Portrait of a Christian

What does a Christian look like?  This is a question all of us must answer as we seek to follow Christ.  The short answer of course is we are to look like Jesus.  For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers (Romans 8:29).  In Jesus, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us ( John 1:14).  He manifested himself to us and revealed his image, thus showing us what our lives as Christians should look like.

He made himself our model (John 13:34-35, 20:21).  However, it is often hard to translate the life of Christ into our context.  Recently I was reading a biography on John Wesley, who is one of my heroes in the faith.  While I disagree with him on some secondary issues of theology I greatly respect him as a practical theologian.  As such, he was very much concerned with living out what we believe.

In light of this, the book I was reading dedicated the entire first chapter to a tract that Wesley had written in the mid 1700s which I have found to be exceedingly relevant today.  It is entitled The Character of a Methodist.  The term Methodist was given to the group Wesley founded as a derogatory name mocking the methodical way in which they approached life and Bible study.  Thus Wesley is not writing a denominational statement, but is simply making it clear that a Methodist, indeed all Christians should look like Jesus.

I encourage you to read this tract and meditate on what it really means to be conformed to the image of Christ.

Serving God by Serving Man

I am a very self-centered person.  I desire my own comfort and happiness.  Quite often I will go to any length to accomplish something that I want for myself.  I will endure hardship and overcome great obstacles when it benefits me.  I am always willing to serve myself.  Yet, when it comes to helping someone else, I am not always willing to work as hard to be inconvenienced.  We all have a self problem.

This may shock you, but when we serve self we are actually serving Satan.  There is a cosmic battle underway between almighty God and his enemy, Satan.  In the Scriptures we see two adversarial kingdoms.  We can either align ourselves with Christ and his Kingdom, or Satan and the World.  Satan is indeed the ruler of the kingdom of the world as seen in Eph 2:2 where, in reference to the world system he is referred to as the “prince of the power of the air.”

When we love the world and thus it’s ruler we are in opposition to God and his kingdom and therefore, make ourselves enemies of God.

You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (James 4:4)

If loving the world makes us an enemy of God then it is important that we understand what loving the world is.  Look at how the Apostle John describes love of the world.

15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. (1 John 2:15-17)

John describes love of the world as simply the love of self and it is a testimony to the fact that the love of God and his kingdom are absent in a person’s life.

Our self-love reveals that we reject the Lord’s kingdom and have aligned ourselves with the rule of his enemy.  Just a few examples from scripture are needed to make this point.  Jesus says:

23 “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25 For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? (Luke 9:23-25)

Jesus makes it clear that an unwillingness to deny self is synonymous with man’s desire to cling to the kingdom of the world.  This is futile because the one who seeks to preserve his life in the world, will ultimately lose it when Christ establishes his kingdom in its fullness.  The one who loves himself loves the world, but the one who denies himself loves the Lord and his kingdom.

Earlier I mentioned Ephesians 2.  In this passage Paul likewise equates love of self with love of the world.

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Eph 2:1-3)

Prior to being reconciled to God each of us were actively following the course of the world in submission to its ruler.  We lived in and pursed the kingdom of the world with the result that we lived in the passions of our flesh carrying out the desires of the body and mind.  We were lovers of self!  As a result we were children of wrath; enemies of God.

In Romans 12, Paul urges followers of Christ to no longer be conformed to the world but to be transformed by the renewing of their minds.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)

What does this non-conformity to the world look like?  It’s simply the denial of self as an act of worship to God.  By deduction we conclude that the love of self is the result of conformity with the world.  Loving self communicates alignment with the world, while the act of self-denial communicates that the believer has been transformed and changed his allegiance to the kingdom of God.

It is clear that when we practice the love of self we are aligning ourselves with the kingdom of the world and serving Satan.  It is equally true that when we deny self and love others we are aligning ourselves with the kingdom of God and serving God.  This can also be illustrated with a few examples from scripture.

