WHAT ABOUT THE NO-ACCOUNT, GOOD-FOR-NOTHING PEOPLE?

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Jesus came first to the backwaters; the boondocks; the sticks. He went to where people felt shame and humiliation and hopelessness. He brought light to dark places. He still does.

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Matthew #8 . Matthew 4:12-16

We’re going to cover some historical and cultural details this week. Please have patience with this. First, I believe it will pay off in understanding what the Holy Spirit might want to say to you today, through these verses. Second, this information will useful many times as we continue our study of Matthew’s Gospel.

Apparently some time passed between chapter four, verse eleven, and verse twelve; we don’t know how much. We do know that the gospel of John records events that must have occurred between Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of his ministry in Galilee. Particularly, John the Baptist pointed out Jesus to Andrew and Philip, who then introduced him to Peter and Nathaniel and perhaps others. In any case, after a period of time, John the Baptist was put into prison by Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great who had killed all the babies in Bethlehem. At that time, Jesus went back to the region of Galilee, and remained there for some time.

The region is named for the Sea of Galilee, which is a very large freshwater lake. At its widest points, the lake is thirteen miles long, north to south (21 km) and eight miles wide, east to west (13 km). The total surface area is about sixty-four square miles (166 square km). If you walked the entire shoreline of the lake, you would go about fifty-one miles.

Just to be confusing, the Sea of Galilee is also called Lake Tiberias and the lake of Gennesaret. In modern Israel it is sometimes known as Kinneret. To make matters even worse, the New Testament also refers to two towns (on the shore of the lake) with the same names as the lake: Tiberias and Gennesaret.

By the time of Jesus, the area around the lake had a checkered past and a questionable reputation. It was the ancestral home of the tribes of Zebulon, Napthali and Mannaseh. After the time of Solomon, when the Israelites split into two kingdoms, this area, being in the north, went with the Northern kingdom, of course (usually known as “Israel” while the Southern kingdom was called “Judah.”). The Northern kingdom was ruled from the city of Samaria, which was some distance from the lake. During its existence, The kings of Israel did not want their people going south to Jerusalem to worship (because it was in the kingdom of Judah), so they set up their own worship system in the north. They quickly became corrupted in their beliefs, and began to abandon worship of the One true God, instead, worshiping like the pagans. Though prophets called them to repent, they did not, and the Northern Kingdom was eventually wiped out by Assyrian invaders in about 723 BC (in other words, more than 700 years before Jesus was born). The people were deported and scattered around the Assyrian Empire.

The Assyrians resettled people from other places into the region of the old Northern Kingdom of Israel. There were still a few Israelites living there, and they began to intermarry with the foreigners. As time went on, they developed a kind of hybrid-Israelite religion, believing in the first five books of the Old Testament, but interpreting them differently, and not accepting the books of the prophets (i.e. the rest of the Old Testament). These hybrid-Israelites with their hybrid-religion became known as Samaritans, because Samaria was still the chief city of the area (all this is a simplification, but it gives you the general idea).

In terms of theology, it might have been a bit like the differences between Mormons and Christians. Mormons and Christians have a lot of outward similarities. At times, Mormons will even call themselves Christians. However, Christians know that there are profound differences between the Christian faith and the Mormon religion. We would say that it is totally inaccurate to consider Mormons the same as Christians. In the same way, Samaritans regarded themselves as a division of Judaism, but the Jews did not feel that way.

North of Samaria was the sea of Galilee. For a long time, no Israelites or Jews lived there, but a few hundred years before Jesus, Jews began to re-colonize the area around the lake. Those people saw themselves as connected with Jerusalem and Judea (previously known as “Judah”) in the south, and not a part of their nearer neighbors, the Samaritans, who were in between them and Judea. Immediately surrounding Galilee were other foreign powers. In fact, Jewish Galilee could really only claim the west side of the lake. The other parts of the lake, and the regions to the north, east and south-east were all inhabited by Gentiles (non-Jews).

Here is a map that roughly shows the territories involved. You can see Galilee near the top.

