Sunday, July 28, 2013

It’s Personal

Prayer is personal.  It’s not business, it’s not superstition or magical, and God is not your servant:

When you pray, you aren't to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 
But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. 
And when you are praying, don’t use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. So don’t be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Matthew 6.5-7

Continuing with our private “acts of righteousness” (Matthew 6.1), now we come to prayer.  Jesus taught his disciples to pray in secret.  And as with giving, our Lord highlighted his comments by teaching his followers to be different.  Go back and read the passage above again carefully, and you’ll see that Jesus highlighted two groups and said we're supposed to be different. Usually (especially in Matthew) Jesus told his followers to be different than the religious folks of their day, but in this case he adds another group: the Gentiles.  This is important. 

Different than Christians

The first thing Jesus says is for us to be different than regular religious people, who love to pray in public.  Jesus mentions street corners, but today we love to pray and make a show of ourselves in restaurants or school or government buildings or other public settings.  We have lots of rationalizations for this, but it doesn't change the fact that Jesus told us not to do so! 

I won’t argue the point here. 
You can choose to take Jesus’ words as an explicit command or not.  

As for me, I choose to keep my prayer life private.  When I eat at a restaurant, I pray inside my own head.  God hears me, and He is the One to whom – and for whom – I pray.  I don’t care if others at my table think we should make a spectacle.  I pray privately because it’s what Jesus said to do.  I’m no more concerned about what other “Christians” think than I am about the others in the room.  I trust God – He knows my heart.  And I obey Jesus, who is my Lord.  If he told me to pray out loud, I’d do it; but he told me to pray in private, so that’s what I do.

Christians have also made a big deal out of “school prayer,” in direct opposition to Jesus’ teaching here.  Let’s be clear: it’s perfectly legal to pray in school – in any and every school in the United States.  The only thing our laws restrict is praying out loud in some cases.  In other words, our laws encourage us to do exactly what Jesus taught, anyway. 
“They love to stand and pray in public so that they may be seen by men”
The only reason school prayer has become such an issue recently is because people with political agendas want to influence Christians instead of Christians influencing the politicos.  This is just another example of our upside-down world, where we refuse to be different as our Lord commanded, and instead want to conform to the expectations of other “Christians.”  Exactly the opposite of what our Lord taught here.  Don’t be like those hypocrites – pray in private.

Different than the Gentiles

Jesus and his audience were Jewish, and so Jesus here is saying for them not to be like non-Jews, which is called a “Gentile” or a “Pagan.”  Specifically, he says for them not to pray with repetition.  In our culture we see this as well.  Hare Krishnas come to mind (for me) as they repeat the words “Hare Krishna, Hare, Hare” again and again – babbling superstitiously. 

The other group that comes to mind is modern Christians.  Catholics recite a prayer called a “Hail Mary,” and all of us learn the “Lord’s Prayer” (found in the next section).  Is it not amazing that we use Jesus’ own sample prayer to refuse to obey Jesus?!?!?!?  It’s like hearing God say not to make images of Him, and then doing so anyway.  Oh, wait … I guess we do that, too. 

This is true of us because we have stopped becoming disciples at all.  People who recite prayers over and over ARE pagans.  They don’t call themselves that, but their actions speak louder than their words.  What they have done is to twist Christianity into a superstition.  Using Christian words and symbols and even the bible … we have returned to superstition.  We made an idol and named it Yahweh – just as Israel did (Exodus 32.5).  Also like Israel, who obeyed God by making a brass serpent … and later twisted it into an object of worship (Numbers 21.8-9; 2 Kings 18:4). 

Please accept my challenge: examine your prayer life and see … have you become superstitious?  Have you taken ‘prayer’ and turned it into something like magic?  There are some tell-tale signs I’ll offer.  This isn't foolproof, but it should help those who want to be purer in heart. 

