I’ve been working on getting a live-stream church service up and I think I’ve figured it out. I’m very glad for some helpful internet services that make the job easier!
Here’s the plan:
This Sunday at 10am I will LiveStream a church service (much like we’re used to) to a series of online platforms. Unfortunately, YouTube is NOT one of them, but it’s available a few other places so I think everyone should be covered. Here’s how to access it.
The easiest way is to go to the church’s website at:
It will also stream on our church’s Facebook page:
It will be simulcast on my Art of the Christian Ninja FB Page too:
It will also be available on YouTube here:
If you have any questions, let me know.
By the way, the church also now has Zoom Conferencing software that will allow me to host a Small Group study for everyone no matter where they are — and one of the coolest features is that people without internet can join the group using a special phone number! I’m looking forward to trying that out, so stay tuned for that soon.
If you recall last week, question 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism told us how a Christians greatest comfort is found in life and in death is found in a relationship with Jesus Christ, and then question 2 asked, ““What do you need to know in order to live and die in the joy of this comfort?” The answer was three things: “First, how great my sins and misery are; second, how I am delivered from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance.”
Those three things are the outline of the rest of the catechism. The next 127 questions over 51 Sundays are broken down into three words: Guilt, Grace and Gratitude. The argument there is basically: You cannot understand how important the solution is if you don’t really understand the problem.
Have you ever had a car that started making noise, and even though you have no idea what’s wrong, you know something is? I’m sure you have. So you walk into the shop and what’s the first question that they ask you? “What’s wrong with it?” or “What’s it doing?” Which changes the event from a professional encounter between two adults to some sort of sound effects radio drama. “Well, when I drive down the highway, there’s a really loud scream like ‘EEEEEEEE!’ and a sort of rumbly grrrrrrr sound in the back and then when I stop it gets all crunchy and then goes ka-thunk!”
And then, if you have a good mechanic, they go, “Oh, ok. I think I know what that is. Let me take a look.” And then miracle of miracles, you come back in a couple hours and it’s fixed! They say, “Oh, you needed a new fan belt, some brake pads, and your CV joint was damaged.”
That’s kind of what the second question is saying. If you don’t understand your problem, which is the misery of your sin, then you can’t really understand the grace of God or the works of Jesus Christ. You’ll know there’s something wrong. You’ll hear the weird noises of your life – strained relationships, broken promises, debt, anxiety, out of control anger or lust, shame – but unless you understand the problem of sin, you won’t really know how to deal with the problem. You need someone who can interpret the weird noises in your life, explain what’s wrong, and then offer a solution. That’s what the Bible does.
Am I A Sinner?
The questions the Heidelberg Catechism has for us today continue the thought from last week. If the first thing we need to know is “how great my sins and misery are” then the next logical question is say: “From where do you know our sins and misery?” The answer is: “From the Law of God.” Question 4 follows naturally with:
“What does God’s law require of us?”.
Ok, if the Law of God is what shows us our sin, then what does it require? But instead of giving the answer as the 10 Commandments or the hundreds of other laws in the Bible, it quotes what Jesus said when He was asked the same question:
“Christ teaches us this in a summary in Matthew 22: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Question 5 comes next, and it’s one that we likely wouldn’t come up with as our next question, but is critically important to answer:
“Can you keep all this perfectly?”
In other words, “Can any human being perfectly love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength, and perfectly love their neighbour as much as they love themselves?” To which the answer, if we’re honest with ourselves, should be “No”, right? The Catechism says,
“No, I am inclined by nature to hate God and my neighbour.”
That’s where some people usually start to argue. They say, “I don’t actually hate my neighbour. I don’t hate anybody! Sure, I’m not perfect in my love for God or others, but I don’t hate anyone…”
Hold that thought for a moment and let me show you a quick video. It does such a good job of explaining it in such a short time that I think it’s better if we just watch it together. It’s from “The Bible Project”, which can be found either on their website or through our Right Now Media subscription.
The LAW is a Mirror
I know that’s a lot to digest, but for today the thing I want you to remember is simply that God’s Law, the Bible, is a mirror. All the rules and expectations that God set through the prophets in the Old Testament, that Jesus taught in the Gospels, and that the Apostles said in the New Testament, are written to be a mirror that reflects the truth back to us.
James 1:22–25 says, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.”
It’s not one of those mirrors that makes you look bigger or smaller than you really are, it’s not tinted like rose coloured glasses to make things look better, nor is it tinted like dark sunglasses to make everything more gloomy and depressing, it’s just a mirror that simply reflects back the truth.
Have you ever known someone who has said, or perhaps you yourself has said, “That’s why I don’t like to read the bible, it makes me feel guilty.” That’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s one of the main reasons that the Bible is written. If you are in good standing before God, if you know you are forgiven and are living righteously, then the mirror reflects that back. You see God’s love, patience, kindness, generosity, sacrifice, and how He’s on your side. But if you don’t know where you stand with God, if you still love your sin, if you haven’t asked forgiveness, then the mirror of the Word is going to reflect that, and you’re going to feel guilt, shame, fear, and see God as a judge who hates and condemns you.
That guilt, that shame, that fear of condemnation that you feel, is not a bad thing. It’s not a reason for you to put down the Bible and ignore God and stop praying – it’s supposed to drive you to humility, to admit your wrong, and then to call out to Jesus for salvation and help!
Sin Goes Deep
The book of Romans is divided up just like the Heidelberg Catechism. The first three chapters are about sin, chapters 4-11 are about how we are saved from that sin, and then chapters 12-15 are about how our lives are transformed by that salvation. Guilt, Grace, Gratitude. The whole first section is written so that anyone who reads it understands the universal problem and misery of sin and could not possibly walk away thinking that they are in good standing with God. It shows the picture of how everyone has an immoral, messed up conscience and a broken relationship with our Creator – how deep the problem goes.
Turn to Romans 3 and let’s read starting at the middle of verse 9:
“For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.’ ‘Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.’ ‘The venom of asps is under their lips.’ ‘Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.’ ‘Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.’ ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.’”
Notice how all of those are quotes from the mirror of Old Testament. To our modern ears, which are so used talking about self-esteem and blaming everyone and everything else for our problems, that sounds harsh, but remember what the video said: “Jesus showed that love is far more demanding than we realize…. And that our hearts are not currently equipped to fulfil even the basic command of God.”
In Matthew 5, which the video quotes, Jesus says love isn’t just about not murdering people, it’s about everything we say, do, and think about others when we’re angry – even to the point of forgiving and doing good for our enemies. He says that loving faithfulness to our spouse isn’t just about not committing adultery. That love encompasses is about everything we look at with our eyes and all the things happening in our hearts with every other person we meet. Jesus says that the law of love doesn’t just say, “Keep your promises”, but says that every word you say should be the truth.
James 2:8-10 says something similar,“If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.”
In other words, if you show any partiality towards someone, even once, – because of race, colour, gender, financial status, celebrity level, or personal relationship, you’ve broken the entire Law of God and stand guilty before him. A commentary I read this week said it this way,
“God as the highest good desires to be loved perfectly…. Indifference and lack of love toward Him are only lesser degrees of hatred…. [And] from the same root of sinfulness… arises also that relation toward our neighbor in which we love ourselves more than we love him….” (“Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism”, Otto Thelemann; Pg 124-125)
But, some say, “Can’t non-believers, non-Christians feel love towards people?” That form of love is not a divine love, born of sacrifice and obedience, but a “natural love” that is ultimately for one’s own pleasure and to one’s own advantage – a love that is more about self than the other. That’s why it so easily moves from love to hate. Have you ever known someone who once loved a person but now hates them? At one time they would have argued tooth and nail that their whole heart was for that other person, that they would do anything for them, but now, they won’t speak to them, won’t forgive them, insult them behind their back, and are filled with bitterness that won’t stop. That’s natural love.
