Please turn to Luke 6:17 where we read about Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain”. We’re used to hearing about the “Sermon on the Mount”, but Jesus obviously preached the same message more than once to different audiences. So, this is the “Sermon on the Plain” and you’re going to see lots of parallels to the “Sermon on the Mount”.
This section begins this way:
“And he came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon, who came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. And those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all the crowd sought to touch him, for power came out from him and healed them all. And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said:…”(Luke 6:17–20)
So, that’s the context. Jesus is standing before a “great multitude”. He has just spent time showing His divine power, His divine grace, doing things that only God can do, and the crowd is pressing in on Him seeking to get closer to this incredible power.
This is how it works for all that come to the Lord. They witness His power, see His grace, feel His love, hear His invitation to come and be healed – and it’s attractive. Maybe it’s through seeing the life of a believer, a Christian friend, or through a message they hear from a preacher or teacher, something causes them to see that their world, their whole life, could be different if they meet Jesus. Some are driven by curiosity, wondering at these teachings that go against so much of what the world says. Some are driven by spectacle, hoping to see and experience things that they can’t get anywhere else. But many, if not most, who come to Jesus, are driven by a need for healing.
This is why so many Christians are accused of their faith being a “crutch” to get through life. Unbelievers use the term derisively, implying that if a person would just try harder, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, self-actualize, discover their inner potential, they would be able to accomplish whatever they wanted without the need for outside help – especially help from a “pretend friend in the sky”.
But those who come to Jesus come to Him because they know they’re not strong enough, that the world is too big, the problems too complicated, their resources too few, their bodies and minds insufficient for the task. In fact, Christians don’t just need God as their “crutch”, it’s so much worse. We believe that without God, without the work of Jesus in our lives, the presence of the Holy Spirit, we aren’t just limping and need a crutch – we’re dead and need a resurrection.
It is our need that drives us to God’s power in Jesus, just as it was for the crowds that day. Our relationships are a mess and we need them fixed. Our bodies are falling apart and we need them healed. Our minds are awash with negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, and we need some kind of reboot. Our emotions are out of whack and we’re hurting ourselves and others out of desperation and fear. We try a whole lot of things, but in the end realize nothing works, and that we are not enough, and so we turn to Jesus for help. Like the crowds, we seek to “touch him”, for “power” is coming out of Him. Power we don’t have, but need.
What Jesus Wants
In the Bible, miracles are always pointing to something else. Miracles don’t just happen in a vacuum, just to be nice, they are guideposts, signs, that point us to something that we are supposed to see.
Jesus’ miracles, just like the Apostles’ and missionaries that would come after Him, were meant to show the crowd, “God is with this person. This person has power and authority unlike anyone else, so listen to Him.” And then the gospel presentation and teaching would follow.
And so it is here. For Jesus, having crowds gather around Him and press in was a good thing and a bad thing. It was good in that He was able to show His grace to needy people, and that they were a sort of “captive audience” that would stick around and listen to what He had to say. But it was bad, because throughout His ministry these same people, the crowds He was gathering, kept misunderstanding His message, mission, and intentions, and started only coming for the miracles and not the message.
What did the crowds want? Access to Jesus’ power and healing of their problems. So, how did they see Jesus? For many of them, Jesus became a means to an end. Come to Jesus, have Him touch you or someone you care about, get that miracle and then go home happy. “Yay, praise God, I can walk, I can see, I’m free of the unclean spirits. Now, back to my normal life just like it was before. I hope Jesus sticks around in case something else bad happens.”
Right? What did Jesus want? He wanted them to look past the miracles and see the One who was performing them. To get their minds off of their bodily needs and see their much deeper spiritual needs. To completely reorient their understanding of who God is, what God expects, and how God intends to save them.
The crowds, after experiencing Jesus’ power, would try to force Him to be their king, lead their armies, conquer their Roman enemies, and be the one who gave them all the food and comfort they ever needed (John 6:15).
That’s not why Jesus came. That’s not what Jesus offers. He doesn’t offer worldly comfort, earthly success, a problem free life. Jesus offers something greater – the salvation of our souls from Hell, the restoration of our relationship with our Creator, a lifetime of fruitful discipleship with Him by our side, and an eternity with Him after we die.
But the crowds didn’t see that. In fact, if you asked them if they would choose healthy bodies and a peaceful life right now – or to follow Jesus as their Lord and Saviour – 99.9% of them would have said, “I’ll take the health and wealth now, please.”
Where Rubber Meets the Road
Today is Father’s Day and, while I don’t want to be overly stereotypical, generally speaking it’s the Father who gives the tough truths and encourages the risky behaviour. When the kid is learning to ride a bike, Mom will make sure the kid has a helmet and pads – while Dad is telling them to wipe their tears, get up off the ground, and then showing them how to ride with no hands. When the kid falls flat at the playground, the mom’s instinct is to run over and see if they’re ok – a father’s instinct is to wait to see how the kid reacts. Will they cry? Will they dust themselves off and try again? Will they pout and want to leave the park? Dad wants the kid to know that really good stuff, the best stuff life has, requires risk, and sometimes that risk ends up causing us pain – but we’ll never be able to get to the really good stuff unless we’re willing to endure the pain. Maybe your dad was different, but in my experience, the dad’s I know are the ones who are more than willing to love their child by dropping a truth bomb and helping them learn how to deal with the tougher side of life. It’s all well and good to say you want to be a firefighter, cowboy, superhero, or famous artist – but it’s another thing to realize what you’re saying and what happens where the rubber meets the road.
I like that phrase, “where the rubber meets the road”. It’s descriptive. It’s about that moment when all the theories and plans and ideas are tested by reality.
When you consider what Jesus says to the crowds with the “Sermon on the Plain”, you’ll see that it’s a very “rubber meets the road” message.
Picture the crowd. This great healer has come to town and they’re out to find him. They bring their sick and needy, carrying them on their backs, just so they can be touched by Jesus. And they witness miracles. The lame are dancing, the blind are seeing their families, the possessed are free and worshipping, the terminally sick are up and excited and hugging their families. What an electric atmosphere that must have been.
And they look at Jesus and think, “This guy is it. He’s the One. He’s going to solve all our problems! He can feed the poor, heal the sick, and has immense power to do whatever He wants. Surely he won’t stop at what we see today. Surely he’s headed to Jerusalem to take back the city, to set up a new kingdom. I’ll follow this guy! He has the power to give me everything my heart desires!”
The Sermon on the Plain
And what does Jesus say? He looks at His disciples, who are surrounded by celebration, who themselves are drooling over the prospect of their Master setting them all up as governors of the reclaimed Israel, with wealth, nice houses, servants, and comfort.
And Jesus says,
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
The term “blessed” there means more than just “happy”. It has more to do with than mere feelings. It speaks of a status and situation where a person is favoured by God, gets extra attention from God, is special to God.
This is exactly the opposite of what everyone was thinking. Everyone thought, “You know when someone is blessed by God, special to God, because they have health, wealth, power, and privilege.” Jesus says the exact opposite. In fact, the word “poor” there had far more implications than just someone who doesn’t have much money. It speaks of someone who is “poor in spirit”, who have so little, who are so needy, that they have nothing but God. Every meal, every step, every decision, everything requires that God gives it to them – because they can’t do it themselves. These are people who have nothing to fall back on, no earthly security, no savings, no insurance, no safety net. They are always on the edge of ruin. Their whole life is a tightrope walk without a net.
“Blessed”, “favoured”, “special to God” are those people. I can’t imagine the crowd’s reaction at this upside down reality that Jesus is talking about. Look at verse 24,
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”
This type of “rich” wasn’t talking about mere economic status. These are people who believe themselves to be better than others, are haughty (Prov 28:11), who use their status and power and wealth to oppress the poor. The one who gives no consideration to the condition of their soul, or their standing before God, or their place in Eternity, but is content to simply have some worldly consolation through their stuff, or make themselves feel better by treating others badly.
Again, this seems so opposite! In their world, and in our world today, we think that the blessed ones are those who have lots of stuff, have power to do whatever they want, don’t ever need anyone else, who can command respect and attention wherever they go. People who others get nervous around, who can demand things and have it happen for them simply because of who they are. That’s who people look up to. That’s who people want to be – rich, successful, powerful, feared. Why? Because their life is better. They we see as blessed. Who do people not want to be? Poor, desperate, insecure, powerless, hand-to-mouth. They we see as cursed.
Jesus flips all that upside-down.
This is why I say this is a very “where the rubber meets the road” message, because Jesus is outlining what life in His Kingdom looks like. Everyone around is thinking, “Let’s make this guy King! Let’s listen to this guy! Let’s do what this guy says! He’ll lead us to great things! He’s really blessed by God, and we’d like to get in on that action.”
And Jesus says, “Yes, I’m here to set up a kingdom. I’m here to inaugurate a new age. I’m here to gather a people for myself, who will follow me. People who will see the world the way I see the world and treat people how they should be treated.”
And Jesus turns to His disciples, the ones who have chosen to follow Him, and says, “Are you ready to hear what life in my Kingdom, with me as King, looks like? Do you want to know the type of people that I’m going to attract, and save, and empower, and use to spread my kingdom and my gospel? Do you want to hear what my Kingdom is all about?”
Look back at verse 20:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.”
And you can hear the disciples say, “Sure, sure Jesus, I get it. You want to use the humble, the hungry, the outcasts because that way you get to show your power and demonstrate what a miracle you can make in someone’s life. For sure. I guess I can get behind that. But then, once you’ve got your army of outcasts ready, then we go conquer our enemies, right? You’re going to destroy the bad people, overthrow the corrupt government, take away the tax collectors who steal our money, punish the rich people who take advantage of us and make us their slaves, the racists who think they’re so great and treat others like garbage… you’re going to wipe them out, right?”
Look at verse 27,
“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.
If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”
“Wow, that’s tough, Jesus. Love our abusers? Give away things and don’t expect them back? That’s not what I expected… But ok. I’ll do that. I’ll treat my enemies kindly. I’ll be content knowing I’m a better person than they are, that they’re condemned to judgement, and even though I’ll treat them nice to their face – I’ll never forgive what these terrible people have done to me and those I love.”
“Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”
“Ok, Jesus, but that’s just your opinion. You’re a good teacher, and you’ve done some good things, but you’ve got some pretty extreme ideas. I’ll take what you’re teaching into consideration, but I’m going to talk to some other people, find some other teachers, read some other books, learn about some other ways of thinking, and then mash that together and come up with something that works for me.”
“He also told them a parable: ‘Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.”
“Oh Jesus, I’m smart enough to know what’s right and wrong, who to trust and who not to? In fact, I see clearly than most. Sure, some of these dummies need you to teach them right and wrong, but I don’t. When I look around I see a whole lot of people that know way less than me, who are way worse than me. I’m really smart, and they need me more than I need them.”
“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.”
“Ok, if my eye is full of logs and I can’t see straight because of my own sins and biases, then, how can I tell who to listen to? How can I know who is telling me the truth? How can I know which people are your followers with your priorities, and which ones are false ones who are trying to mess me up? How can I tell the shepherds from the wolves?”
“For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”
You see, Jesus’ kingdom, His way, His word, are so often the opposite of what we feel is right. Feelings are dangerous. Coming up with our own mashed up version of God or religion or right and wrong is dangerous. We’re not capable.
That’s why Jesus started with, “Blessed are the poor, hungry, weeping, and reviled.” Because if you live a Christian life, if Jesus is your Lord, if you follow the word of God in every aspect of your life, if you pick up your cross daily and follow Jesus – you’re going to end up where Jesus ended up. Jesus was poor, hungry, weeping, and reviled, and those who follow Him should expect nothing less.
Loving your enemies is going to make you more enemies, because people are going to misunderstand you. Even your side will turn on you because you’re not hating who you are supposed to hate.
Knowing you are poor, foolish, sinful, easily led astray, changing how you think about yourself, and wholly trusting that God will lead you and provide for you, is going to confuse a lot of people. Every time you say, “I’m waiting for God. I will not move unless God moves with me. I will not reach for what He hasn’t given me.”, they’re going to get mad at you, argue with you, call you foolish, stupid, lazy, and an extremist. Your faith in God will make faithless people very upset.
Loving the unlovable, the thief, the abuser, is going to hurt. Going back over and over, opening yourself up over and over, giving your heart away over and over, only to have it mangled by the one you are trying to love, will make you spend a lot of time weeping. But that’s how Jesus is. His arms are always open. That’s how God the Father is. He welcomes the prodigal son home with celebration. But it’s hard, and you will weep.
Following God’s word, standing on His promises, doing things His way is going to cause people to revile you. The world, and a lot of people in the church, have real hatred for those who plant their feet firmly on the Word of God and refuse to move unless they are convinced from scripture. They’re going to argue with you, beg you to compromise, and tempt you towards an easier rout – just like Satan did to Jesus in the wilderness. But we respond the way Jesus did – with more scripture. But taking that stand will cause many people inside and outside the church to hate your guts.
Christianity isn’t the easy road. During times like we are going through now, as individuals, as a church, as a province and country, our convictions face real tests. We are forced to decide whether we believe that Jesus is Lord and we have to do things His way despite how we feel – or whether we think we know better because His way doesn’t feel right.
Everyday, especially over the past couple weeks, there have been dozens of really important options laid out before us – ones that are clear in scripture – and we’ve been given the opportunity to either follow Jesus or not. This pandemic, and this season in our church, if it has done anything, it has shown you how strong your convictions really are, how firm your faith really is, how pure your mind really is, and where your weaknesses really are. It’s shown us whether we are ruled by fear or by Jesus, by greed or by Jesus, by our feelings or by Jesus, by popular opinions or by Jesus, by our appetites or by Jesus. I hope you’ve been paying attention, because God has been giving us a crash course on the cost of discipleship lately.
Let me close with how Jesus closes His “Sermon on the Plain” with another, “where the rubber meets the road” statement.
“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you? Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the stream broke against it, immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.”(Luke 6:46–49)
I’m going to give you some time of silence to talk to God, and then I’ll play a final song, and then close in prayer.
Please open up to Luke 5:16. We’re going to concentrate our efforts on one verse today and use it as a jumping-off point for something that I believe is important for us during this difficult time.
Luke 5:16, “But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.”
The NIV translates that “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” The New American Standard Bible says, “But Jesus Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray.”
