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

Elijah: A Man of Courage (Part Two)

1 Kings 17:1

Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word” (NIV).

We have looked at Israel’s horrible spiritual condition, and the way the Lord responded to it by sending a prophet, Elijah, who would point the people back to God. We have seen that Elijah was fully convinced of the Lord’s existence and power to bring about change. That was a crucial starting point. Two other qualities were necessary for an effective ministry in a very troubled time.

Elijah was conscious of being God’s messenger. He knew his position in God’s work. This helped in two ways:

  • It kept him focused on the work at hand. He did not have to bother with building his own little kingdom, but the kingdom of God. The apostle is another example of this kingdom focus. But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:15-16 ESV).
  • It directed him to live for the one who would judge his work, and not to be concerned with what people thought. We must see ourselves as God’s servants. To use a common illustration, we serve for “an audience of one.” This must be kept within the boundaries that Scripture sets for our actions. No one has the right to pretend, “I am God’s servant and can do whatever I desire.” Such an attitude reveals a heart in which one’s own desires and God’s written will are in conflict. We speak of boldness to do exactly what God desires.

Elijah knew his authority. He spoke and acted for God, as God’s prophet. He had a mission that the Lord wanted him to do. He was compelled to do it, like Jeremiah was. For whenever I speak, I cry out, I shout, “Violence and destruction!” For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot (Jeremiah 20:8-9 ESV). This sense of authority encouraged him to act boldly. He had the courage to personally confront Ahab with his message. He had the courage to announce a great judgment.  Consider how unpopular the doctrine of hell is today, even in supposedly evangelical churches. And not only is the Biblical teaching about hell despised, but also the reality of sin. If you attend a so-called church where sin, condemnation, and God’s wrath are not preached and believed, you are not in a church but a religious social club. Leave it.

Elijah was confident of God’s faithfulness. His confidence was Bible-based. Be careful that you are not enticed to turn aside, serve, and bow in worship to other gods. Then the Lord’s anger will burn against you. He will shut the sky, and there will be no rain; the land will not yield its produce, and you will perish quickly from the good land the Lord is giving you (Deuteronomy (11:16-17 CSB). The world cannot understand the godly man or woman because it does not share its view of God’s word as truth. Elijah did, he took God’s word seriously. He knew that God meant what he said. He also was confident that God would judge sin. Elijah’s prayer to withhold rain and dew from the land must be seen in this light. It had its foundation in the “curses of the law covenant” (cf. Deuteronomy 28:15-68).

For this reason, Elijah prayed in conformity with God’s revealed word. Making requests in true prayer involves having faith to claim the promises in the word of God, and then asking him to do as he has said. This was the motivation behind his fervent prayer (James 5:17.)

Pink in his writings about Elijah made the following three points:

  • “He prayed because he was assured that the Lord God lived and ruled over all.”
  • “He prayed because he realized that God is almighty and that with Him all things are possible.”
  • “He prayed because he felt his own weakness and insufficiency and therefore turned to One who is clothed with might and is infinitely self-sufficient.”

Do we have the same world view that Elijah had? Do we pray like Elijah did? Say what you want, but Christians no longer gather to pray because God is not in control in their world and life view. May we pray together as the early church and the church in times of revival prayed!

Grace and peace, David

Exploring Matthew 8-9

When we read the Four Gospels, we should remember that the evangelists were not writing biographies. Their object was not to write a “life of Christ” but to tell the good news about Jesus the Messiah. As they wrote about the story of God’s glory in Christ, they chose events from his earthly ministry and selections from his words to display his glory that is good news for us. This knowledge will help us as we explore Matthew 8-9.

After the large teaching block that we call the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew chose several events to flesh out three ideas from the teaching: authority, faith, and discipleship. The transitional verses at the end of chapter seven move from the teaching section to the doing section on the pivot of his authority. And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes (7:28-29 ESV, my emphasis). In chapters 8-9, Matthew sets forth examples of our Lord’s authority. In some, his authority is openly stated; in most, it is declared by his words or acts.

