Monday, December 12, 2016

The Vanity of Living for Self

Then I regarded all the works my hands had done and in the labor at which I had labored to do and behold, all was vanity and a grasping of wind and there was no gain under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:11)

        The search for meaning continues.  In these opening verses (2:1-11), the author recalls how he sought answers by turning to a life devoted to himself.  He found laughter and mirth to be pointless in themselves and the stimulation of wine had no value.  He satisfied his sexual appetites, but these “delights of the sons of men” didn’t answer his true longing.  He sought a life of achievement.  He built buildings, parks and fountains; he acquired wealth and prestige; he took hold of whatever he saw and held nothing back.  He discovered some measure of satisfaction from all these achievements, but no meaning.  When he stepped back to evaluate all he had done, indulging his desires, he realized it was all empty.  Nothing he had done mattered at all.

        I'm reminded of certain passages which tell us that whatever we do we are to work at it with all our heart, as working for the Lord (see 1 Corinthians 10:31 & Colossians 3:23).  What we do in this life only matters insomuch as it is done for the honor of the Lord; for His lasting glory.  Anything else may bring some measure of satisfaction yet be sure that it will be only a temporary pleasure.  The writer of Ecclesiastes found emptiness because he did all these things for himself, to discover "what was good for the children of men to do under heaven during the few days of their life”.  He had not yet considered what to do that would matter beyond his few days; what would matter beyond the sun’.  Living for self always leads to emptiness.

Monday, November 28, 2016

An Unhappy Business

12I, the Preacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem.  13And I committed my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom regarding all that which is done under the heavens; the grievous business [which] God has given to the sons of man to be busied with.  14I have seen all the works which are done under the sun, and behold, all was vanity and a grasping of wind.  15[What is] bent is not able to be made straight, and [what is] lacking is not able to be counted. (Ecclesiastes 1:12-15)

The Preacher, the king of Israel (again, likely Solomon) has undertaken the task of exploring all that is done on earth.  He seems to have come away disappointed, for as he studies the world, and a person’s place and purpose in it, he reaches the conclusion that one’s lot is a grievous, or ‘unhappy’, business.  Life continues to give the impression of emptiness; as vain an effort as “grasping the wind”. 

The Preacher determines that God’s ways are outside of a person’s ability to grasp (something he will come back to in chapter 3) just as what is crooked or bent cannot be straightened or something invisible cannot be counted or accounted for.  Thus, to pursue meaning in life is a vain exercise leaving one in doubt or despair.

God does not show us the answers to all of life’s questions.  In this fallen world, there will always be mysteries; the unexplained and the unanswered.  It isn’t that God does not desire us to know, but rather that He desires us to come to Him in faith precisely because we do not know. 

The blessing for the Christian is that we have the completed canon of written Scripture, as well as the witness of the Holy Spirit, whereas the Preacher was more limited in the level of revelation God had given to that point.  However, just because we have this fuller revelation does not mean we have, or need, any less faith.  In fact, knowing more, we can perceive more deeply and more clearly the pain and tragedy of a fallen world—although we are no closer to answering the mysteries.  We continue to bear the ‘unhappy business’; the burden of not knowing.  And we continue to be frustrated at not being able to straighten the crooked or count the invisible.  We must trust God that all is, in the end, not vanity.        

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Do People Matter?

There is no memorial of those from days past, nor shall there be of those to come; no there will be no memorial by those who come later.   (Ecclesiastes 1:11)

The world reveals an endless cycle of ‘vanity’—a repetitive cycle with leads the Preacher to pose the question of pointlessness (see 1:3).  Surely the very fact of human existence gives some sense of purpose or meaning to the world.  But does it?  The opening salvo of the book ends with the opposite conclusion: most people—the vast majority—live and die in complete obscurity.  No one truly remembers those from the past; no one in the future will remember these present days and they also will be forgotten in their turn.
We remember Napoleon, but what of the millions of soldiers and civilians whose lives were impacted and destroyed because of him?  Do we know their names?  Are they in the history books?  We remember Ghandi, but what of all those who marched with him; protested, resisted and suffered along with him for his cause?  Are they remembered?  Not to mention the countless years, in which none of these world shaking figures lived or were active, when people beyond number lived, toiled and died—without leaving any record or impact, except perhaps to those close with them who also passed off the scene.  We know so very little about the ages past, just as 
future generations will know so little about us.

One must conclude, from the Preacher’s perspective that humankind does not matter.  So take what you can get while you live; try to leave some kind of legacy or impact before you fall into total obscurity. 

As a Christian I know differently.  While the masses may not matter to the elite and the powerful, nor to the historian, every person who has ever been born matters to God.  Christ died for all, that all may live and find their value.  He calls a people to Himself and knows them intimately.  Each one matters to God, and that is what gives life its infinite value.   

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Has Life Gone Stale?

Ecclesiastes- 'The Pursuit of Meaning: Doubt, Despair and Discovery'.  

