An Advent Letter from David

Sunday, November 28, is the first Sunday in the Christian season of Advent. Advent (meaning “arrival” or “coming”) emphasizes preparation for the coming of Messiah and the celebration of his birth at Christmas. Many Christians mark these four weeks with Advent calendars, wreaths, candles and scripture readings which emphasize themes of hope, peace, love, and joy.

In Advent we remember the first coming of our Lord, his ministry, his sacrificial death and his bodily resurrection. It also reminds us of his promised second coming. We are taught to prepare ourselves to meet him when he comes again. Advent is a season of anticipation, hope, and of spiritual preparation.

Perhaps you receive, as I do, Christmas letters from relatives and friends. They usually contain news of the sender’s family and experiences of the past year. They always express good wishes for a happy Christmas. For my theme for Advent this year I want to take a look at four Christmas letters from the Bible which anticipate the arrival of the Christ, both his first and second comings.

The first is a communication from David, who prophesied the rebellion of the world civilization in rejecting Messiah when he came: “The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed” (Psalm 2:2). The New Testament quotes this (Acts 4:25-26) to refer to the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus.

David’s Advent letter records the response of Almighty God. He laughs at the pathetic arrogance of humanity. The one who sits in the heavens “scoffs at them, He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath saying, ‘I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain'” (Psalm 2:4-5). Here is a prophetic picture of the return of Christ in his glorious earthly kingdom. He will reign in power and perfect justice from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Psalm 2:8).

The psalm prophesies Messiah’s resurrection from the dead. “You are my son,” God says, speaking through David, “today I have become your father” (Psalm 2:7). What day is the psalm referring to? The New Testament gives us the answer. According to Paul (Acts 13:27-33; Romans 1:4), it was the day of Jesus’ resurrection that was the final proof of the fact that Jesus was eternally and always the son of God.

He was the son of God before he came to earth. He was the son of God at his conception in the womb of the virgin Mary and his birth. He was the son of God at his baptism. He was the son of God at his transfiguration on the holy mountain. But the apostles had it revealed to them that God explicitly declared Jesus to be his son when he raised him from the dead. They interpreted Psalm 2 accordingly.

This Advent letter closes with an invitation for you and me to “take refuge in him” (Psalm 2:12). This is an appeal to our hearts, our minds, and our wills. “Be wise,” David writes, appealing to the mind. “Serve the Lord with fear.” This reminds us of the repeated maxim that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 9:10).

“Celebrate his rule with trembling,” is an appeal to the heart (Psalm 2:11). “Celebrate” is another way of saying “rejoice!” Joyfully submit to his reign in your life. “With trembling” has the connotation of awe and reverence before a mighty and glorious king.

“Kiss the son” (Psalm 2:12) evokes an ancient way for a subject to do homage before a royal king. This is an act of the will. Jesus is Lord and those who worship him in truth bow in humility before his majesty. The appeal to “take refuge in him” is equivalent to the New Testament word for “believe” or “trust.” No matter how severe his judgments against a rebellious world, the Lord Jesus is always patient and kind toward those who come to him in humility and sincere faith.

Advent teaches us that Jesus came and he is coming. It is wise to be ready.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

 

Happiness and Thanksgiving

Thankfulness is the secret to happiness. Think about it. No one who complains is really happy. No one who worries is happy. Discontented people are unhappy people. The way to be glad is to be grateful.  Gratitude depends upon one’s view of God.

Jesus healed a man of the dread disease of leprosy. The loathsome ailment had left him disfigured and forced to live apart from society. In America, sociologists tell us, we have a cultural bias against ugly people. Unattractive people are at a disadvantage when competing for the best jobs and promotions. This unfortunate man, because of his affliction, had a disagreeable appearance.

Jesus healed him. In Luke 17:16 we find the man “praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.” Obviously the man was both happy and thankful. Was he happy because he was thankful or thankful because he was happy?

