Thursday, August 17, 2017

Out of Darkness

“I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles-- to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”
Acts 22:16

The words of the above verse were spoken by Jesus, as he called Paul into his service. Most of us are familiar with the call of Paul, and we know what he was called to do. He was called by Christ as an apostle to the Gentiles. He was called by Christ to carry the gospel to the Gentiles.

What stands out to me, in this passage, is his reason for doing this. Jesus sends Paul to the Gentiles that their eyes might be opened. He sends Paul to the Gentiles that they might turn from darkness to light. He sends Paul to the Gentiles that they might be turned from the power of Satan to God.

As we think about those who don’t know the Lord, as we think about those who are not yet believers, this is not a description we’d typically use. It’s not even a description we’d typically consider. Even if they aren’t saved, we continue to believe that most people are good people. We tend to believe that, even if they are misguided in their beliefs and their understanding, they’re not all that bad.

We don’t consider the fact that they are in darkness. We don’t consider the fact that they are under the power of Satan. These phrases are strong, and even offensive. And, for this reason, they’re certainly not words we’d use when speaking to those outside of the church.

They’re also not truths we want to believe about ourselves. We don’t want to believe that, at one time, this too was our condition. However, Paul used similar words when sharing with the Ephesians their position before they came to faith in Christ.  

Starting in verse 1 of the second chapter of that epistle, he says: “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.”

No matter what we’d like to believe about ourselves, before we came to faith, we were dead in our sins. Before we came to faith, we followed the world and even Satan himself. Before we came to faith, we were children of wrath.

It’s from this that God has saved us. And it’s from this that he desires to save those who have yet to trust in Christ. If we better understood this, I think our outreach efforts would be much more urgent. I don’t think we could sit back and allow our fellow man to remain in darkness following Satan. I believe we’d do whatever it took to ensure that the gospel goes forth, and that those who have yet to hear and believe receive the opportunity to do so.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Reflections on Asia, Part 4

The nation in Asia that we visited is closing to the gospel. The government doesn’t want anything promoted in the country other than Hinduism. Their new president made the comment that Christians and Muslims are deserving of no help.

In addition, the missionaries sent by the AFLC were forced to leave after only a short stay in the country. The only way they could remain is if they signed a document declaring that they would participate in no religious activities.  And there is no longer a missionary visa available for anyone.

This restriction was even felt by our team, for a short time, as we entered the country. Two of us were pulled aside and questioned. We were asked multiple questions as they tried to determine our purpose in visiting their nation. And at least one of the other team members was also questioned as they tried to enter through immigration.

Compassion International, a Christian ministry that supports poor children around the world, had their funds seized by the government and were forced to discontinue their ministry there. All of this reveals a nation that does not desire the good news of Jesus proclaimed within their borders (at least not by those from the outside) and that doesn’t want Christian assistance for those who are in need.

Although national believers retain the right to share the gospel, as it is protected by their constitution, there is reason to believe that their rights could soon be restricted. As the government makes every effort to ensure that Hinduism remains the official religion of their nation, they may soon seek to silence the church. So what are we to do?

We must, first of all, pray for our brothers and sisters in that nation. We must pray that they will remain firm in faith no matter the obstacles they face. And we must pray that they will faithfully share the gospel, come what may. I believe that Christians in that nation are best equipped to reach their countrymen for the Lord.

However, we must continue to do whatever we can to reach these people for Christ. As long as we are able to offer support to the church in that nation, we must continue to do so. As long as we are able to safely get individuals and teams into that nation to train the church leadership and to preach the gospel, we must continue to do so. We must bear in mind our call to obey God rather than men. We must not willingly allow an entire nation to be kept from the good news of Jesus.

We still enjoy our freedoms in America. Yet, as our nation continues to turn further away from the Lord, we could one day face similar restrictions here. We must recognize this possibility and, in the same way, we must ask God for the strength to remain faithful. We must ask him for the strength to share the gospel even in the face of opposition. And we must ask him to change our heart so that our primary concern is not our own safety and well-being, but the eternal welfare of those around us.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Reflections on Asia, Part 3

The third observation I made while in Asia is one where the church in neither country has it right. And in both, the attitude of the church reflects that of larger society.  The pendulum in Asia has found itself at one extreme and, in America, it’s at another.

