Mary’s Reaction

“Reactions to Christ’s Birth” series: (post #1)

Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:30-33, N.K.J.V.)

We don’t know how old she was even though everyone agrees that she was probably a teenager. We don’t know anything about her family other than she was a relative to Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist (Luke 1:36). We don’t know the details of her upbringing except for the fact that she lived in Nazareth. We don’t know how she met Joseph or how their betrothing came to pass. With all these unknowns, Mary’s life before she became the most famous woman in history certainly doesn’t provide much of a background for her story.

What we do know is that she was right on verge of beginning her new life as a married Jewish woman when suddenly, without warning, without expectation, the angel Gabriel showed up and dropped a news bomb on her the likes of which the world had never seen and hasn’t seen since. “Mary, you are going to conceive the Messiah in your virgin womb and give birth to Him.” How’s that for a life-changing word from out of the blue!

Mary’s conversation with Gabriel actually began with the angel’s opening greeting to her: “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!” (Luke 1:28, N.K.J.V.). Interestingly, the Bible doesn’t tell us how Gabriel appeared to her. That’s one more entry in the “unknown” file about Mary. The New King James translation says concerning the start to the conversation: “And having come in, the angel said to her…” The New American Standard translation renders the original Greek in pretty much the same way, putting it: “And coming in, he said to her…” Those translations make it sound like Gabriel, perhaps in the form of a man, knocked on Mary’s door and was invited inside her home. I don’t know if this is how the event actually took place, but I certainly like the idea of it. If the meeting did begin this way, it would explain why Mary wasn’t struck with awe and fear the way eyewitnesses to angels typically are in the Bible.

While the story doesn’t say that Mary was troubled by Gabriel’s physical appearance, it does say that she was troubled by the words of his greeting. As Luke 1:29 says:

But when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was. (N.K.J.V.)

Have you ever thought about the fact that Mary’s reaction to Gabriel’s opening words to her shows us quite a bit about her? When the angel told her that she was highly favored, had the Lord with her, and was blessed among women, Mary didn’t think to herself, “Of course, I am. I’m a good person. I live a holy life. If I’m not highly favored and blessed, who can be?” No, she was far too humble and lowly to hold such a lofty opinion of herself. Instead, Gabriel’s opening words of compliment to her filled Mary with confusion, trouble, and a fair amount of fright. She surely thought, “Why is he saying such things to me?” To calm Mary’s worry, Gabriel then uttered the words of our opening text: “Do not be afraid, Mary…”

But now let’s proceed to the main point of this post. Once Mary had gotten over the initial shock of the opening to the conversation, and once she had asked the obvious question of how a virgin could conceive and had been given as much answer as she was going to get (Luke 1:34-37), now it was time for her reaction to the news that Jesus, the Messiah, would soon be born into the world. And what was that reaction? We find it in Luke 1:38:

Then Mary said, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word!” And the angel departed from her. (N.K.J.V.)

There it is, a reaction so simple and sincere, yet so profound. Not only did Mary believe the news about Christ’s birth, she immediately volunteered herself to play the role that God wanted her to play regarding it. And may the same be said of each of us today. No, God doesn’t want us to help bring Jesus into the world, but He definitely does want us to embrace the truth that Jesus has indeed come. Even more than that, He wants us to place our belief in Jesus for salvation and live each day as the menservants and maidservants of Christ.

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How Satan Leads Us to Our Own Destruction

Noted British pastor Charles Spurgeon once told the story of a preacher who was taking a leisurely stroll through a small village. As the preacher walked along, he saw a farmer leading a herd of pigs down the road. Since pigs are very independent creatures that don’t usually follow leaders, the whole scene struck the preacher as very odd.

Piqued by curiosity, the preacher took his place alongside the farmer and asked him, “How do you get these pigs to follow you like this?” The farmer said, “It’s easy. I have a sack full of peas in my pocket, and every now and then as I walk I drop a pea on the road behind me. One of the pigs gobbles up the pea and all the pigs keep following me because they know that I’ll be dropping another pea sometime soon.”

