We see several instances in the New Testament where Jesus encountered demon-possessed individuals. In a few of those situations, the demon would announce clearly who Jesus was:
Like the demons, we can know certain things and articulate them on an intellectual basis, but sometimes we are willing to ignore their implications in day-to-day life. For example, everyone who reads this will readily agree, “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We will all quickly affirm, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Yet in our day-to-day interactions with others, our culture assumes that mankind is inherently good.
If you still aren’t convinced, stop and read or listen to any news report on a current tragic event: a murder, robbery, arson, terrorist act, etc. The first question the article will usually address is related to the perpetrator’s motives or reasons: “What happened to make that individual do what they did?” The assumption is that a “normal human being” would not do such a thing. We believe that some tragic or unjust experience in their life drove them to do what they did. Then the reporter who is seeking answers to the “Why” question will interview family members and neighbors. Usually, the response from the family member, co-worker, neighbor, or anyone who knew them is, “I can’t believe they did it. That just doesn’t sound like them.”
We don’t want to believe that a “normal human being” could do such a thing, because if we accepted that fact, then we would have to admit that we too are capable of such a heinous act. In the heat of the moment, we forget that we are all sinners by nature and when left alone we can, and do choose poorly. Genesis 6:5 reads, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” John tells us that the God-Man Jesus also knew what mankind was capable of doing: “Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name when they saw the signs which He did. But Jesus did not commit Himself to them, because He knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man” (John 2:23-25). The power of the Gospel is that we who are inherently evil and self-centered can be radically transformed. When we act as if our basic nature is good, we are denying that there is a need for the “good news.”
When we believe that some tragic or unjust experience in an individual’s life drove them to do the unthinkable, we are giving ourselves permission to provide similar excuses for our own bad behavior. Yes, it is absolutely true that some people are “born with a silver spoon in their mouth” while others experience adversities beyond comprehension. It is also true that we all have our own family stories and the unique challenges that came with them. I was blessed by growing up in a “Mayberry” type small town in Wyoming, in a two-parent family. My father had a stable blue-collar job, and our community’s diversity meant the town had people from a variety of European countries. That means my life experiences and challenges are radically different than those of my friend Ralph Lassiter who just moved to a Pastor Emeritus role at Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church. He is of African American ancestry and the son of a bi-vocational pastor who grew up in segregated Mississippi. But neither of us can relate to the challenges our fellow pastor and friend James Gwek has faced. He grew up in war torn Sudan and lived in a refugee camp in Ethiopia before immigrating to Omaha. Every one of us has a unique story full of challenges, adversities, obstacles, tragedies, injustices, etc. Those experiences have uniquely shaped us and made us either bitter or better.
But no matter what they were, Paul (who gave us his own list of adversities in II Corinthians 11:16-33) tells us, “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it” (I Corinthians 10:12-13).
The power of the Gospel is that we who have experienced unimaginably tragic life experiences can be lifted out “of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire.” God will set our feet on solid ground and steady us as we walk along (Psalm 40:2). When we let go of our excuses for why life has caused us to be who we are, we open ourselves up to an opportunity to hear the “good news.” Paul reminds us in Romans 8:28 that God’s desire is that adversity will make us better: “We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).
Make sure your theology is daily making the journey from your head to your heart. Don’t act like the world and ignore the daily applications of the Word. We are ALL sinners, capable of incomprehensible evil, and completely unable to extract ourselves from the mess we have created. But there is no one whose mess is beyond the grace and transforming power of the Gospel.
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
Most of us are familiar with the story (some call it is an urban myth and say it is without any scientific proof) that a frog placed in water with a temperature that suits it, will stay in the kettle even if the temperature is very gradually raised past the point where it can survive. Even if it’s not scientifically correct, let me suggest that the principle “slow changes over a long period of time can get us into a situation where we cannot survive” can be observed among humans.
