My Sheep Follow My Voice

In John 10:6, Jesus uses a “figure of speech” (Greek, ) one that requires insight to understand the point. We may miss that point, perhaps not from lack of insight, but from lack of cultural familiarity. Jesus’ teaching here is clothed in a figure of speech, but it was very familiar clothing to Jewish people of the first century. It is not to us.

For one thing, it is about sheep, and everyone there and then – unlike here and now – knew something about sheep. For another, Jesus talks about shepherds, and not only did everyone know about shepherds, the Old Testament often used the word shepherd to refer to teachers and national and religious leaders. In this figure of speech, the sheep represent people like us, the robbers represent the religious leaders of the day, and the Good Shepherd represents Jesus.

I would rather be classified among the sheep than the robbers. It is not, however, a compliment to be compared to a sheep. I remember an old truck driver telling me that sheep are about the most stupid animals he had ever hauled. If allowed, he said, the sheep will congregate so tightly in a corner of the truck trailer that some of them will be suffocated.

The old Scot preacher, Andrew Bonar, once told how sheep in the Scottish Highlands wander off into the rocks and get into places from which they cannot escape. The grass on those mountains was sweet and the sheep would sometimes jump down ten or twelve feet to reach it, and then be unable to get back out. They would stay there until they had eaten all the grass. Then the shepherd would hear them bleating in distress. But he would have to wait until they were so faint that they could not stand, and then he would put a rope around himself, and go down and pull the sheep up out of the jaws of death.

Someone asked, “Why don’t they go down when the sheep first gets stuck?” And Bonar answered, “The sheep are so foolish they would dash right over the precipice and be killed!”[1]

Being compared to a sheep is not a compliment, and yet, are we not like them? How often people won’t go to God until they have lost everything and have no friends left. Before he can bring us back to himself, the Good Shepherd must wait until we have given up trying to save ourselves and are finally willing to let Him save us in His own way.

Jesus says that his sheep know and follow his voice. And note that word follow in verses four and five. The shepherd does not merely speak to us; he leads us.  e is going somewhere, and he wants us to go with him. We may think that the Good Shepherd only speaks to us while we are sitting stationary in church. Certainly he may speak to us then, but his intent is that we follow him into the world, into action, into service and noble sacrifice. He does not call us to vegetate in comfort but to follow in obedience.

[1] D. L. Moody shared this story

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The Biggest of the Big Three: Love

Here is the sermon, The Love of Your Life, from 1 John 4:7-12.

Approximate viewing time: 23:00.
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How to Pray High-Impact Prayers

If someone universally acknowledged as a modern-day saint prayed regularly for you, what would he or she pray? We know what we would want them to pray: that our children would fare well, that we would have enough money to live comfortably, that our health would not fail. But is that really what a saint would pray?

We have a good idea of how a saint would pray because we know how one did pray. That saint was the Apostle Paul. We know what he prayed for because, in his letters, he made a point of telling people what requests he made to God on their behalf.

He did not tell people that he was praying for their children to fare well, or for them to be financially secure, or healthy. That doesn’t mean that he never prayed for these things but, if he did, he did not feel it necessary to mention the fact. His prayers seem to be less about people’s comfort and more about their effectiveness.

For Paul, effectiveness was not merely a matter of efficiency. Effectiveness was the result of a particular kind of life and it was for this that the great saint routinely prayed. We tend to focus our prayers on what’s going on around people. Paul focused his prayers on what was going on within them. He knew a person’s wellbeing may decline even as their circumstances improve. Indeed, it may decline because their circumstances improve.

What were the great saint’s prayer requests? They vary, depending on the people for whom he prayed and on what they needed at the time. The examples we have come from letters to Paul’s friend Philemon and to the church families in Philippi, Colossae, and Ephesus. These letters provide a model for high-impact praying.

