Friday, January 27, 2012

Matthew 18.1-5 (Greatest in Heaven)

Matthew 18.1 finds the disciples of Jesus asking an important question, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"

So, who is the greatest?

I think we are beyond titles now so that we don't automatically think pastors, elders & deacons are anywhere "greater" than others. As a pastor myself, I affirm this understanding. In fact, that I am given this sacred title but have a difficult time living excellently - in desperate pursuit of God, his holiness, and his design for my life, more than those without such titles work against me, I think. Heaven's "Greatest" list may find those with church titles on the bottom half rather than the top.

I think this is what the disciples were trying to figure out. Most likely, the disciples were asking Jesus to rate them. Since the Twelve are closest to Jesus, physically and they do have the title of disciples of Jesus, they figured they already occupy the top twelve on the list. They want to know the order of that twelve.

Kind of reminds me of the state of men's tennis. Three players dominate the game and stand head taller than the rest. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. They are so dominant that the three have won the last 27 of 28 Grand Slams of tennis or 34 of 37 wins going back to 2004! They are the TOP 3. No one comes close. The only question is which of these three is the best of the best?

That's probably the discussion among the disciples when they asked Jesus that day, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" This conversation is placed in that context in both Mark & Luke (Mark 9.33-37; Luke 9.46-48. In Luke, the story opens with "An argument arose among them as to which one was the greatest")

To their discussion, Jesus sets them straight:

1) Are you sure you are even INSIDE the kingdom of heaven? (v.3) In their minds, the disciples are already inside the kingdom; they just want to know which one is the greatest. But Jesus takes them outside the kingdom and has them face the entrance gates, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never ENTER the kingdom of heaven."

2) In v.3, Jesus tells them the requirement of ENTERING the kingdom of heaven. Once again, Jesus is standing with them outside. Their ticket to enter, their qualification for admission, is that they must CHANGE. Whatever is going on inside and/or outside of them is all wrong. They require CHANGE if they want to ENTER the kingdom of heaven. This is probably what Paul had in mind when he talks about the OLD self and the NEW when the Spirit of God comes upon the new believer, that the OLD must be put off and the NEW must be put on -- if the OLD persists, or if we reject parting with the OLD, then we must question, is the Spirit in us at all?

What does this NEW self look like? Jesus is such a great teacher. He has a child in front of him, points to him or her and declares, "become like children." Of course there are good things and bad things about children, but obviously Jesus is looking at traits of children that resemble the NEW:

  • children know how to enjoy life. They laugh at everything and anything (joy filled living)
  • some might call it being careless, but nothing is ever too serious and they aren't stressed out (living in freedom)
  • whenever they are in need, they go cling to their parent. There is never a second option for them (trust and dependency)

3) And after Jesus explains the notion of ENTERing the kingdom of heaven, Jesus turns to address their initial question about GREATNESS once inside. He walks the disciples inside and once again points to the same child and says, "whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest" (v.4). Greatness is marked by HUMILITY.

2005 at Roxas Village in the Philippines. Playing hopscotch.
I thought to myself, how are children humble? For them, everything is theirs, and they scratch and punch their way to dominance. In fact, it's the correction of the adults, "don't do this" and "don't do that" that keeps them in line. But I think that's the point. The children know their place in society. The adults are HUGE and physically imposing. They know that the adults command authority and are taught to respect them and never talk back to them. And for most part, they stay in line. A room full of children might be a mess, but put an adult supervision in there and for the most part, there is order. All the children know who's in charge. I think this is what Jesus has in mind. With the GREATEST in the kingdom already in their midst (that would be JESUS), it's arrogant of them to fight over such matter. The children don't do that in the adult's presence. The smartest ones help other kids and align themselves with the adult in the room so that their authority is borrowed authority, never their own. In front of Jesus, the disciples ought to have behaved like children and learned to find ways to please Jesus. As such, they ought to have rejected the notion of greatness so that Jesus can complement them! Humility is what Jesus wants. And so the ones who want to be the greatest ought to have taken the posture of humility!

So many ways to apply this. I'll leave that to you and to your prayers.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Apostle Paul in Prison

When Apostle Paul was arrested and put into prison during his visit to Jerusalem (Acts 21), it is very likely that the churches gathered together to pray most passionately for his release. This was probably more so in Paul's churches. One can imagine the tears and overnight prayer sessions on behalf of the one who had done more for the church's expansion than anyone else. No one else came close. One can imagine the prayers they offered up to God --

     "Almighty God. You perform miracles upon miracles! We have witnessed how you freed Peter in the jail in Jerusalem (Acts 12) and Paul in Philippi (Acts 16). All thing are possible with you! And we are talking about your great servant Paul! Free him, Lord!"
     "You are the changer of hearts, O Creator of all things. Move in the hearts of the authorities to see the light and release Paul from prison so that the world will know you are Lord!"
     "Jesus, you came to release the captives, those who are unjustly treated and imprisoned. You know that Paul is a classic example of this. Release him, Jesus! Set him free, O God!"

