Thursday 18 July 2024

The Marks of a True Church

 


One Sunday after the service a small group of young adults gather together and start complaining about their church.

‘Gosh, the music is very old-fashioned here.’  ‘That sermon was dull.’  ‘These people are so unexciting.’

Then Tom comes up with a suggestion.  ‘Let’s start our own church.’  ‘Let’s “do church” in a way that our friends will want to attend.’  ‘Let’s “do church” our way.’

So, they got together a praise band, one of them agreed to preach, they even appointed a couple of elders and deacons, and they met together the next Sunday.  That Sunday they shared the Lord’s Supper, and over time even baptised one of their friends when he came to put his trust in Jesus.

Have those young people created a true church?

I have wondered about this for years.  When a group of Christians set up a community and start meeting together what makes them a church?

This is a big question for us in LBC because we have committed ourselves to church-planting.  We need to know what are the ingredients of a true church?  We need to remember that what we are seeking to do is something that actually depends on divine favour.

1.        The historic marks of a true church

These were big questions around the time of the Reformation.  Afterall the Reformation saw a large number of groups of people breaking away from an institution that claimed to be the one true church.  They knew that the church is the body of Christ, and that to be a Christian involves being connected with that body.  How did these break-away groups know that they really were churches of God?

Various groups all came up with three similar marks of a true church, and these marks can be seen in the various historical confessions of faith.  They claimed that a true church—taught the Bible faithfully, shared the sacraments/ordinances (which they limited to baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and practiced church discipline.

In those days those new churches were quick to write each other off on the first mark—teaching the Bible faithfully.  The Reformation was after all a battle for truth.  Churches in those days often split on what we might think as secondary issues of doctrine.  But if that was the weakness of their time, the weakness of our time is that we tend to ignore the Bible’s call to lovingly hold our members to account.  You should not join a church that won’t challenge you about what you think and how you live.

A couple of things about this discipline.

Church discipline does not expect church members to be perfect.  John wrote saying that if we say we are without sin we are liars and the truth is not in us (1 John 1:8).  Christians struggle, and often fail, in our aim to live a holy God-honouring life.  Church discipline is for those who are persistently opposing the truth, stubbornly refusing to address issues of serious sin in their lives or are constantly causing division.

Church discipline is only for those who are claiming to be followers of Jesus.  People who don’t know Jesus are welcome to come to our meetings and see what we do.  Our job is not to judge their lifestyles.  That is between them and God.  But if they submit to Jesus’ loving rule, and so join a local church, that local church is to hold them accountable in their Christian walk.  That is the advantage of having a formal system of membership.  It can be hard to know who on a Sunday understands the gospel and has committed to following Jesus.  In going through a membership process these things are clarified.  Becoming a member involves agreeing to come under the discipline of the church.

It is not the pastor or elders alone who practice church discipline, it is the role of the whole church.

Discipling might begin with a serious chat.  It might then be suggested to a person that it is dangerous for them to participate in the Lord’s Supper.  Finally, their membership might be withdrawn and there could be the withdrawal of convivial discourse.

What do I mean by the withdrawal of convivial discourse?  I mean that we don’t pretend that all is well.  They might come along to church, and it is good to see them there because they need to be challenged by the gospel.  But after the service they would prefer to talk about Munster’s latest rugby triumph, or the book they are reading, rather than address what is going on in their life.  Withdrawing convivial discourse means that we are not going to be rude, but neither are we going to be trivial.  We might reply, ‘I know you want to talk about the Munster rugby team, but I can’t pretend all is well in your life.  I love you too much to pretend that you are not in grave spiritual danger.  I only want to talk about how things are between you and God.  We can sit down and see what the Bible says about these things.  But do not have me pretend everything is okay.’ 

This sort of thing interaction, or lack of interaction, goes on until the person concludes that they never understood what it meant to follow Jesus, and aren’t born again, or, show that they are born again by repenting.

The aim of church discipline is both to protect the purity and witness and the church (we want the world to see that we don’t agree with certain behaviours) and the loving restoration of failing people.

2.        The divine marker of the true church

I don’t see these three marks of a true church as simply ingredients that you put together and then say, ‘hey presto here is a church.’  I think they are also like fruit that show that God is creating a true church.  We must remember that a local church is a divinely constructed entity, and not just a humanly constructed one.  When the Holy Spirit is moving among a group of believers who are claiming to be a church, if it is a real work of God, you will see a strong emphasis on submitting and being shaped by the Bible, a reverence and rejoicing in the ordinances that demonstrate the gospel, and a loving concern for purity of the church and its people.

One of the passages in the Bible that reminds us that the local church is something that God establishes is the first chapter of Revelation.  There we see Jesus walking amongst the lampstands, which are the churches.  I am not sure whether these lampstands refer to the churches across a city or to individual churches.  The point I want to make is simply that only God can create such a lampstand.  A true church is something that God establishes and maintains.

I also think that there are at least two other fruit of a true church: love for other churches and perseverance. 