You may be a superstitious Christian if:

  • Most of your prayers are for what you want instead of what God wants…

You pray mostly for God’s will to be done, or for your own will?  Many of us pray for stuff we want, or safety in travel, or for healing or hundreds of other things.  If your prayer life is
  • You think there’s “power in prayer”

God is all-powerful.  When you speak to God you are praying.  If you have bought the line that your words to God are powerful, you are superstitious.  There’s no power, no magic, no mysterious spirituality here … prayer is you talking to God.  God is powerful, not your words to Him. 
  • You think you must say certain words

Do you think you have to say “In Jesus’ name, Amen” at the end of your prayers?  If so, you may be a superstitious Christian.  To be sure, we are supposed to pray in Jesus’ name (Ephesians 5.20), but that doesn't mean we must say it!  God knows your heart.  If you’re just saying words because you’re ‘supposed to’ … then is it really true?  Words without action make us hypocrites.  Besides, we’re supposed to do everything – in word or deed – in the name of Jesus (Colossians 3.17).  
  • Your prayers are mostly for earthly, physical things

Most groups and churches pray for their sick, safe travel, comfort for our troops, the poor and other physical things.  This is good and appropriate.  But consider the implications of the fact that most of our prayers have to do with things in the physical world instead of focusing on God’s Kingdom.  Solomon prayed for wisdom to benefit the kingdom.  His father (David) prayed amazing prayers (see the Psalms) that centered completely on God and God’s will being done.  Even our Lord’s prayer (next section) only asks for basics in the physical world – the rest is all spiritually focused. 

There are certainly more challenges I can offer, but now it’s up to you.  Examine yourself and see if you have maybe turned prayer into something God didn't intend.  It is difficult, but it’s an important way to become purer in heart.  We all have superstitious tendencies.  Let’s crush them and replace them with complete trust in God – and God only.

One more thing … If you find yourself challenged by this, don’t rationalize - or beat yourself up.  Men make tons of money selling Christians nonsense like The Prayer of Jabez, or preaching sermons about the “power of prayer.”  In fact, almost no one teaches the truth about prayer.  So if you've fallen for that gibberish, don’t feel too badly – just repent and become better. 


When Yeshua told his disciples to talk to God in private, he was teaching something he himself practiced.  Examine the gospels for yourself and see … how often did Jesus pray in public, how often did he pray only in the presence of his disciples, and how often did he go away to the wilderness alone?  You will find that he overwhelmingly kept his prayers private.  Jesus’ prayers were intimate affairs, for Jesus didn't see his prayers as ‘powerful,’ or as some kind of magic wishing.  When Jesus prayed, he was a son speaking to his Father.  He lived as an obedient son, being about his Father’s business, and doing everything to glorify his Father.  And … he prayed with respect, knowing his Father was also the King. 

Like Jesus, David’s prayers are respectful, constant, mostly private and always intimate.  You will find the same thing with Moses, the Patriarchs who went before him, and the prophets who followed.  Their prayers were reflections of a personal relationship with the Creator, Lord of Hosts, and King of kings. 

What does your prayer life reveal about your relationship with Yahweh? 

Do you trust in your own praying, or do you trust in God’s power and love? 

Do you talk to Him respectfully as you would a King, or are you familiar as if God were nothing more than one of your pals? 

Do you use fancy language (as if you can impress God – what a laugh), or do you just reveal your heart to Him? 

Are your prayers honest?  If so, your prayers and your actions will be in harmony; so much so that your actions can actually become prayers to God.  When service and prayer merge, they you are truly worshiping Him as if He were truly the Lord of your life. 

Know this for certain:
Your prayer life is a reflection of your true heart

“Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you: 
‘This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’”
Matthew 15:7-9
  • People who cry out to God mostly in times of trouble, but rarely ever otherwise - reveal their heart.  They see God as nothing more than their last-resort, go-to for rescue.  "When all else fails" is an attitude that reveals a heart that doesn't put God first. 
  • People who love to pray “cool” prayers impressing others, not God; reveal their heart is more interested in pleasing people than in pleasing God.
    Is this your God?  Is He your servant?
  • People who pray for stuff (material things, earthly relationships and/or comfort) reveal a heart that sees God as a Genie, in which He is a powerful servant.  Is your God someone who is supposed to jump and serve you every time you holler? Your prayers reveal the truth.
  • People who pray certain prayers over and over reveal their superstitious heart. 
  • People who insist on hand-holding or a special posture, reveal hearts not fully focused on God
  • People who think praying is a “spiritual discipline” reveal hearts that put more trust in human education & wisdom than for God’s word and Jesus’ example.
    Cute when a kid does it - creepy if she were older
  • People whose prayer life doesn't mature over time reveal their heart.  When we are children, we think, speak and behave as children.  But as we mature spiritually, our relationship with our Father should also change.  Our silly crayon-art prayer life is cool when we’re young.  But eventually we should learn to be more and do more than play with toys and let Father serve us.  What does your prayer life reveal about your spiritual maturity?

