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Loving Your [Political] Enemies

Thursday, September 17, 2020

It’s no secret to anyone who pays attention that year by year, the political climate in our country grows more and more toxic.  Political dialogue is dominated by extremist voices on both sides who openly describe people on the other side as their enemies.  Believing the best about one’s opponents is unheard of.  Civility is nonexistent.  Rumors are flying of civil disorder if the wrong side wins, and sometimes even if the wrong side loses.

All of this says that the upcoming election is a very important one for Christians, though maybe not the way that you think.  The truly meaningful choice before us is not whether we vote Republican or Democrat.  It is whether, however we vote, we allow ourselves to be dragged down into the mud with the world, or whether we glorify Christ in what we do, say, and think.  Some will say that the fate of the nation is at stake in November, but our souls are at stake right now. 

In particular, let’s evaluate ourselves according to the standard of Matthew 5:43-44.  Here, our Lord tells us that we are to love not only our neighbor, but even those who hate and persecute us.  These were challenging words when He first said them, and they remain challenging today.  With this in mind, let’s consider loving our political enemies.

This morning, let’s evaluate ourselves on this according to four Biblical standards.  The first is, “DON’T RETURN EVIL FOR EVIL.”  This comes from 1 Peter 3:8-9.  By the point in his life when he was writing this, Peter knew a thing or two about persecution.  He knew what it was like to be beaten and humiliated even when he had done nothing wrong.  Nonetheless, he warns us that it’s wrong to repay the wicked in their own coin.

I see two political applications here.  The first is that it is not godly to respond to the other side’s evil with our evil.  One of the political diseases of our time is whataboutism.  Whenever somebody in our party, it’s common for partisans to reply with, “Well, what about when So-and-So did Thus-and-Such?” as though hypocrisy on the other side mitigates bad behavior on our side.  Evil conduct doesn’t become less evil because the other side did it first.  Sin is sin, even when it’s practiced by somebody on the home team.

Similarly, we must beware of approving in our hearts when a political commentator on our side attacks the other side with vicious sarcasm.  It doesn’t matter whether we think they deserve it.  Hate-filled vitriol is hate-filled vitriol regardless of the source, and Christians never should have anything to do with it.  When we buy in to political savagery, it inevitably corrupts us.

Second, we must be sure NOT TO REJOICE IN UNRIGHTEOUSNESS.  This, of course, is 1 Corinthians 13:6.  This is a familiar passage, but this morning, I want to put a little different spin on it.  Rather than talking about our attitude toward unrighteousness in the people we love, I want to talk about our attitude toward unrighteousness in our political enemies.

Let’s say you flip on the TV or open the Internet browser in the morning, and the first thing you see is a story about awful, wretched behavior by a politician in the other political party.  How does that make you feel?  Do you feel gleeful that the wickedness you always knew was there has been exposed for all to see?  Do you feel vindicated that someone you opposed has lived down to your expectations?  “See!  I knew it all along?”

If so, let me suggest that that’s a problem, because that’s not how we respond to wrongdoing in people we love.  When somebody here at Jackson Heights gets trapped in sin, I’m not gleeful.  If some brother I’ve been concerned about for a long time falls away, I don’t feel vindicated because I was right.  Instead, I’m heartbroken!  In fact, if I weren’t, and I went around talking about how glad I was that Brother So-and-So was gone, I’d probably get fired over it.

Brethren, if it’s not loving to rejoice over unrighteousness in our brethren, it’s not loving to rejoice over unrighteousness in our enemies either!  We should never feel justified or satisfied or vindicated by someone else’s wickedness.  If we respond to sin in anyone with anything other than mourning and a prayer for their souls, we’re doing it wrong.

Third, also from 1 Corinthians 13:6, if we love our enemies, we will REJOICE IN THE TRUTH.  Necessarily, that means that we can’t rejoice in lies, and these days, that poses a problem.  Right now, there is no “the news” anymore, like there was when I was kid.  Instead, you have Red News and Blue News, and Red News promotes Red narratives, and Blue News promotes Blue narratives.  What people watch and read and listen to depends on what they believe already. 

In fact, the deeper Red you get, and the deeper Blue you get, the more important the narrative becomes, and the less important the truth becomes.  It is often the case that the most wretched lies put out by far left and far right alike are the stories most eagerly read and shared by partisans.  “The other presidential candidate had an affair with a space alien?  Great!  I’m going to share that on my Facebook page, right next to the inspirational Bible quote from yesterday!”

