What is Our Answer When Jesus Calls?

A grand adventure awaits us but only if we are willing to leave what we have behind

The first chapter of Mark talks about Jesus calling his disciples. As he walks along the shore, he comes across two brothers fishing. Jesus says, “Come, follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people” (Mark 1:16-18, NIV).

What a powerful way for Jesus to cast a vision. He takes the routine of what they’re doing, fishing in order to earn money. He turns it into a metaphor for a mission. Instead of seeking fish to sell in order to survive, Jesus calls these two men into something greater, to seek people for his kingdom.

While Jesus’s metaphor makes perfect sense to us today. I wonder how his disciples received it then? Were they confused by his call for them to fish for men? I think I would have been.

Yet something about what Jesus says compels them. For they stop what they’re doing, abandon the tools of their trade, and go with him. In that instant they make a life-changing decision. They give up what is normal, what is common, so they can pursue something that is grand and beyond them. Jesus invites them into a great adventure, and they accept, without hesitation.Jesus calls them to a great adventure, and they accept, without hesitation. Click To Tweet

What is Jesus calling us to do today? I wonder if he wants all of us to give up what is normal, what is common to us, so we can pursue something that is grand and beyond us?

I suspect that what God has in store for each of us is beyond what we can expect or even hope for. He offers us something more. It’s up to us to take hold of what he wants to give us. It’s up to us to answer his call.

[Read through the New Testament of the Bible this year. Today’s reading is Mark 1, and today’s post is on Mark 1:16-18.]

Should We Pray “If It’s Your Will?”

We can learn to pray by following Jesus’s example, as long as we don’t misapply it

When it comes to praying, there is no better teacher than Jesus. Perhaps that’s why many of his followers memorize the prayer he taught his disciples and why many churches include this prayer in their church services. We commonly call this The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13). This prayer serves as our model.

Another one of Jesus’s instructive prayers occurs in John’s biography of Jesus. In the most lengthy of Jesus’s prayers in the Bible, we see three themes. First, Jesus prays that his death will glorify his father. Next, he prays for his disciples. And last, he prays for his future followers: us (John 17). This final section of his prayer shows us what Jesus expects of us, which should inform how we pray.

A third prayer of Jesus stands as his most passionate. As he prepares himself to become the ultimate sacrifice, he asks his father for a reprieve, perhaps thinking of when God kept Abraham from sacrificing Isaac by providing an alternate option (Genesis 22:1-19). Yet after making his bold request, Jesus quickly confirms he will obey his Father and do his will (Luke 22:42, Matthew 26:39).

Most translations of the Bible (32 times out of 56) use the phrase “if you are willing” in recording the opening to this prayer of Jesus.

Should we do the same?

Yes. By including this phrase, we follow Jesus’s example by acknowledging God’s sovereignty, that is, his supreme authority and power over us and everything that is. We admit his plan is far better than our wishes and narrow perspective. We concede he is in control and we are not. Affirming God’s will in this way, confirms his character.It’s right to pray “if it’s your will” as long as this reminds us of God’s sovereignty. Click To Tweet

Yet, this phrase can also give our faith an out, an escape hatch. If we make an audacious request of God and then tack on an “if it’s your will” at the end, we provide ourselves a feeble rationalization should God not answer our request the way we hope.

For example, if we pray for a miraculous healing, but it doesn’t occur, we can shrug and say, “I guess it wasn’t God’s will.” This helps stave off disappointment. It also keeps our faith intact. Taken to an unhealthy extreme, this phrase can even remove faith completely from our prayers, along with the expectation of the answer we long for. Praying “if it’s your will” could turn our prayers into weak, meaningless requests of an all-powerful God. May it never be.

It is right for us to pray “if it’s your will” as long as this reminds us of God’s sovereignty and character. But if this phrase effectively removes faith and expectation from our prayers and renders them powerless, then it might be wise to avoid it.

