Discover What Unites Us

Philippians 2:1-2a

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete… (NIV).

Philippians is a very rich letter to a local church that had been longtime partners with the apostle Paul in his ministry. If the apostle needed help, they did all they could to provide it quickly. We might almost want to think of them as the ideal gathering of believers, except for the stern reality that ideal churches do not exist in this world. A close reading of the book reveals that they needed transformation in various areas. One of them was their unity.

Paul spoke to their need, first, in sort of in a “back door” manner. He did not bluntly tell them to be like-minded, to share the same love, to be one in spirit, of one mind, and to get rid of selfish ambition, which was the root of their disunity. Instead, he first asked them to make his joy complete. They needed to think of someone else’s joy first. Then, he presented some areas in which they needed change. We all can learn from his tactfulness. He built a better way of life through better relationships.

Christians have been too task-oriented, trying to achieve perfection in themselves and others by beating people with a code of conduct or steps to change. While repeating the cliché, “Christianity is not a religion but a relationship,” to the unsaved, we quickly forget this as we pursue perfection to have a better life.

How did Paul motivate his friends to make his joy complete? He wrote about what they possessed through their relationship with God in Christ by the Holy Spirit. He emphasized spiritual relationships.

  • He reminded them of their encouragement from being united with Christ. Observe that they knew about their union with Christ. It was the relational core of their Christian experience. We ought to wake up thinking about the truth of being united to Jesus the Messiah. This is intended to affect how we think of ourselves, how we relate to others, and how we confront the events of our lives. I have just received word of the “homegoing” of a dear sister in Christ. Praise God for the eternal encouragement that we have because of the gospel.
  • He pointed to the comfort from his love that all in Christ share. We are people that are loved by the Lord; in fact, we are his dearly loved children. Wherever we go and whatever we encounter, we live as his sons and daughters.
  • He recalled their common sharing in the Spirit. We have fellowship with the Spirit of God. He leads us in ways of godliness. He strengthens us in the inner person of the heart. He intercedes for us, because our prayers seldom make sense. He helps us endure, making God’s peace real in our souls.
  • He recollected the tenderness and compassion they had experienced. Paul wrote in part to prepare them for the suffering for Christ that was coming to them. They were in the Lord’s plan together, and they needed to be ready to help one another when the journey to glory would become harder. It makes no sense for Christians to quarrel with one another, when there is a real enemy who delights in our suffering.

Let us remind ourselves of what we share in Christ. The believer that you suppose is a problem is someone who can build you up, or rather, someone whom you ought to bless, strengthen, and comfort. It’s a matter of spiritual relationship in the Lord.

Grace and peace, David

When a Church Gathers

But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort (1 Corinthians 14:3 NIV).

The local church is a gathering or assembly of God’s people committed to the Lord and one another for worship, the spread of the good news of Christ, and the good of each other. The first century Corinthians wrote to the apostle Paul with some questions. Though they were richly blessed (cf. 1:4-9), they struggled about spiritual matters. So, they reached out for help. (Too often these aspects of the Corinthian church are overlooked. They had issues, and they knew they had some and sought help for them, even as they failed to take other issues seriously. This sounds like a typical church to me!)

Paul wrote his brothers and sisters in Christ to help them apply the instruction of the Lord to their local situation. Believers in Christ have heard the good news, yet we need the teaching of the word to know how the message ought to transform our thoughts, ideas, attitudes, and actions. We have the benefit of this instruction, but we need to listen to it carefully and to apply it to our local gatherings.

We can lose sight of the point of the above verse through discussions about the exact nature of prophecy and other related spiritual gifts. The point that Paul makes in 14:1-25 is that all verbal contributions during worship must be intelligible to all, or they are profitless and so loveless (13:1-13). Paul told them that intelligible prophecy was far superior to speaking in tongues, which required an interpreter for anyone to profit. Using prophecy as an example in contrast to tongues (14:2), Paul set forth what people ought to experience when a church gathers. I mean a shared experience. Each one is to contribute according to their growth in grace, spiritual gifts, and wisdom. We should not attend as mere consumers but as helpers of one another.

