Sunday, March 31, 2013

Making Contact with the Cross

Text: Colossians 2:8-14

Introduction: John 3:16 is a simple verse, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” 1 John 3:16 is also a simple verse … and says pretty much the exact same thing, “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us …”

Those two verses aren't about the fact that God loves His creations, but the manner in which He has demonstrated love. God SHOWED us love by sacrificing His Son. Jesus SHOWED us love by dying on a cross. But isn’t it interesting that modern churches spend so little time discussing the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Oh, there are songs sung about the cross, but usually they are devoid of any real doctrinal content … and those who sing them probably give more thought to the beat of the music than the blood of the cross.

But coming into contact with Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection is the supreme will of God for mankind. This should be of the utmost concern to the people of God. Making contact with the death, burial and resurrection of Christ is how God demonstrated His love and wooed us, how we enter into Christ, and how we stay in fellowship with Jesus. Our text is found in Colossians 2:8-14, and begins with …

I. The Recognition of Divine Authority vs. 8-10

“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. [9] For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, [10] and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority;”

First, we recognize that this isn't about man. It's not about our troubles. It's not about our achievements. It's not about living a good life. It's about living a very specific life in submission to the One who “is the head over all rule and authority.” As Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

For many people, Christianity is just living the same life that they always lived … only this time with Jesus' blessing. This is why church's are failing. They have not – and will not – submit to Christ.

But according to our text, that's the first step. We must be Captured by Christ, v. 8. “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.”

This is why so many fail. Oh, they do church, but it is about finding one that fits their personal philosophy. Churches are being administered by “pastors” who are sharing their personal philosophies. Congregations are directed by elders leading according to their personal philosophies. According to our text, it's nothing but “empty deception.” It's like a bowl of fake fruit. It may look tasty, but in reality it's hollow. Today's churches have produced a spiritual GMO, if you will. They say it's better, but really it's just going to slowly kill you. According to 1 Timothy 4:6, To “be a good servant of Christ Jesus,” is to be “constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of sound doctrine.”

Many are captivated by the charisma of great speakers, whether their words are true or not. Many are captivated by the things of the world and traditions that are comfortable and reassuring. But the real Christian is captivated wholly by Christ … the things of Christ … the words of Christ.

If we have been captured by Christ, we will first and foremost recognize His authority. And if we recognize Him as having all authority, then we will work to subject ourselves totally to His will. In 2 Corinthians 10:5, the apostle Paul says, “We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.” This is the foundation of our allegiance to Christ. It’s the only way we can ever be made Complete in Christ, vs. 9-10. “For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, [10] and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority;”

You have been given fullness in Christ. You have been made complete in Christ. What Christ has done is not in question. What is in question is our response to Him. How have we responded to His mercy and grace? How have we responded to His generosity? Is gaining Christ worth more than the things of the world? Are we willing to live the kind of life that He lived in order to be resurrected to eternal life? The fact is, we will not be complete until we fully submit to His authority.

Two things then are necessary to become complete in Christ: The recognition of His authority, and the removal of the sin that has corrupted us and caused us to question His judgment.

It all starts with coming into contact with the cross of Christ. It was at that point that the benefit of the work of Christ was bestowed upon man. The cross was the ultimate revelation of Christ’s authority. In John 10:17-18, Jesus says, “For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again. [18] No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father.” And the cross was also the ultimate rejection of sin – Romans 8:3 says, “For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh.” Jesus condemned sin in the flesh. Therefore, we have to condemn sin in the flesh. So let’s go back to our text. Paul talks specifically about …

II. The Removal of Sin vs. 11-14

“[11] and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; [12] having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. [13] When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, [14] having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.”

Sin is a divider. Sin is never a good thing. For the modern church to spend so much of its time rehashing their sinfulness - “Oh, we're all just sinners.” - shows that they have no idea how devastating sin is nor the lengths that God went to in order to remove us from the bondage of sin.

The prophet Ezekiel understood sin and its effect … and submission to the Lord and its effect. Ezekiel 18:20-21 says, “The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father's iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son's iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself. [21] But if the wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed and observes all My statutes and practices justice and righteousness, he shall surely live; he shall not die.”

Personally, I’m looking to avoid the death penalty. To do that, we must be Associated with Christ, v. 11. “... in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ.”

In the OT, the Jews believed that they were directly associated with God based on the physical act of circumcision. Paul corrects such thinking in Romans 4, telling us that Abraham was justified by faith before circumcision was ever practiced.

