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A Three-Year-Old’s Theology on the Crucifixion

November 14, 2017

cropped Photo

NASHVILLE—Deborah and I arrived back in Nashville this weekend after an Asia and Europe swing that brought us from Manila to Madrid and everywhere in between. Glad to be back in time to catch the end of the beautiful autumn weather and to spend some time with my favorite little people, Josephine and Liam.

Jo’s parents have been reading her The Jesus Storybook Bible over the last few months, and it’s been amazing to see her fall in love with the Bible and its cast of characters. For a while, all she wanted to read were stories about Jonah and Noah (presumably because of the boats and animals involved). However, at the moment, her nightly bedtime request is to read the story of Jesus on the cross. It’s kind of difficult material to communicate to a three-year old, but the author, Sally Lloyd-Jones, does an amazing job.

A few days ago, William (my oldest son) was reading the story of the crucifixion to Jo at bedtime, and she asked him this question:

“Daddy, why isn’t Jesus wearing a shirt?” (Referring to a picture in her book of a shirtless Jesus on the cross.)

William: “Well, Jo, some mean people took Jesus’ shirt from him and put him on the cross.”

Jo: “We didn’t take Jesus’ shirt, did we?”

How do you answer this penetrating question from a three-year-old?

Technically, the answer is no. None of us were alive in the first century, so none of us were involved in taking Jesus’ shirt on Good Friday. But Josephine already knew that, and her question was getting at something deeper.

Somehow, at three, she already suspected her own complicity in the crucifixion. Somehow, she already knew the answer to the question she asked her dad.

Yes. We did take Jesus’ shirt. Josephine did. Her dad did. I did. We are all complicit in Jesus’ death—whether we live in the first century or the twenty-first century.

In the words of the hymn, “How Deep The Father’s Love“:

Behold the man upon a cross
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers.

It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finish.

Whether we are three or seventy-three, the most important reality we will have to confront in our lives is the fact that we took Jesus’ shirt. We must all come to the realization, “It was my sin that held Him there.”

But there’s good news.

We didn’t just take Jesus’ shirt. He took it off and gave it to us. He became naked on the cross, so that we might be clothed with his righteousness.

Isaiah says it this way, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord… for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10).

As William tried to figure out how to answer Jo’s question, she asked another question:

“We’re Jesus’ friends, right?”

“Yes.” William answered. “We’re His friends.”

As sinners, we’ve all taken Jesus’ shirt.

But only Jesus’ friends realize whose shirt they’ve taken.

Only Jesus’ friends realize that the naked man on the cross should’ve been them.

Only Jesus’ friends realize that we were once his enemies, but now we’re his friends—not because we didn’t take his shirt but because by faith, we put it on.

Discipleship / Miscellaneous

The Reformation at 500

October 31, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-10-31 at 4.35.31 PM
MADRID —
After a productive week in Malaysia at the Asian Pastors Equipping Conference (aka APEC), Deborah and I boarded a plane to Spain to teach the “same ole boring strokes” and to preach at the sixth anniversary of our Every Nation church in Madrid. There is so much to report from both Asia and Europe, but I thought that since today is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I would have our resident historian write us a guest post on the history and theological significance of the Reformation. William (my oldest son) wrote and taught the Church History course for Leadership 215 and is currently finishing his PhD in history at Vanderbilt University. Enjoy.

On October 31st, 1517—exactly 500 years ago today—a German monk and theology professor named Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg. Though it may not have been his original intention, this simple act sparked a revolution within European Christianity—a revolution that would have massive implications for every area of Western society including politics, education, culture, the arts, and even the economy.

Although Luther’s grievances with the Catholic church—and in particular with the system of indulgences—were very specific to the time and place in which he lived, three perennial questions were behind the ninety-five theses.

The first question was theological: How is it possible for a sinful human to be justified before a holy God? The second question was practical: How do we receive God’s gift of forgiveness? And the third question was epistemological: How can I know with any certainty that God has forgiven me?

