Saturday, October 14, 2017

Remember Those Who are in Prison - But How?

In the last blog, we looked at the third command in Hebrews 13:1-19, "Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body" (13:3). We saw that this command means, "remember those who are in prison or suffering for the sake of Christ because you are one with them in Christ." In other words, our persistent advocacy for them, proceeds from our profound unity with them. 

But the question is this: in the ebb and flow of daily life, how are we to obey this command. Most of us probably don’t know people who are suffering to a great extent, and so what are we to do? First, at Glory of Christ we support several missionaries who serve in difficult places and who do endure various sorts of persecution at various levels of intensity. David and Carmen Gunderson serve among the Somalis right here in the Twin Cities. Our partners in India serve among Hindu and Muslim peoples who can be very violent at times, in fact, I just remembered a brother in the Lord who has been in prison there for the sake of Christ for the last several months. Amos and Meredith Anderson serve among the Muslim peoples in Albania and they’ve endured many difficulties in their years there. And Catherine Rivard serves among the people of Papua New Guinea who have a long history of violence and even cannibalism. When Catherine was here recently I asked her if the people still practice cannibalism, and after thinking for a moment she said, “Not much.” “Not much” sounds like “yes” to me! 

Beloved, each of these precious people, whom we know, are enduring various levels of difficulty and persecution for the sake of Jesus and we need to remember them. We need to pray for them. We need to let them know that we’re thinking about them and that we care. Recently when Catherine was with us, Kim and I had lunch with her and she encouraged us to send her one or two sentence e-mails that simply say, “We’re thinking of you, we love you, and we’re standing with you in prayer.” She told us that given the state of the internet in that part of the world, it’s actually hard for them to receive long messages and they would rather not have to do that unless it’s necessary. So again, she said, just send short notes and know that they are very encouraging and help our missionaries feel like they’re not alone. 

As I thought about what Catherine said, I decided to add something to what I already do to help me remember our missionaries. The thing I already do is this: each week I devote one day to praying for our missionaries and remembering them by name, and Lord willing I’ll continue to do that. The new thing that I’ve already begun to do is that I set up an alert in my Google calendar so that once per month I receive a reminder telling me to write to our missionaries. As per Catherine’s instructions, I don’t write long notes and therefore it doesn’t take very long, but I do write and say, “Kim and I are thinking of you and praying for you.” And I must say that I’ve been surprised by the length, depth, and intensity of the responses I’ve received just because they’ve felt so cared for and prayed for. Thanks to Catherine, I’ve developed a new way to remember those who are in prison and who are being mistreated for the sake of Christ. 

Another way we can obey this command is by going to www.persecution.org and signing up for their snail mail newsletter or their e-mail alert system or their smart phone app that calls on us to pray for particular people in various parts of the world. This website is run by the Voice of the Martyrs, and I deeply love and appreciate this ministry because it helps me to stay in touch with the persecuted church by focusing on specific people in specific places who have specific needs for prayer and support. If you’ve never been to their site, I strongly encourage you to do so, and if your flesh fights against it just say to yourself, “It’s pastor’s orders, I have to do it!” Believe me, you’ll be blessed if you do. 

However, we go about obeying this command, the point is that we are to remember our brothers and sisters who are suffering in Christ as an act of worship toward our Father. This command is not mainly about being compassionate people; it’s about being Christian people who acknowledge with their actions that they are one in Christ with those who suffer for Christ. So let us offer this acceptable worship to God and do whatever it takes to remember these precious people.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Remember Those Who are in Prison

The third command of Hebrews 13:1-19 is found in verse 3, namely, “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.” To my knowledge, we have three men at our church (Glory of Christ Fellowship) who are involved in prison ministry. They regularly go into local jails and prisons to share the gospel by teaching the Bible and interacting with prisoners. It’s an amazing grace from God that we have brothers like these in our midst and we ought to value their ministries and pray for them regularly and help them in any way we can and give glory to God for what they do. 

But having said that, I also want to say that this verse is not talking about that kind of prison ministry. This verse is talking about those who are in prison, or who are being persecuted in one way or another, for the sake of Christ. Perhaps their property has been stolen. Perhaps they’ve been beaten. Perhaps they’re being publicly scorned and maligned. Perhaps they’re being harassed. Whatever the case may be, these people are in prison or are otherwise being mistreated specifically because they have dared to speak about Jesus and call people to forsake their will and ways, their gods and governments, to follow him. 

