God Loves A Cheerful Giver – Group Study Questions

Introduction

Why are we often so reluctant to talk (or preach) about money and giving?

Read 2 Corinthians 8:1-7

What impresses you most about the giving of the Macedonian Christians?

What lessons can we learn from their example?

Paul does not command the Corinthian Christians to give generously, so what are the grounds for his appeal?

Read 2 Corinthians 9:6-15

“Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously” (v.6) How do we avoid the pitfalls of legalism on the one hand and prosperity gospel on the other hand?

When preaching on this passage, Tim Keller says “The Bible says … there can be no significant spiritual growth in your life unless you put your money and what you think about your money into God’s hands. Because it’s just too big and just too pivotal an issue“.

Share your thoughts together about Keller’s assertion.

Share some stories about the ‘cheerful givers’ you have known over the years. How did their generosity impact on their own lives? How did their generosity impact on the lives of others?

Consider/Share: What changes do you intend to make as a result of studying this passage for Scripture?

Living Members: Witness

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Reading: Acts 2:42-47, Acts 16:11-15

As followers of Jesus, we know the message of Jesus is the best news. We know God is powerful. We know people are in need. But we struggle to witness. Why is that?

Today, God’s word challenges us to see who God really is. And when we see who God really is, when we accept what he says in his word, we may see the work of witnessing differently. Let me explain:

God is sovereign

When it comes to witnessing, we begin in Acts 1. Just prior to Jesus’ return to the Father, he assured his apostles

“…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”” (Acts 1:8, NIV)

You shall be my witnesses. With the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, this will happen. In Acts 2:47 we see the Lord honouring his promise:

“…And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47, NIV)

See, the first thing we need to understand about witnessing is that it is the sovereign plan of God. It is a work we undertake it in the sovereign power of his Spirit. And when God gives the command, he also provides the charisma. Now straight up that is a rich comfort. You still might not know what to do or say. You may have doubts about your abilities. But you cannot doubt God’s call. You cannot doubt God’s capacity. And you cannot doubt his commitment to bring his plan to completion.

In our tradition, as part of the reformed family of churches, the sovereignty of God is perhaps the core of our theology. Augustine and Calvin were champions of the sovereignty of God. It is the warp and woof of our theological fabric. Strangely, the practice of witness is not a strong point of reformed church life. This is an anomaly. Either we don’t believe the sovereignty of God, or we live in neglect of its glorious implications. My view is we do accept the sovereignty of God, but we do not follow through on its implications. For really, this great truth should make us powerhouses of witness!

The sovereignty of God assures the result God has planned. When it comes to bringing those lost in sin into relationship with his Son, he has the whole process in his all powerful hands. This is what Jesus was talking about in the start of his ministry:

“All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”” (John 6:37–40, NIV)

Church, we have to get this the right way around. It’s not about us forming our mission and asking God to bless it. It is not about us struggling in vain to change people’s hearts and minds. This is about us joining God’s mission, engaging with God’s plan. Everything we do to witness we do in God’s almighty power. Jesus’ words remind us of this. The book of Acts show this happening.

 “…And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47, NIV)

Witness is natural

We see this church living in that comfort:  Since God is sovereign, witness is natural. Natural in the sense that it is standard operating procedure for those who know Jesus. If you’re a Christian you don’t decide whether to be a witness or not. You simply are one. You might be a terrible witness to Jesus. You might be an indifferent witness. You might be a terrific witness. But one thing is for sure, you cannot decide not to be a witness.

Think again of Acts 1:8. Jesus did not say, “Please consider being a witness, when you’ve got the Bible under your belt, when you know all the answers, when the world is no longer hostile, and the blue bird of having-it-all-together sits happily upon your spiritually mature shoulders…”

Jesus simply declares “You will receive power, you shall be my witnesses…”

Something else: God’s sovereignty does not allow us to evade our responsibility. I have sometimes heard people say this in the past, that God is sovereign and he will bring people in his own good time. This is true: God is all powerful, and he draws people to himself and he draws people into churches. More often than not, however, he draws people to his son through the words and actions of his people. In his sovereign plan, God uses means. And he means to use you as his means. You: embracing his will. You: telling the story. That’s what Paul reminded the church in Rome:

“…“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”” (Romans 10:13–15, NIV)

When we see God as sovereign, we will see witness as natural. Think about it: What power does God lack? What wisdom has he missed? What does he not understand about the universe and the people in it? What does he not get about you? What has he missed about your Life? What has he not noticed about your friends and acquaintances? If you take the sovereign God at his word, our witnessing will be natural.

There will still be people who will resist and say, But I am not an evangelist!

Well, maybe not. Evangelism is a gift. Engaging in a specific ministry of proclaiming the good news is something not every Christian is called to do. But witnessing is not a ministry. It is natural Christian behaviour.

The word ‘witness’ carries courtroom imagery for us. So, think about what happens in a courtroom. If you’ve ever been a witness, it was not your opinion or intellect that mattered. Your emotions don’t come into it. The judge is not interested in how you felt at the time. All he wants to hear is what happened. What you saw, and the outcome of those things.

This is what I call the Cluedo principle. The board game gets the various players to work from the given facts to determine what actually happened. It was Mrs Peacock in the library with the candlestick… This is what happened. This is when it happened. This is the consequence.

So, when you witness, you want to be as prepared as you can be, but you don’t have to have all the answers. You don’t have to be able to explain six day creation, or be able to name Methusaleh’s father in law, or know the difference between the Canaanites, the Jebusites, the Vegemites and the Gigabytes. You simply have to say “this is what happened, and this is the impact on my life”.

Here’s what happened: Jesus came. He lived the life we could never live, died the death we should have died. He was raised on the third day. And now he is seated in the most powerful place in the universe. That’s what happened.

And I was living this way, doing this, believing that, and he entered my life, forgiving all my wrongs, cleansed me of my sin, poured his new life into me, freed me from my guilt, made me a new creation. That’s what happened.

Jesus gave me his Spirit, who lives in me and all others who believe. His Spirit is bringing Christ’s new life to expression in mine. I don’t always get it right, I don’t do it best, but by his power my life is changing, here’s what is happening…  That’s what happened and that is how Jesus is changing my life. Would you like to know more about him?

That’s witnessing. This is what happened. This is the outcome. Quite possibly that’s what these people in Acts 2 were doing. Going to the Temple daily, not just to worship together, but to tell people what happened. They were his witnesses. And the Lord added to their number daily.

See, this church was in Jerusalem. A prominent city of the Roman Empire. Historians estimate that at this time, some 20-30% of the Roman Empire were slaves and servants. So a significant proportion of the population were drawn to the message of life and freedom.

From the other end of the social scale, historian Rodney Stark shows how the Gospel was also carried by the rich and famous. People like Lydia (Acts 16): a trader, a successful business woman. Or Cornelis (Acts 10): a Roman Centurion. Well connected in the Roman Army. A God fearer, well connected in the Jewish Temple, and part of the Italian Regiment. They had very little theology. Very little experience. They probably made more than their share of mistakes. These people became powerful witnesses to Jesus simply by talking about what had happened and how Jesus had made a difference in their lives.

They knew God was sovereign. Their witnessing was natural. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Pass the salt…

The word is clear: God intends for us to be witnesses. One of the challenges Christians and churches often feel, however, is that they believe either they or their church is not quite ‘ready’ to witness. The thought is that the church needs to be built up before it reaches out. People say “We need to get our own house in order before we look outside…”

Now, we know good teaching is critical for a healthy church, and that the goal of teaching is to lead people toward maturity in Christ. All true. But one thing you never read in the New Testament is that you have to get one of these done before you start the other. That is, get good teaching sorted, and then work on witnessing, or get a good evangelism strategy, and then worry about teaching. The consistent picture in the New Testament is that alongside healthy teaching a core means to building the church up is to have healthy witnessing and evangelism. Here in Acts they were committed to the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42) AND the Lord was adding to their number (Acts 2:47). They had a strategic goal to equip, they had a strategic focus to reach and grow. Heard that before? That would probably be the Great Commission:

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”” (Matthew 28:19–20, NIV)

So let us understand this very clearly: we will never reach the sort of maturity God wants us to attain unless we are also witnessing to what he has done in Jesus.

With this in mind, let’s ask some questions. Jesus calls his disciples salt of the earth and light of the world.