In Mark 10 Jesus gives a very clear example of serving God by serving man.  While the disciples were fighting for prominent positions in the kingdom of God, Jesus pointed to his own humble service to man as the model of kingdom life.

35 And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”… 41 And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. 42 And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:35-37, 41-45)

Having just heard Jesus foretell his death, James and John could only ask the Lord to guarantee them the most prominent spots in his coming kingdom.  The other ten disciples are infuriated by this not because John and James asked, but because they asked first!

In rebuke, Jesus points out how the kingdom of the world operates; it’s rulers lord over those they lead.  This is not the case in the kingdom of God.  To the contrary the leaders in Christ’s kingdom humbly serve those they lead.  They become their slaves.  This principle is illustrated in that the incarnate Son of God came not to be served but to serve and his service is defined by the cross.

By serving man Christ was also serving God.  His atoning death on the cross was service to man in that it allowed us to be reconciled to God.  However, it was also service to God because it was the Father’s will for Christ to die in our place as a ransom.

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief;…. (Isaiah 53:10)

This is a great kingdom principle.  Christ’s service to man in obedience to the will of God demonstrated his love for the Father.  He served the Father by serving man.

Love of God and love of neighbor are so interconnected that they cannot be separated.  When asked what was the greatest single commandment in the Law Jesus refused to give only one.  Instead he forever connected service to man and service to God.

37 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt 22:37-40)

The Law and Prophets were summed up in love for God and love for neighbor.  You simply cannot love God without loving your neighbor; nor can you serve God without serving your neighbor.

The Apostle John likewise connects love for neighbor with love for God.  This is seen in his First Epistle.

By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. (1 John 5:2)

In other words we love our neighbor when we love God.  Like Jesus, John joins love of God and love of neighbor together in such a way that they cannot be separated and he defines love by the self-denial of the cross.

16 By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? 18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:16-18)

The motivation of our self-denying love for one another is that Jesus denied himself and laid down his life for us.

In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:9-11)

Likewise, the Father sacrificially demonstrated his love for us by sending his son to die for our sins.  Again, the self-denying love of God seen in the gospel is our motivation to love God and our neighbor.

It is clear that for Jesus and John the love of God is directly connected to our love for our neighbor.  It is equally true that love is defined as the sacrificial denial of self.  Thus, for the Christian, we serve God when we align ourselves with his kingdom by denying self and sacrificially serving our neighbor in obedience to the commands of God.

This is of course a problem for all of us, because as we have already seen, we have a self problem.  Paul described every one of us when he was writing to Timothy.

For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power… (2 Timothy 3:2-5)

Paul could easily have been referring to me in this passage.  I am guilty as charged, we all are!  What’s the answer?  Work harder?  Be nicer?  We can’t do that; we love ourselves too much!  The solution has already been discussed.

It’s the self-denying love of Christ that transforms us from serving self and Satan to serving others and God.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. (Romans 6:3-8)

In the gospel, when we repent of our sin and place our faith in Christ we identify with his death.  Our old self is crucified with Christ and a new self is raised with him to walk in a new way; a way that is transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Our new life, like the life of Christ, is marked by self-denial and service to God that is fleshed out in humble service to man.

The Father Desires to Give You the Kingdom

I have been studying Luke 12:13-34 this week and thought I would share some of my thoughts on this passage.  While teaching, Jesus was interrupted by a man who clearly was not interested in what the Lord was saying.  He only wanted Jesus to settle a dispute over a will and by “settle a dispute” I mean rule in his favor.  Jesus refused to get involved in that struggle preferring to deal with the heart issue that was causing it.

Jesus knew that the problem was that these brothers were both coveting; desiring more than they had.  He told the parable of the rich fool to the crowd.  He was a man who was oblivious to the needs around him and chose to selfishly hoard the Lord’s blessings.  Jesus said that his soul would be required of him and that all he had saved would be lost.  This is the lot for all who store up treasure for themselves and are not rich toward God.  It is good to plan for the future but hoarding due to a lack of faith is sinful.  There is a fine line between the two.

