REVELATION #35: THE CULTURE CLASH

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We have now come to the point when Western Culture is, in fact, incompatible with  Biblical Christianity. By using the image of the prostitute, John tells us that there is a certain kind of attraction toward ungodly culture. We are prone to be drawn into it. To remain Christian, and to pass on the Christian faith to future generations, we are going to have to live lives that are radically different in the eyes of our culture. We are going to have to be the church, no matter what it costs. John saw this inevitable clash of cultures in his time, and explains, for all time, the reasons behind it. 

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Revelation #35. Revelation #17.

We have come to another one of those places in the book of Revelation that is just plain weird. However, I believe that we can make at least some kind of sense of this. In the first place, remember that we can use the chiastic structure of Revelation to help us. At the end of the third major section of Revelation (the trumpets), there was an interlude. The interlude at the end of section 3 was about the struggle for God’s Word to go forth. You might say it was from the perspective of the good guys, who had to suffer and even die; although, ultimately, they were vindicated.

We are now at the end of section 5 of Revelation (the bowls of wrath). This section is related to section 3 (the trumpets), and so, here too, we have an interlude. This interlude (chapters 17-18), coming after section 5, is from the perspective of the bad guys. Evil, corruption, and depravity appear to be winning. And yet, ultimately, they will be thoroughly judged and defeated.

The thought in the first interlude was that the witnesses to God’s truth would complete their mission. However, we did not see the final result back there in chapter eleven. The thought here, in the second interlude, completes the first: the judging of the evil powers of this world. God is wrapping things up, leaving nothing unfinished in his task of putting everything right.

There are many specifics in chapters 17 and 18. Whenever we feel that we are getting bogged down in the details of those things, we should return to the big picture; the ideas I have just expressed here.

Chapter 17 introduces us to the woman and the beast, and then “explains” them (if you can really call it an explanation). Like the first interlude, it is one of the more confusing passages in the most confusing book of the Bible. Let’s take this piece by piece:

1 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and spoke with me: “Come, I will show you the judgment of the notorious prostitute who sits on many waters. 2 The kings of the earth committed sexual immorality with her, and those who live on the earth became drunk on the wine of her sexual immorality.” 3 So he carried me away in the Spirit to a desert. I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and 10 horns. 4 The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, adorned with gold, precious stones, and pearls. She had a gold cup in her hand filled with everything vile and with the impurities of her prostitution. 5 On her forehead a cryptic name was written: BABYLON THE GREAT THE MOTHER OF PROSTITUTES AND OF THE VILE THINGS OF THE EARTH. 6 Then I saw that the woman was drunk on the blood of the saints and on the blood of the witnesses to Jesus. When I saw her, I was greatly astonished. (Revelation 17:1-6 HCSB)

This prostitute is not a literal person. She is a representation of all world empires, governments, and powers that seduce people away from God, and that persecute God’s people. Throughout the Bible, the practice of idolatry is often called a kind of spiritual adultery, or prostitution. So it is here. I believe she represents both the ongoing ungodly world powers, and also a particular empire or civilization that will be present at the very end of world history. The description of her shows that the civilizations she represents are wealthy and corrupt. She is named “Babylon” but again, I believe that is a “code word” for any civilization or empire that leads people away from the worship of the one true God, and which persecutes God’s people. The reason it is in a kind of “code” is because, unquestionably, at the time of John, it meant the Roman Empire: verse 18 says:

And the woman you saw is the great city that has an empire over the kings of the earth.

Also, by using a symbolic name, the Holy Spirit allows this to be applicable throughout world history, although, as I said, I think there will also be a particularly, “ultimate” version of Babylon during the last days before Jesus returns.

I want to point out something else that I believe is important. God’s people were represented by the picture of a woman, a mother, in chapter 12. Here, we have the devil’s counterpart: an adulterous, evil woman, a prostitute. The devil can only imitate and corrupt God’s creation. He has nothing new of his own. In God’s Kingdom, we have the bride of Christ, the mother of the Messiah. The devil’s imitation is a prostitute, a woman full of wickedness and evil.

The same is true of the beast. Jesus is “the one who is, who was and is to come.” In verse 8, the beast attempts to imitate Jesus, but fails. He is the one: “who was, is not, and will come again, only to be destroyed forever.”

Verses 7-17 attempt to explain the “secret meaning” of the woman and the beast. If you are like me, the explanation is worse the puzzle. Verses 9-14 speak of 18 different kings. Or maybe, it is only 12 kings, or possibly 11. Or, perhaps, it is speaking not of kings, but of kingdoms and empires. John says five kings have “fallen,” another one is, and another is yet to come. Many, many people get bogged down trying to figure out which rulers or empires John is prophesying about. Some say these are Roman emperors. Others connect them to various world powers from ancient Egypt all the way to the present. The problem is, neither one of those theories fits the actual facts of world history. I caution you not to get sucked into that sort of thinking. As I have said before, that sort of thinking creates a situation where the book of Revelation is only relevant to a few specific people at a few particular points in time. Instead of letting the text speak into our lives about how we live right now, we spend time trying to “solve the riddle,” as if the Bible is just an interesting puzzle.

So, if we aren’t meant to figure out who or what these rulers represent in history, what are we supposed to do with this text? I think we are meant to understand, in general, that throughout history there is a connection between evil, ungodly world empires (the Great Prostitute), and the underlying work of the devil (the heads and horns of the beast). That doesn’t seem like such a stretch when you think about the reigns of people like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Idi Amin, and Pol-Pot, along with ancients like Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun.

When it appears as if evil and ungodliness is running unchecked throughout the world, this text tells us that God knew these things would happen. He has a plan to deal with it. He isn’t shocked, surprised and wringing his hands. He will make everything right.

I think we are also meant to understand that the end of human history will be characterized by a particularly corrupt, wealthy, idolatrous empire.

Finally, we are to be encouraged by the fact that evil devours itself. Ultimately, the dark spiritual power of the beast will turn upon the corrupt, idolatrous world empire. Evil itself will be made to serve God’s purposes:

16 The 10 horns you saw, and the beast, will hate the prostitute. They will make her desolate and naked, devour her flesh, and burn her up with fire. 17 For God has put it into their hearts to carry out His plan by having one purpose and to give their kingdom to the beast until God’s words are accomplished.

Once more, the question is, where does this leave us? I believe that in the past 15 years, our culture has become far more anti-Christian than we realize. I am not talking about persecution. But the worldview that now dominates Western Culture is not only not Christian, but it is in true opposition to the Christian world view. I saw a TV episode the other night, in which the main plot had to do with sexual identity. I realized that it wasn’t just disagreeing with some of the particulars of  the Bible – it was an entirely different way of looking at what it means to be a human being, a way that flatly contradicts the Christian vision of humanity. I think that TV episode (which was 6 years old) is a reflection of what most of our culture already believes. According to it (and, I believe, our culture at large), your very identity is defined by whom you desire sexually. The greatest evil possible is to deny someone the opportunity to behave however they see fit, especially when it comes to sex. Self-denial, in the current world view, is not just difficult, it is tragically wrong; there is no place for it, not even as a way of loving another person self-sacrificially (that was one of the plot points of the episode). There is no greater authority than the desire of each individual to be whomever they want to be. That means, that no one, not even God, has the right to tell someone that anything they want is morally wrong, or even unhealthy. But Jesus calls us to surrender to his authority, and to deny ourselves, so that we can find true life:

24 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will find it (Matthew 16:24-25).

37 The person who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; the person who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. 38 And whoever doesn’t take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. 39 Anyone finding his life will lose it, and anyone losing his life because of Me will find it. (Matthew 10:37-39)

Suddenly, John’s picture of a great prostitute manipulating cultures seems uncomfortably close to home. John is saying that our culture is under the influence of evil, depraved spiritual power; he is using very lurid, picturesque imagery to do so. The cultures of the world are not neutral. They are influenced by the beast, which is to say, they are influenced by the devil and his demonic forces. The cultures of the world are captive to spiritual prostitution.

By using the image of the prostitute, John tells us that there is a certain kind of attraction toward ungodly culture. We are prone to be drawn into it.

John, in his vision, was shocked and astonished by this (v 7). I think most of us are, also. I believe the time has come for Christians to pay attention, and to see that our culture is neither good, nor morally neutral, but completely opposite to a Christian vision of humanity and God. Again, I do not meant that we are being persecuted. But I do mean that the world view of Western culture is antithetical to the Christian world view, and seeks to replace it. Practically speaking, we may have to change how we live in order to avoid getting sucked in. Author Rod Dreher, in The Benedict Option urges us to consider carefully how we live:

The time was coming… when men and women of virtue would understand that continued full participation in mainstream society was not possible for those who wanted to live a life of traditional virtue.

We would have to choose to make a decisive leap into a truly countercultural way of living Christianity, or we would doom our children and our children’s children to assimilation.

He points out not only cultural developments, but also legal decisions that have changed how the laws views Christian beliefs. Speaking of the Obergefell decision of the Supreme Court, he says:

Post-Obergefell, Christians who hold to the biblical teaching about sex and marriage have the same status in culture, and increasingly in law, as racists.

He continues:

We are going to have to change our lives, and our approach to life, in radical ways. In short, we are going to have to be the church, without compromise, no matter what it costs.

I agree, wholeheartedly. From now on, it is going to cost us to be Christian. I think we need to carefully examine the TV shows, movies and music that we consume. If we continue to absorb this anti-Christian worldview without thinking critically about what we watch and listen to, our beliefs will eventually conform to the culture, and be truly anti-Christian. We may have to limit the kind of things we watch, and the media we consume.

Some careers may no longer be appropriate for Christians. A year or two ago, a county clerk in Kentucky was jailed for not issuing a marriage license to a gay couple. In the eyes of the law, she was wrong. I think she was wrong to continue to be a county clerk with the beliefs that she holds, though I completely understand her position. I’m very sad that our culture has come to this, but I believe it has. I think that many Christians in various positions in government may need to consider resigning in order to remain true to their faith. Christians also may not be able to have other certain careers, because to do so would cause us to violate Christian ethics. The list of careers that violate our ethics is likely to grow in the coming years.

