Christianity 201

May 6, 2015

Conversion Conversations

Acts 8:30 Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.

31 “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him…

…35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus…

…39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing.

The Conversation of God’s Witness and Acts 8:26-40

by Clarke Dixon

We share Jesus out of love. It was C.S. Lewis who said: “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.” Christianity is of course of infinite importance to the Christian, and so too, then, is sharing the faith with others. In fact to not do so will seem callous and cold.  So while Canadian society may have a ‘hushing’ effect on all who would proselytise, we will want to pick up our cross and follow Jesus. To do so is the loving thing to do.

Some of us have been enjoying the “Becoming a Contagious Christian” course where we are encouraged to enter into spiritual conversations with others. Phillip’s personal testimony to the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 is one of a few Bible passages that gives a clear depiction of one person involved in such a spiritual conversation, leading another person to faith in Christ. As such there is much here for us to learn here, so let’s take a look:

Tune into the Lord’s leading and be obedient to it. Notice straight off that the Ethiopian may never have trusted and followed Christ had Phillip not been attentive and obedient to God’s leading in his life (see verses 26-30). Are we listening to God? Are we hearing His heart cry for those who are living, or more accurately dying, far from His presence and love?

Watch for opportunities to start conversations on spiritual matters. While the Lord led Phillip to the chariot, it would seem that Phillip took the initiative in speaking on spiritual matters (see verse 30). An air purifier salesman once came to our house and after a lengthy spiel asked the big question: “if you had the opportunity to live longer, would you take it?” Seizing an opportunity I asked “if you had the opportunity to live for eternity would you take it?” He spoke on air purity for what seemed like an hour while my wife and I listened attentively. I spoke about Jesus for what seemed like a minute or two and the salesman disappeared quickly. While my witnessing may seem to have ended in failure who knows but that the salesman may have thought about my big question every time he asked his. Watch for opportunities to speak about spiritual things, you just never know . . .

Begin with a question and engage in a conversation. Notice how Phillip asks a question of the Ethiopian not out of the blue, but tying in with what is already happening (see verse 30). Can we be watching for opportunities to ask appropriate questions, ones which engage a conversation? It is important that we do not ask a question so that we can open the door for a pre-canned ‘evangelistic sermon’ rather that we ask a question to open the door for a two way conversation. Phillip not only spoke to the Ethiopian eunuch, he also listened and heard him (see verses 30-35).

Watch for an interest. The Ethiopian’s curiosity is already sparked and he wants to hear more (see verse 30-31). Being respectful of others means being aware of when spiritual conversations are beginning, and when they are ending!

Don’t put up barriers. The Ethiopian was from a different land with a different culture, had a different skin color, and being a Gentile and a ‘eunuch’ would have faced different religious opportunities in the Judaism he had attached himself to. However, Phillip sat beside him and engaged fully in conversation. In a short while the eunuch would be fully immersed in the waters of baptism, symbolizing his full acceptance into the Christ’s Church. Let’s not put up barriers to our engaging another person in Christ.

Don’t be a stranger to strangers. While the emphasis on ‘friendship evangelism,’ can be good, we should not write off the possibility of engaging in meaningful conversations with complete strangers. Phillip was a complete stranger to the Ethiopian, but Phillip was willing to get close, and we get the sense of friendliness between the two. One New Year’s Eve I had an opportunity to speak to a complete stranger about Jesus. This was a union party in a town I had recently left and while filling in for a musician was there for very selfish reasons – to get paid for playing bass. The band was treated to dinner and I sat across from a man who had not set foot in a church since being yelled at by a priest. I seized the opportunity to get a spiritual conversation going and by the end of the night he expressed his regret that I had left town as he would have liked to have come to my church. That speaks of two things: a desire to grow spiritually and and a sense of friendship between us. Can you be a friend to a complete stranger?

