Pastor's Blog

Three Thoughts for Gospel-Shaped Ministry in Small Places

In April 2019, I attended the RHMA Rural Pastors’ Conference in Morton, IL. Stephen Witmer presented A Big Gospel in Small Places in anticipation of his upcoming book, to be published under the same title. The three these written below are his, followed by the notes and reflections that I made during the seminar.

Strategic isn’t always what we think. 

You only have about 4–5 decades of ministry in you. Right? How did you get where you are now? Why do you remain there? Do you see yourself as strategically sent by the gospel? A lot of outreach models are based upon urban models; then they trickle down to small towns. However, without a shoehorn, they won’t fit. Reflecting on the gospel ministry of Jesus and the apostles, we find that the urban initiative to “influence the influencers” is not that prominent, rather the gospel sends in a way that is lavish and inordinate—to places and people that aren’t strategic from a human point of view (e.g., the Gerasene exorcism in Mark 5; the first converts in Philippi in Acts 16). Not everyone agrees that Paul focused on urban centers (e.g., Galatian theories). The best way to influence someone you love is to be with them. A call to a small place is the most strategic move to reach that place. The gospel is lavish and plenteous. You can give your life away to people who are not “influencers.”

Small is probably better than we think. 

Our culture values “bigger is better.” Kruger calls this “the arrogance of the urban.” For a recent example, remember the comments of Andy Stanley about the rural church. He recanted, but even so. Rural pastors and churches may be deceived by envy, as we look online and feel like the J. V. team. Yet, the gospel doesn’t disdain small; it doesn’t “baptize” small either, but it certainly doesn’t despise small. In many ways, small is endorsed in theology (e.g., remnant theology) and in the apostolic mission (e.g., house churches). Big, of course, is endorsed too (e.g., the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, 3,000 converts in Jerusalem on Pentecost). Use the “fish bowl” or the “bubble” to your advantage. We yearn for revival; but we mustn’t be lazy. We don’t have to have revival in order to faithfully do God’s work where we are. The gospel sometimes comes big, sometimes small, fast and slow.

Slow is often wiser than we think.

An example of a good kind of stationary is found in the spiritual principle of “abiding.” We often value slow-moving things in small towns. The gospel takes some sins away fast (e.g., immoral relationships or decisions) and some sins slow, over time (e.g., pride, anger). The gospel endorses slow; God does things slowly (e.g., the wait for the exodus, the coming of Messiah, the wait for Pentecost, the hope of the second coming, etc). Small town pastors can become restless, especially when it comes to church planting in other small communities. Even in urban centers, they are rebelling against the “fast food,” “processed food,” and “digital pastors.” God’s character is still on display in the things that are slow developing.

Challenges

What can we locally give that people can’t find online? Relationships, presence, real-time talk in the word, knowledgeable prayer, comfort, hope, holiness & example, modest living, obedience, visible calling, holy ambition, local expertise, the practice of submitting to one another—to name a few. How does the Big Gospel distinctively shape our lives and ministries in small places? The gospel sends us to places, even small places, because of its lavish grace and because of its inherent logic and values. Small places do not hinder the gospel, nor do they divert resources to less significant places. No, the gospel of Jesus has plenty of sending and saving power for everyone in every place.

Posted by Rex Howe

For Us and for Our Salvation: What Did Jesus Do in the Resurrection?

Pastoring Exiles
Recently at the pastors’ conference hosted by the Rural Home Mission Association in Morton, IL, I heard Dr. Duane Litfin in a seminar set forth what he believes to be our new reality as Christians living in America. He said that we are vertical Christians living in a horizontal America. He made the case that America at its founding was a vertical nation, not a Christian nation, but definitely a vertical nation; that is, we used to be a people who assumed a transcendent reality and valued transcendent truth sourced from outside our material world. Today, Dr. Litfin explained, “official” America is a horizontal place. A vertical-ness is maintained for ceremony’s sake at times, but “official” America stopped looking to the transcendent for substance back in the 1950s. He exhorted the rural pastors in attendance to shepherd our flocks to be vertical Christians living in a horizontal society. He emphasized the idea that we were once truly vertical is not a myth; it was real, not imagined. However, he also cautioned that our goal as shepherds today must not be to return to the past. Rather, it is imperative that we learn how to live as the men of Issachar, “From Issachar there were 200 leaders and all their relatives at their command–they understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chronicles 12:32 NET).