These three questions plagued Luther personally for much of his career as a monk; and as it turns out, these questions also plagued European society as a whole.

In 1517, if you were to ask a Christian on the street in Wittenburg to answer these questions, you might have heard something like this:

Q: How is it possible for you, a sinful human, to be justified before a holy God?
A: By God’s grace and by great effort, we can be justified.

Q: How do you receive God’s forgiveness?
A: Through sincere penance and buying papal indulgences.

Q: How can you know with any certainty that God has forgiven you?
A: Because the priest has declared me absolved and the pope has issued the indulgence.

Luther was unsatisfied with these answers.

Reflecting on his frustrations with the system of indulgences, Luther wrote, “For however irreproachably I lived as a monk, I felt myself in the presence of God to be a sinner with a most unquiet conscience, nor could I believe that I pleased him with my satisfactions. I did not love, indeed I hated this just God…”

However, while teaching a course on the book of Romans in 1515, Luther received the life-changing revelation that “The righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17).

About this moment, Luther wrote: “I felt that I had been born anew and that the gates of heaven had been opened. The whole of Scripture gained a new meaning. And from that point on the phrase ‘the justice of God’ no longer filled me with hatred, but rather became unspeakably sweet by virtue of a great love.”

For Luther, this revelation gave him new answers to the old questions that had plagued him his entire life.

Q: How is it possible for a sinful human to be justified before a holy God?
A: By God’s grace alone (Sola Gratia). Luther recognized that our justification before God was entirely dependent on His sovereign grace. No good work or human merit could ever accomplish (or even add to) the work of Jesus on the cross. Luther was so convinced of the efficacy of God’s grace in our salvation that he offered this humorous (and slightly dangerous) advice: “Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, aye, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles. We are conquered if we try too conscientiously not to sin at all.”

Q: How do we receive God’s forgiveness?
A: Through faith alone (Sola Fide). Reading Romans, Luther realized that we receive God’s forgiveness by faith. That’s it. We must simply accept that we are accepted because of the work of Jesus on our behalf. On faith, Luther wrote, “Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God’s grace makes you happy, joyful and bold in your relationship to God and all creatures.”

Q: How can we know with certainty that God has forgiven us?
A: God has told us through His Word (Sola Scriptura). And God cannot lie. Luther, who had always struggled with assurance, realized that he could be confident in God’s grace because He could trust God’s Word. For Luther, it was no longer the words of the priest or even the pope that brought assurance but rather the Word of God reminding Him of the truth. On the Bible, Luther wrote, “The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me… A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or a cardinal without it.”

I sometimes wonder how people in our churches would answer Luther’s three big questions in 2017.

Would their answers sound like Luther? Or would they sound more like the man on the street in Wittenburg in 1517?

Whether or not we know the Latin phrases (Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, & Sola Scriptura), my prayer is that every disciple in our churches would know the truth in their hearts that “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Discipleship / Miscellaneous

A Three-Year-Old’s Theology: On Gratitude

October 18, 2017
The Ark Encounter in Kentucky.

The Ark Encounter in Kentucky.

TOKYO AIRPORT — A few weeks ago, I wrote about my granddaughter, Josephine, and her theologically profound comments about tragedy and natural disaster. This was neither the first nor the last time that Josephine’s words have cause me to think deeply about God, the Bible, and life.

This should not surprise us.

In the gospels, we frequently find Jesus making time to be with children. When his disciples would try to push them away, he would say things like this: “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child shall not enter it” (Luke 19:16-17).

What does it mean to receive the kingdom of God like a little child? For one, it involves seriously engaging their thoughts and perspectives about life to see what God might be revealing to us about Himself and His kingdom through their eyes.

I am reminded of this whenever I hear Josephine pray.

