WHAT IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN JESUS?

no-excuses

Jesus did not give people the option of being half-hearted about Him. We cannot escape the fact that receiving the grace we find in Jesus is inextricably connected, by Jesus Himself, to following and obeying Him, even when it means we have to give up many significant things in this life.

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 Matthew Part 27

 

Matthew #27 . Matthew 8:14-22

When Jesus went into Peter’s house, He saw his mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. So He touched her hand, and the fever left her. Then she got up and began to serve Him. When evening came, they brought to Him many who were demon-possessed. He drove out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick, so that what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: He Himself took our weaknesses and carried our diseases.

Starting at the beginning of chapter eight, Matthew has been telling us of several healing incidents. Some commentators like to point out that the first two healings were done to people who were outcasts in the eyes of normal Jewish society at the time, so they say that Peter’s mother-in-law was also a kind of outcast – in that she was a woman. However, you can’t get this idea from either the text itself, or from actual historical evidence. In point of fact, given that Peter’s mother-in-law serves Jesus as soon as she is well (presumably meaning she cooked and served his dinner) and the fact that she lives with Peter, it’s pretty ridiculous to view her as some kind of outcast. I bring this up merely to caution us against trying to make the bible fit neatly with our pre-conceived patterns or biases. It’s unfortunate, but true, that sometimes people misinterpret, or even make up, historical and cultural details in order to get the bible to support their own agenda.

The point here is that Jesus didn’t just heal two outcasts – he healed a whole bunch of people, including good Jewish people like Peter’s mother-in-law. Even more than that, Matthew points out that this is a fulfillment of another prophecy about the Messiah, this time from Isaiah 53:4

Yet He Himself bore our sicknesses, and He carried our pains

In other words, Jesus’ healing miracles provided yet another confirmation of who He truly was, and backed up his claims to have the authority of God Himself.

It also says that people brought many to Him who were demon-possessed, and Jesus drove out the spirits with a word. There has been some confusion for many Christians about the condition of being “demon-possessed.” The Greek word here is daimonidzomenous, which could be literally translated “being oppressed by demons.” A good shorthand translation of the root word would be “demonized.” The point I want to make is this. The New Testament does not usually paint a picture of someone being completely “taken over” or “inhabited” by demons (though there are a few exceptions). In most cases, when we see “demon possessed” in English, we should probably read it as meaning, “harassed by demons.” The ESV does a good job with this word, often translating it “oppressed by demons.”

I have some friends who have a son. Several years ago, the boy was exhibiting huge behavioral problems, and he was diagnosed by psychiatrists as having a condition called “reactive detachment disorder.” The parents didn’t know what to do, and had very little hope – they had tried everything that psychiatry and medicine had to offer. I talked to them about the possibility that their son was harassed by demons. They said, “We don’t think so. If we know anything, we do know that he truly trusts in Jesus.” They believed, as many Christians do, that a Jesus-follower cannot be possessed by a demon. I believe that too, but I do think that Jesus-followers can be harassed by demons, or, “demonized,” and the language of the New Testament suggests that is true; in fact, that is most often what daimonidzomai means. Anyway, we got together with the parents, their son, and some other friends, and confronted the demonic harassment in the name of Jesus, and their son’s life was transformed. We witnessed a genuine, New Testament miracle brought about by Jesus Christ.

I share all this for two reasons. First, so that if you are struggling with something that seems very difficult to get handle on, and nothing else seems to work, you may consider the possibility of demonic harassment. I certainly don’t think that all mental illnesses or behavioral issues are demon-induced. However, even among Christians, there is that possibility. The second thing is, Jesus is here present with us just as fully as he was in Peter’s house that evening, and through us He can and will still remove demonic oppression and set people free.

When Jesus saw large crowds around Him, He gave the order to go to the other side of the sea. A scribe approached Him and said, “Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go! ” Jesus told him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.”

“Lord,” another of His disciples said, “first let me go bury my father.” But Jesus told him, “Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”

It appears that Jesus was not entirely happy about having crowds of people following him. These days, we think that the bigger a ministry or church is, the better and more effective it must be. Jesus didn’t seem to think so. He wanted to get away from them, and (it seems, from what follows) even thin out their ranks a little bit.

