Christianity 201

April 17, 2017

The Reality Check of the Cross

It’s Monday and we have a bonus item for you by regular Thursday contributor Clarke Dixon. These notes are from a message that I got hear in person which was preached three times on Good Friday morning.

by Clarke Dixon

“This teaching of the cross is nuts, pure and simple.” Such is how you could translate Paul’s words in his first letter to the Christians in Corinth in chapter 1, verse 18. Later, in verse 23 he calls it a “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” We can imagine how a conversation would go between a Christ follower and a Jew in New Testament times:

Christian: Good News! The Messiah has come. God has put into place His great rescue!

Jew: Oh? Tell me more!

Christian: His name is Jesus. He was born in Bethlehem, taught with great authority, worked miracles, and was crucified . .

Jew: Hold up! Crucified, as in executed by the Romans? As in dead at the hands of our enemies? Umm, you need a reality check – your so called Messiah is a failure!

In days when the Jewish people were looking for a rescue from the Romans, being executed by them was a sure way to be deleted from the list of potential rescuers.

We can also imagine how a conversations would go between a Christ follower and a non-Jewish person in New Testament times:

Christian: Good News! God, the creator of everything has revealed Himself to us!

Gentile: Oh? Tell me more!

Christian: His name is Jesus. He was born a Jew in Bethlehem, taught with great authority, worked miracles, and was crucified . . .

Gentile: Hold up! Crucified? As in the God of the universe was executed by the Romans? I knew our Roman soldiers were good, but I didn’t know they were that good! You need a reality check. Your so-called God is a failure.

Two millennia later and reactions are often much the same. Consider these lyrics from the metal band Metallica:

Trust you gave
A child to save
Left you cold and him in grave . . .
Broken is the promise, betrayal
The healing hand held back by deepened nail
Follow the god that failed . . .

There is a clear message to Christians here. You need a reality check – a God that dies is a God that fails, and that just doesn’t make sense.

On Good Friday Christians around the world gather to commemorate the death of Jesus. On Good Friday many more people don’t bother, thinking that doing such would be a waste of time. “A good and influential teacher? Sure. Inspirational even. But God Himself dying a death that has anything to do with anything? Nah, that doesn’t make sense.” Many people would say that Christians need a reality check. Christ crucified is nonsense and Christians are deluded.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing . . . 1st Corinthians 1:18

Christ crucified is indeed a reality check, but not in the way that many people assume. Christ crucified is a reality check in the way that a blood test ordered by the doctor is a reality check. When the results come in the doctor never asks “what would you like the results to be?” or “what do you think the results should be?” The doctor says “here is what the results are.” Truth in such things as our health is not a matter of our imagination, but a process of discovery.

People often think that when it comes to spirituality truth is a matter of our imagination, what we like, or what we think it should be. Spirituality is seen as something you can make up or change. However truth itself is not something you can tamper with. We may decide how we express spirituality, but we do not get to decide matters of truth. What people fail to understand is that when it comes to God and our relationship with God, we are talking about matters of truth and not personal preference.

In matters of truth we can do a reality check. Like the doctor, we can check the blood. So let us do that.

Check the blood. The blood spilled through racism. The blood spilled through violence. The blood spilled through war, whether gang wars, drug wars, or world wars. The blood spilled between enemies. The blood spilled between brothers. The blood spilled when an innocent man was nailed to a cross on bogus charges. Check the blood, sin is real and a real problem.

People don’t like the idea of sin being a reality. But not liking it does not mean you can wish it away… You do not get to decide that kind of reality. The cross of Jesus Christ is a big arrow on the map pointing to sin saying “you are here.”

Check the blood spilled at the cross. At the cross we sank to our lowest low in our rebellion against God. We were there, at the cross. Would we have done any different than Pilate, or Herod, or the chief priests, or the disciples, or Peter? As the Bible says “There is no one righteous, no not one.” Think of it; it is really bad when an innocent person suffers. But when God Himself comes to us, and though being innocent, we condemn him to death. Can we sink any lower? If there was ever a moment, that God would lash out and destroy humanity, this is it, at the cross where collectively we sunk to our lowest low. He would have been perfectly just in sending 10,000 angels to destroy the world and not endure the shame and suffering of the cross.

The Jews thought that in being crucified, Jesus failed at being the Messiah, the Greeks thought that in being crucified, Jesus failed at being God, people today think that in being crucified Jesus failed at doing anything relevant – but if God can be spoken of as failing at anything when Jesus was crucified – God failed to treat us as our sins deserve. (Psalm 103:10)

Check the blood spilled at the cross. It is a reality check: God’s love is real. Let the Scriptures speak for themselves:

For in Jesus all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. Colossians 1:19-20

But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Romans 5:8

In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 1 John 4:10

If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Romans 8:31-34

Crucifixion was not a failure for Jesus. Rather, as Paul puts it, “Christ the power and wisdom of God.” (1st Corinthians 1:24)

  • In Christ crucified God’s perfect justice was expressed with judgement against sin. Yet humanity was not wiped out. God’s perfect mercy was also expressed. That is the power and wisdom of God.
  • In Christ crucified, we were at our lowest low in our rebellion against God. Yet Jesus at the cross made possible God’s invitation to be reconciled. That is the power and wisdom of God.
  • In Christ crucified, the powers of evil were working overtime to destroy and bury the work of God, and as Jesus’ body is laid in the tomb, it certainly seems like they’ve won. But Sunday’s coming! That is the power and wisdom of God.
  • In Christ crucified the curtain of the temple separating out the most holy place was torn in two from top to bottom. This was symbolic of God in effect saying, you can not and will not come to me through religion. I am coming to you by the cross. That is the power and wisdom of God.

Check the blood for a reality check.  Crucifixion is not a sign of failure, it is a sign of God’s success in expressing His perfect love, in all His holiness, justice, grace, and mercy. In that way, Jesus is the only way. Every other possibility put forward as a means of dealing with our sin problem is a failure.

We are no strangers to checking blood. Having a Type 1 diabetic in our family, we are used to a reality check with every finger poke. The glucose meter does not care what we want the blood sugar to be, nor what we think it should be. It tells us what it is. And based on what it is, we need to make a decision. Give insulin, sugar, or do nothing. The cross is the ultimate reality check. Check the blood. Sin is real, and a real problem for our relationship with God. God’s love is real, and a real solution to our sin problem. What decision do you need to make? Perhaps your walk with the Lord is solid and flourishing. Then your decision may be to rejoice in your salvation today. Perhaps you know the Lord, but have not been walking close. Your decision may be to reaffirm your commitment to walking in Christ, walking according to God’s Spirit.

But perhaps you are not a believer at this time? Then Christ crucified is a reality check in one more way: Check the blood spilled at the cross. This is an event in history. Christianity is not a religious philosophy or a set of rules for life. Christianity is about God revealing Himself to humanity over many occasions, but supremely though Jesus. His death was an event in history, as was his resurrection. Christianity did not have its beginnings, as many religions do, in a man teaching certain things about God and then trying to persuade people his ideas are correct. Christianity had its beginnings in the historical event of the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. Check the blood. Yes, this really happened.

