Kingdom-Oriented Prayer (part 4)

Prayer is effectual. That means prayer works. In James 5, we read these words.

James 5:16
16b 
The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.

In Romans 15:31–32, Paul wants his brothers and sisters in Christ to pray . . .

Romans 15:31–32
31 
that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, 32 so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company.

We know from earlier in the chapter that Paul is on his way to Jerusalem to deliver the financial love offering that he’d been collecting for the saints in Jerusalem. Keep this in mind as hear his prayer requests.

He has two prayer requests. First, he asks for prayer that he will be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea. He understands that there are people who would love nothing more than to see Paul dead.

Paul’s not afraid of death. He’s quite ready to die. So, why does he pray to be delivered from these individuals? He requests prayer because he’s planning on going to Spain to preach the gospel there. As Paul is writing this letter, the gospel hasn’t made its way to Spain yet, and Paul’s eager to preach the gospel where it hasn’t yet been proclaimed.

It’s a kingdom-oriented prayer. He wants to see the gospel advance.

Second, he asks for prayer that his service for Jerusalem will be acceptable to the saints there. He’s talking about the love offering that he’s carrying to them.

Now, we might wonder, “Why wouldn’t they be happy to receive financial help? Why is he asking for prayer for this?” After all, wouldn’t we be happy to receive an unexpected financial blessing?

But we do well to remember how passionate the Jerusalem believers were about the importance of keeping the Jewish law. Many of them were fanatically opposed to Paul even preaching to the Gentiles, and the offering that Paul was carrying to them had been collected from the Gentile churches in Macedonia and Achaia. There was a very real possibility that they would reject this help.

So, Paul asks for prayer.

And here’s what we know. Both prayers were answered! Prayer is effective.

Paul was delivered from his enemies (Acts 21:27ff). And the offering evidently helped heal Gentile-Jewish relations (Acts 21:17–20).

Prayer is effective.

As you consider the effectiveness of prayer, take some time to pray for your pastor as he prepares to preach the word to you this week.

Kingdom-Oriented Prayer (part 3)

Let’s look again at Romans 15:30.

Romans 15:30
30 
I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf.

In these words, we’re reminded that prayer is hard work. Paul tells us to “strive together with” him in our prayers. That’s another interesting Greek word that’s translated as “strive together.” The word means to strain along with others—straining as if engaged in a fight.

Prayer is hard work. Ask anyone who’s made a New Year’s resolution to pray more regularly. If you made that New Year’s resolution this year, how’s that going? It’s only February, but that resolution may seem like a distant memory.

We’re distracted from prayer so easily. Could it be that we’re so easily distracted because prayer is hard work? We don’t expect it to be hard work. We expect it to be easy, but it isn’t. Prayer is hard work, and it’s spiritual work. We’re fighting a spiritual battle when we pray.

In another letter, Paul writes this,

Ephesians 6:10–12
10 
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

When we fall to our knees in prayer, we’re entering into spiritual warfare.

In 1942, C. S. Lewis wrote a classic book called The Screwtape Letters. As the title suggests, the book is composed of a series of fictional letters from a demon named Screwtape written to a young demon nephew named Wormwood. Hence, The Screwtape Letters.

In the book, Wormwood’s been assigned a Christian “patient,” and Wormwood’s job is to keep his Christian patient from growing closer to the “Enemy.” The “Enemy,” of course, in the minds of these two demons, is Jesus.

In the fourth letter, Screwtape advises his nephew about Christian prayer. Here’s a portion of that letter. Screwtape writes,

The best thing, where it is possible, is to keep the patient from the serious intention of praying altogether. When the patient is an adult recently reconverted to the Enemy’s party, like your man, this is best done by encouraging him to remember, or to think he remembers, the parrot-like nature of his prayers in childhood.
Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 15

In other words, Screwtape is suggesting that Wormwood should keep the patient from praying anything sincere and meaningful. Just have him pray repetitious, childhood prayers.

Screwtape continues,

If this fails, you must fall back on a subtler misdirection of his intention. Whenever they are attending to the Enemy Himself we are defeated, but there are ways of preventing them from doing so. The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him toward themselves. Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by action of their own wills. When they meant to ask Him for charity, let them, instead, start trying to manufacture charitable feelings for themselves and not notice that this is what they are doing. When they meant to pray for courage, let them really be trying to feel brave. When they say they are praying for forgiveness, let them be trying to feel forgiven. Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling.
Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 16–17

Friends, prayer is hard work. It’s not about our feelings. When we pray, we’re entering into a spiritual battlefield.

As you pray today, if you’re a church member in some church, consider praying for 2 church members.

Kingdom-Oriented Prayers

At the beginning of each year, I set aside a Sunday morning sermon on the topic of prayer. I do so not because the average church member would argue against the importance of prayer. Nearly every Christian would verbally agree that prayer is important.

