What Drives Disciples; Peter

This is coming to you from the same driven personality who wrote last week’s blog, where I concluded with the question, “What drove Jesus to come to earth and die for the sins of humanity?”

My conclusion then was that Jesus was driven both by the Father's love for his creation and the necessity of God's redemptive plan. Jesus knew that without his sacrifice, there would be no hope. Everyone who does not have faith in Christ is already lost and condemned. (John 3:38) No one can gain eternal life without a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Having accomplished that way to God the Father, Jesus also knew that truth had to be shared beyond his small band of followers. When he told his disciples -- and, through them, us -- to "go and make disciples of all nations . . ." (Matthew 28:19a), he gave them the foundation on which to build his church.

That first generation of disciples did a better job than any since. They reached their entire known world with the gospel message. What enabled them to do this? What drove those disciples?

I love the whole Bible, but those who know me well should have no doubt about my favorite Bible character. Some years ago, in the Sunday school class we attend we studied 2 Timothy. Our teacher liked to give study questions. At the end of this unit, one of his questions was, "What would you like to ask Paul when you see him in heaven?" My answer to that was, "Do you know the way to Peter's house?" Without doubt he is my favorite, and I plan to spend a lot of my time in eternity comparing notes with Simon Peter.

Peter was probably the most prominent of the disciples from the time of the resurrection until Paul came on the scene. As the most visible, and probably most vocal, follower of Christ, he had several run-ins with non-Christian authorities. During one of these encounters, Peter and John were arrested and jailed overnight. When brought before the Jewish leaders the next day, “they were commanded . . . not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18).

The smart thing to do would have been to agree with the authorities and either stop preaching or at least tone things down. It might have been a good time to make a strategic withdrawal or to just get out of town. The book of Acts records that the rulers called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, "Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:18-20). With this, Peter was referring to what he had already told them, in what we read as Acts 4:12, "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”

What drove Peter? What made him take the lead on the day of Pentecost and share Christ with thousands of people? What made him stand up to these authorities? He believed that without Christ, there is no hope for salvation. Everyone who does not have faith in Christ is lost and condemned. No one can gain eternal life without a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Knowing this, he also realized his responsibility -- his privilege -- to share this good news with those who did not yet know.

 Though Peter lived almost 2000 years ago, he was not the last person to be driven by that truth. Next week.


What Drives Disciples?

As I approach formal retirement, I can honestly say cross-cultural missions has dominated my life. I believe our God is a missionary God. I believe one of the primary purposes of the church is to ensure that all peoples, everywhere, have the opportunity to hear and understand the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ.

In some ways, I am a driven personality. I can almost hear my family and friends shouting a hearty Amen! to that. I see what needs to be done and I try to do it or get it done.

I don't mind the label, because I have that trait in common with others I admire. It’s not enough to just share that label with you. Most of you reading this don’t know me as a person, but I do want you to know what it is that drives me. Why am I in missions? Why am I a part of Mandate? Why am I even writing this blog entry?

As we move along this month, I'm going to compare this with the Jesus and some of his followers, ancient and modern, who were also driven people. Let's see what made them tick. In short, What Drives Disciples?

Jesus was often a frustrating person to those around him. When his friends asked a simple question, he rarely replied with a simple answer. Instead, he usually turned it out into a teaching opportunity. On the other hand, when his enemies asked questions, such as "Who are you?" "Where did you come from?" or "Why are you here?" he often turned the tables, answering their questions with some hard ones of his own.

At least once, though, he gave a very simple answer to that question.

The scene was set in Luke 19. Jesus had come into the city of Jericho and had singled out a tax collector named Zacchaeus. During the dinner that followed, Zacchaeus confessed faith and repentance. He then showed the reality of his faith by pledging to make restitution. Jesus commended his faith, then made the broader remark, “the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

Think about how many times Jesus tried to tell his disciples why he was with them and what his life and death would mean. They were a hard-headed bunch and couldn’t seem to understand what he was saying. Even just before his crucifixion Jesus had said, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds" (John 12:23-4).

It wasn't until after the resurrection that they began putting it all together. Even then, they needed help. Within hours of his resurrection, Jesus still had to explain to two of his friends, "‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them,‘This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem’" (Luke 24:44-47).