  • Look into it, and investigate it.
  • Look into like journalist Lee Strobel who as an atheist came to trust Jesus as Lord and Saviour having investigated it with all his journalistic skills.
  • Look into it, like J. Warner Wallace, who as an atheist came to trust in Jesus as Lord and Saviour having investigated it with his skills as a cold case detective.
  • Look into it, like C.S. Lewis who described himself as the most reluctant convert in all of England, but who came to trust in Jesus as Saviour and Lord having investigated it with all his intellectual skills.

And there are many stories like these. I hope your story will be similar. Do not become a Christian because you think it might be a good religion to practice. Trust in Jesus because Jesus died and rose again. Reality check. The events of Easter really did happen. Check the blood. You have a decision to make.

(All Scripture references are taken from NRSV)

Connect with Clarke at Sunday’s Shrunk Sermon

January 22, 2017

Who Do You Follow?

It was exactly a year ago that I first introduced readers here to Russell Young’s writing. When I first met him, he was already very prolific and I felt that offering him an already-existing outlet for his thoughts would be good for him and a good fit for us. I am so appreciative of his contribution and the quality and consistency of his writing.  ~PW


by Russell Young

The issue of following is just as relevant in the church today as it was in Paul’s day. All confessing Christians would affirm that they follow Christ but it isn’t that simple.  Many take their instruction from others–pastors, teachers, or well-known authors. In fact, research shows that most do.

Paul ran into the dilemma concerning believers selecting teachers when addressing the Corinthian church and castigated them for their attitudes.  He wrote, “For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not mere men?” (1 Cor 3:4 NIV) On looking back at that church, it is easy to be critical of their thinking, but the very same practice is rampant today.  Many in Bible teaching can readily state the names of their favorite authors or speakers and take their instruction from them. The doctrinal positions within a church often reflect by proxy, the position of a favorite teacher. Paul found a problem with this and so should we.

It was not Paul or Apollos who was to be the source of truth. Paul confessed to his readers that he had “planted the seed,” while Apollos watered and that each had been given his own task by God. The problem that exists, of course, is the discernment of the task given each person by God and how dedicated are they to it. Perhaps, the issue of discernment is the greatest challenge facing today’s church.  There are a myriad of churches teaching a myriad of understandings; however, there is only one truth. The isolation of that truth is eternally important to each of us and Satan has been trying to confuse it from the beginning.

To whom do you attribute the possession of truth?  It is easier to accept the understanding of another than it is to ferret it out for ourselves.  It has become common to avoid the challenges of study, meditation, and prayer and to assume the teachings and beliefs of another.  Christianity Today published a study concluding “that while 90 percent ‘desire to please and honor Jesus in all I do, ’only 19 percent personally read the Bible every day.’” Another poll stated that 57% of people who claimed the Christian faith only read their Bibles 4 times a year or less. (Caleb Bell in Religious News Service, April 4, 2013)

If the Word is not being personally read and studied, those who claim the name of Christ, must be accepting as their truths the teachings of another.  This practice can be dangerous. A number of years ago, a pastor told me, “We teach what we have been taught.” Is it no wonder that the church is weakening? “Believers” are not putting sufficient investment into establishing their own faith system.

Pastors, teachers, and parishioners must be more discerning and more ready to challenge teachings that are in dissonance with their own reading of the Scriptures.  Those who are being taught should not be intimidated by their instructors, regardless of their credentials. Believers in the twenty-first century are working with scriptures that have been translated many times and which have been placed in imperfect minds. The Lord still informs people, they need not rest the truths of faith in another.

1 Kings 13 relates the story of “a man of God” who had been sent to prophesy to evil king Jeroboam concerning his impending fate.  The man of God had been told by God not to eat or drink in that place and to leave on a different route than taken upon arrival. Having given his message to the king the man of God left. Another man who claimed to be a prophet persuaded the man of God, since they were both prophets, to dine with him and although this was a lie he claimed that God had sent him.  The man of God returned to the prophet’s house and enjoyed a good meal, whereupon the prophet relayed the death sentence that rested on the man of God for his disobedience.

When God speaks, his words are to be obeyed.  He is the authority that is to be accepted.  The man of God felt that he had been released from his command because the other was a prophet.  God is God and he will not excuse our disobedience because of spiritual confusion even though manifested through someone esteemed and whose opinion might be highly valued. We are to be led by the Word and by the Spirit. Christ said, “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and I will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (Jn 14:26 NIV)

In the last days, many will be deceived. Consider this warning by Paul: “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” (Gal 6:7-8 NIV) How well does this passage conform to your understanding? What questions does it raise that need answering?

There are many erroneous teachings in the Christian community as the presence of many denominations testifies. Christ said that he would teach you and remind you of his truths. This does not mean that pastors and teachers intentionally mislead; it means that we are to study and to let God teach us truth and righteous practices. If reliance is placed upon another, true discernment concerning the truth of his or her teaching should take place.  Your eternal hope may very well rest in your diligence of study, meditation, and prayer. To default to another may reap destruction to your soul.


eternal-salvation-russell-youngRussell Young is a weekly contributor to Christianity 201 and the author of Eternal Salvation: “I’m Okay! You’re Okay!” Really? available in print and eBook through Westbow Publishing, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble; and in Canada through Chapters/Indigo.  9781512757514 $17.99 US

 

February 12, 2016

Jesus Preaches to a Megachurch Crowd

Today’s devotional is part teaching, part testimony from the prologue to what I believe has stood out as Southeast Christian Church pastor Kyle Idleman’s most popular work, Not a Fan: Becoming a Completely Devoted Follower of Jesus (Zondervan). (Note: Some emphasis added to this excerpt.)

Not a Fan

It’s a Thursday afternoon and I am sitting in the church sanctuary. It’s empty now, but Easter is only a few days away. More than thirty thousand people will likely come to the weekend services, and I have no idea what I’m going to say to them. I can feel the pressure mounting as I sit there hoping that a sermon will come to mind. I look around at the empty seats hoping some inspiration will come. Instead there’s just more perspiration. I wipe the sweat off my brow and look down. This sermon needs to be good. There are some people who only come to church on Christmas and Easter (we call them “Creasters”). I want to make sure they all come back. What could I say to get their attention? How can I make my message more appealing? Is there something creative I could do that would be a big hit and get people talking?

Still nothing. There is a Bible in the chair in front of me. I grab it. I can’t think of a Scripture to turn to. I’ve spent my life studying this book and I can’t think of one passage that will “wow” the Creasters. I consider using it the way I did as a kid. Kind of like a Magic 8 Ball, you ask a question, open up the Bible and point on the page, and whatever it says answers your question.

Not a Fan - Kyle IdlemanFinally a thought crosses my mind: I wonder what Jesus taught whenever he had the big crowds. What I discovered would change me forever. Not just as a preacher, but as a follower of Christ. I found that when Jesus had a large crowd, he would most often preach a message that was likely to cause them to leave.

In that empty sanctuary I read of one such occasion in John chapter 6. Jesus is addressing a crowd that has likely grown to more than five thousand. Jesus has never been more popular. Word has spread about his miraculous healings and his inspirational teaching. This crowd of thousands has come to cheer him on.

