Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Nothing of the Gospel

“Then one of the Pharisees asked Him to eat with him. And He went to the Pharisee’s house, and sat down to eat. And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, and stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he spoke to himself, saying, ‘This Man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner.’ And Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ So he said, ‘Teacher, say it.’ ‘There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?’ Simon answered and said, ‘I suppose the one whom he forgave more.’ And He said to him, ‘You have rightly judged.’ Then He turned to the woman and said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in. You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil. Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.’ Then He said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ And those who sat at the table with Him began to say to themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ Then He said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you. Go in peace’” (Luke 7:36-50, N.K.J.V.).

Oh, be careful how you read, hear, and meditate on this narrative, beloved! The easiest thing in the world is to miss the Gospel in it. That doesn’t seem possible, right? There is a woman who is a notorious sinner, broken and adoring Jesus at His feet. Jesus praises her above the religious leader and announces her forgiven. Gospel, right? Not if you miss the most important point.

You see, we’re tempted to give too much value to the woman’s actions (7:38,39,44-46). There is a tendency to see her humble, even humiliating actions as the merit by which she receives her forgiveness. She’s worthy of forgiveness, we all-too-easily consider, because she has abased herself in front of the people in Simon’s house and even Jesus Himself. If we come to that conclusion, though, we miss the Gospel entirely. The woman’s tears, kisses, hair, and perfumed oil do not merit her forgiveness. Not even a little bit. Don’t make bad theology because of the powerful emotional tug of the moment. I fear – given our emphasis on musical/emotional experience in worship and the most popular books Christians are apparently reading – that the dear woman’s actions can be misunderstood as being the ladder on which she is able to climb from the pit of sin up to an intimate relationship with the great Lover of souls, and that’s just not true. In fact, if this is our assumption, we miss the Gospel, and, no matter how sweet the situation is, missing the Gospel is an eternally deadly error.

Merely using our imaginative senses to dwell in the woman’s actions isn’t enough. This will lead to an anti-gospel in which emotional is the new law and spiritual sensuality is the new legalism. Just as in every gathering of the people of God in Christ for worship, the actions of adoration are capable of damning us unless there is doctrinal explanation in the preaching. We have that in this text, too. The guiding principle by which we understand the woman’s actions and the grace Jesus grants her must be His explanatory parable in 7:41,42.

“There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?”

What did the debtors offer to get out of debt? Nothing. “...they had nothing with which to repay.”

As far as the woman’s infinite, eternal debt to God for her sins (her sins before God are unendingly more serious than her reputation in her community for those sins), her tears, hair, kisses, and perfumed oil are “nothing.” Does that seem harsh? If it does, we’ve cleansed the story of the Gospel in our reading of it.

This woman’s actions, no matter how sweet and tender they are, do nothing to gain her forgiveness before the divine Creditor she has offended in her sin. In the same way, there is nothing any of us can do, no matter how good-intentioned or sincerely sentimental or religiously disciplined, to “repay” the debt we owe because of our sin. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

It is the great grace of the creditor, when he “freely forgave them both,” that is the Gospel in this story. They had “nothing with which to repay,” and he “freely forgave them both.” Anything else is not the Gospel, and will not save.

In response to the graceful forgiveness of the Gospel, which she believed by faith (7:50), she lives out a response by weeping, drying, kissing, and anointing – she “loved much.” Her actions are beautiful, touching, and appropriate to what she has received in the grace of the Gospel.

It is not our adoration that is the saving power of the Gospel, but His kindness on behalf of those who have “nothing with which to repay.”

“...when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, Whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7).

This is Good News, and merits our own humble acts of love forever and ever. May we love much, for we have been graciously given forgiveness for much.
"The Anointing with Oil and Tears," by Sadao Watanabe (1979)

Monday, January 12, 2015

Faith-Filled Daughters

“Then came the daughters of Zelophehad the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, from the families of Manasseh the son of Joseph; and these were the names of his daughters: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. And they stood before Moses, before Eleazar the priest, and before the leaders and all the congregation, by the doorway of the tabernacle of meeting, saying: ‘Our father died in the wilderness; but he was not in the company of those who gathered together against the Lord, in company with Korah, but he died in his own sin; and he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be removed from among his family because he had no son? Give us a possession among our father’s brothers.’ So Moses brought their case before the Lord. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: ‘The daughters of Zelophehad speak what is right; you shall surely give them a possession of inheritance among their father’s brothers, and cause the inheritance of their father to pass to them. And you shall speak to the children of Israel, saying: “If a man dies and has no son, then you shall cause his inheritance to pass to his daughter. If he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. If he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. And if his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to the relative closest to him in his family, and he shall possess it.”’ And it shall be to the children of Israel a statute of judgment, just as the Lord commanded Moses” (Numbers 27:1-11, N.K.J.V.).

