Picture yourself alongside the apostle Paul. There you are in a dark, miserable prison. Rats are plentiful. The smell of human waste is everywhere. You have no idea when you’re going to be released. You’ve been faithful to Jesus to share the good news of the gospel with many in the city of Philippi and because of that, you’ve had handcuffs slapped on your wrists and you were thrown into this prison.
Then, Paul leans over to you. You don’t necessarily expect Paul to gripe and complain, but you weren’t prepared for what he said next: “Brother, I know it’s late. I know we’ve just been beaten and the rats are starting to nip at us, but we should start praising the Lord.”
In that moment, what would your reaction be?
Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I would just jump right in singing and praising God like Silas did. Your reaction to that statement tells a lot about what you believe God deserves praise for. Paul had learned something that others before Him learned: We don’t just praise God because circumstances are going well. We praise Him because of who He is.
In this way, praise is a discipline. We don’t just wake up one morning desiring to praise God in the darkest and most bitter circumstances. What’s more likely is that we begin every day to delight in God for who He is and what He’s done for us in whatever circumstance we find ourselves in. *This allows us to praise Him no matter the circumstances.*
Listen to David:
“I will rejoice and be glad in Your lovingkindness,
Because You have seen my affliction;
You have known the troubles of my soul,” (Psalm 31:7)
“Sing for joy in the Lord, O you righteous ones;
Praise is becoming to the upright,” (Psalm 33:1)
“I will bless the Lord at all times;
His praise shall continually be in my mouth,” (Psalm 34:1).
All of these point to David calling us to make a decision, based on who God is, to offer praise. None of these commands are based on the circumstances going on around him or us. In fact, some of them call us to praise in spite of the circumstances.
Beloved, we must get better at praising God for *WHO* He is, despite our circumstances. It’s the only practice that will get us to the place where we praise God in the prison. We want to be the people whose spirits are so alive with God that despite the gruesomeness around us we still love God.
We don’t get there in a minute. We get there day by day, praising God where we are at right now.
Some of you aren’t good at sharing your faith. You are fearful. You have a hard to bringing up Jesus in conversations. When you do,it’s muddled.
I understand. I’ve been there.
There are two things that I think every believer should understand about sharing their faith.
The first is that, with some exceptions, most of you were the best at sharing your faith when you knew the least about Jesus, Christianity, and theology. It was your fresh love for Jesus and the wonder of being saved at all that motivated you to tell your friends, co-workers, anyone who would listen about how great Jesus is. Did you lose that? If you did, it’s time to get it back. Growing in Jesus shouldn’t take away the wonder. If you grew away from the wonder of Jesus, maybe you grew in the wrong direction.
The other thing is that growing in sharing the good news takes time. Don’t get frustrated if the first, second, and third times don’t go well. Press on. Sharing your faith is a muscle you strengthen over time. You don’t set a resolution on New Year’s Eve to get in shape and wake up on January 2nd with a ripped body. You set a goal, work towards it, and slowly see improvement. John Wimber used to say you couldn’t say God didn’t heal today until you prayed for 100 people and nothing happened. I would submit to you that you can’t say you’re not good at evangelism until you shared the Gospel 100 times and nothing happens. In the mean time, pray, get closer to Jesus, get around some people who will support you in this journey. You will get better.
I’ve been doing this for the last couple of years, and finally, after a lot of ups and downs, I’m starting to get good at sharing the Gospel. No one’s come to faith (yet), but I’m somewhat regularly sharing in a way that I know connects to the hearts of people around me.
You can, too, if you don’t give up.
I’ve been reading through the book of Acts recently. There’s so much wisdom in this book to learn from as it relates to evangelism, church planting, and the apostolic church the Lord is looking to build! Throughout the book, we see the early church wrestle with different issues that the apostles probably didn’t anticipate when they began Jesus’ mission. One of those issues was the issue of the Law and circumcision.