He was both thankful and happy because he had a God-centered point of view. He was praising God. Warren Wiersbe wrote, “Some people are appreciative by nature, but some are not and it is these latter people who especially need God’s power to express thanksgiving. We should remember that every good gift comes from God and that he is ‘the Source, Support and End of all things.’ . . . . Life is a gift of God, and the blessings of life come from his bountiful hand.”

Some of the psalms in the Bible direct us to this point of view. “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever” (Psalm 107:1).  “At midnight I will rise to give you thanks because of your righteous laws” (Psalm 119:62). The last book in the Bible teaches us to “give glory and honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever” (Revelation 4:9).

I suspect the man was happy because he was thankful. And he was thankful because he knew his healing was a gift from God. Jesus had not only given him physical healing, but salvation for his soul. The phrase spoken by the Lord, “Your faith has made you well,” could be translated, “Your faith has saved you” (v. 19). There is evidence here that the man became a believer in Christ on this occasion and he gave praise to God.

It is a remarkable thing that this man was one of ten who were healed on that day. He alone came back to Jesus to say thank you. All ten of them were afflicted with the same disease. All of them had heard about Jesus and his power to heal. All of them cried out to him for help. All ten of them were healed.

But only one of the ten came back to Jesus to say thanks. As he did it he was overwhelmed with joyful praise to God. Here was a man who was God-centered in his thinking. Because of that he was thankful. And because of that he was happy.

George Morrison, the Scottish preacher, wrote, “If all that happens to us comes by chance, then of course no one can be grateful. Gratitude is not a duty then, because there is no one to be grateful to.” He went on to say that in the gospel of Jesus Christ, believers (like the man in our story) have  “been awaked through their Lord and Savior to a God whose name and character was love. . . .  The moment  anyone awakes to that and with heart and soul believes in that, then gratitude is born.”

Pastor Randy Faulkner

 

Five Ways to Give Thanks

It was Andre Crouch, I believe, who sang, “How can I give thanks for the things you have done for me?” We give thanks, if at all, in November, with the memory of pilgrims, and presidential proclamations, and cranberry relish. In America these days Thanksgiving is associated with feasting and football, and of course, with shopping.

Is there space and time in all this activity for the actual giving of thanks? Have we forgotten how to do it? Here are five ways to practice thanksgiving in this, and every season.

Remember. Think back and recall past influences and circumstances that have shaped your life. Think of the coalescing of events that God used to direct the trajectory of your life. Can you see the imprint of his goodness in your experience? Do you see how, even in the difficult times, he has caused things to work together for your good?

Mac Brunson wrote that a thankful heart builds your faith. It acts, he says, like a magnifying glass; thankfulness helps you see how God is bigger than your problems. Remembering and thanking God for his track record of faithfulness is a way to renew your mind.

Recite. Verbally recount your blessings: the freedoms you enjoy, the pleasures and prosperity you have been given, your family. These are gifts from God. Every day is a gift for which we should be thankful. We will never get to live it again. Speak to yourself about these gifts and then express your thanks to God.

Gather. There is a reason that Thanksgiving is the busiest travel season of the year. We look forward to returning home for sumptuous Thanksgiving dinners, as we hold on to family traditions and memories. One of those traditions in our  family is for the individuals, during the meal, to share some things for which they are thankful.

Many churches emphasize thanksgiving in worship during this season. How can we not gather in the Lord’s name to say thank you? As Annie Dillard put it, “I know only enough about God to want to worship him, by any means ready to hand.” One of those means is communion. Whenever believers gather around the table of the Lord, it is always a profound expression of thanksgiving (Eucharist) for his sacrifice on the cross.

Write. Write that letter, or text, or email, of appreciation you have been meaning to write. During the early months of the pandemic I took advantage of the enforced isolation  to write to some people from my past who had blessed my life in important ways. One of those people died unexpectedly not long afterward. I am glad I wrote that letter when I did to express my thanks for his influence and friendship.

