Something New

Most of us like new things.  There is just something about an item, whatever it may be, that has never been owned or used by someone else.  We may have to buy a used car because of the expense of a new one, but if given the choice, most of us would prefer the new one.  Those who grew up as a younger brother or sister in a family always enjoyed it when they received new clothes that were new off the rack, rather than hand-me-downs.  And, when the holiday season at the end of the year concludes, most of us relish the idea of the opportunity to begin afresh in a new year.

In terms of beginning a new year, we have all experienced the disappointment of making resolutions for the new year and then failing to keep them.  Whatever our resolutions might be, if we have taken time to make them we genuinely intend to have a different result this year than last.  However, what we fail to consider, or at least what we often fail to remember each year, is that we have to make changes in our attitudes and lifestyle in order to make those resolutions come true.

A prominent and successful educator from the East coast wrote a book in which he addressed the idea of changing the cycle of failure that characterizes too many inner city youth.  One of the primary principles he used to motivate his students was this statement:  “If you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep getting what you’ve got!”  A successful motivational speaker in the business world has a similar philosophy.  He says, “In order for things to change, you’ve got to change.”  The principle is so simple, yet it is so routinely ignored.

In order for this year to be different from last year, and presumably better, each one of us will have to make changes in the way we live.  It may mean avoiding the donut shop, or foregoing that second helping at the dinner table, or eating more fruits and vegetables.  It may mean consciously taking the time to stop and consider how to respond to someone’s actions or comments, instead of just flying off the handle.  Whatever the situation, if we want this year to be better we will have to start by changing the way we conduct ourselves.

Nowhere is this more important than in our spiritual walk.  If we want to improve our walk with the Lord, we will have to make some kinds of changes in order to accomplish this.  Of course, the beginning point is obedience to the gospel.  We cannot have something new, in terms of our relationship to God, until we do what He requires in order to be saved.  If we obey the gospel, then new things will come (2 Cor. 5:17).

As Christians, the same is true.  We cannot coast along in our spiritual routine, whatever it may be.  Our call as Christians is to grow and to mature in the faith (1 Pet. 2:1-3; Heb. 5:11-14).  We cannot allow ourselves to be satisfied with being what we are.  We should be taking action to make ourselves better each day, for this is what truly glorifies God.

Arriving at something new in our maturity of faith is a process that continues until we reach heaven.  It begins with a personal commitment to put the Lord first and to let Him mold us into the best we can be here in life.  It takes work and dedication, an exercising of the mind by the study of God’s word, which, when put into practice makes us the living sacrifices He wants us to be (Rom. 12:1, 2).  Make something new this year in your walk with God and you can have that “new car smell” not only here in life, but also in eternity.

Consider Your Ways

The prophet Haggai ministered among the returned exiles in Judah about 500 years before the birth of Christ.  He and fellow prophet Zechariah were tasked by the Lord to call the Jews back to the purpose for which they had been returned from captivity.  They were supposed to have rebuilt the temple, repaired the walls of the city of Jerusalem, and restored the worship of the Lord.  They had diligently done some of this work, but had not completed the full task.  Instead, they had become distracted from the Lord’s work by focusing more on their own desires and needs than on His.

Haggai’s proclamation to the people of Israel was a simple one.  He said, “Now therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘Consider your ways!'” (Hag. 1:5, 7).  The Hebrew phrase literally means, “set your heart on your ways.”  In other words, God wanted His people to take stock of what they had been doing and weigh that in the balance against what they should have been doing.  In their case, God was scolding them for having lost their focus.  Their priorities were out of order.

It is common for us to reflect on the course of our lives as we approach the end of a calendar year.  Businesses do this to see how well or how poorly they have met their sales or production goals for the year.  Non-profit organizations do the same to measure how successful they have been raising funds to do their good works.  Elders of congregations, if they are wise, will also take time to reflect on the year that is about to end.  they will want to evaluate the congregation’s success at meeting the spiritual goals that were set at the beginning of the year.

For each of us as Christians, considering our ways should be an ongoing exercise that is particularly appropriate as we approach a new year.  We may or may not have set spiritual goals for ourselves, but we still should be interested in where we are in our journey toward eternity.  Am I more knowledgeable of God’s word than I was at the beginning of the year?  Am I more mature in my faith than I was twelve months ago?  Am I more faithful in my participation in the work and worship of the church, or am I still where I was last year at this time?  Do I study more, pray more, give more, serve more than before, or am I just treading water?