  • His authority over disease (8:1-4)
  • His authority over disease (8:5-13)
  • His authority over disease (8:14-15, 17)
  • His authority over demons (8:16)
  • His authority to call people to follow him (8:18-22)
  • His authority over nature (8:23-27)
  • His authority over demons (8:28-34)
  • His authority to forgive sins (9:1-8)
  • His authority to call people to follow him (9:9)
  • His authority over his critics (9:10-13)
  • His authority over spiritual activities (9:14-17)
  • His authority to heal (9:18-20)
  • His authority over death (9:21-26)
  • His authority to heal (9:27-31)
  • His authority over demons (9:32-34)

So then, Matthew gives us much material to think about in these fifteen events. By faith, we can see Jesus acting with authority. It ought to make us ask the disciples’ question. And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” (ESV) The cumulative intent is to lead us to bow at his feet and confess “Jesus is Lord”, which is the basic Christian confession. As we explore these chapters, our minds and hearts ought to be stirred deeply, so that we choose to submit to his authority as our Lord. Read these chapters many times, asking God the Holy Spirit to make you feel the presence of the Lord.

Throughout these events, Matthew also highlights faith. This is essential, since some people like the scribes (9:3) and Pharisees (9:11), saw Christ’s authority in action, and became critics instead of followers. The Gadarenes saw his power, and asked him to leave (8:34). A Gentile had great faith (8:10), while the disciples had little faith (8:26). Matthew records that those who approached the Lord in faith received blessing from him (9:2, 22, 29-30). When we sense Christ’s authority, we must trust him and commit ourselves to him. As you read, examine yourself to see if you rely on the Lord.

Since Matthew’s Gospel is about discipleship (28:18-20; etc.), he provides examples of people that heard his call and had to make a choice. Some suppose they are ready, when they don’t understand the cost of discipleship (8:19-22). Others like Matthew heard Christ’s call and followed him. In either case, people witnessed his power and his compassion (9:36). Read through these chapters and notice the mercy that Jesus showed to sinners and to the suffering. This Lord cares about people. He seeks others to labor in his harvest of making disciples and serving others. Will you pray his request (9:37-38)? Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Are you ready to follow him in this costly mission?

Grace and peace, David

The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit (Part Five)

IMG_26382 Peter 1:20-21

Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (NIV).

The content of the Scriptures does not originate with mankind— “for prophecy never had its origin in the will of man”. The apostle clearly teaches that the prophets did not concoct the Scriptures out of their own choices. They did not have some kind of superior insight from their human nature into the human predicament. They did not invent cleverly devised tales. In many passages you can easily observe the artless words of an eyewitness to an event or those stating what they had been told by God. There is no effort to “clean up the text”. And the heroic acts of the people of God are present right alongside of their miserable failures. Think of David, Samson, Asa, and Peter, too! In addition, often the prophets wrote things that were beyond their knowledge, like Isaiah’s prediction of Cyrus. At other times they wrote what they did not even like: Jeremiah (Jeremiah 15:10; 20:7-18), Jonah (Jonah 1:3; 4:1), and Habakkuk (Habakkuk 1:2-4).

This phrase puts at least two necessary limits and clarifications on our thoughts about the Scriptures. “The Biblical writers do not conceive of the Scriptures as a human product breathed into by the Divine Spirit, and thus heightened in its qualities or endowed with new qualities; but as a Divine product produced through the instrumentality of men.” [Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, p. 153] So though we might call it a joint product, both parties are not contributing to the written product in the same way. Also, the apostles and prophets were not responding to cultural situations out of their own wills. Yet many argue contrary to this text in cases when the Word of God comes into direct conflict with one of the darling ideas of a godless and wicked culture, such as many kinds of sexual immorality.