So, what drove Jesus to come to earth and die for the sins of humanity? Perhaps the best summation of that were his very familiar words of John 14:6, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." He was driven both by the Father's love for His creation and the necessity of God's redemptive plan. Jesus knew that without his sacrifice, there would be no hope. Everyone who does not have faith in Christ is already lost and condemned. No one can gain eternal life without a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

The Gift

God created the world and all that we see in it. Humanity, of course, is part of that creation. With the creation, God set certain standards of thought and action for all people. We find, however, due to the human rebellion against God, we all entered this world with a nature prone toward violating God’s standards, which we sum up with a single word sin. Sin stands as a barrier between an individual and God. The individual cannot approach God unless that barrier is removed.

Let’s pause for a word of general understanding. In Christian circles, people often talk of sin, original sin, and sin nature. In theological terms, people sometimes reference the phrase total depravity. Many otherwise good and knowledgeable Christians have come to embrace the popular belief that total depravity means there is absolutely no good in any person. That’s just not so!

As explained by Dr. Charles C. Ryrie in the Concise Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, “the concept of total depravity does not mean depraved people cannot or do not perform actions that are good in either humankind’s or God’s sight but no such action can gain favor with God for salvation. . .. Because of that [sin] there is nothing any person can do to merit saving favor with God.” 

That makes this idea even sadder. If we were confident only bad people would be punished by God, we could probably live with that. The concept of sin and depravity, however, teach us that even the best of people is not good enough to meet God’s standards.

If this is true, if no human is good enough to meet God’s standards, what hope is there?

The simple answer, given in the Bible, is that God provided a substitute to take the punishment for fallen humanity. The Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:19-21, “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. . .. God made him who had no sin [that is, Jesus] to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Likewise, the writer of the book of Hebrews recorded, in Hebraic terminology, “After he [Jesus, the Son] had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” And again, from Paul, this time in Romans 5:8, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

God demands high standards, so high that no human can meet them. Only God, in the person of Jesus Christ, could present himself before judgment without sin. In doing so, he was able to become a living sacrifice/substitute, taking on himself the punishment for others.

It was not, however, a done deal. Although the price has been paid, God expects a response from people in receiving this. Romans 4:3 gives a historical and scriptural precedent for this teaching in the New Testament. “What does the Scripture say?” wrote Paul, “‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’” Applying it to now, “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord,” (Romans 6:23) and “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God -- not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8).

This can be a difficult concept to grasp. For someone who has not grown up in a religious tradition, the whole concept of sin and salvation, punishment and reward in a spiritual sense is foreign. Many others have grown up in a religious tradition built on laws, rules and regulations, and ritual. These would prefer to do something on their own to earn God’s favor. These and other difficulties often stand in the way of people comprehending the magnitude, yet simplicity, of God’s free gift.

However, our firm belief in the concept of salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is based on our equally firm belief in the Bible as the inspired word of God. This is an example of a belief being built on the overwhelming weight of biblical evidence. This is the consistent teaching of the Bible, in both Old and New Testaments. This has also been the consistent teaching of the orthodox church over the past 2000 years.

But we’re still not finished. If we believe that Jesus Christ paid the penalty for sin, and if we are confident that it is offered to mankind as a free gift, how then do we receive this gift? What should be our response to God?

And that will be the topic of our next writing next week.

I don't want to die!

Drik was a warrior. His tribal group in Indonesia had been cannibals. The government and outside forces stopped this, but the warrior status remained. I first noticed Drik when he led his friends to ambush and kill a group of local Christians, not because they were Christians, but because they were easy targets. Only by placing myself between my friends and the arrows pointed at them was I able to get them safely out of harm’s way.

After some similar incidents, I was seriously considering asking God to remove Drik from our village. I only considered, never prayed for it, but would not have been upset if God had ended his life.

One morning I heard a banging on the side of my house. As I opened the door, Drik burst past me, saying only, “I have to talk to you.”

Not knowing what was coming, I moved him away from my family and sat with him in a corner of the room. He was obviously agitated, but I didn’t know if this was a bad or good sign.

He began by repeating himself. “I have to talk to you. Something happened last night.

“I had a dream,” he continued. “I saw a man dressed in white clothes. He said to me, ‘Drik, you are a bad man. You are so bad that you will die in three days.’”

I knew dreams played a big part in Drik’s tribal culture, and wondered where this one was going.

“I’m scared. My mother had a dream like this when I was a child.” He paused. “Three days later she died.” Silence as he built up the courage to say, “I don’t want to die. What can I do?”