If we are to remain Christian, we are going to look radical to a culture that has radically changed in the past twenty years. John tells us that there is a spiritual reason for this, and also that God will eventually take steps to hold accountable the powers that are responsible.

Let the Spirit speak to you today.

TOUGH LOVE

 loving discipline

Church discipline is not about demanding perfect behavior. It is about rescuing sheep who are straying. In New Testament times, it was not done by some barely-known official showing up at your door in a suit and tie to tell you that you were a sinner. It was done by your good friends, maybe even some family members, or co-workers. People who loved you and knew you would come to you, because they were motivated by love.

 

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Matthew #63 Matthew 18:15-35

Let’s remember where we are in Matthew 18. Jesus has said that we must become humble and trusting like children to enter the kingdom of heaven. He has said he has a special anger against those who lead “little ones” astray. Little ones means both children, and also those who trust Jesus with this childlike humility and trust. He also tells about how his heart is to seek the lost sheep. In is in this context, with the understanding that those who trust God are precious to Him, and that he pursues those who wander, that Jesus talks about what we like to call “church discipline.” Jesus gives us a kind of procedure for trying to bring back a lost sheep who is caught in sin. He has already predicted his death and resurrection before this point. He knows that he will not always be there in the flesh to bring back a lost sheep. So, he tells his followers how to go about bringing back those who are straying.

Jesus gives us a simple procedure. First, talk to the person alone. Appeal to your Christian friend to acknowledge his sin, and try to give it up. If that doesn’t work, bring along one or two trusted friends, and appeal again, along with them. Let them give their perspective, and also help you evaluate if your friend is really not repentant. If that that doesn’t work, bring the matter to the church at large. The whole community can appeal to your friend. And if that does not work, the person must be excluded from the church. During the Middle Ages, this last step became known as excommunication – exclusion from the Christian community. By the way, it doesn’t have to end there. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians give us a picture where a believer had to be excommunicated, but was later restored to the church community after he repented.

I think it is fascinating to realize that modern psychology has adopted Jesus’ approach for tough cases of addiction. When the community comes around a person to appeal to her to give up an addiction, we call it an intervention – but it is essentially what Jesus said to do in Matthew 18.

I think it is good to get the big picture. First of all, this is generally for cases when someone who calls herself or himself a Christian is living in a persistent pattern of sin and will not repent. This is not something we need to do every time any Christian commits a sin. Someone who is sorry for her sin, who keeps seeking to live for Jesus even though she knows she fails, is not really a lost sheep. I have spoken before of repentance as a road, or a direction. You may fall down while you are on the road, going the direction of Jesus. But when you do, you get back up, still on the same road, still headed in the direction of Jesus. In other words, we don’t need to go around confronting church members every time they inadvertently say the s-word, or, whenever they have a bad day, and happen to speak unlovingly to someone else.

If you are not repentant, however, you are not even on that road. You are headed away from the kind of life Jesus wants to live through you. You are distancing yourself from God and other Christians. When you fall down, you don’t turn around and head toward Jesus, you keep going away. It is for that situation that Jesus tells us to use the procedure in Matthew 18. This is not about demanding perfect behavior. This is about rescuing sheep who are straying.

We have an example of all this from the church in Corinth, along with Paul’s instructions about how to handle it:

1It is widely reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and the kind of sexual immorality that is not even tolerated among the Gentiles — a man is living with his father’s wife.2And you are inflated with pride, instead of filled with grief so that he who has committed this act might be removed from your congregation.3For though I am absent in body but present in spirit, I have already decided about the one who has done this thing as though I were present.4When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus with my spirit and with the power of our Lord Jesus,5turn that one over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the Day of the Lord.

6Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast permeates the whole batch of dough?7Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch. You are indeed unleavened, for Christ our Passover has been sacrificed.8Therefore, let us observe the feast, not with old yeast or with the yeast of malice and evil but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

By the way, the words of Jesus in Matthew 18 are not talking only about times when someone personally sins against you. In verse 15, many English translations read “if your brother sins against you, go and rebuke him in private.” However the words “against you,” are missing from several generally reliable ancient copies of the Greek New Testament. My favorite translation has those words in brackets, in order to show this fact. Certainly, what Jesus says here applies in the case where someone has committed a personal sin against someone else; however I think both the textual evidence, and Luke’s gospel (which omits “against you” in Luke’s description of this conversation) and other relevant verses in the rest of the New Testament, all point to the fact that this procedure also applies more generally towards a Christian brother or sister who is caught in a consistent pattern of any sort of sin.

In case you missed it, I have been saying it applies to a Christian brother or sister who is caught in sin. The New Testament does not teach us to go to people who do not claim to be Christian, and explain how they are sinning. The idea itself is illogical. It is like telling me I’m violating the dress code for a prestigious New York preparatory school. So what if I am? I have nothing to do with the school, so why should I try to abide by their dress code, or indeed, even care what the dress code is? In fact, the way my biases run, I might find out more about the dress code there just so I could be sure and violate it. In the same way, if a person is not a follower of Jesus in the first place, why should he or she live according to the standards of Jesus?

Paul, implementing church discipline in Corinth, writes this:

9I wrote to you in a letter not to associate with sexually immoral people.10I did not mean the immoral people of this world or the greedy and swindlers or idolaters; otherwise you would have to leave the world.11But now I am writing you not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer who is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person.12For what business is it of mine to judge outsiders? Don’t you judge those who are inside?13But God judges outsiders. Put away the evil person from among yourselves. (1Cor 5:1-13, HCSB; I italicized one part for emphasis)

So we see very clearly, we do not waste time and energy imposing our moral standards on those who do not claim to be Christian. At the same time, when someone claims to be a Christian, and yet engages in a persistent, ongoing pattern of sin, we most definitely have a responsibility to the straying sheep to bring him or her back; if necessary through this pattern of “discipline.”

I want to make sure we understand the cultural and church context for all this. Churches in the New Testament met in homes, and they ranged in size from about four to about fifteen adults. Some cities had multiple churches of this size, and all the groups also considered themselves as “belonging” to the others in one big “church,” but their regular fellowship and worship took place in those small group gatherings. This is important, because it means there was a relational context for this kind of church discipline. These were people who had grown to know and love each other in small-group communities. Church discipline was not done by some barely-known official showing up at your door in a suit and tie to tell you that you were a sinner. It was done by your good friends, maybe even some family members, or co-workers. People who loved you and knew you a little bit would come to you, because they were motivated by love.

Now, I want to be honest. I have had to engage in this kind of church discipline a handful of times during my ministry as a pastor. I have never enjoyed one minute of it. And unfortunately, it does not always lead to repentance. I have known two different men, who, caught in an affair, claimed that the real sin was that his wife “gossiped” to me about the affair. Sadly, in those cases, the men chose to leave the church themselves even before the process had come to bringing in more of the community. Though I believe we approached them in real love and urged them to receive grace in repentance, they chose differently. Even worse, they went to churches elsewhere in town and pretended to be walking with the Lord. It is very discouraging when things like this happen. However, I am reminded of the Lord’s words to Ezekiel.

4The children [of Israel] are obstinate and hardhearted. I am sending you to them, and you must say to them, ‘This is what the Lord GOD says.’5Whether they listen or refuse to listen — for they are a rebellious house — they will know that a prophet has been among them.6“But you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or their words, though briers and thorns are beside you and you live among scorpions. Don’t be afraid of their words or be discouraged by the look on their faces, for they are a rebellious house.7But speak My words to them whether they listen or refuse to listen, for they are rebellious. (Ezek 2:4-7, HCSB)

Results are God’s business. He says “but speak my words to them whether they listen or refuse to listen.” Our business is to be obedient to what we know to do, and speak what he has told us to speak, and do what he has told us to do. Though I am sad about what happened on some occasions of church discipline, my conscience is clear, and I know that at least my friends were given the opportunity to repent and do something differently.

Paul writes to the Galatians about church discipline:

1Brothers, if someone is caught in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual should restore such a person with a gentle spirit, watching out for yourselves so you also won’t be tempted.2Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Gal 6:1-2, HCSB)

Here, the Holy Spirit, through Paul, reminds us that we need to approach this task with extreme humility, not setting ourselves up as better than anyone else. Another important part of the task is to try to help the lost sheep bear their burdens as they travel down the road of repentance. In other words, we aren’t just laying down the law on someone, and leaving him to feel awful – we are also coming alongside him, helping him however we can as he travels back to a place of restoration.

In 1 Corinthians chapter five, which I quoted earlier, Paul reminds them of their duty to follow this procedure of discipline given to us by Jesus. By the time he wrote the letter we know as 2 Corinthians, the individual had apparently repented as a result of their actions. So Paul writes to remind them that the goal of all of this is restoration and forgiveness:

5Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you.6For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough,7so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.8So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. (2Cor 2:5-8, ESV2011)

That is the joyful goal of church discipline. It isn’t about controlling. It isn’t about making someone conform. It is about love. Suppose I see a family with small children floating down a river in an open canoe. I happen to know that not far away are some vicious, killing, unnavigable class V rapids. Not even the world’s best kayakers would attempt them. The most hateful thing I could do would be to say nothing. The most kind, compassionate thing to do is to call out and warn them. That is all Jesus is asking us to do: Warn those who are headed for spiritual disaster, and help them get out of the river in time.

Jesus ends his instructions with some encouragement:

18I assure you: Whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven.19Again, I assure you: If two of you on earth agree about any matter that you pray for, it will be done for you by My Father in heaven.20For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there among them.” (Matt 18:18-20, HCSB)

He is assuring us that we do have the authority to engage in this sort of church discipline, and that it does accomplish real things, spiritually speaking. Also, he promises that when two or more of his followers are gathered in his name, he is there in a special way. We already know that the Holy Spirit lives in our hearts as we trust Jesus (Titus 3:6-7; Ephesians 1:13-14; Romans 5:5), so the Lord is always with each individual believer. However, Jesus seems to be saying here that he does something special when believers come together; that he is present in a special way that does not occur when believers are alone. Certainly, in regard to church discipline, he is encouraging us to do this together as a group, to present a united front as a loving community.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you right now.

