WHAT IF JESUS DIDN’T SAY IT?

words in red

We tend to place a high value on Jesus’ words – the “words in red,” and we should. But we should place the same value on the entire New Testament. After all, the source is exactly the same.

 

 

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 9

 

 

 

Understanding the Bible #9.

As we’ve gone through this series, I’ve heard a few questions people have asked that I think are worth delving into. Recently, someone showed me a post on Facebook. The caption said: “What Jesus said about Homosexuality” Underneath it was…nothing. That’s accurate, in a technical sense, but not the complete story. For one thing, Jesus’ apostles did say some things about the subject, elsewhere in the New Testament. In any case, the point, presumably, is that Christians should not be saying anything about it, since Jesus didn’t. A similar issue was raised by an Albanian man that I spoke with in Corfu, Greece last fall. He argued that Jesus never claimed to be God – instead, that claim was made by the apostles, not Jesus himself.

Both of these arguments depend upon the same kind of faulty reasoning, and the same silly and inconsistent approach to the bible. The first part of it goes like this: “It’s supposed to be all about Jesus, right? So I’ll listen only to the words of Jesus. What the apostles wrote doesn’t matter.”

Let’s look at this by using another issue, one that is not controversial today. Here it is, another thing that is technically true: Jesus never said anything about slavery. Think about that for a moment. What does that mean? Did Jesus endorse slavery? Does that mean we Christians should not call slave-trading wrong and sinful?

Now, class it’s time to see if you’ve been paying attention. Does anyone remember where the New Testament came from? How is that we know what Jesus said in the first place? The apostles heard it, taught it, and wrote it down. To put it another way, it is the apostles who gave us the words of Jesus. If you don’t want to pay attention to what the apostles wrote, than you cannot pay attention to what Jesus said either, since we got that from the apostles.

Let’s look at it another way. Earlier in this series, we found a lot of evidence to suggest that the apostles wrote reliably and accurately about real historical events and situations, and also about Jesus and his teaching. There is no legitimate reason to accept the gospels, which were written by his apostles, but not the other writings of the other apostles. If you believe that the apostles correctly recorded that Jesus said, “Love your neighbor,” you have exactly the same reasons for believing that the apostles are passing on the teaching of Jesus when they tell us that slave-trading is evil (1 Timothy 1:10) – even though we cannot find Jesus directly saying so in the gospels.

To put it simply: the entire New Testament is the teaching of, and about Jesus. It all comes from the same source – the Holy Spirit, who inspired the apostles to remember and write. We know what Jesus said, because the apostles wrote it down. Although the letters of the New Testament are in a different form than the gospels, they are still the teachings of Jesus, passed on by the apostles. In other words, what Paul writes in Romans should be just as important to us as what Jesus says in the book of Mark.

There’s another thing. John makes it clear that his own gospel does contain every single word that Jesus ever said. The way he puts it, not even the other three gospels would suffice to write down everything Jesus did and said:

And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which, if they were written one by one, I suppose not even the world itself could contain the books that would be written. (John 21:25, HCSB)

Jesus told the apostles that the Holy Spirit would remind them of what he said, and make it clear to them, and also tell them other things that they need to know:

“I still have many things to tell you, but you can’t bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth. For He will not speak on His own, but He will speak whatever He hears. He will also declare to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, because He will take from what is Mine and declare it to you. Everything the Father has is Mine. This is why I told you that He takes from what is Mine and will declare it to you. (John 16:12-15, HCSB)

We believe, as Jesus said, that the Holy Spirit reminded the apostles what Jesus said, and also revealed other important truth to them, and guided them as they wrote it down. That applies, not just to the gospels, but to the entire New Testament. In this passage, Jesus himself says that after he leaves this world, the Spirit would guide them into truth that they had not yet received from him. So, if you don’t believe the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write what Jesus thinks about slave-trading, why do you believe he inspired Luke to write that Jesus has concern for the poor?

The first answer to the person who claims that Jesus said nothing about a given topic is to see whether that topic shows up anywhere else in the New Testament. If it does, than you can be sure, it is the teaching of Jesus. Technically, it’s true that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John do not record any direct quotes of Jesus that use the word “slave-trader.” But Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit to share the teaching of and about Jesus, does say something about it.

Some people will argue that Paul did not know Jesus personally, and so his letters are not the real teaching of Jesus. We went over all that in part #3 of this series. Paul claimed that Jesus appeared to him specially, quite some time after his resurrection, and opened his mind to know and understand the Good News (Gal 12:1-16; 1 Corinthians 15:8-10; 2 Corinthians 12:1-7). The other apostles, the ones who had actually known Jesus, affirmed that Paul was preaching and teaching the true message of Jesus (Gal 2:6-10; 2 Peter 3:15-16; Acts 9:22-30; 15:1-35). In fact, all throughout the book of Acts we have ample evidence that Paul was accepted early on as an apostle of Jesus, and his teaching was in accord with the rest of the apostles.

Let me say it again: the entire New Testament, including the letters of Paul, is the teaching of Jesus, passed on by the Holy Spirit, through the apostles. We have all sorts evidence to affirm this, and none to contradict it.

Saying “I only believe or follow the words in red [Jesus’ words],” is in fact, silly and illogical. The “words in red” came from the same place as the rest of the New Testament – the apostles. If you don’t believe the apostles were inspired by the Holy Spirit and the memory of Jesus’ teachings to write what they wrote in their letters, there is no reason to believe that they got the words of Jesus in the gospels correct either. Of course, I’ve already shared, earlier in the series, the many reasons I think the apostles got it all right.

This series has been here to answer questions you might have about the bible, or how to understand it. Because of that, I want to explore one more side of the “Jesus didn’t say anything about this…” question. Last week, in a small group meeting, I pointed out that Jesus never said anything about slavery. One of our excellent teenagers said, “Yeah, but doesn’t the golden rule kind of cover that?” In words, though he didn’t specifically talk about slavery, Jesus did say, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In other words, according to the teaching of Jesus, if you don’t think you’d like being a slave yourself, you shouldn’t make slaves of anyone else.

