Thursday, July 30, 2009

Facing the Overcomers

God put the following message on my heart months ago. I have finally put the thoughts that have been coursing through my heart and mind into writing. As we head into days of intensified temptation and trial, we would do well to consider those who have gone before us, who triumphed over their own temptation and suffering, lest we grow weary and shrink back from following Jesus.
Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds. Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin. (Hebrews 12:1-4)
Hebrews chapter 12 is a continuation of the narrative begun in chapter 11 where the writer rehearses the roster of ordinary lives made extraordinary through faith that won Heaven’s highest endorsement, “of whom the world was not worthy.” (Hebrews 11:38) Chapter 11 crescendos in unattributed acclaim for “others” who looked beyond temptation’s apogee and paid the ultimate price for their triumph of faith over it:
… others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection. And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented. (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. (Hebrews 11:35-38)

These are among the great invisible “cloud of witnesses” who attend our performance now in the arena of life. (Hebrews 12:1) When we have our own day in court before the “Author and Finisher of our Faith,” Jesus Christ, their lives will stand as irrefutable testimony to overrule every alibi for unbelief and self-justification for sin, for they were no less ordinary than you and I. Those who …

  • deemed themselves unworthy of God’s calling will face Moses, a fugitive murderer for forty-years. (Exodus 2:11-15)
  • softened the message will face the condemned who will wish they had not.
  • omitted the hard sayings of Jesus, will face Paul who declared the whole counsel of God to his cure. (Acts 20:26-27)
  • surrendered to sexual temptation will face Joseph who fled from Mrs. Potiphar’s sexual advances. (Genesis 39:7-13)
  • were almost persuaded to follow Jesus will face the citizens of Nineveh who earnestly repented at Jonah’s eight-word proclamation, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” (Jonah 3:4)
  • were silent on the unborn will face countless millions who might have fulfilled God’s dream for their lives had someone been willing to speak in their defense.(Proverbs 24:11)
  • dropped out of the race will face multitudes who endured to the end.
  • bitterly cursed God for their suffering will face Job who said, “The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 2:21)
  • retreated from life out of fear and unbelief, will face David who ran to fight Goliath. (1 Samuel 17)
  • gave out of their abundance will face the widow who gave her last dime. (Luke 21:1-4)
  • wouldn’t go because they couldn’t let go, will face the twelve who immediately left everything and followed Jesus.
  • recanted in the face of torture or death will face Stephen (Acts 7:54-60) as well as the “others” of Hebrews 11:35-38.

Finally, the writer of Hebrews lays down the gauntlet for us by alluding to Jesus’ crucifixion as the ultimate temptation resistance strategy. “Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin. (Hebrews 12:1-4) It would seem irrelevant to reference Jesus’ suffering had He relied on His status as God the Son. But Jesus didn’t use the advantage of His divinity to triumph over the enemy, for He had “emptied Himself” of the divine privilege:

Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. (Philippians 2:1-4)
When we say following Jesus is just too hard, that it costs too much, that it makes us look foolish, or that temptation is too great to be resisted, we would do well to think upon the great cloud of witnesses who have already won their battle over trials and temptations that are common to man, for their performance will negate any protestation we might otherwise offer for our own inability to triumph in this battle called life.

© 2009 Seed for Good Soil. (Last updated 20090730)

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

How to Attract and Keep a Herd

How does a carpenter-turned-street preacher with a child’s message keep large crowds so riveted that they forget to eat—Sowers, seeds, mustard seeds, wheat, weeds and soil; birds, sparrows, and vultures; trees, fig trees, vines, and vinedressers; fruit, wine, and wineskins; lost coins, lost sheep and lost sons; wages, workers, and employers; slaves and masters; money, talents, rich fools, and poor debtors? What was it about His delivery that left listeners drop-jawed and amazed? The rabbinical elite certainly wanted to know.

Why had their flocks abandoned their scholarly erudition to join the stampede thronging Jesus of Nazareth? What was His secret? What did Jesus bring to the table that today’s market-savvy, member-surveyed, felt-need-centric, production-esque American church doesn’t? The disciple whom Jesus loved offers some insight:

And a great multitude followed him, because they saw his miracles which he did on them that were diseased. (John 6:2)
One word—Results. Jesus had Spirit-power that got results. And lots of ‘em. “Yes, but Jesus was the Son of God,” you say? Fine. I have another question. What did Jesus have that isn’t available to today’s—I’ll even give you a clue—Spirit-marginalizing church? You catch my drift. Nothing.

