John Paton: Missionary to the New Hebrides

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This month’s book recommendation is John G. Paton: Missionary to the New Hebrides. John Paton is one of my heroes of the faith, embodying many Christian principles that I admire. He was unflinching in his commitment to Christ, courageous and persevering in hardship, sacrificial in service, and God-exalting in all that he did. Although the book is an autobiography, there is no sense of self-elevation in it. It is simply the story of how one man saw God do extra-ordinary things to the praise of His glorious grace.

Paton was born into a humble home in southern Scotland on May 24th, 1824. Although his parents were poor, they were rich in the things of God. John’s father was a weaver of stockings by trade; but he was known as a godly man of prayer. By the time of his death, he was one of the most respected elders in the region, regularly sought for counsel or called on to pray with the sick, dying, or hurting. The piety of John’s parents left a deep mark on his life.

There were three major phases to John Paton’s ministry. In each phase, he did more for Christ than most of us will do in a lifetime. Ministry began for him in Glasgow, where he worked as a mission worker, spreading the gospel and visiting the sick and hurting. During this phase of his life, he saw great victories, but also experienced harsh persecutions. Both things prepared him for his life’s work as a missionary.

The second phase of Paton’s life was his work in the New Hebrides Islands, known today as Vanuatu. The natives on these islands were notoriously violent and cannibalistic. Every missionary there knew martyrdom was a real possibility. John went to replace a missionary who had been killed.

Initially, John labored on the Island of Tanna, whose natives were some of the most violent and aggressive in the New Hebrides. John labored there for several years to no lasting effect. John’s time on the Island of Tanna is a constant story of courage for Christ, Divine intervention to preserve John’s life, and the rejection of the gospel by the natives. Finally, when it became evident that the natives would not receive the gospel but were bent on killing John and all who helped him, he decided to leave the Island. John narrowly escaped with his life.

The story of his harrowing escape of the island produced my favorite line in the book. Paton said I am a committed Calvinist, but I am no fatalist. Once he knew that all hope of reaching the Tannese with the gospel was lost, only then did he turn his attention to escaping the island alive.

Eventually, Paton would move to the Island of Aniwa, whose people were less violent. Here John saw God convert most of the island’s residents over time. With it came the transformation of a hopeless, depressed, and violent culture into one of joy, peace, and contentment. Here, as on Tanna, God also showed Himself powerful in response to John’s prayers.

The third phase of John’s life was that of a missionary recruiter. He travelled Australia, the British Isles, and America recruiting missionaries and raising funds for the work in the New Hebrides. Everywhere he went, he touched lives with the gospel and motivated Christians to imitate his sacrificial service for their Savior.

It is easy to get caught up in the thrill of Paton’s story. He miraculously escaped death many times, saw God do amazing things in response to his prayers, and changed the world’s perspective of the Aboriginals in Australia. To this day, the well he dug and lined with corral from the sea is a powerful testament to this man’s trust in God. But his life is more than a thrilling story. It is a testimony to the life and culturally transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. His story is sure to deepen your trust in and sacrifice for our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.  

The Syrophoenician Woman

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Matthew 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-20

The story of the Syrophoenician woman is a story that can be hard to align with Jesus’ character. Although this is not the case (as we are about to discover), it can seem to 21st century readers that Jesus is cool towards or even uninterested in this woman and her desperate plea for help. What is going on with this short story from the life of Jesus?

In Matthew’s version of the story, we are told that Jesus did not initially reply to the woman. His interaction with her took place after the disciples ask Jesus to send the woman away because she was ‘shouting after us.’ The key to understanding this text is realizing that Jesus’ words are more for the disciples than for the woman.

The woman asked Jesus to heal her daughter, who was demon possessed. This is not a unique occurrence in the gospels. What makes this situation unique is that the woman asking was a Gentile. Both Matthew and Mark are careful to record this. Mark says she was a Gentile. Matthew tells us she is a Canaanite, arch enemies of the Jews for millennia. 

We know from both the Old and New Testaments that God’s heart is for the nations. Each Gospel is careful to record Jesus ministering to those outside of the Jewish community; yet the Jews did not think the Messiah was for Gentiles. They thought He was for the Jews alone.