This is a great point. Jesus did not overtly condemn prostitution, child-pornography, or incest, either. But you don’t have to be a trained theologian to recognize that Jesus often said things that apply to a whole host of different situations. In Matthew 19:1-6. Jesus made a broad, sweeping statement about human sexual relationships. He said that God created sex for marriage between a man and a woman. Any kind of sex outside of the marriage relationship is called, in Greek, “porneia.” The most popular English bibles translate this “sexual immorality,” or “immorality.” Jesus didn’t name all the possibilities included in “sexual immorality,” but he made it clear that he meant anything sexual outside of one-woman/one man marriage. In Matthew 15:19, among other places, he makes it clear that all sexual immorality creates a problem with God’s moral law. Now, Jesus fulfilled the moral law on our behalf, and if we trust him, we are forgiven. If we really do trust him, he is now living inside us, and he doesn’t want our lives to be used in that way anymore – it goes against his Holy nature, and he has placed that Holy nature inside of us. Therefore, as Jesus-followers, we are supposed to stop it if we’ve done it, and stay away from it from now on. If we need help to do so, we can receive that help from the Holy Spirit and from other believers. The rest of the New Testament affirms all this.

The point is not to condemn anyone who has sinned in this way. The point is, Jesus did in fact teach about all human sexuality, even if he didn’t specifically name certain sins. If we claim to follow him, we should at least be heading in the direction he points, even if we follow imperfectly.

This turns out be the case concerning most of the other things that Jesus did not specifically talk about. And, as we have said, even when Jesus didn’t say something specifically in one of the gospels, we have the rest of the New Testament which also reliably passes on the teaching of and about Jesus.

~

A completely different question was raised in one our discussions in our house-church. Some people wanted to know more about what we call “apocalyptic prophecy.” I mentioned this kind of scripture briefly in part six of the series. We’ll go over it again here with a little more depth because some folks had further questions about it, and truthfully, apocalyptic prophecy represents one of the most misunderstood and misused parts of the bible.

Apocalyptic prophecy is fairly rare in the bible. Most of it is found in parts of Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah and revelation (and a few other chapters, scattered throughout some of the other prophetic books). This genre features vivid imagery, key numbers and tends to be extremely confusing. Apocalyptic often reads like someone’s strange dream. The apocalyptic parts of the bible often appear to be talking about the “end times” (the period of history right before the end of the world), and they are frequently used by cults to come up with all sorts of weird doctrines.

We have to read it in context. Particularly important is to understand the historical and cultural context in which the prophet lived. We need to understand that the language of apocalyptic is definitely not literal, or teaching or even narrative. It is poetic and even mystical. We need to hold firmly to the clear and easily understandable portions of the bible, and use those to aid our understanding of apocalyptic prophecy. With apocalyptic, I am even willing say that we should be open to the possibility that we won’t completely clearly understand what is meant. We should never use apocalyptic in a way that contradicts what is already clear in different parts of the bible.

One of the worst abuses of apocalyptic prophecy is to use it as kind of a road-map, or detailed timeline of the end-times. It is most definitely not intended to be anything like that. Concerning the end of the world, and his return, Jesus said,

“Now concerning that day and hour no one knows — neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son — except the Father only. (Matt 24:36, HCSB)

That is clear. Therefore, we should not interpret apocalyptic prophecy as a definitive roadmap to the end times. If it clearly gave us a timeline to the return of Jesus and the end of the old world, then Jesus would have been wrong in saying that no one can know for sure when it will be. Apocalyptic prophecy may tell us the types of things that will happening, but it certainly can’t be specific enough so that people will then be able to say “Aha! According to Revelation, the world will definitely end within the next three to five years!”

The main apocalyptic parts of the bible were prophesied to God’s people when they were severely oppressed by powerful foreign empires. Ezekiel and Daniel spoke to those who lived as captives under the Babylonians, Persians and Medes. Zechariah, not long after, prophesied to people who were trying to re-establish a colony of Jews in Israel, surrounded by powerful and lawless nations around them. John wrote Revelation at a time when the Roman Emperor, Domitian, pursued the active persecution of Christians. Domitian was aided in this by some Jewish communities who saw Christianity as blasphemy, and wanted it destroyed.

Because virtually all apocalyptic prophecy was written in similar historical circumstances, there are certain features that we can learn about all of it. Because it was written to people under foreign oppression, it contains images and pictures that would have been understandable to those who heard them, but almost incomprehensible to outsiders. In other words, apocalyptic was a kind of code language to people in persecution. The code is not about some secret key to the end-times – what the code hides are words of judgment upon the oppressors, and encouragement and hope for the oppressed.

The problem is that we today, are mostly outsiders. It’s hard for us to understand the significance of the weird visions and dreams of apocalyptic literature. The first step in understanding is to realize that we do not understand, and we need to investigate a lot more before we can see these prophecies the same way the original hearers understood them.

But here is one thing that can help: The main message of the apocalyptic prophecies is consistently one of hope; God has not forgotten his people, and he will take steps to deliver them and to bring justice against those who have persecuted them. He is still active in history, he still has plans, and he intends to carry them out.

We get caught up in what, specifically, those plans are. But the point is more that God has them, than that we are supposed to know them in great detail. Take, for example, the book of Revelation. It was written to Christians who were suffering under the oppression Roman government, which was aided by angry Jewish communities. When we look at the book from a big-picture perspective, we see that again and again, it repeats these messages:

  • · The Lord knows that you are suffering, and he hasn’t forgotten you.
  • · Those who oppress you will be judged for what they have done
  • · God has a plan to redeem and save you
  • · God hasn’t stopped acting in history. He has plans to bring human history to the place where he wants it to be
  • · Death, and the end of history are things for believers to look forward to – God’s plans for you are wonderful, and go far beyond this life on our present earth.

These are the main things we are supposed to get from Revelation. Often we fail to get these wonderful messages of grace, because we are too caught up in things like trying to figure out which individual the anti-Christ is. But all we really need to know is that the anti-Christ is bad, and God has plans for defeating him and protecting you from him. While he does that, you will not be forgotten, and the Lord will be with you in your trials.

Let me try and give you an example of understanding apocalyptic prophecy. Revelation 13:1-10 describes a “beast.” I’m almost certain that the first readers of Revelation would have understood that the “beast” was a code word for the Roman Empire and its emperor, Domitian. Domitian demanded that everyone in the Roman world worship the Emperor as a divine being. He severely persecuted everyone who refused to do so (Jews were exempted from this, but not Christians). The first Christians to read Revelation would easily have identified what John’s vision described.

But in this day and age, the same message could apply to Christians who suffer under Islamic persecution. In such places, Muslims demand that everyone must confess: “Allah is God, and Mohammed is his Prophet.” Like the beast of Revelation 13, Islam has authority in many places to blaspheme (according to Christians) and to persecute those who do not agree with them or worship as Muslims.

