Archive for the ‘discipleship’ Tag

Stronger at the Broken Places   7 comments

Related imageSome people seem to think suffering is detrimental, and they cannot fathom why a God who is both good and great could allow anyone to suffer. You may remember the book written by a Jewish rabbi, entitled Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.5 The rabbi concluded that God could not possibly be both good and great at the same time. Suffering could be explained if God were great, but not good. A great God is able to do anything He wants, and thus He must enjoy watching people suffer. If so, God cannot be good; He can only be great. The other alternative is that God is good but not great. God wants the best for everyone and does not desire for anyone to suffer. But since men do suffer, God must be good but not great. God then must not be able to keep men from suffering. This latter conclusion is the solution reached by the rabbi.6

Some Christians handle the problem of suffering in yet a different way. Knowing better than to lay fault at God’s feet for human suffering, they place the blame at the feet of the one suffering. Like Job’s “friends,” they reason that sin is the only reason why men suffer. If a Christian is suffering, then it must be due to unconfessed sin. And so there are many today who assure us that God does not want us to suffer and that we need not suffer—if we but have the faith to be delivered from our suffering to the success, health, and wealth God wants to give us.

Neither of these two examples understands the God of the Bible in the least.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul’s first words to the Corinthians address the matter of suffering in a way which corrects our thinking about the problem of pain. Why do bad things happen to God’s people? The apostle Paul explained why a good God uses suffering in the lives of His people.

We must first face the fact that Paul had more than his share of suffering. Blinded on the road to Damascus, homeless and helpless, hated and feared by Christians, rejected by the Pharisees, stoned more than once, jailed, shipwrecked, snake-bitten …. Yeah, Paul hadn’t had the easiest missionary journey. Corinth appeared to be in full revolt against him. Galatia was falling away to another gospel. He had narrowly escaped from the enraged populace of Ephesus with whom he had long been fighting, and at whose mercy he had left his flock in that turbulent city. Under this continued strain of excitement and anxiety, his strength succumbed; he was seized with an attack of sickness which threatened to terminate his life. “[P]ressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life. … We had the sentence of death in ourselves” (I. 8, 9). In chapter 4. he tells of “bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus” and of “the outward man perishing” (verses 10, 16). These and other expressions leave no doubt as to the mental distress and physical prostration of the apostle. He had been at death’s door, his life and work apparently coming to an end, and under circumstances of the most ominous nature. Not just his life, the fate of his mission and of Gentile Christianity hung in the balance. He felt helpless while he lay upon his sick-bed (perhaps at Philippi), not knowing whether Titus or the messenger of death would reach him first.

Paul suffers the entire gamut of afflictions. Many of the afflictions to which Paul referred in 2 Corinthians are not described in the book of Acts. Those recorded by Luke were probably just the “tip of the iceberg” of Paul’s afflictions. He suffered from hunger, thirst, from heat and cold, from physical attacks, from illnesses, from constant threats on his life, and from betrayal and false accusations. His intelligence (or at least his wisdom), his homiletical skills, and his apostolic authority were challenged and sometimes mocked. He was accused of being fickle and failing to fulfill his promises. He was said to be strong in his written words but a wimp in person. And if suffering at the hands of men and nature was not enough, Paul suffered at the hand of Satan (12:7-10). No epistle describes the afflictions of this great apostle more clearly than 2 Corinthians. When Paul spoke about suffering, he spoke from experience.

Paul Praised God for His Suffering

From Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of Godand Timothy our brotherto the church of God that is in Corinth, with all the saints who are all in Achaia. Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! 2 Corinthians 1:1-2

In verses 1 and 2, Paul greeted his readers, reminding them of his apostleship which is by the will of God. He greeted them on his behalf and also on behalf of Timothy who was with him. In 1 Corinthians, Sosthenes was with Paul at the time of his writing. Paul wrote to the Corinthians as well as all those in Achaia, the Roman province in which Corinth was located. In 1 Corinthians, Paul addressed his epistle to the Corinthians and to all other saints in every place (1 Corinthians 1:2). Paul was not limiting his second epistle but rather seems to be instructing the Corinthians indirectly to see to it that this epistle was distributed throughout Achaia. In 1 Corinthians, Paul greeted the Corinthians and whomever else might read the epistle. In 2 Corinthians, Paul greeted the Corinthians in such a way that they will see to it that all the saints in Achaia read his second epistle.

Blessed is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christthe Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles so that we may be able to comfort those experiencing any trouble with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4

Verse 3 begins with the words, “Blessed be …” These words should sound familiar to us, because Paul employs them elsewhere in his epistles. This is a common way for Old Testament believers commensed their worship and praise of God (see Genesis 9:26; 14:20; 24:271 Samuel 25:322 Samuel 22:471 Chronicles 29:10Psalm 41:13; 72:18). While these words may sound strange to us and may be foreign to our worship, they shouldn’t be. The New Testament Christians found the Old Testament expressions of worship appropriate to express their worship. Sometimes we may work so hard at making worship contemporary that we neglect those long-established expressions of worship found in the Bible.

Paul’s praise flows out of his growing love for God, as enhanced by his suffering. How can Paul praise God because of his suffering? The answer to our question can be found in several statements which sum up several reasons God’s people suffer at the hand of a God who is both good and great.

To suffer is divine

You have probably heard it said, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” I believe the Apostle Paul indicated to suffer is both human and divine. Suffering is human because it comes with our humanity. We are fallen creatures living in a fallen world. As a result, there is, and will be, sin and suffering until the kingdom of God is established at the second coming of our Lord (see Romans 8:18-25). Suffering is divine because ultimately it comes to us from the hand of God. We suffer because God has willed us to suffer. Even Joseph’s seemingly innocent suffering at the hands of his jealous brothers was a part of God’s plan, which was for the good of Joseph and his family (see Genesis 50:20). The first step we must take for our suffering to produce blessing (for us and others) is to acknowledge that our suffering has come to us from God (see 1 Peter 4:19). Suffering is divine when it is the suffering of the saints for living righteous lives. (1 Peter 4:14-16).

There are many reasons for suffering, and most of them are not noble. The suffering which pleases God is that suffering which results from living a righteous life in an unrighteous world. God may use all forms of suffering for His glory and for our good, but the kind of suffering for which Christians are commended is righteous suffering (1 Peter 2:12)

Paul specifically identified the suffering of which he spoke as “righteous suffering” because he called it “the sufferings of Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:5). He even informs us that such sufferings will be experienced “in abundance” (verse 5). The suffering and affliction which come to us because we belong to Christ are those sufferings which are righteous, for which we can expect abundant comfort (verse 5).

Since righteous suffering is experiencing “the sufferings of Christ,” we should remind ourselves that, since our Lord was “without sin,” His sufferings were innocent and undeserved (see 1 Peter 2:18-25). His sufferings were also those which the Father willed (see Matthew 26:39) and were thus prophesied in the Old Testament (see Isaiah 52:13–53:12). We must remember that these innocent sufferings of our Lord were the means by which our sins have been forgiven forever (see 1 Peter 2:22-25).

Suffering, even unto death, presents an opportunity for each of us to express and expand our faith in the God who not only ordained our suffering, but who raises the dead.

The kind of suffering Paul described as his personal experience is that which seems certain to lead to death. No one can know for certain what situation Paul faced, but he does inform us that he is certain he will die. One such situation is seen in Acts 14, where Paul was stoned at Lystra (14:8-20). As the crowd began to stone Paul, I very much doubt Paul was thinking to himself, “Oh, well, God will no doubt keep me from dying.” I am sure he thought he would will die. Whatever Paul was describing in our text must have been similar in its certainty of death. Paul’s suffering was not just “unto death”; it was a suffering he believed would lead to a horrible death.