Give. It is almost trite to say that this is a season of giving. But it is true. There is a relationship between thanksgiving and generosity. If you cannot give money, give your time. if you have limited time to give, give a smile and the gift of kindness. Your gift can be a thank you to God for all that he has given to you.

There is, in the Orthodox tradition, a worldview which calls for a “eucharistic spirit.” This is derived from the Greek word for thanksgiving. It is reminder that the created world is a gift from God, a gift of wonder and beauty. It is not to be exploited, but to be embraced, transformed, and returned to him in a spirit of thanksgiving. Human beings are “eucharistic creatures,” capable of gratitude and endowed with the power to bless God for his gift of creation. Let us thank God for his gifts this season “with eucharistic joy.”

Pastor Randy Faulkner

Repentance and Faith

According to the teaching of the Roman Church, one of its seven sacraments is penance. This is said to include the confession of sin, the priest’s pronouncement of absolution, and an assignment of certain good works to be done as partial remittance for the sin. The hope is that the offender may, by these good deeds, be restored to a state of grace.

The reformers responded by declaring that salvation is sola fide, by faith alone. Luther, and the other reformers, discovered that Jesus and the apostles did not say, “Do penance for your sins.” Rather, the New Testament says to “repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). “Repentance” is not the same thing as “penance.”

What does it mean to repent? The verb “repent” and the noun “repentance” are used several dozen times in the New Testament. They mean to change one’s mind. Repentance is not a meritorious good work whereby one earns favor with God. It is not the same thing as regret or remorse. It does not imply making restitution or retribution which somehow makes God willing to forgive sins.

Repentance is a change of mind or attitude toward God, toward oneself, toward sin, and toward Jesus Christ. Faith is the only condition for salvation. Repentance prepares the way for saving faith by recognizing one’s need for faith in Christ. Repentance alone cannot save if it does not lead to faith in Christ.

Repentance means to change one’s mind about whatever is keeping one from trusting Jesus Christ. Some people may have to change their minds about their concept of God. Some may have to change their attitude toward Jesus and confess that he is indeed the Son of God. Others may have to finally admit that their works or their religion cannot make them right with God. All of us must come face to face with our sinfulness and admit that we have broken God’s holy law.

Who should repent? The New Testament says that repentance should be preached in all nations (Luke 24:46-47). All people everywhere should repent (Acts 17:30). Both Jews and Gentiles are called to repent (Acts 20:21). The call to repent leads to a call to believe. “I have declared to both Jews and Greeks,” Paul said, “that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:21).

It has been pointed out that the theme of repentance is not found in the gospel of John. It’s theme is faith in Jesus. The fourth gospel is an evangelistic tract designed to convince people to trust in Jesus to receive the gift of eternal life. This leads to the conclusion that salvation is sola fide, by faith alone.

Interestingly, another book by the apostle John, The Book of the Revelation, has twelve references to repentance. Several of these are commands to the churches to repent. It was the believers who needed repent of their sins in order to restore their fellowship with the Lord and be revived spiritually.

Repentance is important. For Christian believers, it is necessary for maintaining our fellowship with God. It is also for unbelievers, to change their minds about sin, about God, about Jesus as preparation for saving faith.

There is no human effort or merit in repentance. It is a work of God’s grace in the life of an individual (Acts 11:18, 2 Timothy 2:25). It is a precursor to saving faith and salvation is by faith alone (Romans 3:21-26).

Pastor Randy Faulkner

Sobriety Is More Than We Think It Is

You have to like a writer who can harvest the wisdom from Augustine, Richard John Neuhaus, and Johnny Cash all on the same page. Michael Philliber does that, and more, in his recent book,  Our Heads on Straight: Sober-mindedness — A Forgotten Christian Virtue.

