I’m a Christian but I never talk about Jesus?

In his letter to the Corinthians the Apostle Paul offers a weighty admonition for Christians to “examine [themselves] to see whether [they] are in the faith (2 Cor 13:5).” A number of personal assessments could be applied. The apostle John offers several in his first epistle: Do you live an unholy life while claiming to be a Christian (1 John 1:5)? Do you refuse to acknowledge your sin ( 1:8-10)? Do you show love to others (2:10)?

One that I think is particularly helpful is this: do you think and speak often of your Christian faith? Do you talk about your adoration for Christ? Do you speak highly of the Church and the mission to make disciples? Do you speak often against the horrors of sin, and the desire of a holy life? Do those in your community know plainly how much your christian walk means to you? If one was to peruse your social media pages, listen in on your daily conversations, observe your regular musings about life, would they discover a heart that is completely sold out to Christ?

A true, regenerated, born again Christian will inevitably express his love for Christ, his passion for the Church, and his sorrow of sin. The Christian cannot help but speak of Jesus. As the early Christians agreed, “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard (Acts 4:20).” Therefore, the Christian’s social media thread will inevitably be a platform for proclaiming Jesus, his conversations with others will eventually lead to spiritual things, and repentance of sin will be confessed regularly.

When Paul urges us to “examine ourselves” we may want to do some personal inventory on how much we speak publicly about our Christian faith. If upon reflection you discover that your conversations, private thinking, and public reputation admittedly lacks mention of Jesus, you may want to ask the question “why?” If, in fact, you are a Christian who has “taken up his cross and followed Jesus (Matthew 16:24-26),” why doesn’t it come up in conversation? If you are “unashamed of the Gospel (Rom 1:16)” why do your unbelieving friends not hear much about Jesus? Examine yourself fellow Christian. If you are truly saved, your mouth will prove it. As Jesus said, “out of the heart the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45).”

We are at War!

I don’t know if you have heard, but there is a war going on. It’s real and it’s happening all around us, each and every day. It happened this morning when you and your spouse chose to belittle and hurt each other with your words. It happened when you fell prey to pornography once again. It happened when the your difficult circumstance began to eat away at your faith in God. It happened when your anger turned into unforgiveness, and your unforgiveness gave way to hatred. It happened when you convinced yourself that despite your habitual immoral secrets, your external religious piety has secured your salvation in Christ.

We are in a war my friend. And because of this war there is a divine call to arms; the call to fight is increasingly becoming more and more prevalent in our day. Our world is increasingly godless. There are ideologies, secular world-views, worldly philosophies, that are completely at odds—completely hostile—to the Kingdom of God. We are at war my friends, and it is vitally important that we stand up and fight, lest we be taken hostage by the evil one.

What am I talking about? Paul calls it a spiritual war, and we as Christins are in combat every day for the truth of Jesus Christ! As Warren Wiersbe has said, “sooner or later every believer discovers that the Christian life is a battleground, not a playground.”

In Ephesians 6:10-20 Paul addresses this spiritual war more so than any other place in the entire Biblical text. Rhetorically, Paul is using what is called a “Perarato.” It is a climax of a first century letter. A sort of rally cry for the Ephesians to take all that he has said and put it into action!

Thankfully, we are not left to figure this out alone. God through the words of scripture has equipped us to prepare for this battle—he has given us a battle plan for this spiritual war. In this passage I want to help you see what Paul says about this spiritual war and what our battle strategy is by asking four questions. We will address the first question here and the other three in subsequent posts.

Who is our Commander and Chief?

First, who is our commander and Chief? Who is the one that leads us into battle and gives us the resources to stand our ground against the enemy? It is, thankfully, no human commander. It is no Pastor or church leader offering the strength we need in battle. No, Paul says our commander and chief is “the Lord!” Oh what peace, comfort, and assurance in knowing Christ is our leader! Because he leads we can be assured of some wonderful truths:

The battle is already won!

First, because of Jesus the battle is technically already won! Earlier in the letter of Ephesians Paul has said that Jesus brought us peace through the blood of the cross (Eph 2:11-17). It is a wonderful thing to know that while the battle rages on we know the battle is already won in Christ!

Pastor Tony Evans remarked once that he was unable to attend a professional football game in which his son played in. However, he was able to record the game and watch it at his convenience. Before he tuned in to see the game he had missed, he had received news that his son’s team had won the game. So, as he watched the game unfold the anxiety of not knowing the outcome was absent. Yes, when the opposing team would recover a fumble, intercept a pass, or get ahead on the scoreboard, it brought some discomfort, but he was not shaken by the situation. He knew that in the end his son’s team would be victorious.

Similarly, we know that Christ has won and will ultimately win the battle for our souls. He will ultimatley defeat our foe bringing everlasting life to those who belong to Him!

Christ is over all

Secondly, our Commander and chief is over all things! While the enemy is seeking to attack us from all sides, our commander has full reign and power over him. Notice what Paul has already said in regards to this in chapter one:

that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come

Ephesians 1:20-21

What have we to fear then if our savior is totally and completely over all?

We have been seated in the heavenly places and have been brought from darkness into light!

Thirdly, we as Christ’ ambassadors, his soldiers, his workers of the kingdom, have been seated with Christ in the heavenly places. Paul in chapter 2 verses 5 and 6 says of us, “by grace you have been saved, and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” Not only is Jesus reigning with all authority and power in the heavenly places, we too have been seated with him there! Thus, we have nothing to fear in regards to our enemy’s attack on us. He can’t touch us while we sit in the heavenly places, covered by the grace, forgiveness, and redemption found in Christ Jesus!

We have been given the power to overcome the battle!

Finally, we have been given the power to overcome any difficulty the enemy may bring our way. Paul says in Ephesians 6:10, “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.” Elsewhere Paul says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13).”

It is vitally important for all Christians to confess daily that in our own strength we will always be exposed and vulnerable to Satan and his attacks. Only through the power of Christ can we stand toe to toe against the evil one. How do we attain this power you may wonder? How can we tap into the strength of Christ and his might to overcome any temptation Satan may use against us? This is the very question Paul answers in the next portion of this marvelous passage, and the one I’ll seek to articulate in the following post. Until then—keep your head up and find your power in Christ fellow Christian!

The Gospel is Not About Saving Systems

An Evangelical Conversation

I have to admit, my heart aches over the emotional tension, anger, and fear flooding our minds in these chaotic days. Harsh arguments, slanderous words, and yelling matches immerse our Facebook screens and news feeds. Amidst the numerous themes and topics creating these fiery and hostile debates is the issue of racism; a real and prevalent reality in our supposedly modern and civil time. But the concern that provokes me the most, the one that keeps lingering in my mind, is how evangelical Christians are approaching this issue. 

