Friday, November 30, 2012

Whistle While You Work!

The other day, as I was studying in the book of Acts, I noticed something that I hadn't noticed before and made a note to write an article on that point. Just now, as I was reading 1 John 1-3, I noticed a similar point, and so today, I'd like to blend both of these thoughts, and I hope that this brief article will be of some encouragement to you.
In Acts 15:1-2, we find the familiar story of Paul's confrontation with the Judaizing teachers in Antioch. A lot of positive things had been happing at the church of Christ in Antioch, and so Paul and Barnabas must have been discouraged when the church was suddenly at the center of some heated controversy. The text says that Paul and Barnabas "had no small dissension and dispute with them." And the church was so bothered and perplexed by this debate that they decided to pursue an answer from the church in Jerusalem, which was the source of the false doctrine (vs. 24).
And yet as Paul and Barnabas set out on their journey from Antioch to Jerusalem, despite all that had just transpired in Antioch, the "negativity" didn't consume them...
"So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through Phoenicia and Samaria, describing the conversion of the Gentiles; and they caused great joy to all the brethren" (Acts 15:3).
In the midst of confrontation and controversy, Paul and Barnabas were able to remain positive, and thus were able to bring joy to these other Christians along the way. After all, God had truly blessed them with a wonderful work in Antioch - so many doors had been opened and the church was strong. It's not as if this sudden conflict had erased all of their positive experiences. Instead of slumping their shoulders and hanging their heads, Paul and Barnabas chose to have a cheerful disposition.
There is a similar lesson for us in the book of 1 John. This is a book that contains many points that folks today might call "negative." John writes about worldliness (2:15-16), antichrists (3:18-23), deceivers (2:26), pretenders (2:19; 3:7-10), and unrighteous sinners (5:16-18). John admonished them to "test the spirits" (4:1) and to bear in mind the fact that "the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one" (5:19). And yet why did John write this book?
"And these things we write to you that your joy may be full" (1 John 1:4).
Controversies will occasionally break the pattern of peace and progress. Brethren will say and do things that cause trouble within the Lord's body. Error will be denounced from the pulpit and there will be what many call "negative preaching" (preaching against sin and false doctrine). And yet through all of this, we can and we must maintain joy. In fact, as 1 John teaches us, sometimes, we have to honestly and boldly confront sin and error in order to maintain joy.
As we move forward in the work of the Lord - and yes, our spiritual work can be challenging and strenuous at times - we need to whistle while we work. Stay positive. Let's keep our chins up.
No matter what!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Pet Heaven

Yesterday morning, in the adult Bible class at Queen Way, a comment was made in jest about "Pet Heaven" that elicited quite a few laughs not only in the Bible class, but also later during my sermon. And yet for many, the question of whether or not animals live on in the afterlife is not a joke. I remember as a child the movie "All Dogs Go to Heaven," which I'm sure reflected truth in the eyes of many viewers. Some have become so attached to a pet, or to animals in general, that they see in animals human characteristics, thus concluding that animals must also have an eternal soul.

And all of these thoughts were further enhanced by a recent reading of the following excerpt from the book of Ecclesiastes, written by the great King Solomon of old:
"For what happens to the sons of men also happens to animals; one thing befalls them: as one dies, so dies the other. Surely, they all have one breath; man has no advantage over animals, for all is vanity. All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust. Who knows the spirit of the sons of men, which goes upward, and the spirit of the animal, which goes down to the earth?" (Eccl. 3:19-21).
Upon reading this text, one might initially assume that man is not so different from animals after all. If man has an eternal soul, then animals also have an eternal soul. OR...if animals do NOT have an eternal soul, neither does man. Solomon does seem to place animals and mankind on the same plane, doesn't he?

I remember a conversation I had with a fellow Christian about eight years ago in which he argued that when Jesus commands us to "preach the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15), that He was literally commanding us to preach the gospel to animals as well as humans. This individual didn't cite the passage in Ecclesiastes as further evidence of "Pet Heaven," but perhaps he could have built an even more convincing case had he done so.

However, Solomon's point in Ecclesiastes is not that both animals and mankind have an eternal spirit, or that mankind has absolutely no advantage after death. Rather, Solomon very clearly is referring to the physical aspect of death. In that sense, man has no advantage. Just as all animals will die, so also will all men die. Just as all animals will eventually return to the dust, so also will all men return to the dust.