Brethren, no!  If we love our enemies, we won’t be eager to believe lies about them either.  If you come to me with some whopper of an awful story about my wife, I’m not going to lap that stuff up.  I’m going to be really reluctant to believe you.  Why?  Because I love my wife!  When we want so badly to believe evil about our political enemies that we embrace even falsehood, it reveals that we don’t have a shred of love for them in our hearts.

Finally, it will help us to love our enemies if we ENTRUST OURSELVES TO GOD.  Consider the example of Jesus in 1 Peter 2:23.  Even on the cross, Jesus did not cease to love His enemies, and He was able to endure such terrible suffering because He had entrusted Himself to God.  They could kill His body, but they couldn’t touch what truly mattered.

I predict that over the next couple of months, we’re going to hear a great deal about how this election is going to be one of the most important in our lifetime.  We have to get out and vote right, or else horrible things are going to happen!  Of course, the same people also said that the 2008 election, and the 2012 election, and the 2016 election also were the most important in our lifetimes.  If we’re still here in 2024, I predict that will be called the most important election of our lifetimes too.  All of them are, apparently.

But really, brethren, for the child of God, no election is truly important.  No matter who wins the vote, they can’t touch our relationship with God unless we let them. 

Right now, all is well with us, not because of our earthly blessings, but because our lives are hidden with Christ in God.  On Wednesday, November 4th, if the wrong guy wins the election, it still will be well with us—so long as our lives are hidden with Christ in God.  Even if worst comes to worst, and stormtroopers from the other side come after us, and they drag us out of our homes and stand us up against a wall and shoot us, even then, it will be well with us—so long as our lives are hidden with Christ in God. 

So long as we are with our Lord, our enemies can’t touch us, no matter what they do.  We have no reason to fear them, and that frees us to love them.  If we entrust ourselves to God, something as insignificant as an election isn’t worth worrying about.

Was Jesus Just a Good Teacher?

Friday, September 11, 2020

Every so often, you run into something that makes you scratch your head.  So it was with a survey I read about last week.  Though the full results of the survey won’t be released until the day after tomorrow, the survey conductors released a few advanced snippets.  Among these, they found that a majority of Americans no longer believe that Jesus was God, which is sad but not surprising.

However, the one that blew my mind was that 30 percent of self-identified evangelicals also agreed that Jesus was a good teacher but not God.  Even the supposed Christian conservatives in our country are beginning to question the deity of Christ!  That shocks me, and when I see such a surprising result, normally I start questioning the integrity of the survey conductors.  However, the outfit in question is Ligonier Ministries, a respectable group that has been doing surveys like this for years.

I decided, then, that we need to talk about this.  Lots of people apparently think it’s reasonable to believe that Jesus was merely a human being who said lots of good things.  Is it?  This evening, let’s ask if indeed Jesus was just a good teacher.

In order to answer this question, I think there are three main pieces of evidence we need to consider, evidence from the mouth of Jesus Himself.  The first of these is that HE CLAIMED TO BE THE SOLE SOURCE OF TRUTH.  Look at His exchange with Thomas in John 14:5-6.  We are very used to this idea.  We sing hymns that praise Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life.  Many of us can quote John 14:6 from memory.

However, I think that because we are so used to it, we no longer are able to see how shocking the words of Jesus are here.  To illustrate how shocking they are, let’s take them out of the mouth of Jesus and put them in somebody else’s mouth—mine.

 Imagine, brethren, that I’m preaching along one Sunday morning, and in the middle of the sermon I say, “I, Matthew W. Bassford, am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  What would you think of that?  I strongly suspect that if I were to say such a thing in deadly earnest, by next Sunday, I no longer would be employed by the Jackson Heights church!

Why?  Because for a mere human being to make that claim would be extraordinarily arrogant.  Even Moses, the great giver of the Law, never claimed to be the way, the truth, and the life.  In making that claim, Jesus put Himself over every other teacher of the Law.  He condemned every other religion in existence as false. 

What’s more, He even put Himself over the Law itself.  Think about it.  For thousands of years, the Jews had regarded God’s word as truth.  It was their way to pleasing Him.  If they obeyed, God would give them life.  In saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus is telling His hearers, “You need to quit following the Law and start following Me instead.”

