February 24, 2009

Ordinary Joes, Part 5 - Philip, the Blind Evangelist

There are three Philip’s in the New Testament. One was the brother of Herod, whose bed-hopping wife commissioned the beheading of John the Baptist (Mark 6.14-29). Another was one among the first seven deacons (Acts 6), and became the first New Testament evangelist to the ‘dreaded’ Samaritans (Acts 8). That, and his leading to faith of the famous Ethiopian Eunuch (also in Acts 8), earned him the nickname “Philip the Evangelist” (Acts 21.8).

But, before either of these two Philip’s appeared on the stage of the New Testament, there was already a fairly important man with the same name … one of the original twelve apostles of Jesus, and quite an evangelist in his own right – Philip, the apostle. In fact, as we tell his story, two traits stick out. His penchant for evangelism … and the sometime weakness of his faith. That’s why I call him ‘the blind evangelist.’

Philip wasn’t literally blind. But sometimes, though the power of Jesus had been manifested, again and again, before Philip’s eyes … he still couldn’t see beyond the physical plane. We reminded ourselves last week of how Andrew, when faced with the task of finding food for five-thousand people, went out and found a boy with five loaves and two fish, and brought Him to Jesus, reasoning to himself: ‘It’s ain’t much … but who knows what Jesus may do with it.’ It’s a wonderful story to review … if you’re Andrew. But go back and re-read John 6 and you will discover that it was Philip, not Andrew, who was supposed to think up a solution to the food shortage that day. But all he could come up with was: ‘Jesus, 9 months wages wouldn’t buy even a snack for all these folks.’ And while he stared blankly at the impossible circumstance, his friend was busy seeing with the eyes of faith.

Philip displayed the same spiritual astigmatism in John 14 when, after all that time with Jesus, he still didn’t realize that he had actually been hanging out with God Himself for three years (see vv.8-9). And we could be quick to criticize Philip. But isn’t our vision often just as blurry? I would be willing to bet that, this very weak, you found yourself staring at a John 6 kind of situation – some scenario in your life where there seemed to be no solution. No solution, that is, but Jesus. But instead of seeing His power and bringing him your pitiful little lunch bucket … you just stood there with a blank look on your face, and never moved forward at all. I find myself in that kind of daze all the time. And Philip gives me hope that I am not alone among the Lord’s servants.

In fact, Philip gives me hope that, in spite of my sometime lack of faith, spiritual short-sightedness, and even outright blindness … Jesus still loves me, wants me around, and intends to use me. For, even in the midst of Philip’s blundering, he was leading people to Jesus! He was, in fact, the one who led one of the other eventual apostles to Jesus (Nathanael in John 1). Not many people can say that! And he, along with Andrew, his partner in evangelism, brought a group of Gentiles to Jesus in John 12 – making them among the first non-Jews to hear the good news. In fact, Philip ended his apostolic career in much the same way as he had begun it in John 1 – bringing people in Asia Minor (or modern Turkey). Tradition says* that he was stoned there … for bringing people to Jesus.

Now be careful. I am not advocating weak faith, or blindness to the power of Christ. Not at all. I am simply acknowledging that one of the apostles struggled with exactly these things … and so do I. And yet God used him. And so, when the grace of God and the love of Jesus are at work, I conclude that, sometimes (indeed most of the time in my case) it is possible for the blind to lead the blind.

*See Foxe's Book of Martyrs.

February 16, 2009

Ordinary Joes, Part 4 – Andrew, the Facilitator

Pop Quiz. Who was the very first follower of Jesus? John, the beloved disciple? No. Peter, the preacher? You’re getting warmer. Actually the answer (as I am sure you guessed from this article’s title) is Andrew, Peter’s brother. He had apparently been attached for some while to John the Baptist (John 1.35-39). But when John proclaimed that Jesus, his cousin, was indeed “the Lamb of God” … Andrew did what each of us should do. He left off following all other teachers and began following Jesus!

Soon after, Andrew began doing what he is now famous for – bringing people to Jesus. It started (John 1.40-42) with his own brother Simon (whom Jesus re-named Peter). And we all know how much God eventually accomplished through. So imagine, for a moment, the significance of Andrew’s initial invitation to his brother: “We have found the Messiah.” How much impact did those words, from God, through Andrew’s lips, have on world history? 3,000 people, on the day of Pentecost, could have thanked Andrew for bringing his brother to Jesus. And so could untold thousands more who have benefitted from Peter’s preaching and writing … and from his likely being Mark’s main interviewee as he composed his gospel. The impact of Peter is incalculable. But it all started, humanly speaking, with his brother bringing him to Jesus!

Now if you or I brought someone of the magnitude of Peter (or Spurgeon, or Whitefield, or Wesley, or Piper) to Jesus … we could die happy, feeling we’d accomplished a life’s work. But Andrew didn’t stop bringing people to Jesus. Over in John 6, the disciples had run into a little dilemma … this one of a more temporal nature. 5,000 men hungry and isolated in the countryside. Where to get enough food, in such a remote place, for so many people? Andrew’s friend Philip surmised that it would cost 9 months’ wages to feed the whole lot of them (v.7). But Andrew wasn’t deterred. He found a boy with five loaves of bread and two fish and (you guessed it) brought him to Jesus (v.8-9)!

