TOUGH LOVE

 loving discipline

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

 

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Matthew #63 Matthew 18:15-35

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul, implementing church discipline in Corinth, writes this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul writes to the Galatians about church discipline:

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus ends his instructions with some encouragement:

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

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

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you right now.

~

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PAGAN PRIESTS FIND JESUS THROUGH HOROSCOPE

Astrologer

The story of the Magi is actually kind of strange and disturbing when you think about it. Pagan Shamans were led to Jesus through astrology. What can we learn from this?

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 3

Matthew #3 . Chapter 2:1-12

To be honest with you, if I was God, inspiring people to write the Bible, I would either keep the wise men out of the gospel of Matthew, or I would explain more about them.

Only two out of the four gospels tell us much about the birth of Jesus in the first place – Matthew and Luke. Matthew leaves out the shepherds; Luke leaves out the wise men. In the first six chapters of his gospel, Matthew takes great care to point out how the birth and early life of Jesus fulfilled various prophecies about the Messiah from the Old Testament. In fact, in the first two chapters, Matthew points out four specific instances where prophecies were fulfilled. Surely, if there was a prophecy in the Old Testament about these visitors from the east, Matthew would have mentioned it.

Not only does this incident have nothing to do with prophecy, at first blush it seems to have nothing to do with Biblical Christianity or even Orthodox Judaism. The term translated “Wise men” or “Magi” usually refers to a sort of Babylonian priest or scholar who was especially acquainted with the study and interpretation of the stars, and of dreams and things like that. In different times or places they might have been called Shamans, or Druids, or Seers, or even Magicians. That’s right. The Babylonian or Arabian Magi held roughly the same position in their society as Druids did in Celtic society. Do you understand? – we are talking about pagan priests, coming to see Jesus. Now are you interested?

Not only are these people pagan priests, but somehow, they have learned about Jesus’ birth – through astrology. It was the behavior of the stars which told them that someone very important and significant was born. The stars even told them generally where in the world to look for the child. As far as we know, it was not because they searched the scriptures, or listened to a Jewish preacher on TV or anything else. The wise men don’t really fit into my typical way of looking at world. Pagan priests are drawn to Jesus through astrology?! I think what bothers me most is this question: does this mean that all religions really do lead to the same God?

First, I want to point out that this is another one of those passages that seems to confirm the authenticity of the New Testament. If we are honest, we must admit that it raises troubling questions and ideas. If the New Testament were made up, or if the stories about Jesus were extensively edited and changed, this story would have been one of the first to be cut. In other words, there seems to be no reason to have this here unless it really happened, and God wants us to learn something from it.

I want to briefly set up the historical timeline here. Matthew makes it clear this occurs after Jesus was born (2:1). Herod asks the Magi when the star appeared. When the Magi find Jesus, he is living with his parents in a house (not a stable). Later, Herod thinks that Jesus might be up to two years old (2:16). So, while it is very picturesque to imagine the wise-men standing in the stable with the shepherds and donkeys on Christmas night, that is almost certainly not how it actually happened.

So, what does the Lord want to say to us through this little section of scripture? First, and probably most importantly, the message is this: This little baby, born in Bethlehem, in accordance with the prophecies for the Jewish Messiah, is for all people. His life, death and resurrection and his teaching also, are not intended only for the Jews and the small nation of Israel. From birth, his influence and significance are there for the whole world. The wise men were not Jews by religion nor by birth. But Jesus was for them too. We call Christmas a “Christian” Holiday. But God calls it a gift for the whole world; a gift for all people – including pagan priests.

Second, let’s look at those wise men. By the way, the Bible does not actually tell us how many of them there are, or what their names were. All of that is folk legend. Probably, the idea of three wise men came about because three kinds of gifts were presented: gold, frankincense and myrrh. We only know that there was more than one (the Greek word for Magi is plural), and it is reasonable to suppose that it wasn’t an extremely large group either. In any case, we can be reasonably sure that not every pagan priest in the region came to see Jesus. Presumably, other pagan priests also studied the stars. They saw what the traveling wise men saw. But why did only these particular men come to see Jesus?

