THE GOSPEL CONQUERS!

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The seals begin with a picture of the gospel going out and “conquering.” Before the end, the gospel will be proclaimed to every tribe, language and nation. We Christians are destined to be a part of that.

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Download Revelation Part 16

evelation #16. Revelation 6:1-2

So far, most of what we have studied in the book of Revelation is reasonably clear. Going forward, we enter the parts of the book that are less clear. There are many different possible interpretations for some parts of Revelation, and it isn’t always obvious which is the best. I want to stress that compared to the rest of the Bible, this is unusual. Most of the Bible is not too difficult to understand. We may find layers of meaning, or various nuances in some passage, but the basic message of most of the Bible is not in doubt, and it is not up for debate. This is one reason that many preachers do not use the book of Revelation – it is unusually obscure. In my introduction, I have already shared the various approaches to interpreting Revelation. As we go on, I will try to briefly share the most reasonable perspectives, and then focus on the interpretation that I find most helpful. Occasionally I will also share poor interpretations that are very popular, in order to warn you against them. In fact, I will do that today.

With chapter five, we have finished with the second vision of heaven’s perspective, and we now move on to the second major section of the book of Revelation. In chapter five, John introduced the Lamb (Jesus), and the scroll sealed with seven seals. Now, the Lamb (Jesus) breaks each seal. The first four seals result in a horseman appearing, and going out into the world.

We should keep in mind that these verses, as with much of Revelation, are symbolic “word-pictures,” not literal. John did not mean us to think that an actual horse will come out of heaven, with an actual riders. The horses and riders stand for something else.

There is debate about whether the seven seals are in fact a description of the end of all things, or if they are just preliminaries: the opening battle in a long war, so to speak. I tend toward the idea that the seven seals represent, for the most part, “the beginning of the end.” In other words, I suspect that these are things that take place before the real “end times.” One reason I think this way is because of how I interpret the first seal.

The first seal reveals a white horse. Its rider has a bow, a crown and is sent forth to conquer. The horse that is next after the white one is red, and it is the horse of war. It takes peace from the earth. This gives us a bit of a problem. You would think that the first horse, “conquest” would take peace from the earth, and create war. So these first two horses appear to be almost the same thing. The distinction between conquest and war is very, very small. So what are we supposed to learn from this?

Let me begin by offering you an interpretation with which I disagree, though I think it is quite reasonable: The horse and rider represents a time of conquest. The horses that follow represent widespread war, famine and death, resulting from the ambitions of those who seek to conquer. This could very well be the right understanding of the first seal; in fact, if my preferred idea is wrong, this would be my second choice.

There is another popular interpretation that I don’t care. In this other view, the white horseman represents a single person who will seek to conquer the entire world. Some with this view take it even farther, and suggest that this person is also the antichrist. Revelation was written in Roman times, and in those days, the great threats to the Roman empire were in the east. The Parthians in the east were renowned bowmen. Therefore, the people with this interpretation believe that this conqueror/antichrist will come from Iran or Romania, or from somewhere else in the territories once controlled by the Parthians. I think that this is unlikely to be the correct interpretation. I share this with you, however, because it is very popular idea, and I want to warn you against it. This interpretation relies on many assumptions that go far beyond the actual text. Clearly, none of the other three horsemen are meant to represent actual individual people, so why should this one? There is no mention of the antichrist in the text, so why make that assumption? There is no suggestion as to where the horseman comes from, other than that it is sent by God, so why decide it should come from the ancient realms of the Parthians? The bow is flimsy evidence, at best.

My own interpretation of this text is one that some respected commentators agree with; at the same time, some respected commentators have different ideas. Obviously, I think I’m correct, and I’ll explain my reasoning, but I certainly could be wrong. If I am, I think the first idea I shared above is probably the next best (the idea that ambitions for conquest will lead to warfare, famine and death in the time just before the end times).

I did a little digging into the Greek word for “conquest” (nikao). John uses this word (in various forms) 23 times, throughout his writings. It is found in The Gospel of John, 1 John, and Revelation. Two times this word is used to convey that the power of evil was given a limited amount of time to conquer the people of God. In those instances, that is spelled out clearly. However, every other time John uses it – 20 times – it refers to the people of God overcoming the world, or the powers of evil. In the letters to the seven churches (Revelation chapters 2-3) every single church is given a promise in connection with “conquering.” For example, he says to the church at Ephesus:

7“Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. I will give the victor the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in God’s paradise. (Rev 2:7, HCSB)

“The victor” is a version of this same Greek word, nikao. In other words, it might be better translated: “the one who conquers.” Each of the other seven churches gets a similar promise, using this same Greek word. John also uses this word in connection with the Lamb himself:

And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” (Rev 5:5, ESV2011)

Outside of Revelation, John uses this word exclusively in connection with Jesus, or his followers, conquering the world:

33I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33, HCSB)

 4You are from God, little children, and you have conquered them, because the One who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. (1John 4:4, HCSB)

 3For this is what love for God is: to keep His commands. Now His commands are not a burden, 4because whatever has been born of God conquers the world. This is the victory that has conquered the world: our faith. (1John 5:3-4, HCSB)

In addition, the first horse is white in color. The colors in Revelation are not random. They have significance. The color “white” is mentioned in Revelation 14 times, in addition to this passage. Every single other time, white is associated either with God, or with God’s people. It is the color of Jesus’ hair (1:14); it is the color of the stone promised to the faithful believers in Pergamum; it is the color of the clothing promised to the faithful in Sardis and Laodicea; it is the color of the clothing worn by: the 24 elders (4:4), the faithful martyrs (6:11) and the great multitude of the saved from every nation (7:9). Jesus rides a white horse (19:11) as do the armies of heaven, who also wear white linen (19:14). You get the idea: White symbolizes the purity and holiness of God and his people.

Therefore, I believe “the white horseman who conquers” represents the spiritual victory of God’s people over worldly values and lust, over our own sinful flesh, and over the devil. It represents God’s Word, carried by Christians, going out into very part of the world. It means that before the “end times” begin, Christians will take the gospel to every tribe, language and nation. Jesus, when he spoke with his disciples about end of the world, said this:

9“Then they will hand you over for persecution, and they will kill you. You will be hated by all nations because of My name. 10Then many will take offense, betray one another and hate one another. 11Many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. 12Because lawlessness will multiply, the love of many will grow cold. 13But the one who endures to the end will be delivered. 14This good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed in all the world as a testimony to all nations. And then the end will come. (Matt 24:9-14, HCSB)

I think the white horseman represents verses 13 & 14 above. It represents the fact that Christians will endure, and be saved, and that the gospel will be proclaimed in all nations. The very beginning of the end is marked by the perseverance of Christians in taking the gospel to the entire world. Later on, Revelation will show us a multitude of Christians from every nation, tribe, people and language. That means that the gospel must be brought to every nation, tribe, people and language before the end can come. This also fits in with the fifth seal. I will talk about it more later, but when the fifth seal is opened, those who have been killed for being faithful to God’s word are told to rest a little longer, until everyone who is going to be martyred has, in fact, been martyred. This implies some sort of work of carrying the gospel into the world, of proclaiming it in places where it is rejected.

So, if this is the case, what is the message for us, today? First, I think it should comfort us. Nothing is going to destroy our faith. We will win the spiritual victory over the world, our own flesh, and the devil. The church will succeed in its mission to take the gospel to all peoples in the world.

Second, I think this should also wake us up to the need for every Christian to get involved in the mission of taking the gospel to every tribe, tongue and nation. Jesus more-or-less said that He will not return to put things right and take us into the New Heavens and New Earth until the gospel is proclaimed to all peoples (Matthew 24:14, above). We trust that God will accomplish his purposes on earth, but we also recognize that he wants to use us to do so. We are supposed to be part of the first seal!

So, does this mean we must all go overseas and become cross-cultural missionaries? Certainly, some people are called to that. But just as certainly, some are called to different ways of spreading the gospel.

One thing that every Christian can do is pray for the gospel to reach every tribe, tongue and nation. Jesus, considering the size of this task, said to his disciples:

37Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is abundant, but the workers are few. 38Therefore, pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.” (Matt 9:37-38, HCSB)

So we can pray for others to be sent. When they are sent, we should continue to uphold them in prayer. We can pray for specific countries and specific groups of people. I think one of the best ways to be involved in Christian missions is for every church (or, if it is a big church, every small group) to help sponsor a missionary. This means praying, giving financially, and reading the missionary’s letters, in order to better support them. Your group may not be able to fully support a missionary, but you could at least provide some resources.

