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Christianity without the Church?

A growing number of people are interested in God. However, at the same time church membership is declining in the United States. The reason? It seems we have adopted a "Jesus and me" approach to Christianity. Our culture stresses the importance of the individual and independence. People have adopted the attitude that their faith is personal and that they do not need the church. Of course, Jesus did come to save individuals and restore our relationship with God. However, that is just the beginning! In Matthew 16, Jesus asked Peter, "Who do you say that I am?" Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!" Jesus did not say, "You are right Peter! Now go your way and build your own relationship with God." No, Jesus called each of His people to follow Him. His disciples followed Him together. When we all follow the same Jesus, we will follow Him in community like sheep with a shepherd. Jesus said to Peter, "I will build My church." The church is a new community of people who each share Peter's confession. This community of believers is universal in scope--spanning every age and every nation--but it is local in expression. Jesus is building His Church by calling people out of this world to Himself and placing them in little flocks called local churches. Jesus intends to build His universal church by establishing local churches who carry out His work in Christian community. Have you made a commitment to a local New Testament church? Are you faithful to attend, support, and serve? If not, I challenge you do be part of the Church that Jesus is building. There is no Christianity without the Church.

Learning to Hear and Discern God's Voice

John 10:4 (NKJV) "And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice."

Recently I was reading through some of my journals. One thing that stood out to me was how as a growing Christian I struggled to discern the voice of God. I was listening but was often unsure if what I was hearing was the Lord, my flesh, or the devil. Have you ever felt the same way?  As a young man I struggled to discern God's voice in areas of who I was to marry, true or false prophetic words, if and where to go to Bible school, where to live, what church to attend, and direction in ministry. I often vacillated back and forth, thinking I was hearing God and then finding later that it was not God or that I was not hearing God clearly on the matter. I asked God to help me know His voice. What I discovered in reading back over these journals is that hearing God clearly had a lot to do with where I was in my walk with God. I found that being open and transparent with God was important when things were unclear. Most of all I now see how the sovereign hand of God was involved in the course of my life. In areas that I thought were the will of God but were not, the doors closed. At other times when things weren't going like I believed they should, I sometimes blamed the devil or other people. Looking back now I see God was in control of the details of my life. These lessons are still fresh for me today. I have learned to hear and discern God's voice more over the years but I must say that hearing and discerning the voice of God is still a big challenge especially when, as a pastor, I must discern between the many voices claiming to speak for God. I am here in East Texas because I obeyed the voice of God. I am convinced of that. Is it possible to be in the will of God and still have doubts? To be honest, there have been a few times I have questioned the Lord when things got tough. However, when I read back over my journals, I see the sovereign hand of God at work in my life--His fingerprints on my life--those unexpected and divine moments that convince me once again that I am not here by accident. God has a plan and I am privileged to be a part of it. This confidence gives me renewed faith to embrace the vision He has given me. When I am assured that I have heard from God, it infuses me with a fresh desire to pursue holiness, pray, fast, stay in God's Word, remain submitted to divine authority, to be obedient, and to trust God's sovereignty which are all keys to knowing God's voice. Holiness removes the mixture of sin that distorts our hearing. Prayer puts us on the right frequency to hear God's voice (including praying in the Spirit). Fasting brings the appetites of the flesh under submission so that we are able to hear the voice of God above the competing voice of our flesh. The Word enables us to know and discern God's voice clearly. Submission enables God's voice to be confirmed to us by legitimate God-appointed leadership in our lives. Obedience enables us to attain the blessing of hearing God's voice. Faith in God's sovereignty enables us to stand firm during times of testing and uncertainty. In looking back, when I violated any of these principles, I struggled to hear the voice of God. I hope you will make it your aim to hear and discern the voice of God in your life. The ability to hear and discern the voice of God is the most important thing you will ever develop. Everything else that is worthwhile hinges on that one thing.

Fruit or Dead Works?

John 15:4 (NKJV) "Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me."
 
Hebrews 9:13–14 (NKJV) "For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, 14 how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?"
 