Her parents began teaching her to pray as soon as she could talk. And at first, she would simply follow their words as they prayed with her each night and before meals. But recently, she has begun praying on her own. You never really know what she is going to say, except at the beginning of her prayers.

She begins most prayers like this: “Lord, thank you for Noah’s Ark and for Disney World…” Then she goes on to thank God for more normal things like family, friends, her teachers at school, the weather, etc.

Thank you for Noah’s Ark…

This point of gratitude is less bizarre if you know that Noah’s Ark is one of Josephine’s favorite Bible stories. She has Noah’s Ark toys; she has bookmarked Noah’s Ark in her children’s Bible; and she even got to visit the “real thing” in Kentucky with me and Deborah a few months ago.

And for Disney World…

In July after the Build Conference, we took Josephine to Disney World for the first time in her life. Ever since then, she has been obsessed with all things Minnie Mouse. She has Minnie Mouse pajamas, Minnie Mouse dolls, Minnie Mouse ears, Minnie Mouse coloring books, Minnie Mouse socks, etc.

While it might be tempting to write off Josephine’s prayer as three-year-old cuteness and nothing more, I think there is something profound that we can learn about gratitude and the kingdom.

First, we (like Josephine) should thank God more often for Noah’s Ark. His decision to save one man and his family was an act of sovereign grace that changed the course of redemptive history. Of course, Noah’s Ark points to a later, more complete work of redemption in Jesus. But this early story of God’s saving work provides us with a beautiful picture of God’s grace in the face of man’s depravity and God’s care for His creation in the midst of natural disaster. Stories like this are making a gospel imprint on little Josephine’s imagination and should never stop impressing on our imaginations either.

Second, though many adults (including myself) wish Disney World didn’t exist (or at least had shorter lines and less humidity), Josephine’s love of Magic Kingdom demonstrates that all humans—three-year-olds to ninety-three-year-olds—are longing for a kingdom where joy, celebration, awe, and wonder are the norm. We, like Josephine, know that most places are not like Disney World. Most places we inhabit are marked with suffering, futility, and lack. We, like Josephine, long for the coming of God’s kingdom—when every tear will be wiped away, every relationship will be restored, and every heart will be glad. For Josephine, Disney World is one of the closest representations of that kingdom reality (that she has personally experienced), not only because of the castles and real life princesses, but also because her entire family (aunts, uncles, grandparents, parents, etc.) spent the money and endured the heat to make the day special for her.

While the opening words of Josephine’s prayer offer an unexpected juxtaposition (Noah’s Ark and Disney World), they point us to two things we should all thank God for everyday: His redemptive work in history and His coming kingdom.

Blog / Discipleship

When Jesus Takes Your Lunch

July 31, 2017

Preaching Workshop

NASHVILLE—Last week, I returned from our annual Every Nation Build Conference in Orlando, where pastors, church planters, and campus missionaries from all over North America gathered for a time of fellowship, worship, and vision-building.

For those who couldn’t attend, you can still check out a quick recap video and listen to the messages here. I have many highlights from this year’s conference. One of them was leading the Biblical Preaching workshop with Pastor Brian Taylor of Bethel Cincinnati and Pastor Chris Johnson of Divine Unity Community Church. My good friend and executive director of Every Nation, Kevin York, moderated our session. Brian and Chris are excellent preachers, and I was honored to share the stage with them.

On the last evening of the conference, I preached the familiar story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 from John 6. This story is rich with potential for preaching.

You could preach about the contrast between ministering to crowds and making disciples. Jesus did both but prioritized the latter (John 6:2-3). You could preach about how Jesus “tested” Philip to see if he would view the food shortage through the eyes of faith (John 6:5-6). You could preach about signs and wonders and the sad reality that people often follow (even worship) signs rather than realize that the signs are meant to point us to Jesus (John 6:2, 14). You could preach about provision, and how Jesus fed more than 5,000 people with just five loaves and two fish.