Each of us knows the answers to these questions, and so does our Father in heaven.  It is easy for us to become distracted, just like the Jews in the time of Haggai.  We become so busy with earthly concerns that the spiritual side of our lives gets neglected.  Very few of us make such a choice intentionally, but the effects are the same, even if done unintentionally.

As we approach the beginning of a new year, should the Lord grant it to us, let us each take a few moments of serious, personal introspection about our spiritual health.  The standard for this reflection, of course, is God’s word.  If we compare ourselves to ourselves, we will never improve, but when we compare ourselves to the standard of God’s word, we will always see the need to do better in His service.

One of the great blessings of being a Christian is that so long as the Lord gives us life, He gives us opportunity to consider our ways and to change our ways to be more like His.  Let us take advantage of the Lord’s grace and mercy, while He still extends them to us.  Let’s consider our ways, and consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds in the New Year (Heb. 10:24).

Spoken Against Everywhere

When Paul arrived in the city of Rome to await his trial before Caesar, Luke tells us that he was allowed to stay by himself with a single soldier to guard him (Acts 28:16).  Because of this relative freedom, Paul was able to receive not only the brethren who were in Rome, but also to call for the leading men among the Jews who lived in Rome.  When these men came to Paul’s residence, he explained that he had called them so he might inform them why he was in custody.  He wanted to be sure that these Jews knew the truth about his imprisonment.

When Paul explained how he came to be a prisoner of Rome, the leaders of the Jews told him that they had heard nothing about his case from the Jews in Jerusalem.  No representative from the leaders in Jerusalem had come to Rome with a report, nor had any letters been written to them about Paul.  They went on to say this, recorded in Acts 28:22:  “But we desire to hear from you what your views are; for concerning this sect, it is known to us that it is spoken against everywhere.”

This comment certainly represented the prevailing view of many, if not most, of the Jews at that point in the first century.  The force of this statement, which was offered almost casually, tends to shock modern day believers in Christ.  We can hardly imagine faith in Jesus Christ as being spoken against.  In fact, many who claim the name of Christ go out of their way to portray Christianity as inoffensively as possible.  They go to great lengths to have their faith spoken of only in the most positive of terms.

It is this desire to be approved of, however, that has led many professed believers to modify their tenets of faith in order to avoid any negative reaction by the world.  This has recently occurred as leaders of some churches have courted the favor of the homosexual lobby and other special interest groups.  They have done so by suggesting that God’s word does not condemn homosexual behavior and by jumping on the bandwagon of the social liberals in society.

Obviously all of us want to be liked, if not loved.  It is a part of our make-up as human beings.  No one likes or appreciates a person or group that is obnoxious and purposely offensive.  Part of good manners is being courteous and kind and respectful toward others, whether we believe they deserve it or not.  At the same time, however, faith in Christ and the practice of that faith is not subject to modification to soothe the feelings of those who oppose it.  Professed believers must not fall into the trap of  trying to please or to appease unbelievers.

The reality of Christianity in the first century should prove this beyond doubt.  Nothing that we read in the New Testament suggests that faith in Christ is an oppressive thing.  Nothing in scripture even hints at Christians being obnoxious or offensive in the practice of their faith.  They did, however, cause offense in many instances.  They did so by proclaiming the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

This is a fact that must not be ignored.  No one who is in violation of some code of conduct ever enjoys being corrected.  Think about how it feels to be pulled over by a police officer and written up for speeding.  No one would suggest that traffic laws should be modified to allow any kind of driving one pleases, so why would we bend God’s law to make it less offensive to those who are in sin?  If we faithfully proclaim God’s word, we will be spoken against by those who stand against it.  This, however, is what we must always do.

NOTE:  This article was written days before Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson’s comments on homosexuality sparked the current furor.  This incident perfectly illustrates the point of this article.  Mr. Robertson accurately conveyed the teaching of the scriptures on homosexual behavior, and now he and the Christian faith are being “spoken against everywhere.”  So it will always be, until the Lord comes again.

Please Come Home

Some of our favorite songs of the holiday season focus on the joy of families being reunited during this time of year.  One of them speaks from the perspective of one who has been away from his family and promises, “I’ll be home for Christmas.”  Another song takes the perspective of family members for whom the holidays will not be the same unless their loved one comes home.  This song begs, “Please, come home for Christmas.”  While these songs, and others like them, were not written with spiritual implications in mind, there is a sense in which the sentiment expressed in them applies to our walk as Christians.

One of the key features used in scripture to describe the church is the family.  Those who are Christians are the family of God.  He is the Father, Jesus is our older brother, and we are all sons and daughters of God.  Paul spoke of this relationship in Gal. 3:26-29, where he said, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.  For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.”