We should experience strengthening. Every local gathering is to build itself up in love (Ephesians 4:16). This requires each part of a local body of believers to function. In this chapter, Paul spoke to their failure repeatedly (14:3-5, 12, 17, 26). He told them to speak in an intelligible way that would build up the church.  We must sense that the spiritual strength of others is our responsibility. We need to look at ourselves. How has the Spirit of the Lord equipped me to make others stronger:

  • In their consecration to God (sanctification)?
  • In their participation in the mission (shared evangelism)?
  • In their communication with God (prayer)?
  • In their understanding and application of the word of God (Bible study)?

The contemporary church has “staffed these things out”, with the result that strengthening has been selectively and inadequately done. Paul did not write chapter fourteen to “the elders and the staff.” He wrote to all, and all are to contribute to strengthening. Our churches need immediate and drastic change.

We should experience encouraging. Like strengthening, encouragement requires knowledge of one another. We need to grasp the life experiences and present situation of our brothers and sisters in the Lord to be able to encourage them. This necessitates an atmosphere of trust, awareness of acceptance, and the absence of perfectionism. People sin, people fail, and people suffer. We must expect others to need encouragement from us. We come with hearts taught by grace (Titus 2:11-12) and motivated to lift others up graciously and kindly.

We should experience comfort. To comfort, we draw upon the comfort that we have received from our God and Father (2 Corinthians 1:3-11). We receive comfort, and we act from comfort to comfort. This is one reason that a close walk with the Lord is important. We have learned how the Lord reached out to us in our misery or shame, and we apply those principles to our interactions with those hurting. Some matters cannot be learned from sermons and seminars. The Lord teaches us in the furnace of affliction, and because we have felt the heat, we know what cools and calms the soul, so that it again produces fruit.

These three ought to be an important part of our gatherings as a church. Wise words, kind attitudes, and beneficial actions show forth the beauty of the glory of the Lord. Become a part of what the church ought to be and not a contributor to what it is not.

Grace and peace, David

The Christian Ministry

1 Thessalonians 3:2-3

We sent Timothy, who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. For you know quite well that we are destined for them (NIV).

We all have heard of too many scandals involving men who are ministers of the good news about Jesus Christ. A week ago Sunday, Sharon and I heard about another serious one. Thankfully, we were spared the details. Power and authority turn the heads of many pastors and elders, even if they don’t fall into sexual sin, like the man we recently heard of. We seem to have an abundance of men that want to manage or control slick, efficient organizations. I pity the people under such leadership. The apostle by the Spirit presents God’s alternative through the example of Timothy, who was a young man at the time of the writing of the first letter to the Thessalonians. Young men can be good men, useful to the Lord in caring for his dearly loved people.

First, Paul recommended Timothy to the Thessalonian believers. He gladly called Timothy his brother. Later in 2 Timothy, Paul talked about Timothy’s faith and salvation. Here, true to his theme in this letter about spiritual relationships, he simply called him brother. Every leader must have this outlook about the congregation in which he serves the Lord. It is a family gathering. We are brothers and sisters in the Lord. We share an equal standing in the family. In other words, leaders are not “super brothers”, with a better position. In God’s family, there is mutual acceptance and appreciation. Leaders must model this attitude, because each one is a co-worker in God’s service. A leader serves God and his people, not himself. He is content to be known as a co-worker because service is what matters, not prominence (cf. Matthew 20:25-28; 23:8-12).

Second, Paul described the work of a minister. He labors in spreading the gospel of Christ. Leaders in the church have their focus on telling the good news of salvation in the Lord Jesus to all people everywhere. They have large hearts, concerned about the eternal welfare of those whom the Lord brings into their lives. They look for possible opportunities to offer the free gift of salvation. For example, a friend of mine told me how he and his son started math tutoring to gain contacts with people in their community. They do good to others by helping them with math, which is excellent in itself. And they meet new people to whom they might be able to tell the good news. One of our biggest obstacles in telling the gospel is meeting people. I’m sure you know this already.

At the same time, ministers seek to strengthen and encourage you in your faith. This implies some measure of spiritual experience and maturity. They know what it is to be strong in the Lord (Ephesians 6:10). They have received comfort and encouragement from the Father, and understand how to lead other believers to the Father’s care (2 Corinthians 1:3-7).

Third, Christ’s ministers keep the spiritual stability of their local assembly in their hearts. They do not want anyone to be unsettled by these trials. In our time, the faith, hope, and love of God’s people are weak. It seems like even the slightest opposition or difficulty can turn people from the way. A wise leader understands the character of the times, the weakness of his people, and the way to strengthen and encourage others in their trials. He knows that he will have to invest time and work in their lives to keep them from becoming unsettled. He realizes that with some he will need to repair their foundation, while with others, he will need to help them clear out the clutter. He can evaluate and serve them in their needs. May the Lord give you leaders like this!

