Revelation #49. THE END.

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Remember the first readers of this book? They wondered if Jesus had forgotten his promise to return. They wondered if God had forgotten about them. They wondered how God could possibly be involved in the crazy, brutal, senseless, evil world they lived in. Sometimes we want to know God’s plan. Revelation shows us that we may not understand God’s plan, even if he reveals it to us. But what we can understand is that God is in control, and one day he will finally defeat all evil, make all things right, and bring his people to be with him in the New Heavens and New Earth where there is no more sorrow, death or suffering. He has promised, and he will do it.

I strongly encourage you to listen, even if you normally read, because we have a special treat at the end of the audio.

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 Revelation Part 49

Revelation #49. Revelation 22:18-21

 18 I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, 19 and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

Let’s consider this warning. Let me start by being very clear about what this does NOT mean. It does not mean that we cannot ever talk about the bible, or the book of Revelation. It does not mean that it is wrong to write books (or sermons!) about the Bible, or Revelation. I say this because sometimes, Christians in the Western World have come to think religion is something intensely personal, something that is really all about you. Nothing could be further from the perspective of the Bible itself. Every part of the New Testament assumes that believers are living in fellowship with each other, and that they are led by people who are teaching them the Word of God.

To put it another way, teaching people about the Bible is not the same as “adding to, or taking away from the Bible.” The Bible itself is very, very clear that some people have been called by God to teach others the truth of God from the bible.

Now, certainly not everyone is called to this ministry. In fact, James warns that the gift of teaching is somewhat rare, which is why it should be respected. He says:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (Jas 3:1, ESV2011)

However, it is still very clear that some people do have that calling, and gifting. Consider these verses:

6 In his grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well. So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you. 7 If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, teach well. 8 If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly. (NLT Romans 12:6-8)

11 Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. 12 Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. (NLT Ephesians 4:11-12)

God gives people gifts to use so that his people can encourage one another, and follow Jesus better. One of those gifts is that of teaching Bible truth to other Christians. In fact, teachers are part of a special group that is supposed to help other Christians to live for Jesus.

Also, consider these verses about church leaders:

1 This is a trustworthy saying: “If someone aspires to be a church leader, he desires an honorable position.” 2 So a church leader must be a man whose life is above reproach. He must be faithful to his wife. He must exercise self-control, live wisely, and have a good reputation. He must enjoy having guests in his home, and he must be able to teach. (NLT, 1 Timothy 3:1-2)

7 A church leader is a manager of God’s household, so he must live a blameless life. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered; he must not be a heavy drinker, violent, or dishonest with money.
8 Rather, he must enjoy having guests in his home, and he must love what is good. He must live wisely and be just. He must live a devout and disciplined life. 9 He must have a strong belief in the trustworthy message he was taught; then he will be able to encourage others with wholesome teaching and show those who oppose it where they are wrong. (NLT, Titus 1:7-9)

Christians are supposed to respect those who teach God’s word, and to support them financially, because they are doing part of God’s work:

Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. (1 Corinthians 9:13-14, ESV)

6 Those who are taught the word of God should provide for their teachers, sharing all good things with them. (NLT, Galatians 6:6)

17 Elders who do their work well should be respected and paid well, especially those who work hard at both preaching and teaching. (NLT 1 Timothy 5:17)

God would hardly want his people to pay those who teach His Word unless he really wanted them to teach. Just one more verse:

7 Remember your leaders who taught you the word of God. Think of all the good that has come from their lives, and follow the example of their faith. (NLT Hebrews 13:7)

So, we should not think that this verse here in Revelation means that when someone teaches about a Bible passage, that person is somehow “adding to” or “taking away” from the Bible. That cannot be what this verse means, or it would contradict all those other verses I just gave you, and many more that I didn’t share here.

But it does mean something important. This statement is first and foremost about the book of Revelation, but it is not wrong to also apply it to the Bible as a whole. No teaching is at the same level as the Bible. No teacher is at the same level as the Bible. No other book should be considered as on the same level as the Bible. The Bible stands alone as the Word of God. It alone has the authority to tell us about God, humanity, salvation, and how then we should live.

Good teachers are important, and the good ones will encourage you to read the Bible for yourself. Even so, every person including Bible teachers, is flawed. I am bound to make mistakes. If I say one thing, and the Bible clearly says something very different, then I am the one who is wrong. How will you know if I’ve made a mistake about the Bible? Only if you read it yourself.

Mohammed (founder of Islam) both subtracted from, and added to, the Bible. So did Joseph Smith & Brigham Young (the founders of the Mormons). The Roman  Catholic Pope claims to have authority to add to what the Bible says. This gives Christians a clear basis for understanding where we stand in relationship to  these people – they are bringing down plagues upon themselves. We should not listen to them.

But there is something else. Many individual human beings are guilty of adding to, or taking away from the Bible for themselves. If you have decided that you will keep the parts you like, and ignore the parts you don’t, then you are doing the same thing as Mohammed and the Pope, even if you don’t lead a world religion.

There are some other implications, about the book of Revelation itself. Over the years, many people have added their “end-times-system,” to the book of Revelation. I have spoken about this before. They take this book, and make it fit into their ideas concerning what will happen at the end of the world. They speak confidently of the rapture, and the one-world-government, and one-world-currency as if those things are actually found in Revelation. This warning is for them, also. Those things are not in this book.

So once, more, we find that among the last things Jesus tells his people is to read and know His Word.

He closes with this:

20 He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
21 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen. (ESV Revelation 22:18-21)

Remember the first readers of this book? They wondered if Jesus had forgotten his promise to return. They wondered if God had forgotten about them. They wondered how God could possibly be involved in the crazy, brutal, senseless, evil world they lived in. Jesus revealed this vision to them.

Sometimes, we want to know what God’s plan is. Well, here’s God’s plan to return to this world and make everything right. How do you like it? It’s not very easy to understand all of it, is it? Since it is God’s plan, that ought not to surprise us. We shouldn’t expect to understand it all, since we are not God. But here, Jesus is saying, “Yes, you have heard the plan. I will return. I will make everything right. You are not forgotten. I will come back, and save my people, and bring them into a beautiful new creation where there will be no more sorrow, where the past suffering is not worth mentioning compared to the present glory. If you want to be a part of it, all you have to do is trust me, surrender your life to me, and your name will be in the book of life. I have said it, and I will do it.”

I hope and pray that you have a better understanding of the Book of Revelation. I hope and pray that especially, you have a sense of peace and joy about Jesus coming back, and that it becomes something that you long for, and pray for.

We have spent almost one year worth of sermons, and two years real time, in this book. I hope it was helpful. Because, we could have done the entire book of Revelation in just two minutes, like this: (credit goes to my dear friend, pastor Peter Churness, of Gig Harbor, WA, for making my work meaningless. This is at point 24:48 in the audio):

