Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Learning from the past

I've been conducting a study on the second epistle of Peter and the epistle of Jude. These books are extremely similar and they both have a very serious and apocalyptic tone to them. I hope to post some entries based on these two books in the coming days and weeks (good Lord willing). Today, I want to talk about learning from past examples. There are many Christians who hold a negative view towards the Old Testament. They feel that since we are under the New Covenant, we have no obligation to read/study the Old Testament scriptures. While it is true that we must read the Old Testament with the understanding of Christ's fulfillment of the law, it is a gross error to believe that somehow the Old Testament scriptures have lost their inspiration. For instance, we read in Hebrews that the Holy Ghost is still speaking (today) through the psalms (ref: Hebrews 3:7 & 15).

With that in mind, I'll jump into my subject matter for today. In the epistle of II Peter, he confronts the false teachers who are denying the coming of the Lord (the Parousia). In denying the reality of the second coming, they have also given themselves over to a lifestyle without restraint. As I have often mentioned- what we believe will ultimately work itself out in how we behave. Those who do not believe Christ will come again to judge the world will obviously be tempted to have a lax attitude towards the need for personal holiness and obedience to the commands of God. Peter gives his audience a brief history lesson to show how God has intervened in the past to bring judgement upon sinful rebellion. This is where we pick up in our text today:

II Peter 2: 4 For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment;
5 and did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a preacher of righteousness, with seven others, when He brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly;
6 and if He condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to destruction by reducing them to ashes, having made them an example to those who would live ungodly lives thereafter;

First, Peter reminds of the angelic rebellion led by Lucifer. Most Christians believe that a third of the angels fell with Lucifer. There are various theories that discuss the actual sinful behavior of the false angels (most surround an account in Genesis 6 but I'm not touching that one with a ten-foot pole today). We don't have a lot of the details of their rebellion, but we can accept that God did judge it nonetheless. He then shifts gears and brings us to the flood of Noah's day. The wickedness of man had reached epic porportions, but Noah "found grace in the eyes of the Lord". Finally, Peter cites the example of Sodom and Gomorrah as proof that God will judge the exceeding sinfulness of mankind. There are some who believe that Sodom was judged for a lack of hospitality, but I believe that this text (as well as Jude 7) reveal that they were judged for their immorality (primarily sexual in nature). We know that a spiritual principle is that "in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word shall be established", and here we have just that. Peter gives three examples in which God has judged the rebellion of both angels and men. We would do well to believe that He again is going to judge the world in righteousness.

Lest we should end on a bad note though, we should also remember that God rescued both Noah and Lot. Peter tells us that Lot (a righteous man) was delivered and that God knows indeed how to deliver the godly, and reserve the unjust for punishment.

II Peter 2:7 and if He rescued righteous Lot, oppressed by the sensual conduct of unprincipled men 8 (for by what he saw and heard that righteous man, while living among them, felt his righteous soul tormented day after day by their lawless deeds), 9 then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment, (NASB)

If we only go by the Genesis account, we can sometimes get the impression that Lot was a "man of the world." After all, he was in Sodom by his own choice and we find him in the gates of that wicked city. This text in Peter however, reveals that Lot's soul was tormented by the evil deeds of the men and women of his day. Although you and I have not arrived at a state of moral perfection, we are made righteous by the blood of Christ and a living relationship with Him. If you are a true Christian, then you must of necessity be tormented and vexed by the unlawful and immoral deeds of human beings in our day. We also have the great hope that Jesus will come again, and rescue us from this evil world before He pours out His wrath on them that know not God and those who do not obey the gospel of Jesus Christ.

May we learn today from history-learning that sin and disobedience bring judgment- and also that faithful obedience to Christ will bring deliverance from the wrath to come.

God bless you today!

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

James 3:1 My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. (NKJV)

I apologize for the lack of activity in this blog lately. In my personal devotions, I feel as if the Lord has been speaking to me about this scripture I posted above. Of course I knew this was in the bible and have read it many times. For some reason the Lord really seemed to "quicken" this verse to me last week. I must admit that it brought about a solemn feeling of conviction to my own heart. I began to examine my own motivations for ministry as well as evaluate the way I am conducting the work of ministry.

Paul told Timothy to "make full proof of thy ministry." Another translation renders it "discharge all the duties of your ministry." Honestly and admittedly, there are certain aspects of ministry that I find more appealing than others. I don't particularly enjoy long counseling sessions, hospital visits, or administrative meetings. They are however, a necessary component to the work of ministry. On the other hand, I love to teach, to write, and to preach. These are also necessary aspects of ministerial work. But what about prayer? The disciples appointed 7 men full of the Holy Ghost to "serve tables" in the book of Acts so that they could dedicate themselves to ministry of the Word and to prayer. I believe that out of all the necessary disciplines of ministry- prayer is perhaps the most important. The one common denominator in both the apostles' and Jesus' ministry was prayer. We see that God did many miraculous wonderful things by the hands of the apostles, but we would be dishonest if we didn't see the obvious link between the power of God and the consistency and fervency of their prayer life.

