The Church, Disciples, Christianity: Sunday Scripture Thoughts

Today is Sunday – the day that millions of Christians will wake up, get themselves dressed and ready and “go to church.” They will worship, pray, hear some teaching, and (hopefully) find fellowship among other believers who encourage them for the week ahead.

It’s a Sunday tradition that I myself grew up with and practiced for many, many years (although it’s been kind of different for my family for the last year).

But as I’ve considered this habit of many Christians, I’ve often wondered if many people have a real understanding of why we do this, or what God actually envisions for “church” in the first place. In that process of wondering I frequently turn to Scripture, in order to get a better idea from God Himself about what “church” is supposed to be about or how we are supposed to value and view it. In that search through Scripture I come across verses like this one, from the book of Acts –

“For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.”

Acts 11:26 (ESV)

Reading this verse, three words jumped out at me and made me really consider how I’m viewing the things that God has called us to do and be. Let me start at the end of the verse and work backwards.

CHRISTIAN and DISCIPLE
From this verse, it’s clear that “Christians” were originally seen as “disciples” of Jesus. From the Greek (mathetes), we understand the term “disciple” to mean that someone is a learner or a pupil, someone who follows one’s teaching. This passage in Acts tells us that, here in Antioch as Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught them the Scriptures and helped them to grow in their faith, these disciples – these people who had committed themselves to following the teachings of Jesus – first began to be called “Christians.”

The word “Christian” comes from a Greek word that simply means “follower of Christ.” In essence, they were called Christians because they were seen as “little Christs” in their beliefs and their behavior. And this all stemmed from the fact that they had already applied themselves as disciples – learners, pupils – of Jesus, determined to follow His teachings and live like Him daily.

Here’s what I think after reading this part of the verse:

We need to restore the “disciple” identity and characteristic to what it means to be “Christian.” It’s time to change the label.

It’s way too easy to be a “Christian” today. And, in our culture, what does it tend to mean? Someone who “goes to church.” Someone who is religious. Someone who simply believes in Jesus. But, according to the Bible and the example of the church in Antioch, Christians were “Christ-followers” and disciples, not just “members of a church.” This is an important difference, and one that I think every “Christian” needs to consider for their own faith practice.

CHURCH
When you look at not only this verse, but throughout the rest of the book of Acts and into the New Testament epistles, here is what you see about the church: the “church” is the gathering together of the disciples. It’s not a building, not an event (like a scheduled “service”), and it’s not an “institution” or a “denomination.” It can INVOLVE those things, but it is NOT those things. When the disciples of Jesus gather together, form a community, have an assembly, this is the church. The church the way God envisioned and designed it is made up of all the people who follow Jesus – both all over the world and in local contexts.

It’s clear from Scripture that the church gathers together (in homes, in buildings, or even outside or in public); the church learns the Scriptures together (from those who have been called and designated as teachers and ministers of the Word); the church prays and worships together; and the church – all the disciples, young and old – gathers to encourage each other to follow the teachings of Jesus more faithfully (to live holy lives, to walk in God’s wisdom, to grow spiritually and display the fruits of the Spirit, to love like Christ, to give generously, to overcome temptation, and to be more like Jesus every day).

This is what I want my “church” experience to be. I don’t want to just be a church member. I don’t want to just attend a service. I want to be a part of the community of disciples who commit themselves to following the teachings of Jesus Christ.

I want to value the church and to be a part of it both for my own edification and that of others. I want to be a follower of Christ, not just a “Christian.” And maybe this can serve as an encouragement for all of us to reexamine our own “Christianity” and our own understanding of what it means to be a part of God’s church.

Transforming your thinking to discover an abundant life

Allow me to share a bit of insight that hit me like a ton of bricks as I sat with the Scriptures one morning.

This powerful truth was a hard reminder that what goes on inside of me has a direct effect on what comes out of me, and those things ultimately influence my life.

When we begin to grasp this truth, we begin to experience the kind of healthy and abundant living that Jesus actually wants for us. Hearing it, though, is one thing. The question is, what will we do with it?

So, what was this message that gripped my heart? Here it is:

What I allow into my mind and heart on a regular basis has a significant impact on my thoughts, my attitudes, and my actions. What my mind feeds on – the images, the messages, the perspectives, the reactions that arise at different times during my days – has the potential to either pull me down or to edify me.

I constantly need to remind myself that what I allow to have a place in my head will ultimately trickle out and affect me. Not only is this fact true, but another reality is that – on the inside – I am already prone to weakness and sin and carnality. Because of this, I need to be careful about what I put IN, knowing that what goes in mixes with the wickedness that is already there and produces even greater corruption.

I need biblical truth to saturate my mind. I need to take in God’s Word and allow those messages to fill my head, not worldly wisdom or human logic. No matter how intelligent I think I am or how much wisdom I think I’ve picked up along the journey of my life, the fact is that the Scriptures are the words that God wants me to dwell on. I need God’s truth to guide and influence me – whether it’s about ambition, my work, what I think I’m owed, or what I think I deserve. These things need to exist in submission to what God says, and when His truth takes up residence in my mind, my heart and my will are going to be conformed in these areas.

