Not Where, but Whom

The highlight of my visits to the Holy Land was always the Garden Tomb. It is a  place of quiet reflection and prayer. The garden surrounds a first century gravesite that was discovered in the late 1800s.

My first time there was on a Sunday morning over forty years ago. A minister led an outdoor worship service attended by hundreds of people from all over the world. He faithfully proclaimed the gospel of Christ, emphasizing the resurrection of our Lord, from a tomb like the one before us in the garden. That worship service left a lasting impression on me.

The site was made famous by a British military officer, General Charles Gordon. He was taking a year-long retreat from his duties in 1883. He was a well-known and successful soldier and also a devout Christian. During that year in Palestine Gordon did research on various sites associated with the ministry of Christ.

He became convinced that a rocky bluff on the north side of Jerusalem was “the place of the skull,” or Calvary, or Golgotha, the place where the Lord was crucified. His writings about the place influenced many others to agree with him. Indeed, observers could see in the rocky face of the cliff what looked like the eye sockets and mouth of a skull! Visitors today are shown the same formation in the cliff. Ever since, the hill has been called “Gordon’s Calvary.”

Nearby is the tomb cut out of the rock in the other side of the same hill. This matches the description in John’s gospel: “At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid . . . the tomb was nearby” (John 19:41-42). The New Testament tells us that this was outside the city of Jerusalem. “Jesus suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy” (Hebrews 13:12). The Garden Tomb lies just outside the city wall of Jesus’ day.

While there have been many such tombs unearthed in the region, few could fit the biblical requirements: proximity to Skull Hill, outside, but close to the city of Jerusalem as it was in the first century, and the appearance of the tomb itself.

Another supposed site of the Lord’s crucifixion and burial is covered by an historic church maintained by priests representing Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Coptic traditions. Its buildings are furnished with religious artifacts, symbols, and icons. This ancient burial place was identified by pilgrims in the fourth century. It has the weight of tradition to support its claim to authenticity. It has testified to the resurrection of Christ for more than 1500 years.

Multiplied millions of pilgrims have come to this ancient place to worship and remember the sufferings and the resurrection of Christ. This testifies to the timeless significance of the resurrection and its importance for believers century after century.

But what really matters is not the place of the resurrection, but the person who was resurrected. Not where, but whom. Disagreements about the location of Jesus’ tomb will fuel religious debates for a long time to come. No one can say with absolute certainty where Jesus was raised from the dead.

What is certain, however, is that it happened. In the words of Peter Walker, “As far as believing Christians are concerned, the historic reality of the Resurrection itself is a fixed point in their faith. Without it, they would not be Christians.” He added, “No Resurrection, no Christianity!”

Paul said as much in 1 Corinthians 15:14, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless, and so is your faith.” If Jesus did not rise from the dead there would be no Christian faith and there would be no hope of eternal life or resurrection for us.

I, for one, am glad for the empty tomb, whichever one it was. It is as the angel said to Mary Magdalene, ‘He is not here, for he has been raised!'”

Pastor Randy Faulkner

 

Made for Community

We were never intended to go it alone in the Christian life. We were made for community. There are some things we can only learn in community with others. Words like grace, forgiveness and love have meaning only in a context of relationship with others.

The Lord’s prayer teaches us that we are meant to pray with other believers. The personal pronouns in the prayer are plural. The first person singular (I, me, my) is completely absent from the prayer. “Our Father” has meaning only when expressed in fellowship with others. Community is part of an essential theology of prayer.

Albert Mohler, in his book on the Lord’s prayer, The Prayer that Turned the World Upside Down, wrote, “One of the greatest problems in prayer is that we begin with our own concerns and our own petitions without regard for our brothers and sisters. Many of us falter in prayer because we begin with the wrong word: ‘I,’ instead of ‘our.’ Jesus reminds us that we are part of a family, even when we pray . . . we are in this together.”

Tish Harrison Warner, in Liturgy of the Ordinary, wrote, “Jesus sent his Spirit to a people. The preservation of our faith and the endurance of the saints . . . is a promise that God will redeem and preserve his church — a people, a community, an organism, an institution — generation after generation, and that even the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”

Paul knew that. That is why he wrote, “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership (fellowship, community) in the gospel from the first day until now” (Philippians 1:3-4).

Paul was in a helpless situation. He was a prisoner in Rome, not knowing if he would survive or be martyred. He was separated from his friends in Philippi. Fortunately he was not alone. He had a friend from Philippi, Epaphroditus, there with him to assure him of the ongoing concern of the community of faith.