And we are still saved by faith. The circumcision that Paul speaks of in our text is a spiritual circumcision, “a circumcision made without hands.” The prophet Jeremiah referred to such spiritual circumcision in Jeremiah 4:3-4, “Break up your fallow ground, and do not sow among thorns. [4] Circumcise yourselves to the LORD and remove the foreskins of your heart, ... or else My wrath will go forth like fire and burn with none to quench it, because of the evil of your deeds.”

You see, to be associated with Christ the hardness of our heart must be broken up and the sin removed which would condemn us eternally. Church leaders don't need to be standing up talking about what sinners they are, but showing real righteousness. I pulled this quote right off the front page of Southeast Christian Church, which is the largest Christian Church in the United States: “We are just a group of imperfect people striving to live a life for God.”

The Bible never uses such language about the saints of God. Listen to 1 Corinthians 6:15-20, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take away the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? May it never be! [16] Or do you not know that the one who joins himself to a prostitute is one body with her? For He says, “THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH.” [17] But the one who joins himself to the Lord is one spirit with Him.[18] Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body. [19] Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? [20] For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.”

See? This is about doing away with sin, not reveling in it or using it as an excuse for a lack of holiness. So the question is: How do we submit ourselves to the Lord? How do we make contact with the cross? Our text tells us exactly what happened. First, we were Buried with Christ, v. 12a. “… having been buried with Him in baptism …”

In fact, I think a great verse which connects baptism and the removal of sin with the death, burial and resurrection of Christ is in 1 Peter 3:21, “Corresponding to that (to the boat which saved Noah and his family), baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” This is what our text is stressing. “Having been buried with Him in baptism,” we were Raised with Christ, v. 12b. “… in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.”

Paul makes the argument in 1 Corinthians 15:17, “... if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.” There is no removal of sin without coming into contact with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Romans 6:4-7 says, “Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. [5] For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, [6] knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; [7] for he who has died is freed from sin.”

There's the process by which we became Christians. If we died with Him, if we were buried with Him, then we were raised with Him and freed from our sins. By making contact with the cross, our text tells us that our sins are Forgiven by Christ, v. 13. “When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions.”

In submission to Christ, we obeyed His commands – after all, “He is the Head over all rule and authority.” We have done what He asked us to do. His sacrifice has not been in vain. Our conscience is clean as long as we obey the commands of our King. Because of Him, we are Free in Christ, v. 14. “having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.”

By coming into contact with the cross, we are healed of that which would have destroyed us. Our old life was one of straying in the paths of sin … pleasing ourselves. But now, because we have recognized Christ’s authority and have had our sins removed, we have placed our souls in the hands of the Great Shepherd. Death to sin means now we can live the real life that God intended … a spiritual life in fellowship with Him and His Son. This is a life that will transcend the physical world. It will overcome all physical difficulties and produce eternal life.

Conclusion: But it all goes back to a recognition of Christ’s authority. Let's hit the high points one more time. Rather than letting the world capture our attention, we must allow ourselves to be captured by Christ. He is the only One who can fill us and make us complete.

Then, there must be a removal of sin. It is not an association with Abraham, or with any man that will save us. It is not our association with a particular congregation or denomination that will save us. We must be associated with Christ. “There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Remember, this is all about making contact with the cross.

We must be buried with Christ … that’s the association which will bring about the removal of sin. If we are buried with Christ – our text says – we will also be raised with Christ. God makes us alive … with Christ. We are forgiven … by Christ. We are free … in Christ.

In fact, this is all about Christ. There is nothing in this world … in this life … more important than making contact with the cross of Christ. As Paul said in Philippians 3:7-11, “But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. [8] More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, [9] and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, [10] that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; [11] in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.”

Monday, March 25, 2013

Give us this day our daily bread

“Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). There it is, right there amidst what is affectionately known as the Lord's Prayer. All I've really ever heard in explaining this verse is to trust the Lord to meet our needs. I've always been the special child though … the one who needs just a bit more information before I will be satisfied.

What did Jesus mean by this statement? I believe every word spoken from His mouth is important, therefore it really jumps out when He repeats Himself twice … in only seven words. “Give us THIS DAY our DAILY bread.” How can anyone read that without thinking immediately of the children of Israel traveling through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land being given by God their daily provision of manna?

