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 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 Promise Fulfilled

Luke 2:25-35

For my eyes have seen your salvation (Luke 2:30 CSB).

Waiting can be difficult. How we all struggled with waiting when we were children! Most of us still struggle with waiting as adults. Think traffic snarls, doctor’s offices, and being seated at a popular restaurant on a busy weekend. Patience to wait for God’s time is a spiritual grace that comes from the Spirit of God (Galatians 5:22-23).

Our text is about a man named Simeon who had to wait. We are not told how long he waited, but it is apparent that he waited for what God would do to bring comfort to Israel from the time he came to faith in God, and he was apparently old (2:29). God’s comfort to Israel had been prophesied seven hundred years before Simeon by Isaiah (Isaiah 40:1, 9-11). Since Simeon was righteous and devout (2:25), he waited for God to fulfill his word.

Besides the ancient promise from Isaiah, Simeon waited expectantly for another reason. The Holy Spirit was on Simeon and had told him that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Christ. (Remember that Christ means Messiah or “the Anointed One”.) The Promised Rescuer was about to appear. During the old covenant, the Spirit of God came on a person to enable them to do some task for the Lord. Simeon’s mission would be to say something significant about the Christ, which is the reason God assured him life until he would see him. In new covenant days, the Spirit lives in all God’s people constantly.

In some unexplained way, the Spirit directed Simeon to go into the temple courts at the very time Mary and Joseph obeyed the Lord about the required sacrifices regarding her son. Notice that their walk of obedient faith brought them to the place where they reached confirmation about the person and work of Jesus. It is important to be doing what the Lord wants us to do! For example, when we gather to pray, the Lord often uses the prayers of our brothers and sisters to refresh our spirits. So then, what did Joseph and Mary hear from the Lord through Simeon?

  • They heard an encouraging word that God keeps his promises (2:29). This was soon to be personally important, because this event happened before the terrorist Herod ordered the execution of the infants around Bethlehem. As the Lord God kept his promise to Simeon, so he would keep the promises about Jesus.
  • They heard confirmation that salvation would come through Jesus (2:30; cf. Matthew 1:21). They needed this, because it is hard to get one’s thoughts around the idea that a baby in arms would become the Savior of the world
  • They received insight into the Lord’s global vision (2:31-32). All spiritual blessing for all people from all nations would come through the Messiah, who was their baby (Ephesians 1:3). The great turning point in history had arrived when all people would be brought back together in Christ. Luke gradually builds on this concept through Luke and Acts.
  • Yet from a different angle, they learned that Jesus would bring division to humanity (2:33-35). Jesus would cause some to rise and others to fall in the people of Israel. When Christ began to announce who he was, many rejected his claims, while some bowed before him in faith. In this personal word to Mary, Simeon foretold the cost to her own soul. A sword would pierce it! Oh no! Horrors! This happened when she saw her son hanging on the tree, bearing the sins of his people whom he came to save. Up to this point, Mary had glorified God for the blessings connected with her son. Suddenly, she experienced the painful side of the story of God’s glory in Jesus.

We must listen to all God’s message, not simply what pleases us. In the unpleasant parts, God is also acting for his glory and our good. Don’t try to soften the “rough edges” of the gospel. They also reveal the glory and goodness of the Lord to those who will humbly listen in faith.

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

Fellowship Differently

Philemon 1:7

For I have great joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother (HCSB).

When we meet together as the Lord’s people, we assemble to worship and to fellowship. This last word is not well understood. It tells us of what we share together in Christ, and what we should share with each other. In short, fellowship is much more than the proverbial ‘coffee and donuts’ and chatting with each other about our children, jobs, houses, and sports teams. Much of this is no different from talking with others at work or with other adults at children’s sports.

Fellowship concerns sharing our lives in Christ with each other. It involves building up, encouraging, comforting, and helping one another, and very much more. True fellowship rests new life in Christ, love flowing out from Christ by the Spirit, and upon shared ideas, values, and attitudes.

