LET HIM HEAR

Which is most important being a good listener or a good speaker?  We tend to put much more emphasis on speaking.  But if you look at Jesus and his teaching, he had much more to say about listening.  One of his favorite sayings was, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”  His first parable was really all about hearing when he described human hearts as like the different kinds of soil that a seed might land on.  We can either be hard hearted like wayside ground that has been walked on constantly, or shallow hearts like rocky ground that has no depth, or hearts that are full of so many things that there isn’t much room for God or his word like the thorny ground or we can have good and honest hearts like good soil that receives the seed and produces fruit.  Each of the letters written by Jesus to the seven churches of Asia in Revelation 2 and 3 ends with “he who has ears to hear let him hear.”  Since listening doesn’t usually come naturally in life and since there aren’t any courses on listening in school, how can we develop the habit of being a really good listener?

One thing is absolutely certain, you can’t been a good listener and be one that is always waiting to get your opportunity to speak at the same time.  It is often amusing in teaching a class or working with a group how often someone will make a comment that is almost word for word what someone else has just said.  It is obvious they were waiting their turn to speak and thinking so much about what they would say that they paid no attention to what was being said by the other person.  I wonder how many discussions that go on in life that seem to end in anger and frustration with each other, would be settled easily if each person simply listened to the other without thinking of how they would answer.  It is impossible to concentrate on what you are going to say and actually listen to the other person at the same time.

In the Book the Seven Habits of Highly Successful People by Stephen Covey one of his primary points was “Seek first to understand before you seek to be understood.”  In marriage counseling it is pretty common to ask each partner to repeat in their own words what the other one has said before answering them in any way.  The purpose of doing that exercise is to actually get them to listen to each other.

Think about all the folks who heard Jesus teaching from day to day during his ministry on this earth.  Sometimes they got the words right but missed the message entirely.  Very early in his ministry, he came to Jerusalem and according to John 2 went into the temple and cleaned it out, driving out the money changers and the animals.  He declared, that if they would tear down this temple he would rebuild it in three days.  That statement that was about his body being raised in three days after they crucified him, became one of the most remembered statements he made at least among the Jews.  They would use it as a witness against him at his trial.  After his death and resurrection and the church beginning, it would come up again at the trial of Stephen the first Christian to be martyred for his faith.  They couldn’t forget the statement he made.  Yet they lost the context and lost the point he was making.

Don’t you wonder how often we do the same thing?  It is easy to refer to things the Bible says without looking closely at the context in which it was said and what the point of the words really were when they were uttered.

We are living in a time when there is so much confusion among different groups of people.  It may be political in some situations. In others it is definitely racial differences.  In lots of situations the confusion is in the religious world or realm.  Sometimes it is difference in opinion between different age groups or even different economic groups. But one thing is true in everyone of them.  It is that there is far more talking than there is listening.  When you watch any of these kinds of things either in person or on TV, it is common to see people trying to talk over each other.  No one seems to be paying the least bit of attention to what the other person is saying.  Instead they are determined to make their point, even though the people trying to listen can’t really understand what anyone is saying since they are all talking.  How utterly ridiculous!  I don’t know of anyone that ever learned anything by talking.  Do you?

What if you really had courses in school on how to listen?  What do you think might be covered in such a course?  1. Listen intently, trying your best to understand what the other person is saying.  2. Do not interrupt the other person as they are talking.  3.  If a person listens to you, you owe it to them to listen to what they say without interrupting them.  4. Give the other person the respect that you would like to have for yourself.  5. Make absolutely certain you understand what the other person is attempting to say before you repeat it or try to answer it.  6. If the other person says that you aren’t understanding them, believe them and try again.  7.  Never make a judgment on what the other person says or believes that you wouldn’t want them to make about you and your words or beliefs.

“Take heed how you hear.”  Great advise from Jesus for all of us.

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IN THE EYE OF THE STORM

It is extremely difficult to go through two major storms in such a short time as has been the case with Hurricane Harvey in Texas and now Irma that has hit Florida and is the the process of hitting lots of other states and cities as well.  The devastation has been horrendous not only in the areas of this country that have been hit, but in the islands and areas along the way as well.  There are areas that have gone through the flooding many times but the truth is no matter how many time you deal with the winds and water of the storm, you don’t get used to it and it never seems normal.  Beyond the severe loss of life and loss of property the shear feeling of being unsafe can haunt a person for years after going through something like this.  It is normal to deal with huge questions, some of which seem to have no real answer.