Example: Harry Potter

Consider the characters in Harry Potter’s world for a moment.  It’s easy to see that their relationships are reflected in their communications.  Harry & Ron are friends, and the frequency and content of their communications reflect that.  The changing communications between Ron and Hermione reflects their personal maturation, the different rates at which they mature, and finally evolves into romance.  The same thing is true of the way Harry speaks with Snape, Sirius or Dumbledore.  If you take a moment and consider all the relationships, you will understand: communication is always a reflection of relationship.  Harry loves Dumbledore, but he would never speak to him in familiar terms as he does with Ron.  He dislikes Snape, but still speaks with respect.

In the same way, your prayer live reveals your relationship.  People say they love Yahweh, that He is their only God, their Father, King and Lord.  But if they rarely talk to Him, how can that be true?  Do you always schedule time to talk to those you love?  Do you speak in familiar tones with a King?  Do you have to reach out to a Father who is close to your side?  Do you end each conversation with your friends with magic words?  

In it's simplest terms, prayer is nothing more than talking to God.  We talk, God listens, then responds.  In this part of the SOM, God is talking to us ... through Jesus & Matthew.  The question is: are you listening?  God is telling you how to talk to Him.  Obey man, your own intuition, or God - it's your choice. 

Just Obey  

Make it simple.  Just do as you’re told. 
If Jesus said go to a private place, then do that.  Not something else, not more, not other … just do that. 
If he said don’t repeat the same words again and again, then do that.  Not something else, not more, not different and not less … just do as you have been told by your Master.

Talk to God in private.  Be intimate, personal and honest with God.  Always be respectful!  Remember He is God, and not you.  Seek His will above your own.  Want Him to look good more than wanting yourself to look good.  Pray for spiritual things more than physical ones.  Be happy with where you are today, but don’t be content to stay there … strive to mature.

And above all … ceaselessly express gratitude.  By far the greatest common factor in biblical prayers is thankfulness, for those with pure hearts know they have already received way more than they deserve.  God is absurdly generous – how can we not thank Him in all our words and deeds?  How dare we pretend that He hasn't already done enough for us?  

Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus  

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

…always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father 

Ephesians 5:20

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Glory to ..?

When you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret.
Matthew 6.2-4

Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.
Matthew 5.16

Entertainers (including athletes and actors) use their fame to sell products and to promote their pet causes.  One of the common scenes in sports is when an athlete recognizes God after a victory. 

Here’s the question we should ask ourselves as disciples of Jesus: “Is this what Jesus intended”?  You might think it’s hard to answer, since we don’t know the heart of the person doing it.  He’s definitely not giving in secret, but then again, maybe the guy means well.  The answer is found when we remember Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruit.”

So … are people coming to serve the Lord because of these “testimonies”?  Actually, this usually doesn't happen.  Tim Tebow makes quite a show of his “faith,” but the world doesn't glorify God, they call it “Tebowing.”  The fruit of his actions bring praise to Tim, not God. 

It’s sad that modern Christians make so little effort to understand and apply the concept of secret giving.  

Our churches and their leaders don’t teach this because they don’t understand it.  Most religious leaders these days want glory for themselves and their churches.  “Successful” ones are those who follow Tim Tebow’s example; and everyone knows their name.  

But - this is not how Jesus or Paul worked.  Consider these excerpts from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth:
If I have to boast, I will boast of what pertains to my weakness.  The God and Father of the Lord Jesus (He who is blessed forever) knows that I’m not lying.
…on my own behalf I will not boast, except in regard to my weaknesses.  For if I do wish to boast I will not be foolish, for I will be speaking the truth; but I refrain, so that no one will credit me with more than he sees in me or hears from me.
…to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself!  Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me.
And he has said to me,   “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected [teleiosed] in weakness.”
Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  Therefore I’m well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”  (excerpted from 2 Corinthians 11:30-12:10)
People love to debate what might have been Paul’s “thorn in the flesh,” but in doing so, they miss the whole point!  God sent an “angel of Satan” to Paul!  Why would God send one of Hell’s Angels to hurt Paul?  For the same reason God does anything – He loved Paul, and seeing how many great things Paul was doing, God knew that Paul would be tempted to pride.  God used evil to help Paul. 