The question I want to answer today is “Why did Jesus do that?”
The Humanity of Christ
It’s astonishing when you stop to think about it, what Jesus gave up in the incarnation. Jesus, the Son of God, existed before time began, equal to and in perfect relation with the Father. He lived in perfect love, perfect holiness, perfect strength. Omniscient, Omnipotent, Omnipresent. Worshipped by angels, able to create the universe with a thought.
And then, in an act of divine grace and mercy, as John 1:14 puts it, the Son of God “became flesh and dwelt among us.” Literally, the Son of God, “pitched his tent” or “tabernacled” among us. The fullness of God within the confines of a human man. Not to get too technical, but Theologians call this the Hypostatic Union. Jesus Christ, fully human and fully divine, possessing all of the Creators attributes, but also the son of Mary (Gal 4:4-5). He had a human nature that had everything that makes us human, including a human mind, soul, and body. These two natures were perfectly united, without any confusion or division.
He did this to save us because humanity couldn’t save itself. We needed a human representative to stand before the Father, but that representative couldn’t be under the curse of sin. Only a perfect being can stand before God. And so God sent His one and only Son to live a perfect life, and then offer Himself to the Father as the final sacrificial blood offering that the Mosaic Law required. God accepts the death of His Son in exchange for anyone who would believe in Him. And, since Jesus hadn’t sinned, death could not hold him, the grave could not keep him, and He was raised from the dead. As we just read in Acts 2:24, “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.”
It’s really important that we understand the implications of that Hypostatic Union – the perfect divinity and perfect humanity of Jesus. Philippians 2:5–8 says it this way, “…Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
In His “emptying”, Jesus didn’t lose or subtract His divinity, but added humanity to His nature. Jesus chose to be born, to live as a servant, to be in the likeness of men, in human form, obedient to all that meant, obedient to the Father, as limited and frail as any human being.
The Bible records the limitations of his human body many times. He was born (Luke 2:7). He grew up (Luke 2:40, 52). He got tired (John 4:6) and thirsty (John 19:28) and hungry (Matthew 4:2). At times we see him become physically weak (Matthew 4:11; Luke 23:26).
Jesus also had human emotions. “When Jesus heard the centurion’s words of faith, ‘he marveled’ (Matthew 8:10). Matthew 26:38 says that his ‘soul is very sorrowful, even to death.’ In John 11:33–35, Jesus is “deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled,” and even weeps. In John 12:27 Jesus says, “Now is my soul troubled,” and in John 13:21, he is “troubled in his spirit.” The author to the Hebrews writes that “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7).” 
Jesus had a human mind. In Luke 2:52 it tells us that as Jesus grew up into adulthood he, “increased in wisdom and in stature”. At times we see Jesus’ showing a limitation in what he knows, but other times demonstrates supernatural knowledge – but that connected to His spirit rather than his mind.
One way that we see Jesus’ incarnation in action is that when He performs a miracle or does something supernatural, we often read that He did it “by the Spirit of God” (Matt 12:28, Mk 2:8, Luke 4:1 ). This means that part of the limitation Jesus put on Himself would be that He wouldn’t manifest His own power by Himself, but that, like any other human, would be utterly dependant on the Spirit of God, and a connection to His Father. As our perfect example, Jesus knew that He needed to demonstrate how humanity, His followers, was meant to function. And that meant that His power didn’t come from Himself, but from His connection to the Father through the Spirit of God.
This is why, at the beginning of His ministry Jesus reads Isaiah 61:1, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor; He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed…” (Luke 4:18) This is why we read in Acts 10:38 that… “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” This isn’t a statement saying that Jesus was some regular, sinful guy that God gave special powers to… it is a declaration that, while Jesus was fully divine, He chose to require that which humans require – the anointing and blessing of God for the power to do good, face evil, share the gospel, and walk with God.
Now, why am I tell you all this? Because it’s critical that you see that Jesus was fully human before we get to our passage today. Why? Because you’re human too.
There’s a passage I think a lot about these days. It’s from Mark 12:28–32, and you can turn there if you like.
It says, “And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” …”
The description of holistic spirituality is captured in this very short verse, which is a quote from God in Deuteronomy 6:5. The first and most important law for humanity, the only way we can experience eternal life, is to love God with everything we are and to show that love to others. I would argue – and I think most pastors, theologians, and counselors would agree with me – that one comes before the other. We must love the Lord and experience His love before we will be able to love our neighbour.
But look at how it’s divided: Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength. I think those divisions are so critical for us to meditate on. Humans aren’t merely bodies. I don’t care how atheistic or naturalistic you are, you cannot deny that humanity is merely a mechanized concoction of chemicals and matter. You know, inherently, that humans are more than just meat creatures.
In the beginning, when God created humanity, He made us special. He made us in His image. He created our physical bodies, but that’s not all. In order to be God’s image in this world, to be His people, able to be intimately, relationally connected to Him, we needed to be more than merely physical. We needed to be a union of body, intellect, emotion, and spirit.
And so God imbued this physical body with a heart, or emotions, desires, affections. He gave us a soul, or psyche, or consciousness, our being, what makes us unique individuals. And He gave us a mind, or intellect, intelligence. It is the fusion of these four things – heart, soul, mind, and strength that makes a person.
We just covered how these divisions were represented in Christ. And it is in turning all of these areas of our lives over to God that we will experience what it means to be truly human, to know real love, to be able to do good, face evil, share the gospel, and walk with God.
With all this as our background, I want to turn back to our verse today, Luke 5:16. Let’s read it in context starting in verse 12, “While he was in one of the cities, there came a man full of leprosy. And when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and begged him, ‘Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.’ And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I will; be clean.’ And immediately the leprosy left him. And he charged him to tell no one, but ‘go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as Moses commanded, for a proof to them.’ But now even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities. But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.”
This was a bit of a turning point in Jesus’ ministry. We read in 4:40 that Jesus would sometimes already stay up all night teaching and healing people, and that He was already growing in popularity as he went from synagogue to synagogue, but after this event, His popularity skyrocketed.
He commanded the leper not to tell anyone because He wanted to avoid crowds of people who would come for physical healing but wouldn’t care about listening to the Gospel message about all that healing symbolized. Throngs of sick and demon-possessed that would come just for a miracle – and then walk away without turning to Jesus as Lord – would lose out on the reason Jesus came in the first place. He didn’t come to merely heal bodies, but to make a way for us to get back into a right relationship with God.
So Jesus tells this man to do what Moses commands but to keep it quiet. The man disobeys – maybe wanting to help Jesus by spreading the news – and all it does is make things more complicated for Jesus and His disciples. Now, instead of Jesus having the freedom to come into towns and preach in synagogues, verse 15 says that the news about Jesus’ power spread like wildfire and huge crowds would gather every time they heard Jesus was around. This is why we read about Jesus, running away, escaping, and taking off on boats and stuff.
What I want to zoom in on right now is Jesus’ response to this newfound stress and opportunity.
Let’s consider ourselves in that position, which shouldn’t be much of a stretch. You’ve got a life going. You’re doing pretty well. Things are going along pretty steadily, with only an occasional blip of frustration or difficulty, but you’re generally able to do what you need to do every day.
Then something happens. Whether it’s a great success or a great failure, a new opportunity or a huge catastrophe, something changes. Maybe it’s a new job, maybe it’s the loss of one. Maybe you come into some money, maybe you or someone you love gets cancer. Maybe it’s becoming part of a new social group, or maybe it’s a global pandemic. Whatever the case, something lobs a grenade into your life and things change.
New stress, new decisions, new fears and worries, new challenges, new relationships, new costs – all growing beyond your capacity to understand and navigate.
Heart, soul, mind, and strength are all getting tapped. Your emotions are becoming frayed, out of control anger, deep valleys of depression, anxiety starting to drive your decisions.
Your mind is running out of resources. There’s too much data to process, too many opinions and ideas to sift through. You have to remember too many things all at once. Now you’re starting to forget things, to push away new ideas, overusing entertainment because you just don’t want to think anymore.
Your body is getting tired. Stress hormones are causing you to have headaches, your joints are sore, your stomach hurts, you can’t sleep and can’t wake up. Starving yourself has made you weaker, and your comfort foods are making you lethargic.
And your spirit is wearing thin. You’re wracked with self-doubt, regrets from the past, fear of the future. You’re having an identity crisis as you try to figure out who you are in all this. All your bad habits have started to show and you feel guilt and shame. You are stretched beyond your giftings and are starting to drop the ball on important stuff. You don’t show kindness like you used to. You don’t want to be generous anymore because you don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t feel peace like you used to because so many things have been dropped in your lap.
What do you do? What do people usually do?
In truth, they usually blow up their lives. How many people do you know, personally, who went through a time of stress – loss of a loved one, financial crisis, personal sickness, a sudden move, a new career – who seemed like they were doing ok for a while, but then a huge part of their life exploded?
Out of nowhere, they cheat on their spouse.
Out of nowhere, they get caught doing something illegal.
Out of nowhere, they crash their car while drunk driving or end up overdosing and in drug-rehab.
Out of nowhere, they get divorced.
Out of nowhere, you find them covered in scars from self-harm.
Out of nowhere, they lose our gain a huge amount of weight.
Out of nowhere, they drop out of all of their hobbies, interests, teams, stop answering their phone, and go dark online.
Out of nowhere, you find that they’re suddenly interested in weird conspiracy stuff, cults, extremist groups.
That wasn’t “out of nowhere”. This is a person who was stretched beyond the capacity of their heart, soul, mind, and strength – and was stretched so far that something snapped. Maybe you’ve felt it. Maybe you’ve had something snap in you – or someone you know snapped.
It’s all too common and I know more than a few stories. I’m sure you do too. This huge thing didn’t come “out of nowhere” – it was something that built and built and built, and then that sudden change became the catalyst for their life blowing up.
I don’t want that for you. “Oh, it can’t happen to me!” I hear you say. I can introduce you to at least half-a-dozen people who thought the same thing. 1 Peter 5:8, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” Ephesians 4: 27 says, “’In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” (NIV)
The devil, your adversary, is prowling around waiting for you to get tired, weak, to do something stupid. Like an expert climber, he’s looking for that little foothold, that little crack, that opportunity, to grab hold of part of your life… because once he gets into that little crack he can start to wedge in deeper and deeper.
How do we keep from that? How did Jesus keep from that? He had the same weaknesses we do but never sinned, never gave the devil the foothold, never succumbed. The Bible says He was tempted in every way possible (Heb 4:15), that Satan literally got in Jesus’ face on multiple occasions. But He stood firm. How?
Look back at today’s verse, Luke 5:16, “But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.” That’s how. Over and over in the gospels, we see Jesus run away, retreat, sneak away, to make time to pray. He prayed when he was baptized (3:21), prayed when things got busy (5:16), prayed when he was confronted (Mt 11:25-26), prayed before choosing the disciples (6:12), prayed before he walked on water (Mt 14:23), prayed when he was transfigured (9:29), and prayed on the cross (23:46).
The answer to the question, “How did the fully human man, Jesus Christ, not utterly crumble under the weight of His mission, the disappointment of his followers, the ignorance of the crowds, the brutality of his enemies, and the scope of the plan that would become the pinnacle and fulcrum of history and eternity?” is “he would withdraw to desolate places and pray”. The verb tense in this sentence emphasizes that this was Jesus’ regular practice – which is why some translations put the word “often” in there. Jesus would “often withdraw” to pray.
So I ask you today this simple, yet critical question: “Do you think you are stronger than Jesus?” I know, that’s a brutal, heavy-handed question, but just sit in it for a second.
“If Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in whom the Holy Spirit dwelt in power and perfection – absolutely needed to get away and pray – then don’t you think you do to?” The answer is of course, “Yes, you do.” You are nowhere near as spiritually, emotionally, and mentally strong as Jesus Christ – and yet, even in the middle of work, in the morning, at night, before and after big and small events – took off to pray. Shouldn’t you?
Let me read Mark 1:35-37. After a long night of healing, casting out demons, preaching, folks finally start to go home. What does Jesus do? He gets a little sleep and then takes off. Mark 1:35–37: “And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, and they found him and said to him, ‘Everyone is looking for you.’”
I wonder how many times that scene played out during Jesus’ earthly ministry. How many times did the disciples turn around and Jesus just wasn’t there? How many times did they wake up in the morning and have to go find Jesus? How many times were throngs of expectant crowds disappointed because Jesus had completely taken off on them? How many people, expecting to be healed, came to where Jesus was, but He had already snuck away and was now miles from where they were? I bet it was often.
Let’s break this sentence down a bit and really dig into it because I think it’s critical we see what Jesus did.
I think the three most important words are “withdraw”, “desolate” and “pray”. That’s our formula. How do we keep our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, focused on God? How do we ensure that the Holy Spirit has full reign in our hearts, that God has full reign over our souls, that we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16), and give proper, God-given Sabbath rest to our bodies?
We need to “often withdraw”. The word there can also be translated “slip away”. Escape. It means that we leave work on the table. It means we leave people hanging. It means we let the calls go to voicemail. It means we leave the chores undone. It means we don’t watch the show with everyone. It means we won’t be able to accomplish everything on our lists because we have run away to occupy our time with greater things.
This goes against a lot of people’s natural instincts. Most of us feel like we’re letting God down if we aren’t always available to people, or if we don’t finish our daily list. It’s not true. What “lets God down” is when we make ourselves available to people, get our daily list done, but at no point in that day spent any time with Him. It’s not that we’re really “letting God down” though… He doesn’t need us… but He desires us.
He doesn’t want your list of things to do. He doesn’t want your religious activity. He doesn’t want you for your job, your hobby, your social platform, your skills, your abilities, talents, your ideas. He wants you.
He’s a good father that wants to spend time with His kids. Think of it this way: How do you know someone is your friend? Is it when they give you something? No. That’s charity. Is it when they do some work for you? Not really. Is it when they talk about you when you’re not there? Is it when they sit down and read your biography? No.
How do you know they’re your friend? Because they want to spend time with you and do it as often as they can. That’s what God wants. And more than that, it’s what humans need. We are not designed to do anything for a long time. God built physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual limitations in us so we might realize our need for Him.
