Here is the apostle Paul’s version of the Christmas story:
But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. (Galatians 4:4–5)
Without realizing it, mighty Augustus was only an errand boy for the commencement of “the fullness of time.” He was a pawn in the hand of God . . . a mere piece of lint on the pages of prophecy. While Rome was busy making history, God arrived. He pitched His fleshly tent in silence on straw . . . in a stable . . . under a star. The world didn’t even notice. Reeling from the wake of Alexander the Great . . . Herod the Great . . . and Augustus the Great, the world overlooked Jesus the baby.
It still does.
As they were in Jesus’s day, so our times are desperate. Moreover, they often are a distraction from the bigger picture. Just as the political, economical, and spiritual crises of the first century set the stage for the “fullness of time” to occur . . . so today, in our own savage times, our God is weaving His sovereign tapestry to accomplish His divine will. Times are hard, indeed—but they never surprise God. He is still sovereign. He is still on the throne. As the psalmist reminds us: “Our God is in the heavens; / He does whatever He pleases” (Psalm 115:3).
In my 50 years of ministry, I have never been more committed than I am today to pointing our generation to the Word of God. It remains the single most accurate source of strength and divine direction during these difficult days. I urge you as pastors and leaders in ministry to recommit yourselves to consistent exposition combined with practical teaching from the Scriptures. With the same urgency, I exhort you—wherever God has placed you—to live out the truth of God’s Word before your family and neighbors through evangelism, Bible study, and memorization of God’s Word.
Feeling anxious about these difficult days? I understand, and Jesus does too. Times were no different when Jesus was born. Because so many lives have been turned upside down this year for one reason or another, I encourage you to do more than preach it again this year. I also urge you to reflect—just as Mary did—on what God is doing in your life. Christmas is a good time to ask ourselves this question: Will I focus on Jesus as the center of my life and cling to Him regardless of the circumstances I face? That’s not for you to preach. That’s for you to ponder.
Political corruption . . . religious compromise . . . economic crises—these will always be front-page news. But we must remember that our God is on the throne. He promises to use our desperate times to accomplish His bigger and better purposes in our world . . . and in our lives.
In our vastly populated, impersonal world, it is easy to underestimate the significance of one. With so many people, most of whom seem so much more capable, more gifted, more prosperous, more important than we, who are we to think our part amounts to much? I’m just one person, who cannot make much difference.
That’s the way most folks think. They really do!
Aren’t you glad Patrick Henry didn’t? And Henry Ford? And Martin Luther King, Jr.? And Walt Disney? And Martin Luther? And Winston Churchill? And Jackie Robinson? And Irving Berlin? And Abraham Lincoln? And Charles Wesley? And Dwight L. Moody? And Corrie ten Boom?
“But it’s a different world today,” you say. Back then, there was room for an individual to emerge and stand out in a crowd, but now, there’s no way!”
Wrong. God has always underscored individual involvement . . . still does.
- How many did it take to help the victim who got mugged on the Jericho Road? One Good Samaritan.
- How many were chosen by God to confront Pharaoh and lead the Exodus? One.
- How many sheep got lost and became the object of concern to the shepherd? One.
- How many were needed to confront adulterous David and bring him to his knees in full repentance? One.
- How many prophets were called to stand before wicked King Ahab and predict a drought? One.
- How many did the Lord use to get the attention of the land of Israel and prepare the way for Messiah? One.
Never underestimate the power of one! And that one just may be you.
A familiar essay anonymously written many years ago says this about Jesus Christ:
Nineteen long centuries have come and gone and today he is the centerpiece of the human race and the leader of the column of progress. I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever were built; all the parliaments that ever sat and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as has that one solitary life.
Impressive words regarding the most phenomenal Person who ever cast a shadow across earth’s landscape. Without question, He is unique. He is awesome in the fullest sense of the term.
But what was He like personally . . . down inside His skin? Is there any place, for example, where He describes Himself? The answer is yes. Does that description fit the common idea of human greatness? That answer is no.
