Thursday, June 18, 2015

Known by love

See their faces. Read their stories. Feel the pain of their loved ones. This is beyond senseless. It's an obvious act of hatred, but it's more than that. It's an attack from Satan. An attack inside the doors of the church by someone who, for an hour at least, tried to act like he belonged there. Amid all the necessary discussion about race, don't miss this profound truth: THEY TOOK HIM IN. This young white man walked into a church full of African-Americans, in a city in the deep South, and was welcomed. He wanted to sit by the pastor, and the pastor didn't turn him away. They weren't afraid of his differences. To the end, they modeled Jesus' intention that disciples are known by their love.

And then he killed 9 of them.

The devil may have laughed, but don't think for a minute that he won. He didn't. Jesus said, "On this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it." (Matthew 16:18). The language is active, speaking of a church moving forward to attack hell itself. That means when we are fighting the right battles, we get close to the gates of hell, and the fires might singe us. But Jesus promises victory is certain.

This church's love was evident to the end. Love won the victory. It didn't die with them. The gates of hell did not prevail. That's the all-important religious aspect to this story, something we all should remember.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Loving the Truth (Ministry in Thessalonians, #26)

Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to Him, we ask you brothers not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report, or letter supposed to have come from us saying that the day of the Lord has already come. Don't let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man who is doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself above everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God's temple, proclaiming Himself to be God.

Don't  you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? And now you know what is holding him back so that he can be revealed at the proper time. For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work, but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of His mouth and destroy by the splendor of His coming. 

The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan, displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs, and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.

- 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12

I've decided that 2 Thessalonians puts to rest any idea of agnosticism. In Paul's theology, there is simply no room for the malaise of apathy. We either love the truth, or we refuse to do so. We either believe the truth or we delight in wickedness. 

Like many of you these words grate against my desire and even, in some ways, my experience. I want to believe that there was a time when I hadn't yet embraced truth, but I didn't really delight in wickedness. I wasn't really all that bad, right? 

Yet apart from the redemptive, transforming power of Christ, the human heart is "deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked" (Jeremiah 17:9). And I know I was guilty of things God hates (Proverbs 6:16-19), things like pride, deception, causing division. And those are just the things I'm willing to post publicly! 

Through the pen of Paul, the Holy Spirit doesn't allow me the easy way out that universalism offers. Instead, I am pressed to ask the hard question: How much do I love the truth? Because what this passage teaches is not easy, but it is simple: If anyone wants to believe a lie, God lets them. 

To Paul, salvation is more than praying a prayer or checking off doctrinal beliefs. It's a direction of the heart characterized by LOVING and BELIEVING the truth. The opposite of this is not merely believing a lie, being shrouded in a false belief system against your will. No, the opposite of this is REFUSING to love the truth and DELIGHTING in wickedness. 

Wickedness isn't necessarily blatant, dark evil. The word simply means injustice, unrighteousness, whatever is morally wrong as defined by God's law. Certainly we all fall short - that's what the word "sin" means - but Paul tells us that those who are condemned actually delight in wickedness. They take joy in it. Like the Israelites in the time of the Judges, they call what is evil, good. And by taking truth and refusing to love it, they essentially say that what is good, is evil. 

There is no question this is a hard word from Paul - and yet we must remember, looking at this from a ministry perspective, that he wrote this to ENCOURAGE the church. In the next section he will turn his attention toward encouraging them to hold on to the word of God. But first, he lays groundwork of how important it is for them to not take that word lightly. They are to LOVE it. And when they do, they can have assurance of their salvation.

I see something else encouraging tucked into these words. I see a hint that God looks at the heart of those who might not know the full truth, to see if they are loving the truth they do have. Do they love the truth of God revealed in nature? Do they love the truth they've picked up along the way? Are they prepared to love the full revelation of all God is for us in Christ when they are told of the Gospel message? For those individuals who reject wickedness and love truth, I see a hint of God's words to Ezekiel concerned the shepherds who were leading Israel astray with false teachings:

Ezekiel 34:10 This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them.