However, in my sermon, rather than focusing on the crowds or the disciples, I focused on that young nameless boy whose lunch Jesus used to do a miracle.

Though I have read (and preached) this text many times before, in preparation for my message, I was struck by a phrase that I had never noticed. After Andrew and Philip explain to Jesus how expensive it would be to buy bread for the large crowd, they add that there is a boy with five barley loaves and two fish.

Then John says, “Jesus then took the loaves…” (6:11)

I don’t know if Jesus asked or if the boy offered, but all we know from the text is that Jesus “took” the loaves. Again, the text doesn’t say, but I would be shocked if this boy was the only person out of 5,000 who had brought along some lunch.

So why did Jesus take the loaves from this boy? Is that really fair? How did the boy respond?

If I were him, I might have complained about being treated unfairly. I might have wanted some say over how Jesus and His disciples planned to use this bread and fish. I might have asked that they pay me back after their next fishing trip. I might have been offended and then just walked away.

What do you do when Jesus takes your last loaf?
What do you do when Jesus exerts His will upon your life?
What do you do when Jesus takes something from you without warning and without asking?

Though I had never realized it before, this story is about lordship. If anyone else had taken that boy’s bread and fish, it would have been unjust and self-serving. But because Jesus was the one doing the taking, the end result was blessing and multiplication.

Here’s the point: When Jesus takes your last loaf, it’s not because He needs it. It’s not because He wants to make your life miserable. It’s because He wants to do something in you and through you. He wants to take the natural and do something supernatural. He wants to take your ordinary life and do something extraordinary.

But that only happens when we acknowledge Jesus as Lord and allow Him to take from us those things we’d rather hold on to.

Blog / Church / Discipleship / Leadership

Attracting Crowds or Making Disciples?

July 3, 2017

TOKYO AIRPORT — Observing the life of Jesus in the gospels is often an abrupt and painful reality check, especially in our social media saturated do-anything-for-fame ministry culture. I can’t imagine Jesus being obsessed with how many people “liked” his latest pithy post or how many people “friended” or “shared” his content.

His only obsession was to please the Father. We should be likewise obsessed.

Matthew reported that Jesus preached the gospel and healed the sick all over Galilee. (4:23) Because of his preaching and healing “His fame spread” which resulted in even more preaching and healing. (4:24) The predictable result of all this preaching and healing was that “great crowds followed him.” (4:25)

So, Jesus now has fame and crowds. The only thing missing (for modern success) is the fortune. But great fame, a massive following, and financial fortune did not matter to Jesus. And it should not matter to us. But it often does. Even in ministry.

What did Jesus do with his new found fame and huge following? How did he “leverage his platforms” in order to increase his following? How did he alter his “content” to increase his followers? How did he monetize his influence? That’s what we would do, right?

Notice carefully what Jesus did. “Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.” (Matthew 5:1 ESV)

Two important words: crowds and disciples.

1. “Seeing the CROWDS, he went up to the mountain.” Today when we see crowds in our Sunday service, in our campus ministry, or on social media we think we have succeeded. We must be doing something right and God is must be blessing our efforts. In order to be good stewards of our success, we do everything imaginable to maintain and grow our audience. Our first move is to leverage our platform for growth and influence. Jesus did the opposite. His first move was to walk away from the crowd.

2. “And when he sat down, his DISCIPLES came to him.” Unimpressed with his ever-increasing popularity, Jesus ignored the crowd and ascended the mountain. He traded a massive crowd of adorning followers for a small group of committed disciples. A careful reading of the gospels will reveal that the more crowds followed Jesus, the more he retreated to be alone with the Father and with his disciples.

Every leader of a growing ministry will be faced with an important decision: attract crowds or make disciples. Will we leave the crowds in order to make disciples, or will we allow the demands of the crowd to pull us away from small group discipleship?

Too many pastors and ministry leaders choose the crowds.