What could be more relevant for such a time as this? He posits the virtue of sanctified good sense (my synonym for his “sober-mindedness”) as a biblical antidote to the pandemic of fear, suspicion, anger, and public malice in American culture today. He manages to do so without finger-pointing or sanctimony.

During my years as a pastor I had studied and taught such texts as Titus 2:12,   “(The grace of God) teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.” I confess that I had never applied the concept of sober-mindedness in precisely the way my friend Michael has done in this book. I can see why he calls sober-mindedness a forgotten Christian virtue.

He dives into the biblical and classical usage of the Greek word sophroneo and its family of synonyms. This leads him to the conclusion that “Paul, Peter, and the gospel writers . . . picture the Christian life as a life of sobriety.” He is careful to point out that this word should be understood broadly as self-restraint, mature judgment, reasonableness, and rationality. Throughout the book, he refers to almost every use of the word and its cognates in the New Testament.

Philliber takes the Bible seriously. From the story of Jesus’ healing of the demonized man in Mark 5, we see the evidence of the man’s recovery as he was found sitting serenely, fully clothed, and “in his right mind” (sophroneo). This contrasted with his previous rage, agitation, and social isolation.

In Paul’s writings, sober judgment is for everyone, old and young, male and female, leaders and servants (Titus 2). It is counter-cultural and evidence of spiritual maturity. It is a work of grace in believers who reject those aspects of the world that are not in harmony with God’s will and who surrender themselves to God (Romans 12:1-3).

In the chapters that follow, we are shown how sober-mindedness is a biblical Christian’s alternative response to racism, anxiety, and hostile divisions in society. Citing Jeremiah’s advice to the Jewish exiles in Babylon to “seek the peace and prosperity” of the foreign cities where they would be sent (Jeremiah 29:7), Michael calls on his readers to be so heavenly minded that they can be of some earthly good.

A highlight of the book for me was his reassuring analysis of sober-mindedness as a healthy response to conspiratorial thinking. As one who believes that irrational conspiracy theories are a danger to American society, I found Michael’s exposition of Isaiah 8:11-13 especially hopeful and calming. The prophet says, “Do not call conspiracy what this people call conspiracy nor fear what they fear.” He couples this with 2 Timothy 1: 6-7, “God did not give us a spirit of fear . . . but of self-control (a sound mind, or sophronismou).”

He admitted that he had seen in his own experience how fear spreads like a contagion. Conspiracies thrive in an atmosphere of suspicion and dread. Whether it is the fear (my words, not his) of secret cabals who want to control the world, or of terrorist networks, or of super-powerful invasion forces, or fear of religious persecution, the answer is not panic, but sober-minded trust in a sovereign God.

The closing chapter in Our Heads on Straight takes us to Isaiah 40 where we meet this sovereign God, and we are encouraged to know him personally through Jesus Christ. We are invited “to come to our right minds . . . and turn our faces up to him.” If he is indeed the sovereign who is described here, this is the most rational, wise, and proper thing to do.

Warren Wiersbe once told me that words that sizzle in the pulpit often freeze on the page. To be sure, Michael Philliber is a pulpiteer, but his writing has the warmth of personal experience and the weight of biblical wisdom. Wiersbe also told me that new books are needed for every generation. Michael is a writer for this generation and his topic resonates. You have to like a writer like that. I do. My wife and I benefit from his pulpit ministry every Lord’s Day.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

Coincidence or Providence?

Abraham sent his chief servant to his home country in Mesopotamia to find a bride for his son Isaac. Isaac was the chosen one who would be the recipient of God’s covenant promises, and would pass them on to his offspring. The choice of a bride would be vitally important.

Genesis 24 tells the story. It shows us how God works through the ordinary circumstances and events of our lives. It shows us how a man of faith like Abraham acknowledged God’s purposes and believed in God’s promises. It teaches us about prayer, in both its simplicity and its urgency.

