Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Secret of Ministry is Falling in Love with People

Georgian Banov, of Global Celebraton, bringing 5,000 Gypsies their favorite meal, fatted sheep stew. Georgian and his wife, Winnie, have fallen in love with the people.

Pondering 1 Thessalonians 2:6-17 in preparation for a Bible study group I teach, I was struck by just how much the apostle Paul loved the Jesus believers at Thessalonica — they were very much like family to him. See how he speaks of his and his ministry team’s relationship with them.
  • Like children. “We were like young children among you” (v. 7 NIV). “We became as infants in your midst” (LEB). Other versions, like the NKJV, say, “We were gentle among you.” Paul and his team tenderly identified with the new believers there, and were as gentle as children with them.
  • Like a mother. “Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you” (vv. 7-8 NIV).
  • Like a father. “For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into His kingdom and glory” (vv. 11-12 NIV).
  • Like brothers. “For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea” (v. 14 NIV).
  • And in their absence, like orphans. “But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you” (v. 17 NIV).
All of this adds up to one of the key ingredients for a ministry that touches lives and changes the world. It is about falling in love with the people. For God Himself is love and He has fallen deeply in love with us. His desire is that we should not only love Him with all that is in us but that we should also love one another with all out love.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Praising God Before the Elohim

I will praise You, O LORD, with all my heart;
Before the “gods” I will sing Your praise.
I will bow down toward Your holy temple
And will praise Your name
For Your unfailing love and Your faithfulness,
For You have exalted Your solemn decree
That it surpasses Your fame.
(Psalm 138:1-2 NIV 2011)
As I began my time with the Lord this morning, I was suddenly impressed to sing the common doxology to the familiar tune of the “Old Hundredth.” So I picked up my guitar and began strumming the chords and singing the words. I looked toward the icon of the baptism of Jesus, which so beautifully depicts the Trinity: The voice of the Father in heaven saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased,” and Jesus the Son, standing in the baptismal waters, and the Holy Spirit descending upon Him like a dove. And I sang to the Lord, repeating the words of the doxology again and again.

Then I turned to my prayer book (I use The Paraclete Psalter), to the psalm laid out for today. But along the way, my eye fell on Psalm 138, and I was caught up by it. So I began to pray it:
I will praise You, O LORD, with all my heart;
Before the “gods” I will sing Your praise.
Let me get technical for just a moment. The Hebrew word for “gods” is elohim. It is the word that is usually used to refer to God Himself. But, clearly, that is not its use here because the psalm writer is speaking to God in the first person, but he refers to the elohim in the third person.

Elohim is a plural form, and so it can be translated as “gods.” It can refer to angels, as it perhaps does in Psalm 8:5, “For You have made him [man] a little lower than the angels,” where the Septuagint translates the Hebrew word elohim with the Greek word angelos.

Or it can refer to judges, as it appears to do in Exodus 21:6 and Exodus 22:8-9. This could be how the psalm writer uses it in Psalm 82:1, where God judges among the “gods,” who were themselves supposed to judge justly, but had failed to do. God warns them, “You are gods, and all of you are children of the Most High. But you shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes” (Psalm 82:6-7). So, here elohim could refer to kings and rulers and heads of state, who were supposed to bring justice to the people God entrusted to them. It could also refer to the principalities and powers, the fallen spiritual entities who so often influence the political and cultural affairs of humanity.

But, back to what happened in prayer this morning: As I began praying Psalm 138, I suddenly found myself standing in the courts of the Lord, to do what I had just read — to praise God with all my heart, singing it before the elohim. I saw them as angels, parted on either side of me and waiting for my song to begin. Peter says that the angels long to explore the mysteries of the gospel and the salvation of humanity (1 Peter 1:12). And that is how I sensed them here.

I found myself overwhelmed as I stood in the clearing and in the silence of that moment. But as the psalm writer says in Psalm 138:3, “When I called, You answered me; you greatly emboldened me.” And I knew it would all be alright.