After a full day of teaching, Jesus knows the people are getting hungry, and so he turns to his disciples and asks what all these people will do for food. One of the disciples, Philip, tells Jesus that even with eight months’ wages, it wouldn’t be enough money to buy bread for everyone to have a bite. From Philip’s perspective, there really wasn’t anything that could be done. But another disciple, Andrew, has been scanning the crowd and he tells Jesus of a boy who has fives loaves of bread and two small fish. Jesus takes the boy’s sack lunch and with it he feeds the entire crowd. In fact, the Bible tells us that even after everyone had their fill, there was still plenty of food left over.

After dinner the crowd decides to camp out for the night so they can be with Jesus the next day. These are some big-time fans of Jesus. The next morning when the crowd wakes up and they’re hungry again, they look around for Jesus, aka their meal ticket, but he’s nowhere to be found. These fans are hoping for an encore performance. Eventually they realize that Jesus and his disciples have sailed to the other side of the lake. By the time they catch up to Jesus they’re starving. They’ve missed their chance to order breakfast and they are ready to find out what’s on the lunch menu. But Jesus has decided to shut down the “all you can eat” buffet. He’s not handing out any more free samples. In verse 26 Jesus says to the crowd:

I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.

Jesus knows that these people are not going to all the trouble and sacrifice because they are following him, but because they want some free food. Was it Jesus they wanted, or were they only interested in what he could do for them? In verse 35 Jesus offers himself, but the question is, Would that be enough?

Then Jesus declared,

“I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Jesus says, I am the bread of life. Suddenly Jesus is the only thing on the menu. The crowd has to decide if he will satisfy or if they are hungry for something more. Here’s what we read at the end of the chapter:

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him (John 6:66).

Many of the fans turn to go home. I was struck by the fact that Jesus doesn’t chase after them. He doesn’t soften his message to make it more appealing. He doesn’t send the disciples chasing after them with a creative handout inviting them to come back for a “build your own sundae” ice cream social. He seems okay with the fact that his popularity has plummeted.

As I sat in the sanctuary surrounded by thousands of empty seats, here’s what became clear to me: It wasn’t the size of the crowd Jesus cared about; it was their level of commitment.

I put the Bible back in the chair in front of me.

I cried.

God, I am sorry.

Almost as soon as I said it to him, I knew it needed to go further. A few days later on Easter Sunday, a crowd of thousands gathered and I began my sermon with a choked up apology. I told the crowd that I was wrong for being too concerned with what they would think and how many of them would come back. I think over the years my intentions were good; I wanted to make Jesus look as attractive as possible so that people would come to find eternal life in him. I was offering the people Jesus, but I was handing out a lot of free bread. In the process I cheapened the gospel…

 

 

January 17, 2016

The Good News, Bad News of Ministry Life

If you knew me many years ago, there was a period when I would sign letters

I Corinthians 16-9

In my mind, the verse played out in the KJV text that I first learned it from:

For a great door and effectual is opened unto me, and there are many adversaries.

Today, I would probably refer you to a more recent translation, such as the NLT:

There is a wide-open door for a great work here, although many oppose me.

If you think about, this is the format of every missionary, church, or parachurch organization fundraising letter or ministry report you’ve ever received.

→ The good news is: God is working in the lives of people, we are seeing results.
→ The bad news is: We face [financial/staffing/logistical/spiritual-warfare/etc.] challenges.

There’s always a challenge. Today in church, the guest speaker shared this:

The greatest challenge in life is not having a burden to carry.

That’s right, without some mountain to climb or river to cross, our lives would actually be rather boring. Certainly there would be no growth. I discussed that quotation with a friend after the service was over, and he said, “Yes, but that’s we all want. We want it to be easy.”

Matthew Henry writes:

Great success in the work of the gospel commonly creates many enemies. The devil opposes those most, and makes them most trouble, who most heartily and successfully set themselves to destroy his kingdom. There were many adversaries; and therefore the apostle determined to stay.

Some think he alludes in this passage to the custom of the Roman Circus, and the doors of it, at which the charioteers were to enter, as their antagonists did at the opposite doors. True courage is whetted by opposition; and it is no wonder that the Christian courage of the apostle should be animated by the zeal of his adversaries. They were bent to ruin him, and prevent the effect of his ministry at Ephesus; and should he at this time desert his station, and disgrace his character and doctrine?

No, the opposition of adversaries only animated his zeal. He was in nothing daunted by his adversaries; but the more they raged and opposed the more he exerted himself. Should such a man as he flee?

Note, Adversaries and opposition do not break the spirits of faithful and successful ministers, but only kindle their zeal, and inspire them with fresh courage.

I checked out a number of commentaries online for this verse, and ended up pulling out several of my print commentaries. One of the greatest insights came at the bottom of the page of the NIV Study Bible:

many who oppose me. Probably a reference to the pagan craftsman who made the silver shrines of Artemis and to the general populace whom they had stirred up (Acts 19:23-34).

Interesting that what appeared to be spiritual opposition was actually rooted in commerce; people who had a vested financial interest in maintaining commercial interests in a pagan form of worship. Think about Jesus and the money-changers in the temple:

NIV Matt. 21:12 Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 13 “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.

I’ll let Eugene Peterson re-phrase the Acts reference above:

23-26 …a huge ruckus occurred over what was now being referred to as “the Way.” A certain silversmith, Demetrius, conducted a brisk trade in the manufacture of shrines to the goddess Artemis, employing a number of artisans in his business. He rounded up his workers and others similarly employed and said, “Men, you well know that we have a good thing going here—and you’ve seen how Paul has barged in and discredited what we’re doing by telling people that there’s no such thing as a god made with hands. A lot of people are going along with him, not only here in Ephesus but all through Asia province.

27 “Not only is our little business in danger of falling apart, but the temple of our famous goddess Artemis will certainly end up a pile of rubble as her glorious reputation fades to nothing. And this is no mere local matter—the whole world worships our Artemis!”

28-31 That set them off in a frenzy. They ran into the street yelling, “Great Artemis of the Ephesians! Great Artemis of the Ephesians!” They put the whole city in an uproar, stampeding into the stadium, and grabbing two of Paul’s associates on the way, the Macedonians Gaius and Aristarchus. Paul wanted to go in, too, but the disciples wouldn’t let him. Prominent religious leaders in the city who had become friendly to Paul concurred: “By no means go near that mob!”

32-34 Some were yelling one thing, some another. Most of them had no idea what was going on or why they were there. As the Jews pushed Alexander to the front to try to gain control, different factions clamored to get him on their side. But he brushed them off and quieted the mob with an impressive sweep of his arms. But the moment he opened his mouth and they knew he was a Jew, they shouted him down: “Great Artemis of the Ephesians! Great Artemis of the Ephesians!”—on and on and on, for over two hours.

Some people believe that finding the heart of many world and regional conflicts is simply a matter of “follow the money.” The point is that we don’t know and we don’t always see why people are so very bent on opposing us in ministry. Not to minimize Matthew Henry’s interpretation, it’s simply too easy to say, ‘It’s the Devil;’ or put things into some general spiritual warfare category. Maybe your devout faith and witness are simply “bad for business” for someone nearby.

…My opinion would be that where ministry is taking place many challenges and overt opposition will occur. If it’s not, maybe you’re doing it wrong.

Greater opportunities = Greater opposition.

But the good news is that most of the time the opposite is also true.

Greater opposition = Greater opportunities.