In John’s first letter, the beloved apostle points out that you can not claim to love God, who you have not seen, if you do not love your Christian brothers and sisters, who you have seen (1 John 4:20).  There is a real problem when a Christian is so exclusive that they cannot find a church that they are willing to join.  There is a real problem when we are overly critical of every other church.  There can also be a real problem when a church is so focused on itself that they have no delight in what God might be doing through other groups.

With regards perseverance, I think of a conversation that happened when the Jewish Sanhedrin were debating the early Christian church.  A leading Pharisee, called Gamaliel, suggested that if this movement was of God it would last (Acts 5:38-39).  Luke records these as wise words coming from the mouth of an unbeliever.  I think something similar can be said of a true church.  While a church might reach the end of a faithful ministry due to movements of population or the passing on of believers, things that God creates tend to last.  I would even go so far as to say that some groups that decided to set up as a church for reasons that might be less than ideal over time have come to show themselves to end up as true works of God.

3.       Every Christian needs to be a member of a true church

Different churches have different ways of recognising who is a member of the body.  If you are a Christian you need to be committed to a true church.  Is it possible to be truly born again and not be connected to the body of Christ?  Maybe there are certain exceptional circumstances where this can be, but it is not normal.  One of the evidences that we are born again is that we love and belong to a local church.

Sometimes a person will refuse to join a church because they cannot find one that agrees with them on every issue—be careful, it may be that you are letting a doctrine of secondary importance cause you to disobey a primary issue of behaviour.  The writer to the Hebrews warns us not to give up meeting together (Hebrews 10:25).  Sometimes people struggle to settle into a church because the church doesn’t do things the way we want or they are not all our sort of people.  No one said that membership of a church is not easy. 

By the way, I don’t like church-shopping.  Churches are not a product and you are not a customer.  Don’t simply look for a church with the nicest people, the best music and the most dynamic speakers.  Pray about it.  Join an imperfect community that displays the marks of a true church.  Then fully commit yourselves to serving and encouraging.  Remember the words of the writer to the Hebrews: ‘let us consider how to spur one another on to love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other—all the more as you see the Day approaching (Hebrews 10:24-35).

Remember that to be a spiritual member of a church is compared to being a member of a body, and that body is the body of Christ.  There are times when it is right to leave a church and join another one.  But remember that if you do this badly it will cause hurt—just like tearing a finger off a hand.

Conclusion

Remember how we began this talk.  A group of young adults decide to “do church” their way.  They appoint leadership, the commit themselves to teaching the Bible and the gospel ordinances, and they are evening willing to hold each other to account.  Have they created a true church?  I am not sure!  Their motives don’t seem to have been particularly God-honouring, loving or humble.  Who knows?  God is gracious.  Perhaps over time they will show themselves to be the real thing.

Aren’t we at such an exciting time in LBC.  We are asking God to use us to plant a true church.  That is why we need to be so clear about what a true church is.  God may choose to use us in creating something that is ultimately God-built.  We can be involved in God creating a body of Christ in this area.  We can be involved in something that God might choose to keep glowing for generations.  We can be there at the start—at a truly historical moment.

I want to finish by explaining the gospel in turns of church.  When our first parents rebelled against the loving rule of God people were alienated from Him and from each other.  God has always sought to restore to Himself a people.  In fact, in His great love God promises to put the lonely into a family (Psalm 68:6).  The church is a family belonging to God and we are brothers in sisters in Christ.  But God brought us into this family at a great cost to Himself.  As His Son took the punishment for our guilt He felt forsaken by His own Father.  Now when we are brought to Jesus, we are called to be a part of His body—a local church.  This is both our privilege and our opportunity.  Those who are born again are to love and serve the church remembering how precious it is to God.  Jesus is the groom and the church is His bride!  It is precious to Him, and it must be special to us.

Saturday 13 July 2024

Study in Micah

 

Study in Micah

Title:  What happens when you get tired of God?

God asks, ‘how did I make you tired of me?’ (6:3)

1.        Christian teachers often sow in tears

Context: Divided Kingdom – Israel (capital Samaria), Judah (capital Jerusalem).

The prophecy opens with a call to the nations.  However, soon the focus is on the northern kingdom.  The superpower of the day, Assyria, is going to take them into exile.  The southern kingdom of Judah needs to take notice, as they too will go into exile because of their wickedness.

This message is devastating for Micah, as his hometown, in southern Judah, is mentioned in the warning (1:14).  Think of Paul’s sorrow over his people the Jews (cf. Romans 9:1-3).

But different teachers of the day saw that all will be well.  There are plenty of teachers, even in our day, who will ignore the issues of sin and judgement. 

2.       People who are weary of God turn to idols

The people had poles to the god Asherah in their gardens.  They went and worshipped at the temples of Baal.  They are deep in idolatry.

Then there is the fact that they plot evil on their beds (2:1).  They try to figure out how they can take property off the vulnerable.  Remember that when the people had entered the Promised Land the land had been divided out.  There were laws to return land to those who lost it.  The people were ruled by greed.

The land was riddled with corruption, as can be seen by the use of wicked scales (6:11).

The Promised Land was supposed to be like a return to Eden or a taste of heaven.  However, it had become a violent and sinful place.