Anybody who makes that claim about themselves cannot be merely a good human teacher.  Either they are leading people astray, or they are a being of such transcendent wisdom that it is right to reject everything else in favor of them.  Jesus did make that claim, so it is impossible for us to believe that He merely is a good teacher.

Second, HE CLAIMED TO BE THE MESSIAH.  Look at the exchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman in John 4:25-26.  This, I think, is another shocking claim that has lost its shock value because we are so used to it.  In our society, it’s probably true that most people think that “Christ” is Jesus’ last name.

Of course, “Christ” is not a name.  It is a title, and it means the same thing that “Messiah” does.  It means “Anointed One”.  Even this doesn’t mean a whole lot to people in the 21st-century United States, but it would have meant everything in first-century Palestine.

Under the Law of Moses, three classes of people were ceremonially anointed:  prophets, priests, and kings.  Various prophecies throughout the Old Testament predicted the coming of one who simultaneously would be a prophet like Moses, a priest like Melchizedek, and a king like David.  When He came, this Anointed One would deliver God’s people from their enemies once for all. 

More than anything else, the people of Jesus’ day wanted to see the Messiah come.  Not surprisingly, lots of people tried to take advantage.  Both the New Testament and secular historians record false Christs, people who claimed to be the Messiah and weren’t.

It was possible for somebody to be a false Christ.  What wasn’t possible was to make that claim and simultaneously be a good human teacher.  If you said you were the Christ, either you were, or you were a deceiver on a massive scale.  If you were the Christ, then you also were the Redeemer, the Savior, the Holy One of God.  The true Christ wasn’t somebody who came to pass along a few wise little parables.  He was somebody who came as the greatest fulfillment of divine prophecy ever to be.

Finally, of course, Jesus could not merely be a good human teacher because HE CLAIMED TO BE GOD.  Consider what Jesus says to some opponents of His in John 8:56-59.  Jesus begins this exchange by asserting something that others in His day would have found ridiculous—that Abraham, 2000 years ago, looked ahead prophetically and rejoiced to see the coming of Jesus.

Naturally, the Jews jump all over this.  Who does Jesus think He is, to make such a claim?  In response, Jesus tells them, “Before Abraham was, I am.”  This is not Jesus mixing up His verb tenses.  Instead, He is taking the divine name of God from Exodus 3 and He is appropriating it for Himself.  He is claiming to be eternal, pre-existent, and divine.

The Jews understand perfectly well what Jesus is saying here, so well, in fact, that their next action is to pick up stones to stone Him to death.  These aren’t Greeks who accept the existence of gods and demigods in human form.  For them, for any human being to claim to be God is blasphemy.  Such a one deserved to die.

I’m sure that throughout this sermon, some of you have been thinking about C.S. Lewis’s “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord” argument, and this is where it comes to a point.  Jesus claims to be God.  That means that one of three things must be true of Him.  Either He was a con artist, He was out of His mind, or He really was the God He claimed to be. 

Indeed, this claim completely forecloses the possibility that Jesus merely was a good human teacher.  Good human teachers don’t claim to be God.  Evil human teachers might make such a claim, or crazy human teachers, but not good human teachers.

In order to believe, then, that Jesus was a good human teacher and nothing more, these 30 percent of evangelicals must reject the words of Jesus Himself.  Whatever they say about themselves, they are not Christians in any meaningful sense.  For us to be Christians, we must accept not only His goodness and humanity, but also His exclusivity, His Messiahship, and His deity.  There is no other way.

The Dangers of Self-Deception

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Lying is a funny thing.  At one time or another, every one of us has lied, and yet, despite its universality, we must acknowledge that it is a thing of extraordinary power.  Lies have destroyed marriages, churches, nations, and souls.  Even if Jesus had not told us so explicitly, it would be easy for us to conclude that something so evil has to be the handiwork of Satan.

However, the most damaging lies of all aren’t the ones that others tell us.  They are the ones we tell ourselves.  Self-deception may be even more common than other forms of deceit, but it is no less dangerous. 

