Serving Christ in the Hard Places

Matthew 25:31-40

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and take you in, or without clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick, or in prison, and visit you?’ “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’” (Matthew 25:37-40 CSB).

God’s people can be found in hard situations. The Lord Jesus mentions some of these. His brothers and sisters can be hungry, thirsty, alienated, lacking adequate clothing, ill, and imprisoned. The life of faith does not equal a life of ease. We thank our God and Father for every provision that comes to us by his mercy. But there are often times when we must walk before him and feel some of the anguish of now living in a world cursed because of human sin. And we must walk with others in their difficult circumstances. God leads his people through places and times that are unpleasant. Some of these are due to their sins, while others come upon them because of the sins of others, or simply because we must live in a world that waits for the revealing of the sons and daughters of God (Romans 8:18-21). Regardless of the reason, Christ’s people must be ready to serve him in these hard places.

One of our friends was in prison. After the usual time of adjustment required by the officials, we could visit him. But he first had to put us on his list of ten visitors, and then we had to receive clearance before we were able to visit. Yes, he could only have ten people visit him, and the other eight on his list were family members, some of whom lived far away. We were glad to visit him month after month to encourage him.

However, what of the other brothers and sisters in Christ who loved and cared for our friend? They could not visit him. What could they do? Yesterday, our friend, now out of prison, visited us. He brought with him a box filled with cards and letters that he had received while in prison. Some were written by Sharon, who is a much better letter writer than I am. But in the box were many notes written by friends at our church and by our friends from around the country. We rejoiced greatly to see how many brothers and sisters in the Lord had written to him during those trying and lonely years. They couldn’t visit, but they did what they could (cf. Mark 14:8).

The believers in Philippi helped Paul in a similar way when he was in prison. They couldn’t go, but they could and did send one of their number to help Paul. Consider the joy and appreciation in Paul’s thanks to them. Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit. I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God (Philippians 4:14-18 ESV).

When our brothers and sisters in Christ are in need, we ought to be alert and concerned about the hard place they are in. A long illness is complicated by loneliness and weakness that affect the person’s spirit. Some people simply need friends, because their family has cast them off. Others need physical and financial help, for food, clothing, transportation, and shelter. Some struggle with repairs needed on their car or house. Often people won’t make their needs known, and they suffer in silence and struggle spiritually. This is why we must share our lives with each other. We must draw near to others and allow others to get close to us (this is a two-way street!), so that we will be ready to help, strengthen, and encourage one another.

Our dear friends did this for our dear friend, while he was imprisoned. Again, how we rejoiced to see all those cards and letters! Now, let us look for ways to help others, because when we serve those in need, we are serving the Lord Jesus Christ.

Grace and peace, David

A Pattern for Church Ministry (Part Five)

Acts 14:21-23

Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church… (14:23a NIV).

It has been said that it is easier to criticize what is in place than to replace it with what is better. I agree! The Biblical way is to transform our ideas, attitudes, and actions according to the scriptures. How can a local assembly of believers transform their view of church structure and leadership?

First, we must transform our thinking about the church itself. It is not an organization but an organism. The church is the bride of Christ, the body of Christ, its members the branches of Christ the Vine, the brotherhood (brothers and sisters) of Christ, and so it is the living building of Christ. For easy recall, we can call these the “Five Bs of the Church” (Ephesians 5:23-24; 1 Corinthians 15:12-13; John 15:1-8; 1 Thessalonians 1:4; 1 Peter 2:4-5; etc.) Each of these metaphors speak of the church as a living organism. They are all Christ-formed and draw their life from Christ, (which is the reason I repeated “of Christ” in the above list.) Christ is the head of this living organism. He is also the head of the body, the church (Colossians 1:18 CSB). Observe very clearly that Christ is the head of the church, not a group of elders, bishops, or a pastor. Christ is the Chief Shepherd; elders merely shepherd God’s flock under Christ’s direction (1 Peter 5:1-4). A local church and its leadership must maintain this view of being a living body, vitally connected with Christ that apart from Christ can do nothing. The current organizational view of churches suppresses a proper focus of life with Christ. The sense of fellowship with the Ascended Lord Jesus (Colossians 3:1) should saturate all the meetings of local churches.