As Dr. Litfin made his case, I thought to myself, “We need to study 1 Peter. He wrote to exiles.” Interestingly, the remaining plenary speakers all preached from 1 Peter. In this letter that bears his name, the apostle Peter wrote to the Diaspora. He acquired this term from the Old Testament writers, who often used it to describe God’s casting Israel into exile, scattering them throughout the nations, or to describe his regathering of his people from exile (e.g., Neh. 1:9; Ps. 146:2; Jer. 15:7; 41:17). In the Greek version of the Old Testament, Daniel warned that the final judgment for some would result in “eternal exile and shame” (12:2). The point is that diaspora or exile or dispersion is decisively negative; it means you are far from home; you are a stranger, an alien. Peter wrote in verse 1, “To those who are elect exiles of the Diaspora.” He has taken the Old Testament term and figuratively applied it to Christians who live in dispersion throughout a godless world, far from their heavenly home.1  The persecution and trials these believers faced evidenced the reality that they were not home, “In this [future salvation] you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials” (1:6).

Born into a Hopeful Exile
While it is true that Christians are exiles sojourning in a godless world system, our exile is not swallowed up in doom and gloom. This has to do with how we became exiles in the first place. Peter wrote, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to his great mercy caused us to be born again into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, into an imperishable, undefiled, unfading inheritance reserved in heaven for you” (1:3–4). Peter blessed God because he gave us new birth; essentially, God made us exiles by awakening us from the slumber of a godless world, so that now we see how far from home we truly are. We are born into a godless world system, but we are born again into hope, a hope that is foreign to the world system.

This hope is described as “living.” It’s active. It is active in life-giving or life-producing. The hope with which a Christian sojourner travels is a life-giving hope—a strange thing to see in a dying, godless world. This hope is “the looking forward to something with some reason for confidence respecting fulfillment” (BDAG). The “something” that it anticipates is resurrection into a new home. The “reason” for the confident expectation is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus is not only the reason for our living hope, but it is also the instrument or means by which God caused us to be born again. Through the resurrection of Jesus, God exercises power to give us new birth as exiles who carry life-giving hope into the godless territories, neighborhoods, farms, schools, hospitals, state houses, and relationships wherein we roam.

When God caused us to be born again through the resurrection of Jesus into a life-giving hope, he also made us inheritors. The first thing to understand about this inheritance is that it comes from God. God caused us to be born again into it. Therefore, to the degree that “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” himself is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading so is the inheritance that he gives. Imperishable means not subject to decay, corruption, or death (cf. Rom 1:23; 1 Cor 9:25; 15:52; 1 Tim 1:17; 1 Pet 1:23; 3:4). God is imperishable; our resurrection bodies will be imperishable; the new-birth-causing word of God is imperishable; and, the qualities affected by this new birth are imperishable. Undefiled means unstained or pure in a religious and moral sense (cf. Heb 7:26; 13:4; James 1:27). Unfading means “not losing its pristine quality or character” (BDAG), like a flower that never, ever wilts. Lastly, God has reserved this inheritance for those whom he has born into this hopeful exile; therefore, it will continue imperishable, undefiled, and unfading for his definite purpose and until the suitable time. He has reserved it in heaven—in that realm of his presence untouched by decay, corruption, stain, or death—for us.

What Did Jesus Do in the Resurrection?
The noun used for our English word “resurrection” occurs forty times in the New Testament. Here in this one reference to it in 1 Peter 1:3–4, we learn that Christ’s resurrection from the dead placed an instrument into God’s hand that provides him the power to awaken exiles who live in a world in rebellion against him. In other words, his resurrection provided the instrumental means for the new birth.

So then, how do we as vertically-gazed, hopeful exiles live in a horizontally-gazed, godless country? How do we understand the time and know what to do? Peter has given us many answers to these questions throughout his letters. I think that 1:3–4 offers us these five clear directions.

First, acknowledge the exilic reality of the Christian sojourner in America. We are not a “Christian nation,” nor have we ever been. There was a time when we were a more vertical, religious nation, but even that has faded. This exilic reality should change your approach to “life as usual.” You are not of this world; your citizenship belongs elsewhere; you are a stranger and an alien, even in America.

Second, be careful to bless God for his great mercy and not to curse God because of your proud finitude. Only God is infinite. Agree in humility about your limitations. Rejoice greatly that the infinite God has drawn near with plenty of mercy for sinners. We live in a culture that loves to rejoice in its own finite accomplishments; in fact, we are so impressed with ourselves that we feel less and less needy for anything transcendent. Increasingly, we feel that the material world is capable of fulfilling all our hopes and dreams. On such a worldview, many are building their lives; their fall will be great and tragic. Be an exile. Build a humble life on the merciful character of God.

