Do You Think Biblically about Your Work?

Work is one of the most significant parts of our lives. Of the 168 hours we are given each week, most of us will spend at least 40 at the workplace.  Many spend closer to 60 or 70, sometimes juggling two jobs or more. One of the most pressing questions for a Christian to answer, then, is, “How do I think biblically about work?”
Created to work
The first thing to remember is that we were made for work. Work is implicit in the “cultural mandate,” the command given by God to the first man, recorded Genesis 1:28-31. Human beings were created in the image of God for the purpose of subduing the earth, ruling over the created order as the vicegerents of God.  In the words of J. I. Packer, “Man was made to manage God’s world, and this stewardship is part of the human vocation in Christ. It calls for hard work, with God’s honor and the good of others as its goal.”[1] Labor is, therefore, one of the most important ways in which we bear God’s image, for God himself is a God who works (Gen. 2:2-3). “In contrast to Greek mythology, where the gods live a life of celestial loafing, the Bible pictures God himself as a ceaseless worker.”[2]As John Stott writes, “Our potential for creative work is an essential part of our godlikeness.”[3]
This biblical perspective shows the essential value and dignity of human work. In Genesis 2:15 we learn that after creating Adam, God put him in “the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.“ Even in the pristine, unspoiled pre-fallen world, man had work to do.  “God has deliberately arranged life in such a way that he needs the cooperation of human beings for the fulfillment of his purposes,” observes Stott. “He did not create the planet earth to be productive on its own; human beings had to subdue and develop it. He did not plant a garden whose flowers would blossom and fruit ripen on their own; he appointed a gardener to cultivate the soil. We call this the ‘cultural mandate’ which God gave to humankind. ‘Nature’ is what God gives us; ‘culture’ is what we do with it.”[4]
This means that any attempt to shirk work, either through thievery, desperate attempts to get rich quickly (lottery, anyone?), or through mooching off others in lives of indolence, are wrong-headed from the start.
The purposes of work
Work is is both commanded and commended in Scripture. The command to work, for example, is implicit in the Ten Commandments (as the fourth commandment begins, “six days shall you labor, and do all your work,” Ex. 20:9) and explicit in the apostolic writings (“Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need,” Eph. 4:28).
The whole of Scripture commends honest labor, viewing it as a source of personal satisfaction (Eccl. 3:22), the means of providing for our families (1 Tim. 5:8), benefiting others (Eph. 4:28) and especially as a serving the Lord, as we do everything in word and deed in the name of the Lord Jesus (Col. 3:1723-24). Weaving these purposes for work together, John Stott defines work as “the expenditure of energy (manual or mental or both) in the service of others, which brings fulfilling to the worker, benefit to the community, and glory to God.”[5]
Work in a fallen world
But we all know that real life in the workaday world is often complicated, frustrating and unfulfilling. Work problems are real: stress, job dissatisfaction, unemployment, the question of fair wages, and other ethical concerns demand careful consideration that moves beyond the mandate of Genesis 1, but without losing sight of it.
The ultimate reason for the complexity of work and its attendant problems is the sin, reaching back to the fall of man in Genesis 3. Part of the five-fold curse following the fall is the curse on the ground, which now bears thorns and thistles, so that man now eats his bread “by the sweat of [his] face” (Gen. 3:18-19). Work, in other words, is now fraught with obstacles and etched with frustrations. As someone once quipped, “man was meant to be a gardener, but by reason of his sin he became a farmer.”[6] Work after the fall is not simply the creative work of construction and cultivation. We must now also push back against the effects of the fall. There are constant obstacles to overcome with the forces of entropy, disintegration, and decay constantly working against us. Work now involves not only planting, but weeding; not simply doing, but undoing. Like Jeremiah the prophet, we often have “to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow” before we can “build and … plant” (Jer. 1:10).
   To use the lament of Ecclesiastes, “What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.” (Eccl. 2:22-23).  Work, like childbirth is not only joy, involves labor.[7] The problems of job-related stress, unjust labor laws, et cetera, are an index to our present condition: life in a fallen world.
The redemption of work
But the Scriptures also look forward to the final redemption and restoration of the created order, including the realm of work. In Isaiah 65, for example, the prophet records God’s promise of a “new heavens and a new earth” (v. 17) where his people
    shall build houses and inhabit them;
    they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
    they shall not plant and another eat;
    for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
    and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labor in vain
     or bear children for calamity… (Isa 65:21-23a)
This hope of new creation is picked up in multiple places in the New Testament (e.g. 2 Cor. 5:172 Pet. 3:13Rev. 21-22). The apostles viewed Jesus’ resurrection from the dead as the inaugural event in new creation, with Jesus himself as the firstfruits of the harvest and the gift of his Spirit as the guarantee that final redemption is coming. And its in this very context, having given his most eloquent and theologically rich defense of the resurrection, that Paul says to the early Christians, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58, emphasis added).
Though we continue to labor in a fallen world, we no longer labor without hope, but with the unshakable confidence that our work, done in service to the Lord Jesus, counts.
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End Notes