Romans 5:20b (KJV) says,

But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.

Ministry life involves both: Great opportunities for harvest and life change, and many who would rather keep the status quo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

January 13, 2016

Why People are Leaving and Churches are Dying

Today we pay a return visit to Shane Idleman, founder and lead pastor of Westside Christian Fellowship in Lancaster, California, just North of Los Angeles. (And this time we looked into it and no, Shane and Kyle are not related!) To read this at source on the church blog, click the title below; there’s also a related article by him linked at the bottom.

The Real Reason Churches Die and People Leave

Experts say that nearly 4,000 churches close every year in America and over 3,500 people leave the church every single day.

Church is boring, ​and many churches are dying ​because the power of God has vanished from the pulpit as well as the pew. Like Samson, they “know not that the Spirit of the Lord has departed” (cf. Judge 16:20). But there is hope if we once again seek God. “Light yourself on fire with passion and people will come from miles to watch you burn” (John Wesley).

Shane IdlemanWe need genuine revival preaching: “Revival preaching is more concerned about an outcome than an outline. The revival preacher is more aware of his text than the time. He is bent on pleasing the Lord rather than pleasing men. His ear is tuned to hear and heed the voice of God” (Harold Vaughan). “We need more prophets in our pulpits and less puppets” (Leonard Ravenhill).

​Many know about ​2 Chronicles 7:14​ , but fail to apply it​​: “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.”

God’s call is not to Hollywood, Washington, or the media, but to us. If “My people” turn back to Me I will heal and restore. We have a form of microwave Christianity. Service times are cut to just over an hour, prayer is glanced over, and worship is designed to entertain the masses. “People are bored,” they say, “so our services need to be more appealing.” You can increase attendance with slick marketing and entertaining services, but you’ll miss the heart of God. The church will be a mile wide but only an inch deep.

To seek in the context of 2 Chronicles 7:14 means to “find what is missing.” The Hebrew word for seek, baqash, has a very strong meaning. Imagine losing your child in a crowded mall. Your entire heart would be engaged. How would you spend your time? Where would your energy be concentrated? Now parallel this with seeking God.

I’ve often said that one of the most difficult challenges associated with pastoring is not sermon preparation, leading a church, or taxing counseling appointments; it’s witnessing the tragic results of spiritual dehydration—watching people die spiritually with living water just steps away. Sadly, we are too busy and too self-absorbed to truly seek Him.

In today’s culture, there are countless enticements that pull us away from God. It is my firm belief that, second only to salvation, seeking God is the most important aspect of the Christian life…to truly know God: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13).

Very few of us ever experience this close relationship with God because it involves things such as humility, dying to self, vibrant prayer, and heart-felt worship. This isn’t meant to discourage, but to convict. Conviction is a wonderful gift from God used to turn the heart back to Him.

Let’s be honest: how many can truly say like Jeremiah, “His word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot” (Jeremiah 20:9)? How many have truly experienced Jesus’ words in John 7:38, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water?” How many can truly relate to “times of refreshing” found in Acts 3:19?

Many have head knowledge, but they’ve never truly experienced the presence of God. Often, it’s because of ongoing and unconfessed sin. Being tempted isn’t sin—surrendering to it is. Temptation is also an opportunity to do what is right by turning from it. 1 Corinthians 10:13 states, “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.”

This “way of escape” is ultimately what tilts the scale toward seeking God. When we flee temptation, turn from sin, and seek God, the by-product is the filling of the Spirit. The door of temptation swings both ways—you can enter or exit. If we choose to enter, once inside, we may not see the exit sign so clearly again.

I’ll close with a correspondence I received from a man before he fully sought God with all his heart, “I had become someone I never thought I would become. I was in complete darkness…I would sleep in my clothes for as long as I could. I began wishing that I would die. The emotional pain was unbearable.”

Here is his correspondence after he passionately sought God and surrendered his life to Him. “I only wish that everyone could feel the love that I experienced. I’m able to forgive others and genuinely love them. I feel like I have been re-born…elusive peace has now been found.”

How long will you waver? If God is God follow Him (cf. 1 Kings 18:21). ​​

Shane Idleman is the founder and lead pastor of Westside Christian Fellowship in Lancaster, California, just North of Los Angeles. He recently released his 7th book, Desperate for More of God at shaneidleman.com


Related article by Shane: Why Do So Many People Hate Preachers?

Related: A.W. Tozer quotation at Clark Bunch’s blog.

 

January 3, 2016

Jonah Feared Success, Not Failure in Mission Nineveh

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:31 pm
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NIV-Jonah 1:1The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”

3 But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord…

One time when the kids were younger, for our Bible study we studied the story of Jonah for an entire week. Since by that point this was very familiar territory, we were looking for new insights into the story, and with scripture, you’ll always find them. We came up with a few, with a little help from the ESV Study Bible.

Chapter One
There is a great deal of bigotry that plays into this story, but not in the way we often think. We tend to assume that Jonah simply didn’t like the people of Nineveh and simply didn’t want to go on that basis. But it’s more accurate to say that Jonah was afraid of the success of his mission. He certainly wasn’t seeing them through God’s eyes. Do we do that?

  • What if that terrible family down the street become Christians and start going to our church?
  • What if that guy where I work became a believer and started expecting me to mentor him in his faith journey?
  • What if so-and-so in our extended family got serious about reading the Bible and started asking me why, if I’m also a Christ-follower, have I done some of the things I’ve done?
  • What if those poor people I prayed with downtown and left my phone number expect us to help them out?
  • What if all the people who put up their hands at the movie our church showed start coming ever week… there would be more of them than us?
  • Everybody knows the terrible things that _____ did; now that he’s been a believer for two years, is he going to expect a leadership position?
  • That’s the woman who hit our car in the hardware store parking lot last Christmas. What’s she doing at our small group meeting?

Chapter Two
The ESV Study describes the four chapters of Jonah as containing seven episodes, with the first three paralleling the second three. Jonah speaks to two similar audiences in the story. The crew on the boat heading for Tarshish were each praying to their own God, but then after Jonah explained to them what was causing the terrible storm, they prayed to Jonah’s God. Success! Just as he will experience in Nineveh. His ministry as a prophet was constantly bearing fruit. But inside the great fish, Jonah’s prayer is mostly thankfulness for his own safety and deliverance. There’s no mention of the sailors or the people who he was originally sent to. A rather egocentric prophet, don’t you think?

Chapter Three
Jonah shows up several days (or weeks) late for his assignment and delivers his message, albeit halfheartedly. Today we have preachers who read powerful scriptures and then deliver messages containing great truths — even if ‘borrowed’ from the internet — and yet don’t realize the power of the Word they are handling. It’s just a job. The people of Ninevah may matter to God but don’t matter to Jonah. He’s apparently quite disappointed that God doesn’t destroy the city. Perhaps that would be more fun to watch.

Chapter Four
Maybe God will destroy the city after all. He’s already changed his mind once. So instead of taking the first train, boat or great fish out of town, Jonah hangs around to see if anything develops. The closing phrase of the story shows how out-to-lunch his priorities are, as God’s final appeal is basically, “If I destroy the city, think of all the animals that would perish.” Since Jonah has a thing for houseplants, God figures he’ll appeal to Jonah’s sense of nature. Not a good ending for Jonah really. Final score: Ship passengers and crew – 1; People of Nineveh – 1; Jonah – 0.

