Monday, September 10, 2018

Taking Part in the Gospel Ministry

because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.
Philippians 1:5-7

Writing from his prison cell in Rome, Paul was thanking the Philippians for their fellowship/partnership with him in the gospel of Christ.  This is the city where Paul was given a vision to come and preach the gospel.  This is the leading city in the region of Macedonia.  Lydia the purple goods trader was converted when Paul preached the gospel in this city.  This is also the city where Paul and Silas were put in jail because the fortune teller’s spirit was casted out which caused the owner to lose his business.  This is the very city where the jailer and his household believed in the Lord and were baptized by Paul.  And the believers in Philippi all supported Paul ever since they encountered him and the gospel of Christ.[1]
In verse 5 we find a very important word “fellowship” or “partnership” in which the Greek word “κοινωνί” is used.  κοινωνί” is considered to be one of the most important pillars of the church, besides “μαρτυρία” and “διακονία.”  However, the meaning of “κοινωνί” is often lost in our modern understanding today.  James Montgomery Boice explained it very well:
What does this mean? The word fellowship has been so watered down in contemporary speech that it conveys only a faint suggestion of what it meant in earlier times. When we speak of fellowship today, we generally mean no more than comradeship, the sharing of good times. But fellowship originally meant much more than a sharing of something, like the fellowship of bank robbers dividing their loot. It meant a sharing in something, participating in something greater than the people involved and more lasting than the activity of any given moment. When the Bible uses the word, it means being caught up into a communion created by God.[2]
Kent Hughes, quoting Gordon Fee added:
the depth of the fellowship that Paul celebrated here exceeds that of any earthly fellowship. The great reason for this is that there was, as Gordon Fee says, a “three-way bond” between Paul, the Philippians, and Christ.[3]
 Hughes elaborated further of the meaning of “κοινωνί” as it is supposed to be understood here:
I recall several years ago a man in the church I was then pastoring musing after his return from a short-term missions project about the wonderful fellowship he had experienced on the trip and wishing that he could experience the same at home. Since then I have reflected that his ten days with a band of brothers and sisters serving in South America united in laboring for the gospel was a happy experience like that of the first-century fellowship of the gospel. Further, I think that when Christians go from church to church looking for good fellowship, they are looking for an illusion.
What do I mean? Fellowship over coffee after a church service is good, but it is not Christian fellowship. It is fellowship among Christians, but not the fellowship that Paul celebrated. Don’t misunderstand—having coffee and meals together is one of our great pleasures. I love a cup of coffee with friends. I will eat anything and all that is placed in front of me, relishing it all the more in the company of good friends and conversation!
But if you are looking for true fellowship, give yourself to the gospel at home and around the world. Serve together with others in women’s Bible studies, children’s ministries, youth ministries. Do short-term missions. Join mercy work to alleviate suffering in places like the vast area devastated by Katrina. Take the good news to the poor. Join a band of brothers and sisters to pray for the world. That is how you will experience genuine Christian fellowship.[4]
Therefore, the understanding of fellowship or partnership here must not be restricted to merely the gift of money or anything material.  Joseph Barber Lightfoot pointed out:
as the context shows, it denotes cooperation in the widest sense, their participation with the Apostle whether in sympathy or in suffering or in active labour or in any other way[5]
These explanations by those prominent theologians give us guidance whenever we think about the meaning of fellowship.  The implication for this understanding is massive.  As our sermon theme for today dictates, as followers of Christ we are to take part in the gospel ministry, but we are not to join the partnership merely by doing the easiest ministry, which is giving money.
            Our sinful nature often prevents us from joining the ministry as we are meant to be.  In the wisdom of the world we tend to pick and choose the most convenient ministry that fits our lifestyle.  We tend to avoid a ministry that is difficult.  We would only take up the kind of ministry that, as much as possible, does not cost us a thing or that costs us very minimally.  The 21st century spirit persuades us to only take ministry with instant results.  Long-term ministry is very unpopular these days, simply because we do not see the result right away.  Even when we understand that this is a partnership with God who is eternal, and in whom the ministry plan goes beyond our capacity to fathom, we still choose a ministry that provides us with instant fame, recognition, and even concentrating only on numbers, be it financial strength or membership or assets, just like the demand for profit in the business world.