The love that is from God doesn’t work like that. The love that we have from God is one that, as 1 Corinthians 13:7 says, “…always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
That’s why, when Romans 3 says, “None is righteous, no, not one…”, it’s exactly right. When we compare the light of God’s love to ours, our love looks like darkness. When we compare our life to God’s Law, we can’t say that we love like Him, our only conclusion must be that we hate Him and hate our neighbour. Why? Because we’ve all lied, and we don’t lie to people we love, we lie to people we don’t like, people we hate. We’ve all preferred someone over someone else, and loving people don’t do that, hateful people do. We’ve all done something with bad, selfish motives, proving that our greatest love is ourselves and not God or others.
When we look into the mirror that is the Law of God, the Bible, the purpose isn’t merely to look at a mirror. That’s one of the dangers of Bible Study or trying to read the Bible in a Year. No one looks at a mirror to see the mirror, they look at it to see themselves. In the same way, when we read the Bible, the Law, the commandments of God, the purpose isn’t merely to learn about them or memorize them – but to have the Spirit of God, through the living and active Word of God, look at us, pierce our soul, and discern the thoughts and intentions of our heart, so we can know our true selves through it. (Hebrews 4:12-13)
So Romans 3:19 continues, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
When we look into the perfect mirror of the Word, it should shut our mouths from all the excuses we give for our bad behaviour and all the ways we try to defend ourselves. It should stop our mouths and make us know that we really are accountable to God. And when we face that knowledge of sin we must tremble. It should cause us to feel fear, guilt, and shame. That’s what it’s supposed to do.
And that fear, guilt, and shame, should drive us to want to do something. When the noise of our broken car gets so bad we can’t stand it, we bring it to the mechanic, right? And so, when, through the reading and hearing of the word, we start to understand and feel the misery of our sin, the sickness of our souls, the damage we have caused, and the judgement of God, it should drive us to want to do something – to be rid of that fear, guilt, and shame. And how do we do that?
We come to Jesus, the one who paid for our sins on the cross.
Look at the next verses in Romans 3:21-26, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
We talked about propitiation last week. It is the removal of wrath by the offering of a gift. Jesus offered His blood for ours, taking God’s wrath which we rightly deserved, so that anyone who has faith in Jesus, who recognizes their sin, hates it, wants to be clean from it, and believes in Jesus alone for that Salvation, could be justified before God.
Once that happens God changes our hearts, cleans us up, and we see ourselves in the mirror very differently. Suddenly instead of being covered in sin and feeling fear, guilt and shame, we see ourselves as cleaned up, redeemed, and the Bible looks like light, guidance, and hope. It’s not the impossible standards of a terrible judge, but the loving words of a kind father who is helping us navigate this life.
Let’s close with the reminder of the story of the Rich Young Ruler found in Matthew 19:16-22.
“And behold, a man came up to him, saying, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’”
Sounds like question 2 from the catechism, doesn’t it? Jesus’ answer sounds a lot like our questions from today.
“And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.’ He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“How can you attain salvation? Obey every law perfectly. Love God perfectly and love others perfectly.” How does the young man respond?
“The young man said to him, ‘All these I have kept. What do I still lack?’”
“Sure, Jesus, I looked into the mirror of the perfect law, all 613 commandments, and know for a fact I’ve kept every single one of them perfectly. I’m good. I’m a good person.” Jesus had already told him that there’s only one that is good, and the young man probably wasn’t Him, but the young man missed that one. It’s just like a lot of people who think they are “good” and don’t really need salvation, don’t need Jesus, don’t need repentance, don’t need prayer. Maybe that’s you today. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked and asked if they need prayer or help with accountability or with study and they say, “Nah, I’m good.”
And what does Jesus say? He just grabs literally the first commandment. “You shall have no other god’s before me.” (Exo 20:3) Or the first part of his summary, “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.”
Verse 21, “Jesus said to him, ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”
That was quick. Did He really love God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength? Nope. He loved money and possessions. Did he really love others, like “the poor”, as much as he loved himself? Nope. He wanted to be rich and giving his riches to the poor would make him equal with them – and even thinking of that made him sad.
The Rich Young Ruler was lying to himself. I implore you not to do that. First, don’t make the mistake of avoiding the Bible because it makes you feel guilty, but second, don’t make the mistake of thinking that you are “good enough for God”. Allow the conviction of scripture to drive you to your knees, drive you to repentance, drive you to beg for God’s grace, to turn to Jesus for mercy, to thank Him for salvation, and to want to live a better, more righteous way.
Welcome to the first week of our series on 1st Corinthians! I’ve been really excited to start this series for two reasons. First, I really enjoy teaching books of the bible, and second, because I believe that the content of this series is going to be not only extremely interesting, but also very helpful.
As we go through this book and study its context and background you are going to see a lot of echoes of the present. Some people accuse the Bible of being an old, complicated, out of touch book for super-religious people and theologians locked in monastic towers, unable to speak to the issues and trials of modern life — but that’s an impossible conclusion to come to when we take the time to read and study it. And that truth is exemplified in 1st Corinthians.
The society that the church in Corinth was living in and the issues it was facing are the same issues we face today. The world in which they lived in is eerily similar to our world today. Sometimes, as a preacher, I have to dig a little deeper to find the application for our life today – but that won’t be the case for 1st Corinthians. It’s blatantly obvious in every chapter.
But before we get into our study of the book itself, it’s really important that we get some context.
The Apostle Paul
The first think you need to know about 1st Corinthians is that it is a letter written from the Apostle Paul to the church in Corinth around 55 AD, about 25 years after the resurrection of Jesus Christ and 20 years after Paul’s conversion to Christianity. Here’s a quick bio on the author:
Paul, who was also known as Saul of Tarsus, was a Jewish man born in the city of Tarsus, the capital city of the Roman Province of Cilicia. He was a Jewish man, but he had Roman citizenship, which explains why he went by two names (Acts 22:3). He was born as the Hebrew Saul (SHAAL) and then later when he became a missionary to the gentiles, he dropped the Jewish name and went by his Roman name PAULUS.
Saul had the best of both worlds education-wise. His parents allowed him to be trained in the Greek education system, but at home he was also taught the importance of his Jewish heritage and the Torah. He was even taught how to work with his hands, sewing animal skins together to make tents. He describes himself in Philippians 3:5-6 as “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”
At some point in Saul’s life he had embraced his Jewish heritage and found that he had a deep love for the Law of Moses, and found his way into being trained as a Pharisee – the keepers of the Law. Saul quickly rose to the top of the class and was taken for training under the very well respected teacher, Gamaliel – the grandson of the famous Rabbi Hillel, one of the most important scholars in Jewish history. He is closely associated with the development of the Mishnah and the Talmud – the foundational commentaries on Jewish Law and History. These werethe guiding documents for the Pharisees, a group dedicated to obedience not only to the Law of Moses, but also the Oral Laws and commentaries written in the Mishnah and Talmud. The Pharisees were the most trained, most hard-core religious people in the Jewish world – and young Saul was thriving under their training, setting himself apart as a man of extremely zealous passion for keeping God’s Word.
When Jesus was being born in Bethlehem, Saul wasn’t even a glimmer in his father’s eye yet, and was about 25 years old when Jesus died on the cross. Jesus would have been teaching in Galilee while Saul was growing up and being trained by Gamaliel and the school for Pharisees in Jerusalem.