I had the opportunity to teach this passage last night after our Sunday evening time of prayer. As with so many obscure stories in the Bible, this is one that wouldn’t normally give us pause or make it into those children’s Bible story books that summarize the Scripture by highlighting major stories. But this is a great story, and if repetition says anything (which I think it does), the Holy Spirit Himself regards it as important. Aside from this passage, the four daughters of Zelophehad are mentioned three more times in Scripture (Numbers 26:33; 36:1-12; Joshua 17:3-6).

Is this merely Ancient Near Eastern case law, good for nothing except sleep aid to those of us 21st century members of the new covenant in Christ? No! We see some important principles in this passage that assure us of God’s immutability and the uniformity of the Bible as a whole.

First, there is a matter of faith. I will never tire of battling the caricature that the Old Testament is law-keeping and the New Testament is faith. The greatest verses in the Bible on justification by faith don’t originate in the New Testament, but the Old (Genesis 15:6; Habakkuk 2:4b)! Chapter 26 in Numbers is a long census (one of several – this is how the book gets its name). Why another census, since the book begins with a lengthy and detailed one? Because the Exodus generation showed itself to be unbelieving. Not disobedient to the Law (though that certainly was a fruit of unbelief), but lacking faith in the Word of God and the God of the Word. After the spies had returned from scouting out the Promised Land, the people put more faith in the fearful report of the majority of the spies than in the Promise of God that He was going to give them the land. Faithlessness merits wrath, judgment, and death, for faithlessness is sin.

“And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, ‘How long shall I bear with this evil congregation who complain against Me? I have heard the complaints which the children of Israel make against Me. Say to them, “As I live,” says the Lord, “just as you have spoken in My hearing, so I will do to you: The carcasses of you who have complained against Me shall fall in this wilderness, all of you who were numbered, according to your entire number, from twenty years old and above. Except for Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun, you shall by no means enter the land which I swore I would make you dwell in. But your little ones, whom you said would be victims, I will bring in, and they shall know the land which you have despised. But as for you, your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness. And your sons shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years, and bear the brunt of your infidelity, until your carcasses are consumed in the wilderness. According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for each day you shall bear your guilt one year, namely forty years, and you shall know My rejection. I the Lord have spoken this. I will surely do so to all this evil congregation who are gathered together against Me. In this wilderness they shall be consumed, and there they shall die”’” (14:26-35).

A lack of faith in the Word of God is complaint against God, a despising of His promises, infidelity, evil, and a burden for the next generation of the Church.

It’s about faith, not Law-keeping.

“For who, having heard, rebelled? Indeed, was it not all who came out of Egypt, led by Moses? Now with whom was He angry forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose corpses fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief. Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it. For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it (Hebrews 3:16-4:2).

Zelophehad (along with most of the rest of the Exodus generation, counted in the early chapters of Numbers) died outside of the Promised Land because he did not have faith in the “gospel” (Hebrews 4:2) which was preached to him. The following generation, the Deuteronomy generation (whose census is found in Numbers 26) rises up. They have carried the burden of their parents’ faithlessness for forty years in the desert. Did this burden lead them to an even more bitter faithlessness, or something else? The remarkable four daughters of Zelophehad show us that, for some of them, forty years in the desert was an exceedingly fruitful garden of faith.

They come to Moses, and want the land. This isn’t some embarrassing, selfish sort of quibbling over inheritance that we see all-to-often among siblings with the death of a parent. They are showing faith. Zelophehad, a member of the tribe of Manasseh, was promised a certain section of the Promised Land. He died. His daughters (Zelophehad had no son) come forth to claim it. This challenges the cultural trend of that day, not just among the Israelites, but all of the Ancient Near East. There was no law against what they were requesting, but it certainly challenged the traditions of the day.