Grace and peace, David

On the Pilgrim Way (Part One)

Hebrews 6:11

Now we desire each of you to demonstrate the same diligence for the full assurance of your hope until the end (CSB).

Sharon and I recently watched a series of video lectures on Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. Many times the lecturer pointed out how Bunyan portrayed the concern of pastors and other ministers for people on pilgrimage. He also commented many times on Bunyan’s emphasis on perseverance. Perhaps both were on my mind the other day as I read the second half of Hebrews six.

In our time in our culture, professing Christians have taken a strange turn from the concepts of pilgrimage and perseverance. For too many, it has become a quasi-religious, entertainment, program-driven experience. It has become something for them to consume. But Christianity is a way of life in which believers endure or persevere to the end. Christians are on a journey to the heavenly city and ought to be motivated with that goal in their thoughts. So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things (Colossians 3:1-2 CSB). As a minister of Jesus Christ and the gospel, I want to encourage you to follow Christ in the walk of love, and as this and the next verse declares, the walk of faith and hope. One of the first hymns that I can remember hearing says, “O how sweet to walk in this pilgrim way, leaning on the everlasting arms.” Our way of life is one of “Leaning on Jesus, leaning on Jesus, safe and secure from all alarms.” I want to build you up to diligently pursue your hope.

However, we should not skip over the opening words.

The Spirit says through the writer, “Now we desire each of you….” Desire is a strong word. It is used for greediness (Romans 13:9), hunger (Luke 15:16; 16:21), and sexual lust (Matthew 5:28). Ministers, pastors, and elders ought to show a deep desire for the spiritual well-being and progress of those to whom they minister. Part of the problem with American churches is that the pastor(s) and elders are much more interested in running a business than in caring for and nurturing people. As one of these neglected saints recently said of her church leaders, “All that matters is money.” Very sad!

The task of Christ’s servants is to serve him by serving his dearly loved people. They ought to, we dare to say, lust for their spiritual good. If you deeply desire someone, you make sure you are with them, you show that you care about them, and you shower them with kindness. This is a task for spiritually mature people, who possess a strong faith that their Father in heaven has already met their needs.

This strong desire is for each of you. Yes, everyone who is part of a local gathering of believers. However, local churches have become places where the oldest are neglected and the older leaders forced out. The rich are loved, while the poor are mere ministry “projects” or worse. And we could list others. But Christ’s servants are to have a deep desire for the imitation of the Lord Jesus in everyone.

Pray for leaders of your local church that possess strong desires for the spiritual progress of all its people. Pray that the Spirit of the Lord would transform the leaders, so that they follow Christ and pursue others to join them on the heavenward journey. “O how sweet to walk in this pilgrim way!”

Grace and peace, David

Thinking about God and His Friendship with His People (Part Four)

Psalm 25:8-15

Previously in this series, we have thought about God as the friend of his people. The Lord is good and upright, he forgives great sin, and he confides in his people. Next, we want to consider how to respond to God’s friendship. We must remember that this is an unequal friendship. The awesome Creator and Controller of all wants to be our friend, yet he is God. Therefore, we must always realize that he is God, and not try to pull him down to our level.

This text mentions four ways to express friendship with God (humility, obedience, godly mindedness and fear of the Lord). In this article, we learn that we express friendship with God by being humble before him (25:9).

Humility is hard for postmodern people to come to terms with. Certainly, people claim to be turned off by arrogant, pushy people. Yet, since people like to think they can interpret the world in agreement with their own ideas and preferences, arrogance is fueled by their core values. This results in humility being interpreted as weakness. From a Christian world and life view, humility is valued and essential. How do we attain humility before God? Two ideas:

  • By having a correct view of God (Hebrews 11:6; 1 Timothy 1:17) – We cannot be a friend of the living God, unless we know him as he has revealed himself to us in the Bible. Until we are convinced of his majestic holiness, we will struggle with his right to do as he pleases (cf. Romans 9:20-21), and this will hinder our friendship with God. “You are God; you are God!”
  • By believing that righteousness before God is only through the gospel (Philippians 3:4-9). Too many try to develop a relationship with God based on their religious efforts; that is, by keeping the rituals and rules of religion or spirituality. Paul knew religion quite well, and he rejected all he could do in favor of relying on Christ and his righteousness to be right with God.