Jesus turns his attention to his disciples; those who had called him Lord and were seeking to follow him.  While the man in the parable was worried about what to do with his abundance; Jesus knew that his disciples were concerned over their livelihoods.  He instructed them not to worry about materiel needs.  In other words, not to covet.  Worrying reveals a covetous heart that is not content with what the Lord has provided.

Jesus gives them three reasons not to worry.  The first is that there is more to life than material goods.  The rich fool mistakenly believed that his wealth would bring him happiness and safety.  It brought neither.  The second reason is that there is no benefit to worrying.  We cannot add a single minute to our lives by worrying; in fact doctors tell us the opposite is true.  Finally, the third reason not to worry is that the nations are characterized by worry.  The lost world must worry, but the children of God, whose loving father is the creator and sustainer of all things, have no reason to.  In a world filled with turmoil a confident church is a wonderful witness.

The Lord gives his followers an alternative to worry.  He challenges the disciples to seek the kingdom with confidence; knowing that the Father desires to give it to his children.  He tells them to sell their possessions and give to the needy.  This is the opposite of what the rich fool did.  While we cannot stretch this command and say a Christian must sell all of his possessions, we dare not minimize it either.  Jesus clearly connects being rich toward God and seeking the kingdom with giving sacrificially to the poor.

As a new believer I understood seeking the kingdom to mean praying, reading the Bible, and witnessing.  Undoubtedly, all of these are included, however I have come to understand that more is involved.  Seeking the kingdom involves living a simple life and investing the resources God has given in order to advance his kingdom.  The lost world is marked by a concern about material possessions.  The church is to be marked by simple lives spent investing in the kingdom and trusting the future into the hands of sovereign God.  If he cares for birds and flowers surely he will care for his own children who seek to live according to his will.

Jesus’ Most Important Teaching on Discipleship

To try and choose any teaching as the most important on a subject is possibly foolish, but I have sincerely come to believe that the most significant concept for us to understand regarding discipleship is that we are to deny self and daily take up our cross (Luke 9:23, Matt 16:24, Mark 8:34).  We don’t hear many sermons on this today, but if we look to the past we see multitudes.  Men like Whitefield, Wesley, Calvin, Luther, Edwards, Spurgeon and many others, all routinely spoke about this subject.  They did so because it is absolutely essential to our being conformed to the image of Christ.

To begin, let’s look at the immediate context of the passages cited above.  Peter has just shared the glorious confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  Immediately following this, Jesus begins to explain to his disciples that he must suffer, be rejected, and ultimately killed.  In Matthew and Mark we see that Peter was offended by this, and began to rebuke Jesus.  Peter was rejecting the Father’s plan and focusing selfishly on his own desire, and thus the Lord rebuked him greatly.

We see here the ultimate illustration of self-denial, and cross bearing given by our Lord (Luke 9:22).  Having illustrated it, he immediately explains that anyone who would follow him must likewise deny self and take up their cross daily.  Jesus does not allow for a comfortable Christianity.  Our lives, as disciples, are to be marked by routine denial of self, and an active daily taking up of our cross.

Jesus was talking to his disciples, of whom Peter had just made a profound profession of faith in Christ.  For this reason I believe this passage is specifically addressing discipleship; however, it is important to note that in order to become a disciple we must reject or deny our own self-righteousness and place our faith completely in Christ, the Son of the living God.  This is the essential first denial of self.

Having become his follower, Jesus says you must deny yourself.  This means we must deny our fleshly desires.  In Sermon 48 John Wesley says that all sin is the result of an unwillingness to either deny self or take up our cross.  To deny self means we must relinquish control of our lives, our hopes, and our dreams for the plan and will of God.  It means we must relinquish control of our possessions, and become managers of God’s resources for his glory and the good of his Kingdom.  Self-denial means a rejection of being self-centered; we are no longer the center of our universe, Christ and his Kingdom are.