Here’s what makes this about faith: they’re not in the Promised Land yet. Their father was promised a share in the Land, but he listened to cowardly, faithless spies and shared their faithlessness. He forfeited his own right to the Promised Land by not believing the promise. His daughters, however, come forward – by faith – to claim a part of the Promised Land. A land that is currently inhabited by giants (Numbers 13:33). A land yet to be conquered. This is faith. These four daughters are heroes of faith, which is why this story is repeated several times in Numbers, and why four verses in Joshua are given to telling us that those women stood on the land they believed God would one day provide.

Notice (back in Numbers 27:5) that Moses takes the daughters’ case to the LORD. The LORD is living and active among His people, still their King and Law-giver. He honors the faith of the daughters and makes them co-inheritors of the Land of Promise along with all the firstborn sons and tribal name-bearers. This is exactly what we should expect. It may not have been the culturally traditional way things were done then, but our God doesn’t take His cues from the mores of the culture. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

He is the One Who tells believing husbands that their believing wives are “heirs together of the grace of life” (1 Peter 3:7).

He is the One Who so paradoxically and beautifully says that women of faith are “sons of Abraham” if their faith is in Jesus Christ: “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:26-29).

Only the ignorant say that the Bible puts women down. The God of the Old and New Testament gives a verdict in this civil rights case that is thousands of years before its time, and sets whole-Bible Christianity apart from countless other religions. Our society speaks of equality and twists common sense until it is unrecognizable, attempting to achieve parity through strange experiments and communication-frustrating, liberty-destroying politically-correct speech. All the while, there is in the heavenly, eternal Promised Land before the throne of God a great multitude purchased by the blood of the Lamb from every “tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9) – and from both God-created genders (both of which together reflect His image, Genesis 1:27). They are not segregated or put on different levels. They stand equal on a “sea of glass, like crystal” (Revelation 4:6).

The daughters of Zelophehad teach us a lesson about God. His righteous wrath against unbelieving Zelophehad was not as final as His mercy and grace toward Zelophehad’s faith-filled daughters. The LORD did not prefer the faith-filled sons of Adam to the faith-filled daughters of Eve, but treasured them all and eternally delights “in the ages to come [to] show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward [sons and daughters of faith] in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7).

It is also a Gospel message. It is not Law-keeping that gains the Promised Land, for as Paul says three different times in one verse, “a man [or woman] is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified” (Galatians 2:16; cf. 3:11; Romans 3:20,28; Philippians 3:9). We, along with the daughters of Zelophehad, will find ourselves standing in the Land by faith in the promises of God, which are all finally and eternally fulfilled in His Son Jesus Christ.

“We who have believed do enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:3). I hope to see you there.
Art by Iris Vexler Tamir

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Grace and Peace Nowhere Else

“John, to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from Him Who is and Who was and Who is to come [the Father], and from the seven Spirits Who are before His throne [the N.L.T. renders this “sevenfold Spirit,” based on Isaiah 11:2], and from Jesus Christ [the Son], the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler over the kings of the earth. To Him Who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (Revelation 1:4-6, N.K.J.V.).

I did it. I told our Wednesday night Bible study group that I’ll be starting Revelation in a few weeks. It’s been over six years since I taught through it last. It’s time.

The main reason I like teaching through it is because I’m not a fear-monger, and it seems that most Christians regard the Revelation with fear. I remember one church member saying they appreciated how I taught it because I didn’t make it “scary.” It’s a shame that anyone would. Why would anyone teach a Book which begins with a promised blessing (1:3) in a way that specifically takes that blessing away from the reader, hearers, and those who would “obey what it says”?

Anyway, last Thursday morning I got to the coffee shop well before dawn and well before the rest of the men. I needed to allow the caffè americano (my standard for Thursday mornings) time to counter the sinus meds from the night before. I can make coffee at home (and do). One of the main reasons for my Thursday morning routine is now the barista. He’s a (pardon the clichés) free-spirit, New Age, hippy-ish sort of guy. Somewhat older than me. I’ve only seen him in a less-than-happy mood once (and, given the tragic plane crash that had happened near his property, I understood). I like people like that. He knows what I am, what I do, and why I meet with the guys there. It was the first time I’d seen him this New Year. I don’t remember how our conversation ended up the way it did (sinus meds), but he mentioned that all he wanted was a good cup of coffee, family, and friends. Given recent events (I suppose this is a timeless principle, so it doesn’t matter what those are when you’re reading this), I ventured to offer, “and peace?”