4A generation passes away and [another] generation comes, but the earth remains forever.  5The sun rises, and the sun sets, and quickly returns to the place from where it rises.  6Whirling to the south and turning toward the north, the wind turns and turns and whirls continually, and through its circles the wind returns.  7All rivers run to the sea, but the sea is never full; to the place from where the rivers [first] run, there they return to run again.  8All things are tiresome; man is unable to speak [of it]; the eye is not satisfied [with what it] sees, nor the ear filled with [what it] hears.  9That which has been is that which will be [again], and that which has been done is that which will be done [again]; and there is nothing at all new under the sun.  10Is there anything of which it may be said, ‘See, this is a new thing’?  It has been already from days past which have come before us. (Ecclesiastes 1:4-10)* 

The Preacher began with the statement of his perspective that everything was as a vapor or mist (hebel).  As he seeks to discover the point of life, he looks to the natural world; but finds no answers there.  Nature seems locked in an endless loop.  People are born, live and die, only to be replaced by a new generation.  The sun rises, crosses the sky and sets, only to begin the same pattern again the next morning.  The wind blows, the water flows—on and on and on it goes.  We may hear the author sigh as he says, “all things are tiresome.” (1:8) 

Life itself has become, or seems to have become, stale.  That which seems new, is in fact old—it’s been done before.  There are no new people; just replacements for the dead.  No new sunrise; just the same sun on an endless loop.  No new rain; just recycled water which has fallen before.  “Is there anything of which it may be said, ‘See, this is a new thing?’ (1:10) For the Preacher the answer is 'no'.  On and on it goes.  What is now is what has already been and will be again in days to come when our future 'replacements' walk the earth.  Indeed "there is nothing at all new under the sun."

Is the Preacher correct?  Is life tired and stale?  And if it is, is this what God intended?  From the author’s perspective it may have seemed so—that life was an endless cycle of birth and death; that the creative spark had gone out of the universe.  As a Christian, with the benefit of the perspective of the New Testament, I can recognize that the created order is “subjected to futility” (Romans 8:20 ESV) until the revealing of God’s Elect at the end of days (see Romans 8:19-21).  Until then life perhaps does seem stale, and the pursuit of meaning destined to end in despair and futility.  But for those with hope, the ‘firstfruits of the Spirit’ (see Romans 8:23), we can see the beauty of a world on the edge of something wonderful.

*Because I will be posting larger sections of Scripture, and to avoid copyright infringement, the text will be my own basic translation, similar to, but distinct from other common translations.  Words in [brackets] are supplied to give better flow to the text. These words are generally implied, but not directly given in the Hebrew text. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

What's the Point?

I invite you to take a journey with me through the book of Ecclesiastes.  It is my intent that these posts will form the basic outline for my second book, which I am tentatively calling 'The Pursuit of Meaning: Doubt, Despair and Discovery'.

The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.  Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.  What does it profit a man for all his toil at which he labors under the sun?  (Ecclesiastes 1:1-3)

This is certainly an odd way for a book of the Bible to begin!  Right away the tone is set; this will be an honest and hard look at life.  The word ‘vanity’ (Hebrew hebel) has the sense of a breath or a vapor, something that is transitory and ultimately lacking in substance.  The book begins with a declaration that everything is as a passing breath; a mist.  It is never-lasting.
So then, the author (likely Solomon) asks, what is the point of life?  What is the purpose of men and women?  What value do people have?  For what do they expend their time and energy “under the sun” (meaning during their time on earth)?  If all is vanity, a passing vapor, what is the point of anything?  If a person cannot lay their hands on anything of any lasting value, what is the point of living?

These are tough questions; a tough way to begin.  However, establishing the ‘vain’ and transitory nature of life is crucial to the Judeo-Christian worldview, and its ultimate hope.  The trick, though, is not to read the end into the beginning, but to read Ecclesiastes as it unfolds, struggling along with the author on his pursuit of meaning, a journey of doubt, despair and discovery.

Yet knowing the end reinforces the beginning.  If life “under the sun” is but a vapor, offering no real meaning, it stands to reason we must look ‘beyond the sun’ for something permanent to give us value. 

I look forward to sharing these thoughts over the coming days.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Fifth Sparrow

Ever feel so small, as if you have no real value?  If you haven’t felt this at some point, God bless you!  But I suspect that most of us have at one time or another felt as if we didn’t really matter; that if we were to vanish, we wouldn’t be missed.  For those who have ever experienced this, as I have, I offer something Jesus said which reminds us that no matter how small we may feel, how useless, unwanted or unneeded, we have great worth in the sight of God.

In Matthew 10:29 Jesus asks, “are not two sparrows sold for a penny?”*

The sparrow was not good for much.  The extremely poor might rely on them for food (consider how unsatisfying that meal would be!).  Two of these birds could be purchased for the smallest fraction of money- one penny. 

