What To Do Toward the End (I Peter 4:7-11)

One of the most reliable principles of scripture interpretation you’ll ever come across is this one: “It’s not what you think it is.”

Case in point. As the Apostle Peter begins reminding church leaders across his section of the world of the last days, he speaks specifically of three activities to which they should devote themselves. But they’re not what we might expect.

Tell the typical church member today that the Lord could come back at any time and he will automatically begin reflecting on aspects of the end we’ve all heard talk about: armageddon, the Antichrist, one world governments, date-setting, sign-studying, Israel, the rebuilding of the Temple, and the like.

None of that. In fact, there is not one word in Scripture that I know of which encourages the Lord’s people to spend their time and energy speculating on the meaning of these things. To the contrary, we are cautioned not to waste time on pointless speculation, haggling over philosophies and arguing over subjects that have no answer.

The three activities the Apostle Peter calls for are surprising in their simplicity but fundamental in the role they play in God’s work in our world.

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Not Your Father’s Ministry! (I Peter 5:1-4)

The Apostle Peter knew what it was to get things wrong, to assume what the Lord had not promised, to claim what He was not guaranteeing, to go where He never sent. His early years as a disciple are a case study in presumption.

By the time he wrote this First Epistle that bears his name, Peter was a veteran who had learned the hardest lessons of discipleship and bore the scars to prove it.

Therefore, when He wrote to the people entrusted with the care and governance of the Lord’s churches, He did not mince words.

“The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed.

“Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly, nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.

“And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away.”

There are three sets of three in this brief passage: 3 terms for the churches’ leaders, 3 ways Peter describes himself and establishes the authority by which he spoke, and 3 cautions to the leaders of the churches.

The church’s leaders are elders, shepherds, and overseers. They are all the same group.

Peter is a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings, and one who will share in His future glory.

Here are three bad ways–disastrous ways–to look at the ministry of the pastor: as a job, as a paycheck, as an ego thing.

Let’s take these apart and consider them more closely.

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The Bible’s Hard Parts (I Peter 3:18-22)

It’s all right to admit that we don’t know what something means.

In fact, the people who are sentenced to listen to us week after week, year after year, might appreciate that kind of intellectual honesty.

Case in point. I Peter 3:18-22….

“For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison,

Who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water.

And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you–not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience–through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,

Who is at the right hand of God, having gone away into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him.”

Now, the brackets surrounding this passage give me no trouble–the first part about Jesus dying for our sins, the just for the unjust, and the last line about His ascension and glorification in Heaven. It’s those in-between parts that leave us gasping for air.

Furthermore, I’m not alone. I seriously doubt if there is a single passage in the Bible that has put gray hairs in more heads than this from the Apostle Peter.

What’s funny about it is that at the end of II Peter, the apostle gently takes Paul to task for saying “some things hard to understand,” insights which good people differ on and which “the untaught and unstable distort.” This comes from a man who has topped even the Apostle Paul in that obfuscating art!

So! What is a pastor or teacher is to do when faced with such a passage?

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Pastor: When Something Doesn’t Sound Right

This has happened to me again and again. I’m sitting in some huge meeting with hundreds of the Lord’s people representing churches across our state or country. A large number of preachers are in the audience. The speaker is sounding forth on some subject of importance to us all.

Suddenly, the speaker comes out with a statement that gets a hearty “amen,” something that sounds profound and undergirds the point he is making. He goes on in the message and everyone in the room but one person stays with him. Me, I’m stuck at that statement. Where did he get that, I wonder. Is it true? How can we know?

If “Facebook,” that wonderful and exasperating social networking machine, has taught us anything, it’s to distrust percentages and question quotations.

Yesterday, I noticed a Facebook friend’s profile contained a quote from President Kennedy. I happen to know the quote and while I cannot prove JFK never uttered those words–how could we prove that about anyone saying anything–I know how the line got attached to the Kennedys. It’s a quotation from a George Bernard Shaw play.

“Some see things as they are and ask ‘Why?’ I see things that never were and ask ‘Why not?’”

In 1968, at the funeral of his brother Robert F. Kennedy, Senator Ted Kennedy spoke that line as applying to him. It’s a terrific depiction of vision. I expect for most of us, it was our first time to hear the quote. As I recall, the source was not given in the oration, which may have led some to believe Senator Kennedy made it up.

One thing we know, however, is President John F. Kennedy is not its source. Nor is any Kennedy. And yet, keep your eye out for that quotation. Half the time, its source will be listed as one of the Kennedys.

Accuracy is important for all of us, but particularly those of us called to preach the Truth to get people to Heaven.

Unfortunately, because we speak so often–many pastors deliver three or more sermons per week, fifty weeks of the year–our sermon machines devour a lot of fodder. It figures that sometimes we are going to get our stories wrong.

That’s why a statement from a preacher one day last week hit me so hard and drove me to do a little research.

“Billy Graham has said that 70 percent of the members of our churches are unsaved.”

A preacher friend on Facebook said that. I contacted him to ask for his source.

