One of the things that frustrates me most is other people wasting my time. My kids dawdle when we have to get our the door, and spill milk for me to clean up after I just told them to be careful. The people whom I am supposed to meet at 10:00 decide to waltz in at 10:45 or 11:00 as if they are right on time. No apologies. No excuses. No nothing. Just smiles. On a good day, I am able to take these things in stride. But on a bad day, I am not always a pleasant person to be around.
Time is a valuable commodity and I only have so much of it. I have stuff that I want to (need to!) do other than wait around for other people or clean up their preventable messes. There are emails to respond to, books to read, lessons to prepare, laundry to hang, and a thousand other things on my to-do list. But am I doing them? No, I am sitting here waiting for someone who can’t be bother to show up on time. I am looking for the stuffed toy that is now missing even though I told her to bring it to her room earlier before bed time.
The other day a missionary friend called me for recommendations for Sunday school curriculum in Thai that he could use for a small church plant on the outskirts of Bangkok. There was only one that I could think of, but I didn’t know if it was in print anymore. I was stumped for a moment. What could I recommend to him... that was in Thai? What do you do if you don’t have any ready-made materials to put in the hands of the Sunday school teachers at your church? What if there just isn’t anything available?Then it dawned on me. Just tell Bible stories. But not just any stories. And not in any old way. Select a set of stories from the Old Testament and New Testament, and systematically work your way through the entire Bible. And don’t just tell a story, but help the kids really learn the story and discover what it means. Get it in their heads. Get it in their hearts. A couple years back, I started learning how to do Bible storytelling via Simply the Story, and ever since then I’ve been seeing ways to put it into practice all over the place.
One time I was doing a Bible study in Ephesians with a Thai couple. The wife was from Bangkok and had a bachelor’s degree in accounting. The husband was from the countryside and had the equivalent of an associate’s degree in sculpture, or something along those lines. As we going through chapter 5, I pointed to a verse and asked, “What does this say about Christ and the church?” The husband looked down at his Bible briefly, then looked up and gave some general answer about Christ. I said, “Uh, that’s true. But what does THIS verse say?” He looked at the Bible again, and again gave an unrelated answer from his general knowledge. He wasn’t getting it and I didn’t know why. It was so simple. Just look at the verse. It’s right there in front of you. But, in retrospect, I was asking him to think in a way that he wasn’t use to. I was asking him to use a type of thinking that he wasn’t use to. He could definitely read but he wasn’t a literate thinker. He was an oral thinker. And I wasn’t getting through.
I’ve recently been studying various passages of 1 and 2 Corinthians to better help me understand Paul’s theology of preaching. One passage that has particularly struck me is 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:5 for in it Paul argues that the message of Christ crucified (that is, the content) and preaching (that is, the form) go hand in hand – that they cannot be divided. Indeed, in this passage Paul actually argues for preaching.
In 1 Cor. 1:17 Paul is continuing to address the issue of divisions in the Corinthian church, by minimising his role of baptising, and stating that Christ’s commission to him was to “preach the gospel.” However, for Paul it matters how the gospel is proclaimed. Therefore, he refuses to preach with “eloquent wisdom” (ESV). Literally the Greek of this phrase is “the wisdom of a word,” and refers to the use of Greco-Roman rhetoric. (This was a particular form of oration popularised by Cicero and Quintillian, in which the aim of a speech was to “persuade an audience, the end is to persuade by speech” (Cicero, On Invention 1.6), that is, to create belief. To do this an orator would so adapt and craft his message (content, style and delivery), that it would bring about the desired end with a given audience. Therefore, Greco-Roman rhetoric is a form of speech or proclamation. It is a form that Paul rejects because it would render the cross of Christ void (1:17), since a person’s faith would rest on human skill in oration rather than on the Spirit’s power (2:4-5).
Some people may think that unbiblical preaching is the preacher’s problem, not theirs. However, Biblical preaching is more likely to occur in a congregation where not only the pastor, but also the people want solid Biblical teaching. While a pastor has a big role in helping create such an atmosphere, he is only one piece in the puzzle. If a growing number of people in a church are dissatisfied with moralism, allegory, and gnosticism from the pulpit, then it can push the pastor to up the bar. And of course, the corollary is true as well. If the congregation is not interested in hearing from God, but just wants a pick-me-up to help them get through the week, then it will be tempting for the preacher to go light on the Word of God, giving the people what they think they need.So how do we work towards seeing more Biblical preaching in our churches? I’ve come up with a list of five solutions. The list is not exhaustive, and I am sure there are other solutions that could be added. However, if we are able to put into practice just these five, then it should go a long way in creating healthier Bible reading and preaching in our churches.