“Yes,” my grey pony-tailed friend said, “peace. I think that there’s enough people who’re going to start focusing that the energy will cause a swell of peace soon.”

He talks like that. There’s some native Peruvian folk musician playing guitar in a decidedly non-Western way chanting in the background (I actually like the music).

Revelation doesn’t just begin with the promised blessing of 1:3. This is immediately followed with a benediction and doxology. That benediction begins as so many do in the New Testament, with the inspired writer wishing “grace and peace” to his readers.

Grace and peace.

In this case, the benediction is given from the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Who are distinct from one another in Personhood yet are One God. In this, even at the beginning of Revelation, with all of its potentially fearful visions and words, is grace and peace.

We are told by the Qu’ran not to even say the word “Trinity” (“O people of the Book! commit no excesses in your religion: nor say of Allah aught but truth...say not ‘Trinity’: desist: it will be better for you: for Allah is One Allah,” 4.171, Yusef Ali translation). But how can we not? From Him alone is “grace and peace”! In the midst of trials, tribulations, dragons, beasts, warfare, fire, plague, and the very rending of the heavens, it is to He-Who-Is-Three-In-One that we must run! Run. Not just give lip-service to if we happen to sing the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” or the “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow.” We must run constantly to the God of the Bible, Who is Trinity.

I have stopped wandering heretics from stepping on to my lawn while my children were out playing (2 John 10,11) with the simple confession, “we are trinitarian here.”

I have delighted to find Him on page after page after page in the Bible (not just Matthew 28:19; 2 Corinthians 13:14).

I have purposed that not just my Bible reading, but my theology, and, even more, my prayers will be directed specifically to this God Who is Three-in-One.

I will not even see His creation without seeing that it is the handiwork of Trinity (“In the beginning God [the Father] created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters. Then God said [the creative Word, Who is the Son – John 1:1-3]...” [Genesis 1:1-3]).

The earliest known example of someone drawing out what is now known as the "Athanasian Shield" (by Peter of Poitiers, ca. A.D. 1210)
Grace and peace from the Trinity. May we, beloved Church, seek it nowhere else.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


ΠΡΑΞΕΙΣ ΑΠΟΣΤΟΛΩΝ. The Acts of the Apostles.

Graduate work in seminary is now over twelve years behind me, but I still cringe when I think about those moments in a theology, Bible, or history course when someone, usually during a break, would comment, “I wish we just had to learn about practical ministry.” My visceral reaction (that I politely kept choked back) stuck with me far longer than it should. I remember a professor in a missiology class saying that the missionaries went out to do the work of reaching the lost, and that it was the “MDiv student’s job” to make it appear biblical. It’s only recently (in the last year or so) that I can open a popular book on ministry. There are good ones out there, I know, but the taint of those who only wanted the practical side of our training stuck to these “hands on” sort of books in my sinful mind.

Last week I opened a Greek New Testament to look something up. As I was flipping through the pages, I saw the title at the top of the pages to the book of Acts. ΠΡΑΞΕΙΣ ΑΠΟΣΤΟΛΩΝ. Πραξεις, the first word in that title, is cognate with our English word “praxis.” Part of the same word-family as “practical.” The fifth book in the New Testament, in a sense, is a “practical” book on how to do ministry. I was both chastened for sticking my nose in the air concerning the idea of “practical ministry,” but also curious. According to the Holy Spirit, Who worked through those apostles in the first generation of the new covenant Church, what did “practical ministry” look like?