Third, if this all sounds strange to you, have you been born again? You may have all the trimmings and trappings of a religiously decorated life, but have you been reborn in Christ by the Holy Spirit? Peter explained that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is God’s instrumental power for causing the new birth. Later he writes, “since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23 ESV). It is precisely the word of God about Jesus, the good news of his resurrection from the dead, that God’s Spirit uses to cause the new birth. The apostle John has told us the same, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30–31 ESV).

Fourth, carry life-giving hope with you on your sojourn. If you have been born again, preach the resurrection of Jesus. When asked to give a reason for the hope within you, to give a reason for your holy and distinct life, declare the resurrection of Jesus. When the waiter asks why you pray, when the cashier asks why you smile, when the other fan or teammate asks why you aren’t dressing down the referee for the blown call, when the down-trodden classmate asks why you care, when the lost one is confused by your tireless search, when the wounded person takes a risk for healing and friendship, when the debtor wonders at your lack of attachment to money, when your co-worker’s burdens begin to surface, and when the addict stands at the edge of the grave they just finished digging, do not miss your opportunity to unpack for them the life-giving hope of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Oh, brothers and sisters, this life-giving hope that we exiles carry with us is the most precious of all our cargo.

Lastly, live as possessors of a secure inheritance. The adversary and his world system love to leverage what they can offer you, but it is all “Mirkwood magic.” This reference is from J. R. R. Tolkien’s book The Hobbit. Before entering the forest, the sojourners were given sober advice to “STAY ON THE PATH.” The way became hard for them, and after staying the course for so long, they—one by one—saw something flickering in the distance. Leaving the path and hastening to what seemed to be sure, they arrived only for it to vanish, eventually leaving them swallowed up in silence and darkness. For the one born again into this hopeful exile, the chase is over. There is no other inheritance. God has reserved for us an imperishable, undefiled, unfading salvation. Live free from the leverage of the world. Live free from the deceit of magic. Live like possessors, adopted children and heirs, of a secure inheritance.


Fredrick William Danker (editor of BDAG), A Greek - English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000). Electronic text hypertexted and prepared by OakTree Software, Inc, version 2.7.

Posted by Rex Howe with 1 Comments

For Us and for Our Salvation: What Did Jesus Do on the Cross?

Ornaments and Flowers
A Christmas tree isn’t a Christmas tree without ornaments. Some ornaments are nostalgic; some are beautiful; some are quite modestly made by the hands of children; others are exquisite, expensive -- having been crafted with a maturity of skill. God chose to decorate the grass with wildflowers. Isn’t that wonderful for us? Have you ever written a love letter? I’m afraid it’s maybe been a while for many of us. We’re so used to writing contracts, emails, submitting another online form, or writing another manuscript. Do you remember what it’s like to write a real love letter?

I’ve heard a number of preachers and authors refer to the Bible as God’s love letter to his people. I first heard “Prof” (i.e., Dr. Howard Hendricks) say this in his famous video series and book entitled, Living by the Book. And you know what? Prof was right, at least from one angle. How do I know? The language. If you remember writing those love letters, you also remember searching and straining for just the right words to describe your significant other’s beauty (inside and out) and to describe the intensity of your love. When the Holy Spirit inspired the New Testament writers, he met them in the search and strain to explain and describe the work of Christ for us.

One such word grouping is the hilas vocabulary. There are two nouns and one verb. These words are used a total of six times in the New Testament. Their function attempts to describe and explain to us the meaning or the happening or the effect of the cross of Jesus Christ. As you can see already, it is hard to find just the right English word to describe this word family. Every believer confesses faith in the death of Christ on the cross; that is, they believe in the event, that he died. However, believers are in different places of understanding with regard to what his death means for their salvation. You see, there is the event, and there is the meaning of the event. The hilas words give us the Spirit-through-the-apostles description of the meaning of the cross. They answer, “What is it? What was accomplished?”

Two for One
Who doesn’t love a “Buy-One-Get-One” deal?! Nothing beats two for the price of one when it comes to the consumer side of retail. Sometimes this happens in language too. If you’ve had the privilege to learn a second language, you know that sometimes you encounter words in one language that cannot be translated by only one word in the other language. The transfer isn’t quite that simple. Such is the case with the hilas words. Each of the three contains (at least) a double meaning.