It is amazing to read of a story in Luke 8:22-25 when Jesus and the twelve were in the midst of a storm.  “One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side of the lake.’  So they set out, and as they sailed he fell asleep.  And a windstorm came down on the lake, and they were filling with water and were in danger.  And they went and woke him, saying, ‘Master, Master we are perishing!’  And he awoke and rebuked the wind and the raging waves, and they ceased and there was a calm.  He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’ And they were afraid, and they marveled, saying to one another, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and water and they obey him?”

One thing is common whether it is the twelve apostles with Jesus in the boat or people in Houston or some of the cities in Florida, when storms come over which we have no control we feel horribly threatened and panic begins to set in.  It is pretty common to hear people before the storms arrive to talk about how they will ride out the storm and that they aren’t afraid of such storms.  But most of those will change their tone entirely when the winds, waves and water are upon them.  Some years back after Hurricane Camille hit the Gulf Coast in Mississippi I was there trying to help with some clean up.  I was visiting with a doctor in town who had ridden out the storm in his home.  He said he and his wife had made an agreement when they got married that he would make all the major decisions in their marriage and she would make all the minor ones.  When the storm was approaching she said it was a minor decision on whether they should evacuate or stay there and she decided to stay and face the storm.  He said, “I can tell you now that if another storm comes through this area it will be a major decision and I will make it and we will get out of here before it arrives.”  Amazing rescues take place.  All kinds of unexplainable events happen.  But we learn quickly that we have lost control when the storms hit.  We are at the mercy of the storm.

Oddly, Jesus was asleep in the bow of the boat when the winds and waves were filling the boat with water and the seasoned fishermen among them were thinking that the end had come for them.  Their cry was, “Master we are perishing!”  Jesus had power even over the storm to tell it to settle down and be calm and when the winds and waves calmed down there was a sense of calm and peace all around them.

While it is clear Jesus could and did settle that storm, it is also obvious that there were lots of other storms that rushed on the Sea of Galilee that Jesus didn’t stop and didn’t calm the winds and waves. Probably at every storm there are people who are praying for the Lord to step in and stop the storm.  But on the vast majority of occasions the storms came and Jesus didn’t step in to stop them.  Why?  Why doesn’t God or Jesus simply stop every storm that might come our way?  Why doesn’t he answer every prayer that we pray for us to be kept safe?  Doesn’t he have the power to stop all the storms of life?  Isn’t he a good God that loves us and wants what is best for us?  Yes he has the power and yes he is good and wants what is best for us.  But no he doesn’t and won’t as long at this world last, stop the different laws of nature from working so that we never get hurt.  He doesn’t suspend the law of gravity when I slip and fall, even if I’m at the top of the stairs when it happens.  Think for a moment.  What if God was there to stop every tragic thing that can ever take place in life?  What if he stopped every wreck on the highway from happening so that no one can get hurt?

If God reacted in such a way, we wouldn’t have any idea what was going to happen next in any situation.  Life wouldn’t have any continuity.  There would be no consequences even to the worst of sins.  The crazy person who wanted to destroy others and tried to detonate a suicide bomb to kill others would always have the explosion to fail and their life and that of others would be spared.  Death would stop.  There wouldn’t be a need for doctors or hospitals since we wouldn’t have any sick folk.  Usually, our response is that no we don’t want everything to be changed, just stop the tragic events that have to do with us or our loved ones.  But God is the God of all.  He does love and long for all people to come to him for life.  One of the reasons this world has all the consequences and hurts is for us to recognize the effect sin has on us and on the world as a whole.  There would be no reason for anyone to change if there were no consequences for the sins and failures of life.  God longs for us all to be saved and actually enter a world with him where there will be no death, pain or suffering.  It is a place called heaven and we aren’t there yet.  The very reminder of people to live in a way to prepare for heaven is the problems and tragedies of this life.

Jesus will bring calm from the storms that invade your life if you turn to him.  But even in the life of Jesus, who calmed this storm, there soon came a different kind of storm that involved a horrible death on a cross through which we can be saved.  It is often the case that healing from hurts and problems really does rise from the storms that we go through every day in this life.  We can’t escape every storm.  We can learn from them and grow through each of them.  Think of the message of Philippians 4:6-7. “Don’t worry about anything.  But in everything by prayer, and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be made known to God and the peace of God that passes all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”  Even in the eye of the storm we can rest and find peace in Jesus who commands even winds and water and they obey him.

