Trouble and Gospel Advance

Image result for obstacle in roadOne of the paradoxes of ministry and mission throughout history relates to the unique way that God partners with His people in bringing His purposes to pass.  And while it is clear that He calls individual men and women to specific roles and responsibilities in His kingdom, it is even more essential to understand that it is God Himself who is ultimately the one at work in the entire process, through the entire Church, throughout all time.

“Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else, and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear.” (Philippians 1:12-14)

God’s ways are not our ways.  It was God’s plan in the early days of the church to set the most distinguished leader (and preeminent theologian)  aside, chained in one location, with very limited freedom.  (You may remember that before Paul’s arrest,  prophetic believers in many cities kept telling him that chains awaited him. People interpreted this to mean that Paul should avoid the activities that would make him more vulnerable to arrest – like going to Jerusalem.  But Paul was compelled by the Holy Spirit to NOT play it safe. And he ended up a prisoner in Rome.)

So while most of the church was lamenting Paul’s imprisonment and no doubt praying for his release, Paul comes to see God’s providential hand in it all! Here’s my paraphrase of v.12 above:  “My dear children, you need to stop fretting and realize that God is in full control. My arrest is all part of His miraculous plan to cause the Gospel to penetrate every inch of this empire.”

Notice the two most immediate impacts of Paul’s imprisonment:

1) The elites in Rome got exposed to the Gospel, especially those in Caesar’s security detail and massive network of staff and servants.

2) Other (younger?) leaders who were formerly comfortable in Paul’s shadow now had to step up and lead in Paul’s absence.

Beloved, God has always been able to turn today’s trouble into an opportunity for the “greater progress of the gospel.”  This in part explains why there is often a massive explosion of evangelism where persecution is very strong…and why there is often an explosion of spiritual growth in believers who pass through severe trials.  While American Christians often focus their prayers on personal safety, protection, and constitutional “freedoms”, believers in persecuted nations are praying that Christians in the west experience persecution!  They know how trouble is often essential to the greater progress of the gospel…both in the life of the individual and in the life of the church.

What trials and problems are you facing today, that God may be using to change you and cause the gospel to move into new areas?

The easiest way to become an idolator

idol calf

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord.  “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)

It’s humbling and sobering, if we ever actually come to realize it.  Our minds, unaided by God’s grace and revelation, are massive idol factories.  Just because people don’t claim to be theologians doesn’t mean that they aren’t.

One thing that clearly separates us from the animals is that we live by far more than instinct.  We are haunted by much more than impulses for food, safety and sex. We dream about purpose, significance and honor.  And about where we came from and what happens when we die.  And perhaps even more significant: we are capable of experiencing AWE.

Think of it.  A dog never looks at a sunrise and is suddenly stunned and overwhelmed by a sense of awe.  A fish never looks at its newly hatched offspring and weeps for joy.  The Greek word for “man” (anthropos) means upward looker.

We have both the capacity and motivation to worship.  Everybody does.  And everybody worships…something…or someone.

God says that our thoughts related to these massive questions…are pretty much wrong…unless we get them from Him.  Or stated another way, everyone is a theologian in her/his own mind – just not very good ones.  We have substituted our own fallen and creaturely thoughts for the actual realities that the Creator has established. Some of these thoughts are quite base and dark.  Others are highly cultured and refined. But they are all idolatrous if not from Him.

To think rightly about God we should first look “up”, but we all tend to look “in”. Rather than giving glory to God, we worship the creature.  We make God into our image.

These things you have done, and I have been silent; you thought that I was one like yourself. But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you. (Psalm 50:21)

This is the basic source of all idolatry.  We wrongly define the world, our lives, and who God is.  And we assign faulty values to even the stuff we get more or less right.  Thus we fail to truly see what matters most to Him.

A.W. Tozer said, “Whatever comes into your mind when you think about God is the single most important thing about you…”  Because it has the power to either bring you into a real and healthy relationship with God as He truly is, or to increasingly bring you into the delusion of worshipping a fictitious God, an idol of your own making.

The return to God thus involves a humble quest and a realization that there is much error in our minds regarding Him.  And a willingness for God to confront the wrong thoughts about Him that we have embraced.