So ask yourself: Am I salty?

The church cannot be salt unless its people are salty. Bill Hybels asks

Does my schedule and do my relationships allow me to be salty enough, and light enough in a dark world, to remind me what the world is really like?

Of course, we’re all busy. But it’s also true we all get 24hrs a day. Do some of our priorities need to change so we can be more salty?

Can I create some opportunities to witness?

If we’re serious about witnessing to Jesus, we’ll be making sure we’re connecting with people outside church circles. Take people for coffee, or lunch, or chai [why anyone would want to drink Chai is beyond me…]. Even so, pray that the sovereign Lord will give you opportunities to tell what happened and the difference it makes. Those opportunities will come. Step into them.

Am I listening to what people are saying?

Sometimes, improving your witness skills can come by simply intentionally listening for opportunities to tell people what has happened and what difference it makes. Careful listening can pick up when people talk about thing that matter. When we listen to what matters to people, they may also listen to what matters to us. Thinking of it this way we can understand that many opportunities present themselves every week, maybe even every day.

Do I need some Gospel upskilling?

It’s possible that we could all benefit from a workshop where we could improve our skills and get a few tools which might help us be better witnesses. There would have to be some benefit in meeting together to build our confidence and proficiency.

Do I love people?

Isn’t this the most important question of all? Isn’t this the attitude that reflects our Lord’s own love for his world? Isn’t this the attitude that prompted Christ to endure the cross? Surely if we love the people around us we would want the very best for them. We would want them to know Jesus.

Think of the people you know. Some of them are terrific people. Some are better people than Christians you know, right? Imagine what would happen if they became followers of Jesus?

So, pray for God to use your words and your life. Make the most of every opportunity. Share what happened. Talk about the difference Jesus makes.

Do I trust my Sovereign God to work through me and my church?

This is the bottom line. I love people because I want the best ever life for them. I know this life can only come through Jesus. And my Sovereign Lord will lead me, support me, and work in this situation to bring his saving and loving well to expression. This sovereign God has all power. I can trust him to lead me. While I do not know how everything will work out, God does know how things will work out, so all I need to do is say what happened and share the consequences.

This is what powered the witness of the New Testament church. They believed God was sovereign. Their witness was natural. And God added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Living Members: Worship

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Read: Acts 2:43, 46

This week’s sign was a little bit cheeky:

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How many people would have driven past that and said to themselves ‘you gotta be kidding’? In fact, how many Christians would have driven past the sign and said ‘yeah, right’? How many of you looked at the FB post and thought ‘what is that about’?

Worship

We have this issue with worship: we know it’s critical, but it’s not something that often captures our hearts. Some of us, admittedly, will come through the door wanting to hear a good message, or wanting to sing some good songs. But few of us, if we’re honest (and I am not being too unkind), will have walked through the door with a consuming desire to direct our hearts to the living God and worship him with everything we are.

Now, here we read:

“Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God” (Acts 2:46, NIV)

One of the problems with worship is that we read our experiences back into texts like these. And we think it’s talking about people like us worshipping in a place like this the way we do it today.

Bad idea.

Look how Luke begins: “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts…”

It speaks of meeting together. Meeting daily. Meeting in homes. Meeting in the temple. Why? Well for this fledgling church worship was not a time in their weekly schedule. In biblical terms, all of life is worship. The true heart of worship is a Jesus honouring life: heart, soul, and body directed to the glory of the Risen Lord! It’s what we read in Romans 12:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” (Romans 12:1, NIV)

These people met daily in their home, in the temple, because they were worshipping the Risen Jesus. That’s the connection Luke wants us to make. His gospel tells the what Jesus began to do: his birth, life, death, resurrection and return to the father. His sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, tells us what Jesus continued  to do through his Spirit acting in his people.

We cannot escape the conclusion that community is alive! They will never be the same!

  • They are devoted to the apostles’ teaching
  • They have fellowship in the new life of Christ
  • They share compassionately with those in need
  • Their lives are wall to wall worship

How did Jesus come to these people? He came through his Spirit and took up residence in them. This is what Jesus told them a few days before he went to the cross:

“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” (John 14:18, NIV)

This is what we see happening at Pentecost: the Spirit is poured out and the Rien Christ is alive in his church. So we should not be surprised to see them overflow with praise and worship, meeting together as often as they can: daily, sometimes several times a day.

One question we do need to address, however, is what is ‘worship’?

In the New Testament sense, worship means ‘to bow, to kiss, to serve, to worship’. Worship is directing one’s entire being to the praise of God, a spirit of unconditional submission, honour, obedience and praise. Look how it is expressed in Acts 2

“Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God…” (Acts 2:46, NIV)

They were glad! They were sincere! In fact ‘glad’ is a bit of a limp translation. The original denotes an exuberant outburst of joy. This was a true sense of celebration. This is what it looks like to be a living member of Christ! Why? Because worship is the overflow of what you believe in your heart. Here, we can see Christ living in their hearts by the way their lives are filled with worship. Worship is the overflow of the heart. It works both ways. John Stott, commenting on this passage says:

The fruit of the Spirit is joy, and sometimes a more uninhibited joy than our ecclesiastical traditions encourage. When I attend some church services, I think I have come to a funeral by mistake. Nobody smiles or talks. The hymns or songs are played at the pace of a snail or tortoise, and the who atmosphere is lugubrious. But Christianity is a joyful religion, and every meeting should  be a celebration of joy.

One of the great things about reading John Stott, of course, is how he expands your vocabulary. To be lugubrious, in case you wondered, is to be sad and mournful (from the Latin Lugere).

Here’s what is happening in this passage: Luke is telling us two very important things. First: he’s saying, look at these people! They are Jesus’ new community, the new Israel, God’s new society. See what happens when Jesus lives in people? When he gives them new life, new forgiveness, new grace, new understanding of their world and how it works? Their lives become an every day expression of unconditional submission, honour, obedience and praise.

Keep in mind how much a miracle of grace this was. This is the 3000+ people who were added to the disciples’ number at Pentecost. This huge community had grown overnight. And they are meeting in a variety of forms and contexts. In the temple courts (at least they could all gather there) but also in smaller groups in their homes. Despite the fact they are from all quarters and a variety of nations, we see them meeting together daily, gladly, sincerely, joyfully, exuberantly. The Spirit of Christ has broken down the social and ethnic barriers that often keep people apart.

Now, it is obvious that our world is very different to theirs. There are 2000 years, half a world, and many cultural divides between us and the Acts 2 church. So, we need to be careful before expecting every aspect of what we read here be replicated in our own church. Who can repeat Pentecost, for example? Yet we should ask why our worship experience often seems so far away from what we read here. Personally, I do not believe the simplistic criticism of some that if our worship lacks something it is because we don’t have the Spirit, or we don’t have enough faith.

And yet, we should ask why the joy, the attitude of unconditional obedience, the fullness of God in the fullness of life is not as apparent in some western churches. Churches like ours, perhaps. Haven’t you ever wondered about that?

As I said, I don’t think it is because we don’t have the Holy Spirit. But I do sometimes think we allow the ‘spirit of the age’ to quench his work. Isn’t it true that the exertion required to pursue our lifestyle and wants often exhausts our desire to worship and submit? Life’s busyness, life’s insatiable demands, our leisure pursuits, our moral dalliances, even our gross indifference to matters of justice and mercy, so dominates our lives that any intentional mindset of unconditional submission, honour, obedience and praise often simply evaporates.

Don’t you find this happening?

Then don’t give in to it. Don’t confirm to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. One way you can do that is by developing a prayerful, worship intention.

Don’t you think that would change the way we engage when we meet with God’s people – whenever and however that might happen? Isn’t that what we should be praying about before we meet on a Sunday, before we go to our home groups, before we meet with other Christians?

With that in mind I penned a short prayer. You don’t have to use these specific words, of course. But it may just help you focus your thoughts and your heart before you meet:

Lord, I come before the throne of your risen Son. I submit myself fully to you, Lord Jesus, my Creator and Redeemer.

Jesus Christ, I honour you will all my being. I seek to obey you in everything and I commit to ordering my life to your will.

I seek to praise you in every act of life, relationship, work and leisure.

Let my eyes be on you, allow me to focus on you, and have me leave my wants, my desires, and pleasures behind.

