A Pattern for Church Ministry (Part Two)

Acts 14:21-23

Strengthening the disciples by encouraging them to continue in the faith and by telling them, “It is necessary to go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (14:22 CSB).

We continue our theme of what churches ought to do in their ministry. However, we must always be aware of a trap, the checklist trap. This wrong idea makes us suppose that if our behavior conforms to a series of actions (rules, laws, standards, steps in mission, etc.) that we therefore have a godly local church. But God is more concerned about the internal matters of our hearts, including a collective heart of a church, which will lead to godly action. God’s work is always a matter of what Paul states elsewhere. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision accomplishes anything; what matters is faith working through love (Galatians 5:6 CSB). In addition, joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17) and the peace of Christ (Colossians 3:16) are essential. With that reminder, let us continue to look at this pattern for church ministry.

Strengthening the disciples. This is usually referred to as “disciple making” by many writers. I will not talk in detail about that misstatement, except to say that we make disciples by telling the good news of Jesus. Every believer in the Lord Jesus is a disciple (or learner) of him. Notice what the Lord said in Matthew 28:19-20a (NIV): Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. First, a disciple is made, next baptized, and then taught. What is usually called “disciple making” is in reality simply teaching disciples to obey what the Lord has commanded us.

Why is it important to know this? I will suggest a couple reasons.

  • We ought to use Bible names and phrases to teach whenever possible, unless we clearly explain the theological substitute. Sometimes, for the sake of simplicity, teachers use theological words for the sake of clarity. We can call get lost in a long string of nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. But we should never do this when their use confuses the subject. Consider the use of “ordinances” or “sacraments” to refer to baptism and the Lord’s Supper. “Ordinances” sounds like you’re in a town council meeting, and “sacraments” is simply a theologically loaded bomb that misleads people, including those who use it. When we use the words and phrases that the Bible uses, we can simply direct learners to the texts of Scripture, without expecting them to wade through a theological swamp.
  • It provides better insight into the disciple making process. Too often, it degenerates into giving a mass of information. But simply being told things does not make a follower of Jesus stronger. In the church, we live in a time of reaction against Biblical information. Most churches have dropped Sunday School programs, and many small group meetings are only a time for “fellowship” (whatever that means varies from place to place). This results in little training in Bible knowledge, and it is important! Having said that, people have walked away from Bible training because it seemed unrelated to their way of life. Surely, we can teach Biblical content in a way that provides good thoughts and intentions (ideas, values) to the inner person of the heart, explains how these ought to be lived out, which then results in the active practice of a Biblical world and life view. This is how we strengthen someone, regardless of their maturity level. The Spirit then uses the thoughts and intentions that we receive from the word of God to produce transformation according to Christ.

So then, are you being strengthened in your local church? Are you part of the process of strengthening others with the truth that you have been taught by God? Use your life for the benefit of others. You’ll discover how God uses you in his plan.

Grace and peace, David

A Pattern for Church Ministry (Part One)

Acts 14:21-23

After they had preached the gospel in that town and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, to Iconium, and to Antioch… (14:21 CSB)

The book of Acts shows the continuing acts of Jesus the Messiah by the Holy Spirit through the apostles (sent ones). Much of this work concerned the starting and building up churches (local gatherings of followers of Jesus Christ). Paul and Barnabas had gone out from Antioch on what proved to be a hazardous journey to labor with the Lord in this good work. After several trials, they were able to start a couple churches. From those churches, the message of salvation would spread throughout the interior of Asia Minor. Luke gives us the bullet points of what they did to help us in what we ought to do to spread everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ (2 Corinthians 2:14 NIV). We need to take these verses to heart, because our churches seem to lack any Biblical idea of what they are supposed to do.

Real life ministry. The apostles entered Derbe after a narrow escape in Lystra. Opposition to their message was intense, even more, it was vicious. The point is that it was not an easy situation. At church picnics we used to play ballgames with plastic balls and bats. That is not what Barnabas and Paul were involved in. This was major league hardball where the opponents were cutthroat. The Lord did not put them in places set up for their success, which some suppose was the case. They went where the situation could turn deadly (cf. Acts 14:19). This provides us with hope. Many local churches feel defeated when their outreach initiatives are rejected by the community. The apostles continued when people were throwing rocks at them. We must expect setbacks; we need to persevere in faith.

Preaching. This is the means that contemporary people assume cannot work any longer. Some say, it might have worked for the apostles and men like Calvin, Whitefield, and Spurgeon when there were far less distractions. It might have worked for Billy Graham in the last century when people were still fascinated by large religious crowds and television. But not today. And so the church walks away from the means the Holy Spirit uses. To preach is to proclaim God’s word, the Bible, and to call people to respond by changing their minds and believing the truth of the word. I do a lot of small group ministry where there is much discussion. I think that is also a valid and important means that the Spirit of God wants us to use. But he also tells us to Preach the Word (2 Timothy 4:2 NIV).