3.       We have no idea how our much our sin costs

Nancy Guthrie thins that the people are saying that they think God is acting like he can’t be pleased.  Despite the fact that He had rescued them from Egypt they do not see His love.  They ask God what they should give for their sin.  ‘Shall we bring a burnt offering?’  ‘Shall we bring 1,000 rivers of oil?’  ‘Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgressions?’  (6:7).  Are they saying, ‘you simply can’t be pleased'?

The irony is that it will take the death of a firstborn—God’s firstborn—to deal with their sin.

But this is what repentance should look like: to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God’ (6:8).  Surely this says so much about the nature of God’s character.

Is their any hope in this book?

Yes, God will send a shepherd-king (2:13 and 5:2).

He offers to forgive people.  In fact, that is part of His nature.  ‘Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgressions for the remnant of his inheritance?’ (7:18).

Conclusion:

One hundred years after God gave this prophecy to Micah a number of people returned from exile and rebuilt the temple.  But all the promises—like swords being made into ploughs—are not yet there.

The beginning of chapter 4 talks about the ‘latter days’ (4:1).  Reading the book of Acts we can see that the last days are that time between Jesus’ first and second coming.  Jesus has coke and brought us peace.  He will come again and bring it in its fullness. 

Notes on Malachi

Title:  Is it worth following God?

God speaks to the people saying, ‘You have said, “it is useless to serve God.  It is not good to obey his laws and show the Lord almighty that we are sorry for violating it.  After all the proud are happy and the evil succeed” (3:14-15).

But God has said: ‘Test me’ (3:10).  Let’s just see if living whole-heartedly for God is worth it.

Context:  The return from exile.  Some have returned in person, but their hearts have not returned.

This message opens with God saying ‘I love you?’ (1:2).  But they respond with unbelief, asking, ‘how have you loved us?’

God then reminds them how He has chosen their people.  ‘Jacob (their ancestor) I loved’ but ‘Esau, I hated’.  Hated here is meant in the terms of covenant, in the fact that God did not choose Esau.

The thing to remember is that Jacob had done nothing to deserve God’s lavish love.  Jacob is an unattractive character in much of the Genesis account.  He is a deceiver.  But God shows love to people who deserve nothing from Him.  That is grace!  NO matter who you are or what you have done, God invites us, ‘return to me, and I will return to you’ (3:7).

God tells His people that He is like a father that they have failed to honour.  How have they failed to honour Him?  When it came to bringing their sacrifices to the alter they brought those of least value to Him—the blind, the lame and sick animals.  Isn’t it ironic—they have said, ‘you don’t love us’ and yet their actions show that they don’t love Him?

They also have a problem with their religious teachers.  Those teachers were teaching the people to do wrong (2:8).  Again, there is irony.  They accused God of not being just, but the people are practicing injustice.

The people are also disloyal.  Their men married women who did not love God.  This is not a racial issue but a religious issue.  Ruth and Rahab became believers and were incorporated into the family of God, but when you marry someone who does not love God you are failing to put Him first.  The results can be disastrous.

The men also divorced their wives, in an act of cruelty.  Again, the results are disastrous.  God desires that we have faithful offspring (2:15), but if one of the parents doesn’t love the Lord this is put at jeopardy.  If fathers don’t obey God it will affect their children.  There is a great foolishness in marrying a person who does not share your faith, a foolishness that can have eternal significance for your children.

When we read the Old Testament we should always be thinking, ‘how does this point to Jesus?  At the beginning of chapter 3 we are introduced to a messenger who prepares the way for the Lord.  The New Testament will show us that this is a reference to John the Baptist.  John the Baptist serves as a kind of Elijah (4:5).  Notice that John the Baptist prepares the way for the Lord.  This is a reminder that Jesus is none other than God Himself.  Jesus will come to purify and cleanse a people (3:3). 

God calls them to repent.  They ask, ‘how?’  The answer is through showing faithful obedience. Chapter 3 (verses 6-12) have been horribly misused by preachers who appeal to greed.  God speaks about the fact that they have withheld their tithes, and promises He to bless them if they obey.  The first thing to remember is that these were the tithes linked to the apparatus of the temple.  In the letters of the New Testament the standard of giving is a joyful and generous heart (2 Cor. 9:7).  God is not entering into a mechanical law with them saying, ‘give me ten percent I will bless you with money!’  He is saying, ‘obey me, and I will remind you of my faithfulness.’  As New Testament believers we know that God’s blessing and more than an offer of crass materialism.  God delights to pour out all sorts of blessings on His people, which might even include the growth that only can come through suffering.

Notice that those who turn back to God find that their names are written in His book (3:16).

The last chapter speaks of a coming day.  A day of Judgement.  But also, a day of blessing.  For those who did not turn back this day will be awful.  For those who have returned to God it will be a day of healing (4:2).  The people demanded justice, and justice will be what will one day happen.

It is not just on the last day that it will be seen that returning to God is wroth it, there is an abundance of blessings in living in His grace now.

‘Test me’, He says to us, ‘see if I am worth it!’