The irony of the situation is that very often, the leaders who choose making disciples over attracting crowds actually end up with massive crowds, but not crowds of fawning fickle miracle-seekers, crowds of disciples.

When your ministry starts to grow, choose wisely, my friends.

Blog / Discipleship / Missions

How to Pray in a Time of Global Terror

June 14, 2017

Terrorism

MANILA—Since I landed in the Philippines last week, the nation has been gripped with the ongoing crisis in the southern island of Mindanao. Islamic militants have taken the city of Marawi and declared allegiance to ISIS. Hundreds have been killed and thousands displaced since the violence began on May 23.

Over the last few weeks, terror attacks have seemed ubiquitous around the world.

The day before Marawi, the Manchester bombing took the lives of twenty-three young people attending a concert. Last week, the London Bridge attack took the lives of eight people and injured another forty-eight when terrorists drove a van into a crowded area and began stabbing random people.

Though less publicized, the Middle East has seen the worst terror attacks of all over the last few weeks, with suicide bombings in Kabul (May 3), Tehran (June 7), and Karbala (June 9), each claiming the lives of dozens of civilians and injuring hundreds more.

How should we as Christians respond to such tragic events, to such evil? How should we pray in a time of global terror?

I have begun praying Psalm 83.

O God, do not keep silence;
do not hold your peace or be still, O God!
For behold, your enemies make an uproar;
those who hate you have raised their heads.
They lay crafty plans against your people;
they consult together against your treasured ones.

These are the first few verses of one of a handful of imprecatory psalms in the Bible—psalms that lament human evil and suffering and ask God to judge the wicked. If, like me, much of your Christian life has been one of relative comfort and safety, imprecatory psalms can be very weird to read, much less pray.

But for Christians who have lived in a war-torn region or who face real persecution, then imprecatory psalms speak directly to their experience in a way that nothing else can. I used to assume that imprecatory psalms were exclusively useful for those in extreme, life-threatening situations. But now, I’m beginning to realize that they are useful for all Christians who are confronted (even secondhand) with the depths of human evil and suffering.

Why? Because imprecatory psalms give us a healthy way to voice our anger, fear, terror, and sense of helplessness in the face of human evil. They give us a way to talk to God—to appeal to His justice, His sovereignty, His mercy—when we have no words of our own. They teach us how to think—and more importantly how to feel—about something like a suicide bombing in Manchester or children being shot by snipers in Marawi.

With the psalmists we can pray of terror groups, like ISIS or Abu Sayyaf, like Psalm 83 shows here:

O my God, make them like the whirling dust,
like chaff before the wind.
As fire consumes the forest,
as the flame sets the mountains ablaze,
so may you pursue them with your tempest
and terrify them with your hurricane!

Yes, it’s biblical to pray that God would bring His terror to the very people who are inflicting terror on others. And it is biblical to pray that God would bring righteous judgement on a group like ISIS.

But as you begin to pray these kinds of prayers, don’t forget that we should hate evil but love sinners. We should hate ISIS and the demonic principalities and powers that animate such wickedness, but we should forgive terrorists and pray that God reveals himself to them.

Even Psalm 83, with all its righteous anger, ends with a redemptive tone:

Fill their faces with shame,
that they may seek your name, O Lord.
Let them be put to shame and dismayed forever;
let them perish in disgrace
that they may know that you alone,
whose name is the Lord,
are the Most High over all the earth.

But does this really happen? Can God’s justice (and eventual mercy) toward the wicked result in some turning to Him?

The short answer is yes. Think about the apostle Paul, who persecuted the church, then had a radical encounter with God on the road to Damascus. Think about the people in our Every Nation family in the Muslim world who were members of al-Qaeda before they met Jesus. Think about own your life before conversion, which was no less worthy of God’s judgment than that of a terrorist.

In his short time on earth, Jesus prayed both imprecatory psalms and prayers of forgiveness towards His enemies. And so should we.

