Right now there are…
- Abortions being performed in Louisville
- Tomato pickers being oppressed in California
- Brick masons being enslaved in India
- Girls being raped for profit in the Philippines
- Husbands who are forced to work on fishing boats in the Atlantic and Pacific who will then be shot and thrown overboard after the fishing season closes
- Coffee growers being exploited in Bolivia
- Families being killed in Sudan because of the tribe they’re from
- Orphans being made in South Africa by AIDS
- Retiring missionaries not being replaced because there is not enough financial support for replacements.
- Believers being martyred in Saudi Arabia
- Political prisoners being used as lab rats for poison gas testing in North Korea
- Scientists refining nuclear fuel in Iran to be used for evil
- Homeless wandering the streets of Atlanta
- Teenagers driven into drug trafficking by poverty and peer pressure in Detroit
- Children being taught in schools in Berkley that homosexuality is as normal as heterosexuality
- Power players swinging dirty deals for political gain in Washington
- Murders happening in Tulsa
- Children sorting through heaps of garbage in Phnom Penh to keep from starving
- Kind hearted husbands and wives who want to adopt but cannot because of a lack of money
As much as they all break my heart, and the heart of every Christ-follower with me, the sad truth of the matter is that I am utterly powerless to influence almost every single one of these evils. I can tear up at the videos of starving children and be outraged at abuse and horrified at corruption, and yet none of those actually work towards any kind of solution. None work toward alleviating the suffering experienced by those who share God’s marred creation with me.
So what do we do when we stare across the landscape of our 21st century world and realize the shockwaves of the curse have crumbled to pieces far more than we could ever piece back together? Withdrawal is always an option, an option embraced at different times by different Christian groups. “If the world,” they say, “is going to hell in a handbasket, then let them go.” But this does not seem to capture the spirit of Christ declaring that what is done to the least of these is done to him. It does not seem to explain his meals with prostitutes and tax collectors and consistent seeking out of those marginalized by society.
It is here in acts of Christ we see how we might seek to both roll back the curse and not lose our sanity as we stare down the enormity of evil clutching our world. Wherever Christ went, he did good. He did not journey to Rome and topple the pagan Roman government. But he did cast out demons from Roman soldier’s sons. He did not topple the corrupted Sadducee’s stranglehold on the temple economy. But he did clear them out twice with a whip when he was in Jerusalem.
We cannot each individually address all of the evils in our world. But we are placed in unique situations with unique interests, meant to channel our God-given abilities, gifts, and resources toward the redemption of that sphere of life. I live in a dorm of college men who aspire to be preachers. And so talk of fellowship and purity and community and doctrine and love of the brethren will dominate my time and energy. Evangelism will not. But you are in a different place. Be faithful there, and I will seek to be faithful here. And as we go and you meet the Indian refugee whose family escaped from the brick masonry slave pits, you will throw yourself into that cause. And I will meet someone else with a different past, and we will concentrate on that evil to be unwound.
We’re not individually called to address every single issue that we might within the world. Rather we’re called to do good, preach the gospel, and live out gospel implications in a contagious manner to whomever the Lord would have us meet. And I will delight in your ministry and pray for you, as you delight in mine and pray for me. Let us all seek to be faithful in our tempestuous world. We’ll see you in the fray.
The disciples did not know that it would be the last question they would ever ask of Jesus. “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” Many things had come to pass that this little band of dusty men would have never expected. The fresh wine of Jesus Christ had burst the old wineskins of their expectations. The Messiah was rejected. The Messiah was crucified. And the Messiah rose again. Now, with all of these unexpected detours finally accomplished, Jesus’ friends turn to him again and ask the one question that has dominated their thinking since the very beginning of their ministry with him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”
The answer is yes. The kingdom has been restored to Israel. But the identity of the Israel to whom the kingdom has been restored is different than the disciples imagined. They have put together some pieces of the puzzle correctly. As they walk away from the temple, fresh threats of the rulers and elders ringing in their ears, they quote David in asking “Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain?” (Acts 4:25). The lips breathing forth lies were not uncircumcised, but circumcised. The disciples identified the elders and the chief priests as Gentiles, as people in opposition to God’s purposes of redemption. The kingdom has been restored, but to the Israel of God, not the Israel of flesh.
The new identity of the kingdom is a work in progress for the early church. Ethnic enmities do not die quickly. Upon his return from the house of Cornelius, Peter finds himself immediately accosted by members of the circumcision party, contending that it was evil for him to have gone and eaten with the uncircumcised. Years later Paul would put into clear theological terms what those Jewish believers came to understand that day, that “we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh” (Phil 3:3). Indeed the conversation between Peter and the rest of the apostles in Acts 11 marks a turning point in the book of Acts, for then it is discovered that, “[T]o the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).
