Thursday, March 31, 2011

FYI – The Parable of the Mustard Seed

Jesus tells the parable of the mustard seed in Matthew 13:31-32; Mark 4:30-33, and Luke 13:18-19. The mustard seed is called the smallest of all seed and yet grows larger than the garden plants and provide a nesting place for birds in its branches.

This, Jesus says, is what the Kingdom of God is like.

So what does it mean?

The mustard plant was a very small seed that grows very rapidly (in a matter of weeks) into a decent sized plant—usually around four feet, sometimes perhaps ten feet high or so, and on occasion fifteen feet. It had branches that would be stout enough to hold bird’s nests.

So what’s the relation to the kingdom?

Jesus’ point is not about the size of the kingdom. The mustard seed is not a particularly large plant in comparison to other tree, though it is large in comparison to other herbs (mustard is an herb). While the kingdom of God will be large (as in worldwide) that is not the meaning of this parable. Some suggest that the birds in the branches represent the Gentile nations incorporated into the kingdom. That may be the point of the branches; it may not be.

Jesus’ point is neither about the timing of the kingdom. The parable does not teach that the seed is planted and then slowly grows into an overwhelming kingdom encompassing the whole world during the church age. If anything, it would be the opposite, that the kingdom actually grows very quickly because that is what a mustard plant did. But that is not the point.

The point of the parable is that even though the kingdom of God looks to the disciples as if it is small like a mustard seed, it will assuredly come and be great. The small seed produces a plant out of proportion to its size.

Jesus is using the mustard seed in order to assure his disciples of the success of the kingdom.

To disciples being sent out on mission, and soon to be with out their leader, they needed the encouragement to know that their work was not in vain.

Sure, it seemed small and hard to them. Jesus was being rejected by many. In fact, the parable of the sower which is told immediately before this in Matthew, Mark, and Luke reveals to us that a great many professors will in fact not be true believers. They will fall away for various reasons.

Yet the disciples must not lose heart. Even though their kingdom work might seem to be having little effect, almost insignificant, they were part of a bigger promise.

They must not lose heart.

So it is that the church to whom this parable was recorded in the gospel needs to be reminded of the kingdom promise in times of persecution and difficulty. The church was not being encouraged that the kingdom was gradually coming, or that it was already and not yet (though that may be true in some sense).

The church was being reminded that the mustard seed does grow.

Our labor is not in vain, though it may appear hard and even hopeless at times.

The kingdom will come. Jesus will reign. It will be worth it all.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

On Forgiveness and Prayer

When you pray with unforgiving heart, you are asking God to do for you what you are unwilling to do for others. You are asking him to give you something you don’t deserve while refusing to give someone else something they don’t deserve (Mark 11:25).

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Census, Cities, and the Gospel

2010 Census numbers are slowly being released (with a picture of one of my favorite restaurants).

Last time Detroit was this small (1910) Henry Ford had not yet started paying workers $5 a day (1914). Some apparently think Ford’s (as the old-timers say) would like to return to $5 a day. But I think that rumor has been greatly overstated.

What isn’t overstated is the sad state of the city of Detroit. The only city in the country to lose a great percentage of it’s residents in the last decade appears to be New Orleans. And they had Katrina. Before you blame the auto industry problems, remember that most of the autoworkers lived in the burbs, not the city. In other words, Detroit’s problems are not separate from the auto industry, but neither are they identical. They are worse; they are deeper; they are systemic.

And there really are no meaningful solutions to the problem. Mayor Dave Bing is trying to downsize the city by getting people to move into selected areas, thus relieving the city of providing services to such a huge area (the city of Detroit is almost 140 square miles). Other areas would be turned into urban farms.

Mayor Bing is also trying to come up with another 40,000 people in order to reach the 750,000 person threshold for certain state and federal aid. That will help get more money—other people’s money—to solve problems Detroit is not willing to take on and solve themselves. Let’s face it: As long as Uncle Sam will shove some dough your way, you can keep wasting money on political enterprises instead of fixing the problems. So 40,000 more people is important to keep the political enterprises healthy.