When Abraham’s servant arrived at his destination in Haran, he prayed for success in his mission. At the site of the town well, he asked God for a sign. Would the girl whom God would choose be willing to provide water for his entire herd of camels when he asked for a drink of water for himself?

Among the young women coming to the well that evening was beautiful Rebekah with her water jar upon her shoulder. He noticed her immediately. Was it a mere coincidence that she was the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother Nahor?

When he, a weary traveler, asked the girl for a drink of water, she responded with unusual grace. “‘Drink, my lord,’ she said and quickly lowered the jar to her hands and gave him a drink” (Genesis 24:18).

“After she had given him a drink, she said, ‘I’ll draw water for your camels, too, until they have had enough to drink.’ So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough, ran back to the well to draw more water, and drew enough for all his camels” (Genesis 24:19-20).

I have read that a thirsty camel can drink over 32 gallons of water at one time! We can only imagine the labor involved in watering ten camels. The man was watching her carefully the whole time as she went about this task. Was this a coincidence, or was God showing him the person who should be the bride for Isaac?

He then offered her gifts of gold and he asked about her family. She told him who her father and grandparents were. He then ventured to ask if they would provide him shelter for the night. She responded in the affirmative. Coincidence? The servant of Abraham did not think so. He bowed in worship and praised the Lord “who has not abandoned his kindness and faithfulness to my master. As for me, the Lord has led me on the journey to the house of my master’s relatives” (Genesis 24:27).

The gifts of gold he gave Rebekah prepared  a welcome from Laban, Rebekah’s brother. “A gift opens the way for the giver” (Proverbs 18:16). Laban escorted Abraham’s servant to the very household which he had sought. They offered him elaborate Middle Eastern hospitality. This was surely more than mere coincidence. It shows us the operation of divine providence in the lives of God’s people.

Millard Erickson has written, “Providence in certain ways is central to the conduct of the Christian life. It means that we are able to live in the assurance that God is present and active in our lives. We are in his care and can therefore face the future confidently, knowing that things are not happening merely by chance. We can pray, knowing that God hears and acts upon our prayers. We can face danger, knowing that he is not unaware and uninvolved.”

Abraham’s servant declined to eat the feast the family provided until he had told his story in it’s entirety. He told how the Lord had blessed Abraham and his family. He recounted how Abraham had sent him to find a bride for Isaac from among his own people. He told about his prayer for guidance and how Rebekah had matched exactly the person for whom he had prayed. This was more than coincidence. This was the providence of God!

Laban, Rebekah’s brother, and her father Bethuel agreed saying, “This is from the Lord; we can say nothing to you one way or the other. Here is Rebekah; take her and go, and let her become the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has directed” (Genesis 24:51). Rebekah also agreed. The next day when they asked her if she was willing to go immediately to be the wife of Isaac, her answer was clear and direct, “I will go.”

The Bible does not describe the details of the journey back to Canaan. It does give us the tender scene when Rebekah met Isaac and became his wife. “He loved her,” the scripture says.

Joyce Baldwin wrote, “Thus each found love and security in the other, and they shared the deep undergirding of the knowledge that the Lord God of Abraham had brought them together. If they were ever tempted to doubt that, they could recall the marvelous providence that took Abraham’s servant straight to Rebekah, and the prayer and praise that surrounded the whole venture, all of which betokened the unmistakable guidance of God.”

Pastor Randy Faulkner

Praying for Guidance

At a family mealtime the father offered a prayer of blessing for the food as usual. In pious language he thanked the Lord for all his bountiful provisions. But when he started eating he grumbled and complained about the food and the way it was prepared.

His teenage daughter interrupted. “Dad,” she began, “Do you think God heard your prayer?”

“Certainly,” he replied confidently.

“And did he hear it when you complained about the food just now?” She asked.

“Why of course!” he bellowed.