But even while nearly every Christian would verbally agree that prayer is important, I wonder how many of our lives actually reflect the importance of prayer. That is, how many of us actually set aside time to pray?

And for those who do set aside time to pray, what is the content of those prayers? Are our prayers more concerned with keeping Christians out of heaven or are they more concerned with keeping non-Christians out of hell? In other words, do we pray more for our Christian brothers and sisters to get feeling better—for them to be healed? Or do we spend more time praying for the lost to hear the gospel and be saved?

I’m not at all suggesting that it’s wrong to pray for the healing of a brother or sister in Christ. I model this type of prayer every Sunday morning during my pastoral prayer. But if our prayers are nothing more than an “organ recital”—that is, praying for Aunt Sally’s stomach and Brother Bob’s kidneys, etc.—and we have no concern for the lost, then I can assure you that we’ve missed the mark.

Timothy Keller, who’s a retired pastor from New York City, wrote this in his book on prayer.

“It is remarkable that in all of his writings Paul’s prayers for his friends contain no appeals for changes in their circumstances. It is certain that they lived in the midst of many dangers and hardships. They faced persecution, death from disease, oppression by powerful forces, and separation from loved ones. Their existence was far less secure that ours is today. Yet in those prayers you see not one petition for a better emperor, for protection from marauding armies, or even for bread for the next meal. Paul does not pray for the goods we would usually have near the top of our lists of requests.”
Timothy Keller, Prayer, 20

Keller goes on to properly argue that it’s not wrong for us to pray for such things. Even Jesus taught us to pray for our daily bread, but in Paul’s prayers, we learn what we need more than we need anything else—we learn that we need to know God better. We need to focus on kingdom-oriented prayers—prayers that bring us closer to Jesus. We need to have the eyes of our hearts enlightened (Eph 1:18).

I set aside a Sunday at the beginning of the year to preach on the practice of prayer because prayer is like oxygen to the soul of a believer.

Let me again quote from Keller. He writes,

“To discover the real you, look at what you spend time thinking about when no one is looking, when nothing is forcing you to think about anything in particular. At such moments, do your thoughts go toward God? You may want to be seen as a humble, unassuming person, but do you take the initiative to confess your sins before God? You wish to be perceived as a positive, cheerful person, but do you habitually than God for everything you have and praise him for who he is? You may speak a great deal about what a “blessing” your faith is and you “just really love the Lord,” but if you are prayerless—is that really true? If you aren’t joyful, humble, and faithful in private before God, then what you want to appear to be on the outside won’t match what you truly are.”
Keller, Prayer, 22–23

For the next several blog posts, I will be writing about the importance of kingdom-oriented prayer.

Rejoicing and Weeping (part 2)

In my last post, in light of Paul’s command to rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15), we looked at 6 reasons Christians ought to rejoice. In this post, we will look at 3 reasons Christians ought to weep.

First, we should weep over our own sin.

In 1973, a psychiatrist named Karl Menninger wrote a provocative book titled, Whatever Became of Sin? In his book, Menninger argues that the idea or concept of sin has been slowly eroding away in our culture. Now, remember, this book was written in 1973. If we fast forward 45-years, we might want to call Menninger a prophet instead of a psychiatrist.

We’ve lost our moral compass. We’ve lost the idea of sin—personal sin.

We play the blame game. It’s not sin anymore; it’s just a mistake. And my “mistakes” aren’t really my fault.

  • I do that because I had a bad home life growing up.
  • I do that because everyone else is doing it.
  • I do that because it feels good.
  • I do that because I was just reacting to what this other person was doing to me.
  • I do that because if I don’t look out for myself, no one else will.

Each one of us can pick our own excuses, but we’ve lost our since of personal responsibility. I don’t write these things to minimize the devastation that can come out of a bad home life, but at some point, we need to look in the mirror and take personal responsibility for our sin. We need to be broken over our own sin.

In Luke 7, Jesus had been invited to a certain Pharisee’s house to have dinner. And while Jesus is reclining at the dinner table, a certain woman from the community comes in and begins washing his feet with her tears. Luke records it this way.

Luke 7:38
38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment.

The larger story has many important lessons. but I want to ask this question. Why was the woman weeping? Why was she weeping?

We know from the text that she was a notoriously sinful woman. Everyone in the room knew who she was. They knew of her reputation. Her reputation had preceded her. And I believe that gets to the heart of why she’s weeping.

She’s broken over her own sin, and she’s found in Jesus someone who doesn’t condemn her in her sin. She’s weeping over her own sin. There’s a lesson there to be learned by all of us.

Second, we should weep over the results of sin.

It’s one thing to weep over our own sin, but it’s another thing to weep over the results of sin. Here, too, our culture has missed the mark.

We often hear people talk about personal autonomy as if personal autonomy is the highest good. Here’s how that sounds. Someone will say, “I should be able to do whatever I want to do as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody.”

Right? We’ve all heard that before. It sounds simple enough. We might hear it and even be tempted to agree with it. But here’s the problem with it.

