Reformation

Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. (Acts 11:19-21)

Most of the time, date night is Friday or Saturday. It’s the day of the week many people anticipate most. (Except for pastors. We look ahead to another day of the week.) But this week, date night will be tomorrow. Put an X through Fri­day and mark your calen­dar instead for Tuesday, October 31, 2017. Then bake a cake and spread 500 candles on it.

Although tomorrow is October 31, date night this week is not about Halloween. It has nothing to do with Halloween or All Hallow’s Eve, the original religious holiday which ushered in All Saints Day on November 1.

Five hundred years ago tomorrow, Martin Luther nailed (or mailed) 95 theses challenging the established church’s practices. Luther’s ideas really weren’t original, but earlier protestors had been snuffed out. The difference this time would be the invention of the printing press. Luther’s ideas quickly spread throughout Europe and were embraced eagerly by thousands of people.

Church historians mark October 31, 1517, as the birthday of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation was a really big deal. The church looks very different today because of Martin Luther. The whole world looks different today because of Martin Luther.

We could argue that the Protestant Reformation was not the first reformation in church history, although it was certainly the biggest. One might even argue that events recorded in the book of Acts actually constitute the first reformation of the church. That may be overstated, but there are some notable parallels in the early church, Martin Luther’s time, and our present world as well.

Here are four parallels to the early church in Acts 11:19-30, the Protestant Reformation, and today.

  1. A broken church – God had intended that the Gospel be made available to all people everywhere. But the first believers fell short of God’s design for the church and evangelized only other Jews when they traveled to other nations. Likewise, the Roman Catholic church was broken by corruption and compromise 500 years ago. When Martin Luther posted his 95 theses, many of those weaknesses were exposed for the world to see. Today the established church is broken again and often failing in the Great Commission.
  2. An obscure fix – Unnamed believers from Cyprus and Cyrene weren’t sidetracked by the same blindness of the believers from Jerusalem and shared the Gospel with non-Jews. Likewise, Martin Luther was an obscure monk when he rediscovered God’s imputed justification by faith alone.  Today God is raising up obscure people in obscure places to carry on his work.
  3. A wake-up call – Barnabas came to Antioch from the established church in Jerusalem and saw the evidence that God was at work. He applauded and encouraged the new Gentile believers. Likewise, Martin Luther’s ideas gained a foothold around Europe and eventually spread to the entire western world. Today God is waking up the established church with the success of new churches around the world.
  4. A new thing – The believers in Antioch were the first to be called “Christians.” Undoubtedly, their non-Jewish worship looked different from the Jewish church in Jerusalem. God raised up the church in Antioch as a new kind of church. Likewise, the Protestant Reformation created a new kind of church. As for today, I’m encouraged by the new thing God is doing through ministry entrepreneurs.

Reformation is not just a motto. It’s God at work in his church, 2,000 years ago, 500 years ago, and today. Reformation is still going on in the church. I want to be a part of it.

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Ready, Fire, Aim!

The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” (Acts 11:1-13)

Ministry entrepreneurs are my heroes. They take the torch of the gospel which has been given to them and run toward the darkness. They are Spirit-led, bold, and innovative. They are marked by a unique holy discontentment toward the status quo. They break new ground. They play offense rather than defense. They can see over the horizon and visualize the future. They are gifted with insight and wisdom. They are undeterred by small-minded critics and nay­sayers. Their ministry is often very difficult, but they never quit.

Almost to a man, they would admit in private (but perhaps not in public) that their biggest obstacles have come from the established church. They have been attacked, misunderstood, slandered, hated and rejected by those who are supposed to be the people of God. In my lifetime this has been true of entrepreneurs such as Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Chuck Swindoll, Chuck Colson and Andy Stanley. The religious establishment often tried to made their lives miserable, with little effect. God is bigger than the established church and God’s servants are bigger than their critics.

Five hundred years ago next Tuesday, a ministry entrepreneur by the name of Martin Luther was opposed by the established church, condemned and even sentenced to death. It’s an amazing story which hit a tipping point in Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517, five hundred years ago next Tuesday. Luther published 95 theses challenging the church’s sale of indulgences, exposing scandal in the established church. But he himself became the scandal. Whistle-blowers, beware! You just might start a Reformation.

If we travel back another fifteen centuries to about A.D. 37, an early church leader named Peter experienced a breakthrough moment which separated him from the rest of the church. As a ministry entrepreneur, he had taken the gospel to a Roman centurion named Cornelius in Caesarea and had wel­comed him as a brother into the fellowship. But the established church didn’t like it at all. With bigotry and bias in their hearts, they accused Peter of error (Acts 11:1-13). Peter was following God’s Spirit, breaking new ground in church history in the process. But the established church couldn’t handle it. They were seething at Peter. They were firing at him before they could even aim their weapons with the facts of the case.

