….And a Word of Thanks

Thank you, people of God in Christ.

Thank you for providing continuing education for nearly 100 pastors these past three weeks. Thank you for challenging and shaping young men called to ministry. By God’s mercy for His Church, our Lord used a few mistake laden, sinful men to help prepare students and recharge men who feel weary and incomplete when they look at the task of ministry each and every day. We all feel a call. We have have had the community affirm that call – and we all need a little encouragement and help to keep the zeal and to improve our ability. By God working through you, and His mercy in us, we teamed up to charge the batteries and sharpen the preaching of Christ alone in nearly 100 pastors. That is not a bad effort. Thank you.

Thank you Council Members and people of New Hope for sending me to encourage and stimulate pastors just like me through a continuing education forum.

And thanks too, all Elders, Councils, Sessions, ITEM staff andBoard Members. Thanks to each of you in the vast network of Godly people that support ITEM and it’s ministry by your prayers and gifts. You are the essential piece of the call process for each of us you study and learn together on these short sessions.

Remember every call has to have two parts. There has to be the inner call of God upon the heart, but there also has to be the communal call to affirm and direct the the nature of the activity and validity of the inner call. So, we thank you for your obedience to God’s work in your hearts and in those he called to oversight in our congregations, as the ITEM staff and board, and those in the leadership of the groups we go to serve.

The pastors and brothers and sisters in Christ of Romania and two church groups in Ukraine thank you as well.

Paul at the Areopagus – Acts 17:22ff

Notice the “benches” carved out of the Granite. Historians tell us the outside benches on the edge of the Areopagus provided the seating to listen to “non-Areopagus” members like Paul. The Epicureans and Stoics (Acts 17:18) had the privilege of addressing the Areopagus in an indoor structure built behind the carved steps.

So, imagine the listeners seated where the girl in the photo is relaxing and enjoying the view of the Acropolis. The next photo shows what they saw.

Please excuse my selfie, but this is the exact view the Areopagus members had as they listened to Paul in his address recorded in Acts 17. Pay careful attention. This is one of the instances where the scenery and the resulting photos from that location, illustrate and enhance the message.

Take a break from this blog. Read Acts 17 in light of the pictures and the historic setting.

Did you grasp the emphasis? Let me help, so I make sure you catch Paul’s facts.

Paul proclaimed in Acts 17:24, “the God who made the world and everything in it (continuing) to be Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands as though He needed anything...”

Ok, now the history lesson. Remember we are not talking about the time of the ancient Greeks. The Roman Empire had conquered Greece but they identified the acropolis and Parthenon with its temple of Athena as a self-evident holy place. Thus, they did not destroy the Parthenon or Acropolis – and this made the Greeks very proud. They had this exceptionally constructed holy temple, filled with cultic servants (a kind way of referring to the temple helpers and famous “others”). In addition to the human servants – and so that Athena would never be unattended – there where 390 “kurioi,” (life-sized human figures of the finest artwork) attending Athena day and night!

With the Acopolis in full view over his shoulder while standing on the external “bema” – speakers platform; and with the famous Parthenon rising above the Acropolis wall, and with its hundreds of day and night attendants, the Apostle declares, “the God who made the world and everything in it (continuing) to be Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands as though He needed anything...”!

But, he isn’t finished! Paul goes on to say, v29, “we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man” — And the eyes of all listeners would rise to behold 40 foot tall, gold covered, Athena Promachos standing just to the left of the tree in the photo!

And there is the point! The Apostle Paul confronts their religious worldview directly. As we might say, “he calls them out!” Then, to not leave them hopeless, Paul points his listeners to heed God’s command to repent, v30. Here, Paul invokes the only hope for sparing the judgment of God. “For The Creator God has fixed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by a man (not a temple or an image) whom He has appointed; and of this He has given assurance to all by raising Him from the dead, v 31.

Brothers and Sisters, God is not worshipped through religious forms, no matter how historic and nostalgic they may be. God is worshipped through the righteousness of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. The Apostle by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit promises assurance through faith in the resurrected Christ.

And … some mocked, some said they would listen again, but others believed, among whom are Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and and others — others of that day, and ours. Oh the mercy of God, by the acoustics of faith, we too know Jesus and the assurance God granted by raising Him from the dead and giving hope in Christ Jesus.