That’s the first one – you need to “withdraw” – and the second is that you need to go to “desolate places”. The word there is for wilderness, deserts, open pastures, secluded spots. Remember how Jesus taught us to pray, right? Matthew 6:6, “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
How do you know someone is your friend? Because they want to spend time with you. How do you know that they are a close friend, a best friend, or even closer? Because you want to spend more and more time with them alone. If you want an intimate relationship with God, a deep relationship with Jesus, a strong connection to the Holy Spirit – it happens when you are alone and free from distractions.
I don’t need to tell you how to get alone. You know your own life. What I’m trying to say is that if you neglect withdrawing to be alone with God, you are doing harm to your heart, soul, mind, and strength. You are setting yourself up for failure. You are lighting the fuse, however long it is, that leads to you blowing up your life – and hurting yourself and others. You need God’s voice, God’s presence, and God isn’t loud – it’s quiet, soft, and can best be heard when you are alone, quiet, and open.
Let me close with this: You need God. Just as Jesus needed a consistent connection to the Father, so do you. But it won’t just happen. You will never find the time. You must make the time. You must run away from things, escape from things, say no to things, drop out of things, disappoint people, delete the app, unplug the tv or computer, let go of your need for accomplishment, and stop finding your value in how much work you can do.
That is the only way you are going to be able to connect to God. And it’s urgent. It’s a huge deal. The devil is prowling and you are not equipped to resist Him if you are not connected to God. The devil has a foothold in your life and you are not wise enough to see it if you aren’t hearing the voice of God. The enemy wants to cripple your heart, soul, mind, and strength – and he will succeed if you do not “withdraw to desolate places and pray”.
“The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, ‘What are you seeking?’ And they said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and you will see.’ So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘’You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas’ (which means Peter).’
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, ‘Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael said to him, ‘How do you know me?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.’ Nathanael answered him, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered him, ‘Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.’” (John 1:35–51)
We’re back into our study of the Gospel of John and have come to a transitional moment where Jesus begins calling his first disciples. It will help you to recall what we have studied already because we’re going to keep noticing important themes throughout the whole book.
What Are You Seeking?
John is obviously fast-forwarding the story a bit, but there is some really key phrasing to see here. For example, notice the theme of “seeing”. The whole passage starts with Jesus walking by John the Baptist and him saying, “Behold!” to his disciples. “Behold!” is the same word as “See!” The two disciples of John the Baptist, Andrew and John, leave to go walk behind Jesus.
Jesus hears them coming behind Him, turns and says His first words of the whole book, “What are you seeking?” or “What are you looking for?”, another reference to “seeing” used all over the New Testament for people who are looking for something or someone.
Considering how important the themes of light and seeing are in the Gospel of John, we shouldn’t pass by this too quickly – especially since that question and theme dominates the rest of this section.
John and Andrew dodge the question by saying, “Where are you staying?”, meaning “Our rabbi just told us that you’re the Lamb of God, one like the Passover lamb, through whom deliverance from death will come by the shedding of their own blood. And we would like to spend some time with you.”
Jesus’ answer? “Come and you will see.” Now, I promise that when Jesus, the One who created light, the One called the light of the world, says, “Come and you will see.” He doesn’t just mean “Come and see where I’m staying tonight.” He means, “I’m about to open your eyes wider than you could ever imagine.” And then, He does.
And that light shines from John and Andrew to Peter. What was Jesus’ first question? “What are you seeking?” What does Andrew say to Peter? “We have found the Messiah?” Can’t find something without seeing it, right? Seeking and finding. John says, “See!”, then Jesus says, “Come and you’ll see!” and then they say, “Peter, come and see!”
Now, look at verse 43 and we see something interesting. Who does the “finding” now? Jesus does. John and Andrew “found” Jesus. Jesus “found” Philip. Jesus looks for Philip, finds Him, and calls Him.
Excurses: Varied Responses
Pause for a moment and marvel at the different responses to Jesus here. First, notice that Jesus is always the first one to say or do something, but the responses are so varied!
John and Andrew leave their rabbi and Jesus turns and asks them a direct question, but they respond by wanting to spend the whole day talking to him. Jesus is presented to them as the “Lamb of God”, the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, they call him “rabbi” or “teacher” and then spend the day working that out. It seems studious, careful, theological.
Jesus and Peter are different. Peter is introduced to Jesus as “The Messiah”, the “Christ” the “Anointed One”, the Great King and Saviour in the Line of David. Jesus is still the first one to speak, but it’s bold and direct – like a King. Bold and direct like Peter. “This is who you are, Peter. And this is who I will make you.” Peter’s response is to obey and follow, seemingly without a word.
Everyone up to this point is either sent or brought to Jesus, but Philip is different. Jesus seeks Philip out. How does Philip describe Jesus? He uses biblical language, describing Him as the one the scriptures spoke about, but then uses Jesus’ name and address! “Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Philip, at this point, sees Jesus as the man sent by God. That definition will very soon be changed to see Jesus not merely as a man sent by God, but as God become man.
And now, in verse 44 we see another, completely different response to Jesus. What’s really neat here, if you look at verse 45, is that when Philip goes to Nathanael he uses the words “we have found” meaning that John, Andrew, Peter, Philip and Nathanael might have been close friends. Nathanael probably already knew who the “we” was; studious Philip, passionate John and Andrew, headstrong Peter. They had all had some kind of radical experience over the past day or two and wanted to share it with Nathanael. But Nathanael wasn’t an easy sell.
The whole crowd is headed off to follow Jesus, but Nathanael is a sceptic. He knows his Bible. Nathanael being “under the fig tree” may be pointing to the custom where scholars and rabbis would study under vines, fig and olive trees. It meant that Nathanael, a serious student of the Bible, had probably been studying when Philip found him, knew his stuff, and was absolutely committed to God’s word. But here’s the thing. He knows what Moses and the prophets wrote, and there’s nothing in there about Nazareth. Plus, he lived just a few miles away and knew it wasn’t a nice place. The Roman army garrison that lived there gave the town a pretty poor reputation for immorality and lack of commitment to God. Nathanael did the mental math and realized that there is zero chance he will follow any Nazarene as the Messiah.
What does Philip respond with? “Come and see.” There’s our theme again. There was zero point in Philip arguing with Nathanael. He’d probably lose anyway! So Philip says the only thing that would work: “Hey man, you’re smart enough to decide for yourself, but you gotta come and see. I’m convinced. John, Andrew, Peter are convinced. Just come and meet Jesus and you’ll see what we see.”
And to his credit, despite thinking he knows better, despite his prejudice against Nazarites, despite all the scriptures and stereotypes flowing through his mind that said, “This is dumb. Your friends are dumb. I’m not dumb.” he followed his friend anyway. Imagine if he’d been stubborn, stuck to his doubts, thought himself smarter than everyone else, and just stayed by the fig tree. He would have missed Jesus! But, for whatever reason – out of love and trust for his friends, or curiosity, boredom, or to save his friends from throwing their lives away, he went. He would go and “see” for himself.
He went and what does Jesus say? “Behold!” There’s that word again! John the Baptist said it of Jesus, now Jesus says it of Nathanael, “See! Look! Behold! A true Israelite, a man who loves the Word of God, a man in whom there is no deceit, no guile, no trickery, nothing shady. He’s 100% a straight-shooter. This man only cares about one thing: truth. You can’t fool this guy.” It’s an even more complex compliment, because, if you recall where the name “Israelite” comes from, you’ll remember that it was when Jacob, the usurper, the trickster, the one who got his way through deceit and guile and trickery, was wrestling with God. Jacob means “one who wrestles or struggles with God”. That’s how all of Israel related to God. They questioned Him, debated Him, dialogued with Him, tested Him, even aggressively confronted Him. And when they obeyed God, it was with ferocious obedience. 
That’s probably the kind of man Nathanael was. He didn’t just accept anyone’s word, even God’s. Instead, he wrestled and studied and made sure that when he believed something it was 100% true – and no one, like no one, was would have an easy time change his mind.
That sort of personality is a double-edged sword. How does one breakthrough to that kind of person? With a hard that stiff, eyes that focused, and a mind that skeptical, what can God do to breakthrough? Argument won’t help. No amount of conversation is going to change Nathanael’s mind at this point. How is Jesus going to shine light into Nathanael’s soul? Nathanael doesn’t need to hear something about the light – he needs to “see” it.
So Jesus performs a miracle of omniscience. He identifies himself as Messiah by displaying supernatural knowledge. Super-natural knowledge. Knowing things beyond the ability of normal, natural people. And more specifically, not just super-natural knowledge – super-Nathanael knowledge. Jesus demonstrates, in no uncertain terms, that He knows more, sees more, and understand more than Nathanael ever has or could. And Nathanael gets it immediately!
Evidence confirmed, mind changed, allegiance given, 100% absolute commitment to Jesus as his new “Rabbi”, the “Son of God” and His “King”. He says, in effect – “You are now my teacher, my mind is yours to shape. You are now my saviour, my destiny is yours to control. You are now my King, my life is yours to command.”
And then, in an act of grace, Jesus says, “If you’re willing to believe because of one piece of evidence – just wait until you see the rest!” And tells Nathanael, the “true Israelite”, to recall another story about Jacob, often called Jacob’s Ladder – the vision of God’s heaven being connected to Jacob’s earth. Jesus was saying, “Nathanael, you call me Rabbi, and Son of God, and King, but there’s so much more. I’m Jacob’s Ladder, the one who connects heaven and earth – I’m the one you’ve been looking for, Nathanael. The one who will connect everything that you’ve been studying, and thinking, and pondering, and wondering, and wrestling with for your whole life with, together.
There are four things in this story that I want to connect together as some practical applications today.
First, I want you to go back to the first thing Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “What are you seeking?” This is the single most important question you can ask yourself in life and when talking about Jesus. What do you want out of life? What is the most important thing for you right now? What do you desire? Do you know what that is? I promise you it’s not money, or fame, or education, or food, or a mate, or a better job, or more stuff. All that is merely a means to an end. You might think you want freedom from pain, money in the bank, a healthy body, lots of friends, a perfect spouse, and lots of fun – but you don’t. Those are all too small. We’ve been talking about this over Christmas, but it applies today too. What you really want is love, hope, peace, and joy. You want to know you are loved no matter where you are or what you’ve done. You want to have the hope that no matter what happens in this world, it will all work out for your good. You want to have your life built on a foundation so strong that no matter what storms occur outside of you, you will not be shaken, but will always be at peace. And you want to know a joy that can never be taken away. Joy that goes beyond feelings, beyond fun, beyond momentary stimuli, beyond distraction, but comes from a spring deep, deep down in your heart that never seems to stop – even when things around you feel sad. Joy that destroys feelings of guilt, shame, and fear. That’s what you really want.
And so, when you come to Jesus, He’s going to ask you, “What are you seeking?” and if the answer is, “More money. No sickness. Something more interesting to do. A place where I can feel important. Some religion that makes me think I’m better than others because I’ve earned God’s love. To keep everyone I love happy and safe.” He’ll simply say, “No.”
But if you want True Love, Abiding Hope, Peace that passes understanding, and Joy that never fails – then come to Jesus and He will say, “That’s what I offer. But you must submit to me giving it to you the way that I deem best. Let me be your Saviour, Rabbi, God, Master, Lord, and King, and I will give you what your heart truly desires.”
The second thing I want you to notice is that everyone who comes to Jesus has the same story but different. Jesus always approaches first, confronts the person with their need, and presents Himself as the solution to that great need – but the responses and story that is written from that point are often very unique and special. Jesus is a real person, someone you can get to know, who listens and speaks and relates to us not only on a corporate level as humanity but on an individual level too. Everyone connects to Jesus in similar and different ways, not because we get to make up our own version of Jesus, but because Jesus meets us where we’re at and treats us like real, unique, special, people.
I personally resonate with Nathanael’s story. In fact, John 1:47 has made itself my “life-verse” because I want to be a man within whom there is no guile, no trickery, no deceit. If you know me, then you’ll know I don’t do secrets and sneakiness well. I have a skeptical mind that tends toward lots of arguments and trying to see lots of sides to things – and I can get trapped in arguments with myself, with God, with others, all in the pursuit of clarity and truth. I love truth, hate lies, and feel like I’m not easily swayed by opinions. Jesus meets me in a very Nathanael way: I study His Word, wrestle with obedience and understanding, and then Jesus shows His power and authority in my life with unquestioning clarity, proving Himself to know more than me.
And I’m sure many here have a similar relationship with Jesus and maybe relate to one of these stories yourself. Everyone does, and that’s ok. I shouldn’t measure your relationship with God by my standards, and vice-versa. Instead, I should share my special relationship with God with you, and you with me, so that we can see an even larger picture of who Jesus is.
Third, I want you to notice that no one really finds Jesus. Sometimes people use the phrase “I found Jesus.”, but it is always Jesus who found them first. Jesus is never lost. He’s the shepherd who finds the sheep. In Luke 19 he says, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Jesus is never lost. He is the way, the truth and the life, and is the only way to be found. He invites you to seek Him and says anyone who does seek will find (Matthew 7:7-8), but it’s not like He’s hiding. He’s there, ready, available, open, willing to listen at all times. If you feel a tug on your heart, He’s found you. The only question is, are you willing to be found or do you want to stay lost?
And fourth, I want you to notice that a living relationship with Jesus Christ is one that naturally leads to being shared. Being excited about Jesus, who Jesus is, what Jesus is doing, what He’s been teaching you, how you’ve been learning, and all the things He is doing through you should naturally lead us to be sharing it with people who either don’t know Him or who have forgotten.
I’ve used this example many times. If you find a great product, like a super good razer that shaves like nothing else, or a restaurant with amazing food, or a book that really impacted your life, or a new habit that has helped you sleep better than ever – it is your natural inclination to share it because you want the people you care about to have a better life too. You want them to celebrate what you’ve found, and you want them to experience the same thing.
Why is our relationship with Jesus any different? It’s because there is no spiritual enemy constantly telling us to be afraid to share how great our razer. I’m not saying that we share Jesus as the answer to everyone’s problems – because we all know that committing to Jesus doesn’t mean everything in this world gets easier, in fact, it often gets harder. I’m saying that once we’ve experienced the Love, Hope, Peace and Joy that Jesus has given us – it should be natural for us to tell people where it came from. But Satan hates that, and so he makes us afraid to speak, afraid to share, afraid we’ll lose a friend, afraid we’ll embarrass ourselves, afraid we won’t use the right words, afraid we won’t be able to answer all the questions…
But that’s the thing. There is no right way to share. We just share our own stories in our own way. And Jesus has promised that when we speak He’ll be there to help us. And if we come up against a Nathanael we don’t need to argue. We just simply say, “Hey, why don’t you ‘come and see’? See my life before and after Jesus. Come see some people I know who have met Jesus. And, why not just talk to Jesus yourself? Ask Him to show Himself to you because you want to meet Him. He’s no performing monkey who is going to do magic tricks for you – but if you want to meet the real Jesus, just ask Him. He’ll respond. Talk to me, come to church, and then talk to Jesus yourself. Just be ready because this is no small thing to do.”