With this in mind, the command here is to remember these people and I think the reason it’s issued is in part because it’s so easy to forget them. First of all, we live in a culture where persecution is at a low level and so it’s easy for us to forget that not everyone is blessed as we are blessed. Second, we Americans are very busy people, sometimes with commendable things and sometimes with trivial things, and one fruit of busyness is that we tend to lose sight of the important things i life. Third, if we’re following Jesus, we ought to be busy about our Father’s business but one unfortunate consequence of focused faithfulness to God is that we sometimes forget to think about and pray for others who need our love and partnership. 

So in light of these challenges God’s gracious command comes into our lives and says, “Deliberately remember your brothers and sisters who are suffering for the sake of Christ, and remember them in a certain way.” Specifically, remember those who are in prison and who are being persecuted as though you’re there with them because we also are in the body. 
 
Some take this to mean that since they’re human beings and we’re human beings we should feel empathy and do what we can to help them. But I take this to mean that since they are in Christ and we are in Christ, their suffering is our suffering. When one part of the body suffers, we all suffer, and when part rejoices, we all rejoice, right? So remember your brothers and sisters who are in prison and being beaten and harassed and maligned and whatever else they’re experiencing for the sake of Christ because their suffering is your suffering. 

Right this moment we have brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering for the sake of Christ in South America, parts of Europe and eastern Europe, Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa, the middle east, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China, North Korea, and so on. We probably even have brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering unusual persecution for the sake of Christ in places like Utah and the northeast and inner-cities all over this nation. Many are suffering in Christ this very day, and we are so profoundly united with them that, in some sense, we are suffering as well. So remember them because in Christ you are one with them. 

While this command is easy enough to understand, the question becomes, "In the ebb and flow of daily life, how can we remember those who are suffering in Christ." I will address this question in my next blog! 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Show Hospitality to Strangers - Entertaining Angels?

In Hebrews 13:2, the author writes, "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers," and as an added incentive to obey the command, the author points out something quite spectacular: some people who have given themselves to loving strangers have actually entertained angels without knowing it. 
 
Now, the Greek word for “angels” can refer to heavenly beings or it can just refer to earthly messengers who are sent on a mission from some person or organization. So if the church was to send one of you to do something on our behalf, we might use the Greek word angelos or messenger or angel to describe you. Because of this, there’s some debate about whether the author has in mind spiritual beings sent from God or human beings sent from God and the church.

While the immediate context of Hebrews 13 doesn’t give us any clues as to what’s in his mind, the way he uses the word “angels” throughout the letter does give us one clue. To this point, the author has used the word “angels” twelve times and every time it has referred to spiritual beings. Although this is not a law of interpretation, it is a general rule that the repeated and consistent usage of a word should govern the interpretation of that word when its meaning is ambiguous. 
 
Therefore, I feel pretty confident that the author has spiritual beings in mind when he says that in the course of loving strangers some have entertained angels without knowing it. It’s possible that when we go into the world, we will encounter an angel sent by God to receive from us and prepare for us a future joy. This once happened to Abraham and Sarah, and it could happen to us as well.

Having said that, I have no problem if you disagree with me and think the author has in mind human messengers of God because at the end of the day the basic meaning is the same. As we overflow with the Father’s love and open our hearts, hands, and homes to love strangers, we might just end up receiving someone that’s very precious to God without knowing it.

From 2003 to 2006 Kim and I were waiting on the Lord to open up our next ministry opportunity, and while we were waiting I started a house painting business to make ends meet. Accordingly, I spent a lot of time in people’s homes during those years and almost all of them saw me as a painter and nothing more. I did play Christian music and Christian talk radio during the day, so some of them knew I was a Christian. But hardly any of them realized that I had three degrees in Bible and theology, and that I was called to spend my life preaching the Word of God and shepherding the people of God. Many of those people were very kind to me, some of them even in the name of Christ, but they were unaware that they were showing kindness to a messenger of God.

It may well be that the author has something like this in mind, but again, either way the meaning is the same. “Love your brothers and sisters in Christ, and also reach out to the lost with the love of Christ. Be the hearts and hands and homes of your Father to those who so desperately need to be washed in the love of your Father.” 