Although Jesus is the Savior of the world, during in His earthly ministry He presented Himself to the Jews as the ultimate Davidic King. In Matthew, this Gentile woman recognizes Him as ‘Son of David,’ pointing to this reality. Jesus’ initial reply was that He was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. His mission was to present Himself to the Jews as the fulfillment of God’s salvation promises. Their rejection of Him would accomplish salvation for all the nations. But before God turned His focus on the Gentiles, Jesus had to present Himself to the Jews as their King. We see a similar occurrence happen when the Jews ask to see Jesus during the last week of His life. Their request was also denied. It is not that Jesus’ heart was not for them; but that it was momentarily outside the work God had called Him to do. Yet I am confident that, through the apostles, those men and women would be told the message of salvation and have the opportunity to believe because God’s heart is for the salvation of the nations. The big issue here is around the timing of what God was doing. 

When Jesus said that it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs, He was saying that His focus at that time was not on those outside the old covenant community (Jews), but on the Jews. Jews commonly referred to Gentiles as dogs, which was the cruelest insult they could come up with. The disciples wanted Jesus to send her away because they thought she had no business associating with Jesus, let alone benefiting from Him. When Jesus gave this statement, they would have thought way to go Jesus. Get rid of that Canaanite dog! Yet the woman’s faith was strong, so she gave the wise answer recorded in the text. In response to her faith, Jesus granted her request.

This response would have shocked the disciples. A Canaanite just benefited from the ministry of the Messiah! Matthew again is helpful at this point. Jesus tells the woman your faith is great! His point is that faith, not ethnicity, is what makes one right with God. By ministering His grace to this woman, He taught a valuable lesson to His disciples who had not yet realized that the gospel is for the entire world. The edginess of the story, where Jesus seems to promote the racism of the Jews, forms the contrast that drives the point home. The woman knew Jesus was the Son of David. The Jews rejected this. She had faith in Jesus. The Jews did not. The Jews had the promises but rejected the fulfillment of them. This woman was ‘outside’ the people of God yet accepted the promises of God. Her life and faith condemned the Jews for their rejection of the Messiah. The irony of the story teaches the lesson. God’s heart is for the salvation of all people.

The Discipline of Grace

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I believe it was John Wesley who told potential pastors that it is not the reading of many books that was important, but the mastery of a few good books. June’s book of the month is a book worth mastering. I am speaking of Jerry Bridges’ classic The Discipline of Grace.

My journey with this book began in high school, when my youth pastor used it to disciple me and another young man from the youth group. Although I was a good kid and active in church, at that point in my life I was not overly concerned about developing a deep relationship with Christ. So, the book did not sink into my thinking in a substantial way at the time.

Years later, as a pastor I began to wrestle with how to teach people how to grow in their sanctification. Sanctification refers to the process of spiritual growth as we become less like our sinful selves and more like Christ. It is something all Christians know is important, yet transferring the desire into action can be challenging.

One day, I picked up a book I was given at a pastor’s conference called No Quick Fix. This book critiques several approaches to sanctification that are not grounded in Scripture. Although it helped identify how not to approach sanctification, it did not teach how one should pursue it. Thankfully, the author supplied an appendix that listed books that taught the proper approach to the process of sanctification. The Discipline of Grace headlined this list. I bought it, devoured its content, and have been recommending it ever since. It is the most useful book I know on the subject.

What makes The Discipline of Grace such a masterpiece is how it captures the principle of Philippians 2:12-13 so well. Those verses tell us to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. Sanctification is a work of God’s grace done in us by His Spirit through His word; yet we must engage in the process if we are to see growth. Sanctification involves the willful engagement of both God and man. We are to work out (exercise) our salvation because God is working His gracious purposes within us.

The message of the book is captures in Bridges’ now famous phrase preach the gospel to yourself every day. The book hinges on this concept. Preaching the gospel to ourselves daily does two things. First, it reminds us when we have sinned that Jesus has already dealt with it on the cross. Therefore, we need not be weighed down with an undo sense of guilt, for Jesus bore our sin in His body on the cross. Yet in preaching the gospel to ourselves does a second thing as well. It reminds us that Jesus bore our sins on the cross so that we might die to sin and live for righteousness (1 Peter 2:24). He delivered us, not only from sin’s consequence, but also from sin’s enslaving power. Yes, it remains a strong foe, but it is a defeated foe. This motivates and empowers us to overcome sin through the means of grace God gives us.

