We Need Each Other

Some years ago, I was chatting with my future in-laws about their experiences on the mission field.  They mentioned a couple that they were close to during a challenging season of missionary work.  I asked if their very different denominational backgrounds were an issue.  The response was so helpful: “Secondary things do not matter when you are in the trenches.”

Back in the first century, the Apostle Peter wrote a letter to some believers in the trenches.  They had probably been kicked out of Rome by Emperor Claudius and transplanted to five regions in what we would now call Turkey.  These people had been unwanted back in Rome (troublemakers or guilty by association with others), and they were now unwanted in their new locations.  So Peter wrote his epistle to help them.

Today we live in cultures that are increasingly hostile to Christians.  We can certainly take on board the instruction Peter gave to those first-century believers.  In chapter 4, after the main body of his argument, Peter urges believers to live in light of their situation. God’s great redemption plan is in its final stage; they need to live with disciplined thinking for the sake of their attentive prayerfulness.  But then he gives a not-to-be-missed “above all” point:

“Above all, love one another earnestly.” (1 Peter 4:8)

He is not referring to casual and comfortable fellowship.  The word Peter uses here, “earnestly,” implies a full and sustained effort.  Think of the muscles of a thoroughbred horse working at full capacity as the horse gallops.  Or think of the strenuous and sustained efforts of an athlete in competition.  Peter is not just asking Christians to be pleasant to one another; he is speaking of how much we need each other.

In this paragraph, Peter gives us three “one another” instructions to help us understand how much we need each other:

1. We need each other’s grace. In verse 8, he urges them to “love one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” Of course, some sins should not simply be covered over.  Sometimes the most loving thing to do is to graciously confront the sin of a fellow believer.  Sometimes a sin is so significant that you should inform the authorities.  But here, Peter is speaking about ongoing, every day, frequent annoyances. 

Think about a group of children gathering in a minibus for a day at the seaside.  They will be full of energy and excitement.  They will probably tolerate annoying pokes and name calling from their friends in this state – every comment will be met with laughter and joy.  But fast forward to the evening when they all clamber back into the minibus, exhausted and emotionally fraught.  Now the slightest poke in the ribs, a crossed word from a friend, or another tiny thing might provoke tears and tension.  As adults, we are often more drained by life than delighted.  How easily Christians can aggravate one another.  That is why we need one another’s grace.

Eugene Peterson translated the underlying thought in Proverbs 10:12 like this: “Hatred starts fights, but love pulls a quilt over the bickering.”

 2. We need each other’s generosity.  In verse 9, Peter goes on, “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.” We tend to think of hospitality in the New Testament as an essential support to the church’s missionary work.  Travel inns were expensive and dangerous, so finding a place to stay with fellow believers was a vital feature of the Gospel’s spread.  However, in this verse, Peter is speaking of hospitality to “one another.” Maybe this is less about helping travelling missionaries and more about supporting one another in the local community of believers.

After more than a year of restrictions and lockdowns, some of us are appreciating the blessing of being in each other’s homes more than ever.  Let us never take for granted the gift that it is to share a meal with fellow believers.  It is not about the performance of the chef or the presentation of a picture-perfect house.  We are not auditioning for a magazine.  We are a family that needs each other.

Sometimes, the gift of time, practical support, and fellowship can make the difference between making it through a challenging season and not making it through.  We need each other’s generosity.

3. We need each other’s gifting.  In verse 10, Peter adds one more “one another” to the paragraph: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” God designed the body of Christ to be interdependent.  We need the gifts that others have.  Some gifts are more visible and up-front, while others are more behind-the-scenes and play a support role.  We need each other.

The gifting may be different for one who preaches and one who sets up the facility, but both are intimately connected to God.  The speaker speaks the words of God.  The server works with the strength God supplies.  And whatever type of gift we have, God is at work amongst us as we benefit from one another’s spiritual gifts.

Whether we are living in a time of relative comfort and ease or a time of growing antagonism and complexity, the reality is that we all need each other.  It is an incredible blessing to be part of a local family of believers.  As we love one another earnestly, we will benefit from each other’s grace, generosity and gifting.  And the impact of all this will be a blessing for us, a powerful witness to a fragmented watching world, and glory to God.

What would it look like if you earnestly loved the people in your church family this week?

The Cost of Diversity

It is such a wonderful thing to look around a church and see the diversity of people that make up the body of Christ.  People from different backgrounds, with different stories.  Some seem to be likely participants in a church; others seem most unlikely! 

One person might say, “I was raised in a Christian home,” but next to them will be someone who might say, “I never went to church until recently.” Someone might say, “You would not believe what I used to be like,” while another will say, “I always thought I was a good person.” The church is a beautiful blend of backgrounds, personalities, cultures, and stories.