Wednesday 5 June 2024

Effective evangelism for all (14:1-7)


‘Effective evangelism for all’ (Acts 14:1-7)

I couldn’t share my faith!  I am not smart enough.  I don’t know how to answer the difficult questions that people may ask.  I am not a good communicator.  I never know what to say.  I’m afraid.  I don’t want to offend people.  I am scared my friends and family might reject me.

The apostle Paul went to the hill country of Galatia because he was ill (Gal. 4:13).  He would not have struck them as being an impressive person.  In another context he claims that he did not depend on wise and persuasive words (1 Cor. 2:4).  In at least one situation he approached an area and its people with a great feeling of weakness and with great fear and trembling (1 Cor. 2:3).

These early Christians knew that evangelism can be hard.  But they rejoiced to share the good news.

What makes effective evangelism?  

Background

Effective evangelism is what we read about here.

We are following Paul’s first missionary journey.  Last week we saw that Paul and his companions were expelled from Antioch in Pisidia.  But they did not give up sharing their faith.  They travelled ninety miles (145 km) south east to Iconium (also in Galatia).  There they entered the Jewish synagogue and spoke about Jesus.  They also shared their faith with non-Jews.  They spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed (Acts 14:1).

They were effective in their evangelism.

So, what makes effective evangelism?

1.       Speaking about Jesus is for every Christian

We must not think that it was only Paul and Barnabas who spoke about Jesus.  In last week’s reading we saw that ‘the word of God spread through the whole region’ (13:46).  It was spread by all those who had come to faith.  We see the same pattern earlier in Acts, after the stoning of Stephen.  ‘The believers were scattered, and those who were scattered went about preaching the word’ (8:4).

2.       The good news centres on the person of Jesus

Again, look back at last week’s passage.  When Paul was preaching he focused on the saviour Jesus (13:23), the message of salvation (13:26) and the grace of God (13:43).  A few months after that visit we wrote the letter of Galatians to those Christians, where he explained that he had portrayed Christ as crucified before their very eyes (Gal. 3:1).  Paul can sum up his whole message by declaring, ‘we preach Christ crucified’ (1 Cor. 1:23).

Have you come up with your couple of sentences that explain the gospel?  Mine is imperfect, but it says, ‘my sin is so serious before a holy God that nothing less than the death of God’s only Son can deal with it, and that is exactly what God has done for me.’  Any summary of the good news about Jesus must centre on why He died.

3.       Sharing the good news needs follow-up

Last week we saw that Paul and Barnabas urged those who had responded to the message to continue in the grace of God (13:43).  A person has not been born again if, like the seed that feel on shallow soil, they make a response and later drift away (Mark 4:4-6).  Only those who persevere to the end will be saved (Matt. 24:13). 

In Iconium the apostles stayed on for a long time (14:2).  This was a short reading, but don’t let that give you the impression that this means if was covering only a brief stay.  They will have stayed for months.  They wanted to ensure that those who responded got what being a follower of Jesus was all about.  They wanted to ground these young converts in the truth.  When you start to talk to someone about Jesus be prepared to keep in touch with them.

Notice the ‘so’ at the beginning of verse three.  The unbelievers tried to poison the minds of those who had responded.  ‘So, they remained there for a long time.’  The threat that existed from opposition to the local church caused the apostles to work and stay harder and longer.  

On the return leg of this missionary journey they would revisit Iconium and appoint elders for them in every church (14:23).  You see the New Testament knows nothing of believers who are not connected into a local expression of the body of Christ.  Our evangelistic task is not complete until the person has become connected with a local church.  Our church needs to become a place where new believers can be grounded.  In fact, bring a friend to church has the advantage of showing that person the type of community they are going to get involved with if they come to Christ.

4.       We need to depend on God

In the book of Acts the Word of God seems to have a power all of its own.  ‘The word of the Lord was spreading through the whole region’ (13:49). 

Later in Acts we will read of Lydia, and how the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul (16:14).  It was God at work as the word was spoken!

In the last chapter we read, ‘as many as were appointed to eternal life believed’ (13:48).  Becoming a Christian is a work of God.  We can’t boast.  On our own we would never choose Jesus.

This is why effective evangelism begins with persistent prayer.  That is why we have a ‘5’ on our wall challenging us to pray every day for five people.  We can’t persuade anyone.  We don’t depend on clever arguments. 

We even ask that God might grant signs and wonders to confirm the gospel to people (14:3).

5.       The message produces a divided response

While salvation might be all of God, those who refuse the gospel are held totally accountable for their rejection of the truth.  Paul tells those who would not turn to Jesus that, ‘you thrust aside the word of God and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life’ (13:46).  Here in Iconium we read of ‘unbelievers’ (14:2), but the word translated ‘unbelievers’ it not the usual word used, it is actually a word that can be translated ‘disobedient’.  They simply would not accept the truth of the gospel.

Was the apostle Paul any less effective in sharing the gospel with those who believed and those who disobeyed?  No!  He presented the same message.  The soil that melts the ice can also harden the clay.  Our job is to be faithful to the message.  If people reject it, that is not our fault.

