Saturday, December 10, 2016

"I thank God for you in my prayers ..."

December 11th, Day #346

Scripture Reading:  Philemon …

Is there anyone God has brought into your life who has made such a deep spiritual impact in your life that you regularly thank God for them ... perhaps parents, children, other family members?  But who else?  Do you have people in your life with whom you are connected spiritually to the point that you thank God for them in your prayers?  Some might say it was because the Apostle Paul was not married that he so appreciated his fellow-believers, but we who know Christ and who are united by His Spirit with others in His body ought to have many such people who come to mind as we pray and as we give thanks.

At this time in his ministry Paul was in prison, under house arrest.  It is clear that he was able to receive visitors and to carry on his work of spreading the Gospel by teaching those who came and then sending them out with the Gospel.  One such visitor was Onesimus, apparently a slave of a man named, Philemon.  Philemon had sent him to Paul, perhaps to bring Paul some needed items, and Paul had spent some time with him.  Paul calls him, "my son, Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains" (verse 10).  The purpose of Paul's letter to Philemon was to encourage Philemon to consider Onesimus no longer as a slave, but as a brother in Christ.  Onesimus had apparently placed his faith in Jesus Christ through Paul's teaching and it was Paul's desire to see him not only set free spiritually, but also physically.

Paul's approach to this request was masterful, allowing the Spirit to convict Philemon so that what he did would be done voluntarily, from the heart. Paul makes this request in a letter written not only to Philemon, but to others in the church that was meeting in Philemon's home (verses 1-2).  This was part of the body of Christ, the fellowship of the saints, and Paul wanted to teach all of them the importance of the community God was building through the Gospel by the work of His Spirit.  As part of the body of Christ what you and I do affects all the other parts of the body.  We come to Christ as individuals, but we don't remain that way.  We who believe are family!!

To those who confessed Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, Paul wrote, "I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ" (verse 6).  We are told today that "faith" is a personal thing, and it is; however, it is in speaking of our faith, of our knowledge of Christ through His Word, that we ourselves grow and that others in the body are built up in the faith.  We need each other!

After his initial greeting and encouragement to the church, Paul speaks directly to Philemon.  He says immediately, "… in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do …" (verse 8).  Paul had the authority in Christ to order Philemon to release Onesimus from being his slave, for certainly that would have been what God desired, but he says, "… yet I appeal to you on the basis of love" (verse 9).  Paul actually wanted Onesimus to stay with HIM, but he says to Philemon, "I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced" (verse 14).  In other words, "You need to do what you know in your heart is right, not because you have to, but because the love you know in Christ compels you to do so."

It appears that Paul was confident that Philemon WOULD do the right thing, but was perhaps using this opportunity to speak to the whole church about what it meant to love one another in Christ and to consider one another, even in the society of that time, as equal in Christ.  The confidence Paul had was not in Philemon, but in the Spirit of God who lived within him.  It is important to call brothers and sisters in Christ to a higher standard than that of the world around us.  Because God has first loved us in Christ, we are compelled by the Spirit to love one another in a way that the world will never understand.  We need more of that in the body of Christ!!

Throughout the letter you can sense Paul's love for the Church, for the Body, for those who were his brothers and sisters in Christ, and he encourages Philemon to receive Onesimus back "no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother" (verse 16).  He goes on to say, "He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord" (verse 16).  What a beautiful thing Jesus does by bringing together slave and free.  Perhaps this is who Paul had in mind when he wrote to the Galatians, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).

Finally, Paul reminds Philemon of the relationship HE has with Paul:  "If you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me" (verse 17), and "I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ …" (verse 20).  Such boldness in sharing our needs with the expectation that our brothers and sisters will respond in love is a beautiful gift from God among those who are part of God's family by faith.  It is a love produced by the Holy Spirit and enjoyed by all within the body.  We need to do our best to stir one another up to fulfill our calling to love one another in this way.

As he begins his letters, so Paul ends by pointing those who read it to the grace of God in Jesus Christ.  It is God's grace that calls us to put our hope in Him and to rejoice in His love together.  Sharing that joy and love is the beauty of the Church.  May God help you to be part of such a Body and to rejoice in one another, giving thanks for your brothers and sisters in Christ in your prayers, and so glorifying your Father in heaven!

"Father, I thank You for so many people in my life!  You have brought each one to encourage me, to comfort me, to teach me, to hold me accountable, to walk this road of life with me, and I thank You by name for those in the past and for those who are around me at this time.  They are truly gifts from You and partners in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Give me grace to love them as You have loved me and to share life and ministry together, as we give thanks to You, in Jesus' name, Amen"

Friday, December 9, 2016

"Sound doctrine ... the responsibility of those who preach and teach God's Word!"