As the preacher listened to that explanation, he thought, “That’s very smart.” Then he asked the farmer, “And just where is it that you are taking the pigs?” Bluntly, the farmer answered, “To the butcher’s shop.”

Friend, could it be that Satan is dropping just enough peas in front of you these days to lead you to a bad place? Oh, what a master tempter he is! He knows just what appeals to you, just what you like, just what will keep you marching down the road he wants you to travel. That’s why it takes serious discernment to stop eating his peas, lift up your head, look around, and figure out that you aren’t where God wants you to be. Not surprisingly, few people ever show such discernment.

Right now, wherever you are in life, you would do well to ask God if you are on a road that is pleasing to Him. Ask Him to reveal His will to you. Ask Him to make His path plain and easy to spot. Ask Him to bring to nothing any wrong dreams that you are chasing. Ask Him to give you the wisdom and discernment to see Satan’s peas of temptation for what they really are: the seeds of your demise. In short, I guess what I’m saying is, don’t let the devil lead you to one of life’s butcher’s shops. I assure you that’s not a place you will enjoy.

Posted in Backsliding, Choices, Decisions, Discernment, God's Will, Satan, Sin, Temptation, The Devil | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

How Many Pastors Should a Church Have?

Our English word “pastor” translates the New Testament’s original Greek word poimen, a word that literally means “shepherd.” “Pastor,” of course, is the leadership title that is most commonly used in our American churches. The fact is, however, that the New Testament only uses the title “pastor” one time. That one reference is Ephesians 4:11, where the Bible says:

And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers. (N.K.J.V.)

The New Testament’s most frequently used title for the role we call “pastor” is “elder,” which translates the Greek words presbuteros (the adjective form) and presbuterion (the noun form). Obviously, this is the Greek word from which we also get the word “Presbyterian.” As for the use of “elder” in the New Testament, consider the following examples (all from the N.K.J.V.):

  • So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed. (Acts 14:23)
  • From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church. (Acts 20:17)
  • Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in word and doctrine. (1 Timothy 5:17)
  • For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you… (Titus 1:5)
  • Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. (James 5:14)

As long as we are passing through here, another New Testament title for the job of “pastor” is “bishop” or “overseer,” depending upon which translation of the Bible you prefer. While the K.J.V. and the N.K.J.V. translate the Greek word episkopos as “bishop” or “bishops” in Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:1-2, and Titus 1:7 (with the K.J.V. doing the same in 1 Peter 2:25), other translations consistently render episkopos as “overseer.” Either way, the office is the same as that of elder/pastor. This is clearly seen by consulting all the applicable passages, among them being Titus 1:5-7 where the titles “elders” and “bishop” are used interchangeably.

But now let me get to the issue at hand. Because Acts 14:23 says that Paul and Barnabas appointed elders (plural) in every church (singular), some people contend that the one-pastor-per-church model is not scriptural. These people teach that every church should have multiple pastors/elders/overseers. Call it a pastoral team, call it a board of elders, call it whatever you like, but the idea is that the leadership and oversight of a local church should never be vested in just one man. So, does Acts 14:23 really prove that the one-pastor-per-church model is wrong? No, it doesn’t, and if you will permit me I’ll explain why it doesn’t.

First and foremost, it must be understood that a typical congregation in the early church was a house church. Admittedly, the world’s first church was a massive one that was founded in the city of Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost that is described in Acts 2:1-47. That church literally began with approximately 3,000 believers (Acts 2:41) and proceeded to rapidly grow from there (Acts 2:47, 4:4; 5:14; 6:7). A church that large needed a pastoral team/board of elders, and the apostles played that role.

In point of fact, though, the Jerusalem church was an anomaly among the churches described in the New Testament. Far from being megachurches, the average congregations of those days were house churches. The references to such churches are numerous: Romans 16:3-5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15; Philemon verses 1 and 2; James 2:1-3; and 2 John verse 10.