With all the confrontations that Jesus had with the Pharisees, especially during Passion Week, there is no doubt that Saul knew about Jesus’ teaching – and had learned to hate Him as much as the rest of the Pharisees did. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that Saul was in Jerusalem at the same time as Jesus was, possibly even in attendance with the Sanhedrin crowd that condemned Him to death.
As the Christian church started to grow after the resurrection of Jesus, Saul’s hatred of the church was growing as well. The leaders of this break-away group, called the Apostles, were following in the footsteps of their leader and stirring up all kinds of trouble, winning converts away from the Pharisees and teaching that this Galilean carpenter from Nazareth was the Son of God and Messiah, the Christ! Saul, an expert in the Law and Prophets, a Pharisee of Pharisees, hated these people who called themselves “The Way”. There was only one way, his way!
Paul the Hunter of Christians
The first introduction we get to the young man Saul comes in Acts 7 at the stoning of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. After Stephen had spoken about Jesus and accused this group of being stubborn and blind to the truth, it says in verse 54,
“Now when they [The Pharisees and the rest of the Sanhedrin] heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he [Stephen], full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.”
The stoning of Stephen was the dam-bursting event that allowed all the pent-up hatred against Christians to finally be let loose. It was open season on the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem and the man they wanted in charge of rounding them up for imprisonment, trial and death was Saul, their brightest, most popular, and most zealous member.
Saul spent about a year actively hunting, imprisoning, condemning and probably even killing Christians. He also expanded his hunt far beyond the city of Jerusalem. We read the next chapter of Saul’s story in Acts 9:1-6, and find Saul travelling hundreds of kilometers in his pursuit of the followers of Jesus:
“But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’”
In that single moment Jesus sends Saul’s whole world crashing down around him. Jesus literally stops Saul in his tracks and confronts him with his hatred, pride and sins. Saul gets up, blinded, and spends three days without eating or drinking, trying to absorb this new reality.
Then God sends a Christian named Ananias to help him, teach him, heal his blindness, bestow the gift of the Holy Spirit, and to baptize him into the Christin faith. Ananias calls him “Brother Saul” and gently ushers him into this new world of faith in Jesus Christ.
After that meeting Saul spent some time telling the Jews in the synagogues of Damascus what had happened to him, but wasn’t well received by anyone. He left Damascus and spent a few years in solitude, away from the Pharisees, away from Christians, away from everyone, wandering Arabia in an extended time of reflection, prayer, study, and meditation on all that had happened. He was forced to re-evaluate everything he thought he knew about God, Jesus, the Bible, and the Christians he had been hunting, and it took a long while. He needed to humble himself before Jesus, ask forgiveness and do some learning. He was no longer the darling of Jerusalem, the biggest man on campus, but simply a new follower of Jesus Christ, the one who saved him even though he had been the greatest enemy of His followers.
Fast-forward the story a little: After his time away Saul went to Jerusalem to talk to the Apostles and tell them that Jesus had chosen him to be an apostle too. The apostles were wary at first, but willing to listen. The Jews, however, were angry that their greatest weapon had turned on them and tried to kill Saul.
The Apostles decided send him back to Tarsus to lay low for a while. He stayed in Tarsus teaching about Jesus for about 10 years before the apostles sent Barnabas came and got him so they could work together on a mission trip to spread the gospel to new places while collecting funds to help people during a time of great famine.
Saul’s time with Barnabas would set the pattern for the rest of his life. His whole world had been changed by meeting Jesus Christ and He wanted everyone in the world to know about it. His Christian life would be lived on the road as a missionary to the gentiles. Yes, he still loved the Jews, and spent time telling them about Jesus too, but his upbringing, education, training, and passions made him a perfect missionary to non-Jewish people.
His first missionary journey would take three years, from 46-49 AD. His second missionary journey would take two years, from 50-52 AD. It was on this second journey that Saul, who was now going by Paul, would visit Corinth for the first time and stay for 1 and a half years.
These missions cost Paul much. His love for Jesus, the Gospel and His church gave Paul much heartache as he watched partners desert him and the churches he planted get attacked and fall into believing lies about him and Jesus. It took a toll on his body as well as he faced beatings, imprisonment, stoning, lashes, shipwrecks, starvation, and more. But nothing would stop him from telling everyone he could about the love and forgiveness he’d found in the resurrected Jesus Christ.
It was during his third journey, as he was staying in Ephesus for two years, that he wrote his letters to the Corinthians after receiving some news about their troubles.
The City of Corinth
Ok, so that’s some backstory for the man who wrote the letter, now let’s work on a little of the backstory for the city of Corinth. I told you before that the world the church in Corinth was living in and the issues it was facing are very similar to the issues we face today; let me explain what I mean.
To live in the city of Corinth was to live in the coolest city in the world. This was the newest, trendiest, most modern, exciting and wealthiest town around. It had been destroyed a couple hundred years before, but was rebuilt by Julius Caesar in 46BC and quickly regained its prominence. By 27 BC (only 80 years before Paul got there) it had been named the capital of the province and by the first century had cemented its place as the most influential commercial centre, and an important manufacturing centre in Greece.
Their success came from their location. The city was a harbour town, located on a little strip of land that connected mainland Greece and Achaia. The weather often made it too dangerous to go around the whole of the rest of the land, so the Corinthians had a system where they would place ships on large wooden platforms and drag them across a stone road to drop them on the other side. Today they’ve simplified the process by digging a huge canal.
Corinth was a brand new (or rather refurbished) city with lots of money, people and things to do. Scholars estimate that the population of Corinth during the time of the apostles was somewhere between 500,000-700,000 people including Roman citizens, Greeks, foreigners and slaves. People would come from all around the world to witness the Isthmian Games, second only to the Olympics in their prominence.
When you think of Corinth, think of a twenty-first century “inner city” like downtown Toronto; an overcrowded, ethnically diverse, materialistic, urban concentration of people, bursting with upper-class professionals and down-and-out street dwellers. And just like our inner cities today, it was full of opportunities to sin.
Unlike today, however, all their activities were masked it all with a veneer of religion. Corinth had as many temples and places of worship as downtown Toronto has Tim Hortons’! There was a god and a temple for everyone. As a strong commercial centre they drew people from everywhere. You could worship the gods of Egypt, Rome, and Greece all at once – or even head to the Jewish Synagogue.
Corinth was a religious, hedonistic, self-indulgent, decedent city, full to the brim with people, money, commercialism and moral decadence, but they had one overriding obsession: sex. It was such a part of the culture that Plato used the term “Corinthian girl” as shorthand to refer to prostitution and the rest of the ancient world would describe sex-obsessed, promiscuous people as “living like Corinthians”.
One place that everybody went (except the Jews of course) was one of the most famous temples in the ancient world: the Temple of Aphrodite, which stood high near the rim of the mountains so everyone could see it from the harbour. Whether you lived there, was a visiting tourist, or simply a sailor waiting for his ship to make the journey across the road, everyone – regardless of their personal, religious convictions worshipped at the Temple of Aphrodite.