Second, we must be willing to listen to what the New Testament Scriptures actually say about church leadership. Here is an example. When it was made, the Authorized or King James Version was the best translation of the Bible that had appeared in English. It served English speaking churches well from the early 1600s to the 1950s. However, like any human product, the KJV had weaknesses. The one that concerns us now is that it was a political translation in places. King James I required that certain passages dealing with “church government” be translated to conform with his views of the church (hence, the translation “church” for the Scottish “kirk”, when the Greek is better translated as assembly or something similar.) For example, consider Philippians 1:1. Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons (AKJV, my emphasis). Compare to a better translation of this verse. Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus, to all the holy ones in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the overseers and ministers (NABRE, my emphasis). While most modern English translations have cast off “bishops” of the AKJV, they wrongly continue to use the transliteration (letter by letter) “deacons”. The subject of ministers is not the point in this post. But the continued use of a transliteration still hinders clear views of church leadership, and that is the point. It masks what the Spirit has breathed out in the Word. Strongly held church traditions dating back to at least the early 1600s make people refuse to discuss the actual meanings of elder and “deacon” and their interrelated functions in the local assembly. This must change.

Why is this important? It becomes important in the relationship between “pastor” and “elder”. I think that many would hold them to be equivalent based on Acts 20:17, 28. From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church… Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God… (NIV, my emphasis). Then what happens in contemporary North American churches is “interesting” (in the negative sense of that word).

  • The elders and members of a church want a (usually) seminary trained man to be “the pastor” to handle the preaching of the word and other “pastoral and administrative” duties. They want a “senior pastor” or “lead pastor” who will be “the face of the church”. They may hire other “pastors” to handle other aspects of pastoral work, such as youth pastor, counseling pastor, visitation pastor, small group pastor, women’s ministries pastor, etc., if the church is large. While the lead pastor and the elders are theoretically equals, the senior pastor is the man everyone looks to for vision, leadership, and the Sunday morning preaching.
  • Depending on the doctrinal beliefs, spiritual gifts, skills, personalities, and spiritual maturity of the pastors and the elders, they can have a more or less harmonious relationship. If the church is “successful” (an increasing number of “nickels and noses”), it is in everyone’s best interests to make it work. “Success” can mask the wrong underlying ideas, attitudes, and actions until a crisis comes.
  • When something does go wrong, the blame game starts. In a larger church, it is easy to blame the staff and dismiss the assistant pastors, since they are not the face of the church. If there is a moral failure of the senior pastor or a power struggle between him and the elders, a church has very serious problems. It is rare to resolve such power struggles in a godly manner. Either the senior pastor or the elders must leave the church. Which happens is a matter of personalities, their popularity in the church, and their ability to manipulate people.

Next time, I want to talk more about pastors and elders and the biblical idea of leadership. However, I don’t want this post to end on a negative note. I am very glad that the Lord Jesus Christ is the Head of the church! As one who served for thirty-five years as a pastor, I rejoice in what the Lord does for the good of his people through the Holy Spirit and the Bible. He loves his church dearly, and he wants the churches to welcome him back as their functional Lord (Revelation 2-3). This will require transformation of the structure of local churches. Healthy organisms require healthy structures. We need better ideas of church leadership than the contemporary board room model, which produces power struggles. The transformation can happen as leaders and members understand what the Lord has actually set up for the leadership of his people.

Grace and peace, David

A Pattern for Church Ministry (Part Four)

Acts 14:21-23

In this passage, the Holy Spirit records a pattern of ministry for building up local churches (gatherings of followers of Christ). If we are wise disciples (learners of Christ), we will listen to and think carefully about what he has made known for our benefit. Next, we come to the appointment of elders in the local assemblies. This might seem to be simple and obvious. “Every church needs leadership.” Agreed. But our contemporary situation is complex and difficult. Let me point out some matters that make the question of elders rather problematic in North American churches in our time. Another time, we’ll consider what the Bible says on this subject.

