The song I played earlier is called “The Voice of Truth” and it’s by a Christian band called “Casting Crowns”. It’s a song that has meant a lot to me over the years – especially in my first years of being a pastor.
You see, when I was in high school I never thought in a million years that I would be a preacher. I grew up loving computers and Star Trek. I was a nerd before nerds were cool. From the moment my dad bought the family that Tandy 1000 and I got that first MS-DOS manual, I was hooked. Put it this way, when I was in high school and the library computer wasn’t working properly, I was the one who got called out of class to come and take a look at it – and only sometimes because I was the one who had broken it in the first place.
So, when God called me to ministry it was as much of a surprise to me as it was to everyone else. My call came during my first year of Bible College. I had just flunked out of computer school and needed to be registered somewhere in order to be a Summer Student at the Pulp Mill in my home town, so I registered at the Bible College my pastor went to. I only signed up for one year because I definitely wasn’t going to need a Bible degree, but within the first 3 months, once I had given my life back to Jesus and He had done some work in my heart, He told me one thing: “Stay here”.
So, I signed up for the 4 year Bachelor’s Degree program, still having no idea what I was supposed to do with my life – only knowing one thing: I won’t be a preacher. I took courses to work for a missionary organization, or be a counsellor, but nothing for preaching or teaching.
Then, after 4 years, with a Certificate, a Diploma, and a bunch of ministry experience, under my belt, I still didn’t know what to do. I asked my denominational leader, and he told me to go back to school. So I signed up for a 3 Year Master’s of Divinity Degree – still having no idea what I’d be when I grew up.
Fast forward to the last semester of my third year. I had picked my own classes, found my own mentors, volunteered and worked for the churches I wanted to, even created a new job at a big church called “media minister” where I organized the sound, video, and print ministries of the church. I’d done everything in my power to avoid preaching. Everything I did was behind the scenes. I took lots of courses for everything other than preaching… sure that my future was in ministry, but not in the pulpit. But by the last semester, I still didn’t know what God wanted me to do.
Until one day when I just gave up trying to control my future. I gave up on guiding my own way and guessing what my future would look like. Instead, I prayed a very dangerous prayer: “Lord, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m educated beyond my intelligence and abilities, and have no idea what you want. So, from this moment on, I’m just going to say ‘yes’ to everything everyone asks me to do. You’d better put some people in my way because I’m just going to say ‘yes’.”
Now, I don’t necessarily recommend that prayer, but I’ll tell you what happened. Three days later the Academic Vice President of the school called me out of the blue and said, “Al, I want you to preach at a little church that just lost their pastor.” If I hadn’t told God that I would say ‘yes’ to everything, I would have laughed him off the phone, said “No thank you, sir.” and hung up. But I committed to saying ‘yes’.
So I took the one and only sermon I had ever had to write, for the one and only class I was forced to take to pass my degree, and I preached it at that little church. I was petrified. But, they asked me back. I’m guessing they were desperate because the sermon was not good.
Then, another church called and wanted me to preach there. And I said “yes” and went. Then a little church in the middle of nowhere, a full hour away from where my family was living in Edmonton, in a little town named Gwynne Alberta, called me to be their weekly preacher. And, scared as I was… I still said “yes”.
Then I graduated, and another little church – this time in Cleveland, Ohio called me to be their full-time pastor. I didn’t want to go to the US. I didn’t want to be a solo pastor. I didn’t want to be a preacher. I wanted to serve behind the scenes, help other pastors and preachers be good at what they do – but no, God said, “No. I’m taking you out of your comfort zone, Al. I’m taking you from your churches of 1000 people and I’m putting you in a church of 25. I’m taking you out of Canada. I’m taking you from being surrounded by technology to a place where they still use an overhead projector, slides and a hymnal. And most of all, I’m taking you away from the comfort of hiding in the back, and I’m going to make you stand up and preach my word.”
And, I said yes. And here’s something a lot of people don’t know – and why that song “Voice of Truth” is so meaningful to me. I was terrified every week for over 10 years. Every week for over a decade, 50 weeks out of the year, right before service, I would be in the bathroom sick, on my knees in front of a toilet, begging God to help me. I’ve been preaching for about 16 years now, and for well over half of it – and still sometimes to this day – I’m often still so scared that I end up on my knees in the bathroom before service.
