Things Prophets and Angels Did Not Know (I Peter 1:10-12)

These are a loaded three verses. To my knowledge, there’s nothing quite like them in the New Testament, informing us that prophets and angels did their work without understanding the big picture.

“Concerning this salvation, the prophets who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care,

“Trying to find out the time and circumstances in which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow.

“It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from Heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.”

One of the bedrock principles of a great segment of Bible scholars states that in order to understand a prophecy, a student should go back and try to learn what the prophet who announced it understood it to mean.

As if he was the ultimate authority on his prophecy.

This principle–clearly erroneous, according to this passage from the Apostle Peter–has given rise to the undermining of some of the great doctrines of the Christian faith.

The plain fact is, Peter says, the prophets said more than they knew. They were the instruments of “The Spirit of Christ within them.”

God knew what He was doing; the prophets often didn’t.

Nor did the angels. That one may be the greatest surprise of all.

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What I’ve Learned About the Church

In this the Red Zone of my life–I turn 70 in two months, but don’t let on like you know it; I’m trying to ignore it–I’m becoming more and more settled in certain aspects of the Kingdom of God. One that is becoming clearer and clearer is the prominence in the Lord’s plan of His Church.

As one who began this journey–I received the kickoff a long way back, deep in the End Zone, to push the football metaphor to the brink!–loving the church but seeing no real strategic importance for it, this has been quite a trip.

Church was always a part of our family’s life, beginning with the New Oak Grove Free Will Baptist Church near Nauvoo, Alabama, continuing with the little Methodist Church in a mining camp near Beckley, West Virginia, back to Nauvoo, then college chapel at Berry College near Rome, Georgia, West End Baptist Church in Birmingham where God did a dozen great things in my life forever changing my earthly and heavenly fate, and thereafter, on to the churches I have served.

Here’s the list of the Southern Baptist Churches that have been so faithful, so foolhardy, so daring, as to bring me to labor among their leadership, in chronological order:

Unity Baptist Church, Kimberly, Alabama. (1962-63) They were the first, bless ‘em.

Central Baptist Church, Tarrant, Alabama (first six months of 1964)

Paradis Baptist Church, Paradis, LA (1965-67)

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Greenville, MS (1967-70)

FBC Jackson, MS (minister of evangelism) (1971-73)

FBC Columbus, MS (1974-86)

FBC Charlotte, NC (1986-89)

FBC Kenner, LA (1990-2004)

Still a member of the Kenner church, although following my retirement last June 1 from the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans, I’m in a different church almost every weekend.

So, here they are, my TWENTY-ONE battle-tested, tried-in-the-fire-and-found-to-be-authentic, strongly held convictions about the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.

I send them forth not because they are new, but in the hope that God’s people who read them will come across one or two of them they’ve not thought of, causing them look deeper into that aspect of the Kingdom and thus have a greater appreciation for the Mind and Heart of God.

This list is not exhaustive (although some might find it exhausting!), but I can’t wait for that. Let’s get started….

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Why Small Churches Tend to Stay Small (Part 2)

(This is part 2 of a two-part article, 6 through 10 reasons on why small churches usually do not grow. Click here for part 1)

6. No plan.

The typical, stagnant small church is small in ways other than numbers. They tend to be small in vision, in programs, in outreach, and in just about everything else.

Perhaps worst of all, they have small plans. Or no plans at all.

The church with no plan–that is, no specific direction for what they are trying to do and become–will content itself with plodding along, going through the motions of “all churches everywhere.” They have Sunday School and worship services and a few committees. Once in a while, they will schedule a fellowship dinner or a revival. But ask the leadership, “What is your vision for this church?” and you will receive blank stares for an answer.

Here are two biblical instances of church leaders who knew what they were doing.

In Acts 6, when the church was disrupted by complaints from the Greek widows of being neglected in the distribution of food in favor of the Hebrew widows, the disciples called the congregation together. They said, “It is not right for us to neglect….(how they would fill in this blank reveals their plan)…in order to wait on tables.” And then, as they commissioned the seven men chosen, the disciples said, “We will turn this responsibility over to them and give our attention to….(fill in the blank).”

In the first instance, the disciples saw their plan as “the word of God” and in the second as “prayer and the ministry of the word.”

How do you see your ministry, pastor? What is your church’s focus?

Earlier, when Peter and John were threatened by the religious authorities who warned them to stop preaching Jesus, they returned to the congregation to let them know of this development. Immediately, everyone dropped to their knees and began praying. Notice the heart of their prayer, what they requested: “Now Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to…..(what? how they finished this is how we know their plan, their chief focus).”