Notice that the message divided the people of the city (14:4).  Often when we try to speak about Jesus we are simply met with apathy.  I wonder if that is because we don’t explain the whole truth.  We don’t warn people that without Jesus they are lost and condemned.  That there is a hell as well as a heaven.  I am not saying that all people will hate us.  Earlier in Acts we read that the Christians enjoyed the favour of all people (2:47).  But Jesus did say ‘woe to you when everyone speaks well of you (Luke 6:26).  Jesus said, ‘do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth.  I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be members of his own household’ (Matthew 10:34-35).  As one evangelist said, ‘sometimes we are so low key that we’re no key.’

Conclusion

The time came when the apostles learned of a threat on their lives.  It was at that point that staying would be counterproductive.  So, they moved on to Lystra (twenty miles southwest) and Derbe (58 miles) where they continued to preach that good news (7).  The difficulties did not stop them.  

One of the things that we want to do as a church is to help each other in the area of sharing our faith.  I was talking to someone in Crown Jesus Ministries this week and we hope to have another evangelism training day in the autumn.

Have you come up with your one sentence definition of the gospel, for the next time someone asks you what we believe in this church?

Why not invite someone to the concert or the baptism?

Many of us will soon be going on holidays.  Will you imitate the early Christians and talk about Jesus wherever you go?

Will we ask people questions that get them thinking?

Will we seek to do more than just talk about generalities but present the whole truth?

Will we pray for God to bring people of His choosing across our path?

Will we speak this truth to ourselves, and pray that God plants it deep in our hearts, so that we will see how good Jesus is and be compelled by love for God and love for people?   

Tuesday 28 May 2024

Devoted ... to the breaking of bread (Acts 2:42).


When it comes to sharing the Lord’s Supper there are a number of questions that can be raised.

What?

What is it that we are sharing?  Is this actually Jesus’ body and blood?  I don’t think that would make any sense.  Remember that Jesus was sitting in front of the disciples when He said, ‘this is my body’ and ‘this is my blood’.  They could see His body and they could see the elements and they knew that he was using these bread and wine as a picture of his body and blood.

That being said, just because they are only symbols of Jesus’ body and blood should not make our attitude towards this meal any less reverent.  In the context of church discipline, the Jesus who is always with us said that he is with them when two are three are gathered.  I think that we should see this as a special time before the Lord.

Who?

This is a believer’s meal.  This is for those who have been born again.  This is for those who are in a living relationship with Christ.  But the apostle Paul warns us to examine ourselves before we partake (1 Cor. 11:28).  Are we walking in obedience?

Now all of us sin.  If we say that we don’t we are not born again (1 John 1:8).  We fall every day.  But there is a great difference between wrestling with sin and living in sin.  If you are not truly seeking the enabling of the Holy Spirit to overcome your sin, if you are unwilling to let Jesus rule your sex life or your willingness to forgive, then don’t take the Lord’s Supper.  It is dangerous for you.  You might get ill or even die, as God lovingly disciplines you (1 Cor. 11:30).  Don’t take the Lord’s Supper if you are not serious about letting God change you.

How often?

We share it on the second Sunday of every month.

Mark Dever says that there is no prescription of how often it should be shared.  The impression I get from reading the New Testament letters is that they shared it often.  Maybe that is a discussion for another day?

When?

In Wexford Bible Church they do it in the middle of their services.  I like that.  I do think that we need to be wary of being too prescriptive in how we structure our services.  We do the Lord’s Supper at the end.  One thing that is really important however is that we don’t rush it.  I know I have been time conscious and guilty of moving too quickly through the Lord’s Supper.

Theological problems

As you can already see there is a lot of potential debate about taking the Lord’s Supper.  One of the huge issues concerns the nature of how a person is made right with God.  In Roman Catholic theology, grace is seen as infused.  That means that when you take the ‘sacraments’ you are receiving grace.  The hope then is that at the end of your life you will have enough grace to be considered right with God.  Therefore, when we say, ‘don’t partake in the Lord’s Supper if you are not yet a Christian, it can be confusing, because taking the Lord’s Supper is something that you do in order to become a Christian.’  It is a different way of viewing both grace and salvation.

We believe that grace is imputed.  That means that becoming a Christian is not a process.  There is a moment when you were in the dark and come into the light.  There is a moment when you are converted or born again.  At that moment you receive saving grace.  You are as right with God the second you become a Christian and you are having walked with Jesus for decades.  The apostle Paul describes a great exchange where, ‘God made him to be sin who had no sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Cor. 5:21).

I want us to look in five directions as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper:

1.       Look back.  Each of the four gospels tells us that the last supper was a Passover meal.  At the original Passover a lamb was killed so that God’s people could be rescued from slavery.  Jesus is our Passover lamb (1 Cor. 5:7).  He dies so we could be freed from the power and consequences of sin.  Look back to that cross.  This is how we know what love is, Christ died for us (1 John 3:16).

2.       Look up.  I think it is important that we remember that the Jesus who is always with us is with us as we remember His death and that He takes this event very seriously.

