Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Thou Shalt Forgive Him

Life of Christ 129

          The last six months of Jesus' life, from October to April, are notable for three high points at Jerusalem – the Feast of Tabernacles, followed by a preaching tour in Judea; the Feast of Dedication, followed by a preaching tour of Perea; and Passover. In this period of time we can almost see the opposition against hardening exponentially. Galilee, which had flirted with accepting Him, has now soundly rejected Him. Judea never did accept Him, and has only just reconfirmed this. There have been repeated attempts on His life at Jerusalem during this period. His appointment with Calvary, however, is still some months off, and He must spend His time somewhere. He chooses the mixed Jewish and Gentile region east of the Jordan River known as Perea. Here He will preach, evangelize, and do miracles, but primarily He will train the Apostles to lead the Church without Him.
          We come then to today's story (Luke 17.1-6), and again, He is dealing primarily with the Apostles. 'Then said he unto the disciples' (Luke 17.1). He tells them that in this organization they are going to build, the Church, offences are going to come. People are going to do and say things that hurt other people. Humans always have and always will exhibit selfishness, get mad and lash out at those around them, misunderstand and be misunderstood, and just naturally clash with each other at some point. The devil will, of course, actively seek to cultivate these offenses into full blown crises, swallowing up the focus of the church, and threatening its very existence.
The Colosseum in Rome was the site of much of the
early persecution of Christianity.
          Jesus has already taught the Apostles that the Church has a guarantee of divine protection, and that the devil does not have the power to harm it. 'I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it' (Matthew 16.18). Persecution, speaking broadly, has never harmed the Church. To the contrary, it has only strengthened it. Tertullian famously said, 'The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church', and wherever persecution has come the church has flourished. Today, as you read this, the largest collection of Christians to be found in one country is in China.
          Having established that, it is also true that thousands of local churches close each year in spite of this guarantee of protection. One of the primary reasons this happens is the ugly explanatory phrase church split. Offences come, indeed, and they are not properly resolved. They linger, then fester, then metastasize until they swallow up the life of their host. In just a few short weeks Jesus will die. A few weeks after this He will ascend. If the Apostles, and the infant Church, do not develop the capacity to forgive one another then the glue holding them together will dissolve.
So with this by way of a foundational explanation let us look a little more closely at our story.
Jesus said that the person who brings great offence had better beware. 'It is impossible but that offences will come: but woe unto him, through whom they come! It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones. Take heed to yourselves' (Luke 17.1-3).
An offense is is not always a sin, or caused by sin. Sometimes it is caused by or an extension of human nature. But that is not the case with the great offenses such as are being described here. Child abuse is a great offense, and child abuse perpetrated on church children by someone in church is unspeakable. It offends everyone, and its ripple effects spread outward in waves of unintended damage. These great moral failures, done in church by those who claim God's name, permanently damage many a personal faith. The internet is littered with bitter testimonies of proof. Further, such foul deed harm the reputation of the church.
Child abuse is not the only way to greatly offend in the church. People in leadership living lives of great hypocrisy, morally bankrupt, bring great offense. People in leadership in God's work who set out to destroy one another, like two guys breaking up the bar around them unnoticed as they fight, also bring great damage to the Church.
Yet as horrific as these offenses are they are not the ones that keep me awake at night. Oh, there may come a day when wicked and ungodly men attack our church, but I hold a balanced belief in the divine protection of God, and such fears do not haunt me. I should not worry about anything, of course, but if I do it is that someone inside our church, a trusted and key member, rises up from within and wreaks havoc on what God is building among us.
This is why, in my humble opinion, we need to be very careful before we do something, from the inside, that is going to damage a local church. 'Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God' (I Corinthians 10.32). Before we cause a stink about our pet doctrine, or before we split the church while trying to kick the pastor to the curb we had better make sure we think it through very carefully. 'Well, it isn't an offense; it is a scriptural principle that is at stake. I must cause a fuss.' Make sure, then double check and triple check, that the damage is worth the principle.
          On the other hand, if you are the one offended, bitterness and anger are not the answer. Instead, approach the brother in question about the offense (Luke 17.3). Certainly most offenses are innocent or petty. In such cases we ought to be slow to take offense. Let us assume we have misunderstood the brother, and learn to let stuff roll off our back. Indeed, if we ignore this, and take great offense at everything, our own over reactions may well become a great offense to the church. But if the offense is sufficiently confusing that you need clarification for your own peace of mind, approach the brother. If you cannot overlook it do not let it fester. Do not gossip either. Go to the source. When you see or hear something that is egregiously wrong, approach the brother, in private, with humility and compassion.
Henry Ward Beecher, pastor of the Plymouth
Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York
 from 1847 to 1887
          Let us say that this is the case, and the conversation goes well, and the brother who was in error repents. In such a case we are to immediately forgive him, if for no other reason than the peace and harmony of the church. Henry Ward Beecher, whose theology and practice were suspect but whose wordsmithing abilities were not said, 'There is an ugly kind of forgiveness in this world – a kind of hedgehog forgiveness, shot out like quills. Men take one who has offended, and set him down before the blowpipe of their indignation, and scorch him, and burn his faults into him; and when they have kneaded him sufficiently with their fiery fists, then – they forgive him.' Such cannot be our kind of forgiveness. Instead, it must be quickly extended from the heart. Trust needs to be re-earned, perhaps, but not forgiveness.
          Now for the hard part: 'And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him' (Luke 17.4). Why is this so necessary? Because the church is so important, and the life and health of the church depends, in this area, on constant forgiveness.
          What people in a church so often forget about are the succeeding generations. I weep when good churches close, not just for the handful that now have no church, but for the thousands and thousands in the future who will be left without a witness, without a place of edification, without a place of comfort, and without a local body of Christ in their neighborhood. It is for this reason that one of the great guiding principles of my life is this: do not damage the church. Thus, if I must constantly forgive a constantly erring yet repentant brother, I must. I dare not damage the church.
          This constant forgiveness of others in the church who have wronged you is impossible outside of the grace of God. The only way this can be done is by depending upon the Lord to help us. 'And the apostles said unto the Lord, Increase our faith' (Luke 17.5). 'God, I do not have it in me to forgive this idiot again. Will you help me to do so?' Let Christ live His life through you, and specifically in this case, His forgiveness.

