Hebrews 6:1-3 and Deepening Faith and Growing in Christ

Have you ever met someone who was a Christian, or at least claimed to be one, and never really changed? They never grew in their faith. They never seemed to have more love of God or neighbor in their hearts. And they always seem to talk about the same subjects when it comes to religion?

This is not what Christianity is supposed to be about. Christianity is about being recreated in the image and likeness of Jesus Christ one step at a time. It is about changing from the inside out, through the power of God, into the person we know we ought to be. It is about allowing God to live in us so that his love can be shed abroad in our lives and the world around us.

Interestingly, the Bible knows it can be difficult for people to get past the initial stages of the faith and grow in Christ. Hebrews encourages Christians:

So let’s press on to maturity, by moving on from the basics about Christ’s word. Let’s not lay a foundation of turning away from dead works, of faith in God, of teaching about ritual ways to wash with water, laying on of hands, the resurrection from the dead, and eternal judgment—all over again. We’re going to press on, if God allows it.

Faith. Not trying to earn our salvation. Arguments over baptism. Arguments over ordination. What the resurrection is. The end of the world. This is like a laundry list of topics most churches and denominations argue over and discuss. Frequently. As a matter of fact, if the majority of Christians stopped preaching, teaching, and discussing these topics, I do believe most pastors would be silent and most congregations could hear a pin drop in them.

Perhaps the reason we do not have so many more people living out the Christian faith in such obvious ways as to be considered salt of the earth people or living saints is because they are not moving past the basics about Christ’s word. Perhaps if we spent more time trying to grow deeper in our faith and less time talking or arguing about these topics, we would see more changed lives. Perhaps if we tried to seriously become disciples of Jesus and less time trying to prove why other groups of Christians are wrong, we would see the Kingdom of God come with power.

Just a thought.

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Acts 19:29-31 and Christians Using Common Sense

Christians are supposed to use common sense. It is that simple. We are not called to be doormats or to turn off our brains as we deal with other people and the world at large. In Ephesus, as Paul was preaching and teaching, a riot broke out. Look at what happened next:

29 The city was filled with the confusion; and people rushed together to the theatre, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s travelling-companions. 30 Paul wished to go into the crowd, but the disciples would not let him; 31 even some officials of the province of Asia, who were friendly to him, sent him a message urging him not to venture into the theatre.

Paul was prevented from confronting the crowd because the crowd would have pulled him apart. This also falls in line with what Jesus said in Matthew 10:23, “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next.”

There are Christians who oppose using common sense. Some simply do not want to think. Others want to take one aspect of the Gospel message and apply it to every single situation in the entire world. Life is more complicated than that. This is why Jesus also said, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).

If you are a Christian, THINK. Use your God-given brain. Use common sense.

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Acts 10:27-33 and Confusion When God is in Control

Peter-with-CorneliusI tend to think that when God is in control and people are actively obeying his leading and guiding that everything will be very predictable and nice and neat. It seems like this would be the case, after all God is a God of order and not of chaos. Therefore, it would only seem logical that this order would manifest itself in the Body of Christ.

True as this may sound, it is not always the case. That is why I love the story of Peter and Cornelius. It is extremely obvious that both men were being faithful in this story. An angel was sent to Cornelius, who obeyed, and a vision and message was sent to Peter, who obeyed. Once Peter arrived at Cornelius’ house, look at the exchange that takes place:

27 And as he talked with him, he went in and found that many had assembled; 28 and he said to them, ‘You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?’ 30 Cornelius replied, ‘Four days ago at this very hour, at three o’clock, I was praying in my house when suddenly a man in dazzling clothes stood before me. 31 He said, “Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. 32 Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon, who is called Peter; he is staying in the home of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.” 33 Therefore I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.’

Pay close attention to verses 29 and 33. Neither Peter nor Cornelius know what is going on. Neither of them know why they are meeting with each other. They are both confused as to why this meeting is taking place.

It is clear that it is God who orchestrated this meeting, not either of them. And it is equally clear that God did not give the whole vision of what was happening to either of them. Each of them was given a piece of the mission/vision and were asked to be faithful with the piece they had been given. Because they did not understand the whole scope of what God was doing, there is this confusing exchange between Peter and Cornelius where Peter wants to know why he is there and Cornelius wants to know what Peter is supposed to say. But because they were faithful with the piece they each had, this exchange could happen.