 

 

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GOD WILL REVEAL

Try along with me to put yourself into a Roman prison during the first century alongside the apostle Paul.  He hadn’t committed any crimes.  His arrest had been for preaching Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  Because he had preached that the Law of Moses was no longer bound on people and that now there is no difference between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female in Christ, it had upset his Jewish brethren to the degree they wanted him dead.  He had actually gone to Jerusalem along with a group of Gentile Christians from around the world to carry a gift to the poor among the saints in Jerusalem.  The church had received the gift with joy.  But the remedy the elders gave him to try to settle the Jews down in their hatred for him, hadn’t worked.  He went into the temple to make a vow along with some other men and paid their way in the whole thing.  But while he was in the temple some Jews caught him and accused him of bringing some Gentiles into the temple and were trying to beat him to death when the Roman soldiers rescued him.  For the next three years he was in Jail in Caesarea until he was sent to Rome as a prisoner to appear before Caesar.  He remained in chains each day as a prisoner of Rome.

If you were in that setting, without any times to get away from others or to have private meetings with people you wanted to meet with or even alone time in prayer, how do you think you would have felt?  If you had been able to dictate a letter to a church that you knew cared about your situation, what would you have said to them?  I’m afraid most of us would have been far down the ladder and pleading for the brethren to pray for our deliverance from these chains.  The truth is Paul didn’t spend much time talking about his situation.  He did say that the things that had happened to him had actually turned out to advance the gospel of Christ.  He had been able to preach the gospel to the whole imperial guard along with many of the prisoners who shared his situation.  Lots of brethren had become bolder to preach the gospel themselves since he was in prison.  Now some were preaching out of wrong motives thinking they would add to his pain.  But others preached for good reasons to reach people with the good news.

In chapter 3:12-17 Paul makes one of the most remarkable statements possible, especially for a man chained between two Roman soldiers each day of his life.  He had just said his goal was to know Christ and the power of his resurrection if by any means he might attain to the resurrection from the dead.  He noted that he hadn’t yet obtained this goal and wasn’t yet made perfect but he continued to press on to make it his own.  “Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own.  But one thing I do; forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”  Then he adds this plea for all those who are mature in Christ.  “Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.  Only let us hold true to what we have attained.”

Now think about this whole statement.  He is in prison, chained between two Roman soldiers all day, every day.  He anticipates standing before Caesar soon if he hasn’t done so already for the first time.  Later he will write to Timothy when he is waiting for the second and final hearing before Caesar that he is sure will lead to his death.  If church history is correct he was released for a short time between those two hearings and was able to continue preaching Christ to the Gentile world for one to two more years.  But any way you look at things, from a physical point of view his future isn’t very bright.  He knows his appearing before Caesar isn’t likely to turn out in his release for a long time.  Yet it doesn’t get him down and discouraged to the degree he is ready to quit the whole thing.  Instead he keeps his goal clearly in front of him all the time.  “This one thing I do!”

No matter what our present situation may be, there is good reason to keep anticipating something better.  We must never give up on the goal set before us and obtaining the prize God has to offer us.  Notice what the prize was for which he was pushing.  That upward call of God in Christ Jesus.  God is calling everyone to live in such a way down here that they will have the full reward of glory in heaven when this life is over.  The call of God is always an upward call.  It isn’t so much of a directional call as a place that he calls us to obtain.  He wants us to share with him in the kingdom of God forever and ever.  The problem for too many people is that they lose heart and quit pressing long before they reach the end of the journey.  Have you ever watched someone running in a race who got confused somehow and thought they had finished the race but still had a lap to go?  It is a sad thing when a person believes they are at the finish line when there is still more to the course we are to run and if we stop at this point it simply means defeat.  God’s plea to us is not to stop until we cross the finish line in eternity.

Notice Paul said, this is the way mature people in Christ think.  Immature, childish thinking is, “I’m tired” or “It’s just too far and I can’t make it”.  Mature thinking is “I have a prize waiting and I will keep on going until I reach the prize.”  When I think maturely God has a promise for me.  It is that “if in anything we think otherwise, God will reveal that also to us.”  God so longs for us to share the glories of heaven with Him that he goes all out to pull us in that direction.  He didn’t stop with sending his Son into this world as one of us to pay the price for our sins when he is innocent.  He was tempted in every way like we are yet without sin.  But God doesn’t stop his work in giving Jesus to die for us.  He raised him from the dead, seated him at his own right hand and has sent his Holy Spirit to be with us until the return of Jesus so that we will not be orphans in his service.  If we live for God with that heart that I’m going to keep pressing toward the goal as long as I have life, God makes a huge promise to us.  It is that if something is missing in our lives that keeps us from reaching the goal with him, he will reveal even that to us so we can reach the goal.  “Only let us hold true to what we have attained.”  Never give up.  Keep pushing.  Keep growing.  Keep loving.  Keep extending grace.  It will be amazing what God can do through and in us if we stay on the course all along.

