The Early Church

We continue on with our study through the book of Acts, and today conclude chapter 2. There are only a few verses left in the chapter from where we left off, but there is a lot said.

They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and prayer. 43 Fear came on every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. 44 All who believed were together, and had all things in common. 45 They sold their possessions and goods, and distributed them to all, according as anyone had need. 46 Day by day, continuing steadfastly with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread at home, they took their food with gladness and singleness of heart, 47 praising God, and having favor with all the people. The Lord added to the assembly day by day those who were being saved.

Acts 2:42-47 (WEB)

This passage gives us a brief look into what the early church would have been like. Remember that this comes straight off of the back of Peter’s sermon at Pentecost where three thousand souls were added to the number of the followers of Christ. The “they” here is the new group of believers joining the disciples.

The Apostles’ Teaching

The first thing we learn is that this group of believers were dedicated to the teaching of the Apostles. We are not told specifically what was being taught, but based on Peter’s sermon and other teaching both in Acts and the rest of the New Testament, I think we can get a fairly good idea. The believers spent time learning what they needed to know. They were not satisfied with a short sermon on a Sunday morning, but rather were “steadfast” or continual in the teaching of the Word of God.

Do we “continue steadfastly” in the teaching of the Word, or do we dip in and out of it as we wish? What a challenge!

Fellowship and the Breaking of Bread

Fellowship means that this group of believers lived life together. They were united, and shared their days with each other. This is also seen in the breaking of bread, meaning they shared meals together also. We need other believers in our life. Life is difficult, and all the more so when you are a serious Christian in a hostile world. We need encouragement and support, and we get this from each other. A life lived alone is very difficult indeed. A life shared with other like-minded believers is not necessarily easier, but at least you can draw on the strength and help offered by the family of Christ.

While breaking bread of course means to eat meals together, in the culture of the Middle East it is more significant than that. To break bread with another means to be united with them. In the western culture, we might liken it to the shaking of hands. When we give someone our word, we tend to shake on it as a sign that we are serious. It implies a sort of contract between us. In the Middle East, the breaking of bread means something similar.

Prayer

Again we see here the believers united in prayer. As we read through Acts, we will see time and time again that the Early Church were constant in their prayers. These were nott prayers prayed alone and in private, but corporate prayer shared with others. Absolutely they would have spent much time in private prayer also, but they made it a priority to pray with other believers. We should do likewise.

All Who Believed

We see in verse 44 that all who believed were “together.” It says that they had “all things in common,” and this is a real challenge to us in the modern church. These verses paint a picture of almost complete unity among the believers. It is a unity we often only dream of in churches today.

Yet Jesus prayed for unity as recorded in John 17. He wanted and expected us to be in unity, to stand together and to hold one another up. I really feel, as i write this, that we are to take it seriously. How many churches have divided over silly issues; the colour of the curtains, the time of the services or other such trivial matters. Let each one of us do our part to protect and maintain the unity among us.

There are many references in these few short verses alone of their togetherness, unity, being of “one accord.” etc. Let each of us pray for that kind of oneness among our church family.

The passage tells us that they also sold their goods and possessions that they might share with each other. This kind of selflessness is unheard of these days. Many of us work very hard for what we have, and yet few of us are true givers. We might give some money to the church, but I’ve met very few who would sell what they have just so that they could share with the family of believers. Again, it is a real challenge for us. Tossing a few coins into the offering basket each week seems woefully inadequate next to the kind of selfless life lived by these believers.

The chapter ends with verse 47:

praising God, and having favor with all the people. The Lord added to the assembly day by day those who were being saved.

Acts 2:47 (WEB)

As well as all the things we have mentioned above, this verse sums it all up with the words “praising God.” Everything they did revolved around their dedication to the worship of the Lord. He had saved them, in His great mercy, and they now lived their life in worship to Him.

It says that they had favour with all the people, which is a sign that they truly lived humbly and in loving-kindness. Only such a church family would attract such favour.

The chapter closes by telling us that everyday God was adding to their number. As churches, we may long for God to add to our number, and regularly pray that He would do so. It is a great responsibility however, to nurture new believers and we must make every effort – co-operating with the Holy Spirit – to be the kind of church where God can trust us with new believers. Let us not just preach the Gospel, but let us live it out each and every day. As we do so, it will be a witness to the world.

I pray that God will indeed add to the family of believers each day, and that the church globally will look like the early church described above. Amen!

Praying in the Moment

We sometimes think of prayer as an activity – a spiritual discipline if you like – which we may do for a certain length of time. Yet, the Apostle Paul encourages us to:

pray without ceasing,

1 Thessalonians 5:17 (ESV)

So how do we do that? Are we to quit our jobs and just spend our entire lives praying? I do not think so. In fact, I think Paul was instructing us to pray in the moment, while doing whatever other activities we needed to do.

Nehemiah did this.

In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was before him, I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence. 2 And the king said to me, “Why is your face sad, seeing you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of the heart.” Then I was very much afraid. 3 I said to the king, “Let the king live forever! Why should not my face be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ graves, lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” 4 Then the king said to me, “What are you requesting?” So I prayed to the God of heaven. 5 And I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ graves, that I may rebuild it.”

Nehemiah 2:1-5 (ESV)

There is much going on here, so I will try to explain. These events occur after the nation of Israel has been led into captivity. Nehemiah is essentially asking to return and begin to rebuild the city of Jerusalem.

He appears before the king to serve him yet clearly the king recognises that Nehemiah is sad. Nehemiah is afraid because you dare not appear before the king with a downcast face. You could lose your head for such a thing!

