When God Suggests the Unthinkable

28 08 2020

As Covid-19 has worn on longer than any of us expected, many strongly desire to regather with our church families. That is good and right. But I believe God would want us to consider new directions in our lifestyle.

We are surrounded by people who are lonely and frustrated.  What if this time of frustration actually turned out to be an opportunity we otherwise would have missed?

Come with me into the world of the book of Acts (10-11), and consider Peter’s amazing year. In the previous few years, incredible change had invaded his world. As if the three years of following Jesus were not crazy enough, the years since Jesus rose from the dead were equally wild.

Just weeks after Jesus ascended to heaven, Peter’s congregation of 120 believers was rocked by an incredible day when the Holy Spirit brought unprecedented signs — sound of howling wind!  flames over each person!  speaking in languages never before learned!  And Peter tried to explain that this was fulfillment of prophecy. And 3,000 believed!

New leadership had to be appointed so as to replace Judas. Peter and John were imprisoned for proclaiming Christ. Along came Saul, persecuting the church and driving believers out of Jerusalem. There was a conflict in the church over the feeding of widows – one ethnic group feeling slighted by the other.

Suddenly word comes that the persecutor, Saul, has been dramatically converted and is now following Christ. Can this guy be trusted?

Peter’s ministry is going well. He even raises a young girl named Dorcas from death itself! The church is growing and at peace.

And then, WHAM!  Peter’s world capsizes.

He is the honored guest of a tanner named Simon. Up on the rooftop, awaiting lunch, Peter falls into a deep sleep and has a trance-like dream. He sees a sheet descending from heaven holding all sorts of food — including some forbidden for Jews. Then a confusing voice from God, “kill and eat.” Three times Peter rejects this heretical command. But finally he realizes that God is turning his traditions on their head. God has an unthinkable plan in mind.

I write about this incident in Biblical history because we also live in a time of immense change. And I believe Jesus is calling His church to new directions.
Peter went on to cross old barriers — by entering the home of a Gentile and sharing the good news. Peter was changed, and this became a turning point in the development of the church.

What principles can we take away from this incident?

1. Maintain a lifestyle of listening to God’s promptings.  Peter heard the voice of God and, even though it was confusing, continued to listen for truth.

2. Stay open and responsive to new directions.  After two messengers came and invited Peter to the home of Cornelius, Peter could have resisted. But he took the first step that changed history.  Our new journeys often begin with a small initial step in a new direction.

3. Be intentional in crossing over to those who you normally would not know. Peter put himself in an uncomfortable place. You may have neighbors whom you have rarely talked to. Some may be of a different ethnicity than you. It will take intentionality to get acquainted with them.

4. Remember that God is preparing people to be receptive. It was God that brought Cornelius and Peter together. We can trust God to be opening people to be receptive to our friendship.

A final word:  As we befriend others for Jesus’ sake, focus on being a genuine friend. Consider the life and needs of the other person. Don’t make them a project — a person to be converted. Let God do His work. You and I just get to be conveyors of the unconditional love the Jesus brings.

All aboard for Tarshish!

26 08 2020

Some days are sloppy. Like yesterday.

I tried to concentrate on some Bible reflection and came to the end of the book of Jonah. He was operating under the “great commission” of his era which promised that Abram’s lineage would be blessed so as to be a blessing to every other nation (Genesis 12:1-4).

But Jonah could not imagine God really wanting to bless the Ninevites — those ruthless, godless barbarians, with their arrogant kings and imperialistic intentions. There was no way Jonah was going to go out of his way to show mercy to people who didn’t deserve or desire it. So he boarded a ship bound for Tarshish.

We don’t know exactly where Tarshish was, but we know precisely what it represented: “away from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3).

Tarshish is any place other than where God calls you to go.

Skip to the end of the Jonah chronicle. Clearly, Jonah’s direction was changed by a great fish, but even after a great revival in Nineveh, the prophet’s heart had not changed.

Even after Nineveh repented, Jonah “re-pouted.” He told God: This is why I fled to Tarshish, “for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness” (Jonah 4:2).

