Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Missionary Work of God

Reading: Acts 13  
The title written over Acts 13:1-3 in my bible1 is, “Preparing for the Mission Field.” I think this title is a little misleading. I recommend titling it, “The Missionary Initiative of the Holy Spirit,” since what follows is far less about human preparation for the mission field than about the initiative of the Holy Spirit in mission.
2While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." 3So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. 4The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus. (Acts 13:2-4).
This initiative of the Holy Spirit in mission doesn't end once he gets Paul and Barnabas on their way. What follows reveals that this whole endeavor of spreading the Gospel is entirely dependent upon the Holy Spirit. The prayer and fasting of the disciples in Antioch were less about preparation for the mission field and more about our complete inability to advance the mission of the Gospel on our own. They were about our utter dependence on God! And whenever we are prayerless, it reveals that we think we are not utterly dependent on God to advance the Gospel.
On the first leg of this journey, on the island of Cyrus, Paul and Barnabas had an opportunity to proclaim the message to Sergius Paulus, a government official. However, Elymas the sorcerer was right there persuading him not to believe (Acts 13:6-8). So the Holy Spirit empowers Paul to do a miraculous work that results in Sergius Paulus believing! (Acts 13:9-12) Without this work of the Spirit, Sergius Paulus would not have believed.
Their journey soon brought them to Pisidian Antioch where they went to the Synagogue and were shortly invited to speak. Beginning with the Old Testament story of Israel, walking them through the coming of Jesus, Paul proclaimed the Gospel to them. In this Gospel presentation, Paul highlights something that shows why we are so dependent on the Holy Spirit to advance the Gospel.
27The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, yet in condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath. 28Though they found no proper ground for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed. 29When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the cross and laid him in a tomb. (Acts 13:27-29)
Paul points out something we also learn in John's Gospel. “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world2 did not recognize him.” (John 1:10) We might expand on that saying, “He came to Israel, to those who had the words of the prophets about the coming Messiah, and heard them every Sabbath and yet they did not recognize Him when He came. Not only did they fail to recognize Him, they rejected Him, sentencing Him to death by disregarding the very law which predicted Him. Although not recognizing Him, even unjustly condemning Him, they fulfilled everything it said about Him right down to laying Him in a tomb.”
How does this reveal our dependence on the Holy Spirit in Gospel proclamation? The people we share the Gospel with cannot recognize Jesus even though they were made through Him! The only thing they can do, apart from the Holy Spirit's empowering work, is reject Him, hate Him, and unjustly condemn Him (and those who preach Him).
Paul doesn't let this discourage him from preaching the Gospel. Paul knows that, just as the Holy Spirit hovered over the face of the waters (Genesis 1:2) awaiting God's creative word to be spoken, the Holy Spirit hovers over the sea of humanity working as the Gospel is preached to transform lives. So Paul preaches the Gospel. In this preaching, He gets to the core of the Gospel, the very nuclear reactor of the Gospel, by declaring forgiveness of sins and justification through Jesus Christ (for more on this see What is the difference between Law and Gospel? (part 3)).
38Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. 39Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses.”
This promise also gives us a clue as to why we are so dependent upon the Holy Spirit in sharing the Gospel with others when it says, “Through him everyone who believes …”. One must believe in order to partake of this benefit. How are we going to believe if we do not recognize Him and are so inclined to reject Him? In fact, the very next verse tells us, “that you would never believe, even if someone told you.” (Act 13:41) This reveals just how desperately dependent we are on the Holy Spirit for the proclamation of the Gospel to have any effect. Yet it also demonstrates exactly why we can have confidence in preaching the Gospel: their acceptance of the Gospel is beyond our pay-grade. That is the Holy Spirit's work!
How can anyone believe the Gospel then? What is it that made the difference between you, if you have believed, and someone else who has not? The Holy Spirit graciously opened your eyes. What will make the Gospel you preach effective in the lives of those you share it with? The Holy Spirit's work in opening their eyes to recognize in Jesus Christ the One through Whom they were made. This is why we read, “...all who were appointed for eternal life believed.” (Acts 13:48)
Because the missionary work we do can and will be effective when “underwritten” by the Holy Spirit, we must pray and we must preach. Pray and preach for the mission we are on is the mission of God! When rejected we share in the sufferings of Christ; when believed we observe first hand the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit in opening eyes for those appointed to eternal life. Salvation is from God from beginning to end!
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,
1I am reading the Holman Christian Standard Bible.
2Ironically, in John's Gospel the Jewish nation is considered “the world.” “There is no difference, for all have sinned...” (Romans 3:22-23).