Another way to help the mission of Jesus is to create resources that can be used by others. These sermons of mine that you read have been used to help start churches in the USA, England, Finland, Brazil, Mongolia, Vietnam, India and East Africa. And those are only the places that I know about.

I’ve alluded to this already, but an additional way to help the cause of Jesus is to give financially to missionaries and leaders who are helping to spread the gospel. I think prayer should always be connected to giving, so if you give financially, be sure that you also pray for those to whom you give.

One of the most effective ways of spreading the gospel is to train Christian leaders from among the people who need to be reached. An Indian pastor, ministering in India, will usually be more effective at reaching other Indians than an American pastor. So we can pray for, and support efforts to train such leaders.

Also, you don’t have to be sent as a missionary to tell people of other cultures about Jesus. In every major metropolitan area in the United States you can find people from dozens and dozens of other countries: people of every tribe, tongue and nation. Never has it been so convenient to spread the gospel to all nations. Even in our rural town of thirty-thousand I met a Muslim man from the little country of Guyana (in the Northern part of South America). We were friends for about two years, until he had to return home. While he was here, we talked about Jesus quite a bit. That’s something you may not realize: it’s usually quite easy to talk about Jesus with people from other countries. In fact it’s usually much easier to talk about Jesus with International folks than it is with Americans. Muslims, in particular, are very open to talk about religion. If a person turned to Jesus while living in the United States, they might return home, and begin to spread the gospel in their country of origin. I think Jesus needs people in America who are simply willing to befriend people from other places, and share their lives – and their faith – with them. For those of you in the LTC network, we can provide some training, if you like, but it’s not rocket science. It simply involves befriending people.

Listen to what the Spirit is saying to you today!

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The Poor, Wealthy Church

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The point of repentance is not to get you to try harder. True Biblical repentance means you give up on yourself. You are saying, “I can’t do it, Lord. I don’t have what it takes. My only hope is your mercy.” You turn away from trying to fix things in your own strength, and throw yourself entirely on the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ. You are abandoning all hope apart from Jesus, including the hope of making yourself better. If you are to become a better person, Jesus will have to make it happen within you. Your job is simply to trust him to do it.

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Download Revelation Part 13

Revelation #13. Revelation 3:14-22

I bet this has happened to you. About a week ago, I got myself a cup of coffee, brought it to my office, and resumed work. I spent quite a while on the phone, and then got involved in some interesting study, and my coffee sat on my desk forgotten. While I was photocopying some materials, I remembered it, and reached down to my desk to take a sip. It was tepid and lukewarm, and as many of you know, lukewarm coffee is worse than no coffee at all. I could barely restrain myself from spraying it out of my mouth all over the room. I took the rest of the cup and dumped it out.

Unfortunately, this is how Jesus expresses the spiritual condition of the church at Laodicea. They are lukewarm. This picture stands in contrast to the outward appearance of the city. Laodicea was a very wealthy town, boasting an affluent society. It was a center of banking, and was also known for its fine black wool that was used to produce expensive clothing and carpets. There was a medical school in Laodicea that was famous for its “Phrygian powder” which was used to make a notoriously effective salve for healing people’s eyes. There appeared to be neither outward persecution nor inward strife in the church in Laodicea (in this way it was very similar to Sardis). All in all, those addressed by this letter were very comfortable and well off compared to many of the other cities  in this section of Revelation.

If I had to pick just one of the seven letters that most closely reflects the general state of Christianity in America today, it would be this letter, the message to Laodicea. Of course, I do not mean that all Christians in America today are like the Laodicean Christians. And not all churches are like the Laodicean church. But if we were to generalize about Christianity in the United States in the year 2017, it looks (in general) a lot more like the Laodicean church than any of the other churches found in the seven letters.

The Laodiceans were comfortable, in fact wealthy and well off. While some of us in America may not feel like we are well off compared to our friends and neighbors, the truth is that a poor American is wealthier than 85% of the rest of the world. If you are an American – no matter how your income compares to other Americans – you are among the richest 15% in the world. This is fact. If you were to take a trip to any third world country, and see how most of the people actually live, you would come back knowing beyond a shadow of doubt that you are comfortable. Also like Laodicea, our nation is famous for its wealth, its lifestyle and its achievements.

And unfortunately, also like the Laodiceans, our Christians and Churches tend to be comfortable, placid, and lukewarm. Many of us have settled into an easy routine of going about our own business, and doing the “God thing” once a week (twice a week for the really committed). We have our wealth, and we like it (though we don’t call it “wealth” – we call it “comfortable” or “normal”) and quite frankly, we do not need Jesus terribly much. Our faith is a nice part of our weekly routine, and it gives us a sort of satisfaction, but if we let it dominate our thinking, our decisions and our very lives – well it would be – uncomfortable. The truth is, for many who call themselves Christians, Christianity is not the thing, it is just one thing among many other things that need their attention. Rather than informing all their decisions and determining the direction of their lives, faith, for lukewarm Christians, is merely one aspect of a very full and busy life.

It’s interesting that new converts often find this surprising and disturbing about Christianity in America. Francis Chan is a well-known pastor in San Francisco. He tells about a young gang member who became a Christian. The young man seemed very excited about Jesus. After a few months, however, he quit coming to church. Chan went and found him, and asked why he quit. The former gang member said something like this: “When I was in the gang, all of life centered around the gang. We did everything together. Everything was about what was going on with the gang. I thought being a Christian was going to be like that. But people at your church just come on Sundays, and the rest of life they just go do their own thing.”

There are other converts with similar criticisms of American Churches, and I think they are spot-on. All of life is supposed to be centered around Jesus. Instead, many millions of people call themselves Christians, but, for the most part, Jesus occupies their time and attention for only part of one or two days each week.

This is precisely where the Laodicean Christians found themselves. Like the church in Sardis, they didn’t want to get all charged up about Jesus and cause a stir. Life was fine, and frankly there was so much else to do. Didn’t they need to balance their faith with their other priorities? They had Jesus and _____. Perhaps it was Jesus and the business. Or Jesus and the career. Or Jesus and entertainment. Simply fill in the blank with whatever seems appropriate. I’m sure Jesus was welcome, but he needed to remember to keep his place among all the other things that were going on in their lives.

And that made Jesus want to vomit. That is in fact the literal meaning of the term that is translated as “spit you out (verse 16)” – vomit. Just as the instinctive reaction to lukewarm coffee is to spit it out, so Jesus’ first reaction to lukewarm Christianity is to vomit. A person who has just enough of Christianity to be blasé about it is in the worst position possible, spiritually speaking. Such a person thinks he has the truth, and so will not continue to search, and yet he will not surrender to the truth to the point that it saves him. As with coffee, a lukewarm Christian is worse than one who is not a Christian at all. This is not a new concept in the Bible. Jesus told his disciples that they were to be the salt of the earth. Then he adds:

“But if salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled by men.” (Matthew 5:13)

Another one I’ve quoted many times:

37The person who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; the person who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. 38And whoever doesn’t take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. 39Anyone finding his life will lose it, and anyone losing his life because of Me will find it. (Matt 10:37-39, HCSB)

Christianity in Laodicea was losing its “salty” flavor. It did not look, feel or sound any different from the culture around it. The Christians there were losing their ability to make an impact on the world around them because they were becoming just like the world around them. Oh, I believe they remained morally straight, and outwardly righteous. But their lives were slipping under the control of the same passions and drives that controlled every other person in Laodicea. They were living not for Jesus, but for the same things that the culture was living for – comfort, fame, riches and so on.

The good news is, their condition was not beyond hope. If they had already slipped past the point of no return, Jesus would not have sent this message to them. But he speaks in the strongest possible words in order to draw their attention to the fact that they are in imminent danger of spiritual death. They still have time, but not much, and that is why he uses such vivid language.

First, he draws attention to their true condition. Their true spiritual condition is the opposite of their outward circumstances. They are not wealthy in Jesus – spiritually speaking, they are impoverished beggars (contrast this to those in Smyrna, chapter 2:8-11). They are not clothed in the rich black wool of their city – they are naked and painfully, humiliatingly exposed in the spiritual realm. While their city is famous for eye salve, they remain spiritually blind, in need of not their own salve, but of Jesus’ restorative salve to let them see the truth.