            Paul has a say on this malady.  In verse six Paul addresses this matter with graceful assurance of God’s total involvement in His ministry: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.  He reminds the Philippians that the One who starts the ministry/the good work is God Himself.  And God is not like humans who would quit when difficulties arise.  He Himself will complete it, and ultimately when the day Jesus Christ comes the second time arrives.  This assurance should bring us peace and joy.  Because we won’t be left alone.  This assurance should also bring us comfort knowing that God’s ministry does not depend on human strength, but on God’s.  Many of us who have truly joined in ministry know precisely that our strength can’t sustain it.
            However, the reality of partnering with God in ministry should be revealed clearly.  Paul reinforces the meaning of partnership/fellowship by making a reference to something real that he himself experiences as he partners with God.  In verse 7 Paul says:
It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.
The reality of suffering cannot be negated in the true ministry of the gospel of Christ.  It is there and will always be there.  Jesus Christ Himself confirms it in John 15:18-21 saying:
18 “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. 21 But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.
In 2 Timothy 3:12 Paul affirms this truth as he writes his letter to Timothy: “12 Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”  But yet when we are in the prospect of joining the gospel ministry, we despise suffering for Christ to the point of avoiding partnering with God altogether.
            Paul reminds the Philippians that they ought to keep the partnership.  They were fellowshipping with Paul even when Paul was in prison back then when the church was just started.  And then when Paul was on a missionary journey to Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, Corinth, before returning to Antioch (Acts 17 & 18), meeting many difficulties and persecutions along the way, the Philippians continued to support him.  Paul reveals this in Philippians 4:14-16:
14 Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. 15 And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. 16 Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again.
And Paul calls Philippians as “partakers with me of grace.”  Hughes comments on the meaning of grace here:
This is a revelatory moment in Paul’s writings because “grace” here is not just saving grace. Rather Paul considers suffering and sacrifice and struggling for the gospel all to be grace. Proof of this can be seen in 1:29 where the verbal form of charis (“grace”) is used: “For it has been granted [graced] to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” Suffering because of the gospel is a grace in Paul’s thinking and theology.[6]
Lightfoot asserts a very powerful comment regarding this grace:
If it is a privilege to preach Christ, it is not less a privilege to suffer for Him[7]
The partnership or the fellowship (the “κοινωνί”), therefore, includes suffering – the suffering that emerges from taking part in the gospel ministry.  This is the natural suffering every followers of Christ will experience.
            As our attention is undivided toward this partnering with God in the gospel ministry which may very well result in our suffering, I would like to point us to the truth that the 21st century gospel ministry has been contaminated with the world’s values.  The value of comfort is number one in the list of contaminants.  Christians in the first century entered into fellowship with God knowing full well that they would be persecuted, because it was the reality at that time.  Yet many of them still attempted to seek their own comfort by compromising with the world, as one of Paul’s coworkers Demas did:
10 For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. (2 Timothy 4:10).
The 21st century is plagued with comfort and convenience.  The advancement of technology has bombarded our minds and hearts.  Every day we see advertisements that spell comfort.  This plague has infiltrated the church as well.  Comfort is the main value in today’s world.  If we adopt this value, we automatically will reject discomfort, for such value is in line with our sinful nature.  Ministry too is now being designed to provide comfort.  Even theology is now crafted to maximize comfort.  Prosperity theology for example, belief in Christ will bring wealth or health or happiness as the world defines it, which is more comfort and conveniences.  Besieged with such value, lifestyle, practical experience of comfort, many Christians have strayed from the path.
            But that is not what Paul has in mind.  For sure that is not what Jesus has in mind.  Partnering with God in His gospel ministry will automatically include suffering.  The suffering that is included in it is indeed God’s grace as mentioned in Philippians 1:29: “29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.  The word “granted” there is using the word “χάρις” which means “grace.”  And so the verse is better to be spoken: “For it has been graced to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.  So, avoiding the natural suffering for joining His ministry and then devising a ministry that is suffering-proof is just contrary to the nature of God’s ministry.
            Next, as we have overcome this hurdle, one more thing needs to be handled, that is becoming a follower of Christ means unavoidably partnering with Him in His ministry.  This is a one package deal.  We can’t just believe in Christ without fellowshipping with Him in the gospel ministry.  We can’t just be spectators sitting on the bleachers watching all other Christians working in His ministry.  God’s church is not an entertainment center where we buy the ticket (give the offering) and watch the entertainment (the worship service and the sermon being delivered).  And, being in fellowship with Him and other Christians does not mean just having fun time together over meal and coffee, as Boice and Hughes had pointed out earlier.  It means partnering in the service of His kingdom.  I need to remind all of us again to be careful of the 21st century model of Christianity that has been contaminated by comfort.  This model just desires to join in the fun without the essence.  And in turn those people would replace the core teaching and faith of Christianity with the worldly value.