Not only did the disciples misunderstand the identity of Israel to whom the kingdom was being restored to, they also did not grasp the nature of the kingdom itself. As Pilate investigates Jesus regarding the Jews’ charge that he claimed kingship over Caesar’s domain, he receives the reply, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). It is telling that Pilate entirely believes Jesus’ words. He might be deluded, but he is not the kind of man who would lead an insurrection to overthrow the Roman empire.
But Jesus’ kingdom is not benign as Pilate would dream it. Though it is not of this world, neither is the ultimate kingdom behind Pilate’s own. When offered all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worship, Jesus does not dispute Satan’s claim to dominion and possession of the nations. Satan is the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph 2:2) and “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). For the kingdom of God to advance, the kingdom of Satan must be beaten back. Jesus had given his followers a taste of their coming ministry in Luke 10. As they return triumphant from watching demonic oppressors melt before he declared, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18). Through the work of the person of Christ the kingdom of God has been guaranteed victory. Satan has been unmasked as usurper and deceiver. What the disciples finally came to understand was their role in this victory: Go therefore, and be restoring.
I stopped by our sister hotel tonight after work to deliver a piece of wedding cake to my friend and (soon to be) fellow seminarian, Matt. We had hosted a renewal of vows ceremony earlier that day, and I was made distributor of several pieces of confectionary goodness. As Matt and I chatted and set up a time to hang out in the upcoming days, a guest walked up. I knew from the moment he opened his mouth to order a couple of Coors Lights that it was going to be an interesting conversation.
“The table isn’t real. And the chairs aren’t real. And all that is isn’t real. You see, people, when they die, they don’t go nowhere. They stay right here.”
“You know, I’m leaving Kentucky tomorrow and nobody here’s heard my story. I was up in Milwaukee since 1977 and I took a house and blessed it in the name of God. And I made it famous. But I burnt it all up in the ashes and rubbed it all over my hands.”
“My name is Magnificent. And I was up in New York City and I was blessing houses in the name of God and burning them all up to pieces. And we needed a name for it all. And so we picked something people would understand. God. G-O-D.”
Feeling compelled to say something here, but rather stunned and entirely unsure how to respond.
Magnificent: “When I was in California, I drove to Milwaukee with a whole bunch of wood. It was about this big (gestures about the size of a bumper sticker) with the words ‘God Bless This House’ written on it. Kept it for a long time. And I burnt it to pieces and made it all ashes. And I blessed 37 houses up in Milwaukee in the name of God.”
Me: “Uh, well…uh, what do you mean when you say God? Who is God?”
Magnificent: “Whoa man, that’s deep. That’s really deep.”
Me: “Uh, yeah.”
Silence. Jesus. You need to tell him about Jesus.
Magnificent: God is just, well, we needed a name for me, something the people would understand. So we picked God.”
Me: “The Bible says that Jesus Christ is God. And no man comes to the Father but through Him.”
Magnificent: “Yeah, well Jesus is around here somewhere.”
Me: “No man, Jesus is sitting at the right hand of the Father because he died and then rose from the dead.”
Magnificent: “But the stones. There were the stones. Well I was burning to ashes, and all over the newspapers. And I was up in Colorado. And California. But I burnt them all to pieces back in 1983.”
Me: “Well, I’ve been on the front page of espn.com before and–”
Magnificent: “Have you been on the front pages in Mexico and Africa and all over the world?”
Me: “Nope. But I’ll tell you this, Magnificent, those papers are gone and done. Jesus Christ, he’s on the best selling book in the history of the world. And he’s the only one who’s truly Magnificent. You feel me, brotha?”
Magnificent: “But those papers–”
Me: “No, man, best selling book in the history of the world, brotha. Best selling in the history of the world. You feelin’ me?”
Magnificent: “Well…yeah. Yeah, man. All right, man, all right. I feel ya. I feel ya.”
And away he walked with his two Coors Lights, leaving two seminarians scratching their heads in bewilderment and wondering who on earth they just told about Jesus.
I glanced at my boss as he tried to freeze his smile in place. The conversation had been innocuous enough, a guest talking about his rather passionate distaste for the plastic flower vase that came standard in his wife’s Volkswagen Beetle. But then he switched tones to the universal we-all-know-’bout-them-queers voice and quipped, “I mean, some guys are cool with the plastic flowers and all in their car, but they’re usually the ones with the rainbow stickers and all on the backs of their cars, if you know what I mean.”