It is at this point in our brief study where it is important to take into account the whole context of Scripture. Back in Genesis 1-3, we find the account of creation. On day five of creation, God created the birds and fish (Gen. 1:20-23) and on day six, God created all other animals (Gen. 1:24-25). But of all the lifeforms that God created, man was given something very special...
"Then God said, 'Let us make man in Our image, according to our Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the air" (Gen. 1:26).
As much as we love our pets, this quality wasn't attributed to animals. Indeed, mankind is the pinnacle of God's creation; we are unique among all lifeforms on earth. How so? Because only we are made in the image of God, and because God is a spirit (John 4:24), we are unique from animals in that we have an eternal spirit. This point is confirmed by the countless references to heaven and to hell throughout the word of God. When we die, we are NOT "dead like Rover, dead all over." Like Rover, our physical body returns to the dust (Gen. 3:19), but our eternal body lives on.

Yes, we are physical beings, and in that sense, we have no advantage over animals. That's Solomon's point in Ecclesiastes 3. But unlike animals, we have an ETERNAL spirit that guarantees life and consciousness after death. Even Solomon makes this distinction when he says that our spirit goes upward while the animal goes down into the earth. Or as he says in Ecclesiastes 12:5-7, our spirit returns "to God who have it."

Animals serve a great purpose here on this earth, and pets certainly serve a great purpose in many individual's lives. They often provide us with companionship and devotion that is hard to find even among our fellow humans. Even still, there is no Pet least not that I find in God's word.

Besides, even though you might be able to preach the gospel to your cat, I don't think it's going to take too kindly to being baptized for the remission of its sins.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Be Serious!

"Better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for that is the end of all men; and the living will take it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by a sad countenance the heart is made better. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth" (Eccl. 7:2-4).
We live in a society of entitlement, and one thing to which we're "entitled" is pleasure. Yes, most of us work hard and have responsibilities, but we believe it is our right to have fun in life. We derive pleasure from sports and recreation, and the television shows and movies we watch allow us to escape from the realities of our humdrum lives. There are many Americans - perhaps most Americans - who shy away from any kind of serious discussion, and who prefer humor and fantasy over the moral, spiritual and eternal truths that are pressing against them (whether they realize it or not).
There is absolutely nothing wrong with a good joke and I'm NOT suggesting that a sense of humor is a character flaw. If you enjoy a television show or movie (assuming it's moral), that's fine. But in the passage cited above, Solomon says something that we as Americans should take to heart.
It's not that humor and fantasy are inherently wrong, but not only should our lives be rooted in reality, we must use the serious and somber moments of life to reflect upon spiritual lessons. A serious conversation about God's word is not something that we should avoid. Sharing in someone's grief is not only good for them, it's good for us as well. It is important to reflect upon the brevity of life, the inevitability of death, and the frailty of the human body relative to the incorruptibility and limitlessness of the Almighty God. It is at these moments that we draw closer to God.
A comedy-routine or an epic fantasy novel might be entertaining - and it's okay to be entertained - but Solomon, by inspiration, tells us that there is more to gain spiritually from being serious. Stop using Hollywood, music and sports to escape from reality - come back to the real world from time to time and be serious.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Even When You Don't Understand...

In Acts 12:7-12, we find the story of Peter's miraculous escape from jail. An angel severed the chains that bound the apostle, stood him up and led him out past the slumbering guards and through the gate. What's most amazing about this story is that all the while the angel is leading him to freedom, Peter believed it was a dream or vision. It's not until the angel departed from him outside the gate that he "came to himself" and realized he had actually been delivered by the Lord from jail.

There are a lot of people today who not only want to know the answer to every religious question, they want to know the reason behind the answer. There is nothing wrong with wanting to dig deeper into spiritual matters, nor is there anything inherently wrong in wanting to know "why" things are the way they are. At the same time, we can "overthink" the will of God and fall prey to this "intellectual" mindset that so often crosses the line from "questioning" God to challenging or even doubting God. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:25-26...
"Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called."
We see another great illustration of this in John 6. When Jesus told His disciples that they had to eat His flesh and drink His blood in order to have eternal life (vs. 54), we're told that "many of His disciples...said, 'This is a hard saying; who can understand it?'" (vs. 60). It was okay to be confused and to ask this question. However, when Jesus' answer didn't satisfy their intellectual minds, the text says that "many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more" (vs. 66).

Now we're going to come full-circle back to the apostle Peter...

