Sunday, March 14, 2010

What God's Word Can Do

Texts: Isaiah 55:6-13; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 4:1-5

Good morning. It's day number 73 of the year of our Lord 2010. Do you know where your New Year's resolutions are?

Beginning of this year, I heard a lot about people resolving to read the Bible through by the end of next December. If you're one of them, I hope you're keeping to your plan.

There's one problem with Bible reading resolutions. It's how we can think of it as something meritorious we do-- or something guilt-inducing that we fail to do. Ever catch yourself falling into that trap? I have. That's the time to have a good laugh at ourselves. Boast about reading God's holy Word? We may as well brag about eating our dinners and enjoying them! God gave us food for the body to satisfy and nourish the physical man, and He gave us His God-breathed Scriptures to nourish and sustain our souls. They are His gift to us, and they come with virtue, strength, and power that proceed from His very throne. When we receive them with thanksgiving we see for ourselves what God's word can do.

Before anything else, He opens our hearts to receive the Scriptures as the Word of God. The sixteenth and seventeen verses of the third chapter of Paul's letter to Timothy read,

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

The Greek word New International Version translates as "God-breathed" is theopneustos. Other translations render it as "God-inspired." In the latest issue of Modern Reformation there's an article by Michael Allen, who teaches systematic theology at Knox Theological Seminary in Fort Lauderdale. Prof. Allen writes,

The Greek word theopneustos has been studied up and down, left and right. The image is that of God breathing out, a notion surely informed by the creation account when God breathed life into the dust and made man (Gen. 2:7). Just as God created by his word in Genesis, so God brings about the new creation by the proclamation of the gospel. To that end, God inspires or breathes out life into and through the writings of the apostles. The picture is not of texts, already written, now receiving blessing; rather, the notion is of texts produced by God's very breath.1

Since this is the case-- since all Scripture has been produced by God by the power of His Holy Spirit, it has divine power. Power to convict us sinners of our sin; power to apply the saving blood of Jesus Christ to our soul; power to give us new hearts and new minds and set us in the paths of eternal life through that same Jesus Christ. And once we belong to Him, all that is written in this book has power to teach, to rebuke, to correct, and to train us in righteousness, so, as verse 17 reads, "the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work."

Does this term "man of God" refer only to the preacher? True, in the Old Testament God's designated prophet is often called "the man of God." But we live in New Testament times, and we are people of the New Covenant. God Almighty has called us all to be people of God, called by His Spirit and washed in His Son's precious blood.

Nor does verse 17 refer only to men. Greek has one word for a male person, another for a female person, and a third for a human being in general. Paul's word in this text is the third one. Are you in Christ? Then God's power in the Holy Scriptures is for you, working His grace so every Christian will be equipped to do what is wise and loving and holy as we serve our neighbor in His name.

Nevertheless, God by His church does set some individuals aside for special office, to be pastors and teachers, elders and deacons, missionaries and evangelists. It is their particular job to make sure that you who belong to Christ are equipped to do every good work He has foreordained for you to perform.

It's a solemn and weighty charge. See how Paul challenges Timothy in the first verse of chapter four: "In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus." Even now, our Triune God is here, watching over and monitoring everything I say to you. It's my responsibility to preach not myself or my ideas, but the very oracles of God. Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel of Christ and Him crucified! Woe to any consecrated and ordained Christian minister who fails to proclaim the living Word Jesus Christ as proclaimed in the written word of the Scriptures! Woe to us now, and woe to us when Christ shall sit and judge heaven and earth. Paul invokes the holy name of "Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead," reminding us that we will all stand before Him and give an account, and especially we pastors and elders and teachers who were charged with properly handling His word. Friends, the last thing I want on my tombstone is "Here lies an original theologian." I want to preach the faith once and for all delivered to the saints, and if I ever get out of that path, I want my brothers and sisters in Christ to put me back into it.

For as Paul writes to Timothy, Christ will someday appear in the clouds-- maybe sooner than we think!-- and His kingdom will come perfectly and God will be worshipped as Lord over all. Even now, His kingdom is coming in power as faithful ministers and teachers boldly proclaim the God-breathed message of His word, which brings His new creation to life in formerly lost and rebellious souls. Shall we be excused if our preaching tears down the kingdom instead of building it up? No! We must use the Word rightly, and show the church and the world what it can do.

And so, says Paul, "Preach the Word." Proclaim Christ the living Word made flesh, crucified and risen for us. Yes, this command is addressed especially to us in the pulpit ministry. But all of us who bear Jesus' name must be prepared to explain the hope He has put in us. God gives us what we need to do that as His gracious gift: He gives us the Scriptures themselves to read and study. Faithful preaching to hear and imbibe. Bible commentaries written by godly scholars. Wise men and women in the church who understand the Word and can help us to understand as well.

And so God's word prepares us to proclaim it in season or out of season. Now, this phrase doesn't mean we should interrupt school or business or random conversations to exhort people to repent. But whenever the Holy Spirit moves in our hearts to tell someone what Jesus did on the cross to take away their sins, the Word makes us ready to obey, whether or not it's comfortable for us; whether or not the other person will receive the Gospel as good news.