          I have been an integral part of a local church for over four decades. In that time I have known periods of sweet unity, and periods of poisonous strife. The former is much more conducive to the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. Beloved, we are all of us human, and when our humanity comes to the fore, let us respond in the Spirit. 
          'Thou shalt forgive him.'

Monday, September 29, 2014

God and Mammon

Life of Christ 128

          Jesus and His Apostles are traveling and preaching through Perea in the months immediately prior to His crucifixion. In our story today (Luke 16) we find Jesus primarily instructing the Apostles (Luke 16.1). He had been focused on them like a laser since the previous summer. He knew His time was almost gone, and He had to prepare them to be the human foundation of the Church (Ephesians 2.20). One of the great temptations that come to church leaders is money, and He gives this chapter primarily to prevent these problems, and to help the Apostles view and use money correctly in the Church.
          To me, the centerpiece of the entire chapter is this: 'No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon' (Luke 16.13).
          Money is one of those demanding things that occupies more and more of your attention, priority, emphasis, and life if you allow it. Like the infamous kudzu of the South, it easily gets out of control and swallows up everything. In this sense, it reminds me of God. I say this carefully – neither God nor money is ever content with the amount of attention you pay it. God always wants more of you, and so does money.
          Money, like fire, is very useful if it is carefully controlled and used, but an uncontrolled appetite for it destroys everything in its path. 'For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows' (I Timothy 6.10).
          Because of this, if a person's life is out of control in the area of money they will automatically have a bad relationship with the Lord. 'You cannot serve God and mammon' at the same time and with the same passion. I want to be careful to say here that money is not wrong, nor is getting money wrong. The Bible is clear about these things. But if we let it take control, or rather, get out of control in our life, it will ruin many things, including first of all our relationship with the Lord.
          Let us look, now, briefly at the specific lessons about money which Christ lays before the leadership of the Church in this chapter. First, money used wisely brings rewards in the next world (Luke 16.8-9). Jesus commended the unjust steward, not for being unjust, but for preparing a place to receive him later by acting carefully now. As I understand this chapter it is not allegorical, in the sense that it is actually about money and how I am to approach it and handle it. Thus, if I handle the stewardship of my money, in this life, carefully I will find it has helped to prepare my everlasting habitation (Luke 16.9). I do not mean by this that you and I can purchase Heaven, but when we invest our earthly money in the Lord's work it will reap us eternal dividends.
          I learned this at the age of 14 or so, when I first began working in ministries in my local church. I discovered that they cost me money. But what I was purchasing with that money was not the treats for a Sunday School class or the necessary equipment for a youth activity, no, I was purchasing investments in the kingdom of God. I am now the exact reverse of the age at which I first learned this and I cannot think of a single better thing to do with my money then to invest it in the Lord's work. This is a wise use of money.
          Next, we learn in this chapter that we should not expect God to trust us with a lot unless we have learned to handle the little we do have wisely (Luke 16.10). We often think our financial problems would be solved if we just had as much money as so-and-so. The truth is that we would almost certainly soon find ourselves in the same bad financial situation. The problem is not how much money we have; the problem is how we steward the money that we do have. Another way of saying this is that we do not have a money problem. We have a stewardship problem.
          Third, there is a direct connection between how we handle our money and what God trusts us with in more spiritual areas (Luke 16.11). This, alone, does not supersede other biblical principles about money. However, all other things being equal, if we handle money wisely God looks at us and says, 'There is a person I can trust with true spiritual riches.'
          What are those riches? That would make for an interesting study, but here are several examples:  learning more of 'the unsearchable riches of Christ' (Ephesians 3.8), being 'rich in faith' (James 2.5), and experiencing fiery trials and the blessings they bring 'that thou mayest be rich' (Revelation 3.18).
          Lastly, all the money in the world will not help the wicked man when he dies. The entire last half of Luke 16 is the story of the rich man who died without faith as contrasted with poor Lazarus who wound up in Heaven. Money will not keep you out of hell. Money will not buy you one drink of water in hell. Money will not comfort you one whit in hell. Money will not buy you a hearing from those you love once you are in hell. It will not do a blooming thing for you after you die.
        Long before a love of money is evidenced in our lives, and we fall away from God, it grows unchecked in the unseen corners of our heart. 'No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. And the Pharisees also, who were covetous, heard all these things: and they derided him. And he said unto them, Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts' (Luke 16.13-15).
          Guard your heart. Do not let money get out of control in your life. Use it scripturally and wisely. Keep it in its proper place so that you may continue to serve God. It must be done if you are to serve Him for the long term.

