Sunday, May 29, 2016

Grace Pt. 1 - Grace for Repentance

About a week ago, a friend of mine for almost a decade died of an overdose. It was tragic news that immediately brought about feelings of both sadness and anger.

As I’ve experienced in the past, addiction is complex and wages war against the mind, body and soul. In addition to the actual demonization that can often accompany addiction, one lie that the devil frequently convinces addicts of is that they are fated to be enslaved forever.

The early Christians completely rejected the idea of fate. Tatian wrote, “The demons introduced fate, a flagrant injustice. They teach that … the murderers and the murdered, the wealthy and the needy – they are all the offspring of the same fate (Tatian 160CE, Vol. 2, p. 68).”

Some may feel chained to a fate of addiction, but grace says otherwise.

For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. – Titus 3:3-7

Enslaved addicts are no match for God’s grace. As powerful as addictions can be, God’s grace is more powerful. As stuck as an addict may feel, God’s grace can lift us out of the worst quicksand.

So why do some people remain stuck and some see their chains loosed? God has generously given everyone the grace to repent, and He has also graced us with free will. The Lord God implores both Christians and non-Christians alike to put the grace of repentance into practice.

These things, beloved, we write unto you, not merely to admonish you of your duty, but also to remind ourselves. For we are struggling on the same arena, and the same conflict is assigned to both of us. Wherefore let us give up vain and fruitless cares, and approach to the glorious and honored rule of our holy calling. Let us attend to what is good, pleasing, and acceptable in the sight of Him who formed us. Let us look steadfastly to the blood of Christ, and see how precious that blood is to God, which, having been shed for our salvation, has set the grace of repentance before the whole world. – Clement of Rome 95CE, Volume 1, p. 11-12 [CD-ROM]

So with the grace of God's repentance set before you, may I ask: What sinful practice or mindset have you become convinced is to be your fate? An addiction? A wrong you feel you can never forgive? A cycle of fractured relationships? A destructive secret compulsion?

May you believe in chain-breaking power of the grace of repentance. And may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you believe in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Sarah Silverman and the Eternal Gospel

Recently, comedian Sarah Silverman was asked who her favorite fictional hero is. She answered, “Jesus?” Silverman has a history of taking jabs at both Jesus and Christians.

Over the last several years, there has been a growing trend in popular culture to put forth the assumption that Jesus is merely a mythological figure of history. However, absolutely no credible historian, Christian or otherwise, holds to this view. The reason? History is overflowing with credible sources proving that Jesus really lived.

But better than that, history is full of credible, non-Christian early sources that say Jesus lived in Judea during the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, was called the Messiah, had a brother named James, was executed by Pontius Pilate, and began a movement of followers who bore the name ‘Christians’.

Here are a couple of these non-Christian credible early sources.

When the Emperor [Nero] learned of the death of Festus, he sent Albanos as procurator to Judea. The King [Herod Agrippa II] took the office of high priest [in Jerusalem] away from Joseph and gave it to the son of Ananos, who was also called Ananos. … Ananos thought that this was a favorable time for him since Festus had died and Albanus was still on his way. Therefore he convened the high council of judges and brought before them James, the brother of Jesus (called the “Messiah”), and several others. He accused them of transgressing the laws and had them stoned. – Josephus 62-63CE Antiquities of the Jews XX.9.1

No humane endeavors, no princely generosity, no efforts to placate the gods were able to dispel the scandalous suspicion that the burning of the city was the result of an order. To silence this rumor, Nero pushed the Christians forward as the culprits and punished them with ingenious cruelty, as they were generally hated for their infamous deeds. The one from whom this name originated, Christ, had been executed during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of the procurator, Pontius Pilate.  Cornelius Tacitus 115CE (Roman Historian), Annals XV.44

Josephus was a Jewish historian of royal and priestly descent who eventually worked for the Roman Empire. Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman senator and historian who chronicled the affairs of the Empire. Though everyone is ultimately responsible for Jesus' crucifixion, the Bible shows the Jews and the Romans working together to execute Him, and both groups viewed the early Christians as a threat.

History records both groups starting rumors about the early Christians in an attempt to convince people not to join the movement. However, one rumor they never spread was that Jesus never existed. Why do you think they never tried that tactic? It’s simple. It wouldn’t have gained any traction. It would have been rejected out-of-hand on the basis of its absolute absurdity. Everyone knew Jesus existed.

So why do folks like Sarah Silverman stoop to such sophomoric antics to express their dislike of Jesus?

I remember the last time I went to a haunted house. I was about 20 years old. While my friends and I waited in line to enter, we couldn’t help but overhear the big dudes in front of us making fun of and teasing each other about how ridiculous haunted houses are. They both had significant others, and appeared to want to look tough in front of their girlfriends.

