This weekend a couple in our church who’ve been married forty-one years renewed their marriage vows. The reason was two-fold: forty-one years ago they were married in court and on top of that they were both not Christians. Today she has been converted for many years and has prayed faithfully for her husband. A few months ago he too entered Jesus’ Kingdom.
So they renewed their vows in front of the church and we were all very encouraged. In fact, I think this was the first wedding ceremony that I’ve officiated that I can say that the couple knew exactly what they were doing! The wedding couple have a disabled son and have been through their fair share of hard times. For them to promise to love and care for each other “in prosperity and distress” and “in sickness and in health” was especially meaningful.
We were reminded that the Bible says that marriage is a present, a promise and a picture.
A present: Marriage is a present from God for our joy and good. Marriage is not a human idea created by a theological symposium or brainstorming workshop. Therefore we cannot change or alter it, but must respect and treasure it.
A promise: In our version of the marriage ceremony the couples say “I will”, not “I do” because they are making promises for the future, not simply stating what may be true at the preset.
A picture: Ultimately marriage is a picture of Jesus relationship with his people. Jesus is the best bridegroom who sacrifices all for his bride, the church. The reunion in the future in the new heavens and new earth between Jesus and his people is often referred to as a wedding banquet in the bible.
The two typical ways that Christians relate to society is either assimilation or refection.
Assimilation: We blend into our culture so much that no-one can tell that we are Christians! We do not take sin or the bible seriously. Young people having sex, living together and then getting married is the norm and there is no substantial difference between the ruthless, ambitious, workaholic Christian businessman and his non-Christian counterpart. Assimilation is easy, any wimp can do it.
Rejection: We withdraw from non-Christian society and culture with the excuse that we are seeking to be holy. We spend our time fellowship with Christians and Christian braai’s and neglect our non-Christian friends and colleagues. Church becomes a force field against an evil, “what is the world coming to” society. We constantly pray for Jesus to come and rescue us, while smiting the rest of humanity. Rejection too is easy.
God’s way of relating to society is more difficult. God commands us to engage with society (no rejection!), while being the distinctive people of God he has called us to be (no assimilation!). Or like Jesus prayed, we are to be in the world not of the world. Peter wrote, “live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”
Jeremiah too had this perspective in Jeremiah 29:1-14. He told God’s people in exile in a pagan society to build houses, to get married and take out car insurance. He told them to engage their society, without selling out.
We are all called to this: Engaging our society for Jesus, while being the distinctive people of God. This is why Peter called the Christians he was writing to “exiles/ aliens” (1 Peter 2:11). God has called you to a mission for Jesus. God wants you to connect with your society for Jesus.
What makes a good church? An expensive building, a charismatic pastor, a Hillsong sound-a-like band, entertaining sermons with loads of jokes, comfortable chairs, lots of young people, lots of girls, a weird spiritual ambiance or possibly cake after the sermon?
According to Acts 20 one of the most important ingredients of a good church is faithful shepherds or elders. How will we know if the shepherd is faithful or reckless?
In Acts 20:28 Paul tells the Ephesian elders, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.”
1. The faithful shepherd keeps watch over himself.
We have all heard of prominent Christians and pastors who have disqualified themselves from ministry and have been really bad witnesses to Jesus. Paul commends shepherds to carefully keep examining their own lives. Shepherds should be godly (v18); should be wiling to suffer hardships and not a lover of comfort (v19); should exhibit a zeal for Jesus and not be happy with the present spiritual status quo(v20); should be content and not covetous (v33) and love those under his care, not detached (v36-37). The three big areas of temptation for shepherds has always been Gold, Girls and Glory.
Dr. Billy Graham, a consciously godly pastor, made a decision for himself and his associates that none of them should be alone with another woman, other than their own wife or immediate family. And the a very faithful pastor in past years, Robert Murray M’Cheyne observed, “My people’s greatest need is my personal holiness. It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.”
Ask yourself: Is there a concern for godliness in my church? Am I praying for the holiness of my church leaders?
2. The faithful shepherd keeps watch over the flock
The chief duty of the shepherd is to tend, nurture, feed and care for the flock. He does this because of the high value of the sheep (v28) and to please Jesus (v19, 24). How does he tend the flock? Paul uses the words: preach (v20), teach (v20), testify (v24), preaching the kingdom (v25) and proclaim (v27).
In other words, the chief means the shepherd is to care for the flock is by a word based ministry. Teaching and preaching the bible must be the main thing the pastor does. Unfortunately, often the pastor is seen as the organiser, the administrator, the counsellor, the therapist or the handy-man! Sometimes church services contain everything, besides preaching and teaching. There may be music, video clips, drama, dancing and testimonies, but no thorough explanation of a biblical passage.