Because the need for people to hear the Gospel on the mission field is so urgent, it is sometimes claimed that doing a lot of Biblical studies or earning a degree in Bible is not necessary to be a long-term missionary. “People just need the basic Gospel, and you don’t need a degree for that”, it has been said. There is a lot of truth to that statement. However, once someone becomes a Christian, you need to disciple them. And you’ll need to help new believers form themselves into a church community. And to do that, a missionary is going to need to know a LOT more than just a basic Gospel outline.
Perhaps my favorite Bible reading plan is the one put together by Robert Murray M'Cheyne. In one year, M'Cheyne's Bible reading calendar takes you through the Old Testament once, and the Psalms and New Testament twice. Each day has about four chapters of Scripture to read - usually two Old Testament readings, and then either two New Testament readings or a New Testament reading and a Psalm. It is a rigorous regiment to keep up with but I really enjoy keeping my mind in various parts of the Bible at the same time, and it is a great aid in not getting bogged down in books like Leviticus since there are other, perhaps more accessible, daily readings to go along with it.
What if Jesus responded to temptation like we usually do? I have been reflecting lately on the nature of temptation and suffering, and the relationship between the two in the life of Jesus and my own life. When the Devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness (Matthew 4), how did Jesus respond? “And the tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’” But he answered, “Well, um, I am pretty hungry, but really I shouldn’t. I can’t do that. Wow, I’m hungry. How can I say no? I have to say no. Man shall not live... but, I do need bread, after all. God knows that I need bread. How can I survive without bread?” Was this Jesus’ response? NO! But I confess to my own shame that I often give that kind of response to temptation. I reason it through in my own head, instead of giving a decisive instantaneous “NO!” like Jesus did. Matthew does not record Jesus mulling over the Devil’s offer. Jesus gives an immediate response in the negative, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matt. 4:4). And that is the end of it. The temptation was real but Jesus decisively said NO each time.
I was recently talking with a pastor whose church does not send any long-term missionaries.It is a vibrant church with many members and a vision for missions, and they could probably send and support their own long-term missionaries if they wanted to.But it seems that they don’t want to.Why not?This pastor told me about what he believes to be more strategic, more effective, and most cost-efficient way to do missions outreach than sending long-term missionaries.
This pastor and his church conduct many short-term training events and seminars throughout the world, gathering together a large group of local leaders and teaching them in an intensive course.When the course is done, the pastor and his team go back to the USA and the local leaders go back to their homes and churches, presumably to put into practice what they have learned.Besides live teaching from short-term missionaries, this pastor is also committed to getting a video training course called ISOM into the hands of groups of leaders in various countries, to be used in place of live teachers but administered by a local coordinator/facilitator who leads discussions about the video course material.It is his belief that Western churches can have a much bigger global impact for the Gospel by doing missions through this type of short-term leadership training rather than paying for long-term foreign missionaries (I am defining “missionary” as one who intentionally crosses barriers of language and culture to share the Gospel with those who would normally not have the opportunity to hear the Gospel within their cultural and/or linguistic context).