But none of those prayers free Paul. Days pass and then weeks. The prayer meetings become less frequent and small doubts begin to creep in. And then some of his opponents and haters most likely begin to beat their drums:

     "Perhaps it is God's will to keep him locked up!"
     "Maybe God is not answering your prayers because God is punishing him because he did something wrong. What could that be?"
     "Could it be that he was the one preaching the wrong gospel and we are preaching the right one (Gal 1)? Maybe God is stopping him from preaching it."
     "We know God is all powerful and we know God can free him if God so chooses. So, why isn't Paul set free? What does God know that we don't? Hmmm?"

In 2 Timothy, Paul writes about some of those who sided with these haters, who now felt ashamed of being associated with Paul -- there was Phygelus and Hermogenes (1.15) and Demas (4.10) to mention a few. Paul is worried that Timothy might side with them and so he writes, "Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner" (1.8). In fact, in the four chapters of 2 Timothy, Paul uses the word "ashamed" four times, and his letter contains a number of personal apologetics as a way of defending himself from such attacks.

It must have been a tough time for him.

He had to first convince himself that the attacks against him had no validity. Or did they? So why was Paul not set free? So why is he still in jail when there is still so much work to do? A man of prayer? A man of miracles? So where is that power now? How come you can't get out, Paul?

After a lengthy time of prayer for release, Paul had to have come to a conclusion that God didn't want him set free. Paul already understood that not all of his prayers get answered the way he wants ("thorn in the flesh" 2 Cor 12), and his life's many troubles are a testament to that (his many enemies and problematic churches). And so Paul's next step would have been to seek out answers as to why Paul is kept in prison.

In the earlier prison letter to the Philippians, Paul writes, "I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me [being in jail] has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known through the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear" (1:12-14). With joy Paul writes that his presence inside jail walls has opened up a new ministry opportunity for him! This is a shout out to all those prison ministries!

Kyrgyzstan 2001 English Club
In this later prison letter that is 2 Timothy, he speaks with more candor about his prison situation, that it's difficult and that he does "suffer hardship" (2.8-10). And with friends and colleagues separating themselves from him, Paul is both sharp-tongued (calling them by name) and rather down on himself, "As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith" (4.6-7).

And he holds to these truths:
  1. Even if the situation seems bleak and dark, know that God does rescue us and comes to our aid at all times (3.10-11)
  2. Being persecuted for being a Christian simply comes with who we are and what we are trying to do (3.12; 4.5). This is even true inside the church. There are plenty of ways to please the people and so get on their good side (3.1-9; 4.3-4), but that would be wrong. Avoid doing that! Be different from them even if that's unpopular (3.5; 3.14f; 4.5).
  3. It's kind of lonely at these times (4.9-22). With only Dr. Luke by his side, Paul calls on his son in faith, Timothy to come quickly to see him (4.9, 13, 21). I hope Timothy was able to get to Paul's side and encourage him. I think Paul needed that, badly.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

It’s been a very busy end of the year with multiple worships (all good!) to prepare for. I received a question from a gentleman and I would like to share my response here:

“What do you think about the New Apostolic Reformation and the teachings of its leader, Charles Peter Wagner?”

Charles Peter Wagner was a professor at Fuller when I went to school there. He was very supportive of the charismatic movement then and held classes on casting out demons and binding the territorial evil spirits. He and John Wimber, founder of Vineyard Fellowship, taught classes together and really promoted the charismatic movement.

By “charismatic movement,” I am talking about something that came out of the “pentecostal movement.” In simplistic terms, pentecostal movement is about receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues while praying. The charismatic movement went further on the power and activity of the Holy Spirit and emphasized healing and other greater powers/gifts that can be gotten. This movement has gone into the emphasis on prophecy (most teach that everyone is given the gift of prophecy, but they must learn to use it), physical healing, deliverance from demon possessions, and various manifestations of the Holy Spirit. If you were to go to one of their services, you will see these “manifestations” in variety of ways -- people swaying back and forth, people praying or laughing or making strange noises or doing something uncontrollably for minutes or hours.

All those things are rather personal. And that was the focus of the charismatic movement at its beginning. The focus was on the worshiper receiving something from the Holy Spirit through worship – a gift of speaking in tongue, a gift of healing, a gift of prophecy, a gift of this or gift of that. You probably know of several churches in your area that do this. Many missionaries belong to this movement (many come from the US, Great Britain, and Australia). Which organizations belong to this movement? The largest of these is International House of Prayer (IHOP) and their One Thing conferences. Also YWAM.

This movement has tried to correct themselves from being self-centered. One of the developments was the partnership of IHOP and YWAM. IHOP is about prayer and receiving from God. YWAM is a missionary organization. They’ve partnered up so that YWAM sends their missionaries to IHOP and IHOP is challenged to missions through YWAM.