The Apostle John sees a vision of Jesus, Jesus gives him messages to give to seven churches, then he sees the throne room of God, and there are four mutant creatures having a worship jam, and they all see this scroll, and then they are whining, “who can open the scroll?”  John then hears the lion of Judah but sees the Lamb of God, he can do it!  But first they have to break these seven seals that are sealing the scroll.  And four seals are these four horsemen dudes representing bad stuff, and the fifth is the martyrs, sixth is Day of the Lord, part one, then there’s intermission and we get to see a multi-ethnic party in heaven, then seventh seal broken, but before scroll is opened seven warning trumpets come, and fire from altar shoots up and casts to earth bringing more Day of the Lord judgment stuff.  Then these seven trumpets start going off bringing more bad stuff like hail and poison water and blood and locusts and county music, then there’s another intermission as the scroll finally gets opened, and then John eats it, and then he has two more visions, one of a bunch of dead Christians hiding under an altar, then of two Jehovah witnesses guys getting killed by this Beast thing, but then come back as zombies.  Then the last Trumpet sounds, and God’s kingdom comes and shakes the nations like a shake n bake chicken.  Then comes a bunch of signs, one of this cosmic battle, and this pregnant lady floating in space comes down and has a baby, and this space dragon comes over and attacks it, but the baby grows up and defeats the dragon. Then there are two more beasts and everybody has to get the number 666 tattooed on them if you want to eat, or use the Apple store, then the Lamb comes again, fights the beasts and wins.  Then comes these seven bowls of wrath with things like sores and blood and fire and more blood and darkness.  Then the dragon and beast hook up together and fight one last great battle of Armageddon.  Then there’s this Day of the Lord scene… again.  But this time nations defeated for good.  Then there’s this woman riding the dragon and she’s really bad, and she fights God’s kingdom and loses.  Then comes this sixth bowl of wrath and this final final battle (in addition to the “first final” battle of Armageddon).  Then Jesus comes and he has this sword sticking out of his mouth and he wins, locks up Satan, and then Jesus and us Christians rule for 1000 years.  Then Satan makes a jail break, though Jesus really let him out, but not sure why, possibly for good behavior, seems unlikely.  Anyway he deceives everybody again.  Then there is a final final final battle, in addition to the other two “final battles” that previously happened.  Then there’s a wedding, and earth gets rebuilt, and heaven gets remade, and Jerusalem gets a makeover and comes down out of heaven like a spaceship, and all of us live there happily ever after.  And that’s the book of Revelation.

PRACTICAL BIBLE STUDY TOOLS

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Here are some practical resources and tools for understanding the bible better.

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 Understanding the Bible Part 10

Understanding the Bible #10.

To close out our series on understanding the bible, I want to offer you some practical things that will help you understand and study the bible for yourself.

First, to really get a grasp on things, you need the right tools. Though a lot of the bible is easy to understand, bible scholarship is, in fact an ancient and scholarly discipline. You don’t need an advanced degree to get a lot out of the bible, but it really is worth a little time and effort on your part to understand it better. In other words, if you are going to look at the bible as a primary source of wisdom and guidance for your life (and I highly recommend that you do; not only that, the first message in this series explains why you should consider doing so) you should take it seriously.

Start with a high-quality, understandable modern-English translation. I know about the King-James-Version-only people out there. I’m not trying to make anyone angry, but frankly the arguments for using the King James translation are short-sighted, ignorant, and mostly just plain wrong. The most “intellectual” sounding argument for the KJV is that it is based on a certain set of Greek Texts known as the Textus Receptus. The KJV-only crowd maintains that the other Greek Texts are corrupted by false-doctrine. I’ve already explained to you about the huge number of ancient copies of the New Testament in Greek (in part 3 of this series). The textual variants (also spoken of in part 3) are stunningly insignificant. In other words, there is not actually much difference between the textus recptus and what we call the “majority text” (which is the basis for most other bible translations). From time to time, when I’m studying the bible, I compare the two. This isn’t a comprehensive study, but I’ve found only two “significant” differences, and in both cases, it was proven long ago that the textus receptus was altered. Even so, those differences do not change any major doctrine.

Of course, all that is for the New Testament. The source-documents of the Old Testament is the same for virtually all bibles.

If the majority text was so different from the textus receptus, then long ago, two branches of Christianity would have developed, based upon the two different textual traditions. That hasn’t happened, because the only major difference between the King James Version (KJV) and modern English translations, is that the KJV has to be translated not only from Greek to English, but also from early 17th century English into modern English. In other words, the main difference is that the KJV isn’t very understandable to modern English speakers.

Sorry for the rant. To continue, I highly recommend the English Standard Version (ESV) and also the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB). Both of them are highly accurate compared with the original Greek and Hebrew. The ESV renders the Greek and Hebrew a little more literally – as much like “word for word” as possible. The HCSB is also very accurate, but is willing to “bend” a little to make it more readable.

You can buy both of these bible versions online, or at many local bookstores or bookstore chains. You can also get them free with various bible apps or software programs. I highly recommend getting a study bible version of one of these translations. A study bible is a bible that has notes (usually on the lower half of the page) giving background and explanation about the verses you are reading. Study bibles are a very helpful tool when you are just getting started, and even as you learn more. I’ve placed a “Bible Study Resources” page into my Amazon a-store. Most of the resources I mention here are available for sale there, including the ESV Study Bible, the HSCB Apologetics Study Bible, and my standard from about 1986-2007, the Concordia Self-Study Bible. If you click through from here, the price will be the same as directly from Amazon, but I’ll get a few nickels for commission.

I have an inexpensive Android tablet, and on it, I use the free Olive Tree Bible Study app (I don’t get a commission for anything but the resources on my Amazon a-store. I’m just sharing resources that I think are good). Look it up in Google Play, or from your apple device. The link here will take you to their free Bible translations page, which includes my two favorite translations, the ESV and the HCSB. I paid extra to get the ESV Study Bible notes, to attach to whatever translation I’m reading in the app.

I also found a great web-based study bible, built on the HCSB, at https://www.mystudybible.com/

Many of you have asked about how to learn the cultural and historical background that is so important for understanding the bible. Certainly, blogs like this one, and reliable, solid preachers and teachers are a good place to start. I also recently found Fred Wright’s Manners and Customs of Bible Times as a free PDF download. You can right-click the link in the previous sentence, and download it. It’s a great historical/cultural resource. It was written in 1953, but all bible-times were before that, so it’s still accurate!

I also highly recommend Eerdmans’ Handbook to the Bible, which is easy to find in my a-store. I own the British version of this, which was given to me by my parents when I was thirteen years old. The information I learned from it is still helpful to me today, and I still occasionally use it as a reference. Zondervan’s Handbook to the Bible is the latest version of that, but I have not personally looked at it to see what they might have changed.

Another very helpful Bible Study tool in this day and age is a good computer program for Bible Study. Over the years, I have paid hundreds of dollars for various versions of three different programs (QuickVerse, PC Study Bible and Logos). However, three years ago I settled on a fourth, free program that is truly excellent: The Word. If you do end up using and appreciating The Word, I encourage you to donate something to the program’s creator Konstantinos Stergiou – I did (and I get nothing from this – I just think the guy deserves to be blessed for his amazing work, offered for free). The program may take a little while to learn, but it’s worth it. There are hundreds of free add-on resources you can use with The Word to enhance your Bible Study, and there are paid modules as well, if you are interested.

If you are staying “old school” and prefer physical books, I do recommend that you get a bible that includes both cross references, and a concordance in the back. A cross reference is like a footnote – it is a suggestion of other bible verses that talk about the same topic as the verse that is noted. You can learn a lot by following the cross references to other parts of the bible. This helps the bible to “explain itself,” so to speak. A concordance is a list of words that appear in the bible, and where. There are some stand-alone exhaustive concordances, but most study bibles have decent partial-concordances in the back. They are helpful for finding verses if you only remember a key word, or for helping you understand how certain words are used throughout scripture.

Come back to this sermon series from time to time – we’ve covered a lot of ground that should help you understand the bible better as you encounter parts of it that seem difficult.

All right, let’s say you have assembled your tools. You have a book on the historical and cultural background of the bible. You have a study bible, or bible app, with the ability to find cross references and search for specific words. Maybe you have a computer program, or a web-based bible-software program. Now what?

Let me give you simple way to get more out of your bible.

Remember, as you read, read it in context. Learn about the history and culture, as necessary. Pay attention to the genre. Check cross references. Remember to use the clear parts of the bible to help you understand what is not clear. Look up key words in a dictionary and concordance. And then do this: SPECK.