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When Jesus was a boy in Egypt, the Jews in Galilee, being some distance from Judea, had tried to rebel the son of Herod the Great. It was a bloody, violent rebellion, and was put down ruthlessly, with the assistance of the Romans.

When you put this all together, it is not surprising that, although it was an area full of natural beauty, Galilee was considered to be an undesirable, no-account sort of place. It was surrounded by foreigners who did not worship God. It was far from the center of power and learning (Jerusalem). It had a history of violence and war and turning away from God. People in Jerusalem thought of Galilee the same way that people in New York City might think of the remote valleys of Appalachia. It may be pretty, but who would want to actually live there? The whole region was depressed, with nothing worthwhile going on, it was populated by “rednecks.”

If wanted to start a movement, and really influence people; if you really wanted to be someone, Galilee was not the place to go. It had been a no-account backwards place for seven-hundred years. But Jesus specifically chose Galilee as the starting place for his ministry. This depressed, hillbilly haven was where people first heard the good news of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ first miracle was performed in one of its towns (Cana). The Messiah grew up there. The light of the world (as John calls Jesus) first shined in this place. Matthew records that this fulfilled another Old Testament prophecy, Isaiah 9:1-2.

Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, along the sea road, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles! The people who live in darkness have seen a great light, and for those living in the shadowland of death, light has dawned. (Matt 4:15-16, HCSB)

Let’s just pause here a moment and see if the Lord has anything to say to you through this. It isn’t just about where Jesus chose to live. It is about the fact that he knew that this place and these people were held in contempt; he knew that they felt shame, and that is why he went there. He did this because He cares deeply about people who are overlooked by others, people who are living in shame, people who are considered no-account.

Perhaps you have felt overlooked. Maybe you’ve believed that you are unimportant. Maybe you have shame placed upon from something you’ve done, or by how others have treated you. Jesus isn’t afraid of your shame; he’s not worried about being tainted by your humiliation. He comes to you, deliberately, and says, “Let me remove your shame. Let me shine the light of my grace into your life. Let me show you that you are important to me, and I am the only one that really matters.”

Possibly you feel that you have been “walking in darkness” for a while now. Could it be that the Lord is saying to you: “A light is coming to you. You won’t be in darkness forever!”

As for being unimportant, or doing unimportant things, listen to what the Holy Spirit says through Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:26-30

Brothers, consider your calling: Not many are wise from a human perspective, not many powerful, not many of noble birth. Instead, God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God has chosen what is insignificant and despised in the world — what is viewed as nothing — to bring to nothing what is viewed as something, so that no one can boast in His presence. But it is from Him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became God-given wisdom for us — our righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, (1Cor 1:26-30, HCSB)

Jesus came to take our shame and humiliation upon himself. He came to take our checkered pasts, our sordid family histories. He came to shine light into places that may have been dark for centuries. If you think you are of no account, or you are not worthy, then know this: he came exactly for you. He comes to us all, continually. Open your heart to the light.

~

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Taking the Bible Literally

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

 

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Understanding the Bible Part 6

Understanding the Bible #6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 The heavens declare the glory of God,

and the sky1 proclaims the work of His hands.

2 Day after day they pour out speech;

night after night they communicate knowledge.2

3 There is no speech; there are no words;

their voice is not heard.

4 Their message3 has gone out to all the earth,

and their words to the ends of the world.

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

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

it rejoices like an athlete running a course.

6 It rises from one end of the heavens

and circles6 to their other end;

nothing is hidden from its heat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHERE DOES THE OLD TESTAMENT COME FROM?

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This is fact: the bible is, without question, the best documentary record of life and history in the ancient middle east.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Understanding the Bible Part 2

Understanding the Bible #2 . How We Got the Bible & Can we trust it? (Old Testament)

Psalm 119

Last week we considered the Bible from a non-spiritual standpoint, evaluating it as if it were merely a system that was developed to guide human behavior (that is, a “moral” system). We found that objectively, the Bible offers a superior guide to human behavior than other “holy books” and one that is much superior to any “individual morality” that individuals choose for themselves. The next few weeks I want to dig more deeply into the origins of the Bible. This will help us to evaluate spurious claims like those of the “DaVinci Code” and the “Judas gospels” and other part-truth/mostly lies stories that have been floated about the bible for years. For now, we’ll just consider the Old Testament. We will tackle the New Testament later in the series.