The apostle tended to make few requests, sometimes only one, based on the particular situation of the individual or church family for which he prayed. Yet his few requests, when answered, would bring enormous benefit to the people themselves and to those around them. In the case of the Colossian church (Colossians 1:9-12), he made just one request: that its people be filled with the knowledge of God’s will.

Why this request in particular? Paul knew it was a high impact request. Knowledge of God’s will is not an end in itself but a prerequisite for living – these are his words – “a life worthy of the Lord” that will “please him in every way.” Such a life brings good into the world and leads to fulfillment and joy for those who live it.

A life that pleases God is productive – “bearing fruit” is how the apostle put it – a life that does good work in the world. Since, as Paul writes elsewhere, God has prepared good works in advance for his people to do, the knowledge of his will is crucially important.

God is also pleased when his children’s understanding of him grows. When I was a teen and young adult, I didn’t get my dad at all. He was a mystery to me. After I had children, I began to better understand him and eventually came to hold him in high regard. God wants this for his children too. Their understanding of their heavenly Father grows as they begin to grasp what he is up to. That is, when they are “filled with the knowledge of his will.”

Paul also knew that God is pleased by seeing his children grow strong. God is a father – is The Father – and no father ever wanted his children to grow up to be weaklings. The strength God wants to see is demonstrated in three ways: endurance during difficult times; patience with difficult people; and joyful gratitude no matter what.

This is not how we normally measure strength. Our usual gauges measure: what we can lift, not what we can bear; how many people we exercise power over, not how many we exercise patience with; getting what we want, not being thankful for what we have. St. Paul understood what real strength is, and his prayer reflects that understanding.

Anyone who desires to offer high-impact prayers would do well to study and imitate the prayers of St. Paul.

(First published by Gannett.)

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How to Know If God Loves You

Christians love because of who God is, but also (this is the second of the three reasons St. John gives in 1 John 4:7-12) because of what God has done. Verses 9 and 10 state: “By this the love of God is revealed in us: that God has sent his one and only Son into the world so that we may live through him. In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

Do you want to know if God loves you? Look at the cross of Christ. It is the definitive revelation of love. If you look at your circumstances and everything is going well, you will believe that God loves you—today. But tomorrow, when your circumstances have changed and everything is not well, you will have doubts. Instead of focusing on your circumstances, look to the only begotten Son, hanging on a cross, doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. “In this is love.”

Brennan Manning was sitting in a foxhole in Korea with this best friend and fellow Marine Ray Brennan. These guys had grown up in Brooklyn together, double-dated together, entered the Marines together, and got deployed together. And here they were in a foxhole together, Brennan reminiscing about the good old days in Brooklyn and Ray eating a candy bar.

And then it happened. A grenade landed in the hole next to them. Ray smiled at his friend, dropped his candy bar, and threw himself on the grenade. It exploded but Brennan was saved.

When Brennan, who at that time went by Richard, later took holy orders, he was instructed to take a saint’s name. He took Ray’s last name; that’s how he became Brennan. Years later, he went to visit Ray’s mom. They sat up late one night talking and at some point, Brennan asked her, “Do you think Ray loved me?”

She shot up off the couch and stood in front of him, shaking her finger in his face and shouting, “What more could he had done for you?”[1]

When we doubt God’s love, the cross shouts at us, “What more could he have done for you?” In this is love, not in our circumstances but in God sending “his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” Your circumstances will try to drown out the cry of the cross. They will shout at you, “You are not loved. You don’t matter. You are nothing.” You don’t want to listen to that ugly, croaking voice, but you can’t help hearing it.

It’s only when you look at the cross of Jesus that you begin to hear a different voice. Have you ever been in a room with lots of noise, and someone is talking to you, but you can’t quite make out what she is saying over the din? Then you look at her and, like magic, you can hear what she is saying. That is what happens when we look at the cross of Christ. The din is still going on, but suddenly you can hear what God is saying. He is saying, “Yes, I love you.”