[1]J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1993), p. 236
[2]“Work, Working,” in Ryken, L., Wilhoit, J., Longman, T., Duriez, C., Penney, D., & Reid, D. G., ed.,Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p. 965. This article presents a well-rounded biblical theology of work that has informed the structure and content of my post.
[3]John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today, 4th edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006) p. 219.
[4]Stott, pp. 222-223
[5]Stott, p. 225.
[6]W. F. Forrester, quoted in Ryken, et all, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery.
[7]“In the story of the Fall woman’s pain in giving birth (Gen 3:16) parallels the curse on work (Gen 3:17). The Hebrew word for toil and pain in these verses is the same, and Forrester notes that “in language after language the same word is used for toil and child-bearing, e.g., ‘labour’ and ‘travail.’” (Ibid.)

Is the Christian Life about Running or Resting?

In 2009, Time magazine named “the new Calvinism” as one of the 10 ideas currently changing the world. The burgeoning movement brought several streams of conservative evangelicals together, ranging from Baptists to Presbyterians to Reformed Charismatics, best represented through organizations and conferences like Together for the Gospel and The Gospel Coalition. But in recent months an intramural debate within the movement made headlines when author, pastor, (and grandson of Billy Graham) Tullian Tchividjian, was asked to leave The Gospel Coalition.
The issues surrounding this rather public “break up” are complex, but at least part of the brouhaha concerns differing perspectives on sanctification. Some have accused Tchividjian of antinomianism [1] and denying the “third use of the law” [2] (charges he has repeatedly denied, most recently in an interview with Janet Mefford.)
Kevin DeYoung, one of Tullian’s main interlocutors, has compiled a list of agreements and possible disagreements between the two sides. These questions certainly deserve careful thought, as do the varied responses to the debate from voices as diverse as Rick PhillipsMark Galli, and R. Scott Clark.
Without responding directly to Tullian, his accusers, or defenders, I think one possible way forward in this debate is to pay closer attention not just to the distinctions between law and gospel (as important as these are) but to the metaphors and word pictures the Scriptures use when describing the lives of believers. For ordinary believers, who can easily get lost in the complexities of theological jargon, the vivid imagery of the Bible itself is both refreshing and a wonderful means of keeping us balanced.
For example, Scripture describes our lives in terms of a journey and an athletic competition. We are commanded both to walk and to run. These are strongly active metaphors that emphasize the need for continuous movement and strenuous effort. But Scripture also uses agricultural metaphors like remaining in a vine and bearing fruit (John 15). In Galatians 5:19-23, Paul seems to deliberately contrast the fruit of the Spirit with the works of the flesh, reminding us that developing the Christian virtues of love, joy, peace, etc. isn’t merely a matter of self-effort and will power, but of supernatural empowerment.
But there’s more. In addition to the athletic and agricultural images, biblical writers employ metaphors from the realms of architecture (foundation, stones, buildings, edification), medicine (sin as a sickness, Christ as physician, his word as both a surgical knife and healing remedy), the military(soldiers, battles, discipline, armor), and more. We are encouraged to both labor (1 Thessalonians 1:3) and rest (Matthew 11:28-30), trust (Romans 15:13) and obey (Philippians 2:12-13), look out for others (Hebrews 10:24-25) and examine ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5), keep ourselves (Jude 21) and depend on the power of God to keep us (Jude 24).
These pictures are rich and diverse and we need all of them. If we take any one image by itself, we run the risk of becoming lopsided in our focus. For example, if we only emphasize the architectural and “body” metaphors in 1 Corinthians, people might be inclined to think the corporate dimensions of Christian living are more important than individual and personal responsibilities. An exclusive focus on resting in Jesus could lead others to infer that any call to effort or discipline is legalistic. On the other hand, the military and athletic imagery in Scripture, calling us to fight the good fight of faith (1 Timothy 6:12) and run with endurance the race set before us (Hebrews 12:1-2), needs the balancing word-picture of abiding in Jesus, the true vine, apart from whom we can do nothing (John 15:5).
The Christian life, you see, is not dependence to the exclusion of discipline, or vice-versa. It’s both. It’s not just a me-thing or a we-thing. It’s both. It’s running and resting. Believing and obeying. Together and as individuals.
I believe that folks on all sides of the current sanctification debate desire to honor God and his word, rest in the good news of Christ’s finished work, and grow in grace. We all need to pay close attention to the text of Scripture and be careful to avoid rhetoric that is either theologically misleading or disparaging to others. Disagreements will likely continue. But whatever side of the debate we find ourselves on, let’s not forget that the Christian life involves both resting in Christ and his finished workand running with everything we’ve got for the prize set before us.
This post was originally written for Christianity.comFor more on this issue, see my latest book, Active Spirituality: Grace and Effort in the Christian Life
1. “Antinomianism so stresses Christian freedom from the condemnation of the law that it underemphasizes the need of the believer to confess sins daily and to pursue sanctification earnestly.” S. B. Ferguson, J. I. Packer, ed., New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p. 379.
2. In Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin distinguished three uses of the law: (1) to condemn sin (Inst. 2.7.6-9), (2) to restrain sin in society (Inst. 2.7.10-11), and (3) to instruct, in Calvin’s words, “the third and principle use” (Inst. 2.7.12-13).