But how does God reveal to us the things that are missing in our walk with him?  I’m certain it can be in a multitude of ways.  Sometimes it is through other people that correct and encourage us as we live and grow for him.  Sometimes it is opening something up for us to see in His holy word.  A point of truth suddenly is obvious to us that we hadn’t noticed in years if at all.  The reality is there are hundreds of ways God may reveal the message of what we still need to be doing to us.  God’s prizes are always amazing.  Don’t miss the ones laid up for you now.

 

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ELDERS AND AUTHORITY

It seems stage to me that a question of how much authority the elders have in the local church or if the preacher has any authority would ever arise.  Perhaps that whole question is somehow tied to the subject of authority as it relates to husbands and wives or men and women in general.  Any discussion of authority from the standpoint of Christians should start with Jesus statement in Matthew 28:18, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”  It was out of that authority that Jesus laid out the greatest commission for us as his disciples.  Our mission on earth is to make disciples of his wherever we go and among whatever group of people we may find ourselves.  We baptize those who would become disciples then teach them to observe all that Jesus has commanded.

Since Jesus has all authority, anyone else that has authority in any situation must have it delegated to them by Jesus and must operate under the authority of Jesus.  One area where Jesus delegated such authority was to preachers in preaching the word of the Lord.  Paul told Titus in Titus 2:15 to “Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.”  It wasn’t that he carried authority by an office.  But in preaching the word and in exhorting or rebuking those to whom he preached, he was to speak with all authority.  Two other jobs mentioned by Paul to Timothy and Titus for the evangelist were to set apart elders and deacons in the church based on the qualities that were described and to rebuke an elder or elders who went astray in their work. Too often in churches everything imaginable has been done to remove any kind of authority to those who preach the word.  Even in what he preaches it is too often thought that they should preach whatever the elders tell them to preach.  Strangely, I’ve never seen anything like that in the Bible.

But what about the elders and their authority in the local church?  The elders are spoken of  in three different ways in the New Testament that each give insight into their work.  They are often called “Elders” or “Presbyters” which related to age or maturity in the faith.  It probably also went back to elders in the synagogue or even elders who led in a city or area. The second word is “Shepherd” or “Pastor”.  Probably the best description of a shepherds work is found in Ephesians 4:11-16 where they are challenged along with the Evangelist, and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry for the building up of the body of Christ.  Shepherds follow Jesus as the good shepherd that goes out to help and rescue the sheep.  The third word is the word, “Overseer” or “Bishop”.  All three of these words are used in text like I Peter 5:1-4 and Acts 20:28.  The overseer is looking after the souls of those who are part of their flock.  Another word that is applied to the shepherds at times that is also used of many others is the word “Leader”.  In I Timothy 5:17 it says, “The elders that lead well are to be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.”  The King James translated this word as “Rule” which led some to think of the work as ruling over the church.  It is the same word used of the woman who is to “Guide” or “Lead” or “Rule” the house in I Timothy 5:14.  Quite often the word leader in Hebrews 13:7,17 is applied to the elders.  Notice what they say.  Verse 7 “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God.  Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”  Verse 17 “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”  In verse 7 the leaders were preachers who had spoken to them the word of life and are now dead since they were to consider the outcome of their faith and imitate them.  In verse 17 it may well be elders since they are leaders and the people are to submit to them.  In both cases it could be the apostles who would have spoken to them the word and have been leaders they were to submit to.  In that case some were now dead and others were still alive.  The truth is, it likely refers to all of them and is more generic to refer to all leaders in the church.

Think of any church where you have been a member.  Who are the leaders in that church?  In reality since leadership is influence, everyone there is a leader in some way to someone. But think deeper on the matter.  Who are the leaders for you?  Probably whoever teaches the Bible class you attend would be a leader for you.  It may be a friend that has been there for you.  It might well be a teacher or person who has helped your children.  Leaders come in all sizes and shapes.  When one Christian brings another person to Jesus they are their leaders.  When we encourage and help a person with a problem we are serving as leaders.  So, to think of elders as leaders is right but to think of them as the leaders or only leaders is ridiculous.  Remember Paul challenged the young widow to marry, have children and lead her home.

