Sunday, 23 August 2015

Six Principles of Mission (Acts 16)

In Luke’s description of the founding of the church in Philippi we can see several important principles for guiding the Christian church today as it engages in local mission.

The first is that the workers were partners together in the task of spreading the gospel. Paul did not function by himself, instead he surrounded himself with people. There are many reasons for this: prayer, training of Timothy, authenticity from the Jerusalem church (Silas was delivering the decree of the Jerusalem council concerning the ceremonial law), local knowledge of Luke (it can be argued that Luke came from Philippi; he seems to have remained there once the others left the city, v. 40).

The second is patient waiting on God for his direction. It is obvious that the Lord did not reveal details of his will until the appropriate time had come. He did not allow them to go to certain geographical areas (we don’t know how the knowledge was given, but it is evident that they were looking for guidance) and then he gave specific guidance to go to Macedonia.

A third principle of Paul’s mission strategy was to go to a population centre, which is why he went to Philippi, a chief city of Macedonia. Once they established a church in a population centre, it could evangelise the surrounding area and Paul and his team would move on to the next place.

Paul had a fourth principle, which was to communicate first with those who had some knowledge of the true God. In the ancient world, this was the Jews and the Gentiles who had identified with the worship of the God of the Israelites. Paul did not target the leaders or influential people of the city first, although sometimes they would be reached later. His approach in this method was common sense. When the local synagogue finally ejected him, usually by that time he had gathered a nucleus of a congregation.

A fifth principle that marked Paul and his team was their assumption that God had his people in that place who were about to be converted. They did not know who these converts would be, but they did expect the gospel to have fruit. Paul therefore was not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, either in its content or in its effects, because he knew it was the power of God unto salvation.

A sixth principle that governed their approach to evangelism was to convert households. In those days a household often would number more than parents and children; it could include sons and their wives, grandchildren, as well as servants and slaves. Connecting a household to a congregation might result in twenty or more people adhering to the church. Two households are mentioned in connection to the church in Philippi: the household of Lydia and the household of the jailor.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

The Ideal Church

What do you think our church is like? What other congregations would you like our one to be like? Perhaps you can think of one along the road or in a bigger town and wish that our congregation became like it. There is nothing wrong with having good models to follow as churches. Would others look at us and say, ‘I would like my congregation to be like yours.’

We don’t have to limit our search for good churches to contemporary ones. In addition, and in fact more importantly, we should look at good churches that are described in the Bible. And one of those churches was the church in Antioch (Acts 11:19-30). What does Luke tell us about it in order for us to imitate it? Because that is one of the reasons he provides us with the details.

First, he tells us that it was begun by people with right priorities. They had lost a lot because they were Christians. Persecution had forced them to leave their homes and move to unfamiliar places. When some of them came to Antioch, they evangelised and worked to start a church. It is obvious that they put the gospel first, and therefore they produced, under God’s guidance, a healthy church.

Second, Luke tells us that those who came to Antioch stepped outside of their comfort zones and began to witness to Gentiles. Their comfort zone had been speaking to Jews. Perhaps we can say it is like us having as our comfort zone people brought up in church. But good churches are composed of people who step out of their comfort zones and witness to those outside. In doing so, the Christians who came to Antioch discovered that they were actually obeying the commands of Jesus. After all, he had told his followers to go into all the world. When the church in Antioch did this, they discovered that God blessed them with many converts.

Third, Luke mentions that God provided them with suitable teachers in Barnabas and Saul. Barnabas was the first teacher and his character is one that all pastors should imitate. It is said of some authors that they can pack a lot into a sentence, and Luke does so with regard to Barnabas in verses 23 and 24. He was a holy man, who only wanted to see God’s kingdom progress. And God gave him the privilege of contributing to it. He was also a humble man, willing to admit when he needed help, which he did when he arranged for Saul to join him in a team ministry. We can see that in Antioch Barnabas and Saul worked in harmony, and those are circumstances that God loves too bless.

Holiness, humility and harmony in the leadership usually result in a thriving church, one whose focus can be easily identified. So it is not surprising to discover that those outside the church decided to call the disciples by the name of Christian. It is an unusual thought to realise that we may not have the word ‘Christian’ in our vocabulary if it had not been for the effective witness of this church in Antioch.

Fourth, Luke mentions that the church in Antioch was marked by compassion on the needy. The example mentioned is the effects of a worldwide famine on the church in Jerusalem. Perhaps they took the opportunity of giving their pastors a break as well because it was Barnabas and Saul who were tasked to take the relief to that needy church. Compassionate acts are the main reason why churches have deacons courts to look after the needy, whether at home or elsewhere.

What is our church like? Which church would you like us to imitate?