Look at the passage you want to study, and go through SPECK, one letter at time.

S – read the verses and see if there is a sin identified here. Is the Lord calling you to repent of it? Is he warning you to stay away from it?

P – read the verses again, this time looking for promises. Is the Lord speaking to you through a promise here? If you are ambitious, you can also look for prophecies (which also begin with “p”).

E – read the verses yet again, now looking for encouragement and exhortation. How does the Lord want to cheer you on through these verses? How is he calling you to keep going?

C – now read through your passage and see if there any commands to consider. Is the Lord asking you to respond to him in a certain way through these verses?

K – read a fifth time. Is there any information or knowledge that you have gained from these verses?

After you SPECK, I encourage you to write a short note/prayer to the Lord. Something simple like this:

Lord, as I read John 3:16-18, I see that sometimes I sin by not trusting you. But I also hear your promise that as I trust you, you save me. You don’t condemn me. Thank you for your mercy and grace! Increase my trust in you! Help me to trust you in these things that are going on in my life right now, as well as for eternal life. AMEN

Writing down your thoughts or prayers help to solidify God’s word to you in your mind and heart. If you do it regularly over time, later it becomes a source of encouragement and hope to go back and see how God has spoken to you throughout the years.

I hope this series has been of help you to you understanding where the bible came from, why we can trust it, and how to understand it. I’d love to hear your comments and questions.

~

I want to briefly make you aware of our situation. This ministry (Clear Bible) until recently was supported by our local church. However, we have had some changes there, and we are now a house church. Today, we have about 8 families. Our church cannot fully support me financially any longer.

 In contrast, about 430 people subscribe to this blog, and an additional 300 or so each week come and visit the site. In other words, by far, most of the people who benefit from this ministry are not part of our little church.

 I’m asking you internet readers/listeners to pray for us. Seriously, before you give any financial support, please give us some prayer support. I value that more than anything else. Pray for this ministry to touch lives. Pray also for financial provision for my family and me.

But then, as you pray, do ask the Lord if he wants you to give financially as well. Be assured, after a small fee to Paypal, 100% of your donations will go to help support my family and me in ministry. In turn, supporting this blog means that you are helping to bless more than 15,000 people each year who visit this blog.

 

Some of you may have noticed that I am also a novelist. Often, people have misconceptions about authors. Most of us, including me, make a part-time income through writing, and no more. In other words, we aren’t “raking it in” somewhere else. Now, we trust the Lord to provide, and I don’t want you to give out of guilt or fear. I just don’t want you to get the idea that your donations will only be an “extra” for us somehow.

 If most of our subscribers gave just five or ten dollars each month, (or even less, if everyone pitched in) we would be in good shape. It’s easy to set up a recurring donation when you click the Paypal donate button that is located on the right hand side of this page, down just a little ways.

 You could also send a check to:

New Joy Fellowship

625 Spring Creek Road

Lebanon, TN 37087

 Your check will be tax-deductible. Unfortunately, we cannot do the tax deductible option with the paypal donate button, however the money does go directly to support my family and me.

 Thank for your prayers, and your support!

The Main Point of The Bible: Jesus

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Jesus is the main point of the entire bible. Reading the bible should help us get to know Jesus better. It should encourage us in our faith in Jesus. Reading the bible should strengthen us spiritually, from the inside out. That is what is for. So read it with that in mind.

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 Understanding the Bible Part 4

Understanding the Bible #4.

Last time, we talked about the documentary history of the New Testament. In other words, we learned that it is, without doubt, the accurately preserved teachings of those who knew Jesus Christ when he walked on the earth.

One question I did not address is about the historical accuracy of the New Testament. I’ll talk about it briefly here, and then we’ll move on.

Last time we learned that no ancient document has been as verifiably well preserved as the New Testament. Since we get a lot of our knowledge about history from ancient documents, that, in and of itself, should give us confidence that the New Testament is historically reliable. If the writings of Tacitus, or Julius Caesar are to be accepted as reliable sources of ancient history, then the New Testament should be accepted in the same way; even more so.

However, many skeptical people, including scholars, insist upon a position of assuming that the New Testament is wrong until proved right. No doubt, this is because they do not want to believe what it says about Jesus. Even so, time and time again, the New Testament has been proven right, while the skeptics have been proved wrong. Let me give you a few instances.

Luke Chapter 2 talks about a census taken by Caesar Augustus. He said that it happened while Quirnius was governor of Syria. This is a historical event. Roman records (not as well preserved as the New Testament) do indicate a census during the time of Emperor Augustus. But there has been no Roman record uncovered that mentions a governor of Syria named Quirinius. Skeptics long held out that this proved that the New Testament is unreliable. First, let’s consider the logic of that claim. Those skeptics did not have actual evidence that contradicted the New Testament. What they had was a lack of evidence to confirm it. Of course, they had an equal lack of evidence to contradict it. However, eventually, some coins were excavated in the ancient Roman province of Syria. In those days, provincial coins were stamped with the name and likeness of the governor who ruled at the time the coin was made. The coins discovered in Syria were from the reign of Caesar Augustus, right at the beginning of the “common era” and they were stamped with the name “Quirinius.” In other words, we now have positive proof that Luke wrote accurately. The skeptics were wrong.

Another place where skeptics held there was a “lack of evidence” was for the existence of a high priest named Caiaphas. Caiaphas was involved in the trial of Jesus. Archaeologists had not found any record of him outside the New Testament. Then, in the mid-1990s, excavations were made to build a water park in Jerusalem. The excavators discovered an ossuary – a “bone box.” It was labeled as holding the bones of Caiaphas, who was identified as a high priest in Jerusalem.

There are many more areas where skeptics never even had a chance. The New Testament names dozens of Roman officials, and makes references to hundreds of little cultural details that have all been affirmed by archaeology and other ancient documents. There can be no question that the New Testament is entirely historically reliable.

Let’s use the rest of our time right now to consider how the New Testament can help us understand and interpret the Old Testament. Last time, we looked at the idea that the New Testament was the unveiling of a mystery that began with the record of the Old Testament. Jesus himself, and his apostles, affirm this. The mystery, the key to the entire Bible, is Jesus himself. Jesus said to the Jews who believed the Old Testament:

The Father who sent Me has Himself testified about Me. You have not heard His voice at any time, and you haven’t seen His form. You don’t have His word living in you, because you don’t believe the One He sent. You pore over the Scriptures because you think you have eternal life in them, yet they testify about Me. (John 5:37-39, HCSB)

Both before and after his resurrection, Jesus pointed out to his disciples how the scriptures (that is, the Old Testament) looked ahead to the Messiah, to Him:

He said to them, “How unwise and slow you are to believe in your hearts all that the prophets have spoken! Didn’t the Messiah have to suffer these things and enter into His glory? ” Then beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He interpreted for them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. (Luke 24:25-27, HCSB)

Then He told them, “These are My words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about Me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. (Luke 24:44-45, HCSB)

Paul also used the Old Testament to share the good news about Jesus:

For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public, demonstrating through the Scriptures that Jesus is the Messiah. (Acts 18:28, HCSB)

The specifics of how Paul did that are all throughout his letters. That is one reason why it is helpful to understand the New Testament first – it gives us a guide for understanding what came before. The key is Jesus. Therefore, one very helpful trick in reading the Old Testament is to ask this question of every passage: “Where is Jesus in this passage? What part of the message about the Messiah is this? How does it teach me something about Jesus? Does one of the people in this story act in a way that reminds me what Jesus is like? Is it a prophecy about his life on earth, or what he will do at the end of time? What does it tell me about my need for a Messiah?”