          'Ye cannot serve God and mammon.'

Friday, September 26, 2014

Go After That Which Is Lost

Life of Christ 127

          Christ's life was marked by compassion and mercy. As such, He drew people in need of those characteristics to Him like moths to an open flame. They hungered for those things to be poured out on them, and consequently this meant that, at various times, there were a number of disreputable types around Him. Of course, this provided ammunition for the Pharisees' attacks on Him. After all, why in the world would the so-called Messiah hang around with such people?
Jesus' response to this attack is found in Luke 15, and is composed of three stories. The first story is of a shepherd with 100 sheep. If the shepherd loses one of them He goes after it until He finds it. The second story is of a woman with 10 pieces of silver. If she loses one of them she searches diligently until she finds it. The third story is the world famous one about the prodigal son. While still a young man, he demands his inheritance. Receiving it, he promptly runs away and wastes it on a party lifestyle. In extreme want he goes back home, and finds that his father welcomes him with open arms.
In these three stories Jesus is clearly trying to get across to the Pharisees that they ought to be receptive of sinners, indeed, that they ought to pursue sinners, and that they ought to rejoice when those sinners are found. These stories are familiar to us so today, instead of devoting space to explaining the story, I am going to take the space to emphasize three lessons from these stories.
First, a pursuit of religious purity that is not accompanied, at the same time, by a pursuit of sinners will eventually become pharisaical. The Pharisees were committed to a pursuit of religious purity. They were zealous about the most minor of things. However, there was in them no concern for the lost and dying world around them. There was in them no compassion for those outside the truth. And this fashioned their religion into a hard, cold, demanding, impatient, harsh system. No one could possibly measure up to their demands, and they did not see any problem with that.
Christians that are carnal, fleshly, and worldly, and who combine with that no desire to share Christ with the lost are in bad shape, but they are not necessarily dangerous to the health of a church or a religious movement. This is because such Christians do not greatly influence a church simply because they just do not care about church very much. On the other hand, Christians who are sincere, knowledgeable, and committed to following the Bible carefully, who combine those graces with a lack of compassion for and time spent going after sinners are incredibly dangerous. They inevitably turn into sour, harsh, controlling, unkind, uncharitable, unmerciful, critical people. No one else is ever as right or as good as them. No one else in the same spiritual class. No one else is as close to God as they are – in the legend that is their own mind.
May God deliver us from such people and such churches! Let us continue our passionate pursuit of religious purity. Let us continue our commitment to follow the Word of God painstakingly. But let us always be after sinners with the good news of Calvary and the empty tomb – or else we will become the Pharisees we so routinely disrespect.
Second, the reaction on our part when sinners come to Christ ought to be joy. The Pharisees were mad that the sinners around Christ wanted mercy. Edersheim, in his wonderful book on the life of Christ, literally quotes extant Talmudic writings of Jesus' contemporaries as saying, 'There is joy in heaven when those who provoke Him perish from the world.' To combat that He explicitly included the idea of joy in each of the three stories He told (Luke 15.5, 6, 9, 10, 32). There is joy in heaven over one sinner that repents.
Sometimes those sinners are poor and unclean and they do not smell very well, but they want the mercy of Christ. Sometimes those sinners are loud and aggressive and they do not behave very well, but they want the mercy of Christ. Sometimes those sinners, deeply scarred by sin, have mental and emotional baggage, but they want the mercy of Christ. They do not look like church people, dress like church people, sound like church people, or act like church people, but they want the mercy of Christ. We ought to be glad that they do.
Third, we are not to wait for them to come to us; we are to go after them. If I could pick one thing to get across to the majority of Christians I have known in my life it is that we must be after people with the Gospel. 'What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?' (Luke 15.4). We are to be hard at work taking the Gospel to sinners where they are.