When you think of Corinth, think of it as all the worst parts of the internet coming to life – and the Temple of Aphrodite was pornography central. This cult was dedicated to the glorification of sex. Some scholars believe they had as many as thousand girls kept there as consecrated priestesses, or sacred sex workers, who would come in great, ritualistic processions, dressed in fine clothes and crowns on their heads, to excite the crowds of men so they could make their choice, throw money into the collection or not, and take the temple priestess to have sex as an act of worship to the goddess of love, beauty, pleasure and fertility, Aphrodite. Some scholars believe that it was law in the land that every woman who lived in the city had to take their turn as priestesses in the temple, whether they wanted to or not. (Herodotus)
In the centre of town, for the even more perverse, stood the Temple of Apollo which also glorified sex, but this time it wasn’t with women, but with men and boys. Corinth was a monument to immorality of every kind. Slavery, greed, the pursuit of power, paganism and sexual immorality drove the economy and lifestyle of all the lived there.
Another internet-like thing was the proliferation of teachings, opinions and pseudo-intellectual nonsense that streamed through town. Throughout Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we read about four things that the Corinthian church wanted more than anything: “Spirituality”, “Wisdom”, “Knowledge” and “Power”, and though Paul taught that all these things were found in a relationship with Jesus Christ, God wasn’t working fast enough – or in the way they wanted Him to – and they were falling into their old habits to find it.
The celebrated Greek philosophers and teachers that everyone in town flocked to listen to, called Sophists, told everyone in town that to obtain super-spirituality, and great wisdom, knowledge and power, what they must do is separate their mind from their body by seeking out the biggest, wildest, most ecstatic experiences that they could. The crazier they got, the greater the physical pain or pleasure, the more insane the experimentation, the wilder the experience, the closer they would be to the gods.
This was the mindset in Corinth when Paul came to town in 51 AD. (Acts 18)
Parallels of Today
Can you see any parallels to today? It’s not too hard is it? When Paul walked into Corinth 2000 years ago he may as well have been walking into any modern day city in North America. The society around us is just as obsessed with money, power, trendiness, and sexual experiences as they were then. And our church, and the church in North America, is faced with the same temptations as they were.
The Corinthians needed the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They were utterly lost in their sin and were desperate to hear what Paul was saying about a new way of salvation. We’ll cover the story next week, but while the Jews argued with Paul, the gentiles of the city flocked to hear the message of Jesus Christ. Their hearts were full of guilt and shame, and hearing about salvation through Jesus must have been like getting a breath of fresh air or a clean drink of water while living in a garbage dump.
But even though they readily embraced the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that didn’t mean their troubles were over. They were still very new Christians and were constantly surrounded by opportunities to compromise their faith and morality. They were bombarded by temptations to try to be cool, to follow the latest trends, to seek out spiritual experiences, to give in to physical pleasures, and to live for themselves rather than others.
There were Jewish and pagan teachers who came into their church and made a lot of sense to them, but were trying to pull them away from faith in Jesus and into pagan or Jewish worship practices instead. They were told that they either needed to follow the Law of Moses completely, or that since they were saved by Jesus and that they were new, spiritual creatures, they could do whatever they want with their bodies. They’d either be forgiven or it didn’t matter to God anyway. This was extremely confusing and very tempting to them!
That’s where Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians comes in (1 Cor 1:1-2). This church that Paul had spent a year and a half planting and caring for was falling apart. As he was staying in Ephesus, he started to receive news that things were going badly. First came a delegation of men sent to bring Paul a list of questions and to talk him into coming to Corinth to fix things. Then came some people from a woman named Chloe’s house who came to tell him even more problems.
And all of these various thoughts, teachings and temptations were causing a huge division in the church. Some people wanted to go with what Paul had said, others wanted to listen to the new teachings, some wanted to go back to the Law of Moses, while others wanted to incorporate some of the things from the temples of Aphrodite and Apollos into the church. No one knew what was best anymore, everyone wanted their own way, and no one was getting along.
Paul was stuck in Ephesus, but to help in the meantime, he wrote some letters – four in fact. We don’t have the first or the third letter – they were lost, but we do have the second and fourth – we call them first and second Corinthians in our Bibles.
These letters are written to a confused church who wants to obey God and love each other, but are living in morally chaotic land full of voices that are telling them a thousand different things. They need some truth and so they write to their Apostle for answers.
So that’s the first part of the introduction to Corinthians and we’ll leave it there for this week. What I want you to do before we come back next week is to read 1st Corinthians all the way through. It’s only 16 chapters, so that’s only a little over two chapters per day. As you read, I want you to keep what we’ve talked about today in mind – Paul’s passion for spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the context in which the Corinthian church was living.
You’ll notice as you read that Paul keeps coming back to that: the truth of the Gospel, the importance of living in the love of Jesus, and all the implications that has for our daily life.
My kids have been in swimming lessons for quite a while. I took them when I was a child, as most people do, but I’m nowhere near as good at swimming as my kids are. Even my littlest, Eowyn, knows more strokes and techniques than I do. To be totally honest, I only ever made it to the third level – which they called “RED” at the time – because I failed it over and over and over. Eventually my mother got tired of paying for me to fail and said, “Well, you won’t die if you fall out of the canoe, so I guess that’s enough.”
Our intention, right now anyway, is to have all of our kids take enough lessons that they will be certified lifeguards and instructors. Ethan has already completed Bronze Cross and has First Aid and CPR, training – which is good, because that allows me to eat as much poutine as I want, with total impunity, knowing if I choke on a cheese curd or keel over with a heart attack, Ethan will be there to save me. Eventually, I will be surrounded with children that will not only be able to save me, but also teach others how to save their poutine loving fathers.
As I’ve watched my children develop in their swimming abilities, I’ve seen them take on bigger and bigger challenges. At the beginning of their training, the instructors have them jump into the shallow end of the pool, always within arms reach, and then hold them up by their tummies to practice their strokes, whispering nice, encouraging words in their ears the whole time. They tread and splash for a few moments and then sit on the side and watch others do the same. It’s very sweet.
However, as the lessons continue, it gets a lot less sweet. My boys, who have been doing this for a while, come home from swimming lessons with some very interesting stories. I’ll ask, “What did you do today, son?” and they will relate quite a grueling regimen of exercises. Long gone are the days of tummy holding and whispered encouragement.
“Well dad, during my three hour class, we started with an hour of book work, memorizing acronym after acronym after acronym, and then moved on to oral and practical quizzes. Then we were told to get in the water and swim 24 laps in under 12 minutes. After that, they told us to tread water in the deep end for five minutes – but THIS time, they dropped a 10 pound weight to the bottom of the deep end and had us retrieve it and then tread water while passing it around to each other. Then it was time to practice some rescues, which means dragging my classmate’s limp bodies out of the pool over and over – and if I didn’t do it perfectly I would have to do it again. And when we finally got them out, it was time for ‘land rescues’ where we practice saving people from choking, bleeding, passing out, having a stroke, and more – sometimes as they attack me! Oh, and by the way, the test is next week and if I make one mistake –their head goes under water, I misdiagnose, or I take my eyes off of them – I fail immediately and have to take the class all over again.”
Drowning in The Deep End
To their credit, my kids rarely complain about the work they are required to do during their classes. They know that what they are learning is important and that it takes dedication and skill to do it right. And of course, my response as a Dad is never to say, “Oh, that’s too bad! I wish they would take it easier on you.” No way, It’s “Good! I hope next week is even harder! That’s building some character! Now drop and give me 20!” (It’s a tough life at my house…)
Now, would any of us here criticize the instructors for being too hard on the students? Sure, we can’t take the toddlers and drop them in the deep end, tied to 10 pound weights, right? That’s not only inappropriate, but probably illegal.
But if we are going to give people the title of “LIFEGUARD” and give them a little piece of paper that says they are “LIFESAVERS”, then I think it’s right that they be rigorously trained and tested!