Let Jesus do the hard work of shining the light in their dark souls and converting them. All you need to do is introduce them to Him by sharing what He’s done in your life and then inviting them to “come and see”.
 (Borchert, G. L. (1996). John 1–11 (Vol. 25A, pp. 147–148). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.)
When we are saved by Jesus, He gives us a lot of gifts. One of those gifts is to become a member of His church, a family of believers spread throughout the world. All believers, everywhere are part of the Kingdom of God, the Body of Christ, the Universal Church both living here and in heaven. If you are a Christian you are part of God’s family. The church isn’t intended to be seen merely globally though, it’s most accurately seen and experienced locally as individual believers from the same geographic area choose to meet together to worship Jesus, fellowship with each other, learn and be discipled, and do good works to spread His love in their own neighbourhoods. Certainly, each church should be thinking about their global impact, sending and supporting missionaries and charities in countries that need help, but for most Christians, most of their impact, most of their work, most of their learning, most of their worship, most of their evangelism, is done at their home church.
The letters of the New Testament, though universally applicable, were mostly sent to individual churches: the church in the city of Corinth, in Philippi, in Rome. When Jesus gave John his great Revelation, he addressed it not to the universal church, but to seven specific, local churches. When God works, He doesn’t usually do it on a grand, global level, but instead chooses to work mostly through individuals like you and me in a local church just like ours. That’s the common, normal way God enacts His will in the world. Even the great, global impacts that we’ve seen some ministries have are part of a local church.
If you’ve read Purpose Driven Life, you’re reading a book written by a local pastor in Lake Forest, California. If you’ve listened to the band Casting Crowns, you’re listening to a youth pastor’s band from First Baptist in Daytona Beach, Florida. The Emotionally Healthy Spirituality book we’re going to do came from a ministry built over some years in a church in New York City.
Charles Spurgeon, one of the greatest preachers of the 20th century, became a Christian when he was driven to a Methodist Chapel during a snowstorm. A substitute preacher, with not much training, was simply reading the book of Isaiah. He came to Isaiah 45:2, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is none else.”, stopped reading, pointed straight at 15-year-old Charles and shouted, “That young man there looks very miserable! Look! Look, young man! Look now!”. God worked a miracle in Spurgeon’s heart, he was saved, became a preacher, and went on to plant many more churches.
It’s not just preachers and writers that have great impact, of course. God sets up preachers and teacher for training others – it is the rest of the church that gets credit for doing most of God’s work in the world. The deacons who visit the sick and serve those in need. The small groups who meet to pray and to share. The ministry leaders who care for children, teens, and seniors. The old married people who take newlyweds under their wing. The families who adopt and foster kids in tough situations. The musicians, artists, and actors who point people to God through their art. The mothers and fathers raising Godly children, and the countless others who go to work every day and serve God’s will there, working hard, having meaningful conversations, and sharing God’s love. That’s how God usually works. Though believers like you.
We talked a little about that last week when we talked about how our church helps us change our lives for the better, and in a lot of our sermons last year on the Body of Christ. The church is an important place, a vital place, for believers to be.
Keep You From Church
But not all believers want to be here. It’s the truth that growing Christians want to be with fellow believers but backslidden and sinning Christians tend to run away from other Christians. My wife was given a Bible a long time ago and I found these words inscribed in it: “This book will keep you from sin, and sin will keep you from this book.” Turns out it’s a quote from DL Moody. I could adapt that to say, “The church will help to keep you from sin, and sin will help to keep you from the church.”
People that are working on their sins, want to learn more about God, grow in righteousness and be trained for ministry flock towards the church and it’s ministries. Those who are fill of unrepentant sins, have unforgiving hearts, are prideful, selfish, or bitter, tend to avoid coming under the leadership of the elders, avoid meeting with other Christians who try to get into their business, avoid places where they might hear something they don’t like. They stay on the outskirts of the church, and are often used by Satan to start church fights and splits. If you are full of guilt and shame, because you are refusing to repent before God for your sin, then you’re not going to want to be around a bunch of people who are worshipping Jesus, saying they have been forgiven, and are trying to do good – because it makes your shame and guilt feel all the more acute. When your heart is messed up with sin it’s easier to be with sinners than Christians.
It breaks my heart that more people aren’t availing themselves of the blessing of being part of a godly, local church. There are so many lonely, confused, addicted, afraid, stressed out, falling apart people out there that are either running all over the place trying to find something to help – or have simply given up and are just trying to medicate or entertain the pain away until they die.
There are people that long for intellectual stimulation, to serve their community, a place to find their purpose, a group of people that sees the world differently than anyone else and knows something they don’t know. They long for the presence of God, the healing and forgiveness that comes from Jesus, even if they don’t know it. Sometimes they do turn to God in their desperation, but most often they refuse Him when He shows up and invites them to turn to Him in their times of distress. Sometimes they do turn to God, and start to pray or are driven to read God’s Word, hoping that something the Bible will help – not realizing, or refusing to believe, that so many of their needs can be met by not only talking to God, but being with His people and joining a good, Godly church.
And of course, there are far too many people who call themselves believers who have divorced themselves from the church. Whether because they had a bad experience or because of their own pride, they now refuse to be part of a church, choosing to stay home and watch tv preachers, listen to podcast, and chat with people online – all the while growing in bitterness and being led astray by lies because there’s no one there to correct their thinking.
It’s sad because sitting at home alone isn’t usually where miracles happen. They happen when you submit yourself humbly to Jesus and choose to live your life with the people of God.
Blessed to Be Your Pastor
I believe we are a good, Christ honouring church, and that most people here work hard to ensure that we stay that way. We’ve gone through a lot together and I can say that the furnace of affliction has refined this church and that God is preparing us for something special in 2018. You are an open church, willing to accept people that are different than you. You are a patient church, showing love when frustrations and difficulties have come. You are a humble church, being willing to do all kinds of things without requiring recognition or reimbursement. You are a generous church, giving more than expected, taking care of each other’s, showering blessings and help on people who share their needs. You are a church that does the hard things to seek unity, having extra meetings, holding people accountable, and being honest with one another even when it’s hard. You are a good church, wanting to make sure God is honoured by what is done here. You are a Biblical church, consistently showing your love for God’s Word.
I am beyond blessed to not only be your pastor, but to have me and my family be the recipients of so much of your God-given grace. That tells me that God is showing you love, working in your heart, and doing good works in you. That He is fulfilling His promise that the good work He has started in you will be carried on to completion (Phil 1:6). It tells me that you are trying to be sensitive to His Spirit. Yes, we’ve had some struggles, and I know that each of you has their own separate and very real trials – but here you are, worshipping, giving, and being attentive to God’s Word and His people. Here you are, looking forward to small groups and study groups. Here you are, serving, training, loving and caring for people. I’m blessed to be your pastor. Anyone who distances themselves from you guys is crazy, because you are being the hands and feet of Jesus.
And so, we come to that part of the year when we read our Church Membership Covenant again. This is the document that every single member of this church has agreed to. If you’re not sure if you’re a member, then you probably aren’t, because it requires baptism, meetings, and voting. It’s a big commitment here.
Last week someone said that they appreciated when I share my own struggles during the sermon and I said that I’ve learned that whenever you are working with a group and are starting a project, ministry, prayer group, small group, or whatever, that it’s really important to set the bar upfront. People will look to the leader to see how things are supposed to be. This is how hard we will work. This is the quality that’s expected. This is how we will talk and act. This is the level of openness and honesty expected. This is the level of risk we’ll be taking. I strongly believe that, so I try to set the bar high.
But it’s not me that chooses where the bar is set, I’m just following the example and commands of Jesus. It is He that sets the bar. He’s our saviour and our model. When we want to know how respectful, kind, honest, open, hard-working, risk-taking to be, we read His word, witness His example, and listen to what He says. That’s all I try to do – imperfectly for sure, but that’s what we’re all shooting for, right?
And that’s why we have a church membership covenant. It’s our man-made, human way, to hold each other accountable to the bar that Jesus has set for us. He sets the bar, then we follow Him, and work together to help each other to keep following. There’s lots of reasons we have this document, Why Our Church Has a Membership Covenant, but this year I simply want to take time to read it and remind us as to what is in it, what we’ve agreed to and to remind us to hold each other accountable to it.
A good church reminds each other of what the bible says and holds each other to it in love. This is simply a summarized way to do that. Is it a perfect document? No. But we here believe that it’s helpful. Here’s what it says:
Having been led, as we believe, by the Spirit of God, to receive the Lord Jesus Christ as our Saviour, and on the profession of our faith, having been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we do now, in the presence of God, most solemnly and joyfully enter into covenant with one another as one body in Christ.
We engage, therefore, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, to walk together in Christian love; to strive for the advancement of this Church in knowledge, piety and godly living; to promote its spirituality in sustaining its worship, ordinances, discipline and doctrine; to contribute cheerfully and regularly to the support of the ministry, the expenses of the Church, its work against sin and injustice in the world, the relief of the poor and the spread of the Gospel throughout all nations.
We agree to promote family worship and maintain private devotions; to educate our children in the teaching and practice of our faith; and to seek the salvation of our kindred and acquaintances. We strive to walk circumspectly in the world, to be just in our dealings, faithful in our engagements and exemplary in our deportment; to avoid all idle talk, backbiting and unrighteous anger; to practice temperance in all things; and to be zealous in all our efforts to advance the Kingdom of our Saviour.
We agree to strive to walk worthy of the vocation wherewith we are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love, endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
We covenant to watch over one another in brotherly love, to remember each other in prayer, to aid each other in sickness and distress, to cultivate Christian sympathy in feeling and courtesy in speech, to be slow to take offence, always ready for reconciliation, and mindful of the commandments of our Saviour.
That’s quite a list, isn’t it? Hard to live up to, right? This is why we thank God for grace and give grace to one another. Just as none of us will live up to the standard of being Christlike, or be perfect as God is perfect, or perfectly follow God’s word, until we finally get rid of this mortal flesh and receive our new bodies, so none of us will live up to this bible-based set of standards. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t supposed to try.
Being a Christian means taking responsibility for our own sins, our own attitudes, our own decisions, and our own actions. We own up to them. A lack of studiousness and godly living isn’t anyone else’s fault but our own. A lack of passion in worship or discipline isn’t because life is so hard, it’s because we’re sinners. A refusal to share the gospel with others, refusal to lead our family in a godly way, refusal to use our money properly, isn’t because our work is too busy, our kids are too much trouble, and our bills are too high – it’s because we’ve made poor, selfish, choices.
A Christian admits this. First we admit it to Jesus. We pray, “Jesus, I’m a sinner. I’ve messed up so much. The effects of the sin in my heart, my own selfish, stupid choices, have rippled out of my soul and affected everyone around me. Most of all, my sin has torn me away from you. Please forgive me, help me, heal me, put me on the right path, and help me stay there.” We admit to Jesus that we are sinners, and then we ask for His help. But it doesn’t stop there.
As we talked about last week, as James 5 says, we “confess our sins to one another and pray for one another, that [we] may be healed.” We need to bring others into the loop. This membership covenant helps us do that. It helps us see how we fall short of God’s standards, and helps us to see some things we need to ask our church to help us with.
But it does something else. As Galatians 6:1-2 says, it helps us to bear one another’s burdens, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
This covenant drives us to confessing our sins to Jesus. It gives us a list of ways we can grow and ask others to help us. And agreeing to it gives others permission to hold us accountable. It gives them permission to say, “Hey, are you reading your bible? Are you praying? How’s your marriage? Are you resting? Are you working hard? Are you serving others? What are your needs?” or “Hey man, you’re thinking some wrong things about God and we need to talk about that.” Or “You haven’t been to church in a while, you’re not giving or serving, and that’s not spiritual healthy – what’s going on?” Hey, you are stealing – not doing your taxes honestly, taking cable from the neighbours, illegally copying music or movies, ripping people off – and the God’s Word says you need to stop.”
By becoming a member of the church you are agreeing that the elders, deacons, and other members have permission to ask you hard questions and hold you accountable. This is how we keep sharpening each other (Prov 27:10). We do it as 1 Corinthians 13 says we should do it, full of love – but sometimes that love means doing the hard thing like confronting the sin. This is how we remain a good, godly, Christ-honouring, church. This is how we all grow closer to God and more like Jesus, together.
I’m going to try to bring the membership covenant up more this year to keep it in front of us, but my encouragement to you is to keep this document in your bible, use it to spur yourself and others on. Read it in your small group, your family devotions, and go over it in your private study time. Use it to spur your prayer life, your conversations with other believers, and to motivate you to help others.
Part two of our Word Study episode. Steve’s away so Chad and Al get their nerd on with some talk about some free tools for doing Bible Word Studies.
Tools We Discussed
How Can You Help Carnivore Theology?
1. Pray for us!
3. Send a donation to help us pay the bills.
Steve’s away so Chad and Al get their nerd on with some talk about the pleasures and perils of Bible Word Studies.
How Can You Help Carnivore Theology?
1. Pray for us!
4. Send a donation to help us pay the bills.
We do a data dump of the best resources for every stage of the Christian life. Whether you are a new believer, have some years in the church, or are a longtime elder, you’ll find something to challenge you!
Pilgrim Theology – Michael Horton
ESV Study Bible
NIV Life Application Study Bible
Reformation Study Bible
John MacArthur Study Bible
Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin (Abridged and in Modern English) by Tony Lane & Hilary Osborne
Podcast: The Briefing by Albert Mohler
Podcast: Mortification of Spin
Podcast: Renewing Your Mind by RC Sproul
Vodcast: Look at the Book by John Piper
40 Questions About Interpreting The Bible by Robert Plummer
Knowing God by JI Packer
Core Christianity by Michael Horton
Gospel and Kingdom by Graham Goldsworthy
What Is a Healthy Church Member? by Thabiti Anyabwile
The Peacemaker by Ken Sande
The Hour that Changes the World by Dick Eastman
Podcast: The Whitehorse Inn by Michael Horton
Preachers: Charles Spurgeon, Martin Luther, Martin Lloyd Jones, RC Sproul, John MacArthur, John Piper…
Biographies: Martin Luther, Thomas Aquinas, Confessions of St Augustine, William Tyndale, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, D. Martin Lloyd Jones.
