DEVOTED TO FELLOWSHIP

When the church was launched in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost described in Acts chapter two, there was a vast multitude of people present as Peter preached Jesus to them.  Three thousand people heard the message, believed in Jesus as the Lord and Savior, turned from their sins to God in repentance and were baptized in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins.  Those who were baptized received from God the amazing gift of the Holy Spirit to live in them, lead them, guide them and serve as a guarantee of the blessings to come.  These new Christians devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, to fellowship, to breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42).

Today, I want to focus on that word, “fellowship”.  When we use the word it commonly refers to some kind of activity where lots of people are participating such as a fellowship meal.  The word used here is one that is translated several different ways in the New Testament that gives us some insight into what is involved.  It is the same word translated “communion”, “contribution”, “partnership” or “joint-partners”.  It can also be translated, “joint participation.”  It can be applied to people gathering to worship where everyone participates, to people gathering to work on some project or purpose, to people getting together to eat, sing, pray or serve others in some fashion.  When we jointly support some cause we are involved in fellowship as described here.

Look at the verses that follow as a tremendous illustration of what they were doing that was regarded by God as fellowship.  “Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.  All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold their property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.  Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.  They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

Look at different ways these early Christians were involved in fellowship from the very day they became followers of Christ.  They were together.  They had everything in common.  They were so involved in helping each other to meet whatever needs might arise that they willingly sold possessions to be able to support those in need.  They met together daily in the temple courts.  They gathered in homes to eat with each other with glad and sincere hearts.  They were praising God together.  All of these were aspects of fellowship that went on in this new church from the beginning.

In many ways the local church is a fellowship.  Paul described how the churches of Galatia had extended to he and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship so that they were made partners with the church in its work for the Lord.  When a new person comes into the body, they are accepted into the fellowship and are then partners with every other member of the Body in doing the work and worship God calls us to do.  It was based on this bond of fellowship being so strong that every member felt that they were in a partnership with every other Christian in God’s work, that the church was at times commanded to “withdraw fellowship” from someone to cause them to realize what sin was doing in their life and to lead them back to God.

Too often in our own time the fellowship of the church has become so weak that withdrawing it from someone who is involved in a sin doesn’t lead them to repentance, but to anger that they church would have the audacity to carry out such action.  I’ve heard too many times of churches sending letters to someone to inform them they have had fellowship withdrawn from them when the person really had no fellowship with them to be withdrawn in the first place.  Unless there is true, full and loving fellowship in the body on the front end, withdrawing fellowship serves no purpose to but drive the wedge deeper than ever between the church and the one being withdrawn from.  Most churches need to push the concept of fellowship to new levels so that if the day ever comes that you are forced to withdraw that fellowship from a person it will mean so much to them they will quickly repent to be able to be back in full fellowship with the church.

Having such true fellowship means that every member is seen as a vital, working partner in the work and worship of the church.  This bond is seen by God as so close that he describes the church as a body and each one of us as members of that body.  The only way the Bible ever described a person as a member of the church is in the sense that the church is the body of Christ and we are individual members of that one body.  Too often we think of church membership as being like belonging to a social club where we pay our dues, attend some meetings and are regarded a an active member.  But the church is the living, breathing body of Jesus and to be a member of that body means we have a vital place to fill in it.  So, if one member suffers we all suffer with them and if one member rejoices we all rejoice with them.  It was this bond of fellowship that led to them referring to each others as brothers and sisters in Christ.  They each had God as their father, Jesus as their older brother and saw each other as family. 

It was this same sense of fellowship that led the church in Jerusalem to deal with the problem of Grecian widows being neglected in the daily distribution of food.  They and their families began to complain about the neglect so the apostles gathered the whole church together to talk about the problem.  Peter explained to them that it wouldn’t be right for the apostles to lead the teaching of God’s word and prayer to serve tables so they were to look out among them and find seven men full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, men of good reputation and full of faith who might be put in charge of this work.  They chose seven men and the apostles laid their hands on them to lead in this work.  Notice the texts doesn’t say that these seven men did the work but that they were put in charge of the work.  Their job was to lead in taking care of those who were being neglected.  Fellowship should always mean that no one is being neglected in the body but everyone knows that they matter to God and to the church.  