The king questions Nehemiah, and he shares the reason for his sadness. In verse 4, the king asks what he wants. What does Nehemiah do? He does not blurt out his request, but instead it tells us he prays first. Clearly he did not stand there and hold a prayer evening before making the request. He has only a split second before answering the king. His prayer cannot have been more than a simple “Help me!”

There are definitely times when we need to dedicate a set amount of time to God in prayer. But there are also times when we need to pray in the moment, and simply ask for help.

How much trouble could be avoid if we do this? Imagine the time and energy we could save, or the pain we could avoid, if we just took a moment to pray before opening our mouths. Think of the bullets we could dodge by just asking God what He thinks before we commit and make a decision.

I’ll tell you a silly story, but hope it illustrates the point.

Many years ago, I bought a CD… That alone should tell you how long ago it was! I hope no one reading this does not know what a CD is…!

Anyway, as I was waiting in line to pay for the CD, I got a sense that I shouldn’t buy it. Not that it was sinful but just a gentle nudge inside. I ignored it. And do you know, I never once enjoyed listening to that CD? I recognise now that God was trying to tell me that in advance. if only I had followed Nehemiah’s example and just checked in with God first. I could have saved the money and not wasted the time.

What decisions do you make without praying about them first? Now you have a brain and God wants us to use it. No need to pray about whether you should get and go to work, as that’s a given. But we make a mistake thinking we know it all and can run our lives better than God can.

Pray in the moment. If you are in a conversation which is in danger of becoming an argument, take a moment to pray before you say the next thing which may inflame things.

Pray without ceasing. That does not mean pray instead of doing other things, but while doing other things. The Holy Spirit lives inside of us and wants to be our Guide throughout life. He won’t shout or raise His voice over the din of our everyday lives, so we need to take moments to check in with Him and listen.

What traps or trouble might you avoid today by doing this? Ask the Holy Spirit to remind you continually to pray, and offer up prayers in the moments of your day.

Approach the Throne

If you wanted to speak with the president, monarch or prime minister of a country, how might you go about it? Chances are, if you are an ordinary citizen, then there is slim hope of ever getting anywhere near such a leader.

What if you were part of that leader’s family though? A child even? You wouldn’t need to make an appointment, and you would not need to go via secretaries, personal assistants or other bureaucracy. In fact, you probably have their direct number and can just call them whenever you want to.

When it comes to prayer, we are not ordinary citizens trying to get an audience with God. We are not like the Queen of Sheba trying to access Solomon’s wisdom, sending huge convoys of gifts to open the door to him:

When the queen of Sheba heard about Solomon’s reputation with the Lord, she came to test him[a] with difficult questions. 2 She brought along a large retinue, camels laden with spices, and lots of gold and precious stones. Upon her arrival, she spoke with Solomon about everything that was on her mind.

1 Kings 10:1-3 (ISV)

We need not make an appointment with God, nor make arrangements in advance to ensure He is available and willing to listen to us. Neither is our time with Him limited to ten short minutes, nor do we have to fear God will be called away to see to another more important matter.

God is always available to His children. And in case you are in any doubt about whether this means you or not:

See what kind of love the Father has given us: We are called God’s children—and that is what we are! For this reason the world does not recognize us, because it did not recognize him, either.

1 John 3:1 (ISV, emphasis added)

Children have full access to their Father. It does not matter what their Father is doing, they just stroll right on in and sit down. I can testify to this, especially when I am on a video conference call for work! Sometimes the children just burst right in and make themselves heard!

You are God’s child. You have access to God 24/7, and He loves it when you come to Him in prayer.

There are times when I feel reluctant to pray. This is usually because I am aware of some sin in my life. The thought goes like this: “I can’t talk to God, not after what I’ve done. I’m not worthy to approach Him. He won’t listen to someone like me…”

This is all totally incorrect! It betrays that there is still part of me operating under the Law. What I mean is, I feel that if I do well then I can approach God, but if not, then I can’t.

The problem is I never do well enough. While I may think of myself as “OK,” I never meet God’s perfect standards. In my own merit, I am never good enough to stand before God and dare not ask Him for one single thing!

But thank God for Jesus!

Therefore, my brothers, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21 and since we have a great high priest over the household of God, 22 let us continue to come near with sincere hearts in the full assurance that faith provides, because our hearts have been sprinkled clean from a guilty conscience, and our bodies have been washed with pure water.

Hebrews 10:19-22 (ISV)

The blood of Christ, shed on the cross, has cleansed us and opened a way for us to approach God with confidence. I don’t and can’t go into the throne room of God because of my own “good works” which are nothing before Him. I go in and through the work and perfection of Christ given to me as a child of God!

This means:

So let us keep on coming boldly to the throne of grace, so that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

Hebrews 4:16 (ISV)

We can come, and keep on coming, to God’s throne of grace with boldness. We can walk right on in, not irreverently, but as a child approaches their loving Father. This verse tells us what we will find there: mercy and grace!

You can approach the throne, this very hour, in the Name of Jesus, and spend precious time with the Creator of the Universe. You can worship Him with closeness, and tell Him what you need and how you feel. You can thank Him for all the good things He has done and is doing in your life.

Do not allow sin to drive a wedge between you and God. Yes, sin separates us from the Almighty, but Jesus has dealt with it once and for all. Confess your sins, and rest assured that they are fully and totally forgiven and forgotten.

So what’s stopping you? Step into the presence of God and pray. Pray earnestly and with all of your heart. Worship and praise Him. Give thanks for the answers that will come.

Be bold and pray big! Amen

The Holy Sabbath

Returning to the Ten Commandments, today we consider keeping the Sabbath.  Here’s the command from Exodus, and then we’ll explore what it is about.

“Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy. 9 You have six days in which to do your work, 10 but the seventh day is a day of rest dedicated to me. On that day no one is to work—neither you, your children, your slaves, your animals, nor the foreigners who live in your country. 11 In six days I, the Lord, made the earth, the sky, the seas, and everything in them, but on the seventh day I rested. That is why I, the Lord, blessed the Sabbath and made it holy.

Exodus 20:8-11 (GNT)

The Sabbath day occurs at the end of the Jewish week. It is celebrated from sunset on Friday evening through to sunset on the Saturday evening. As described above, it is intended to be a day of rest and dedicated to the Lord.

What does it mean to “observe” the Sabbath? And how do we keep it holy?

For the people of Israel hearing this for the first time, they would have literally ceased from all work on the Saturday. This did not just mean not doing their usual form of work, but any type of work at all.

In modern day Israel where the Sabbath is still recognised, Jewish people will not attend their places of work or even do household work of any kind. There are many things which constitute work, and you will see some lifts (UK) or elevators (for the rest) which stop at each floor of a building so that buttons do not have to be pressed. Such button pushing could be considered work to some.

I suppose there are varying degrees of observing the Sabbath, but the point is that people took this command very seriously – as we all should. So how does it apply to Christians today? Should we strictly observe the day as well?

The principle is one of rest. We should rest regularly. In the Law given to the people of Israel, there are laws for people, animals and even the land to “rest” and it is an ongoing principle. We all need proper rest.

At the end of Mark chapter 2, Jesus encounters the teachers of the Law and has a debate with them about the Sabbath. The teachers had caught the disciples picking and eating ears of grain as they walked along. The teachers had accused them of “working” on the Sabbath.

Jesus argued that King David had done something similar when he was in need, and eating the special bread reserved for the priests. His argument is simply that the needs of people outweighed the commands of the Law.

And Jesus concluded, “The Sabbath was made for the good of human beings; they were not made for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

Mark 2:27-28 (GNT)

Jesus is essentially saying that the command to observe the Sabbath day was a gift to humanity, not a restrictive law.

For us then, the point is that we enjoy the rest God has given to us. We rest regularly to regenerate our bodies, but also our minds and spirits. The working week may be hard on the body of course, but it can be stressful on the minds and emotions too.

So, we as Christians, should (rather than must) observe the Sabbath by taking a day’s worth of rest each week. But must we do so on a Saturday? Or can we do so on a Sunday? Or must it be a full day at all?

In Romans 14, Paul points out that some will observe special days and some will not. A Jewish Christian convert may still feel they need or want to observe the Sabbath rest. A Gentile (non-Jewish) Christian will have no tradition of keeping the Sabbath anyway so may have no inclination to do so now. As long as they both rest.

Some people think that a certain day is more important than other days, while others think that all days are the same. We each should firmly make up our own minds. 6 Those who think highly of a certain day do so in honor of the Lord; those who will eat anything do so in honor of the Lord, because they give thanks to God for the food. Those who refuse to eat certain things do so in honor of the Lord, and they give thanks to God. 7 We do not live for ourselves only, and we do not die for ourselves only.

Romans 14:5-7 (GNT)

So we are free to observe the Sabbath on a Saturday or a Sunday, as we wish, or in other ways. For you, it may not be possible to dedicate an entire day once a week for many reasons. The point is that we need to take time to rest and recover. You can do that over the course of a week in chunks, half-days or whole days. The choice is yours!

We have discussed observing the Sabbath, but what about keeping it holy?

Something is holy when it is set apart for God. Imagine a special set of fine china or crockery. Perhaps you have a special set at home you reserve for celebrations such as Christmas. You might say that this tableware is “set apart” for special purposes. In a similar way, we are to “set aside” special times or days of the week and dedicate them to God.

We might do that in any number of ways. Primarily though, we are talking about focusing the time on Jesus. You might do that through times of prayer and worship, through reading and studying the Bible or by listening to sound Bible teaching or meditating on Scripture.

The commandment to observe the Sabbath day is intended for you. Use it to enjoy God’s creation but more importantly the Creator Himself. Give yourself time to recover, recharge the batteries and be ready to serve Jesus again.

How will you observe the Sabbath this week? Feel free to share your ideas and comments below.

Idols

Yesterday we looked at the first of the Ten Commandments telling us to worship no other gods but only God Almighty – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. You can read that post here – No Other God.

Today we continue on by considering the next commandment. This one, I believe, is closely connected with yesterday’s one.

“Do not make for yourselves images of anything in heaven or on earth or in the water under the earth. 5 Do not bow down to any idol or worship it, because I am the Lord your God and I tolerate no rivals. I bring punishment on those who hate me and on their descendants down to the third and fourth generation.

Exodus 20:4-5 (GNT)

God is not against sculpture! Yet He clearly commands the people of Israel not to make any images of animals or beasts. Why would that be a problem?

As we mentioned yesterday, the people of Israel had just escaped the clutches of Egypt and had been surrounded by a culture which worshipped many gods of different kinds. Many animals were worshipped also, or their images used as a focal point.

God did not want the Israelites to adopt this practice. For them, God was the only One to be worshipped. They were not to make images of created things, but should worship the Creator Himself alone.

Any “god” made by human hands is no god at all.

Such a practice may seem rather alien to our ears. I don’t recall meeting anyone who made themself an idol or image and began to worship it. So does this really apply to us?

Absolutely!

While we may not worship carved images much these days, there are plenty of things we might describe as idols in our lives.

The idolatry of money springs immediately to mind. We all need money of course, and it is important to work and pay our bills. But how many people actually end up worshipping their money, unhealthily obsessed with their bank balance or possessions? It is one thing to love one’s job, but quite another to work incessantly for the bigger house, better car, or latest gadget. All such things are temporary.