It’s no different in the Christian faith. I don’t say this lightly, but most Christians do not have a very strong faith. There are a lot of folks in our churches that are content to spend their lives paddling around the shallow end of the pool. They’re like me when it comes to swimming lessons: they think they know enough not to drown, but that’s it.
The problem is that this world isn’t a good place right now for people who don’t know how to swim in the deep end. The issues that are pressing against us are incredibly complex and go far beyond our human ability to contemplate, let alone, attempt to address. We are living in the deep end right now and there are a lot of people who call themselves believers that are struggling to stay afloat. They don’t know what to do when the waves of change crash against them and they are pulled down into the riptide of popular culture. As they sputter and flounder, they do foolish things like trust their emotions and seek wisdom from pagans. They don’t know how to pray or read God’s word and are leaving the church in droves.
It is my deepest desire that we don’t make that mistake. Even our little church out here in the middle of nowhere feels the crash of the waves of change and the pull of popular culture. We can’t avoid it – so we’d best be prepared. Not just for ourselves, but so we can help save others.
When we or someone else at our church gets nailed by crisis – whether that’s crisis of health, finance, or faith – don’t we want to be a group of well trained lifeguards that know our stuff and can jump in and save them? Rather than being like the untrained and useless masses of people that simply stand on the sidelines muttering how they wish they could do something, but not knowing how – or worse, throwing stones at the one that is hurting, hoping it might help.
It is my belief that the issues that strike the deepest part of our hearts are addressed by God in His Word. God may not answer every question that interests us, but He has certainly answered all the ones that we need to know. That’s why we need to know God and His Word. Because we and everyone around us – our children, friends, coworkers, strangers, and enemies – have big questions, and most of us are ill equipped to give any answers.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not talking about having a bunch of pat answers under our belt so we can be the smartest person in the room or win debates with unbelievers. No, far more important is that we need to know these things so we can know God.
The problems of this world, those that happen inside and outside us, make so much more sense when we know in our heart, soul and mind that God is always good and always just. As long as we wonder if God cares about us, wonder if He even sees the problem, wonder if He’s punishing us, wonder if He’s being unfair, unjust or unkind, then we will forever live in fear and doubt. Uncertainty about God creates a life filled with anxiety.
That’s the normal life of the pagan, the atheist, and the immature believer. They live in anxious fear. They always feel insecure. Below their feet is shifting sand. They try to find security in all sorts of places: politics, money, healthcare, military power, personal relationships, new technologies, scientific progress, counsellors, teachers, entertainment, religion… but the problem is that every foundation they try keeps changing! Almost nothing the same as it was 10 years, 100 years, 1000 years ago. So they live in fear. It’s only a matter of time before the next wave hits, their foundation fails again, and they are set adrift on seas that they can neither navigate nor swim.
Have you felt this? All hell breaks loose around you, and you realize that your foundation is uncertain. Life gets very unfair and you realize that the things you thought were going to get you through, simply let you down. That’s life in the deep end. We all feel it, but I don’t want any of you to drown. No believer should live in constant fear that God has forgotten them or is going to abandon them. No believer should be crushed under the weight of this world. No believer should feel like they will drown in their sorrows.
Yes, we will feel the fear. Yes, we will feel the burden. Yes, we will feel the pain of loss. Yes, we will feel the frustration. But when those feelings come, believers have access to something greater, an off switch to the emotional roller coaster. We know that our lives are built on the unchanging Word of our immutable God, who always keeps His promises, and will always see us through.
Habakkuk’s Follow Up Question
Last week we talked about Habakkuk’s first question, “Why does God let bad things happen?” and this week we are going to look back at the conversation to see that Habakkuk isn’t done with his big questions yet. God just dropped a bomb on him saying that his plan to take care of the sin of the nation is to have the people and the cities utterly wiped out by the Babylonian army, and so now we get to the follow up question:
“Are you not from everlasting, O LORD my God, my Holy One? We shall not die. O LORD, you have ordained them as a judgment, and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof. You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?
You make mankind like the fish of the sea, like crawling things that have no ruler. He brings all of them up with a hook; he drags them out with his net; he gathers them in his dragnet; so he rejoices and is glad. Therefore he sacrifices to his net and makes offerings to his dragnet; for by them he lives in luxury, and his food is rich. Is he then to keep on emptying his net and mercilessly killing nations forever?” (Hab. 1:12-17)
There’s a lot of emotion in this section. As I said, these are HUGE questions. They get to the deepest part of humanity’s problem with evil, and seek to understand the most complicated details of God’s plan of salvation.
But I want you to notice something first. I want you to see something critically important. If there’s one thing you get out of this sermon, let this be it: Habakkuk begins his prayer with humility and faith. There is no doubt that Habakkuk believes God is greater and more righteous than he is. He may have no idea what’s happening or why, but his prayer starts in the right place. This is where we must start as well. We must not start our prayers thinking we are equal with God, that we get to argue with His Word, or that can come up with a better plan. We are not there to debate or negotiate. Whenever we come to prayer or study, we must come humbly, or we will have wasted it.
“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6)
Certainly, Habakkuk is BOLD in his prayer, asking huge questions of God, but he does it in a way that is humble and trusting. Look how many titles he uses for God! He uses God’s names, “YAHWEH” and “ELOHIM”, or “LORD” and “God”. He knows He’s addressing the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe! He’s not talking to “the big guy in the sky” or “his buddy Jesus”. He’s not coming to the conversation as an equal. He knows what he’s doing is audacious. He’s asking GOD to explain himself! That’s ridiculous on its face, but such is the God we love and serve to allow us to approach His throne of grace! He is the Father and He wants to talk to his children, but He’s also GOD.
Next he calls God, “My Holy One”, intimating a personal relationship with Someone who is not only unique, but special to Habakkuk’s heart. He calls God his “Rock”, which is a term from Deuteronomy 32:4, which calls God “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.” He sees the Lord as the highest Judge in the highest court, who is perfect in His decisions.
That’s where Habakkuk starts his prayer – on His face before God – and it’s where we must start our prayers. Yes, we can be angry, confused, broken hearted, weeping, pacing, broken, on our knees our shouting aloud. All of those feelings are represented in the prayers of scripture – even the prayers of Jesus. But while we pray, our hearts must be humble.
I believe that if we want answers to big questions, if we want comfort from God in the midst of our trials, then we must come to prayer with the right heart. We start with the belief that God is our unmoveable rock, the worker of our perfection, the upholder of our justice, and the keeper of our faith. It’s personal, and it’s humble.
If we start our prayers thinking that God is weak, out of control, or unfair, then our whole prayer life and relationship with Him will be skewed. Instead of finding comfort, we will be hardening our hearts to Him! But if we come in humbly, knowing who God really is, then even if we have deep hurts, doubts and questions, we’ll at least be in the right place to ask and start to find answers. During these tough times, when questions abound, check your heart before you start to pray.
If you believe in God, then I know you’ve shared these thoughts with Habakkuk. Everyone has. We look at ISIS running around harming more and more people and we say, “God, who is going to stop them?” We look at abortionists and think the same thing. Or pornographers: “They drag their hook through campuses and catch young women and men, gut their souls, and walk away smiling. How long will that last, God?” We look at the global church and see it grow more dysfunctional as it fractures and falls away from the faith of our fathers – and then watch as atheist churches take their place – and wonder how much worse it can get.
We look to our own lives and our own problems with sickness, death, trial, temptation, work, finances, relationships, and everything else – and when we finally hit our knees, our prayers sound very much like these words from over 2500 years go. Nothing is new under the sun.