Head to the empty tomb, and on the way stop at the cross. The Eunuch was reading about the suffering servant in Isaiah and Phillip “beginning with the scripture proclaimed the good news about Jesus to him” (verse 35 NET). The message of the cross is central to our faith as it speaks of forgiveness, grace, and mercy and so we will want to lead others to be thinking about the cross. However, if we stop there with the message that Jesus is Saviour we have only shared half of the good news. We really need to go further and make our way to the empty tomb where we discover that Jesus is Lord. When in the Bible we hear of people speaking of the “good news about Jesus” it is really a reference to his resurrection as well as His death. It is good news that Jesus is Savior and Lord. Are we prepared to speak about what happened at the cross? Are we ready to speak about the reality of the resurrection and why it matters?

Know your stuff. When the Ethiopian asked a question about the interpretation of the Bible, Phillip knew what to say. This does not mean that we should have the answer to every possible question (or that we should pretend to), but we should know our stuff to a reasonable degree. This means knowing our Bible well! But it also means being aware of much more.

Don’t be surprised by professions of faith. Imagine our surprise if a complete stranger we are witnessing to would respond as the eunuch did: “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” (verse 36 NRSV) Given our current Canadian climate of skepticism and pluralism, we are unfortunately not surprised when our youth go off to college or university and drop out of church. But we should be surprised that anyone would walk away from such a reasonable and deep thing as trusting Christ. Given the fact that God is God, we should not be surprised when people put their trust in Him.

Expect rejoicing. The last we hear of the Ethiopian he “went on his way rejoicing” (verse 39 NRSV). Many of us expect others to experience discomfort when we tell them about Jesus. Expect joy!

Know that God can do something big tomorrow with the seemingly little you have done today. Phillip was taken from preaching to crowds in verse six to speaking to just one person, the eunuch, in our passage. We don’t really know what happened to the Ethiopian eunuch but there is evidence of a vibrant church in Ethiopia in the early centuries. Perhaps this eunuch was used of God to begin a great work in Ethiopia. You may not be Billy Graham, but you just never know, the person you are witnessing to may be the next Billy Graham. What seems like a little in our minds can be of huge significance in the mind and plan of God. Besides, there is rejoicing in heaven over each and every soul that comes to Christ in repentance, as each and every soul is significant to Him (see Luke 15:7 again!).

We witness because God is real, and his love for us and others is real. We witness for the sake of the people we share Christ with, we share Jesus out of His love for them. To be reserved and demurring on matters of evangelism is to be cold of heart, leaving people out in the cold.

January 30, 2015

Jerusalem, Judea and the Uttermost Places on Earth

John 4:9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

A few years ago I had an interesting conversation after church.

The pastor had quoted the verse we commonly refer to as “The Great Commission;” the verse which reads,

Acts 1:8 NLT But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

The person who spoke to me has a huge compassion for Israel and is willing to share this passion with any who want to know more about the various facets of how modern Israel fits into Old Testament history, New Testament studies, evangelism and missions, eschatology, etc. We’ve had some great interactions, and I’ve learned much about The Holy Land from our conversations and various items she’s given me to read.

She suggested to me that perhaps the passage in Acts 1:8 might actually be taken most literally. That we should be evangelists in Jerusalem.

I told her that neither those we call the “church fathers” nor modern commentators have interpreted this passage that way. I mean, it’s an interesting take on the passage, and certainly in first century context it is correct; but we tend to read their commission into our commission and when we do so, we tend to think of Jerusalem as the place where we’re standing or sitting right now. The place we call home. My Jerusalem is the close family, co-workers, immediate neighbors, etc. who in a sense, only I can reach.