I want to step back into my discussion of our culture and the challenges we are facing that didn’t exist or were not as prevalent, seventy years ago. In general, I want to address the reality that only a small percentage of professing evangelical Christians today have a Biblical World View—and that includes people in your church. If you think this factoid is an urban myth, let me suggest you google research by Barna and Gallup on how many professing Christians have a Biblical Worldview. If you think it’s not true of people in your church, then let me suggest you do a quick survey some Sunday morning—text or e-mail me and I will send you the basic questions from the researchers.
But let me return to the Frog in the Kettle story for just a few minutes. I’m sure you recall from grade school science that a frog is classified as an amphibian. In case you forgot the formal definition, it is “any of a class (Amphibia) of cold-blooded vertebrates (such as frogs, toads, or salamanders) that share characteristics of both fish and reptiles: they have gilled aquatic larvae and are transformed into air-breathing adults.” All of us have seen pictures of tadpoles (the gilled aquatic larvae form of a frog) and a few of us have seen them in nature. All of us have seen a frog, toad, or salamander at one time or another hopping along and breathing air. Seen separately and without the knowledge of the process of metamorphosis, none of us would be easily convinced that they are the same species.
How many of you know that the word metamorphosis can be found four times in the Bible—and it’s not used to describe the life cycle of a frog, toad, or salamander? Twice it is used to describe the visible changes that took place in Jesus’ body on the Mount of Transfiguration: Matthew 17:2 and Mark 9:2. In both cases, most translations have chosen the English word “transfigured” to translate the original Greek word—the same Greek word that science transliterates (fancy word for spelling a word from one language in another language so it sounds the same) as metamorphosis. Peter, James, and John were awed by what they saw and heard. When was the last time you were awed by the changes that God’s grace and forgiveness had generated in the life of an individual?
The Apostle Paul uses the Greek word in two of his letters: once to the church in Corinth (II Corinthians 3:18) and once in his letter to the church in Rome (Romans 12:2). In his letter to Corinth, Paul is contrasting the radiant glory that over time faded from Moses’ face that had appeared when he had been in the presence of God on Mt. Sinai with the ever-growing radiance that will be a natural part of a true believers life in Christ: “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed (metamorphosed) into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.”
In Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, the Greek word metamorphosis is used as he transitions from the theological section of his letter to the practical application section. He writes, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed (metamorphosed) by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” In both passages, Paul is painting a picture of what the norm should be for the life of a professing Christian.
Too many churches and professing Christians of our generation have lowered the bar on what is expected from the life of a professing Christian. The subtle changes that have taken place since the last great awakening in America have been caused by multiple issues, but let me address one today. It showed up in my morning Bible reading this week. Jesus stated:
Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits, you will know them.
What I would suggest is that we have moved away from the Biblical obedience-based discipleship model of what it means to be a Christian, to a knowledge-based definition. Some knowledge is needed, but if the knowledge you are gaining doesn’t lead to changes in your life (dare I say transformations in your life) that actually make you look more like Jesus, then I’ll be bold enough to say you will end up hearing from Jesus, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!”
Do not hear me say something I am not saying. I absolutely affirm the security of the believer—once saved always saved. However, genuinely saved individuals will always be in the process of being transformed (metamorphosed). To what extent have you bought into our culture’s assumption that “if you know, then you will do?” What have you learned lately from the Bible, or a maturing disciple of Christ, that radically changed what you thought (“by the renewing of your mind”) AND is radically changing how you act?
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
As we embark on a new year, I will close my series on the carols of the first Christmas with a look at Simeon’s Song. Here is the song and the setting as recorded in Luke 2:25-32:
"And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon, and this man was just and devout, waiting for the Consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. So he came by the Spirit into the temple. And when the parents brought in the Child Jesus, to do for Him according to the custom of the law, he took Him up in his arms and blessed God and said:
We know what happened in 2021 and we can speculate about what 2022 will hold. While we ponder the future, let me encourage all of us to emulate Simeon as he focused on the One who holds in His hands the future of all humanity. Be it resolved, that in the New Year I will seek to live like Simeon lived. Seeking to be…
Through the lives of many godly men and women we can learn great life principles. Our ultimate goal should be to be able to say to others what the Apostle Paul said, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ!” (I Corinthians 11:1)
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
The final two songs that were sung at the first Christmas are the songs of Mary and Simeon. The former is the most well-known of the four first Christmas Carols and is also called Mary’s Magnificant by scholars. I laid out the context of her song in last week’s article. Here are her words:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
Mary’s opening two lines tell us that Elizabeth’s response at her arrival both confirmed and relieved her. The appearance and prophecy she had seen and heard from the angel Gabriel was not a bad dream, but a genuine encounter with the living God. It’s always nice when others validate our experiences. The challenge we face in our current culture is that too often we only listen to those who agree with us, ignoring and dismissing the valid points that others are making on a given topic. And you know I’m not talking about theology but politics. We easily get the two mixed up.