I certainly believe that elders are intended to be leaders in the body.  But I fear the picture that we have too often drawn of them as a board of directors meeting together to make decisions on everything that relates to the body of Christ is not one that comes from the Bible at all.  How many times have you heard someone pray that our elders will make wise decisions?  How many times have you ever read anything in the Bible that even came close to the notion of elders making a decision?  Some wish to turn to Acts 15 as the apostles and elders met in Jerusalem with Paul and Barnabas to discuss whether or not gentiles who became Christians had to be circumcised and keep the Old Law.  First, this is apostles and elders.  Second, we aren’t given the notion that these were elders of one local church.  More likely they were elders from a multiplicity of churches that were in Jerusalem at the time.  Third, God was speaking through inspired men to the group telling them what God was telling them on the matter.  We don’t have that kind of situation now.  One might turn to Acts 21 when Paul came to Jerusalem bringing an offering for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem and met with the elders one of whom was James, the Lord’s brother.  They made a decision together that Paul was to go to the temple and pay for some men’s vows and make offerings himself to show the Jews who were Christians in the area that what they had heard of Paul’s preaching wasn’t true.  In this case, one would be hard pressed to think that the decision made by the elders was a good one.

The leading and decision making of elders is intended to be in areas of judgment and application of that which the Bible teaches.  It is not the job of elders to determine what the Bible teaches for the whole church.  For too often I hear of some group of elders meeting on some Bible topic and coming to the conclusion that this is what the elders believe on this matter for the church to follow.  Every Christian is a priest of God (I Peter 2:5,9).  As such every single Christian is under obligation to read and study God’s word for themselves.  Preachers should preach and teach the word in ways that correct wrong notions and help others understand.  But no one has the right or ability to give an official church teaching on any matter.  We must study for ourselves, grow, learn and apply what we learn to our own lives.  If what I understand doesn’t agree with others, we need to talk and try to come to a better understanding.  But no one has the right to bind their beliefs or conscience on anyone else.  We will be judged by the word of the Lord, not on some person’s understanding of the word.  It is certainly good and right for elders to study and pray together to try to come to clearer understandings of God’s word and His will for us.  But it is not their job to determine the official right answer to what the Bible says.  I’ve been preaching and working with elderships now for over fifty years.  I’ve seldom seen all the elders agree on any doctrinal matter over which brethren have differences and that is on a whole lot of things.  I even believe that one of the reasons God wanted a plurality of elders was so that there wouldn’t be such agreement.  It shouldn’t affect their work.  Because they aren’t there to agree but to look after the souls of the people and help them grow.

Many years ago I remember having a lengthy conversation with Brother Gus Nichols about a concern I had.  Where I was preaching at the time we had just had a well known preacher to come for a revival and some of the things he said were just strange.  I asked Brother Nichols about some of the things the man had said and he offered this advise.  He said this brother was a good man, but he was fearful of people taking things he said and misusing them so he was constantly reaching conclusions that he had never run by anyone else and about which he refused to have discussions with anyone that might disagree so he didn’t get the help he needed.  Brother Nichols turned to me then and said, “Leon, any time you are studying and you arrive at a conclusion that is extremely different from what most have understood on the text through the years, run it by others, privately to get their input and advise before you preach it to the crowd.  You will avoid lots of wrong notions by doing so.  We all arrive at some ideas on our own that if we could see from another person’s point of view we would know it was a mistake.  We need each other.  Never get the idea that you alone have the whole truth on anything.”  It was great advice then and still is.

The Lord’s church has one infallible authority and it is Jesus.  His word to us is meant to be studied and understood by all his people.  We are all priest of God and all have been given the Holy Spirit to help us and enlighten us to better understand.  But we need each other to help, encourage and correct us when we miss something.  Don’t ever allow anyone else or any group of people to become the official interpreters of God’s word for you!  That would include elders, preachers, Bible teachers or Christian schools.  It would also include preachers schools, papers or churches.  When we put anyone else in such a place it turns us away from Jesus as THE AUTHORITY and gives the place to someone else who doesn’t deserve such a place.

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THE CHURCH IN HER HOUSE

It is extremely difficult to read the teachings of the Bible about the church or local congregations of God’s people and not picture them as looking like the church where we worship on a regular basis.  The fact that most of us today meet with others in a church building and the congregation is often made up of several hundred people, makes it difficult for us to picture the church in the first century meeting in different people’s houses.  Most of the time the church was necessarily pretty small because the home where they met didn’t have room for lots of people.  Think about the church where you worship and ask yourself, how many homes would it take to have all the people meeting in different homes from week to week worshiping the Lord?