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Time for prayer

One of the problems that people seem to have is finding a place and time for prayer. Peter shows us in Acts 10 how we can do it. The last verse of Acts 9 tells us he chose a place where he would not be disturbed – the house of a tanner, a place that many would stay away from because of the work of the owner. The time he chose to pray was six o’clock in the morning, at dawn, and he made prayer his priority for the day. It was even more important to him than his breakfast. Luke is not saying that all of us should pray before breakfast, but he is saying to us that our lives have to be arranged so that we will have a regular, daily time of prayer.
When we think of prayer, there are two inadequate responses. The first is that it will happen automatically and the second is that it will happen spontaneously. Both these suppositions seem spiritual but in reality each is an expression of spiritual laziness. Obviously there is a sense in which a Christian automatically prays, such as when he speaks to God when driving a car or walking along a road; there is also a sense in which he will pray spontaneously when matters come to mind suddenly without any prior hint. But neither of these responses is a substitute for real prayer. The only adequate alternative is organised time for prayer.
This raises the next question, which is, when should we pray? The answer to this question is that each of us has to find the answer personally. There is not a verse in the Bible that specifies a particular time, although there are examples of regular prayer. Daniel prayed regularly three times a day (Dan. 6:10), as did David in Psalm 55:17, whereas one of the other psalmists prayed seven times a day (Ps. 119:164). But here Peter prays first thing in the morning. I realise that some cannot set aside time to pray in the morning – those who work nightshifts, young mothers, and sick people, for example. Yet we should think about Peter’s method because he must have found it helpful.
Are there any compelling reasons why he prayed in the morning? I can think of five at least. (1) There could be the common sense argument that in the morning we are the freshest we will be on that day. (2) There is the likelihood that the early morning is the time of day that we will face fewer distractions. (3) There is the deduction from the petition in the Lord’s Prayer in which we pray for our daily bread, which suggests that it is a prayer offered at the beginning of the day for sufficient food to eat during that day. (4) There is the example of Jesus who used to pray before the dawn. (5) There is the method of the psalmist in Psalm 5:3: ‘O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch.’
Another important question is, Why should we pray? The answers are many, but again here are five selected reasons. First, prayer is a statement that we have confidence in God. Second, prayer is a confession that we need God’s help. Third, prayer is the evidence that we have matured to the spiritual state which realises that without God’s input nothing of spiritual value will happen to us or through us. Fourth, prayer is the glad admittance that we are not self-sufficient, but have discovered that our sufficiency is found in God alone. Fifth, prayer is the realisation that we should not take a step without asking for God’s guidance, not even if one is an apostle.
Adolph Saphir summed up the importance of early morning prayer in this way: ‘Each day we rise, let us bless God. As every morning is a renewal of our natural life, let it be also a renewal of our true life, which is hid with Christ in God. Jesus speaks of our taking up our cross daily; does not this imply a daily dedication of ourselves unto God? It is good to see the face of God ere we see the face of man, and to breathe the atmosphere of eternity, before we commence our earthly and transitory occupations. It is good to commend ourselves to that love and care which condescends to our smallest troubles and duties, and to be reminded that we are called to eternal blessedness, and to glorify God in our daily work. He who has sought divine light and peace is prepared for the day’s work and trial; he is not afraid of evil tidings; while he remembers that we know not what a day may bring forth, he is assured that all things work together for good unto them that love God. And some divine promise, some spiritual truth, having been most probably impressed on his mind during prayer and the reading of Scripture, his soul has a nourishment “that the world knows not of.”’
Peter says to us from this incident, ‘Is your current arrangements helping you to pray?’ He says, ‘I arranged my location in Joppa and ensured that I would have a time and a place for prayer.’ If our lifestyle makes it difficult to find time to pray, we need to reconsider how we live.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Focus on Jesus

In his account in Acts 9, Luke does not mention everything that happened to Saul after his conversion. He omits to say that, shortly after his conversion, Saul went to Arabia for an unspecified time and then returned to Damascus for three years (Gal. 2:17-18). Arabia is not the country that we call by that name today. In Saul’s time, it would have included the countryside around Damascus, so we don’t need to imagine that he travelled very far, although some speculate that he travelled down to Mt. Sinai. We are not too surprised at his decision to go to the countryside, to a place of quietness, because it was important for him to get his focus right. He needed to discover who Jesus was and what he had done for sinners and also to grasp the implications of all this for his future.
Saul’s experience here is a reminder that a new convert usually learns most doctrines in the first few weeks or months of the Christian life. No doubt, later experience will enlarge his or her understanding of the faith. And there will be some doctrines, which the Bible classifies as strong meat, which will have to be left to later. Yet there will still be a great amount of new insights in the first few weeks of the Christian pathway.
What effects would his time in Arabia have on Saul? Surely, there would have been an increasing sense of wonder as he realised who Jesus was and what he had done for sinners. He had discovered on the Damascus Road that the risen Jesus was the divine Son of God. In Arabia he would have pondered how the Son of God became a man, how he met the demands of God’s law in his life and death, how he had ascended to heaven after his resurrection, and how he was going to return in the future. And as all his knowledge of the Old Testament predictions of and descriptions of the promised Messiah flowed through his mind Saul would be amazed at the fulness of blessings there are in Jesus Christ. The future apostle would be astonished at his discoveries.
In addition to a sense of wonder, there would also be desire to worship Jesus. This is always the ambition of any who come to know Jesus accurately. Their roads to Jesus will be different, yet when they realise who he is and what he has done, they will imitate Thomas and say to Jesus, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Saul was not only an amazed disciple, he was also an adoring disciple. Surely, a true convert will have those desires in the early days of his or her relationship with Jesus.