The remedies they need are all provided by Jesus. He has gold, refined in the fire – true spiritual riches that will not be destroyed when the world comes to an end. He has the white robe of righteousness to clothe them with; signifying that their sins are wiped away and they are new creations in him. He has the truth which will destroy their blindness to their own condition and to the things which are truly important.

And what they need to do to receive these remedies is repent.

This concept is absolutely vital for Christians today. The key to restoring spiritual fervor is repentance. In Psalm 51 King David recognized that the joy of salvation returns only with repentance. So with the Laodiceans, when he wants to “heat them up” (as opposed to leaving them lukewarm) Jesus commands that they repent. There are times when he also commands us to repent. He supplies the rest of what we need, but we need to open the door to him by turning away from the things that distract us – not only asking for forgiveness, but asking for the willingness and the power to never turn back to the things which come between us and Jesus.

The older I get, the more convinced I am that the key issue in repentance is to give up our own self. We need to forsake our right to rule our own lives, and let Jesus lead us. We need to surrender our need to control our own lives, or the lives of others. We need to submit our own hopes, dreams, desires and ‘rights’ to the control of Jesus. We need to seek only Jesus, and let him give us these other things as he chooses (or not). You might picture it as taking yourself off of the throne of your own life, and letting Jesus (and nothing else) have that throne. You are abdicating your own personal kingdom to him.

Now, I want to make sure we understand something vitally important. The point of repentance is not to get you to try harder. True Biblical repentance means you give up on yourself. You are saying, “I can’t do it, Lord. I don’t have what it takes. My only hope is your mercy.” You turn away from trying to fix things in your own strength, and throw yourself entirely on the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ. You are abandoning all hope apart from Jesus, including the hope of making yourself better. If you are to become a better person, Jesus will have to make it happen within you. Your job is simply to trust him to do it.

This command to repent begins a section where Jesus offers hope. He says “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline (v.19).” His harsh words were not simply because he was angry – he is worried about his people in Laodicea, and he comes to them with such strong correction because he loves them and does not want to see them fall away. In Hebrews, it says,

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” (Hebrews 12:6).

In addition to giving discipline, Jesus offers an invitation:

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with me.” (3:20).

This verse is of course often used when making an appeal to those who don’t know Jesus. In context however, we see that it is call for those who are already Christians to repent. In the ancient world, dining together represented affection, warmth and intimacy – in short, a good relationship. This is the promise Jesus offers when we repent – he will restore our relationship with himself to a level of closeness and intimacy.

The essence of repentance, as I have said, is giving up self. It is taking self off of the throne of your own life. Jesus promises that the one who repents, paradoxically, will conquer, and once Jesus sits on the throne, he also grants that we will sit with him on his throne. In other words, though it is difficult and sometimes painful, ultimately, we do not lose by putting Jesus on the throne of our life.

What is the Spirit saying to you today? I encourage you to take time to listen, pray, and act on what He says.

PARTICIPATING IN THE MINISTRY OF THE WORD

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Obviously, there’s Elephant in this message: if I’m talking about giving to teachers and preachers, that could include me. I don’t think that’s why I’m teaching about this. I think the reason I’m teaching this is because it is the central concern of our text today. But, perhaps I’m not able to really be objective. So, read third John. Read the other verses I share. Evaluate and check what I say. Pray about it. Don’t take only my word for it. You might still receive a blessing from God’s Word through this message.

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Download Overlooked Letters Part 5

Overlooked Letters #5: Third John

Let’s turn now to  Third John. In Third John, John still has the same main concerns as in his second letter: love and truth. In this case, it is love and truth applied to a very specific circumstance: the hosting and helping of Christian ministers.

John writes to a specific person, Gaius. There are three different men of that name in the New Testament. Since it was the most common name in the ancient Roman world, it may not be any of those, but rather a fourth. I don’t think it makes a big difference to us today which particular “Gaius” this is.

John begins by saying, “Dear Friend, I pray that you may prosper in every way and be in good health physically.” I feel the need to forestall any possible use of these verses by teachers of “prosperity.” The wish of good health and “prosperity” was an extremely common formula in personal letters in ancient times. In fact, it was so common, that in Latin, the phrase “good health and prosperity” was often compressed into an acronym, so that it if it was in English, it would look like “GH&P.” We don’t say that in our letters these days, but a rough sort of equivalent would be XOXO, or RSVP, or, “Yours sincerely.” It is certainly not any sort of grounds to support the teaching of the prosperity gospel; it’s just an ordinary way to begin a letter.

John commends Gaius for his faithfulness “in whatever you do for the brothers, especially when they are strangers.” Unfortunately the Greek does not give us any clues as what, specifically, Gaius was doing, and who these “brothers” (who are also strangers) are.

Reading between the lines, and knowing something of the early church, I think the situation was as follows: During the first few centuries of Christianity, some Christians were called by God, and sent out by their churches, to travel around, teaching and preaching about Jesus Christ. In essence, these were missionaries. We have already seen that John warns in 2 John not to support or welcome such people unless they are in the truth; that is, unless they are true Christians, and teach accordingly (2 John 10). But here, he commends Gaius for welcoming those who are true Christian workers, and he rebukes someone named Diotrephes for not doing so.

It is clear that these are not just Christians, traveling from place to place on private business. John says they should be helped “since they set out for the sake of the Name.” So these are Christian ministers, who have forsaken any other means of supporting themselves, and devoted themselves to teaching about Jesus full-time.

Still reading between the lines, apparently, the normal practice was for such teachers to find other believers in a city (if there were any) and stay with them while they ministered. The local believers usually provided them with food, housing and other necessaries. Then, as the missionaries traveled on, the churches in that city would often give them material resources to support them during the next phase of their journey.

The Bible doesn’t record every single detail of such things, but we get some good glimpses of this sort of practice in action in the life of Paul. Paul and Barnabas were sent out by the church at Antioch (Acts 13:1-3). I think it is probable that the church gave them enough food, supplies and money for a fair amount of traveling.

Later, on a different journey, we find Paul, Timothy and Silas traveling from place to place. In Thessalonica, they had to split up, and Paul went on alone (Act 17:14-15). Eventually Paul ended up in Corinth, where he worked as a tentmaker to support himself. Part of the reason he did this, was apparently to spend more time with two new converts, Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:1-3). However, when Silas and Timothy finally rejoined him, Paul stopped working to support himself, and “devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ” (Acts 18:5). The implication is that Silas and Timothy had brought gifts from other churches to support Paul, so he didn’t have to work as a tentmaker anymore. We know that Philippian church supported Paul on several occasions (Philippians 4:10-17).

Many people do not understand this, and they misread 1 Corinthians 9, where Paul says he gave up his right ask for support as a teacher of the gospel. Paul voluntarily chose not to ask for support from the Corinthian church; but even while he was at Corinth, he was teaching full time (Acts 18:5, above), which means that someone else, (probably one or two other churches from other cities) was supporting him. The only record of his earning a living as a tentmaker is in Acts 18:1-3, and that was, quite clearly, a temporary situation. In fact, Paul, in 1 Corinthians 9, tells the Corinthians quite clearly that teachers of God’s Word should be fully supported by churches:

8Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? 9For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? 10Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. 11If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? 12If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more?

Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ. 13Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? 14In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. (1Cor 9:8-14, ESV2011, I added the italic format, for emphasis)

That’s pretty darn clear. Paul reminds the Corinthians that he did not ask this from them (though, obviously, he was supported by others, besides the Corinthians) but the whole point of his argument is that he does have the right to be supported by them, since he taught them the gospel.

This should be clear enough, but just in case, there are several other places where the New Testament teaches that it is the responsibility churches to support teachers of God’s word:

17The elders who are good leaders should be considered worthy of an ample honorarium, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. 18For the Scripture says: Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain, and, the worker is worthy of his wages. (1Tim 5:17-18, HCSB)

 6The one who is taught the message must share all his good things with the teacher. 7Don’t be deceived: God is not mocked. For whatever a man sows he will also reap, 8because the one who sows to his flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit. (Gal 6:6-8, HCSB)

 There are a few more, but you get the picture. So, when we come to 3 John, we see that John is talking about a normal practice in the church. He is praising Gaius for leading his church in giving to missionaries, and he condemns Diotrephes for not supporting teachers of the Word, and for trying to prevent others from doing so.