I need God’s perspective on my situations and circumstances. I don’t need to look at things from a human-centered perspective that’s rooted in the flesh. I need to remember that I’m owed nothing, that my life is all about grace, and that as long as I’m following and obeying Jesus, I am in His will.

I need to know how to shut out the messages, intelligence, wisdom, images, and the lies of my sinful heart and the world around me, and I need to let my mind be filled with things that will lead me to greater peace, more joy, contentment, faith, and assurance of the promises of God.

What am I listening to? What am I tuning into? What am I allowing to take up residence inside of me? What thoughts and outlooks and beliefs are swirling around in my head that are affecting my emotions and influencing my actions?

Too often I allow myself to carry on thoughts or beliefs or outlooks or attitudes that really don’t reflect the character of God or His truth – distortions of the mind that come from distortions of the heart. Things like:

“I deserve better. People need to recognize that, or I need to make it known somehow.”

This life does not make me happy, and that’s what I really need – to be happy. I need to do whatever it takes to achieve that”

“I work hard. I deserve success. If things don’t work out in my favor, then it’s just unfair.”

When I fail to reject these patterns of thinking and I allow them to take up space in my mind, they then ultimately affect the way I feel, the way I experience my circumstances, and the choices that I make.

The Scripture says that we are to be “transformed by the renewing of [our] mind” (Romans 12:2), and that “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person (Matthew 15:18).” I would argue that “the heart” in this verse can also refer to “the mind” – to our innermost being. What is swirling around in there is what tends to come out of us when we are shaken. I want truth and holiness and the grace of God to be what spills out of me. And the only way for this to happen is for me to constantly avoid the lies and dwell on the truth.

This is my challenge today, and with God’s help I can walk this path towards transformation and renewal.

God help me to know what to avoid, what to stay away from, when to be ambitious, when to sit still, how to see things from a Christ-centered perspective, and how to follow my Savior more faithfully through this life.

Finding Freedom in the Gospel

The Gospel is not just a section of the Bible.

It isn’t just a story you read about in church.

The Gospel is a message. It’s a truth. It’s a living reality.

It is the message that Jesus died in order to set us free from sin and hell and even from ourselves.

The Gospel is a story of rescue. Because of faith in Jesus and a relationship with Him, you and I can be rescued from all the broken parts of our humanity.

And we all know that there are lots of broken parts in our humanity.

Believing and receiving this gospel – this good news – is something transformative and life-changing.

When we know that we are accepted by God because of Jesus, that the brokenness in us is forgiven and is being healed, that we have been rescued by His love and don’t have to worry about fixing ourselves, THIS changes everything.

That Gospel sets us free from the need to change ourselves, because we learn that Jesus wants to come inside of us and change us from within.

It sets us free from the need to be perfect, because we quickly discover that we never can be, but that God is working on us to make us more like Him. And only HE can do that work.

The Gospel sets us free from the need to make our lives what we think they need to be, because we learn how liberating it is to surrender our lives to God and let Jesus live through us.

The Gospel sets us free from this compulsion to perform in order to please God or to please others, because through the Gospel we find out that Jesus already did what needed to be done in order for God to be pleased with us.

God looks at us through the lens of His Son and He. Is. Pleased. With. Us.

Believing the Gospel sets us free from the unnecessary work of being better. Self-help books and exhausting efforts at improving our humanity become unfruitful and unimportant, because we learn through the gospel that we can never make our own selves good enough. And our version of good enough will always fall short of God’s version of perfection.

So, in the gospel, we find rest, and we find the permission to simply BE and to be loved and accepted for who we are.

The Gospel reminds us that Jesus loves us just the way we are but He wants to grow us and change us. And because of our relationship with Him, that becomes possible.

The Gospels sets us free. Not just a little, but wholly and entirely.

Who among us doesn’t want that liberation and freedom?

Discerning our Burdens and Desires From God’s Perspective

I believe strongly in the practice of being introspective.

I think there is incredible value in understanding yourself and discovering your desires, your ambition, your feelings, and your thoughts.

It’s important to pay attention the things that rise up within us and to ask, “What is this telling me about myself? Why am I feeling this way? And what do I need to do in response to it?”

Self-reflection is an important part of emotional health. The better we are at it, the stronger we will be as humans.

But it’s also an important part of our spiritual growth, as many times the things that we discover within are things that God is stirring up for His purposes.

In Psalm 145, King David writes these words:

“You open your hand. You satisfy the desire of every living thing.” (Psalm 145:16)

He is talking about God, and the fact that the Lord has the ability to fulfill desires among not only His people, but also every living creature on the earth.

God WANTS to satisfy our desires. But, to take it a step further, we need to understand that God not only has the ability to grant us the things that we desire, He also is the one who gives us the actual desires.

Charles Spurgeon said it this way: “In spiritual things, when God has raised a desire, He always gratifies it; hence the longing is prophetic of the blessing. In no case is the desire of the living thing excited to produce distress, but in order that it may seek and find satisfaction.”

He is saying something incredibly profound, that I think we need to pay attention to.

He’s saying that God wants to satisfy our desires, but it all begins with God giving us the desire in the first place that only He can satisfy.

