July 31, 2014

Hearing Jesus changes everything

Saul, later to become the Apostle Paul, was headed in the wrong direction. I can relate to that. He was on his way to arrest Christians and have them incarcerated. I was on my way toward believing in incarnation. We both were earnest in our thinking, yet we were both believing lies and going the wrong way. Hearing Jesus changed everything.

Paul later told what happened to him. He was near Damascus, when, “about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone around me. And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’” (Acts 22:6–8) Paul met the living God and heard Him speak. At that, his life was changed.

For me, I also saw light. I did not hear a voice but I knew at that instant that the living God was in the room and speaking to me. His message? That Jesus Christ is God in human flesh and He came to die for my sin. At that, my life was also changed.

For those who seek God, I offer this advice: Ask Him to seek you, to speak to you, to make Himself known. Whatever He does may come as a surprise, but hearing Him will change your life.

After hearing and responding to Jesus in the obedience of faith, Christians never forget the voice of God. The Bible says, “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” (John 10:3–4)

Last night, a young boy, perhaps about eight, gave a one-word reason at a prayer meeting why he loved God: communication. Even at his age, he hears the voice of the Lord and knows it. How delightful! Not everyone does.

When brought before Pilate, Jesus heard him ask, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37)

Pilate may have heard Jesus speak, but he didn’t hear Him. There is a difference. He was without faith and demonstrated it in his inability to hear.

The same thing happened when Jesus spoke to Saul/Paul. This man heard, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” He responded by asking, “Who are you, Lord?” but the “men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one.”

Nothing is said about Saul’s traveling companions other than they didn’t get it. However, Saul heard and the voice of Jesus directed him to the place where “for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank” (Acts 9:4–9), but then would be given a mission. His life was changed and he changed the world because he heard Jesus speak.

I’m not Paul nor has God given me a mission like his. However, I did hear Him that day when He changed my life, and I still hear Him. He calls me to obey whatever I hear and I have no excuses; I know His voice. 

July 30, 2014

Our solid foundation

Some think the church is a place of ritual and worship. Some think it is an institution of rules and morality. Some even suppose it is a scam to prey on weak people who need a “crutch” to get through daily life. No one who is in the church thinks any of these, for we know what and who we are, and who we serve.

The key verses in this two-month study say we are “no longer strangers and aliens, but are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,” which puts us in God’s family. We know our Father and we know each other.

It also says we are “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” That means we have a platform, but not one that we invented or wrote ourselves. It was given to the first believers, both Old Testament and New. The truth about God and His purpose for His people is our anchor, a sure and stabilizing Word in a world that has gone haywire.

Actually, the anchor is not the Bible or our creeds, as valuable as they are, but Jesus Christ “in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.” (Ephesians 2:19–21) Apart from Jesus, there is no Gospel, no church, no family of God, no salvation from sin.

When Peter spoke his first sermon at Pentecost, he summed up his message with, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:36)

God made Jesus Lord of all, the Messiah Israel longed for; and He did it through His death and resurrection. “For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.” (Romans 14:9)

Jesus conquered sin and death. He is Lord. “For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” (1 Corinthians 8:5–6)

How can I say that? I am a sinful person who is so often bent on doing my own thing and going my own way. So many times my life is characterized by resistance to anyone’s lordship, yet I can say Jesus is Lord with absolute certainty. Paul answers this, “I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:3)

Under His Lordship, I am in an ‘already but not yet’ position. I am totally saved from sin’s penalty, but not yet delivered from its presence. I am totally saved from sin’s power, but not always able to figure out how that works. I know who my Lord is, but often try to be my own boss. Yet He is patient and persistent. Day by day, more and more of my resistance and folly are brought under His dominion, just as He promised and just as it should be. He can say that because He is Lord.

The church is a mixture. Some are in it for the assurance of ritual and worship. Some want rules because they think their obedience will please God, and that He will even bless them with health, wealth, and power. (This is a false gospel.) Many more are weak and in need comfort and a sense of community. These have not submitted to His Lordship or even have genuine faith.

