BUT GROW

Challenges are all around us.  Some are to do good and others would pull us in the wrong direction entirely.  In the short book of 2 Peter the writer laid out all the wrong things that were going on among the people of God.  Many hadn’t grown up the way they should have in Christ and the result was they were short sighted and blind, barren in their life for God and in grave danger of falling away from him.  In chapter two he described those who were false teachers who were leading away disciples from the truth of God’s word to go in their own ways.  He calls them wells without water, clouds that give no rain.  They spoke great swelling words but there was nothing of substance behind it all.  In verses 20-22 of chapter two he said, “For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first.  For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them: The dog returns to its own vomit and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.”

In chapter three he described how scoffers had arisen saying, “Where is the promise of his coming?  Since our father’s fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning.”  He reminded them of the days of Noah and the flood that destroyed the world at that time and the scoffers who doubted the message Noah preached right up to the time that the door was shut on the ark and the rains began to fall.  He pointed out that God wasn’t slow to carry out his promise to come again but was patiently waiting, wanting all to come to repentance.  But that day was coming and it would bring dire results for those who now scoffed at the will of the Lord and his promises. As he reached the conclusion of the book in 3:14 he pleaded with them, “Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace.  And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him.”  He warned that some were twisting the things written by Paul that were sometimes hard to understand to their own destruction.  In verse 17  he said, “You therefore beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability.”

It is then that he reached the final conclusion of the book and the greatest plea of the whole thing.  “BUT GROW IN THE GRACE AND KNOWLEDGE OF OUR LORD AND SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST. To him be the gory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.”  Think about this final exhortation.  It is the one we need so desperately today and every day.  Troubles are all around you.  People are turning from the truth into gross error.  Many are now lost that were once right with God.  Some have gone so far away that it would have been better for them to have never known the truth at all.  In such a time, what should we do as the people of God?  BUT GROW!

We could stand alongside Peter and discuss all the problems in our own time.  We could point to all the wrong teaching and twisting of the truth going on now.  We could talk about the fussing and complaining that is so prevalent in the world.  We could point to the reality that people seem almost to hate anyone who disagrees with them on just about anything.  I was driving home from our Bible classes last Wednesday night when I entered an intersection and pulled out in front of a guy that evidently thought I had cut him off in some way and the anger he demonstrated would have made you think I had really done him wrong.  Most of us even who have lived for quite a while have never seen so much distrust and questioning of motives as is obvious today.  Even in churches folks are ready to divide and leave over things that seem pretty small.  So what should a Christian do in such times?

BUT GROW!  Peter’s whole point is that no matter what the troubles may be around you, whether in a world that was then persecuting the church on every side and fusses inside the church because of some disagreements often over minor issues or in a time of peace our obligation is the same.   His response was that in such times the right thing for us to do is grow.  Grow in grace.  We are saved by the undeserved favor and blessing of God that comes to us through his amazing grace.  He offers us salvation that we can’t possibly earn or deserve.  His challenge to us is to grow in that same heart toward others.  If we wish to claim grace for salvation from God but aren’t willing to extend grace to others around us in the name of God, we have missed something that is vital in living for the Lord.  Grace isn’t just a means of salvation, but it is to be a way of life.  We ought to become more and more graceful in our dealings with others all the time.  Grace always leads to mercy in our actions.

Notice he tied growing in grace to also growing in the knowledge of Jesus.  No one better lived out grace in his actions than Jesus.  He constantly offered love, forgiveness and acceptance to people that they didn’t deserve.  He healed their sicknesses, raised their dead, gave sight to the blind and caused the deaf to hear.  He cleansed lepers and made the cripple able to walk again.  He looked at those possessed of demons and drove them out.  He took tax collectors who had cheated the people and made godly people of them.  He lived by grace and extended to all whom he met.  When we grow in our knowledge of Jesus we will obviously grow in our understanding of grace and if we understand grace better we should also be motivated to extend it more freely to others.

When we grow in grace and knowledge of Jesus it leads to glory to Him forevermore.  So grow in his grace and knowledge of Jesus all the time.