Let me tell you about Brandon.  Brandon is English.  He has never gone to Indonesia before.  One day Brandon comes to Surabaya to visit his friend Adam.  This is the first time Brandon visits Surabaya.  So Adam picks Brandon up at the airport.  As they talk in the car on the way to the hotel, Brandon says that he is hungry.  All the travel and the long flight has caused him to crave food.  Adam asks Brandon what he wants to eat.  Brandon says he wants soup.  He tells Adam that he has heard about a famous chicken soup in Surabaya.  So he requests Adam to go there.  Adam takes Brandon to Soto Ayam (chicken soup) Pak Sadi.  Shortly they arrive at Soto Ayam Pak Sadi.  As they are settling down in the restaurant, the waiter comes and asks them what they want to order.  Adam asks Brandon what chicken meat he would want.  To Adam’s surprise, Brandon says that he does not eat chicken.  Adam says: “Come again.”  Brandon says: “I do not eat chicken.  I am allergic to it.”  “But you wanted to eat chicken soup you said,” Adam replies.  “Yeah,” Brandon answers, “I want the chicken soup without chicken whatsoever.”  And Adam’s jaw drops to the floor.
            Brothers and sisters, if we desire to be a Christian without wanting to partner with Him in His ministry, and if we only want to join the kind of ministry that is fun and without the risk of the natural suffering that comes with it, then we are like Brandon who wishes to eat chicken soup without any trace of chicken at all.  Don’t you know that even the broth is infused with chicken?  You can’t have chicken soup without chicken.  In the same way you can’t have Christianity without taking part in the gospel ministry.  And you can’t take part in the gospel ministry without being ready to suffer for it.  How much more, such kind of suffering is God’s grace for us as we partner with Him in His good work of the Kingdom.  May the Lord bless you all.

[1] Read Acts 16.
[2] James Montgomery Boice, Philippians: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 31.
[3] R. Kent Hughes, Philippians: The Fellowship of the Gospel, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), 26.
[4] Ibid., 27.
[5] Joseph Barber Lightfoot, ed., Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, Classic Commentaries on the Greek New Testament (London: Macmillan and Co., ltd, 1913), 83.
[6] R. Kent Hughes, Philippians: The Fellowship of the Gospel, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), 34.
[7] Joseph Barber Lightfoot, ed., Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, Classic Commentaries on the Greek New Testament (London: Macmillan and Co., ltd, 1913), 85.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

My Dedication for You

14 “Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
Joshua 24:14-15

The day to make a critical decision has come for the Israelites.  Joshua has led the people into the land that God promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  The land has been divided for the tribes of Israel according to God’s command to Moses.  The initial conquest of Canaan has been completed.  Israel still needs to follow up with cleaning up the land from the remnant of the Canaanites, and especially from the beliefs, worldviews, and habits of the people who worship idols and practice immoralities.  And Joshua is old.  He is retiring very soon.  Israel is to settle in the land.  Soon they will not meet Joshua as frequently.  And soon Joshua will die leaving them on their own.  A decision has to be made.  A crucial decision that will determine their standing before the Lord.  A critical decision that will be a projection of what Israel would become next.  This is the most important decision Israel has to make.  Israel must decide on which God to follow, to serve, and to worship.
Apparently it is not an easy decision to make.  A challenge has to be spoken by Joshua to the people.  They have to choose between Yahweh and all the other gods – the gods of the Egyptian and the gods of the Canaanites.  Israel answers Joshua’s challenge in vv. 16-18 saying:
16 Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods, 17 for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our fathers up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight and preserved us in all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed. 18 And the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”
But Joshua poses his doubt that Israel would faithfully follow and serve the Lord.  Thus in vv. 19-20 Joshua says:
19 But Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. 20 If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you, after having done you good.