After we got inside, we started hearing shrieks of terror from just in front of our group. They weren’t feminine and they weren’t from children. It was the two dudes. They were horrified, and it was glorious. All of that talk in the line was just a cover for their anxiety. 

Silverman may say she’s an atheist, but I don't believe that's true. I think she is just afraid of facing God, and uses comedy and mockery as a shroud to hide that terror. And I can understand why. She’s probably read the Bible and come across passages like Revelation 21:8. But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.

Humans have a tendency to make light of the things that terrify us. Doing so appears to take the power away from the objects of our fears. But try was we may, all the jokes we can muster don’t change the truth of the impending judgment to come. Make no mistake about it; Jesus is coming to judge. He said it Himself in John 5, and Paul confirmed it in 2 Corinthians 5.

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. – 2 Corinthians 5:10

If you really believed that every thing you ever said, everything you ever thought, everything you ever did was going to be judged against God’s holiness, and that would affect your eternal state, would it change the way you live? Would it change the way you parent? Would it change the way you date? Would it change what you feel is acceptable to watch on TV? Would it change the way you act when no one is around?

If so, let me assure you of a few things. Jesus really walked the earth and lived for us. Lord Jesus died for everyone. Jesus rose again on the third day. Jesus ascended into heaven 40 days later. Jesus is ruling at His Father’s side. And Lord Jesus is returning soon to judge the living and the dead. All who repent and fully entrust their lives to Him will be given a new heart and new mind, new desires, will be transformed to be more and more like Him, and will be with Him forever.

With those truths in mind, let us believe the eternal Gospel as stated in Revelation 14:6-7: And I saw another angel flying in midheaven, having an eternal gospel to preach to those who live on the earth, and to every nation and tribe and tongue and people; and he said with a loud voice, “Fear God, and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come; worship Him who made the heaven and the earth and sea and springs of waters.”

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Excerpt from Ch. 16 – New: Wineskins and the Simple Words of Christ

When God’s Spirit invades us, it should not only birth in us a new devotion to the Scriptures, other members of the body of Christ, and communion with God, but we should also long to gather more and more people into His family, regardless of the sacrifices required.

My mother’s parents, Horace and Alto, were committed Christians who lived in the West Texas town of Rankin during the early 1960s. One day, the small Baptist church where most of the African American community attended burned down, leaving them without a church home. Alto, feeling this was what Jesus wanted them to do, invited an African American child to go with her and Horace to the all-white First Baptist Church of Rankin, where they attended.

This happened before laws were passed to end segregation, and needless to say my grandparents’ decision caused quite a stir in the church and in the town. Yet they continued to bring this girl. Soon, African American children from two families were coming with them each week, and eventually several Hispanic children came with them as well.

Sunday after Sunday, my grandparents brought these children to church despite subtle and not-so-subtle resistance from church members and friends. One day, the oldest girl told my grandmother she wanted to give her life to Jesus and be baptized. Once again, this was a problem for the majority of white members who felt they had already made significant strides in allowing these children to attend their white church. After all, getting baptized at First Baptist Rankin meant membership.

My grandfather, a deacon, dug in his heels and stood up for this new daughter of the King of kings. The pastor said he would meet with the others and thought things would be all right. When the deacon body met, they voted to allow the child to be baptized into the church. And so she was.

In spite of intimidations and persecutions, First Baptist Rankin was integrated, and my grandparents became living examples of how the power of the Holy Spirit given at Pentecost enables us to walk as Jesus walked. It is a tall order “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). It can often feel like an impossibility to deny ourselves, pick up our crosses, and follow Jesus (see Matthew 16:24). It is a tremendous task to go into all the world making disciples of Jesus, teaching them to obey everything He commanded (see 28:19-20). However, those whom God calls He equips.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Mr Rogers and the Mission Field

Like many children over the last couple of decades, my first hero was a man named Fred Rogers, or as many of us knew him, Mr. Rogers.  Mr. Rogers quickly became my hero because I could see something very warm and kind in the way he treated people. 

So the day I learned Mr. Rogers had a fan club, a letter was immediately written and put out in the mail in hopes that I would have the privilege of becoming a member.  As far as I knew, there weren’t any responsibilities of being a member of his fan club, but I did receive an autographed picture and letter from the man himself! 

The term ‘member’ is often attributed to people who join a church, but I’m not sure this word best conveys the main purpose Jesus has for those who desire to follow Him.  A friend of mine who once started a church in the Galveston area offered a different label to those who wanted to join his congregation.  Rather than members, they were called missionaries. 

