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.

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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?