Friday, August 31, 2012

The Big Question - September 2, 2012

Acts 16:30 - And after he brought them out, he said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
Having recently returned from an evangelistic outreach in Guatemala, I am still pondering the question which we asked day after day to the locals of this Latin American country. While the Philippian jailer begged an answer from Paul and Silas, as stated in our lead verse, the Guatemalan people were presented with an equally probing question regarding their own salvation. The tracts we distributed with the help of our translators were entitled "La Gran Prequnta" or, translated, "The Big Question." Our question was not unlike the interrogative asked by missionaries from Paul to the present day: "If you were to die right now, where would you spend eternity?" Few we asked were certain of their eternal security. Most answered that they truthfully did not know. This uncertainty, along with their permission, gave us the opportunity to show these lovely people from Scripture how they might know with certainty their eternal home would be with Jesus. For many, it was the first time they had ever heard of the free gift of salvation and the Gospel of grace. Our discourses usually went something like the following as we pointed them down the Romans Road toward salvation.
Romans 3:10 - "As it is written, 'There is none righteous, not even one.'" Our opening salvo would generally isolate the entire human race in sin by having them read this scripture and the following in Romans 3:23 - "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." These two verses create a wall of separation between God and man without hope of surmounting in our own power (Isaiah 59;2).
Hopelessness becomes acute without the possibility of redemption on our own behalf. In the next scripture, we recognize what we deserve is death. However, there is the wonderful, beautiful word "but" that Paul uses to relate the pardon which God offers to all through His Son's death in Romans 6:23 - "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." The mercy and grace of God is further explained in Romans 5:8 - "But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." No more do we have to live under the power of sin, for Jesus Christ came as our Savior and gave us the gift of salvation.
At this point, the Philippian jailer as well as many Guatemalans we spoke with came to the same point of wonder: "What must I do to be saved?" As Paul stated to the jailer---and we to the Guatemalans---it was now a matter of acceptance through faith. Paul told the jailer to believe in the Lord Jesus and he and his household would be saved (Acts 16:31). We directed the Guatemalans to do likewise as they read how Paul instructed the church at Rome in Romans 10:9-10 - "that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation." For those who desired to enter into eternal life, we stressed the importance of praying a prayer of surrender, repentance, and acceptance of Jesus as their personal Savior. Most of the prayers went something like this: "Lord Jesus, thank You for dying for me. I am sorry for my sins and I do not want to sin anymore. I surrender my life to You. Give me the power to live for You. I accept Your gift of salvation and thank You for Your love for me. In Jesus' Name, Amen."

Many accepted the Lord during our time in Guatemala. The local church will continue to follow up with these. My question to you is ... Have you accepted the Savior and His free gift of salvation? Please allow me to review from Scripture who we are without Christ, and who we can be by accepting Him into our lives:
  • Romans 3:10 - As it is written, "There is none righteous, not even one."
  • Romans 3:23 - for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
  • Romans 6:23 - For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
  • Romans 5:8 - But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
  • Romans 10:9-10 - that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.
We must all answer the big question, one way or another. If we desire assurance of our salvation, and are sorry for our sin, we should consider the following and pray:
Lord Jesus, thank You for dying for me. I am sorry for my sins and I do not want to sin anymore. I surrender my life to You. Give me the power to live for You. I accept Your gift of salvation and thank You for Your love for me. In Jesus' Name, Amen.
Your Barefoot Servant,
Rick

  
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Friday, August 24, 2012

Chronic Injury - August 26, 2012

Luke 10:19 - Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing will injure you.

When I was a kid, it seemed like I was regularly in the emergency room. Though never admitted into a hospital for surgery or long-term physical treatment, I had plenty of occasions where I required stitches. These were generally from carelessness and not watching what I was doing. Once, a ladder that was leaned up against our two-story clubhouse blew over and crashed into my head. Fifteen stitches were the result of not watching what was going on around me. Another time, I was walking down a set of steps on a slide. I slipped and a bolt protruding at the bottom ripped my leg open where a dozen or so stitches were needed. I could relate many other instances, but the two mentioned will make my point. If I had paid better attention to my surroundings and not tempted fate by my carelessness, then things would have undoubtedly turned out differently. As I grew older, I learned important lessons in this regard. If we learn to heed warnings and obey common sense, then we generally are safe in our surroundings. However, if we take chances and go against better judgment, then the opposite can and often does occur.