~

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THE KEYS TO THE KINGDOM

keys

A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert–himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt–the Divine Reason. – GK Chesterton

 

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Matthew #54 . Matthew 16:13-20 Part C

Jesus says something in these verses that a lot of people wish he had explained a bit more:

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Many hundreds of years later, after Christianity had become legal and the church had changed from local gatherings of Jesus-followers into a centralized, power-holding institution, these verses were used to justify the position of Pope in the Roman Catholic church. The theory goes that here, Jesus is establishing the office of “Pope,” his chief representative on earth, and installs Peter as the first one. The idea is that this passage teaches that Jesus invests Peter (and his successors) with the “keys of the kingdom.” By the way, this is where we get the popular image of Saint Peter greeting people in front of the “pearly gates;” it is because Peter supposedly has the keys.

Now, I want to point out that a lot of “interpretation” must go into it to make this passage establish the Roman Catholic Papacy. In other words, it doesn’t call Peter the “Pope” or explicitly establish the institution of the Papacy in plain, unequivocal language. I am not saying this to make Roman Catholics angry. The reason I point it out is to show, once again, that clearly, the New Testament we have today is the very same one that was written by the apostles who knew Jesus Christ personally. It was not tampered with by generations who came after the apostles. Certainly, the Roman Catholic church, if it had changed or edited the bible, would have made this passage much more clearly about the Papacy.

Though I do not agree with the Roman Catholic application of this passage, it is not my intention here to attack the Papacy. I think we have more useful things to do with this passage. So may I simply suggest some other ways to understand this passage, and apply them to our lives?

First, it is somewhat interesting to know that in Greek, Jesus is making a play on words. Let me give it to you somewhat literally with the Greek words, and then I’ll explain.

“And I say to you that you are Petros and upon this petra I will build of me the church.”

The Greek word that we translate “Peter” is “petros,” and it means rock. It is the special name that Jesus gave Jesus (prior to this point, we should remember). The second word Jesus uses is petra, which means, more or less, “rock formation.” It is not the same word as the name “Peter,” and it cannot be an affectionate nickname for him, because it is in the feminine gender.

So it seems very doubtful that it is Peter personally upon whom Jesus says he will build his church. I think it is far more likely that Jesus says “upon this rock I will build my church” because he is making a play on words. Bible commentator Matthew Henry reminds us that we don’t get to see expressions and body language in the bible. He writes:

Others, by this rock, understand Christ; “Thou art Peter, thou hast the name of a stone, but upon this rock, pointing to himself, I will build my church.” Perhaps he laid his hand on his breast, as when he said, Destroy this temple (John ii. 19), when he spoke of the temple of his body.

In other words, Jesus could have pointed to himself when he said “upon this rock.” Another possibility is that Jesus meant that he would build the church on the foundation of what Peter has just said, his confession that Jesus is Messiah and son of God, with all that means. I personally favor this interpretation, because, in fact, that is what has happened. The one thing that unifies true Christians all over the world is that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, true God, true man, who died to cleanse us from sin and rose to show his power and give us new life. That is, and always has been, the foundation of the Church (and by “the church” I do not mean any particular institution, but rather, the true spiritual fellowship of those who trust Jesus Christ, no matter where they “attend church”). I am not arguing against the Papacy (though given enough provocation, I would). I am insisting however, that the foundation of the true church is not the apostle Peter, nor the Papacy, but the true confession that Jesus is Messiah and Lord. That has always been true, and I think even most Roman Catholics would agree that without this foundational belief, the Papacy itself would be meaningless.

I want to highlight another thing here. Jesus says, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” Virtually every time the New Testament uses the word “church” it is a Greek word, simply meaning, “the gathering of people with a common purpose .” (Greek: ekklesia; you may recognize that the English word, ecclesiastic comes from this term). In context, of course, it means “the gathering of people who have faith in Jesus.” At its most essential level, that is what a church is – a group of people who are connected to one another and gather together intentionally, and who have faith in Jesus. So the church that Jesus will build refers to the true spiritual fellowship that includes all who trust and obey Him as Lord and Messiah. We aren’t talking about a particular institution, denomination or congregation.

I love that Jesus promises He will build it. It reminds me a little of Psalm 127:1

Unless the LORD builds a house, its builders labor over it in vain; unless the LORD watches over a city, the watchman stays alert in vain. (Ps 127:1, HCSB)

Sometimes we get caught up in the future of the church on earth. Sometimes we are concerned about local congregations; at other times we worry about the whole thing. Jesus is the builder of the church. We can trust him to do it. And the gates of hell can’t withstand the onslaught of grace and truth that comes from those who trust and obey Jesus. This picture not one of the church defending itself while hell attacks – it is the reverse. The idea is that church will attack hell itself, and overcome it through the power of Jesus.

Now, Jesus says some other things also. He adds: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” I need to teach with integrity here. In Greek, “you” is singular. In other words, Jesus directed these comments specifically to Peter, not to all the disciples. However, this is not a problem for me, nor should it be for you. God directed many promises specifically to Abraham. He made the first promise of the Messiah specifically to Eve. He made many promises directly and personally to David. This is how the Lord works throughout scriptures: He speaks to specific people at specific times and places, and yet his promises also encompass all come after, those who believe. The individuals who first received them stood as representatives of those who would come after, and believe what God had said.

So Paul writes, for example:

Just as Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness, then understand that those who have faith are Abraham’s sons. Now the Scripture saw in advance that God would justify the Gentiles by faith and told the good news ahead of time to Abraham, saying, All the nations will be blessed through you. So those who have faith are blessed with Abraham, who had faith. (Gal 3:6-9, HCSB)

Matthew Henry writes of our verses in Matthew 16:

The Old Testament promises relating to the church were given immediately to particular persons, eminent for faith and holiness, as to Abraham and David; which yet gave no supremacy to them, much less to any of their successors; so the New-Testament charter is here delivered to Peter as an agent, but to the use and behoof of the church in all ages, according to the purposes therein specified and contained.

The gift and promise here is for every believer in Jesus Christ, Son of God. Paul says, if we have the faith of Abraham, we also have the promises that were given to him. I add, if we have the faith that Peter had, we also have the promises given to him. So, yes, these words (in Matthew 16) were spoken directly and specifically to Peter. However, Jesus says almost exactly the same thing a little while later, when he is teaching about how to deal with his followers who are struggling with sin:

I assure you: Whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven. (Matt 18:18, HCSB)

The second time Jesus says it (in 18:18) the Greek “you” is plural – in other words, the next time Jesus says this, he makes it clear that he is talking to all of his disciples. John records Jesus saying something similar. John’s Greek is pretty rudimentary (though better than mine) but he makes it clear that Jesus is talking to all the disciples when he says:

Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” After saying this, He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:21-23, HCSB)

So, what is this business of binding loosing that Jesus promises to Peter, the disciples and, through them, to us? To understand it, we need one more brief note about the Greek. The HCSB is the best English translation of these verses that I have found, and I have used it in this message. However, I’d like to give you the most literal rendering I can:

Whatever you might bind on earth, it shall have already been bound in heaven; whatever you might loosen on earth, it shall have already been loosened in heaven.

The point is this. It is not about us, or even Peter, telling heaven what to do. It is Peter (and us) expressing on earth what has already been decided in heaven. By the way, this is confirmed by Peter’s screw-up just a few verses later. Jesus says he has to go to Jerusalem and die. Peter, probably flush with these words of Jesus, tries to “bind” the upcoming death of Jesus.

Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, “Oh no, Lord! This will never happen to You! ”

But He turned and told Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me because you’re not thinking about God’s concerns, but man’s.” (Matt 16:22-23, HCSB)

To put it mildly, Peter’s “binding” of something contrary to God’s will did not work out very well. We can see from this incident that Jesus did not give Peter a blank check. Just because Peter wanted it or said it did not mean it was God’s will. Jesus tells him “you are not thinking about God’s concerns, but man’s.” In that case, Peter has no authority to bind or loosen anything. Nor, thankfully, does anyone else. So this authority to bind or loose is simply the authority for a human being to express the will of Heaven on earth. To the extent that we express what has already been bound or loosed in heaven, we have authority. To the extent we do not, we have no authority. Whatever we “bind” isn’t actually bound unless it is also heaven’s will. But if it is, according to the scripture, according to God’s will, we puny humans have the authority to declare it done.

Jesus is saying that he will use human instruments to do his will and work in the world. When a Christian declares the good news, it is as if Jesus himself is speaking. When a Christian preaches the law, it is as if Jesus himself is speaking.

In a way this goes beyond our typical approach of “in my humble opinion.” No, if it has already been done in heaven, then it is not just my humble opinion. My words spoken in heaven’s authority do have heaven’s authority. GK Chesterton wrote:

What we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert–himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt–the Divine Reason.

Saying “that’s just my opinion” makes you the important part of the equation: It’s your opinion. It asserts you, not the truth you are declaring. Instead, we might say, “I know I personally am nothing, but this is what the Bible says…” My opinion is not worth sharing. But the Truth? I don’t need to be reticent about that, because it is not my personal property.

All of this leads to a natural question: How do we know that what we are doing has already been done in heaven?

Jesus has already given us some clues. Remember how he taught the disciples (and us) to pray? “Your will be done, your kingdom come, on earth as it is heaven.” When we pray this way, the Lord often answers by helping us to get in step with his will and his kingdom. So, to “bind” or “loosen” correctly, we should learn to pray for the kingdom and will of heaven in our lives, and on earth.

Second, Jesus says all this to Peter after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, with all that means. We must make sure that what we “bind” or “loosen” is consistent with this confession, with who Jesus truly is.

Let me give you an example of “binding” and one of “loosening.”

Many years ago, a married man who professed to be a Christian began having an affair. When he was found out, he did not respond with repentance or sorrow for his sin. Instead, he tried to justify the affair. He invited the other woman to live with he and his wife, and told me that he wasn’t having an affair at all, he had just married a second wife, like Jacob or David. His wife, who had major self-esteem struggles at that point, went along with it, but it was a terrible, awful experience for her.

