Striving to be a Healthy Church (Part 4)

In the last post in this series I want us to consider specifically “how” we should think about developing a healthy church. In the first two posts (here and here) have tried to argue that the main goal for every church is to “present every member of a local church mature in Christ (Colossians 1:28).” In the last post (here) I shifted our thinking to Matthew 28:19-20. In this text, I suggest, is “how” the local church accomplishes the goal of presenting everyone mature in Christ. As I noted the main verb in Matthew 28:19-20, “Make disciples,” points to the central goal—maturity in Christ. But how do we go about making disciples/presenting everyone mature? Jesus offers three simple steps. 

Go!

The first thing one must do to make disciples is simply to go. Discipleship will never happen if we don’t actually go anywhere! In order to make disciples the first step involves actually going to where the people are—where the harvest is, where the lost dwell, where those who are not Christians are located! Besides, if you do so you’re in pretty good company. It was Jesus, wasn’t it, that acquired the reputation for hanging out with the outsiders, those on the fringes. Luke records for us what the religious leaders thought of him:

And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them (Luke 15:2).”

Going then, has everything to do with intentionality. It involves a desire to reach those who have never made a decision to follow Christ. It involves inviting others to follow Jesus with you. Simply put, making disciples begins with leaving our comfort zones and calling others to follow Jesus with us.

Now admittedly, this aspect of disciple-making seems embarrassingly obvious—I mean going is clearly involved in getting others to follow Christ, there’s really nothing profound about that. But we also must admit that the simplicity of this command to go in no way removes the difficulty of it. It is in the going that I believe we struggle with the most. That said, here are some practical starting points when seeking to obey Christ’ command to go:

  • Begin with your family. Do you have kids? Perhaps you have an unbelieving spouse. Maybe a close cousin has never heard the gospel. Begin sharing the gospel with them. It may be difficult to begin sharing with a complete stranger, but your family can be a great starting point to practice teaching the good news. 
  • Move to your local church context. Are there unbelievers who are attending your church? Perhaps you can invite them to a small group with other Christians. Or, invite someone for a cup of coffee, or out to lunch. 
  • Those in your community. Once you have become acquainted with sharing the gospel with those in your immediate context begin praying for opportunities to share the gospel with those in your community. Your neighbor, or co-worker. I emphasize prayer because Paul exemplifies that for us in Colossians 4:2-6. Begin praying and you’ll be amazed at how many opportunities open themselves to you. 
  • Have a heart for global missions. Finally, begin fostering a heart for global missions. Jesus says “make disciples of all nations. Begin financially supporting those who serve overseas through your local church missions. Then, begin praying to God about how you can further make an impact in areas where people have never heard the good news. 

It is the simple leap of asking folks to follow Jesus that is the toughest. We’re good at discussing the idea of going, but when it comes to actually doing it, an unusual fear begins to set in and we nervously decline the opportunity to ask the individual seeker to “follow.” Our call—our mission however, moves us beyond that fear. Because we desire above all else to follow Jesus we must desire to follow his command to go. Jesus said “if you love me you will keep my commandments.” Therefore, our love for Christ overcomes our fear of going, and so we go! The first step to fulfilling Christ’ command to make disciples is to go! 

Baptize

The next step to making disciples is baptizing people. Why so? Let me offer two primary reasons:

  • Public Display: First, we must realize that in the early church baptism was the act in which identified an individual and his allegiance to the Christian faith. If one was to be baptized it was a clear message to all who saw it that they were completely embracing Jesus and his teachings while renouncing everything else. To be baptized was to identify oneself to Christ. 1 Peter 3:21 alludes to this when he says: Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal(or “pledge,” as in NIV) to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
  • Private Reality: But there’s more to baptism than just an outward display of one’s allegiance to Christ—there’s a supernatural reality that happens in the individual’s life as well. Notice what Jesus says in our text: “Baptizing them in the name of the father and of the son and of the Holy Spirit.” The phrase “in the name (or better “into the name”)” carries a significant idea. To baptize one “into the name” means to be baptized into the all that the “name represents.” In other words when one is baptized into the name of the father son and Holy Spirit they are in essence being intimately united with the essence of that person. To be baptized into the name of the trinity therefore means that one is united in a relationship with the trinity. In order to expound this wonderful reality it may be helpful to take a quick glance at Romans 6:1-4 where Paul helps us.