Perhaps you grew up in a church where it was diagrammed something like this:

Jerusalem Judea Samaria traditional interpretation

But people do read scripture differently, and many passages that seem straight-forward are subject to different understandings. So in Acts and Paul’s epistles, my friend at church sees Paul’s consuming drive to bring the Gospel to the Jews; whereas I read Acts and am struck by how Paul was compelled to go to Rome against all odds. (To be fair, both elements are present; “to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”)

Driving home, my wife pointed out that a most-literal reading of the passage would be difficult since Samaria no longer exists and the “end of the earth” (ESV and NKJV) or the even more archaic “ends of the earth” (HCSB and strangely, NLT, above) no longer applies to an earth we know is round and has no ends. (I like the NASB here, “the remotest parts of the earth.” Good translation and very missional.)

I’m not sure I agreed with the pastor’s take on Samaria, however. He chose Toronto, a city about an hour from where we live, as our “modern Samaria” because of its cosmopolitan nature; because it’s a gateway to so many cultures impacting the rest of the world. Truly when Jesus met the Samaritan woman in John chapter 4, it was a clash of cultures in several ways at once.

But Samaria would not be seen that way by those receiving the great commission. In Judea they will like me and receive but in Samaria we have a mutual distrust and dislike for each other. Samaria is the place you don’t want to go to. Your Samaria may be geographically intertwined in your Jerusalem or your Judea. Your Samaria may be at the remotest part the earth and it’s your Samaria because it’s at the ends of the earth.

Your Samaria may be the guy in the next cubicle that you just don’t want to talk to about your faith, but feel a strong conviction both that you need to and he needs you to. Your Samaria may be the next door neighbor whose dogs run all over your lawn doing things that dogs do. Your Samaria may be the family that runs the convenience store where you rent DVDs who are of a faith background that you associate with hatred and violence. Your Samaria may be atheists, abortionists, gays, or just simply people who are on the opposite side of the fence politically. Your Samaritan might just be someone who was sitting across the aisle in Church this weekend.

And perhaps, just to make things interesting, with its heat, humidity and propensity toward violence, perhaps your Samaria actually is modern-day Jerusalem.

  • Some of today’s article appeared previously in October, 2014 incorporated in a look at how this view of Samaria would have influenced the original hearers of The Parable of the Good Samaritan story.  The full article was originally published in January 2011 at Thinking Out Loud.

January 20, 2015

Keep Your Love Alive…And the Gospel Will Be Preached

We used a brief excerpt a year ago from the daily devotional Johnny B. Daily. Sometimes we return to a previous source only to find that they’ve stopped writing, or have lost the focus that we saw evident at an earlier stage. So it’s nice to go back and see someone faithfully writing, in this case since June, 2006.  For our return visit we find Johnny going verse-by-verse through Matthew. This is actually two posts, and our headline above is our attempt to link the two thoughts in the consecutive verses.

But first, Johnny always starts each day to his readers with these words:

God is good all the time, all the time God is good.  TOO BLESSED TO BE STRESSED!!!!

I love his passion and the personal tone with which he writes to his readers. To reach each piece below at source, click the individual titles:

Is your love cold? Is your love all about you? Matthew 24:12,13

Yesterday I visited with you about false prophets. Do not get me wrong, many preachers on the radio and TV are good God fearing Bible teaching men; just be aware of the ones that are not. Johnny, are you judging them. No, but the Bible says to test them by the word. Do this and see for yourself.

Matthew 24: 12 And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.

Jesus is telling us here that with false teachings and loose morals comes a very destructive element. What is this element? LOVE that IS NO MORE! Huh? Because of false teachings, or teaching about caring for yourself, that you will prosper and do well and loose morals we lose the love for God and the love for anything except SELF!!

Look around, where is your focus? Are you thinking only of yourself? If so, you love is not for God first; then love neighbors and family. Hmmm! Something to think about. If you are #1 then you cannot truly love.

13 But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.

However, with Jesus there is always hope. If you endure, don’t compromise your Christian beliefs, stay true to the one true living GOD, then you shall be saved. These are Jesus’ words.

Come my friend, now, take time this very moment to pray, asking God to make you strong and a dedicated follower of Jesus Christ. Love you all.

