Friday, July 28, 2006

Blinded But Enlightened ... and Transformed!

…Suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the
ground and heard a voice say to him “Saul, Saul, why do
you persecute me?” “Who are you Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting….”
Acts 9:4-5

The account of Saul’s conversion is dramatic and intense. It’s not a story that too many of us can entirely relate to since it’s doubtful that any of us have been knocked to the ground by a flash of light and a voice from heaven. But how many of us began as a vicious persecutor of Christians? Even so, Saul’s experience on the Damascus Road can teach us some very important lessons about the nature of transformation.

I’ve often heard people say about their conversion something like this: “I found Christ under such and such circumstances,” or “I came to faith in such and such circumstances.” That’s backwards! Sure we have free will to accept Christ, but it’s not too often that the needy, angry, self-destructive person is seeking to find Jesus. In the same way that Jesus found Saul in his circumstances, Jesus finds us in our circumstances. Jesus seeks us and gives himself to us. He did it when He died on the cross. … Let’s look at what happened next:

Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand… (Acts 9:8) The flash of light from heaven was so bright that it physically blinded Saul. Luke tells us that the men traveling with Saul stood speechless. They heard sound, but did not see anyone. Remember, it was Saul who was being sought by Jesus here -- not his traveling companions! -- and (here’s the tender part): That light was so bright that it penetrated the darkness of Saul's heart and filled him with the revelation that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. Paul wrote about this light from heaven years later:

For God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness,” made
His light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge
of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
(II Corinthians 4:6)

Saul's story really is the story of every one of us before we come to Christ. We are born as enemies of God, blinded by unbelief. We are born as grandchildren of Adam, depraved and lost. Some of us have pasts we are ashamed of (like Saul?)…. We were born into the world needing to be transformed!

Think about the words of John 3:16. Now think about Saul; and think about your own life. If you’ve already come to Christ and been transformed, your heart is filled with joy and thanksgiving. If you’re still resisting Jesus and looking for transformation through psychology or education or positive thinking, know this: Just like Saul – true transformation comes from a personal encounter with Jesus! Saul did not see a vision. He saw the Risen Christ Himself !
- Pastor Mark

Why Build a Church? ...Why Go to Church?

"The grass withereth, the flower fadeth:
but the Word of our God shall stand forever."
Isaiah 40:8
Eighteen years ago George Barna wrote a book entitled Marketing the Church. In the book he wrote, “The audience, not the message is sovereign.” It’s a notion that thousands of pastors and churches have unwittingly swallowed as if it were Scripture. It has been parroted in virtually every major book on church leadership since; and it’s being taught in seminaries across the country. The basic idea is that people’s“needs” must shape the pastor’s message. Opinion polls and listener response become barometers that tell a pastor what to preach.

Now compare that with the words of the Apostle Paul, who said (in II Timothy 4:2-5), “The time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned to fables.” Do you think Paul would have agreed with Barna, who said we must adapt our message to the preferences of the audience at the risk of having them reject the message?
Absolutely Not! Paul told Timothy: “Preach the Word! …in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching.” As your pastor, this is what I am called to do – not to follow the fads and fashions of our culture. Not even the evangelical fads that have assaulted the church in wave after wave over the last two decades. You know what I’m talking about: “What Would Jesus Do?” Bracelets, “Prayer of Jabez” stuff, Purpose-Driven merchandise (complete with the authorized trademark symbol.) Remember the “Toronto Blessing?” What about “Promise Keepers?” and all the Left Behind Books?

Why do I call them fads? Because that’s precisely what they are. They weren’t around thirty-five years ago, and they’ll be gone in ten. Why have Christians become so susceptible? Why are evangelicals so keen to jump on every bandwagon? In a word: simplicity. The fads water-down the Word of God: Scripture is more often than not out of context. The message is soft and generic and non-threatening so it doesn’t rebuke anyone’s sin; endanger anyone’s shallowness; threaten anyone’s comfort zone; or challenge anyone’s worldliness. The fads hardly ever take a stand on the controversial issues. God’s Word is unmistakably clear on today’s controversial issues!

I’m convinced that those who do not get back to the business of preaching the Bible will soon see their churches die – because the Word of God is the only message that has the power to give life!