Several early portions of the Old Testament were originally recited orally and passed down from generation to generation through memorization and repetition. Most of Genesis, as well as probably Ruth and Judges were all originally spoken, rather than written. How do we know this? Well, the first portions of Genesis, if accurate at all, took place before reading and writing was widespread. But even more than that, examining the Bible texts in Hebrew (which was the original language) shows several easily recognized mnemonic devices (that is, verbal cues used to help people memorize a recitation). One way to picture it this: those texts which were originally recited orally, look (at least in Hebrew) more like a play than a novel. Usually, these little memory points are lost in translation to English, but one passage in which the NIV has preserved them fairly well is Genesis 5:1-31. There are seven small sections in these verses. Each section begins with “When [somebody’s name] had lived [a number] of years…” and then some details about that person and his descendants. The section closes with “and then he died.”

If this is the first time you have heard of that, this may make you a bit uncertain about how reliable those portions of scripture could be. This is because our culture has mostly lost the art and practice of memorization. But the fact is, there used to be professional oral historians. These were people who were responsible to memorize the oral histories, word for word and teach them to the next generation. Not only that, but in the case of the Hebrew people and the Old Testament, every father had a duty to teach the spiritual history to his children. People are capable of remembering a great deal. The philosopher Socrates, who lived almost a thousand years after the time of Moses, lamented the fact that during his lifetime the Greeks started writing things down in books. He felt that if books came into widespread use, people would stop remembering things, because they would be able to simply look them up in a book. He felt memorization was a much superior way to preserve knowledge for future generations.

Even in the twentieth century, Michail Gorbachev memorized the entire text of all four gospels when he was a child. We remember more, and better, than we realize. If you have seen the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” I bet you can fill in this blank. Patsy, the trusty squire is shot by an arrow. He says: “I’m not quite ______ yet.” If you have seen the movie “The Princess Bride” I bet you know the word that the Sicilian kidnapper, Vicini, says all the time. These are things we memorize – word for word – without even trying. How much more are people capable of in a culture where oral history is valued and practiced!

Aside from the oral histories, other parts of the Old Testament were written down, more or less at the time the events occurred or the words were spoken. The first five books of the Old Testament are called the Pentateuch; they are also known by Jews as the “Torah,” or “Law.” Over time the Torah, and the writings of the scribes and prophets were compiled into what today we call the Old Testament. We don’t know the exact date at which the Old Testament was considered to be “closed,” but it is probably around 250 B.C., which is the approximate date most scholars agree that the Old Testament was first translated into Greek (the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament is called the Septuagint). We don’t have any original copies of the Old Testament. Professional scribes carefully copied the originals when they became worn, and then destroyed the originals. When the copies became worn, new copies were made and the older copies destroyed. For many years, the oldest copy that had been found was made in the 800s A.D. — much newer, in fact, than many New Testament manuscripts. Because of this, many scholars assumed that if the Old Testament manuscript copies were compared to the originals, there would be many errors. However, it should be noted that later manuscripts agree very closely with these earliest texts, which shows that the scribes took great care when making copies. In 1947, the “Dead Sea Scrolls” were discovered. These are not all Biblical writings, but among them are parts of the Old Testament. The Dead Sea Scrolls date back to 1000 years before those previous Old Testament manuscripts. As it turns out, at least in the texts that are available for comparison, during those thousand years very few copying errors were made, and none were significant. Again it is an example of how carefully the Old Testament was preserved by the scribes. I have personally seen a scroll of Isaiah that was made in about 1400 AD and used in a synagogue in Germany for 400 years — until the mid-1800s, when it was taken out of use because it was “worn.” It looked cleaner, clearer and more pristine than these sermon notes. In other words, new copies were long before manuscripts became difficult to read. Taken all in all, it has been demonstrated thoroughly that the contents of the Old Testament have been preserved, largely unchanged, from when they originated.

