Embracing Mortality

Coronavirus might kill you. But it’s not the only thing that might kill you. Influenza might kill you. Cancer might kill you. A heart attack might kill you. A brain aneurism might kill you. A car accident might kill you. You might die being trampled by a mob trying to buy toilet paper. However it happens, should the Lord tarry, you’ll die of something.

The coronavirus panic has exposed our immaturity surrounding mortality. We live in a culture largely isolated from death (in the real world). We don’t like thinking about physical death, especially our own. But we are poorer for this, and one possible benefit of this virus craze is we’re being forced to meditate on our demise.

Consider Jonathan Edwards’ resolution made in 1722 at age 18,

Resolved, to think much on all occasions of my own dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death.

Edwards recognized this would help him keep his focus on what matters most on a daily basis.

Before the industrial revolution and advances in modern medicine people in western cultures couldn’t avoid death. The plague had wiped out at least 75 million people in the 14th century, possibly as many as 200 million. In Siena, Italy a partially finished expansion to their cathedral stands as a stubborn reminder that death is always a looming threat. But today in the United States the sick head to hospitals, out of sight, until they are moved to hospice care, often outside the home. We know death happens, but we don’t like to be near it.

Our culture-wide hysteria over COVID-19 is more than just about a particular virus. We are afraid to die, and are going to great lengths to try and avoid death. I’m not saying we don’t need a wise and timely response to this virus. I’m saying we’re reacting because of something else—in a materialistic culture, to die is to lose everything.

The Christian view of death is very different:

Physical death is an unavoidable consequence of sin. In Genesis 3:19 God tells Adam and Eve “For you are dust, and you will return to dust.” Spoiler alert, in God’s plan of redemption he purposed not to spare believers physical death, but instead to offer the sure hope of the resurrection (more on that below).

God is sovereign over the time and circumstances of our death. Civil war general Stonewall Jackson, a committed Christian, once answered a question from one of his officers about how he could be so fearless in battle. Jackson answered,

Captain, my religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed. God has fixed the time for my death. I do not concern myself about that, but always to be ready, no matter when it may overtake me.

Physical death is not the end of our existence. In Colossians 1:18 Paul describes Jesus as “the firstborn from the dead” because Jesus’ resurrection is the pattern by which believers will be raised to life. Physical resurrection and an eternal, physical existence is our destiny in Christ.

Forgiveness of sins and redemption are urgent matters of eternal significance. The author of Hebrews acknowledges in passing that “it is appointed for people to die once—and after this, judgment” (Heb. 9:27). For this reason, our urgent mission isn’t to extend our lives, but to make and mature disciples of Jesus. Paul also affirms the priority of the spiritual over the physical in 2 Cor. 4:18, “So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

Consider the example of those faith-driven gospel pioneers of the 18th and 19th centuries who braved unknown perils and almost certain premature deaths to deliver the gospel to distant lands. David Brainerd famously died young having spent some of his most fruitful years in ministry to native Americans in New Jersey. He wrote, “My soul longs to feel itself more of a pilgrim and stranger here below; that nothing may divert me from pressing through the lonely desert, till I arrive at my Father’s house.”

Those who have gone before us would urge us to walk by faith, not to let hysteria drown out the calling of Christ in our lives. Indeed, we have a great cloud of witnesses urging us to run with endurance (Heb. 12:1). Are we running from death, or for Christ?

Christians need not fear death. We can stand tall, look death in the face, and say, “You have no authority here unless granted by the Father.” Christians need not panic over a virus or any other life-threatening crisis. When worry, fear, and anxiety beset us we can respond with prayerful dependence on God.

Embrace your mortality. Death is coming for you, under God’s sovereign hand. For the Christian today is the day to say with Paul,

To live is Christ, to die is gain.

Philippians 1:21

GPBC Update Mar. 16- May 10

GPBC Family,

The government has asked that no group over 10 people meet at least for the next 8 weeks. As you can imagine, this will drastically change our church community interaction over the next 2 months. We intend on complying with the government’s request as a way to love others. In this case, that means sacrificing our corporate gathering for the next few months. But our mission to glorify God by making and maturing disciples of Jesus goes on. Here’s our plan:

  1. We will livestream the Sunday service in its usual format and time for 3 reasons: 1) it will help us all maintain a dedicated time of worship, 2) we all need a steady diet of humbling ourselves under God and His Word, and 3) it will be an encouragement for church body (we’re all still out here).  Pastor Jesse will be working up a set of instructions to let you know how to get the livestream on your smart TV. 
  2. Good Friday and Easter services will be offered via livestream in the same manner.
  3. We will additionally livestream a Wed. pm Bible study (hopefully with some interaction via technology).  The topic of the study will be how we can continue to “be the church” even though we can’t gather. 
  4. We will focus as a church family on caring for one another and the community, with an emphasis on care groups staying connected (even if only digitally), and shepherding lists.  Look for your shepherd to stay in contact. Also if you are aware of any needs, please let us know as soon as possible so we can provide help (email sarah@greenpondbible.org).
  5. Care groups will determine individually whether or not to meet, although most have more than 10 people.  We are working on how to facilitate meeting via technology rather than in person.
  6. Kingdom Kids training will be postponed.  Josh will work on making videos for the training to be used in the future.
  7. Wed. PM youth and kids ministries, Wed. AM Bible studies, as well as Sunday school and ABF will be canceled during this time.  Josh and the youth staff will work on some creative ways to keep ministering to the youth.

