Last night for Ash Wednesday I did a survey on the minor prophet, Joel. Joel was a recommended prophetic reading for Ash Wednesday because of his emphasis on confession and repentance. But as I read the entirety of the three chapter missive, I discovered that the theme of Joel was more than a call to repent. From start to finish, Joel encapsulated the gospel.
Without going into the entirety of the 40 minute presentation, here’s the simple outline of the book that I used:
1. God loves enough to alert us to the fact that judgement is imminent. (Joel 1:1-2)
That judgement is epic to the degree that it would have generational implications. (Joel 1:3) It would be devastating (Joel 1:7) and would cause people to be filled with despair (Joel 1:11-12). Despair would turn to fear and hopelessness as they realized their helplessness (Joel 2:6, 11).
2. In the face of judgement, repentance is mandatory. (Joel 2:12-17)
3. When we repent, God promises us more than forgiveness. He promises restoration. (Joel 2:18-27)
4. When we are restored and are in close proximity to God, it is his Holy Spirit that helps us live in close proximity to God so we never wander again. (Joel 2:28-32)
5. The final word of the gospel is that God’s eternal blessing is assured. (Joel 3:17-21)
This is the gospel of God. Lay that outline against the Gospel record of the New Testament or the Epistles of Paul, and you’ll find the same outline and the same conclusion.
Barna Research has released a research report on those who will observe Lent by fasting in some regard. There are some interesting findings, such as on 16% of Protestants will observe Lent by some form of fasting. Another interesting insight is that younger generations are willing to give up their technology such as social media for Lent. You can read the research in full HERE.
In additional Lenten news, Christianity Today has also published an article revealing the top fasting choices of Twitter users HERE.
“Grace, mercy, and peace, which come from God the Father and from Jesus Christ—the Son of the Father—will continue to be with us who live in truth and love. How happy I was to meet some of your children and find them living according to the truth, just as the Father commanded” (2 John 3-4, NLT).
Truth, as I define it, is a pure and reliable reality, created and revealed by God and embraced by faith. So how do we walk in truth?
1. Understand that in Scripture, truth is first relational. Jesus described himself as the embodiment of truth (John 14:6). In John’s prologue to his gospel, he claimed that Jesus came “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). In order for us to understand truth we must close the proximity between ourselves and the person of Jesus Christ. He is truth, and to walk in truth implies that we walk closely with Him.
2. Understand that truth is revealed by the Holy Spirit. Jesus said that all truth is given by God and is revealed to us by our true teacher, the Holy Spirit (John 16:13). Its like sitting in a dark room, where we can only make out the silhouettes and shadows of unclear images. The Holy Spirit is the one who comes and turns on the light switch revealing with clarity the objects before us. The light doesn’t change the objects in the room. It simply reveals them. When we can see clearly we are able to walk freely without stumbling or falling (John 8:31-32).
3. Understand that the purpose of comprehending truth is transformation. Truth carries moral, ethical and behavioral dimensions. To know the truth and live in truth is to be transformed by truth. In short, it changes the way we live. James emphasizes this in his epistle with statements such as “faith without works is dead” (James 1:17) and “be doers of the word and not hearers only” (James 1:22).
That’s how we walk in truth.
Pergamum was an interesting church. Located about 55 miles north of Smyrna, it was known for education, housing the second largest library in the world at that time. It was also a place of religious pluralism. There were six major temples in Pergamum, three devoted to the gods of Greek mythology and three dedicated to Roman emperors. In the midst of the ideas and ideology of this progressive center stood a band of believers faced with a unique challenge. Should they remain orthodox in their faith? Or should they synthesize the common cultural beliefs into their religious practice?
Write this letter to the angel of the church in Pergamum. This is the message from the one with the sharp two-edged sword: “I know that you live in the city where Satan has his throne, yet you have remained loyal to me. You refused to deny me even when Antipas, my faithful witness, was martyred among you there in Satan’s city. But I have a few complaints against you. You tolerate some among you whose teaching is like that of Balaam, who showed Balak how to trip up the people of Israel. He taught them to sin by eating food offered to idols and by committing sexual sin. In a similar way, you have some Nicolaitans among you who follow the same teaching. Repent of your sin, or I will come to you suddenly and fight against them with the sword of my mouth. Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches. To everyone who is victorious I will give some of the manna that has been hidden away in heaven. And I will give to each one a white stone, and on the stone will be engraved a new name that no one understands except the one who receives it” (Revelation 2:12-17, NLT).
What is truth? That’s the question that first spilled from the lips of Pontius Pilate during the trial of Jesus. If I may, let me offer a working definition of the word.
Truth is a pure and reliable reality created and revealed by God that is embraced by faith.
Let me unpack that definition. Truth is pure in the sense that it is unadulterated, unmixed, and absolute. In this sense, something is either true or it is not. Truth is reliable in that it is changeless. If truth is fluid or dynamic, it ceases to be truth in the sense of the definition. Truth is reality. This one is tricky because we have been educated to think of reality as limited to the material realm. We can comprehend material through our senses and verify its existence through the scientific method. But in God’s economy, spiritual reality is as real as matter, even though it cannot be measured or weighed.