All of our actions cause reactions. Everything we do has an effect on someone else. This is Newton’s third law of motion put into action in a cultural sense.

Just in case you don’t know what Newton’s third law of motion is, this is what is says. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Now, I know, don’t send me any emails, I know that Newton was talking about physics when he said this. But I’m suggesting that this is also true in a cultural or moral sense.

Whenever we decide to do what God has told us should not be done, there will invariably be negative consequences. God, who is the author of all things that are good, who isn’t the author of anything evil—when we violate his good and perfect laws, there will always be negative consequences. In other words, when we sin, it always has a negative consequence. This is a fundamental rule of how the universe is created.

So, we should weep over sin, and we should weep over the results of sin.

In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul is chastising the believers in Corinth because they aren’t weeping over the sin of one of their church members.

1 Corinthians 5:2
And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.

Without getting too far into the context of this passage, suffice it to say that this man was embroiled in sexual sin that even the pagans thought was out of bounds. The church in Corinth, however, thought they were being tolerant. They thought they were being loving. They wanted to look the other way. Paul said that was the worst thing they could do. Rather, they should have mourned over that man’s sins and the havoc it was creating in the community.

Third, we should weep for those who reject Christ.

The Bible is very clear in that there’s only one way that God has given us by which we can be put into a proper relationship with him, and that one way is through Jesus his Son. So, we should weep over those who reject Jesus. It should break our hearts.

If we get a bad haircut, it’ll be better in just a few weeks. Don’t weep over a bad haircut. Hair grows back quickly. It will grow out and we’ll soon forget the bad haircut.

If we land a bad job, we can get our resume ready, and with a little help, we’ll soon have new job. Don’t weep over a bad job.

If we make some bad financial decisions and have to declare bankruptcy, even then, in just seven years, we can rebuild your credit. Don’t weep over that.

But if we die after rejecting Jesus, we will spend an eternity in place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Luke 13:28), and there will be no relief for us.

Friends, this should cause all of us to weep for those who reject Christ.

Rejoicing and Weeping (Part 1)

In Romans 12:15, the apostle Paul urges Christians to rejoice with those who rejoice, and to weep with those who weep.

To rejoice is “to feel happiness or joy,” and to weep is “to cry aloud.” These words express emotion.

Paul is urging us to have empathy for one another. If our brother or sister in Christ is rejoicing in God’s kindness to them, we ought to rejoice with them. If our brother or sister in Christ is weeping, we ought to weep with them.

But this isn’t even a remotely controversial idea. After all, even our non-Christian co-workers will rejoice with you when you have a baby, and our non-Christian neighbors will weep with you when tragedy strikes your family.

So, how are these two commands, “to rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep,” how are these two commands distinctly Christian? Let’s ask ourselves these two questions.

First, what are some things for which Christians should rejoice? And second, what are some things for which Christians ought to weep?

Since the Word of God tells us that we should rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, we should know when we should be rejoicing and when we should be weeping in the first place.

When should we rejoice?

First, we should rejoice when we face persecution for the cause of Christ.

In Matthew 5, Jesus said these words,

Matthew 5:10–11 (cf. Luke 6:23)
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Most of us don’t like being the object of persecution. That’s not our default setting. Our default setting is that we like people to like us. We want to be likable people—at least most of us feel that way. But Jesus tells us that we’re to rejoice when we’re persecuted for righteousness. We’re to rejoice when people say all manner of things falsely against us on account of Jesus.

We see this example carried out in the lives of the apostles. Early in the book of Acts, Peter and John and been put into jail for telling people about Jesus. When they got out of jail, this is what happened.

Acts 5:41
41 Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.

So, we should rejoice when we suffer persecution for the cause of Christ.

Second, we rejoice in the cross.

A bit of cultural understanding is helpful and important here. When the writers of the New Testament mentioned a cross, none of them had on their mind a pretty piece of jewelry that was worn around one’s neck. That would have been the furthest thing from their minds.

The cross was a symbol of shame. It was a symbol of pain and suffering. It was a symbol of death. The cross wasn’t pretty, but as Christians, we rejoice in the cross, because it’s through the cross that we have life.

It’s through the cross that God removes the penalty of our sin. It’s through the cross that our sin is covered in the righteousness of Christ.

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

Jesus went to the cross. He went to the cross and he bled and he died to pay a penalty that we owed. And then his body was laid in a tomb. But his body didn’t stay in the tomb. On the third day, God the Father raised his Son, Jesus, from the dead and victory was declared over the curse of sin.

If you believe this, you can have eternal life. If you turn from your sins and turn to Christ, you can have eternal life. And this is why Christians rejoice in the cross. Because it’s through the cross that Jesus bore our sin and gave us new life.

Third, and closely related to the previous point, we rejoice when others embrace Christ.