James warns that those of us who enter the teaching and ministry put ourselves under a stricter category of judgement. Of course we realize that this calling must come from a Divine mandate. The scriptures declare "how shall they preach except they be sent." Paul says that necessity was laid upon him and "woe be unto him" if he preached not the gospel. There is no doubt that there must first be a calling from God-then and only then can we say "here am I Lord send me." But we should never enter and embrace this calling without understanding the accountability that comes along with it. We read in Matthew 7 that there are a group of individuals who will stand before the Lord and say "we have done many wonderful works in your name" and yet Christ will say to them "depart from me worker of iniquity....I never knew you." One thing that has always startled me about this passage is that these individuals seem genuinely surprised that they had failed the test!

Christ says that there will be a stricter judgement for those who know their Lord's will but do not do it. Merely hearing the Word isn't enough.....teaching the Word isn't enough....preaching the Word isn't enough...we must DO it! Paul told Timothy to watch his life and his doctrine carefully, for in doing so he would save both himself and his hearers! It is easier to keep a watch on one's public life. Most of us have mastered the ability to look holy in public. But I wonder how many of us can say with the Psalmist "I will walk within my house with a perfect heart, I will set no evil thing before my eyes." I often wonder how many gospel preachers can "bring the house down" with a fiery exegesis and homiletic style- only to go home to his family and let his temper run rampant in a house filled with clamor and evil speaking?

There are no easy answers, and I'm not writing today as one who has arrived. But one thing I can say for sure is that I'm thinking about my accountability factor a lot more lately. There will come a day when that which is whispered in the closet will be proclaimed upon the rooftops. At that day the "first will be last and the last will be first." Some will hear "well done thou good and faithful servant"....others "depart from me...I never knew you." My denomination has a program called the MAP which stands for Ministerial Affirmation Program. This program is designed to help men affirm their calling to the ministry. Ideally, it will weed out those who only have the desire to sign their paperwork with "Rev." in front of their names (yes, as silly as it sounds- there are some who have such a trifling view of ministry). Perhaps we should include a course on the stricter judgement awaiting those who do the work of ministry (especially teaching and preaching).

These are my random thoughts today- feel free to add your own.

God bless,

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Conflict Among Godly People

Acts 15:39 And the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other: and so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus

I'm very glad that we have this narrative account recorded in scripture. I know it may sound cliche' but I believe that everything in the bible is there for a reason. Luke (a masterful historian as well as a follower of Jesus Christ) was inspired by the Holy Spirit to record this for all Christians to read throughout the church age. I'm sure there are many opinions as to why this was included in the canon of scripture, but I think one important reason is that we see that godly, Spirit-filled leaders sometimes disagree (even to the point of separation). If you have been a Christian for any amount of time, you have experienced conflict. Most ministers (unfortunately) spend much of their time on conflict resolution. We read books, attend seminars, and listen to sermons designed to help in "conflict management" (almost an oxymoron of a term if you ask me-anyone in the midst of a conflict will admit that it's anything but "manageable"...but I digress). Hopefully through this brief message, we will come to understand that sometimes conflict is inevitable, but it doesn't have to be destructive.

I think a little background might be in order here. We are introduced to Barnabas in the fourth chapter of Acts, where we read that he was called "son of encouragement" by the other Apostles. Without a doubt, this was a man who evidenced a Spirit-filled life. Interestingly enough, we find that Barnabas was one of the first guys among the Apostles who (for lack of a better term) "stuck out his neck" for Paul. I'm going to take for granted that most of us are familiar with Paul's background. Formerly a persecutor of the church, Jesus met him on the Damascus road and Saul of Tarsus had a dramatic conversion experience. Understandably, some of the others at Jerusalem were reluctant to trust that Paul truly was born-again and that this wasn't just some ploy to infiltrate their ranks and persecute them further. But we read that Barnabas was willing to embrace Paul and confirm that God's hand truly was upon him.

Acts 11: 22 Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem: and they sent forth Barnabas, that he should go as far as Antioch. 23 Who, when he came, and had seen the grace of God, was glad, and exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord. 24 For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith: and much people was added unto the Lord. 25 Then departed Barnabas to Tarsus, for to seek Saul: 26 And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch

It is evident that God's blessing was upon this ministerial alliance between Saul (Paul) and Barnabas because we read the the Holy Spirit commissioned them:

Acts 13:2 As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. 3 And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away. 4 So they, being sent forth by the Holy Ghost, departed unto Seleucia; and from thence they sailed to Cyprus.

So far so good....but a point of contention comes about due to another young minister named John Mark. (who just happens to be a cousin of Barnabas ref: Col 4:10).

We read that early on, Mark was a companion of these two great men.

Acts 12:25 And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem, when they had fulfilled their ministry, and took with them John, whose surname was Mark.