For years biologists have manipulated the structures that contain life, but they remain unable to produce life itself. The "spark of life" is still an illusive mystery. The reason? God is Life and the true Source of life. God has designed His creation so that living things derive their life from other living things. Life has the ability to multiply and reproduce whereas the work of man does not. For instance, I may build a beautiful birdhouse but that birdhouse is dead. It cannot reproduce another birdhouse. It is the work of my hands rather than the work of God. Man has been unable to activate the "spark of life" into the works of his hands. Fruit on the other hand is different. Fruit develops naturally on the tree or on the vine as it simply remains connected. In the same way, we can only bear fruit unto God as we abide in Him. When we try to produce fruit in our own strength, it is no better than lifeless artificial wax fruit. It may look good on the outside, but it is not real. It cannot satisfy or reproduce.  All that God does has life and brings life because God is its Source. If we try to live the Christian life in our own strength, then we will only produce dead works that cannot glorify God, edify others, or satisfy us. The true Christian life is one that ceases from its own works as it rests and abides in Christ as its Source. As we abide in Him and allow His life to flow through us, His life will reproduce itself in whatever He chooses to do through us.

Revival and Forgiveness

Revival removes the stumbling block of unforgiveness from the hearts of God's people. In fact, there can be no revival where people refuse to forgive. Jesus made it clear that offenses will come (Matthew 18:7). Let's face it, we have all been offended by others and we have all offended others. It seems it is least expected in the church. But why should we be surprised? It has been said that the church is really a collision of sinners rather than a sanctuary for saints. It seems we have an unrealistic expectation of Christians. Christ saves us while still in our fallen condition. Then he begins the work of sanctification--making us like Jesus. Has anyone arrived there yet? (I hope we would all answer "NO" to that question!) We know we often fail to act like Jesus but for some reason we expect other Christians always act like Jesus. We ask for mercy when we offend, but demand justice when others offend. What does God think about this double standard? Jesus said, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." (Matthew 6:14-15 NKJV) Unforgiveness not only builds a wall between us and others but it also builds a wall between us and God. Unforgiveness rejects mercy and reconciliation and insists on justice and vengeance. Unforgiveness hurts us more than the one it is focused against. Refusing to forgive is like drinking poison while waiting for the other person to die! Unforgiveness closes our ears to others and to God. It is impossible to have an open and honest relationship with God when we refuse to forgive. Forgiveness is not condoning sin. God does not condone our sin when He forgives us. Forgiveness is undeserved. God forgives us not because we deserved it, but because He does not want our sin and offense to determine the final outcome of the relationship. Neither is forgiveness ignoring the reality of the offense. Forgiveness offers the possibility of a new beginning. What is forgiveness? Gregory Jones, former dean of Duke Divinity School, offers this definition: "Forgiveness is not so much a word spoken, an action performed, or a feeling felt as it is and embodied way of life in an ever-deeping friendship with the triune God and with others. As such, a Christian account of forgiveness ought not to simply or even primarily be focused on an absolution of guilt; rather, it ought to be focused on the reconciliation of brokenness, the restoration of communion--with God, with one another, and with the whole Creation. Indeed, because of the pervasiveness of sin and evil, Christian forgiveness must be at once an expression of commitment to a way of life, the cruciform life of holiness in which we seek to "unlearn" sin and learn the ways of God, and a means of seeking reconciliation in the midst of particular sin, specific instances of brokenness." We all live in the midst of particular sin and specific instances of brokenness. We often offend, and we are sometimes offended. In the midst of a world of sin and brokenness, Christ died so that we would no longer live under its power. Forgiveness, reconciliation, restoration, and love is the message of the Cross. Revival is a return to living out the reality of this message.

Are there any real athiests?

An atheist is one who says that he knows there is no God. Obviously this statement is unsupportable because no human being has knowledge of everything. Our knowledge, no matter how vast, is greatly miniscule compared to the vast amount of knowledge we are ignorant of in our universe. So there is a possibility that God exists in the realm of what we do not know. So there really is no such thing as an atheist because no one can know for certain that God does not exist.
 