What is the solution to the so called systemic racism in our society today? How are we going to fix issues like white privilege, oppression on minorities; especially toward our black neighbors? The answers provided by some evangelicals, surprisingly have little to do with the gospel, and much to do with fixing systems. 

A well respected university recently held a service of “confession and lament.”The service sought to acknowledge the reality of racism for what it is, and call others to do the same; a respectable and good endeavor. However, as one began to read through the prayer service rhetoric one couldn’t help but notice  a concerning statement: 

“We confess: For far too long, we have bought into the evangelical lie that the gospel is about saving souls and not about saving structures.”

Confessing the sin of racism is one thing, implying that the gospel is about saving structures is another. After receiving some push back the university released clarification on the wording of their confession:

“To be clear, we do believe it is a lie to suggest the gospel is concerned about one and not also the other (from either perspective) as if personal evangelism and social justice are diametrically opposed. . .But we also recognize that God’s kingdom is always extended in the context of other kingdoms, structures, and empires. We are deeply concerned with making structures just, even as we devote ourselves to seeking and saving lost souls living within those structures.”

I am thankful they made clear that the gospel is about saving souls, what they plainly denied in their initial wording. However, the clarification is still unsettling. The statement sill implies that the gospel is about saving sinners AND about saving structures; as if essential in the Gospel of Christ is the requirement that Christians fix the social structures in which they live. If not, the implication being, they have fallen short of understanding the good news of Jesus Christ. 

Another well known, and articulate individual, Phil Vischer (Famous for creating the popular Veggietales cartoon) produced a viral video seeking to layout the issues of racism, white privilege, and how America’s past has set up an inevitable system by which blacks are oppressed. It is a well thought out video and offers much for us to consider in regards to racism in our country. Nevertheless, as the video climaxes to a close Vischer rhetorically asks what solution can be given for the state we are in. Answer, “I don’t know.” He then goes on to offer a starting point: “but what we can do is care.”

Really Phil? Even Bob the tomato could have anticipated the right answer to the conundrum you so craft-fully defined—obviously the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is the answer to these troubling times. These two examples are the type of responses that are fueling my frustration. While the answer seems as simple as “Christ crucified” I am hearing very little of that emphasized, in the midst of seeking a solution to the cultural chaos we find ourselves in. 

But is it that simple? Or does Vischer and our Christian universities have it right? The way out is by fixing our structures. As I pray and meditate on these things I am drawn to the scriptures. Because they are the final authority for faith and practice, and the lens by which we view our world, it seems that the Bible must be our “go to” as we seek to wade through these peculiar waters. Here are a few conclusions I have come to as I have meditated on these things. 

The Gospel, properly understood, is sufficient in changing our culture.

The Gospel as I understand it is simply this—Humanity stands before God condemned because of their sin against his holy Law. God as a just judge must punish the sins of the world. But because He loved the world He sent His only son to die on a cross for the forgiveness of their sins. If we repent of our sins, place our trust in the work of Christ, and are baptized into Christ, we will be justified and redeemed from our sin, and have reconciliation with the God of the universe. The heart of the gospel is that “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).” 

This is the pure and saving Gospel. This is the Gospel that has the power unto salvation (Romans 1:16). Yet, the Gospel has been changed to include saving structures. That somehow Christ’ redeeming humanity from their sins is not enough—Christ also came to redeem systems of oppression. This I wholeheartedly reject. If Jesus came to save systems he did a poor job of exemplifying that in his earthly ministry. Jesus said he came to “seek and save those who were lost.” He did not come to save systems but to save people. A direct implication of Christ’ saving people from their sins involves a new and transformational life. Those who were once in the dark have now, by the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit, been completely changed. This involves seeking to love our neighbor and treating everyone in the world with loving kindness.

When we add to the saving gospel “saving structures” we are getting dangerously close to Paul’s admonition to the Galatian church. The church was embracing the idea that one had to put their faith in Christ AND be circumcised in order to be saved. However, Paul says clearly “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed (Galatians 1:8).” If we are being told that the Gospel includes faith in Christ Jesus atoning work on the cross for sin AND saving structures we have added to the gospel.

Saving humanity from their sins and not their structures is the emphasis in scripture.

The conversation so popular these days is the fight against “systemic racism.” The answer then to fixing the problem of racism is to fix the system. If we as a church can get the right leaders voted in, and pass the right type of legislation, then we can fix the social wrongs in our culture. But is this the mission of the Church? Is this the means by which the gospel compels us to see change? It seems not. 

When Gabriel came and delivered the message to Mary concerning the Messiah he did not say “and his name shall be called Jesus because he will save his people from their structures.” No, he said “he will save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).” When Paul, living in a system that promoted slavery, wrote to the church about living out the gospel, he did not command masters to free their slaves and revolt against the evil system. Rather, he called masters to treat their slaves with respect, and called slaves to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5-9)! 

Paul knew it was the heart that had to be changed and not the system. Thus, when writing a letter to Philemon he calls this regenerated slave owner to receive his run away slave as his brother in Christ (Philemon 17). Paul did not say to Philemon fight the system. He said view your slave in light of the gospel. This heart change can ONLY come through a saving transformation by the power of the Gospel. Thus, I challenge those who say that the gospel is about saving structures to point to the biblical sources in which the Gospel is understood in that way. 

True racial reconciliation can only be pursued in the church of Jesus Christ.

When the world seeks racial justice and racial reconciliation it will always fall short of attaining that goal. The reason from a biblical perspective is because humanity is utterly sinful. At the core of our problem is the issue of selfish pride. Outside of Christ no one has the ability to selflessly love others, to the extent in which, hate for someone, merely because of their skin color, decimates. The reason is because outside of a saving relationship with Jesus Christ all of us are tainted in our thinking and behavior. Only because of common-grace-restraints, such as our conscience and governmental ordained laws, is humanity held from manifesting complete revolt and harm toward one another. In the epistle to the Ephesians the Apostle Paul makes this plain:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2:1-3)

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world (Ephesians 2:11-12)

Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity (Ephesians 4:17-19)

This horrid state is the situation every human being faces without placing their trust in Christ. To then encourage the world, who is described in this manner, to then love each other, and seek racial reconciliation seems completely preposterous. There is only “ONE hope (Ephesians 4:4)” for changing the hearts and minds of those in the world. Notice Paul’s response: 

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved (Ephesians 2:4)

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace (Ephesians 2:13-15)

But that is not the way you learned Christ!— assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:20-24) 

Paul’s remedy for the helpless state of every unbeliever is the Gospel! This is relevant especially in regards to racism. Notice Paul’s explicit language—in Christ Jesus he has “broken down the wall of hostility.” The answer to racial reconciliation will never be through political activism, but ONLY through the precious blood of Jesus Christ. If you want to be freed from racial divides my recommendation would be to join the church of our Lord Jesus! 

Loving our neighbor is the result of a saving gospel.