The word for penny is the Greek ‘assarion’, the smallest unit of money worth about one sixteenth of a denarius.  The denarius was a day's wage for a laborer or soldier and in modern equivalent was worth about 20 cents (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia).  Therefore we have the absolute least amount of money being spent on an ‘item’ of absolute least value. 
But wait.  In Luke 12:6 Jesus asks a different form of the same question: “are not five sparrows sold for two pennies?”*

Now I am no math whiz, but if two sparrows cost one penny, then four sparrows, not five, cost two pennies.  Think about that fifth sparrow; it’s a toss in, an add-on, the equivalent of the thirteenth donut in a baker’s dozen.  It was probably so small that it wasn’t worth even a half-penny on its own.  That fifth sparrow is the epitome of worthless things.

Yet look what Jesus continues to say: “not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father” (Matthew 10:29*); “not one of them is forgotten before God” (Luke 12:6*).  Not one of these creatures, no matter how small or worthless they may seem to us, is beyond the care and compassion of the heavenly Father; not even the fifth sparrow.

This is all well and good for the cute little sparrows; how nice to know that God cares for the birds.  Indeed!  But even better is to know that Jesus didn’t leave it there. 

Jesus was speaking to His disciples about the hardships and trials they would face as they carried His message into the world.  They were understandably worried about the uncertainty of the itinerant life and the very real prospect of persecution, prison and even death.  It must have seemed overwhelming to these simple men.  Paul would later exclaim “who is equal to such a task?” (2 Corinthians 2:16 NIV**). 

So as He spoke of the sparrows, Jesus told His disciples: “Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:31 cf. Luke 12:7).

Jesus wanted His disciples to understand that no matter what they faced, no matter how difficult their mission and ministry became, they could have the absolute confidence that the Father cared for them deeply and would watch over them always.
So then, if the Father concerns Himself with something so comparatively worthless, how much more will He give His attention to His children, the followers of His beloved Son?

So the next time you feel valueless or useless, as if you do not matter, consider the fifth sparrow…and know that you are deeply loved.

Be blessed!

*English Standard Bible.  Copyright © 2000, 2001 by Crossway Bibles, A Division of Good News Publishers, 1300 Crescent Street, Wheaton, Illinois 60187, USA.

**HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION ® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Too Many Gimmicks

I recently passed a local church and my eye caught the message on their sign.  It read: ‘Come in for Pokemon; Stay for Worship’.

I do not know what thought processes went into the posting of that message.  Was the leadership involved or was it put up without their knowledge?  I will not cast aspersions on their love for the Lord nor say these aren’t honest believers. 

But it raises an important question we should all be ready to ponder: how low are local churches willing to sink to put people in the pews? 

This is not a commentary on ‘Pokemon Go’- my opinion on that fad is irrelevant to this discussion.  My argument is that many (most?) local churches have no idea of why they exist or what they are supposed to be doing.  They are convinced that their success depends entirely on how many people attend, or are on the membership rolls.  Therefore they feel they must do whatever they can; buy into any and every hype or fad; try every gimmick to get people interested, not in Christ or the Gospel, but in their particular organization.

Enough is enough. 

I know the counter-arguments people will use, wanting to sound supportive and magnanimous.  Some will inevitably say the church is ‘trying to be relevant’.

The relevance of the Church is not in the adoption of cultural fads.  What if someone does ‘come in for Pokemon’?  When they get bored, what will keep them there?  Another gimmick?  Another fad?  Do we honestly think that someone who comes into a local church playing ‘Pokemon Go’ is truly going to care about staying for worship?  The relevance of the Church is in her message of hope and the Word of salvation.  The relevance of the Church is in the clear assessment of the human condition and the power of Jesus to change lives.  The relevance of the Church is in offering true community in a fragmented society.  

Others will say. The church is just trying to ‘meet people where they are at’. 

Does this mean a church should host a strip club to attract lechers?  ‘Come in for porno- stay for worship’.  Or should we open bars to attract the drunks?  ‘Come in for a snort- stay for worship’.  Meeting people where they are at means we engage the lost in the context of the community outside the church doors.  And don’t ask if that means Christians should evangelize in bars and strip clubs- you know that is a ridiculous assertion.  It means getting to know people through normal, everyday community connections; finding out who they are, what they struggle with and then build a relationship to the point where we can share the hope of Jesus with them.    

Still others will contend that what matters is not how they come in, but that they come in, and then have an opportunity to hear the Gospel.

I would challenge you to read the Gospels and Acts with that idea in mind.  When did Jesus or the Apostles use gimmicks to get people’s attention?  What happened to people who showed up with the wrong ideas or motives?  Those who responded to the Gospel were those driven to Christ by their need, not those who drifted by from curiosity.  Can the Lord touch someone who comes into a local church with the wrong motives?  Absolutely!  But it isn’t something we should necessarily bet on.  Furthermore, is a local church which relies on gimmicks to get people in, all that committed to the Gospel?  Let’s be honest, the Gospel exposes people’s sin and need, and if a person came in looking for fun and games, chances are high they will hit the road as soon as the message gets tough.  Go read John 6 to see this reality. 

Gimmicks do not work.  They do not swell the attendance in a local church and they absolutely do not build the Body of Christ.  In the end pursuing gimmicks leaves us disappointed.  So we seek new fads, new gimmicks- and the cycle continues. 

