Exploring Covenant and Kingdom

Discovering what relationship and responsibility are all about

We are all part of the “in” Crowd!

Isaiah 56:6 reads, “I will also bless the foreigners who commit themselves to the Lord, who serve him and love his name, who worship him and do not desecrate the Sabbath day of rest, and who hold fast to my covenant.”

The Israelite people had always believed that they had a special, unique relationship with God.  They also believed strongly that clear boundaries existed that stipulated who was “in” and who was “out”.

If you were born of the line of Abraham, you were one of the chosen people and belonged to that special “in” group.  Anyone who was foreign born didn’t quite measure up.

The book of Ruth shows us however, that God does not care about birth or ancestry as much as He cares about commitment and obedience.

Ruth is a foreigner, a poor widow from enemy land.   And yet, God uses her to change the course of history.  She becomes the mother of Obed, who is the grandfather of King David, and an ancestor of Jesus Christ.

What do we learn from Ruth’s story?  We learn that God can use any one of us–no matter how weak, how poor, how insignificant we might look to the rest of the world.  God cares about all people, no matter where they were born or what color their skin might be.

We learn that we matter to God.  God’s hand is all over the events of this book and nothing in the lives of Ruth, Naomi, or Boaz escapes His notice.  God provides protection and provision of their daily needs to Ruth and Naomi.  And He does this for us too.  We need to be constantly watching for His hand touching our circumstances so that we can give Him the thanks and praise He is owed.

And we learn that God wants us to live selflessly–the way the characters in Ruth did.  Ruth cares for Naomi by putting her own needs aside.  Naomi cares for Ruth by ensuring her future protection.  Boaz cares for Ruth and Naomi by redeeming their property and by marrying the foreign widow whose future seems bleak at the beginning.

And God cares for us by giving them a child who would be the ancestor to Jesus Christ.

The book of Ruth begins with hopelessness.  But we see Ruth join with the people of God and turn her life completely around.  Isn’t this a picture of how we come to a faith as well?  We begin with no hope–outsiders, foreigners with no place in the family of God.  Ruth, the outsider from Moab,  laid herself and her pride down on the threshing floor before Boaz, and he became her kinsman-redeemer.  We too change our lives, when we lay down our pride and surrender to Jesus, our Redeemer.





Put The Reins On Zeal!


Horses are magnificent creatures.  Powerful creatures.  It is a remarkable thing that humans have been able to tame, domesticate, and control animals.  I suppose that authority or ability goes back to God’s commission in the Garden of Eden that humans have “dominion” over the animals (Genesis 1:28).  But I digress.  The method of controlling a horse (which is multiple times heavier and stronger than a human) is through the contraption of a bridle, bit, and reins.  The reins are the long, narrow straps used to a rider to guide or keep the horse in check.  The reining doesn’t squelch the horse’s actual power,  isn’t diminished but simply channeled and directed.  From that literal tool we get the imagery and metaphor of “reining” somebody in.  By that we mean to control, pull back into check somebody who is going outside of the set parameters.

Enter Sunday’s text of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-31).  In Saul we see somebody raging around with incredible power.  We see a man full of zeal and passion.  However, it is unbridled and misdirected passion.  Jesus reins it in.  Saul thought He was on God’s side and doing God’s work by trying to exterminate “the Way” (Acts 9:2) which Saul saw as a disease infecting Judaism.  Perhaps he saw himself in the same league as Phinehas (a priest, Aaron’s grandson, see Numbers 25) who’s righteous zeal led him to commit a double homicide of an Israelite man and a Moabite woman indulging in sexual immorality.  God did not judge him for that.  On the contrary, God was actually pleased with his zeal (Num. 25:11-13).