In Acts 16, Paul and Silas traveled through Turkey on the second missionary journey recorded in the book. Eventually, they arrived at the coast, and God directed them to cross over into Europe.  We are thankful they did!  Their first stop was Philippi.

In Philippi, we are introduced to three people who encountered the transformational power of the love of God.  In just these three people, we get a glimpse of the diversity to come as God builds the church in Europe. And there is also a challenge for us.

The first person we read about is Lydia.  She seems to have been a successful businesswoman from what we read of her home town and her trade (purple cloth).  Paul met her at the prayer gathering beside the river.  (If there weren’t ten Jewish men in the town, then there could not be a formal synagogue, so this gathering was the informal equivalent of a synagogue.)  We read that Lydia was already a worshipper of the Lord.  It is hard to imagine someone easier to reach with the Gospel!

In reality, even religious people who know the Bible are not easy to reach.  The text reminds us that it is always a miracle when someone accepts Christ because, we are told, “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.”  Lydia was a person with a successful life and a genuine interest in God.  What a blessing it is to have this kind of person before us in ministry.  Still, let us remember to pray that the Lord will open their hearts – otherwise, the story will always end very differently!

The second person we read about is the slave girl.  This girl must have had a horrible life.  She was a slave, used by her owners for her demonic powers.  The brief glimpse we get of her in this passage shows that she seemed to be a genuine inconvenience to Paul.  Thankfully, God delivered her from the evil spirit.  We don’t know what happened next, as the story swiftly moves on.  It doesn’t seem unreasonable to imagine believers like Lydia taking care of her.

Europe still has many people that we might find inconvenient, in comparison to the Lydias.  So many people in our continent bring with them a lifetime of brokenness and baggage.  Reaching them might feel more like a spiritual power encounter than a pleasant conversation about spiritual things over a cup of coffee.  And discipling them will always be more complicated for the church.  What a blessing it is to have this kind of person before us in ministry. Let’s pray for eyes to see the broken and the hurting around us. Let’s pray for God’s power to set them free and change their story!

The third person we read about is the jailer.  This man was probably a retired Roman soldier who had served his twenty years and was now responsible for the local prison in this colony.  He was perhaps a hardened man who had seen a lot and was now content to live with his family and experience as little trouble as possible.  This man would be hard to reach.  Thankfully, God knew how to get through this man’s hard exterior and capture his heart.

Reaching this jailer proved to be a costly experience for Paul and Silas.  They were seized, dragged before the authorities and tried by a mob.  They were stripped, humiliated and beaten with rods.  Then their wounded backs were probably pressed against a wall as their feet were put in stocks by the jailer—a horrible few hours, and perhaps a lifetime of scarring to show for it.  Perhaps the jailer heard the Gospel from them as he locked them up.  Maybe he lay in bed wondering what they had to sing about.  And perhaps he had just drifted off when the earthquake shook him awake! Sure that they would have escaped, he prepared to end his life to save the higher Roman authorities the task.  But then Paul called out and brought him into the jail.  They were all still there, after all.  And at that moment, the jailer was turned spiritually upside-down!

If God could release a slave girl from demonic oppression, why did God not do another mighty miracle in the town square and impress everyone with his power?  Why all this suffering for Paul and Silas?  God could have sent a bolt of lightning down during the day, but instead, he waited and sent the earthquake that night.  Why?  Because that hardened jailer perhaps would have joined the crowds and prostrated himself before a display of God’s power, in fear and trembling, grovelling before this foreign god.  Yet God’s goal was not to show his power but to demonstrate his love. 

As the jailer stood before Paul and Silas, he discovered that their suffering was not under compulsion.  They chose to stay in that cell.  Their suffering was somehow voluntary.  That blew the circuits of his hard old heart.  Maybe this is what they meant when they spoke and sang about Jesus willingly suffering for sinners like him!

We should praise God for the diversity of people brought together in the body of Christ.  The “successful” people like Lydia, the people with lots of baggage like the slave girl, and the hardened veterans like the jailer.  Some might seem easier to lead to Christ – praise God when they are!  Some are more inconvenient to rescue and disciple.  And some will cost us a great deal of suffering to reach.

There is an actual cost to make the diverse body of Christ possible.  But ultimately, that cost is not ours, but Christ’s.  He suffered voluntarily to reach the hardest of hearts.  If we keep our eyes on him as we walk whatever path God sets before us, then maybe we can be like Paul and Silas. Perhaps we will also sing hymns of praise as we get the opportunity to represent the voluntary suffering love of God’s heart.