When we watch television, we know when a writer is setting us up so that we not only hope to see the villain die, we hope he or she will die a horrible death. Of the many ways to die, some are much more agonizing than others for the one dying. Paul tells us he is sure he will die, and he believes his death will be one of great torment.

The picture couldn’t have been more bleak for the apostle. Humanly speaking, Paul’s situation was hopeless, which was precisely the way God wanted it to be. In such circumstances, Paul couldn’t trust in himself; he could trust only in God. And since he was certain to die, He must trust in the God who raises the dead. This kind of suffering brought Paul to a point where he and every other Christian must be—the point of trusting not in ourselves but in God who raises the dead.

Suffering as a Christian is God’s means of drawing us into closer communion with Him.

Suffering as Christians enables us to know God as we would not otherwise know Him. If it were not for sin, we could not know the grace of God manifested in the sacrificial death of our Lord Jesus Christ. If it were not for Satan, and for all those who oppose our God, we should not know His omniscience (all-knowing) and omnipotence (all-powerful). If it were not for suffering, we would not know God’s mercy, compassion, and comfort. Suffering is a divinely appointed means of knowing God intimately.

Paul’s language in our text suggests the intimacy with God we may find in the midst of our suffering. Paul spoke of God as “Father.” He was called, “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” and also “the Father of mercies” (verse 3). As the loving “Father” of our Lord Jesus Christ, God sent Him to the cross of Calvary to suffer for our sins in ways we cannot even fathom. God is our “Father,” who comforts us in all our affliction. This He made possible through the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our comfort comes at the highest cost, a cost paid by the Son of God and by the loving Father who sent HimWhat a comfort to know that both our suffering and our comfort come from a loving Father (see Hebrews 12:3-13)

God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is now our Father because of the work of His Son (see John 1:121 Peter 1:17). He is the “Father of mercies,” not “the Father of mercy.” He is the source of all kinds of mercies. More than this, He is ultimately the source of every form of comfort, the “God of all comfort.” As “every good thing … and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father…” (James 1:17), so every manifestation of comfort comes from above as well. He is a merciful Father, the Father of mercies.

Suffering is the occasion where mercy and comfort are most evidently needed, and so it is in suffering that we come to know God as the “Father of mercies.” I think of Asaph, the psalmist and author of Psalm 73. This worship leader was greatly distressed because he perceived (wrongly, in part) that the wicked were prospering while the righteous (as Asaph) were suffering. Then he realized the “prosperity” of the wicked is temporary and tentative at best. In times of suffering, the righteous are comforted by their fellowship with God, and this intimacy lasts for all eternity (Psalm 73:16-28)

Those who experience the sufficiency of God in times of suffering don’t resent their affliction but treasure it as God’s appointed means of drawing men close to Him, the “Father of mercies.” Asaph learned this lesson, as did Job. Peter, who bristled at the mere mention of suffering by our Lord, wrote his first epistle on the subject, telling his readers that those who suffered for Christ’s sake were blessed (1 Peter 4). Paul considered his former status and success as an unbelieving Jewish leader “dung,” but his sufferings in Christ were a precious treasure (Philippians 3:1-16). James instructed us to “Consider it all joy, … when you encounter various trials” (James 1:2). Suffering is intended to draw us near to the heart of God. And so it is with Paul, who in the midst of unbelievable suffering, writes these introductory words to his epistle praising God for His mercies and comfort in the midst of his trials and tribulations.

Suffering is God’s means of equipping us to minister to others.

Suffering as a Christian, experiencing the “sufferings of Christ,” is a source of personal blessing and benefit. But it would be wrong for us to view our sufferings in a selfish way. As our Lord’s sufferings were for our benefit and blessing, our sufferings are intended to be a blessing to others. The comfort which we should experience, the comfort which the “Father of mercies”bestows upon us, is not something we are to hoard but something we are to share. Paul assumes that Christians will all share in the sufferings of Christ (see 2 Timothy 3:12). When we experience Christ’s sufferings and share in God’s comfort, we are being equipped to minister to others who will experience similar afflictions.

For just as the sufferings of Christ overflow toward us, so also our comfort through  Christ overflows to you. But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvationif we are comfortedit is for your comfort that you experience in your patient endurance of the same sufferings that we also suffer. 2 Corinthians 1:5-6

Paul said it as clearly as it can be said. His sufferings were intended for the Corinthians’ comfort. Paul’s comfort (in suffering) was for their comfort. The price Paul and his colleagues (Silvanus and Timothy—1:19) paid, as well as the comfort they received, were for the benefit and blessing of the Corinthians. Suffering for Christ’s sake is sure to bring us comfort from the heavenly Father. This comfort is given from our heavenly Father so that we might share it with others who will endure similar suffering.

If we fail in our suffering, doubting God’s goodness and questioning His infinite wisdom and mercy, then we shall also fail to experience the comfort God has for us. And if we fail to experience God’s comfort, we deprive others of the comfort they should receive through us.

For Asaph to turn away from God would have betrayed those who might follow his example. Just as we may bless others by sharing our comfort with them, so we may harm our brothers by failing to accept God’s hand in our lives and thus fail to gain the comfort He has for us.

A further word must be said concerning the blessing we may be to others by suffering well. I do not understand Paul to say we must suffer exactly the way others suffer in order to share our comfort with them. I believe those who suffer well bless us even more broadly. I notice this in the music we sing. The young contemporary Christian music writer who has never suffered to any degree writes with shallowness compared to someone like Fanny Crosby, who wrote as one who knew suffering through her blindness. Those who suffer well have a depth and maturity beyond their years, which God desires for them to share with others.

Suffering is a bonding experience for believers

And our hope for you is steadfast because we know that as you share in our sufferingsso also you will share in our comfort. For we do not want you to be unawarebrothers and sisters, regarding the affliction that happened to us in the province of Asia, that we were burdened excessivelybeyond our strengthso that we despaired even of living. Indeed we felt as if the sentence of death had been passed against us, so that we would not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead. He delivered us from so great a risk of deathand he will deliver us. 2 Corinthians 7-10

We all know of situations where we have shared some adversity with others, and in so doing, a special bond has developed. Suffering together is a bonding experience. Paul made a point of indicating that we should not, and do not, suffer alone. We share the sufferings of Christ, and we experience the comfort and mercies of our Heavenly Father. But in addition, we are drawn into a closer fellowship with our fellow-believers. The word “fellowship” (Greek, koinonia) means, in effect, “to share in common.” Paul’s suffering and the comfort he gained from God he now shared in common with other sufferers.

Fellowship also works in the opposite direction. When a particular believer is suffering, fellow-believers draw near to share the burden. That particular ministry Paul speaks of is the ministry of prayer.

We have set our hope on him that he will deliver us yet again, as you also join in helping us by prayerso that many people may give thanks to God on our behalf for the gracious gift given to us through the help of many. 2 Corinthians 1:10b-11

The same theme occurs in Philippians 1:19. As Christians join together with the sufferer, interceding for him with God, they enter into a special fellowship. And when those prayers are answered as God purposes, those who have petitioned God may now praise Him for the answers to their prayers. The suffering of one member of the body affects all (1 Corinthians 12:26). And God’s mercy shown to the sufferer becomes an opportunity for all to praise God for the answer, according to the will of God, to their prayers.