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When a Staff Member Becomes a Detriment

Yesterday, as I write, President Obama fired his top general in Afghanistan. Therein lies a tale which every pastor and staff member ought to take to heart.

General Stanley McChrystal is a case study in a lot of things: militarism, athleticism, patriotism, gung-hoism, machoism, and egotism.

What got this commander of all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan sacked was a lengthy article just published in the July edition of Rolling Stone magazine. Since the article is online, anyone can read it. I did last night.

Can you say “insubordination?” (I’m channeling my inner Fred Rogers now.) In a sentence, McChrystal was openly critical of Obama and his diplomatic team. He held nothing back, said exactly what he thought, and had little favorable to say about anyone he has to work with.

The article says Obama had previously taken McChrystal to the woodshed and told him to bridle his mouth. But some people cannot be told anything; they are a law unto themselves.

The writer says McChrystal prides himself on being sharper and guttier than anyone else. But his brashness comes with a price: he has offended almost everyone with a stake in the Afghan conflict.

The title of the article says it all: “The Runaway General: The top commander in Afghanistan has seized control of the war by never taking his eyes off the real enemy: the wimps in the White House.”

You cannot fire a guy like that fast enough. Get him gone now.

Ever seen a church staff member like that?

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The Pastor’s Passion

A 10-year-old girl said something two weeks ago that has had me thinking about passion ever since.

Interesting word, passion. It gives us compassion, passive, dispassionate, and a host of related concepts. At its core, from the Latin, “passion” means “to suffer.” It’s opposite, passive, or impassive, means “unfeeling.”

I was teaching cartooning to children in the afternoons following vacation Bible school. At one point, I had to take a phone call and turned the class over to my teenage grand-daughter who was assisting me. Ten minutes later, I told the children about the call.

“One of the editors of a weekly Baptist paper in another state called about using a certain cartoon. I found the drawing in a file and scanned it into the computer and emailed it to her. Next week, that cartoon–which is still in that file cabinet in my office–will be seen in 50,000 newspapers in homes all over that state.”

Then I asked the question on their minds but which none dared to raise.

“Now, how much money do you think I made doing that?”

Some kid said, “Thousands.” The rest had no idea.

“Zero,” I said. “Not a dime.”

“Very few cartoonists make much money doing this. Almost all have to have ‘day’ jobs to pay the rent.”

“So why,” I asked, “do we keep drawing cartoons when it doesn’t pay much money?”

That’s when the 10-year-old girl raised her hand and said something I had never really thought of.

“You do it for the passion.”

Wow. Exactly right. Pretty insightful for a child, if you ask me.

I confess to having a passion for certain things in my life, from my grandchildren to cartooning to writing. I’m interested in a lot of things that cannot be said to be my passion. These might include the New Orleans Saints, the Atlanta Braves, my car, the appearance of my yard (that will come as a surprise to my wife who thinks I have little interest in it!), and the clothes in my closet. I care about them, but do not lie awake thinking of them.

We preachers often tell our congregations that “the meaning of this word in the Greek is such-and-such” as though we have just solved the riddle of life. The fact is, the root meaning of a word can be of little or no help whatsoever in telling us what we need to know about a word.

If the root of “passion” is “to suffer,” we would veer off track if we then asked, “What makes us suffer in our lives?” No one I know uses passion to mean suffering.

(However, I remind myself of the grand works of music and art commemorating the sufferings of our Lord as “The Passion of Jesus.” So the word is honorable with a noble tradition.)

My Greek professor in seminary, Ray Frank Robbins, used to remind us, “Words do not have meanings. Words have usages.”

The “usage” of “passion” is more related to a compelling drive, an inner urge that keeps us at something sane people would have quit long ago.

The thesaurus lists a hundred synonyms for passion, including zeal, ardor, eagerness, fervor, hunger, enthusiasm, mania, obsession, and energy.

Sean Payton has a passion for football. In season and out, colleagues say this coach of the New Orleans Saints championship football team is first in the office in the morning and the last one to leave at night.

Consultants tell businessmen and pastors alike that to achieve the highest level of success, one must have a passion for growing his business or his church.

Let’s speak to that, pastor.

What is your passion? What drives you? What springs you out of bed in the morning and still has you going late in the evening when normal people would be watching television?

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Encourage a Pastor; Come On–I Dare You

There was a time when it was easier to pastor a church than it is today. There was a time when churches running 1,000 on Sunday were considered mega. There was a time when churches took what they had in the way of pastoral leadership and pretty much went with it without a lot of complaints.

Those days are no more. It’s a different world we live in.

People demand strengths and excellence and results from their leaders. They look for power in the pulpit and skills in relationships. They want degrees and winsomeness and it wouldn’t hurt if you looked sharp either.

They want to be fed in sermons and challenged in programs. They want input in decisions and no longer hand the keys to the kingdom to the new preacher.

What they do not want is to be embarrassed by the preacher, for their church to become the laughingstock of the community, for the attendance to drop, or for the financial situation to become dire.

If they could, they would like the church to reach the unchurched and make a difference in the poorer section of town, but without changing the nature of what their church has always been.

