Monday, January 31, 2011

REMEMBER THE POOR

"All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along." - (Galatians 2:10)

A few years ago I threw a small party at my house. One of my friends wanted to make something for everyone but we were out of a few special ingredients. So, my friend hopped in the car to go and buy what we needed at a nearby grocery store.

When my friend returned I met him at the door. "What took you so long?" I asked, and then I noticed that my friend wasn't wearing any shoes.

"Did you run out of here and forget your shoes?"

My friend came into the house and set the grocery bags on the floor. "No," he said.

I was confused. "How did you end up losing your shoes at the grocery store?"

My friend explained, "When I came out of the store I saw a homeless man digging through the trash outside in the parking lot, but I was in a hurry because I knew everyone was waiting for me to get back. I jumped in the car and made it almost to the street before I heard the Lord tell me to turn around. So, I backed up and parked the car and walked over to the man. I asked him if he was hungry and if he wanted me to buy him some food. He said, no thanks. So, I asked him why he was digging through the trash and he said he was looking for some shoes. I looked down at his feet and his shoes were ragged and torn. That's when I noticed, standing there beside him, that my feet were the same size as his. So, I took off my shoes and gave them to the man."

As my friend told this story to me, my eyes filled with tears of amazement. I couldn't help but wonder, "Would I have done that? Would I have taken off my shoes and given them to a stranger?"

The followers of Jesus are held to a higher standard of love than others. We're commanded not only to love God, and to love our neighbors, but to love those who don't love us, and to care for the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the stranger all the same.

My family has been reading through the book of Acts together in the morning before we start our day. It's been fascinating to see how people who were filled with the Holy Spirit of God and overjoyed about the coming of the Messiah couldn't help but share all that they had with one another out of love. When the scriptures tell us, that "...there was no needy person among them" (Acts 4:33-34) it doesn't mean that they didn't have any poor people in their church. Can we say the same of our churches today?

The word "Compassion" means "to suffer with". It means that when we see the pain of others, we are also in pain. We must care for them as we would care for ourselves.

This is why Jesus warns us that, at the Judgment seat of Christ, our love will be measured by how we responded to the poor God placed in our path. If we gave them food when they were hungry, or water when they were thirsty, or clothing when they were naked, or love when they were lonely, then it is counted as if we had done it unto our Lord Jesus Himself.

I've never given away my shoes to a homeless person. But, one day, I do hope that the Lord gives me an opportunity to put my shoes on His feet like this. Or perhaps, soon, I can buy him a cheeseburger, or something cool to drink the next time I see one of His representatives in the streets.

"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.' - (Matthew 25:37-40)

-kg

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What is "a sin unto death"?

"If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that you should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death." - 1 John 5:16-17


This is probably one of the most misunderstood passages of scripture in the New Testament. A dear sister in Christ asked me recently what to make of this verse and I thought I'd share my response to her here since many of us are likely curious about this same topic.

So, what is meant by a sin unto death? Unless we know what “a sin unto death” is, how can we know whether to pray for the person or not? This is the basic question.

Most commentaries will suggest that it’s referring to suicide and that the "sin unto death" is the act of taking ones' own life. This could be a valid interpretation since suicide does result in the death of the person, but it doesn't necessarily make clear the rest of the passage where John suggests that "there is sin that does not lead to death." If the sin that leads to death is suicide, it seems strange to refer to other sins this way.

Others suggest that John is speaking of the "unforgivable sin" or blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. Still others believe it means “a sin that leads to the death penalty” such as murder, blasphemy, rape, incest, etc.

Some believe that it’s referring to someone who turns away from their faith in Christ. Those who believe this cite Hebrews 6: 4-6 which says, “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.”

However, this passage in Hebrews can also be understood to be saying that it is impossible for a Christian who has tasted the heavenly gift to fall away in the first place. If this is the case, then it's probably not what John was talking about in his passage.