Jesus is the main point of the entire bible. Reading the bible should help us get to know Jesus better. It should encourage us in our faith in Jesus. Reading the bible should strengthen us spiritually, from the inside out. That is what is for. So read it with that in mind.

There are also some secondary things. When we put our trust in Jesus, and let him lead our lives, it has enormous implications for everything in life. So the main point of the Bible is Jesus. In addition, there are many “secondary” points that flesh out what trust in Jesus means for us in hundreds of practical, emotional and spiritual ways. So Paul writes:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed. You know those who taught you, and you know that from childhood you have known the sacred Scriptures, which are able to give you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2Tim 3:14-17, HCSB)

Of course, Paul didn’t know that his own letter to Timothy would be included in the bible. But Christians today believe that the Holy Spirit had Paul write this, and that it is intended for both the Old and New Testaments. Jesus spoke prophetically about this:

“Therefore,” He said to them, “every student of Scripture instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who brings out of his storeroom what is new and what is old.” (Matt 13:52, HCSB)

The “old treasure” in the storehouse are the writings of the Law and the Prophets – that, is, the Old Testament. The New Treasure is the mystery, now revealed, of Jesus Christ. Peter wrote about the scripture:

First of all, you should know this: No prophecy of Scripture comes from one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the will of man; instead, men spoke from God as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. (2Pet 1:20-21, HCSB)

Christians have believed for almost two-thousand years that this is as true of the New Testament, as well as the Old.

So, all scripture (both Old and New Testaments) is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, training in righteousness and equipping. So, first we read in order to get to know Jesus better. And as we do, the Bible teaches, trains, corrects and so on. It gives us instruction.

Paul said it a different way in his letter to the Romans:

For whatever was written in the past was written for our instruction, so that we may have hope through endurance and through the encouragement from the Scriptures. (Rom 15:4, HCSB)

I want to look at two examples today of how all scripture is to help us get to know Jesus, and how it is for our instruction.

First, consider these words from Isaiah:

Yet He Himself bore our sicknesses, and He carried our pains; but we in turn regarded Him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But He was pierced because of our transgressions, crushed because of our iniquities; punishment for our peace was on Him, and we are healed by His wounds. We all went astray like sheep; we all have turned to our own way; and the LORD has punished Him for the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth. Like a lamb led to the slaughter and like a sheep silent before her shearers, He did not open His mouth. (Isa 53:4-7, HCSB)

…My righteous servant will justify many, and he will carry their iniquities (Isa 53:11)

This was written hundreds of years before Jesus was born. There is not a scholar in the world who disputes that. And yet, it is clearly the message that someone (Isaiah doesn’t know whom) would take the sins of others upon himself, and through his suffering, bring us peace with God. That someone would not object to the suffering imposed upon him, but engage in it willingly.

This passage is in the Old Testament. But clearly, it points to Jesus. It is about Jesus, and what he did for us, though it was written long before he came into the world. So we read the Bible, even the Old Testament, and find Jesus.

Now, let me give you an example of instruction.

Deuteronomy 25:4 says “Do not Muzzle an ox while it treads out grain.” Now, not too many people who read these sermon notes own oxen. I bet none of you even own a muzzle for an ox. So what is the point of this verse for you today? Remember, it was written for your instruction. All scripture is given by God and is useful for teaching, training, correcting and encouraging. So we should not read a verse like this and say “Well, I don’t have an ox, so never mind about that one.” Instead, we should read a verse like this and pray something like this: “Holy Spirit, I’m not getting much out of this one. Please show me something about Jesus here. Or give me some instruction or teaching. Speak to me through this verse.” I have added, sometimes, “I dare you,” because, like you, I find many bible passages hard to understand at first.

In the case of the non-muzzled ox, we have it easy, because the apostle Paul showed us the way.

For it is written in the law of Moses, Do not muzzle an ox while it treads out grain. Is God really concerned with oxen? Or isn’t He really saying it for us? Yes, this is written for us, because he who plows ought to plow in hope, and he who threshes should do so in hope of sharing the crop. If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it too much if we reap material benefits from you? If others have this right to receive benefits from you, don’t we even more?

However, we have not made use of this right; instead we endure everything so that we will not hinder the gospel of Christ. Don’t you know that those who perform the temple services eat the food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the offerings of the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should earn their living by the gospel. (1Cor 9:9-14, HCSB)

It was written originally about oxen. It taught the people of Israel to be kind and even generous with the animals that worked for them. It taught them that the harvest was to be shared – even with the animals. Paul sees an enduring principle here that applies to preachers of the gospel. Paul writes, “Is God really concerned with oxen?” Asking questions is always a good way to begin to understand the underlying principle. I’m sure God is concerned about oxen, but if we treat our oxen well, shouldn’t we also treat people well? If we are generous with the animals who make the physical harvest possible, what should we do with the people who make the spiritual harvest possible? Paul concludes: “Those who preach the gospel should earn their living by the gospel.”

This is not directly about Jesus. But it is instruction for those of us who are trying to follow Jesus. It tells us that we should financially support those who are called to teach the bible. You may not have oxen, but you probably have a pastor, or at least some leader or ministry from where you get spiritual leadership and solid biblical teaching. This passage about oxen doesn’t apply to oxen any more (unless you still own them, and use them to tread out grain). But it still applies to our lives as Jesus-followers. We are still supposed to share generously with those who help us spiritually.

By the way, of course I am one of those that preaches the gospel, and I know this passage applies to me and to my ministry. But I don’t share it here as a covert way of asking for money. I have no problem doing that directly: If the Lord leads you, then give. Use the donate button on the blog site, or send a check the address I used this passage because the New Testament serves it up for us on a platter. It’s a clear example of how we can use even what appear to be silly ancient laws to hear what the Lord wants to teach us.

We will look at some of these principles of bible interpretation later on in the series. For now, we need to know that that the entire bible, even the Old Testament is to help us get to know Jesus better, and to provide us with instruction, training and teaching in how to be his disciples.

WHAT IS GOSSIP?

gossip

You don’t have to bury all conflict or hurt. But you should share your hurts and conflicts and struggles with the appropriate person, rather than talking about it with someone else.

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Experiencing Life Together #10. Biblical Communication in the Church

Matthew 5:23-24; Matthew 18:15-17

What I am about to discuss here cannot be properly put into action without a strong commitment to loving others in the house-church. In order for the following principles to be practiced in a way that honors God, they must be used in the context of a commitment to value others – that is, in the context of Christian love.

Within churches in the United States, there is a pervasive unwillingness to deal openly with sin and/or conflict. This unwillingness is not only unhealthy, but it is also unbiblical, and unchristian. Many times, churches have been torn apart by conflicts that could have been resolved peacefully following biblical directives. Let me describe what commonly happens, and then we will look at what God would like to happen.

Linda was a member of Rachel’s house church. They had never been best friends, but they got along OK until Rachel invited every child in the group to her daughter’s birthday party – every child except Linda’s twins, who were the same age as Rachel’s daughter. Linda was enraged – the next week she could hardly look at Rachel. The following week she missed church, because she couldn’t stand to be around that snobby, stuck up woman. So full of hurt and anger, she couldn’t contain it, Linda called her friend Susan, also a member of the house church. In her anger, Linda had begun to see more of Rachel’s faults, and she sounded off at length to Susan, who listened sympathetically, promising not to pass any of it on to Rachel. Linda felt better for a while after this, but she could never be more than cold toward Rachel, and she stopped sharing anything personal or significant with the house church meeting. In the meantime, Susan was burdened with the rift between her two house-church mates. In a chance conversation with Rachel, Susan hinted that someone was upset with her. When Rachel wanted to know who, and why, Susan refused to tell, because she “didn’t want to gossip.” Rachel was puzzled and hurt, and she too, stopped sharing anything significant in church. This affected the rest of the group, and soon sharing and praying was just superficial.

