They Became What They Pursued

2 Kings 17:15 (NAS): And they followed vanity and became vain, and went after the nations which surrounded them, concerning which the Lord had commanded them not to do like them.

I came across this wonderful passage while reading the book of 2 Kings. It’s the writer’s assessment of the nation of Israel after being conquered by Assyria and thrown headlong into exile. I was immediately struck by how well constructed and poignantly it was written. How apt it was to be repeated. I admired its literary mastery. It’s short and compact, yet it carries a punch. It’s stated so simply, but it means so much. The truth of it is so clear, so obvious and yet unexpected. It’s startlingly obvious. It’s not like we don’t know that we become what we pursue. Or don’t we? Is it with us as it was with Israel? Is it only in hindsight that we realize our vain pursuits have lead to our vanity?

After my admiration of the adage wore off, I continued to consider the statement. It had a hold of me and I couldn’t understand why. Then the gravity of the context in which it was used returned to me. Vanity is not to be trifled with. Israel doesn’t simply become enamored with themselves. They don’t become a people who look longingly at themselves in the mirror.

2 Kings 17:20 (NAS): The Lord rejected all the descendants of Israel and afflicted them and gave them into the hand of plunderers, until He had cast them out of His sight.

Yet their demise was so complete it could be summed up so very casually in the words; they followed vanity, and became vain. How do you come to see what may seem clear only in hindsight? How does our story not end the way Israel’s story ended?

First, let me suggest that we reflect often on the nature of what we are pursuing. Sometimes I know that what I want is vain, but I want it nonetheless. I convince myself that its okay because of the volume of vain pursuits around me. More often than not, my pursuits don’t reveal themselves to be vain; hence the need for reflection. Vanity slips easily in and out of the shadows, avoiding the light of reflection.

Second, I believe we must trust the truth of the passage.

We will become what we pursue. (<–Click to Tweet )

If we follow vanity we will become vain. The pursuit of vain things is not harmless. As with Israel, it leads to destruction, emptiness, and uselessness, only to be removed from the Lord’s sight.

2 Kings 17:20 (NAS): 20 The Lord rejected all the descendants of Israel and afflicted them and gave them into the hand of plunderers, until He had cast them out of His sight.

Third, we must know that vanity comes quickly. The brevity of the statement suggests that we become vain suddenly. While we are pursuing vanity, it suddenly apprehends us. And while not choosing to become vain, we find that we have become just that; vain.

Lastly, if we believe, the passage may actually work for us. If it is true that we become what we pursue, what could be said of us if we pursued Christ. Wouldn’t it be more wonderful and poignant if it was said of us,

“They followed Christ and became Christian.”

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The Real Meaning of Philippians 4:13

How do you get meaning from your Bible? In an age of relativity there could me countless answers. Even if you have never given thought to the question, you’re probably already living your answer. This is a question of basic belief and must need be answered to live, yet it does not wait for you to check-in cognitively before the answer is put into practice.

The normal answer, is that meaning is determined by my situation in life. In bible study, it looks like taking what the bible says and determining what it means in relation to my own situation. Meaning is considered from my own life context. The result is immediate relevance to my life, along with as many different meanings as there are different life situations. It’s meaning out of the biblical context and into the context of my life. Sadly, and unknowingly, the result is also loss of biblical authority and power.

Let’s take a look at the often applied biblical passage in Philippians 4:13.

“I can do all things through Him who gives me strength.”

What does the passage mean? Meaning is a question of utility. How do I use it? How do I use it with full confidence that God stands behind my application because it’s His word? The normative approach is to apprehend the words of the passage and apply them to my situation in life. So that, whatever I am attempting to do, whatever my goals are, whatever hurdles I face in accomplishing them, I use the passage to gain the confidence that Christ will give me strength. The result is a firm belief that nothing I determine to do will be impossible for me. Whatever I believe, I can achieve. This common use of the passage reflects the lordship of relativity in our culture, for it has not received its meaning from the biblical context.

In the context of the passage, Paul is conveying his gratitude to the Philippians for “reviving” their concern for him. This seems to mean that they have resumed sending him support. They have always had concern for him but have recently not had an opportunity to show that concern. This is communicated in verse 10.