Even so, the Holy Spirit in verse 2 addresses pastors and teachers in particular. The God-breathed Scripture "is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness," and that is our special charge as we minister among you. The Word corrects. It moves the Christian who is carelessly going astray back into the right road. May Toby and I and every other pastor correct according to the Word, not from our own human judgement. The Word rebukes. It confronts Christians with their wilful sins. It puts the lie to false doctrine. It snatches the rebellious from the fires of Hell. May we pastors rebuke according to the Word, not out of our prejudices and fears. The Word encourages. It doesn't despise the day of small beginnings. It binds up the wounds of the brokenhearted and nourishes the weak and the young. May we pastors encourage according to the Word, with the power and grace of Jesus Christ, not with the sloppy sentimentalism of this sinful world.

When we pastors faithfully preach the Word in season and out of season, it infuses you, Christ's body, with power to stand strong against the lies of the world and the wiles of the devil. It gives you backbone and mettle and a sure sword hand against anything that would tear you away from your salvation in Jesus Christ. The Scriptures faithfully preached give you Jesus Christ Himself, living in you by the power of His Holy Spirit, fighting and winning the good fight of God, regardless of who or what comes against you.

We pastors must show you clearly what God's word can do, for the time is short. Paul writes in verse 3, "For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine." I'm afraid this isn't just about the unbelievers Out There; it's also a warning about people inside the church.
We see it happening today, all around us. People aren't naturally interested in hearing the Word of God. The Scriptures hurt before they heal and kill before they make alive. The good news of Jesus Christ is not really good unless first we've heard and received the bad news of the Law. Sinful human hearts doesn't want to submit to that. We didn't want to submit to that, until the Word of God worked in our hearts to recreate us according to the image of Christ.

And so, in churches all over the world, men and women are flocking to preachers who will tell them what their itching ears want to hear. Pastor, give me a great "worship experience," but don't waste my time with preaching! Tell me how to get rich or how to have a better marriage, but don't say anything about the Cross! Convince me it's okay to say I'm a Zen Buddhist and a Christian at the same time, but don't claim that Jesus is the only way to God! Keep my church small and comfortable and family-like, but don't disrupt us with talk about the power of the gospel for the world! Tickle my ears with how I can feel good about myself by doing good deeds, but don't fence me in with your narrow-minded Christ-centered, cross-focussed, Law-and-Gospel doctrine!

In all these ways and more the people of our time turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. Any idea or belief that human beings make up to explain how things got the way they are and how they should be is a myth, and it's all a lie against the truth of the Word of God. And heaven help us, many formerly-faithful pastors are wavering in their convictions. Some of us are wondering if maybe it might be okay to let in a little-- just a little-- of these myths-- just to get people and their itching ears through the door-- and once they're comfortable in the pews, we'll hit them with the real Jesus. Don't we understand how false that is? Don't we realize that the only way to grow God's church is by laying the foundation of Jesus Christ dead and raised again according to the Scriptures? How can we be so weak as to doubt what God's word can do?

In our text you can feel Paul's concern to keep Timothy out of that trap. In 1 Timothy we learn of the false doctrines and false practices this young pastor was up against in his church in Ephesus. Both men and women were claiming all sorts of false things about Jesus Christ, or denying Him altogether. How easy simply to give in, to mix in a little of this and a little of that, just to keep the peace and attract more members. No, Timothy! No, Paul says to all of us pastors who hold to the reformed and evangelical Christian faith! "Keep your head in all situations!" The power of the word will keep us from being swayed by the temptations of the world. "Endure hardship!" Remaining faithful to Christ and His self-revelation in Scripture will bring us hardship, as pastors and as churches. Membership may well go down. People will call us bigots and fools, and some of those accusers will be fellow-members. "Do the work of an evangelist." There is to be no barricading ourselves behind the church doors and letting the world literally go to hell. Even against hardship and calamity God's Spirit strengthens us to go boldly into the world bearing the good news of Jesus Christ as witnessed in the Holy Scriptures! And finally, "discharge all the duties of your ministry." Every one of us has a ministry to our neighbor to carry out in Jesus' name. Everyone of us is responsible for feeding ourselves on the Scriptures and showing in the world what they can do.

We pastors have special duties, and the first of them is to open to you this book, the Bible, trusting that the Holy Spirit will work in your hearts and reveal to you God's power. If we fail to preach the Word, we have nothing to give you. Without God breathing His power into our lives through the Scriptures, we can bring only worldly hope and human wisdom.

But God has given us His holy Word, and as Isaiah the prophet says,

It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

To read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Scriptures is certainly our duty. A duty, the same way it's our duty to sit down and thoroughly enjoy a generous, appetizing, and nourishing meal spread out for us by the Father who loves us most. Sit and eat, Christian friends. Learn firsthand what this book can do in you. And so, by patience, and comfort of His holy Word, may you embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life. Amen.

1. Allen, Michael: "Getting Inspiration from Inspiration," Modern Reformation, Vol. 19, No. 2, March/April 2010, p.19

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