As the Gospel spread from the Jewish apostles to mixed race Samaritans and then to “unclean” Gentiles, this issue sprang to the forefront. Each of these races now had those among them who believed in Jesus, but did they have to become Jews (be circumcised and follow the Law) in order to follow Jesus? We look back at this question and think of it as something only the early church struggled with, but we struggle with similar issues.
How you ask? When a new believer comes to Christ, what standards do you automatically ask them to adhere to? Do you expect people to stop smoking, cut their hair (or grow their hair out), or stop swearing before you’re willing to accept them as a true part of the church? Then you’re still wrestling with the same question the Paul, Peter, James and the Elders were wrestling with in Acts 15.
See, the issue the early church addressed in Acts 15 goes beyond circumcision. It’s really an attempt by the early church to outline basic lifestyle changes we should teach to new believers. The first church council was trying to define what it looks like for Jesus to live in new disciples who aren’t Jews without putting the new disciples under the yolk of legalism. What was their conclusion? They wrote a letter to all the churches with the following conclusion:
For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay no greater burden on you than these few requirements: You must abstain from eating food offered to idols, from consuming blood or the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality. If you do this, you will do well. Farewell.
No idolatry. No drinking blood. No sexual immorality. That’s it. This was the line between repentance and a life of sin, between legalism and true religion.
Some today seem to advocate believers can do whatever they want. There is no standard, just the acknowledgement of Jesus as alive and wanting Him to be a part of their lives is enough. Others seem to advocate a long list of do’s and don’ts that seem to make people more of a member of the era a certain denomination was birthed than a follower of Jesus. Neither of these is the answer. They’re just catering to a certain preference to confront or not confront the culture.
If we were able to invite the first century apostles and elders back in time to discuss this issue, I’d believe they’d give us much the same advice: “Let’s not put heavy burdens on people who are coming to Christ. Let’s not make them live up to a code that we still struggle with to this day. But as a sign of their walk with Jesus, teach them to leave behind whatever dead things they used to worship. Let them walk in purity, forsaking sexual relationships outside of a marriage between a man and woman.” From there, discipleship and the Holy Spirit would gradually over time grow the disciples.
What about you? What requirements do you put on new disciples? Do you err on the side of giving them too little or too much instruction? What can we learn from the apostles and the elders?
Every night we have a certain bedtime routine where we read our kids a story from the Bible, pray with them, and tuck them into bed at night. However, the last three or four months or so, my youngest has started to ask us to tell her “the Jesus things” before we tuck her in. What she means by “the Jesus things” is the story of how Jesus rescued her (and all of us) from sin and its consequences. My daughter uses this as an opportunity to stay up late. I’m using it as an opportunity to soak her soul in the Gospel.
Last night on my 97th time telling my daughter “the Jesus things” I started to realize that I was only telling her part of the Gospel. See, I told her about sin, about how she was separated from God, about how Jesus came and lived, taught, healed the sick, cast out demons, raised the dead, and taught people how to be close to God. I told her about Jesus’ death and the cruel way He was treated. I even told her about how Jesus was raised from the dead and because of that resurrection, when we receive Christ, we are transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of God.
What did I miss?
Last night, I realized I missed anything that happens after saying “Yes” to Jesus. You see, I had focused on the theological, evangelistic portion of the Gospel…the “sign here” kind of Gospel that you come to expect from used-car-salesmen-style evangelists. what I hadn’t told her was what to expect after that and why it was still good news.
After I realized it, I changed the last few lines of my finely honed presentation to include a couple thoughts about what that would look like. It got me thinking about how often we present the Good News to people about Christ as a decision to make that will make their life better, but we present discipleship to people as a cross to bear. While I definitely believe that there is a cross to bear in discipleship, I do not believe that Jesus is the Good-News-yin to discipleship as a bad-news-yang.