God Provides, Even When We Can't See It

In his book Brain Rules, John Medina tells the intriguing story of Dr. Oliver Sacks, a British neurologist, and one of his patients, an elderly woman who “suffered a massive stroke in the back region of her brain that left her with a most unusual deficit: She lost her ability to pay attention to anything that was to her left.” Medina explains the effect this had on her perceptive abilities:

She could put lipstick only on the right half of her face. She ate only from the right half of her plate. This caused her to complain to the hospital nursing staff that her portions were too small! Only when the plate was turned and the food entered her right visual field could she pay any attention to it and have her fill.[1]

Sometimes I think we’re like this in our spiritual perception. While it’s easy for us to recognize the hand of God on the right, we fail to see him working on the left. We’re grateful for the clarity of his guidance and the comfort of his blessings, but find it difficult to discern his hidden hand during times of discouragement, disappointment, suffering, and trial.

The Scriptures abound with examples of saints who had the same problem. Think of Naomi, bereft of her sons and her husband, now back in Bethlehem after a decade in Moab during a time of famine. She is soon the talk of the town, and the women of Bethlehem ask, “Is this Naomi?” But Naomi, whose name meant “pleasant,” retorts,

“Don’t call me Naomi…Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” (Ruth 1:20-21)

Once she enjoyed fullness, now she is empty. Once she was happy, not she is bitter. Naomi is convinced that God’s hand is against her. But she doesn’t yet realize that Ruth, the young woman at her side, will be the Lord’s means of bringing an heir to her household, redemption to her estate, and ultimately redemption to the world. (Ruth was the great-grandmother of King David and one of only four women named in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1).

Or take the old patriarch Jacob. With his family facing famine, his sons had ventured to Egypt to find food. Now they have returned, leaving Simeon behind, and with the mandate from the prime minister to bring their younger brother Benjamin back with them. To make matters worse, the money they had paid for provisions in Egypt is now back in their bags! This isn’t good.  Are they being framed as thieves? In near despair, Jacob cries out, “Everything is against me!” (Genesis 42:36). What Jacob doesn’t know is that God is working behind the scenes through his long-lost son Joseph, to provide for the whole clan of Israel. As Joseph will later say to his brothers (who had sold him into slavery, thus landing him in Egypt in the first place), “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).