If you are like me, there are some people more deserving of punishment than mercy. Like Jonah, we have a hard time thinking kindly of them.

Do you recall how God responded to Jonah? “Is it right for you to be angry?”

Sure is, said Jonah, “it is right for me to be angry, even to death” (4:9).

To which God replied, “should I not pity Nineveh?”

In other words, God has the right to show mercy to whomever He chooses, whether we like it or not.

Like Jonah, I lack mercy. I sometimes feel it my right to be angry at what some people do and say. I can’t understand how God puts up with their thinking!

Yesterday, while I was pondering this story, I got a video call from my friend who lives in the Middle East with his family. He works with a Christian ministry in a Muslim country. He and the local director had visited the Minister of Culture and Youth to request permission to distribute Christian literature in a refugee camp. My friend was really excited to meet cabinet officers. The press and photographers were on hand to document the occasion for the newspapers. I rejoiced with my friend over their successful day.

Then I said to him: “This is crazy, and a bit convicting. I can walk down my street and give Christian literature to anyone I meet. I can make friends with someone from the Muslim country you live in, and can actually read the Bible with them. And I don’t need approval from a cabinet minister to do so.”

Then last night Aimee and I took a stroll around our neighborhood as we occasionally do. We took two encouragement cards to neighbors going through hard times. Then we walked over to the apartments nearby where people from several nations live. We stopped and talked to some kids. Said hello to a cluster of women wearing burkas. But none of the adults we’ve met before were outdoors. So we returned home, having left behind a few smiles, waves, and our presence.

This reflection doesn’t really have a clear theme. But I understand Jonah’s urge to flee to Tarshish. I identify with the desire to stay on the couch rather than cross over to the other neighborhood.

And I see that God pays attention even on sloppy days.

Shhh, listen. The gospel is whispering

22 06 2020

The other day I was reading ROADMAP TO RECONCILIATION, by Brenda Salter McNeil, when I came up a quote which I immediately recognized as drawn from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

As we conclude our study of that epistle, and as we are currently living through a time of unrest due to discrimination, I wanted to bring this scriptural teaching to our attention.

We believe

  • that Christ’s work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another (Eph. 2:11-22);
  • that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain (Eph. 4:1-16);
  • that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted (John 17:20-23);
  • that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways: in that we love one another; that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another; that we are obligated to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another; that we share one faith, have one calling, are of one soul and one mind; have one God and Father, are filled with one Spirit, are baptized with one baptism, eat of one bread and drink of one cup, confess one name, are obedient to one Lord, work for one cause, and share one hope; together come to know the height and the breadth and the depth of the love of Christ; together are built up to the stature of Christ, to the new humanity; together know and bear one another’s burdens, thereby fulfilling the law of Christ that we need one another and upbuild one another, admonishing and comforting one another; that we suffer with one another for the sake of righteousness; pray together; together serve God in this world; and together fight against all which may threaten or hinder this unity

Reading this statement brings to my memory the occasion when I took communion in a church in South Africa. It was a liturgical church, with many mixed ethnicities. The practice was to walk toward the front and receive a wafer from the priest, who would wipe the rim of the communion chalice and serve the next person in line. This was during a period of time when there was much publicity about the HIV outbreak.

I think of that occasion because, like this doctrinal confession, my taking communion with a common cup was, for me, a courageous act of faith.The doctrinal statement which I have excerpted above is a courageous act of faith on the part of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church of Southern Africa during the apartheid era. Called the Belhar Confession, it was formally adopted by the denomination in 1986 as a theological confrontation of the sin of racism. 

Somewhere along the way, many of us adopted the notion that discipleship is risk-free and the gospel anemic. Truth be told, the good news of Jesus and His teachings are dangerous and revolutionary. It calls us to quiet activism, to sacrificial hospitality, and extravagant love.

The body of Christ, connected to Christ the head, is a reconciled and reconciling community. It’s counter-cultural power for good whispers quietly, and many people, even believers, fail to hear its call.