The next three lines reveal that Mary was able to see her immediate circumstances (pregnant prior to the consummation of her marriage to Joseph) in light of the long-term blessings the baby she was now carrying would bring to the whole world. Because we live under the constraints of time, gaining a historical or eternal perspective is difficult. The fact that we live in a culture that magnifies immediate gratification makes it even harder. Knowing that her situation would primarily bring contempt from her generation, she could declare that all future generations would call her blessed because she also knew that God is mighty, holy, and merciful. Thus, Mary had the strength to accept her plight.
Paul challenges us to have that same perspective on life: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). The Christmas—New Year season is a time for reflection and a time to make resolutions. Prayerful reflection with the counsel of spiritually mature friends and family can help us differentiate the circumstances we can change from the changes we need to make in our hearts, minds, and daily actions. Most of the time we complain about things we cannot change and are resistant to address the things we need to change. Resolve that 2022 will be the year that your resolutions focus on spiritual transformation not just your need for a healthier diet and more exercise. Again, Paul has some words of wisdom: “For bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come” (I Timothy 4:8).
The songs of the first Christmas shattered the four-hundred years of prophetic silence that spanned the time between Malachi and Matthew. During that period, Israel fell under the authority and influence of the Greek Empire. Then the temple was desecrated by Antiochus IV Epiphanes when he sacrificed a pig on the altar. This ignited the Maccabean Revolt. Although they were significantly outnumbered, the Jewish forces won, the temple was cleansed and rededicated, and a brief period of Jewish freedom ensued. The temple’s rededication serves as the basis for the Jewish Celebration of Hanukkah. But the period of freedom lasted only 100 years at which time the Romans assumed authority.
So when the second half of Mary’s song expresses five different ways that “He [God] has” blessed His people, she had to be referring to the long-term historical work of God beginning with Abraham. Now keep in mind, Abraham lived almost 2000 years before Mary. In the midst of living in a subservient nation and living an impoverished subsistence lifestyle, Mary could praise God for His righteous and just actions.
Contrast Mary’s circumstances and attitude with many of us. Although we live in freedom and affluence, we have become hyper-sensitive and easily offended. A rhyme I learned as a child was “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” Today we aggressively attack others for something they said—or something they might have said—or we listen to someone who took out of context what they thought someone else said—or we define a word differently than someone else does, so we make what they were saying, say what they didn’t say—or…
As we approach the close of 2021, maybe we should stop and praise God for all He has done. Instead of regularly lashing out at someone for something they may or may not have said—or done, maybe we should let His righteousness and justice take care of more issues in our life. Maybe we should sing out like Mary did:
God has shown strength with His arm;
I pray that you will close 2021 with songs of praise for all He has and is doing in your life, and you will begin 2022 by singing songs of deep commitment to becoming more of who He has designed you to be.
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
In recent weeks we have been taking a musical interlude to look at the four carols sung at the first Christmas. But before we look at the last two, I want to remind us of the story behind the songs. It helps us to hear the story of how a song-writer came to write a hymn or chorus to better understand the author’s emotions. The Gospels don’t give us a clear time-line for the sequence of all the events recorded by Luke and Matthew, but let me suggest the following:
As I did a quick review of the events leading up to the first Christmas, did you notice how many people and how many unique events God orchestrated to make it possible? Before I point us to the last two of the first Christmas carols, let me encourage you to pause and reflect on all that God has done to bring you to this once-in-a-lifetime Christmas of 2021. Too often, we take for granted God’s sovereign work throughout history and particularly in our own lives. At other times, we are oblivious to His handiwork as we forge our own path. Take time to review what God has done this year alone to guide and direct you along the path He designed for you at the foundation of the earth.