A man in the crowd comes to him. This individual was a scribe, which makes him one of the educated elite, and probably even wealthy. He calls Jesus “Rabbi,” or, “teacher.” He seems enthusiastic as he declares his commitment to Jesus and you would think Jesus would want to encourage him. These days, if an educated elite person came to a modern Christian pastor and enthusiastically said he wanted to join the church, most of us would say, “Oh Absolutely! I know you are going to love being part of our community. Please just let us know how we can minister to you.” Initially, we would talk about the benefits of following Jesus and of joining our church. We would probably feel nervous about suggesting ways that such a person might contribute until he had been with us for a while, and it would probably be even longer than that, if ever, before we pointed out how it might negatively affect his standing in the community and his financial security.

But Jesus’ response to this man amounts to basically this: “Whatever. You aren’t going to be able to keep your home if you follow me.”

If you have never noticed this side of Jesus before, I want you to pay attention now. He is shocking, almost rude. It almost seems like He doesn’t care if the man follows Him or not. I could quickly name a hundred or more church-goers and even church leaders who would chastise any pastor who acted like Jesus did in this situation; but actually, I’m not sure I know any pastor who would risk it.

But the truth is, all four gospels record Jesus behaving like this. Rather than trying to make discipleship appealing, he often seems to say things to discourage people from “joining the movement.” He consistently avoided and distrusted large crowds of people who appeared to be excited about him, at least, at a superficial level. In America, for a whole generation, Christian leaders have been trying to gather large, superficial crowds, hoping that they will move from shallow, non-committal church goers into true disciples. We challenge them only reluctantly and even then we do it very, very gently. However, Jesus immediately confronts people with the cost and commitment level required to follow him.

A second person was with Jesus. Matthew calls him a “disciple” and records that he calls Jesus “Lord.” The ancient church leader, Clement of Alexandria, writing about this passage one-hundred and fifty years later, records a tradition that says this was actually Philip, one of Jesus’ first two disciples, and one of the “twelve,” but we can’t know for sure.

This disciple says that he needs to bury his father before he can come with Jesus. Some commentators have speculated that the man’s father was not actually dead yet, but was elderly, and expected to die soon. In this case, the disciple was saying, “I’ll follow you, but not until I after I have finished dealing with my dad’s illness and eventual death.” The other possibility is that this disciple’s father had just died, and the burial was about to happen, and so he was saying to Jesus that he couldn’t go across the lake with him just now, because he had to go to the funeral.

Either way, Jesus’ response is once again shocking and rude: “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” This is another one of those places that is not great moral teaching, or wise philosophy, or a kind outlook. In these two incidents Jesus plainly puts it to people that what he wants from them is to obey Him, and put Him above everything else. It is not good teaching or wise philosophy unless Jesus is in fact, the Messiah, God-in-the-flesh.

Could I put it this way? Jesus is not trying sell people on the benefits of being his disciple. He is up front about how hard it is. The reason to follow him is not because it will benefit you. The reason to follow him is because he is the Messiah, the Savior of the World, God the Son come in flesh.

The Word of God is always relevant. Just this week as I was preparing this sermon, one of the leaders of the largest church in the United States made a statement that the real reason to follow God and worship Him is for what we get out it, because it benefits us, and makes us happy, and that’s what makes God happy. All you have to do is read these verses to know how distorted that message is.

There’s more. This passage is not a specific command for every Christian to sell her house, or let her parents die unattended. But Matthew uses these as examples of the fact that Jesus intends us to put Him in front of absolutely everything and everyone else, and that there are times when doing that results in radical obedience that involves very difficult choices, and giving up things that are very dear to us.

At some point, following Jesus will cost us. Nothing should be more important to us than Jesus, and if it comes to it, yes, we should leave our family in His hands and follow Him, or be willing to give up our home and our financial security to follow him. It may cost us family members or friends, or a career, or the kind of life we think we want.

Let me be a little bold. I know many people who call themselves Christians who have a very difficult time taking even just a couple hours a week to worship Jesus with other believers, let alone dedicating any other time to serving Him. Something like giving up financial security to follow Jesus is not even on the horizons of their minds. Sports get in the way, especially sports for children. Families will think nothing of running their nine-year-old children to practices and games that chew up six to twenty hours in a week, and then say they are too tired to spend an hour or two learning more about Jesus and worshipping him with other believers, or even just hanging out with other Christians who need emotional or spiritual support. Jobs and careers interfere. People get busy with all sort of things: hobbies, home-improvement, social events, entertainment, even television.

