As I ought to speak

Ephesians 6:17-20
17 And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God; 18 praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints—19 and for me, that utterance may be given to me, that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak.

I sometimes wonder about the prayers people offer up or ask for themselves. I am reminded of all the furor several years ago around a book that touted the “prayer of Jabez” as the key to personal prosperity and generally getting what we want from God. This is exactly ALL that we know about Jabez:


1 Chronicles 4:9-10
9 Now Jabez was more honorable than his brothers, and his mother called his name Jabez, saying, “Because I bore him in pain.”
10 And Jabez called on the God of Israel saying, “Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!” So God granted him what he requested.

Seriously, that’s all we know about Jabez: he was more honorable than his brothers, and he asked the Lord to bless him, enlarge his territory, and keep him from evil—in his prayer, apparently that meant not hurting others. Nice prayer, but not much to go on. That’s not to say we shouldn’t pray for similar things—you know, to be blessed and not sin. But is that really all we want from this life? How about doing more for others, not just avoiding hurting them? How about glorifying God in all we do? How about…? I could go on and on, but I think you see that while I am glad Jabez got what he requested, it seems to me he aimed a little low.

Anyway, I still wonder about the things people pray for themselves. Do we seek honor or prosperity for ourselves? Do we seek to keep from hurting others? Do we seek peace in our family? Do we seek healing for ourselves or others?

I love intercessory prayers, but the kind of prayer Paul asks from the Ephesians for himself is a bit different that our typical intercession. And this is not the only place he asks for such prayers.


Colossians 4:2-4
2 Continue earnestly in prayer, being vigilant in it with thanksgiving; 3 meanwhile praying also for us, that God would open to us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in chains, 4 that I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak.

Same prayer, different day. And what is that prayer? That God would embolden him and open doors for him to speak the gospel boldly, “as I ought to speak.”

Think about that for a moment. As Paul reminds both the Ephesians and the Colossians, he is in chains already for being so bold as to speak the gospel, and yet Paul wants MORE boldness! Really?!? Why would Paul ask that?

Because, for all he had already done, Paul knew there was still much to do. For all that he had accomplished for the kingdom of God, in his heart of hearts he still burned to do more for his Lord and Savior. It’s not that Paul felt like he HAD to do more, that all his work would somehow buy him some special place in heaven. It’s just that he knew the Great Commission could not be fulfilled without one key thing: the power of God enabling the apostles and evangelists going into the world.


Matthew 28:18-20
18 And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.
19 “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.

All authority had been given to Jesus, and He passed on to the apostles the authority to make disciples in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Without that authority, without the power given by the presence of the Holy Spirit, there would be no adding to the kingdom of God.

So Paul asks people not for good health or wealth or fame. He doesn’t ask for a closer relationship with his Lord, nor even for spiritual insight. Interestingly, he doesn’t ask that any particular group of people suddenly accept the Lord. He simply asks for the courage and opportunity to make Jesus known to the world.

Note that Paul asks for the boldness to speak “as I ought to speak” and for the opportunity to speak “as I ought to speak.” In some translations, Paul asks to speak as he is required to speak. Paul feels like he hasn’t been bold enough up to now, that he hasn’t had all the opportunities to make the gospel manifest to everyone. He knows that the job isn’t yet finished. The Lord had chosen Paul specifically “to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel.” (Acts 9:15) So Paul had a long way to go yet, and he knew that only the Lord could enable him to finish the work set before him.

In short, Paul asks that the Lord grant him to be all that the Lord has asked Him to be already, the apostle to the Gentiles and far-flung Jews of the world. Paul asked for others to lift him and his fellow workers up in prayer so that they could keep doing what they had been doing all along, preaching the gospel to all creatures.

Is that our own prayer for ourselves? In the midst of our intercession for friends and family, as we pray for our nation and our leaders, as we lift up our communities and our jobs, do we pray that God would use us to bring the gospel to the world?