Now, let’s admit that there is an elephant in the room. I am a teacher of the Bible, and so this concerns me directly. I could be using these verses in a self-serving way, to get you to send me money. I don’t think I’m doing that. In the first place, I haven’t really asked most of you readers for money. Sometimes I remind you to pray for me, and to pray about whether or not you should give to this ministry. But I don’t know for sure that God wants you to give to me particularly. If you gain spiritual benefit from God’s Word through my teaching, I do have the right, as Paul says, to ask for support from you. But let me be clear: like Paul, I am not insisting on that right. That’s not where I’m going with this message. If God does lead you to give to this ministry, by all means, apply what I’m about to say, and then go ahead. But He certainly may be calling you to support some other minister of the gospel. Again, read on, before giving to anyone, and then do as God leads.

I believe that I’m teaching about this subject because this is what is in our text for today, and Christians need to hear it, whether or not anyone happens to support me. However, I’m sure, like anybody, that I have a hard time being completely objective when something so closely concerns my livelihood.

In recognition of that, let me start by encouraging you: search the Bible yourself about this matter. Look at the verses I’ve shared above, and at the letter of Third John: how do you understand those? Decide for yourself what they mean. Check me, check my interpretations.

Second, before you give money to my ministry, or to the ministry of anyone else, consider how to give responsibly. I think two things are helpful in order to do that:

  1. Make sure that whoever you give to is walking in truth. 2 John makes a big deal of truth, and tells believers not to support or welcome those who run beyond God’s word, or distort it. So, don’t give to anyone unless you can be reasonably sure that they are walking in truth. The first two sermons in this series might help you with that.

I think it is also worthwhile, if it is possible, to check someone’s lifestyle. Are they really living as Christians?

Check their credentials. Are there groups of Christians elsewhere who would vouch for the minister, or affirm that the individual does indeed have a call to teach and preach? One indication of that is to see if the minister is ordained or certified by a denomination, church or reputable Christian organization. All these things are part of being in truth. This is what John is doing with his friend Gaius: in verse 12, he affirms that Demetrius, one of the Christian ministers that Gaius could help, “has a good testimony from everyone, and from the truth itself, and we also testify for him.”

  1. Please pray before you give to anyone’s ministry. Ask God to stop you, if you are not supposed to give. Ask Him how much and how often you should give. Also, please pray for the ministries you give to. Your money could be very helpful to many different ministries. But your prayers are even more helpful. For my own ministry, I would love it if you would both give and pray, but if you are going to pick only one of the two, I would rather you pray for me. So, you can give to this ministry if you like, if you pray about it first, and if you are sure I’m walking in truth. The details are on the Clear Bible website. On the other hand, I have no condemnation for you if you don’t give. I just want you to hear what the Bible says about this, in general.

OK, with that, now may I share some additional thoughts for application?

First, I think we should understand that a normal part of the Christian life should involve giving to support the ministry of those who teach God’s word. John says that to do so is to show faithfulness (verse 5) and love (verse 6).

Second, giving materially is a way to participate in the ministry of others. John says:

“Therefore we should support such men so that we can be coworkers with the truth” (3 John 8).

In some spiritual way, giving with a pure and prayerful heart allows us to be part of what God is doing in the ministry of others. Paul seems to affirm this in Philippians 4:10-17. That’s one reason it’s so important to check out if someone is walking in truth (as above) before you give, because by giving, you are participating in what they are doing. You want to make sure that you are comfortable “participating” in a particular ministry. Perhaps you aren’t called to be a missionary, or Bible teacher. You can still be part of such ministries through giving.

While Paul was writing about this to the Philippians, he said this:

15And you Philippians know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving except you alone. 16For even in Thessalonica you sent gifts for my need several times. 17Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that is increasing to your account. 18But I have received everything in full, and I have an abundance. I am fully supplied, having received from Epaphroditus what you provided — a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. 19And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus. 20Now to our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen. (Phil 4:15-20, HCSB)

So, their giving is a “profit that is increasing to your account,” and is a participation in Paul’s ministry. Verse 19, is so important because it suggests that when we give to others, we can trust God to supply our own needs through His grace. In other words, though we don’t give in order to be blessed, there is a blessing that we can receive when we give.

I pray that you too, can discover that blessing.

 

LOVE AND LIES

Love is easy. This is one of the big lies that destroys marriages, but it also destroys churches and personal friendships. When love gets hard, too many people “bail out” on marriages, churches and friendships. Real love does involve warm feelings. But real love also involves hard work. Forgiving others is hard, sometimes, but it is indispensable to lasting love. Being humble, saying sorry, and admitting that you are wrong are all very difficult, but all vital to real love. Withholding angry retaliation, being patient, listening, serving someone when you are tired and crabby – these are all important parts of true love, and they all take significant emotional energy and self-discipline. There are payoffs, of course. Many times, real love fills us with joy, happiness and wonderful feelings. But we need to know, and to remember, that true, lasting love is sometimes hard work.

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Overlooked Letters # 4. Love, and Third John.

 I ran out of time/space in my last message about Christian love. I’d like to finish the topic of Christian love. Since John’s concern is for both Love and Truth, let’s consider some lies about love, and how we can live and love in the truth.

My focus last time was to show you how the Bible teaches that it is of utmost importance that we Christians love our fellow Christians. According to the New Testament, after God’s love for us, this is the most important kind of love. For many of us, that message should convict us that we have to change our lifestyle. If the way we live does not allow time and energy to put into relationships with other Christians, then we will find ourselves disobeying the command of Jesus (2 John 5). If we do not make room in our lives to love our Christian brothers and sisters, we cannot truly claim to be following Jesus.

20If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For the person who does not love his brother he has seen cannot love the God he has not seen. 21And we have this command from Him: The one who loves God must also love his brother. (1John 4:20-21, HCSB)

Now, unfortunately, our culture has, in large part, separated love from truth. Remember, John is deeply concerned about both. We need to be aware of cultural lies about love.

One of the biggest lies about love is that it means unconditional acceptance. In other words, if you love me, you will accept, without reservation, anything I do, or don’t do. In fact, our culture is rapidly becoming even more extreme about this, and now many people believe that if you love someone, it means you must agree with, and endorse, all of their choices. Author Rick Warren puts it succinctly:

“Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.”

So, contrary to popular opinion, loving our fellow-Christians does not mean that we must agree with them on everything, and endorse everything they do (or don’t). Sometimes, the truly loving thing is to tell someone that they are wrong, or are headed in the wrong direction. The other side of that coin is that just because someone confronts you about something does not mean that they hate you, or are acting in an unloving way. We Christians need desperately to remember this, and to model it to the culture around us. I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it again: If I believe you are going to hell (even if I’m wrong in my belief) and I say something to you about it, my motivation is loving – I don’t want you to go to hell. On the other hand, if I truly believe you are going to hell (rightly or wrongly) and I say nothing, I must hate you a great deal, because I’m content for you to go to hell, without warning you. So, many times, the hateful thing is to remain silent, while the truly loving thing is to share your belief.

In Christian relationships, it often isn’t about going to hell; it’s usually more nuanced. But often, we keep silent about things because we don’t want to put the time and effort into having real and genuine relationships with each other. Subconsciously, we know that if we speak, it might cause conflict, and deep down, we aren’t sure we love the other person enough to spend the time and energy to work through that conflict.

Here’s another lie about love that is very destructive, especially in Christian relationships: Love means never having to say “I’m sorry.” It’s a nice idea, I get it. The thought is, if someone really loves you, they will accept and forgive everything you do, and so you don’t have to apologize about anything. In reality, if you really love someone, one of the greatest gifts you can give them is to say: “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me.” If you believe you are never wrong in relationship to someone else, or that you need never apologize, you are not living in the truth, and without truth, real love cannot thrive. Humility, apology, confession and forgiveness are powerful tools that make love grow. Our culture would like to minimize them. Don’t let it happen in the church. Love each other in truth, and that means being humble and saying sorry.

6But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” 7Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. (Jas 4:6-7, ESV2011)

5Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” 6Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, 7casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. (1Pet 5:5-7, ESV2011)

31Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Eph 4:31-32, ESV2011)

Here’s another cultural lie about love: Physical attraction means love. The vast majority of our movies, television, music, and other popular art promote the idea that the highest expression of love is sexual intercourse. This is one reason the culture is so sensitive about sexual issues – any sort of sexual moral standard is viewed as interfering with “love.” This means the church is in trouble, because a) Churches who are “in truth” teach that sex is only for married couples. So the culture thinks we are somehow restricting true love. b) If sex is the highest expression of love, that means people in the church will never share the highest form of love with each other (unless it’s a weird, perverted cult, which, of course, would not be a true church). So Christian fellowship becomes kind of a “second class” love.