We’re just like Jacob and Naomi. We misinterpret our circumstances. We feel hopeless, though hope stands right at our side. We feel like everything is working against us, not realizing that God is actually working everything together for our good (Romans 8:28). As poet and hymn-writer William Cowper said,

Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His works in vain
God is His own interpreter
And He will make it plain.[2]

The problem is our limited perspective on the providence of God. The doctrine of God’s providence teaches that God governs over all things in creation. He’s not an indifferent watchmaker who made the world and then left it to tick away on its own. He is rather a good and wise king, who governs human affairs. “The LORD has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all,” declared the psalmist (Psalm 103:19). But not only is he our king, he is also our Father, intimately concerned with the smallest details of our lives. For Jesus said,

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-31)

My favorite definition of God’s providence comes from a 16th century catechism that asks, “What dost thou mean by the providence of God?” Answer:

The almighty and everywhere present power of God; whereby, as it were by his hand, he upholds and governs heaven, earth, and all creatures; so that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, yea, and all things come, not by chance, but be his fatherly hand.[3]

This is good news, but we must have faith to embrace it. Neither our circumstances, nor our feelings, are reliable indicators of what God is up to in our lives. Sometimes everything will seem to be against us. Sometimes we will feel empty and bitter. But when we do, we should remember how limited our perception really is. Like Oliver Sacks’ patient who couldn’t see anything to her left, sometimes we can’t perceive the presence of God’s goodness or the wisdom of his plan.

Let’s remember, then, this wise exhortation from Cowper’s hymn:

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace
Behind a frowning providence,
he hides a smiling face.[4]

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End Notes

[1] John Medina, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Home, Work, and School (Pear Press, Kindle edition. Loc. 1106-1116).
[2] William Cowper, from his hymn, “Light Shining in Darkness,” better known as “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” 1774.
[3] The Heidelberg Catechism, Question 27.
[4] Ibid.