Stepping Out Into a New World

The last year has felt like a whirlwind for us all.  There have been constant government guideline changes and the kinds of interruptions to everyday life that most of us have never seen before.  Now it feels like we are starting to emerge from the Covid-19 crisis.

The world has been shifting.  Due to the pandemic or due to societal changes, the world is not the same place as it was just a few years ago.  So my mind has gone to the second half of Acts.  Acts 13 and following chronicles when the followers of Jesus first stepped out to take the message of Jesus to a very different world.

Let’s take Acts 13-14 as a case study to consider.  Here we read Luke’s account of the first missionary journey.  The church at Antioch in Syria sent out Barnabas and Paul.  These two travelled to Cyprus, then up to what we would call Turkey.  We read of their ministry in places like Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe.

Perhaps we can note some basic principles that will be helpful to us as we step out into our new world with the message of Jesus today:

1. God is active in the spread of the message.  In Acts 13:1-4, we see how God is the initiator who launched the mission of Barnabas and Saul.  As we read further, we can recognize that God is involved in every aspect of their ministry.  That same God was not surprised by the challenges of 2020.  He is continuing to work out His purposes in 2021. 

2. The enemy opposes the spread of the message.  In Acts 13:8-11, we read about the active opposition of a false teacher called Elymas.  This “son of the Devil” was trying to turn others away from the faith.  Paul did not hold back in dealing with that opposition.  Remember that this was a foreign culture, but the apostles knew that people everywhere need to hear the truth about Jesus.  We will face opposition as we seek to speak of Jesus this year.  Let’s pray for the courage and boldness we need to carry that message effectively.

3. People respond to the message in different ways.  In Acts 13:42-52, we witness a typical response to Paul’s preaching.  Some of the hearers were stirred and wanted to know more.  But opposition arose from the local Jews who eventually drove the apostles out of town.  We might expect the opposition to come from overtly evil people. However, often it is the religious and self-righteous who prove to be most resistant to the good news of Jesus.   We should never be discouraged by a mixed reaction to the gospel.

4. Remember to begin at the very beginning.  In Acts 14:8-20, we watch Barnabas and Paul as they came to Lystra.  These were not Jews with a background understanding of the Old Testament.  These were pagans with no Bible background at all.  They soon gathered in a crowd with the local priest of Zeus, ready to offer sacrifices to Barnabas and Paul (who they mistakenly thought were Zeus and Hermes in the flesh!).  Barnabas and Paul could have seized the opportunity.  After all, here was a crowd, including a strategic influencer, who all thought Paul and Barnabas were gods – they could have worked with that position of influence!

Paul could have launched into preaching about God’s greater sacrifice.  Or he could have demonstrated the similarities between Zeus and the true God.  With some careful editing, it is always possible to forge the connections between other deities and our God.  Lystrans believed Zeus was the sovereign of the universe, master of heaven and earth.  It sounds biblical.  Zeus was concerned with justice and order; God too.  Zeus showcased his power in extreme weather; there are Bible stories that come to mind. 

But Paul and Barnabas did not entertain this approach at all.  Why not?  Because truth matters.  And the truth of the matter was that the God they had come to represent was not like Zeus or any other god hanging around the area.  The true God was so much better!  So Paul launched into a brief message introducing the true God.  Paul spoke boldly, calling them to turn from vain things.  He also spoke invitingly, calling them to turn to God.  And he spoke clearly, setting out the character of the true God: the living and generous creator God, patient and kind. 

The God we represent is not the same as the other gods worshipped in our world.  People worship the gods of other religions, or celebrities, or ideologies.  We can always edit the details and form connections. Still, the foundational truth is that the true God is different, and He is better because He is so so good!  Let’s be sure to start at the beginning, with the God question: which God is God?  What is He like?

5. Be prepared to suffer because it is worth it.  In Acts 14:19-23, we see Paul stoned, dragged out of the city and presumed dead.  When the disciples gathered around him, though, he stood up.  Amazingly, he then went back into the city!  After travelling on to Derbe, Paul and Barnabas don’t continue down the road to their ultimate destination, their sending church in Syria.  Instead, they turn around and go back to Lystra, Iconium and Pisidian Antioch – the three cities involved in trying to kill Paul! 

Why would they do something so inherently dangerous?  Because it is worth it.  It is worth it to help people know the true God instead of their false gods.  And it is worth it because those small groups of new believers matter to that God.  We may be offering encouragement and teaching to unimpressive little groups of young believers in Europe this year, but they matter to God!

There is plenty more we can learn from this section of Acts.  Let’s find encouragement in these missionary journey accounts, and then let us press on in our ministries empowered by God!