Ask yourself: Do I make us of all teaching opportunities? Do I talk and pray with friends about the sermon? Do I pray regularly for my church leaders that they commit themselves to study the bible rigorously, carefully and earnestly? Do I pray that God will lead them to understand the bible and apply it to their lives and apply it wisely to church’s life?
3. The faithful shepherd watches for wolves
The biggest threat to sheep in the 1st century was wolves. Wolves could quite easily destroy an entire flock of sheep.
Acts 20:29-31 says, “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.”
Wolves refer to those in the church, used by Satan, to “distort the truth and draw away disciples”. Church becomes like Survivor on SABC 3 with coalitions, power plays and bullying. The faithful shepherd not only teaches sound doctrine, but also warns (v31) of proponents of false doctrine and ungodliness, inside and outside the church.
Ask yourself: Are my views, doctrines and opinions in line with what the bible teaches? Am I creating disunity in my sphere of influence in the church? Do I pray for discernment for my church leaders?
What makes a good church? The church leaders are godly; they teach the bible faithfully; and error is identified and dealt with!
There are very few old school atheists around today. Most people believe in god, an unseen spiritual world and the existence of evil. Most people pray especially when facing difficulty or illness. There are numerous books on “higher consciousness”, “channelling”, “conversations with God” and your “personal angel”. Day time talk show hosts advocate prayer, though it’s your preference as to who or what you would like to pray to. Our world is very spiritual, but they have no clue about Jesus.
We could have been in Ephesus in the 1st Century. A very spiritual city – even boasting the temple of Artemis – but ignorant about Jesus. They prayed, recited special chants, wore good luck amulets to ward of evil and also believed in the existence of personal “spiritual assistants” who helped out from time to time. The average Ephesian practised magic as a way to manipulate whatever god was available to help in the desired way, like getting a girl to like you.
Pentecostals often refer to and preach from Acts 19:1-6 to promote second blessing theology (SBT). SBT teaches that the normative Christian practice is first to accept Jesus as Lord and then, secondly, to have another separate, distinct experience of the baptism of the Spirit. During this second experience the Christian is said to be filled with the Spirit, normally this “blessing” is accompanied with speaking in “tongues”.
In Ephesus Paul found twelve “disciples” (v1). Normally in Acts “disciples” refers to Christians, but it turns out from Paul’s questioning that these people are not Christians, but repentant Jews. Paul probably thought they were Christians at first.
To gauge their spiritual state, Pauls asks (v2), “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” Paul did not ask did you receive the Spirit when you attended the course or when you prayed a special prayer or when you truly entered a new level of obedience in your Christian life! Paul associates receiving the Holy Spirit with believing (i.e. believing in Jesus).
The bible regularly condemns idolatry, yet many Christians do not think it is an issue in the 21st century. Cape Town contains no shrines to Baal, Molech, Artemis or Caesar. How are we to understand idolatry?
In Acts 17 Paul visits one of the cultural centres of the known world with its unparalleled architecture, art and philosophy. Rather than being over-awed by the Athens’ beauty, Paul is provoked to anger by the fact that the city is submerged in idols.
Anger, by the way, is a very Christian emotion as God and Jesus were provoked to anger by the golden calf and the phony worship in Jerusalem’s temple. Ephesians 4:26 tells us to be angry (at the things God is angry with), but not to sin in that anger.
If Paul had walked around our city, he would have the same reaction. Here are some of our idols that are worshipped as gods:
In Acts 17.1-15 Paul deals with and destroys 9 popular myths that we are prone to believe:
1. Religiosity can save you If religiosity could save anyone, it would have been first century Jewish people. Many lived in Gentile cities and held fast to their traditions and distinctives. It is interesting to note that Paul went to these religious types first to tell them about Jesus (v1). Jesus saves, not religion.
2. The Old Testament is irrelevant Paul explained from the Old Testament scriptures that Jesus was the promised king (v2). The OT people, practises and prophecies prepare us for Jesus and elsewhere in the New Testament Paul explained that the OT was written for Christians (Romans 15.4). The whole bible is God’s word to us.
3. Christianity is an irrational leap of faith Many of our friends equate believe in Jesus with belief in unicorns. However, v2 tells us that Paul reasoned, explained and proved that Jesus was the promised king. Christianity is a rational, logical, historically-verifiable belief in a supernatural God.
This past Friday was especially good. We remembered specifically Jesus’ death to secure our ultimate good. For the first time ever I preached from the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament. What was I smoking you may ask? What drew me to Leviticus was the recent popular denial of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice to appease the wrath of God. Jesus is seen as an enlightened teacher from the realm of light, or a good moral example for our children to follow or even the ultimate chinese ying-yang who restores balance to the universe.