Now. . . as the shepherd of a congregation in the midst of constructing a new church building, I’d be inconsistent – even remiss – if I didn’t challenge Crane Chapel to remember what the Church is all about! We’ve been working our way through the Book of Acts – the Building the Church Series - and I hope you’ve been listening. We definitely live in an entertainment hungry world with an increasingly entertainment hungry church. Christians today are having a harder time facing the serious stuff of life because they aren’t hearing the serious stuff of Scripture. Faith does still come by hearing, and hearing the Word of God! Why are we building a church? To preach the Word!!

Now. . . Why are you coming to church?

- Pastor Mark Goossen
"Heaven and earth shall pass away:
but my words shall not pass away."
Mark 13:31

Sensitive Hearts, Total Strangers & Revival

There is a remarkable account in the Book of Acts where a man named Philip witnesses to a total stranger from another country and graciously guides the man to faith in Jesus! The story is set in Samaria and begins with what our culture would call revival.

There was great enthusiasm among the believers. Christians were proclaiming Christ from village to village. The mood was enthusiastic and contagious. Acts 8:25 brings us into the scene: And so, when they had solemnly testified and spoken the Word of the Lord, they started back to Jerusalem, and were preaching the Gospel to many villages of the Samaritans.
Suddenly God steps in and does something completely unexpected and out-of-the-blue. He sends an angel to redirect this man named Philip: But an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip saying, “Arise and go south to the road that descends from Jerusalem to Gaza.” And he arose and went…. (Acts 8:26-27)

Now…without thinking in terms of a dictionary, define revival. Are you thinking in terms of thrilling and exciting or are you thinking more along the lines of sensitivity and quite anticipation? Revival is both. But without the sensitivity to and anticipation of God’s direction, how would we know what His direction is!? His work would never be accomplished!

When we’re sensitive to God’s directing it naturally follows that we will be available for whatever He calls us to do. So what did Philip do? …he arose and went. Look what happened next: …and behold, there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure…. He was sitting in his chariot reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip “Go and join this chariot.”

What a choice opportunity! Imagine being directed by an angel to a desert road – away from the rousing environment of a revival where you just happen to encounter a political leader from another country! The Secretary of the Treasury no less! And he’s reading Scripture! Now in today’s world, if you were to encounter someone reading their Bible, what would you do? Would you reflect quietly, “That person’s a Christian. That’s very special,” and continue on your way? Or would you sit down and initiate a conversation? Sadly, I think most of us would opt to continue on our way.

Philip opted instead to talk to the stranger. And Philip initiated the conversation. And the eunuch answered Philip and said “Please tell me, of whom does the prophet say this?” (Talk about an open door for witnessing!!) The government official had confessed his ignorance and he warmly accepted any teaching Philip could offer so Philip opened his mouth and beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus unto him. (Acts 8:35)

Wow! When was the last time you witnessed to a complete stranger? When was the last time you were sensitive enough to hear and discern God’s direction to witness at all!? We do live in a superficial and fast-paced society. And we tend to think of revival in terms of old-fashion tent meetings and people on their knees pleading with God to do something. Here’s an assignment for you: Pray that you might be sensitive to at least one opportunity to witness and share Jesus this week. Revival begins with anticipation and a sensitive heart.
– Pastor Mark

Stephen: His Miracles, His Message, His Martydom

We are first introduced to Stephen when the apostles informed the Church that is was not right that they neglect the Word of God in order to wait tables. Stephen was chosen as one of the seven to take up the work of serving the widows. He is described as a man who was both “full of the Spirit and wisdom” (vs. 3) and as one who was “full of faith...” (vs. 5). Stephen’s new ministry seems to have put him in contact with a great many people. And the mention of Stephen’s ability to perform “wonders and miracles (vs. 8) is very significant. It seems to imply that Stephen was, or at least functioned similarly to, an apostle. God had indeed purposed to make this man an apostle, in His own time, and in His own way. And – just like Peter – Stephen’s ministry incensed the Sanhedrin. So we find Stephen – just like Peter -- defending himself.

But Stephen’s defense before the Sanhedrin is really more of a sermon. It is the longest recorded sermon the Book of Acts. And Stephen’s sermon is Scriptural. One cannot imagine how any more Scripture could have been packed into one message. Stephen is not like so many contemporary preachers who begin with a Scripture text never again to return to it. His entire message was Scripture! And his conclusion was but an application of these Scriptures to his accusers. In spite of the fact that Stephen’s sermon had a very strong message of God’s judgment, it was motivated by a loving and gracious spirit. Yet the message was too much to bear. Just as they had done before, the Sanhedrin rejected God’s spokesman and they would do away with Stephen in an effort to do away with the message of Jesus.