A Clay-Treasure Ministry

Why does Christian ministry often look so unimpressive?  We pray for the transformation of many lives, which surely is the will of God.  However, so often we feel beaten down by the lack of response from others, and sometimes even by the lack of transformation in ourselves.  We have such a wonderful calling, but all too often, it can feel so mundane.

Understandably, we long for greater power, greater impact, and greater results.  Maybe we pray for big breakthroughs as confirmation that God is still at work in our ministry. But perhaps our frustrating experiences are confirmation that our ministry is actually going according to plan.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul continues to defend his ministry against accusation and criticism from some in Corinth.  In doing so, he offers a glorious consideration of New Covenant ministry. 

In chapter 3 he shows how, even though the Old Covenant was out-of-this-world wonderful, it is as nothing in comparison to all that is ours in Christ.  In chapter 4, Paul addresses two potential discouragements in ministry: the lack of response from the lost, and the unimpressive person we see in the mirror each day.  Paul does not want his readers to lose heart, but instead to look forward to all that is to come in the future (chapter 5).

The image Paul paints is treasure in jars of clay.  The treasure?  That is the wonder of intimate fellowship with God by the Spirit, who unites us to Christ.  The New Covenant blessings of sins forgiven, a new heart, and the indwelling Spirit are the greatest treasure.  And yet it is stored in jars of clay.  That would be us.  Fragile, easily broken, unimpressive, almost disposable.

When we come to chapter 6, Paul is urging the Corinthians to be responsive to his ministry.  He doesn’t want them to receive God’s grace, but then not allow it to work in their lives (6:1-2).  He is concerned that their affections seem to be restricted, that they are holding back their hearts in some way (6:11-13).  In between, Paul presents a long list of the factors commending his ministry for them to consider. 

At first glance, the list of commending factors seems overwhelming.  It begins with ten negative things, followed by nine positive things, and then a set of nine paradoxes (positive and negative, simultaneously true).  It feels like a long list to read, and a real challenge to preach.  But keep in mind the jars of clay imagery from chapter 4.  New Covenant ministry will be New Covenant shaped.  That is, there will be the unimpressive and mundane jars of clay, but also the real treasure within.

Paul’s life and ministry was shaped like that.  I suspect the same could be said of those who preached the gospel to you in the past, or led your youth group, or were your parents.  Very normal, unimpressive people in many ways.  And yet, there was a treasure there.

A New Covenant ministry person may seem so normal, even weak on the outside.  But within there is patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, and genuine love.  They seem to be dying physically, and yet strangely alive spiritually.  They are often poor, but others are so enriched through them.  They may not have much, but they seem to possess everything.  The Clay-Treasure ministry that Paul lived and described in this passage is not a contradiction of the New Covenant, it is a confirmation of it.

So, when you are discouraged by the lack of response in others, or even the unimpressiveness you see in yourself and your circumstances, remember that the treasure comes in a clay jar.  This will be true for you if your ministry is a New Covenant ministry.  It was true for those that brought the gospel to you.  It was true for the Apostle Paul himself.  And, ultimately, it was true for Jesus!

Just take a moment to reflect on the list in 2 Corinthians 6:4-10.  Maybe you can relate to some of the negatives.  Maybe you are aware of some of the positives in your life.  But don’t spend too long looking at yourself there.  Instead, let your hearts gaze on Jesus Christ himself.  Consider how he suffered.  Ponder what perfect treasure he carried within.  Find your motivation in the ultimate New Covenant minister.  Celebrate Jesus.  Worship Jesus.  And then, take a deep breath, stand up, and press on in your service for Jesus.

Real Darkness Requires Real Hope

Christmas Day gives us a break from normal life.  Maybe you associate it with family, food and presents.  The darker and heavier realities of normal life can be left for at least one day.  Enjoy another mince pie, watch some festive broadcast, and tip your hat to the ancient Christmas story.  Even that story offers a pleasant counterpoint to everyday burdens.  There is a young couple, some shepherds, a few travelling wise men, and at the centre, the baby who brings hope into the world.  Christmas tidings of joy and peace fits nicely with our shared good wishes, even if it is a little quaint.

What if Christmas in 2020 needs something more?  The darkness does feel more pressing this year, doesn’t it?  We have the global pandemic, economic uncertainty, political turmoil, racial tensions – it is a dark, dark world.  So do we jettison the quaint tales of the first Christmas and try to muster some hope from inside ourselves that can steel us for the year ahead?  Or do we look more closely at Jesus and see if he really does bring the light of genuine hope into our dark world?

Here are four reasons that the birth of Jesus can give us a hope bright enough to counter the darkness of 2020.