Finally, I had a very difficult conversation with him. I know what the Bible says about marriage and sex. I know what it says about sin generally, and repentance, and persisting in sin. I said to him, “You are trying to justify this, but I am here, in front of you, meeting your eyes, speaking with my voice and I am telling you, with the authority of Jesus, that you are living in sin. No one is perfect, and the Lord forgives all who repent, but you have not repented; instead, you keep on in a lifestyle of sin, claiming there is nothing wrong with it. The longer you wait to repent, the worse it will be for you. If you continue to refuse to repent, eventually your choice to hold on to sin will take you so far from God that you will be destroyed. You can’t get there by accident. You know what you are doing. Just in case you wonder, I am telling you, I am warning you, this sin will destroy you if you don’t repent.”

I grieve to tell you that this man never did repent. He was a good friend, and I cared about him deeply. He held on to his sin. He was thirty-five at the time this began, and though he smoked, and drank too much, he was in pretty good health. Quickly after this, however, his health failed, and he died within ten years.

I was “binding” his sins. In other words, I was communicating the biblical truth that if we do not repent, if we persist in an ongoing lifestyle of sin when we know better, if we refuse to even admit we are sinning, we are actually refusing the forgiveness that Jesus offers us. This is neither more nor less than what the bible says about it. I wasn’t “acting on my own authority.” I was saying what the bible says. Sometimes, hopefully not very often, we need somebody to confront us with physical presence (I do not mean violence I just mean simply being there) and a physical voice and say “knock it off! You are doing wrong and it needs to stop.” Sometimes we need somebody in front of us who can point out our self-deception and tear apart our self-serving justifications. Actually, this need is well known in secular addiction treatment, and it is called an “intervention.”

This “binding,” though necessary, is often a very difficult thing. But when you think about it, it is actually just one more way in which God can show grace to sinners. This man knew what the Bible said about sex and marriage. He knew when he started the affair that he was wrong. But through a fellow believer (in this case it was me) God was giving him yet one more chance. The Lord had every right to hold him accountable for what he knew, and yet God sent me to plead with him one more time. Far from being judgmental, this was the Lord doing all that he could to try and bring this man to repentance.

Now let me give you a happier example. Around that same time, a different young man came to me. He confessed that he was addicted to pornography. He was attending a local seminary to become a pastor, and he was sure that his sin had disqualified him from ministry; he wasn’t even sure, deep in his heart, that he was forgiven. The main difference between this guy and the first man was that this second young man was deeply broken up about his sin. He did not try to justify it. He did not want to do it any longer. He knew the bible pretty well, and so I reminded him of these verses, and then said, “OK, now look me in the eye. You can see my face, you can hear my voice. Jesus is speaking to you right now just as surely as I am. And what he says, and what I say, is that you are entirely forgiven. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8;1). You have been made clean by the word that is spoken to you (John 15). If you are in Christ, you are a new creation; the old has passed away, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5;17). Your sin was absolutely destroyed on the cross. Your real life is in heaven with God (Colossians 3), your spirit is seated with Christ in heavenly places (Ephesians 1). You are dead to sin, yes really (Col 3, Romans 6). You – are – forgiven.”

Now, obviously I was quoting various Scriptures: either verbatim or repeating the gist of it. This young man could have looked in his Bible and found the same verses and read them for himself. But there is something powerful and gracious about hearing somebody else directly tell you what the Lord says in the Bible. It is vital for us to interact with the Lord alone. But it is also vital for us to be connected to each other and to sometimes hear another person declare the truth of Scripture to you.

Some of us are very suspicious of our own motives, and so we don’t easily let our own selves off the hook. For people like that, it can be a wonderful, grace-filled experience to have someone else look you in the eye and say “You are forgiven. You truly are.” This is the gift that Jesus gives Peter, and to the whole church: that we can hear flesh and blood speak the truth to us. Jesus is saying, “I am giving you authority to speak my words to each other, so that you don’t have to wonder if it is real or not; you don’t have to question your own motives.”

So when Kathy says, “I am telling you what you are doing is a sin,” you know that you need to knock it off. And when Tom says to you, “you are forgiven,” you really are forgiven.

Let the Lord speak to you today.

 

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YOUR MONEY, OR YOUR LIFE?

money

Spiritually speaking, you get more value when you give than you do when you keep.

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Experiencing Life Together #7. Acts 2:44 – Christian Stewardship

All the believers kept meeting together, and they shared everything with each other. From time to time they sold their property and other possessions and distributed the money to anyone who needed it. (Acts 2:44).

The evidence here and elsewhere seems to indicate however, that this first Christian church shared all their possessions and financial resources. That sounds pretty radical to me. I don’t know that I’m ready for communal finances, and I don’t believe that this verse means we must put everything into a common pot. However, there is an underlying principle here, and I think it is important. The principle is that these believers understood that their time, abilities and possessions were given to them by God, and were to be used as resources for fulfilling God’s purposes on earth.

One term often used to describe this principle is “Christian Stewardship.” It’s as good a phrase as any, but it needs some explanation. A steward is someone who manages resources that belong to someone else. Usually the owner of the resources wants the steward to accomplish certain goals with those resources. For example, if you use an investment broker, that broker is a steward of your investments. He does not own your money – you do. But your broker manages your money for you, with the purpose of helping you to achieve your financial goals. When all is said and done, your broker is accountable to you for how he invested the money you gave him to use. He needs to give an accounting of what he has done with it. While he is investing for you, he needs to keep in mind your goals for the money. Of course, he is entitled to his fees from what you have given him – after all, he has to have something to live on. However, the money, and the goals are yours.

We are something like investment brokers for God. We are stewards. The “money” he gives us to manage is really everything we have in life: time; abilities & talents; possessions, including financial resources; opportunities and relationships. These things really belong to God, not us. Sometimes we get hung up on tithing, and feel that if we just give God 10% of our money, everything else in life belongs to us – but it isn’t true. It all belongs to God. It is given to us simply so that we can manage it according to His goals and purposes. Of course some of it we have to use to support ourselves during our time here as stewards for God. But we should never lose sight of the fact that we are stewards, and all of these resources have been given to us so that we can invest them in reaching God’s goals. Your time, your money, your abilities, your possessions – these are not yours. They are on loan from God, to be used for his purposes.

Jesus taught extensively about this idea of stewardship. Matthew 21:33-46 recounts the parable of the tenants. Matthew 25:14-30 offers the parable of the talents. Luke 16:1-15 records the parable of the shrewd manager. Please read at least two of the three this week, so you can get a flavor for Jesus’ attitude about this. The central point in each of these stories (and it is quite forcefully made in each) is that we are stewards of what God has given us in life. It is not ours, but we are to take care of it, and use it to accomplish His goals. God’s primary goal of course, is to bring more and more people into a genuine, righteous, loving relationship with Himself. If he’s going to do that, he’ll need to use the speaking gift he gave Peter; the energy he entrusted to Paul; the thoughtfulness that John was to invest; the time that Philip devoted and the willingness that Stephen had. All that comes from just a few chapters in the book of Acts. He has given you and me many other gifts – time, talents, money, relationships and opportunities. He needs them to achieve his purpose. We were put here to use them for Him.

Now, at this point, something must be made absolutely clear. Doing things for God does not earn you “brownie points” with him. Being a good steward will not make Him love you any more, and being a bad steward will not make him love you less. We are saved and have a relationship with God simply and only because Jesus sacrificed himself in our place, and we trust him to forgive our sins. Our relationship with God is not based on what we do (or don’t do) for Him – it is based on His love for us, and our willingness to believe in and receive that love.

You may ask, “Why do we need to bother with being a good steward then? What’s the point, if it doesn’t make God love me more, and it isn’t necessary in order to go to heaven?” If you ask that question, or something like that, I want to gently urge you to really examine your relationship with God. If you really know Him and love Him, do you want to waste His resources? Do you really not care whether or not you are living the way He made you to live?

You see, I love my children whether or not they obey me. I don’t love them more when they obey me, or less when they don’t. However, when they disobey me it causes a breach in our relationship. Obedience does not earn my love, but when they are disobedient, our relationship is injured. There is something wrong between us. In extreme cases, disobedience in children could lead to their injury or death. If I tell them not to play with a knife and they disobey me, something terrible could happen. If tell them to stay well away from the edge of a cliff and they say to themselves “well, daddy will love me even if I go to edge,” the consequences could be tragic.

Go back to the stock broker analogy. Say you are the broker, and you have a client who is extremely forgiving. You totally mismanaged her funds, and lost it all. She chooses not to pursue any legal action against you. Even so, it would hardly be possible for the two of you to be good friends unless some sort of reconciliation had taken place.

With this in mind, consider this question: Why are you still here on earth? If you know Jesus, and your eternal future is assured, why doesn’t God just take you to heaven to be with Him right now? God loves you, he has promised you eternal joy with Himself, and a new heaven and a new earth for us to enjoy with Him. Why hasn’t he simply taken us to that right away? The answer comes from 2 Peter

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promises as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)

If you know Jesus Christ, and he is both your savior and King of your life, there is only one reason you are not in heaven this very moment – God has things for you do here. Specifically, he wants you to play a part in bringing others to know Jesus. In order for you to do that, you need to “invest” the resources He has given you.

As with everything else in the Christian life, good stewardship is “God-thing.” What I mean is you can’t be a good steward by yourself, any more than you could get salvation for yourself. The first step in being a steward of God’s resources is to tell your client (God) that you can’t do it without his help. Let Him give you the inner strength to reject selfishness and live for His purposes. Let Him give you wisdom in how to use what He has given you. As always, the main thing is simply to be willing and then He can (and will) do the rest – everything from showing you what to do, to even to giving you the motivation to do it.

I want to talk briefly about money. Bear in mind, managing God’s money (and everything you call “yours” is really God’s) is just one part of stewardship. Too many churches, when they say “stewardship” are really just talking about money. However, it is important to talk specifically about money, because it is one of the great idols and spiritual dangers in this world.

