What Do We Do When We Get Together?

The Bible tells us to not give up meeting together, but we often miss the point

Don’t forget to encourage one another when we meet together.As we persevere in our faith, one aspect of this is to not give up meeting together (Hebrews 10:25). Many people interpret this verse as a command to attend church. It isn’t. Not really. While meeting together could include going to church, it should encompass much more.

Where We Meet: The phrase to not give up meeting together is a call for intentional interaction with other followers of Jesus. He says anywhere two or three people get together and place the focus on him, he will join them (Matthew 18:20).

  • Meals: Most people enjoy meals with others, and most Christians pray before they eat. Isn’t this gathering in Jesus’s name? I think so. While we may eat some meals alone, we potentially have three times each day to fellowship with others and include Jesus. But do we make the most of these opportunities?
  • Small Groups: Many churches provide opportunities for attendees to form intentional gatherings with a small number of people. This facilitates connection with each other and draws us to God. If we skip our small group, it’s as if we are giving up meeting together, which the Bible says not to do.
  • Coffee Shop: People often meet at coffee shops to spend time and hang out. If you include God in your meeting, either explicitly or implicitly, you assemble in his name.
  • Homes: Do you invite people into your home or see others in theirs? If you both love Jesus, doesn’t this become a get together where he is included? It should.
  • Outings: What about going on a picnic, to the game, the gym, or shopping? With intentionality, each of these can be another opportunity to meet together in his name.
  • Church: Yes, church is on this list of places where we can gather in the name of Jesus. But I list it last because I wonder if it isn’t the least important. Why do I suggest this? Because when we meet in this environment, we often (perhaps usually) do it wrong. Consider the rest of the verse to find out why.

When We Meet: The command to not give up meeting together goes on to explain why. People tend to skip this part. The reason we are to meet together is so that we may encourage one another. The Bible says so, but how often do we do this in our church meetings?

If we leave church discouraged or fail to encourage others while we’re there, then we’ve missed the point of meeting together. While some people make a big deal out of meeting together—that is, going to church—they’re quick to miss that the reason is to encourage each other. If we’re not going to do that, then we might as well stay home.

Why Are Denominations Dangerous?

Jesus wants us to live in unity but instead our manmade denominations divide us

Denominations divide us. Jesus unites us.I recently attended a friend’s ordination ceremony who had graduated from seminary and became a minister. It’s not the first such occasion I attended, and it won’t likely be the last. It was, however, the first time I really listened to what took place.

Integrated into the liturgy of the proceedings were a series of questions posed to the new minister. Early on one of the queries caught my attention. I’ll purposely not quote the question to hide the identity of the guilty denomination, but I will paraphrase it.

In essence the denomination asked the young minister to pledge his loyalty to it and do his best to promote its mission locally and around the world.

My friend’s expected response affirmed his willingness to do so.

I don’t think I would have agreed to such a condition. Shouldn’t we pledge our loyalty to God and do our best to promote his mission locally and around the world?

With 43,000 Protestant denominations, why does each one work so hard to preserve and promote its own brand of Christianity, often at the expense of others? Why not ditch the denomination and instead work hard to promote Christ?

With this still bouncing around in my brain, a second item caught my attention as the ceremony wound down. In this part of the proceedings, my friend promised to take various actions. One such action has him pursuing unity within the church. My friend promised to do so.

Assuming that by church those words refer to the universal church of Jesus, as opposed to the denomination, I see a contradiction of intent, that my friend promised to pursue two mutually exclusive goals.

Our Protestant denominations divide us, whereas Jesus wants us to be one, to get along with each other, and to live in unity (John 17:21, 23). When we consider this carefully, our manmade denominations are the antithesis of the unity Jesus prays for.

If my friend would indeed pursue unity as he promised, he should seek to dismantle the denomination, because its very existence opposes unity.

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

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What’s the One Thing That Matters Most?

The list of faith essentials is short—a list of only one item

Jesus is the one thing that's essential to our faithTwo thousand years ago the religious leaders, called Pharisees, heap a bunch of manmade requirements on the backs of the people so they can be right with God. Some scholars place the number at over 22,000 regulations, far more than the 613 items the Law of Moses contains, which far exceeds God’s top ten instructions (aka The Ten Commandments).