How foolish would it be for a fellow to call off of work, pack his lunch and his gear, tow his boat to the lake, launch it, jump in, find a good spot, and then sit there and wait for the fish to jump into his boat. How foolish would it be for a telemarketer to drive to work, clock in, put his headphones on, adjust his script, and then sit there and wait for someone to call him. How foolish would it be for a fireman to tune the engine, polish the paint, coil the hoses, practice sliding down the pole, and then sit there and wait for someone to drag a burning home over to his firehouse. How foolish would it be for a Christian to go to church, study His Bible, pray for the sick, put his check in the offering plate, and then sit there and wait for the lost to show up and ask how to get saved.
Many a Christian of my experience will nod their head knowingly at this, and verbalize their agreement – right before they offer up the excuse for why they themselves cannot participate in such evangelism.
'I don't know how.' Then learn.
'I just don't have time. I'm sorry.' Then rearrange your priorities.
'I'm scared of what people will think of me.' Then appropriate the power of God.
'I don't want to offend people.' They are already headed to hell now. Where are you going to run them off to, hell number two?
'Building a church doesn't work this way anymore.' So? Who said that was the point?
'Witnessing just isn't my gift.' I agree; it is not a gift. It is a command.
'This is the pastor's (insert any other position here) job.' Nope. It is your job.
'People cannot get saved in one quick conversation. All that leads to is false conversions.' Tell that to the woman at the well and the thief on the cross.
'I have a different ministry.' Soul winning is not a ministry. It is a command.
'Well, I've seen sloppy soul winners in the past, and they just didn't do it right.' Then do it right.
The simple truth is that the entire point Jesus was trying to get across in Luke 15 is that we are supposed to be after sinners with the Gospel, and that we ought to be happy when they respond. If you cannot remember the last time you witnessed to someone then tell someone about Christ today.

After all, somebody told you.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Where Modern Christianity Goes Wrong

Life of Christ 126

          During Jesus' Perean ministry, in the last few months of His life, He is once again experiencing great crowds (Luke 14.25-35). Perea has been nothing if not welcoming, and that marked a wonderful change of pace, especially for the Apostles, who had seen so much rejection and hostility recently. Then, wouldn't you know, Jesus has to go and mess it up. In essence, He purposely tries to decrease the size of His crowds by telling them to think long and hard about the high cost, in the long term, of being a disciple of His.
          This seems counterproductive to us, but it made all the sense in the world to Christ. Yes, He loves the entire world, but He knows the entire world is not going to love Him back. 'Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it' (Matthew 7.13-14).
          Correspondingly, He never tailors His ministry to reach the widest number of people. Instead, He tailors His ministry to reach a number of dedicated people. Jesus was never interested in making it easy to follow Him; He was interested in making it real to follow Him.
        Jesus throws this hand grenade into a nascent popularity swell by telling the crowds that following Him may well cost them their family. 'If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple' (Luke 14.26).
          Truth does not stand in isolation; it stands in blocks building a complete revelation of God. Those who yank this verse from its context and use it as an excuse to separate religious devotees from their families are spiritually dishonest. There are a veritable plethora of instructions and examples in the Word of God that we are to love our families and to honor and respect and obey our parents. At the same time, it is also true that following Christ with all we have will sometimes cost us a close relationship with those whom we love the most. A firm adherence to scriptural doctrine always results in division (see Life of Christ 121), and frequently that division comes into the family.
          Additionally, Jesus told the crowds the unwelcome news that following Him involves suffering. 'And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple' (Luke 14.27). The mature Christian life, into which God intends for you and I to grow, always involves a crucifixion – of myself and what I want, and of suffering, as I seek to make salvation available to others through active ministry.
          Jesus did not want followers under false pretenses. He well knew that such followers would not stick around through the hard times that were shortly to come upon His Church. He wanted them to know, up front, how much it was all going to cost. Thus, He used the illustration of carefully counting the cost before you launch a building program, or begin a war (Luke 14.28-32).
          If you want to be more than just a nominal Christian it is going to cost you, and the more you are willing to pay the closer you will get to Christ. 'So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple' (Luke 14.33). And if you can handle this, good. 'He that ears to hear, let him hear' (Luke 14.35).
          This short explanation of today's story leads to the title of this blog post for it is precisely here that modern American Christianity goes wrong. It is all in on making it easier to be a Christian via the prosperity gospel, and the seeker sensitive, come as you are, casual, world copying types of churches. What is the result of this? Joel Osteen can put 40,000 people in the seats on any given weekend – for the moment.
          Christianity is guilty of measuring things eagerly and prematurely. We look at the large crowds of the compromising churches of our day and ask ourselves what we are doing wrong. Perhaps we ought to instead ask ourselves this question: which handles a thunderstorm better, a mushroom or an oak tree? Everything I know about God as revealed in Scripture tells me that He plays for the long term rather than the short term. We see this in His contest with Satan for the soul of humanity, and the possession of the Earth. We see it in the approach Jehovah took with Israel in the Old Testament. We see this in Jesus' own earthly life when set within the context of the difference between His first advent and His Second Coming.
          I am convinced that a storm cloud is on the horizon for American Christianity. We are going to face an increasing number of legal, political, social, cultural, financial, and vocational pressures to cave in on what we believe. Think about it for a minute. When you have built your church and your ministry by promising people health, wealth, fun, and an easy time, what is going to happen to your crowd when the storm comes?
          Preaching this kind of a message limits the attractiveness of your church, but it greatly strengthens and solidifies it to handle whatever comes in the long term. Jesus built a religion that looked small at the beginning, but, boy, was it strong. In calling for a higher commitment He built very well for the long term, and American Christianity desperately needs to rediscover this instead of canceling Sunday night services yet again for 'family time.'
          We do not need to make the standard expectations for God's people lower; we need to make them higher. I can hear it already…
          'Pastor Brennan, you'll never get a big crowd by pushing people to attend all four services, go soul winning every week, tithe, give to missions, give to the building fund, put hours into a ministry, and dress modestly. You need to relax those standards and expectations. That old way doesn't work anymore. Times have changed.'
          Curiously enough, I am not trying to get a big crowd; I am trying to build disciples – that are committed for the long term, and that will last under temptation, testing, pressure, persecution, disappointment, discouragement, and Satanic attack. Oh, it would be great if our church would double in size, and we work hard at reaching people, and our church is larger than it used to be but that is not our aim. And the day it becomes our aim is the day we embrace pragmatism and reject obedience, watering down the hard things in the Word of God so that the offense of the Gospel is removed.
          Jesus was not a contemporary American pastor. He was not trying to get His ministry to be bigger; He was trying to get it to be purer. The fact is that Christ calls us, not to the easy life, but to the hard life. Let us accept it. Let us embrace it. Let us emphasize it. For it is only in this way that there is long term strength, and genuine holiness.