5 Tips for Dealing with Difficult People

Pastoral ministry is people work and people can be difficult. Some folks seem to have the spiritual gift of pointing out everything you and the church could do better. Others have impossibly high expectations that despite your good intentions you never seem to meet. Still others are just plain ornery: cantankerous old (or young) cusses that fit the profile of grumpy goats, better than cuddly sheep. And speaking of sheep, well, you’ve probably read enough about them to know it’s not a flattering metaphor. In short, churches are full of individuals with flawed personalities, irksome quirks, psychological disorders, and good old-fashioned sins. Sometimes, after discussing some difficult situation, my wife and I look knowingly at one other and say (tongue in cheek), “Everybody’s weird except us.”
So, how do you deal with difficult people?
1. Remember they are people.
That they’re people is more important than that they’re difficult. Sometimes we can get so focused on the problems people bring to us, the inconvenience those problems pose to our schedules, and the anxiety and frustration it makes us feel, that we forget they’re people.  People created imago Dei – in the image of God. People with stories to tell, feelings to understand, and hurts to heal. They are people to be loved, not problems to be fixed. And the truth is, we’ll never help them if we forget this. Don’t depersonalize difficult people.
2. Pray and listen. 
We should never presume that we help people if we will not pray for them and listen to them. Pray for them. Pray for yourself. Pray for wisdom. Pray for the ability to hear and understand. Pray James 3:13-18 into your life and theirs.
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. (James 3:13-18)
Then sit down and talk with them, seeking first to understand, rather than be understood. This doesn’t mean every problem will be solved or every conflict avoided. But a prayerful dependence on the Lord, with a willingness to genuinely listen, and a sincere desire to understand, will always put you in a better position to love.
3. Sharpen your pastoral skills by learning from the great spiritual masters of the past.
This starts, of course, with regular reading and meditation on Scripture, but also includes the great pastors and spiritual directors of centuries gone by. There is biblical warrant for this: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7).
It’s tempting for pastors to only read books that are hot off the press, written by successful leaders of large churches and organizations, that focus largely on strategic thinking, innovative programs, and managerial technique. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. There’s much to learn from these kinds of books. But not the skills for soul care. For this, turn to Baxter’s Reformed Pastor and Christian Directory, or Bridges’The Christian Ministry, or Lloyd-Jones’ Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure, or the excellent pastoral series by Eugene Peterson.[1]
As an example of the kind of insight these older books can provide, consider these words from St. Gregory the Great’s classic sixth-century primer, The Book of Pastoral Rule. In Part III, Gregory warns that, “one and the same exhortation is not suited for everyone because not everyone shares the same quality of character.”
For example, what often helps some people will cause harm in others, just as herbs that are nutritious to some animals will kill others…Likewise, the medicine that cures one disease will spur another, and the bread that fortifies a grown man can kill a young child.[2]
Gregory then goes on to list over seventy different “traits” or conditions that the wise pastor should consider and differentiate between, including:
  • men and women;
  • young and old;
  • poor and rich;
  • joyful and sad;…
  • the bold and the modest;…
  • the impatient and the patient;
  • the healthy and the sick;…
  • the lazy and the hasty;…
  • the obstinate and the fickle;…
  • those who live in discord and those who are peaceful;…
  • those who deplore sins of action and those who deplore sins of thought;
  • those who bewail their sins but do not cease in committing them,
  • and those who cease but do not bewail past sins… and many more! [3]
I know. That’s an overwhelming list. But the ancient pastors knew that disorders of the soul are as complex and varied as maladies of the body. No one would respect a physician who prescribes aspirin for every patient. Panaceas are an illusion. There is no medicine suited to cure all conditions. The same is true in the spiritual life.
And this means that the pastor must always…
4. Be patient and kind, remembering that God alone is the one who changes hearts. 
Hear the advice of an aged apostle to a young pastor:
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will. (2 Timothy 2:24-26)
I can’t change people. Only God can. What I can do, by God’s grace, is cultivate a kind and gentle heart, that is ready to listen, able to teach, quick to forgive, and prepared to point difficult people to the Savior.
5. Finally, remember that you, too, are a difficult person to someone! 
C. S. Lewis wrote an incisive essay called “The Trouble with X,” in which he describes the struggles we all have with certain people who have a “fatal flaw” in their character that causes us difficulty and frustration. But by the end of the essay, Lewis turns the tables on you, with the reminder that, “you also are just that sort of person. You also have a fatal flaw in your character.”
All the hopes and plans of others have again and again shipwrecked on your character just as your hopes and plans have shipwrecked on theirs…It is important to realize that there is some really fatal flaw in you: something which gives others the same feeling of despair which their flaws give you.[4] 
The day that sinks is sobering and humbling. But unless we are growing in this kind of self-awareness, we will always tend to point out splinters in the eyes of difficult church members, while ignoring the Redwood trees in our own.

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[1] There are four volumes in this series, all published by Eerdmans: Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (1989); Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work (1992); The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction (1993); and Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (1994).  
[2] St Gregory the Great, The Book of Pastoral Rule, George E. Demacopoulos, transl. (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007) p. 87.
[3] Ibid., pp. 88-89.
[4] C. S. Lewis, “The Trouble with X…” in God in the Dock: Essays in Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972) p. 153.