But I rejoice in the Lord greatly, now that at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were already concerned before, but you lacked opportunity.

He wants them to know that his joy in their revived concern does not come from a lack of contentment. So he says in verse 11.

“Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstance I am.”

He goes on to says that he has lived in humble means and in prosperity. He knows what it is to be filled and to be hungry. He knows abundance and suffering need. It is here that he says that he can do all things through the one who gives him strength. In this biblical context it seems that Paul means that he can endure all things, good or bad, through Christ. The context of the passage suggest the “do all things” is not achieve all thing but endure all things with contentment. It is inconceivable that the Philippians believed after receiving this letter that whatever they determined to do, Christ would strengthen them to accomplish. They would have read it in its context and heard Paul saying that the Lord strengthens him to endure any situation the Lord has him in, whether abundance or need, hungry or filled.

So, can I do all things through Christ who is my strength? It depends on what I mean. If I mean I can endure whatever situation the sovereign Lord chooses for me because I receive my strength to endure from Christ, then yes I can do all things. But if I mean that whatever I determine to accomplish in my life, I can because Christ will strengthen me, then I do not have the authority and power of the word of God to have that confidence.

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3 Reasons to Limit Topical Preaching

I have been giving thought to the cultural increase in topical preaching. I have in mind the popular themed topical sermon series and the practice of preaching from a different place every Sunday.

This post has been a long time coming because I had to be sure there was a need to be concerned and that I wasn’t simply becoming a contrarian, which is a real possibility. It must also be noted that my concern is not for topical preaching itself, but the effects of a steady diet.

Reason to be Concerned?

The reasons to choose topical preaching are apparent. The benefits may be justified by its widespread use alone. And it seems obvious it works for much of what we desire to accomplish. It’s also an easy answer for the constant question of relevance. Any preacher with his ear to the ground can hear the rumblings of a approaching topic.

The pitfalls, however, are not so apparent. Though less obvious, these pitfalls are just as real and must be given due consideration.

I have taught adults in a bible college and bible academy and I find this disturbing reality; many committed church attenders have no notion of the cohesive nature of biblical passages. They are unaware of the existence of a unified flow of thought that produces the author’s intended meaning. And if they are aware of it, they are unaccustomed to working the ground out of which this unity of thought grows. In short, they often unable to arrive at the author’s intended meaning.

Chasing Rabbits

Many find it difficult to make the switch from reading the Bible in pieces to reading the whole. They are constantly distracted from the author’s flow of thought by situational similarities in their personal lives, that they honestly believe is the rabbit the Spirit is leading them to chase. And if the author says something in verse 12 that does not fit their situation, they simply stop at verse 11. They are unwittingly led to believe that the situational relevance is the Lord’s voice.

We have come to believe the scripture is to be mined for its treasure. So we move much dirt in search of a gem; a situational diamond in the rough. And the value of the whole is exchanged for the versatility and usefulness of the parts.

Live Better or Be Better?

Not only are we unaware of the author’s intended meaning, but more importantly, we don’t get to hear his intended meaning. While we may gain insight and life skills from topical preaching, the transforming power of God, which resides in the author’s intended meaning, is missed. In order to hear the intended meaning, we must follow the author’s flow of thought. The picture he is painting over the breadth of his writing must come into focus. We must doggedly pursue his subject and what he is saying about his subject, lest we abort the work of the Word in our hearts.

A Deeper Faith

Lastly, topical preaching slows the development of an understanding of the historical faith. The picking of passages from the author’s flow of thought, without continuing that flow the following Sunday, robs the listener of the picture being developed. It is the continuity of thought coming into focus that deepens our faith. In fact, topical preaching has helped redefined faith to mean trusting God for what we desire from Him. But faith is more than that. There is a common faith that we must all share. It’s the faith Jude felt compelled to write about.

…the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.

This faith is the root of our trust in God , without which, our faith is simply wishful thinking.