There were a lot of times I wanted to run away, quit, do something to disqualify myself so I wouldn’t be allowed to preach anymore. There were a lot of times well-meaning (and not-so-well-meaning) people said something that devastated me for days after the sermon. There have been times I would sit before my computer, blank cursor blinking away, fighting back tears because I didn’t know where I was going to get the strength to write one more message.
The voices in my head would say the very same things that the lyrics to the song said. The first verse is about when Peter was standing in the boat, looking out at Jesus walking on the water, wanting to walk out to Him, and then taking that step off the boat… It says, “Oh what I would do to have the kind of faith it takes to climb out of this boat I’m in, onto the crashing waves. To step out of my comfort zone into the realm of the unknown where Jesus is and He’s holding out His hand. But the waves are calling out my name and they laugh at me reminding me of all the times I’ve tried before and failed. The waves they keep on telling me, time and time again. ‘Boy, you’ll never win! You’ll never win!’”
I’ve heard that voice many times. I’m sure you have too.
These are trying times we are living in right now. So much fear, confusion, anguish, and uncertainty. The enemy the world is trying to fight right now isn’t some rogue nation, or terrorist organization, its invisible – a virus. It’s not happening somewhere over there in a foreign land – it’s happening right here, in our towns and cities, to people we know.
There’s literally panic in the streets as people hoard food and essentials, not knowing what will happen next. People are being told to stay in their homes, to be wary of one another, to fear strangers, to always be on guard, to change their whole lives. People are being sent home from work and are afraid of what that means for their finances because most people in Canada simply don’t have anything in their savings. Others are being forced to work in places where they can become infected – but the protective equipment is becoming scarce, their hands are dry and painfully cracking from constantly using hand-sanitizer, and the customers they serve are getting more upset, more impatient, and won’t abide by the rules.
The politicians and media and bloggers and podcasters are all in a frenzy right now, spitting out new information, ideas, numbers, explanations, guesses, and theories. The helpful ideas and statistics we hear one day end up being completely altered the next. Information and misinformation are passed along with equal authority by news agencies and well-meaning citizens, and it’s hard to know what the truth is, and how we’re really supposed to be responding.
And I’m not talking about “social distancing”, “washing your hands”, and not buying all the toilet paper at the store. I’m talking about how to respond in our hearts, our minds, our souls. We’re so worried about our bodies these days that it’s easy to forget that humans are far more than just flesh. The damage that can be done to us during this time is not merely physical. Yes, it would be bad to get COVID19, and we should take precautions – but that’s not the only thing that will cause us harm.
We are also intelligent creatures, emotional creatures, and spiritual creatures. It’s entirely possible for us to get through this pandemic without ever getting the Coronavirus, and yet still have permanent scars.
Fear can cause spiritual sickness and leave permanent scars too. Anyone who has ever experienced trauma, abuse, or has a phobia knows this. The scars aren’t external, but internal. It is easy to be afraid these days – and to let that fear dictate our lives – and for that fear to make permanent changes inside of us. It’s easy to look at the crashing waves before us, to see the upheaval in the land, have our hearts melt within us, and to form beliefs that will cripple us for a long time.
The frustration and anger we have against those who were first diagnosed, with those who spread it, with those who refused to self-isolate, who hoard and steal supplies, who are mismanaging the crisis and causing us to lose work and money, or putting people we love in danger – that anger – can start to fester, to spread to the people around you, and that bitterness can infect the people around you causing them to get bitter too. That anger can start to manifest in more permanent scars like divorce, abuse, broken friendships, racism, sexism, ageism – that don’t go away, but stick with us.
Another scar that fear creates is paranoia. You start to believe the world is out of control. The invisible virus is everywhere, and there’s no way to know who has it. The government starts cracking down with harsher controls and penalties, and it starts to feel more and more oligarchical, more oppressive. The media hypes to the max, blogs and websites start to write more conspiracies and talk more about superstition than actual healthcare. The stores shut down, work shuts down, construction shuts down, and you start to be afraid for your financial future too. Your neighbour or family member doesn’t believe it’s serious and tries to leave the house or come over for a visit… and you get scared for them, for you, for everyone.
That fear isn’t something that will go away when the pandemic subsides. That fear will stay with you, because it was there before and it’s deep-seated, firmly established inside you. All the things you were secretly thinking before starting to become reality – and you convince yourself that this pandemic isn’t the problem – it’s just the surface of all the other terrible things that need to be worried about. And it’s crippling.
