Friday, September 29, 2017

The Wrong Question (Part 1 of 2)

As a pastor, I have been asked many questions. One question that is pervasive, although it takes various forms, could be simply stated as, “Will I go to heaven when I die?” As the title of this post suggests, I believe that is the absolute wrong question and I will explain why momentarily. However, to provide an answer to the question above, all I can truly admit to anyone is that I cannot know that answer for anyone but myself. 1 John 5.13 states that we can know that we have eternal life, but I cannot necessarily know about you nor can you know about me. We might suspect the answer, but God searches (and knows) the heart. You and I can only see the outside evidence. Certainly, the fruit of faith is important, but just as the fruit we eat can look deceptively good (or bad) it is the inside that truly matters.

But let me turn towards the primary reason for this post. In fact, 1 John 5.13 provides evidence for my statement about going to heaven being the wrong answer. You might not see it at first, and if so, it is because of a definition that many have entrenched in their minds. The verse says, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.” Do you see the answer now? If not, let me clarify.

Eternal life does not begin when we die – it begins when we “believe in the name of the Son of God.” Now that doesn’t mean we know the name Jesus, it means we have faith in the name and all that He represents. But the point here is that we have life when that faith begins, not when we die. Thus, when we ask, “Will I go to heaven when I die?” we are really saying, in some fashion, “Will I get to enjoy all God has promised once I die?” (More specifically, many people are asking “Have I done enough to get to heaven?” but that is a worse question, in my opinion, and deserves another post altogether.)

The reason that the earlier question is the wrong one is that Jesus has promised to be with His people always (Matthew 28.20), and sent the Spirit to guide us throughout our lives as Christians (John 14.16-17; 15.7). Furthermore, those who follow Jesus are children of God (1 John 3.1-2), and that benefit begins on earth...we need not wait for heaven.

I realize of course that this earth is not what heaven will be. Problems we face while living on this side of eternity will disappear completely on the other side. But that fact is true of eternity, not of heaven. Heaven is a place and may represent our concept of eternity, but heaven was created, just as was the earth. Thus, we need not focus on “going to heaven” we need to keep our focus on God, not a place we might idolize by our desiring to be there.

Ultimately, we must ask ourselves if our goal is to be in heaven or to be with Jesus. The two need not be mutually exclusive, but, I fear, for too many people heaven is the greater goal. For me, I do not care if I ever go to heaven and long as I am with Jesus. Eternity for me is about being with a Person, not being in a place. In Part 2 of this two-part series (next week), I will elaborate on this idea further.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Revolutions and The Reformation

Most individuals, including Christians, have a very limited understanding of The Reformation. I am certainly not an expert on the causes, the events, nor even the outcomes of The Reformation; however, I have studied each of those components in the past, and, particularly this year, have grown to understand and appreciate them so much more. Because the 500th anniversary of Luther’s infamous nailing of the 95 theses being celebrated next month, it is certainly fitting that our church, like so many others across the world, are teaching the primary principles (the 5 Solas) of The Reformation and other aspects of it as well (e.g. important people). But, make no mistake, the central theme of The Reformation was Jesus Christ.

The purpose of The Reformation was not to cause a revolution against the Church. A revolution is typically characterized as an attempt to overthrow an oppressive government or ruling system. Many such instances exist in history such as America fighting The (American) Revolutionary War against an oppressive England. Although many factors must be considered, taxation without representation was a strong theme – representing a type of oppression for the colonists. America’s success against a foreign power led to other revolutions such as The French Revolution (which was an internal fight against the tyranny of the monarchs). These, and other revolutions, usually begin with a group of revolutionaries taking up arms and fighting for their (perceived) rights. Sometimes, as in the American and French Revolutions, the revolution was successful. Other times, they were not. (Click here for a list of various revolts in history – you may be quite surprised at how many there have been.)

But the Reformation was not about bringing progressive change; rather, it was about restoring what had been – a re-forming of the Church to what she once was.* Luther and others were not seeking to overthrow the Church, they were focused on calling to attention some erroneous practices of the Church. The result was a branding of heresy against many of these individuals which led the Church to seek to destroy these ideas and, if necessary, the men who espoused them. Thus, the difference in ideals between most revolutions and The Reformation may begin with the direction of intent. Most revolutions seek change from without (e.g American colonies against England), while reformers wanted to make changes from within (Luther was a Catholic priest, for instance).

* Progress is typically considered positive change although what is defined as positive may be interpreted differently by various individuals or groups. To regress, on the other hand, means to go backward.

The Reformation was about making positive changes by returning to the past. It may have seemed like regression to some, but what one perceives to be the focus dictates their reality. The reformers focus was on the Bible (solus Scriptura), so going back to a previous time was not to regress. Instead, it was meant to capture what was best from a previous time and move forward based upon that reality (progress). The religious leaders, on the other hand, focused on the Church, so going back was a threat to their leadership. Thus, any return to the ancient past was regression.

The ultimate point here is that The Reformation was not meant as a true revolution. Many who lived in the 1500’s may have seen it as such, and some today may believe the same. However, a study of the two words shows a great difference in purpose and in process. Certainly revolutions may be necessary at times, and perhaps (PERHAPS) the world may have eventually revolted against the Church in Rome had the reformers not been successful in their efforts (at least, as successful as they were, however you might consider it). 