However, those who have understood the Gospel and have submitted to the Lord Jesus Christ are in the church. We know He is the way, the truth, the life, and that no one can come to the Father except through Him. There is no other. We have put our faith in Him because He is God almighty. There is no other. We submit to His lordship because He is the Lord. There is no other.

July 29, 2014

If I don’t ask, I will not have . . .

James wrote to struggling Christians about their quarreling. He rebuked them for it and for their selfish desires. He said, “You have not because you do not ask.” (James 4:2)

What is the secret to an abundant life, to spiritual health and fruitfulness? What is the key to obtaining the blessings of God? I watch people trying to obtain all the good things of life and never finding satisfaction. They do not pray. I have been in churches where there seemed to be no life, no power, no blessing from God. They do not pray.

A friend once said, “When I miss a day of prayer, God takes note. When I miss two days, I notice it. When I miss three days, everyone notices.” She was right. Missing prayer does something to my days also. I’ve no quickness of mind, no steadiness, no calm spirit in those small or large calamities that happen. Sin more easily overtakes me. I’m grumpy as the joy of the Lord becomes elusive. I’m like an appliance unplugged, a flashlight with a dead battery. I have not because I do not ask.

The Bible instructs God’s people to do many things, but the constant is prayer. “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.” (Romans 12:12–13) Constant prayer is listed with the attitude fruit of the Holy Spirit, like hope and patience, but also with action fruit like generosity and kindness to others. Without prayer, the Spirit leaks out and my motivation pales. I cannot be a blessing to others.

The Old Testament gives the same advice: “Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually!” (1 Chronicles 16:11) Prayer is not just for Sunday morning, grace at the table, and dire situations. It is for all the time, all day, continually.

It is also the way to resist temptation. Jesus told His disciples, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41) They were in the Garden of Gethsemane and He was soon to be crucified. They cared. They wanted to support Him. They were also tired and could not stay awake to pray, even at this crucial time.

That sounds so familiar. Last night I went to bed with the enemy dangling a particular sinful idea in front of me. I was too tired to pray and fell asleep almost instantly. That idea woke me up four or five times in the night and even before my alarm rang. It would not go away without prayer, prayer that acknowledges the weakness of my flesh and my need for the power of the Holy Spirit.

Persistent prayer is also a challenge. I’ve prayed many requests for years. God has not said ‘no’ but the answers are still unseen. I’m encouraged by the parable Jesus told “to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” It was about a widow who kept bothering a judge as she asked for justice against an enemy. The judge was annoyed and finally said to himself, “Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.”

Jesus said if an unrighteous judge will give in because of persistence, what about God? Will He not give justice to His people who cry to Him day and night? Of course God cares about His people and about justice far more than a worldly judge, but Jesus asks one more question: “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:1–8)

Not asking God, not persisting in prayer, are signs of small or little faith. This indicates an “I can do it myself” attitude. It may also indicate that I really don’t want whatever it is anyway, or that I think whatever temptation I should be praying about seems interesting and I want to think about it — even though I know that all temptation eventually turns around and bites me.

Jesus desires that I ask, not only that I have whatever is needed, but in the asking I discover how powerful He is and how much He loves me. He says, “Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” (John 16:24) He also wants me to be totally happy, even continually filled with joy.

July 28, 2014

Maintenance prayers, or frontline praying?

Christians can be involved in two kinds of praying. One is called maintenance prayer. Defined by its title, this is prayer for the current needs of individuals and the church. The other is called frontline prayer. Its definition is less obvious. In my key verses for this study on the church, it is prayer concerning the words I have underlined . . .

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, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. (Ephesians 2:19–21)

In those early days, the church started in Jerusalem and grew to include many surrounding areas. Then they had another frontline prayer meeting. For it, “prophets and teachers” in the church at Antioch met; the Bible names five, but there may have been more. “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.” (Acts 13:2–3)

From the results, their praying likely included request that God would show them how to reach the world with the good news of Jesus Christ, for it was after this prayer meeting that the world was changed forever. That change happened because these men took seriously the promises of their Lord about prayer.