Ligonier Ministries Resources: Tabletalk Magazine, “Connect”
The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World by Stephen Nichols
Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
How Can You Help Carnivore Theology?
1. Pray for us!
4. Send a donation to help us pay bills.
5. Buy some cool stuff from our new Merch Store! (And check out our friend Kim’s amazing art while you’re there!)
Pastor Al tells us about his newest FREE book “The Foundations: What a Christian Needs, Learns & Does”.
How Can You Help Carnivore Theology?
1. Pray for us!
4. Send a donation to help us pay bills.
5. Buy some cool stuff from our new Merch Store! (And check out our friend Kim’s amazing art while you’re there!)
Exciting News! My latest book “The Foundations: An Introduction to What a Christian Needs, Knows & Does” now available for download on your e-reader — and it’s FREE!
Click here to go to the download page to learn more:
Jesus, in John 10:10, says that He has come to give His followers an “abundant life.” His promise doesn’t mean a life filled with worldly riches that ultimately pass away, but true riches like joy, peace, purpose, character, adventure, and the knowledge that you are deeply loved. The joy that can be found in this abundant life is dependent upon your obedience to God and your willingness to submit to His will. It is my hope that this book will lead you towards greater worship, service, and knowledge and love of Him. If you have any questions or comments, you can get in touch with me here.
Here are the chapter titles so you can see what the book is about:
Part 1: The True Gospel
Spot The Difference
Sola Scriptura – Scripture Alone
Sola Gratia – Grace Alone
Sola Fide – Faith Alone
Sola Christus & Sola Deo Gloria – Christ Alone & The Glory of God Alone
Part 2: Growing At Church
What Makes a Christian a Christian?
What Makes a Church a Church?
Leaning on Your Leaders
Making Christian Friends
Making Love Your Priority
Part 3: Intentional Discipleship
First, A Warning
A Church You Can Brag About
Count the Cost
Building Endurance: Steps to Maturity
Part 4: Disciplines of the Heart
Preparing Your Heart With Psalm 51
From Repentance to Commitment
Part 5: The Four Core Christian Disciplines
Why to Study Your Bible
How to Study Your Bible
Church Attendance: Getting the Most Out of Sunday Service
Serving Others: Why Should I?
Serving Others: General Areas of Service
Serving Others: Spiritual Gifts
There are a lot of illustrations that God uses to describe His people. Jesus and Paul, likely because they lived in an agricultural culture, often used natural illustrations. In John 15, Jesus is the vine, we are the branches, God is the gardener who prunes and strengthens the branches, or burns the fruitless ones. In the parable of the four soils, Jesus compared our hearts to hard or soft soil that God was sprinkling the seeds of His Word on (Matthew 13). In Matthew 13 the gospel and believers are likened to yeast that works itself through a whole batch of dough – becoming an unseen force that changes the composition of the whole loaf. In Matthew 5 Jesus calls His followers salt and light – forces of good, preservers of life, enhancing the flavour of the world, spreading the truth for all to see. Jesus calls us a city on a hill, a net full of fish, a field of wheat mixed with weeds, a group of children, a flock of sheep, innocent doves and crafty serpents.
When Paul is teaching about how Christians can be very different but still work together, he tells us we are like different parts of a human body, and Jesus is the head (1 Cor 12). When talking about new believers he calls us babies who need milk. When we are more mature and able to wrestle with more difficult spiritual things, we are like adults chewing a tough piece of meat. When talking about the spiritual war going on around us, we are soldiers, strapping on the armor of God and preparing for battle (Eph 6). When the church is praying or singing, we are like priests who burn incense that rises to the heavens (Rev 5:8, 8:-4).
Each of these illustrations (and there are many more) are meant to help us understand the many different sides of what it means to follow God and live in this world.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been asked what it’s like to be a Christian or what it’s like to follow God, but it’s not an easy answer. “Well,”, you say, “sometimes I feel like a baby who has no idea what they are doing, but just trusting their father to take care of me. Other times I feel like a tool in the hands of a carpenter, being used to do amazing things I could never do on my own. Other times I feel like being a piece of clay spinning in the hands of a potter, where He’s gently but firmly moulding me into something new. Other times being a Christian feels like I’m a battle-hardened warrior, hurting, bleeding, covered in cuts and bruises, but standing once again to take on the enemy because I love my King and my Kingdom. Being a Christian also feels like being part of a huge family of people that you love but have never met – while at the same time, once God gets a hold of your heart, it’s like the whole world has flipped upside down and you now live in a foreign land full of strange customs that you waver between finding tantalizing, disgusting and incomprehensible. Sometimes I’m on the mountain shouting praise, other times I’m resting by still waters, and then there are times when I’m walking through the valley of the shadow of death.”
If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, then I would imagine that you’ve felt at least some of that, and you can appreciate why the Bible is so full of varied illustrations describing a believer’s experience.
Open up with me to 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, and let’s read two more illustrations that Paul gives to explain how to live the Christian life. We’ll start at verse 1 again so we can get the context:
“But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not being merely human?”
That’s where we left off last week. Let’s keep reading:
“What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.”
The Format of Paul’s Letter
First, and as always, we need to remember the context. The Corinthian church had some maturity issues and God told Paul to write a letter to them explaining some things to them. Paul had planted the church during his second missionary journey, had been their pastor for a year and half but had gone on to plant other churches. He wrote this letter from Ephesus during his third missionary journey, after getting reports from a bunch of people that things in Corinth weren’t going very well. In fact, the whole letter is written in response to those reports, and to answer the questions that a delegation from Corinth had brought to him.
Chapters 1-4 address the first, and most pressing problem, that being the divisions that had cropped up in the church. You see that in 1:11 where Paul says, “it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers.” So Paul takes the first part to address that problem. Then in chapter 5 the next section starts with addressing another report Paul has received: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans…” and Paul takes two chapters to deal with that issue.
Then, starting in chapter 7 we see a list of “now concernings” where Paul addresses the questions the delegation brought him. In 7:1 we read, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote:” and Paul answers their questions about marriage. In 7:25, he says, “Now concerning the betrothed…” and answers questions about unmarried people. In 8:1 he says, “Now concerning food offered to idols…”, in 12:1 we read “Now concerning spiritual gifts…”, in 16:1 we read, “Now concerning the collection for the saints…” and in 16:12 we read, “Now concerning our brother Apollos…”
Paul is writing a letter to a group of Christians that shows concern for their spiritual health, condemnation of their reputation for sin, and then gives counsel about how they need to alter their understanding and their behaviour to become more in line with what God wants them to do. And this ties right into Paul’s illustrations in chapter 3.
To build the foundation of the rest of the letter, Paul wants to make sure that they understand two very important things: First, they need to understand the truth of the gospel, which they had forgotten. So he reminds them in 1:30 that “wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” isn’t found anywhere else other than in Jesus Christ. He reminds them that the human wisdom they’ve been listening to is foolish, and that all that they require to be right with God has been done through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. They don’t need any more special knowledge, or crazy experiences, or demonstrations of power, or anything else. Their salvation is by their faith in Jesus Christ. Period. In other words, God has done all the work.
Which is why what Chloe’s people says they are doing bugs him so much. The church wasn’t full of the love of God, but instead was full of strife and jealousy, splitting into factions, and putting their favourite preacher up as their de facto leader. A servant of God doesn’t want any of that. It breaks God’s heart and a Christian’s heart to see people divided. But to hear that they are using your name as a point of division would be even more painful.
Little side-bar here. God hates it when his people are divided. Literally hates it. Listen to these words from Proverbs 6:16-19,
“There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.”
In light of that, what do you think he felt about this discord ridden, strife-filled church, full of people who were abusing one another? He hated it. And so did Paul. God really hates it when His people can’t get along because it is then that they are most unlike Him and are actually playing into the hands of the Enemy.
And so Paul, to remind them that dividing into factions over their favourite preacher was sinful and ridiculous and then says, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.”
His point is that humans, even amazing ones like Paul or Apollos, are a just tiny, miniscule, little parts of accomplishing God’s will for the world. What is Paul? A servant, a worker; that’s it.
Paul’s first, brief, illustration is that the church is like a field and Paul and Apollos are just field hands. God tells them where to go, gives them the tools to dig, gives them the seed, and then causes the rain to fall, the sun to shine, and the seed to grow. It is ridiculous to try to elevate any preacher or teacher, no matter how gifted, to any kind of level, because their contribution to the church is negligible compared to the work of God. Billy Graham, Charles Spurgeon, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Paul and Apollos were all merely farm hands.
Each of these men were sinners who God chose to use for a time, not because of their ability, but despite their disabilities. More often than not, their great abilities actually became a problem for them!
- Billy Graham was born in the Southern US, a hard-core American, who was reluctant to get saved and wasn’t much for public speaking, but God called him anyway.
- Charles Spurgeon was a British man who was a gifted speaker, but was often in physical agony and suffered crippling depression, sometimes barely able to stand in the pulpit because of the weight on his heart and the pain in his body, but God used him anyway.
- John Calvin was from France, and by all accounts I’ve read, was a super-intellectual hermit who loved books way more than people (and was kind of a jerk), but opened his heart to God and God used him anyway. More than once people had to convince, cajole and even threaten Calvin just to get him to leave his books and obey God’s call to preach.
- Martin Luther was a foul mouthed, blue-collar, superstitious, German, with no understanding of the Gospel, who only decided to become a monk because he was almost hit by lightning, but one day God opened his eyes to see salvation is by grace through faith alone, and though he struggled with his many personality weaknesses for his whole life, God used him anyway.
- The Apostle Paul was a Christian killer before he met Jesus.
All these men, regardless of how different they and their contexts were, had two things in common: 1. God called them to work His fields and 2. They knew that it was God who gives the growth.
Paul is adamant (and if you read any of the biographies of these great, Christian men, so are they) that they are responsible for very little of the success of their ministries. In fact, it usually came by total surprise – and sometimes, despite their terrible failures. And because of this, they knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that whatever good they had done in their lives was solely attributed to the work of God.
Sure, they sowed some seed by preaching the gospel, and watered by teaching the people the Bible – they are “God’s fellow workers” in that way – but it is God who really did all the work, not them. And what’s amazing is that God is still going to give them the “wages according to their labour”. Even though they have no power over the growth, maturity or harvest, if they have done the work faithfully, they will receive their reward. That’s an amazing grace.
No Magic Formula
Here’s the thing: There is no magic formula you can use to cause someone to get saved, grow in maturity, or grow a church.
There’s no magic words you can say to a non-Christian or backslidden child, spouse, parent, or friend that will suddenly make them want to put down their sin and turn to Jesus. I know this is a struggle for some of you. You have a friend, family member, or work mate that you feel drawn to share your faith with, that you want to see in the kingdom, that you know needs God’s grace – but they won’t receive it.
And you blame yourself. You think, “If only I had the right words… more answers… knew more about the Bible… had a better testimony… shared it differently… then they’d be saved by now. If I was part of a cooler church or acted a little cooler, or knew more cool shows, then they would listen to me. If I was way more holy and less sinful, had less temptations, fasted more, prayed more, studied more, then they would turn their life over to Jesus.”
You think that the reason that they aren’t Christian is your fault – and that’s just not true. There is no magic words or perfect system that will change someone’s heart. It is God who gives the growth, not you.
In the same way, there is no magic formula, no perfect system, no mystical biblical secret to growing a church or church minstry. It’s not about how comfortable the chairs are, whether the music is great, the sound system rocks and the visuals are stimulating. A church with a gym or classrooms or coffee shop or bookstore may get some folks through the door, but it won’t guarantee that anyone becomes a follower of Jesus.
All the things we try at this church, from the welcome bags to the website to the bbq’s and coffee time and small groups are fine, but they aren’t a guarantee our church will grow or that the people within it will become more mature believers.
I can preach all day long, the deacons can build you the nicest building in the world, the coffee can be the tastiest ever, and the band could win awards – and it won’t mean anything unless God gives the growth.
Ask any farmer how much power they have over their land. They can choose the best seed, but they can’t make it rain. They can buy fancy irrigation systems, but they can’t make the weather warm. They can build greenhouses, buy a water system, and control the climate, but they can’t make a bad seed grow a good plant.
And even if they get everything right – seed, water, soil, temperature, sunlight, protection from bugs and blight – they still can’t make the plant grow. All they can do is create the environment or the conditions in which a plant should grow. God still brings the growth.
God’s Fellow Workers
So, that being said, we are still “God’s fellow workers”. Just because God does the work of saving and growing people, doesn’t mean we are abdicated from our responsibilities as a worker. Every single believer here today has been given the great commission to “go… and make disciples” (Matthew 28:18), to “proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15), to be God’s “witnesses… to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8).
We have been told to scatter our seed far and wide. For some that means telling people with your words because you are evangelists. For others, this means living such a life that others see it in you and want to know what you have. Listen to the words of Peter to wives with unbelieving husbands, “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct.” (1 Peter 3:1-2) “Won without a word…”
Sometimes sowing seed means talking, other times it means influencing people by your conduct. As a church we need to do a better job of sowing seeds in both these ways – not through fancy outreach programs or rearranging the furniture, but through personal evangelism, sharing our individual stories, and being more careful with our conduct.
God doesn’t just call us to sow seeds, but also to water them. In other words, we need to be diligent to do all we can to – as I said before – create the environment or the conditions in which a plant should grow.
This means you are careful to make sure you, your spouse and your children, have time to read the bible, pray, and serve within their giftings. It means encouraging them to connect with God the ways in which they meet God best – not just ways that work for you.
This this means you create a home environment that has the conditions to help everyone who lives there to grow in faith, love and obedience to God. This doesn’t just mean hanging cute posters on the walls and saying grace before meals, but, that every part of your home is turned over to God. Your TV, internet, movies, games, conversations, your daily schedule and weekly calendar, everything.