Think of the fellowship you enjoy as part of a local church today.  What are some things you could do that would build that fellowship?  What if we were really devoted to fellowship in every church?

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TO THE APOSTLES TEACHING

Can you imagine what it would be like to go to a huge religious conference in a city a rather long way from your home and while there hearing some things about a new way of life and new teaching that hit your heart to the fullest extent, so that you made a firm commitment to follow this new teacher and new way of life?  Just imagine that you left home a week ago as a devoted Jew, bound by the Old Testament Law, knowing you were one of God’s chosen people and you were going to celebrate with thousands of other believers the feast of Pentecost.  But while you are there, you hear a loud roar and are drawn to an area where you see men walking around with tongues of fire coming from the top of their heads.  You see they are all men who look alike, yet they are speaking in all kinds of different languages and you can understand what is being said in your native tongue.  Suddenly one man stood up and began preaching to the crowd about a man named Jesus, who was sent from God as Lord and Savior of the world.  Your own people, and people from his own background rejected him and put him to death with the help of Roman authorities.  But then the man preaching said that death couldn’t hold him and that God had raised him from the dead and they were witnesses of the whole thing.  It was this resurrected Lord who had sent the Holy Spirit upon them and this Jesus was now both Lord and Christ. You were one of the ones whose heart broke at the very thought of being part of the reason Jesus was crucified.  You are one of the ones who cried out, “What shall we do?”  When you heard the preacher say, “Repent and everyone of you be baptized into the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” you quickly turned from your old ways to God and were baptized that day.

What now?  You are new to being a Christian.  You came from a very different background.  Your whole world has turned around and your family as a whole will not understand or appreciate what you have done.  So, what do you do now?  One of the amazing verses of Scripture is found in Acts 2:42 when it tells of the three thousand people who had been baptized that day and added to the number of Jesus’ disciples.  “They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

Think with me today about being devoted to the apostles teaching.  All your life you have been devoted to the teaching of the Law.  You have heard thousands of lessons from different rabbi’s explaining what the law said and how we are to apply it to life.  But now, your devotion has changed.  It isn’t now about what the law said.  The focus is on what the apostles of Jesus are saying is involved in following Jesus as Lord and Savior.  It would be several years before the very first letters of the New Testament began to be written down.  So at this point the concern was what Jesus had taught these apostles as the way to live and follow him.  Too often we use the word “doctrine” as some official creedal statement of what people or groups believe.  But the word translated “doctrine” in the Bible simply means “teaching.”  One of the powerful points to keep in mind when thinking about the apostles’ teaching is that later people like Paul would encourage young preachers and teachers like Timothy and Titus to preach “sound doctrine” or teaching.  The word “sound” mean to be healthy.  It wasn’t at all the notion that sound doctrine was some list of beliefs that we must give allegiance to, but the teaching that demonstrated how one could live a healthy spiritual life in relationship with God.

I wish we had access to the lessons these early apostles taught and preached to these new followers of Christ on how to live and serve the Lord in their world.  But as you read through the Book of Acts the recorded sermons tended to focus on people who were Jews or Gentiles whom they are trying to win to Christ, instead of on how to live for him as a disciple.  One would have to focus on the actions of the early church and their treatment of each other and others around them to get any real sense of what may have been involved in the apostles teaching.  Jude, a half brother of Jesus will later write a short book to the early church in which he makes a reference to somethings the apostles had said to them.  In verse 17-23 he records the following:  “But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ.  They said to you, ‘In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.”  It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit.  But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.  And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.”  It is difficult to know where he stopped quoting what the apostles had warned about and started making application of their teaching as an inspired teacher, even though our translators have put in the quotation marks to indicate where they feel it stops.  But there weren’t any quotation marks in the original text.  But it is obvious that the whole section related to the kinds of things involved in the apostles teaching.