Then you end up being the one on your knees in the bathroom, sick to your stomach, with a thousand voices telling you how terrible it will be, how no one can be trusted, how everything is against you, how the systems will fail, how no one is watching, no one understands, and no one cares…
Have you felt that fear? Have you felt racism and prejudice rise up in you? Anger and bitterness? Paranoia, desperation, and superstition? I’m sure you have. What can be done? How do we combat that level of fear?
The song gives us a clue. I want to read the chorus to you, “But the voice of truth tells me a different story. The voice of truth says, “Do not be afraid!”. The voice of truth says, “This is for My glory”. Out of all the voices calling out to me, I will choose to listen and believe the voice of truth.”
The greatest weapons we have against fear are Truth and Faith. When the voices come barreling into our head, log-jamming our mind with fear, what are we to do? Seek Truth and hold fast to Faith.
I think of 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 – turn with me there. It says,
“For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ…”
The whole world is trying to find and use tools to fix this pandemic. Scientists and doctors are pulling out all the stops to try to end the devastating effects of COVID19. But how do we destroy the effects of fear, the stronghold that fear can take in our lives? What weapons do we have at our disposal? They are not “fleshly” weapons. Washing our hands, social distancing, cleaning the house, having a good schedule, working out, eating well, is not going to demolish the stronghold of fear in our hearts. There is not enough money, power, and political might out there to solve the problem of fear. We keep trying to put our faith in these things, but it never works. There’s always something they miss, something they didn’t see coming.
So many people sat in their homes and jobs thinking our modern society is way beyond ever having a “plague” again. Our scientists are too smart for that. Our medicine to amazing to allow for it. Our laws too well thought out. Our economy too strong to fall apart, our political leaders too experienced to ever let the whole world shut down like it did a century ago. And yet, here we are.
I’m all for science and technology. I love living in a world of medicine and antibiotics and MRI machines. I’m glad we have economists and police officers and politicians. But we have to remember that our greatest weapons against fear are not these people, their money, their systems, or their clever ideas. Our greatest weapons are Truth and Faith.
When we face all the “arguments” and “lofty opinions” out there that tell the dozens of reasons to be afraid – what can we do? We do as verse 5 says, we “take every thought captive to obey Christ”. What does that mean?
It means that when we are faced with something to be afraid of, with a news article, blog post, podcast, family member or friend, or even a thought in our head – that causes us to be afraid, to worry, to want to panic, to hide, to lash out, to take control, to get bitter – to do whatever it is you do when you’re angry. You stop, you take that thought captive, and you hold it up to the truth of Christ, and you say, “Lord Jesus, is this thought true? Does it line up with reality and logic and your Word? Does it obey you?” As Jesus said, “the Truth will set you free…” (John 8:21-32)
Turn with me to Psalm 46.
Literally, when I was writing this script, I got an emergency message on my phone. You know the one complete with lights and horns and scary noises and yellow exclamation marks that freak you out in the middle of the night? I got one of those that read, “You are at high risk of spreading COVID 19. You are required by law to self-isolate. DO NOT visit stores, family or friends.” I thought, “Dang! How does my phone know if I got it!?! What app did I download? What government spy software is on there?!” Turns out it was for “Travellers Returning to Ontario”, but I missed that part. It kind of freaked me out for a second.
What do we do when our mind says the world is out of control, no one knows what to do, terrible things are on the horizon, it’s too much for me, but no one else can do anything about it either? What do we do? Look at Psalm 46:
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns. The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah
Come, behold the works of the LORD, how he has brought desolations on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire. ‘Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!’ The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah”
God is not weak, God is not distant. This Psalm says, “Remember who God really is, what God really wants, and remember His strength. Nothing is out of His control. He is All-Knowing, Ever-Present, and All-Powerful. He sees everything and everything works within his constraints and abides by His plans. Be Still, my heart, know that God – the God of hosts, the God of angel armies, is with us. He is the fortress we run to because He is strong.”
But our mind says, “But how can any of this be for the good? Maybe God is all powerful, but maybe He doesn’t care.”
Then we read the words of Romans 5:1–8. Turn there.