December 10th, Day #345

Scripture Reading:  Titus 1 - 3 ...

There are those today who believe there is too much emphasis on "doctrine" in the church today.  However, the teaching of many concerning "doctrine" and the inability of anyone to know truth is itself a doctrine - a false doctrine.  As Paul writes to Titus, a young pastor taught and appointed by Paul, he explains that those who have rejected "sound doctrine" are to be refuted and opposed (1:9).

He told Titus that such men "claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him" (1:16).  What actions was Paul talking about?  They were teaching false "doctrine."  True doctrine is that which has been inspired by God in His Word.  The mistake of the church of Rome early on was that it began to mix the doctrines of men with the teaching of God's Word, and eventually the "tradition" of the church became confused with sound doctrine.  It remains the same today.  Others added their own doctrines, claiming that these doctrines were found in God's Word.  As Peter said, these "twist and distort the Scriptures to their own destruction" (II Peter 3:16).  Most of the debates within the visible church today have little to do with sound interpretation of the Scriptures, but arise rather from a failure to study the whole Bible, taking verses out of their context to prove a teaching that is based on what men say, rather than what God said!

In the 1500's and 1600's, the time of the "Reformation," many turned back to the written Word of God as the "only rule of faith and practice."  They did not "develop" their own doctrine, but earnestly sought the Scriptures, believing that the same Spirit who inspired the writers to write God's Word was now living in them and would give them understanding as they studied, prayed and grew in knowledge together.  Sadly, while sound doctrine was the fruit of the Reformation, denominations soon arose and the visible church was hopelessly divided into groups, each of whom had their own "views" on certain things.  

So what about Paul and Titus and the early believers?  What did THEY believe??  These were the days when the Church was being formed.  There was in every city where the Gospel was preached and believed by some, ONE Church - not many.  While they had their divisions (read Paul's letters to the Corinthians), there was no question that there was TRUTH to be believed or rejected.  So Paul says of Elders that they "must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he (they) can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it" (Titus 1:9).  Paul tells Titus that the teachers of FALSE doctrine "must be silenced" and that he should "rebuke them sharply, so that they may be sound in the faith" (1:13).

Titus was charged with teaching "what is in accord with sound doctrine” (2:1). That means Titus needed to know what sound doctrine WAS and the only way he would know that is if he had been taught! (1:9).  Paul was a Pharisee and knew the Old Testament well.  Then he met Jesus, and was born again by the Spirit.  That enabled him to rightly interpret/understand the truth concerning God's promises and the Gospel that Jesus taught His disciples. That is what Paul had passed on to Timothy and Titus and others, and what is passed on to us in his letters to the churches.  By the guidance of the Holy Spirit sound doctrine was written down for us.  

Sound doctrine is based on God's revelation of truth found in His written Word.  The beauty of this truth is that all who are born again by the Spirit have the same Teacher and the same textbook.  That means there is ONE Church and where we may not agree we can sit down with each other and study God's Word together and arrive at truth that is true for everyone.   In this day in which we live we need each other!  The forces of evil are mounting their last stand against God's Anointed and against His Body and we must stand firm in the faith that has once for all been entrusted to us (Jude 3).

How shall we then live?  "The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men" (people from every tribe, nation and tongue).  It teaches us to say 'No' to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope - the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for Himself a people that are His very own, eager to do what is good" (2:11-14).  It is GOD who chooses us, calls us, saves us and gives us eternal life.  We belong to Him and sound doctrine comes from Him alone and is centered in Jesus Christ.  All Scripture points to Him ... from beginning to end.

All who are saved are saved by grace "through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit" (3:4-5).  Anyone who teaches contrary to this, that those who have not been born again can somehow believe and be saved, is not teaching sound doctrine.  What comes FIRST is important because the Gospel gives glory to GOD and not to man.  Those thus saved by grace "devote themselves to doing what is good," (3:8) not in order to become saved, but because they have already been saved through the working of the Spirit.  Now that same Spirit enables them to obey God's Word, to live in faith and obedience for the glory of God, "so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive" (2:10).

Oh, how the church today needs sound doctrine, and it is the responsibility of all who preach and teach God's Word to study and to do our best "to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth" (II Timothy 2:15).  The church needs such men, called of God and filled with His Spirit.  Sound doctrine is God's gift to the Church and true teaching will always be confirmed by the Bible; the inerrant, infallible Word of God.  