Alright, here's my problem: Why did Jesus – teaching His disciples how to pray – instruct them to say something like, “Give us this day our daily bread”? Isn't that why we wake up and go to work each day, to supply our daily needs? But wait a minute, if I'm working my 9a-5p job to pay the bills, why should I pray such a prayer at all? I get paid to work. If I spend my paycheck on groceries, and utilities, and rent, and clothing … then I'm the one who has provided the daily bread, not God.

But the verse didn't say, “Provide me with a job, Lord, and I'll take care of the rest.” It said, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Well, surely it isn't suggesting that I quit my job and stop working. Is it? When you look back at the example of the children of Israel en route to the Promised Land, they held no work positions. There were no careers being utilized. No years of training being put to use to provide for their well being.

“You gave Your good Spirit to instruct them, Your manna You did not withhold from their mouth, and You gave them water for their thirst. [21] “Indeed, forty years You provided for them in the wilderness and they were not in want; Their clothes did not wear out, nor did their feet swell” (Nehemiah 9:20-21). God says, “I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and cities which you had not built, and you have lived in them; you are eating of vineyards and olive groves which you did not plant” (Joshua 24:13).

So God provided the food, water, clothing, land, cities, houses, vineyards and groves. But what about Jesus? Surely He wasn't suggesting we stop working? Actually, I guess it depends on what you mean my work. Didn't Jesus say, “Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap; they have no storeroom nor barn, and yet God feeds them; how much more valuable you are than the birds!” (Luke 12:24)? Didn't He say, “Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; but I tell you, not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. [28] “But if God so clothes the grass in the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, how much more will He clothe you? You men of little faith!” (Luke 12:27-28)?

Why would Jesus offer to us – as people – the example of animals and plants? Why would He specifically mention that they do not work for a living … and then top it off by making it a faith issue? But wait! He's not finished! “And do not seek what you will eat and what you will drink, and do not keep worrying. [30] “For all these things the nations of the world eagerly seek; but your Father knows that you need these things. [31] “But seek His kingdom, and these things will be added to you” (Luke 12:29-31).

Now I'm really confused! “Do not seek what you will eat and what you will drink ...” But isn't exactly what people do every single day of their lives by going to work? Don't they specifically use words like, “I've got to put food on the table”? So do they? Have to put food on the table? Jesus' instruction was to seek God's kingdom “and these things will be added to you.”

Are the apostles examples in more ways than one? We have recorded that Peter, Andrew, James and John – all professional fishermen – left their vocation behind (Matthew 4:18-22) and, as far as we know, never returned to it. Likewise, Matthew was a tax collector, but left it all behind for Jesus (Luke 5:27-28).

For that matter, what about Jesus? He said of Himself, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (Matthew 8:20). When confronted to pay taxes, He found the tax money inside a fish's mouth (Matthew 17:24-27). Oh, I know everyone calls Him Jesus the carpenter, but is there any actual evidence that He worked in such a capacity?

Right about now, I would expect that someone would bring up 2 Thessalonians 3:10, “If anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either.” That's a wonderful verse, but in context it was written concerning those were “leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies” ( 2 Thessalonians 3:11).

“So get to the point, Jonathan!” Fine, I will. We're going about this all wrong. Today's world teaches us to get a college education and a job that will pay the bills and allow us to live comfortably. That's not what the Bible teaches. How can we live comfortably in a world in which we “reside as aliens” (1 Peter 1:1)? Is the payment of bills more important than the pursuit of Christ's kingdom?

For the record, there's nothing wrong with work! It's what you're working FOR that matters. The average person in America is working FOR their family or FOR themselves, not FOR God. They use their earned money on their bills, their property, their desires, their vacations, their savings, or their retirement. It's all self-centered.

But if I'm working for God, then a worldly education doesn't dictate whether I eat or not. God does. A worldly vocation isn't mandatory for meeting my needs, because that's the Lord's job. My focus has to be on “His kingdom and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth” (Matthew 6:19). “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24). “Sell your possessions and give to charity” (Luke 12:33). “He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (2 Corinthians 9:6). “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed” (2 Corinthians 9:8).

Our work is not about feeding our families and paying the bills, it's about displaying our ultimate trust in God. It's about using our God-given resources to aid the family of God and support Christ's kingdom. Regardless of what Wall Street does, Christians should be focused on one another rather than on themselves or the world.