[1] Adapted from James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful God (IVP, 2009), p. 142

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The Love of Your Life: Light, Fire, and Love

In 1 John 4:7-12, the Apostle of Love gives three reasons why Christians love each other. First, they love because of who God is (vv. 7-8). Second, they love because of what God has done (vv. 9-11). And third, we love because of what God is doing (vv. 12).

First, Christians love because of who God is. Who is he? He is the source of love. “Dear friends, let us love one another, because love is from God…” The Greek here is lyrical. The King James and at least one modern version try to capture it by translating, “Beloved, let us love…” Greek is Ἀγαπητοί, ἀγαπῶμεν. “Beloved, love…” Why? Because love is from God. When Christians love one another, the source of their love is God himself. And as his love is transmitted through their emotions, minds, and wills, they experience God and are changed.

All genuine love comes from God. This means that a parent’s love for a child comes from God, even if that parent doesn’t realize or acknowledge it. The love that causes a soldier to sacrifice himself to save his brothers and sisters comes from God, though he may not know it. In some cases, the people who love do not know where that love originated, but in our case it is different. We can knowingly enter into the love God has for others, make ourselves its conduit, and so experience God’s life flowing through us.

But John goes beyond saying that love come from God. He makes the daring statement that God is love. There are some things to keep in mind. First, saying that “God is love” is a very different thing from saying that love is God. What people call love is often not the self-giving love expressed in Christ but the hungry, grasping, desire expressed by needy people. Hollywood elevates that desire to divine status and makes a fortune. But if we do the same, we will only make a mess.

God is love. This is one of four explicit statements about the nature of God in the Bible. Jesus says that God is Spirit (John 4), John says that God is light (1 John 1), and the author of Hebrews (12), quoting Deuteronomy 4, says that God is a consuming fire. Don’t get the idea that because God is love, he is a softy. That, because he is love, we can sin without consequence. For the Divine Spirit who is love is also light and fire.

Because God is light, he exposes our sins. Because he is fire, he consumes our sins. But because he is love, he has found a way to expose and consume them without destroying us.[1] That way – and it is a costly way – is the cross of Christ. It is in the cross that the God who is light shines most brilliantly. In the cross, the God who is fire burns most intensely. And in the cross, the God who is love gives most passionately.  

[1] See John Stott, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: The Epistles of John. pp. 160-161

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The Love of Your Life: The Three Tests

In St. John’s first letter, readers are given three self-tests that can make clear whether or not a person belongs to Christ and shares the life of the age to come. This, he says is why he wrote the letter: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (5:13).

I’ve heard this verse presented as a stand-alone proof of the assurance of eternal life, but this verse clearly does not stand alone. John says, “I write these things to you … so that you may know you have eternal life.” The obvious question is: what things did he write? And the answer is, the three tests.

Each of the three tests is stated three times in the letter and with each repetition comes further elaboration. We could label one test the doctrinal test: Does a person believe that Jesus is God’s Son the Messiah who became truly human?

A second test is the life test. The person who has eternal life obeys God’s commands and pursues a Jesus-like life. This is not to say that person never sins. John knows that, apart from Jesus, anyone who claims to be without sin is self-deceived (1 John 1:8). People who pass the life-test aren’t perfect but they confess their sins and deal with them. They desire to be like Jesus and they take steps to make it so (3:1-4).

The third test could be called the social test. The first test is over what we believe. The second test is over how we live. The third test is over who we love. The person who has the eternal kind of life loves God and loves Jesus’s people.

One more thing about the three tests: they overlap a great deal. A person who is growing in faith will be growing in obedience as well. A person who grows in obedience will be getting better at loving other people. This overlap, which is mentioned numerous times in 1 John, is crystalized in a single verse in 3:23: “And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ [doctrinal test], and to love one another [social test] as he commanded us [life-obedience test].”

That Jesus’s people love each other is a critical component – along with the calling of a people, the giving of the law, the incarnation of God, the death and resurrection of Christ, and the impartation of the Spirit – in God’s plan for the world.