There are, however, many agnostics. The word "agnostic" means "without knowledge". They do not know that God exists. In reality, they are doubters because they are not convinced that God exists. There are, however, two different kinds of doubters: honest doubters and dishonest doubters. If a person doubts that God exists and he is honest, then he will search to find out if God exists. A dishonest doubter is not interested in finding out if God exists. Dishonest doubters want to remain in their doubt because believing in God would mean that they would be accountable to God for their deeds, choices and lifestyles. Jesus said in John 3:19-21 (NKJV), "And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.”  An agnostic can find out if he or she is an honest doubter or a dishonest doubter. An honest doubter will be willing to genuinely pray this prayer (they don't have to be convinced that God exists to pray this prayer): "God, I don't know if You are real, but I want to know if You are real. I don't know if the Bible is true, but I want to know if the Bible is true. I don't know if Jesus is Your Son, but I want to know if Jesus is Your Son. I don't know if there is life after death, but I want to know if there is life after death. I don't know if my life has meaning, but I want to know if my life has meaning. I am open to discover whether You are real or not, if the Bible is true, if Jesus is Your Son, if there is life after death, and if my life has meaning. I am willing to follow the evidence no matter where it takes me, how it might challenge me, and what it will cost me."
 
The best place to start looking for answers is reading the Gospel of John because it was written for this specific purpose: "that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name." (John 20:31)

God Has Exalted His Word Above His Name

Psalm 138:2 (NKJV) "I will worship toward Your holy temple, and praise Your name for Your lovingkindness and Your truth; for you have magnified Your word above all Your name."
 
Why has God magnified His Word above all His Name? A name is only as good as the word of the person behind that name. A man's name is esteemed when his word is good. A man's name inherently communicates the integrity of that man. This is why Proverbs 22:1 declares, "A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches..." and Ecclesiastes 7:1 says, "A good name is better than precious ointment..." God's Name is magnified because He is faithful to keep His Word. The nature and character of God's Name is revealed through His Word. The Bible, the Word of God, reveals the God behind His Name. God's Name is to be praised because His Word is ever true! God's Name is holy. Therefore God will not sanction by His Name what He has not sanctioned by His Word. Neither is He obligated to recognize our works done in His Name (Matthew 7:22-23). Thus we should never accept on face value what is done by people "in the Name of the Lord" or "in Jesus' Name" (Jeremiah 23:30-32). We must test what is said and done "in His Name" by the Word of God (1 John 4:1). Why? It is because what God sanctions with His Name will never be inconsistent or contradictory with what He has revealed about Himself in His Word. God will confirm His Word done in His Name (Mark 16:20). Because God's Name is holy, He has chosen to sanctify it by magnifying His Word above His Name.
 

Revival, Rebellion, & Stubborness

Revival confronts the rebellion and stubbornness that resists the true worship and government of Christ in His church. In the nation of Israel, King Ahab and Queen Jezebel misused their governing position to oppose and cast aside the true worship of YAHWEH and replace it with the idolatrous worship of Baal. The mastermind of Israel's idolatry was Jezebel. She was the daughter of Ethbaal, king of Phoenicia. She influenced her husband to turn to false worship and rebel against the LORD. She utilized her husband's position and authority to oppose and slaughter the true prophets of God and made the LORD their enemy. God judged Israel's idolatry by bringing a drought upon the land. At the command of the LORD, the prophet Elijah prophesied that it would not rain for three years--and it didn't. Then at the command of the LORD he challenged the rebellion and idolatry of Israel at Mt. Carmel. The people's hearts were divided between the true worship of the LORD and the idolatrous worship of Baal.  Revival in the land demanded that the rebellion and stubbornness be broken off of God's people. Rebellion and stubbornness always distorts a people's evaluation of their own heart and the nature of true worship. Consider King Saul. He began as a humble king but soon became lifted up in pride. overestepped his position, and transgressed against the LORD. He even tried to defend his disobedience with his intention to sanction a form of free-style worship. God, however, rejected not only king Saul's worship but He also rejected Saul from being king:
 
1 Samuel 15:22–23 (NKJV) "So Samuel said: 'Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, As in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, And to heed than the fat of rams. 23 For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, And stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, He also has rejected you from being king.'"
 
