Transformed by Jesus

This issue of “Equipper” celebrates GCI’s transformation, which is leading us to more active participation in what Jesus is doing to reach out to those outside the walls of our churches. This month’s articles and sermons are linked below.

From Greg: Celebrating Our Transformation
Greg Williams rejoices in GCI’s continuing transformation as seen at the recent We Are GCI conference, and as illustrated in the story of Zacchaeus.

Hospitality “Outside the Walls”
Josh McDonald shares a message in which he encouraged his congregation to extend hospitality to others “outside the walls” of the church.

Kid’s Korner: Thoughts from Walt Disney
Jeff Broadnax shares insights about ministry to children and teens gained from a recent visit to Disney World.

RCL sermons for October
Here are five sermons synced with the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), covering the 17th through 21st Sundays after Pentecost (in “ordinary time” between Pentecost and Advent):
Sermon for October 1
Sermon for October 8
Sermon for October 15
Sermon for October 22
Sermon for October 29

In case you missed them last month, here are sermons for September:
– Sermon for September 3
– Sermon for September 10
– Sermon for September 17
– Sermon for September 24

From Greg: Celebrating Our Transformation

Dear Brothers and Sisters in ministry,

Greg and Susan Williams

I know we’re all praying for those who have suffered loss and those still in harm’s way in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey that has devastated parts of Texas and Louisiana. For a report on how our members in the affected areas fared and how you can help, click here.

Susan and I were richly blessed to spend time with many of you at We Are GCI, our Denominational Conference held last month in Orlando, Florida (click here for video highlights). During the conference we heard stories from around the world showing what it looks like to participate with Jesus in his ongoing ministry of reconciliation. I addressed various aspects of that ongoing ministry in the April issue of Equipper, noting how the Spirit leads us to live into the glorious, liberating reconciliation that is ours in Christ. I quoted Alan Torrance, who reminds us that the Spirit, who leads us to Christ, works in believers to help them understand and embrace the new identity that is theirs in Christ, then leads them to live into that identity, resulting in the transformation of their lives.

The story of Zacchaeus

A powerful illustration of this life transformation is given by Luke in the story of Zacchaeus and his encounter with Jesus:

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:1-10)

Jesus’ statement that he had come “to seek and save the lost” not only conveys the content of his mission, it shows the orientation of his heart toward “lost” people like Zacchaeus, who along with other residents of Jericho was driven by curiosity (and perhaps by some other inner needs) to come out to see this rabbi named Jesus.

Zacchaeus in the Sycamore Awaiting the Passage of Jesus
(by Tissot, public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In order to get a clear view of Jesus, Zacchaeus climbs a tree. This may not seem like much to us until we realize that Zacchaeus, being wealthy, would not typically go to such humbling extremes to connect with a man like Jesus. One can only imagine what people thought observing this despised little man. Jesus’ reaction was quite unlike that of the crowd. Jesus, rather than ignoring Zacchaeus, “looked up,” acknowledging this despised tax collector, discerning the heart of a man willing to humble himself to see a rabbi known for bringing about change wherever he went.

Jesus then addressed Zacchaeus by name, pronouncing that he would be eating in Zacchaeus’ home that day. Upon hearing Jesus’ words, the people “began to mutter”—they disdained Zacchaeus as a traitor to his own people, supervising those who collected taxes on behalf of the Romans. How could Jesus pick such a despicable person out of the crowd to spend his valuable time with?

We do not know how God had been working in the heart and mind of Zacchaeus to prepare him for this encounter with Jesus. Was Levi (Matthew), a former tax collector (Luke 5:27–39), Zacchaeus’ friend? Had Matthew told Zacchaeus about Jesus? Was Matthew praying for Zacchaeus? Had Zacchaeus grown weary of his wealth and started yearning for something better? Though we don’t know the backstory here, we do know that Zacchaeus sought out and then responded to Jesus. He blurts out an amazing statement of repentance, stating that he will give half his possessions to the poor and repay all he has cheated at the rate of four times the amount wrongfully taken—doesn’t that echo the truth that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”?

Saved, through grace, by Jesus

The presence of Jesus and the unseen work of the Spirit in Zacchaeus’ mind and heart transformed a lost sinner. He wasn’t saved because of his commitment to good works—that commitment came in response to the grace of God present with him in the person of Jesus, who fellowshipped with him in his home that day.

Luke intends that we see Zacchaeus’ story as the story of all humanity—the story of Jesus, by his initiative, first seeing, then entering into fellowship with sinners. Zacchaeus’ story thus epitomizes what it means to be saved by the grace of God in and through Jesus. That grace is then received (responded to) in faith—note that Jesus calls Zacchaeus a “son of Abraham”—likely not only a reference to his Jewish heritage, but also a reference to the fact that he showed faith in God, just as Abraham had done so many years before. Indeed, it is by grace, through faith, and not by works, that people of all kinds (even tax collectors!) are saved and so transformed by Jesus.

GCI’s transformation

Zacchaeus’ story of transformation resonates deeply with me—particularly as I think about all we witnessed at the Orlando conference. By the grace of God, GCI has been transformed by Jesus at work in us through the indwelling Spirit. As we heard at the conference, GCI has experienced this grace of God in profound, wonderful ways. We heard stories of how GCI churches and members are participating with Jesus in making life-transforming differences in families, communities, towns and even nations. As we heard these We Are GCI stories, it became even clearer to me that Zacchaeus’s story is our story—the story of all who recognize, receive and follow Jesus, responding to him in faith.

I look forward to hearing many more of these stories of what happens when we participate with Jesus in his ongoing ministry of reconciliation. I encourage you to attend our next Denominational Conference. It will be held in Charlotte, NC, in 2020 (we’ll announce the exact dates soon). I also ask that you pray for our annual GCI-USA Church Administration and Development (CAD) team planning meeting that will be held in Southern California in October of this year.

Many praises to the One who has and is transforming us,
Greg Williams

Hospitality "Outside the Walls"

This article is from Josh McDonald, lead pastor of GCI’s congregation in Indianapolis, IN. It is excerpted from a sermon Josh gave to his congregation in casting a vision for outreach to the community surrounding their church.

Josh with his wife Heather, their children and Minnie Mouse

I ended college with student teaching. Every day, I had 80 tenth-graders staring at me. They all pretty much knew I had no clue what I was doing. They were out of control, I was underprepared and my supervisor-teacher spent most classes with her head in her hands. Around Thanksgiving, my student teaching professor took me out for coffee and let me know in no uncertain terms that I had failed the student teaching rather badly.

In the midst of that embarrassing, stressful and revealing time, I met a heroin addict I’ll call Mike. He had met one of my roommates who’d given him a ride somewhere a few weeks earlier. He had given him our phone number should he need help. One evening, as I sat in a pile of crumpled-up lesson plans, Chinese take-out boxes, and not a little self-pity (knowing how poorly I was doing as a student teacher), Mike phoned. My roommate wasn’t home. This was how I ended up taking Mike to rehab.

Mike had been kicked out of wherever he was living and wanted to get clean. I said I would give him a ride and we called the rehab center at about 9:00 that night. They said, “We have a bed for Mike at 10:00 in the morning.” As a college kid from the suburbs, I found myself, quite suddenly, out of my “depth.”

Mike and I had an interesting evening. The rehab people said to give him some beer so he wouldn’t go into seizures. He drank about 40 ounces of gas station beer in about five minutes. Now quite drunk, he drooled all over my passenger’s seat and fell asleep. Then we went to the ER, where I found out that the hospital staff didn’t think of intravenous drug users as a priority. We waited for six hours as he drooled, babbled, urinated in a crowded parking lot and tried to smoke in the bathroom (which failed when he fell over a trash can). After getting discharged with two hospital-issued tuna sandwiches and the assurance he wasn’t dying, we drove around northern Virginia until sunrise. I finally dropped him off at the rehab unit where everyone seemed to know Mike. I gave him a black sweatshirt and a hug, and never saw him again.