Don’t forget that our financial commitment to the advancement of the gospel remains unwavering. Our normal operating expenses and missions support aren’t taking a break, so please strive for faithfulness in your giving. As of now the church office remains open, or you can give online here.

Of course, should the government remove this suggested limiting of gathering we would immediately go back to life as usual. Please pray that the threat would abate quickly, for mercy for medical professionals on the front lines, and for God’s wisdom as we seek to live out the gospel in these remarkable days.

Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

Galatians 6:2

Pray First

“Then Daniel went to his house and told his friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah about the matter, urging them to ask the God of the heavens for mercy concerning this mystery, so Daniel and his friends would not be destroyed with the rest of Babylon’s wise men.”

Daniel 2:17-18

Americans are doers.  Conquerors.  Explorers.  Inventors.  Innovators.  Entrepreneurs.  We tamed the Wild West, sent humans to the moon, and lead technological advancements in medicine.  Figuring stuff out and solving problems is a part of our cultural identity and heritage—for better, or for worse.

Many times this positive can-do-ism is helpful.  Sometimes, it is not.  From a spiritual perspective, often our American confidence in our ability to solve a problem results in sinful self-reliance.  How should we respond when we face a problem, challenge, or trial?  Pray first.

We see this modeled for us in the book of Daniel chapter 2.  Daniel and his friends were newly installed advisors to the Babylonian king Nebudchadnezzar.  They were living in exile, far from home, and yet found themselves in high positions, rubbing shoulders with the many other advisors to the king.

Long story short, Nebudchadnezzar was demanding something impossible from his advisors—he commanded that they tell him what dream he had dreamed and provide the interpretation.  Babylonian wise men were trained in the latter; no one could do the former.  The result was the king commanded the execution of all the advisors, including Daniel & co.

Their lives were in danger.  It was an urgent crisis, demanding an immediate solution.  But what is remarkable in Daniel 2 is what Daniel does first.  

“Then Daniel went to his house and told his friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah about the matter, urging them to ask the God of the heavens for mercy concerning this mystery…” -Daniel 2:17-18

We face all kinds of problems: financial, emotional, educational, vocational, familial, political, and many more.  When we face them, we often respond as Americans—I can solve it.  But this attitude misses a fundamental truth: we are dependent on the sovereign God of the universe for everything.  

The solution for Daniel could only be provided by God, but even in circumstances where we can solve the problem by natural means, pray first is the best strategy.  Consider James 4:13-16, and beware of a godless approach to planning and problem solving.  Pray first.

What happens when we pray first?

We are reminded that God is sovereign (even in Babylon).  Praying first helps prevent panic.  The irony of Nebudchadnezzar’s request is no one on earth could grant it, yet Daniel had access to the God of heaven and earth.  His reign has no limit.

We are reminded that God is merciful.  I love that in Daniel 2 Daniel asks his compatriots to ask God for mercy.   Prayer is, in effect, throwing ourselves at the feet of God and asking for mercy in a particular situation.

We are reminded that the the future is under God’s providential care.  When we pray first, ideally we submit our concerns to God with a recognition that God may not grant us what we want.  Even so, he is trustworthy and the universe is still his.  

We prevent rash, sinful responses to crises.  Praying first helps us say no to ungodly reactions to our problems.  We might be tempted to rush here or there, but after seeking God by faith, such sinful gut reactions are less likely.

We are reminded that because of the gospel, we are safe no matter what.  Praying first reminds us that if we are believers, we are always safe in God’s care.  By faith in Jesus we are entirely dependent on God for forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.  Our future is secure.

We are reminded that God’s glory is the center piece of the universe.  Praying first helps reorient us to what matters most: the displaying of the glory of God.  This means our comfort, survival, healing, or success must take a back seat.  

We pray first because we belong to the Lord.  Dependence on God is at the heart of the gospel, and therefore prayer is a hallmark of the life of faith.  Yes, we need to respond with acts of obedient faithfulness when we face trials.  But don’t forget to pray first.  

These reflections on prayer in response to crises apply to anyone who has repented of their sin and put their faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus for salvation.  If you are reading this and you have not yet become a Christian, I invite you to consider that self reliance is not a viable option for entering God’s kingdom.  Consider this possible first prayer of genuine dependence: “God of heaven and earth, I am a sinner and in need of salvation.  I repent of my sin and put my faith in Jesus who died for me and rose from the dead.  Please forgive me because of Jesus’ work on my behalf, and help me now to live a transformed life in dependence on you.”