Are Phinehas and Saul on the same bandwidth?  A similar zeal is not enough.  Saul’s zeal was not informed by knowledge, and so he actually found himself working against God!  Saul refused to believe the disciples’ preaching that Jesus was the promised Messiah and that Jehovah accepted all people.  Saul’s zeal run amok ought to cause us to pause and ask whether our zeal and our passion comes from God or is driven by our own flesh or our ignorance of God and His ways.  There is a common misconception in churches that having passion for something qualifies you to serve in that role.  Or having knowledge or expertise or skill qualifies you to serve in leadership.  Neither passion nor gifts are sufficient in and of themselves.  They need to be combined with proper knowledge of God and His Word.  Repeatedly in Acts we have seen that being filled with the Spirit was the qualifications used for leadership (i.e. Acts 6:3).  We see the same qualifications named by Paul in his epistles.  Those who serve in roles of influence in the church need to have reached a significant level of spiritual depth.  They need to be people who are typically viewed as being filled with the Spirit because their lives overflow with the fruit of the Spirit.  In the life of Riverbend this is a great time to pause and think about this as we head into nominations time for Church Council vacancies and our Annual Meeting.  Let’s live with zeal according to God’s character and ways so that He doesn’t have to rein us in!


The Thrill of Obedience!

obedient dog

I’m not a dog guy, but the dog show industry is kind of fascinating.  It is quite amazing the ability that humans have to train various animals.  As I searched google images for “the thrill of obedience” quite a few pictures that showed up were of dogs performing (such as the one above).  All of the faces of dogs were smiling or something expressing even greater joy!  I spent a few minutes thinking about this.  Why are they happy?  Why do they do it?  I may be mistaken as an outsider, but I think it is for the simply joy of treats!  Throughout the training process, food treats are given as a reward for obedience.  And the joyful expressions of their masters when the dog does what it was asked and trained to do also impacts “man’s best friend”.  Show dogs are a fine illustration for the idea of “the thrill of obedience”.

This past Sunday we continued to see King Jesus building his Kingdom through the scattered disciples (Acts 8:4), and specifically through Philip in the narrative we looked at (Acts 8:26-40).  To recap for us, through narrative passages (like Acts) God SHOWS us how to live.  By identifying the characters, observing their actions, and noting the results of their actions we discern what God is saying.  So what do we learn from watching Philip?  One thing we can learn from him is the “thrill of obedience”.  When Philip scattered and landed in Samaria he did not hide away or try to start a quiet, new life.  Rather, he was obedient to the commission he learned that Jesus gave to his disciples, that included being his witnesses in Samaria (Acts 1:8).  In Acts 8: 7, 8, and 12 we see that Philip’s show and tell (miracles and preaching) resulted in many people seeing the Kingdom come in their lives (healings, deliverances, and eternal life).  Luke doesn’t tell us how much time had transpired for Philip in Samaria before the angel gives him a new assignment (v.26), but we can reasonably conclude that it is a much longer period of time than simply days.  What many would call “revival” was happening in Samaria.  In the midst of this period of great fruitfulness in ministry, the Lord speaks to Philip and gives him a strange assignment: to leave the revival in Samaria and go to the isolated desert road leading to Gaza.  Philip obeyed, with Luke reporting no resistance (in contrast to Moses in Exodus!).  Wouldn’t every fibre of our being resist and argue with God?  Why did Philip up and leave without a fight?  I would suggest it is because of “the thrill of obedience”.

If you have never experienced it, there is no greater thrill than being led by the Spirit, obeying and seeing God at work.  It is truly intoxicating!  The more you experience and see the correlation between obedience and fruitfulness, the more it becomes a lifestyle.  There is no greater joy in life than seeing God transform a life.  It draws you to keep obeying and keep listening!  So I would suggest that Philip had seen the fruit of lives changed in Jerusalem and in Samaria and so joyfully obeys God’s seemingly obscure call.  Now we see God use Philip to transform the life of the Ethiopian eunuch on the desert road.  Each changed life is a miracle and a thrill!  What happens next?  Verse 40 concludes the narrative this way, “Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea”.  God shows us through Philip what it looks like to seek first the Kingdom, and the fruit of listening and obeying the Spirit.

Here’s a convicting and challenging question to ponder: Does our passion or apathy in our faith walk directly correlate with our obedience or disobedience?

Praying Is Helping

praying for others

Last Sunday, after a 5 week pause for Advent, we picked up on our sermon series in Acts.  We covered Acts 8:1-25.  Verse 4 says, “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went”.  Beginning in verse 5 Luke uses Philip as a specific example of what that looked like.  In Samaria Philip not only preached the gospel in the boldness of the Spirit, but also performed many miracles in the power of the Spirit.  This was particularly important in Samaria because for years the people there had been amazed and under the power of Simon the sorcerer.  If the gospel would have any relevance to them, they would need to see that it wasn’t just words but in fact this Christ who was being preached was even more powerful than the magic of Simon.