I've read plenty of miraculous stories of people seeing crosses, hearing words, having visions of Jesus, being told to go some place where a missionary had also been told to go, neither knowing who they would be meeting. We know Jesus said no one can come unless God's Spirit draws him. He draws with the truth. As people see and respond positively to the truth, He gives them more truth ... and more truth ... and more truth ... because they love it. Because they believe it. Because he wants no one to perish. 

And how does He do that? Through His church. Through each and every believer and community of believers. 

Does this passage trouble you? Do you hate to think of anyone perishing? Rejoice, dear friend.  You share the heart of God, who doesn't want anyone to perish. He won't force the affections of the heart. He'll take every inkling that someone loves truth and nourish it with more. And He wants to use you in the process.

Don't let Paul's words confuse you. Let them energize you to find those He wants you to share with, so you can love the truth together.  

Thursday, June 04, 2015

While you're waiting (Ministry in Thessalonians #25)

All this is evidence that God's judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with His powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of His power on the day He comes to be glorified in His holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you. 

With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of His calling, and that by His power He may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith. We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
- 2 Thessalonians 1:5-12

A theme throughout 1 & 2 Thessalonians is the second coming of Christ. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul teaches about the second coming and ends each chapter with an encouragement based on our hope in Christ's certain return. In 2 Thessalonians the emphasis shifts somewhat. Paul enhances the teaching on the second coming with details about what will happen and how not to be deceived by false claims of a secret return. However, he also addresses something very significant: What to do while you're waiting.

We all hate to wait. I personally rarely go anywhere that might result in a wait without a good magazine or book. Anyone who's walked with the Lord very long knows that the times He asks us to wait on an answer to prayer are much harder than hearing "no" when we longed for "yes". Our human brain tends to only focus well on one thing, and so when something is heavily on our mind, we can neglect other things that are equally true and important. Anyone who has nursed a loved one through an extended hospital stay knows the truth of that principle.

Paul doesn't shy away from the hard truth about the judgment associated with Christ's return. While it will be a happy "meeting in the air" for those in Christ (see 1 Thessalonians 4), it will be a time of punishment for those who don't know God or obey the gospel of Christ. This judgment is also associated with validation of the faith of those who had been persecuted throughout the centuries. God is just, even if that justice did not play out in their lifetimes.