After explaining what it means for us to work out our own salvation by engaging in the process, Bridges moves on to explain in practical terms, the various spiritual disciplines God calls us to exercise in the pursuit of His holiness and usefulness in His service.

I have read The Discipline of Grace four times now. There is no other book, other than the bible, that I have read more. I cannot recommend it to you enough.

Putting Down Roots (Click to read full post)


Putting Down Roots

Colossians 2:6-7 – Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude.

For several summers during college, I worked for a man who built logging roads out in the woods. Of all the secular jobs I have done, this was probably my favorite. I have always enjoyed working outside and running a chainsaw. I liked the variety of work we did, and I enjoyed the men I worked with.

One day, when we were working way back in the woods, I noticed several dry creek beds in the area. I commented to one of my coworkers that I was surprised to see the creeks dried up so early in the summer. He told me that those stream beds were formed the last time the area was logged. When the trees were removed, the demand on the ground water was greatly reduced. The excess water rose to the surface, forming creeks. When the area was replanted with new trees, the demand for ground water increased, and the streams dried up. When I expressed my surprise at this process, he laughed and told me that there was as much if not more tree below the ground than there was above the ground.

I had not thought of that interaction again, until I began preaching through Colossians in 2014. When we came to Colossians 2:6-7, God brought the memory of that conversation to my mind. The vision of a tree, with more going on unseen under the dirt than above ground, creates a wonderful picture of the Christian life.

The Christian life begins when we receive Christ Jesus as Lord. There must be a moment in every person’s life where they recognize that they are a sinner alienated from God and deserving His wrath. In desperation, they turn from their sin to trust in Jesus, whose sinless life, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection are God’s gracious means of forgiving our sin and giving us eternal life.

Receiving the Savior is the initial expression of our faith. But the Bible teaches that true belief finds daily expression in our lives as we begin to follow Jesus. Paul describes this aspect of faith as walking in Him. This means that our lives are ordered around who Jesus is and who we are in Him.

In vs. 7, Paul gives three participles to define for us what it means to walk in Him. The first is that we are to be firmly rooted in the unchanging truths of God. The world and its thinking is like sand on the seashore that shifts every time the tide changes. But the word of God is unchanging. Like a tree, we are to sink roots into Christ. From Him we draw the spiritual life we need to thrive in our relationship with God and to live for Him in the world.

As our roots sink deeper into Christ, we are built up in Him. This describes our spiritual growth. The closer we walk with God, the more He transforms us into the image of Christ. Eventually, we are established in the faith. Like the house built on the rock that Jesus described in Matthew 7, the established Christian cannot be moved.

I love how the life of a tree pictures the Christian’s cycle of growth. A tree must put down roots if it is to survive. Once its roots are established it can grow. But as the tree grows, it needs more water and nutrients. Therefore, it sends roots down deeper and wider in search of these things. As the roots expand, the tree grows, creating this ongoing cycle that, given enough time, causes a large tree to be established in the forest. So it is with the Christian. We are to be in a constant growth cycle of seeking God’s truth in His word so we can put it into practice in our lives. Consistently doing this establishes us in the faith.

My hope for this blog is to help people deepen the roots of their faith. When I think about the Christians I admire the most, three elements seem to mark their pursuit of spiritual growth. First and foremost, they have a love for God’s word that causes them to study and apply it to their lives. Second, they have a curiosity about spiritual things that causes them to ask and seek answers from God’s word. Third, they read good books that help them understand God’s word.

I cannot create a love for God’s word in anyone. That is a work God must do in our hearts; and it is something each of us should seek to cultivate within ourselves; so I will focus on the second two elements. On the first of each month, I will recommend a ‘book of the month’ from a wide array of Christian literature. Then on the 15th of each month, I will, to the best of my ability, seek to answer questions about specific passages or subjects that people have asked me about. My hope is that together we might grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18).

To God alone be the glory!