The Ministry of the Word on the Lord’s Day

Andrew Bonar wrote a biography on the life and ministry of Robert Murray M’Cheyne.  In the biography he writes that M’Cheyne gave from his inner life.

It appears that he learnt the way of salvation experimentally, ere he knew it accurately by theory and system; and thus no doubt it was that his whole ministry was little else than a giving out of his own inward life (Bonar, Memoir, 28). 

And again . . .

From the first he fed others by what he himself was feeding upon.  His preaching was in a manner the development of his soul’s experience.  It was giving out of the inward life (Bonar, Memoir, 36). 

There are few things more necessary and precious than for a pastor to give out of his inner life.  This presupposes that there is communion with God and gleaning from the field of God’s word.  Last week was a particularly precious time for me as I spent time preparing my messages for the Lord’s Day: Ephesians 2:1-10 (AM) and Numbers 21:4-9 (PM Communion).  I’ll summarize my sermons for you.  

Ephesians 2:1-10: “Discovering Two Paths”
My approach to this passage is to view this passage from the perspective of two paths: the path of death (vv. 1-3) and the path of life (vv. 4-10).  The path of life can only be accessed by the gate called grace (v. 5, 8).  I went through this passage in four sermons.  Here’s how I approached this passage:

The Path of Death (vv. 2:1-3)

  • Who travels on the path of death?  Every person travels on the path of death from birth (v. 3, “mankind”).
  • What is the condition of those who travel on the path of death?  Every person on the first path is dead (v. 1, “you were dead”).
  • What is the cause of our condition?  The cause of our condition is our trespasses and sin (v. 1, “dead in trespasses and sins”).
  • What are the symptoms of our condition?  The symptoms of our condition are the hardening of our hearts and moral decay (vv. 2-3). 
  • The hinge on which Ephesians 2:1-10 turns is the prepositional phrase “But God” in v. 4.  This glorious prepositional phrase contains gospel truth!  It points us to God’s merciful and loving intervention!

    The Path of Life (vv. 4-10)

  • Who travels on the path of life? Only those who enter through the gate called grace (v. 5, 8 “by grace you have been saved”).
  • What is the condition of those who travel on the path of life? Every person on the path of life is “alive in Christ” (v. 6). 
  • What is the cause of our condition?  The cause of our condition is salvation by grace through faith (v. 8). 
  • What are the symptoms of our condition?  The symptoms of our condition are life in the heavenly places (vv. 6-7) and good works (v. 10).   
  • The sermons from Ephesians 2:1-10 set before me anew and profoundly my depravity and condition before God in my natural state which is the ground for magnifying His amazing, merciful, and loving grace!  Not only did He gloriously save me, I remain God’s good, patient, beautiful, relentless work as He works in me and through me!  Amen.

    Numbers 21:4-9: “The Cross Behind a Veil”
    Jesus expounded the Scriptures (OT) to the disciples on the road to Emmaus.  Among the truths He revealed to them was “that the Christ should suffer . . . (Luke 24:46a).  Philip saw, through illumination, that Jesus fulfilled the Scriptures (John 1:45).  Jesus foretells His suffering to His disciples no fewer than three times (Luke 9:22; 17:25; 22:15).  Luke summarizes this in Acts 1:3, “He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs . . .” The suffering of Christ was a key theme in Peter’s (Acts 3:18) and Paul’s (Acts 26:22-23; 28:23) preaching ministries.  In fact the noble Bereans, who searched the Scriptures to verify Paul’s teaching in Acts 17:11, were examining the Scriptures (again, the OT).  But examining what?  They were examining if what Paul was saying concerning the Christ, including that “it was necessary for the Christ to suffer” (Acts 17:2) was true.  So it is a good exercise to go back in the Scriptures, what the Jews call the Tanakh and what we Christians know as the Old Testament, to discover some places of the places that spoke about the future suffering of the Christ.

