Reflections on Contextualization

Among those involved in the world Christian movement is a term used to develop strategy for making the good news of Jesus Christ applicable to varying nations, cultures, and languages; to make the gospel applicable in a way that allows the individuals in the culture to remain a part of their culture by redeeming cultural practices for Christ.

This strategic planning is know as “contextualization.”

Those of us involved in world mission know and understand it well.

Those of us involved in world mission employ it regularly on short term trips, long term excursions, and with any interactions we have with internationals within our own country.

The goal of contextualization is to ensure that individuals within a culture remain an essential part of that culture in all things language, practice, and vocation.

In other words, Christians bring the good news of Jesus Christ to a people who have never heard about Him, and that is all that they bring.

Because culture does not equate to sin.

Because skin color and language do not equate to sin.

And because we believe that God has created all people for good works that He personally prepared for them before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 2:10). And these good works include culture, language, and cultural practices.

However, why has contextualization of the gospel been primarily studied in relation to the world Christian movement?

What I am talking about here does not have to do with contextualization of the sinner’s prayer of salvation. The modern evangelical church has done a wonderful job of making the sinner’s prayer (that which brings people to “accept Christ”) applicable to various groups within American culture.

What I am talking about is the contextualization of the whole gospel- the gospel that is not just about salvation, but about the mind-renewing – life altering – gospel that reconciles every area of life that individuals are already involved in. The gospel that calls people to remain in their jobs, their arts, their doctoral studies, while consecrating all of those things to Jesus that He might use them to powerfully influence that sphere of the world for the Kingdom of God.

 It seems that within the evangelical church in America there is this idea that if individuals want to follow God they must “sacrifice” time spent on amoral (and even good) things such as work, school, and the arts and instead redirect that time to church based activities. So often I have heard the phrase, “individual ‘x’ does not want to follow God because he/she is spending too much time at work, at school, or participating in the arts.” More often than this have I heard, “a personal ministry requires sacrifice and time, therefore spending too much time at school, work, or the arts is, according to the New Testament, not following God.”

Why are we manipulating individuals who are trying to follow Jesus with their God given gifts and passions to instead give those things up and latch on to man-declared methods of “following God?”

When the Holy Spirit gifts an individual He gifts them for the purpose of expanding the Kingdom of God in that vein of culture. Without varied outworking of the gospel, the Kingdom of God will never expand beyond our man-made boundaries.

Jesus wants the world to come to Him with all of their gifts, talents, and desires, not some whitewashed tomb that has been manipulatively led to give up passions, gifts, and desires for the “sake of the gospel.”

That is not the gospel, that is man made religion.

The evangelical church in America needs to contextualize the gospel in such a way that individuals will sacrifice – for Jesus Christ – time, energy, and resources to infiltrate the darkest places in the world; the arts, the marketplace, and the positions of leadership within government, business, and community.

We are so good at pulling people out of those positions that the world is actually getting darker instead of lighter. So many I have met have given up desires to be musicians, doctors, lawyers, PhD graduates, CEO’s, because a leader in the church told them that following God requires giving up time devoted to those things (amoral, mind you) and instead redirecting that time to activities within the local church.

May Jesus have mercy on us for our foolishness and arrogance in this regard.

We should instead be commissioning followers of Christ to become doctors, to become musicians, to become governors, superintendents, lawyers, politicians, police officers, because Jesus wants to infiltrate all of culture, not just church culture.

We do not call people in to the church, we call people to become the church.

By limiting the Christian in education, vocation, and culture we effectually limit the spread of the gospel thereby preventing the Kingdom of God from expanding beyond arbitrary boundaries set up by the church.

We should rejoice when a committed Christian musician desires to break into the dark world of the music industry.

We should rejoice when a committed Christian film-maker chooses to make his life about telling great stories for Christ and meeting those in places like Hollywood where they are at that they might meet the Jesus who wants them to be even more competent in their field.