Little did he know that one member of the conversation was openly gay.
Perhaps unlike any other sin, homosexuality conjures up the ‘us verses them’ mentality within our hearts and our churches. Preach a sermon on the evils of homosexuality and the degradation of American society and you’ll have ‘amens’ flying like teenie-bopper screams at a Justin Bieber concert.
This demonizing of homosexuals is Satanic on a number of different levels. And I do say Satanic intentionally, for it tears down some in our own midst and drives away others who might otherwise become our brothers and sisters.
First, it communicates to believers who war against homosexual impulses in their own hearts that they are substandard Christians for having to fight that battle. Victory against sin will not be achieved without the help of the community of believers, and by demonizing one particular sin those individuals who struggle with it are cut off from the very thing that they need to help them win, for their sinful struggle is something that would lead to the community condemning them as well.
And second, it destroys the message of the gospel. Do we treat the rest of the unconverted like we treat the homosexual unconverted? Do we respect the homosexual unconverted in our speech the same way that we to the arrogant unconverted? Our actions should be winsome to both. Are we as winsome to the man who frequents the Pink Pony as we are to the woman who worships $500 purses?
I think part of what fuels this is the definite “creepy” factor in homosexuality. It opens a lot of doors that we don’t want to look behind. We’re used to thinking through the implications and questions about pride or lust or gossip. But the questions homosexuality produces are strange and uncomfortable. Does my male boss think that I’m cute? Suddenly that’s a question that’s on the thought radar.
As dangerous as this sounds, we have to normalize homosexuality in our Christian culture. By “normalize” I do not mean that we should consider homosexuality an acceptable practice that glorifies God. He abominates it. Those who practice it are hell-bound. But as a sin, it cannot shock us. We must not react to it with the demonization of its practitioners. Homosexuality is an understandable byproduct of Genesis 3, and we live in a post-Genesis 3 world. It doesn’t take long for humanity to move in the text from “naked and unashamed” to the attempted homosexual gang-rape of angels.
In a world that either reacts with bigotry or blessing, we as Christians must show a third way. We call to repentance out of a deep desire to see them know Christ, to find what they’re looking for in all the wrong places. But we also respect and treat with honor and compassion and kindness, for those we are called to render to all men, not just those that live like us.
“Sir, you are using a different dictionary,” I said to the man standing before me yesterday evening.
The conversation had begun when he had asked for a knife from the hotel kitchen to slice his loaf of french bread with. He noticed my copy of How to Read a Book sitting on the front desk counter and asked if I was reading it for an English class. No, for a Biblical Hermeneutics class – how to study and interpret the Bible. He asked if I was to be a pastor. Yes.
“How about you, sir? Are you religious?” I asked.
“I believe that Jesus Christ died for my sins.”
“What church are you a part of?”
“Latter Day Saints…What do you think of us?”
I could not tell him anything other than the truth. I would look upon my hands come judgment day and see them covered in his blood should I not as Ezekiel 33’s watchmen condemn my cowardice.
“Sir, I believe that you are not Christians, that you are not saved.”
“I’ve agreed with everything you’ve said so far.”
“Sir, you are using a different dictionary. How I define grace and how you define grace are entirely different.”
“How would you define grace?”
“Unmerited favor. We do nothing that merits the kindness of God.”
“I believe that.”
“Sir, that is not the official teaching of the Mormon church.”
“Don’t you think I’ve studied my own religion!”
“Sir, which would you say comes first, grace or works? Do works produce grace, or does grace produce works?”
“Well, isn’t that just semantics?”
Is it? Is it just semantics? Stare into your own soul and understanding of the gospel and answer that question. Is the razor-thin wire that we walk which is the truth that saves concerned with the order of grace and works?
My Mormon hotel guest would pile that question upon the tangled trash heap of philosophical folly, doomed to rest next to ponderings upon the chicken and the egg.
Does it matter?
“No sir, it is not semantics. I believe it is the difference between eternal life and eternal death.”
If works come first, I save myself. It may be all perfumed up in a pretty dress, peddled as the idea that though we may not ever work our way back to God, He looks upon our good works and matches them with His grace, saving us.
But such is the gospel of the damned. Semantics? No. A thousand times no. God has closed the door upon my works. He will pay the whole bill or none of it. Saving grace that is given in a response to my good works is not grace, for grace is unmerited.
