This week theaters across the country release Sony Pictures’ Heaven Is for Real, starring Greg Kinnear. The movie is based on the #1 New York Times Bestseller by the same title, written by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent. It’s described as the true story of Burpo’s four-year-old son, Colton, who nearly died during an appendix operation, and later told his parents stories of having left his body and visited heaven during that procedure, meeting Jesus and deceased family members, and learning things he would have otherwise never known.
The book has been an incredible success, especially among Christians. It has sold over 8 million copies to date, and has spawned an entire franchise of related titles (Heaven Is for Real for Kids, for Little Ones, a DVD study, a devotional called Heaven Changes Everything), and even a ministry.
The story itself is quite moving, especially the gravity of nearly losing Colton, and the way their church came around them during the trial. It struck a personal cord with me, having lost two children to miscarriage, and having watched several close friends lose or nearly lose their children. Indeed countless readers, especially Christians, have found encouragement in its pages. The reports of heaven touch on several of the questions people are asking—the eternal state of deceased loved ones, the hope of being reunited with them, even the physical likeness of Jesus.
And yet, with anything we read, but especially with books claiming extraordinary encounters with God, we have to ask that awkward question: is it true?
I’m not trying to be a party-pooper or a hater; I’m trying to be a pastor. And weighing the truthfulness of things like this matters, especially when we’re dealing with questions of eternity. Just because somebody says they experienced something doesn’t mean it happened. And we have to keep in mind that there is a boatload of money to be made in trips-to-heaven literature right now (e.g. 90 Minutes in Heaven, Proof of Heaven, To Heaven and Back, My Journey to Heaven, The Boy who Came Back from Heaven, Flight to Heaven, and even 23 Minutes in Hell).
So is the book accurate, and how can we even tell? Read more…
Nailing Today’s Forecast but Missing the Season
This past Sunday at Westgate I preached on Matthew 15:32-16:12 and how Jesus guards his flock against the false teaching of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The passage opens with a story about bread, where Jesus’ miraculously feeds his sheep—4,000 of them—with just seven loaves and few fish (15:32-39). It also closes with a story about bread—not literal bread as the disciples mistook, but the metaphorical leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees—that is, their false teaching, which Jesus warns his sheep against (16:5-12).
In between those two stories we see what Jesus is concerned about, as the Pharisees and Sadducees confront Jesus again, demanding that he perform a sign from heaven in order to prove his divine authority and power (16:1-4). Of course they’re not really interested in another sign (the feeding of 4,000 wasn’t good enough?), and Jesus calls them on it. But does so in a rather playful way.
The Greek word for heaven in 16:1 is the same as the word for sky in vv. 2-3. The religious leaders have asked for a sign from heaven. Jesus says, ‘You see signs in the heavens all the time, and know just how to interpret them. Red evening: sunny day tomorrow. Red morning: storm’s coming.’ They have all these theories on how to read the day’s weather—should I wear my sunglasses or grab my umbrella? But, Jesus says, they have missed the bigger signs—the signs of the seasons, or times. They’re still living like it’s winter in the middle of May. But Aslan is on the move. The winter has ended and the signs of spring are all around—signs of the new work God is doing through Jesus. The religious leaders are blind to these signs.
After Jesus rebukes them, he proceeds to warn his disciples against their false teaching. And as we keep reading the New Testament, we see that false teaching remains an ongoing threat for the church (cf. Acts 20:28-31; 2 Tim. 4:1-4). As I applied this warning in my sermon on Sunday, I noted two mistakes that both the Pharisees and Sadducees make—two things we must guard against: (1) they depart from the Scriptures, either adding to it (e.g. Matt. 15:1-9) or taking away from it (e.g. Acts 23:8); and (2) they therefore miss the one to whom Scripture is pointing, Jesus (Jn. 5:39-40). We then looked at several modern examples of false teaching and how they fail both of these tests, making the point that sound doctrine comes from God’s Word, and points us to the death and resurrection of Jesus.
As I continue to reflect on this passage, I think there is yet another way it helps us understand what is wrong with various kinds of false teaching today. That is to apply the very imagery that Jesus uses in 16:1-4 to describe what’s wrong with the Pharisees’ and the Sadducees’ teaching to some of our modern heresies: nailing today’s forecast while missing the season.
Again, the Pharisees and Sadducees knew how to read the day’s weather, but they missed the bigger movement of seasons or times. The analogy of seasons actually provides a helpful metaphor for seeing the story of God’s plan of redemption unfold: from the summer of God’s original creation, to the autumn of humanity’s fall, to the winter of bondage under the law and sin, to the spring of living between the cross and new creation, to the future summer of new creation ahead. Besides departing from Scripture and missing Christ, most modern day heresies are marked by their confusion of the seasons. They fail to read the signs of the times.