There are a few things that stayed with me from that experience. First is the sure knowledge that I had no idea what I was doing and that I had the Lord’s protection. I don’t recommend you do the same thing. I could have dropped him off at the hospital and they and the police would have taken better care of Mike. But I was a kid prone to dramatic gestures (still am!).

Second, I realized that helping people was what I wanted to do. It was hard to return to my tenth-graders. I think it was because I wasn’t supposed to. The way I felt waiting with Mike at the ER was pointing me in a different direction than coming up with lesson plans.

Third, I had a powerful moment that taught me a lot about evangelism. At one point Mike forcefully asked, “Why are you doing this for me?!” I replied, “Because of Jesus man! Because of what he did for me!” Mike might not remember that moment, but I do. I’d been in environments growing up where the idea was that I was supposed to lay the gospel on him—soup to nuts—right then and there, and then push him for a decision. I think right after that, he went back to sleeping and drooling.

I found out later from friends at the hospital that he was a regular visitor there. I’ve known a lot of “Mikes” since, and most likely (statistically speaking) Mike has been dead for a long time. Did I miss a chance to reach out to him with the gospel that night? Was his eternal fate hinging on me getting the requisite theological points across to someone who couldn’t even complete a sentence at the time? In the years since my brief encounter with Mike, I’ve learned a lot about life and Jesus, and I believe I didn’t miss my chance with him. I served as a witness to Mike of the unconditional love of Jesus in the best way for him at the time. I simply shared life with him, as difficult as it was to do so at that moment.

I use this example not to brag. I’ve had other opportunities and failed to take part in God’s work at those moments. Perhaps I was distracted checking my phone or otherwise serving myself. Sometimes when Jesus knocks on our door (usually rather gently), we fail to hear and respond.

As a congregation, we are in a time of transition, with the disorientation that goes with it. I relate—when I was growing up, we moved a lot—about 15 times before I left home for college. In one of those moves, I was nine years old. We were living in a small house in a small town in Iowa. I walked to school and had a bunch of friends on the street where we lived. It was a pleasant, predictable life, and then we moved to Salt Lake City. I’d never even seen a steep hill (Iowa is very flat), let alone a mountain! I was suddenly surrounded by Mormons who I’d never even heard of before. Even the air was harder to breathe, due to the high altitude. Due to that move, my life changed a lot. Not unlike the changes we’re going through as a congregation.

In times of change, what are the best ways to cope? I think the answer involves going with what you know—boiling things down to the basics; to what matters most. What is that for us as a congregation? It’s summarized in our motto: Love Jesus, love others. If that sounds simple, it is (though it’s not simplistic). The two go together—you can’t have one without the other.

The sign as you enter GCI Indy.

Some churches emphasize “love people” so much they fail to love God. They go so far in the inclusive, accepting, open direction that they abandon orthodox  Christian doctrine, saying that all religions lead to God, that we don’t need Christ’s sacrifice because sin isn’t real, that God is just fine with whatever moral choices we make. Other churches emphasize the “love Jesus” part so much they fail to love people. Though they may have well-crafted, God-honoring doctrines, they fail to share God’s love with others. A non-Christian friend of mine observed after first meeting me that I was stand-off-ish and the Christian group of which I was part felt like a clique that he wasn’t allowed into. Ouch!

You’ll recall what the apostle John wrote:

 We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. (1 John 4:19-21 ESV)

Let me apply this statement to two venues. First, we are to love each other within the church. Our love for God, who is love, must be shown in the complexity and beauty of relationships with each other within the body of Christ. Second, we are to love others outside the walls of the church—extending God’s love in the form of hospitality out into the community.

Loving others outside the walls is a big part of our calling as Christians and as a congregation. We’re all familiar with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Remember the part where the Samaritan, before he lifts the man out of the ditch, says to him, “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior and promise to come to church?” No, I don’t remember that part, either—it’s not there. When we reach out beyond the walls of our church building, we have to expand a little on what “reaching out” means. Let’s return to 1 John:

By this we know love, that [Jesus] laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. (1 John 3:16 ESV)

Reaching out—call it evangelism—is about laying down our lives in service to others. To “lay down” means laying aside our own priorities and comfort to reach out to others. In this case we’re talking about “the other”—those who don’t look or act like we do. People like my friend Mike. The idea that we would literally die for someone is too abstract for most of us. But putting aside our own agendas, our own comfort, our own time to serve another—this we all can relate to.

Henri Nouwen (pictured at right), a famous Christian writer and educator, felt alienated and depressed at times—so much so that he joined a L’arche Christian community. He served special needs people there for the last ten years of his life. He knew what it was like to be the outsider taken in by the outsiders. In the book Reaching Out, he defined outreach as a form of hospitality. In doing so he notes that the German word for hospitality, gastfreundschaft, means “friendship for the guest,” and the Dutch word, gastvrijheit, means “freedom of the guest.” Hospitality is thus about offering a guest (the person we meet) friendship, which involves granting them the freedom to be who they are, even if it isn’t who we are. Hospitality means laying down our lives for our guests—being present and available to them.

I think we need to be creative about what offering hospitality outside our walls means within our particular context. We don’t have a lot of money, medical expertise, or legal know-how, but we do have a lot of is love—a lot of hospitality. We have real, authentic community, which is a rare these days. One journalist called loneliness the “modern epidemic.” It’s everywhere. In a society where we used to work together to get most things done, we now do most things by ourselves. We used to have to knock on someone’s door to communicate with them, but now we just send a few emojis by text message. We used to have to go the market—haggle prices, brush up against other people, but now we order our groceries online. Some people even go to church online (a practice I don’t advocate!).

GCI has been through what almost no other church community has been through—complete doctrinal overhaul. As a church, our hearts have been broken, and maybe that’s why they are now so open. The question is this: how shall we extend the love we have been given by reaching out with hospitality beyond the walls of the church? Here are a couple of things to keep in mind as we seek an answer: First, reaching out doesn’t necessarily mean explicit evangelism. Jesus called us to share the gospel with words, but also with deeds of love. And when it comes to sharing with deeds, our best witness is being Christians in the public square—not hidden behind the church walls. Second, reaching out is not the exclusive responsibility of the pastor. We have this calling together. We need all the gifts God has placed here to reach out to the community.

Josh with his “Love Jesus, love others” T-shirt.

How can we extend Love Jesus, love others hospitality—the friendship and freedom Jesus gives us, out to people who reside outside our walls? Here are some ideas for action steps:

  • Pray. Obvious? Well, maybe, but we need to be more proactive and focused in praying about the community around the church, asking God to knit our hearts with those around us.
  • Prayer walks. This means walking through the community and praying as we go, seeking to find out what Jesus is up to “out there.”
  • Going door-to-door. Don’t let this one scare you. This happens after the prayer and prayer walking. It does NOT mean laying the gospel on people door-to-door. That isn’t effective in our culture. What it means is getting to know people in their setting, showing interest in them and their neighborhood. Engaging people in conversation. It can involve inviting them to community events that we will host—extending hospitality.
  • Non-profit partnering. We can partner with some of the good work that is already going on in this area. But note that we are not called to be a social service agency—those already exist and we need not reinvent the wheel. However, we can participate in order to get out into the community and develop real relationships with people who live nearby.

I’m sure there are other ways we can extend hospitality to the community around our place of meeting. I welcome your ideas, and we’ll certainly be in prayer together about this as we seek to Love Jesus, love others.

Kids Korner: Thoughts from Walt Disney

This issue of Kid’s Korner is from Jeffrey Broadnax, National Coordinator for GCI Generations Ministries (GenMin).

Teach children how they should live, and they will remember it all their lives. (Proverbs 22:6)

My family and I recently spent a few days in Orlando’s magical world of Disney. Along with thousands of people at the Magic Kingdom and Epcot Center theme parks, we enjoyed the sights, sounds, rides and food. Our hotel was located near Disney Springs, a hybrid of Disney and a shopping mall.