The Church was never intended to be reduced to inviting people into buildings.  Rather it was intended to invite people to know Jesus by going out into the world.  I suggest we try the Lord’s way: trusting the Holy Spirit and seeking to build relationships which will then draw people to want to know the Good News of Jesus.  Then, when people come in to our worship centers, we will know that they come in with the right heart and for the right reasons.  They will come in- and stay -for Jesus. 

Monday, August 22, 2016

Called, Competent and Committed (part 4)

This will be the final post in this series on ordination.

Ordination is not something to be treated lightly, nor is it an appointment someone should think can be casually obtained.  While ordination, as I have stated in an earlier post, does not necessarily require seminary or Bible college credentials (though such training does have benefits), neither should one simply think they can send away for a certificate in the mail, divorced from any type of testing whatsoever. 

The guidelines for testing or evaluation are given in the Pastoral Epistles (1-2 Timothy & Titus) and this testing/training should be worked out in the context of the local church (see the second post in this series).

Where does responsibility lie for determining whether someone is qualified for ordination?  Who is responsible for the actual act of ordination? 

I find Acts 6:1-7 instructive in dealing with the appointment of people to ministry- ordination.  When a logistical problem arose in the local church, the Apostles, recognizing their need to deal with the larger issues in the church, assigned the congregation to make some evaluations as to who should be called to serve.  It is important to see that the Apostles set the parameters (‘seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom’) and reserved the right of final approval and responsibility to ‘ordain’ (‘whom we will appoint to this duty’).  The body took this task seriously and presented the candidates to the Apostles who validated their fitness for ministry and conferred authority to minister (‘these they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.’)

Ultimately, the responsibility and final decision falls to those who are already recognized as having spiritual authority (pastors, elders, etc), but the local church has a role as well.  The local congregation should be encouraged to invest its time and energy into this process of discovering and developing those who might be qualified to serve.

Once a person is affirmed as qualified to receive ordination, how is one commissioned?

The basic pattern in the New Testament appears to be selection of leaders through prayer and fasting and some period of testing, followed by the laying on of hands (see Acts 6:6 and 14:23 for examples).  In two places Paul reminds Timothy of how he had hands laid on him at the outset of his ministry (1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6).  What is the significance of the laying on of hands?  This is a physical act, public and communal, symbolizing a conferring of authority and an affirmation of spiritual giftedness.   

Because of this transfer of spiritual authority, we must take great care.  Timothy was warned “do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure” (1 Timothy 5:22).  One of the clear conditions for leader is that they “not be a recent convert, or [they] may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil” (1 Timothy 3:6).  When ordination is given without thought to testing of character and training in ministry skills/gifts a situation is created in which sin can enter to the great hurt of individuals and local churches.

How does this affect recognizing ordained leaders from other groups or across denominational lines?

I have been on both ends of ‘transferring ordination’ from one denomination to another.  I feel the process becomes overly weighted down by secondary issues such as education and denominational issues.  We are told in the Word that we will recognize legitimate spiritual authority “by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16, 20).  What are these ‘fruits’?  Do they give evidence of calling, competency, commitment and character?  Do they exhibit love, compassion and concern for the Church?  Have they proven to be faithful workmen and stewards of the Word & the Gospel?  If these are answered in the affirmative no barriers should be put in place.

I am sure other questions may arise in the reader’s mind regarding these matters and I would be glad to pose answers to these as they might arise.  I hope these posts have been instructive and might be a resource for strengthening our local churches.

Be blessed.

*Scripture taken from the English Standard Bible.  Copyright © 2000, 2001 by Crossway Bibles, A Division of Good News Publishers, 1300 Crescent Street, Wheaton, Illinois 60187, USA.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Called, Competent and Committed (part 3)

I have been considering ordination, and what makes one qualified to receive that charge.  In the first post I shared about the essential need for a person to be called.  In part two, I offered thoughts on a person being competent.  In this third post I will discuss the importance for a person to be committed to the work of the ministry, and the process of training.

Leading a congregation is hard and the statistics on pastoral burnout are well known, but I am not talking here about pastors who receive a salary for their ministry service.  What I am sharing about are, for lack of a better term, ‘lay leaders’; elders, deacons, teachers, etc, who serve the local congregation out of simple love and devotion to that family.  When tough times come, they cannot look at ministry as their ‘job’ as a mental aid to help them stick it out.  They need to decide, is their ministry worth hanging tough or is it easier to just walk away?   
When considering ordination, it is important to determine whether that person demonstrated a desire and ability to persevere through tough times.  This is difficult to do when ordination is reserved for those who have spent most of their training period in traditional institutions and have not been exposed to the challenges of ministry.  They can be told all day how difficult it is but until it is experienced they will not know. 

So we send our young men and women to Bible school or seminary, cutting them off in large part from the daily life of the local church.  Then after two or four years, we gather an ‘ordination council’, ask the candidate a load of theological and hypothetical questions, lay hands on them if they got the answers right, and set them to the work of the ministry. 

The New Testament points to a different way.