Here we read that Jesus confronted one man about having a home, and a second about going to his father’s funeral. What do you think he has to say to you about your excuses for not following him, and not being more involved with others who do?

Following Jesus means he comes first, before everything and everyone. He comes before your home. Before your family, your friends or career. He comes before getting a sports scholarship for your child. He comes before your comfort, your security, your preferences, your plans.

We want to give half-hearted Christians an option. In part, we pastors allow half-hearted Christians in our churches because it feels safer, financially. Honestly, if I had whole bunch of half-hearted Christians in my church who would at least just give some money, I would feel better off financially than I am with these few whole-hearted Jesus-followers. If just don’t offend them, everything will be stable for me We also do it in the name of compassion. We don’t want people to feel bad about the choices they are making, especially if they are not choices to sin overtly. I mean, what’s so bad about sports?

But do we really think we are more compassionate than Jesus? Isn’t it compassion to tell someone the truth? Would you want a doctor to tell you that you were absolutely fine, when in reality you were suffering from cancer, and needed treatment immediately if you were to be cured? Compassion would speak the hard truth: “You need treatment, and you need it now.”

Jesus did not give people an option to be half-hearted about Him. “You want to follow me, you will have no house.” Or, “You want to follow me, you won’t be able to take care of your elderly father, or even go to his funeral.” This is not an obscure teaching of Jesus. We will revisit it again in the book of Matthew, and it appears all throughout the New Testament. Still to come (in just Matthew) are: “You want to follow me, you have to put me above father, mother, husband, wife, children, sister and brother,” and “You want to follow me, be willing to die – to give up everything for me – every single day.” The compassion of Jesus tells us this: If He is not first, if he does not come before everything, we are in danger, and we need treatment.

Now, there is grace to us when we fail to put Jesus first. Let’s suppose for moment that the second man here, the disciple, was in fact Philip. He had been putting his father first. Jesus confronted him about it. We know that Philip humbly received that correction, and he went on to become an important leader in the early church, responsible for sending Christianity to Africa for the very first time. I fail to put Jesus first sometimes. I imagine we all do. He has compassion on us, and forgives us, but he does also call us to correct the mistake.

It often seems like we have made the faith into a set of intellectual beliefs which to which we subscribe. And that’s comfortable, because we can say believe those things, no matter what our behavior. But what the bible calls faith is really just following Jesus. We cannot escape the fact that receiving the grace we find in Jesus is inextricably connected by Jesus Himself to following and obeying Him, even when it means we have to give up many significant things in this life.

“Happy are they who, knowing that grace, can live in the world without being of it, who, by following Jesus Christ are so assured of their heavenly citizenship that they are truly free to live their lives in this world. Happy are those who know that discipleship simply means the life that springs from grace, and that grace simply means discipleship. Happy are they who have become Christians in this sense of the word. For them the word of grace has proved a fount of mercy.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

Thanks again for making use of Clear Bible.

I want to remind you again that we are a listener-supported ministry, and that means, first and foremost, that we are supported by your prayers. We need and value your prayers for us.

Please pray that this ministry will continue to be a blessing to those who hear it. Ask God, if it is his will, to touch even more lives with these messages. Ask him to use this ministry in making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Please also pray for our finances. Pray for us to receive what we need. Please pray for us in this way before you give anything. And then, as you pray, if the Lord leads you to give us a gift, please go ahead and do that. But if he doesn’t want you to give to us, that is absolutely fine. We don’t want you to feel bad about it. We want you to follow Jesus in this matter. But do continue to pray for our finances.

If the Lord does lead you to give, just use the Paypal Donate button on the right hand side of the page. You don’t have to have a Paypal account – you can use a credit card, if you prefer. You can also set up a recurring donation through Paypal.

You could also send a check to:

New Joy Fellowship

625 Spring Creek Road

Lebanon, TN 37087

Just “Clear Bible” in the memo. Your check will be tax-deductible. Unfortunately, we cannot do the tax deductible option with the paypal donate button, however the money does go directly to support this ministry.

 

Thank for your prayers, and your support!

ARE YOU REALLY BLESSED IF YOU HAVE NOTHING?

poor

 

 

Jesus calls “blessed” what we usually call “NOT blessed.”