However, the Bible teaches us that highest form of love is self-sacrifice. In New Testament Greek, there are several words for love, including: romantic love (eros), brotherly/friendship love (phileo) and self-sacrificing love (agape). The love of Jesus, and of God, is described as agape. The famous “love chapter” that is often read at weddings – 1 Corinthians 13 – describes agape. All throughout the New Testament, it is agape – self-sacrificing love – that is the highest form of love. That kind of love, we can have in the church among everyone, and it transforms lives. There is indeed no Biblical restriction on this highest kind of love.

Another one: Love is easy. This is one of the big lies that destroys marriages, but it also destroys churches and personal friendships. When love gets hard, too many people “bail out” on marriages, churches and friendships. Real love does involve warm feelings. But real love also involves hard work. Forgiving others is hard, sometimes, but it is indispensable to lasting love. Being humble, saying sorry, and admitting that you are wrong are all very difficult, but all vital to real love. Withholding angry retaliation, being patient, listening, serving someone when you are tired and crabby – these are all important parts of true love, and they all take significant emotional energy and self-discipline. There are payoffs, of course. Many times, real love fills us with joy, happiness and wonderful feelings. But we need to know, and to remember, that true, lasting love is sometimes hard work.

Let me close the topic of Christian love by simply sharing a brief sermon given by the Apostle Paul on this matter. 1 Corinthians 13, “the love chapter” is one of the most-read passages in the Bible, and many people are quite familiar with it. Go ahead and read it on your own. But I want to share a different one, here. This passage below describes many practical ways in which Christians can and should love each other. This is how we should love one-another, Christian to Christian.

1I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

My comment: We can only love by surrendering to God, and presenting ourselves to Him. Then, he can use us. It will be his love, passing through us, to love others.

2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

My comment: this is about rejecting the lies of our culture (as I’ve described) and instead, being conformed to the truth about love, as given to us in the Bible.

3For by the grace given to me, I tell everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he should think. Instead, think sensibly, as God has distributed a measure of faith to each one.

My comment: This is talking about humility again.

4Now as we have many parts in one body, and all the parts do not have the same function, 5in the same way we who are many are one body in Christ and individually members of one another.

My Comment: We belong to each other. When we come to Jesus, we join a body. Every part (including you) is indispensable.

 6According to the grace given to us, we have different gifts: If prophecy, use it according to the standard of one’s faith; 7if service, in service; if teaching, in teaching; 8if exhorting, in exhortation; giving, with generosity; leading, with diligence; showing mercy, with cheerfulness.

 9Love must be without hypocrisy. My Comment: there we are: truth again.  Detest evil; cling to what is good. 10Show family affection to one another with brotherly love. Outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not lack diligence; be fervent in spirit; serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; be persistent in prayer. 13Share with the saints in their needs; pursue hospitality. 14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. 16Be in agreement with one another. Do not be proud; instead, associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own estimation. 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Try to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes.

18If possible, on your part, live at peace with everyone. 19Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for His wrath. For it is written: Vengeance belongs to Me; I will repay, says the Lord. 20But If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. For in so doing you will be heaping fiery coals on his head.

 21Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good. (Rom 12:1-21, HCSB)

WHAT SHOULD CHRISTIANS FIGHT ABOUT?

tugofwar

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2 John #2. Remaining in the Truth

Last week we talked about the importance of being “in truth.” Next time we will explore more about how being in truth allows us to truly love one another. But the importance of truth, and seriousness of John’s command to not even welcome someone who doesn’t believe and live according Christ’s teaching, calls for a bit more consideration.

Obviously, John is concerned that both individual Christians and even whole churches might be led away from true faith if we welcome as Christians those who are not “in the truth.” He lays out the issue in verses 7-11.

  • There are many deceivers. Those who don’t confess the coming of Jesus in the flesh represent the message of the anti-Christ.
  • If you don’t remain in Christ’s teaching, but go beyond it, you don’t have God
  • If you remain in Christ’s teaching you have the Father and the Son
  • If someone doesn’t bring Christ’s teaching, don’t welcome him into your church

This is an important message for many Christian churches today. Far too many Christians and churches seem almost terrified of coming across as narrow-minded or bigoted. They seem to be afraid of hurting the feelings of those who believe or live differently. Let’s call these, “Wishy-washy Christians” (WWCs). They minimize the importance of truth. If someone asks a WWC, “Do you believe that anyone goes to a real hell, a place of torment for those who reject Jesus?” they might respond with something like, “Well, I believe God is a God of love, and we can’t put limits on that love.” WWCs typically shy away from the hard truths that the Bible teaches about human sins (particularly sexual sins), or the demands of Jesus that we give him our whole lives, and die to ourselves as we follow him. They try to help people avoid feeling guilty about not praying, not reading the Bible, not going to Church, not being involved in real Christian community.

WWCs often say things like “Everyone is welcome! You don’t have to change your life or lifestyle, just come be a part of our community. Of course, Jesus said it differently: “If anyone wants to come after me, let him take up cross, die to himself, and follow me.”

WWCs might say things like: “We don’t judge you just because you have a different opinion about Jesus, or how to be close to God.  Jesus, again, says it differently: “I am the way, the truth, the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

John’s words are certainly aimed at Wishy-washy Christians.

Though many churches today seem to shy away from admitting it, the fact is, Jesus calls us to hard choices. When we don’t insist upon truth in our churches, we obscure that, and we are in danger of not remaining in Jesus.

But where, exactly, do we draw the line? How do we apply this business of remaining in truth? How can we insist upon truth, and yet not become a cult that suspects all outsiders?

Because, unfortunately, there are many other Christians who seem to have the opposite problem. These folks can take up ten blog pages explaining how the worship song “Ten Thousand Reasons” will lead to the downfall of Christianity across the entire globe. Let’s call them “Divisive Christians,” (DCs). DCs seem determined in all cases to throw out the baby with the bathwater. So if a movement arises that is leading people to the Lord and helping thousands of people to become true and better disciples of Jesus, but that movement also involves speaking in tongues, DCs seem perfectly willing to warn all Christians that it is probably the work of the devil. DCs are after a pure, untainted theology. What makes up a pure and untainted theology, none of them can seem to agree upon. At their worst, DCs can become cult-like, believing that no one but themselves has a true understanding of Jesus’ teachings.

So how can we apply John’s commands to remain in the truth of Jesus’ and teaching, without becoming either a Wishy-washy Christian, or a Divisive Christian? There is no cut and dried, easy way, but I think there are some principles that could be quite helpful to us. To WWCs, these will probably seem to rigid and judgmental. To DCs, they will undoubtedly seem not rigid enough. I realize I am moving off the text of 2 John as we do this, but I think it is important, and certainly, I think it is relevant to John’s concerns about truth and love.

The New Testament contains many commands to insist upon sound doctrine and Biblical teaching. It tells Christians leaders to contend for the faith, and rebuke and teach those who are wrong. 2 Timothy 4:1-5 is just one of many similar passages:

1I solemnly charge you before God and Christ Jesus, who is going to judge the living and the dead, and because of His appearing and His kingdom:2Proclaim the message; persist in it whether convenient or not; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching.3For the time will come when they will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will multiply teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear something new.4They will turn away from hearing the truth and will turn aside to myths.5But as for you, be serious about everything, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2Tim 4:1-5, HCSB)

At the same time, many, many New Testament passages warn Christians not be involved in frivolous disputes:

23But reject foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they breed quarrels.24The Lord’s slave must not quarrel, but must be gentle to everyone, able to teach, and patient,25instructing his opponents with gentleness. Perhaps God will grant them repentance leading them to the knowledge of the truth.26Then they may come to their senses and escape the Devil’s trap, having been captured by him to do his will. (2Tim 2:23-26, HCSB)

 14Remind them of these things, charging them before God not to fight about words; this is in no way profitable and leads to the ruin of the hearers.15Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who doesn’t need to be ashamed, correctly teaching the word of truth.16But avoid irreverent, empty speech, for this will produce an even greater measure of godlessness. (2 Tim 2:14-16)

So what is worth fighting about? What do we insist upon as the truth that all Christians should walk in, and what things should we not quarrel about? At what point do we refuse to welcome people who call themselves Christians, but differ from us? At what point do we say, “those differences don’t have to divide us?