First, John used hilasmos in 1 John 2:2 and 4:10. The term means an act of appeasement or expiation necessitated by sin and an instrument for appeasing or expiating (viz., a sin-offering). In essence, an appeasement is a satisfaction of a requirement, and an expiation is the removal of the obstacle that has prevented making amends. In the first verse, John writes that “[Jesus] is hilasmos concerning our sins, not only concerning ours but also concerning the whole world’s.” So, Jesus is both the act and the instrument who both appeased God and expiated sin. In the second verse, we read, “In this is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son—a hilasmon—concerning our sins.” Here, we discover, as in Romans 5:8, that God sent Jesus, the act and instrument of God’s appeasement and our expiation, to demonstrate his love.

Second, Paul and the writer to the Hebrews used hilasterion in Romans 3:25 and Hebrews 9:5. This term carries with it all the trappings of the former term but gives more color to the word family. Hilasterion carries the concrete meaning of a means, gift, or a place to secure appeasement and/or expiation. In Romans 3:25, Paul wrote, “[Jesus] whom God set forth a hilasterion through faith in his blood as a demonstration of his righteousness because of his deliberate overlooking of previously committed sins.” That is to say, that God always purposed Jesus to be the means, gift, and/or place by, in, and/or where he planned to appease his requirement and expiate the impediment of sin for forgiveness. Hebrews 9:5 helps us narrow down what the Spirit is trying to tell about Jesus. His death is the place wherein we find God’s appeasement and our expiation, because this verse uses hilasterion to describe the mercy seat above the ark where the cherubim overshadowed. In other words, Jesus has become the new mercy seat.

Lastly, Luke and the writer of Hebrews use the verb hilaskomai, which means to cause a deity to be inclined toward grace, favor or to eliminate impediments that alienate a deity. Therefore, it is an action that causes an opportunity for appeasement, expiation, and therefore conciliation. In Luke 18:13, we find a lowly tax collector who knows his inability to appease God and his inability to remove impediments that have alienated him from God. He knows his unworthiness to receive grace, favor, and conciliation from God. On his own, he has no act, no instrument, no means, no gift, and no place for appeasement and expiation. So, he cries, “God, be merciful to me, sinner that I am!” He recognizes that God must act from within his own merciful character to provide an act, an instrument, a means, a gift, and a place of appeasement and expiation. This is the cry of the person who truly understands the love letter of Calvary.

The final reference to the verb in Hebrews 2:17 deserves its own paragraph. Here, Jesus acts to make appeasement and expiation. This verse focuses on his incarnation and temptation, which qualified him as a merciful and faithful high priest to hiloskomai. In 4:14–16, the writer returns to stack Jesus’ qualifying resume evermore. In 6:19–20, we read of the qualified Jesus entering behind the curtain. In 7:24–25, we discover that the intercession of Jesus’ priesthood behind the curtain is eternal and “without a successor.” Finally, 7:27 states the identity of the sacrifice—Jesus offered himself once for all. This is how the writer to the Hebrews understood Christ to hilaskomai. Chapters 8–9 detail the temple and covenant in which Jesus ministers: his temple is a heavenly one (the original, not made with human hands), and his covenant is new. In 9:11–28, the writer pulls it all together—the entirety of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ’s position, work, place, and sacrifice to cause appeasement and expiation.

Worship for Holy Week
Thus, what did Jesus do on the cross? He became and accomplished everything that was needed and required concerning sin both for the appeasement of God and for the expiation of sinners. He became and accomplished as the act, the instrument, the means, the gift, the place, the priest, and the sacrifice. As you worship God during Holy Week, I invite you to believe in the cross but also to believe about the cross. How does it feel to cry out like the lowly tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, sinner that I am” and to hear back, “It is finished”?!

As relationships move from dating to engagement to marriage to accumulating anniversaries, the love letters should continue, but the letters also must come alive in the forms of knowing, becoming, and acting. We are not Jesus. He is unique. Christ alone is the appeasement and the expiation. Yet, the Christian life is an imitation of Christ by the Spirit. I believe what you know and believe about the cross impacts your imitation. How may God be calling you to act instrumentally as a means, a gift, or a place that he purposes to use to draw someone to the cross where a person can find the appeasement and expiation of Jesus Christ? Is your home or church a place, like a “mini-mercy seat,” where sinners can come and find clear direction to Jesus, the Mercy Seat? Do you remove impediments or create impediments for sinners to find mercy from God in Jesus? Are the ministries in which you’re involved existing and functioning in ways that grab the attention of sinners with the kind of mercy that leads to the cross?

As you invite others to hear the gospel on Easter, decorate Jesus for them with what you know to be true about the cross. Sinners seeking mercy will find him and his cross “a wondrous beauty.”

Posted by Rex Howe with 2 Comments

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