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
We read this and remind ourselves: “I know I am loved because God actually traded His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, for me on the cross. While I was His enemy, dead in my sins, unable to do anything of value, a child of hell, God sent His Son to save me – to die for me – to take the cross for me. I don’t need to ever doubt His love.”
Plus, God promises that all the current suffering will work out for God’s glory and our good. All this suffering is building endurance and character. It’s a trial to go through, a refining fire, where, if we are wise, obedient, and faithful, we will come out the other side more hopeful, more loving, more godly than before. What is happening in the world is bad – but it’s not all bad – there is much opportunity for good! I think of the words of Mr. Rogers who reminded us that when bad things happen and we’re scared when watching the news, to “look for the helpers.”
Jesus suffered for the sins of the world, and asks believers to follow in His footsteps. So, as His followers, we don’t fear suffering, we face it knowing God is good, God is with us, and God can do amazing things with faithful people who are willing to be obedient to Him.
What got me off the floor of the bathroom each and every Sunday was not the strength of my own character or will. It wasn’t any strength I had inside me. It was because God had brought me to a place where I was utterly dependant on Him – and so I had to trust that He would allow me to do what He wanted done. If you’re a Christian today, I’m sure you can relate to God doing something similar with you. This pandemic is a way to show us how weak we are, how finite we are, and should cause us to become more dependant on Him. The only weapons we have when fear starts to take over are Truth and Faith. What’s true? And is God still God?
“God called me to preach. God’s Word has Power. It will not return void. God has given me something to say. He will give me the strength to say it. He won’t abandon me. He will be with me every step of the way. Now, all I have to do is get up and do what He has already told me to, and trust the I can because He will do it.”
Let me close with two more verses to keep in mind.
The first is 1 John 1:18,
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”
One reason you might feel fear is because you think God is punishing you – or the world – and you’re worried that the only way you can fix it is to live perfectly. That’s impossible – and it’s a trap.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ says that you are an imperfect sinner, born into sin, who loves their sin, and cannot escape it because it is woven into your DNA like a curse. Even all the good deeds you do to try to impress God end up working against you because they’re not even good deeds for their own sake – but driven by fear and selfishness. But, you are right to fear punishment, because God is wrathful against sinners and anyone who has broken His law. If you’ve ever violated any part of the Bible or any part of your conscience, you are a sinner doomed to face the wrath of God. And just like if you broke the laws of Canada, you can’t just tell the judge what a great person you are most of the time and ask him to let you go. There’s no amount of good you can do to cancel out your sin.
The only way to be saved, to be free from the fear of judgement, is to believe that you are a desperate sinner in need of a great saviour. That you are utterly unable to save yourself, and that you need Jesus to take all the punishment for you. To trust in the love of God, the “perfect love” of God, that accepts you as you are, and if you ask, will place all your guilt, shame, and sin onto Jesus, so He can take the punishment for you.
Then, the moment you believe, you are saved and utterly clean and totally free. As Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Then, when the thought comes that God is punishing you or your family for doing something bad, you can say, “Nope. God placed all my punishment on Jesus, who took it gladly for my sake, and there is no condemnation for me anymore. This bad thing that is happening not because God is mad at me, or because I’m supposed to be punished – it’s a bad thing because there is sin in the world, and the effects of sin are evil. I’m not in heaven yet. But, I trust that God will do something good through this, so I will remain faithful to Him.”
Truth and Faith.
And the final verse I want to leave you with is one that I’ve had in mind for a couple weeks now. It’s Isaiah 26:3–4, which says,
“You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Trust in the LORD forever, for the LORD GOD is an everlasting rock.”
Do you want peace at this time? Stand steadfastly in Faith on the Word of God and the Person of Jesus. Let God’s Word and the presence of Jesus Christ, be the everlasting rock beneath your feet. Turn to those spiritual weapons – prayer, reading the Bible, sharing your fears with other believers, listening to testimonies of God’s faith from biographies and online videos. Fill your mind with Truth and practice Faith – and you will break those strongholds and come out of this time stronger and more hopeful than when you went in.
Spectacle over Substance
Our North American society, including the Christian church, tends to overvalue style, spectacle, and cleverness in not only our educators but also our teachers, preachers and authority figures. What a person may lack in knowledge, character, understanding, wisdom and kindness, they can more than make up for in how they look, their showmanship, and their ability to turn a phrase. A person’s abilities, intelligence, and giftedness don’t seem to matter nearly as much as their appearance, willingness to adapt, and overall marketability.
