Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Dinner With A Hypocrite

"But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party." - Galatians 2:11-12 (ESV)

In the Apostle Paul's letter to the churches of the region of Galatia we find a few very interesting historical details in regard to the author's experiences in his introduction to the early Christians and Christian leaders.  We are told of his difficulties, his status as being relatively unknown by sight and, finally, his acceptance by the leaders at Jerusalem.  From that point, we are lead to the city of Antioch and the scene of what would be a most eventful and educational dinner.

There in Antioch, where the Disciples were first called Christians, the Apostle Peter, called Cephas, was eating with the Gentiles.  It is reasonable to assume that these Gentiles were Gentile Christians but whether they were or not is immaterial.  The point is that the Apostle Peter was seated at dinner with ethnic Gentiles though he was an ethnic Jew.  This is not unreasonable.  After all, it should be remembered that this was the same Peter who had the marvelous vision on the rooftop in Joppa in which God demonstrated the cleansing of flesh for meat as well as the cleansing which was coming upon the Gentiles through the preaching of the Gospel.

When the Apostle Peter, after this vision, went to the household of Cornelius and preached the Gospel, their receptivity to and obedience of the Gospel evidenced through the baptism of the Holy Spirit and their submission to water baptism in the name of Jesus Christ was manifestation of their cleansing as an ethnic group before God.  In other words, as the Apostle Peter reasoned with those Jewish Christians who were with him and thereafter, if God has received the Gentiles, how can they be forbidden?  They most obviously are our Brethren and must be received as such.  They were no longer, as the Jews had been taught, an unclean people to be avoided and shunned.

How peculiar it is then to see the same Apostle Peter turn into a hypocrite at the dinner table in Antioch.  For, according to the Scriptures, we are told that when the ethnic Jewish Christians came from James in Jerusalem to where Peter was at Antioch dining with the Gentiles that Peter removed himself from the Gentiles because of his fear of the Jewish Christians.  The issue was circumcision coupled with deep seated bigotry.  Among the Jewish Christians was a popular belief that Christian converts should be circumcised and that there was a difference between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.

Here is the summary of Peter's hypocrisy:  1) He believed, because of direct Divine revelation based upon the Word of God that the Gentiles were clean.  2)  He dined with the Gentile Christians when the Jewish Christians from Jerusalem weren't around.  3) When the Jewish Christians from Jerusalem came around, his conviction in regard to the Gentiles and his integrity in regard to his handling of Truth was compromised because of his fear of the Jewish Christians who came from James in Jerusalem.

It so happened that the Apostle Paul was also in attendance at this occasion and his response to Peter's conduct was quick and decisive.  Paul was enraged at the actions of Peter especially when it manifested its influence in Paul's own close companion in ministry Barnabas.  When Paul saw the actions of Peter, the Jews and Barnabas, he confronted Peter to his face before everyone and said, "If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?" (Galatians 2:14)  He pointed out and condemned Peter's hypocrisy in the clearest possible terms.  Peter was wrong for holding the Gentile Christians as private equals while treating them as public inferiors.

When Paul described Peter's conduct, he said that Peter "stood condemned" (Galatians 2:11).  Weymouth translated the phrase as, "his conduct condemned him."  It is this notion that led the translators of the Twentieth Century New Testament to render the passage, "he stood self-condemned."  In short, Paul rebuked Peter to his face before the Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians because Peter's actions were worthy of condemnation and were self-condemnatory: worthy of condemnation because they represented gross hypocrisy and self-condemnatory because Peter knew in his heart that there was nothing wrong with eating with the Gentile Christians or any other Gentile no matter what the Jewish Christians from Jerusalem thought about it.  Had Peter been a leader of Christian integrity, he would have stood with the Gentile Christians regardless of what it might have cost him in reputation with the Church at Jerusalem.

Peter was wrong.  He was wrong for putting reputation before Truth and, in privately supporting those he would not publicly endorse, his conduct was "not in step with the truth of the gospel" (Galatians 2:14).  Peter's conduct was not just self-serving; it was the antithesis of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  We see this clearly when we consult various translations in their rendering of the thought conveyed here.  The KJV says Peter and the Jewish Christians had not "walked uprightly according to the truth of the Gospel."  The NASB says they "were not straightforward about the truth."   The HCSB says they were "deviating from the truth of the gospel" while the ISV says they were "not acting consistently."  There is no way to look at what the Apostle Peter and the Jewish Christians were doing and justify it.  It was conduct unbecoming a Christian and a violation of the Gospel of Truth.