Assuming there were multiple house churches in each city — and that is certainly a reasonable assumption in view of the populations of large cities such as Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, etc. — all of the house churches in a given city made up the one “church” of that city. For example, when Paul wrote to “the church (singular) of God which is at Corinth” (1 Corinthians 1:1-2; 2 Corinthians 1:1), he evidently had in mind that his letter would be passed around to each of the house congregations in Corinth. Likewise, when he wrote to “the church (singular) of the Thessalonians” (1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1), he evidently had in mind that his letter would be passed around to each of the house congregations in Thessalonica.

This matter of the cities having multiple house churches might also explain why Paul didn’t usually use the word “church” in his introductions for his letters. As you read the following introductions (all from the N.K.J.V.), notice that he seemed to make a point of not using the singular word “church” in addressing his audiences:

  • To all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 1:7)
  •  Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus, and faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and pace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:1-2)
  • Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:1-2)
  • Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are in Colosse: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

We might ask, “Was there ever an instance where Paul addressed a letter to certain “churches” (plural)?” The answer is yes. In his opening to his letter we call Galatians, he says that the letter is written “To the churches of Galatia.” However, the explanation for this unique wording is easy to understand. Galatia was a general region rather than a specific city. For that reason, it had “churches” (plural) rather than a “church” (singular).

What I’m trying to show you in all of this is that when Acts 14:23 says that Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in every church, that doesn’t have to mean that they appointed pastoral staffs for each congregation. Actually, in light of the fact that those congregations were house churches, having multiple pastors really wouldn’t have made much sense. Seriously, how big could a house church have been? What makes more sense is to interpret Acts 14:23 as referring to Paul and Barnabas appointing individual elders/pastors to lead the individual house churches of each city. If this is indeed a correct interpretation, it also explains why Paul instructed Titus to appoint elders in every city as opposed to every church (Titus 1:5). You see, by comparing scripture to scripture we find that Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5 are more than likely describing the same type of appointing.

Furthermore, it might very well be significant that in 1 Timothy 3:1-13, which is Paul’s most detailed description regarding the offices of pastor and deacon, he uses the singular in reference to a pastor and the plural in reference to deacons. Did Paul, writing under the inspiration of God, word the passage this way to show that a local church should have one pastor and multiple deacons? It’s certainly a possibility.

Look, I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with a congregation having multiple pastors/elders. To the contrary, I consider such staffing a mandatory requirement for any church that reaches a certain size and beyond. All I’m saying is that these people who frown upon a church that only has one pastor and claim that such a church isn’t operating in a scriptural manner need to hush. Any serious study of the New Testament will show that there is a lot more scriptural evidence for small congregations that met in homes than there is for large congregations that met in massive gathering places. By implication then, there is a lot more scriptural evidence for the one-pastor-per-church methodology than there is for the multiple-pastors-per-church methodology. And suffice is to say that if we are going to debate this topic, let’s debate it in the light of inspired scripture rather than in the light of current trends in the modern church.

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The Good That Can Come From Your Day of Trouble

The residents of a remote area of Alaska were having serious trouble with wolves. In desperation the residents posted a $5,000 reward for each wolf brought in dead. That sizable reward prompted Bill and Joe to try their luck.

The two men hiked deep into the Alaskan wilderness, set up camp, and settled into their tent for a night’s sleep. Their plan was to rise early the next morning and start hunting. Shortly after midnight, however, Bill was awakened by noises that sounded like growling. At first he thought they were just Joe snoring in the sleeping bag next to him, but then he realized that Joe was sleeping quietly. No, the sounds were coming from outside the tent.

It was then that Bill noticed the silhouettes that were being cast onto the tent by the moonlight and the flames of the campfire. The shapes of the silhouettes left no doubt as to what form of creatures were growling outside the tent. It was a pack of wolves.

Bill shook Joe to wake him, and Joe finally roused up enough to groggily ask, “What’s the matter?” Bill said, “Well, it’s one of those bad news-good news situations.” Joe said, “Okay, what’s the bad news?” Bill answered, “There’s a wolf pack just outside our tent and they are growling like they are ready to pounce.” In a panicked voice, Joe said, “If that’s the bad news, what could the good news possibly be?” Bill responded, “We could be rich!”