I think it helps to think of Christian beliefs on four different “levels.” The first level includes those things that we must believe in order to be Biblical Christians. I call this “foundational level” truth. We must insist upon agreement when it involves foundational-level issues, like:

  1. When the self-revelation of God is at stake. The universe exists for the glory of God. Anything that makes him less, that lifts up something higher than God, that makes something other than God and his glory a higher priority, is worth fighting about.
  2. When the revelation of Jesus Christ is at stake. Anything that makes Jesus less than Lord, Messiah, Savior, God-the-Son is worth fighting about. John makes this clear in 2 John 7.
  3. When the Gospel is at stake. Anything that claims we can be saved without Jesus’ death and resurrection, saved without repentance and gracious obedience, is worth fighting about.
  4. When the integrity of the Bible is at stake. We know and believe 1, 2 and 3 because of the Bible. Anything that generally undermines the truth or reliability of scripture therefore also undermines those things. Note, I don’t mean things that undermine a particular interpretation of one or more passages. I mean teachings or behavior that results in the bible as whole being viewed as less reliable or true.

When there is disagreement about things on this “first level” we need to obey the command of 2 John 10-11, and refuse to welcome the dissenters as Christians. If they do not claim to be Christians, we can still welcome them as visitors.

There is a second level of important Christian beliefs. I believe these things are also necessary to agree about among true Christians. Second-level Christian truths may not be entirely central to the faith, but if can’t agree on these things, Christian faith becomes basically meaningless. I call this second level “Doctrinal level” truth (“Doctrine” means “teaching.”)

For instance, the Bible contains many clear verses about Christian sexual morality. Now, we are not saved by obeying the Bible’s teaching about sexuality. We must also admit that this topic is not directly about the nature of God, or the work of Jesus. Even so, the Bible’s teaching on sexuality is so clear and straightforward that if we reject it, we are basically rejecting the Bible as a source of spiritual truth. If we do that, we end up having no basis to believe what the Bible says about God, Jesus, sin or salvation. All of the moral teachings of the Bible (not just sexual morality) fall into this doctrinal level of truth.

One thing that is helpful about doctrinal level truth is that we have 2,000 years of Christian history to help us. The core of Christian belief has been tested by 20 centuries of disagreements and discussions. Doctrinal level truth includes those things that we call “orthodox Christianity” – beliefs that all Christians have agreed upon throughout history.

Let’s make sure we are very clear about this. I don’t mean we should go around automatically condemning those who fail to live according to Biblical morality. I don’t mean we should demand that Christians be perfect. But we must insist that the Bible’s teachings on these issues are good, right and true. In other words, we let the words of the Bible judge our behavior and belief in these matters. If someone rejects these teachings of the Bible as not good, or invalid, we cannot call that person a fellow-Christian. This isn’t about performance, it is about Biblical truth.

There is another “level” of Christian belief. At this third level, we can disagree and still accept each other as Christians, yet the disagreement is serious. Therefore, I call it,  “Contention level,” truth, because at this level, we need to contend for (that is, make arguments for) a true understanding of the Bible. It is different from foundational and doctrinal level truth, because disputes at this level do not mean that one group are true Christians, and the other is not. Even so, we recognize that in contention level truth, usually, one party is in error, and that error should be corrected.

For example, consider the teaching of the “prosperity gospel.” The focus of prosperity gospel is all about this life. It minimizes the eternal hope we have in Jesus. It tends to reduce God to some sort of slot machine that we can manipulate in order to get what we want. I think the teaching of the prosperity gospel is wrong. I think it is dangerous, and tends to lead people farther away from Jesus, rather than closer.

Even so, I am sure that almost all of those with prosperity gospel beliefs are still real Christians. They agree with orthodox Christianity about foundational level and doctrinal level truth. This means that even though they are in error, they are still fellow-Christians. We shouldn’t welcome their teachings, but we can welcome them personally as fellow Jesus-followers.

Again, history can guide us. Orthodox Christianity (that is the core of agreed-upon Christian beliefs) has never included the prosperity gospel as correct.

At a fourth level we find teachings that are in the Bible, but about which many Christians have disagreed about for centuries. I call this “theological level,” truth, because the main people who get worked up about it are professional theologians. It is not necessary that we agree upon all theological level truth in order for us to have good Christian fellowship. We can accept as fellow-Christians people who disagree with us in these fourth level issues. Though we may have our strong opinions, at the theological level, we need to recognize that perhaps our opinions are wrong.

Two examples of this “theological level truth” are the doctrines of Baptism and Communion. The Bible teaches about these things. But some aspects of the Bible’s teaching about these two subjects are not quite clear. Good Christians have disagreed with each other for centuries about these two areas. People who were baptized as babies, and believe that infant baptism is valid, are going to be in heaven. There will also be people in heaven who believe that only adults should be baptized. There is a legitimate case to be made – from the Bible – for both positions. Most importantly, history shows that neither position undermines either foundational or doctrinal level truth, or tends to weaken any part of the Christian message more than the other.

Theological level disputes should not be allowed to cause deep divisions among Christians. Once more, the history of Christian orthodoxy is helpful. 2,000 years have shown us that these disagreements have remained, and have not harmed the core of the Christian faith.

At the fifth level, we find things that definitely should not be an issue between true Jesus followers. I call this the “liberty level” of truth, because the Bible clearly allows Christians to make individual decisions about a number of different things; that is, we have liberty to make our own choices, while remaining good Christians. Liberty level truth includes things like worship styles, and particular ceremonies for worship or other occasions. Special festivals, liturgies, or church seasons should not be issues that divide us, nor should we try to impose them on each other. We have liberty in what we eat, and how (and when) we eat it. There is liberty in whether Christians choose to view movies (and which ones) and in the sorts of music we listen to. There is liberty in whether or not we consume alcohol (as long as we are not getting drunk). There is liberty in whether Christians go out dancing, or play cards, or in a huge number of individual decisions in which we exercise our best judgement as we live our lives of faith in Jesus Christ.

There is a very old saying, dating back about four hundred years: “In essentials Unity, in non-essentials Liberty, and in all Things, Love.” This is a good, quick way to summarize what we’ve been learning here. Let the Holy Spirit continue to lead you as you meditate on these things.

FOUNDATIONAL TRUTH

complex answer

Truth provides the context for love. Truth is where love can thrive. This also means that love can only thrive where there is truth.

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Download Overlooked Letters Part 1

2 John #1:Truth & Love

I want to engage in another short series, this time, one centered on three often-overlooked books of the Bible. If you have followed my sermons for very long, you know that I believe that everything in the Bible is there because the Lord has chosen to put it there, and he can (and does) use every part of it to speak into our lives today. Two verses that remind us of this are Hebrews 4:12, and 2 Timothy 3:16-17

12For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the ideas and thoughts of the heart. (Heb 4:12, HCSB)

 16All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, 17so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2Tim 3:16-17, HCSB)

But there are three little books of the New Testament that seem to me to be generally ignored, at least in comparison to the rest of the New Testament. These are the second and third letters of John, and the letter of Jude. I cannot recall reading or hearing a single sermon that was based on one of these three books. And yet, these three books are part of the inspired Word of God. Therefore, I will do my part to explore what the Lord might have to say to us through them.

Let’s start with the second letter of John. First John, of course, is a well-known, often-preached-from book. All common-sense New Testament scholarship agrees that there is a high probability that the Apostle John (as in, “Peter, James & John,” or “John, son of Zebedee”) wrote the gospel of John, and all three letters that are attributed to him.

I think it is likely that 2nd John and 3rd John (as they are called) were written fairly late in John’s life. One reason I think so, is because he calls himself “the Elder.” There were of course, many “elders” in many local churches, long before the apostles passed away, and have been ever since, and even so, today. So who could claim to be “The Elder” and expect to his readers to know who he was? The logical answer would be “the last living apostle.” By apostle, I mean, “those who personally knew Jesus.” It is widely accepted that John was the last apostle to die, therefore at some point, when he was old, John would have been in a unique position as the pre-eminent elder of the entire Christian movement.