I declare my independence from rancorous diatribes filling today’s social interaction.

I reject the accusatory barbs by Christians, as anti-Christian.

I affirm love which has not lost sight of truth.

I decry divisive prejudice while honoring distinct cultures and views.

I appreciate protest for the “other,” but see greater hope in true friendship with another who is different.

If you would like to read the entire Belhar Confession, click here.
As a good resource for moving forward in reconciliation, see Roadmap to Reconciliation, by Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil here.

Confronting an “evil day”

5 06 2020

As a human family, we are passing through truly unprecedented times with the onslaught of Covid-19.  Some countries are experiencing catastrophic consequences, especially in crowded, poor communities.

On the heels of pandemic came the outpouring of frustration and anger triggered by the senseless killings of three African-Americans in U.S. cities. Protests, burning, and looting has ensued.

Few would disagree that we are living in an “evil day.”  Paul wrote, “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day” (Eph.6:13).

An evil day

  • can be a season, a period of time
  • must be withstood by the people of God
  • is an unusual outbreak of evil against good
  • is connected to, and likely sourced from the rulers of darkness of our age
  • is likened to the wiles (or schemes) of the devil
  • it is resisted and overcome using the whole armor of God

As we saw in the previous study (What’s the real battle?), ultimately the evil day is caused not by people but the wicked forces or spirits which propel them.

Since it is a spiritual battle involving spiritual weapons, we need to know this: 

What are the elements of the armor and what do each of them accomplish?

Some expositors make much of the individual pieces of armor, and liken them to the battle gear of Roman soldiers. There is emphasis too on the body parts that are protected, such as the head and heart. I want to focus on the spiritual impact and necessity of each element, and why they are so vital in extending Christ’s victory and rule.

1. THE ENTIRE ARMOR IS NEEDED. “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (6:11).  Note, it is possible to defeat the devil! Victory is possible in the evil day, and every day. This instruction about battle should not cause us to fear, but to fight. We may be vulnerable, but God is invincible.

Paul is going to proceed to mention seven specific armor elements, but I am convinced that they are suggestive of the fact that in Christ we have absolutely everything at our disposal that we could possibly need, beginning with our position in Christ as beloved and blessed (recall our study, Cascade of blessings).

2. WITHSTAND, AND STAND. “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand (6:13). If you are outdoors when a strong wind rises, you are wise if you brace yourself for the gusts. You withstand.

An evil day, such as the one we are in, requires special withstanding. We must be spiritually alert, watching for the wicked intentions of principalities, and calling believers to stand guard for Jesus’ cause. And having resisted, we must maintain our ground with vigilance.

3. TRUTH, LIKE A WAIST BELT.  “having girded your waist with truth” (6:14)

As Paul earlier wrote, “speaking the truth in love.“(4:15) Truth counters “dissensions, heresies” false witness, theft, fraud, etc. (Gal.5:20)

4. RIGHTEOUSNESS, AS A BREASTPLATE. “having put on the breastplate of righteousness” (6:14)

We were chosen to be “holy and without blame before Him in love” (Eph.1:4). As such, we fight adultery, drunkenness, and revelries.

5. THE GOSPEL OF PEACE, AS FOOT WEAR. “having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace” (6:15)

Jesus brought peace, removing enmity between Jew and Gentile. Peace overcomes hatred, bigotry and violence. True peace is not a covering over of simmering hatred, but is true reconciliation which brings inner oneness with the other.

6. FAITH, AS A SHIELD. “above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one” (6:16)

The wicked one launches “fiery darts” of doubt, jealousy, and outbursts of wrath (Gal.5:20). Faith quenches these flaming assaults.

7. SALVATION, AS A HELMET. “And take the helmet of salvation” (6:17)

Evil principalities tempt us with idolatry, despair, sorcery selfish ambition, and murder. But in salvation, both in being born again, and progressively throughout life, we are delivered.

8. THE WORD OF GOD, AS A SWORD.  “and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (6:17)

We possess the word of truth given to us and written down, we hear from the Spirit of God in our ongoing relationship with Him. And we speak the truth as a part of our warfare.