Blog / Discipleship / Leadership

How and Why to Decrease as a Leader

May 25, 2017

LIFT

NASHVILLE—Though I believe strongly that all leaders should grow and that they should continually increase in their character and leadership skills, there is one sense in which all leaders should decrease.

When Jesus first began his ministry in Galilee, some of John the Baptist’s followers were concerned that this new teacher might gain a larger following than John. Even some of John’s key disciples (like Andrew) had started following Jesus. When John’s disciples brought this concern to his attention, John’s response was completely counterintuitive from a leadership perspective: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

John’s decrease message raises two important questions—one discipleship question and one leadership question.

The Discipleship Question. Everyone who is attempting to be a disciple and attempting to make disciples should ask themselves: How can I decrease so that Jesus can increase? Like most discipleship questions, this is a Lordship question. Every disciple of Jesus should continually ask this question, whether you’re a new believer or a spiritual giant, like John the Baptist.

The Leadership Question. Once discipleship and the Lordship of Christ are established as the foundation, we can move on to the leadership question: How can I decrease so that emerging leaders around me can increase? From a discipleship perspective, Jesus was the rabbi and John was His follower. But from a leadership perspective (in John 3), John was an established leader and Jesus was an emerging leader. So when John said that he needed to decrease and Jesus needed to increase, he was also making a statement about how biblical leadership is supposed to work.

Established leaders who want emerging leaders to grow, will have to continually find ways to decrease. For John, this meant empowering and releasing some of his own disciples to Jesus. This also meant smaller crowds and fewer baptisms. John willingly relinquished platforms and influence so that Jesus’ new ministry could grow.

When pondering this text a few days ago, I asked myself what leadership decrease means in my context. I quickly jotted down four words: Listen, Include, Finance, Trust.

1. Listen: One way that I can decrease so emerging leaders can increase is simply by talking less and listening more. Whether it’s in a staff meeting or in a private conversation, whenever I give next-generation leaders a voice, they increase and the whole team benefits.

2. Include: Another way I can decrease so that emerging leaders can increase is by including them, whether it’s in a conference speaker slot or in a lunch meeting with other senior leaders. The more we can make space at the table for young leaders, the better—even if that sometimes means giving up our seat or a session.

3. Finance: Here’s where things get practical, and expensive. In my context, if I am really serious about empowering emerging leaders, it is going to cost money. Whether than means paying for a lunch or a plane ticket, or even a seminary degree, if we are serious about elevating emerging leaders in our churches and organizations, we have to be willing to finance those leaders and their growth.

4. Trust: Trusting emerging leader sounds great, until we realize that it involves letting go of control and cleaning up the inevitable messes that occur when young leaders are empowered. But if we are serious about the growth of emerging leaders, we must continually decrease our control and trust them. They will make mistakes; but consider their mistakes as moments for growth. And continue to trust and empower.

I originally wrote these four words and brief thoughts in my Moleskine in my usual stream-of-conscience devotional writing style (that would be unreadable to anyone but me). Then I took a step back and realized that the four words (accidentally) created an acronym: LIFT! Unlike most of my devotional scribblings, I decided to blog these thoughts.

So here’s the question: What does LIFT look like for you as a leader? How can you decrease, so that emerging leaders around you can increase?

Church / Discipleship / Missions

Racial Hypocrisy, Lunch, and the Gospel

May 16, 2017
Depiction of Paul writing his letters.

Depiction of Paul writing his letters.

NASHVILLE—This blog is the final installment of an impromptu series on ethnic diversity and racial reconciliation in the Church. The first blog was inspired by a trip to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa; the second blog was inspired by a Sunday worship service at Bethel in Nashville; and this final blog is inspired by an argument between Paul and Peter in first-century Antioch. That apostolic argument led to a very public apostolic rebuke.

The Story
We read about this confrontation and rebuke in Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia, a city in modern-day Turkey. But first, a little background to help us understand why the rebuke was necessary.