To experience fellowship as followers of Christ requires good models, since most of us do not grasp abstract concepts. How to fellowship is more caught than taught. If someone has taught you how to share your life with others by example or as a mentor, thank God for that person right now. But what if you and your local church obviously fall short of true fellowship? How can you fellowship differently?

One way is to study and then seek to imitate the examples written in the Scriptures. In our text, Paul commends Philemon for being such a person. Let’s observe Philemon in these words of the apostle.

  • Philemon gave Paul great joy and encouragement from his love. Philemon’s love, which came from the Spirit (Galatians 5:22), reached out to other followers of Christ. He set his heart on Paul and others to act for their benefit. His love desired that others rejoice. He wanted them to be encouraged! You see, every gathering of God’s family ought to have the aim to produce joy and encouragement. We should enter the meeting determined to spread joy and encouragement, and we should leave, having received large baskets of the same. Notice that word “great” or “much”. Obviously, this happens when love overflows. For example, it does not come from a polite handshake but a warm embrace. We cannot act like we’ve been “emotionally neutered”, if we’re to spread much joy and encouragement. Yes, I know love is more than emotions, but it is also not less.
  • Philemon refreshed the hearts of the saints. The word translated “heart” is a strong term, used for the deep interior of a person along with their emotions. Again, it was more than a polite, “I’ll be praying for you; keep me posted,” kind of action. It is trying to improve the outlook of a person from the depths of their being. It asks itself, “How I can act to refresh this person?” Many times, we cannot change the circumstances of others. But we can seek to lift them up, to speak hope into them, so that they will endure in faith to the glory of God. To refresh someone’s heart requires us to invest time with them.
  • Philemon acted as a brother. His commitment and relationship to his brothers and sisters in Christ fueled his good works for them. We are a spiritual brotherhood, and we dare not forsake others because we feel we have too many needs of our own. Everyone in Christ has new life and the Holy Spirit and gifts from the Spirit. How can we hold ourselves away from our brothers and sisters because “I’m too tired” or “I’m too busy” or “I have so many problems”, etc.?

Let us observe Philemon, and then let us go out to imitate him. Every group we are part of, whether small or large, need refreshed hearts. Will you give yourself to refresh others?

Grace and peace, David

Christian Friendship

img_4284Third John

The elder, to my dear friend Gaius, whom I love in the truth. Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well (3 John 1:1-2 NIV).

Third John is one of the lesser known books of the Bible. While a book like Jeremiah seems daunting because of its length, Third John can seem unimportant, because it is so short. This week we have focused Second John and Third John in our group reading, because we need to become fully aware of the message the Spirit tells us in these letters. We usually think of the Bible as a large book, but given its essential message, it is compact. Every book in the Book of books has a valuable message for people to listen to, to believe, and to live accordingly.

Third John is addressed to Gaius, and other than this letter, we know nothing more about him. (Gaius was a popular name in the Roman world.) From the subject matter of the letter, it seems that he was the leader on a house church probably near the end of the first century. He was also a dear friend of the Apostle John, who calls himself “the elder”. (John was probably the only surviving apostle at the time of the letter.)

John called Gaius his “dear friend”, which is the same word as “loved one”. He refered to Gaius three times in this manner, and he used the word “love” in reference to Gaius once and two other times in the letter. In addition, we see that the word for “friend” (a similar word also meaning love) occurs twice at the end of the letter. Clearly, one theme of the book is love.