“Cynical,” you say? Sure, but well founded.

Given Detroit’s ability to work the numbers in the budget, I have no doubt that they can come up with 40,000 people on a census, because as everyone knows with the budget, numbers are just numbers; they do not actually need to correspond to anything in reality.

Now, if they can only find a way to tax these 40,000 people. Except  those 40,000 probably don’t have jobs and that will raise the already atrocious unemployment rate (put by some as high as 50% in the city of Detroit). But they will be mythical people so it really won’t matter anyway.

And at the end of the day, whether 713,000 or 750,000, Detroit will still be a failing city with small-visioned leaders who lack the character and political will to solve the problems.

The Detroit public schools are failing beyond belief and the newest solution apparently involves 60 student classrooms. The school board who got the schools where they are (in part by turning down a $200 million dollar charter school grant) is complaining about the guy who is trying to change it and has taken him to court multiple times. Which goes to show that education is a talking point, not a task, not even a goal.

The house vacancy rate in Detroit is said to be about 22%. I think that’s actually lower than the real number. But it means more than one out of every five houses is empty. Probably 1 of the remaining 4 is probably in a very bad state of disrepair. Burned out houses are more common than you might think, particularly in certain parts of the city (like Delray that I drove through last Friday on the way to Armando’s for dinner).

And when I drive through I wonder, What is the place of the gospel in a city like Detroit?

Detroit doesn’t need more churches. It has churches all over the place. What it needs is more gospel—a gospel rightly defined, a gospel boldly preached, and a gospel practically lived out.

I think there are some good gospel works going on in the city by friends of mine and others whom I don’t know but know about. But I don’t sense there is a big push towards urban church planting or church revitalization in Detroit.

Some years ago I had a “Ten in Ten” concept going on in my head. Ten churches in ten strategic areas (think the parish concept) in the city of Detroit. Start some preaching points and see what develops.

I would still love to see it happen, but it’s going to take some committed people who are willing to live in what amounts to a North American version of a third world country.

“Harsh,” you say? Sure, but well founded.

Drive around a bit in Detroit.

And when you do, look at the faces of the people and dream of a church being built out of them. Dream of the litter of idols smashed by Jesus rather than the litter of trash left by citizens. Dream of the reclamation of lives destroyed by drugs and violence rather than buildings destroyed by time and neglect.

And look for places for gospel churches to meet, where the hope preached doesn’t rest on the city council, the mayor’s office, or the courtroom.

And pray for the souls of these people who are hopeless and trapped, and who mistakenly think living jobless in drug and violence ridden Detroit is their worst problem.

And pray for workers to go out into the harvest. Perhaps gospel people can give “urban farming” a new spin.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Word About Modesty and Parents

Let me first note that if a guy lusts after a girl, it is his fault. He is responsible for his wickedness. If a man rapes a woman, it is his fault. He is responsible. He cannot blame it on the woman. There are no exceptions and no excuses.

But, there is a reason that the Bible has commands to women about modesty. That reason is because women have a duty, an obligation, to themselves, their husbands (future husbands if they are not yet married), to their daughters, to their sons, and to whoever else might see them to dress modestly. They are to make sure that only their own husbands enjoy their God-given enticements. And when their dress acts like a flashing red light and loud siren, it should sound very foolish to claim they have no responsibility.

Having said that, I point you to The Wall Street Journal today which has an article entitled “Why Do We Let Girls Dress Like That?

This author says, “Why do so many of us not only permit our teenage daughters to dress like this—like prostitutes, if we're being honest with ourselves—but pay for them to do it with our AmEx cards?”