Now, in spite of these well-preserved texts, there is a prevalent and long-standing tendency to discount the Old Testament as “religious writing” and therefore inaccurate. For many decades the trendy thing was to doubt everything the Bible said – even the “normal, historical” parts of it – unless it could be confirmed by some sort of archaeological discovery. For instance, until very recently, Skeptical scholars claimed that king David of Israel was a mythical figure who had been made up by the writers of the Bible. Unfortunately for them, archaeologists discovered a reference to David in the writings of another culture in the middle east. The reference to David matched the approximate time period that the Bible puts him in. Since that time, architecture with inscriptions referring to David has also been found.

In the Old Testament, Isaiah writes about the invasion of the Assyrian army. He describes how they laid siege to the town of Lacish, and then how they came and surrounded Jerusalem. He mentioned Sennacherib, the Assyrian emperor at the time. Over where Assyria used to be, they have uncovered some of the records and court-commissioned art from the time of Sennacherib. We shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the Assyrians recorded some of the same events, and even mentioned the name of Hezekiah, King of Judah at the time, according to the Bible.

According to the Old Testament, the Israelites destroyed the town of Jericho in about 1400 BC. According to archaeologists, Jericho was indeed destroyed about 1400 BC. There is not enough time and space to describe all of the archaeological discoveries which have, over and over, proven that the Bible is a reliable historical source. The people it talks about were real people; the situations it describes were real. The history it records really happened. The texts were truly written or memorized when the events they record were actually happening.

Millar Burrows, a PhD graduate of Yale University, and one of the leading authorities on the Dead Sea Scrolls, said this:

The Bible is supported by archaeological evidence again and again. On the whole, there can be no question that the results of excavation have increased the respect of scholars for the Bible as a collection of historical documents. The confirmation is both general and specific. The fact that the record can be soften explained or illustrated by archaeological data shows that it fits into the framework of history as only a genuine product of ancient life could do. In addition to this general authentication, however, we find the record verified repeatedly as specific points. Name of places and persons turn up at the right places and in the right periods.

What is strange is that some people persist in doubting the Bible until is proven by some non-Biblical source. The truth is, there is no non-biblical source that has been so thoroughly verified as the Bible itself. It is, without question, the best documentary record of life and history in the ancient middle east.

But the bible isn’t just a history book. There are many kinds of literature in the bible: family histories, genealogies, laws, national histories, biographies, poetry, prophecy, letters and songs. All those different books, written in different times and places by people in widely varied life situations, carry message. The message is easier to understand in some places; in other parts, it takes time and patience to hear it. But it is there throughout the entire bible.

Imagine the song “Silent Night.” Like many Christmas songs it has been arranged in many different ways, and played by many different groups and performing artists. Think of it being played instrumentally, by an orchestra. You’ve probably heard it that way. Now, imagine how it sounds sung by a full choir, with no instruments at all. It’s the same song. The same music is being conveyed, and yet, it sounds very different. Now, picture Willie Nelson (a country-western singer) singing Silent Night. Now, try to imagine Barbara Streisand singing the same song. Picture it done to swing-rhythm, crooned by Harry Connick Jr. Now imagine it as “muzak” or “elevator music,” played at the mall. Think of a rendition of the song by Frank Sinatra. Hear it done by Reggae artists.

All of these are the same song, conveying the same “musical message.” And yet each style and performance conveys that same “musical message” in a very different way. We can appreciate some of those ways better than others, but it all goes back to the same composer, the same basic set of notes, the same lyrics.

This is kind of how the bible is. Sometimes, God conveyed his message through the life of an old man, or a young princess. Sometimes, he sent it through laws that helped people at that time understand him better. At other times, God’s message came through prophets, or teachers, or letter writers, kings or musicians. Sometimes, it is hard to recognize as the same message, because three-thousand year-old laws require more work to understand than clearly written letters from more than a thousand years later. But the messages about God, human beings and relationships are consistent throughout the bible. Like with Silent Night, though the “performances” are widely varied, the basic underlying message is the same. Different musicians may play the music, different instruments may create it, but at the same time, the music is, and always was, the product of the original composer.