Moses and the Israelites trusted God to lead them out of Egypt and into the promised land of Canaan. What they didn’t expect was that God would lead them to the shores of the Red Sea and then allow Pharaoh’s army to close in behind them. Why did God do that? He did it because He wanted the Israelites to learn to trust Him even in situations that seemed hopeless.

We know, of course, how the story turned out. God parted the waters of the Red Sea and allowed Israel to pass through them on dry land before He brought the waters back together to drown Pharaoh’s army when they followed Israel’s path. Basically, God turned a terrible predicament of bad into a tremendous pathway for good.

Have you ever read Psalm 50:15? In that verse, God extends a glorious invitation to those who serve Him. He says:

Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me. (N.K.J.V.)

Note that term “the day of trouble.” Have you ever had one of those days, those weeks, those months, or those years? If you haven’t, keep living and you’ll get there. And what should you do during such a time? God says simply, “Call upon Me.” That’s your part right there. Then it’s God’s turn to do His part as He says, “I will deliver you.” Following the deliverance the ball then falls back into your court as God says concerning the aftermath, “…and you shall glorify Me.”

So, are you right now surrounded by some metaphorical pack of wolves? If you are you should call upon God, asking Him to flip the situation around to your benefit. Mind you that this is not the same as asking Him to deliver you out of the situation. After all, God didn’t magically teleport Moses and the Israelites to the other side of the Red Sea, did He? Instead, He kept them in the situation and made a way for them to glean incredible good from it. This is what He will do for you as well.

Afterward should come the praise as you glorify God for what He has done. This is what Moses and the Israelites did on the opposite shore of the Red Sea (Exodus 15:1-21). But why could they burst into such heartfelt praise? It was only because God had led them straight into a situation that was at the same time filled with both difficulty and opportunity.

Posted in Adversity, Depression, Disappointment, Encouragement, Faith, Faithfulness, Fear, God's Sovereignty, Perseverance, Trials, Trusting In God | Leave a comment

A Word Worth Ten Shillings

In 1907, famed English writer Rudyard Kipling won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Not only was he the youngest recipient of the prize at that time, he was also the first English-language writer to receive it. At the height of Kipling’s earning power, he was paid ten shillings per word.

That exorbitant fee irked a couple of jealous Oxford students who didn’t think any man’s words could be worth that much. So, as a joke, they sent Kipling ten shillings in an envelope and asked him to give them one of his best words. By cable, Kipling sent them back the word: “Thanks.”

“Thanks.” I guess that’s a good word for any day, any age, any situation, isn’t it? No matter who you are, where you are, or what you are doing, if you can find something for which you can be thankful, you are indeed blessed. I heard about a man who was in desperate straits financially. On Thanksgiving Day he vented to his friend, “What have I got to be thankful for? I can’t even pay my bills!” To that his friend replied, “Then I guess you can be thankful that you are not one of your creditors.”

Today, on this day after Thanksgiving, be sure to find things for which you are thankful. If you have a refrigerator full of leftover food, be thankful that you have plenty to eat. The lines for food pantries and soup kitchens are long today. If you go Christmas shopping, be thankful that you have enough money to buy gifts. Some people will lose their homes, have their cars repossessed, or get laid off this Christmastime. If you spend the day putting up a Christmas tree or decorating your home, be thankful that you have the health and strength to do so. The hospital beds and nursing home beds are pretty much always full. For that matter, if you even have a home, be thankful for it. When the nights turn bitterly cold this time of year, the homeless shelters start running out of cots.

But if you still can’t find anything to make you say, “Thanks” then consider Jesus. He was God in the flesh, come down from heaven, born to a virgin to live a sinless life and then die as the substitionary sacrifice for the sins of the human race. He died on the cross as the payment for your sins, my sins, and everybody else’s sins, and then He arose from the dead and ascended back to heaven, from which He right now offers salvation to anyone and everyone who will believe in Him as Savior. That includes me, and it also includes you.