 

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 Matthew Part 10

 

Matthew #10 . Chapter 5:1-2

Chapter five is the beginning of what many people call “The Sermon on the Mount.” At the end of chapter four, we saw large crowds of people following Jesus around, mostly because he healed people. Matthew records that Jesus took his disciples aside, up a nearby mountain and spent some time teaching them. It isn’t spelled out, but it the picture seems to be of more than just the twelve apostles here. Instead, this teaching was for everyone who wanted to follow him. I think the main point Matthew was making was that there was a difference between “the crowds” and “Jesus disciples.” In other words, this teaching was given to people who trust Jesus and want to continue to trust him and be related to him. These are not standards we should try to apply to people who are not Christians. They are, however for all disciples of Jesus. Today, if you believe in Jesus and trust him, you are one of his disciples. This teaching is for you.

I’ve always heard Matthew 5:3-12, (the first part of the Sermon on the Mount) called “the beatitudes.” This never made any sense to me, because the word “beatitude” doesn’t appear anywhere in this passage in the English translations; it is a word of Latin/French origin anyway, not a Greek or Aramaic term. Besides that, until I looked it up in a dictionary, I didn’t know what “beatitude” meant.[1]

What Jesus is really teaching in this first section of the Sermon on the Mount are attitudes of the heart that ought to mark every person who is a Christian. Once again, we need to recall that He is speaking to people who are already in relationship with him. I don’t believe that the “blessings” which he pronounces over these heart-attitudes can be separated. In other words, he is not saying, “some of you are blessed because you are poor in spirit, and others are blessed because they are pure in heart…” No, the truth is one cannot be pure of heart unless one is also poor in Spirit. Likewise it may not be possible to be a peace-maker unless one is also gentle or meek. So the point is, Jesus wants all of his followers to be growing, and possessing all of these character traits in increasing measure. Certainly, some people may find it easier to be a peace-maker than to maintain a pure heart, while others have trouble with the idea of persecution, even while they desperately hunger for righteousness. Jesus certainly takes us just the way we are. It is also true that when we come into relationship with Jesus, he begins to change us by the power of the Holy Spirit, to help us to become more like the original blue-print he had when he made human beings, before Adam and Eve sinned. In other words, if we are tune with the Holy Spirit and with the Bible, we will continue to grow.

Before we look at what Jesus pronounces “blessed” I would like us to briefly consider what most of our culture might say about these same topics, if we were honest with ourselves. I am sad to say that many of us who are Christians often fall into the same patterns of thought, myself included. So an American version might read like this:

    • Blessed are the financially secure, for they have no worries, and money sets them free to pursue who they want to be.
    • Blessed are those who never experience any grief or pain, for life is easy for them.
    • Blessed are those with ambition, for they will get what they really “go for.”
    • Blessed are those who remain outwardly moral and upright, for they will be respected by all.
    • Blessed are those who are kind when it doesn’t really hurt them, for we think they are both good and smart.
    • Blessed are those who “seize the day” and are not encumbered by prudish moral distinctions, for they get to enjoy all things.
    • Blessed are those who can arrange circumstances to get what they want.
    • Blessed are those who never face persecution.

I honestly believe that most people in America, even many Christians, would find themselves agreeing with some, or even most, of the statements above. As I just mentioned, in unguarded moments I even find myself thinking this way, especially with regard to the first two and the last one. But this just one example of how Jesus’ thinking is so counter-cultural. Many of the blessings above are diametrically opposed to the statements Jesus makes in Matthew 5. And some of them, while not precisely opposite in meaning, completely miss the intentions of Jesus. So what does Jesus say? We will begin to look at that in detail right now.

The sermon on the mount continues through all of chapters five, six and seven. It includes the teaching that to lust is equal to the sin of adultery, that to hate or call someone a fool is the same as murder. In Matthew 5:48, Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” As we read these things, I think you will be continually struck by one recurring question: Who could actually live like this? Who is truly capable of living up to these holy standards?

We are meant to ask that question, and to struggle with it. The standards of the sermon on the mount show us our spiritual poverty. They make us hunger and thirst to be that righteous. This shows us clearly that we do not have the resources to be that Holy We are meant to realize that the answer is “not me.” In fact, only one person could possibly live up that standard: Jesus himself.

So where does that leave us? We need Jesus to live his holy live “inside” of our lives, through our lives. We need to recognize our deep spiritual poverty, our desperate need for Jesus.