The pure and reliable reality that I speak of is created by God. All truth is God’s truth. We do not invent truth; rather we discover it. For example, 2+2=4. We would agree that that equation is “truth.” But did we invent that? Or simply discover it? What about the law of gravity? Was gravity invented? Or was it discovered? The things that we hold as truths are not invented in laboratories. They are discovered as we venture through life.
The truth that God created is understood because God has chosen to disclose or reveal it to us. This is especially the case regarding spiritual reality. We may open our Bibles to seek spiritual truth, but we only comprehend it as the Holy Spirit of God reveals it to us.
Regardless of the truth, ultimately it must be embraced by faith. Much of life is lived by faith whether we choose to attribute it to faith or not. Suppose you were to walk into a restaurant. The server seats you at a table and offers you a menu. Perhaps the server explains the daily special. You take your time and look over the menu. The server returns and you place your order. After an appropriate amount of time the server returns to your table with your order and places it before you. You place your napkin in your lap and take your silverware and begin to eat, all the while assuming that the food is not spoiled and the meat has been cooked at the proper temperature. You enjoy your meal not questioning whether the chef has Hepatitis or your server washed his hands after using the restroom. You eat and drink, assuming the tableware has all been washed and sanitized to health department standards. Scientifically you are aware that there are health department standards for restaurants. But it is by faith you assume they have been followed.
So what do we do with this? Tomorrow I’ll give three ways that we are to walk in truth.
Jesus never spoke of discipleship without referencing the cross. Perhaps the most familiar of these references is found in Luke 9:23, where Jesus said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross daily, and follow me” (NLT).
Often I hear people apply this verse as a means of coping with an adversity. When describing a hardship, they tag it with “I guess that this is just my cross to bear.” Your problems are not your “cross.” Your cross is the cost of your daily commitment to live life in full obedience and surrender to Jesus Christ. When we choose to carefully follow Christ we simultaneously acknowledge that the decision to follow will be accompanied with a price. It’s not a one time cost, but an ongoing sacrifice. Paul called upon the Roman believers to make it a daily practice to climb on the altar as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1-2). He further acknowledged that crucifixion is a daily part of our Christian discipleship (Galatians 2:20). So how does the cross and cross bearing help us understand discipleship?
Years ago I heard a person describe the three characteristics of someone on a cross.
1. A person on a cross can only face one direction.
2. A person on a cross is there at the will of another.
3. A person on a cross has no immediate plans that are his or her own.
Its impossible to unpack everything there is to know about discipleship in one simple post. But if you want to understand it at its most basic level, remember that Jesus always framed the conversation with the cross. If you center your discipleship on the cross you’ll follow faithfully.
One of the reasons for the rapid rise of Hitler’s influence in Germany was his manipulation and use of religion. Hitler understood that if he could persuade the pastors of Germany’s churches he could increase the tempo of his plan for world domination. Playing upon the Jew’s role in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, he convinced the pastors to use their influence and support. Pastors who did not cooperate with his agenda were imprisoned. One such pastor was a man named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer remained faithful even in the midst of great pressure to capitulate, a decision that would eventually cost him his life. He was executed in a concentration camp in 1945. One of the treasures that remains is a book he wrote titled, “The Cost of Discipleship.” In it, he points out that following Christ is often a costly decision. The most famous line from his book is probably familiar to you: “When God calls a man to follow him he bids him come and die.”
The Church at Smyrna was acquainted with the cost of discipleship. The very name of the city implies suffering and sorrow. Smyrna comes from the same word that gives us the word “myrrh,” which you’ll recall is was one of the gifts presented by the Magi to the baby Jesus. It was an ointment used to prepare bodies for burial.
The message to the Church at Smyrna is brief. Write this letter to the angel of the church in Smyrna. This is the message from the one who is the First and the Last, who was dead but is now alive: I know about your suffering and your poverty—but you are rich! I know the blasphemy of those opposing you. They say they are Jews, but they are not, because their synagogue belongs to Satan. Don’t be afraid of what you are about to suffer. The devil will throw some of you into prison to test you. You will suffer for ten days. But if you remain faithful even when facing death, I will give you the crown of life. Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches. Whoever is victorious will not be harmed by the second death (Revelation 2:8-11, NLT).
As Jesus evaluated the Church at Smyrna he observed the great cost of their discipleship and commended their faithfulness. Their suffering, literally the word thilipsis, is a word picture for one who has placed their shoulder to the grindstone. It connotes stress, struggle and strain to the point of exhaustion. In his remarks, Jesus pointed to four areas where they suffered.
First there was exclusion through poverty. These believers, like many in the first century, were trying to do honest business in a dishonest world. Both Jews and pagans alike would refuse to do any business with these Christians, excluding them from the marketplace, which made it difficult for them to survive. Second, there was aggression through slander and misrepresentation. Though the Christians did their best to live lives that were above reproach they couldn’t control what others thought or said of them. Then there was isolation through imprisonment and even martyrdom.