"My Father and my God, You have revealed Your truth in Your Word through the prophets and apostles, and through Your Son Jesus Christ and the work of His Spirit in those who wrote what You led them to write.  Raise up leaders in Your Church who will be faithful to proclaim the sound doctrine revealed in the Bible and give wisdom to those who lead and those who hear to rightly understand what You have revealed.  Give us strength to stand firm against the false doctrine of false teachers and to defend the truth that alone is able to save those who believe and to equip us for life and godliness, to the praise of our Savior!  In Jesus' name, Amen"

Thursday, December 8, 2016

"Beware of those who do not preach God's Word!"

December 9th, Day #344

Scripture Reading:  II Timothy 3 - 4 ...

We are in the last days of planet earth.  I don't mean we're in the last days as in the time between the birth of Jesus and His return ... I mean the end, the last days, as in the last decades ... or less.  What about Jesus' words that we would not know "the day or the hour."  We don't know the day or the hour ... or the week or the month, but God told us that we WOULD know the time.  Paul writes to the Thessalonians:  " ... you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.  While people are saying, 'Peace and safety,' destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape" (I Thessalonians 5:1-3).  Most people stop reading there, but there's more.

"But YOU, BROTHERS, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief ..." (I Thessalonians 5:4).  There are signs given in the Scriptures that give specific details of the last seven years prior to the battle of Armageddon and the return of Jesus Christ to defeat the Antichrist, and to establish His millennial kingdom in Jerusalem.  But there are also signs that point very clearly to the time leading up to the last seven years.  One of those signs is so clear today that we who believe the Bible to be the Word of God MUST speak about it and call people to recognize it and to be ready, willing and able to stand firm.  The sign I am speaking about is the widespread rejection of sound doctrine IN THE CHURCH today.

In our reading today Paul warns "there will be terrible times in the last days" (3:1).  He goes on to explain how people will live - a general description of how sinful people have lived for some time, but in the last days all of these will be extreme.  While all of them are obvious in our culture and around the world, there is something more in verse 5 that catches our attention:  Paul is describing those who have "a form of godliness."  These are people who claim to believe in God and perhaps even claim to be Christians. He warns Timothy to stay away from them, for they lead many astray by their false teaching.  They are "always learning, but never able to acknowledge the truth" (3:7).

Today in the church countless pastors and teachers, professors of theology and those who follow them, speak about philosophy and teach from the traditions and words of men rather than from God's Word.  As I listen to sermons from local churches and elsewhere I rarely hear even the name of Jesus, and even more rare is any mention of the cross or why Jesus came. People want to believe that everyone is going to heaven - or almost everyone, and that there probably isn't any such place as hell. The World Council of Churches is focused on social justice rather than the preaching of the Gospel and the Interfaith Movement wants all religions to work together for "the common good."

False teaching is nothing new ... what IS new is that millions IN the church are listening to it AND are criticizing those of us who continue to declare the Gospel and call people to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ!  Paul charged Timothy to continue in what he had learned from the teaching of God's Word.  He assured him that "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (3:16-17).  People all around us have turned to the latest "Christian" speaker, without turning to the Bible to discern whether what he or she is saying is true.  

What is going on today is the fulfillment of Paul's words to Timothy in Chapter 4 of our reading.  Paul instructs Timothy to "Preach the Word ... in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage - with great patience and careful instruction" (4:2).  Why was that so important?  Because it was the only defense against what was coming.  "For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine.  Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.  They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths" (4:3-4).  

While that was true to some degree at other times in the past 2,000 years, I do not believe it has ever been the case that the general trend in the church is AWAY from sound doctrine and the teaching of God's Word.  Before the Reformation the church was teaching false doctrine, but the people did not have the Word of God in their hands at that time because it hadn't been printed yet.  Today is different.  People have the Bible in their hands, but don't open it!!

People want to believe things will continue on the way they are today.  God says the change will take place suddenly and without warning - for those who do not study God's Word and listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.  But we, who like Paul and Timothy and many since have trusted in Christ, will be able to come to the end of our lives and say, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day - and not only to me but also to all who have longed for His appearing" (4:7-8).

Are you longing for His appearing?  Few are.  People want more and more and more in this world, but few are longing for Jesus to return, even though the Bible ends with the words, "Amen! Come, Lord Jesus" (Revelation 22:20). We who believe must be firm in our faith, and the only way for that t0 happen is to be taught by the Spirit of God through the Word of God.  If you are not learning and growing, you are leaving yourself vulnerable and you can easily be led astray.  Read, study, learn, grow and stand firm in your faith, for the end of all things is near.  Be ready!

"Our Father in heaven, the signs of Jesus' return are multiplying all around us.  As more and more people turn aside from the truth, listening instead to the words of men, I commit myself to reading and studying and learning and growing, so that I may be mature ... not to be independent, but to learn to trust in YOU for all things.  Give me wisdom and strength daily to proclaim Your truth ... to fight the good fight, and to finish the race, knowing that in the end, it will all be worth it.  In Jesus' name, Amen"

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

"Proclaiming the Gospel of Christ ..."