John writes to “the elect lady, and her children.” When we read the rest of the letter, it becomes fairly clear that John is not talking to a specific person, and he is not writing a “personal” letter, but one that is to a community of people. It seems clear enough that  the “elect lady” is a church, or group of churches in a particular place, and “her children” are the members of the church/churches.

Please pause right now, and read through all of 2 John – it’s only 13 verses. Then, ask the Lord to speak to you as you read this message, and meditate on what the verses say.

John’s major concern in this letter is that these Jesus-followers believe, and live, in truth and love.

Love and truth  are foundational to Christian belief. They are also foundational to Christian living and behavior. This is because truth and love are fundamental parts of God’s character, as revealed in the Bible.

I want look at 2 John in three parts. First, we will look at the importance of truth. Second, we will consider some practical things about how to apply truth. Third, we will look at what John says about love. However, even though I am dividing the book into three sermons, I want us to understand that truth and love can’t really be separated like that. They go hand in hand.

John shows us that by the way he begins the letter:

1The Elder: To the elect lady and her children: I love all of you in the truth — and not only I, but also all who have come to know the truth — 2because of the truth that remains in us and will be with us forever. 3Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love. (2John 1:1-3, HCSB)

He says that he loves them “in truth.” John sometimes employs double meanings, and I suspect he is doing that here. I think, in the first sense, he means that he truly loves them. I think he also means that his love springs from the fact that they are all living “in The truth,” that is, according to their common faith in Jesus Christ. Truth provides the context for love. Truth is where love can thrive. This also means that love can only thrive where there is truth.

So what is this truth that John talks about, and what is his concern about it? A few verses from John’s other writings can give us the idea of what he means by “truth.”

6Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. (John 14:6, HCSB)

 8If we say, “We have no sin,” we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1John 1:8-9, HCSB)

 10The one who believes in the Son of God has this testimony within him. The one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony God has given about His Son. 11And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. 12The one who has the Son has life. The one who doesn’t have the Son of God does not have life. 13I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. (1John 5:10-13, HCSB)

So, by “the truth,” John means:

  • The Person of Jesus Christ and faith in Him
  • The teachings of Christ, and about Christ; in other words: the New Testament

In verses 9-11 of our text today, John explains the importance of remaining in Christ’s teaching:

9Anyone who does not remain in Christ’s teaching but goes beyond it, does not have God. The one who remains in that teaching, this one has both the Father and the Son. 10If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your home, and don’t say, “Welcome,” to him; 11for the one who says, “Welcome,” to him shares in his evil works. (2John 1:9-11, HCSB)

Let’s make sure we understand the background to John’s words here. All churches during John’s lifetime (and for two hundred years afterwards) met in homes. House church wasn’t weird – it was how church was done. So when John says “do not receive him into your home,” we should read: “do not receive him into your church.

So, John is not saying “Don’t invite unbelievers over for dinner.” But he is saying: “Don’t welcome people into your church who claim to be believers, but who don’t have faith in Jesus, and who don’t hold to his teachings.” If someone comes along, claiming to be in the truth, but does not remain in Christ’s teaching (the truth) then that person cannot be included in Christian love and fellowship.

I hope you have a whole bunch of questions about that. It sounds kind of shocking to our modern ears, at least in 21st Century America and Europe. Just in case you wondered, however, this is not some isolated teaching found only this obscure little letter. It is a widespread, common teaching of the New Testament. Jesus commanded us to practice what we call “church discipline” in Matthew 18:15-18, which included, if necessary, asking people to leave the church (also Matthew 16:19, and John 20:23). Many other verses command Jesus’ followers to separate themselves from those who claim to be Christians, but do not follow the teaching of Jesus. Just a few of them are: 2 Corinthians 6:14-15; Galatians 6:1; 2 Thessalonians 3:6, and 3:14-15; 1 Timothy 5:20; 1 Timothy 6:3-5; Titus 3:10-11.

Now, we should be clear, this is about people who claim to be Christians, but do not believe what the Bible says, and/or willfully and persistently disobey God’s moral standards. It isn’t about someone who struggles and is honest in that struggle, and is seeking to believe and live in the truth. And it isn’t about non-Christians. Paul puts it like this:

9I wrote to you in a letter not to associate with sexually immoral people. 10I did not mean the immoral people of this world or the greedy and swindlers or idolaters; otherwise you would have to leave the world. 11But now I am writing you not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer who is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person. 12For what business is it of mine to judge outsiders? Don’t you judge those who are inside? 13But God judges outsiders. Put away the evil person from among yourselves. (1Cor 5:9-13, HCSB bold/italic format added for emphasis)

In the churches that I have served, I know for a fact that we have had people who were adulterers, murderers, drug addicts, greedy, gossipers, and a whole host of other things. We even have had people who did not believe in Jesus.

But there are two important things about most of these folks. Most of them are honest about what they have been in the past, and they have given all those things up so that they could enter into the freedom and forgiveness that Jesus offers.

The people who have not given them up, or who don’t trust Jesus, are often honest about that. They are also welcome in our churches, provided they do not pretend to be what they are not. That is John’s big problem with those who don’t hold to the teaching of and about Jesus. In the churches to which he writes, there are people who claim to be Christians – but they don’t believe what Christians believe, or they don’t act like Christians act. These people are problem for churches.

Imagine you  are an alcoholic. You went for a long time without wanting to admit it to yourself. You went even longer before you were willing to admit it to anyone else. But finally, broken, humbled, a little bit afraid, you go to Alcoholics Anonymous. The people there welcome you. You are just beginning to realize that maybe you aren’t alone, maybe there are others who understand, and might be able to help you. Then you meet a guy named Joe.

Joe tells you “You know, I come here because my family wants me to, but it’s all a load of horse-manure. I’m not helpless and broken. You aren’t either. We don’t need this AA junk to fix us. We’re just fine as we are. Say, you wanna grab a beer afterwards?”

The leader comes up, and Joe starts talking like he’s been sober for six months, and it’s struggle but it is so worth it. In other words, he pretends he’s there because he wants to be. He pretends he’s a part of it, when, in fact, he scorns it.

Now, Joe could be right (he isn’t). But even if he was right, everything he is saying and doing is completely contrary to the principles of AA. If the meeting was full of people like Joe, no one would get any help at all. Even with just Joe there, he might derail someone like you, who are just beginning to get the help you need.

Now, Joe is entitled to his opinion. If I was the AA leader, I would encourage Joe to be honest about where he is really at. But Joe is not entitled to try and make AA meetings conform to his opinion, and he is not entitled to come to AA and work against everything AA stands for, and most especially, he is allowed to come to AA and tell lies about who he is and what he thinks. It doesn’t help anyone, least of all himself. If you can see that it is reasonable for an AA group to have some sort of standard, certainly it must also be reasonable for a church.

This isn’t about being perfect. It isn’t about getting your act together before you can be part of a church. Instead it is about living in truth. I already quoted John’s first letter, but it is worth looking at again:

5Now this is the message we have heard from Him and declare to you: God is light, and there is absolutely no darkness in Him. 6If we say, “We have fellowship with Him,” yet we walk in darkness, we are lying and are not practicing the truth. 7But if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.

 8If we say, “We have no sin,” we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

 10If we say, “We don’t have any sin,” we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.

 1My little children, I am writing you these things so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father — Jesus Christ the Righteous One. 2He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for those of the whole world. (1John 1:5-2:2, HCSB)

So John is not saying we have to be perfect. But we do need to be honest; that is, we need to be in the truth. We need to believe and admit the truth that we have sinned, and we need to go on admitting it when we sin again. We need to believe the truth that our sin is serious, and our only hope of cleansing is through Jesus. And we need to trust that the love and sacrifice of Jesus does, in fact, completely cleanse us. We need to live in the truth of the fact that we are now forgiven people, made holy by the efforts of Jesus. As we truly trust that, we will find ourselves sinning less, and growing closer to God.

May the Holy Spirit establish you in the truth more and more, this week, and forever!

HOW CAN A GOOD GOD ALLOW SUFFERING?

suffering - mother and baby

When we reject the God of the Bible because of suffering, what we are really saying is that we will not accept a God who is greater than our own minds. We are saying that if we cannot work out a purpose or good outcome for suffering, then no such good outcome is possible.

And it is only in Christianity that suffering is redeemed by a God who has suffered himself, and who promises to impart meaning, significance and a good outcome from our own trials.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

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Download Suffering Part 2

Suffering #2. WHY DOES GOD ALLOW SUFFERING?