Now, it was obvious what the song should be, because I had been singing it just moments earlier in what had turned out to be a practice session for this encounter. And now I realized why that hymn had “popped” into my head — God had placed it there especially for me to offer for His pleasure in a “command performance.” So I lifted my voice and began to sing, softly at first and with some trembling:
Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
As I sang, I began to realize that I was offering this praise to God not only before Him and His angels, but also in full view of the principalities and powers, reminding them of their defeat at the cross. For that is what always happens in the spiritual realm when the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are worshipped and adored. And I was aware that our worship calls even to all the kings and queens of the earth and the rulers of nations, who will all one day bow, whether willingly or not, before God. The hope of the psalm writer is that it will be willingly:
May all the kings of the earth praise You, LORD
When they hear what You have decreed.
May they sing of the ways of the LORD,
For the glory of the LORD is great.
(Psalm 138:4-5 NIV)
That is my hope, too, as I sing to the LORD with all my heart before the elohim.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

All Things Made New

Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?”

Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3-5)
The kingdom of God makes all things new. Because King Jesus makes all things new. “Then He who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new’” (Revelation 21:5).

So, all who want to be a part of Jesus’ kingdom must be made new, too. This came as quite a shock for Nicodemus and the religious establishment of Jesus’ day.

Still does today.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Developing Vital Relationship with God and Others

Here’s a definition I heard years ago about evangelism — telling the good news about Jesus the Messiah and the kingdom of God — and I think it is true about Christian ministry in general:
Evangelism is what happens when you have a vital relationship with God and a vital relationship with someone else.
I think Christians have often tried to domesticate evangelism by making it a program, or a script that we run through with people like a sales pitch. If you’ve ever been cornered, you know what I talking about. But it is really about developing vital relationships.

First is having a vital relationship with God. However, a lot of times we want to domesticate that relationship, to domesticate God and fit Him into our little box. But He is bigger than an hour or two on Sunday morning, bigger than a daily prayer or devotional, bigger than our own little home and our own little concerns and our little lives. Gloriously bigger! The more we come to know Him and the amazing things He wants to do in the world, the more we are vitalized, energized, our heartbeats coming into rhythm with His.

But we must also develop vital relationship with others. That is how God made us to be in the beginning. For God Himself is vital relationship — the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in a relationship of love with each other that is thoroughly full and complete. Yet, out of the divine love relationship among the Persons of the Trinity, God created the heavens and the earth, to share the overflow of their love, and vital relationship, with humanity.

To use an analogy, when I come into vital relationship with others, they will not only know me, they will know about my wife, because I am in vital relationship with my wife. Or think of some of the grandparents you know, and how eager they are to talk about their grandchildren. That’s because they are in vital relationship with those children. Likewise, when I am in vital relationship with others, they will know about the Lord Jesus, because I am in vital relationship with Him.

There are thousands of ways we can develop such relationships with the people we are naturally around everyday as we are out in the world. This is true not only on the individual level but also at the level of involvement with the larger communities of which we are a part. For example, the realms of family, education, government, business, media and the arts are all areas in which we can develop vital relationship with others.

These are all ways individual Christians can become more involved in the life of the community and develop vital relationships. But the local church, as a corporate body, can also develop vital relationship with the community in the same ways. For example, my son and his wife are part of a church in Ybor City (Tampa, FL). The church is only about eight years old, but they have, almost from the beginning, been developing a vital relationship with Booker T. Washington Elementary School, reaching out on the level of meeting practical needs. They have also been developing vital relationship with the Ybor community — the people of Ybor — and its culture. They are currently working on a project to develop vital relationship with the arts community there.

Now, let me be careful to say that vital relationship is not a means to an end; it is a sufficient end itself. It has no agenda; it is its own agenda — to know, love and fellowship with others, to live life together. But it is the nature of such relationships that we each share what is most important to us, that we may give ourselves openly and honestly and receive each other more fully. And so we give life to one another.

Monday, July 15, 2013

A Tale of Three Kings in the Psalms

The king shall have joy in Your strength, O LORD;
And in Your salvation how greatly shall he rejoice!
(Psalm 21:1)
This psalm is called “a psalm of David.” Which mean it was written by him, or about him, or perhaps in the Davidic style. As we see from the first verse, this psalm speaks of “the king” and the joy he has in the strength and salvation that comes from the Lord.