Then consider different times in the Bible that people are spoken to and then the phrase is added, “And to the church that meets in your house.”  In Colossians 4:15 Paul had been discussing different people who had sent greetings to the church which included Aristarchus a fellow prisoner, Mark the cousin of Barnabas, Jesus who was called Justus, Epaphras, who was one of the members from Colossea, and Luke the beloved physician along with Demas.  Then verse 15 says, “Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea and to Nympha and the church in her house.”  At the same time Paul wrote the letter to Colossians he also wrote the Book of Philemon which was to a family in that same city.  “To Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house.”  This demands that there were at least two churches meeting in that city, one in the home of Nympha and the other in the home of Philemon and Apphia his wife. Or that Nympha lived in Laodicea and her home was where the church there met.

Priscilla and Aquila are mentioned in different cities to whom Paul wrote and just about every time the phrase is added, “And to the church that meets in their house.”  One example is Romans 16:3-5 where he praised them as fellow workers and those who risked their necks for his life.

Think about some of the questions that we struggle over in different congregations today and try to imagine that same discussion if we were picturing the church as one meeting in someone’s home each week.  People wouldn’t be sitting in rows with everyone’s eyes pointed toward a stage where a song leader or prayer leaders or the preacher would stand on the stage to preach or lead singing or prayer. Imagine the church meeting in your house.  How many could you get into your living room to meet each week?  Even if you had a much larger house than most it is highly unlikely that more than 50 people could get into the space and in most homes it would be more like 20.  Passing the communion wouldn’t be very similar to what we see on Sunday.  It would likely be the woman of the house producing the bread she had prepared and baked along with the fruit of the vine to be passed from one to the next for each person to participate.  Most likely the one who shared the message of the Lord wasn’t standing behind a pulpit at the front but if they stood at all it would be in front of the chair where they had been sitting and more likely they remained in the chair and talked about God’s word and will for their life in that position.

Imagine discussions like Paul had with the church in Corinth in I Corinthians 11 or 14 with the scene being played out in someone’s home with 25 people instead of picturing a large building with 500-600 people meeting together to worship.  Does it give you the same image you had before?  Think about in chapter 11 with the whole discussion of wearing a covering or veil to pray or prophesy or the discussion of taking the Lord’s Supper together. Or picture the scene in chapter 14 where the primary discussion was about the whole church coming together in one place and that the primary concern was whether what was being done would build up the church or not.  Think of the discussion of prophets speaking and taking turns with no more than three at a time and the others staying silent while one spoke.  Or imagine the tongue speakers in that setting and the command to no more than three at a given time and then only if there is someone there who could translate what was said into the language of the people.  Imagine in this same setting when he told the women to keep silent in the church and said it wasn’t permitted for them to speak but if they would learn anything they were to asked the men at home.  Have you ever had or been part of a small group that gathered in a home to study and pray together?  How formal was it?  Did everyone talk or only one or two people speak the whole time?

What the Bible teaches is certainly applicable to our time and situation.  But if I never actually go back and imagine the situation when the message was first given I’m likely to have things in my mind about the instruction that wouldn’t have fit the ones it was originally written to at all.  If the instructions wouldn’t fit the people first addressed in the letters, then my understanding is wrong.  The different letters were written to actual people and churches about present challenges or problems.  My job is to see how what was said to them will apply to our time and situation.  Try to imagine them having a discussion about who can rightly pass the communion trays to the people.  First you would have to explain what communion trays were to them.  Second the notion of it taking something special to pass it from one person to another wouldn’t have made any sense to them, any more than saying in your house that one can’t pass the bread around unless they are family members or even male family members.

God’s word applies to all people in all times under all circumstances.  But it was written to specific groups of people in a small window of time.  So always start with the question of what this would have meant to the people originally addressed.  Then how does it apply to our time and situation?  To reverse the order is to leave yourself drawing conclusions from the text that isn’t really there.

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THE ROYAL LAW

There are tons of different laws found in Scripture but only one that is called the royal law.  There must be something very special about this law for the Holy Spirit to lead James the brother of Jesus to refer to it as the royal law.  That would mean it is kingly or from God on his throne.  Look at what this law is.  “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (James 2:8-9).  Jesus declared this to be the second greatest law of God with the first one being to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.  It was first stated in the Book of Leviticus, from which we don’t usually get lots of things that apply well today.