Suddenly, I was asking myself the same question. What can I do? Nothing in my Western Christian life or my missionary training had prepared me for this experience. I was out of my element and, evidently, into God’s. In faith, I plunged ahead.

That morning, I was able to lead Drik to faith in Jesus Christ. God had intervened directly in his life in a way he, a Kayagar tribal warrior, was able to accept and understand. He was ready to surrender to the true God and allow himself to become a new creation.

As wonderful as that was for Drik, the experience also helped change me. I realized that God does speak to people in languages and means with which they are familiar. For those who, like the Western me, need the written word and logic, He speaks through the Bible, through other books, through spoken word. For those in other cultures, He uses means with which they are familiar. That day he used a dream to catch Drik’s attention, then used His word, through me, to bring him fully into the family of God.

As we in Mandate, and so many other organizations, send workers throughout the world, we must adapt our methods and lifestyle to reach the many different cultures in which we find ourselves. In the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:22, we must “become all things to all people so that by all possible means [we] might save some.”

Seeing Salvation

Christmas 2017 is behind us. But the full Christmas story did not end with the birth of Christ, nor the visit by the shepherds. The Magi, chronologically, came sometime within the following two years, but I don’t want to extend the season quite that much.

Let’s focus on something that happened just a week after Jesus was laid in the manger. Meet Simeon, my third favorite Biblical character. He got it right.

Shortly after Jesus’ birth, Joseph and Mary brought him to the temple in Jerusalem to be presented according to their law.

At the same time, God spoke directly to this man Simeon. Old enough to be thinking of his own death, Simeon was true follower of God. He knew the history of his people and the teachings of the Old Testament. He knew about the descendent of Abraham, long ago promised to God’s people. Somehow, he calculated the time for this man, this redeemer, this messiah was close. He prayed that he would be alive long enough to see God’s provision for salvation.

And God answered, “Yes.”

Directed by God, Simeon went to the temple on the same day, at the same time Jesus parents carried him in. Can you imagine the surprise when this unknown man went directly to Joseph and Mary, took the baby from them into his own arms, and began praising God?

Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel (Luke 2:29-32).

Perhaps the most astonishing thing here is the setting. This happened in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. By this time the Jews were very ingrown and exclusive. The Messiah, whenever he might come, was supposed to be their political savior. He might rule over the entire world, but his blessings would be especially for Israel. An actual non-Jew, or Gentile, who entered the inner temple might well be subject to death. A Jew saying good things about gentiles might be thrown out or even stoned.

Simeon’s message was not his own. It had been God’s message from the beginning. It had been repeated throughout the Old Testament, but not given much credence. Now, in the form of this child, it had become reality. God wanted – wants – a relationship with all peoples. Simeon, this devout but unknown man, was the first to publically proclaim that message, which, today, we call missions.

Can God be Thankful?

Here we are, less than two weeks from Thanksgiving. I’ve been watching some Facebook friends counting down the days through this month with specific things for which they are thankful. Many people, no matter what their faith, are probably thinking the same way.

Then, earlier this week, this thought hit me. What is God thankful for?

My mind quickly began sorting through the many Bible passages stored away there over my 50+ years of following Christ. I could think of many people who were thankful in scripture. Jesus told his followers to be thankful. The apostolic writers reminded us to be thankful. Jesus, himself, offered thanks to the Father several times.

I couldn’t find any reference in the entire Bible to God the Father being thankful!

Since that initial thought, I’ve searched through various internet posts on the subject. Almost all agree God can be thankful, but they infer that through philosophic or theological arguments rather than the Bible. I can follow their trains of thought, and almost agree with their conclusions.

Here’s one of my own. By our human definition of thankful, we cannot prove that the sovereign, all powerful God has anyone to whom he can offer thanks. He is the ultimate giver, not receiver.

However, He can be pleased and acknowledge when something good is done in His name. Creation is an example, where He consciously and verbally expressed approval over His own work by saying, “. . . it was good.”

He can be pleased and acknowledge when His people do the right thing, as when He declared to Moses, “I am pleased with you.”

I tend to think His ultimate pleasure comes as described by Jesus in Luke 15:8-10. “. . . suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.

Going along with this, in another of Jesus’ parables, we see a picture of a young man who takes his share of the family wealth, leaves home, and loses everything to bad choices. Then this prodigal son repents, and returns home. His father welcomes him back without harsh words or actions, and shows his pleasure at the son’s return by celebrating. Given as a picture of a sinner returning to his God, it is also a picture of his heavenly Father’s pleasure that he has returned.