In this way, we can see that apocalyptic prophecy can remain relevant and encouraging to Christians throughout history. My advice is to consider apocalyptic prophecy in this way, and abandon any silly attempts to use it as a timeline of the end times.

Well, we’ve covered a lot of ground this time. Hopefully, it all helps as we learn to understand the bible.

Taking the Bible Literally

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We need to understand not only the context of the verses, and the history and the culture; we must also understand that not everything in the bible was meant to be taken directly. We need to pay attention to the genre of each part of the bible.

 

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 6

Understanding the Bible #6

We’ve considered the origins of the bible. We’ve established it’s historicity and reliability. Last time we began to learn a few simple rules for reading the bible and understanding it properly. The first rule was to read the bible in context. It is rarely helpful to read a verse or two, without understanding what came before it. What comes after all increases our understanding. We also need to read the bible in its historical and cultural context. In other words, we ought to understand what it really meant to the people who first heard it or read it, in their culture, before we will be able to properly apply it to our own lives.

Today, I want to look at another important principle of reading the bible: Pay attention to Genre. Another way to look at this rule is this: What kind of writing are you reading? There are many different kinds of literature (writing) in the bible. We need to be aware of them, and consider the writing style before we try to apply the bible directly to our lives. We have already learned that the bible is actually sixty-six different books, written by dozens of different people from dozens of different walks of life. Some parts of the bible are laws. Others are records of family history. There is also great deal of official “court” or government history. There are genealogies – lists and records of family names. Some of the bible is prophecy, and there are at least two different kinds of prophecy. There is a great deal of poetry and song in the bible. The book of Proverbs is mostly made up of, well, proverbs – wise sayings. There are four accounts of the ministry and teachings of Jesus (we call them “gospels.”) Within Jesus’ teachings are a unique kind of literature called parables. There are a number of letters written by Jesus’ apostles to anyone who wants to follow Him.

I have just listed ten major genres, or types of writing, found in the bible. We need to pay attention to these when we read the bible. We will need to read poetry with a very different approach than we use when we read one of Paul’s letters to Jesus-followers. When we read a historical section, we ought to treat it differently than we treat a prophecy.

I will deal with laws in a sermon all by itself. Today, let’s consider briefly how we might approach the other different genres in the bible.

History: This includes both family history and court/government history. Historical narrative is the record or “story” of real people and real events. As we learned previously, there is no reason to doubt the bible when it gives us historical narrative, and plenty of reasons to believe it. So we read it as a record of something that actually happened. We can get spiritual lessons from historical sections of the bible, but we ought to keep in mind that history isn’t primarily a parable, or an allegory – it is a record of what happened. Because of that, history isn’t always ideal. David committed adultery and murder. The record of those sinful actions is not a teaching telling us that it is okay for leaders to do such things. It is simply telling us what David actually did, not what we ought to do, or even what he ought to have done. In the historical situations, we look at how God dealt with people and nations in the events of their lives, and learn how God may deal with us at times. We look at mistakes and failures, and learn lessons concerning what we ought to avoid. We look at victories, and learn how to trust God to work through us. We see God’s faithful love at work in the past, and take encouragement from it.

Genealogies. I admit, this is the hardest genre for me. Lists of families and names just don’t seem to bring me a lot of spiritual benefit. But every so often, God blesses me through one of the genealogical lists in the bible. For instance, when we start to look at the genealogy of Jesus, listed in Matthew 1:1-17, and investigate what the bible says about some of the ancestors of Jesus, it is a blessing. Many of the physical ancestors of Joseph (in other words, Jesus’ earthly family) and even of Mary (she was related to Joseph) were scoundrels. Two of the women were prostitutes! Yet we see that God gave them grace, and used them anyway. He removed their shame and through them, brought the Messiah into the world. I have found similar lessons in other genealogies. The trick is to look up the people listed, and see what you can learn about them.

Prophecy: I’ve mentioned before that reading biblical prophecy is like looking at a range of distant mountains. From a distance, the mountains look like they are all right next to each other, but when you get closer, you find they are a series of ridges and peaks that go on for some time. The mountains aren’t all lined up side by side, as it looks from a long ways away. From the prophet’s perspective (which is how it is written down in the bible) it looks like all of the future will happen at one time. In reality, as you get closer, some things are fulfilled centuries before other things. So Isaiah talks about the destruction of Jerusalem (which happened 200 years after he prophesied), the return of the exiles from Babylon (which happened 70 years after the destruction of Jerusalem) the coming of the Messiah (which happened about 700 years after he prophesied) and the end of the world (which, as far as I know, hasn’t happened yet). These prophesies about various times are jumbled in amongst each other.

Prophecy also has a message to us in the present, regardless of the predictive element of it. Most of the prophets spoke to people about how to relate to God, and how God loves us, and longs to forgive and care for us. These words are still relevant today. So the comfort spoken to the exiles who would return to Jerusalem is also spoken to us, who seek peace and comfort in the Lord today.

Prophecies are not direct teachings however. We need to understand them in their historical context (as we spoke about last time) and be careful with directly and literally importing everything a prophet says to our own time.

Apocalyptic Prophecy: Parts of Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, and Revelation contain a specialized form of prophecy called “Apocalyptic Prophecy.” This genre features vivid imagery, key numbers and tends to be extremely confusing. Apocalyptic often reads like someone’s strange dream. Almost nothing in apocalyptic prophecy should be taken at face value. The images and numbers are usually symbolic. For instance in Revelation, the number twelve is very significant. There were twelve tribes in ancient Israel. There were twelve apostles. Therefore, the number twelve is a symbol for “the people of God.” It’s like a code. In Revelation chapter 7, it talks about 144,000 people who were sealed. This just means “the entire amount of God’s people from both Israel and the Church.” 12 tribes of Israel (representing God’s people before the time of Jesus) times 12 Apostles (representing the church, God’s people since the time of Jesus). 12 x 12 = 144. Get it? You will need help to understand what the images and numbers in apocalyptic prophecy mean. And to be honest, there are still things in apocalyptic literature that no one really understands for sure. A study bible will help, but more than anything, let the clear portions of the bible lead you in understanding what is not clear.

Gospels. There are four books that give us historical records of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. We read these as we would read history, with two exceptions:

1. When the gospels record the teaching of Jesus, we understand it as teaching. In other words, it isn’t just history. It is also the teaching which Jesus Christ intends us to learn, understand and follow. We must learn it context, like everything else. But it isn’t just a historical curiosity. We are meant to learn it and follow it.