One of the truths of this passage, and the book of Acts as a whole, is that God spreads the gospel through displays of His power.  Do you believe that God continues to do that?  I do.  Hopefully you’ve experienced miraculous answers to prayers in your own life, but if not, most people have heard incredible stories from overseas missionaries.  It is one thing to believe in general that God still displays his power because not as much is on the line if God doesn’t come through.   It is quite another thing to put yourself out there and actually pray for others in person and see what happens.  What if we pray for a non-Christian and then our prayer isn’t obviously answered?  Won’t that give God a bad name?  Perhaps you’d rather not risk that and so in the name of “protecting” God’s reputation you don’t dare praying for others?

I recently read an interesting perspective on this that may change your mind.  Choosing not to offer to pray for others in need is selfish, faithless, and unloving, rather than protective.  Think of these analogies: “If an unbelieving neighbour was suddenly out of work, and you had some important connection that could get him a job, wouldn’t you make an effort to contact that person?  Or, if you knew someone with a serious illness and your father happened to be a famous doctor who specialized in treating that illness, wouldn’t you ask your dad if he would be willing to see your neighbour?  Or course, you would!  Who wouldn’t!  And who wouldn’t go to their Heavenly Father and ask Him to intervene for the same needy neighbour?”

Those are challenging words.  Could my failure to pray for others be unbelief, cowardice, fearfulness, and evidence of a lack of love for my neighbour?  Do you really believe that God is King?  If so, we should have no problem offering to pray for others.  I remember a couple years ago a pastor friend of mine shared about a transformation in his ministry.  It happened because believers began to have the courage to ask non-believing acquaintances what they would most like God to do for them, and then praying that for them.  And low and behold there was a substantial increase in answers to prayer and people moving towards a faith in God!  James tells us that we don’t have because we don’t ask (James 4:2).  I dare you to step out in faith and see if God doesn’t begin to reveal himself more often to others than you are experiencing now!



Shirking responsibility


In our cultural Christianity we professionalize church ministries.  We pay people to do some of the major work of the church.  This has both benefits and problems.  The problems are that it is easy to “outsource” our Christian duties and responsibilities to somebody else.  For example, we all live busy lives and so instead of guarding time in our homes to be the primary spiritual influencers of our children, we find peace of mind that the children’s ministry is teaching our kids about God.  Shirking our duties?  Delegating?  Deuteronomy 6:7-9 reminds us that our homes, not the “temple”, is to be the primary place our children experience and learn about God.

Last Sunday was Acts 8:1-4 was a portion of the sermon passage.  (That was the last Sunday for 2017 that we had in Acts.  We are pausing for 5 weeks now for Advent and New Year’s).  Stephen had just become the first Christian martyr (a person who is killed because of their religious or other beliefs).  That event was the trigger for the first major persecution that the early church experienced. Acts 8:1b tells us: “A great wave of persecution began that day, sweeping over the church in Jerusalem; and all the believers except the apostles were scattered through the regions of Judea and Samaria”.  The church had grown to around 10,000 people (a conservative estimate).  That’s a lot of people scattered!  Although in comparison to recent scatterings (hundreds of thousands and millions of refugees fleeing areas in Africa and Asia), that pales in volume.

What did all the scattered believers do?  Start-up a new, quiet life?  Hide from further persecution?  Verse 4 tells us that “the believers who were scattered preached the Good News about Jesus wherever they went.”  Wow!  That’s thousands of missionaries!  The believers took their Kingdom responsibility seriously.  They shared the good news.  Acts 1:8 (And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.) wasn’t just a directive for the apostles.  Part of the apostles teaching (i.e. Acts 2:42; 5:42; 6:2) must have been about the call for every believer to be a witness.  They understood that the call to witness and evangelize was every believers’ responsibility and not something they could delegate away!

