Citizens of Two Worlds

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Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
Romans 13:1-7

It is quite puzzling at first glance to see the New Testament writings on submission to authority are written by men who have been imprisoned by the same authorities they command we obey. Peter experienced multiple recorded instances of being broken free from prison and Paul has a long endured stint in prison from which he writes some of his letters.

This should not cast suspicion on the topic but grant context for our understanding. Much of the teaching we are given on how to conduct ourselves in scripture offers an asterisk, the asterisk of *unless God’s momentary design deviates from his natural order. God created everything with a natural order which can be seen in all of creation, but there are times he deviates.

This does not make God a liar or deceptive. Some instruction given by God, such as his instruction to flee from sin, is absolute. Other teaching offers us the natural way of things as a gift with an assumption we remain led by the Holy Spirit in all of our endeavors.

It is important we do not throw out our understanding of the way of Jesus because of a few moments when God’s plan required deviation from the norm. It is also important not to be so rigid we toss out a word from the Lord.

There are things such as what the Lord has labeled as sin God will never call us to do. But the orderly worship we are directed to in scripture might look different depending on the season, and there are times women will be called to eldership as Deborah was called to be judge. There is an order the Lord has created and we must know unless it goes against his nature or promise he can deviate from his created order.

If this were not possible there would be no miracles. How could God turn water into wine if he was contained to the order he created? This does not become our template for making wine but it was how it was for a moment when God chose to work in a different way.

So when Peter is thrown in jail for preaching the gospel, his preaching is not out of rebellion, but a moment in time when he is aware of the grace of God to preach the gospel publicly despite the rules set in place by local authorities. It doesn’t make him a hypocrite. He just understands the default is in all things to submit to authority in the land unless the Lord says otherwise.

Deviation from the instruction of God is not something to take lightly. In fact there should be great conviction and discernment of a word from the Lord before exploring acting in opposition to an authority over you. Paul and Peter both found such an exception in preaching the Gospel. Sharing the news of Jesus was not something the church could give up despite what any human authority might say.

You will note even Jesus acknowledges the authority of Pilate in John 19 but points out Pilate only has authority because of his Father in heaven. God is always the highest authority we submit to. Failure to submit to an earthly authority is only permitted as far as God steps in to overrule.

18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Matthew 28:18-20

You will note Jesus claims highest authority in this scripture passage. Making disciples, baptism, and teaching the way of Jesus are instructions superseding any other. No earthly authority can claim higher than Jesus. You will note the New Testament church is persecuted for these acts. It was never rebellion against the government or speaking out against policy which turns believers into prisoners and martyrs.

This is why slaves and free men worshipped side by side. The slaves remained slaves under the authority of their masters while being free in Christ. Jesus didn’t spark the rebellion of slaves, although the Roman Empire did have a long slave rebellion. In fact there is a whole letter included in scripture which accompanied a former slave named Onesimus. Paul, after some discipling, sends Onesimus back to be a slave. In this letter Philemon, the slave owner who is also a follower of Jesus, is encouraged to free him as he is a brother.

The slave conversation is a conversation for another time, but the early church understood they were not a rebel group. They were not a political organization, but the people of God, a people who remain here not to tear down empires but out of the same compassion of Jesus to make disciples of those hostile to them. They were to focus on freedom in Christ and care for each other’s physical needs under the law of the land.

Democracy makes honoring authorities tricky. We are encouraged to speak up in a democracy. The questions we need to ask are: when should we speak, if at all? Does this scripture still hold up in a democracy? Is the government ever the chosen system to see people saved?

My conviction is scripture absolutely still holds up! I believe we should rarely speak up against the government except to warn of the consequences of actions. Like sending Jonah to Nineveh, God has compassion for the lost today and at times they need to be warned on a mass scale. It is not up to us to change the behaviour but to pray for repentance of the people. Forcing changes in policy does nothing to the hearts of the people. That would be the same approach the conquistadors took as they tore through the New World with violence and forced conversion to catholicism. You cannot force conversion of the heart.

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
1 Peter 2:13-17

An urge arises in me at times when I consume media content and news to gossip and critique those in government. Democracy has placed accountability in the hands of the voting public, but we must be sure not to dishonour those in power. Disrespect is the way of the world, and we must avoid being led into sin by the masses. We should think long on whether it is good (of God) to speak or dwell on any issues. I have had to repent numerous times of things I have said about certain people in power. Just because something is true, doesn’t mean I need to speak of it.