Finally, it must be clear that as redeemed Christians, transformed by the renewing of our minds, we endeavor to love our neighbor as Christ loved us. Every Christian is compelled to ooze the love of Jesus. When we see injustices and hate toward others our righteous indignation flares up and is manifested in loving kindness toward those who are hurt. 1 John 3:17 says, “if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” If someone says they are a Christian and yet hates someone because of their skin color, they are NOT Christians. You can’t be a child of God and hate your neighbor. 

So while the church is not in the mission to save systems, it is in the mission of loving their neighbor because of the power of the Gospel in their lives. Christians therefore, are constantly reaching out to the marginalized, the oppressed, the downtrodden, and inviting them to their table of fellowship. We can say to our black friends and neighbors, “I am sorry you have experienced hate and bigotry. I would love to invite your family over for dinner and share with you our hospitality. Most importantly, I would love to share with you a story; a story about the savior of the world. Because of Him you can find true reconciliation and peace. 

Just The Gospel!

The intentions behind many of my evangelical friends are good. They want to see a change in our culture with regard to racial discrimination. I just think they are seeking this change with medicine that can never cure the disease. It gets more dangerous when they begin to imply that saving structures is not only a way of fixing our cultures problems, it is a part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ!

Humanity is broken; broken from sin and transgression. The only antidote to this is the blood of Christ. More than ever we as Christians must herald the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Only this message, and the Christian lives that vindicate it, will solve the world’s problem. As Christians let’s  leave it to the world to try to fix their system. Let’s not get distracted from our sole mission—to preach Christ crucified! Then and only then will we begin to see Christ’ Kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven! 

5 Ways You Can Know Your Church is Growing.

 

What is the Task of the Pastor?

Any organization knows that to be effective it must have a goal in mind. The same is true about the church. We, especially as church leaders, are never to parade around doing whatever feels fun or cool; whatever fits our fancies. We as a church have to be heading somewhere! 

The apostle Peter in his letter tells the elders to “shepherd the flock of God (1 Peter 5:2:).” This means we are to be tending the congregation, and also taking them somewhere! As we shepherd the flock of God we should have a goal in mind for the local church.

So what is that goal? What are pastors of the local church aiming to do? It is quite simple: the goal of the Pastors of a local church is the spiritual perfection of the members in their care. Another way to put it—the task of the pastor is to “present everyone mature in Christ (Colossians 1:28).” 

James Wilhoit writes, “Spiritual Formation is the task of the church. Period. . .Spiritual formation is at the heart of its whole purpose for existence (James Wilhoit , Spiritual Formation as if the church Mattered, 15).” I couldn’t agree more.

So if the task of the Pastor is spiritual maturity of every member, what signs can one look for in order to determine the church is moving in that direction? The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians offers 5 of these signs that can offer enough for the local pastor to keep himself busy! Here’s what Paul writes in Ephesians 4:13-16:

until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood,, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

#1 Your Church has Doctrinal Unity

First, a church is moving toward spiritual perfection the more united they are on sound doctrine. The phrase “Unity of the faith” refers to the content of our beliefs and convictions as revealed in the scriptures. It is similar to Jude’s phraseology:

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. (Jude 3)

Paul, elsewhere, instructs the elders of the church to teach and protect sound doctrine:

He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.(Titus 1:9)

Unfortunately, sound doctrine is not something that we all get excited about. But a trait of a maturing church is a body of believers that crave spiritual content. One author laments this issue accurately:

“We prefer to focus on the experiential and the mystical rather than the intellectual. We want to ‘know Christ personally’ rather than to worry with doctrinal issues about him. The result? ‘Say the word ‘doctrine’ from the pulpit or in any other gathering of Christians and you can count on a response of yawning, nervous coughing, and glassy-eyed stares almost before the sound of the word has died in the air. Most people would describe doctrine as “dull, dry, dreadful, dreary.” (Cottell, Jack. The Faith Once for All, 32).”

But what Paul is telling us here is that Sound doctrine is vital to seeking spiritual maturity! And notice that he says it is the pursuit of uniting on the faith—That means we are to desire to agree on matters of doctrine and what the scriptures teach.
Furthermore, Paul says it is a unity in the “knowledge of the son of God.” As we grow in our unity of sound doctrine we also grow in our unity of knowing Christ. Knowing not only ABOUT him but KNOWING him intimately—the more we know and love Christ the more mature we are as a body! As Paul reflects in another letter:

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ (Philippians 3:8)

#2 Your Church is Like Christ

Paul goes on to say that we build the body until we become , literally—“a perfect man.” Recall earlier in this epistle when he refers to the church as “One New Man (2:15).” Thus, the idea involves the church building itself up until it becomes this “Perfect Man” —to a complete mature person—Maturity is the goal!

But what does this mature man look like? Paul tells us—“To the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” I appreciate the New Living Translation, “measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ.”

We’ve all heard the expression “Measuring up”—this is the goal of the Church—to measure up to Christ!

When we are kids we want to measure up to our fathers—we idolize His height and stature! —When I was a kid we would always compete with our classmates about whose dad was the greatest. We all wanted to be like our dads.

It’s the same for the church—we all should desire to measure up to Christ—to be just like HIM! And this is again the goal of the church, to be like Christ! As Paul says plainly:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.(Romans 8:28)

#3 Your Church is  Spiritually Stable

In verse 13 Paul gives the positive reasons for why Christ gifted his church with spiritual leaders, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, and building up the body of Christ—that is, moving the church to spiritual perfection. In verse 14 he warns of the dangers if this doesn’t happen.

If the church is not equipped by spiritual leaders with sound doctrine through the word and the saints are not building up the body of Christ, then the church will be unstable and the body of Christ will begin to experience pain and sickness.

Notice the text; notice the contrast between the “mature man” and the “children tossed to and fro.”

A mature and stable church is pictured as a strong stable man. The immature church is pictured as children who are easily manipulated, and swayed. The Hebrew writer pictures this as well:

For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.(Hebrews 5:12-14)

Notice that the immature church is tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine.They are unstable and easily swept away by false teachers and their seemingly attractive false doctrine. Again to quote the book of Hebrews:

Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.(Hebrews 2:1)

Notice that the false teachers operate. They are full of “human cunning and deceitful schemes.” False teachers are not blatantly obvious. They always come with morsels of truth mixed in with their false doctrine, so that only the mature man can see it for what it really is. Interestingly, Paul had warned the Ephesians about this. Speaking to the Ephesian Elders Paul warned them of the following:

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.(Acts 20:27-30)

Recall how Jude began his letter:

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.(Jude 3-4)

False teaching and false teachers will always be around. In the early days of the church false teaching compelled the church to conduct ecumenical councils in order to clarify true doctrine from the false. Later it was Luther who spurned on the Reformation and his emphasis on Justification by faith in contrast to the abuse of the Catholic Church, and its teaching of salvation by works. In the Modern era we have had our own share of battles:

Theological Liberalism—Rejection of the supernatural
Post modernism —Rejection of Absolute Truth
Prosperity Gospel—The Gospel as a means for selfish Gain
Religious Pluralism—All roads lead to Heaven
Sexual Revolution—Denial of Marriage between one man and one woman

The Mature church then isn’t easily moved or deceived by false doctrine, they know the truth! It’s why Paul urged his protege Timothy with these strong words:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound[a] teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.( 2 Timothy 4:1-4)

#4 Your Church is filled with Truth and Love

Paul shifts from the negative to the positive—the mature church isn’t tossed to and from because it “speaks the TRUTH in LOVE!”

