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Jesus is God!

“For I know that this will turn out for my salvation through your supplications and through the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ,”

(Philippians 1:19)

The confidence of Paul in the prayers of the Saints and the strength of the Spirit should not surprise us much as we arrive here in verse 19. Indeed, as Christians, how we rely on the prayers of others. That said, I wonder whether we genuinely pray and make supplications to the Lord on behalf of those who are in distress, in chains, or just in ministry…the leadership of the church that we make wise and Godly decisions when such are set before us.

What is quite significant, though, about this verse is Paul’s use of the phrase, “the Spirit of Jesus Christ.” This is the only spot in the Bible where the Spirit is spoken of in this way. We find the phrase, “The Spirit of God,” often enough (25 times), but this is something that stands out, though it should not give us pause. The reality is that Jesus is God and thus it is a natural linguistic transition to make from saying “the Spirit of God” to “the Spirit of Jesus Christ.” At the same time, this verse does provide us with an apologetic reminder that Jesus Christ is fully God. We live in a day and an age where many are trying to make less of Jesus than he is, making him look to be some sort of demigod or divine human, seeing him as created and not part of the Triune Godhead. Here, Paul would seem to refute such an idea, reminding us that the Holy Spirit is just as much connected with the Son as he is with the Father.

But also make note of the language applied to the Spirit here…it is the Spirit who strengthens, who provides for Paul, who fortifies him in his time of need. How we need to be reminded sometimes that we do not do things in our own strength as believers, but what we do we must do in reliance on the strength of the Holy Spirit. He empowers, we bring nothing to the table other than obedience…and that is something the Spirit works in us as well. There is no room for personal pride, folks, only pride in our Savior, Christ Jesus.

A Meal-Ticket or A Ministry?

“On one hand, there are some who proclaim Christ from jealousy and contention while others do so in good will; the latter from love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel; the former preach Christ out of contention, not genuinely, intending tribulation to arise while I am in my chains.”

(Philippians 1:15-17)

At the first reading of these words, it would be natural to be shocked at what it is Paul is saying. Indeed, there are some people who, being jealous of the attention that Paul is getting, begin preaching Christ…not with any sincerity, but in the hopes that they will bring Paul grief while he is imprisoned and can do nothing to stop them. Surely this must not be the case! Are there some who are so wicked and brazen that they would do such a thing? The sad thing is that there were such people in Paul’s day and there still are such people today, who use the pulpit and the ministry to serve their own ends and care nothing about the state of Christ’s church.

So, how does Paul react to that? Does he rail against those who preach ingenuously? No, he doesn’t, but we will get to that. God is indeed clear that he has a judgment awaiting those who are shepherds who are only interested in feeding themselves (see Ezekiel 34 and Jude). And, “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord” (Deuteronomy 32:35; Romans 12:9; Hebrews 10:30). God will bring judgment and great will be their fall, we need not fret over the end of the wicked.

At the same time, it should grieve us that there are so many in our world today that would make the Gospel their meal-ticket rather than a ministry. Even mores, it ought to grieve us that so many people would be so ignorant of the teachings of scripture that they would fall into such traps…people desperate to have their “ears itched” instead of being instructed in the Word of Truth. May we pray for a generation that will be so committed to the scriptures that they would see through the thin veneer of the prosperity gospel, the liberal gospel, and the heretical teaching that such contentious preachers would find no welcome in our communities. May God’s word be lifted up, not the greed or pride of men.

Playing Dominoes in Ukraine

I spent about half an hour the other day playing a game of two-on-two Dominoes with several of my Ukrainian students. The game was the basic game that I had played as a child, though it has been many years since I had played, and it was fairly easy to follow the progression even though neither my opponents nor my partner and I spoke the same language.

Though my gaming partner and I did lose our little tournament, it began to get me thinking about the nature of cross-cultural ministry on two levels. First, how often we go to great lengths to put on an expensive program or elaborate activities to help us bridge the language barriers when often one of the most significant ways we can bridge that gap is by our simple presence in their lives. That which proved meaningful to my three students was not so much that I was able to play a game that they liked or that I could be competitive with them (then again, my partner and I did lose the game, so I am not sure just how well I did at playing) but it was simply that I was willing to spend time interacting with them on a very basic level outside of the classroom.

Such was the case even when I was teaching students in America where no (or almost no!) language barrier was present. It was not the things that I normally did in the classroom that endeared my students to me and it was not my lectures that they will remember for years to come (as much as I would like that to be the case!). Instead, it was the time that I spent with my students outside of the classroom, living life together, sitting down to arm-wrestle, or working together on a project. It wasn’t even always about the quality of the interaction, but it was the willingness to interact that made the impact.