There are countless other examples. Fame is one. People idolise pop stars or movie actors, many of whom are engaged in all manner of sinfulness on and off screen. If not chasing after the superstar, they may be seeking fame itself believing it to be a high achievement.

Idol worship can come in less obvious forms as well. Family, for example, can become an idol to some. It can start with just wanting to be a good parent or spouse, but grow into a dependence or even our very reason for being. There is no suggestion at all that we should neglect our family responsibilities, but neither should they become the most important thing in our life, that is, above God Himself.

Jesus made this point in Matthew’s Gospel:

“Those who love their father or mother more than me are not fit to be my disciples; those who love their son or daughter more than me are not fit to be my disciples.

Matthew 10:37 (GNT)

Again, to be really clear, Jesus is not saying we should not care about our families. We absolutely should love and care for those close to us. What He is saying is that Jesus must be first and foremost in our lives, even above our family. That is a real challenge.

What are the idols in your life? Are there things which are taking God’s rightful place?

Exodus 20:5 goes on to say that God “tolerates no rival” (from the Good News Translation) and in other versions of the Bible says “I am a jealous God.”

God is the only One in the entire universe who has a right to be “jealous.” For us, we are no better than any other human being. All have sinned and fallen short of God’s standards so have no right to look down on anyone else. Yet God is perfect, and wonderful, and He is the Almighty. No one and nothing compares to Him. When we worship other gods or make idols for ourselves, we are rejecting God’s perfection for something quite inferior.

God goes on to remind us that He will punish anyone who hates Him. These feel like difficult words, and many will argue they are not the words of a loving God. Such accusations are false however, and show a lack of understanding of who God is. He gave us life and breath and everything else, so how dare we even dream of “hating” Him?

Those who say what they will ask God when they meet Him in heaven, and I don’t mean out of curiosity but rather out of accusation. A well known atheist in the UK claimed he would question God about this or that. No he will not! When we see God in His full glory, we won’t dare question Him! It is hubris to think so.

There is but one God, and we should worship Him alone. We dare not make for ourselves anything that we use to replace Him. “You shall have no other god before Me!”

No Other God

We continue our series on the Ten Commandments which I started last week. Strangely enough, I started by talking about stealing in my post – It’s Not Really Stealing. I then gave a bit of an overview of the Ten Commandments in my post – The Ten Commandments. You don’t have to have read these before today’s post but please do go back and catch up if you can.

We find the first and most important of the commandments in Exodus chapter 20, verse 3 stated below.

God spoke, and these were his words: 2 “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, where you were slaves.

3 “Worship no god but me.

Exodus 20:1-3 (GNT)

The Ten Commandments were given to the people of Israel as they left the nation of Egypt, which worshipped all manner of gods. Similarly, they were heading for the Promised Land via the wilderness, and the people they would later evict or destroy would have their own gods to worship. This commandment therefore was to ensure that God’s chosen people worshipped the One True God and none other.

We may be tempted to think that it therefore does not apply to us all that much. But I think that’s wrong, and in fact, this commandment is as relevant now as it ever was.

Thinking specifically about the UK, it was perhaps only two or three generations ago that the vast majority of people still went to church. These days, church attendance is in the minority. So if anyone now has a question of a spiritual nature, church might not be the first place they go to answer it.

Many people view all organised religions as one and the same. Some even suggest that they all worship the same “god” but do it in different ways.

The reason, I believe, that Christianity stands out is that in no other religion that I am aware of, did God come down as a Man and surrender to death for us all. Other religions have principle leaders or founders, but only Jesus became our substitute and took on the punishment we deserve. Other religions ask for obedience, whereas Christianity asks for surrender to the One who has obeyed it all.

So, when we read that we should have no other gods before God Himself, then it is still very much pertinent to us.

Jesus Himself claimed that He was the one and only way to God.

Jesus answered him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one goes to the Father except by me.

John 14:6 (GNT)

Many people claim that there are multiple ways to God. Different religions offer different paths, but all lead to God. Jesus disputes this emphatically.

Some claim they have no need of God at all. They think that life is just fine the way it is, and God plays no part in it. Yet the Bible teaches that God is Sovereign, and that He is in control of all things. Life without God is akin to what we call hell and not the life we live now.

To worship no other gods before God Almighty is to imply that we should be worshipping Him fully. Worship can be hard to define, but to worship God is to put Him not just front and centre, but for Him to be the only thing that matters.

What is the most important thing in your life? Is God the be all and end all for you? If not, then what can you change to make Him so?

We sometimes confuse worship with singing or music. We sometimes think of worship as a church service. More than either of these things though is living a life of worship. We worship God, or should do, with our every breath. As we work, rest or play our focus should be on the God who made the heavens and the Earth.

There is only one God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Worship Him this day and always!

How do you do church?

Today I was all set to write more on the Ten Commandments – yet I felt it was necessary to highlight the importance of church. It is Sunday after all!

We have all been forced to reassess how we do church since the outbreak of COVID-19. In the UK, the Church of England very quickly closed its buildings and many other major and minor denominations followed suit. Aside from this, government guidelines prohibited any large groups meeting together and so, church as we knew it was no longer possible.

Many have turned to live streaming and platforms like YouTube to record content and share it with their congregation. Has your church done something similar? Other churches have struggled to acclimatise to the newer technologies. They may only be able to record audio and others only able to use social media like Facebook to reach its people. Either way, it is a huge ministry challenge. It presents a number of opportunities also though.

For us as church members, we have something of a responsibility here. If you have skills which can help, then it is a great time to start sharing them. For example, you may have experience running social media pages or even with audio/visual techniques. Many ministers are not up on the latest technologies so may appreciate your help in putting online services together.