There are times in our own lives and ministries when things do not seem to make sense. It is precisely at those times when we need to be faithful with what we know we have been asked to do. We are rarely given the whole picture of what God is doing, but if we are willing to be used by God, we are given a piece of it. God does not call us to understand everything. Rather, he calls us to be faithful with what he has called us to do. If we are faithful, then there could be times when we have a meeting like Peter and Cornelius, where we gather with other Christians and no one quite understands why. Rest assured, God knows, and God is in control. Even if it seems confusing, God is in control.

Acts 6:1-7 and Church Leaders Refusing to Do Work

Acts-6-praying-for-the-7I have been in pastoral ministry in a local church setting for almost sixteen years now. Over that time I have served large churches and small churches, suburban churches and rural churches. One thing that is consistent across all types of churches I have experienced is the innate belief that the pastor should be doing most, if not all, of the ministry. This is not healthy, as it is a recipe for burnout. It is also not biblical:

Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.’ What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

I love this scene. The Christians who are Greek-speaking Jews are being neglected in the division of provisions among the Church. They think it is intentional and even a little segregational. They approach the leaders, the Twelve Apostles, and say as much. They want the leadership to see the problem and fix it.

Here is where things get interesting from a modern congregational point of view. Essentially, a group of parishioners just came up to the pastor (or pastoral staff) and leveled a serious complaint that could derail the entire church, cause division, and ruin the ministry. The Apostles’ response–That’s not our job. You fix it yourself. Our job is to preach and pray. Many congregations who operate on the call system for hiring their pastor would follow that response up quickly with, “Yes, and you can add packing to that list because we are going to find a new pastor.”

But look at how the Church in Jerusalem responds. They agree! They know that the work the Apostles are doing was directed to them by Christ. They do not want to take them away from their God-given responsibilities. Instead, the whole community chooses leaders who can oversee this ministry and ensure equality. Another interesting thing to point out in this episode is that all seven people chosen to oversee the food distribution have Hellenistic names. Not a single one has a Hebrew name. This probably shows that the ones with the grievance, the Hellenists,  were allowed to choose the people whom they wanted to lead this ministry, and the whole Church agreed to it. As a result, the Church grew tremendously.

When congregations expect and demand that the pastor or pastoral staff be involved in every ministry it is a sure way to slow or stop the growth of the Church. This is because one pastor can only minister to around 80-100 people effectively and 100-150 people somewhat effectively. Even with a pastoral staff of for pastors, that gives a maximum number of people who can be somewhat effectively cared for as 600. Beyond this number, it is just numbers. People come for a while and then go again. There may be a crowd, but Jesus wanted us to make disciples, not gather a crowd.

Now if others are empowered to be active in ministry, then the number can jump exponentially. If a solo pastor has an empowered congregation, who take leadership and ownership of the ministries in the congregation while still following their leader who was called and sent by God to preach and pray, just imagine the results. One pastor and four lay people can effectively minister to 500 people. As the church grows and more lay people are trained and empowered to be in ministry, that number grows. If just five out of every 100 new people becomes a ministry leader, then after the first 500 people the potential effective reach of that congregation is now 3000 people (30 leaders x 100 people). After that first 3000, the potential would be 15,000 people (150 leaders x 100 people)!

This is why the Early Church grew so rapidly with committed disciples. Church leaders refused to do all the work. They enabled the rest of the Body of Christ to use their God-given gifts for the building up of the community. And God blessed that work.

Mark 15:29-32 and Unexpected Prophecy

Peter_Gertner_-_Crucifixion_-_Walters_37246It is no surprise to Christians that most of Jesus’ life and ministry were the fulfillment of prophecy. You can find books, charts, pamphlets, and web pages dedicated to showing how many different prophecies Jesus fulfilled during his ministry and how many are still yet to be fulfilled at the Second Coming. Some may debate exactly on which list certain prophecies should be, but all agree Jesus’ ministry was foretold well before it happened.

Here is an unexpected prophecy, because it came from an unexpected source:

29 Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30 save yourself, and come down from the cross!’ 31 In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. 32 Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.’ Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.