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Worldwide Church

Life of Christ 125

          Between Hanukkah in December and Passover in April Jesus needs to avoid further antagonizing Israel's religious leadership. The last two times He has been in Jerusalem, for feasts, there have been repeated attempts to kill Him. Galilee is no longer receptive, and Herod Antipas, who rules there, is hunting Him. He just spent two months trying to evangelize Judea with no response, and He needs to avoid the region around Jerusalem anyway. Where will He go?
          Jesus chooses to spend the bulk of His remaining time in Perea, a mixed Jewish Gentile area on the eastern side of the Jordan River (John 10.40-42). It corresponds roughly with the geographical area inhabited by the two and half tribes of Israel in Joshua's day who wanted to settle east of the Jordan River, and is referred to in the New Testament as 'the land beyond Jordan.' Galilean Jews would travel through this territory when they took the long way around Samaria on their journeys to Jerusalem. In Jesus' day approximately half of the Perean population was composed of Gentiles.
          Our story today (Luke 13.22-30) involves a question that was asked to Jesus and His answer. The Apostles had placed their faith in Jesus as the Christ and as the Son of God. At the same time, politically, they were expecting Him to eventually become the king of Israel. For the last six months or so, however, things have been going from bad to worse. There was a  high point in Galilee when Jesus was actually offered a kingship, but He refused it. The resulting rejection in Galilee was very disappointing, and He spent substantial time outside of Israel away from the crowds teaching His Apostles. On the occasions when He did return to Israel He found repeated attempts on His life, and continued rejection in both Galilee and Judea. The Apostles have watched as what was a gradually building acceptance of Him, at least in Galilee, transitioned into a national rejection, and then transitioned again into open hostility. Naturally, this bell curve of rejection, acceptance, and then rejection again concerned them. Things were trending the wrong way, to put it mildly.
          'Then said one unto him, Lord, are there few that be saved?' (Luke 13.23). Jesus' answer is that the opportunities to be receptive of Him were not, in insurance terminology, guaranteed renewable. They had a time limit. 'Many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able. When once the master of the house is risen up, and hath shut to the door, and ye begin to stand without, and to knock at the door, saying, Lord, Lord, open unto us; and he shall answer and say unto you, I know not whence ye are' (Luke 13.24-25). This remained true, even if those to whom He was offering Himself were His own people, so to speak, those that already knew Him well. 'Then shall ye begin to say, We have eaten and drunk in thy presence, and thou hast taught in our streets. But he shall say, I tell you, I know not whence ye are; depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity' (Luke 13.26-27).
          This is a clear reference to national Israel. Her opportunities to believe on Jesus were limited, not endless, even though she knew Him better than any other people group. At the judgment, then, what will be the response of Jesus' generation of Jews when they see their esteemed forefathers entering into a Heaven from which they themselves are barred? 'There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when ye shall see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrust out' (Luke 13.28).
          If a nation full of unbelieving Jews will not populate Heaven then who will? The last ones you would think, the despised Gentiles. 'And they shall come from the east, and from the west, and from the north, and from the south, and shall sit down in the kingdom of God. And, behold, there are last which shall be first, and there are first which shall be last' (Luke 13.29-30). Yes, Jesus said this in a region that had a large Gentile population, but He was not just pandering here. He was preparing the Apostles, His primary target audience, for the necessary direction the Church would take after He left.
          The first church, established the prior summer on the flanks of Mount Hermon, was composed exclusively of Jews. This church would continue beyond Jesus' lifetime, and would be the church that gathered together in Acts 1. At that point they numbered 120 people, again, all Jews. Initially, in the months immediately after Christ's ascension, thousands would get saved, baptized, and join that church, and the vast majority of them would be Jews.
          All of this would change, however, and three things would change it. First, the tender Jewish response to the Apostles' message began to harden. Just a few chapters later, in Acts 7, Stephen would call the Jews 'stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears' and tell them 'ye do always resist the Holy Ghost.' They would prove him right by biting him in a crowded frenzy, and then stoning him to death. The second circumstance was the great persecution that came to that first church in Jerusalem in Acts 8, which resulted in the scattering of the church. The third event, which was more like a series of events actually, would see the disciples finally begin to turn toward the Gentiles. In Acts 8, Phillip preached a revival to the Gentiles in Samaria, and then won the Gentile Ethiopian eunuch to Christ. In Acts 9 the apostle to the Gentiles, Paul, got saved. In Acts 10 Peter experienced the great vision of the sheet filled with unclean animals, which was a direct lesson from God to him about reaching Gentiles, and then the floodgates opened in Acts 11 as the common Jewish Christian began to witness to the Grecians around them.
Jews rallying in Chicago, November, 2013
        Two millennia and an ocean removed from that day the truth is that very few Jews are in church. Instead, Christianity has become composed almost exclusively of Gentiles. Take the city of Chicago, for instance, where I live. There are 265,000 Jews in Chicago. I have been in at least a dozen churches in Chicago and I have never yet met a Jewish convert to Christianity. I would be surprised if you had one in your church. I'm not happy about that, by any means, but the fact is that Jesus was right in what He said in Luke 13. Heaven will be largely populated by Gentiles who put their faith in a Jewish messiah that the Jews themselves rejected.
          I have no wish to be misunderstood. I am not supporting the anti-semitic position that the Jews were Christ killers and thus liable for any ill treatment we can dream up. Such a position is abhorrent to Jehovah, and ought to be to His people. What I am saying is that Jesus, yet again, was trying to get across to His Apostles the urgent necessity of overcoming their instinctive racial prejudice. If the infant Church had sought to remain a Jewish Church it would have died young. Praise God, it did learn to embrace the Gentiles, and in so doing it became a worldwide church.
          Two thoughts flow from this, and although I will not belabor them, I must mention them. First, ethnic prejudice has no place in the church. Your church, and mine, ought to pursue and welcome every ethnicity or skin color it can possibly reach. If it does not or will not there is an awful tear in the fabric of our Christianity. Second, we must take the Gospel to the entire world. Jesus died, not just for the Jews, but for the sins of the whole world.
          I, for one, am glad. See, I am a Gentile, and if the early Church had not learned to incorporate Jesus' teaching, and to turn from reaching out exclusively to Jews toward the wider Roman world I would be lost today. Likely, so would you. Let us beware that this warm welcome does not stop with us. Let us embrace all who would come to Christ, no matter their immigration status, social status, or any other status.