And that is why Jesus begins his whole discourse with this sentence:

“The poor in spirit are blessed, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs. (Matt 5:3, HCSB)

We begin to have the right attitude when we realize that we are utterly without resources. We cannot be perfect. We cannot attain to the standard of Jesus. Instead, we recognize that we are dependent upon Jesus to manifest his holy and perfect character in and through our lives.

To be poor in spirit means to realize our true position before God. Consider Revelation 3:17. This is part of the message Jesus gave to the church in Laodicea.

“You say, ‘I am rich, and have become wealthy and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched, and miserable and poor and blind and naked…”

It is so easy to come before God thinking we have something of value to offer him. We think the fact that we live basically moral lives ought to count for something. We think that we are certainly not as bad as some people, and that ought to be a bargaining chip for dealings with God. Sometimes if we do something particularly noble or self-sacrificing, we suppose God has to recognize that. This is not the attitude of someone who is poor in spirit. The poor in spirit know that before God, we have nothing. They know that we are in fact wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked when it comes to spiritual things. Now, if this were our physical condition, I imagine we would be desperate. We would urgently seek help for our impoverished situation. In the same way, the mark of spiritual poverty is desperation for God. For the poor in spirit, all back-up plans have failed, all safety nets have broken, all contingency actions have been fruitless. The last drop of water is gone from the desert traveler’s broken canteen; the safety line of the rock climber has snapped in the fall; the last bullet is gone from the gun of the soldier, and the enemy is advancing.

Does this describe your spiritual life? Are you desperate for the Lord? Do you cling to his promises as a shipwrecked sailor clings to his life-ring? Do you truly believe that without the great mercy of God you have nothing, that without him you are utterly lost? And do you believe that you have no claim on him, that nothing you have or are can manipulate him to act on your behalf? Jesus once asked his disciples if they wanted to leave him. Peter said:

“Lord, to what person could we go? Your words give eternal life. Besides, we believe and know that you are the Holy one of God” (John 6:68-69)

Peter and the others were desperate. They knew that they had no where else to turn. And they knew also that they had no claim to make on God, no basis by which to demand deliverance. Desperate, they threw themselves on the mercy of God. The words of the old hymn, Rock of Ages put it very well:

Nothing in my hand I bring; simply to thy cross I cling

Naked come to thee for dress; Helpless, look to thee for grace;

Foul, I to the fountain fly; Wash me savior, or I die.

The Kingdom of heaven belongs to the spiritually poor because only the spiritually poor are willing to come on God’s terms. I encourage you this week to think of yourself as poor in spirit, and to receive the blessing of all of God’s fullness poured into all of your emptiness.

Hold on to this lesson, and return to it during these next weeks as we continue through the Sermon on the Mount.


[1] If you want to know, look it up yourself!

JESUS AND FISHING

jesus fisherman

 

From the very beginning, Jesus invited all of his followers into the his own mission: to reach the world with the good news of forgiveness and grace through Him. This was not true only for Jesus’ twelve apostles, or for those with a special call to vocational ministry, but also for every Christian.

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 Matthew Part 9

 

 

Matthew #9. Chapter 4:17-25

The Light that came to Galilee in fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy was Jesus Christ himself. Matthew 4:17-25 records how he began his ministry. The essence of his message, at least at first, was much like the message of John the Baptist: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” I think that brief sentence summarizes the main point of Jesus’ first preaching in Galilee. He is trying to raise awareness that God is near, and actively working, and the appropriate response to the presence of God in our lives is to turn away from our sins and turn toward God. Jesus has not yet broadcast to the general public that He himself is God the Son, one of the Three Persons who make up the one true God. However, he is sending the message that God is at work and it is time for people to repent and submit themselves to God’s ruler-ship.

In verses 18-22, Matthew records an encounter between Jesus and four other men: Simon (Peter) Andrew, James and John. This was not the first encounter between Jesus and at least some of these men. Before John the Baptist was put into prison, he pointed Jesus out to Andrew and another unnamed person. Since it is the apostle John who records this (John 1:35-42) it is likely that he (John the apostle) was the unnamed person. Andrew introduced his brother Simon (who later became known as Peter) to Jesus. Peter, Andrew and John spent at least a day with Jesus at that time. So did two other individuals, Philip and Nathaniel. All this probably happened in Judea, south of Galilee, before John the Baptist was put into prison.