In writing of deacons, Paul gives the following instruction: “…let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless.” (1 Timothy 3:10)  What would be the components of this ‘test’?  The context shows us that the test is comprised of observable life patterns as well as faithfulness to doctrine (verses 8-9, 11-12). 

But we do not usually find that deacons are ordained.  It is my contention that those who “serve well as deacons” (1 Timothy 3:13) are in fact training for the potential call to eldership (see 1 Timothy 3:1-7), the ‘office’ on which ordination is conferred.  Has the one serving as a deacon demonstrated a commitment to ministry and to the process of training and testing?  Have they chaffed under spiritual authority, or shown themselves teachable and willing to grow and learn?  Have they persevered with observable Christian character under times of trial and difficulty, or have they been prone to either give up, find an easier way or responded in unhealthy ways?  Have they devoted themselves to the growth of their life and ministry, understanding the importance of the call (see 1 Timothy 4:15-16), or emphasized themselves above the ministry?

These things are observable and quantifiable.  This pattern takes a commitment on the part of the ‘candidate’ to be open and transparent.  A commitment to allow others access to their lives; to submit to spiritual authority; to be confronted with areas of weakness and sin and to act t change and grow.
If a person cannot, does not, or is not willing to, commit to the process and the ministry, it would be obvious that they are not qualified for ordination, even if they have that special piece of paper from the seminary.

In the final post I will take on some other questions such as process and procedure and the question of who is qualified to issue the ‘rite’ of ordination.

*Scripture taken from the English Standard Bible.  Copyright © 2000, 2001 by Crossway Bibles, A Division of Good News Publishers, 1300 Crescent Street, Wheaton, Illinois 60187, USA.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Called, Competent and Committed (part 2)

In the first post I considered the importance of a calling in terms of determining ordaining a person for ministry.  The next issue to consider in terms of ordination is whether that person is competent.

Competent is defined as having the skill or ability to do something well.  A competent mechanic can correctly fix my car.  A competent musician can play pleasing and recognizable music on their instrument.

To a great degree, our education model is focused on imparting information and ‘teaching to the test’.  If a student can reproduce the information on an exam they pass.  But have they truly understood?  Can they retain that knowledge and make it work for them in practical situations?  Are they competent?  

This has found its way into ministry education.  Let’s face it, there are plenty of ministers who are ‘book smart’, meaning they got good grades by passing exams.  When it comes to life and ministry skill, however, they are lacking because they were not evaluated in a ‘real world’ setting on their ability to use the information correctly or effectively.  I believe education is important and I highly value my own seminary experience; yet I must wonder how well the current system does at determining competency.  To remediate this, many Bible colleges and seminaries now include some form of on-site practicum.
Even so, as mentioned in the first post, it is still often the framed paper on the wall, reflecting a particular level of education, rather than the quality of training which carries weight.  Why do we consider someone who completed a four-year post graduate program at a prominent institution more qualified for ordination than someone who has invested the same time being mentored and learning one-to-one in a local church setting?  Some aspects of ministry certainly benefit from a traditional educational setting (studying the original Biblical languages with skilled linguists comes to mind), but much can and should be learned within the local church.

Let’s go back to the passage in Mark 3:13-15: “And [Jesus] went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him.  And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons.”

The original disciples were ‘ordained’ by Jesus for the work of the Gospel ministry (see also John 15:16), but the condition by which they were set apart for this work had nothing to do with traditional ideas of education.  In fact when the Jewish authorities encountered the disciples “and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished.” (Acts 4:13)  In this sense ‘uneducated’ means that they had no formal training in the schools of the scribes or rabbis.  Yet they possessed an amazing ability, a competency, which amazed the authorities.  Where did this come from?  The Jewish leaders “recognized that they had been with Jesus.” (Acts 4:13)

Jesus called those He wanted “that they might be with Him”.  This was the training program for the disciples.  It wasn’t about being sent away to schools or seminaries; it was about real world training in the presence of a master, the Master.  It was about mentoring and practical teaching.  It was learning how to understand and handle the Word of God in everyday situations.  It was about being given opportunity to go out (see Luke 9:1-2; 10:1).  It was about being allowed to ‘fail’ (Matthew 17:19-20).  They disciples became competent through experience, not education.

An exam does not reveal if a man is fit to be a deacon or elder.  A grade for a one semester course cannot measure if one is truly “a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15).  Academic institutions are not places where character is formed or nurtured.

I am convinced that competency is best formed, observed and evaluated in a local church community.  Training for ministry at the local level more readily fits the Biblical model and could be more effective in preparing people for ordination than sending them away for education.   

In the next post I will discuss commitment.

*Scripture taken from the English Standard Bible.  Copyright © 2000, 2001 by Crossway Bibles, A Division of Good News Publishers, 1300 Crescent Street, Wheaton, Illinois 60187, USA.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Called, Competent and Committed (part 1)

During a recent conversation with a friend, our discussion turned to the matter of ordination for ministry.  Like many issues in the Church we make assumptions which are not always rooted in Scripture.  I would challenge some of those traditional assumptions surrounding the issue of ordination.