This is not authored by some raving fundamentalist pastor whose wife looks like she just barely survived a bout with a buffet and Mike Tyson. It’s not written by a Mennonite with a headcovering, or a Muslim in a burqa. It’s not even written by a reformed sex offender who just got out after doing his fifteen for crimes against an attractive young girl.

It is authored by a Moses (Jennifer Moses that is). A woman. And apparently a Jewish woman. And like many Jews and many women, she is worth listening to.

She, like the ODG that shares her name, speaks a word that needs to be heard by parents, by teens too young to get it, by school headmasters responsible for classroom decorum, indeed by anyone who breathes and has a beating heart.

Here’s that word: Dress your age. And save something for the wedding night and the years that follow.

I think we live in a world where teen girls grow up too fast and teen boys grow up too slow.

Thirteen year-old girls are dressing like their twenty-five year-old man-hunters desperate to catch some man’s eye like he is the last single man living … though being single isn’t much of a requirement these days.

And thirty year-old boys are working part-time jobs at McDonald’s (this week at least), playing video games, and mooching off mom and dad for refrigerator privileges and living space (if they happen to even make it home at night).

Then when this thirteen year-old grows up and enters a relationship with this now thirty-five year old, she wonders why he only seems to want her for her body and makes her go out and get a job so they can eek out enough money to get a $300 apartment with stained carpet and loud neighbors.

And then three kids and a frazzled decade later, she wonders why he sits by the apartment pool with sunglasses on all summer long, spend hours on the computer though the browser history is always blank, and gets text messages at strange hours but never seems to have any texts on his phone.

She should remember that she attracted a jerk by using something wrongly. And he will be completely at fault for his sin. And so will she.

For God’s sake, and for your husband’s sake, and for your children’s sake, for men’s sake, for women’s sake, cover up a bit.

Girls, be thirteen for at least a year of life, preferably the year between twelve and fourteen. Develop a little self-respect. If you want men to like you for your mind, then spend a little time on that and not so much in front of the mirror. Because you will find that men who like you for your body will soon find another, and yours will stop being “thirteen” and become “thirty-five and three kids.”

And then what?

Moms, insist that your daughters act their age. And by that, I don’t mean telling them to grow up. I mean tell them to stop acting like they are twenty-five. And dads, be a dad. Tell the girls in your life what they can and cannot wear. You know how teenage boys think, because you used to be one, and probably still think like one at times. So help out. It’s what dads do.

And dads, insist your sons act their age. Teach them to be a man, sooner, not later. No young man will suffer irreparable harm because he scrounges up some spending money by raking yards or mowing grass rather than playing whatever the newest video game rage is. And missing the latest Fox cartoon will not send them to an asylum. Teaching them to wash dishes, sweep and vacuum, pick up clothes, and the like will not cause cancer, either for you or for them, though it may be painful for a while. And moms, with dad’s help, insist that your sons treat you like a lady, not a maidservant.

And dads, while I am here, I cannot think of any reason why your wife or your daughter needs to have something plastered across the back of her sweatpants or jeans. My guess is that you can’t either.

But you probably know exactly why it is there and exactly what young men (and old men) are thinking of when they try to read it … again and again and again.

Yes, legalistic I know. 

But a generation depends on it.

And we have already lost one.

It’s time to reclaim the next.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Why Paul?

Paul was an apostle who was “untimely born” (1 Corinthians 15:8). This means that he did not meet the only stated New Testament qualification for an apostle: One who has “accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us—beginning with the baptism of John until the day that He was taken up from us— one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection" (Acts 1:21-22).

The eleven disciples apparently had picked up along the way with Jesus this idea that a “witness to the resurrection” should have been there all along the way.

Paul was not.

Why did God choose Paul and thus make such an exception to the will of the eleven apostles gathered in the upper room?

Perhaps the answer is found in 1 Timothy 1 where Paul gives the briefest of biographies (something a number of testifiers could learn from). He says he was a blasphemer and a persecutor.

Yet he found mercy so “Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:16).

