Mark Fox July 30, 2023

Do Good Works for the Right Reasons

Paul wrote to Titus that Jesus Christ gave himself for us for three reasons: to redeem us from sin, to purify a people for himself, and to make us zealous for good works. He could have said, “make us zealots for good works,” because it’s the same Greek word. Zealots in that time were crazed fanatics, hair on fire, wild-eyed, absolutely committed to overthrowing the government of Rome. But we are to be wild-eyed crazed fanatics for Jesus, committed to glorifying Him through good works. But wait. That doesn’t mean our good works have to be wild or big or even noticed by anyone, even by the ones who receive the benefit. I am sure the four guys who carried the paralytic to Jesus and then dug through a rooftop to get their friend close enough were not doing that to be seen by others. They didn’t plot the whole scheme as some kind of first century photo-op. No. They cared about their friend and believed Jesus could heal him. They were right. How about the woman who threw the equivalent of less than one cent in the coffers at the temple? The poor lady did not leave her house that day thinking, “Boy, I’m going to make a splash at the service today!” No. She was just doing a good work because she loved God and knew that he loved her. She had no idea that Jesus would make her an object lesson for all time on sacrificial giving. But he did.

We also know from Jesus’ parable of the soils that good works, or fruitfulness, is just what Christians do. He said that the good soil that received the seed of the Word would produce 30, 60, even 100-fold. The good soil isn’t showing off. It is simply being good dirt, just like you and me. The impact of our good works is up to the Lord. He is the one who gives the increase. We are the ones who do good works, for his glory.

Paul also said, “let our people learn to devote themselves to good works.” Doing good works is a learned behavior. How many of you have children who, as soon as they could walk, spent their days scooting around the house picking up toys, cleaning up messes, and doing whatever needed to be done? No, that child does not exist. I used to tell people that our seven kids were skilled craftsmen at making messes and getting things out of the cabinets and drawers but had no skill at all in putting them back. That was a learned behavior. I would add, parents, that when you set your mind to teaching your children how to serve in the home, you are training them for good works in the church and in the community. You are also training them not to be that guy at work who just does what’s required of him and no more, because he is there for himself, not to make the company successful.

Teach your children well. Teach them that doing good works will not always be rewarded on this side. And that’s part of the process of learning to do them for the right reason. We have to experience ingratitude in the face of a good deed to learn that we do not love and serve others so they will love us back or even say thank you. No. We serve them because it is profitable for them and because it brings glory to God.

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Mark Fox July 30, 2023
Mark Fox July 23, 2023

Avoid Foolish Controversies

Do angels have wings? And speaking of angels, how many of them could dance on the head of a pin? Did Adam and Eve have a pet? Will there be baseball in heaven? You’ve heard the story of the two men who argued about that, and then one died. A week later he visited his friend in a dream. He said, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is, there’s baseball in heaven. The bad news is, you’re pitching Friday.”

We can have light-hearted conversations about some of these questions, for sure. But should we get into arguments over them? Or write books about them? Or spend our lives to defend them? No, the Bible is clear when it says, “Avoid foolish controversies.” The operative word there is foolish. Certainly Christians are called to “contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” But much of what Christians argue about is foolish, has no merit, and is based purely on speculation. There is no clear biblical teaching on foolish controversies, but many insist on studying them, writing about them, and worst of all, dividing over them. That’s why they are dangerous.

A foolish controversy that I haven’t heard lately but was popular years ago is the argument that Jesus’ garment at the cross, for which the soldiers cast lots, was very expensive. We have absolutely no evidence to suggest that, but this contention has been used as a proof text to suggest that Jesus was prosperous and we should be as well. Another foolish controversy, one very much present today, is that Jesus was really crucified on Wednesday and rose from the dead on Saturday. Therefore, the argument goes, we should gather for worship on that day, not on Sunday. Again, there is no biblical support for that argument. It creates heat, but provides no light.

Charles Spurgeon said this on the matter of foolish controversies: “It is foolish to sow in so barren a field. Questions upon points wherein Scripture is silent, upon mysteries which belong to God alone, upon prophecies of doubtful interpretation, and upon mere modes of observing human ceremonials, are all foolish, and wise men avoid them. Our business is neither to ask nor answer foolish questions, but to avoid them altogether; and if we observe the apostle’s precept to be careful to maintain good works, we shall find ourselves far too much occupied with profitable business to take much interest in unworthy, contentious, and needless strivings.”

Remember, the main things are the plain things and the plain things are the main things. As I pondered these matters last week during a run, it occurred to me that sometimes good people leave a good church because of foolish controversies. For example, is there a biblical case to be made for someone leaving a church because the church doesn’t just sing hymns? Is there a biblical case to be made for someone leaving a church because the church celebrates Christmas? Or meets in a building? Or doesn’t have Sunday School? Even more foolish, is there biblical support for leaving a church because the carpet is green instead of red? Or because the church has a beautiful steeple…or none at all?

The sad truth is that when we embrace foolish controversies, which cannot be proved through Scripture, we don’t just become dangerous to ourselves spiritually. We may also become divisive in the body of Christ.