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Why I Took the COVID-19 Vaccine

(Please read this first: A good friend expressed deep concern to me that this article seemed to mock people who refuse to take the vaccine. I have reread the article because I hate the idea that it came across this way. It’s already in the newspapers, so it is too late to add this note there, but I want to clarify here. Some of the things mentioned below – for example, evidence that the vaccine causes health risks, concerns over the lack of FDA approval, the unprecedented speed at which the vaccine was released for public use – seem to me to be perfectly legitimate concerns. When I weighed these legitimate concerns against the benefits of the vaccine, it seemed to me that the benefits outweighed the concerns. I realize that people I hold in high regard weigh it differently, and I do not intend to criticize them. I am only explaining my reasons for taking the vaccine.)

COVID-19 is currently surging through our county. According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, new cases have jumped 81 percent over last week and the percentage of positive tests has doubled.

In the church I pastor, many people have decided not to take the vaccine. They have cited evidence that the vaccine causes health risks, expressed concerns over the lack of testing and of FDA approval, and protested that the vaccine is the latest example of government overreach. They have complained that other promising therapies have been unwisely ignored. They have also heard prophecies that declare the vaccine to be “the mark of the beast” mentioned in Revelation 13.

I understand and respect their choice. In the cascade of conflicting information, doubt is to be expected and certainty is unfeasible. When I first heard about the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, I also had doubts. Less than seven months after President Trump announced Operation Warp Speed, the FDA had already granted Emergency Use Approval to the drugs. There is no precedent for the speed at which these drugs were developed, mass produced, and distributed. Nor, I think, for the amount of money that has changed hands in the process.

So I did some research. I read what I could find from respected scientists and from fellow Christians in the medical field. I learned that the science behind RNA vaccines like the Moderna and Pfizer drugs has been developing for the past 30 years, which explains the speed at which the COVID-19 vaccine was released.

I attended to the claims made by those who oppose the use of RNA vaccines. Some of these claims would make great story lines in a futuristic adventure movie. Indeed, some follow the plot line of “I Am Legend”: normal people are turned into something sub-human by the introduction of a vaccine into their system. I found the stories fascinating, even compelling. What I could not find was a shred of evidence to support such claims.

I dislike taking any medications. I nevertheless choose to do so in the case of the meds my cardiologist prescribed because it seems that the cost of not taking them is likely higher than the cost of taking them. After researching the RNA vaccines, I concluded the same to be true.

I also chose to take the vaccine because I refuse to be ruled by fear. When the COVID-19 virus first began to spread in the U.S., we heard daily reports of new infections and of increasing death tolls. The state shut down businesses, issued mask-orders, and social distancing guidelines.

Our church responded by taking steps to mitigate the spread of the virus. After a brief shut-down, we restarted worship services with a reduced seating capacity. We recommended mask-wearing, began a mask-required service, and stopped serving coffee and snacks. We went online and streamed services for many members of our church family who chose not to attend in-person services. We phoned our entire church family to check on their health and to offer help in getting groceries or driving to doctors.

What we did not do was panic. We tried to be wise and loving, to provide our church family with opportunities to worship together while mitigating the risk involved in doing so. In retrospect, there were decisions made over the past year that I would now make differently. But they were not made from fear.

I’ve noticed that many people who fear the virus do not fear the vaccine and many who fear the vaccine do not fear the virus. I refuse to fear either. I wear a mask when necessary because our governing authorities have required it, because I want to protect others, and because doing so does not require me to disobey God. But I do not wear a mask because I fear contracting the virus.

Likewise, I took the vaccine because I want once again to visit the church family I love in their homes and in the care facilities where some of them reside, and because taking it did not require me to disobey God. But I did not take it because of fear. I refuse to allow fear to govern my choices.

(First published by Gannett)

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Christian Hope: Does It Differ from Optimism?

What is Christian hope? Is it simply a feeling that things will get better? Is it just optimism? Or is it something more?