We know what the world thinks of money. It is the primary means that people use to get what they want in the world, therefore the world highly values it. But what does God think about money?

But godliness with contentment is a great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation, a trap, and many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. (1Tim 6:6-10, HCSB)

Instruct those who are rich in the present age not to be arrogant or to set their hope on the uncertainty of wealth, but on God, who richly provides us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do what is good, to be rich in good works, to be generous, willing to share, storing up for themselves a good reserve for the age to come, so that they may take hold of life that is real. (1Tim 6:17-19, HCSB)

“Don’t collect for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But collect for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matt 6:19-21, HCSB)

“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. (Matt 6:24, ESV2011)

Come now, you rich people! Weep and wail over the miseries that are coming on you. Your wealth is ruined and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your silver and gold are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You stored up treasure in the last days! (Jas 5:1-3, HCSB)

I think these verses are generally representative of what the New Testament says about money. And I think we might summarize the message in two parts:

1. When we treasure money for itself, or for what it can achieve for us (security, comfort, pleasure, peace, a future) it is a great spiritual danger. Spiritually speaking, it is not positive to be wealthy, if we care about what wealth can do for us or those we love.

2. When we invest money in the kingdom of God, that is, when we give it away for the cause of Jesus, it is of great spiritual benefit.

These things are true, no matter how much or how little we are talking about. Consider this little incident:

Sitting across from the temple treasury, Jesus watched how the crowd dropped money into the treasury. Many rich people were putting in large sums. And a poor widow came and dropped in two tiny coins worth very little. Summoning His disciples, He said to them, “I assure you: This poor widow has put in more than all those giving to the temple treasury. For they all gave out of their surplus, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she possessed — all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:41-44, HCSB)

Have you ever thought about this? He knew it was her last two pennies. Though she might not have known it, she was giving it to him, and he didn’t need two pennies just then. In fact, though it was given to him, it didn’t go to him while he walked on earth. Two little pennies probably did not make that much difference to the temple treasury, and they might have made a big difference to what the widow ate that day. Think about it. Why didn’t Jesus stop her?

Because giving the last of her money, though it made no difference to the temple treasury, made a huge difference in the spiritual realm. Her tiny bit of money was worth far more spiritually, given freely as it was, than it was in the marketplace. If you want to look at this way, it achieved more for her when she gave it away than it ever could have helped her by keeping it.

Jesus didn’t stop her, because she did the right thing, and he knew that she would get more benefit from giving than from keeping.

You get more real value when you give than you do when you keep. You get a better investment in your life right now by giving. You get a better return on your real and important future by investing in the kingdom of God.

I’m not saying this is easy. The entire world around us screams that this is nonsense. But it is what Jesus and the rest of the New Testament taught. I had to face this myself this week. This may be a silly little illustration, but I’ll let you into my own struggle to accept this in my life.

Whenever someone gives me money for my birthday, or Christmas, I put it aside, and call it my “personal money.” Sometimes, when have a little bit to spare, we give everyone in the family an “allowance” – money that each person can spend however they wish. I get an allowance too, when we do it. I also consider this “my personal money.” I can use my personal money to go out to eat, or buy a fishing pole. It isn’t for the family budget and for needs. It’s mine to spend as I wish.

I have a little bit of personal money saved up right now. I’ve been wanting to buy a pair of really nice headphones for music. I wanted some noise-cancelling ones, for traveling (and frankly, for sitting in my living room). I’ve been looking at a pair that would cost about $125. This week, as I was preparing this message, I went shopping for headphones. I was thinking over the things I just said to you, and I realized, I’m not taking it seriously. Instead, I’m out, seeking a way to spend “my money” on myself. I’m not taking the spiritual value of giving seriously. I’m acting like I think a $125 pair of headphones will benefit me more than giving $125 away.

Don’t ever be a preacher, if you can avoid it. It will mess up your plans, if you take it seriously. Anyway, I decided to give the $125 away, rather than buy headphones. I’m not doing it to be noble. I’m just trying to take this message seriously.

What is the Lord saying to you about your time? Your money? Your energy and abilities? They aren’t yours, you know. They belong to him. How are you investing it for him?

SINGLE PURPOSE

Jesus with the Disciples_discipleship

Jesus is calling you – not just to be a member of a church, not only to repent of your sins and receive his forgiveness. He is calling you to walk with him daily; To have a relationship with him that is more important to you than anyone or anything else in this life.

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Experiencing Life Together #5: Single Purpose

John 18:36; Ephesians 2:10

The very first Christians exhibited a very important characteristic. Their lives had a single focus:

The believers had a single purpose, and went to the temple courts every day. They were joyful and humble as they ate at each other’s homes and shared their food. (Acts 2:46)

The key phrase here is “single purpose.” Their lives were aimed at one target. Their focus both individually, and as a church, was on one thing. They were led by this purpose in everything they did, and every decision they made. Their purpose was discipleship. Jesus told them to be disciples, and to make disciples.

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

The word “disciple” in Greek is closely associated with learning from a teacher. As we look at Jesus’ disciples in the gospels, we see that they listened to his teaching and tried to put it into practice (Mark 3:31-34). They were “followers” of Jesus’ teachings. The disciples often asked Jesus questions, but didn’t understand when he explained the answers to them (Matthew 16:5-12; Mark 4:10-14). Even so, though they had their struggles, they made his teaching central to their lives.

They not only followed his teaching, but they followed Jesus physically, wherever he went. They shared his life and had experiences with him. They walked together with Jesus on the rough mountain roads of Galilee. They lodged together, ate together and talked together.

They went across the lake with him, and experienced the storm, and then were awed by his power over it. They went to a lonely place with him, and saw him feed 5,000 people. They watched him drive demons out of people, and heal others. They went to Jerusalem and saw him die and later they saw him alive again.

Jesus’ disciples also had relationships with each other. They weren’t isolated in their relationship with Jesus. They talked with each other, fought with each other and helped each other. Jesus called them (and us) to love each other (John 13:34-35).

Besides teaching and sharing his life, Jesus also trained his disciples. He recruited them for the same work that he was engaged in – spreading the good news (Luke 10:1-24). He involved them in exercises of faith and ministry (Matt 14:18). He gave them instructions, sent them out on tasks, and then debriefed them (Luke 10:1-24).

Jesus wanted his relationship with his disciples to be the closest, most important relationship they had. He was dramatic in stating this. He said that in comparison to their relationship with Him, it would seem like they hated their own families (Matt 10:37-39; Matt 12:48). All this is to say that He became absolutely the most important person in their lives. He took precedence in everything.

Even before he returned to heaven, Jesus gave his disciples authority to be a part of His mission, authority to accomplish His purposes in the world (Matt 10:1). He promised that he would be with them spiritually at all times (Matthew 28:18-20).They were witnesses to His life, death resurrection and power (Acts 1:8), and they had a responsibility to tell about their life with Jesus, and to recruit new disciples to Him.

In John chapter 15, Jesus called his disciples to “abide” in him. He said this just a few hours before he was captured and crucified. One of the things he meant by it, was that the disciples were to keep on being his disciples, even after his death and resurrection. Their relationship – the sharing of Jesus teaching and their lives together – would go on. Jesus would come and live with them again, this time in their spirits, through His Holy Spirit. Discipleship goes on.

So what does it all mean for us? Now that we see how the first disciples were, how can we be disciples? How can we live with a single purpose? First, I think we ought to recognize that Christians were called “disciples” before they were ever called “Christians” (Acts 11:25). In other words, the very first followers of Jesus understood that it was not about being a member of a church, or even of being converts, but rather of being learners who lived life in the midst of their on-going relationship with Jesus.

Jesus is calling you – not just to keep things as they are, not just to be a member of a church, not only to repent of your sins and receive his forgiveness. He is calling you to walk with him daily. To have a relationship with him that is more important to you than anyone or anything else in this life. To engage with him as you work, as you eat, as you rest. To be trained and equipped by him to take your part in recruiting and training more disciples. He is calling you to listen to, and follow his teachings. He is calling you to be a part of a group of disciples – folks who are a bit rough around the edges maybe, but who love one another and love Jesus like you do.

When you are a disciple, everything in your life is filtered through your relationship with Jesus. We still have to go to work, and pay the bills, and deal with crises. But we do all these things with an awareness that we are not living our own life anymore. We are here to let Jesus live his life through us. That is our single purpose in everything.

When you let Jesus live your life, that is, when you live as his disciple, you are immediately confronted by the temptations and challenges of what life offers us apart from Jesus. If we live for the single-purpose of discipleship, we might find that many things we are used to doing are actually at cross purposes with the life of Jesus. Sin, of course, diverts us from the purpose of Jesus in us. But sometimes, I think the biggest threat to Christians is not outright sin, but rather, good things; things, however, that Jesus does not want us to waste our time with. Jesus said something very challenging:

“My kingdom is not of this world,” said Jesus. “If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews. As it is, My kingdom does not have its origin here.” (John 18:36, HCSB)

Are you struggling and fighting for something in this world? I know I can get sucked into this all too easily. I want to follow Jesus, yes, but I also want other things: comfort and security while I am on earth. The moment I pursue comfort and security in addition to being a disciple, is the moment I lose my single purpose. That takes me a step backward in following Jesus. Jesus’ kingdom, his life and purpose are far beyond the temporary, cheap things of this world.

This is one of the reasons the Christian faith has always appealed to the poor more than the rich. If your life right now is a struggle, and you have little hope of improving it, it is easier to place your hope more fully in eternity. Poor folks know that security in this life is not really attainable. People with more resources tend to keep believing that their salvation is in this life. They tend to keep striving for the temporary treasures and goals that this life offers.

Ephesians 2:10 says this:

“For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Have you ever wondered about your purpose in life? Well there it is – to do the “good works” which God created you to do. And those good works ultimately all lead to encouraging believers and reaching out to those who don’t believe. This was the single purpose of the church in Acts 2:42-47. This is what they lived for. This purpose influenced all of their decisions, particularly decisions about the use of time.