In the first chapter of Galatians, Paul pleads with the church to hold on to the gospel. Before describing the real gospel, he mentions four false versions of the gospel that had infiltrated the church: a different gospel (verse 6), a distorted gospel (verses  7), a contrary gospel (verses 8, 9), and man’s gospel (verse 11). Unfortunately all four of these “gospels” are still being preached in the church today.

After exposing these four false gospels, Paul turned his attention to the true gospel and its implications on race relations in the church.

Despite the teaching of some legalistic Jewish believers, Paul wanted to make it clear that Gentile believers did not have to become Jews (i.e. be circumcised and follow Jewish dietary laws) in order to follow Jesus. In short, Gentiles and Jews are saved by grace alone, not by following religious traditions.

After a long discussion about the gospel and its implications for Gentile believers, Paul recounts his confrontation with Peter:

But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy (Galatians 2:11-13).

Paul’s Response
Here’s my summary of the situation. When Peter visited the church in Antioch—the first church in the New Testament that had a significant number of non-Jews—he hung out with Gentiles and even ate with them, something a good Jew would never do. But when Peter’s Jewish friends from Jerusalem came to visit, he suddenly stopped eating with the Gentile believers and reverted to the old mode of segregation.

Paul was deeply troubled by this behavior, twice calling it hypocrisy (Galatians 2:13).

First, Paul did not remain silent. And he did not talk about Peter behind his back. He “opposed him to his face” (Galatians 2:11). Much more could be said here, but the fact is, there are some issues that demand confrontation. This is one of them.

Second, Paul treated racial reconciliation as a gospel issue. “But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas…” (Galatians 2:14). Paul did not treat the ethnic and cultural divisions in the church at Antioch as a minor issue. He did not treat it as a side issue. He did not treat is as a political, cultural, social, or economic issue, even though he could have. He treated it as a gospel issue. And gospel issues are always big issues.

Even though there was a history of political, cultural, social, and economic alienation that fed into and reinforced ethnic divisions between Jews and Gentiles, Paul chose to go straight to the heart of the issue—the gospel.

The Point
For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:26).
For Paul, it was simple. Though there was a long history of division between Jews and Gentiles, the gospel had changed everything. In Christ, we have all been adopted into the family of God—and family members eat together.

Blog / Church / Discipleship

How Worship Works

April 25, 2017

Communion Table

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—Last weekend, Deborah and I were in Auckland, New Zealand, for our Every Nation Oceania conference. This week, we are in Sydney for our annual Asia & Oceania Regional Leadership Team meeting.

Traveling around the Every Nation world, I have the privilege to participate in Sunday worship services in many different cultures and languages. I have worshiped with our brothers and sisters in Chinese house churches; I have worshiped in a converted cockfighting pit in Colombia; I have worshiped at medieval cathedrals in Europe; I have worshiped in contemporary megachurches in the Philippines. Just last weekend, I worshiped in a small Pentecostal church in rural Georgia. The cultural contexts of these worship services vary wildly—and this affects things like worship language, worship style, worship environment, meeting size, and service flow.

However, whether we are in Shanghai or Fusagasuga, Oxford or Nashville, certain core elements of Christian liturgy transcend cultural variation. Through singing, preaching, communion, giving, and fellowship, churches around the world and across the centuries have been participating in the same liturgical practices that emerged in the earliest days of the New Testament church in Syria-Palestine.

Why or how have these elements of Christian worship persisted across time and space for over 2,000 years?

First, we find these liturgical elements practiced in the Bible (especially in Acts). Second, Christian leaders recognize that worship is not ultimately about expression; it’s about formation.

If unique cultural expression was the primary goal in worship, then it wouldn’t matter if churches in twenty-first century Lagos continued with ancient liturgical practices developed in first-century Jerusalem. They could find their own ways to express their love for God, which may or may not include singing, preaching, and communion. But for some reason we continue to worship in the same ways that Christians throughout the ages have done.