9. PRAYER, AS THE HEART TO ENGAGE THE ENEMY. “praying always…” (6:18ff)

Without prayer, we lose touch with our Master and therefore lose sight of the victory we are promised. Prayer keeps us “watchful.” By prayer we persevere. And by prayer we reach out to encourage all saints everywhere. Prayer gives boldness to speak, even when imprisoned. The relationship with God maintained through prayer energizes every element of our armor.

What does it look like for you to intentionally put on these elements and confront this evil day?

What’s the real battle?

4 06 2020

Ephesians has revealed the inter-connectedness between earthly activities and heavenly realities. As we explore our spiritual position and blessings (chapters 1-3, “orthodoxy”), we walk out our faith in our new identity and transformed relationships (ch. 4-6, “orthopraxy”).

As Paul concludes his letter, he again ascends the heights and reveals the interplay between believers on earth and principalities in heavenly realms. If we don’t get this right, we will name the wrong enemies, and therefore fight the wrong forces. So let’s consider a few key questions for better understanding.

What is the source of the battle imagery?

There is an Old Testament prophecy in Isaiah 59 which lays out a background for the battle unveiled in Ephesians. In Isaiah’s time, society had fallen into wickedness, where justice and righteous leadership was in short supply.

“Then the LORD saw it, and it displeased Him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no intercessor” (Isa. 59:15-16).

So the Lord, seeing this lack, takes it upon Himself to rise up as a Warrior to unleash His fury over His wicked enemies.

“Therefore His own arm brought salvation for Him; and His own righteousness, it sustained Him.”

Isaiah describes the Messiah-warrior suiting up:

“For He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on His head; He put on the garments of vengeance for clothing, and was clad with zeal as a cloak.”

The battle, and the victory, appear on the horizon:

“So shall they fear the name of the LORD from the west, and His glory from the rising of the sun; when the enemy comes in like a flood, the Spirit of the LORD will lift up a standard against him” (Isa. 59:19).

How does Jesus fulfill this prophecy?

Ultimately, Isaiah’s prophecy was a preview of the colossal battle that Jesus the Messiah was destined to undertake. The “standard” He has now raised against His enemies is the cross of His sacrificial death. He has been victorious, and has authority over every echelon of wickedness in the heavenly realms. Christ is raised and seated “far above all principality and power and might and dominion,” where the Father “put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church” (Eph.1:21-22). 

But Jesus’ enemies fight on, and we, the Church, as citizens of His kingdom, are enlisted in the battle. Wicked forces oppose Jesus’ rule and reign, desiring to foster evil world wide.

What is the part of Jesus-followers today?

We have been given the victorious armor of God. It is battered and bloody from use, but it is powerful and accustomed to winning!

The armor is not make-believe, but consists of moral, spiritual forces which further God’s rule. These weapons actually help Jesus beat back the rebel forces of evil over which He already has authority.

Who has this armor and how do we use them?

Each of us has all the elements, and corporately we share them. We are each soldiers, and together we are an army. Individually, we suit up in the victory of Jesus each day. Your local church, and the Church in your city and country have this calling and equipment.

Book have been written on making use of the armor. If I may simplify, we believe in the reality of the armor. We put off wicked thoughts and deeds with God’s help, and put on thoughts and deeds consistent with the armor.

What do the weapons oppose?

We are fighting against all the expressions and strategies of the kingdom of evil, originating from Satan himself. Here is one list of the forces which oppose God

“Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:19-21).

Imagine the brokenness of our world if Satan had his way! Do you see how important our battle? The survival of our planet is proof that the Church has persisted in the battle.

Paul clarifies we are not fighting the people who practice evil, but the powers of evil which purvey all manifestations of wickedness. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities … in the heavenly places” (Eph.6:12).  We must see the good in people, as image-bearers of God, and work against the evil that motivates their deeds.

That’s a lot for this post. Next time we will consider: What are the elements of the armor and what do each of them accomplish?