As my wife and I walked through Disney Springs, I noticed several quotes from Walt Disney posted along the walkways. I’m not sure how many people actually stop and read them, but I did, and the Lord used them to fan into flame in my mind and heart some ideas for children’s and youth ministry.

Walt Disney (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Here are a few of Disney’s quotes. See what ideas these generate in your mind and heart related to ministry to children and teens.

Disneyland is a work of love. We didn’t go into Disneyland just with the idea of making money.

Of all of our inventions for mass communication, pictures still speak the most universally understood language.

Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.

Of all the things I’ve done, the most vital is coordinating those who work with me and aiming their efforts at a certain goal.

Movies can and do have tremendous influence in shaping young lives in the realm of entertainment towards the ideals and objectives of normal adulthood.

A man should never neglect his family for business.

Animation can explain whatever the mind of man can conceive. This facility makes it the most versatile and explicit means of communication yet devised for quick mass appreciation.

We allow no geniuses around our Studio.

I would rather entertain and hope that people learned something than educate people and hope they were entertained.

We have created characters and animated them in the dimension of depth, revealing through them to our perturbed world that the things we have in common far outnumber and outweigh those that divide us.

We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.

You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality.

The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.

Times and conditions change so rapidly that we must keep our aim constantly focused on the future.

Our heritage and ideals, our code and standards—the things we live by and teach our children—are preserved or diminished by how freely we exchange ideas and feelings.

When you believe in a thing, believe in it all the way, implicitly and unquestionable.

I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing—that it was all started by a mouse.

Laughter is America’s most important export.

I believe in being an innovator.

Sermon for October 1, 2017

Scripture readings: 
Ex. 17:1-7 and Ps. 78:1-4,12-16
(or Ezek.18:1-4, 25-32 and Ps. 25:1-9)
Phil. 2:1-13; Matt. 21:23-32 

Sermon by Martin Manuel from Philippians 2:1-13

Sharing in Jesus’ Incarnational Living

(source)

Each year, Time (magazine) names a Person of the Year. In 2014, Time gave that award not to an individual but to the group of people who fought the deadly Ebola virus in Africa. Time said they “risked and persisted, sacrificed and saved.” Here’s a video about them:


(on YouTube at https://youtu.be/7t9VRBaOjlY)

The sacrifices made by these Ebola fighters remind me of Jesus. I’m not suggesting they are equal to Jesus, but in them I see a reflection of Jesus, the “person of all time.” In the sermon today, we’ll see how Jesus both modeled incarnational living and now, through the Holy Spirit, works to mold his followers into those who share his incarnational living.

Humanity’s fall

The background of our text today (Philippians 2:1-13) is the story of early humanity told in Genesis where, in chapter three, we find the narrative of humanity’s fall. Similar to Ebola’s devastating and fatal effect upon people, the human race contracted the “disease” of sin when Adam and Eve chose to pursue their own interests, desires and ambitions over trusting their Creator. There was no escaping the consequences for this rebellion through their own efforts. Only the intervention of God, the healer of this disease, could save them and all humanity who joined in their rebellion against God.

Jesus’ incarnation

Of humankind’s healer, Philippians 2:6-7 says this:

[Jesus], being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. (vv. 6-7)

Though divine by nature (fully God with the Father and the Spirit), Jesus nonetheless chose to act unselfishly, assuming human nature. In doing so, he did not cease being divine, though he did leave behind the glory, powers and privileges of being God. It would be considered remarkable n our world if a person of royalty descended to the status of a slave. But that would be a small thing compared to what the Son of God gave up in order to be God incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! (v. 8)

Jesus didn’t stop his descent at becoming a human servant—he went all the way into ignominy, including the humiliation of crucifixion. When our court system convicts a person of a capital crime with a place on death row, they are treated as the off-scouring of society. Jesus was sentenced to the most dishonorable and shameful capital punishment in Roman and Jewish cultures. Ironically, this self-sacrificial death of a divine-royal, turned human-servant, saved the human race, as Isaiah wrote:

He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. (Isa. 53:5)

Jesus’ exaltation

Resurrected from the grave and ascended to the place of glory with his Father in heaven, Jesus is now recognized by his followers for his love-motivated, self-sacrificial act:

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:9-11)

Although not yet fulfilled, the Bible records the divine promise that all humanity will bow to the glorified, exalted Jesus, acknowledging him as Lord over all, even if some may refuse to trust in him as their Savior.

A call to follow Jesus

The apostle Paul wrote these inspirational words not only to encourage people to place their trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior, but also, as Paul notes in Phil. 2:5, to follow his example of humble service to others:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus. (Phil. 2:5)

Jesus’ mindset, which flows forth in what we might call incarnational living, soars far above the natural human way of thinking. Paul knew that he was proposing a bar far too high for his readers to leap and clear, but he suggested a start through their reflection on the benefits they already had derived from Jesus’ incarnation:

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (Phil. 2:1-4)

The believers in Philippi could relate to Paul’s exhortation. Being in spiritual union with Jesus Christ greatly encourages, and experiencing his love deeply comforts. Sharing in the Holy Spirit binds the believers into a close-knit, loving community. The community created by Jesus, through the Spirit, is one of infectious tenderness and compassion, and Paul says it is necessary for them to live together accordingly. How? By replacing selfish, ambitious and arrogant behavior with humble, others-first ways of thinking and behaving.

The Ebola fighters, many of whom not only are medical professionals but devoted Christians, exemplified this behavior in putting others’ interests before their own. Dr. Jeremy Brown, the man clad with white protective headwear in the center of the Time magazine cover in the video, is part of Eternal Love Winning Africa (ELWA), a Christian ministry. Others, including medical volunteers from Serving in Mission (SIM), Samaritans Purse, and Doctors Without Borders, stepped into a gap of desperate need where governments and health organizations were absent. They endangered their lives in the process, to stop the epidemic, thereby saving much of the human population from exposure to Ebola. As Dr. Kent Brantley said in the video:

We live in a global community. We need to recognize that people on the other side of the world, they are our neighbors, and we need to treat them with love and compassion and respect just like we do the person who lives in the house next door.

We who are not medical professionals may not serve in the midst of a life-threatening epidemic, but we do encounter humans who need love, compassion and respect. Let us join Jesus in incarnational living and serve them accordingly.

Christ at work through the Holy Spirit

Jesus has shown the way and given us reason to charge forward in following his example, but it takes more than inspiration to make us like Christ. For that reason, Paul closes with an exhortation that includes reassurance that the divine help we need to accomplish incarnational living is readily available:

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling. (Phil. 2:12)

Sometime before writing this, Paul had shared the message of the gospel with a small group of women who gathered to worship on a riverside near Philippi:

One of those listening was a woman named Lydia… The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message… she and the members of her household were baptized. (Acts 16:13-16)

Lydia and others in her household responded to Paul’s proclamation of the gospel by committing, through baptism, to a life of following Jesus.

“Baptism of Lydia” by Ellenrieder (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

As Paul and his team continued to share the gospel in Philippi, the operator of the city jail asked Paul and his co-workers:

“What must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved—you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house… he and all his family were baptized. (Acts 16:30-33)

The jailer’s family joined Lydia’s household as followers of Jesus being discipled by Paul. This, the start of the church at Philippi, came about as a result of Paul’s proclamation of the gospel and the church members’ response of obedience to his message. It was this obedience to which Paul refers in his letter, calling on these new believers to even greater devotion to following Christ in his absence. How would they do that? And what did their obedience have to do with “working out salvation”? To answer that important question, we must read further what Paul says in Philippians 2:

For it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. (Phil. 2:13)

Paul is not saying that our works somehow earn or complete our salvation. To the contrary, he is clear to state that the accomplishment of God’s purpose (our salvation) is the outcome of God working in those who trust in Jesus. Paul alludes to this earlier in his letter:

He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Phil. 1:6)

Notice who began the work, who continues it, and who carries it on to completion—God! These words would be empty platitudes if Paul meant that the real work of salvation was ours. Putting his statements together, we see that the Holy Spirit within believers is doing the work—molding each into the likeness of Jesus. And we are called to participate—to cooperate. The believers in Philippi did so by obeying Paul’s instructions when he was with them. And now he was urging them to continue their active, willing participation with the Spirit in his absence.