Granted, dunamis isn’t easy to choreograph—3,000 new converts in one service who need to be baptized and discipled; 1000’s of out-of-towners who need emergency housing; a man and his wife struck dead in the same day for lying to the Holy Spirit; church services regularly interrupted by authorities; church leaders constantly standing trial, some of them beaten; a city-wide yard sale to help the needy; a round-the-clock soup kitchen to feed the masses; a major congregational rift over who eats and who doesn’t; a highly-esteemed, miracle working church leader executed; and your congregation scattered because of persecution—but it sure beats a Broadway spectacular! There’s just no way that status-quo Christianity turns the world upside down like that. Disease-destroying, demon-dispelling, death-defying miracles are not going to happen because of flawless stagecraft. We need dunamis! Everything else is stage prop.

Had the disciples disembarked at Gadara’s necropolis to perform a street skit on the benefits of weekly synagogue attendance, it is doubtful they would have gotten the results Jesus did with “Go” spoken to a legion of demonic squatters. (Mark 5) Call me crazy, but by my calculation dunamis + “Go” = lots of demons gone = deranged man returned to sanity = a swine stampede = a human stampede to find out what all the hullabaloo is about: “And, behold, the whole city came out to meet Jesus.” (Matthew 8:34), herd of dead swine notwithstanding. But the people of Gadara weren't any more eager to be around Jesus than the swine that had just kamikaze'd into the sea. The new reality Jesus introduced frightened them far more than the city’s demonized, graveyard-dwelling, maniac with superhuman strength; they asked the Son of God to bolt. Too bad for them. I don’t hear Jesus muttering second thoughts, “I knew I should’ve waited ‘til after the service to cast out those demons,” as He gets back into the boat.

In spite of Jesus’ success, it is doubtful He would even land an audition, much less a role in today’s Church production. If, however, He showed up on a street corner in your town and began healing the sick, raising the dead, and casting out legions of devils, I’ll bet the stampede of unchurched and churched sheep charging down to that street corner would be audible! People are hungry for God, for the living God. Get God, and you’ll get the herd.

Being “purpose-driven” is helpful, but purpose is hardly a substitute for dunamis; without it, we are barely able to drive out of the parking lot when it comes to fruitful ministry. Still, many churches invest countless hours crafting finely-tuned mission statements that will convey a sense of purpose and motivate their members to action. In most cases, however, church strategic planners wind up with the Great Commission in another form:

And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen. (Matthew 28:18-20)
Jesus gave the Church its purpose before Pentecost. But before He was even crucified, Jesus told His disciples, Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father. (John 14:12) Purpose doesn’t empower anything. It just keeps the herd from scattering. (Proverbs 28:18)

Just before He ascended, Jesus told his followers, “Don’t go anywhere; don’t do anything, until you receive power from on high. (Acts 1:4-8 paraphrased) When He arrived at His Father’s right hand, Jesus received the promise of the Holy Spirit which He then poured out on His Church on the Day of Pentecost! (Acts 2:33) Once endued with power from on high, Jesus turned His followers loose, with “rivers of living water” flowing out of their innermost beings, to a needy world! (John 7:38)

It is worth mentioning, that after salvation, the baptism in the Holy Spirit is the summation of every other spiritual gift and blessing Jesus gives to His Church. Why then, do so many church leaders neglect to teach their congregations about the Holy Spirit, the gifts of the Spirit, and miracles? Pastors will often cite concerns over “divisions” that could occur if they teach openly about the Holy Spirit. Such fears are absurd and deprive God’s people of gifts and blessings distributed by the Spirit of grace. Such worries lend credence to the false notion that our heavenly Father might indeed give his children a serpent when they've asked for a fish. (Luke 11:11)

Paul the Apostle was clear in his emphasis on demonstrating the Spirit's presence and power wherever and whenever he proclaimed God's word:
And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God … But I will come to you shortly, if the Lord will, and will know, not the speech of them which are puffed up, but the power. For the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power. (1 Corinthians 2:4-5, 4:19-20)
If the Church hopes to reach its culture, we will need to recover a key distinctive—power. Without dunamis, our message amounts to fiction.

© 2009 Seeds for Good Soil.