Indeed, it may be even more so.  When we are tempted to lie to someone else, at least we know we are being tempted.  We have to make a conscious decision to lie.  However, when it comes to self-deceit, part of the lie is that we aren’t lying to ourselves.  Consequently, even if Christians can reach a point in their spiritual development when they reliably tell the truth to others, none of us ever outgrow the temptation to believe a lie rather than the truth.  This evening, then, let’s explore the dangers of self-deception.

In our study tonight, we’re going to be looking at a context in James 1, in which James reveals three unwelcome truths about self-deception.  The first of these is that IT DOES NOT ACCOMPLISH RIGHTEOUSNESS.  Look at what he tells us in James 1:19-21. 

James here is concerned with one particular form of self-deception—self-righteous anger.  He warns us to be quick to listen and slow to speak, which generally is good advice, but contextually, he’s warning us to be slow to express our anger and quick to listen to the righteous rebuke of the word of God.  It is for God to tell us how to be righteous, not for us to self-righteously tell others how they ought to live.

This is a temptation that every one of us faces when we become angry.  When we’re angry at someone, a feeling of self-righteousness is always part of the mix.  Here we were, going along, living our blameless little lives, when some despicable person does something that makes us mad.  Maybe it was our thoughtless, inconsiderate spouse.  Maybe it was that obnoxious co-worker.  Maybe it was that jerk who cut us off on the highway.  Regardless, they have offended us, and so we are going to tell them just what we think of their inexcusable, awful behavior, even if the only way we can communicate is laying on the car horn!

The problem is, though, that even though we feel so righteous, we truly are not righteous.  God has the right to condemn people, but we don’t, because we ourselves are so often thoughtless, inconsiderate, obnoxious jerks.  Our angry condemnations of others are sheer hypocrisy, and indeed, even in the moment, our words that feel so righteous are likely unrighteous. 

I’ve been saying this since I started preaching, and it’s still true.  Never once have I spoken in anger and later been glad that I did.  Rather than expressing that deceptive sense of self-righteousness, then, let’s learn to hold our peace, to think things over, to pray, to calm down, so that when we do speak, we humbly repeat the words of God.

Second, self-deception KEEPS US FROM IMPROVEMENT.  Let’s read here from James 1:22-25.  This passage begins by pointing out something that we may not have considered.  Every time someone hears the word and chooses not to obey it, there is self-deception involved. 

Maybe the lie is that God isn’t real and so His commandments can be ignored.  Maybe it’s that God is a God of love, so we don’t have to worry about all those bothersome legalistic little rules.  Maybe it’s that we’re in a hard place right now, and God understands why we’re not obeying.  Maybe the lie is that I’m doing a great job on this particular commandment, and I’m so glad that Brother Orville is here for this sermon, because he really needs to hear it!  Regardless, when we hear and don’t do, we are lying to ourselves somewhere.

It makes sense that this would be so.  There is nothing on earth that the devil fears more than the word of God.  If everyone received it honestly, everyone would obey the gospel, and on the judgment day, hell would be empty.  Thus, Satan constantly is hard at work defeating the gospel, doing everything he can to put armor plate between it and us so that it can’t pierce our hearts. 

If he succeeds in doing this, nothing will happen, but it will be a deadly nothing.  Just like when I get up from the dinner table and look at my face in the mirror and see that I’ve got spaghetti sauce smeared all over my mouth like a two-year-old, when we look into the mirror of the word, we must see that there is something we must do.  If we don’t, there is no point to looking into the mirror in the first place.

Thus, every time we read the Bible or hear it read, we must ask ourselves, “How does this apply to me?”  “Where do I fall short?”  Then, we need to go out and make the changes God wants to see.  Only in this way can we receive His blessing.

Finally, self-deception MAKES OUR RELIGION USELESS.  Let’s conclude our reading with James 1:26-27.  Once again, there’s a generic statement in v. 26 that I think gains a specific meaning from context.  I think it’s generally true that religious people shouldn’t go around shooting their mouths off, but James seems to have something particular in mind.  Notice that in v. 27, he identifies the way that true religion expresses itself—by helping people who are in need and living a godly life.  V. 27 is set up as a contrast to that.

What James is really warning us against, then, is a particular kind of uncontrolled speech—uncontrolled speech about religion.  He wants us to understand that if we think we are serving God by running our mouths with no filter about some religious topic, we are lying to ourselves.