I think the answer is this. These men saw Jesus in the stars because in their hearts, they were honestly seeking the truth and they were hungering for God. When they made it to Jerusalem, they told Herod they were there to worship the child revealed in the stars. When they actually found Jesus, that is exactly what they did – they worshiped him. You see, I don’t think this is an affirmation of pagan religion. Instead, it is an affirmation of honest seeking. These pagans didn’t know any of the Bible. They had never heard of the Messiah. But in their hearts, they hungered for God, and they pursued him honestly and diligently. And even though they were looking in the wrong places, they really were looking. Since there were no other means available, God used the stars to direct them to him.

This is in contrast to Herod and the Jewish leaders. Herod wasn’t a Jew, but he was surrounded by them and easily could have learned about God if he chose. The Jewish leaders studied the scriptures. They knew that Messiah was supposed to be born in Bethlehem. In fact, Matthew lists the scripture here, allowing us to see yet another way in Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy. But the Jewish leaders at that time weren’t seeking God. Instead, it was pagan priests, completely ignorant of the Bible, who found God when he came into the world. Jeremiah 29:13-14 says this:

If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the Lord.

Jesus says it like this:

Keep asking, and it will be given to you. Keep searching, and you will find. Keep knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who searches finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. (Matthew 7:7-8)

The wise men were seeking. And in accordance with the promises listed above, when they looked wholeheartedly, they found the true God. It wasn’t their pagan religion that led them to “the same God worshiped by all religions.” Instead, it was that their seeking, hungering hearts led them to true faith in Jesus Christ. Other pagans didn’t come to Bethlehem, even though they had the same information. Those men didn’t have the same hearts. Herod didn’t come, and neither did the Jewish leaders – even after they heard what the Magi had to say. They didn’t have seeking hearts as the Magi.

The wise men who saw Jesus didn’t go to Bethlehem and then perform pagan worship rituals. They went to Bethlehem, put their faith in Jesus, and worshiped Him, specifically. To express it another way, the moment they worshiped Jesus, they were no longer pagans, but Christians.

That may answer the question about other religions. I think the idea is sort of this: a true seeker will not remain in a false religion, but that false religion may be the initial point from which a true seeker eventually comes to know Jesus. The wise men didn’t receive eternal life through pagan religion – they received it through faith in Jesus. A Hindu won’t get to heaven by being a good Hindu. But suppose something in Hinduism leads him to find out about Jesus. Suppose he eventually puts his faith in Jesus – then he would have eternal life. It would not be Hinduism that saved him, but Jesus. By and large, Hinduism does not point to Jesus; but God could certainly use some aspect of it to draw a true seeker to the truth and salvation found only in Jesus Christ. That is very much like what he did for the Magi.

What initially drew the Magi to study the stars was only a shadow of the reality found in Jesus, who is called the Bright Morning Star (Numbers 24:17; Revelation 22:16). The Christmas tree is a pagan symbol too. But maybe the pagan imagery of tree worship, like that of astrology, is just a memory of the real thing, which goes farther back still, all the way to the Garden and the tree of life. The real thing is what those pagan priests sought.

So, with these strange pagan shamans in mind, I think there is a question worth considering: What are you seeking these days? Are you interested in finding the truth? Do you really want God himself, or do you just want God to do something for you? Maybe, like Herod or the Jewish leaders, your biggest concern is how Jesus might affect the plans and ambitions you have for your life.

What has led you to this place? Family, friends or your horoscope? The hope of a day’s comfort? Whatever it might be, let go of the shadow, and see the true reality that the Magi saw – the little toddler, invested with all the fullness of God. True hope. True life. True love. With the wise men, fall down, and exchange the empty shadows for the truth. Worship him. Receive him.

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.

 

 

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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.

WHAT DO CHRISTIANS DO WITH SILLY OLD TESTAMENT LAWS?

law-books-and-gavel

Jesus did not set aside the laws of the Old Testament. He fulfilled them. This is very important, as we seek to understand the law-genre we find in the bible. When we really understand how to interpret those ancient laws, there is tremendous blessing and grace there for us.

 

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Understanding the Bible #7 .

One of the most misunderstood and misused genres in the bible are the laws, particularly the laws contained in the Old Testament.