I should clarify that taking chances is not necessarily wrong. Often, we must step out and take calculated risks in our personal lives. Businesses would never prosper without a certain amount of anticipated jeopardy as they invest capital to create more wealth. Similarly, we must weigh the possibility of personal loss and gain as we make a myriad of decisions daily. The key is to minimize loss. If we operate within safe boundaries, we will often achieve this goal. However, once we step out of obedience regarding known wisdom, then we allow ourselves to be subject to personal harm. That is why most financial planners suggest a long-term strategy for growing assets. Small rather than large adjustments can be made along the way without dramatic changes to a wealth portfolio. As with business, this paradigm is also true in the spiritual realm regarding building spiritual affluence. It often comes as a result of slow, methodical growth through faith and obedience. The spiritual rocket fuel in this equation is generally God's wisdom.

As our lead verse states, Jesus has granted His disciples "authority to tread on serpents and scorpions." However, authority is often different than permission to act. Just because we have the right does not necessarily mean we have allowed faith and obedience to mature us to the point of victory in a given situation. The seven sons of Sceva learned this the hard way. While they mentally understood there was power in the Name of Jesus, they did not possess the faith generated by heart wisdom. Therefore, this presumptive exorcism was a case of blatant disobedience grounded in unbelief, leading to their injuries as the demons shamed them (see Acts 19:13-16). However, in another instance, John reported to Jesus how someone was casting out demons in the Name of Jesus and how the disciples attempted to stop him because he was not following them. Jesus tells John to leave him be, saying that if he was not against them he was for them (Acts 19:13-16). In other words, I believe the Lord was saying if he is operating in faith and obedience with heart wisdom, that he was fulfilling the authority of Christ through faith and obedience. This man understood his influence over Satan's realm through Christ's Name and he obviously stepped out in faith and obedience to demonstrate it.

Whether we believe the Lord's statement regarding our position in Him is superfluous regarding the reality. As the Lord told His disciples, we all have the authority to exercise our rights over Satan's kingdom. Yet, do we have the wisdom that is born out of faith and obedience through our daily walk? The reason why many Christians are continually getting injured by the enemy is because of their supposed faith not working through obedience. As the sons of Sceva, we want to rush out and do great things for God without a depth of relationship. (When Paul was exorcising demons at the church of Ephesus, he had been walking with the Lord Jesus for at least 20 years!) Once we choose to obey God, He will begin to work within us the faith to remove mountains (see Luke 17:5-10). Faith of this type may take years to mature. However, once we start obeying, trust becomes evident, whereby faith can grown and flow. Injury -- physically, emotionally, or spiritually -- is not the heritage of a child of God. It usually comes through unbelief rooted in sentimentality -- that God is not able to do what He says or through presumption when we get ahead of God's wisdom. May we all lean to trust and obey and allow faith to grow, healing all perceived injuries as we trample the enemy of our souls.

Heavenly Father, may our faith and obedience grow with wisdom to use Your authority as You direct. May we never get ahead of you in presumptive arrogance, nor behind you in unbelief due to lack of wisdom. Give us the spiritual knowledge to walk with You, treading down the kingdom of darkness. In Jesus' Name, Amen.

Your Barefoot Servant,

Rick


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Friday, August 17, 2012

Church Growth - August 19, 2012

Acts 9:31 - So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase.

Throughout the years, I have attended several different churches. Some of these were large and some quite small. A few were traditional but the majority were of a non-denominational "flavor." I can think of a couple in Texas and some in Missouri which have continued to grow in both numbers and the ministries they provide to their communities and the world at large. However, there are others that have remained static or are even diminished in both their congregation size and their impact on their respective areas. While there are many reasons why churches do not seem to grow both in numbers and influence, there are reasons from both religious polling and the word of God that might give us pause regarding why this is so.

According to a 2003 Barna Research Group study regarding the theolographic (spiritual beliefs and practices) limitations of churches with less than a 100 parishioners, the following polling data regarding church size was compiled which "... reflect challenges that are less prevalent in larger congregations."