At its most basic, ‘ordain’ means “to officially appoint or invest with authority”.  Where does this appointment come from?  On what criteria is the decision to ordain based?  Over the next several posts I am going to offer three benchmarks by which a person should be evaluated as to their fitness for ordination and greater ministry service, and then conclude with some thoughts on the process of ordination itself.

What do people usually consider as the most important component for someone to be ‘qualified’ for ordination?  If we are honest, the larger percent would suggest training, by which they mean education, by which they mean a degree from a Bible College or Seminary.  Ask yourself, especially if you have ever been involved with a pastoral search committee, if the possession of formal education didn’t play a large role in the selection process.  I’m not saying a quality ministry education isn’t important; I’m simply asking if it should be given the weight usually affixed to it, and if those above mentioned institutions are the best avenues for ministry training.

When considering someone for ordination, the first aspect to take account of is whether that person is called.

We read in Mark 3:13-15, “And [Jesus] went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him.  And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons.”* We note that it was Jesus Who specifically called and appointed the ones He wanted. 

Paul had a thriving teaching ministry in Antioch when one day the Holy Spirit spoke and said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” (Acts 13:2)  Paul later acknowledges this call of God in Galatians 1:15, “…he who had set me apart before I was born…called me by his grace…”  Paul did not undertake his missionary/church planting ministry under his own impulse.  He was specifically called out by the Spirit.

The question certainly must be raised as to how one may recognize the call either for themselves or for another.  In this regard the importance of spiritual disciplines, particularly prayer, fasting and worship, cannot be overemphasized.
In Luke’s account of the calling of the disciples he records that Jesus “went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God.” (Luke 6:12) Jesus invested time in serious prayer and the following morning He selected the Twelve.  In the case of Paul and Barnabas, the calling came while the leadership team was engaged in the spiritual disciplines of worship and fasting.  These men had put themselves in a position to hear the Holy Spirit speaking to them.  When Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for the local churches they did so after a time of prayer and fasting (Acts 14:23).  The Lord reveals and confirms the calling when people put themselves in position to hear Him.

Another means of recognizing the calling is through the affirmation of the church body.  When the need of the local church grew, the Apostles instructed the congregation to choose ministers “of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3) who could be appointed to the work.  The seven men chosen were recognized as spiritually mature and fit to serve.  This is where real relationships in the Church serve a vital role.  Where there is discipleship and mentoring, those who exhibit a gift and desire for ministry may be more readily identified, prayed over and supported in their training.  I am convinced that the best leaders for a local church are those who are already present in the church.

In the next post I will address the second benchmark- competency.

*Scripture taken from the English Standard Bible.  Copyright © 2000, 2001 by Crossway Bibles, A Division of Good News Publishers, 1300 Crescent Street, Wheaton, Illinois 60187, USA.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Power of Forgiveness

Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you.  For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.  So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him.  For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything.  Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs. 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 (ESV)

Most Christians have likely heard of the importance of forgiveness, and we know of the personal implications (see Matthew 6:15).  Forgiveness, or a lack thereof, can hinder our spiritual growth and place a barrier to our communion with the Lord.  Yet the necessity of forgiveness has broader repercussions as well.

In the above passage from 2 Corinthians, Paul is following up on a previous issue in the church.  This is likely a reference to the man who was caught in sexual sin as we read in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5.  In his first letter, Paul commands that the man be put out of the fellowship and placed under discipline until he should repent.  This sections of 2 Corinthians reveals that the man had indeed responded appropriately and repented.  It was therefore now time to end that ‘sentence’ and bring the man back into fellowship not only for his own sake (that he would not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow) but for the sake of the entire church fellowship.   

Christ outlined the plan and pattern for discipline in the Church (see Matthew 18:15-20), but that process was never intended to be open-ended.  The goal of discipline is restoration.  A person placed under discipline either repents, in which case they are to be restored, or they reject the discipline and so prove themselves to be outsiders to the faith family. 

Our enemy, satan, and his minions lurk in and around our local churches looking for any and every opportunity to bring disruption.  The devil loves to entice Christians into sin, but he garners an even greater delight in twisting the process of discipline to undermine Christian love, fellowship and unity.  The enemy would see Christians divided, suspicious and hostile to one another.  When unforgiveness rules, satan gains power in a local church.  When discipline is not brought to its intended and appropriate conclusion, the enemy flourishes.     

Discipline in the Church, though some may not like to hear or accept it, is necessary; but forgiveness is essential.  Paul implores[1] the Corinthians to publicly and officially reaffirm[2] their love to the repentant brother.

Paul ties the forgiveness of the church towards the repentant sinner directly into the purposes[3] of satan.  The intentions of the devil are to tear down the Church at every opportunity.  Every good thing the Lord gives to His Church is a target and every Christian should be fully aware of this.  Nothing satan attempts should catch us unaware, but many local churches have fallen to pieces because Christians became dull and failed to stay alert.  I’ve seen it happen.  Perhaps you have as well. 

Genuine forgiveness and restoration takes all the wind out of the devil’s sails; it disarms him and renders him completely impotent in the matter.  When we truly forgive one another, satan has no choice but to scurry back under his wet rock!  And isn’t that a beautiful thing!