But a revolution was not necessary and a return to the past did occur for many thousands of people. It was a return to the past that undoubtedly changed the projected future. As we adhere to those same principles today (sola fide, solus Christus, solus Scriptura, sola gratia, and sola deo gloria), we can continue to reform our future as we serve a King against which no revolution will prevail.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Disciples, Equipping, and Priests

One of the most amazing truths in life is how the Bible fits so well together. I am aware that some passages seem to contradict one another, but I have a high view of God and the Bible, so my view of those differences are we lack the proper understanding; God did not make a mistake. Many examples of God providing understanding to humanity at some point are evident. For instance, many towns/cities that are mentioned in the Bible are discovered by archaeologists after it has been deemed that the town simply “could not” have existed. More to the point, the Bible itself shows God revealing further understanding over time (consider the “mystery” Paul mentions in Ephesians 3.3 – the mystery referring to Jesus being God’s plan for redemption.)

Why do I mention how well the Bible connects to itself? Let me answer that by providing a key thought made by Jesus, by Paul, and by Peter.

Jesus: “Go therefore and make disciples...” (Matthew 28.18)
Paul: “And he equip the saints for the work of ministry...” (Ephesians 4.11-12)
Peter: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, ...” (1 Peter 2.9)

How do these three statements relate? Well, a biblical understanding of the priesthood must include those who do ministry. According to 1 Peter, which alludes to Exodus 19.5-6, all of God’s people are priests. The Exodus passage is given prior to the distinction of the Levites being the designated tribe from which priests were called. Peter’s letter makes this clear as well – all are priests. While this idea may seem foreign in a culture that thrives on specialization (which certainly includes ministerial staff), the truth is that the Bible is clear that we are all to serve God, and, therefore, the term priest should not be reserved for paid clergy of any, or all, denominations.

And yet, some people are called to a higher position with the Church. Paul’s words remind us that God has called some to lead the church in a special way (as apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers per Ephesians 4.11). This leadership is to equip others to do the work of ministry. That is, these leaders are to prepare people to be serve God in a variety of ways. If we connect this idea to the previous paragraph, then these leaders are to equip people to be...priests. Most might initially think this is the work of a theological school, or even a monastery, however, the Bible is clear that the work begins within the context of the church.

So, church leaders are to equip others for the work of ministry (while being involved in the ministry as well). What is the work of ministry? Jesus made this abundantly clear in the last words recorded in Matthew's account of the gospel - make disciples. Effectively, the idea of equipping is certainly in sync with making disciples and making disciples is certainly a big part of the work of ministry that the saints are to do. So, the leaders make disciples of others who will then make more disciples. Some of those new disciples will become leaders who will do more equipping and more disciples will continue to be made.

By combining the terminology from the prior paragraphs, the following is a reasonable summation:

    All Christians are to serve God who has called these servants His priests. These priests 
    are to make disciples which simply means helping others what it means to be a priest 
    for God. Some of these priests will be specifically called by God to lead others in a way
    to ensure people are being prepared (equipped) for the task of ministry – that is, to 
    make disciples. 

While not all may be called by God to be a specific kind of leader, all Christians are called to lead, because as we serve as priests, others will be watching. And it is these others who need to be led to know who Jesus is, what He has done, and ultimately how to serve Him as a priest themselves.

Again, the Bible fits together perfectly. Many other instances exist, but as I preached this past week on the idea of God calling a “new” priesthood at the beginning of The Reformation, my mind was stirred to consider the thoughts I have shared here. As a pastor, many look to me (expect me) to serve in a way that they cannot. Because this idea has become so ingrained in (church) culture, I understand the premise, but if I/we clearly understand this teaching of the Bible, we must all do our part, and I must lead that process so that, ultimately, all will be serving as the priests of God we are called to be.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Idea of Hope


The word hope evokes many thoughts – most of which concern our immediate situation. Currently, many in the Houston area hope to be able to return to their homes soon while many in Florida (and the Caribbean in general) hope that the next hurricane (Irma) does not cause immeasurable damage over the rest of this week or so. On a less magnificent level, we hear the word hope used about gifts (I hope I get ...), sports teams (I hope my team wins), and other aspects of life.

In the previous paragraph, all uses of the word "hope" were as a verb – which I would guess is how the word is used 90+% of the time. But to what end? Frankly, it doesn’t matter how much one hopes for, or about, anything, it is not hope that will make it happen. Perhaps, what is necessary is skill, work, time, or some other idea, but to say I hope is really a replacement for saying “I wish” and wishing something to be true does not make it so.

However, humans absolutely need hope. But as I have used the word here it is a noun. And that is where the idea of hope excels. Again, we may hope (verb) something to be true, but that will not make it so. True hope (noun) on the other hand, is what allows us to press on when the storms of life come our way whether the storms are literal (as in a hurricane) or figurative (as in diagnosis of a disease, etc.). When we have hope (noun), the question becomes in what is our hope (noun) based.

Living in the world, and not of it, requires us to place our hope in matters beyond this world. While hope is different than faith, both are intertwined. Christians are to place their faith in Christ whose return Paul calls “our blessed hope” (Titus 2.13), not because we wish (hope as a verb) for it to come true, but because it certainly will happen in God’s timing as He has promised. It is that promise that should prompt us to remain hopeful (full of hope, noun) even as the world around us may seem to be falling apart – an idea represented by the phrase post tenebras lux (after darkness, light).

Life does bring challenging times. The people in the Houston, Texas area know that to be true right now. The people in Florida are bracing for similar destruction. Sometimes the catastrophe comes completely unexpectedly (e.g. a health issue); sometimes it is reasonably forecast (e.g. a storm), but regardless of how bad the challenge is, hoping (verb) changes nothing. On the other hand, prayer can. Why? Because authentic prayer is a revelation of where our true hope (noun) is found.

So, by all means, have hope. Encourage others to remain hopeful in whatever the circumstance. But don’t hope for the situation to be better, pray for God to do something – even through you – to make it better. Perhaps, your efforts can help bring others to the true hope found in Jesus.