How sad when saints become self-absorbed by their suffering, turning inward, and shriveling up as a result. Those who respond rightly to their suffering turn upward (Godward) and outward (toward people in need of comfort and encouragement), and they grow and blossom as a result. Menzies sums up this matter well:

“Of the many solutions given in Scripture of the mystery of pain,” Menzies comments, “this is not the least notable; the sufferer who feels that his sufferings equip him as a missionary of comfort to others will feel that they are well-explained.” (RVG Tasker, The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, p. 41)

Paul’s words to the Corinthians put his sufferings in a whole new light. From 1 Corinthians we know these believers were into success, not suffering. Paul’s suffering was at least two strikes against him. Some no doubt saw his suffering as Job’s friends did—as proof of sin or carnality in Paul’s life (see 2 Corinthians 10:2). They looked down upon Paul for the very things which were a cause of rejoicing for Paul and proof of his apostleship. Paul’s attitude toward suffering should have taken the wind out of the sails of those who pointed to his adversity as proof that his ministry should be disdained and disregarded. Paul’s suffering was his badge of apostleship.

Paul’s words concerning his suffering should call into question a great deal of popular “Christian” teaching today about health, wealth, and prosperity. Many tell us that God wants us to prosper, to have good health, and to have a trouble-free life. They tell us we can have this prosperity if we but have the faith to believe and claim God’s promises. They rebuke us for our lack of faith and blame us for our suffering if we fail to achieve what they promise.

The simple fact is that God didn’t promise believers prosperity and popularity and good times in this life. He promised us adversity, rejection, and suffering because we have trusted in Jesus Christ. As He suffered, we too will suffer. As He was rejected by men, so we will be rejected and persecuted. Those who deny this simply choose to read the Bible selectively and avoid the many texts which tell us to expect hard times. Suffering is an indispensable part of the Christian life, but it is one of the “all things” for which we should give thanks (1 Thessalonians 5:18), because it is included in the “all things” which God will cause to work together for our good and His glory (Romans 8:28).

Suffering for the sake of Christ is not a curse but a blessing, if we respond as Paul did and as many other saints of old have done. Suffering is a stewardship, which we may misuse and misappropriate, or which we may utilize for our good and God’s glory. Suffering draws us closer to God and closer to our brothers and sisters in Christ. Suffering always comes with the promise of divine comfort and thus provides us with the fuel for worship and praise.

The key to seeing suffering as we should is found in the Person and work of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. From the outset of His ministry, Jesus made it clear that contrary to popular belief and teaching, suffering is indeed not a curse, but a blessing (Matthew 5:2-12). Jesus also made it clear that He had come to suffer for sinners so their sins might be forgiven and they might have eternal life (Mark 10:45) . What a difference Jesus brings about regarding our perspective on suffering. The world abhors the thought of suffering and cannot imagine how a loving God can allow it. God uses suffering to teach us how evil sin is and how devastating its consequences. He used the suffering of our Savior to forgive our sins. He continues to employ suffering to draw us closer to Him and to one another. Suffering for Christ’s sake is not an enemy but a friend. Suffering is not something we need to seek, but it is something we should accept, knowing it comes from God (Philippians 3:8, 10).

One last thing must be said before concluding this lesson. This lesson is directed toward believers in Jesus Christ, just as this passage is written to true believers. God’s people are those who have trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation (Romans 8:28-30). I dare not overlook the very likely possibility that you may be reading this message as an unbeliever. You may know about God. You may even believe in God and pray to Him at times. A true believer goes beyond this. A true believer is one who understands that he is a sinner, who deserves God’s eternal wrath, and whose good works will never be sufficient to gain him or her entrance into the kingdom of God or to obtain God’s favor (Romans 3:9-20; 6:231 John 1:8-10). A true believer understands that while there is no way man can ever earn eternal salvation, there is but one way which God has provided whereby we can be saved, and that is by faith in the sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord, by which our sins are punished in Christ, and God’s righteousness in Christ is given to us (John 1:12; 3:16, 36; 14:6Romans 3:21-26; 10:9-102 Corinthians 5:17-211 John 5:11-12). The true believer knows these things and casts his entire trust on Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of his sins and the assurance of eternal life.

While it is not the point of our text in 2 Corinthians, it is nonetheless true that, often by means of suffering, God draws the unbeliever to Himself. If any unbeliever who is suffering asks the question, “Why me?” the answer is simple: “We deserve it.” Human beings deserve none of God’s blessings and the worst punishment we can imagine. But it is also often true that God graciously brings suffering into the life of the non-Christian as a means of drawing him or her to faith in Christ. All through the Gospels, we see the sick and the suffering coming to Christ for healing and deliverance. Many of those whom our Lord healed also came to faith in Him as their Savior. Suffering is a way of reminding us of the reality of sin and its consequences, of pointing out that we live in a world which suffers as a result of sin (see Romans 8:18-25). If your suffering has brought you to the point of acknowledging that you are helpless, and that your only hope is God, you are well on your way. Your sufferings will either harden you toward God, or they will soften you, turning you toward Him.

Give & Go   Leave a comment

Paul’s Plans to Visit

Some people who just skip this last chapter of 1 Corinthians because it really isn’t very theological, but I find Paul imparted a lot of wisdom in his farewells. And, I’m systematic, so I prefer not to leave things out, which is what some of us would prefer to do with the first subject in Chapter 16.

With regard to the collection for the saintsplease follow the directions that I gave to the churches of Galatia: On the first day of the weekeach of you should set aside some income and save it to the extent that God has blessed you, so that a collection will not have to be made when I come. Thenwhen I arriveI will send those whom you approve with letters of explanation to carry your gift to JerusalemAnd if it seems advisable that I should go alsothey will go with me. 1 Corinthians 16:1-4

Give to the Lord’s Work

Related imagePaul had a practical philosophy of giving to the church, providing six guidelines as to how we should give. Before we look at these biblical guidelines, you must accept the Bible’s premise that you and I don’t own anything. Our home, cars, possessions, and money all belong to the Lord. We are merely stewards of the resources that God has entrusted to us. If you accept this premise, you probably won’t object to what I’m going to teach here.

Guideline #1:

Biblical giving is not optional but mandatory. The word translated “direction” is a strong word that is frequently translated “command” or “order.” Paul wrote with apostolic authority, calling for the church in Corinth to do what he had already directed the Galatian churches to do. Generous financial giving is one of the key characteristics of a mature Christian. This ties in rather nicely with the previous verse (15:58), where Paul commands the Corinthians to be “always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.” It’s like he’s saying, “Speaking of giving yourselves fully, let’s talk about financial giving.”

Guideline #2:

Biblical giving starts with meeting the basic needs of believers. 

Typically, when a pastor preaches a message on money, it’s in order to generate pledges for the annual budget, buy land, or build a new building. Such matters concern most congregations at some point in their church history. But that is not where biblical giving begins. It begins with a heart that cares about the basic needs of other Christians for food, shelter, and clothing. That’s what the collection here in 1 Corinthians 16 is all about—sending a gift to Jerusalem so the believers there can survive. Their financial plight was due to famine, persecution, and economic sanctions against them, making it difficult for new converts to hold anything but the most menial jobs.

The above guideline indicates that we who are wealthy (every American, from a world perspective) have an obligation to help poverty-stricken believers as well as the persecuted church in foreign lands. Such support should never be treated as optional. Instead, the needs of our brothers and sisters in Christ should be an essential part of our financial giving. This Christmas, what will you give to brothers and sisters in Christ who are less fortunate? When you think about giving to others, think about all God has given you. This ought to compel you to give generously to those who are less fortunate.

Guideline #3:

Biblical giving is the believer’s #1 financial priority. 

Many Christians don’t give at all, and often those who do give do so sporadically. They might give two months in a row, skip three months, give one, and skip two more. Some people don’t give when they are on vacation, sick at home, or snowed in. Some don’t give if they miss the offering plate. Imagine standing before the Lord and explaining why you disobeyed His command to give. Do you think He’d be impressed if you explained that you just kept forgetting to write the check? We don’t think that way about anything else. If our mortgage comes due when we’re on vacation, we don’t not pay it because we’ll lose our house. The wise among us pay our house note before we go on our vacation. Why don’t we take what God is owed as seriously?