This is just a hypothetical story, but it portrays a very real phenomenon. Not only that, but we could carry it on, ad infinitum. Susan may share with a friend in another house-church what is going on, and that person may call the pastor and sworn to “secrecy,” simply tell the pastor that there’s a big problem with the other house-church group. This sort of backward communication weaves an intricate and love-killing web. The Bible has a name for it – it is called gossip.

Paul saw it at work in several churches, among them, the Corinthian house churches:

For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish—that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. (2Cor 12:20, ESV2011)

He knew that it all goes together: gossip, quarreling, jealousy hostility and anger.

Now, some of you may have been shocked to hear this called “gossip.” Many people think that gossip is simply sharing vicious or dirty secrets that shouldn’t be shared. While that is also part of gossip, I believe that gossip, in essence, is saying what shouldn’t be said to anyone, or saying what should be said to the wrong person. Some of you may protest and object that Linda should have the right to express her frustration to her friend whenever she wants to. The truth is, Linda does not have the right to say anything about Rachel that she has not already said to her face. She should not share her frustration with anyone until she has first brought it to Rachel herself. The only possible exception to this is her spouse, if it is understood that he is one with Linda, and will not share it with anyone else, and will encourage her to go to Rachel.

It is important also to note that two people committed the sin of gossip in the above story. Linda was the first, and Susan was the second. As unfair as it sounds, listening to gossip is a sin in the same way that speaking gossip is. Without a listener, there can be no gossip. Not only that, but by listening, Susan provided an inappropriate emotional outlet for Linda’s anger. The appropriate outlet would be for her to lovingly confront Rachel. But instead, she felt a bit better after talking to Susan, and so did not feel the need to talk directly with Rachel. Thus, by listening, Susan gave tension and hidden conflict a place to grow. By listening, Susan perpetuated and strengthened an unhealthy pattern of communication. Not only did her listening do further damage to the relationship between Rachel and Linda, but it also did damage to the whole house-church group. What happened between Linda, Rachel and Susan is a well-known communication pattern, referred to in psychological jargon as “triangulation.” You see, it is not only sinful – it is also recognized in secular psychological circles as an unhealthy and destructive way of relating. It ruins families and house-church groups wherever it occurs.

In contrast to this, let us look at God’s design for conflict resolution in Matthew 18:15-17.

“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” (emphasis mine)

First we need to recognize that these instructions were intended for a situation in which one person is actually sinning. I’m not sure that snubbing someone at a birthday party qualifies as a sin. However, it may in fact, qualify as a sin against you even if it is not against God. In addition, sin or no sin, this passage also contains some universal principles relating to conflict resolution and communication. And the basic underlying principle is to talk with the person directly, one on one. There is no thought, Biblically, of going to someone other than who you have the problem with – at least not until you have tried going to them directly. Even after this has been done, there is not really room to gossip – instead the idea is to bring a few more people, and again, talk to the person directly. Talking about the person to someone else simply has no place. The difficulty is, of course, that it is a scary and unpleasant thing to go directly to someone you have an issue with. Some people, faced with either sinning when they tell someone else about their conflict, or facing the other person directly, choose to do neither. Now, this is fine if you can forgive the other person, and get over the issue, and move on. But if your anger continues to burn inside, and you find yourself treating the person who hurt you differently than before, these are signals that you need to talk to them directly. Clamming up may not be sinful in the same way that gossip is, but it can be nearly as destructive if you are unable to forgive and move on. Matthew 5:23-24 speaks of this:

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”

The basic point is, we cannot worship God when our grudges remain unsettled. Worship is something we Christians do together, in community, and it is very hard to do that when we remain angry or unforgiving toward someone who is worshipping with us. If we cannot truly forgive it and move on, we need to settle it by going directly to the one we have a conflict with – as soon as humanly possible. Jesus uses as an example someone who is in the very act of bringing a sacrifice to the temple, and he urges such a person to break off their worship until reconciliation can be made.

As always, this applies to us as individual Christians, but it also applies to our churches. I want you to know that it is absolutely possible to have a church that does not engage in gossip. I’ve been in such churches. It starts when people rely on the Holy Spirit to stop them from saying what they should not say (or saying it to the wrong person), and also from listening to something they should not be involved in. For those of us in Life Together Churches, I want to encourage you to be that sort of church.

I don’t mean you should bury all conflict or hurt. I mean you should share your hurts and conflicts and struggles with the appropriate person, rather than talking about it with someone else. If that person does not listen, share it with them again, only this time feel free to bring along one or two trusted others.

I realize that some folks really would rather avoid the hassle that comes from talking one-on-one with someone with whom you have an issue. But the truth is, talking directly with a person about an area of significant conflict, is far more loving than suppressing it. When you deal directly with people, you are investing in your relationship with them. You are saying that this person is worth the hassle, worth working it out. When you suppress the conflict without being able to get over it, you are saying “this person is not worth the trouble. I’d rather be superficial with them my whole life, than invest the time and energy in working out our differences.” It is love that leads us to deal honestly and openly with each other.

Some people do find this whole topic a bit confusing. Can you ever listen to someone’s frustrations with another person? Can you ever share your aggravation with a non-involved party? One good way to determine whether you are saying something that ought to be said to a different person, is to imagine what you would feel if the person you are talking about were to overhear your conversation.

Suppose you are mad at Bob about something. You are at a coffee shop, talking to your friend Rex about Bob. Now, suddenly, you realize that Bob is sitting in the booth right behind you, and he’s heard everything you’ve said. Are you embarrassed? Are you sorry that Bob heard you saying that? Do you feel a little awkward? If the answer is “yes” to any of those questions, then you have been engaged in gossip.

Or suppose you are Rex, listening to your friend talk about Bob. If you suddenly noticed Bob in the booth behind your friend, would you feel badly? If so, you need to stop your friend, and ask him gently to go see Bob first, before you can have this conversation. Gossip cannot spread if no one will listen to it.

Large churches can sometimes get away with gossip. It is still a sin, but in a large congregation, two people can attend without really have a relationship with each other. However, in networked house-churches, gossip and talk-behind-backs will absolutely kill a house church. It is too small to avoid somebody. It is too intimate to be so superficial. Since the New Testament was written by and for people in house-churches, we need take what it says about gossip and slander very seriously.

Ask for guidance from the Holy Spirit as you seek to apply what he has already said through the Word, which we have looked at this week.

WORSHIP IN SPIRIT AND IN TRUTH

worship
Worship in spirit involves giving ourselves wholly over to God and abandoning ourselves to his mercy, grace and joy. Worship in truth means our worship is based upon the revelation of Jesus in the Bible.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

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Experiencing Life Together #9. Worship

Worship is central to what we do together as a church, and therefore it is central to what house churches do together. Unfortunately, the average, modern-day American Christian has become somewhat confused by the bewildering amount of information about worship. “Worship” can now refer to a style of contemporary Christian music. “Worship” has also been artificially distinguished from something else called “praise.” For many people, worship is synonymous with singing. For many others, worship involves litanies, bowing, sitting, kneeling and standing. For some, worship is something that we do for God. For others, worship is something God does for us. It is time for some clarity concerning worship in general, and hopefully this clarity can lead us to a practical way to truly worship God in our house churches.

What is worship? At the risk of muddying the waters even further, consider this simple definition of worship: Worship is our response to God’s presence and activity in our lives. This is a very basic, obvious understanding of what worship is; in fact as you read the scriptures it becomes almost self-evident, although sometimes it gets lost in the commercialized “worship movement” of our day. The book of Psalms is sometimes called the “hymnal” of the Bible. Throughout the Psalms you see various calls to worship and almost always the pattern goes something like this:

Sing joyfully to the Lord you righteous; it is fitting for the upright to praise him.