In antiquity, Polycarp was the Bishop of Smyrna. In AD 156, some 60 years after John’s vision of Christ on Patmos, Polycarp was burned at the stake. As they prepared to light the flames Polycarp was given one final opportunity to secure his freedom by renouncing Christ. His response is remarkable.
“In 86 years Jesus Christ has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me? O Lord, Almighty God, the Father of your beloved son Jesus Christ, through whom we have come to know you, I thank you for counting me worthy this day and hour of sharing the cup of Christ among the number of your martyrs.”
What is the true nature of discipleship? What is your discipleship costing you? I’ll take that up the remainder of this week from the Church at Smyrna.
The Ephesian church must have looked like a beehive. They labored with intensity to advance their mission and ministry, all the while supporting each other in the face of persecution and keeping a discerning eye out for doctrinal error. By every human metric they would have been deemed a successful church. With the exception, of course, of keeping the Great Commandment.
When Jesus addressed the Church he did more than point out the glitch in the system. He gave them the corrective to resolve the issue. The first step Jesus offered was for the Ephesians to remember. Memory is a powerful tool. Last summer Lisa and I were driving through Kirksville, MO, and since we had a little extra time we drove to the church my dad planted in the mid 1960′s. Even after a couple of building expansion plans, the setting was familiar. The parsonage that occupied one corner of the property is long gone, but much of the campus was just like I remembered. This was the church of my childhood, and more importantly, the setting where I first encountered Christ. If you discover you don’t love Christ or his children as you once did, take some time to reflect and remember.
The second step that Jesus gave was for the Ephesians to repent. Repentance is often viewed as a negative term and is frequently misused by those who use the Bible to demean others. But its a good word, a biblical word, an important word. It simply means to have a change of mind that leads to a change of direction. Its the recognition that things are not in order and that an adjustment is needed.
Finally, Jesus called them to return to the works that they first performed. Jesus is not suggesting that more work or different work will produce love. He’s saying that they need to return to love as the primary motivation for their interactions with both God and human kind.
Remember, repent, and return. That’s how we return to our first love.
Here’s the newest research report released by Barna Group on American’s trust levels related to institutions to look for in 2014. You can read the report HERE.
Last week I received the request from our denomination to submit our annual report. Each year we voluntarily submit all kinds of data, including attendance, membership changes, contributions, missions support and more. Its not complicated to complete the one page form, and we always submit it before deadline. Most denominations have similar practices of reporting, so this is not uncommon.
But can churches really be evaluated on the basis of attendance, buildings, and cash? Even more important, is that how Jesus evaluates his church? The seven churches of Revelation give us an opportunity to think about how Christ evaluates his church. Each letter reveals (at least) one major component of church health that is important to him. For the church at Ephesus, that would be the quality of love.
“Write this letter to the angela of the church in Ephesus. This is the message from the one who holds the seven stars in his right hand, the one who walks among the seven gold lamp stands: I know all the things you do. I have seen your hard work and your patient endurance. I know you don’t tolerate evil people. You have examined the claims of those who say they are apostles but are not. You have discovered they are liars. You have patiently suffered for me without quitting. But I have this complaint against you. You don’t love me or each other as you did at first! Look how far you have fallen! Turn back to me and do the works you did at first. If you don’t repent, I will come and remove your lampstand from its place among the churches. But this is in your favor: You hate the evil deeds of the Nicolaitans, just as I do. Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches. To everyone who is victorious I will give fruit from the tree of life in the paradise of God (Revelation 2:1-7, NLT).
The first observation about Jesus’ words is that he sees what we do. From his vantage point he saw their diligent ministry, their discerning spirits and their patient endurance in the face of persecution and obstacles. These actions were commendable, both then and now. But he went on to make one more observation: the Ephesians did not love him or each other as they did at first! Christ not only sees what we do, he sees who we are! The Ephesians had totally abandoned their first love. They were going through the motions of ministry and mission without the right motivation.
As I read these words I immediately thought of 1 Corinthians 13, where Paul challenged the Corinthians along similar lines. He told them that without love their eloquent speech sounded like clanging symbols and that the faith that could move mountains would yield nothing. If all would be sacrificed or given away to the poor, without love it would not be worth anything.
What are some indicators that we may have left Christ as our first love?
* Without love, ministry becomes duty and is performed by obligation.
* Without love, the words of Christ and Scripture become as noise.
* Without love, prayer becomes the recitation of a laundry list of wants.
* Without love, holiness is reduced to legalism where relationships are replaced by rules.
* Without love, fellowship becomes friendship.
* Without love, discipleship becomes information gathering.
* Without love, worship becomes performance.
* Without love, giving becomes measured.
* Without love, our witness becomes tentative.
* Without love, our desire is the glory of self instead of the glory of God.
So how can we return? Tomorrow I’ll unpack Christ’s counsel to the church. His counsel is still valid today!