Today, you may need to reevaluate your financial giving. God’s Word is clear from cover-to-cover, we are to give to the Lord first, not last. This implies that giving to the Lord’s work should take place before other obligations are met. Every once in a while I hear someone say, “Well, I had to take a pass on giving for a couple of months because we had some unexpected medical expenses, house expenses, etc.” I don’t think Paul would buy that. If we would give the first part of our paycheck, then maybe we wouldn’t get into those tight spots in the first place. That’s the point of the Old Testament prophet, Haggai, who told the poverty-stricken Israelites that God was putting holes in their pockets because their financial priorities were amiss. Giving should come before bill paying, before pursuing hobbies, before eating out, even before repaying debt. And, if you consistently cannot afford to give God’s tithe, then you seriously need to look at your debts and income. People who pay off credit cards and don’t use debt often have a lot more money to give.

Guideline #4:

Biblical giving is every believer’s responsibility.

Ever get stuck by a word’s base meaning? Writer, right? Responsiblity = your ability to respond. This topic is about your response to God.

It’s an individual response. “Each one of you is to put aside and save ….” Notice that Paul didn’t excuse the poor, the slaves, the pastors, or the large family with three kids in college. Giving is every believer’s privilege and responsibility. We are all to be involved in giving regularly, whether we have a lot of money or we’re impoverished, whether we’re children or the most senior adult.

Unfortunately, many of us have erroneously assumed that if we don’t have a lot of money or are in debt, we don’t have to give. Nothing could be further from the truth! The greatest examples in Scripture of sacrificial giving come from those who are in the midst of poverty and persecution. God wants and expects us to give in spite of our circumstances or lack of wealth. The Lord will honor even a meager attempt to prioritize giving.

Guideline #5:

Biblical giving should be proportionate. 

Paul wrote a believer’s giving should be “save it to the extent that God has blessed you.” In other words, the more we are blessed, the more we should give. There are two ways one can approach this matter. If you are giving a set percentage of your income, let’s say 10%, as your income rises your giving will automatically rise proportionately. But a more generous approach to proportionate giving is to increase the percentage of your giving as your income increases. In the case of a substantial raise, you will still be left with more than you had before the promotion. The issue is: where does your heart lie?

The New Testament does not require flat 10% giving. The tithe was an income tax system in the Old Testament. There were three tithes—two tithes per year for two years and on the third year an additional tithe of 10%, making it 30% for that year. The tithes for the third year were for the poor. It worked out to 231/3 % of income over a three-year period. Yeah, most people in America could not manage that since we already have the government in our pockets for 15-40% of our incomes. Then, additionally, we are supposed to give “offerings.” Israelites gave both tithes and offerings. All this was done for the national entity of Israel. A national entity needs an income tax system, so that was the purpose of the tithe. The New Testament does not command tithes for the church. The idea for the church is an offering of proportional giving or as God has blessed the believer financially. There is no percentage in this system of giving.

My personal conviction is 10% of one’s income is a good guideline – a target to hit – for most people. Some people who are poor or deeply in debt may need to build up gradually  to 10% as they retire debt or their income increases. That’s fine. Giving is ultimately a matter between the individual believer and God. Don’t assume you’re violating God’s command if you truly don’t have 10% to give, but don’t think you’re doing just fine if you’re giving 10% when you’re really wealthy. I would suggest that the vast majority of American Christians, if we avoided credit card debt and bought houses and cars we can actually afford, can and should give more than 10% of our income to the Lord. Sadly though, many Christians are more concerned with their standard of living than their standard of giving. For many of us, prosperity has become a greater test of character than poverty.

When it comes to giving, ask two questions:

  • How has God prospered you?
  • To what degree do you want to express your gratitude to Him for all that He has given you?

Guideline #6:

Biblical giving should not be motivated by pressure. 

Looking again at 16:2 we see that the apostle was asking that the collection be made each week so that there didn’t have to be a fund drive when he arrived. He was in Ephesus as he wrote this letter, and he had plans to travel to visit Corinth in the future. He knew that his credibility and charisma were such that he could generate a huge offering with his personal presence, but he didn’t want them to give under that kind of pressure.

Pressure, of course, works. Countless churches and ministries have funded vast building projects through high-pressure fund-raising efforts. Just because it works, doesn’t mean it’s right and Paul seems to have understood that.

In addition to the above six guidelines, there is a concluding principle that has more to do with how offerings are handled than with how they are given.

Biblical givers have a right to expect integrity and accountability from those they give to. 

Verses 3-4 explain that it is the responsibility of every congregation to entrust its funds into the hands of trustworthy members. Paul didn’t say, “Give your money to me and I will handle it for you.” Instead he urged the church to choose their own representatives to disburse the gifts. Obviously, integrity matters. Churches and Christian charities should have the highest level of financial accountability observable in society.

I challenge you to either continue or begin giving generously and cheerfully. Not only does gracious giving please the Lord, but there are also legitimate personal blessings involved.

But I will come to you after I have gone through Macedonia – for I will be going through Macedonia  and perhaps I will stay with youor even spend the winterso that you can send me on my journeywherever I go. For I do not want to see you now in passingsince I hope to spend some time with youif the Lord allows. But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, because a door of great opportunity stands wide open for me, but there are many opponents.

Now if Timothy comessee that he has nothing to fear among youfor he is doing the Lord’s workas I am too. So thenlet no one treat him with contemptBut send him on his way in peace so that he may come to meFor I am expecting him with the brothers.

With regard to our brother Apollos: I strongly encouraged him to visit you with the other brothers, but it was simply not his intention to come now. He will come when he has the opportunity. 1 Corinthians 16:5-12

Go to the Lord’s People

Image result for image of christian missionariesThese verses explain how Paul and his ministry partners were willing to go to minister to believers and unbelievers alike. There are at least five observations worth making from these eight verses. First, Paul had plans and goals to share the gospel with unbelievers and build up the churches. He had a schedule mapped out. He didn’t just trust God and sit on his hands. He took initiative and moved forward with holy ambition.

Do you have a plan to share Christ and build up His body? If not, why not? Today, make a promise to yourself and God to share the gospel, write down the names of three unbelievers and three believers, and develop a plan to share Christ with those individuals.

Second, Paul submitted his plans and goals to Christ. Words and phrases like “perhaps,” “wherever I may go,” and “I hope to remain with you for some time, if the Lord permits” reveal Paul’s sensitivity to the Holy Spirit. Although he had plans and goals that he wanted to accomplish, he was always striving to make sure that he was doing what God wanted him to do.

Are you willing to relocate and change jobs if God calls you to? Would you be willing to take on a new ministry? God longs for willing hearts.

Third, God eventually opens a door of ministry for faithful believers. Admittedly, sometimes it takes many years but God has a way of blessing our meager efforts. Paul wrote “for a wide door for effective service has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.” This “open door” in Ephesus brought great evangelistic fruit. However, with the fruit there were many adversaries. This is to be expected. Where there is light there are bugs. When God pours out His blessing, Satan sends adversaries to destroy God’s work. Those involved in ministry of any sort should expect opposition. It is important to recognize “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:13).

Fourth, Paul valued ministry partners. In this section, he spent considerable ink talking about Timothy and Apollos. In the passage that follows he will mention five more valuable coworkers. Paul recognized how important other ministry leaders were to his ministry and to God’s kingdom. God uses teammates (brothers and sisters) to help us to accomplish His purposes for our lives. More importantly, He uses the purposes He works in us to accomplish His kingdom agenda in the world. Have you expressed gratitude to God for all that He has accomplished in your life? Have you said “thank you” to your Christian teammates?