1. Because he reveals God.  When Jesus became one of us and was born in Bethlehem, he came to show us something important.  It wasn’t just a good example to copy, or some helpful tips for living life.  Jesus came to show us God.  We cannot accurately guess what God is like, so God came to us all wrapped up in humanity.  When we consider Jesus, we get a unique glimpse into the very character of God.  If God is a distant killjoy, or a well-meaning but impotent figure, then we are very much alone.  But if God is like Jesus, then maybe there is hope for us.  Jesus came into this world on a mission of hope, and it was a mission of revelation.

2. Because in Jesus, God identifies with us.  When Jesus joined humanity at Bethlehem, he was deliberately identifying with us.  He chose poor and insignificant parents, humble surroundings, and the darkest of times.  He came to experience life with all its challenges, uncertainties and disappointments.  He knows what it is like to live in a world wracked with disease, political turmoil, racial tension, and economic hardship.  One result of that identification, according to the Bible, is that Jesus is now able to understand and sympathise with us – he prays for us continually as we experience the new (to us) challenges of 2020 and 2021. Jesus came into this world on a mission of hope, and it was a mission of identification.

3. Because he came to give us true hope.  When Jesus came into the world, it was not just a thirty-three excursion into humanity.  He didn’t drop in only to shift into reverse and back out some time later.  Jesus is fully God and fully man – fully one … and that is forever!  Jesus did not become human temporarily.  That massively increases the offer of hope.  Why?  Because we have someone who wants to, and is able to, bring us into the relationship we need to fully experience life and love as God intended.  He didn’t come to hand over a ticket to heaven and then pull back.  He came to give us himself in marriage.  God’s great plan is for the ultimate and perfect marriage union of a rescued humanity with the only one who could rescue us: our creator.  Jesus came into this world on a mission of hope, and it was a mission to create a marriage union.

These first three points speak of three great unions – the wonderful core of the Christian message.  The first union is the beautiful relationship of God with God – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in their glorious union, are a wonderfully different God than every other god we have ever imagined.  At the heart and at the start of everything there is a loving relationship.  Amazingly, we are invited to join!  The second union is what happened that first Christmas: God and humanity joined together in the person of Jesus.  This makes possible the third union: God united to a rescued humanity by inviting us to become one with Jesus.  In union with Jesus we discover forgiveness, life, love, joy, peace, and real, powerful, life-changing hope.

4. Because Jesus came to enter and shatter the darkness.  All that I have described so far is a mission that was launched that first Christmas, and confirmed some years later on that first Easter.  Jesus came into this dark world and went to the darkest place: his death on the cross.  He chose to enter the darkness of human sin and separation from God, in order to shatter the darkness.  In its place Jesus offers the warming sunlight of God’s love to any who will accept that his life and death was intended for me.  Jesus came into this world on a mission of hope, a mission to rescue you from the darkness.

Don’t just grit your teeth and press on into 2021.  Discover the real hope that can only be found in relationship with Jesus.

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Coming Soon: The Little Him Book

It is now just four weeks until The Little Him Book releases in the UK (early 2021 in the USA – click here to pre-order the book in the UK). My hope is that this little book that makes much of Him will be a helpful tool for many. Who might appreciate it?

  1. Christians wanting a brief and refreshing read about Jesus to stir their hearts to worship again. It could be used as a prompt for personal devotions, grab a quick chapter at lunchtime or as a light bedtime read.
  2. Young Christians wanting a brief and engaging introduction to what the Bible teaches about Jesus. They need to know about him, and the right response is a life of worship. This little book can help with both of these goals!
  3. People asking questions about Jesus. This may be a helpful evangelistic tool for people who may have some exposure to church, but have not yet grasped the significance of Jesus. As with any evangelistic tool, read it yourself to decide who it might be suitable for as a gift.
  4. Preachers wanting ideas for a series about Jesus. Don’t just preach this book, the Bible is better, but maybe this book can give you a jump start on an engaging series for your church.
  5. Youth Leaders wanting the bones of a series of short talks. Don’t just read the book out, but use it to help you formulate 10 brief talks for your youth group (and why not give everyone a copy of the book too?)
  6. Parents wanting an engaging read for family devotions. You could read each chapter out loud in a few minutes – they are easy to read and non-technical. And if you like to sing together, there is a suggestion at the end of each chapter!
  7. Book givers! You may be a dying breed, but if you love giving books to others, then this could be a great book to stock up on. Buy a stack and give away at Christmas, at special events, as an encouragement to a struggling friend, or to someone getting baptised, or to your pastor to thank him for his ministry.