Acts 13:5 When they reached Salamis, they began to proclaim the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews; and they also had John as their helper (NASB).

For whatever reason, John Mark abandoned Paul and Barnabas in the mission and returned home. Perhaps the sea journey was too perilous or perhaps the threat of persecution or fear of the unknown was too much for Mark. In any event, we read that he abandoned them and went back home.

Acts 13:13 Now Paul and his companions put out to sea from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia; but John left them and returned to Jerusalem. (NASB)

Now that we have looked at some background information, let's fast-forward to Paul and Barnabas' disagreement. It can be found in the fifteenth chapter of Acts. Let's look at the narrative:

Acts 15:35 Paul also and Barnabas continued in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also. 36 And some days after Paul said unto Barnabas, Let us go again and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the LORD, and see how they do. 37 And Barnabas determined to take with them John, whose surname was Mark. 38 But Paul thought not good to take him with them, who departed from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work. 39 And the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other: and so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus; 40 And Paul chose Silas, and departed, being recommended by the brethren unto the grace of God. 41 And he went through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches.

I think if we can look honestly at the text, we can see that both men might have had godly intentions where John Mark is concerned. Let's look from the perspective of Barnabas first. First of all, John Mark is a family member, and we all know that blood is thicker than water (usually). It is obvious from the name "son of encouragement" given to Barnabas, that he was a minister of great grace....as we all should be! It is not outlandish then to believe that Barnabas would have been willing to give Mark another chance at ministry. We can only speculate as to the shame and condemnation Mark might have felt after failing these two great giants of the faith (I know how I would have felt...about 2 feet tall!). Perhaps Barnabas felt like this would be a good opportunity to strengthen, encourage, and restore Mark to the ministry. I commend Barnabas for his willingness, because many are very unforgiving of those in the ministry when they fail. We must remember that the scripture says we should all take heed "lest we fall" when it comes to temptation- and restoration must be undertaken in "the spirit of meekness" considering ourselves, lest we also be tempted. But we can also see that Paul has legitimate concern(s) also.

Paul knows that suffering awaits him at every corner. He realizes that perils of robbers, countrymen, dictators, soldiers, Judaizers, etc. etc. await him at every turn. He has seen that Mark has already abandoned them once. For some of us, that's all it would take- we have the attitude of "I'll forgive but I won't forget!" (sound familiar?) And lest we be too hard on Paul, we must remember that Paul knows that we must "through much tribulation enter the kingdom of God." Apostolic missionary journeys were anything but pleasure trips (contrary to the luxury cruises that most televangelists advertise on their programs). Paul realizes that endurance and perserverance are absolutely essential to doing God's work. Paul had every right to be cautious and leery of Mark's participation in this ministry endeavour. What if he comes with them, gets frightened, and abandons them again? The results to both of them could be devastating!

We almost get the inference that the rest of the Apostles were siding with Paul on this one. Silas was chosen to accompany Paul and was "recommended by the brethren unto the grace of God." Furthermore, we read very little about Barnabas from this point on in the scriptures. However, we must be careful to note that Luke does not make derogatory remarks about Barnabas or Mark either. We have a tendency to demonize those who disagree with us in the church. Any work that we do for the Lord carries with it a great deal of emotional involvement. Faith in God is a deeply personal thing and I think that most true Christians seek to be led by God. When we feel like others do not share our particular leading or leaning, there is a tendency to recoil in anger and consider others to be "unChristian."

We all like happy endings (well most of us anyway), and apparently this story has a happy ending too. We next read about Mark in Paul's second letter to Timothy. We can all smile and have deep appreciation from what we read from the Apostle Paul at the end of his life.

II Timothy 4:11 Only Luke is with me Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service. (NASB)

We're kind of forced to fill in the blanks here. We're not completely certain what we can attribute Paul's change of heart to. One thing we can infer for certain is that Paul counted Mark as someone of value to his ministry in the final days of his life. At a point when apparently many had abandoned him (Demas comes to mind in particular), it's ironic that now Mark is useful to him.

In summary, we can see that sometimes even godly, Spirit-filled, called, anointed men and women can and do disagree. We need to allow the grace of God to operate in our lives to such a degree that we don't become bitter-we become better. Though we don't always understand why things happen as they do (for now we all see in a mirror dimly), we can trust that God works all things together for good to those that love Him and are the called according to His purpose. It is entirely plausible that in this particular situation, many more souls were reached as a result of Paul and Barnabas going in opposite directions. Sometimes even greater work can be accomplished when we spread out as opposed to sailing all on the same course. Jesus rebuked His disciples when they wanted to forbid others from casting out demons in His name. He quickly reminded them that there are only two sides in the great eternal conflict- light and darkness. We should all take heed in how we treat those who are in the army of the Lord. If you are facing a difficult conflict with another member of the body of Christ- I urge you today to allow the grace of God to release forgiveness in your heart. I could be wrong, but I fully expect to see both Paul and Barnabas rejoicing together on streets of gold one Day.