In your name,

Amen

Awe

One of the reasons prayers like that might not feature too much in our lives is because we don’t always know what to do with the second thing Luke wants us to see. We find it in verse 43.

“Everyone was filled with awe ….” (Acts 2:43, NIV)

Use European westerners struggle with that little word. Part of the reason is the original meaning includes the idea of ‘fear’. And we don’t know what to do with that. Fear, to us, is being afraid, being terrified, scared witless. How many of us were horrified by the footage of Australian pro surfer Mick Fanning being attacked by a shark?

Mick Fanning - Fear

That kind of fear comes from a very specific part of the brain, called the amygdala. It’s the source of the basic ‘fright or flight’ response. Mick Fanning did not have to think about what he needed to do: it just kicked in. Get me outta here!!

That is fear. But it is not the fear or worship, or the awe referred to in v.43. There is another kind of fear. This fear, this awe, comes from a different part of the brian where responses are reasoned and intentional. This awe is an engaging wonder, flowing from a specific event, resulting in purposeful behaviour.

The Christians in Acts 2 are overflowing with wonder of Jesus Christ. Their awe and wonder flows from the specific event of his death and resurrection, and it results in them purposefully directing their entire lives to his honour and praise.

Knowing this, we will often ask ‘well, if this arises from awe and wonder, what can we do to engender a response like this?’

We often think we need to create contexts which will draw the same response. Some churches have huge auditoriums filled with thousands, stage works, lighting effects, incredible sound systems, massive subwoofers. And what happens there amy well be awesome. People’s lives are often deeply impacted. And so we think: how do we make that happen? How do we create that context of holy fear where we are?

And the answer is: bad question.

See, this awe, the awe and wonder and fear of v.43, is not circumstantial. It’s not a context to be created or managed. This awe is a reasoned response, yes. It involves the mind, the will, the heart and the emotions – the fullness of one’s being. But these people are not responding to what’s happened in the building. They are responding to what has happened on the cross and in the resurrection.

We see this in the context. Peter preaches, proclaiming the confronting truth that his listeners had crucified the Lord of glory, Jesus, whom the Father had declared both Lord and Christ. They realise their sin and were cut to the heart. They asked: what shall we do? Peter told them to repent, to receive the covenant promise of grace in Christ. Many believe and are baptised, and they are this community we read about in Acts 2:42-47.

See the connection? They are not responding to circumstances. They have come under the reign and rule of the risen Jesus! That’s why they are filled with awe! They are so deeply moved by Christ’s grace that they can’t stop worshipping him. Together, in community, they respond in awe: engaging wonder, unconditional submission, honour, obedience and praise.

Not because the lights have come down, not because the keys are playing under the pastor while he prays, or because the preacher is so eloquent.

It’s because of Jesus. They see Jesus. They know Jesus! They know that we went to the Cross – for them – some of whom were responsible for his death just seven or eight weeks before!

THAT’S what is happening here. Awe is the response of wonder from people whose hearts have been cleansed and washed in the blood of an innocent Saviour. Christ in one’s heart will always leads to change in one’s life. It’s Phil 2 a few decades before its time, isn’t it? They have considered Jesus…

Phil 2:6-11

This is what Jesus has done for us! God be praised! Hallelujah!

How can you apprehend that truth and not respond in joyful exuberance and awe! With a considered response which says ‘this is what Jesus has done for me, praise his name, now it’s time to celebrate him with my church family and all of life.’

So, the sign is really true for those who know Jesus, right? Once you undersrahd what Jesus has done for you all you want to do is live a life full of worship!

WORSHIP – IT’S WHAT YOU REALLY WANT

If we don’t understand the cross we won’t ever get the worship thing. And we’ll be stuck in the land of ‘why should I go?’ forever.

These people were filled with awe… they worshipped  daily. In their homes: It is impossible to read these verses and imagine these people thinking an hour on so on Sunday was enough. They are doing life, godward life, together. They shared meals. They shared lives. Their voice echoes down the ages to us, drawing us to connect with people beyond the weekly ‘big group’ many of us call Sunday worship.

They also continued to meet in the temple. This fledgling church challenges our own engagement with worship, doesn’t it? Can you imagine these people being satisfied with a three weekly attendance cycle?

This is a beautiful church because Jesus is in the centre of everything they are and everything they do. Wouldn’t you love to be part of a church like this?

Then stop praying. Stop praying for others to change. Stop praying that God will bring other people. More people.

And start praying. Start praying that you will see Jesus so clearly. That you will consider what he has done for you. Pray that he will change your heart. Pray you will be overcome by his death and resurrection – for you that your life will be filled with worship as it was here. Pray this for your church and for your Christian community.

Jesus did this, for me? For me? Then here’s my life, Lord! I bow before you in full submission, honour, obedience and praise. Let your love overflow in my life, and let my life be constant worship, wonder and awe, for all you have done for me, for all you are doing in me, and for everything you will continue to do through me.

Baptism and Children

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Read: Acts 2:22-24; 2:32-41; Genesis 17:1-17

As we see this little child baptised, we should all be asking a simple question: What is baptism about?

Answer: Promises. God’s promises. In baptism we hear God speaking to undeserving people, assuring them that he keeps his promises. As we hear these promises we are called to respond.

Peter’s words in Acts 2 can be summarised in one simple sentence: God keeps his promises. And he calls us to respond to them.

What the Bible says

In actual fact, Peter spoke to a crowd of murderers. Seven weeks before they had crucified Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, the Messiah. Ask yourself: Could there be a more undeserving crowd? Yet when they understood the gravity of their actions, they were cut to the heart, and asked ‘what should we do?’

Verse 38:

“Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”” (Acts 2:38–39, NIV)

Can you hear the words of promise? The promise of forgiveness and the gift of the Spirit. Given to everyone who repents. And Peter said these people were to express their repentance by being baptised.

But there’s something else going on, too. These people are Jews, and as we learned last week, they knew much of the Old Testament by heart. And there is a phrase Peter used which would have caught their attention immediately:

“…The promise is for you and your children …”” (Acts 2:38–39, NIV)

On face value, they may not mean too much to us. But when Peter’s hearers heard those words, they would have immediately thought of what we read in Gen 17 when God spoke his covenant promise to Abraham. Understanding these words is critical if we are to know why children of believing parents ought to be baptised.

The Lord said to Abraham,

“I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.” (Genesis 17:7, NIV)

In verse 8 were read ‘you and your descendants’

In verse 9 were read ‘you and your descendants’

And in case we missed it, in verse 10 were read ‘you and your descendants’.

So, what’s happening is that the covenant of promise is sovereignly bestowed. And the Lord required that circumcision was how people would show their submission to that promise. What really interests us today is how the Genesis phrase ‘you and your descendants’ is a conceptual match with Peter’s ‘you and your children’.

In Genesis 17, The Lord makes a covenant promise to Abraham and his children. In Acts 2, Peter declares the promise the Lord makes to believers and to their children. In Genesis 17, there’s a context in which that promise is to come to expression: the household of faith.

We are told that Abraham circumcised himself (that is commitment!). But that’s not all: Not only would he eventually circumcise Isaac, yet to be born. He also was to circumcise every male in his household. Every servant. Every servant’s son. Every foreigner who was living with them – even people who weren’t born in Israel. 

Consider the power of that word ‘household’: To us, it’s mum, dad and 2.1 kids. But in this culture, Abraham’s culture as well as New Testament culture, a household was several generations of people living together. Grandma. Grandpa. Parents. Children of all ages. Servants. Slaves. Foreign refuges who were living in that family. They were all part of the household.

“For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant.” (Genesis 17:12–13, NIV)

And that’s what Abraham did, as we read in Genesis 17:23-27. God’s covenant promises come to expression in households, in covenant families.

God’s covenant promises of grace come to expression in the context of the believing family

You may not know this, but this pattern is seen clearly in the New Testament. Check it out:

In Acts 16, Lydia is converted in Philippi. She’s a wealthy woman, a dealer in highly valued purple cloth. As a wealthy business woman, she would have had a number of servants. And we assume a family. Look at how believing Lydia submits to God’s promise:

“One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.” (Acts 16:14–15, NIV)

She believes. Yet her household is baptised. God’s covenant promises of grace come to expression in the context of the believing family.