In the verses that follow, Israel insists to serve Yahweh.  It is a good verbal answer.  But a good verbal answer alone is not enough.  A verbal answer is like a vow – a promise.  This promise is spoken not merely before Joshua and the whole assembly, but more importantly before the Lord.  Israel must follow up their promise with real action.  As we have known, unfortunately, Israel only keeps her promise some decades.  But soon after the next generation takes over, they forget their promise and start worshiping other gods.  Judges 2:11-13 testifies:
11 And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals. 12 And they abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the Lord to anger. 13 They abandoned the Lord and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth.
A broken promise and trouble begins.
            This broken promise has a history and it was caused indirectly by the people’s disobedience to God’s command.  The Lord told them to eliminate the Canaanites completely.  But they did not obey.  Joshua 2:1-5 records:
1 Now the angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” As soon as the angel of the Lord spoke these words to all the people of Israel, the people lifted up their voices and wept. And they called the name of that place Bochim.  And they sacrificed there to the Lord.
Israel lets the remnants of the Canaanites live side by side with them, and more, they make covenant with the Canaanites, they bind themselves in marriage, and they adopt their practices.  Soon after Joshua died, and the entire generation that followed Joshua also died, the new generation lives a disobedient life.  Judges 2:10 says:
10 …. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.
This is a sad reality.  This very unfortunate history mars the history of Israel.  Apparently the generation of the people who followed Joshua neglected a very important command.  As they disobeyed the Lord by not driving the remnants of the Canaanites from the land, they have made a significant educational mistake.  Indirectly they have taught their children that the Lord is not the only one true God.  Indirectly they also have taught their children that it is okay to adopt the Canaanite’s way of life.  Indirectly they have taught their children that they are allowed to worship other gods.  Israel’s verbal promise is not followed up by their real action.  Disaster lines up at their door.  When the old generation died, the gatekeeper died with them.  The next generation opens the door to the flood of disasters.  And we know the rest of the story in the book of Judges.
            Brothers and sisters, the same thing will happen to us if we have the same attitude as Israel.  We are also at the crossroads.  Our children are the next generation.  The question that we should ask ourselves is: “Do our kids know the Lord?”  With it follows: “Have we really taught our kids what they need to know, how they must behave, the difference between good and evil according to the Lord, and who to serve wholeheartedly?”  The challenge Joshua gives the Israelites that day is very much alive today.  That challenge is also for us.  Who should we truly serve as our God, whether the Lord God that we know in Jesus Christ as testified by the Scripture, or the gods of the modern world that every day non-stop continue to flirt with us?  Are we flirting with Prosperity – money, wealth, abundance?  Are we flirting with Pleasure – comfort, sexuality, selfishness?  Are we flirting with Power – disorder, violence, conquest?
            When we work day and night, with the noble purpose to provide for our family, are we being seduced by the glamour of Prosperity?  Work is a natural thing to do.  It is something simple and seemingly innocent, but be aware, it can turn deadly if we make it our God!  When we enjoy life, with the innocent desire to rejoice in the good things that God has made, are we being seduced by the imagination of unending Pleasure?  It is something very ordinary and common, but be aware, it can turn deadly if we make it our God!  When we reach the position of authority, with the responsibility to keep things in order, are we being seduced by the might of Power?  It is something inevitable and necessary, but be aware, it can turn deadly if we make it our God!
            Israel disobeyed the Lord and the result was disastrous.  Their children learned a different way of life, adopt a different worldview, and love a different god.  If we too fall into the hands of the age of now gods, our kids will follow our footsteps.  They too will serve Prosperity instead of Jesus Christ.  They too will worship Pleasure instead of Jesus Christ.  They too will obey Power instead of Jesus Christ.  Eventually they will neglect the true God and pursue all the other gods.  Their life will be wasted and calamity will overtake them.
            Israel’s answer to Joshua is a good start.  A good start needs a good journey and also a good finish.  The key to it is obedience and faithfulness.  If we look at Joshua’s life we will find obedience and faithfulness.  If we are to peek into Joshua’s obedience and faithfulness, we will find it amazing.  Forty years before Joshua finally entered the Promised Land with the entire Israel, he already foretasted the land when Moses sent him as one of the spies (Numbers 13).  Joshua and Caleb were faithful to the Lord while the other ten spies spoke bitterly about the land.  Despite his faithfulness, the Lord decided to “educate” the entire Israel with the 40 years journey in the wilderness.  Joshua was inevitably included among the rebellious people the Lord needed to “educate.”  Crossing into the Promised Land and overtaking it was just right at the door, but yet he had to wait forty years.  Never in that forty years had Joshua complained to the Lord.  He obeyed the Lord.  He could become bitter or disappointed at the Lord.  But he didn’t.  And with such positive attitude, the Lord strengthened him and taught him how to become a great leader, because he was to succeed the great Moses.  At the end of his prime time as he was nearing death, Joshua continued to serve the Lord faithfully and obediently.  Never a single complaint.  Never in his life had he blamed God for his misfortune and life difficulties.  And so Joshua finished strong.  He dedicated his life completely to the Lord.