They prayed (1:14).
They added a leader for “ministry and apostleship” (1:15-26).
They met together (2:1).
They proclaimed “the wonderful works of God” to every ethnicity and language (2:4-40), preaching a sermon about God’s saving work in Christ from numerous Old Testament texts, ending with a command to “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.”
They baptized “those who gladly received his word” (2:41).
I’ve always loved these next verses, which show the daily,“practical” work of the Holy Spirit in their midst: “...they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people” (2:42-47).
They went to where the people were, healed a man, and preached (3:1-26).
They witnessed to the authorities who had arrested them (4:5-22).
They prayed for boldness to preach even more (4:24-31).
They sold possessions to meet the needs of the poorer members of the Church (4:32-36).
They gathered where people were and healed them (5:12-16).
They were arrested, freed, and told (by “the Lord”) to go preach again (5:17-21).
They were arrested again, and get to preach another message (albeit shorter) to the authorities – not on civil rights, or injustice, but the Gospel (5:29-31).
They were released, “and daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (5:42).
They were meeting the needs of the widows in the congregation (6:1).
They were appointing men “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom” to the office of servant (6:2-6). These office-bearing servants were so “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom” that two of them, Stephen (6:8-7:) and Philip (8:4-40), become unmatched preachers (Stephen becomes the first Christian martyr) and missionaries.
In addition to the office of servant (to meet the needs of the widows in the congregation and set the world afire with Gospel preaching as the Spirit directs), the original leadership continued to devote themselves “continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (6:4-7:60).
They grieved over their dead (8:2). In case that sounds too tame, they “made great lamentation over him.” Corporate grief is a psychologically and spiritually invaluable gift of God, lost in our culture (read the hymn-book of the Bible, the Psalter, sometime to see the emotions on display in their congregational singing).
They baptized former enemies (9:18).
They preached (9:20).
They made peace for the building of the fellowship and ministry (9:26-28). Beloved, we need more peacemakers like Barnabas! “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).
They healed (9:32-34).
They restored the dead to life (9:35-43).
They prayed (10:9).
They traveled to places for the purpose of preaching and baptizing (10:34-48). Yes, there were probably still lots of households in Jerusalem that needed the Gospel. But God sent Peter on a short-term mission trip to this particular house.
They met to sort out disagreement and confusion about the mission work (11:1-18). They ended up glorifying God for reaching a people very different from themselves.
They preached (11:19-21).
They encouraged preachers (11:22-25).
They assembled the Church and taught them (11:26). For a year.
They collected an offering to meet the needs of the Church suffering from what we would call a “natural disaster” (i.e., an act of God, 11:27-30).
They were killed (12:2) and imprisoned (12:3) by the civil leadership.
They prayed (12:12).
The leadership of a local congregation “ministered to the Lord and fasted” (13:1-3).
They sent out missionaries after having “fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them” (13:3).
They traveled and preached (13:5).
They traveled and preached some more – about Jesus from Old Testament texts (13:13-41). Then they did it some more (13:44-49).
And some more (14:1-3).
And some more (14:6,7).
They healed (14:8-10).
They preached (14:14-17).
They preached the Gospel not just in marketplaces or the synagogues, but in local congregations, “strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying, ‘We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.’ So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in Whom they had believed” (14:22,23).
They reported their mission work to the Church that had commissioned them (14:27,28). Paul and associates were accountable to a local congregation. What had the local congregations been doing while Acts reported on Paul’s mission trip? The practices outlined in 2:42-47.
They met to resolve doctrinal conflict (15:1-31).
They traveled and preached (15:32-35).
They traveled and encouraged the Church (15:36-40).
They kept on traveling and encouraging the Church (16:1-5).
They traveled and preached (16:10).
They preached and baptized (16:13-15).
They cast out a demon (16:16-19).
They “were praying and singing hymns to God” to a new audience – fellow prisoners in the Philippi jail (16:25).
They preached and baptized (16:31-34).
They encouraged fellow believers (16:40).
They traveled and preached Christ from the Old Testament (17:1-4).
They did it again (17:10-12).
They traveled and preached about God the Creator, judgment Day and the need to repent, salvation in Christ the Judge alone, all while quoting pagan poets (17:16-34).
They traveled and preached (18:1-5).
They baptized (18:8).
They taught “the Word of God” for eighteen months (18:11).
They traveled and preached (18:19).
They traveled and took time to encourage congregations (18:23).
They traveled and preached Christ from the Old Testament (18:24-28).
They baptized (19:5).
They preached for two years (19:8-10).
They healed and cast out demons (19:11,12).
They sent out men to preach whom they had personally discipled and mentored (19:22).
They traveled and encouraged believers “with many words” (20:1,2).
They gathered to break bread and hear preaching throughout the night on the first day of the week (20:7).
They taught and prayed for the leadership of local congregations (20:17-36).
They prayed (21:5).
They reported on mission work (21:17-25).
They were arrested and preached to hostile mobs (21:37-22:21).
They remained arrested and preached to hostile groups of leaders (22:30-23:1,6).
They defended themselves before a regional governor – and preached the Gospel (24:10-21).
They did it again (24:24,25). It’s noteworthy that, while preaching “the faith in Christ,” some of Paul’s topics included “righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come.” Does your Gospel preaching and/or witnessing include these topics?
Still in custody, they continued to witness to Christ while on trial (26:1-23).
While shipwrecked, they healed (28:8,9).
They enjoyed fellowship for a week with believers (28:14,15).
They preached (28:17-29).
While under house arrest, they taught Christ for two years (27:30,31).