This is acceptable worship when we offer it in reverence and awe for God (Hebrews 12:29).

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Show Hospitality to Strangers

The second command of Hebrews 13:1-19 is found in verse 2: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” The words “show hospitality to strangers” are actually one word in the Greek language, although the Greek word is made up of two parts. The first part of the word is phileĊ and you probably recognize it and know that it means “love.” The second part of the word is zenia and it means “strangers or aliens” as opposed to citizens or those who are part of your family. So this command more literally reads, “Do not neglect the love of strangers.”

Now, there’s some debate about what this word means. Some say that it refers to people who believe in Christ but who are strangers to us. Others say that it refers to people who are outside of Christ so that verses 1-2 mean something like this: “Let brotherly love continue in the church, and do not neglect to love those who are outside the fold. Love your brothers and sisters in Christ and also love lost people.” 


I think that the second option is more likely so that the Lord is telling us not to wall ourselves off from unbelievers. He’s saying that although he took us out of the world, he doesn’t want us to cloister ourselves from the world like monks and nuns.

Rather, our Father wants us to reach out and be kind to “strangers,” to unbelievers, for the sake of Christ. He reached out to us and welcomed us into his heart and home when we were strangers, and now he invites us into the privilege of opening our hearts and homes that others might know him as well. As the Lord said in Old Testament times, we should freely love the sojourners since we too were sojourners and only stumbled into his family by grace through faith. Learning to love the lost is one way to offer acceptable worship to our Father, a sacrifice of praise that pleases him and warms his heart.

With this in mind, the simple command here is that we should not neglect this kind of hospitality, or to put it positively, we should give consistent and persistent attention to it. We should deliberately seek to be hospitable to those who don’t know Christ. For example, Christians gather on Sunday mornings with those who also believe in Jesus, or who are seeking Jesus, and we lift up our hearts together in worship toward him.

But when we depart from the place of worship, when we’re filled up with the fuel of the Spirit of God and the Word of God and the fellowship of our brothers and sisters, our job is to go into the world and build bridges to those who don’t know Jesus. We cannot expect them to build bridges to us because they are dead in their trespasses and sins, and so like our Savior we must grow in the passion to deliberately seek and save the lost. 


By his grace, we must gather for worship and scatter for mission. By his grace, we must enjoy the familial love of Christ and then spread the redemptive love of Christ in the world.

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares" (Hebrews 13:2). 

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Let Brotherly Love Continue - The Challenge

In the last blog entry we looked at the first command in Hebrews 13:1-19, namely, “Let brotherly love continue” (13:1). While this command is deep and life-giving, it’s also challenging. In fact, the Lord would not have issued this command if we had no resistance in our hearts to the kind of love he has in mind here. I know that I resist it in my heart. There are obstacles and difficulties within and without that keep us from loving as our Father would have us love, and let me just mention a few of them. Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, we’re afraid to be vulnerable with others and we just find it easier to live on the surface or avoid conversation altogether. Sometimes we feel strange or bad or awkward pressing into the details of other people’s lives so that we can love them with wisdom and knowledge and affection.

Sometimes we’re hurt because one of the pastors or leaders or members of the church have failed to meet our realistic expectations for love, attention, grace, or whatever. Sometimes we’re hurt because people have failed to meet our unrealistic expectations and no matter how much the Lord or others try to tell us that we’re out of line, we won’t listen. Sometimes we’re in sin and our hearts have grown hard toward the Lord and his people. Our love has grown cold toward others because our hearts have grown cold toward God. Sometimes we’re just lazy or slow to obey the clear commands of God to his people. We know what he’s called us to do but for whatever reasons we fail or refuse to do it.

Whatever the reasons, we all have resistance in our hearts toward loving one another with a brotherly, sisterly, familial love, and I think it’s important for us to acknowledge this as a fact of life. It isn’t good but it’s real and it’s normal because we’re still broken and sinful people.

A few years ago, one of the young couples in our church was about to be married, so some of the guys gathered to bless and pray with the groom to be, and to offer him some counsel about how to love his soon-to-be wife. At some point, one of the guys said that husbands and wives don’t always have warm, fuzzy feelings toward each other—can I get an amen? The sense of honeymoon-ness we feel in the beginning will eventually fade away, and we will likely hit some rough patches. We will likely even experience times when we don’t like each other or particularly want to be around each other, and the question is this: what will we do in those times? Well, this brother suggested that the new groom look inward. He said that often the problem is that we have unrealistic expectations of our spouse, and even of ourselves, and that the solution is to go to the Lord and allow him to adjust our expectations. The solution is to receive the love of Christ and then press on and overflow with the love of Christ.