As we see in Acts 16, they did respond to Paul’s message—they did believe in the Lord Jesus and were baptized. When persecution led to Paul’s earlier-than-planned departure from Philippi, Paul met with them and “encouraged them” (Acts 16:40), knowing that persecution lay ahead for them all—suffering that would add endurance to the gifts that the Spirit was granting them.

What Paul summarizes in Philippians 2, he elaborates elsewhere in the letter. In 3:9 he says his personal intention was about “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.” Paul clearly did not consider his obedience as a work that accomplished or somehow added to his salvation. Only the Savior, through the Spirit, can do this saving-perfecting work. Exercising faith in Christ’s righteousness, Paul considered his responsibility as being to “press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (3:14). Explaining our participation, through the Spirit, in Christ’s ongoing work of salvation, he adds, “All of us…who are mature should take such a view of things” (3:15).

By “press on,” Paul meant not looking back or standing still. The journey of those united to Christ by the Spirit is forward, involving continual growth in knowing and following Christ. Paul wrote the believers in Philippi to encourage them to keep up that journey even though he was not there with them. He wanted them to be careful and conscientious about their obedience, always trusting in God for salvation and letting nothing distract them along the way. That is what he meant by “working out your salvation with fear and trembling.”

Throughout this journey, God—Father, Son and Spirit—works through grace, calling and opening minds to respond to the gospel (like Lydia), leading believers to live a life of trust in Jesus as Savior (like the Philippian jailer), and helping believers participate with the inner work of the Holy Spirit as Paul urged the whole congregation. The outcome of this journey is the ever-growing mind of Christ at work molding each person.

The Father, Son and Spirit work the same in Jesus’ followers today. Christ in us, by the Spirit, does within us what Christ did and still does: living life incarnationally—a life that is humble, unselfish and actively, sacrificially serving others.

Conclusion

Jesus Christ modeled incarnational living by his life of love-motivated self- sacrifice, humbling himself, going from glory to servant-hood to sacrifice. Jesus in us by the Spirit lives the same incarnational life. We are called to a lifestyle that exhibits the mind of Christ toward other humans; living in unity with those with whom we share union in Christ; not allowing our natural drives, ambitions, and interests to dominate us; having others’ interests and well-being at heart in all we think and do.

The Ebola fighters exhibited this attitude in their unselfish service and sacrifice to care for and help fellow-humans stricken by the disease. That attitude, starting in Christ-centered ministries in Africa, and spreading first through Christ-centered charitable organizations and on into medical staffs in Africa and in the United States, helped stop the spread of the deadly disease.

Although most of us are not workers in medical fields, we can recognize in the Ebola fighters the example of Jesus, and also the molding Jesus does, by the Holy Spirit, in those who follow him into incarnational living.

Sermon for October 8, 2017

Scripture readings: 
Ex. 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 and Ps. 19
(or Isa. 5:1-7 and Ps. 80:7-15)
Phil.3:4b-14, Matt. 21:33-46 

Sermon by Ted Johnston from Philippians 3:12-16
(drawing on commentary by Warren Wiersbe in The Bible Expository
Commentary and Francis Foulkes in The New Bible
Commentary)

Running Strong with Jesus

Introduction

In Philippians 3, Paul rejoices in who Jesus is and who we are as believers in union with him. Paul rejoices that Jesus is at work, through the Spirit, redeeming our past (vv. 1-11) and securing our future (vv. 17-21). Then in vv. 12-16, Paul looks at our present, noting that Jesus, who has saved us, invites us to participate with him as he ministers through the Spirit. Paul uses a sports metaphor to compare this participation to running a race. His purpose is to urge us to run strong with Jesus!

Early Greek Olympics foot race (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Please don’t misunderstand. Paul is not suggesting that somehow we are saved by, add to, or perfect our salvation by running strong. Rather he is urging believers (those who, in faith, have received salvation in Jesus), to live out their salvation by actively sharing in what Jesus is now doing through the Holy Spirit to fulfill the Father’s mission to the world.

Background

A little background will help here. In Paul’s day, only citizens were allowed to enter the Greek games (forerunner of what we know as the Olympics). Athletes did not compete in these games to gain citizenship—they competed because they were citizens already. In like manner, Paul declares that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). His goal is to show how these citizens should run the race into which they have been enlisted.

As followers of Jesus, we have joined the race and have been assigned a particular lane in which to run—a particular calling that has to do with the gifts for ministry given us by the Holy Spirit. If we run strong, the way God has planned for us, a reward is ours. But if we drop out of the race, or run outside our assigned lane, we lose that reward, though we keep our citizenship, which is symbolic of our salvation.

In Philippians 3, Paul gives five keys to running strong with Jesus. Let’s explore each one.

1. Divine dissatisfaction (vv. 12–13a)

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it…

Despite his considerable achievements, Paul was not resting on his laurels. Unfortunately, many Christians do just that, comparing their “running” with that of other believers. Had Paul compared himself with others, he would have been tempted to be proud and perhaps to let up. But Paul did not compare himself with others—he compared himself with himself and with the perfection of Jesus. That led him to a “divine dissatisfaction” with his progress that is highly motivating. Mature Christians honestly evaluate themselves and then “press on.”

The Bible often warns against a false estimate of one’s spiritual condition. The church at Sardis thought of themselves as alive, but the reality was that they were spiritually dead (Rev. 3:1). The church at Laodicea boasted that it was spiritually rich, but the reality was that they were “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (Rev. 3:17). Self-evaluation can be dangerous, because we can err by making ourselves better than we are, or by making ourselves worse than we are. Paul had no illusions about himself; he knew he still had to “press on” in order “to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold” of him (Phil. 3:12b).

A humble self-appraisal leading to an appropriate divine dissatisfaction is key one for running strong with Jesus.

2. Deep devotion (v. 13b)

…But one thing I do…

Paul understood the power of staying focused on “one thing.” “Only one thing is needed,” Jesus said to busy Martha when she criticized her sister Mary for her devotion to Jesus (Luke 10:42). “One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek” testified the psalmist (Ps. 27:4).

The “one thing” for us is to fulfill our calling to participate with Jesus in his ongoing ministry in the world. An athlete succeeds by specializing in one event—they keep their eyes on this one goal and let nothing distract them. Like Nehemiah, the wall-building governor, they reply to distracting invitations: “I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down” (Neh. 6:3). As the apostle James wrote, “a double-minded man [is] unstable in all he does” (James 1:8).

It’s a matter of values and priorities—running with devotion in our assigned lane with Jesus. That is key two, and then there is a third key:

3. Clear direction (v. 13c)

Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead…

It’s easy to get bogged down in the past. But running strong with Jesus requires a clear sense of forward direction. Imagine what would happen on the race course if a runner started looking behind them!

As believers, we are called to be future-oriented: “Forgetting what is behind.” In Bible terminology, to “forget” does not mean to fail to remember. Rather, it means no longer being influenced by or affected by the past. When God promises, “their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more” (Heb. 10:17), he is not suggesting he will conveniently have a bad memory! What God is saying is this: “I will no longer hold their sins against them. Their sins can no longer affect their standing with me or influence my attitude toward them.”

So, “forgetting what is behind” does not suggest an impossible feat of mental gymnastics by which we try to erase the memory of our past. It simply means that we break the power of the past by living for the future, which is ours, by God’s grace, free of sin and secure in Christ.

We cannot change the past, but we can change its meaning. There were things in Paul’s past that could have weighed him down (1 Tim. 1:12–17), but they became inspirations to propel him forward. The events did not change, but his understanding of them did.