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
1 Timothy 2:1-4

As an election draws near in Canada it is important to know how to act and vote. First off, pray for those who are currently in power and those who will step in. Pray for wisdom and for the Lord to use those who oppose him for his purposes as he did with Pharaoh in Egypt. Pray out of compassion for policies regarding the vulnerable and oppressed. Pray politicians would turn to the Lord. Ask the Lord if there is any warning needed to be given out of compassion rather than self-interest. Vote your conscience as you spend time with the Lord and in community. Know the Lord your God is the highest authority. Whom shall we fear when we remain in him?

What’s in Season?

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For everything there is a season. Some practices transcend seasons, such as prayer, reading Scripture and communion, but may become the primary focus in a specific season. Other practices such as mourning or feasting belong in a season. It is important to rightly assess what is required in a given season. If we miss the grace of God in a season we operate in opposition to what God is doing and are hindered in moving forward.

A season always gives way to another one. Just like the seasons in nature, each is required in their given ecosystem. Just as plants and animals respond to the changing of the seasons in the physical world, it is important we do the same spiritually.

One of the most important things that church elders (or leadership) can do is be aware of how to lead their congregation in the proper season. The Lord is gracious in making known the season and preparing us for it. God does this so we can walk in step with the good plans he has.

As churches come out of a time of adhering to governmental restrictions we should be asking, “Have we lost the practice of obeying the requirements of the Lord instead of the demands of man?” We have a tendency to first look to the world to understand how to be like Jesus in a season. We try to understand how to react to the world instead of being led by God. This assumes a defensive posture.

Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Isaiah 55:6-9

Please don’t hear me say that following the Covid restrictions was an act of rebellion against God. What I am trying to clarify is that the Lord frequently calls us to calibrate our actions to the changing season as a community and individuals. Rather than just a new sermon series, there will be times when the whole life of the church is to focus on evangelism, prayer, generosity, repentance, thanksgiving or self control (to name a few) because of the season we are in, such as in Lent or Advent in Orthodox Church traditions.

It is not just the official church functions but the everyday life of believers which should be oriented on the God-given focus of a season. Our failure to be aware of the season frequently causes us to miss out on what God is doing. We can end up working at cross purposes despite our motive to serve the Lord.

It is often necessary to stop programs in order to focus on what is important. Jesus did this when he stopped what he was doing and focused on the need set before him. We too should be aware of how God is at work and be led by compassion as the church.

Just as God leads a local congregation through seasons, he will do the same with families and individuals.

I have found in my personal life God prepares me in one season for what is required in the next. Sometimes the season of preparation makes little sense until I experience something for which I was ill prepared before the growth God led me through.

God prepares the church in the same way as individuals. Elders should be bold in responding to the leading of the Lord, not act because of societal pressures but out of a fear of the Lord. How can we withstand the pressures awaiting us unless we are prepared for them?

Although Jesus did not need preparation, he modeled this through entering the wilderness to be tested following his baptism.

We need to develop the habit of asking the Lord what he is doing in the current or upcoming season and how by his grace we are to live in season. Like pulling out our winter coats for winter and shorts for the summer, we need to know how to address the coming season. This is best asked prior to planning lest we be caught making plans in vain. It is not wrong to make plans but we must loosely hold them as we seek to better understand what the will of God is. We should make plans with the added “God willing”.

Following someone else’s blueprint can be a great thing if it is what the Lord is currently requiring. There have been movements when there was training en masse for a season when God led entire denominations or regions through the same plan. An example of this is the Experiencing God study led by Henry Blackaby which was used powerfully amongst the Southern Baptists and others in the 1990s. It is good when the Lord does this, but there are times when we attempt to recreate success rather than obey God. This does not go well and we lose out not only on what God intended for that season but also the practice of being led by God through the season he has us in.

Just because someone else is experiencing a season we would prefer, it doesn’t mean we are able to create their season in our own life. It might not even be good for us to live that experience. If it is not of God for you it cannot be good. For as Jesus said, “Only God is good”. We should rejoice when we see people respond to a move of God and not covet it for ourselves. We should rejoice in what God has for others, and rejoice in the season he has us in because he knows what is good for all.