Another development of looking outward is the formation of this New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) by Wagner. As YWAM is about missions, NAR is about politics. NAR believes that the society is evil and it is under the control of the devil. It believes that its rulers and governments officials are agents of the devil and get their orders from him. They believe there are “territorial spirits” of evil that affect the minds and actions of people. In Mongolia, for example, the NAR might say that the demonic spirit uses vodka to bind the minds and hearts of your men. Or they might say night clubs and dance halls and prostitutions are demonic works.

NAR wants to mobilize Christians to vote for Christian politicians and support them through prayer. They want to mobilize churches to pray and cast out territorial demons. They want the churches to gather and oppose the works of the devil. They want to change the society to become Christian.

Okay. My assessment and criticism.

It is wrong to overly criticize any Christian movement. Some people go overboard and call them unChristian or demonic. The internet is filled with hateful languages that attack the charismatic movement. I believe that is very wrong and they grieve the Holy Spirit. In God’s kingdom there is room for a variety of understandings of the Bible and God’s work. And I believe there is room for charismatics, as there is room for Presbyterians and Baptists and all the other expressions of Christian faith. I think they are doing great work in the name of God and they are reaching people that traditional Christian groups are unable to, or unwilling to, reach.

Did you notice I separated them from the “traditional Christian groups”? By traditional Christian groups I mean Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, etc. Charismatic movement is not “traditional” in that sense. The traditional groups have not valued the sending of the Holy Spirit to the churches and the power that he brings. And while the charge is overly general, traditional churches have also been blind to the works of the devil. The churches did church without tapping into the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit, and without recognizing what Paul described as, “the cosmic powers of this present darkness, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). I think that’s an apt criticism. The pentecostal movement and the charismatic movement are about awaking the church to the power available to them through the Holy Spirit and to awaken the church to the presence and works of the devil. The Bible talks about the devil as being very active, but the traditional churches never talk about him. The pentecostals and charismatics have caused the traditional church to recognize this error, and that’s good.

They have also helped the traditional churches to understand that they are not doing a good job in evangelism. The traditional churches are losing members very quickly. My denomination, the PC(USA) has lost over 50% membership in the last 50 years! We are talking about from over 4 million members in 1960 to less than 2 million members now! But the pentecostal and charismatic churches are increasing in membership! They are doing something right and the traditional churches are not. They are forcing the traditional churches to use other senses to experience God. The traditional churches know God through their heads; these other churches experience God through their hearts and bodies. They are experiencing God as truly being living and active! That’s very good.

Now for my criticisms. Some of the leaders of the pentecostal and charismatic movements have committed great sins while they were on top of ministry. The most famous of them are Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, Paul Cain, and Todd Bentley are some of the leading leaders at one time. You can look them up on Google and read their stories. The problem is not their sins (many pastors in traditional churches sin greatly as well), but their bold claims to being so close to God that they hear His voice clearly and know His heart and will. They present themselves in such grandiose light that their falls are significant. Also, they are too quick to return to the pulpit.

Also, there is a sense that this movement lacks biblical teaching. Whatever people sense and feel, they are encouraged to do. In this sense, they lack control. If they believe that the Holy Spirit is active, but also that the devil is active, there should be more care to ensure it is the Holy Spirit and not the devil that are influencing the person. Some of the actions of people under the manifestations of the Spirit are truly awkward. Making strange noises, acting like animals, shaking and laughing and jerking...they don’t look like the work of the Holy Spirit who gives us peace and order.

So what am I getting at? I don’t want to discourage anyone from speaking in tongues or enjoying the fullness of the Holy Spirit. The traditional churches, by and large, have neglected this. One of these days, I plan on visiting IHOP or attending one of their regional conferences.

But at the same time, I would be careful to go further than that. I think there are errors in their teaching about prophetic gifts. And I don’t agree that people ought to be giving such titles as prophets and apostles. And their end time teachings, I don’t agree in many respects.

Did I answer it to your liking? You probably have 1,000 more questions, now.
One more thing I don’t agree with NAR and Wagner. He’s got this very structured understanding of the Devil and his kingdom. Some of that does not originate from Scripture. The Bible says that the devil is real and he’s got a kingdom and demons that work under him. That’s true. But territorial demons? And demons seemingly being present everywhere? Holy Spirit is God and so he is everywhere. But demons are creatures. They have a number and they don’t multiply. They can’t be everywhere at all times. I think too much of what goes on is attributed to the devil.

A good story:

2009, at Tala Village, Philippines w/ Missionary Yang
A young youth pastor was taking a team of youths to a neighboring country for missions. On the bus, the youth pastor told his students to be prepared for the attacks of the devil. He told them that he felt God tell him that the devil hated what they are going to do and so have put his best demons against them and so they must be in prayer and always be alert. Some of the kids were nervous and two girls held onto each other scared at the announcement.

An older pastor who joined the team stood up and said, in a calm voice, “Don’t you worry about anything. He that is in us is greater than he that is in the world. Don’t scare them with talks of the devil. Encourage them with the power of God.”