As we celebrate our own Thanksgiving holiday in two weeks, we will thank God for some of the specific blessings He has given us over this year. We’ll say, “thank you!”

I sincerely hope that He, in turn, will be pleased with us: for coming to, or back to, Him, and for helping others to do the same.

The Purpose of World Evangelization

Last week I shared Ed Dayton’s expanded definition of world evangelization.

Because world evangelization is a task, it is essential to have a clear understanding of the goal of that particular task.

The nature of world evangelization is communication of the good news.

The purpose of world evangelization is to give individuals and groups a valid opportunity to accept Jesus Christ.

And the goal of world evangelization is the persuading of men and women to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and serve him in the fellowship of his church.

Then we discussed the nature of evangelization, defining the good news we want to communicate. I ended the blog with the summary:

Ideally, the good news we want to communicate begins with the inner change brought about by transferring our allegiance to God through Jesus Christ; that’s salvation. It continues with a renewing of our inner selves and the process of growth to become like Christ; that’s sanctification. It should then touch those around us through our lives and overt testimony, beginning with our families, then extending to touch and improve our own society and, ultimately, the world. This might be summed up in Paul’s words from Ephesians 2:10, “. . . we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

With that background, there are two important thoughts in Dayton’s next statement, “The purpose of world evangelization is to give individuals and groups a valid opportunity to accept Jesus Christ.”

In the West, we tend towards individualization. We think and act as individuals, often with little concern for how our thoughts and actions affect those around us. We make decisions as individuals. That’s neither good nor bad, just the way it is.

We often presume on individualism when offering salvation. When witnessing one-on-one, we want to bring a person to the individual decision to follow Christ. When we give a group invitation, as in evangelistic services, we call on individuals to make a decision. Granted, people come sometimes as couples, families or other groups. Last week I was blessed to see a small family group in our church responding together, but the call is usually for individual decisions to follow Christ. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that – in our culture.

In many cultures, individuals do not make such life-changing decisions on their own. In tribal or family-oriented cultures, an entire group makes the decision to accept or reject Jesus’ call. I know of specific instances where an individual within such a group wanted to follow Christ, but did not because the group did not.

I’ve also had the joy of hearing a tribal leader say “We (all) want to follow Jesus.” I heard the words, then witnessed the change and growth in the village as a whole and the individuals within the group. It’s unbelievably exciting to be part of such a people movement.

This might sound kind of weird to our western brains. That’s why we need someone like Ed Dayton to help us adjust our mindset and mission strategizing to accommodate both individual and group evangelism and growth.

The same is true with the second half of his sentence, “. . . give . . . a valid opportunity to accept Jesus Christ.”

I know of an American missionary in India who befriended a Hindu woman. The missionary wanted her friend to follow Christ, but went slowly in unveiling the gospel. One day her emotions got the better of her and the missionary blurted out, “I wish you could be born again and have eternal life.” The Hindu burst into tears, exclaiming, “I thought you were my friend. Why would you say something so horrible to me?!”

The American was using the right western and even biblical words to communicate the gospel, but they were not received well by the Indian. The Hindu associated being born again with reincarnation. She did not want to be reincarnated over and over again (i.e., eternal life). Instead, she wanted to reach the end of her spiritual journey and cease to exist as an individual.

From the American’s point of view, she had presented a valid opportunity for the Indian to accept Christ. From the Indian’s point of view, it was anything but a valid opportunity, because she did not understand it.

I don’t want to get bogged down in theology here. I don’t want to discuss how much a person needs to understand in order to make a valid decision to follow Christ. I just want to point out that the validity of such an offer has to be seen from the perspective of the individual or group which receives the message. If they cannot understand the offer, for any reason, it is not valid.

That means missionaries (and all evangelizing Christians) must take the time to understand their target audience as they present the good news. We must present the gospel in a language people understand; we must present the gospel with words whose meaning people understand (or, at least, don’t misunderstand); we must present the gospel in thought patterns people can follow; we must present the gospel in such a way that people understand they have a choice; we must be ready to present the gospel over and over again; we must be prepared to have people consciously reject the gospel, though we sincerely hope they choose the better way.

You know we can’t force people to follow Christ. That’s their decision. But we can be trained, prepared, and equipped to cross cultural boundaries in such a way that people who receive the gospel from us can make that very important valid decision with clarity and understanding.