  • A friend is someone we love. We set our affections on them to give ourselves sacrificially for their good. The well-being of our friends concerns us. So then, what do we do for our friends? This letter points us to actions that we ought to be doing for them.
  • We pray for our friends (1:2). John was concerned about the physical needs of Gaius, including his health and the general provision for his life. We tend to focus on physical needs when we share prayer requests, don’t we? We ought to pray for spiritual needs; for example, how is a friend interacting with God and others as he or she faces a severe illness. Some overreact and don’t think we should pray for physical needs, but John’s example shows us that we ought to.
  • We express the joy we have in our friends (1:3). John heard from other Christians about Gaius’ faithfulness, and it filled him with great joy. It does give us joy when we learn of the spiritual progress of others. The point here is that we can share the joy with the one who produced the joy. People need to be appreciated, and we need to tell them.
  • We commend our friends for the good they are doing in partnership for the good news (1:5). This is closely related to the preceding. John encouraged Gaius for his spiritual sacrifice (cf. Hebrews 13:16) of helping other brothers and sisters in Christ. We should often think about how we can encourage others in doing good.
  • We share our friends’ problems (1:9-10). John listened to Gaius and thought about what he could do to help him. Yes, the one helping others needed help in another area. John let Gaius know what he would do to help Gaius in his local gathering where someone else caused problems.
  • We admonish our friends (1:11). We give them warning-instruction to help them avoid spiritual problems. We need to talk boldly to each other when we sense our friends might be in spiritual danger.
  • We long to be with our friends (1:13-14). John planned to do more than write. He wanted to visit Gaius and have time with his friend. We need to share life with our friends.

How is your relationship with your friends?

Grace and peace, David

An Example of Discipline

img_39352 Chronicles 19:1-11

“This is going to hurt me more than it’s going to hurt you.” Yes, I heard those words too many times from my dad when I was a boy. I would think, “Yeah, right. I’m the one who is getting spanked!” I also thought that teachers received some special pleasure from putting red marks on my papers. But now through long experience I know this: One of the tough parts of being a parent or teacher is the need to correct one’s children or students. Yet we must do it out of love. This is the reason that God disciplines his dearly loved children. And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son” (Hebrews 12:5-6 NIV). Let’s think together about the substance of the correction that the Lord gave to Jehoshaphat.

But first, here is a brief analysis of his sin. Notice the parallel structure in the prophet’s charge. Jehoshaphat had helped the wicked, meaning his multi-level alliance with Ahab. Perhaps the term “wicked” would expose the evil of his action to Jehoshaphat. But in typical Hebrew communication pattern, Jehu restates the matter to bring out what Jehoshaphat had done. He had loved those who hated the Lord. Consider the words of Jesus (Matthew 6:24). The Lord expects the full devotion of our love; his holy jealousy is aroused when we give it to others. Now was Jehoshaphat completely “gone” at this point? Far from it, as the next statement by Jehu the prophet makes clear (19:3). Jehoshaphat had yielded to clashing desires that wreaked havoc on his life. Yes, he loved the Lord, but his heart was on a wild chase to fulfill other desires, and he had to face up to how this was ripping him apart.

The prophet announced corrective action by the Lord. Jehu did not give details, but as we see from the next chapter, a vast army would come against him. Jehoshaphat had been fighting the wrong battle, and so now he would have to fight a battle he didn’t want. The fact that the Lord mercifully bails you out of some consequences does not mean that he will get you out of all consequences. God disciplines the children he loves (Hebrews 12:4-11).

The prophet acknowledged what Jehoshaphat had been doing well (19:3). The Lord knew that Jehoshaphat would need encouragement, especially as he went through discipline. It is amazing to me that evangelical Christians have not been very good at showing mercy, though they claim to love mercy. If someone sins or fails, we have been too quick to write them off, instead of working with them through their struggles. However, the Lord commended him though he had seriously sinned. He encouraged his faltering child about two good things he had done.

  • He had rid the land of Judah of Asherah poles. In doing this Jehoshaphat was keeping the first and second commands of the law covenant (Deuteronomy 5:7-10). He had done right actions.
  • He had set his heart on seeking the Lord. In doing this, he was living in conformity with the first great commandment (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). He had shown right attitudes.

Point: The Lord used the good in Jehoshaphat in order to restore him and to build better things into his life. The course of our lives should be on a trajectory toward the better. To help do this, plug Psalm 27:8 into your way of life. My heart says of you, “Seek his face!” Your face, Lord, I will seek (NIV).

The Lord is the God who delights in mercy (Micah 7:18). You may experience God’s mercy in Jesus Christ. He died and rose from the dead in order to be very merciful to sinners like you and me. Right where you are at this moment, you may forsake the wrong desire that has been wreaking havoc in your life and return to the Lord. Do not delay.

Grace and peace, David