So what’s the good news in discipleship? It’s simple and its what caused the first disciples to leave their businesses, family, and comfort and face persecution and death to spread the Gospel–we get to be like Jesus. Jesus put it this way: “A pupil is not above his teacher; but everyone, after he has been fully trained, will be like his teacher,” (Luke 6:40).
That’s the good news in discipleship–that we can be like Jesus. This man who we begin to learn how to follow after coming to Him and surrendering everything, actually has a plan to make us like Him. We will grow up into all aspects of Him–His character, His power, His nature–everything Jesus was and is we get to grow into. This is the good news that keeps us saying yes to the discipleship process. It’s good news to our hearts when we’re tired and weary. Most importantly, it’s not the dreaded fine print to what had previously looked like a really good deal.
So, I told my daughter a little different Gospel. I told her when she says yes to “the Jesus things,” she gets to grow up and be like Jesus. I intend to tell those I’m discipling the same thing. My guess is they haven’t heard it from me nearly enough.
Maybe you should go back and check your Gospel, too?
Buried in the account of Paul becoming a Christian and a leader in the church there is a small phrase that I think has some fairly significant implications for how we understand discipleship:
Now for several days he was with the disciples who were at Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” All those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were saying, “Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this name, and who had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?” But Saul kept increasing in strength and confounding the Jews who lived at Damascus by proving that this Jesus is the Christ.
When many days had elapsed, the Jews plotted together to do away with him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were also watching the gates day and night so that they might put him to death; but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a large basket.
-Acts 9:19-25 (emphasis mine)
This story is about the tremendous transformation that happened in Paul’s (then Saul’s) life. Just prior to this, Saul had just been killing Christians and was finally stopped when the Lord knocked him to the ground, blinded him, and subsequently healed him. But one of the indicators of Saul’s total transformation was that within a few days (and possibly a few weeks) of his conversion, Saul had his own disciples.
Don’t miss this. These weren’t just random disciples. These weren’t disciples that already existed in Damascus. These weren’t disciples that were made by Paul after he had known the Lord for a decade or better. These were *his disciples*. Saul’s. They were disciples of a man who had come to know the Lord only days or weeks before.
Why is that significant? Well, when was the last time you expected a new believer to have disciples? When was the last time you saw someone who had just come to Jesus preach Christ in a way that caused others to gather around them? When was the last time you expected your new convert to begin pointing others to the Christ they had just received?
What this story tells me is that discipleship is not for the oldest believers or the most experienced believers in our midst. Discipleship is the responsibility and the inheritance of even the youngest believers among us. When we teach them to wait until they know more about Jesus, the church, and everything, we teach them discipleship is about knowing stuff. But discipleship isn’t about knowing stuff, it’s about obeying Jesus. Even relatively new believers can teach newer converts how to obey, if they’ve learned how to themselves.
My point isn’t that this is the story for every believer or we should expect this out of everyone who has come to Christ yesterday. Instead, I want us to be open to the possibility that the Holy Spirit can do this. The Holy Spirit can so transform a person’s life in an instant that they can make disciples quickly. There will be those that the Lord powerfully moves on and can start making disciples from day one or day two following their conversion. It’s not impossible.
More specifically, what if instead of doubting this possibility, we encouraged those who came to Christ to do this? What if we
stopped believing that God only works through those with seminary degrees started believing that Christ within someone is enough to point others to Jesus and help grow them into maturity? What if we encouraged people in this direction instead of encouraged them into immaturity and dependency on us?
Saul had disciples within days or possibly weeks. Not everyone you lead to Jesus will be like this, but I think we sell our disciples short when we don’t believe that it’s even possible.
Maybe it’s time we started encouraging our disciples to make disciples, even right out of the gate. Who knows? Maybe we might find a few more Paul’s that way.
Yesterday was a hard day. It was the kind of day that would normally discourage me and cause me to wallow in self-pity for more than a few days. The good news was as I was preparing for the event that made my day hard, a Pharrell Williams song started playing in my head. Now, that’s not unusual, because Pharrell’s song “There’s Something Special” has been a song my kids and I have been listening to and singing since we heard it in Despicable Me 3.