Praise the Lord with the harp; make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre.

Sing to him a new song; play skillfully and shout for joy.

For the word of the Lord is right and true; he is faithful in all he does. (Psalm 33:1-4, emphasis added)

What we have here is the psalmist calling believers in God to worship. He is in essence calling them to respond to the goodness and faithfulness of the Lord. And that is what worship is. Here is another example from the Psalms:

Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him. (Psalm 98:1)

There are far too many references of this sort to list in full. Again, the point is that worship is an interaction between God and us. God does something for his people, or he reveals a certain attribute of his nature, or he makes his presence known or felt in some way and then his people respond through singing, praying, kneeling, playing instruments, dancing or in a variety of other ways that are all exhibited in Scripture.

We also find in the book of Psalms people crying out to God for help. This too, is a form of worship, and it involves the same elements of worship. When we cry out to God for help, we are actually exhibiting faith in his goodness and his power to help us.

So how do we worship? As mentioned briefly above, there are a variety of ways described in Scripture in which people worship the Lord. Singing, dancing, playing instruments, lying flat on the ground, clapping, raising hands, giving tithes and offerings — all of these are ways (recorded by Scripture), in which God’s people worship him. It seems safe to say that if we use Scripture as our guide there are many possible activities and styles by which we might respond to God in worship. Jesus, when he speaks about worship in John Chapter four, appears to be more concerned with what is going on in the heart when people worship than with the external expression of worship:

Yet a time is coming and has now come, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth. (John 4: 23-24)

What exactly did Jesus mean by this? When Jesus said we must worship in truth, he meant that worship must proceed from an acknowledgment and acceptance of the truth about ourselves, God, and this world. And the truth about those things comes from the Bible. The Bible says the only way we can have a relationship with God is by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2: 8-9). Therefore, true worship cannot take place without faith in Jesus Christ. Without faith in Jesus Christ we are “dead in our transgressions” (Ephesians 2: 1), that is, spiritually dead. To truly worship God we must be reconciled with him through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If we do have this faith and we are reconciled with him then true worship is possible, and it is based, not on correctly performing external ceremonies or singing certain kinds of songs, but rather on the truth that we are sinful people who have been saved by God’s grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ on the Cross. In addition, worship must have at its heart the central truths and themes of Scripture: God’s goodness, our need for him, his love and joy, and so on.

Worship in spirit means that we are responding to God in a way that goes beyond simply thinking about him with our mind or going through external motions. Worship in spirit involves giving ourselves wholly over to God and abandoning ourselves to his mercy, grace and joy. It means that we have allowed the truth of God’s word to penetrate our lives to such an extent that our will and emotions respond. Worship in spirit is relational as we truly interact spiritually with the living God. To worship in Spirit also means that we allow God’s Spirit – the Holy Spirit – to direct our hearts and minds as we respond to Him.

Worship without Spirit is dead formalism. You may have experienced such a thing at times, where it felt to you like you were simply going through the motions with no enthusiasm. Worship without truth is empty emotionalism. This too is an experience some people have. You may feel like all the hype and excitement is really empty and pointless. Real worship involves both Spirit and truth.

We need to remember that worship is not a neutral activity. One way of looking at it is that worship stirs things up in the spiritual realm. Worship can help us feel closer to God, it can lead us to a place of repentance and it can often release spiritual power. The devil does not want these things to happen, nor does our sin-riddled flesh. Therefore, when we set out to worship it is normal to expect a certain kind of opposition. We need to recognize this and rebuke the devil and resist the impulses of our own flesh.

Following are four steps to take to help us worship more fully in spirit and in truth:

1. Kill the flesh (sinful nature) – eliminate the opposition. This is an act of Will. Practically, this might mean an internal dialogue like this: “I don’t feel like worshiping right now. I’m distracted by all sorts of other things. But I am making a choice to ignore my feelings and other distractions. I make a choice to give God the honor and glory that he deserves.”

2. Remember and Think about the greatness of God. This involves recalling the truth, reading and listening to Scripture, and it is an act of the mind. This means, we don’t just sit around and wait for some worshipful emotion to strike us. We actively read and listen to scripture, we actively think about God, who he is and what he has done.

3. Experience and visualize (enter in to) His presence. This is an act of emotion. In other words, let your emotions get engaged, if you can. God’s love is truly overwhelming. Many people have no trouble getting very excited at a sports game, but allow themselves to feel nothing when they come into the presence of the God who created the entire universe. When emotion is guided by a will and mind for worship, it is a good thing. Sometimes it is useful to use your body to help focus your emotions on worship. When I am not playing guitar, I often lift my hands in worship. I almost always do that, not because I feel tremendous emotion, but because I know that if I honor God with my body (the lifting of hands, or lying or kneeling) emotions of worship often follow. And that is what often happens.

4. Release the Spirit to lead. This is a spiritual act. It is also an act of faith. To let the spirit lead is to consciously invite him to lead your thoughts, will and emotions. When you get a little idea or picture or feeling that you think might be the Spirit, go ahead and follow it. The great thing about house-churches is that you can do that, and if you make a mistake, it’s okay. You and your church will figure it out. So maybe, at the Spirit’s leading, you suggest singing a song, or repeating a verse, or praying.

Here’s a practical example of letting the Spirit lead. Last Sunday, I did not pick the songs for worship. For various reasons, I didn’t even know what the songs would be until about an hour before-hand. I’m sorry to say, I was busy getting ready for church, so I just printed them out. But during our singing time, one of the songs was “Surrender.” As we were singing it, I felt the Lord prompting me to pause and invite people to name things that they wanted to surrender to the Lord. So I did that. The great thing about house-church is, it doesn’t have to always be the worship or music leader who does this. Anyone can be prompted by the Holy Spirit.

When we approach worship this way, we find that style becomes far less important. It is true that some people prefer contemporary praise songs, while others prefer litanies and hymns. There is nothing wrong with these preferences as long as we are willing to subordinate them to the greater cause, which is to worship the Lord. The main thing is what we’re doing (worshiping the Lord), not how we’re doing it.

By the way, that last paragraph is a challenge for me. When I visit other churches, or attend conferences, I often find myself not appreciating the style of worship. I’m not much for liturgy, but a lot of contemporary worship seems to me to be performed too loudly, and in musical keys that are far too high for the average person to sing comfortably. I get the message that my singing is not really intended to be part of the worship service, because I can’t even hear myself, let alone the people around me, and often the band will go off into a solo while the rest of us just sort of stand around.

Now, as a pastor and theologian, I have issues with that approach to worship. However, as a worshiper, I have learned that I can worship in that environment anyway. Because worship is more than singing, and more than style. If I apply my will, my mind, and my emotions to worship, and follow the Spirit, I can worship in Spirit and in Truth, even when the style bothers me a little bit.

WITNESS

witness

We don’t have to argue people into following Jesus. We don’t have to be great theologians, with all the answers. We simply have to bear witness to what we do know, what we believe to be true, and what we have experienced with Jesus.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

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Experiencing Life Together #8.

Acts 2:47 – “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

We have been looking at the early church, and some of the things that characterized it. We’ve been seeking to apply those things to our own walk with Jesus, and, for those in the house church/cell church context, we’ve been trying to apply them to how we function in our churches. We see that when they focused on the bible, the fellowship, prayer, and the breaking of bread, the result was that God worked wonderfully among them to do miracles; he led them to be generous stewards of the resources he had give them; and here, we see that another result was that more people became disciples of Jesus.