3.       Look in.  Because this is such a serious occasion we look in.  We examine ourselves.  Are we willing to let Jesus challenge our tongue?  How do we speak to and about people?  Are we quick and ready to forgive?  Do we grieve when our gentleness not evident to all?  Do we hide our sexual sins, including what we look at with our eyes, or do we turn to others for help as we confess our sins to each other?  Are we asking God for opportunities to speak to the lost?  Are we asking Him to teach us to pray?

4.       Look around.  I know that after Covid we are all a bit more cautious about shaking hands and hugging, but I think it is really important that we are at peace with each other, and it is a good thing to greet each other by saying, ‘peace be with you.’

5.       Look forward.  At the last supper Jesus told the disciples that ‘I will not drink with you again this fruit of the vine until I drink with you in the kingdom of God’ (Matt. 24:29).  This meal is to fill us with hope.  One day we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever and we will share in the wedding feast of the lamb.  As we share ask God to help us overcome our doubts and be confident of this future.       

Monday 27 May 2024

Mark 12:13-17 ‘Render unto . . .’

 

 

What do your friends think of the fact that you go to church?  I am thinking in particular of those friends who don’t go to church themselves.  Why do they think that you go?  What do they think your faith is all about?

On Saturday I am going to catch up with some friends that I have not seen in a long time.  They are guys who think that it is odd that I work with a church.  ‘Paul’s into Christianity, he’s a bit square but don’t worry he’s not too weird!’  What worries me is that I don’t think these guys understand what Christianity is all about and I don’t think they see it as having any relevance to them.

So, why do your friends think you go to church?  Do they think that Christianity is just your hobby like golf or cycling might be for them?  Is it something that you are interested in that they think has no relevance for them? 

This morning we are going to see that following Jesus is far more demanding and universally relevant than that! 

Background

When I began to prepare a sermon on this text one of the first questions that went through my mind was ‘why would Mark have chosen to record this incident in his Gospel?’  As we know Mark carefully selects his material, so what was so special about this conversation that merits its inclusion at this point in the story?  To answer such questions we need to see how these verses fit into the flow of what Mark has been writing. 

All through this gospel we have seen the themes of authority and opposition.  We have seen these themes in the passages leading up this one.  At the end of chapter 11 there are a group of religious leaders who question Jesus about his authority and Jesus responds to them with the parable of the tenants—which showed them not giving God what was due to him as they killed his Son.

I think that Mark includes this conversation in his gospel, not primarily because he wants to teach his readers about paying taxes but because he wants to highlight the mounting opposition that will bring Jesus to the cross, because it demonstrates Jesus’ authority, and because it speaks of giving to God what is his due.

Friends reunited?

Having confronted him themselves the chief priests, teachers of the law and elders now send some of the Pharisees and Herodians to catch Jesus in his words.  Can you imagine this assortment of people devising their plan?  They think up a clever question that will trap Jesus, getting him in trouble with either the crowds or the authorities!  These men will get their way, Jesus will soon be killed, but it won’t be because anyone caught him out!

The Pharisees and the Herodians were an unlikely pairing.  The Pharisees were religious purists who would have resented the Roman occupation of the Promised Land.  The Herodians were linked to the governor, Herod.  Normally these two groups would have despised each other but their common opposition to Jesus unites them.  Don’t be surprised, when Christianity comes up in conversation in your workplace, to find people with very different outlooks on life arguing together against you.  The authority of Jesus challenges everyone’s self-importance and so it unites people against it.

We first heard of Pharisees and Herodians as a pairing way back in chapter 3, in Galilee.  There they began to plot together how they might kill Jesus.  The cross is the destination that this whole book moves towards and now we are just days from it. 

The trap is set

They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity.  You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.  They are buttering him up.  They are trying to give him a false sense of security.  Yet although they are not sincere their words are true.  Jesus was a man of integrity.  Unlike so many of us – myself included – he would never let himself be intimidated by who it was that he was addressing.  He stuck faithfully to God’s truth no matter what the situation.  What a difference we could make if we were more like him! 

Then comes the trap: Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?  Should we pay or shouldn’t we?  They want a direct answer on this—a direct answer that will get him in trouble whatever he says.

If Jesus says ‘no, you should not pay taxes to Caesar, this gentile ruler who is occupying our land’, then it would be easy for them to portray him to the governing authorities as a rebel leader.  He would be accused of treason, a crime that received the death penalty. 

If Jesus says ‘yes, you should pay your taxes to Caesar’ then he will be isolated from the crowds.  The people gathered in Jerusalem at that Passover time were full of religious zeal and were hoping for a military messiah who would free them from the occupying Romans.

This question puts Jesus in a dangerous position no matter what his answer is!

At the end of chapter 11 we saw Jesus asking a bunch of his interrogators a difficult question relating to where John the Baptist’s authority came from.  Because they feared the crowd they would not say what they thought and gave a rather lame ‘we don’t know!’  Contrast this with how Jesus now deals with the difficult question that is posed to him—his answer literally amazes them (17).

Render unto . . . what he is due

But Jesus knew their hypocrisy.  “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked.  “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.”  They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this?  And whose inscription?”

 “Caesar’s”, they replied.

Then Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

And they were amazed at him.