Now, what does this have to do with us today?  The hypocrisy of Christians in this regard in the modern Church is as present, shocking and worthy of condemnation as it was in the early Church.  It is not enough to be a private supporter of anyone who is in the right while, in the name of protecting your own interests or reputation, distancing yourself from them in the sight of those who are wrong in their thinking.  We can lament the fact that things are the way they are, but what do we gain for the name of Christ or the cause of Truth when we go along with the crowd and wrap ourselves in the robe of men-pleasing?  The Apostle Paul stood against the "system" because the "system" was acting in disobedience to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and, when all was said and done, came out all the greater in reputation, integrity and spiritual stature with those who held to the Truth.

What does it say to Christ and the Gospel when we embrace in private those we denounce in public?  Or what does it say of our integrity when we accept certain Truths behind closed doors while refusing to acknowledge them openly for fear of what the "Jews from Jerusalem" might say?  The Apostle Peter had a lot to lose in the eyes of James and the Saints at Jerusalem for dining with the Gentiles and, in the eyes of God, he would have been better off had he lost it.  Instead, Peter lost his integrity; sold for the price of the approval of those who, ultimately, were in the wrong.  When Peter sided with the Jewish Christians over the Gentiles, he turned away from the Truth of the Gospel.  Paul's rebuke was sharp and appropriate.  After all, he had been having dinner with a hypocrite and never knew it.

I challenge you, in the name of Christ, to stand with what is right even in the face of great personal loss.  How many individuals of pure heart and strong character who have struggled and overcome adversity stand with a mark against them in the eyes of some but with approval in the eyes of God?  Do you stand with them when the "Jews from Jerusalem" are around?  Or are you ashamed?  Or self-absorbed?  Or unwilling to truly follow the Gospel in the pure Spirit of Christ?  How many causes must remain points of public division when, privately, neither you nor the Scriptures find fault with them?  Will you build your house on sand for the sake of "fellowship" or will you plant your feet firmly on the Rock of Truth?

How many will have the spirit of Paul?  More importantly, how many will have the Spirit of God?  How many more will be the hypocrite at the dinner table?

God help us.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

When Soap Gets In Your Eyes

"Jesus said to his disciples: 'Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come.'" - Luke 17:1 (NIV)

Inspiration comes to me in some strange places frequently.  For example, I remember reading the label on a shampoo bottle and noticing a couple of things.  First of all, I was surprised that there was a need for actual instructions on something as self explanatory as shampoo.  Secondly, I noticed a warning printed in bold letters.  Since that time I have tried to find that warning on other shampoo bottles and haven't had a lot of success in my search.  Occasionally I've found a brand of shampoo that includes these words:  "WARNING: Eye irritant.  If product comes in contact with eyes wash thoroughly with water immediately."  Again, this seems like common sense and not really necessary on the label of a shampoo bottle.  Then again, we do live in the age where a can of very clearly labeled honey roasted peanuts also has to include a phrase such as "Warning: Contains Peanuts" on the can.

Either we've really turned into a society where we are no longer capable of taking care of the most basic and common facets of our lives or some bloated, bureaucratic, government regulatory commission somewhere thinks so.  Whatever the case, these warnings appear quite often and have given me a chuckle more than once.  But if we examine the nature of these warnings, we will usually see that there is some veracity in what is being said.  For example, it is true that a can of room deodorizer shouldn't be placed in a fire or near a high heat source because it will explode.  It is also true that, if you inhale spray paint, brain damage or death can occur.  So while the warnings are overkill perhaps, it doesn't necessarily negate them.

Certainly I'm not the only one who has felt the intense burn of soap in the eyes.  There have been occasions when the burning was so severe that I started thinking up a name for the seeing-eye dog I would need after I lost my sight.  But the last thing anyone would do to try and relieve the burning is to pour more shampoo into the eye.  Common sense says the best way to remove the irritant is by flushing the area with clean, pure water.  No logical person uses soap to get soap out of their eyes.

I am convinced that there are some people who wake up every day looking to see how many other people they can irritate.  What is worse, I'm convinced that many of these individuals profess to be Christians.  They are individuals who are full of venom, acidic personalities, who feel it is a righteous act to spray their irritant into the eyes of all those around them.  These are they who refuse to peacefully coexist with those who don't quite hold the same personal convictions as they do.  Or they are those who cannot help but criticize and critique everyone and everything.  They are the nitpickers, back-bitters and gossipers.  They are ones who sow discord and stir up strife.  They're like a healthy dose of shampoo right in the eyes.