Is your friendship with God based on the grace of God in Christ? Only those who rely on Christ alone for salvation are accepted by God (cf. Ephesians 1:5-6).

How is humility expressed? Humility is expressed by an active faith in God (1 Peter 5:6-7). Faith acknowledges God’s almighty power and is willing to wait for God to lift the believer up in his time. Until that time comes, he or she casts every anxiety on God. We see examples of this in the life of Abraham. Consider how Abraham humbly obeyed God by faith.

  • The Lord said to Abraham, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.” What did Abraham do? “So Abram left, as the Lord had told him” (Genesis 12:1, 4).
  • Abraham was distressed greatly, because Sarah wanted him to get Hagar and her son Ishmael out of their household. God tells him, “Listen to whatever Sarah tells you…” What did Abraham do? Early the next morning he sent Hagar and her son away (Genesis 21:11-14).
  • The Lord said to Abraham, “Sacrifice Isaac there as a burnt offering.” What did Abraham do? Early the next morning, he took Isaac to the appointed place (Genesis 22:1-19).

In our lives, there are four special occasions that require us to especially humble ourselves before the Lord.

  • In times of visible confusion in the world (cf. Psalm 46:2-3, 6). How does the person of faith humbly respond? “The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” (Psalm 46:7).
  • In times of amazing, divergent variety in the conditions of believers. Think about this. “Some under persecution always, — some always at peace; some in dungeons and prisons, — some at liberty in their own houses; the saints of one nation under great oppression for many ages, — of another, in quietness; in the same places some poor, in great distress, put hard to it for daily bread all their lives, — others abounding in all things; some full of various afflictions, going softly and mourning all their days, — others spared, and scarce touched with the rod at all; — and yet, commonly, the advantage of holiness and close walking with God lying on the distressed side” (Owen, Works, Vol. 9, p. 114). Why does God deal so differently with his people whom he loves? “Who can, now, with an eye of reason, look upon them, and say they are all the children of one Father, and that he loves them all alike? Should you come into a great house, and see some children in scarlet, having all things needful, others hewing wood and drawing water, — you would conclude that they are not all children, but some children, some slaves: but when it shall be told you that they are all one man’s children; and that the hewers of wood, that live on the bread and water of affliction, and go in tattered rags, are as dear to him as the other; and that he intends to leave them as good an inheritance as any of the rest; — if you intend not to question the wisdom and goodness of the father of the family, you must resolve to submit to his authority with a quiet subjection of mind. So is it in the great family of God; nothing will quiet our souls, but humbling ourselves to the law of his providence” (Ibid, p. 115).
  • In times when their circumstances change suddenly. At sunrise, life seems wonderful, but before twilight comes, one’s life seems ruined beyond recovery. Yet how does humble faith respond? Job said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:21).
  • In times of deep, continual, apparently hopeless suffering. But how does humble faith respond? It says as Joseph said to his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).

In all things, the humble friend of God rests on the revealed truth that God is righteous, in control, and wise. “When darkness veils his lovely face, I rest on his unchanging grace… When all around my soul gives way, he then is all my hope and stay.” Bow in humble dependence before your God this day.

Grace and peace, David

If You Didn’t Do This on Sunday

Psalm 104:1

Bless the Lord, O my soul! O Lord my God, you are very great! You are clothed with splendor and majesty (ESV).

It’s Tuesday. It’s a perfect time to ask about your worship experience this previous Sunday in your local church. How was it? I am not asking about the performance of your worship leaders and musicians, your pastor or other speaker, or whether you enjoyed yourself. This is a question about your worship of the true and living God. Did you meet with God in his living temple, the people of God (2 Corinthians 6:16; 1 Peter 2:4-5)? Did you humble yourself before him, as you sang his praises? Did you sing or only listen to others sing? Did you bow in worship as God’s word was read and proclaimed? Or did you merely act like you were listening, while your mind was somewhere else? Did you worship?

One of the purposes of gathering with our brothers and sisters in Christ is to worship. Perhaps last Sunday you all met to serve or to go fishing for people (Mark 1:17). Those are also purposes of a church, and we need to invest time together in them. However, usually when we gather, we ought to worship, and this can be done wherever we meet. But the questions remains. Did you worship last Sunday in your gathering?