Going requires more of us than giving and that should be acknowledged. It’s hard with jobs and children and life to pick up and go to Africa or South America – but let’s be honest, the early Christians did much of their ministering right where they were – in the marketplace, mending tents, as they interacted with the people around them. Do you do ministry at work, the grocery store, on your Facebook page? Are you willing to?

We’re part of God’s work team if we’re willing to let Him guide us in the plans He has designed for us. Today, will you commit yourself to fulfilling God’s plans for your life? Will you submit yourself to Him in the areas of giving and going?

The Struggle   1 comment

Romans 7:14-23 is unique in the New Testament and in Paul’s writing in that it contains a series of laments–desperate, repetitious cries of a distressed soul in great conflict. Each lament follows the same pattern. Paul first describes his condition, then gives proof of it, and then explains the source of the problem.

Lament #1

For we know that the Law is spiritual; but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For that which I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not wish to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that it is good. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which indwells me (Romans 7:14-17).

The “for” at the beginning tells us Paul isn’t introducing a new subject. Romans is a letter, written from Paul to the church in Rome. It is not a series of verses or passages that can be broken out into separate topics. One passage flows into another. Paul here continues to answer the hypothetical accusation in verse 7 that his preaching salvation by grace through faith apart from the law implies that the law is evil. He states to the contrary that “the Law is spiritual,” meaning that it comes from the Spirit of God and is a reflection of His holy, just, and good nature (cf. v. 12).

“The Law is not evil. It is spiritual.”

Although Paul delights in God’s law, he confesses there’s a barrier that prevents him from always obeying it — his carnal, fleshly nature. He doesn’t say he was in the flesh or controlled by the flesh. Romans 8:8-9 says to its Christian audience, “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. However, you are not in the flesh.” The phrase “in the flesh” refers to an unregenerate condition. These people are not Christians.

Although Christians are not in the flesh, the flesh is still in us. We are no longer held captive to it, but we can still act fleshly or carnal. In 1 Corinthians 3 Paul says, “I, brethren, could not speak unto you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to babes in Christ…for you are still fleshly.For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men?” (verses. 1, 3). He reproved the Corinthian Christians for acting in a fleshly or non-Christian way.

Here in Romans 7 Paul says, ” For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh … with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin ” (verses 18, 25). He admits that the flesh is still present.

Flesh is simply a term for our humanness.

Any Christian could make the statement in verse 14. Saying you’re carnal is the same as saying you’re a sinner. For example, when I am angry, insensitive, or don’t pursue God as diligently as I desire, I see my humanness getting in the way of accomplishing all I ought to do.

Paul states in verse 14 that he is “sold into bondage to sin.” Verse 23 gives us a similar statement: ” I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind, and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members.” How can that be if Christians have been delivered from sin? It pays to look at the Greek, which I did and then confirmed with a friend who actually knows the Greek. The phrase “sold into bondage to sin” is literally translated “having been sold under the sin.” That refers to the product of the Fall of man, not to individual sins committed.

Being “sold into bondage to sin” doesn’t mean Paul actively committed himself to sinning. It means he recognized that in this life we as believers will constantly have to battle sin because of our human nature, which is always tainted by the sin of the Fall..

Can Paul’s lament of being sold under sin come from a true believer? In Psalm 51:5 David (a man after Gods own heart) says, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” That sounds like a man who had never been redeemed, but David was simply looking at one reality about himself. His lament is similar to Isaiah’s upon seeing a vision of God: “Woe is me , for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips ” (Isaiah 6:5). All the prophet could see against the glorious holiness of God was his own sin.

Paul put all our experiences with sin into words in Romans 7:14-25. We all know there is sin in our lives even though it shouldn’t be there. Although sin is not the product of our new self, we’re still bound to some degree by the body we dwell in. Verse 14 could be paraphrased, “The law is spiritual, but I am unspiritual, experiencing a bondage to sin at times.”

What If Characterr Went ViralSelf-righteous people deceive themselves into thinking they are inherently moral, but verse 15 shows that a Christian led by the Spirit will not think that way. He sees the proof of indwelling sin. Paul’s failure to do what he desired and his doing what he hated reflects a profound inner turmoil. His will was frustrated by his sinful flesh. It’s not that evil won all the time, but that he was frustrated in his attempt to perfectly obey God on occasion and far more often than he wanted.

This is part of an ongoing series “What if Character Went Viral”.

Don’t Avoid the Conflict   4 comments

In Romans 7:14-25 Paul the apostle wrote a poignant description of a soul in conflict with himself.

For we know that the Law is spiritual; but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.For that which I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not wish to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that it is good. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which indwells me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the wishing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the goodthat I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish. But if I am doing the very thing I do not wish, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wishes to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind, and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.

Paul loved God’s moral law and wanted to obey it, but felt pulled away from doing so by the sin that was in him.

The scholars and many Christians are conflicted about this — Is Paul talking about a Christian (perhaps even himself) or a non-Christian? Can Christians feel such bondage to sin? Do non-Christians often express such a desire to do good? It’s a conundrum. Christians cannot be bound by sin, but non-Christians don’t desire to keep the law of God.

Paul wrote “I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin” (verse 14) and “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is in my flesh; I want to do good, but I cannot do it” (verse 18). Those who believe this passage speaks of a non-Christian say that Christians know how to do what is good in God’s eyes and they see an obvious lack of the Holy Spirit’s power in this passage.

Verse 24 “Wretched man that I am!” does seem distant from the promise of Romans 5:1-2 of “Having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” Romans 6 has many examples of the believer’s freedom from sin’s power. How can the person who said all that turn around and say “I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin?”

Paul did a marvelous job of capturing the messiness that is grace. Chapter 6 emphasize the new creation, nature, and identify in Christ. Now redeemed, the believer has broken sin’s dominion. Chapter 7 shows the other side of the Christian life.

Honestly, every Chrisitan knows from experience that though she is a new creature in Christ, sin is still a problem. Chapter 6 even points out the conflict in verses 12-13: “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts.” Because it is still possible for Christians to yield to sin, we are commanded not to.

Arguing that chapter 7 cannot refer to a Christian because of statements in Chapter 6 is to misunderstand the entire gospel as presented in the letter to the Romans.

We are saved through grace by faith, not from anything that we have or will do, so that we have no cause to boast of our accomplishments. But Jesus isn’t done with us after that. We don’t get our “fire insurance” and go on upon our merry way setting fire to the world with our sin. Faith without works is indeed death because it is a mental and verbal assent that returns no fruit.

Romans 8:7 explains that the unregenerate person (the non-Christian) is not subject to the law of God. You didn’t consent. You don’t have to comply. Christians, however, did consent and we owe God the respect of our compliance with His laws. Paul proclaimed that he joyfully concurred with the law of God in his inner man (verse 7:22), but he struggles with his desire to do right because his flesh is weak.

Ah, a carnal  Christian! the gossips among us pounce. Surely it couldn’t be a Spirit-filled missionary to the European continent! It must be someone with a low level of spirituality who is trying in his own strength to keep the law.

Poppycock!

My own experience is that the more spiritual or mature a believer is, the greater his sensitivity to his shortcomings are. An immature Christian doesn’t have such an honest self­ perception. The legalist is under the illusion that he is very spiritual. I believe Paul was describing himself, which should certainly explain the extensive use of the personal pronoun “I.”