          Jesus shed His blood to purchase a worldwide church. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

So Close and Yet So Far

Life of Christ 124

        It is now December. Jesus will die the following April. During the Feast of Tabernacles in October in Jerusalem the contention was so sharp between Jesus and Israel's religious leadership that three separate attempts were made on His life. Now, after a two month sojourn evangelizing through Judea will He find the same deadly antagonism in Jerusalem in December that He found in October? Today's story (John 10.22-39) shows us that the answer is yes.
          'And it was at Jerusalem in the feast of the dedication, and it was winter' (John 10.22). Two hundred years before Christ Syria controlled Palestine. A Syrian general, Antioches Epiphanes, attacked Jerusalem, slaughtering thousands. He would go on to attack the entire Jewish approach to life, and to desecrate Ezra's Temple in spectacularly awful ways. He raised an altar to Zeus in the courtyard, and then sacrificed pigs on it. He forced Jews to eat pork, outlawed observance of the Sabbath, outlawed circumcision, and many other aspects of Judaism.
          Like so many other rules throughout history, he badly underestimated the loyalty the Jews had to their religion. This loyalty, aggravated by the brutality of Antioches Epiphanes, produced the very revolt he was trying, via his intimidation, to stop. The succeeding rebellion brought the greatest victory for a Jewish army since the time of Josiah four centuries earlier.
          After that victory, the Jewish leaders, knows as the Maccabees, cleansed and formally rededicated the Temple complex. This occasion was remembered with an annual observance every December called the Feast of Dedication. Its memorial continues today. You and I know it as Hanukkah.
          Jesus, walking through the Temple during Hanukkah, is confronted by Jews who demand to know, plainly, without any symbolic language, if Jesus really does claim to be the Messiah (John 10.23-24). What a frustrating question this must have been to Him! He has already told them this again and again, and He has proven His claim, via specific prophecy, via a sinless life, via years of good works, and via dozens of public miracles. Yet, in spite of this veritable mountain of evidence, they still refuse to believe on Him (John 10.25).
          The truth is the Jewish problem was not that they were not sure about His claims, nor was it that He had not proven His claims. The Jewish problem was rebellion; they just refused to believe. In the struggle for the soul of Israel's religion they had chosen the wrong shepherd (the Pharisees) over the right shepherd (Jesus). Thus, they were not His sheep, and thus they did not have eternal life (John 10.26-28).
          Then, as His custom was, He initiates the next step in the conversation, and takes it right to the heart of the matter. The Jews needed to believe He was Who He said He was, and so He plainly tells them again, not just that He was the Messiah, but that He was God. 'I and my Father are one' (John 10.30).