The matter to which I’m referring is that of respect and honor.  Asian society (please remember that I am referring to a specific nation), operates largely on the honor system. And much of the honor that’s given is based upon the caste system.  Honor is given to certain individuals because of the caste or the place into which they’ve been born.

Some of this makes sense in terms of their culture.  Yet, at the same time, it really bothered me.  For example, on a trip to the beach with the children and staff, I was one of the last to get on the bus. There were seats and there were handholds.  Being American, and being a man, I tend to stand and allow the women and children to sit in a situation like this one. However, upon entering the bus, some of the staff began telling certain women and children to stand so I could sit. And it was very difficult for me to sit there. I did so only because I didn’t want to disrespect my hosts.

Other parts of this system, although a part of the culture, reveals that the church has not come to terms with Biblical teaching.  Whenever we conducted a prayer service in a village and shared the gospel, almost everyone came forward for prayer.  And my immediate response to this is how wonderful and refreshing it is. I long for a similar response in America. But it was explained to me that many come forward for prayer with improper motives.  They believe that, because I am white, and because I belong to the highest caste, God is more likely to hear my prayers than their own.

In the U.S., however, we have the opposite problem.  We have also allowed our cultural mindset to invade the church.  And what we see here is a complete lack of respect.

It’s taught in our nation that everyone is equal.  And I believe this to be true.  However, along with this belief, we’ve adopted the mindset that no one should have more authority than another.  We feel that, if someone has more authority than another, we are no longer equal.

We see this reflected in many ways.  We have children who refuse to honor their parents.  We have wives who refuse to respect their husbands.  We have husbands who refuse to give honor to their wife as the weaker vessel (1 Peter 3:7). We have citizens who refuse to honor their governing officials.  We have church members who refuse to honor those who are over them in the Lord. The list could go on and on.

We often fail to honor others saying that they do not deserve it.  And, when we say this, we are right.  No one deserves honor. We are all sinners deserving only of judgment.  

But we are called to give honor as an act of grace. We are called to give honor because God has placed certain individuals in a certain position, as part of the order he has established. We honor these individuals realizing that, as we do so, we are honoring God himself.

The proper place for the pendulum, I believe, is between these two cultural approaches.  Our lack of honor is sinful on our part.  But the misuse of honor, to give one person more value than another, is sinful on their part.

We must give honor to whom it is due.  But, at the same time, we must realize that we are all equal in Christ.  We are loved the same, we are valued the same, and we have all been provided with the same salvation.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Reflections on Asia, Part 2

The second observation about Asia struck me on both my first visit and on this one as well.  This was also something I noticed while in Uganda, when I visited that country a few years back.  What struck me was the importance of relationships.

Life in these two countries, and in much of the world,  is not governed as much by the clock.  And part of the reason for this is that relationships take priority.  You honor people, you show that you care for them, by spending time with them.

Each morning, it seemed, people would arrive to talk to Pastor Luther.  And, although I couldn’t understand their conversation,  I would observe them discussing the matter at hand over a cup of chai.  As we gathered for a house blessing for a couple who was soon to be married, all of the guests were served a meal. They counted it an honor to have guests and to serve them rather than a burden.

Spending time with people, whether they were adults or children, was something we made a priority while we were there.  We taught Bible classes for the kids, and we participated in their youth night.  But there was more to it than the structured class.  There was the visiting before and after each event.  There were the thumb wrestling matches, the arm wrestling matches, and the high-fives.  There were game nights, where all we did was play.  The girls on our team also had sleep-overs with the girls who lived in the orphanage.

As we visited the various congregations, we were hosted for a meal.  And we spent time visiting with the pastors and their families.  We took the time to not only preach the gospel, but to love the people.