This answer is a very clever reply to a very difficult question—it demonstrates Jesus’ amazing authority.  It also gives us an important lesson on submitting to authority.

Those of us who claim to submit to God’s authority in our lives are to pay our taxes.  Why?  Because God is Sovereign, he is the one who has established all governments (even the bad ones) and so we are to be subject to them.  We are to practice civil obedience.  As the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 13, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities for there is no authority except that which God has established.”  They are to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s.

Supposing you need a job done in the house and you call the electrician or plumber.  He says to you ‘I can do it cheaper if you pay in cash and don’t ask for a receipt.’  The idea is that he will not put it through the books, he then doesn’t pay the VAT that is due, and you will benefit from the tax avoidance.  If you take this verse seriously do you think that you can facilitate this tax evasion?

We might extend this principle beyond formal taxes.  I heard one preacher talk of a journey that he took with Rico Tice (the writer of Christianity Explored).  When they arrived at their destination they bought a ticket from a parking-meter.  However, their appointment went on longer than expected and so when they returned to the car Rico went and bought another ticket. ‘It’s only right’, he explained to his friend, ‘we parked here an extra thirty minutes.  We ought to pay.’[1]  He’s right! 

Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s!  We ought to pay our taxes honestly.

I said that these verses were not primarily about paying taxes.  While we give to Caesar what is Caesar’s there is something more important that we need to give to someone else—we need to give to God what is God’s.  You might be squeaky clean with the Island Revenue and yet be guilty of the most serious of all tax evasions—you have not given God what his due.

What does it mean to give to God what is God’s?

Well in the context of the message that Jesus preaches, it means that we are to repent and believe the God news (1:15).  We are to turn from living for ourselves and enthrone Jesus as our king.

It means to be different to the tenants in the parable.  They resisted God’s rightful authority.  They showed that resistance by opposing his Son.  If you haven’t submitted your life to the authority of Jesus then you aren’t giving God what is God’s.

If we have submitted to his authority in our lives then we ought to be asking ‘am I giving him all of my life for all of my life belongs to him?’  Is he at the centre of our ambitions, is he the one who determines how we form relationships, and do we seek to honour him in all the mundane things of life—like how we pay our taxes?

 

Copyright note:

All Scripture quotations taken from the HOLY BIBLE,

NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION.

Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society.  Used by permission.



[1] From a Paul Williams sermon that was very helpful in writing this sermon.

‘Believing prayer’ Mark 11:20-25

 


 

Dr. Helen Roseveare was a missionary to Zaire (now called the Democratic Republic of Congo) and she tells the following story:

 “A mother at our mission station died after giving birth to a premature baby. We tried to improvise an incubator to keep the infant alive, but the only hot water bottle we had was beyond repair. So we asked the children to pray for the baby and for her sister. One of the girls responded, ‘Dear God, please send a hot water bottle today. Tomorrow will be too late because by then the baby will be dead. And dear Lord, send a doll for the sister so she won’t feel so lonely.’ That afternoon a large package arrived from England. The children watched eagerly as we opened it. Much to their surprise, under some clothing was a hot water bottle! Immediately the girl who had prayed so earnestly started to dig deeper, exclaiming, ‘If God sent that, I’m sure He also sent a doll!’ And she was right! The heavenly Father knew in advance of that child’s sincere requests, and 5 months earlier He had led a ladies’ group to include both of those specific articles.” [1]

This morning’s passage centres on the topic of believing prayer.  In these verses Jesus tells the disciples that God does the seemingly impossible in response to believing prayer.  What a motivation this should be for us to pray!

‘Wow!  That’s amazing!!’ (20-21)

Last week we looked at a sandwich!  For those of you who weren’t here a sandwich is a literary device where one story is surrounded by another.  The parts of the sandwich are related, the fig-tree helped explain the significance of the temple cleansing.  The judgement of the fig-tree pictured the judgement that was coming to the people because of their godless religion.  It was a judgement that would be focused of the centre point of that empty faith, the temple.

We have picked up the story the day after the temple cleansing—the next morning when they come across that fig-tree.  Peter is amazed at what has happened to it in response to Jesus’ words.  This provides Jesus with the opportunity to teach the disciples about what God can do in response to their words.  God can do anything in response to believing prayer!

The art of the impossible-Moving mountains (22-24)

Moving mountains was a Jewish proverb used, like it is today, as a picture of the impossible.[2]  Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that it will happen, it will be done.  Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.’[3]  How amazing a promise!  What a motivation to pray!  When we pray in expectant faith God will do even what seems impossible!

I suspect that as well as being challenged by these verses you may also be a little perplexed.  What about those times when we have prayed in expectant faith and we did not receive the answer that we had hoped for?  What if someone was to pray in expectant faith for something that God knew was not actually the best outcome to a situation?

It is important to realise that theses verses are not the only teaching that Jesus has given on subject of prayer.  I think that Mark assumes that his readers in the church at Rome know the basics of prayer—that they have been taught about the need to pray in line with the will of God.  In a later Gospel, John, we can read of how Jesus taught the disciples about asking ‘in my name’.  To ask for something in someone’s name involves asking for what that person wants.  If I go into a chemist and ask for something in your name I should only be given it if you want me to receive it.[4] 

Of course Jesus is not promising that God will answer our prayers in a way that is contrary to his will—no matter how sincere those prayers are.  Jesus will later teach the disciples this and Mark takes it as given.  However, Jesus does promise that if what we pray for is in line with God’s will and we pray for it in expectant faith, then what we pray for will happen, even when our prayer seems to be asking for the impossible.