2. Jesus used parables extensively. Almost always, a parable is a story that is not supposed to be taken literally, and it makes just one (at most two) main points. Don’t follow rabbit trails when you deal with a parable. Stick to the main one or two points. So, consider the parable of the good Samaritan. The main point of the story is that the Lord wants us to look after anyone in need – even our natural enemies. He wants us to treat all the people we encounter as “neighbors.” The parable is not there to teach us that priests are all naturally bad people, or that we should regularly travel from Jerusalem to Jericho, or that we should pay for homeless people to stay in hotels. Stick to the main point.

Letters. Much of the New Testament is made up of letters written by the apostles to Christians. These letters generally contain teaching, exhortation and encouragement. We are meant to receive them as teaching and instruction. Generally, once we understand the historical and textual context, we take these things basically literally.

Poetry and Song. Poetic language is often not supposed to be taken literally. For our scripture this week, let’s look at Psalm 19.

1 The heavens declare the glory of God,

and the sky1 proclaims the work of His hands.

2 Day after day they pour out speech;

night after night they communicate knowledge.2

3 There is no speech; there are no words;

their voice is not heard.

4 Their message3 has gone out to all the earth,

and their words to the ends of the world.

In the heavens4 He has pitched a tent for the sun.

5 It is like a groom coming from the5 bridal chamber;

it rejoices like an athlete running a course.

6 It rises from one end of the heavens

and circles6 to their other end;

nothing is hidden from its heat.

First, notice that this is laid out like a poem or song. In fact, in the heading of Psalm 19, there is the note: “For the Choir Director.” Most modern bible translations will lay out poetic language in this way, even though we have no music for it, and it does not rhyme in English. This layout is the translators’ way of showing us it is a song, poem or poetic prophesy. Much of Isaiah and Jeremiah and Job is laid out in this way. This lay-out is our first cue for how we should interpret the passage.

Now, in the case of Psalm 19, the writer (David) even tells us the language is poetic. In verse one, he says the heavens declare God’s glory, and pour forth speech. In verse two, he clarifies that we aren’t supposed to take that literally – it’s a word-picture, a metaphor. The sky doesn’t actually talk.

In verses 3-6 David describes the sun. Now, think for a moment. Does this mean that the Bible teaches us that the sky is an actual covering like a tent? Do these verses teach us that the sun actually rejoices? Does it mean that no place on earth can be cold when the sun is out?

The answer to all of those questions, is, of course, no. The language is poetic. We aren’t supposed to take it literally. The point is that God created the sky and all we observe in it, and by the things he set in motion in the sky, we can learn about God. This isn’t a straightforward teaching. It is a song, with metaphors and similes and creative ways of expressing things. We can learn things from it (that God sends messages to us through his creation) but we get that message differently than we do when Paul says the same thing in Acts 14:15-17 and Romans 1:19-20

What can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them. For His invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what He has made. As a result, people are without excuse. (Rom 1:19-20, HCSB)

This verse from Romans says basically the same thing as Psalm 19, but in a very different style. That is why genre is important for understanding. Many people make grave mistakes about the bible when they don’t consider the genre. We don’t have to. It is mostly common sense, but we simply have to remember to pay attention.

HOW CAN WE UNDERSTAND THE BIBLE?

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The bible has been proved historically reliable many times, but it does get misused an awful lot. Sometimes, people don’t want to believe it because they don’t really understand it. Too many people read the bible to use it in arguments, instead of reading it to get to know Jesus 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
Understanding the Bible #5

We’ve learned where the Old and New Testaments came from. We know by objective, scientific criteria that the documents we have today are accurately preserved copies of what was first written or spoken. We understand from archaeology that both the Old and New Testaments are historically reliable. These things are facts, not religious opinion. Most of these facts were discovered by people who were trying to prove the opposite.

Though the bible is completely reliable in the history that it records, it isn’t simply a book of history. It tells us other things that we cannot verify with science; things about God, human nature, human relationships and human-God interactions. It even talks about things that we rarely see (if at all) in our lifetimes: the parting of the Red Sea, the feeding of the five thousand, healings and exorcisms. I think this is one of the main reasons people ignore the bible. These aren’t every day events. It’s hard to believe that stuff like that ever happened. Maybe you have struggled with the same thing.

Let me address that briefly. Consider a person whom you think is entirely reliable. If she tells you that chicken is only $0.99/pound at Kroger on Wednesday, you know that you can go to Kroger and find chicken for exactly that price. If she tells you that she once met the mayor of New York City, it does not surprise you at all when she produces a picture of her with the Mayor, and a signed note from him to her. If you ask her to give you the square root of 361, you can bet your next paycheck that she’ll say 19.

Now, suppose, one day, your friend tells you that she just found out she has cancer. You know she wouldn’t lie to you. You know she wouldn’t be mistaken. You absolutely believe she has cancer. A few weeks later, she tells you that she went to a prayer meeting, and people prayed for her healing. A few days after that, she went to the doctor, and found out she is now entirely cancer-free. She claims she has been miraculously healed. Would you believe her?

You would believe your friend about the price of chicken, the mayor of New York and square root of 361. You would believe her when she told you she had cancer. So why wouldn’t you believe her when she says she was miraculously healed?

If you would not believe in the miracle, I suggest to you that there is only one reason: you have a pre-existing bias against miracles. Your friend has proven many times to be reliable about things you believe in. The only reason to disbelieve her now is because she is saying something that you have already decided you will not believe.

Your friend is just like the bible. The bible has proven many times to be entirely reliable about things like the culture of the ancient middle east, the existence of specific cities and specific people. It has shown again and again to be a reliable record of battles, and kings and wars. We know it records the truth of those kinds of things. The only reason to doubt what it says about God, human nature and miracles is because we have already decided that we do not want to believe those things. This is a silly, irrational, illogical position to take.

I mean it: logic is on the side of miracles.

Having said all that, the bible does get misused an awful lot. Sometimes, people don’t want to believe it because they don’t really understand it. We began the last few weeks, to talk about how we actually understand the bible. The first step is understanding that the purpose of the entire bible is to reveal Jesus to us. We read it so we can know him, and know him better, and follow him more fully.