It’s a strange thing that hundreds of experts who have devoted their life to studying a certain subject, can agree on something and no one will listen – but if a famous actor or athlete talks about it, then suddenly their opinion is not only registered as valid, but important and worthy of being repeated in news outlets all over the world.
It happens all the time when news programs bring actors, comedians, and athletes on to talk about everything from nutrition to politics to religion. When Justin Bieber does an interview about his music, for some reason they also ask him his opinion on geopolitics and social issues. Gwyneth Paltrow once introduced the President of the United States by commenting on how handsome he is and wishing that he could have the unilateral power to do whatever he wants. And social media makes it even worse. Lindsay Lohan tweets her solution to the Middle East crisis, and it’s retweeted by hundreds. Chris Brown told 16 million people that he thinks the “Ebola epidemic is a form of population control” and it’s retweeted by tens of thousands.
And the line gets even fuzzier as many so-called scientists and experts get corrupted as they try to become celebrities. Maybe they feel like they aren’t listened to, so they alter their message or pursue popular and obscure topics that will get them the attention they so crave. Think of Dr. Oz who used to be a real doctor, but is now a television personality that hocks products and spouts wrong information. Or the countless experts and teachers who were corrupted into lying by the promise of big-business money and political power. Or the psychologists and counsellors who have allowed truly mentally ill people to think they are healthy because they have bent to political pressure, want to be on the “right side of history”, or want their name to be first on a unique paper.
Yes, I understand that one of the joys of the internet is that everyone can register their opinion on anything at any time. We can post pictures of our breakfast with as much ease and impunity as we can tell everyone our solution to climate change and what we think about Justin Trudeau’s political strategies. I’m not saying that’s terrible. It’s great to have a forum where the whole world can talk to one another.
The problem is that our celebrity-obsessed culture is making these the voices that shape our worldview. These people, who are dripping with charisma, style, and pseudo-intelligence, have a greater voice than any of the wise, knowledgeable, humble and thoughtful people who actually should be listened to.
More and more people, especially people younger than me, live in a world of tweets, sound bites, cartoons and memes that seem to have the magical ability to boil an incredibly complex issue like climate change, zoology, parenting, religion, terrorism, relationships, sex, politics or a thousand other things into one picture and an easy to digest sentence. And if it seems right to us, we’ll grab onto it, believe it and repeat it to others. These voices are steering what a generation of people believe about incredibly important and complex issues, and it is dangerous spiritually, emotionally, relationally, politically, and every other way, to gain your information from sources that value celebrity and style over truth and substance.
Not that this is anything new. Choosing the wrong voice to listen to because they sound convincing and telling us what we want to hear has been an issue for humans since the Garden of Eden! And if you remember back to when we talked about the context of 1st Corinthians, you’ll remember that this was an issue for Paul’s ministry too.
He was a man that was not only educated as a great Jewish scholar but was also trained in the Greek educational system too. He was a talented guy who was not only a skilled tradesman, but had memorized the whole Bible, had studied it for years, and was also well versed Greek philosophy. When he came into Greece as a missionary, he had an amazing amount of information, and the skill to share it, with those who were looking for new knowledge and divine wisdom.
And yet, over and over he was mocked and dismissed as a fool. Why? Because instead of playing to what the crowds wanted to hear with long, clever speeches full of fancy quotes and floury language, Paul stuck to the simple truths of the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. He had the ability, but he staunchly refused to stylize his teaching. He refused to dilute the message by becoming a spectacle. He refused to cloud the plan of salvation through Jesus Christ with a bunch of clever showmanship.
Why? Wouldn’t that have helped? Wouldn’t he have gotten more listeners if he would have been a bit more marketable? Maybe, but he didn’t want anyone walking away from his preaching and remember him. He only wanted his listeners to remember what he had said about Jesus. He knew that the Greek people struggled with the same thing we do today: celebrity worship. When they went home they would be talking just as much about how interesting, exciting, and passionate their favourite speaker was as they would about the substance of what they learned – maybe more. “I have no idea what he said, but wow, was he an entertaining speaker!” was not a review that Paul wanted to get.