I remember my surprise some years back when I received a slick, multicolored brochure in my morning mail announcing a series of lectures to be delivered in Los Angeles by a man who was a well-known Christian “superstar” of the day. He was a popular speaker who traveled all over the country, and his name is still familiar to most folks in the family of God. But I confess, I lifted my eyebrows in astonishment when I read the words used to describe him in that advertisement:
A phenomenal individual . . .
In great demand around the world . . .
Today’s most sought-after speaker!
That’s a far cry from the way Jesus Christ described Himself:
Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. (Matthew 11:28–29)
Unlike most influential, celebrity types, Jesus’s description of Himself doesn’t sound like the popular hype we’ve grown accustomed to hearing.
Jesus was a servant, not a superstar. He didn’t consider Himself “a phenomenal individual,” but one who was “gentle” and “humble.” May we pastors follow His example.
We all own an invention that is almost essential.
It is very revealing, and it never tells a lie. It says it like it is, yet it never makes a sound. All of us stand before it prior to going out in public. And if we didn’t, we should have. It is a mirror—especially a full-length mirror!
God’s Word calls itself a mirror. It reflects the truth. I’ve observed over the years that churches rarely stand before full-length mirrors to examine themselves. We pastors are often the same.
I’ve discovered that it’s helpful to back off occasionally from our activities, important though they may be, and just look at ourselves a little closer in the mirror. Do that with me for a moment, will you?
Look at what Paul wrote to a church obsessed with image: “And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God” (1 Corinthians 2:1).
What we do is not about impressing others. The pastorate is not a place where an image is polished or where emphasis is placed on one’s self. Paul didn’t preach with overpowering oratory or philosophical arguments to wow his Greek audience in Corinth. He came as a simple man with a very basic, albeit, profound message regarding Christ.
In fact, what we say is all about exalting Christ. Paul continued: “I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (2:2). Look at your reflection in that verse. Do you see the person of Christ and the work of Christ on the cross in your ministry? Those two thoughts deserve center stage.
Ministry is not about my agenda. It is not about my personality. It is not about my charisma. “I came to know nothing among you,” says the apostle, “except Jesus and His work on the cross.” As pastors, we must step aside and remind the flock that it is Christ who is the Head, and it is His cross that is important.
If our congregations leave a service more in love with Jesus, it was a successful time of worship. If they leave impressed with another dimension of the cross, you and I have done a good job.
So this Sunday, as we stand to deliver—with our hair combed, our teeth brushed, and our messages carefully prepared—let’s remember that our purpose is not about impressing others.
It is all about exalting Christ!
Over the years, a few folks have told me they were reluctant to look too deeply into serving Jesus Christ because of the risks that are involved.
Some were afraid God would expect them to become missionaries or preachers and do something really risky! If they said yes to God, they reasoned, they’d have to undertake some dirty, demanding tasks, and that kind of extreme servanthood would be more than they had bargained for.
Is that your attitude as a pastor? Is that what the biblical portrait of servanthood means?
- Some of us may very well be called to follow Him to the ends of the earth.
- Many have done that. He may ask others of us to serve in some bold and difficult act of personal sacrifice here at home or abroad.
But it’s not always that way. In fact, I would say it is rarely that way.
Most of the time, the Lord makes somewhat smaller demands on us . . . but they still require unselfishness.
The greater reality is that every act of service, however big or small it may be, demonstrates our love for Christ and our obedience to Him. That’s the meaning of faithful servanthood. Jesus said, “Whoever in the name of a disciple gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water to drink, truly I say to you, he shall not lose his reward” (Matthew 10:42).
To cherish a little child, to care for an aging mother, to speak a gentle word to a hurting neighbor or a struggling friend . . . to carry an armload of groceries for that stranger down the street: these, too, are demonstrations of Christ’s love.
How valuable is genuine, selfless servanthood!
Years ago, a group of boys and girls in Florida decided to lead their parents and other volunteers in a season of intercessory prayer for their town and for our troubled world.