One thing that happens with the bible is that a lot of people do strange things with it. Mostly, it is pretty straightforward and easy to understand. However, there are some parts of the bible that are more difficult to comprehend. It doesn’t help that because it is a religious book, people seem to forget common sense rules of reading books. I want us to learn how to understand the bible properly. So, for the next few weeks, we will consider some common sense practices that we ought to use when we read the bible.

READ THE BIBLE IN CONTEXT

Read it in Context with the Surrounding Verses

Imagine that you are reading a book about penguins, written by one person, a penguin expert who spent years studying the birds in Antarctica. The book was written in 1965. Suppose in one section of the book, she writes “Penguins are large, flightless birds.”

Later in the book, she describes her feeling of joy and awe as she watches the birds “spreading their wings as they dive and soar through the open blue.”

How do you handle this apparent contradiction? Do penguins fly, or don’t they?

Too many people, if they treated this book like the bible, would say, “This book is full of contradictions. I don’t believe anything it says about penguins.”

Others might really want to believe that penguins can fly. They would say: “Penguins are birds – the book says so. Birds fly. Penguins have wings – the book even says that. Wings are for flying. To top it off, she writes about them soaring through the open blue. This book teaches us that penguins fly.”

What about the bit about them being flightless birds? “Maybe that was an error. Or maybe she just didn’t understand penguins as well as we do, nowadays. Science has come a long ways since 1965.”

Of course the whole idea of someone with those attitudes is silly. Most people, reading the book as they read most books, won’t even notice the contradiction, because they will read the book in context. In other words, they won’t just take a few sentences of it here and there from different chapters, and use those to make broad declarations about penguins, or broad declarations about the book contradicting itself. So, instead of reading an isolated sentence about penguins soaring through the open blue, they will read the entire chapter in which the author describes SCUBA diving while she watches the penguins swim around her in the clear, blue sea. In context, “soaring through the open blue” is clearly about swimming, not flying.

The problem is, too many people read the bible to use it in arguments, instead of reading it to get to know Jesus better. So, instead of reading it in context, they go searching for a verse or a few verses that seem to say what they want the bible to say. Others want to discredit the bible altogether, because they don’t like what it says, so they go searching for isolated verses which sound like they contradict each other. But to someone who knows the bible, it usually sounds as silly as someone trying to use a well-researched book about penguins to prove that penguins fly.

This is one reason I so strongly recommend that you work your way around the bible by reading in one book (say, Matthew) until you’ve read that whole book, and then pick another book and do the same. Maybe you only have time to read a chapter, or just a few verses each day. That’s fine. But read (however slowly) through one book at time, moving from the beginning to the end of the book (I don’t mean the whole bible – I mean a book within the bible). If you don’t, you will have great difficulty understanding what you read, because it won’t be in context.

If everyone in the world who quotes the bible did this, my blood pressure would be significantly lower. Honestly, I’d like to say that “Read the Bible in Context” is the first, second and third rule of common sense bible understanding.

Let me give you an example of context. Suppose a friend of mine claims to be a Christian, but he watches pornographic movies and visits nude-bars. He sees nothing wrong with doing these things. I might say to him, “You claim to follow Jesus. But the lust in your heart is something wrong, Jesus died to make it right. You shouldn’t continue to feed your lust that way. Jesus is calling you to repent.”

Suppose he replies to me (quoting the bible) “Jesus said, ‘Don’t judge others!’”

Do you know the context for those words of Jesus? He said it in Matthew 7:1, during the famous “Sermon on the Mount.” Do you know what else he said in that very same sermon? He said he had not come to abolish the law, and anyone who relaxed the standards of the law was in trouble (Matthew 5:17-20). He also said lust was wrong (Matthew 5:27-30).

In fact, let’s look at the entire section where Jesus supposedly told us not to judge.

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.

The context of “do not judge” is the whole sermon on the mount, as I mentioned. In that context, there is simply no way that my friend can defend his activities as righteous and OK. “Judge not” does not make him free to do whatever he wants. But it doesn’t even have to silence me. Even in this smaller context, we can see that it is not as simple as “don’t judge.” Jesus actually says we should examine ourselves first, and then we will be able to help someone else who has a problem. He says we should recognize that the same standards apply to us, as well as the other person. In other words, we need to be humble, and recognize our own faults before we approach someone else to help them with their problem. But Jesus’ words here (in context) assume that we should still approach the person, once we are appropriately humble.

The last sentence gives us some additional information. Jesus seems to be saying that it is pointless to “judge” where the person is not interested in receiving it. It’s like giving jewelry to pigs – you are wasting your time. Such people will not appreciate the precious words of God, and instead will get angry at you. In context then, “Do not judge,” means:

· Be humble, and willing to acknowledge your own faults before you talk to someone else about his. You should still talk to the other person, once you are appropriately humble.

· Do not bother to judge those who are proud, unwilling to admit to their faults, or uninterested in what the bible has to say. One thing I take away from this, is that is pointless to try to get people who do not want to be Christian, to stop sinning.

There is more to be said about this passage, and more we can learn from other bible-reading techniques, but merely reading the context makes this often-misused quote much more clear and understandable.

Read the Bible in Cultural/Historical Context

The most important thing, is to read the context in the bible itself, as described above. However, the historical situation and the cultural context often shed a tremendous amount of light on a given passage. Therefore, we should also read the bible in historical and cultural context.

For instance, let’s talk for a minute about when Jesus said, “Do not judge.” Would it make a difference whether the people he was speaking to were inclined to be judgmental? Would it matter what they were inclined to make their judgments on? Of course.

If we know something about 1st Century Judaism, we would realize that the Jews Jesus was speaking to were generally very religious and legalistic about silly little rules. In fact, we would find out that often times, they condemned others for not following man-made rules, rules that had nothing to do with what God actually said. For instance, Exodus 20:8-11 says to remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy. By the time of Jesus, the Jews had made up an extensive list of rules which detailed exactly how they were supposed to keep the Sabbath holy. The problem was, those rules did not come from God, or the bible. The Jewish rules were made up by human beings, and added to the inspired word of God. So, the Jews said, you can only walk a certain number of steps on the Sabbath. You can do this, but not that. The Jews judged others based on how well they followed these kinds of rules. But those rules didn’t even come from God in the first place. It is to people like this that Jesus says “do not make judgments.” This is why Jesus talks about logs and splinters in the eye. The Jews were concerned about how well others followed man-made rules, while they ignored what the bible said about the Messiah, and faith, and real sin, forgiveness and relationship with God.