          To the Jews of Jesus' day this was blasphemy. Theirs was the world's first monotheistic religion, and that concept was at the core of who they were. When Jesus claimed to be God they thought it violated their precious monotheistic beliefs. Of course, they were wrong, and drastically so, for though there is only one God He exists in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
          The concept of the Trinity is not just a New Testament teaching advanced by Christ. It was first found in the Old Testament, the Jewish Torah. For instance, the very first name for God in Genesis 1 is Elohim, which is defined as a plural, yet still singular God. In that same chapter God repeatedly refers to Himself in the plural, 'Let us make man in our image.' Then there are the direct prophecies in Isaiah which refer to the promised messiah as God, and the direct prophecies in Psalms which do likewise.
          The Jews, however, refused to see this, no matter how many prophecies Jesus fulfilled, no matter how many miracles He performed, and no matter how many people He helped. There are some who scoff at this, and attempt to say that Jesus never claimed to be divine, and that this was foisted upon Him posthumously by overly zealous disciples. Such an attack could not be further from the truth. The Jews of Jesus' own day clearly understood that He claimed to be God. This is plainly seen in their response. 'Then the Jews took up stones again to stone him' (John 10.31). 'The Jews answered him, saying, For a good work we stone thee not; but for blasphemy; and because that thou, being a man, makest thyself God' (John 10.33).
          The deity of Christ was the single biggest stumbling block for the Jews, even more so than His claim to be the Messiah, and until they come to recognize the validity of that claim they will remain outside of His flock. I realize the Jews are still God's chosen people, but they corporately chose to reject Him 2000 years ago, and individually, most of them still choose to reject Him today. Thus, they have no eternal life, but are instead headed for the torments of hell.
          The Jewish people are so close, and yet so far. They believe the Old Testament is God's Word. They believe in only one God, Jehovah. They believe in strict obedience to Him. They believe in the veracity and inerrancy of the prophets. They give themselves so much to God that their religious observance became what it means to be a Jew. To be Jewish is to be religious in a way that is not true about any other ethnicity. But even though they pursue God with everything they have they still completely miss the truth. 'Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved. For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge' (Romans 10.1-2).
          Beloved, we cannot measure either people or institutions by their good works, their moral message, or their pursuit of God. The Mormon religion famously upholds conservative family values (which is highly ironic, given their history), and promotes moral political candidates, but we cannot thus judge them to be correct. Mother Teresa nobly gave her life to help the dirt poor slum dwellers of Calcutta but at the same time vociferously denied the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith. We must measure them, not by how close they are to us, or by how similar our belief systems are, but by this: what do they believe about Jesus Christ?

          'For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness for every one that believeth' (Romans 10.3-4). 'That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved' (Romans 10.9).
          How close are you?
  'Well, I believe in God.'
          'I have read the Bible.'
          'I try to live right.'
          'I am a moral person.'
          But what do you believe about Jesus Christ? Do you believe He was Who He claimed to be? Have you placed your complete faith in Him, and Him alone, not yourself, as your sole hope for eternal life? If you have then you are in good hands (John 10.29). If you have not, I do not care how close you are in other respects, you will miss out on eternal life and burn in hell forever.
          'Wow. That's harsh.' Actually, no it is not. It is the kindest thing in the world to tell you. What a tragedy to be so close, and yet so far. Give in. Yield. Submit. Humble yourself. Come to Christ.

          'Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved' (Acts 4.12).  