The movement they started turned out to be so dynamic that more than fifteen thousand people showed up to march in support of the plan and to offer aid to the Russian refugees in their area. The young people also raised support for a Russian choir and started a prayer chain to intercede for the people of their “sister city” of Murmansk, Russia.
How many opportunities for selfless service can we find? Maybe I should ask that question another way: How many Christians are willing to improve their service toward God? Or how many acts of Christian love and kindness would it take to change the world?
The opportunities are endless.
- In every town, every neighborhood, and on every block, lonely and sometimes unlovely men and women need to experience the love of Jesus.
- In every city, children have never known a gentle touch or a loving smile.
- In every state and region, God’s people can make a lasting difference.
There are random acts of love and mercy that God has already prepared for you, so that you might share in His joy—so that you might grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Go ahead . . . reach out.
You will never regret it.
Paul wrote with urgency, “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Timothy 4:1–2). In other words, stick with the preaching plan God has promised to bless and use: preaching the Word. Deliver the biblical goods! Be a man of the Book!
Did you notice something here? This exhortation is not addressed to the hearer; it’s for the speaker. The one who is to obey this command is the one proclaiming the message. That’s you. That’s me. That’s all who are called to stand and deliver.
We’re to be ready to do it in season and out of season. Being ready implies being prepared both mentally and spiritually. Don’t try so hard to be so creative and cute that folks miss the truth. No need for meaningless and silly substitutes for God’s Word. They may entertain but rarely convict the lost or edify the saved. Teach the truth.
In essence, Paul says, “Don’t be lazy. Do your homework. Don’t stand up and start with an apology that you didn’t have adequate time to prepare. That doesn’t wash.” And prepare your work faithfully—when it’s convenient and when it’s not.
Sadly, in an alarming number of churches today, God’s people are being told what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear. They are being fed warm milk, not solid meat. A watered-down gospel will attract large crowds (for a while), but it has no eternal impact. I’ve not been able to find any place in the Scriptures where God expresses the least bit of concern for increasing numbers. Satisfying the curious, itching ears of our postmodern audiences is an exercise in futility.
The task of ministry is to deliver truth. Frankly, I intend to continue doing just that, by God’s grace, until the day He calls me home. I believe that’s your passion as well. That’s why you became a pastor. Thankfully, there is an ever-increasing body of believers who long for nourishing messages based on the Word of God, not human opinion.
Will you answer the charge?
Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations. . . . And surely I am with you always” (Matthew 28:19–20 NIV). There is no greater challenge and no more comforting promise. Believe it. Trust it. And by the grace of God, just do it!
I’m right there with you.
In Matthew 25:14–30, Jesus told a story of three men who were asked to steward their master’s treasure while he was away. When he finally arrived back, the master asked the stewards how they had managed his finances.
The first servant told his master that he’d doubled his treasure and now he had ten talents to give back. The second man had doubled his portion as well and now he had four to offer. The landowner was delighted with both of them.
He then turned to the third servant, who had been given a single talent. This servant had been afraid to take a chance, so he had buried his talent in the ground, then returned it to his master. Poor guy. You can almost feel his shock at what comes next. His master exploded in anger: “You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed?” (Matthew 25:26 NIV). Then he added, in effect, “And yet you buried my gold so that now you’re giving me back only what is mine?! Those who risk nothing, do nothing, invest nothing, and fail to obey my command, I will take away even what they have.”
If you think Jesus was trying to get our attention with that story, you’re right. Read on. In the very next sentence, He tells of the day of judgment when the Son of Man, surrounded by all His holy angels, will separate the sheep from the goats. To those who have obeyed the Master, however great or however small their initial gifts, the very gates of heaven will fling wide open. It is not the size of the talent that matters at this point but the faithfulness of the servant. Those who have obeyed will be welcomed with open arms and abundantly rewarded. Those who have disobeyed, however, and those who simply sat on their treasure will be shown to the nearest exit. This is not a salvation by works but a revelation of responsibility. This declares how the saved are to steward God’s resources.