“…to speak your word with great boldness.” (Acts 4:29)

When the Holy Spirit filled that room, the disciples “were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.” (v. 31) Clearly, that means they spoke it into the community, the world around them, and not just to one another.

When I asked a number of leaders for their take on why so many small churches do not grow, several said, “They need to focus on the two or three things they do best. Not try to be everything to everyone.”

Some churches need to focus on children’s ministry, others on youth or young adults, young families, or even the oldsters. (Tell me why it is when a church is filled with seniors, we look upon it as failing. It’s as though white-haired people of our society don’t need to be reached for the Lord.)

Some will focus on teaching, others on ministry in the community, some on jail and prison ministries, and some on music or women’s or men’s work.

One note of explanation: this is not to say that the church should shut down everything else to do one or two things. Rather, they will want to keep doing the basics, but throw their energies and resources, their promotions and prayers and plans, into enlarging and honing two or three ministries they feel the Lord has uniquely called them into.

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Why Small Churches Tend to Stay Small (Part 1)

(This is part 1 of a two-part article, the first 5 of 10 reasons on why small churches usually do not grow. Click here for part 2)

First, an explanation or two, then a definition.

I know more about getting smaller churches to grow than larger ones. I pastored three of them, and only the first of the three did not grow. I was fresh out of college, untrained, inexperienced, and clueless about what I was doing. The next two grew well, and even though I remained at each only some three years, one almost doubled and the other nearly tripled in attendance and ministries.

By using the word “grow,” I do not mean numbers for numbers sake. I do not subscribe to the fallacy that bigness is good and small churches are failures. What I mean by “grow” is reaching people with the gospel of Jesus Christ. If you reach them and start new churches, your local church may not expand numerically, but it is most definitely “growing.” If you are located in a town that is losing population and your church manages to stay the same size, you’re probably “growing” (i.e., reaching new people for the Lord).

There are not “ten reasons” why small churches tend to remain small. They do tend to stay that way, you’ve probably noticed. But there must be hundreds of reasons for this, and no two churches are alike.

This is simply my observations as to why stagnant, ungrowing churches tend to stay that way. I send it forth hoping to plant some seed in the imagination of a pastor or other leader who will be used of the Lord to do great things in a small church.

I have frequently quoted Francis Schaeffer who said, “There are no small churches and no big preachers.” I like that. But it’s not entirely true. We’ve seen churches made up of just a few people and stymied by lack of vision and a devotion to the status quo. And here and there, we may encounter a preacher with the world on his heart and the wisdom of the ages on his lips; that for my money is a “big preacher.”

But this is not about being such a preacher. We’re concerned with not being one of those churches.

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Joy in Mudville

New Orleans is beside itself with joy this morning. People are walking around with a grin on their faces and a quickness to their step.

The New Orleans Saints are going to the Super Bowl.

The (Jackson, MS) Clarion-Ledger cartoonist Marshall Ramsey says on his Facebook page that the King Edward Hotel is reopening there after 40 years, Massachusetts has elected a Republican to fill the Kennedy seat in the U.S. Senate, and the New Orleans Saints are in the Super Bowl. Can the Apocalypse be far behind?

Last night as soon as the Saints kicker knocked the ball 40 yards downfield through the uprights, a cheer ascended heavenward from this part of the world as one voice. I walked out the front door of my house just to see if anyone else was coming outside. After all, we need to share our joy and express it with those of like minds.

Up and down the block they were flowing into the street, some yelling that odd Saints cry of “Who Dat!” You could hear fireworks popping from every direction.

After 43 years, our team has won the NFC Championship and earned a spot in the Super Bowl to be played in Miami on February 7. How sweet it is.

I hope the joy lasts a long time. But I’m also a realist.

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Pastor, Make Us Think

“…and in that law he meditates day and night.” (Psalm 1:2)

One writer says that word “meditates” reminds him of something he saw his dog do in the Northwest woods where they were living. One day his dog dragged a huge bone up to the house. Clearly, it came from the carcass of an elk or moose, he said, and that little dog had certainly not brought the animal down. But that pup sure did enjoy that bone.

What he did was to gnaw on it day after day, eating it away little by little. Sometimes, the canine would bury the bone under leaves and later dig it out and resume its worrisome process of ingesting that huge bone. Eventually, he had consumed the entire thing.