Whether in the context of our families or of the church, broken people do broken things and that sense of honeymoon-ness eventually fades away in all of our relationships. This is one reason why we need a commandment like this: “Let brotherly love continue.” Press on and do not give up. It’s not about our feelings. It’s not about how difficult the road is at the moment. Rather, it’s about listening to the words and will and ways of our Father and conforming to his desires.

And this is where it becomes very important to remember that chapters 1-12 come before chapter 13, for the thing that keeps us pressing on in love is the power of the blood of Christ that’s been shed for us. It’s the power of the prayers of Christ that are always being offered up on our behalf. It’s the power of the call of Christ that’s always bidding us to live by faith in the faithfulness of God. The Lord is not telling us to try harder and do better. He’s telling us to fix our eyes on Jesus, to embrace who he is and what he’s done, and then to apply his power and love to one another.

Our Father has loved us with an overflowing, extravagant, everlasting love, and one way that we can give thanks and praise to him for this fact is to persistently love one another. It’s to continually offer one another the brotherly, sisterly, familial affection that our Father has offered to us. So let us love one another in the way that our Father has loved us. Let the love that has flowed to us in Christ flow through us for the glory of Christ. Let brotherly love continue. Let it rule in the church. Let it be the pleasing aroma that warms the heart of our Father. And when Jesus gives up on us, then we can give up on one another. But since he’ll never give up on us, we must never give up on one another. Instead we must press on in love, with his strength, until he returns.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Let Brotherly Love Continue - Hebrews 13:1

On the basis of what I shared in the last two blog entries, let’s now consider each of the eight commands given in Hebrews 13:1-19 one blog at a time. The first command is found in verse 1 and it is simply this: “Let brotherly love continue.” Let’s begin by talking about the particular kind of love that’s in view here.

Brotherly love is familial love. It’s a heartfelt love. It’s an affectionate love. It’s the kind of love that characterizes the relationship between God the Father and his children, and that should characterize the relationships between his children. Brotherly love is not the kind of love that’s shared by people who just happen to go to the same church or who just happen to belong to the same organization and therefore have superficial relationships with one another. Brotherly love is not a shallow love, rather, it’s a deep love, it’s rooted in Christ, and therefore it cannot be easily broken. Brotherly love is not driven by a sense of duty and obligation but by a sense of reverence and awe for God. It’s driven by a desire to honor the Lord by overflowing with the love that has so freely and lavishly been poured upon us in Christ.

Beloved, the true church is not some non-profit organization that bands people together so that they can do good in the world. Rather, the true church is the temple of the Holy Spirit, the body of Christ, and the bride of Christ! All who believe in Christ have one God, one Father, and one Lord. We were all born of the same Spirit and baptized with the same baptism. And since each person who believes in Christ is in some profound sense united with Christ, we are more profoundly related to one another in him than any blood relationship on this earth. This is not a metaphor but a living reality. The blood of Christ that binds us is more powerful and permanent than the blood of the flesh that binds our earthly families. One day our earthly families will fade away and our familial ties with those who don’t know Christ will be lost forever. But the family of God will endure forever, and so the primary identity of Christians is that we are in Christ, we are sons and daughters of the same God and Father, and we are brothers and sisters of one another.

Beloved, this is the kind of love that our Father wants to characterize his church as an expression of worship to him. It’s a brotherly love. It’s a sisterly love. It’s a familial love. It’s a strong, heartfelt, affectionate love. It’s a love that flows from the Father to his children, then through his children to one another, and then back to him in the form of praise and thanksgiving. This love is like a pleasing incense to the Lord, for he loves the aroma of brotherly love in the lives of his people.

With this picture in mind, our Father’s command is very simple: let this kind of love continue. Let it reign in the church. Let it characterize your lives together. Let it be the air you breathe. Let it infiltrate your thoughts, words, and deeds toward one another. Don’t grow weary of this kind of love. Don’t grow hard-hearted and settle for something less or something else. Press on and love one another as your Father has loved you in Christ. This is the heart of our Father’s command in Hebrews 13:1