We should rejoice when a committed Christian prayerfully sacrifices his time to be educated in a way that will effectively enact justice in the world and expand the Kingdom of God through the use of arts, medicine, law, engineering, and education.

If we are to see the Kingdom of God on Earth as it is in Heaven we must stop limiting believers in Christ to only being engaged in ministry in the local church and commission them to be fully engaged in the marketplace, the arts, and at the university level.

If we do not, we will continue to see American culture move further and further away from the “only Name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

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Reflections on Zephaniah

“… the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory that will be revealed in us…”

Intrigued that this post begins with a verse from Romans 8 instead of the titled Zephaniah?

That makes two of us.

The Holy Spirit inspires as He wills, I do not question it.

As I was reading through Zephaniah tonight – a book I have read countless times over the years – the nature of suffering stuck out to me in a way it never has before. So many quote Zephaniah 3:17 as if it were the central point of the book.

Well, friends, it definitely is not.

The central theme in the book of Zephaniah is judgment and suffering; the judgment and suffering that are wrought by God on the nations because they have committed acts of injustice directly correlated with turning their eyes away from their Lord and Savior Yahweh.

Yes, this judgment and suffering prophesied by Zephaniah to the nations is suffering and judgment from the hand of God.

Many, including myself, see suffering and judgment as being equated with evil; equated with everything that God is not.

Well, friends, this, too, is false.

Suffering is, yes, the direct result of fallen human nature deciding to turn their eyes from their Creator to the created and worship that instead.

Judgment, in a similar light, is the direct result of this same ocular misdirection.

Therefore, suffering and judgment cannot be wrought by God because they are equated with sin and evil.

Right?

Wrong.

 God’s judgment – and consequently the nature of suffering due to God’s judgment – is out of love for you, love for me.

The goal in God wrought suffering is to turn our worship from the created to the Creator; from that which rust and moth destroy to that which brings abundant life and abundant joy resulting in righteous acts of justice and love.

The suffering that He puts us through results in glory.

The suffering we put ourselves through? Vanity.

For He delights in suffering that brings about glory, not suffering that brings about vanity.

Our tendency is to become and live like that which we worship.

The created is dying; the Creator is living.

The created is vanity; the Creator is glory.

God has something more for us than to hopelessly live and perish in vain.

Paul, in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 says it best,

“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who have died, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.”

We have hope that directing our worship towards our Creator will bring about the abundant life and joy that Jesus promised we would have on this Earth; and we have hope that directing our worship towards our Creator will ultimately result in the “glory that will be revealed in us” when we enter life eternal.

Zephaniah 3:8-10 makes clear God’s intentions for Zephaniah’s prophetic words and the suffering of the nations,

“… Indeed, My decision is to gather nations, to assemble kingdoms, to pour out on them My indignation, all My burning anger… because of all [their deeds]… pride… deceit… and injustice… for then the people will have purified lips, that all of them may call on [My name] to serve [Me] shoulder to shoulder [with one another]…

Zephaniah spoke to Israel concerning the suffering that God was going to bring not only to them, but to all the nations that worship what is going to destroy them.

And He did this in love to spare them.

To spare them from suicidal worship that leads to vain suffering and despair.

My friend Mike’s treatment of suffering and the gospel is an apt closure,

There is an element of the gospel that requires that we suffer in this life. Suffering is not all of the gospel, but enough of it that if you avoid suffering you will miss the gospel.

The suffering of the church in this present age is the backdrop for the futures glories and excellencies that are awaiting Christ’s people.

God brings about suffering in your life because He loves you.

Do not stand for self wrought suffering that leads to vanity.

Pray for God led suffering that leads to glory.

Reflections on 1 Thessalonians 5:8-10

“But since we are of the day, let us be controlled, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him.” (1 Thessalonians 5:8-10)

Without assured truth and love rooted in Christ that guard the heart, we are vulnerable to a number of feelings that run contrary to the high call of Christ.

Without the breastplate of faith we are prone to following sensations and feelings rather than truth.