It’s one thing to rejoice in our own salvation, and, yes, that is something we ought to rejoice in. We ought to rejoice in our own salvation. But we should also rejoice when we see others embrace Christ.

In Luke 15, Jesus tells a series of three parables. All of the parables have the same message—the central message is this. Rejoicing when what had been lost has now been found.

In the first parable, a man has 100 sheep, but one of his sheep has gone astray. One of his sheep is lost. He searches everywhere for that one sheep, and when he finds it, he comes home and says this.

Luke 15:6
And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’

In the second parable, a woman has 10 silver coins, but one of them is lost. She turns the house upside down to try and find the one coin that was lost. When she finds it, she says this.

Luke 15:9
And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’

In the third parable, a man has two sons, and one of his sons goes astray. He lives a life of sin and rebellion. When he finally gets to the end of himself, he repents of his sin and returns to his father’s house. This is what the father had to say.

Luke 15:23–24
23
‘And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

It’s good and right to celebrate when someone turns from their sin and embraces Christ.

Fourth, we rejoice in our sufferings.

This is different than rejoicing in our persecutions. With persecutions, we’re referring to suffering specifically for the cause of Christ. Here, with sufferings, we’re just talking about any run of the mill sufferings. We’re talking about the suffering that comes to all of us because we live in a broken and sinful world. We should rejoice in those sufferings.

Paul writes this in Romans 5.

Romans 5:1–5
1 
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

In the middle of this broken and sinful world, we WILL experience sufferings. It’s not a matter of if. It’s a matter of when. Don’t listen to any false teacher who’ll tell you that by the word of your faith you can speak these sufferings out of your life. That’s neither biblical nor true.

We WILL have sufferings in this world. But listen to this—this is important—our suffering in this world isn’t pointless. Our suffering isn’t pointless. God uses our sufferings for our good and for his glory. Our suffering produces endurance, which produced character, which produces hope in Christ.

So, we rejoice in our sufferings.

Fifth, we rejoice when someone walks in obedience to Christ.

We rejoice when people repent of their sins and walk in obedience to Christ. Paul writes this in 2 Corinthians 7.

2 Corinthians 7:9
As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us.

In this passage, Paul’s writing to Christians in the church at Corinth, and many of these Christians are living in a way that would bring shame on the gospel. So, Paul decides to write a harsh letter to them. He wants to confront them in their sin. And he does just that.

And as a result of this harsh letter, the Christians in Corinth grieve over their sin and they repent of their sin. So, Paul says, “I rejoice that you repented.”

Genuine repentance is a good and godly thing. It’s something we should rejoice over. It’s a good and godly thing to walk obediently in the truth.

Sixth, and the final “rejoice,” we rejoice when the gospel is preached.

In Philippians 1, there were some people who were preaching the gospel to make a name for themselves. In other words, they weren’t preaching the gospel for the correct reason, but they were preaching the gospel.

Their gospel content was correct, but their hearts weren’t where they were supposed to be. So, what are we to make of that? Should we be happy that people are using the gospel to make a name for themselves?

Now, let me be clear, this would be different than much of what we see on TV in America today. Many—not all—but many of today’s TV preachers preach for the wrong motivation AND then to top it off, they ALSO get the gospel wrong. Paul’s not talking about that.

Paul’s addressing people who have the wrong heart motivation, but they have the gospel right. This is what Paul has to say about those people.

Philippians 1:18
18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.

So, we too rejoice when the gospel is preached.

These are 6 reasons Christians ought to rejoice, and we ought to rejoice with one another about these things.

My next post will explain why Christians ought to weep.

Walking Together

Perhaps you’ve read church membership covenants that are full of the language of “I” and “my”—first person SINGULAR throughout the covenant—no references to “we” or “our.”

Is this a problem for a church membership covenant? Is this significant? I would argue that it’s extremely significant.

But you might think that I’m making a mountain over a molehill. But this isn’t me making a mountain out of a molehill. This has everything to do with understanding what the church is.

We’re not the church individually. We’re the church collectively. Individually, we’re a part of the church. Individually, we’re members of the church, but we’re not the church individually.

In Ephesians 4:1, Paul urges his readers, “I urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” In our English language this fact may get past us since we have only one word for “you”—whether we’re speaking of the singular “you” or plural “you all” or “y’all.”

But the language that the New Testament was written in is more precise than that. The New Testament was written in Koine Greek, and in Koine Greek there’s one word for singular “you” and there’s a completely different word for the plural “y’all.”

And, yes, I’m sure you’ve already guessed it, the “you” that Paul uses in this verse is the plural “y’all.” He goes on to expand on that by using the language of “bearing with one another” in verse 2.

The “one another” phrase clearly spells out the importance of relationship. It spells out the importance of community. But this isn’t the only place in the New Testament that talks about how we treat “one another.” Tthere are nearly 60 passages in the New Testament alone that speak of “one another.”