Do you have a church family to surround you with concern and prayers when you are in need? Are you invested enough in the lives of other Christians so that you pray for them? The Christian life was not intended to be lived in isolation. We were made for community.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

Pray for Your Pastor

He may have distracting mannerisms. His grammar may be faulty. His life experience may be limited. He may not do things the way the former pastor did them. His inadequacies may be magnified because he is a public figure. For one reason or another, he may become a target for unfair criticism.

There is a better way. Prayer is that better way.

Jonathan Edwards wrote, “If some Christians that have been complaining of their ministers had said and acted less before men and had applied themselves with all their might to cry to God for their ministers — had as it were, risen and stormed heaven with their humble, fervent, and incessant prayers for them — they would have had much more in the way of success.”

Usually church folks have high expectations of their pastors. This is because they are preaching the most important message the world has ever known, the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Congregations have a right to expect their pastors to be faithful to that gospel and to teach the word of God, explaining its meaning and helping them to apply it to their lives.

If a pastor is doing this with integrity, he deserves to be supported in prayer, despite human limitations. Love covers a multitude of inadequacies.

E.M. Bounds wrote, “The preacher must pray; the preacher must be prayed for. It will take all the praying he can do, and all the praying he can get done, to meet the fearful responsibilities and gain the largest, truest success in his great work. The true preacher . . . covets with great covetousness the prayers of God’s people.”

Paul did not hesitate to ask for prayer support. To the believers in Rome he wrote, “Join me in my struggle by praying to God for me” (Romans 15:30). He wrote to the Ephesian Christians, “Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel” (Ephesians 6:19). He asked the Colossians, “Pray for us too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ” (Colossians 4:3).

He sent the Thessalonians a pointed reminder; “Brothers, pray for us” (1 Thessalonians 5:25). He told the believers at Corinth that their prayers would be a practical help in his ministry:  “On him (God) we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers: (2 Corinthians 1:11). If the apostle Paul was so dependent on the prayers of others, certainly our pastors need them as much or more.

I know how this feels. In my more than fifty years as a pastor trying to provide spiritual care for God’s people, the responsibility could be crushing. I felt my human weakness. I felt acutely the need for prayer support. It was always an encouragement when someone sent a note to say, “Pastor, I am praying for you.”

That is why I am praying for my pastors. I hope you are, too.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

Three Ways to Deal With Doubt

Take sides with faith. That’s what the distressed father did when he brought his demon-possessed boy to Jesus. He exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief” (Mark 9:24)! He put his weight on the faith side of the scales. He did not have perfect faith. He admitted his doubts and fears. But he committed himself to the faith side of the proposition; “I do believe!”

The celebrated evangelist Vance Havner wrote, “We are too inclined to doubt our beliefs and believe our doubts. We ought to believe our beliefs and doubt our doubts.”

The father of the troubled boy was honest. He faced and confessed his doubts. Instead of surrendering to doubt, he committed himself, in faith, to Jesus. He asked the Lord to deal with his doubts. He took sides with the Lord Jesus. He was saying, as did the hymn writer, “My heart has no desire to stay where doubts arise and fears dismay.”

Here are three things to do when your faith is imperfect and doubts trouble your mind.

  1. Come near to God.  There is a wonderful promise in James 4:8 — “Come near to God and he will come near to you.” God will come close to you if you do what James, in this context, says to do: submit to God, repent of sin, and humble yourself before him. Doubts arise when fellowship with God is interrupted by sin. Communion with God is restored when we confess our sins.
  2. Preach the gospel to yourself. Paul reminded himself that he had trusted in  Christ for salvation. This meant that he had participated spiritually in Christ’s death and resurrection. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Remind yourself of this truth when you are attacked by doubts.
  3. Worship God. Whether you feel like it or not, acknowledge God’s goodness, generosity, kindness, mercy, faithfulness, and love. Train your mind to praise him for his attributes, his power and his wisdom. When Jeremiah’s world was crumbling around him, he turned fear into faith. “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23).

Someone has said, “Feed your faith and your doubts will diminish.” Here are three ways to feed your faith. They will help you to believe your beliefs and doubt your doubts.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

The Church at its Best

Some people are disappointed in the institutional church, and not without reason. Church life can be messy, with denominational differences, power struggles, theological compromise, misplaced priorities, and leadership scandals. There are as many faults in churches as there are sinners in churches, and we are all sinners in need of God’s grace. Churches are as imperfect as the people in them.

A friend once told me he had given up on organized religion. I asked him if he preferred disorganized religion!