If you are a typical human being, you will have to admit that we all learn more about God when we are walking through the valleys of life than we do when we are enjoying the view from the mountain-tops. Review the list of events above and note how many of them were positive versus how many described difficult circumstances.
The Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose (Romans 8:26-28)
What God, through His indwelling Holy Spirit and because of my acceptance by faith in the gift of God through Jesus Christ’s atoning death, did for Paul and has done for me is, or can be, true of your life as well. This Christmas season, take time to reflect upon all God has and is doing in your life, and then either receive or renew the peace that surpasses all understanding that is made available to you through the Gift that God sent to us that first Christmas.
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
Last week we looked at the shortest of the four carols sung at the first Christmas. Today, I want us to look at the longest: the Song of Zacharias. Not able to speak for nine months Zacharias had a few things to say—he was truly suffering from undelivered speech. Luke tells us:
Now his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying:
A. T. Robertson noted that nearly every phrase of Zacharias’ Song can be found in the Old Testament—in either the Psalms or one of the Prophets. Zacharias’ forced silence had provided him with a lot of time to reflect on the Word of God and to spend time in prayer (Luke 1:8-22). We can assume that he felt significant guilt for doubting the angel’s declaration. To make matters worse, we can also assume that those around him were not always silent about their assumption that his inability to speak was a judgment from God for some unspecified sin he committed when he was given the opportunity to minister in the temple. He also had to be concerned about the health of his wife who was carrying a child well beyond her childbearing years. Zacharias had a lot to ponder and nine months filled with sleepless nights in which to do it.
And as God alone can do, in the fullness of time, He erased all of the negative emotions and thoughts. Zacharias’ grief and pain were washed away in a flash flood of joy at the birth of a promised son and by the sudden return of his voice. Zacharias burst forth in song. His song naturally divides itself into two verses and a short chorus:
In verse 1, he speaks of the imminent coming of the long ago promised Messiah (68-73)
In this season when we celebrate His first coming, we also wait expectantly for His second coming—both were prophesied long ago. But our time of waiting is not to be spent pursuing our own agendas—I mentioned that in a recent article on Avoiding Distractions (11/16 and reprinted in the December HCN Newsletter).
Christmas is a time of mixed emotions as our joy and sorrow become mingled as we reflect upon family and friends who are no longer with us. We are reminded of past seasons of our life when words were hard to come by because the challenges or tragedies of life had become overwhelming—kind of like Zacharias did for nine months. When I have had those seasons, I have found comfort, and when needed, correction in the Word of God. My prayer life is deepened and my dependence on God is magnified. The more yielded to God that I become the more I find myself experiencing what Zacharias did. His chorus reflects the heart of a deeply committed servant of God—a fearless (bold) desire to seek a holy and righteous life.
We should note that God used an already yielded couple when He chose Zacharias and Elizabeth as the parents of the Messenger—John the Baptist:
There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah. His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years.
We should also understand that God didn’t ask Zacharias to be the Messenger, but the father of the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah. And He didn’t choose Elizabeth to be the mother of the Messiah, but her cousin Mary. God calls and equips every believer to serve in a unique way in His Kingdom.
This Christmas, in the midst of all the shopping, eating, traveling, gatherings with family and friends, and, for those of you who are pastors, sermon preparations make time for a personal interlude. Stop and reflect in-depth on how God has preserved and prepared you through these last few years of cultural chaos to uniquely serve Him. My prayer is that you too will find yourself suffering from undelivered speech and incapable of not proclaiming the Gospel with renewed boldness and compassion from the brokenness of a humble servant’s heart.
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
Last week I introduced a five-part Musical Interlude that will take us through the Christmas/New Year seasons. Each week, we will look at one of the four Christmas carols sung at the very first Christmas: Mary’s Magnificant (Luke 1:4-55), the Song of Zacharias (Luke 1:68-79), Simeon’s Song (Luke 2:29-35), and the Angel’s Song (Luke 2:13-14).