Again, Christian Leaders equip the saints, the saints take what they are given from the leaders, do the work of ministry, and build up the Body. This building up can be summed up by truth and love. I like the NET translation —“practicing the truth in love”
because the phase “speaking the truth” carries more than just talking, it involves confessing truth and living that truth out! So, the Mature church is one that is grounded in the truth—but not just truth, Love!

This is so important: As we seek to pursue maturity we are going to need a dose of truth —especially because we as a body will need correcting from time to time, and we will need that truth spoken into our lives. But we can’t do that harshly. We do it in LOVE! Recall 4:2-3

with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.(Ephesians 4:2-3)

Stott is helpful here:

“Thank God there are those in the contemporary church who are determined at all costs to defend and uphold God’s revealed truth. But sometimes they are conspicuously lacking in love. When they think they smell heresy, their nose begins to twitch, their muscles ripple, and the light of battle enters their eye. They seem to enjoy nothing more than a fight. Others make the opposite mistake. They are determined at all costs to maintain and exhibit brotherly love, but in order to do so are prepared even to sacrifice the central truths of revelation. Both these tendencies are unbalanced and unbiblical. Truth becomes hard if it is not softened by love; love becomes soft if it is not strengthened by truth. (Stott, John. The Message of Ephesians, 172).”

#5 Your Church Works Together in order to Become Spiritually Mature

Finally, spiritual maturity means we work together to build up the body! Notice verse 16—“when each part is working properly.” This takes us back to verse 7—“to each one of us grace was given…” When the entire church is working with their own gifts to build up the body then we are moving to perfection!

I heard it again this week in a conversation :

…Where do you go to church, what’s your church home?

….Oh I have church wherever I go!

….But who are your Pastor-teachers, and your other Christian brothers and sisters you live the christian life with?

….Blank stare….

it is impossible for an individual Christian to grow in their maturity without being connected with a local church. Spiritual growth is intrinsically connected to living life with other Christians.

When we cooperate– look at the end of the verse—“it makes the body GROW!” And that is what we are trying to do—become that perfect man to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ!

So, pastor, your one goal is to lead your congregation to spiritual maturity. That’s it! If you determine to simply pour yourself into the Word and constantly encourage your congregation to become more like Jesus, you will have fulfilled your ministry!

Is it a Sin to Cancel Sunday Services Due to COVID-19?

A Difficult Problem

As a pastor one of the pressing concerns for me, and for many that I talk to, is the difficult decision to cancel all church gatherings temporarily while we wait for the COVID-19 virus to pass. This decision is not just difficult because of our desire to meet regularly with our church family, but also because the scriptures straightforwardly teach that we are not to neglect the gathering of the assembly together (see Hebrews 10:24-25). So, the question is inevitable to ask: Are we sinning by canceling our Sunday services?

Some have said yes. As justification they turn to the book of Acts where the early church was asked by the governing authorities to stop preaching the Resurrection. In response the church reacted boldly: “But Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard (Acts 4:19).’” 

Therefore, “it is wrong,” some will challenge, “to stop meeting under any circumstances, because our allegiance is to God rather than man. God told us to meet regularly; to neglect to do so would be in disobedience to God.” 

While I respect the fervor and well-intentioned heart behind such a stance I’d like to offer some reasons why I think we are justified to temporarily obey the wisdom of those in authority and suspend our meetings. As the prophet Isaiah would say, “Let’s reason together.” 

Acts 4 versus COVID-19

It is true that when faced with obeying God or obeying Man we as Christians are to obey God. The authorities told Daniel not to pray and yet he prayed. Nebuchadnezzar told the three Jewish boys to bow and yet they refused leading them to a fiery furnace. The religious Sanhedrin told the Apostles to stop preaching in Acts 4 and they kept preaching. So what makes our current situation different? 

For one, the government is not telling us to stop preaching the Gospel. This is not a singled out persecution of the church in which the government selects a particular religion and removes their freedoms while favoring others. Rather, the COVID-19 pandemic is a universal threat to all of society. The government is asking everyone, all businesses, groups, and gatherings to stop meeting for the sake of everyone’s safety. If this was a selected attack on the church to stop preaching or meeting for worship, we would be forced to disobey their request and continue to preach and meet. 

Loving God or Loving Neighbor? 

Another issue revolving this topic is the seeming tension between loving God and loving our neighbor. Some insist that we are not obeying God if we don’t meet despite the situation; others say that to meet during this crisis would be unloving to our neighbor. We are familiar of Jesus’ words when asked what the greatest command was. In response he said, 

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 22:37-40).”

It seems on the surface that no matter what we do we are in a conundrum. To meet would be unloving to our neighbor; to not meet would be disobedient to God. But should this circumstance divide these two loyalties? I think not. We can Love God and love our neighbor simultaneously during our temporary absence from the corporate gathering. 

Sunday for Man or Man for Sunday?

Recall the story in which Jesus was faced with a similar dilemma. One day Jesus’ disciples were picking grain from a field on the Sabbath. The Pharisees sieged this opportunity to confront Jesus’ unlawful actions. They accused him of breaking the Torah because what they were doing was “not lawful on the Sabbath (Mark 2:24).” But in response to the religious leaders legalistic take on the Law Jesus reminds them of a situation in the life of David, in which his breaking of the Law was justified due to the higher standard to love his neighbor in a time of need (see Mark 2:25-26). Then Jesus said these words: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” 

I wonder if the situation we are in is similar? Could it be that not meeting in order to avoid risking our loved ones harm would actually be an attempt to love both God and neighbor? Could it be that meeting at this time misses the entire point of the gathering in the first place? That meeting on Sunday is for the edification of the church, and that while the letter says “don’t neglect to meet,” the spirit of the law in this case says “not meeting is actually fulfilling one of the purposes of the meeting—namely, to edify each other?” What better way to edify each other now than to wait this thing out until we are all safe? Were we made for the Lord’s day or the Lord’s day made for us? 

Faith or Wisdom? 

I had a good friend say to me, “Will what are we to do in this situation? Trusting God tells me to go ahead and meet, that God will protect us if we are obedient. But wisdom seems to tell me to not meet and listen to those who know more about this virus than I do. What do we do? 