The key is that God wants us to pray. He wants us to talk to him. The words we say aren’t as important as our intent behind them. May our prayers always serve to connect us to our Father.

The Light of the World and the Light of Heaven

God will shine so brightly that we won’t need the sun to see

As the epic battle in Revelation continues, just before Babylon—the symbol of all that’s evil—is about to receive her final punishment, an angel comes from heaven.

John writes that this angel has great authority, and his splendor illuminates the earth (Revelation 18:1). I don’t know if this angel’s great authority makes him an archangel or not, but it does make him a very special angel. This may be why he shines so brightly.

Imagine that. An angel who shines bright enough to light up the whole earth. This is not a searchlight that illuminates one spot at a time, but a floodlight that lights up everything.

But this angel isn’t the only one who shines brightly. Later on in Revelation, John writes that in the future, there will be no need to light a lamp or for the sun to shine, because God will be our light, the only light we need to see (Revelation 22:5). In our future home, God’s splendor will shine so brightly that we won’t need the sun. Click To Tweet

Isaiah says the same thing. In the glory of the future city there’s no need for sun or moon to shine, for the brilliance of God will provide all the light we need (Isaiah 60:19). God will be our everlasting light. He will surround us with his splendor.

When we think of an angel lighting up the world by the glory of his authority, that’s an amazing image. I don’t know if he’ll shine as brightly as the sun, but I do know that in our future home, God’s splendor will shine so brightly that we won’t need the sun to be able to see. The light of God will be the only light we need. And that’s more than enough.

[Read through the New Testament of the Bible this year. Today’s reading is Revelation 18, and today’s post is on Revelation 18:1.]

How Can We Reconcile Violence in the Bible?

Through Jesus we can discover our response to violence and oppression

Seldom a day goes by when we don’t hear of terrorists who commit violence and murder in the name of their faith. These religious zealots believe a higher calling gives them the right to kill others in order to elevate their beliefs.

This seems barbaric, ignorant, and misguided. We, as followers of Jesus, would never do that. But Christians have. In the name of religion they killed. And we only need look at the Old Testament for a precedence that seems to give permission.

Old Testament Violence

As the nation of Israel leaves Egypt and comes to reclaim the territory God gave them, he tells them to annihilate the inhabiting people, to utterly destroy them and their pagan practices. As I read these accounts in the Old Testament, I struggle with the violence I encounter. I don’t get it. It doesn’t seem justified, and it’s not fair.

Yet, I see four things that somewhat help me reconcile the violence we read about in the Old Testament.

It Was Specific: God does not give a universal command for his people to kill all their enemies, regardless of geography or situation. He directs this instruction only at the people living in the Promised Land, occupying the territory he gave his people. To apply this to any other circumstances is inappropriate and a misuse of scripture.

It Was For One Season: God’s command to wipe out the inhabiting peoples only applies to one period of time: as his people take back the territory he gave them. He never says this instruction to kill and destroy applies for all time or extends indefinitely into the future.

It Was an Anomaly: In a general command, one without limits, God tells his people to treat the foreigners living among them as one of them, as native born (Leviticus 19:34). This is far different than his one-time instruction to kill.

It Was Fulfilled: Even if we disregard that the command to kill was specific and for a limited time, remember that Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets of the Old Testament (Matthew 5:17). It is over, in the past. The old ways are gone.

Still, these seem to me as poor justifications for the Israelites to kill. Though I’m content to accept God as sovereign and freely admit that I can’t begin to understand him or his ways, I still struggle with the Old Testament’s slaughter of people. (By the way, it’s hard to convert people to your way of thinking when they’re dead.)God says we are to love our enemies, pray for them, and live in peace. Click To Tweet

New Testament Nonviolence

I am, however, comforted by the New Testament, which doesn’t perpetuate God’s people inflicting violence on others. I’m encouraged by what Jesus and his followers say to counter the Old Testament’s accounts of violence:

Love Your Enemies: Jesus says we are to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44). When we love people, we want the best for them. Check out 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 for details of what love entails.