After these disciples left Jesus, the Lord looked at the apostles and said,
"'Do you also want to go away?' But Simon Peter answered Him, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.' Also we have come to believe and know that you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.'" (vs. 67-69).
Peter didn't understand what was going on when the angel was leading him out of the prison - he thought it was a dream or vision - but he still obeyed the angel's instructions. Likewise, Peter didn't understand what the Lord meant when He instructed them to eat His flesh and drink His blood, but he wasn't dissuaded from following Jesus. Peter didn't always have to have all the answers. He didn't have to understand everything. He was humble enough, and he had such faith in Christ, that he was committed to following Christ no matter what.

Dear reader, serving Christ is about giving up control, and that requires a willingness to follow Christ even when we don't fully understand why He has said what He has said. Like Peter, we need to follow the Lord and obey Him...and TRUST that He, being the King of kings, knows what He's doing. Study God's word. Seek Bible answers for Bible questions. But when there is a concept that you struggle to grasp, don't give up on the Lord.

Follow Him even when you don't understand...

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Two Forms of Discouragement

In Numbers 13, Moses was instructed to "send men to spy out the land of Canaan" (vs. 2). These twelve men spent 40 days spying out the land (vs. 25). When they returned and gave their report to the congregation, they "showed them the fruit of the land...and said, 'We went to the land where you sent us. It truly flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit" (vs. 26-27). But then they went on to give a "bad report of the land which they had spied out" (vs. 32). Why? Because the cities of Canaan were well-fortified and the nations that resided in Canaan were strong...too strong for the Israelites to overcome.

Of course, it was God's plan for them to conquer the land of Canaan. After all, that's why Israel had been delivered from Egyptian bondage. This had been the plan all along! Which is why Joshua and Caleb, two of the twelve spies, pleaded with the people to "go up at once and take possession" (13:30) because "if the Lord delights in us, then He will bring us into this land and give it to us" (14:8). But the Israelites refused to enter the land; they refused to submit to the will of God...all because 10 of the 12 spies discouraged them with their pessimism.

Approximately 38 years later, God brought the congregation of Israel back to Canaan's edge. This time, they were ready to do what they should've done the first time. But as they prepared to begin their campaign, the tribes of Reuben and Gad (and later 1/2 the tribe of Manasseh) informed Moses that they were content to inhabit the land on this side of the Jordan. Notice Moses' response in Numbers 32:6-9...
"And Moses said to the children of Gad and to the children of Reuben: 'Shall your brethren go to war while you sit here? Now why will you discourage the heart of the children of Israel from going over into the land which the Lord has given them? Thus your fathers did when I sent them away from Kadesh Barnea to see the land. For when they went up to the Valley of Eschol and saw the land, they discouraged the heart of the children of Israel, so that they did not go into the land which the Lord had given them."
On the two occasions that Israel approached Canaan's edge, the congregation was discouraged from entering, but these two instances of discouragement were quite different.

In the first instance, the spies discouraged their brethren by plainly telling them not to conquer the land. This was an overt form of discouragement. But in the second instance, the discouragement was more covert and subtle. The tribes of Reuben and Gad didn't tell their brethren not to conquer the land of Canaan, but by voicing their desire to remain on this side of the Jordan River, they were instilling doubt within the minds of their brethren. Thankfully, Moses solved the problem in Numbers 32 and everything worked out in the end, but there is still a powerful lesson for us today.

Most of us wouldn't openly discourage our brethren from doing the Lord's work, but if we're not careful, we can discourage our brethren simply by being inactive. Your inactivity, uninvolvment, and/or lack of enthusiasm for the Lord's work may very well discourage others from doing the Lord's work.

Think about how your words and actions may subtly discourage others in the church and from this point forward, commit to being as supportive and as helpful as you can be.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Accepting Others

I don't know that we have anything in 21st century America that really compares to the racial/ethnic circumstances of 1st century Israel. The Jews, as pious as they may have been, were sometimes cruel in their treatment of non-Jews. We know that they so hated the Samaritan "half-breeds" that when they journeyed from northern Israel (Galilee) to southern Israel (Judea), they would bypass the obvious route through Samaria. This is why the woman at the well in John 4 was so shocked that Jesus, a Jewish man, would even consider talking to her (John 4:9).

But their hatred of, or at least their condescension toward the Samaritans was equaled if not trumped by their low opinion of the Gentiles (non-Jews). In Acts 22, as Paul defended himself before his Jewish brethren, he relayed to them the story of his upbringing and of his conversion. The Jews listened to Paul's message until he informed them of how Christ sent him "far from here to the Gentiles" (Ac. 22:1). The text says in verse 22, "And they listened to him until this word, and they raised their voices and said, 'Away with such a fellow from the earth, for he is not fit to live.'" The notion that God had sent Paul to the Gentiles infuriated these pious Jews who believed that only they were "worthy" of God's favor.