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

Here Paul says that baptism unites us in the death and resurrection of Christ. As a result, baptism allows us to receive the benefits that come with Christ death and resurrection, namely, “to walk in the newness of life.” Baptism therefore, brings us into an intimate union with God, having removed the stain of sin that previously separated us from Him! 

So, baptism is crucial in making disciples because baptism identifies those who have publicly confessed Christ as their savior and Lord and inwardly brings each individual sinner into union with Christ! In essence, baptism is the initial time when one comes from outside of the body of Christ to inside the body of Christ. It is the front door of discipleship. Discipleship without baptism is not discipleship. 

This is precisely why church, we need to prayerfully seek folks to be baptized into Christ. Baptisms indicate that we are in fact making disciples. If there are no baptisms then there is no discipleship-making! 

Teaching

These first two steps—going and baptizing— have everything to do with what we call evangelism. This is the practice of going out to folks who have never followed Jesus and asking them to do so by initially being baptized into Christ. But there’s more. Jesus goes on to say that making disciples has to do with teaching. This is the ongoing practice of the church. We never stop teaching. 

But what do we teach? Well Jesus says teach them “to observe everything I have commanded you.” That’s pretty simple. Basically, we are to teach people to be like Jesus—both by the what we say and by how we live. This is the heart of discipleship. And I believe it is appropriate to say that this idea of teaching them to observe everything Jesus commanded extends to teaching each other the whole of the Bible. The OT points to Jesus, the NT reveals Jesus. In it’s entirety the Bible is Jesus! It tells us how to live and act and think like Jesus. 

And may I add, that this does not mean that making disciples requires a Masters in Theology. All that is required is sharing the truth of God’s word as you grow in it with others who have yet discovered that truth for themselves!  It’s being intentional. Grabbing a new Christian and simply meeting with them on a regular basis and pouring into their lives all that you are learning in your own growth in Christ! 

The Ongoing Cycle

So, making disciples is Christ great mission for the church. Here’s the bottom line: the main mission of disciples of Christ is to make more disciples of Christ! And making disciples is simply going, baptizing, and teaching. And that’s really the flow and life-cycle of the church. SonRise this is really all we need to concentrate our efforts on. There needs to be a constant cycle of going out, baptizing, and ongoingly teaching others about Christ.  And in order to keep the cycle going we must all constantly be motivated to go back out and reach new individuals for Christ. If we stop going, then we are simply discipling the same faces every day. That unfortunately turns Christ great commission into the great omission. 

The Hopeful Promise

 As I come to a close may I add a final word of hope for anyone feeling discouraged or overwhelmed by the idea of making disciples. For you who really desire to make disciples but feel inadequate or unqualified. Take a quick glance at the final verse in our text: And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Those final words from Jesus prove why in fact we can actually accomplish this. Jesus, the one with all authority in heaven and on earth will be with us every step of the way! And He is. After Jesus descended into Heaven he left us with the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit guides, directs, and empowers us to fulfill Christ’ command to make disciples of all nations! Two passages that I’ll leave you with:

God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control (12 Timothy 1:7).

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3:20-21). 

Striving to be a Healthy Church (Part 3)

In the two previous posts found here and here, I have sought to layout what the local church is called to do—what makes a healthy church? In those essays I have argued that the number one goal for every church leader is to present every member mature in Christ. That is, the goal, the purpose, the concentration of the shepherds God has placed over his flock is to seek to lead each member in that church to Christ-likeness. 

Now, I would like to shift from answering the “what” question (what makes a healthy church?) to the “how question (how do we go about pursuing this goal of maturity for every believer?). In answering this question I would like to turn our attention to Matthew 28:19-20. Here I suggest is the formula for developing a church with members seeking maturity. Allow me to cite the passage under consideration:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:19-20).