So what’s the easiest way to become an idolater?  Do nothing!  Just continue to live as your own authority regarding God.

Prayer:

God, forgive us for the pride of thinking we get to define who You are.  For arrogantly thinking we could whittle you down to suit us and look like us.  Help us to give You the place You deserve in our thoughts and lives.  Give us hearts that desire to truly know You and to submit to Your glorious self-revelation in the Bible and in Your beloved Son, Jesus. Amen. 

The unseen key to many miracles

There’s always more to a miracle than meets the eye.

People often fail to notice the servants who do God’s will.  Through their obedience WaterGod is glorified.  We need look no further than Christ’s first miracle to see this.  The story of His turning water into wine is full of unnoticed factors.  Did you ever think about who actually saw that a miracle had taken place?

The headwaiter thought the bridegroom had simply kept the good wine until the end of the banquet.  Jesus made the bridegroom look fantastic that day!  No doubt, the hundreds of guests praised the bridegroom for his generosity in sharing such a fine wine with all his guests.  The only people who apparently understood the miracle were Jesus, His mother, His disciples, and the ones who listened and obeyed him (the servants).

This was “the beginning of His signs”, in which He, “manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him.” (John 2:11)

A multitude of people benefitted from the miracle and perhaps were intoxicated by its power. But they didn’t see God.

But those who were serving not only saw the miracle, they participated in it!  The six stone pots contained 180 gallons total.  These pots would require dozens of trips to the well to fill. We are not told how many servants were involved or how long the job took. But without their service there would have been no water to turn into wine!

I’m reminded of the story of the death of Lazarus.  The Scripture says that once Jesus had arrived in Bethany and talked with Martha and Mary, that He was “deeply moved” and wept. Then He said, “Remove the stone.”  The Bible says that, “they removed the stone.”  But who “they” were we don’t know!  All we know is that before the multitudes got to see a dead man live again, some servants listened to Jesus and pushed a big rock out of the way. 

The Lord’s glory was seen because of the servants who served.  Maybe miracles are not just about having great faith.  Maybe they are more about humble obedience and servanthood?

I’m sure we’d all love to see more legitimate miracles of biblical proportions.  But who is willing to listen to Jesus before the miracle and pump the water and push the stones?

God’s miracles usually involve someone serving His purposes behind the scenes, providing the prerequisite resources and infrastructure!

There is always more to a miracle than meets the eye! And it’s the servants who pave the way.

Maybe we should ask ourselves a very important question:  Am I available today to be a servant who listens carefully and obeys Jesus before a miracle is seen?  For until we say “Yes!” there may be no miracles.

Leadership Keys from Jesus (p.5)

multiplication

Perhaps some of the most overlooked wisdom of Jesus’ model of ministry is His insistence on multiplication.  We tend to think in terms of “addition”.  Jesus is always thinking in terms of “multiplication.”

We have been considering several important leadership principles reflected in Mark 3:1-4.

Click on the links to go to the earlier posts:  Part 1.    Part 2.    Part 3.    Part 4.

We will conclude this series by reflecting on verse 14:

“And He appointed twelve, so that they would be with Him and that He could send them out to preach…”

God told Adam and Eve, and Noah, and others, to, “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth…”

To “be fruitful” means to reproduce.  God’s desire is that we have offspring and that we expand the influence of His kingdom and blessings in the earth.

Using an illustration of a human family, a husband and wife come together and begin a family.  They have their first baby and add on a small room for the little one.  Later they have another child and add on another room.  Their house gets bigger and bigger as they continue to “bear fruit”.  This is growth by addition.  However, at some point either the biology fails or the funding fails…and the baby pipeline is closed down!

Keeping with the metaphor, good families prepare and train their children to one day step out in faith and obedience and start their own families. This is when the math changes gears: from addition to multiplication.

If parents do not prepare their children to one day, “leave and cleave”, the growth of the family stops. But good parents know that it is God’s design for their children to be sent out to start their own families.  So rather than getting bigger and bigger in one house, we have a vision to multiply the one house into several new houses/families.