Think of a few things in this quotation that would certainly be vital for people of all times.  First, the notion that there will be false teachers who strive to lead people away from the things Jesus taught wasn’t a surprise, but was recognized as what would happen from the beginning.  It started quickly and has been the case ever since.  Involved in such false teaching was the longing to divide those who are disciples of Jesus from each other and cause them to look with suspicion on one another.  Second, the answer to such false teaching was for disciples of Jesus to build themselves up in the most holy faith, which is simply another way of speaking of the apostles teaching.  They were to do that by praying in the Holy Spirit, keeping in the love of God and waiting for the mercy of the Lord that leads to eternal life.  Does that sound like what has happened in your life or the teaching you have heard through the years?  Nothing is said about keeping everyone straight or attacking others that you don’t agree with.  It doesn’t mention anything about making list of who is “sound” and who isn’t.  It begins with the focus on staying in a right relationship with God ourselves through prayer and living in his love and mercy.

But notice, he turned to make application of how we are to deal with others out of the apostles teaching.  It sounds strange to us to hear him say that we need to have mercy on those who doubt, save others by snatching them out of the fire, to show mercy to others with fear, hating the garments stained by the flesh.”  It is right to hate the garments stained by sin, but not to hate the people who are wearing them.  It is the need to act with mercy toward the doubting, struggling and questioning.  Our heart must be that what we long for is for all to be saved, no matter what may have been going on in their life lately.  This fits exactly with the heart we see lived out in Jesus life while on this earth.  He was constantly reaching out with mercy toward those who were rejected by the religious world around him, pulling them from the fires of sin, Satan’s rule and the moral and ethical problems of their life.  His whole heart seemed to be summed up in the phrase, “And he had compassion on them.”  If we had been told that the apostles teaching went in a different direction than that, there would be huge reasons to question if they were really giving us what the Lord wanted them to give.  Their teaching, after all, was with the full intent of taking us to Jesus, the Savior and Lord.  Think of the extent to which God intended us to go to try to make certain those who are fellow disciples of Jesus either stay right with the Lord or are brought back to the right way after they have drifted off into some wrong way of thinking or doing.  The very notion of snatching someone from the fire demonstrates the risks to which we are to go to pull people back into fellowship with Jesus and his people.  Way too often we are content to simply let people go because of their problems or the fact they are always challenging things that we don’t like to think about.  We must not allow the huge points of making certain we are right and helping others to stay right or get right is paramount to our being true to the apostles teaching.

How do we devote ourselves to the apostles teaching today?  Obviously, we have the New Testament so we have access to the full teaching of the apostles, including the letters they wrote about Jesus life and ministry on this earth.  We have the record of life in the early church and we have letters written to churches and individuals telling them how to apply the things Jesus taught us to do to every day life.  It is vital in every age to remember that the apostles teaching isn’t what we heard someone teach when we were growing up or what was done when we first became a Christian.  It is what the New Testament of our Lord actually teaches about life and service to God today.  When looked at correctly, the apostles teaching will always drive us right back to the teaching and actions of Jesus who taught them what to believe and teach.

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DEVOTED THEMSELVES

Today we hear a lot about church planting.  It is a great topic and noble ambition to plant a church in a new or different area to try to reach people for God.  Thinking about the whole topic led me to a question.  What if God planted a church, what are things he would do?  Of course, when you raise that question it quickly leads you to consider Acts chapter two when God did first plant the church that was to spread through the whole world.  That church was in God’s plan from the foundation of the earth and its purpose was to demonstrate to the powers and authorities in the heavenly realms the multi-colored wisdom of God.  That first church started with lots of amazing things.  The Holy Spirit came upon the apostles who were gathered in prayer and there were tongues of fire rising from each of them.  They all began to speak in languages they didn’t know, glorifying God.  People heard the great noise and gathered to find out what was going on.  Peter stood with the others and began to preach to them about Jesus.  He pointed to the fact that Jesus had come into the world to bring us salvation but by God’s determined plan and foreknowledge, he was crucified, but God didn’t leave him in the grave.  Death couldn’t hold him, so three days later he was raised as Lord and Savior.

When the people were cut to their heart on realizing they had been involved in putting to death the Savior they cried out to Peter and the other apostles, “Men and brothers, what shall we do?”  Peter told them to repent and for all of them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins and they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit for the promise was for them, for their children and for all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God shall call.  Three thousand of them were baptized that day.  But it was what happened then that really involved the planting of a church.  In Acts 2:42 it says, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  In the following verses and chapters Luke described how these four things were dominate in their lives and actions.