It would be easy to get discouraged if it were not for the fact that Jesus Christ is the head of the universal church, which is his spiritual body. If local churches are unfaithful, or divided, or unwelcoming, or hurtful, the remedy is to remember that the true church is the body of Christ. Local churches are at their best when they are centered on him. They can descend into disfunction if they ignore or forget the headship of Christ.

When Paul wrote to the church at Colossae, he emphasized this fact. “He (Jesus) is the head of the body, the church” (Colossians 1:18). A body without a head is powerless, grotesque and dead. William Barclay wrote, “Jesus Christ is the guiding spirit of the church; it is at his bidding the church must live and move.”

Some practical implications are spelled out in Colossians chapter 3. Jesus is to be central to everything in the life of the church. That is why the letter to the Colossians is filled with references to Jesus. Believers have been raised from spiritual death with Christ (3:1). Our lives are hidden with Christ in God (3:3). Christ is our life (3:4).

“Christ is all and in all” (3:11). Because the Spirit of Christ indwells all believers, there is no place in the church for division, discord, rivalry, and cultural, racial, or social barriers. When the head controls the body, it will be what it was designed to be. That is why Paul wrote, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” (3:15). He added, “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (3:17).

The author Rita Snowden wrote about her visit to a small town near Dover, England. She was having tea in the late afternoon, when she became aware of an overwhelmingly pleasant aroma filling the air. She asked the waiter about the source of the scent, and she was told that it came from the people passing by. He explained that those people worked in a perfume factory down the street and were on their way home. When they left the factory, they carried the fragrance that had permeated their clothing during the day’s work.

That is an illustration of what the church could be like when it is centered on Christ. We church members should be people who allow ourselves to be permeated with the attributes of Christ. Then when we go out into the world, the fragrance of the Lord goes with us. When the church gathers for worship, everyone will sense the aroma of his presence.

That is the church at its best.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

 

Memories of Mom

Mother’s Day found me remembering my mom, Magdalene Amstutz Faulkner. She was fine musician and a college music teacher. She had high standards for herself and she held her students to those same standards. “Trifles make perfection,” she would say, “and perfection is no trifle.”

Many were the nights I went to bed as a boy hearing her playing the piano, the music of the world’s great composers. She sought to achieve excellence in piano performance in the same way as her hero, J.S. Bach, pursued it, for God’s glory alone.

She worked hard at piano performance. Occasionally there were classical music recitals at the college in which she would perform.  She also composed arrangements of familiar hymns which she would be called upon to play for church meetings.

Mom loved the Bible and she read it daily. She read through the entire Bible many times. She taught a ladies’ Sunday school class for many years. As any good teacher knows, she learned and grew herself by studying the word of God in preparation for teaching.

When I was young, my mother reminded me regularly to read the Bible for myself. She and Dad sought to have a time of family devotions every day in which they read the Bible and prayed with my brothers and me.

Mother was a “world Christian” long before that term was coined by missiologists. She cared deeply about the worldwide expansion of the gospel. She loved and prayed for missionaries whom she knew, especially her two brothers. She followed a regular system of praying for different regions of the world on different days of the week.

She was unflappable. When my brothers and I were worked up about something, she would remain calm and even-tempered. She would respond with, “Rave on. You don’t worry me a bit!” Her gentle disposition was one of the qualities I admired about her.

She valued books. She was never without a book she was reading. If she had a chance, she would tell us about something she had read in a book of history, or a little-known fact she had discovered from reading a biography. She was a lifelong learner.

She was approachable. I always felt I could talk to my mom about what was going on in my world and in the world at large. She would respond with wisdom, humility and good sense. I do not remember her having much interest in reading the newspaper, and I know she did not watch tv news very often. But somehow she  was aware of trends and people in politics, and she shared her views when she was asked about them.

I regularly thank God for my mother and her example to me.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

 

Not a “One and Done”

Not long ago I was made aware of an article that appeared in the April edition of Franklin Graham’s Decision magazine. It featured my son-in-law, John Mark Eager and The Mailbox Club, the ministry he directs. It is an international mission reaching children with the gospel and providing discipleship materials to help them grow in their faith.

The story in Decision highlighted The Mailbox Club’s plans to offer free follow-up to children who attend vacation Bible schools across America this summer. VBS programs in many churches are coming soon.

I am writing to suggest that you contact the VBS coordinators in your church. Let them know about The Mailbox Club and what they have to offer. The website, www.tmc4kids.org, has information about how to enroll kids in a systematic plan of age-appropriate discipleship training for children.