Solomon understood “there is a season for everything”. Beneficial actions require an understanding of what the season requires. If it is a time for mourning, we should mourn. If it is a time to fast, we are to fast. If it is a time of thanksgiving, we ought to give thanks. If it is a time of purification, we must purge. It is not complicated but it requires diligence and obedience.

We must not react to the push and pull of the outside world for, as Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:16). Our seasons are set by the Lord and not by man. How we respond to what is happening in the world around us ought not to be because of the demands of man, but because of the commands of God.

Jesus says in John 5:19 he can only do what he sees the Father doing. Our goal in desiring to be like Jesus is thus not imitating the actions of man but looking to God for our marching orders. Throughout the New Testament we see Jesus and then the church making waves through their actions. The way of the Lord will at times be met with great hostility. The response of the world does not dictate what is good for only God is good.

In Mark 5 Jesus is chased out of town for sending a demon out of a man and into some pigs. In Luke 7 Jesus is silently ridiculed for allowing a sinner to anoint his head. In Acts 19 Paul sparked a riot in Ephesus as the people clung to Artemis as their God. These are just a few examples of when obedience to God met great opposition. Can you imagine if instead Jesus and Paul had acted to appease the culture or reflect the world around them?

In many instances a new physical reality demands a response by the body of Christ. In poverty the people of God should care for the needy. Where there is sickness we should partner with God in seeing people made well. Just as Jesus acted through compassion, so should we. There will always be desperation and need in this world until Christ returns. It is the result of sin. It is not that we cannot determine acts that reflect the heart of God, it is that we have a tendency to act without him. We then remove God entirely from the process resulting in acts of charity that reflect his ways but have no eternal impact. It is vital we act out of conviction in obedience.

Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain.
2 It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep.
Psalm 127:1-2

At times we act as though God has left us on our own to figure things out. We wrestle with decisions absent of searching the scriptures or hearing the Lord in prayer. Even the wayward kings of Israel sought out the Prophets for how to act in a given season but failed to follow the actions laid out.

Through the Holy Spirit and the word of God we have access to the Father’s will and the means to understand it. Building in vain is not something we should find ourselves doing. Bowing to other kings is not an option. We see in the accounts of Israel the results of such actions, and we know from church history it has gone the same way since the ascension of Christ. When we choose to look to other sources to set our path in a season we stray from the grace of God and find ourselves lost.

Remember the Lord our God is good and perfect in all he does. His ways and thoughts are higher than our own. What God has laid out before us in a season will always be good even when we do not feel it or understand it. His nature will never change. In every season his ways will forever be good and best.

The God You Want vs The God Who Is

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There are many times in our lives we are confronted with who God is in a way that challenges our current belief. It is beyond our capacity to fully comprehend his eternal nature, thus we make conclusions based on limited understanding. This is nothing new, but has been the ongoing struggle of humans since the beginning. We see as a model the New Testament letters written shortly after the launch of a church, correcting faulty teaching and practices.

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 5 As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.1 Timothy 4:3-5

The God who is will not always be the God we want. We have a tendency as humans to pursue the things that feed our passion. In some cases this is a good thing, but in others our hearts are not pure. This makes following what we want to be true, nothing but a lie. Our hearts are often deceitful and are subject to ongoing corruption by the world.

Often when we see God do or say something we like, we take that action or phrase and make an interpretation based on our own desires and perceptions. The truth is God never breaks character. Each word and action are always true to his nature and thus must be interpreted not through our desires but through the whole of scripture. An experience of God today, in the gospels or in the Old Testament is the same God with the same nature. Jesus is the one who spoke creation into being and was worshipped by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

God is real. He is alive. He is not created from our suppositions. Our defining him as we wish does not make him so. He exists outside of our definition of who he is. He is the Alpha (beginning) and Omega(end). There is no end to his existence and no impact from his creations can change who he is. 