Look how Deuteronomy 6:4-9 tells the people of God to remind their families about following God:
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
Every part of their lives was to be saturated with the presence of God.
This also means allowing your spiritual authorities to guide you (parents if you are a kid or your church elders if you are an adult), submitting to their authority as it reflects scripture. When they set a boundary, work to live within it. When they challenge you, do your best to face it.
Let me conclude with this: We can’t make anyone grow, but we can work as God’s servants to spread seed and create the conditions by which someone can grow. God allows us to work with Him on that.So evaluate your heart.
- Are you fulfilling the mission God has given you in your daily life to spread seed and water those God has given you? If not, then ask forgiveness and ask God what ways he wants you to spread seed – with words and without words.
- Also, are you feeling unnecessary guilt because the person you are talking to about the faith isn’t saved? Let God be the one who gives the growth. Release control to God and accept that all you can do is love that person like God does.
- Also, evaluate your home. Is it an environment that builds up the faith of those who live there or a field full of spiritual landmines just waiting to be stepped on?
- Do you have hidden things you hope no one finds?
- Are your conversations godly?
- Are you working hard to build proper priorities into your home?
- Do you have a high standard of godliness?
- Or, is your home a bastion of false religion?
- Do you embrace the joy of the Lord, and all the freedoms He has given you, or are you teaching those in your home how to follow rules, but not build relationships?
Right now, and over the past few weeks, we’ve been working through an extended introduction to the first few verse of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. It begins as most letters began, by stating who the letter was from and who it was to. It reads:
“Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes, – To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:1-3)
To get the context for what is happening, it was important that we start out by working through the historical background of the letter, introducing who the Apostle Paul was, where he came from, and what the city of Corinth was like. It’s critically important when we study the scriptures to keep in mind the original audience and intention of the author because that helps us understand what God is trying to say to us these many years later.
But these first few verse, called the “greeting”, is much more than a standard introduction before we get into the meat of the letter. We believe that every word of the Bible is divinely inspired, or “breathed out by God” (2 Tim 3:16). God wasn’t wasting space or beat around the bush when He worked through Paul to write these letters, and therefore it is required that we take every single word as important.
God, through Paul, used some very specific language in His greeting to the church in Corinth, and so we’ve been taking some time to take those words apart and understand them better, because they contain concepts and truths that will keep coming up throughout the rest of the letter.
In the last couple weeks we talked about the importance of Paul reminding the church that his authority wasn’t his own, but God’s. He was an “apostle” (or “official messenger of Christ Jesus”). His job in this letter was to tell them everything that Jesus wanted to say to them. And further, he reminded them that they were “the church of God that is in Corinth.”
To drive this point home Paul uses another important word: “called”. They weren’t Christians because anything they had done, but were “called by the will of God”, “called to be saints”, who in turn “call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”. Paul’s mission and their existence in Corinth wasn’t their idea, but God’s – and therefore they needed to listen to what He had to say.
But there’s another word here that is critical for our understanding of not only God’s intention for this letter, but our understanding of how salvation through Jesus Christ works. Paul uses the word “sanctified”. Paul says that all Christians, or as it’s put here, everyone who “calls upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”, are “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints”.
Sanctification, for Christians, has two important meanings. We covered the first last week. The first meaning gives us our understanding of how we are saved by Jesus on the cross. Jesus took our penalty and became the final, atoning sacrifice, for our sins. Just like in the Old Testament, after we are called by God, or “consecrated”, God purifies us from sin using the blood of Jesus. God makes us fit for His presence by the death and shed blood of Jesus. I covered that last week.
Sanctification in Action
But sanctification has another meaning as well, and this is why we talked about “paradoxes” last week. Sanctification, according to scripture, is both a present reality and a life-long process. Last week I used the term “already, but not yet”. Everyone who is “in Christ”, who believes in Him as their Lord and Saviour, is already perfectly clean before God and there is nothing they need to do in order to achieve perfection. They can’t get any better in God’s eyes, because the full righteousness of Jesus has been given to them. Their ledger is clean, their record deleted, their sins cast as far as the east is from the west. They are perfect in God’s eyes.
However, the other side of sanctification is the life-long work of obeying God, killing our sin, battling our fleshly desires, and trying to become more and more like Jesus every day. Both are present in scripture, and both are a reality for Christians. Both are present in the Corinthian church as well. They were people who believed in Jesus as their saviour but continued to make mistakes were falling into darkness. And so God through Paul, in this greeting and throughout the rest of the letter, reminds them of their present reality of being sanctified saints who have received grace and peace from God. That was presently true. They hadn’t lost their salvation because it wasn’t theirs to lose.
However, they weren’t living like Christians. They had a “religious knowledge” of God, but that knowledge wasn’t being worked out in their lives. While they knew all about salvation through Jesus Christ, they hadn’t let that knowledge sink deep into their hearts and change their behaviour.
Jerry Bridges in his book “The Practice of Godliness” gives an example from 1st Corinthians about how their salvation hadn’t yet captivated their hearts:
“They knew that an idol was nothing and that eating food sacrificed to an idol was a matter of spiritual indifference. But they did not know about their responsibility to love their weaker brother.”
You see, they had faith in Jesus as the one and only God of the universe, and they had put their faith in Him to such an effect that they know understood the foolishness of idols, had turned away from pagan beliefs, and would even argue against and defy the culture around them – but their hearts weren’t soft toward their fellow believer who was struggling with their faith and had concerns, and it hadn’t changed their behaviour towards one another.
Do you see the difference? They had head knowledge of salvation, and had even given their lives to Jesus – so I believe they were saved – but they hadn’t yet reached the maturity of faith where the grace they had been shown was being poured out to others.
Perhaps you’ve experienced this – religion without grace, rules without relationship, wrath without mercy. There are a lot of people who have turned away from Christianity because of hard-hearted churches who know the truth about God, but don’t show His love.
Maybe you even struggle with this. You know the truth, read the scriptures, believe in Jesus, but instead of having that knowledge settle in your heart and change your behaviour towards those around you, you keep it all in your head or use that knowledge to beat people up.
This is where the second part of sanctification comes in. We are already made right with God through the miracle of salvation through Jesus Christ and have been turned into a new creation by His Holy Spirit, but now we must do the work that comes with living out that new reality.
To start, I want to talk about two mistakes people make when thinking about this, and then I want to make a biblical case for why we need to do the work of sanctification. Why? Because a lot of Christians get this wrong, and they get it wrong in two important ways.
The first way they get it wrong is to not take their sanctification seriously. They assume that God doesn’t care if they do the work of sanctification (Rom 6:22; 1 Thess 4:3), which we can also call pursuing “godliness” (1 Tim 4:8) or “holiness” (2 Cor 7:1; 1 Thess 4:4) or “purity” (1 Tim 4:12) or “Christlikeness” (1 Cor 11:1; Rom 8:29).
They assume that since they have the head-knowledge of salvation, then God is pleased. They believe what they’re supposed to believe, go to church, say their prayers, read their Bible sometimes, and are generally good people, so, they conclude, God must be happy with them. They compare themselves to others and think, “Well, I’m not a murderer, or a thief, or a whatever, so God must be ok with me.” They know that there are a few things they could change, like they eat, or yell, or spend, or gossip a little too much, or have a lust problem, but no one’s perfect and no one is getting hurt, so it’s not really a problem, right? So they conclude, it must not really bother God either.
This is a total misunderstanding of the holiness of God. God wants His people to be holy as He is holy (1 Peter 1:16), perfect as He is perfect (Matthew 5:48). He wants us to live by His standards.
“As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” (1 Peter 1:14-16)
“Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.” (2 Corinthians 7:1)
That’s God’s standard for His people. He cares very much for how we live. He knows the danger of sin and doesn’t want His children to be affected by it anymore. Just as a good parent or friend wants the best for the person they care about, so God wants the best for us. He doesn’t want us living lives of compromise and apathy towards evil.
For a Christian, every moment of every day is an opportunity to bring worship to God – there are no unsanctified moments in a Christian’s life. For a Christian, every place is holy because God is there, and every part of our life is a matter of holiness because it can be offered to God. That’s why Paul says in Romans 12:1-2,
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
God cares very much about how we live every part of our life, and that we show discernment to know right and wrong.
The second way Christians get sanctification wrong is to think that God is going to do all the work. Let me read from Bridges again,
“We Christians may be very disciplined and industrious in our business, our studies, our home, or even our minister, but we tend to be lazy when it comes to exercise in our own spiritual lives. We would much rather pray, ‘Lord, make me godly,’ and expect him to ‘pour’ some godliness into our souls in some mysterious way. God does in fact work in a mysterious way to make us godly, but he does not do this apart from the fulfillment of our own personal responsibility. We are to train ourselves to be Godly.”
I think he’s exactly right! And, I’m as guilty as anyone else for asking God to just change me and then expecting Him to do it in a miraculous way without me actually lifting a finger. “God, make me more disciplined. God, fix my marriage. God, make me a better parent. God, make me pray and read my Bible. God, take away my lust, my pride, my greed, my anger, my bitterness.” And then I say “amen”, stand up, and do exactly nothing to sanctify, or purify, or cleanse, my life. I pour the same chemicals into my body, watch the same shows, harbor the same bitterness, keep the same calendar…. I do nothing to pursue a holy and changed life, and then I blame God for not changing me.
A Biblical Case for Pursuing Sanctification
Bridges said, “We are to train ourselves to be Godly.” Where does he get that? Scripture. He’s quoting 1 Timothy 4:7. I was absolutely floored this week as I came across verse after verse that commands Christians to partner with God in the pursuit of godliness, purity and sanctification!
Let me give you a few examples. First, let’s look at 1 Timothy 4:6-16. If you’ve ever played sports – I used to play a lot of Fastball – then this is going to sound very familiar to you, because when Paul is telling his young disciple Timothy how to conduct himself as a leader in the church he talks to him like a sports coach talking to one of his players. He says, almost literally: learn the rule book, do your exercises, get lots of practice, be a good example for your teammates and give it your best. It’s standard coach stuff. Read with me:
“If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
Over and over and over Paul reminds Timothy that even though his “hope is set on the living God, who is the saviour of all people”, he must also work hard towards pursuing a life worthy of that call. The Bible presents the Christian life as a dualism of being a partnership between the power of God and our personal responsibility. “Timothy was personally responsible for his progress in godliness” and so are we. Notice what Paul didn’t say. He didn’t say, “Trust in the Lord Jesus enough and He’ll do all the work for you. Just relax and let God clean up your life.” No, Paul embraced the paradox of sanctification, just as we must. He knew that any progress that we make in purity and godliness is certainly through God’s power, but that we also have the responsibility to keep pursuing, training, toiling, striving, and persisting in these things? Why? Because our sanctification is a natural outworking of our faith and has ripple effects on everyone around us.
Scripture absolutely pounds this home over and over. Philippians 2:12-13 shows us this paradox again,
“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
The idea of putting the effort into our sanctification is found over and over.
- King David said it this way in Psalm 63:1, “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you…”
- The author of Hebrews tells the church in 12:11-14, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”
- In Luke 13:24, Jesus says, “Strive to enter by the narrow door…”
- Paul at the end of his life said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.” (2 Tim 4:7)
Turn to 2 Peter 1:3-10 and let’s read how Peter exhorts the church as well. He starts with a reminder of their salvation and their sanctification through Jesus Christ, and then moves straight into their personal responsibility:
“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.”
We have “escaped corruption” by “His divine power”, and that gives is everything we need to pursue “godliness”. He even goes as far as to say we are “partakers of the divine nature”. You see, that’s the first part of sanctification. We are already seated with Christ!
But then he says this: “For this very reason”… what reason?… Because we are saved and sanctified by Jesus…. “For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith…” What does that mean? Just like when we talked about the Corinthians, Peter is telling Christians to not only confess Jesus as Lord with their words and believe it in their minds but to allow that truth to completely change the way they live their lives.
We are not saved by pursuing godliness. No one can be saved by their own good works (Eph 2:8-9). But we show that we are called and cleansed, saved and sanctified, by making the effort to live out that faith every day. Titus 1:1 calls it the “knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness”. We know the truth, the truth sets us free, and we live in that truth.
Two Motivations to Pursue Sanctification: Fear and Love
There is so much more I want to say about this, but let me close with this. Where does the desire to pursue godliness, sanctification, purity, and holiness come from? Maybe as I’ve been speaking you’ve realized that you really don’t care about how you live and that that’s not a good thing. You don’t feel a passion for purity and holiness, but you want to. Where does that passion come from?
Or maybe you are caught in a sin today and haven’t been able to get free. You’ve tried over and over to conquer it, but it keeps getting the better of you? How can you work to defeat it once and for all?
There are many practical things I could tell you in answer to that question: Things like pray, read your bible, set up boundaries, find different friends, change your schedule, get rid of the thing that tempts you, find accountability partners, etc. But that’s not where the root of a desire for personal sanctification really lies. It’s not in our activities, but in our hearts.
Paul, throughout 1st Corinthians, gives a lot of practical advice, but he always roots it in one place: their relationship with God through Jesus Christ – and for a Christian, that comes down to two things, two polarities, of our faith: Our love for God and our fear of God.
Throughout the book Paul keeps reminding them of the love they’ve been shown, grace they’ve been given, the peace they now have, the calling they received, and the Spirit that now dwells inside them because they are God’s people. He said this as a motivation to stop sinning. “God loves you, Jesus loves you, the Holy Spirit loves you! He chose you, cleansed you, and is with you forever. Why would you work for His enemy? Why would you divide His church? Why would you insult His apostles? Why would you profane His table? Why would you hurt each other?”
That’s one of our main motivations to seek purity, holiness, godliness, and sanctification – because of the great love we have been shown by God, and our desire to love Him back. We hate sin because our Heavenly Father hates sin. We work to remove the things in our life that separate us from Him because we want to be near Him. We obey His word because He knows what’s best. We hate and work against evil and satanic things because they are an insult to God. We do good things because He has done good for us. We love because He first loved us. That’s one motivator – our knowledge of how much God loves us and our own love for Him.
The second motivator is different. It is our fear of God. Partly this means that when we are about to do something wrong, there is a sense of dread within us “produced by the realization of God’s impending judgement upon sin…. The Christian has been delivered from the fear of the wrath of God. But the Christian has not been delivered from the discipline of God against his sinful conduct, and in this sense, he still fears God. He works out his salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12)…” with a healthy fear of not wanting to incur the discipline of his Heavenly Father.