If the Goal of every local church can be summarized by Paul’s words in Colossians 1:28—“present everyone mature in Christ,” then the best way to go about accomplishing that goal, I humbly suggest, is Jesus’ words in the Great commission. In this article I want to focus solely on the main verb of the passage, “make disciples,” and then in the next post deal with the three qualifiers that describe how we go about doing that. 

The main verb in Matthew 28:19-20 is the phrase “make disciples.” Everything else in these two verses simply explain how one goes about accomplishing this task. Now, it seems that the term “make disciples” can be viewed synonymously with what we have already discussed thus far—that is, presenting everyone mature in Christ (Colossians 1:28). To strive for maturity is to be a disciple; to be a disciples is one who strives to be mature. Making disciples is the goal of the church! And let us remind ourselves what the goal is NOT:

  • Build big beautiful buildings
  • Create really cool worship services
  • Feed the poor
  • Get financially stable
  • Develop awesome programs
  • Have a lot of church potlucks

As admirable, well-intentional, and effective these things may be they are not what Christ gives as the mission of the church. These may be results, or means to that mission, but they are not the mission! 

So what is it? What does Christ call us to do? We are to simply make disciples, period. Our number one and primary mission of the church is to develop disciples of Christ. 

And may I add that this is not the great suggestion, but a great commandment! “Making disciples here is in the imperative mood—that is, it is a command. It has an exclamation behind it—Make disciples! Based on Christ’ authority over everything he commands us to make disciples! This is not optional for the Christian, but binding. You can’t be a Christian and not make disciples. 

So, what’s a disciple…? I’m glad you asked! 

Making disciples, generally speaking, involves following the teachings and behavior of another person. As mentioned here in our text, it has to do with getting others to follow the life and teachings of Christ himself—Discipleship is becoming like Jesus! 

I like how popular writer Francis Chan describes it in his book “Multiply:” 

It’s impossible to be a disciple or a follower of someone and not end up like that person. Jesus said, ‘a disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher (Luke 6:40).” That’s the whole point of being a disciple of Jesus: we imitate him, carry on his ministry, and become like him in the process.

“Yet somehow many have come to believe that a person can be a “Christian” without being like Christ. A “follower” who doesn’t follow. How does that make any sense? Many people in the church have decided to take on the name of Christ and nothing else. This would be like Jesus walking up to those first disciples and saying, “Hey, would you guys mind identifying yourselves with Me in some way? Don’t worry, I don’t actually care if you do anything I do or change your lifestyle at all. I’m just looking for people who are willing to say they believe in Me and call themselves Christians (Chan, Francis. Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples, 16-17.) 

A simple example is in Matthew 4:18-22:

While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

Jesus’ first disciples simply dropped everything and followed after him! They let go of their desires and replaced them with Christ’ desires! 

Romans 8:29 tells us that this idea of becoming like Jesus is actually at the heart of God’s will for each of our lives. To look like Jesus—to believe and live what he taught. 

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

So, making disciples is simply calling others to live and believe exactly like Jesus. Each of us are called to be little imitations of Jesus. We live, behave, talk, act, think….like Jesus! That’s making disciples! In our next post we will flesh out “How” we go about accomplishing this goal. 

Striving to Be a Healthy Church (Part 2)

In my last post I presented the main concern I believe every church leader should have for the local church. I suggested that it should not be primarily focused on breaking attendance records, as exciting as that can be. Nor is it about implementing the right method of programming, as helpful as this can be. These areas are important but they are not the main focus. The most important concern for every church leader can be summed up by this question: what makes a healthy church? As I sifted through the New Testament one passage in particular impressed upon me in a great way. In it I see summarized beautifully a definite point in the right direction. Allow me to quote the passage in its entirety:

“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face,(Colossians 1:24-2:1).”

As I reflected on this passage I saw three areas every Church leader should concentrate on in seeking to develop a healthy church. 

Hard Work

Notice first of all Paul’s emphasis on struggling hard for the sake of the church. Three times he mentions his toil and struggle to see the church mature. 

  • Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church (Col. 1:24)
  • For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me (Col 1:29)
  • For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face (Col 2:1)

In order to pursue health in the church it begins with godly leaders digging deep and working hard for those within the local church community. For Paul it included prayer (see 1:9ff) and teaching the word of God (see 1:28). Interestingly, this is the same pattern that was established in the early church (see Acts 6:4). This is not everything that church leaders are called to do as they work diligently for the health of the church but at least these two areas must be pursued. For a church to become healthy and mature there must be godly leaders striving daily to accomplish this goal. 

Serving the Word of God

Secondly, a healthy church is going to be one that places a priority on the word of God preached. Notice what Paul says in verses 25 and 28:

of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known. . Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.(Col 1:25,28)

Paul says he became a minister. The word is where we get our English word “deacon.” It simply means “to serve.” A Healthy church is one whose leaders are servant leaders. The apostle Peter wrote concerning elders: “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 (1 Peter 5:2-3).” 

But what are the leaders of a church to serve? According to Paul it is the word of God. Paul said I became a minister to “make the word of God fully known.” He said I “proclaim Christ warning everyone and teaching everyone…” This is the number one task of the Pastor/Elder. They are to be men who preach the word. As Paul told Timothy “preach the word in season and out of season… (2 Tim. 4:2).” 

Present Everyone Mature

Finally, the third concentration is to present everyone mature. This is the goal of every church. Church leaders do not struggle for the sake of the church to preach and teach as an end in itself. Rather, the hard work and dedication of every church leader should be for the purpose of moving each member to be more like Christ—this is the essence of spiritual maturity! If a church has many people filling its seats and yet there is not a drive to present each member mature there is a lack of health. If a church has amazing programs and yet there is no intentionality to present each member mature in Christ there is a lack of health. The goal of every church, I submit, is to intentionally present each member mature in Christ. 

This goal implies then that every member, no matter their maturity level, is to be intentionally cared for. Paul told the Ephesian Elders in Acts 20 to “pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers (Acts 20:28).” This is a huge responsibility. One that will take a lot of struggle,  and diligent service of the word of God. But in the end our goal in doing so is to present everyone mature in Christ. 

Striving to be a Healthy Church (Part 1)

As a local church pastor I am immersed in the Christian subculture on a daily basis. All of my podcasts are church and Bible related; my colleagues are mostly pastors or Christian workers; my reading is almost exclusively Christian based—so questions pertaining to the local church and her purpose are always at the forefront of my mind. The question: “what is the role of the local Church,” is paramount for me. 

If you were to peruse the literature, go to church growth conferences, talk with certain church leaders, you may discover that for many (including myself!) there is a very strong temptation to view success in the church with regard to how many attend on a weekly basis. Success equals numbers. A church is successful when the church grows exponentially. Besides, you never hear advertised at church conferences—“come here Joe Smith, the pastor over first church—the church that has sustained steadily 100 members for the past 10 years!”

This emphasis on numbers equaling success however, has evoked a philosophical change in how many view church ministry. Words like “seeker sensitivity,” “attractional,” and “entertainment driven” are used to describe many church’ view of how to go about organizing their ministerial programming. 

As a result,  the attender becomes the consumer. A family visits the church and their decision to stay or leave is based on a checklist of approved preferences. How was the music? The children’s program? How were the church aesthetics? did the preacher keep my attention? etc… But, is this what Jesus meant when he said “I will build my church?” 

Before I go on allow me to make two qualifications: First, In a society like ours here in the U.S. it is somewhat inevitable that the local church will look much like it does today, with various denominations and styles of ministry. I heard Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, say convincingly: “Religious freedom plus theological conviction equals denominations.” In other words, motivation for our country’s desire for religious freedom has produced an inescapable outcome of denominations. Hence, there will be a natural tendency to find the local church that suits our various pragmatic and theological preferences. 