Pray For Those Who Persecute You: Right after Jesus commands us to love our enemies, he adds that we should pray for those who intend us harm (Matthew 5:44). By the way, this includes the terrorists who today kill people in the name of their religion.

I’ve never thought to do that until right now. It’s going to be hard. Will you join me?

Live in Peace: Paul writes to the followers of Jesus who live in Rome, instructing them to live at peace with everyone (Romans 12:18). In the book of Hebrews we read the same thing, along with the kicker to be holy as we do (Hebrews 12:14). Our holiness points others to God, allowing them to see him for who he is.

Though the violence in the Old Testament perplexes me, what applies to us today comes from the New Testament: Love our enemies, pray for those who intend us harm, and strive to live in peace with everyone.

That is how we are to respond to the violence around us today.

Let’s Not Forget Who’s in Charge

Good and evil are not equal and opposite forces

In Revelation we read about the dragon and the beast, a great battle, and the tribulation the whole world faces.

Embedded in the middle of this epic tale, we see a curious revelation. John writes that the beast is given power to wage war against God’s people that he created. John says the beast is given authority over every tribe, people, language, and nation (Revelation 13:7).

Who gave the beast his power and authority?

God.

If God can grant the beast power and authority over the world and all creation, then that means God is more powerful than the beast and the forces of evil.

Think about this.

Contrary to what many people think, God and Satan do not exist as equal players in the age-old war of good versus evil. God is superior to Satan. God created Satan, albeit for good. Satan, in his pride, rebelled against God and has fought him ever since. You see, the battle isn’t fair. God has the upper hand. Satan functions within the limits God places on him.In the final battle, the victory goes to God. Click To Tweet

That means in the final battle, we already know the winner. The victory goes to God. Satan loses. Big time.

If we’re on God’s team, we’re on the winning side. And for those who follow the enemy, they’ll lose along with him.

God’s in charge. God is more powerful then evil. Let’s not forget that. When we go with God, we go with the winner.

To him be the honor, and the glory, and the power, forever and ever. Amen.

[Read through the New Testament of the Bible this year. Today’s reading is Revelation 13, and today’s post is on Revelation 13:7.]

How Can You Shrink Your Church?

We live in a world that thinks bigger is better, but that’s not always true

Our modern-day society evaluates things based on size. We celebrate magnitude, with bigger being better.

This includes church. We often assume that bigger churches, in terms of both facility and attendance, equates to God’s sure blessing and his implicit approval. But we are wrong to do so.

I once attended a conference where many of the attendees were ministers. Invariably every conversation I had with a pastor included a mention of or a question about church size. I expected this and resolved not to play their game.

Some wanted admiration, but I refused to stroke their narcissism. Other pursued affirmation, and I determined not to falsely feed into their insecurities. This happened with every conversation. The social time at this conference drained me.

No one was content with the size of their church. Everyone wanted to lead a big (or bigger) congregation—or at least head a fast-growing church. It seemed these pastors’ esteem or paycheck was at stake. This doesn’t seem God-honoring.

Though businesses talk about rightsizing and downsizing, I never hear of churches thinking that way. And while businesses often divest themselves of assets and product lines that don’t align with their goals, and thereby lose customers in the process, churches seldom do. Though we shouldn’t run a church like a business, perhaps this is one lesson we should learn from corporate America.

Instead of pursuing church growth strategies, maybe we should look for ways to shrink our churches. Might we experience greater spiritual success if our gatherings were smaller?

Here are some ways to shrink our churches:

Think Small: Large churches, as well as some medium-sized churches, struggle in helping people form connections and build community. This is the impetus behind the small group concept. What a large Sunday gathering can’t provide to attendees, small groups can—assuming they’re run right. But a small church doesn’t need small groups because their small size facilitates connections and community.

Jesus focused on twelve people and gave special attention to three. His actions should guide our desire to think small and to then act that way.