The Bible word used to describe this type of prayer is “Lament”. We would use the term mourn or grieve, and it’s something we’re not very good at as a culture. We tend to run from our problems or pretend they don’t exist, rather than face them and let them break us down. We’ve lost the ability to lament, and it shows in our culture. Jesus lamented, as did many of the faithful in the Bible, and faithful people that have come since. They faced the difficult things in their life and let their hearts break, so they could bring the pieces to the One who could put them back together.
Today, instead, we usually pretend our heart isn’t broken, make excuses for it, pretend to be healthy, or medicate our feelings away. It’s terribly unhealthy. We need to lament things.
Now, lamenting isn’t just feeling sad. “Lamenting” has a more formal meaning and goes beyond emotion. What it means is that we take our heartache TO Someone who will listen, and, hopefully, do something about it. The Bible is full of laments, most often songs – which means they’ve been given some thought and inspiration. A lament isn’t merely raw emotion, but are the well-considered, meditated upon, thoughts of a believer, brought before God.
It’s not that raw, emotional prayers are bad. David’s psalms sometimes seem very raw and emotional, as though they were written in the middle of a battle – and perhaps some of them were – but Habakkuk’s writing here (like many other laments in the Bible) is of incredibly high quality, with well chosen, deeply poetic words.
That doesn’t take away from the heartache. Perhaps it even adds to it. He may have chewed on these thoughts, this prayer, this lament, these questions, for a long time. He prayed these thoughts over and over, finding new, better and and different ways to express his grief to God. And since this is inspired scripture (listen carefully), God HIMSELF was working with Habakkuk on this prayer poem. These are words written by Habakkuk and God given to believers to help us express the intense feelings that we sometimes don’t have words for.
Let’s go through Habakkuk’s prayer verse by verse and take it apart a bit so we can see how much it often reflects the prayers of our own hearts
In verse 13 we see Habakkuk’s follow up question of “Why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” The rest of this section expands on this question. God, how can you use an evil nation like the Babylonians, who are doing more evil than we are to discipline your people? That seems unfair. They get blessed with more land and victory – even though they are worse than us! How can You, the perfect Judge, stand there and allow a greater evil to swallow up a lesser one?
In verse 14-15 Habakkuk uses an illustration that we understand today. He says to God that it almost feels like there’s no accountability in this world. Like we’re all just evolved animals doing whatever we want – that the real rule of life is simply survival of the fittest. The biggest fish rules the pond. Is that how Your world is supposed to work? That doesn’t make sense at all! Aren’t you the God that defends the widow and orphan, helps the helpless, frees the captive? Then why are we living by the law of the jungle right now? The Babylonians are clearly the more evolved and stronger than we are! They are going to chase us, catch us, gut us, eat us and then smile. And are you there… just watching?
In verse 16 Habakkuk keeps arguing his case for why this doesn’t make sense. He points out to God that to make it worse, this wicked nation then turns to give the credit to demons and false gods! Actually, it’s even worse than that. The picture here is of a fisherman catching a fish and then giving worship offerings to HIS NET! He’s giving all the credit for his great victory to his fishing rod. How ridiculous! God, that’s how stupid Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon are! They don’t even know who to thank for their victory! They put their faith in demons and horses and spears rather than the One who Created the Universe! God, you don’t even get the glory! And to make it even WORSE… after they’ve slaughtered us little fish… they will be richer and more comfortable. God, this nation will NEVER turn to you because all the evil plans they come up with are doing so well!
And then verse 17 really strikes home: “Is he then to keep on emptying his net and mercilessly killing nations forever?” I can imagine that there are a lot of people living in in the world right now who have prayed this prayer – and it has echoed through ages past. The persecution and genocide of Christians around the world now, the Jews during World War 2, the African slave trade, the Acadians… and it goes on throughout history.
God how long, exactly, are you going to let this go on? This can’t last forever. It just can’t! Can it? This seems totally backwards. This seems so wrong. Evil is winning and good is losing. The victory is going to demons and fools. You get no glory, no praise, and the faithful are punished. This is so confusing. This is heartbreaking. The pain is excruciating and I don’t know how much longer I can take it. How can you stand it?
In some ways, though we’ve never been through the extreme persecution of some, we’ve all asked that question, right? Do you realize how much differently this prayer would have gone if he wouldn’t have started out humble? These are not accusations. These are big questions, but they are not accusations against God. This is a person with deep hurts and confusion, pouring his heart out to God. I know many of you have been in this situation.
Sitting in the Watchtower
Habakkuk ends his prayer in 2:1 by saying, “I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint.”
“Ok, God. I’ll be quiet now and listen. I’m going to watch for your answer.” We could learn a lot from that. How often do we pray and then forget to listen?!
He trusts that God, His ROCK, won’t let him down, but will make His will known. Habakkuk’s plan is to go to the watchpost, sit in the tower, and wait for what God will do. He knows Babylon is coming and will see them from the tower. He will witness firsthand the fulfilment of prophecy, the justice of God. But, as he watches for what God is doing… he’s also waiting to see what God will do.
Remember last week’s helicopter view of life that God gave him. Now we see Habakkuk choosing to find a higher vantage point where he can watch not only what God is doing, but what He will do. God has given him a bigger perspective of life, and now that’s the lens he’s using to see the world.
God does that sometimes for us too. We come to him in prayer, we lament before him, and He raises us up higher, shows us some scripture or gives us a special message from a friend or a sermon, that allow us to see more of what is happening. And then He gives us a chance to chew on that knowledge for a while.
We are left to meditate on what God has said, and it requires discipline for us not to slide back down to the ground and forget all that God has shown us from higher up. What we must do is choose to climb the tower and wait for God – again – but now from a different perspective. We climb the tower and look out for what God is going to do. How will He work this out for my good and His glory? In what ways will He use this? How can this make me or others more Christ-like? This is God’s plan, and though it hurts, I’m going to watch and wait.
Remember the back story. King Zedekiah sends for Jeremiah to get some advice. Jeremiah says he should surrender to Babylon so that they don’t get slaughtered. That’s God’s GRACE in action! That message was God saying that He would be merciful even as He was punishing them, if they would only accept what He is doing. Yes, they would still go into captivity, but He would do it more gently. All Zedekiah had to do was relent to God.
If Zedekiah were up on the tower with Habakkuk, perhaps he would have made a better decision. Instead, like a fool, he chose to fight against God’s plan. He didn’t have the helicopter view. He wasn’t in the tower. He wasn’t listening to God. He didn’t see God as sovereign. He didn’t believe God was his rock. He didn’t trust God’s plan. Instead, he fought God’s plan and that choice brought terrible pain and misery to everyone around him.
That’s as far as we’re going to get this week. We’ll pick up God’s answer next week, but I want to just remind you of a few things that we’ve learned today.
First, remember that Christians have a responsibility to take their spiritual training seriously. This world is a terribly deep and treacherous pool and we will drown if we don’t make the decision to learn how to swim well and help others. Get into God’s word, stay in prayer, and do the works of a Christian. Yes it’s hard. But as Paul said to Timothy, “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.” (1 Tim 4:16)
Second, it is good for us to bring our heartaches to God, but we must make sure that our hearts are in the right place. Don’t start your prayer with a laundry list of requests. Start as Jesus taught you to start your prayers, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” (Mat. 6:9) God is your Father, God is in Heaven, God and his name is to be hallowed (or made high and worshipped exclusively). Start your prayers there.
Third, don’t be afraid of Lamenting. Lamentations are important – it is one of the ways that we show that we are relenting to God’s plan. It is good to bring our grief to God. It is good for us to wait for him because He will come. Isaiah 30:31 says, “They that wait upon the Lord will renew their strength.” And when He does come, trust that He will raise you up to a heavenly perspective of what is happening. And then, when God has shown up, climb the watchtower and wait to see what He will do next.
