With the pandemic still at large, many people continue to suffer as a result. The economy has hit people hard, illness and death have taken so much, violence is a reality for others, and on the list goes. In the process, many churches are struggling to find their identity and still others are struggling to pay their preachers and keep the lights on. My best guess is that a lot of missionaries have had their budgets slashed, or have seen financial support be completely cut.
In the middle of all this, there’s a surprising lack of one word among Christians. . . hope. Hope and Change was the campaign slogan for President Obama that allowed him to win the election, twice. People long for hope and meaningful change. Hope is what drives people into the next day and pulls many out of desperation. Hope allows us to see the good that lies ahead. It gives us a reason to make it another day, while cherishing the time we have on this earth. Romans 5:3-5 says, “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
Hope promises something new and better. Imagine if, instead of churches splitting right now, they focused on rejoicing in their sufferings. What if people were building character–character the produces hope. People deserve a message of hope. They need to know that there is hope in Christ. If we modeled hope for others in the midst of suffering, the light of Christ would shine much brighter.
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There’s no question that there is a lot of suffering in the world. Many are suffering from poverty, starvation, disease, and thirst. Many are feeling the pain from the recent global pandemic. We’ve been doing a series on navigating the church during COVID. We’re seeing many handle the pandemic well, and many who are not. The Bible has plenty to say about suffering, so we should turn to it for guidance when we experience it.
James says that we should be patient in suffering. In fact, he says, “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord” (James 5:7 ESV). James calls his readers to be patient and to establish their hearts. Interestingly, he pleads with them to not grumble against each other: “Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door” (vs. 9). This is important because the stress of suffering makes it easy to lash out at those we love. James warns them that they will be judged for doing so. It’s not difficult to imagine the violence and destructive speech that can be seen during times of crisis. James is right.
He continues, “As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast” (vs. 10, 11). Yes, much patience is needed in the midst of suffering. When patience and endurance keep people steadfast. The church will survive suffering. It always has, and always will. But we must remain steadfast and remember to treat people with kindness and compassion.
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Christianese is the language Christians speak in Christian circles and it often has inside, hidden meaning. An example of this is, “A sin is a sin.” That’s “Christianese” for “I don’t want to confront this, so don’t bring it up again.” “Lord willing” often means “I won’t be there.” And “In God’s time” can mean “I’m not really vested in this right now.”
But what really is “in God’s time?” To be fair, God really does work on his own timetable, and his timing is perfect. But oftentimes we use “in God’s time” as a cop out. In the church we are used to red tape. We are accustomed to hearing and making excuses. “I’m too busy,” “I have a lot on my plate,” “this isn’t the right season.” What we are saying is that in God’s time really means “in my time.”
In the gospel of Mark, he uses the word “immediately” 41 times. The word is used 59 in all of the New Testament. Some have dubbed Mark “the Gospel of Immediately.” Mark is drawing attention to the fact that Jesus was a doer, not a planner. Jesus was not locked into board meetings, planning sessions, committee break outs, or leadership meetings. Rather, he was serving. Every time Jesus saw a needy person he immediately served. He healed. He prayed. He taught. He fed. Immediately.
We sometimes miss how active Jesus was because we read snapshots of his ministry. But Mark shows that “in God’s time” is immediately. Mark says, “And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching” (Mark 1:21 ESV). “And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit” (vs. 23). Jesus healed the man by driving the spirit out. “And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee” (vs. 28).
Mark wants his readers to know that the needs were immediate and that Jesus immediately took care of those needs. He didn’t wait for permission or take the time to include others. When there was someone in front of him who was desperate, he immediately served. This is God’s time in the gospel of Mark. Though the other gospels don’t use Mark’s method, there is still movement. Jesus is rarely sitting around, and he certainly didn’t clothe himself in red tape. At a time when people are searching, God’s time is. . . immediately!
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The calling of the first disciples in Luke is an incredible story. After struggling to catch any fish all day, Peter and his companions went ashore. Jesus had been teaching large crowds of people and got into Peter’s boat. Jesus told him to put out a little and Jesus continued teaching the crowds from the boat. When he was done speaking, he told Peter to put out into the deep of the lake and let his nets down for a catch.
Peter explained that they had worked all day and caught nothing but, because Jesus said to, he would lower the nets. When they did so, the nets filled with so many fish that they began to break. After signaling to the other boat, they filled both boats so full of fish that they began to break. Peter fell down at Jesus’ feet and begged him to leave because Peter was a sinful man.
Luke records that “he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon” (Luke 5:9, 10 ESV). Jesus said to Peter, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men” (Luke 5:10). When they came ashore, Peter and his friends left everything to follow Jesus.
Our current events are putting a major strain on churches. Many are wondering how they can help. The church will continue on. It always has. But we each need to be doing our part to give of our time and money to make a difference in the world. Like Jesus’ disciples, we need to trust Jesus. We need to trust that he will provide plenty of people for the kingdom. But we need to work. We cannot blindly expect the church to flourish if we are not willing to follow Christ.