That was the culture of 1st century Israel. Again, I don't know if we (especially my generation) can relate at all for we have never had to endure such racial, ethnic or social barriers. And so perhaps, in light of our ignorance, we've failed to grasp the real beauty of Acts 11:18.

Here's the context of Acts 11: the church was comprised only of Jews from Acts 2-9. However, in Acts 10, God created the circumstances for the apostle Peter to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to a group of Gentiles (i.e. the household of Cornelius, a centurion). God provided miraculous proof that He had accepted the Gentiles, and once Peter saw the evidence, he baptized Cornelius and the others. That's right, Gentiles were being baptized, and for the first time, granted access into the church...but more importantly, into a spiritual fellowship/institution that included Jews.

Guess what? The Jewish-Christians in Judea heard the news and were FURIOUS. Again, remember the culture into which these folks were born. This was their mindset. And so Peter, when he came to Jerusalem, had to explain to these enraged Jewish-Christians why he did what he did.

Now notice the beauty of Acts 11:18. After Peter explained the circumstances leading up to the conversion of the Gentiles, these Jewish-Christians in Jerusalem responded this way:
"When they heard these things, they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, 'Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.'"
 I've read this verse dozens of times, but it was just this morning that I came to appreciate what these Jewish-Christians their thinking was transformed completely. These men had always had a very low-opinion of the Gentiles and had perhaps even hated the Gentiles. But now, because of Christ, and because of the circumstances created by God, these men not only accepted the Gentiles, but "glorified God" that the Gentiles could now be saved. Amazing!

The first and most obvious application is to racial and ethnic barriers that may exist in the world today. In Christ, these barriers can be broken down (Eph. 2:13-15). We can transition from hating certain classes of people to having a love for ALL people.

But I think there's a more practical application...

There are sometimes PERSONAL barriers that are raised, even among brethren in the Lord's church. Disagreements arise. There are personality conflicts. We see weak Christians who fall hard to sins like adultery and public drunkenness. do we respond when these brethren repent or when they apologize to us for wrongs they've committed against us? Do we view them with doubt and suspicion? Or, like these Jewish brethren in Acts 11:18, do we have the strength and love to get excited and to embrace those who turn to matter what barriers may have previously existed?

Think about it.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Dull Ax of the Spirit

I'm sure you're familiar with Paul's description of the "armor of God" in Ephesians 6:11-17. Specifically, in verse 17, Paul urges us as soldiers of Christ to "take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God." The Bible, or God's word, is called a "sword."

In Hebrews 4:12, this sword is described as being one of great power: "For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart."

Having established those fundamental points from the New Testament regarding the sword of the Spirit, consider with me this unlikely verse from Ecclesiastes...
"If the ax is dull, and one does not sharpen the edge, then he must use more strength; but wisdom brings success" (Eccl. 10:10).
In other words, if you try to chop wood with a dull ax, you're going to have to work twice as hard to get the job done. Even though it may take time to sharpen the blade, it'll make your work go twice as fast, and you'll have to use less strength to chop the wood.

Now here's the point...

Are we wielding a powerful two-edged sword or a dull ax?

There are many, many Christians who do not know how to study the Bible. They know that they should study, and so they open up God's word and read random chapters. There is a small feeling of accomplishment when a chapter is read or a book is finished, but in the end, such an approach to God's word yields few benefits.

Some folks fail to "rightly divide" the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). Others, perhaps because of their own ignorance, twist the Scriptures unto their own destruction (2 Pet. 3:16). Jesus spoke of those who were led away by false teachers and who were blind to the truth (Mt. 15:14). Paul wrote about those who are "always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth" (2 Tim. 3:7).

If you don't approach Bible study with the right mindset, and if you don't put in the time to really, truly study and analyze its content, then you're ultimately wielding, not a powerful, two-edged sword, but a dull ax. You'll have to work twice as hard to gain true knowledge and divine wisdom.

So "sharpen the blade." Learn HOW to study, memorize Scripture, cross-examine verses, take notes, check your progress, put your knowledge to use by teaching others, allow yourself to be taught (2 Tim. 2:2). Then you'll not only become that man of God, "thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:17), but your speech will be more seasoned with salt (Col. 4:6) and you'll be in a better position to give reasons for your faith (1 Pet. 3:15).

Which are you wielding? The sword of the Spirit? Or the dull ax of the Spirit?