In other words, Paul’s salvation and subsequent ministry is a reminder to us all that God is not limited by our past, and Jesus is bigger than our past.

It is a reminder to us who have sinned (and who among us hasn’t).

It is also a reminder to us about those to whom God has called us to minister.

Let us not forget that if God saved Paul and used him to turn the world upside with the gospel, whoever you  are working with is not beyond the reach of that kind of mercy.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


James Edwards commenting on the story of James and John requesting places at the right hand and left hand of Jesus who remains in the middle, the central place:

The brothers hope to honor Jesus while honoring themselves. How easily worship and discipleship are blended with self-interest; or worse, self-interest is masked as worship and discipleship.*

We would do well to consider our own selves.

Selfish ambition, pride, and self-righteousness is so deceptive. We can easily think that we are worshipping Jesus when we are in fact blending in our self-interest, or masking our self-interest as worship and discipleship.


*James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, The Pillar New Testament commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos, 2002). 322.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Church Size Dynamics

I was recently reading this article by Tim Keller on “Leadership and Church Size Dynamics.”

There is a lot of good and helpful stuff in it, I think. And it helps us to think about some broader issues.

First, church size isn’t everything. It is something however. And a larger church is something to strive for because a larger church means the Great Commission is being carried out.

Remember, the Great Commission is not only preaching. It is making disciples. And it is going into all the world to make disciples of those who weren’t previously disciples, and so that means numerical increase.

That may not be true in every single locale. There may be places where disciple-making is particularly hard and disciples are few for a variety of reasons. But the goal is more followers of Jesus, and that means that numbers matter, at least to some degree.

There are two ends to this spectrum. Some pastors and churches chase after more people and more people and do whatever it takes to get them there. They become sinfully pragmatic. Other pastors and churches are content with what they have, and have lost their passion for evangelism. They become sinfully apathetic.

Keller talks about the fact that some people attach spirituality to their desired church size. It happens both for big churches (spiritual because they are really growing and reaching people) and small churches (spiritual because they are standing firm against the tides of compromise and people just won’t come for that because they don’t like truth).

(And then there’s the pesky medium sized churches who claim that a church over a certain size should be planting a new church rather than continuing to grow the present one.)

Some pastors believe that if there aren’t more and different people there this week than there were last week, they have failed. Other pastors believe that if there aren’t more and different people there this week than there were last week, it doesn’t matter. So long as there is someone there to give in the offering and listen to his preaching, things are fine.

I would challenge both pastors to consider their task, their definition of success, and their heart for people.

The first pastor, who always wants more, can be driven by the idol of the crowd rather than being driven by the heart of the individual. He may need to repent of seeing people for the sake of their part in the congregation and begin to see people as individuals.

The second pastor, who is content with the same, can be driven by the idol of stability rather than by a heart to reach hopeless sinners with the hope of Jesus. He may need to repent of his comfort zone and begin to see people as possible Christians, meaning someone in whom God might be working to bring them to faith in Christ.

It is true that people do prefer certain church sizes, and are not comfortable in other church sizes. Pastors are not excluded from that. The good news is that there is nothing wrong with that, unless church size becomes your idol.

As a church member, rather than chasing a church of a certain size, find a church that you can worship, learn, evangelize, and serve in. Forget the size; love the church.

As a pastor, develop a heart for the people who are not there, alongside of a heart for the people who are there. That won’t make you two-hearted. It should make you big-hearted.

If you are constantly measuring success by numbers, you should probably take stock of who you are really serving.

And if you never measure success by numbers, you should probably take stock of what you are doing.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Tragedy and Mercy

This past Sunday I took the opportunity to preach in light of the earthquake and tsunami that has devastated Japan.

I did this because (1) it is on people’s minds, (2) God said something about situations like this, and (3) I will be here this week to preach what I was going to preach last week.