The data revealed that small churches have a lower proportion of attenders who are "spiritually active," which was defined as individuals who attend a church service, read the Bible, and pray to God during a typical week. This paralleled a finding that showed small church attenders are less likely to claim that their religious faith is "very important" in their life. In addition, the research showed that adults affiliated with small congregations are less likely to be born again, less likely to believe in salvation by grace alone (i.e., not by good deeds), and less likely to have an orthodox view of God (i.e., holy, creator, ruler of the universe, alive today). The report indicated that such views undermine a solid theological foundation for congregational growth and may suggest that other spiritual perspectives that conflict with the Bible are common in smaller churches.

While Barna's research provides a contemporary view into growth dynamics of smaller churches versus larger congregations, it is important to look at the word of God why this might be the case. In the aforementioned report, the pollster states education and economic status are also factors. However, I believe Luke gives us some insight in the book of Acts that possibly benchmark these survey findings with God's word. As our lead verse states, the church enjoyed peace after Paul's conversion, "... going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit." It would seem these are inseparable commodities regarding church growth, if we understand their importance to a healthy, growing congregation. First of all, it is relevant to acknowledge that churches will generally produce more parishioners after their own kind. (The metaphor holds true that oak trees will produce more oak trees via acorns.) So, if church people are continually taught the fear of the Lord is the way to keep away from sin, then these will be less likely to create factious schisms through unrepented lives (Proverbs 14:27). For instance, husbands and wives will remain in faithful relationships and children will learn the wisdom of obedience. Secondly, when members and attenders fear the Lord, they will seek instruction, not only from the Lord but from those gifted in the local body to teach (Proverbs 1:7). Therefore, they will more than likely find their place in the body and function according to their individual gifts. This is the "comfort of the Holy Spirit," when parishioners can find where they are jointly fit within the church and respond in obedience to the Holy Spirit's guidance. Rather than quenching or grieving the Spirit, they are then working along side the Comforter, bringing aid to the church. Of course, this finds great favor with both God and men.

 The purpose of this writing is not to judge anyone and the size of congregation they might attend. It is meant to challenge anyone who does not feel as they are growing in parallel with their church. If growth has stopped, both individually and congregationally, it is time to reassess where we fellowship. If we can be part of the solution, helping our body to grow through the fear of the Lord and through the equipping of the saints (comfort of the Holy Spirit), then we should by all means be that support. However, if others within the local body are comfortable in the problem and the church continues to die, then it may be time to move on. If we are not individually functioning in the fear of the Lord and the Holy Spirit's comfort, then it is superfluous to believe we are not providing assisted suicide to our local gathering of believers. Whether we stay or go, let us bring life through our personal relationship to strengthen our local body and bring the church, as a whole, closer to the calling the Lord desires.

Heavenly Father, may we individually live in the fear of the Lord, causing Your Holy Spirit to have His way in our lives. May we then collectively take Your message to our community, city, country, and the world as we join together to share the word of hope to a dying world. In Jesus' Name, Amen.

Your Barefoot Servant,

Rick



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Friday, August 10, 2012

Holy Despair - August 12, 2012

Matthew 5:48 - Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Upon visiting Israel last year and seeing the supposed site of the Sermon on the Mount outside of Capernaum, my imagination has often taken me to that hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee. By the time Jesus spoke to this conflux of persons, His notoriety had grown conspicuously. While no one knows for certain, it is possible the "crowd" He referred to in Matthew 5:1 could be as few as a hundred or possibly in the thousands. Regardless, any number of hills around Galilee's sea would have provided ample room for scores to leisurely recline in the grass and listen to this itinerant preacher from Nazareth. I cannot help but believe they were in no way prepared for what they would hear that day. Beginning with the Beatitudes, Jesus turned the religious order of the day on their proverbial ear by declaring many opposites regarding what the people had been taught by the Levitical order. Strength of spirit had always been a sign of spiritual prosperity to the Jews. Yet, Jesus was telling them in His first declaration, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God." (Matthew 5:2) He continues with a seeming contradiction regarding what the Jews regarded as a sign of a healthy soul --- the presence of joy. In Matthew 5:3 He tells them how blessed is the man who mourns over their sin, because they will be comforted. These are just two examples of how Jesus knocks the props out from underneath what the Jews considered to make them right with God.