Too many Bible teachers get this confused, and too many Christians do this with their favourite preachers today. They find a person that looks good, sounds interesting, has lots of charisma, and says things that they agree with, and then decide to follow them. The truthfulness of the message comes second to the personality behind the microphone.
Listen to what Paul says to the Corinthian church. Open to 1 Corinthians 1:10:
“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”
You see, they had forgotten the message they had heard and believed, and had slipped into celebrity worship. It wasn’t Paul’s or Apollos’ or Cephas’ (which is Peter’s) fault that this happened. It was the natural state of the Corinthians to elevate the teacher over the message. “Paul was the one who planted our church and spent time with us, so he’s my favourite we should all follow him.”, some would say. “Well, Peter is the leader of all the Apostles, plus he’s the one who gave the first sermon in Jerusalem at Pentecost, so we should listen to him.”, others would argue. “Well, Apollos is one of the greatest preachers of all time! His eloquence and speaking ability is unmatched by anyone! Everyone loves him and the crowds come running whenever he’s in town. We should all follow him!”, others would say.
Meanwhile, Paul, Peter, and Apollos are each getting more and more frustrated with this church because none of them want this kind of attention! They are trying to put the spotlight on Jesus, and the crowd keeps trying to put the spotlight on them.
Sounds like what happens in the church today, doesn’t it? I’m a John MacArthur guy! I like Rick Warren! I’m all about John Piper! TD Jakes! Franklin Graham! John Hagee! Francis Chan! Joyce Meyer!
But in the church it gets even crazier because we don’t just idolize people that are alive, but those who have died a long time ago – and then we stick their names on our churches! Of course, you have churches dedicated to St. Peter, St. Luke, St. Mark, St. Paul… but also Calvinist churches named after John Calvin, Lutheran churches named after Martin Luther, Arminian churches named after Jacobus Arminius… and the list goes on. We seem to love finding a favourite Christian, glomming onto them, and then arguing with other believers on their behalf. Paul is better than Peter! Luther is better than Calvin!
All this celebrity worship divided the Corinthian church into sects that not only argued with one another but ended up working against each other. It got to the point that they wouldn’t even eat together anymore. We’re not even talking about differences in theology, we’re merely talking about preferring one teacher over another! And it divides churches today too.
Look at verse 14 and see what Paul says next. He says, “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and
“I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”
Paul is actually thankful that he spent so much time preaching and teaching that there were not many people in the church who can claim to be in his “official fan club” because they were baptized by him. That kind of thinking is a sign of a sick soul and a sick church, and he wanted no part of it. Why? Because when the focus is on the teacher, or the religious act, the focus is no longer on the worship of God, salvation through Jesus Christ, and obedience to His Word. Instead, people start talking about the person who is leading the worship, preaching the sermon, and teaching the Bible. And that, in short, is idol worship.
Now, there are lots of places we could go from here. I could go on a rant against the health and wealth preachers who put on a great show, attract thousands of followers, but are actually preaching a false gospel. I could talk about how some Christian pastors have been corrupted by their pursuit of fame and deny the fundamental tenets of the faith so they gain a bigger audience. I could get into how many churches have split because of their dedication to secondary and tertiary issues, forgetting about their unity in Christ. I could explain a bunch of ways that famous theologians have differed with one another and how the church dealt with those issues. I could even take a tour of how the Roman Catholic Church has corrupted the gospel and fallen into the trap of elevating human teaching to the level of scripture.
And I would enjoy talking about all of those topics. But, here’s where I think God wants me to go today, because I think all of us need to hear it – me included:
Emptying the Cross of its Power
There’s an important phrase that Paul uses at the end of this section that explains the problem with creating a cult of personality, worshipping celebrities, or simply getting our eyes off of God and onto the one who is delivering the message – and it’s found in verse 17.
Paul says, “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”
Paul is clearly not against baptism. He knows how important baptism is, that it was commanded by the Lord Jesus, and actually takes time in many of his letters, including First Corinthians, to explain how it connects us to the gospel of Jesus and to one another.
And Paul is not against “eloquent wisdom”. Proverbs 3:13 says, “Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold.” Whole books of the Bible are dedicated to wisdom! Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon are often called “wisdom literature”. So there’s no way Paul is against speaking and pursuing wisdom.
So what is Paul saying here? He is saying that this church had gotten their priorities out of whack and were placing too much emphasis on the means and modes of their religion, and all the good things that come as a result, and had forgotten the core of what their faith was supposed to be all about.