I don’t know about you, but as I read these verses today, I was convicted. I realized I wasn’t using my voice as effectively as I might for Christ—certainly not in the way He has called me to do. Certainly, God does not call all of us to be apostles like Paul or Peter, nor does He call all of us to be great evangelists, but He does call us to this:


1 Peter 2:11-12
11 Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, 12 having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation.

Will people see the gospel in you and the things you say, so that when Jesus returns they will glorify God? Will you speak as you ought to speak—i.e. sharing the gospel in word and deed?

As disciples of Christ, it is incumbent upon us to speak boldly for Jesus, to make Him known to this fallen world. Let us never be satisfied that we have done enough, but let us always seek more for Him. Let that be our prayer now and always, that the Lord will provide us with more boldness and more opportunities to speak His gospel as we ought to speak, and through the gospel to bring more to salvation.

Heavenly Father, I thank You that You have given us Your Word to speak. Like Moses, so often I feel like I cannot speak clearly enough to glorify You and accomplish Your will, and yet time and again I find Your Word upon my lips. Lord God, embolden me every day, open doors for me always, so that I may make the name of Jesus known to any and all. May Your Spirit help me to speak the gospel as I ought to speak, forever to Your glory and praise. Amen.

 

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Barbarians and Fools

Romans 1:13-15 ESV
13 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles.
14 I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish.
15 So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.

Have you ever told a joke about something you really know a lot about, and had it fall flat when telling that same joke to people who don’t know much about such things? Being the gadget geek that I am, I can joke with my peers using technical jargon and such, and I can be sure they get the joke. When I am around my kids, we can chuckle over references to TV shows we watch together, and I know they’ll get it. With my pastor and others in my Bible study, we can get a chuckle or two from sly references to the Gospels or Moses or whatever is in the Bible. It reminds me of an article I read thirty years ago about an anthropologist who was trying to retell the story of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” to a tribe in the African bush country. He got in trouble right away because the tribe’s belief system didn’t allow for ghosts in the sense we normally think of them. By the time he was finished trying to shoehorn Hamlet into the local language, the tribal elders looked at him and said, “You need to go home and learn the story again. You plainly got some things wrong.” Whether it’s a joke or Shakespeare, it’s the language and culture that make the difference about whether or not people “get it.”

But the same is not true of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The good news of salvation through Christ is for everyone, and it is something that can and should be told in every language and culture on earth.

In his letter to those early believers in Rome, Paul tells them he has been wanting to visit them for a long time. For the previous couple of decades, Paul has wandered the eastern Mediterranean Sea—through Asia Minor, Greece, Macedonia, Cyprus, Syria, and Judea—preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. He has made return visits to places like Philippi, Corinth, and Antioch, and he has already started writing epistles to some of those churches, to build and encourage them as they grow in this new faith. But Paul’s calling is to be the apostle to the Gentiles—i.e. those who are not Jews, which is pretty much everyone outside of Judea—and in that role he has set his sights on Rome and even Spain. That’s a pretty bold goal for someone who is mostly travelling on foot and occasionally by coast-hugging boats. But Paul knows that Jesus was quite serious when He said about him “he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.” (Acts 9:15) And so go he must, travelling all the known world speaking the name of Jesus Christ his Lord and Savior.

This is why, in our verse above, Paul speaks about wanting so much to see the believers in Rome. Paul had travelled a lot, and his own disciples had continued on in many of the places where he had established churches, but none of the Apostles had yet made it to Rome itself. We may ask, “Well, why didn’t Jesus Himself just start in Rome, thus bringing the whole Empire into the fold?” That’s a nice idea, but as Paul himself reiterates here, the gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16) The promise of salvation was spoken to Abraham and later to Israel and then the Jews, and so the gospel started in Jerusalem because that is where the Jews were, and then it spread as it did because faithful disciples preached the gospel to the ends of the earth. Paul’s desire is to visit Rome and share the gospel in deeper fellowship with the Roman believers, bearing fruit with them just as he had already started in other churches across the Mediterranean.