Many Christians are shackled by regrets concerning past failures and disappointments. They are trying to run forward while looking backward! Some are distracted by past successes; and this is just as distracting. “What is behind”—whether good or bad—must be set aside so that we can focus on “straining toward what is ahead.”

So to run strong with Jesus we need dissatisfaction, devotion, and direction. And then there is a fourth key:

4. Dogged determination (v. 14)

I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

“I press on!” carries the idea of intense effort. A person does not become a winning athlete by listening to lectures, watching movies, reading books, or cheering at games. They become a winning athlete by getting into the game with a strong determination to win! The same zeal that Paul employed when he persecuted the church (Phil. 3:6), he went on to display in serving Christ.

In running with Jesus, there are two extremes to avoid: (1) “I must do it all” and (2) “Jesus must do it all!” Both positions overlook the stunning truth that Jesus includes us in his life and in his ministry. “Let go and let God!” is a clever slogan, but it does not fully describe the truth of our life shared with Jesus. What quarterback would say to his team, “OK, men, just let go and let the coach do it all!” On the other hand, no quarterback would say, “Listen to me and forget what the coach says!” Both extremes are wrong.

The Christian runner realizes that Jesus must work in and through them if they are going to win (Phil. 2:12–13). “Apart from me you can do nothing,” said Jesus (John 15:5). God works in us that he might work through us. As we apply ourselves to the life we share with Jesus, the Spirit matures and strengthens us for the race. “Train yourself to be godly” was Paul’s exhortation to Timothy (1 Tim. 4:7b).

Toward what goal is the Christian pressing and struggling with such determination? According to Paul it’s “the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14). When the winner in the Greek games reached “the goal” (the marker at the end of the race), they were “called up” to the winner’s platform where they were given their reward. Paul is not suggesting with this metaphor that we attain salvation by our works. He is simply saying that just as an athlete is rewarded for their performance, so the faithful believer will be rewarded when Jesus returns (see 1 Cor. 9:24–27 for a parallel, and note that while only one athlete receives the reward, all Christians may receive a reward).

We don’t know a lot about the nature of these rewards—it may be that Paul sees Jesus himself as the reward. But what we do know is that we will be rewarded if we “take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of [us]” (Phil. 3:12).

So determination is the fourth key for running strong with Jesus. And there is one more key:

5. Consistent discipline (vv. 15–16)

All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained.

In order to win, the runner must compete according to the rules. In the Greek games, the judges were very strict about this. Any infringement of the rules disqualified the athlete. That did not mean being stripped of citizenship, but it did mean losing the prize in that particular race. In Phil. 3:15–16, Paul emphasizes that we must remember the “spiritual rules” laid down by Jesus, our judge. Paul makes a similar point in writing to Timothy: “If anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor’s crown unless he competes according to the rules” (2 Tim. 2:5).

One day each of us will stand before Jesus at God’s “judgment seat” (Rom. 14:10). The Greek word for “judgment seat” is the same word used to describe the place where the Olympic judges gave out the prizes to the winners. If we have disciplined ourselves to run strong with Jesus, we will receive great reward at that time.

There are many examples in the Bible of people who began the race but failed at the end because they disregarded God’s rules. Such was the case for Lot (Gen. 19), Samson (Judges 16), King Saul (1 Sam. 28; 31), and Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5). Though God does not expect perfection, we are, as followers of Jesus, called to “live up to” what we have been given.

Conclusion

It’s exciting to run the race daily with our eyes fixed on Jesus (Heb. 12:1–2). It will be even more exciting when we stand before him at his return and experience the full reward that is ours. This prospect of future reward was motivation to Paul to discipline himself now in order to run strong to the finish. It can be our motivation as well.

Let’s remember Paul’s keys for running strong with Jesus: divine dissatisfaction, deep devotion, clear direction, dogged determination and consistent discipline. All of these are about actively participating with Jesus, by the Spirit, as he ministers in our world, fulfilling the Father’s mission. As believers, all of us are included in Jesus’ ministry! So, let’s get about it—let us, through the Spirit, run strong with Jesus!

 


PS: Sometimes running strong with Jesus means slowing down to catch up with him! For thoughts on that, watch the video “Godspeed, The Pace of Being Known” at https://vimeo.com/theranchstudios/livegodspeed.

Sermon for October 15, 2017

Scripture readings: 
Ex.32:1-14 and Ps. 106:1-6, 19-23
(or Isa. 25:1-9 and Ps. 23)
Phil.4:1-9, Matt. 22:1-14

Sermon by Josh McDonald from Philippians 4:4-9

Practicing Aggressive Gratitude

In Phil. 4:4-9, Paul urges believers, rather than being anxious, to practice “prayer and supplication with thanksgiving.” Today I want to elaborate on that thought, discussing what we might call “aggressive gratitude.” Sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? We’re not used to putting these two ideas together. Aggressive gratitude takes the familiar emotion of aggression (fighting, conflict, anger) and couples it with gratitude, which Paul associates with giving, receiving and peace.

Paul’s anxiety-producing circumstances

When Paul sent this letter to the church at Philippi, he was under house arrest in Rome (though some commentators think he wrote it while imprisoned in Caesarea). Though chained to a Roman guard, Paul was able to write and even have occasional visitors.

Paul in Prison by Rembrandt (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Although this was not the worst type of imprisonment for Paul physically, it was a time of high anxiety as he awaited trial and likely execution. There Paul waited, a soldier attached to him day and night, for something he wasn’t sure of. As they say, “even the certainty of misery is better than the misery of uncertainty.” Paul writes in the middle of the misery of his uncertainty.

Paul urges aggressive gratefulness

He’s writing to the church at Philippi, which he had planted some 15 years earlier, and now longs to see once again. Different from Paul’s usual letters, he isn’t writing correctively. He’s not rebuking them for false theology and sin—this is mostly a letter of encouragement and friendship. He is urging this community to keep going—to keep walking in faith. They are being ridiculed and persecuted by their neighbors, they have trouble within the church—divisions and doctrinal fights. Paul urges them to be aggressively grateful for God’s presence with them in the present and in the future when they enter glory with Christ.

I think Philippians is where we see Paul at his most centered. He writes things like, “to live is Christ, to die is gain;” “whatever happens to me, conduct yourself in a way worthy of the gospel;” “I count all as loss so that I might know Christ.” He is not arguing or rebuking—he is living in the peace that passes understanding and urging the Christians in Philippi to do likewise.

Have you ever been in love? Have you ever been so filled with purpose and strength that everything that used to scare you or anger you just falls away? My opinion is that Paul, despite his stressful circumstances, wrote these words when he was at his most peaceful and centered. He commends the Philippians to this kind of aggressively grateful life: “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice!”

Paul repeats the word rejoice several times in this letter. He commends them to do this rejoicing “in the Lord.” Interesting that he uses that phrase. He does not say, “rejoice because life is so great.” He doesn’t say “rejoice because Oprah says it’s good for your cardio health.” He says “rejoice in the Lord.” Rejoice because your daily reality is shaped by your heavenly reality.

Paul, likely facing prolonged imprisonment or even death, is keeping focused and relatively free of anxiety by rejoicing in realities that can’t be touched by imprisonment or death. He is rejoicing because God is in control—because God will supply all his needs, and even if he dies, life with God in heaven awaits. As so Paul writes, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God”

Battling anxiety

Anxious—there’s that word. As an article in Psychology Today states, “anxiety is one of our modern plagues.” The Huffington Post asked, “Why is anxiety the new norm?” Certainly there is no shortage of things to make us anxious in this hectic world. Yet there is a severe shortage of ways to deal with anxiety. Paul faces anxiety head on and shows us true freedom: “Be anxious for nothing,” he says. In writing this, Paul seems to be quoting Jesus, who in Matthew 6 says, “Do not worry about what you will eat….” Paul picks up on this in Philippians, declaring over and over that God is in control and our true citizenship and home is in heaven, no matter what happens.