Especially in America, living with a single purpose has enormous implications for the way we use our time. I am convinced that most of us try to live with more than one purpose in life. When I try to do that, if I was honest, my purpose in life could be described as: “ To serve God, and to be comfortable.” The first part is OK, but that “to be comfortable” makes it a dual purpose. And that causes problems when the purposes conflict with each other. What if being comfortable isn’t conducive to serving God, or vice versa? Others might want to “serve God, and have a good career” or “Be a disciple, make disciples, and achieve certain financial goals.” There is nothing Biblical about this. Sometimes, God makes his servants comfortable. Sometimes he gives them fulfilling careers, or wealth. But we need to pursue God – not the other things. If wants to give the other things also, well and good. If not, can we still say, “well and good”?

Others of us really do live to “be a disciple and make disciples”. But we fall into the trap of doing many good things, instead of the two or three best things. We might run all over town participating in workshops, ministries and conferences – all good and wonderful things. But often these wonderful spiritual things, keep us from truly connecting with Jesus, and concentrating on the two or three things that will be most effective, and are most important. Many times, perhaps almost always, we need to turn down the good things for the best things; the non-essential for the essential.

In most house-churches, things are deliberately structured so that members focus on just two or three important things in the process of becoming and making disciples. They generally don’t have “programs”. They focus on ministry in the group, outreach, and equipping (worship & prayer are underlying elements of all of these). None of these things should be “programmatic” – instead they are structured so that they take place in the context of lives that are lived with a single purpose. Thus, our “community life” can be oriented to that single purpose; and we are not so distracted with the “busyness” of many other things going on all the time.

Our personal lives ought to be structured this way as well. America is the land of opportunity, but enough already! We put our three-year-olds in T-ball in spite of the fact that they will almost certainly never become professional athletes. We put in extra hours in case we miss the opportunity to make more money. We run from activity to activity and it absolutely drains us spiritually and emotionally. The crucial and difficult task in learning to orient our lives around a single purpose, is saying “no” to things that are good, but which are not best, or essential.

We strongly encourage you to pray about this during the next week, and then ask your house church for help and prayer in determining what is essential and best for you to be doing at this point in your life. Make sure to address that question with an open Bible and an open heart.

FOUR CHARACTERISTICS OF THE EARLY CHURCH

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Fellowship (love in action) does not always come easily to the church, and perhaps it did not come easily even for the very first group of believers. Even so, this was something they persisted in and stuck with, in spite of difficulty at times.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

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Experiencing Life Together #3

FOUR THINGS TO WHICH THE EARLY CHURCH WAS DEVOTED. Acts 2:42

As we come together to experience the Power, Presence and Purpose of Jesus, it may be useful to consider any Biblical patterns that exist for the Church. Biblically speaking, a lot of freedom is given to believers in how they structure local congregations. However there is a pretty clear Biblical pattern for the values that ought to drive local churches, and the practical results that those values ought to show. Perhaps one of the most useful and descriptive passages in discovering God’s pattern for the church is found in acts Chapter 2:42-47. This is a descriptive passage, not a prescriptive one; even so, we can learn from the example presented here and it seems wise to consider carefully the characteristics of that first growing Christian congregation.

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

In this passage, we find four things that the early church was devoted to and three things that resulted from such devotion. We will examine each of the seven characteristics one by one . This week, we will consider the four things the church was devoted to. Next week, we will focus especially on one of those four things — prayer. And after that, we will consider the three things their resulted from their devotion.

First, I want to mention this word, “devoted.” The idea behind the Greek term, is a that a group of people are together earnest, persevering, diligent and devoted to something. In other words, they didn’t just “say a prayer.” They were earnest and diligent about praying; they persisted and persevered in their prayers, even when they did not receive immediate answers. They didn’t just “listen to a sermon.” They diligently persevered in learning what Jesus said and did, and what it meant. They persisted in applying it to their lives, even when at first it didn’t feel like it made anything better.

I think this idea is very important. What we really believe as Christians is that spiritual reality is more real and important than what we call “physical” reality. I don’t mean the physical isn’t real, or that it doesn’t matter; but Christians believe the spiritual is the more powerful of the two. That means we persist in our devotion to these things, even when the physical reality is whispering to us that we are stupid and silly to do so. We persist in them because they make a difference in spiritual reality Eventually, that difference will also affect the physical realm, but even if it does not do so during our lifetimes, we trust in what we don’t see. That is what faith is: “the reality of what is hoped for; the certainty of what is not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)

1. They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching. The early church was founded on the testimony of the apostles. They listened as Peter, James and John and others repeated to them the teachings of Jesus. They heard these great leaders expounding upon those teachings and explaining the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The apostles also taught the early church the meaning of the Old Testament and how Jesus fulfilled its promises and prophecies. Unfortunately, today we no longer have the apostles. But we do still have their teachings — they are found in the New Testament. The New Testament is in fact the written form of the teaching of the apostles. It is not much of a leap to say that when we see that the first characteristic of the early church was that they were devoted to the apostles teaching, the parallel characteristic for the present-day church should be that we are devoted to the Bible. How can we do this practically in our church, and specifically in the house-church?

a. We ought to commit to the authority of the scriptures. The church was founded on the teaching of the Bible, and so also should our lives be founded on the teachings of the Bible. The Bible is the final authority in all things for all believers. Practically speaking, the house-church should have an understanding that scripture is the basis for everything we do and say in our group. This doesn’t mean we never talk about football scores, but it does mean that as we encourage one another and share with one another, we do so with a sense that we are all together under the authority of scripture.

b. We study scripture. To some of you, “study” may sound like a dirty word. It doesn’t have to be that way however. Try setting aside a special time each week (like Sunday nights) to study the Bible. As a starting point, read the scripture passage that goes with that week’s sermon notes, think about it, and then read the sermon notes over. The “Word” time during the house-church meeting is supposed to be mainly for application, rather than study. If you come to house-church and you haven’t read the sermon notes or the passage, you will probably not get much out of the word time, and the other people in the house-church will miss out on the insight and thoughts you might have had for them, if you had taken just a bit of time to read. I don’t think reading them on the way to house-church gives God’s Word the respect such a remarkable book deserves.

c. Apply the scripture to your life. After you have studied scripture, you should ask “what does it mean to me? How should I live differently or what comfort should I take from this?” Although God’s word is supposed to inform our thinking, the great value of it is that it not only transforms our minds, but our very lives as well. God’s word illuminates our path – what we are to do, how we are to live.

2. The second characteristic of the early church is that they were devoted to fellowship. The Greek word used in Acts 2:42 for “fellowship” is Koinonia. A helpful way to translate this word might be “community.” Now it is obvious from the context that the word does not mean “town” or “locality” so we might clarify things by saying it means Christian community. In other words, these first Christians devoted themselves to each other. In fact, this was their way of living out in a practically what Jesus said in John 13:24-25:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

Fellowship is just Christian love in action. It is the “nuts and bolts” of people in the body of Christ (the church) loving each other. In this context, It is helpful to remember that when they devoted themselves to the fellowship, the word “devoted” implies that this was something they worked on and stuck with, “in spite of resistance or struggle.” Fellowship (love in action) does not always come easily to the church, and perhaps it did not come easily even for the very first group of believers. Even so, this was something they persisted in and stuck with, in spite of difficulty at times.

3. The third characteristic of the early church is that they were devoted to the “breaking of bread.” This phrase (“the breaking of the bread”) refers to the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Paul uses it in 1 Corinthians to describe Holy Communion, and the language parallels that of the gospels as well. It took some years before it was called anything but “the breaking of the bread.” How can this be made a practical characteristic of house-church life? First, I believe it meant that the message of human sin and God’s sacrifice to forgive that sin, was central to their lives. The Lord’s Supper tells this basic message of Christianity every time it is celebrated. Second, I believe their devotion to the Lord’s Supper was evidence of an ongoing hunger and thirst for more of God in their lives. The central meaning of the Lord’s Supper is the Presence of Jesus. So in house-church, we can be intentional about the core Christian message of man’s sin and God’s loving forgiveness, and we can be intentional about nurturing a hunger for Jesus.

4. The fourth thing that the early church was devoted to is prayer. Prayer, both together and alone, was central to their experience of church. Because prayer is so important to the life of any house-church, we will devote a week entirely to that subject (next week).

As you consider this passage of scripture, allow yourself to dream. What would your house-church look like if you were devoted to the Bible, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer? Does this vision excite you at all? How would your life be different if you are a part of such a dynamic group? And, how will you be a part of making this happen?

The Presence, Power and Purpose of Jesus

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The church is not a therapy group, or an advice repository. It is a gathering of unique people who experience the Presence, Power and Purpose of the living God as we come together in his name.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Experiencing Life Together Part 2

EXPERIENCING LIFE TOGETHER #2

We were almost all set to wrap up the house-church meeting. Our discussion was over, we had spent some time in worship and now we were praying for one another.

“Does anyone else want prayer?”

“I’ll take prayer.” It was a neighbor lady, who came to house church, off and on. She had been raised Roman Catholic, and it was clear that she knew the right answers. But it was also clear that somehow, she had not fully connected with the life that is in Jesus Christ. She shared a few things that she wanted prayer for: her relationship with her boss, a sore back and a few other things. These were mostly shallow issues and it seemed to me that if all her prayers were answered the way she wanted them to be, nothing much would change in her life. But we stepped forward to pray for her anyhow. Tonight, we were anointing the people with oil as we prayed for them. I explained that this practice came from the book of James 5:13-16. I opened my Bible and read from it. Usually, I simply read vs. 14 to show newcomers that were not completely wacky to anoint people with a little olive oil as we pray for them. But for some reason, this time I continued to read all the way to the end of verse 16. And this is what vs. 16 says:

“Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.”

I opened my mouth to begin the prayer. But the woman held up her hand and said “wait.”

She continued, “that little verse you read at the end, about confessing your sins to one another? I need to confess something. I’m a witch.”

It is my suspicion that in many churches this is not a particularly common scenario. In any case, however, she spoke a little longer, and then we prayed with her and for her, and the next day she took all of her witching paraphernalia and burned it. Shortly after that she turned her life over to Jesus Christ as her Lord and savior.