We’ve mentioned this in the last few weeks, but it bears repeating. Jesus does not simply call us to “get saved.” He calls us to be disciples and to make disciples. That is our mission as individual Christians, and it is our mission as a church. Here’s how Jesus put it at the beginning of the book of Acts:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8, HCSB)

And Mark records this:

Later, He appeared to the Eleven themselves as they were reclining at the table. He rebuked their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe those who saw Him after He had been resurrected. Then He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:14-16, HCSB)

The essential thing to remember is this: we are called to be witnesses. It is our job to tell people what we have seen and experienced and come to know about Jesus. It is our job to let others see how our lives are different because of Jesus. We need to let Jesus work in us and through us to impact the lives of others however he wants.

Now, I want you to pay attention to what I just said, and how I worded it. It is not our job to convince other people. It is not our job to make them change their minds. In court, a witness tells, to the best of his ability, what he knows. He responds to questions as truthfully as possible. The job of the witness is to explain what he experienced, and what he believes to be true. The conclusions are up to the jury. A witness presents the information so that other people can make an informed choice.

This is important when it comes to Christians reaching out to those who do not know Jesus yet. We don’t have to argue them into discipleship. We don’t have to be great theologians, with all the answers. We simply have to bear witness to what we do know, what we believe to be true, and what we have experienced with Jesus.

The results are not up to us. Remember, the verse we started with says that the Lord added to their number. The church (meaning “all believers”) has a role to play, but the ultimate work belongs to God. Nothing we do can make someone put their trust in Jesus. No matter how appealing we make it, other people still have to decide for themselves whether to respond to our invitations to visit church or to receive Jesus. That is one of the reasons prayer is so important – only God can really influence the outcome of our efforts.

Some of the greatest mistakes in Christian history came about because Christians tried to force other people to follow Jesus. They thought the result was up to them. The Spanish Inquisition was a result of that sort of thing. Today, though no one is using the power of the law or government to force Christian faith on others, there are some people who turn others off because they feel like they must “get a conversion,” like it is somehow up to them to make it happen.

However, these days, the other mistake is far too common. Most of us stay in our own shells when we are “out in the world,” and we stay in our Christian bubbles the rest of the time, and we don’t even serve as witnesses, for fear of “offending” someone.

In Ezekiel 3:16-21, the Lord tells Ezekiel that he must speak to the people of Israel whatever the Lord gives him to say. The Lord says that the people may not listen to Ezekiel. If Ezekiel tells them what God says, and they ignore him, then they will suffer the consequences, but Ezekiel will be blameless. If however, Ezekiel fails to share what the Lord has showed him, then he will share in the blame for death of the person who does not follow God. Ezekiel was not responsible for the results, but he was responsible to say what he knew.

That is what it means to be a witness.

Jesus called Philip to follow him. Philip knew almost nothing about Jesus, but he followed him. He told his friend Nathanael about it. Nathanael was skeptical. He posed a theological question, and question that Philip could not answer. All Philip said was, “Come and see for yourself.” Both of them eventually became part of the group of the twelve original apostles (John 1:43-46). Philip just told Nathanael what he knew, which wasn’t much. Nathanael didn’t follow Jesus because Philip convinced him. Jesus himself convinced Nathanael. And Jesus himself will convince our friends, family and co-workers, if we simply tell what little we know.

Throughout the years we Christians have designed many intriguing ways to try to reach people for Jesus. Most of the innovations tend to relieve individual believers of their responsibilities to reach those who don’t know Jesus, and instead, make it the responsibility of an organization, program, or individual. Evangelistic crusades, for instance, take the pressure off most Christians, and place it on the evangelist. Church programs take the pressure off of the “common man” and put it on the pastor, or the church organization. But the truth is, the most effective means of bringing people to Jesus, is one-on-one relational interaction. Consider these facts. In a survey of over 14,000 lay people in churches, the question was asked: “What or who was responsible for your coming to Christ and the church?” The percentage of answers was as follows:

A special need 1-2%

Walked in to church 2-3%

Pastor 5-6%

Visitation 1-2%

Sunday School 4-5%

Evangelistic Crusade 0.5%

Church Program 2-3%

A friend or Relative 75-90%

You will notice that of all the paths to meeting Jesus, friends and relatives are the most frequent determining factor. None of the other “methods” even approach 10% at their most optimistic levels. Most churches concentrate on the least-effective methods. House-church ministry does not usually include a separate “evangelism program” – but we all have people who are friends and relatives to other people who don’t know Jesus. Even when tools like the Alpha Course (which has elements of “program” in it) are used, it is up to house-church members to invite people to attend it, and it is our relational sharing that will ultimately invite them to receive Jesus. Even the Alpha course will not work if we are not inviting others and praying for them. The “how” of bringing people to Jesus is not complex – in fact it is very simple. Love people, spend time with them, pray for them, and invite them, share what you know and have experienced. It is true that sometimes this is hard to do, but it is not complicated.

Acts 2:47 belongs with the verses which go before it. In other words, churches are most effective in reaching those who don’t know Jesus when they follow the underlying pattern of Acts 2:42-46. When churches are devoted to God’s word, fellowship, the Lord’s Supper and prayer; and when they allow and seek the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit; and when they also live as stewards with a single purpose – then more and more people meet Jesus. God still does the work, but in these verses He has shown us how to live in such a way that His work through us is most effective.

Should you behave differently when those who aren’t believers come to a house-church meeting? No. People are convinced by the Holy Spirit when they see Christians naturally living out their lives and “doing church” as described in Acts 2:42-47. It is a trap of modern thinking to assume that we must somehow “shield” non-believers from true Christianity lest they be turned off. As a pastor with years of experience in house church, I assure you that when people see you genuinely trying (and sometimes even failing) to live out God’s pattern for the church, they will be touched and excited. Don’t forget the statistics shown above! The Holy Spirit shows them the real thing, and trying to manipulate a church meeting to be “more sensitive” to unbelievers usually backfires. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be personally sensitive to those who don’t know Jesus; it just means you should do what you normally do as a church while including the visitor in as much of it as he or she likes.

We are called to be witnesses. We don’t have to be theologians.We don’t have to have all the answers. We are not responsible for the results. But we are responsible to telling others what we believe and know, and inviting them. The results are between them and the Holy Spirit.

HOW SHOULD YOU PRAY?

prayergroup

For to pray is to open the door unto Jesus. And that requires no strength. It is only a question of our wills. Will we give Jesus access to our needs? That is the one great and fundamental question in connection with prayer. – Ole Hallesby

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 4

Experiencing Life Together #4. Acts 2:42-47: Prayer

When you pray, don’t babble like the idolaters, since they imagine they’ll be heard for their many words. Don’t be like them, because your Father knows the things you need before you ask Him. (Matt 6:7-8, HCSB)

“I assure you: Anything you ask the Father in My name, He will give you. Until now you have asked for nothing in My name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete. (John 16:23-24, HCSB)

“Keep asking, and it will be given to you. Keep searching, and you will find. Keep knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who searches finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. What man among you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask Him! (Matt 7:7-11, HCSB)

Prayer is the final of four things that those first Christians were devoted to. Remember, that word “devoted” means that they held closely to it, they committed to persisting in prayer in spite of resistance and struggle. Prayer was a defining characteristic of their lives.