Yet Paul doesn't just use this reminder of Christ's return and teaching on the coming judgment of their persecutors to turn the Thessalonians attention heavenward. Throughout the book of 2 Thessalonians we have every reason to believe that they didn't have any trouble at all focusing on the Second Coming. In fact, many scholars believe they focused on it a bit too much - being anxious about whether they had missed it (chapter 2) and not working in order to wait for His return (chapter 3). Paul's prayer for them here sets a tone for the book: Here's how to live while you're waiting on Christ's return. What can we learn from this prayer?
  • Christ's return should motivate us. Paul prays "with all this in mind". What is "all this"? The coming judgment upon Christ's return and the result of the day He comes: He will be glorified in His holy people, and marveled at among all those who have believed. He will be glorified in our lives, made holy by His grace, and we will be marveling at Him. At His beauty, at His perfection, at His power, at Him in every way. 
  • The One who calls us is the One who counts us worthy of the call. Let's be honest. NONE of us are worthy of our calling. However, through prayer He causes us to become who He calls us to be. The beautiful thing about it is that the new heart He puts within us makes us want to cooperate with the lessons along the way. I call this my "Princess Diaries" analogy. Have you seen it? In the movie, Mia is a homely, awkward teenager who suddenly discovers that she is really a princess - her grandmother is the queen of Genovia (played perfectly by Julie Andrews). Grandma wants to give Mia the chance to decide whether to pursue her heritage as princess and future queen, or to reject the opportunity. Much of the movie consists of Mia's efforts to be transformed from a nerdy young woman into a princess. Sometimes the efforts are humorous, as when Mia trips and falters in her evening attire. Other times they are sad, as when she embarrasses herself at a dinner party by setting the ambassador's sleeve on fire. And occasionally they are dramatic - when Mia's classmates see her new hair for the first time, they are truly amazed at the transformation. Through it all, Grandma encourages Mia that the Princess Lessons are really all about helping her "become who you are" -- and she reminds her that even if she rejects the heritage of becoming Queen, "you cannot reject who you are". That's true of our calling. Romans 11:29 says "The gifts and callings of God are irrevocable." We are made worthy of the calling one painstaking lesson at a time. Like Mia, we sometimes have humorous results, other times sad and embarassing -- and occasionally dramatic. Always we can see the results more clearly from a long, reflective view than we can in the midst of the day-to-day struggles. And if we throw in the towel for a while, we can never reject who we are -- the Holy Spirit won't let us be happy until we take up the lessons once again.
  • He fulfills our good purposes and faith-prompted actions by His power. This verse has been so liberating to me! Have you ever felt the paralysis of analysis when it comes to ministry? You sense a call to ministry, a call to look outside yourself in some way. But there are SO many things you could do ... so many things you should do ... so many things that need to be done ... where do you begin? One of the things I've learned over the years and through the Word of God is that we so often underestimate how thoroughly He has redeemed us. He has given us a NEW HEART. He has transformed us! But just as with Peter and Paul, He left our personalities and strengths and interests intact. Paul didn't quit being an intellectual the day he encountered Christ. Peter didn't stop being bold and daring. But they both walked out their ministry filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, with the very personalities and gifts God had put within them. Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying we shouldn't pray and seek God for specific guidance, and I'm certainly not advocating an emotion-led life. But what I am saying is that when we sense His call, it's ok to consider what we really have a passion to do and examine it against the word of God. Do you love to cook, and get great joy out of making economical meals? Maybe God would use you in a soup kitchen! Has writing always been part of your life? Consider whether God wants you to encourage others with your words! The possibilities are endless. Rather than do nothing out of fearing a wrong move, see in this passage the freedom that when we move forward in our purposes and faith-filled actions, they are completed not in our strength but by God's power. When you start something that you just can't seem to help getting involved in, and it bears fruit, that's a fulfillment of 2 Thessalonians 1:11!!  Watch for the fruit of the Spirit in the things you are passionate to do - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. "Against such things there is no law." (Galatians 5:23). 
  • The purpose is always God's glory. He is glorified in us by grace alone. Don't be confused by Paul's phrase "and you in Him." To be "glorified" means to be given an accurate weight or measure, to be shown truly for what a thing is. Through our actions God is revealed to the world as who He truly is. And through Him, we come to see who we truly are. Biblically, one reason for the delayed return of Christ is that all the world has not yet seen His glory through His people - they haven't heard the message preached and seen it lived out. The longed-for return can only be hastened in one way: As we move toward the fulfillment of the prophecy that every tribe, tongue, and nation will be represented around the throne (Rev. 7:9). 
Biblical waiting is never passive. He is always working in us, whether we are waiting on answered prayers or on the return of Christ. Meanwhile, He has a ministry for us to be involved in ... while we're waiting.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

"Therefore ... we boast" (Ministry in Thessalonians, #24)

Paul, Silas, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 
We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing. 
Therefore, among God's churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring. 
- 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4 

As we turn the page to Second Thessalonians, we don't find a radically different church. Paul's second letter to the Thessalonians starts much as the first one did, and continues the attitude of thanksgiving for their faith and love. Not only did the enemy not steal their faith and make the efforts meaningless - he completely lost the battle as well as the war. The church became deeply rooted.

And Paul was like any proud parent -- he told others about his beloved child, in this case, an amazing young church.

As Christians, we know that "pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall" (Proverbs 16:18). We understand that we are not to boast in our own works (1 Corinthians 1:29) and that all boasting is to be in the Lord (1 Corinthians 1:31). And yet, seemingly paradoxically we are told that we should "outdo one another in showing honor" (Romans 12:10) and we see examples throughout the epistles of Paul showing honor to a Christian or church, often as an example or encouragement for others.