Looking at verses 13 and 14 above, we can see that Paul doesn’t want to visit Rome to speak to believing Jews—some of whom may have been among that crowd on Pentecost years before when so many Jews visiting Jerusalem were saved. Paul’s goal is to include everyone in his evangelism. Note how Paul says that his obligation—i.e. his commission to preach the gospel—includes both Greeks and barbarians, the wise and the foolish. In our modern culture, we think of barbarians as being savage people with primitive ways and questionable morals. There is no clear etymology for the Greek word “barbaros”, but from the context used in other writings before and after Paul, the meaning is clearly “someone who doesn’t speak Greek.” So in Paul’s time, calling someone a barbarian simply meant he or she was someone who didn’t speak your common language. Paul is not talking about savages, he’s talking about people of other cultures and languages. He’s talking about people who might not “get it” if he recites a joke from a Greek play, but people who most certainly WILL understand when he speaks of sin and salvation.


Acts 2:4-11 ESV
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.
Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language.
And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians–we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”

After being in Jerusalem in those early days, knowing how the Holy Spirit empowers us to speak in languages not our own, reaching people who come from different places and even cultures, Paul could easily include both Greeks (whose language he already knew) and non-Greeks (whose languages he did not know). Paul didn’t worry about HOW he would address the very cosmopolitan populace of Rome, only that he wanted the chance to get there and do so.

Paul also singles out the “wise and the foolish.” As in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul is speaking of those who know—or THINK they know—about God and the world, and also those whose cultures are so different, they seem like unthinking beasts. Paul uses two very different words here. We translate “sophos” as “wise”, and that is the way the word has worked its way into the English language in words like philosophy, sophisticated, and sophistry. But the word translated as “foolish” is “anoetoi”, which literally means the “un-thinking ones.” The one time Jesus uses that word, it is when he calls the two men on the road to Emmaus fools for being slow of heart to believe that He had indeed risen from the dead. (Luke 24:25) He is basically saying they were foolish to trust only what they heard from others or had seen themselves and not trust what they knew in their spirit and from His own teachings. And what did they not know, not think about?


Luke 24:25-27 ESV
And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”
And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

Jesus then TAUGHT the “foolish ones”, the ones who had seen and not believed, the ones who had heard and still were skeptical, the ones who’d had the evidence in front of them the whole time and yet had not thought about it.

Paul is telling the Roman believers that he is obligated to share the gospel with those who speak his same language and those who don’t, those who know the Scriptures and those who don’t, those who think they know everything and those who haven’t got a clue, those who are believers already and need encouragement and those who do not believe yet. In short, the gospel message is for EVERYONE.

As we consider this passage today, we need to ask ourselves “Who are the barbarians and fools in my life?” Who are the ones who may not speak my language or come from my same background, but who still need to hear the message of Jesus Christ? Who are the ones who haven’t even given much thought to salvation and eternity because they have been too caught up in the worries and pains of this world? Who are the ones who have ignored Christ or never been exposed to Him as WE have? We must all remember that somewhere along our own ways, someone spoke the gospel to us—perhaps just once, perhaps repeatedly over a number of years. (Thanks, Mom!) SOMEONE preached the good news to us.


Romans 10:14-15 ESV
14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?
15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”

We are ALL obligated to speak the name of Jesus Christ to ALL humanity, not just to the ones we think might “get it.” Honestly, we cannot know whether or not someone will understand until we have spoken to them. They cannot say “Yes” or “No” if you never give them the chance!

Our commission is to make disciples of all nations, to preach the gospel to all creation. So let’s get out there and preach the gospel to those barbarians and fools in Christ’s name!

Amen.

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A church remembered

It’s strange to be cleaning out a church building. I don’t mean just cleaning up a church, but actually cleaning out a building preparatory to selling it. And of all the people still attending that church, I probably have the deepest (although not the longest) history there. There is the spot where a fellow named Maurice first welcomed me to that little church body who had bought a rundown restaurant to make their own. There are the lovely glass-paned doors that Maurice made for our sanctuary before he went home to the Lord. There is the spot where I wept on Pastor Paul’s shoulder as I gave my heart to the Lord Jesus Christ. I stood on that stage-cum-altar for two of my own weddings, and for the funeral that came between them. There is the spot where I proposed to my new wife one Easter Sunday. I preached and worshiped in this place. I took my first baby steps at leading a Bible study in that fellowship room. Oh, how wonderful were those fires we lit in the fireplace there! We broke bread and had worship concerts there. We gave our hearts to ministry and experienced the joy of the Lord there. Sure it was an old, moldy, dusty hulk of a building, but we replaced the windows, rebuilt the stage, and expanded the old dining room to accommodate our flock. And now we have moved nearly everything out. Were it just a tad bigger, you’d hear echoes there.