They argued about baptism but forgot about what it meant, the story it told, the obedience it showed, and the community it made them a part of. They would argue about which preacher was best, but not discuss the truth they were sharing. They would perform and celebrate the rituals and rights of the church, like taking the Lord’s Supper, but had forgotten their meaning. They would come to church seeking more knowledge, but weren’t using that knowledge to better their relationship with Jesus. They would have grand discussions about theological things, but their hearts were growing cold towards God. And in all of their religious passion for wisdom, they had forgotten the message of the gospel, the power of the cross, and their desperate need for the presence of God in their lives.
In their very short Christian lives, they had gone from overwhelmed by how God had called them to be followers of Jesus who were freed from the consequence of their sins to religious people who came to church, but didn’t think much about Jesus. They were happy as long as the speaker was interesting enough, the spectacle was exciting enough, and they could go about their week knowing they were better than all those around them because they were Christians.
Everything about Paul’s ministry and preaching spoke against that. Wisdom and learning were incredibly important to both the Jews and the Greeks, so it was easy for them to slide into thinking that it was most interesting preachers that were best to listen to. And yet Paul didn’t play that game.
Remember how exhausted he was when he first came to town? He didn’t have anything left other than the core of the gospel and whatever power the Holy Spirit would give him. He was utterly dependent on God for whatever he was going to say, and whatever God wanted to do. Even if he had wanted to use them, he had no strength left to come up with clever illustrations and fancy, philosophical arguments.
Turn the page and look at the beginning of chapter 2 where he says, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
You see, that’s the difference. When the message of the gospel “rests on the wisdom of men”, or is framed so it sounds like “plausible words”, or is filled with “lofty speech”, it is drained of its power.
For me, as a preacher, the more I want you to see me, the less you will see Jesus. The more interested I am in you hearing my words, the less you will hear His Word. I could stand up here, talk about the Bible for an hour, and it could be utterly useless to you spiritually.
For you, as you share your faith with your family and friends, the more they hear of your wisdom, your plausibility, and your arguments, as you fancy up your presentation, trim off the parts you think they’ll be offended by, embellish the parts that sound more interesting, and cram in worldly wisdom because they don’t want to hear what the Bible has to say – the less they will hear from Jesus. Your human, “eloquent wisdom”, will show that you believe that the message of the cross of Christ is empty of its power.
Does that mean we don’t have to study the Bible, or theology, or history, or learn how to make reasoned arguments for why we have the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15)? Of course not! We learn those things so we can know more about God. It increases our faith and builds our relationship with Jesus. It helps us gain confidence during times of doubt that there are good answers to our hardest questions and helps us know what we’re talking about when people ask us those hard questions.
What this means is that when we preach, or teach Sunday school, or lead the service, or organize a small group, or share our faith with a friend, we need to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, our knowledge or wisdom cannot change anyone’s heart or mind!
When a preacher, teacher, missionary, or evangelist (and all Christians are at least one of those in some capacity) either pursues fame and celebrity or tries to use their charm, intelligence or winsomeness to convey the gospel, they not only risk the temptation to change the message, but also risk losing the power of God that is meant to do the work in changing the listener’s heart.
You may, in fact, do more harm than good as you seek to try to convert someone to your own personal understanding of God than if you are seeking to introduce them to God Himself. You could do more harm by trying to use imperfect human explanations of mysterious things, and causing them to be more confused than they were when you first started speaking. You could also do more harm than good because if they did believe you, and change their mind, they may be converted to your own personal religion, a version of the faith that you’ve come up with yourself, or to whatever version they think they heard. You will have gained a follower of yourself, but you have not made them a follower of God (Matthew 23:15).
When we are sharing our faith, we aren’t trying to argue or convince anyone into a new or better relationship with God. All we are meant to do is to present what God has said in the Bible, the simple meaning of the Gospel, and what it has meant to us. We allow the Holy Spirit to do the convincing, the Word of God to be the tool we use, and the testimony that God has been writing in our lives to be our evidence. There is no need for lofty speech or human wisdom. We must come “weak”, and in the power of the Spirit.