In our experiences of networked-house-church, we could tell many such stories — all of them true. But the fact is, these things don’t happen simply because we strictly adhere to some sort of methodology. They happen because house-church ministry is used as a vehicle for the Presence, Power and Purpose of Jesus Christ. Last time, we considered the fact that our basic need is Jesus, not a certain way of doing church or small groups. We believe that house-church ministry lends itself quite well to being used by Jesus. But when we come together, we are not meeting as a therapy group, social club or even a Bible study. Instead, we come together to experience that Presence, Power and Purpose of Jesus Christ. For the sake of brevity, we often call these the three P’s. Whenever we come together, we keep in mind that we are here to facilitate the three P’s. Sometimes, like in the case above, this happens quite dramatically. At other times, we seem to have a “normal” night. We usually employ a house-church agenda, but we always have in mind that the true agenda belongs to the Holy Spirit.

On the night which I described above, we did not set out to find out if there were any witches in our midst and to get them to confess their sins and come to Jesus. We purposed instead to experience the presence, power and purpose of Jesus in our midst. It was the Holy Spirit who prompted me to read a verse that I don’t usually read. It was the Holy Spirit, working on that woman’s heart, who prompted her to confess her involvement in witchcraft. It was the Holy Spirit who directed our response. We had an agenda for that evening, and in fact we followed it for the most part. But when something came up that was not on our agenda (for example a person confessing involvement in witchcraft), we adjusted our agenda to fit what God was doing that night.

Let’s take a brief moment to examine the biblical bases of the three P’s.

1. The presence of Jesus.

I assure you: Whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven. Again, I assure you: If two of you on earth agree about any matter that you pray for, it will be done for you by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there among them.” (Matt 18:18-20, HCSB)

These verses are about exercising the authority of Jesus. It is a promise that when we come together under his authority, for his purposes, his presence is with us. In fact, this verse ties together the three P’s — his power (authority), his and his presence. When we come to house-church meetings, we are not there merely to socialize, nor even simply to study the Bible. We are there to be in the presence of Jesus.

We know that Jesus is always with us. He said he would be, in Matthew 28:20 (more on that in a moment). But this verse tells us, and Christians have always recognized, that Jesus is with us in a special way, when we gather together in his name. The gathering of believers is not just social interaction – it invites Jesus to be with us in a way that he cannot be with us when we are alone. I believe he does this because he wants his people to understand that they need each other. The Holy Spirit expressed His desire for His people to keep meeting together in Hebrews 10:24-25

And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, not staying away from our worship meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near. (Heb 10:24-25, HCSB)

We need each other, because the Presence of Jesus is expressed differently through each individual.

2. The power of Jesus.

For I didn’t think it was a good idea to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I came to you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom but with a powerful demonstration by the Spirit, so that your faith might not be based on men’s wisdom but on God’s power. (1Cor 2:2-5, HCSB)

The fact is, if we are going to follow the agenda of the Holy Spirit, we must rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to do so. There is a tendency at times within small groups to try and find a solution within the resources of the group itself. For instance, if somebody is struggling with an emotional issue, other group members may be tempted to offer their advice or to share their past experiences with similar issues. While advice is not always inappropriate, we must make sure that it does not keep us from relying on the power of God. We must always keep in mind that the only resource of lasting value within the house-church group is the power of God. In practical terms this means that prayer is almost always a first response to a need or problem that a shared with the group. This doesn’t mean that the group never offers practical help to its members, however, that practical help should arise from the Lord’s direction as we look to him for his resources. We don’t rely on human wisdom, but rather, the Spirit’s power.

Practically, that means when someone shares a struggle, we should start racking our brains for a solution; nor should we simply pretend we are therapists, and just listen sympathetically. Instead, we should listen carefully, both the person, and the Lord. We should ask the Lord quietly, “What do you want to do here and now? In what way do you want to use me to accomplish your goal?”

3. The purpose of Jesus.

Then Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20, HCSB)

When we come together in a house-church group we ought to have one unified purpose: to make disciples of Jesus. Making disciples involves helping those who are already Christians to grow in their faith (becoming better disciples) and also helping to lead others who don’t know Jesus to true saving faith in him. We don’t come to church simply to increase our knowledge or to fulfill a program of the church. We come to be motivated by Jesus’ mission.

It should be obvious as we consider the presence, the power and the purpose of Jesus, that we cannot experience these things without being completely dependent upon God. We cannot make Jesus come to us. We cannot fake his power. And we cannot fulfill his purpose without his presence and his power. In the house-church we do not depend on our own resources, rather we depend fully and completely upon God. God may use other house-church members to minister to you; or he may use you to minister to other house-church members. But in the end it is God who is doing the ministering through us.

ONLY JESUS SATISFIES

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To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Experiencing Life Together Part 1

Experiencing Life Together #1

Psalm 63

The chances are, if you’ve decided to try out this “house-church thing” you may be feeling a bit dry in your Christian life lately. One person I know expressed it as a feeling of “surface-level interaction.” Another expressed it as a shallowness. Others may feel like they’re running on empty. It may be that you are dissatisfied with the way things are, particularly in your church, and you are interested in trying something new. Make no mistake about it — we (the developers of this curriculum) believe very strongly in the house Church model, and we think it presents solutions to many common church problems. However, there is no structure or method of doing church that can, in and of itself, offer true spiritual life. The answer to our struggles and issues is not a new way of doing church, but rather Jesus himself. Therefore we want to start this “house Church experience” by focusing not on house Church, but on the person of Jesus Christ.

On the surface, a feeling of dryness or shallowness in one’s spiritual life seems like a bad thing. After all, it can be frustrating to feel that you aren’t connecting with God, or with fellow believers. Worship might seem dull, and prayer might feel like empty repetition. There might be almost a dreary sameness to your spiritual life. But believe it or not, these are good signs! The problem is, we don’t always recognize them as such, and act accordingly. Many people blame themselves for these symptoms, and they try to overcome these feelings by sheer willpower. Some may blame their worship environments, and either work hard to change things, or simply leave. Others simply grit their teeth and wait it out. But sometimes God is responsible for our feelings of dryness and shallowness! That is because God wants to give us a greater thirst for Himself. God does not want us to become complacent, or self-satisfied about our relationship with Him. And so while feelings of discontent, restlessness and shallowness can be disturbing, they actually serve the wonderful purpose of making us hunger after more of God’s presence in our lives.

How should we respond to these feelings? I believe that there are several responses that are helpful, and some that are not helpful. Keep in mind that what God is after is a deeper relationship with you – the end result should be more of God’s presence in your life. First, some things to avoid – these are things that will cover up, or waste the thirst that God is creating in you:

1. Avoid making other people responsible to “fix” the problem. It may be a temptation to look to your church or your pastor to make things “deeper” or more meaningful. Maybe if your pastor was more like Chuck Swindoll, or your worship leader more like Michael W. Smith, you wouldn’t feel this way. While you certainly ought to bring up concerns you have about your church to your pastor or another appropriate leader, you cannot make them or anyone else responsible for your spiritual condition. God doesn’t want you to thirst for a certain kind of structure– He wants you to thirst for Himself. If you respond by seeking God, I can almost guarantee that your experience of house-church meetings during these few weeks will also be richer, particularly if others in your house-church do the same. If, on the other hand, you respond to spiritual dryness by trying to find some kind of experience (within, or outside of the house-church) you will eventually be disappointed. Once again, it is certainly legitimate to bring up for discussion issues that your church ought to address. But the start of a richer house Church experience is always found in a richer personal experience with God. The house-church model cannot take you farther than you are willing to go with God alone. The house-church cannot satisfy a thirst for God – only God can.

2. Avoid trying to fix the problem with other things. Human nature is such that we are almost always discontent. The great Christian thinker, C.S. Lewis found this to be one of the greatest indicators that we have an eternal, spiritual nature. Unfortunately, many of us attribute our discontent to something other than a need for more of God’s presence in our lives. We sometimes try to fill the void with relationships, activities, material things or lifestyle changes. While none of these things are of themselves bad, they are not the proper prescription for someone whom God has made thirsty. Some people may respond to spiritual dryness by attending all sorts of conferences and meetings and increasing the number of “spiritual” activities they are involved in. Once again, though these things are not bad, they miss the point – in fact, one of the greatest dangers to the spiritual life is often busyness with church and para-church activities. God is calling you to get alone with Him, and receive a deeper measure of His presence in your life. Church activities, shopping, friendships and so on will not accomplish this for you.

3. Don’t Ignore your thirst. Actually, the things I have just written about are ways to ignore, or divert, the thirst God is giving you for Himself. Don’t put it off until later – our spiritual sensitivity decreases every time we put God on hold. Own up to the dryness you feel, and own up to the reason for it – it is something that God wants you to respond to.

On the other hand, here are some thoughts on how to cultivate, and make use of, a thirst for God.

1. Get alone with God. Though we are responsible to other people, no one else is responsible for us. Only you and God know the status of your walk with Him. When He gives you a thirst for Himself, it can only be quenched in His presence. Get up early, or stay up late to be with Him. Perhaps you could go for a walk by yourself on your lunch break, or trade off watching the kids with your spouse on a Saturday, so that you can each have some time alone with Him.

2. Read your Bible. Peter said to Jesus: “You have the Words of eternal life.” Scripture is God’s primary way of “talking to us.” Hearing God through the Bible helps us to soak in presence. Without the written Word of scripture, our faith experience can become just so much spiritualized imagination. We can rely on God’s voice through the Bible. Some good places to read for those thirsting for God are Psalm 119, 63 and in fact, any of the Psalms. One of the Prophets, like Hosea, Isaiah, Malachi or Joel can also encourage the thirsty reader.

3. Pray conversationally. As you get alone with the Lord, talk to Him just like you would to a best friend. I personally pray this way best while I walk. Others may find kneeling more helpful. We can take for granted that He is with us and listening. As you pray, also take time to be quiet and “listen” to the thoughts and feelings that the Holy Spirit plants in your heart. If they truly are from the Lord, these thoughts and feelings will agree with what scripture says, which is another reason why it is so important to read your Bible.