We must become like the first Christians, “All those who had believed were together and had all things in common; [45] and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need” (Acts 2:44-45). We should be like the Macedonians, “in a great ordeal of affliction their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality. [3] For I testify that according to their ability, and beyond their ability, they gave of their own accord, [4] begging us with much urging for the favor of participation in the support of the saints, [5] and this, not as we had expected, but they first gave themselves to the Lord and to us by the will of God” (2 Corinthians 8:2-5).

There is a priority that is being missed completely – certainly in the world, but unfortunately also in the modern church. Our work isn't about bills, property, bank accounts … or for that matter, anything worldly at all. Our work is about spiritually strengthening the body of Christ. “I will most gladly spend and be expended for your souls(2 Corinthians 12:15). This isn't about capitalism, it's about Christ. It's not about socialism, it's about sharing with others what God has shared with us. “The life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20).

We must rethink what we have been taught about work. “Unless the LORD builds the house, they labor in vain who build it; unless the LORD guards the city, the watchman keeps awake in vain. [2] It is vain for you to rise up early, to retire late, to eat the bread of painful labors; for He gives to His beloved even in his sleep” (Psalm 127:1-2).

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Parable of the Dinner

In Luke 14:16-24, Jesus offers an interesting parable, “A man was giving a big dinner, and he invited many; [17] and at the dinner hour he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ [18] But they all alike began to make excuses. The first one said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land and I need to go out and look at it; please consider me excused.’ [19] Another one said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please consider me excused.’ [20] Another one said, ‘I have married a wife, and for that reason I cannot come.’ [21] And the slave came back and reported this to his master. Then the head of the household became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the city and bring in here the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ [22] And the slave said, ‘Master, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ [23] And the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the highways and along the hedges, and compel them to come in, so that my house may be filled. [24] For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste of my dinner.’”

This is a message particularly relevant in today's church culture, and I believe it is being altogether missed. To understand it though, we need to realize who Jesus is talking to … and about. According to Luke 14:1, Jesus “went into the house of one of the leaders of the Pharisees on the Sabbath to eat bread.” So His discourse was with those who were considered the religious people of the day. In fact, He was in the home of a religious leader.

Within the parable, Jesus references a dinner … but not exactly like the one He was attending. It is commonly accepted that the Lord is speaking about heaven. Christ invites us into fellowship with Him. Some make excuses for not entering into that fellowship, therefore He extends an invitation to everyone else. But I believe there's more to the story, so to speak.

Again, it has to do with following the flow of the parable and the context of the passage. During the dinner party He was attending, Jesus “noticed how they had been picking out the places of honor at the table” (Luke 14:7). The guests were arranging themselves not according to how the host saw them, but according to how they perceived themselves. So the problem of self-importance was evident to Jesus.

Also evident to the Lord was an attitude of favoritism and partiality. He recognized quickly that those who had been invited to this dinner were hand-picked. Thus He says, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, otherwise they may also invite you in return and that will be your repayment” (Luke 14:12).

So in attendance were the regulars … the favorites … the clique. To those people, Jesus offers His parable about another dinner … a more important dinner. Following the flow of what has already occurred at the religious leader's party, I believe the parable holds a slightly different message than is normally offered by preachers and teachers today. I have always heard this passage taught to mean the some make excuses for not coming to church, therefore we extend the invitation to those who don't come to church. Personally, I see that as a pretty weak and self-serving interpretation of the parable.

In keeping with the context of self-importance and favoritism and cliquishness, I believe that Jesus extends that attitude into His parable. Consider who would have been invited to the heavenly dinner in the parable using the same logic as that of Jesus' host. Those invited were the religious people of the day, and specifically the religious leaders. It was the “friends,” “brothers,” “relatives” and “rich neighbors” ... the same ones John referred to when he wrote, “He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him” (John 1:11).

Again, Jesus is trying to get a message across to the dinner guests. He isn't switching subjects. He isn't trying to lose them. He wants them to clearly understand His message. If they don't see the point, it's because they don't choose to see it. Jesus is suggesting something that naturally occurs within society, the refusal of an invitation not because you have a legitimate excuse, but because you don't consider the event worthy of your attention.

The people of whom Jesus speaks in His parable are important people … favorites … key members of the clique. They were the people who were expected to be invited … and expected to normally be in attendance. But in this case, their personal plans were more important than the dinner party to which they were invited. If this would have happened in Jesus' day, the one throwing the dinner party would take it as a personal insult. And an insult it was! To refuse such an invitation while offering such lame excuses would be the invited's way of saying that the host wasn't worthy of their presence. It was a statement to all the movers and shakers among society that the party wasn't worth attending.