Here are some examples of how that plays out, beginning with some of the false teachings we looked at on Sunday, with a few others thrown in for good measure.
(You can chalk this post up to ‘things I wish I had said on Sunday but didn’t think of till Tuesday.’) Read more…
“Once the shining jewel of Western Christendom, the land of joyous Puritanism and nose-to-the-grindstone Protestantism, New England is now the least churched, least religious part of the United States. The land of the Great Awakening is now very much asleep. The place once bathed in springs of Christ-exalting preaching is now very, very dry. . . . But if God’s saving purposes in the gospel are for races, nations, peoples, and therefore lands, we know there is no such thing as a dead-end place. Indeed, since revival presupposes deadness and dryness, New England may be the most ripe place for God’s stirring in America!”
–Jared Wilson, Gospel Deeps
This is our prayer for what God would do in and through Westgate Church, and all the churches throughout the MetroWest. That the gospel of Jesus would take hold of our lives, and that as we hold it high, God would draw men and women to himself.
To encourage and equip us to that end, we’re excited to host our first-annual Life on Mission Conference, coming up Friday-Saturday, March 21-22.
WHAT IS THE CONFERENCE ALL ABOUT?
The purpose of this conference is to help equip each of us to live on mission each day for Christ. Each fall, Westgate has the privilege of connecting with the missionaries and organizations we support through our annual missions conference, when we hear about and celebrate what God is doing through them. The Life on Mission conference is different—it’s all about helping us live on mission right here in the MetroWest. And it’s not only for Westgate, but for any who would like to join us.
The theme for 2014 is Gospel-Centered Mission. On Friday night, pastor and author Jared Wilson will speak on “The Gospel-Wakened Church,” helping us answer the question, Why must we be intentional about the centrality of the gospel when we think about mission?
Then we’ll gather again Saturday morning. Jared will start off by speaking on “Gospel-Shaped Mission,” looking at how the message and power of the gospel should shape our approach to making disciples. After that, pastor and church-planter Bland Mason will address the role that community plays in our effort to make disciples in his talk “Gospel-Shaped Communities on Mission.” We’ll conclude the morning with a time of Q&A with Jared and Bland on “Simple Ways to Live on Mission.” Bland will also be preaching during our regular worship service on Sunday morning.
Childcare will be provided throughout the conference. There is no cost for attending, but please register here to help us with our planning. You can learn more about our speakers and the conference schedule online here.
From Jared Wilson’s, The Pastor’s Justification (110-114).
When God calls a man to pastoral ministry, he calls him to deal exclusively in the glory of God. God’s glory is our trust, our means, and our end. Suffering is promised to us, but for those of us who are committed to the calling of God’s glory, there will be an all-consuming vindication. And Peter says in 1 Peter 5:10 that God himself will do it. . . .
“And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.” (1 Pet. 5:4). The unfading crown of glory. Everything else is cheap imitation. We peddle these like they are of surpassing worth. Big attendance, big buildings, big followings, big book deals, big paychecks, big platforms. All of these crowns are cardboard Burger King trinkets. They will be burned up in the last day. The achievements of undershepherds will fade like the glory on Moses’s face. Brothers, we should not attach our affections to these things. They will let us down, always and forever. . . .
Look around you. Look into your heart. What are you trusting in? What are you clinging to? What are you feeding your people? Is the tone and tenor of your ministry proving that your glory is in Christ alone?
What are you going to do on the last day when Jesus appears and you crawl your sorry self across the finish line of faith? Will you present to hi your accumulation of personal accolades, growth charts, Twitter followers, affirmations, and achievements? Are you going to shout “Scoreboard!” . . .
The elder’s security, control, and glory are in Christ–indeed, they are Christ. And in Christ is our justification for sin and stupidity. . . .
Herein is the justification of the sin-prone pastor (by which I mean “pastor”): because of Christ’s perfect work on your behalf, your failure, your daily anxiety, your unwillingness, your stress, your sin, your brokenness, your ineptitude, your ignorance, your awfulness, your regrets, your pride, and your arrogance are no match for the deep and abiding grace of God given to you before time began and now and forevermore.
When we speak of the church today, we predominantly speak of it as something we go to—a place, a building, an event. Of course most evangelicals will readily admit that the church is not the building but the people. Yet our everyday language betrays us, and it’s more than mere semantics.