It is easy to see sample Bible lessons and to learn how to use them to engage the church in follow-up with children. The Decision magazine article is available for you to read at The Mailbox Club website too. Look for it in the upper left hand corner of the home page.

The choice between no summer follow-up and high quality, biblically faithful discipleship is an easy one to make. There is no cost to your church and The Mailbox Club will send out automatic monthly reports.

VBS should not be a “one-and-done” event. It can and should be the beginning of a growing relationship children have with the Lord Jesus.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

PS — Please forward this to ministry leaders who care about reaching kids with the good news.

Only One Way?

In school you may have read the poem “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” by John Godfrey Saxe. It describes how six blind men wanted to learn what an elephant was like. Each explored a different part of the elephant, and each had a different way of describing it. When examined from the side, the animal resembled a wall. From its tusk, it seemed like a spear; from its trunk, like a snake,  from its ear, a fan, from its tail, a rope.

“And so these men from Indostan / disputed loud and long. / Each in his own opinion / exceeded stiff and strong / though each was partly in the right / and all were in the wrong!”

The author was making a theological point. He wanted his readers to assume that there is more than one way to think about reality, more than one way to God.

The way our world is today, the problem with Christians is that we think we have the only way to salvation. We claim to worship the only true God. To many people, this is narrow minded bigotry.

Philip Ryken wrote, “Insisting that Jesus is the only way is an especially unpopular stance in a culture based on freedom of choice. . . . Religion is now called a ‘preference,’ which makes it sound like  a soft drink or a shade of paint. If you can go to the college of your choice, root for the football team of your choice, watch the cable channel of your choice, and eat the yogurt of your choice, why can’t you pray to the god of your choice?”

Colossians is a letter written by Paul to first century  believers living in a city which was a hotbed of religious and cultural pluralism. Colossae had a mixture of the pagan gods of Rome, Greek philosophy, eastern mysticism, and Jewish legalism. Many of these influences were blended into  a system of thought that was a precursor to Gnosticism.

This new cult taught that faith in Jesus was not enough. A secret, higher knowledge was needed to obtain wisdom and enlightenment. It taught the worship of angels and sought mystical experiences through secret rites and astrological mysteries.

If you read and study Colossians, you will discover that Paul borrows from the vocabulary of this new philosophy to argue against it. He uses some of their own words to teach what they denied: the sufficiency and supremacy of Jesus Christ.

Paul wrote with unfiltered clarity that Jesus Christ is sufficient: “In him we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:14). He is all we need to have a right relationship to God. He is the totality of the divine fullness. He is the cosmic agent of creation. He is the reconciler of people to God. He is over all spiritual forces, both angelic and demonic. By his death he secured victory over sin and the powers of darkness. By his resurrection he is proven to be the pre-eminent one. He is indeed the only way.

This is strikingly relevant today in America as people are being told that all religions are equally valid. They are merely different roads up the same mountain. No single worldview has an exclusive claim on the truth. No religion can claim to be superior to any other.

The only absolute creed in America today is pluralism, the theory that there can and must be more than one kind of ultimate reality. Edward Gibbon wrote about the last days of the Roman empire: “All religions were regarded by the people as equally true, by the philosophers as equally false, and by the politicians as equally useful.”

This is why Paul puts such emphasis on the exclusivity of Jesus Christ. The first chapter of Colossians is one of the great Christological passages in the New Testament (along with John 1, Hebrews 1, and Philippians 2). There is a finality and authority in his teaching about Jesus in Colossians. I recommend that you read it carefully.

The Colossian believers had “heard the word of truth, the gospel” (Colossians 1:5). They had believed what it taught about Jesus (Colossians 1:4). You and I need to do the same thing as we navigate life in a pluralistic culture.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

Fear and Trembling

To teach the Bible is a sacred privilege and solemn responsibility. James 3:1 says, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” I know I am accountable to God for my ministry and that produces in me a deep reverence not unlike fear and trembling.

Having written that, however, I confess that it has been a joy to be a pastor who was and is dedicated to the teaching of the Bible. I was fortunate to serve in healthy churches, among people who valued Bible teaching Sunday after Sunday.

I worked hard at it. I studied the Bible many hours every week. There were other pastoral duties, of course, such as administration, counseling, personal evangelism, and visitation. But I gave priority to the hours for study and preparation for preaching. I believe that most of the people in the churches I served understood and appreciated that fact.

My preferred method was Bible exposition, teaching the Bible verse by verse. I sought to teach the meaning of a biblical passage, as best I could, in accordance with the intention of the human author and the Divine Author. If I wanted to teach on a particular topic, such as the Holy Spirit, or family life, or what the Bible says about the future, I selected a Bible passage that emphasized that subject and simply taught what the Word of God said about it.