In the context of this verse James had been discussing the assembly of Christian and how we treat different people that come to the gathering of Christians.  He said that in some places they were showing lots of partiality toward those who came in dressed well and showed by their appearance that they had money or were well to do.  He declared that if one came into the assembly dressed like they had lots of money and we showed them the best place to sit and tried our best to make them feel comfortable and accepted, but someone else came in dressed like they had little and we didn’t treat them with that same love and acceptance then we were showing partiality and were judges of evil thoughts.  As James continues this discussion he adds this, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.  For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’  If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.  So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.  For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy.  Mercy trumps over judgment.”

Jesus in the great Sermon on the Mount said for us to “judge not that we not be judged.  For with the same judgment we judge others we too will be judged.”  It is obvious Jesus isn’t saying that there is not any kind of judgment that we are to make since he also said for us to judge with righteous judgment.  But our judgment of people must be based on mercy, love and without partiality.  It is very difficult for any of us to treat everyone like we treat the ones who love dearly.  For example, have you noticed how much further you are willing to go with your grandchildren or even great grandchildren, than you are other children that may be around.  It is easy because of relationships to overlook things that someone else does that we really care for, but be extremely bitter about another person doing the exact thing.

When we make judgments about people around us we are doing what comes naturally.  But if are making that move and simply following the plan of action you’ve become used to, you are likely headed to being judged at the hands of God.  Think of God’s standards on how we should judge each other.  First, it should be based on love for the other person, even though we may not know them, may not agree with them and may be tempted to feel contempt for them.  Jesus showed us the example of loving us and paying the price for our salvation even when we are living in sin (Romans 5:5-9). He said that even when we were his enemies he loved us.  Second, it should be based on mercy.  Our feeling for them can’t be based simply on the fact we don’t like their attitudes, politics or beliefs on different matters.  If we make judgments without mercy we will face the judgment of God on that same basis, without mercy.  Can you even imagine what it would be like to face God’s judgment without mercy?  Third, our judgment of others should be done only after a close examination of our own thinking, motives and actions.  Jesus said it like this, “With the same measure you use it will be measured to you.  Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye, when there is a log in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:3-5).  Fourth, judgment should always be done without any partiality.  It is difficult.  We all tend to judge those we like or have a relationship with in much lighter ways than we do those we either don’t know or don’t like.  But our pattern is to be Jesus and he loved all of us even when we were living in rebellion to him. Finally, our judgment must be from a heart to do whatever God tells us we ought to do.  An attitude of “I will obey the commands of God that I agree with but his grace will have to cover me in those areas I don’t agree with” won’t cut it.  The truth is such obedience isn’t obedience at all.  It is simply doing what we like to do anyway.  How would you feel as a parent if your children only obeyed the things you told them if they agreed with them?

Judging actions is easy.  Judging motives is extremely difficult and only God can do it well.  It is certainly right for us to look at deeds, or actions and declare “that is wrong and you ought not to do it ever again.”  But when you move a step further and say, “I know why you did that.  It is because of your racism, hatred, or prejudice” we have moved into an area that is slippery when wet.  Remember the apostle Paul saying that “No one knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit that is in him.”  I believe he was right about it.

Imagine what a different world we would live in if you could disagree with another person over something significant and instead of attacking each other, you sat down and calmly talked about the things on which you both agreed and disagreed.  Imagine a world where we really did believe in freedom of speech that would allow a person to say what they thought and then be asked politely to explain and defend their statement rather than simply being rejected as not having good sense for saying something others so strongly disagree with.  Imagine what it would be like if you could disagree on different issues and continue being good friends or even brothers and sisters in Christ who respect each other.  I believe that is the world God longs for us all to live it.  I suspect heaven will be like that and I suspect in hell there will be shouting, screaming, fighting, fussing, name calling and hatred running rampant.  Which place would you like to live?

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WHAT NATURE TEACHES

Most of the teachings of the Bible are straight forward and pretty easy to understand what is being taught.  There are some occasions, especially in the writings of the apostle Paul when he is obviously dealing with some situation in a local church and gives them answers on how to handle the problem when it is extremely difficult to grasp what all is going on.  One of those times is in I Corinthians 11.  This whole segment is about problems in the church.  Actually Paul deals with two major problems in the chapter.  Both the topics really are tied to acceptance of people where they are.  Think for a moment about the situation in Corinth at this time and both the problems tend to take on a different light.

