Do you believe?

I have a special corner of my house that I use almost exclusively for reading my Bible. There’s a comfy couch, pillows, and a blanket from Mexico. Surrounding said couch is books. Lots of books: Bibles in at least five translations and two languages, dictionaries, concordances, sermon references, and commentaries. I love reading through other’s thoughts on what I’ve read. Sometimes theses books confirm my own ideas. Sometimes they open up a new way of thinking. And sometimes, like today, they are downright disappointing and even disturbing.

I read this today in a popular commentary:

The signs authenticated the faith the early believers proclaimed, not the personal faith that any one of them exercised. In light of this and historical evidence it is reasonable to conclude that these authenticating signs were normative only for the apostolic era.

To what signs is the writer referring?

[Jesus] said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.

Mark 16:15-18 (NIV)

Nothing in Jesus’ commission to his disciples indicates that signs would only follow for a few decades. There is no time frame or limit in this passage. Jesus simply stated that signs will follow believers. Period.

So what happened? Why do we Westerners see so few signs, wonders, and miracles? Ask yourself this question:

Do you believe?

If a well-respected commentary can state that miracles were only for the early apostolic period, imagine what is being taught in our churches all over the world.

Allow me to break this down logically.

Jesus told the disciples to go into all the world and preach the good news. What good news was that? That Jesus had come to save them, to offer a new covenant through his blood rather than the blood of a sacrificial animal. This new covenant would bring eternal life to the spirit of any who accepted it.

Jesus told the disciples to baptize the new believers. Why? Baptism is an outward confirmation of an inward decision. You don’t need to be baptized to be saved, but it is a physical affirmation of a spiritual awakening.

Jesus told the disciples that miraculous signs would follow them.

Observe what power the apostles should be endued with, for confirming the doctrine they were to preach. These were miracles to confirm the truth of the gospel, and means of spreading the gospel among the nations that had not heard it.

Matthew Henry

Here’s my question: If signs and wonders aren’t for today, how is our message supposed to be confirmed? Why did Jesus go around healing people and teaching his disciples how to do the same if he didn’t mean for that practice to carry on? If miracles weren’t needed, why did Jesus bother at all? If the message is supposed to be enough, why is our message getting lost?

I believe in miracles. I have seen them firsthand. I have seen broken bones mend. I have seen stunted limbs grow. I have seen life when there should have been death. And I have seen people come to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ because of those things. Miracles aren’t a sign for believers. They are a benefit to us because we believe, but they are a sign to the unbeliever that there is power in the blood that washes away our sins.

At the risk of reducing the Word to a new low, let me put it simply. You’re watching television late at night and a loud Australian appears on the screen with an incredible new product. He spends ten minutes yelling at you, touting the near-miraculous qualities of the product he’s trying to sell. You stay tuned because you’re moderately interested and oddly enthralled. Then he puts the product to use. You’re sold. You dial the 1-800 number before the five minutes runs out and, for just the added shipping and handling, you will receive a second item for free! It wasn’t his words that sold you, it was the product in action.

The Word of God draws people in. And for some, that’s all they need. But others need that extra confirmation. They need to see the product in action. They need to see what it can actually do. And if the world can’t see our “product” actually do anything, what are we really trying to sell?

God didn’t fill His Word with the miraculous only to stop once Jesus left the stage. His Word is filled with wonders because He is a God of wonders. We do Him (and ourselves) a great disservice by setting the miraculous aside when it was a miracle that brought us where we are in the first place.

So I will ask again, do you believe?

Read: Deuteronomy 29-30, Mark 16

In season

Read: Deuteronomy 1-2, Mark 11:1-19

Did anyone else grow up thinking that the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree was a little harsh? I mean, the Bible even says that it wasn’t even fig season, and here’s Jesus all mad that there was no fruit behind those big, beautiful leaves. So he curses the tree and it withers up and dies. I’ve always felt bad for the tree.

Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.

Mark 11:13-14 (NIV)

Now, I’ve seen fig trees in leaf without fruit. If you like figs, it’s a little disappointing when there’s nothing there to sample. But when you know it’s not the right season, you shrug and walk away and hope you can come back when there is fruit. Jesus just couldn’t shake it off, though.