We ended our week reading the story from The Street Bible by Rob Lacey, known in North America as The Word on The Street. He devotes almost half of his writing to Chapter Four. Maybe someone should re-tell this story for kids, using the last chapter as the basis for the story, and then recreate the opening scenes backwards in light of the closing. Call it “Jonah and the Plant;” or “Jonah and the Worm.” Or instead of pitching this story for kids, it should really be part of Church Leadership Lessons 101.

The 4th chapter — the entire book actually — ends with a question, “And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh…?” (NIV) to which Lacey adds, “Hard question to someone convinced God’s only interested in the Jewish nation. It’s tough admitting you’re wrong.”

Often our evangelism efforts are focused on people who, if converted, will look like us and talk like us — people who blend into our local church culture — but the command of Jesus to go into the world means the whole world.

 

December 29, 2015

All Your Church Needs to Grow is Jesus

This is our 4th visit to Created to Give God Glory, the blog of Baptist pastor Prentis McGoldrick. Click the title below to read this at source.

Is Jesus Not Enough for Your Church?

Churches are promising undeliverable enticements for people to visit. I heard one recently that promised that the people who visited would learn the purpose and meaning for their lives. Yes, it is possible to find that in Jesus Christ but no one can promise, no matter how hard they preach who Jesus is, that you will find purpose and meaning in one visit. I am afraid this is what the visitors believe will happen if they come. The local bar has a better chance of delivering their expectations.

I noticed another church promising that those who come will receive a “dynamic” sermon. I’m not sure what that means. Surely, no preacher is trying to make his sermons boring. Most preachers don’t know if their sermons are boring. I know I don’t. I just notice the sleeping people. I conclude that the sermons are boring.

Many churches are using marketing as their main draw for people to enter their churches. They are using “churchy” words and drawing in people from other churches who believe there must be something better than they have where they are. Then, these churches are crowing about their growth. Attendance and giving have become the main goals of the modern church. Any means of packing them in is okay.

But let’s look at what the Bible says.

Jesus said that He would build His church.

Matthew 16:16-18 (ESV)
16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

Jesus said He would build His church on the testimony of a faith in Him as the Christ. This is the foundation of the Church.

Jesus said that the Father must draw people Himself before they can be reached.

John 6:44 (ESV)
44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.

Is this why Paul was so determined to preach Jesus only?

1 Corinthians 2:2 (ESV)
2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

For the longest time I blamed myself for every person who left the church and praised myself for everyone who joined. I kept thinking that I had to grab their attention with more creative messages. I searched for videos to enhance messages, practiced what I would say and did my best to find amusing and emotional stories to hammer in my points. Even now, I don’t think these things are inherently wrong. They are only wrong when the message of Jesus takes a back seat to the efforts of man.

Several months ago I began to pray to be filled with the Holy Spirit. I have recently gathered with others to pray that God would fill our church with His Spirit. I am neither testing nor challenging God to act. I am asking that He would build His church on the testimony of His Son. I am praying that our church turns the corner and becomes so Spirit filled that no one says that it was marketing, better preaching techniques or any other reason for what God will do. I don’t pray that our church is filled with people. I pray it is filled with Jesus.

Personally, I believe He is enough.

December 14, 2015

September 11, 2015

Becoming an Engaged Preaching Audience

“He who has ears, let him hear” (Matthew 13:9).

Today, we pay a return visit to the Christward Collective website. When you are given the opportunity to deliver a sermon, there is no denying that an unusual adrenaline rush takes place. This probably happens to some degree in any public speaking situation. But in a church context, there is the additional rush (for lack of a better word) that you can experience as the Holy Spirit gives you things to say that weren’t in your written notes.

Sadly however, the audience is often very passive. You see people yawning, or reading their bulletin, and wish that every person in the congregation could be as engaged as you. (That’s the dynamic of small group situations that many find so stimulating.) The author below paints a vivid picture of a church service where everyone is equally energized and in a sense part of the teaching taking place.

Of particular interest here is a link at the bottom of the article. Don’t miss this. It’s to a book A Remedy for Wandering Thoughts in the Worship of God, published in 1835 and photographed for the archives of Princeton Theological Seminary. (Click the pages to turn.) If nothing else, read the table of contents to see the various aspects of the study the author made of this.

Meanwhile, click the title below to read today’s thoughts at source.

He Who Has Ears

Some accuse the Protestant emphasis upon the preached Word as pastor-centric and non-engaging, but such an accusation assumes too little about the listener’s responsibility in corporate worship. Every individual in the congregation has responsibilities when the Word of God is preached. As we listen to the Word preached we want to aim at listening to it astutely, attentively, reverently, prayerfully, and responsively.

Astutely: As listeners of the Word, we must insist upon the sound preaching of the Word. We dare not fall into the ways of those who have “itching ears” and accumulate for ourselves “teachers to suit our own passions” (2 Timothy 4:3). The temptation to do so is great and subtle. The Word is our nourishment, we live by “every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Our souls and hearts will languish apart from “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). The pastor who enters the pulpit should not be able to satiate us with stories, jokes, wandering tales, or dispassionate reflections. We want to hear from God, so we will listen astutely for that living Word (Hebrews 4:12).

Attentively: Our worship is never passive, but active as we engage with the Word preached. Of course, it is not our “laboring” that makes the Word preached effectual; that is the work of the Holy Spirit as He attends to the Word and works faith in the listener (John 3). But a disengaged and passive listener to the Word is no listener at all. As the preacher is accountable for what he says, so the congregation is accountable for its faithfulness in listening.

Reverently: God is speaking to His people and so we are to receive that Word reverently. With the Psalmist, we would say, “Let me hear what God the Lord will speak” (Psalm 85:8). The most blessed of sermons occur when the listener begins to forget the preacher and finds their mind filled with the Word of God, their heart moved with love for Him, and their affections running after Him. We are on holy ground in worship and knowingly hang on the edge of our seats as we long to hear the next words from our Heavenly Father. He speaks and we listen.

Prayerfully: The Spirit must attend to the Word, so we labor prayerfully in the pew as much as the preacher labors at preaching in the pulpit. Prayer paves the way for the Spirit’s effectual moving. We want our hearts to be fertile soil (Mark 4) for this eternal seed of truth. Even as our ears and mind our being stirred with the Word, so we are stirring our spirits in prayer.

Responsively: As the Westminster Shorter Catechism states, “The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of Man.” The Scriptures demand response: faith and obedience. We are to be “doers of the Word and not just hearers” (James 1:22). The fault lies with us if we emerge from a service asking, “Did you get anything out of that sermon?”  Rather, we desire to respond with, “I will believe what God says and will obey Him.” The sermon will never be perfect, because the man preaching it is never perfect. Yet, if the text was read and the text was preached, there is always something for the listener to respond to. Searching our thoughts and lives for where the Word preached that morning is speaking needed truth in my life marks every faithful listener. We dare not excuse ourselves, focus on how much others need to hear this truth, or think we have heard this message too many times. None of us are perfect in any area of our Christian lives, we are all straining forward, pressing “on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).