Corinth was a city that had been largely settled by the Roman government as a retirement place for soldiers.  So you had a large population of Roman officers and often the slaves that went with them.  It was a place that Rome had given lots of interest in because of their proximity to two large bodies of water.  As far back as the reign of Nero there was an attempt to build a canal between the two bodies of water which was over a mile in length.  Nero visited Corinth on more than one occasion.  It was also a place with a large population of slaves.  Some estimates are that near seventy percent of the population were slaves.  Two things that were affected strongly by that reality are that slaves were not allowed to have legal marriages and that wearing the veil was a privilege and sign that one was married.  A third reality that affects a lot of what was happening is that at the top of Acrocorinth was a temple to Aphrodite and the Persians had set up a fort type arrangement on the top with a garrison of soldiers.  As a part of the worship to Aphrodite there was a population of priestesses who served as prostitutes for the area.  Like any city of that time or most other times with this kind of population there was an established aristocracy which lived in great luxury and a world of extreme poverty with a relatively small population of those between those groups.  Besides these there was also a fairly large segment of Jews who had a synagogue in the agora, which was something like a town square.  Also it is vitally important to remember that the church at this time was meeting in the homes of members of the church.  Often  there were more wealthy members who would invite the people to come to their home to worship God regularly.  So, when we consider what was happening when they came together to worship it wasn’t in some church building or even some large rented hall.  Instead you must think of meeting to worship God in someone’s living room and how things would go there.

Think of the first problem dealt with.  He started the discussion by commending the church for their memory of him and maintaining the teaching he gave them.  As a foundation for the discussion he said, “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband and the head of Christ is God.  Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven.  For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short.  But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head.  For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.  For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.  That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.”

What is the world is going on in the church that led to this whole discussion?  Truthfully, we don’t know for certain.  It could have been the case that among those converted to Christ were slaves who had been with the same man as her husband for years and with whom she had children, but who by law wasn’t married at all.  So, when she was converted and came into the assembly, if there were Romans there who were not slaves but of the more elite crowd, it would have been objectionable for her to wear the veil that indicated she was married.  So, when such women prayed and prophesied in their gatherings there were objections because they were not wearing a veil, showing she was married and devoted to her husband, there would be a problem.  Several of the things that Paul used to appeal to the people would have been true in Corinth at that time, but not true in most other places even then and certainly not true today, much of anywhere.  While it was a shame and disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut short or her head shaved then, it isn’t today and so that whole appeal is lost.  Most likely the reason these were disgraceful then was that it associated those who did so with the priestesses for Aphrodite.  The other thing would have been whether or not as the church they would follow the Roman law that slaves’ marriages weren’t recognized or would they accept them as married because they were committed to each other before God?  It also seems to have been a part of the whole thing that somehow the women praying and prophesying were not demonstrating submission toward their husbands and this led to objections.

In light of the situation and customs, accepted norms in Corinth, Paul pleaded with the Christian women to wear the veil and wear their hair long to show submission to their husbands and not cause undue problems in the church.  In the church there are tons of things that are far more important that correcting all the social and political problems in the area.  You are there to strive to lead the people out of the world of sin and death into a right relationship with God.  As a result, Paul, for example didn’t confront many of the social problems of the time, such as slavery, even though it is awful.  Saving their soul was so much more important that solving the problems around their customs.  Many problems socially would be solved through people coming to Christ but it would be through the change of people from their hearts rather than a political or social solution.  Imagine living in an area where all the gang members, prostitutes and drug pushers wore red shirts and black tennis shoes.  While there is nothing wrong in wearing either a red shirt or black tennis shoes, in that place it would be wrong for a Christian to wear such since it would identify them with those involved in all such activity.

Wearing a veil and long hair wasn’t some norm that would be bound on people everywhere in all times.  But the principle that is involved does apply to all time.  We need to be aware of the customs, traditions and basic ideas in the area where we are and not do things that will hurt the influence of the church while trying to do right.

Notice in verses 11-12 there is a corrective statement that is vital.  “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman.  And all things are from God.”  Lots of things are true in the world and even in the Bible in history that do not fit God’s design for those in Christ.  In the Lord we need each other and are dependent on each other.  As Paul would say to the Galatian Christians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

So, we need to be conscience of norms in any given area and not do things that will bring shame and disgrace on the people of God.  We also must not try to bring into the church all the worldly standards around us.  In Christ all people are accepted and loved where they are with view to helping them become all God wants them to be.  It seems obvious that Paul was more concerned about the reality a couple was committed to each other and to God than that they could meet some strange legal requirement to be married that was intended to discriminate against slaves.

It is important to notice Paul didn’t condemn the women for praying and prophesying in the presence of men in some kind of gathering of Christians.  He did point to their being sensitive to the thinking around them and put the salvation of the people ahead of everything else.

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