One way to avoid foolish controversies, as Spurgeon suggests, is to become intentional about pursuing good works. We should find no controversy there.

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Mark Fox July 23, 2023
Mark Fox July 16, 2023

Encouragement for Elect Exiles

As citizens of heaven, we who belong to Christ live among a people and in a culture that is not native to us now. I am reminded of that often at the university where I teach, and sometimes it’s just because I cannot keep up with the 18-21 year old vernacular. When I was growing up, sick was a bad thing. We’d feel bad for our sick friends and we didn’t know anything about a sick movie or song. Same with nasty. Nasty was when the kid next to you threw up in the cafeteria, not when he tomahawk-dunked a basketball. Dope was something we were told to avoid, not something really cool. Or rad.

In the greeting of his first letter to Christian exiles, Peter doesn’t mention anything about race, ethnicity, or language, but defined his readers by their status as God’s elect. This diaspora is made up of mainly Gentiles, who did not grow up in the Jewish covenant. Peter greets these Gentiles, however, as God’s chosen people. They are elect exiles, and so are all who belong to Christ. We live between two worlds, passing through this one while living for the glory of Christ by the grace of God so that others may see the hope that is within us and ask us for a reason. We are living in God’s witness rejection program, if you will, and that does not hinder the Lord to do his work in us in any way.

Peter uses four phrases to describe the position of the elect. He says we are elect “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father” Those who are elect are chosen by God before the foundations of the world. The ESV Study Bible says that the foreknowledge of God “means that he set his covenantal affection on (the elect) in advance, foreordaining that they would belong to him.” David Guzik writes, “Election is not election at all if it is only a cause-and-effect arrangement basing God’s choice only on man’s.” That means, believer, that you were the object of God’s loving concern from all eternity. He loved you even before he formed you in the womb. Edmund Clowney writes, “The mystery of God’s choosing will always offend those who stand before God in pride. Forgetting their rebellion and guilt against God, they are ready to accuse him of favoritism. But those whom God’s love has drawn to Christ will always confess the wonder of his initiative in grace.”

We are elect “in the sanctification of the Spirit,” and as Paul wrote, “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” That’s the process that happens while we are living here, between two worlds. Looking more like Jesus over time is the proof that we belong to the Father. Antioch met on the college campus for nine years. One day we divided into groups of two or three and were passing out flyers on a Saturday afternoon. My oldest son was not in my group and one of the students he gave a flyer to said, “Hey, are you related to Mark Fox?” Micah said, “Yeah, he’s my dad.” The student said, “I thought so! You look just like him.” I apologized to Micah for that later. But we, the sons and daughters of Christ, are being made more and more to look like him in our character and in our obedience.

We are elect “for obedience to Jesus Christ” The obedience here starts with the faith we received as a gift from God to believe! Peter says in effect, “You were chosen by God and are being sanctified by the Spirit for obedience to Jesus Christ. You have the Triune God with you, working on you, walking with you, helping you to stand and promising you an inheritance that is beyond anything our imagination can conceive. So walk. Stand. Obey by faith. How can we do that?

We are elect “for sprinkling with his blood.”  You will see Peter use some Old Testament references through the letter, perhaps to give these Gentiles some understanding of the tree they were grafted into. The two times in Exodus when blood was sprinkled on people may be in his mind here. The people of God were sprinkled with the blood of a sacrifice to confirm the covenant God had made with them. Then the first priests were ordained by Moses through the same sprinkling of blood from a sacrifice. That’s a heavy weight and a joyful one, because it is by the blood of Christ that we come into God’s family and that we are made part of the “royal priesthood” that Peter mentions in his letter.

Last week we baptized 8 young people and children at Antioch and I reminded them they had already been sprinkled, washed, by the blood of Jesus. They were brought into the covenant by grace through faith when they first believed. They entered into the royal priesthood when the Spirit gave them life.

Now they live as elect exiles between two worlds, for the glory of God!

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Mark Fox July 16, 2023
Mark Fox July 9, 2023

What is the Big Deal about Gospel Community?

One of the things I hear over and over from Christians about their church-search woes, maybe when they have moved to another city and they are looking for a church, or they have come to Antioch after sampling several other places, is this. Why can’t we find a church that has both sound biblical doctrine and strong fellowship? Where is that solid Bible-embracing church that is also warm and welcoming to everyone who comes through the door, a church that is intentional about helping people find their place and build solid relationships with the family of faith? What I hear is that most of the time if they find a church that holds firm to the trustworthy Word as taught, the people there can be as cold as a fish. Instead of receiving a warm welcome and an invitation into fellowship when they walk in, visitors often sit alone and try to enter into corporate worship with people who don’t even acknowledge their existence. The flip side is people who tell me they found a church where everyone loves each other and welcomes those gladly who come to visit, but what they are being taught and what they believe is not grounded in the Word. They are not sound in doctrine. Why can’t we have both? Sound doctrine and healthy community?