Even if you have no such skills, then you still have a responsibility as a member of the church. It takes a lot of time to prepare services, and even more so when recording them and having to edit and stitch them together. The least we can do is to sit down and watch them!

If your family is like mine, and consists of some younger members, then you may find it difficult to gather around the TV on a Sunday morning. We may think it easier than getting everyone up and dressed and settled into a pew by 10am, and in some ways it is. But on the other hand, keeping children interested in a live stream service for any length of time has its own challenges. In my experience, they find it all too easy to wander off or get distracted by nearby toys.

One risk of online church is that members no longer see the need to actually meet together. If your church offers an online option, then it can become a temptation to just watch from home or catch up at a later, more convenient time. I am referring to times when we are not all locked down! One church I read about somehow managed to put a geographical limit on their live streaming. If you lived within three miles of the church building, then you could not access the live stream. The implication is that if you are close enough, then there really is no excuse for not actually going to church. I hope they put in some kind of access points for those not physically able to go along.

That’s a risk for all of us to bear in mind. Hopefully the lockdown will soon end and our church buildings will be open for ministry once again. When that happens, I pray there is not a diminished congregation for those choosing to stay away and access content online.

Many committed members are not even considering this. For them, the idea of coming back to church is an exciting one. These members miss one another and cannot wait until they can fellowship in person once again.

Something which is both a risk and an opportunity is the fact that while at home, we are not restricted to any one single church. If many churches are now live streaming, then anyone can flip the channel as it were and tune in to another church’s service.

Perhaps you are someone who doesn’t normally attend church. This time offers you a great opportunity to see what church is about without actually setting foot in the door. We should not underestimate how difficult it can be for some to walk into a church for the first time. It can be very intimidating. At least YouTube or your platform of choice offers a window into the church world. We, as churches, need to be aware of this and consider how we can reach out to those “just looking.”

Whether now or normally, there is no one way to “do” church. There are many ways of expressing worship and meeting as a church family.

There are two important things to remember however:

  1. We must never dilute the message of the Gospel, no matter our style of church
  2. We must make sure that our expression of church really is church.

Taking each in turn, firstly we must not water down the message of Christ. There are different packages but the gift inside must never change. The Gospel is very clear, and we must not fail in presenting it. If our preferred flavour of church does not include the message about Jesus, then it is not really church at all.

The second point is not all that dissimilar to the first really. In fact, it may be the same point restated.

Many churches have experimented with cafe church, messy church or what some call bridging events designed to encourage those outside of the church to move toward the church.

There is nothing wrong with any of these models in and of themselves, but equally we must make sure these events are drawing people closer to Christ. If an event does not point us to Jesus, does not teach us more about God’s Word or does not lead us to worship together, then we have to ask what its purpose is.

So, how will you do church today? I hope this time of Coronavirus lockdown reminds us all how important church is, and encourages us all to want to flock back to fellowship as soon as we can.

He is Our Rock (Psalm 92 #3)

This is the third and final post on Psalm 92. If you missed them, you can read the first one here – Praise in the morning, praise in the evening– and the second one here – You Thrill Me.

We left off last time discussing that although evil may flourish for a time, it will ultimately be destroyed. The psalmist compares evil to the weeds or grass, which appears rapidly but does not last.

But you, O Lord, will be exalted forever.
9 Your enemies, Lord, will surely perish;
all evildoers will be scattered.
10 But you have made me as strong as a wild ox.
You have anointed me with the finest oil.
11 My eyes have seen the downfall of my enemies;
my ears have heard the defeat of my wicked opponents.
12 But the godly will flourish like palm trees
and grow strong like the cedars of Lebanon.
13 For they are transplanted to the Lord’s own house.
They flourish in the courts of our God.
14 Even in old age they will still produce fruit;
they will remain vital and green.
15 They will declare, “The Lord is just!
He is my rock!
There is no evil in him!”

Psalm 92:8-15 (NLT)

Exalted Forever

Unlike evil, which has a definite end in sight, God’s praise and worship will continue for all eternity. He is worthy, and eternal exaltation is hardly enough to worship the Living God.

For those who worry that Heaven will somehow be like a never ending worship service, please do not be afraid! IF the thought of just singing for all eternity fills you a sense of dread, then please let me reassure you.

I love to sing, and especially so to the Lord. However, Heaven offers more than just unending choirs and instrumental praise. Worship is far more than singing. Singing is a vehicle certainly, but it is just one vehicle.

We worship God with our very breath. Every day while you work, serve, rest or play, you can worship God Most High. How? We do that by putting Him at the centre of everything we do. When we work, we work to the Lord. When we rest, we rest in His presence. When we walk, we walk with Him. Anything you can can be done with worship in your heart.

Heaven will be life – eternal life – and a life lived in worship and exaltation to our deserving King.

Strong as an Ox

Verse 10 gives thanks to God for giving us the strength of an ox. Interestingly, some translations render this “unicorn” rather than “wild ox,” but the point is the same.

Our strength is found in relationship with God. When times get tough, and they do, we must turn to God and draw on His power. We cannot do it all ourselves or in our own strength. Instead, we must rely on Him and be fully dedicated to prayer.

Do you feel as strong as an ox? If you are like me, then you perhaps must admit to not feeling quite so vibrant most days. My strength fades when I take my eyes off of Christ. After a sleepless night with a child, it is very easy to give in to the temptation of being pitiful, or being snappy or grumpy.

What’s the solution? The latter part of verse 10 tells us. The Lord God has anointed us with finest oil. Oil in the Bible is often a symbol of the Holy Spirit. When our strength is lacking, we must seek the refreshing presence of the Holy Spirit who renews and rejuvenates us. While this can be physical of course, primarily I am thinking of an inward refreshing.