*for reference see the following illustrations:

“The Acropolis at Athens,” Leo von Klenze, 1846


Dreaming of Greece?

I know I promised the story of Paul at the Areopagus and I hoped to send a video explaining his sermon from the site. Little did I realize that I would arrive there on the nicest day of the year and would have share the Areopagus with half of Athens! It was noisy and windy, not ideal video conditions. Or did I realize the cheaper hotels have cheaper WiFi. Pictures and posts bounced back.

Now that I am home, I will add a couple of educationally oriented posts. However, I will answer the five email questions about the feasibility of traveling to Greece on a budget. If this doesn’t interest you please hang on for the next post on Paul at the Areopagus.

Yes, I would encourage you to visit Greece if you have dreamt of doing so and here is the tip. Go in the off season!

March is lovely. Get away from the lingering winter in the Northwest and Midwest – and the hotels are still half off for their off-season rates. Where else can you connect with the Biblical sites of Athens, Amphipolis, Apollonia, Berea, Cenchreae, Corinth, Nicopolis, Philippi, and Thessalonica all in one country? There is also the option of a 3-4 day mini Aegaean cruise to Ephesus.

Permit me to help you budget for your dreams. Airfare simply is what it is, but I was very surprised by my rate. It was cheaper for me to go to Europe than for my wife to visit family in SD when I ticketed! So, plan in advance and look for the fare dips. Grab them when they show up. One of my colleagues ticketed FWP days later and paid nearly double. Plan ahead and pounce when the one-day sale comes.

My car rental in Greece was $11/day paid in advance and the international hassle free insurance was $11/day also paid in advance. The highways are excellent in Greece, but the catch is, the tolls are expensive! Plan on spending €100 (Euros) if you travel from Athens to Philippi or Nicopolis, but you retain independence. Neither Uber nor Lyft work outside Athens and taxis to Biblical sites are expensive. Being the independent type who doesn’t mind the time on the road, I chose the rental route – but Greece is deceptively large – so plan travel time.

Hotels or apartments will run €40 to €80 for a nice room or two bedroom apartment with a kitchenette. The perk in Europe is breakfasts are included in the rates and they are hearty. But why cook your own when you can feast for €15 and have a massive Greek salad with fresh sweet tomatoes?

And be Greek. Squeeze the whole fresh lemon cut in half over everything. My lemon was so sweet each dinner, I ate it like an orange.

So go to Greece and Go Greek when you dine.

Pastors Perry, Fritz, Rob and Bill teach ERSU Advanced Preaching Class

At our seminary (ERSU) here in Kiev we are all about training pastors and other leaders for the church in Ukraine and the surrounding post-Soviet countries. Because most of our students are training for the ministry of the Word, one of the most important things we have the privilege of doing is to help train our students to be good preachers. We have two preaching classes in our Masters program for pastors as well as a regular assessed preaching practice for the students in the evenings. ITEM has been organizing preaching conferences for several years now in Ukraine, which are largely based on the excellent materials and format of the Simeon Trust. A few years ago we were able to host one of these conferences on preaching Christ from the Old Testament at the end of one of our week-long intensive courses.

Therefore, when scheduling our seminary Advanced Preaching class, I knew that ITEM had several well-qualified Homiletics teachers who had taught such conferences many times before in this context. I thought there would be benefit for our students to hear from more than one such experienced teacher and enquired if ITEM might even be willing to send two preaching lecturers. ITEM was not only able and willing to fulfil that request, but sent us four!

It was a privilege and pleasure for us to have Pastors Bill, Perry, Rob, and Fritz share not only their knowledge, but also their lives and extensive experience with the students. The students also heard actual examples of carefully crafted sermons from them and had the opportunity to ask them questions. 

I would like to take this opportunity to thank you, the congregations of New Hope CRC, Sunnyslope CRC and Sunrise CRC for so generously sharing your pastors and their preaching gifts with us, so that we can by God’s grace, raise up a generation of skilled preachers for the Reformed, Presbyterian and other evangelical churches that our students come from. 

Thank you again for supporting your pastors in this strategic ministry and for making their trips and the training of future Ukrainian pastors possible through your prayers and giving.