Most churches choose leaders that conform with corporate business models and strategies, rather than the New Testament Scriptures. This attitude is not stated, but drives the ways that churches are “governed”. By the way, the concept of “church government” derives from the nations, not the Lord. Listen to what the Lord Jesus said. But Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave” (Matthew 20:25-27 NLT). Many churches wrongly believe in “elder rule” based on a mistranslation (KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV) of 1 Timothy 5:17. Compare the better translation of the CSB: The elders who are good leaders…. Elders are not to mimic worldly practices, where corporate executives sit around a board room table and make decisions for the organization. Instead, the church is a spiritual body and the Lord Christ is her head (Colossians 1:18; 2:19).

People are content to be passive in churches. “Let someone else handle the business stuff. We just want to attend to fulfill our religious obligation.”

It is impossible to have a proper idea of elders, unless you have a Biblical idea of the local church and how it is to be led. Too many church leaders look at the congregation as a motley collection of immature or wayward or reluctant or obstinate sheep that must be ruled with a firm hand. Some leaders even view some in the church as “dragons”. Do they actually suppose that they are on a higher spiritual level because they are elders or deacons… or pastors? Until elders have a biblical view and respect for their brothers and sisters in Christ, they will be unable to lead and care for them. This requires commitment to biblical teaching about every believer’s identity in Christ.

Church members have wrong views of leadership, such as being content to allow a small group of (usually) men to conduct the “business” of the local church. This might be because of their personal history, in which church “business meetings” were quite contentious and they “just want to go to church” from now on. Others might have attended a church with a “congregational” form of government, in which the leadership was a pastor and deacons. When problems arose because of abuses of power by either the pastor or the deacons or both, they listened to arguments for a plurality of elders and consequent elder rule. Those arguments seemed persuasive because nearly all of the numerous references in the New Testament Scriptures to elders are in the plural. They took the bait without further examination of the teaching from the Bible.

People believe there is a single, mandatory system of church government set out in the New Testament Scriptures. And it is the one that their church teaches. Period. To borrow an illustration, they assume that they have found the black cat on a totally dark, moonless night, in a basement, when the electricity is out, and their eyes are shut while they are blindfolded. People will discuss and debate election and predestination, prophetic schemes, counseling methods, and so on. But to study out from the Scriptures what is actually written about church leadership is taboo. It is far easier to simply accept what they’ve been told or to read books by the experts on “the biblical form of church government as taught by our group.” I should say, it is easier until they are spiritually hurt and wounded by abuses of power in the church.

And then they wonder, “Why did this happen?”

Grace and peace, David

A Pattern for Church Ministry (Part Three)

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).

The book of Acts records what the Lord Jesus continued to do to build his church through the ministry of the apostles by the Holy Spirit. As we read this record, we discover a pattern of ministry that can guide us in the work that the Lord of the church has called us to do. Previously, we have seen these aspects of this pattern:

  • Real life ministry
  • Preaching
  • The gospel (good news)
  • Make disciples
  • Strengthen disciples

This brings us to the next part of this pattern of ministry. We are to encourage disciples (learners of Jesus Christ). This is an important but often overlooked part of the gatherings of believers. I think this is because the emphasis in most Bible believing churches has been “don’t do these naughty things” and “do your duty by serving the Lord”, which is often reduced to such matters as hand out bulletins, work in the nursery, and help out at the building on work days. On the other hand, a contemporary alternative is “you can feel happy or be successful or prosperous (in your marriage, parenting, job, or finances) by doing these steps”. All this stuff has nothing to do with Biblical Christianity! The average person leaves a meeting rather frustrated or depressed or ready to drop the whole church routine.