December 8th, Day #343

Scripture Reading:  II Timothy 1 - 2 …

Understanding your place in God's plan and purposes inspires you to go deeper in your relationship with God and to commit yourself to being equipped as a "soldier of Christ Jesus," ready to share the Gospel with those in your immediate sphere of influence and with others whom you may meet.  It is not by accident that you are alive at this moment in history, or that you are in the family you are, or that you have the gifts and abilities you have.  You are a unique individual whom God has placed in this world at this time for HIS glory!  Your life is HIS and what you do with it has significance.

That's what Paul wanted Timothy to know … and that's what God wants YOU to know!  Paul and Timothy had labored together for the Gospel and were now separated, as Paul had been taken as a prisoner to Rome.  While under "house arrest" in Rome, Paul continued to proclaim the Gospel and wrote to Timothy to encourage him to do the same.  He tells Timothy to "fan into flame the gift of God which is in you" … "for God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline" (1:6-7).  God never calls us to do something without giving us what we need to do it!  As someone has said, "God doesn't call the qualified, He qualifies the called!"  Our Father in heaven uniquely prepares each of His children to fulfill His purpose for our lives, and that purpose centers around your faith in Jesus Christ and your commitment to His Body, the Church, and to spreading the good news of the Gospel.

We do well to remember the importance of the message we bring to the world because Jesus Christ "has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel" (1:10).  I say it often that there is no other message in the world that has the power to transform sinners into saints, to bring eternal life to those who are spiritually dead.  So Paul declares, "I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him for that day" (1:12).  What have you entrusted to Jesus?  "That day" refers to the day of judgment, when Jesus returns and calls those who believe to Himself.  Have you entrusted yourself to Jesus?  Do you believe that His blood covers your sins in God's sight … that He paid your debt and you HAVE forgiveness of your sins and eternal life as His Spirit lives and works within you??

Timothy had been born again by God's Spirit and called to proclaim God's truth.  He had been placed on the earth at this time, for this reason.  So now Paul says, "What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus" (1:13).  And in Chapter 2, he charges Timothy to equip others to teach the Gospel, too:  "The things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others" (2:2).  The principle of multiplication rests in God's instruction to pastors and teachers to equip others to share the Gospel, too.  What could possibly be more important than raising up those who will pass this message on to others?!

With that in mind, Paul tells Timothy, "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth" (2:15).  He gives Timothy and us counsel from God when he tells him to avoid godless chatter and foolish arguments. It seems today that we are too easily distracted from our primary purpose in making disciples through the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Many even within the Body of Christ spend most of their time and effort engaging in idle conversation or senseless disputes.  Speaking of believers, Paul writes, "The Lord's servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.  Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will" (2:24-26).

We need to understand the war that is going on in the spiritual realm for the souls of men and women, boys and girls, all around us, and we need to engage in the battle, armed with the "sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God" (Ephesians 6:17).  That takes us back to the importance of being equipped.  Handling God's Word correctly is taken far too lightly in the visible church today.  People with little knowledge are teaching false doctrine, oftentimes being very sincere as they do so because they don’t know any better.  False teaching is like cancer, and it spreads by various means throughout the church, as well as the world.  Peter writes that his spiritual brother, Paul's letters to the churches "contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction" (II Peter 3:16).

Sound teaching is "passed on" through godly teachers whose only authority comes from the Head of the Church, Jesus Christ, as He speaks through His Word.  That's why Paul told Timothy to pass on the things he had heard Paul say to reliable men who would then teach others.  The church is not fulfilling its mission if this is not taking place.  Leaders cannot lead if they do not know the truth, nor can they safeguard the flock under their care from false teaching.  As Paul was about to leave Ephesus, he called together the elders whom had been appointed as overseers and said to them, "Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.  Be shepherds of the church of God, which He bought with His own blood" (Acts 20:28).  Fulfilling that task requires men who have gained a knowledge of God's Word through careful instruction and study.

The mission Jesus entrusted to the Church can be and is fulfilled only when the Gospel of Jesus Christ is being proclaimed.  May God raise up many soldiers in Christ's army who will be faithful to proclaim the unchanging truth of God's Word to all who will be given ears to hear!

"Father, throughout the centuries You have raised up godly men to proclaim the Gospel and empowered them by Your Spirit.  Be gracious to Your Church in these last days, that we may not waver in our commitment to make disciples of Jesus and so fulfill our calling, for Your glory.  Protect Christ's Body from false teachers by equipping soldiers for His army.  Let the power of the Gospel shine through the darkness, in Jesus' name, Amen"