Alister Torrens

Academic Dean, Evangelical Reformed Seminary of Ukraine    www.ersu.org

Missionary, International Theological Education Ministries   www.item.org

The “Shadow” video doesn’t provide

I love the new technology video conferencing provides. It’s great to have a meeting with several pastors without wasting five hours of travel for a one hour meeting.

Oleg and Daniel, (yes, real names) attended the Workshop on Biblical Exposition (WBE) on Galatians a year ago. This year, both were sitting in the foyer waiting for our arrival and each greeted me independently and identically, “I was hoping you would come.” That had been my exact thoughts and prayers for the last year and it was certainly foremost in my mind as I passed through the “trinitarian door” of the Vyshneve House of the Gospel.*

Last year by the mercy of God these two men, more than any of others, adopted me. Daniel the Messianic Jew claimed me his rabbi and he asked if He could follow me learn more as I interacted with others.

Oleg came as a bit of an outsider to the group and he found a resonant connection with my teaching style. These two men sought me out at every break. They tried to sit at the same table for each meal. The beauty of the story is not exclusive to these to men or to me. This merely illustrates the pattern each instructor provided outside the formal teaching periods. Each one had men who intentionally and purposefully wanted to be discipled!

How humbling to see the Lord working nonstop through the specific connections and relationships outside of the formal teaching. This is the work “in the shadows” that a video link cannot provide. Or to use the popular idiom, it puts, “skin in the game.”

But still more, God graciously permits discipleship to grow out of the setting designed to promote preaching.

* The “trinitarian door” is my name for the three doors at the main entrance. The internet in the church is too slow to upload pictures so I will have to share that later along with the photos of conference activity.

The Surprises of God

Reflections by Dr. Rob Toornstra

Sometimes the gravity of a moment hits home in unexpected ways and in unexpected places.

Pastors Bill Wilton, Perry Tinklenberg, Fritz Harms, and myself decided to take a walk after class on Tuesday evening. Camp Zmina is located in a remote village, without the benefit of streetlights to illuminate the narrow and uneven roads. As we walked, chatting about the day’s work, Bill suddenly asked a question of the group: “What year were you born in?” Turns out, all of us were born before 1980 (and most of us before 1970 – sorry guys!). While we were all puzzled about exactly what Bill was driving at, he – being a good preacher! – made the point clear.

From the early days of the Soviet Empire, the Communist government had little room for the free expression of religion. Churches, where and when allowed, were strictly regulated.Usually, it was the state religion that was permitted, while other churches were heavily restricted. Evangelism and missions were virtually non-existent (as is increasingly becoming the case again in modern day Russia). Of course, For many years, Ukraine was not an independent country, but a part (however unwilling) of the Soviet Empire. The camp facilities that are serving as a host for the week, in fact, are a former Soviet retreat center, used as a summer camp for Communist party bureaucrats & their families for summer R & R. Literally everywhere we look, we see the remnants of an era strong opposed to the spread of the Kingdom of God.

And yet, here we are. For the past week, we’ve been talking about the power and the practice of preaching. God reminds us in his word that the message of the cross – the message we train and are trained to preach – is foolishness. Here we are, surrounded by the crumbling remnants of a once-superpower nation, a nation bent on resisting and rejecting religion in favor of a human ideology, shaping the hearts and minds of our students to preach a message about a savior who suffered, a savior who was ridiculed, shamed, beaten, and killed. A gospel that the world is and always will be different from here on out. A gospel that will long outlast the worldly kingdoms and empires, and dictators and despots. 

The students we help train this week will, in due time, enter the ministry. They will serve in rural churches around Ukraine, andthey will serve urban congregations in cities like Kyiv, or Kharkiv. They will – as one of our students is doing at present – continue to minister to soldiers and families near the front lines of the conflict with Russia. They will, as another student is doing, minister in the university context, challenging skeptics to weigh the claims of the gospel against the worldview of unbelief. The work that ITEM (International Theological Educational Ministries) is involved in will have a ripple effect in the coming years, and even decades. They will preach the gospel, faithfully we trust, from God’s word. They will, in turn, shape the hearts and minds of countless others.

Who would have thought that even 30 years ago? It’s an awesome privilege. To train preachers to preach God’s word in a land where there is such a hunger for biblical truth is a gift! It’s also a humbling reminder. The kingdom of God, as weak and powerless as it may seem, will be built, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. And that is a weighty glory.