Personal illustration: My dog was killed a
few weeks ago. The owner of the dog who killed ours wants to keep it, so we
had to testify in court. We believe the offending dog is a danger to our
kids and the neighborhood, so we testified against it. Right in the middle
of that, God had me studying a book written by Paul as he awaits his day in
court! There I was, reporting on one of the most violent, anxiety producing
things I've ever experienced, and Paul is telling me to be anxious for
nothing! It was hard for me. Last week seems to have taken forever as I
waited to relive that terrible event. One of the healing, calming things I
did during that time was to reflect on our dog's life. We looked at old
pictures, talked about old memories and how much we loved her. We tried and
tried again to practice thankfulness, as Paul mentions here: “In
everything by prayer and petition with thanksgiving let your requests be
made known to God.” We can practice aggressive gratitude---the
transformative grace that can help us celebrate memories---and even rejoice
when we feel the pain because it means we've experienced love.

As Paul goes on to say, “The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

Context

Here I need to share some historical context. In Paul’s day, religion and morality were two separate things. Religion had to do with keeping the gods happy. You did religion so your crops would grow and you would win wars. The gods were distant and unpredictable.

Morality—your way of being in the world—was taught by the philosophers in that society. Someone like Oprah or Dr. Phil would come along and tell you how to conduct yourself in a way that was most peaceful and happy for you and everybody. There was essentially no connection to the gods in this.

Our world today is not so different. We have all these tricks and gimmicks to reduce anxiety or to make ourselves into better people, but it’s all about believing and looking into yourself. But this strategy doesn’t seem to be working—we need stronger medicine.

Paul sees no disconnect between our life with God and our daily living. He urges us to lift the details of our daily life to God in prayer. Often we don’t understand what is happening in our lives, but by putting our trust in God, we receive a peace that truly does pass understanding—a peace that is from far beyond our world where ultimate peace is never found.

Guarding your heart

Yes, the peace of God guards our hearts in Christ Jesus. Paul is asserting that when we stay in prayer with aggressive thanksgiving, our hearts and minds will be guarded. The Greek word Paul used for guard is the same one used for a military battalion. The image is of a big, scary, spear-wielding group of soldiers guarding your peace. Paul probably looked at the brute of a soldier to who he was chained and thought “yeah, that’s it!”

So the peace of God is our guard. He surrounds us like a military guard protecting a city so that there can be peace within. Thus Paul is urging them to realize that they have a heavenly connection, and to plug in to that. Rejoice, pray, be aggressively grateful, enjoy the privileges of your heavenly citizenship—even in the harshness of daily reality.

As you do, God’s peace will guard your heart.

Guarding your mind

Paul then turns to the part of our lives we always have the power to change: our minds. In 2 Corinthians 10 he wrote that we are to “take every thought captive” for God’s glory. Paul knows how squirrelly and scattered our minds can be—how quickly we get focused on the negative, how quickly we forget that God is the one with the final word. To the believers in Philippi, Paul writes this:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

The church in Philippi was being persecuted. Their first instinct might have been to turn in on themselves believing that anything outside the church is evil and cursed. But Paul calls them to reach beyond their fears and anxieties, not to be of the world, but to continue to be in the world—reaching out to the world with a mind tempered by God’s peace.

Sadly, many Christians in our world, which is increasingly hostile to faith, turn inward. They make their own music, movies, books, clothing. Yes, these things can sometimes helpfully feed our spirits, but sometimes it goes too far—sometimes it becomes what Dwight Moody warned of: being too heavenly-minded to be of any earthly good.

In contrast, Paul shows us that because the entire world is God’s world, we can enjoy it the way it was meant to be enjoyed. We know that romance, money, work—none of these things viewed in a worldly way—can fill the void in us. That void can only be filled by Christ. Through him—our minds and hearts centered on him—we can enjoy these gifts with no anxiety attached.

“Set your mind on things above,” wrote Paul. See the beauty and goodness around you as the promise that a loving, creative, hilarious God rules over it all! Yes, right now we live “between the times,” where life can feel like a sort of prison.

Part of the background that Paul refers to throughout this letter is that the people in Philippi are dual citizens. They are citizens of Philippi where they reside, yet they also are citizens of Rome because Philippi was a Roman colony. Paul reminds them that, in like manner, they are citizens of earth and of heaven. He shows them that the church of which they are a part is a colony of God’s kingdom, and they should live out their privileges as citizens of heaven.

Conclusion/application

Here are three truths I pray you will take with you from this sermon:

  1. Remember your citizenship. As Christians, we are part of a colony of heaven in this world—we have a dual citizenship. Through aggressive gratitude, which involves setting our hearts and minds on things above, we can enjoy God’s peace even here; even now you are a citizen of God’s kingdom here in this world. Don’t forget that God is in charge.
  2. Guard your mind and heart. Set your mind on things above through the power of prayer and aggressive gratitude. The more you set your mind on those things that are true, noble and praiseworthy, the more you will experience God’s peace in your heart.
  3. Practice gentleness. As Paul wrote, “Let your gentleness be evident to all.” The Greek word he used for gentleness carries the idea of forbearance, reasonableness, not retaliating when revenge is your natural reaction. Such gentleness in the face of trouble and threat is a key part of our witness to Christ. It means not bombing people with gospel tracts at the mall, not screaming at everyone that they’re going to hell. Instead, we display the gentleness, kindness, and freedom of a heart that is guarded by the peace of God. May it be so for us all. Amen.

Sermon for October 22, 2017

Scripture readings: 
Ex. 33:12-23 and Ps. 99
(or Isa. 45:1-7 and Ps. 96:1-13)
1 Thess. 1:1-10; Matt. 22:15-22

Sermon by Ted Johnston from 1 Thessalonians 1:5-10 
(drawing on commentary by John Stott)

Living and Sharing the Gospel

Introduction

Our reading from the epistles today is from Paul’s first letter to the Christians in the Greek city of Thessalonica.

Ruins of ancient marketplace in Thessalonica (source)

Following greetings in 1 Thess. 1:1-4, Paul links the gospel and the church in 1 Thess. 1:5-10. He shows in three steps how the gospel creates the church and how the church then lives and shares the gospel:

  1. “Our gospel came to you” (v. 5).
  2. “You welcomed the message” (v. 6).
  3. “The Lord’s message rang out from you” (v. 8).

This is how evangelism worked in Thessalonica in the first century, and how it still works in our day. Let’s explore each step.

1. The gospel came to you (v. 5)

Our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake.

The gospel did not come to Thessalonica by being dropped by parachute from heaven. No, along with his ministry partners Silas and Timothy, Paul brought the gospel to that city. Before they arrived there was no church—when they left, the church had been planted and had taken root. How did that happen? The planting was the direct result of evangelism—the sharing of the gospel. That sharing occurred in four ways:

a. With words. True, the gospel came “not simply with words,” but it did come to them with words. The gospel is a “message” (v. 6) or “the word” (RSV), “the word of the Lord” (v. 8, RSV) or “the word of God” (2:13, RSV). Words matter—they communicate meaning, and the gospel has a specific meaning. That is why it must be verbalized. In our evangelism, whether in public preaching or private sharing, we need to use words.

b. With power. Words by themselves are seldom enough—this is especially true in communicating the gospel, since blind eyes and hard hearts do not appreciate it. So words spoken in human weakness need to be confirmed with divine power. The reference here is probably to the internal operation of the Holy Spirit. It is only by his power that the gospel can penetrate people’s mind, heart, conscience and will. Paul wrote the same thing to the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 2:1-5), and it is from Corinth that he wrote to the Thessalonians. We must never divorce what God has married, namely his Word and Spirit. The Word of God is the Spirit’s sword (Eph. 6:17). The Spirit without the Word is weaponless; the Word without the Spirit is powerless.

c. With deep conviction. “Power” describes the objective result of the preaching, “conviction” the subjective state of the preacher. Paul’s preaching was not only powerful in its effect but confident in its presentation. He was sure of his message, of its truth and its relevance, and in consequence he was bold in proclaiming it.

d. With the Holy Spirit. I put this expression last because it seems to belong to the other three: the truth of the Word, the conviction with which we speak it, and the power of its impact on others all come from the ministry of the Holy Spirit. It is he who illuminates the mind of those who share the gospel so that our message has integrity and clarity. It is he whose inward witness assures us of its truth, so that we verbalize the gospel with conviction. And it is he who carries it home with power, so that the hearers respond in repentance and faith.