I do not intend to suggest that topical preaching be discarded all together. I believe it is a valuable and necessary approach, particularly in our culture. But I am suggesting we limit its use in favor of more systematic expositional preaching through biblical books. This I believe will help us see the rabbits, live better and be better, and deepen our faith.

Obedience is Better than Sacrifice?

This often quoted and more often misused passage is from 1 Samuel 15:22. I’ve heard it for most of my church life. It’s never been my favorite, but until recently I’ve never given much thought to why. But the recent sting of its use, led me to consider my feelings. I realize now that it’s not the passage I don’t like, it’s how it’s being used. In fact, now that I’ve looked at it in it’s historical context, I find it’s use more disturbing.

Actually, I love the way the prophet Samual uses it historically. Israel’s failing first King, Saul, has been given very specific instructions ahead of battle with Amalek. He is told not to spare anyone or anything. Yet the passage makes clear that Saul was unwilling to destroy the best of the livestock. When confronted by Samuel, he blames the people, and insists that they only spared the best in order to sacrifice to the Lord. That’s when Samuel utters the famous phrase. He uses the statement to expose the folly of Saul’s excuse. We use it to try to get disobedient people to obey, but Samuel used it to get the disobedient King to realize or admit the folly of his disobedience.

Within the redemptive story of God’s grace the answer to man’s disobedience is not to get a disobedient mankind to be obedient. The great struggle is to get the disobedient to realize they are disobedient. And yet, the brokenness of that realization leads us to the mercy seat of God. And in His great mercy we find a better sacrifice; better than the best of Amalek. We find the lamb of God who dies once for all time.

Yes, there was a time when to be obedient was better than repetitive sacrifices. For it was impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin. But now, by one offering, Jesus has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. So let’s not encourage the disobedient in their feeble attempts at obedience. Samuel was talking about the blood of bulls and goats. But the blood of Christ is better, and we are all disobedient.

Not in the Box

My walk with Christ has left me feeling a bit odd, even amongst a peculiar people. It’s as if the body of Christ is swaying joyfully to the music and I’m unrhythmically searching for the beat. So many of my brother’s in the ministry get in and quickly find a groove. After 10 years, mine still eludes me. My convictions keep me in the body but out pof the flow.

I think others notice too. I hear them struggling to find the words to describe me. Though I’m really not trying to be, I hear repeatedly that my preaching is “deep.” I don’t think it’s always intended to be a complement and I don’t find it flattering.

What confuses me is that few in the body tell me that I’m wrong. In fact, most agree and even encourage me. They simply don’t join me. Although they don’t often say it aloud, they don’t think what I believe works. Its not in rhythm.

What are these things that keep me out of rhythm. Well, here is a short list.

1. I believe that people should be equipped on Sunday mornings through the regular preaching of the word. Sunday morning preaching should be weighty enough to equip.

2. I believe the essential task of preaching is to communicate the author’s intended meaning. To do this, his subject must be my subject. And what he says about it I must also say.

3. A steady dose of topical preaching will not provide a foundation upon which to build an understanding of the faith. The great story of God redeeming all creation for His glory is reduced to our individual struggles and triumphs.

4. We do not trust God enough to teach the righteousness of God is by faith apart from the works of the law. It sounds to much to us like encouraging lawlessness. So, whom the Son has set free is not free indeed.

5. Jesus became a curse for us so that we can never be cursed with a curse, even if we do not tithe. The Church must live by faith too. This we may fear the most.

6. The greatest witness to the power of the Gospel in this culture is an intentionally multiethnic church where people love each other. In this culture, we do most everything together, except worship, and it undermines the truth of the Gospel. But homogeneous church is just easier.

7. Because there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one body of Christ, our faith must be historic and not personal. My relationship with the Lord can be intimate but it cannot be Him and me alone. When I became a believer, I became a member of the body.

You may see now why many don’t believe these things will work. The failure of my church plant is further prove that they may be right. So I continued to struggle with my oddness. But to just sway along would be to do harm to my conscience. Today, however, I believe I have clarity about where I stand. I still feel I’m an oddity, but I understand better. It hit me like a thunderbolt, when I heard it said that to invoke real change you have to think outside the box. That’s when it dawned on me.

I’m just not in the box.