Dear Christian, you may be sitting in corporate worship while the pastor is preaching, but this is no idle exercise. We are to be engaged with the Word. The little effect many sermons have upon listeners is less often due to the preacher’s lack of skill in preaching, but rather due to our lack of effort in listening. Listen astutely, attentively, reverently, prayerfully, and responsively. “He who has ears, let him hear” (Matthew 13:9).

 

Richard Steele, A Remedy for Wandering Thoughts in Worship

Joel Beeke, The Family at Church: Listening to Sermons and Attending Prayer

 

 

April 19, 2015

Spiritual Snobbery

When I gave this blog its name, all those years ago, I was thinking in terms of something that would go beyond the surface, move past the superficial. The tag line “Digging a Little Deeper” expressed itself in having deep quotations or worship songs with rich lyrics. I prided myself in telling people that we offered something that went beyond those devotionals.

A few years in however, and the trademark style emerged that you see today.

First, there is always an anchor scripture verse or passage, highlighted in green because it’s God’s Word that has life; not anything any of us has to say.

Second, we try to run about five or six paragraphs, as opposed to those devotionals that only have two or three paragraphs.

But there’s also a third hallmark of this blog that perhaps isn’t so obvious: I have always eschewed stories and illustrations. We never start out with cute stories about children or puppies, hobby interests like photography or gardening, or sports illustrations from rock climbing or running marathons. Again, not like those devotionals.

Do you hear the pride talking?

I’ve always been impressed by pastors who simply jump right into the text. (Note: This includes speakers who preach topically and those who use the exegetical method.) We’ve had the opportunity to visit a couple of megachurches where the message just starts to roar through the auditorium like a freight train. It is good use of peoples’ time, though often you don’t get to know the heart or background of the pastor. (This does solve the problem of churches being personality-driven, however.)

But as I was getting ready to post today’s article I was very convicted about these verses:

And He was teaching them many things in parables, and was saying to them in His teaching,
Mark 4:2

and

Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable.
Matthew 13:34

Jesus took the familiar sights and sounds that people could relate to and incorporated them into his teaching. I do need to qualify here that the parables in the Gospel accounts are much more than just illustration or analogy, however. There was a certain richness and even mystery to them sometimes that went beyond the 1:1 correspondence a modern preacher’s story might contain. Often His parables could be processed on several different levels at once. At the website GotQuestions.org they deal with this aspect and include this passage:

‘Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, And seeing you will see and not perceive; For the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, And their eyes they have closed, Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, So that I should heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear. For truly I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Matthew 13:10-17).

So… I am repenting of spiritual snobbery today. Who knows that I haven’t tossed out some good devotional material over the past few years because of wanting to quickly jump into exposition of the text?

If the methodology was good enough for Jesus, it ought to be employed by us. And as the passage above reminds us, you can be “digging a little deeper” in a parable just as much as you can from formal, doctrinal teaching.

 

We have a C201-related bonus item for you today, if you’re interested. At Thinking Out Loud, I explained a little bit of why I cite different translations to accomplish different purposes.  Click to read How and Why I Use Different Bible Translations.


April 17, 2015

Reminder Ministry

Today’s writer is a long-time acquaintance of Thinking Out Loud and C201. Years ago, I ran a profile/interview with Kevin Sanders aka Kuya Kevin, a guy from Alabama who found himself doing youth ministry in The Philippines. He’s now married and back in the U.S. and still blogging at KevinSanders.org

To read today’s article at source — where we’ve also poached a picture of Kevin preaching — click the title below.

The Ministry of Reminding

“I am fully convinced, my dear brothers and sisters, that you are full of goodness. You know these things so well you can teach each other all about them. Even so, I have been bold enough to write about some of these points, knowing that all you need is this reminder. . .  “ -Romans 15:14-15

KevinSRCOne of the greatest joys I had in the Philippines was teaching the Scriptures to students who had never really studied them before.  I’d hand out copies of the New Testament and tell them the page number where they could find the passage we would study.  It was the first time many of them had experienced a simple, verse-by-verse discussion of God’s word with someone willing to answer their questions.

The same goes for my preaching ministry: I had to be careful about assuming my listeners knew anything about the text I would be sharing.  This was particularly true in some of the evangelistic preaching opportunities God gave me.

There was something extremely refreshing about doing ministry in this kind of setting.  What an amazing privilege!

This is not to say that Filipinos are Biblically illiterate –- there are thousands of faithful believers there who diligently study the Bible.  But my ministry was focused more on those who were new to the faith.

My ministry took an ironic turn here in the States.  I’ve had the privilege of preaching (short-term) in three churches.  All three congregations were of an older demographic: the average attendee had probably been listening to sermons since before I was born.

“What can I share that they haven’t already heard many times before?”  I asked myself this question as I embarked on this new season of ministry.

God taught me something very important: I don’t have to teach/preach anything “new.”   I’m not saying God lead me to “recycle” old sermon outlines from C.H. Spurgeon.  Preaching, after all, is applying the timeless truths of Scripture to our modern context.  But I realized that preaching is a ministry of reminding for many of us who have had already learned the basics doctrines of the faith.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m always learning new things when I prepare for (or listen to) sermons.  But I’ve let go of the need to hear “I’ve never heard anything like that before” when I preach. I’m just as content to know I have reminded my listeners of things we need to hear over and over again.  Here are a few examples that quickly come to mind:

  • It’s not about us.
  • We can trust God.
  • Life is fleeting.
  • God expects obedience.
  • We are forgiven in Christ.

The list goes on and on, but you get the idea.  We need to constantly hear the gospel preached because we are a forgetful people.  I’m thankful for the ministry of reminding–both as a preacher and hearer of God’s word.

October 10, 2014

The Purpose of Prophecy

Rev 19:9 Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” And he added, “These are the true words of God.”

10 At this I fell at his feet to worship him. But he said to me, “Don’t do that! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers and sisters who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For it is the Spirit of prophecy who bears testimony to Jesus.”
(NIV)

Two weeks ago I felt strongly that I was to share Revelation 19:10b with readers here but wasn’t sure exactly what it was I was to add to the passage.  Here are a few translations of this verse:

  • For the essence of prophecy is to give a clear witness for Jesus. (NLT)
  • For the testimony about Jesus is essentially the prophetic spirit. (The Voice)
  • Those who tell about Jesus have the spirit of a prophet. (Worldwide English)
  • the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy (KJV)
  • For the truth that Jesus revealed is what inspires the prophets. (Good News/TEV)
  • Everyone who tells about Jesus does it by the power of the Spirit. (CEV)
  • For the substance (essence) of the truth revealed by Jesus is the spirit of all prophecy [the vital breath, the inspiration of all inspired preaching and interpretation of the divine will and purpose, including both mine and yours]. (AMP)

Days later however, the top religious news story was the release of a new movie based on the Left Behind books. Those books are, to most people and many Christians, the essence of prophecy. However…

In the Bible prophecy does not refer to foretelling but rather to forthtelling.

I remember as a young adult the first time my pastor referred to prophecy as “powerful preaching.” “No, no!” I wanted to scream, “It’s about being able to tell the future; being given supernatural knowledge to know what is going to happen next.” You see, I had been greatly influenced by the Charismatic movement and got caught up in the sensational and supernatural aspects of the gifts of the spirit; the signs; the wonders.