This passage clearly reveals that Saul's sin of rebellion is like the sin of witchcraft and that his sin of stubbornness is like the sin of idolatry. Why does God liken rebellion to witchcraft? Although we often think of witchcraft in connection with black hats, broomsticks, and covens, the apostle Paul lists witchcraft as one of the sins of the flesh right alongside hatred, jealousy, envy, and outbursts of wrath (Galatians 5:20 KJV). At its root, witchcraft is the pursuit of control through intimidation, manipulation, and domination. While the fleshly sin of witchcraft can employ dark demonic methods such as spells and black magic, it can also seek illegitimate control in the church through overt power struggles or through the subtle and covert manipulation of prayer, prophecy, teaching, ministry, and strategic acts of kindness. Why does God liken stubbornness to idolatry? Although we often think of idolatry in connection with the worship of molten or carved images, idolatry is actually a stubborn adherence to anything that prevents us from worshiping and obeying only the one true God, the LORD. Stubbornness is an unreasonable, self-justified, obstinate, and perversely unyielding attitude. Stubbornness defends and worships its own lofty self-willed opinion and is, therefore, kin to idolatry or false worship. Stubbornness lifts itself up against and stands in contradiction to the true knowledge of God (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). Stubbornness is rooted in pride. King Saul's stubbornness caused him to pursue, trust in, and defend his own free-style of worship that violated God's command. It was rebellion and stubbornness that led to the downfall of King Ahab, Queen Jezebel, and King Saul. Revival comes when God judges rebellion and stubbornness in His house and then restores submission and obedience in the hearts of His people and true worship and kingdom government in His church. May we judge ourselves so that we will not be judged in the season of revival.

The Narrow Gate and The Narrow Way

The Narrow Gate and The Narrow Way
 
Matthew 7:13-14 (NKJV) “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it."
 
There are no limits to the varieties of choices one can make leading to destruction. The devil offers many ways to destruction, and the world proposes many ways to heaven, but Jesus said there is only one entrance and only one path that leads to life and salvation. When we come to the Lord, it is as if we are coming to Him through the pattern of the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle of Moses stood separate from the world around it. The walls around the Tabernacle were white linen curtains. For those outside, these walls represented a barrier between them and God. For those on the inside it represented holiness and separation from the world. There were three entrances in the Tabernacle. The first was called the "Gate". This gate provided entrance into the courtyard surrounding the Tabernacle. It was a curtain supported by four bronze pillars set in bronze sockets. Bronze represents judgment. These pillars may represent Confession, Repentance, Faith, and Obedience. It was here that the priest would sit to judge the people and insure that nothing or no one unclean entered except those who came with a sacrifice for their sins. This was also called "The Way" for it was the only way into the outer court of the Tabernacle from the outside. Jesus is The Way (John 14:6). The second entrance was the entrance into the Tabernacle itself. It was called the "Door of the Tabernacle". It was a curtain supported by five golden pillars set in bronze sockets. Gold represents divinity while setting in bronze representing judgment. The Door was also known as "The Truth". Jesus is The Truth (John 14:6). As we come to the Door, we must receive Jesus as our only Source of Truth as we judge all other so-called "truth" as inferior and defiled. The five pillars represent Jesus as our Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Pastor, and Teacher in the Truth. As we submit to Him as The Truth, we may enter beyond the curtain into the Holy Place. The third entrance is called the Veil. It was a thick curtain of flesh made from animal skins. It separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant and God's Presence dwelt. Only the High Priest could go beyond this veil once a year on the Day of Atonement. This veil is also called "The Life". Jesus is "The Life." The Veil represented the entrance into the very Presence and Glory of God who is our Life. Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me." (John 14:6) In other words, Jesus is the Gate, the Door, and the Veil. He is also our High Priest. The only way to the Father is through Jesus. And this all begins with the Gate. Jesus is the narrow Gate. The world is broad and full of other options. But they do not lead to the Father. Only Jesus can bring us to the Father. As we enter the narrow gate, we leave this world behind. We enter into a new and living way. The Christian life does not only involve a narrow gate but also a narrow way. The narrow way is the way of holiness which is represented by being within the walls of the outer court. (see Hebrews 12:14) It was possible for people on the outside to see and experience the blessings of God's Presence and Glory in the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night while never entering the narrow gate or walking in the narrow way. (see 1 Corinthians 10:1-5) Let's not be satisfied living on the outside. Enter through the narrow Gate of Jesus Christ and walk on the narrow path that leads to life in the presence of the Father.
 