Perhaps this doesn’t sound like a very big deal.  But, for me, it’s an area where I struggle.  It’s an area where I’ve always struggled. I’ve always tended to be a very task oriented person. I know what I have to get done, and I don’t feel accomplished until it’s finished.

This is why, in pastoral ministry, I always have to refocus myself.  When I encounter the unscheduled interruptions (when someone stops into my office to talk, or even when I bump into someone around town), I have a tendency to get frustrated.  Although I enjoy the interactions, I start to think about the time I’ve lost and the things that could’ve been accomplished.  This then causes my stress level to rise.  So I always have to remind myself that I am here for these interruptions.  I have to remind myself that these interruptions are, in fact, ministry.  I have to remind myself that, as people see my love for them, they are more open to the teaching and counsel that I bring to them.

I think this is an area where most of us in the U.S. tend to struggle.  In the past few generations, I believe, we’ve become less and less relational. Front porches have given way to the privacy of the back yard. Visits from friends and family have given way to Facebook and Twitter. Movie theaters have given way to Netflix. Pastoral visitation has become more rare as younger generations view it as more of an intrusion. And this has only harmed us as a people.  

We’ve gradually become more and more withdrawn.  We’ve gradually become less and less trusting of one another.  And we’ve gradually become more and more self-reliant (in the negative sense of the term).  

In the church, especially, we must realize the importance of relationships.  We must realize that the best way to reach people is not through programs, but by loving them.  We must learn to govern ourselves less by the clock and more by relationships.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Reflections on Asia, Part 1

The mission team from Prince of Peace arrived home late Friday night.  We were able to share briefly with the congregation during yesterday’s worship service.  However, I thought it might be good to share some additional thoughts about the trip here.

If any of you are wondering why I seem vague when it comes to the location of our visit, it is due to security concerns.  The country we visited is closing to the gospel.  They do not allow people to enter the country with the intent of sharing the Christian faith.  And for this reason, even though we are home safely, we want to protect our ministries there. That being said, if you know the location of our visit, please do not post it in the comments or on social media.

I had the privilege of visiting this ministry in 2014. This meant that the sights and sounds were all familiar to me.  I also knew some of the people from my previous visit.  However, for most of the team, it was all brand new.

The first thing that stands out is that Christians represent only a small portion of the population. Hinduism is the dominant religion.  Hindu temples and idols are seen everywhere.  And, although they too are a in the minority, the Muslim call to prayer rings out from the mosques on a regular basis.  

Entering this society as a believer, knowing  Christ’s call to make disciples of all nations, you can’t help seeing the great need for Jesus that exists in this nation. The people are stuck in the futility of a belief system that requires them to earn their way into a higher caste or existence.  And, for this reason, we wanted nothing more than to share the hope of the gospel with the people.

We, of course, had the privilege of proclaiming the gospel in this setting.  We were able to share with the children at the orphanage and the school through Bible classes, youth nights, and classroom instruction.  We were also able to share in various communities as we visited several congregations, taking part in prayer meetings. We shared devotions, messages, and were asked to pray individually for those who came forward (which was just about everyone).

I can’t help noticing that this is something we take for granted here in the United States.  We don’t seem to grasp that the need for Jesus is just as pressing here in our nation.  We don’t seem to grasp the fact that the people of our nation are equally lost.  And although we know we are called to share the gospel right where God has placed us, it doesn’t seem as pressing. Everyday life seems to take priority over the eternal welfare of those who surround us.

Even if you weren’t able to go with us on this trip, I pray that this takeaway would ring true in your heart.  I pray that each one of us will understand the need that surrounds us on a daily basis. And I pray that we will not ignore it.

I pray that we will make use of every opportunity that presents itself to share the good news of Jesus with those who do not know him.  I pray that we’ll make use of every opportunity that presents itself to build up our fellow believers. I pray that the Lord will place in our heart the love he possesses for each man, woman, and child within his creation.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Following Not Our Heart, But Jesus

"If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” 
(Matthew 16:24-26 ESV)

In American society, as well as in much of the world today, we believe that life is about our happiness.  We encourage people to follow their heart.  We encourage them to do whatever makes them happy.  And that’s how we live our life as well.

