God is in the business of reclaiming cultures.

history

History as a subject was made/broke for me throughout school by my teachers.  I know, I know, true academics love their study because of the nature of study, but most of us were inspired to our field of study by a favorite prof or teacher who made the subject come alive.  My European history teacher in High School did that for me.  But in Seminary, getting to study the history of the Church really opened my eyes to things I had never before considered.  We know the church as it is today, and as we have personally experienced it, but tradition and liturgy have taken fascinating forms throughout the last two-thousand years.  For example, did you know that for hundreds of years after Jesus returned to Heaven that the Church, as a whole, had a practice of fasting two days a week?  Epiphanius, a bishop in the fifth century in Cyprus, made this statement:

“Who does not know that the fast of the fourth and sixth days of the week are observed by Christians throughout the world?”

– Epiphanius

Is there a habit or tradition by which you would identify Christians “throughout the world”?  Perhaps that they gather on Sunday mornings for worship?  There was a book called the Didache that was written in the mid to late first century that helped Jewish-Christians outline their beliefs and identity, and taught pastors how to help Gentiles (non-Jews) to best represent Christ in this tricky period of fulfillment of Judaism.  Some call it the first catechism of the faith.  In the section on fasting and prayer, the first verse or instruction reads:

“Let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on Mondays and Thursdays, but do you fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.”

– Didache, Ch. VIII, V. I

So by the end of the first century there had already been developed a fast on Mondays and Thursdays, but it was a fast of hypocrites – like the Pharisees – fasting for honor among men and not to seek God.  Thus the first century Church set themselves apart to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, to do so differently than those who sought the honor of men, and the tradition was established so deeply that four hundred years later it marked “Christians throughout the world”.

Shortly thereafter, however, Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, and believers were no longer the persecuted minority.  It became political.  Much of the fervor was lost.  Such that by the 15th century, by the time of the reformation, fasting had been lost as a discipline that marked all believers – though it was still present.  With the Church tied to politics, however, there are historical occasions of nation-wide fasting recorded such as in Britain in 1756.  The King called for a day of prayer and fasting regarding the impending invasion by the French, and it is recorded that the churches were full and the nation petitioned God for His protection.  The French did not invade!

What does this matter?  As culture continues to spiral downward into a narcissistic selfish focus, we might forget how dramatically things can and do change.  Specifically, we as a church might become fatalistic in our outlook on the future of the church.  A mere fifteen years ago, many churches had Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday evening services where faithful members came to learn, to pray, and to serve.  Nowadays we do well to get people in for one service a week.   Does that mean that God cannot and will not revitalize a passion in people and call them to committed service?  Most assuredly not!  He can reclaim His people and their passions.  He can restore Himself on the throne of the Church, on the throne of people’s hearts.  He can replace entertainment because He alone fully satisfies.

So let us consider specifically the discipline of fasting.  Do you fast?  Does your church fast?

Then the disciples of John came to Him, asking, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?”  And Jesus said to them, “The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.  But no one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and a worse tear results.  Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.”

– Matt 9.14-17

Fasting has been a discipline of the Jewish people for centuries.  When Jesus came to the Earth as the Messiah, He Himself began His earthly ministry by 40 days of fasting in the wilderness before being tempted by Satan.  But then for a few short years, the bridegroom was present on the Earth.  Israel had been called and identified as the bride of God throughout the Old Testament, and the Jews understood clearly that Jesus was calling Himself God when He declared Himself the bridegroom.  And Jesus’ argument was simple:  Fasting is for mourning and for seeking God’s presence and word, so why would the disciples mourn and seek Jesus when He was with them?  However, once Jesus returned to Heaven and we were left with the Great Commission to make disciples of all the nations, they (and we) would be left to fast until the end of the age – but we would fast with new habits:  new wineskins.

The Church at Antioch fasted when the Holy Spirit set aside Paul and Barnabas for their missionary work (Acts 13.1-3).  Jesus taught the disciples that some demons are only overcome by fasting (Matt 17.21).  And Jesus taught us how to fast – not as an outward show for those around us, but to dress normally and to keep it between ourselves and God (Matt 6.16-17).  This does not mean that we cannot or should not fast corporately, it means that we should not fast for recognition from men.  We both can and should fast corporately, as the church did for hundreds of years.

Have you never fasted?  Do you not have anyone in your community who fasts?  That is just fine because God only needs one willing person to start a movement.  Jesus taught us how to fast and prophesied that we would fast, so let’s get busy about following His example and doing it!