Self-denial is loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves (Matt 22:37-40).  It is doing nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility counting others more important than ourselves (Phil 2:3).  It is presenting our bodies as living sacrifices, which is our spiritual worship (Romans 12:1).  Self-denial is understanding that because Christ loved us he laid down his life for us, and therefore we should lay down our lives for the brethren (1 John 3:16).  While not exhaustive, I think these passages make it pretty clear what self-denial is.

We often think of bearing our cross as the act of joyfully and with patience carrying a cross that the Lord lays upon us.  It is carrying a burden that we have no control over, but that is not what Jesus is discussing here.  Jesus says a disciple must take up his cross and follow him.  Taking up our cross is actively and willingly taking a burden upon ourselves.  It is choosing to do things, even though they require suffering, for the glory of Christ and the good of his Kingdom.

This is what it means to live as a disciple of Jesus.  Sound difficult?  Impossible?  Apart from the grace and mercy of God it is.  Through repentance of sin, faith in Christ, and submission to his Lordship, God will enable us to live this type of life.  He will build his Kingdom through the lives of faithful disciples who deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Jesus.  If we think the cost is too high, Jesus said those who actually live this way don’t lose anything, but in fact live the abundant life he has promised (Luke 9:24).

Faith and Works

The book of James has, from the beginning, been shrouded in controversy.  It was argued that it should not be included in the canon of scripture.  Much of the controversy revolved around the second half of chapter two.  On the surface there seems to be a contradiction between James’ view of salvation (James 2:24) and Paul’s understanding of salvation (Romans 4:4-5).  This seeming contradiction led Martin Luther to refer to James as “an epistle of straw.”[1]

Both James and Paul point to Abraham’s belief of the Lord’s promise resulting in his being counted as righteous (Genesis 15:6).  Yet Paul concluded in Romans 4:1-5 that Abraham’s justification was a gift by faith alone.  Paul is clear that no works were involved.  James however, clearly states that Abraham’s faith was “completed by his works” (James 2:22 ESV) and a person is “justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24 ESV).  These statements can’t both be right, or can they?

To better understand what the writers of scripture are saying it’s important to understand the purpose of their writings.  They each had a set of false teachers in mind.  Paul was addressing the issue of legalism where people sought to add to faith by meritorious works.  This is most clearly evident in the epistle of Galatians.  James on the other hand, was addressing Jewish aristocrats who practiced an easy believism that understood faith as a mere intellectual adherence to orthodoxy void of any practical obedience, or orthopraxis.[2]  They were like a Christian version of the Pharisees.

With this in mind, let’s review James 2:14-26.  Reflecting back to his statement regarding the fulfillment of the royal law in vs. 8, James sets up a hypothetical situation in vs. 14-17 to make his point.  Notice in vs. 14 he is referring to someone who “says” he has faith, but does not have works to go along with that professed faith.  This is significant for James’ argument because his premise is that profession void of action is not saving faith, hence the rhetorical question, “can that faith save him?” (ESV)

Building from his previous argument regarding the oppression of the poor, James puts forth his case.   He describes a poor Christian who is a brother in Christ to the audience and presumably to the one who says he has faith in vs. 14.  This needy Christian is utterly destitute without even the basic necessities.  For James it would be absurd, even impossible, for someone with real faith to send this poor brother or sister away without helping them.  John echoes this sentiment in 1 John 3:16-18.  For James and John, faith that remains by itself and does not exhibit compassion on the poor brother or sister, is a dead faith.  In this point Paul would agree.  In one of his clearest statements on salvation by faith (Eph 2:8-9) he likewise ties real faith to works (Eph 2:10).

In vs. 18 James anticipates the reader’s response to his hypothetical situation, “One person has faith; another has deeds.”[3]  In other words, faith and deeds are mutually exclusive.  James responds by noting the impossibility of exhibiting real faith apart from works; genuine faith will be discernible by the works it produces.  This is crucial to understanding the message of this passage.  For James true faith is distinguished by its fruit.  Contrary to the belief of the aristocrats, mere intellectual acceptance of who Jesus is was not saving faith.  After all, even the demons believed the facts about Jesus (vs. 19).