Still another passage in Hebrews seems to suggest that what John might be talking about is a continual, persistent practice of sin in the life of the Christian. In Hebrews 10:26-29 it says – “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?”

This may be closer to what John is talking about. It does seem to fit with the tone and the logical flow of the passage. Any sin, therefore, can be the kind that leads to death if we do not resist and repent and cease our practice of sin. Maybe that's why John doesn't name the sin ("lust" for example) because for you it may be lust, but for another it might be pride or drunkenness. What may be "a sin unto death" for you may not be much of a struggle for me, but my sin unto death may have no hold over you.

For what it’s worth, it seems that John is suggesting that “a sin unto death” is something that you and I can see or observe. I think it would be difficult for you and I to know if someone has actually blasphemed the Holy Spirit, or if they have truly left the faith for good. (And the scriptures do suggest that we can be restored to the faith if we repent and return to Christ).

So, maybe there’s a much simpler understanding for this passage? What if it simply means to “sin until you die”. In Revelation 2:10 Jesus urges the Church to “be faithful unto death” which means to continue being faithful until we die. So, “unto death” may just simply mean “until you die”.

If this is what John means, then what he’s really saying is that we shouldn’t pray for someone who is already dead. The early church did sometimes practice prayer for, and even baptism for, those who had already died. It could be that John is teaching that, while someone is still alive, there is still hope for the person to repent and to receive life from Jesus. Once they are dead, it’s too late to pray for them.

The truth is, there are many different ways to understand this passage and I think the best any of us can do is to take our best guess and leave room for interpretation since it's not such a clear passage to begin with.

-kg

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

GUEST BLOG: JON ZENS "The New Testament Is Plural (Us) Not Singular (Me)"

As folks listen to local and media Bible teachers, most miss the fact that Christ’s body is missing from their use of the New Testament. More often than not the approach taken is individualistic – “how can Christ help me live the Christian life?” However, the NT was not written to individuals but to groups of believing people in various cities and regions. This does not come across in English translations for the most part because the word “you” in the Greek can be singular or plural. For example, the “you” in “Christ in you, the hope of glory,” is plural, and has in view the Body of Christ.

Think about it. The NT letters were sent to ekklesias (assemblies) – “when you come together as an ekklesia.” Even the letter sent to an individual – Philemon – still has a corporate (body) dimension to it – “to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the ekklesia in your house.”

This is the crucial missing element in the bulk of today’s Bible teaching. The Lord intended the life of Christ to be lived out among the disciples in community, not in isolation. Consider how upside-down we are in our practice. The NT has at least 58 “one-another’s” that are meaningless without the reality of close, deep local relationships. The call to be longsuffering and forbearing with others implies day-to-day involvement that simply cannot take place by seeing people a few hours a week at controlled religious meetings.

But where do we put the emphasis in what people call “church”? It pretty much revolves around “the pastor.” He is the one with the ordination, the school training, the vision, and the sermons. Without a “pastor” people would generally conclude that you don’t have a church yet. No church is seen as complete unless it has a “pastor.” If a “pastor” leaves a church, then you have to quick find another one.

What have we done? We have elevated that for which there is not a shred of evidence in the NT – that there must be a “pastor” to lead the church – and by doing this most church structures then suppress the life of Jesus coming to expression through the 58 “one-another’s” that are clearly in the NT.

Since the “one-another” perspectives are pushed into the background, the “pastor” must then spend a lot of his time helping the flock live the Christian life as individuals.

In the NT we see the life of Christ in each believer come to expression as they gather in an open meeting and edify each other (1 Cor.14:26). The NT knows nothing of “worship services.” In the gatherings of the early church there was no one, or no group, “up-front” leading the time together. It was a body meeting led by the Holy Spirit to be an expression of Jesus Christ.