Now Andrew wasn’t at all sure that the boy’s food would make even a dent in the shortage (see v.9b). And we could scold him for his unbelief. But at least he brought the boy! ‘It’s not much, to be sure’ he must have thought. ‘But maybe if I can just get him to Jesus, it will all work out.’ And we need to learn to think that way. There are people all around us with problems – both physical and spiritual – that seem (to us, anyway) far too messy to ever be untangled. But maybe if we can just get them to Jesus … just maybe. Know anyone like that? And have you brought them to Jesus … in person and/or in prayer?

Andrew’s story continues in the 12th chapter of John. There Philip was approached by a group of Gentiles who (for reasons we aren’t told) wanted to meet Jesus. But, whatever the reason, Philip decided to help them out. And who did he enlist to help him in bringing these folks to Jesus? The facilitator extraordinaire – Andrew! And, when they came, Jesus preached His own sacrificial death to them … making them some of the few Gentiles to hear the gospel from the Lord’s own lips! Now unlike the other two stories, we do not know the ending to this one. What happened to those Gentiles? Did they believe or not? We’re not sure. But that’s not what is most important, really. What is important is that Andrew was faithful; that Andrew brought them; that Andrew gave them an opportunity to believe. And that is what is important for you. You cannot guarantee yourself the evangelistic success of a Peter. But you can ensure that you will be as faithful as his lesser-known brother. You cannot ensure that anyone will ever believe. But you can make sure that someone brings them to Jesus so that they have the chance! Will you do that … starting with your own children, parents, siblings, classmates, co-workers, and friends … and working your way out to the nations?

To inspire you, listen to the end of Andrew’s story. According to various historians, Andrew eventually preached in modern Russia, Ethiopia, and Greece. Eventually he was crucified for Jesus’ sake on an X-shaped cross. He hung there gasping and dying for two days … all the while urging passers-by to repent and believe. And so he died in just the same way as he had lived ... bringing people to Jesus. What about you?

February 13, 2009

"When a Coin in the Coffer Rings ..."

"A soul from purgatory springs." Or, at least, so says the Roman Catholic Church. You thought the Roman Catholics had ceased the soul-killing offer of forgiveness of sins by means of good works, nice donations, and a handsome little certificate handed out by the bishop? Think again.

Indulgences are back. They aren't exactly get out of hell free cards. You can get out of hell, they say ... just not for free. Yes, yes, it is true: Indulgences can no longer actually be purchased. "But charitable contributions, combined with other acts can help you earn one."

Settle down now. Don't get too excited yet. There is, as always, a catch. You can only get one indulgence, per person, per day. But with the economy the way it is, who knows? If you get in a real jam, and can produce enough cash (err, charitable donations), you may be able to do a little bargaining!

February 10, 2009

Ordinary Joes, Part 3 - John Who?

Of all the twelve apostles of Jesus, perhaps we know the most about John. Like Peter and James, he was always there at the key moments. He was one of the inner circle. In fact, he seems to have been Jesus’ best earthly friend (garnering the nickname “the disciple whom Jesus loved”). And he wrote far more New Testament literature, even than Peter … giving us even deeper insights into what made him tick, and what he was like as an old man.

John was the only one of the original twelve who was not violently murdered for his faith. But that doesn’t mean he did not suffer. As an old man, he was placed in exile on a tiny, rocky island in the Mediterranean (“Patmos”, see Revelation 1.9). Think Alcatraz without the fancy prison buildings. It is possible that John died there, away from his beloved churches and virtually alone. But what a blessing that the Lord allowed him to live to such an advanced age! Because of it, we have, not only his gospel, but also 1, 2, and 3 John … and Revelation. And in those books (particularly the three letters) we begin to see very clearly that this one time “son of thunder” (Mark 3.17); this one time self-promoter (Mark 10.35-40), was now completely changed. John is often known today as ‘the apostle of love’ – and not just because He was such a close friend of Jesus, but because that friendship made him such a great lover of others.

All of the love commands that are so familiar to us … “Beloved, let us love one another” (1 John 4.7); “let us not love with word or with tongue, but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3.18); “if God so loved us, we ought to love one another” (1 John 4.11) … they all come from the quill and ink of the aged John. In fact, in his three short letters (comprising only 7 chapters and 133 verses), he uses either the noun or verb form of the word love 62 times. He highlights love a further 51 times in his gospel. What a wonderful lesson this one-time blustery big-mouth has left us! “Let us love one another … for love is from God” (1 John 4.7-8).

And let me point out one other valuable lesson from this most famous of apostles … He did not want, in any way, to become famous. And he took steps (unsuccessfully, of course) to make sure he didn’t.