The real message here for us is that: 
God is glorified through our weaknesses – not our strength   

In fact, our power is actually made teleios in weakness!  When we do something by our own power, it’s not surprising.  But when God powers us to do things we otherwise couldn't do … that is grace!

It’s not amazing when a beautiful “Christian” girl wins Miss America.  God made her pretty, and she exploited it for her glory and profit.  What’s amazing is when an incompetent, weak, silly slave becomes the right-hand man of the king of the most powerful empire in the world.  Joseph was daddy’s special little boy, a tattle-tale filled with pride.  He was so despised that all his brothers were prepared to murder him just to shut him up.  Pharaoh was unimpressed by Joseph, but he saw that Joe’s God had blessed everything he touched.  Joseph’s weakness highlighted God’s strength. 

It was the comparative weakness of Jerusalem that glorified God when the mighty Assyrian empire was defeated in Hezekiah's day.  
It was David’s youth and inexperience that brought glory to God in the defeat of Goliath.  
- But - 
Sampson’s great strength and cleverness brought fame, popularity, pride and eventually - his shameful death. 

Even Solomon’s wisdom and the “glory days” of Israel were not as impressive as when the stuttering old lunatic (Moses) led Israel out of Egypt. 

We love bling, we love having great reputations, and to have everyone like us.  We want to be popular.  And so, we advertise our strengths and hide our weaknesses.  We do it, our churches do it, and in so doing we become just like the world, and nothing like Jesus. 

How often did Jesus say, “Tell no one”?  He told the disciples not to tell the world he was the Messiah.  Even when Jesus raised a girl from the dead, he first said, “She’s sleeping” and then only allowed her parents, Peter, James and John to witness her resurrection; and again he told them to “tell no one.”  The results of his instructions are clear in this story:
Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, saying,
“I am willing; be cleansed.”
And immediately the leprosy left him.  And He ordered him to tell no one,
“But go and show yourself to the priest and make an offering for your cleansing, just as Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”  But the news about Him was spreading even farther, and large crowds were gathering to hear Him and to be healed of their sicknesses.  But Jesus Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray.  (Luke 5:13-16)
Most people can’t resist this temptation – most of you won’t even try.  Bragging, boasting and self-promotion are so common these days that we simply cannot imagine being silent about our accomplishments and open about our struggles.  We wonder “what will people think”?  And that’s our problem.  We care more about what others think than what God thinks. 

There is only one right reason to give money, time, effort or praise or anything else.  The only right reason to give is: love.  

We love the needy person, and want that person to thank God for the gift.  God so loved the world, He gave His son.  God loves the ignorant, so He gave us His word.  God loves the hungry, so He gives food.  If we are His ambassadors, if we are His servants, then we will do God’s will in HIS service and to HIS glory, and not our own. 

What about you?  Do you need people to be “nice” and praise you, and love you and take care of you and be your friend? 

Or … are you willing to let your weaknesses, failures and struggles point the spotlight on God?  Whose reputation concerns you most – your own, or God’s?

Your fruit (the reactions of people around you) will answer that question more clearly than your words. 

People will praise you - or God.

Your challenge: 
How zealous will you be - to be sure all glory goes to God, and none to you?  
What are you willing to do? 

When I came to you I didn't come with superiority of speech or of wisdom (for I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified).  I was with you in weakness, fear and trembling; and my preaching was not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.  (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Secret Giving

So when you give to the poor, don’t sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.Matthew 6.2-4

Now get ready to see some real substantial personal growth, for this next section is some very powerful exercise for your spiritual strength!

If you’re following along with these lessons in your small group, you spent a week on teleios, then a week on our theme verse for this next section: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 6.1) As we observed before, that line is an introductory statement to what follows.  Remember:
  1. Challenge yourself – double-check your true motives
  2. Grace saves, then disciples work to please God
  3. It’s a warning, not a rule

Apply those three sentiments to each of these following lessons, and if you do so as a group, you’ll experience something rare and wonderful. 