            Israel should have learned from Joshua’s obedience and faithfulness.  Spoken words and real actions work harmoniously together.  Even when life is not easy, Joshua’s obedience and faithfulness shine like a lighthouse in the dark ocean.  Joshua did not choose to serve Baal, or Asherah, or Ashtoreth, or any other myriad gods in the world.  He was sticking with the Lord who brought Israel out of Egypt.  His heart of heart has decided to serve the Lord only his entire life.  He matched his words and his actions.  In the same way, we too must match our words and our actions.  What we promise the Lord we must put into reality.  If we truly submit to the Lordship of Christ, then He alone we shall serve.  We should not flirt with Prosperity, or Pleasure, or Power.  They are not God.  They are God’s gifts for us, which He gives (or not) as He pleases according to His eternal wisdom.  If we make them our God, they in turn will enslave us.  Israel made Baal, Asherah, Ashtoreth, and many other gods their God, and so they in turn enslaved them from top to bottom.
            Pastor Don one day shared with us seminary students.  He said that he was flirting with Pleasure.  The pleasure of drinking alcohol.  He sought that pleasure believing that it was okay because it was God’s gift to enjoy.  True, there is nothing wrong with enjoying alcohol in moderation.  But for Pastor Don it was not once in a while.  He drank more than he should.  He became needy of alcohol.  All the while he still thought that he was in control.  He said to himself: “I could stop at any time if I want to.”  His drinking pleasure became a necessity for him.  He found it impossible to stay away from alcohol.  It was a bit too late when he realized that he had gone deep into alcohol addiction.  The pleasure of drinking alcohol had become his master, his god.  He then served his new god, pleasure.  And this god choked him out of life.  His life began to deteriorate.  His relationship with his family was strained.  He even managed to destroy his ministry.  After he lost everything, he realized he needed help, the true God’s help.  So he turned to who was once his God.  And God pointed him toward joining AA (Alcoholic Anonymous) and be helped through it.  He had to go through the twelve steps of AA.  And he shall never drink even one sip of alcohol.  The day he shared with us, he had been sober for more than 10 years.  He said that he is prone to fall, and so he needed a strong support group to sustain him and remind him through prayer and wise counsel every time the seduction came.  His part was to remain obedient to God and be faithful to Him who has rescued him from the hand of the modern god of pleasure.
            There are many things that can manifest itself as god.  They are false gods.  They might give us what seems to be something that would fulfill our desire.  But in the end they will enslave us.  Those false gods are unkind, very cruel, and they don’t care about our wellbeing.  They will suck us dry and then leave us to rot and die.  If we learn anything from the story of Joshua and Israel today, we ought to be aware of the danger of the false gods.  In the time of Joshua it was the gods of Canaan: Baal, Asherah, Ashtoreth, and many others.  In our time we have the three great modern gods: Prosperity, Pleasure, and Power.  Do not make covenant with these false gods, as God has reminded and commanded Israel and also us.  Pastor Don underestimated the modern god of pleasure, and he fell prey to it.  But God is a kind God, and merciful, and loving.  He listened to Pastor Don’s prayer, He paid attention to him humbling himself, and so He rescued him from the pit.  When Israel cried out to God for help, God was also merciful, His kindness and love prompted Him to deliver Israel from the slavery of the false gods.
            Therefore this is my advice to all of us, stick to God as Joshua did.  Be obedient and be faithful to Him even though life can be difficult.  Resist temptation, do not flirt with the false gods, and do not underestimate them.  Know the truth and teach them to our children.  Do not let our children to miss out on this most important thing.  And listen to this very carefully, when you fall, do not run into other gods, but run into the one true God.  He will rescue you, just like He rescued Israel, and just like He rescued Pastor Don.  God is merciful, graceful, and gracious to all of us, especially those who have believed in the name of His beloved Son Jesus Christ.  Dedicate yourself to the Lord wholeheartedly.  Amen.