Soon after, other people are converted. Among them, a demon possessed girl who makes money for her ‘owners’ by revealing people’s secrets. Paul and Silas cast her demon out – which is great for her, but it infuriates those who had kept her as a slave, exploiting her condition. The slave girls owners slap a law suit on Paul and Silas. They are thrown in prison. No big deal: they are chilled and singing kumbaya when suddenly all the prison doors open, and all the prisoners’ chains fall off. The jailer sees this and is about the kill himself, when Paul, Silas and all the other prisoners point out no one has escaped. The jailer is overcome, sees that God is at work, and asks what to do. Now, notice how Paul shows the Jailer how to respond to the promise:

…“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.”” (Acts 16:31, NIV)

He believes, but it has implications for his household. See Acts 16:34

“Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.” (Acts 16:34, ESV)

God’s covenant promise comes to expression in the context of family.

There are other examples. In Acts 18:8, the household of Crispus believed and was baptised. In 1 Corinthians 1 we read that Gaius’ household was baptised (v.14). 1 Corinthians 1 Paul notes he also baptised the household of Stephanus (v.16). In all, five households are baptised. And it is inconceivable that those households did not include children and infants. It actually makes sense that they did, because it corresponds clearly to Genesis 17, where the sign and seal of God’s promise, circumcision, was applied to the household.

So when we take all this information together, what we see is a compelling continuity in the covenant promises of God, and the sign of those promises given in the context of family, including children.

Call and response

Think of what was signified:

Circumcision was a sign that sin need to be cut away. Baptism is a sign that sin needs to be washed away.

Circumcision pointed to the coming Messiah, Jesus. Baptism points back to the Messiah, Jesus.

Circumcision said ‘one day the Lord will do this’. Baptism says ‘God has done this in Jesus, His son’.

Both point us squarely to the action of God in saving his people, and his promise of cleansing in his Son. And the best context for God’s promise to be received, expressed and lived is the believing household, the Christian family.

In the water we hear God speak

This is why churches should never agree to baptise children of parents who do not believe. Churches should not do that because baptism is a sign of submission to God promise. That only has meaning in the context of faith.

That’s why we’re baptising little Daniel today. It’s not because he has faith. He doesn’t. It’s not because his parent’s faith somehow covers him. It doesn’t. It does not guarantee that Daniel will become a Christian: this is why Thomas and Clara promise to surround him with Christian example and influence. We all, along with Daniel, receive this sign and seal of his promises today: God gives grace to undeserving people like us. This is his covenant promise in Christ. We submit, we receive its sign in the context of family. Baptism points us to God. To the Cross. To Jesus sacrifice, which cleanses us from sin.

Today is about promise. In the water we hear God speak: I am your God, trust me, and believe the cleansing I have provided in my Son, Jesus. God can, and does, make this promise to children, to adults, to anyone who trusts in his Son: “I will be your God and the God of your descendants. My promise is to you and your children.”

And so today we hear God speak: Daniel, I will be your God. Daniel, I have sent my Son to rescue you from sin. Daniel, I am calling you to believe in me, to trust me. Your baptism shows I love you, and it’s calling you to love me back! To have faith in the Jesus who came for you.

That’s the one thing baptism does guarantee: and it’s the truth of what Jesus has done. He did not wait for us to love him before he gave his life. He did not wait for us to receive him before he bore the nails. No, while were were enemies, while we were sinners, God haters, Jesus died for us.

God’s covenant promise, made thousands of years before, are fulfilled in Christ. That’s grace! All the richest of Christ, all expenses paid by Jesus, no cost to me. And baptism wonderfully reflects that covenant grace: a promise given to Daniel before he can understand or know or love or receive. A promise of God’s grace, made through the blood of his Son, which cleanses us from all sin.

Living Members: Sharing

LM ppt background

Reading: Acts 2:44-45; Acts 4:32-37

So we have all seen those before and after diet ads. They show a picture of people like “Fred” [not his real name] before he started Weight Watchers. And then there’s a second picture taken after he’s been on the program. The change is unmistakable. In 12 months Fred lost 50kg. He’s a changed man!

biggest loser

Most people’s experience with diet, however, tends to be more like this:

robert-lost-his-glasses

In only two weeks Robert lost his glasses..

Experts are saying that crash diets do not lead to permanent change, so their suggestion is don’t throw out your old wardrobe just yet…

Moving on from diets, let’s talk church: does being part of a church change people? I read some research from George Barna this week which said that 46% of people say their lives had not changed as a result of being part of a church. Would that statistic be reflected in this church, do you think? That around half of us would say our lives have not changed as a result of being part of a church? That would be a very disturbing reality, wouldn’t it?

And it seems a picture very different to what we have in Acts 2:

Sharing…

 “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” (Acts 2:44–45, NIV)

This thought is extended in Acts 4:

“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (Acts 4:32–35, NIV)

Here’s the question: What is happening in this church that moves them to such compassionate sharing? We probably wouldn’t pick it up, but that little phrase ‘there were no needy persons among them’ would have been immediately recognised by the people Luke first wrote to. At this stage, all of them were people who identified as Jews, most of them well versed in the OT Scriptures. Many of them would have memorised at least the first five books of the Old Testament, some of them, even more than that. And a few of them would have know the entire Old Testament by heart. Their minds would have immediately gone to Deuteronomy 15, where the Lord gave commands about using wealth and freeing people in debt. As the Lord outlined how Israel was to live as people before the watching world, he said

“However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you,” (Deuteronomy 15:4, NIV)

In these few phrases in Acts 2:44, and Acts 4:34, God is telling this brand new church something very important: they are now His new people, the new Jerusalem, the new Israel, God’s new community.

That phrase “There were no needy persons among them” was a clear signal that God was living in them. Taken along with the outpouring of the Spirit into the church at Pentecost, it showed they were the temple of his Holy Spirit. It showed the Risen Christ had poured his new life into them! And they would never be the same.

God is telling this brand new church something very important: they are now His new people, the new Jerusalem, the new Israel, God’s new community

And because Christ’s new life was in them, those who had been drawn into Christ’s church considered it unthinkable that rich and poor could exist in the same community. See, when God is present in people, his compassion overflows into their lives, and from their lives into the lives of others. Through his Spirit Christ is living in these people, and has formed them into His Body. He is living in them corporately as the church, and living in them individually as his followers. They are an entirely new community, a new reality, a new spiritual entity.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has said

Because Christian community is founded solely on Jesus Christ, it is a spiritual and not a human reality … which comes from the natural urges, powers, and capacities of the human spirit.
[Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p.21]

The church is not a human organisation, and what we see in Acts 2 & 4 is not typical human behaviour. Christ lives in the church, and his life is poured into this community by his spirit.

This sharing did not come about because they knew one another, because they’d grown up together, or because they were great friends. We saw earlier in Acts 2 this church had grown rapidly: 3000 people had been added in one day. People from all over the known world. So this church would have included some wealthy people, business people, farmers, freedmen, servants and slaves. It was an incredibly diverse community!

But look at what happens:

All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” (Acts 2:44–45, NIV)

Now, this is not the enforced abolition of private property. We know this because many of these people still lived in their own home, we see that in v.46. We see in Acts 12 that people some time later also owned homes. We see in 1 Corinthians 1 how as the church spread into areas like Corinth, that people are still holding meetings in their own homes. People’s homes, in fact, were the primary meeting places for the church as it spread and grew. So, private property was retained, and used to bless the church.

So, this is not totalitarianism. Rather, this is spirit filled transformation of people and their community. These people have had their lives changed by Jesus, transformed by Christ. So the sharing is voluntary. And we can tell by the way the original sentences are structured that it was a regular practice, and it was directed toward poverty and need.

“They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” (Acts 2:45, NIV)

See, these Christians had made a very conscious decision to use their money and wealth to show the grace of Jesus Christ and His Kingdom. And all it took for this to happen, it seems, was for someone to have a genuine need. Followers of Jesus would volunteer cash, or goods that could be sold, or shared, so the needs of that person to be met.

Of course, there is a caveat: this is not about throwing good money after bad, or rewarding poor choices. God does not want his people to sell their stuff so someone can use the money to support their substance abuse, or their gambling habit. Substance abuse and gambling are destructive behaviours. This sort of sharing would have been applied in a way that the restoration of the Kingdom, the values of heaven, would have been brought to expression. Both giver and receiver come under the same transformation.

It is an incredibly attractive picture, isn’t it?

Here’s the question: Would a church like this be a church you would like to be part of?

