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Does Christ Put Pastors in Specific Churches? Ephesians 4:11–14, Part 3By John Piper — 2 years ago
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Who Really Has Your Ear? The Re-Forming Power of WordsBy David Mathis — 1 year ago
We have surrounded ourselves with screens. On the desk. In the family room. Even in bedrooms and kitchens. Increasingly in automobiles. One for every passenger on the airplane? And most importantly, hitchhiking on our person everywhere we go, the Precious in our own pocketses and handses.
Once upon a time, screens came attached to heavy, unwieldy boxes. Not anymore. Now they’re as thin as picture frames, and thinner. Some of us can count more screens in our homes than wall décor.
We are living in stunningly image-driven and visually-oriented times. We do well, then, to query ourselves regularly, and thoughtfully, about what images we’re allowing to pass before our eyes, and how they are shaping us. Moving pictures are powerful. They can arrest and extract attention we don’t mean to pay them (say, at a restaurant). And our habits related to screens don’t leave us unchanged.
Yet, in such days, it could be easy to be captivated by the screens and overlook the deeply formative and re-formative power of the great invisible medium that accompanies them: words. Words, especially spoken words, are the great unseen power that give meaning to our world of images and shape how we choose to live.
Words for Good, and Ill
Perhaps even more than our other four celebrated senses, our ability to hear makes us deeply human.
“Words are the great unseen power that give meaning to our world of images and shape how we choose to live.”
After touch (at three weeks), hearing is the next sense to develop in the womb, at about twenty weeks, and it is widely considered to be the last sense to go while dying. Which makes sense for us as creatures of the Creator who is (amazingly!) a speaking, self-revealing God. First and foremost, he made us to hear him, to receive and respond to his words. He created the world, through words, saying, “Let there be light.” He speaks new creation into our souls by effecting new birth through his word, the gospel (James 1:18; 2 Corinthians 4:6). And he grows and sustains our souls in the Christian life through his words (1 Corinthians 15:1–2; 1 Thessalonians 2:13).
When the serpent slid into the garden, he didn’t show Eve an Instagram video, or perform a TikTok dance. He spoke. He slid his poison into her heart through her ears. After all, God had spoken to create the world. He had given Adam instructions through words about how to live in the world. So too, when Satan attacked, he came with something more perilous than a sword or boulder. He came with words, leaning on the stunning power of the audible and invisible, seeking to unseat God’s words. “Did God actually say . . . ?” (Genesis 3:1).
Who’s in Your Head?
In our day of striking media saturation and consumption, we will do well to remember the profound shaping, world-changing power of words.
Whether they are the words accompanying television and YouTube, or the written words of articles and tweets, or the purely audible media of podcasts and audiobooks, words form and fill our inner person, penetrate deeply, and quickly shape our desires, decisions, and outer lives — the whole of who we are. It’s not a matter of whether words are shaping us but whose.
Whose voice — whether through audio or written words or video, or old-fashioned face-to-face talk — whose voice is most regularly streaming into your ears, and going down into your soul? Whose voice captures your finite attention, and focuses you, or distracts you? Which voices do you long to hear most? Whose words are you welcoming most to enter into your soul, to sow seeds of life — or death? Whom do you welcome into that intimate space that is your ear?
Do the words you hear and cherish most “follow the course of this world” (Ephesians 2:2)? Are you becoming “conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2) rather than “transformed by the renewal of your mind”? How “highly online” and “Internet-formed” are you? Some have entertained angels unawares (Hebrews 13:2), but are we showing hospitality to demons?
Two lines from a recent Gospel Coalition email stopped me in my tracks:
Internet-formed Christians are increasingly being catechized by partisan politics and secular pop culture. The result? Divided and fragmenting churches, declining church membership, and weary leaders.
It stopped me in my tracks as a spot-on diagnosis. Christian parents, pastors, and disciple-makers were once the most formative catechizers. What happens when the words, and perspectives, of television and the Internet shape Christians more than their churches? We’re already seeing it.
Whose Words Are Changing You?
For many, the fight for faith in this generation — to not only survive but thrive as a Christian — is about not just what we see, but perhaps just as pressing (if not more so), what we hear and to whom we listen.
God made us for the gospel, which is first and foremost a message to hear. “Faith comes from hearing,” says the apostle Paul, “and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). And how did you receive the Spirit? “Hearing with faith” (Galatians 3:2). “He who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you” does so not “by works of the law,” he writes, but “by hearing with faith” (Galatians 3:5). The voices we habitually allow and welcome into our heads have profound shaping power. “In the sensorium of faith,” writes Tony Reinke in his book on today’s countless visual Spectacles, “the ear is chief” (148).
“Whom you hear with delight today will be who you become like tomorrow.”
A new year is as good a time as any to take inventory of the audible voices and written words we encounter daily, especially those we habitually choose. Whose words do you welcome? Whose words do you not only hear, but listen to with rapt attention? Whose words fill your social feeds and podcast queues? What do you listen to on the way to work, or while you walk, exercise, or clean? To whom do you turn for advice? What podcasts, what shows and series, what musicians, what audiobooks? Are your choices governed by the pursuit of entertainment, or the pursuit of God? Instant gratification, or progressive sanctification? Shallow, mindless consumption, or careful, thoughtful growth?