  • Encourage one another (1 Thess 5:11)
  • Bear with one another (Col 3:12–17)
  • Forgive one another (Col 3:12–17)
  • Teach one another (Col 3:12–17)
  • Serve one another (Gal 5:13–15)
  • Confess our sins to one another (Jas 5:16)
  • Honor one another (Rom 12:10)
  • Love one another (John 13:34–35)

And we could go on! The point is simple and clear. We weren’t made to live by ourselves. We weren’t meant to struggle by ourselves. We weren’t meant to pursue Jesus by ourselves. We’re meant to do that in community—with one another.

Here’s something important I tell people when they join the church. When you join a church, you’re giving permission to your fellow church members to get in your business! That’s what you’re doing when you join a church.

And the flip side of that is true also. When we as a people receive someone into church membership, we’re telling that person that he or she has permission to get into our business.

We’re saying to one another, “I love you enough to allow you to speak the truth of God’s Word into my life, and I love you enough to speak the truth of God’s Word into your life.”

Friends, we were made for this. We were made to live in community. The “we” language of a church covenant is EXTREMELY important. We do this together.

God Is Faithful

How do we respond to God? When God shows himself faithful to us, do we respond with faith in return? The history of God’s people paints a different picture.

In Nehemiah 9, the Levites recount God’s steadfast faithfulness to his chosen people.

In verse 7, we’re reminded that God was with his people from the beginning, since Abraham. We’re reminded of God’s faithfulness to his people when God rescued them from Egypt (verses 9ff). We’re reminded of God’s faithfulness to his people while they wandered in the wilderness (verse 21). And we’re reminded of God’s faithfulness during the period of the judges (verse 27).

Again and again, we’re reminded of God’s faithfulness to his people.

But God’s people didn’t always respond with similar faithfulness towards God.

In verse 16, we’re told of how God’s people had “acted presumptuously and stiffened their neck and did not obey [God’s] commandments” (cf. verse 29). We’re reminded of how they fashioned a golden calf for themselves (verse 18).

Yet in response to the unfaithfulness of his people, God responded with grace and mercy.

Nehemiah 9:17
But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

We’re reminded again and again of God’s faithfulness towards his people, and we’re reminded again and again of their own unfaithfulness. The whole history of God’s people is that of a people who do absolutely NOTHING to deserve God’s love and faithfulness, yet he gives it to them at every turn.

Time after time, God is faithful, and then God’s people are unfaithful in response.

But, lest we be too hard on these people who lived centuries ago, let’s remember this. We are those people. We’re the same people.

Here’s what I mean. You and I have done NOTHING to deserve God’s love and faithfulness. The Bible even goes so far as to say that you and I deserve the opposite of his love and faithfulness. We deserve his wrath (cf. Ephesians 2). That’s what we deserve. That’s what we’ve earned.

At most every turn, when God shows himself faithful to us, we rebel against him. We choose our own way instead of his way. In many ways, we live as a stiff-necked people—just like they did.

And what does God do? What does God do in response to our rebellion? What does he do in response to our stiff-necks?

In response to our rebellion, God sent us his Son—his only Son, Jesus Christ. In response to our sin, God sent Jesus to bear the penalty that we owe for our sin. In response to our stiff-necks, God provides a way in which we can be reconciled to him.

We didn’t deserve it. We hadn’t earned it. It was an act of sheer grace. But praise be to God for his never-ending mercies!

Because Jesus bore our sins on the cross and because God raised Jesus from the dead, all who turn from their sins and believe in or trust in Christ, ALL who do that will be saved—all who do that will inherit eternal life.

It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. It doesn’t matter how unworthy you think you are. Because where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more (Rom 5:20).

But you need to trust in Christ Jesus. You need to lay hold of the gift of God through his Son Jesus. If you’ve never done that, you can do it today! You can do it right now. You can call out to God and trust in him today.

For his glory,
Pastor Brian

Formed by God

In their book, Whatever Happened to the Human Race, Francis Schaeffer and C. Everett Koop describe the horrors of Nazi Germany.

The first to be killed in Nazi Germany were the infirm, the senile, and the mentally retarded. Then came the aged and the “defective” children. Eventually, as World War II approached, the doomed undesirables included epileptics, children with badly modeled ears and even bed-wetters. The transportation of people to these killing centers was carried out by “The Charitable Transport Company for the Sick.” The plan then was to kill all Jews and Poles and to cut down the Russian population by 30,000,000.

We’re all struck by this great Holocaust and wonder how it ever could’ve happened. Leo Alexander, who served as a consultant to the Secretary of War in World War II and who was on duty with the office of Chief Counselor for the War Crimes tribunal in Nuremberg, says that what happened in Nazi Germany “all started with the acceptance of the attitude that there is such a thing as life not worthy to be lived.” In German, it was called lebensunwertes leben, which roughly translated means “life unworthy of being lived.”

An elderly German man who lived through the Holocaust tells the following story. These are his words.