The Triune God spoken of in John 1 as before anything else is the same that exists in Genesis in creation. It is the same God who also cast Adam and Eve out of the garden and brought a flood to cover the earth that wiped out most of creation. He is the same God who made a covenant with Abraham and chose his offspring as the first witnesses to his plan of redemption. He is the same God who took on the form of man for our sake, and by his mercy took the punishment for those who turn to him in repentance. He is the same God who is preparing an eternal place for the elect and will return to bring an end to this age and judge the living and the dead. He has not changed from the beginning and will not in the end. His plan was known to him since before creation and we cannot disregard elements of who he is or what he has done. He is the same God from beginning to end and is true to his word.

The God we worship is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He is the God made clear through his taking on flesh and through his death and resurrection. He is further clarified through the sending of the Holy Spirit who leads us into true understanding of all God is.

In Acts 3 Peter explains to the crowd in Solomon’s Portico the power experienced isn’t in themselves or a new God. It is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (the God of their ancestors) who they put to death in ignorance before being raised back to life. This is not a new God or a new nature but the same God who existed before creation, now revealed clearly in the flesh.

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.2 Timothy 3:14-17

To know God better, we are never to adjust teachings endured since the beginning. There are certain things that are to be unshakable in our beliefs. We are not to tear up the foundations laid in the apostles’ teaching but rather allow the Holy Spirit to expose what is false through scripture in community. We are not to hold experience over scripture or isolate teachings that support our passion. Instead, we are to tear down any false view of God we have so that the truth can be built upon a solid foundation.

God’s hatred of sin is an area of contention for many. We have seen since the garden the reaction God has towards sin. God loathes it and punishes accordingly. We saw it with Adam and Eve, in Noah’s age with the flood and we see it in the requirement of the cross. In James 4 we see friendship with the world makes us enemies of God. 

In Acts 21, Paul travels to Jerusalem and is greeted by the new Jewish believers along with a riot of people looking to kill him because of his welcoming of the Gentiles and doing away with many customs. Instead of examining their views, the Jewish believers were so unwilling to abandon some false teaching they turned to anger and violence. This is not abnormal in the history of the church.

Wars have been fought between Christians over false beliefs. My own Anabaptist history has much persecution for beliefs. The early Anabaptists faced drowning for views of scripture (like full-immersion baptism) seen as heresy by Catholics and Lutherans alike. As the Anabaptists read the bible in their own language they discovered false practices and teaching and looked to correct them for which some were met with death.

Interestingly, for the Anabaptists it was an era of returning to early traditions and understanding the way of Jesus, but the false beliefs of the age (inside and out of the church) were so embedded in believers this movement was met with hostility and pride. We should be very careful when approaching the teaching and wisdom of the present age, always holding it up to our plumbline (the word of God).

No one wants to be caught on the side of false teaching like those who wanted to kill Paul or the other faithful throughout history. The solution seems to be to allow the truth of scripture to convict and correct our understanding. We should not shift like the winds with every teaching but stand firm on the word of God. When the word of God is not comfortable or what God does is not compatible with our understanding, we must confess we are wrong about who God is and what he commands us to do.

I would not want to be like the Jews who didn’t recognize their own God and cried out for his death. To avoid this we must embrace truth even though it requires suffering or difficulty. The radical teaching of Jesus will forever be radical. His words are accompanied by a promise of suffering. The world at large will never accept him, and a choice to be friends with this world is a choice to be an enemy of God (James 4:4). On which side will you fall?

“God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” – James 4:6

Humility is required to embrace correction. Pride will lead us down the path of heresy and keep us there. Pride doesn’t just hinder us in the presence of others, but also alone in the presence of God. Pride impedes us admitting error and wrongdoing which keeps us from the grace of God. As we approach all teaching we must have a desire to have exposed what is wrong both in our current view and in what is newly introduced.

So humble yourself before God. Ask him to expose where you have worshipped a false God. Spend time in the word with others asking God to build up a right view of who he is and what he has called you to. When Jesus makes a command, follow it. When you need the correction of a letter in the New Testament, take it. And when the God of Abraham (Old Testament) makes no sense to you, seek to know him as the one true God.

Grace is inaccessible if we remain proud. There is no grace for willful ignorance to the truth or disobedience to his commands. God’s grace leads us through correction to holiness. If that is not the direction we are headed, we will not know his grace. Through humility, however, his grace will forever bring us from glory to glory until we reach our eternal home with Christ.

Hide not from the truth of who God is. We must not create for ourselves false gods reflecting what we desire. That is not God.  There is only one God who is, was and always will be. He is the I AM and no created thing can alter the Uncreated One.