That is what the believer is to do with the word, the writer said. Think about it, consider it from every angle, take in all he can today, then lay it aside for the moment, only to bring it out later and gnaw on it again until it has become his.

In every church a pastor will quickly find two groups: those who enjoy being prodded into thinking by his sermons and those who refuse to think and insist that their spiritual food be predigested so it goes down smoothly.

My observation is that only the first group will grow spiritually. The unthinking group is content to be spiritual infants and to remain that way.

The unthinking member demands simple sermons, easy lessons, no gray areas, all Scripture interpretation to be neat and orderly with no room for differences of interpretation, and no challenges to his beliefs, his position, his world.

The unthinking has a difficult time with Jesus. He refuses to abide by their demands, just as He did with every group He ministered to in the First Century.

The pastor’s challenge is to move members of the fallow group into the first category–to show them the delights of reflecting on God’s Word, thinking about His message, studying their Sunday School lessons, and examining most everything else in lives, and then to incorporate God’s truths into their lives.

Consider this example.

“Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered that way?'”

The Lord proceeded to answer his rhetorical question with a “No, but unless you repent, you too will all perish,” but clearly, He wanted them to think about this.

“Do you think?”

Then, stressing the point, Jesus called to their mind a similar tragedy with an identical truth. “Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them–do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?” (Luke 13:1-5)

Well, Lord, pardon me, but…well, you see…we don’t actually like to think about these things. Can you just lay it out there in black and white and we’ll simply quote you and run along.

Sorry. He refuses to play into our laziness, to cater to our inertia.

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Faith: The Most Ubiquitous Force in the Universe (I Peter 1:8-9)

“Though you have not seen Him, you love Him; and even though you do not see Him now, you believe in Him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (I Peter 1:8-9)

A few years ago, a group of scientists were given the most prestigious award in the world, the Nobel Prize for science, for discovering that all around us, all around them, and throughout every cubic foot of the universe is reverberating tiny echoes of the original Big Bang, Creation itself. They called it something like a “humming,” which everyone heard to the point that they had quit questioning it.

You see the same wallpaper every day and eventually you quit noticing it. When the scientists decided to analyze the mysterious hum, they found echoes of the Beginning.

Faith is like that. It’s everywhere, everyone uses it, lives by it, orders their lives by it and around it, but rarely give it a thought.

The funny thing is how some dispute that they believe in faith or use it in any way. As they do so, they draw their breath by faith, stand on their spot of terrain by faith, and plan their next act by faith.

Defining faith is a little tricky. Everyone tries his hand at it.

The writer of Hebrews–whoever he or she was–introduces the well-beloved 11th chapter, the Faith Chapter in our New Testament, with a definition:

“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Heb. 11:1 NIV)

Some kid said it’s believing what you know isn’t true.

Here’s my definition:

“Faith is a conviction that a certain thing is true and real and solid on the basis of evidence even though some evidence is still missing.”

We are all celestial Sherlock Holmeses in a way–studying the evidence, coming to conclusions on the basis of that evidence, but all the while wishing we had the missing parts of the puzzle. Divine sleuths.

The disciple of Jesus Christ goes forward by faith. The Jew, the Taoist, the Muslim all live by faith. The Hindu, the Buddhist, the animist, and the voodoo practitioner get up every morning and go forth by faith.

The atheist lives by faith. The skeptic and agnostic are faith practitioners, just as much as Oral Roberts or Jerry Falwell or Billy Graham or Mother Teresa ever were.

This is true for the simple reason that we on this planet have tons of evidence for belief and a great deal for unbelief. We find loads of evidence for confidence our house will still be standing on the ground it occupies this morning and likewise reason to fear it won’t. Ask any Haitian about that.

The insurance company, the Fortune 500 conglomerate, and the bakery that opened in the strip mall near my house, all roll the dice and take their chances.

We live by faith every day. Get used to it.

Faith is only as good as its object. Here is where the disciple of Jesus Christ shines.

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The Oldest Question in the World (I Peter 1:6-7)

When Katrina devastated this part of the world, two-thirds of the preachers in this land climbed into the pulpits the following Sunday to address the question on everyone’s mind: “Why suffering?”

It’s variously stated as “Why does God allow suffering?” and “Why do bad things happen to good people?” or “If God is all-loving and all-powerful, why doesn’t He end suffering?”

With the earthquake that wrought unbelievable death and suffering in Haiti, all those old questions have resurfaced.