When we mainly speak of the church as something we go to, we create an image in our minds and hearts of something that is static and isolated. A place we gather one morning a week for an event we call worship. It is often a cherished place and event, but one that becomes rather disconnected in our minds from the rest of the world, even the rest of our lives and relationships. If we want to help someone meet God, we think we must get them to church. If we want to spend meaningful time with other Christians, or help each other grow in our faith and skill for ministry, we look for events or programs at the church.
Though we are loath to admit it, our sense of identity and mission as Christians becomes tightly associated with a building and what goes on within its walls. Combine that with the consumer- and therapy-oriented nature of our modern culture, and you have yourself an ecclesial battleground with every hill worth dying on. For instance, if meeting with God personally is contingent on what happens during the service on Sunday morning, then unless the music and preaching style is exactly what moves me personally, you’re taking away my experience of meeting with God, and I’ll fight for that. But if reaching people for Christ means getting them to church, then it needs to be the kind of building and service they’re willing come back to a second and third time; otherwise you’re undercutting the advance of the gospel, and we’ll fight for that too. But if we’re not careful, we’ll allow the culture to change the church instead of the church changing the culture, and so we must be suspicious of all change, lest we forsake the status quo. And on it goes.
Now I’m not suggesting here that every church squabble can be explained by viewing the church primarily as something we go to. Nor am I suggesting that gathering together as a Body (which requires some sort of place) for the collective worship of God’s people (which is a type of event) is not a central part of what the church does. I am suggesting that how we think and speak of the church has a massive impact on our sense of identity and calling as God’s people, as well as our faithfulness before God.
According to Scripture, church is not what you go to; it’s who you are. It is the people of God in Christ Jesus. It’s a family of missionary servants empowered by God’s Spirit to make disciples for Christ. Or to use the language of our vision, it is a gospel-centered community living each day on mission for Christ.
Thinking and speaking of it in these terms paints a different picture in our hearts and minds. Rather than the static and isolated picture of something we go to, we see the church as dynamic and relational. Our gathered worship is not just about me connecting to God, it’s about us connecting to God as a Body and building one another up in Christ. Whether we are gathered in one place or scattered throughout cities and neighborhoods, we are still the people of God in Christ, making much of God, sharing life together, and laying down our lives to make Christ known. We don’t neglect our weekly gathering, but neither are fellowship, discipleship, evangelism dependent on getting people to a building. Neither do we despise our heritage, but faithfulness to our gospel-driven mission trumps preserving our preferences and traditions.
This dynamic and relational image is what we see in the New Testament’s portrait of the church. A church that is neither isolated from the world nor compromised by the world. A church that displays the beauty and glory of the gospel amid the opposition and trials of the world. A church wherein Christ is present by his Spirit to make God’s glory known.
At Westgate Church, we want take time at the beginning of 2014 to think freshly about what it means for us to be the church, and what that means for us in moving forward with our vision.
We began last year by asking the question, “What will it take for our experience of ‘church’ to be less like something we go to, and more like something we are—a family of missionary servants empowered by God’s Spirit to make disciples for Christ?” We’re going to pick up this question again with our January 2014 preaching series in 1 Peter 1-2: “Real Church.”
January 5: Real Faith (1 Pet. 1:1-12)
January 12: Real Community (1 Pet. 1:13-25)
January 19: Real Worship (1 Pet. 2:1-10)
January 26: Real Mission (1 Pet. 2:11-25)
Join us as at Westgate we think freshly about who we are and what it means to be a gospel-centered community living each day on mission for Christ.
What is biblical exposition, and why is it so central to our gathered worship? These are the questions we’ve been exploring in this blog series. So far we’ve looked at what exposition is, namely, the kind of sermon where the message and aim of the sermon are controlled by the message and aim of the biblical passage being preached. We’ve also looked so far at two reasons why it’s necessary for the life and health of our congregation: exposition reflects a healthy doctrine of Scripture, and respects the God-given shape of Scripture.
We’ll consider one more reason in this final post: biblical exposition is essential to the pastoral calling. Read more…
At Westgate Church, we are committed to what is often called biblical exposition. It’s the kind of preaching where the message and aim of the sermon are controlled by the message and aim of the biblical passage being preached.
In our first post in this series, we talked about what biblical exposition is. Now our question is why biblical exposition is necessary for the life and health of our church. In the last post we suggested that exposition is necessary because it reflects a healthy doctrine of Scripture. Here we consider a second reason: biblical exposition respects the God-given shape of Scripture. Read more…