What if you’re not thirsty right now? I believe a thirst for God is a gift that God gives His children. I believe very strongly that He will give it to you if you ask him for it. The key of course, is to recognize it for what it is, and not cover it up by trying to acquire more things, or by trying to satisfy it by church activities or human relationships. In addition, you can help fuel a desire for God by avoiding television. No other single influence does so much to direct us to seek contentment in things other than God. A hunger for God can also be aided by reading devotional books and/or listening to audio tapes. The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer is a terrific book I know to encourage a thirst for God’s presence in your life. Another is “Journey of Desire” by John Eldredge.

SHARE THE BURDEN, LIGHTEN THE LOAD

share burden

No one in the church needs to face their struggles alone. Is your marriage difficult? Let your brothers and sisters and Christ know. Give them the chance to pray for you and encourage you. Maybe your burden is a wayward child, or a dead-end job or a troubled friendship. Allow your fellow believers to fulfill the law of love, by sharing your burden.

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Galatians #23 . Chapter 6:1-5

Brothers, if someone is caught in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual should restore such a person with a gentle spirit, watching out for yourselves so you also won’t be tempted. Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Gal 6:1-2, HCSB)

With these verses, Paul gives some practical applications of what it means to walk by the Spirit. He mentions the case of someone caught in wrongdoing. “Caught” could mean that a person’s wrongdoing is discovered, or it could mean that the person was entrapped by sin; as in caught in a trap. I think the Greek favors the second meaning. I think common sense favors it as well. Otherwise, it sounds like, as long as you aren’t caught by other people, it’s OK to sin.

Paul says “you who are spiritual” should restore such a person. He’s just been talking about walking by the Spirit. I think he means, “You who are walking by the Spirit, help someone who is trapped in the ways of the flesh.”

By the way, I want to make this very clear. Our business in this case is with Christians who are in our own circle of friends, family and church. There’s no point in trying to get a stranger to shape up to your standards. And there is no point trying to get someone who is not a believer to stop sinning. Of course, in appropriate ways and moments, we should tell the truth about God and sin, but no one is going to shape up their behavior to conform to something they do not believe in the first place. With non-believers, we may need to talk about sin as we preach the gospel, but the message of the gospel is not “shape up.” It is: “You can’t shape up. You need Jesus for forgiveness and for transformation.”

Telling non-Christians to shape up and stop sinning is like telling people with the flu to stop having a fever. It is pointless, until the root problem has been addressed. Moreover, I am sure that most of them feel it is pointless also. Since they don’t share our core beliefs, it is unreasonable to expect them to live by our morality. With non-Christians, the first thing to talk about is who Jesus is. Lifestyle changes only come after they trust Jesus.

Paul, however, is talking about people that we personally know, and whom have put their trust in Jesus, and yet, fall back into sin. They haven’t abandoned their faith. There is war in their souls between the Spirit and the Flesh. Paul says we should help each other in this situation.

I hesitate to get more detailed, but I want us to have a defined idea of the kinds of situations Paul is talking about. First, I think Paul is implying that the Galatian leaders who were trying to lead the church astray were trapped in wrongdoing. Paul is saying, “restore them to the right faith.” So, some people are trapped by false teaching. Usually, some sort of straightforward conversation or intervention is needed to address the false teaching.

Second, I think Paul means this generally when someone in our church-family is trapped in sin. There are certain kinds of things I think of when I hear “trapped in sin.” Addictions and regular “binging” trap us. We keep on doing these things, and can’t seem to quit. I think this passage is applicable when Christians are caught by addictions and binging. Again, that is a situation where intervention is warranted. Another common sin-trap for Christians is an adulterous affair. That’s the kind of situation that often benefits from intervention by other mature Christians.

An additional kind of situation where we should get involved is when there is some kind of ongoing, major hypocrisy. Suppose you have a an elder or deacon, or some other sort of leader in the church. He professes faith in Jesus. He talks a great talk about Christianity and the Christian life. But then, you discover that he is dishonest in his business dealings, treats his employees poorly and shows no real evidence of his faith when he is not at church or around other members of the church. This is a big problem, because it means he is deceiving himself and others about his own standing with God, and what it means to follow Jesus.

These probably aren’t the only situations, but I won’t go on. The main thing, is that Paul is talking about serious situations, situations where either a Christian is following an ongoing pattern of the flesh, or a single failure that creates serious consequences (like adultery). I think especially if there is deception behind it (as there is in false teaching, addiction, adultery and major hypocrisy) it may be a situation that requires restoration.

Paul says that the Spirit-walking Christians should restore the person who was caught in sin; they should do it gently and they should do with humility, being aware that they are also susceptible to failing. I want to touch on each of these things.

The Greek word used for “restore” is the same word used of setting a broken bone, or putting a dislocated joint back in place. This is important, because it means our call is not just to tell people when they are wrong. It is to help them get rightly related to Jesus again. Paul does not have in mind that Christians should go around telling other Christians, “You’re sinning!” That may be required, if someone who claims to be a Christian doesn’t acknowledge their sin. But there is so much more to it than that. Paul says, there should be restoration.

Some churches do this with pastors who are caught in a serious sin. There might be a process that they go through. The sinning person needs to be repentant, to start with. He needs to submit to accountability. In other words, he needs to be willing for his life to be an open book, with no secrets. Those who are restoring him should have access to the details of his life, so they can know if he has truly turned away from the sin that caught him before. Part of the restoration, I think, should involve points along the way, where the person has opportunity to really feel and express that he has turned a corner. As the person proves trustworthy, there should be points along the way where greater trust is restored to him.

Paul says we should be gentle with each other as we do this. We aren’t meant to be watching over each other, so we can jump from around a corner and shout “Aha! Gotcha!” every time someone screws up. But when someone gets trapped in a sin or has been deceptive, we have their best interests at heart. We initiate restoration out of love and hope, not anger, frustration or the desire to put someone down. Matthew Henry wrote about these verse:

“[Jesus] bears with us under our weaknesses and follies, he is touched with a fellow-feeling of our infirmities; and therefore there is good reason why we should maintain the same temper towards one another.”

Paul also says that we should watch ourselves, so that we don’t caught in the same way. In other words, we maintain a healthy dose of humility. We don’t need to live in fear and self-doubt, but we should realize that no one is immune to temptation. We can look at the person whom needs restoration, and say, “There, but for the grace of God, am I.”

Paul adds this beautiful and significant thought:

Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Gal 6:2, HCSB)

In other words, no one in the church needs to face their struggles alone. Without a doubt Paul sees the struggle against sin, and the process of restoration as part of carrying each other’s burdens. I think it also goes beyond that. Is your marriage difficult? Let your brothers and sisters and Christ know. Give them the chance to pray for you and encourage you. Are you having financial troubles? Let your church family come alongside you with encouragement and prayer. Give them a chance to ask the Lord if they should give toward your need. Maybe your burden is a wayward child, or a dead-end job or a troubled friendship. Are you sick? James tells the sick person directly to ask for prayer.

Others cannot help you bear your burdens if you will not be honest and open about them. This too, requires humility and vulnerability. But think of it this way. Paul says right here that bearing each other’s burdens fulfills the law of Christ. It is the practical application of what Jesus meant when he said:

“I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35, HCSB)

If we refuse to be humble and honest with each other about our struggles, we are denying each other the chance to practice love. Jesus’ call to love each other can’t be fulfilled without honesty and vulnerability.

For those of us in the Life Together Churches network, this is a tremendous affirmation of house churches and house church networks. It’s difficult to bear each other’s burdens if we only see our fellow-believers as we sit, facing the front on Sunday morning, and for ten minutes of coffee after the service. It can happen, but only really accidentally. If we bear one another’s burdens as a result of being in a choir, it is only accidental. The same is true of Sunday school, committee meetings and almost any program you care to name.

We need some context where we can get to know each other and be safe as we are humble and vulnerable. That is one reason that in our house churches we don’t share, outside the group, what other people say in the group, unless we have permission from them.

I’m not saying that house-church or cell-church is the only way to do things. I know many of you who read this are not part of a house church or cell church. But a committed, regular small group is a tremendously effective context for sharing our burdens with each other. Before I move on, I want to offer a quick reminder. When someone shares a burden in church (small group), it is easy to become a therapy group. But our groups are not for therapy. They are for Jesus. The thing to do when someone shares a burden is to turn to Jesus with them. That may mean sharing a scripture that comes to your mind, or a thought or picture that the Lord seemed to put in your head. It definitely means going to the Lord together in prayer, maybe laying hands on the person as you pray, to be Jesus’ hands, touching them. We don’t have the answers. Jesus does, and he is revealed in the bible and manifested in the work of the Holy Spirit.

Paul goes on:

For if anyone considers himself to be something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But each person should examine his own work, and then he will have a reason for boasting in himself alone, and not in respect to someone else. For each person will have to carry his own load. (Galatians 6:3-5)

Once again, Paul is encouraging the Galatians (and us) to be humble. This reminds me of a verse from Romans:

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. Now as we have many parts in one body, and all the parts do not have the same function, in the same way we who are many are one body in Christ and individually members of one another. According to the grace given to us, we have different gifts. (Rom 12:3-6, HCSB)

Paul doesn’t want the business of restoration, and bearing each other’s burdens to become an opportunity for people to judge each other, or to boast. If someone has an affair and goes through restoration, it might be easy for a person who never failed in that way to feel superior. Paul says, it is not. You aren’t judged based on how someone else struggles. That means there is no place to feel that you are better than someone else. As it says elsewhere:

Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. (Rom 14:4, ESV2011)

We are called to share our struggles and bear each other’s burdens. At the same time, each person has his or her own relationship with Jesus. Our burdens can be shared. We must also take responsibility for ourselves. We can’t take spiritual responsibility for someone else, and others cannot do that for us. The sharing of burdens is not an excuse to give up responsibility, nor an opportunity to look down on others for how they struggle.

This passage gives us some tremendous helpful insight into how we interact in Christian community. Ask the Lord to make it real to you right now. Listen to what he has to say to you.