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

When Eyes Fail Looking for God's Salvation

Reading: Psalm 12  
The Bible is no magic answer book. In other words, It doesn't just make everything better. It doesn't even promise to do that. In fact, the Bible makes plain that the walk of faith is just that, a walk of faith. Psalm 119: 123 describes what the walk of faith often looks like.
My eyes fail, looking for your salvation, looking for your righteous promise.
Yesterday1 as our church participated in 40 Days for Life at an abortion clinic in St. Petersburg praying, there were moments I felt as if we were up against a veritable Goliath in our stand against abortion—as if you could hear the enemy jeering at our inability to accomplish anything against this horrific scourge in our land. Psalm 12 describes a time like this, a time when our eyes may fail—that we feel completely spent in our ability to hope any longer for the Lord's redemption.
This psalm has a clear structure that can be described as A-B-C-B-A. The first verse (A1) corresponds to the last verse (vs. 8) (A2); verses 2-3 (B1) correspond to verses 6-7 (B2); and verse 5 stands in the middle (C) as what God is going to do about it! Seeing this structure can help us understand what God is communicating to us in this psalm.
First the psalmist describes the way things seem at times like this.
Help, LORD, for the godly are no more; the faithful have vanished from among men. (Psalm 12:1)
What evidence is there for this? Corresponding to this vanishing of the faithful we find:
The wicked freely strut about when what is vile is honored among men. (Psalm 12:8)
While the righteous appear to have vanished, the wicked are highly visible. The psalm is not telling us that the righteous have literally been eliminated. We know the psalmist was still around. This is poetry. It is speaking from the perspective of the earth and sees how bad it looks. But the walk of faith is all about trusting God despite the appearances. This psalm describes what we face in our own country today: The wicked are freely strutting about because what is vile is honored among men.
Our culture honors sex; not sex in marriage as designed by God, but sex freely, often and on demand...and now underwritten by the government. So the Sandra Flukes of our culture unashamedly stand up and demand that the public subsidizes her escapades and the consequences thereof. Those who engage in unnatural relations demonstrate on parade floats caricatures of their immorality. (For more on that topic see A Gospel Response to St. Petersburg's Gay Pride Festival.)
Secondly, the psalmist speaks of the brick wall we seemingly keep running into:
2Everyone lies to his neighbor; their flattering lips speak with deception. 3May the LORD cut off all flattering lips and every boastful tongue that says, "We will triumph with our tongues; we own our lips—who is our master?" (Psalm 12:2-3)
One strategy to attack the truth is to just keep saying the same thing over and over again hoping people will gradually begin to believe it. That is what we face in the abortion debate. What once would have seemed as absurd as corralling up Jews and sending them to concentration camps, now abortion is talked about as if it is a reasonable side to a discussion. Just last week, Vice President Joe Biden said,
My religion defines who I am. And I've been a practicing Catholic my whole life. And it has particularly informed my social doctrine. Catholic social doctrine talks about taking care of those who — who can't take care of themselves, people who need help. With regard to — with regard to abortion, I accept my church's position on abortion … Life begins at conception. That's the church's judgment. I accept it in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews and — I just refuse to impose that on others, unlike my friend here, the congressman.
Now let's think about that just a second... let's apply that logic to something very similar. His religion also says that murder is wrong, and that terrorist attacks are wrong. However, will he impose his church's position “on devout Christians, Jews or Muslims” that want to kill their neighbors? If a baby is a life (and he claims he believes that), then what is the difference? There is none. So I am perplexed as to how his idea of Catholic social doctrine has taught him anything about how to take care of those who can't take care of themselves. Surely his Catholic (and human) doctrine teaches him that these babies in the womb are unable to take care of themselves. The fact that they can't take care of themselves gives abortion advocates justification for eliminating them. (They call that not being “viable life”.) Who next will it be okay to kill? The elderly who can't take care of themselves? The disabled? Are these the kind of people we want in control of our health care?
However, corresponding to verses 2-3 and the lies that the wicked tell are verses 6-7 and the truth of God.
6And the words of the LORD are flawless, like silver refined in a furnace of clay, purified seven times. 7O LORD, you will keep us safe and protect us from such people forever. (Psalms 12:6-7)
The lies that seem like a fire hose in our faces spewing from our culture today will not stand in the end. There is a flawless word that will triumph, not the lying lips as they suppose. Why? Because of what it is the center of this psalm.
5"Because of the oppression of the weak and the groaning of the needy, I will now arise," says the LORD. "I will protect them from those who malign them."
There are none more oppressed in our society today than the unborn child. Today one in every two African American children is aborted. The number of children who have been eliminated through abortion is likely in excess of 60 million. It is injustice in every sense of the word. The Lord hears the groaning of the child in the womb as he/she burns and as arms and limbs are cut off (pardon the graphic but accurate description). The Lord hears and will arise to protect them.
Though our eyes fail looking for this deliverance, looking for this righteous promise to be fulfilled, we can rest assured that the word of the Lord will ultimately prevail. So we must continue to pray, we must continue to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves (Proverbs 31:8), we must continue to rescue those being led away to death (Proverbs 24:11-12).
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,
1Written Monday, October 15, 2012.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