It is easy to list many objections that unbelieving people have against ideas and values that the Bible presents. They suppose the Biblical writers were anti-human because they prohibited sinful practices that are spiritually and often physically destructive, yet which unbelievers are fond of, such as drunkenness.  The inspired writers did not speak from their own desires, but communicated God’s desires, which seek the peace, joy and unity of his people.

In the face of this statement, we must all submit to God’s authority and bow before it. See 2 Timothy 3:16. This is not a popular position to take in these lawless days, but it is God’s path. Let God be true, and every man a liar (Romans 3:4). The Spirit of truth (John 15:26) acted in the giving of the Bible to provide an accurate presentation of the human condition. Like medical doctors who give their patients correct though unwelcome diagnoses, the Spirit tells us the truth about ourselves. Unlike medical doctors in many situations, the Holy Spirit knows the exact remedy for us. In the Scriptures, he proclaims the only way for people to be right with God. Sadly, the truth is unwelcome, much more unwelcome than the medical doctor that tells you to lose twenty pounds. But better than medical doctors, the Spirit of God can cause us to love the message of salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ. Holy Spirit, cause many to love the truth and to be saved!

Grace and peace, David

It Seems Strange

IMG_1078Luke 5:17-26

It seems strange. Jesus had healed so many, and apparently had left the paralyzed man unhealed. Instead, he had simply told him that his sins were forgiven. Yet one thing we learn as we read the Gospels carefully is that Jesus acted in situations in the way that would maximize God’s glory. As he cared for people, he also focused on making the greatness of God known. For example, read Mark 9:14-29. Since he is Lord over all, he was not in a hurry to act. We are wise to learn this, instead of demanding that God answers us “immediately if not sooner”. This seems strange to us, until we learn and adopt Christ’s priorities as we follow him.

It seemed strange to the Pharisees and the teachers of the law for a far different reason. They correctly knew that only God could forgive sins, as Jesus had just claimed to do (Psalm 103:3; Isaiah 43:25; Micah 7:18). But Jesus had dared to say to the man in front of everyone that his sins were forgiven. To them this was blasphemy, because he slandered God by claiming to do what only God had the authority to do. This was a serious matter. If Jesus was only a man, they were right in what they were thinking about him, but it seemed too strange to them that Jesus could be more than a mere human.

It surely also seemed strange when Jesus revealed that he knew their thoughts. They assumed they had Jesus trapped, but suddenly the tables were turned and they were cornered. Over many years of preaching, I have wondered what people were thinking about during the message. It has always reassured me to know that I don’t need to know, because the Lord Christ knows exactly what everyone hearing a sermon is thinking about. By the way, when you hear the word preached or taught, what do you think about? But I digress. Jesus knew, and he was going to act so that they might know an important truth (5:24). Jesus, the Son of Man, has power to forgive sins. “Son of Man” was Jesus’ favorite name for himself. The roots of this term in the usage of Jesus come from Daniel 7:13-14. There it was written that the Son of Man was given authority, which is the issue in this event. Does Jesus have authority to forgive sins?

Jesus knew that it was one matter to tell someone that their sins were forgiven and another to demonstrate that he had the authority to do so. This was the reason that he had delayed to heal the paralyzed man. He met the man’s most crucial need first, which was his need of forgiveness of his sins. Now his delay does not seem so strange. So he said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God (Luke 5:24b-25 NIV). He acted in a way that everyone could know that he could forgive sins, for he gave an immediate and complete healing to the man. Not only was his paralysis gone, but he had strength and balance to go home, carrying his mat, and this without physical therapy. And not only could he walk home, he could return home with the confidence that he was right with God.

Now, it no longer seems strange, but amazing and praise producing. This ought to be our reaction when we read these accounts of the glory of God displayed in Jesus Christ. Praise God that we follow a leader who is devoted to honoring the Father in heaven. Praise God that he is wise to know the right time to act. Praise God that he has authority and power to forgive our sins and to heal us. Have you trusted in the Lord Jesus for the forgiveness of sins? This gift of his grace may be yours today.

Grace and peace, David