Suppose you wanted to plant a church today in a different section of Little Rock, what are some things you would do to assure the success of this new church?  What would you want the people to devote themselves to doing so that it might be, both what would reach people and please God?  The problem so often when we think about planting a church, is that we tend to think more about what will bring people in, than what would please God and that is the reverse of what should be the case.  Being popular with people has never been an assurance that it is what God wants.  The truth is, the church that is pleasing to God will always be one that is devoted to the apostles teaching, to fellowship, to breaking bread and to prayer.  These stand as the heart of the church and the heart of God’s plan for the church.

What does it mean to be devoted to something?  One can certainly be involved in something without being devoted to it.  Go to visit any school in the area and look into the classrooms.  You will see lots of young people in class.  Some will be studying and trying to understand what the teacher is sharing with them.  But there won’t be many who are really devoted to what is being taught.  Actually, it is rare to find the teacher that is totally devoted to the class and to the teaching that are being paid to do.  Too often it is a job and one goes through it to fulfill the obligations of the job.  But a devoted teacher who pours their whole being into the subject and the students is an entirely different breed and is one that will bless every student that is privileged to be in their class.

Or choose any work place that employees a large number of people.  Go among the workers and watch their behavior, listening to their conversations and ask, how many of these workers are really devoted to the things this company is trying to accomplish?  There are tons of workers on jobs all over the place.  But finding the devoted worker who has given themselves completely to the mission of their company instead of just being there to do what they have to do to get paid at the end of the week is challenging.  Every employer would love to find that devoted worker who gives themselves fully to the goals of the company.  Usually we settle for workers who will do the job.

Lots of churches do the four things that Luke mentions in Acts 2:42, but that doesn’t mean they are totally devoted to it.  It can just as easily or likely much more so, to walk through the motions and get the job done without any of the passion that we ought to have.  Notice, the text doesn’t say that God made them devoted to these things.  It says they devoted themselves to them.  Being totally sold out to a cause or mission for God is a choice we have to make.  Think about what you are really devoted to in your relationship with God.

I want to think about each of these four things that Luke says the first church was devoted to separately in the next few articles.  I hope you will join me in each of the studies.

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WISE OR FOOLISH

I wish with everything in me that I could have been there that day when Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount.  It laid out the entirety of his message in quick and simple language that the people listening, even though they were not as a whole scholars or even educated people, could understand and apply to their own life.  I have been preaching for almost 54 years yet being able to preach with the kind of clarity and powerful illustrations that Jesus used from ordinary life has always seemed out of reach.  When Jesus came to the conclusion of this masterpiece of a sermon he ended with an illustration from their day to day life than no one could miss.

“Everyone then who hears theses words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on a rock.  And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.  And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.  And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”

Great sermons are interesting to hear and sometimes people marvel at the beauty of the message or the excellence of the words or illustrations.  But the power of the sermon is never in simply hearing it and telling the preacher what a fine sermon it was.  The power is in what we do with it.  Certainly with every sermon preached by a human it is important to examine the message to make certain that what is said is really from God and not one of their own making.  Remember God called the people of Berea a noble people because on hearing Paul preach they searched the Scriptures to see if what he said was true (Acts 17:11).  But the time of examining should come to a conclusion and upon learning that the message is true we should then put it into practice.  Just knowing the truth on anything is of little value if we don’t do anything with the knowledge.

Think about some lessons from this illustration.  Both groups heard the same lesson.  It wasn’t the lesson that made the difference but their reaction to the lesson.  It is also important to notice that the same rain, storms and winds came upon both the wise who were obedient to the message and the foolish who just listened without making any changes in their lives.  Being a follower of the Lord doesn’t protect us from the storms and agonies of life.  As I am writing this a strong hurricane is barreling down upon North and South Carolina and this storm will hit without respect to which homes or businesses are affected.  It won’t skip over the houses or businesses owned by good Christian people and demolish the houses of those who don’t follow His teaching.  Far too often people have gotten the notion, likely from listening to a teacher or preacher who taught it to them, that if we follow the Lord then he will keep us from facing the storms of life at all.  The result of such thinking is that people are shocked when their families are hit with cancer or with some other major illness or problem in life.  Time and again in visiting people in the hospital I have heard people say that they just can’t understand why this is happening to them since they are Christians.  Many asked, “What did I do wrong that God would allow this to happen to me?”  The right answer is that such problems, storms, rain, and winds come upon all people in one form or another.  The old saying is true that if we think that if we could just swap our problems with those of someone else we know that just seems to have everything going their way, we would likely want to swap back within a week of getting theirs and finding out what they were really dealing with.