Experts at fundraising know how to get you to give 
  • That’s why buildings (and bricks) at public institutions have names on them – most of us want some kind of credit for giving our money. 
  • That’s why youth groups have car washes, and why so many sports events are named as “charities,” so that (supposedly) your entry fee goes to something good.  We want some fun for our “giving” (Otherwise, we’d just give from our salary – we make more money at work than at a lame car wash, or running in a 5k or buying cookies)
  • It’s why churches advertise and have professional, slick websites and graphics … they need to appeal to human vanity and ego.  
  • It's why the Red Cross gives a "I gave" sticker when we give blood or we get an "I voted" sticker when we vote ... credit, and honor for us! 

Churches, non-profits and their members all want credit for their giving … they want others to see and know and praise them

Everyone knows: honey attracts better than vinegar, but…

Jesus taught his disciples something different: Giving is a blessing within itself – it needs no other reward.  In fact, when we give and others know it … the blessing is diluted.  The best gift you will ever give is the one you give that no one on earth knows about, and it costs you dearly!  Only then will you understand how right Jesus was: “It’s more blessed to give than to receive.”

The all-time best gift ever was disgusting and unattractive.  The ‘praise’ Jesus received was mocking – his reward was a sign on a cross calling him “King of the Jews,” and his crown was made of thorns.  It wasn't until later that people realized what had been done for them.  In the moment, Jesus received no glory or honor.  His gift wasn't fun, nor did Jesus shout from the cross that this was how much he loved us.  Only his closest small group understood – and even they didn't understand until three days later.

Secret Giving: Expectations

Secret giving (of either time or money) is very hard, especially at first.  It’s like starting to exercise for the first time after being sedentary for a while.  The giver feels the pain of sacrifice, but no one says, “Good job,” because they don’t know!  Can you try this?  Most of you don’t have the faith or love to even try.  But a few of you will try, and you’ll be amazed.

After a while … it gets harder in a different way.  If you give secretly for as long as a few years, not only won’t you get credit, but others will think badly about you.  They will wonder why you ‘never’ give.  They will harbor bad thoughts about you, they will gossip about you, and they will think of you as selfish and mean-spirited.  Most people can’t take it.  Most people can’t stand having others think of them that way!  They are compelled to tell people of their good deeds!  Shoot, even Mother Teresa had some PR – how else would we have even heard of a random nun among a billion Indians?

But of course most people don’t live to share a private smile between themselves and God  

If you doubt this, you don’t know Jesus or Paul or Moses or any of the greats.  They all had detractors who were ignorant.  Israel thought Moses was power-hungry, Corinth thought Paul was weak, and everyone despised Jeremiah’s negative preaching.  Even Jesus’ own brothers mocked him, his hometown despised him, and the religious leaders murdered him.  He could have explained, but, “as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he spoke not a word.”  Jesus gave secretly!  Why?  Because he didn't want glory from men, but only from his Father.

This is where your small group can be tremendously helpful! 
A small group can be like “training wheels” or a support team for times like these.  Shoot, that’s why God invented church, and why the original church was only for disciples – not for evangelism.  You can confess your struggles, you can give and receive tips, and you can give and receive support.  As a group you should talk about how you can give more and more each week, and how you can give privately.  Be open about how hard it is never to get credit for yourself or give it to your group, your church or your family … but for God alone.  This is “spur one another on to love and good deeds!”  (Hebrews 10.24)

I’ll offer you some suggestions as starting points.  Try some of these things, but don’t tell anyone outside your small group:
  • Visit a sick or hurting person … but tell no one, and ask them to tell no one (like Jesus)
  • Anonymously (blank envelope, no note, except maybe “this is from God”) send cash through the mail to a needy person or group
  • Spend extra time preparing your next lesson or talk … just to see if you can deliver it in a way that makes you look bad and God look good (yes it can be done)
  • When you’re out for a walk, pull a weed in someone else’s yard when they’re not looking, or pick up a piece of trash or return a shopping cart that’s blocking a parking space or park far from the door to leave the “good” spots open for others
  • Take the blame for someone else’s mistake
  • Ask a stupid question on purpose; to strengthen those who are afraid to ask questions  
  • Wear clothes, jewelry or make-up in a way to not draw attention to yourself
  • Shine the light of praise on others instead of yourself

You can share your little victories with others in your group, but promise each other it won’t go outside the group.  Make sacrifices – of your time, your money, and even your reputation – to bring help to another person and praise to God, and then share your story only within your group.  Together you can inspire and motivate one another.  You can form strategies to improve, and you can consistently become better and better givers … and give all the glory ONLY to God. 

