How Should We Cope with Burdens at Christmastime?

If the nativity scenes in your house are like the ones in mine, there’s no hint that the characters experienced difficulty or pain surrounding the birth of Jesus. Shepherds, wise men, Mary, and Joseph all admire the Christ child in the warm glow of a cozy stable, smiles on their faces. Of course, Christmas did bring warmth and joy to these characters. But have you also considered the difficulty and strain they experienced surrounding Christ’s birth? Thinking about their circumstances reminds us that for God’s people, great burden and great blessing often coincide.

Take Mary. The angel Gabriel appeared to her in Nazareth announcing that she was “favored” by God (Luke 1:28). But her circumstances probably didn’t make her feel favored. When she became pregnant by a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, friends and family surely cast dispersion on her, believing her baby was the result of sexual immorality and not a miracle. That’s what Joseph, her godly husband-to-be, thought until an angel told him differently (Matthew 1:19). For Mary, God’s favor led to stigma and having her plans for family life turned upside down.1

The situation was similar for Joseph. He planned to take Mary as his wife then build a family. God’s miraculous intervention was so jarring that his first thought was to divorce Mary before the angel explained. After Jesus was born, Joseph continued to experience hardship and interruption. When King Herod sought to kill Jesus, Joseph had to uproot his family and relocate to Egypt until Herod’s death.

The wise men weren’t exempt from burden either. In addition to the long journey required to find Jesus (they likely came from Babylonia, Persia, or even the Far East), protecting Him meant defying a king who wasn’t afraid to murder his enemies (Matthew 2:1-18).

What about the shepherds? When angels appeared to them in the fields surrounding Bethlehem, they were “filled with fear” (Luke 2:9). Then they had to leave their source of livelihood in the middle of the night to go worship Jesus (Luke 2:8-20), presumably an unsettling prospect for conscientious keepers of sheep.

Of course, the characters in the Christmas story experienced joy and blessing upon seeing Jesus. In that sense, warm nativity scenes are completely accurate. Scripture gives us no hint that they grumbled about the difficulties surrounding their trip to Bethlehem. Still, each of them had to endure burdens in order to trust God and honor His Son.

BusyChristmasThis should comfort believers who find themselves burdened at Christmastime. After all, the holiday season, despite its joys, is a time when people feel lonely, depressed, overwhelmed by consumerism, and weighted down in myriad other ways. When facing such struggles, we should consider the example of Mary, Joseph, the wise men, and the shepherds. They too were burdened. But amid their burdens, they experienced the greatest blessing they would ever know by taking time to focus on Jesus.

German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer did the same when he found himself spending Christmas in prison for defying the Nazi regime during World War II. In a letter to his fiancée, he explained why he expected “an exceptionally good Christmas.”

“I used to be very fond of thinking up and buying presents,” he wrote, “but now that we have nothing to give, the gift God gave us in the birth of Christ will seem all the more glorious . . . The poorer our quarters, the more clearly we perceive that our hearts should be Christ’s home on earth.” This Christmas know that you’re not alone in your trials. But amid them, take time to appreciate the greatest blessing imaginable: friendship with Jesus and assurance of His eternal love.

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1 Content of this paragraph and the inspiration for this entire post are drawn from a sermon preached by Hershael York at Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky, December 15, 2013.
2 This article was originally posted on the BibleMesh Blog on December 23, 2013.

Philippines: BibleMesh Spurs Reformation 500th Celebration

A satellite campus of a Filipino megachurch says BibleMesh was a key part of the impetus for its celebration of the Protestant Reformation’s 500th anniversary.

In January, the Manila-area Eastwood satellite of Christ’s Commission Fellowship (CCF) – a Philippines-based nondenominational church with 30,000 attendees at its main campus and 60 satellites worldwide – began taking some 20 young adult leaders through a series of BibleMesh online courses that covered biblical and systematic theology, church history, and apologetics.

Providentially, the students’ excitement for the Reformation’s theological heritage peaked as the 500th anniversary approached of the day Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany.

The students “started getting excited, really excited” about the Reformers’ teaching on salvation, said Josh Gurango, the group’s facilitator and a youth and singles leader at CCF Eastwood. “Their eyes were just opened, and they said, ‘We’ve got to find a way where we can share this with people.'”

So Gurango worked with fellow leaders at CCF Eastwood – which averages 900 worship attendees – to organize an October 28 conference on Reformation doctrine that drew more than 150 participants from multiple churches.

BibleMesh cosponsored the event with CCF Eastwood, and all conference participants received free access to Era 1 of BibleMesh’s Biblical Story course. Speakers addressed the five Reformation solas, Latin statements that express the doctrines of Scripture’s sufficiency and justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone for the glory of God alone.

Not only did the conference educate believers about the Reformation, the experience also increased enthusiasm for BibleMesh at CCF Eastwood.

Those who completed the five-course sequence Gurango designed gained “confidence in reading and understanding Scripture,” he said. Most of the students lead small groups for youth or single adults and said their BibleMesh study “really helped them a lot when it came to ministering.”

Older CCF Eastwood leaders who did not participate in the initial BibleMesh cohort have signed up for a second run, Gurango said, now that they have observed the study’s benefits to the congregation. Some Reformation conference attendees also want to participate in the online study.

While various BibleMesh courses could be used in local church studies, the five courses Gurango selected were: The Bible in Missional Perspective (produced by the Porterbrook Network), Systematic Theology 1 & 2 (produced by the Bethlehem Institute), Church History in Missional Perspective (produced by Porterbrook), and Apologetics (produced by Porterbrook).

Other aspects of Gurango’s curriculum were courses CCF already had in place for its members as well as online discussions and tests he designed. Upon completion of the curriculum, students received a certificate from BibleMesh in partnership with CCF Eastwood. There was even a graduation ceremony.

“BibleMesh can easily work alongside a curriculum that is already in place at a church such as ours,” Gurango said. “It worked very well because it became very much supplementary.”

For more information about how you can use BibleMesh courses or build out an online discipleship learning track for your church, visit BibleMesh.com or email admin@biblemesh.com.

Unapologetic Study Bible Set for Nov. 7 Release

MORRISTOWN, N.J.—The Unapologetic Study Bible—a resource that applies biblical truth to public square issues, from the church’s role in society to the status of socialism, the promise of adult stem cell research, evidences of intelligent design, the global-warming dispute, and justice in war and punishment —is available for pre-order and slated for release November 7.

Published by Thomas Nelson, the Unapologetic Study Bible features more than 220 articles drawn from Kairos Journal, an online resource to help believers restore the church’s prophetic voice amid cultural decay.

“Many say that the West is a ‘cut-flower civilization,’” publisher Emmanuel Kampouris writes in the study Bible’s foreword, “scarcely sustained by the Christian perspectives that once brought her life. The bloom is fading at a shocking rate; we are desperate for spiritual renewal, grounded in Christ and His Word . . . Our prayer is that the Holy Spirit will encourage Christians from all walks of life toward biblically directed thought, word, and deed though the articles included in this study Bible.”

Unapologetic Study Bible articles are organized into eight distinct content areas: church, corruption, economics, education, family, government, sanctity of life, and virtue. The articles also vary in format and comprise quotations from historical figures, in-depth commentary on Bible passages, historical vignettes, and scripturally-informed analysis of current trends.

Among the study Bible’s highlights, readers will learn:

– That French pastor André Trocmé led the village of Chambon to become a haven during World War II for Jews escaping Nazi persecution;

– That British lawmaker William Wilberforce drew inspiration from the biblical preaching of his pastor during the fight to abolish the slave trade;

– That Hebrew terms in Genesis 1 highlight the binary nature of God’s design for gender, in contrast to assertions of the contemporary transgender movement; and

– That the New Testament uses the same Greek word to reference both born and unborn children, suggesting they are equally deserving of protection.

Each Bible book in the Unapologetic Study Bible is preceded by an introduction overviewing its content and identifying key passages. Indices in the back of the study Bible allow readers to study all the articles on a particular topic or survey all the topics addressed within a particular Bible book.

Among contributors to the Unapologetic Study Bible are an international team of pastors and scholars, including the Kairos Journal editorial board.

For more information about Kairos Journal, visit kairosjournal.org; for Thomas Nelson, visit thomasnelson.com.

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The Reformation’s Far-Reaching Implications

The most important reason to celebrate the Reformation’s 500th anniversary is its recovery of the doctrine that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone by Scripture alone to the glory of God alone. Yet the Reformers recognized that bedrock doctrine had implications cutting across every facet of life. Their application of Scripture to life and culture continues to serve as a model for followers of Jesus. Amid your Reformation Day celebration, consider the following:

The Reformers modeled public courage. Luther famously refused to recant his writings before the Diet of Worms in 1521, stating at the risk of his life, “I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.” Though Luther managed to avoid martyrdom, others bravely defended Protestant doctrine to their death. The martyrs included men and women, pastors and laypeople, old and young who believed standing for Christ was more important than life.

The Reformers modeled love for the local church. They weren’t standing for theology in the abstract. Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and company loved, served, and fought for people who filled the pews in specific local churches—warts and all. As such, the Reformers are a powerful example for Christians tempted to hop from one church to another in search of the perfect spiritual experience. As Calvin wrote in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:2, the person who seeks a church with “perfect purity” must “necessarily in the end withdraw from all others, and look upon himself as the only saint in the world, or set up a peculiar sect in company with a few hypocrites.”

The Reformers modeled love for the family. Focused on biblical teaching, they rejected the Catholic Church’s requirement of clerical celibacy and re-elevated marriage and child rearing as noble tasks of the believer. Luther’s marriage to Katharina von Bora and Calvin’s to Idelette de Bure both stand among church history’s most tender unions. That’s why Calvin wrote upon Idelette’s death, “Mine is no common source of grief. I have been bereaved of the best companion of my life.”

The Reformers engaged the culture. Their Gospel had implications for the public square, and they were not afraid to state those implications. Calvin and Martin Bucer both explicitly condemned elective abortion while Luther extolled the dignity of unborn children and childbearing. Reformers additionally wrote on the role of government, public virtue, and education among other public square topics. Calvin dedicated much of his adult life to establishing a culture in Geneva that honored God’s standards.(Admittedly he and Zwingli did not embrace contemporary understandings of religious liberty; witness the execution of the non-Trinitarian Michael Sevetus in Geneva and the Anabaptist Felix Manz in Zurich.)

The Reformers recovered expository preaching. In 1519, Zwingli broke from the standard practice of preaching according to the church calendar and launched a six-year series of expository sermons through the entire New Testament. Calvin likewise preached through books of the Bible, covering most them over the course of his ministry. So committed to sequential exposition was Calvin that following a three-year exile from Geneva, he resumed preaching in 1541 from the exact point in the Psalms at which he left off.

The list could continue of ways the Reformers applied their doctrine to everyday life. The underlying point is that Reformation doctrine cannot be partitioned off as affecting only a narrow slice of existence. Luther and company recognized biblical truth has far-reaching implications—a vision the church desperately needs to embrace five centuries later.

Evangelism: Empowered But Not Easy

It’s not uncommon to hear claims that sharing the Gospel is easy and that any follower of Jesus can lead nonbelievers to faith with relative ease, given the right method. Such claims aren’t entirely without merit. Evangelism is simpler than it’s portrayed at times, and any believer can do it. Yet examples from Scripture demonstrate it can be far from easy:

  • For Moses, faithfully sharing God’s Word meant standing eye to eye with a tyrannical pharaoh, declaring Yahweh’s identity, and calling the Egyptian leader to repent of his wickedness (Exodus 7-12).
  • Daniel called King Nebuchadnezzar to repent and follow the Lord (Daniel 4:27) even though the Babylonian monarch had demonstrated a willingness to execute followers of Yahweh when their actions appeared to undermine his authority (Daniel 3:1-30).
  • Stephen was stoned to death for preaching the Gospel to Jewish leaders (Acts 7:1-60).
  • For the apostle Paul, preaching the Gospel led to 39 lashes on five occasions; three beatings with rods; stoning; three shipwrecks; “danger from rivers . . . robbers . . . [his] own people [and] Gentiles”; “toil and hardship”; sleepless nights; hunger and thirst; and “cold and exposure” (2 Corinthians 11:24-27). Eventually, he was executed for his bold witness.
  • For preaching the message of Christ, Peter was arrested by Jewish leaders (Acts 4), arrested by King Herod (Acts 12:1-5), and eventually executed as Jesus had predicted (John 21:18-19).
  • The apostle John was arrested and beaten by the Jewish leaders as a younger man (Acts 4) and exiled to the island of Patmos in his old age (Revelation 1:9).

Even in giving the Great Commission, Jesus implied the difficulty of the task at hand by telling His followers, “All authority has been given to me” and commanding them to “remember” that He would go with them in the work of disciple-making (Matthew 28:18-20, CSB). It was a task possible only through Christ’s authority and with His personal presence. As Robertson McQuilkin and Paul Copan put it, merely “operating by technique, method and programming” without accompanying “reliance on the Spirit” will not yield “lasting, spiritual fruit.”[1]

That’s why the promise of the Great Commission is an essential companion of the command to “go” and “make disciples of all nations.” Overcoming the obstacles of fear, doubt, and opposition is possible only when we rely on the Spirit and grace of God. Paul said he “worked” at evangelism and church planting, “though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10). On another occasion, Paul said he “proclaimed” Christ, “struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Colossians 1:28-29).

As it was in the Old and New Testaments, calling nonbelievers to follow the Lord can be difficult today. Yet when we remember Christ’s personal presence and, by faith, rely on His authority in our witness, we will find that the Gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).

[1] Robertson McQuilkin and Paul Copan, An Introduction to Biblical Ethics: Walking in the Way of Wisdom, 3rd edition (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 88.

The “Life-Fire” of God’s Word—Charles H. Spurgeon (1834-1892)

In 1854, at the age of twenty and just four years after his conversion, Charles H. Spurgeon became pastor of London’s New Park Street Church. His ministry so grew that the 6,000-seat Metropolitan Tabernacle was built to accommodate the congregation. In “The Mustard Seed: A Sermon for the Sabbath-School Teacher,” he spoke of the power of the gospel, and his words extended to the whole of Scripture.

The human can never rival the divine, for it lacks the life-fire. It is better to preach five words of God’s Word than five million words of man’s wisdom. Men’s words may seem to be the wiser and more attractive, but there is no heavenly life in them. Within God’s Word, however simple it may be, there dwells an omnipotence like that of God, from whose lips it came.1

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1 C. H. Spurgeon, “The Mustard Seed: A Sermon for the Sabbath-School Teacher,” The Parables of Our Lord (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2003), 707.