There are so, so many possible applications here, brethren!  This is about the Christians who call the elders up and give them what-for about every decision they make.  This is about telling people who are staying home from services because of COVID vulnerability that they’re forsaking the assembly.  This is about embarrassing your neighbor with their lack of Biblical knowledge instead of trying to persuade them to follow Jesus.  Generally, it’s about any time that we use religion as a way to express our pride and elevate ourselves over others.  That’s the kind of thing that gives religion a bad name, and it does not give us a good name in the eyes of God.

Instead, the real path to becoming great in God’s kingdom is to become a servant.  Don’t complain about problems in the church.  Work to solve problems in the church.  Don’t blast the brother who is struggling spiritually.  Give them a shoulder to lean on or cry on.  Don’t show contempt for outsiders.  Show them that you love them and want to help them.  Only when our lives first show forth the glory of Christ can our words guide others to Him.

The Timeline of Resurrection

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Recently, I’ve become aware that there is this thing floating around on the Internet called “The Easter Challenge”.  The inventor of this challenge is an atheist.  He asserts that the Biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus contradict each other so significantly that they are clearly false and so provide no basis for belief in Jesus.

If true, this indeed would be fatal to the Christian faith.  If we don’t have reason to believe that Christ is risen, we also don’t have reason to be here this evening.  However, as always, rather than taking the claims of atheists for granted, we need to evaluate those claims against the Scriptures.  Once we do so, it becomes obvious that rather than being impossible, reconciling the various Biblical accounts of the resurrection is quite easy, even trivial. 

Nonetheless, I think this is a worthy topic for a sermon.  We need to know the truth about this for ourselves, and we also need to know how to rebut those who want to undermine our faith.  This evening, then, let’s contemplate the timeline of resurrection.

In this attempt, though, we must keep two things in mind.  The first is that even though each gospel account of the resurrection is true, none of them are comprehensive.  All of them leave things out because each Evangelist was writing with different purposes in mind.  However, the silence of a writer concerning a resurrection event does not prove a contradiction.

Second, here as elsewhere, the gospels are not terribly concerned with strict chronology.  They will relate events out of sequence, just as we do when we tell a story, whenever doing so advances their purpose.  These out-of-sequence sections also do not establish a contradiction.

Having said that, it’s time to craft our master narrative.  There is so much material here that I simply don’t have time to read every passage or discuss every story.  I’m only focusing on the parts that supposedly include contradictions.  However, I’ve included Scripture citations to everything so you can look them up at home if you so desire.

The first event is THE OPENING OF THE TOMB.  It is recorded in Matthew 28:1-4.  Some want to suppose that there’s a contradiction here because the earthquake, etc., is recorded after the mention of the women going to the tomb, and none of the other writers mention the earthquake.  However, I don’t think that’s the most natural reading.  Instead, I think Matthew is parenthetically describing something that had previously happened.  If not, the women would be not merely witnesses to the empty tomb.  They would have been witnesses to Jesus coming out of the tomb!  This is simply Matthew telling the story out of chronological order, something Matthew frequently does.

Second, THE WOMEN COME TO THE TOMB.  We find this in Mark 16:1-4.  The key event here is that the women, including Mary Magdalene, notice that the stone has been rolled away from the tomb.

Third, MARY MAGDALENE FETCHES PETER AND JOHN.  Look at John 20:1-2.  This is subtle but important.  Mary is with the other women when they see that the stone has been rolled away.  However, she does not continue with them to the tomb.  Because she is convinced that someone has stolen Jesus’ body, she runs off to find Peter and John.  Thus, she is not present for the other women’s conversation with the angel and is not told that Jesus has risen.

Second, it’s worth noting that finding Peter and John does not mean that Mary has gone to all the disciples.  Peter and John are staying by themselves, so at this point, Mary has not had contact with the others.

Fourth, while Mary is running to Peter and John, THE OTHER WOMEN TALK TO THE ANGEL.  Consider Mark 16:5-8.  They see that the tomb is empty, the angel tells them that Jesus is risen, and they leave.  Thus, they are not around when Peter and John show up in a bit.

One other note before we leave this passage.  Some try to set up a contradiction between Mark 16:8, which says the women told no one, and other passages that say the women told the disciples. 