While today’s religious leaders have numerically fewer requirements for their followers, they, too, heap a pile of expectations upon us: of things we shouldn’t do and things we should, of hoops to jump through to be accepted into their group (their church).

They spout requirements for us to meet, a checklist of tasks to complete—or behaviors to avoid. We need to agree to their specific theological mindset, and if we question just one item they hold sacrosanct, we’re booted as a miscreant, likely on our way to hell. Branded as a heretic, we’re banished from their community. 

They call their requirements, the essentials. These so called faith essentials sometimes carry a prooftext, but more so than not they are no more than traditions, conventions, and preferred practices, with an elevated status for us to adhere to.

Some enlightened pastors advise to hold a short list of essentials. They have the right idea.

Jesus has this in mind when he says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). The essentials of Jesus are simple. He creates no undue burden for us, much unlike the Pharisees of his day—or the Pharisees of our day.

But how short should this list of essentials be? Ten items, perhaps five or six? Can we boil it down to three?

How about one?

Yes, there is one faith essential. Jesus says so.

What is this one thing that matters most? It’s Jesus.

At the house of Martha and Mary, Martha is worried about many things (in a practical sense, her list of essentials), while Mary sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to him. She focuses on one thing, and Jesus affirms her for that (Luke 10:39-42).

This one thing isn’t baptism. It’s not saying a certain prayer or joining a church. It’s not witnessing or tithing. It’s not going to church on Sunday or taking communion. It’s not reading a certain version of the Bible or being filled with the Holy Spirit. And it’s not going through a class or completing a spiritual rite of passage.

It’s Jesus.

Jesus is the one thing, the one faith essential.

The Thirty-Seven Parables of Jesus

Jesus uses narrative to inform us about his father’s kingdom

The 37 Parables of JesusJesus uses parables—“an earthly story with a heavenly meaning,” as I learned in Sunday school—to teach us about the kingdom of God. We are part of the kingdom of God, and we need to do a better job of acting like it. Since Jesus talks much about the kingdom of God and next to nothing about church, perhaps we need to more seriously consider the kingdom of God as the basis for our behaviors, attitudes, and priorities.

Some of Jesus’s parables appear in two or three of the biographies of Jesus, and others, in just one. Interestingly, John does not include any parables in his biography of Jesus. Here are the parables the Bible records for us, along with a brief summary for each one:

The Sower: The farmer plants seeds. Some grow and produce a yield, but some don’t (Luke 8:5–8, Matthew 13:3–9, Mark 4:3–9).

The Lamp under a Bushel: People don’t turn on a light only to cover it (Luke 8:16–18, Matthew 5:14–15, Mark 4:21–25).

New Wine and Old Wineskins: Putting fresh wine in old wineskins will break the skins and spill the wine (Luke 5:37–39, Matthew 9:17, Mark 2:21–22).

The Fig Tree: A budding fig tree signals the approach of spring (Luke 21:29–33, Matthew 24:32–35, Mark 13:28–31).

The Wicked Tenants: Farmers rent a vineyard but refuse to pay their landlord and are punished in the end (Luke 20:9–16, Matthew 21:33–41, Mark 12:1–9).

The Mustard Seed: A mustard seed is small but produces a large tree (Luke 13:18–19, Matthew 13:31–32, Mark 4:30–32).

The Faithful Servant: A good servant is always ready and will be rewarded (Luke 12:35–48, Matthew 24:42–51, Mark 13:34–37).

The Strong Man: A strong man can protect his house, but a stronger man can overpower him (Matthew 12:29-32, Mark 3:27-29, Luke 11:21–23).

The Wise and Foolish Builders: Wise people build their house on a stable foundation (Luke 6:46–49, Matthew 7:24–27).

The Minas: Some servants invest their master’s money and earn a profit for him, but not all of them do (Luke 19:12–27, Matthew 25:14–30).

The Lost Sheep / the Good Shepherd: A shepherd leaves his flock to search for one sheep that wanders off (Luke 15:4–6, Matthew 18:10–14).