Praise the Lord for sending us His Comforter and Strengthener!

Like a Palm Tree

In verse 7 of this psalm (not quoted above) the evildoer is compared to the weeds or grass, and we should take from this that it is short-lived. Grass and weeds seem to sprout as if from nowhere, and yet a hot summer or hard frost (more likely here in the UK!) and they are gone.

In contrast, the godly are compared to the palm tree or the cedars of Lebanon in verse 12. Times of heat or cold won’t destroy us. For the godly, rooted and anchored in God’s love, we have the staying power to outlast this world and its difficulties.

I love the imagery of the godly trees being transplanted into God’s garden from verse 13. We were all once lost and part of the world, yet God saved us and transferred us into His Kingdom where can flourish in His presence.

For he has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son,

Colossians 1:13 (NLT)

Evil is a temporary weed, but the godly are trees forever transplanted into the court of our God.

The Final Word

The psalm concludes with two key points. Firstly, that God is our Rock. The second that there is no evil in Him at all.

Let’s take the latter first.

God is not evil, nor is there any evil in Him at all. Some accuse Him of this but this comes only from our own human ignorance. I do not mean to sound harsh there, but as verses 5 and 6 remind us – God’s thoughts are very deep, and only those who lack understanding believe that evildoers escape judgement.

When tragedy befalls us, it can be easy to point at God and blame Him. We may say, “If God is so good, then why did so-and-so have to die so young?” These are natural questions, and yet ones that can never be answered satisfactorily. If we knew what God knows, then we would be able to answer.

God’s love is demonstrated at the cross of Jesus Christ. He took on all the pain and suffering of this world, taking our place so that we can go free. That is love!

I am not saying that trouble is easy to cope with, nor that you should not grieve when you lose a loved one. The pain of loss makes us feel all kinds of things, and I would not presume to quarrel with yu over it. However, please do not doubt God’s love.

God is good, and there is no evil in Him. And He is our Rock. Rocks do not change. They are stable. Large enough ones cannot be moved or shifted. Likewise, God does not change, He is stable, and He cannot be moved.

Let us exalt Him this day and sing for joy at the work of His hands!

You Thrill Me (Psalm 92 #2)

Yesterday I wrote about the first few verses of Psalm 92, and so today i thought I would just carry on and talk about more of this great song of praise.

You can read yesterday’s post here – Praise in the morning, praise in the evening.

It is good to give thanks to the Lord,
to sing praises to the Most High.
2 It is good to proclaim your unfailing love in the morning,
your faithfulness in the evening,
3 accompanied by a ten-stringed instrument, a harp,
and the melody of a lyre.

4 You thrill me, Lord, with all you have done for me!
I sing for joy because of what you have done.
5 O Lord, what great works you do!
And how deep are your thoughts.
6 Only a simpleton would not know,
and only a fool would not understand this:
7 Though the wicked sprout like weeds
and evildoers flourish,
they will be destroyed forever.

Psalm 92:1-7 (NLT)

All He has done

Verses 1-3 encourage us to worship God for particular aspects of His character. It points us toward God’s unfailing love and His faithfulness. Verse 4 turns our attention to the good things God has done as a result of His wonderful character.

I once heard it said that worship is about recognising who God is, whereas praise is about the things He has done. Perhaps the definitions aren’t so rigid, but it is a helpful way to look at it. The psalm, in that case, turns worship into praise.

The New Living Translation, quoted above, uses the word “thrill,” which is a powerful term. God’s work should thrill us! We associate the word thrill or thrilling with something like a roller-coaster or extreme sport. I suppose in some ways our Christian lives can be a lot like that at times!

We are thrilled, or excited, by god’s wonderful works. Think of all He has done for you! We can look at Creation and see its complexity and beauty. We can look at the blessings we receive on a daily basis. Most of all we can focus on the saving work of Jesus Christ and the immense grace shown to us who believe.

Again, we are encouraged to sing in response to the kindness of God. Not just sing though, but sing for joy!

Joy is something I feel I lack. I’m happy, don’t get me wrong, but I find it hard to grasp joy in my inner man at times. Even as I write these words, I hear the Spirit’s whisper that it is because I do not do what the psalmist is instructing us here. I do not consider what God has done often enough. All too frequently I am caught up in the concerns of this life – work, family, or even recreation, and not nearly enough on the things of eternity.

The solution to lack of joy:

Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. 2 Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth.

Colossians 3:1-2 (NLT)

Does this apply to you also?

Flourishing Evil

Verses 5-7 are really quite interesting. Verse 5 directs us to consider how deep the thoughts of God are. I am truly humbled by the times I have questioned God or what He has done. How dare I even imagine that I could fathom His reasons or actions with my limited mind?

When my children repeat over and over, “Why, dad, why?” I try to explain as best I can, but sometimes the answer is simply because I know things they do not. I cannot ask my six year old to understand the economic impacts of COVID-19 nor explain to my two year old about genetics or astrophysics. Some things are just beyond them.

The same is true for me. God’s thoughts and ways are sometimes so far above our comprehension, it is rather comical that we try to figure it out. God wants us to use our brain and to understand what we can, but we must also know our limits.

Verses 6 and 7 have some tough words for us. It says that only a simpleton would not understand this – that evildoers may flourish like weeds but they will be destroyed forever.

The psalmist is adamant. He tells us it is as plain as day! Yes evil may well flourish around us and be as abundant as weeds in a neglected garden, but they will not get away with it. Evil will not go unpunished. Why not? Because there is a just God in heaven!

Some people ask how a loving God could punish people in an eternal hell. The answer is simple, if not easy. A loving God must also be a just God. If God were to simply ignore sin and evil, then the result of that would not be “loving” for all. Imagine if someone committed a horrendous crime against someone you dearly loved, and the police just let them go. Would you feel loved? No, you would want justice!