I can relate to my friend’s struggle. But like the previous point this seems to be a false dichotomy. Faith and wisdom are not opposed enemies but connected friends. It is not necessarily true that trusting God only means continuing our services despite the wise precautions not to. We can trust God to faithfully guide us as we listen and discern the wisdom of those counciling us in this difficult season. Furthermore, to say that those of us who have chosen not to meet are not trusting God is simply false. Think about it. To choose not to meet is not something that will benefit the church practically. Pastors and church leaders who are choosing not to meet are having to trust that God will sustain the church financially, keep church members connected, not lose those who have recently visited prior to the virus, figure out technological ways to keep services going, and much much more. Trusting God and being wise are two essential virtues all of us must use as we cease to meet weekly. 

A Caution 

I obviously feel that this temporary decision to cease our gathering together is justifiable. However, I want to offer a caution to not go to the other end of the spectrum. Many churches are (rightly!) utilizing technology during this time to keep the church connected and to continue services via video. This is a good thing and I thank the Lord, in His providence, for this ability. Nevertheless, we should not make this present rhythm the norm. The word church (ekklesia) means to assemble together. Online services will never replace the gathered church in worship together. We must be praying that God will move us quickly through this so that we can join each other again to do what we were commanded to do—sing, pray, fellowship, preach, read scripture, give, etc..

Church Together

These are no doubt peculiar and abnormal times. I wish these things were not happening and that we could go on doing church as normal. But this is never the promise we are given in scripture. Jesus said that “in this world you will have trouble.” The church will always live in the ebb and flow of troublesome times. Nevertheless, the church can be a beacon on a hill, especially during difficult times like these. And while we are not able to meet physically together at this time, may we do all we can to stay connected and pray for each other. And may we remember that this is only temporary. We are and will always be made to do church together! 

The Relationship Between the Elders and the Members in a Local Congregation.

Healthy leaders lead to healthy congregations

If you were to list the ingredients for a healthy and vibrant church what would they be? What makes a successful church? Bob Russell in his book “When God Builds a Church” offers his insight on one of the major essentials for church health and vibrancy:

“When I’m asked to analyze why our church has grown so dramatically, I say there is one overriding reason God has blessed our congregation: excellent leadership. The elders…have consistently been an example of what godly leadership is all about.” 

He elaborates later on:

“Often we’re looking for gimmicks, programs, and ideas that will make our church grow, while God is looking for consecration and genuine commitment among the church’s leaders.” 

Alexander Strauch in his book “Biblical Eldership” writes the following:

“In a letter to a young presbyter named Nepotian, dated A.D. 394, Jerome rebuked the churches of his day for their hypocrisy in showing more concern for the appearance of their church buildings than their careful selection of their church leaders: ‘Many build churches nowadays; their walls and pillars of glowing marble, their ceilings glittering with gold, their altars studded with jewels. Yet to the choice of Christ’s ministers no heed is paid.”

I think Russel and Strauch are exactly right. The character and devotion of the eldership within the church will inevitably correspond to the church’ health and vibrancy. As Hosea remarks, “And what the priests do, the people also do (Hosea 4:9, NLT).” 

Furthermore, depending on the quality of the relationship between the elders and the congregation it can either ruin a church or energize her.

In the following I want to outline the relationship between the elders and the members in a local congregation as discussed in the New Testament.  Understanding the roles of the Elders and the members will help clarify the image of a healthy church.

Elders are qualified 

It seems to go without saying that an elder of a church is to be qualified in order to accomplish his ministerial tasks. But unfortunately I have experienced first hand men who were given the title elder without meeting biblical qualifications. And it is much more difficult removing a man from the position of an elder because he is not qualified than it is from simply holding off from placing one in that position.

This is precisely why Paul instructs us not to place men in leadership too quickly: Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure (1 Timothy 5:22)

The two list of qualifications for the church elder is found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.
Jeramie Rinne in his book “Church Elders” offers a helpful summary of what these qualifications entail:

  • You want to be an elder
  • You exemplify godly character
  • You can teach the Bible 
  • You lead your family well
  • You are a male
  • You are an established believer

The importance of the godly character of the elder can not be overstated. Robert Murray M’Cheyne who was a preacher in the early 1800’s and died at the early age of 30 wrote these convicting words regarding church leadership:

“My people’s greatest need is my personal holiness. How awful a weapon in the hand of God is a holy minister.” 

Members Honor their elders 

Because God has ordained that godly men lead the church spiritually, it is also assumed that the members of the congregation honor them for that task. Notice Paul’s clear words concerning this duty of the congregation:

  • We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13)
  • Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” (1Timothy 5:17-18)

Elders equip

Elders in the church are the equippers. Elders do not labor in the Word in order to spoon feed each member without any movement toward maturity. On the contrary, Elders preach and teach the Bible, in order to grow and equip the members to live out the truths of scripture. Look at Ephesians 4:11: 

  • And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.(Ephesians 4:11-14)

Members seek guidance from the elders

Because elders equip it is natural then that the members of the church seek spiritual guidance from their elders. Consider Hebrews 13:7:

  • Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith (Hebrews 13:7)

One interesting passage is James 5:14 on this matter:

  • Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up.(James 5:14-15)

Much can be said about this section of scripture but suffice it to say that a strong argument can be made that spiritual sickness is in the author’s mind here. If so, what we have is instructions for those in the congregation to take the initiative when they are spiritually down, to seek the elders for encouragement, and to be uplifted by prayer. 

Elders protect

A professor of mine in an introduction to Christian ministry class remarked that if we want to be successful in ministry we need to be as “gentle as doves; wise as serpents; and have the skin of rhinoceros!” Elders have to have tough skin in order to protect the flock of God. Thus, a third characteristic of the elder is that he protects the church. He does this in two primary ways; protection from incorrect doctrine and incorrect behavior. These may come from folks outside the church or inside the church. 

  • Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them (Acts 20:28-30)

Russell writes: 

“A growing church is frequently the victim of vicious attacks from the adversary. Satan hates an alive church and does his best to destroy it. You can bet that just when things begin going well in your church, you will encounter serious spiritual opposition. . such problems simply cannot be dealt with adequately without strong, though sensitive, leaders who do not shy away from confrontation.” 

Members hold elders accountable

One of the fears folks may have in joining a church is that they are called to trust and follow the leadership of individuals that may have the potential of falling short in their calling. Are church members simply to obey elders who are living inconsistent with their ‘above reproach” position?  I get this fear. We hear on the news frequently about moral failures made by church leaders, and it concerns us that we may experience similar outcomes.