What about you?  What do you do with Jesus’ call for you to share the Good News with others?  Are you in the practice of praying for opportunities and stepping into them?  Or are you shirking responsibility by leaving all proclamation of the Good News to gifted evangelists and the pastor?  It is tempting to limit our role in sharing the Good News with others primarily through inviting others to church with the hope that somebody else will tell them the Good News.   It is a wonderful thing to be able to invite our friends and family members to church gatherings or special events knowing that there will be opportunities for them to hear the gospel, BUT we dare not think that inviting people to church is the primary way that Christians are to be Jesus’ witnesses.  People are most impacted when they hear a testimony of what God has done in the life of somebody they know and have relationship with.  The gospel really advances and bears much fruit when we as God’s people recognize and embrace the responsibility that we all have to spread the Good News.  God spreads the gospel through ordinary Christians!

Too Busy


“I don’t have time for that”.  “Let me check my schedule to see where I can squeeze you in”.  “I’m so tired, I can’t do another thing”.  “Nope.  Sorry.  I am way too busy to be able to do that”.  Perhaps you’ve said some of those things.  A friend of mine literally said this to me yesterday: “I’d love to do that but I’m too busy.  I can’t fit another thing on my plate.”  Perhaps you wrestle with guilt about having to say no to certain things.  How did we get to this point?  Busyness is an epidemic in the Western World.  The problem is that we think that with all the societal technological time saving advances we’re saving time, but the reality is we’re busier than ever because with the “extra time” we keep adding more things to our plate!

Last Sunday we looked at Acts 6:1-7.  Here we see the apostles dealing with a time management problem that has arisen.  Before when the church was 120 people, or even 3000 people after Pentecost, they seemed to have the capacity of doing everything themselves.  But as the church had continued to multiply explosively and reached probably somewhere in excess of 10,000 people (Acts 4:4 counts 5,000 MEN), they had come to the crisis point where it became obvious that they couldn’t provide leadership over all aspects of ministry anymore.  The problem that had arisen pertained to daily food distribution to widows (Acts 6:1).  How do the apostles respond?  They welcome the involvement of more leaders to take over that aspect of ministry.  Doing this will permit them to “spend [their] time teaching the word of God”(v.2).  They repeat it again, that the development of leadership is crucial so that “we apostles can spend our time in prayer and teaching the word”(v.4).

What can we learn from their example?  The first application I want to raise pertains to every follower of Jesus, not just those in leadership.  It is too easy to allow the tyranny of the urgent to squeeze out time in the Word and prayer.  Like breathing to the physical body so is prayer to the spirit.  It is essential.  Reading Scripture regularly to allow God to speak to us afresh and apply his truth to our situations is also essential.  The sooner we learn those truths, the sooner our lives will be grow in Kingdom fruitfulness.  From a human perspective spiritual disciplines can seem mundane and irrelevant.  But the supernatural mystery is that as we step into them we experience joy and power and wisdom we never dreamed possible.


The second application I want to make applies to leadership, but also in another sense to all followers of Jesus as we believe everybody has a ministry and is called to exercise the faith and gifts that God has given them.  It takes time to know with reasonable assurance what our gifts and calling are, but when we do know I believe that God expects us to build our ministry schedule around them.  Just as the apostles realized they had to set aside the good for the best, so we too need to be vigilante and ruthless to manage or time and calendars.  May the Lord grant that we be known as focused instead of busy.


Kingdom Courage

Reading through the book of Acts, we become aware of some pretty significant changes taking place in the followers of Jesus.  Just a few weeks ago we saw them scatter, run and hide in fear after the arrest and crucifixion of their leader.  Now they seem emboldened and unstoppable.

Do you read these passages and find yourself wondering what you would be doing in the face of these challenges?  I certainly do!  It is one thing for us to admit that we are Jesus people in a peaceful society, governed by reasonable laws that protect religious freedoms.  But what about for Chrisitans in countries where that is not the case?  I read recently that nearly a million Chrisitans have been killed for their beliefs in the past 10 years alone!  What is it that makes Peter, John and the others able to face these terrifying odds with courage?

The changes that we see in the Apostles in the book of Acts take place as a result of the Holy Spirit power that they have received.  That power has been given to us too when we accepted Jesus as our Lord and Savior.  But the gift of the Holy Spirit is not a once and only gift.  It truly is the gift that keeps on giving!