If you do this, you’ll reap a reward beyond your imagination.  What’s more, you’ll be a very rare person, for the vast majority of people (even “Christians”) will never even try this.  That makes you a bit special in God’s eyes, and He sees all and will reward you on The Day of our Lord’s appearing.

Meanwhile, you’ll develop a kind of strength that you didn't know was possible.  You can learn to rely on God alone, and get to the point you need no help or approval from other people.  The stronger you get the closer to God you’ll be, the more you will be able to give, and so goes the upward spiral of growth. 

We live in a very dark world – this is how we let our lights shine away from ourselves, and cause others to praise God  

Though I’m free from all men, I've made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. 
To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some.
1 Corinthians 9:19, 22

Sunday, July 7, 2013



Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.  Matthew 6.1

If you were to ride the tube (London’s subway), you would hear and see the phrase “mind the gap.”  There’s a space between the platform and the train itself, and it would be very unpleasant if one were to get his foot stuck between the two, so they frequently repeat the caution.  This is one of many warnings and cautions in our world.  We are warned to wash our hands, beware of dogs, and my personal favorite: “Beware of hitchhiking ghosts.” 

There are many warnings in the bible, too.  The first one came from God to the third human being in the world’s history, Cain:
“If you do well, won’t your countenance be lifted up? And if you don’t do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.”  (Genesis 4:7)
Paul warned the Philippians to “Beware of the dogs” (Phil 3.2) and others.  And one that stands out to me is the warning and advice from 'grandmother wisdom' in Proverbs 1. (It would be a fun bible study to find all the warnings there - wouldn't it? There are lots of them, and many we ignore.)  

warnings are great 

I love warnings!  They have the ability to prevent problems.  It seems we often have to get out of trouble – we say or do the wrong things, and then there are consequences.  The wise person heeds warnings, and never experiences the consequences.  But sadly, we often fail to “mind the gap.”  People drive a car after one drink too many or operate their iThingies while driving, despite many warnings.  We feed the critters we’re not supposed to feed, we ride without helmets, we forget to put on eye protection, or … what’s yours? 

Warnings are great for another reason – warnings aren't rules.  Warnings allow us freedom.  You can put your foot in the gap and not go to jail.  Many people have operated a car while tipsy and texting and still made it home alive.  Freedom ... it's a wonderful thing, but sometimes it gets us in trouble if we don't exercise caution.  

heads-up, disciples! 

In this section of the SOM we’re given a warning.  It’s not a rule, it’s intended to prevent problems.  Jesus says “watch out” or “be careful” of doing your acts of righteousness to be seen by men.  Why?  Because Jesus knows the consequences, and he loves you and wants you to have a better life in this world ... and eternal glory in the next. 

Why please people?  Because we don’t want to be alone, or we want others to like us or admire us or pay us or give us power or romance or whatever.  People-pleasing is almost always the action of a person who thinks he or she “needs” something.  Consider your own issues, for each of us struggles with this temptation, but for many different reasons. 

Consider your motives, and be careful.  If you seek approval of humans for any reason, you are getting yourself into dangerous territory.  One of two things happen when we seek to please people: Either we fail and are tempted to be angry, sad, bitter or upset in some unloving way; or we succeed and please them.  Success in people-pleasing is habit forming!  Once you start, you will find it harder and harder to stop … and the eventual outcome is that you “automatically” do things for approval without thinking.  This is one of Satan’s greatest tools for using us. We are all slaves to our compulsions, and Jesus died to set us free!  Why continue to submit to this habit?  