A few months ago I was visiting some new believers with a Thai pastor and other church members when I heard something quite disturbing. In the course of his teaching, the pastor explained that some Christians don’t have changed lives because they don’t yield to the Holy Spirit. He went on to say that God has “good manners” and therefore doesn’t force himself on anyone. If a believer yields to the Holy Spirit, then his life will change in accord with God’s will. However, if he does not yield to the Holy Spirit, then his life will not change and he will exhibit little or no evidence of being a Christian other than his profession to be a Christian.Is this really the best way to explain why professing Christians fail to show any evidence of love for Christ or obedience to his commandments? I have another theory as to why some professing Christians don’t show any evidence of conversion. They were never truly converted to begin with!! Some may say that this sounds judgmental but I believe that there is sufficient Biblical support for such a conclusion.The Bible has absolutely no category for people who have trusted in Christ as Savior but have not repented (turned) from their sins and made a decision to obey Him as their Lord. In Matthew chapter 3, the Pharisees and Sadducees are coming out to receive baptism from John the Baptist but John rebukes them and tell them to "bear fruit in keeping with repentance." (Matt. 3:8). Profession of allegiance to God must always be
The is a lot of talk in modern evangelical churches about the Holy Spirit and not all of it is helpful. It is not uncommon for people to talk or sing things like, "Let the fire of Holy Spirit fall on us" or "Come Holy Spirit, revive us again" or other similar things. I was in a church meeting the other day, and the pastor had written (in Thai) on a handout, "This is the age of the Holy Spirit. We all are living in this age. The Spirit is ready to move in the lives of Christians if only we give the Spirit the opportunity to work in our lives."I want to ask, what exactly does it mean for the Holy Spirit to move in people's lives? What does it look like to have the fire of the Holy Spirit fall on someone? And isn't it our Sovereign God who takes the initiative in our sanctification, changing our hearts to respond and be transformed? Is the Holy Spirit really sitting around, wringing his hands, waiting for us to ask Him to fall on us? I am hard pressed to find any Biblical reference to needing to call the Holy Spirit to fall on us again and again or to light us (or the land) on fire, as it were. Sure, it happened at Pentecost but that was a rather unique event that was initiated by God, not the apostles. From that point in history, believers are henceforth indwelt with the Holy Spirit from conversion onwards (Eph. 1:13-14).
There is a Thai Christian with whom I've done evangelism and visitation several times and the way that he shares the Gospel worries me. His Gospel presentation is quite brief, consisting of only a few points, namely - 1) There is a God 2) You're a sinner and God sends sinners to hell 3) You want to go to heaven and not hell, right? 3) So, if you want to go to heaven, believe in Jesus because he died for your sins so you don't have to go to hell 4) God healed my ankle and he can help you too if you pray to him. This is the gist of his Gospel presentation and it is my friend's belief that as long as someone consents to say "the prayer of faith" (or "the sinner's prayer"), then that person is good to go, as it were. He would love for that person to come to church and grow in their new faith but even if that doesn't happen, at least he is saved from hell.While my friend's desire for people to be saved from hell is a commendable one, I am concerned that his evangelistic method leaves out some important elements of the Biblical evangelism (helping people see the severity of their sin in light of God's wrath, the necessity of repentance, the Lordship of Christ, and cost of discipleship). The preaching of this kind of truncated Gospel is not a phenomenon unique to Thailand, but is quite common in evangelicalism in America (and in much of the world, I imagine). This morning as I was reading about John the Baptist in Luke 3, I was struck by how radically different John's evangelism was from my friend's all-too-common modern way of evangelism. In Luke 3:7, we see crowds of Jews coming out to John to be baptized. In modern parlance, we might call them "seekers" (I actually have a problem with the term "seekers" but that discussion can be left for another time). These are Jews who would seem to have a spiritual interest in the preaching of John the Baptist but instead of welcoming them with open arms and encouraging them to believe his message, read their Bibles, go to synagogue, and to rely on faith and not feelings, this is what John says to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the roots of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." (Luke 3:7-9). Wow! John really lays into them, doesn't he? No encouragement there! Only rebuke is to be had for those who claim to be believers but aren't bearing any evidence of being believers. John wants to shake them out of their reliance on external factors (lineage, being religious, etc) and get them to see that true faith and true heart change always results in a changed life. If someone doesn't have a changed life, then that person needs to be shaken out of their false assurance of salvation and helped to see that he is not really saved because he does not have a life that reflects true faith. This is the same point that James makes when he says, "So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead." (James 2:17)