If they could, they’d like to become a mission-minded congregation where members go overseas and return with glowing reports of work done, but without they themselves being asked to go.

They want good sermons and effective leadership from a pastor who has earned their respect and whom they like.

Just don’t bother them too much in accomplishing this.

Poor preacher. Someone ought to encourage him. Lord knows there are enough forces out there overwhelming him in the other direction.

Today, let’s encourage him. Let’s “give him heart,” as the word “encourage” actually means.

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My Father’s Day Sermon: “What Do You Know?”

Our daughter-in-law Julie was teaching her girls–Abby and Erin, twins, they were 8 at the time–about childbirth. Abby did not like what she was hearing.

“I’m not going to have children, Grandpa,” she said. “It hurts too bad.”

I could not argue with that. I’ve been in the hospital numerous times over the years when my wife or my daughter or my two daughters-in-law were in labor. Nothing about it was easy on them or fun for them. They bring us into the world at great personal cost.

I said to Abby, “Yes, it does hurt. But the pain goes away and you’re left with this beautiful child. And you decide that it was worth it.”

This child looked me in the eye and said, “You’re a man. What do you know?”

When I picked myself up off the ground, we had a good laugh over that.

“You’re exactly right,” I told her. “I don’t know a thing about childbirth other than what the women in my life have told me.”

You’re a man. What do you know?

What do you really, really know? What do you know for dead certain? Not, what do you think or believe somewhat. Not, what is your opinion or even your conviction. Not, where is your membership or what is your affiliation.

What do you know?

The Apostle Paul answered that this way. “Yet I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.” (II Timothy 1:12)

Paul says, “I know the Lord Jesus Christ. I have total confidence in Him. I am dead sure that I have not believed in vain.”

When the Apostle John wrote about knowing Jesus, he said, “We know that we know him” (I John 2:3).

I know Jesus. And I know that I know Him.

Can you say that?

Where is the evidence that you know Jesus? I want to suggest three evidences or proofs that any of us know the Lord.

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Why We Require Theologians

A friend from bygone days tells me why she is put out with most of the churches of her denomination. “There is this male/female thing. You cannot tell me that God in Heaven would rather have a fat, bloated, smug, egotistical know-it-all man as pastor of a church instead of a sharp Godly woman.”

I did not argue with that, and in fact, find that hard to argue with, if those are the choices.

If we asked, she has scripture to back up her position, too. The Apostle Paul put it like this: “For as many of you as are baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:27-28)

Open and shut case, right? Not hardly.

It’s true Paul said those things. The problem is he said a lot of other things too. He told how he does not allow women to speak in church (I Corinthians 14:34), cautions women who are prophesying (without ever telling precisely what that means) to cover their heads (I Corinthians 11:5), and then he really does it. The reason the man does not have to cover his head is “he is the image and glory of God,” whereas the woman “is the glory of man” (I Corinthians 11:7).

He said it and left it that way for us to deal with it the best we could.

The next time you hear someone panning the Bible as the result of some council that got together and made all this up, ask why they didn’t take the hard places out, but left them in to befuddle us for the rest of time.

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Rhapsody on a Well-Loved Cliche

This happened years ago but David and I still laugh about it.

David was a deacon, a lawyer, and a young Christian who wanted to grow in his usefulness to the Lord. One day he asked to accompany me on my hospital visitation. “I’d like to get more comfortable visiting in the hospitals,” he said. “Sure. Great.”

A good thing for a deacon to do. For any of us to do.

The next morning around 7:30 we met in the medical center parking lot. We greeted each other and I made a couple of suggestions. “The first few patients we see, I’ll introduce you, but don’t say anything. Just pay attention.” Then, we went upstairs.

In 99 percent of the cases, hospital visitation is not rocket science (cliche!). It’s merely a Christian friend calling on another friend. Sometimes it’s big brother ministering to a hurting brother, and often nothing more profound than two old buddies chatting. Normally, my plan was to visit with the person no more than a couple of minutes, and if all was well, to share a verse of scripture (memorized, not read) and lead in a brief prayer of praise and commitment.

After the third or fourth visit, in the stairwell heading upstairs, I said, “David, in the next room, I’ll call on you to pray.” Fine.

A few minutes later as we left the patient’s room, in the hallway he said, “How was that?”

I said, “Well, normally that’s a good thing to pray. But I don’t think that a hospital room when a person is getting ready for major surgery you want to pray ‘Lord, help us to live this day as if it were our last.’”

He said, “Did I say that?” I laughed, “It’s all right. She didn’t seem to mind.”

It’s a cliche’ and not a bad one. The line was first spoken sometime in the decade of A.D. 170-180, thanks to the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. (He lived April 26, 121 to March 17, 180. He was a Stoic philosopher and seems to have been the type of ruler Plato had in mind with his concept of “philosopher-kings.”)

The exact quote from Marcus Aurelius: “And thou wilt give thyself relief if thou doest every act of thy life as it were the last.”

A note about cliche’s. They grew to be widely accepted and well-worn figures of speech for good reason: they served a useful purpose.

But as with most generalities, you don’t want to push them too far. An episode of “The Simpsons” bears this out.

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