A thoughtful look at our text above displays what ought to be happening.

  • We are to bless the Lord. Worship is about him and for him (cf. Romans 11:36). It’s not about you or me. It’s about the Lord. We gather to lift him up in our thoughts, attitudes, words, and actions. It is a time of personal interaction, the people of God meeting with him to express his overwhelming significance and goodness.
  • It involves the core of our beings. Bless the Lord, O my soul! We should worship God from the inner person of our hearts. A proper heart engagement will show up in the face and the words. I have seen people very excited and involved at family gatherings, parties, and sporting events. They participate from their souls. It clearly is of importance to them. Why does the typical worshiper look detached or bored or even comatose? We must bring our souls to worship. Listen carefully. In worship, we are in the presence of the Almighty God through Christ by the Spirit. If that doesn’t stir you, nothing will.
  • Worship is a personal action. O Lord my God. Sharon and I have a little granddaughter, only seven weeks old. When we hold her and talk with her and kiss her, it is not the same as gazing at a reference book. We do not seek mere information, but personal contact with her. We love to see her smile. We should want to make the Lord smile by pleasing him.
  • Worship exalts the Lord. You are very great! You are clothed with splendor and majesty. We say this, because we have a sense of his reality. We gain this as by faith we listen to God’s revelation of himself in his word, and the Spirit opens his greatness to our hearts. For example, if the word is telling about Hagar’s reception of mercy when she was sent away by Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 21), you respond with joy in your heart that the Lord cares and watches over the weak, even when others don’t care. If it speaks of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, you rejoice like his disciples did on that day. You praise the Lord.

If you didn’t worship on Sunday, you can on Tuesday… and every other day of the week. But please, stir up your soul to worship when you gather with the Lord’s people this coming Sunday. Do not sit there like a cold lump of clay. Your Lord deserves much better from you. He wants your heart. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind (Matthew 22:37 ESV).

Grace and peace, David

Grace Thinking

Romans 12:3

For by the grace given to me, I tell everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he should think. Instead, think sensibly, as God has distributed a measure of faith to each one (HCSB).

“God uses purposeful community to transform our hearts. The gospel, in the context of a community trying to do something, challenges our hearts and lives. This happens because we are placed in a situation where we are called to repentance, faith, and obedience. This is the process many of us disregard when we isolate and live for ourselves” (Watson, Sent Together). An example of what we ought to do is found in a great chapter on the Christian way of life, Romans twelve.

In verses one and two of Romans twelve, the Spirit of God sets forth the transformed way of life that God desires for his dearly loved people. Next, the Spirit gives specific teaching about the way the transformed people act in local gatherings (12:3-8) and in love (12:9-21). The Spirit does this through Paul the apostle, who asserts his authority to speak for God by the phrase by the grace given to me. At the same time, this phrase provides a model for the way we are to act (cf. 12:6). God’s people have been made rich by grace, and we are to serve God and others in conformity with the grace given to us. This includes the times we correct each other, as Paul was led by the Spirit to correct the Roman Christians in this letter.

In this paragraph, there is instruction about the correct usage of spiritual gifts in local churches. It begins with the right attitude in each member of a gospel partnership. Yes, each member, because this instruction is addressed to everyone. Each one of us must have a correct evaluation of himself or herself. An easy trap to fall into is to assume that others have attitude problems and we do not. “He has a big head,” or “she is in love with herself”. That might be correct, but it turns our attention from the point of the text. You and I must seriously ask ourselves if we are thinking too highly of ourselves. Do we see that we have received mercy in many ways (12:1), or have we become infatuated with who we suppose we are?

At the same time, we must have a sensible or sober-minded assessment of who we are in Christ. Called by grace to be sons and daughters of God, we have received the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts to follow Christ together. Therefore, we must not act less than we are. We can do what he has equipped us to do. Whether it is building up one another or reaching out to those away from the Lord, we should not be paralyzed by the not sensible opinion “I can’t to this!” God has placed you in life with the people around you for you to radiate the Father’s glory. In the same way, let your light shine before men, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16 HCSB).