Why is that? Paul explained it to Timothy.

Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.

1 Timothy 4:2 (NIV)

I don’t think Jesus’ disappointment was so much with the fig tree, but with the Jews. Here he was, the fulfillment of centuries of promise, standing in front of them and they were far more concerned with pretty leaves—religious tradition—than fruit—the spiritual enlightenment he brought.

Let’s break this down to a very simple, personal level. Let’s say that one of your best friends isn’t a believer. You know that, and your friend knows that you are a believer. You don’t hide your faith, but at their request, you don’t talk much about it. Then one day, your friend starts asking you deeper questions about your faith. But, since you didn’t really talk about it much, your friend doesn’t know that you haven’t been going to church much and your Bible is sitting dusty on a shelf. You’re not in a fruitful season. And because of that lack of fruit, you are unable to truly share with your friend even though they’re finally ready to hear the Gospel.

According to John 15:1, God is the gardener. If God is the gardener, then the local church sort of acts like a greenhouse. Since Roman times, gardeners have worked to coax fruit from plants even when the season isn’t right. Greenhouses bring light and heat where there otherwise would be cold and dark. These two elements help plants to grow out of their natural habitat and through what would normally be a dormant season.

Do you see what I’m getting at? The gathering of the saints, regular fellowship with other Christians, helps to keep us warm and full of light. As a result, we can be more fruitful in  more seasons. Just because we may be going through a rough time, doesn’t mean that we can’t still bear fruit. If a hothouse can grow tomatoes through a Canadian winter, surely the strength of a church community can both help you through your trial and even cause a little fruit to grow.

Looking pretty doesn’t matter. I’m sure Jesus would have rather seen a scraggly tree, heavy with ripened fruit than the leafy, fruitless wonder he did find.

The trick to staying in season? First, stay connected to the vine—Jesus. Second, stay connected with the gardener—God. And third, stay in the greenhouse—the church.

The great disturber

Read: Numbers 8-10, Mark 5:1-20

Charles Spurgeon said that the gospel is a great disturber of sinful peace. Take a moment to let that statement sink in.

Do you ever wonder why the greatest of sinners seem to make the greatest noise when confronted with the Gospel? Those who are most content in their sin are most disturbed by truth.

For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open.

Mark 4:22 (NIV)

In Mark 5, Jesus came across a man who had been cast into the dark, hidden away and forced to live among the tombstones (a place no Jew would dare to go because they are considered ceremonially unclean). Why was this man put out of his home? Out of his city? Because he had residing within him a legion of evil spirits. Those spirits gave the man supernatural strength, yet caused him to run about naked and cutting himself. As soon as Jesus drew near, the evil spirits knew what they were confronted with—Truth. And they didn’t like it.

Mark 5-7-8.jpg

Spurgeon went on to say, they view Jesus as a tormentor, who will rob them of pleasure, sting their consciences, and drive them to obnoxious duties. Those who believe themselves to be happy and content in their sin and evil ways are under the notion that, should they accept the truth, they will be forced into a life of awful servitude. What they don’t see is that a life of truth is a life of freedom.

Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

John 8:32 (NIV)

Under the influence of evil spirits, the possessed man Jesus encountered was cast from him home, forced to live among the dead, stripped of his clothes (and dignity), and made to injure himself. Does this sound like a man who is free to do as he pleases? Whether a person is slave to a legion of evil spirits or a slave to a sin of their own choosing, a slave is a slave. There is no freedom to be found.

It wasn’t until after Jesus had cast the evil spirits from him that the man was free to live his own life. He wanted to travel with Jesus.

Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he was had mercy on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.

Mark 5:19-20 (NIV)

Had the man returned to his city and his family as he was, no one would have been amazed. No one is truly amazed by evil or sin or chasing after pleasure.

What amazes people is a life disturbed, disrupted, and changed by the power of the Gospel, that great disturber of sinful peace.