Here’s an example. I have heard it said, many times: “In the same section of the bible where it says homosexual sex is wrong, it also says eating shellfish is wrong. It also says it is wrong to wear clothes with more than one kind of fiber. Therefore, unless you want to stop eating shrimp and wearing anything that isn’t 100% cotton, you can’t say that homosexual behavior is a sin.”

Let me say that I do understand the confusion. However, let me also say that if you say some such thing, it reveals that a) You haven’t read the bible in context and b) You don’t understand how to read laws in the bible.

First, let me remind you about context. The verse in question is Leviticus 18:22. The immediate context includes more laws regarding sexual behavior. The verses just before 18:22 prohibit incest, including child sexual abuse. The verses just after it prohibit sex with animals, and also the practice of burning babies alive. So, if you throw out Leviticus 18:22 because of context, congratulations! You’ve now endorsed incest, bestiality and the brutal murder of live infants. You don’t get to the part about two kinds of cloth for another 28 verses, and before you get there, you find laws protecting the poor and prohibiting oppression and hatred. By the reasoning I shared above, you ought to throw those things out also! (By the way, the verse about shellfish isn’t anywhere near Leviticus 18:22 – it’s in chapter 11).

However, there is a legitimate core question here. Let’s move the question over to Leviticus 19:17-19, to make it more clear:

“You must not harbor hatred against your brother. Rebuke your neighbor directly, and you will not incur guilt because of him. Do not take revenge or bear a grudge against members of your community, but love your neighbor as yourself; I am Yahweh.

“You are to keep My statutes. You must not crossbreed two different kinds of your livestock, sow your fields with two kinds of seed, or put on a garment made of two kinds of material. (Lev 19:17-19, HCSB)

Here we have a law that says you should not hate or hold grudges. It says we should love our neighbor as ourselves. Immediately after, we have a law against cross-breeding and also the one against wearing clothing made up of mixed fibers. Why do we agree that we shouldn’t hate, but yet we have no problem wearing something that is 75% cotton and 25% polyester? That’s a legitimate question.

There are three types of laws given in the bible: Laws for Ancient Israel; Ceremonial Laws for Worship; and Moral Laws. One of the difficulties is that the bible doesn’t always make it clear which ones are which kind; even worse, sometimes you find all three different types of laws mixed together. Sometimes you might have a moral law (“do not commit adultery”) combined with a law that applies only to ancient Israel (“adulterers must be put to death”) as in Leviticus 20:10. Since we feel free to not execute adulterers any more, does that mean we should also feel free to commit adultery?

The laws for ancient Israel are exactly that: laws that applied literally and directly to the nation of Israel from about 1400 BC until Jerusalem was destroyed in 587 BC. No one lives in ancient Israel any more – that nation has not existed for more than 2,000 years. There is a modern nation of Israel, but they are set up with a constitution and a set of laws that are different from those given by Moses. So when we read a law that applies to citizenship in ancient Israel, we know right away that we should not apply it literally without further investigation.

Some Jewish leaders once tried to trick Jesus with one of these ancient laws. They caught a woman in adultery, and brought her to him, and said “According the Law, we should stone her.” The truth was, they weren’t serious. At the time of Jesus, the Jews lived under Roman law, which forbade such things. It was illegal for them to stone her. If Jesus affirmed the Old Testament law, they could bring him before the Romans for attempted murder. If Jesus rejected the law, they could claim to his followers that he did not follow the teaching of Moses. It’s the same thing I’ve seen countless times on blogs and facebook posts: “You claim to follow the bible, but the bible says this. Are you going to do that, or not?”

Jesus knew it was a trap. He couldn’t explain about ancient laws without being misquoted. So he said

“The one without sin among you should be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7, HCSB)

Caught in their own trap, they left. When they were gone, he told the woman that he did not condemn her (meaning, condemn her to death) but he also said: “Go, and from now on, do not sin any more.” (John 8:11). The whole story is in John 8:1-11. It shows us Jesus’ attitude toward two kinds of laws. The laws of the ancient nation of Israel no longer apply in the literal sense. Jesus himself changed all that (more on that in the next paragraph). But the moral law – “do not commit adultery” – still applies. Jesus called it a sin, and told the woman to stop it.