But what have we done? We bring individuals together who haven’t seen each other since last Sunday to sing a few songs, put some money in a plate, listen to a pastoral prayer, hear a sermon, and go home to their roast in the oven and afternoon football. “Church services” climax with the sermon and perhaps an altar call. People can go through what is ordained in a church bulletin, and not have an ounce of loving commitment to anyone. Families can be sitting in the pews week after week that are about to explode or end in divorce and their needs fall through the cracks of church machinery. Oversimplification? I think you know in your heart that the essence of what I’m describing is reality for most people in “church.”

The early church came together in a way in which all the parts could be an expression of Christ on earth. For the most part we now come to “church” to see one person function and hear a sermon that is supposed to help us live better lives in a fallen world. Can you see the disconnect? The former is Christ flowing like living water out of his people in a life of interdependence; the latter is institutional and fosters dependence on one part – “the pastor.”

Consider the matter of repentance. Generally this subject is approached individualistically – “What do I need to repent of in my Christian life?” But in Christ’s words to the ekklesias in Revelation 2-3 we see that he called the whole body of believers in a city to repent of various sins. This is we-repentance not me-repentance. When have you ever heard of a body of believers repenting for anything?

This illustrates how we have completely missed the fundamental body dimension of the NT. One of the key reasons why the “us” has been replaced by “me” is because of all the human traditions that have buried the living Christ and exalted “churchy” stuff.

Indeed, the ekklesia consists of unique individuals. But in the Lord’s building of his ekklesia these individuals only find meaningful existence together, not apart. He wills for his vine-life to be fruitful in each and every branch, for the health and growth of the whole plant.

Our life is just a vapor. Are we going to expend our energies oiling religious machines or pursuing life – “Christ in us the hope of glory.”

-Jon Zens
(For further reflection on this theme and related ones see the author’s A Church Building Every ½ Mile: What Makes American Christianity Tick?)

Visit Jon at www.JonZens.com

Monday, January 24, 2011

AGREEMENT OR ACCEPTANCE?

The Church is made up of a diverse set of people. We come from all backgrounds, cultures, experiences and nationalities. We are all unique individuals who are learning to love one another and to be a family together with Christ as our Head.

It doesn't matter if you fellowship in a denominational church, a non-denominational church, or an organic house church, the reality is the same: you fellowship regularly with people who are different and who do not agree with you on everything.

There are two ways you can respond to this fact: First, you can make sure that as many people as possible agree on as many doctrines and practices as possible. This will involve writing down all your doctrines and practices, teaching them to the people and enforcing your will upon them. If they do not conform to your beliefs and practices you must invite them to leave and find others who agree with their strange brand of Christianity.

Or, you can love them in spite of the fact that they disagree with you on one thing or the other.

The funny thing is, even if you go with the first option, I guarantee you that there will still be plenty of people in your church who do not agree with you on everything. Either they will pretend to agree with you in order to remain in the fellowship, or they will keep silent, or you just haven't discovered what area or doctrine where they disagree with you.

Our house church family is full of a wide array of people from a broad spectrum of backgrounds. Some of us were baptists, or pentecostals, or charismatics, or presbyterians. Some of us are dispensationalists, some of us are not. Some of us are armenian and some of us have no idea what that word means. It doesn't really matter to us. Why? Because we've made a decision that it matters more to us to pursue following Jesus together and learning to love one another than it does to agree on every point of doctrine.

Do you really want to be in a church where everyone is just like you? Perhaps that is your idea of perfection, but it's my nightmare. The last thing I want is to be surrounded by people who think like me, agree with me on everything and insulate me from new ideas. Over the years I've learned so much from these dear people. We all love Jesus and we're all committed to helping one another to follow Him in our daily lives. This is all that matters to us. If you love Jesus and if you're committed to following Him and putting His words into practice in your actual, daily life - you're in!

Your mileage may vary.

-kg

Thursday, January 13, 2011

MEMBERS OF ONE ANOTHER

Christians pride themselves on being people of the Book. By this we mean that we love the Bible and we strive to follow what’s written in the Word of God as closely as possible.