Without the confidence of eternal life through Christ that guards our minds, our motivation to run with endurance becomes dulled by thoughts of guilt and worthlessness that lead to death.

Without the helmet of salvation, we are likely to reach a point where we reason our way out of acting in faith for Christ.

We don the breastplate to protect the heart and the helmet to protect the mind for we are actively engaged in a cosmic war. A war not of flesh – even though all flesh are entangled in it – but of truth and ideas. We know the outcome; the war is won – our salvation guaranteed.

So why fight?

Why engage in a war in which the outcome is already made known?

We fight because although the war is ours, many battles must still be won. The high call of Christ is to skirmish for the souls of those to whom His blood has not yet covered; to bring the guarantee of salvation to all flesh.

Don the breastplate of faith and love, and the helmet of salvation to victory!

Reflections on Restoration

It truly is overwhelming to be so unconditionally loved, so cared about, by someone that you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that everything they say and do is in your best interest. They may call out weak spots in your character, but you receive it in humility because you know they love you. They may ask you to do something difficult and scary, but you step out in faith because you know that they care about you.

The truth is that there is only One who fits the bill. And the restorative power of His love is truly awesome.

Hosea 6:1-3 touched my heart in a unique way as I was slowly reading through each verse this afternoon. Hosea pleads, Come, let us return to the LordFor He has torn us, but He will heal us; He has wounded us, but He will bandage us. He will revive us after two days; He will raise us up on the third day, That we may live before Him. So let us know, let us press on to know the Lord. His going forth is as certain as the dawn; And He will come to us like the rain, Like the spring rain watering the earth.”

The call to the world throughout the Bible is always, “Return to Me! Please return to Me! Let me heal you! Drink from the well that will never run dry!”

And for many of us, returning to the One who created us is more of a painful journey than a peaceful one, Israel being a prime example.

The reason for the Law of Moses, the reason for the Kings of Israel, the reason for the prophets, priests, wars, and captivities (notice that this is the entirety of the Old Testament) was because Israel continually tried to remedy their problems with foreign gods who had “eyes, but could not see, ears but could not hear, mouths but could not speak.” (Psalm 115:5-6)

Instead of returning to the Lord in their mistakes, they turned their eyes from Him. Instead of repenting – redirecting their minds to follow the God who was faithfully leading them- they rebelled. Instead of flourishing in His ways, they floundered in their own ways.

And time after time did the Lord bring His restorative hand of discipline down on the Israelite people. He destroyed their lifeless gods. He broke every expectation that they had of being able to live completely self-reliant. And He made sure that they knew that without Him, real peace, love, and joy are unattainable.

He knew they needed Him, because He knows what is best for those whom He created.

Remarkably, three things are consistently mentioned by individuals in the Old Testament who turn back to the Lord after undergoing bouts of discipline:

1) If we return to Him, He will hear us

2) If we return to Him, He will heal us

3) If we return to Him, He will lead us

There was never any doubt in the eyes of those who underwent the discipline of the Lord that He loved them and cared for them. Nor was there ever any fear of rejection if repentance was made.

The discipline of the Lord is not for the pleasure of a sadistic deity, it is rather for the restoration of broken people to the only One who can heal their brokenness, the all-loving, Almighty, Yahweh. 

The people of Israel never doubted His intentions.

Nor should we.

It will be painful, that can be guaranteed.

But what can also be guaranteed is that He knows what He is doing, and His discipline is for our benefit, for our restoration.

And so the promises of God to us if we offer ourselves to Him in repentance is that he will hear, heal, and lead. Hear, so that we might commune with Him. Heal, so that we might be free from the guilt and shame of our mistakes. And lead, so that we might walk in His ways producing God-honoring fruit wherever we go.

For the true purpose of discipline is to restore the creature to the Creator, and the purpose of restoring the creature to the Creator is God-honoring action.