Jesus understood the temptations his disciples would face.  He offered them advice in the form of a warning in this section.  His warnings are about praying, giving, fasting … can you do these things in a way that no one knows you’re doing it - so that you don’t get any “credit” for them? 

on the other hand...

Jesus said
“Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.  (Matthew 5:16)
We are supposed to let others see our good works, but it’s God who is supposed to get all the glory and credit, not us.  Discuss with your group how one might do this. 

Paul wrote to Tim that he should:
Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe.  (1 Timothy 4:12)
Showing yourself as a good example to others is an important part of encouraging your brothers and sisters, but also it’s an excellent evangelism tool.  So again the challenge is how do we learn to do this?  You should discuss it with your group. 

Consider what you know about warnings.  Sometimes we ignore them because we forget.  Sometimes we don’t believe them.  Other times we think it’s worth the risk.  What other reasons are there for ignoring warnings? 

Here’s your final question/challenge: will you and your fellow disciples “mind the gap”?  Will you accept Jesus’ warning, and help each other obey and remember ... and keep obeying and remembering?  

Seek only the approval of God.  He loves you more than humans, anyway. 

Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier.

2 Timothy 2:3-4

Thursday, July 4, 2013

What about grace?

Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.Matthew 6.1

“You have no reward in heaven.” 
“You have no reward in heaven.” 
You have no reward in heaven.” 
“You have no reward in heaven.” 

I want to make sure you see that.  This isn't my opinion; these are the words of Jesus.  God’s son said that if you act “good” so that people will give you praise … you have lost your heavenly reward. 

Wait a second … what about Grace? 
Working for a reward isn't my idea of receiving a gift!
Does this line look to you like Jesus doesn't know about grace?  To some people it may appear that Jesus was telling his disciples that their heavenly reward is based on works, not grace.  So … what’s the deal? 

This will be a constant theme in our next section of the SOM, so let’s pause now and clear up this matter.  There’s going to be a lot of emphasis on our works … so let’s figure it out.  We’ll use a story from the New Testament to understand.

Who’s your favorite preacher?

Apollos was the new preacher at the Corinth church of Christ.  Some of the people loved his great preaching.  Others preferred Paul, who had founded their church.  Paul wasn't nearly as good as Apollos – Paul was a dry, bible-scholar kind of preacher; very knowledgeable but long-winded.  When the church wrote a letter to Paul, the people carrying the letter told him what was happening, and that some were bigger fans of Apollos than they were of Paul.  (People had their favorite preachers, even then) 

Paul opened his response letter by addressing the issue.  Part of his response is below.  Read it carefully, because we can learn a lot about works and grace. 
Dear Corinthians, I hear that you’re divided over your favorite preacher.
What then is Apollos? And what is Paul?
Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave to each one.
I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth.  So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.
Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor.  For we are God’s fellow workers; y’all [Corinthian church] are God’s field, God’s building.  According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it.
But each man must be careful how he builds on it!  For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work.  If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward.  If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.  Don’t you guys know that y’all are God’s temple and the Spirit of God dwells among you all?
If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that’s what y’all are.
Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, he must become foolish, so that he may become wise.  For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God….
So then let no one boast in men. For all things belong to you, whether Paul or Apollos … or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.  (1 Corinthians 3:5-23)

If you read carefully, you saw Paul’s works, Apollos’ works and God’s work.  Disciples are like farmers who plant and water, but they can’t actually make stuff grow – only God can do that.  In fact, it’s by God’s grace that we’re able to work at all!  Grace isn't merely about being saved, it’s about being able to serve!  Without grace Paul could not say that “we are God’s fellow workers.”  How cool is it to think that you and I can be fellow workers of God?  Only by His grace

And since God gives us grace to work, serve, and build … God gets the glory, not us.  That’s why Paul wrote, “neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything,” and “Let no one boast in men.  As our Lord will teach us in the SOM, Paul didn't want human praise.  He saw them picking a favorite preacher as a problem – their problem; not because he wasn't the favorite, but because they praised men and divided.  Paul did not want glory, fans or praise.  He did not want to be popular.  He wanted people to listen to him, but only because he was working in alliance with his Boss. 
Am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ.  (Galatians 1:10)
Paul was different than many pastors, preachers and church workers today.  Paul used God’s grace to God’s glory – many today use it for their own glory.  They tell themselves that they need to have a good name so people will listen to them, buy their books, attend their church.  Today it’s all about marketing – the most popular guy (or church) wins.  Paul spoke about that in one of his letters, too:
For we are not like many, peddling the word of God, but as from sincerity, but as from God, we speak in Christ in the sight of God.  (2 Corinthians 2:17)
You see that Paul is more concerned with God’s opinion of his speaking and writing than he is with any human’s opinion. What Christian do you know today who doesn't crave praise & approval?