So what is the solution to dealing with these individuals?  Well, we have to stop and think it through because it's not quite as simple as it might seem.

You can't avoid washing your hair.  That is to say, you shouldn't.  There's no logical reason not to wash your hair but there must be cautions put in place to guard against the irritants.  You can't always get away from acidic people.  In fact, it's not even God's will to escape from them all the time.  There are certain people who are placed in our lives as occasional irritants which help us grow as Christians.  Nothing helps a person grow in grace more than a thorn in the flesh or, in this case, a pain in the eye.  This is not to say that there is never a point where separation from a particular individual is merited.  There does come a point where you simply cannot try to get a long with some people and the best thing you can do is to stop trying.  Love them, pray for them, but let them go their way.

But it takes a lot to reach the place where we need to disconnect from a person entirely.  Most of the time, we are either unable or not given liberty to completely avoid someone.  What we must do in those occasions is to wash the burning from our eyes and move on with life.  The temporary sting of acidic personalities becomes a permanent blindness only if we allow the irritant to continue in an area it doesn't belong.  Again, some of these irritating individuals are in our lives because they help us grow.  The serve a purpose.  They teach us lessons we couldn't learn without them.  At the same time, we do not have to live with their effects.  Wash the burning away with the Spirit and the Word.

In dealing with these personalities, we are wise to remember a few things.  First of all, as with shampoo, do everything possible to keep the irritants from getting inside.  The problem with the soap begins when it gets in the eye.  On the outside there is no pain.  On the inside there is a definite sting.  Don't allow the attitudes of acidic people to get inside.  Don't hold their opinions in your spirit.  Let your heart be purged of their ranker as best as you can.  Furthermore, don't keep squeezing the bottle.  Don't antagonize, argue or push.  When an individual is acidic they produce acid because it is the abundance of their heart.  Squeezing them will only produce more of the same thing.  Let them spew but don't be the one to squeeze the bottle intentionally.

When soap gets in your eyes, wash it out.  Don't keep rubbing it with a dry hand.  Don't pour in more soap.  Don't ignore it.  Wash it out.  And when it happens metaphorically, turn to prayer.  Turn to the Word of God.  Allow the Spirit of God to wash over your heart and soul.  If you don't wash it out, you'll find yourself becoming more and more irritated until you become the very thing that hurt you in the first place.  Wouldn't that be the greatest tragedy of all?

Monday, January 9, 2017

It's Just Prayer Meeting

"The believers continued to devote themselves to what the apostles were teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to times of prayer." - Acts 2:42 (ISV)

We're going to begin this article with a hard statement of fact: many churches do NOT have prayer meetings anymore.  And when we say "prayer meeting" we're not just talking about a regular service dedicated to nothing but the practice of prayer.  We are also referencing the lack of prayer meetings before worship services.  Pre-service prayer, it is often called.  The lack of prayer in the house of prayer is alarming.  Even in those churches where prayer meetings are still on the schedule, it is going to be the one service every week when people will find a reason not to attend.

Pre-service prayer is optional, after all, because "having church" really doesn't start until the worship team steps to the stage to perform.  Being there for "having church" is the most important thing.  "It's just prayer meeting," some will say.  "It's not all that important.  It's not like it's REAL church or anything."  We adopt these attitudes along with the complaint that "the power of God isn't in our church like it used to be."  One individual (who, incidentally, never attended prayer meetings at his church) was known to say, "it sure ain't happenin' like it used to in the Book of Acts!"  This was his chief complaint about the church he attended.  Things aren't happening like they did in the Book of Acts.

If our complaint is that things aren't happening in our churches today as they did in the Book of Acts, perhaps an examination of the Book of Acts would give us a possible clue as to why.

Acts 1:12-14 tells us that the preface to the Day of Pentecost was a prayer meeting.  Verse 14 says, "These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication."  If we expect a Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit, perhaps we need to start with a prayer meeting.

Acts 1:23-26 tells us that, before a new Apostle was chosen to replace Judas and fulfill prophecy, there was a prayer meeting.  Verse 24 says, "And they prayed..."  If we expect God-ordained leadership to rise among us, perhaps we need to start with a prayer meeting.