The second thing that I got to thinking about was in terms of the nature of what “cross-cultural” means. Typically we think of cross-cultural as going somewhere else in the world and bridging a language-barrier. Such activities are essential in working out the Great Commission and I have enjoyed the privilege of being able to do so in a small way myself here in eastern-Europe. Yet one need not travel 5,000 miles away from home to find a cross-cultural context. In seminary, I spent several years doing inner-city homeless ministry — a culture that was very different than the rural middle-class context in which I was raised. Sometimes cross-cultural simply even means sitting down with your grand-kids and listening to their favorite music or sharing a favorite movie of your own with them. You may find out that cross-cultural contexts are as close as your neighbor’s back yard or even your own home.

In putting this all together, I am reminded both of Jonah and of Jesus’ ministry to the Samaritans and others outside of the Jewish context. The Syrophoenician woman, for example, came to Jesus shortly after he had spent time in her non-Jewish town. Jonah, of course, did not want to go proclaim the Gospel to the Ninevites, but God sent him the hard way. The sermon that Jonah finally preached was terse at best and he fled the city hoping to see a mighty display of fireworks. Yet God moved even through Jonah’s half-hearted message. The very fact that God had sent them his prophet must have (at least initially) made an impact on the people and caused them to take notice. Jesus’ response to the Syrophoenician woman was that it was not yet time for the pet dogs to receive their meal; hardly a cordial greeting, but his mere presence in her community told her that he would be willing to help and the desperation she felt for her daughter’s need drove her to be undaunted by this initial rebuke. Even in Samaria, Jesus’ interactions are warm, but brief, yet the impact is profound.

Ukraine may be a long way to come simply to play a game of Dominoes, but no distance is too far to go for the opportunity to share the Gospel and to help develop disciples. Even so, you likely do not need to travel very far to cross a cultural barrier. My encouragement is to look for those opportunities, find a chance to simply be present in the life of your neighbor (even in the Good Samaritan sense) and build a relationship with him or her, for it is out of that relationship that you will have a chance to share the Gospel. Who knows, were Jesus to have come for the first time in this world today — a world of running water in homes and water-fountains in public places — I wonder how he might have engaged the Samaritan woman at the Well…it might have even been through a game of Dominoes.

Strengthen What is About to Die

You must become alert!  And you must strengthen the ones who remain, who are waiting to die, for I have not found your works to be fulfilled before your God.

(Revelation 3:2)

The seven letters of Revelation contain some devastating rebukes for those in the churches of Asia. Out of the seven churches, two receive no commendation and only rebuke; the church in Sardis is one of those two and is the church that receives these words of condemnation: your works are wanting, so strengthen what is about to die.

As a pastor, I must confess that this is about the last charge that any of us would want to hear. I suspect that all of us yearn to serve a church that is thriving and healthy and filled with spiritual life, where everyone who attends is hungry to be taught the word of God, to be engaged in worship, and desires to apply God’s word to every area of their life. I suspect we all dream of serving a church where God’s people will come together and act like God’s people, loving one another and not deteriorating into bickering and where marriages would be seen as a permanent covenant and children would grow up in humble submission to their parents’ teachings. And we hunger for the church body that lives out their faith in such an infectious way that they are constantly pointing others to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

At the same time, when going through the various ministerial resource catalogues, we find book after book written by a pastor of some “mega-church” somewhere who has found a way to bring people into the church by droves. My point is not to disrespect or arbitrarily write off such movements, sometimes these books contain some useful insights, my point is simply to say that such is not the model of church that most pastors have been called to. A rural church pastor, for example, may not even have 5,000 people in his town, let alone that many people in his church. In fact, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, nearly 60% of protestant churches in America have fewer than 100 people in them on Sunday mornings.

In addition, many of these churches scattered across the countryside are predominately made up of older members where there may not be the energy, resources, or interest in many of the things that seem to attract the droves of people that may or may not be in their community to come to worship.

Again, my point is not to extol one model of worship service and put down another; those of you who have read my blogs for any amount of time know that I have some strong opinions in some of these areas, but that is not my objective today. My point is to reflect on the nobility of this call to strengthen what is about to die and to apply it in a way that we may not have otherwise considered. My purpose is also to honor those many pastors who may not have had ministries that the church culture would consider “glamorous,” but have faithfully served God’s people, often in churches that are dying whether due to age or due to an unwillingness to change in a way that communicates the truth of the gospel to a new generation. Many, many of God’s most faithful servants labor for decades in this context.