The gospel—the good news. This is the message of salvation in Christ Jesus the Lord and what he accomplished through his death and resurrection. Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you… For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures… (1 Corinthians 15:1, 2-4 ESV). When we tell people the good news, we speak of a person, God’s Anointed One (Christ or Messiah) that he sent to deal with the most important issue separating us from God; namely our sins (our rejection of the living God as our God, our refusal to love him, and our rebellion against him and his commands). This is a message of grace. God took the initiative and did what was necessary. Now, we can be right with God by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. We have Christ’s righteousness credited to our account (Romans 3:21-4:5; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Philippians 3:9). Since we are united to Christ, God fully accepts us for Jesus’ sake. Rejoice in that!

They made disciples. This is our mission, our purpose, our goal (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 1:17). A local church does not exist to build a building to seat people to collect money from them, so that the church can build a bigger or nicer building! The church is not a place you go to, but people in Christ with whom you share new life in Christ. We seek to make people learners (disciples) of Christ, so that they can glorify God by enjoying him forever.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, let’s learn from the example of the apostles. They were concerned about the glory of God and the good of people. Let’s get involved in the mission that the Lord Jesus has given to us.

Grace and peace, David

Psalm 63 (Part Three)

I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory (63:2 NIV).

Verses two through eight presents five vital experiences of the saints (those set apart for God, which is a basic idea about true believers.) Each of us should seek to know each of these experiences in an increasing measure. Salvation is not some kind of “fire insurance policy” but the experience of eternal life with God that begins now. Each ideally will develop in an increasing measure. The five experiences are:

  • God’s glory
  • Praise
  • Satisfaction
  • Meditation
  • Trust

Unfortunately, some approach the Bible and its message with mere intellectual curiosity. They like to hear “steps for successful living” or how to be prosperous or moral or have a happy family or whatever quest they’re into. The Bible becomes a manual that provides a philosophy for life or counsel about how to get through their problems. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones said years ago, they have “taken up” Christianity, but Christianity has never taken hold of them. To them, it is practical information without spiritual transformation. This psalm does not permit such an approach. It speaks of the person whom the true and living God has “taken up”. Against a barren assent or knowledge, this psalm tells us of spiritual experience with God as the center, as the great desire of the heart. King David’s purpose in this song is to shout out that God himself may be known!

It is important to remember that David lived during the time when the law or old covenant governed a person’s approach to God. His worship had to be through physical means like sacrifices offered at an altar at the earthly sanctuary, the tabernacle. We must think about the means he needed to use in worship. Certainly, all believers in God in all ages know God himself through faith. My point does not concern the reality of fellowship with God, or even whether any particular believer in one age of redemptive history had a greater desire for or intimacy with God than a believer in a different age. Everything is in proportion to one’s faith. But we ought to keep in mind the historical setting of this psalm.

When David wrote “in the sanctuary”, he meant that physical place chosen by God as the home of the Ark of the Covenant. Earlier in Israel’s history, this had been the tabernacle built in the time of Moses; later it would be the temple constructed by Solomon. David lived in a transitional period, and he meant the tent he had erected to house the Ark. During the law covenant, God revealed his glory in connection with the Ark. The old covenant people could see the cloud of glory arising from above the gold mercy seat of the Ark, between “the wings of the cherubim”. Part of David’s experience was very physical.

In the new covenant, believers in Jesus the Messiah are God’s temple or sanctuary. For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people (2 Corinthians 6:17 NIV; cf. 1 Corinthians 3:16; 1 Peter 2:4-5; etc.) We do not go to a place to see a physical appearance of God’s glory, but the Spirit of glory and of God rests on us (1 Peter 4:14 NIV). When we are with other believers in Jesus, we form the temple of God that we already are. The Lord Jesus is present in such gatherings (Matthew 18:20). This truth should cause us to worship together with reverence and awe! By faith we can see the Living One in our sanctuary! Since we are God’s temple, we can know his spiritual presence (which is very real; something does not have to be material to be real, witness God himself.) In our gatherings, we should see his power and glory. We should see his power in the transformation of lives. We should realize that there is shining spiritual glory in our meetings. We all, with unveiled faces, are looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory; this is from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18 CSB).

Grace and peace, David

Psalm 63 (Part Two)

God, you are my God; I eagerly seek you. I thirst for you; my body faints for you in a land that is dry, desolate, and without water (63:1 CSB).

David begins with a basic confession of faith. God, you are my God… David confessed that trouble, heartache, anguish, and even spiritual discipline for his sins could not affect his relationship with his God. The Lord was as much his God in the Desert of Judah as when he was in the palace in Jerusalem. It might be easier for us to declare our faith when all is well, but faith will freely speak with conviction when hard pressed. His statement was based on the core covenant promise made by God to his chosen people (Genesis 17:7-8; cf. Hebrews 8:10 for the same in the new covenant.) Our world may collapse around us, but God’s covenant faithfulness never changes. He is our God at all times. We may always call him my God. “How sweet is such language! Is there any other word comparable to it for delights?” (Spurgeon)

Flowing from this confession of faith is David’s fervent search for a sense of God’s gracious presence. He wants to know, to sense that God is with him in his trial! Haven’t all believers experienced this? “The longing of these verses is not the groping of a stranger, feeling his way towards God, but the eagerness of a friend, almost of a lover, to be in touch with the one he holds dear” (Kidner).