I always considered myself a Christian. I attended a church since I was a small boy. We had heard the stories of what was happening to the Jews; but like most people in America today, we tried to distance ourselves from the reality of what was really taking place. What could anyone do to stop it?

A railroad track ran behind our small church, and each Sunday morning we would hear the whistle from a distance and then the clacking of the wheels moving over the track. We became disturbed when one Sunday we heard cries coming from the train as it passed by. We grimly realized that the train was carrying Jews.

Week after week that train whistle would blow. We would dread to hear the sound of those old wheels because we knew that the Jews would begin to cry out to us as they passed our church. It was so terribly disturbing!

We could do nothing to help these poor people, yet their screams tormented us. We knew exactly at what time that whistle would blow, and we decided the only way to keep from being so disturbed by the cries was to start singing our hymns. If some of the screams reached our ears, we’d just sing a little louder until we could hear them no more.

Years have passed, and no one talks about it much anymore, but I still hear that train whistle in my sleep. I can still hear them crying out for help. God forgive all of us who called ourselves Christians, yet did nothing to intervene.

Does this sound anything like the United States in 2018? Are we tempted to cover our ears and just “sing a little louder”? As we face a virtual holocaust on the dignity and sanctity of life, are we tempted to cover our ears and just sing a little louder?

It all began with “the attitude that there is such a thing as a life not worthy to be lived”—lebensunwertes leben. We may think we’re beyond that. We may think that only oppressive Nazi regimes would pursue this. Surely, modern people wouldn’t think that there’s such a thing as a life not worthy to be lived.

But listen to this. Many people in the European country of Iceland have recently been bragging that they’ve virtually eliminated Down Syndrome from their country.

We may think this is good news. Have they found a cure for Down Syndrome? Wouldn’t that be fantastic! They could share it with the rest of the world!

But, no, they haven’t found a cure for Down Syndrome. They’ve just reached the point where virtually 100% of the babies who are diagnosed with Down Syndrome are killed in their mothers’ wombs. So, they’re bragging that they’ve virtually eliminated Down Syndrome from their country.

But Iceland isn’t alone. In Denmark, 98% of babies who receive a prenatal diagnosis of Down Syndrome will be aborted. In the UK, the number is 90%. In France, it’s 77%. In the USA, it’s 67%. That’s 2 out of every 3 babies who are diagnosed with Down Syndrome are aborted. Do these babies represent lives not worthy to be lived? Are their lives lebensunwertes leben? Are we any different than the Nazis?

Have you ever thought, “If that person really knew me, he/she wouldn’t love me”? Many of us have deep, dark secrets in our lives that we don’t share with anyone for fear that people won’t love us if they know who we really are.

We may fear that we’ve done something in the past or that we’ve had something done to us in the past that makes us unlovable. In Psalm 139, David writes,

Psalm 139:1
O Lord, you have searched me and known me!

These two verbs “search” and “know” are going to form “book ends” on this psalm. They appear here in the opening verse, and the same two verbs appear again in the same order in the second to last verse of the psalm.

The verb “search”—in the original language—means to consider something in detail, to analyze something so that you can discover its essential features. The verb “know” is used multiple times throughout this psalm [verses 1, 2, 4, and 23 (x2)]. In the original language, it means to become familiar with something through experience.

David’s point in using these two verbs in the opening phrase of this psalm is to let the reader know that God’s knowledge of us is both complete and intimate. There’s nothing that God doesn’t know about us. We may keep secrets from our parents. We may keep secrets from our siblings. We may keep secrets from our spouses. But we keep no secrets from God (cf. 139:2–6).

David declares in verse 7,

Psalm 139:7
Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?

This are rhetorical questions. They’re questions with an obvious correct answer. They’re questions designed to get us thinking. Where can we go from God’s Spirit? No where! Where can we flee from his presence? No where!

God is with us and he loves us. There are no invisible people in God’s eyes. We may make people invisible in our eyes, but there aren’t any invisible people in God’s eyes.

We make people invisible by refusing to think about them, by refusing to have open, honest conversations about them.

We take a young woman who’s a part of the sex industry, and pornography turns her into an object of lust. In our mind’s eye, she’s no longer someone created in the image of God. She’s become invisible.

We take the refugee who is fleeing persecution, and we complain that his presence here makes us feel uncomfortable. In our mind’s eye, he’s no longer someone created in the image of God. He’s become invisible.

We take the baby in the womb and we declare that what the mother does with what’s in her body is her choice. In our mind’s eye, both the mother and the baby are no longer people created in the image of God. They’ve both become invisible.

We take the elderly and the infirm and we warehouse them away and encourage them to choose death with dignity. In our mind’s eye, that old woman’s no longer someone created in the image of God. She’s become invisible.

God is the master craftsman (cf. 139:13–16). He forms us while we’re in our mother’s womb. God creates and gives life and God values human life—all human life.

God values the life of the women who is being sex trafficked.