What If Characterr Went ViralWas Paul describing his struggles before he was saved? Really? No! Paul was persecuting Christians before the bright light on the road. There’s no evidence he struggled with his conscious or with righteous living at the time. Besides, it is the mature Christian who possesses an honest self-evaluation, which Paul often exhibited (1 Corinthians 15:9-10Ephesians 3:8). Paul was very precise in his language in Romans 7. He states that he hates committing sin (v. 15), that he loves righteousness (vv. 19, 21), that he delights in the law of God from the bottom of his heart (v. 22), and that he thanks God for the deliverance that is his in Christ (v. 25). Those are the responses of a mature Christian.

The change in verb tenses is a clue that this passage applies to a Christian. The verbs in Romans 7:7-13 are in the past tense. They refer to Paul’s life before his conversion and the process of conviction he experienced when he stood face-to-face with the law of God. However in verses 14-25, where we see the battle with sin taking place, they are in the present tense.

Romans 7:14-25 is Paul’s own testimony of the struggle between living as a Spirit-controlled, mature believer who loves the holy law of God with his whole heart, but finds himself wrapped in human flesh and unable to fulfill it the way his heart desires.

This is part of a series What if Character Went Viral?

Let the Dead Bury the Dead   Leave a comment

One day Jesus invited a man to follow Him and become His disciple—but the man refused. He said he would follow Jesus later, but first he wanted to go bury his father. Jesus responded, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead” (Matthew 8:22).

What did Jesus mean by that?

It brings up a rather ludicrous image of zombies burying dead people, if I approach it completely with my rational, human mind. That wouldn’t make sense, of course. We all know that the physically dead don’t do much, let alone bury others who are also dead. So, Jesus must have been talking about something else.

If you accept that Jesus is God (which is a prerequisite for being a Christian), it’s pretty easy to figure out what Jesus meant in this statement. He was talking about the spiritually dead — those who are alive physically, but unregenerated at the spiritual level and therefore, not alive unto Christ, but dead toward God in their souls. We can be strong and virile physically and still be spiritually dead, which is a much more serious condition than on death’s door.

There are those who might think Jesus was incredibly harsh to this man, but that’s because they (or we) do not understand what the man was really saying to Jesus. In 1st century Jewish life, to say “I want to go bury my father” did not necessarily mean Papa had ceased to breathe. It meant that they wanted to stay with their father until he died. That could be years away. This man was simply excusing his avoidance of becoming Jesus’ disciple.

Christians. we all have some dead man still clinging to our boots as we try to follow Jesus. We all have excuses for hanging back. I don’t want to insult the people I know who are not Christians, so I’ll not say what I know to be true about the sin they are living in. That’s my dead man, btw. I’m a lot bolder here than I am in my personal life when I might hurt someone I care about.

And, no, I am not calling for laws to legislate morality. Get over that, Church! It’s not our world any longer! I suspect we’ve done great harm to the cause of Christ by fighting to force others into our mold.

STOP!

Listen!

I am call for honesty with the world and Christians living the way we know God wants us to live. Yeah, that puts us at odds with the world around us and that will be uncomfortable. The world is becoming more secular and less moral everyday and very comfortable with redefining morality to its own design. The clarion call of society is “Christians, change with the times.”

But Jesus’ call to us hasn’t changed. “If anyone wants to come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)

Anything less is hanging back making an excuse for not following Him!

Compromise is Everywhere   Leave a comment

In recent decades we’ve witnessed many evangelical Christian churches, organizations and ministries gradually dilute the word of God in order to facility a more “seeker-friendly” conception of Christianity. There is a fine line between holding the truth of the Gospel and reaching out to others on their territory with the Gospel message.

Christians should be genuinely concerned that the modern church feels the  need to dilute the word of God in order to appear culturally relevant at the risk of promoting humanistic philosophy over Biblical authenicity.

Humanistic philosophy promotes artificial doctrines like self-achievement and life fulfillment.

Biblical authenicity promotes obeying all that Jesus commanded.

Seeker Christianity takes many forms, but largely it has become less about Biblical substance and commitment and more about a culture of “self”. Young people growing up within the church today are developing a heavy reliance on the social aspects of church rather than on the core teachings of Jesus.

This is not a new trend, by any means. There are always been churches that catered more to social “churchianity” rather than Biblical Christianity. But the trend, I think, has increased and it is becoming more prevelant within churches and denominations that strenuously avoided the social church model in past generations.

Gary Gilly wrote in The Little Church Went to Market that the “new paradigm church” has a profound fixation on church growth and expansion. Gilly, pastor of Southern View Chapel in Springfield Illinois, noted this church growth movement relies heavily on cultural influences such as market-driven philosophies, psychology and entertainment to produce seemingly successful church and dynamic Christians.

Let’s be clear at the outset. There’s nothing wrong with church growth or mega churches per se. I applaud churches with ministries that bring young adults into the church. I question the current preoccupation with amusing message and superficial praise over Biblical instruction and true worship in an attempt to market the church to young adults.

“Many Christians have the misconception that to win the world to Christ, we must first win the world’s favour. If we can get the world to like us, they will embrace our Saviour. This is the philosophy behind the user-friendly church movement.” John F. MacArther (Reckless Faith)

The philosophy behind “user-friendly” and ‘seeker-sensitive” programs is having a profoundly negative affect upon many churches because a vast number of American Christians are simply not getting the foundation of Christian teaching that past generations considered essential.

Stick with me as I explore the areas we are being told to compromise and show where that might be a really bad thing.

 

 

Christian Hope?   Leave a comment

It doesn’t take a lot of research to realize that membership in Christian churches is declining. Why?

Well, the answer to that might take a bit more research.

There are those who will say that evangelical Christianity is just too strict. If we’d ease up on certain Biblical teaching, or better yet, convince everybody that those teachings no longer apply, we’d see people coming back to the church. Is that true?

Hmm?

Did you ever read The Damnation of Theron Ware? Published in England under the title of Illumination it was written in 1986 by American author Harold Frederic. Most common readers haven’t heard of it, but it is widely considered an American literary classic by scholars and critics. Thus I was forced to read it in college.

Some classics deserve the title because they were well-written. I found the plot of Damnation to be manipulative and the characters wooden and one dimensional. There was a sense that the book was written to convince people of the author’s POV rather than to write an exceptional novel. It is a “classic” because that POV appeals to academics who agree with the politics that motivated the book in the first place.

The novel centers on the life of a Methodist pastor (Theron Ware, of course) who has recently moved to a fictional small town in upstate New York. Recently married, Ware has had a number of experiences that cause him to question the Methodist religion, his role as a minister and even the existence of God. His “enlightenment” is encouraged through his dealings with Father Forbes (the town’s Catholic priest), Dr. Ledsmar (a local atheist, philosopher and man of science), and Celia Madden (a local Irish Catholic girl with whom he becomes infatuated). By the end, these three intellectually “advanced” characters find Theron a bore and a philanderer and their rejection leads him to go on a binge. He’s rescued by Brother and Sister Soulsby, practical fundraisers for Methodist congregations who pragmatically send Ware and his wife off to far-flung Washington where perhaps he’ll become a politician.

At the start of the book, Ware is already in debt and has a history of financial mismanagement of a prior church. He doesn’t take kindly to the trustees of his new church telling him how to conduct the ministry. He encounters Father Forbes, the local Catholic priest, and sees his first Catholic rite. He’s intrigued. Over time, he becomes quite infatuated with both the Catholic and atheist ways of thinking and with Celia, the organist for the Catholic church. He finds them all more intelligent and more faithful than he or his fellow Methodists. When he attends a Catholic picnic, they are drinking beer. Theron partakes as Father Forbes explains that their religions really aren’t that different, how one day there will be a single “Church of America” and it will look a lot like the Catholic church.   Ware doubts there will be any church at all because mankind is moving toward an age of science, but Forbes insists that religion is needed for culture. Ware counters that if this is so, he doubts the Catholic church will win out because of its incredibly rigid doctrines. He suggests the Universal Unitarians or the Episcopalians are bland enough to appeal to everybody. Forbes asserts that the Catholic church will win because it compromises while practicing the art of not seeming to compromise. When called on its compromise, it refuses to acknowledge that such as occurred. It only takes a generation for people to forget what used to be rock solid doctrine, so the soft compromise works very well for the Catholic church.