This is from Mark and his telling of the crucifixion. Now look at this passage from an older source:

12 ‘Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions;
he reproaches us for sins against the law,
and accuses us of sins against our training.
13 He professes to have knowledge of God,
and calls himself a child of the Lord.
14 He became to us a reproof of our thoughts;
15 the very sight of him is a burden to us,
because his manner of life is unlike that of others,
and his ways are strange.
16 We are considered by him as something base,
and he avoids our ways as unclean;
he calls the last end of the righteous happy,
and boasts that God is his father.
17 Let us see if his words are true,
and let us test what will happen at the end of his life;
18 for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him,
and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries.
19 Let us test him with insult and torture,
so that we may find out how gentle he is,
and make trial of his forbearance.
20 Let us condemn him to a shameful death,
for, according to what he says, he will be protected.’

21 Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray,

for their wickedness blinded them,
22 and they did not know the secret purposes of God,
nor hoped for the wages of holiness,
nor discerned the prize for blameless souls;
23 for God created us for incorruption,
and made us in the image of his own eternity,
24 but through the devil’s envy death entered the world,
and those who belong to his company experience it.

If you are not familiar with this passage, that is because it is from The Wisdom of Solomon, a book that was written sometime between 20-200 years before Jesus was born. This book was included in the Greek version of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint, which was the version of the Old Testament used by the Early Church. This version of the Old Testament had a few extra books that were originally composed in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic, and is the basis of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Old Testaments. This is why they have “extra books” in their Bibles.

For most Protestants, these books are considered either deutrocanonical–a second canon of Scripture which are not a part of the original canon of Old Testament Scripture (this is actually the Roman Catholic understanding as well)– or apocryphal–books that are outside of the canon all together and may or may not be of value to read.

I like to see this passage as proof that the Holy Spirit can speak in ways and places in which we do not always think, and yet the Truth is always the same. More often than not, God is bigger than we think and uses any means possible to prepare people for the reality of Jesus Christ.

Ecclesiastes 10:10 and The Key to Accomplishing Any Task

sharpen-the-axeThroughout life we are confronted with many jobs, tasks, and projects we have to accomplish. No matter what the extent of them are, there is one key to completing any of them: preparation. If we prepare well, it makes the task so much easier. Ecclesiastes has a proverb within it that gets to the heart of this idea:

If an ax is dull and one doesn’t sharpen it first, then one must exert more force.

This saying is also known in its reverse format, and popularly attributed to Abraham Lincoln (although the evidence shows he never said it) like this:

If I had five minutes to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first three sharpening my ax.

When we prepare for whatever job we have to accomplish, it makes the job so much easier. Whether it is school, work, or even some task of enjoyment in life, a proper amount of preparation before we begin will, many times, mean the difference between finishing the job and quitting or the difference between finishing the job in a reasonable amount of time and working too hard on it.

 

Ecclesiastes 7:20 and Obsolete Theology

One of the most difficult things to do is to read the Bible honestly, allowing the different parts of it to balance and inform other parts. This is difficult because it is easy to simply say that all of the Bible is equally valid. The appropriate objection to this is comes from those who support same-sex marriage when they ask why we object to this issue and not to women wearing pants or men shaving the sides of their faces. It is also easy to say that everything that comes before Jesus is no longer valid. The appropriate objection to this is simply to look at how much the Old Testament figured into Jesus’ ministry and how much of it permeates the New Testament.

Every once in a while, though, there is a section in the Old Testament that is theologically obsolete. Here in Ecclesiastes there are a few places:

7:20 Remember: there’s no one on earth so righteous as to do good only and never sin.

8:8 No one has control over the life-breath, to retain it, and there’s no control over the day of death.

9:5-6 But the dead know nothing at all. There is no more reward for them; even the memory of them is lost.  Their love and their hate, as well as their zeal, are already long gone. They will never again have a stake in all that happens under the sun.

empty_tombBecause of Jesus Christ, these are now obsolete. First of all, the incarnation itself makes much of Ecclesiastes obsolete since the recurring theme throughout the book is that there is nothing new under the sun. God becoming man is completely new, and as Jesus walked the earth, he made 7:20 obsolete since he was without sin. Easter Sunday made 8:8 obsolete since Jesus rose from the dead. In fact in the Gospel of John Jesus says that he has the authority to lay down his life and take it up again. Because of Jesus’ resurrection being the precursor to the general resurrection and life everlasting in the Kingdom of God, 9:5-6 is obsolete since we will have a stake in what happens under the sun once again.

What this means is that there may be wise truths in Ecclesiastes, but the majority of the book and its themes are more of a snapshot of what the world was like before the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Living on this side of the life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus it is easy to forget that when God entered into creation it fundamentally changed reality. Ecclesiastes reminds us of that fact.