The Jesus model of ministry is to spend  a small number years in intentional training and preparation with His disciples, for the express purpose of releasing and sending them out to do in other locations what they have learned to do by His example.

And one of the ways that Jesus insured that this model was embraced was by getting out of the way!

“But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you.” (John 16:7)

It is almost certain that if the disciples were allowed to vote on it, they would have unanimously decided to keep the arrangement just like it presently was, “Jesus, you stay here with us and keep leading us.  We love the way things are right now.”  Of course, Jesus had a destiny to meet with our sin and God’s wrath on the Cross. Which would bring us into a relational oneness with the Father and His purposes that was impossible before the redemption Jesus provided.

And this substitutionary death and resurrection in an incredibly prophetic way speaks to the subject of multiplication!

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)

Jesus understood His mission to be one that would involve personal sacrifice so that multiplication of a great family could happen.

If seed is only harvested and collected in bigger and bigger barns, the most you can ever accomplish is addition.  And pretty soon even the addition will stop.  Because seed must be sown if new harvests are to be grown.

When the seed is drawn from the barn or the sack, and scattered across the field, then the principle of death and resurrection and the fruitfulness of multiplication takes over. The fruit of one plant now reproduces and multiplies itself in many plants in many other fields.

Would you say that your vision for life and ministry has been more about growth by “addition”, or growth by “multiplication”?

 

 

Leadership Keys from Jesus (p.4)

4. He strategically used retreats for His own rest and for the renewal of His team. (Mark 3:13-14)

sabbathPreviously in this series we noted how Jesus claimed to be “Lord of the Sabbath.”  He was criticized severely by the Pharisees for His ministry activity on Sabbath days.  They felt He was defiling the Sabbath.

Far from rejecting the Sabbath, Jesus was actually fulfilling it. He was serving, forgiving, and healing people and setting them free from the massive burdens that sin had created in their lives. He was making it possible for people to actually return to God for a real rest.

And He went up on the mountain and summoned those whom He Himself wanted, and they came to Him. And He appointed twelve, so that they would be with Him…” (vss 13-14)

Going up on the mountain probably served several purposes for Jesus.  First, it got His team away from the crowds, the noise, the unending demands.  Secondly, it physically represented an intentional drawing near to God and a narrowing of focus. There is an incredible message in this for us.

The first calling that Christ’s disciples would hear from Jesus was a calling TO HIMSELF!  He chose them.  He wanted them.  He wanted them to be WITH HIM. This is the first and primary calling of every Christ-follower!

“God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (1 Cor 1:9)

We are not primarily called to work for the Lord.  We are called into fellowship with Him.  And that means we must cease from our own striving and rest in His “finished work”!  Only then, after learning how to be with Him and live in Him, are we prepared to be sent out to work!

It’s quite amazing to realize that Adam was created at the end of the Sixth Day of Creation – so his first full day on earth was the Sabbath.  This means that he began with fellowship with God..not working for God. God worked for six days and then rested.  Adam fellowshipped with God first, then worked!  This is incredible.

I love The Message translation of Matthew 11:28-30:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Keeping the Sabbath Day holy is much more about intentional drawing near to God in fellowship than it is about any particular ritual or regimen.  We need to develop a rhythm of getting alone with Jesus.

A rhythm of proper rest and fellowship with the Lord is essential to effective, powerful, and fruitful ministry.  A Sabbath rhythm might look like setting aside the first hour (or more) of everyday for private prayer, Scripture reading, and meditation.  And setting aside a day of the week for drawing away from the expenditure of precious energy and focusing on rest and fellowship with the Lord.

Anyone who routinely avoids honoring the principle of the Sabbath is asking for a spiritual, emotional, or physical  train wreck.  It is very possible to make an idol out of work and/or ministry and give no real attention to the most important priority of all: fellowship with the Savior!

What is keeping you from experiencing a real Sabbath rest with Jesus?  Is it as simple as lack of intentionality or priorities?  Or is it more serious, something on the inside of you that is avoiding God’s presence?

Please remember that just as Jesus called His first disciples, he also desires and wants you to be with Him as His follower and friend.