Have you ever seen a house that was built on a poor foundation?  Some years ago I had a friend to call me wanting me to come look at a house near where they lived that was for sale and they thought it was a tremendous buy and I should think about it.  I went to look at the house and sure enough it was beautiful on the outside.  But when you went into the house the doors wouldn’t shut right.  The floors in some rooms were lower than in others and it wasn’t because it was built to be that way.  I went around back and looked under the house to see what was going on.  It had slipped off the beams that were there to hold it up and was in real danger of collapsing at any time.  They builder had put lots of effort into making the house beautiful, but hadn’t spent the time, effort and understanding to make the foundation secure.

Jesus said that in life it is exactly the same way.  If we take the message he proclaimed and lived before us and do what he teaches us to do to the best of our abilities, we are building our lives on a solid rock foundation and when the storms of life hit us we will stand the test.  But when we make it our practice to listen to the message of the Lord but make no changes in our lives then we are building our lives on sandy soil and when the storms come we will be swept away in the storms.

The real question is how am I building my life?   Am I intent on hearing and doing God’s will or just on hearing it and knowing the truth?

When Jesus finished the crowds were astonished at this teaching and declared he spoke with authority and not like the scribes, but nothing is said about how many of them actually made any change in their life as a result.  Amazing!

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SAYING AND DOING

It is amazing how much easier it is to talk the talk than to walk the walk.  We sometimes become frustrated at people who say all the right things when it comes to church and being a Christian, but whose lives never match up with the words.  What makes it all the more unnerving is that it is quite often the ones who are the very best at the talk, that at the end of things don’t do well at all with the life part of it.  In Jesus great Sermon on the Mount he very clearly laid out the life that one is to live to be a faithful follower of His.  He even warned of those who would pretend to be teaching his way and actually leading people away from him.  One thing that makes this whole sermon so powerful is that he covered all the bases.  Near the end of chapter seven and the sermon as a whole he said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’  And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”

These three verses from Jesus are huge.  They cover a wide gamut of topics that plague the people of God in all generations.  So, it is vital to look closely at how Jesus handled the whole topic of those who say all the right things but whose lives don’t match up with their words.

Saying “Lord, Lord” is a good thing.  Luke pictures Jesus on another occasion asking, “Why do you call me “Lord, Lord, and fail to do the things I say?”  The word means one who is the master, the ruler.  If I call someone my lord I am declaring that I follow their lead.  My very becoming a child of God involves my willingness to make Jesus the lord of my life.  In Romans 10:9-10 it says, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For with the heart may believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”  The whole notion that I can have Jesus as my savior without submitting to him as my lord completely misses the mark of God’s teaching.  Jesus knew there would be those who were ready to declare his lordship but would never follow the teaching he laid down, so he made it abundantly clear that you don’t get into the kingdom of Christ with such claims.  Remember the whole point of being in the kingdom of Christ is that we have made Jesus king of our lives.  One couldn’t claim to be part of the Roman Empire and reject the rule of the Emperor.  Neither can one be in Christ’s kingdom and reject him as king, as lord in your life.

What makes this passage all the more revealing is that Jesus pictures these people coming before him in the judgment still very much believing that they are right with him and will be ushered into his heavenly realms.  They were shocked to find that calling him lord and doing lots of things in his name didn’t cover the bases for them.  They had the wording right and they were doing lots of good things in his name.  Look at their list of great works they were doing in the name of Jesus.  They were prophesying in his name.  The basic meaning of the word prophesy is to “Speak forth God’s revelation.”  It most often referred to a miraculous speaking of God’s revealed will.  God often referred to the Old Testament prophets as “Men of God”, a phase only used in the books of I and II Timothy in the New Testament.  In I Timothy 6 Paul spoke of Timothy as “O man of God.” and in 2 Timothy 3 he talked about the scriptures as furnishing the man of God completely for what he needs to preach and teach God’s will.  Most likely these were people who strongly believed that God was giving them special revelations of His will for them to share with others.  So, when they faced judgment they felt secure, believing that God had often revealed his will to the world through them.  Yet, they were wrong!  They weren’t right with God at all.