Well, hope certainly brings a feeling that things will get better, but it is more than a feeling. It is more than optimism. Optimism is a way of thinking. Hope is a way of being. Optimism is subjective. Hope is objective. Optimism comes from you but hope come from God.

He is its source, but what is its content? We hope in God (and that is of first importance); but what do we hope for?

We are hoping – this will sound completely foreign to many of us – for the end of the war. Not the Afghan War or the Syrian War. Not the war on drugs or the war on terror. Not the culture wars. These are border skirmishes and diversionary feints. I am talking about the war to begin all wars, the war into which we – and all humans – are born: the war between good and evil, light and darkness, heaven and hell, God and satan.

We who have never been in combat will have trouble grasping our true situation, but those of you have fought in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq will understand. You know the longing for the war to be over. You know the hope of being victorious. When the war that began all wars is over, our children will never again be captured by evil, our lives ruined by greed, our families split by hatred, our minds wracked by fear. Our nation will not be torn by hatred or our loved ones deceived by untruths.

When this war is over, we will start again and, unlike the last time, we will not start off on the wrong side. We will have peace, joy, and love. Death itself – the last of our enemies – will be undone. For this we wait. For this we hope.

We have this hope because we have this God. He will not put up with injustice, violence, and exploitation for much longer. And because we belong to him, we won’t put up with it either. We will work against these things, knowing that our labor is not in vain.

We are waiting and hoping for a world where everyone matters. Where love reigns. Where evil – not just in actions but in motives and thoughts – will trouble us no more. The early Christians summed up all this – the end of the war, the joyful peace, the restoration, the rule of love, the death of Death in one word: resurrection.

With the exception of two occurrences (one when cruel businessmen lose their hope of making money and one when weary sailors lose their hope of being rescued), the Book of Acts always links the word “hope” to the resurrection. Resurrection includes the new beginning, the restoration of creation, the redemption of our bodies, and the enthronement of the good and just King Jesus. Christian hope is resurrection hope.

The Bible expresses this in beautiful ways. It says we hope in the riches of the glory of God’s inheritance in the saints. We hope in salvation, in eternal life (that is, in the life of the age to come), in the appearance of Jesus upon his return to earth, and in our transformation, when we will receive glorious new bodies that have been designed to be like his body.

For too many of us, resurrection is a doctrine but not a hope. It is something we commemorate on Easter rather than something we long for throughout the year. But people who know they are in a war live in hope for these things, in the hope of the resurrection.

Years ago, I met Scott who was in the last stages of ALS. My friend Dave Brown introduced us. When I went to visit him at his home, I found an emaciated young man confined to a bed. Near the foot of the bed was a Lazy Suzan of sorts that someone from Lockwood had built. It held Bible memory verses. Scot would turn the Lazy Susan with his toe – one of the only parts of his body he could still move – and in that way read and memorize the verses.

I sat in a chair by his bed and we talked. Scott told me that he had only recently become a Christian – a beautiful story in which Dave had played an important role. After we had talked for a while, I asked him if he was afraid of dying.

He then told me something – and it was hard for him to talk, so I had to listen closely – that I have never forgotten. He told me that the last two months – since he had come over to Jesus’s side – had been the two best months of his life. I looked at him in wonder. Here was a man from whom everything had been taken. His former life was gone. His world was a bed. His body was a prison. And the last two months had been the best time of his life.

How was that possible? What had happened? The God of hope had come and put hope in his soul.

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8 Things Hope Does for the Believer (part 2)

  1. Love also depends on hope. Hopeless people do not love well. They may want to, but it’s just not in them. Hopelessness is a kind of quicksand. It causes a person to sink further and further into himself rather than to move out of himself toward God (faith) and toward people (love).

2) Hope also protects us. 1 Thessalonians 5:8 calls the hope of salvation a helmet. The person without that helmet is vulnerable—especially, it seems, in regard to his or her thoughts. Hope shields us from harmful thoughts that can penetrate our minds and cause injury.

