What Has Happened to the Church?

Charles Spurgeon said, “If we cannot be torn in pieces by the roaring lion, we may be hugged to death by the bear.”

(I hope you’re ready for a history lesson)

In the earliest centuries of the Church, Christians faced unfathomable persecution. Their property was confiscated, their jobs taken away, and they were subject to physical attacks. Steven, the first martyr was stoned to death for the name of Jesus. James was beheaded for His commitment to Christ. Paul wrote of “troubles, hardships and distresses, beatings, imprisonments and riots, hard work, sleepless nights and hunger” (2 Cor 6:4-5). He was stoned and left for dead (Acts 14:19), shipwrecked three times (2 Cor 11:25), and in constant danger everywhere he went (2 Cor 11:26). We’re all familiar with the stories of Christians facing lions in a public arena for the amusement of the Romans. These men and women gladly surrendered their lives rather than deny the name of their Lord, Jesus Christ. The faith of the martyrs shone brilliantly and boldly against the dark backdrop of persecution.

But in later years, when Emperor Constantine of Rome (272-337) declared Christianity as the state religion, persecution in the west ended and every citizen became a “Christian”–whether they believed or not. Being a Christian was all about nationality, not grace as Christianity was fully embraced by the civilized world. It could be considered the worst thing to ever happen to the church. The standards for Christians became more and more lax over the centuries, and by the twentieth century “Christianity” looked nothing like the faith that men and women once died for.  It had been smothered in a bear hug of cheap grace as the church preached a “light” version of sin and salvation.

But I believe we’re coming back full circle to the days of persecution for true believers. Once again, Christians – Bible-believing, Christ-following Christians are persona-non-grata. Christianity has become the enemy once again. Even in the church.  As churches embrace every sin that the culture can dream up, they also reject the truth and those who live by it. Subtly, degree by degree, hatred for true believers is growing and they are being forced out. It’s happening in churches right now in your own community. The days of the bear hug are coming to an end – and it may be the best thing for the church. It’s certainly following in the footprints of Jesus who said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” (Matt 16:25). The lion is stirring again. Beloved, are you ready to stand firm?

Blood-stained Faith

I know, this is Hebrews Monday, but this morning the Holy Spirit has a different word from the Word. It is one of those Old Testament to  New Testament connections I love so much.

The psalmist said, “May the praise of God be in their mouths and a double-edged sword in their hands” (Ps. 149:6). You probably picked up on that “double-edged sword” and recognized it from Hebrews 4:12: “For the Word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword . . .” You may also recall John’s vision of Jesus in heaven: “out of His mouth came a sharp double-edged sword” (Rev 1:16). You know that this sword is none other than the Word of God – the Bible – the Holy Scriptures. You know that in the Armor of God the sword of the Spirit is the only offensive weapon we have (Eph 6:17) – but it is enough because the Word of God sends satan packing. This sword is powerful and purposeful.

But the Spirit made another connection for me as He reminded me of the scene in heaven. Under the altar dwelt “the souls of those who had been slain” – martyred saints. Why? “Because of the Word of God and the testimony they had maintained” (Rev. 6:17). And what was their testimony? The same writer said, “And this is the testimony: ‘God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son’” (1 John 5:11). Do you see the connection?

What is praise but declaring the great Name and work of Almighty God? The martyrs throughout the history of the church have held tightly to the name of Jesus and the Word of God as their source of strength and conviction. But martyrs are not only part of the church’s past. Believers are being slain for their faith today, and as the world moves farther away from God, more saints will face the same fate. Maybe even you and me. How will we endure? How will we not fail our Savior? The same way they did. With the name of Jesus on our lips and our hands frozen to the sword (2 Sam 23:10). Come to think of it, this verse is right in line with the message of Hebrews: stand firm in Christ Jesus and do not lose heart. Hard times are coming Beloved, but so is Jesus!

Saving the Best for Last

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I always eat the least favorite thing on my plate first and save my most favorite thing for last. When I have chores to do I do the hardest one first then do the easiest last. Why? Because I know that if I eat my favorite food or do the easiest chores first, I will give up before I do the rest. It’s a discipline I learned as a kid: “save the best for last.”

I think that is a very simple explanation for Paul’s message to the churches in Rome.  He said, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (8:18). Let’s get the truth out on the table – this life is hard. And the Christian life, I believe, makes it harder. Christians are constantly at odds with the culture of the world. Our priorities are very different. Our desires are (or should be) counter-cultural. Our sense of right and wrong rubs against the ever-changing “morals’ of the day. And our worldview is 180 degrees from the ethos of the world. Sometimes we wonder why we continue to swim against the stream and make ourselves a target of the enemy. Wouldn’t it be easier to just go along with the world and save ourselves the struggles and pain? Maybe. But at what cost? “Glory.” The reward for endurance and perseverance is glory. And not just a glory we can see at a distance. Paul said the glory to come is “in us.” He told the church in Corinth that this is “an eternal glory that far outweighs our light and momentary troubles” (2 Cor. 4:17).

Maybe you don’t consider your troubles “light and momentary.” You may have lost a job or a friendship because of your commitment to your faith. You won’t be the first. The history of the church is written in the blood of men and women who died for the name of Christ. It still happens today in certain parts of the world, and I believe it is coming to the Western church soon Paul isn’t dismissing these hard things. But he is saying there is something better coming, something that makes all our difficulties in this life pale in comparison. He said, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor. 2:9). Those are not just fluffy words – they are a rock-solid promise from the heart of God. You and I cannot imagine the glory that is coming. Hang on Beloved, the best is yet to be.

The Kingdom of God is . . .

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Sometimes when I’m reading the Bible the Holy Spirit will point His finger at a phrase like a divine highlighter. That signals me to start to dig and I always discover an unexpected treasure. This morning it was a single word. I was reading in the parables of Jesus in Matthew 20 and the Lord said, “For the kingdom of heaven is like . . .” Is. Not will be. Is. There is a theological principle called “the now and the not yet” and refers generally to prophesy. The idea is like looking at a mountain range from a distance. Some mountains are nearer and some are farther away, but they all appear to be the same from a remote vantage point. It’s only when you draw nearer that you see the difference.

Jesus taught a great deal about the Kingdom of God and Matthew recorded the phrase thirty-one times in his gospel. Five of those mentions have a future focus.  But get this: twenty-five times Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God as a present reality – as a Kingdom that “has come” or “is.” Not just something to look forward to “someday,”  but something that exists, something we can experience and live within now.  How could that be? Because Jesus is the Kingdom of God. When He drew His first breath in the musty stable, the Kingdom of God was present in the world. Okay, but Jesus is not here on earth anymore. But His Spirit is. Jesus said [the Spirit] lives with you and will be in you” (John 14:17). You and I, as believers in Christ Jesus, as His followers and friends, bring the Kingdom of God to the world in our generation through the indwelling Holy Spirit. The Kingdom of God is here and now – in you and in me. Wherever we go we take the Kingdom of God with us. Whatever we do we involve the Kingdom of God in it. Oh, that ought to give us a sober pause.

It also ought to give us a sense of purpose. Because we bear the Kingdom of God, we can bring the peace and love of God into this hurting and angry world. We can bring the gospel to the lost. We can bring hope to the hopeless. His rule and reign is here and now in us. The Kingdom of God is like . . . you, Beloved.

Jesus is . . .

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“We’re New Testament people, we don’t need to read the Old Testament.” “I just want to know about Jesus, so I’ll stick with the New Testament.” Ever thought or said anything like that? I’ve heard it many times. As Christians – Christ’s followers – we are focused on only what Jesus did and taught.  But the Old Testament looks ahead to Jesus Christ.  Check it out:

In Genesis, He is the Seed of the woman who will one day crush the head of Satan.

In Exodus, He is the Passover Lamb and the one who leads His people out of bondage.

In Leviticus, He is the great high priest and the perfect sacrifice.

In Deuteronomy, he is the Great Prophet to come.

In Joshua, He is the Captain of the Lord’s host.

In Judges, He is the one who faithfully delivers His people from the cost of sin.

In Ruth, He is our Kinsman Redeemer.

He is the anointed King in the line of David in the books of Samuel.

In the books of the Kings, He is the Spirit filling the Temple.

He is the great Teacher in Ezra and the Restorer of broken walls in Nehemiah.

He is the Interceder for His people in Esther and the coming Redeemer in Job.

He is the Shepherd in Psalms and the Source of all wisdom in Proverbs.

He is the Teacher in Ecclesiastes.

He is the Beloved Bridegroom in the Song of Solomon.

In Isaiah, He is the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace and Suffering Servant.

In Jeremiah and Lamentations, He is the Man acquainted with sorrows.

In Ezekiel, He brings life to dry bones.

In Daniel, He is the Ancient of Days.

He is the faithful Husband in Hosea, the Hope of His people in Joel, the Judge of the nations in Amos, and in Obadiah the One who warns of coming judgment.

In Jonah He is the preacher of the Good News, in Micah He is the Ruler from Bethlehem.

In Nahum, He is the judge of His people’s enemy,  the Sovereign Lord in Habakkuk, and in Zephaniah, He is the God who is mighty to save.

In Haggai He is the Glory of the House of God, in Zechariah He is the Royal Priest and in Malachi Jesus is the Son of Righteousness.

Beloved, if you want to know Jesus, read the Old Testament. He is all over the place.  Then read the New Testament with a fresh understanding of Jesus who was and is and is to come.

The Struggle with Sin

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Why, if I am saved, do I still struggle with sin? It’s not an uncommon question. I’ll bet you’ve asked it yourself. Even though we are new creatures in Christ we all still have the old fleshly sin nature demanding to be satisfied. Paul tried to explain it when he said, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:15, 18-19). He’s essentially saying, “There’s still a part of me that wants sin and even though I have Christ, I sometimes give in to that sin. I hate it when I do, but I still do it.” Why is this the case for us?

Look a little further in Paul’s words, “When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind . . .” (vs. 21-22). When we come to Christ, we have a new nature that wants to do what is good. But we still have that old nature that wants sin and we live in a world that offers it at every turn. James said we fall into sin “by [our] own evil desire [that] drags us into sin” (James 1:14). How do we overcome this?

If you and I are honest the sin we most struggle with is what the Psalmist called, “cherished sin” (66:18). It’s sin that we always keep our eye on, the sin we don’t want to let go of. Paul tells us: “Put to death the misdeeds of the body” (Romans 8:13) – meaning the sinful desires within us. Hebrews 12:4 says, “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” Beloved, let me ask you (and me) bluntly – Are you willing to fight this sinful desire to the death? Are you willing to kill it? Or are you going to keep it in your line of vision? We can’t overcome a sin we still love. Put it to death. There’s no other way.

When the Lion Roars

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When I was younger my family went to a “wild” animal park, the kind where you drive through while the animals roam around.  All the animals ignored us for the most part; they were used to the steady parade of cars.  We drove through the lion’s section, most of whom slept in the sun or lazily watched us passing by.  But there was one male lion who didn’t take too kindly to our presence, and as we slowed to get a closer look at him he shook his head, sending his mane spiraling outward and let out a thundering ROAR!  We all jumped, my little brother started crying and my dad stepped on the gas.  I’ll never forget how my heart pounded in my chest.

Peter said, “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). We have an enemy who is like that roaring lion.  He is fierce and ferocious and always on the hunt for easy prey.  He is ruthless and malicious and will attack without provocation.  He hates humankind because he hates God and everything God loves.  And he has a particularly fierce hatred for Christians.   He stalks believers, pacing back and forth with his menacing demeanor.  And he roars.  He roars out accusations and threats.  He roars out a list of your failures and sins.  He roars about what a bad mom you are, that you’re a lousy husband and a hopeless, useless mess.  He roars out that God could never love you.  He roars out lies.

How should we deal with this roaring lion?  Peter tells us exactly what to do. “Resist him, standing firm in the faith,” (2 Peter 5:9) James agrees, saying, “Resist the devil and he will flee from you,” (James 4:7.  Paul tells us to “Stand against the devil’s schemes” (Ephesians 6:11).   Proverbs 28:1 says “The righteous are as bold as a lion,” Friend, when the lion roars, you stand in the righteousness of Christ and roar back the Name of Jesus and the Word of God.  You remind the devil that he is a defeated, powerless fool and that his destruction is assured.  You declare that “The Lion of Judah” (Rev. 5:5) has already claimed the victory.  The devil roars, but that’s all he can do to those who belong to Christ.  Don’t tremble.  Don’t run.  Don’t back down. “A lion . . . retreats before nothing,” Proverbs 30:30.  You are a righteous lion. ROAR!

Kanye and the Church

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What does it mean to be a “righteous person?” Merriam-Webster says that “righteous” means “to act in accord with divine or moral law.” In Scripture, it means to be “right.” But who sets the standards for “right” and “wrong?” In our culture, that standard shifts like a sheet caught in the wind. God gave His law and commandments so that His people would know exactly what He deems to be right and live accordingly. Righteous behavior was rewarded and unrighteousness was punished. In a previous post, I shared how the Prodigal Son would, according to Levitical law, be stoned to death when he returned home for rebelling against his father. Likewise, a woman who was found to not be a virgin when she married would also be stoned to death. The law stated: “She has done a disgraceful thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her Father’s house. You must purge the evil from among you” (Deuteronomy 22:20-21). According to the Law, this was the right way to deal with her.

So how is it that Joseph was called “a righteous man” when he decided to disobey this law? When Mary revealed her pregnancy to her fiancé, Joseph “did not want to expose [Mary] to public disgrace, [so] he had in mind to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:19). Joseph did not want Mary to endure what the law said she deserved. Yet the Scriptures called him righteous. Because Joseph opted for mercy over judgment. No wonder God chose him to be the earthly father who would raise His Son.

A popular entertainer professed to be a Christian recently and just dropped a full gospel album. He has a reputation as a foul-mouthed, wild, arrogant, rebellious guy, but now he says he is a follower of Christ. And the church has judged him and his claim by his past. Where is mercy? Where is righteousness? Who among us has the right to judge his faith? Shouldn’t we instead be proclaiming the saving power of Christ? If the angels are rejoicing that a sinner came to Jesus, why aren’t we? We have an opportunity to show the world the grace and mercy of God by embracing this man and his new-found faith – but we’re showing them that Heaven has slammed the door in his face. And theirs. Why would they want a God like that? The truth is, it took the same amount of holy blood to cleanse my sins as it did to cleanse his. And it takes the same grace to overcome my mistakes as a believer as it will to overcome his. If God can save a wretch like me, no one is outside of the reach of His salvation.

James said it clearly and boldly: “Judgement without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!” (James 2:13).

I’m choosing righteousness here. I’m choosing the same mercy that was shown to me. I’m going to believe that my God can save. Anyone.

He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother

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“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” Galatians 6:2.

I love the Lord of the Rings movies. I read the books by J.R.R. Tolkien when I was much younger, but the Peter Jackson directed movies left a deep impression on me. One of my favorite scenes is in the third installment, The Return of the King. Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee have made their way to Mordor and are climbing up the side of Mount Doom to destroy the ring and free Middle Earth from Sauron’s control. Frodo is worn and weary, battered and beaten and falls nearly dead from the oppressive weight of this small ring with such evil power. His faithful friend comes to his side and tries to encourage Frodo by reminding him of how good and right life in the Shire will be when the ring is gone. But Frodo is completely spent and can no longer go on. Knowing that only his friend can destroy the ring, Samwise, with tears streaking his grimy face says, “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you.” With that he lifts Frodo across his shoulders and continues to climb the side of the mountain, carrying his friend while his friend carries his burden.

I’ve always thought that was the perfect picture of Christian friendship and beautifully fits our key verse. One of the sweetest blessings of being part of the Body of Christ is the relationships we share in the church. The best friendships I’ve ever had – and still have – were born in the church. There is a bond between brothers and sisters in Christ that is unique and special. It is the Spirit of Christ that dwells in us as believers and, like David and Jonathan “knits our souls together” (1 Samuel 18:1). I have laughed with my Christian friends and cried with them. I have studied the Word of God with fellow believers and mingled my voice with theirs in songs of praise and worship. I have shared the bread and wine of communion, then shared bread and a bowl of soup together after the service.

But the blessing of having someone help you carry your burden is the most precious of all. Like most people, my life has been a series of “ups and downs” – and some of those downs can swing pretty low. My Christian friends have come through for me time after time. There has been food when we faced illness or surgery, funds when the transmission went out on my car, notes and calls and cards of encouragement, even a roof over our heads for a season. There have been gallons of coffee and hundreds of prayers that have kept me going when, like Frodo I thought I could not take another step. I only pray I am as faithful to my precious friends as they have been to me.

Notice Paul said that helping carry one another’s burdens, “fulfills the law of Christ.” What does that mean? It is the command Jesus gave His disciples before His death on the cross when he said “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:12). In fact, He said that our love for one another would be the distinguishing mark of a believer, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another” (John 13:35). And He showed His love for you and me and all of humanity by carrying our burden – our sin – all the way to Calvary. That love and devotion and caring for one another was the one of the hallmarks of the church in the first century.

There is an Old Testament story that I think also displays this idea of carrying one another’s burdens. It is found in Exodus 17:8-16. The Israelites have just escaped from Egypt and are making their way toward the Promised Land with two million plus people when they are attacked by the Amalekites. Moses tells Joshua to pull an army together and engage the battle, meanwhile he will stand atop the mountain and hold “the staff of God” high above his head as a sign to the Israelite army that God is on their side. Now if you’ve ever tried to hold anything over your head for very long you understand how tiring that can be, and Moses was no exception. When he dropped his weary arms, the tide of the battle turned and the Amalekites got the upper hand.   No one else could hold that staff up – it was Moses’ God-given responsibility. But others could help him bear his burden, and a rock was placed behind him so he could sit down and “Aaron and Hur held his hands up – one on one side, one on the other – so that his arms remained steady till sunset” (v. 12). The result? “So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword” (v. 13). Joshua fought the battle, Moses held the staff and Aaron and Hur held Moses’ arms till the enemy was defeated. That is how the church works when it is at its best. Holding one another up till the battle is over and Christ has claimed the victory.

Do you know someone who is carrying a heavy burden? You can come to their side and – while they bear the weight of their burden – you can bear the weight of love.

Holy Father, love means bearing one another’s burdens, even if it means carrying one another. Thank you for the many times my Christian friends have carried me through difficult times. Help me be a friend that loves like Christ loved me. Amen.