He values the life of the refugee who’s fleeing persecution.

He values the life of the mother and of the baby in her womb.

And he values the life of elderly and infirm.

God values all human life because unlike any other part of creation, human life is created in the image of God.

Genesis 1:26–27
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image after our likeness. . . . So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

He formed us. He knitted us together. We were intricately woven together.This is poetic language, but it’s language that speaks of being carefully and thoughtfully put together. We are fearfully and wonderfully made (139:14).

But when it comes to the topic of abortion, we’ve taken this beautifully poetic language and we’ve exchanged it with cold, sterile, and sanitary terms like “pulling the plug” or “making a choice” or “fetal tissue.” And in so doing, we’ve removed ourselves from what’s really happening—the taking a human life.

There are only 7 countries in the world that allow an elective abortion after 24-weeks. And of those seven countries, only four countries allow for elective abortion at any point in the pregnancy—right up to the point of delivery:

  • The United States of America,
  • Vietnam,
  • China, and
  • North Korea.

How’s that for company to keep? Vietnam, China, and North Korea. All three of those countries are among the top of the list of countries where human rights are regularly violated. And that’s the company we keep in allowing abortion for any reason at any time during a pregnancy.

Statistics tells us that 3 in 10 women in the local church have had at least one abortion. But abortion isn’t just a women’s issue. Women don’t get pregnant without the help of a man. In many cases—not all, but in many cases—women choose abortion because the man leaves her with little choice.

Now, to be clear, having an abortion or coercing your girlfriend or wife to have an abortion isn’t an unforgiveable sin. It’s not. It is a sin. But there is forgiveness and grace to be found at the cross. God’s grace can cover all of our sins.

But we have a crisis on our hands. There have been over 60 million abortions in the USA since 1973. These are human beings. These are human lives.

But there’s also some good news here as well. There’s been a steady decline in the number of abortions since 1990. In 1990, there were 1.6 million abortions. That was the high-water mark of abortions in the USA.

In 2017, there were an estimated 900,000 abortions. That’s still a lot. That’s one abortion every 8 seconds. But that’s over a 40% decrease since 1990, and that’s good news.

Statistics tell us that the younger people are, the more opposed they are to abortion. And I think I know why. I think it’s the sonogram or ultrasound machine. We have a generation of adults now who grew up with a sonogram picture of their brother or sister taped to the fridge. When you use a sonogram machine to look at what’s happening in a mother’s womb, there’s only one conclusion you can come to: LIFE! What’s in mommy’s belly is LIFE!

And now we have generations of young people who have grown up seeing these pictures of their brothers and sisters in mommy’s belly. Some have even gone with mommy to the doctor’s office to see the baby in the womb. There’s no other way to say it. That’s a human baby in her belly.

We need to celebrate the sanctity of life. We need to celebrate the sanctity of life from conception until natural death.

So, you may be wondering what you can do. There are any number of things you can do. Here are seven things you might consider.

  • First, if you’re a parent, start by educating your own children on these issues. Show them what the Bible has to say about this.
  • Second, volunteer at your local crisis pregnancy center. They’d love to hear from you.
  • Third, volunteer at a homeless shelter. When we talk about the sanctity of life, we’re not only talking about babies in the womb. Every human being on the planet is created in the image of God. All human life is precious.
  • Fifth, volunteer at an assisted-living facility. Some of the men and women who live in these facilities feel like they’ve been forgotten. They feel as if they’ve been warehoused in a facility and left there to die. Make it a part of your schedule to go and visit the residents of a local assisted-living facility.
  • Sixth, learn to teach English as a Second Language (ESL). There are refugees who have come to America because they’re fleeing persecution in their home countries. And they live here now. They want to speak better English. They just need someone to come alongside them and teach them.
  • Seventh, volunteer at a battered women’s shelter. These shelters serve as a temporary place of residence for women who’ve been in relationships that have been marked by domestic violence.
  • Eighth, become a foster parent. There are children all over this country who need a safe place to live. Without the foster-care-system, many of these children would be homeless. Show these children the love of Christ by bringing them into your homes.

Now, we can’t do all of these things, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do something. These are just a few of the things you can do. You can do many of these things either individually or as a family.

The point here is simple. There are men and women, boys and girls, all around us, all of whom are created in the image of God, many of whom are hurting, many of whom need to experience the love of God.

What can we do to show them the love of God?

Making Disciples who Make Disciples — Part 3

What is a disciple?

When you think of the word “disciple,” what comes to mind?

  • Do you think of a super Christian?
  • Do you think of someone wearing sandals following after Jesus?
  • Do you think about people who are so engaged in religious stuff that they don’t have time for other things?

There might be a hundred different things that come to mind when you hear the word disciple, but what’s of first importance isn’t what we think of when we hear the word disciple, but what does the Bible say about the subject. What did Matthew think when he wrote “make disciples” in Matthew 28:19? What did Jesus mean when he told us to “make disciples”? What is a disciple according to the Bible?