 Last time, we considered the fact that New Testament clearly teaches that suffering is a normal part of being  a follower of Jesus. I want to unpack that more, later in this series. I believe that trust in Jesus gives us tremendous hope and grace when we experience suffering. But many people have trouble seeing it that way. One of the most common questions that both Christians and non-Christians have about suffering is this: How can a God who is good, loving, and all-powerful allow some of the terrible suffering that we see in the world?

This isn’t just a theoretical question. Many people turn away from the Christian faith because they feel that God has abandoned them in their suffering. Many others use some version of this question to keep God at a distance, and claim it as a reason they could never become Jesus-followers.

This issue of God’s role in human suffering is very deep, and dozens (if not hundreds) of books have been written on the subject, most by people who are much smarter than I am. I don’t want to pretend to have all the answers, because I don’t. But sometimes, I think we make this more complicated than it has to be.

One thing I find interesting is that usually, the people who turn away from Christianity because of suffering have not really considered what they are turning toward. In other words, what are the alternatives to the Christian view of suffering? Just so that we are thorough, I want us to briefly think about how other world-views and religions approach suffering. Obviously, this is all vastly simplified, but I think we can get to the basic idea of each. See if these other approaches can really bring you any better satisfaction than the Christian view.

Buddhism, and many similar religions, take the approach that the physical world is meaningless. The way to deal with suffering is to learn to not let it bother you. So when a five year old boy is repeatedly abused by his step-father, it isn’t a tragedy – it is meaningless. Don’t allow it to affect you. If you let such things bother you, you will never find ultimate peace. In addition, Buddhists generally subscribe to the idea of karma. From the website Buddhanet.net:

Karma is the law that every cause has an effect, i.e., our actions have results. This simple law explains a number of things: inequality in the world, why some are born handicapped and some gifted, why some live only a short life.

In other words, people suffer because they deserve to suffer (possibly because of actions in previous lives).

Hinduism, and many philosophies like it, also view suffering around the idea of karma. So, in both Hinduism and Buddhism, the little boy who is abused by his step-father deserves it. Eventually, (in Hinduism) after about  8.4 million lifetimes of suffering, you’ll finally be free. But in the meantime, you should accept it in your own life, and in that of others, as justly deserved. Is this more satisfying to you than the Christian God, who offers us His presence in the middle of suffering, and even suffers on our behalf?

Secularism (which is more or less based upon atheism) sees suffering as a senseless tragedy. Secularists are motivated to try and minimize future suffering, for the good of the human race. So secularists respond to child-abuse by making laws against such things. They want to build a society of laws and technology to benefit all humanity. But secularists don’t have any compelling reason for why we should care about the human race in the first place, or build that better society. Most would object to that statement, but if we are just the product of a random series of events, there is no meaning to life, nor any value to it.

Secularists may want to make the world a better place, but they don’t have much in the way of comfort for someone who suffers anyway. So, the little boy who is abused is suffering from senseless tragedy. There really isn’t anything to make it OK. And yet, on the other hand, there is no compelling moral logic telling us to care about him in the first place. Is senseless suffering more comforting to you than a God who can impart meaning and significance to pain?

Some religions, like Islam, are more or less fatalistic. Suffering just is what it is, and all we can do is get through it as best we can. God has his reasons, which we won’t understand. So the little boy must simply endure it well. There is no sense that God shares our pain, or participates in suffering on our behalf. While it is noble to suffer well, there is no real assurance that it means anything, or accomplishes anything.

Only in Christianity is suffering redeemed by a God who has suffered himself, and who promises to impart meaning, significance and a good outcome from our own trials.

Now, I know that this is still hard to swallow. What good outcome could possibly justify the repeated abuse of a little child?

The answer is quite simple: I don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows.

But the God of the Bible is not only revealed as good, he is also revealed as infinite

For everything was created by Him in heaven and on earth, the visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things have been created through Him and for him. He is before all things, and by Him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:16-17)

15God will bring this about in His own time. He is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings, and the Lord of lords, 16the only One who has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light; no one has seen or can see Him, to Him be honor and eternal might. Amen. (1Tim 6:15-16, HCSB)

3He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. 4He counts the number of the stars; He gives names to all of them. 5Our Lord is great, vast in power; His understanding is infinite. (Ps 147:3-5, HCSB)

3Do not boast so proudly, or let arrogant words come out of your mouth, for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and actions are weighed by Him. (1Sam 2:3, HCSB)

8“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not My ways.” This is the LORD’s declaration. 9“For as heaven is higher than earth, so My ways are higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts. (Isa 55:8-9, HCSB)

We human beings are not infinite – there are definite limits to our physical bodies, to our brains, even to our souls. This means that we can only ever grasp a very, very, tiny piece of God. When we reject the God of the Bible because of suffering, what we are really saying is that we will not accept a God who is greater than our own minds. We are saying that if we cannot work out a purpose or good outcome for suffering, then no such good outcome is possible. We are demanding that an infinite God must act in such a way we tiny, finite creatures can understand with our tiny little minds. That is not the God described by the Bible.

All of this is addressed in one of the oldest books of the Bible: Job. Job is good man, with a good life, when God deliberately allows him to suffer terrible tragedies, one after the other. Four friends come to be with Job in his suffering. Job speaks out about his anguish, and he demands an explanation from God. Job’s friends rebuke him, arguing that Job is suffering (basically) as the result of his own karma – in other words, he deserves it. Job disagrees, and maintains that God must explain Himself, and show him the reasons for his suffering. They argue back and forth about this for most of the book. Finally, in chapter 38 of the book, God breaks His silence.

Who are you to question my wisdom with your ignorant empty words? Now stand up straight, and answer the questions I ask you.

Were you there when I made the world? If you know so much, tell me about it. Who decided how large it would be? Who stretched the measuring line over it? Do you know all the answers? What holds up the pillars that support the earth? Who laid the cornerstone of the world?

In the dawn of that day the stars sang together, and the heavenly beings shouted for joy. (Job 38:1-7, Today’s English Version)

I can just hear someone saying, “Ha! We do know better than God: we know the earth isn’t supported by pillars!” That sort of response is a bit silly. This is clearly poetic language, expressing the main idea that next to God we know nothing.

After going on for four chapters reminding Job of all that he doesn’t know, God stops a moment. Job repents. Next God rebukes Job’s friends, who had insisted that Job’s suffering was essentially the result of karma. He spoke to the friend named Eliphaz:

“I am angry with you and your two friends, for you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.” (Job 42:7, HCSB)

He tells them to offer sacrifices, and to beg Job to pray for them:

“Then my servant Job will pray for you. I will surely accept his prayer, and not deal with you as your folly deserves, for you  have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.” (42:8, HCSB).

Job did not have the right to an explanation, but in all his demands, he did not say anything untruthful about God. But God says that Job’s three friends – who said many things that some modern Christians often say – were wrong in what they said about God. Note the final twist of the knife against the idea of karma – God says he will not punish Job’s friends, even though they deserve it. The message is clear:

  1. We will not always have an explanation for suffering. We cannot begin to understand God’s perspective, and we are simply not smart enough to comprehend God’s reasons for allowing suffering.
  2. The idea that suffering is always the result of what we do, or don’t do (in this life, or in past ones) is simply wrong. We often have no control whatsoever over our own suffering.

This is the starting point for a Christian view of suffering: God is bigger than we are. He is infinite, we are not, and so we cannot possibly understand the reasons for everything he does, or does not, do. The rest of the Bible, however, calls us to trust this God that we cannot understand. He is willing to suffer Himself, on our behalf. He promises to redeem and make good come from all of our suffering, if we trust Him. Trusting God when we don’t understand may be difficult, but it is not complicated. You don’t have to be a genius to deal with the questions of suffering – you simply need to trust – something any child knows how to do.

I do know – from personal experience – that sometimes trust is a tall order. I haven’t always been able to trust God in the midst of suffering. But when I can, it changes everything. It helps tremendously to remember that Himself has suffered.

18For since He Himself was tested and has suffered, He is able to help those who are tested. (Heb 2:18, HCSB)

God, and His actions are beyond our understanding. But He isn’t just some distant puppet-master. He himself entered into our suffering, and suffered on our behalf. He has helped many millions of people in the midst of their suffering. I know he can help us, also. I know He is trustworthy to do so. Won’t you trust Him yourself?