Materialism

Maybe you’d want to be part of that kind of community. At least on the receiving end. But would you want to be one of the givers? Would you be prepared to share something of your wealth or your assets to assist the genuinely needy?

I think this is a challenge for us, because we place so much emphasis on our possessions. Our struggle is not that our goods are bad. It’s more that it’s so easy to make them gods.

Tim Keller reminds us:

Sin isn’t only doing bad things, it is more fundamentally making good things into ultimate things

If we make good things ultimate things, they become our idols. They take the centre of our lives. They occupy our vision, they determine our gals and values. But when Jesus is Lord of your life, he occupies that place and hold those prerogatives. He is Lord of all, and as Lord of all he intends to cast every idol out.

Jesus in your heart changes how you use what is in your hands. When Jesus is your God, he’ll change how you see your goods.

This becomes more complicated the wealthier our society becomes. Go back generations, and there was less focus on what people had, because so few people had disposable wealth. Today in Australia, we are more wealthy than most of the world, and yet it’s hard for us to contemplate this kind of sharing. It shouldn’t be, really, because whether now, or 200 years ago, or 2000 years ago, Christians have always said that Jesus is their rock.

On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.

Christians have always said that their only comfort in life and in death, is not in what they own, but in that they are not their own, but belong, in body and soul, in life and in death, to the faithful Saviour, Jesus Christ.

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Because Christ holds me securely, I can hold other things loosely. Because I am treasured by Christ, I can treasure another reality:

““Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19–21, NIV)

Our treasure is heaven: that is, bringing God’s reality to expression in our lives. Our treasure is to live put that reality that we are seated in the heavenliness with Christ even now (see Colossians 3:1-4). We are living the life of our new citizenship in heaven.

Because Christ holds me securely, I can hold other things loosely

And look at these Christians! This sharing is a clear indicator that they are doing just that!

Gospel Transformation

See, something has happened and it has changed these people forever. And the thing that has happened is this: Jesus Christ is risen, and he is living in these people. That’s what Paul says in Romans 4:

“We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Romans 6:4, NIV)

That’s what has happened! They have been made alive forever in the resurrection of Christ! They have been drawn into his new community, into his church! They are his new people. In that sense the change that Jesus is working in them is already becoming visible. Jesus is living in them through his spirit, and he is changing they way they lived, and the values by which they lived their lives.

Think of it this way:

Imagine you had a rich uncle. You were his favourite niece or nephew. Imagine you uncle has died, and you’ve just had news that he’s left several million dollars to you in his will. And you will receive that inheritance in 3 months time. October 19, 2015. Do you think your life would be any different? Of course it would! Even though the inheritance had not been fully received, you’d start to make some changes immediately: you would tell people your good news, and the reality of that good news would change your disposition and your behaviour! How could it not do so?

See, this is what we mean when we say we are living a new life. Something has happened: we have the life of Christ! We have been given an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade! And while we don’t have its total consummation, the fact that we have this inheritance makes a difference today, in the here and now.

These people did not have its total consummation: but Christ living in them changed how they lived to such an extent that they used their possessions to bring him glory and to help the needy. They did this knowing not only that something had happened, but that something else was yet to happen. Christ would return, and bring the new heavens and the new earth. And until that happened, their calling was to live the values of that coming existence in their here and now.

It may be true that we lose out on something of the power of Christ’s new life because we do not intentionally live in his changed reality. Because we live like we do not have the inheritance he has given.

R Kent Hughes says

So many people never know the joys of Christian fellowship because they have never learned to give themselves away.

With this in mind, it’s not hard to see how sharing like this is one of the most powerful evidences of the presence of the Holy Spirit. That’s exactly what we read in Acts 4

“…God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them…” (Acts 4:33–34, NIV)

…so powerfully at work in them… – it’s not just a rhetorical expression. It’s the new life of Jesus Christ coming powerfully to expression!

I am incredibly challenged by this. I don’t think I am that driven by possessions. Just don’t ask me if you can borrow one of my bass guitars… Then again, if there was a real need, would I have the desire to put one or two on eBay and give the proceeds toward that need?

I started today by referring to research which said 46% of people were unchanged by being members of a church. Do you think people in the Acts 2 church would have said that? Far from it.

Do you think you would say that if such grace, such spirit power were flowing through you? Far from it.

The reality is, we all want to be this kind of church. We all want to be living members of precisely this kind of community.

Now, I do not know your need, or the extent of your wealth. But perhaps this message is challenging you to step up: “God has blessed be richly, I have some some money, and if there’s ever some genuine need, let me know…” Or maybe you’re being challenged from the other side of the ledger:  “I am so on the breadline, I have been through this awful financial catastrophe, and I don’t know what to do…’

Come, let us pray about it, let’s work this out like God’s people should. Jesus says: it’s time for us to reorient our approach to wealth and material possessions. And if we do, through the grace of Jesus, in the power of his Spirit, our lives will change, our church will change, and our sharing will bring powerful witness to the Christ, who changes everything.

[download sermon audio here, or via iTunes Podcast]

Living Members: Why Apostolic Teaching Matters

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I learned to cook over an open fire when I was am member of the scouting movement. Later in life I developed a taste for Italian. Then, when Leonie and I were engaged, we did some fundraising by making Mexican Dinners for several couple at a time: we did the work, they enjoyed the meal, the school received the money.

These days, things get more interesting because I experiment a little. I have this apron which says “Real Men Don’t Use Recipes”. It reminds me of the first time I baked bread: When you bake bread you use a little salt. Typically, a teaspoon. The problem was that I read ‘tsp’ as ‘tablespoon’, so the bread came out tasting more like cooked play dough. I still made the family eat it. It was OK: They stopped drinking after a few days.

It is important to follow the recipe, right? A good recipe combines the finely balanced relationship between all the essential ingredients. You follow the recipe well, and you end up with a feast!

Apostolic Teaching

What if there was a recipe for a living church? A healthy church? A church that was like a good meal, or a feast? What would the ingredients be? While I’d like to avoid the idea of a ‘cookbook’ for the church, it just so happens we read about those ‘healthy church’ ingredients here in Acts 2.

And the first ingredient Paul mentions is found in v.42

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” (Acts 2:42, NIV)

Before we get to what that teaching was, we need to identify who the Apostles were. On occasions, the New Testament uses the term ‘apostle’ in a wider sense to refer to someone who is sent as a special messenger. Typically, however, Scripture typically uses the term in a very narrow sense to refer to a small group of people who

  1. Had been personally taught by Jesus
  2. Were eyewitnesses of the resurrection

This is critical: because the Bible places great importance on the teaching of these men. And it does so because God wants us to know that their teaching has not been changed over time. Like witnesses in a courtroom, the teaching of the apostles is totally reliable and absolutely trustworthy.

So, if apostles are no longer with us, how can we be devoted to their teaching? We do that by reading their writings, as they are recorded in the Nee Testament. We may not have those men, but we do have their words.

There are many examples of apostolic teaching in the New Testament. Here are some examples:

The Apostle Peter, speaking on the day of Pentecost, preaches the apostolic Gospel:

““…Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” (Acts 2:22–24, NIV)

Or we have the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.” (1 Corinthians 15:3–5, NIV)

Or the Apostle Paul again in 2 Corinthians 5

“…if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. … God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:14–21, NIV)

Even if we consider the truths expressed in those three examples, we cover such themes as: Jesus is True Man and True God. Jesus Christ was crucified for sin. He became sin for his people. He was raised from the dead on the third day. His death reconciled people to the Father.

What we find is that the apostles were tasked by God Himself to communicate core truths like these to the church and to the world.

We see this in what the Apostle Paul writes to Timothy:

“… the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” (2 Timothy 2:2, NIV)

Some years later, and after the New Testament witness had been settled, such core Apostolic truths were formulated into statements of faith which were used as teaching tools by the church. Perhaps the most well known of these is the Apostles Creed (c.325 AD):

I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth
And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
Born of the virgin Mary
Suffered under Pontius Pilate
Was crucified dead and buried
Having suffered the torments of hell
The third day He rose again from the dead
He ascended into heaven
And is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
From there he shall come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit
The Holy catholic church
The communion of the saints;
The forgiveness of sins
The resurrection of the body
and the life everlasting

So, we can say that being devoted to apostles’ teaching involves committing to a body of truth. That is widely recognised. What is not always equally recognised is that being devoted to apostolic teaching is more than adopting a body of truth or giving assent to it. There’s more to being a Christian than simple working your way down the apostolic truth checklist:

Believe God the Father, Creator – check

Believe Jesus is his son – check

Accept the virgin birth – check      … and so on.

