us life and adopted us into his family, cannot die. Nothing can touch or steal or spoil this inheritance.

It is undefiled. It’s not tainted or polluted in any way. Everything we have in this life, even our most precious possessions, are marred in some way by sin, either because they’re human and sinful, or because they sometimes tempt us into sin. Families, jobs, friends, sports, music, they’re all good and can be loved and enjoyed for God’s glory, but because of sin — because of our broken, deceitful, sinful hearts — there’s nothing perfectly good or safe or pure in this life. But our eternal hope, our heavenly inheritance, will be undefiled.

The inheritance we have with and from God is unfading. It cannot die, but everything fades with time, right? Passion fades. Energy fades as we age. Beauty fades. Our cars seem sturdy, well-built, reliable, but they fade. Our computers, fast and clean when we buy them, soon fade. They slow down and have to be replaced. Our bodies eventually age and break down and fail us. They fade. But our inheritance with God is unfading. Our hope is living and vibrant and filled with ever-renewing love, joy, and peace forever — always stronger, always deeper, never fading.

Learning to Love Desert Life

When we are faced with suffering, it’s not primarily about figuring out how to play the hand we’ve been dealt, but realizing the game is won. In Christ, our hand is already full of winning cards, so regardless of the particular situations, circumstances, or suffering we find ourselves up against, our hope is alive and our inheritance is huge because of God’s mercy to us in Jesus.

Faith like this will shock those around us. The world really doesn’t have a category for joy in suffering. They may rejoice in the baby born after the excruciating labor, or in the clean bill of health after hours of torment on a treadmill, or in the national pride and unity aroused after a terrorist attack. But they haven’t tasted joy in the pain, in the insult, in the heartache. They may just see the beauty and power of Jesus while watching you walk through your deserts and battles, and finally believe him for themselves.

God uses suffering to strengthen and purify our faith in his promises like nothing else. What we hold faithfully through trials, we are more likely to hold in the face of temptation. So, God sovereignly wields suffering to purify our hearts and our resolves for him so that we shine more brightly with his light and sufficiency. When we hold onto Christ through the loss, through the cancer, through the betrayal, we say that he is enough — that he is worth it all — and we prove that the Spirit is in us, sealing us and keeping us forever.

The suffering very painfully, but also very sweetly and powerfully, serves to prepare us for eternity and to display our good news to those around us now.

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The Pleasure of God in Those Who Hope in His Love

The Pleasure of God in Those Who Hope in His Love

God delights in those who place the full weight of their hope in him.

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Is It Against the Law to Love Illegals?

Is It Against the Law to Love Illegals?

With a sickening crunch, the truck plowed into our front left fender. After a few moments of stunned confusion, we were thankful to find that no one was hurt. The same could not be said for our family station wagon. The Hispanic man who had run into us apologized in broken English, and presented us with his insurance card. The police declined to assign fault.

Later we would discover that the man had bought the insurance in Mexico and then canceled it shortly after crossing the border. The police suspected this at the time but did not investigate further. Evidently they were weary of dealing with undocumented drivers.

No ticket. No consequences. Nothing. Our family was left to cope with the damage, alone.

If my attitude toward illegal immigrants had been written on a sign at that moment, it would have proclaimed in bold, angry letters, “Keep Out!”

A few years later, I encountered illegal immigration in quite a different way.

I was in a two hundred-acre field of strawberries as hundreds of bent backs moved down the rows. The soft “snap, snap” of breaking stems reached my ears as skillful hands nestled glossy, red berries into one-pound packages. The man who made his living from that soil couldn’t find locals who would do the work.

Our food supply. A billion dollar industry. In those hands.

At that moment, if my thoughts on illegal immigrants had been written for all to see, the sign would have proclaimed the friendly invitation, “Help Wanted!”

Must We Love All Our Neighbors?

Illegal immigration is a complicated and confusing reality. It elicits a wide range of reactions. Notice, however, that my two contrasting responses both arose from the same self-oriented perspective. How does the presence of illegal immigrants in my community affect me and my livelihood? Without realizing it, I began to think of illegal immigrants as either curses or blessings to society, rather than as people in need of a Savior, based on what was convenient or inconvenient to me at the time.

There is nothing wrong with acknowledging the social, political, and economic causes and effects of illegal immigration. But there is a serious danger for Christians. We can get so caught up in the fact that illegal immigrants are our neighbors that we forget that illegal immigrants are our neighbors. It’s important to keep in mind that while we are instructed to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1), we are also called to love our neighbors as ourselves (Luke 10:27).

Who is my neighbor? This was the question that prompted Jesus’s famous story that we call the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25–37. A teacher of the law posed this question to Jesus with a clear motive: to justify his lack of love for certain people. Jesus then proceeded to make him and the other religious folks in the audience very uncomfortable. A man was robbed, stripped, beaten, and left for dead on the side of the road. A Levite and a priest both passed by on the other side. But when a despised Samaritan saw him, he had compassion on the suffering man and met his needs.

God calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves without exception. But because of remaining sin in our hearts, this is hard for us. Because of our tragic tendency to be selective and self-focused, we will have to be intentional to love like Jesus commands. Here are three suggestion for loving your illegal immigrant neighbor.

1. Love Like a Former Foreigner

Remember that you also were a foreigner once. That is indeed what we were according to Ephesians 2:19, before being declared by God citizens of his kingdom through no virtue of our own. The Bible calls us former “aliens” and “strangers” to help us understand that before we put our trust in Christ for the forgiveness of our sins, we were helpless outcasts, having no status before God and no foothold in his realm.

What scandalous grace! May we never reach for Romans 13 — for the power of the state to punish lawbreakers — without also reaching for Romans 12 — for the grace to “associate with the lowly” (Romans 12:16).

When we begin to consider the common need for Jesus we share with illegal immigrants, then we will be ready to listen. We will be able to hear their stories. By entering, even a little bit, into the complexities of their lives, we will be able to love them as real people. We will have a better understanding of how to do good to them. Otherwise, they will remain the caricatures of our imaginations, over-simplified statistics to process rather than souls to love.

2. Imitate Jesus in the Way You Love

Jesus didn’t just tell the story of the Good Samaritan; he lived it. He shocked the people of his day by seeking out a Samaritan woman in John 4, engaging a demon-possessed Gentile in Mark 5, and befriending a greedy tax collector for the Roman occupiers in Luke 19. His ministry in ancient Israel was one of unrelenting, pursuing love across cultural and social boundaries.

His approach in modern-day America is no different. Are we cooperating with him by seeking out undocumented immigrants in our communities? My friend Alex is a great example of someone who loves like Jesus, befriending children of migrant laborers by volunteering at a local community center after school. He shows them Christlike compassion and helps them improve their English in the process.

3. Tell Them the Gospel

Illegal immigrants are one way the nations are coming to us. Yet farmworkers from Central America are laboring in obscurity, never knowing the redeeming love of God. Women from Africa are cleaning hotel rooms over weekends, instead of attending churches. Men from Southeast Asia are working long hours in big cities, having never been lovingly confronted with the truth of Christ crucified.

God has brought the nations to you. Will you help bring them to him? Illegal immigrants are our neighbors. It is not against the law to love them in real, tangible ways.

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The Neediness You Need to Be Strong (Two-Minute Clip on Faith)

Without faith, all your virtues become vices, and all your victories are losses. If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all.

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