Have an External Focus: Most churches have an inward focus. They give their attention to the needs (demands) of their members to the exclusion of their surrounding community. At best a church may allocate 10 percent of its budget and time to people outside their group. What if we made it 100 percent?

Eliminate Paid Staff: A church with a payroll has skewed perceptions and priorities. Members insist on being served and employees react to keep their paychecks coming. What would a church look like with no paid staff? It would be simpler for sure. More people would be involved. And it would be smaller. This would be a good thing.A small church doesn’t need a building. Click To Tweet

Sell Your Building: Owning a facility is a burden. It costs money, demands time, and sucks the attention away from people. People matter; a building doesn’t. So go ahead and sell it. It will free you. Besides, a small church doesn’t need a building anyway.

Send People Away: When a congregation grows too large, get rid of some of the people. But first empower them. Equip them to go out and start something new: a house church, a community outreach, or a service endeavor. Send them out and don’t expect them to come back. That will keep your church small and advance God’s kingdom, too.

Pursue Spiritual Depth: Many have said that most churches are a mile wide and an inch deep. They have no spiritual depth. They perpetuate a superficial community, functioning as little more than a Christian social club. Instead, seek spiritual intensity over trivial pleasantries. This will push away the noncommitted consumers and feed those with a true spiritual hunger.

Stop Counting: In the spiritual realm, numbers don’t really matter. So stop tracking them. Don’t fixate on attendance and offering. Forget quantity. Dump the bigger-is-better mentality. Instead, think less is more. Because it is.

This vision to shrink our church is not hyperbole. These recommendations are a serious challenge and aren’t intended as an intellectually provocative treatise.

Yes, this is counter cultural to our celebration of size. This turns conventional thinking upside down. It will be difficult to pursue and offend many in the process. They’ll reject us and retreat to church as usual.

Does this sound familiar?

Jesus was counter cultural and eschewed conventional wisdom. His way was difficult, but only because it was so different. He offended many with what he said and did. They rejected him and returned to their religious status quo.

Don’t expect many followers if you shrink your church and pursue a small church mindset. That’s okay because smaller is the goal.

Does Silence Scare You?

We need to learn to worship God in silence, doing nothing but standing in awe of him

The Book of Revelation is an amazing book. However, I fear that many people miss the point of it. The intent of Revelation isn’t to give us a detailed map of the future. Instead, Revelation provides us with a grand overview of God’s ultimate power and amazing plan for the future, our future.

The goal in reading Revelation isn’t to formulate a timeline, detail the future, or argue about the end times. The grand revelation of Revelation is to comprehend the power, the grandeur, and the glory of God.

So it is with today’s text. John writes that when the angel opens the seventh seal there is silence in heaven for half an hour.

Silence.

Total quiet.

Nothing.

How do you deal with silence? How much silence can you withstand before you go crazy? If you’re like most people, your answer is only a few seconds.

Imagine being in the presence of God. The setting overwhelms. God sits on his throne surrounded by his people and spiritual beings. An angel brakes a seal to open a sacred scroll. Silence fills the space in awe over God’s presence, power, and plan.

The only response is to do nothing, to stand quietly, and to not say a thing. To bask in God’s essence.

Nothing happens for thirty minutes. That’s 1,800 seconds.

Tick, tick, tick. That’s three seconds. Can you stand the silence? Do you feel the pressure to say something or for someone else to break the quiet?

Now wait 1,797 seconds more. That’s a lot of quiet. That’s a quiet that honors God. It’s a quiet that God deserves. It’s one way we can worship God. By sitting in silence, in the presence of his glory, we can worship God. Click To Tweet

No music, no song, and no singing. Just silence. By doing nothing we can worship God. By sitting in silence in the presence of his glory, we honor him.

Does silence scare you? It shouldn’t. When done rightly, it shows God our adoration.

Maybe we should worship God in our silence more often. We can start right now.