So here’s a couple of applications for us today, based on what we’ve been talking about:
First, and most importantly, before you teach or share anything with anyone about God, the Bible, the Gospel, or your testimony, you must pray for God to be the one who speaks through you. Pray that whatever words you say will be truthful, helpful and honouring to God. Ask God to remove your pride and your fear. You don’t want to walk in there full of pride, thinking that you are going to argue this person into becoming a Christian – and you don’t want to walk in their full of fear as though you are all alone in trying to save this person’s soul. This is God’s work, and so you need to be absolutely dependent on Him to go before you and be with you as you share God’s story.
Second, when listening to a preacher or teacher, or reading a Christian book, or blog, or podcast, or some form of social media, ask yourself if you are interested in finding the truth, or are you more interested in witnessing the spectacle? Do you follow them because you know they love God and are presenting His Word unchanged, or because they are media savvy, have interesting illustrations, speak passionately, and agree with what you think. Be careful who you listen to, what voices you allow to inform you, and be aware of your motives when you choose those voices. Scripture tells us to test the spirits, test the prophets, and make sure that they agree with reality and the truth of scripture. I think that includes us testing ourselves for why we are listening to those people in the first place.
Third, when you are given the opportunity to teach or share the gospel with someone, don’t fall for the temptation to try to think that the message needs to be changed so it will be more interesting, popular, or well received. The words of scripture and the message of the cross have inherent power on their own.
I’m not saying you don’t use illustrations to help people understand – Jesus did that. I’m not saying you shouldn’t figure out ways to engage auditory or tactile or visual learners – Jesus did that too. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t speak with passion or use measured words – Jesus did that too.
What I am saying is that as you present the gospel to people, or teach the Bible, there are going to be parts that you are going to want to downplay because they are controversial, or difficult to explain, or just plain offensive – like that people are sinners from birth, or that God has standards for how people live their lives, or that Jesus defies labels (he’s not a liberal, or conservative, or democrat, or communist, or feminist, or chauvinist, or modernist, or socialist…), or that God presents Himself as male, or the violence Jesus endured, or that there really is a Hell for all who do not believe in Jesus as their only Saviour, or that someone has to be willing to publically declare their faith. There are lots of things we are going to be tempted to downplay or skip over when we talk about the gospel of Jesus Christ, but we shouldn’t.
Every time we do, that’s us trying to use human wisdom instead of God’s to try to get people to come to Him. It’s impossible. Human wisdom cannot lead us to God. An edited gospel, or an edited Bible, cannot save anyone. Trying to be clever, safe, and inoffensive, but still present the whole gospel, is impossible. It’s designed to offend. It’s designed to require knowledge we can’t give. It’s designed to require the Holy Spirit to change the heart – and not us.
Don’t fall into the trap of changing the message or skipping parts in your personal study, when you talk to your kids, when you teach in church, or when you share your faith. Give the whole story in a simple way, and trust that the “wisdom or Christ” and the “power of the cross” will lead the person to have their faith “rest not in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.” (1 Cor 1:18-2:5)
We talk with Tim Whitehead, the Executive Director of Galcom International (YouTube Link), a ministry that uses radio technology to communicate the Gospel message to people all around the world. They’ve installed over 120 Christian radio stations and distributed almost a million solar radios in 126 countries, helping local pastors spread the message of Jesus Christ to people all around there area. He has some amazing stories to share!
Behind the Scenes Video:
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Every Christian wants to attend a “good church”, but we all seem to have different ideas of what a “good church” looks like. The guys take on this question and give a biblical perspective.
Behind the Scenes Video:
How Can You Help Carnivore Theology?
1. Ask us a question in your voice on our SpeakPipe page!
3. Share www.CarnivoreTheology.com with your friends. Sharing is caring!
4. Give financially: If you’d like to help us with our productiong costs, send us a financial gift through PayPal by clicking here. (We are not a registered charity, so you won’t get a tax receipt — but you will have the good feelings that come with helping out a friend!)
How Important are Bible Schools, Seminaries and Other Forms of Formal Theological Education? (Carnivore Theology: Ep. 23)
The 23rd episode of “Carnivore Theology”.
Formal Theological Education
We live in the world where Google is a verb, student loans are reaching epic proportions and Ted Talks, how-to videos and info-graphics are everywhere. At the same time, people are giving up on institutionalized religion and theological schools are struggling. So, is formal, theological education important and, if it is, who should pursue it?
Here’s the Resources We Promised
As Always, We Want Your Feedback
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