There’s more to being a Christian than agreeing to truth about Jesus: Christians are not only informed about Jesus, they are transformed by Jesus.  This is because being committed to apostolic teaching demands a faith commitment to Jesus Christ.

  • Apostolic teaching says Jesus is the Son of God: he demands your allegiance.
  • Apostolic teaching says Jesus died on the cross for sin. You are a sinner, and you cannot save yourself: You need to respond to his sacrificial death.
  • Apostolic teaching said Jesus rose from the dead: you need to bow the knee before his victorious majesty.
  • Apostolic teaching says Jesus lives in people of faith through his Spirit. He empowers them for life and obedience: you need to believe that and live in his power.
  • Apostolic teaching says he’s coming to judge the living and the dead: so, you’ll want to meet him as your Saviour and Redeemer, and not as the one who says ‘depart from me, I never knew you.”
  • Teaching is not just about knowledge. It is also about personal faith, trust, and belief.

So, this NT church devoted itself to the apostles’ teaching, not merely to know about Jesus, but to grow in him. To express their faith in him. To give expression to their relationship with him. Consequently, if we want to be a living church, faithfulness to apostolic teaching is going to be an essential ingredient of who we are and what we do.

As John Stott has written,

Fidelity to the apostles’ teaching is the very first mark of an authentic church.

Devoted Themselves

Once again, have a look at v.42:

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” (Acts 2:42, NIV)

The way the sentence runs shows us they were also devoted to the fellowship, to the breaking of prayer, and to prayer. Today, of course we’re talking about being devoted to the apostles’ teaching.

Let’s think about that word ‘devoted’. It can have a range of meanings:

To adhere to something: to stick with something

To persist in – despite any difficulty, inconvenience or opposition

To be faithful to – like to a person, a spouse, to have relational integrity

To hold fast to something – the opposite of getting blown about by the wind

In each of those examples we can envisage a threat, or a challenge, or simply pressure or temptation to let go, to go soft, not to bother. But the New Testament church would have none of that. Despite great pressure, opposition from the religious leaders in Jerusalem and persecution by the Sanhedrin they nevertheless devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. They adhered to what the apostles taught. They remained faithful to the message of Jesus.

Such devotion was a primary means of declaring their faith in Jesus. As they sat under the apostles teaching they learned more about their Saviour. They understood more about their mission, their calling as his people. They had a clearer vision of what they were called to do.

Today, we need to look at the church, and consider whether our lack of capacity to engage with our world, or to answer h growing numbers of militant atheists, or simply to know how to share our faith stems from a lack of devotion to the apostolic Gospel. We need to ask whether some of growing disconnect between what we believe and how we live might be attributed to our lack of devotion to apostolic teaching. Conversely, if we want our church to be healthy, wholesome, primed and pumping with Jesus’ life, we need to rediscover, recommit to, and at very least, passionate reaffirm our devotion to apostolic teaching.

Challenge of credo

Here’s why it’s important: Last week we considered a church which is radiant with the risen life of Jesus, and holy and blameless in his love. Today all of us must ask: do we really want to see our church become radiant like that? The question may be more critical than what we realise. Consider what happens when a church loosens its grip on apostolic teaching:

  • Children won’t learn about Jesus
  • People won’t hear about Jesus or celebrate the significance of his death, rising and rule
  • The church will have no witness, and nothing to offer to the world around it
  • Within a generation or two, the church will either die, or be gathered around some false cause or idol

Who would want that?

So, once again, the question: Are we hungry for apostolic truth? Are we hungry to see our church shine in this truth? Are we hungry to learn? Then you need to be devoted to apostolic teaching as we find it in Scripture. We will need to stick with it, adhere to it, be faithful to it, hold fast to it. And that  will require recommitment, change and endurance.

If our devotion to the apostles’ teaching is to grow, then each of us needs to ask some questions:

  • How can I place myself in the best contexts to learn the apostolic Gospel?
  • How can I help others understand more of about apostolic teaching?
  • Where are the best places to get together with others to encourage them, support them and find for myself the necessary support to follow apostolic teaching?

You’ll note I am talking about contexts with others, because the best growth does not come on your own, or with a book, or via downloaded audio, or through video on your technology. In Acts 2 this devotion was expressed together, in community. And while I will spend more time on the idea of fellowship next week, allow me just to note how in the Greek word for ‘on your own’ is ἴδιος “idios.” Now, all you have to do is change one letter at the end, and what do you have? That’s right: “idiot”. Enough said, maybe. The Ancient greeks knew that a person on their own was not a good thing. They knew that a person cannot learn or grow effectively on their own. They pretty much were saying, ‘only an idiot would do that…”

Now, that doesn’t mean you should never have a personal quiet time or never do personal bible reading. To say would be ridiculous. But it does mean you can’t rely on your own personal intake of information to grow the way the Lord wants you to grow. So, we are going to be devoted to apostolic teaching, we will need to consider how to do that in community, together.

So: back to the question: what are the best contexts for you to meet with others and learn together how to follow Jesus?

Well, it’s contexts like today: worshipping together, sitting under the word, praying together. It’s Home Groups, where you can process material from Sunday, where you can pray together more intimately, where you can do life and share a meal and wrestle with apostolic truths together.

Here at Gateway Community Church we have three healthy home groups here at GCC. We have enough people for three or four more. Are you part of one? You should be! It’s one of the best ways we can grow in our devotion to teaching. If you opt out of things like home groups, or loosen your commitment to church, you weaken the church and you weaken yourself.

In addition to our weekly meetings and home groups, we as a church also need to find other teaching contexts to deepen our understanding of apostolic teaching. We could consider, for example

  • GCC 101 – where we can consider some of the broader themes of apostolic teaching in Scripture and explore their impact on faith, life and mission
  • Picking up a few units of the Reformed Theological College’s excellent raft of off distance eduction. These are tremendous ways to explore scriptural depth with theological rigour
  • Improving our processes of discipleship, where we do more to develop people’s gifts, where we empower passionate preaching, and develop contexts which clarify and affirm apostolic teaching

The reality is, Jesus built his church on the foundation of apostolic teaching. The better the foundation, the more durable and radiant the structure. May God give us the grace to rise to the challenge and learn from our glorious Saviour as we do so.

What Jesus Thinks About the Church

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“…Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” (Ephesians 5:25–27, NIV)

Consider this question: Are you are worshipper or a consumer?

When you go to your local shopping centre, you are a consumer. You buy your coffee from Jamaica Blue, your Burger from Grill’d, Sushi from the Sushi Palace, and clothes form Kathmandu. You are the consumer, they are the providers. Our culture revolves around this dynamic.

Part of the challenge for us today is that we may be tempted to see our own church the way we see the local shopping centre: as a provider of services. You go to that church for Sunday worship, youth programs, children’s programs, and home groups. In one sense, it’s understandable: these programs are how we connect with our local church community. It can also be a problem: the more we think this way, the more we cease being worshippers and start being consumers, and we start to choose church because of what it can do for us.

Imagine if we chose our spouse like that: for what she can do for us. Imagine the night we go out on our first date we saying something like this:

OK, so here’s the deal. I’m looking for someone who can cook like Masterchef, look like Scarlett Johansen, get the housework done, parent the children, walk the dog, decorate the home, and snuggle up like (use your imagination) … so if that’s you, I reckon this will work fine. But if the day comes when a large portion of that is not happening, you need to know that I will be looking around. My season of love will have come to an end, and I’ll be entering into a season of someone else…

Guys, you say that to your lady, how’s that going to work for you? Even so, many people seem to approach the church that way. And shouldn’t be surprised to find them dissatisfied and frustrated with the church. But let us not focus on what some people might think. Let’s consider what Jesus thinks about the church. This section in Ephesians demonstrates this very clearly. It’s written about husband and wife relationships, sure, but the model for those relationships is how Jesus views the church. So what is that?

Christ loves the church

The short answer: Christ loves his church!

“…Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” (Ephesians 5:25–27, NIV)

Do you say that when the subject of church comes up: “I love my church!”?