The description of the crowd is one of near insanity. They were out of their minds. Logic and reason would have agreed with Stephen, for his message was merely a recitation of the Old Testament. But the Spirit of Christ was present; and the crowd would have none of Him “and they stoned Stephen…” (Acts 7:59). They drug him out of the city and stoned him, with the consent and assistance of Saul. Stephen, like his Savior, called upon God to receive his sprit. His last words, like those of Jesus, were words of compassion. He prayed for the forgiveness of those who had sinned by taking his life. The salvation of Saul, while it would be at a later time, was an answer to this prayer.

What an illustration of dying grace! We hear much about being “Spirit filled,” but we don’t speak of it in the context of death. Stephen’s death, because it was experience by a Spirit-filled man, is a model for all Christians. And there are more direct applications of this text to us. Just as Jerusalem was rushing towards its own destruction, so is our own world. The judgment of God is soon to fall on our world for the same reason that it fell upon Jerusalem – rejection of God’s Word. And finally, there is the lesson in how to use and interpret Scripture. Stephen’s message was drenched in Scripture. There was much of God’s thoughts and none of Stephen’s. Stephen had a grasp of the Scriptures, as a whole, and in large potions. May we imitate Stephen in his handling of the Word of God!

-Pastor Mark

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Unity, Disunity, and the Church's Primary Purpose

The Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews… So the twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the Word of God.” – Acts 6:1-2

Proclaiming the word of God is the primary purpose of the church and Satan will do anything to distract God’s people from that purpose.

A few years ago I came across some small dark pellets in the area underneath our kitchen sink. With my brilliant mind I deduced that a mouse had been present in the kitchen! In the same way, whenever we see certain droppings in the church we must deduce that Satan is at work.

In this passage we learn that there were “droppings” of disunity, unhappiness, complaining and murmuring among the disciples in the early church. Why were these droppings there? Because Satan was at work. Satan is always opposing the church. Sometimes he brings opposition from without and sometimes from within. Here we see Satan working within the church by causing the people to murmur against each other.

Satan was trying to distract the apostles from their primary work of preaching the Word of God by calling their attention to the need for social service within the church, specifically in the area of food distribution. But the apostles would not be distracted from their calling. Why? They were called by Jesus himself to preach the gospel . Jesus told his disciples to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, not the things of the world. Why? Man’s soul is infinitely more important than his body. What does it profit if a man gains the whole world yet loses his soul? The only way a sinner can be saved is through the proclamation of the gospel. So, when they heard the disciples murmuring, the apostles established a certain organization to deal with food distribution in an equitable way and “this proposal pleased the whole group.”(Acts 6:5) There is a need for a certain amount (and the right kind) of organization in the church. “God is not a God of disorder but of peace. Everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.” (I Cor. 14:33,40)

Acts 6 speaks directly to the re-organization and re-appointment of deacons in the church so that its primary purpose is uninterrupted. Up to this point the apostles were just preaching the gospel and caring for the poor. But the growth of the early church created administrative problems. Satan tried to use these problems to destroy the church by inciting the disciples to murmur and complain against each other over - of all things - Christian service!
Today, we definitely live in a work-ethic society where people are measured and tend to measure themselves in terms of busyness and service. God has called each of us to Christian service (I Peter 4:10), but He calls us first of all to know Him. It’s out of that personal relationship that He then calls us to serve. We do not serve selfishly as an escape from loneliness, unhappiness, or some underlying, compulsive need – That kind of service is a “dropping” on the church body and it does not serve to proclaim the Gospel. Satan’s attacks and droppings are discouraging and disheartening. But they can also be an exciting challenge because we can only reach unity as a body and win victories when we’re fighting battles!

-Pastor Mark

Encounters With Civil Authorities

Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said,
“We ought to obey God rather than men.” - Acts 5:29

Peter and the apostles are in jail again being reprimanded by the Sanhedrin: “We gave you strict orders not to teach in Jesus name, didn’t we? Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to bring this man’s blood on us!” And of course, the apostles respond with civil disobedience by very straightforwardly announcing that they would obey God – not man!

The Sanhedrin neither liked nor did they welcome the apostles in Jerusalem because the reception of the Gospel by the multitudes was toppling their spiritual leadership. If the people had ignored the apostles’ preaching, the Sanhedrin would not have cared what the apostles did. But clearly the people were excited over the miracles and receptive to the message of Life in Jesus. Peter had become so popular among the people that the arresting officers were actually afraid to touch him. Now put yourself in Peter’s sandals and try to imagine a similar scenario today. Would civil disobedience be the “right thing to do?” What would you do?