And that is the gospel. God enlivens dead human souls, who then in their joy turn and worship Him with their hands. Without this, there is no Christianity. Poets have written of it, the wealthy have spent their fortunes to spread it, martyrs have bled for it.
It is not semantics.
Every year the Cornerstone Youth Group travels to Sultata, CA to work at Gleanings for the Hungry. Gleanings is a peach processing plant that takes donated cull peaches from local supermarkets and turns them into dried fruit to be shipped to hungry people across the world. The plant is operated by youth groups like ours who come and run the machinery for a week at a time. During our week at Gleanings we processed 650,000 pounds of peaches (which is approximately 2.1 million peaches.) It’s our tradition to write a parody song about our experiences….and here’s the semi-catastrophic result.
1. Famous missionaries do not have the goal of becoming famous. Rather, their goal and passion is the salvation of those who are unknowingly perishing. I can test John Paton’s words by his lifestyle. When he says he was incredibly reluctant to write his biography, the musket leveled at his head twenty years prior witnesses to his truthfulness. Fame for godliness seems to be bestowed upon those who consider such fame to be a nuisance. Care nothing for your own reputation and influence, Nate. God did not save you to make you famous. God saved you to make Him famous. (Paton, Autobiography)
2. I am much more willing to overlook the doctrinal flaws of a dead man than the doctrinal flaws of a living brother in Christ. A dead saint is a static entity. He has written what he has written and can be divided at will with no opportunity to defend himself. Augustine believed the Apocrypha was Scripture. Dr. Sa’eed believed in perfectionism until later in life. I didn’t know either of these things and rejoiced in their ministry. Now that I know them, I’m simply willing to ignore those beliefs because they won’t talk about these issues unless I quote them as such. It’s easy to find yes-men by employing selective quotations. (Dr. Sa’eed of Iran, pg 73)
3. Historical context is important. Men of old would rise early to pray and read the Scriptures. While their Bible reading and prayers certainly are exemplary, their rising early doesn’t make those prayers any more fragrant to the Lord than mine. Lifestyles are radically different today. These men went to bed early, for there was no electricity! It’s easy to manufacture sacrifice by taking normal life in a different time period and placing it in modern culture. God looks at the heart, not at the hours on the clock. (Robert Chapman)
4. My life may not be 80 years long. Eric Liddell died at 44 of an inoperable brain tumor. I’m 24 right now. There is no such thing as a future in ministry. Oh, plans may be made for the future. I’m currently training for the future. But I cannot live in the future. I must live in the present. I wonder how many young men have been surprised to waste their lives by preparing only for the future, not turning their eyes to those around them now, only to have their lives cut short by accident or health? (Pure Gold: A Biography of Eric Liddell)
5. I am invincible until Christ calls me home. John Paton said something along those lines. I fully believe it. The vaunted “Sovereignty of God.” And yet my life does not bear fruit of this truth as often as it should. God controls the minds of others. Paton was protected miraculously from those who were consumed with killing him and who had every opportunity to do so. And yet he never suffered a scratch. Radical ministry flows from understanding the depths of my sin, the heights of God’s grace, and the width of His sovereignty. (John Paton, Autobiography)
6. A good spiritual leader and godly Christians on the whole are genuinely excited about things which—apart from a gospel-driven care for his brothers and sisters—do not interest or excite him. Many people take delight in and worship through activities or objects that I find uninspiring. Don’t mock what other people are doing as an expression of or medium to worship.
7. “My wife knows I’ll be killed one day for the work that I do,”—a current missionary to Muslims in London. I heard this in a sermon by Al Mohler. Mohler followed this up by saying that many young men come and ask him how to find a girl who will be a good minister’s wife. He responded by saying ‘how about finding a girl who is okay with being a minister’s widow.’ Missionaries and Ministers are the first targets when persecution strikes. Marry someone like Elizabeth Bunyan. (Al Mohler—Shepherd’s Conference 2007)
8. Missions life takes a hard toll on family life. Rob Liddell’s father saw him for a total of 6 months over 10 years. Nowadays it certainly is easier to keep the family together. However, culture shock and other issues still exist. Appreciate the cost missionary parents are willing to accept for the sake of spreading the gospel.
9. Sickness is an often overlooked aspect of missions. You don’t see Paton complaining in his autobiography or Martyn stopping because of disease. They pushed through it, counting it as part of the all-too-worth-it cost of spreading the Gospel. Physical comfort was nothing to be grasped in their minds.
10. Throughout the centuries—and even today—many Christians have precious little of the Bible in their possession. God is pleased with their simple faith in Him to save their souls, even though they know little of His Word to them.