This week I will begin with the shortest of them—The Angel’s Song
In the same region, shepherds were staying out in the fields and keeping watch at night over their flock. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Don’t be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: Today in the city of David a Savior was born for you, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be the sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped tightly in cloth and lying in a manger.” Suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:
This passage was the focus of James Tyler’s message Sunday morning as Phyllis and I had the opportunity to worship with Springfield Baptist Church. James is serving as their supply pastor. He reminded us that the promised “Messiah, the Lord” was, in reality, God Who “emptied Himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when He had come as a man, He humbled Himself” (Philippians 2:7-8a). What an example of servanthood! Jesus modeled it throughout His earthy ministry. One of the more familiar demonstrations of that humble servant heart was when He took a towel and basin and washed His disciples’ feet (John 13:1-20). The ultimate example happened a few hours later when He was willing to stay on the cross to the point of death; thus, providing the sole sufficient blood sacrifice that can atone for our sin.
However, James spent most of his message talking about the shepherds and how they were viewed in the New Testament era. Most of us have a childlike picture of men and boys carrying a shepherd’s staff standing next to a few sheep in a live nativity scene. In reality, they were involved in a livelihood that made them ceremonially unclean—they could not participate in religious services. What’s more, first-century shepherds were generally the type of men who would not have been interested in being involved in anything related to religion. That is with one major exception: making money off of religious activities wouldn’t have bothered them. Some Bible scholars suggest that the shepherds near Bethlehem would have raised sheep and goats that were sold in the temple marketplace.
Because of the census, the Bethlehem shepherds were forced to watch their flocks by night in the open field, thus making livestock shelters temporary housing for the overflowing crowd. Could it have even been possible that the reason these particular Bethlehem shepherds were able to quickly find the baby Jesus was because He laid in one of the mangers they regularly used to feed their sheep?
What kind of a God would humble Himself in such a manner and then make the first announcement in a grand and glorious way to a group of cultural outcasts? Why didn’t He send the Angels to the High Priest’s house? Why not make a grand announcement on the temple mount? No religious leader would have dreamed that shepherds would be the first to know that the Messiah had been born. Luke records that the shepherds “reported the message they were told about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.” But their story was obviously not seen as credible. Proof of that reality is seen in the fact that when the Magi came to Herod’s palace looking for the newborn king, no one from Herod’s court nor any of the religious leaders who told him that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem even bothered to go with them on the short journey between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Could it be that God wanted the lowliest of the low among us to know that they too are worthy of God’s love and forgiveness? No matter who you are, what you’ve done, or where you live on earth, the Angel’s short chorus is for you:
Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to people He favors!
And as is true of today’s choruses, it is worthy of being repeated over and over. God obviously favors the humble and lowly of heart. A constant accusation that was made against Jesus was that “All the tax collectors and sinners were approaching to listen to him. And the Pharisees and scribes were complaining, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (Luke 15:1-2). The balance of Luke 15 records three parables which all speak to God’s efforts to seek and to save that which is lost: Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, and Lost Sons.
If you are one of the humble and lowly who has accepted God’s gracious gift of salvation, then you too can live daily with the boldness of Paul. He experienced salvation and encouragement from God and could boldly declare:
"I give thanks to Christ Jesus our Lord who has strengthened me, because he considered me faithful, appointing me to the ministry—even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an arrogant man. But I received mercy because I acted out of ignorance in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. This saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them. But I received mercy for this reason, so that in me, the worst of them, Christ Jesus might demonstrate his extraordinary patience as an example to those who would believe in him for eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen." (I Timothy 1:12-17)
True believers have the indwelling Holy Spirit, who comes upon us at salvation. To live in constant doubt and fear is to deny the power of our salvation. This Christmas let your voice sing loud of the One who came and died for your sins so that you can boldly cry out “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them.”
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
Last week I injected a Thanksgiving break in the series I have been doing on some of the major cultural challenges we are facing. For the next couple of weeks, as we move through the sometimes hectic pace of the Christmas season, I will be doing a musical interlude, but don’t worry, you won’t have to listen to me sing.