In Acts 5:32, Peter and the others tell the Sanhedrin that God has placed Jesus at his right hand in a place of honor and “we are witnesses of these things and so is the Holy Spirit who is given by God to those who obey Him.”  The apostles realize that it is through consistent and ongoing obedience that the Holy Spirit would be free to work in their lives.  The other important thing that they understand is clearly stated in these words, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” Acts 5:29

When we are obedient to God alone, the Holy Spirit will give us the same kind of courage that we see in the Apostles as they stare down the powerful Sanhedrin.  This is the same kind of courage that fills the brave believers around the world who refuse to deny Jesus even at the end of a sword.  It is unstoppable faith and it is available to us all.

We may not face challenges that are as dangerous as what Peter and the others faced, or as those that modern Christian martyrs experience.  But every one of us has our own set of life circumstances that require hearts of bravery.  It takes courage to remain pure in a culture that is steeped in sexuality. It takes courage to continue to work at a marriage that seems to be hopeless and empty.  It takes courage to get up every morning with health challenges that bring suffering.  It takes courage to do the right thing, even when there are shortcuts that no one but you is going to know about.

But we don’t do this on our own.  Just as the Holy Spirit filled the Apostles with kingdom courage to stand up to the powerful religious leaders, and just as the martyrs are filled with bravery as they face death for their beliefs, we too have a super power within reach! The Holy Spirit dwells within every believer and as we grow in obedience, more and more Holy Spirit fruit and power is available to us!



Holding Out

raining money

There is nothing more angering to an average Joe like me than when professional athletes who make millions of dollars hold out for a bigger contract.  That anger  probably  isn’t righteous though; I suspect it comes out of envy.  One of the conditions we have in our fallenness is that of selfishness.  When we read the New Testament we are challenged with the witness of the early church that demonstrates that one of the marks of redeemed humanity (Holy Spirit filled living) is that of selflessness and generosity.

In Acts 4:32 we read that: All the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had.”  As a result “There were no needy people among them”(v.34).  That picture is a far cry from our Western church experience.  Why is this?  What prevents this from happening today?  I would suggest it is because we have trouble crucifying the flesh ( “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. 25 Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives.” Gal.5:24-25) and denying ourselves (“Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me” Mt.16:24).  How many of us have truly embraced the call to self-denial?  I read this in a commentary and it hit home: “In our culture, denying ourselves tends to be the farthest thing from our minds.  Our culture trains us to indulge ourselves.  Our culture trains us to believe that we NEED the latest iPhone, a bigger TV, a cooler car, a bigger house, newer clothes, a faster computer, a new gym membership, expensive manicures, lavish vacations, and the list goes on.”

Our cultural value of “progress/evolution” hinders us from being fully used by God to carry about his purposes and expand His kingdom.  Last week in our sermon text we saw Luke illustrate that real struggle with contrasting the actions of Barnabas and the actions of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 4:36-5:11).

But money isn’t the only thing we hold back.  There is a striking contrast that emerges in our passage between the actions of the apostles and the actions of Ananias and Sapphira when we read the ESV (a more literal translation).  Verse 33 says that the apostles were giving witness.  Instead of being the usual word for giving, the Greek used is a word referring to paying what you owe; Something has been done for you, and now you are “giving back”.    The apostles were fulfilling their duty to Jesus by sharing the gospel.  They were “giving back” to Jesus by being His witnesses.  In contrast Ananias and Sapphira did not give back but instead they “kept back” money for themselves!  Their focus was on their own desires, not on serving Jesus.  An Old Testament parallel is the story of Achan in Joshua 7.  The same word is used in the Greek translation of Joshua 7:1 to describe Achan “keeping back” some of the loot from Jericho, which was all supposed to be devoted to God.  Ananais and Sapphira’s keeping back resulted in death, just like Achan.  Just as God was showing the Israelites who had just entered in a covenant relationship with Him that they dare not take Him lightly, so He showed the newborn church the same thing.

Are you holding back something from God?  Time, talent, or treasure?  God is showing us through Acts that He wants all of us, and that as we give him our all (witness and possessions) His Kingdom will come in our midst.