Acts 2:42-47 tells us that signs, wonders and conversions occurred because of a perpetuation of prayer meetings.  Verse 42 says, "And they continued steadfastly...in prayers."  If we expect the manifestation of the presence of God in miraculous ways, perhaps we need to start with prayer meetings.

Acts 3:1-8 tells us that a lame man walked again by the power of God after a prayer made by Peter and John on the way to a prayer meeting.  Verse 3 says, "Peter and John went up together into the temple at the hour of prayer."  If we expect to see the sick healed, perhaps we need to start with prayer meetings.

Acts 4:23-31 tells us that, when arrested for preaching in the name of Jesus Christ, the disciples received an anointing powerful enough to shake the house where they were sitting after they were released and joined together in a prayer meeting.  Verse 31 says, "And when they had prayed..."  If we expect to receive a supernatural endowment of the Holy Spirit for the preaching of the Gospel, perhaps we need to start with prayer meetings.

Acts 6:1-7 tells us that anointed, faithful laborers were needed to tend to the business affairs of the Church and, when chosen, were set apart to their work in a prayer meeting.  Verse 6 says, "and when they had prayed."  If we expect the business affairs of the Church to be conducted by faithful stewards with God's blessings, perhaps we need to start with prayer meetings.

Acts 8:14-17 tell us that the Samaritans had received the Gospel and been baptized in the name of Jesus Christ but did not receive the Holy Spirit until they were in a prayer meeting.  Verse 15 says, "when they were come down, (they) prayed for them..."  If we want to see individuals receive the baptism of the Spirit, perhaps we need to start with prayer meetings.

Acts 12:5-17 tells us that, when Peter was in prison and almost certainly facing execution, the Church pleaded his cause before God in a prayer meeting.  Verse 5 says, "prayer was made without ceasing..."  If we want to see the delivering hand of God move on our behalf, perhaps we need to start with prayer meetings.  This event would repeat itself in Acts 16:25-26 when Paul and Silas, in the depths of the prison, had their own prayer meeting.

Acts 13:1-3 tells us that the Lord desired to appoint Missionaries and called Barnabas and Saul to the work.  They were anointed in a prayer meeting.  Verse 3 says, "when they had fasted and prayed...they sent them."  If we want to see anointed Missionaries sent out into the darkness of the present age, perhaps we need to start with prayer meetings.

Acts 14:19-23 tells us that Elders were ordained in every church in the atmosphere of a prayer meeting.  Verse 23 says, "and had prayed with fasting..."  If we want the blessing of God-ordained and anointed Pastors, Bishops and Elders, perhaps we need to start with prayer meetings.

Acts 16:16-18 tells us that a demon possessed woman was delivered from her affliction when prayer was made by Paul on his way to a prayer meeting.  Verse 16 says, "as we went to prayer..."  If we want to see demon possessed people delivered, perhaps we need to start with prayer meetings.

Acts 20:36-38 tells us that Paul was embarking on a journey and was in need of the guidance of the Spirit, he was strengthened by a prayer meeting.  Verse 36 says, "he kneeled down and prayed with them all."  If we desire the direction of the Lord in our lives and ministries, perhaps we need to start with prayer meetings.  This event would repeat itself in Acts 21:5.

Perhaps, if these manifestation are missing from our lives, the restoration can be found in a sincere return to that which preceded, followed and entirely encapsulated the move of the Spirit in the Book of Acts: A DEVOTION TO CORPORATE PRAYER.  Certainly we are encouraged to pray individually.  Corporate prayer - prayer meetings - will never take the place of a personal, private prayer life.  One does not supplant the other.  Both must be present in the life of a Christian and in a healthy Church environment.

So, why don't we commit completely to prayer meeting?  D.A. Carson in his "A Call To Spiritual Reformation" gave six obstacles to corporate prayer:

1. I am too busy to pray.
2. I feel too spiritually dry to pray.
3. I feel no need to pray.
4. I am too bitter to pray.
5. I am too ashamed to pray.
6. I am content with mediocrity.

The cure for all six is, clearly, prayer.  It's a matter of the heart.  Why doesn't a Church join together in prayer meetings?  They don't want to.  Plain and simple.  It is a manifestation of a "heart condition" in the Body.  The heart of the Church has turned away from the fundamental principle of Divine fellowship - communication with their Lord, Saviour and Creator in prayer.  People will never spontaneously become faithful to prayer meetings.  It takes both corporate and individual commitment and desire.  Let us return to  and recapture the power of prayer meetings.  They're not "just" anything; they're just everything.