However, in practice we quite often fall very short of that mark. Strangely, one of the areas where we stray from the clearly written instructions of the New Testament is the practice of gathering as a Church.

Hear me out.

If we read the letters of Paul, Peter and James we'll see what they considered to be essential for the life and growth of the Church. Therefore, there's no reason for us to do anything other than exactly what the Apostles say when it comes to gathering together. In fact, the very word for "church" in the New Testament is "ekklesia" which means "sent ones" or "a gathering together".

In other words, it should go without saying that if Paul were to enter one of our Church buildings today he should expect to see us participating in the ways that he and the other Apostles commanded.

Let's look at what the Apostles considered normative ekklesia:

“What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.” 1 Corinthians 14:26

According to this verse, Paul considers the following things to be essential to the health of every Church:

Coming together (“When you come together”)
Open participation (“Everyone”)
People-led worship (“Everyone has a hymn”)
People-led teaching (“Everyone has...a word of instruction”)
People exercising their spiritual gifts freely(“Everyone has...a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation”)

How do we know that Paul considers these activities to be important and essential? Because he tells us: “ALL of these MUST BE DONE for the STRENGTHENING of the Church.”

If we ask Paul's opinion about church growth, he would tell us that it's vital that every believe participate in the leading of worship, the teaching of God's Word, and the sharing of the gifts of the spirit. Do we care what Paul's opinion is on this subject? Is it up to us to just decide for ourselves to dismiss Paul's instruction as mere suggestion and go with what we prefer?

Notice also that Paul's concern is for the Church to be "strengthened". His priority is for the believers to grow deeper, not larger in number. It's quality, not quantity that he is concerned with here.

But this isn't the only place where we find the Apostle's instruction regarding the activities of the Church.

According to the New Testament:

We should confess our sins to one another and pray for one another when we gather together: “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” James 5:16

We should instruct one another when we gather together: “I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another.” Romans 15:14

We should teach and admonish (gently correct and encourage) one another and sing together: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” Colossians 3:16

We should comfort and build up one another: “Wherefore comfort yourselves together, and edify one another, even as also ye do.” 1 Thessalonians 5:11

We should urgently warn one another to follow Christ: “But exhort one another daily, while it is called Today; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.” Hebrews 3:13

“Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.” Hebrews 10:25

We should encourage good works in one another: "And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works" Hebrews 10:24

We should use our spiritual gifts to bless others: "As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God." 1 Peter 4:10

Notice all the "one another's" here? The ongoing ministry of the members to one another was one of the fundamental elements of church in the New Testament.

There are 58 "one another's" in the New Testament. Twenty one of these verses (the vast majority) command us to love one another. Four of them command us to encourage one another. Three of them command us to serve one another and two of them remind us to forgive one another. The rest speak of instructing one another, being patient and kind to one another, submitting to one another, singing to one another, or putting the needs of others above our own.

Taken all together, these "one another's" remind us that we are responsible for one another spiritually. Helping our brothers and sisters move towards greater Christ-likeness is dependent upon our active participation as contributing members of the Body of Christ.

This means we cannot do it alone. We need one another. And that also means that you are an important part of this process. You are necessary. You matter. We cannot grow as the Lord Jesus intends us to grow without your willing obedience to God's command to love, serve, and encourage your brothers and sisters in Christ.

My prayer has been that the Lord would help me to invest more of myself in the community of believers I find myself in today. Honestly, I've been holding back a little too much lately, and I know that I can only get out of the experience what I pour into it.

We are given as a gift to the Body and the Body is God's gift to us. Let us practice these "one another's" with all that is within us and trust Jesus to build His Church, just as He promised He would.

"But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be." (1 Corinthians 12:18)

"Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one another." (Ephesians 4:25)

-kg

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

WHERE ARE THE PEACEMAKERS?