I think we can. And we must. Everyone reading this who has been around the Word for more than a few months has already seen that the truth of Scripture demands it. Jesus was, as John said in his prologue, “full of grace and truth.” If that is true of Jesus then it is to be true of his church as well. Grace and truth. Not just truth. Not just grace. You really have neither one unless you have both. I would suggest that the church filled with the frozen chosen, no matter how much they pride themselves on knowing the Word, are not practicing it if there is no reputation there among outsiders or even among themselves that part of the reason they come together on Sunday is to love one another. Jesus said it plainly in the upper room, after Judas had left. He looked the 11 men in the eye and said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Just to make sure they got it, and we get it, he says it three times. Love. One. Another.

A Gospel culture in a church is easily one of its most attractive features. It often makes people want to stay if they visit a couple of times and get a taste of the sweetness of the love they see there for the Lord, his Word, and for the family of faith. It sometimes even makes some people want to come back after they have been gone for a few years.

I recommend a podcast by Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry, both leaders in Immanuel Church in Nashville. The podcast is called “You’re Not Crazy: Gospel Sanity for Young Pastors.” The theme of the podcast is Gospel community and how to cultivate it in a church. As Sam said, “There should not be a disconnect between the grace of Jesus as we receive it in the Gospel, and church life.” Church should be something we look forward to on Sunday, certainly not something we dread or do out of duty. Allberry compares coming out of the world and into the fellowship of believers on Sundays to entering Rivendell, in Lord of the Rings: Sam said, “We’ve just been stabbed on Weathertop and we find ourselves in Rivendell where we can find space and healing and help and care.” Sometimes people feel like they can’t come to church if they have messed up, or they have failed in their faith in some way. They can’t come in, they think, looking like they don’t have it all together. But what’s the truth? Not a single one of us have it all together! Each of us stumbled and fell this week, one way or another, and Jesus is calling us to come to him. His arms are open wide to us. And so are our arms in the church to be open wide to one another.

Paul said it like this in Romans: “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”

The glory of God can be seen when we welcome one another in the same way that Christ has welcomed us.

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Mark Fox July 9, 2023
Mark Fox July 3, 2023

What is the Big Deal about Elders?

So many of us grew up in churches with solo leadership that it is part of our ecclesiology and very difficult to shake. We think the church ought to operate like a corporation: one person at the top, the CEO, and everybody else is under him. Or, there is a board of elders or a board of deacons, or a consistory, or whatever terminology we want to use, but it is still a hierarchy, and one man (or in some churches, one woman) has final authority and can overrule all the rest.  But that is not the New Testament model of leadership for the local church. Paul instructed Titus to stay in Crete and set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you. Paul gives the qualifications for elders in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3, and he uses the plural in chapter 5 when he writes, “Let the elders who rules well be considered worthy of double honor…” In the book of Acts, we read about Paul stopping off in Miletus, on his way to Jerusalem, where he knew he would be handed over to the authorities and eventually end up in Rome. This was his last chance to minister to the church he had loved so much that he stayed there longer than he stayed anywhere else: the church at Ephesus. So, what does Paul do in Miletus? He sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church. Finally, one of the most compelling passages that hold up this New Testament model of leadership by a council of elders in every church is found in Acts 14. Paul and Barnabas were on their first missionary journey, these premier church planters and perhaps the greatest missionary team ever. They went back to three cities they had preached in, Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, to encourage the believers. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. Elders, plural, for each church.

In each of these passages, we see the same thing. God has ordained a biblical model for church leadership, a council of elders. And I would submit to you that healthy, vital churches that are achieving what God has called them to, without exception have healthy, vital leadership. What are elders? Your translation may say bishop, or overseer, or shepherd. But it’s the same thing. The Jews preferred the term, presbuteros, which means mature, dignified, wise, even “gray-haired.” The Greeks preferred the word episkopos, and that means “overseer” or one who takes responsibility. But they are used interchangeably in the New Testament because an elder must be both: a mature believer, and one who leads the flock and takes care of them. One denotes the dignity of the office and the other the duties.

Each of the qualifications for elders are important, but I think the last thing Paul said in Titus 1 may be the most important, because it is the ground upon which elders must stand if they are going to faithfully lead the flock. “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught.” An elder or pastor may have a great marriage, solid kids, and good character in the community, known far and wide for their kind words and good deeds. But if his teaching undermines the authority of God’s Word, he is the blind leading the blind. If what he holds firm to is “peace at any price,” or “a rejection of the authority of the Bible that transcends culture,” then he is not holding firm to the trustworthy word as taught, and he will not be able to “give instruction in sound doctrine.” Nor will he be able to “rebuke those who contradict it,” for he contradicts it himself!

I cannot remember where I read this many years ago, but I love it: The Dakota Indian tribe was known for its common sense wisdom. They said, If you discover you are riding a dead horse, dismount. Here’s how this basic wisdom has been re-worked for church life in America; think of the dead horse as unbiblical thinking. Some churches do nothing about the dead horse, and simply change riders, or pastors. Others say: “this is way we’ve always ridden dead horses.” Some churches form a committee to study the horse in order to see how dead it really is. Liberal churches reject the notion that unbiblical thinking IS a dead horse and merely re-classify the dead horse as “living impaired.” The ONLY way to address the dead horse of unbiblical thinking is to hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught. That’s what elders must do.

Got elders?

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Mark Fox July 3, 2023