Reflections on Rituals, Rites, and Festivals

Although most of the many people who came from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar and Zebulun had not purified themselves, yet they ate the Passover, contrary to what was written.” (2 Chronicles 30:18)

Set in the context of spiritual revival in Judah under King Hezekiah, thousands from the surrounding tribes of Israel gather for the Passover feast.

Curiously enough, the enacting of this particular Passover feast ran contrary to the instructions for the Passover set up by Moses in Exodus 12.

“This month shall be the beginning of months for you; it is to be the first month of the year to you. Speak to all the congregation of Israel, saying, ‘On the tenth of this month they are each one to take a lamb for themselves, according to their fathers’ households, a lamb for each household… it is the Lord’s Passover.” (Exodus 12:2-3, 11d)

However, King Hezekiah knew this:

“The king and his officials and the whole assembly in Jerusalem decided to celebrate the Passover in the second month. They had not been able to celebrate it at the regular time because not enough priests had consecrated themselves and the people had not assembled in Jerusalem. The plan seemed right both to the king and to the whole assembly. They decided to send a proclamation throughout Israel, from Beersheba to Dan, calling the people to come to Jerusalem and celebrate the Passover to the Lord, the God of Israel.” (2 Chronicles 30:2-5)

So not only did those that King Hezekiah invited improperly partake in the Passover celebration (by not being ritually cleansed according to the Law of Moses), the entire celebration itself ran contrary to the prescribed plan for Passover God had given to Moses, the writer of Judaic Law.

But here is something intriguing, God finds that their decision to partake of the Passover contrary to everything prescribed by Himself and written by Moses to be acceptable.

“But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, “May the Lord, who is good, pardon everyone who sets their heart on seeking God—the Lord, the God of their ancestors—even if they are not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary.” And the Lord heard Hezekiah and healed the people.” (2 Chronicles 30:19-20)

How can this be? Does God contradict the very things He has already previously instructed?

May I suggest that the main point of the Passover sacrifice – and every other ritual, rite, and festival found in the Bible – was never the form and ritual itself, but rather to bring the one offering the sacrifice into the presence of God to receive forgiveness, enter into the joy of His love, and to then go out into all the world  making known that the God of love wants to bring life and justice to any who seek it.

Let me explain.

Stephen Hawthorne, in his article titled The Story of His Glory, says it like this,

When people worship anything or anyone besides [God], they become like it. God has better intentions for people. What is true worship anyway? Worship takes place when people recognize who God is and offer public acknowledgment and freely approach God, personally offering face-to-face gratitude and day-to-day allegiance. Worship is genuine relational interaction with God. That’s why God always welcomes us to worship with a gift. He never needs the worship of gifts. But the gift brings the giver… By their sacrifices and gifts, they offer themselves. (pp. 36)

Over and over again, throughout both the Old and New Testaments, God speaks out against the offerings and sacrifices that His so-called people bring Him. Micah 6:6-8 and Isaiah 58 are but two examples where God says that He would rather the people of Israel do justice to the poor and needy than perform rote rituals that have no heart level significance.

Furthermore, Hosea 6:6 sheds even more light on God’s desire for His people, “For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, and in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offering.”

Without a heart that is inclined towards worship of the Father, rituals, rites, and festivals are mere forms that lack any real value or significance.

God wants the giver, not the gift. God wants the heart, not the meaningless repetition of behavior.

God wants you, not what you want to bring Him.

2 Chronicles 30:18-20 is a clear example of God saying, “Finally! You finally understand! This system is not about cleaning yourself up! It’s not about you bringing me things. Because these things are meaningless to me. It’s about directing your heart towards me! Participating in these rites, these rituals, these festivals, brings you to me. And I want you, not what you have to bring me.”

 Although most of the many people who came from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar and Zebulun had not purified themselves, yet they ate the Passover, contrary to what was written.But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, ‘May the Lord, who is good, pardon everyone who sets their heart on seeking God—the Lord, the God of their ancestors—even if they are not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary. And the Lord heard Hezekiah and healed the people.” (2 Chronicles 30:18-20)

Why does God pardon them for going against clear instruction?