So how then do we apply this parable today? Who are those who have been invited? It has to be those within the church in order to fit Jesus' context. It has to be those who are our “friends,” “brothers,” “relatives” and “rich neighbors.” The Lord is still addressing issues of favoritism and cliquishness. He is still speaking to religious people, and religious leaders in particular. He's speaking to the elders and the deacons. He's speaking to exactly the kind of people that are sitting in the pews today.

The difference is, Jesus is not talking about inviting people to church. This is about an invitation to heaven. The modern church is full of favorites. They are doing exactly what they feel is expected of them … by society and their peer group. They attend church. They listen to the messages. They drop a check in the plate. But that's not why they are really there. It's about their “friends,” “brothers,” “relatives” and “rich neighbors.” It's about the clique. It's about fellowship with their own kind.

Meanwhile, the real invitation is being ignored … the invitation to fellowship with the Lord. How many in your congregation would you truthfully describe as “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6)? Or would the better description of your congregation be found in Hebrews 5:12? “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food.”

I believe it is the religious people – the so-called “church” people – we are being told to turn away from. Jesus did the same thing in His day, saying, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). When Jesus says, “Go out” (vs. 21, 23), I believe He really means, “Go out!” It's time to stop throwing pearls before swine and giving what is holy to dogs (Matthew 7:6). How many preachers get up in the pulpits week after week, year after year, and see NO CHANGE within the congregation and NO CHANGE within the leaders? When is time to say enough is enough and extend the message to those who WANT to change?

It's time to stop feeding the monkey. Our “friends,” “brothers,” “relatives” and “rich neighbors” have heard the message of Christ on a regular basis and apparently have better things to do than let it change them. Aren't you tired of the lame excuses for why church people aren't learning and growing? Aren't you sick of leaders standing before their congregations and making excuses for their sinful behavior? We need to reach out to “the poor and crippled and blind and lame” ... to those who realize they need help ... not to those who blindly believe themselves to be the righteous.

On your way out the door, share with them Jesus' message from Matthew 21:31-32, “Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you. [32] For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him; but the tax collectors and prostitutes did believe him; and you, seeing this, did not even feel remorse afterward so as to believe him.” 

If you do not believe that Jesus truly sees the contemporary church for what it is, you are wrong. He knows the hearts and the minds. He has identified the sheep and the goats. He already knows fact from fiction. Now we just need to get everyone else to see it.

What excuse will the supposed saints offer next for not acting like saints? Week after week the worship services do nothing but insult the Lord as we turn away from the real invitation to know Him and fellowship with Him. “How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? [30] For we know Him who said, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY.” And again, “THE LORD WILL JUDGE HIS PEOPLE.” [31] It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:29-31).

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Why give to the poor?

Every church I have been affiliated with over the last 30 years has had some sort of benevolence program. It is quite the popular thing today to give to the poor. Unfortunately, the modern church has been affected more by the socialist ideologies of our government rather than the word of God in establishing their giving practices.

My question is: Why are we giving to the poor? If you are giving money to someone, wouldn't it be prudent to have a reason? If your congregation is collecting food and clothing to distribute to others, wouldn't it be proper to know why? Has society's message of tolerance driven all common sense from our heads? What's wrong with asking why? If your church gives something to someone, give me a Biblical reason for why you do what you do. Don't say, “That's what Jesus would do.” Show me that's what Jesus did. Explain to me why Jesus did what He did, and how what He did is grounds for applying His behavior to yourself.

Yes, in Matthew 19:21, Jesus told the rich young ruler, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But His conversation wasn't about all the poor people in the world, it was about the one man. You, sir, have a problem with wealth? That's your obstacle to righteousness? Get rid of it! Jesus' point wasn't society's redistribution of wealth.

But where are Christians ever commanded to give to the poor? That certainly wasn't Jesus practice. He didn't walk the streets tossing money to everyone begging for alms, nor did His disciples. What He DID say concerning His mission was to report that “the poor have the gospel preached to them” (Matthew 11:5). He may not have given them money, but He did give them good news!

In fact, that was exactly what happened when Peter and John came across a man lame from birth outside the Temple. Acts 3:3 says, “When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he began asking to receive alms.” What was the apostolic response? “I do not possess silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you: In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—walk!” (Acts 3:6).