3 Reasons Why Christ's Ascension Matters to You

The Ascension, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1636
The ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven is one of the most important events recorded in the New Testament. But though it occupies a vital place in Scripture, it doesn’t get a lot of attention today, even among Christians.  My guess is that you probably haven’t read any books about it or heard many sermons on it. Usually we focus on the crucifixion and the resurrection. But the ascension is pivotal, especially in the writings of Luke.
Luke wrote a two-part history of the origins of Christianity. Volume one is the gospel that bears his name. Volume two is the book of Acts. And the ascension was so important for Luke, that he ended volume one with it (Luke 24:50-51), begins volume two by reporting it again (Acts 1:9-11), and then refers back to it several times in the book of Acts.
As Joel Green, a New Testament scholar who specializes in Luke’s writings, comments, “Luke presents the exaltation (i.e. resurrection & ascension) as the salvific event.”[1]
Why is that?
For one thing, the ascension accounts for why the appearances of Jesus during the forty days following his resurrection ceased. The ascension also foreshadowed the final event in salvation history: Jesus’ personal, physical, glorious return.
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).
But there’s more to it than that. For the ascension of Jesus was also the climatic, crowning event of his exaltation, and the necessary precursor to his continuing work through the Spirit and the church.
In Acts 2, the Apostle Peter reflects on Jesus’ resurrection and ascension in light of Psalm 16 and Psalm 110, and tells us that Jesus was exalted to “the right hand of God.” When we trace this phrase through Acts we see three things that the ascended and enthroned Christ does for his church.
1. The ascended and enthroned Christ pours out his Spirit on the church.
Jesus himself had told his disciples that it was good for him to go away, because only then would he send them another Helper, the Spirit of truth (John 16:7-16). And that’s exactly what happened on the Day of Pentecost, ten days after Jesus’ ascension. The Spirit descended on the church with power, inaugurating a new age in the history of salvation.
That’s why Peter connects Jesus’ exaltation and the outpouring of the Spirit in Acts 2:33:
Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.
2. The ascended and enthroned Christ applies the blessings of salvation.
Having accomplished redemption through his suffering on the cross, the risen and exalted Christ now applies the salvation he has won, by granting the gifts of repentance and forgiveness of sins.
As Peter says in Acts 5:31:
God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.
3. The ascended and enthroned Christ cares for his suffering people as they bear witness to him.
We see this in Acts 7, when Stephen becomes the first martyr of the Christian church. 
But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:55-56)
All of this should give us great encouragement! When feel weak in ourselves, Luke reminds us that the exalted Christ has given us his Spirit, who equips us with the power, boldness, and courage we need to accomplish our mission.
When we feel cynical about evangelism and fear no one will respond to our message, Luke reminds us that the exalted Christ is the Leader and Savior who grants repentance and forgiveness of sins. He is the King who seeks and saves the lost. That means we don’t have to manipulate and that we can be confident that some people will in fact respond.
And when we’re paralyzed by fear at the thought of the risks entailed in taking Jesus to the hard to reach nations and neighborhoods of the world, and tremble when in contemplating potential rejection or persecution, Luke reminds us that the exalted Christ cares for his suffering people and stands to welcome them home.
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[1] Joel B. Green, ‘Salvation to the End of the Earth’ (Acts 13:47): God as Saviour in the Acts of the Apostles” in I. Howard Marshall & David Peterson, ed., Witness to the Gospel: The Theology of Acts(Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), p. 95.

5 Requirements for Pastoral Preaching

When I set out to write on the craft of sermon preparation, I didn’t get far before realizing that isolating the mechanics of preparing a sermon from the biblical teaching on a pastor’s calling runs the risk of reducing this tremendous responsibility to a list of techniques. Paul does tell Timothy to rightly handle the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15). And Ecclesiastes reminds us that  “The Preacher sought to find words of delight” (Eccl 12:10). So good communication is a biblical priority for any one charged with proclaiming the word. But it’s not the only priority. More has to be said.