But what about the works we do?  These are things we do AFTER we’re saved.  Paul doesn't doubt his salvation or the salvation of the people in Corinth, except under one condition: those who harm the church.  Paul and Apollos planted and watered, but it’s God’s plant, God’s house.  Those who destroy God’s work are His enemies.  Without repentance, they will be destroyed.  Clearly that wasn't the intent of the Corinthians.  They didn't mean to hurt their church, it was the consequences of their division and childishness.  They were far from teleios, and the fruit of immaturity is squabbling, complaining and bickering.  It’s what children do.

a question of quality

Paul wants them to focus on the quality of their work.  He describes the church as a spiritual building; as God’s house, His casa.  The question for them (and for us all) is … are we working together to build a great mansion for God, or are we throwing together a shack?  Or worse yet, are we merely sitting in a house built by others and barely participating? Or - maybe you argue over who is your favorite builder from the sidelines, or which builder you refuse to even fellowship.  

You see that Paul wants to build those people into a magnificent palace, not merely a tent, a trailer or a mud hut.  No matter what kind of building they are, they’re still God’s.  They are saved.  But it is up to each of us to present ourselves before God as great builders or lazy bums.  Most Christians prefer to receive their “grace certificate” and then play in the sandbox of grace, caring little for how they will stand before God. 

We often reduce grace to a matter of salvation, and that’s too bad.  Grace is so much more.  The word “grace” is another word for “gift.”  All good gifts are from God, including your ability to become a wise, capable, hard-working builder of quality.  What better way to thank God and praise God than to use His gifts to His glory?

So the issue here isn't about salvation at all.  They are saved.  God sent planters and caretakers and builders, and God has been causing growth.  And as a result the worker will pass through the fire and “he himself will be saved.” 

The issue here is whether you pass through the fire with nothing, or if your life has amounted to anything that will make God smile.  If you do the kind of work that survives the fire, then God smiles at you after resurrection.  We will see this later on in the SOM when Jesus instructed his disciples to “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” 

People who think they can work to be saved are missing the point, and have fallen from grace:
“You who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.” (Galatians 5:4)
People who think we won’t be judged by our work are also rejecting truth: 
 “For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and will then repay every man according to his deeds.” Matthew 16:27
 “An hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.  John 5:28-29

Remember that Jesus was speaking specifically to his disciples in the SOM.  These are people who have already (past tense) agreed to follow Jesus no matter what.  Their concern is not salvation – their concern is pleasing our Father – and that’s what Jesus is teaching them to do.  He understands that it will be tempting to become like “good” church folk and do things to be pleasing to humans – and in so doing, their reward is what they’re after – compliments, praise and adulation from other humans. 

So here’s the challenge for baptized disciples (saved folk) today:
  • Are you working at all? Or are you lounging in the hammock of grace?  (Matthew 24.45-51; 25.1-13) Or maybe you’re hiding under the covers of fear and guilt? (Matthew 25.25-30) If you’re not working – get with it!!
  • What’s your motive?  If you are working – why?  Are you trying to look good, to feel good, or to bring praise to God? Are you trying to get others to like you, forgive you, respect you, love you … or is your entire effort focused on people loving and fearing Yahweh? 
  • What’s the quality of your work?  Do you try to do a good job, to be prompt, effective, capable and produce other good workers like you?  Do you work hard? Do you make sure you always, only tell God’s truth, or do you fling out opinions mixed with truth?  If you were working on “commission” for God … would you be broke?  (Matthew 25.14-30)

God has given you the ability to love and forgive and be compassionate shepherds. 

What will you do with His grace?
Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.  Give no offense … to the church of God; just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit but the profit of the many, so that they may be saved.”
1 Corinthians 10:31-33