That’s where I’m going to leave it today.
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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We live in an age of expectancy, selfishness and pride. We live in a darkened world that refuses to thank God for His provision and will not acknowledge His grace. The world came into being by chance, everything is a collection of random atomic accidents, and we are only here by coincidence. Everything we see – for good or ill – we have achieved on our own and there is no guiding hand or purpose to anything in life. We are all merely highly evolved animals – of no more value than a virus or a pinecone.
If you are successful, then it is because you either lucked out in the genetic or economic lottery. If you are not successful, then you need to try harder and fight more to get what you deserve in this world. Sadly, none of it matters though, because all you have – your home, money, and relationship – are merely forms of reorganized dirt that will be long forgotten within a few generations anyway. “Meaningless, meaningless… Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless” — or so goes the opening lines of Ecclesiastes, setting the theme of the entire book – that nothing matters and no matter what we do, we all die anyway.
Depressing, isn’t it?
That’s a world without thanksgiving – without gratitude – without the understanding of grace and mercy. That’s the secular world that doesn’t understand James 1:16-17 that says, “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” They are deceived. Or the words of John the Baptist in John 3:27, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.” Or 1 Corinthians 4:7, “Everything you have was given to you. And if this is so, why do you brag as if you got these things by your own power?” (ICB).
Everything we see, have and experience comes through the Father’s hands – all of it. Good, positive, happy, joyous experiences – and painful, confusing, hurtful, frustrating experiences. None of it happens without God’s consent.
- The creation of the world in all its wonder and perfection – and the fall of Adam and Eve that brought the curse upon it.
- The choosing of elderly Abram and barren Sarai to be the father of a great nation – and the children of that nation being enslaved by Pharaoh for 400 years.
- The building of the glorious Temple of Solomon – and it’s destruction by Nebuchadnezzar 400 years later.
- The calling of the Prophet Jeremiah when he was about 17 years old to bring messages of God to the people of Israel – and when these same people hated him so much that they stoned him to death 50 years later.
- The golden years of the Great Kings David and Solomon and the evil times of King Ahaz and Queen Jezebel.
- The writing of the Law of God, and the losing and forgetting of it.
- The rise to power of evil Haman and the rise to power of Queen Esther.
- The advent and birth of Jesus Christ, and the slaughtering of the babes two years later.
- The coming of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, and his beheading under a pagan king.
- All of the amazing life of Jesus, His miracles and teachings – and His betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion.
- The rise to power of Saul, the persecutor of the church, responsible for killing Christians – and his conversion to faith which resulted in the writing of most of the New Testament and the spread of Christianity all over the world.
He allowed the earthquakes in Haiti and Pakistan, Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami in Japan, the droughts in Africa, the Flood of the Yangtze River, the Halifax Explosion, the Black Death, the Bubonic Plague, and the Spanish Flu. He’s also overseen the organization of the United Nations World Food Program, the Red Cross, Compassion International, World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse, UNISEF.
God ordained the birth and lives of Nero, Caligula, Genghis Khan, Josef Mengele, Adolf Hitler, Adolf Eichmann, Pol Pot, Kim Il Sung, Ayotollah Khomeini, Joseph Stalin, and Osama bin Laden. He also ordained the lives of Constantine, Saint Augustus, Saint Patrick, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, William Wilberforce, Corrie Ten Boom, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Schindler, Mother Theresa, and Billy Graham.
All of these people and things have been decreed by God. None of them were an accident. Every action was an act of His will and His design.
A believer recognizes that everything – everything – happens because of God’s plan and His design. A Christian trusts that God knows what He’s doing. They believe that God’s plan is better than what they can come up with and refuse to sin in order to get their way (Ecc 8:12). They believe that “for those who love God, all things work together for good” (Rom 8:28) – and they don’t define “good” as “comfortable, healthy, and wealthy”. They know that the greatest good is a closer fellowship with God, a closer likeness to Jesus Christ, the bearing of fruit for His Kingdom, and our final glorification as we go from this life to the next. We have a big picture – not a small one – of God and His plan.
This morning I want to talk a little about the importance of having that big picture – and how we can gain that kind of big picture by doing something very important: giving thanks. And I want to start with a quick survey of thanksgiving in scripture so we can see how incredibly pervasive has been for the people of God.
In the Old Testament we find believers who knew that the only condition under which life could be enjoyed is the life of gratitude. For the Jewish believers, everything under God – both good and bad – was a reason to give God thanks, because they knew that their thanksgiving was an act of trust that God would deliver them. These believers breathed thanksgiving with every breath.
The psalms are full of thanksgiving, of course. The praise book, the emotional book of the Bible, interplays suffering, fear, doubt, anger and loss with thanksgiving, worship, deliverance, confidence and joy – sometimes in the same verse!
David, the author of many of the Psalms was a man who gave thanks to God. When the Ark of the Covenant was finally coming into Jerusalem, He appointed a special group of Levitical priests that had the singular job of remembering, thanking and praising God. It was an official title that day – the official ThanksGivers. It was seen as a requirement for all of God’s people – but David went a step further and made sure that God was thanked by people dedicated to nothing else.
Job, even after his great wealth and large family was destroyed in a series of sudden and terrible accidents, chose to acknowledge God and worship. In the midst of great pain and struggle, it says “Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.’” (Job 1:20-21). He was in agony. He “tore his robe and shaved his head” (acts of intense grief and emotion), “fell to the ground and worshipped”. Why? Because he knew that all things come from God’s hands and chose to react with thanksgiving – which was an act of hope for deliverance and of humility before God’s plan.
Before interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, Daniel gave thanks to God. He was standing in front of the ruler of the whole world, who wanted an answer to an dream, and instead of jumping to the end, he stood right in front of him and said a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the ability and opportunity to interpret the dream (Dan 2:23). Later, after King Darius had made the law against praying to anyone but him – on threat of being torn apart alive by hungry lions – Daniel went to his room and continued to “get down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God.” (Dan 6:10). He was a champion of thanksgiving and wouldn’t stop for anyone.
Paul had a lot to do, and much to say in his letters, but he very often takes time and space to not only give thanks not only for his salvation, and teach thanksgiving to the other believers, but to relate to the people receiving the letters how thankful he is for them. (Rom 1:8, Eph 1:15-16; 1 Cor 1:4; Eph 1:16; Phil 1:3-5) His letters drip with thanksgiving. Why? Because Paul was truly thankful that he had been saved by Jesus from a life headed to hell and brought into a life of service in His Kingdom. Everything else compared to knowing Jesus was “rubbish” (Phil 3:8) – and Paul was thankful.
And this thankful man, over and over, commands the followers of Christ to be thankful themselves – and to remind others to be thankful. Over and over we are not only encouraged, but commanded to remember to be thankful for our salvation through Jesus Christ For example, Colossians 3:17, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Or Ephesians 5:20, “…giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (See also 1 Cor 15:57; 2 Cor 2:14, 9:15)
And finally, we know that Jesus had a regular habit of giving thanks before almost everything. Jesus Christ, Son of God, was thankful. Let that sink in for a minute. Through Him it was all created. He was on earth, surrounded by fools and enemies, there to suffer and die… and yet he spends a lot of time thanking God. Why? Because it was commanded of Him as an obedient son, and also because He was truly thankful to His Father for all that He was experiencing – both good and bad. He thanked God before the feeding of the 5000 (Mk 8:6-7), and again on the night of His arrest before He instituted the Lord’s Supper (Lk 22:19). He thanked God in public prayers that everyone could here (Mat 11:25).