 

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WHEN YOU ARE OLD

I realize any conversation about being old can bring negative thoughts to people.  But this is a phrase taken directly from Jesus in John 21.  It was after the death and resurrection of Jesus and before he ascended back to the Father.  He had met with a group of disciples beside the Sea of Galilee where they had gone fishing for the night.  Early in the morning he was on the shore and called out to them to ask if they had caught anything.  They hadn’t and that would be frustrating in itself.  He told them to cast their nets on the other side and they would have a good catch.  They did it and caught 153 big fish.  When they reached shore Jesus had breakfast waiting for them.  He had them bring some of the fish they had caught to add to the meal.  It was then he took Peter aside to ask three times, “Do you love me?”  At first it was a comparative question, “Do you love me more than these?”  But then it was just “Do you love me?”  Peter assured him he did love him and each time Jesus responded with the charge to “Feed my lambs” or “Tend my sheep”.

But Jesus didn’t end the conversation there.  Listen to what he said then to Peter. “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.”  We might have read this many times and wondered exactly what it was saying but John adds a short commentary to it saying (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) After saying this he said to him, ‘Follow me.”  Peter turned around and saw John and asked Jesus, “What about him?”  Jesus said to Peter if it is my will that he remain until I come what is that to you, you come and follow me.”  Of course the rumor then spread that Jesus had said that John wouldn’t have to die but that wasn’t what he had said.

Evidently Peter understood what was involved since years later he would refer to this statement and note that his death was drawing near.  One thing is true generally of us, and that is that we are able when we are young to do many things and go many places according to our own will that changes as we become old.  Suddenly there are limits based on ability, strength or circumstances in life.  For a time at least our wisdom attained through a lifetime of experience and study tend to make up for the loss of physical abilities.  But no matter how many vitamins we take or treatments we undergo, age will begin to have its affects on us.  We will begin to have definite limits on our abilities.

For Peter it would come before he would have been considered by most as really old.  It was during the lifetime of preaching and teaching the word of God.  He was still very active in the church and serving the Lord.  But the Roman emperor had him arrested and he was delivered to be crucified.  If our traditions are correct, he refused to be crucified like Jesus and asked to be crucified upside down.  When he was young he felt sure that if he were faced with death for Jesus he would be ready to do it.  But when the real trial came instead of facing death he denied being his disciple to save his life.  When he faced what he had done it broke his heart.  But Jesus forgave him fully and gave him the responsibility of preaching the sermon of the gospel before the multitudes on Pentecost where 3,000 people gave their lives to Jesus and were baptized.  From that day on he stood tall every time he was tried.  In Acts 12 when it looked like Herod would have him executed he was sleeping soundly the night before his intended death.

But when he was old things would change.  He would be led where he didn’t want to go and face a death he didn’t wish to die.  But in that process he would glorify God by his death.  It seems somewhat strange to us to talk about a person glorifying God through some kind of awful death at the hands of evil people.  It would have felt that Satan was winning and that the cause of Christ was losing the battle when he was put to death.  But God’s point of view was that his death would be a means of glorifying God.  Think about how the church must of felt when they heard the news that Peter had been executed.  I suspect many felt the church had gone through a horrible loss.  Likely there were many who wondered how they would be able to go on without him.  But the truth is that God’s work never rises or falls on the actions or life of a single person.  God used Peter in a mighty way.  But there are always those ready and waiting to serve and probably reach some people those like Peter would never be able to reach.

I remember visiting one day with a man who had been a leader in the church for many years and it was obvious even to him that death wasn’t far off.  As we sat and talked about the church and the future he said, “I just wonder how the church will survive when I’m gone.  I feel like I have carried it on my shoulders for a long time.”  He was a good man but the church went on just fine after his death.  People moved into leadership roles that wouldn’t have been considered in the past.  In many ways it actually did better.

Many years ago Brother Gus Nichols was visiting with a group of preachers and was talking about how we get those feelings that everything hangs on us.  He had a bucket of water sitting upon the stage and he asked each of us to walk up and put our hands down into the water and pull them out again.  It seemed like a strange exercise but we respected him and did it.  When we sat down he asked, “Now how big a dent did you leave in the water when you pulled your hand out?”  The point was made.  In life we may get those feelings of self-importance that everything will fall apart without us, but the Lord holds it all in his hands.  Our job is to follow Jesus and glorify God by life or death.