I addressed the topic from Luke 13:1-9 where Jesus addresses two kinds of human tragedies. The first was brought to him by people apparently questioning how the Kingdom of God could be here if Pilate is killing worshipers in the act of worshiping. Does Jesus have an anything to say about that, they wonder?

Turns out he does.

And it’s pretty simple: “Do you think you are better than they are, simply because you were not one of them? Your main concern should not be the worshipers that were killed, but yourselves.”

You see, they want to question Jesus about the kingdom and justice. Jesus wants them to question themselves about their own state.

Jesus then raises another issue. This one is not some sort of religious genocide, but accidental tragedy. A building falls and kills eighteen people.

Again Jesus calls their attention to themselves.

In both of these cases, Jesus turns our attention, not to perceived injustice but to the condition of us all. He turns us not to sympathize with hurting families and destroyed communities, though that would certainly be an appropriate response to the plight of hurting images of God.

And this is difficult for some.

In the midst of tragedy we want a prophetic Jesus that cries out against injustice and disaster. We want Jesus to stand up and proclaim Pilate to be a terrible ruler, unjust and declare the innocence of the victims. We want Jesus to stand up and declare the accidental deaths to be the fault of someone somewhere who failed in their job.

And Jesus does that elsewhere.

But here Jesus does no such thing. He rather directs our attention back to ourselves.

For Jesus the question is not “Why” or “why them?” it is “Why not us?”

We are not better than the people in Japan, or Haiti, or China, or Cambodia, or Europe, or Jerusalem. Surviving is no evidence that we are okay. It may be merely evidence of God’s merciful opportunity for repentance.

The bigger point of the parable, the thrust of it, is that God has mercy on people who should have already repented. The continued existence of sinners, whether Jew or Gentile, is not evidence of God’s approval or acceptance of them. It is rather evidence of his mercy. He should have already cut them off for failing to bear fruit. But he waits.

“Repentance is not something you put on a list of things to do some day. Time is short. You are in the midst of a desperate effort to save your soul. Repent now, or perish now. God’s grace has given you another chance.”[1]


[1] Trent C. Butler, Luke, Holman New Testament Commentary; Holman Reference (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000). 221.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Does Hell Matter?

Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, hits the shelves this week. It is fairly widely regarded by those who have read it as some sort of denial of the traditional conception of hell as eternal conscious torment. Whether it is universalism, inclusivism, or some variant may be more hard to tell. Reviews are coming out from people like Tim Challies, Kevin DeYoung, and Ed Stetzer. Al Mohler is weighing in on the book and doctrine as well.

I doubt I will read the book. I have things to read that I am actually interested in, books about things that are actually controversial. Hell is not.

So here’s my take on the question of hell.

Hell matters because God matters. Hell is the only reasonable punishment for sin against God. If you doubt that, you either don’t understand God or don’t understand sin.

Hell matters because God says it exists, it is horrible, and it is eternal. If hell doesn’t exist, isn’t horrible, and isn’t eternal, then God lied. And that’s a pretty big deal.

Hell matters because Jesus says it exists, it is horrible, and it is eternal. If hell doesn’t exist, isn’t horrible, and isn’t eternal, then Jesus lied. And that’s a pretty big deal too.

Hell matters because Jesus died, and I doubt the love of a Father who kills his own Son to save people from something they were never in danger of anyway.

Hell matters because Scripture matters. If Scripture is wrong on the very important point of hell, what else might it be wrong on?

Hell matters because heaven matters. Hell and heaven are both said to be eternal. If hell isn’t actually eternal, and heaven is the same, then heaven isn’t actually eternal. This then leads us to some form of annihilationism, both for the just and the unjust.

Hell matters because the church matters. The church is an “assurance factory” for those who profess to follow Christ. If there is no hell to avoid, then there is no reason to seek the affirmation of the church as a guard against our own idolatries leading us into hell.