What happened next (Acts 11:4-18) is worth noting. When friendly fire isn’t so friendly, Peter’s example can be a guide to ministry entrepreneurs under attack from the church. It’s a case study for what to do when you’ve done the right thing and are criticized for it. Here are four bullet points to help you face the bullets.

  • Tell your story. Start at the beginning and don’t leave anything out.
  • Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Don’t spin anything to make you look good or make anyone else look bad. Reliable witnesses help.
  • Focus on what God has said (the Scriptures) and what God has done (the work of the Holy Spirit in those you’ve helped).
  • Make your defense about God, not your critics, or even your own success.

I love Peter’s closing argument: “So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17)

In essence Peter was saying, “Hey guys, you’ll all angry at me, but this is really all about God, not me. All I did was get out of God’s way and ride the wave God created.” It’s the same argument Rick Warren made on the first page of The Purpose Driven Church. It’s the same argument Martin Luther made in 1521 when he was placed on trial before the established church and refused to recant.

May God send us another Martin Luther!

 

Hope after Las Vegas

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. Romans 8:18-21

Last Sunday night a single gunman murdered almost 60 people, including himself, at a concert in Las Vegas. He wounded over 500 more victims. It was the largest mass killing in modern U.S. his­tory. Presi­dent Trump described the attack as “pure evil.” All eyes are on Las Vegas as authorities tend to the wounded and sociologists attempt to sort out what went wrong–yet again.

About 40 million people visit Las Vegas each year. Many travelers arrive hoping for big winnings in a casino. Others hope for sen­sual gratification in uninhibited indulgence. The hope for a jackpot is usually in vain. A hope for uninhibited gratification is almost always frustrated in the hidden recesses of the soul.

Las Vegas has long been known for stealing hope (along with many other things) from its guests. Unfortunately and unfairly, the city now also will be known as the unfortunate site of our nation’s most deadly massacre. Funerals of the victims are just beginning, but already fingers are pointing in blame. Cries from prominent voices about gun control and mental illness permeate the media.

In the aftermath of the shooting, show lights in Las Vegas remain undimmed. The slot machines continue to steal hope and the carnal spectacles steal virtue. But in the shadows, victims of the shooting and their families around the nation suffer the unspeakable agony of mass murder and carnage. It’s not fair, but their pain is unrelenting nonetheless. Both the world and its inhabitants are broken. In the ancient contest of nature versus nurture, neither can restrain evil. Nature destroys life with seeming randomness. Human killers are just as random and just as deadly.

A couple weeks ago, we concluded a month of natural disaster for coastal Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean islands. It was the worst of nature on display. How ironic that we give the hurricanes names like Harvey and Irma as if to humanize the destruction from nature. October already has become a month of human disaster in Nevada. What happened in Las Vegas was the worst of humanity on display. How ironic that we seek answers in nature for the brokenness of human behavior.

Almost 2,000 years ago, the Apostle Paul wrote that “the creation was subjected to frustration.” In short, the world is frustrated. Both nature and people are fractured. Life goes off track without reason or explanation. We may apply political and scientific Band-Aids in desperate measures, but ultimately our fixes are futile. Hurricanes, earthquakes and torna­does continue to devastate our cities. Cancer and crippling diseases continue to lay waste to our bodies. Terrorists and criminals continue to infiltrate our societies. Accidents still claim unwil­ling and unprepared victims. When things go wrong, we have few satisfying fixes. We’re unable to restrain evil. Death still reigns.

Gun control may or may not be a prudent political discussion in this context. Mental illness may or may not be a helpful discussion in this situation. But evil will not be eradicated by politicians or social scientists.

Why? Why does all this evil occur? Many people who pose the “why” question answer it with talking points about gun control or mental illness. The Apostle Paul offers us a much deeper answer, although it can be summarized in one little word – sin.

The world is broken because sin entered back in the Garden of Eden and spread through the whole world, including my heart and yours. Sin destroys everything it touches. Since sin has saturated our entire world, our entire world is broken. If the story ended there, we would have no hope.

Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there. The Apostle Paul also wrote that “creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” That gives us hope.

In the end, there is hope for Las Vegas–and Texas and Florida and Puerto Rico. Our hope is not in gun control, but in redemption. Our hope is not in in better police security, but in better human freedom, the liberty Christ will bring when he returns to reign in glory. Then, and only then, pure evil will be defeated in both nature and nurture.

If Las Vegas has you reeling, pick up a Bible and read through Romans chapter 8. There you can find hope while living in a sin-sick world.