 

[Read through the New Testament of the Bible this year. Today’s reading is Revelation 8, and today’s post is on Revelation 8:1.]

The Bible Provides Direction for Our Life

Read the Holy Scriptures as a guidebook more so than a rulebook

Though some people read the Bible out of a sense of obligation—and granted, sometimes we have seasons where we just need to push through—others read its words to inform their daily living, among other things.

Yet, we must exercise care in how we apply God’s Word to our lives.

Enjoy the Narrative: As we read the Bible, we are best to read it as narrative rather than a book of rules. Granted, the Law of Moses is prominent in four of the Bible’s first five books, yet we don’t follow the Law’s 613 commands anymore. As a narrative we may see the Old Testament Law as a modern-day principle to live set apart from the world and to worship God as holy.

In reading the Bible as narrative we can revel in the story of the historical records, ponder the message of the prophets, contemplate the meaning of the poetry, consider the application of the epistles (letters), and marvel in awe at the end times passages.

Consider the Context: We would be in error to pull the words of the Bible out of their historical setting and apply them literally to our modern-day situation. This is most apparent when considering the instructions in the New Testament’s various letters. Each one was intended for a certain group of people to address specific issues. If we take these targeted instructions and turn them into generalized commands, we misapply the scriptures. Plus, we will find conflict, for what Paul tells one group to do for their certain situation sometimes goes against what he tells another group to do for theirs.

Only when we consider the context of each passage can we rightly discern the truth as it relates to us today. Just because someone in the Bible did something, doesn’t mean we should do likewise. Just because a command is given to one person doesn’t mean it applies to us. Context is crucial.

Embrace the Genres: The Bible is a compilation of works by different authors, writing distinct types of literature. As such, the Bible includes biographies of Jesus, the early history of his church, a collection of letters (which address questions and problems we can only guess at), future-focused allusions, sagas of epic proportions, poetry of wisdom and poetry of prayer, and warnings from the prophets.

Each one carries a different intent, which we need to treat as such as we read. Just as it would be unwise to turn one of David’s prayer laments into a command for action, it would be likewise foolish to take what God said to one person in an history passage and apply it to us today.

For example, when Abraham’s two wives and their two sons have conflict, God ultimately tells Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away (Genesis 21:10-12). But this is merely a history of what happened, not a rule for us to follow when our family members clash.Just because the Bible describes something occurred, doesn’t mean we should do the same. Click To Tweet

Apply the Examples with Care: Scholars make a smart distinction between descriptive passages and proscriptive passages. That is, the portions of the Bible that tell us what happened do not equate with the texts that tell us what to do. Just because the Bible describes something occurred, doesn’t mean we should do the same. Though the Bible tells about spitting on people, pulling out their beards, ostracizing them, and killing them, we shouldn’t.

For example, consider the description of what Nehemiah did to men who disobeyed: “I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair (Nehemiah 13:25, NIV). We would be wrong to assume this is how we should treat people in our churches when they do wrong.

Employ Prayer: We need to read the Bible through the lens of prayer, seeking God’s Holy Spirit to guide our thoughts, direct our contemplations, and inspire our conclusions. Without Holy Spirit assistance, the words of the Bible become little more than words and our reading has limited merit.

As we read the Bible, we plant seeds in our mind, but God makes these kernels of truth grow. We see this principle of God as the source of growth in 1 Corinthians 3:6-7.

Though the Bible can provide direction for our lives, we need to be wise in how we apply it.

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Does It Ever Seem Like God Hates You?

What we may perceive as a lack of love may actually be the embodiment of it

In the book of Revelation, John shares a grand vision with an epic scope, far reaching and future focused. But before we get to that, God has some first-century messages for seven area churches. Three of these messages appear in the third chapter.

In John’s supernatural dream, amid the seventh message to the seventh church, the one in Laodicea, Jesus says “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent,” (Revelation 3:19, NIV).