There are many psalms which speak of God as King, but there are also many that speak of the king of Israel — of David, and the descendants who would sit on his throne. As I pray through the psalms, which is one of my spiritual practices, whenever I read about the king, as in Psalm 21, I am always aware of three kings to whom it rightfully applies.
  • First, there is David himself, whom God anointed to be king over Israel. And God made a promise that a descendent of David would reign on that throne forever. Of course, it soon became apparent that David and his heirs often fell far short of the glorious things that were ascribed to the king of Israel.
  • The second king is Jesus, the Son of God who became human. In His humanity, He is a the son of David who fulfills the promise God made to David. He is the Messiah, whom God anointed to be King over Israel and the nations forever. He is the divine embodiment of everything the psalm writers were longing for.
  • The third king is … me. Actually, it is all who know King Jesus and belong to Him by faith. Paul says that God has raised us up with Him and seated us with Him, and Jesus is seated on His throne at the right hand of the Father (Ephesians 1:19-22 and 2:4-6). In King Jesus we, too, are made “kings and priests” to God our Father (Revelation 1:6 and 5:10).
When I come to those places in the psalms where God makes promises concerning the king and the king responds to God, I see a this three-fold overlay: King David, King Jesus and me. King David and I find our highest identity and fulfillment in King Jesus, and through King Jesus receive the full blessing of God.

So it is in Psalm 21:1, “The king shall have joy in Your strength, O LORD,” I find David and Jesus and me, taking great joy in God because we have all experienced the strength of the Lord in amazing ways. “And in Your salvation how greatly shall he rejoice!” We “whirl and twirl for joy” (the word here for “rejoice” indicates to “spin”) because of the salvation God has worked on our behalf. For David and me, He worked that salvation through Jesus (Hebrew, Yeshua), whose very name means “salvation” (yeshuah). And He worked salvation for Jesus by raising Him from the dead.
You have given him his heart’s desire,
And have not withheld the request of his lips. Selah.
(Psalms 21:2)
God never refused the desire of David’s heart. For David delighted himself in the Lord, and the Lord gave him the desires of His heart (Psalm 37:4). Because David delighted in the Lord, his desires were God-shaped desires.

God also never refused the desire of Jesus’ heart. “For the Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand” (John 3:35). What was the desire of Jesus’ heart? “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). And God heard Him, for “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19).

And God will not refuse the desires of my heart or yours. “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). King Jesus has given us this promise: “Whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13). “In that day you will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I shall pray the Father for you; for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me, and have believed that I came forth from God” (John 16:26-27).

So now, as the psalm writer continues, see what God has done for David, for King Jesus, and through Him, for you and me:
For You meet him with the blessings of goodness;
You set a crown of pure gold upon his head.
He asked life from You, and You gave it to him —
Length of days forever and ever.
His glory is great in Your salvation;
Honor and majesty You have placed upon him.
For You have made him most blessed forever;
You have made him exceedingly glad with Your presence.
For the king trusts in the LORD,
And through the mercy of the Most High he shall not be moved.
(Psalm 21:3-7)

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Reading the Bible with Church History

As we read and study the Bible, it is important to have a good grounding in Church history, because it will help us realize that there is not a straight line from the way we read Scripture and understand Christian theology today back to how the apostles originally taught and understood it in the early church. There have been a multitude of twists and turns along the way.

When we do not know anything of the history of the Church or the historical development of Christian theology, it becomes very easy for us to think that we are merely reading Scripture for ourselves, because we are unaware of how much our own reading and theology has been conditioned, influenced and shaped by century upon century of hermeneutical and theological developments.

The more we understand the history of the church and of theology, the less we will be susceptible to reading Scripture in a simplistic way (that is, a way that is overly simple and reductionist).