“Then which of the two statements did God believe?” The embarrassed flush on his cheeks revealed that her discerning questions hit a nerve. Too often our prayers are empty rhetoric, mere religious platitudes, off the tops of our heads not from the bottom of our hearts.

Do we pray beyond our own personal concerns and interests? I heard of a young lady who said to herself, “Today, I am not going to pray for myself. I am just going to pray for others.”

So she prayed, “Please, Lord, give my mother a handsome son-in-law!”

Then there were the two Sunday school boys who somehow got to talking about their families’ prayers. “Do your parents have a morning prayer with you?” one asked the other.

“No. We have prayers before bed. We’re not afraid in the daytime.”

Whatever the prompting, our heavenly Father invites us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) in all circumstances. This assumes that God is always listening and wants to hear from us. President Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said, “I have often been driven to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.”

I think that is how the chief servant of Abraham felt when he was given the assignment of going to Mesopotamia to find a bride for Isaac. The story is recorded in Genesis 24. He must have felt the weight of the responsibility that was being laid on him. So he prayed. He prayed with sincere faith in God. He prayed with humble dependence and desperate urgency.

May we pray for the success of our ventures and responsibilities? The Bible says we can, and we should. “Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he will establish your plans” (Proverbs 16:3).

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6).

That is what Abraham’s servant did. When he arrived at the town of Nahor in the north country, he parked his ten-camel caravan near the town well and prayed, “Lord God of my master Abraham, make me successful today and show kindness to my master Abraham. See, I am standing beside this spring and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. May it be when I say to a young woman, ‘Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,’ and she says ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels too’ — let her be the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac. By this I will know that you have shown kindness to my master” (Genesis 24:12-14).

You have probably noticed the same things I see in this prayer. He believed God saw him in his present circumstances. God sees you and me, too. He knows all about the problems we are facing.

He prayed specifically and boldly. We may do the same thing. James 4:2 reminds us, “You do not have because you do not ask God.” So ask!

The servant asked God for a sign that would be clear and unmistakable. Any young woman who would volunteer to provide enough water for ten thirsty camels to drink would be unusually helpful and kind-hearted, not to mention hard-working!

Then the text says, “Before he had finished praying, Rebekah came out with her jar upon her shoulder” (Genesis 24:15). Here is another principle to guide us in our praying. “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him,” Jesus said (Matthew 6:8). The prophet Isaiah tells us the Lord says, “Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear” (Isaiah 65:24).

The servant’s prayer was artless and unadorned. It was from the heart. It acknowledged God’s special purpose for Abraham and Isaac. It was a prayer for guidance in carrying out a responsibility that the servant knew would be consequential. He knew that all of this was to accomplish the plan of God.

God heard. God answered. Rebekah’s actions matched exactly his request for a sign. It is no wonder that with gratitude he “bowed down and worshipped the Lord,” and praised the God of Abraham (Genesis 24:48)!

Pastor Randy Faulkner

Faith and Culture

Abraham is an example to us of what it means to live by faith. John Wesley expressed it thus: “Faith, mighty faith, the promise sees and looks to God alone; laughs at impossibilities and cries, ‘It shall be done!'”

“Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3, Genesis 15:6). His faith was on display amidst the customs and cultures of the ancient Near East.

He believed the word of God which had assured him that his descendants would come through Isaac his beloved son. When it was time for Isaac to marry, Genesis 24 says that Abraham directed his chief servant to find a bride for his son from among his kinfolk in the region of Haran in Northern Mesopotamia. He did not want Isaac to marry a woman from the idol-worshipping Canaanites. Nor did he want his son to stray from the Promised Land in search of a wife.

This separatism was an early example of a principle that is repeated throughout the Bible. Believers should not be “unequally yoked” (2 Corinthians 6:14-17) with unbelievers, but are to marry “only in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:39). This expression of singular faith in the living God was to be the unifying factor in Israelite families. They were to be a distinctive people, separate from the pagan cultures around them “holy unto the Lord.”