We know Jesus and his Father are all about love. They love us. That’s why they made a way for us to hang out with them forever. Love sent Jesus to earth. Love sacrificed him for us. Love ushers us into heaven.

When I think of God’s love, I think of his mercy (not getting the bad things we do deserve) and his grace (getting the good things we don’t deserve). I like grace and mercy.

However, two things I don’t think about when I consider God’s love are rebuke and discipline. Yuck. Yet correction is part of love, too. Parents, discipline their children to keep them safe and healthy and to prepare them for adulthood.

So discipline, from both God and our parents, is a good thing. It’s an act of love.When God disciplines us, it’s because he loves us. Click To Tweet

When God rebukes and disciplines us, it’s because he loves us, not because he hates us, has given up on us, or is ignoring us. Correction is one way he expresses his love to us.

How should we respond to his discipline?

Jesus explains that, too. With all sincerity (earnestness) we need to change our ways (repent).

I think this might be one way we can show God we love him.

[Read through the New Testament of the Bible this year. Today’s reading is Revelation 3, and today’s post is on Revelation 3:19.]

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Are You a Sunday Morning Spectator or Performer?

Church services have become an event, with consumers who come to watch a show

Today’s churches contain two types of people. And each of us fits in one category or the other. We are either performers or spectators.

If this seems callous, consider that we live in an entertainment-centered society. We watch TV, go to movies, and attend performances. We go to the game, attend a concert, and watch videos online.

What do these have in common? Each example has performers to entertain us in one way or the other. The masses are spectators, mere consumers of the event. Though we may participate in a way, our involvement is limited to clapping, cheering, or fist-bumping the spectator next to us.

Church is no different. We are spectators there for entertainment, be it emotionally or intellectually, by the performers. The masses consume the church service. Yes, we may sing along with a couple songs (though many people stand mute during the singing), mumble out a heartfelt “amen” upon occasion, or shake hands with our seatmate during the compulsory greeting time. But the service structure restricts our involvement.

We’re there for the sermon, that is, the lecture, and for the worship set, that is, the concert. And when it’s over we often critique the performance.

Performers: The performers at a church service are the people who stand in front of us, often on a stage. The elevation allows the spectators a better view.

The star of the show is the minister, who gives the lecture and may also serve as the event’s MC. The opening act is the worship team, consisting of singers and musicians.

If this description offends you, consider that most churches don’t select a senior minister or teaching pastor until after they have auditioned and delivered a stirring oratory. People with spiritual insight but no speaking ability have no place in the modern church. And usually the worship team members must try out before they can sing or play. People with musical passion but not enough skill are turned away and relegated to spectator status.

Yes, we expect our performers to excel in presentation, and if they falter, they are replaced. After all, we don’t want a lack of excellence to mar the performance and drive away the spectators who have a plethora of other Sunday morning performances to select from. Remember, we live in a consumeristic society.

Spectators: The majority of people at church services are spectators. We sit and passively watch the performance. Though we can view the elevated stage to witness the event, we may best see the back of the head of the person sitting in front of us.

We come. We watch. We leave.

Maybe we leave happy over a satisfactory performance, but maybe we leave unfulfilled, as empty as when we arrived. We wanted community but got a show.

We are church service spectators, watching a performance and consuming carefully presented spiritual content. At best we experience an event that may sustain us until we repeat it next week.We are church service spectators, watching a performance and consuming spiritual content. Click To Tweet

Instead Participate: The solution is to break down the wall between performer and spectator. Church shouldn’t focus on providing a performance but on offering community by letting everyone participate equally in the service.

We should all be able to share with others during our church services. Or at least have the opportunity to share. Paul tells us how. “When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation,” (1 Corinthians 14:26, NIV).

When we start doing this in our church services, we will eliminate both the performers and the spectators, turning us all into full-fledged participants. Then we will build a true community of Jesus followers.

It will change everything.

[This is from the June issue of Peter DeHaan‘s newsletter, “Spiritually Speaking.”  Receive the complete newsletter each month.]

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