Secondly, numbers are not bad in and of themselves. Obviously each number represents a person who has come to know christ. And as one Pastor I heard put it: “If God doesn’t care about numbers why did he name a whole book with that title?” The problem is not numbers itself but the temptation to view numbers as an end in and of itself . Numbers are simply a by-product, and both healthy and unhealthy churches can have a lot of people attending them. 

So, what’s the problem? I submit that what Pastors should be concerned with is not so much questions regarding attendance, or programs, but asking this simple question—what makes a healthy church? What are we seeking to do that transforms a church that is, as Paul put it, “straining toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:14)?” I suggest that the answer is not found in programs, or in maintaining large attendance numbers, but something deeper, more long-lasting, and ultimately biblically driven. In the next post we will consider three concentrations each church leader should focus on in order to develop a healthy church. 

Going back into the water?—Why re-baptism is an unbiblical idea.

A while back the following announcement came across my Facebook page:

“I accepted Christ when I was seven years old and was baptized shortly after; 27 years later, my relationship with Jesus has grown stronger than I ever knew possible.
August 2018 God lit a fire in my heart and I knew it was time to make my way back to the water. Words will never do justice to the way I felt at this moment.”

“And I knew it was time to make my way back to the water?” While undoubtedly the actions of this individual were well-intended, I can’t help but scratch my head over the misunderstanding this quote places on one’s understanding of Christian baptism. Unfortunately, I am seeing a trend among many evangelicals where “going back into the water” is happening more and more. Indulge me if you will as I briefly lay out why I think this trend is not only unhelpful, but unbiblical.

There is no such thing as a “re-baptism.”

Many like to talk about how they were “re-baptized.” The logic behind this practice, from conversations I have had, involves one’s deep conviction that their initial baptism was done with wrong motives (e.g. they saw others doing it and thought it was a cool idea), or perhaps they felt their baptism was premature because of their lack of knowledge. But, for whatever reason one decides to get baptized again, if their first baptism was done without true repentance, then the first baptism was no baptism at all! All that occurred in that first ceremony was purely physical—nothing spiritual took place. In reality there is no such thing as a “rebaptism.” Why—because baptism is a one time event wherein the repentant believer submits to the Gospel, and has his or her sins washed away (e.g. Acts 2:38, 22:16). To speak of “rebaptism” is actually a contradiction in terms. Baptism by its very definition is a singular event. No wonder the apostle Paul speaks of “one baptism” in Ephesians 4!

But, some get baptized multiple times for more concerning reasons. Rather than being “rebaptized” because the first baptism was done with improper motives, others do so because, as one person put it to me, “I wanted to rededicate my life to the Lord.” Or as the person above put it, “God lit a fire in my heart…” In other words many are getting baptized 2, 3, 4 times because they come to a place of conviction and use baptism as a way to “have a new start,” or to “have a fresh beginning.”

The problem with this idea is that this was never the purpose of Baptism as taught in the NT. Baptism is not an event to be repeated every time one feels convicted of sin. Baptism is a one time event done for the purposes of having ones sins forgiven and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 2:38). It is daily repentance and confession of sin which is the proper action to be taken under these circumstances (e.g. 2 Corinthians 7:10-12, 1 John 1:8-10).

Re-baptism as a rededication blurs the purpose of baptism.

I recall a number of years back when I baptized a gentleman in his 40’s. He was previously an atheist, but through many conversations he came to accept Christ and desired to follow him; it was a wonderful and exciting day! A couple weeks later this same fella came running into my office in a frantic state. “I think I need to get baptized again! “He said. “ I have been studying the scriptures and I never knew all of this stuff about baptism, I don’t think I got baptized for the right reasons!” After I calmed him down I simply asked my friend, “when you were baptized did you do so because you knew your sins had separated you from God, and that the only way to be saved was through Christ’ work on your behalf?” He replied, “well yeah, I knew that, but not much more!” I then responded: “All that tells me is that you are bearing the fruit of your baptism!”

The point here is that many seem to think that when they are baptized they have to have the whole Christian life figured out beforehand, and when they discover new things from scripture, especially in regards to their baptism, another baptism is needed. But this doesn’t seem to be what Paul taught about the purpose of baptism. In fact, Romans 6:1-5 seems to show that if baptism is needed every time we are convicted of sin, or that we come to understand baptism in a deeper way, then the Roman church should have all been re-baptized!

But, this is not what the apostle teaches. When he tells his readers that they are not to “sin so that grace may abound (Romans 6:1),” he REMINDS them of their baptism; he doesn’t tell them to get baptized again! When we are tempted to indulge in our sinful nature, Paul tells us to remember our baptism! Baptism was the occasion in which you died and began to walk in the newness of life! Rather than being “rebaptized” we need to “remind” ourselves of what happened at our baptism!

Biblical precedence over personal pragmatism.

Finally, some may respond: “but what does it matter? Rebaptizing people isn’t going to hurt anyone. In fact, isn’t it prudent to be “better safe than sorry?” Let me briefly conclude with the following:

  • First, as discussed above, there is no such thing as a “rebaptism.” Therefore, if the reason one desires to “go back into the water” is based on the fact that their initial baptism involved merely getting wet, then a proper-one time-baptism, based on a true repentant heart, in true saving faith, should be done.
  • Second, those who desire to be “rebaptized” for the reasons stated above (i.e. as a rededication), should be reminded what happened at their initial baptism as taught in Romans 6:1-5, rather than going through the baptismal ceremony again. Repentance and confession of sin should be the encouragement for those desiring to rededicate their lives to God.
  • Finally, just because being rebaptized “doesn’t hurt anyone” it doesn’t make it right. As Christians we should desire to be biblical, and seek to do what the Word of God says. For church leaders this should be a double caution. I know that for some rebaptisms are actually an effective way to increase conversion stats! Lord forbid that this be the motive for encouraging rebaptisms! We need to be biblical rather than pragmatic in this regard.

Belong before you believe, or believe before you belong?

Some of our leaders recently visited a local church holding a seminar on how to welcome new visitors. The practical advice and suggestions were all very helpful, but there was a phrase that caught our attention. During the seminar the speaker made a case for allowing non-members to serve in various ministries. The understanding seemed to be that if one gets plugged into the church they are more likely to return for subsequent Sundays. The hope was that eventually said person would come to know Jesus through exposure to other Christians, and eventually place their membership with the church. The speaker summarized this ministerial philosophy with the slogan, “belong before you believe.” In other words, whether one is a Christian, or simply a seeker there are no practical “lines in the sand” so to speak.

I get the heart and logic behind this statement, but I wonder if it’s biblical. It sounds pious but it may be missing the mark. It is definitely more pragmatic and yields immediate results, but is it the most healthy pursuit? Should we not call people to “believe before you belong?” Didn’t Jesus live out this philosophy? Some will reply—“Yeah but Jesus was accused for hanging out with drunks, prostitutes, and the unclean!” True, but we must ask ourselves—did Jesus hang around these people arbitrarily without any call for a change of lifestyle? Or did Jesus hang around these people for the sole purpose of calling them to “repent for the Kingdom is at hand?”

  • It was Jesus, was it not, who told the rich man to sell all of his possessions and give it to the poor before being allowed in the Kingdom (Matthew 19).
  • It was Jesus who said to the man who requested he bury his father before following Jesus, “let the dead bury the dead (Matthew 8).”
  • It was Jesus who said the road to eternal life was narrow and few would find it (Matthew 7).
  • It was Jesus who said that in order to follow him you would have to love him more than your entire family (Matthew 10).
  • It was Jesus who said that one would have to deny themselves, and  take up their cross in order to follow him (Matthew 16).

In other words, have we as a church become so obsessed with attracting people into our community that we have neglected to set any standard by which one can come in? Perhaps instead of leaving the front doors of the church wide open and the back doors closed it should be the other way around.

The time Jesus was wrong?

Recently I preached a sermon from Matthew 15:21-28, the famous story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. In this text I was taken back by Jesus’ seemingly harsh tone and attitude toward a woman who, from all intense and purposes, was one who showed tremendous faith and perseverance. A simple straight forward reading of the passage shows Jesus completely ignoring the woman’s plea for help (verse 23), dismissing her because she is not a Jew (verse 24), and finally calling this poor woman a dog (verse 26)! As one sifts through the Gospel of Matthew Jesus’ actions toward the persistent woman is oddly out of place. Jesus told the gentile centurion that he had never in all Israel found such faith (Matthew 8:10), spoke highly of the faith of the Paralytic in Matthew 9:2, and many more examples could be given. So, why in this particular instance does Jesus seem so unlike, well, Jesus?

While on the surface it may seem that Jesus is treating the Canaanite woman harshly could it be that there is something going on in the text that isn’t so obvious; that when one digs a bit deeper into the text discovers Jesus is actually being tremendously endearing? I think there is.

While trying to unpack the essence of this conversation between Jesus and the Canaanite woman, some clues unveil in at least two places. The first involves the sudden shift in Jesus’ attitude in verse 28. It seems bizarre at first. After completely ignoring this woman while she cries out for Jesus’ help in verses 21-27, Jesus’ tone dramatically shifts as he exclaims “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire (Matthew 15:28).” So, why does Jesus intentionally ignore her in the first two requests for help, but then suddenly shift and speak of how much faith she has?

The second hint is found in the statement made by the Canaanite woman in verse 27. The Canaanite woman finally approaches Jesus, falls to her knees, and says “Lord Help me (verse 25).” At this point one could easily envisage Jesus responding in compassion. But no, Jesus actually responds with what only can be viewed as a harsh and rude statement: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs (verse 26).” It is at this point that the Canaanite says something that changes Jesus tone entirely, verse 27 reads thus: “She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’” What is it about this statement that radically changes the conversation?

I discovered that most English translations translate the Greek phrase Ναὶ κύριε, καὶ γὰρ (yes Lord, yet even) as “yes Lord, yet even…” or “Yes Lord, But even…” The problem however is that the words “καὶ γὰρ” never mean “but even” or “yet even,” but always mean “for even.” When translated as “but even” it gives the impression that the Canaanite is agreeing with Jesus statement. That is, it is not right to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs—Implying that it is not right for Jesus to minister to the woman because his purpose was only to minister to the people of Israel. Rather, the phrase should be translated “For even.”

Read this way it implies something entirely different, namely that the Canaanite is disagreeing with Jesus. In essence she is saying in response, “Yes Lord, it is right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs, for even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table…(my paraphrase)” In other words, the Canaanite woman was challenging Jesus’ statement. She was arguing that the Kingdom is for both Jew and Gentile! In light of this, Jesus’ ecstatic expression in verse 28 makes sense. Jesus in essence says to this woman—you’re right!

If this interpretation is correct the tone and feel of the conversation between Jesus and the Canaanite woman is read in a different light. Was Jesus being rude and ugly in response to the Canaanite woman’s plea for help? Some would conclude that he was. But, what if Jesus was purposefully responding in the manner he does in order to draw out the faith of the Canaanite woman? Could there be a bit of sarcasm and facetiousness being delivered by our Lord? Was Jesus purposefully saying something wrong in order for the Canaanite woman to correct him?NT scholar R.T. France seems to think so:

Cold print does not allow us to detect a quizzical eyebrow or a tongue in the cheek, and it may be that Jesus’ demeanor already hinted that his discouraging reply was not to be his last word on the subject. Need we assume that when eventually the woman won the argument Jesus was either dismayed or displeased? May this not rather have been the outcome he intended from the start? A good teacher may sometimes aim to draw out a pupil’s best insight by a deliberate challenge which does not necessarily represent the teacher’s own view—even if the phrase ‘devil’s advocate’ may not be quite appropriate to this context!” (France, R.T., NICNT, Matthew, 591)

When I preached this sermon I titled it “The time Jesus was wrong?” It got a lot of attention as you can imagine! But, in the end it is interesting to see that Jesus’ deliberate response to the Canaanite woman actually intended to spur on the great statement of faith that she did. And Jesus was glad she was right!