Here is where the passage gets difficult and the seeming contradiction with Paul comes into view.  James sets out to prove that faith without corresponding works is trivial and of no value.  As mentioned above he illustrates this point by looking to Abraham’s faith.  He states that Abraham was justified by works when he “offered up his son Isaac on the altar” (James 2:21 ESV).  Of course he is referring to Genesis 22 when Abraham obediently set out to sacrifice Isaac at the Lord’s command.  For James, according to vs. 22-23 the faith Abraham professed in Genesis 15:6 was brought to completion in Genesis 22.

This point is crucial to a proper understanding of the text.  The clear evidence that the profession in Genesis 15:6 was the exercise of genuine faith was the obedience displayed in Genesis 22.  As Christians, we like to talk about God knowing our hearts and our willingness to do something for him.  This is typical of our rationalization of The Rich Young Ruler passage in Luke 18:18-30.  However, this is not the pattern of scripture.  God is not satisfied to secretly peer into our hearts to see if we are willing.  He puts us to the test.  Why was Abraham willing to sacrifice Isaac?  It was because he had real faith.  The same is true for Daniel and the lion’s den, the three boys and the furnace, David with Goliath, etc.  Throughout scripture, faith is justified or proved by deeds.

James continues this point with the story of Rahab. Her genuine faith was made manifest in that she protected the messengers (vs. 25).  In all of these cases, saving faith is a living faith that produces good works.  For James, as well as Paul, true faith is accompanied by a life of doing the works that Jesus has prepared for us (Eph 2:10).  For both of them there is no room at the cross for an intellectually based easy believism that is void of death to self, cross bearing, and obedience.

                [1] Stott, John. The Story of the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), 117.

                [2] Ibid, 121.

                [3] Frank E. Gæbelein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 12 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 183.

Worship that Pleases God

I have long been intrigued with Isaiah 58.  It’s a very interesting passage because it seems to view the worship of God in a way that is very different from what is often considered the norm in the western Church.  In the first verse we see God commanding the prophet to “cry aloud; do not hold back” (ESV) in declaring the sins of the people.  Then the Lord goes on to describe them as people who “seek me daily” and “delight to know my ways”.  They ask for “righteous judgments and delight to draw near to their God”.  To put this in our terms you might say these are people who have a daily quiet time; reading the word and praying.  They desire to worship and attend church regularly.  These things are considered synonymous with someone who has their act together as a Christian; someone who faithfully loves the Lord.

Yet in this case these seemingly faithful followers of the Lord are complaining because he is ignoring them and their religious practices, specifically fasting.  Why is God ignoring these people who seek him and desire to know him?  As the prophet said in Is 29:13 and as Jesus described the Pharisees in Matt 15:8-9 “These people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me teaching as doctrines the commandments of men”.  While they were faithful to practice spiritual aspects of their faith, they were neglecting, or even ignoring, the practical outworking of the word of God in their lives.

While daily quiet time, prayer, and even fasting are essential to the Christian life, when they are done in a vacuum and do not penetrate into our daily lives they are displeasing to God.  According to this passage that is sin and results in God’s judgment.  Jesus summed up all of the law and prophets in this “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind… And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” Matt 22:37-40.  This is exactly the problem for these people; their one-sided religious practices revealed that they did not sacrificially love others and thus did not love God.

The people fasted to seek their own pleasure and beyond neglecting the needy actually oppressed them further (vs.3).  They would declare a fast day in order to win God’s favor and blessing, but would not allow their workers to participate.  Instead, they were forced to make up for the lack of productivity resulting from the masters fast.  Further, they would visibly humble themselves, which Jesus warned against in Matt 6:16-18 “do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others”.  This is not normative of a heart that has been transformed by the gospel of grace, but illustrates legalistic religion being practiced to somehow please God and earn the praise of men!