While the Beatitudes were meant to right the capsized ship of religion in their lives, the Sermon on the Mount went into specifics on how this would occur. Early in chapter five of Matthew's Gospel, Jesus tells the crowds it is not their responsibility to fulfill the law, but it was His. In Matthew 5:17 He states: “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill." This is the theme of the Sermon on the Mount which is concluded with our lead verse of Matthew 5:48: "Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Perfection is the only thing Jesus was aiming at, and He knew He was the only One capable of living it. Probably, at this point in His sermon, they were still unaware of what the Lord was requiring of them. If they were sensing despair because of His radical requirements, His statement of fulfilling the law should have brought them great hope. However, I just wonder how many truly understood what Christ was saying? Jesus went on to explain Himself by way of example in the following verses, using the phrase "You have heard that it was said." He uses this figure of speech five times before the end of chapter five to segue by way of juxtaposition regarding how they assumed God's law applied to their life and their reality. For instance, not only should a man not commit adultery, but to look at a woman in a lustful manner makes him guilty without the physical act (Matthew 5:27). Additionally, Jesus gives them another lesson in not hating their enemies, but instead loving those who mistreat them (Matthew 5:43). These ideas were undoubtedly diametric to all the people had been taught by their religious leaders. For some, it most assuredly brought a despair of ever being able to fulfill this "new law" which Jesus seemed to be preaching. However, for others it more than likely had the opposite effect.

Later in His ministry, Jesus encountered the rich young ruler, who was atypical of many Jews of that time who believed they kept the law. However, when he met Jesus and the Lord told him to sell all his possessions and come follow Him, it created a huge disappointment in the young man. Mark 10:22 states: "But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property." This wealthy ruler had set His beliefs on the fallacy of doing good, rather than being good. Jesus was telling him the way to get free, which was surrendering all the world has to offer and to come follow Him. However, the despair of the thought of relinquishing all of his securities deeply saddened him. He knew he was incapable of such sacrifice. Likewise, there were many who listened to Jesus throughout His three year ministry -- from the Sermon on the Mount until His last week in Jerusalem -- who could not turn toward the Savior because of their need to cling to their old way of thinking. They would not allow that holy despair which the Holy Spirit imparts to have its way in their hearts, convincing them they could never fulfill the law and trusting Jesus to do so in their stead. However, for those who understood---allowing the disappointment of their feeble efforts of pleasing God to work as a catalyst to propel them to God and His mercy---these are the ones who would find life eternal as they allowed their souls to mourn and to be ultimately comforted by God.

The requirements for us today are no different. We must be perfect, even as our Heavenly Father is perfect. When we finally embrace this reality and allow the Holy Spirit to mourn with us over our sin, then we can truly surrender to the Lord and be comforted in His salvation. True godly hope through Jesus' promise of giving us His perfect life will never disappoint, for His love will be shed abroad in our hearts (Romans 5:5). While the Sermon on the Mount was truly radical to the sensibilities of those who sought to justify themselves in God's eyes in first century Palestine, it is equally offensive to most in our modern time. We feel uncomfortable talking about mourning over our sin, or allowing God's holy despair to show us our complete inability to save ourselves. However, when we do, He is faithful to comfort and bring great joy to those who would trust in His perfect work in our lives. May we all surrender to Him, knowing that to mourn with the Holy Spirit over our sin means we will have peace beyond comprehension.

Heavenly Father, may You give us Your holy despair producing within us godly sorrow and true repentance. Through our despair, make us joyful sons and daughter of the Most High. Grant us Your understanding over our sin, so that we might partake of the goodness of Your salvation. In Jesus' Name, Amen.

Your Barefoot Servant,

Rick




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Friday, August 3, 2012

Eye on the Prize - August 5, 2012

Psalm 123:2 - Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, until He is gracious to us.

