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.

 

 

 

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Shirking responsibility

shirking

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

busy-full-calendar

“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!

 

life-by-the-book

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.

The Bad News

bad news

Can there truly be good news without bad news?  There has to be an alternative scenario possible in order for one reality to truly have significant impact.  We have to embrace both truths for impact to occur.  If I try to sell you on a new product, you have to be discontent with your current reality;  you have to believe that what you have is inferior or ineffective before you’d likely to be willing to give something else a try.

The same is true with the gospel.  I can tell you that you are loved by God, but if you don’t feel unloved where you are at you probably won’t care that God loves you.  If you don’t know lack there is no impetus to respond to the offer that God will provide for you.  The gospel of Jesus is that we are sinners who need forgiveness and a Saviour, not simply that God loves us.

I read a very good analogy pertaining to this topic.  “Downplaying the reality of the sinner’s plight is like this:  Suppose you’re having terrible abdominal pain and you go to your doctor.  The doctor does many tests and discovers that you have an aggressive form of stomach cancer.  He knows that if you immediately start treatment you have a good chance of being cured, and without treatment you’ll be dead within months.  But he doesn’t want to make you feel bad by telling you that you have cancer.  So, he tells you to stop eating so much spicy food and sends you home.  Telling you that you have a serious problem is your only hope.  If you don’t know about your cancer, you’ll never try to find a cure.  The same is true of our spiritual state.  That’s why we must expose people’s guilt before God, even when it’s not popular to do so.”

In Acts 3:12-26 we read Peter’s sermon to the crowd in the temple courts after Peter and John healed the lame beggar.  Peter begins with the bad news before he gets to the good news.  On the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) Peter also started with bad news before presenting the good news to the people.  How did they respond?  Did they dismiss his message?  Did they heckle him or chase him out of town?

Acts 2:37-38: Peter’s words pierced their hearts, and they said to him and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?”

38 Peter replied, “Each of you must repent of your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.

The number of believers jumped from 120 to 3000 at Pentecost!  After Peter’s sermon in Acts 3, Acts 4:4 tells us the result: “But many of the people who heard their message believed it, so the number of men who believed now totaled about 5,000.”

It is interesting to note who Peter’s audiences are in those two narratives.  They are the religious faithful who have come on pilgrimage for the Feast of Pentecost (Acts 2), and the religious faithful who are in the temple courts to worship (Acts 3).  This should remind us not to take for granted that those who sit in our pews week after week are good to go because their behaviour is right.  It is too easy to slip into a self-righteousness mindset.  Periodically we need to remind ourselves of everybody’s need for the Saviour day in and day out.

If our preaching and witnessing of the Good News does not include the Bad News, then I would dare to say that our ministries are not biblically sound.  Our culture of relativism and tolerance pressures us to downplay the Bad News.  But as the biblical narrative shows preaching the Good News has to include the Bad News (at some point).  King Jesus builds His kingdom through us as we share the whole gospel.

 

 

 

 

 

Visibility

visibility

Privacy is valued highly in the Western world.  This is seen in expressions like the fences we build around our yards, and the curtains that we install on our windows.  We don’t like those who aren’t a part of us necessarily knowing what we are up to; not that we have anything to hide, but it just feels intrusive.  This is generally true of most people, but not everyone!  I worked with a friend for a few years who had a decorative concrete garden edging business.  There is one job we did that I will never forget.  We were working in the client’s front yard.  That day the neighbour across the road was out front with small children and was yelling at them for an extended period of time!  I felt so embarrassed for them!  When we are raising our voice with our children we try not to do it in public, and even in the house we think to close the windows so the neighbours don’t overhear us!