So the aged Abraham called his servant to come near and to place his hand under his thigh, to affirm a solemn oath in God’s name that he would carry out this sacred task. (Later Jacob would employ the same ritual to secure the pledge from Joseph that he would be buried in the Promised Land and not in Egypt; Genesis 47:29). This gesture, mysterious to us, was associated with procreation and the family line, and invoked a most serious commitment.

There are other cultural features in the story showing that God works through established norms of human custom, as long as they are not violations of his moral law. These include the use of a caravan of camels, expensive gifts for the family of the bride, a public well where the women of the town came to draw water, and an elaborate welcome feast offered to the servant by the family of Abraham’s brother Nahor.

The story does not describe the 400 mile journey from Abraham’s home in Canaan to Aram Naharaim (“Aram of the two rivers,” the Tigris and the Euphrates). The trip must have taken several weeks. The faith of Abraham was carried forward in the faithfulness of his loyal servant. It demonstrates to us how God meets us in our own cultural situations and invites us to trust and obey as Abraham did.

Joyce Baldwin described this beautifully. “(Abraham) was encouraged to believe that the same Lord who had led him, spoken to him, and sworn on oath to give him descendants, would send his angel before his servant. The servant, however, might not share Abraham’s conviction, so Abraham assured him that he would not be held liable if he came back empty-handed. The solemn oath indicated how deadly serious Abraham was in all he asked of his retainer; on the success of this enterprise depended the separateness of the people of God, a necessary condition for developing a counter-culture that would reflect their walk with God.”

Pastor Randy Faulkner

God has a Purpose

Abraham knew that God had a special purpose for his son Isaac. He had been miraculously born to Abraham and Sarah in their old age. The Lord had said that his covenant promises would be fulfilled through Isaac. When the Lord had tested Abraham’s faith by telling him to sacrifice Isaac, he was pleased with Abraham’s obedient response and he kept him from following through with the sacrifice. Isaac was spared when the Lord provided a male sheep as a substitutionary offering. Even though Abraham had other children, Isaac was considered to be the “only” son, the beloved son, the son of promise.

It is not surprising, then, that when the time came for Isaac to marry, the aged patriarch Abraham wanted to do all he could to insure that a suitable bride could be found for his son. Isaac’s bride would be the mother of Abraham’s descendants who would occupy the promised land. In one of the most beautiful stories in the Old Testament, Abraham assigned to his personal servant the task of locating a bride for Isaac and bringing her to him (Genesis 24:1-67).

This story has important lessons for us about God’s purpose, and his providential care in accomplishing his purpose. That is why I want to explore it here in a few installments, beginning today.

Genesis 24 opens with the statement that “Abraham was now very old and the Lord had blessed him in every way.” This makes me think of all the ways the Lord has blessed me throughout my life. How about you? Let’s remember to thank him regularly for his protection, provision, for his guidance and care.

God had blessed Abraham with a beautiful wife, Sarah, with great wealth, with a beloved son, Isaac, and with a reputation among his neighbors as a “mighty prince.”

Abraham summoned his chief servant, the one who was in charge of his household. The servant was given the commission to find a bride for Isaac, Abraham’s heir. Derek Kidner points out that he is an attractive person because of “his quiet good sense, his piety and faith, his devotion to his employer, and his firmness in seeing the matter through.”

As he instructed his servant, Abraham asked him to swear in the name of God that he would fulfill the charge. What he said gives us an idea of his view of God (Genesis 24:3). He is the Lord, Yahweh, the God of the covenant, who keeps his promises. The Lord is the God of heaven. He is the ruler of the glorious invisible realm of heaven, reigning in power over the universe.

He is also the God of earth, who takes an interest in the concerns of all his people, guiding and providing. He spoke words of assurance and faith to his servant. “The Lord, the God of heaven, who brought me out of my father’s household and out of my native land and who spoke to me and promised me on oath, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give this land’ — he will send his angel before you” (Genesis 24:7).