Recently I had a friend tell me about a guy who had attended their church. He grew up in this area, but had zero church background. After services, the guy commented on how surprised he was that singing was part of a church service. Another friend shared how impactful music was in a Buddhist family they knew coming to faith in Christ. He also shared about an Iranian couple that he and his wife have befriended, and who have started coming to church with them. Last Sunday the service was what you might call an old-fashioned hymn-fest. After the services, the husband commented on how meaningful the service was to him.
Music plays an instrumental part in the worship service for both Christians and Jews. In fact, one of the longest books in the Bible, Psalms, is actually a collection of songs that served as the church’s hymnbook for centuries. As Phyllis and I have the privilege of worshipping with the ethnically and culturally diverse churches that constitute the Heartland Church Network, we have found that the style of music varies significantly from church to church. We have also been around long enough to observe the seismic shifts that have taken place in established churches. The latter at times has been referred to as “The Worship Wars!”
I hope you noticed that I used the phrase “music plays an instrumental part of the worship service”--I didn’t say music was the worship service. I must confess that I cringe inside when I hear someone refer to the music portion of a service as “the time of worship.” What we say and how we say things from the pulpit makes a huge difference. The music portion is a significant part, but it is not the only aspect of a well-constructed worship service.
As much of the reformation movement continued its pendulum swing away from what had become a dry, liturgical service over the past 500 years, some would say it has devolved instead of evolved. One of the most obvious shifts has been from a weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper as a sacrament to the symbolic observance of it on a monthly, quarterly, or on an occasional basis. I served as interim pastor of a church that hadn’t observed the Lord’s Supper in a couple of years—probably a little too long between doing “this in remembrance of Me.”
Another obvious shift in worship was away from the liturgical use of the Lord’s Prayer along with other written prayers during each service to more “Spirit-led” spontaneous prayers. A recent shift away from having a formal offering time (worship through giving) began during the seeker-sensitive movement. That trend was solidified under COVID restrictions as many churches no longer include it as part of their corporate worship experience.
Changes in the sermon time and content have also occurred. Two biggies have been the shift away from the use of a Lectionary and the length of the message. My guess is that if you asked your congregation this Sunday what a Lectionary was that only a few folks with a Catholic or Lutheran background could even answer your question. Pastors tend to do either topical sermon series, or they will preach through a book of the Bible. Some do a combination of the two. The idea of preaching annually through the historic church calendar with special sermon emphases during Lent and Advent is not common. We would call the latter two an Easter or Christmas series—although more and more churches have returned to the historic Advent Candle.
The length of the message continues to shift. During the seeker-sensitive era, some pastors moved to a shorter time. With a resurgence of reformed theology in Baptist life, the length of sermons is getting longer, and in some churches longer and longer and longer. I would remind pastors who tend towards the latter of two things - the mind will absorb only as much as the seat can endure. Second, there are only a handful of preachers who can keep people’s attention long enough to do an hour-long message—and you are probably not one of them.
As someone who has the privilege of seeing the diversity in how Baptists worship, I would suggest that many of our churches would benefit from an in-depth study of the theology of worship by its pastor(s) and church leaders: What elements need to be included and why? Once the leadership team has wrestled with the topic, a good sermon series on the elements of Biblical worship would be in order. But let me get us back to my primary topic after a typical Mark Elliott rabbit chase.
The first recorded song in scripture is called the Song of Moses (Exodus 15:2-18). It begins with the words, “I will sing to the Lord for He has triumphed gloriously!” It is written in a style we often see in Psalms and in hymns. Then Moses concludes with the words, “The Lord shall reign forever and ever.” These are words that reverberate in the mind of all of us who have heard Handel’s Messiah:
Hallelujah! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth. The Kingdom of this world is become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ: and He shall reign for ever and ever. King of kings, Lord of lords. Forever, forever, forever…
The second song recorded in scripture is called the Song of Miriam (Exodus 15:21). Interestingly enough it is written more in the style of a modern-day chorus:
“Sing to the Lord, for He is highly exalted. Both horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.”