So, the “log in your own eye” that Jesus refers to is the tendency to completely ignore Jesus himself, while focusing on petty little things that aren’t even in the bible.

Knowing the cultural/historical context, we now understand that Jesus isn’t saying that we should not tell a fellow Christian that lust is sinful. He is saying that we should keep our priorities straight, and not judge others for meaningless things. Some Christians have made up rules – you must dress a certain way, or avoid certain kinds of movies, or avoid drinking even one glass of wine with dinner, or listen only to certain kinds of music. These are specks that some people try to pick out of the eyes of others. But the log in the eye is this: how do you respond to Jesus? How do you respond to his message of sin and redemption?

Do you see how the historical context can help you understand a passage more fully?

People often ask me, “Tom, where do we find out historical and cultural information like that?” The bad news is, there isn’t just one easy source for it. But the good news is, I was once asking the same question, and I over the years, I have learned a lot.

If I was starting out, the first thing I would do is get a good, high quality study bible. I highly recommend The ESV Study Bible. There are helpful notes and commentary at the bottom of each page. Not all of the commentary is about the cultural background, of course, but often there are helpful things about the culture there.

You might also google “Manners and Customs of Bible Times” there are several good resources that will show up. Unfortunately, some people create these resources with a theological axe to grind, so to speak. For example, I was personally disappointed by the Inter-Varsity Press Bible Background Commentary. Generally, the older the publishing date, the less biased one way or the other it is likely to be. “Manners and Customs of Bible Times” by Fred Wright is available online for free. I’ve used that from time to time. Eerdman’s Handbook to the Bible is another good general resource, as is Halley’s Bible Handbook.

It will take time to work your way through these resources. That’s OK, you have your whole life to study the bible. It is also helpful to listen to sermons. Many pastors, like me, have spent a great deal of time learning this stuff. Pay attention to the preachers that explain the historical and cultural context, because, as I’ve been saying, it’s important. If you think you might forget it, make notes of the things you think are significant. Over time, you will build up your own body of knowledge about bible history and culture.

Remember, read the bible in context. Understand that each book within the bible was written as a whole, and read it the same way. Also, read the bible in historical and cultural context. When we do these things, the verses that people use to prove contradictions look as silly as the claim that penguins can fly.

The Main Point of The Bible: Jesus

jesus-smiling-bobby-shaw

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.

BODY LIFE

body of Christ 2

 

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

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Experiencing Life Together #11. Body Life (1 Corinthians 12:12-31)

I learned an important lesson when I was a camp counselor: Never throw an unwilling camper into the lake, especially if one of his buddies is standing on your foot. I learned this lesson the hard way, for although the camper was unharmed (albeit, wet), his friend’s weight on my foot, combined with my momentum, broke the bone of my little toe.

The truth is, I had never paid much attention to my ‘pinkie” toe up until that point in my life, other than to clean lint off of it. For the next few weeks however, I began to learn what an indispensable appendage that smallest piece of my body is. For one thing, what it lacks in size, it makes up for in intensity. I have learned that there is a kind of “nerve layer” that is part of any bone in your body. When the bone is broken, that nerve layer becomes very distressed, no matter how small the bone is. A bone is a bone, no matter how puny and silly looking, and pain is painful, no matter where it originates. Second, I learned how important the health of my little toe is to the rest of my body. My injury interfered greatly in ordinary physical activities. I couldn’t do many things that I normally did, like running, jumping, throwing campers in the lake – even walking was quite difficult and painful for a while. I had to limp in an odd sideways sort of way that eventually caused a great deal of pain to the rest of my foot, and my ankle. I contorted into even stranger methods of motion to ease that pain, and eventually my back became seriously out of line- all because of one tiny little bone in my foot.

Even beyond the ways my puny little toe affected the rest of my body, the injury had ramifications for my greater existence in society. For more than a week I couldn’t even drive a car (it was the toe on the right foot). This had all sorts of implications, not least of which was my inability to get to the Laundromat. For a while I had to stand downwind of everyone. My little toe may even have had a hand in destiny, as it was a certain lovely young camp counselor by the name of Kari Perina who finally offered to help me in my distress, and run me into town for laundry and errands (‘this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship’).

My point is this: though my pinkie toe seems insignificant, even unnecessary, I found I could not get along without it. And when I had to try to operate without it, it affected almost every aspect of my life (I’m not even going to mention bathing).

The Apostle Paul is attempting to make the same point in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, although without the enriching personal experience of a broken toe. This is a passage that is vital to the understanding and practice of house-church ministry. There is an atmosphere, a context for house-church ministry, and that context is what I like to call “body life.” A house-church group really doesn’t work properly unless all members participate in body life and use the gifts and blessings God has given them.

Paul calls the church “the body of Christ’ and he expresses four main truths that this reveals. The first truth is that just as in a physical body, each part belongs to the others. We all have been called to “one Lord one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:5). Paul describes the superficial differences that were predominant in his day: (Jew-Greek, Slave-Free) and asserts that that these are indeed superficial. In Jesus, we all belong to each other. The differences that we may be tempted to point to might include rich-poor, white-colored, expressive-quiet, or any one of a number of things. These differences are not as deep as the truth that if we are in Christ, we are all parts of the same body.

The second Truth is that while we are part of the same body, we do not all have the same function. Each part is distinct. As Paul writes:

“If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.” (1 Cor 14:17-19).

We are not all given the same personalities, talents and traits. We are given our differences so that the Church may function as a healthy body, with all systems operating correctly. There was a time, shortly after the accident I described above, when I felt like my whole body was one huge, throbbing toe. Believe me, it was not a pleasant experience. Trust me, the whole body was not meant to be a toe. In the same, way, we in the body of Christ are supposed to be diverse in our personalities, gifts, backgrounds, races and life situations. These differences do not mean that we don’t belong – but they do mean that we each have a different function to fulfill in touching lives according to God’s pattern.

Third, each part of the body is indispensable. As I illustrated in the beginning, even the smallest part is essential to the well-being of the whole body. As Paul writes:

The eye cannot say to the hand “I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you? On the contrary, those parts that seem to be weaker are indispensable….

But God has combined the members of the body and given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. (12:21-22, 24-25)

The body of Christ needs all of its members to be functioning properly to be healthy. If one part is sick, the entire body is affected. Have you ever thought of Tabitha, the believer from Joppa? We will never know until we get to heaven, whether she spoke in tongues or not. We have no idea whether God used her to bring prophecy or healing. But we do know that she was used by God to help the poor, and this gift was so indispensable to the body of believers in Joppa, that God raised her from the dead to continue using her (Acts 9:36-41).