Jesus also used the family to illustrate how things would be in His kingdom.  In particular, the parable of the Prodigal Son demonstrates this.  In Lk. 15:11-32 the Lord told about a father and two sons, one of whom selfishly demanded his share of his father’s estate before the father passed away.  When he received his inheritance he went to a distant country and wasted it on an ungodly lifestyle. When he came to himself, he returned to his father to ask forgiveness.  As he neared his home, he was met by his father, who was watching for him and saw him at a distance.  The father, it appears, had longingly watched for his son all the time he was gone.  More than anything else, he wanted his son to come home again.  When the son appeared on the horizon, his joy was complete and he welcomed him back into the family once again.

The image of the father anxiously scanning the horizon, looking for his wayward son, is an apt description of what takes place each Lord’s Day as we assemble for worship.  Whenever we gather for worship, we note that there are some members of the family of God who are not present.  Some of them have been away for a long time.  Their absence may have begun because of some legitimate reason, such as sickness or some unexpected circumstance, but has become nothing more than a bad habit.  Some may feel embarrassed for having been away so long, which makes it all the more difficult to come back, but in the family of God, our greatest desire is to have all of our family members together each and every Lord’s Day.

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the Lord says the wayward son came to his senses and realized that he was only hurting himself by continuing to live as he was.  Once he realized this truth, he was willing to return home to face whatever consequences might occur.  What he had not counted on was the loving forgiveness his father showered upon him.  Those who have been away from the assembly for a long time must realize that their absence hurts them more than anyone else.  They must also understand that their brothers and sisters in Christ want nothing more than to welcome them back into fellowship once again.

The church is the family of God.  It is our spiritual home here on earth in anticipation of entering our eternal home in heaven at the end of time.  So then, make our joy complete, and please, come home!

The Death of Reason

There is little question that we are living in an age in which emotion and feeling have become the trump cards of progressives.  Rather than marshaling factual evidence to substantiate their position, they rely on testimonials or cliche’d assertions that are designed to evoke a purely emotional response.  In the place of common sense reason and centuries of established social norms, they substitute the supposed superiority of self-esteem and feeling good about oneself.  Even though the consequences of this philosophy are unquestionably bad for society, it has become the mantra of our time.  Unfortunately, this philosophy has also taken root in our religious affairs.  It manifests itself in the focus on doing whatever it takes to draw people to our churches, and to please the people in the pew.

So much of what goes on today in churches has no basis in the teaching of scripture.  In other words, there are no express commands to do these things, nor are there any examples of early Christians doing these things.  The idea of requiring a “Thus says the Lord” to justify what we believe, teach and practice is as foreign to modern progressives as making animal sacrifices in worship to God.  They simply do not believe that God must endorse by His inspired word every aspect of our conduct as professed believers.

To reach this point, progressives have successfully engaged in a decades-long war on reason.  They claim that those who rely on and require a “Thus says the Lord,” are actually disciples of rationalism as taught in the 19th century by John Locke.  They suggest that such people are legalists and Pharisaic in the practice of their faith.  They attempt to cast them in the same mold as the Jewish leaders of the first century, whom the Lord condemned for their hypocritical actions and attitudes.

They then assert that the only viable alternative to such hypocritical faith is to discard reason for feeling.  Thus they speak of knowing Jesus and loving Jesus, rather than of obeying the commands of scripture.  They cultivate an environment in their worship assemblies that is designed to create a sense of satisfaction and enjoyment in the hearts of those gathered.  Decisions on doctrines and worship practices are then based on how people will feel about them.  The goal is, apparently, to feel good, no matter what God’s word may say.

All of this purposely ignores a basic truth of scripture.  God Himself requires us to use our reasoning as we seek to follow His will.  In Isa. 1:18 God called Israel to reason with Him.  He said, “‘Come now, and let us reason together,’ says the Lord, ‘ though your sins are red like crimson, they will be like wool.'”  People do not “reason together” about their feelings.  They reason together about facts and truth.  In vs 19, 20 God said, “If you consent and obey, you will eat the best of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.”  The prophet added his “amen” at the end of v. 20, saying, “Truly the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

In the New Testament, God still calls His people to reason with Him.  In Eph. 5:17 He inspired Paul to say, “So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”  One does not understand with his feelings, but with his mind.  In Rom. 12:2 Paul said we are transformed by the renewing of our minds, not by our feelings.  Jesus said that we will be judged by His word at the end of time (Jn. 12:48), not by our feelings.  The implication of these scriptures is that reasoning with God’s word leads to obedience and reward.  Refusing to reason with God’s word leads to disobedience and punishment.  Many will be lost because of the death of reason.