The song, “Just spreadin’ the news” should be our theme song. Matthew 24:14

Matthew 24:14 tells us that before Jesus returns, the Good News about the Kingdom, the message of salvation, would be preached throughout the world.

This was the disciples mission. This is your mission. To take the Good News to others worldwide. Are you sharing the word with others? How can you more effectively share the good news where ever you walk? A man had lots of little small crosses and he would lay one on the sidewalk of businesses he entered when the Spirit moved him. He said he has yet to exit and the cross still be there — YES, someone picked it up. A great way to stir the curiosity and move people. What way can you leave small subtle hints? Hints to stir people and get them to thinking about Jesus, about salvation, about eternity after death.

Your walk in life should be one way to share the gospel. So others look and say what does he/she have that I don’t have? Hmmm!

Jesus talked about the end times and final judgment to show his followers the urgency of spreading the Good News of salvation to everyone.

Here are Jesus’ words: 14 And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.

May your day be filled with glory from our Father in Heaven. Love you all.

I’m not sure that the original text is meant to read this way, as a conditional promise, but as we join the two verses we could say: Kindling our love for God and faithfully enduring means that the gospel will go out into the world.

Oh, and I almost forgot, Johnny ends each day’s writing with these words:

In Christ’s Love and Grace

To which we add, Amen!

October 6, 2014

Sowing and Reaping Can Me More Than Just Economics

Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written:

“They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor;
    their righteousness endures forever.”

10 Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.

Today we return to the website of Ralph Howe Ministries. When we think of sowing and reaping we tend to think of it in bottom-line, dollars-and-cents terms. (That would be pounds-and-pence for my UK readers!) But in the much larger Bible context, planting, reaping, seeds and fruit are all referring to the spread of the gospel story and the establishment and growth of Christ-followers. It is to that end that Ralph writes the following; click the title to read at source.

A Biblical Principle

Here’s a biblical principle we can take to the bank: If we sow sparingly, we will reap sparingly; if we sow the gospel abundantly we will reap abundantly (2 Corinthians 9:6). Some believe this is why evangelists are so effective in leading people to Christ – they sow abundantly. I believe there is some merit to the idea. The Good News itself is powerful because the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16). And, the more often it is shared, the more often it will bear fruit.

sowing and reapingPeter, one of the original twelve, states that we are “born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding Word of God.” So, obviously, the more ’seeds’ we plant the better the harvest we will reap. Sow seldom – see little fruit because you are planting very few seeds. Sow regularly and often – you will reap a harvest from some of the seeds that you planted – some of the times that you shared the Gospel.

Our job is to share Christ. Not to bring people to Christ – that is the job of the Holy Spirit. Our task is to take Christ to the people. In case you have not noticed, unbelievers are not flocking to the church where they can hear the Gospel. So, we are to take the Gospel to them. Then the Holy Spirit works with the seed we planted and convicts them of sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:8-10). As hearts become warm towards God people respond and we see a harvest of souls for the Kingdom. The Holy Spirit is the true evangelist who convicts people’s hearts, opens their spiritual eyes, and points them to Christ. He resides in all of us, not just in the evangelists (one of the five-fold ministry gifts of Ephesians 4:11-12).

This is the task of all true disciples. Some excuse themselves from the work of winning the lost by saying that they don’t have the gift of evangelism. There is no such gift in the Bible. Every true disciple of Jesus is called to “follow Him” (Matthew 4:19) and, as we do, He “makes us into fishers of men.” So, if we are not fishing we are not following. And, we are not “becoming.” We have traded ’safe,’ ’secure,’ and ‘comfortable’ for exciting, risky, and an adventure.

We all need to remember that one day we will be held accountable by the Lord Jesus as to what we did with what He commanded us to do. He was not joking when He said, “Go into all the world and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). And, it was not an option that we can choose to become involved in or choose to let others do it while we stay safe and secure. Of course, we will become involved in other areas of ministry – caring, hospitality, worship, leading … but, Jesus will still bring us back to the basic and foundational calling that is upon every believer’s life – the “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10) as He did.