The next group felt secure in their salvation because they had cast out demons in the name of the Lord.  Remember there were many who believed they had the ability to cast out demons.  When the religious leaders accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub the price of demons, Jesus pointed out to do so would have Satan casting out Satan and his kingdom would fall, but then he asked them if he was casting out demons by Beelzebub, by whom were their children casting them out?  Exorcising demons has been part of different religious work in multiple areas and they believed strongly that if they could cast the demons out then surely they were right with the Lord.  Yet, they were mistaken.  I don’t know if they were really able to cast out demons or only believed they could, but either way what was done led them to the wrong conclusion.  Their actions didn’t demonstrate that they were right with God.

The third group weren’t so specific in their claims.  They simply said they had done many mighty works in the name of the Lord.  We can’t be sure what kind of things they had in mind.  It may have been great service projects that helped lots of people deal with problems in their life.  It may have been some glorious project that was intended to bring lots of people to Jesus.  All we know is that in their estimation, they had done mighty works for God in the name of Jesus.  Surely if you are out working for God and giving him the glory for your good deeds in the world, then when you face him in judgment you will be praised for you good deeds and invited into the eternal kingdom to be with the Lord forevermore.  But, surprisingly Jesus said that these too would be told that He had never known them and that they must depart from him.  Think of the implications of Jesus saying to them, “I never knew you.”  It is very different from saying, “I don’t know you.”  His point to these people that felt so good about their spiritual lives was that they had never been right with him.

He then called these very people who thought they were right with him and doing his work in the world, “workers of lawlessness.”  The powerful lesson is that no amount of saying the right thing or doing good works will take the place of submitting to the Lord and doing His will in our lives.  It isn’t up to us to come up with some magnificent way we can do great things for God.  It is up to us to follow Jesus and do what he calls us to do.  Judgment is coming for each of us one of these days and Jesus longs to invite every person that stands before him to come on in and enjoy the blessings of his kingdom that has been prepared for us from the foundation of the world.  But only those who submit to him as lord will actually be welcomed into his kingdom forevermore.

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WATCH OUT

Jesus was nearing the conclusion of the greatest recorded sermon of all time, that we know as the Sermon on the Mount.  He had challenged them to enter the narrow gate and walk the narrow road that leads to life and pointed out that the easy way was to simply go with the flow and take the wide gate and travel the broad road that leads to destruction.  If anyone looked at the destination and realized that one way ended in horror and the other way ended in eternal life with God, it would seem that we would quickly choose the narrow road and have the greatest blessings possible.  But we would be fooling ourselves to think that way.  Even in every day life most can’t seem to delay gratification long enough to have a better future, but are willing to sacrifice the future to have what I want right now.

Jesus turned from that challenge to a warning.  “Watch out for false prophets.  They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.  By their fruits you will recognize them.”  From the beginning God used prophets to guide the people who followed him in the right way.  Jesus even declared that John the Baptist was greatest among the prophets.  If you look back through the Old Testament you meet lots of great people that God referred to as “My servants the prophets.”  But there were also those people who were false prophets that led people in the wrong direction.  One of the classic stories of the Old Testament with regard to prophets was told when Jeroboam led the ten tribes of Israel away and set up the idol gods for the people to worship.  God sent a man of God from Judah as recorded in I Kings 13 to go to Bethel and condemn the actions of Jeroboam.  Jeroboam was standing on the altar when the prophet cried out, “Altar, altar! This is what the Lord says:  A son named Josiah will be born of the house of David.  On you he will sacrifice the priests of the high places who made offerings here, and human bones will be burned on you.”  He gave the sign that the altar would split apart and the ashes be poured out.  Jeroboam was horribly upset and cried out for the people to arrest the man, but his arm wouldn’t pull back after that so he then pleaded with the prophet to pray for his arm to be restored.  He did pray and the arm was restored.  Then Jeroboam tried to get him to come home with him and eat with him but the prophet said God had told him not to eat there and headed back home.