But this should not deter anyone from being obedient and serving in the local church, or from following the command to submit to one’s leaders. However, God in his wisdom has instructed us that if an elder fails to lead like he ought then the church is required to confront that elder. Look at 1 Timothy 5:19-21:

  • Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality (1 Timothy 5:19-21)

Therefore, while members in the congregation are called to submit to the elders in the church, it does not excuse elders from living inconsistently with the qualifications set out in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. In such cases the congregation has an obligation to lovingly confront the elder and encourage him to repent of his habitual sin.

Elders Lead

The elders of the church are to lead the congregation. As a shepherd leads the sheep to fresh water so the elder leads the congregation to the truths of scripture and holy living. How does he lead? Peter tells us:

  • So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory (1 Peter 5:1-4)

According to this passage Elders lead by:

  • Oversight without compulsion
  • Eagerly without selfish motives
  • Exemplary without domineering

Members follow

If a church has healthy spiritual leaders it follows that the members of the congregation will joyfully follow their leadership.

  • Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you (Hebrews 13:17)

Closing

If we desire to become a spiritually healthy congregation we have to understand the distinct roles of the elder and the member. If at any time the elders and congregation become disunited we will inevitably fall into deep sickness as a church. 

The loneliest I have ever felt in ministry was when I was barely 20 and the church I was serving split over congregation and leadership differences. The church that had once been fairly stable had been ripped apart, because the elders and the congregation fought tooth and nail for their different desired preferences to be met. The church is still in existence but is close to closing its doors. May we unite rather than divide and learn to love our elders, and love each other! 

A Call for Commitment to the Local Church.

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (Hebrews 10:24-25) 

Commitment-phobia

One of the concerns I have, as I am sure many others have as well, in regards to the church today involves the lack of commitment to the local church, particularly to the gathering together on the Lord’s day. This concern is verified by some troublesome statistical data regarding church attendance in America. Barna research for example, did a recent study in which, among other things, stated the following: 

While regular church attendance is a reliable indicator of faithful Christian practice, many Americans choose to experience and express their faith in a variety of other ways, the most common of which is prayer. For instance, three-quarters of Americans (75%) claim to have prayed to God in the last week. This maps fairly well onto the 73 percent who self-identify as Christian. Following prayer, the next most common activity related to faith practice is attending a church service, with more than one-third of adults (35%) having sat in a pew in the last seven days, not including a special event such as a wedding or funeral.

While the study encouragingly suggests that 75% of evangelicals seek prayer each week to connect with God, it is disturbing that only 35% of those see attending the local church as equally important. 

Thom Rainer agreeswith this statistic. He writes: “About 20 years ago, a church member was considered active in the church if he or she attended three times a week.Today, a church member is considered active in the church if he or she attends three times a month.”

But seemingly this is not just an issue with the church alone. I was recently at a local recreational baseball field watching my nieces play softball when I happened to notice the following words on their concession stand: “Do not complain unless you have volunteered.” Yes, all of us today seem to be struggling with getting individuals to see the importance of commitment. 

Contrastingly, the local church described in the pages of the New Testament realized the importance of being together and committing to the advancement of God’s kingdom. Luke describes the early christians for example as “being together and having all things in common. . .day by day attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes. . .having favor with all the people (Acts 2:44, 46-47).”

The antidote, I argue,  for this apparent sickness called commitment-phobia is a return to local church membership. Christians need to devote their lives to one another by acknowledging and applying their commitment to their local congregation.  

Misunderstanding Commitment

Unfortunately, the importance of local church membership has been downplayed by a misunderstanding of it. Pastor and author Alistair Beggoffers three typesof groups that resist biblical church membership. 

The Debaters

These are those who question the biblical credibility of local church membership. “Where is local church membership in the Bible?”, they ask. 

But Local church membership is taught by the fact that elders/leaders of the church are held accountable for the spiritual health of the congregation. 

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.(Hebrews 13:17)

In other words, in order for Christians to submit to their leaders they have to know who they are. Similarly, leaders, if they are held accountable for the souls in their care, they have to know who those “souls” are. But how can they unless their is some account for each individual? 

Furthermore, Local Church membership is assumed in church discipline. Take Paul’s counsel in 1 Corinthians as an example. 

For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:12-13)

If church discipline as outlined here is to take place isn’t there a clear line of who is “in” the church and who is not? Otherwise how in the world is anyone to know who to correct when they are living in habitual sin? Local church membership is necessary for these things to take place. 

The Drifters

According to Begg these are the people who drift in and out of congregations; who leave when they are bored or displeased with the church. There is no public commitment to the congregation. These folks like to receive the benefits of the church but not be held accountable to any forms of leadership or other Christians. Furthermore, if they get bored with the church they serve they can simply leave just as easily as they came. 

The Deniers

This group denies the gathering of God’s people in the traditional sense. As long as you have an iPad and a Starbucks that’s all you need. You can listen to any sermon you want in the comfort of your own living room or coffee shop. But this takes away the incarnation side of church as well as the structure and order of the church given to us by divine scripture. 

Myths regarding Commitment

When it comes to committing to the local church there are many I have encountered who thought they were committed but really were not. Let me outline a few myths regarding local church membership:

Myth #1–I am a regular attender therefore this is “my church.”

False: There needs to be a clear public profession of your faith and a clear identification of your loyalty to the congregation and to the elders. When one decides to just attend the Sunday morning service without a clear commitment to the church they relieve themselves of any accountability to the elders and the church body. They also relieve themselves of any sense of loyalty to the congregation. They may or may not attend because it really doesn’t effect the rest of the church if they are not present. But this destroys the metaphor Paul gives of the one body many, members in 1 Corinthians 12. 

Myth #2–I can have several local churches that I serve and attend. 

False: You need to have primarily one local congregation to devote to; to use your gifts and resources. Furthermore, you need focused devotion to a local church in order for those individuals to hold you spiritually accountable.

Myth #3–The church primarily exists to meet my needs. 

False: You exist to serve the church with your gifts. A Byproduct is that you will be edified by others doing the same. 

Myth #4—I need to wait until others in my family are ready to join before I do.

False: You need to join as quickly as possible in order to be obedient and set the example

Why should one join the local church?

So why should one join a local church? Let me offer several reasons: 

It’s an Obedience issue

As I have hopefully made clear thus far local church membership is a biblical idea. You can’t obey the “pone another” commandments in scripture without commitment to a group of believers. 

It’s a Fellowship Issue

This is the point of Hebrews 10:24-25 and Acts 2:44-46.

It’s an Authority Issue

The elders are given to the church by God to teach and protect. 

      • Hebrews 13:17
      • Acts 20:28-30

It’s an Identity Issue

The Visible church is the way in which we make the invisible church visible! 

It’s a Loyalty Issue

All believers are called to be loyal to Christ and loyal to each other. John Macarthur writes: 

“But that isn’t how people think today.  People don’t say, “I probably ought to go to church tonight because there might be somebody there who would need me.  There might be somebody there I could pray for.  There might be somebody there I could sit with and sing hymns, praise to God.  I better go tonight because it might encourage the pastor that I’m there.  I better go because the Spirit of God might have something to say to me that’s going to make my life more effective as a witness to the people around me.  I really need to be there because they are going to be people there who probably have burdens and maybe I’ll run into one of them and they will share it with me and I’ll need to know it so I can pray about it.”  We don’t think like that.