In his treatise on The True Nature of a Gospel Church, the 17th century pastor-theologian John Owen explained eleven distinct responsibilities of pastors, including preaching, prayer, and the administration of the sacraments. Under the mandate “tofeed the flock by diligent preaching of the word,” Owen listed five requirements for “the work and duty of pastoral preaching.”[i] I find Owen’s words to be challenging, biblical, and helpful in providing guidance for preaching that doesn’t focus mainly on technique.
1. Know the Scriptures
The first requirement is “spiritual wisdom and understanding of the mysteries of the gospel,” so that we are equipped to declare “all the counsel of God” and “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Acts 20:271 Cor 2:4-7Eph 3:8-11). If we are heralds of God’s word, we must know the Scriptures. Sadly, I’ve known ministers who have never read all the way through their Bibles. But shouldn’t someone charged with proclaiming the truth of Scripture make it an ongoing priority to read, meditate on, and study it well? Every preacher needs a broad working knowledge of God’s word and a commitment to read through both Testaments with regularity. But Owen wasn’t thinking merely about grasping the Bible’s content, but also “spiritual insight” into scriptural truth.
2. Experience the power of the truth
This naturally led to his second requirement, an “experience of the power of the truth which they preach in and upon their own souls.” It’s not enough to know the truth. We must also experience its saving, sanctifying influence in our hearts.
The 19th century Scottish pastor, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, was a great example of this. His biographer said that M’Cheyne “fed others by what he himself was feeding upon. His preaching was in a manner the development of his soul’s experience.”[ii]
That’s exactly what Owen was after. “A man preacheth that sermon only well unto others which preacheth itself in his own soul,” he said. “And he that doth not feed on and thrive in the digestion of the food which he provides for others will scarce make it savoury unto them…If the word do not dwell with power in us, it will not pass with power from us."
3. Prepare the message
But this emphasis didn’t lead Owen to neglect the rigor and discipline of careful study. Owen’s third requirement is, “skill to divide the word aright” (2 Tim 2:15). This consists “in a practical wisdom, upon a diligent attendance unto the word of truth, to find out what is real, substantial, and meet food for the souls of the hearers.” As someone suggested in an illustration that’s as heart-warming as it is quaint, it’s like a father skillfully carving the Sunday roast, to give the proper portion to each member of the family.
This is the place to highlight the craft of sermon preparation. While whole books have been written on this, I think we can compress the process into three phases:
(1) The task begins with selecting the preaching passage and studying the passage and its theological themes. (This presupposes, of course, my conviction that true preaching must be both expositional and theological.) This often involves heavy reading, though the longer you preach, the broader your knowledge of both Scripture and theology should be. But even so, we need to stay fresh and sharp. And that means reading.
(2) As you study, you gather a large amount of raw material. I’ve found it helpful to compile as much as possible into a single file devoted to the specific message I’m preparing. This usually includes the text of the passage I’m preaching on; written observations about the passage; important cross references; notes from commentaries; potential outlines for the sermon; as well as possible illustrations and ideas for application.
(3) Finally this material must be shaped into a message. This requires determining the main theme and focus of the sermon, crafting a clear structure with a smooth flow of thought, and developing a “homiletical plot” for the message that seeks a deliberate intersection between our fallen condition and God’s redemptive grace revealed in the gospel.[iii]
4. Know your flock
Thinking through the fallen condition of our hearers naturally leads to Owen’s fourth requirement, “a prudent and diligent consideration of the state of the flock… their strength or weakness, their growth or defect in knowledge…their temptations and duties, their spiritual decays or thrivings.” Owen saw an integral relationship between a pastor’s care for the flock and his feeding of the flock in the ministry of the word. But even when our context today involves a less personal relationship between pastors and people, we should remember that preaching is not merely teaching or motivational speaking. It is the work of a shepherd charged with guarding, tending, and feeding the flock. Therefore, we must do our best to understand the spiritual conditions of our hearers. 
5. Check your motives
Finally, Owen reminds us that all these duties should be “constantly accompanied with the evidence of zeal for the glory of God and compassion for the souls of men.”Motivation is all-important. With a nod to the old catechism, the “chief end” of preaching “is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” But zeal for God’s glory necessarily includes love and compassion for people, born of a deep recognition of both our shared need for the good news of God’s saving word. In the words of Richard Baxter, I should “preach as never sure to preach again, as a dying man to dying men.”[iv]
What a high calling!
Reading guys like Baxter, Owen, and M’Cheyne help me feel something of the gravitas I should always feel when approaching the pulpit. It makes me say, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Cor 2:16) I know that I’m not. But that realization, too, is part of the preparation process.  For, in the words of Paul,
What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.  For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. (2 Cor 4:5-7)
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[i] All quotes from John Owen are from Chapter V in The True Nature of a Gospel Church in The Works of John Owen, volume 16 (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1968).
[ii] Andrew Bonar, Memoirs & Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2004), p. 36.
[iii] For further help on discerning the “fallen condition” and “gospel solution” see Bryan Chapell’s excellentChrist-centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005). I’ve also found help in Eugene Lowry’s The Homiletical Plot: The Sermon as Narrative Art Form (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000).
[iv] Quoted in I. D. E. Thomas, A Puritan Golden Treasury (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1977) p. 223.