Hell matters because the resurrection matters. Jesus died as victor over death and hell. It is all useless and vain if there is not a real death and hell, not the kind of death when the body stops to function, but the kind of death that is eternal.

Hell matters because suffering matters. The Bible promises that those who seem to prosper now in the persecution and tormenting of Jesus’ followers will one day have a far greater torment that will be the just recompense of their unbelief. The hope of gospel-driven suffering is that the inflictors of suffering will one day have a far greater suffering that will be evidence of God’s righteous judgment.

Hell matters because justice matters. Scripture laments the fact that sometimes the righteous perish and the wicked prosper. If there is no hell, then this obvious injustice goes unaddressed. Hell serves as the eternal scales where injustice is repaired by bringing the just reward of sinners on their own head in a way that the society of humanity could never achieve.

Hell matters because preaching matters. The biblical basis for preaching is, at least in part, to warn people to flee from the wrath to come. Neither God, nor Jesus, nor the prophets, nor the apostles were so sophisticated as to pretend that hell was not real, not horrible, or not eternal. Neither should we.

Hell matters because hell matters.


Self-help appeals to the will of the people by challenging them to apply biblical principles without necessarily applying the gospel to their hearts. In self-helpism Christ as example is placed above Christ as Savior … Self-help preaching does not take the pervasiveness of sin seriously because it assumes that people want to obey and can obey, they just need to be told how to do it. Such preaching is not biblical because completely discounts the reality of human resistance to obeying God.

Self-help preaching many times makes the Bible character “like us.” We are David, and our problems are like Goliath, and so forth. A straight line is drawn directly from the character’s struggle or victory to us without connecting any of it to the person and work of Christ.

Thus, it produces consumeristic, shallow people because it does not bring them face-to-face with God.

— Darrin Patrick,Church Planter, p. 139.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Saturday Night Gospel

Here’s a message that should be challenging to all. I think it contains a good reminder of the gospel.

Some of you might not like it. You should listen anyway.

I hate to feel like I have to offer all kinds of disclaimers here, so I won’t (either hate it or offer it).

Love the gospel in it.

Feel free to want your goat if you wish.

But realize why some people aren’t listening to you.

Friday, March 04, 2011

This and That

From around the blogosphere:

For fun, here’s some dogma for you courtesy of Ed Stetzer and friends. Even if you don’t like Ed, you should find this funny.

Now on a serious note, Kevin DeYoung writes about liberal theology. What’s interesting to me is how familiar it sounds, not to those who know history but to those know who know the present. If you didn’t know the names and didn’t know that the title of the book from which he is quoting includes the dates “1805-1900” there is little to make you think he is writing about anything other than today. Surely the Preacher was right: There is nothing new under the sun.

C. Michael Patton writes about Rob Bell and expectations:

Frankly, when I heard that Bell might come out on the side of universalism, I thought to myself, “Oh, I thought we already knew that.” I don’t expect much these days from popular writers who don’t screen their thought through historic Christianity and contemporary Evangelical scholarship.

Time may reveal that some jumped the gun on Bell’s universalism, but there little’s doubt that Bell long ago left orthodoxy in some pretty major ways. (See DeYoung above.)

Louis Markos writes about cellphones:

I refer more broadly to the coarsening of manners and the increase in narcissism that heavy cell phone usage has both created and facilitated. …

If the offenders in these scenarios were to be called to account for their behavior, they would all offer the same basic excuse: they had to take the call; it was “urgent.” And therein lies the essential (spiritual) danger of the cell phone. We live in an age that has lost not only its moral compass but its right ordering of values. With each year, we grow less and less able to distinguish between that which is important and that which is trivial, between the lasting and the ephemeral, the vital and the frivolous, the sacred and the secular. …

But the measure for that now is neither ethical nor philosophical nor theological. It is, instead, personal, subjective, and egocentric. I want it now, and so I will have it now—even if it corrupts rather than nurtures, degrades rather than edifies.