The only way

Read: Leviticus 22-23, Mark 1:1-22

Yesterday we talked about how faith can’t be done our way. There is only one my way when it comes to faith in Christ and it’s not ours. It literally is my way (Jesus’ narrow way that leads to eternal life) or the highway (the broad way that leads to nowhere good). But what does Jesus’ way look like?

Before we get into anything more, I want to set the stage.

We all live our lives through filters. It’s a fact. No two people will experience the same event in the same way. Previous experience will change our future experience. Other things like what we hope or long for, our values and beliefs, what we read or watch will all affect how we perceive a certain situation or event.

Yesterday I began reading The Way Back: How Christians Blew Our Credibility and How We Get It Back by Phil Cooke and Jonathan Bock (a book I would highly recommend to anyone claiming to be a believer). It is through the filter of the first few chapters of that book that I read today’s scripture.

In The Way Back, the authors began to approach the trouble with church these days from the perspective of marketing. Since the western church as a whole has been in a massive free fall over the last half-century or so, surely the problem must be with how we are presenting the Gospel. As it turns out, it’s not nearly so much an issue with the marketing as it is with the product. Not Jesus. There is nothing wrong with Jesus. Maybe product placement is a better term. The saying goes that, for most, the only Jesus they will ever see is the Church—you. Well, Church, we’ve done a bang-up job of marketing. We’ve made ourselves so appealing that we now look so much like the world that they can’t even find Jesus!

In an effort to appeal to the masses, the church has become a part of the masses, now barely distinguishable from many secular gatherings. This is not the church or the life Jesus presented to us.

Mark 1:17-18

Jesus called. Simon and Andrew dropped what they were doing and followed. James and John did the same a couple of verses later (Mark 1:20). We’ve been going about this Christian thing backwards trying to fit Jesus into our neatly defined lives rather than allowing our relationship with him to redefine our lives.

When asked how they would describe Christians, unbelievers used terms like: hypocritical, judgmental, harsh, power-hungry, phony, insensitive, bigoted, reactionary, and exclusive. But those aren’t the descriptors we were given.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Galatians 5:22-23 (NIV)

If you must, read through the Gospels again. You’ll find that Jesus never did anything to appease the current culture. He pretty much did everything completely counter to it. When pressed to take a stronger leadership role, he’d disappear. When he performed a great miracle, he didn’t take a selfie with the freshly-raised to life and post it to social media; he told that person not to tell anyone.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!

2 Corinthians 5:17 (NIV)

If we have truly made the decision to follow Christ and, as his disciples, become fishers of men, what does that look like? Does it mean we go about our daily lives and hope someone notices a minute change in our character? Or do we leave the old life and all its trappings on the shore to do things his way. The Only Way.

Suitable for all audiences

Read: Genesis 33-35, Matthew 11

Have you ever known someone who refused to watch a G-rated movie because that stuff is juvenile? It’s fluff. It’s meant for kids. I’m above that sort of childishness. Well, I guess the Gospel is too juvenile as well, because Jesus made sure that his message was suitable for all audiences. It was actually aimed toward the less learned.

Matthew 11:25

Jesus stood strong in the face of the religious and welcomed the children to him. He acted in direct contrast to the culture of the day appealing to the weak and simple. His Gospel, while suitable for all audiences, was better received by those who had no claim to knowledge of the law.

Aside from sin, the thing that can restrain us the most from receiving from God is ourselves. Our big brains and so-called wisdom clog our mind with complex ideas that Jesus never presented. Like the Pharisees in the days of the disciples, we see ourselves as being above such simplicity. And Jesus praised God that He chose to reveal his truth to the young and the simple rather than the wise and learned.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is simple enough to be received by children and enduring enough for the aged. It is deep enough to appeal to the learned and broad enough to be understood by the simple.

Rather than working from the top down, Jesus started at the bottom and worked his way up. Not because those were the only people who would listen to him, but because it was his Father’s will that he do so.

Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.

Matthew 11:26 (NIV)

The same

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Hebrews 13:8 (NLT)

No matter what translation you read, this verse is pretty much exactly the same in every one. The Amplified adds Jesus Christ is [eternally changeless, always] the same. The word same means just that. The same. Never changing. Unaltered. Never different. That is our Savior.