So, time to learn to share the Gospel so we can plant these powerful seeds of Good News in the life of people that we know and the hearts of total strangers. Of course, this will mean having the learn how to express the Gospel as most believers know the Gospel but because they have never shared it – really find it hard to express the Good News of salvation in a way that makes sense of this powerful message. And, we need to learn to share it in a way that today’s generation can understand it. We live in a post-Christian society and so we need to learn how to communicate the message in new ways to those who do not have a Christian consciousness.

Remember, every one of us will be held accountable for what we have done with the gifts that He gave us – and the greatest gift is the message of salvation – the Gospel of the Kingdom.

July 23, 2014

The Quest for the Purple Fish

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Before we begin, here is Psalm 23 in The Voice translation.

The Eternal is my shepherd, He cares for me always.
He provides me rest in rich, green fields
    beside streams of refreshing water.
    He soothes my fears;
He makes me whole again,
    steering me off worn, hard paths
    to roads where truth and righteousness echo His name.

Even in the unending shadows of death’s darkness,
    I am not overcome by fear.
Because You are with me in those dark moments,
    near with Your protection and guidance,
    I am comforted.

You spread out a table before me,
    provisions in the midst of attack from my enemies;
You care for all my needs, anointing my head with soothing, fragrant oil,
    filling my cup again and again with Your grace.
Certainly Your faithful protection and loving provision will pursue me
    where I go, always, everywhere.
I will always be with the Eternal,
    in Your house forever.

In conjunction with Thursday’s review at Thinking Out Loud, I wanted to run an excerpt from Wisconsin pastor Mark O. Wilson’s book, Purple Fish: A Heart for Sharing Jesus, a book about how everyone can develop a heart for fruitful evangelism. Using an anecdotal approach, Mark’s stories should provide the ‘nudge’ many need to step out of their familiar territory, their comfortable turf, and make a verbal declaration of their faith to coworkers, neighbors, extended family, and even complete strangers.  Perhaps you’re a regular reader here because you love the “201” approach that gets into doctrine and theology but you may come up a bit short when it comes to sharing the hope within you with others. I encourage you to get this book, available in paperback from Wesleyan Publishing House.

“Can you come visit Harold?” the young woman pleaded.  “He’s dying of cancer.”

Purple Fish - Mark O. WilsonHarold was an ex-convict who had lived a violent godless life.

“Of course, Harold probably won’t receive you well,” she continued. “He’s likely to cuss up a storm and kick you out.  He’s done that already with a few hospice workers, but a visit from you might be good for him.”

I agreed to go and invited my friend, Randy, to come along as my bouncer.  I brought my Bible, anointing oil and a prayer shawl.

The young lady met us at the door of Harold’s bungalow.  “I told him you’re coming, but he’s shut down and won’t communicate.  I’m afraid you won’t get anywhere.”

In the living room, frail Harold sat hunched on the couch in his pajamas.  He didn’t look up.   “Harold, I’m Pastor Mark from the Wesleyan church, and this is Randy.  We came to encourage you today.”

No response from Harold.

“I brought a gift for you Harold.  It’s a prayer shawl.  Some wonderful women in our congregation make these, and while they knit, they pray for the ones who will receive them.  Would it be alright if I placed the shawl over your shoulders and prayed for you?”

Harold didn’t say anything.  He just sat there.  Since he didn’t say no, I took it as a yes.  Placing the soft shawl over his shoulders, I said, “Harold, if you don’t mind, I’d love to share some Scripture and anoint you with oil.  Then we’ll pray.”

Still no response, so I moved forward.

I opened my black leather Bible to Psalm 23, handed it to Randy, then gave the bottle of anointing oil to Harold’s friend.  “I would like for you to anoint Harold when Randy reads the part that says, ‘You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.'”