Paul puts it this way:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2Tim 3:16-17, ESV2011)

The bible comes to us through various human writers and poets and kings. But it is all the work of the Holy Spirit. Another way to look at it, is like an amazing building, say a cathedral. One architect designs the cathedral. He plans it. Many builders of different types are involved in actually building the cathedral, but it all comes together under the plan and direction of the one architect. If someone asks, “who built this cathedral?” we would probably say the name of the architect, not the many and various laborers who put it together. So, many people contributed to the bible, but it was God who planned it and put it together.

The best way that I know to start understanding the bible is to start reading it. It is very difficult to understand in little bits and pieces, especially if you get those bits and pieces from other people, or the internet. I would recommend, if you have never done this, to start reading one of the books of the New Testament, say, Matthew. Read a chapter a day (or more, if you are so inclined), until you’ve read the whole book of Matthew. Then find another New Testament book (any one of them, except Revelation. Leave that until you have more understanding), and read it the same way. After you’ve read the New Testament, go back, and pick an Old Testament book, and try a few of those. I would return and read a book in the New Testament after every second or third Old Testament book. Some people, in addition to this kind of reading, also read one of the psalms every day. That’s a great reading plan. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!

Psalm 119 talks about “the law.” It really means “the scripture” in general. Verses 97-103 says this:

97 Oh, how I love your law!

I meditate on it all day long.

98 Your commands make me wiser than my enemies,

for they are ever with me.

99 I have more insight than all my teachers,

for I meditate on your statutes.

100 I have more understanding than the elders,

for I obey your precepts.

101 I have kept my feet from every evil path

so that I might obey your word.

102 I have not departed from your laws,

for you yourself have taught me.

103 How sweet are your words to my taste,

sweeter than honey to my mouth!

Have you tasted the “sweetness” of God’s message to you through the Bible? I encourage you to start reading it, and experience that for yourself!

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

 You could also send a check to:

New Joy Fellowship

625 Spring Creek Road

Lebanon, TN 37087

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

 Thank for your prayers, and your support!

WHY SHOULD WE LISTEN TO THE BIBLE?

oldbible

The Bible is unique among religious books. We will start to learn why, with this post.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Understanding the Bible Part 1

UNDERSTANDING THE BIBLE #1

Someone recently liked this blog, and as I often do, I went over to his blog, to check out what he was writing about. I noticed a post with an eye-catching title, and I read it. What I found is similar to many blogs and Facebook posts that I have seen over the past few years. The basic argument went something like this:

  • Many Christians claim that, according to the bible, [enter something here that the bible says, which you don’t like].
  • But the bible also says lots of goofy things, like:
    • Rapists can pay their victims’ parents 50 shekels, and get off the hook (the writer mis-quoted Deuteronomy 21, but I think he was referring to chapter 22).
    • It’s OK to sell daughters into slavery (Exodus 21:7)
    • It’s OK to marry multiple wives (21:10)
  • Since we don’t agree with these goofy things in the bible, we shouldn’t pay attention to what the bible says about sex before marriage.

I’ve seen this sort of argument before. Most commonly, it is made in order to justify sinning in whatever way you prefer to sin. But logically, if that argument was valid (it isn’t) there would be no reason to pay attention to any part of the bible at all. If that blogger is right, we ought to just ignore it altogether as irrelevant. If he’s right, we shouldn’t pay attention to what the bible says about Jesus, or  forgiveness, or love, either. To be fair, he wasn’t saying that in his blog, but it is the logical conclusion.

Here’s what I wonder: do you know why the blogger’s argument is invalid? Do you understand how to answer the questions of someone who has this attitude? Do you have a firm grasp on what the Bible is, how we got it, and how to understand it?