Jesus said, “I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” (Luke 11:9–10)

This astonishing promise came after a story that illustrates what the asking is supposed to be about. Jesus said, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’ . . .” (Luke 11:5–6) He wasn’t talking about a personal request, but about asking God regarding the needs of someone else. In the context, this was not mere bread but the bread of life, the need of every person. The story and the promise are about supplying the souls of others with spiritual nourishment. It is about asking concerning eternal matters. In other words, it is about frontline praying.

Frontline praying not only seeks for the ways and means to minister bread to others, it also seeks for understanding about who is hungry for this bread. This is information that is known only by the Holy Spirit, but He is willing to guide our efforts and He did that for these first missionaries. On their journey, Paul and his co-workers “went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” (Acts 16:6–10)

I’m convicted by this. When I think about the size of my community and their need to hear the Gospel, I tend to be overwhelmed instead of moving out as these early Christians did and experiencing God directing them as they went. Holding back reveals that I am selfishly concerned about my own maintenance even if I often pray those frontline prayers for the spiritual needs of those around me.

God is challenging me on this, and at least one other person in our church. She is involved in a prayer group that she says are still mainly in maintenance mode, but is excited that one other person wants to see a change. Will this be the beginning of another adventure with God? That is what the Spirit seems to be telling us to put in our prayer requests.

July 27, 2014

There is praying, and then there is praying . . .

God’s church is a praying church. Sometimes our prayer meetings can be inward focused with what has been called maintenance prayers. We ask God for health, safety, a good attendance on Sunday, and so on.

While these are okay, another kind of praying appeals to us. It has been called ‘frontline’ prayer, where the focus is on confession of sin, renewal, and the power of God for growth and change. This is hard work and rarer, at least in contemporary North America.

Other prayer sessions might be called emergency meetings. When crisis occurs, we get together and pray concerning threats and disasters. It might be Christians we know or strangers, anyone suffering because of tragedy like tornados, airplane crashes, or medical issues. It was a situation like this that brought the early church together to pray for Peter. Acts 12:1–19 tells the story.

Herod the king was persecuting the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword and went after Peter with similar intent. Peter was put in prison and guarded by four squads of soldiers, but “earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.”
As this emergency prayer meeting was happening, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains with sentries before the door. Then “an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, ‘Get up quickly.’ And the chains fell off his hands. And the angel said to him, ‘Dress yourself and put on your sandals.’ And he did so. And he said to him, ‘Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.’ And he went out and followed him. He did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. When they had passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel left him.”

Peter “came to himself” and realized the Lord had rescued him. He went to the house where the church was praying and the servant girl who answered the door was so shocked that she left him outside and ran to report that he was there.

Of course they were excited, but also amazed, a common reaction of Christians to answered prayer. I don’t know why that happens. Our God promises to hear us, but we are so often surprised when He does . . .  

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ (Isaiah 58:9)
Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear. (Isaiah 65:24)
Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known. (Jeremiah 33:3)
 . . . the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. (Romans 10:12)

In my experience, praying with the idea God will answer just as I asked can be confidence, but it can also be presumption. Sometimes I pray with the strong sense that God can answer, but am not positive that He will, or that He will do it the way I expect. Most of the time I pray telling Him the need and leaving the answer up to Him, but that is not nearly as exciting as praying and being overwhelmed that He not only heard but responded with a totally surprising answer.

Prayer is a mystery. However, answered prayer is part of what it means to be a Christian. God is there for His people. He is listening and able to do “exceedingly abundantly above all we can ask or imagine.” He seems to love a surprise and we do too.

It is my prayer that the church, me included, moves beyond our usual maintenance prayers. While I cannot ask we have more of those emergency prayer meetings because that is asking for disasters, I can ask that we focus less on our personal comfort and more on issues of eternal significance. From the examples in the Bible and the headlines in the news, it seems God is calling for some serious frontline praying.