Between now and the end of the year, I want us to take a look at the first four Christmas carols: Mary’s Magnificant (Luke 1:4-55), the Song of Zacharias (Luke 1:68-79), Simeon’s Song (Luke 2:29-35), and the Angel’s Song (Luke 2:13-14).
Until then, my prayer is that Christmas season 2021 will see you singing the praises of our awesome and incomprehensible God!
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi is filled with words of warmth and appreciation for them—kind of a thanksgiving letter: “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now” (Philippians 1:3-4).
Most scholars agree that it was his favorite church. The church was the result of a night vision that Paul received from God. In the vision he heard a man from Macedonia pleading with him to “come over to Macedonia and help us.’” Luke tells us that “after he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go to Macedonia, concluding that the Lord had called us to preach the gospel to them” (Acts 16:9-10).
When they arrived at Philippi, Acts 16 records three personal encounters that spanned the socio-economic and spiritual spectrum. They met Lydia who was a seller of purple and one who already worshipped God. They met a demonically possessed slave girl who harassed them for several days. Paul finally had enough, and one day he turned and said to the spirit within her, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” The slave owners who had been enriched by the knowledge the demon was willing to share, brought Paul and Silas before the local magistrates who beat them and threw them in jail.
The third encounter was with their jailor and his family. Luke describes it this way:
At midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were loosed. And the keeper of the prison, awaking from sleep and seeing the prison doors open, supposing the prisoners had fled, drew his sword and was about to kill himself. But Paul called with a loud voice, saying, “Do yourself no harm, for we are all here.”
God permitted Paul and his missionary team to experience His power and grace as He started a church in Philippi. And in later years, Paul paused to send a thank you note to them remembering how his own faithful obedience to God’s call was used by God to create a grateful and giving church. As I pause this Thanksgiving Season to thank God for permitting me to be involved in church planting and church strengthening, this story of how a church got started in Philippi reminded me of how God started a Baptist church in Kingsley, Iowa. At that time, I was serving as DoM/Church Starter Strategist in western Iowa serving two small Baptist associations through the significant help of our Home Mission Board.
The little town of Kingsley was not on my radar—that is until God shined a spotlight on it. I had three separate conversations with three different people in a period of less than a month in which the town of Kingsley was the focus. I can be slow and a bit dense at times, but I got the message!
One of those conversations was with a deacon of an SBC church in Sioux City, Les Stevens, who felt like God wanted him to be involved in planting a church in Kingsley. Pastor Leo Endel affirmed the church’s willingness to sponsor the new work, and the first “outreach” effort was to prayer walk the entire community. God put together a core of believers who began to worship in the school. God also provided a partnership network of churches from ten southern Mississippi associations in a manner that revealed Kingsley had been on God’s heart for some time.
The only other evangelical church in the community had struggled for years, and it was only after the fact that we discovered that they had actually closed the week before the new church plant had its first worship service in Kingsley—God’s timing is always perfect. One Wednesday night we had the opportunity to tour their now empty church building with the possibility of purchasing it. The next morning, a deacon from one of the southern Mississippi churches called and asked if there might be a need for funds to purchase property or a building for a new church plant. Not long after that, a check was received from Perkinston Baptist Church, Perkinston, MS which more than paid for land to build a new building.
It wasn’t long before volunteers and resources were pouring in and a new building was constructed. At the church’s tenth anniversary, the building was debt-free, and they had called a pastor who grew up in the community. Thank You Lord for the Privilege of Serving You!
We have all come through a very difficult season filled with challenges and change, but let me encourage you to take a few minutes and reflect on how the God of the universe continues to invite you to join Him in His work. Paul thanked God when he wrote a letter to a beloved church in Philippi. I thank God for inviting me to be a very small part of the Kingsley story I just shared. In fact, my mind is flooded with additional thoughts of all the other things He did to make New Life Baptist Church in Kingsley a reality that time and space do not permit me to share.
Let me simply say, God’s willingness to use a broken vessel like me in the past as He was producing fruit for the Kingdom, gives me hope that He will use me today as well. As I close this article, I encourage you to take time to fill in the following blank: Thank You Lord for the Privilege of Serving You when You ____________________! A thankful heart is a field in which God can plant new opportunities to serve Him.