The problem we have though, is that we are all guilty of sin and evil. So God, to be just, must punish us all. But thank God for His mercy and “deep thoughts”!

“For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:16 (NLT)

God has done something astonishingly amazing. He could have just left us to face the punishment of our sin but He didn’t – He had a plan. God came down and became human. We call Him Jesus. He never once failed to do good, and never once sinned against God or man. Yet He took the full punishment we deserve. He became our substitute so we can go free.

This thrills me!

God’s justice is fulfilled in Christ’s death. God’s love is demonstrated in the same way. Only a fool or a simpleton would accuse God of injustice or a lack of love towards His creation.

Evil may flourish for a lifetime on Earth, but eternity is a very long time.

Let the God of love and justice thrill you this day! Sing for joy for the things He has done! And another day we will complete this stunning psalm.

Have a great weekend!

Praise in the Morning, Praise in the Evening (Psalm 92 #1)

Part of my Bible reading this morning was in Psalm 92. It is a wonderful psalm of praise and thanksgiving, and I think we need a good dose of that right now. In fact, we always do, but times of struggle seem to require an extra boost of worship.

The psalm is one for the Sabbath day. In case you are not familiar, the Sabbath was a day of rest, dedicated to the Lord which the Jewish people celebrate from Friday evening to Saturday evening. No work is done on the Sabbath, and the intention is that the time is spent in praise to God, resting our bodies and souls.

While Christians do not celebrate the Sabbath in the same way, the principles are still very much needed and it would not hurt us one bit to dedicate a day to the Lord to rest and worship. We do not need to make it a law, and whether you do it on a Saturday, Sunday or any other day perhaps does not matter. what matters is that we spend dedicated quality time with God.

The psalm begins like this:

It is good to give thanks to the Lord,
to sing praises to the Most High.
2 It is good to proclaim your unfailing love in the morning,
your faithfulness in the evening,
3 accompanied by a ten-stringed instrument, a harp,
and the melody of a lyre.

Psalm 92:1-3 (NLT)

It is good to give thanks to the Lord

Amen to that!

It is indeed good to give thanks to God, and something we all lack at times. Too often we are asking for more from God, while neglecting to thank Him for all He has already done.

Thankfulness is less of an activity, and more of a heart attitude. I mean that we ought not to just thank God for a set time, then move on, but rather make thankfulness an integral part of our lives and who we are.

Times may well be tough right now, but can you find things to be thankful for? Knowing Jesus is no small thing if it be the only thing you can think of immediately.

Sing praises to the Most High

I love music, but have never been specially musical. I play guitar, but it has always been a bit mechanical rather than any natural musical ability. Singing, like my guitar playing, is not a natural talent of mine. Where I have learned to play the guitar, I have also learned to aim my voice in the general direction i wish it to go!

Whether you are tone-deaf, or a top suprano, we can all sing praises to the Most High God. In church or at home, we can all lift our voices and unite in singing about the goodness of God.

Verse 3 encourages us to use instruments to accompany our voices. Whether you play or not, many of us can play background music to sing along with. I mentioned in my post on Wednesday – The Blessing– how we had been playing a lot of worship music lately. This is good to do, and helps us focus on our relationship with God and not on the worries of the world.

In the morning and in the evening

Verse 2 tells us it is good to proclaim God’s love in the morning, and His faithfulness in the evening. While I do not think these two specific things are literal instructions i.e. that we should only proclaim Gods love in the morning, and the evening is reserved for His faithfulness, I think the principle is clear. We should start and end each day in worship to God.

If you are like me, then you tend to start your days rushing around getting children ready, grabbing a coffee and then dashing to work. Days end in a similar way, but in reverse and with less coffee!

The ideal is to put God first, right at the start of the day. Jesus did this. We see many times in the Gospel accounts of Jesus rising early in the morning to spend time with His Father.

Before daybreak the next morning, Jesus got up and went out to an isolated place to pray.

Mark 1:35 (NLT)

Days can end in a similar way. As we prepare for bed, what if we took the time to give thanks for all the good that happened this day. I imagine our sleep might be a fraction more peaceful having dedicated some time to recalling the good, and not worrying about the bad.

I want worship to be an integral part of your life, but do not want it to be a chore you schedule into an already packed routine. Focus on different aspects of God’s character each day. Keep it fresh by using different songs or even different places where you worship. Most importantly, worship while you work, clean or shop.

Never stop giving praise to the Most High!

The Blessing

We have been playing a lot of worship music in our house lately. We do normally I suppose, but now that we are all home most of the time, it feels like it is more than usual.

One song in particular has caught my attention, and it is “The Blessing (Live)” and is sung by Elevation Worship, Kari Jobe and Cody Carnes. If you are not familiar with it, I’m sure you can find it on YouTube or your music streaming service of choice! It is essentially a sung version of the “Aaronic Blessing” or “Priestly Blessing” from the Bible.

The Lord bless you and keep you;
25 the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
26 the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

Numbers 6:24-26 (ESV)

This is a beautiful blessing, and so the words also make a beautiful song. I do love worship music which uses the words of the Bible. I really believe that songs have a theology, and where we sing them over and over, it’s important they are biblical words which build us up.

So a worship song which quotes directly from the Bible should be fine, right? Well…

For starters, this is a sung blessing and so the words are sung by the congregation to the congregation. That is fine, and a valid expression of our faith. Worship is of course singing to God, but singing about God to other people is worship in another sense.

While this particular song doesn’t sing words of praise to God directly, worship is implied in the fact that His blessing is so richly sought by His people. If God was not God, then His blessing would not be so valuable.