What I am about to say should be so obvious that I don’t need to say it, but I am becoming more and more convinced that this truth is being severely neglected in churches today: The person and work of Christ must be the content and center of our evangelism and preaching. Just this past December, I attended a Christmas outreach event at a local church (here in Central Thailand) where the primary evangelistic message had to do entirely with the benefits of believing, i.e. all the good things that will happen to you as a result of believing. The speaker used many funny and engaging stories to help his audience understand that when you believe in Jesus, you can expect to have joy, peace, eternal life, and help from God. There was one thing that was glaringly absent from his message: Christ!As part of the Bible reading plan that I am using this year, I’ve started to read through the book of Acts and in the first few chapters, we see plenty of examples of the content of preaching in the early church: Christ. In Peter’s Pentecost sermon, he basically tells his listeners that God sent Jesus, you crucified him, and God raised him, so don’t make any mistake that this Jesus is both Lord and Christ, i.e. Savior (Acts 2:22-36). Again, after the beggar is healed at the temple, Peter stands up and gives the a very similar message: God sent his servant Jesus, you betrayed him to death, you acted in ignorance but it was God’s plan, so repent so your sin may be blotted out because God sent Jesus to turn you from wickedness (Acts 3:11-26). After this Peter and John are arrested, and when examined by the authorities as to how they healed the guy, they say the same thing: this man was healed by Jesus Christ of Nazareth whom you crucified, God raised, but whom you rejected, and there is salvation in no one else (Acts 4:7-12).Biblical evangelism and Biblical preaching must have the person and work of Christ at it’s center. It may be more appealing to preach about a Jesus who primarily wants to give us stuff but it is only the sinless Savior who died on the cross because of God’s grace toward wicked sinners who is worth following. A Jesus who just gives us stuff is more like Santa Claus than God. And nobody follows Santa Claus. They just get stuff from him and say, “Thanks Santa, see you next year for some more stuff.” Santa does not inspire devotion or obedience, and requires no repentance. If only the benefits of believing in Christ are preached, and not the person and work of Christ, then people are easily misled as to the nature of the true Gospel. And the Gospel is wonderful! To think that wicked people who have hated God who is so merciful and gracious could actually be forgiven and our lives redeemed from bondage to sin and from the prospect of God’s judgment, is a fantastic and almost unbelievable thought. I want to preach Christ and repentance towards Christ for the forgiveness of sins so that God and sinner might be reconciled. This is the wonderful Gospel message and this is the Biblical message. Anything less is not the Gospel.
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At one point in the history of missions, it was rather difficult to get approved for missionary service unless you were an ordained pastor (or married to one). There were exceptions, of course, for those who were going to serve as school teachers, doctors, and other types of ministries that did not primarily involve Bible teaching. However, where we find ourselves today, in many cases, is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Churches and mission organizations vary in their requirements, from very stringent to very lax, but since I got involved with missions about twelve years ago on a short-term trip to Poland, I have heard many times over, from various places, something along the following lines, “If you love Jesus and are willing, then you’re ready to be a missionary.” Granted, loving Jesus and being willing are very important but is that all that is needed? I was reading the book of Ezra today and came across this verse:“For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.” (Ezra 7:10)
I was preparing a Bible study on Psalm 19 in Thai, and wanted to cross-reference 2 Peter 1:3 (“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness... “ 2 Peter 1:3 ESV) but when I went to the standard version of the Thai Bible that is most widely used in the churches (1971 version which is similar to the RSV), I wondered whether the word that they had for godliness (“tham” ธรรม) was really the best choice.In common Thai, tham refers to the body of Buddhist teaching or the Dharma. In Christian language, it is often modified with the word “Christ” (hence Phra Christ Tham พระคริสตธรรม) to refer to the Bible, or Christian teaching. It still remains however, that the word tham by itself makes most people think of religious teaching, particularly moral or ethical teaching. So, are we to understand that godliness is merely ethical living? I opened up my Greek New Testament to find out what the original word was and found eusebeia. My Intermediate Greek Lexicon (Liddell & Scott) tells me that eusebeia means “reverence towards the gods, piety religion.” That is the general secular ancient Greek meaning. The definition of eusebeia includes “reverence” which the New Oxford American Dictionary defines as