For most of my pulpit ministry I taught through books of the Bible. In this way I taught most of the books of the New Testament. Verse by verse Bible teaching required me to give attention to all the major themes of the Bible comprehensively, not just my favorite subjects. I also taught through many of the books of the Old Testament, especially the psalms, wisdom literature, and the prophets, as well as the study of prominent biblical characters. I explored foundational themes such as creation, highlights of Israel’s history and prophesies of Christ.

In addition to teaching the content and interpretation of the scriptures, I sought to show their relevance to the lives of people today. I tried to illustrate my messages with stories and examples from contemporary life. This was to try to help people apply the teaching to their lives as Christians.

Believing that Jesus Christ is the centerpiece of the Bible, I wanted to include the gospel in every message in some way. The Bible’s main theme is how human beings may be in a right relationship to God. This is only possible through faith in Jesus the Son of God, his sacrificial death and his glorious resurrection.

In view of the eternal importance of this subject, it is clear why those of us who teach the Bible will be held to a higher standard of accountability. Let every pastor and Bible teacher approach this task with fear and trembling.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

Out of the Depths

The past several months have been difficult ones for me. A bad fall, two surgeries,  and unwelcome side effects from Parkinson’s medications have reminded me of how precious is good health. More than once I have called out to our heavenly Father “out of the depths” of uncertainty and anxiety. Psalm 130 has been a source of help for me.

It is one of the penitential psalms. It was quoted in prayer by the Hebrew people when they came to worship and to confess their sins at the temple of God in Jerusalem. “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; O Lord hear my voice. let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy” (Psalm 130:1-2).

The writer of Psalm 130 was suffering emotionally and spiritually. His mood was dark. He was struggling with guilt feelings. Some believe Jonah prayed this psalm from the belly of the great fish as he repented of disobeying the call of God (read Jonah 2:2-3). Like the writer of this psalm he felt the weight of sin and regret and he wanted to be free of it.

In a dinner table conversation Martin Luther was asked which psalm was his favorite. He replied that Psalm 130 was among his favorites because it expresses themes which we find in the doctrines of grace: forgiveness, redemption, justification, the complete removal of the sinner’s guilt.

Guilt is different from feeling bad because of a violation of a social expectation. It is not a false, neurotic guilt that has no basis in reality. The guilt spoken of in the Bible is true moral guilt before a holy God. It is the sense that we are not what we ought to be because we know we have broken God’s moral law.

When we become aware of our sins and shortcomings, we may choose one of two options. We may repress those guilt feelings and resist the Holy Spirit’s conviction. This is what many people do, but it only makes matters worse. It is better to confess our sins to God and receive his grace and forgiveness.

“If you O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared” (Psalm 130:3-4). Here we find a summary of the major themes of the whole Bible: law and grace; justice and forgiveness; God’s wrath against sin and his redemption from sin. The good news is good because it is about the rescue that is available from the bad news of judgment.

We may be thankful for the little conjunction “but.” Verse 4 of the psalm says, “But with you there is forgiveness.” Many times, when the accuser, the enemy of my soul, has reminded me of my multiplied sins and failures, this verse has comforted me with the assurance of forgiveness.

We have a hard time forgiving others. We have a hard time forgiving ourselves. Some people have a hard time forgiving God! This psalm is a reminder that God is different than we are. He loves to forgive. It is his prerogative to forgive freely, fully, graciously.

So we are taught to wait before the Lord (v.5). We do not like to wait. Impatience is baked into American culture. We don’t like to wait at traffic lights, for elevators, in doctors’ offices. We like same day delivery, fast food, and instant messaging. But the psalm tells us to wait in the presence of the Lord.

“In his word I put my hope.” This is solid faith and certainty that God will keep his word. Commenting on this, Derek Kidner wrote, “It is the Lord himself, not simply escape from punishment, that the writer longs for. Notice that this is more than wistfulness and optimism. In plain terms, he speaks of a promise (his word) to cling to. . . . Night may seem endless, but morning is certain, and its time determined.”

The psalm begins in the depths but it closes in the heights. I have read that the deepest trenches at the bottom of the earth’s oceans are almost 36,000 feet below the surface. The highest mountain is 29,000 feet above sea level. In the closing verses we are taken to the highest spiritual mountain peaks: God’s unfailing love and redemption. I cannot read verses 7-8 without thinking of Jesus and his sacrifice on the cross.

“O Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption. He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.”

Pastor Randy Faulkner