Monday, September 22, 2014

A Life in Miniature

Life of Christ 123

          Jesus and His Apostles are traveling and preaching through Judea in the Autumn before His crucifixion. He had come to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles in October, and remained in Judea, the region around Jerusalem, until the Feast of Dedication in December. Judea was not generally receptive to His ministry, but He wanted to give her one final chance to change her mind, and receive her messiah.
          At some point, on this preaching trip, on a Saturday, Jesus stepped into a local synagogue for worship (Luke 13.10-17). He sees there a crippled woman, torturously twisted and bent, who had been in this condition for 18 years. Being the compassionate man that He was, He healed her.
          The reaction of the local synagogue ruler was both harsh and typical. He accused Jesus of violating the Sabbath by working a miracle, and he suggested that Jesus should have done the miracle on some other day.
          Jesus answers this attack with an illustration of a perfectly permissible Sabbath activity, namely loosing an animal and leading it to water. If that was acceptable, and the afflicted woman was clearly more important than livestock, then Jesus' actions were perfectly justified. The ruler and his cronies had no good answer to this, and the common people were very happy with what Jesus had just done.
          If these first four paragraphs today seem familiar it is because they are. No, I have not previously discussed this specific story in the life of Christ, but every single aspect of this story is familiar nonetheless. It has all happened to Christ numerous times before. The location, a synagogue? Happened before… The day, the Sabbath? Happened before… The miracle, healing an afflicted person? Happened before… The reaction of the religious leadership, harsh and accusatory? Happened before… Jesus' arguments in support, logical and unanswerable? Happened before… The reaction of the people, impressed with Jesus? Happened before…
          Today's story is nothing more or less than a microcosm of His entire ministry. It is the life of Jesus in miniature, compassionate, scriptural, furnishing proof of His claims, received with temporary enthusiasm by the people, and vigorously attacked by the leadership. After all the fulfilled prophecy, after all the traveling, after all the sermons, after all the miracles, after three whole years of ministry the same thing happened that always happens.
          This event plainly shows that here, at the end of His ministry, nothing had changed. It also shows, not that Jesus had wasted His time, but that Israel simply was not going to be receptive, no matter what He did. If they were ever going to be they would have already been, and the proof was this event.
          I find in today's story two lessons. First, do not just enjoy Jesus; believe and follow Him. 'And when he had said these things, all his adversaries were ashamed: and all the people rejoiced for all the glorious things that were done by him' (Luke 13.17). Many people enjoy the emotions they experience when they think of Jesus, but they have little interest in actually following Him. I am here reminded here of a certain relative of my acquaintance who loves to curl up in her chair with a cup of coffee on Sunday mornings and listen to gospel music on the radio, but has not darkened the doors of a church in years. She enjoys the emotion induced in her by the music, but has not yielded to the lordship of Christ at all.
          People such as this are the first to call and ask the church for prayer. They welcome the support and compassion that they find amongst God's people, but they refuse to adjust the wickedness of their life, refuse to study God's Word, and refuse to follow on to know the Lord. People such as this are the first to show up for special occasions at church, and sanctimoniously shake my hand on the way out. 'You have a nice little church here, Reverend.' They have no problem enjoying the fellowship, the fun, and the food, and then patting you on the head and going back to their godless life.
         What they completely fail to understand is that Jesus did not come to make us happy. He came to make us holy. Yes, that holiness leads to happiness, but the happiness is not the point; the holiness is. Jesus did not come to entertain us, make us smile, give us a good time, be our buddy, our support system, our pal, our life coach, and our crisis response team. He came to take over our entire life.
          The second important lesson I see here is that though Israel was never receptive, Jesus did not allow His compassion to turn into cynicism.
Jesus gave Himself away, without measure, to one and all, simply to help and to minister. This is tiring at all times, but when it is rejected it is beyond tiring. It is exhausting. It is discouraging. And it is depressing.
The natural human response to this is to say, 'You don’t want my help? Fine, see if I care.' I sadly confess I have days like this. I am thinking in particular of a city block not far from our church building and a rough summer day several years ago. Things had not been going well, for me or the church. I spent all morning going door to door in our neighborhood, inviting people to church, and trying to witness for Christ. On this particular day it seemed like every single person I met delighted in being unkind, harsh, mean, angry, upset, or visibly disturbed that I had come by. I met with not a single kind word all morning. I can still remember walking back to my car and thinking, 'Be that way then. Just die and go to hell and see if I care.'
Yes, I know that I am not supposed to feel such things, but all too often my humanity proves that sin still lies deep within me, and I must remind myself that my Saviour was rejected much worse than I was, and yet still He gladly gave His life away.
The Word of God teaches us that our labor in loving people and ministering to them for the Lord is never wasted. If no one else notices and cares, God does. 'For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye ministered to the saints, and do minister (Hebrews 6.10). Not only does God care, but I also firmly believe that some, at least, of those we try to help will be helped. Noah's offer of help to his generation was rejected, but eight souls were saved. Sodom rejected the angels' warnings, but Lot's family was spared destruction. The four million Jews in the Palestine of Jesus' day were not interested in Him, but 120 gathered together in Jerusalem after His life was finished, and they turned the world upside down.

One of the best lessons we will ever learn about the Lord's work is to keep right on loving and serving no matter how paltry the response seems to be. 'And I will very gladly spend and be spent for you; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I be loved (II Corinthians 12.15). But if we are not careful, we will let discouragement, criticism, and lack of response create apathy, bitterness, and cynicism in our heart, and this will land us quickly on the sidelines.

Jesus, in spite of all He had been through, and was about to go through, is an absolutely wonderful example, not just of compassion, but of continual compassion in the midst of continual rejection. He is beautiful, isn't He? Let us believe in Him. Let us follow Him. And let us continue to minister to them.