Your congregation passes out food and clothing regularly. Great! But if a person is clothed and fed, yet end up in hell because no one preached Christ to them, what have you really accomplished? “Oh, but they see how loving we are!” It's more loving to give a person money than the gospel? I first saw such a ploy used when I was about 16 years old. I wanted to open a bank account. Bank X offered a free toaster for opening my account with them. It's called incentive. Some might even call it bribery. The attendance on Sunday evenings at the last place I served was around 50 … unless there was a fellowship dinner, in which case the attendance doubled. Isn't it amazing how many people turn out for the freebies who won't come for any other reason?

So what are we teaching people from within our benevolence programs … that we are real Christians, or simply used car salesmen? When Paul and Barnabas were sent out from the Jerusalem congregation, the report was made, “They only asked us to remember the poor—the very thing I also was eager to do” (Galatians 2:10). What does it mean to “remember the poor”? Does that mean to give them money, or could it mean preaching Christ to them?

If you consider the surrounding context, you see that Paul speaks of Peter's attitude of favoritism (Galatians 2:11-14). In fact, there is more evidence that Paul was seeking to receive financial support rather than seeking to give it. In Galatians 2:6, he says, “But from those who were of high reputation (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—well, those who were of reputation contributed nothing to me.”

Maybe it's time we started to answer our original question: Why give to the poor? When you examine the Biblical evidence, you begin to see first that it wasn't ALL the poor that were given aid, but certain poor in particular. “You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11). “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; ... [13] contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality” (Romans 12:10, 13).“For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem” (Romans 15:26).

The giving in the Old Testament wasn't focused on the poor of every pagan nation, but upon the poor among the Jews. Likewise in the New Testament, giving wasn't offered to every poor person but focused upon the poor who were Christians. That is certainly a far cry from what we see in churches today. Which leads us to our next question: Why was giving focused only upon the saints? Doesn't God love everyone?

These questions go to motive, which is what more people should be considering. Why do we do what we do? “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23). It's not just about the physical act of giving, but about the spiritual reasoning behind the action.

Romans 5:8-9 says, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. [9] Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.” Notice the demonstration of God's love. He showed His love to those OUTSIDE of Christ, but the benefits of His blood – salvation from God's wrath – is only available to those INSIDE of Christ (“through Him”).

This is what most people fail to understand and apply within their congregations – the benefits of heaven are found WITHIN Christ, not outside of and apart from Him. Some would call such love favoritism. They would see God's preferential treatment of a particular people. GOOD! That's what you're supposed to see!

In John 14:23, Jesus said, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him.” Notice the conditions! IF someone loves Christ, he will obey Him. And IF you obey Him, then both Father and Son will come and abide with you. But if you don't, They won't.

Think of it this way: If God were to give everything to everyone equally (which is socialism), then what benefit is there to being a Christian? It is such false thinking that is destroying the church, not building it up. “You want food and clothing? No problem, we give it to anyone. You want money for your electric bill? Nope, you don't have to be a member here.” Why would anyone want to become a member of your church then, if you can get all the benefits without joining up?

Ultimately, this is really about the gift of salvation not the gift of money. God “has blessed US (Christians) with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3). “His divine power has granted to US (Christians) everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3). God's benefits are for Christians – for those INSIDE of Christ. And the best way we can demonstrate God's love to others is to show them what's available if they will accept Christ and become a part of the family.

So why give to the poor? We give to the CHRISTIAN poor, because they are our family. If the worldly see our concern for one another and want to be a part of that … that's exactly how God planned it. Jesus said, “The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; [23] I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me” (John 17:22-23).

If we give to the poor among our fellow Christians, it isn't because we've been commanded to do so, but because we belong to one another and we care for our family. “Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7).

It is time we reconsidered the focus of our benevolent giving, and what it really means to show the love of Christ. It was Jesus who said, “It is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:26). “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces” (Matthew 7:6). That is just as much a part of Christ's doctrine as “repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38), yet woe to the preacher who brings up that subject with the finance or mission committee.

But if we do give to the poor of this world, then such giving is useless without the accompanying gospel of Jesus Christ. Our goal is to make them a part of the family. We want them to join our “holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9). Our desire should be to save souls. “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10), not that which is poor.