The Great Banquet: Some people miss a great feast because they’re too busy, and others take their place (Luke 14:15–24, Matthew 22:1–14).

The Leaven: A little bit of yeast makes dough rise (Luke 13:20–21, Matthew 13:33).

The Two Debtors: The person forgiven of the greater debt is more appreciative (Luke 7:41–43).

The Pharisee and the Publican: One man exalts himself before others, while another humbles himself before God (Luke 18:9–14).

The Evil Judge: A judge eventually gives a poor woman justice to stop her from bugging him (Luke 18:1–8).

The Master and Servant: Servants work and do their jobs without receiving thanks or honor (Luke 17:7–10).

The Unjust Steward: A man about to lose his job abuses his authority to gain favor from others (Luke 16:1–13).

The Rich Man and Lazarus: The poor Lazarus dies and goes to heaven; a rich man dies and goes to hell (Luke 16:19–31).

The Lost Coin: A woman loses one coin and diligently searches until she finds it (Luke 15:8–9).

The Prodigal Son / the Lost Son: One son is dutiful; the other son leaves home, wastes his money, and returns home in defeat, but receives a party from his dad (Luke 15:11–32).

The Wedding Feast: People assume a place of honor at a party and are embarrassed; others don’t and are elevated (Luke 14:7–14).

Counting the Cost: Don’t build a building if you’re not sure you can pay for it; don’t go to war unless you think you can win (Luke 14:28–33).

The Barren Fig Tree: A fig tree that produces no fruit receives a second chance, but not endless chances (Luke 13:6–9).

The Rich Fool: A rich man built bigger barns to store his wealth so he could take it easy, but he died the next day (Luke 12:16–21).

The Friend at Night: A man pounds on his neighbor’s door for help in the middle of the night (Luke 11:5–8).

The Good Samaritan: A man goes to great risk to help another in need (Luke 10:25–37).

The Tares: Weeds grow in the field and will be separated from the grain and then burned after the harvest (Matthew 13:24–30).

The Pearl: A man sells everything to buy a pearl of great value (Matthew 13:45–46).

Drawing in the Net: All fish are caught in a fishnet. The good ones are kept and the bad ones discarded (Matthew 13:47–50).

The Hidden Treasure: A man discovers buried treasure and then buys the property so he can have it (Matthew 13:44).

The Unforgiving Servant: A man is punished after he is forgiven of a large debt but then refuses to forgive a small debt owed to him (Matthew 18:23–35).

The Workers in the Vineyard: All men receive a full day’s wage regardless of how many hours they work (Matthew 20:1–16).

The Two Sons: One son tells his father he won’t work and then does; the other son promises to work and then doesn’t (Matthew 21:28–32).

The Ten Virgins: Ten girls anticipate a party. Some are prepared to wait and they get in; the ones who aren’t prepared miss out. (Matthew 25:1–13).

The Sheep and the Goats: A shepherd separates his sheep from his goats (Matthew 25:31–46).

The Growing Seed: A man plants seeds, but he can’t control what happens to them (Mark 4:26–29).

A synopsis of each parable is given, but their meanings are for you to consider. May each one guide us into living the life Jesus wishes us to live.

Will We Act Boldly For God in the Face of Fear?

Ananias obeys God to heal Saul who wants to arrest him

I like the story of Saul’s conversion in the book of Acts, turning him from a murderous bigot into a passionate follower of Jesus. A flash of light, a voice from heaven. It has all the makings of a great story. In this account, God is the hero, and Saul is the focus, but an essential, though minor, character is Ananias. Without Ananias, Paul’s transformation would have been incomplete. Without Ananias, Saul would have floundered.

You see, after the flash of light and the booming voice of God, Saul is left sightless and befuddled. God then appears to Ananias in a dream. He says, “Go find Saul—the man who is here to arrest you and your friends for your faith—and heal him.”

It sounds like a trap to me, a ruse of Saul’s making. Though Ananias does object, God shows him the big picture, and then he obeys. From a human standpoint, Ananias takes a huge personal risk. All evidence suggests he will be the next follower of Jesus thrown into the pokey. From a human perspective the safe thing, the wise course of action, would be to ignore God, forget about Saul, and leave town.