Whom you hear with delight today will be who you become more like tomorrow. As Jesus himself says seven times in the Gospels, and then seven times more in Revelation, “He who has an ear, let him hear.”
New Year’s Defiance
As we continue to sort out the effects of new media and algorithms, and how the Internet shapes Christians and our churches in particular, we do have one clear, simple, ancient, decisive act of defiance.
To those of us willing to hear and heed the cautions, the solution, of course, is not to plug the ears that God has so wonderfully dug, but to open them and eagerly receive words and voices that are true, good, life-giving, balanced, and Christ-magnifying. Even more important than what we keep out of our heads, and hearts, is what we fill them with — and none are more worthy than the words of God himself.
God made us to meditate, not flit endlessly from one message to the next. It is a remarkable design feature of humans, that we can pause and ponder, ruminate and think, that we can stew over truth (and not just lies), and over the good God has done (and not just the evil of others). Perhaps, if you’re honest, you find your mind fragmented. Texts and notifications, tweets and memes, audio and video ads and clips seem to have eroded your capacity for serious, meaningful attention, and you’re not sure where to turn next, but just hit refresh. Make the word of God be where you turn.
Make his voice, in Scripture, the first you hear each day. And his voice, above all, the one that you welcome most, and try to take most deeply into your soul through his words. Let his words be your unhurried meditation, in the morning, and the place you return to regain balance in spare moments. Pray for, and aim to have, his word be “on your heart,” and central in your parenting, and present in conversation, with you “when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deuteronomy 6:6–7).
Let meditation on God’s word be one great new-year’s act of defiance in our media-driven age. Half an hour of such unhurried, even leisurely, lingering over and enjoying God’s words just might fortify your soul for the unavoidable drivel of distant dramas, hot takes, and idle words we seem to encounter at every turn in this world. “Whoever gives thought to the word will discover good, and blessed is he who trusts in the Lord” (Proverbs 16:20).
You will find, over time, that God can indeed restore what the locusts have eaten. He can rebuild your mind, and your capacity for focus and sustained attention, and he can restore your heart, and give you wisdom and stability.
How different might the next year be because of what you resolved to do with your ears?
The Forgotten Habit: Fellowship as a Means of God’s GraceBy David Mathis — 1 month ago
We nixed the name “Fellowship Hall.”
Our church purchased the building three years ago. “Fellowship Hall” had been the name we inherited for the other big room. Recently, in the process of doing some renovations, we needed to formalize a name for each room. The sign now reads, “Chapel.”
The word fellowship has fallen on hard times in many churches, like the word encourage — emptied of its power by casual overuse. Trivialized, you might say.
We scrapped fellowship from the name not because the biblical reality of fellowship is waning in importance. Quite the contrary. We want our church to reclaim the electric reality of fellowship in the New Testament and not have the term die the slow death of Christian domestication.
Fellowship Bigger Than Us
Perhaps the word can seem hollow if we have lost the concept of fellowship as a means of grace, with the end of enjoying Jesus.
That we have means of grace in the Christian life implies some end, some goal, some target. In other words, “means” means means to some end. The means are not the end. And if we leave the great end undefined, lesser ends come to replace it. Lesser ends like growth. Nor is godliness or holiness the goal, vital and precious as they are.
“Knowing and enjoying God himself, in the God-man, Jesus Christ, is the goal, the end, of Christian fellowship.”
Rather knowing and enjoying God himself, in the God-man, Jesus Christ, is the goal, the end, of Christian fellowship. The final joy in any truly Christian habit of grace is, as Paul writes, “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8). “This is eternal life,” Jesus prayed — and this is the goal of the means of his grace — “that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). And as J.I. Packer writes, “The more strongly one desires an end, the more carefully and diligently one will use the means to it” (Honouring the People of God, 274).
Of those means, God’s word and prayer are often emphasized for their crucial place in the Christian life. Rightly so. But in the age of the individualist modern self, a third vital means — like a forgotten middle child — needs more attention: fellowship.
Something More Than Friendship
Christian fellowship — our holy commonality of sharing in one Savior, through one Spirit, as one body — goes far deeper than games and a potluck. In the New Testament, fellowship is less the Christian Super Bowl party, and more like the players themselves huddled on the field, calling the next play.
Perhaps few of us realized how vital fellowship was as a means of grace until COVID hit. Many languished unexpectedly, and some of our churches still feel the fallout. We tend to underestimate how much our souls are fed, and stay healthy, through the regular rhythms of in-person corporate worship and face-to-face fellowship. Especially in an age of enormous technological advances which keep us in touch with those who are remote, while quietly undermining ties with those most proximate. Our devices have increased our sheer count of “friends,” while stripping our lives of real, flesh-and-blood friendships.
New Testament fellowship is far deeper than common human friendships. Fellowship, at its best, is comprised of deeply committed relationships, that is, covenant allegiance through thick and thin, through pain and inconvenience and awkwardness and annoyance. This has long been a challenge for Americans who, when they rally together, have often done so in defense of individual rights, liberties, and our personal pursuits of happiness.