Let us not despair.  God is in the business of redeeming cultures and peoples.  He is in the business of making all things new (Rev 21.5).  And He has given us instructions for how to live, how to worship, and how to spend our time and energy.  Are you the only one you know who is committing yourself to these teachings?  Great!  Be the change that you want to see, and set an example.  God can revitalize the church to commitment.  My guess is that in another one hundred years, we will not recognize the church as it is today, because the health and wealth Gospel, mega-movements and a trendy front do not last.  A life-changing encounter with almighty God lasts.  And that is what will remain throughout the ebbs and flows of culture.  God has always kept for Himself a remnant and He will continue to take His Gospel to every tribe, tongue and nation.  Let us seek to be a part of that body that is known by prayer, by worship, by fasting, by love.

Are you in a New Testament Church?

There is a fad these days amongst Evangelicals when it comes to considering the structure and system of the Church.  Only two generations ago the Church was the focal point of the community where events were held and people attended with or without faith.  During the in-between generation, we fell prey to the entertainment delusion of our society and became event-oriented and age segregated.  In response to the problems this mindset has caused, many are embracing the “Simple Church” model and it is a regular conversation and point of pride to say,

“I want to be [or am] in a New Testament Church”.

Many people do not know what that means, but at it’s core, the sentiment is belief that those first few centuries after Jesus returned to Heaven and the disciples planted churches all across the known world, those churches did it right.  Some people reject a church building and numbers over thirty because stripping the worship service of structure and formality makes it more community based and organic.  Where in the Bible does it say, after all, that we have to have one song, a greeting, shaking of hands, three more songs, a prayer, a sermon, an invitation and an offering?  All in a big building that took most of our offerings for many many years, when we could have been feeding the poor, clothing the naked and housing the homeless?

This type of introspection is good.  We should consider the routines that we establish.  We should examine what ministries and building funds absorb the Lord’s money.  We should step back and make sure that we, as a church, are being good stewards of our time, energy and talents.  But does that mean that the book of Acts should be our model for how we “do” church?

Lest we be deceived, let us consider some of the characters of the early churches that were planted within one generation of Jesus’ ascension:

– Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5.1-11):  The first group of believers that gathered with the disciples were selling their property, their houses and their belongings to make all of their wealth and possessions mutual.  No one had lack, and no one had excess.  Barnabas, one of the first missionaries, sold a field and gave all of the proceeds to the Church.  A husband and wife, Ananias and Sapphira, wanted to receive the praise that Barnabas had received and sold a field as well.  They, however, only gave some of the revenue from the sale, and then lied when they gave it saying that the amount was in full.  The Holy Spirit struck them both dead on the spot.

– (Acts 6.1-7):  That same group, as they were gathering, were distributing their goods and food to everyone, but they were prejudiced.  The Hellenistic Jews (Jews who lived in Jerusalem, but spoke Greek) were a minority and for whatever reason, those who were passing out and serving the food overlooked the Hellenistic widows.  Here we have a group of Christians, united in a body and different only because of language, and those who spoke Aramaic would not give food to those who spoke Hebrew.

– Simon the Magician (Acts 8.13-24):  When the Gospel was taken to the Samaritans, it was accompanied by signs and wonders, and it attracted a certain man named Simon.  Simon worked as a magician and was very famous but when Phillip came to town, Simon was drawn by the signs and teachings and was baptized into the Church.  He then tried to buy the power of the Holy Spirit because he wanted fame and power, not because he believed in God.  They chastised him.

– John Mark (Acts 12.12, 13.13, 15.38):  Peter was imprisoned at the time that James was murdered by Herod, and when Herod set his mind to kill Peter, an angel freed Peter from prison.  Peter fled to a house and the son of the owner was named John Mark.  Barnabas and Saul (Paul) took their first missionary journey to Cyrpus and took him, but then he quit and went home.  He abandoned the efforts.  Barnabas wanted to forgive him, but Paul did not, and the disagreement was so great that the two split ways and Barnabas took John Mark.

– Seven Sons of Sceva and believers in Ephesus (Acts 19):  Paul had planted a church in Ephesus, and there were seven brothers who were exorcists by trade, who attempted to speak in the name of Jesus.  During one encounter with a demon, a single demoniac beat them all up and stripped them all of their clothes.  The fled “naked and wounded” (Acts 19.16).  Those believers who were in the church and saw this finally brought out their magic books and burned them.  They were practicing magic secretly (Acts 19.18-19).

The list goes on and on.  The Early Church, and every church since the resurrection of Jesus has had problems.  Why?  Because it is made up of sinful people.  Consider what Jesus said:

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet cast into the sea, and gathering fish of every kind; and when it was filled, they drew it up on the beach; and they sat down and gathered the good fish into containers, but the bad they threw away.  So it will be at the end of the age; the angels will come forth and take out the wicked from among the righteous, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

– Matt 13.47-50

The Spirit was moving and gathering believers in massive quantities in those days.  The same happens throughout history, in revivals, awakenings and Church planting movements.  The same is happening today.  But when the net of the Spirit draws in all the fish from the sea, there will be good fish and there will be bad fish.