Think about that for a moment. The message that Jesus taught while he walked the earth is still valid today. Just because the world has changed and humanity has changed, doesn’t mean the Gospel changes.

So do not be attracted by strange, new ideas. Your spiritual strength comes from God’s special favor…

Hebrews 13:9b (NLT)

Too often, we try to complicate the message of Jesus. It can get watered down or it can be altered to seem more appealing. But the true message of Jesus can get lost in all the things we try to do to it. If Jesus never, ever changes,why do we try to change his word? If Jesus appealed to the masses two thousand years ago what makes us think that he won’t appeal the crowds now?

We have not been called to make the message of the Gospel appealing. We’ve been called simply to share it.

And now, may the God of peace, who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, equip you with all you need for doing his will. May he produce in you, through the power of Jesus Christ, all that is pleasing to him.

Hebrews 13:20 (NLT)

God is most please with us when we do His will His way, and He has already given us all we need to accomplish it. We don’t need to try to make up new stories or rules or ways of doing things. Jesus already set the standard and, since he never changes, why would we try to change his message?

Jesus ministered to anyone and everyone with grace and love. We should do the same.

Daily Bible reading: Ezekiel 17-19, Hebrews 13

What is faith?

As Christians, we talk about faith. A lot. It is our belief system. It is the basis on which we live our lives. It is our calling. It is many things. We know that just a small amount—the measure of a mustard seed—can move a mountain. It can heal the sick and open blind eyes. Faith can raise the dead. But how many of us can accurately define faith?

Let’s go the the old standby in Hebrews:

What is faith? It is the confident assurance that what we hope for is going to happen. It is the evidence of things we cannot yet see.

Hebrews 11:1 (NLT)

I once heard a pastor say that grace is God’s grip on us and faith is our grip on God. According to Noah Webster, her statement was more than just something to be typed on a meme and posted to social media.

The sense of the verb is to strain, to draw, and thus to bind or make fast. A rope or cable is that which makes fast.

Our faith, combined with God’s grace, brings us or draws us toward God and binds us to Him. Without faith, we have no grip whatsoever. Grace alone is not enough. It is not the binding agent, faith is.

So, you see, it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that there is a God and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him.

Hebrews 11:6 (NLT)

FAITH: That firm belief of God’s testimony, and of the truth of the gospel, which influences the will, and leads to an entire reliance on Christ for salvation.

When we are called upon to use our faith, our belief should not be in the desired outcome, but in the One who can bring it to pass. We must remember that faith goes beyond a little prayer and a hope. Faith is what binds us to God. It draws us closer to Him. It brings us to obedience to His Word and puts in line with His will. It is our judgement that what God has stated is the truth. And, if He promised it, He will perform it.

Daily Bible reading: Ezekiel 10-12, Hebrews 11:1-19

Excel

If you call yourself a Christian, you are called to ministry. First, to minister to the world—whether it be your own small corner or abroad in a foreign nation. We are all called to be ministers of the Gospel. Also, we are called to the ministry of giving.

…now I want you to excel also in the gracious ministry of giving.

2 Corinthians 8:7b (NLT)

I can guarantee that God has put it on your heart to give. If you don’t believe so, you haven’t been listening.

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.

James 1:17 (NKJV)

If God gives us good gifts and we are to become more and more like Him every day, should we not also be giving good gifts?

If you are really eager to give, it isn’t important how much you are able to give. God wants you to give what you have, not what you don’t have.

2 Corinthians 8:12 (NLT)

God doesn’t intend for us to give so much that we become destitute. He wants us to give not only to bless others, but to make more room in our lives.

Blow up a balloon, but don’t tie it off. Let all the air out. Blow it up again. Let the air out. Each time you let the air out, the balloon will appear larger. You’re stretching it. Making more room. There are things that God wants to give us that won’t fit into our lives the way they are. The balloon would pop. But let the air out, and you’ve made room for more the next time you fill it.