I still consider myself a post-Charismatic. I still believe in the limitless power of the Holy Spirit. I believe that God indeed does give people insights into the future, but this is more through the gifts we call the word of knowledge and the word of wisdom; and even those are more concerned with seeing things as they are, not necessarily what will be.

The gift of prophecy is in no way connected to the fortune tellers who occupy low-rent business locations and invite clients to learn where they are to live or whom they are to marry. It’s more about speaking plainly and in the power and authority that God gives to speak into a person’s life, or to a situation; and then to point them to Christ.

Prophecy is indeed speaking in power and testifying to Jesus.  Charles Stanley writes:

Very seldom does the Lord God reveal a future event to us. The motivational gift of prophecy is primarily concerned with speaking forth the truth. The Word of God helps us to understand characteristics and avoid misunderstandings associated with the gift of prophecy, and it shows us how we use that gift when we walk in the Spirit.

…continue reading a 9-point outline on prophecy

The IVP New Testament Commentary offers this:

The apparent meaning is that those who have the testimony of Jesus—the angel, John and John’s brothers (fellow believers)—are all prophets. Prophets are bearers of the word of God, and in this book “the word of God” and “the testimony of Jesus” are inseparable (see 1:2, 9; 20:4). We learn now that the testimony of Jesus is not only a message about Jesus but also a message from Jesus the risen Lord. His is the one voice behind the many prophetic and angelic voices echoing through the pages of this book. So the testimony of Jesus is the spirit or essence of Christian prophecy. Whether it is also “the spirit of the prophecy,” referring to the book of Revelation itself (1:3; 22:7, 18-19), is more difficult to say (it does have the definite article in Greek). If it is, then the testimony of Jesus is virtually equivalent to the title “revelation of Jesus Christ” at the beginning of the book (1:1).

Although I couldn’t find an exact quotation on this, I love how Canadian pastor Bruxy Cavey teaches on the times where Bible prophecy does involve looking into the future. He says that the point is not to look forward but after the events have come to pass to look back and realize that God had it all under his control all the time. God knew about it all along.

In the meantime, the words of our mouths, and the meditations of our hearts should be all about testifying to Jesus. To Him be the honor, the power and the glory, both now and in the unknown future yet to come.

 

 

September 9, 2014

The Preacher’s Dilemma Following a Disaster

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Those of you who are in leadership at your church, or have done any preaching will appreciate today’s post, from our regular columnist, Rev. Clarke Dixon.  Click the title to read this at source or respond directly with comments.

Disasters: Divine Judgement? Reflections on Luke 13:1-5.

DisastersPut yourself in the preacher’s shoes. There has been a natural disaster of extraordinary proportions in a nation whose sinfulness is well known. Do you stand up Sunday morning and declare that God has divinely judged that nation? Or put yourself in the pastor’s seat. The person sitting across from you has experienced a massive catastrophe and is lamenting that she must have committed a big sin to deserve it. Do you agree with her? Or do you reassure her that oftentimes bad things happen to good people?

Thankfully, we do not need to spend too much time theorizing and theologizing over these questions, for Jesus gives us the answer:

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you;. . . Luke 13:1-13 NRSV
Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them– do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; . . . Luke 13:4-5 NRSV (emphasis mine)

That is a very simple answer to what we sometimes make into a very convoluted question: “no.” When a part of the world experiences a natural disaster, ought we to say “ha, you have suffered more than we do because your sin is greater”? No. When a person we know (and likely don’t like considering our jump to being judgemental) experiences catastrophe, do we say “ha, you have suffered more than I have for you are bigger sinner than me”? No. When we suffer greatly should we assume that our own sinfulness must be overwhelming? No. Jesus was very clear in the two examples he gave that those who suffered greatly did not suffer more because they sinned more. So let us leave off that presumption. Jesus couldn’t be more clear on that.

But that is not all Jesus has to say about the matter:

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them– do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” Luke 13:2-5 NRSV (emphasis mine)

Let’s put ourselves back in the preacher’s shoes following a disaster. Perhaps you do not want to be one of those preachers that says something along the line of “this earthquake happened to these people because they practice voodoo,” and instead you speak on a different kind of line, a fault line along which earthquakes naturally occur. The people leave the church feeling quite reassured that God is nice, and the preacher too. But should a nation deeply into voodoo not repent from their voodoo anyway? Or you do not want to call America to repentance from corporate greed following a massive terrorist attack. But shouldn’t America repent of corporate greed if it is guilty of it anyway? We might tend to wince at the “loose cannon” preachers out there who jump all over every disaster as a sign of divine judgement, yet imagine what this world would be like if people actually listened to them and repented from sin? Imagine what would happen if every disaster were followed by waves of mass repentance. We would find ourselves living in a remarkably different world!

Still wearing the shoes of a preacher, consider what would happen if every funeral service were not treated as a celebration of life for the deceased, but instead a call to repentance for the living? Every death, after all, is a reminder of our rebellion against God and the consequence of that. As a preacher your popularity would go down since people do not want preachers at funerals, but rather officiants. But if every attendee at every funeral were to consider the wages of sin, which is death (see Romans 6:23), and were to repent, the crime rate would fall, addictions would lose their power, sexually transmitted diseases would stop transmitting, broken relationships would be restored, marriages would regain health, and much, much more. We would find ourselves living in a remarkably different world! And best of all, billions of people would experience the grace of God for repentance is not just a turning away from sin but a turning toward God. Jesus could not be more clear on it: “unless you repent, you will perish.” That is the negative way of stating what is very, very positive: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16 NRSV).

Calamity and death have entered into this world because of rebellion against God. Bad things happen to all people. Yet out of the depths of His grace He saves us. He saves us for eternal life into the future, He saves us for Godly life lived through His Holy Spirit right now. If we see a nation or a person experiencing disaster, let us not judge. But neither let us hesitate to repent.

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
(Romans 6:23 NRSV)

January 9, 2014

The Two Audiences

In a blog titled Christianity 201, one assumes the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 is somewhat familiar.  If not, take the time to read it here.

I’ve been reading an advance copy of the book AHA by Kyle Idleman, releasing in the spring, and he noted something that my wife said we’ve heard before, but it struck me rather fresh this time. After completely digesting the story, Kyle returned to the setup that Luke provides in the first two verses:

1Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered…

There you see two distinct audiences for Jesus’ story: Tax collectors and sinners — interesting distinction, don’t you think? — representing the younger brother in the story who returns to his father at the end to say, “I have sinned…” and Pharisees and teachers of the law represented the older brother in the story. Kyle even hints that finding a way to reach the hearts of that second group may have more to do with how the particular story was crafted.

AHA Kyle IdlemanIn many respects, this represents the two types of people who sit near us at any given weekend church service. If your church is doing it right; you’ve got people from the community who you and your fellow church members are inviting who are on the road to crossing the line of faith, or have recently come into fellowship and are seeing everything for the first time. Then, you’ve got what is probably a majority of people who have been in church since they were minus-nine months; the Sunday School teachers, choir/worship team members, committee members, ushers, elders, deacons, etc.

Is every Sunday’s sermon a Prodigal Son type of story that bridges the two audiences? I can picture myself coming to your church and preaching this story and impressing everyone with how it reaches both types of people, but then what do the following week for an encore?