God has given each believer in Jesus a measure of faith. Faith is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8-9; etc.), and so we can trust in the Lord for what we need to build up the body of Christ and to win people for the Lord. This weekend in your local church, you should seek to help others on their journey. Part of this might involve listening to someone you have not listened to previously. You might be able to encourage someone who is weak. Your prayer might stir someone’s heart, and your kindness could refresh another’s heart. Look at others with the eyes of God’s love, and then act in love. Do not hold yourself back. Love one another.

Grace and peace, David

Nearness

SAMSUNG

Ephesians 2:13

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ (ESV)

When the Lord saves us, we experience many spiritual changes. Some are objective and concern our position and are not felt. Others are subjective, and we and others can discern changes in our attitudes, words, and actions. However, the changes in our spiritual position ought to affect our spiritual condition. For example, you may have heard some teacher say, “Be what you are in Christ.”

In the words before our text, Christ’s apostle described our hopeless situation before the Lord saved us. Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world (Ephesians 2:11-12 ESV). We were separated from God, Christ, the covenants that established a relationship with God, and from the people of God.

The words “but now” signal a complete change in our situation. The separation and alienation came to an end by the blood of Christ. His life was poured out in a violent death as the sacrifice of the new covenant. It brought us near. What did it bring us near to? The sacrificial death of the Messiah brought us near to God, to Christ himself, to the covenants that establish an unending relationship with God, and to the people of God.

Usually, American Christians think of this verse in an individualistic way: “I myself know God through Christ and have a personal relationship with God, and I’m a member of the church.” It is certainly right to rejoice in one’s changed relationship with God and his people. But not to the exclusion of sharing in these blessings with other followers of Christ. What do I mean? Through many years of being a pastor, I have heard individual believers express their own desire to feel near to God. The question is, “How can I feel close to God?” And the answer is given by the ‘experts’ in individualistic ways, like “learn how to have a quiet time, to mediate, to journal” and so on. This type of approach is to ignore the very corporate nature of this passage. (Please read Ephesians 2:1-22 slowly. Can you see people from your small and big groups in it? Would you have thought that way if I had not suggested it?)

Instead, what happened is that the Lord Jesus brought us near by his shed blood. Yes, we are personally near to God, but the point in context is that we are near to God. This is a position that we share together. When we gather in our small and big groups, we ought to act according to the truth that we are near to God. Our Father is not far away.

Since this is true, we should communicate it in our meetings. I do not mean that we need to say it every time we meet, but it should be part of the ‘DNA’ of who we are. “We are the people who have been brought near by Christ’s blood. We are a gathering of the Father’s family, of followers of Jesus on a journey together.”

Nearness to the covenants of promise ought to form the basis of our covenanting together in the mission of Christ and the good news. We then accept each other as close to God. Too often this kind of acceptance is only allowed to those in the inner circles of leadership. Others are assumed to be farther away and are looked at that way. However, if we start with the correct idea that all Christ’s people are near to God, we will highly value the contributions of everyone. This produces a welcoming atmosphere in all our gatherings. We then never need to tell anyone, “Please make visitors feel welcome,” because visitors will automatically sense that God is near and his people welcome them.

Since we know that we are near to God, we will feel confident about drawing near to God in worship together. The truth of James 4:8a (Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you) will occur constantly. Then we will experience what Paul wrote to the Corinthians when new ones are among us when the word is proclaimed. They will worship God and declare that God is really among you (1 Corinthians 14:24b ESV).

I want this for all the gatherings of Christ’s people. May yours start to be what you are in Christ this weekend!

Grace and peace, David

Three Dimensions of Spiritual Growth

2 Thessalonians 1:3-4

We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing. Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring (NIV).

Fellowship or sharing life with one another in Christ involves many practical and spiritual actions. Two of these are praying for and giving thanks for each other to God our Father. Too often we forget to think of ourselves part of a holy priesthood that serves in the temple of living stones (1 Peter 2:5). Think on this glorious position and privilege. We can lift up holy hands and praise God for his work of saving grace, in which he delivers us from sin and sets us free to live together for his glory. When we think of other believers in Jesus, it is a fitting occasion to thank God for our brothers and sisters. In our text, the apostle models how to do this part of priestly service.