Saturday, March 9, 2013

Five things that are killing the Restoration Movement: #5, Youth

Surely this will be the most contentious of the five articles, because not just the church but our society has gone youth crazy. We live in a day and age where parents cater to the every whim of their children … and the results have been obvious and startling. Children are less moral, less polite, less knowledgeable, have less of a work ethic, are more selfish, more self-centered and more lazy than at any time in recorded history.

Within the Restoration Movement, it has been the decision of elderships across the land to focus a majority of the congregation's time and resources on attracting and catering to youth. Transportation ministers bring them, children's ministers raise them, youth ministers play with them, praise bands play for them, planning committees build for them and the adults pay for it all. We pay to send them on mission trips and retreats. We take them to youth group, after school programs, parties, Vacation Bible School, church camp, conferences, concerts, ball games, skate rinks, movies, restaurants and theme parks.

Yet for all the time invested … for all the expenditure of finances … what have we accomplished? Are our children more spiritual? Are they more knowledgeable of the Scriptures? Are they better prepared for heaven? In fact, since the inception of youth ministries … since the spotlight has been shined upon our youth … have they become more moral than the society around them? Do the statistics show that more kids are attending church and being saved? Have teen pregnancy rates dropped? Are more college kids attending church because they were a part of their church's youth group?

Psalm 144:12 says, “Let our sons in their youth be as grown-up plants, and our daughters as corner pillars fashioned as for a palace.” I cannot come up with even one name from my own experience within the Christian church of a youth such as Josiah, Samuel, Mary or Jesus. Where is the proof – even one scrap of evidence – that suggests the human invention of youth ministries is working?

I say human invention, because there is not one shred of Biblical evidence that even remotely suggests such a training process for children. God said to His people at Mt. Horeb, “Assemble the people to Me, that I may let them hear My words so they may learn to fear Me all the days they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children” (Deuteronomy 4:10). This is the God-given pattern. It is one of righteous men and women teaching their children. Proverbs 6:20 says, “My son, observe the commandment of your father and do not forsake the teaching of your mother.” Nowhere in the Scriptures was the spiritual instruction of the children given over to someone else.

But today we are too busy! We are too ignorant! We need specialized people to train our children. They must have a degree from a Bible college (which is understandable, because where would we ever find a young man or woman who came out of their congregation's youth group already trained?). But once they have gained that sacred shingle, then we gladly turn our children and our money over to those who are barely more than children themselves. They have received an education, but unfortunately have no wisdom with which to disseminate their knowledge. Welcome to today's youth ministry!

One congregation which I attended numerous times had a habit during their worship service of standing and turning to face the children as they left the sanctuary for children's church. After leaving, one of the leaders would then pray for them specifically. This happens every week. Perhaps you think, “What's wrong with praying for children?” The better question would be: Why only pray for the children? Why stand and give them special honor? Do we also stand for the reading of God's word? Do we stand and pray before the minister preaches? Do we so recognize teachers or musicians? Why just the children?

“Oh, but the children are our future!” That's what I have been told repeatedly, ad nauseum, since I entered the ministry. But is it true? Are the children we train our future … or are they someone else's? How many children grow up in your congregation, are served by your youth group, attend college and then come back to serve that same congregation as an adult? The answer is very few indeed. Most children graduate from college and relocate to areas other than the old hometown. So it would be much more accurate to say that our children are someone else's future … and someone else's children are our future. Of all the deacons and elders I have worked with over the last 27 years, I cannot think of one who was actually raised up in that particular congregation.

Regardless, the end result is the same. Children are being entertained, but not educated. They are given ample activities, but few facts. They are taught nice moral lessons (ala VeggieTales), but little actual doctrine. We cater to their attention spans, rather than meet their spiritual needs. They go home to their parents and report what fun they had! … and it's enough. As long as their kids LIKE the youth program and have some friends, there are no questions asked. What a shame that parents care more about whether their children will survive public school than about whether they will actually reach heaven.

It is this ungodly tunnel vision upon youth that is killing the Restoration Movement. If such attention were focused upon producing holy and righteous youth, able to stand boldly against a wicked world, I would be less inclined to complain. If actual fruit were being produced, I would have a harder time criticizing. But such is not the case. Today's children are rude and obnoxious (like their parents), especially toward those elderly who have exhibited the most faithfulness within the church. They desire said adults to fund all of their ventures, all the while keeping their mouths shut about everything else. “We don't want your old-fashioned ideas. We want programs we like. We want music we like. We want teachers we like. We want ministers we like. We want buildings where we can play. We want buses to take us wherever we want to go. Don't tell us how to live our lives, just write us a check.” Is it any wonder Isaiah said, “The youth will storm against the elder” (Isaiah 3:5)?