But there was an old prophet who lived there and his sons came home to tell him what had happened.  He went out after the young prophet and caught up with him.  He asked him to come back to his house and eat with him but the young prophet explained that God had told him not to eat there and to go straight back to Judah.  The old prophet lied to him and said that God had sent an angel to speak to him to tell him to bring the young prophet back to his house to eat with him.  He believed the lie and went back.  While eating God spoke through that old prophet to say to the young prophet, “This is what the Lord says, You have defied the word of the Lord and have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you.”  On his way home a lion came out and attacked and killed the young prophet for his disobedience.  So, God actually spoke through the lying old prophet to him.  But he suffered because of the deceit of the old prophet and believing a lie.

So, Jesus challenges us to watch out, to test the prophets to see if they are the real thing.  Later in I John 4 the apostle John will pick up the same thread when he commanded us to be on guard against false prophets for many false teachers have gone out into the world.  He told us to test the prophets to see if they were for real.  If a prophet denied that Jesus came in the flesh he wasn’t for real and was really anti-Christ.  Compare this with Jesus point that we can determine if the prophet is the real thing by checking their fruits.  Good trees don’t bear bad fruit and bad trees don’t bear good fruit.

There are two ways a person can be a false teacher or prophet.  One can be false in that they teach the truth but fail to live what they teach.  Jesus told the disciples to do what the scribes and Pharisees said to do since they sat in Moses seat, but not to do as they did because they didn’t live by what they taught.  If the life of the teacher doesn’t match the message they preach or teach then they are a false teacher and shouldn’t be followed.  Now understand that no one lives a perfect life except Jesus.  So in talking about not living the life I’m not saying one must live perfectly as their teaching should be.  But one must be trying to live by the very standards they would place on others.  In Paul’s words we should be able to say, “Follow me as I also follow Christ.”

The second way and the one we tend to hear more about is that one may be a false teacher in that what they teach isn’t really what the word of God teaches.  In John’s time many were preaching that Jesus didn’t really come with a physical body like ours but he was a spirit being and only looked like he had a physical body.  Thus when he went to the cross he didn’t really suffer and die as a man for us.  It was all pretense.  John will declare in 2 John 9 that “Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.”  Paul’s challenge to his young friend Timothy was to “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction.”  He had just pointed out that all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching for rebuke, for correcting and for instruction in righteousness so the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work.  Paul referred to some false teachers in Galatians 1:8-9 by saying, “Though we or an angel from heaven preach any other gospel than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.”

There will be false teachers in the world as long as time goes on.  Our challenge is to watch out and be able to identify the false teacher and the one who is true and follow the teacher that is really striving to teach the word of God clearly and striving to live by the same message he is preaching to others.  But how can we know whether a teacher or prophet is real or false?  Jesus said, check their fruit.  Check to see how the lives of those who are being taught is affected.  Check to see how the person who is teaching is actually living themselves in the world.  Only follow anyone who looks like Jesus and helps you follow him more closely all the time.

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DON’T MISS THE RIGHT ROAD

Before the days of GPS it was a constant struggle to stay on the right road.  All the maps in the lap, didn’t seem to assure me that I was heading in the right direction.  Even with the GPS update, I’ve still had some times when I either entered something wrong or the maps got it wrong so that I ended up in some place a long way from where I had intended to go.  Spiritually it is the same problem.  We can easily get off on the wrong road in our spiritual life and be moving further away from God and His will when we believe we are heading in the right direction.

A key passage in the Sermon on the Mount is found in Matthew 7:13-14 where Jesus said, “Enter through the narrow gate.  For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life and only a few find it.”  In many ways this seems to be a strange teaching.  After all Jesus invited everyone who is weary and burdened down in life to come to him to have rest to our soul.  He even declared that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.  His plea was for us to take his yoke and learn of him.  So the narrow road isn’t found by only a few because there aren’t many invited.  Everyone is invited.  Also, it isn’t the case that not many enter that way because preparation hasn’t been made for them to be saved.  Jesus went to the cross to taste death for every person according to Hebrews 2:9.  When he gave the disciples his great commission it was to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature and he who believes and is baptized will be saved (Mark 16:15-16). Matthew’s account of that same commission was as you go into all the world, make disciples from every ethnic group, baptizing them into the name of the father, the son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you and I will be with you always even to the end of the age.  He wouldn’t have commissioned us to carry the gospel to all people if only a select group of them could be saved anyway.