Thank you to everyone who helps get the word out about this book release. Your RT’s, likes, shares, etc. on social media are all appreciated. And thank you to everyone who buys a copy or copies to pass on to others. I really appreciate your help.

Preaching as Connecting

There are some obvious ways in which the idea of connecting might relate to preaching.  We could think about connecting the world of the Bible with the world of today’s listeners.  Or we could think about connecting God’s will with our lives – sort of a “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” idea.  We could even move things down to a more practical level and think about connecting preacher with listeners, or biblical truths with relevant applications.  But in this post I am not doing any of these.

In preaching we get to make connections that are theologically critical, but typically remain separated in the minds of most believers.  How about these three to get us started:

1. Connect the cross of Christ with the life of Christ.  Too easily we can think of Jesus’ life and ministry as being somehow distinct from the cross.  It is as if the cross was a necessary but difficult diversion from what he was previously doing in his healing and teaching ministry.  So, we can think of Jesus as a great example and leader in his ministry, but as a victim of malevolent human agency on the cross.  Actually, the character that is constantly showing in his encounters with hurting people is the character that is presented in stark relief in the hours of extreme hurt on the cross. 

The cross is not a distasteful interruption to his ministry of revealing God’s character to us – it is actually the moment of greatest clarity.  It is that humble Jesus, that selfless Jesus, that giving Jesus that is constantly doing his revelatory work.  That is true beside the Sea of Galilee, as it is true beside the road in his crucifixion.  As a preacher we get to reconnect that which should never have become separated – the life of Christ from the death of Christ.

2. Connect the life of Christ then with the ministry of Christ now. In church world we have done a good job of helping people to know about Jesus’ three years of ministry two millennia ago, but a lousy job of helping people to know that that same Jesus is praying for them today.  I was really struck by Dane Ortlund’s book, Gentle and Lowly.  That book really builds the readers confidence that the Jesus who was so approachable, so humble, so kind, so gracious, so present with both sinners and sufferers in the stories we know so well from the Gospels is the same Jesus that we sinners and sufferers living our stories today can still approach. 

A lot of Christians have a massive disconnect between the Jesus they read about in the Gospels, and the saviour they are trusting with their lives today.  Jesus was so stirred by the battered fallen creatures of back then, but we assume he is impatient and frustrated with us today.  As a preacher we get to reconnect that which should never have become separated – the Jesus of the Gospels from the Jesus of today.

3. Connect Christ with God.  Hopefully this one is the most jarring of all.  Theologically I hope that Christians know that Christ is truly God, just as the Father and the Holy Spirit are truly God.  Also it should not be a stretch to hope that Christians know Jesus is the one who reveals the Father to us.  And yet so many still seem to have a mental distinction between the demeanour and character of Jesus in the Gospels from what we know to be true of God the Father in heaven today.  Too many gospel presentations have inadvertently reinforced the error – the angry judge in heaven is only appeased by the pleas and sacrifice of our kind advocate Jesus. 

When we look at Jesus in the Gospels, or when we gaze at the cross and see the Son suffering there, we are seeing the heart of the Father revealed to us.  I wonder how many Christian lives would be revolutionized if people actually dared to believe that the Father’s heart is as for them as Jesus’ heart was for the sinners and sufferers he encountered in the Gospels?  As a preacher we get to reconnect that which should never have become separated – the Jesus of the Gospels from the Father he came to reveal to us.’

There are probably more theological truths that so easily become disconnected in our thinking.  As preachers, let’s help people to put back together what should never have been separated at all.

When Preaching Is Restricted

This year has thrown up all sorts of challenges for the ministry of preaching. Many of us have been learning quickly how to adjust to preaching to a camera, taking church online, etc. But still, something is missing. Maybe we can’t gather, or maybe the gathering is restricted. Is this restriction actually curtailing the work of God?

The Book of Acts offers us an encouraging section to read when we feel our preaching is restricted. As you know, Acts shows the progress of the witness of the Apostles from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, to the ends of the earth (see 1:8).

The Jerusalem section, chapters 1-7, is thrilling. We see the church birthed and growing rapidly. We get to enjoy the boldness of Peter’s preaching, Peter and John before the authorities, even Stephen’s courageous final proclamation. It feels like preaching to crowds is central to the growth of the church. But opposition is building along the way. The apostles are warned in chapter 4, beaten in chapter 5 and then there is the execution of Stephen in chapter 7.

This brings us to the middle section of Acts, the Judea/Samaria section, if you like. It stretches from Acts 8 to Acts 12, where the summary statement is found in v24: “the word of God increased and multiplied.”