David sang I eagerly seek you. When in difficulty, it is natural to seek relief. David profited from his affliction by deciding to seek God first (Matthew 6:33). “He doth not say, my soul thirsteth for the blood of my enemies, but my soul thirsteth for thee; nor doth he say, my soul thirsteth for deliverance out of this dry and barren wilderness, but my soul thirsteth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is, nor he doth not say, my soul thirsteth for a crown, a kingdom, but my soul thirsteth for thee…” (The Works of Thomas Brooks, Vol. 2, p. 91).

I thirst for you; my body faints for you… Observe the involvement of his whole being after God. Though the body may be the instrument of sin (Romans 6:6), the body is created by God and so not evil in itself. Believers should offer their bodies and the parts of their bodies to God, for service to him, instead of in service to sin (Romans 6:12-13, 19; 12:1). We look forward to the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:23). Observe also the intensity of David’s desire for God. “Thirst is an insatiable longing after that which is one of the most essential supports of life; there is no reasoning with it, no forgetting it, no despising it, no overcoming it by stoical indifference. Thirst will be heard: the whole man must yield to its power…” (Spurgeon).

David continues in a land that is dry, desolate, and without water. He sang of the desperate need he felt at that time (2 Samuel 16:2; 17:29). Yet there he found his help in God! We do not have to be in a comfortable place to receive comfort. We may go to God in the most unfavorable situations. As John Piper (Desiring God, p. 24, first edition) pointed out, this also testifies of the true character of God. The Lord is happy, joyful, content, and satisfied. Who would want to seek someone who was frustrated, dismal, gloomy, and discontented? When we see God in his glory (Psalm 115:3; Revelation 4:11; etc.), we realize that he is more than able to help us in our misery.

My friend, are you thirsty today? Hear anew the invitation of the Lord Jesus. On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them” (John 7:37-38 NIV). Go to the Lord and drink deeply!

Grace and peace, David

Psalm 63 (Part One)

God, you are my God; I eagerly seek you. I thirst for you; my body faints for you in a land that is dry, desolate, and without water (63:1 CSB).

David wrote this psalm when he was in the desert of Judah. This probably refers to the time of his flight from his son Absalom (cf. 2 Samuel 15-17). This was a time of great sorrow and deprivation for David. His emotions were stretched to the limit, and we can see him making some unwise choices and saying harmful things, as well as acting godly. All of us are a strange, even weird mixture of grace and sin. Let’s not be too critical of David and remember our own weaknesses. David became a temporary exile from the center of law covenant worship in Jerusalem. Being away from worship is a burden for those who love the Lord (cf. Psalms 42-43). Adding to David’s grief was the knowledge that all this came as discipline from the Lord for his sins connected with Bathsheba (cf. 2 Samuel 12:9-12).

During this situation, David wrote this psalm to record what he learned about the relationship between the covenant Lord and his people. He learned that believers can sing even when they are in desert places, because the thirsting soul finds satisfaction in God. This ought to encourage us all, since our lives have many such times, even prolonged seasons of drought. We do not need to wait until we arrive at a spiritual high to experience God. We can know him in deep trials and when troubles multiply. I have recently seen a dear brother and sister in Christ go through such a time; indeed, they are not out of it yet. But it is stirring to see them rejoice in the Lord. Think of three others who experienced God in the desert—Hagar, Moses, and Elijah.

This psalm is intensely personal. Sixteen times David spoke about his relationship with the living God. His friendship with God was far from the ritualistic or legalistic performance mentality of many religious people. God can be known personally. We can experience his personal activity in our lives. We can know his presence when we are separated from the “sanctuary” (tabernacle or temple in the old covenant and the local gathering of Christ’s people in the new covenant age). It is good to gather with the godly, but it is refreshing to know that he remains with us when we cannot.

From ancient times, this psalm has been known as “the morning psalm of the church” (Leupold). This was due to the translation of “early” instead of “eagerly” or “earnestly” (NIV). “Chrysostom testifies ‘That it was decreed and ordained by the primitive Fathers, that no day should pass without the public singing of this psalm’” (Perowne). While this might not fit with our modern lifestyle and worship, it can be a useful nudge to induce us to refer to it more frequently. The passionate language will help us leave behind the coldness of our disappointments to be warmed in the experience of God’s greatness and love for us. We will learn about how to talk to the God we love.

The psalm can be simply outlined as followed: the believer’s desire of God (63:1), the believer’s experience (63:2-8), and the believer’s security (63:9-11). We want to think about these ideas. What do you do when you are in a desert place? What do you know of God in such circumstances? How can you relate to God in such times? Are you in a desert place now? Please open your Bible and listen with your heart to this song written by a man that knew the misery of desert places.

Grace and peace, David