I think, though, that Mark is answering a different question than the other gospels.  He’s explaining why the women didn’t go down the street telling everybody that they met that Jesus had risen.  They were afraid.  They were afraid—with justification—of being disbelieved and probably also afraid of getting imprisoned by the Jewish leadership.  So they keep it to themselves until they reach the disciples.

Fifth, JESUS APPEARS TO THE OTHER WOMEN.  This is revealed in Matthew 28:8-10. Probably, after this Jesus heads back to the tomb to encounter Mary Magdalene.

Sixth, PETER AND JOHN COME TO THE TOMB.  This is recorded in John 20:3-10.  They see grave wrappings, but no angel and no Jesus, and they leave.

Seventh, JESUS APPEARS TO MARY MAGDALENE.  This story is found in John 20:11-17.  Peter and John have cleared out by now, so Mary is by herself.  She hasn’t talked to the angel, so she still is confused about what has happened.  Jesus resolves her confusion by revealing Himself to her.

Eighth, THE DISCIPLES DISBELIEVE.  Here, let’s read Luke 24:9-12.  Mary comes to the disciples, the other women come to the disciples, but they aren’t having any of it.  Notice, though, that Luke is doing some story-collapsing.  He’s combining the story of Mary going to Peter and John about body-snatching with the story of Mary and the other women going to the disciples with stories about the risen Lord.

Some might suppose there’s a contradiction here, but there isn’t.  All Luke is doing is summarizing a complicated series of events as quickly as he can so he can get to the resurrection story he really cares about—the encounter on the road to Emmaus.  He doesn’t mention previous appearances because that would have pulled the focus away from Emmaus, where he wanted it.  He concludes the story with Peter going off by himself (which is true, even if it happened earlier) to explain how Jesus appeared to Peter and not to the others.

Ninth, JESUS APPEARS TO PETER.  This is only found in the gospels in Luke 24:34, though it also is recorded in 1 Corinthians 15.  Note, by the way, that even though Luke knows this happened before Jesus appeared on the road to Emmaus, he tells the story so that it is revealed afterward, so as not to detract from his main resurrection appearance. 

Tenth, JESUS APPEARS ON THE ROAD TO EMMAUS.  We see this in Luke 24:13-35.  This is the centerpiece of Luke’s resurrection account, just like Mary Magdalene is the centerpiece of John’s.  He gives it far more time than anything else in the narrative.

Eleventh and last, JESUS APPEARS IN THE UPPER ROOM.  Here, let’s go to John 20:19-20.  Notice first of all that the doors are locked for fear of the Jews.  The disciples are very concerned about attracting notice from the authorities.  Second, by this point everybody but Thomas is gathered together, they’re convinced something strange has happened, and Jesus’ appearance only seals the deal. 

Did you notice, brethren, how neatly the pieces from these four accounts fit together?  It’s because they’re all reporting the same historical event!  Just as contradiction would cast the story of the resurrection into doubt, so the harmony of these stories affirms our faith.  As John observes in John 20:31, these things were written so that we might believe.

Tireless in Doing Good

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Along with all the other clichés used to describe 2020, it has become commonplace to call it a “difficult” year.  We all know this to be the case.  It seems like everything we do now has become just a little bit harder.  If you go to the store and forget your mask, you have to go back to the car and get your mask before going in the store. 

I know that’s a trivial example, but even trivial burdens add up.  Because life is harder, I think it’s fair to say that most of us feel like we’re in survival mode rather than flourishing mode.  This is true in every area of our lives, but I think it’s particularly true in our spiritual lives.  Instead of striving to bear fruit for Christ, many of us have fallen into the rut of existing.

This is a problem.  Indeed, in Galatians 6, Paul warns us about growing weary in doing good.  Other such warnings abound throughout the New Testament.  Rather than focusing on the negative, though, this evening I want to look at the positive.  I want to look at some reasons why, even in this difficult time, we should cowboy up and be tireless in doing good.

First, we should do so because IT ENCOURAGES OTHERS.  Look at Paul’s self-description in 1 Thessalonians 3:6-8.  I find this fascinating.  We think of Paul as this titan of the first-century church, as indeed he was.  By contrast, we don’t even know the names of most of the brethren in Thessalonica. 