    From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. [5] And the people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.’ [6] Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. [7] And the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you.  Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. [8] And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’ [9] So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (Numbers 21:4-9)

    We find the cross behind a veil in Numbers 21:4-9.  What is the basis for this statement?  John, in his gospel, pulls back the veil for us to see the cross behind the bronze serpent!  We find that Numbers 21:4-9 is one of the places in the Scriptures that show us that Jesus would suffer, by signifying the kind of death He would die.  This is evidenced most clearly in John 3:14-15 and by the other two “lifted up” passages in the gospel of John (8:28; 12:32-34).

    And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, [15] that whoever believes in him may have eternal life (John 3:14-15)

    So Jesus said to them, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me’ (John 8:28)

    ‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ [33] He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die. [34] So the crowd answered him, ‘We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?’ (John 12:32-34)

    Isaac Watts wrote:

    As when the Hebrew prophet raised
    The brazen serpent high,
    The wounded looked and straight were cured,
    The people ceased to die.

    So from the Savior on the cross
    A healing virtue flows;
    Who looks to Him with lively faith
    Is saved from endless woes.
    (Isaac Watts, “As When the Hebrew Prophet Raised,” 1709). 

    The main point of this post is simply to say that shepherds need to eat too.  After some sweet time in these texts, my soul is full.

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    The Depth of Total Depravity and the Height of Gospel Liberation

    And you were dead in the trespasses and sins [2] in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— [3] among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind (Ephesians 2:1-3, ESV)

    The statement that we are spiritually dead is known as “total depravity.”  Total depravity does not mean that man is as bad as he can possibly be.  It does mean that every part of our being is tainted by sin (Stott, Ephesians, 79).  There is another dog in this fight.  Some would argue that we are not dead but in a coma; we are not totally depraved but partially depraved.  Some teach that man is born morally neutral and becomes sinful by imitation (Pelagianism).  However, Psalm 51:5 says, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”  Others teach that our mind and body are affected by Adam’s sin but not our will.  Consequently, with the aid of God’s common grace, we can choose to be saved (Arminianism).  This was embraced by John Wesley.  Accordingly, it is the official position of the Methodist church.  However, we only need to look at Ephesians 2:3, “carrying out the desires of the body” to discover that our will is tainted by sin and in need of God’s special saving grace to choose Him.  In case that was not compelling enough evidence, Jesus said in John 15:16, “you did not choose me, but I chose you.”  We did not cooperate with God in salvation, we simply responded to the gracious call of God like Lazarus, who was physically dead, responded to the life-giving words of Jesus, “Lazarus, come out” (John 11:43)!  So the notion of partial depravity falls short of expressing the extent of depravity in Ephesians 2:1-3. 

    Total depravity teaches us that we are active participants in sin, not a passive accomplice.  A statement like, “the devil made me do it” expresses a passive accomplice mentality. 

    Let them not then say that he who does wrong and sins, transgresses because of demons.  For then he would be guiltless.  Instead, a person becomes a demoniac man by choosing the same things as do the demons: by sinning and being unstable, frivolous, and fickle in his desires—just like a demon.  Now he who is bad (having become sinful by nature, because of evil) becomes depraved.  He has what he has chosen.  And, being sinful, he sins also in his actions.  Likewise, the good man does right (Clement of Alexandria [c. 195, E], 2.502 in A Doctrine of Early Christian Beliefs, 414). 

    We live in a world where the reasons to not own up for our sin are legion.  We have this condition, we have this chemical imbalance.  I will not deny that such conditions exist but I will not concede that such circumstances remove our culpability.  We cannot continue to walk lockstep with the world and give in to the notion that sin is treated with a pill rather than the gospel.  It’s like throwing air freshener into a septic tank in the hopes that it will take away the stench.  We need to come to terms with the depravity that resides within us.  Otherwise we cannot experience the liberating power of the gospel.  We will live our lives as victims rather than victors in Christ.

    In Ephesians 2:1-10 Paul first plums the depths of pessimism about man, and then rises to the heights of optimism about God.  It is this combination of pessimism and optimism, of despair and faith, which constitutes the refreshing realism of the Bible.  For what Paul does in this passage is to paint a vivid contrast between what man is by nature and what he can become by grace (Stott, Ephesians, 69).