One of the main reasons Solomon wrote the Proverbs was “to give ... to the youth knowledge and discretion” (Proverbs 1:4). Very few of today's youth ministries are actually accomplishing that goal, even if it were their job instead of the parents. Unless we reverse this trend … unless the parents Biblically educate themselves and take control once again of their children's spiritual education … the Restoration Movement is doomed to failure.

The Scriptural process has been reversed (which is Satan's specialty). The New Testament shows adults being given good news … being evangelized … and those adults sharing it with their families. The church was a top-down model: Win the parents, and they bring the children. Today, it is the opposite: Win the children, and maybe they will bring their parents.

We are supposed to be a Restoration Movement … restoring biblical principles … restoring New Testament faith and practice. Somewhere along the line, someone stopped caring. Today, tradition trumps truth. What the consumer wants is more important than what the soul needs. Oh, for a return to the time when a preacher was able to say with conviction, “I am mindful of the sincere faith within you, which first dwelt in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am sure that it is in you as well” (2 Timothy 1:5).

Friday, March 8, 2013

Five things that are killing the Restoration Movement: #4, Fellowship

Ours is supposedly a Restoration Movement, dedicated to restoring New Testament principles. There are few areas in which deviation has occurred more than in the realm of so-called fellowship.

What a grand New Testament word! Fellowship … koinonia! Oh, if only the modern church understood what it meant. Acts 2:42 gives us the traditional “big four” of worship in the early church. “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Preaching? Check! Lord's Supper? Check. Prayer time? Check! But what do we do with fellowship?

For most congregations, “fellowship” is the mish-mash of what's left over. We sing together, therefore it's fellowship. We have a time when the people can shake hands and greet one another, therefore it's fellowship. We have a potluck dinner after church. That's real fellowship! The ladies' quilting club is fellowship. The mom's exercise class is fellowship. The men's basketball team is fellowship. The coffee shop out in the foyer next to the book store is fellowship. The kids' trip to the corn maze is fellowship. It is this emphasis on the physical which is killing the Restoration Movement. We are fellowshipping ourselves to death, all the while missing the point of real New Testament fellowship.

Let's take a look at how the word is utilized in Scripture. Koinonia is used of fellowship with Christ (1 Corinthians 1:9; 1 John 1:3, 6), the lack of fellowship between light and darkness (2 Corinthians 6:14), fellowship with the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 13:14; Philippians 2:1), the right hand of fellowship offered to those being sent out to preach (Galatians 2:9), the fellowship of suffering with Christ (Philippians 3:10), the fellowship of faith within a home congregation (Philemon 1:6), fellowship with the apostles by the acceptance of their word (1 John 1:3), fellowship with God (1 John 1:3), and fellowship with one another IF we walk in the Light (1 John 1:7).

Koinonia is also translated as participation, sharing or contribution. In those senses, it speaks of sharing in the body and blood of Christ (i.e., communion, 1 Corinthians 10:16). The church is instructed to share sacrificially with others (Hebrews 13:16). We are told of the “favor of participation in support of the saints” (2 Corinthians 8:4; or “contribution,” 2 Corinthians 9:13). We read of contributions to the poor (Romans 15:26), and of participation in the gospel (Philippians 1:5).

That's it. No mention of dinners, concerts, praise bands, retreats, sports teams, exercise classes, or coffee and donuts. In fact, when you take a good look at those references, you see three particular ways in which the word is utilized: 1) Our spiritual fellowship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; 2) the fellowship we have with one another through our acceptance of God's word; and 3) the fellowship that we share as we participate in financially contributing to the work of Christ.

Hmmm. If we take a look at our worship services then, the offering time would be more “fellowship” than the meet and greet time. The Lord's Supper would be more “fellowship” than the bagel bar. The preaching of the word would produce more “fellowship” than the stories, jokes and illustrations. Seeing an increase in faith and righteousness would be more “fellowship” than increases in the attendance and offering.

But as it stands now in a majority of contemporary congregations, fellowship is purely physical. It means the same thing to the church as it does to the people at the country club. It's about getting together and doing the things you like with the people you like. Our leaders are not shepherds … they're event promoters! With such an earthly view – and with so little focus on our spiritual fellowship with heaven – it is no wonder that the Restoration Movement is slowly but surely dying.