Nonetheless, the encouragement that those nameless Christians gave to the famous apostle was a life-and-death matter to him.  Simply by staying faithful, they brought him through a dark time and gave him the strength he needed to continue his work.  Indeed, throughout Paul’s epistles, the encouragement he gains from the faithfulness and labor of other Christians is a constant theme.

Today, things are no different.  All Christians need encouragement from one another, and that’s true of even the most prominent leaders in the church.  Every member of this congregation matters to the elders here.  Every one of you matters to Clay and me, and when we see you working for the Lord or even simply remaining faithful, it brings us great joy.

Of course, the opposite is true too, and there’s something that I want all of you to think about.  It’s no secret that since the COVID outbreak, our attendance has been way down, especially on Sunday and Wednesday evenings.  I’ve said repeatedly, and I’ll say it again, that Christians need to do whatever is necessary to protect their safety.  Nobody is going to judge anybody; nobody is going to start getting phone calls from the elders about forsaking the assembly.

Nonetheless, if you’ve been among the non-attendees, I want each of you to ask yourself a question.  Why is that?  Is it because you’re concerned about your safety, or is it because 2020 is a hard year, and you’re tired, and it’s easier to stay home?

Again, no judgment.  I completely get that.  Think for a moment, though, about the effect that you have on your brothers and sisters here simply by the choice to assemble or not.  It’s hard to push through, but if we assemble, even if we’re tired, even if school just started, we will bring joy and blessing into the lives of people we love.  Think about these things, and what you do with that, I leave to you.

Second, if we are tireless in doing good, WE WILL BEAR FRUIT.  Consider the way Jesus ends His explanation of the parable of the sower in Luke 8:14-15.  I think both of these explanations are relevant to us.  First, we see the problem with being an existence-level Christian.  If we allow the coronavirus to choke out the word in us, we will defeat God’s purpose in our salvation, just like crops that don’t bear fruit defeat the purpose of the farmer.

On the other hand, when we bear fruit, the harvest can be many times more significant than we are.  However, Jesus here uses a key word to describe what we have to do if we want to bear fruit.  We have to endure.  We have to persevere.  We have to press on through difficulty.  If we don’t, there won’t be fruit.

I find this so encouraging because it reminds me that if I do keep going, even when it’s hard, there will be fruit that I can see.  This is true in every area of our spiritual lives.  If we persevere as godly parents, godly workers, godly friends, and godly neighbors, there will be fruit.  It won’t be wasted effort.

I think, though, that most of all, this is relevant with respect to evangelism.  There are lots of things that Christians think you have to have in order to be effective at winning souls.  They think you have to be eloquent, charismatic, and a Bible expert.  None of that is true.

Instead, we only need two things.  We have to love people enough to share the truth with them, and we have to be persevering enough to keep doing it.  Maybe this person we invite doesn’t come to church.  Maybe this other person we invite comes but doesn’t come back.  However, if we keep on working through discouragement, sooner or later, someone will be saved because of what we said.

Finally, if we are tireless in doing good, OUR WORK WILL NOT BE VAIN.  Look at Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:56-58.  Even though if you only look at v. 58, it sounds like this is making the same point as the parable of the sower, a look at the context reveals something different.  We can be sure that our toil is not in vain in the Lord not because God will bless our efforts.  Instead, Paul says our toil is not in vain because God through Christ has given us victory over sin and death.  This isn’t about earthly success.  It’s about eternal success.

It is certainly true that the ceaseless toil that God expects from us as Christians can get to us.  I spent last week writing and preaching sermons, but I know that for as long as I remain a gospel preacher, I’ll be spending most weeks that way.  I work to save souls and keep brethren from falling away, and that won’t change for as long as my life in Christ continues.  There always will be people in need to be cared for, ruffled feathers to smooth, and special events to plan.  Like Solomon says in Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun.  We keep doing the same thing until we die.

What’s the point, then?  Why do it?  Why keep trying to roll that boulder up the hill?  The real reason is not the earthly effect of our labors.  It’s the spiritual effect. 

If you think you have a hard life, consider the life of Jeremiah.  He spent his whole life prophesying, and hardly anybody ever listened to him.  He told people the truth, and they hated and persecuted him for his pains. 

And yet, Jeremiah’s labor was not in vain because it found favor with God.  No matter what, we can be sure that He will regard our labor for Him in the same way, and nobody who inherits eternal life ever says it wasn’t worth it! 

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