To be completely honest, I fear I would have done just that. But Ananias doesn’t. He boldly does what God tells him to do and heals Saul. As a result of Ananias’s obedience, Saul, later known as Paul, becomes the most traveled missionary in the early church and its most prolific writer.

Thank you Jesus, thank you Paul, and thank you Ananias.

[Read through the New Testament of the Bible with us this year. Today’s reading is Acts 9, and today’s post is on Acts 9:10-17.]

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12 Key Truths about the Kingdom of God

Consider the kingdom of God as the ultimate church model

12 Key Truths about the Kingdom of GodLast Sunday we pointed out that Jesus taught about the kingdom of God but we made a church. The Bible records Jesus talking about the kingdom of God (and the comparable phrase, kingdom of heaven) eighty-five times. Jesus only mentions church three times.

To guide how we should function as his followers today, we must consider what Jesus says about the kingdom of God. Here are twelve key truths about the kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God:

1) Is Close: A dozen times or more Jesus proclaims the present reality of the kingdom of God. He says it is near (Luke 10:11), it is upon you (Luke 11:20), and in your midst (Luke 17:21). It happened in that generation (Luke 21:32), and some saw it before they died (Luke 9:27).

2) Belongs to Us: Jesus tells his disciples that the kingdom of God has been given to them (Mark 4:11). As his followers today, his modern-day disciples, that truth extends to us. Another time Jesus tells the crowd that the kingdom of God belongs to them (Luke 6:20). Here he specifically connects with poor people, but aren’t most all of us poor in this world? (And if we consider ourselves rich, see #3.)

3) Is an Enigma: The kingdom of God is hard to understand (Luke 8:10), happens while we are alive (Luke 9:27), and goes against our sense of order (Luke 13:30). It can’t be seen (Luke 17:20), is hard for the wealthy to grasp (Luke 18:18-24), and is a secret to many (Mark 4:11). Yep, the kingdom of God is very much an enigma, but we need to try to understand it. With the Holy Spirit’s help, we can.

4) Has Different Priorities: The kingdom of God is more important than anything else (Luke 9:60-62), which includes church, by the way. In the kingdom of God we will have spiritual greatness (Luke 7:28) and experience the first being last and the last being first (Luke 13:30); see #3 enigma.

5) Provides Great Reward: What we give up for the kingdom of God will be given back many times over in eternity (Luke 18:29-30).

6) Requires Total Commitment: We need to remove anything that holds us back from the kingdom of God (Mark 9:47) and give up things that seem important (Mark 10:29), but when we do there will be a great return.

7) Represents Good News: Jesus says the kingdom of God is good news (Luke 4:43, Luke 8:1), which he shares with others. We should do the same; see #8.

8) Must be Shared: Not only does Jesus share the good news of the kingdom of God, but he wants us to do the same (Luke 8:1) and as we go, he expects us to heal people (Luke 9:2). Yep, the kingdom of God is about supernatural healing; see #9.

9) Includes Miracles: Part of the kingdom of God is healing (Luke 9:11, Luke 9:2, Luke 10:9) and driving out demons (Luke 11:20, Matthew 12:28). Don’t skip this part. The Bible says these supernatural feats are part of the kingdom of God package. And don’t we want the total package?

10) Offers a Huge Impact: The kingdom of God may start out small, but it grows into something significant (Luke 13:18-20), just like a tiny mustard seed and yeast. But the growth part is not our responsibility. God handles that (Mark 4:26-29).

11) Is Open for All and Inclusive: People will flock from all parts of life to be part of the kingdom of God (Luke 13:29), especially those on the outside (Luke 14:15-24). Plus it’s open for kids and those with childlike faith (Luke 18:16-17, Mark 10:14); see #12.

12) Is Counterintuitive: The kingdom of God is hard to enter (Matthew 19:24, Luke 13:23-30), especially for those who place their trust in money (Luke 18:25, Mark 10:17-25). Some of the people we most expect to be part of the kingdom of God will miss out (Luke 13:28, Matthew 21:31) as others take their place (Matthew 21:43, Luke 14:15-24). Being part of the kingdom of God requires we experience a new birth (John 3:3-6), a spiritual rebirth, which requires a simple, unwavering child-like faith (Mark 10:15).