There is something else. The law of death for adulterers was fulfilled. There was death for the woman who committed adultery, the one they brought to Jesus. Only, it wasn’t her death. Jesus died in her place. He did not set aside the law – he fulfilled it. Death came as a result of her sin. This is why she did not have to be condemned – he chose to fulfill the law on her behalf. He also chose to fulfill the law on our behalf. Do you see, how (as Jesus said) all the law and the prophets are fulfilled in Jesus? When we understand that, so much more of the bible opens up for us.

I want to pause here and reiterate something I said earlier in the series. Even though the ancient laws of the Israelite nation no longer apply in a direct, literal sense, they do still apply in the sense that they teach us important eternal principles. We no longer directly apply the law “death to adulterers.” But it still means something for us. It means that adultery is a very serious thing in God’s eyes. It is a graphic illustration, even today, that sin leads to death. It shows us again our need for Jesus, and how amazing is his love and grace to us.

By showing us Jesus’ attitude toward Old Testament law, I just did something that demonstrates the final common sense principle of bible reading. I used one part of the bible to help us understand another, more difficult, part. We call this rule Scripture Interprets Scripture. The idea includes several things.

First, we let the clear parts of the bible shed light on the obscure parts. Remember our book on penguins? The author said “Penguins are large, flightless birds.” Later she said she rejoiced as she observed them “soaring and diving through the open blue.” The first statement is very clear – it tells us that penguins are birds that cannot fly. Therefore, when we look at the second statement, we already know that it must not mean flying. We should use the bible in the same way. Much of it is very clear. We should use the clear parts to help us understand the more difficult things.

There’s another thing with the bible, however. The New Testament quotes and explains the Old Testament on numerous occasions. We use the explanations of the New Testament to help us understand the Old. The bible explains itself in many places, if we pay attention.

Scripture Interprets Scripture is a very helpful principle when it comes to understanding the laws of the Old Testament. What I mean is, the New Testament helps us a great deal in understanding those laws. Let’s look at how:

1. Laws of Ancient Israel. We’ve already looked at how Jesus viewed these. He fulfilled them in his life, death and resurrection. What remains are not things for us to do, but principles that we can learn. Paul demonstrated this when he referred to law about not muzzling oxen (1 Corinthians 9). That is no longer a law for anyone to obey literally. But that ancient law does contain an eternal principle that we should try to apply to our own lives as Jesus-followers. The same is true of all of those ancient-Israel laws. Sometimes it takes work to uncover the principle. We have to read in context, and learn the cultural and historical setting of those laws. We are guided by the New Testament. We don’t apply these thing literally. But there is good stuff for us there.

2. Laws regarding worship ceremonies. There are hundreds of laws in the Old Testament about how the people of Israel were to worship God. Among these are laws about what makes a person ceremonially “clean” or “unclean” – including what we call “kosher” laws about food. Thankfully, the New Testament is very clear about all of this. Jesus himself said this:

“Are you also as lacking in understanding? Don’t you realize that nothing going into a man from the outside can defile him? For it doesn’t go into his heart but into the stomach and is eliminated.” (As a result, He made all foods clean.) Then He said, “What comes out of a person — that defiles him. For from within, out of people’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, evil actions, deceit, promiscuity, stinginess, blasphemy, pride, and foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a person.” (Mark 7:18-23, HCSB)

Mark comments “As a result, He made all foods clean.” He is clear that Jesus eliminated the kosher laws, while, at the same time, affirming the moral laws.

Peter had a vision that confirmed the fact that kosher laws are not necessary for those who are in Jesus (Acts 10:9-16). The first apostles wrestled with what the law meant after Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Acts 15:28-29 records their conclusions:

For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from idol-offerings, and from blood, from smothering [abortion], and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”

(Acts 15:28-29 My rendering from Greek. The word variously translated “what is strangled” or “smothered” was a colloquial expression referring to the practice of smothering unwanted newborn infants)

In other words, the New Testament permits you to eat all the shellfish you want, and wear what you choose.