What about when our faith is weak?  In chapter 9 we saw a man who was conscious that his faith far from perfect.  He asked Jesus to help his son and Jesus said to him, ‘All things are possible to him who believes.’  The man relied, ‘I believe, help me overcome my unbelief.’

Clearly faith matters!  Jesus speaks of not doubting in our hearts, believing that it will happen, and believing that you have received it.  He teaches here that God has graciously committed himself to answering such believing prayer.  Where our faith is weak we should pray ‘help me overcome my unbelief.’  Ultimately, of course, the answer to our prayer is not dependant on our faith but on the God who responds to that faith.

When I worked as a lay assistant on the Dungannon circuit I knew a woman whose husband was died of a brain tumour.  When he was ill she had been visited by people who prayed for him.  They seemed to imply that if he did not recover it would be because her faith was not strong enough.  They were insensitive and wrong!  Perhaps they had taken a passage like this and failed to place alongside all the Bible says about God and all that Jesus teaches about prayer.  For example it is not always God’s will that people should be healed—indeed it is his will that, unless he returns first, all of us will one day get ill and die.  We pray ‘Father I know you can heal this person’—that is faith, but we know that this might not be God’s will.  We also remember that God is merciful and compassionate, and that he cares for his children—in his mercy he often responds to prayer that is far from perfect.     

While I don’t want you to have an unbalanced view of prayer like those people who prayed with my friend in Dungannon seemed to have I do want us to take the promise of these verses seriously.  I want us to seek the mind of Christ and then pray knowing that our prayers matter.  I want us to have expectant faith, knowing that if something is God’s will and we pray with believing, then God has promised that in his grace it will happen—even if the thing that we prayed for seems impossible.  I want us to pray great things for the witness of this fellowship, believing that God will do many wonderful things in us and through us.  James reminds his readers that Elijah was a man just like us.  He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years.  Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops (James 5:17-18).

Praying in Fellowship (25)

We are to pray in faith, we are also to pray in fellowship.  And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive your sins.  The only reason we can pray is because of grace.  God delights to listen to us because he has forgiven us our sins and accepted us as dearly loved children.  Right throughout the New Testament the implication of being forgiven by God is that we have a responsibility to forgive others.  We see this in the Lord’s Prayer when we pray ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’  As one preacher said, ‘Without being in a right relationship with God and right relationship with men—forgiven by God, forgiving your fellow men—then you will not get answers to your prayer.  We need to pray in fellowship!’[5]

I remember reading the story (I hope I can remember it right) of a church that longed for great things in their fellowship but they were stagnant.  Until one person said along the lines of ‘there will be no revival here until I am reconciled with so and so’.  At that time many relationships were healed.  Then God did move in a might way through them. 

Conclusion

Having read these verses are you going to drive down to Newcastle and say to the Mournes ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea.’  Of course your not!  Why not?  Well partly because we know that prayer wouldn’t be answered.  Not because God could not do it but because he won’t.  He won’t because he would know that we are merely asking to test him.  He won’t because it is not his will to do such a random, pointless thing.     

So the question becomes ‘what is God’s will’ on the issue that we want to pray about.  We seek to pray in line with God’s will.  Then we pray knowing that if something is God’s will, and we pray it, it will happen—even something so seemingly impossible as moving a mountain into the sea.[6]

Bobby has been preaching about our vision as a congregation.  When it comes to praying about that vision are we going to pray small prayers because we don’t believe that anything great can happen in and through us or are we going to pray great prayers because we believe in a God who can do what might seem impossible?  When it came to praying for baby Cameron, who was so seriously ill, we prayed knowing that God’s will is best (even if that it was that he would not recover) but we also prayed knowing that our prayers mattered, and that God could heal him.  When it comes to praying for our own spiritual growth, and for the growth of others, we know that God can do great things in our lives—that as we depend on him he can move in us so that we can will and act according to his good purpose (Phil. 2:13), that old patterns of sin can be broken and that new patterns of service can be developed.  God can move mountains, he will do the seemingly impossible, as we call out to him in prayer! 



[1] Illustration found on Bible.org. who had taken it from Daily Bread. 

[2] Adapted from Richard Inwood - preaching at All Soul’s, Langham Place.

[3] An allusion may be intended to Zech. 14:4.  ‘In the eschatological day described there the Mount of Olives is to be split in two and when the Lord assumes his kingship “the whole land shall be turned into a plain” (Zech. 14:10). Lane, (1974) The Gospel of Mark, Eerdmans, p. 410

[4] The illustration of asking in the chemist is adapted from Richard Inwood.

[5] Richard Inwood.

[6] I was helped in these two paragraphs by my friend Peter Orr who passed on knowledge gained from a lecture given by Peter Jenson.