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Exploring the Gospel ~ Psalm 98

Psalm 98 is gospel-shaped. That is, although it has its own historical setting in the story of Israel, it finds its greatest fulfillment in the gospel — the good news about the kingdom of God and of Jesus, God’s anointed King.
Sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things!
His right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.
(Psalm 98:1)
The gospel is not just a new song but the new song, the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. Jesus began His ministry by announcing the gospel: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). The gospel is the ultimate expression of God’s purpose for the world, from beginning to end: “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:1-2).
The LORD has made known His salvation;
His righteousness He has revealed in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered His mercy
and His faithfulness to the house of Israel;
All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.
(Psalm 98:2-3)
In the gospel, God has brought His salvation into the world not only for Israel’s sake but for all the nations of the earth. That is why, after the resurrection but before He ascended to His throne at the right hand of the Father, Jesus said to His disciples, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:18-19). And the apostle Paul, even as he was under house arrest in Rome, teaching and testifying about the kingdom of God, said, “Therefore let it be known to you that the salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles [Gr. ethnos, nations], and they will hear it!” (Acts 28:23-28). Add to this the intriguing fact that the Hebrew word for “salvation” in Psalm 98:2-3 is yeshuah, which in name form is Yeshua, the Hebrew name for Jesus.
Shout joyfully to the LORD, all the earth;
Break forth in song, rejoice, and sing praises.
Sing to the LORD with the harp,
With the harp and the sound of a psalm,
With trumpets and the sound of a horn;
Shout joyfully before the LORD, the King.
Let the sea roar, and all its fullness,
The world and those who dwell in it;
Let the rivers clap their hands;
Let the hills be joyful together before the LORD.
(Psalm 98:4-8)
In announcing the good news about King Jesus the Messiah throughout the earth, God has revealed His salvation to the nations. It is cause for celebrating with shouts of joy and loud praises to God. Even creation itself is depicted as getting in the act — the seas roar, the rivers “clap their hands,” the hills are full of joy — because its own redemption is at hand. “For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:19-21).
For He is coming to judge the earth.
With righteousness He shall judge the world,
And the peoples with equity.
(Psalm 98:9)
The Lord Jesus has ascended to His throne at the right hand of the Father, where He rules and reigns with all authority over heaven and earth. But there is coming a day when He will return to judge the world. Paul spoke of that day in his sermon to the philosophers on Mars Hill, in Athens. He proclaimed to them the God they did not know, that He has “appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man [Jesus the Messiah] whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).

Often, when people think of God judging the world, they imagine a hail of fire and brimstone raining down and leaving behind a scene of death and desolate ion. In that portrayal, God judging the world means God destroying the world.

Not so. As we saw above, creation is not waiting to be destroyed and put out of its misery. It is waiting to be delivered, set free from the bondage of corruption, to experience the glory and freedom of the redeemed as God brings His plan to completion. When King Jesus comes to judge the world, it is make everything in the world the way it was always meant to be. His righteousness, which is to say, His rightness, sets everything right.

That is the joyful anticipation of the gospel. The kingdom of God has come into the world, with Jesus as God’s anointed King. And when He returns the kingdom will be found in completeness —heaven on earth — the will of God being done on earth just as it is in heaven.

Let all the earth come and sing and shout for joy because of this good news.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Random Thoughts