2. You welcomed the message (vv. 6-7)

 You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.

Paul praises the Thessalonians for how they received the gospel:

a. Despite severe suffering. There had been considerable opposition in Thessalonica to the gospel, and so also to those who preached it and those who embraced it. The gospel frequently arouses hostility (not least because it challenges human pride and self-indulgence), although the opposition it provokes takes different forms. But persecution had not deterred the Thessalonians. They had “welcomed the message” despite the suffering involved.

b. With the joy given by the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit who gave power to those who preached the gospel gave joy to those who received it. He was working at both ends—in the speakers and in the hearers. And it is not surprising to read of the converts’ joy, for joy is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). Wherever the gospel goes and people respond, there is joy— joy in heaven among the angels over sinners repenting (Luke 15:7, 10) and joy on earth among the people of God (Acts 8:8, 39; 13:52; 16:34). This pattern of outward opposition and inward joy has often been repeated in the long history of the church (John 16:33).

c. You became imitators of us and of the Lord. This is an earlier expression, which comes at the beginning of v. 6. It indicates the profound change that came over the lives of the converts. They began to follow the example as well as the teaching of the apostles and so of Jesus whose apostles they were. To “welcome the message” includes this. It’s no mere intellectual agreement with the truth of the gospel—it’s a complete transformation of behavior through a close following of Christ and his apostles.

d. And so you became a model. Those who take Christ and his apostles as their model inevitably themselves become a model to others. And the singular “model” probably signifies “a model community”—the church. It is marvelous to see in a congregation of transformed sinners the effect of the gospel on those who receive it. It may mean persecution and consequent suffering, but it also involves inward joy through the Holy Spirit, the imitation of Christ and the apostles in changed lives, and the setting of an example to others.

3. The message went forth from you (vv. 8-10)

 The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.

The gospel spread forth from and through them—so loudly and clearly that it (“the Lord’s message”) “rang out” (a translation of the Greek word execheo, which is derived from echos, an echo or noise as from a trumpet or thunder). Paul’s point is that the Thessalonians lived and shared the gospel, making “a loud noise” in the ears of unbelievers. As a result, their “faith in God” became “known everywhere” (v. 8).

Something extraordinary was happening in Thessalonica: a new society was emerging, with new values and standards, characterized by faith, love and hope. And people were taking notice and telling others about it—the gospel was being “gossiped” around—so much so that Paul says that “we do not need to say anything about it” (v. 8b). Better, “we do not need to tell other people about it: other people tell us…” (JB). Exactly what was being reported? In general, it was a report about their “faith in God” (v. 8). More specifically people were “gossiping” about the “reception” given Paul, his team and their message (v. 9) and the results in the lives of the believers in Thessalonica—in short, a report about their conversion (vv. 9b-10). That conversion consisted of three parts: (1) a decisive break with idols, (2) an active service of God, and (3) a patient waiting for Christ. This three-part formula seems to equate with Paul’s three-part summary of Christian virtue: faith, love and hope (see 1:3):

a. As you turned from idols (acting in faith). It would be difficult to exaggerate how radical is the change of allegiance that is implied by the turn from idols to “the living and true God” (see Jer. 10:10). For idols are dead; God is living. Idols are false; God is true. Idols are many; God is one. Idols are visible and tangible; God is invisible and intangible, beyond the reach of sight and touch. Idols are creatures, the work of human hands; God is the creator of the universe and of all humankind.

Paul knew what he was talking about. Not only had he railed against idolatry when addressing the pagans of Lystra (Acts 14) and the philosophers of Athens (Acts 17), but the Thessalonians could themselves see Mount Olympus, about 50 miles south of their city, where the Greek gods and goddesses supposedly lived.

Today we are more “sophisticated” with our idolatry. Some people are eaten up with selfish ambition for money, power or fame. Others are obsessed with their work, or with sports or television, or are infatuated with a person, or addicted to food, alcohol, drugs or sex. Both immorality and greed are later pronounced by Paul to be forms of idolatry (Eph. 5:5), because they demand an allegiance that is due God alone. So every idolater is a prisoner, held in humiliating bondage. But the good news is that through the grace of God in Christ, in many cases suddenly and completely, the prisoner turns to God from the idols (whether superstitious or sophisticated), which so far have controlled their life. In this way, the “strong man” (the devil) is overpowered by one stronger than he (Jesus), his palace is raided and his prisoners are set free (see Luke 11:21-22).

b. As you served God (acting in love). The claim to have turned to God from idols is bogus if it does not result in serving the God to whom we have turned. We must not think of conversion only in negative terms as a turning away from the old life, but also positively as the beginning of a new life of service. We could say that it is the exchange of one slavery for another, so long as we add that the new slavery is the real freedom. In this way, authentic conversion involves a double liberation, both “from” slavery to idols and “to” the service of God, whose children we are.

c. As you awaited Christ’s return (acting in hope). Note that serving and waiting go together in the experience of believers. This, at first sight, is rather surprising since serving is active and waiting is passive. In Christian terms, serving is getting busy for Christ on earth, while waiting is looking for Christ to come from heaven. Yet these two are not incompatible. On the contrary, each balances the other. On the one hand, however hard we work and serve, there are limits to what we can accomplish. We can only improve society; we cannot perfect it. For that we have to wait for Christ to come. Only then will he secure the final triumph of God’s reign of justice and peace (2 Pet. 3:13). On the other hand, although we must look expectantly for the coming of Christ, we have no liberty to wait in idleness, indifferent to the needs of the world around us. Instead, we must work even while we wait, for we are called to serve the living God.

Thus working and waiting belong together. In combination they will deliver us both from the presumption that thinks we can do everything and from the pessimism that thinks we can do nothing.

In this first reference of the letter to the return of Christ (the Parousia), which is hereafter mentioned in every chapter of both 1st and 2nd Thessalonians, Paul tells us two truths about him for who we wait:

  1. Jesus is the one, “whom he [God] raised from the dead.” The resurrection not only publicly declared Jesus to be the Son of God (Rom. 1:4) but was also the beginning of God’s new creation, the pledge that he will complete what he has begun. The resurrection from the dead assures us of the return from heaven.
  2. Jesus is the one “who rescues us from the coming wrath.” Already, Jesus has delivered us from the condemnation of our sins and the power of our idols. But when he comes, he will accomplish the final stage of our salvation: he will rescue us from the outpouring of God’s wrath against sin (condemnation) at the day of judgment (see Rom.2:5, 16). It is from this condemnation that Jesus is our deliverer.

Conclusion

Looking back over this passage, noting the vital relationship between the church and the gospel, two points stand out:

  1. The church that receives the gospel must pass it on. Nothing is more impressive in 1 Thess. 1 than the sequence “our gospel came to you—you welcomed it—it rang out from you.” God intends every church to be like a sounding board, bouncing off the vibrations of the gospel, or like a telecommunications satellite, which first receives and then transmits messages. This is God’s primary method for evangelization—making disciples of all nations.
  2. The church that passes on the gospel must embody it. We have noted that what went forth from Thessalonica was not only “the word of the Lord” (verbal evangelism) but also news of their conversion (rumor evangelism). Everybody heard about this new community that had come into being in Thessalonica, its bold rejection of idolatry, its joy in the midst of opposition, its transformed values, its faith and love. People were so impressed by what they heard that many must have come to see for themselves.