But this time, it was different. This time, as I heard the words, I heard them as if the Lord was singing them back to me. I started singing along and felt the Lord draw close to my heart as I sang the song:
There’s something special on the other side of this moment
And it’s about what you and I decide
And it’s important for you to remember we did this together
And finally, they’ll know the story of our lives
It was more than just a song. It was an invitation to remember that no matter how bad the day got, no matter what went wrong or right with yesterday, my reward wasn’t what happened yesterday, but what waited for me “on the other side of this moment.” As I sang and received from the Lord, I could sense He wanted me to know there was a reward for treasuring Him in that moment, not the outcome.
We weren’t promised ease in this life. We were promised joy and trouble. William Barclay wrote, “Jesus promised his disciples three things—that they would be completely fearless, absurdly happy, and in constant trouble.” How do those things go together? How is one absurdly happy and in constant trouble?
Much of it, I believe, is done by keeping our eyes on the reward that awaits us for perseverance, faithfulness, and loving well. This reward may be found to some degree in this age, but it is fully realized in the age to come. There is an eternal reward that is stored up for us that is so easy to lose sight of right now, but it’s real and designed to encourage us when things are difficult.
Friends, regardless of what you’re going through, “there’s something special on the other side of this moment.” We need to remember that even the trials and difficulties we encounter here are forming something is us…something that can receive a reward greater than we can contemplate. Don’t forget the eternal things that are being stored up for you, right now, in this moment, based on your obedience.
It will strengthen you to follow Jesus.
…you can’t always see what is happening beneath the surface.
The call for many of us who are planting and participating in house churches is a call to the underground. In China, this is by necessity. They have to hide their fellowships, their worship, and to some degree their walk with Christ in order to survive. Here in the West, we participate in the underground by choice. House churches are one way we participate, foregoing some of the flash to focus on the essentials which happen under the surface. Regardless of whether it is by choice or by necessity, we are part of an underground movement.
The price you pay to go underground is to be misunderstood. It can seem like you’re not growing. It seems many times like things are at a stand-still. Often it seems like you are being lazy and not producing very much. In reality, deep below the surface of the Earth, where no one is watching and no one sees, there is a life being formed that will sustain and produce fruit.
It’s just that no one sees it. No one notices. Sometimes you aren’t even aware of the deep work that is going on inside of you. You just know you aren’t seeing the results you thought you would see. Jesus compared this process to death: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the Earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit,” (John 12:24). Every individual must go through this process, but each house church must go through this process as well.
It’s in this season that the foundation for life and fruitfulness is being laid. Everything depends on this season happening the way God designed it. So don’t be discouraged if you don’t see fruit as fast as you’d like. Don’t think that God isn’t working just because you don’t see results as quickly as others. If God has called you to His underground, He’s called you to grow deep so you can be fruitful in season and out of season.
I started to write this out yesterday and in the midst of writing it, a dear friend sent me a prophetic note that he had sent me about a year ago. In it, he describes the Lord showing him how apostolic works need to have shoots and roots. In the vision, the shoots could only go as far as the roots. The level of fruitfulness was determined by our level of rootedness.
Friends, don’t be discouraged by a rooting season. Give yourself to it. Grow your roots as deep as you can. God has a fruitful season for you, but your ability to sustain it will be determined by the depth of your roots.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ around the country,
Recently a brother in Christ who is dear to many of us hear in Iowa suffered a massive heart attack. Rick Lumbard is the Director of Wind and Fire Ministries, a man of prayer, and a servant of the Lord that has been used in a number of peoples’ lives throughout our city and the state. He currently is unconscious and in a hospital in Des Moines. Would you join us in prayer for Rick as we believe for healing for him? He has a wife and several children that would be thankful for the prayer support.