3) Hope does something else: It stabilizes us and keeps us from drifting or being blown off course. This is Hebrews 6:19: “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” The Book of Hebrews constitutes one long warning against drifting away from God. Hope is the anchor that keeps that from happening.

My son Kevin and I were once fishing in Quebec from a boat that was anchored about 100 yards above a small waterfall. (I say small, but it probably dropped 30 feet over a course of a couple of hundred yards.) Without that anchor, the current would have carried us into pain and loss. And without hope, the strong currents of this age will carry you and your family where you do not want to go.

4) Hope does something else. We all have things that don’t belong in our lives: fears, prejudices, lusts, and resentments. Anger lives in us. Gossip settles into our conversations. Greed becomes a mindset. These things are hard to dislodge even when we are doing well spiritually. But they are impossible to dislodge when we don’t have hope.

Hope is the environment in which sinful habits can be removed and replaced. St. John, writing about our great hope, says, “Everyone who has this hope in [Christ] purifies himself, just as he is pure” (1 John 3:3). Purifies himself. Removing those sinful habits – we’ve tried again and again – can only succeed when we have hope.

With hope we can endure trials that would otherwise derail us. Hope enables us to work harder, better, and with more satisfaction. Hope provides opportunities to tell others about Jesus and gives us the boldness to seize those opportunities. It keeps us from getting carried off-course by the strong currents of the age. It makes it possible to remove the engrained habits that plague our lives, obstruct out love, and dishonor our God. Obviously, we need hope.

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8 Things Hope Does for Us (According to Scripture)

(Part 1)

1.) hope in our Lord Jesus Christ inspires endurance in our trials and in our work (1 Thess. 1:3). It is not weariness that makes people give up; it is hopelessness. All of us have known people who are great at starting things but terrible at seeing them through. Why, when they are so capable and talented, are they always giving up? Lack of hope could be the reason. Hopeless people don’t endure.

Hope enables us to work longer and better. Professor James Avey led a team that studied the correlation between hope and absenteeism at work. They began by surveying employees and dividing them into two categories: high-hope and low-hope workers. Over the course of one year, high-hope workers missed an average of 20 hours of work (not counting planned leaves and vacations) while their low-hope counterparts missed between three and four times that much. Avey found that hope is a far more accurate predictor of productivity that any of the usual workplace metrics – like job satisfaction, commitment to the company, or competence.[1]

Hopelessness makes work seem pointless, but hope has the opposite effect. It is no wonder that the New Testament’s most hopeful chapter closes with these words: “Stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58). You know that when you have hope.

2) Another thing hope does: It makes us bold. St. Paul, one of history’s most hopeful people, wrote: “…since we have such a hope, we are very bold” (2 Cor. 3:12). A literal translation could go, “Therefore, having such a hope, we proceed with much boldness.” When we don’t have hope, we hang back, cling to what we know. Hope enables us to venture out, discover new opportunities, and grow as people.

The word translated as “boldness” carries the idea of speaking freely. Hopeful people can say what is on their minds. Think of what a difference the boldness of hope could make in sharing the good news of Jesus.

We are seeing a historic drop in church attendance, membership, and affiliation. 8o percent of churches in America are plateaued or declining. Evangelism is in peril. There are both social and philosophical reasons for this, including a rise of commitment phobia and a descent into postmodernism. But at the base of it all is hopelessness.

3) But hope not only gives us boldness to speak for Christ; it gives us opportunities as well. St. Peter wrote, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). When we are hopeful, people come to us. When we are not hopeful, we don’t get opportunities.

4) Here is something else. St. Paul writes in Colossians 1:5 that “faith and love spring from hope.” That means faith is hope-dependent. Take away hope and faith withers. Hopeless people become faithless people toward God and others.

(The other four things hope does for us will be posted on Thursday, 4/22)

[1]  Adapted from Shane J. Lopez, Making Hope Happen (Atria Books, 2013), page 52.

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