Christ does! And get this: He doesn’t start with what the church does, or even what he wants from his church, he doesn’t make demands or set up a program. He just commits to loving it, straight up. At the very least, it is a wonderful statement of God’s sovereign grace. But before we dive into the love Christ has for his church, let’s make sure we know what we’re referring to when we use the word ‘church’.

When Christ loves the church, we know he’s not talking about a building, or even an organisation. He is talking about people. His body. Christians together. Christ loves the people he has called into his grace. He loves this community. He loves this new society. He loves this new humanity. He loves his church because through it he will announce his grand plan to the world:

“His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Ephesians 3:10–11, NIV)

Christ loves the church: he has huge plans for it. Plans that are greater than anything we can imagine. Through his church he will announce his great plan of grace and restoration. Not just to the rulers of the day: to Abbott, Obama, Merkel – but to the spiritual forces of our age. Every power. Every ruler. Every authority. Jesus is saying to these powers: you see this church? You see the community of my people? You might ignore them and write them off, but by my resurrection power through them I am going to restore my creation. You’d best bow the knee and come on board…

Can you see how when we see the church merely as a provider of services, we easily miss Christ’s true intention for it. And if we don’t understand his plan, we’re never going to understand our purpose.

Chuck Colson has said

We cannot understand the church without seeing her as part of the sweeping story the Bible tells, and we cannot be faithful Christians without affirming God’s central role for the church – the living body of Christ. The church is a reclamation project, reestablishing God’s rule in the midst of a world still mostly under Satan’s sway. [The Faith, p.148]

No doubt about it: Christ loves the church! The question we want to answer is how do we see him put this love into practice? We see the answer unfold in Ephesians 5:25 “he gave himself up for her” Right at the outset, Christ’s love is connected  to his death, to the cross. Think of the importance of those words. The reality is this: You won’t understand the church until you come to terms with the price Jesus paid to love it. The eternal Son, through whom everything was created, counted his glory as nothing, was rejected, suffered beatings and scourgings, was nailed to a cross to pay for the sin and to bear the punishment of undeserving people. That was the price he paid to love his church. The redemption he won was more costly than we can ever understand.

This redeeming love comes to expression in two key phrases in Ephesians 5:25-27:

First: He gave himself up for her to make her holy  Negatively, something had to be fixed, and that was the sin and rebellion of humanity. In Christ’s death he paid for all their unholiness. He cleansed them on his cross. As he bore their punishment he absorbed into his perfect being the wickedness of their heart, all their open rebellion to God’s loving care. In the acts of sacrificing himself up for this church, he separated his people from a rebellious and fallen humanity. He made them holy through his blood.

Christ did not chose these people because they were holy. They were dead in transgressions and sin (Eph 2:1). They were rebels. Rather, he made this plan, he chose them before the creation of the world, to make them holy. He fulfilled his plan in time, as v.25 reminds us, through the washing with water through the word: shorthand for the preaching of the word and baptism. What he planned in eternity he brought about in time because of his love.

So through his death he made them holy. He fixed what was broken.

“…Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word,” (Ephesians 5:25–26, NIV)

Secondly, and positively, he wanted his risen life to shine gloriously through them!

“…Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her … to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” (Ephesians 5:25–27, NIV)

Christ did not love his church for what she already was (because she was not much). He loved his church because of what she could become, because of how his grace would transform her. He will transform that church into a glorious, beautiful and radiant bride who resembles his true intention for humanity. He will remove the warts. Surgically treat the blemishes and stains. Apply his grace to all the wrinkles. And she would be gorgeous!

It will be such a beautiful change, that people will look at this new community, at this church, as say ‘hey, that’s a beautiful community! That’s just what life with others should be like! I love what’s going on there!

God always had this plan for his church. When his people were camped on the border of Canaan, the Lord told old Israel why he was showering them with his love, and it turns out to be a very similar picture:

“Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself…

[That is: I love my people and expend myself to rescue them]

…Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’…”” (Exodus 19:3–6, NIV)

Something had to be fixed: So in His death He cleansed her from her sin and rebellion. Something needed to be brought to life: He took up residence in her to make her beautiful and glorious and beaming with resurrection life! Isn’t that a beautiful picture?

Have you ever heard that platitude “God wants us to be all he has planned for us to be”. Truth is, sometimes I think that sort of language is a bit soppy. A too bit chick flick for reality. But the glorious picture of Ephesians 5 is no platitude! It has real substance! This is the ‘all’ Christ wants for his church: He wants it to be a brilliant community.

Gracious.

Open.

Inclusive.

Compassionate.

Creative.

Friendly.

Life giving.

Grace breathing.

Glorious.

Radiant.

Beaming with life!

This is what he wants for us! Right here in our church! Right here at 63 Spencer St, Cockburn Central!

He wants us to overflow with his life and love! And size? Size does not matter!

Love matters!

Grace matters!

Life matters!

Wow!

Now, here’s the question: Do you love the church like Jesus loves the church? Not so much because of what it is, but because of what he wants it to be?

Do you love the church like Jesus loves the church?

It’s a critical question because there’s a confronting implication: you are either working for that purpose, or working against it.

You might think you’re OK sitting on the fence. Like when you go to McDonalds you can decide pickle or no pickle. You might think you can come and go, and take a bit of this and a bit of that. But here’s the challenge: That ‘take what you like’ approach is not true Christianity. It is not following Jesus. It is not biblical church membership.

We look at Christ, and we see what he was prepared to do to love his church. How he suffered and died and bore all their sin. How he did that to create a glorious new community. How he has drawn you into that, and how more than anything he wants you to see and taste the love he has for this church. He wants you not only to be part of that church, but to love it, and seek its blessing.

Today, he is calling you to be committed to this church, to his church. To long for it to be radiant and beautiful and glorious and overflowing with love and life and grace and hope!

Is that what you want for your church?

Some here are working very hard to see the church become radiant, but some are on the sidelines. God is saying: you cannot sit on the sidelines. You cannot stay on the fence. Why not? Think of Jesus. Jesus didn’t stay on the sidelines, or sit on the fence. Jesus didn’t hold back. Jesus was not prepared to toss in a few coins. He went all out. He went to the Cross, out of love for his church. He did this because he could see a better day! He looked forward with joy to what his beloved church would become!

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:1–3, NIV)

Christ loves his church! He is calling you to have a love like his, to give yourself for what the church must become, not for what it is.

In the next weeks we will see how he is calling you to commit to biblical teaching, the apostolic Gospel; to fellowship, celebrating what we have in common; to engage in compassionate and merciful sharing; to give your heart to worship, more than what you have been; to be witnesses and signposts of His grace, and to work hard to build a church of gracious, winsome, redemptive character.

Jesus loves his church. As we see the depth and cost of his love for us, how could we do anything less?

New Series: Living Members

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This week we start a new series at Gateway examining some of the core activities of the church, the body of Christ.

The first in the series explores Christ’s own views on the church: a wonderful comfort and a timely challenge for Christians today.

The sermons that follow explore some common territory in Acts 2 and 4. Examining the New Testament church will help us assess our current ministries, corporate priorities and individual responses.

My prayer is that this next series will encourage you to deepen your engagement with your church and your love for Jesus.

Grace and peace,

Dave

DEEP – Distant – Group Study Questions

Warming up:

Have you ever had a sense that God was far away? What were the circumstances?

Read Psalm 63

Henry Nouwen writes: “I wonder if the Word of God can really be received in the center of our hearts if our constant chatter and noise and electronic interactions keep blocking the way of the heart.” 
  • What other things might be interfering with sense of close fellowship with God?
King David occupies a special place as a great leader of God’s people in the Old Testament. How might his experience of being distant from God be reflected in the modern days followers of God?
“Even if it feels God is far away, even when you feel you are far away form God, he is still with you.”
  • To what extent does this reflect the Bible’s teaching? What comfort or challenge does this present to you or your discussion group?
How can your church or Christian community bring the grace of God’s presence to greater expression
  • in your meetings
  • how you deal with one another
  • how you do mission in your world

Close

Spend time in prayer, asking God to bless your specific attempts to bring his presence to expression.

DEEP – Distant

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[This series of sermons explores some of the challenges people face in their spirituality. This sermon “Distant” is third in a series of four sermons]

Psalm 63:1-8

This week I discovered I have a serious mental disorder. It turns out I have PSTD: Post Synod Tiredness Disorder.