Encouragement is a goal of Christian ministry. After the so-called “council of Jerusalem”, the church at Jerusalem sent out men to encourage the church at Antioch, after some had caused a disturbance in Antioch (Acts 15:30-32). When a church has been upset, its members need encouragement! After the apostle Paul had to set right some matters in Corinth, he made certain that he directed them to be encouraged. Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you (2 Corinthians 13:11 NIV). Paul sent Tychicus to the Ephesian believers to encourage them (Ephesians 6:22). He sent Timothy to the Thessalonians on the same mission (1 Thessalonians 3:11). To encourage is an essential part of preaching God’s word. Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction (2 Timothy 4:2 NIV; cf. also 1 Corinthians 14:31; 1 Thessalonians 5:11).

The world and the forces of evil press hard against the people of God, and so we need encouragement to remain faithful. When he [Barnabas] arrived and saw the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged all of them to remain true to the Lord with devoted hearts (Acts 11:23 CSB). Barnabas himself was a model of encouragement (Acts 4:36). Like him, some have encouragement as a spiritual gift (Romans 12:8), but we all are to encourage one another, especially with the truth of our Lord’s second coming (1 Thessalonians 4:18).

Encouragement is a need of those who are suffering. This is what God our Father does for us: who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God (2 Corinthians 1:4 ESV). As the children of such a loving and comforting Father, we ought to be known for our concern and skill in encouraging each other.

Encouragement is necessary to prevent spiritual decline. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow (2 Corinthians 2:7 NIV). But encourage each other daily, while it is still called today, so that none of you is hardened by sin’s deception (Hebrews 3:13 CSB). Clearly, this is our mutual responsibility in our gatherings: not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (Hebrews 10:25 ESV).

So then, I plead with everyone to make our local churches gatherings for encouragement. This is my prayer for Christ’s followers in every place. May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us eternal encouragement and good hope by grace, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good work and word (2 Thessalonians 2:16-17 CSB).

Grace and peace, David

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

John and His Message (Part Two)

SAMSUNG

Luke 3:7-9

He then said to the crowds who came out to be baptized by him, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Therefore produce fruit consistent with repentance. And don’t start saying to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you that God is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones. The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (CSB).

John the Baptist did what the Lord called him to do. He went out in the desert and proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3 CSB). It seemed like an unlikely and unpromising place to start a great work of God, such as the coming of the Messiah was promised to be (cf. Isaiah 35.) However, God’s ways are not our ways (cf. Isaiah 55:8). Who would go out into the desert to hear a preacher? The Lord did everything to make sure that John’s ministry would not rest in the power of man but the power of God. This is what most contemporary churches need to hear, because their “back door is as big as their front door.” Human schemes are no substitute for God’s word, prayer, and the power of the Holy Spirit. Some churches will do some sort of “40 Days of Prayer” program, be excited during it, and then… “We prayed for forty days, revival didn’t come, so let’s try something else.” That was not what John the Baptist did. He went out to the desert, preached the Lord’s message, and God sent the people. Crowds came to be baptized by him with a baptism of repentance. So then, what were John’s sermons like?

He did not try to please people (3:7). You do not please people by calling them a brood of vipers! Imagine entering any contemporary church and being a viper, which is clearly symbolic of being an evil person. The crowds in our time would not stay; they would walk out. Contemporary churches are ashamed of sin and afraid to call people sinners. They want everyone to feel comfortable. They want to be thought well of in their local community. They want everyone to like them. John the Baptist lacked such concerns. Please listen carefully. I am not talking about being rude and obnoxious. We ought to welcome people with joy. But that must never obscure the truth of the sinfulness of all people everywhere. We must tell people who they are in the presence of the holy God. That is what John was doing as he preached to his people. He was not afraid to challenge people “in his church” that they might actually be a brood of vipers! How would you react if your pastor dared to say something similar in your local church this Sunday?