In reply to the people’s question of why the Lord had not responded to their fasting the Lord explains the type of worship he will respond to.  In vs. 6-14 he gives several if/then statements that make it very clear what moves his heart.  In vs. 6 God says he responds to worship that will “loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke”.  This refers to God’s people actively working to see that those who are marginalized or oppressed are freed from those bonds and treated fairly.

In vs. 7 he goes on to say worship that pleases him is to “share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house” and to care for your fellow man by clothing the naked.  He also says “not to hide yourself from your own flesh”.  When the people turned a blind eye to their fellow Israelites who were oppressed, hungry, homeless, and naked they were hiding themselves from their own flesh, or people.  They didn’t want to deal with them so they avoided them.  When we see the oppressed, hungry, homeless, and naked who are members of the global body of Christ and ignore them, turn a blind eye, or rationalize how their condition is their own fault are we not doing the same thing?

So God is looking for worshipers who have their eyes and hearts open to the hurting.  People who will free the oppressed, feed the hungry, house the homeless, and clothe the naked.  Are these aspects of our faith things that we normally think of as equally important to a daily quiet time or going to church?  Romans 12:1 says “present your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship”.   These acts of sacrificial love for others are indeed acts or worship!

Having shown the people the type of worship he desires the Lord proceeds to give them a glorious promise.  If they will worship him in this way then God will bless them abundantly.  He promises that their light will break forth like the dawn.  We are the light of the world and when we love others sacrificially God will cause that light to shine in such a way that the world will not only see it, but they will respond.  Like with the early church in Acts 2 and 4 when they worshiped God in this way “great grace was upon them all” (Acts 4:33) and they had “favor with all the people.  And the Lord added to their number day by day” (Acts 2:47).

Lovingly and sacrificially caring for the hurting not only results in the poor and needy coming to Christ but our middleclass neighbors as well.  When our neighbor the moral businessman, who though not a Christian is honest, faithful to his wife and loves his family, looks at us often he sees no discernable difference between our lives and his apart from the fact that we go to church.  He simply believes that we need to go to church, but he is able to live like us without religion.  On the other hand when that same neighbor sees us forgoing the things of this world, sacrificially caring for the hurting, and generously investing in the Kingdom of God he will ask why.  When we explain we are motivated to live this way, because of the gospel of the grace of God our “light will burst forth like the dawn” (vs. 8) and our “righteousness will go before us” (vs. 8).  God will move and our neighbors, friends, and families will be saved.

Further, the Lord says if his people will worship him in this way he will answer when they call.  God does not respond to those who practice dead religion, but when those whose hearts have been transformed by grace sacrificially love others God is moved to respond to them.  He no longer closes his ear to their cries, but answers their prayers.  Are your prayers not being answered?  Is it because you are practicing self-centered religion; seeking your own pleasure?

Next the Lord reiterates this teaching.  In vs. 9b-10 he says that if his people will “take away the yoke” that is work to remove oppression and will stop the “pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness” or being judgmental and “pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted”, then he will indeed bless.  To pour ourselves out on behalf of the hungry means to deny self and faithfully love them as we love ourselves.

Again, the Lord promises that if we will worship him in this way he will guide us and satisfy our needs and desires.  He will strengthen us and we will be like a refreshing spring of water to the lost world around us.  We will be the “repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in” (vs. 12).  That is to say we will be agents of transformation and restoration to the fallen world.

Finally, in the last if/then series the Lord promises that if his people will honor the Sabbath by not seeking to gratify self then he will cause us to delight in him.  Our true worship, as described in this passage, will result in satisfaction and resting in the Lord.  This transition to the Sabbath is interesting because up to this point one could get the impression that God is only interested in mercy ministry, yet here he specifically says to honor the Sabbath.  We see a balance here where God is showing the fullness of what it means to worship him.  Just as it is wrong to focus on the physical (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc.) and neglect the spiritual (church attendance, daily quiet time, prayer) it is equally wrong to focus on the spiritual to the neglect of the physical.