This cultural value that we hold impacts our faith as well.  We tend to view faith as a personal matter, and society asks us not to practice it in a public way so as not to make others feel uncomfortable or offend them.  Last Sunday, in our series on Acts, we looked at Acts 2:42-47.  In verses 46 and 47 it says: “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”  For a community of faith to have favour with all people, and for unbelievers to become saved and be added to their number, they were clearly not living isolated and private.  They had a visible, public faith!  What we see in the early chapters of Acts is a new community of believers where the believers were together and yet remained within the wider society.  This was in contrast to some Jewish sects of that time who fled society to live removed and withdrawn so as not to be tainted.  Such a community was the Essenes who lived out in the wilderness at Qumran along the Dead Sea.  We were privileged to visit this sight on our trip to Israel last September.  Here are a few pictures:

Notice the desert surrounding the excavations.  In contrast to the Essenes, the early Christians stayed in the cities and towns.  They understood Jesus’ call on their lives to be witnesses.  In praying for his disciples Jesus said, “I’m not asking you to take them out of the world, but to keep them safe from the evil one” (John 17:15).  The words of Paul in 1 Cor.5:9-10 also come to mind for me: “When I wrote to you before, I told you not to associate with people who indulge in sexual sin. 10 But I wasn’t talking about unbelievers who indulge in sexual sin, or are greedy, or cheat people, or worship idols. You would have to leave this world to avoid people like that”.  Our temptation can be to cocoon and live a private, invisible faith.  But that is not an obedient faith.  To keep in step with King Jesus we need to follow him out into the broken world to find the lost.  The King is about expanding his Kingdom! 

There is also something interesting to note about Luke’s use of that word ‘favour’.  As Luke set out in the opening chapter of Acts, the book is about Jesus and his continuing works and teachings through his disciples.  In Luke’s gospel he uses this word of Jesus: “Jesus grew in favour with man and God” (Lk 2:52).  The early church was looking like Jesus!  As we dare to be on mission for Jesus, although we will likely experience some opposition, we will also come into favour with people who’s hearts are ripe for Kingdom harvest!

 

 

Only God Could Do That!

Northern Lights colours

The Aurora Borealis (a.k.a. Northern Lights) were out in spectacular brilliance last night!  My wife and I stood outside and watched for 10 minutes as the green lights danced and waved across the sky.  We have seen them before, but never in multi-colour, so when we saw some red as well we were super excited!  The song “God of Wonders” came to my lips.  The sky was filled with nighttime light that stretched across continents.  Only  God could do that.  Man’s best attempt to inspire awe with nighttime light (grand fireworks displays) pales in comparison.

In our study of Acts, last Sunday we reached the narrative of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-41).  When we read parts of Scripture, especially familiar texts, we tend to breeze through it and fail to be awed like we ought to.  Much of Scripture describes for us only things that God can do; these Scriptures ought to inspire awe in us.  Details within the Pentecost narrative ought to fill us with amazement.  I want to consider one such detail for this blog post.

Let’s consider the main speaker-Peter.  In the gospels we see he is both impetuous and cowardly.  He lets uncontrolled anger steer him (i.e. cutting off an ear in the Garden of Gethsemane-John 18:12), and makes impossible promises (Luke 22:31-33).  After his boastful declaration of undying loyalty, he denies Christ three times in history’s greatest betrayal (Luke 22:54-62).  Do you remember what Jesus told Peter in Mt.16:18? “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”  Jesus knew that he would transform this man into a steady force.  In the Pentecost narrative we see the fulfillment of that prophecy.  Peter preached the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit and 3,000 people were saved!  Jesus’ words were not a prophecy that Peter would be the first pope; His point was that Peter would be the tool that Jesus used to begin building his church.  Was Peter of Pentecost the same person as the man we read about in the gospels?  No!  This extreme makeover was something only that God can do!  He was the same person only in name.  But the Holy Spirit transformed him into a completely different person!

In Christ we are new creations (2 Cor.5:17)!  If you don’t feel or look like somebody different than your old self, you are not living in the Spirit.  The message of the book of Acts is that we are tools Jesus wants to use to continue building His church, but we can only do that as the Holy Spirit fills us and works through us.  May you seek the Spirit’s filling often (Eph.5:18), and keep in step with the Spirit (Gal.5:25).  Then we will live with supernatural power to fulfill our call to be witnesses to King Jesus.  May others marvel at our Kingdom representation and provide us the opportunity to declare that it’s only something that God can do!