This is the Bible’s book on “practical ministry.” While modern books on “practical ministry” can be helpful, they can also pull us in dozens of different directions from the basics outlined in Acts. Let’s make sure we’re reading and following the model of the first “practical ministry” book before reading the advice of well-intentioned and successful leaders of today. Foundations matter.

I’ve purposed to read one of these modern “practical ministry” sort of books once a quarter these days (bearing fruit in keeping with repentance, you might say). If they’re good, I pass them on to church members or leaders in other congregations. What qualifies as “good”? They guide back to the original “practical ministry” book and increase faithfulness to the Holy Spirit’s model.

Let’s not outgrow Acts.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Circumstantial Obedience?

The family-clan leaves Jerusalem to head home after the Passover, and twelve year-old Jesus stays behind. Mary and Joseph eventually find Him in the Temple, amazing the teachers with His understanding. “When they saw Him, they were amazed; and His mother said to Him, ‘Son, why have You done this to us? Look, Your father and I have sought You anxiously.’ And He said to them, ‘Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?’ But they did not understand the statement which He spoke to them. Then He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them” (Luke 2:48-51).

God: His Father.
Jesus’ purpose: His Father’s business.
Where He deserves to be: the center the world to the people of the old covenant (Jerusalem), not some backwater nowhere (Nazareth).
Mary (mom) and Joseph (legal father...note how Jesus redirects Mary, reminder her of Who His Father is) didn’t understand Him.

Despite these facts, He completely submits to them in obedience to the fifth commandment (Exodus 20:12//Deuteronomy 5:16; Ephesians 6:1-3).

Christian, obedience is not contingent on circumstances favorable to that obedience. Those who love Him keep His commandments (Exodus 20:6; Deuteronomy 5:10; 7:9; 11:1; 30:16; Joshua 22:5; Nehemiah 1:5; Daniel 9:4; John 14:15; 15:10; 1 John 5:3), even when it’s difficult, even when we aren’t where we want to be, even when nobody understands, even when we have a million reasons our friends all support about why we shouldn’t obey this or that particular command.

One of the most grace-filled words in the New Testament is the conjunction “but”:
  • “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:16,17).
  • “And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others. But God, Who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.  For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.  For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:1-10).
  • “For you have not come to the mountain that may be touched and that burned with fire, and to blackness and darkness and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet and the voice of words, so that those who heard it begged that the word should not be spoken to them anymore. (For they could not endure what was commanded: ‘And if so much as a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned or shot with an arrow.’ And so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I am exceedingly afraid and trembling.’) But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel” (Hebrews 12:18-24).

On our lips, sadly, it is a word that usually introduces disobedience. “I know what the Bible says, but...”

God the Holy Spirit will be present with us as we purpose to obey the commandments of God:
  • “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God Who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12,13).
  • “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace be multiplied” (1 Peter 1:1,2).

God the Holy Spirit is present with us through the teaching, preaching, reading, singing, praying, and doing of His Word:
  • Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness(Romans 6:16-18).
  • Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart, having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever...this is the word which by the gospel was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:22,23,25b).

I’m utterly unsurprised when Bible study groups/Sunday School classes who are more concerned with gossipy cliques or social amusements produce a fruit of disobedience to the Word. I’m profoundly underwhelmed when believers who maybe gather with the saints for a few hours a month follow their heart instead of the Lord of their lips. I can hardly raise an eyebrow to those whose counsel in life-challenges and difficulties are all as practical and worldly-minded as they are, producing a community garden of flesh. It’s not shocking. If you’re not gathering in the Word, you’re going to have a life marked by disobedience to that Word.

We are not called to the popular or easy or comfortable. The path of obedience is not one to a guaranteed earthly/fleshly/temporal blessing or ease. Christ, in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him Who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear, though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him (Hebrews 5:7-9). Notice that the root of our obedience-producing faith is a Savior Who, as fully human, “learned obedience by the things which He suffered.” No conjunctions-unto-disobedience for Him. Or us.

Gather together in the Word, and may the Spirit produce in you a passion for holy obedience unto Christ-imitating and Father-glorifying righteousness.