So what do we find in Acts 8-12? We see the gospel spreading to Samaritans and then Gentiles – a massively significant step of progression. But we also see a change of ministry opportunity. After the stoning of Stephen, we read this: “…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 . . . Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” (8:1,4)

They went about evangelising – that’s what it is saying here.  They couldn’t bring friends to big gatherings in Jerusalem to listen to a great apostle preaching.  They were scattered.  Challenging circumstances, scattered believers, speaking about Jesus.

We immediately get the example of Philip who took the challenging circumstances as sovereign appointment and proclaimed Christ in Samaria.  He spoke to crowds, but he also spoke to an individual in a chariot.  Normal followers of Jesus speaking to people about Jesus wherever they found themselves.

In these chapters we see the conversion and commissioning of Saul to carry the message to the nations, and we see Peter being coached by God to understand how the gospel had to move beyond traditional Jewish boundaries in order to spread.  But we also see normal believers representing Jesus.  People like Tabitha/Dorcas, who was full of good works and acts of charity.  In their words and in their deeds, they evangelised wherever God put them.

We know from Acts 12:24 that the word of God increased and multiplied, even away from Jerusalem, away from the big preaching events, away from the primarily apostolic pulpit.  But there is one thing we have to recognize to really grasp what was going on then, and what is going on today. Challenging circumstances that scattered believers who then spoke about Jesus. 

It sounds like a fruitful formula.  None of us want the challenging circumstances, but when they come we see how believers find themselves in unique situations to speak of Jesus.  So why do we hesitate today?  Why aren’t we confident that our congregations will all gossip the gospel enthusiastically in these challenging times?  Is it a matter of training, of example, of spiritual gifting? Perhaps, but not primarily. 

Perhaps it is more to do with Acts 8-12’s truth not gripping us as it should. Luke returns for a summary of the ministry of the scattered believers in Acts 11:19-27.  It tells us that the post-Stephen persecution scatterees travelled to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch.  It tells us that they spoke the word.  It tells us that the message of Jesus spread to Greek speakers as well as Jews. But notice verse 21:

“And the hand of the Lord was with them.”

That is massive. They needed that. They were witnesses in Judea and Samaria because they had received power when the Spirit came upon them (Acts 1:8). They were able to effectively do their part, not because they were really good at it, but because God did his part.

The same is true today. You may not be able to preach to a normal sized crowd this Sunday or next month. The typical autumn and winter events at the church may not be possible this year due to Covid-19. God’s plan may be to place you and me, and the people in our churches, into divinely ordained one-on-one situations where we can speak of Jesus.

Challenging circumstances that scatter believers who then speak of Jesus to anyone that crosses our path. And we can do so with confidence because the hand of the Lord is with us!

If you and your church folks are convinced that the hand of the Lord is with us this week, what difference will that make? Maybe we will discover that God’s plans are not on pause. And even if the pulpit is partially paused, God’s great plan to reach this world for Jesus is marching forwards, even in October 2020!

7 Truths To Stir Prayer in Challenging Times

This year has been a year of changes and challenges for us all.  It certainly isn’t the year we were expecting as we headed into a new decade just a few months ago.  As church leaders we are having to face situations that we haven’t faced before and make decisions in a continually changing set of circumstances.  Wouldn’t it be great if God could give us some kind of blueprint for when traditional church is not possible, during a time when our society is rocked by racial tensions, by political division and by a constant fear of death?  Actually, God has given us exactly that – the book of Acts.

When the church began they could not follow what would later become normal church traditions.  In addition, the Roman Empire was a place of racial tension, political divisions and death was never far away.  How did the church thrive then?  And how can the church thrive now?  We could look at the way the church responded to authority, or how they cared for one another, or how they were evangelistically effective wherever they went, or how they were willing to face changes to their own traditions, etc.  But for now, let’s think about prayer.

When Peter was miraculously rescued from Herod’s prison in Acts 12, he immediately went to the gathering of believers that he knew would be praying for him.  Eventually he got let in.  Imagine their joy at this immediate answer to prayer standing in their midst!  Wouldn’t it be great to know what they had been praying?  We are not given that information in Acts 12.  But back in Acts 4, when Peter and John returned to the believers after another bruising encounter with the authorities, we are given their prayer.  In Acts 4:23-31 we can find seven truths that gripped them.  And if these truths will grip us, then we too will be stirred to pray in these difficult times:

1. God is in charge (v24)– “Sovereign Lord!”  That is a great way to start a prayer in troubled times.  They are praying to the One who is in charge of everything.  The term used here is only used three times in the New Testament, but on each occasion it is crying out to God in the context of monumental or trying circumstances.  God is in charge, the Master, the Boss.  The best person to speak to about what we are facing.