Some thoughts culled from my random file. Some have occurred to me in moments of quiet reflection, some in discussion with others. For your edification, inspiration and/or amusement.
  • The Bible speaks much about the love of God, but it also speaks much about His holiness and justice, about hell and judgment. Can we explain it all out, about how all this comes together in God, or how it all plays out? I expect not. There are a number of things God has given us to know, and apparently a number of things He has not. Can we live with not knowing exactly how His love and judgment work together? Can we live with the mystery of what He has not given us to know and go with what He has given us to know?
  • God can certainly teach us things in the midst of sickness and poverty, and even bring good out of them. But the teacher He has appointed for us is the Holy Spirit, not sickness and poverty.
  • God is not glorified by our sickness but by healing us in Jesus’ name. He is not glorified by our poverty but by the provision He has made for us according to His riches in glory in Jesus the Messiah. Our sickness and poverty do not please Him, but faith pleases Him. And faith is a matter of believing God, taking Him at His Word, even concerning healing and provision. In the midst of sickness, He is pleased when we believe Him for healing. In the midst of poverty, He is pleased when we trust Him for provision.
  • A man many appear to be prospering outwardly, but if he is not prospering in his inner being, his outward prosperity will not endure. When it folds, he will fold with it. But a man who is prosperous in spirit will endure even if all outward prosperity be taken away.
  • Jesus is the True Light who gives light to every person who comes into the world, so that no one is without a witness that is adequate to lead them to salvation. The real question, then, becomes about how they are responding to that witness. God will not hold anyone accountable for more light, or less, than He has given them.
  • The gifts of the Spirit were not meant to be merely “validation for the message.” They are manifestations of the kingdom. Jesus didn’t heal the sick and cast out demons because He needed to validate His message ~ He was manifesting the kingdom of God on earth.
  • The kingdom of God is the will of God being done on earth as it is in heaven. There is no sickness in heaven, so the manifestation of the kingdom of God on earth in regard to sickness is healing. Likewise, the manifestation of the kingdom in regard to demonization is expelling the demons.
  • Many people today, including many Christians, think of hope as speculation: “Maybe so. Maybe not. We’ll see.” But in the Bible, hope is a matter of expectation. Hebrews 11:1 tells us that “faith is the substance of things hoped for.” That is, faith is the substance, or underlying reality, of what we are expecting. Faith is believing the promise of God, expecting that it will eventually come to pass. The facts of the world (the way the world is at present) must eventually line up with the truth (the promise God has made). Faith is expecting it to be so.
  • I have been single and I have been married. I’ve known both sides of the coin. No doubt, the responsibilities inherent in marriage and family shape the way I look at life. I am committed in particular relationships in this life (till death do us part, in regard to marriage, and my children will always be my children). I am not just Jeff, I am somebody’s husband and somebody’s father, so following and honoring Christ in those roles is very important. My wife and my children are the ones Christ has set before me, and if I am going to be faithful to Him I must be faithful to them.
  • God is a God of order. But our order is not necessarily His. So what sometimes might seem out of order to us is just God establishing His order. Likewise, if God’s ways sometimes are confusing to us, it is because we started out confused and God is trying to straighten that out in us.
  • There are many facets to the gospel and many ways to reach out to people with it. The best way is the one that is needed at the time by the person you are reaching out to. But the more we understand the bigger picture of the gospel, the more we will understand what it means in a particular situation. DISCLOSURE: I am still learning the gospel and I expect it will take me the rest of my life.
  • I don’t understand the bigger picture of the gospel to mean that people are basically good. People are basically broken, and that brokenness manifests is so many ways. The good news of the bigger gospel is that Jesus does not just address God’s wrath toward our sin, but He defeats all the powers that stand against us and hold us in bondage, and restores us to God’s original purpose in creating us in this world (Genesis 1:26-28). It is a healing, not just of ourselves, but of our relationship with God, with each other, of creation and our relationship with creation. The bigger gospel means that not only is my brokenness healed, but that healing can begin to manifest now, in this life, bringing forth the fruit of the Spirit. We go from faith to faith and glory to glory. The darkness is fading away because the true light is already shining. I love the bigness of the gospel because it is the solution to my brokenness.
  • Life is not fair. But God is faithful.

Monday, July 1, 2013

A Clean Heart, A Steadfast Spirit

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
(Psalm 51:10)
Here is David, confessing his sin and repenting before the Lord. He longs to walk in rightness (righteousness) but he knows he cannot do it on his own. He needs God to do a work in him, to create a new heart and a faithful spirit within him.

My daily practice includes praying from the psalms. Whenever I come to Psalm 51, and this verse in particular, I am reminded that God has indeed answered this prayer, and He has done it through the gospel, the good news that Jesus is King over all. It is the fulfillment of a promise God made through the prophet Ezekiel, who came a few centuries after David:
For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. (Ezekiel 36:24-27)
This is the “born again” experience we read about in John 3, in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. It is being born of “water and the Spirit” (John 3:5). God cleanses us, creates in us a new heart, a clean heart, and renews a steadfast spirit in us by giving us His own Spirit to dwell within us. The fruit of the Holy Spirit, who is always at work in us, is “love, joy, peace, … faithfulness” (Galatians 5:22-23).

So now when I pray this psalm and come to this verse, my prayer is not a plea but a praise for what God done. And I yield myself to the Spirit of God and what He is doing in me.