Jesus presented another parable to them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field.  But while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went away.  But when the wheat sprouted and bore grain, then the tares became evident also…‘Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn.”’”

– Matt 13.24-26, 30

Not only will there be bad fish inadvertently caught, it is the scheme of the devil to plant tares within the wheat to destroy the harvest.  And Jesus said, in order to spare the roots of the wheat, the tares will be left to grow until harvest.  To uproot the tares would destroy the wheat.  And Jesus planted and nurtures the wheat, so He will wait until it is time to cut it all down to destroy the tares.

There are tares in every local Church.  There are bad fish in every local church.  Having a New Testament model does not free the Church from prejudice, pride, lying, seeking of power, using money to gain that power, false witness, magic and cowardice.  These things will plague the Church until Jesus comes and reaps the harvest.

Let us beware of the temptation to think that the New Testament Church was perfect.  Let us beware of throwing out the baby of healthy structure with the bathwater of frivolous traditions.  Let us examine our hearts and every activity which we preform in the name of Jesus Christ, seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our worship and service of Him and in our methodologies as a Church.

wheat and tares

Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.

Have you heard the rumors?  The end is coming.  The signs of the age are here.  There are wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, etc.  Surely America has become so vile in our thoughts and laws that the Lord will return any day!

I don’t know about all of that.  My intention is in no way to get political in this post, but I do want to point out the fact that the United States is not the new Israel.  We are not God’s chosen people as a nation.  The new Israel is any and all who are found in Christ – who have repented of their sins and have made Him the Lord of their lives.  We are not politically or geographically defined, rather Spiritually united!

And not only that, but we often get so concerned and scared that the Church does not have enough sway to impact the culture and world.  Yes, I am deeply grieved at the continuing decline of church attendance and moral decay in our culture.  But if glorifying God was not the foundational factor in our morality in generations past, then there is no loss truly to be mourned.  Because morality without God is still damnable.

The Church in the first century was at a highly more vulnerable state than we are today.  There were maybe 500 believers in the world, who were quickly scattered, persecute and killed because of their faith and claims.  The Roman Emperor Nero, by the year 64 AD began persecuting and killing Christians publicly and worldwide persecutions were dominant for nearly three hundred years.  The first multiple generations of Christians only knew existence as hated and persecuted people.  Then the tides changed and because of how quickly and broadly Christianity spread, it was made the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 300’s.  Thus an entirely new threat came upon the Church:  sordid interests.  Non believers bought offices, forced conversions and Christianity became a status symbol and lost integrity.  But it still continued to grow.

Often times when we return to Scripture to remember that our battle is in the Spiritual realm, we turn to Ephesians 6.10-12:

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might.  Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil.  For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

And also to 1 John 4.4:

“Greater is He who is in you than He who is in the world.”

The Holy Spirit indwells believers and gives us power to fight internal sin and to stand strong and proclaim the truth in the midst of Spiritual enemies, making disciples of all nations!  But today I am so moved by and encouraged by the story of Elisha and his servant as they stood before a battle against the King of Aram:

“[The King of Aram] sent horses and chariots and a great army there, and they came by night and surrounded the city.  Now when the attendant of the man of God (Elisha) had risen early and gone out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was circling the city.  And his servant said to [Elisha], ‘Alas, my master!  What shall we do?’  So he answered, ‘Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.’  Then Elisha prayed and said, ‘O LORD, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.’ And the Lord opened the servant’s eyes and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.”

– 2 Kings 6.14-17

God has a purpose for His Church.  He will bring people from every tribe, tongue and nation to repentance and salvation (Rev 5.9).  And He – the Almighty God – indwells all who have repented of their sins and turned to Him for salvation (Ez 36.26-27).  He gives us power from within to fight sin and to represent Him well.  But, we are also standing with an army of angels.  Sometimes it feels as though we are alone.  Elijah felt that and complained to God about Israel:

“‘Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have torn down your altars, and I alone am left, and they are seeking my life.’  But what was the divine response to him?  ‘I have kept for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal’.”

– Rom 11.3-4

And while God always promises to keep for Himself a remnant of faithful people, He also promises to charge a spiritual army around us.

“For He will give His angels charge concerning you,
To guard you in all your ways.”

– Ps 91.11

Llet us always remember that “those who are with us are more than those who with them.”  God is greater in power.  We have more soldiers.  And the battle has been won!  The end is written!  Therefore, let us stand firm.  Let us hold the line.  Let us press on.  Let us honor God.