When a longing stirs up within us, it is meant to push us toward God for the satisfaction of that longing. When we sense a desire or an ambition in our spirits, it’s meant to be prophetic of the provision that God will soon bring.

Here’s an example: At this point in my life, I have this intense desire to help Christians become more authentic and genuine followers of Jesus, shaped and influenced by His teachings rather than cultural Christianity.

I have to believe that God put this desire in my heart, and that this desire is prophetic of some blessing or direction that He is going to bring in response to it. Meaning that somehow He is going to satisfy that desire in some way, in using me to carry out that burden and see people come to know and surrender more wholly to the real ways of Jesus.

Charles Spurgeon says that the desires that we have are not meant to produce distress in us. It’s easy for that to happen, isn’t it? We discover some burden, some longing, some ambition, and we don’t know how it’s ever going to be fulfilled, so we end up feeling quite distressed and troubled.

We have longings for friendships, for company, for love, for financial stability, for a ministry opportunity, for a calling, for influence, for a sense that we are contributing value to the world.

We may feel stirred up about adoption, or immigration, or the injustices of our society. These burdens create longings within our hearts. We just want to DO something. We want to be a part of something. But we just aren’t sure what to do with it.

God can be trusted to fulfill those desires, if He’s the one who put them in our hearts to begin with.

And that’s where we need to not only be introspective, but also learn to go to Him and ask for clarity and discernment, asking God, “Is this desire from you? If so, I trust you to satisfy it. You know my longing. Now take it and do what you want with it.”

Can we commit ourselves to turning our desires, longings, and ambitions over to God and allowing Him to satisfy them in His own way and timing? I believe that when we do that, He will begin to open up doors and give us opportunities to step into a place where those longings, passions, burdens, and desires can be acted upon.

In that, there is a greater experience of the work of God in us and through us. And surely that’s what we desire more than anything else.

How Like Fish We Are

I love fishing. As often as I can throughout the year, I’ll load up my kayak and my fishing gear, or hop on a boat with my father-in-law and head for the water. I greatly enjoy casting that line out, hoping to get a bite from a hungry fish.

For the fisherman, fishing is an activity that brings relaxation, enjoyment, and the thrill of success. For the fish, however, it’s a lesson in giving into temptation, chasing after something desirable, only to find a hiding hook and be caught up in an unexpected place.

Along these lines, Aldo Leopold, in his book A Sand County Almanac, once wrote these words about fish:

“How like fish we are: ready, nay eager, to seize upon whatever new thing some wind of circumstance shakes down upon the river of time! And how we rue our haste, finding the gilded morsel to contain a hook.”

Here Leopold points out a very important, and unavoidable, flaw of all humans – that we are prone to rush to new things – seductive things, enticing things, exciting things, things that we THINK will improve our lives – only to discover some kind of “hook” hidden within that thing.

I know this has been true in my own life over the years.

I’ve chased after things that I thought would satisfy or fulfill me – a new job, a new house, a new car – only to soon discover the ways that the new and enticing thing led me into a trap of financial hardship and burden.

I’ve given into the enticement of new circumstances in life – areas where I thought I was needed, things that I was asked to do and assented to – only to experience extra stress and a disappointing lack of enjoyment.

Quick to hasten to the enticement of new things, only to find a hook hiding within the “gilded morsel.” Just like a fish.

The funny thing is that fish don’t tend to learn. They repeat the same mistake, over and over again, sometimes even immediately after being hooked the first time. Maybe God didn’t give them intelligence in this area because He wanted to use them to show us something.

Fish don’t learn. But do we?

We have this human tendency to be drawn to things that entice our own desires. And all of our desires are different. We don’t all crave the same things and so, therefore, we aren’t enticed by the same things.

But we’ve all given into whatever those things are that do entice us. Some of those things are more damaging and destructive than others. Some just cause us some inconvenience or a setback in life. Others may cause tremendous harm to ourselves or our relationships.

Whatever the thing is, the question is not “why did I do that?”, but, rather, “What can I learn from this?” How can realizing and paying attention to all the times that we have bitten into a hidden hook cause us to change our behaviors both now and in the future? How can it help us to understand that not everything that glitters is gold, and that not every opportunity, positive circumstance, offer, idea, or ambition is going to bring about good things in our lives?

Probably the most important thing we can do, in order to avoid the hidden hooks, is to carefully consider each of these new circumstances and opportunities, and then to make a plan for what we will do if it isn’t’ as good for us as we think it will be.

When we’ve seized upon the new thing or the new circumstance or the new opportunity, and we discover that we’ve bitten into a hook and we’re now experiencing hardship or regret, or we’ve caused damage to some area of our lives, or we realize that we’ve made a great error, we must have a way to bounce back, and then we must learn from the mistake.

Repeating them makes us even more like fish. And God didn’t create us with the intelligence of a fish. He designed us in His image – with the ability to reason, to apply wisdom, to learn from mistakes, and to be redeemed.

Life is not without its failures. Humans are not without their flaws. But all can be fixed and redeemed and made whole, if we allow ourselves to grow and change in the ways that keep us trapped.