The other part of fearing God is that we choose not to sin because we respect, honour, and stand in awe of the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, the Creator and Sustainer of the entire universe. He sits on the throne. He has written the rules for how we live. He created us out of dirt, and will one day return us to the dirt. He controls everything and has the right to tell us what to do.
Some Christians aren’t comfortable with this, but it is an important part of our understanding of God. In fact, it is the non-believer and the pagan that the Bible says, “has no fear of God before his eyes.” (Psalm 36:1, Rom 3:18) Proverbs says the fear of the Lord is the beginning of both knowledge and wisdom. (Prov 1:7, 9:10) When God promised to save Israel from their sins, part of his promise in Jeremiah 32:40 was,
“I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me.”
And it’s the same for the church. Acts 9:31 describes the growth of the Christian church this way:
“So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.”
You see, it’s both: Christians walk in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit. Both of these are motivators towards sanctification, motivators to living a holy life – our love for God and our fear of Him.
If you want to kill that sin inside of you, you need to grow in both of these. Grow in your love for God – read His word, talk to Him every day, listen to sermons about how much He loves you and what He has done for you. Ask God to fill your heart with love for Him, and seek ways to acknowledge and remember His love for you every day.
And also grow in your fear of God – realize that if you don’t clean up your act, He may discipline you and that discipline can be quite severe. Remember Ananias and Saphira, who were struck dead right on the steps of the church for lying about their offering. Remember that Paul tells the Corinthians that God has actually brought a sickness because they had desecrated the Lord’s Supper.
Remember what it says in Hebrews 12:5-6,
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”
The word “chastises” there is also translated “scourges” or “whips”! God doesn’t sit idly by when His people disobey, fall to temptation, and start playing Satan’s game. No, as a good parent, He gets involved and sometimes even brings painful discipline meant to drive us away from the sin that is harming us and others. Why? Because it’s the right thing to do and He loves us. It would be cruel of Him to leave us alone.
My encouragement to you today is to take your sanctification seriously, and you can start to do that by cultivating a greater love for and fear of God. How? Read His word and take it seriously. Examine your life and ask God to point out the parts that are wrong and commit to changing them – because you love Him and because you don’t want to be scourged!
 William Law, “Call to a Devout Life”
 Practice of Godliness pg 42
 Practice of Godliness Pg 25.
Baptism is important, but there is a lot of confusion about it. What is it? Who is it for? Why are there different types? Where did it come from? What age should one be?
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Last week I spoke what amounted to an extended introduction about answering the question, “What is ‘A Good Church’?” (We also did a Carnivore Theology episode on it!) We talked a lot about the huge variety of options and opinions that we have access to in our churches, and how that can give us a sort of consumer mentality when it comes to deciding what a “good church” is.
Our conclusion was to change the question from “What do I (or culture, or other people) think is a ‘good church’?” to “What does God think is a ‘good church’?” That little change, which seems obvious, makes all the difference. It takes the decision out of our hands, and removes our feelings from the equation, allowing us to evaluate our church (or any other church) from God’s perspective and by His standards.
I told you that I did some digging into scripture and came up with four universal characteristics – that is characteristics that can be used to evaluate any church, at any time in history, any place in the world – of a “good church”, by God’s standards. Those four things again are, Discipleship, Fellowship, Worship and Outreach.
I briefly explored these four areas from Acts 2:42-47, but what I want to do today is dig a little deeper into these four areas so that we can all, hopefully, understand what God expects from our church – or any church.
Why is This Important?
You might be wondering why this is important to talk about. That goes back to what I was talking about last week when it comes to “consumer Christianity”. People make two important mistakes when it comes to planting, choosing, serving or ministering in their church.
Mistake 1: Using Human Standards for God’s Church
Mistake number one is to define a “good church” by human standards. How the services make them feel, how many people attend, whether the ministries fit their lifestyle and interests, the quality of the musicians, or how interesting the preaching is. These are all human – not biblical – qualifications and cause people a lot of grief and trouble when they are made too high a priority.
Consider that if you evaluate a church by human standards, then it could be teaching you falsehood and heresy, and you’d still “like it”. It could be closed off to the world and not serving anyone, but because you feel “loved”, you would call it a “good church”. It could be accepting of any manner of sin and error, but since it is full and people like it, we might think that it has God’s blessing.
As an example of what I mean, look at Revelation 2:1-5. This is Jesus writing a letter to the leading church in the area. This was a big, important church. They had lots of people, great teachers, and a missionary seminary that sent out lots of people. Look what Jesus says to them:
“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.”
By our human standards we would call that a good church. They work hard, “toil”, and endure persecution for Jesus name. They have good teachers who work church discipline and get rid of false apostles. They support one another in crisis and bear up under persecution. That sounds like a good church, right? Strong teaching, supportive people, and tireless missions. But look what Jesus says next:
“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”
Jesus was about to shut down this church because they had lots their love. They were so busy, busy, busy with ministries that they had abandoned the worship of God, their love for Jesus, and possible, their love for one another. This church was a machine, cranking out missionaries who knew their bibles and could defend the word of God… but they also acted like machines – without love, without humble repentance and thanksgiving to Jesus for their salvation. All head, no heart.
Using our four terms, we would say they were amazing at “Discipleship”, and “Outreach”, but they woefully lacked in the “Worship” and “Fellowship” department – and it was about to cost them their connection to God. Jesus would “remove their lampstand”, meaning they would lose their status as a “church of Jesus Christ” and would be treated just like unbelievers.
Do you see the danger of using human standards and feelings to evaluate a “good church?” We end up accepting huge errors and practicing disobedience – to the point where God is very unhappy – because we are using our standards instead of His.
Mistake 2: Crafting a Church in Our Image
Mistake number two is to try to craft the church into our own image. If we decide that we know what a “good church” looks like, outside of biblical standards, then we are likely to try to create a church in our image, rather than in the image of Jesus.
We get this a lot from church planters and believers who get frustrated that their denomination or church isn’t doing what they want – so they decide to go start a new one that does it “right”. So they go plant a church, or decide to start a “home church”, or something that fits their own personality – not because God called them to, but because they want the church to be more like them.
We’re not talking about the Reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox who were “protesting” against massive errors in church doctrine. Luther never even wanted to start a new church. He wanted to “Reform” the Catholic church to go back to what scripture says. And when they didn’t he was forced to start a new church. That’s not what we’re talking about. These people aren’t seeing biblical error, but are driven by their feelings and preferences.
They don’t like the music and preaching style, the community isn’t enough like them, the ministries don’t cater to their wants and needs, so they plant a church that fits their preferences. Instead of seeking to help their church become more like what God wants it to be, they try to make the church into what they want it to be – and when that doesn’t work, they plant their own church in their own image.
I hope you can see the danger in that, because I’ve seen that a lot too. Young guys who think they know better than all the old, dead guys, out planting churches in their own image. Believers wandering from church to church looking for one that has all the same idols they have, and when they can’t find it, giving up on church and choosing to quit the church so they can “worship at home” by themselves — something unheard of in the Bible.
It’s all just idols and pride mixed around with religious language and it leads to all manner of temptation and error.
Adding some Adjectives
We don’t want to fall into either of those errors, so let’s take a look at the four areas that God has given us to understand what a “good church” looks like to Him – and to help out, I’m going to add an adjective, or describing word, to each. What God desires from His church is “Biblical Discipleship”, “Loving Fellowship”, “Inspired Worship”, and “Spirit-Led Evangelism”.
Open up to Acts 2:42-47 and let’s talk about them individually.
We said last week that one of the key markers of the first church we read about in the New Testament is that (looking at verse 42) they “devoted themselves to the apostles teaching… the breaking of bread, and the prayers.” That is some very specific language to describe the very basics of what makes a church a church.
The historic definition of a church, held universally for almost 2000 years, is that a church has Four Marks: “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” We see this in the creeds, dating back all the way to the Nicene Creed from the year 381. This is the standard definition, and we see it in Acts 2. The words “one” and “catholic” are tied together. That doesn’t mean “the Roman Catholic Church, but comes from a Greek word simply meaning “universal”, or including everyone. There is one, universal church of Jesus Christ, seen everywhere in the world and beyond for all time – those who are still on earth and those who have gone into heaven. Jesus didn’t commission many churches to be built, but only one.
The church is also “holy”, meaning that it contains those who are full of the Holy Spirit, set apart by Jesus for salvation, and called to be saints (1 Cor 1:2, Rom 1:7). The church isn’t like any other organization, but is like Jesus – different, set apart, unique, holy.
The church is one, holy, universal and the word I want to emphasize right now is “apostolic”, meaning it is built on the apostolic pattern. Think of verses like Ephesians 2:19-20 which says, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone…” or Matthew 16:18 where Jesus says to Peter after his declaration that Jesus is “the Christ the Son of the Living God”, “on this rock I will build my church”, meaning the apostolic declaration that Jesus is God and Saviour. Even in Revelation we read the description of the shining city, the New Jerusalem, comes down out of heaven from God, the dwelling place of all God’s people forever… “And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” (Revelation 21:14)
In 1 Corinthians 3, when Paul was writing to the Corinthian church about them not fighting about their favourite preacher and teacher – “I follow Paul”, “I follow Apollos”, “I follow Peter” – he says,
“What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 3:5-11)
There is only one foundation, Jesus Christ, and that foundation is built upon by the teaching of the Apostles. And that teaching is found in scripture. A church cannot be a church of Jesus Christ if it is not built upon Jesus Christ as the foundation, and the teachings of the Apostles as found in scripture.
This was the problem during the Reformation. The Catholic Church was saying they were the only church – just as many do today. But is the Catholic church, or the Jehovah Witnesses, the Mormons, or any other of these groups that claim to be Christians, actually a Christian church? No! Why? They do not qualify because they do not follow the teachings of the apostles in scripture. They’ve made things up and added or subtracted things from the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles about how to be saved and be the church. They disqualify themselves because they don’t follow the Bible.
So, at the very end of Matthew, after Jesus had risen from the dead, Jesus looks at His Apostles and gives them what we call The Great Commission. He says – and I want you to listen to all the Apostolic, Discipleship, Scriptural, Authoritative language here:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
That’s exactly what is happening in Acts 2. The Apostles have gone out and taught the scriptures and people have been convicted by the Holy Spirit and desire to be saved and baptized. Then God gets hold of their hearts and they start to become the Church. They are under the direct authority of the Apostles – who are still alive and have yet to write the New Testament yet – and the first thing it says they did was to “devote themselves to the apostles teaching… the breaking of bread, and the prayers.”
They obeyed the Apostles, they “broke bread” – which here means they obeyed Jesus’ command to participate in the Lord’s Supper, and said “the prayers”, which meant they practiced personal and corporate spiritual disciplines. In other words – they made biblical disciples.
That’s the first question we must ask ourselves when evaluating our church or any church: Is it making Biblical disciples? I don’t care how boring or entertaining the preaching is – is it biblical? I don’t care how many people come to Sunday School – or even if you are doing Sunday School – the question is, does this church teach people of all ages to fully obey the Jesus of the Bible? I don’t care how wonderful the music is – is it biblical music that draws people into prayer and devotion to the Jesus of the Bible?
I could talk about this all day, but we need to move on to the next one.
In order to be a God-pleasing church, we don’t just need to follow the Bible, but we need to be in Loving Fellowship with one another. In the Acts 2 church we saw that they “had all things in common, attended the temple together, met in homes, and distributed to the needy among them.” This was a group that showed love and care for each other in practical ways. They lived out the 54 “one another’s” that we find in the New Testament (Rom 12:16; 1 Cor 1:10; Gal 5:13; Eph 4:2; Col 3:16, etc.) and obey Jesus’ command from John 13:34-35 where He says,
“As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Not only does the church have to read, teach, know and love the Bible – they actually have to live out what it says! Jesus says “go, make disciples and teach” them the bible, but also teach them to “love one another.”
This is the most attractive thing that we have to offer one another and the hurting world beyond our doors. It isn’t our doctrine, but our love. God didn’t just “so love the world that he sent” down the Bible, but “He sent His only begotton Son” as an ultimate act of love. (Jn 3:16)
I have a hockey jersey at home with my favourite team and my favourite player’s name on it. When I walk into a room with it, there is no doubt which team and player I will be cheering for (or did before he retired) because it’s literally written on my front and back. But without the jersey on, no one can tell, right?
This is where we get confused. We think that a “good church” has a certain look. It has a pointy roof, wooden pews, blue hymn books, a centre aisle, and an organ. Or it has a big sign out front, a nice webpage, a gymnasium, screens on the wall and a coffee bar. Some say that it’s not a church unless there is a cross on top and inside. But is that what makes a church a church?
The Anglican Church in England is going through this right now. They have over a thousand churches that are dying or empty and they don’t know what to do with them. The country likes the beauty and heritage of these buildings and wants to “save the churches”, so they’ve made a plan to sell them and have them host community things like pubs, yoga classes, concerts, etc. They figure that if they can repurpose these buildings, then they will have saved the Anglican churches.
But they’re not saving the “churches” – they’re repurposing a pointy-topped building. The church is the people. A church is made up of Christians – whether they have a building with a cross on top and stained glass windows, or are meeting secretly in a basement in China, the church is the people.
Jesus says they will know we are His people, Christians, the Church, by “our love for one another.” So that’s our second question: Is this church characterized by having a Loving Fellowship?
That’s what our Deacon of Fellowship is trying to do. She’s not a hostess, nor is she an event planner. She’s not trying merely to attract people to an experience or give them something to do on a Saturday night. Her job is to invite the people of the church to do something where they can show love to one another. Maybe that’s a fun event or maybe that’s visiting a sick person. Maybe that’s a potluck after church or maybe it’s gathering funds and gifts to support someone in the church who is hurting. The Deacon of Fellowship is the “love coordinator”!
And we the church are meant to respond to what the God is asking us to do. We are to consistently, sacrificially, humbly, love one another. We are to put ourselves last so others can be first. We are to give our time, talents, and treasure for one another, “attending the church together, meeting in each other’s homes, and distributed to the needy among us.”
So when you evaluate your church or any church, make that your second question: “Is this church a Loving Fellowship?” Do these people show the love of Jesus to one another, or do they all merely attend the same church? That’s completely different!