What amazes Bible students and pastors is that the theology of Job’s friends, which the Word goes to such lengths to discredit, is still alive and well and being spread by many who claim to be Christians.

It’s what’s called in the logic classroom a “syllogism” and it looks like this:

The righteous do not suffer.

You are suffering.

Therefore, you are not righteous.

I did not hear Pat Robertson’s inflammatory comment last week in which he is said to have suggested (or actually made, I’m not sure) that Haiti’s constant poverty and suffering and now this earthquake which has taken the lives of 100,000 people is the result of an old voodoo pact the Haitians made with the devil.

If he said it and believes it, he believes in voodoo more than he should.

Anyone who believes that God is judging that sad little nation in this way ought to be ashamed of themselves. The poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, and God picks on them! What kind of tyrant do people think we worship?!

The Apostle Peter was writing to some people who were puzzled about their own suffering. Scholars are confident, to my knowledge, that the epistle was penned in the decade of the 60’s A.D. This would put it smack-dab in the middle of Nero’s time, that despot who burned Rome and blamed it on Christians.

We actually have a date for that event: July 19, A.D. 64. The fire burned for 3 days and 3 nights, was stopped, and then it broke out again. We’re told that Nero had a passion for building and needed to clear off space for his next projects. Since the buildings of much of Rome were wooden and the streets were narrow, a fire could take out much of the city, as it did.

Historians do not have a smoking gun, so to speak, identifying Nero as the culprit, but even at the time, everyone knew the name of the arsonist. We’re told that people trying to put out the fires were hindered. The historian Tacitus, who was 9 when all this happened, names names and fingers Nero.

The citizens were in an uproar. Nero quickly saw he was going to need a scapegoat, someone to pin the blame on.

He chose the Christians.

Tacitus wrote: “He falsely diverted the charge on to a set of people to whom the vulgar gave the name of Chrestians, and who were detested for the abominations they perpetrated.”

Abominations? Outsiders thought they were cannibalistic from their rituals of “eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus.”

Antisemitism was already rampant in those days, and since Christians were associated with Judaism, this made them doubly apt as targets.

So, a period of intense harassment, persecution, and torture was begun. We’re told a large number of Christians were rolled in pitch (that would be tar), hoisted onto posts, and set afire to light the city. Untold numbers of disciples of the Lord Jesus were martyred in this manner.

Peter writes to people for whom suffering is no abstraction. They encounter hostility and rejection, brutality and persecution, everywhere they go.

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Heaven: One Surprising Thing We’ll Do There

I had a small reminder today of what Heaven is going to be like.

Remember, you heard it here.

I was having lunch with Pastor Michael and Jane Perry after the morning services in the First Baptist Church of Moss Point, Mississippi, where they serve. We got started talking about families or football or something, and they said Jane’s father–now in Heaven–was the biggest Alabama fan on the planet.

“He had Bear Bryant pictures all over the house,” she said. “He’s gone but they’re still there.”

That’s when I related my little tale of the 1980 game between Bama and Mississippi State. As I began talking, Michael started smiling. I said, “Have I told you this story?” He said, “No, but I remember the game. Go ahead, and I’ll tell you when you finish.”

My story went like this. We had driven from our home in Columbus, MS, to Jackson for the game. Alabama had a 17-game winning streak going and State was a perennial doormat for the Southeastern Conference. Even though we liked both teams–we were located between both universities on U.S. 82 which adjoins them–we were rooting for Bama that day.

When the game ended, the score was State 6, Bama 3.

We stopped in Starkville for supper (!) and drove on home. Pulling into the driveway, we saw people inside our garage. It was 6 or 8 of our neighbors. They were painting a large sign for my house, no doubt rubbing in the loss.

One of them ran up to the car and said, “You’re back too soon. Come back in 30 minutes.”

I let the family in the back door and went to wash the car. On my return, they had rigged up a massive sign covering the front porch of my house, complete with floodlights in the yard. The sign read: “The Bulldogs blitzed!” (that was the team’s theme) “State 6, Bama 3.” Someone had done a pretty fair drawing of the bulldog sauntering off after the victory, with me on my knees in the rear, wearing my hat with the big ‘A’. Underneath all that were two large captions:

“If my people will humble themselves….” and the other: “our land has been healed.”

It made the front of Monday’s newspaper.

I still have that folded up sign stored away in the attic somewhere.

Michael Perry laughed. “I told you Jane’s daddy was the biggest Alabama fan. After that game, they were supposed to come up to our house, near Moulton, Alabama, where I was pastoring.”

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