So why am I talking about a scene in an obscure 19th century novel nobody has read?

Because many people today are channeling Father Forbes while encouraging evangelical congregations to compromise. If we want to grow instead of shrink we should …. If the church is really a necessity in culture, we must …

COMPROMISE!

Posted September 8, 2014 by aurorawatcherak in Christianity

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Christian Discipleship   Leave a comment

That word “discipleship” is much on my mind these days. What does it mean? Are Christians simply saved when we say we believe in God and given a free pass to heaven with nothing further required or are we expected to conform ourselves to Christ’s image?

Depending on what church you become a Christian in, you may get either answer or something in between. Many emerging churches today teach an easy believism whereby if you feel good about your relationship with God, you’re good enough for Him.

I think that’s crap, honestly. There is more to it than that and if you don’t know it, you’ll miss out on salvation altogether.

Discipleship is the process of the Holy Spirit drawing Christians deeper into the life of the Trinity. It is a whole life response of Christians to Jesus Christ. Everything a Christian believes and does is an aspect of discipleship and the goal of discipleship is to grow ever more Christ-like in every aspect of life.

Christians sometimes distinguish between coming to faith and the process of maturing in the faith (discipleship). We use ‘discipleship’ mainly in this narrower sense to differentiate it from ‘evangelism, which encourages to the faith. The Bible doesn’t really make that distinction. Discipleship is the entire process by which people become more like Christ. Often the point where ‘evangelism’ ends and ‘discipleship’ begins is blurred.

Discipleship is a journey that starts before conversion. The Spirit was active in a person’s life before they came to faith – what theologians call ‘prevenient grace’. Effective discipleship listens to what the Spirit has already been doing in an individual’s life and builds on it. For me, I see that God occasionally put Christians, or books, or circumstances in my life all through my childhood before I encountered The God Who Is There in a trapper’s cabin in the Alaska wilderness. Now, that was a clear Holy Spirit moment — that I would be stuck at a remote cabin by freaky weather and the only book available to read that remotely looked interesting was a book that had only been published maybe six months before — the odds … I’m not that good of a mathematician, but high.

For other Christians, the first bread crumb was something different. My husband was drunk off his butt in a Houston apartment complex and a neighbor witnessed to him. It didn’t take until he got to Alaska and fell in with Christians, but he remembers distinctly that the neighbor prayed for God to follow him and speak to him when he was ready to hear it. My cousin the biologist listened to his roommate’s dad (a pastor) one time and then weeks later, in a biology lab on the cell, had God speak to him so clearly that he had to call that pastor and accept the Lord that very afternoon. Others, like my cousin the research doctor, take years of just gradually moving toward salvation before they accept Christ personally.

Modern churches often offer classes that are meant to drawn in the unsaved and unchurched Debt management, parenting, a food bank field, even a lady’s quilting club can all allow Christians and non-Christians an opportunity to interact and provide Christians an opportunity to show how a relationship with Jesus Christ might help with debt management, parenting, or hunger. I don’t know that God really has any quilting advice, but the ladies at my church produce some lovely quilts that they give to charity. It’s also given them many opportunities to share their faith with quilters who don’t know Christ.

Often the church tends to think of discipleship as something for young converts. A kid walks an aisle and we direct them into a “discipleship course”, but really, discipleship is a lifelong process that involves having your character formed by the Spirit. It is a response to God as you live in fellowship with other Christians, whereby you allow your entire personality to be shaped by Jesus. Increasingly, your character should reveal more of Christ. Such character develops by:

  • living ‘in Christ’, as the Spirit forms us through Scripture and the influence of fellow Christians;
  • becoming like Jesus in our attitudes and behavior;
  • growing in the fruit of the Spirit;
  • learning and living kingdom values, as we support God’s mission to the world;
  • discerning where the Spirit is at work in contemporary culture and where culture is a block to the Spirit;
  • dying to self so as increasingly to live a Spirit-filled life.

Discipleship is an individual journey. You must ask yourself ‘What does it mean for me to become more like Jesus?’ But it is also a church journey. The church (local congregation) should be asking itself ‘What can we do to help people become more Christ-like?’  Either way, it is a journey that is never complete. Whether you’re eight and just accepted the Lord two days ago or 80 and have known Jesus for 70 years, you should still be growing, still striving to be more Christ-like. There’s man in our church in his late-70s who recently made the statement that God had taught himself new that week. He’s been a Christian since he was nine, but he hasn’t stopped growing. Followers of Christ never stop being disciples. It is a task for life.

As they keep travelling towards God and become more Christ-like in the process, individuals will be at different stages of the journey. Some will have just entered the faith; others may have been travelling for a number of years.

In today’s church, the task of discipleship gets short shrift. We’re focused on other things — sometimes on evangelism and salvation, but for some churches it is all about the numbers. A friend of mine just quit the largest evangelical (and non-denominational) church in town because she’s been attending a year and nobody has asked her if she’s saved. She is, but that nobody would care if she is sort of freaks her out.

Jesus told His followers to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19-20). This was to involve bringing people to baptism and teaching them to follow Jesus. He didn’t tell us to build massive edifices to our own egos and pack the pews. Marie discovered the challenge of emerging churches. With all their vitality and commitment to bring people in the doors, they sometimes fail to become communities that produce Christian disciples. When they do that, they fail at the deepest level to be true churches.

The Church of Christ (and the individual congregations that compose it) should never be a social club. Our calling is not to increase the number of attenders, notch up converts on an evangelistic score card or recruit more people to pay the church bills. Our calling is to make more disciples who can live out their faith in every aspect of their lives.

Discipleship Rewarded   Leave a comment

The requirement of discipleship is so demanding that we really shouldn’t be shocked that so few choose the path of following Christ. I was recently accused of worshipping a very different God from some other Christians. My response was that I wouldn’t soft-soap the truth. Discipleship is the mark of a true Christian and discipleship costs.

That said, the rewards of discipleship make its requirements look easy.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

The Scriptures state clearly that we are the slaves of whatever controls us (Romans 6:16). Some are slaves to the body and its appetites. Other submit to a religious system, like the Jews of Jesus’ times. Ultimately, if we are not the servants of Christ, we are the slaves of sin and Satan, who is the ultimate cruel taskmaster.

Jesus is gentle and humble. To be His disciple is joy, not a dreary task of drudgery, but a delight. While the Pharisees and scribes ruled in pride and arrogance, Jesus gave His life for His sheep. Though the path to follow Him leads over rough roads, we have a gentle and skillful guide.

Jesus never requires more of us than He has enabled us to do. I’ve had my own doubts going into trials, but looking back, He was always there with me. The works-based crowd sets a lot of standards too, but they frequently aren’t around to help you bear the burden. Jesus is, every moment of every day. This is the crucial difference.

It is only to His disciples that Jesus reveals His innermost thoughts and most intimate secrets. Look at Scripture. While Jesus spoke plainly to His disciples about His purposes, these were carefully couched to the masses. “So with many parables like these, he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear. He did not speak to them with a parable. But privately he explained everything to His own disciples.” (Mark 4:33-34) His disciples asked why and he explained “The secret of the kindom of God has been given to you. But to those outside, everything is in parables.” (Mark 4:11) Discipleship brings us into a level of intimacy with Jesus that others cannot experience.