The fourth main truth that Paul expresses about the church as the body of Christ is that each part needs to work together. This is very similar to the truth he expresses in Ephesians 4:16, where he writes: “From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love as each part does its work (emphasis mine).

To put it in very direct terms, I will offer a free rendering of what Paul is trying to get at:

If the whole church were the pastor where would the house-church leaders be? If the whole church were house-church leaders, where would the administrators be? What about those who minister in prayer, or who visit the sick? The deacons cannot say to the house-church members, “we don’t need you,” and those who lead worship cannot say to those who sing, “we don’t need you.”

Are you starting to get the picture? God has a plan for each and every member. If you are a part of this church (or any church) God has a special reason for you to be here. He wants to use you to touch lives in a way that he cannot use any other part of the body. It certainly will require some working together, and perhaps you alone cannot make much of a difference, but without you, the entire body will be affected. This is great news. You are special, unique and absolutely indispensable. In the body of Christ, you are somebody. You also have a responsibility to participate in body life, so that God can use you. You might decide that you cannot be used, or that you are to insignificant. But if you decide that you do not want to be used, or you do not make yourself available to be used, you like my little toe, could end up affecting the very backbone of the body. Now, you don’t need to become anxious over your responsibility. You can only function as part of the body and do your piece, as you depend upon the power of the Holy Spirit. You need only to be willing and available and God will see to it that the details of how you are used work out.You should not be anxious, but instead, rejoice that God sees you as important in his plan to touch the lives of other people. Rejoice that He will give you the wisdom and power you need to be a properly functioning member of His body- even if you are just a little toe.

Your church might need your wisdom, given you speak up. We might need your prayers. Perhaps it is your willingness to serve, or your skill with tools, or your solid dependability, or your education, or your administrative ability. I hope you get the picture: the list is endless. You are somewhere on it. Don’t be the broken toe, remember that each part of the body needs the other parts.

YOUR MONEY, OR YOUR LIFE?

money

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

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 7

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?

DO MIRACLES HAPPEN TODAY?

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EXPERIENCING LIFE TOGETHER #6.

AWE & WONDERS

Acts 2:43 “Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.”

We have examined the four things that the first Church was devoted to. I hope you’ll agree that any church and even any Christian ought to be growing in devotion to the Word, Fellowship, Intimacy with Jesus (characterized by the Lord’s Supper) and Prayer. These things are essential to what it means to have a relationship with Jesus Christ. They are therefore also central to the community life of those who know Jesus. The first Church was also characterized by living for a single purpose. This too is part of the core of Christian discipleship. In addition to these, however, there are a few other things that characterized that very first Christian church. These other things are also meant to be characteristic of all Christians and all churches. The first of these that the text mentions is a sense of awe, which is accompanied by “wonders and miraculous signs.”

The word translated as “awe” in the NIV Bible is actually the Greek word “phobos” from which we get the English “phobia.” In other words, the word means fear. I think that we in modern American culture are afraid (no pun intended!) to use this word in connection with our experience of God. It sounds like the dark ages somehow – “they were filled with fear.” However, it is a Biblical word, and it is used many times to describe people’s relationship with God. A God we fear is not an altogether comfortable God. He is not the kind of God we can control. Now I don’t believe that this whole concept of “fear of God” is meant to be negative. Perhaps the best rendering of the concept I ever heard comes through the children’s books written by C.S. Lewis: The Chronicles of Narnia. In these stories there is a character called Aslan, the Son of the Great Emperor-over-the-Sea. Aslan was intended by Lewis to be a picture of what Jesus is like. And one more thing – Aslan is a lion. In the stories, people who haven’t met Aslan want to know what he’s like. Upon hearing that he is lion, one character asks about him:

“Then, isn’t he safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

I think that Lewis has really captured what the fear of God is about. God is out of our control. He is powerful, and, dare I say, even a little wild, like a lion. He isn’t quite safe because of his great power and his complete otherness. But he is good. This was the kind of “fear” that everyone was filled with in Acts 2:43 – the fear of God who is not quite safe, but is good. We Americans are not usually comfortable with this (which is sort of the point). We like to think that we can respect anyone who is worthy of it, but that we fear no one. But when we try to reduce the fear of God to mere “respect” we have lost part of the true Biblical understanding of who God is. Now the “fear of God” is not the same as being afraid of Him. We do not need to fear that He won’t love us or forgive us. But at some level the thought of what God can really do – how completely at His mercy we are – ought to give us a kind of thrilled fear. He is God and we are truly nothing in comparison.

The first Christian church was characterized by this sort of “fear.” I think it probably influenced how they worshipped and prayed in very positive ways – they did not take God for granted. I think this sense of “fear” also made the miracle of their salvation even more wonderful and incredible to them. The fruit of their fear was altogether positive. Their fear of God only led to a greater wonder that He would consider them worth loving and dying for. Personally, I think it heightened their joy at knowing Jesus as well as their thankfulness to him.

Accompanying this very positive fear, were wonders and miraculous signs. I have no doubt that these manifestations of supernatural things helped them to continue in this positive sort of “fear-of-God.”

Perhaps three main questions can help us to dive more deeply into the question of wonders and miracles: What were the signs and wonders? And, Do signs and wonders still happen today? And, Are we meant to experience them as well?

First, what were they? There is no doubt among any serious scholars that the text is referring to God’s supernatural working. The specific things that He did supernaturally remain somewhat vague in this passage; but we can infer what they were from other passages, with a high probability of being correct. In Acts, we see two primary supernatural manifestations of Gods power: healings and exorcisms. You can bet that these two things were part of what is being referred to in Acts 2:43. In fact, in the passage immediately following this one, the apostle Peter was used by God to heal a crippled man (Acts 3:1-10. For an example of exorcism, see Acts 16;16-18). But Acts also records other things. The great outpouring of the Holy Spirit was accompanied by the miraculous sign of tongues – people from all over the world heard the apostles speaking in their own languages when they preached (Acts 2:5-12). In Acts chapter 12 Peter was miraculously freed from prison. The Holy Spirit gave a word of prophecy to the congregation at Antioch in Acts 13. Paul was bitten by a poisonous snake but suffered no ill effects (Acts 28:3-5). The rest of New Testament also records other sorts of miracles, signs and supernatural workings apart from healings and the driving out of evil spirits. The important thing is not really what the specific events entailed – instead the point is that God intervened in ways that were clearly supernatural. Another significant point is the choice of the words “miraculous signs.” The effect of these things was to strengthen the faith of the believers, and to help in bringing unbelievers to faith. Even today, the fastest growing churches worldwide are those where God is doing supernatural things. The first Church clearly viewed the miracles and wonders as portents of God’s presence. The supernatural events gave them opportunities to preach (Acts 3) and often helped convince unbelievers (Acts 8:9-13).