Is God For You?

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I have heard the statement “God is for you” so many times recently. These words bring much hope to the listener especially in times of difficulty, but I can’t help but wonder if these words are true.

This saying is derived from Jeremiah 29:11. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Yes, this is the verse you often see tattooed on arms, or written in profiles on Instagram. This verse has become the mantra for many. But is this verse understood correctly and can it be attributed to everyone?

Let’s press pause on that question to explore whether we can take promises given to a specific person in scripture and receive them for ourselves. Often when I see a promise in scripture I put it through a simple test. I ask, “Could this verse as I understand it apply to Stephen (martyr), Paul (often beaten, shipwrecked and imprisoned because of obedience to God) or Job? If it can’t, then the promise isn’t plug and play in the way I understand it.

It is really hard to know what promises are true for us if we don’t know the full story of God. We end up with an a la carte God. It is not the “I AM” but our own fabrication. We can’t know how he deals with us, or what he has planned for us if we don’t know Him.

Let’s take for example the promise God gives to Abraham. “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations.” (Genesis 17:4). Can we take this promise and claim it for everyone? I think not. Think of the population growth.

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
Jeremiah 1:5

The book of Jeremiah itself begins in chapter 1 with God speaking to the unique call to Jeremiah. In fact the whole book contains moments of God speaking directly to Jeremiah dealing solely with the life of Jeremiah and his call. In other parts God delivers messages directly to the nation of Israel. Jeremiah 29:11 is one of those. Spoken to a specific people, plan and timeline.

Jeremiah 29 begins with this explanation: “These are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.” The entire chapter, including verse 11, is addressed to these recipients.

So back to that question, is God for you? Absolutely he is for you. The Gospel screams he is for you. He took the punishment you deserve upon himself while you were still a sinner so that you may know life. If that doesn’t mean he is for you, I don’t know what else he can do.

But is he for everything you do?

The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it?
“I the Lord search the heart
and test the mind,
to give every man according to his ways,
according to the fruit of his deeds.”
Jeremiah 17:9-10

God is not for our plans. He is not completely for our thoughts and desires. Many of our desires are harmful for us and he is not ok with plans that lead to death. Often when we hear “He is for you” we receive it as he will bless me absolutely, or in whatever I want to do.

Paul in writing to the church in Ephesus makes a point of reminding the believers God has prepared tasks for us to walk into. He tells us, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10) That means it is Christ who commands my steps, who prepares a way for me. We can know these plans are good, but they often differ from our own plans, and at times are not our interpretation of what is good.

Our understanding of God being for us and prospering us is usually applied to how we want to prosper and not viewed through the lens of what God knows is best for us. We hear he is for us and the path of “drinking from the cup of suffering” (Mark 10:38) or “picking up our cross” (Matthew 16:24-26)doesn’t fit that narrative. We may think we will prosper despite acting in rebellion to God. God does not enable us in our sin, but allows us to feel the refining fire that we may repent and turn back to him.

The place to start understanding a God who is for us begins with surrendering our assumptions of what that means. It begins with studying the stories of how he walked with the faithful before us. We need to read the entirety of scripture, not just select stories we like.

Walking in the Lord’s favor means walking in right standing with God. It means walking in repentance and laying down our own lives in obedience to Jesus our Lord. Remember it is not about us. We are living for Jesus. Jesus is not a butler waiting to act at our will and prosper our lives. We are in fact the servants tasked with advancing the kingdom of God through the works he has prepared for us.

Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.
John 15:20

The same God who told Israel of his plans not to harm them, promised us we would be persecuted. Jesus over and over promises his followers will be persecuted as he was. This does not contradict any other promise he gives us. Our view of God being for us must be defined through this lens. It must be consistent with what Jesus calls us to. It must be understood through how he has walked with his people and not as we desire it to read.

Joshua (in Joshua 5) confronts the commander of the Lord’s army asking whose side he is on. The commander replies he is on the Lord’s side. Life is not about us. It is not our glory we are to seek but God’s. It is not our plans he blesses but his plans we follow. Like Joshua we must decide who we are living for, ourselves or God.

The question we should ultimately be asking is not Is God for me? but am I for Him?