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)

Last month most everyone who follows Jesus took the time to remember the birth of the Prince of Peace. We sang songs that announced the incarnation of Christ and we re-read the scriptures that reminded us of the angels who sang of peace on earth and goodwill towards Men.

Jesus was a man of peace. He said that the peace makers would be called the Sons of God. (Matthew 5:9)

To be someone who loves peace and brings peace and makes peace is to be like the Son of God...it's to be like Jesus.

Never mind that the American Church today is alligned with a political machine that is pro-war. Never mind that Christians today are more notorious for their hatred of sinners than they are for their love of people who sin.

If you want to be a follower of Jesus, be one who makes peace - in your community, in your workplace, in your family and in your church. Promote peace. Stand up for peace. Become someone who brings the peace of God into the room with you.

As followers of Jesus we need to be experts on the subject of peace. We need to be known as people of peace.

If we cannot love another human being because they disagree with us on doctrine, or because they are from another race, or because they embrace a different faith, or because they choose a different lifestyle than us, we must seriously question whether or not the love of God is in us at all.

Our calling as followers of Jesus is to love people. Freely we have received His love, and freely we are commanded to give it away. The love He gives us is not for us to bury in the ground. It's not for keeping to ourselves. It's for sharing with a world who has never truly known what His love is all about.

In this world we will have trouble. That's one of the promises that Jesus made to us. Trouble will come. And people who dislike us will bring that trouble to our door. How then should we respond? Should we call down fire on them from heaven to consume them? Should we pray for God's judgment to fall on them? Hardly. Jesus condemned such responses in his own disciples. (Luke 9:54)

Instead, our response to this trouble and to hardship and to persecution and disagreement should be love and we should work for peace if at all possible.

"If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." (Romans 12:18)

"Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing." (1 Peter 3:9)

"Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else." (1 Thessalonians 5:15)

Start today. Let the love of Christ dwell in your heart. Pray for those who persecute you. Ask the Lord Jesus to fill you with His love for people. Learn to walk humbly with your God and to serve others, even (and especially) if they hate you.

How great would it be if a year from now people could see how your life has reflected the love of Christ?

That's my prayer for each of you, and for myself as well.

"Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord." (Hebrews 12:14)

Peace,
kg

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

THOUGHTS ON THE OLD AND NEW COVENANT FROM LUKE

Over the Christmas season, our church family took some time to read and discuss the birth of Christ as reported in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew.

Early yesterday morning as I was barely coming out of the cobwebs the following thoughts bubbled up out of my subconscious:

Joseph represents an Old Covenant form of righteousness. Mary represents the New Covenant form.

Example: Joseph is called a righteous man and according to the letter of the Law, he seeks to “put her away privately” when he learns she is pregnant.

Mary is filled with true righteousness because she simply submits to the will of God and is filled with the Holy Spirit and with Christ Himself.

ALSO: Zechariah and Elizabeth are examples of the Old Temple and the New Temple.

Zechariah is a descendant of Levi and a member of the Levitical priesthood. He enters the old temple which is a shadow of the real and true temple of God. An Angel speaks to him and he does not believe or demonstrate faith.

Elizabeth is a descendant of Aaron and of the bloodline of the Aaronic priesthood. In the temple of her body the Elijah that was prophesied to come dwells, and is filled with the Holy Spirit while still in her womb. She and her unborn son both recognize the Messiah (the Son of God) without the need for a miracle or a sign of God to convince them. The promise of God is conceived and matures in the temple of her body and she is filled with the Holy Spirit of God.

Thoughts? Comments?

I also think it's interesting that John the Baptist was in line to take his father's place as a priest in the Old Temple system, and yet he forsakes this and preaches repentance and baptizes people outside the city gates. This is also a sign of the New Covenant where God pours out His Spirit and Mercy on all flesh - young, old, men, women, and it all starts outside the Old Temple, where everyday people live and breathe.

-kg