Our happiness has become the basis for the decisions we make and for the actions we take. “What’s wrong with that?” you may ask.  We fail to take into consideration how our decisions and actions affect others.  And, even more important, we fail to consider if our decisions and actions are in line with the will of God.

We forget that our heart is sinful.  We forget that it desires those things that oppose God’s will.  So, if we follow our heart, if we do what makes us happy, we will almost certainly violate God’s Word and his will for our lives.

Jesus reminds us in the above passage that following him means denying ourselves.  It means denying our desires.  It means surrendering our wants.  It means giving our life into his hands even if it leads to our demise.

While, on the surface, that sounds crazy to us, it actually makes a lot of sense.  After all, life is found in him.  Eternal life is received from him.  We cannot willfully separate ourselves from him and expect to receive these blessings.

This is what Jesus points out in the second half of the above passage.  It profits us nothing if we gain the whole world, if we have everything our heart desires, and lose our own soul.  It means nothing if we thoroughly enjoy 80 years in this life and enter into eternal judgment.

While denying ourselves may seem like a sacrifice, it’s actually a great blessing.  We deny ourselves only of that which harms us.  And this is nothing like passing up the cupcake to keep our waistline in check.  It’s not the same because, while this may help us in the short term, denying our sinful nature and following Jesus preserves our life for eternity.

And, as we follow Jesus, something else takes place.  Those things that once made us happy no longer do so.  Instead, following Christ fills us with joy.  We want nothing to do with the sins of our past, and we want nothing more than to live for Christ.

Monday, July 17, 2017

True Greatness

“…whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

(Matthew 20:26-28 ESV)

            In my latest sermon at Prince of Peace, I talked about the lust for power.  I noted that, even though we may not aspire to a position of great authority, we often demonstrate a lust for power by our refusal to submit to those who are in authority over us.  If you’d like to listen to this message, you can click on this link:

            I believe this is true. However, as we consider the lust for power, we must also bear in mind Jesus’ definition of greatness.  He reminds his followers that greatness in the kingdom of God is not the same as the world’s idea of greatness.

            When we aspire for greatness, we seek the benefits it will bring to us.  We like the idea of people submitting to us.  We like the idea of people serving us.  We want others to place our preferences and desires ahead of their own.

However, according to Jesus, being great does not mean being served.  It means serving others.  Being first does not mean that others attend to us, it means being a slave.  In other words, authority is given not for the benefit of the person in authority, but for those under his authority.

The words used by Jesus do not typically appeal to us. We don’t like the thought of being a servant.  And that word “slave” really grates us.  They don’t appeal to us for the very reason I just mentioned. They tell us that the focus of our attention and energy is not to be our own needs and desires, but those of others.

A king is not to use his authority to seek his own benefit, but that of his subjects.  A pastor or church leader uses his authority not for his own benefit, but for that of his congregation. A husband and father uses his authority not for his own benefit, but for that of his wife and children.  An employer uses his authority not for his benefit, but for that of his employees and clients (or customers).

We must recognize that this does not always mean succumbing to the mood of those in our care.  Those that we serve are sinners. And leadership often means holding that sin in check. It may mean that we give to them not what they want, but what they need. It may mean withholding from them an earthly benefit they desire in favor of submission to the will of God.

Jesus then uses himself as the ultimate example of this truth.  He tells us that even he came into this world not to be served. He came to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

If anyone deserves to be served, it’s Jesus.  Yet, even though he is deserving of all honor and glory, he used his authority for our blessing.  He came that the penalty of our sin might be paid and that we might spend eternity in his presence.

We, of course, can never live up to his example.  Our sinful nature always focuses our attention upon ourselves.  But, as we see our struggle in this area, we can confess our sin to the Lord seeking his mercy.  We can also seek from him the strength to lead according to his calling and institution.