We say, “Well, let’s see, shall we go to dinner over here or should we go to church?”  Or “Well, we could go visit Aunt Martha over there.  She’ll leave us in the will if we show up enough times, or whatever.”  We just grieve in our hearts, who are pastors, at the disloyalty of so many people.  They’re loyal to their own interests but they’re certainly not loyal to the interests of others, the needs of others, and the gathered church.”

It’s a Serving Issue

The church is called to serve one another. I love how Mark Dever illustrates this:

“I once had a friend who worked for a campus Christian ministry while attending a church where I was a member. He would always slip in right after the hymns sit there for the sermon and then leave. I asked him one day why he didn’t come for the whole service. “Well”, he said,  “I don’t get anything out of the rest of it.”  “Have you ever thought about joining the church?” I responded. He thought that was an absurd comment. He said “why would I join the church? If I join them I think they would just slow me down spiritually.” I asked “have you ever considered that maybe God wants you to link arms with those other people and that perhaps even though they might slow you down a little you might help to speed them up—and that that’s part of God’s plan for how we’re supposed to live as Christians together (Dever, Mark. Nine Marks of a Healthy Church)?”

It’s a Witness Issue

When we commit to live lives together the world will take notice. As the apostle Peter admonishes:

  • Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.( 1 Peter 2:12)

Can a Bible verse or passage have different meanings?

I am sure you have experienced it before. You are in a small group Bible study and you are discussing a particular verse or passage. The leader offers their interpretation and subsequently opens the floor to others to offer their input. “Well I think the verse means this…” one participant shares. “I like that, “ another chimes in. “But for me it means this…” Before long a multitude of different meanings have been seeped out of a few words of scripture. The obvious question however is can there be different levels and even differing meanings to the same verse or set of verses? In answering this question I want to tackle three simple things. First, what does it mean when we ask “what does a passage mean?” Second, what is the difference between meaning and application? Finally, I want to offer a biblical example that hopefully elucidates the point.

What Does this Passage Mean?

What does it mean to ask “what does this passage mean?” The basic goal of any biblical interpreter is the discovery of authorial intent. Authorial intent is “the meaning [the words of scripture] would have conveyed to the readers at the time they were written by the author (Blomberg, Craig L., et al. Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics. 185). ” In other words, when we seek to understand the words of scripture we are asking what did the author mean to convey when he wrote what he wrote? This task (commonly known as exegesis, or broadly referred to as hermeneutics) involves what is called the grammatical-historical method. That is, when we study the Bible we must use all of the tools to properly interpret an ancient document. We must take into consideration the text’s literary genre, historical background, and grammar.

But what does all of this tell us about discovering the meaning of scripture? Simply this: the original authors of scripture meant to convey only one meaning to their readers and the task of the interpreter is to discover that meaning. This is not to say that any given passage cannot have several points or more than one lesson. “We seek only the intended meaning, though it could have several components (Blomberg. Introduction.187).” As one author points out:

“no text of Scripture can have many different, mutually contradictory meanings. A text might have a complex meaning that can be summarized in different noncontradictory ways. The text’s meaning might have different practical applications to different people depending on their particular situation. But if two people read a text and find contradictory meanings, one or both of the readers must be wrong. They cannot both be right.”

Thus, when we ask what does this verse or passage mean? we are asking what was the author’s original intent. This is what Gordon Fee calls the the “plain meaning of the text (Gordon D. Fee and Douglas K. Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 18).” This also implies that when we come to any given passage of scripture the interpreter is not seeking to discover some “secret” or “deeper” meaning of the text. Some advocate that “biblical authors intended only one sense, though later readers may imply creative exegetical techniques to discover additional valid senses not intended by the original authors (Blomberg. Introduction, 185. emphasis theirs).” The problem with this endeavor is that the practice of seeking a deeper meaning is completely subjective. Who is to say one’s deeper rendering not observed in the plain reading of a text is better than someone else’s different deeper rendering? “Scripture becomes, as Martin Luther put it, a wax nose that can be shaped into whatever form the interpreter likes. When this happens, the interpreter cannot be corrected by the text; rather, the interpreter becomes lord over the text.” Therefore, when we seek to discover the meaning of scripture we are seeking the plain meaning as the original author intended.

The Difference Between Meaning and Application

If we go back to our illustration in the beginning what we may discover in that small group bible study is that the various individuals offering their take on a given passage are not necessarily offering different meanings of a text, but offering a variety of applications derived from the one meaning. When someone says something like, “I can read the same passage several times in my life and gather different meanings for it,” I argue they are not deriving a different meaning but are gleaning a different application from the one meaning the author intended. Application is how a particular verse’s meaning can be applied to a variety of circumstances or situations in one’s life. Another way to put it is that the meaning of a text answers what the scripture meant to the original author then; application answers the question of how that meaning understood then applies to my life now. The danger comes when we try to apply a text before understanding the meaning of a text. Failing to discover the meaning first will inevitably lead to misapplication.

A Case Study

Let me close by offering a simple example from the New Testament. In Matthew 18:20 we read this popular verse: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Growing up I always heard people interpret this text to mean that Jesus’ presence is with those who come together to worship the lord; usually when there was low church attendance! Now this idea is not wrong in and of itself. It is true that when the church gathers Jesus is with us; no matter how few are there. However, it is also true that Jesus is with us even when we are alone! This idea is true but is it what Matthew meant when he wrote it? This is where good exegesis is needed.

When you read the verse in its broader context you discover that this verse is in the context of church discipline. Backing up to verse 15 we see that Jesus is offering steps for those who persist in sin. If one sins they are to be confronted privately. If they do not repent 2-3 witnesses are to be brought into the situation. If repentance is still refused then the individual is to be brought before the entire assembly (church). Then Jesus closes his teaching by saying that when this procedure is done Jesus gives his approval of it (verses 18-20). Thus, the meaning of where two or three are gathered is not about church worship but about the agreement the church has in expelling an immoral brother from the community! Oh what a difference in meaning this is! Thus, Matthew 18:20 cannot mean both—Jesus is with us when we gather to worship AND Jesus offers his approval of expelling an immoral brother. It must be one or the other. Matthew meant one thing, and discovering it is the job of the interpreter.

If the Righteous will scarcely be saved where does that leave me?

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And

“If the righteous is scarcely saved,

    what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”

Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.(1 Peter 4:12-19)

I received this thoughtful question concerning the text quoted above this week, particularly verse 18. The following is the question followed by my response. 

Question

Could you please help me understand why the bible says the righteous shall scaresely make it in to heaven in  1 Pet. 4:18?