Why?

As beautiful as it is hear God’s praises sung in hushed Chinese in a house church and as powerful as it is to hear the word of God preached by our young Colombian leaders in a cockfighting pit (formerly owned by Pablo Escobar!), diverse cultural expression is a secondary goal in worship. The primary goal is spiritual formation, or discipleship.

In other words, the most important actor in worship is not us (as humans) but God.

While we often think that Sunday worship is primarily about expression (what we do to/for God), it is actually more about formation (what God does to/in us). Why? Because when we gather together as a church to worship God, He comes by His Spirit in our midst and changes us. He doesn’t just transform us in a nebulous way, but rather, he comes and transforms us through the repeated “rituals” of Christian worship. Singing, fellowship, preaching, communion, giving—these powerful liturgical practices are God’s way of revealing Himself to us and transforming us by His Spirit.

In communion, God engages our eyes, our hands, our mouths, and our stomach, and reminds us in very tangible ways of his incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.

In preaching, God engages our ears and our minds—and through His spirit, He convicts us of sin and calls us to repentance and faith.

In singing, God engages our vocal chords and our emotions—and trains us to love Him with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength.

In giving, God engages our material possessions, the bills and cards and accounts in your back pocket—and trains us to trust Him and His provision and to denounce the idol of Mammon.

In fellowship, God engages our social lives—and reminds us that our primary group identity is not our nation or our ethno-linguistic group or even our natural family. But rather, it is the people redeemed by Christ’s blood from every tribe, language, people, and nation.

This is how worship works. And whether we realize it or not, this is what God is up to on Sunday morning.

Discipleship

Prayer and Fasting… and Perseverance

January 17, 2017

Praying HandsORLANDO, FLORIDAThis week, I’m in Orlando with Every Nation pastors from all over North America (USA & Canada) for the North American Strategic Team (NAST) meeting. Over the week, we will be praying together and strategizing how we can strengthen our existing churches and campus ministries and plant more in 2017.

If you fasted and prayed with us last week, here’s a post-fast thought about prayer, faith, and perseverance.

Whenever I get to the end of a week of prayer and fasting, I am always full of faith for what God is going to do in the coming year. Sometimes, I see immediate breakthrough and answers to prayer during the actual week of prayer and fasting. But more often than not, I see God answering those January prayers in March or June or November. And sometimes, I see God answering my 2017 prayers much later—in 2018 or 2028 or 2058!

Perseverance is one key component of faith that we often neglect when we talk about prayer. As much as we need faith in God’s power when we pray, we also need faith in His timing.

Too often, we think that because God didn’t answer our prayers according to our timeframe, then God didn’t “answer” our prayer. At this point, many give up praying, assuming that they must have misunderstood God’s will. Instead of giving up, we need to realize that this is exactly the point where true persevering faith begins.

If faith in God’s power produces boldness in prayer, then faith in God’s timing produces perseverance in prayer.

In Hebrews 11, the most famous passage in the Bible on faith, the author talks about ancient heroes of the faith like Enoch, Noah, and Abraham, and he makes an interesting comment about their faith journeys: These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. (Hebrews 11:13 NKJV)

These all DIED in faith, not having received the promises.

Look at Abraham. God promised him that he would become a great nation, but when he died, he had only one descendent. He died before he fully received the promise. God’s promises to Abraham did eventually come to pass, but they came to pass in future generations. Yet Abraham did not waiver in unbelief, or assume that God had forgotten him. As it says in Hebrews 11, Abraham saw the fulfillment “afar off” and was “assured” of it.

So here’s the post-fast question: In 2017, are we going to persevere in faith whether or not God answers all of our prayers according to our expectations and timeline?

Let’s not get discouraged or give up—Let’s pray boldly and persistently, trusting both God’s power and His timing for our lives in 2017 and beyond.