Here are a few thoughts in response to this. God has a purpose for our lives and he wants us to cooperate with his purpose. The New Testament gives us plenty of guidance about God’s purpose, what he wants us to know about him and how he wants us to live for him.

Our lives have significance and value. We matter to God. As we shall learn from this important story, God is willing to  hear our prayers and arrange circumstances so that our lives may accomplish his purpose. Abraham trusted the promise of God for his son Isaac. We may trust him too.

God is both the sovereign ruler of heaven, and the Lord of earth. He is both transcendent and immanent, distant and near. Worship and obedience are the correct responses to such a God.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

What is the Church?

People in America are “joiners.” The majority love being part of clubs, associations, and other organized groups. Hobbyists, collectors, civic clubs, business and trade organizations are examples of this.

One organization that is still going strong is the church. I have read that there are over 350,000 congregations in America. There are more churches than post offices; more churches than McDonald’s restaurants. Approximately 20% of Americans attend worship services weekly.

What distinguishes the church from other associations? What makes the church distinctive? The church is not a building, no matter how beautiful or impressive it may appear. It is not a denomination. The New Testament says nothing about denominations. These are fellowships of churches, and they are not forbidden by the Bible. But neither are they mentioned.

A small prayer or Bible study group may be part of a church, but it is not the same thing. Nor is a large gathering in a stadium or arena for an area-wide evangelistic witness. These are good, but they are not the same as local churches.

The church is not a mission society or para-church ministry. These are ministry structures which are task-oriented and highly selective. They are set up to complement and support the work of local churches, but they are not churches. We may discover a working definition of the church by reading Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The letter is addressed to “the church of God in Corinth” (1:2).

An assembly of Christian people

The word “church” means a “called-out assembly.” Paul also called these people at Corinth “saints” because they had put their faith in Jesus as savior. We learn from reading the letter that they were not perfect people. But they were Christian believers, set apart for God.

In geographical proximity to one another

the fact that it was “in Corinth” reminds us that the church is placed in a local context to be a witness. It is true that the New Testament speaks of the church a s universal body of Christ. But the majority of references to the church have to do with specific people gathering in specific local congregations.

United in covenant relationship

This becomes clear when we read the rest of the first chapter of 1 Corinthians. Paul gives the reason why he wrote the letter. He wants these believers in Corinth to be unified in their commitment to their doctrinal confession. This confession centered on the gospel, the message of the cross (1 :17, 2:2). This is the basis of the church’s unity. It is the bond which holds the church together, “united in mind and thought.”

Building up one another by the cooperative use of their spiritual gifts

The Corinthians, Paul says, were endowed with spiritual gifts. These gifts were to be used for the building up of the church in knowledge, unity and strength (1 :5-7 and chapters 12-14). Spiritual gifts are divinely-given abilities to minister to the needs of the church, which is Christ’s spiritual body.

For the proclamation of holy scripture

Paul wrote about his preaching. “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you  except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on the wisdom of men, but on God’s power” (2:2-5).

For the purposes of worship and witness

The Corinthian church was far from ideal. There were problems that Paul needed to address: controversies, divisions, immorality, and doctrinal errors. Their immaturity and disobedience were hindering both their worship and their witness. So Paul wrote the letter to correct errors  and abuses in both. That is why he clarified his teaching about the ordinances of baptism (1:10-17) and the Lord’s Supper (11:17-34). Both of these ordinances given by Jesus are for the church’s worship and witness.

The information we gather from 1 Corinthians helps us to see that a New Testament church is an assembly of Christian people in geographical proximity to one another, united in covenant relationship, to build up one another through the cooperative use of spiritual gifts, for the proclamation of holy scripture, and for the purposes of the worship of God and witness to the world.

African theologian Conrad Mbewe wrote that every Christian should become an active member of a local church. He is right. What about you?

Pastor Randy Faulkner