He thanked God aloud, as His voice choked and with tear stained eyes, as He wept at the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11:41). His weeping didn’t cancel out his thankfulness. His pain didn’t mean he was faithless. He was moved by loss, grief and the sorrow of death and yet at the same time He thanked God.
Why is Gratitude Such a Big Deal?
Why is this such a big deal to God? Why do we see gratitude in the face of trials and blessings, over and over throughout scripture? Why have thousands of Christian preachers, teachers, elders, writers, mystics, puritans and saints stressed the importance of having a heart filled with praise and gratitude? Because Thanksgiving has a lot of power behind it.
I think I know two important reasons: Our capacity to thank God shows the condition of our heart – and our willingness to thank God is an antidote to poisoned thinking.
Thanksgiving Shows The Condition of Our Hearts
We’ve already seen that thanksgiving is a choice to worship to God – but our choice to thank God shows what’s going on inside of us. It shows what we believe about ourselves and our relationship with God. It is a litmus test of our faith and an acknowledgement of who we think our provider is “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?” says the psalmist in Psalm 121:1? Is it in my fields, my finances, my strength, my army, my country, my abilities, my knowledge, my relationships? No, “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” The question is a heart check.
One of my commentaries had a great quote:
“Gratitude is a joyful commitment of one’s personality to God.” (Baker encyclopedia of the Bible, p. 900)
When we are being thankful, we are committing our personality – or who we are, what we think, and what we find important, our source of joy and security and self – to God. We will not be thankful if we are full of pride, thinking all we have is ours. We will not be thankful if we are grumbling beause we believe we deserve more. We will not be thankful if we are coveting other people’s things, jealous of what they have. Thankfulness shows what is happening in our hearts – and a lack of thankfulness shows that there is something wrong.
If you can’t give thanks, then there’s something wrong with your heart. It means that you no longer remember the amazing grace of God, His salvation through Jesus, and you have forgotten all the other gifts you have already received. If you cannot give thanks, then you’re not seeing straight, and there is something wrong.
Do you remember the story of the The Pharisee and the Tax Collector from Luke 18? It’s a story where two men walk up to the temple to pray at the same time. One man, the self-righteous Pharisee says, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”. The other man, stood far off “would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Jesus says it was the second man whose prayer was received. The way that the Pharisee gave thanks showed the condition of his heart – as did the tax collectors humility. Thanksgiving shows the condition of our hearts.
An Antidote to a Poisonous Thinking
The second reason I think scripture keeps reminding us about gratitude is because making the choice – as in, putting the time, energy and effort into giving thanks – is actually an antidote, a medicine, for a broken, darkened, sad, hopeless heart. Romans 1:21 gives one of the signs of us hardening and darkening our hearts as a lack of thanksgiving. It says, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” They didn’t honour God or give thanks to him – which showed the futility and darkness of their thinking.
But the opposite of that is true as well! We can fix our foolish and dark thinking by choosing to give thanks to God. Turn with me to Philippians 4:6-7. It says, “…do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
The “and” clause there seems to me to be a promise. It’s an “if, then” statement. If you pray and give thanks, then you will receive the peace of God. If you want a guarded heart, then pray and give thanks.
Look a little further and see that this verse comes right before a verse that address something we’ve been talking about for a couple weeks: taking charge of our thinking :
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
Thanksgiving and taking control of our thought life – and even choosing to rejoice if you look up at verse 4 – are all tied together. If you can’t rejoice, then start giving thanks. If you are not at peace, start to give thanks. If you are anxious about something, start giving thanks. If you feel like your mind is out of control and you need divine guarding, start giving thanks. Thanksgiving is an antidote to poisonous thinking.
Examples of Thanksgiving
But how do I start giving thanks? If you’re really in the dumps, and really down, and frustrated, it’s really hard to start just – giving thanks. You don’t feel like it, right? Well, that’s where taking control of your thinking comes in, and I’ll give you a tool to help you out. Look again at Philippians 4:8 and let’s ask some questions. If you can’t think of what to give thanks for, then turn that list into a series of questions:
What is “true”? What is the truth about my salvation, my God, my hope, my assurance? I’ll tell you again to go read Romans 8! What “true” things can I thank God for? The scriptures are true. They are a fount of cool water in a world filled with dark lies. We all know people who are truthful – people we trust – let’s thank God for them. What else is true in this world?
What “honourable” (dignified, reverent) things can I thank God for? For me, I think of some of the great preachers and teachers of the past that stood for God despite great pressure to conform. I think of the martyrs who suffered for their faith. Of heroes past and present that stand for the name of Jesus. Of men and women I know who worship God with reverence and faith.
What about thinks that are “just”? What kinds of “justice” can I thank God for? We know God is just and will make everything right in the end – evil will be punished and goodness rewarded. But we also see justice in this world if we look. We live in a nation with law and order, police protection and military force that seeks to bring justice to those who have been wronged both here and around the globe. I am also thankful for all the people I know who live rightly, fairly, and don’t compromise. For the stores that don’t cheat me and for missions organizations that are fighting for the protection of those who can’t fight for themselves.
What does the word “purity” bring to mind that I can be thankful for? I think of the amazing joy of teaching eager children the gospel, and how open their minds are to it. I think of the scene of a land covered in new-fallen snow, all white and perfect. I think of how God is perfectly holy and can never be corrupted, and how, because of Jesus I am pure in His sight, and each day He is making me more like Him.
What around me is “lovely” or beautiful and causes me to praise God and give thanks? This one is easy. Just take a look outside. Fall is my favourite season. But there are many other things. Art, photography and music have a lot of beauty in them. A well designed building, car, technology or even appliance can be an object that allows us to thank God. Wonderful stonework on a building, a piece of jewelry, a sunset, the smell of a book, a nice cup of coffee. All lovely things that can give us another reason to give thanks.
What “commendable” things or people can I thank God for? I’m reminded of my wife, who lives a life worthy of commendation, and of my children who continue to have a good reputation with all who know them. I think of the commendability of good bible translators, teachers and writers who work hard to be perfectly truthful. Of all the missions and relief organizations that we can trust to do their job and spend our money well. Of the members of our leadership team who are working hard, doing their jobs without grumbling and complaining, and bring a good reputation to our church.
What do I see around me that is brimming with “excellence”? Certainly the design of creation – it’s magnificence and microscopic intricacies cause us to think of God’s perfection. But what about a cell phone, how a bridge is constructed, or that we can now fit 200GB on a memory card that is only 15mm wide. A well designed garden, a kept field, a motor that runs in perfect time, are all things of excellence. Now, these things are my list – and yours will be different – maybe a 200GB memory card doesn’t immediately draw you into worship like it does to me. That’s ok.
What do I know about God that is worthy of “praise”? Well, everything, when we start to read about Him. Open up Psalm 121, 145 and 146 and read about salvation, protection, and deliverance from God.
“The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 146)
This is my list, and I’m sure yours is different, but I hope you see my point. If we take the time to do this, then it not only gives us an antidote to poisonous thinking, but is an act of worship and obedience to God. He honours those who honour Him.
We live in an age of expectancy, selfishness and pride. We live in a darkened world that refuses to thank God for His provision and will not acknowledge His grace. His people ought not be like that. Thanksgiving takes practice, effort, time and energy – but it’s benefits are incredible. It will bring us closer to God, realign our priorities and adjust our attitudes.
Thanksgiving is powerful – so let us not take it for granted. Like Jesus, let us make a habit of it.