What this means is that Jesus was not a stranger when he called Peter, Andrew, James and John to follow him. John the Baptist had told them he was the Messiah. They had spent time with him. They may have even heard some of Jesus’ preaching in Galilee (as recorded in verse 17) before he called them.

In fact, Luke 5:1-10 fills out this incident for us. Both sets of brothers made a living as commercial fishermen. Peter and Andrew were on shore, messing with their nets. Jesus, knowing them from before, borrowed one of the boats belonging to them, and used it as a platform to preach a sermon to a crowd that had gathered along the lakeshore. After he was done, he told the fishermen to try fishing one last time. Peter objected, but obeyed anyway. The result was a huge catch of fish – so large that they had to call in their partners for help. Their partners happened to be James and John. In fact the catch was so enormous, and the whole incident so unusual that the fishermen clearly regarded it as a miracle. When the fish were all in, Jesus called the four of them to follow him. He said their new job was to bring in people, not fish. They immediately left work and went with Jesus.

After this, Jesus continued to travel around in the region of Galilee, preaching. Apparently, Peter, Andrew, James and John went with him from that time forward. Jesus’ preaching was accompanied by miracles, especially healing and deliverance from demonic oppression. In a time before antibiotics or pain medications, the prospects of getting healing or relief were normally very dim. So, Jesus’ reputation as a healer drew huge crowds from all over the region, and even from Judea in the south.

Now, let’s unpack this text a little bit.

First, Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of Heaven and Repentance. By his death on the cross, Jesus made it possible for us to be forgiven. Many times he demonstrated God’s love and grace. Many times, he spoke about that same love and grace and goodness. But Matthew reminds us here that the very first thing he preached was repentance. Repentance opens the door to God’s love and grace. If we refuse to repent, the door stays shut, and God’s love doesn’t do us any good. When God comes near, the very first order of business is repentance. We covered the topic of repentance in some depth in part 5 of our series on Matthew. Some things are worth repeating, however.

To repent means to turn back, to go a completely different way. If you can read these words, it is not too late for you to repent. Jesus can handle whatever horrible thing you’ve done, whatever you’ve left undone, and even whatever terrible thing was done to you. But you need to drop it, to turn away from it, and turn to Him. To repent is to fully own the fact that you have been wrong, with no excuses, and then to turn away from it, for all intents, forever.

Now, our turning away forever almost never happens perfectly. But it does mean that you are going a different direction now. You may fall down sometimes as you walk in the new direction. You probably won’t walk it perfectly. But after you repent, your direction is different than it was before. Once in a while, perhaps, you fall back into the same actions as before. But your overall direction is new, oriented toward God, not away from him.

Many of you reading this blog have already repented and turned to Jesus, and received him as your Lord and your salvation. That’s wonderful. But for us who have done that, Jesus is still at hand. He still wants to show up in our lives in greater and more profound ways. He wants to give us even more grace, more joy, more peace, a more abundant life in Him. To receive these things from him, our path is the same: repent!

Now, let’s look Jesus’ call to the fishing brothers. I think there are two important things we find here. First, this demonstrates that Jesus has a unique calling for some individuals to leave ordinary employment, and work for him full time. We describe this as a calling to vocational ministry. Peter, Andrew, James and John (and others who came later) left their vocations and jobs, and dedicated themselves full-time to the mission of Jesus. Jesus asked them to do this. He did not ask everyone he encountered to do it, even if they believed in him, and became his disciples. Jesus once delivered a man from many demons. The man wanted to leave everything and become a full-time minister.

As He was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed kept begging Him to be with Him. But He would not let him; instead, He told him, “Go back home to your own people, and report to them how much the Lord has done for you and how He has had mercy on you.” (Mark 5:18-19, HCSB)

Jesus wanted the man to continue to follow him in faith; he wanted the man to engage in His mission and tell others the good news, but Jesus asked him to do it right where he was, in his everyday life.

Twenty years ago, I might not have bothered to point out that the four fisherman had a unique call to vocational ministry, and I doubt I would have thought it necessary to make the case that some Christians in every generation have a similar call. But in our post-modern, anti-authoritarian culture, I think we have gone too far. We are becoming so anti-institutional that many people have become suspicious of those who are called into vocational ministry. I’m not a fan of institutions or hierarchies myself. But the bible does clearly teach that God calls certain individuals to specially dedicate their lives to teaching and training other Christians.