Is there any unforgiveness in your heart?  In your church?  In Jesus’ Name you must deal with that immediately.  If you do not, you are ripe for the picking and the enemy is salivating!  If you persist in unforgiveness you are not only endangering yourself, but your Christian brothers and sisters, your local church, as well.  Take the power of the enemy away.  Exercise the power of forgiveness!

Be blessed

[1] Greek parakaleo- to urge, exhort, beseech
[2] Greek kuroo- to ratify, make legally binding
[3] Greek noema- designs, intentions.  Some translate as ‘schemes’ (NIV, NASB)

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Dealing With Doubt (Part 4)

This will be the final post of this series on dealing with doubt.  What we have learned as we have explored the dilemma of John the baptizer in Matthew 11:2-6 is that many of our doubts arise from flawed expectations and misunderstandings about the nature or purpose of the Lord. 

Jesus’ Challenge

When John asks if Jesus is truly the long-awaited Messiah, Jesus sends word back for John to consider how the work of Jesus truly fulfills those things which Messiah will do when He arrives.  Having revealed His identity to John, Jesus ended His reply with a challenge: “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matthew 11:6).[1]

Reality had not lined up exactly with John’s expectations of a warrior Messiah who would bring in a time of fire and judgment.  This presented John with a choice.  Would he be offended (the Greek word is literally ‘scandalized’) and doubt Jesus and disbelieve, or would he accept the evidence and embrace Jesus fully as the Messiah.

We do not read anything of John’s reaction, but I surmise that Jesus’ answer was more than enough to satisfy him.  Once John’s expectations could be brought in line with reality, once he was able to see, reality turned out to be so much better than what he expected.

Dealing With Doubt

When reality does not meet expectations, doubt often follows.  So what can we do?

The main thing we must do is ‘own it’! 

We often feel guilty when doubts creep in, but remember what I have already said: doubt does not automatically equal disbelief.  Doubt simply means that your expectations are being challenged by reality.  If you let your doubt drive you away from God, then there is a problem.  But if your doubt drives you to God…that’s good! 

So go to God!  He is big enough to handle your questions and gracious enough to give an answer.

John did not let his doubts and questions drive him away from belief in Jesus.  He went to Jesus and asked Him plainly why reality was not meeting expectation.  Jesus did not scold John or belittle his questions.  He graciously helped John see his expectations from a different perspective.  Once he did, John could see that Jesus met every expectation and more!  Happy is the person who can see Jesus for what He is, and does not ‘stumble’ or ‘fall away’ because He isn’t exactly what we thought He would be.

When reality does not meet expectations, doubt often follows.  Yet reality often does match our expectations if we are able to see it; and when we can, we will find it to be much better than what we expected.

Having ‘owned’ our doubt, having taken them head on and gone in search of the answers we will find ourselves better equipped to handle future doubts and in a position to walk with others through their doubts as well.

Have these posts answered every question?  Obviously not.  But I hope they have given you a starting point for your battle to face and overcome doubt.

Be Blessed.

[1] English Standard Bible.  Copyright © 2000, 2001 by Crossway Bibles, A Division of Good News Publishers, 1300 Crescent Street, Wheaton, Illinois 60187, USA.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Dealing With Doubt (Part 3)

How do we deal with the doubts that come our way as pertains to our faith?  We will continue on in Matthew 11:2-6 for the answers.

Jesus’ Response

John sent his own disciples to Jesus to ask if He was truly the Messiah.  Jesus offers this answer: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” (Matthew 11:4-5) [1]

We recall that the previous chapters of Matthew’s Gospel record the healing of the blind, the lame and the leper and the raising of the dead.  But Jesus is not simply saying, ‘Look at what I’ve done’.  Jesus wants John to consider His work, certainly; but more important is that John recognizes Jesus’ work as the fulfillment of the work of Messiah as predicted by the prophets. 

The blind see; the lame walk; the deaf hear: Isaiah 35:5-6 says, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.”  A wider reading of the context reveals that this is a text with connections to the end times![2]  Isaiah 35 begins: “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.  Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not!  Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you’” (35:3-4).  In connection with this vengeance and divine retribution comes healing and wholeness!

The lepers are cleansed; the dead are raised: Isaiah 42:6-7 reads, “I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”  This is a text which promises the coming of the Messiah.  When He appears, Messiah will release those who are bound by sin, disease and death.  He will set them free!
The Good News is preached to the poor: Isaiah 61:1 tells, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”  Isaiah 61 is also a Messianic text[3].  Verses 2-3 go on to declare that the days of preaching and healing would also bring the Day of God’s judgment.

By making these connections, John would be able to see that Jesus was truly the long awaited Messiah.  There was no need to look for any other.  In Jesus, the One and Only Savior had come.  Once he understood this, John would be able to see that not only did reality match his expectations but reality was in fact much better than what He expected.

As mentioned at the close of the last post, when we face doubts regarding our faith, one of the first things we need to do is check our expectations.  The next step is to dig into God’s Word to correct our misconceptions; to see exactly what God has revealed about those areas where we are struggling. 