The communication of the gospel is by seeing as well as by hearing. This double strand runs through all the Bible: image and word, vision and voice, opening the eyes of the blind and unstopping the ears of the deaf. Jesus is the Word of God and the Image of God. The Word became visible, the Image audible. No church can spread the gospel with any degree of integrity, let alone credibility, unless it has been visibly changed by the gospel it preaches. We need to look like what we are talking about. It’s not enough to receive the gospel and pass it on—we must embody it in our common life of faith, love and hope. And to that we say, Amen!

Sermon for October 29, 2017

Scripture readings: 
Deut. 34:1-12 and Ps. 90:1-6,13-17
(or Lev. 19:1-2, 15-18 and Psalm 1)
1 Thess. 2:1-8; Matt. 22:34-46

Sermon by Ted Johnston from 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 
(drawing on commentary by John Stott)

Leading Well with Jesus

Introduction

Last week we began a series in 1 Thessalonians looking at the apostle Paul’s instructions concerning the important relationship between the gospel and the church. We noted in chapter 1 how Paul addresses the topic of  evangelism—the calling the church has to live and share the gospel. Now in chapter 2, we’ll see how Paul addresses the topic of Christ-like, gospel-focused church leadership.

Ideas for application of this sermon: A primary
aspect of the church's  disciple-making ministry is to participate actively
in what Jesus is doing to multiply shepherd-leaders to serve his body, the
church. In this sermon, you can help advance this strategy by addressing
some of the foundational characteristics of Christ-centered
servant-leaders. In doing so you (the preacher) can be transparent in
talking about your own leadership struggles and values. In doing so, you
can challenge others to join with you in leading in Christ-like ways.

Introduction (2:1)

Paul’s brief mission in Thessalonica was brought to a sudden end by a public riot leading to legal charges against Paul and his companions that were so serious they had to flee the city. Paul’s critics took advantage of this sudden disappearance to try to discredit his leadership and gospel. They accused Paul of being a fraud out to enrich himself. Apparently some of the new Christians in Thessalonica were believing these accusations, which Paul must have found quite painful. Paul defends his leadership in 1 Thessalonians 2:1:

You know, brothers and sisters, that our visit to you was not without results.

The apostle’s point was that there was ample evidence of his genuineness as a Christian leader. He then offers evidence with respect to his motives and methods. In these we find a beautiful model for church leadership in our day that is true participation in the leadership that Jesus exerts, by the Holy Spirit, within the church—leadership that is willing to suffer, that is bold, accountable, caring, directive and gospel-proclaiming.

Paul and the Philippian jailer (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

1. Leaders must be willing to suffer (2:2a)

We had previously suffered and been treated outrageously in Philippi, as you know…

Before reaching Thessalonica, Paul had suffered injury and insult in Philippi. He and Silas had been stripped, beaten and thrown into prison. It had not only been an extremely painful experience, but humiliating as well, since, despite being Roman citizens, they were stripped naked and publicly flogged, all without trial. Then in Thessalonica, Paul met “strong opposition.” Yet these afflictions did not deter the apostle. On the contrary, God gave him courage to go on proclaiming the gospel, whatever the consequences might be.

2. Leaders must be bold (2:2b)

…but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in the face of strong opposition.

The verb translated dared is from a Greek word meaning “to speak boldly”—openly, with courage. Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica had been exercised in the open before God and human beings, for he had nothing to hide and thus could be open and bold in living and sharing the gospel.

As an example of bold leadership, you might mention that this coming
Tuesday (Oct. 31, 2017) is the 500th anniversary of the event that sparked
the Protestant Regormation. On October 31, 1517, Martin
Luther nailed a document, known as The 95 Theses, on the door
of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.

3. Leaders must be accountable (2:3-4)

For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. (v. 3)

Paul makes this point beginning with the negative, noting that his ministry “does not spring from error,” since his message—the gospel—was true. Nor was it due to “impure motives” such as ambition, pride, greed or popularity. Nor was it an effort to “trick” anyone (or as the RSV says, it was not “made with guile”). In short, there was nothing devious about Paul’s methods. He and his ministry team made no attempt to induce conversions by concealing the cost of discipleship or by offering fraudulent promise of blessings. He never used such underhanded tactics.

Then in v. 4, Paul moves to the positive:

On the contrary, we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts. (v. 4)

As a leader, Paul was:

a. Tested and approved by God. God had “approved” him—the word means to be examined and found genuine—fit for ministry.

b. Trusted by God. God had “entrusted” him “with the gospel,” thus making him a steward of it.

c. Seeking to please God. God was the one he was “trying to please,” not people (see also Gal. 1:10).

Paul’s primary motive in ministry was to please and serve God. This God-centeredness in leadership is on the one hand a bit disconcerting, because God scrutinizes our hearts and his standards are high. But on the other hand, it is marvelously liberating, since God is a more knowledgeable, impartial and merciful judge than any human being can be. To be accountable to God is thus to be delivered from the tyranny of human criticism, which frees us to be accountable to both God and people.

4. Leaders must be caring (2:5-9)

You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority. Instead, we were like young children among you.

Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.

Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you.

Before declaring what his approach to leadership is, Paul declares what it is not: he does not use flattery (2:5), pretense (putting on a “mask”), nor does he seek “praise from people” (2:6). Such tactics and motives have no place in Christian leadership, for they turn a leader from being a servant into a “burden” to those being led (2:9).

Paul carefully avoided all these traps in ministry leadership, refusing to take advantage of his authority as an apostle to be authoritarian or to enrich himself by insisting on being paid (2:9 and see 2 Thess. 3:8).

Instead of approaching leadership in these ways, Paul says in v. 7: “Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you.” This is a powerful contrast between a self-serving leader and the selfless tenderness of a mother.

Paul adds in v. 8 that he not only was gentle as a mother with them, but was affectionate and sacrificial, as well: “We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.” Far from using them to minister to himself, Paul gave himself to minister to them. Unfortunately, some Christian leaders are both self-serving and autocratic. The more their authority is challenged, the more they assert it. As servant-leaders in the body of Christ, we all need to cultivate more the tender love and self-sacrifice of a mother.

5. Leaders must be directive (vv. 10-12)

You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.

Paul also related to the believers in Thessalonica like a father. He did this both by example and by the approach to and content of his teaching. As for his example, they, together with God, were “witnesses… how holy, righteous and blameless” he had been among them. Paul, evidently seeing his example as part of his paternal duty, continued: “For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.”

Paul seems to have in mind here the educational role of fathers, who, in addition to setting their children a consistent example, should also encourage, comfort and exhort them. In Paul’s case, he found himself urging the Thessalonians to live worthily of God and his kingdom. Since it was part of his teaching that the kingdom of God has both a present reality (e.g. Col. 1:13) and a future glory (e.g. 2 Thess. 1:5; 1 Cor. 6:9), we may assume that Paul appealed to the Thessalonians to live a life worthy both of their position in Christ now and of the full glory they would have in Christ when he returns.

6. Leaders must proclaim the gospel (v. 13)

And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.

In the New Testament, the most common word for preaching means to act like a herald who makes a public proclamation. The verb carrying this meaning occurs in 2:9, “we preached [heralded] the gospel of God to you,” and the concept lies behind what Paul says here in v. 13 where there is a deliberate interplay between “God,” “us” and “you.” What you heard “from us” (the apostle), you accepted as the word “of God,” which is effectively at work “in you.” The message came from God through the apostle to the Thessalonians and was changing them.

For Christians, Jesus is the Living Word of God, and it is the message about Jesus that is the Word of God (the gospel). This is what Christian leaders are to proclaim from Scripture. The apostles (like Paul) used the Hebrew scriptures to make this testimony about Jesus. Today, we use the Old Testament and the writings of the apostles (the New Testament) for the same purpose. To proclaim this Word, showing its relevance and applicability to our lives, is the high calling and commanded duty of all Christian leaders.

Conclusion

Paul is a marvelous example of a Christ-centered, gospel-focused servant-leader. Though we are not called to Paul’s exact ministry, all of us who are leaders within the church should follow Paul’s example, seeking to embrace the principles of leadership so evident in his letter to the church at Thessalonica.

May we all lead well with Jesus. Amen.


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