Saul as he thought about Jesus would develop a burning desire to witness for him. He could not stay in Arabia for ever and eventually he would have to tell others about the Saviour that he had discovered. So he made his way back to Damascus and begun to tell others about Jesus. And the rest is history.
What are our intentions after coming to know Jesus?

Friday, 5 June 2015

Sunday Thoughts - Thinking about Election

The Christian Faith has some doctrines that we find hard to understand. One of them is the doctrine of election. It is important to note that election is not a barrier to getting converted. We should not look at this doctrine when thinking about trusting in Jesus for the first time. Instead we should look at the promises that God makes to everyone about forgiveness if they trust in Jesus. But after trusting in Jesus it is essential that we think about this doctrine because God has told us about it. So here are seven things to think about when considering this doctrine.

The first detail to observe is that election is an expression of the love of the Father. Before time began, it had been agreed within the Trinity that each of the divine Persons would perform specific tasks in the outworking of the plan of salvation. The Son would become the Redeemer and the Spirit would become the Renewer of sinners. As far as the Father was concerned, his role involved selecting those who would be redeemed. And he selected them because he always loved them. This selection does not mean that prior to it he did not love his people. Instead it means an eternal selection, that he had always loved each of his people in this unique and special way. As far back as we want to imagine, when we think about that moment we should realise that then, and long before, the Father loved his people. It is a love without beginning.

The second detail to note is that it is a love that is undeserved. This is a very important aspect of this doctrine that we should remember at all times. Often those who criticise this doctrine do so by saying that God the Father was unjust when he made his choice. He would only be unjust or unfair if we deserved his love. But the fact is that no-one deserved it because those God chose came from a race of rebels against his law.

Third, we will see that the act of election was connected to Jesus. Paul reminds his readers in Ephesus that they were chosen in Christ. What does this mean? From the rest of the Bible we can say that it means they were given to the Son by the Father. Jesus refers to this donation by the Father and reception by the Son in John 17. In verse 6, he refers to his apostles and says about them: ‘I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.’ And in verse 24, he mentions all of his people: ‘Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.’ 

This gift of the Father to the Son was an expression of his love for his Son as well as his love for his people. A lover will want to give what he knows his beloved would appreciate, would enjoy and would want to keep. The Father knew what was suitable for his Son and gave him a people that he would delight in and would want to keep for ever. The process of salvation began with love that was connected to the Son and all that he would do for them would reveal it.

Fourth, the details of the act of election reveals the unexpected. Paul writes this surprising description in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29: ‘For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.’ Whatever else this set of verses teaches, it makes clear that God did not choose the best. 

I recall reading the story of a very intelligent man who was glad the letter ‘m’ was in this verse, found in the word ‘many’. It would have been disastrous for him if it had been left out and instead of ‘not many’ wise it said ‘not any’ wise. But he was an intelligent man who found a greater wisdom. And there have been wealthy people and powerful people who have discovered that God had loved them eternally.

Yet we have to remember that God’s ways are not our ways and that often, if not usually, he reveals his mercy to the poor, the despised and the needy. Of course, the world describes their experience as having a crutch to lean on whereas the reality is that God has enabled them to lean on his grace. 

Fifth, the reality of election is a wonderful encouragement for evangelism. Paul found this to be the case in Corinth. Despite having converts there he became discouraged and afraid because Luke tells us that ‘the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them’ (Acts 18:9-11). Without election, the fact is that there would be no converts. But realising that God sends his gospel with a purpose of saving those he has chosen, we should be encouraged to evangelise because that is the way that God has planned to gather in his people.

Sixth, the doctrine of election provides us with a strong basis for assurance. Did God choose us in the past in order to reject us in the future? Of course not, for as Paul reminded the Philippians: ‘And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ’ (Phil. 1:6). The fact that he chose his people should be an immense encouragement as they face the daily struggles of life.

Seventh, the doctrine of election should result in verbal praise of the Father. This is what Paul does in Ephesians 1:3ff when he praises the Father for the great salvation provided for undeserving sinners by the Trinity. Is his electing grace a feature of our prayers of gratitude to him, the God of all grace?