There’s more, but this will get us started.

How can these teachings from Jesus inform how we act today as his followers? This should change everything, but will we let it?

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3 Lessons from the Early Church

Dr. Luke describes 3 characteristics of the Acts 4 church

3 Lessons from the Early ChurchThe book of Acts unfolds as an historical narrative of the early church, the activities of the first followers of Jesus and those who join them. For the most part, Acts simply describes what happens, with little commentary and few instructions for proper conduct.

While we can look to Acts as a possible model for church life, we would be in error to treat it as a requirement for right behavior. In this way Acts can inform us today, but it doesn’t command us. For example, if I wrote, “My church went to a baseball game after the service,” no one (I hope) would think I was saying that attending baseball games is prescriptive of church life. No. It was merely descriptive of what one church did one time. We would never build our theology on a statement like that.

So it is with the book of Acts. Yet we can learn from it. Luke writes three things about that church:

Unity: The Acts 4 church is of one heart and mind, just as Jesus prayed that we would be one (John 17:21). Their actions are consistent with Jesus’s prayer. Jesus prayed it, and the early church does it; I hope unity describes every one and every church.

Community Minded: In the Acts 4 church, no one claims their possessions as their own. It isn’t my things and your things; it is our things. They have a group mentality and act in the community’s best interest. While we might do well to hold our possessions loosely, notice that this isn’t a command; they just do it out of love.

Willing to Share: Last, the Acts 4 church shares everything they have. Not some things, not half, but all. This would be a hard thing for many in our first-world churches to do today but not so much in third-world congregations. Again, this isn’t a command (and later on Peter confirms that sharing resources is optional, Acts 5:4); it is just a practice that happens at this moment of time in the early church.

While these three characteristics should inspire us to think and behave differently, and can provide a model for church life, we need to remember that the Bible gives us no commands to pursue a communal-type church. We can, but it’s one option. Of the three only unity rises as an expectation because Jesus yearns for it to be so. That should give us plenty to do.

[Read through the New Testament of the Bible with us this year. Today’s reading is Acts 4, and today’s post is on Acts 4:32.]

Jesus Talked about the Kingdom of God and We Made a Church

What if Jesus never intended his followers to form a church as we know it today?

Jesus Talked about the Kingdom of God and We Made a ChurchI looked at where the Bible talks about the kingdom of God and where it talks about church. What I learned is shocking.

These are New Testament Considerations: Both the church and the kingdom of God (along with the kingdom of Heaven) are New Testament concepts. None of these terms occur in the Old Testament. Since Jesus comes to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17), the kingdom of God must be one way he intends to do so.

Jesus Teaches about the Kingdom of God, not Church: Jesus talks much about the kingdom of God (Heaven) and little about the church: fifty-four times versus three. Clearly Jesus focuses his teaching on the kingdom of God. If the kingdom of God is so important to Jesus, it should be important to us as well.

A Change Occurs in Acts: A transition of emphasis happens in the book of Acts, with twenty-one mentions of church and only six mentions of the kingdom of God. Early on Jesus’s followers shift their focus from the kingdom of God to the church. This is logical because a church is a tangible result while the kingdom of God is a more ethereal concept. But just because this is a logical shift, that doesn’t make it right.

Jesus’s Followers Focus on Church: The rest of the New Testament (Romans through Revelation) emphasizes church over the kingdom of God: ninety times versus eight. Even though the early followers of Jesus favor the practice of church over the concept of the kingdom of God, the fact remains that their practice of church then is far different from ours today.

Today’s church should push aside her traditions and practices to replace them with what Jesus teaches about the kingdom of God. It will change everything.

(Here’s the background:

The word church occurs 114 times in the Bible, all in the New Testament. Of the four accounts of Jesus, church only occurs in Matthew and then just three times. Acts, the book about the early church, mentions church twenty-one times. The word church occurs in the majority of the rest of the New Testament books (fifteen of them).