If you answered “no” to any of those questions, I think you’ll find this sermon series helpful, and even enjoy it. By the way, I have two helpful and reasonable answers to the guy who posted the blog entry I mentioned above. I could explain it in about five minutes. But rather than do that, what I want to do is help you learn enough about the Bible, and how to understand it, so that you can answer questions like that yourselves. You’ve heard the old proverb: “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish, and he’ll spend all his nights and weekends in the boat, and his family will never see him anymore.”

Actually, I think the second part is “teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for the rest of his life.”

I want to teach you to “fish.” I could give you the answers the questions posed by the blog entry I mentioned above. But then, when you encounter new questions, you’ll be dependent upon me, or someone like me, to give you answers again. I’d rather help you understand enough so that you can do some digging, and find the answers for yourselves.

It might take a little while. I’ve been studying the bible seriously for more than twenty-five years. It won’t take you that long to get started and to begin finding answers yourself, but I do hope you look on the bible as a source that you can and should continue to study for the rest of your life. I think that over the course of the next few weeks, you can learn enough about the Bible to begin.

The best place to start, as is often the case, is at the beginning. What is the Bible? Where did it come from? Who wrote it, and what is its purpose?

The bible is not actually one book. It is a collection of books. That is one reason why I never recommend starting in Genesis (the first book), and trying to read it straight through all the way to Revelation (the last book). It won’t make sense that way, because it isn’t that kind of book.

The very earliest parts of the bible were handed down as oral traditions, and later were written down. Even today Hebrew scholars of very moderate learning can see linguistic evidence that much of the first five books of the Bible were originally memorized orally. We’ll talk about what that means, next time. The oral traditions, and some new material were first written down, probably by one man named Moses, sometime around 1400 B.C.

By the way, many scholars now prefer to note dates as “BCE” and “CE” (“Before Common Era,” and “Common Era,” respectively). However, BCE is exactly the same as “BC” and “Common Era” means the same thing as AD. It is downright silly to pretend that “common era” is defined by anything other than historical life of Jesus Christ. Whether or not you believe in him as anything other than a man, whether or not you like it, the world numbers history by the life of Jesus Christ.

Back to the Bible. More history and more oral tradition were recorded by another man, probably the prophet Samuel, sometime around 1000 B.C. Samuel also recorded many of the current events of his time. As the monarchy in Israel took shape, court historians kept records of happenings, and further unknown writers recorded more of we know call the Bible. Prophets spoke, and scribes wrote down what they said. Later, the New Testament was formed from letters and writings of those associated with Jesus Christ.

All in all, the Bible was written by several dozen different people. It was written in three different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek). The people who wrote it were from all different walks of life: Farmers, shepherds, kings, court officials, prophets, fisherman, doctors, prisoners, church leaders and more. Some of them were rich, some were poor, some were in between. The writers came from different cultures, different countries and different continents. There is no sense in which one can say that the Bible was just made up by one person, or even one small group of people at one time. It does not claim that it was dictated in secret by angels.

These facts about the formation of the Bible have never been secret. Scholars have known these things for many centuries. Archeology has consistently confirmed all this. Manuscript study and comparisons also confirm it. These facts are not hidden away somewhere; they are not closely guarded secrets. They are well established.

Now, let’s look at the bible in comparison to some other ancient writings. This is not to “slam” anybody, but rather for the sake of knowledge, let’s compare the Bible to two other well-known Holy Books: The Koran, and the Book of Mormon. Hinduism and Buddhism do not have authoritative scriptures that they hold in the same way as do Christians, Jews, Muslims and Mormons. Therefore the Koran and the Book of Mormon are really the only other major books that claim the same sort of authority as the Bible.

The Koran was formed in this way: During the early 600s (AD), a man named Mohammed, a former resident of the city of Mecca in Arabia, went into a cave. He came out with the Koran, claiming that an angel had dictated it to him. Much of the Koran appears to be a copy of parts of the Old and New Testaments, although often distorted. Other parts of the Koran are quite different. It is not a very large book. Muslims also receive a lot of direction from the sayings of Mohammed (Hadith) and the biographies of Mohammed. As with the Koran, these all depend upon the words of a single man.