Paul says:

Who ever goes to war at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its fruit? Or who shepherds a flock and does not drink the milk from the flock? Am I saying this from a human perspective? Doesn’t the law also say the same thing? 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? (1Cor 9:6-11, HCSB)

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 9:13-14, HCSB)

James says this:

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

The author of Hebrews says:

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Heb 13:17, ESV2011)

Ephesians 4:11-12 says this:

And He personally gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, for the training of the saints in the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ (Eph 4:11-12, HCSB)

There are many more verses like this, which demonstrate the same point. Now, it is true that being called to full-time ministry does not make anyone a better or more important person. It is true that every Christian should be reading the bible individually, and engaging with others in the mission of Jesus. It’s true that every Christian should be willing and able to talk with others about Jesus. But there is a unique calling to teaching and equipping that is given to a relatively small number of people. I’ve seen individuals struggle and be led astray because some person just decided that he would start a church, or start preaching, without truly being called to it. I’ve heard and read a lot of bad, unbiblical teaching over the years because people have not appreciated that you should take a preaching/teaching equipping ministry very seriously; and few are called to it. I’ve also seen churches flounder because they reject a godly, biblical leadership model.

Now, I’m going to turn it around and try and have it both ways, because I think the text has it both ways. Just as this text shows us that some people are called uniquely to vocational ministry, it also shows us that everyone who trusts Jesus is called to participate in His mission. Not everyone is called to leave his or her career. However, all Christians are called to follow Jesus. For most, that means, among other things, expressing your faith and living for his purpose as you fulfill your everyday responsibilities at home and at work. It means being a disciple of Jesus when you are with your family, your friends, when you are at work, when you are driving, playing golf, fishing – in fact, all the time.

It is obvious that all New Testament Christians believed this and practiced it (Matthew 28:16-19; Acts 11:19-26; 1 Peter 2:12-15, 3:15-16). From the very beginning, Jesus invited all of his followers into the his own mission: to reach the world with the good news of forgiveness and grace through Him. This was not true only for Jesus’ twelve apostles, or for those with a special call to vocational ministry, but also for every Christian. For most Christians, the context for the mission of Jesus is your everyday life. Regardless, we should embrace that mission as part of embracing Jesus and his grace and forgiveness to us.

SOWING THE SEED

sowingseed

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 12

EXPERIENCING LIFE TOGETHTER #12

You are almost at the end of 15 weeks of a cell/house church experience. Hopefully this is been a positive experience. If things have gone as they often do, you might not want this experience to end; you might want this group to continue to meet together. That is generally a good thing, and our hope is that your group does continue for many months to come. In many ways a house church group that has been together for 15 weeks is only just beginning, and there might be months, or even a year or two of meeting as you are. But in the life of every house church group there comes a time when things ought to change. Your group leader has probably spoken about this already during one of the previous house church group meetings. In house church group circles this change is called “multiplication.” Generally, a healthy house church group in the United States should multiply after it has been together for between nine months and two years. So your 15 week group is probably not ready to multiply, and that’s okay. But this business of multiplication is sometimes hard to understand and even harder to accept, and so as we reach the end of this group curriculum it is an important topic to devote some time to.

Just in case anyone is still confused about what “multiplication” or “multiplying” is, let’s review it briefly. House church groups are supposed to be small groups. Technically a small group consists of 15 members or less. There is a certain dynamic in a group of this size that helps it to feel “small.” This dynamic is what facilitates the ministry of house church groups. In a small group all members are more likely to feel included. In a small group, it is easier for members to use their gifts to serve one another. In a small group sharing and praying take place on a deeper level. In a small group it is easier to recognize and welcome new visitors, and to devote the energies of the group to minister to particularly needy families. Of course the true key to house-church ministry is the Lord working in and amongst the members of the house church group. But this working is greatly facilitated by keeping the size of the group relatively small.

When the group has more than 15 members, the group dynamics change. There are so many different possible relationships, that the group no longer feels small; often, sub-groups start to form. It becomes harder to tell if someone within the group is hurting and sometimes absences may even go unnoticed; needs may go un-ministered to. When the group is large enough for people to sit back passively and not participate, they do not usually grow as disciples very much. A large group certainly has its purposes. Notably, it is often more fun to worship in a large group and it is more effective to teach a large number of people at one time. But a large group is not the most effective weekly context for making disciples. A large group does not make a good house church. Therefore when a house church group grows by reaching out to new people, eventually it becomes time to take what has become a large group and make it into two new small groups. This is what we mean when we say multiplication — the one group multiplies into two.