But a church is not now nor has it ever been a building. Our church is the body of people now sitting in a rec center on Sunday mornings. It’s the faithful kids meeting at our youth group. It’s the handful who attend a weekly Bible study, and the larger group that gather at our Pastor’s home for worship two Fridays a month. The church is the men who faithfully lead us in worship as they continue to work full-time jobs and also work on their first full album together. The church is the people continuing together in fellowship and worship, a group continuing in the teaching of the apostles, a group who regularly greet each other with hugs and handshakes and blessings.

I said a prayer as I left that old building today. I knew I might not ever come back there except for one final cleanup, but I remembered something that happened my first Sunday there. After weeping through a service that made me realize how hungry I was for God’s mercy and love, the Pastor asked me, “So do you think you’ll be back next week?” And I replied, “You couldn’t tear me away!” That was eight years ago. I may be leaving a building behind, but nothing could tear me away from God’s church which I found there. My prayer is that there will always be more people who fondly remember their first time in the church of our Lord Jesus Christ, and who grow in the Lord as I have grown. I pray those folks come to know Jesus in profound ways that lead them to share the gospel just as a loving shepherd once shared it with me in a rundown old restaurant outside of town.

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No king

Judges 17:6 NKJV
In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

This is perhaps the saddest and most telling verse in the whole Bible. It tells us so much about ourselves, about our society, and about our relationship with God.

In the book of Judges, we have a history of the men and women who led Israel as a nation of God’s people during the generations after the Exodus. Moses had led the people to the banks of the Jordan, and Moses’ protégé Joshua had led the people in the wars and settling of the Promised Land. But at the end of his life, Joshua challenged the people to choose who would rule over their lives.


Joshua 24:14-15 NKJV
14 “Now therefore, fear the LORD, serve Him in sincerity and in truth, and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the River and in Egypt. Serve the LORD!
15 And if it seems evil to you to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”

And the people responded overwhelmingly that they would serve the Lord God who had led their fathers out of slavery in Egypt. They said, “We also will serve the LORD, for He is our God.” But that didn’t last long:


Judges 2:10-12 NKJV
10 When all that generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation arose after them who did not know the LORD nor the work which He had done for Israel.
11 Then the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD, and served the Baals; 12 and they forsook the LORD God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; and they followed other gods from among the gods of the people who were all around them, and they bowed down to them; and they provoked the LORD to anger.

From that point on, the book of Judges is about how the people of Israel allowed themselves to be led astray by idolatry and pride and prosperity, how they were conquered by the very people they themselves had once subdued, and how faithful men and women were chosen to lead them out of slavery to serve the Lord again. And today’s verse sums up the problem of Israel in a nutshell.

But why should not having a king be a problem for Israel? One might think it had to do with not having a central government, not having a king to lay down the law and punish evildoers. One might think it pertained to a historical moment, because King Saul wasn’t to be chosen for a few more generations, and the great King David came after him. Perhaps we should look at King Saul’s story for a moment.

Samuel was the last of the judges of Israel, chosen at a very young age to serve the Lord and to lead them in a time when the Philistines were once again attacking and oppressing Israel. Toward the end of his life, the people called out for a king:


1 Samuel 8:4-7 NKJV
4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, 5 and said to him, “Look, you are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.”
6 But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” So Samuel prayed to the LORD.
7 And the LORD said to Samuel, “Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them.”