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If we actually go through the gospels and look at the glaring consistency of Jesus, we see that he was far more interested in healing than following traditions. Each gospel writer arranged their books with a specific purpose in mind. The stories aren’t necessarily chronological as much as they are thematic. In Matthew’s gospel, he arranges his stories to fit mathematical equations (he was a tax collector, after all), the discourses of Jesus to mimic the first five books of the Old Testament, and demonstrates how Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament.
Within that structure, Matthew focuses heavily on Jesus’ ministry to heal and preach. As the stories unfold, he sprinkles in stories that interrupt the flow of Jesus’ ministry. These stories are about religious leaders. For example, right after the healing of all who were sick in Gennesaret, The Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat” (Matthew 15:2 ESV).
Rather than get into a full on argument or debate (which in churches can last for long periods of time), Jesus rebukes them and goes back to healing people. He had no interest in winning arguments. That was a waste of time and kept him from ministering to people in need. The very next things Jesus did were healing a woman’s daughter from a demon, healing many along the Sea of Galilee, and feeding a hungry crowd of 4,000. To say Jesus was busy serving was an understatement.
Enter the Pharisees and Sadducees. “And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven” (Matthew 16:1). Testing Jesus. Let that sink in. He was exercising the greatest form of compassion on mankind. He was healing, feeding, and redeeming people–setting the captives free and treating them with dignity and respect. And the Pharisees and Sadducees came to test him. They couldn’t help themselves. They were deconstructing what Jesus was accomplishing.
Jesus was clear that followers of him must do all that he commanded. We all are essential workers in the kingdom of God. Jesus’ clear example to us demonstrates that serving others in need takes priority over everything else. This is the fulfillment of the Law. Loving our neighbors requires service to others.
Jesus was about as clear as he could be: the type of person we are is evidenced in the type of fruit we produce. Jesus wasn’t into blending good and bad trees together, calling them all good. Instead, he made a clear distinction. “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit” (Matthew 12:33 ESV). Jesus continued, “The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil” (Matthew 12:35).
Jesus said told his audience, “by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Words and actions matter. They actually matter a lot. It’s easy to get caught up into feeling that we are doing good when, in fact, we are doing great harm. Jesus said several chapters prior that false prophets would be recognized by their fruits. He said that “ever healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit” (Matthew 7:17). He also said that the tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. It’s a sobering reminder that the fruit we produce, and the heart that the fruit stems forth from matter.
A lot of people, Christians included, tout their freedom as a ticket to do and say whatever they want. But Peter, bearing in mind that fruits matter, said, “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God” (1 Peter 2:16). This was in the context of living honorable lives among the Gentiles so that they see Christians’ good deeds and glorify God. Peter told them to be respectable to human institutions, even to the emperor.
The fruit we produce matters. The words we speak matter. Our conduct matters. Of course we’ll make plenty of mistakes along the way, but our hearts need to always be set on God. We can’t turn into bad trees, producing bad fruits, while saying that we are cool with God. Jesus is clear that he has no room for that kind of behavior in the kingdom.
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What caused the church to grow so rapidly that, by 110 A.D. Pliny the Younger was writing a letter to Emperor Trajan about his concern for the “problem” of Christians? By then, most of the pagan temples had been deserted. This was in spite of strong Roman policies that were designed to squelch the spread of Christianity. It really confused Pliny, and he was requesting help from the emperor himself.
Business marketers, believe it or not, use biblical concepts to rapidly grow an sustain businesses. Think, for a moment, what it is that draws you to a particular brand or store. There is one theme that marketers begin with–commonality. A good business will find something that customers will share commonality with, something that fulfills a need or brings a sense of satisfaction. In Acts, Luke said that the believers had everything in common (Acts 4:32). Finding common ground is unifying. It’s what draws us to other people and can be a great source of finding hope.
It wasn’t commonality by itself that caused the church to grow. Of course, everything Christians did was rooted in the cross of Jesus. They proclaimed Christ, fed the poor, took care of orphans and widows, and freed the oppressed. This was their common ground in Christ. Luke said, “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common” (Acts 4:32 ESV). The word for common actually means defiled. In other words, everything to them was stripped of its spiritual value and material possessions were just that–they were meaningless material possessions. Therefore, they could freely share them with others because there was no attachment to things.
Pagan people were drawn to Christ because Christians knew what they stood for. They had zero attachment to physical things and, in fact, shared their money with others to help them out. Christians spent their time preaching Christ, calling people to repentance, and offering hope to people who were desperate. They did it with kindness and humility, emptying themselves of pride. They pointed people to the cross of Jesus. This was attractive to some unbelievers, and through the Holy Spirit the church began to see a major increase.
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