We are in a very charged political season this year, and it is causing a lot of division. This is nothing new. If you want to divide a room, shout out your support for either presidential candidate. Matthew records that the Pharisees “went and plotted how to entangle him (Jesus) in his words” (Matthew 22:15 ESV). The Pharisees sent both their followers and the Herodians, a sect of the Hellenistic Jews who were loyal to Herod Antipas, a Roman tetrarch in Galilee.
Their question was attempting to divide Jesus’ loyalty between God and the Roman emperor. They said, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (Matthew 22:16-17).
Jesus was not falling for their trap. Jesus’ loyalty was to God. But that loyalty doesn’t mean that believers were exempt from Rome’s tax. Jesus asked them to pull out a coin. They did, and Jesus asked who’s image was on the coin. It had the likeness of Caesar on it. Jesus answered, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are God’s” (vs. 21). In answering, Jesus was remaining neutral. His allegiance wasn’t about to be pledged to Caesar. At the same time, Roman law required all citizens to pay taxes. And those taxes were very high. It put a strain on the poor.
We can still remain loyal to God and neutral towards political leaders. Our identity is not tied to any one political candidate. Regardless of who “Caesar” is, God is still God.
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There are a lot of distractions in life. As I study deception techniques that abusers use, I learn how complex their techniques are to keep people distracted and fooled. Satan is very good at distracting us, especially when we think that we are good at paying attention. Paul warned the Philippian church about people who deceive and steal away: “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate flesh” (Philippians 3:2 ESV).
We need to look out for them because they are incredibly sneaky. They worm their way in and pretend to be righteous. That’s why we’re so easily fooled by them. At the same time, we are easily distracted. Our minds are not as attentive as we think they are. So Satan will use different methods for tripping us up, and we don’t even know it’s happening.
Paul’s focus is forward, looking to heaven: “. . . forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13, 14). Straining is accurate. It is not as easy as setting the cruise control. Forgetting what is behind us and focusing on heaven requires an incredible amount of focus and energy. It requires help from the Spirit of God. It’s not easy. But we absolutely have to press on. Otherwise we will fall into the trappings of the devil.
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When Paul was in Troas, he received the famous Macedonian call. Doors were being shut everywhere he and his companions travelled. The Spirit prevented them from preaching in Asia. They covered a lot of ground without preaching. When they attempted to go to Bithynia, the Spirit of Jesus prevented them from going. So they continued on to Troas, where Paul saw a vision: “And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us'” (Acts 16:9 ESV).
Luke says that they immediately sought to go to Macedonia, concluding that God had called them to preach. Little did they know what trouble was waiting for them. When they went to Philippi, Paul and Silas were whipped and imprisoned. After their release, they were ordered to leave the city. They came to a leading city in Macedonia called Thessalonica. This was a major port city and a Roman capital of a section of Macedonia. Paul was only there for three weeks until a mob was formed and he was forced out.
This is important because Thessalonica not only became a major center of Christianity, but they became the leading evangelistic center. When Paul wrote his first letter to the Thessalonian church, he said that the church became an example in all of Macedonia and Achaia. And it didn’t stop there. Paul went on: “For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything.” (1 Thessalonians 1:8).
Paul is clear that the gospel was sowed in much affliction in Thessalonica. But God allowed those seeds to grow. And Jesus Christ became known throughout most of the word. Three weeks. A determined Paul chose to listen to the call and refused to give up. He could have easily kept quiet in Thessalonica. But instead he faithfully trusted God and he preached. The Spirit moved hearts. The new Christians were moved to tell others. And very soon they were telling others. And on the Gospel went!
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When Jesus told his disciples that they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, it’s hard to imagine that they knew what challenges waited for them. Very shortly after the ascension of Jesus, the church was persecuted and scattered. Christians were literally meeting in a cave in Antioch of Syria (which ended up becoming the sending church for Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journeys).
Peter clearly had in mind preaching to Jewish people. But that idea got flipped on its head when God sent him to Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile. When more persecution came, James the brother of John was killed with the sword. This alone would have been a devastating blow to the disciples, because James was one of the “inner circle” during Jesus’ ministry.
As if James’ death wasn’t bad enough, Peter was imprisoned. “He (Herod) killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also” (Acts 12:2, 3 ESV). We don’t know why Herod kept Peter alive and not James, but clearly Herod was most likely going to put on a show for the Jewish people before killing Peter. Luke records a miraculous escape for Peter, then Peter appears to a group of people praying at Mark’s mother’s house. He told them to “tell these things to James and the brothers,” then he left and went somewhere else.
Peter did not shrink back. Neither did the other disciples. They boldly preached the word of God, because Jesus told them that they would be his witnesses. This is an amazing example of the boldness that we need to have today. The Gospel will go on, but we need to be willing to step up and share it.
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There are a lot of really sobering discussions on where the direction of the church is headed. I’ve quoted Thom Rainer a few times recently because I think he really has a good grasp of trends in the church. Mr. Rainer hosted a podcast today called “Five Reasons Why the Speed of Change Must Accelerate in Your Church in the Post-Quarantine Era.” It was spot-on. The problems that the church is seeing at unprecedented rates have been festering just beneath the surface for a long time.
Church apathy, sliding attendance, tensions within leadership–these have all been warning signs that things were reaching a tipping point. When COVID hit, it accelerated these problems at a very high rate. Rainer argues that COVID didn’t cause the problems, but accelerated them. So to counter these problems, leadership needs to accelerate change. The days of “easy conversions,” he argues, are over. Instead of merely inviting people in, he says that churches need to be very intentional about reaching the lost.
This is an “Acts 1:8” moment, he says. Acts 1 is the ascension narrative. Jesus was giving final instructions to his disciples. Acts 1:8 says, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Not long after that, the Christians faced persecution and were scattered. The disciples had to move out of Jerusalem and had to be very intentional about reaching people and being witnesses to those who had never heard the gospel.
The face of the church is changing rapidly. The question is, are we keeping up?
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Paul wrote to the church in Colosse, “For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love” (Colossians 2:1, 2 ESV). There is something special about being together with people, face to face. Paul recognized this multiple times to multiple Christians. He often longed to be with people in person, and that was a two way street. When the Ephesian elders met Paul at Miletus, “there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again” (Acts 20:37, 38).
These encounters went well beyond just a surface-level friendship. To be sure, Paul wanted the church at Colosse to know how great a struggle he had for them and those at Laodicea. Paul labored for the people he knew. He struggled for them. Paul made it clear that he did not want to “rob” the Christians he served. He was a tent maker. He did not ask for money, because he felt that would hinder his ministry. Consumerism was not of any interest to Paul struggled, and gladly so, for the sake of his fellow man.
It does Christians well to work hard–even to struggle–for the sake of others. It communicates that our relationship is not shallow and that the other person is worth struggling for. But most importantly, Paul emphasized that, “though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ” (Colossians 2:5). We struggle for others to ensure the firmness of their faith. This is (and should always) be motivated by our love of God and love for others.
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Yesterday Thom Rainer published a blog titled Six Reasons Your Pastor Is About to Quit. As a preacher, the title caught my attention. Thom Rainer has been gathering statistics and has consulted with churches for decades and is one of the most respected statisticians on church trends. In the article, Thom says, “The vast majority of pastors with whom our team communicates are saying they are considering quitting their churches. It’s a trend I have not seen in my lifetime.” This ought to make us pay close attention. This is happening right now, at unprecedented rates.
As I read the reasons why these ministers are considering quitting, it became abundantly clear that their churches are incredibly on edge, worried, and angry. The assumption from church members is that their preachers are sitting around enjoying a vacation while the rest of the country suffers. Additionally, churches are dividing over what rules to follow to keep members physically safe. Ironically, while they divide over how to keep physically safe, there is a rapid spiritual decline. Christians are shouting, pointing fingers, and acting ugly. This is in stark contrast of what the Bible clearly teaches.
Romans 12 is one of my favorite chapters in the New Testament. I spent two years preaching themes from Romans 12. Paul is blunt and uses clear directives: “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good” (Romans 12:9 ESV). Compare that to the way many Christians are attacking one another. Romans 12 is pregnant with references to how we should position ourselves towards one another: “Outdo one another in showing honor, contribute to the needs of the saints, live in harmony with one another, never be wise in your own sight, do what is honorable in the sight of others, live peaceably with all, never avenge yourselves” (Romans 12:13-19).
Now is the best time for Christians to turn this around. We can either complain about the evil and problems, or we can do something about it. For Paul, there is no question what he is asking of the Roman church: “Do not be overcome evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
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