In some ways I have had the privilege of looking at this picture from both sides of the fence. For most of my pastoral ministry, I have served either full or part-time in small, rural churches dominated by septuagenarians and octogenarians. I have also spent time working amongst drug addicts and homeless, a group that may not be dying due to their age, but are just as near to death as the octogenarians due to the lifestyle they have chosen. I have also spent quite a bit of time doing nursing home ministry, again a group of people who are very much about to die. At the same time, I also spent several years as a chaplain of a Christian school working mostly with teenagers, a group who biologically are on the other end of the spectrum. They are filled with life and energy, but also bring with them a new body of issues and problems due to the frenetic lifestyle that many of them consider quite normal. It is true that the school is not the church, but life on life ministry takes place anywhere God places us and the relationships often bear a great deal of similarity.

All of that being said, I would like to apply this statement of Jesus’ in three ways. The first, in the context that it is given, and the latter two in perhaps a little different way, while at the same time trying not to do an injustice to the text.

In the context of the passage, Jesus is giving a rebuke to a church that has been unfaithful in its calling. Their works have a reputation for having life, he states in the previous verse, but they are really dead. The church puts on a good show and they do all of the right things, but what they do is simply going through the motions. Their good works are not done as a response to God’s saving work in their lives, but they are done out of a sense of misguided duty. Later on in the passage, Jesus speaks of those who have not soiled their garments, implying that most of the congregation members have given themselves either physically or spiritually to idolatry. In the midst of that, Jesus makes two statements: first, that he is going to destroy the church and second, that the pastor there needs to strengthen the church that is about to die.

There are many churches today that have fallen into this context. They are dominated by extremely influential people (often who have money) who decide what the church will and will not do, typically on the basis of preference and not on the basis of a heart committed to the Gospel ministry. Sadly, many pastors do not discourage this, either preaching in a way that keeps this dominant group satisfied or never rebuking the people for their actions. How often I have heard stories of ministry works being cut for the purpose of paying the pastor’s salary. It is a shame when the pastor becomes little more than a pawn in the game of church influence. Yet even in these churches, there is normally a remnant that is spiritually alive and who yearns to see the church break free from the bonds of the status quo and live. It is for those in this latter group that Jesus gives the command to strengthen the church. The institution is dying; it has a disease that is killing it from within like a cancer, but through the preaching of the Gospel and the teaching of God’s word, those healthy body parts are strengthened in the midst of a great and agonizing collapse. Though this is not the calling to which most seminary students dream of going, there is a nobility to such a call and such a call, more-so than a call to a vibrant church I would argue, that will teach the minister how to pray and how to confront sin in the lives of people. This is the call to which the minister of Sardis was called, and this is the call that many pastors have had to labor through as we have sought to do ministry in this fallen world.

The second context I have already alluded to. There are times when the death of a congregation is not so much about the indwelling sin a body has, but has to do with the increasing age of the body without a younger generation that will come and accept the baton of leadership. Again, my interest in this reflection is not to attack one style of service over another, but there is a reality that many young families would rather not go to their grandparents’ church, but want to take ownership of something uniquely theirs. And we must understand that the mindset works the other way as well; many older congregations would rather not have the noise and activity that comes with young families filling the sanctuary. I suppose that I could go on and on in that area, but that is not the aim of this reflection.

The aim of this reflection is to state that there is a huge need for ministry in these areas. Our older/dying churches are likely not the churches that will be building numbers rapidly through evangelistic ministries, etc… Typically they will dwindle slowly until there are so few that the church closes or until there are so few that the influence of the older generation ceases to be a driving force and the church experiences a transformation and rebirth led by a few younger families with a clear vision of what the church could be. Just because someone is older or dying does not mean that they no longer need pastoral care or that the pastoral care they get should be second-class. Nursing home ministry for pastors should not be an afterthought when it is convenient, but it ought to be something of primary concern. Men and women, as image bearers of God, deserve the dignity and grace of such care and they deserve to have the kind of pastoral teaching and care that strengthens them in their faith up until their dying day. My own hat is tipped in respect to those who serve as Hospice chaplains and whose entire calling is devoted toward strengthening those who are about to die.

The third application is a very broad one, though I would argue comes very close to the context of Jesus’ original letter to those in the church of Sardis. Many are lamenting the downfall of the church in western society. Europe is all but a spiritual wasteland, though there are some wonderful (but isolated) renewal movements at work (for example the one I am involved with in eastern Ukraine). America is following suit. Many in America still think of themselves as Christians, but given the state of our culture, comparatively few are living out their faith in all of life.

The question has often been posed to me as to whether I expect that God is bringing judgment on America or preparing us for revival. There is an old axiom that you hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Of course, in some ways, I do not think that judgment and revival are mutually exclusive ends. Does not God know how to judge the wicked while preserving his own (2 Peter 2:9-10)? With that being said, I do pray for revival, but I know that with true revival there must be true repentance and typically there is not repentance until the sin to which we cling hurts too much to keep it within us.