What am I saying? I’m saying that if you can’t find anything else for which to be thankful today, you should at least be thankful that God in the flesh loved you enough to die for you so that you might have the option of having all your sins forgiven and spending eternity with Him in perfect bliss rather than separated from Him in a lake of fire. Friend, that’s an item that ought to eternally rank in the top slot of the list of things that make you say, “Thanks.” You see, if you have truly placed your belief in Jesus as Savior, then you saying, “Thanks” to Him for what He has done for you is worth infinitely more than ten shillings.

Posted in Christ's Birth, Christ's Death, Christ's Resurrection, Forgiveness, Salvation, Thankfulness, Thanksgiving | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

“Christian Verses” Thanksgiving Podcast: Ephesians 5:20

In this week’s podcast Malcolm and I kick around a few loose thoughts about Thanksgiving. We share what our Thanksgiving day experiences were like as kids, and we say a few things about how those type of experiences seem less common these days. Also, we answer the question, “How can a person be thankful for all things (as the Bible instructs us to be) when all things surely aren’t good?” The focal verse for the podcast is Ephesians 5:20, and you can listen to the 13-minute conversation by clicking on the link below. Have a blessed Thanksgiving!

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How Can You Give Thanks For Bad Things?

…giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:20, N.K.J.V.)

In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:18, N.K.J.V.)

These two verses make it clear that God wants us to give thanks always and for all things. But that’s a mighty tall order, isn’t it? I mean, those words “always” and “all” leave absolutely no room for exceptions, even if those exceptions seem perfectly valid in terms of human logic. Give thanks for the loss of a loved one? Give thanks for sickness/disease? Give thanks for trying circumstances? Surely God needs to be more realistic regarding what He expects of us.

The truth is, though, that we actually can chose to give thanks for all things, even the bad things. The secret is found in the framework we apply to the thanking. Confused? Well, let me show you what I mean.

Let’s say that you experience the death of a loved one. Perhaps it’s the death of a father, a mother, a brother, a sister, a child, or a friend. How in the world can you possibly give thanks for a death that has left your heart broken? For one thing, you can thank God for all the time you had with the person. For another, you can thank God for all the loved ones who are still with you. For another, if the loved one was a Christian, you can thank God that the person is now out of this world of pain and suffering and is enjoying the eternal bliss of being with Jesus. For another, you can thank God that you losing a loved one better equips you to relate to others who lose loved ones and help them.

What about giving God thanks for sickness/disease? First, you can thank Him for all the days you’ve had free from sickness/disease. Second, you can thank Him that your sickness/disease has created a situation that burdens you to spend more time in prayer. Third, if you are a Christian, you can thank Him for the fact that in eternity you will never know sickness/disease again. Fourth, you can thank Him that your sickness/disease better equips you to relate to others who are experiencing sickness/disease and help them.

As for giving God thanks for trying circumstances, the Bible actually  gives us a blueprint for how to do it. That blueprint is found in James 1:2-3, a passage which says:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (N.I.V.)

Did you spot that checklist of reasons why you can give God thanks during trying circumstances? #1: Thank Him that the circumstances allow your faith to be not only tested but also strengthened. #2: Thank Him that the circumstances and the faith-testing cause perseverance to be built up inside you. #3: Thank Him that the building up of your perseverance causes you to become a more mature and complete person.

Of course, these examples that I’ve given (the death of a loved one, sickness/disease, trying circumstances) are just three of life’s full tapestry of things for which we find giving thanks exceedingly difficult. Obviously, there are many, many others. But what I’m trying to get you to understand is that this framework for giving thanks can be applied to all of them. I’m not saying that everything is good. A lot of things definitely aren’t! What I’m saying is that God can bring good out of anything, even bad stuff, and you can honestly give Him thanks for that good if you take the time to figure out just exactly what that good is.

Posted in Adversity, Attitude, Complaining, Death, Disappointment, Faith, Perseverance, Problems, Sickness, Suffering, Thankfulness, Thanksgiving, Trials | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment