Category Archives: discipleship

What is the Goal of a Follower of Jesus?

[02/05/2017 09:22 AM} Well, it’s been quite a week, eh???!!! Swastikas on New York trains, a smashed synagogue window in Houston, a swastika on an iconic statue at Rice University, bone-chilling tweets, the federal judiciary standing up to the executive branch. Yikes. Of all the things, of all the thousands of things that could have stood out to me in this week’s news, I was drawn to a story about a mother’s instinct to save the life of her child. (Cue sermonette.) The older I get, folks, the more I realize why millions of people are going to hell without ever hearing the Gospel. Nothing is more indicative that America is fast becoming a post-Christian nation than Christians who have lost their basic purpose for living in this world. In recent days I’ve looked back on three years of running/hiking/climbing/biking as one of the greatest learning experiences of my life. Exercise involves commitment, self-discipline, and most of all keeping your eye on the goal. So what is the goal for the follower of Jesus? How silly of me to ask you that question! You know the answer as well as I do. The only question to be answered is: How will I, Dave Black, live TODAY as God’s agent to redeem and transform the lives of people? That’s what I find so disturbing about well-meaning efforts to “keep America safe.” A ban on immigration may or may not be a good first step in this direction, politically. People can debate that until hell freezes over. But there’s one thing I’m absolutely sure about:

The nations have already come to America!!!!!

And unless we followers of Jesus abandon the racism implied in our unwritten definition of “security,” we will never see the world reached for Christ. Foreign governments (like Iran) may close the doors to U.S. Christians, but they can’t close them to their own people. John 20:21 — “As the Father sent Me, even so I am now sending you” — reveals the reason God left us on this earth. Reaching those around us with the Gospel is the main activity of the church until Jesus Himself returns as King of kings. So then, the purpose of my life as a follower of Jesus must be to “Go everywhere and tell everyone” (Mark 16:15). (Yes, I just quoted from the last twelve verses of Mark. Deal with it.)

Listen. If my only concerns are about my own life — my security from terrorism, a healthy body, a prestigious education, marriage, a good-paying job — then how I am any different from the lost all around me? Regrettably, too few of us think of ourselves as fulltime missionaries to the world, including our own nation. That’s why I wrote a little book called Will You Join the Cause of Global Missions? The red-hot political issues of the day need to be kept in their proper perspective. It’s human nature to be driven by our egos always to be right. The opposite is to have the mind of Christ — that is, a spirit of servanthood and humility. It’s the same attitude of other-centeredness that caused a young mother to place the safety of her baby’s life above her own. She didn’t care a whit about anything else. It was another life over her own. Friends, we can’t follow Jesus very long without being confronted by our ego and greed. It’s His way of demonstrating His presence in our lives. This week in our “Jesus and the Gospels” class we’re looking at the Gospels and asking, “Why four — no fewer and no more?” I believe we’ll see that each Gospel points us to the church’s primary task: to complete the task of world evangelization. My prayer? For students with the spiritual sensitivity to hear what the Lord Jesus is saying today to the North American church. We who are called by Christ are called to serve and not to be served. We are called not to gain our lives but the lose them. We have the keys, you guys! We have the word and the Spirit and a cheering section in heaven. But we’re not promised a secure life!!!!!

Be kind.

Be you.

Love Jesus.

Love the lost.

Do these simple things, and the church will hit a home run.

Cheers!

Dave

(From Dave Black Online. Reposted by permission.)

Is EKKLESIA Called Out or Community

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

6:35 PM In Greek class today we discussed words and how they take on meaning. It’s part of my effort to make class practical and motivational. At the same time, there’s nothing easy about lexical analysis. Much of it is undoing damage. Take the well-known and much-discussed fallacy of etymologizing — determining a word’s meaning by its constituent parts (morphemes). For example, some insist that a New Testament church is “called out” from the world — separate, if you will — based on the etymology of the Greek word ekklesia, which is comprised of two parts — ek, “out of,” and kaleo, “I call.” Hence the church is a “called out” organism. It is to be different from the world. And believers are to separate themselves from the world.

In New Testament usage, however, it seems that the word ekklesia never quite had this meaning of “called out ones.” Normally it was used to describe a group of people that had something in common. At times this group met, and then it was an ekklesia. At other times it wasn’t meeting per se, but even then it was an ekklesia. This term was used in contrast to ochlos — a term that describes a group of people that have come together and yet have nothing really in common. Ochlos is often glossed as “crowd” in English, and that is indeed a very good rendering. How, then, should we translate ekklesia into English? When I posed this question to my class today, I got several excellent responses: “gathering,” “assembly,” “congregation,” and the like. All of these are fine, but none of them in my opinion captures the essence of what a New Testament ekklesia is. I prefer the term “community.” Church is not simply a group of just any people, and it is most certainly not a building. Instead, I like to think of a church as a space in which all of us are ministering, praying, preaching, teaching, singing, caring, loving — a family if you will. Our motto might be: “We’re all in this together. So let’s do it together.” This is the community to which we, as followers of Jesus, are giving ourselves with our whole hearts. This is our “church” — a diverse, global, caring paean of praise to our Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, Lord, Master, and only true Senior Pastor.

Recently I became part of a similar community, a community known simply as the “runners’ community.” The similarities between this community and the “church” are legion. As soon as I began running competitively I knew I had joined the ranks of hundreds and thousands of other runners. From my very first race this sense of community became instilled deep within my psyche. Even as a novice runner, I knew I was not alone. Every experienced runner remembers when they were a beginner just like you, and so they are eager to reach out to the newbies among them. You soon have a group of running friends you look to for advice — where to buy the best running shoes, how to train properly, how to avoid injuries, how to handle anxiety before a big race. Being part of this community helps each of us to become a better runner. As runners, we value what we can become and not simply what we look like. We are not defined by our age, our t-shirt size, our weight, or our medallions (or lack of them). We are all fiercely independent and pursue individual goals, and yet paradoxically we truly believe that we are all in this together, and it shows. Just show up to any race and observe the runners. We are a celebration of men and women, boys and girls, who are striving to be the best and healthiest versions of ourselves through running and fitness. We are forever occupied with growth, with exposing and developing what is latent with us. Each race is an enactment of a lifelong struggle for advancement and perfection.

I am not in the least surprised, therefore, to find similarities between a running community and a community that defines itself on the basis of the traditional creedal values of faith, hope, and love. Both runners and Christians have a lot in common. For one thing, we both ask silly questions. A Christian in a bookstore asks the salesperson: “I’m looking for a Bible for my mother but I’m not sure who the author is.” A non-runner asks you, “How far is your next 5K race?” As you can see, both novice runners and novice Christians have a lot to learn! We are people who pursue excellence and who seek to be dedicated to something wholeheartedly and to give ourselves to some project without any reservations whatsoever. Our actions are always impelled by some good we want to attain. And to achieve our goals, we often have to endure suffering and pain. An athletic race is a place where we discover strength and faith and courage we never knew we possessed. We are runners. It doesn’t matter how fast we run or or how far we run. It doesn’t whether we are running in our very first race or have been running for fifty years. During a 5K race this past weekend I met an athletic-looking young man who was pushing his infant child in a stroller. We had finished the race at about the same time. I knew he could have run much faster had he not been pushing a baby carriage. He told me something I’ll never forget. He said, “Sometimes having the best time at a race has nothing to do with how fast you ran.” I will remember that until the day I die. I wish I could have given him “The World’s Greatest Runner Award” that day.

Running metaphors occur all over the place in the New Testament. Think Heb. 12:1; Phil. 2:16; Gal. 2:2; 2 Tim. 4:7; and 1 Cor. 9:24-26. Remember: this is a race we run together. It’s no different in the running community. “Hey guys. I’ve got a hip labral tear. Anybody had any experience with this?” Or (in the church), “As a mom, I have a tremendous sense of responsibility to teach my children about truth and grace and God. Should I make my children read the Bible? What do you think?” The point is: We are there for each other.

At one time I was really struggling going uphill in 5K races. So I asked the winner of a race how I could improve. His simple answer caught me off guard. “You learn to run uphill by running uphill.” Yet another reminder that “we’re all in this together.” Need more proof? Watch this.

So what will it be, church?

This?

Or this?

It’s our choice.

(From Dave Black Online. Used by permission.)


A Marathon Plan

Dave facing the MatterhornIs your church up to doing a marathon? A marathon is 26.2 miles. It’s a slugfest. But you finish by taking one step at a time. So here are 26.2 ideas to get you started and maybe even keep you going to the end.

1) If you are a pastor, I might suggest that you stop training for “chief ministry provider” and start training for “chief ministry developer.”

2) Let us rid ourselves of the “consumerism” mentality once and for all. It stands opposite to the “body ministry” as described in the New Testament.

3) As leaders, let’s commit ourselves to discovering and employing the untapped potential that exists in our churches.

4) The shift from the “ministry of the clergy” to the “ministry of the laity” is one of the most important decisions facing the church today. Let’s make it.

5) Let’s self-identify first and foremost as a servant. Only one class of people exists within the church, servants of the Lord Jesus Christ. Within that class there will always be different functions, but servanthood is incumbent upon all of us.

6) Realize that the under-utilization of our members is the primary reason why the mission of God is not being fully realized in the world and the reason why there is a dearth of servant-leadership in the church. (Side note: You might read my essay The Future of Southern Baptist Missions.)

7) The “laity” in your congregation is the most bountiful leadership resource available. Use it.

8) The role of the seminary is to come alongside local churches in training men and women for God-called ministries. This resource is useful so take advantage of it. But it can never become a substitute for in-house apprenticeship training.

9) If you are a leader, be willing to step aside and allow gift-based ministry to occur. Your people must be given freedom and authority for this to happen. Clergy must view the laity as equal in importance, as authentic ministers of the Gospel.

10) Recover the spirit of volunteerism in which every member is valued and equipped to pursue their ministry.

11) Let’s stop minimizing the importance of the local church for identifying, selecting, and developing leaders. As much as possible, indigenous leadership is our goal.

12) The most effective churches today are those that are developing a team-based approach to leadership. Collaborative team fellowship is essential to a healthy church. Since all are to be involved in ministry, team ministry will help to flatten hierarchies and reinforce the notion that there is no such thing as a passive Christian. If at all possible, let’s all avoid doing ministry alone.

13) We’ve got to set an example. The process of homegrown leadership is best done within an environment of mentoring and coaching. Seeing how something is done, rather than just hearing how it is done, is liberating. Let’s focus less on telling and more on coaching. Relationships comprise the chalkboard on which God explains Himself.

14) Share openly with your congregation about the mentors in your own life. The first mentor in my life was Dr. Harry Sturz of Biola University. He taught me the life skills of the classroom, diligence, what good scholarship looked like, and devotion to my students. He stood by me, encouraged me, prayed for and with me, and wouldn’t let me give up on my dreams of earning a doctorate. To him I owe an eternal debt of love, gratitude, and devotion.

15) Provide a biblical foundation for all you do. The book of Acts is a good place to start.

16) Don’t wait to begin this process of empowering ministry to others. Jesus was keen to pass the baton of leadership early in His ministry. If you wait for “perfection,” it will never happen.

17) Be patient with yourself and others. The empowerment model of ministry is laborious and time-consuming. Remember: You’re running a marathon, not a sprint.

18) Memorize key New Testament texts and pass them on to others. I would begin with 2 Tim. 2:2 (Paul’s goal was to train, teach, and empower capable followers who in turn could train, teach, and empower their own followers); Eph. 4:11-13 (Paul taught that equipping people for ministry [“works of service”] is God’s plan for the pastoral care of His people); and 1 Cor. 12:12-26 (where Paul teaches that God’s Spirit equips the church with a host of ministry functions that result in an empowered body capable of adequately fulfilling the mission of God in the world).

19) Remember that even if you only duplicate your heart and passion in one other leader, you have doubled the effectiveness of your ministry.

20) If you have a dependency model in your church, remember that it always comes from a climate of disempowerment.

21) Always emphasize the work of the triune God when it comes to spiritual gifts. This is the clear teaching of 1 Cor. 12:4-6, where Paul says that the Spirit grants gifts to all members, the Son assigns places of service, and God the Father grants us the outworkings or results of our ministries. So there are three steps in this process: discovering our gifts, discovering the place where we can best exercise those gifts, and discovering what God wants to accomplish through us as we exercise those gifts in the place of His appointment.

22) We must take the Great Commission seriously. The church is not only a community of those who learn of Christ but who witness to others and proclaim in word and deed the Lord Jesus and His salvation to anyone who will listen. The whole life of a local church is to be one of service and sacrifice and witness.

23) Let’s remember that the goal of all Christian education (whether it be in the local church or in the seminary) is to incorporate the mission thrust of Jesus into all of our students. The goal is for each local church to “offer the message of life” (Phil. 2:16) in a way that people will know why and how they should turn to this new Lord Jesus Christ.

24) Let’s work hard to see to it that “missions” means more than sending money to support missionaries and missions programs. All Christians are missionaries, and all are to be involved personally in service to the world. That’s why I sometimes introduce myself to people, not as a professor of Greek, but as a fulltime missionary. According to the New Testament, missional service is not the prerogative of an elite corpus but the function of the whole people of God.

25) Let us teach, preach, and model the truth that the gathering exists for the going. It is exactly by going outside itself that the church is itself.

26) Let our priority become being the Master’s messengers in the world and let our churches be satellite offices of the kingdom of God. Let every member of the body see him- or herself as a strategic player in missionary work as both salt and light.

26.2) Finally, remember that there is no “magic formula” for getting any of this done — including lists like this one. There is no such thing as “26.2 steps to becoming a New Testament church.” Living in obedience to Christ means, above all, living in daily communion and fellowship with His Spirit. There’s no better leader than He. Believer, your pastor or your church cannot do the ministry God has given you to perform. Following Jesus is a journey that requires honesty, vulnerability, and commitment. The New Covenant is not an idea to consider but a life to be lived. As I look back, I am convinced that God was profoundly placing me under the mentorship of some of the most godly and humble men on the planet. I am convinced that He has such mentors for you, people who will take your hand and work alongside of you for the glory of God and for the good of His church. I sense there’s a movement bubbling up in our churches today that goes beyond a “seven-easy-steps-approach” and celebrates a completely new way of living. I thank God for the millennials among us who aren’t just complaining about the church but are dreaming of what it might become. Each of us has the privilege of serving Jesus every time we exercise our spiritual gift in His power and for His glory, every time we feed the hungry, every time we acknowledge the value and dignity of the strangers in our midst, every time we love the forsaken and remember the prisoners. Empowerment is giving people permission to become engaged in a meaningful way in the work Christ is doing in the world today.

So ….

On your mark, get set,

GO!

Reading The Civil War as a Theological Crisis

6:08 PM Today I started reading a wonderful little book called The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark Noll, who is perhaps the doyen of American history among evangelicals today. It is masterfully written and brilliantly argued.

the-civil-war-as-a-theological-crisisNoll tries to show how mid-19th century American Christians (both North and South) generally agreed that the Bible was authoritative but they differed on how that Bible should be understood. Not only this, but he shows how “the Book that made the nation was destroying the nation; the nation that had taken to the Book was rescued not by the Book but by the force of arms” (p. 8). He is so right about this! Indeed, how apropos to today’s political climate in the United States. Biblical interpretation in America today, even biblical interpretation by conservative evangelicals, has perhaps never been so divided and chaotic. Just as the American Civil War generated a first-order theological crisis over how to interpret the Bible, so this year’s presidential election is generating a first-order theological crisis over how to understand the work of God in our nation. The church of today has to a large degree become more or less subject to the controlling influence of public opinion rather than shapers of public opinion. The parallels with the 1860s are obvious. “Had white protestants been following the Bible as carefully as they claimed, they could not have so casually dismissed the biblical interpretations advanced by Pendleton and Fee and mentioned by Lincoln. The inability to propose a biblical scheme of slavery that would take in all races reveals that factors others than simple fidelity to Scripture were exerting great influence as well” (p. 56). I suspect that many Christians reading Noll’s book would be nodding their heads in agreement. I’m finding this book a compelling demonstration of this truth. That’s why today you will find leading evangelicals both defending Donald Trump and excoriating him, with both sides using the Bible to defend their actions. For my two cents, I cannot understand how anyone can defend Trump’s candidacy. Yet I want to end by saying that this doesn’t mean that I or anyone else has the right to condemn those who support Trump based on their own interpretation of “forgiveness,” “the God of a second chance,” “the sanctity of life,” etc. I thus have no right to judge my Christian brother or sister in these matters. But neither can I with integrity claim to understand how they can reconcile their views with the teachings of the New Testament. All of this suggests, I believe, that each of us has to wrestle with how to reconcile the facts of this year’s political cycle with the Scriptures. Above all, I hope we can all remember that we do not fight as the world fights — that is, by hatred and violence (2 Cor. 10:3-4). Instead, we are called to fight this battle by displaying God’s love to all people, including those with whom we might strongly disagree politically. My point is not that we shouldn’t have strong convictions about whether so-and-so is qualified to be president of the United States. My point rather is that we need to constantly distinguish between the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and the kingdom of this world. And to do this, we must be more about giving other people Jesus Christ  — not rules, not entertainment, not partisan rhetoric. I have no confidence in the political system but I have every confidence in Jesus.

I encourage us all to keep the Gospel first. It really is a big deal!

(From Dave Black Online. Used by permission.)

David Alan Black: A New School Year and a Favorite Book

Seven Marks of a New Testament ChurchI’m really looking forward to a fun and exciting fall semester, not least because I’m teaching NT Intro again for the first time in several years. The course covers Acts – Revelation, which means that, if I time things just right, the semester will end before I have to discuss the Apocalypse (wink, wink)! Let me tell you how we’re beginning the class. Day One consists of students reading the book of Acts and then also reading my Seven Marks of a New Testament Church – which, I would remind you, is nothing but an exegesis of Acts 2:37-47, eleven of the most action-packed verses in the entire New Testament. Students will then produce a “reaction paper” to what they have read and I’ll ask for a few volunteers to share with the rest of us what they learned. Thus, from the very first day of class, we’ll be asking ourselves the question: “What does an obedient church look like?” Christian discipleship means placing ourselves under orders. It’s not merely a psychological experiment in self-improvement (along with watching our weight and catching up on our Honey-Do lists). As disciples, we are not on our own. The goal is not self-actualization but obedience to the instructions of the church’s Head and only Boss.

That’s one reason I’m enjoying reading James Thompson’s new book called The Church according to Paul: Recovering the Community Conformed to Christ. Now if that doesn’t sound like an Anabaptist title!

How easily we profess a willingness to do church “God’s way” but forget the first condition of obedience: understanding what the Bible teaches about the church. Thompson’s book contains nine chapters, the final of which is called “Leadership Like No Other for a Community Like No Other.” He argues it’s time for all hands on deck. Alas, “church” for so many today means pastor-centrality rather than every-member ministry. Writes Thompson:

With few exceptions, two unintended consequences have resulted from the professionalization of ministry: (a) a failure to recognize that “member” is an image that suggests the indispensable participation of the body of Christ by each person; and (b) the loss of the focus on the cruciform nature of leadership.

Bingo! Paul understood what leadership looked like: “But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.” How odd this seems in the face of our sermon-centered lives. What makes the Gospel life-changing isn’t a message or a concept but the real-life person who has been radically changed by that message. As you and I enter post-Christian America and modernism, we understand that knowledge is no longer king as it was during the Enlightenment. People who don’t go to church don’t go for any number of reasons, but high on the list is probably the fact people no longer automatically assign authority to a building or to a man (whether he is wearing a collar or not). And I write that as someone who loves to give “sermons”! But to be a New Testament Christ-follower is to be a disciple of Jesus and not of any man. There are no two ways about it. Church can never be what its Head designed it to be without Christ assuming the role of “Commanding Officer” in my life and yours. This will involve nothing less than a transformed vision of reality that is able to see Christ as more real and more coveted and more powerful and more lovely than anyone or anything our churches can offer us. I know this is like asking my students to walk on water. But was not Peter able to do just that for those seconds when his gaze was locked on Christ’s, his mind set on things above? It is a profound moment in our lives when we realize that this pilgrimage of ours isn’t just about us or even our churches. My hope and prayer is that my students this semester will have the courage and obedience to launch out into the deep. Because it matters. It really matters.

During the Montreal conference a young man asked me what I thought was my favorite of all the books I’ve written. I replied that I thought the question was a bit unfair — akin to asking, “Which of your grandchildren do you love the most?” I confess to taking pleasure in each of my books, just as I love each of my grandchildren equally. I hope others have enjoyed my writings — and not just those who were forced to read them as required textbooks! Still, the question is a fair one. Without a doubt, I believe my most important book is one that only tangentially deals with Greek. It’s a book that recounts the quiet shift that happened in my heart many years ago now — a shift from law to grace, to freedom over fear, from orthodoxy to orthopraxy (without ever sacrificing my orthodoxy), from, if you will, Paul to Jesus and the Gospels. Like an earthquake destabilizing old power structures, the life of Christ crept into my consciousness. What I had to learn was that God delights in taking messes and making them into masterpieces. He began to open my eyes and allow me to see what He sees when He looks at me — a man forgiven and loved, God’s own dwelling place, a man destined to use his whole being (including his body) as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God alone. It seems too incredible to believe, right? But that’s why euangelion means Good News. Because of our union with this Lion-Lamb, we have a new identity, a new destiny, and a new purpose in life. It all comes down to the question, “Am I following Jesus with no strings attached?” Dallas Willard put it this way in his book The Great Omission:

The greatest issue facing the world today, with all its heartbreaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or culture, are identified as “Christian” will become disciples — students, apprentices, practitioners — of Jesus Christ, steadily learning from him how to live the life of the Kingdom of the Heavens into every corner of human existence.

As I peer into the past, I see now why God led me to write The Jesus Paradigm. He delights in taking damaged goods and making them into trophies of grace. And I pray that this book of mine will impact other damaged people the way it impacted my own life when I wrote it. I was no longer merely a consumer of Christianity. I realized that if I’ve received mercy, I needed to dispense it. Whether you are a plumber or a pastor, your calling (and mine) is a sacred vocation. God wants us to be like His Son — motivated by His glory to worship Him as we go about doing our daily work, whatever that is. Even if we’re not in what we would consider the “ideal” job, we can still do our best for His glory. Jesus fulfilled His God-given assignment with maximum effort. He gave 200 percent. His one goal was to do the Father’s will by serving others.

My friend, pause for a moment and contemplate the words of Jim Elliott: “Wherever you are, be all there, and live to the hilt whatever you are convinced is the will of God for your life.” And remember, as we do this – as we follow the Jesus paradigm – He is cheering us on.

A Mountain to Climb

Becky Black Memorial Fund signI came to Zermatt in search of a summit or two — and, like Terry Fox, the Canadian who ran thousands of miles on one leg to raise money for cancer research, I wanted to give a nod to the Becky Black Memorial Fund, which I started a few weeks ago. (To date, 650 million Canadian dollars have been raised in Terry’s name. I’m trying to raise $25,000.) I decided I’d display a banner with Becky’s name on it every time I summited one of Zermatt’s peaks. You ask, “Weren’t you even a little bit afraid?” Oh yeah. For the first hundred yards or so I always had butterflies in my stomach. But as Helen Keller once said, “It’s okay to have butterflies in your stomach. Just get them to fly in formation.” (A heartfelt thanks, by the way, to everyone like Helen Keller who has been an inspiration to me.) To climb my first 4,000-meter peak (that is, anything over 13,123 feet), I drew on less than a year of experience climbing the hills of Virginia and North Carolina. After a lot of looking back at the past year, I asked myself a big question: “Are you really up to it?” Charles Dickens once said that it was focus that made him such an accomplished writer. “I could never have done what I have done,” he said, “without the determination to concentrate myself on one subject at a time.” Coming to Zermatt I think was the Lord’s way of saying to me, “Dave, I want you to concentrate yourself one more time.”

In climbing I’ve discovered something I love — a thing that really turns me on and excites me. Passion is what enabled Aimee Mullins to set records for running even though she’s missing two legs. I care passionately about what I do in life. I really want to do them. I don’t know where these passions come from (other than from the Lord), but I’ve got them. I love teaching. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I think being irrationally passionate about what you do is enormously healthy. I’m what psychologists refer to as a “striver.” Strivers are people who know what they want and run straight toward it. There’s something in me that pushes me to challenge myself as a climber, and I just have to go with it. Exploring your passions doesn’t mean you have to go all the way. I have no interest in climbing anything much over 15,000 feet. And yes, it’s hard work, but that’s part of the fun. (By the way, I’ve never known anyone who has accomplished anything in life who didn’t work hard at it. Nothing worthwhile in life is easy. Before leaving for Switzerland I trained 100 miles a month not to mention the hours I spent in the gym lifting. Still, it’s not about the hours. It’s about enjoying what you do.)

Dave standing on the side of a mountainHere’s my message for you today, good friend. (Yes, I’m in a preachy mood.) Be willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish your God-given goals. I believe that climbing not only brings me satisfaction but also a sense of confidence. We become confident when we meet a challenge head-on and overcome it. I’ll never forget the day my guide Walter took me to Zermatt’s famous Klettersteig — a vertical rock wall on very exposed terrain. A long metal ladder is the key point in the entire climb. It took us 4 hours to climb 1,800 vertical feet. Focus was absolutely critical.

Many people work hard but they’re not focused. They’re Dabblers and not Doers. I realized as soon as I began climbing the Klettersteig that I had to focus. The focus paid off and I completed the course.

When Bill Gates started Microsoft he focused on one thing and only one thing. “Microsoft is designed to write great software,” he said. “We are not designed to be good at other things.” Being able to focus will help you regardless of what you’re doing. My formula for climbing is simple: training and concentration, and then more training and concentration. The truth is that we all find it easy to focus on what we love doing. When people are lazy, they’re usually lazy about things that don’t interest them. To climb you’ve got to love the sport — and then you’re got to push, push, push yourself, mentally and physically. Mostly I’ve had to push through self-doubt. In climbing there are plenty of opportunities for second-guessing yourself: Will my body adjust to the elevation, will my legs be strong enough to carry me, will I tire out before the climb is over? On this trip there were many moments when I said, “Oh man, I can’t believe I got this far!” The trick is to keep pushing yourself, even when you think you can’t persevere.

Dave facing the MatterhornSetting goals can help us push through our manmade barriers. I wanted to bag two summits on this trip, and I got them both. So even though I’m not a very experienced climber, I realized my dreams, thanks (1) to the grace of God and (2) to pushing. In life it is always important to have goals, no matter what those goals are. My goals for next summer are to summit my second 4000-meter peak and to scramble up the Hornli Ridge on the Matterhorn. On each trip to the Alps I want to set for myself titanic challenges and try to rise above them. As I’ve mentioned, I’m not necessarily cut out to be a climber. Walking and trekking come much more naturally to me. But I enjoy new challenges and I think climbing pushes me. Summiting the Breithorn at 13,661 feet was a real challenge for me, but I think I took on that challenge to propel myself forward in life.

50 Days of Easter?

8:55 AM My good friend and fellow New Testament teacher Allan Bevere asks:

On Ash Wednesday we are invited to observe a holy Lent for forty days. Why are we not similarly invited to observe a joyful Easter for fifty days following the morning the empty tomb is discovered?

In one strand of Protestantism there are traditions involving holy days: the 40 days of Lent, the 50 days of Easter, etc. Allan argues that Easter is the most significant of these holy days. If this is true, then why, he asks, do we not celebrate “the full fifty days of the Easter season?”

For me, a Baptist, I suppose the first answer that comes to mind is, “Where is the biblical requirement that I do so?” But such cynicism can often be an obstacle to real understanding. Methodists observe holy days, and they obviously do so for legitimate reasons (at least in their minds). So Allan’s question is a legitimate one. He raises a good point that deserves serious consideration.

My guess is that the current generation of youthful believers is not likely to pay too much attention to it, however. They are too busy screaming, “Why are Christians so mean and angry? Why do they insist on putting Christ in the White House when Jesus used to hang out with lepers? Who do churches spend so much money on themselves? Why do so many strands of Christianity smack of power and hubris when Jesus humbly served others?” If we’re not careful, we Christians (Methodists and Baptists alike) can easily prioritize tradition over engagement. Still, Allan’s essay is worth careful study. It seems to me that a good place to start is Paul’s teaching in Rom. 14:1-12 (The Message).

Or, say, one person thinks that some days should be set aside as holy and another thinks that each day is pretty much like any other. There are good reasons either way. So, each person is free to follow the convictions of conscience.

What’s important in all this is that if you keep a holy day, keep it for God’s sake; if you eat meat, eat it to the glory of God and thank God for prime rib; if you’re a vegetarian, eat vegetables to the glory of God and thank God for broccoli. None of us are permitted to insist on our own way in these matters. It’s God we are answerable to—all the way from life to death and everything in between—not each other. That’s why Jesus lived and died and then lived again: so that he could be our Master across the entire range of life and death, and free us from the petty tyrannies of each other.

Paul seems to be making three points here:

1) Whether or not we follow any particular “holy day” is a matter of personal conscience and conviction.

2) Either way we choose, we are to live each day for the glory of God and in cooperation with those with whom we disagree about such non-essentials.

3) Jesus died and rose again not only so that He could save us from sin but so that He could “free us from the petty tyrannies of each other.”

Believe it or not, this is a matter I want to discuss with my students next fall as I teach Romans and 1-2 Corinthians. Let’s put the difficult questions before our students. Let’s teach them to ask hard questions about why they do what they do in their churches. Let’s stop patronizing them because — let me tell you — millennials are very capable of thinking for themselves. Lest you think that Allan’s question is irrelevant to Baptists, think of all of our own “holy” observances — from the “annual revival meeting” to the “Christmas cantata” to “youth Sunday.” Good friends can discuss such matters without getting put out with each other. Jesus can handle it. When Paul says, “One person thinks that some days should be set aside as holy and another thinks that each day is pretty much like any other,” I tend to find myself in the latter camp. And yet I see the logic behind the church calendar. As Methodist New Testament scholar Ben Witherington puts it in his essay Happy New Year!!:

My suggestion to us all is to live in the Christian moment for the entire year to come— Advent leads to Christmas, which leads to Epiphany which leads to Lent which leads to Easter which leads to Pentecost which leads to Kingdomtide and then we start the cycle over again. The cycle begins with the story of Christ, moves on to the story of the church, and returns once more to the story of Christ’s Comings on the first Sunday in Advent. We are on a pilgrimage with Jesus and then on our own until he returns. His story is the story we must recite and retell until it becomes our story. My suggestion is that whenever we are in danger of getting caught up in the non-Christian moment with its own urgencies that we say to ourselves ‘all in God’s good time’. God’s good time and timing is what we should be living by.

For Ben, the church year is all about Christ, about His story, about a kingdom of God that is tangible, about living in the midst of a ridiculous pagan culture that tailors its calendar to retail sales. No, I don’t think Allan or Ben or any other Methodist scholar I know of is trying to impose a new set of legalisms on the church. Customs are fine as long as we attach no salvific significance to them. Perhaps, in the end, the real question is the evangelistic one. Secular culture recognizes our holy days, but people seem woefully confused about our love. Which is why Paul concluded (NLT):

In the same way, some think one day is more holy than another day, while others think every day is alike. You should each be fully convinced that whichever day you choose is acceptable. Those who worship the Lord on a special day do it to honor him. Those who eat any kind of food do so to honor the Lord, since they give thanks to God before eating.

This is the kind of scandalous love that drives the world crazy — or should I say sane? Followers of Jesus (of whatever denominational stripe) live by an “others-first” credo that only people who are secure both in themselves and in their Savior can pull off. Perhaps when not-yet-believers see this kind of love in action they’ll stop and ask, “Maybe this kind of love is for me too?”

(From Dave Black Online. Used by Permission.)

Sniffing Out What Is Real vs Spiritual Smoke

6:04 PM While looking for an Easter Sunrise Service I ran across a church in a major U.S. city that will be serving food to the homeless this Sunday under an Interstate overpass to celebrate a Risen Savior. I’d really love to attend but the city is 1,400 miles away. Let’s face it: It’s been a long time since I went to church for the sermon. Not that I don’t mind a good sermon. But it’s sacrificial service that holds the body of Christ together. That’s just plain good doctrine, by the way. (“Faith working itself out through love,” is how Paul puts it.) That’s what’s so remarkable to me about the messy, mixed-up church that Christ died for. The New Testament church was so basic and so lovely. They assembled for togetherness — and service. Sure, there was solid biblical teaching (there had to be), but teaching that drove the people back out into the world to be Jesus to their neighbors, even under an Interstate underpass. (Just between you and me, I’m becoming a Jesus Freak again.) Give me a scrappy, tough-minded, doctrinally sound AND practically engaged church any day. A church that actually resembles the ministry of Jesus. A church where apathy is exchanged for authenticity. It’s as if God were saying, “Church, do with your ‘body’ what My Son did with His — He gave it away for others.”

Oh how I wish Becky were still here. She could sniff out what is real and what is spiritual smoke much better than I ever could. But I’m learning. I find it strange that the focus this Sunday in so many of our churches will be on getting people who rarely (if ever) attend to show up in our sanctuaries for an hour when we could be exploding Jesus’ love in our dirty neighborhoods. Listen, church. The best thing we can do for others is give them Jesus — plain old Jesus — not entertainment, and most certainly not church culture. He trumps everything. Because He is the only constant in life.

(From Dave Black Online. Used by Permission.)

Gloom and Doom? Not Worried!

8:14 AM Oh my. Here we go again. Gloom and doom. America is going down the tubes. Especially if you vote for the other guy, who is a despicable fraud.

Quick, Dave, check your insurance premiums!

Frankly, I’m not worried. Not one bit. It’s the same old ads. Just different names. It reminds me of an operating room. The surgeons and nurses are clothed immaculately and the instruments are sterilized. But they refuse to wash their hands. “All that matters is that you trust us. I am a surgeon. See my diploma? I don’t have to worry about keeping clean. Condition is of no importance.” The result? Pseudo-politics, pseudo-Christianity, pseudo-orthodoxy, and pseudo-piety. “For this reason God will send them strong delusion, and they will believe a lie” (2 Thess. 2:11). I’m not expert in eschatology, but it seems that Paul is talking about how God is preparing the world for Antichrist, the Big Lie, the final embodiment of all that is opposed to Christ. We are being primed for the final delusion, and as a result we accept cheap substitutes for the real thing. People believe the lie rather than love the truth.

I believe our Father would be pleased to give us much more if we had faith to ask for it.I’ve been rereading Elton Trueblood’s classic book, The Company of the Committed.

company of the committed.jpg

Trueblood was a lifelong Quaker, educator, and author. (He was also twice widowed.) His book is about Christian living, and the author wants to encourage a deep conversation about church and society. His main point is that the church as it exists today is ill-suited to fulfill its basic redemptive function since it has compromised itself in so many ways. “The movement we need is a movement in depth,” he writes (p. 10). This question is especially relevant in light of the fact that the line between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world is becoming increasingly blurred in this election year of ours. While on the one had I have no problem with people being passionately involved in politics as they feel God is leading them, I simply maintain that politics should be kept strictly separate from what we are about as churches, and that no one should label their position as the distinctly “Christian” way of doing politics. Remember, in most wars in history, both sides firmly believed that their “God” was on their side. The unique call of the Christian is to pursue the kingdom, and this is accomplished in counter-cultural ways, including our willingness to sacrifice ourselves and even our very lives for others.

Trueblood gets this. He shows that many of the most “successful” programs in our churches will not bear up under close examination. “It is hard to exaggerate the degree to which the modern Church seems irrelevant to modern man” (p. 17). From my own experience, I can tell you this is very true in post-Christian Europe, where I have lived. To be a Christian in Switzerland was the equivalent of putting your brain in park or neutral. But not only does Europe suffer from this malaise. I live in the rural South, and here the church often has only marginal relevance. To be sure, people are willing to put up with it as long as it does not require anything of them. Hence, writes Trueblood, the question today is not one of whether Christian fellowships exist. Rather, the question is what kind of character these fellowships have (p. 21). I personally think this distinction is very helpful. The Gospel is not the true Gospel unless it is about transforming people, one life at a time. I deeply appreciate Trueblood’s attempt to call the church back to its militant stance, which produced “the amazing vitality of early Christianity’ (p. 28). On p. 31 he writes:

It is perfectly clear that early Christians considered Christ their Commander-in-Chief, that they were in a company of danger, which involved great demands upon their lives, and to be a Christian was to be engaged in Christ’s service.

The “service” he’s talking about is a far cry from the typical worship service or political rally one attends today. As in an army, every soldier has his or her own duty to perform.

The key words are “one another” [he writes on p. 32]. There are no mere observers or auditors; all are involved. Each is in the ministry; each needs the advice of the others; and each has something to say to the others. The picture of mutual admonition seems strange to modern man, but the strangeness is only a measure of our essential decline from something of amazing power.

Christ, says Trueblood, is organizing a genuine band of brothers, a company of the committed. Jesus wasn’t asking for people to go to church. “He was, instead, asking for recruits in a company of danger. He was asking not primarily for belief, but for commitment with consequent involvement” (p. 34). “We cannot understand the idea of of a company apart from the concept of involvement” (p. 38). The soldier’s one desire is to please their commander in everything.

The undeniable reality is that many of us today are both under-trained and uninvolved. The easiest way to undermine Christianity is to appoint someone else to do the work for us. During the American Civil War, if you had enough money you could purchase your way out of the draft and let someone else do the fighting for you. The simple fact is that we have been called — all of us — to follow Jesus Christ in acts of radical Calvary-love, not someone else’s good ideas or movements or strategies, however good we may think they are. Whether you are a Republican Matthew or a Democrat Simon the Zealot, we can all get along just fine as long as we follow Jesus and stop making our political ideals the bullseye.

The Company of Jesus is not people streaming to a shrine; and it is not people making up an audience for a speaker; it is laborers engaged in the harvesting task of reaching their perplexed and seeking brethren with something so vital that, if it is received, it will change their lives (p. 45).

This is the kind of lay ministry that I have long espoused and have argued for in my various publications. In the words of Trueblood, “…in the ministry of Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, neither male nor female, neither layman nor cleric [italics his], but all are one in Christ” (p. 62). If you share this vision of the kingdom, will you support my work? Not financially of course. Will you join me in praying for the church in North America in 2016? Pray that God will help us wake up to the political delusion that has descended upon us through well-meaning people. Pray that we start caring more about sacrificing for the country than controlling it. To me, the most basic and most difficult challenge of being a Christ-follower is what Trueblood addresses in this marvelous book. It’s becoming completely sold out to the Commander-in-Chief and living under His authority and in His love on a moment-by-moment basis. I want to encourage us to cultivate a surrendered attitude toward God. By all means, let’s express our opinion about politics. Let’s vote for the person of our choice (or not vote at all if our conscience prohibits it). But let’s never, ever forget where the hope of the world lies. Let’s obey Jesus and love others as He did.

You want security? Love each other and the world well, and your house will stand.

(From Dave Black Online. Used by Permission.)

True Saving Faith is Manifested

 

(From Dave Black Online. Used by permission.)

5:22 PM Today I’ve been working on the new syllabus for my Greek 2 classes this spring semester. I’ve done my best to figure out what needs to be covered, now that so many of our students fail to go on to Greek 3. I think one of the best moves I can make is to introduce the basic principles of exegesis in Greek 2 and then walk everyone through the interpretation and application of one entire New Testament writing. Our textbook already covers major portions of 1 John but I will also be taking the class through the book of Philippians in its entirety. Of course, the themes of both of these books are very similar. 1 John teaches two things:

1) True saving faith is manifested in those who practice the truth (and not just know it).

2) True saving faith is manifested in those who possess a genuine love for other believers.

As 1 John 3:7 puts it, “It’s the person who acts right who is right.” I don’t think it’s possible to over-emphasize this teaching of John. The early church actively expected and anticipated that the Holy Spirit would change the lives of believers.

What, then, of Paul — the apostle of salvation by grace through faith apart from works? Many Christians consider that conversion — forensic justification — is the climax and consummation of Paul’s teaching. From the study of Paul’s letters we know this is most definitely not true. If ever a person knew of God’s saving work by faith through grace, apart from works of any kind, it was the apostle Paul. His supernatural encounter with the risen Christ on the Road to Damascus is all the proof we need. But accompanying this work of salvation came another supreme step in Paul’s life — surrender.  As the objective accomplishments of the cross and the resurrection of Christ became realities in Paul’s life experientially, he was completely changed. In view of the mercies of God, he surrendered totally to the One who had forgiven and cleansed him. Little wonder that Paul always called Jesus “Lord,” for he indeed did have a new Lord and a new life as well as a new service and a new business — the Gospel business. This is the message of Philippians in a nutshell. The same Voice who spoke to Paul on the Road to Damascus now reveals Himself in the blazing light of a magnificent little hymn recorded for us in Phil. 2:5-11. A whole lifetime would not be sufficient to unpack the theological gems found in this profound passage. The revelation of Christ’s humility in service to others can only come gradually, like the dawn breaking over the wide-spreading landscape. Once Paul had surrendered to the all-powerful Jesus of Nazareth, for the rest of his life he served Christ in humble obedience, as did his friends Timothy and Epaphroditus. This is the outstanding need of the church today — people who are not only saved but who recognize the Lordship of Christ and yield to His mastery. This new mastery does not come easily. Evangelical hero worship is alive and well in our churches today. The way up is up, we are told. Bigger is better. Powerful is in. We love that smart jock exterior. Folks, many things in our churches are not fine, but there is only one proper place to place all of our evangelical superstars if we profess to love Jesus, and that place is dead last. True pastors will not object. They’ve read Phil. 2:5-11. It’s so maddening that Christians fail to see what Paul is teaching us here. I’ve been part of the problem, believe me. I wish I could go back to my twenties and thirties and deal with my own ignorance and selfishness and ego. Even today I still find myself having to overhaul my personal priority system. Ugh. But you gotta start somewhere.

Philippians it is then — along with portions of that great book 1 John (one of only two strictly anonymous epistles in the New Testament along with Hebrews). This spring we’re going to cut to the chase. This is where the chili meets the cheese friends. Obviously, this will be tricky business. How do you cover so much in a single semester? The best way is to have the students read some good books on the topic. In addition to Learn to Read New Testament Greek, we’ll be adding my Uncle Dave’s works Using New Testament Greek in Ministry and New Testament Textual Criticism. (I have this addiction for stuff written by my uncle.) I mean, this has got to get done. So brace yourselves, my dear students. I won’t lie. This is not going to be easy. But it will be worth it. Serving others is part and parcel of salvation. What an insane truth. But I love it!