Because the instructions were for the purpose of inclining hearts towards Himself, regardless of the form.

It is common for individuals who participate in modern day rituals, rites, and festivals (church, small groups, worship services) to do so because they feel as if they must in order to appease the Almighty, whip-bearing, God.

Friend, God is not a slave driver.

Your attendance at the Sunday morning worship service does not appease the God who has every right to banish your body and Spirit to the place reserved for those who hurt themselves and one another.

That is Jesus’ job. And he already gave His life so that you could live pardoned from ever needing to do anything to appease the Almighty God.

He is pleased with you.

He loves you.

Incline your heart towards Him.

Because without that, outward forms of worship are vain actions that effectively crucify the Christ a second time.

He died once for sin. And He rose from the grave to declare that sin forgiven.

You do not need to ‘act accordingly’ in order to please Him.

All outward forms of worship are for the purpose of drawing you near to Him and drawing others near to Him. And it is when we are near to Him that our lives begin to change, that justice is done, and that moral living is adhered to.

Worship the Lord in love with your heart, with your soul, and with your mind, because only then will outward forms of worship take on any life-changing meaning.

(Quoted article: http://oneworldmissions.com/media/pdf/articles/hawthorne_thestoryof.pdf)

Reflections on “Abba, Father”

“I once was dead, until you brought me to life. Now I am born again by your Spirit. You gave us the right to be called your sons and daughters. We cry out “Abba, Father!” We are yours and yours alone…”

What an incredibly apt reflection on the character and nature of the God that we worship. This song, written by Jonathan and Christine Kimball, has been a powerful source of motivation for me to meet God as He is; Father to His redeemed children.

The first instance of the term “Abba” arises just moments before the chief priests and the pharisees send Jesus to the cross; as He is praying in the Garden of Gethsemane and pleading with His Father – Yahweh – to, if at all possible, remove the cup of suffering He is going to endure. (Mark 14:36)

This cup of suffering was not the cross.

It was the weight of the sin of the world that He took on His shoulders at the moment He cried out, “Eloi, Eloi, llama sabacthani.”

“My God… My God… Why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus was completely separated from the Father, and Jesus completely took on the sin of the world.

Romans 3:23 says that “the wages of sin is death.”

But Jesus never sinned.

And therefore “death could not keep its hold on Him.”

Jesus rose from the grave on the third day as a testimony declaring that His offering for the sin of the world was accepted by the Father. For since He never sinned, He conquered sin and death and so, too, can all who come to Him conquer sin and death.

The wage of the sinner is death, but the wage of the sinless is eternal life.

All who confess “with their mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe that He rose from the dead… receive Him… [and become] children of God.” (Romans 10:9-10; John 1:12)

It isn’t that Jesus wanted to refrain from taking on the sin of the world that He cried out for God to spare Him. It is that He did not want to be separated from His Father.

But He followed through, becoming separate from the Father because He cared more about our freedom from the oppressing nature of sin than His own life.

Twice more does the term “Abba” show up in the New Testament. Both in relation to the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross.

 “For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, ‘Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15)

“Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!'” (Galatians 4:6)

When we meet Jesus for the first time, not only do we come into a personal relationship with Him, but He indwells us in the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit is the “deposit that guarantees our inheritance” in the kingdom of God, where Jesus “went to prepare a place for us.” (Ephesians 1:13-14; John 14:2-3)

Because He conquered death, so we conquer death; because He paid the wage of our sin, so we reap the benefits of His sinless righteousness; because He is God’s firstborn of creation, so we become brothers and fellow heirs to the promises of the Kingdom of God; because He is the Son, so we, too, become sons. 

He gave us the right to call Him Father.

And He delights to call us His sons and daughters.

It is because of Jesus’ life giving work on the cross that we “enter the throne room of the Almighty God with confidence” to address Him as our “Abba,” as our “Father.”