So, why do the majority of people travel through the wide gate and travel the broad way that leads to destruction? Do they not realize the destination?  Imagine meeting someone at a convenience store who is getting gas and you ask them where they are going.  They tell you they really don’t know where they are going, but it is such a nice, wide road that is so well kept and easy to drive they are just traveling on it without any view to a destination.  What if you then said to them, “Do you realize that there is a bridge out twenty miles down the road and there aren’t any exits between here and there, so it is extremely dangerous and not well marked before you come to the missing bridge?”  What would you think if their response was, “Well, it is such a good road and so well kept, I think we will just keep going and take our chances on the future?”  Most of us would be amazed that anyone would be so thoughtless in light of the warning that you gave them.  You would likely asked yourself, “Did they not believe me?  Should I have been clearer? Should I have tried to stop them and described what it was like if you went off the end where the bridge was supposed to be?”  I often feel that same frustration when talking with someone who is living in sin and makes no attempt to change their life even though they will tell you that they know that if they died as they are they would be lost forever.

So, why do people stay on the broad road?  I am sure there are tons of reasons.  Some stay because it is such an easy road and there is plenty of room on it for them to do as they please and still travel it.  Some stay on that way because of all their friends and family that are there and they don’t want to leave them.  Some stay on that road because the Narrow road seems so difficult to them and they just don’t really believe that they could travel that road.

Just how narrow is the gate and road in that way that leads to eternal life?  It is wide enough for anyone who out of faith in Christ as Savior and Lord, turns from their sins to God in repentance and declares their faith in Jesus, being baptized into Christ where they rise to walk in newness of life.  It is wide enough for me to travel with all my friends and family that make the same commitment to God.  It is wide enough for people to travel it that are weak and struggling, but who put their faith in Christ and walk in his way, being forgiven of their sins and failures as they are cleansed by the blood of Jesus.  It is wide enough for a person who comes to Christ to never stumble or fall on it.  Peter said that if we as followers of Christ add to our faith goodness, to goodness knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control, perseverance and to perseverance, godliness, to godliness, mutual affection and to mutual affection love, we will be fruitful in our service to God and will make our calling and election sure, thus assuring that we will never stumble or fall and will have an abundant entrance into the eternal kingdom (2 Peter 1:5-11).

The narrow road is so narrow that I need the help of the Holy Spirit to walk that way faithfully.  I can’t do it on my own.  For that reason at the moment we out of faith are baptized into Christ God gives us the Holy Spirit to dwell in us, strengthen us, help and lead us in the way we should go.  Paul said the Spirit helps us in all our weaknesses in Romans 8:26.  Besides that Jesus promises to never leave or forsake us so that we may boldly say, “the Lord is our helper, I will not fear what man can do to me.”  We have God as our father who listens to our prayers, and blesses us as we live for him.  He even measures the temptations that can come our way to make certain we aren’t tempted beyond our ability to overcome it.  On top of all of that we have the help and encouragement of every other Christian that is part of the same family of believers and is part of the body of Christ alongside us.  One of the greatest charges of the New Testament relates to how many times and ways God tells us to help one another in living the life he calls us to live.  This life on the narrow road is called by Jesus the abundant life.  It is the life where we have all spiritual blessings that heaven has to offer a person.  Jesus said that in this world as we live that life we receive back a hundred times over everything we give up to follow him and on top of that, in the world to come we have eternal life.

It is certainly understandable that people talk lots about the blessings that we will receive in heaven when this life is over.  That is after all the destination for everyone on that narrow road.  But sometimes we are so intent on the life to come we miss out on the marvelous blessings that are here and now for those who live in Christ.  By far the greatest, happiest, fullest and most blessed life anyone can live in the here and now is the life for God walking the narrow road that leads to life.

It is vital that we be careful and check the road that we are on using the GPS of God’s word to guide us, because Satan constantly is working to convince those on the broad road that they really are on the narrow road that leads to life. It may well be that many will not be aware they were on the wrong road until they reach their destination.

Leon Barnes

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