Fear Not Scary Headlines

The Lord handed King Jehoiakim of Judah over to Nebudchadnezzar, along with some of the vessels from the house of God.” -Daniel 1:2

Looking at it from a merely human perspective, current geopolitical events can cause fear and anxiety.  Rockets being fired, the earth shaking, planes going down—all of these seem like ominous signs of dark days.  Then again, Christians have access to inside information (no, not detailed prophecies of the future).  We have access to the remarkable truth of the sovereignty of God.

Whenever we read scary headlines—and some are very scary—we can find real solace in the sovereignty of God.  The sovereignty of God is a majestic theme of the Bible and it’s also a foundational assumption hiding in plain sight.  Consider the introduction to the book of Daniel.  Daniel was an Israelite exile taken to Babylon in 605 BC.  He and his compatriots lived through the collapse of their society, the eventual destruction of their temple, and the displacement of their people.  All of this was loaded with faith-shattering implications: God had promised to put them in their land–had God failed?  Given what they were going through, did God even exist?

In Daniel 1:2 we read this remarkably casual clause introducing the historical circumstances of Israel’s exile: “The Lord handed King Jehoiakim of Judah over to Nebudchadnezzar.”  The Lord handed him over.  This phrasing assumes so much theological truth: God is sovereign over geopolitical events, nations and governments belong to him, and even tragedies are under his guiding hand.  

The book of Daniel goes on to describe Daniel and his friends flourishing in faith while in exile.  He leads people to repentance for their sin, and models living in the world while not being of the world.  Faith in our sovereign God means regardless of the headlines, we can walk trusting him.

Jesus himself echoes this sentiment of finding solace in God’s sovereignty in Mark 13:7, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, don’t be alarmed.”  Sometimes we think it would be easier to not fear if we knew all the details of God’s plan and exactly how it would work out, but that’s not accurate. The key to bulletproof faith in trying times isn’t knowledge of the future, it’s knowledge of God’s character as the sovereign Lord of the universe. 

The key to bulletproof faith in trying times isn’t knowledge of the future, it’s knowledge of God’s character as the sovereign Lord of the universe.  

In our broken world, we will face some very scary stuff.  Sometimes God chooses to hand one nation to another.  Sometimes he shakes the earth.  Sometimes we get a bleak diagnosis from the doctor.  Sometimes we have bills we can’t pay.  In all of these circumstances, we need not fear; we can walk by faith in our great God because he is sovereign.  

Beyond Christmas at GPBC

Merry Christmas! As we celebrate Christmas with our family in Georgia, I’ve been thinking about this last year. 2019 was a significant year for Green Pond Bible Chapel in many ways:

Highlands Bible Church

Our first church plant, Highlands Bible Church, matured into full independence. God’s gracious provision has been clear throughout the entire process of planting HBC. God paved the way for the successful multiplication of believers and the impact of HBC on the community of Vernon in such a way that only he gets the glory. We are looking forward to decades and more of gospel ministry at HBC, and should never take success in church planting for granted!

50 Years of God’s Faithfulness

We celebrated our 50th anniversary as a church. Saints from the past and present at GPBC gathered to remember God’s faithfulness and rejoice. The weekend was especially sweet as we could see the visible impact of the gospel on people, some of whom have been a part of GPBC since it was born!

One Church, One Service

In the fall and winter of 2019 we embarked on a sanctuary and entryway remodel to enable us to worship together in one service. With these renovations complete, we have enjoyed being together as a church family. The singing in our service has already been a highlight for me; I am greatly encouraged by the collective voices of the saints singing praise to Jesus.

Where Do We Go from Here?

As the year winds down I also find my heart and mind meditating on what’s to come for GPBC. By God’s grace we are equipped with Biblically qualified leadership who have a passion for shepherding, skilled deacons who love Jesus and his church, and facilities ideal for ministry. I believe it’s time for us to turn a corner and leverage our gifts for the sake of the gospel.

What does this look like? We are poised to continue our impact on our community and the greater area of north Jersey, especially in church planting and potential church revitalizations. Making and maturing disciples isn’t about our church getting bigger, it’s about the growth of God’s kingdom. This means multiplying churches through planting and helping churches in a time of need.

But it’s not just about north Jersey. We also will have great opportunities to use our resources to help advance Jesus’ kingdom across the world. Our brothers and sisters in Milan especially need our prayer and support this year. We’ll continue to support Bible translation, church planting, and pastoral training abroad. All of these efforts aim at contributing to the strengthening of churches for the making and maturing of disciples of Jesus.

In short, I believe we’re just getting started. Please pray with me that God would lead us to planting and/or revitalizing opportunities. Pray that God would use us to facilitate the growth of healthy churches across the world. Pray for spiritual growth in our own church body. I am so thankful to be a part of this ministry, and I can’t wait to see where God takes us from here. Jesus was born for this—the advance of his kingdom through the redemption of sinners. Merry Christmas Green Pond Bible Chapel!