Imagine yourself living early in the second century, somewhere in Asia Minor. And, since all the books of the New Testament have not yet been compiled into one volume, all you have at your disposal is the gospel of John and his three letters. Being a new Christian, you pour over them, drinking in every word. And one day the pastor comes up to you and says: ‘So what do you think about John, the apostle?’ Do you know what your answer might be? ‘John who?’

You see, if you had no access to the writings of the other apostles, you may never have heard of John. Why? Because he never once names himself in all the chapters of his gospel and letters. Not once! He calls himself “the other disciple” and, occasionally, “the disciple whom Jesus loved” … and in his later writings, “the elder.” But he never names himself. He never seeks acclaim for himself. We only know that “the other disciple” is John himself by comparing notes with Matthew, Mark, and Luke! And what a lesson to be learned! John got it! Christ is all! And therefore, as Augustine would say a few generations later: each of us should “love to be thyself unknown and to be counted for nothing.” That was John in his later life. John who? The son of thunder turned anonymous apostle!

But what about you? Do you “love to be thyself unknown”? Would you be content (even happy) if someone wrote a book about your church … and never once mentioned you by name? Would you write it that way yourself, or at least be willing to deflect all the praise to Christ? O dear brothers and sisters, let us imitate John as He imitates Jesus! Let us humble ourselves and make ourselves (Philippians 2.7) “nothing.”

February 5, 2009

The Shack, Reviewed

A brother in the ministry reminded some of us recently of how widespread is "evangelical" interest in the popular book, The Shack by William Young. The book's popularity seems to be verging on Jabez-esque proportions. And it is utterly, completely, and disgustingly heretical. Yet perhaps some of you friends have said to you, 'You should really read The Shack. It's changed the whole way I view God.' The second sentence is, quite possibly, true. Which is why you should ignore the first one!

But, in case you have read it, or in case you have friends who have (or might) ... Tim Challies has put together an amazingly well-done, insightful, and graphically pleasing review that would be an attractive, brief, and helpful read for you, or them, or both. Here it is. Enjoy. And be helped.

February 2, 2009

Ordinary Joes, Part 2 - Silent James

When we think about the apostles, the number 12 is obviously key. But perhaps just as important a number is the digit 3. Why? Because, of the twelve closest followers of Jesus, there were three who, along with Jesus, formed the inner circle within the inner circle – Peter (whom we know well from all his impulsive antics within the gospel accounts), John (who wrote, perhaps, the most well-loved of the four gospels), and James (about whom we know almost nothing).

Have you ever considered how strange it is that we should know so little about one of Jesus’ three closest followers? We know James was the son of Zebedee and brother of John. All of the first three gospels record this fact. And we know that he was there at all the key moments in Jesus ministry; those private moments when Jesus saw fit only to have a few of the disciples with Him – when He raised a little girl from the dead (Mark 5); at His transfiguration (Matthew 17); and as He wrestled in the inner recesses of the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 13). In other words, whenever Jesus felt it necessary to bring a long only a few of his most trusted friends, James was among that group! And yet he never had an individual speaking part in the gospel accounts. In fact, it was his little brother who overshadowed him and became a well-known pastor, the author of five New Testament books, and “the disciple whom Jesus loved”.

In the gospels, only two brief passages shed any individual light at all on the personality of the older son of Zebedee. And both are negative. First we have the account (Luke 6.51-56) of how a certain village refused to allow Jesus and the disciples to stay overnight. James and John’s solution? “Lord, do you want us to command fire from heaven to come down and consume them?” So much for letting him who is without sin cast the first stone! Follow that story with Mark chapter 10, in which James and his little brother had the audacity to ask Jesus to make them co-regents with Him (with the God-man!) in heaven (vv.35-40) … and what we have is another young and restless follower of Jesus who sometimes let his passions get away from him. Jesus, in fact, nicknamed James and John the “sons of thunder”(Mark 3.17) because of their abrasive pride.

So, in many ways, we could say the same things about James as we did a week ago about Peter (and about some of ourselves): rash, arrogant, and so on. But there was a difference. James’s occasional impulsiveness seems to have been mixed (most of the time, anyway) with a natural propensity to follow, rather than push his way to the front. Why do we know so little about James and so much about Peter? Not because James was any less present at the most important moments in Jesus’ ministry … for he was always there. But because James seems to have been always there primarily as a supporter and follower, rather than a decision maker. Perhaps he simply wasn’t the kind of natural and vocal leader Peter was. He was a sergeant rather than a general. If so, his story is a simple reminder that God uses all kinds of men to shepherd His flock – not just type A’s.

Or perhaps James’s usual silence is an indication that he learned his lesson more quickly than Peter. Maybe he learned, sooner than Peter did, to listen and learn before he let fly his thunderous opinions. Perhaps James learned, in the course of those three years of Jesus, to temper his fleshly zeal and be slower to speak. That is not to say that James was a wimp. Surely a man nicknamed “son of thunder” was no wimp! In fact, in Acts 12 we learn that he was run through with a sword … presumably for preaching Christ. So James wasn’t afraid to speak. But he had apparently learned the art of knowing when to speak with boldness, and when to hold his tongue. And that is a lesson, in one direction or the other, from which we can all benefit!