What a wonderful concept!  Too frequently we think of missionaries as people who go off to some foreign country to live in poverty and constant danger, when in reality a missionary is simply someone undertaking a mission, and especially a religious mission. 

Matthew 28:19-20 informs us that as Christians, Jesus has given us the mission to make disciples of all people groups.  He said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” 

This passage from Matthew also instructs us to teach the nations to obey all that Jesus has commanded. As it is often said, though, most lessons are better caught than taught. So as missionaries, we need to be modeling Jesus’ commands for those we are trying to teach them to, and modeling how Jesus’ commands aren’t burdensome, but are actually life and peace.

Origen shows that as we faithfully live on mission, we are actually serving as ambassadors for King Jesus.

And as Paul said, “We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us,” so would we in the same spirit and language earnestly desire to be ambassadors for Christ to men, even as the Word of God beseeches them to the love of Himself, seeking to win over to righteousness, truth, and the other virtues, those who, until they receive the doctrines of Jesus Christ, live in darkness about God and in ignorance of their Creator. – Origen 225CE, Volume 4, p. 1132 [CD-ROM]

Origen says that as God’s ambassadors, our heavenly Father has given us the mission to urge the world to embrace His love. Mr. Rogers spoke eloquently about love when he said, “Love isn't a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like ‘struggle.’" Being an effective missionary and ambassador for God is going to entail a life of struggle. But seeing people come into the kingdom of God is worth dying for. If we love Him we will embrace the struggle.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Violence in the Kingdom of God

One of the strangest teachings of Jesus occurs in Matthew 11:12. Seemingly out of nowhere, our nonviolent, loving, self-sacrificial Savior declared, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force.

As weird as the statement is, I never thought anyone would use it to make a case for Jesus being in favor of His disciples acting in physically violent ways. However, I’ve been shocked throughout the years to hear that argument actually used. Still, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with Jesus’ words there.

Recently, I was amazed and convicted when reading the way the early Christians interpreted this teaching of our Messiah.

The Lord [did] assert that the kingdom of heaven was the portion of “the violent.” And He says, “The violent take it by force;” that is, those who by strength and earnest striving are on the watch to snatch it. … Paul the Apostle says to the Corinthians, “Do you not know, that those who run in a race, do all indeed run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may win. Every one also who engages in the contest is disciplined in all things: now these men [do it] that they may obtain a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible. But I so run, not as uncertainty; I fight, not as one beating the air; but I beat my body, and bring it into subjection, lest by any means, when preaching to others, I may myself be rendered disqualified.” This able wrestler, therefore, exhorts us to the struggle for immortality. … Both the Lord has taught and the apostle has enjoined us the more to love God, that we may reach this [prize] for ourselves by striving after it. – Irenaeus Volume 1, p. 873 [CD-ROM]

Irenaeus compares Jesus’ words to Paul’s analogy of an Olympic athlete training to win a gold medal. We are supposed to fight and wrestle to obtain all that God wants for us.

I have nappy, frustrating hair, so from an early age I learned the value of a good hat. No matter how catastrophic the condition of my hair, a ball cap can cover it up. A few years ago, my father came over to take me to lunch, but I hadn’t showered by the time he arrived. I figured I’d just put on my favorite hat and we could go. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in the place I remembered putting it last.

Like hounds after a fox I hunted my hat. I spent at least 15 minutes tearing through piles, crawling under beds and rummaging through my car seeking this perceived pearl of great price. Finally, when I had almost given up, something told me to go back to my room. There on the floor, just beneath a pair of pants I had worn the day before was my precious.

My father and I jumped in his jeep and left for lunch, but somewhere between the driveway and the restaurant the Holy Spirit began to prick at my heart. He asked, “Do you seek after Me with the same ferocity, Phil? Is your hat more valuable to you than Me?”

According to the early Christians, Jesus calls us to aggressively pursue Him… not just at the beginning of our relationship, but all throughout our lives. However, does the New Testament really call us to that sort of aggressive approach to God? Or, like some spiritual songs suggest, is there no real worth to what we Christians do? Let’s see:

For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But flee from these things, you man of God, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called, and you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. – 1 Timothy 6:10-12

Applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he who lacks these qualities is blind or short-sighted, having forgotten his purification from his former sins. Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble; for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you. – 2 Peter 1:5-11

If those passages are so familiar to you that you just skimmed through them, please go back and slowly and thoughtfully read them again as if for the first time. Fight. Pursue. Take Hold. Apply all diligence. Supply. Increase. Make certain. Practice.

Like a man seeking fine pearls and then liquidating all his resources to buy one of great value, Jesus wants us to aggressively and joyfully pursue Him and His kingdom. The cost is great, but Jesus is infinitely greater!