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MOUNTAINS AND MOLE HILLS

Jesus had a different way of saying that sometimes we make mountains out of mole hills.  He said that people strain out a gnat and swallow a camel but the point is the same.  I suspect it is a universal problem.  It is so easy to get all excited about something that doesn’t make any real difference while overlooking things that are of extreme importance. But when we do so, whoever we are or whatever the topic we take away both from the matters that are really important and we waste worlds of time and energy on the insignificant often keeping us from what is important.  I believe it is a tactic of Satan.  Imagine the magician or even the pick pocket who gets you to look in one direction while all the time he is doing something outside the focus zone that you aren’t seeing.

Perhaps the very best illustration of this today is all the attention that has been placed on whether or not NFL players kneel or stand during the National Anthem.  I think I am a pretty patriotic person.  But I have to say that whether a ball player stands or kneels at such times is not of great concern.  It would certainly be worth the time and energy to stop and ask the ones who refuse to stand and either salute the flag or put their hands over their hearts, why they aren’t doing so.  There have been a world of things in life that I watched another person do that I thought was wrong or sent the wrong message until I asked them why they did what they did and listened to their reasons.  Many times after hearing the reasons I completely understood and at times even agreed with them.  Other times I have tried to convince them that there were better ways to express their feelings on such matters than the way they had chosen.

Think about so many of the mountains that we face all around us today.  We have nations like North Korea that seem to live and breath the thoughts of how they can destroy us as a people.  We live in a time where division is so bad that the people on the other side of the isle from us of a different political party couldn’t say the sky was blue and us agree with them.  Violent crime is horrible in cities like Little Rock where people too often kill others for the smallest of matters.  People are judged as good or bad based on the color of their skin or where they may be from.  Children are abused and thousands of them are abandoned or ignored by the very people that should be looking out for their interest.  Pornography is warping the minds of young and old alike.  The filth on TV has become so rampant that it is difficult to find anything to watch that actually promotes anything close to morality, much less spirituality.

The point is there are tons of things going on that need our attention, our work and our prayers constantly.  But when Satan can get us focusing instead on things that aren’t of any real significance he must send shout of glee all through the halls of hell.  If you want to make a difference for good look for some real area of need and hurt in the world around you and get involved in trying to do something to help.  Wherever you live there are hundreds of children who have been taken from their homes because of some form of abuse who need foster parents.  Instead of worrying about what a football player does or some actor says, become someone who really does something to make a difference for good.  Think of all the elderly people in the world that feel abandoned because family is so busy with their lives they don’t have the time to spend time with them.  Why not adopt an older person and be their friend, their advocate?  In a day when more young people leave church than remain faithful after they graduate from high school, why not become the person who keeps up with, shows love and appreciation for and is involved in one young person’s life?  In a recent study done on young people that had left the church after they grew up and the ones who stayed, the number one reason given by those who stayed was that there was an adult in the church who wasn’t part of their family that took a real interest in them and kept it up even after they grew up.

Now, if molehills are your thing, there are plenty of them to focus on.  You can fuss about things that you don’t like at church to the degree that your kids grow up thinking it is an awful place they will get away from as soon as they can.  You can put down people who disagree with you to the degree that those around you know never to disagree with you about anything or they will be labeled for life.  You can look so closely at what is wrong in the world that you never see what is right.  You can judge others in such a way that it doesn’t matter what they say or do you will think it is wrong.

But Jesus was always interested in mountains instead of molehills.  Pharisees, Sadducees and the High Priest of his day loved molehills.  Instead of caring about all the people he healed they were just mad because it did so on the Sabbath Day.  Instead of hearing the amazing sermons they were angry that he didn’t wash his hands correctly before eating.  Instead of being overwhelmed that he would feed 5,000 people with a boys sack lunch they were upset that he wouldn’t do it again every day.  Jesus saw hurting, lonely, forgotten people and loved them, accepted them and led them to a better life.  The religious leaders spent their time thanking God they weren’t like those folks.

So, which are you focused on?  Is it mountains or molehills?  Is it camels or gnats?  Thank God we can change our focus whenever we want to.

 

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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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