Do you see the problem? The people wanted a king “to judge us like all the nations”—i.e. they wanted a king to govern them like the pagan nations around them had kings to rule them. And the Lord’s response? “They have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them.” The people didn’t want GOD to be their King, they wanted a man to be their king—and the king they got was Saul. They wanted to do what was right in their own eyes. In short, they wanted no true King of kings in Israel, and every man wanted to do what was right in his own eyes. Does that sound familiar?


Proverbs 14:12 NKJV
There is a way that seems right to a man,
But its end is the way of death.

Proverbs 16:2 NKJV
All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes,
But the LORD weighs the spirits.

We like to think we know better than God what is best for us. We weigh our happiness and our worldly prosperity, we consider the desires of our flesh, and we calculate that what God demands of us—repentance, obedience, and faith—is too much. It is far easier for us to mold a god into the image we desire of him, to build a deity out of nothing into someone who grants our every wish like some super-cosmic genie. We would rather that the true God not judge us at all, and instead love us so much that He gives us free reign to live as we like. And so we twist His Word—the Holy Bible, the two Testaments of His coming, the two Covenants in His name. We warp God’s Word and claim that what He said in the olden days doesn’t apply to us today, that those things were written for a particular historical reality, and that the law has been somehow amended by Jesus to allow for abortion, homosexuality, adultery, idolatry, usury, and murder.


Matthew 5:17-19 NKJV
17 “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.
18 For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.
19 Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus fulfilled the law and the prophecies by LIVING them. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, and He lived as a man and died as a man, and yet He did not sin. He didn’t break the law, He lived it, and so His sinless death bought our redemption and justified us before God. But that justification, that appearance of righteousness, comes at a price for our lives: we, too, must live like Jesus. We must repent of our sins—sins clearly laid out in the law and the prophets—and we must believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ. He lived sinless among us, He died willingly for us, and He lives again to bring us into eternal life and glory with the Father. The law of the flesh—our own desires—is no longer to reign in us. JESUS is to reign in our lives.

No law passed in any land can ever take away the reign of God in our lives, unless we let it. The people of Israel chose time and again NOT to be ruled by God. They refused to be ruled by the heart of the law and the prophets:


Matthew 22:37-40 NKJV
37 Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.
38 This is the first and great commandment.
39 And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
40 On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

If we truly love God, then we put HIS will for us first—and that includes obedience to His commandments. If we willingly break His commandments and then say “His love and grace covers my sin,” then we are blaspheming Him and His holy name and His law itself. Would we presume upon His grace at every turn? Should we assume that whatever is right in our eyes is right in His? Or, should we rather seek to make what is right in our eyes more like what is right in His? Shouldn’t we transform our idea of righteousness into His idea of righteousness?

In the days of the Judges, during the times of idolatry and pride and immorality, there was no king in Israel because the people refused God. And because they refused God’s law to guide them, the one “king” they did have was doing what was right in their own eyes. And we are no different today.

Brothers and sisters, no amount of secular legislation or judicial maneuvering should ever sway us from our commitment to God and His Word. We need not give in to the lie that whatever is right in our eyes is always the right thing to do. We are not to be ruled by a minority that assumes that what is right for them is right before God, nor are we to be ruled by a majority of people who are at best indifferent and who follow that immoral minority like sheep to the slaughter. Rather we are to be ruled by a minority of One, the true and living God. If we are to have any king at all, let it be Jesus, so that our way will not lead to sin and death but lead to repentance and eternal life. Rather than having no king in our lives save our own desires, let us choose instead to be ruled by the one true King of kings, Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.

Father God, we choose life. We choose to be ruled by You and no other. We pray, Lord, that this nation should come out of the darkness and into the light, that they should depart from the slavery to their flesh and their indifference, and come to You and seek Your will and Your way. You have given us clear guidance, and Your Spirit works within us to transform us into the image of our true King, Jesus. May He reign forever in our lives! Amen.

 

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Suffering for Christ

I was blessed today to have the opportunity to share the message of God’s Word at our church, The Well of Iowa. My text was 1 Peter 4:12-19. Rather than post the whole text here, I am posting a PDF here so that you can download it and read it and share it. May this sermon be a blessing and a reminder of what it means to live in Christ’s image.

Suffering for Christ PDF

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