The previous week saw the Synod of the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia meet, and delegates like myself worked 12 hour days, with committee work and other responsibilities beyond that. It’s not hard to imagine how tiring that sort of schedule can be.

So, I was sitting in my office the following Monday thinking I needed to get some work done on this message, and I just couldn’t concentrate for that long. I found I was restricted to pastoral hack work: emails, phone calls, catch ups, and stuff like that (apologies to anyone I may have visited or phoned Monday afternoon, as you have now been recipients of pastoral hack work…)

It’s not an uncommon picture. Life is so busy, and when it’s particularly full on, it’s easy to become discombobulated.

Discombobulate |ˌdɪskəmˈbɒbjʊleɪtverb [ with obj. ] humorous, chiefly N. Amer. disconcert or confuse (someone): (as adj.discombobulated:  ‘he is looking a little pained and discombobulated’

As Christians, we need to think about the level of our busyness, and ask whether it’s really helping us live well and connect with God.

Henri Nouwen writes

I wonder if the Word of God can really be received in the center of our hearts if our constant chatter and noise and electronic interactions keep blocking the way of the heart.

All that chatter and noise is actually making it hard to relate, not only to God, but to one another. If you’ve caught a train recently, you’ve probably seen something like this, right?

Passengers

You even see people doing this in restaurants, when they should be connecting and communicating meaningfully. So, what’s happening? The technologies that promise connection, community, togetherness are often at work to keep us apart.

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The writer of Ps 63 is longing for a connection with God, but there is a gulf between what he wants, and what he has:

“You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water.” (Psalm 63:1, NIV) 

In one sense, his words are not surprising. In the Old Testament, God’s presence was restricted to the Temple in Jerusalem, and at this point this writer – King David – had been forced into exile in the wilderness, far away from Jerusalem and its Temple.

But in another sense these words catch us unawares, because this is King David. The apple of God’s eye. The man after God’s own heart. Leader of a people of faith. We would say he is one of the greatest figures of faith in the Bible. And he is distant from God?? So distant he feels it physically??

People of faith will relate to this. Because you’re a card carrying Christian does not immunise you against spiritual distance. It may be life experiences, significant trauma, unemployment, relationship breakdown, overwork – we can come to a point in life when you realise ‘I feel so far from God!’ True?

‘I am with you’ – God

The surprising thing is that while this Psalmist feels great distance, he still takes comfort in God.

Psalm 63:2-8

Surprising, I say, because many think that if there’s distance in between them and God then God will not be happy. And if God is not happy, he gets all stand offish. And a stand offish God won’t mind the distance, or so we think. We see God as one who really couldn’t be bothered with people who couldn’t be bothered with him. But here’s the thing: you may be distant from God, but he’s not content to leave you there. One of the most surprising things about God is that he is with you even if you don’t want to be with him.

Ever thought about that? Even if it feels God is far away, even when you feel you are far away form God, he is still with you?

Hundreds of years ago John Calvin wrote that every person has this sense of divinity, a deep seated awareness that there is a god, a greater meaning to life, a bigger story that makes sense. Now, here’s the astonishing thing: this sense of the divine is not just something ‘religious’ people have. Two thousand years ago Paul the Apostle spoke to a bunch of philosophers and trend setters in Athens. None were Christians.

Even if it feels God is far away, even when you feel you are far away form God, he is still with you?

But this is what he said:

““The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’” (Acts 17:24–28, NIV) 

Did you catch that? He is not far form any of us; in Him we live and move and have our being. 

So, you might feel far from God, but God is not far from you.

You could say if you’ve ever found yourself wondering about life’s meaning, wondering whether there’s something, someone that makes sense of life, that gives us meaning, this is really God already at work in you. He made you. He made your world. And in the same way you want to be close to your children, God wants to be close to you. He’s not waiting for you to convert (as good as that might be), or to stop swearing, or start speaking churchy kind of language. His presence in your life does not depend on you doing anything.

Why? Because he’s a God of grace. He blesses you with his nearness simply because he is a good and loving God. He gifts you with his presence in your life. Pretty amazing, right? There’s an even more amazing fact: despite weakness of faith, or even an irreligious character, he sent his son Jesus to guarantee his presence in your life, your family and your world.

“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 1:9–11, NIV) 

They didn’t recognise him. They didn’t receive him. But he came anyway! That is what we call grace. Undeserved mercy.

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14, NIV) 

More: Jesus not only came to be with people, he came to draw these people who neither recognised him nor received him back to God. And he did it through the event we celebrate on Good Friday: his own death on the Cross

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”” (John 12:32, NIV) 

This is what it means when we read “God so loved the world”. God gave his one and only son, who would give his life on a cross to bring you back, to reconcile you to himself.

Here’s the point: God is nearer than you think. He is close to everyone. Believer. Irreligious. Even those opposed. Even atheists like Richard Dawkins – he is never far away from the God he does not want to believe in! See, because Jesus went the distance, any distance you now sense between yourself and God has been overcome.

Isn’t this is an incredible comfort? If God is even close to those who hate him, how much more is he with those who love him!

This is the assurance Jesus gave when he returned to heaven:

“…Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”” (Matthew 28:20, NIV) 

And after Jesus returned to the Father, he gave his Spirit to the church, to live in every one who loves him, as a seal of his presence and nearness:

“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—” (John 14:16, NIV) 

It’s all pretty clear: God has done everything he possibly can to ensure there is no distance between him and his people. He even sent Jesus to close the gap completely. Think about that:

God wants you, even before you wanted him.

God sought you, even before you sought him.

And even where you sense a distance, as far as God is concerned, he is committed to you with a faithfulness that we can scarcely comprehend.

Draw Near

So: how do we respond to this? Short answer: Draw near to God!

You’re looking for a bigger picture, a greater story, something that makes sense of your world, something that offers hope. Drawing near to God through Jesus is the way to this true life.

This morning we witnessed a baptism. And when two parents make their baptismal vows, they are actually making a confession of faith: that Jesus has bridged the gap, gone the distance, dies in their place and reconciled them to God. They are saying they will order their lives and witness so their little child will understand there is no other way to find life than with God through Jesus.

Think for a moment about physical hunger. I remember some years ago filling up my car with petrol early one morning. These two school kids – maybe 9 or 10 years old, upper primary – were walking out of the service area as I walked in to pay. One had two cans of V, and the other had a bag of chips and some snakes. The attendant saw me looking at them, and said ‘that’s their breakfast every morning.’ Best diet, much? I can imagine their teacher an hour or to later when these guys are high on caffeine and sugar!

Why do people feed themselves on things that can never bring them to health? In a similar way, why do we keep seeking life when we will only even find it in Jesus? If we’re longing for a connection with real meaning, with true life, we will only ever find it fully in relationship God. If we are distant from God, and feeling a spiritual hunger, why do we try to satisfy it with things that can never deliver?

God is saying to you: I am right here. I am with you. So close. So near! I am the closest friend you’ve ever had (or perhaps the closest friend you’ve never had!). I am the best life you can ever live! I am the hope that sits in your breast. I am the way, the truth, the life!

So, what should you do?

One: quieten yourself. With all the busyness around you, find a place at home where you can think about life and God. I like to find a place where it’s quiet, a place where it is warm and inviting. That’s where I want to sit and read and pray, and have the God who is near speak to me. Or I get out into the bush. Breathe some fresh air. Feel the sunshine. Just take a notebook and a pen, and let my thoughts flow. Sometimes that quietness is just what we need to know that he who says he is near is actually with us.

Two: Pray Simply – you don’t need holy language. You don’t need to be particularly religious. You don’t need to be in a holy place. God is everywhere, so anywhere is holy. Just breathe those simple words

“God, thankyou for opening the way back to you through Jesus. 

God, please draw me close to you. 

Open my heart. Open my eyes. Open my mind to who you are, and how you have removed the distance in Jesus…”

Three: Ask God to accept you in Jesus 

“And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6, NIV) 

And I am in no doubt that God will do exactly that. He has promised to do so:

“All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” (John 6:37, NIV) 

And here we were thinking we had to bridge the gap. No doubt, God wants us to believe and trust. But the gap is already bridged, the distance is resolved through Jesus’ death and rising. So with in an attitude of thanksgiving for the Jesus who has bridged the gap for you, quieten yourself, pray, and ask that this races God accept you in and through his son.