  • We can thank God because your faith is growing more and more. Here is the dimension toward God. As we have seen in a recent post on the Holy Spirit, faith is a gift of God. Our faith is nourished and increases as we remain in Christ’s love and draw fresh supplies of grace from him (cf. John 15 about the Vine and the branches). In the life of faith, we have continual occasions to see more grace, so that our confidence in the Lord rises. Notice carefully that God is the source of this intensification of trust. We cannot somehow make faith surge on our own. This is the reason God is praised for the growth of faith. We should also see that growth ought to be constant. Others ought to notice the progress of our faith.
  • We can thank God because the love all of you have for one another is increasing. Here is the dimension toward each other. As with faith, so with love. God works in us and among us to make us love one another more than we have previously loved. The good news is that growth in love can occur in a gathering of believers even after years of neglect. God can restore the years that the locusts have eaten (see Joel). When we are ready to become serious in the practice of love in our small and big groups, we will see the Holy Spirit at work, changing minds and hearts. The Spirit can open the hearts of one believer for another, as we add brotherly affection to our faith. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with goodness, goodness with knowledge, knowledge with self-control, self-control with endurance, endurance with godliness, godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love (2 Peter 1:5-7 HCSB).
  • We can boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring. Here is the dimension of our life together in the world. This boasting has a good quality, because it rejoices in the work of God in the lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ. We can often see other believers slapped around by the problems of life. Sometimes I cry out in prayer, “Lord, why are you making those people who love you experience so many trials? They seem to get out of one hole, only to be pushed into another! And we do pray for them and strive to help them. But there always seems to be another trial in their journey.” We should think of our brothers and sisters in severe persecution in the world. We ought to feel anguish of heart for them. When we hear of those suffering persecution and trials living by faith, it is a reason to give thanks for the grace active in them.

So then, let us act boldly in this spiritual service to God. Look around in your group. Who can you give thanks to God for the grace of God that is evident in them? Praise God for your brothers and sisters.

Grace and peace, David

The Circus Is Closing

DSCN0617Luke 9:57-62

When I read the newspaper yesterday, I was surprised to hear that after 146 years Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus will close its show forever on May 21. A circus used to be a big deal in entertainment. I remember that a small Ringling circus used to travel through our area in Ohio, and I went to see it once. The only time I was ever at the greatest show on earth was when Sharon’s cousin took our family when our children were young. An era of entertainment has closed. My granddaughter will not be able to see a circus. She and others will not know the meaning of a phrase like “someone ran off to join the circus.”

Regardless of any sentimental regrets people might have about that circus closing, there is another circus that I wish would close as soon as possible. That is the circus held every Sunday in American churches. This past week I received a postcard that a new circus, oops, I mean “church”, is opening nearby. It proudly proclaimed that it would feature a really good band. If that won’t bring in religious consumers shopping for spiritual entertainment, then what will? Remove the bands and children’s programs from most churches and you will have removed the main reasons for the assumed success of those churches. Replace the inspirational talk by the “lead pastor” with sound, Biblical teaching, and most of the rest of the crowd will disappear also.

The worship and mission of churches in America is far removed from the Lord Jesus Christ. Listen to how he interacted with some who wanted to be his disciples (learners). As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:57-62 ESV).

The Lord Christ was not desperately gathering people. He did not seek a loose attachment to him. He certainly did not offer entertainment. Observe how he rebuffed certain types of supposed followers.

  • Jesus did not accept people who merely said that they would follow him, even if their words appeared to commit to him (9:57-58). He taught that the life of faith was not about personal convenience. It required sacrifice. The “circus church” allows people to attend when convenient; it strives to put on a good enough show that people won’t find it convenient to miss.
  • Jesus did not accept people who failed to commit to his supremacy (9:59-60). He demanded first place above other relationships. The “circus church” excuses people for activities with family and friends, but hopes that they can convince them to join the weekly shows, at least occasionally. Everyone wants high attendance for Christmas and Easter programs.
  • Jesus did not accept people who looked for other opportunities (9:61-62). He demanded firm commitment. The “circus church” lets people play around, trying to keep them interested in attending weekend programs, while giving them a pass on godly behavior and commitment to Christ.

Let me stress that I don’t want churches to close. But I pray that they will shut down the circus and return to Jesus Christ and his mission. I doubt this will happen, because they know that they will lose many who attend their weekly religious entertainment programs. The local leaders have counted the cost of their church following Christ and do not want to endure it, or they do not want to follow the Lord themselves.

Each one of us ought to examine ourselves. Do I really want to follow Christ on his mission of being a disciple myself and making disciples? Or do I merely want some weekend religious entertainment. It’s time to end the circus and to begin discipleship.

Grace and peace, David