What is true repentance? This morning I read Matthew 26 and as I reflected on it, I was struck by Matthew Henry's commentary on Peter's denial of Christ. Henry writes, "Peter wept bitterly. Sorrow for sin must not be slight, but great and deep. Peter, who wept so bitterly for denying Christ, never denied him again, but confessed him often in the face of danger. True repentance for any sin will be shown by the contrary grace and duty; that is a sign of our sorrowing not only bitterly, but sincerely."In Thailand, I have seen far too many professions of faith that bear no fruit. I have also heard too many Christians misdiagnose the problem of people who profess faith in Christ but don't follow through. One suggestion is that these backsliders need more encouragement. Another suggestion is that they need more follow-up and discipling. Both of these may be true to a degree depending upon how we understand the terms but neither seem to get at the heart of the matter that genuine repentance has likely not occurred. Repentance is not only stopping doing something bad but is also the beginning of doing something new. As Henry points out, Peter not only ceased denying Christ, but he also did the exact opposite - stood up and boldly proclaimed him from that point onward. Repentance does not consist of merely admitting to, or confessing ones sins either to God or to others. Repentance is a decisive turning from evil and self, and towards God. Granted, some new believers exhibit more obvious repentance earlier on because of the gross nature of their former life while others seem to grow or change more slowly as it is less obvious elements, like attitudes of the heart, which need the most change. But in either case,
What is the best book or study guide or method to help Christians grow in their faith? Even on the mission field in Thailand, it seems like the options are endless as more and more literature is produced so that it might seem difficult to find the materials that will be most beneficial. A few weeks ago, I suggested a “new” method of spiritual growth to a Christian couple that I am working with. We had been discussing the nature and role of the Bible in our lives so I suggested that they start in Matthew chapter one and read one chapter every day. I told them that when they had finished reading a chapter, they should think about what that chapter says about God and about themselves. Also, are there any examples to follow or avoid? Is there something to thank or praise God for in what they read? How can they apply to their lives what they read in the Bible? This would be their homework and the next time we got together, we would all share one thing that was a blessing to us from our reading during the previous week.Even though they have Christians for more than five years, having come to faith in a large church in Bangkok, this was a novel idea to them. Up until this point, their Bible reading had mainly consisted of reading the Thai version of a little devotional booklet called “Our Daily Bread” which contains a different story each day paired
In the previous post, we looked at the Biblical precedent for preaching and saw that sermons are not merely a Western cultural tradition but have their foundation in the pages of Scripture. In this post, I would like to wrap up by responding to some objections to maintaining the sermon as a central part of the life of the Christian church.Objection#1 “Sermons are ineffective” Perhaps you will grant to me the fact that preaching is important in Scripture but would go on to add that times have changed and sermons just don’t “work”. In some ways, I agree. I have heard lots of sermons that just don’t work. But it is not because the idea of preaching a sermon is a bad one but rather because the sermon that someone decided to preach was a bad sermon. It was boring. It was irrelevant. It was mostly the preacher’s own ideas and hobby horses with little reference to Scripture. It explained the meaning of the passage for ancient Israelites but failed to show how it applies to modern listeners. It was all puffed up emotion or moralistic platitudes with little reference to Scripture. It did nothing to address the misunderstandings and objections of the listeners, failing to make people see what God is saying and how it intersects with their life. It is just a collection of observations about the passage that the preacher thought were interesting but there is no overall coherent message. The preacher, fearing that he will lose people, fills his sermon with too many irrelevant funny stories that at the end of the day make people laugh but fails to feed them with the Word of God. There are lots of examples of bad sermons but that is not any justification for
I’ve heard some missionaries say that the sermon is not all that important for the spiritual growth of believers. Others have suggested that the sermon be done away with all together. Isn’t the sermon merely a cultural tradition of the Western church anyway? Shouldn’t we find some better, less passive, and more culturally appropriate way to help believers understand and apply the Bible?Hearing statements like this have concerned me because in the name of contextualization and better spiritual growth, we are about to throw out something that not only has a firm Biblical basis but is also an appropriate and contextual form of religious speech in Thai culture. In this first of two posts about the sermon, I would like to lay out some Biblical arguments for why churches should retain the sermon as a centerpiece of Christian worship and teaching. Not only churches in the West, but churches everywhere.The Biblical Precedent for PreachingIf we look through Scripture just briefly, we’ll see lots of examples of preaching. The idea of the sermon was not developed in some Puritan think tank in 16th century England. When the people of Israel had newly entered in the land of Canaan, Joshua expounds to the people the history of what God has done for them (Joshua 24:1-13) and upon that basis goes on to challenge them to choose whether they will serve the God of Israel or some other gods (Joshua 24:14-15). Here we have two fundamental components of a sermon: explanation of God’s words and actions and application of that to the lives of the listeners. Prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel stood up in the public square, bringing God’s word to the people, and exhorted them to turn back to God. In the book of Nehemiah, we see a wonderful example of this as Ezra the priest stands up to expound the law of God to all the people who are gathered in the public square (Nehemiah 8:1-8).