If you have never read a Christian classic, we highly recommend Prayer by Ole Hallesby. It is possibly one of the best books on prayer ever written. As we begin to look at prayer this week, in connection with God’s plan for the church, and for all Christians, consider some of what Hallesby says:

To pray is nothing more involved than to let Jesus into our needs. To pray is to give Jesus permission to employ His powers in the alleviation of our distress…

The results of prayer are, therefore, not dependent upon the powers of the one who prays. His intense will, his fervent emotions, or his clear comprehension of what he is praying for are not the reasons why his prayers will be heard and answered. Nay, God be praised, the results of prayer are not dependent on these things…

For to pray is to open the door unto Jesus. And that requires no strength. It is only a question of our wills. Will we give Jesus access to our needs? That is the one great and fundamental question in connection with prayer.

One of the reasons Hallesby’s book is so helpful is that he takes the mystery and “hocus-pocus” out of prayer. Explained like it is above, prayer no longer seems like such a difficult enterprise. It even seems (gasp!) like anyone could do it.

There are two core questions that arise when we read that the first Christians devoted themselves to prayer. First: how did they make prayer central to their lives? What does a life devoted to prayer look like? And second is the question of methodology: how did they pray? What did it sound like? What “method” did they use?

The first question is perhaps the most important for us. The apostle Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to “pray continually.” How can this take place? How can a life be devoted to prayer? The first thing is to get rid of the idea that prayer is a formalized ritual wherein a person comes to God with a list of petitions and presents them in as spiritual a manner as possible. If that were the case, no one could “pray continually” (even super-Christians have to sleep!) And though it might still be theoretically possible to devote our lives to prayer, frankly it sounds like it would be pretty boring. You’d need to become a monk and have others support you and make knee pads for you. However, as Hallesby says, prayer is simply giving Jesus access to our lives. If we endeavor to be open to Jesus at all times and in all places, we will end up devoting ourselves to prayer. If we make a habit of opening up to Jesus in every situation, we will learn how to pray continually. I don’t want to minimize the power and usefulness of concentrated, deliberate prayer. Even so, we need to see that prayer is more than just the ten minutes we set aside, during which we list our requests and concerns to God. Prayer is a constant, ongoing connection with the Lord, which learns to release every aspect of our thoughts, circumstances and lives into the care of the loving heavenly Father.

Most often we simply think of prayer in terms of those special times when we purpose to pray. We sit down, fold our hands, (or lay them on someone) and then pray. Sometimes, we may wonder why these times aren’t more meaningful, or why we don’t experience more of God when we do it. For some, the answer to this is that they are not praying at any other times as they go throughout the day. What I mean is, some people go through the whole day without consciously giving Jesus access, and sort of keep prayer in its allotted time slot with their quiet time, or with cell. In short, many of us only really pray when that is our consciously stated purpose for the time. Now it is important to set aside specific times when we do nothing except pray. But these are supposed to be just the pinnacle times of a whole life that is bathed in a constant referral of things to God. When we begin to live this way, we will start to yearn for times when we are doing nothing but praying, and we will start to experience His peace and presence more fully in those special times. What I’m trying to say is that we need to look at what we call “prayer times” (set aside for prayer and nothing else) as special times, while we give Jesus access at all times. It is true that there is no life devoted to prayer without those “special times” set aside purposefully for prayer alone. But there is also no devotion to prayer if we try to fit all of our praying just into those “special times” only. God designed prayer not just for the “prayer closet” but also for the construction site, the office and the ball field. He made things in such a way that our praying can take up a lifetime, in a very real and useful way. Make an experiment of this during the next week. Try to give Jesus access into whatever you are doing or saying, at each moment of your day. As concerns or people come to your mind, refer them to Him. When you need to make decisions, give Him permission to help you. You may find that sometimes you want to stop for a moment for more deliberate prayer. Perhaps that would be all right too. J

The second major question was: how did they pray? Frankly, the only reason this is important at all, is because it can become a hindrance to prayer. Often people are intimidated by considering the praying of other people. We feel that we could never pray like them. In this connection, let’s consider a few more comments from Ole Hallesby:

Prayer is something deeper than words…Prayer is a definite attitude of our hearts toward God, an attitude which He in heaven immediately recognizes as prayer, an appeal to His heart. Whether it takes the form of words or not does not mean anything to God, only to ourselves.

What is this spiritual condition? What is that attitude of heart which God recognizes as prayer?

Hallesby explains that there are two essential conditions that, when taken together, God recognizes as prayer: helplessness and faith. Helplessness combined with faith equals prayer. Helplessness without faith is simply despair. Faith without helplessness is arrogance. But put the two together, and you have prayer.

Prayer and helplessness are inseparable. Consider the helplessness of a baby, which so moves the hearts of its parents. A baby cannot formulate words, but its helplessness and dependence are a powerful appeal to the parents. Just as parents are continually occupied in helping their helpless newborn, so God is attuned to the cries of His helpless, dependent children. God does not “help those who help themselves.” If we ask God for something, but are actually relying on some other source for help, are we really praying? Are we truly depending helplessly on God? This helplessness applies also to our own inability to pray. When we feel so sin-ridden and worldly that we cannot see how our prayers can be answered, our very helplessness arises as a prayer to the Father.

Faith is also inseparable from prayer. Without faith, a person does not even turn to Jesus for help in the first place. Prayer is a definite thing. We cannot simply claim some kind of vague feeling about “the universe,” and claim “I’m praying all the time.” The “faith” part of praying means that our hearts and minds are truly turned toward God, and looking to Him for help, grace, comfort and, yes, answers.

I would like to add “looking to God alone.” What I mean is, all our help comes ultimately from God, even if it comes by means of another human being sometimes. For instance, suppose you are sick. It is only common sense to go to a doctor. I have done so, many times. But even as I go to the doctor, my hope and trust are in God, more than the doctor. I trust that it is God who will work through the doctor. There is nothing wrong with praying for healing, and then seeing a doctor. But even as I submit to the care of the doctor, my trust in in God for healing, through whatever means he chooses.

Now, God does not need some kind of tremendous level of faith to help Him answer our prayers – He just needs enough faith for us to truly say “yes Jesus,” to open the door and allow Him access. In case we might feel too helpless to have faith, or be concerned that we do not have a enough faith when we pray, let’s hear again from our friend Ole:

You and I can now tell how much faith we need in order to pray. We have faith enough when we in our helplessness turn to Jesus.

So you see, it doesn’t much matter how the first Christians prayed. They allowed themselves to be helpless before God, and they had enough faith to ask Him in to their lives and into specific situations. That’s all we need to do as well. I honestly don’t think God cares how your prayer sounds. He isn’t concerned about how long or short your prayers are. All he wants is access, and he can teach you how to have a life devoted to prayer.

I want to add a few more practical suggestions. You may have heard people say, “All we can do now, is pray.” The attitude behind that statement, is that prayer is a last resort. I want to encourage you instead, to make prayer a first response. If we think prayer is not really “doing something,” or that it isn’t helpful to people, then we don’t really understand what prayer is all about.

Another suggestion is to get into the habit of praying with other believers. I don’t mean, “have prayer meetings.” I mean make prayer more a part of everyday conversation. When I was a young man, I had several mentors who modeled this beautifully. Many times we would be talking about things, and some concern or need or struggle would come up. In the middle of the conversation, my mentors would stop and say, “let’s pray about that right now.” We would pray, and then go on talking. I admit, I have lost this habit in recent years, but I would like to get back to it, and I encourage you to do the same. It feels a little funny at first, when you are the one to say “let’s pray about that right now,” but I know from experience that others will be tremendously blessed by that.

For those of you who are worshipping in house church networks or cell churches, I want to emphasize how important prayer is to your effectiveness at making disciples. Prayer is what will cause you and others to grow in Jesus. Prayer is what will bring new people to Jesus. Prayer is what will heal your relationships and change the lives of those we pray for. Prayer is what will address the sicknesses and needs in your life, and the lives of those you want to reach. If your group is praying group, you will have a great impact for God’s kingdom.