If people like my grandfather whom dedicated his whole life walking with the Lord, spreading his word, faithfully praying on his knees every night ….if he will scarcely make it in…where does that leave me? I’m no where near being righteous.

Answer

This is a really great question, here’s my understanding of the passage:

First, as always, note the context of the verse. In 1 Peter 4:12 and following Peter is addressing the issue of suffering for the Christian, “do not be surprised at the fiery trial …” This entire section is dealing with Christians being persecuted for the sake of Christ. They are being insulted verbally (verse 14) and possibly physically (verse 15). Thus, verses 12-16 have everything to do with a Christian’s endurance through suffering. The question is what good comes through suffering? Peter says in verse 16 that those who suffer should “not be ashamed” but “glorify God!” So, whatever Peter is trying to communicate in this passage it CANNOT BE SOMETHING THAT WOULD DISCOURAGE THEM OR MAKE THEM QUESTION THEIR SALVATION. EVERYTHING HE IS SAYING IS TO ENCOURAGE THE CHRISTIAN. 

Now to verse 17. Notice verse 17 begins with the word “for.” This connects us to verse 16. Why are we to glorify God under suffering Peter (verse 16)? Peter answers it in verse 17. “For it is time for judgement to begin in the household of God.” Judgement cannot mean punishment for disobedience, because everything he has said up to this point has been about enduring suffering FOR CHRIST! Judgement here should be taken to mean PURIFICATION THROUGH SUFFERING. That is, God purifies us (judges us positively) through suffering. Hebrews 12:3-17 serves as a helpful cross reference. There it says God “disciplines the ones he loves.” Suffering for Christ’ sake is a means by which God purifies us and draws us closer to Himself.

Now, if suffering comes upon those who obey God and serve him and believe in him HOW MUCH WORSE WILL IT BE FOR THOSE WHO DO NOT OBEY GOD? This is how I understand verse 17b. The answer to Peter’s rhetorical question is obvious—much worse! If Christians endure suffering for obeying God what is in store for those who do not obey God? A horrid thought. 

Verse 18 repeats basically the same idea in verse 17, but he does so by quoting Proverbs 11:31. “Righteous” does not refer to a “more spiritual person.” It refers to ALL CHRISTIANS (see 1 Peter 2:9-10). “Scarcley saved”in verse 18 should not be understood as “barely getting into heaven” but as those who  “will be saved through tremendous persecution and suffering (recall Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 3:12).” The word “scarcley” in the original Greek means “with difficulty.” Thus, Peter means Christians will be saved with “much difficulty,” which makes sense in the context. So, he does not mean that only really good Christians will barely get to Heaven; he means ALL CHRISTIANS WILL GET TO HEAVEN, BUT IT WILL NOT COME WITHOUT DIFFICULTY. As Jesus told us “In this world you will have trouble.”

Verse 19 makes sense then—“Therefore (i.e. in light of verses 12-18) let those who suffer (Christians, the righteous mentioned in verse 18) suffer according to God’s will (that is, suffer with the understanding that God is purifying us through the suffering—making us and drawing us closer to him)….

So, rather than this text offering doubt and anxiety of our salvation it actually assures us of it! When we as Christians go through suffering and persecution for Christ God purifies us in it. Christians are unique because we embrace our trials and rejoice in them! Why? Because God is doing a great work through them. He is saving us through them! So Christian, lift up your drooping head and rejoice for the benefit of suffering in Christ. God is doing a good work in you ! 

Who is your master?

In the last two posts found here and here I have looked at what Jesus says in Matthew 6:19-23. There Jesus gave two illustrations concerning how one in the Kingdom should view money–where ones treasure lies and what ones eyes see. The  last illustration is found in verse 24:

“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.

At first glance it seems that this phrase “no one can serve two masters” is just untrue. I mean, some could respond and say “I serve two masters, I’ve got two jobs—I have two bosses.” But this response fails to understand the meaning behind the word “serve (an unfortunate translation).” The word in the original literally means “to be a slave.” It has to do with the relationship between a slave and a slave-owner. And with that understanding, Jesus’ words make perfect sense. As well know Scholar R.T. France put it:

No one can serve two master is patently untrue; we do it all the time…but a slave was not employed under contract, but was normally wholly owned by the person who had bought him or her.

Just like a slave is unable to devote his life to two slave-owners so Christians cannot be a slave to God and a slave to money. We have to choose one or the other. That’s really the meaning behind the words love/hate in this context—either we will choose God or we’ll choose money, period; you can’t have both! Unfortunately, some become a slave to money. Paul warned Timothy about it:

But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Timothy 6:9-10)

He even had friends who deserted him for it:

For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica (2 Timothy 4:6)

But Jesus calls us to be a slave of His. This is really the whole point isn’t it? That we are single-minded in devotion to the Lordship of Christ. What he says goes; what he wills we will do; what he desires we desire. Money is nothing, only a means to make His name glorified! We are slaves of Christ! 

Being a slave is not the most relevant nor accepted picture I admit, but it is exactly how the New Testament describes us. We are slaves, and we are going to be slaves in one way or another. But when we’re slaves to Christ that makes us slaves to an enormously benevolent master! I heard well-known Pastor, John Macarthur, speak on this idea of slave/master recently. I loved what he had to say:

“I was doing a pastors’ conference with African-American pastors in North Carolina, and the subject came up. We were having a great time. We were in the football stadium at Wake Forest; it’s really kind of a neat place. We were up in this beautiful football complex with a glass window overlooking the football field; all these pastors where there. One of them said, “How in the world am I going to tell my congregation? How am I going to tell my congregation this message about slaves when it has such a stigma? What am I going to tell them?”

And I said, “Well, I’ve got good news for you. You have a loving Master who is all-wise, compassionate, generous, powerful, resourceful, protective, kind, merciful, forgiving, who takes you from being just a slave to making you a slave that is also a friend…Are you ready for this one?…and takes you from being a friend to a son, and not just a son but a joint-heir. And if you follow the rest of the count in the New Testament, you become a citizen of His Kingdom. Do you understand that no slave in the Roman Empire could be a citizen? Couldn’t own anything? Didn’t have any rights? Couldn’t give testimony to a court of law? Couldn’t be defended in court? This is a different kind of slavery. He provides everything you need; makes you an intimate friend and gives you full disclosure of everything that’s on His heart. First Corinthians 2:16, “We have a mind of Christ.” He’s revealed it to us on the pages of Scripture, and He makes us sons, and He makes us heirs and joint-heirs with His own Son and He–we could go on–He makes us reign with Him, citizens of His glorious kingdom.”

And so it is with us. We are slaves of Christ, not our money. For, how we view our money determines how we view God. May we see our money as only a means by which we store our treasures in heaven, view our lives through generous eyes, and never let it control our sole allegiance to Christ!