Our rewards for discipleship are not based on our actions, but on our motive. God didn’t save us on the basis of our potential contribution to His cause. He chooses the foolish things of this world (1 Corinthians 1:26-31), based on His own criteria of worth:

“Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.  Whoever receives a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. Whoever receives a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple, I tell you the truth, he will never lose his reward.” Matthrew 10:40-42

Our rewards are not based on the worldly value of our service, but on the sincerity of our motives – on our reason for service and not the response to our service. If we are obedient to our Lord and live so as to please Him, we shall have a reward.

Jesus is our great reward. If we seek to be followers of Him only for the fringe benefits, we fail to recognize the true benefit of a relationship with Him. He is our reward. The cost of discipleship is nothing compared to the riches of relationship with Him.

There is nothing Jesus denies His followers that is not for our ultimate good. If He takes something away, it is more than compensated by what He replaces it with. Like Eve in the garden, we can come to believe that God is withholding good from us. Eve is a cautionary tale. God always gives us good (Psalms 84:11; 34-10). If we have to give something up to be His follower, we can be assured that He will replace it with something better.

Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, there is no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive in this age a hundred times as much – homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, fields, all with persecutions  – and in the age to come, eternal life.

God spoke here in the flesh, saying that He only withholds from us that which is not for our good. We may never know what pain we missed out on because we followed Him instead of the world’s idea of “good”.

We should never misrepresent the demands of discipleship. Many who discover what is involved in following Jesus decide not to do it. Yet, when we consider the rewards and the alternatives to discipleship, those of us who have done it already know that there is no other, better or easier way than His way.

I know Sunday Christians who walked an aisle and then live as far from Jesus in their daily lives as possible. They hope they can enjoy the blessings of heaven in the future while soaking in the pleasures of sin in the present. They have their “fire insurance”, they suppose. If there’s no evidence for discipleship, there’s no evidence for renewal … which is not to say that Christians don’t stumble on occasion or that they lose their salvation when they do. We didn’t become saved from any effort on our own part. Why would we suppose we could become unsaved through our own behavior? Salvation is a gift from God, not of ourselves so we cannot boast that we earned it.

Count the Costs   Leave a comment

So, here I go calling for the universal church to turn toward discipleship and now I’m going to say “Count the cost!”

Most people don’t. American Christianity of the evangelical flavor tends to teach easy believism. We urge people to be saved and become disciples of our Lord, highlighting its benefits and blessings. In doing so, we conceal the true cost of discipleship and “the fine print” liabilities. Many churches don’t mention them at all.

This is completely different from what Jesus did. He repeatedly cooled the enthusiasm of eager candidates for discipleship by urging them to consider the cost. We shoud heed His words and do a cost-benefit analysis of being a follower of Jesus.

“Now large crowds were accompanying Jesus, and turning to them, he said “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, wanting to build a tower, doesn’t sit down first and compute the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it. Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish the tower, all who see it will begin to make fun of him. They will say, “This man began to build and was not able to finish!” Or what king, going out to confront another king in battle, will not sit down first and determine whether he is able with teen thousand to oppose the one against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot succeed, he will send a representative while the other is still a long way off and ask for terms of peace. In the same way therefore not one of you can be my disciple if he does not renouce all of his own possessions.” (Luke 14:25-33)

It’s vitally important that we understand that Jesus said this to “the multitudes”. His disciples were part of that group, but this was a large crowd of the uncommitted. It’s also important to remember that this is an English translation of Greek, which was a much richer language than English. So, for example, the word “hate” operates on a relative scale in Greek, meaning that we must love God more than family or self. The Greek translated “his own life” has the clear meaning of one’s own body. Verse 27’s reference to carrying your own cross is a reference to the common Roman crucifixion practice of forcing the condemned to carry their own cross to the place of execution. This was used by the community to show rejection of the prisoner.

So if your family is more important to you than God, you might want to reconsider whether you can be His follower. If you value comfort at all costs, then discipleship may not be for you. If you would be bothered by societal rejection, consider joining the Rotary as an alternative to accepting Christ.

The Christian church is not a social club. It’s a training ground for hard times.

Of course, everyone of us probably has in our pocket or purse two keys. One is to our home and one is to our car. Peter, James and John all returned to fishing right after Jesus died. How did they do that if they got rid of their boats and gave away the proceeds? Paul was living in Taursus when Barnabas came to find him. There’s no indication he was homeless or jobless for the 14 years that he spent studying to show himself approved. When Paul wrote those words to Timothy, there is no indication that Timothy was wandering around Ephesus living in ditches, naked.

Clearly this passage can be misinterpreted. It’s not about going to an extreme to prove your love of God. It’s about putting God first before all other things and standing the consequences for that commitment.

Discipleship centers upon the issue of dependence and submission. It involves a complete rearrangement of our priorities. To be a disciple of our Lord demands that He becomes the most important thing in our life.

Do we teach people that in the church when they walk an aisle or bow a knee? Or are we afraid that we’re going to scare them off if we tell them the truth.

  1. A disciple of Jesus Christ must put his Master above those nearest and dearest to him (Luke 14:26). We can continue to love our family (and in fact, Scripture speaks plainly of our obligations in that area), but our love for Jesus must hold precendence over any other attachment. No human relationship should be more intimate, no human bond more inseparable than that between the disciples and his Master. When my husband accepted Christ, the hardest thing for him was to tell his Boston Irish Catholic family (that included nuns) that he was submitting to full immersion baptism at an evangelical church. They still consider him a heretic, though they’ve given up trying to shame him out of his decision.
  2. A Christian must value following Jesus Christ above life itself. It’s a basic instinct to preserve you rlife. The history of the church convincingly proves that following Jesus can result in death. American Christians really don’t grasp the gravity of that … yet, but that could change. Our Chinese brethren have been praying for decades that we encounter some persecution to strengthen our faith.
  3. Our commitment to Jesus must come before material possessions. Ouch! For complacent, affluent American Christians, that’s a tough one! We all want eternal life, but not at the expense of the large screen television. The story of the rich young ruler (which follows on the heels of the subject passage) is often interpreted to mean that the rich cannot become Christians until after they dispose of all their material assets.  Every poor American I know has at least one of those two keys in their pockets and they are often far more materialistic than the “rich” I know. They tend to assign far greater importance to material things, perhaps because it costs them more effort to get them.  I Timothy 6:10 says the LOVE of money (not the possesion of it) is the root of all sorts of evil and that SOME have wandered from their faith by longing for it …. Paul instructed the rich in material things to be rich in good works and not trust the uncertainty of wealth. He didn’t say to destitute themselves financially, but to not make financial solvency their priority.
  4. Christians must die to self-interest. The cross we bear will not save us – only Jesus can do that – but every day, we must put aside selfishness and the ambitions of our old selves (Romans 6:1-14, 1 Corinthians 15:31, 2 Corinthians 4:7-12, Colossians 2:20; 3:11). As Christians we will suffer and be persecuted for the sake of Christ, but our suffering does not atone for our sins or anyone else’s. Our cross involves as much recognizing that central point of the gospel as it does suffering.

Salvation costs. There’s no doubt at that. Jesus warned those who would follow Him that it wasn’t going to be sunshine and lollipops. The world was going to hate them because they loved Him and the world hated Jesus. Nothing’s changed. And to teach otherwise, church, is to lie to people who want to follow Jesus. We can make church members that way, but church membership doesn’t save. Only Jesus Christ can save and He warned that there would be costs to accepting the salvation that He offers.

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