God wants to do the same with us. Giving may deflate us a bit, but God will fill us to capacity again and again, increasing our limit every time. If you tie off a balloon, no air can get in or out. The supply is cut off.

Don’t cut yourself off from God’ generous supply by being stingy. Instead, become a part of His supply chain and allow Him to bless others through the blessings He gives you.

Learn to excel at the ministry of giving.

Daily Bible reading: Proverbs 30-31, 2 Corinthians 8

Love that builds

We don’t need to grow. We’re fine exactly as we are. Said no church leader ever. No good leader (of anything) is content with status quo. Growth and improvement are the goals we continually strive toward. To be satisfied with the same thing week after week, month after month, year after year is to completely disregard the entire purpose for our gathering together as Christians in the first place.

And then [Jesus] told them, “Go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone, everywhere.”

Mark 16:15 (NLT)

Everyone. Everywhere. Those add up to big numbers. How are we supposed to reach everyone everywhere? It’s a massive undertaking. Knowing the mission is the first step. Knowing the Good News is the next. Knowledge is great. Leaders are learners—and by leaders, I mean anyone and everyone who calls his- or herself a follower of Christ. Our knowledge of God, His Word, His Church, and His will should be ever-increasing. But it can’t stop there. Knowledge alone isn’t good enough.

Knowledge is good and it is necessary, but it is not everything. If we are going to reach everyone everywhere, we need something that is not readily available to the rest of the world.

While knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that really builds up the church. Anyone who claims to know all the answers doesn’t really know very much.

1 Corinthians 8:1b-2 (NLT)

Lennon and McCartney were on the right track when they sang that all you need is love.

We need the love that is patient and kind, not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. We need the kind of love that is so thoroughly described in 1 Corinthians 13. Without it, what we build with our own knowledge is no different than the things the world builds. It is love—true love—that sets us apart.

And it is love that really builds up the church.

Daily Bible reading: Psalm 132-135, 1 Corinthians 8

One voice

I was recently in a meeting with my pastor when he was asked about the local ministers’ group—pastors who regularly get together to discuss local church-related issues (in theory). My pastor laughed at the comment. He stopped going to those meetings a long time ago. He never even attended enough to be considered a regular. Do you want to know why? At one of these pastor’s meetings—where a group of pastors from the same city should be getting together to discuss strategies on how to help the lost in their city—a pastor stood up and said that he saw no reason for the churches in our town to work together. They’re all doing their own thing and that’s just fine.

Is it?

May God, who give this patience and encouragement, help you live in complete harmony with each other—each with the attitude of Christ toward the other. Then all of you can join together with one voice, giving praise and glory to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

So accept each other just as Christ has accepted you; then God will be glorified.

Romans 15:5-7 (NLT)

Everything I’ve ever read in the Bible, especially in reference to the Church, has always been that we should work together. That we are one body. A part of one mission. One family.

What should be a family business has become a rather serious case of sibling rivalry. I’ve heard many praise the fact that the city I live in is considered to be one of the most churched cities in the country (approximately one church per 1,000 residents). I beg to differ. I ask the question, how many United churches are there? Reform? Pentecostal? Mennonite? Non-denominational? There are multiples of each of these and many more. And very few, if any, were an intentional plant from another. It is a testament of split after split after split.

Don’t get me wrong, I get that there are different ways of doing things. Different denominations appeal to different people. I have no issue with that. What I take issue with is the fact that these people don’t see the need to work together, to speak with one voice.

The city is filled with people who have been exposed to and hurt by the local church. Instead of effectively working together toward a common goal, one church spurns another, creating more animosity than converts. How can God be glorified in that?

I long for the day when the Mennonite church can approach the Catholic church and join with the non-denominational church and they can all work together to proclaim the only message we’ve been called to proclaim:

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believe in him will not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:16 (NLT)

I leave you with a prayer from Paul.

So I pray that God, who gives you hope, will keep you happy and full of peace as you believe in him. May you overflow with hope through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Romans 15:13 (NLT)

Daily Bible reading: Psalm 105-106, Romans 15:1-20