What Do We Do When Another is Wronged?

Reading: Hebrews 13:1-3  
Have you (or I) adopted strange teaching concerning the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ? (See Hebrews 13:9.) Early in the second century, Ignatius spoke of those who “contrary to the mind of God” come with “strange teaching concerning the grace of Jesus Christ” saying they “have no concern for love, none for the widow, none for the orphan, none for the mistreated, none for the prisoner, nor for the one who has been released from prison, none for the hungry or thirsty”.1 His appeal is rooted in this text.
Let brotherly love continue. 2Don't neglect to show hospitality, for by doing this some have welcomed angels as guests without knowing it. 3Remember the prisoners, as though you were in prison with them, and the mistreated, as though you yourselves were suffering bodily. (Hebrews 13:1-3 HCSB)
Verses 2-3 enlarge on what it means to let brotherly love continue. Love shows hospitality, which is literally love or kindness to strangers. If someone was a brother or sister in Christ, then there was a sense of being united. This seems to be an application of the words of Christ,
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me... (Matthew 25:35-36)
In light of Jesus' words in Matthew 25, we could paraphrase Hebrews 13:2 as, “for by doing this some have welcomed Jesus Himself as a guest without knowing it.” It is certainly true both ways. However, the rest of Matthew 25:36 (“...I was in prison and you came to visit me”) is addressed in Hebrews 13:3:
Remember the prisoners, as though you were in prison with them, and the mistreated, as though you yourselves were suffering bodily.
How are we to identify with those who suffer? How are we to identify with those who are wronged? In context (see Hebrews 10:32-34) these are most likely those who are in prison either for their faith, or fellow believers falsely accused and awaiting trial. What are we to do when our brothers and sisters in Christ are mistreated and wronged? Do we stand idly by grateful that it didn't happen to us?
The literal translation of the second half of this verse is interesting. The translation I have quoted does justice to the expression in terms of meaning, but isn't quite as literal. Young's Literal Translation reads, “of those maltreated, as also yourselves being in the body.” That is a bit convoluted, but it reaches back into the Gospel itself. Earlier in Hebrews we are told that since we are flesh and blood, Christ shared in the same. As a result we have a high priest who is able “to sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 2:14; 4:15). Christ took on a body in order to identify with us. Having experienced human life he has the ability to sympathize, or to suffer with us (which is the root meaning of sympathize).
Now, as Christ has done for us, so because we too are in the body we are to bear each other's burdens; we are to act and think as if we are experiencing the mistreatment ourselves. Christ suffered with us; we are called to suffer with others. In doing so we join a long line of believers who have chosen to be mistreated with the people of God rather than enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season (Hebrews 11:25-26, 36-37). Those who engage in this kind of brotherly love show that the world is not worthy of them and that they are looking for a better country, a heavenly one (Hebrews 11:14-16, 36).
How do we suffer with others? Visiting those in prison is one way. If they have suffered loss, absorbing some of that ourselves. If they experience injustice, speaking up on their behalf (Proverbs 24:11-12). Living this way will cost us. It will seem much like going to a cross and following Jesus. It will seem much like loving our neighbor as ourselves. And when we live this way, if we live this way, people will get a glimpse of the Kingdom of Christ come.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

1Lane, William; pg. 511, Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 47b, Hebrews 9-13.