Those who call themselves Christians today can harm the testimony of true Christianity by the way they behave toward civil authorities. Believers are to set their affections and priorities on Christ, and His Word, but they are also to be godly and obedient citizens in society. Sometimes it’s a fine line. Peter tells us (in I Peter 2:13) “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution.” He was commanding believers to respect civil authority. And in I Timothy 2:1-3, Paul instructs us to pray “for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life.” Quite a contrast from Peter’s defiance toward the Sanhedrin. Where do you draw the line?

First, we need to acknowledge that God is in control of all situations and that He has ordained civil authority. (Romans13:1-7) So when a Christian submits to civil authority, he/she is obeying God. When civil authorities say, (for example) “We’re raising the Minnesota sale tax to 21.5% to fund highway maintenance,” and this does not violate the teaching of God’s Word, we should obey with meekness and without speaking evil of anyone. (Titus 3:1-3) It is sad when those who name Christ defy the very government He ordained. His Kingdom just does not benefit from disobedience. Even if we disagree!

The one exception is if civil authorities tell us to do something that would violate God’s Word. In Acts 4:18 the Sanhedrin commanded Peter and John “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.” We know that Jesus told us in Matthew 28:19-20 that we have authority to teach and make disciples of all men.” And we know what happened to Peter. As Christians we must stand for Christ and His Word and be willing to suffer the consequences. But we must be careful not to go beyond the teaching of God’s Word. The early church did submit itself to the extremely pagan Roman government, realizing that God had ordained it. What about you? Are you willingly submitting to our God ordained government?
– Pastor Mark
(21.5% sales tax?! See Romans 13:6-7.)

Encounters With Sadducees

Christians nowadays have it pretty easy. Not often will sharing the Gospel of Jesus send us to jail as it did Peter and John. Still we run risks in trying to win others to Christ. And while most of us might be willing to spend a night in jail if it would bring 5,000 people to Christ, shouldn’t we also be willing to suffer for the sake of one?

In Acts Chapter 4, Peter and John were sharing the Gospel of Jesus when – as scripture records – “The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to [them.]” What we need to understand about this group is that they were members of a powerful Jewish sect that did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. They stood to gain financially by cooperating with the Romans; and it was they who engineered and carried out Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. The Sadducees had almost unlimited power over the temple and thus they were able to arrest Peter and John for no other reason than teaching something that contradicted their beliefs. And they did!

Now Peter and John stood before the same council that had condemned Jesus to death. Peter and John were questioned and this whole incident is considered the first persecution of the Church. But. . . instead of being defendants, the apostles were on the offensive: boldly speaking out for God and presenting the Gospel. In Acts 4:12 we find the final thrust of Peter’s defense speech. As Peter stood before these powerful, sophisticated, cultured, wealthy rulers of the Jewish people, the Holy Spirit gave him these words: "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved."

Now, the Sadducees – along with many “Sadducees” of today -- reacted negatively to the fact that there is no other name than that of Jesus to call on for salvation. They say, "That’s too extreme. We believe in diversity and in accepting all “spiritual paths.” Surely Jesus isn’t going to send Indians, Chinese, Tibetans, and so on, to hell because they don’t believe in Jesus!"

Well, you may go ahead and call me a narrow-minded, extremist preacher! I will not apologize for preaching that there are only two paths: the broad way, which goes to hell, and the narrow way, which leads to eternal life with Jesus. You may accuse me of believing in this absolute truth that Jesus is the only Savior of the world. I do not mind because Peter’s statement is absolutely true: "There is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved." Peter did not decide this. The Church did not decide this. It is the specific teaching of Jesus himself (John 14:6).

As believers, we will encounter Sadducees. Perhaps you are a Sadducee – unwilling to accept that only Jesus saves. Be assured, Jesus alone saves! Not Jesus and Mary, nor Mary and the saints, nor our baptism as a child, nor “good works.” Whether we believe it or not, Jesus alone saves, and his purposes shall be accomplished! Are you willing to put yourself on the line for the gospel as did Peter and John? Are you willing to stand up to the Sadducees? Are you willing to stand up for Jesus when those around you start talking about “diversity” and accepting all “spiritual paths?”
- Pastor Mark