The Book of Mormon was “given” to Joseph Smith on golden tablets in 1823. Again, Mormonism uses Christianity as a jumping off point, but contains many things which contradict the Christian/Jewish bible.

No Muslim denies that the Koran came through just one man at one particular time in history. They do not deny that it was written in only one language, in one place and arose from one culture. The Book of Mormon is similar: by the admission of Mormons it was revealed to just one man in one time and in one place.

Now, you might ask, what difference does it make whether one person wrote the bible, or dozens did? Why does it matter if the bible was written over the course of 1500 years, or just in one lifetime? What is the significance of what we’ve just learned? Why does it matter?

Alexander McCall Smith is the author of many fiction novels set in Africa. In one of his novels, the main character has these reflections on morality (from Morality for Beautiful Girls page 77-78)

Most morality, thought Mma Ramotswe, was about doing the right thing because it had been identified as such by a long process of acceptance and observance. You simply could not create your own morality because your experience would never be enough to do so. What gives you the right to say that you know better than your ancestors? Morality is for everybody, and this means that the views of more than one person are needed to create it. That was what made the modern morality, with its emphasis on individuals, and the working out of an individual position, so weak.

If you gave people the chance to work out their morality, then they would work out the version which was easiest for them and which allowed them to do what suited them for as much of the time as possible. That, in Mma Ramotswe’s view was simple selfishness, whatever grand name one gave to it.

Mr. Smith gives us a tremendous and profound insight here. Moral authority cannot come from one person. No single human being, by himself or herself, has the breadth of experience, nor the wisdom, nor the character, to create morality. Yet in Islam, all moral and spiritual authority comes from one man. Likewise with Mormonism. The same thing is true of atheists, agnostics and secular humanists.

If you are agnostic or atheistic, in a very real way you are saying that you know better than everybody else. You, in your few years of life upon this earth, are claiming to have wisdom, experience and authority greater than that of the collective wisdom and experience of entire cultures of people whose lives spanned more than a millennium and a half, whose morality and wisdom still profoundly shape the world we live in.

When I was in high school, the teachers said to us kids that we needed to decide for ourselves what is right or wrong. We were told to create our own morality. The very thought of such a thing is nothing less than overwhelming, towering, ugly, arrogant pride. “Hubris” is another word for it. What, in all the universe, makes us think that we, in 16 years, could match the wisdom and experience that spanned 16 centuries and survived thousands of years? What makes us think even a 90 year old person could match all that? Only ugly pride.

Remember, just for today we are trying to evaluate this from a secular position, rather than a spiritual one. Does it seem rational to suppose that one person, in one lifetime, however varied her experience, however deep her wisdom, could match the wisdom and morality and experience contained in the Bible? Of course not. It’s simple logic. And in this same respect, the Bible is logically superior to those other “holy books” which were brought into the world by single individuals.

Now some folks may say, “well, I look at what’s in the Bible, and make use of all that experience, but I still decide what is right for me.” On the one hand, of course everybody does have to decide whether or not they will accept what is written in the Bible. But nonetheless, it seems awfully arrogant to say, “I know what the Bible says, but I still think I am wiser than Moses, Isaiah, Paul, Samuel, David, Peter, John, and Jesus (plus about two dozen more) all put together.”

You see, even from a secular standpoint, the Bible is unique in history. There is no other ancient document so well preserved, so thoroughly verified as genuine by legitimate scholarly work (more on that in in the near future). There is no other source of moral and spiritual authority that has so much objective logic to back up its claim. Here is a quote from it, which seems rather fitting:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord

As the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts

than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)

This book, this Bible, goes far beyond the thoughts or ways of any one human being. Next week we’ll begin to see how it goes beyond even collective human morality.

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.

BODY LIFE

body of Christ 2

 

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 11

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WORSHIP IN SPIRIT AND IN TRUTH

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

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Experiencing Life Together #9. Worship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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