First, an interesting fact about the word “disciple” in the Bible. “Disciple” is OVERWHELMINGLY the most common way of describing Christians in the Bible. The word “Christian” is only used 3 times in the New Testament, but the word “disciple” appears nearly 300 times in the New Testament. BUT . . . all 300 times are in the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—and in the book of Acts. After Acts 21:16, the word “disciple” is no longer used.

Now, this doesn’t mean that the concept of a disciple is no longer employed. On the contrary, the concept of a disciple appears throughout the New Testament, but the word itself is used nearly 300 times in 5 books of the Bible and then not again for the rest of the Bible.

So, what is a disciple? At its most basic level, the Greek word that’s translated disciple carries with the idea of learning or following. So, we could well say that a disciple is a learner or a follower.

For example, in Luke’s Gospel we hear the word disciple used in this way.

Luke 5:33
And they said to him, “The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink.”

Luke 6:40
A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.

So, whether we’re talking about disciples of John the Baptist or disciples of the Pharisees or disciples of Jesus, a disciple stands in relationship to his teacher. A disciple watches his teacher and learns from him and then imitates his teacher.

So, we might say that a disciple of Jesus is someone who is committed to learning how Jesus lived and then following how Jesus lived.

And, according to how it’s used by Jesus in Matthew 28, and with how it’s used elsewhere in the Bible, there are two important symbols that are regularly associated with the idea of discipleship.

The first important symbol is that of baptism. Jesus says,

Matthew 28:19
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them . . .

Baptism is a symbol of repentance and faith. It’s a symbol of turning away from that which is old and turning to something new. Baptism pictures a decisive turning from sin and turning to Jesus.

Discipleship, therefore, requires first a radical reorientation of our lives to the one we’re following. It’s the idea that I was once going “that way,” but now I’m going “this way.” My life has been reoriented around following Jesus. That’s the first symbol associated with discipleship.

The second symbol associated with discipleship is learning. Jesus says it this way,

Matthew 28:19–20
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them . . . teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.

In another part of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus uses the imagery of a yoke to describe this teaching.

Matthew 11:28–30
28 
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. [emphasis added]

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.”

The yoke was a form of service and submission. The oxen who were in the yoke were under the complete command of their master.

These two ideas, baptism and learning, tell us what a disciple is. A disciple has radically reoriented her life to follow Jesus and she has put herself under the willing submission to her new master so that she might learn from him.

If I had to give you one sentence to describe to you what a disciple is, I would say a disciple is a “forgiven sinner who is learning to follow Christ.”

 

[I’m grateful for Colin Marshall and Tony Payne and their book, The Vine Project, available here. Many of the ideas in this series of blogs have come from this book.]

 

Making Disciples who Make Disciples — Part 2

Why make disciples?

The easy answer—and the most straightforward answer—to why we should make disciples is “because Jesus told us to do so.” I mean, that should be enough, shouldn’t it?

When you ask your 5-year-old to do something and he says to you, “why?” In a moment of parental exasperation, we say, “Because I told you to. That’s why!”

While this answer is true, it’s often not adequate. There’s more to the why question than a matter of simple obedience. The “why question” might be reframed into a “what question.”

What exactly is happening when a person becomes a disciple of Jesus?

And here we need to understand that every single human being on this planet—all who have ever lived and all who ever will live—every single one of us are born “on the wrong side of the tracks”—spiritually speaking.

The Bible teaches us that at one time we were all “by nature children of wrath” (Eph 2:3), and we were spiritually dead in our trespasses (Eph 2:5). Our sin had separated us from God so that there was a wall between us and God (Isa 59:1–2).

We all deserved God’s wrath to be poured out on us. We weren’t innocent—not one of us. We have earned his righteous wrath (Rom 6:23).

But God in his grace sent his Son into the world. His Son lived a perfect life. His Son was innocent in every sense of that word.

And then that innocent Son went to the cross to bear the penalty that we owed for our sin. As he died on that cross, he wasn’t dying for his sin—remember, he was innocent. No, he was dying for our sins. He was paying the price that we owe.

And then after he died, he was buried, and on the third day he rose victoriously from the grave and defeated even sin, death, and the devil.

So, let’s return to the original question. Why do we make disciples? Yes, we do it because God told us to, but more a important “big picture” answer. The reason we make disciples is because this is the way God rescues sinners from the punishment they deserve.

When you speak to “Unbelieving Bob” about Christ, and Bob turns from his sins and trusts in Christ, let me tell you what just happened. At that moment when Bob trusts in Christ, God rescued him from an eternal hell.

The reason we make disciples is because it’s God’s means of rescuing lost sinners into a relationship with him.

Do you know any sinners in need of rescue?

 

[I’m grateful for Colin Marshall and Tony Payne and their book, The Vine Project, available here. Many of the ideas in this series of blogs have come from this book.]