To be certain, there is a difference between fine and elegant dining. Most of us have experienced the former. This usually entails an upscale restaurant where we are waited on by a waiter or waitress. This particular employee is generally serving our table along with a few other patrons at the same time. However, elegant dining is different. If we have not experienced it in person, we have probably seen a characterization on a TV program or in a movie. There is usually a head waiter and a staff of underling waiters who wait specifically on one party of persons, whether that be two or twenty. The underlings are generally invisible until the moment someone in the party nods for more wine or for their dish to be cleared. This gesture is normally done to the head waiter, who then accompanies his or her subordinate with whatever is needed. While the underling waiter pours more wine or serves in some other manner in silence, the head waiter will come along side and make sure all of the party is waited on properly. The head waiter will be the only one who dares speak to the guests, but only as necessary. Once the service has been accomplished, both the head waiter and the underling staff will retreat to the background and await further instructions. This staff of waiters, led by the head waiter, have set their goal not to be seen as good waiters, but rather to offer extraordinary service to their guests. Individual charm or beauty becomes superfluous if they have not served with passionate grace regarding their collective duties.

As our lead verse states, our attitude toward Jesus our Master should be similar to the example concerning elegant dining. There are many who would preach to us their brand of Christianity, saying we must accomplish this and that for the Lord and seek to satisfy Him by all our "doing." This can be analogous to fine dining, in that we often try to serve this group or that, or run after this ministry or another, thinking we are serving the Lord. Sometimes, we can get so busy like dear Martha that we forget what are the most important things (Luke 10:38-42). Serving Christ's disciples both then and now are important. However, if we begin to lose context with the reason or the motive behind our service, then it is time to re-evaluate. If we would take this example into a fine and elegant dining analogy, then we might see Martha running from table to table, trying to please all in attendance. However, I believe Jesus wanted Martha to understand the importance of what it meant to elegantly dine with the Master. Perhaps He was thinking of this very psalm when He mentioned to Martha that she needed to reassess who and why she was serving. Her visibility by her unneeded outburst to the Lord regarding her sister Mary was not characteristic of "elegant dining." She should have been watching her Lord much like the head waiter, anticipating Jesus' queue regarding how she was to wait upon Him. Martha had unfortunately thought the prize was in the serving when in reality the prize was the resultant praise (or rebuke in her case) of the One she served.

Mary lived and loved simply, as her sister Martha hopefully attained. Others such as Paul, while scholarly and educated, lived likewise as remonstrated through his writings. In his former life, he served his Pharisaic community with an eye on self-promotion, resulting in commotion in the church through his persecutions. However, he had missed the point of devotion---not to a culture but to his Creator, nor to a lifestyle but to the Life Giver. Once Paul understood with certainty whom he was serving, he became that "apostolic head waiter" that orchestrated love and devotion through those whom he discipled. Everything prior to Paul's conversion, the apostle regarded as futile attempts to know God. However, once he found the Lord, he counted all things rubbish in comparison to knowing Jesus (Philippians 3:8). That is why the apostle stated the prize was not in living out the pharisaical life and attempting to serve God through the law which could never be kept. Instead, it was being a servant to the Master and learning to look to Him and then responding accordingly in a way pleasing to Christ. As Paul states: "I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 3:14) He was no longer looking for praise upon this earth, but he sought the praise of the One who would one day say, "Well done, good and faithful servant. ... Enter into the joy of your Master." (Matthew 25:23)

For those of us who learn to look to the Master upon this earth---like the psalmist, or Mary, or Paul---we too will hear the accolades of Jesus as we enter into His joy. Paul and others stated there was a crown laid up for those who persevered (II Timothy 4:8; James 1:12; Revelation 2:10). However, as Paul, we should regard the prize of the upward call our chief desire, that we please the Lord. As the twenty four elders cast their crowns at Christ's feet, we can better understand the superfluous idea of any recompense we might receive in view of our great reward of serving Christ faithfully. Crowns and rewards may seem moot in the light of His great suffering to receive the reward of His sufferings. At that moment, when we see Him face to face, we will truly understand that we have not worked for a cause or labored for a way of life, but we have served a Beautiful Man who loved us with all of His Being. Our great desire should be to gaze to the Master as those who know nothing about serving, but to have a willing heart to learn from the Great Servant Himself. Only then will we be fulfilling our roles as waiters upon His divine grace.

Gracious Father, Wonderful Master ... Grant us eyes to see You and to wait only upon You. Teach us to serve You first, and then others as You lead and guide. Help us to be faithful, loving servants that desire to catch a glimpse of Your desire and for us to immediately act upon Your direction with passionate devotion. May we all one day hear, "Good and faithful servant" as we run into the arms of the Master. In Jesus' Name, Amen.

Your Barefoot Servant,

Rick


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