Hebrews 10:19-25 (NKJV) "Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching."

Boundaries vs. Barriers

There is a difference between boundaries and barriers. According to Webster's Dictionary, a boundary is "something that indicates or fixes a limit or extent" while a barrier is "something material that blocks or is intended to block passage". God establishes boundaries in the form of commandments that define the sphere of His will and blessing. For instance, in the Garden of Eden, God established a boundary around the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In His sovereignty, God establishes both land and time boundaries for the nations (Acts 17:26) and the boundaries of each tribe of Israel (Deuteronomy 32:8). Although God establishes boundaries in order to protect and bless us, this generation has often interpreted God's boundaries as barriers to the "good life". They feel that God is a divine party crasher who enjoys saying "no" to anything we want. Nothing could be further from the truth! God's commands are intended to help us discern the difference between blessing and cursing, good and evil, holy and profane, right and wrong, clean and unclean, or truth and error. God wants to bring us into good pasture. God defines the boundaries of His good pasture through His Word. In His pasture we find His loving protection, care, and provision. As His sheep, we are free to graze within the fences of His pasture. However, if we interpret the fences as barriers between us and something that we want, then we will resent, rebel, and trespass against them. Rather than trespass, we should realize that God's perfect will for our lives is discovered within His boundaries. Rather than despise the fences, we should rejoice in them. King David declared in Psalm 16:6 (NKJV) "The lines (survey lines or boundary lines) have fallen to me in pleasant places; Yes, I have a good inheritance."  Don't be foolish and trespass outside the will, protection, and presence of God. In the end, what you intended to gain through your trespass will be lost at a great cost to you. Unfortunately, many are already experiencing the fallout of their waywardness. Many are disoriented, confused, and lost in a cruel wilderness because they have strayed far outside God's boundaries. They have set aside the objective truth of God's Word and wandered into subjective, changing, and destructive realms of fads, fashion, music, philosophy, false religions, alcohol, drugs, sexuality, and experimentation with unscriptural spiritual experiences. The good news is that the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, is seeking His sheep. He is calling. We must respond to His call for salvation by crying out to Him. If we desire to repent and return to Him, He will pick us up, bind up our wounds, and bring us back within the protection of His fold. Isn't is time to stop straying and return to the Lord?
 

The Spirit of Elijah

Malachi 4:5–6 (NKJV) "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet Before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse."
 
Elijah was a prophet used by God to bring revival to a backsliden Israel. Every revival among God's people has come in one sense or another through the manifestation of the spirit of Elijah. The "spirit of Elijah" refers to the authority and power of Elijah which can be released by God to a generation that needs revival. God had instructed Elijah to anoint Elisha as prophet in his place (1 Kings 19:16). In that day the spirit of Elijah was transferred through Elijah's mantle (2 Kings 2:13). This mantle symbolized the "double portion" of Elijah's spirit (2 Kings 2:9)--not a double amount but the inheritance of the firstborn heir to stand in the father's position (Deuteronomy 21:17). Years later John the Baptist came in the "spirit and power of Elijah" (Luke 1:17) "to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.", i.e. Jesus Christ (Luke 1:17). The spirit of Elijah calls a people back to God (1 Kings 18:21); restores true worship (1 Kings 18:30-39); challenges and overthrows false systems of worship (1 Kings 18:19-40); turns the hearts of the fathers back to the children (Malachi 4:5-6; Luke 1:17); turns the hearts of the children back to the fathers (Malachi 4:5-6; 1 Kings 19:37); turns the disobedient to the wisdom of the just (Luke 1:17); prepares the way of the LORD (Luke 1:17; Isaiah 40:3; 57:14; 62:10; Malachi 3:1; Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4), and makes ready a people prepared for the Lord (Luke 1:17). If there is ever a time that we need to ask God to release the spirit of Elijah, it is now. "Lord, send the spirit of Elijah in our day!" 
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