Now, do these things still happen today? I must be fair and tell you that there are people who genuinely know and love Jesus, who believe that God no longer does miracles like these. For theological support, they point out that in this passage, it only mentions the apostles as those who did the miracles, and since the apostles are now with the Lord, there are no more miracles. They claim that these supernatural actions were merely intended to help the very first church establish itself. Now that the church worldwide is no longer in danger of not being established, miracles aren’t needed. I believe that these people are sincerely misled. There are plenty of other New Testament passages (including some in Acts) that demonstrate that supernatural things are done by God through people other than the apostles. In 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14, Paul clearly expects non-apostolic, ordinary Corinthian house-church members to exhibit miraculous gifts of various sorts. In John, Jesus said this:

“I assure you: The one who believes in Me will also do the works that I do. And he will do even greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in My name, I will do it so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it. (John 14:12-14, HCSB)

Jesus expected that the kinds of things he did, would also be done by his Holy Spirit-empowered disciples. The truth is, the church needs to be re-established in every generation. The Christian message is no more secure now than it was in the time of the apostles – the gospel needs to be communicated again and again to each generation, or it will be lost. There are plenty of local churches that are closing their doors, precisely because they have not done this. We are certainly not in any less need than the first Christians for supernatural power to assist us in our efforts to introduce people to Jesus.

In addition, the evidence demands that we take seriously the premise that God still works supernaturally. As G.K. Chesterton points out,

There is a choking cataract of human testimony in favour of the supernatural.

The fact is… the believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them. The open, obvious thing is to believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a miracle, just as you would believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a murder.

Recent studies have even confirmed that hospital patients recover more quickly, with fewer complications and have an better overall chance of recovery, when they are prayed for. The studies included people who were being prayed for, but were not aware of that fact. They included people who do not believe in the power of prayer. It is indeed accurate to say that God’s supernatural power is alive and still active in our world.

I think part of the difficulty that many people have with miracles is that they seem so unreliable. Let’s be honest. Sometimes, it seems like the perfect situation for God to do a miracle, and yet, he does not. Other times, he may do something that even seems almost unnecessary. I mean, Jesus didn’t have to feed the five thousand. They might have gone hungry that day, but no one was going to starve to death. They would have made it home and found something to eat the next day at the latest. Also, He certainly didn’t have to walk on water. So we hear about miracles that happen for others, and think, “I need a miracle even more than that.” And yet, we don’t get one.

This problem of miracles being unreliable is hangover from our scientific world view. We think if anything is real, we should be able to reliably duplicate the results. But if you think about it, this lack of “reliability” is exactly what makes a miracle miraculous. It can’t be duplicated, because it is an instance of God’s intervention – it isn’t “normal.” In addition, we can’t duplicate it, because we cannot control God, who is the main variable in the experiment.

I suffer from chronic kidney stones. They are extraordinarily painful, and usually, they do not pass for many days. One time, I developed a kidney stone just as I was about to start speaking at a retreat. The people there prayed for me, and within seconds, the pain disappeared. The kidney stone was gone, as quickly as that. I’ve never personally experienced anything like it, before or since. I feel like I sound foolish, sharing this. But it really happened. About six months later, I developed another stone. This time it was a Sunday morning, right before I was about to preach. It was basically the same situation as before. The same group of people prayed for me, and nothing happened. I went home and spent three days of misery until that stone passed. There is no doubt that God healed me from the one stone. There is no doubt that he did not deliver me from the next one. To this day I don’t know why. What I do know, is that God does do miracles, and also that we cannot control when and where he does them.

So, what is our part in all this? Does God want us to be involved in these kinds of things? If you feel a little thrill of fear at that thought, then you’re on the right track! The answer is of course, YES! God wants to do incredible things through us. Of course sometimes we want to “move in the supernatural” all the time and never “come back to earth” – that is not God’s plan either. God uses the supernatural for three main purposes: to set people free (either from sickness, emotional pain or demonization); to strengthen the faith of believers; and to help unbelievers come to faith. He doesn’t work supernaturally simply to give us another cool experience. He wants his children to grow to the point where we walk by faith and not by sight. So the first part of allowing God to work miracles is to release control to Him. Many of us who have had some supernatural experience try to control Him by attempting to arrange things so he’ll come do it again. But we can’t make Him do a miracle. At the same time, we should not try to prevent his working because we are afraid. Primarily what he wants from us in the arena of miracles is an openness, a willingness to be used (or not used), and a sense of fear and awe, that at any time He can come and do whatever He wants.

If we are willing for God to work in ways that might inspire holy fear, what is our part in making that happen? We need to ask him to act, invite him to work. Do we want him to set people free, to strengthen and encourage our faith, and to bring unbelievers to faith? Well, then ask him for a miracle. Ask him to physically heal someone. Ask him to deliver your friend from addiction to drugs or alcohol. Ask him to encourage someone who is struggling. Ask him to find a job for someone who has lost his. The result is up to God, not to us. He is not a machine that we can manipulate. Sometimes he WILL do a miracle. Sometimes he won’t. But, for whatever reason, God has chosen work through us as we are open and as we ask. he best way I know of to PREVENT miracles, is to not ask God for them. So go ahead and ask.

If you are in a house-church, I want to remind you that you are in the perfect context for God to do awe-inspiring things. It was a house church that prayed for the release of Peter when he was imprisoned by Herod. Even so, they did not believe at first the miraculous release that occurred. It was in a house church where a young boy fell out of a high window and died, and Paul prayed and he was made alive again. Prophecies, and the Lord speaking, came often in those first New Testament house-churches. I personally know a man who was instantly delivered from addiction to cigarettes when his house-church prayed for him. I was there when it happened, and frankly, I didn’t believe it at first, but the man hasn’t had a smoke since that night, fourteen years ago.

I encourage you to be open to these types of things that the Lord does. If the thought brings a little thrill of fear, then you are probably on the right track.