There are a few common objections that people offer to multiplication. Many people feel that the new group, because it is missing some of the members of the old group, could never be as close or effective in ministry as the old group was. Other people simply enjoy the group so much they don’t want anything to change. It is easy to empathize with these feelings — none of us enjoys changing things that don’t appear to need change. We all like to feel secure and have a group with whom we feel safe. Others fear that relationships will be lost without the continuity of a regular group meeting.

All these fears arise when we are focused upon ourselves, our desires, and our comfort. But Jesus calls us not to be comfortable, but to let him live his life out through us. Paul put it like this:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal 2:20, ESV2011)

We are here to let Christ live in and through us. His purpose is to make disciples. He said:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the father and of the sun and of the holy spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I’ve commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:18-20).

The church is not on earth to please itself. If we are Christians, our purpose in life should not be to make ourselves more comfortable. Every single believer in Jesus Christ should be about at least some aspect of the business of making disciples of Jesus Christ. We need to be about this business even when it involves sacrifice and discomfort for ourselves. After all, Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for us. Jesus describes his own sacrifice, and the call to live for his purposes, like this:

I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life (John 12:24-25).

Jesus is explaining that in order to bear fruit for the Kingdom of God, God’s people must sometimes make sacrifices. A way of paraphrasing this for house church groups might be as follows:

I tell you the truth, unless the members of a house church group are willing to move out of their own comfort zones and multiply, the house church group remains only a single group and its influence for the Kingdom of God is limited to just the members of that group. But if the members are willing, and the group grows and multiplies, many more groups may be formed as a result and many more lives may be touched by Jesus. For if group wants to stay together for its own sake eventually it will become stale and stagnant and may even end. But those who are willing to multiply will find that they have fellowship with their dear friends even if they are not in the same group, and will find the reward of serving their Lord and Savior.

Over the past few months, we’ve looked a little bit at early church in Jerusalem, as described in the first few chapters of Acts. It was surely one of the most wonderful churches that anyone could be a part of. They had such sweet fellowship, and everything seemed to work together. And yet, the Lord allowed persecution to break out against that church, and it was scattered. This appeared to be a negative thing and it appeared as though their sweet fellowship had been broken. And yet, as a result of this scattering of the church, many more people in other places were given the chance to know Jesus.

On that day a severe persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the land of Judea and Samaria…

So those who were scattered went on their way preaching the message of good news…

Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them…

So there was great joy in that city (excerpts from Acts 8:1-8)

The breaking up of the sweet fellowship in Jerusalem resulted in the spreading of the good news, and the joy of salvation in other places. They were scattered, like seed, and that seed took root, and bore even more fruit.

The 12 apostles, while they had their occasional quarrels, must surely have been a tight group. And yet, once the Holy Spirit came upon them, they never were all together again — they never were the same small group that they had once been. While they could have chosen to look on this as personal tragedy, instead they accepted what the Lord was doing, and as a result, we know Jesus today. If those first Christians had not been open to multiplication, we probably would not be Christians today. Consider what results may occur years down the road if you too, are open, as they were.

The truth is, those that fear a new house-church group could never be the same as the old, overlook the fact that the power, and joy and love that they feel in a house church group comes not from the members, but really from God through the Holy Spirit as he works in and through the members of the group. And when a group multiplies, the Holy Spirit goes with each new group. Therefore the same love, the same power, and the same fellowship are all present in the new group just as they were in the old.

Some of you reading these notes may not even be in a house-church. How does this apply to you? At a personal level, these verses call all believers, wherever they are, to be ready to let Jesus work in them, and through them, even if it involves sacrifice. Some people, even today (in some areas of the world), give up their very lives for the sake of Jesus. At the very least, we should be willing to give up our personal comfort, so that someone else might be able become his disciple.

But I want to encourage each one of you, our comfort really comes from the presence of God, and his Holy Spirit goes with us, even when we leave our comfort zone. Jesus’ mission was to leave his comfort zone, and reach out to those who would receive him. Now, he lives in us, through the Holy Spirit, and he still wants to fulfill that same mission. There is joy and grace for us when we let him do that through us.