2. God created everything (v24b)– If God made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, that really does mean something for our prayer life.  We are not praying to one local and restricted deity among many.  We are praying to the God who made absolutely everything.  That means that absolutely anything we are facing is a challenge from within that creation.  A disease, a financial challenge, enemy armies, global political crises … they are all very much within this creation.  He made it all. Pray to Him.

3. God can predict history (v25-27)– In their case they knew that what was described by David a thousand years before in Psalm 2 had come to pass before their eyes.  David anticipated the future gathering of nations to oppose the Lord and the Messiah.  The ultimate fulfillment may still be in the future, of course, but they had watched Herod and Pontius Pilate and Gentile soldiers and Jewish people uniting in their opposition to Jesus.  But God is God, so it was no surprise.  Pray to Him about the challenges facing you – they are no surprise to God.

4. God planned this history we now live (v28)– Not only had God predicted it, but what they had watched was actually God’s plan.  God is working His great purposes out and that includes 2020.  Not only is all of this no surprise to God, but it is part of God’s greater plan that is being worked out.  We can be excited to participate in the history God is writing, and we should certainly pray to Him about it all!

5. God sees our specific challenges (v29)– Just minutes earlier they had been threatened by the authorities.  Now they are praying to a God who looks on those threats and cares about His people.  This was the revelation that Hagar received years before.  God actually sees me and the challenges before me.  We are not invisible pawns in a great chess game being played at a higher level.  God actually knows the specific challenges we face.  That truth should make us want to pray!

6. God is working today (v30)– For that group in Acts 4 it was important to recognize that God was at work all around them with healings and miracles.  None of that was taken away because Peter and John had been threatened.  It is important in a time of crisis to not lose sight of all that God is doing around us.  We may not see the miraculous signs described in this verse, but the miracle of regeneration is taking place across the world today.  As we pray for our local context, the church is being built and the gospel is continuing to spread in this world.

7. God answers prayer (v31)– Notice that when they had prayed the place was shaken.  Impressive!  But that wasn’t the answer to the prayer.  Actually, the final line should grab us – “they continued to speak the word with boldness.”  That was the very thing they had requested.  Actually it was the only thing they had requested.  They didn’t ask for circumstances to change (although they probably did when Peter was imprisoned in Acts 12); instead they prayed for boldness in the midst of their fear.

Let’s make sure we are gripped by these same seven truths so that as we face real challenges, we too can pray with confidence to the God who is in charge, who made everything, who predicts the future, whose plans are being worked out, who sees our specific situation, who is at work today and who answers our prayers.

Reading Order: New Testament

Since this has come up a few times in conversation, I thought I’d mention it on here.  What order do you read the New Testament books in?  Here are four options that might offer some variety either for your personal reading, or for an 18-hour reading marathon in a group:

1. The Canonical Order – let’s start with the obvious.  Start in Matthew and read through to Revelation in the order they are printed.  If you start to find the back-to-back Gospels to be an issue, then try one of the next two approaches…

2. The Gospel-Clusters Order – I made up that title.  This approach reads the books naturally associated with a Gospel after it in order to separate the Gospels from each other as you read:

Matthew followed by Hebrews and James (highly Jewish in feel and James has been called the Sermon on the Mount in Epistle form).

Mark followed by 1 & 2 Peter and Jude (Peter is associated with the Gospel of Mark, and there are overlaps between 2 Peter and Jude).

Luke followed by Acts (same author), and then Romans-Philemon – all the epistles of Paul (flowing out of the Acts story).

John followed by 1, 2, & 3 John and Revelation.

3. The Historically-Grouped Gospel-Clusters Order – This approach just changes the Luke cluster by taking Paul’s letters in order and in their historical setting:

Luke is followed by Acts 1-14, then Galatians.

After Acts 18:22, then 1 & 2 Thessalonians.

After Acts 21:16, then Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians.

After Acts 28, then Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians and Philemon.

Then 1 Timothy, Titus, 2 Timothy.  (This structure reads letters associated with a missionary journey at the conclusion of the narrative concerning that particular journey.)

There is also the date of composition approach, which would be similar to option 3, but with the Gospels coming later, mixed in with most of the General Epistles (so the reading order would begin with James, Galatians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, etc.)

One last approach to mention:

4. The Personal Preference Order – No rule states that you have to follow a pre-prescribed order.  It may be beneficial to do so, especially in a group reading event, but for personal reading you can chart your own course.  Read what you are motivated to read and then pick the next book you are motivated to read until you have finished them all.

It goes without saying, but let me end by saying it … whichever approach you take, be sure to keep diving in, looking to know Jesus more and growing in your appreciation of God’s heart towards you!