I can offer no more sobering challenge than Christ’s own words, not mine. Our Lord Jesus says, “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love” (John 15:10).
Oh, that we pastors might take that admonition to heart and obey His Word so that we might rejoice in our Father’s love!
Last week, we began our look at five eternal “crowns” set aside for God’s servants. After listing the first three crowns again, I’ll add the final two and offer a brief explanation of each.
1. The Imperishable Crown (1 Corinthians 9:24–27)
2. The Crown of Exultation (Philippians 4:1; 1 Thessalonians 2:19–20)
3. The Crown of Righteousness (2 Timothy 4:7–8)
4. The Crown of Life (James 1:12)
This wonderful reward awaits those saints who suffered in a noble manner during their earthly life. The significance of this reward is not only related to the words perseveres under trial but also the words those who love Him. This crown is not promised simply to those who endure suffering and trials . . . but to those who endure their trials, loving the Savior through all the pain and anguish! Therefore, loving the Lord and having the desire that He be glorified in and through the trials become the dual motives for the believer’s endurance. Those saints who qualify (and the Lord is the Judge!) will receive the crown of life.
5. The Crown of Glory (1 Peter 5:1–4)
This reward is promised to those who faithfully “shepherd the flock” in keeping with the requirements spelled out in verses 2 and 3. Those faithful under-shepherds who fulfill these qualifications (willingness, sacrificial dedication, humility, an exemplary life) will receive this crown of glory.
After receiving these crowns, what then? Is that all there is? Look at Revelation 4:9–11:
And when the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, to Him who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders will fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and will worship Him who lives forever and ever, and will cast their crowns before the throne, saying, “Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and because of Your will they existed, and were created.”
What a scene! All God’s servants are before His throne. What are they doing?
- Strutting around heaven displaying their crowns? No.
- Separated from one another, like peacocks, proudly displaying their tangible trophies? No.
The servants are bowing in worship, having cast all crowns before their Lord in adoration and praise, ascribing worth and honor to the only One deserving of praise—the Lord God. What a scene that will be!
As those who serve the living God, we occasionally need to consider the eternal “crowns” being set aside for God’s servants. What an intriguing study!
There are at least five specific crowns promised in the Bible. For our purpose here, I will simply list the eternal crowns mentioned in the New Testament and offer a brief explanation of each. We’ll cover three today and the other two next week.
1. The Imperishable Crown (1 Corinthians 9:24–27)
This reward is promised to those who victoriously run the race of life. Taking into consideration verses 26 and 27, that is, the “buffeting” of the body, it is clear that this reward will be awarded those believers who consistently bring the flesh under the Holy Spirit’s control, refusing to be enslaved by their sinful nature. In other words, those who carry out the truths of Romans 6:6–14.
2. The Crown of Exultation (Philippians 4:1; 1 Thessalonians 2:19–20)
This crown will be one over which its recipients will glory and rejoice! This is the “soul-winners crown.” It is claimed by Paul regarding two bodies of believers whom he had led to and discipled in Christ Jesus . . . the Philippians and the Thessalonians. Our Lord will distribute this crown to those servants who are faithful to declare the gospel, lead souls to Christ, and build them up in Him. And remember: the rewards at this judgment will be based on the quality not quantity of our earthly works (1 Corinthians 3:13).
3. The Crown of Righteousness (2 Timothy 4:7–8)
The crown of righteousness will be awarded those who live each day, loving and anticipating Christ’s imminent return . . . those who conduct their earthly lives with eternity’s value in view. Kenneth Wuest captures the complete meaning of verse 8 with these words:
To those who have considered precious His appearing and therefore have loved it, and as a result at the present time are still holding that attitude in their hearts, to those the Lord Jesus will also give the victor’s garland of righteousness.
Those who qualify for this crown anxiously look for His return from one day to the next.