In a previous post I wrote, called “Christ is… Enough?” I discussed worship songs at some length. I won’t cover that same ground again here, but do feel free to go back and read that one.

One concern I do have about “The Blessing” as a worship song is its construction. It was recorded in a mega-church setting, with many people gathered (not that this is a bad thing). It starts softly, and slowly rises to a huge crescendo at the end. The music, the lights, the smoke etc. all combine to take you on an emotional journey. It’s wonderful on one hand, but is it God?

My worry is this: are we mistaking the presence and power of God for a manufactured experience of worship? What I mean is, is the height of that emotional journey really God’s anointing, or is it just the environment and music which has led us there?

I’ve experienced settings like this in the past, and it is easy to get swept along by the atmosphere and the highly polished presentation. We should always give God our best of course, but participating in worship is not the same as being entertained at a concert.

Imagine that exhilarating feeling of being present at one of these events. Thousands of voices singing, melodic music, hands raised in celebration. Then, you return to your “normal” church setting, and there’s one individual with a piano and no lights, sounds or smoke. It is all too easy to think, “God is not in this church…” And you would be wrong.

Enjoy beautiful music by all means. Don’t however mistake it for the presence of God. These hilltop experiences can lead us to forget that God is with us in the everyday. He is present when we sing in the shower, or hum a tune while washing the dishes. Those who chase emotional mountain-tops will struggle to enjoy God in their ordinary everyday lives. I don’t want that for you.

God will never leave you nor forsake you. Jesus has promised to be with you until the very end of the age.

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

Hebrews 13:5 (ESV)


Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in[b] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

Matthew 28:19-20 (ESV, emphasis added)

You will find Him not in the neon lights, but in the still small voice.

Let me leave you with this prayer from the Priestly Blessing.

Heavenly Father,

I ask you to bless every reader, to keep them, and to turn Your face toward them. May You be gracious unto them in their everyday lives, and give them peace.

In Jesus’ Name,
Amen

Rainbows

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, you may have noticed the sudden appearance of rainbows in windows near where you live. It has become a symbol of hope for people, and a way of lifting our spirits in this difficult time.

The picture above was drawn by one of my budding artist daughters…

But did you know that the rainbow has a specific meaning in the Bible?

The rainbow was a symbol which God gave humanity shortly after the flood of Noah. Here is part of the story from Genesis 9.

God spoke to Noah and to his sons with him, saying, 9 “As for me, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your offspring after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you: the birds, the livestock, and every animal of the earth with you, of all that go out of the ship, even every animal of the earth. 11 I will establish my covenant with you: All flesh will not be cut off any more by the waters of the flood. There will never again be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12 God said, “This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: 13 I set my rainbow in the cloud, and it will be a sign of a covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring a cloud over the earth, that the rainbow will be seen in the cloud, 15 I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh, and the waters will no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 The rainbow will be in the cloud. I will look at it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the token of the covenant which I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

Genesis 9:8-17 (WEB)

At the end of the global flood, God had preserved Noah and his family on the Ark. God made a covenant with humanity and all of the living creatures of the Earth, that He would never again destroy all flesh with a flood. God said that the rainbow would be a token between us and God of this promise.

So the rainbow in the sky is a reminder of God’s covenant. When God makes a promise, He means it. While the text above does say that God will remember the covenant when He sees the rainbow, there is no danger of Him forgetting. Rather it is for us to know that God remembers what He has promised us.

God did not promise that the world would never end, simply that all life would not be destroyed by flood. In fact, in Peter’s second letter to the church, he writes that the heavens and the earth will indeed come to an end but not in floodwaters, but burning heat (see 2 Peter 3:10).

I have not heard anyone suggest that COVID-19 will destroy all flesh, as Noah’s flood once did, but there are some asking if it is a sign of the End Times. The Bible does not appear to mention COVID specifically, although does say that pestilence is such a sign. Whether it is a specific sign of the End Times or not, I think it is a clear warning or opportunity from God for all of us to assess our relationship with Him and make sure we are in right standing with him.

The rainbow of Noah’s story is not the only rainbow we see in the Bible. In the book of Ezekiel, he opens his prophecy with a strange description of heavenly, angelic beings and even tries to describe the glory of the Lord.

In verse 28 we read:

As the appearance of the rainbow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness all around.

Ezekiel 1:28 (WEB)

So vivid is the appearance of the Lord’s glory, Ezekiel struggles to describe it. He likens it to the appearance of a bright rainbow in the sky on a cloudy day.

We also see a rainbow surrounding the throne in heaven.

Immediately I was in the Spirit. Behold, there was a throne set in heaven, and one sitting on the throne 3 that looked like a jasper stone and a sardius. There was a rainbow around the throne, like an emerald to look at.

Revelation 4:2-3 (WEB)

We also see some angels wear the likeness of a rainbow.

I saw a mighty angel coming down out of the sky, clothed with a cloud. A rainbow was on his head. His face was like the sun, and his feet like pillars of fire.

Revelation 10:1 (WEB)

The rainbow, therefore, is a simile for heavenly glory. The glory of God and His heavens are such that they cannot be described in words. They can only be expressed in figures of speech to give us some glimmer of understanding.

Rainbows are an impressive sight. Whenever the sun and rain collide, you will often hear people mention a rainbow, and scanning the skies to find one. When they appear, bright and crisp above us, they can be breath-taking. God’s glory goes far beyond this.

As you take your daily exercise today, why not go rainbow spotting. If the weather is right, yu may see a real one, and if not, then there’s a good chance you’ll see them displayed in a nearby window.

Focus on that rainbow. It has a specific promise behind it, and yet also symbolises the very glory of God. Take the time to praise Him for His glory this day and always!