In addition, the book of Hebrews deals extensively with the laws regarding worship. The short version is this: All of the Old Testament worship ceremonies and practices were designed to do two things: 1. Show us our need for a Messiah, a savior and 2. Help us to understand what he would do for us.

Therefore, Jesus fulfilled all of these laws. It is not necessary for us to practice them any more.

These serve as a copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was warned when he was about to complete the tabernacle. For God said, Be careful that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown to you on the mountain. But Jesus has now obtained a superior ministry, and to that degree He is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been legally enacted on better promises. (Heb 8:5-6, HCSB)

Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come, and not the actual form of those realities, it can never perfect the worshipers by the same sacrifices they continually offer year after year. (Heb 10:1, HCSB)

So we do not need to sacrifice animals in worship, or wear special clothes, or burn incense, or live “kosher” or follow any of those Old Testament regulations for worship or festivals and feasts. However, learning about those things can still greatly enrich our appreciation and understanding of Jesus and what he has done for us. For example, our family has celebrated the Passover Feast for the past 20 years. We don’t believe it is necessary. But it is a helpful tradition that points us toward Jesus and reminds us of all the promises God fulfilled in Him. We can learn similar things by studying these other Old Testament worship laws. But we do not have to literally follow them as written.

3. Moral Laws. The moral laws in the bible are a reflection of God’s Holy nature. They do not change. The ten commandments are moral laws. Laws about not hating and sexual purity and loving others are all moral laws. The New Testament teaches that Jesus fulfilled the entire moral law for us, so we do not have to do the impossible task of keeping the moral law perfectly. However, Jesus, living inside us, wants to continue to keep the moral law. He doesn’t want to hate, or murder, or commit sexual sin or lie or cheat. Therefore the moral law remains a standard for Christians. Jesus himself affirmed the ten commandments. He affirmed that sexual purity is found in abstinence before marriage, and faithfulness in marriage. He affirmed that we should love others, and not hate. He taught that lies and oppression were sinful. The apostles of Jesus also affirmed the moral law in every book of the New Testament.

We can’t keep it perfectly, but when we break the moral law, it is sign that there is something wrong in our relationship with Jesus. We are not meant to engage in a lifestyle in which we regularly break the moral law that is a reflection of the Holy nature of God. When we do as we please, and consistently, deliberately live in a pattern of breaking the moral law, we reveal that either we don’t have real faith in Jesus, or that we are in danger of rejecting Jesus.

Thanks to Jesus, the moral law is no longer a standard we must reach in order to be reconciled to God. Jesus has already done that for us. Even so, it’s a good thing to want to please God by doing the right thing. I’m pleased when I see my kids following the moral law – being kind, being responsible, staying away from drugs and so on.  But it doesn’t cause me to love them more nor does it have any bearing upon their identity as my kids.

In addition to showing us how God would like us to live, the moral law remains like a warning sign. The moral law tells us when we are danger of messing up our lives. It tells us when we are in danger of moving away from Jesus, and heading toward rejecting who He is, and what he has done for us. It is a message that shouts “Danger! Wrong Way! Turn Back! Death Ahead!” We ignore the moral law to our own peril and destruction.

I encourage you to take some time with these sermon notes. This is an important subject that too few Christians genuinely understand. As you do, I encourage you to listen to the Holy Spirit. As we Christians, we do not need to be afraid of the law any more. In Jesus, the law is no longer dangerous and condemning – it is a blessing. The ancient laws show us God’s grace and compassion. The ceremonial laws show us God’s holiness, and how much we need Jesus. And the moral laws protect us, by keeping us away from danger, and close to God.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today.

WHAT IS GOSSIP?

gossip

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

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Experiencing Life Together #10. Biblical Communication in the Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WITNESS

witness

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

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

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 8

Experiencing Life Together #8.

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

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

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

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

And Mark records this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is what it means to be a witness.

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

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

A special need 1-2%

Walked in to church 2-3%

Pastor 5-6%

Visitation 1-2%

Sunday School 4-5%

Evangelistic Crusade 0.5%

Church Program 2-3%

A friend or Relative 75-90%

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

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

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

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

ONLY JESUS SATISFIES

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Experiencing Life Together #1

Psalm 63

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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