Instead of church, Jesus talks about the kingdom of God. The phrase, kingdom of God, occurs sixty-eight times in the Bible, again, all in the New Testament. The majority of occurrences are in the four biographies of Jesus, accounting for fifty-four of its sixty-eight appearances. Acts mentions the kingdom of God six times, with only eight occurrences popping up in the rest of the New Testament.

Matthew generally writes using the kingdom of Heaven instead of the kingdom of God. He uses kingdom of Heaven thirty-one times and is the only writer in the Bible to use this phrase. By comparing parallel passages in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we see the same account with the only difference being that Matthew writes kingdom of Heaven whereas Mark and Luke use kingdom of God. Clearly Matthew, the only biblical writer to use kingdom of Heaven, equates it to kingdom of God. Additionally Matthew uses the kingdom of God five times.)

A Criminal Makes a Deathbed Confession

While we shouldn’t wait to follow Jesus, it’s nice to know that he’ll give us up to the last minute to make a decision

A Criminal Makes a Deathbed ConfessionIn Luke’s biography of Jesus, the author sometimes shares details not found in the Bible’s other three accounts of Jesus’s life. One such example is about the two criminals who are executed with Jesus. One of them mocks Jesus, but the other one doesn’t. Instead this second criminal rebukes the first. He says knock it off. We’re guilty and getting what we deserve, but Jesus is innocent.

Then the man makes a simple request of Jesus: remember me in your kingdom. What a simple statement, one filled with faith. This man, whose life is about to end because of a serious wrong he has committed, knows there is something more awaiting him after death. Yet through no merit of his own and with nothing he can do to earn it, he asks Jesus to be part of Jesus’s future kingdom. It’s bold, and it’s sincere.

Jesus could have said, “Sorry man, but you messed up.” But no. Instead Jesus lovingly says “Yes!” And not only is the answer affirmative, but it is also timely. Jesus says, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

How cool is that?

While we can wait until the last minute and make a deathbed conversion with full confidence that Jesus will say yes, the risk is too great. We don’t know when our last breath will come and if we’ll have time to ask Jesus to remember us.

So don’t put it off. Follow Jesus today so you can live for him in this life and live with him in paradise in the next.

[Read through the New Testament of the Bible with us this year. Today’s reading is Luke 23, and today’s post is on Luke 23:39-43.]

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Do We Need to Rethink How We Pray?

Whether we pray often or seldom, we have likely fallen into unexamined habits

Do We Need to Rethink How We Pray?How do you begin your prayers?

What is your common salutation? It might be “Heavenly Father . . .” or perhaps “Father God . . . ” or maybe “Dear God . . . ”  (How about, “Hey, God. It’s me again.”) The Lord’s Prayer opens with “Our Father in heaven,” which is a good model to follow (Matthew 6:9). Some people open with “Dear Jesus . . . ” Have you ever addressed your prayers to the Holy Spirit? He is part of the triune God, after all.

When you finish praying, how do you conclude?

Some traditions end with “In Jesus’s name we pray, amen.” This aligns with what Jesus taught us (John 14:13). Other traditions take their cue from Matthew 28:19 and wrap up with “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, amen.” Some use the shortcut of just “Amen.” (What about just saying “Bye” or “Catch you later,” which is how we talk to other people. Prayer, after all, is conversation.)

What does amen mean, anyway?

The Amplified Bible suggests it implies “So be it” or May it be so.” Saying one of these declarations to end our prayers may get us out of the rut of concluding with a rote “Amen,” but it usually confounds anyone listening to us.

And what should we say in the middle portion of our prayers?

Sometimes I direct my communications with God to specific parts of the godhead according to the character or role of each. For example, I can praise Father for creating me, Jesus for saving me, and Holy Spirit for guiding me. Or I can ask Papa to bless me, the Son to be with me, and the Spirit to inspire me. Doing this helps me see God in fresh, new ways; it enables me to better connect and be more real in my communications with God.

But what if I error and address the wrong aspect of God? It’s happened, but I don’t think it matters to God because Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all the same God, the great three in one (consider 1 John 5:7).

The point is to stop praying words out of habit and think about why we say what we say when we talk to God. He deserves our full attention, so we should avoid using thoughtless words.

So be it.