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
I have mentioned some of the unique cultural challenges that are deeply impacting American Christianity today: emotionally-driven decisions, information overload, sensory overload, and our accelerated pace of life. Today I want us to look at an issue that has been common to humanity since creation itself: our desire to know all that God knows. When we are seeking to know what only God can know, we will not be doing what God has clearly told us we should be doing.
Because I don’t have time and space to start in Genesis and work my way through the Bible, permit me to cherry-pick two very familiar incidents in the life of Jesus that I believe will make my point. Ultimately, my goal is to reveal how far off the mark we have gotten as it relates to having a true Biblical Worldview. We are often focusing on the wrong things, majoring in the minor things, and becoming distracted by the little things that interest us.
The Olivet Discourse encompasses three passages of scripture: Matthew 24:1-25:46, Mark 13:1-37, and Luke 21:5-36. Each opens with Jesus’ statement that a day will come when not one stone of the temple shall be left upon another. And in each passage, the disciples quickly respond with the question, “When will this happen and what signs can we expect to see prior to it happening?” Keep in mind that they had been walking daily with Jesus for three years, and had heard him repeatedly challenge them to be holy, set-apart men who were truly different in a desirable way. Immediately preceding the Olivet Discourse, Matthew records Jesus’ denunciation of the religious elite with a series of woes, because they taught one thing and lived another. His disciples had also heard Him say, “This generation is a wicked generation; [because] it seeks for a sign, and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah” (Luke 11:29).
As we read the Olivet passages we find that Jesus weaves the more immediate fulfillment of the destruction of the temple that occurred in 70 AD with His second coming which is still yet to happen. We also see a strong and repeated encouragement for the disciples to guard their hearts and to not become discouraged.
As Jesus wraps up His discourse, as recorded in Matthew, He tells them to always be prepared by being obedient to all that He had been teaching them, because the consequences of disbelief, disobedience, and distraction are severe.
"Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.
The same strong exhortations are recorded by both Mark and Luke:
“Watch therefore, for you do not know when the master of the house is coming—in the evening, at midnight, at the crowing of the rooster, or in the morning—lest, coming suddenly, he find you sleeping” (Mark 13:35-36).
Having heard Jesus tell them to focus on being an obedient disciple instead of worrying about when and how He will return, it should be instructive to us that they repeated the process a few months later. If it happened to them, it can and will happen to us. Just prior to Jesus’ ascension Luke tells us:
"Then they gathered around Him and asked Him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
I must admit that my pragmatic nature kicks in when I hear Jesus repeatedly states that knowing the time of His return is not something we can know. Instead, He repeatedly told His disciples to focus on knowing and obeying God’s commands. With that in mind, I have summarized the book of Revelation and eschatology into one very short statement and two short questions: God wins! Are you on His side? If so, are you helping others find out how to get on His side?
Ultimately, our focus should be on the things that interest God and not what interests us. There are plenty of difficult and obscure Biblical passages that can distract us. And there are plenty of Biblical Doctrines that we seek to rationally explain that we are asked to simply accept by faith: the trinity and the humanity versus deity of Jesus are just two of them. Don’t get distracted! Keep the main thing the main thing—making disciples, who make disciples, who make disciples…for the Glory of God.
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
Mark is in his twenty-seventh year of serving as an Associational Missions Strategist. He served in western Iowa for almost eight years, and is in his nineteenth year with HCN. He has a passion to see pastors and church leaders grow in their abilities to lead their churches. He continues to have a heart and desire to see new churches planted and God continues to use his strategic thinking skills in this area. Mark also has a wealth of experience in helping churches clarify who God has created them to be, and what they can do best to reach their community. He has had ample opportunities to help churches in times of conflict, and has seen God do exciting things to restore a spirit of harmony, returning churches to a time of fruitfulness. He also helps churches in transition by working with search committees. Mark and Phyllis who were married in November of 2018 have four children and three grandchildren. They will enjoy their combined 87th anniversary in just a few days.