At the same time that I am praying for revival, my heart tells me that we (as a nation and as a church) are facing judgment. Typically the church is healthiest when it faces the greatest persecution (the seven churches in Asia are an excellent illustration of that). When persecution comes and it begins to cost us something to call ourselves Christians, then the “convenience christians” will fall away and the true church will find itself being refined under fire and made strong. And it is in the presence of such a reality that pastors need to hear these words to the church in Sardis all the more: strengthen what is about to die.

I suppose that there is always a temptation to spiritualize a text, and that is not what I mean to do here, but I think you will find that history bears out a remarkable truth. Just as there is a promise of death and resurrection for our physical bodies, there is a kind of death and resurrection for the localized Christian bodies here on earth. God always preserves for himself a remnant (Romans 11:4-5); that is God’s way. He may permit a church to close its doors, but in doing so, he raises up a new witness and testimony for himself. It is right for us to lament the death of a congregation just as we lament the death of a person, yet we still move on. Our God is the God of the living, not of the dead, he will not permit a dead church to play act at being alive indefinitely but will preserve a remnant. And we who have been called to the Gospel ministry will often find ourselves in the midst of such a context where we are commissioned by God’s word to strengthen that which is about to die. Doing so won’t get us a book deal with a big publisher, but faithfully laboring in such a call will receive a “well done my good and faithful servant.” I daresay that I do not need to explain which one is more valuable.

Angry with God’s Mercy (Jonah 4:1)

“And it was evil to Jonah—a great evil—and he burned over it.”  (Jonah 4:1)

 

In case you hadn’t noticed Jonah’s attitude toward the Ninevites by his lackluster sermon in Nineveh, the true feelings of our wayward prophet come out as we move to the final chapter of this story.  Most of our English versions water down the wording of this verse some, putting Jonah in a little better light; only Young’s Literal Translation seems to grasp the full strength of the situation when they translate it, “It was grievous to Jonah.”  Literally, the Hebrew reads that it was evil to Jonah and then emphasizes again that it was a great evil to Jonah!  Just as the Ninevites’ idolatry was evil in the eyes of God; God’s mercy toward the people of Nineveh was evil in the eyes of Jonah.  And not only that, his anger burned toward God on account of this mercy.  You can almost picture Jonah, standing at the edge of the city with clenched teeth and fists, his face red with rage, and steam coming out of his ears.  This guy is about to explode.

It is easy to want to find excuses to water this image down a bit.  Nobody likes to see one of the Biblical heroes completely lose his cool—especially when it comes to God’s mercy.  But the reality is that Jonah was human and Nineveh was the winter capital of the Assyrian Empire, people that the Jews desperately hated.  These two nations were fierce enemies and no good Jew in his right mind would want to see the people of Nineveh blessed.  These people of Nineveh were violent pagans and idolaters; there was nothing in them that seemed redeemable in the eyes of Jonah.  Yet, these people repented and God showed them mercy.  This kind of thing was just simply not right and proper!  God had some teaching to do with his prophet.

It is easy to jump on Jonah’s case and start wagging our fingers in accusation.  Oh, how sophisticated we have become in sending missionaries to all the corners of the earth.  See how we have such a broad view of God’s mercy toward the nations!  At the same time, what about those ministries to people groups we don’t particularly like?  What about ministries to the street people in our culture or to the prostitutes?  What about ministries to the drug users in our culture or to the gay community?  Sometimes we are a little less comfortable about the mercy of God when dealing with these folks.  Probably about the closest we can get to how Jonah felt toward the Ninevites would be the feeling of a black pastor working with Ku Klux Klansmen or that of a white pastor working with Black Panther members.  Jonah was more than out of his comfort zone; he was in enemy territory.

Yet, beloved, that is exactly the way God works!  When Jesus gave the apostles the great commission, he did not qualify what “all the corners of the earth” meant—he simply said, “go.”  When we begin to come to terms with just how grievous our own sin is, then how can we who have already received the mercy of God begrudge another from receiving it?  Oh, how we are like Jonah, though, when we see God’s blessings poured out somewhere other than on ourselves.  Beloved, let us keep Jonah always before us as a reminder that we should rejoice in the mercy of God to all who would repent and believe—let us rejoice as the angels rejoice when one sinner comes to faith—even if that sinner is one we don’t particularly like. 

O to grace how great a debtor

Daily I’m constrained to be;

Let that grace now, like a fetter,

Bind my wandring heart to thee.

Prone to wander—Lord, I feel it—

Prone to leave the God I love:

Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,

Seal it for thy courts above.

-Robert Robinson