He told people to change (3:8). Repentance is a change of mind, as we said in our previous post in this series. Repentant people think differently in their hearts about God, themselves, sin, Christ, and the way of salvation. This inward turn produces changes in people, both internally (ideas, attitudes, expectations, etc.) and externally in the behavior. The repentant person changes the way they walk and talk. By the way, many professing Christians need to stop using the substitute obscene and profane language they use to color their speech. So that no one misses the point, I mean all the substitute “F” words and “bathroom” words. Consider Ephesians 4:29; 5:4; Colossians 3:8. Crude speech is not the right means to lead others in godly ways. The fruit of repentance is godliness, the character that shows that a person is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator (Colossians 3:10 NIV). It is the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) and “the new clothing” of the new person (Colossians 3:12-17). It is what we add to our faith (2 Peter 1:5-8 NIV).

He turned people from false hopes (3:8). As the last of the old covenant prophets and the forerunner of the new age, John warned the people not to trust in their ethnic heritage. Far too many rely on their descent for assurance that God accepts them. The people of God in the new covenant are only repentant believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. Your physical heritage counts for nothing in God’s sight (John 1:11-13; Romans 2:9; 3:23; 9:6-8; Colossians 3:11). What does count is the grace of God freely given through Jesus Christ. In him, you can be part of the people of God!

He warned them of the wrath to come (3:9). Yes, John did not make people feel comfortable. He wanted all outside of God’s grace to feel very uncomfortable! Again, the contemporary church doesn’t want to offend anyone. Political correctness rules the day, unless it is something distasteful to their own political agenda, but that is another subject. People do not want to hear of the fires of the wrath of God. They are like people whistling as they pass a cemetery, but in this case, it is not a cemetery but hell itself. The are like toddlers playing “peekaboo”, assuming that if they don’t hear about hell, it doesn’t exist. John told the crowds the truth. We do not help people by failing to tell them their very serious problem before the throne of God.

John the Baptist was faithful to his mission. May we be faithful to the mission the Lord Jesus has given us (Luke 24:45-47).

Grace and peace, David

Consistency

Colossians 1:29

To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me (NIV).

My wife and I each have a car, which we need to get to the places God has called us to go. This is hardly an amazing fact, but the cars have different keys. My key will not start hers and vice versa. I carry both sets of keys on one ring, and this provides a time for contemplation, since when I’m in my car, I have a push button start. Her car requires the insertion of the key into the ignition switch. Since I drive my car more often, it is easy to reach for the button rather than inserting the key when I’m in her car. Habit is a good gift from God, but it doesn’t replace thinking.

We live in a world in which we are taught from infancy to do things for ourselves and to be self-reliant. This also is good, because Sharon and I expected our children to tie their own shoes, as soon as possible. But self-reliance can easily become twisted by sin to become reliance on ourselves, instead of trust in God. There is a “fine line” where this happens. You cannot draw it on a map or describe it in a book. We might talk about this a long time in a small group and not reach a definite conclusion. Life is not lived by acting in conformity with manuals for behavior. But that is not the topic of this post. Instead, it concerns more simply serving the Lord consistent with his glorious person.

It is far too easy to carry the “keys” of worldly self-reliance into service for the Lord. Programs, the performance of “worship teams”, form of “church government”, rituals, buildings, training for ministry leaders, and so on occupy center stage in the conversations and planning meetings of local churches. “If we would do what that successful church does, then we would enjoy the same success” is a widespread attitude, regardless of how it is nuanced. I am not arguing for untrained leaders, dirty and uncomfortable buildings, and woeful music. However, I am addressing an attitude that is far too pervasive and dominant.

Our Lord invested time in training the apostles for the work he called them to do. He gave instructions on how to do it. But part of his instruction concerned the need to rely on him for spiritual power. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:5 NIV). We all need to return to “Christ-reliance”. We all need to… excuse me while I use a ‘four-letter-word’… We need to pray.