So how do the two connect? What can we glean from Paul boasting about this church?
  • It's ok to say positive things about others - and let them know it. Paul didn't seem to spend any energy worrying that if the church knew he was talking about them they would get, in my best Texas parlance, "the big head". Have you ever had a relationship where you felt unappreciated or constantly criticized, and yet others said "She always speaks so highly of you"? What is your thought? If you're like me, it's probably along the lines of, "Well I sure wish she'd tell me so." People need to know when they are getting it right, when they are being a blessing, when they are valued and appreciated. The more the relationship is one of authority (such as parent-child, teacher-student, pastor-congregation), the more important it is that the person in authority take the time to reinforce positive lessons with specific, verbal appreciation. This isn't just basic human nature; we see this in Paul's example throughout Scripture. We don't have to be scared to honor people who are living out Biblical truths in the real world. 
  • Context matters. Paul shares that he boasts "among God's churches." He doesn't try to convince the world or the Roman government of this awesome church. He boasts to those who will understand the context and be encouraged by the example. This doesn't mean that it is wrong to speak of the good a church is doing when talking to a city council considering a restrictive sign ordinance, for example -- but it does mean that we have to realize the audience and that the boasting will be most effective when the context is grasped by fellow believers. 
  • Biblical boasting is specific enough to take away encouragement and examples. Paul specifically boasts about their perseverance and faith in the midst of persecution. The likely result of this, on the part of the listeners, is a realization that they too could endure trials, in the same way the church at Thessalonica did. Decades after this book, Peter would write, encouraging believers to resist Satan and stand firm "because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings" (1 Peter 5:9).
  • Biblical boasting doesn't take from God's glory, it elevates it. Paul would later write to Ephesians that God reveals His wisdom in the heavenly realm through the church. That's us, with all our faults. God is glorified in our weaknesses and frailties. He is also glorified in our progress. When read in context, we see Paul's constant connection back to God: 
    • The church is "in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (v 1)
    • They receive grace and peace "from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (v 2)
    • Paul's prayers "thank God for you...because your faith is growing" (v 3)
    • The boasting occurs "among God's churches" (v 4)
    • As we will see in the next segment (v 5), their perseverance is "evidence that God's judgment is right."
  • We are part of a larger story. "God's churches" that heard of Thessalonica were part of what God was doing as well. Thessalonica, a relatively new, small, early church, needed to know they also weren't alone. By sharing the stories, each of the churches make a connection that brought them into the bigger picture of what God was doing. 
When blood-bought, Spirit-filled, Word-bathed Christians are growing, others have much to learn and be encouraged by. Paul's example tells us that we don't have to be afraid to tell their stories - and we have much to learn from listening to others' stories as well. Most of us aren't church planters, going around with easy access from church to church to tell others' stories. So what are some ways we can connect to the bigger story?
  • Read Christian biographies. There is something profoundly moving about reading stories of Christians gone before. I always feel like I'm extending the list of Hebrews 11. We have much to learn from people who lived in different times and places. While they certainly have their biases, as we do, and while we do not elevate their lifestyles to the commands to Scripture - we can be deeply impacted by seeing how the scarlet thread of faith extends through the centuries and across the miles. Not sure where to start? Check out Goodreads' list of Christian biographies and pick one that sounds good to you!
  • Read missionary stories. Certainly missionary biographies are a great place to start, but sign up for missionary newsletters or read those your church provides. Find out what God is doing TODAY in places you've never heard of. 
  • Learn about the persecuted church. Sign up for newsletters from and start reading. You'll be blown away by the faithfulness and endurance of believers around the world.
  • Learn about the churches in your city. Pray for other churches and pay attention to what God is doing in them. When you see a Vacation Bible School sign, pray for that church. When you meet a believer who attends another church, ask what God is doing there. See yourself not just as "a member of X church" but as "part of the church in (my city)".
  • Don't be afraid to talk about what you see in others. Do some Biblical boasting, especially if you are in ministry! Share what God is doing in your group, and tell them about it. Even if you're not in ministry, talk about the amazing testimony of your worship leader, or the way God uses your pastor's words in your life. Then tell that person directly. Encouragement works both ways!
God is doing some amazing things throughout the world through the most unlikely vessels -- US. Let's bring Him glory by sharing those stories. He is worthy ... therefore, we boast.