In the concluding entry of this series I will offer some final thoughts on facing up to and overcoming our doubts and walking away with a stronger more stable faith. 

[1] English Standard Bible.  Copyright © 2000, 2001 by Crossway Bibles, A Division of Good News Publishers, 1300 Crescent Street, Wheaton, Illinois 60187, USA.

[2] Isaiah 34:1-4 speaks of the Lord’s anger at the nations and His coming wrath.  4All the stars of the heavens will be dissolved and the sky rolled up like a scroll; all the starry host will fall like withered leaves from the vine, like shriveled figs from the fig tree.

[3] This text was also quoted by Jesus in His synagogue sermon in Luke 4

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Dealing With Doubt (Part 2)

In the previous post I embarked on an exploration of the issue of doubt.  We began considering John the Baptizer as our example.  Matthew 11:2-6 reveals John’s ‘doubt’ and how he handled it.

John’s Question

“Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’” (Matthew 11:2-3)[1]

Although John was in prison, he had contact with the outside world, and was aware of what Jesus was doing.  Matthew 8-9 records Jesus’ miraculous ministry, particularly the miracles of healing.  Jesus was healing people of leprosy and other diseases and those afflicted with paralysis, blindness and muteness.  Extraordinarily, He had also raised a girl from the dead. 

John heard all this but still had questions.  As mentioned previously, John’s preaching centered on the coming judgment.  When Jesus appeared and the Spirit revealed Him to be the Christ (see John 1:32-34) John’s thoughts must have naturally turned towards the impending arrival of the Kingdom of God.  Why, if Jesus was the Messiah, did the Romans still oppress God’s people?  Why was he still a prisoner?  Why hadn’t the fire of God consumed the wicked? 

When reality does not meet expectation, doubt often follows.  The reality of Jesus’ ministry did not line up with John’s expectations.  Shades of doubt had entered his thoughts; so he sent his disciples to Jesus for an answer.  They asked Jesus, ‘Are You the One who was to come, or should we expect someone else?’

‘Are You the Coming One…?’ 

Everyone was hoping and looking for Messiah.  The Pharisees had wondered if it was John (John 1:19-21).  Maybe they had in mind the words of the Psalms and the Prophets (see for example Psalm 118:26; Isaiah 59:19-20; Malachi 3:1).

John now asks the same question.  Who exactly is Jesus?  Is He Elijah or the Prophet?  Is Jesus the Christ?   ‘…or should we be expecting someone else?’  The verse translates better as, ‘…should we be expecting a different type [of Messiah])?’[2]

Why would John think to ask about a different type of Messiah?

Out in the desert, near the Dead Sea, lived a Jewish religious community called the Essenes (the group responsible for writing and collecting most of the Dead Sea Scrolls).  While John was probably not part of this community, many believe he had some contact with them.  Theologically, there were some strong similarities between them.  Perhaps this question betrays some of that familiarity.

From some of their writings, the Essenes appear to have had a belief in multiple Messiahs, different from one another.[3]  They believed that, at the end of the age, a Priestly Messiah, the “Messiah of Aaron”[4] would appear first to teach and reform.  The Messiah of Israel, a warrior who would lead the final battle, would then follow.

There is a distinct possibility that John was wondering if Jesus was the Priestly Messiah but not the Warrior Messiah.  Should he expect a different type of Messiah?

I would argue that most of our doubt flows from a misperception of Who God is; of Who Jesus is.  We may have some idea of what God should be doing; of the way He should act.  We may have ideas of what Jesus should be like.  When the reality of life hits us; when we are confronted with a challenge to our preconceptions, doubt can begin to creep in.

If you are facing doubts, the first thing you need to do is check your expectations.  Chances are there is something askew there that needs to be corrected. 

We will take up how we are to handle doubt in the next post.

[1] English Standard Bible.  Copyright © 2000, 2001 by Crossway Bibles, A Division of Good News Publishers, 1300 Crescent Street, Wheaton, Illinois 60187, USA.

[2] Luke 7:18-23 also records this episode.  Both accounts are almost identical in every way: except here.  Luke’s verse translates as ‘…should we be expecting another [Messiah])?’  Luke uses the Greek word allos which means ‘another’, usually of the same type.  In Luke, John is asking if there will be a second Messiah, similar to Jesus.  Matthew uses the Greek word heteros which means ‘another of a different sort’.  Note the ‘hetero prefix that we use on word such as ‘heterodox’- a different belief; ‘heterogenous’- of a different part or species. 

[3] For those really interested these references can be found in the Dead Sea Scrolls called The Community Rule (1QS; 4Q255-64; 4Q280, 286-7; 4Q502; 5Q11, 13); The Messianic Rule (1Qsa = 1Q28a); Blessings (1Qsb = 1Q28b); Messianic Apocalypse (4Q521); as well as 4Q266; 1QSa11, 20

[4] From The Messianic Rule (1Q28a).  Interestingly enough this ‘Messiah’ would be ‘begotten of God’.