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul provides examples of prayer to that church. He began that short letter with along section on thanksgiving and prayer (1:3-14). He asked for prayer (4:2-4). He pointed out how the founder of their church wrestled in prayer for them (4:12). What does prayer have to do with all this?

Prayer is a believer’s conversation with his or her God. We come as his adult children, friends, and coworkers. We acknowledge to accomplish spiritual good that we require his almighty power. We want to serve the Lord with all the energy Christ so powerfully works. There is simply no other way that we can accomplish anything of spiritual and eternal value. It brings great joy to see the Lord at work in the lives of many people. When a person begins to live according to Christ (cf. Col 2:8 ESV), it is an artwork of spiritual beauty. Godly ideas, attitudes, words, and actions flow out from him or her, as the Spirit forms Christ in them. This is what we long for, but it is beyond our ability. Only the power of God can produce godliness.

We must pray.

Grace and peace, David

Rejected

Isaiah 53:3

He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem (NIV).

Most people can understand the bitter pain of rejection. It is often experienced in childhood on various levels. We might have felt rejection in being the last person picked for kickball or because we wore glasses at a young age. Teen years might have brought the rejection of being “shot down” or never asked regarding dates, being excluded from the “in” social groups. Young adulthood might have brought rejections by colleges and employers, or even the rejection of a broken engagement. Adults experience a multitude of rejections, until finally, older adults sit alone in nursing homes, rejected by most everyone. If you feel rejected, you may weep.

Our verse, however, points us not to what bitterness we might feel from rejection, but to one who came into this world to be rejected, in order that his people might be accepted. The bitter cup of rejection he accepted for our benefit. Take a few minutes to ponder the depths of rejection that Jesus the Messiah felt to bring us salvation and joy. The baby in the manger became the despised man and held in low esteem on the cross. If you sense somewhat of the rejection he received, you may weep.

I wish that his rejection had ended, and that all people everywhere might accept him, bowing before the Lord Christ in repentance and faith. But most of the world prefers to reject him continually, despising both him and his offer of saving grace. Father in heaven, pour out your Holy Spirit, that people might see the glory of your dearly loved Son and turn to him!

While we pray that fervently, we must face the ways that we his people still reject him. This is ugly, but we must understand this ugliness, in order to turn from it.

  • The Lord Jesus is rejected in the theological systems people build. Our knowledge of God and the story of his glory ought to be built on and formed by the Lord and his work. Yet too often, the church’s viewpoints have been crafted around things like covenants, dispensations, rituals and rules, and church structures. I am glad for a few recent books about seeing Christ in the whole Bible, but most fall woefully short in presenting the Bible in line with the Lord of glory.
  • The Lord Jesus is rejected in the way we worship. Someone will object, “But we sing about Jesus in our songs and say, ‘in Jesus name’ when we close our prayers.” Yes, I know that, and I also know that most cannot explain what ‘in Jesus name’ means. Worse still, Christ is our high priest and mediator (1 Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 8:1; 9:11; etc.), but we do not consciously worship the living God through him. When was the last time that your church was called to worship God through Jesus Christ our mediator? Jesus is the latest forgotten member of the Trinity.
  • The Lord Jesus is rejected in our goals and purposes, both individually and corporately. I’m not talking about church mission statements, which are crafted by people who know they ought to say such things like, “Our mission is to make followers of Jesus Christ.” I’m speaking of the attitude of the local congregation. Too often, a church caters to the whims of church shoppers that want their perceived needs satisfied. We ought to say and to mean, “We gather to make you think like Christ, have his attitudes, and make choices that express his glory and goodness.” Philippians 2:1-11 might be preached and admired, but it is rarely performed.
  • The Lord Jesus is rejected in our love. Listen to what Jesus himself said to the church at Ephesus long ago. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first (Revelation 2:4 NIV). It is one thing to sing, “O come, let us adore him.” It is another to adore him with the choices you make. Will we choose to love Jesus today in our hearts and way of life? He desires our love, and he wants us to share his love with others. Let us return to him today.

Grace and peace, David