I was first made to think about this when I had the privilege of hearing Keith Green in concert several times before his death in 1982.  (Did I just give away my age?) Keith was one of the most spiritually focused Christian musicians I have ever encountered and he easily bridged the gap between two kinds of audience members by stressing the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

The call that Jesus makes in scripture is a call to people who are (a) hungry and thirsty and (b) people who need to have that hunger and thirst — that desire for God — perpetually stimulated. There is a saying that, ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink, but you can put salt in its oats to make it thirsty.‘ (Okay, you’re probably less familiar with that last bit.)

Psalm 42:1 (NiRV) states:

A deer longs for streams of water.
    God, I long for you in the same way.

God wants to cultivate within us a hunger and thirst for Him. The person who has been a Christ-follower for 40-years needs this just as much as the person who has been a Christian for 40 minutes.

I believe it was Keith Green himself who pointed out that the word saviour occurs 37 times in the King James translation, while Lord appears 7836 times. That’s a ratio of nearly 212 to one. Our evangelistic and pre-evangelistic efforts are great as far as they go, but Christ’s intent is nothing less than that we make Him Lord over all our lives.

Bringing our lives in subjection to him is something the Prodigal Son story teaches both to the younger brothers and older brothers in the crowd; the message cuts across both demographics.


As I approached the end of the book, there were two brief things that also struck me that I wanted to share here.

“Let’s say the Prodigal Son lived in our culture today. He would have run out of money, but then, in order to prolong the pleasure, he would have continued his wild living by racking up credit-card debt. How much more would that have complicated his story? How much worse would it have been for the son to arrive home with looming debt? Picture him saying, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I have no money, and by the way, some creditors are coming, and I owe twice what my inheritance was worth.’ The longer we try and prolong the pleasure, the greater the pain will be.”  (pp 168-9)

The other insight was in reference to the older brother:

“This is the problem with confidence in our own goodness. We begin to believe we’re going to earn something from the Father. But the Father’s house is not a house of merit; it is a house of mercy.” (p. 200)

Those of us who have been in the church for awhile need to curb the tendencies to fall into older brother syndrome, because the demand for Lordship that Christ places on us is actually greater than that placed on those who are meeting Him for the first time.

January 2, 2013

Preaching on Sin

We’ve frequently borrowed from the blog Daily Encouragement, but today’s post from Stephen Weber is a classic article he wrote for a blog experiment, Clear Minded.  You can find it and one other article here.

“Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long suffering and doctrine”(2 Timothy 4:2). 

“For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).

Stephen C. Weber Preaching on sin; how the pendulum has swung even in my lifetime on this issue. Many my age and older will recall when sin was regularly addressed from the pulpit boldly and forthrightly. However now there’s (in my observation) far less preaching on sin and a great reluctance among many preachers to address sin specifically.  I have given some thought as to why this is so:

1. Preaching on sin is seen as “legalistic.” Let me address several understandings of legalism as I have heard the word used:

  • Legalism is a system where it is preached or assumed that following a certain set of rules is the source of salvation. That is; what we do or don’t do in following these rules determines our eternal destiny. The faithful preacher must forcefully renounce this form of legalism.  The Biblical teaching is that we are saved by grace through our faith in Christ and His finished work.
  • Legalism to many means a varying list of man-made rules regarding all manner of issues such as dress, entertainment, technology, etc. These issues vary by geography, denominational background and age.  Brooksyne speaks of growing up with “clothesline” preaching where the preacher specifically addressed specific dress standards (usually focusing on the women).  She really didn’t understand grace till Bible College. The faithful Biblical pastor will see that any addressing of and denunciation of sin has a solid Biblical foundation and is not merely a cultural or personal preference.

However the man of God must be committed to preaching the whole counsel of God including addressing sin and its terrible consequences. Proclaiming the moral standards of Scripture is not legalism!

2. Preaching on sin may turn off newcomers or “seekers.” That’s true, particularly in this age of relativism in which we live. However the proclamation of God’s truth should not be motivated by this as long as the message also contains the gospel of redemption.

3. We need to focus on the positive and God’s love and grace. Absolutely, but again proclaiming the whole counsel of God will certainly include addressing sin.

4. This behavior is so popular and it’s now legal or “constitutional”. This is a major detriment to sound Biblical preaching. Many behaviors that were once recognized as sinful have become popular and  legalized according to the laws of man.  The law of God is far greater and our mission is to proclaim His law as truth rather than man’s.

5. We are not to judge others and we are to be tolerant of all. These are two of the dominant attitudes of our day. The apostle Paul, in practicing church discipline, passed judgment on the immoral brother and certainly did not tolerate his behavior in 1 Corinthians 5.

6. Addressing these behaviors is hateful and mean-spirited. This is silencing many preachers of righteousness. We are flooded with new meanings for hateful and mean-spirited, particularly if its addressing sins that are politically correct and have growing acceptance in society at large.

7. It will make those who may be involved in the sinful behavior feel bad about themselves. Better to feel bad and hear and hopefully heed a warning than live in ignorance.

8. Pastors may feel they shouldn’t address a subject matter unless they have it 100% conquered. Certainly we should expect our pastors to live a righteous life and not be a hypocrite. As the Spirit deals with them they should repent of their sin, seek to please God, and be an example to their spiritual flock.  However they should proclaim God’s Word even though they may not have fully attained.

A corollary attitude from the pew may be a feeling that the pastor shouldn’t preach on any subject matter unless he himself has no problems with it or any other issue.  You would have to wait for a perfect pastor (none exist) or more likely one who is proud and self-deceived!

9. People just don’t want to hear this kind of preaching anymore. Indeed some don’t. But our call to preach the Word and proclaim the full counsel of God is not based on popularity polls.  But let me speak here as one earnest Christian in the pew (as I normally am now since I am not in pastoral ministry at this time and thus regularly preaching from the pulpit. I feel I speak for many but of course not all.)

  • A strong denunciation of sin may not be the most “enjoyable” message but I am challenged and edified when I hear God’s truth proclaimed and sin denounced.
  • The issue addressed may apply directly to me.  Ouch! That can bring conviction, a healthy work of the Holy Spirit.   May the Holy Spirit keep my heart soft so that I may feel His conviction and deal with the troubling matter in my life rather than blame the pastor for preaching the Word. My discerning response should not be “this sure annoys me” but rather “is this true according to the Scriptures and what action should I take.”  If it is I need to deal with it and thank God for a preacher who cares enough and is bold enough to bring it to my attention.

10. The pastor may not have it completely right when seeking to apply a Biblical principle to a modern issue. That may be so but if you value your pastor you should also value his counsel, input, and thoughtful study on current matters. Listen as a Berean checking the Scriptures yourself.

11. Even issues very specifically addressed in the Bible may tend to be skirted around or in some cases reinterpreted from what has been their normal understanding. I am also wary of what some new translations and paraphrases are doing with words and traditional understanding of sinful actions.

May God help me and my many pastor friends to truly preach the whole counsel of God!

 

Please note: Certainly I am aware that many pastors continue to boldly address sin and my pastor has tackled many of these topics.

~Stephen C. Weber

You’re invited to visit Stephen’s regular blog, Daily Encouragement.  Click the image below:

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