She seemed honored, though a bit nervous about doing it right.  I gave her simple instructions and she was ready to go.

Harold didn’t look up or say anything.

Randy read Psalm 23 with passion, and as he got to the fifth verse, the young lady reached forward tenderly, making a cross on Harold’s forehead.  Then I prayed.

Harold needed some faith, so I loaned him mine.  I prayed, on Harold’s behalf, for salvation, with as much faith as I could muster.  “Harold needs you, Lord.  Please come right now and help him.”  I asked God to forgive and cleanse all his sins.  I prayed for Harold to be completely enfolded in God’s gracious love and peace.  I concluded by thanking God for the depth and width of his mercy.

When I said amen, Rand whispered, “Look.”

A tear trickled down Harold’s wrinkled cheek.  He didn’t say a word., but that tear testified to something.

I remembered Philip Yancey’s observation, “Grace, like water, flows to the lowest part.”

Two days later, Harold died.  The family called to make funeral arrangements.  “Everything changed after you came,” they said.  “He settled into a deep peace and wasn’t agitated any longer.  It was exactly what Harold needed.  And here’s the most amazing thing. That prayer shawl you gave him?  He held it tightly and wouldn’t let go.  Even when we tried to take it from him, he just clung to it like a life preserver, and so it stayed wrapped over his shoulders till the moment he died.”

I was astounded.  When this man, who lived so far from God, passed away, he was wrapped in holy love.

Jesus is a friend of sinners.  He is not willing that any should perish and takes great measures to grant grace to needy souls.

The best way to share your faith is to loan it to someone who needs it.

“Come, every soul by sin oppressed; there’s mercy with the Lord, and he will surely give you rest by trusting in his Word.”





October 16, 2012

When Bible Verses are Coupled

I have to confess that I’ve always read this verse:

1 Peter 3:15
But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect

In the light of this verse:

Luke 12:11-12
“When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.”

But then on the weekend I was reading the former verse and realized I was reading it as “always be ready,” when in fact it is saying, “always be prepared.” These verses may find themselves coupled into the same sermon — and rightly so — but they are dealing with two very different things.

Being prepared requires preparation.

As someone who has spent the majority of his time in an Evangelical environment, I know that sometimes we tend to “wing it.” Some Evangelicals, Pentecostals and Charismatics even abhor the idea of printed prayers or scripted sermons.

Make no mistake, there is a time for that. The second passage indicates that when you are suddenly thrust into the spotlight; when you suddenly find yourself defending your faith; in those times you have to lean on the Holy Spirit for supernatural help.

This happens to me in my particular ministry. People arrive without warning and I am suddenly in the middle of a conversation that I had no forewarning about even thirty seconds previous. At those times I have to breathe a quick, silent prayer, “Holy Spirit help me.”

Actually that’s the short version. The long version is, “Holy Spirit help me to say only what you want said, and not to say anything that is of me. Help me not to get in the way and screw things up!”

But even those situations are grounded in preparation that has taken place before. It involves study, for sure; but that study will be motivated by a passion for the subject matter at hand; a passion for the unknown, potential person with whom you might share any given insight.

That passion is often missing among Christ-followers. In our town, we’re currently having a series of five “discussions” with the atheist and agnostic community. Several of them have come, and there are many people there from the organizing committee and what you might call the host church (even though they’re using a public space). But there are entire churches not represented at all; and without being too judgmental, it disturbs me that there isn’t one person in those churches who would turn up out of passion for apologetics.

I can’t finish unpacking the I Peter passage however without underlining that it says, “do this with gentleness and respect.” I think of some of the people who gain much U.S. media attention who have missed this whole aspect of witness. You have to display a loving kindness and a respect toward the people you want to reach. It’s not about winning an argument, and even if it were, nobody wins a debate based on the volume of their words.

In this case, it’s more about the gentleness of their spirit.