The focus on one over the other is an indication of a deficiency in our Christian faith. This is demonstrated in the ministry of Jesus.  In Matt 23:23 Jesus pointed out that the Pharisees were extremely faithful in their religious practice of tithing to the point of giving 10% even of their spices.  Yet they neglected the “weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness”.  It would be as if you were so committed to tithing that when you found a dollar on the street you were faithful to give a dime, yet when you walked by a hungry man you refused to give him the remaining $0.90.  What good is your commitment to tithe if you have no mercy for the hungry?

His solution was not to stop tithing and start helping the poor, but to do the former without neglecting the latter.  In other words true followers of Christ would worship God in word and deed.  They would spend time in God’s word; reading, praying, and fasting.  They would gather together to worship and learn from the preaching of God’s word.  However, those things would not be done in a vacuum.  The word of God would penetrate their hearts and be obediently applied to their lives.  It would result in righteous action not passive complacency.

How can we live this way when our hearts and our culture are sinfully self-centered?  The answer is the same for us as it was for Israel.  In chapter 59 God said that his “hand was not shortened, that it cannot save” (vs. 1) and he promised the people that a redeemer would come to Zion (vs. 20).  That redeemer is Jesus Christ and he came to free us from the bondage of self-love and sinful complacency by denying self and laying down his life for us while we were self-centered sinners.  He came to give us a new heart that loves God fully and thus loves others sacrificially.  He saved us that we might worship God fully by fulfilling the good works that he prepared for us (Eph 2:10).

All Things in Common

What was the early church really doing in Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37?  Were they experimenting with some early form of communism?  Was this a failed experiment that led to the poverty of the church in Jerusalem?  These are very important questions that need to be answered in order that we can better understand these passages and apply them to our lives.

First, to the question of communism the answer is a resounding no.  The early church was not compelled by force to give their possessions.  There was no mandatory redistribution of wealth.  This is made clear in Acts5:3-5.  Ananias’ sin was not that he desired to keep some of the proceeds from the land he sold, but that he lied to God.  Peter said that the land was Ananias’ to do with as he pleased, as were the proceeds from the sale.  So, clearly accepting Christ did not mean the immediate relinquishing of personal property.

Second, to the question of this being a failed experiment the answer also is no.  In both sections Luke very clearly presents this behavior in a positive light, and nowhere in scripture is it ever presented differently.  Luke goes out of his way to include both of these sections because they were commendable practices.  Luke also equates these practices with the church having God given favor among all people.

Further, there is ample reasons to account for the poverty in the Jerusalem church without blaming their willingness to sacrificially share their resources with the needy among them.  In general the majority of the population was poor.  By professing Christ they likely severed themselves from the traditional Jewish forms of charity.  The church was persecuted (Acts 8:1).  There was a famine in all the land and it affected the Jerusalem church (Acts 11:28-30).

What we see in these passages is simply the church living out the commands of scripture and the teachings of Christ.  It is interesting that Luke points out that there were no needy people left among the early church (Acts 4:34-36).  This is exactly what the community of God’s people should look like.  In Dt 15 Moses told God’s people that if they would obey the law, specifically the canceling of debts in the Sabbath year, there would be no poor among them (Dt. 15:4-5)  Although it was never realized in the nation of Israel (because they did not observe the Sabbath Year) it was realized in the early church.

The Lord Jesus taught on this topic in many places.  One significant teaching found in Luke 12 is that seeking the Kingdom of God means selling your possessions and investing in the kingdom.  For more on this see The Father Desires to Give You the Kingdom.  While other biblical writers are dated after Acts 2 and 4 we see that their teachings do not contradict this practice either.  See 2 Cor 8:1-15 and 1 John 3:16-18 for two good examples.

So, how is the church to apply these passages today?  They do not indicate a method that we must legalistically duplicate.  However, we are called to live in obedience to the very same teachings that led the early church to this practice.  These passages teach us that as believers we are to live simple lives set apart for the glory of Christ and the advancement of his kingdom.  When we do this God gives us great grace and favor among the lost world around us.  What that simple life looks like is between you and the Holy Spirit, but to be sure it does not look like the American dream.