Do they live in harmony together, accept one another, greet one another when they see each other, agree with one another so there might be no divisions, serve one another, are patient with one another, are kind and compassionate to one another, do they forgive each other just as in Christ God forgave them? Do they submit to one another, teach and admonish one another, spur one another on towards love and good deeds, offer hospitality to one another, and cloth themselves with humility towards one another? (Romans 12:16, 15:17, 16:16; 1 Cor 1:10; Gal 5:13; Eph 4:2, 32, 5:21; Col 3:16; 1 Thess 5:11; Heb 10:24; James 4:11; 1 Peter 4:9, 5:5…)
Let’s Personalize It
I’ll stop there for today and we’ll come back to the other qualifications next week, but let me challenge you to personalize this. It’s much easier to evaluate others than it is to evaluate ourselves. So I’m going to ask you this week to take all those questions and personalize them. If you are a part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church – as it is represented locally, here – then ask yourself:
Am I obeying God’s word when it comes to why I attend church? Am I obeying Jesus in the Lord’s Supper and Baptism? Do I honour the reading and teaching of His Word? Am I doing what I can to develop myself spiritually? Do I desire biblical teaching and correction, or merely entertainment?
And, Do I love the people in my church in practical, sacrificial ways, or do I not care about them one way or another? Am I part of a church clique or do I greet everyone the same way? Is there anyone that is hurting that I need to serve? How am I living out the Biblical One Anothers with the people around me? Is there anyone I need to forgive? Anyone I’m not bearing with? Am I showing hospitality to the people in my church?
These are the questions that God is asking of us, and by which we as Christians and we as a church will be judged.
Every Christian wants to attend a “good church”, but we all seem to have different ideas of what a “good church” looks like. The guys take on this question and give a biblical perspective.
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A while back, before it was interrupted by Thanksgiving, Children’s and Friendship Sunday, we were going through a “Burning Questions” series that was based on questions submitted by people here in the congregation. We’ve already covered a bunch of questions and I want to get back into it and finish it off over the past weeks. We’ve talked things like: what kind of superhero suit God would wear, how to be in the world but not of it, and ways to deal with discouragement and depression.
We’re continuing today with another question that has been popping up, and one that I believe is an important one to cover, “If you were looking for a church to attend, what kind of things would you look for – and how does our church look to visitors who are seeking?” I appreciate that question, but I’m going to rejig it a bit to simply be: “What makes a good church?” because I think that answers both sides of that. If I were looking for a church, I’d want a “good church”, and I certainly want the church I’m currently serving to be a “good church” – so the question is: “What is a Good Church?”
A “Good Church”
That’s what people want, right? Christians search for a “good church” until they find one and then stay there until they move – or their “good church” becomes a “bad church”. Small churches believe that in order to become large churches they simply need to become a “good church”, and then people will flock through the doors. But what is a “good church”?
- Outreach minded people define a “good church” as one that is sharing the gospel with people in practical and obvious ways.
- Service minded people define a “good church” as one that has lots of ministries to help people.
- Discipleship minded people say that being a “good church” is all about the sermons.
- For musically minded people, a “good church”, is the one that has meaningful, excellent music.
- Some people think that a “good church” is a big church, others think the only “good churches” are small ones.
- For new believers, a “good church” is one that makes it easy to understand what is going on and helps them to grow step-by-step in their faith.
- For a hurting person, a “good church” is one where they feel loved.
- For a family oriented person, a “good church” is one that is full of children.
- For a single, college student, a “good church” is one that has people their age and speaks meaningfully to their heads and hearts.
- Traditionally minded people want liturgy, robes, incense and art.
- Modern people want a sound system, a projector and stage lighting.
- To an intellectual a “good church” has messages that challenges their minds and drives them to further study.
- To a practically minded person, a “good church” has messages that challenges their lifestyle and drives them to action.
- To someone who has been through divorce or abuse, a “good church” is one where nothing bad ever happens, no one gets offended, and people are nice all the time.
- To a man looking for a strong mentor and a challenge, “a good church” is one with no nonsense, tough talk, some yelling, and a willingness to offend people.
- Some people would define a “good church” by looking at its ministry list. A good church has counselling, small groups, children’s programs, multi-ethnic ministries, is politically active, has a dynamic preacher, plays the right kind of music, supports local and global missions, develops leaders and missionaries, etc. ect. For them, a “good church” has lots of diverse ministries – usually ones that fit their lifestyle and interests.
And the list goes on and on and on. Is it any wonder that churches and church leaders have such a hard time trying to design ministries and Sunday services that are meaningful, helpful, and attractive to such a diverse group of people? It’s a tall order. Actually, that’s an impossible order. We can’t please everyone all the time – especially a church our size. But, is our job to create a church that pleases as many people as possible? Is that how we are to define a “good church”; by how many people like it? No way.
A Bible From the Sky
So, lets go back to our question: “What is a good church?”. I want to look at Acts 2:42-47 today, but before we read it, I want you to do something: clear your mind of all your preconceptions about church. Pretend you’ve never been to a church service. You are like many Canadians today, and have never even set foot inside a church building, and have no idea what goes on in there.
And then, one day, an airplane flies over your head, hits some turbulence, and a bible falls out of the luggage compartment and lands right in front of you. The pages explode away from the cover as it hits the sidewalk and they are blowing all over the place. You reach out your hand and grab one of the pages and start to read it. You look down and find that you have the whole of Acts chapter 2.
You start to read Peter’s first recorded sermon, preached at Pentecost, and have been introduced to the person of Jesus Christ. He’s presented as the Crucified Lord, the Chosen Messiah, come to make possible the forgiveness of sins. You read that after the sermon was given, a multitude of people feel terrible convicted, repent of their sins, give their lives over to following this Jesus, are baptized in His name, and start to meet together regularly.
As you continue to read Acts 2, you read about the change that starts happening to these people. You figure out that these were the same people that crucified Jesus in the first place and were his enemies. They were once people destined to be destroyed, but are now “saved” because of Jesus. This good news changes their hearts so radically that they decided to meet together all the time to celebrate what Jesus has done for them. This is AMAZING and you start running around, gathering as many pages as you can, and start to sort them together until you have a good portion of the New Testament. You read it, believe it, and give your life to Jesus. You are now one of the people who are “saved”!
Later that week your boss comes and tells you that you are about to be transferred to another city. He’s sending you to Canada’s capital city, Ottawa, Ontario. You’re going to be working there for a while, and they’ve already set you up a home just outside the city in a nice, little place called Beckwith.
You pack all your things and move into your new home, and as you drive around your new neighbourhood, you see an adorable, little building with a white cross on top and a sign that says, “Beckwith Baptist Church.” Your heart starts to race as you pull your make-shift Bible out of your pocket and start to flip through the pages. It dawns on you that this is a building dedicated to housing a group of Christians – just like you read about.
Your excitement is almost palpable. You bang on the door, but no one is there. You race out to the sign to see that you have to wait until Sunday at 10am until service starts. You can’t wait! You finally get to see all that you have been reading about come to life. You get to meet a whole group of people that know Jesus, love Jesus, teach about Jesus, pray to Jesus, sing about Jesus, and who have the very Holy Spirit of God living in them. You get to meet a group unlike any you have ever met in the world – a group of people that call themselves brothers and sisters in Christ.
And as you stand out in the parking lot, you open up to your favourite passage. The first that landed at your feet, the very first chapter that you ever read in Acts 2. You read aloud Acts 2:42-47:
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
You can’t wait to meet these people! You can’t wait to come to this church. You can’t wait to be a part of this body of believers and be “added to their number”!
This text is one of the primary verses in scripture that drives me to do what I do and say what I say. I love these verses, not because it is a prescription of what we are supposed to be doing – but because it is a description of what happens when we get it right. This is a description of a “Good church” . This is what it looks like when we stop trying to please people, be clever with our ministries, and find some kind of secret code that causes more people to come through the door. This is what it looks like when a church allows God to take over and lets the Holy Spirit reign in their hearts.
These verses are not prescriptive – they’re not telling us what to do. They are descriptive – they are telling us what happens when God gets a hold of a group of people that love Him. People get this confused. They think if we can do the things described in these verses, then God will bless the church. No, it’s the opposite. If we allow God to work in our hearts, then this is what will happen to us.
Bill Hybels’ “Reveal”
When we get this backwards and believing that a “good church” is about the ministries it does instead of the God it worships, we fall into a “consumer” model of Christianity. We become people pleasers who try to design our church to primarily “meet people’s needs”, “make people happy”, “feed people”, “attract people”, etc. Whenever you hear the term, “feed”/”fed”, it’s consumer-minded. It means, “I’ve come to your church and you’re not giving me what I want.” It’s just like going to a restaurant and saying, “I don’t like what’s on the menu, so I’m not happy, and I’m going to find a new restaurant”. That’s consumer minded Christianity, and that kind of church and Christian doesn’t please God.
Let me give you an example. Willowcreek Church in Chicago, Illinois, headed by Pastor Bill Hybles, is one of the largest churches in North America, with over 23,000 people attending weekly. They were the uncontested champion of the “seeker-sensitive”, “consumer-driven” church movement. They’ve generated a huge amount of ministry ideas, content, songs, and are modeled all over the world.
In 2007, they released some internal survey results (in a book called “Reveal”) where they made an amazing confession that rocked the Christian world. Let me quote from an article that describes what they learned:
“Having spent thirty years creating and promoting a multi-million dollar organization driven by programs and measuring participation, and convincing other church leaders to do the same, you can see why Hybels called this research “the wake-up call” of his adult life. Hybels confesses:
‘We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their bible between service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.’
In other words, spiritual growth doesn’t happen best by becoming dependent on elaborate church programs but through the age old spiritual practices of prayer, bible reading, and relationships. And, ironically, these basic disciplines do not require multi-million dollar facilities and hundreds of staff to manage.”
In other, other words, the consumer model – where a “good church” is defined by how many programs we have, how great our music is, how winsome the pastor is, the attendance, the vision casting, the constitution, the ethnicities, the small groups, or anything else that is defined by human standards – doesn’t work! It doesn’t please God or fulfil our mission to “make disciples of Jesus Christ.”
Only One Opinion Matters
All of those things that I described are going to change. The programs of today’s church are far different from those a hundred or a thousand years ago. The preaching styles will change. The music has changed and will change again. The attendance of church will fluctuate from time to time and place to place. The constitution and bylaws do not define a church. Nor can the ethnicities within it. Culture will change. Technology will change. All of these things are going to change due to geography and time. None of these things cannot define what a “good church” is.
Therefore, a “good church”, cannot and must not be something that is decided by any individual or group of people. If the church is as important as we think it is – as important as God declares it is in scripture, then there must be a more universal list of attributes that describes a “good church” in standards that apply to all people, for all time, everywhere.
As a pastor, that question bothered me for a long time. I read a lot books and articles about how to grow a church and make a church “effective for the culture”, and they all sounded good – but they were almost contradictory in their advice and conclusions.
Some said the church needed to do more activities, others said we needed to gather together more. Some said the church needed more prayers services, others said it needed to be out in the community. Some said the church needed short sermons with video clips, others said the sermons needed to be deeply theological. Some said small groups were the answer, others said to give up the church building altogether and just meet in people’s houses, while others said the best thing to do is start a building program and open up more services. It was frustrating and confusing, and made it really hard to know what to do.
Four Universal Characteristics
Then I changed the question instead of asking myself “What do I think is a ‘good church’?” or “What do the experts think is a ‘good church’?” or “What does today’s culture think is a ‘good church’?, I asked, “What does God think is a ‘good church’?” That change, while it may seem obvious now, was somewhat revolutionary for me – and perhaps it is to you too. Instead of asking, “What is a good church for me, or my family, or my culture, or my country?” let’s ask, “What is a Good Church by God’s standards?”
And so, to find out what God’s standards are, I went to God’s word and came up with four universal characteristics that make up a good, godly, Christ honouring, effective church. And you’ll notice that they are all found in our passage in Acts 2. These four universal characteristics are:
- A good church is a “disciple-making church”.
- A good church is a “fellowshipping church”.
- A good church is a “worshipping church”.
- A good church is an “outreaching church”.
I’m going to take next week to go through these four in detail, but I want you to just notice quickly what I’m seeing. Remember, this isn’t just a recipe of ministries for a “good church”, but instead is what God says a good church looks like. They aren’t a list of ministries, but more a list of attitudes and priorities.
One of them isn’t more important than the other – all four must be present in the church for it to be a “good church” by God’s standards. A “good church” can’t focus on having good worship, but not good at outreach and fellowship. Likewise, a “good church” can’t be a disciplemaking church, but not care about worshipping God or fellowshipping together. All four must be held as the most important areas of our church life. Look again at Acts 2:42-47 and you’ll see them all there.
This Christian Church, maybe called the first in existence, was devoted to “the apostles teaching, the breaking of bread, and the prayers” – that’s areas of discipleship. That’s committing to biblical sermons, practicing the ordinances of the church, and the development of a private the spiritual life.
They were also devoted to “the fellowship, having all things in common, attending the temple together, breaking bread in homes, distributing to the needy among them” – that’s fellowship. They showed love and care for one another in practical ways.
See how “awe came upon every soul, they attended the temple, and praised God” – that’s worship. They saw, heard, felt and experienced the presence of Jesus Christ in their lives and gave awe-inspired worship to Him as a result.
And, they saw “many wonders and signs, distributed proceeds to all who had need, had favor with all the people, and the Lord added to their number.” That’s outreach. That’s evangelism. That’s caring for people outside the church, building the reputation of being godly community members, and seeing people turn to Jesus and be saved.
I want to talk about that more next week, but that’s what I want you to chew on this week. How have you been defining a “good church”? Has it been by how you feel about it? By how many people attend? By what ministries it has? By how “fed” you feel afterward? Let me encourage you to repent of those attitudes and ask yourself if you want a church patterned after your preferences, or God’s.
And for all of us here, when we think of Beckwith Baptist Church, and what we want it to be, are we seeking to craft it into our own image – with our type of music, our favourite style of preaching, ministries that cater to us – or are we seeking to be the kind of church that God favours. A church that practices discipleship, fellowship, worship and outreach – no matter what that looks like.
I would ask you to think about that for the next week, and then we’ll come back (Lord willing) and dig more deeply into these four areas.