God Gave Us Each Other
Hebrews’ twin texts on fellowship as a means of grace speaks into the challenges of our generation. As we see in Hebrews 3 and 10, life and health and perseverance in Christian faith is a community project. Our hearts harden, and our faith fails, as we distance ourselves from the fellowship.
“Life and health and perseverance in the Christian life is a community project.”
But when we stubbornly stay connected, and deepen those connections, we not our find our own hearts staying soft, and our faith enduring; we also taste the joy of being Christ’s means of grace to each other. It is marvelous and deeply satisfying to be human instruments of the Spirit’s keeping work in the church. Both passages in Hebrews show us the benefit of receiving grace and giving grace in the covenant fellowship of the local church.
The first of the twins we might see as cast in more negative terms, but both texts work together, with the second being more expressly positive in thrust.
Watch Out for Each Other
In Hebrews 3, the writer quotes from Psalm 95 to spur his readers to Christian perseverance, and then pivots to this immediate application to the church as a whole, not just individuals:
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. (Hebrews 3:12–13)
Look out, watch out, take care of each other — be vigilant over your brother’s soul, not just your own. The church body as a whole is to watch out for some (“any”) whose hearts may be cooling. And the stakes could hardly be any higher. An “unbelieving heart” is not just unfortunate, but evil. It leads to falling away from the living God — that is, from spiritual life to spiritual death. The preventive measure, or the remedy, says Hebrews, is at least twofold.
First is the daily charge to vigilance. Why daily? Well, for one, Psalm 95 says “today.” We are not promised tomorrow. If you recognize hardness of heart in yourself or a brother, address it right away, today. Such watching out for own souls, and others, needs to happen at the daily and weekly level (rather than monthly or yearly). Hearts harden in subtle increments, a day at a time, not all at once. The good news is that it’s preventable, and doesn’t just happen to you without some process. The bad news is that the increments can be difficult to discern, and snowball over time. But regular attentiveness keeps us from a pattern of hardening. Fellowship is a means of God’s grace that interrupts the cooling of our hearts.
The second emphasis is the power of words: “exhort one another.” This word for exhort (Greek parakaleo) appears as “comfort” or “encourage” in other contexts (as in Hebrew 10:25). At its heart is the idea of helping one another with words — with helping words that take various forms in different contexts, whether rebuking a hard heart, comforting a tender conscience, or encouraging a humble faith. This is a call to come alongside a brother or sister in the faith and be a human instrument of the Spirit’s keeping work through our words.
In other words, we might say to the struggling saint, Hear God’s voice in your brother’s voice! And to the whole body, watching out for the some, Be God’s voice in the ear of your brother, to keep his heart from hardening and unbelief — to stay soft and believing.
Provoke Each Other
The other twin, then, Hebrews 10:24–25, expands on the vision, now cast in more positive terms:
Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
Now, as Hebrews 3 has its positive charge to take up helping words, so Hebrews 10 includes the warning against “neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some.” Here again is the some from Hebrews 3 (who were falling away), which the whole body together watches out for, and cares for, through the ministry of words (“encouraging one another”).
Striking in Hebrews 10 is this charge to “consider how to stir one another up” — or literally, “consider one another for the provoking of love and good works.” There’s no “how” in the original. Rather, the object or focus of the saints’ contemplation is “one another.” Consider one another . . . It’s a personal charge, and assumes that saints know each other specifically and with some depth — enough to contemplate what particular words might be pressed into service, not just to inspire humans or Christians in general, but to stir up love and good works in particular struggling saints.
Here helping words are designed by one saint to stir up, or provoke, Christian affection and action in another saint. This is a good provoking, not bad — not to anger but to love; not to evil but to good; not to bitterness but to joy. And being God’s voice to your brother does not mean the mere parroting of Scripture, but knowing your brother, on the one hand, and being informed by Scripture, on the other, to then speak as God’s voice, fallibly and in your own words, what needs to be said, as a means of grace, to your brother, to incite him to love and good deeds.
And it is not insignificant that Hebrews 10:24 mentions the assembly, the gathering (“meet together”). Corporate worship is a singularly important means of grace in the Christian life, combining the three essential elements we’ve noted: word, prayer, and fellowship. All three come together in the gathering. At the weekly level, this is the single most important means of grace in the Christian life.
Today and ‘the Day’
In the Christian life, every day matters. And every Sunday matters, with its rhythms of fellowship. Keeping ourselves, and others, in the faith does not call for herculean efforts, but regular upkeep. Routine vigilance, watching out for the souls of others, leads to losing less of the some, and to “all the more” grace as we anticipate the Day of Christ’s return drawing near.
Fellowship as an irreplaceable means of grace in the Christian life offers us two priceless joys: receiving God’s grace through the helping words of others and giving his grace to others through our own. Jesus does not call us to “hold fast” alone, as if we didn’t need the fellows he gives. But we help each other hold fast and thrive.
Whether fellowship is the namesake of a room at our church or not, we will do well to reclaim this reality as a vital means of God’s ongoing grace, and perhaps all the more after the trials of recent years.