Leadership keys from Jesus (p.3)

3. People mattered greatly to Jesus, but their needs did not set the agenda or establish the boundaries for His life and ministry – the Father did. (Mark 3:8-12)

building-plans

Image source. Creative Commons

I believe and have often taught that Jesus is not only our source of salvation but is also our pattern for life and ministry.  But here’s an often missed reality:  while Jesus lived on earth for 33+ years, His public ministry only occurred in the last 10% of His time on earth.  So what did He do in the other 90%?  That’s an important question and one that helps normal everyday children of God find delight in their families, vocations, neighborhoods, etc.

 

Jesus did no miracles for the first 30 years.  But He still manifested the life and love of heaven…daily!  His life and relationships and choices all wonderfully pleased His Father –  PERFECTLY.  Before His public ministry was launched, just after His baptism, the Father said to Him, “You are My beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased.”

Jesus did not promote Himself, His ministry, or supernatural powers…before the Father’s time.  He was content to love people where they were…the way they were…without doing works that would draw great attention to Himself.

But this all changed when the season for His public ministry began.  Crowds began to swamp Him.  In our text we read how He had a get-away plan.  A boat was kept ready so He could escape the crowd if necessary.  Though He was amazingly available to massive numbers of people at times, at other times He actually hid from them.  He often went away to lonely places to pray.

And how about this:  He earnestly told the people to not tell who He was! (v.12)  This is pretty amazing.  It suggests that Jesus was doing crowd control.  And also seeking to not draw so much attention to Himself that the “authorities” would become too concerned too soon.  It also may relate to the physical limitations of His own humanity and that of His inexperienced disciples.

To summarize, we must learn how to allow God Himself to establish our ministry and its boundaries.  We must trust Him for wisdom and anointing to do what He’s called us to do.  But we should also realize we cannot do everything and are  not called to do everything.  We must acknowledge our limitations and set boundaries that are in keeping with the timings and the scope of what God has truly called us to do.

Finally, saying “no” is usually much harder than saying, “yes”, to people.  But our “nos” often define what our God-called boundaries are better than our “yeses” do!

For part 1 in this series click here.    For part 2 click here.

Leadership keys from Jesus (p.2)

Today we will consider the second leadership key from Mark 3:1-15. (Click here to go to Part 1).

2.  Jesus knew when to face His enemies and when to avoid them. (v. 5-7)

The setting was the synagogue in Capernaum. It was a Sabbath day.  There was a crippled man there and the Pharisees were “watching” Him to see if He would heal the man on the Sabbath.  They were looking for grounds to accuse Jesus of being a lawbrstrategyeaker or blasphemer.

The passage says that Jesus was deeply grieved at their hardness of heart. The Pharisees were so committed to their rules and traditions that they had become insensitive to human need and suffering.  Mark tells us that Jesus was angry at these religious leaders.

He could have avoided the conflict and the added opposition…by simply waiting until the following day to address the disabled man’s needs.  But He didn’t.  Jesus, the true Shepherd of the sheep, was moved with compassion for the sufferer and was NOT going to back down from the hard-hearted false shepherds.  So He healed the man and immediately made things even more difficult for Himself.

One of the characteristics of false shepherds is that they use people to promote their own ministries and reputations.  But the true Shepherd uses His ministry to build up and serve the people – even if at great expense to Himself.

Jesus was definitely willing to stand up to His enemies. But He also knew when to avoid conflict and to even flee from it.  Our text reveals that as a result of the healing of the crippled man that the Pharisees began conspiring with the Herodians against Him, as to how they might destroy Him (v.6).  The next verse shows how Jesus faced each situation with wisdom:

“Jesus withdrew to the sea with His disciples…” (v.7)

Jesus left town before the riot could be started.  Several times in the accounts of Jesus’ ministry we see Him slipping away from difficult situations.  He didn’t back down from His opponents – but He chose which battles to fight and which ones to avoid!

He didn’t fight to preserve His reputation in the eyes of men or to win the acceptance of those with self-serving agendas .  But He was willing to face opposition for compassion’s sake, that is, for the sake of suffering people.

More next time.